Friday, August 18, 2006

Splashing Around

The first Grand Prix I remember watching, over 20 years ago, was the Portuguese Grand Prix of 1985. It's beyond my powers of recall to remember quite what it was that hooked this particular six year old for life, but I do remember very distinctly that it was a very very wet race.

There can be little doubt that F1 cars are, put simply, more exciting to watch in the rain. The great rooster tails of spray that trail the cars, the sight of them visibly scrabbling for grip out of slow corners, the driver's constantly having to apply opposite lock - proof that it speed alone isn't the best guarantee of a great spectacle, its power relative to grip that counts for most.

That thought came back to me the other weekend, watching the Hungarian Grand Prix. The first wet race of the season, and surely not by coincidence, the most exciting race of the year by some margin. It hasn't, to put it mildly, been the most enthralling of F1 seasons. There might be an intriguing title battle in the offing (something which I, for one, thought rather unlikely back in the spring) but the individual races ave done little to capture one's attention. Softer tyres and 2.4 litre engines have together contrived to throw the power/grip ratio askew and the aerodynamic solutions that the teams have found to the latest rules seem to have made the cars more sensitive to 'dirty air' than ever. The result? Cars which are easier to drive and harder to overtake in.

Except in the rain. At Hungary - ye gods, Hungary of all places, we saw more overtaking than in the whole of the rest of the season. As at Suzuka last year, a mixed-up grid certainly helped, but it was the rain which enabled Messrs Alonso, Schumacher and Button to scythe through the field from their lowly starting positions. It was changing weather conditions too, which helped to bring about one of the most mercurial drives we have ever seen from Mr Schumacher. First he carved his way from 11th on the grid to run in the top five in the opening laps. Then he fell back as it became more and more clear that his tyres weren't up to the job. He lost time replacing a nosecone after an unnecessary and impetuous move against Giancarlo Fisichella, but with the help of the safety car, brilliantly forced his way back into contention the moment the track began to dry. By the end, he was defending second place on desperately worn wet weather tyres on a dry track (Schumacher has always had a kind of inverse-Senna ability to make the most of wet tyres in dry conditions). Finally he threw it all away with 3 laps to go, trying too hard to defend himself against Nick Heidfeld's advances. A certain 5 points became 0 (subsequently 1 after Robert Kubica was disqualified). If ever a drive somehow summed up both the strengths and failings of the all-conquering German, this was it.

Rain has always provided an opportunity for individual brilliance to transcend the base limits of power and downforce imposed by the machinery in the dry - tilting the balance a little away from the engineers, and towards the drivers (and, in today's tyre war, the tyre technicians). And the end result is to make the racing more intriguing to watch. I've been to two wet Grands Prix - at Silverstone in 1988 and at Donington in 1993. Both stick in the mind as days when it was possible to really marvel at the car control displayed by the very best guys. Not just Senna, who won both races (as he almost invariably did when it rained) but also Mansell in the 1988 'atmo' Williams with its hastily bodged together 'passive suspension' which the team had fitted on the fly after he had despaired of ever being able to do anything with the car's recalcitrant active suspension. Or Rubens Barrichello, flying along in the top 3 in only his third Grand Prix for Jordan in 1993, only for his Hart V10 to give up within sight of the finish.

There have been others, too who have grasped the opportunity to show what they can do when the skies darken. Thierry Boutsen, not perhaps from the very top drawer as a Grand Prix driver, was nonetheless pretty majestic in the wet, where his smooth style paid dividends and his apparent lack of aggression behind the wheel worked in his favour. Jean Alesi did incredible things on occasion on slick tyres on the rain, even if, in keeping with his mercurial character, it was usually far from clear what he was doing on slick tyres in the first place. Stefan Bellof scored the last podium for the Cosworth DFV/Y engine in the rain at Monaco in the antiquated Tyrrell in 1984, and lets not forget that his countryman, Michael Schumacher, won his first race in the dry/wet conditions of Spa in 1992 (where it was Senna's turn to perform heroics on dry tyres in the wet, when they were simply the wrong tyres to be on). Older fans might remember another standout drive in a Tyrrell in the rain, when F1 safety campaigner (and, yes, lets not forget, triple world champion) Jackie Stewart won by over 4 minutes at the fearsome, and decidely unsafe Nordschleife.

So wet races better than dry? Lets just say that its a shame that the Otodrom Istanbul doesn't look like it gets much rain at this time of year. On the other hand, the LMES race earlier in the year was very wet.

A final note to readers - I've been without a home internet connection for the past three weeks, so updates have proceeded at glacial pace - I actually wrote this in a rather nice little coffee shop called Black Medicine about two weeks ago, and I appreciate its no longer especially current. Normal service should now be resumed - equipped as I am with an 8 megabit ADSL line.


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