Saturday, January 05, 2008

When your time is up

British F1 viewers will have been treated to, or perhaps that should be, subjected to, a series of adverts for the mobile phone company, Vodafone, in which Dame Judy Dench tells us (over a montage of pictures and clips of one Lewis Hamilton) that "a dream can only become reality if you chase it and chase it and chase it." Maybe so, but the thing about dreams is that they tend to be unrealistic, to be flights of fantasy. Else they wouldn't be dreams.

Lewis Hamilton's 'dream' - that of becoming Formula 1 World Champion, is a case in point. In the 57 years that the World Championship has been in existence, just 29 individuals have achieved this feat. Given that there were around 29 drivers on the grid over the course of this year alone, (and, according to Wikipedia, nearly 800 different drivers over the years) the odds are not especially good.

Even making the F1 grid, though, is a kind of statistical lottery win. As a young kid, I had dreams of being an F1 champion myself. As with probably almost every kid who got hooked on watching the sport, I didn't have the family connections, or money, to pursue this ambition in any meaningful way. I was a couple of years older than Lewis Hamilton is now when I even first got behind the wheel of a kart. If I had wanted to become an F1 driver, I would have had to have been racing karts since my early teens The vast majority of those dreaming of F1 stardom fall at the very first fence, and through no fault of their own. (Incidentally, there have been odd exceptions to this rule. Damon Hill was the last World Champion who did not come up through karting. To my knowledge, the last driver who did not spend his teens in the karting ranks was Robert Doornbos).

That still leaves hundreds, perhaps even thousands of young men across the world who take their first steps into the world of Junior single seater racing each year. The options are myriad - Formula BMW, Formula Ford, Formula Renault, and various less well recognised routes exist in Britain alone, and most of these championships have their analogues in every western country as well as, increasingly, many less traditional motorsporting countries in the Far East, the Arab world and South America. Most of the drivers in these categories will never progress beyond them - to Formula 3, International Formula Masters, Formula Atlantic or any of the other categories that make up the next rung on the ladder. Sometimes this will be because they simply didn't have the requisite ability to pursue their career to the next level - sometimes it will be a shortage of funds. Sometimes, given that many drivers have backers who see 'their' man as an investment, it is hard to disentangle the two.

While there are drivers who make the leap straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1 (or even from Formula Renault to Formula 1, in the exceptional case of Kimi Raikkonen), the final step these days, is almost invariably a stint in GP2, or perhaps the Renault World Series. Most aspiring single seater drivers never get this far, and yet still there is no getting away from the fact that even most of those men who do will never race an F1 car in anger. In the three years that GP2 has been running, just 5 drivers have made the leap to F1. Thus far, of those five, only Lewis Hamilton has actually won a race (though one would not necessarily bet against Heikki Kovalainen or Nico Rosberg eventually joining him on the list of GP winners). For every Michael Schumacher, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of men who might have wanted it just as much, but who lacked the talent, or the breaks.

What, though, of two drivers sloping out of the back door after a decade in Formula 1? In the final analysis, were Alexander Wurz and Ralf Schumacher successes or failures? Both came into Formula 1 in 1997, and both initially looked like young guns who were going places. Alex Wurz began his career as a substitute for fellow Austrian, Gerhard Berger, picking up a podium in only his third race. After this promising showing, Benetton gave him a full time ride alongside Italian Giancarlo Fisichella in 1998. His time at Benetton started well enough, with a string of points finishes in the early part of the year, but gradually tailed off
as the season went on. The following years were not great for Benetton, but over time, Fisichella comprehensively established himself as the more promising of the two, and it was no great surprise that Wurz found himself without a drive in 2001.

Wurz's decent technical understanding of the sport and his work ethic made him an ideal candidate for the role of test driver, and it was in this role that he was employed for five years at Mclaren. In a sense, it must have been immensely frustrating for a man who had his heart set on reaching the top in Formula 1, but it was perhaps not such a bad way to earn a living really. Mclaren almost certainly paid its test drivers rather more handsomely than any middling team that Wurz might otherwise have ended up at would have paid its racing drivers. Perhaps the Austrian had figured out from his time at Benetton that, while a perfectly decent racing driver, he lacked that extra something which separates the good from the great. In view of that, a solid career as a test driver must have seemed a sensible option.

On some level, though, he must have hankered to try his hand at race driving again, for little else could explain his move from Mclaren to take a testing job at the much less well-funded Williams team. Sure enough, when Mark Webber exited stage-left for Red Bull, he was drafted in to drive alongside Nico Rosberg. This brought a final podium finish (at Canada) but on the whole must be judged a disappointment. While reasonably quick in the races, he was hopelessly lost in qualifying, and in modern F1, that is always going to leave you at a massive disadvantage. Whether it was because his competitive edge had been dulled by too many years testing, or whether it simply was an illustration of the fact that Wurz lacked the last few tenths of a second a lap that make a really great F1 driver, there can be little doubt that by the end of 2007, his time at the top of the sport was done.

All the same, when assessing whether a driver succeeded or failed, some account must be taken, I think of what he did with what he had. In this respect, I think Wurz came out well. In terms of sheer, innate talent, I don't think he was anything exceptional, but he was a good solid worker, and he picked up a few podium finishes when the cards fell his way. I think he can retire, comfortable in the knowledge that he achieved about as much as could have been expected.

It is much harder to know whether the same can be said of Ralf Schumacher. He has always struck me as something of a mercurial talent. There were times when he was absolutely imperious - and all too many others when one scarcely noticed he was there at all. He has, of course, the misfortune of being Michael Schumacher's younger brother - and compared with him, Ralf's F1 record looks decidedly second-best. But then, in comparison with Michael, whose doesn't?

It was widely suspected that he reached F1 largely because of the family name, but his first couple of seasons with Jordan identified him as something of a diamond in the rough - quick, if prone to mistakes. It was in 1999, when he moved to Williams, that his reputation was made. Paired alongside Champ Car champion Alex Zanardi, and given the least competitive car Williams had built in over 10 years, he set about picking up a very decent haul of points and finished sixth in the drivers' standings. His team mate, by contrast, failed to score a single point all year.

2001 was, in a way, both the making and the breaking of Schumacher Jr. Paired against another Champ Car champion, Juan Montoya, Ralf picked up his first victory in the San Marino Grand Prix and followed this with further wins in Canada and Germany. He finished up fourth in the driver's championship - about as much as could be expected from anyone driving a car other than a Ferrari or a Mclaren. The trouble, for Ralf, was that his inexperienced team mate looked ultimately the more exciting prospect - the driver who had more potential.

2002 was a bit of a non-event, such was the sheer level of dominance achieved by the Ferrari F2002. Ralf was one of only two non-Ferrari drivers to win a race, but while Juan Montoya somehow hustled the Williams to seven pole positions, Ralf never started from P1, cementing the view that the Colombian was the quicker of the two.

In 2003, Ralf Schumacher found himself, for the only time in his career, with a car which had the potential to win the world championship. The Williams was no race-winner at the start of the year, and it was noticeable that Juan Montoya was able to do a lot more with it than Ralf Schumacher. Thus, while Montoya was second in the opening race, Ralf could only manage 8th. While Montoya managed to salvage 8th on the grid when the car proved all at sea in Malaysia, Ralf was 17th!

The thing is, when the Didcot squad got the car really sorted, the pendulum swung. Nothing could touch the Williams for pace in the middle of the season - and at that point, it was Ralf, rather than Montoya who was able to extract the greatest pace from the car. Had it been the other way round, Juan Montoya just might have ended the year as World Champion. Interestingly, the moment the Williams began to fall away from the ultimate pace, sure enough, it was Montoya who was quicker again.

After that one opening that Ralf Schumacher had for a title campaign (it's easy to forget that at mid-season, he looked as good a bet as anyone to take the championship), he would never win a race again. To be fair, though Juan Montoya won his final race at Williams in 2004, he never really had a race-winning car again. It is open to question, how much the blame for that lay at his own door. To the surprise of many, Ralf Schumacher moved to Toyota for an absurd sum of money in 2005. At the time, it looked like a case of pecuniary greed getting in the way of furthering his career. In retrospect, it can be argued that he correctly foresaw Williams decline, and Toyota ought to have been the more promising team.

For a while, in 2005, it looked like he might be right. In the early part of 2005, they were briefing Renault's closest challengers, but it was noticeable that Jarno Trulli, rather than Ralf Schumacher, was the man racking up the results for them. The situation reversed in 2006, but it scarcely mattered - Toyota have never maintained the momentum they showed at the beginning of the 2005 season, and have slid ever further back into mediocrity. In 2007, the situation had reversed again, and generally, Jarno Trulli was the man who managed to eke a little more out of yet another undistinguished Toyota chassis. When the team decided that Ralf Schumacher was an expense that made little sense, it was no surprise that a long queue did not form for the German's services.

So how should Ralf Schumacher's career be judged? As a success - on the basis of those 6 wins? Or as a failure, because of the tantalising hints that he was capable of so much more. Much depends on the answer to one question. When the car wasn't quite there, was it simply that his driving style required a car that was absolutely right for him to show his abilities to best effect or did he simply get lazy. If the former, then he probably achieved about as much as he could. If, on the other hand, it was a lack of application on his part, that's another matter. He would be a driver who had the talent, but just didn't work hard enough - wasn't consistent enough, to deliver all that he might have been capable of. Another Juan Montoya, if you like. In the words of Dame Judy, he had a dream, but he didn't keep chasing it, and chasing it.

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Anonymous Clive said...

Either way, Ralf proved less than we had expected. His weakness was either laziness or an inability to adapt to a car that didn't suit him - both of which will prevent a driver from achieving his full potential.

It seems the elder brother really did get the lion's share of the talent in the Schumacher family...

6:18 AM  
Anonymous Alianora La Canta said...

Tiago Monteiro, who made it into an F1 race seat not long before Doornbos, started racing when he was 20, so it appears that drivers can occasionally get through to F1 without doing karting or racing from childhood. But in principle, I think you're right that starting too late stops most of us from having any chance in single-seater motor sport.

The patterns of Ralf's successes and failures does not suggest a specific driving-style limitation. He has been known to go on and off the boil at pretty random moments even when the car was of the same quality relative to his rivals (for example, his late 2004 was far better than the earlier version, even though the car hadn't really moved in the pecking order). It seems more like lack of motivation, or perhaps lack of stamina across a season (for some reason he always went better after a break, whether natural or enforced).

3:52 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

Ralf was maddeningly inconsistent, wasn't he. Reminds me of Jacques Laffite's old line about Ligier

"We have no idea why we are slow now. But then we had no idea why we were quick before either."

9:34 AM  
Blogger PARKER said...

Yes, if you have a dream it you can only make it a really if you keep chasing it. It is sad that you are not able to fulfill your formula1 dream. Recently I participated in a online raffle where we can win a formula1Formula1optimistic of winning this prize.

5:14 AM  
Anonymous Phil said...

Ralf lazy or unable to adapt to make things work OR was it that the car was a dog?

Its easy to point and call the guy inconsistant but usually in sport when you are forced to work with poor kit then you will make mistakes more often as you push beyond what is possible with what you have.

As for his motivation well when you are in a hopeless position year after year is it any wonder his motivation drops.

12:43 PM  

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