Monday, August 13, 2007

The Long Way Round

Years ago, in January 1990, my father took me to the Autosport International Show at Birmingham NEC. This eleven year old boy remembers two particular highlights from the trip. The first was beating my friend Tom on the giant Scalextric track that had been set up in the main hall. The second was meeting up-and-coming young star Allan McNish at the Mclaren stage.

At that point, McNish was a Mclaren junior driver, and had just narrowly been beaten to the British F3 champion by Jack Brabham's youngest son, David. He was lined up to drive for the crack DAMS squad in F3000 alongside Erik Comas and I was sure that he was going to be Britain's next F1 star.

Of course, in the event it didn't work out quite like that. McNish suffered a huge crash at the opening round in Donington in which a spectator was killed and, while he went on to win rounds at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, it seemed that this knocked his confidence to a significant extent. He wound up fourth, but given that his team mate, Comas, was champion, he might justifiably have hoped for better.

Thereafter, his single seater career began to fall apart. While his F3000 contemporaries, Comas, Eddie Irvine, Eric Van De Poele, Gianni Morbidelli, et al, graduated to F1, he remained mired in the midfield of F3000 until well into the mid 1990s, never again winning a race in the category.

By 1996, it looked as if McNish's career was over. His F3000 contemporaries had been and, to some extent, gone, in F1 and it looked as if Allan was never going to live up to his early promise. A successful career in sportscars followed, including a win at Le Mans in 1998 and that looked to be that for McNish. Except that his place in the Toyota sportscar team of 1999 meant that he was in the ideal position to pick up the job of development driver when Toyota decided to go F1 racing. After spending much of 2001 pounding round Paul Ricard in the hopeless Toyota development car, his reward was a race seat for the 2002 season.

So, 12 years after I'd met him in Birmingham - in which time I'd gone all the way through secondary school, university, an aborted career as a software developer and into government - Allan McNish was finally a Grand Prix driver. It had certainly taken a long while. To put in perspective, Mika Hakkinen, who had been competing in British F3 while Allan McNish was taking his first steps in F3000, had retired as a double world champion at the end of the previous championship. The Finn had fitted his entire F1 career into McNish's 'apprenticeship'.

Sadly, McNish's F1 career was brief and not conspicuously successful. The 2002 Toyota was not much of a racing car - it was horribly unreliable, and rarely capable of scoring points. The engine might have been very good, but the chassis was probably better only that the Minardi. Worse still, McNish was generally outpaced by his team mate Mika Salo. Whether this was down to Salo's much greater experience of F1, the possibility that McNish was already past his best by the time he got onto the Grand Prix grid, or the simple fact that he wasn't quite naturally quick enough to make it as an F1 driver is hard to say.
Whatever the truth of it, McNish got to put 'Grand Prix driver' on his CV, and the experience did no harm to his career, as subsequent roles as Renault's test driver and as a part of the all-conquering Audi sportscar squad testify.

In the same year that Allan McNish finally, belatedly made his way into F1, Sebastien Bourdais was busy winning the F3000 championship. At one time, an F3000 title all but guaranteed an F1 seat, but in more recent years, that has nto always been the case. All the same, with Renault making a serious assault on F1, it would have been reasonable to assume that a promising young French driver was likely to be in a strong position.

It didn't work out that way. Renault sniffed around Bourdais, but lost interest when he made clear that he was not prepared to sign a management deal with Flavio Briatore. A potential drive with Arrows fell through when Tom Walkinshaw's operation went bankrupt, and so the Frenchman found himself a refugee in the struggling Champ Car World Series.

The Champ Car Series was once a great place for a driver to make a name for himself, and Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Montoya and (less successfully) Alex Zanardi all won the Champ Car title before walking straight into drives with leading teams (Williams, in every case. Perhaps only Sir Frank is aware that there is racing beyond Europe). By 2003, though, Champ Car was in a pretty dire state. Newman Haas and Forsythe Championship racing were pretty well the only really serious teams in the field (although the since-departed Team Rahal weren't bad). Bourdais picked up four wins and 4th in the title race in his debut year, finishing top rookie. Not a bad showing, although had he ironed out some of the inconsistency in his driving, he might easily have finished second in the series, having won more races than all bar Champion Paul Tracy.

The following year, he put all that to rights. Bourdais won half of the season's 14 races - enough to ensure that his more consistent but slower team mate Bruno Junquiera (himself a former F3000 champion who never quite made the jump to F1) was beaten in the title race. Thereafter, he scarcely looked back. Thirteen more wins, and a further two championship titles established the Frenchman as one of the all-time Champ Car greats, but seemingly was still not enough to attract the attentions of the F1 team bosses. Perhaps they questioned how much success in Champ Car really meant. Certainly, it is worth asking the question of quite who Bourdais was really competing against - but on balance, a field consisting of Tracy, Wilson, Allmendinger, Junquiera and, latterly, Jani, Power and Doornbos is probably stronger than this year's GP2 line up.

All the same, with three Champ Car world titles, it looked as though the F1 world was determined to ignore Sebastien Bourdais, when Toro Rosso's Gerhard Berger made an approach over the winter of 2006/07. There was no promise of a race drive, but a 3 day test was offered and accepted. A further test at Spa Francorchamps followed in July, and right up against the deadline after which his option expired, the team last week finally told him he would be a Toro Rosso driver in 2008. Six years after winning the F3000 title, Bourdais is a Grand Prix driver.

It is hard though, to ignore the fact that Toro Rosso is hardly the equivalent of the Williams team that Jacques Villeneuve walked into in 1996. The team may have access to Adrian Newey's brainchild, the RB3, but there is no getting away from the fact that the squad is still fundamentally the same group of people that had run the struggling Minardi team for many years. On top of that, there has undoubtedly been long-running tension between the various characters with an interest in the team. Franz Tost and Gerhard Berger plainly do not see eye to eye with Dietrich Mateschitz and his talent scout, Helmut Marko, on matters of driver selection.

And the team has not proven to be a happy place for its drivers. Scott Speed effectively wrote his own resignation when he went public over a physical altercation with Technical Director Tost, and Liuzzi has quietly become ever most frustrated with the atttempts of the team to pin its own shortcomings on its current lead driver. Most notably, at the Nurburgring, the decision not to issue a press release was used to cover up the fact that it was a mechanical failure on the car, rather than any failing on the part of its driver, which led Liuzzi to exit the race so dramatically as he left the pits on wet tyres.

That said, it is not clear what else Sebastien was going to do. He could undoubtedly have stayed in the Champ Car series, but after three (and probably soon, four) straight titles, he really doesn't have a lot left to prove there. NASCAR might have offered opportunities for him, especially after Newman Haas recently took a stake in Robert Yates Racing, but fundamentally, Bourdais is an open wheel circuit racer - not a stock car oval racer. He might also legitimately have wondered whether the series organisers (and perhaps even the other drivers) would have conspired to prevent the upstart Frenchman from Champ Car from being too successful.

No, there is little doubting that F1 is the pinnacle of open wheel racing these days, and as such, it has got to be the place for Bourdais to be. There are plenty of reasons to be wary of a Toro Rosso drive, but, well, you play the cards you're dealt - and it was Berger and Tost's team who were offering him a seat. Besides, the drive has some potential upsides. Firstly, there is the link with Red Bull. Sooner or later, Adrian Newey has surely got to hit form again, and when he does, a Red Bull drive could be a much coveted thing to have. With David Coulthard's career probably only having another year or so to run, Bourdais could yet place himself in a prime position to land a front running drive in 2009. In marked contrast to F1's current media darling, Lewis Hamilton, he would undoubtedly have taken the long way round to get there.

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Anonymous Clive said...

I think maybe you have said an awful lot by linking McNish's story with Bourdais'. Doesn't augur very well, does it?

5:49 AM  

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