Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Coming Second

So Mark Webber has at last taken himself off of the list of candidates for the dubious accolade of being the best F1 driver never to have won a Grand Prix. Along with fellow Antipodean Chris Amon, I'd have had him down as far and away the leading candidate for such an award, too. Who else, though, might be in the running?

I'm not thinking, here, of drivers killed young who might have gone on to great things had they lived. Not, then, Stefan Bellof or any of the three subjects of David Tremayne's The Lost Generation, David Purley, Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce. Nor for that matter, am I thinking of those whom the hand of fate denied more than a handful of Grands Prix in uncompetitive cars such as Bernd Schneider or Mike Thackwell.

In fact that have been relatively few racing drivers who have eked out long-term careers in the sport without having ever won a race. There are exceptions though. The man with the questionable distinction of having started more Grands Prix than any other without ever winning one of them is the wealthy Italian Andrea De Cesaris. Elevated to Formula 1 on a pile of Marlboro cash before he was perhaps really ready for it, at the the age of 21, he was intermittently incredibly quick, but immensely accident prone. In his first full season in the sport, for Mclaren, he comprehensively proved the safety of John Barnard's revolutionary carbon fibre chassis, crashing 14 times in the course of the season.

In spite of this, and no doubt due in part to the fact his father was a Philip Morris executive, he got a ride at Alfa Romeo the following year. Amazingly, he stuck the car on pole at Long Beach in 1982, and led the race until a moment of madness - being so busy shaking his fist at a backmarker that he missed a gear, gave Niki Lauda, the man who replaced him at Mclaren, the opportunity to slip by. He would go on to crash out of the race around mid-distance. In many ways, it was a race that summed up his entire career - both the flashes of real pace, and the inability to keep out of the walls.

A reputation for being accident-prone stymied his career - Mclaren fired him in 1981, Alfa Romeo got rid of him at the end of 1983 (though that may have been a blessing in disguise) and the famously volatile Guy Ligier gave him the sack mid-season in 1985, leaving him nowhere to go but Minardi.

He always went well at Spa, though. One wag has speculated that he only really woke up and concentrated when the dangers of the sport were obvious. He grabbed a podium there for Brabham in 1987 and ran at the front in the hardly earth-shatteringly fast 1983 Alfa Romeo. It was also the place, after the Long Beach debacle, that he came closest to winning a Grand Prix. While enjoying something of an Indian Summer at Jordan in 1991, where he finally managed to marry some consistency to his speed, he was running second towards the race's end, and fast catching Ayrton Senna's hobbled Mclaren, only for engine to give out just three laps from the end. De Cesaris would never again come close to winning a Grand Prix. It seemed that as he found consistency, he lost the pace that marked him out early in his career, and he saw out his time in the sport as a steady step-slow journeyman at Sauber.

His misfortune, in a way, was to get his hands on competitive racing cars only at the beginning of his career, when he lacked the maturity to make the most of them. He was not one of the sport's greats, but I'd say that there was little to separate him from Jean Alesi, another man whose car control could be sublime, but whose racing brain was a little soft.

That's a criticism that could never be levelled at Martin Brundle, whom Nigel Roebuck once remarked was as intelligent a man as ever sat in an F1 cockpit. If De Cesaris' problem was that he got in the right cars at the wrong time, then Brundle's misfortune was the team mates he ended up paired with during his stints at Benetton and Mclaren. After years spent doing what he could to establish his reputation in non-turbo Tyrrells, the second-rate products of the re-animated Brabham squad and the truly awful Zakspeed, he finally got his hands on a competitive machine in the form of John Barnard's Benetton B192. One problem... his team mate was a young German novice by the name of Michael Schumacher.

In retrospect, Brundle did a good job. He was almost always out-qualified by Schumacher, but was often quicker in race-trim. He might well have won had his gearbox not failed during the Canadian Grand Prix in 1992, and was ahead of Schumacher at Spa - scene of the German's first win, until going off-track and alerting his team mate to the fact that it was time to change to slicks - a lap earlier than Brundle was able to do so. At the end of the year, the team, perhaps not appreciating the depth of Schumacher's talent, ditched Brundle after he'd been blown away by a rookie. He was replaced by Riccardo Patrese, a multiple race winner who was nonetheless unable to get anywhere near as close to the German star.

Mclaren came knocking in 1994, but once again Brundle was unlucky with his timing. Not only was the 1994 Mclaren-Peugeot quite the worst machine to come out of Woking in a very long time, but he was once again paired up with a then relatively inexperienced man who would go on to become a multiple world champion - Mika Hakkinen. Brundle did a respectable job, but again found himself outpaced by his team mate.

If De Cesaris' problems came down largely to mental attitude, the Brundle, who was probably a much more talented racer, lacked perhaps only that last tenth of a second a lap that separates the great from the good. Sometimes, it doesn't matter, plenty of Grand Prix winners haven't had it, and to my mind, some world champions haven't had it, but without it, a driver needs more luck than Brundle had in order to become a GP winner.

As I said at the beginning of the article, the list of drivers who had really long careers without ever winning a race is actually fairly short - I could perhaps have focused attention on Derek Warwick or Jean Pierre Jarier, but in reality, it is rare for a driver to be good enough to sustain a prolonged career as a paid professional, but not good enough ever to work his way into a team with a shot at winning a race.

What, though, of the current crop of F1 drivers? Well, it took a long time for Webber and Button to win their first races, but neither have been around any longer than one Nick Heidfeld.... Might the German be homing in on De Cesaris' record?

POSTSCRIPT: For anyone who's interested because a) it sounds like one hell of a prize and b) they were kind enough to invite me down to look around their factory, Williams are currently running a repeat of their competition to win a chance to drive their F1 car. For more details, visit: at

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