Monday, November 27, 2006

Why I'm a motorsports fan - The second in an occasional series

(The first part can be found here)

Sport, on the whole, do not change over time. Football is essentially the same game that it was thirty years ago. Tennis might have changed with the advent of carbon, rather than wooden rackets, but in terms of innovations, that's about it. Cricket takes an almost perverse pride in its traditions, while rugby has seen only relatively minor tweaks to its rules over the years.

Motor racing, on the other hand, evolves and changes every year, to the point where it would be all but unrecognisable to someone looking forward from fifty years ago. In the 1950s, cars were almost all front engined, racing on skinny little hard tyres, with minimal crash protection, on long open road circuits (though there were always exceptions to this, such as Monza and Silverstone). The favoured technique of the time was that of 'four wheel drift' - a cornering technique which took account of the relative lack of grip that such cars had, and was all about balancing a sliding car so that all four wheels were breaking traction in much the same way. Its a long way from the present day, where the difference between the good and the great is all about the ability to carry speed into corners - and what happens once you're at the apex is decided more by downforce than ability.

In the intervening years have come slicks, wings, traction control, semi-automatic gearshifts, cornering speeds capable of generating 4-5gs, a brief period in the 1980s where turbo engines designed to run just a few qualifying laps could generate in excess of 1200BHP, a similarly brief flirtation with active suspension in the early 1990s. Not to mention sponsorship, the appearance of the major motor manufacturers, ground-effect, 6 wheel F1 cars, four wheel steering and regenerative braking.

While most sportsmen will not find that the nature of the game they compete changes during their career, the same cannot be said of F1 drivers. Take Riccardo Patrese. When he began his career at Shadow in 1977, he was racing in the 70s kit car Hewland box+DFV era - wings and slicks were each less than a decade old at the time. By the early eighties, the ground effect era had begun and cornering speeds went through the roof - suspension became rock hard, and the art of going quickly had fundamentally changed. By mid-1982, driving at Brabham, he was racing in a 1.5ltr turbo engine, with all the problems of throttle lag that this entailed - not to mention at least 50% more horsepower than he would have had with the old Cosworth. After a two year hiatus with the disintegrating EuroRacing Alfa Romeo team, he was back to Brabham where he was one of the first drivers to sample the lowline chassis concept now ubiquitous in F1 (qwerty wrote on this recently over at Motor Racing Journal). When he wasn't distracted by the awful lack of traction, he could enjoy the delights of BMW's 1300BHP qualifying engines too - getting on for three times as powerful as the DFVs he had been racing with a decade earlier.) Two years later, he was back in a normally aspirated car over at Williams - where he had to learn to get to grips with their primitive active suspension system - yet another new challenge. Towards the end of his time at Williams, in 1992, he spent a season with what just might, in some ways, have been the most technically advanced F1 car ever made, with a by now very effective active suspension system, an early form of traction control and all kinds of other electronic trickery.

To survive for a serious length of time in F1, a driver must quickly adapt to all these changes. Indeed it is interesting to note how many drivers, especially those towards the end of their careers, found themselves struggling with technological changes. Rene Arnoux, who had been a regular race winner with Renault and Ferrari in the turbo days, found he was never really at home in a normally aspirated Ligier. Riccardo Patrese gave Nigel Mansell a serious run for his money in the passively sprung 1991 Williams, but could get nowhere near him in the active-ride 1992 car. The active car robbed Patrese of the 'feel' that he so much needed to drive the car quickly, and by increasing the ultimate cornering potential of the car, played to Mansell's strength - literally - as he was physically more able to hold the car through long fast corners at increased speeds. A few years later, Damon Hill found he couldn't adapt to the less progressive grooved tyres that replaced the slicks used prior to the beginning of 1998. He was never really the same driver after that, and sloped out of the sport almost unnoticed at the end of the following season.
So far, I've only mentioned only the huge changes that have taken place within the world of Formula 1 over the years. In reality, few drivers' professional careers take in only Formula 1. In the eighties, out of work F1 drivers were often to be found taking rides where they could find them in the World Sports Car championship. There they had to nurse powerful, complex cars over 1000km races, often with one eye on the fuel gauge, and the other on the wayward gentleman amateurs making up the numbers at the back. In the 1990s, it was the rather more sedate, but in some ways equally challenging world of 2 litre touring car racing that took on the role of playground for retired F1 drivers. Gabriele Tarquini and Nicola Larini, in particular, made a very good living there, as indeed they continue to do, every bit as much at home in front wheel drive saloon cars as they were in F1 cars. More recently, the altogether more exciting world of the DTM, with its 500BHP silhouette tin-tops has provided work for Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Some drivers take a particular pleasure in proving themselves in as many disciplines as possible. Jim Clark was famously quick in just about everything he tried his hand at - a Lotus Cortina saloon car, NASCAR, the Indy 500 and even a rally car. Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya went from winning the Champ Car series to meet similar success in Formula 1, while Nigel Mansell did it the other way round - leaving F1 in a huff at the end of 1992, and winning the Indycar Series at his first attempt.

The common thread is that, if F1 cars change over time, then that is as nothing compared with the differences between, say, an 800BHP F1 car, a NASCAR stocker, a 250BHP touring car and a high tech diesel sports car. And the skills required to survive a 24 hour sports car race are decidely different from those which are needed to get to the front of a 10 lap WTCC race.

In the end, no other sporting arena, save perhaps the decathlon, offers the same sheer variety of challenge as motor racing.


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