Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The March of Time

Earlier this year, Baron Emmanuel 'Toulo' De Graffenreid passed away at the age of 93. With his death, just months after that of Eugene Martin, the last of the men who took part in the inaugural race in the Formula 1 World Championship back in May 1950, at Silverstone, was gone. A last link with an earlier era severed.

This could easily be filed away as just another mildly diverting but ultimately trivial statistic, but actually on closer inspection it reveals something rather interesting. I can well remember a time when no Formula 1 world champion had died of natural causes, and if the march of time has put paid to that, its still hard to get around the fact that 1950 is hardly so long ago as to be lost in the mists of time. My grandmother, still alive today, was older than most of the current Grand Prix grid when it took place. Put another way, plague, world war and pestilence aside, it would be a little surprising if, come 2064, there is not a single survivor from the 2007 British Grand Prix.

The key statistic which explains it all is the average age of those who took the start that day - 40 years. The meteoric rise of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the fact that Fernando Alonso is a double world champion at 25 and the impressive debut of the teenaged Sebastien Vettel at Indianapolis all help to illustrate that motorsport, and F1 in particular, is a young man's game these days. It emphatically was not back in 1950, though, and it is interesting to go back and ask why this should be so.

Perhaps the biggest factor was the impact of the Second World War. The conflict served to interrupt the careers of many drivers whose careers, in the late 1930s, were either at their peak, or else just beginning to flower. Had the war never happened, perhaps the likes of Guiseppe Farina (44), Louis Rosier (45) and Luigi Fagioli (52) would have been contemplating retirement by the mid to late 1940s. As it was, there was an unusual number of older drivers who still felt they had something left to prove - who were still captivated by the sport.

The corollary of that is that the younger generation - those born between, say 1920 and 1930, hadn't really had the opportunities to hone their craft in either the junior formulae or (as was more common in that era) in more minor Grands Prix. The war might have ended in 1945 , but austerity measures, in particular petrol rationing and the shortage of raw metals, went on a good deal longer. The Paris Cup may have taken place just after VJ Day, on the 9th September 1945, but all in all, the 1940s were a quiet time for motorsport. As an aside, it is perhaps notable that two of the younger front-runners in the first years of the World Championship, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez, were from
South America, where the War took longer to interrupt racing activities, and where the post-war recovery was swifter.

There was another only partly related reason why the field at that first race was so old. The F1 championship was then a new development (though it had an antecedent of sorts in the European Championship that ran in the 1930s) and carried little of the cachet that it does now. Whilst there were a few works cars (the pre-war Alfa Romeo 158s that were, by some distance, the class of the field, and a couple of Maseratis and Talbot-Lagos) the vast bulk of the field was made up of wealthy gentleman amateurs, in private Maseratis, Altas and ERAs. Only a small handful of these were remotely competitive. It follows, unsurprisingly, that on the whole, those in a position to buy and run their own F1 car were a good deal older than most of today's paid professionals.

There may, however, have been yet another factor at work - one perhaps of more relevance to understanding why modern motor racing is the way that it is. A few years ago, Martin Brundle testeda 1950s Mercedes F1 car. Two things struck him about the experience. The first was how physically easy the car was to drive. With no downforce and relatively low-grip tyres, cornering speeds were, in comparison with today, very low, and the physical forces acting on the driver much reduced. One did not need to be an athlete to drive a racing car competitively in the early 1950s (as pictures of the rather portly Gonzalez amply illustrate - and to think these days people say Juan Montoya is porky!) With fewer physical demands on the driver, the impact of the ageing process on driver performance is reduced. Its true today, after all, that drivers too old for F1 can often build successful second careers in sports and touring cars.

Brundle's other observation was that he was amazed how mentally demanding the car was to drive. Not so much that it was difficult per se, but that there was so little room for error. Without modern crash protection structures (or even seatbelts - the thinking at the time being that in a serious crash, you were better off being thrown out of the car), any accident was potentially life-threatening.

In such circumstances, one would tend to be a little bit more circumspect when it comes to exploring exactly where the limits lie. The razor-sharp reactions of youth are less relevant - what mattered was experience. Learning where the limits lie by going over them and working back from there was a strategy for ending up in a pine box. The idea that for a young charger, a few big accidents were all part of the learning curve, was no part of racing in the early 1950s. The only way to find out where the limits were in such cars was through much practice (although as was ever the case, the extremely naturally gifted will always learn quicker, and learn better, than their peers). The scales, in those days, were tilted a notch or too further towards old age and experience, and away from youth and enthusiasm.

Lets not get things out of proportion though. I've seen repeated from time to time the suggestion that F1 cars are too easy to drive these days because "a quick kid can just jump in and be quick straight away". There may be some truth in this, but I wouldn't overestimate it., After all, when Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17, and Martina Hingis at 16, nobody suggested that tennis was suddenly too easy. Hingis and Becker had been playing since they were very young children. What's changed is that this is now true of racing drivers too. In 1950, there was no such thing as karting, and there were no junior single-seater formulae open to 15 year olds (like FBMW today). Sebastien Vettel might seem inexperienced, but he had probably driven more testing miles in the BMW than the majority of those taking the start at Silverstone in 1950. In fact, after 2 seasons of Formula BMW, 2 seasons of F3, a Friday driver job with BMW in 2006 and a few Renault World Series drives (not to mention 8 years of karting) he was probably more race-experienced than Guiseppe Farina was when he won the opening round of the 1950 world championship.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

A fascinating and intelligent article. Funnily enough, just a couple of days ago someone sent me a video compilation of in-car footage from the fifties to the present. What struck me in watching it was that the basic skills haven't changed even though the cars are entirely different monsters these days. The busy hands at the wheel and the seat of the pants sensing what the car is doing are the same for Fangio and Senna.

There are two major differences between then and now. As your post implies, motor racing has become a business and the drivers are professionals trained from an early age to do the job - it is no longer possible just to leap into a car and be as quick as the best.

The other difference is in the tyres, strangely enough. Until the advent of ground effect, the cars were able to slide and the great drivers were able to induce this and then control it through the corner. Ground effect and aerodynamics has created cars that either go through corners on rails or snap off the road if the limit is exceeded.

There is a video of Nelson Piquet's pass on Senna at the Hungarian GP of 1986 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHdItAr2Ssw ) that is perhaps the last occasion in which a modern car gained an advantage by sliding. Piquet was the master of ground effects, apparently the only driver with the reflexes to hover at the knife edge of adhesion in those fiercely unforgiving cars, so it is entirely fitting that he should have demonstrated his skill against the greatest driver of modern times.

But what is so interesting about the clip is its rarity. By 1986 we were already accustomed to cars that stuck to the road tenaciously and so Piquet's move is like a blast from the past; it blows us away because you're not supposed to be able to do that in modern cars!

Come to think of it, Piquet was perhaps the last of the unfit drivers at the top level of F1 - he much preferred lazing about on his yacht in the Mediterranean to working out... ;)

5:10 AM  

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