Friday, March 10, 2006

Family affairs

On the grid this weekend will be two sons of famous fathers, at the opposite ends of their careers. Nico Rosberg will be making his debut for the Williams team with whom his father won the world championship some twenty four years previously. Driving for what could still loosely be considered a front running team, and partnering Mark Webber, who has shown himself to lack little in terms of pace, Rosberg has a lot to prove in very little time if he wants to demonstrate he is in F1 for the long haul.

Jacques Villeneuve, too, has a lot to prove, though the circumstances could hardly be more different. The former champion has not won a race in 9 years, and it is no secret that the BMW team he will be driving for made exstensive efforts to get rid of him over the winter and if he wants to remain in the sport beyond the end of the season, he's going to have to demonstrate that he is worthy of the world title he won all those years ago.

In being the sons of racing fathers, though, they are hardly unique. In the 1950s, Alberto Ascari took two titles for Ferrari and won nine consecutive races (a record which, amazingly, has survived the Schumacher era and stands to this day) before meeting the same fate as his father. Antonio Ascari, who had been an equally successful driver in the 1920s, died in an accident during the French Grand Prix in 1925. Less well known is the fact that amongst the entries for the 1924 Indy 500 was one Alfred Moss, father of the great Stirling Moss. Stirling's sister, Pat Moss, was no slouch behind the wheel either, and enjoyed a successful rallying career, scoring a podium finish in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1965 and winning the European Rally Championship five times in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In Formula One, there have been a number of father and son pairs over the years. Mario Andretti's son, Michael did a year with McLaren in the early 1990s but made little impression alongside Ayrton Senna. Wilson Fittipaldi's son (Emerson's nephew) Christian raced for Minardi at much the same time while not just one but two of triple World Champion Jack Brabham's sons attempted to qualify for Grands Prix (although only David, who began his career with the team his father had established, ever started a race.

Statistically speaking, the most successful father/son combination of all time were the Hills. Both Graham and Damon won the world championship and between them, they won nearly 40 Grands Prix. As people they could scarcely have been more different. Graham Hill was outgoing, carismatic, clubbable and a man who did much to bring Grand Prix racing to wider public notice, even though he was never really on the same level as compatriot, Jim Clark. Damon, by contrast seemed uncomfortable in the spotlight, apparently shy and diffident, and unsure how to handle being the centre of attention. Yet, as drivers, the similarities were striking. Both came to car racing relatively late - Graham Hill didn't even pass his driving test until he was 24 (the same age Fernando Alonso was when he won the world championship last year) while Damon, unusually in an age where all the top drivers have extensive karting experience, didn't take up car racing until well into his twenties. Neither were 'naturals' behind the wheel, and both had to work hard in order to be fast. Both spent their early career up against more gifted team mates, and for both, success, when it came, appeared to be a triumph of application over aptitude.

So why are these racing dynasties so common? Families occasionally get a grip on other sports - Johann and Jordi Cruyff, for example, or, if siblings count, the the tennis playing Williams sisters and the footballing Neville brothers, but it does not seem to happen nearly as often as it does in motorsport.

Beverley Turner, in her generally ill-informed and bitter broadside against F1, 'The Pits', suggests that it is illustrative of a generally low standard of ability in the sport - that by comparison with other sports, the ability of the world's best is not that different from the norm. If you want to believe that any old kid can turn himself into a Grand Prix driver with a bit of family cash, then so be it, but the list of famous sons who have tried and failed is enough to demonstrate that a marketable surname and a father who knows a few of the team bosses from his own racing days is not, in itself, enough.

It does help though, especially in the junior formulae. For a start, youngsters like, for example, the Mansell brothers, have a name which provides the media with a hook for stories -which means sponsors get interested. There might be family connections with team bosses (though in the particular example of the Mansells, daddy might have as many enemies as friends in the motorsport world), certainly there will be someone to turn to for advice on set up, driving technique and which team to sign with. Motorsport can be a quite byzantinely complex world, especially for someone still in their teens, and having a father who knows the ins and outs can do no harm.

So what is the downside? For a driver starting out, there probably isn't one really, but those who establish themselves at the highest level often find it difficult to escape from the shadow of their fathers. Damon Hill was the first famous son to prove really competitive in the modern F1 era and one senses that, despite winning more Grands Prix than all but nine other drivers in the history of the sport, he was constantly battling the perception that he only got where he was because of his name.

In truth, there was more than a little luck in Hill's ascent to the top of the sport, but it is far from clear that his name had anything to do with it. He was a test driver for Williams in 1992 while racing the desperately uncompetitive Brabham at the same time, but when Mansell and Patrese both left the team late on in the year, he found himself drafted in to play the dutiful number 2 role to Alain Prost. He acquitted himself well, without ever really threatening the Frenchman and found himself brought back to do the same job for Ayrton Senna the following year. When Senna died, he found himself suddenly the number one driver for arguably the best team on the grid at the time, and three years later, he became the first and, up to now, only son of a world champion to become win the title himself. Hill though, never really seemed to be in love with the sport for its own sake, and after winning that title, seemed to lose interest altogether, waking up only briefly to not-quite win a race for Arrows on a day when Bridgestone got the tyres right and nobody else who was anyone was using them.

Jacques Villeneuve makes another interesting case study. His father, Gilles, is remembered by many old enough to have seen him in action as one of the sport's all time greats. He never won that many races, at least in part because he was so rarely in a truly competitive car. When his son first appeared on the Grand Prix grid, fresh from winning the Indycar world title in 1995, many older fans were hoping that the son would prove a chip off the old block. Instead he proved a much more cautious, calculating, measured driver, a little in the vein of Alain Prost (his own uncle, also called Jacques and an occasional F1 entrant in the early eighties, said scathingly "sure he's as good as Alain Prost, but I never saw what was so special about Prost"). Worse still, he committed the cardinal sin of winning the world championship something his father never lived long enough to achieve. Like Hill, whom he partnered in 1996 at Williams, there was little doubt that he had the best car in the field in the year he took the title, but his margin of dominance over team mate Frentzen, himself no slouch, suggests that Villeneuve, while not really belonging in a list of the great champions, was no mean driver on his day. He is not, in racing terms, his father's son though, and one wonders how much that might have to do with why he is still racing. With BMW, he is unlikely to win races ever again, let alone the title, and he is reputed to have been offered more money not to drive the BMW than he is being paid to drive it. One can't help but think he is driven by a need, more than anything else, to wipe out memories of the BAR years, and to prove that he really is the real deal - a worthy successor to Gilles. Certainly it seems hard to believe that the man has remained entirely unaffected by the comparisons with his dead father. It will be interesting to see how Rosberg Jr copes with the pressure to live up to the reputation of his devil-may-care father in an age far less tolerant of such excesses.

Looking down the junior ranks though, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the novelty of drivers with famous surnames could soon fast wear off: the trickle is in danger of turning into a flood. Nicolas Prost, Matthias Lauda, Greg and Leo Mansell, Christian Jones, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and, in a novel twist on a familiar theme, Vanina Ickx, daughter of 7-times Le Mans winner Jackie are all competing at various levels this year. Most of these young hopefuls though, will not make it all the way to F1. Lauda and Jones clearly don't have what it takes, while Ickx, to be fair, has never made any pretence of being a top-level single seater driver, though judging by her early testing peformances, she is unlikely to emulate the underrated Ellen Lohr and become the second woman to win a DTM race. For Rahal, Andretti, and the Mansell brothers, it is too early to tell. Ironically, of the current crop, the one who currently appears to have the best chance of breaking into F1 is Nelson Angelo Piquet, who was a frequent front-runner in GP2 last year and has to be amongst the favourites to win that title this year. At the first Grand Prix I ever attended, over twenty years ago, who should have made up the front row but Piquet and Rosberg. Plus ca change, eh?

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