Monday, August 17, 2009

Nearly Was, Almost Ran....

Handbags at dawn. Thanks to Nelsinho Piquet's post-sacking outburst, we now know what many of us have long been pretty sure of anyway. That Flavio Briatore wouldn't know a diffuser from a differential. He was never a racer in the real sense. He started out selling clothes for Benetton and was brought in to run the clothes manufacturer's race team in the late eighties. He's in Formula 1 because he sees opportunities to make money, not because he's in thrall to the smell of Castrol GTX, the sound of a Ferrari V12, or the sight of an F1 car on the limit through Eau Rouge. All of which makes him a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the sport.

It doesn't mean he's not good at his job though. Just as the CEO of an electronics company needn't have the first clue how to wire a circuit board, so long as he knows who does, in the modern era, an F1 team boss doesn't necessarily have to know the first thing about motor racing, provided he knows how to manage people who do. Having a team principal who knows how to play the political game with Bernie and the FIA, and who knows who understand the racing side of things is arguably more important. It's not an approach without its downside - arguably one of the root causes of the banking crisis was that so many of the men at the helm of the banks had little real understanding of banking, but the evidence suggests that Flavio knows who to hire and fire. How did Renault win two world championships on a fraction of the budget of Mclaren or Ferrari? In part, because Flavio ensured the team had Alonso and Symonds on the payroll - he might not have understood the intricacies of what either man does, but he knew their worth....

And whatever Nelson Piquet might say, I'm afraid I think Flavio made the right call in giving him the boot after Hungary. Now, you could argue that he has been treated unfairly. Yes, he was comprehensively outpaced by his team mate throughout his year and a half at Renault, but his team mate was double world champion Fernando Alonso. In the past, that might have been enough that he would have been cut some slack. Unfortunately for him, a couple of years ago, one Lewis Hamilton, the man who beat him to the GP2 title in 2006, showed the world that there was no intrinsic reason why a sufficiently talented rookie couldn't take the fight to even Alonso straight away.

Piquet's been about half a second a lap off the pace of Alonso this year, and has struggled particularly in qualifying, seemingly unable to unlock the pace he was sometimes able to find in free practice. With overtaking so difficult in Formula 1 these days, and with the field so close, being half a second off the ultimate potential of the car in qualifying is a tremendous handicap. Piquet's problems with nailing a qualifying lap suggest that the problems are as much to do with his response to pressure situations as with any lack of ultimate pace. The team might have been willing to forgive him this in his first season, but when he showed no real sign of improvement in his second year in F1, his head was never going to be far from the chopping block.

Nelson might have denounced Flavio. Calling him his 'executioner'... But I can't help but think that Briatore was simply learning from past mistakes. For two years, the team ran Fisichella, another driver who showed flashes of real pace but who struggled when the pressure was on. For a while, I at least wondered when he might come good. He never really did. With the constructors so evenly matched, the team simply couldn't afford to carry a sub-par driver any longer in the vain hope that he might one day come good.

Perhaps it might all have been different if Piquet had ever shown flashes of real inspiration. If there had been even one or two race weekends on which he had simply outpaced Fernando Alonso. Despite on occasion being able to best Lewis Hamilton in GP2, that simply never came. On occasion he finished ahead of Alonso, but that always owed more to the vagaries of fuel strategy and the impossibility of overtaking in modern F1 than to any genuine superiority of pace. In the end, he will go down as yet another driver who shone in the junior formulae - British F3 champion in 2005, runner-up in GP2 in 2007 - but who was found to lack that extra something at the very highest level.

In fairness to Piquet, though, he came into the sport at perhaps the worst time to be an F1 debutant. The multi-race engine and gearbox rules provided a strong disincentive to letting a driver do a significant number of laps during Friday and Saturday practice. The knock-out qualifying format puts extra pressure on drivers to make every lap count (how different from the days, many years ago now, when drivers got two shots at qualifying - an hour on Friday and another hour on Saturday, with no limit on the number of laps in either session!). And, of course, for some years now, there's not been a Sunday morning warm-up available in which to concentrate solely on running with race fuel. And then there's been the ever greater restrictions placed on in-season, and even off-season, testing.

It will be an even bigger problem for the man who will replace him in Valencia. Romain Grosjean has, despite being Renault's official test driver this year, had only very minimal time in an F1 car, and almost none at all in this year's R29. How will he fare? In truth, it's hard to be sure - you never really know whether a driver has what it takes until he steps up to F1. His career record to date is a rather chequered one. Way off the pace in the F3 Euroseries in 2006, he beat Sebastien Buemi to the title the following year. He followed that with victory in the GP2 Asia Series in 2007/08 and, driving for double champions ART, looked a shoo-in for the summer series title at the outset.

It didn't quite work out that way. He showed flashes of real pace, but made too many dumb errors, perhaps most notably the needless move on Kamui Kobayashi in the sprint race at Barcelona in 2008 which probably cost him victory and certainly second place. This year, with Barwa-Addax, he hit the ground running, and runs second in the championship, but has not been on the podium since Monaco in May. It's not clear that he will necessarily prove any better than Piquet.

But is there anyone obviously better? Anthony Davidson, I'd argue. But leaving him out of it, there's not any single driver in the junior ranks at the moment who stands out ahead of the others. Lucas Di Grassi? A solid enough performer, but he never looked as quick as Glock when they were up against each other in GP2 in 2007. Nico Hulkenberg? Maybe, but he's had a habit of binning cars when he's tested for Williams - who obviously aren't so enamoured of him as to give him their second seat ahead of Kazuki Nakajima. Bruno Senna, maybe? Perhaps, but I've never been entirely convinced. Haven't Renault had enough trouble with people with famous surnames from Brazil? What about Andy Soucek? He's been dominating Formula 2, and as the cars are all run centrally by Palmer's engineers, we know that it's not down to the brilliance of his race engineers - always a possibility in GP2. On the other hand, though, who exactly is he beating? Aside, perhaps from Robert Wickens, is there anyone in the F2 field who's really known to be quick?

I think the team have made the right move, though. Whichever way you look at it, Renault were going to need at least one new driver in 2010, and quite possibly 2. In an era of very limited testing, putting Grosjean in the car gives the team a chance to assess his potential, and gives Grosjean an opportunity to get some F1 mileage under his belt should the team decide he's worth keeping on for 2010. And if he doesn't make the grade? At least they find out now and can concentrate on giving other candidates seat time over the winter. Flavio might not understand motor racing, but that doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't understand Formula 1.

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