Friday, August 25, 2006

A Curio

A question that comes up on the F1 bulletin boards, and elsewhere is "What was the worst formula one team of all time?" Those who have come to the sport only recently really don't know what they have missed. In the last few years, Minardi were a long way from being absolutely competitive, but for the most part they were far from wholly embarrassing. The car was close enough to being a modern F1 car to allow the likes of Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber to demonstrate their talent, and, occasionally, to embarrass teams with much larger budgets and supposedly much more developed cars. Think of Alonso frightening Jaguar and Benetton on occasion in 2001, or Mark Webber mixing it with the Toyotas at Hockenheim and Hungary a year later.

Another way of looking at the question is to ask which team accomplished the least by way of results with the greatest resources. In recent years, BAR and Toyota have both been in the running for this claim. Going further back, there is certainly a strong case to be made for the always well-funded and rarely competitive Ligier team through the late eighties and early nineties. Though, to be fair, it has never been clear that all the money supposedly coming in from French state companies such as Gitanes and Loto was actually reaching the team. This was, after all, the government of Mitterand and the Elf-Aquitaine scandal, and it is certainly possible that some of the cash was ending up elsewhere. Going all the way back to the 1950s, the early racing efforts of BRM have got to be worth a mention on that score too.

That's a story for another day. If one restricts the question to simply which was the most downright awful, uncompetitive racing car ever to appear in Formula One, the answer, I think, becomes rather clearer.

The return to normally aspirated engines at the end of the 1980s briefly opened the door to all kinds of two-bit operations who decided to make the leap up from F3000 or touring cars, or whatever they had been doing before. A host of teams came and went within the space of a few years - Coloni, AGS, Scuderia Italia, Fondmetal, Onyx, Larrousse, Modena, and so on. Some made a brief, fleeting impression. Onyx initially looked like a serious Grand Prix team and their neat Alan Jenkins designed ORE-01 enabled Stefan Johannson to pick up a final career podium at Estoril in 1989. Gerard Larrousse, who had been in charge at the works Renault team in the early eighties, always knew roughly what he was doing, and his well turned out cars occasionally threatened the big boys. Other teams, such as Coloni and Eurobrun, never did more than make up the numbers.

It is doubtful though whether there has, in the modern era, been a more completely hapless Grand Prix team than Ernesto Vita's Life Racing Engines concern. Throughout 1990, the tiny Italian team would turn up each Grand Prix weekend with a car that would have struggled to qualify for a Formula 3000 race, never mind a Grand Prix.

In 1988, the successful F3000 team, FIRST, decided that the time had come for them to graduate to motorsport's premier league, Formula One. Talented Italian newcomer Gabriele Tarquini was signed up to drive for the team, and Brazilian designer Richard Divila was commissioned to design the car. The result was actually quite pretty and looked purposeful enough. Undoubtedly, as a new team they would be limited by the fact that they would be running customer engines, but that aside they looked like the most promising newcomers there had been in some time. Sadly, the money was never really there to do the job properly, and the project was quietly canned. The cars themselves were sold off to a little known Italian engineering concern, Ernesto Vita's Life Racing Engines, who needed a chassis to act as a testbed with which to develop their rather unusual W12 engine.

That engine had been designed by Franco Rocchi. Rocchi had been a prominent engineer in the Ferrari team during the sixties and seventies, fostering the talent of a young Mauro Forghieri, among others. Now in his late sixties, the W12 engine was all but certain to be his final project. A W12 engine has three banks of four cylinders, as opposed to the more conventional V12 layout in which the engine has two banks of six cylinders. In theory, a W12 has the advantage of producing as much power as a V12, whilst being as compact and easy to package as a V8. It was considered a sufficiently promising concept that fellow engine builder Guy Negre went down the same route. His W12 was tried out in an AGS 'hack' chassis, and eventually found its' way into the Norma MGN sports car which ran briefly at Le Mans in 1990. However, the major disadvantage of the W12 engine is that any engine with three separate banks of cylinders is necessarily incredibly complex.

Having failed to persuade any other team to make use of its engines, Life decided to enter their own team in 1990. Gary Brabham, son of the double world champion Jack Brabham, was hired to drive the car, and they duly turned up for the opening race of the season in Phoenix, Arizona with minimal fanfare. The car was recognisable as that which Richard Divila had built for FIRST, although the elegant lines of the original had been comprehensively butchered in order to accommodate the W12 power unit. Right from the first race it was all too clear just how hopelessly out of their depth Ernesto Vita's outfit were. They even had to borrow a tyre temperature gauge from another team as they did not have one of their own. As it turned out, there was precious little need to measure the temperature of the car's tyres anyway. The car lasted just three laps in pre-qualifying before the engine gave up. Gary Brabham ended up 43 seconds off the pace of Gerhard Berger's pole position time.

The team managed to go one worse at the second round in Brazil when a connecting rod in the W12 engine broke before it had run a complete lap in pre-qualifying. Sensing that a season with Life was no way to further his career, Gary Brabham wisely bailed out at this point.

He was replaced by veteran Italian Bruno Giacomelli, for whom career prospects had long ceased to be of any great import, and to whom the idea of spending a summer on the road (if, on the whole, not actually on the track) with the Life team sounded like a reasonable enough way to kill time. Like Brabham, he was quite unable to get the car past the prequalifying hurdle, though to be fair, that was almost certainly a task rendered all but impossible by the laws of physics.

Giacomelli would later recall that the greatest problem with the car was the engine. The team had no money and almost no spares, so the unusual lump became increasingly badly patched up over the course of the season. For instance, they only had one spare engine blockā€¦.an absurd situation in an era when Honda took seven engines to each race for McLaren.

Aside from the total lack of reliability, the engine was quite hopelessly down on power. On the rare occasions when it fired on all twelve cylinders, the Life W12 produced around 375 BHP. To put that into perspective, Honda's V10 was producing around 700-750BHP in 1990, nearly double that of the Life. More sobering still, the 1967 Cosworth DFV, which was actually 500cc smaller, was generally reckoned to have around 400BHP on tap when it first appeared in the back of Jim Clark's Lotus 49, and over 500 by the time it bowed out with Stefan Bellof and Martin Brundle at Tyrrell in 1985. Whatever the actual figures, the end result was that Giacomelli's Life was some 40mph slower through the speed traps at Hockenheim than anyone else. His best pre-qualifying performance came at Silverstone, when he was a mere 19 seconds off the pace, around three or four seconds faster than the Formula 3 boys managed that same weekend.

As it became blindingly obvious that their W12 simply didn't work, Life swapped their own engine for a rather old Judd V8 unit for the Portuguese Grand Prix. Unfortunately they couldn't get the engine cover to fit back onto the car, and once again they failed to record a time at all in pre-qualifying. They took the car to Spain where they did succeed in getting a few laps out of it with the Judd V8, but it was scarcely any quicker than it had been with the Life W12. Whether it was because the chassis was awful in itself, or simply because the car was appallingly put together is unclear, but merely ridding of themselves of the W12 did little to help matters.

The team disappeared completely at the end of the European season, unable to afford the cost of the trip to the flyaway races in Japan and Australia. In so far as there was a team to sell, it was sold to a Viennese concern with an interest in building racing cars in Leningrad. What subsequently became of the car and its unusual engine is unknown. Giacomelli remembers how the squad, unable to pay him, offered instead to give him one of their W12 units. Giacomelli had since said that he regretted turning down their offer. After all, such an odd piece of racing history would probably be worth something by now.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Splashing Around

The first Grand Prix I remember watching, over 20 years ago, was the Portuguese Grand Prix of 1985. It's beyond my powers of recall to remember quite what it was that hooked this particular six year old for life, but I do remember very distinctly that it was a very very wet race.

There can be little doubt that F1 cars are, put simply, more exciting to watch in the rain. The great rooster tails of spray that trail the cars, the sight of them visibly scrabbling for grip out of slow corners, the driver's constantly having to apply opposite lock - proof that it speed alone isn't the best guarantee of a great spectacle, its power relative to grip that counts for most.

That thought came back to me the other weekend, watching the Hungarian Grand Prix. The first wet race of the season, and surely not by coincidence, the most exciting race of the year by some margin. It hasn't, to put it mildly, been the most enthralling of F1 seasons. There might be an intriguing title battle in the offing (something which I, for one, thought rather unlikely back in the spring) but the individual races ave done little to capture one's attention. Softer tyres and 2.4 litre engines have together contrived to throw the power/grip ratio askew and the aerodynamic solutions that the teams have found to the latest rules seem to have made the cars more sensitive to 'dirty air' than ever. The result? Cars which are easier to drive and harder to overtake in.

Except in the rain. At Hungary - ye gods, Hungary of all places, we saw more overtaking than in the whole of the rest of the season. As at Suzuka last year, a mixed-up grid certainly helped, but it was the rain which enabled Messrs Alonso, Schumacher and Button to scythe through the field from their lowly starting positions. It was changing weather conditions too, which helped to bring about one of the most mercurial drives we have ever seen from Mr Schumacher. First he carved his way from 11th on the grid to run in the top five in the opening laps. Then he fell back as it became more and more clear that his tyres weren't up to the job. He lost time replacing a nosecone after an unnecessary and impetuous move against Giancarlo Fisichella, but with the help of the safety car, brilliantly forced his way back into contention the moment the track began to dry. By the end, he was defending second place on desperately worn wet weather tyres on a dry track (Schumacher has always had a kind of inverse-Senna ability to make the most of wet tyres in dry conditions). Finally he threw it all away with 3 laps to go, trying too hard to defend himself against Nick Heidfeld's advances. A certain 5 points became 0 (subsequently 1 after Robert Kubica was disqualified). If ever a drive somehow summed up both the strengths and failings of the all-conquering German, this was it.

Rain has always provided an opportunity for individual brilliance to transcend the base limits of power and downforce imposed by the machinery in the dry - tilting the balance a little away from the engineers, and towards the drivers (and, in today's tyre war, the tyre technicians). And the end result is to make the racing more intriguing to watch. I've been to two wet Grands Prix - at Silverstone in 1988 and at Donington in 1993. Both stick in the mind as days when it was possible to really marvel at the car control displayed by the very best guys. Not just Senna, who won both races (as he almost invariably did when it rained) but also Mansell in the 1988 'atmo' Williams with its hastily bodged together 'passive suspension' which the team had fitted on the fly after he had despaired of ever being able to do anything with the car's recalcitrant active suspension. Or Rubens Barrichello, flying along in the top 3 in only his third Grand Prix for Jordan in 1993, only for his Hart V10 to give up within sight of the finish.

There have been others, too who have grasped the opportunity to show what they can do when the skies darken. Thierry Boutsen, not perhaps from the very top drawer as a Grand Prix driver, was nonetheless pretty majestic in the wet, where his smooth style paid dividends and his apparent lack of aggression behind the wheel worked in his favour. Jean Alesi did incredible things on occasion on slick tyres on the rain, even if, in keeping with his mercurial character, it was usually far from clear what he was doing on slick tyres in the first place. Stefan Bellof scored the last podium for the Cosworth DFV/Y engine in the rain at Monaco in the antiquated Tyrrell in 1984, and lets not forget that his countryman, Michael Schumacher, won his first race in the dry/wet conditions of Spa in 1992 (where it was Senna's turn to perform heroics on dry tyres in the wet, when they were simply the wrong tyres to be on). Older fans might remember another standout drive in a Tyrrell in the rain, when F1 safety campaigner (and, yes, lets not forget, triple world champion) Jackie Stewart won by over 4 minutes at the fearsome, and decidely unsafe Nordschleife.

So wet races better than dry? Lets just say that its a shame that the Otodrom Istanbul doesn't look like it gets much rain at this time of year. On the other hand, the LMES race earlier in the year was very wet.

A final note to readers - I've been without a home internet connection for the past three weeks, so updates have proceeded at glacial pace - I actually wrote this in a rather nice little coffee shop called Black Medicine about two weeks ago, and I appreciate its no longer especially current. Normal service should now be resumed - equipped as I am with an 8 megabit ADSL line.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Sillier Season than Usual

"Think of it as a high speed game of chess". I think Sir Max was supposed to have been encouraging us to think of his tedious sprint/fuel stop/sprint formula as some kind of intellectual motor racing nirvana, but its probably a very good way of thinking about the current race to decide driver contracts next year - what is known in motor racing circles as the "silly season".

The danger of writing about the F1 driver market is that, like a game of chess, you can have long periods where nothing really happens, then a single move can change everything. And one can very quickly be made to look very foolish indeed. For example, this morning I had been thinking about putting together this article and one thing I was pretty sure of was that, whatever else might happen, Williams and Mark Webber would come to some kind of arrangement, regardless of what appeared to be a temporary stalemate owing to differing views of the Australian's financial worth. I was convinced that neither party really had anywhere else to go - no obvious place for Webber to find a drive, nor any better drivers on the market for Williams. And then, just as I'm leaving work, I check grandprix and find that Frank has promoted test driver Alex Wurz to the race team. I suppose I should have have known really. After all, its a ploy he's tried before (it brought him the 1996 drivers title too) but it just didn't occur to me that Wurz was in the frame.

It is unusual, to say the least, for four of the six best seats in F1 to remain unfilled as late as August. After all, Mclaren famously had its deals with Montoya and Alonso signed and sealed years in advance. We know (or at least we think we know) that Alonso will move to Mclaren next year, and that Fisichella will remain at Renault. And that's about it - a seat at Mclaren, a seat at Renault and two at Ferrari remain to be filled.

It is widely assumed that Michael Schumacher will have a seat at Ferrari available to him if he decides to continue his career beyond the end of this year. Beyond that, though, we really begin to enter the realms of speculation. It has been rumoured for over a year that Kimi Raikkonen has signed a deal with Ferrari for 2007 (it all supposedly dates back to the Finn's falling out with Mclaren manager Martin Whitmarsh's over his lap dancing club exploits at the end of 2004.) But what are the conditions attached? Does Michael Schumacher have the right of veto over who will be his team mate? That would be unusual, but not unheard of. Senna was reportedly able to block Derek Warwick's arrival at Lotus back in 1986.) Or is Ferrari trying to prevent Kimi running off to Renault? Where would he actually rather go next year, and how much say does he really have in the matter? And could Schumacher be considering a return to the team with whom he launched his career back in the early 1990s (I'm talking, of course, about Renault, nee Benetton, not Midland!).

Popular wisdom has it that if Renault were content to sign natural No2. driver Giancarlo Fisichella so early, when the Italian frankly had few other options, it must be because they were confident they would line up a real star alongside him. But how does that fit alongside the fact that Schumacher and Raikkonen appear to be tied to Ferrari and Alonso is off to Mclaren? And where in to all this does the fact that Renault have supposedly guaranteed Heikki Kovalainen an F1 drive next year? Has Flavio Briatore decided that, if he can't afford a real star, a pairing of Kovalainen and Fisichella is a solid, cheap driver line-up? Or is it a sign that Briatore intends to farm Kovalainen out elsewhere - perhaps to Red Bull (Christian Horner is supposed to think highly of him) or maybe to Midland, in exchange for an engine supply.

So how is it likely to shuffle out at the end of the season? Its a dangerous game to play, but I start with a few assumptions. Firstly, Mark Webber wouldn't have walked out on Williams if he didn't have something better on offer. And what would constitute better? I somehow can't see him at Mclaren next year, and there's no room at the inn at either Honda or Toyota, so I expect he's going off to Renault to partner Fisichella. That means that Raikkonen is not going Renault-wards. In all probability then, the Finn will be in a Ferrari next year, which, to my mind tilts the odds somewhat in favour of Michael Schumacher retiring at the end of the season - especially if he comes out on top in this year's title battle.

Mclaren then have something of a dilemma on their hands in terms of who to run alongside Fernando Alonso next year. It is, I suppose, possible that they will retain Kimi Raikkonen, but from what has been written elsewhere, it appears that this would involve Ron Dennis paying substantial compensation to Ferrari. And its one thing to spend a lot of money on a star driver - but quite another to be paying that money to one of your main rivals. Therefore, with the stars out of the picture, and with Juan Montoya having surprised everyone by running off to NASCAR, all points in the direction of Ron biting the bullet and running his long-time protege Lewis Hamilton alongside Alonso next year. It remains possible though, that, given his lack of F1 seat time, Mclaren may decide they are better off giving him a testing role. Alternatively perhaps farming him out to Midland in exchange for a supply of Mercedes engines, and running an experienced journeyman in the No 2. car is what Dennis and Whitmarsh have in mind. Current occupant Pedro De La Rosa has appeared sufficiently quick in his outings with the team that he would seem as well suited as anyone to that role.

Honda and Toyota are, as I said earlier, non-participants in this years driver merry-go-round but there remain question marks over who will be in the Red Bulls, the BMWs and the minor teams next year. Tiago Monteiro and Christian Klien have shown themselves to be no more than competent, and are unlikely to remain in the game unless they can bring pots of cash to one of the minor players. Likewise, Jacques Villeneuve, for all that he was, until Hockenheim, enjoying something of an Indian summer to his career, is clearly not the future, and is more than likely going to head back to North America to race in NASCAR or muck about in recording studios or something. BMW will probably put test driver Robert Kubica in the race seat next year - the Pole has looked seriously quick on Friday mornings, and perhaps more importantly given the vagaries of Friday running, was instantly on the pace in qualifying at Hungary. Red Bull are committed to continuing David Coulthard's seemingly interminable career for one more year, and with Klien having not really done anything particularly noteworthy, it seems safe to assume that there will be a new face alongside him next year. Tonio Liuzzi is one possibility, but if the Italian is forced to spend another year at Toro Rosso (and to be honest, there aren't a whole lot of other options available) then it may be because Christian Horner, a long time fan of Heikki Kovalainen, has negotiated a deal with the Finn. Midland drives will inevitably go to whoever can pay for them - or whoever can bring engines with them, which amounts to much the same thing really - and Toro Rosso will doubtless pick up some combination of Red Bull backed drivers. A lifeline for Klien perhaps? another year for Speed? A chance for Michael Ammemueller? or perhaps less likely, a shot for Champ Car star AJ Allmendinger? - I'd certainly love to see that last one happen.

Super Aguri are reported to be looking for drivers who are quick, rather than merely Japanese, next year. Takuma Sato just about fits both descriptions and will doubtless be staying, but Sakon Yamamoto has done little so far to suggest he has any long term future in F1. All of which suggests that a door may be opening at last for Anthony Davidson to get a full-time race drive, or perhaps even for Timo Glock or Franck Montagny to get back into F1.

Interesting times, and no doubt a lot of this will shortly be looking ill-informed, and to be blunt, plain wrong, but it does feel that after years of unusual driver/team inertia, the wheels of change are moving again.