Sunday, March 11, 2007

Tales of the unexpected

The new formula 1 season is almost upon us, and after nearly 25 years of following the sport, I still find I'm as intrigued as ever as to what is going to happen in Melbourne. Are Ferrari really as far ahead as winter testing seems to suggest? What of BMW's surprising pace - a sign that the former Sauber team have really benefited from German investment or the product of an awful lot of low-fuel runs? Can Felipe Massa really outpace Kimi Raikkonen? Who will prove the best of the new boys - Hamilton or Kovalainen? Have the two Japanese teams with their immense resources and strength in depth really got it as horribly wrong as the winter timesheets suggest?

While these questions, and more, remain unanswered there can be little doubt that there are really only two, perhaps three serious contenders for victory in Australia - Ferrari, Mclaren, and, perhaps, Renault. Anything else would represent a serious upsetting of the form book, and the form book tends to be very reliable in Formula 1. While teams might like to talk up their chances of taking a great leap forward each winter, it is incredibly rare that this actually happens. Rare, but not entirely unknown.

I remember being at an F3 race at Brands Hatch in the mid eighties and hearing that the Ligiers of Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite were running one-two in the Detroit Grand Prix. Although Ayrton Senna was my childhood hero, I still remember being a little disappointed to get home and find that he had reeled in the two Ligiers to restore some semblance of order to proceedings. The French team would have to wait ten years before winning the Monaco Grand Prix in 1996, though that was largely because all the fancied runners self destructed that day.

Three years later, I was flicking through the paper, looking at the qualifying times for the Monaco Grand Prix. Senna on pole - no surprise there. Prost second - again pretty much with the run of play. But what was Martin Brundle doing on the second row in a Brabham Judd? Hadn't he barely scraped through pre-qualifying just two days earlier? And when had Joachim Luhti's reanimated Brabham team been anything more than makeweights? It lasted into the race too. Brundle ran third, behind the McLarens until his battery failed, necessitating a three minute pit stop. This elevated his wild haired team mate Stefano Modena into a podium position which he would keep until the end. Brundle fought back magnificently to finish sixth. Then of course, in Canada, they went back to not prequalifying. Strange world.

It was a pretty odd year though. Stefan Johannson rarely made in through qualifying in the lurid pink and sky blue Onyx (emblazoned with the legend 'Moneytron' as if making a particularly spirited attempt to win some kind of kind of bad taste award). Then suddenly, in Portugal, he was on the podium. Truth be told, the team were inexperienced and suffered at the whims of their eccentric backer Jean Pierre Van Rossem, but the Alan Jenkins' designed ORE-1 was a pretty tidy car. Their Portuguese sucess led the team briefly to talk of challenging Williams and McLaren, before being declared bankrupt less than a year later - though not before it had passed through the hands of the downright weird Swiss motor collector and former F1 backmarker, Peter Monteverdi.That same race was briefly led by Pierluigi Martini, in a Minardi, no less.

If all that was unexpected then dawn on race day at the first Grand Prix of the following season was downright surreal. Throughout the winter, attention had been focussed on whether McLaren (Senna) would be able to retain their dominance over Ferrari (Prost and Mansell). Some wondered whether Williams (Patrese and Boutsen) or Benetton (Piquet) might throw the cat among the pigeons, but the rest, it could safely be said, would be bit-part players.

The grid at Phoenix appeared to tell a very different story. There was Berger's McLaren on pole, and maybe you would have got long odds against him outqualifying Senna in his first race at Mclaren, but it was not so far out of the ordinary. But what was the yellow and white car alongside him ? Boutsen's Williams perhaps? Why no, it was Pierluigi Martini in his Cosworth powered Minardi. And the Italian red car in third ? Prost's Ferrari ? Andrea De Cesaris' Dallara actually. Next up was Jean Alesi, in a year old Tyrrell - one spot ahead of Senna's Mclaren. The grid was odd all the way down too. How about Olivier Grouillard in an Osella in eighth? Just one spot behind Prost's Ferrari. And what on earth was Roberto Moreno doing, one spot ahead of Mansell's Ferrari in a Eurobrun? If you've not heard of Eurobrun, there's a reason. They only qualified once more all season. The race was a return to normal, of sorts. Senna ran out the winner, although he was run unexpectedly close by Alesi's Tyrrell.

Why did it happen? Well, it wasn't a wet session that did it. Certainly it helped that all the times were set on Friday, and most of the main players were convinced that they would improve on Saturday, only to find that the skies opened. The nature of the circuit helped too. A street track full of slow 90 degree turns, it bore little resemblance to anywhere else on the calendar - that is to say, it was not really what the cars were actually designed for. Tyres were probably the main factor though. Most of the unexpectedly quick guys were on Pirellis, and at that point in the game, the Italian firm's qualifiers were streets ahead of anything that Goodyear had to offer.

Tyres were a major part of another surprise performance, seven years later. Damon Hill's year at Arrows had largely been a wasted experience, but one Sunday in Eastern Europe, it was all very different. In 1997, all the top teams ran Goodyears, but at Hungary, Bridgestones were clearly the tyres to have. Hill's Arrows wasn't the only car on Bridgestone, but it is perhaps telling that it was the reigning world champion, and not any of the other Bridgestone runners, who was the man to take advantage, dominating the race until his gearbox failed shortly before the end of the race. Even so, he finished second, and came as close as ever anyone did to winning a race for the ill-fated Arrows team.

In 1999, I found myself stuck in a railway station in Eastern Europe for some thirteen hours. Lacking money, or anything much to do, I sat and watched the big screen television by the platform. And suddenly, up on the screen flashed a picture of Heinz Harald Frentzen, celebrating victory in the Italian Grand Prix. And as the results scrolled down, it became clear that he had beaten the Ferraris and Coulthard's McLaren in a straight fight. This, to my mind even more of an upset than Johnny Herbert's freak win for Stewart later in the year, or Giancarlo Fisichella's final win for Jordan in the soaking Brazilian Grand Prix in 2003, both of which owed much more to luck and attrition.

Will anything so strange happen at Melbourne this weekend? I doubt it, but then the thought occurs that those BMWs have been very quick in testing on occasion.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Unlike everyone else, I set out my predictions for the season before testing. Half jokingly, I said that Robert Kubica would win the Australian GP (but that it would be BMW's only win of the year). Suddenly it looks as though that might even happen. Weird, huh?

4:37 AM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Mark Hughes made a very interesting point today in his Autosport column about the transient aerodynamics required by Bridgestone tyres. The Bridgestones generate their maximum grip at a slip angle of about 6 degrees, whereas the Michelins did so at an angle of about 2 degrees. He suggests that BMW have understood this, whilst Renault, say, haven't.

3:28 PM  

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