Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Valiant Failure - Attempting Le Mans Singlehanded

"I coulda been a contender....."

In sport, winning is everything if you want to be remembered. It is not enough to come close, and be beaten at the final furlong. Honourable failure might win you a certain level of respect among those in the know, but popular history will not recall your name. Try naming a few of the horses which have finished second in the Grand National over the years, if you think otherwise......

In motorsport, there are, I suppose, some exceptions. Stirling Moss is rightly remembered as the best driver never to win the world championship and Chris Amon is chiefly known as being, if not the best, then certainly the most consistently competitive, front-running driver never to win a Grand Prix . But many a heroic tale has been largely forgotten, for want of a happy ending.

While in Paris the other week, my travelling companion, who has something of a fascination with cemeteries, graveyards and all things relating to the final resting places of the dead, was keen to see Pere Lachaise cemetery. Tombstones can only hold my interest for so long, to be honest, but they do often come across well on camera, so I decided I might as well come along for the walk. Pere Lachaise, for those who don't know, is chiefly famous outside of France for being the final resting place of fulltime drughound and egomaniac, Jim Morrison, though he is hardly the only famous name to be buried there - Georges Bizet, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde were all laid to rest within its walls, as were more French Generals and politicians than you could shake a stick at. Of more interest to me though, much to the bafflement of my cemetery loving friend, was the fact that our guidebook informed us that Monsieur Pierre Levegh was among those buried there.

If you've heard the name Levegh at all, then there's a good chance that it is in connection with the infamous Le Mans disaster of 1955 in which he died. A collision between Levegh and the Austin Healey of Lance Macklin killed Levegh and 82 spectators. And yet Levegh came so close to being much better known for what would have been a unique and altogether remarkable achievement.

Pierre Levegh, born Pierre Bouillin, was, like many a racing driver, something of an all-round sportsman, excelling in skating, tennis and ice hockey in his youth. He turned to motorsports in the late 1930s, adopting the assumed name of his uncle, Alfred Velghe, who was among the pioneers of motor racing at the very end of the 19th Century. Unfortunately, the war intervened, and by the time normal racing service was resumed at the end of the 1940s, Levegh was already rather old - older, in fact than Juan Manuel Fangio was when he retired from the sport at what now seems the astonishingly late age of 46. He raced in 6 Grands Prix in 1950 and 1951 in was essentially an uprated pre-war Talbot Lago, but the antediluvian car was never competitive and he never scored any points. If his F1 record were all that counted, he would not be worthy of recall.

A run in the 1951 Le Mans 24 Hour race for Talbot proved rather more fruitful though, and netted him a 4th place finish (behind, as it happened, Lance Macklin, who was racing in an Aston Martin DB2 that year). The following year, at the age of 48, he came back with a singular mission. No driver had ever succeeded in completing the Le Mans 24 hours single handedly before, but Levegh was determined to be the first man to do it. He would come tantalisingly close to succeeding.

Levegh was in contention from the start, and as the race moved into its final hour, things appeared to be going well. He was visibly utterly exhausted but he held the lead and would not have to hang in there for much longer. Such a state of exhaustion, though, is far from conducive to driving a racing car. His team, and according to some reports, his wife, begged him to get out of the car and let his co-driver complete the race on his behalf. A win for Levegh was all but assured already - he held a four lap race and had only to make it to the finish. Levegh, though, was not to be deterred - perhaps rightly realising that he stood on the verge of a unique achievement, he pressed on alone.

Half an hour from the finish, his Talbot suffered an engine failure, handing victory to the Mercedes 300SL of Lang and Riess. It was widely reported that the engine failure has been the result of a missed gear change, owing to driver fatigue.

And so it remains that nobody has ever finished, let alone won, the Le Mans 24 hour race single handed. And now, nobody ever will. A modern sportscar generates so much sheer downforce that it would be an impossible task for any driver to do 24 hours in the cockpit without rest. The Mulsanne straight has been broken up with 2 chicanes, robbing the driver of what little rest he might ever have had. The final nail in the coffin - in today's safety conscious motorsport world, teams and drivers are forbidden from trying in the first place. No driver may complete more than 12 hours in the car in the course of the race. In practice, it is rare for any driver to do more than 8 or 9 hours, and it is surely only a matter of time before we begin to see cars being routinely shared between 4 drivers.

Sections of the French press lambasted Levegh for throwing away a victory for France in pursuit of what they saw as an egoistic quest for individual glory. The truth, though, is that it was never conclusively established that the engine failure was anything more than sheer bad luck. I, for one prefer to think of Levegh's determination to win the event single-handed as being less about egomania and more in the eccentric spirit of Don Quixote - a simple desire to achieve what nobody else had thought to even try. To my mind, motor racing history is subtly the poorer for the fact that he didn't quite succeed.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Monty This Seems Strange To Me.....

Every now and again, a new driver appears in Formula One who immediately captures the world's attention. Whose very presence just has 'future star' written all over it. Most recently it has been the turn of Rosberg-fils, and one way or another, one just knows it will be Lewis Hamilton's turn next.

Sometimes, these young guns more than live up to their initial promise - Michael Schumacher's explosive debut for Jordan at Spa in 1991 caught everyone's attention, but did we honestly think he would ultimately win more races than Senna and Prost combined? Other times, that initial pace turns out to be a flash in the pan, deceptive with the benefit of hindsight. Who would have thought that Jean Alesi's early drives for Tyrrell would translate into just a single win in a career which descended into midfield anonymity.

Step back five years to the beginning of 2001 and it was not the first steps of the ultimately more successful Kimi Raikkonen or Fernando Alonso which caught everyone's attention but that of flamboyant Colombian Indy 500 winner and Champ Car champion, Juan Pablo Montoya. With a Williams BMW at his disposal, he had a car in which he could make an immediate impact and he wasted little time in getting down to business. In only his third Grand Prix, at Interlagos, he passed Michael Schumacher for the lead in an audacious move into turn 1, giving the German Meister no quarter, and remained there until he was removed by a lapped Jos Verstappen, who misjudged his braking into Turn 3 and clobbered the back of the Williams. Its hard to think of a more effective way for a young talent to make an impression. He would go on to win his first Grand Prix later in the year at Monza, having come close on a number of earlier occasions. With his carefree, insouciant extrovert persona, Montoya seemed a throwback to an earlier age - and some older journalists who admired his fighting spirit on track saw more than a hint of Gilles Villeneuve about him.

Six years on, Montoya's career in F1 has ended in ignominy and controversy - parting company "by mutual agreement" with McLaren mid-season having been comprehensively outdriven by his Finnish team mate, with whom he clumsily collided in his final Grand Prix. Underlying the decision, it seems, is a judgment on Ron Dennis' part that Pedro De La Rosa, or maybe even Gary Paffett or Lewis Hamilton, would more reliably rack up the points for the team in the constructors championship.

So where did it all go wrong? Was he simply found wanting at the highest level, or did Monty get a raw deal? The answer, it seems to me, lies somewhere inbetween. Make no mistake: when the conditions were right, it is doubtful that there was anyone who was outright faster than Montoya. In the second half of 2005, he got the upper hand on pace over Kimi Raikkonen, and I don't think there's many on the Grand Prix grid who could ever stand a chance of achieving that. In 2002, he scored 7 pole positions without the benefit of a Ferrari F2002 - a quite remarkable achievement. And in 2003, in only his third season of Formula 1, he made himself a very serious contender for the driver's championship.

The manner in which he put himself out of the 2003 championship though, speaks volumes for Montoya's ultimate limitation as a driver. With a serious shot at Schumacher for the title, with 2 races to go, he got over-aggressive with Rubens Barrichello on the opening lap, ran him off the road, and picked up a penalty from which he would not recover. Even his fans (among whom, I must confess I number) have to admit that Montoya's career has been littered with silly errors, either forced and under pressure, or seemingly without explanation. The crash at Indianapolis was only the most recent of many. There was the last lap spin out of second place in Turkey last year, the unnecessary collision with Antonio Pizzonia in the Belgian Grand Prix, spins in both the 2005 and 2006 Spanish Grands Prix. Most Grand Prix drivers make mistakes from time to time (though Stirling Moss, Juan Fangio, and more recently, Alain Prost had very clean copybooks) but there can be little doubting that Montoya made more than most.

I have a hunch, and I'll not try to pretend that I have an awful lot of solid evidence to back it up, that on some level, Juan Montoya was ultimately psychologically unsuited to being a top level racing driver. It has been said by a number of observers (including Berenice Krikler, the only person I know of who has ever done a detailed psychological study of racing drivers) that the best racing drivers are usually introverts, by nature. Why? Well some evidence suggests that introverts are generally able to concentrate to a greater degree of intensity, and for longer, on a particularly demanding task. And Race car driving, perhaps more than any other sport, requires intense concentration without respite for up to two hours at a time. No other sport gives its participants so little time off. Footballers are occasionally off the ball, tennis players take a break between points (and a longer one between games, and a longer one still between sets), Cricket players only really have to concentrate for a few seconds every couple of minutes when the bowler is doing his stuff. Racing drivers get, at best, a couple of seconds respite from their task each lap on some of the tracks with longer, less involving straights. Juan Montoya is emphatically not an introvert - rather he is perhaps the most outspoken and extrovert guy in the paddock - at least if one pretends that Flavio isn't there (we can dream eh?). And maybe its coincidence, maybe there's nothing in my theory, but he does seem to have problems with staying focused on the job.....

I feel like I'm on more certain ground in saying that, whatever you make of the amateur psychology above, Juan Montoya was the wrong man to be a McLaren driver. When Ron Dennis signed Montoya he remarked that "we know how to get the best out of South American drivers" and I was left wondering if he was blinkered, or merely disingenuous. Surely he knew that Montoya and Senna were very different characters?

McLaren have always preferred drivers who towed the company line, who said the right things to the sponsors, and who, if necessary, were prepared to sacrifice their own interests to that of the team. All of which goes some way to explaining why the employed David Coulthard for so long, even though he was manifestedly not the quickest driver they could get their hands on. Montoya, on the other hand, had fallen out with Williams after accusing them of favouring Ralf Schumacher (something which was decidedly unlikely, given how little the German was liked at Grove) and had a reputation for being a hot-head with a tendency to open his mouth before always having ensured that his brain was in gear. As with Dennis' shotgun marriage to Nigel Mansell in 1995, it never seemed a match likely to last, and sure enough, it didn't.

So now Montoya is off to America, and the altogether different world of NASCAR. Those with a vested interest will claim that this is evidence that NASCAR is becoming a global phenomenon - a threat to F1. But this is nonsense - outside of the USA NASCAR remains very much a minority interest and the arrival of an out-of-work Columbian in a midfield team isn't going to change that. No, Montoya is in NASCAR because he couldn't find a worthwhile F1 seat.

And yet still it seems a strange move to me. Oval racing tends not to reward flamboyant, oversteer-happy driving, instead favouring those with patience and an eye for detail. It seems, in short, more the sort of thing that Kimi Raikkonen, or even Fernando Alonso, might excel at given the chance. But Montoya? I wouldn't have him down as a natural oval racer, though in his favour, he'll probably handle the traffic involved in 42 car NASCAR races as well as any F1 driver. Chip Ganassi's team is no NASCAR frontrunner, and in oval racing as much as in F1, the driver can only make so much of difference if the car isn't there. Was this really a better bet than taking the chance to rebuild his F1 career with a year in a midfield team?

Maybe so, but either way, to my mind, its our loss. Montoya may not have been a driver with Alonso, Schumacher or Raikkonen's ultimate class, but he was immensely entertaining on track, and off track he was a rare flash of colour in an increasingly corporate and monochrome F1 paddock. He will be much missed.