Monday, June 02, 2008

Favourites

It was a conversation I was having with someone I met at a barbecue over the weekend that got me thinking. A long time F1 fan, she was telling me of her trip to Spa last year for the Belgian Grand Prix. "... And at the end of it all, the right team won." she told me. She's a life-long Ferrari fan, and as regular readers of my ramblings might be aware, it's not an enthusiasm I share. I was interested, though, how it came to be that she became a member of the 'English Tifosi'. "Ah" she replied "As a little kid, I just loved the colour red. As simple as that."

At the same age, I was a fan of Lotus and of their young Brazilian star, Ayrton Senna. I'd love to claim that, even at the age of 6, I'd seen something special in Senna. My Dad likes to claim it was the impact of seeing him hustle the 97T through Dingle Dell in qualifying the European Grand Prix back in 1985 but I think that made far more of an impression on him than on me. If I'm absolutely honest my early loyalty probably had more to do with the fact that I had a black and gold Lotus scalextric car than anything else. Such is the arbitrariness of these things. Maybe if Mclaren had let Hornby model their cars, I would have been a Prost fan through the late eighties.

As it was, my allegiance to Lotus switched to Mclaren when Senna made the switch in 1988. As a kid, it was Senna's sheer bloodyminded determination to win, the overwhelming impression that it mattered more to him than it did to any of his rivals that left its mark on me. I was too contrarian to follow the herd and back the hero of the British press, Nigel Mansell. Piquet, by the time I was following the sport, seemed sullen and lackadaisical and no match on pace for his English team mate at Williams. Whilst, with the benefit of hindsight, I can find much to admire in Alain Prost's calm, methodical approach, as a child his adherence to Fangio's maxim that the object of the exercise is to win the race at the slowest possible pace did little to excite me.

I had the good fortune to be sat in the stands at Stowe during the British Grand Prix of 1987, where Mansell made the decisive move on team mate Piquet to take the lead in the dying laps of the race and secure an enormously popular home win. However, it was Senna's win in atrocious conditions a year later which I savoured more (although it must be said that Mansell's drive to second place in the underpowered Williams Judd was perhaps the drive of the day). For many who were there though, especially those who were at Stowe, that race will stand out as perhaps the most memorable they have been to - certainly several others I have met who were there that day remember it that way.

My standout memory, though, came six years later, standing on the banking above the Craner Curves on a cold, wet Easter Sunday at Donington, watching Ayrton Senna put in what was perhaps the greatest drive of his life - and certainly the most outstanding opening lap I've ever seen, to win the European Grand Prix of 1993 against the all-conquering Williams Renaults. As my father wrote of watching Jim Clark drive to victory in the 1966 Gold Cup at Oulton Park - "15 years old and your hero performs according to script. A memorable day."

These days, I fell no such partisan attachment to a particular drive or team. In fact, to do so seems to me to be a little childish - an impediment to fully appreciating the sport. It is only with the benefit of hindsight, for example, that I am able to fully appreciate what a great job Alain Prost did for Ferrari in 1990. I do wonder whether the reason such fanatical, unbreakable loyalty to a particular club is so common among football fans is a consequence of the fact that football teams, unlike F1 drivers, and to a lesser extent, teams, do not retire or disappear,
leaving footie fans permanently in thrall to the allegiances they formed in childhood.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't have my own little idiosyncratic preferences and biases, as regular readers will doubtless have already picked up. Take the team I mentioned at the start of the article - Ferrari. In the days when they were passionate, shambolic, stereotypically Italian underachievers, I was always pleased by their rare victories with Alesi or Berger at the wheel. These days, though, I can summon up little enthusiasm for the grindingly efficient, characterless winning machine which has taken the drivers and constructors titles 6 times. Their refusal, at least in the Schumacher days, to let their drivers really race each other never impressed me, and I've never been able to shake off the nagging suspicion that the FIA have made many more decisions in their favour than against them.

My attitude towards Mclaren has kind of gone in the opposite direction. For a long time, through the late 90s, their clinical, corporate attitude to the sport (typified by the infamous Ronspeak) characterised everything I thought was wrong with the sport, and their deliberate interference with the results at the Australian Grand Prix of 1998 was not so different from the actions of Ferrari four years later in Austria. These days, though, the corporate approach to running an F1 team has spread to the point where Mclaren simply seem to have been ahead of their time and their willingness to let their drivers race against each other is refreshing (even if it arguably cost them the 2007 title).

However, it is the approach of the Williams team which most chimes with my own attitude towards the sport. Their fierce independence - refusing to sell out to BMW in the manner that Mclaren did to Mercedes - is much in line with my distaste for the way in which the corporate beancounters have taken over from the dyed-in-the-wool racers over the last decade or two. With Williams, it has always been clear that they exist in order to race. Teams backed by soft drinks magnates or multinational car firms, on the other hand, could be here today and gone tomorrow. The Williams boys will still be around when they're gone. Come to that, one can't imagine, Flavio Briatore, for example, selling his private jet to pay for a wind tunnel for the team as Frank Williams did.

That's not intended as a slight on the Renault team, however. While Briatore may personify all that I don't like about F1 - the obsession with tawdry glamour, the desire for a quick buck and the sense that many of the top player sin the sport are not truly interested in the racing, he is nonetheless bright enough to let the people back at the factory and on the race team just get on with the job, and act as a buffer between the corporate Renault men and the race team itself (in marked contrast with the way in which Ford, in particular, seemed far too keen to micro-manage Jaguar Racing). I've always had a soft spot for the Renault boys because guys like Pat Symonds seem like such smart operators - real racers - who in 2005 and 2006, with Fernando Alonso, took two World Championships on a fraction of the budget of rival teams like Ferrari, Mclaren or Toyota.

What of the drivers? Of the sport's current big three, the men who fought it out for last year's world title, I've always had a great deal of respect for what Alonso and Hamilton can do behind the wheel, but wouldn't exactly describe myself as a fan of either of them. Alonso I used to be greatly impressed by, keeping his cool in a battle with Michael Schumacher for the 2006 title despite the fact that fate, and perhaps the FIA, were determined to wrest it from him. I was disappointed, though, by how poorly he took to being challenged by team mate Hamilton last year at Mclaren after two seasons of having it all his own way at Renault.

As for Hamilton, there is no doubt that he's an exceptional talent, and exciting to watch behind the wheel, but I can't help feeling he's little more than a cipher for the PR and marketing men behind his career outside the car. The way he is accompanied everywhere by his father also leaves me wondering just whose ambitions and dreams he is seeking to fulfill? His own, or his frustrated would-be racer dad's? (That, though is a point which could be made of many a modern F1 racer, given how young they start these days).

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, is someone who's attitude out of the car I have rather warmed to. The snowmobile and powerboat racing, the idolisation of louche 70s World Champion James Hunt, the refusal to be fazed by anything or to get into tedious moaning about how the team are favouring the other driver. On the other hand, since his move to Ferrari, I haven't been so impressed by his driving. What is the man who was once talked about as the outright fastest driver in the sport doing being outpaced in the rain around Monaco by Felipe Massa? And when did he last put in a really convincing, against-the-odds drive in a car that did not look the class of the field?

More broadly, I've always supported drivers whom I feel have been wrongly ignored by the top teams. For years, I was convinced that Giancarlo Fisichella, who had outpaced every team mate he had ever had, and had got some pretty awful cars surprisingly far up the grid, was a potential champion. Then he got a drive in a potentially title-winning Renault in 2005 and demonstrated that sometimes, the team bosses know a lot more than I do by being comprehensively outpaced by Alonso.

The man who turned down the 2005 Renault drive was Mark Webber. He's another man whose qualifying pace has been exceptional, and who has never really been seriously challenged by his team mates, but who seems to have been crossed off the wish-lists of the bosses at Mclaren, Ferrari et al. It's hard to see why. Here, after all, is a man who put a Jaguar on the front row in Malaysia back in 2003, and who looked in with a shout of victory at Monaco in 2006 and at Japan last year in cars which were far from true race winners, before fate intervened. On the other hand, had Fisichella gone to Williams in 05 and Webber to Renault, would I now be wondering why Fisi never got the breaks he deserved, and why Webber never lived up to his early promise? Or would Webber be a double world champion?

If Mark Webber strikes me as the clearest example among the current field of a driver who hasn't had the opportunities his talent merits, there are a number of examples of drivers whom I suspect are where they are only because of who their fathers were. If Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Junior's surnames had been, say, Premat, Carroll or Filippi, does anyone really believe they would be in F1 now? And have either of them really done anything to suggest they merit the breaks that have been given to them? To be fair, I ought to acknowledge that another son of a famous father, Nico Rosberg, has more than earned his place in F1 and I rather doubt anyone else could have done much more with this year's Williams.

Who has caught my attention most this year though? As a regular follower of the GP2 series, I was intrigued to see that one man who always seems to be standing at the pitwall paying close attention is Robert Kubica. In an age when I'm left wondering how many of the current F1 drivers are real fans of the sport (Michael Schumacher admitted that the first time he went to see an F1 race, he was rather bored by it) Kubica strikes me as a race fan through and through. His enthusiasm to try his hand at rallying is just another facet of this.

Like Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen, and in contrast with most of the rest of the grid, he does not come from a wealthy background, but has relied on his own talent to make his way into F1. This year, it's hard to think of a single significant mistake that the young Pole has made, which is more than can be said for any of the other men towards the top of the points table. He has frequently got his BMW in amongst the Ferraris and Mclarens while his team mate Heidfeld has fallen back into the clutches of the Red Bulls, Renaults and Williamses. In short, in his second full season of F1, he's been doing a very impressive job. He was the only one of the front runners not to make a mistake in the tricky conditions at Monaco last weekend. A first win cannot be far away.

Now, Canada this weekend.... The BMWs were very quick there last year.... And it was the scene of another young gun's first Grand Prix victory.... Let's see....

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Clive said...

I know I'm beginning to sound like a stuck record, Patrick, but I have to speak up for Kazuki Nakajima here. Okay, he has his drive purely thanks to Toyota connections but the lad can race too. How many rookies get this far into a season without a DNF (ignoring the one that was entirely the fault of Fisichella)? He finishes races and scores points - nearly as many as his much-hyped team mate. And sometimes he's quicker than Rosberg...

What more could a team manager ask of a rookie? To me, it seems Kazuki is shaping up very nicely, thank you, and, if he continues with Williams next year, he could be the surprise of the season. Not all champions burst on to the scene as Ayrton did; some learn their trade quietly but efficiently and blossom when their moment arrives.

Watch Kazuki!

6:19 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

I have to say that I enjoyed this week's essay even more than usual. It eased me into a real examination of my own attitudes to teams and drivers.

It was packed with ideas that beg for further debate, but I don't think that this is the place to do that. I will say that I agree with Cive about Nakajima. Patrick Head has never been a man prepared to accept underperformence from his drivers, and the short glimpse into the back of the Williams garage on the ITV coverage, which showed Patrick talking to Kazuki after his DNF showed how well they get on with each other. That sort of comfortable relationship with Patrick would not be possible if he had any doubt about Kazuki as a driver.

Now, although I try to maintain a disinterested attitude, I do tend to favour teams which contain people I have knew and worked with back in the past. Byrne, Head, Symmonds, and Dave North wll always add something to my estimation of the teams they work within now.

As for my main bias which I cannot shrug off, it goes right back to my excitement as a schoolboy when Autosport was finally forced to publish a red cover after what seemed like an age of green editions. The occasion was Ferrari's sudden return to the top of Formula One when Baghetti won the non-championship race at Syracuse in 1961.

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Tyme said...

Hey it's funny that you mentioned how people choose the teams to follow or like. Ferrari does do a lot of licensing for toys and products so, people are drawn to them because they see the products out in the general public and think they win all the races and are the best.

Great thought provoking post.

1:57 AM  

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