Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Street Fighting Men

Normally, a race at a circuit where overtaking is all but impossible is hardly a mouth-watering prospect. I wasn’t exactly eagerly awaiting the Spanish Grand Prix at Barcelona last weekend. Yes, I was hoping that the new rules – the introduction of KERS, for example, might make it a little less processional. But not expecting much. Which was for the best, as it would appear that the main effect of KERS is to prevent overtaking (see Massa and Vettel or Hamilton and Vettel in Bahrain) rather than to promote it. Writing ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix this weekend, I already know that, barring an act of god, on track passes are out of the question, at least after the cars have rounded the Mirabeau on lap one. Yet, in spite of that, it’s a race I look forward to, one I’d be sad to see leave the calendar, no matter how much of an anachronism it may now be.

Why? In part it’s simply the novelty of seeing brutally powerful racing cars being threaded along the narrow roads that wind through the immensely built-up Principality. In 25 years of following the sport, it’s still not entirely worn off. It’s no longer exactly picturesque. Yes, the harbour looks a little more impressive on TV than the docks at the Valencia street circuit which F1 visited for the first time last year, but densely packed tower blocks, whose sole purpose appears to be to maximise the ratio of tax exiles to square feet hve long ago replaced most of the Belle Époque French architecture which provided the charming backdrop to the races which took place there in the 50s and 60s.

More important than that, though, is that it’s a circuit where the driver can make more of a difference than perhaps anywhere else on the calendar. As Mark Hughes put it in Autosport last week, it’s a place where the art of driving a racing car on the limit can still count for more than the science of aerodynamics. Nelson Piquet might have compared it to riding a bicycle in your living room, but still, threading an 800BHP racing car round Casino Square and the Massanet is a stern test of a driver’s feel and nerve.

Partly because the races can be so processional, Saturday afternoon qualifying is never more crucial – the ability to wring a single lap on the absolute limit without going over it never counts for more.

It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that the race has been dominated by the acknowledged greats of their era. When I first started following the sport in the mid 1980s, Alain Prost was the generally acknowledged master of Monaco.

Already though, a young Brazilian by the name of Ayrton Senna was serving notice of his talents, coming remarkably close to winning the rain-shorted 1984 race in a Toleman Hart. Not, in all truth, a car which normally troubled the podium. Senna would go on to make the place his own, winning 6 times between 1987 and 1993 – the only gap in that record being the 1988 race, which he had absolutely dominated. He lapped nearly two seconds quicker than his team mate Prost in qualifying, and talked of experiencing something approaching a transcendental experience that year – of no longer consciously driving the car. Then he went off into the wall 12 laps from the end as a result of a trivial lapse of concentration, while leading by nearly a minute. Monaco is a harsh mistress that way.

Michael Schumacher, in turn, made the world stand up and pay attention when he outpaced Senna in the 1993 race before his Benetton expired around mid-distance, enabling Senna to beat Graham Hill’s all time record of 5 wins around the streets. Schumacher would go on to win the race 5 times himself and while, like Senna, he threw away wins through silly errors (crashing on the formation lap in the rain in 1998 for example…) the truth is that Schumacher was a devastating combination of the particular talents of Senna and Prost, it’s only a shame that Senna’s death in 1994 robbed us of further contests between the two men around the streets of Monaco. For many, it was Lewis Hamilton’s sheer pace at Monaco in 2007 and 2008 which confirmed the arrival of another of the sport’s outstanding talents. Writing on Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him on the podium come Sunday, and no matter how uncompetitive the Mclaren may be right now, I wouldn’t be completely taken aback if he’s spraying the champagne from the top step. Not the way I’d bet, but not beyond the bounds of possibility…

In some ways more fascinating is the way in which certain drivers not generally considered to be from the very top drawer have shown themselves capable of incredible feats at there. Alex Caffi is not a name which would figure prominently in any history of the sport, and yet in sundry Dallaras and Footworks, and even the awful 1987 Osella, the Italian driver could be relied upon to perform well round the streets of the Principality. In 1987, he got the Osella as high as 15th on the grid and would go on to score points there both in the 1989 Dallara and the 1990 Footwork. A sign of a sadly overlooked, under-rated talent? On balance, probably not, although it’s always very hard to know for sure. If that were the case, he ought to have been quicker relative to his team mates elsewhere. More likely, his driving style just happened to gel with the tight, low-speed confines of the circuit – he ran very quickly at Phoenix in 1989 too, only to be run off the road by his (lapped) team mate. Perhaps the absolute requirement for concentration forced him to focus in a way that other circuits did not.

The same was surely even truer of his compatriot Stefano Modena. The wealthy Italian had starred in F3000 in 1987, but never entirely succeeded in convincing the F1 world of his talents. In his first race, for Brabham in Australia that year, he retired before half distance, suffering from exhaustion. As Keke Rosberg observed at the time, a driver who gave up so easily was unlikely ever to make it to the top of a sport as fiercely competitive as F1.

And yet, the man always starred at Monaco, a circuit as demanding as they come. He scored his only podium finish there with the temporarily reanimated Brabham team in 1989, and stuck his unwieldy Tyrrell Honda on the front row two years later. The 1990 Tyrrell 019 might have been a fantastically balanced car, but the consensus is that it’s successor, the 020 was ruined by the overweight Honda V10 engine it ran, and the results seem to bear this out –other than at Monaco, the car was never near the front. A possible career-best 2nd place slipped through his hands when the Honda engine went bang at around half distance.

Modena, I think, was a classic example of a driver who had the natural talent, the fundamental car control to be a great Grand Prix driver, but who lacked something, perhaps the motivation, perhaps the discipline, perhaps the ability to consistently unlock that talent. You could argue that he simply never got himself into a top car, but to my mind, he never quite did enough to suggest he was deserving of a ride in one of the top teams. As Martina Navratilova once observed after one of her countless Wimbledon victories, “What matters”, she said, “isn’t how well you play when you’re playing well. What matters is how well you play when you’re playing badly.” When Modena was good, he was very good indeed, but when he was bad....

In recent years, perhaps the standout ‘Monaco specialist’ has been another Italian, Jarno Trulli. The comparison is not entirely apt, Trulli is a much more consistent front-running driver than either Modena or Caffi ever were, and, I think, not only because he has more often had the car with which to do the job. Nonetheless, his standout performances have come at Monte Carlo – most notably his sole win, in 2004, in a car that was not truly the equal of, say, the Ferraris or perhaps even the Williams and against no less a team mate than Fernando Alonso. Why? It’s hard to say – his qualifying pace is certainly a help.

Again, though, I wonder if it comes down to the fact that the circuit rewards concentration and precision – something which Trulli’s one lap abilities indicate he has in spades when the occasion requires.

So, anachronism it may be, and certainly it never produces much in the way of racing - in the wheel-to-wheel sense, as opposed to Max Mosley's favoured "high speed chess", but as a test of a driver's art, there's nothing and nowhere quite like it.

Labels: , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home