Sunday, November 05, 2006

Better than they appeared?

Talk about motor racing to an outsider, and sooner or later, he or she can almost be guaranteed to comment "But surely its all about the cars isn't it? How do you know who the best drivers are when you need the best car to win." For me, this additional complexity - the way that the abilities of the driver and the speed of the car can be so hard to disentangle - is one of the things that fascinates me about motorsport where most other sports leave me cold.

Such a discussion normally leads to another question: Of all the drivers you've seen, which would have proven to be really first-rate had they been given the opportunity in a front-running team? My own answer to this question is unusual - but I stand by it. In the time I've been following Formula 1, I really don't think that any driver who had a career of any length - let's say a whole season - was an undiscovered superstar. The obvious possible exception was Stefan Bellof - the young German who drove for Tyrrell in 1984 and 1985 before dying in a sportscar race at Spa. He might have had what it took to mix it with Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet and Berger in the late eighties. But really, he's the exception that proves the rule. Even in the desperately uncompetitive atmo-Tyrrell, he'd done enough to catch the attention of the big team bosses - and had he lived, he would have been in a Ferrari in 1986. The 1986 Ferrari was not exactly the finest piece of kit ever to come out of Maranello, but it would have been enough for Bellof to show whether he had it what it took.

Is there anyone, though, who might have been overlooked through their whole career? Not really. A case can perhaps be made for Bernd Schneider, whose 2 years in Erich Zakowski's awful Zakspeed cars never really gave him a chance to shine. His subsequent long and highly successful career in the DTM against pretty classy opposition suggest he may have been rather better than he appeared in F1.

There have been plenty of drivers who could have won races in the right car. People like Derek Warwick, Martin Brundle, Eddie Cheever, Pierluigi Martini and Nicola Larini. None of these, though, were true greats, and they got just enough chances, that had they been something really special, they would have been able to show it. They were, if you like, the Felipe Massas and Giancarlo Fisichellas of their day.

If anything, the strongest cases are probably those who, for whatever reason, never got to F1 in the first place. Tom Kristensen and Sebastien Bourdais just might have been very quick indeed - although I still hold out the hope that Sea-Bass at least might yet be given an F1 chance. The question of drivers who never got the opportunity to race in F1 in the first place, though, is not quite the same - and perhaps I'll return to it some other time.

To return to our argumentative man in the pub, it is interesting that he never puts his argument the other way round. Never says "I don't understand Formula 1, you never get to find out who's really built the best car because it all depends on who has the best drivers." Now, that's perhaps understandable. People are more interested in superstars than in teams of anonymous boffins. But it goes beyond the casual fans - even on the motorsport talkboards, I struggle to recall a single thread about cars whose potential was frustrated for want of a quick driver. Which is odd really, because I think there have been a few...

Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1988. In a year utterly dominated by Mclaren, just three teams actually led a lap of a Grand Prix. Mclaren - of course, for they won 15 of them, and Ferrari, who occasionally turned up the boost and disappeared into the distance until they ran out of fuel... and, though many fewer will remember, the beautiful aqua-marine March that was Adrian Newey's first racing car. It may only have led a single lap - in the hands of Ivan Capelli at the Japanese Grand Prix - but it was a rather better car than the statistics suggest. The bare facts are that their best result was an impressive second place in the Portuguese Grand Prix, pushing Prost's Mclaren all the way to the line, and that they scored 20 points, placing them equal 5th in the constructor's championship. What that doesn't tell you is that, towards the end of the year, they were, on occasion, Mclaren's closest rivals.

At the time, a large part of this was put down to the talents of Messrs Capelli and Gugelmin - seen as hard young chargers taking the new March team much further up the grid than it had any right to be. Team manager Ian Phillips, later of Jordan and Midland/Spyker, remarked that he had "the best two 25 year old drivers in the business." But did he? Capelli would come close to winning again with March (or Leyton House as they were known by that time) in 1990 at Paul Ricard, but neither Capelli nor Gugelmin ever achieved much in their post-March careers. Capelli was destroyed by Alesi in the admittedly awful Ferrari F92A before disappearing altogether, tail between his legs, after a couple of races with Jordan in 1993. Gugelmin was equally anonymous in the, to be fair, rather hopeless Jordan Yamaha in 1992, and following the end of the season would never be seen in F1 again. He spent nearly ten years in Champ Cars after that, but won just one race in that time - suggesting he was competent, but hardly special.

In retrospect, it appears to me that the March 881, and its later derivatives, were much quicker than we realised - and let down, at least in the final part of 1988, by a very average driver pairing. Perhaps this is no surprise, given that they were the early works of Adrian Newey, a man whose creations would dominate F1 through much of the following decade. Later, he would comment that while the Mclaren MP4/4 was clearly the class of the field that year, when it came to aerodynamic performance, he was convinced the March was superior. That's not to say the March was actually a better car. It manifestly was not. It really didn't like bumps, it was at least arguably too small and cramped to be driven to its full potential, and it was very fragile. It did, on the other hand, seem to cope with the cooling requirements of John Judd's early V8 F1 engine rather better than the Williams managed. What it does suggest, though is that the March was a better car than its results indicated.

Sometimes, its not so much that a car doesn't reach its full potential because of its drivers, as that a driver gets more credit than they are due for what they achieve with a car that is better than anyone realises. In 1988, Tyrrell got it horribly wrong with their understeery 017. The following year, they bounced back in style. The Tyrrell 018 was a very effective device indeed - quite possibly the best handling car on the grid. In the hands of Michele Alboreto and Jonathan Palmer, it was decently, rather than exceptionally quick. Palmer, though was no more than a journeyman, and Alboreto never really recovered from the bruising he took at Ferrari through the mid-eighties. When Jean Alesi stepped into the car at the French Grand Prix that year, after Alboreto had fallen out with Tyrrell over a sponsorship clash, he made an instant impact, running as high as second, and finishing fourth.

He would continue to race part-time in the Tyrrell through the rest of the season, as and when his F3000 commitments allowed. Despite competing in only half of the season's 16 races, he finished up 9th in the drivers championship that year. The best result for the 018 though, came in the first race of 1990, where Alesi led Senna in the early stages round the streets of Phoenix (a place where handling was always going to count for more than outright power). In the event, he would finish up second, sealing his reputation as an up and coming talent. He would move to Ferrari the following year, but through a further decade in the sport, never really lived up to that initial promise. All of which inevitably leads towards the conclusion that his apparent brilliance was an illusion - he was a good, rather than a great driver, in a car that was much better than anyone realised.

The Tyrrell 018 and the March 881, good as they were though, were never going to be regular race winners. If, for instance, Senna and Prost had been driving the March, and Gugelmin and Capelli the Mclaren, then March might have picked up a race win or three, but Capelli or Gugelmin would undoubtedly have ended up world champion. This begs an interesting question - was there ever a car that was not merely better than it appeared, but might have been a championship contended had the driving line up been right?

One has to be careful here. The 1995 Williams might have been the best car in the field, but nobody can pretend that this was something the average race fan was entirely unaware of. To my mind, a much better case can be made for the 1990 Williams. OK, so Adrian Newey hadn't yet sprinkled his magic fairy dust at the Grove factory. On the other hand, the Renault V10s were, in retrospect, probably already at least the equal of, and perhaps better than, the lumps produced by Honda and Ferrari, which certainly had power, but were thirsty and heavy. With Thierry Boutsen and Riccardo Patrese, the team won 2 races that year - level pegging with Benetton and well behind Mclaren and Ferrari. But who could honestly say that either driver was on the same kind of level as Prost, Senna or even Piquet. It is hard to know for sure what the ultimate potential of the Williams FW13B was, but one this is for sure - when Mansell joined the team the following year, they became a force to be reckoned with. Coincidence?

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

What a great post! I'd say a number of drivers who took a left turn away from open-wheel racing into touring cars or sportscars could rightfully be given the title of unfulfilled greatness. As you mention, Tom Kristensen is one. I'd also point to Nic Minassian, Hans Stuck, Derek Bell, Andy Priaulx, Andy Wallace.

As for Formula 1 drivers, spare a thought for poor Alex Zanardi. His two spells in F1 were in awful cars, yet he was utterly dominant in CART back when it meant something.

And for a car that was hampered by poor drivers, that's a much harder question. I sometimes wonder about the second tier WRC cars like the Seat Cordoba, Skoda Octavia and Hyundai Accent. Were they as bad as they seemed or did the teams not have the cash to get top drivers?

11:24 AM  

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