Friday, June 30, 2006

Summer Break

This is a quick note to let you know that Motorsports Ramblings will be taking a short break, while I go off holidaying in sunny France. Providing that the wine hasn't entirely destroyed my cognitive function, I'll be back with more of the same towards the end of July.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Who The Hell is Derek Hayes?

Received wisdom has it that, in the end, real talent will always out. A Giancarlo Fisichella or a Nick Heidfeld might or might not manage to make a serious Formula One career for themselves, but a Kimi Raikkonen, a Fernando Alonso or a Michael Schumacher? They were always going to make it to the top of the sport.

Maybe. But maybe not. Perhaps it was inevitable from the moment that Alonso, Schumacher or Raikkonen stepped into a racing car that they would one day end up at the top of the tree in Formula One. And I will grant you that, on balance, once they actually got into an F1 car, all three made such an instant impact that they were always likely to go far. But was it really inevitable that they would get there in the first place?

It's one of life's big questions. Is history inevitable, or contingent? Mark Lawson's enjoyable novel Idlewild (or Everything Is Subject to Change) explores a parallel universe in which JFK, rather than being assassinated in Dallas in 1963, survives in political ignominy. Philip K Dick's The Man In The High Castle describes a world in which the Nazis won the second World War and the USA is split into Japanese and German territories. The answer, I suspect, is a mixture. Many historians would concede that it was only a random act of chance that led to Kennedy's assassination, but equally, most would argue that once the USA was involved, it would be utterly fanciful to seriously suggest that the Nazis might have won the second World War.

But where do the careers of racing drivers fit in? Is a parallel universe in which, after enjoying a fantastic first season in British Formula Renault, Kimi Raikkonen got landed with a bad car in his first season of F3 and gave up and went home to Finland to play ice hockey so implausible? And was it really inevitable that Michael Schumacher would get an F1 chance sooner or later? After all, some of those on the Sauber sportscar team for whom he drove when he got his big break at Jordan in 1991 thought Heinz Harald Frentzen the more promising driver. And Fernando Alonso? A man who seemingly came from almost nowhere, with just one F3000 win to his name? What would have become of him had Flavio Briatore decided to place Mark Webber at Minardi in 2001 instead?

And is there a parallel universe where Tom Kristensen is a multiple F1 world champion? Where Nicolas Minassian and Sebastien Bourdais fought out last year's F1 title? After all, there are a couple of motor racing journalists of a certain age who will swear blind that Tommy Byrne was a faster driver than Ayrton Senna, and had the cards fallen differently..... Having said that, another journalist offered the following bit of perspective on that claim: "The fact is that Tommy was a brilliantly gifted driver, but he was also an utter prat."

Part of the problem is that some of the best Grand Prix drivers arrived there only by chance - without having ever shown much promise in the Junior formulae. Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda and James Hunt all only really came into their own once they had big powerful F1 cars to play with. In Mansell's case, a slow learner if ever there was one, it took some years for his ability to really show through in F1 too. If some drivers need time in an F1 car to show off their abilities to their best, then what hope is there of identifying the most promising drivers in the lower categories?

Furthermore, some drivers who show an awful lot of apparent potential simply never get picked up for an F1 ride. Jorg Muller did the business in F3000 but aside from doing a little testing for Williams, the F1 teams never seemed to pay much attention to him. More recently, it has been hard to see quite what more Sebastien Bourdais could do to impress the F1 bosses - F3000 champion and double Champ Car World Series champion, he has made no secret of his desire to do F1 some day, and yet the team bosses have shown no interest. Given his French nationality, one might think he would be a natural at Renault, but he made an early enemy of Flavio Briatore - never a sensible idea in the world of F1.

Only this week in Autosport (after I started writing this article no less), Mark Hughes was opining that "A whole generation of potentially great F1 drivers never got a look in.....including Rickard Rydell, Alain Menu, Kelvin Burt, Kurt Luby, Tom Kristensen and Laurent Aiello." And while I might contest a few of those names - was Kurt Luby really that good? - its hard to disagree with the general sentiment. There are a good number of drivers who might have been something very special indeed had they got a serious run in F1.

But anyway, to return to the question which kicked off this article. Who is Derek Hayes? The answer is that he is someone whom I had never heard of, until. the other day, I was looking up some statistics on Lewis Hamilton's career for last week's article. He was a former Irish stock car racer who finished 3rd in the 2001 British F3 championship, behind Takuma Sato and Antony Davidson (and well ahead of future F1 drivers Gianmaria Bruni and Nicolas Kiesa). And then? Nothing. He disappeared off the radar - a smattering of races in the little noticed Days of Thunder Series (think British NASCAR, only much, much more obscure) and a couple of outings in the F3 Euroseries in 2004. And then? Game over. As far as I can ascertain, he hasn't raced since. Did we really have enough evidence to write him off as potential F1 material? Perhaps, he was after all soundly beaten by Sato and Davidson, but then perhaps not. And now we'll never know.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Lewis Hamilton - the next Ayrton Senna or the next Jan Magnussen?

Spare a thought for poor Trinidad and Tobago, not only were they effectively knocked out of the World Cup by England the other week, but nobody really seems to have noticed that England's new golden boy of motorsport would actually be eligible to play for their football team!

But enough about that, doubtless Ecuador will soon take care of Beckham and co. and us motorsports fans can go back to wondering whether Schumacher has any answer to Alonso, who Kimi Raikkonen will drive for next year, and quite what possessed Renault to re-sign Giancarlo Fisichella. On the basis of what I've seen, Brazilian, Spanish, Argentinian and Dutch fans might be waiting a while longer.

Either way, I don't recall really seeing Lewis Hamilton's name outside of the specialist press until about two weeks ago, but after not only winning the first GP2 race at Silverstone commandingly from the front, but also taking the second
with a feisty drive from 8th on the grid (including an attention-grabbing double pass for 2nd in the Becketts complex) , it seems he's suddenly everywhere. The mainstream press have him as a shoe-in for the McLaren drive next year, and seem convinced that he will succeed where, in their eyes, Button has failed. All this ignores a whole lot of unanswered questions, like: Could anyone else on the grid have won a race in Button's BAR over the last three years? and; Just how much of an advantage is his berth with the all-conquering ART team providing? but it doesn't half make for good headlines.

So what of Lewis Hamilton? When I saw him racing in Formula Renault a few years back, I have to confess I wasn't exactly bowled over backwards by his abilities. He was good, don't get me wrong, but he didn't seem really stand out over his rivals that year - Danny Watts and Jamie Green. Certainly, I couldn't see whatever it was that had led Ron Dennis to take such a keen interest in the boy from such an early age. On the other hand, though, I only saw him at one race, and it was his first season in cars. Watts, by contrast, had several seasons of single seater experience, and even Green at least had the advantage of having done the FRenault Winter Series first. He won the series at his second attempt, and while winning a UK FRenault championship is hardly an automatic pass on to greater things, he hardly deserves too much criticism for needing a second bite at the cherry.

It took him two attempts to nail the Formula 3 Euroseries too. To be fair, though, his team, Manor Motorsports, had not yet really established itself as a significant force in EuroF3 in 2004. After all, his team mate, Charles Zwolsman could only manage a distant 16th in the series, despite greater F3 experience, and he went on to win Formula Atlantic last year, and hasn't looked too shabby in Champ Cars either. In his second year, he switched from Manor to the all-conquering ASM team and dominated the series to the extent that almost nobody else got a look in. Certainly he achieved rather more in the ASM car than Paul Di Resta is managing this year.

All of which brings us bang up to date with his GP2 career. Initially, his media handlers seemed keen to promote the idea that this was to be a 'learning year' for Hamilton - that ART drive or no ART drive, he was not going to be able to beat the likes of Premat, Piquet or Carroll in his first season. This seemed fair enough at the time and indeed I didn't include Hamilton in my list of the most likely winners of the series when I wrote about it back in February. However, with just over half the season gone, it looks more than likely that, unlike with FRenault and Euro F3, Hamilton is only going to need one year to crack GP2. His drive at Silverstone may have been the one which caught the attention of the UK press (not surprisingly, perhaps), but to me, it was his first double win at the Nurburgring that has been his standout achievement of the season. Not only did he become only the second driver ever to win both GP2 races in a weekend, but he won the first one despite a drive-through penalty, and he won the second in such a dominant fashion as to make everyone else, including his own team mate, wonder why they bothered. But for a very chancy move by Alexandre Premat in the final lap at Barcelona, he would have won both races in Spain too.

So clearly, he's not bad, but is he really something special? GP2 is theoretically a single-make formula where all go to the grid with equal cars. In practice though, like F3000 before it, some teams seem to be able to make a much better job of preparing and setting up their identical cars than others. For a while in F3000, it seemed that an Arden drive was the passport to the title, but in GP2, the ART seats have been the ones to have. For those that have any doubts about the variance between the teams, look at how suddenly Timo Glock's fortunes improved the moment he switched from the unpredictable BCN Competicion team to the front-running ISport operation.

For all the suspicions that part of Hamilton's advantage might come from his ART team though, the sheer extent of his domination of some of the races this year suggests he might not have had much trouble winning in any GP2 car. After all, Nico Rosberg has looked pretty handy in F1 this year, and yet he didn't enjoy anything like the margin of superiority over his ART team mate, Alexandre Premat, as Hamilton does. And that despite the fact that Prfemat is now in his second year in the series.

No, if there's a word of warning to be had about Hamilton, its that sometimes, absolute dominance in the feeder formulae does not translate into a successful F1 career. How quick did Erik Comas look in F3000 in 1990? And yet, what did he ever really achieve in F1? Bjorn Wirdheim dominated F3000 in 2003, and yet never looked more than moderately competent at Jaguar in F1 (although there, we kind of knew that the quality of the F3000 grid that year was poor). Ricardo Zonta beat Juan Pablo Montoya to the title in 1997, but then what? And of course, then there was the man that I mentioned right at the top. Jan Magnussen broke all the records in British F3, and was hailed by the British press as the new Ayrton Senna. After all the last guy to achieve that kind of dominance in F3 was...yes, Mr Senna. On the strength of his F3 performances, he got a test driver's job at Mclaren, and later a full race seat at Stewart. And he sank without trace.

I think that's less likely to happen to Lewis Hamilton. We know that the GP2 field is pretty strong, and the same could not always be said of the F3000 grid, and certainly not of some of the national F3 fields. So, I doubt he'll end up the next Jan Magnussen, especially not with Ron Dennis' guiding hand.

But equally, I think it far too early to declare him the next Senna, Schumacher or Alonso. He's looked pretty impressive so far, but then most drivers who actually reach Formula 1 in the first place are the ones who impress in F3, F3000 and GP2. And put simply, Hamilton has yet to test himself against anyone of the ability of a Raikkonen, a Schumacher or Alonso. Can't wait to see how he does though.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Ripping Out The Heart of the World Rally Championship

Remember when the World Rally Championship was a real contest?

It really wasn't that long ago. Back in 2003, four drivers from three different teams went into the final round of the series with a shot at winning the title and there were, count 'em, six works teams having a serious crack at the world championship. Citroen, Peugeot, Subaru, Ford, Mitsubishi and Skoda were all having a go, and four of those teams were doing so with some success. The world rally championship appeared, on the surface, to be in rude health.

Four years on, and half way into the season and there are only the tattered remnants of a two-horse race for the 2006 title - we all know that, whatever Marcus Gronholm might like to believe, it is really a matter of when, rather than if Sebastien Loeb wraps up his third world title.

Loeb looks well on course, too, to become the winningest driver of all time, but against such weak opposition that, in all honesty, its hard to judge how his performance rates against previous holders of that record, such as Makinen, McRae, Kankkunen and Sainz.

Back in January, I predicted that, while the entry list for the 2006 series might look a little thin, there was every chance of a fascinating three way title battle between Loeb, Gronholm and Solberg. Sadly, it hasn't worked out that way. Gronholm has had been the equal of Loeb on pace - perhaps been even a little faster, but neither he nor his new Focus WRC06 has been reliable enough to take the fight consistently to the Kronos Citroen team. Petter Solberg and Subaru, by contrast, have had an utterly miserable year. Things didn't go particularly well for the Anglo-Japanese team last year and the reckoning was that things could only get better in 200g. In truth, however, things have got dramatically worse - especially on the tarmac rounds, where the Pirelli rubber has proved woefully inadequate for the task in hand, though the occasional flashes of pace from Pirelli-shod privateer entries, such as Gigi Galli's Peugeot 307, suggest that the rubber is not entirely to blame.

The immediate causes of the world rally championship's problems are twofold: Firstly, the withdrawal of Peugeot and Mitsubishi has reduced the number of good, serious teams from 5 to 3. Secondly, the remaining teams seem to be inclined only to run one serious driver. Who really believes that Chris Atkinson or Mikko Hirvonen have more potential than, say Gigi Galli? And what, exactly, has Xavier Pons done to merit the second Citroen seat? The use of Dani Sordo seems a little more inspired, but why hasn't Per Gunnar Anderson or Guy Wilks got a works seat?

But if these are the immediate causes of the world rally championship's decline, then what is the underlying cause? Why have two of the leading teams pulled out, and why are those that remain running pay-drivers in their second cars? I submit that, at heart, it is that the championship, as it is at present, is failing to capture the public imagination.

When I went to my first rally, the Lombard RAC Rally (as it was known as then) back in 1986, the Group B rally cars had 500, perhaps even 600BHP running through relatively primitive 4WD systems and suspension. The cars looked incredibly difficult to drive, and for a kid standing freezing in the English winter rain in Cirencester Park, utterly spectacular to watch.

If Group B cars were simply too insanely powerful to be let loose on forest gravel tracks and narrow single track tarmac roads, then, in the early days of Group A, at least, it scarcely mattered. Group A rally cars were meant ot be restricted to 300BHP (though it was always rumoured that the Lancia Deltas, at least, had rather more than that) but suspension, differential and tyre technology was sufficiently primitive back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that the cars remained spectacular to watch.

In recent years, there has been no increase in horsepower, but great strides have been made in suspension, chassis and tyre technology. The result is that, on tarmac especially, the cars hold the road almost like circuit racers, and just don't look as interesting to watch. They've got too much grip and not enough power.

The problems with the sport lie deeper than this though. A WRC car on full chat is still a sight like little else in motorsport if you're there to witness it in the flesh. The real problem is that the nature of the sport has changed in response to the demands of television and whisper it - rallying doesn't really work on the telly.

The mystique of rallying stems largely from the notion of the great events as tests of endurance, of man and machine against the harshest of conditions, and the clock, at the same time. When I was a kid, the RAC Rally, for instance, took place over five days and 50+ stages (with few repeats). Now, no event runs for more than 3 days and sixteen or so stages - usually just eight stages run twice. Rallying is becoming ever more like extended hill-climb racing. The total time taken for an event is frequently little more than an hour longer than a Grand Prix might run for, and the competitive stage mileage is barely greater than the distance of a GP2 race. Why? Well a large part of it is that 8 locations and 3 days is a damned sight more convenient for film crews and television producers than 50 locations over 5 days.

As Dave Evans pointed out the other week in Autosport, there's an increasing tendency towards homogenisation of the rallies themselves too. Whatever happened to the African Classics - the Kenyan Safari Rally or the Ivory Coast Rally? (Ok, the latter was never that popular with the mainstream rally teams, and the political situation there might make it a difficult event to reinstate - but all the same it lent the series variety).

What too, of the infamous night stages on the Monte Carlo? And where have the roughest parts of the Acropolis Rally got too? All jetissoned so as to ensure that the championship has a neat, corporate image. And while I'm having a moan, what's this nonsense with SupeRally about? (apart from ensuring that the TV cameras have some cars to look at come Sunday). Rallying is meant to be about endurance. Manufacturers get involved, at least in part, to promote the idea that their cars are, as well as being quick, also pretty well screwed together. We all know that's rubbish, of course, Lancia dominated the rally championship for years and its road cars fell apart on touch and rusted at the faintest hint of drizzle, but nonetheless, it was a part of the reason manufacturers got involved.

On top of all this, in the UK at least, the series isn't even televised very well. The footage will focus typically on just two or three runners towards the front, regardless of whether any real battle is taking place between them, and the commentary is provided by and for peoples whose knowledge of the sport appears to be minimal. The coverage is littered with largely uninteresting and irrelevant computer graphics and far too many pointless rearward facing camera shots which show little besides the driver changing gear. Add in service-park interviews with the same, by and large introverted and unexpressive drivers and you have a recipe for telly hell. Even leaving aside the fact that brief excerpts of cars competing against the clock makes for uninteresting viewing anyway. For what its worth, if you're going to televise rallying, pick a stage - preferably short - say two or three miles - focus on it - and show all the top twenty or so drivers having a go at it.

If there's a silver lining in all this, its that, given it makes such appalling television, it won't be long before the television companies realise that nobody's watching and, away from the cameras, the sport might start to recover some of its essential character.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Most Unprofessional Foul

Rewind 16 years to the Macau Grand Prix of 1990. Long recognised as one of the gold riband events for the rising stars of F3 - a real chance for the cream of each year's crop to make their mark and announce their presence to the F1 team bosses. Two men stood head and shoulders above the rest that weekend - the newly crowned British F3 champion, Mika Hakkinen, and German F3 frontrunner, Michael Schumacher. Hakkinen won the first race and merely had to sit behind Schumacher to take the Grand Prix on aggregate (this in the days when the Macau GP was run as the aggregate of two separate races). Instead, it ended in a controversial collision where Michael appeared to present Hakkinen with an overtaking opportunity, only to run him off the road (thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can watch it for yourself here). More than a few observers felt the young German had deliberately engineered the collision in order to secure victory. His victory stood though, and Hakkinen went home empty-handed.

Fast forward to Monaco last weekend and Michael Schumacher is a seven times world champion with little left to prove: More wins, more titles, more pole positions and more points than any other driver in the history of the sport. And yet with a very solid chance of winning the Monaco Grand Prix anyway, and a slot towards the front of the grid guaranteed, he still felt the need to tilt the game still further in his favour with the most contrived looking, half hearted staged crash imaginable. It is of course, impossible to prove that it was anything more than an uncharacteristically banal error - a serendipitous loss of concentration. Impossible to prove, but it was hard to find a single person outside of the Ferrari garage who seriously believed that what we had seen was anything other than gamesmanship of the most cynical kind - a deliberate attempt to ruin Alonso and Webber's chances of knocking him off the pole. The stewards, who, unlike the armchair experts, had access to the telemetry data from his Ferrari, came to the same conclusion and sent him to the back of the grid (access to telemetry data, incidentally, had been crucial in their decision a year earlier to punish Juan Montoya for his deliberate brake testing of Ralf Schumacher in free practice at Monaco). If it really was a serendipitous error, then it had become anything but (one can't help but feel that the whole farcical situation could have been involved by introducing the Champ Car qualifying rule, by which any driver who causes the session to be stopped loses their best times, regardless of whether their accident was deliberate or not).

Michael himself insisted there was a "reasons" for his apparently incomprehensible error, but unhelpfully told the world that "I don't really want to elaborate on it. It's not really anyone else's business even". A remark which rather missed the point - if Schumacher really wished to convince us that contrary to all appearances, what happened was an innocent mistake, then the least he owes us all is as full an explanation of what happened as he was able to give. As British law states these days "you do not have to say anything, but....."

The professional foul is nothing new in motorsport, even if, just as in football, it does seem to be a rather more common occurrence these days. Perhaps the most famous instance was Ayrton Senna's deliberate collision with Alain Prost to take the 1990 World Championship (full analysis here), although there are those who might argue that Alain Prost was actually the first man to claim a world championship by deliberately engineering an accident, a year before against, yes, Ayrton Senna (for the ins and outs of that argument, try here ). These incidents though, somehow felt different. The result of a fierce and rancorous rivalry between two drivers who loathed each other immensely, and who were head and shoulders above anyone else of their generation. By contrast, Michael Schumacher has been involved in a number of incidents which seem to be the result of a more cold, calculating and cynical mindset.

The two most controversial moments of Michael Schumacher's career both came in championship deciding races. The 1994 incident, in which he won his first championship following a collision with Damon Hill, always stuck me as the lesser offence (again, there is an exhaustive analysis of events over at the Atlas Court). There were a number of mitigating circumstances: Schumacher was out for his first world championship; He had only a matter of seconds to decide whether to try to close the door on Hill; He was young and perhaps immature; He might have felt legitimately hard-done-by by the FIA during the course of the season - and might have suspected that their ulterior motive for his disqualification from no less than five races might have been a cynical attempt to artificially maintain a battle for the world championship; There was too, the underlying feeling that he was by far and away the driver who had performed better that year. All the same, his elated reaction to Hill's retirement which he himself had caused - deliberately or otherwise - hardly served in his favour.

The climax of the 1997 world championship, at Jerez, was another matter. For one thing, it was immediately, undoubtedly clear that Schumacher had very deliberately decided to remove Jacques Villeneuve from the race - which would guarantee him the title, regardless of whether he finished or not. The in car camera makes any other conclusion impossible. For another, there seemed to be none of the mitigating circumstances that applied in Adelaide - Michael was older, a double world champion, and it didn't look like a spur of the moment decision. Indeed, some suggested that Michael's Ferrari sounded sick in the laps immediately preceding the accident, and, knowing that he wouldn't finish, he decided to try to take Villeneuve's Williams out before he went himself. As we all know, the attempt failed and Michael limped clumsily into the gravel trap alone.

Frankly, this provided the powers that be with an ideal chance to stamp out this kind of behaviour altogether, and had they banned Michael from the following year's championship, I doubt we would ever see behaviour of this kind again. Instead, they came down on him like a ton of feathers, "removing" him from the 1997 championship standings and sentencing him to "community service" with the FIA. Had he been forced to sit out the 1998 season, perhaps he would never have come back to the sport, and the records of Prost, Fangio and Senna might still stand to this day. As it was, Schumacher was provided with an opportunity to redeem himself, and he duly did - winning five more championships without ever again resorting to anything quite so blatant (though there have always been murmurings of discontent about his track-manners). All the more a pity it is then, that with seven championships under his belt, he took the opportunity to remind us all of the less pleasant side of his nature. A second or third place at Monaco behind Webber and Alonso would have done nothing to detract from his achievements, but his needless gamesmanship did.

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