Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Best of 2007

Writing, as I am, on a rather grey and dreich Sunday at the end of the year, I've found myself thinking back over the year just gone. More so even than last year, I found that the world of Formula 1 took up a lot of my energies here at Motorsports Ramblings. We did, after all, have a very intriguing four way fight for the driver's title this year, and if I personally found the political machinations going on in the background rather dull, there is no denying that they had a significant impact on the season and took up an awful lot of energy and attention.

Away from the F1 world, though, there was much else going on that was worthy of attention. Here are ten single seater drivers, in no particular order, whose performances stood out for me in the course of 2007. Some of them are possible future F1 stars - a couple of them are already confirmed on the F1 grid for 2008.
One or two are almost certainly past thinking about F1 and happy to plough their own furrow over in the US. The final name is perhaps best considered a wild shot in the dark...

Timo Glock

When the young Timo Glock deputised for Giorgio Pantano at Jordan back in 2004, he impressed me by immediately getting on with the job in hand - and even scoring points on his debut. I presumed we would be hearing a lot more from the German in the years ahead. At first, it didn't seem that way. He spent 2005 in the career black-hole that is Champ Car. He got rather more out of the Rocketsports car than anyone who drove it subsequently, but it seemed that the F1 paddock had lost interest. He moved to GP2 last year, and in the second half of the season, we got some indication of what he might be capable of. Lewis Hamilton may have captured the world's attention, but from the British races onwards, it was Glock who racked up the most points.

This year, he dominated the GP2 series. The statistics don't entirely bear this out because he was struck by truly awful luck. His 5 victories could easily have been 8 or even 10, had his ISport car been a little more reliable. Other drivers were intermittently quick, but only Timo Glock was on the pace pretty well everywhere that the circus went. I'm glad that he's found a seat in F1 next year, and only hope that Toyota is not the career graveyard for him that it has been for pretty well everyone else who has raced for them.

Luca Filippi

Aside from Timo Glock, it is fair to say that nobody really stood out above the pack in GP2. It might have been interesting to see what Adam Carroll could have done with a full season, and of the rookies, Kazuki Nakajima seemed to have more raw pace than the rest (though I can't help feeling that he has been promoted to F1 a year too early). The award for most improved driver, though, should surely go to former Euro F3000 champion Luca Filippi. After looking out of his depth for much of 2006, he made much more of a serious impression in 2007.

He opened his year with his only win - in dominant style at Bahrain. After that, there were no further victories, but when his car was running reliably, he racked up an awful lot of podiums. There were second place finishes in both the sprint and feature races in Italy, followed by an impressive run to second in the Belgian feature race. More impressive, though, is that Filippi emerged as something of a racer in a way that he had not until now. With an ART drive next year, he's got to be a serious bet for 2008 champion. And already Honda have shown interest in him as a tester.

Sebastien Bourdais

I can't help feeling that Sebastien's biggest enemy in his latter days in Champ Car must have been boredom. Against increasingly weak opposition, it seemed that all Bourdais had to do most weekends was turn up and ensure that he didn't fall asleep at the wheel. On the other hand, what made the opposition seem weak? After all, there were former F3000 champions (Junquiera, Wilson), former F1 drivers (Wilson again, Moreno and Doornbos), former GP2 race winners (Neel Jani) and former Macau GP winners (Gommendy). They were all in the same machinery, and if Newman Haas are a better equipped team than the rest, this was unlikely to have provided quite the sort of advantage, on its own, than Bourdais appeared to have this year.

Eight wins from 14 races is an impressive showing in itself, but the stats hide the fact that, but for a little misfortune, he might well have won another three or four races. More so than even in any of his other four Champ Car winning seasons, Bourdais dominated 2007. Now we shall see what he can do in the altogether more competitive world of F1.

Robert Doornbos

In the end, Sebastien Bourdais had it all his way this year in the Champ Car World Series. For much of the season, though, it wasn't quite that straightforward. Red Bull refugee, Robert Doornbos appeared to be no more than another out of work F1 driver casting around for work, and the Minardi Team USA berth did not look an especially promising one. After all, the team had won but a single race (in rather fortunate conditions) with Nelson Philippe in the past few years.

In his first races in Champ Car, though, Doornbos quietly got on with the job of racking up podium finishes, while poor luck, or foolhardiness, or some combination of the two, did for many of his rivals. This culminated with a fine win in the rain at Mont Tremblant (he passed Bourdais on the road). Thereafter, things began to go off the rails. There was another win at San Jose, but it seemed that while others had their bad luck at the beginning of the season, Doornbos' problems all came at the end. Still. with Bourdais off to Formula 1, who'd bet against Doornbos winning the Champ Car title in 2008 - if there is a Champ Car title to win....

Romain Grosjean

Pre-season, the general assumption had been that Nico Hulkenberg would parlay his phenomenal pace in the A1GP series into a Euroseries win. Failing that, Red Bull favourite, Sebastien Buemi looked a good bet. As it was, a Swiss with little previous form went and beat them both. With six wins over the course of the season, he was clearly the quickest of the current bunch.

A seat at ART next year, especially when put together with a test drive at Renault ( the fact he races under a French licence can't hurt him there) mean that he is perhaps more likely to follow the path of Lewis Hamilton than that of other Euroseries winners who have subsequently fallen into relative obscurity, like Jamie Green and Paul Di Resta.

Nico Hulkenberg

Willi Weber's young prodigy might have been a touch disappointing in the F3 Euroseries this year (although he did win 3 races and wind up third in the final standings) but he deserves his place on this list thanks to his domination of the A1GP series at the beginning of the year.

OK, so there is little doubting that the A1 series is a mite strange, and that success in this formula hasn't always translated into other arenas, but all the same, there is little doubt than when given a powerful single seater, and put up against drivers with past F1 experience, the German teenager never looked less than assured. He's staying in the Euroseries, which I can't help feeling is a shame, because on the available evidence, it looks like he might do better with a more powerful car underneath him. Still, the Williams testing role won't do any harm.

Alvaro Parente

Some drivers seem to be inexplicably, and unfairly overlooked. In 2005, Alvaro Parente won the British F3 championship despite lacking the funds to do a whole season. Despite missing the opening round, he won the title with a race to spare, and didn't even bother turning up to the final round, in order to save cash. This year, he found himself again without backers, but on the eve of the new season, Tech1 Racing decided to take a chance on an unfunded driver, and used its own funds to race Parente in the Renault World Series.

He repaid the previously unremarkable French squad's faith in him handsomely, taking 3 race wins and the 2007 title against what was actually a rather strong driver line-up. Whether this leads to greater things, as it did for Robert Kubica, or to obscurity as it did a year later for Alx Danielsson, remains to be seen. As yet, it would seem there are no GP2 teams yet knocking at his door. It looks as if he'll have to really impress when he gets his Renault test next year.

Marko Asmer

The Estonian son of a former racing hero of the old Soviet Union appears to have been kicking aroun in F3 for a long time without ever having really achieved much. Beneath the surface, things are a little more complicated than that. In truth, he has never really had the funding to do the job properly, and when a driver is worried about how they will pay the bills, they will inevitably find it hard to focus fully on the day job.

This time, that weight was taken off Asmer's shoulders when Walter Grubmuller Sr put up the money to run Asmer alongside his son at Hitech Despite not being a team in the same league as Raikkonen-Robertson or Carlin, they were able to do enough to allow Asmer not merely to win the F3 championship, but to dominate it, and to make most of the series other young guns look decidedly second-rate in the process. One can only hope that he will find a worthwhile ride next year.

Dario Franchitti

I have to confess that I have never much cared for the Indy Racing League. These days, it's hard to ignore the fact that it looks rather healthier than Champ Car does, but that, to be honest, is not saying a great deal. Dario Franchitti once looked every bit as much an F1 prospect as near-contemporary, David Coulthard. Somehow, the opportunities never quite presented themselves, and he ended up leaving for what was then called the Indycar World Series back in 1997. After ten year, there were odd race wins, but he had never really established himself as one of tyhe true stars of the series.

Until this year. First came the Indy 500 victory, helped by a fuel strategy that just paid off as the race was rained off in the final laps. Then, as the season wore on, it became increasingly clear that Dario had finally arrived as a front line driver in the IRL. In his five previous seasons, he had won a total of 4 races. This year, he doubled that total, and when Scott Dixon ran out of fuel on the final lap of the final round, he sealed the title. A shame he's off to drive stock cars round and round in circles.

Marcus Ericsson

An eccentric choice, I will grant you, and a name which fits oddly with the others on this list. He's there because unlike the others, I saw him race in person at Knockhill last year, in the final round of the Formula BMW championship, and he stood out head and shoulders above anyone else in the field. Given that several of the other runners - including Henrys Surtees and Arundel, are considered to be serious prospects in themselves, this was no mean feat. Where the others all looked a shade scrappy, Ericsson seemed able to carry speed which nobody else could find around the tiny Fife circuit.

More interesting still, is that Ericsson really was a chance discovery - not a kid hot-housed by ambitious parents from the earliest age, but someone who walked in to a kart circuit in his native Kumla at the age of 9, and nearly broke the lap record the first time he ever drove. Without family money behind him, he's been reliant on the management of Kenny Brack and British single seater team boss Richard Dutton. It will be interesting to see just how far he goes - but I certainly wouldn't rule out the possibility that he will bring Fortec back into contention in F3 next year.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

The Jigsaw Falls Into Place

So in the end, Fernando Alonso went back to the obvious place. For all the wild talk that the Spaniard would drive for Toyota, or Red Bull, or even Honda or Ferrari, he's back with the team with which he won two world championships - Renault. We shouldn't be too surprised. All of the above teams, in theory, did not have a vacancy. Honda have been at pains to insist that Rubens Barrichello will be staying with them next year, Red Bull have Mark Webber and David Coulthard in place and Toyota pretty much removed themselves from the bidding process when they hired GP2 champion Timo Glock to drive alongside Jarno Trulli in 2008. Ferrari have always insisted that Felipe Massa would be retained alongside champion Kimi Raikkonen, and for all that Massa was seen hanging around the Toyota garage earlier in the year, it would appear that they meant it.

Renault, on the other hand, always had a vacancy. Giancarlo Fisichella's contract was up, and it was plain that the Italian had had a disappointing season and had looked no match for Heikki Kovalainen in the latter part of the year. It was no surprise when he was let go. On the reasonable assumption that Alonso didn't really have anywhere else to go, it was no surprise to see him agree terms with Flavio Briatore.

What was more of a surprise was the news that Heikki Kovalainen would not be kept on. Kovalainen had been a Renault development driver for some years, and after a faltering start, had acquitted himself well in the latter part of the season, with a second place in treacherous conditions at Fuji being both his, and the team's highlight of the year. It could be argued that his start was just a little too faltering - certainly he looked out of his depth in his first few Grands Prix - but I would have thought he had done enough to merit retention. Rumours have circulated that Kovalainen left because he was unwilling to accept no.2 status to Alonso, but it now appears that his departure had more to do with a very rich Mexican backer, Carlos Slim who reputedly made it clear that he wanted Nelson Piquet Jr in the second car.

If, briefly, this appeared to be bad news for the Finn, it might have been a blessing in disguise. For the moment he became available, he stood out as far and away the obvious choice at Mclaren to replace Fernando Alonso. After all, who else was there? Of the test drivers Pedro De La Rosa is a known quantity, but really, what we know about him is that he isn't quite quick enough. Gary Paffett and perhaps even Paul Di Resta were possibilities, but they would represent a serious leap into the unknown, as neither has any previous F1 racing experience. It would probably have been easy enough to prise Adrian Sutil out of his contract with Force-India but he too be something of a gamble. He looked impressive against Albers in the early part of the season, but he really ought to have been a good deal quicker than Sakon Yamamoto if he really represents a great white hope for the future. Besides, he'd already been made to look rather ordinary when he went up against Lewis Hamilton in F3, so why on earth would things be any different this time round?

When Nico Rosberg unexpectedly took himself out of the equation by re-signing with Williams, that all only left two out-of-work old stagers about whom Ron Dennis has previously been fairly dismissive - Ralf Schumacher and Giancarlo Fisichella. One began to wonder whether Ron Dennis might put aside all concerns of propriety and try to pinch a guy who was already under contract. Mark Webber, Jenson Button and Robert Kubica all must have seemed intriguing prospects. When Kovalainen suddenly became available, he was the obvious choice for the Woking team. Fast, reliable and seemingly a team player who probably doesn't quite have the pace to seriously threaten Lewis Hamilton on a regular basis. The pair could be the new Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and certainly it is hard to imagine their relationship being quite as antagonistic as that which the team had to endure this year.

I could see this being a pairing which works well. If I were Ron Dennis and had complete freedom to run any driver other than Raikkonen or Alonso alongside Hamilton, I'd probably pick Nick Heidfeld. A good worker, with plenty of experience, who knows how to set up and develop a car. BMW, however, have doubtless recognised the same qualities in the bearded German and would probably not have been keen to let him go. Aside from anything else, by the time the Hinwil team had been paid off, Heidfeld was liable to be very expensive. Kovalainen, who was suddenly unemployed and lacking other options, was probably very cheap. Mclaren may have one of the biggest budgets in the sport, but when you've been hit with a $100m fine, saving money on driver salaries is likely to be important. Kovalainen strikes me as a good compromise. Seemingly a fairly apolitical team player, and probably the fastest unemployed racing driver on offer, he did a good job in his debut season at Renault once he had got on top of the tyres. With a year's experience under his belt, he might even start to threaten last year's star rookie on occasion.

There are those who speculate that the partnership of Alonso and Piquet Jr. could be explosive. I'm not so sure. We know from his GP2 days that Nelsinho Piquet can be incredibly fast, especially over one lap, when he puts his mind to it. What I'm not yet convinced about is that he really has the determination, and the work ethic, to succeed at the highest level. Piquet Jr has had his path smoothed up to now by his father's name, wealth and connections. Now he's in F1, that isn't going to help him a great deal. While he could be utterly imperious when the mood took him in GP2, there were other occasions on which he really looked rather ordinary. That said, it has always been open to question whether Piquet Sports was really a top-flight GP2 team, and if it was not (and certainly no other Piquet Sports driver has ever achieved much), that rather puts a different light on Piquet's junior series record. Against a man with the kind of relentless, grinding race pace as Alonso, Piquet is going to have a real fight on his hands if he wants to repeat Hamilton's remarkable feat of upstaging the double world champion in his rookie year.

One thing that we can be sure of is that Fernando Alonso is unlikely to react well to being beaten by a rookie team mate again. I think, given how exceptionally quick Alonso is, that it is rather unlikely that lightning will strike twice though. For one thing, it is clear that Alonso was caught out by the switch from Michelins to Bridgestones (as probably was Kovalainen, which may explain why Fisi had an edge over him in the early part of last year). That won't be the case this time round. Equally, while Piquet may, conceivably be the equal of Hamilton in terms of outright pace, I somehow rather doubt that he will have been as carefully groomed for F1 success as Hamilton had been by Mclaren. Renault doesn't strike me as that sort of team, and for in any case, until he was brought on board as a test driver last year, Piquet's career was largely managed by his father. Call me a cynic, but I somehow can't see Nelson Piquet Sr. having been quite as methodical as Ron Dennis and his men.

In the end, I can't help feeling it will come down to how good the new car is. It had better be an improvement on the machine which left Giancarlo Fisichella demotivated and uninterested. Else I suspect that a bruised Alonso, battered about by a difficult year at Renault, might simply get bored and start looking around for people to blame, while an inexperienced Piquet is to my mind even less likely to be able to help the team turn things around. Alonso claims that he was responsible for Mclaren finding 9/10ths of a second last winter. I've always rather doubted the claim, but to judge by Renault's performance in 2007, he might need to repeat the trick come January.

ENDNOTE: I'd just like to take this opportunity to wish readers an enjoyable Christmas (if you celebrate it) and a great New Year. I'll be taking a break down in the wilds of Northumberland, but will be back early in the new year with more of my ramblings,


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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Goodbye, Nigel

Tomorrow will see the appearance of Nigel Roebuck's final Fifth Column in Autosport. For racing fans, like myself, who grew up reading his Grand Prix reports and his weekly column in Autosport, this feels like the end of an era. It would be an exaggeration to say that Mr Roebuck taught me to read, but as a primary school kid, I probably read more of his output than just about anything else.

Roebuck had handed over the race reporting reins to Mark Hughes some time ago, but his weekly column has remained, for me, one of the few true highlights of a magazine which I can't help but feel has rather lost it's way. If it wasn't for the fact that I very much enjoy Mark Hughes' writing, and that it is still a reasonable source of non-F1 news, I'd probably be thinking twice about whether to resubscribe in future.

There are more than a few who will suggest that Roebuck went off the boil in his last years at Autosport. I'm not sure that's accurate. In recent times, it is fair to say that he has appeared to have become somewhat disillusioned with the direction that the sport is taking. He is still immensely readable however, and brings a level of insight which is well beyond that offered by many writing about the sport today. He is also one of only a very few current F1 writers who has been able to develop a distinctive style. You know a Roebuck column is a Roebuck column. The same can be said of Mike Lawrence, Joe Saward and Mark Hughes, but I'd struggle to think of many others.

Nonetheless, it is probably true that he was at his best when he was writing about F1 during the mid to late 1980s. Many of the drivers of the time were almost his contemporaries, and at a time when much less PR control was exercised over the drivers by anxious marketing types, Roebuck was able to develop genuine friendships with a number of the drivers, as well as several of those involved in running the teams, which enabled him to provide a distinct insider's view of the battles between Mclaren, Williams and Ferrari, Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet, in the latter part of that decade.

Of course, his critics would point out that his closeness to certain drivers could lead to bias in his reporting. And that is probably true - he always seemed to go easier on Alain Prost than on any of his rivals. In part I suspect that this was simply a matter of personal preference - that he got on better with the Frenchman than with the boorish, whinging Mansell, the win-at-all-costs Senna or the louche playboy, Piquet. In doing so, I always felt he passed over the fact that Prost too, was an immensely political animal, not entirely above the same kind of gamesmanship that the other three indulged in. As I pointed out last year in The Write Stuff, all writers have their biases, though. And any worthwhile opinion column writer does not attempt to hide this. The result of attempting to do so is usually flat, tedious reportage.

These days, Roebuck is probably strongest when writing about the sport's past. I'm not sure he understands the business of actually driving an F1 car on the limit in the same way that Mark Hughes does - which is no surprise as Hughes was a successful club racer who raced against such as Allan McNish in karts, while Roebuck has, to my knowledge, never put more than a toe in the water in this regard. I've often wondered if it is for that reason that he overestimates the importance of traction control, while Hughes seems more aware of how little difference it really makes. However, when it comes to the characters and history of the sport I doubt there is a better English-language writer alive today.

Some of his Fifth Columns on the subject have stood out as some of the most well-written pieces on motorsport to be found anywhere. In particular When Your Number's Up on the enigmatic pre-war racer, Dick Seaman, The Clock Goes Back, on Swiss star Jo Siffert and A Day In The Rain on the stunning performance of mercurial Mexican Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche 917 at the BOAC 1000kms in 1970 stand up as amongst my favourite motorsports articles of all time.

If I have a gripe about Roebuck's writing, it is his unfortunate tendency to pepper his writing with irrelevant, heavy-handed and partisan remarks about UK politics. I can only guess that he's been allowed to get away with it because his ire is usually directed at the Labour party and Autosport is owned by Haymarket - part of former Conservative Minister Michael Heseltine's empire. The effect, though, was to rather spoil what was usually a pretty good read. Suffice to say, I prefer his older columns, when he was ,more inclined to skewer yuppie excess. Perhaps the title Fifth Column is a clue though. The expression was originally coined during the Spanish civil war by nationalist General Emilio Mola, a supporter of General Franco.

That said, it's not all bad news. I understand that Roebuck is off to Motorsport magazine full time from next month. Motorsport has suffered from something of an identity crisis of late. During the late 90s, it became ever more confused about what it really was about, before formally relaunching as a motorsports history magazine. In the long run, though, this hasn't really worked. While the historically oriented approach produced some fine individual magazines, the fact is that the lack of anything new to report meant that eventually, Motorsport began to repeat itself. Recently, there has been yet another relaunch, and this time, the plan appears to be to mix articles about the history of the sport with less immediate, more considered commentary on the present day. It could work very well, and I can't think of anyone better than Nigel Roebuck to take on the task of editing it.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Schumacher of the Stages and the Young Pretenders

Just a couple of weeks after Andy Priaulx matched Michael Schumacher and Tommi Makinen by winning four consecutive FIA sanctioned championships, Sebastien Loeb equaled his feat. The French former gymnast has demonstrated a degree of dominance that has really only ever been matched in the motorsports world by Schumacher himself.

Let's not forget, after all, just how quickly he developed into a world class rally driver. After winning the first ever Junior World Rally Championship at the wheel of a Citroen Saxo in 2001, he came very close to winning his first rally outright at the end of the season in a Citroen Xsara Kit Car, finishing just 11 seconds behind Gilles Panizzi at the San Remo rally. A part-season spent developing the Citroen Xsara WRC brought him victory on the road in his first event in a WRC car at Monte Carlo (he was later penalised for a breach of servicing regulations and bumped back to 3rd), which he followed up with his first actual victory, later in the year at the Rally Germany.

In his first full season, he lost the World Championship to Petter Solberg by just a single point, ane even then only after having to follow team orders to take it steady at the final round - Wales Rally GB, as Citroen wanted to ensure that they at least walked away with the constructor's title. A year later, he dominated the championship, finishing over 20 points ahead of Petter Solberg to score the first of his four titles. Of course, it would be easy to suggest that he has done so by virtue of a large car advantage - and there is some truth in such a claim - certainly Subaru have been off the boil for the last couple of years, and Ford have only really sorted out their Focus this season - but it is worth remembering that in the time he has been driving for Citroen, Loeb has stacked up 36 victories. His team mates, over the same period, have won just three rallies - and those team mates have included no lesser men than Carlos Sainz and Colin McRae. In 2006, after all, he even won the title in an outdated privately entered Citroen Xsara.

All this is a quite remarkable achievement given that even the best world rally drivers usually take several years to learn their craft. Colin McRae was considered something of a youngster when he won his only title back in 1995, but by then he had been competing - if sporadically, in Group A8 machinery for half a decade or more. Marcus Gronholm and Tommi Makinen both spent years in relative obscurity before emerging as serious title contenders. In comparison to circuit racing, it would seem that in rallying, experience plays a much bigger part relative to innate ability. Perhaps no surprise given that, while the circuits the F1 boys visit are increasingly homogenous, there is little linking the challenges of Norway, Monte Carlo, the Acropolis, Catalunya and the Rally GB. Different surfaces, wildly varying weather conditions and fundamentally different stage layouts take time to master - unless, it would seem, you are Sebastien Loeb.

This year, though, he faced the toughest battle he has had since he fought Solberg and Burns for the title back in 2003. Marcus Gronholm finally got his Focus WRC06 working to his liking, and Loeb initially had to deal with iffy reliability on the new Citroen C4. With two rounds to go, Gronholm held a four point lead, but a crash on Rally Ireland put Loeb in the pound seats to win his fourth consecutive title at the final round - which he duly did.

The question, though, is where on earth Loeb's opposition will come from now that 40-something Gronholm has decided to hang up his helmet. It would not seem that that opposition is likely to come from team mate, and fellow graduate of the Citroen junior WRC team, Dani Sordo. Sordo may have done a competent job, and helped rack up constructors points for Citroen, but away from his preferred tarmac, he looked average at best. On snow, he was rather worse than that.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by Mikko Hirvonen this year. I had thought the Finn decidedly underwhelming when he first appeared as a works Subaru driver back in 2004, and had seen little to change my mind when he reappeared as a Ford works driver a couple of years ago. I initially put down his Norwegian Rally victory as a one-off, but his increasingly impressive form towards the end of this year suggest that he may at last be maturing into the kind of driver who can lead Ford's assault on the championship next year.

If Malcolm Wilson and the powers that be at Ford can face having two Finns in the works team next year, it appears to me that they could do a lot worse than to hire Jari-Matti Latvala to drive alongside Hirvonen next year. While Hirvonen was impressing everyone by out-pacing the two title contenders at the Rally GB, fewer people noticed that Latvala was going quicker than anyone else - and won all but 2 of Saturday and Sunday's stages. Had he not retired on Friday (he rejoined under the baffling SupeRally rules) with a windscreen that misted so badly he could no longer see where he was going, he would probably have won. Not bad for a guy in his first full season in the WRC, driving a second-string Stobart Focus.

If the thought of two Finns at Ford scares the marketing men too much (though they lived with it this year...) there are a few other options which would be well worth scoping out - drivers who, in any sane world, would have works drives, but are reduced to occasional private entries when they can get the money together. To my mind, the most promising candidate of the lot is Italian Gigi Galli. Thirty five year old Galli may be no youngster, but he impressed mightily on occasion in the odd outings he has had over the last couple of years. In Norway, he was right on the pace of the front runners in a privately entered Citroen until losing time with an off.

If Galli is too much of a gamble, and too old to seem like he's really the future, Ford (or perhaps Subaru) might like to re-investigate their recent past. Francois Duval comes with something of a chequered reputation, having had perhaps more than his fair share of big accidents in his time at Citroen and Ford. Thing is, though, Duval was seriously quick on occasion. And he showed that he still is, when he returned in a private Xsara at the Rally Deutschland this year and set stage times which gave Loeb pause for thought.

Whatever Ford decide to do, it is clear that something needs to be done to bring fresh talent into the WRC. With Gronholm's retirement, Petter Solberg is now the only front-running driver from the pre-Loeb era still competing. The Stobart team has afforded a vital opportunity for Latvala to learn the ropes this year, but the sport needs more opportunities for promising drivers, young or not-so-young to get experience in front-running cars. Large cheques and nepotism have allowed second-raters like Luis Perez-Companc, Matthew Wilson, Manfred Stohl and Henning Solberg to take up drives which more rightly should have gone to people like Guy Wilks, Per-Gunnar Anderson, Patrick Sandell and other emerging young drivers. If the sport, which has been going through something of an extended rough patch, is to survive and prosper, then it is vital that drivers who might have the raw ability to challenge Loeb are given the breaks they need.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Life stories

A couple of years ago, I picked up a copy of Bob Dylan's elliptical autobiography, Chronicles, on the recommendation of a friend who reckoned him to be one of the few rock stars whose story really merited a book . For those who are wondering, he's a better writer than he is singer, as anyone who is familiar with his work probably wouldn't be surprised to discover.

Suffice to say, said friend would not be seen dead reading the life-stories of such as Geri Halliwell. Quite what on earth he would have made of the fact that there are no fewer that 6 biographies of Lewis Hamilton hitting the bookstores this Christmas, I do not know. Probably an early portent of the apocalypse - or at least of a publishing industry threatening to eat itself from the inside. Don't get me wrong, I've been as impressed as anyone with the performances of the boy from Stevenage this year, but he is only 22. He's only done one year of Formula 1, and his life has been carefully managed by the Mclaren team since he was in his early teens. What chance is there that his is really a particularly interesting story? (By the by, if you really must buy a Hamilton biog, I would go with Lewis Hamilton: The Full Story. I haven't actually read it, but its' author, Mark Hughes is one of the best F1 writers in the business, and I have to admit to feeling a shade disappointed that he hadn't picked a more original subject matter for what I think is his first full length book.)

By contrast with the avalanche of Lewis Hamilton biographies, there is not, as far as I aware single book being published on the man who actually won the world championship this year - Kimi Raikkonen. It's understandable, as to put it mildly. Kimi is really not one of the more communicative people in the business, and putting together an account of his life story would probably be a rather difficult task. Certainly you couldn't rely on padding it out with quotes from the man himself.

It's a shame in a way, though, because I suspect the story of Kimi's rise to the top of the sport is actually the more interesting of the two. Much has been made of Lewis Hamilton's relatively ordinary background (compare and contrast with current English GP2 front runner Mike Conway, whose father has made a fortune in civil engineering, or best-placed British F3 runner, Stephen Jelley, whose family run a large house-building business) but the truth is, he was picked up very young by the most successful F1 team in the business, who have been instrumental in managing his career ever since. Had Mclaren not shown an interest in Lewis at the age of 13, one wonders whether he would even have got beyond karting.

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, had no such early assistance. His father was a construction worker and his mother a clerk in local government. By the standards of some I have dealt with in my working life, he wasn't poor, but it can safely be assumed that they were in no position to personally put up the £200k cost of his season in Formula Renault. From early on, he has been managed by the previously relatively unknown father and son duo of Steve and Dave Robertson (Steve was a middling F3 driver, some 20 years back, but to my knowledge, he hadn't previously been involved in driver management) who somehow managed to persuade Peter Sauber to give him a run in one of his cars at a time when he had only a Formula Renault title to his name, at the end of 2000. The Swiss veteran team owner was so impressed by what he saw, that he quickly offered to hire the inexperienced Finn to race for the team in 2001. There was brief concern that he was simply too inexperienced to be in F1, and he was granted only a probationary superlicence at the beginning of the year. These were concerns which largely vanished when he scored points on his debut in Australia.

On closer inspection, one of the interesting things about Kimi's ascent to Formula 1 was that he did it without ever really having access to the best equipment. In Finnish karting, he was narrowly beaten in his debut season by Toni Vilander (last seen pursuing a living in the FIA GT series). This might seem a surprise, given that that Vilander never went on to anything like the same level of success, but on closer inspection, it had an awful lot to do with the fact that Raikkonen was karting on the cheap - unable to service or replace his engines as frequently, and often trying to eke more races out of the tyres than his rivals. There is even a story (which I have been unable to verify) that he turned up to a European karting series event in the rain, couldn't afford treaded tyres, and beat everyone while running slicks!

Certainly, one thing that comes across is that while Hamilton was very carefully prepared and groomed for F1 from a very young age, Kimi Raikkonen is much more an independent operator - a man little used to taking others' advice, and with little desire to be managed. In this, he is much more of a racing driver in the traditional mould. Going back 30 years or so, racing drivers seemed much more their own men. They tended not to be accompanied by their parents to the races, and many saw no need to employ a team manager. After all, in the 1970s, racing was still dangerous to an extent that few parents would actively encourage their offspring into it in the manner of, for instance, your typical tennis father. These days, it feels like it's increasingly hard to tell apart Anthony Hamilton or John Button from Richard Williams or Damir Dokic - save that neither seem quite so, how shall I put it, bonkers.

The chances are, there isn't really enough material yet to merit a biography of either Lewis Hamilton or Kimi Raikkonen. On the other hand, a really well-researched book on how all the sport's current stars made their way to Formula 1, the contrasts between them, and how it helped to make them the kinds of drivers, and the kinds of people, that they are, would make a fascinating read. Mark, when you're done cashing in on the Hamilton phenomenon, maybe you'd like to think about it.

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