Monday, August 24, 2009

Losing the Edge

The othr weekend, I ventured south for a friend's Stag party and afternoon's kart racing. As the 'Stag' was a former F1 journalist (he's since moved off into the world of football writing) it was inevitable that we would end up talking motorsport. On the minibus out to Buckmore Park*, we got to discussing Luca Badoer's prospects in the forthcoming European Grand Prix. Our conclusion was that he wouldn't make a fool of himself, that he would doubtless be slower than Kimi Raikkonen, but that any professional racing driver, given the tools to do the job, would be able to get within seven or eight tenths of the car's ultimate potential. After all, Jaime Alguersuari, a man who hadn't particularly stood out in the Renault World Series this year, was able to get within about that margin of Sebastien Buemi in his debut at Toro Rosso in Hungary.

As everyone knows now, we got that wrong. Though our embarrassment must have been as nothing when compared to that experienced by Badoer himself. Qualifying plum-last, some 2.6s off the pace of Kimi Raikkonen's sister car, and spinning twice on his way to finishing last and a lap down, in a car good enough for a podium in his team mate's hands. There are more than a few intriguing questions around the whole Badoer/Ferrari story. How serious was Schumacher about stepping back behind the wheel? Did the team, and perhaps the FIA, have their eye on getting Alonso in the car? And why did the team pick Badoer over their other tester, Marc Gene, who has much more recent race experience? Is their willingness to give the man a seat a sign of a kind of soft-headedness that would never have happened in the days of Jean Todt?

But the question that has really puzzled me is simple. Why was Badoer so slow last weekend? OK, so he hasn't raced in 10 years, but he's done upwards of 10,000km for Ferrari in testing over the last decade. Yes, in terms of ultimate ability, he's clearly no Michael Schumacher, but in his time, he won the F3000 championship, and was usually quicker than his Minardi team mate, Marc Gene when they were paired together back in 1999. His credentials, in short, seem rather more solid than, say, Alguersuari or Buemi. There's no doubting, though, that he was a good deal slower than either of them. What lay behind this?

Before last weekend's race, there was much talk of how Badoer's lack of recent race experience might cost him in terms of racecraft - his ability to pass and to defend, but in the end, that was all but irrelevant. For all his thousands of kilometres of testing mileage, he simply wasn't as quick as a guy who was in his first F1 race, and a teenager in only his second F1 GP whose previous experience didn't extend beyond the World Series by Renault. Is it that Grosjean and Alguersuari are simply much better drivers? Perhaps, but I don't think that's the whole story.

I suspect that Badoer's real problem was that he simply had no recent experience of driving a racing car right on the limit. Testing does not require that a driver push the car to the very limits of his ability. On the contrary, if a test driver isn't holding something in reserve, isn't driving within himself, then it may be hard for him to accurately evaluate the effects of set-up changes and new parts. To do his job, in other words. The trouble is, if a driver gets out of the habit of driving at the limit, on the edge of his abilities, perhaps it simply gets hard to start doing so again, after a while. Certainly after 10 years. And remember that, unlike many F1 testers, Badoer has not been keeping his hand in racing in sportscars, or, in the case of younger F1 test drivers, competing in junior single seaters.

There are other difficulties. One which was not much remarked upon, but which might go some way to explaining his travails, is that an F1 tester in this day and age will typically spend a lot of time pounding around the same small number of circuits - Barcelona, Valencia, Bahrain, and in the case of Ferrari, Mugello. He gets out of the habit of learning new circuits, and in particular, difficult street circuits where the walls are right up close, and the smallest error risks being punished with a bent steering rod or damaged suspension.

Not convinced? Well, I might be wrong but it would go some way to explaining why Alex Wurz, after some 7 years on the sidelines, was so thoroughly outclassed when he drove alongside Nico Rosberg at Williams in 2007. The same might even be true to a lesser extent of drivers who have spent too long in uncompetitive cars which haven't exactly provided the inspiration to push to the very limit of what's possible. It would go some way to explaining how many F1 drivers careers eventually fade out - think Thierry Boutsen, Mauricio Gugelmin or Martin Brundle.

If I'm right, it poses something of a dilemma for the three new teams lining up to enter the sport next year, USF1, Manor F1, and Campos Meta. Do they go for unproven youngsters, fresh out of GP2 or WSR? Or do they hire an old hand like Pedro De La Rosa, all the while knowing that not only is he not a truly front running driver, but he almost certainly has had his edge blunted by years of pounding round Valencia and Barcelona for Mclaren? Probably the safest bet would be to go fifty/fifty, hiring one young gun and one old hand. But that risks the worst of both worlds. What if the 'young gun' is another Luciano Burti or Antonio Pizzonia - someone who doesn't quite make the grade? And what if the old hand is too slow to really expose this? How will the team ever know for sure that the problem lies with its drivers, rather than the car? Its an intriguing dilemma for all the new teams. It will be interesting to see how they resolve it. Oh and Stefano... Do the right thing. Give Anthony Davidson a call about a job you have for him in Belgium on Friday....

*52.04 in an RX7 in 'Pro' spec to beat, set in my first heat, if you want to see how you compare!!

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