Sunday, October 22, 2006

Top Ten of 2006

Perhaps not as authoritative as the Autocourse list, but available much earlier. And given some of the downright strange choices made by Autocourse over the years, I'd argue that you could do worse.

10 - Christijan Albers

Ins hard to think of a sharper contrast between team mates than that between Tiago Monteiro and the Dutchman Christijan Albers. Where Monteiro is laid back and amiable, Albers, by contrast, has a reputation for being spiky, difficult, a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad.

He's been the first driver in a very long time indeed to go from being a top-level touring car driver (he was DTM champion in 2004) into an F1 drive. Last year, he seemed to struggle, at least at first, to re-learn the art of single seater driving, though as the season progressed he soon got the better of Patrick Freisacher. This year, though, there were no such problems. He frequently dragged the Midland much further up the grid than it really had any business being, making the last 16 run-off on several occasions. At Indianapolis, admittedly a track which suited the Bridgestone tyres he was running on, he made it as high as 14th. In the process, he rather took the sheen off Tiago Monteiro's reputation. Last year, Monteiro had earned a reputation for being reliable and for not making any mistakes, but this year, against Albers, he simply did not look fast enough. There were refreshingly few mistakes too, given that this was a young gun anxious to make a name for himself in a sub-par car. Sure, he didn't actually score any points, but only others' misfortune was ever going to allow anyone to score in a Midland. The purpose of this list is to pick the ten drivers who did the most with the equipment that was available to them, and Albers had rather less potent equipment that just about everyone else on the grid.

9 - Ralf Schumacher

Ah, the least propular racing driver on the F1 grid, according to F1 Racing Magazine's global poll of F1 fans. As if being Michael Schumacher's younger brother wasn't enough to be coping with. I have to confess I've never much had time for Schumacher Jr - he always struck me as something of a Nigel Mansell for our age, without the redeeming on-track performances.

It's hard, though, to ignore the fact that he's done a really rather solid job for the underperforming Toyota team this year. By any sensible measure, he's gotten the better of his team mate this year, and Jarno Trulli is no mere journeyman. He picked up more points than Trulli and he scored Toyota's only podium with a fine drive at Melbourne. His best race laps were, on average, quicker than Trulli's and on the rare occasions when both Toyotas enjoyed trouble free races, Ralf was more often ahead than behind. Perhaps most significantly, given Trulli's reputation in this area, he even came out ahead over the year on qualifying performance.

Toyota was frequently a pretty dispiriting place to be this year, and in the past, Schumacher Jr. has not had the best of reputations for getting the most out of sub-par equipment. To my considerable surprise though, this year Ralf kept his head down and the results started to come. Good job too, given the ludicrous sums they're paying him...

8. - Nick Heidfeld

After showing well against Mark Webber at Williams last year, Heidfeld returned to his spiritual home at Sauber to find that the furniture had been moved, the rooms repainted, and some guy called Mario Thiessen had been put in charge. BMW needed someone who would keep their head down, not make a fuss, and help them to develop the car. Heidfeld has always had a good reputation in this regard, and this year he again did an impressive job. He outpaced even a rejuvenated looking Jacques Villeneuve before the Canadian found himself out on his ear, he picked up a podium with a consistent drive in the rain-soaked Hungarian Grand Prix, and his extremely consistent finishing record netted the team a very good haul of points.

At the end of the year, he did seem to find the sheer pace of Polish newcomer Robert Kubica a bit of a surprise, but notwithstanding that, he still scored more points that the hotly tipped newcomer. Heidfeld is not a driver from the very top drawer, but he's a hard working, solid performer, who maintained his reputation this year against two team mates - an aging former world champion and a young hotshoe - who might have sullied it.

7. - Mark Webber

It was a disappointing end to a career at Williams that had promised much and delivered very little. With the chance of a decent performance at Brazil thanks to on-form Bridgestone tyres, Webber found himself punted off the road by team mate Rosberg and that was the end of that. He has always seemed one of the more rounded individuals in the F1 pitlane, and if he admitted that, in hindsight the move to Williams was a mistake, then he was equally aware that the team might have said the same thing of the decision to hire him.

The basic problem, though, was that when the Williams was fast, it broke, and when it held together, it was desperately slow. Webber, to be frank, did as much as could be expected with it, and sometimes more. Its easy to forget some of his brilliant performances at the start of the year - but they were certainly there. Remember the second row start at Malaysia? How might that have turned out, had he not lost time after his team mate boxed him in and he fell behind a heavily fuelled Alonso. And might he have recovered, had his engine run more than a few laps? Then there was his home race, where he led for a single lap before the car called it quits. Given his fuel load, and given the way the safety car periods fell, a second place was not out of the question. Monaco was better still. There, he was genuinely mixing it with Alonso and Raikkonen before, once again, an engine failure put him out of contention when he looked in with a chance of scoring a shock victory.

Thereafter, he faded from notice as Williams' competitiveness fell away. In such circumstances, it might have been easy for him to become disillusioned, as he once again found himself in a car not truly worthy of his talents. If he did, then it didn't show in his performances against Nico Rosberg. He outqualified him 12-6 and almost always out-raced him, even if they were rarely scrapping for points places in the latter part of the season. A rare showing of form from the car at Hockenheim ended with yet another engine failure. The single most telling statistic about Webber's season, though, was not the 7 points he scored, but the 11 retirements he posted.

6. - Robert Kubica

Normally, I have a rule that I do not include drivers that only competed in a part-season. Rules, though, are there to be broken, and I can't help but make an exception for the impressive Polish newcomer. Sure, he didn't have quite the speed advantage over Heidfeld that some of the more excitable F1 fans thought he did. Set against that, though was the fact that this was a man competing in only his first few Grands Prix, up against Heidfeld, no slouch he, and a veteran of 7 seasons of F1.

His podium in the Italian Grand Prix, which was achieved without the kind of large-scale attrition that had helped his team mate Heidfeld finish in the top 3 a few weeks earlier in Hungary, was somewhat overshadowed by Schumacher's announcement of his retirement. That, though, was not his only achievement. He was also very much on the pace in race-trim in China and Japan, harrying Heidfeld all the way to the line in the latter race. Given his lack of pre-season testing, and the fact that almost all of the tracks he raced at this year were new to him, he could be a big threat next year if BMW's plan to turn Sauber into a frontline team continues on its current trajectory.

5. - Felipe Massa

It seemed to be a sign of just how unappealing the idea of playing number 2 to Michael Schumacher really was. At the start of the season, I wondered just how the team were going to cope with someone as wayward as Felipe Massa. Surely, if they would allow their second driver to actually race then they would have had the chance to hire a more dependable second driver. Undoubtedly Massa had been quick at Sauber on occasion, but he didn't really strike me as Ferrari material. Perhaps the Todts thought otherwise...

At the opening race, in Bahrain, I rather suspected I'd been proved right. Massa was unexpectedly close to Schumacher in qualifying (something which we would become used to as the season went on) but he dropped it early on in the race and never made it back into the points. A couple of weeks later at Malaysia, on the other hand, he caught us all by surprise by beating Schumacher fair and square in the race. Of course a better fuel/tyre strategy played its part, but how many times have Schumacher's team mates ever done that?

When the Ferrari upswing came in the second part of the season, it became increasingly difficult to assess Massa's performance. Ferrari, unlike Renault or McLaren, do not encourage their drivers to race each other when running 1-2, and certainly not when one of them is called Michael Schumacher. Generally he ran in close proximity to Schumacher, but at races like the German Grand Prix, it was very hard to tell whether either of them was anywhere near as quick as they could have been had the need arose.

At Turkey, though, Massa simply plain outdrove Schumacher all weekend. Of all Schumacher's team mates, only Barrichello ever really managed that, and then only very rarely. Thanks to Alonso's intervention in the Renault, his 'supporting role' this time involved keeping the win too. In the final rounds at Japan and Brazil too, there were hints that, over a single lap at least, Massa was edging ever closer to Schumacher. No mean feat that. In some ways though, given his job was to provide a supporting role to his team mate's championship challenge, Massa's greatest achievement was to rein in the wildness that has characterised his career up to now. We assume he'll be playing a support role again next year, but who knows?

4. Jenson Button

Well it only took him 113 attempts, but a finely measured drive and just a pinch of luck finally brought Jenson Button his first win this year. Over the years I've had my doubts about whether he's really enough of a racer to cut it at the highest level. He's undoubtedly a true natural behind the wheel, but sometimes he doesn't appear to want it enough. I felt I had less reason to doubt him this year.

I said at the beginning of the season that the intra-team fight with Rubens Barrichello was one he would have to win if he wanted to be taken seriously. Win it he duly did, but I never expected him to do it quite so convincingly. At first, Barrichello was completely at sea with the Honda, unable to get used to the traction control or the brakes. Even once he was at home with the car, though, he never really got on the same pace as Button. After all, in 18 races, Barrichello finished ahead on the road just once - at Monaco. The other positive thing was that, on several occasions, Button showed himself to be a real racer this year. There was his drive from 14th to 3rd at Brazil, or his impressive showing at Turkey on a day when the Hondas really weren't much fancied. There were, too no real mistakes to speak of. He didn't once go off the track of his own accord, he didn't let it get to him when the British press began to write him off (ironically, just before Hungary). Its taken a while, but he really appears to be morphing into a first rate racing driver.

Earlier in the year, I said that there were 3 top teams in Formula 1, Mclaren, Renault and Ferrari, but that after Schumacher retired, there would only be 2 top drivers - Alonso and Raikkonen. I wondered then who I would hire if I was boss at the 'third team'. I would now tentatively answer that question with Button's name.

3. - Kimi Raikkonen

Not a good year for Mclaren was it? For the first time in a decade, they didn't win a single race all season. Martin Whitmarsh said they had gone too far down the road of building a car specifically optimised for the single-tyre rule. Others suggested that Mercedes/Ilmor's V8 was not on the same level as those produced by Ferrari, Renault, Toyota, Honda or even Cosworth. One part of the package that can't really be blamed, though, is Kimi Raikkonen.

Sure, he could be lazy when the car really wasn't on the pace, and on one occasion this year, he seemed to admit as much. Ron Dennis was certainly happy to say so - particularly once it was clear that his charge was heading for Maranello come the end of the year. For this, he falls behind championship contenders Alonso and Schumacher in my top 10. There's no question though, that whenever there was even the vaguest hint that the Mclaren might be in with a sniff, Raikkonen drove the wheels off it. In a car that neither Montoya nor De La Rosa were ever able to do much with, he spent much of the early season putting up the closest thing that Alonso had to an opponent - pushing him hard in the early stages at Australia, and giving both Schumacher and Alonso a fight at the British Grand Prix. Contrast, for example, his pole and second place at Monza with what De La Rosa was able to do that day. Monza wasn't his only pole, either, and if his qualifying performances in Hungary and Hockenheim owed something to low fuel then, well, nobody else managed to make such an approach work.

There were mistakes, undoubtedly. His performance at Hungary, once he'd taken the pole, was not all that convincing, and ended with a very silly incident involving a lapped Toro Rosso. In Canada, too, he threw away a safe second place while pushing too hard on a seemingly disintegrating track surface. He doesn't seem quite the team player that Alonso or Schumacher are, and it will be interesting to see how Ferrari get on with him next year, but make no mistake, the pace is there. The rest might yet come.

2. - Michael Schumacher

What a long, strange road its been. Over fifteen years at the very top of the sport. Many with careers that long were an embarrassment by the end, and many more, while still competent enough, were a long way from being truly quick. Not so Michael Schumacher.

Right at the beginning of the year, in Bahrain, came a warning shot that Schumacher was right back in the thick of it, after a rather lacklustre and disappointing 2005, spent struggling with Bridgestone's ineffective whole-race tyres. On outright pace, there was little to suggest Schumacher had lost any of his edge. In qualifying, Felipe Massa might have been uncomfortably close, and even quicker on occasion, but in terms of sheer race pace, there was never any doubt that Schumacher was still very much the number one at Ferrari. His early win at Imola came against the run of form, and was the result of some excellent defensive driving, but Schumacher was at his very best later on in the year, once the Ferrari came on form. A fighting drive to second at Canada, a redemptive race performance in Monaco, and, right at the end of the season, two of the best drives of his life to win in surprising circumstances in China, and to drive right from the back of the field up to fourth in his final Grand Prix in Brazil - in circumstances where any number of past world champions driving their final race might well have thrown in the towel.

So why isn't he number one? Three reasons really. Monaco qualifying, the Hungarian error, and the slip-ups in Turkey. Had it not been for these three mistakes Schumacher just might have been world champion for an eighth time. It is intriguing to recall that Schumacher once remarked a long time ago that he didn't believe drivers slowed down with age - it just took more mental effort to go quickly. Perhaps, finally, in the autumn of his career, the effort became too great and the mistakes began to creep in. Or perhaps Alonso put him under the kind of pressure he'd never had to face before.

1. Fernando Alonso

Did this man really put a foot wrong all year? Usually, its possible to point to individual mistakes that a driver has made - a spin in qualifying, an unforced error, or something. But on the track, I'm really not sure that Alonso put a foot wrong all year.

He was very, very fast when the occasion required too. His drive to second in China, seemingly hampered by his team at every turn, was to me the single stand-out drive of the season. Equally, his fight with Schumacher in Japan, on a day when we expected the German to disappear into the distance, was a joy to behold.

Then there was his drive through the field from well down the grid in the opening laps in the rain in Hungary, or his dominant performance in ever-changing conditions in Australia, or his brilliant drive at his home race in Barcelona, on a day when Renault didn't appear truly the equal of Ferrari. Certainly there were any number of memorable drives from Alonso this year. When cool, level headed driving was required, as at the final race in Brazil, or while making the most of a large inherent tyre/car advantage in Canada, Alonso got that right too. And of the guys in the serious teams this year, no man dominated his team mate more than Alonso.

Flaws? If one was being harsh, it was notable that on the rare days when the Renault really wasn't in the ballpark, as at Indianapolis or Hockenheim, it seemed that Alonso was actually even slower than Fisichella. In some ways, though, if anything blotted his copybook, it was the slightly paranoid remarks out of the car about the team not being behind him in the run in to the world title. Sure, the wheel nut error in Hungary and the pit-stop blunder in China were unfortunate, but to suggest they might have been deliberate was to go a little far. And perhaps hints at a hitherto undiscovered psychological weakness in Alonso.

But on the whole, there was no doubt in my mind that the youngest ever double-world champion was the best driver of 2006. That doesn't necessarily mean he's a greater driver than Schumacher - but that this year, he did the better job.

The Rest

Away from the battle at the front, it was rather a strange year, and it seemed, to me at least, rather more difficult than usual to decipher drivers' performances and work out who was doing well with what they had. And so the lower reaches of my top 10 presented me with a few dilemmas. Was Christijan Albers quick, or merely flattered by a very mediocre team mate? Was Ralf doing a good job or merely a less terrible one than Jarno Trulli?

If we had an extra digit on each hand and I was putting together a top 12, then Rubens Barrichello would almost certainly be on the list. OK, he was lost at the start of the year, but once he had got to grips with the Honda, he usually wasn't too far shy of his team mate, if rarely on quite the same pace as him. One wonders what he might have achieved in the rain at Hungary had he not started on the wrong tyres.

Giancarlo Fisichella is the only man who won a race not to feature in my top 10. This too was a tough decision. On the one hand, there were occasions, such as at Indianapolis and Hockenheim, when he genuinely appeared to have the measure of Fernando Alonso on pace. On the other hand, there were far many more occasions when the Renault looked a race winning car in Alonso's hands and little more than a midfield runner in Fisi's. It is hard to think of another driver who was beaten quite so comprehensively on pace by his team mate. Certainly, on balance, Renault's decision to keep him on board for next year looks a little eccentric. Intriguingly, two of his best drives, though, came right at the end of the season, which hints that there just might be more to come from Fisichella next year.

Jarno Trulli had a decidedly underwhelming year, generally outpaced by Ralf Schumacher in a Toyota that he never seemed to get to grips with. In the end, I found myself a little surprised that Toyota decided to keep him on, or that he continues to want to race - there has been little sign of passion from the Italian this season.

Neither Red Bull driver made the list either. To be fair, Coulthard's reputation probably suffered for the fact that the team appeared early on to write off their chances this season and concentrate on 2007. His team mate, Klien, was competent, but no more. On pace, he seemed to have the better of Coulthard for a while, but he didn't pick up nearly as many points. He was shown the door before the end of the year. Newcomer Robert Doornbos seemed competent enough, outqualifying Coulthard a few times, but didn't capture one's attention in the way that Kubica did over at BMW.

It was difficult too, to know what to make of the rookies over at Toro Rosso. Measuring drivers' performance in different cars is difficult enough, but the Toro Rossos were effectively running to different rules from everyone else. Liuzzi seemed faster, overall, than Speed, at least in the first part of the season, but both seemed rather too error prone for their own good.

Mclaren split their second car between Montoya and De La Rosa. Neither made much of an impression. Montoya had actually looked a good deal more consistent, if not as fast as he once had, in the first part of the season. Then came the spate of accidents that led to his parting of ways with Ron's team. De La Rosa did what he could within the limits of his talent, and looked mightily impressive in the wet at Hungary but, by the end of the year, Ron Dennis must have wondered whether he might have been better off keeping Montoya on board after all.

Rosberg had a strong start to the season over at Williams, but as the year progressed, came to be ever more overshadowed by his team mate. Like many an inexperienced driver, he was right on it when the car was right, but appeared utterly lost when Williams began to run into trouble.

Of the rest, there is really little to be said. Tiago Monteiro was competent but overshadowed at Midland/Spyker. Takuma Sato outpaced his team mates but couldn't stay out of trouble at Super Aguri. Neither Yuji Ide nor Sakon Yamamoto really had any business being in Formula 1, though Yamamoto looked rather less out of his depth than his countryman. Franck Montagny finally got his F1 chance, but was hard to assess in what was very much a second string Aguri.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Write Stuff

I've spent the last 8 months on this site writing about motorsport of one form or another - and by and large, I have enjoyed the challenge. I have taken as my brief the idea of producing a column which, allowing for the fact that this is only a hobby and I can't attend the races and don't know any of the drivers or team bosses personally, is modelled loosely on Nigel Roebuck's Fifth Column in terms of subject matter, albeit with less of an F1 bent.

Up to now, though, I haven't written anything on the business of writing about motorsport itself. I thought that this was an interesting subject though. After all, most of us can attend only a few races a year, and many of the major series aren't televised, so it is only through the written word that we get to find out what is going on. I am aware that, in what I say below, there is the distinct danger of wandering into a pot/kettle colour trap. My only defence is that I make no claim to be anything more than an amateur.

Time was when, unless you had a great big white satellite dish on the side of your home, the only way you could find out about the weekend's motor racing was through the specialist press. In practice, in the UK, that meant Autosport. Sure, there was Motoring News, but, then as now, it felt a little cheaply produced, and its principal focus was on rallying, rather than circuit racing. There were also a couple of specialist monthly magazines, but by the time these came to print, what they were reporting was decidedly yesterday's news. Grand Prix races, though not qualifying sessions, were televised, and you might find mention of Le Mans or the Indy 500 in the results columns of the quality newspapers, but for the rest, you had to wait until Thursday morning.

To my mind, Autosport usually did a very good job in those days (I'm talking here of the mid to late 1980s). All the major international and national races were covered in some detail and the coverage of what were then the 3 major international championships below F1 was superb in terms of botrh quality and depth. Keith Oswin (what became of him?) handled the bobble hat and bacon butty brigade of world rallying, while Tony Dodgins brought a real enthusiast's eye to the young turks of the F3000 championship and Adam Cooper specialised in the then rather fascinating World Sportscar Championship.

The Grand Prix coverage, though, was particularly noteworthy. In those days, the job of reporting on races was split between Joe Saward and Nigel Roebuck. Saward brought a dryly humorous and sometimes travelogue-ish feel to qualifying reports (I've subsequently wondered whether he stole his style from Clive James, whose report on the 1984 Portuguese Grand Prix I was recently pointed to.) Nigel Roebuck played more of a straight bat with the race reports, but made great use of the fact that he appeared to know many of the drivers personally, and counted several as friends. For me, at least, this remains the golden age of Autosport's Grand Prix coverage. Those who can remember further back than I speak in hushed tones of Pete Lyons, although personally, what little I have read from him seems a little self-conscious and overdone - but each to their own.

I can hardly be alone though, among more dyed-in-the-wool motorsport fans in lamenting what has become of Autosport over the last decade and a half. It still has reasonably wide coverage of most international racing series in between its pages, but you'd never know it from the cover. The front cover these days almost always follows a tabloid-F1 driven news agenda, rather than focusing on the major race of the weekend, whatever that may have been. If this was all that was wrong with Autosport, I could live with it, but sadly its not. Across the board, wordcounts are down, and more space is given over to pictures. There has been a move away from straight narrative towards messy little "fact boxes" which more often than not get in the way of telling the story. The news pages contain very little news, especially when it comes to F1 - where they would more accurately be described as "statements of the bleeding obvious".

A couple of years ago, I met up with an old schoolfriend for a pint and a reminisce. He works in the rag trade, and has been involved in motorsports journalism, even at one time sharing office space with the guys from Autosport (whom he described as "frighteningly obsessive race nuts" - what did he expect?). He did point out though, that these were changes that were happening across the board in the publishing industry - almost everywhere you look, the trend is towards lower wordcounts, less detail, a greater eye for the casual reader - and the belief that magazines are somehow primarily "lifestyle accessories".

He's probably right. For example, around 10 or 12 years ago, I used to be a regular reader of a UK music paper called the NME. Even then, it had its moments of rather tiresomely puerile 'humour' and tabloid silliness. Come to that, it also had a rather unpleasant habit of hyping the mental health problems of rock musicians, but that's another article for another blog entirely..... More often than not, though, the album reviews were quite thoughtful, well-written pieces which told you something useful about the release in question. No more. I picked up a copy out of sheer boredom while stuck in a train station in London a few months back. The magazine now has the feel of one of those horrible, and I believe now defunct teen pop rags. Album reviews, of course, were cut back to at most 1/3 of their previous length - not enough space for even the most gifted of writers to say anything worthwhile.

And yet my journalist friend insists that this is what sells copies - this, apparently, is what the great unwashed actually want. He assured me that any attempt to, for example, revert Autosport to its more purist 1980s format would be commercially disastrous - while hinting at the same time that the majority of the staff writers would dearly love to do just that. To be fair, those working in the particular field of motorsports writing have a couple of additional problems to contend with. The first is the growth of "press officers". With F1, in particular, becoming ever more the play-thing of large corporations, the last thing the teams want is drivers who might actually speak their minds. So where once it might have been possible for friendships to develop between drivers and writers, now it is all but impossible for them to so much as speak to them without their 'minders' present. A second problem is, simply, the internet. These days, there's no need to wait for the copy of Autosport or (if you like that sort of thing) Motorsport News to drop through your door to find out what happened at the race circuits over the weekend. You can simply go online on Sunday evening - if of course you haven't watched it all on digital or satellite.

Having read the diatribe above, you might be surprised to learn that I still read Autosport. From a pragmatic point of view, its still a reasonable summary of what has been happening in the world of motorsport each week, and i'm just old enough to want such information on good old fashioned tangible paper. While I'm rather of the impression that Nigel Roebuck has lost interest in the sport and that his once unmissable Fifth Column has suffered for it, he's still often worth a read all the same.

More importantly, though, I think his replacement as lead Grand Prix reporter, Mark Hughes is actually a better writer. Within the tight confines of the modern Autosport style, Hughes has written some of the most inventive and captivating pieces of sports reportage I've ever read. Safe in the knowledge that if the reader wants a blow by blow account of what happened to every driver in the race, then he or she can simply look up the team's press releases on the internet, he opts to tell the race as a story. Occasionally he will tell it through the prism of a single driver. More often than not it is the story of the battle between the main players that weekend and why the race turned out as it did.
Sometimes, it doesn't quite hang together properly (one wonders if he is often rather ruthlessly subedited for length) but more often than not it does. Not for nothing has he been called the "Ernest Hemmingway of Grand Prix writing". His understanding of what is involved in actually driving an F1 car, in particular is considerably greater than that of most of his fellow scribes. Perhaps not surprising, given that he was a pretty decent club racer himself in his day, and his brother, Warren, rather better than that. While I make no bones about the fact that I preferred the old "start with Friday practice and tell the story going forward" approach taken by the magazine 20 years back, I do have a lot of respect for Hughes, if not for the people who decide the overall tone of Autosport these days.

Where else can one find worthwhile writing about motorsport these days? Thankfully, the internet, while it may be doing its best to destroy the printed motorsport press, does contain some pretty good motorsport writing. Joe Saward continues to write his offbeat Globetrotter column over at His 'The Mole' columns, under which he writes his more speculative pieces on the goings on behind the scenes in F1 have rather lost their novelty (These days, frankly, I'm sick of reading about the bloody Penelopes) but his Grand Prix reports usually provide a good precis of the weekend's action for those who find Mark Hughes' approach a little flowery.

These days, to my mind, the best writer on the murky underbelly of Formula 1 is the rather eccentric Shakespeare scholar and playwright, Dr Mike Lawrence. His well written, forthright columns are the best thing about Chris Balfe's Pitpass site. As a long time follower of the sport, he understands the driving side as well as the 'political' side. Check out, in particular, Natural Winners. For what it's worth, I'd also strongly recommend his recent book, Colin Chapman: Wayward Genius as one of the best motor racing history books I've ever read.

Anyone frustrated by the lack of detailed coverage of the excellent GP2 series in the mainstream press would be well advised to look at David Cameron's (that's the writer, not the globulous fraud who would be Prime Minister) GP2 blog, with its detailed race weekend reports. They give a real feel for what it was actually like to be there and are far better than anything that appears in Autosport on the series.

Official sites aren't usually worth the electrons they are written on, but the Champ Car World Series site is an honourable exception. In particular, Robin Miller's 'Straight From The Gearbox' column is a must-read, while Gordon Kirby's Inside Track is often also worth a look too. Sadly, the site is a nightmare to navigate, but you can find them here.

Staying with Champ Cars, I'm usually of the opinion that driver-penned columns can safely be given a miss. For one thing, they are most probably written by the driver's Press Officer, and for another, they are usually just PR-puff pieces, calculated to say as little as possible and certainly nothing that hasn't been said elsewhere. PKV Driver Katherine Legge's First Legge columns for are worth a look though, with a degree of honesty and of detail which is most unusual for driver columns. Her writing gives rather more of an insight into what is involved in top-flight single seater racing than any driver column I have seen before. It also feels as if Legge herself actually wrote it. Either that or she has a particularly talented press officer.

Whatever Joe Saward might claim, there are also some fairly worthwhile amateur efforts on the web (though, to be fair, these don't tend to specialise in news-gathering). I must single out in particular Dennis David's excellent piece on Alain Prost, Appreciating The Professor. Some excellent, usually historically themed driver and team profiles, generally much better than anything to be found in Motorsport, can be found at Leif Snellman's 8W (who?, what?, where?, when?, why on the world wide web) site - with contributions from a number of journalists and from readers. A particular favourite of mine is Snellman's Talent Overplayed .
This being a blog, I'd also like to draw attention to the efforts of my fellow motorsports bloggers. For instance, there's Rhm's admirable attempts to understand F1 technology from the outside, and to report it in layman's terms over at The Racing Blog. Checkpoint10 have been providing intelligent commentary on motor racing, with a focus on F1 and Champ Cars, for some time now. I particularly liked their piece on the disappearance of Montoya and Villeneuve from the grid this summer. Probably the most comprehensive of the blogs is Roy Madden's large and remarkably successful team-authored Linksheaven F1 Blog. Those looking for images, rather than words, could do worse than to check out Flickr's Racing Images Pool, with over 7,000 photos from around the world (I'm one of about 750 contributors). Another site I stumbled on quite by accident the other day, though strictly speaking a personal blog rather than a racing blog, is smtfhw's weblog - which contains an vast archive of her F3 reports over the years (if you have the patience to find them) and a rather moving meditation on death in motorsport. There are plenty more besides - many of them linked via the sidebar on the right, if you want to explore further.

So if the article started off rather downbeat about the current state of motorsports journalism, I hope it hasn't ended that way. At the end of all this, I'm forced to conclude that, while the printed specialist press may not be in the best of states, and this probably reflects changes in the media more generally, there is in fact as much good motorsports writing out there as ever. Its just takes a little more effort to find it these days.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

A Pole in a very promising position

I've talked in the past about how, from time to time, a driver comes along who makes even the most jaded and cynical of Formula 1 fans sit up and take notice. Sometimes these drivers live up to their initial promise, and sometimes they don't. Earlier this year, Nico Rosberg caught the attention of many with his impressive performance in his first Grand Prix at Bahrain, and a similarly promising qualifying drive at the far more challenging Sepang circuit a fortnight later. Since then though, while he hasn't exactly disgraced himself in the second Williams, he's not generally had anything like the kind of pace and consistency as his team mate Mark Webber. Formula One being a place of short attention spans, its not taken long for his reputation as the sport's hottest new property to be stolen from him.

I have to confess that when I heard that Jacques Villeneuve was to be replaced mid-season by Polish test driver Robert Kubica, I was more than a little baffled by Mario Thiessen's thinking. Villeneuve had enjoyed something of a renaissance in form over the course of the season and to show him the door while BMW were engaged in a battle with Toyota for 5th in the constructors championship seemed a little odd. Even if they thought that Kubica would be a good bet for the race seat in 2007, surely it would be better to let him continue in the Friday driver role until the end of the season. After all, its not difficult to make an impression during Friday free practice when the big boys are simply running systems checks and keeping one eye on preserving their engines. Anthony Davidson has looked consistently quick in Friday practice, but his one race appearance, at Malaysia in 2005, was something of a letdown.

And Kubica's pre-F1 credentials were a little hard to read. Sure, he had won the Renault World Series last year, but it seemed that the real talent was racing in its big-brother series, GP2. After all, in the grand scheme of things, who were Adrian Valles, Markus Winkelhock and Tristan Gommendy, when set alongside GP2 runners up Heikki Kovalainen, Scott Speed and Alexandre Premat? And what had Kubica really achieved before that? 5th in the F3 Euroseries? Not really the mark of a future champion. On the other hand, after a year out of F3, he looked mightily impressive at Macau at the end of last year, only narrowly missing out on the win despite driving one of the less fancied Mugen-engined cars.

All my doubts of course, merely being evidence that I wouldn't make a very good F1 team boss. There's not been quite as much fuss about Kubica as there had been about Rosberg earlier in the year, but this perhaps has more to do with F1 fans' attention being diverted by the Alonso/Schumacher title fight, rather than being any kind of judgment on Kubica himself.

In his first race, he raised a few eyebrows by not only making the top-10 shootout, but also by bumping his experienced team mate, Nick Heidfeld out in the process. He made a couple of mistakes in the tricky conditions come race day and was nowhere near equalling Heidfeld's podium, after having to stop to change a nose. Nonetheless, he would have been in the points on his debut had he not subsequently been disqualified when his car was found to be marginally underweight.

The Turkish Grand Prix was a messy and inconclusive affair for both BMW Sauber drivers, though Kubica again made the top 10 in qualifying. The Italian Grand Prix, though chiefly memorable for the announcement of Michael Schumacher's retirement, may later come to be thought of as the moment Robert Kubica really came to the world's attention. His qualifying position - 6th - intially appeared good rather than exceptional, but come the race, it mattered little, as he jumped his own team mate, among others, to run 3rd by the end of the first lap. That opening lap was no flash in the pan either - and this is where Kubica's qualifying performance began to look rather more impressive than it had first appeared - Kubica was fuelled longer than anyone else in the field bar Fisichella (who was a long way behind) and led what was only his third Grand Prix after race leaders Schumacher and Raikkonen pitted for tyres. One began to wonder what kind of times Kubica might have been capable of had the car been fuelled normally. Either way, he brought it home onto the podium, and while he may have been helped by the fact that the BMW was clearly well suited to the long drags of Monza, it was still a remarkable achievement for the newcomer.

The flyaway Far Eastern races may not have been quite so impressive in terms of results. Nonetheless, there have still been enough flashes of raw pace to suggest that if the BMW money starts to make a real difference down at Hinwil next year, then Kubica will be in a prime position to capitalise. Consider how much faster he was than Heidfeld at the end of the Japanese Grand Prix, or how far up the field he was able to get in China before a premature switch to dry tyres on a still-wet track ruined his race.

Its beginning to look as though, while we were all concentrating on the fierce battle for the GP2 championship last year, the real star might just have been in the Renault World Series all along. Unless Heikki can demonstrate otherwise, of course......

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How Schumacher beat himself

Technically speaking, it's not quite over yet. If Michael Schumacher were to win the Brazilian Grand Prix in two weeks and Fernando Alonso failed to score then he would, against all expectations, take his eighth world title. Realistically though, the odds on that have to be very long indeed. Michael himself acknowledged in the post race interviews that it is out of his hands now - that he can't base a strategy for Interlagos around Alonso not finishing. He must surely be hoping only that he can end his career on a high - with a race win, if not a title. Somehow, I think that would be a fitting send-off for a man who has undoubtedly been the sport's towering figure over the last decade and a half, but who this season, finally met his match in the young Spaniard from Oviedo.

Watching the race at Suzuka - I found myself thinking back nearly 20 years, to the race that settled the 1989 world championship. It was a race which had the same kind of character - a tense, deadlocked affair where the two title protagonists were rarely close enough to fight it out on the circuit - but the leader was never far enough ahead to be able to relax - where the gap never got to be larger than a few seconds. It was one of those races that holds one spellbound despite the absence of any real, wheel to wheel racing on the track (at least once Alonso had dispensed of the two Toyotas with a pair of singularly inspired moves at the first corner). Just as in 1989, we never got to see the battle all the way to the end. This time, though it was a mundane, if incredibly rare, mechanical failure, rather than an on-track collision, which settled the matter.

It would be easy for a casual observer to say that Schumacher lost this year's world championship because of an engine failure at Suzuka, that Ferrari, rather than its number one driver, were to blame for their defeat. Easy, but wrong. In terms of mechanical reliability, Schumacher and Alonso have had an engine failure apiece. Suzuka merely served to even the score between them. In order to understand why the title has gone to Alonso, rather than to Schumacher, one needs to remember a few events much earlier in the season.

Events like, for example, the Australian Grand Prix. A peculiar race, where the sheer unseasonal coldness of the place had thrown the tyre alchemists for six and left the drivers scrabbling for grip - which was to result in an awful lot of scrambling of safety cars to deal with the resulting accidents. Michael Schumacher had been utterly unable to make his car work in qualifying and had ended up way down the order in 11th on the grid. The race was never going to be anyone's but Alonso's, but Schumacher found his car much more to his liking in race trim and, on his second set of tyres at least, was right on the pace and pushing Jenson Button for fifth. Then, coming out of the final corner on lap 33, he pushed too hard and threw his Ferrari into the wall. An understandable error, given that he was coming from a long way back, but an error nonetheless, and one that probably cost him at least 5 points, since neither Button nor Montoya would make the finish.

At Monaco, in the dying moments of qualifying, another crucial moment in the story of Schumacher's championship challenge. What seemed for all the world like a deliberate attempt to prevent Alonso or Raikkonen from beating his pole time by blocking the track (see here for what I said at the time) resulted in his being sent to the back of the grid. In the race, he was in a class of his own, setting fastest lap and dragging his way up to fifth place. But whether a moment of madness, or a cynical ploy of the highest order, his qualifying 'error' cost him, at the very least, a 2nd place, and more than likely, given his race pace, a win. Another 4 points went begging.

Fast forward to Hungary, and, as at Australia, Michael Schumacher found himself on the back foot as a result of the inferiority of his Bridgestone tyres. This time though, due to rain, rather than in the cold. Unlike any of the other Bridgestone runners, however, Schumacher was able to remain in the chase sufficiently that, as the laps were ticked off, following Alonso's retirement, he was running in an impressive second place, albeit on horrendously worn Bridgestone intermediate tyres with a bone dry track. Pedro De La Rosa was bearing down on him fast in the Mclaren, but Heidfeld was a good way back in the BMW and it seemed third place was assured. Rather than accept the inevitable, though, Schumacher tried every trick to keep De La Rosa behind, including, on one occasion, cutting the chicane in order to hold on to the position (a move, which, given that he did not later yield to De La Rosa, should have led to a penalty and did not). In the end, the inevitable happened and De La Rosa found his way past, but in putting up such a fierce defence, Schumacher had cost both of them a lot of time, and suddenly had Heidfeld breathing down his neck with 3 laps to go. Once again, Schumacher opted to fight - and this time the result was contact at the chicane and a broken track rod, ending Schumacher's race. Another 4 points lost (five if you believe that Schumacher could have held onto third had he not fought De La Rosa so hard).

And so on to the Otodrom Istanbul. Here, Ferrari clearly had the best car, and yet Alonso, while unable to do anything about number 2 driver Massa, was able to finish just ahead of Schumacher, after a fiercely fought final few laps. There was more than a little luck involved. Massa was running ahead on the road when the first safety car came out, which obliged Schumacher to wait in the pits behind his team mate as they both took on fuel and tyres. And yet..... had Schumacher not made a mistake on his qualifying lap, he would have had pole, and would never have been behind Massa in the first place. The Ferrari was sufficiently quick that he was able to harry Alonso in the run up to the final stops, but once again, a small driving error at the ultra fast quadruple-apex turn nine cost him vital seconds, which were to enable Alonso to remain ahead as the race went into its final phase. And so Schumacher lost another net 6 points.

It is hard to point to similar such mistakes on Alonso's part. There was the moment of madness in free practice at Hungary, that resulted in a 10-spot grid penalty, but the truth of the matter is that he more than redeemed himself in the grand prix itself and would have won that race, had his team not screwed up his final pit stop such that he lost a wheel. If one were to look for mistakes that Renault had made, as opposed to its lead driver, one might add the pitstop bungle in Shanghai, or the qualifying fuel blunder in Malaysia which left Alonso out of position and allowed Fisichella to take his only victory of the year, but the driver himself really never put a foot wrong on the track.

In the paragraphs above, I might have given the impression that Schumacher had driven a bad final season, but I don't mean to. Schumacher played a vital part in Ferrari's fightback from seemingly nowhere to become serious title contenders. There was the early-season win against the run of play at Imola. Then there was the incredible wet qualifying on ill-suited Bridgestones at Shanghai, which ensured that he, alone of the Bridgestone runners, was in a position to take advantage when Renault dropped the ball. Come to that, he was the only Bridgestone runner who looked even close to the pace in the rain at Hungary. All in all, there can be little doubting that even as he approached forty, and the self-imposed end of his career, Schumacher still had most, perhaps even all, of the incredible car control and relentless pace on which he has built his career. That was remarkable in itself. It is almost an axiom that really successful racing drivers tend to slow down over their careers. Sometimes, as in the case of Niki Lauda, (at least before his precipitous collapse in form in his final season) or Nelson Piquet, an aging driver can compensate with sheer guile and tactical nous. Sometimes, they embarrass themselves, continuing to race as pale shadows of their former selves. One thinks of Graham Hill failing to qualify for the Monaco Grand Prix he so dominated at the height of his powers - or Nigel Mansell's shambolic final few races for Mclaren in 1995. Whatever, the truth is drivers slow down. For some perhaps, its marrying or having children, and no longer wanting to put one's neck on the line to quite the same degree. Others grow up and discover a life outside of Formula 1, in the process finding they can't quite dedicate themselves to the sport - to the relentless training, or the endless debriefs - to the same degree. And they find themselves outpaced by younger, hungrier, more single minded men who have yet to reach that point in their life.

Schumacher, it seems, never did reach that point. He never seemed any less than 100% committed to his racing, even in the last of his fifteen seasons of Grand Prix racing. After all the time, he was still fundamentally a restless soul, he still needed absolutely to prove he was the fastest guy in the world. If you have any doubt how much the sport still means to him, just remember for a minute his reaction after his incredible win last week in Shanghai.

No, this year he was beaten, as much as anything, by the achilles heel he's had all along, but which his sheer speed behind the wheel has so effectively masked before now. And that is - put Schumacher under real, sustained, pressure and he will make mistakes. Few drivers have ever really been fast enough to be able to put Schumacher under serious pressure - at least not without a very significant car advantage - but in the end, Alonso was able to do it, and unlike Hill, Hakkinen or Villeneuve, he didn't need the benefit of a better car to do it.