Monday, March 19, 2007

Mind Games

Mid race, the Australian Grand Prix. A yellow helmet in a Mclaren, visibly on the limit, using every inch of the road. Behind him, in the sister Mclaren, a double world champion, the most accomplished driver in the world today. He's less visible "on it" than his team mate, further from the walls and the kerbs, but the stopwatch shows that this is deceptive - he's going every bit as quickly. For Ron Dennis, and for those of us who have been following the sport for a long time, there is something eerily familiar about the current Mclaren line-up.

Their glory years with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost brought the team six driver's titles, but the two years in which Senna and Prost drove together for the team were fraught with tension. Ron Dennis' man management skills were tested up to, and ultimately beyond, breaking point. For all that there are similarities, though, the parallels with Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton are far from exact. Senna may have been the junior partner when he joined the team in 1988, but he was no beginner. He had made his debut four years earlier, and had racked up six wins and an awful lot of pole positions already. While Fernando Alonso may be a double world champion, just as Prost was as the 1988 season dawned, he is new to the Mclaren team, having won his two titles at Renault (by coincidence, the team for whom Prost drove in the early 80s, when he first emerged as a serious contender).

I can't help feeling though, that this is a potentially explosive driver pairing. When Alonso signed for Mclaren, there was every possibility that a safe number 2 such as Pedro De La Rosa would end up in the second car. Instead, they went with Hamilton. Even when that was announced, I doubt many thought he would be able to offer any serious opposition to Alonso in his first season. On the evidence of Melbourne, though, he's almost as quick as the Spaniard straight away. A glance at the race lap times suggests that Alonso still has the edge in terms of consistency (his times were up-and-down rather less than Hamilton's) but the gap between the two appears vanishingly small, less than that which separated Raikkonen and Montoya last year.

So how will the two drivers cope with it? Will Hamilton resent being made to play second fiddle to the more experienced Alonso if there is a tight battle for the driver's championship between Mclaren and Ferrari this year? Or will he find that, unable to fight his team mate, his motivation begins to fade?

Or will it be the other way around? In some senses, Alonso is a hired mercenary at Mclaren, new to the team. Lewis Hamilton, by contrast, is a Mclaren man through and through - the protege of Ron Dennis since he was barely into his teens. Will Alonso wonder whether the team is as truly committed to him as it is to a man whom they have trained for the job for over a decade? Or will he start to wonder where Mclaren's priorities really lie? It might not affect his driving, but one wonders how it will play with the team. After all, he has previous form in this regard, accusing some in his Renault team of attempting to sabotage his world title bid last year in the tense closing stages of a year long battle with Ferrari and Michael Schumacher.

There are perhaps a couple of factors which help to keep the team on an even keel though. Neither Alonso nor Hamilton come across as being quite such complex, intense characters as Senna and Prost were. And in the fullness of time, it may transpire that Hamilton's performance in Australia came about thanks to a hefty dose of beginner's luck, and he simply won't be able to perform to Alonso's level over a whole season. And if not, Dennis and Whitmarsh can always console themselves with the thought that its a nicer problem to have than that of getting Fisichella to get his finger out, or Kovalainen to keep his car on the island....

There were a couple of moments after the race on Sunday which gave an interesting insight into Kimi Raikkonen's character. First was a brief clip of Lewis Hamilton confidently going up to the race winner to shake his hand - whether to congratulate him, or to announce his arrival on the scene to the Finn. Raikkonen barely acknowledged his existence. In any other field, it would be simple rudeness, but in such a intensively competitive environment, it has its own logic. Refuse to even acknowledge the new kid... A few minutes later, Ron Dennis was being interviewed by ITV's pitlane reporter, Louise Goodman, on how he felt about the team's performance, and at the end he said of his drivers "...and the best thing is, they're two such nice chaps" - the implication being his previous star driver was not.

So how will his new team cope with their allegedly 'difficult' new charge. Certainly, Ferrari's driver management problems are likely to be rather different from those at Mclaren. It is hard to imagine Kimi Raikkonen being riled by anything his team mate does, and he comes across as the kind of person who can live without an especially close relationship with his own team. Or indeed with anyone.

In fact, It is hard to think of a driver in recent times who has come across as more independent, less concerned with what other people think, than the laconic Finn. When other drivers were getting used to the time difference and climate of Australia in the run-up to the opening Grand Prix, Kimi Raikkonen was competing (and winning) in a snowmobile event, the Kopparberg King, in his native Finland - under the pseudonym 'James Hunt' no less. Some say that it was a sign of his lack of commitment - that he was stupid to be taking such risks just days before the Grand Prix (certainly, one is more likely to be injured on a snowmobile than playing tennis), and that he compromised his preparation for the opening race. Kimi would probably simply retort that he won the race anyway.

While I had no idea that Kimi Raikkonen had any interest in motor racing's past, its easy to see why he identifies with the free-wheeling hard-living 1976 world champion. Hunt famously refused to bow to the demands of his sponsors to dress up for corporate events, and led a lifestyle far removed from his ascetic rival of the time, Niki Lauda. Raikkonen's fondness for a drink or two is well documented, and his behaviour in a London lap-dancing club (or rather the reaction of the Mclaren team to it) is widely thought to lie behind his decision to move to Ferrari. As one Mclaren insider put it "Kimi listens to no one. no one at all" and suggestions that the team had any right to control what he did on his own time were anathema to him.

What Ferrari, after ten years with Michael Schumacher, will have to learn to live with is a lead driver who may be every bit as fast as the German, but is not anything like the team player that Michael was. As Niki Lauda said "Kimi can drive a car very fast, but that's all he can do.". Jean Todt is left with a dilemma: Does he attempt to tame the worst excesses of his new charge, and risk ending up on the wrong side of him in the same way that Martin Whitmarsh and Ron Dennis did at Mclaren? Or does he accept that Kimi is exactly as he is, and concentrate on getting the Ferrari team to adapt to its new lead driver? To accept that the motivation, the team spirit, will have to come from the team alone, and that their driver's contribution will be solely to drive the wheels off the F2007. Which can be motivation enough...

Felipe Massa has his own concerns. With the Ferrari looking comfortably the quickest car on the grid at the moment, and with, in theory at least, equal number 1 status at Ferrari, he should be a potential title contender. Something about his body language after qualifying at Melbourne suggests he already knows otherwise. By sheer misfortune, he started the year on the back foot, and on the back of the grid, while Raikkonen became the first driver to win his first race for Ferrari since Nigel Mansell back in 1989. Something about his demeanour suggested there was more to it though - that Raikkonen had finally shown his hand, and that Massa had realised his apparent superiority in testing was a mirage. We'll have to wait until Sepang to find out, but I have a feeling the Brazilian already knows...

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Anonymous Clive said...

Nail on the head stuff, Patrick. Massa has seen what he's up against and is now regretting his bullish statements of the winter. And the matter of whether Ferrari and Raikkonen will find a way to work together is one of the big questions this season. Personally, I don't think they will - Ferrari doesn't bend that easily. Come to think of it, neither does Raikkonen...

5:17 AM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

We Brits are an awkward bunch - optimists AND underachievers, a painful combo. But how much would I love to see Lewis give Alonso a run for his money all year long.

4:39 PM  

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