Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Narrowest of Margins

I watched the Brazilian Grand Prix in a bar in France. In all honesty, my French really wasn't up to following what was going on. I can just about understand it when its written down, but the accent defeats me completely. However, I did make out one very familiar voice among the commentary team, that of four time world champion Alain Prost.

It was apposite, I suppose, as there are distinct parallels between Kimi Raikkonen's stealthy run to the 2007 World Championship and the greatest of Prost's four title victories - for Mclaren in 1986. Both went into the final race as outsiders, and both were interlopers in an intra-team battle between team mates who had grabbed the lion's share of the press attention, and who did not get on at all. While it is hard to imagine two more different individuals than Prost and Raikkonen, there were certain similarities in the way that they won the title too. In 1986 Alain Prost didn't have the fastest car, and in 2007, Kimi Raikkonen did not have the most reliable car, but both made sure that they did not compound any disadvantage they had by making mistakes of their own.

There has been some debate as to whether this year's title went to the right man this year. An argument can be made, I think, that any of the three drivers separated by a single point at the end of the year would have been a worthy world champion, and certainly the very narrow gap at the top accurately refelcts what has been a very close fought season. In the run up to the final race, Keith Collantine's excellent F1 Fanatic blog had guest articles making the case for each of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. To my mind, they all made a good case and it simply underlines the fact that this was an incredibly close fought championship, where nobody succeeded in establishing themselves as the runaway favourite.

Off track, I have to admit that Fernando Alonso's antics have left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth (although that could be because everything I read is refracted through the British press, who needed a villain), but on the circuit, he has out in many impressive performances. If his 2007 season didn't quite live up to his incredible 2006 title drive? Well, how many drivers ever have a season as good as that?

However, while I could point easily enough to mistakes by Hamilton and Alonso which cost them points (Alonso's crash in Fuji, Hamilton's gravelly exit from the Chinese Grand Prix, not to mention Alonso's scrappy race in Canada, or Hamilton's off at the Nurburgring) I really struggled to think of any similar errors on Raikkonen's part. There was the qualifying accident in Monaco, but if we were to restrict ourselves to what went on during Sunday afternoon, then the only thing one could really accuse him of is being a little too cautious on occasion.

I was disappointed that he didn't make more of an effort to pass Heikki Kovalainen at Fuji (think how his team mate fought tooth and nail with Kubica, further back) and felt he ought to have been able to do more to keep Lewis Hamilton behind him at Monza. This is, after all, the Ice Man, reputed by many who ought to know to be the outright fastest driver in the world. But perhaps I do him a disservice. After all, it was quite possibly Hamilton's desire to win the title from the front (at Shanghai) which cost him his chance to win it at all. The Kimi of old might have taken more risks, but then the Kimi of old never won a world championship. I never had Raikkonen down as a percentages player, but its hard to argue that he played them other than brilliantly this year. Sure, he might have got another couple of points in Fuji if he could have got past Kovalainen's Renault, but he might equally have collided with his fellow Finn and eliminated himself from the title battle entirely.

In a predecessor to this blog, I argued that Kimi Raikkonen ought to have won the World Championship as far back at 2003 (I'm afraid I can't find the article, so you'll have to bear with me). With a year-old Mclaren which was not the match of either that year's Ferrari or the Williams BMW, he forced the championship all the way down to the wire, and came within a handful of points of denying Michael Schumacher his sixth world championship. Critics might point out that he only won one race all season, though he would have won a second, had his engine not failed at the Nurburgring. In the car he had, though, he was never going to win a lot of races, so he concentrated on racking up points. Even as early in his career as that, Raikkonen knew when to attack and when discretion might be the better part of valour. And had the Mclaren been a shade more reliable, that might have been enough.

If I'm honest, I really do think that Lewis Hamilton actually did the best job of the title protagonists this year and I would have liked to have seen him wrap up the title in Interlagos. Much as I have got sick to the back teeth of hearing about him in the media (one of the big plusses of being on holiday in France when the final race took place was not having to put up with James Allen's commentary) I think he did a pretty outstanding job against some seriously tough opposition. The fact that it was his first season in an F1 car and that he had never seen several of the tracks before only added to what would have been a pretty remarkable performance for even a seasoned superstar.

I'm glad, though, that an unreconstructed, old fashioned, 1970s kind of racing driver can still succeed at the highest level in the sport. When Raikkonen had a lacklustre start to the season, there were many who questioned whether he really had the commitment and the professionalism to succeed in the modern era - there were even dark (and by all accounts unfounded) rumours that his drinking was out of control. He ignored all of that, kept his head down, refused to engage in the tit-for-tat media war that his rivals sometimes got dragged into, and simply got on with the business of winning more races, and scoring more points, than anyone else. A worthy champion.

Post Script: Fuel temperatures? Appeals? Championships decided in the courtrooms? Let's hope it all goes no further. I'll be charitable and just assume that Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh just want to get one over Max Mosley by showing up how bad the FIA are at enforcing their own rules (Imagine having a rule about how fuel temperature relates to ambient temperature and neglecting to decide how ambient temperature would be determined.... And this is meant to be the pinnacle of technology...) None of the drivers appear to want the result to change. And quite right too.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

The most worthy driver to win a championship is the one who wins it, regardless of any other factors. A championship is all about measuring success over time. If it was about winning races then the championship would cease to be very important, and race wins would be all that mattered. In fact, if it was about race wins, the points awarded should be ten for first and nothing for anyone else. Guess who would win the '07 title then? Kimi Raikkonen!

Nicky Hayden got a similar response in MotoGP in 2006 when he won. Although he won less races, it was his incredible consistency throughout the season that bagged the title for him.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

As usual, Patrick, a commendable assessment of events. On a small point, though, I think Kimi did pass Kovalainen momentarily on the last lap in Fuji. He went storming down the inside at the hairpin which follows the place he put his move on Coulthard. On this occasion, however, he went in too deep, and Heikki re-passed him on the exit. The TV cuts to this just as Heikki is re-gaining the place.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

The interesting thing about Raikkonen's championship is that everyone is happy that he finally managed it. Had either of the other two won, the excuses and accusations from both camps of supporters would still be going on. So Kimi is the right champion both for his performance throughout the year and also for being the one that everyone could accept happily.

I think it's because he's a natural. Kimi is often criticised for not working as hard as the other drivers but it's because he doesn't have to. He has a talent that is obvious to everyone and there is nothing quite as good to watch as natural ability. I don't know why but I know it's true.

Years ago I used to watch Wimbledon fortnight and the same was true of tennis. There were some who were so gifted that they didn't have to work at it. Often, that was their undoing - they played beautiful tennis but lost in the end to one of the serving machines that dominate the sport now.

Don't suppose anyone remembers Hannah Mandlikova in her few great years. Never won a damn thing but far and away the best to watch - and I'm not talking about her looks.

8:05 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

Yes, as I told a few people before the race, I only wish Kimi could have won it in a Mclaren. Then I'd be really happy....

I'm an intermittent tennis fan as well - and yes, it was always great to watch a gifted natural player beat a straight serving machine. I always used to enjoy watching Gianlucca Pozzi for that very reason. The tiny Russian girl who beat the Williams sisters the other year (name escapes me) was impressive for much the same reason.

And come to that, my favourite 'serving machine' was always Goran Ivanisevic, because he was so damned unpredictable.

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Geneza Pharmaceuticals said...

I suppose that motorsports are not only your hobby but also somehow profession

6:50 AM  

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