Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Motor Racing's Darkest Day

On the back of most race day tickets is a short anachronism. "Motor Racing Is Dangerous. Spectators attend at their own risk." Thankfully, the risk has long been fairly miniscule. That's not to say that spectators have not been injured, or even killed. Set against the vast numbers attending motorsports events each year, though, the numbers are tiny - a spectator is almost certainly at far more risk of dying in a road accident on the way to or from the event. While rallying, in particular, has perhaps been lucky that there haven't been more serious accidents involving spectators (see for something really hair raising...) the truth is that tickets might more accurately read "Motor Racing Used To Be Dangerous" though that might perhaps be tempting fate.

A documentary which appeared on the intermittently wonderful BBC4 recently reminded viewers of a time when spectator safety was altogether more rudimentary, if not non-existent. It told the story of the Le Mans disaster of 1955, which resulted in the death of 83 spectators, with many more injured. Drawing on interviews with two men who drove for the front-running teams, Mercedes and Jaguar, and a number of spectators who were present that day, the documentary was interesting not only for the black story at its heart, but for the way in which it showed viewers a picture of motor racing culture as it was over half a century ago.

Over 300,000 people attended the race that year, which, to judge by what those interviewed on the programme had to say, was then seen as one of the major events on the social calendar. A woman recalled being excited to go to Le Mans that year on her honeymoon. Another recalled how everyone would dress up for the occasion (the contrast between 50s race goes in their hats and bow ties, and the modern equivalent in their replica team gear was especially striking). Just 10 years after the end of World War 2, the world was beginning to rediscover a sense of levity, of excitement, after the austerity of the immediate post-war years. With the war still very much in the recent past, much was made of the battle between the two front running teams, the German Mercedes squad and their English rivals, Jaguar (though it should be pointed out that this can be taken too far - Mercedes had one Stirling Moss on their driving squad, which was very international in flavour).

If the documentary has a flaw (aside from the schoolboy error of claiming La Sarthe is 'the longest circuit in the world') it is that it appears to try to suggest that the accident was in some way the result of that rivalry. The fatal accident occurred some time after seven in the evening. Mike Hawthorn, having just lapped Lance Macklin's Austin Healey, slowed to enter the pits. Macklin lost control of his car as he swerved to avoid Hawthorn's slowing Jaguar, which sent him straight into the path of Pierre Levegh's Mercedes. Levegh's car launched itself off the back of Macklin's car, catapulting straight into the packed grand stand opposite the pits, disintegrating and exploding on landing, its magnesium chassis burning fiercely. The result was far and away the worst death toll at any motor racing event, grainy black and white photographs showing a scene not unreminiscent of the aftermath of a terrorist bombing.

As is perhaps inevitable with an event of that magnitude, the controversy would go on long beyond the end of the race. Amazingly, from our modern perspective, the race was not stopped. The organisers cited the need to ensure that ambulances heading to the circuit to tend the injured were not obstructed by tens of thousands of spectators heading in the opposite direction. Mercedes withdrew their cars from the race, inviting rivals Jaguar to do the same. Jaguar declined the invitation, and when Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb were photographed celebrating their victory, spraying champagne, it became a national scandal in France. In the long term, the result was the same for both teams. Mercedes and Jaguar withdrew from international competition in the aftermath of the accident, neither to return until the mid-80s when both would again fight it out for victory at Le Mans - with Jaguar taking the honours in 1988 and 1990, and Mercedes winning the last race before the introduction of chicanes on the Mulsanne in 1989.

The single issue which caused the most debate at the time, though, was that of whose fault the accident was. Even now, the two surviving drivers interviewed for the programme, Levegh's team mate, American John Fitch, and Jaguar driver Norman Dewis, had radically different views on the subject. In Fitch's view, the blame lay with Hawthorn, who according to Fitch, was devastated by guilt in the immediate aftermath of the accident and only later changed his story, blaming (by implication at least) an error from Macklin. Dewis, by contrast, considered that Macklin had simply lost control at the near-flat out corner leading onto the pit straight, and questioned whether the ageing Levegh (he was nearly 50 when he died) still had the reflexes necessary to race the powerful Mercedes 300SL, suggesting a sharper driver might have taken avoiding action when Macklin's Healey went out of control.

Watching the amateur cinefilm footage of the accident, which had been seen by few before the making of this documentary, though, it strikes me that this was simply a racing accident, that really, nobody could be said to be to blame for the accident. A public inquiry (which also had access to this footage) came to the same conclusion. Perhaps it is because people wanted someone to blame, but it seems to me that by focusing on the actions of the drivers, they were looking in the wrong place.

The government's report on the accident remains unpublished to this day, but it doesn't take a long government inquiry to establish that the reason the accident had such devastating consequences, the 'blame' if you wish to use the word, lay with the complete absence of protection for spectators. Back in the 50s, armco and catch-fencing had yet to become standard features (and no matter how much the latter may frustrate amateur photographers like me, it is simply a necessity when spectators sit level with the track surface, on the outside of a fast corner). The grandstands were right next to the circuit, the track at that point was very, very narrow, and there was no 'in road' to separate those heading for the pits from those continuing at full chat across the start/finish line. Add in the vast performance differentials between the fastest and slowest cars and the only real surprise is that such a serious accident didn't happen earlier.

It remains the single worst day in motor racing history. Thankfully, there has been no accident on such a scale since. I for one rather doubt that the sport could, in these safety conscious times, survive another accident in which there were mass casualties among spectators. Looking at the footage from the 1955 Le Mans race, the casual disregard for spectator safety is faintly chilling. But then those were different times. Two World Wars had caused devastation across Europe on a scale which is hard for people of my generation to really understand. The documentary suggested that the 1950s were the 'golden age' of motorsport. And if your romantic ideal of the sport is a vision of brave amateurs, fighter pilots with steering wheels, doing battle in dangerous circumstances, then perhaps it was. But the world has moved on, and those of us sitting in the grandstands should perhaps be grateful.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Wrong Time, Wrong Place

As a child, growing up in England in the mid 1980s and already well and truly bitten by the motorsports bug, one thing I was sure of was that I was not a fan of Nigel Mansell. Yes, he might have been pretty damned spectacular at the wheel when the mood took him, but out of the cockpit, even at the age of 9 or 10, I was put off by his sheer ordinariness and by his amateur theatrics, his willingness to fulfill the old Aussie stereotype of the whinging pom.

I was much more a fan of the enigmatic, foreign Ayrton Senna. I was intrigued by the cool calculating professeur Alain Prost, and the care-free go-ahead aggression of Gerhard Berger in his Benetton and Ferrari years. If pressed to name a favourite British driver, though, I would have gone for then Arrows driver Derek Warwick. A straightforward honest fighter who was worthy of a better drive than he ever got. The Hampshireman was back in the press recently as the ex-F1 driver steward at the Hungarian Grand Prix who wanted Michael Schumacher black-flagged forthwith for his ridiculous move on Rubens Barrichello in the closing laps of the race, but it strikes me that his career in motorsport is worth telling, because it goes to show just how important luck and timing can be in this business.

Derek Warwick, like his near-contemporary Martin Brundle, began his racing career in the rough and tumble world of stock car racing, and it's tempting to assign some of his straight-ahead no-nonsense approach to racing to those early years in this discipline (and for any US readers out there, British stock car racing is an altogether rather different and more down at heel world from your NASCAR. Imagine what NASCAR might be like if the fans were running the show) In his mid 20s, he came into enough money to put together a season of F3, and though it was done on a shoe-string (at least in comparison with his major rival Nelson Piquet) he won one of the two British titles in 1978.

It would be another three years before he appeared in Formula 1, in 1981, as the lead driver for flamboyant entrepreneur Ted Toleman's fledgling Formula 1 team. Using an early incarnation of engine tuner Brian Hart's 1.5 litre turbo engine, the car, as ugly as any ever to grace the F1 grid, was both woefully unreliable and hopelessly slow. At his first race, he was some 8.6s away from pole position, and Toleman's debut season rather puts the performance this year of HRT, Virgin and Lotus into perspective. He would spend the entire summer failing to qualify the ungainly device, and would take his first race start only right at the end of the year, at the season-closing race at the ridiculous little street circuit at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. On a circuit where the driver could just perhaps make up for the deficiencies of his equipment, he scraped onto the grid in 22nd position, and ran to around mid distance only for the gearbox to break.

In many ways, that race was the curtain raiser for his second year in the sport, when the improved pace of the Toleman meant he spent most of the year failing to finish, rather than failing to start, Grands Prix. A third year at the team in 1983 was more successful. The car was still fragile but by now rather more competitive, as the Hart turbo unit was conier more powerful than the normally aspirated Cosworth V8s still being run by many teams. The season ended with a run of four points finishes (and back then of course, points were only awarded for the top 6 finishers) in the last four races of the year. More importantly, the young British star, now being touted as the country's next world champion, had attracted the attentions of La Regie. Renault had just narrowly missed out on the world championship with Alain Prost and after a spectacular falling out between team manager Gerard Larrousse and his lead driver, Warwick was signed up to partner Patrick Tambay for 1984.

It looked like he was in the pound seats, and he began by disappearing off into the lead at the opening race at Jacerapagua in Brazil, only to retire when his suspension collapsed. A first podium followed at the next race in South Africa, and he went one better next time out at Zolder, appearing at this point in the season to be a genuine title contender. Unfortunately, that is about as good as it got for the Briton. Another couple of podium finishes followed later in the year, including a second place at his home race at Brands Hatch, but these were interspersed with a string of retirements. While the Renault was considerably more reliable than the Toleman he had driven the year before, it was, relatively speaking, nowhere near as competitive as the car Prost had driven the year before.

At the end of the year, Warwick was approached by one Frank Williams, offering him a drive for 1985. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that Warwick should have taken up Frank's offer, but at the time, it was a much more difficult choice. Yes, Keke Rosberg had won for the team in Dallas in '84, but the team were newly into a relationship with engine supplier Honda, whose early V6 turbos had horrendous throttle lag, which was reputed to make the car all but undriveable. And Renault? Well we now know that they were on a downward slide, that the 1985 RE60 would prove hopelessly uncompetitive, and that they would leave the sport with their tail between their legs at the end of the year, but at the time, it was easy enough to think that 1984 was just a bad year, that the factory team would bounce back in 1985 and enable Warwick to win races, perhaps even the title.

And so Warwick elected to stay with Renault, and Frank Williams was forced instead to offer his second seat to another, less fancied Briton who had never won a race in five years in the sport, and who had just left Lotus under a cloud. A man called Nigel Mansell. The rest, as the cliche runs, is history. Warwick endured a torrid time with Renault in 1985, with only a couple of fifth place finishes to show for his troubles. Mansell won his first Grand Prix towards the end of the year as Honda's engine came good, and he went on to become one of the sport's major stars and a regular race winner as the decade wore on.

Warwick, on the other hand, found himself out of work when Renault withdrew from the sport at the end of the season. An offer from Lotus, then still a force to be reckoned with, if not quite the team they had once been, was withdrawn when it was vetoed by team leader Ayrton Senna, who feared Warwick's presence in the team might dilute their focus on himself. And the team knew Senna was enough of an asset to them that they were well advised to do whatever he asked.

Derek Warwick found himself out of F1 for 1986, and teamed up with fellow F1 refugee Eddie Cheever to drive for Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguar sportscar team. Together, they came within an ace of snatching the teams title from the established front-runners, Rothmans Porsche, which might have helped to make up for the awful time Warwick would have in F1 when he got back on the grid, driving the lowline Brabham BT55 after Elio De Angelis died in a testing accident at Circuit Paul Ricard.

There would follow three seasons at Jackie Oliver's Arrows team, partnering his sportscar team mate, Eddie Cheever. He would generally have the upper hand over the American and there were flashes of real inspiration. The 1988 car was good enough for regular point finishes, but nothing more. The normally aspirated 1989 machine lacked power, thanks to its Cosworth DFR, but was perhaps the best chassis Warwick would ever get his hands on. While Cheever's career fizzled out, Warwick twice came close to breaking the Arrows team's duck. He finished 5th, 17s down on winner Nigel Mansell at the opening race at Brazil, which might seem unremarkable, but for the fact he had lost 20 seconds in a bungled pit stop. Later, he would retire from the lead at a wet Canadian Grand Prix, and terrify Gerhard Berger with his sheer commitment in qualifying at Monaco. But now well into his mid-30s, it was clear that the momentum had gone out of his F1 career.

In 1990, he finally got the Lotus seat he'd been denied 4 years earlier, but the team was now a pale shadow of what it had once been, and occasional points finishes were the best that Warwick could manage with the overweight Lamborghini powered 102T. For 1991, he once again found himself unable to secure an F1 ride and went back to Tom Walkinshaw's TWR Jaguar sportscar team where, at the wheel of the all-conquering XJR-14, he proved a regular race winner, but missed out on both the World Title and Le Mans victory. Tragedy came when his younger brother, Paul, whom Derek had always insisted was the real talent in his family, was killed in a British F3000 accident at Oulton Park and the subsequent Le Mans and World Sportscar titles with Peugeot (ironically enough, given that rival French car-maker Renault could arguably be blamed for his being consigned to making up the numbers in F1) must have had a bitter-sweet edge.

A final season in Formula 1 with Footwork (the team which had once, and would again, be known as Arrows) was a bit of a damp squib as the Mugen powered car was never more than a back end of the midfield device and at the end of the year, he found himself once again out of work, and at nearly 40, his career in F1 was run.

So how good was he? As good as Gerhard Berger or Jean Alesi, I reckon. Probably not quite in the same league as the real stars of his day, Senna and Prost. Someone with that level of ability would probably have been not merely quicker than people like Cheever, Tambay and Patrese, but would have dominated them utterly, which Warwick never quite did. But all the same, one wonders what he might have gone on to achieve had he taken that Williams drive in 1985. Perhaps he would have simply been destroyed by the fearsomely fast Rosberg, but maybe not. After all, at the time, people assumed that the same would happen to Nigel Mansell. Warwick's career is an all too telling illustration of the part that sheer blind chance can play in determining who becomes a star, and who an also-ran.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Maldonado Enigma

Quick question. Which driver holds the record for the most consecutive feature race wins in GP2? Lewis Hamilton? No? Perhaps it's Nico Rosberg? Or Timo Glock? Or even last year's champion Nico Hulkenberg? No, it's not any of those drivers, it's the Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado, who, in his fourth full season in the category, last weekend took his winning run to five at Hungary and who is now surely all but certain to be crowned the series' sixth champion, if not at Spa at the end of the month, then at Monza.

It just goes to show what a mug's game assessing the potential of drivers in the junior formulae can be. To recap, the Venezuelan driver has been competing in GP2 or Renault World Series since 2005. He had an early reputation as something of a mercurial wild-child, not helped by the three race ban he picked up for ignoring yellow flags and seriously injuring a marshal at Monaco a few years ago. But for a disqualification for a technical irregularity at Misano, he would have won the 2006 Renault World Series (eventually instead won by Alx Danielsson, of whom nothing has since been heard). Next came GP2. Flashes of pace for unfancied Trident Racing in 2007, including a dominant win at Monaco, scene of his earlier disgrace, suggested he was one to watch, and in the latter part of 2008, driving for Piquet Sports, he looked as quick as anyone.

Pastor Maldonado

Then it all went wrong. At the end of last year, Maldonado looked washed up, yesterday's news. After signing for manager Nicolas Todt's ART team for 2009, he went into the season as one of the favourites for the title. As it would turn out, he failed to win a feature race all season, and finished up a distant sixth in the title race, while his freshman team mate Nico Hulkenberg took five wins on his way to wrapping up the championship. It was the kind of let down which would have done for the career of many a young driver.

Maldonado, though, has the backing of Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, who appear to be determined to get a Venezuelan driver into Formula 1, and who have continued to put up funding for Maldonado to race (though to be fair, I don't know the ins and outs of this deal: whether it is primarily about getting a Venezuelan into F1, or whether it is nepotism of the kind that enables Milka Duno to waste everyone's time in Indycars. The key difference being that Maldonado belongs in a high performance single seater, where Duno really, really doesn't...) And for whatever reason (perhaps because with Ernesto Viso looking a bit old now and Johnny Cecotto Jr and Rodolfo Gonzalez not yet having shown any sign of being really special there's nowhere else for PDVSA to go) the oil company produced the cash to enable him to come back this year for a fourth run at GP2, not with ART, but with the new Rapax team which has emerged from the ashes of Minardi Piquet Sports.

I have to admit I was sceptical as to his chances. If he couldn't win races with ART, there seemed no reason to assume that he was going to start doing so, driving for a team which last year, with Alberto Valerio and Roldan Rodriguez, had done little more than make up the numbers.

Except, of course, that's not the way its worked out. Not only has Maldonado won the last five feature races in a row (albeit relying a little on luck for that last victory at Hungary, where both the cars on the front row failed to take the start) but he came really very close to winning at Monaco as well. Which would have made it six wins out of seven. All of a sudden, a driver whose career looked to be all but over at the end of last year is being talked about as a possible replacement for Pedro De La Rosa at Sauber next season (his passage no doubt eased by the bags of money the Venezuelan state oil company could bring to the party).

So how to explain it? It might be tempting to read Maldonado's dominance this season as an indictment of the overall quality of the GP2 field this year, in comparison with previous seasons. I'm not convinced by this though. If anything, the pedigree of this year's front-runners looks rather more substantial than it has done for some time. ART has F3 Euroseries champion Jules Bianchi, Racing Engineering have got his closest rival last year Christian Vietoris. There's GP2 Asia series champion Davide Valsecchi at ISport, and a number of frontrunners from last year's Renault World Series, including Charles Pic and Oliver Turvey.

My hunch is that what Maldonado's performances this year illustrate is that much overlooked but all too vital matter of a driver's psychological state, his confidence. In other sports, it is recognised that people can go through peaks and troughs, that success breeds success and that a player can simply lose their nerve after a run of bad results. Look, for instance, at the records of many a top tennis player. In motorsport lore, though, it seems all too many people believe that a driver simply has a fixed level of 'innate talent' and any remaining variation in their performance is entirely down to the equipment at the driver's disposal. Some concession might be made to the idea that drivers might get faster as they gain more experience, or slow down as they age, but the idea that drivers' form can rise and fall independently of this has never gained much traction.

Which is a mistake, I think, because really it appears to be the only explanation there is for the remarkable turn-around in Maldonado's form. I can only guess that perhaps he didn't click with his previous race engineer, and maybe Nico Hulkenberg's pace caught Maldonado by surprise, caused him to start over-driving, or to lose his nerve, and fail to perform to the level he was capable of. Because the driver scrabbling around for the minor points in a title winning car last year simply doesn't look to be the same man who has won five feature races with a car which his team mate Luiz Razia has been able to do no more with than pick up a couple of reverse grid sprint race podiums. The really intriguing question, though, is whether, if he does get his Grand Prix chance with Sauber next year, it will be the Pastor Maldonado of 2010 who has dominated the series in the manner of Hamilton or Hulkenberg, or the confused, under-performing Maldonado of 2009, who appears on the F1 grid.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

Teen Spirit

Sometimes, ideas for articles come from unexpected places. And this week, it was listening to Laura Marling's 'I Speak Because I Can' that got me thinking. The first really good record written and performed by a child of the 1990s as my ears hear it*. And there are certain things that you don't really expect of teenagers. Like really well made folk records. And you wouldn't anticipate that they would start turning up on the Grand Prix grid.

Except, from time to time, they do. And while it feels like the Formula One grid has been getting ever younger in recent years, it's not an entirely new phenomenon either. The first driver under the age of 20 ever to compete in a World Championship F1 race was the wealthy Mexican 19 year old, Ricardo Rodriguez, who made his debut for the Ferrari team at the Italian Grand Prix of 1961. The younger of the two Rodriguez brothers, he had been racing motorcycles since his early teens, regularly shared sportscar rides in the States with his elder brother from the age of 15 and made his Le Mans debut at the age of just 17 in 1959.

A year later, he became the youngest man ever to finish on the podium at the French endurance classic, sharing a Ferrari 250 with Andre Pilette to take a second place finish. And how did he do at his Grand Prix debut? At the fearsome old 10km Monza autodrome with its steep banked corners? He stuck the car on the front row, ahead of Phil Hill, the man who would win the title that year in the same car. Sadly, a water pump failure put him out after just 13 laps and ensured there would be no fairy-tale debut win. It was enough, though, to convince Enzo Ferrari to sign up Rodriguez for the 1962 season, albeit he didn't get to drive as regularly as his more experienced team mates. By 1962 though, the 'Sharknose' Ferrari 156 was not quite the all-conquering machine that it had been the year before and Rodriguez' relative inexperience told over the season as a whole. There were a few minor points finishes, a few accidents and nothing to grab the attention quite like his debut. That said, there might not have been any wins, but there was every sign that Ricardo was a potential star of the future. A man still learning his trade, but learning fast and with time on his side.

Except, sadly, time was not on his side at all. With Ferrari not entered for his home race, the non-Championship Mexican Grand Prix (at the circuit now named after him and his brother) in November 1962, he did a one-off deal with Rob Walker to race a Lotus 18. In qualifying, he flew off the road at the fearsomely fast Peraltada and was killed instantly. While it might be tempting to draw an Icarus-like moral of a man who flew too close to the sun, propelled too young into the dangerous world of F1, and paid the ultimate price, the truth is that it is more likely that his Lotus suffered a mechanical failure on the entry to Peraltada and Rodriguez was simply unlucky.

If Rodriguez was a shooting star, who shone brightly but all too briefly, New Zealander Chris Amon had a much more conventional F1 career, and his debut as a teenager two years later at the Belgian Grand Prix was a low key affair. Driving a Lola-Climax for former driver Reg Parnell, he qualified 15th and went out after ten laps. Two season with Reg Parnell Racing brought only a couple of points for one solitary 5th place finish at Zandvoort, and thereafter, sporadic F1 outings in assorted Lotuses, Brabhams and Coopers were interspersed with a more successful parallel career in Can-Am racing for several years, until Ferrari came knocking, offering a drive for 1967, which appeared to be Amon's opportunity to make the big time. As it was, he would never win a an F1 GP, but over the following few years, he would come tantalisingly close on several occasions and would earn a reputation as the best driver never to win a Grand Prix. He finally retired in 1976, after some 13 years in F1, after Niki Lauda's fiery accident at the Nurburgring led him to conclude it was time to cash in his chips. His failure to win a Grand Prix earned him a reputation as the unluckiest man in F1, a driver of whom Mario Andretti famously said "if that man became an undertaker, people would stop dying." Amon, though, took a more mature perspective. He might never have stood on the top step of the podium, but he survived 14 seasons in F1, and that made him a lot luckier than some. And maybe it's better to be remembered as the best driver never to win a race, rather than merely one of many good drivers who won one or two.

As Formula 1 became more genuinely professional as the 1960s and 1970s marched on, there would be no more teenage Grand Prix drivers for nearly 20 years. F1 became something you couldn't simply walk straight in to, as arguably it had been in the late 50s and early 1960s. It was no longer simply a matter of buying a Grand Prix car (as Moss, for instance, did at first) and turning up to collect the start money. You needed experience of F3, F2 or similar, before you could race at the top level, and increasingly, the sport's governing body demanded that drivers had sufficient relevant experience before they would be allowed to race.

It would be another New Zealander who would become (arguably) the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix up to that time in 1980. Mike Thackwell had previously tried and failed to qualify an Arrows at the Dutch Grand Prix but scraped onto the back of the grid a few weeks later at the Canadian Grand Prix, driving a Tyrrell. It didn't last long - he was eliminated in a start-line accident that caused the race to be restarted (some pedants would argue that he therefore never started the race and as such, the record for the youngest starter remained with Rodriguez until Jaime Alguersuari turned up in a Toro Rosso last year).

Thackwell would go on to win the final Formula 2 Championship in 1984 and was unlucky not to follow that up with the first ever F3000 title a year later. Despite that, he never established himself in F1, taking just one more start, in a hopelessly outclassed RAM at the Canadian Grand Prix in 1984. After Martin Brundle was sidelined with a broken leg,he would also attempt the forlorn task of trying to qualify a normally-aspirated Tyrrell against the turbo cars on the drag-strip that was the old Hockenheimring later that year, to no avail.

He is regarded by many as one of the sport's great lost talents and when his career finally ran up against a brick wall, he stepped away quietly to go surfing off the south coast of England after spending a while racing sportscars for Sauber. Was his reputation hurt by coming into F1 too early? Perhaps, though if one is searching for a single neat explanation for Thackwell's failure to progress in F1, then the testing accident he suffered in an F2 car, the year after his GP debut, which seemed to knock his confidence as a driver, might be the more important factor. By the time he had recovered from that, the F1 world had moved on to younger, fresher faces.

Seventeen years later, the Minardi F1 team, which had brought Jarno Trulli and Giancarlo Fisichella into the sport in the previous couple of years, signed up an Argentinian kid by the name of Esteban Tuero for the 1998 season. His scanty pre-F1 single-seater career gave no indication that he had any business being on the GP grid and while the team claimed that he had been signed on the basis of his testing performances, the fact that he brought a lot of cash to the struggling team was probably decisive.

Tuero did a better job than might have been expected. While there was nothing in his performances at Minardi to suggest that he was a future champion, he matched his more experienced team mate Shinji Nakano and did enough to persuade Giancarlo Minardi to keep him on for 1999. But then came a huge accident in the Japanese Grand Prix which left him with a neck injury and he retired from the sport for good, just six months past his 20th birthday. Whether he had been scared by his Suzuka accident, had become disillusioned with life on the road, far from home comforts and family, or whether he had simply run out of money, isn't entirely clear. Tuero himself has never fully explained his reasons for calling time on his F1 career. These days he races with moderate success in Argentinian touring cars. Of all the teenage F1 drivers, I wonder if he is perhaps the clearest example of a man whose career suffered from having used family money to buy his way too far up the racing ladder too soon, before he had either the experience to make the most of his F1 chance, or the maturity to deal with life in the Grand Prix bubble.

Three years later, another 19 year old made his debut for Minardi, and at first glance, it might have looked like Fernando Alonso was just another Esteban Tuero. Someone who could bring money to the struggling team, now owned by airline magnate Paul Stoddart. History, of course, has shown just how wrong such an assumption would have been. Youngest race winner up to that point at Hungary 2003 (he would later lose that accolade to Sebastian Vettel, or whom more anon). Youngest World Champion just two years later (subsequently beaten by Lewis Hamilton) he's now regarded by many as the best in the business. Scratch beneath the surface and it was always clear he was a quite different kettle of fish from Tuero. A karting star, it was not his family's money that was buying his way onto the grid (his family background is, by F1 standards, quite modest) but that of wealthy manager/svengali, Flavio Briatore. In other words, he was not in F1 at 19 because Daddy thought he should be, but because someone with years of experience as an F1 team boss and entrepreneur saw in him the potential to go all the way. Someone mature enough, but more importantly, fast enough, to make the most of whatever opportunity he was given, at whatever age.

Seven years later, and another 19 year old found himself making his Grand Prix debut, filling in for an injured Robert Kubica at the US Grand Prix of 2007. If Messrs Alonso, Tuero and Thackwell had all made their debuts unobtrusively in cars that were never going to trouble the points-scoring positions, Vettel found himself in a rather different position, making his debut in a BMW Sauber which Nick Heidfeld had finished 2nd in only the week before. He was in a car that could do the business if he could. Rather than be blindingly quick and end up throwing the car off the road, he drove steadily to take a single point for 8th. Sebastian Vettel, though, was merely the youngest of a new breed of drivers, the best prepared and most heavily groomed ever to enter the sport. The products of well funded, manufacturer (or team) backed 'driver development programmes' the best of which, at least, provided drivers with both the hard cash and access to physical trainers, psychologists, media handlers and often, the opportunity to test an F1 car, in exchange for the driver signing a long-term contract with the team in question.

Where Vettel stood out is that he somehow contrived to be signed to not one but two such programmes. A few weeks on from his BMW Sauber debut, he found himself at the wheel of a Toro Rosso when the team parted company with American Scott Speed. A year later, he became the youngest Grand Prix winner ever, when he guided his Toro Rosso to victory at a soaked Italian Grand Prix. There can be no doubting that the 2008 Toro Rosso/Red Bull was very quick in the rain, but all the same, it was a remarkable performance. In only his third full season in the sport, he's arguably favourite to become World Champion, and but for errors on both his part and that of his team, he could even have taken the title last year.

The most recent, and youngest of F1's teenage stars is another driver from the Red Bull stable, Spain's Jaime Alguersuari. Drafted in after the team parted company with Sebastien Bourdais part way through last year, he has been solid rather than spectacular, and I wonder whether like Thackwell and Tuero, he might have got his chance too early. On the other hand, it may be that he only needs time, or it may be that he's a solid, dependable pro who simply isn't quite quick enough and never will be. The story of teenagers in F1, though, is an interesting echo of the path that the sport as a whole has taken over the last half-century or so. From a playground for the rich and fearless in the late 50s and early 60s, through the increasingly serious and professional 70s, 80s and 90s, where a young kid with little experience could hardly be expected to jump straight into a Grand Prix car and be competitive, until, finally, in recent years, the increasing professionalism of junior karting, the ever younger age at which drivers can begin racing single seaters, and the ever more intensive coaching and preparation of junior drivers has enabled drivers to gain the necessary experience to race in F1 at ever younger and younger ages. How long before we see the first child on the F1 grid?

*You say 'second rate Joni Mitchell imitator', I say 'best singer song-writer I've heard in years'. De gustibus non disputandum est...

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