Monday, July 30, 2007

Talking the Talk

Now here's a confession. I prefer James 'stop the cock' Allen to Murray Walker. Not that I'm a big fan - I find his strange orgasmic outbursts at the merest hint of a British winner as teeth-grindingly awful as the next man. The thing is, I always found dear old Murray colossally irritating.

It wasn't the Murrayisms. At least, it wasn't just the Murrayisms. No, more than anything else, it was his breathless overexcitability. Like listening to a particularly hyperactive spaniel that had somehow picked up a basic command of the English language, I always found it a rather wearing distraction when watching a Grand Prix. It didn't help, either, that I was never convinced that Murray ever had a particularly deep understanding of the sport. He always relied very heavily on his expert co-commentators, James Hunt and Martin Brundle. In the lean years when he was paired with the tedious Dr Jonathan Palmer, the results were almost excruciatingly bad. Anyone who has read his bland biography would surely be forced to come the same conclusion

I'm afraid I also blame Murray Walker for James Allen. You see, the problem is that Murray has popularised the idea that motorsports commentary has to be done in a mood of breathless hysteria. It wasn't always this way, as anyone who ever heard Murray's predecessor, Raymond Baxter, would know. It was all very well for Murray - he was a showman, and there was a certain sincerity to his screams of "Just. Look. At. That. Sen...Sational" but sadly it now seems to be something which James Allen feels he has to imitate. And it just isn't him. It sounds forced, and frankly embarrassing. Its unfortunate, and rather odd, because this delusion has not afflicted other sports commentary. Listen to a cricket match on the radio, or watch a tennis final or, if you are a real masochist, watch a major golf tournament. In these sports, the commentators do not treat you like children who need to be told when something exciting is happening. You are left to figure it out for yourself (though as nothing exciting ever does happen in golf, some might say that they have it easier).

To be fair, though, doing commentary well is, I suspect, harder than writing well. The writer has the luxury of time for contemplation, can delete an incoherent sentence before committing to print, can check the facts before hitting the keyboard (although these are options which I all too often fail to take advantage of). The commentator has to get it right first time. And, of course, he's not going to. Nigel Roebuck, whom I really rather like as a writer (at least so long as he keeps off the subject of British politics), tried race commentary once, and concluded that he simply wasn't cut out for it. I wouldn't be surprised if Mark Hughes (the non-speaking part in the current ITV line-up) is content to stay out of the limelight for much the same reason. The ability to write does not translate into the ability to commentate.

The odd thing is, two of my favourite commentators started out as journalists. The first, Martin Haven, spent much of the early 1990s writing about sports car racing for Autosport. He's now to be found on Eurosport, presenting their WTCC and GP2 coverage. He's not everybody's cup of tea, and he is probably as prone to Murrayisms as the man himself, but his laid back, friendly and genuinely informed and enthusiastic commentaries are a part of what makes GP2 racing such compelling viewing (it helps that, unlike Mr Walker, he has always made something of a running joke of his tendency for unforced commentary errors. )

The other is Jeremy Shaw, another ex-Autosport man who has been following the sport since before I was born (if his references to cold autumn days spent watching Formula Ford at Brands Hatch in the 1970s are anything to go by). He is now to be found presenting the international feed for the Champ Car World Series (the natives, I understand have to tolerate the awful Wally Dallenbach Jr). His enthusiasm is every bit as evident as Murray Walker's (I'll say a lot against Murray, but I've never doubted his fundamental love of the sport) but his presentational style is that bit more moderated, and consequently so much more pleasant, at least to my ears, for it.

Every good commentator, though, requires his expert. Formula 1 has got lucky twice in this respect. First came the quick witted louche ex-public schoolboy James Hunt, whose patrician disdain for so many of the makeweights that were to be found towards the back of the F1 grid in the 1980s and early 1990s was always a delight to behold (for example - "The trouble with Jarier is that he's an idiot. Always has been, always will be") Equally, he had an entertaining way of putting Murray right - for example:

Walker "Look. There's a body on the track!"
Hunt "Actually, Murray, I think you'll find its a piece of bodywork"

When Hunt died at the ridiculously young age of 45, we had to suffer for a while with Jonathan Palmer - a man who may have done a great job with Motorsport Vision and with Formula Palmer Audi, but who was frankly never a commentator. Fortunately, help was at hand when Martin Brundle's career came to an end and he took up the seat alongside Murray in the commentary booth. In many ways, it is hard to imagine a man less like James Hunt - serious where Hunt always gave an impression of casual indifference, overtly intelligent and analytical in a way that Hunt never was - but what they both have in common is that they are (or were) both excellent 'expert' co-commentators (though neither is (or was) quite in the John McEnroe league).

A parting thought though. Whatever I might think of Murray Walker, it could have been so much worse. If you doubt me for a moment, try watching the DTM some time this season. And acquaint yourself with the horror show that is Carlton Kirby...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

"The Grand Prix Saboteurs" By Joe Saward - A Book Review

To say that The Grand Prix Saboteurs is long awaited is perhaps an understatement. I first became aware that Joe Saward was working on the story of "Williams", the winner of the inaugural Monaco Grand Prix, when he mentioned in passing that there was as interesting story he was researching about him for a book, in one of his Globetrotter columns, back in 2001.

Apparently, though, he has been working on this story since the late 1980s, when his editor at Autosport suggested that he might want to look into the story of W Williams. After 18 years, he was finally able to tie up the loose ends in the story to his own satisfaction but was unable to interest a mainstream publisher in the story. In the end, unwilling to let nearly two decades of work go to waste, he published the book himself.

For those not familiar with the story, William Grover Williams and Robert Benoist were racing drivers in the late 1920s and 1930s, who went on to serve with the Special Operations Exective, directing the French Resistance, during the Second World War. Its not the only time that the worlds of motorsport and espionage and subterfuge have collided (Don Nichols was rumoured to be a CIA agent before, and perhaps after the time he spent running the Shadow F1 team in the 1970s) but it is hard to imagine say, Michael Schumacher or Jenson Button acting as special agents in Iraq or Afghanistan today.

The first part of the book concerns itself with the racing careers of William Grover-Williams, who raced under the pseudonym Williams to ensure his family did not find out what he was up to, and of Robert Benoist, the French gamekeeper's son who achieved a fair measure of success driving for Delahaye and later, for Bugatti. This section of the book is well enough researched, and gives plenty of background on both Benoist and Williams, but somehow does not really capture the spirit of the era in the same way that, for instance, Robert Edwards captures the feel of the racing scene in the 1950s in his biographies of Moss and Scott-Brown, or Gerald Donaldson does with the late 1970s in his books on James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve.

To be fair though, the racing careers of Benoist and Williams are not the central focus of this book. Had they only been racing drivers, their stories might have been reasonably diverting, but they probably wouldn't really merit a book (at least not until someone has written a really definitive biography of Dick Seaman, but that's for another day). In fact, the opening section of the book is most interesting for the light it sheds on why racing drivers of the 1920s might have turned out to be ideal material for underground operations in France during the second World War. The willingness to take life-threatening risks, but also the cool, calculating mindset required to avoid taking or gratuitous or unnecessary chances would have been equally useful on pre-war racing circuits and in undetaking sabotage missions in occupied France.

In places, the book reads almost like an Ian Fleming spy thriller. The story of Robert Benoist's escape from German Secret Police in Paris after being arrested for the first time could have come straight from a Bond film and the book brilliantly captures the tension and uncertainty that Williams must have felt when he was parachuted into France for the first time in May 1942.

Saward has clearly done his homework on the broader politics and history of the French Resistance. There are numerous tales of double agent and double crosses, not to mention Saward's discovery that Benoist was probably betrayed to the Germans by Violette Szabo, Britain's most celebrated World War 2 spy. He goes to some length to explain the modus operandi of the Resistance - their preference for low key, subtle sabotage over the big explosions and shootings which would have served only to encourage the Germans to take revenge on the local population, and to turn them against the Resistance.

He does well, too, in drawing out the grey lines between those who had to give the appearance of co-operating with the Germans in order to avoid arousing suspicion, and those who were either playing both sides, or who were actively collaborating. In some cases, notably that of the mysterious Henri Dericourt (who surely merits a book in his own right) its not always even clear if he knew for sure himself which side he was really on. Matters were often complicated by the fact that, after the war, many suspected collaborators claimed to be double agents who were working under cover and that the only people who could vouch for them had been killed. Some were probably telling the truth. Others were not. (Incidentally, though Saward never mentions him by name, former FIA president Jean Marie Balestre's war record is decidedly murky, to the point where nobody really knows for sure who he was working for).

Inevitably, the book takes on a darker, more sombre tone when Benoist and Williams' luck ran out and, as the allied advance through France proceeded, the action shifts from Paris to the concentration camps of Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. In this part of the book, Saward debunks the romantic notion that Williams, at least, survived and lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name in southern France (as Robert Ryan appears to suggest in his fictionalised account of their story, Early One Morning).

Unfortunately, the readability of the book is in places compromised by the inclusion of too much detail which is ultimately somewhat extraneous and tangential to the story. It is almost as if Saward (a history graduate who has spent a long time researching this book) is desperate to make use of literally everything he was able to uncover in the national archives. There were times, too, when I wondered whether he couldn't quite make up his mind whether he was writing principally about Benoist, Williams and (to a lesser extent) Jean Pierre Wimille, or about SOE operations in France more generally. The result is an ever so slightly messy compromise between the two. One suspects that this is a pitfall of self-publication, and that a good editor might have helped to tidy the book up in this respect.

In the end, I can't quite recommend the book unreservedly, but when compared with the endless dull production line biographies of racing drivers whose lives really aren't that remarkable (and in some cases, whose careers have barely begun- step forward Brian Belton with "Lewis Hamilton: A Dream Comes True) this is certainly a much more worthwhile and interesting read. It might not be for every racing fan, but if the subject matter intrigues you at all, you really ought to check it out.

Endnote: If you're interested in what happened afterwards at all, I really ought to put in a good word for Antony Beevor and Artemis Cooper's Paris After The Liberation which picks up the story after the D-Day landings. I took this book on holiday with me last year and found it utterly engrossing - and it gives a very good summary of the fallout from the war years under occupation).

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Monday, July 16, 2007

A Delicate Balance

When were there last so many drivers still in with a shot at the title by the half-way mark? Last year was all about Alonso and Schumacher, the year before it, Alonso and Raikkonen. In 2004, by the time the season reached its mid-point, there was no way, realistically, that anyone other than Michael Schumacher was going to be world champion. I reckon you have to go back to 2003, when Juan Montoya, Michael Schumacher, Ralf Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and, at a stretch, Rubens Barrichello, were all still very much in the running.

What makes this season's title fight such an intriguing affair is that it is both an inter-team fight between Mclaren and Ferrari, and a two-way intra-team battle. Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen may lead their team mates in the standings, but it seems to me unlikely that either will be able to rely on any support from their team mate in chasing the world championship. At McLaren, they have the near impossibility of asking their double world champion £30m signing, himself second in the points standings, to play second fiddle to his rookie team mate. At Ferrari, the problem is subtly different. Felipe Massa might have been content to play a supporting role to Michael Schumacher, but the gap to his team mate is too small, at just a single point, and Raikkonen's performances this year too uneven, to justify the Scuderia putting all its eggs in one basket just yet.

Both teams, in any case, would face an additional obstacle in attempting any such strategy anyway. Chances are, events would end up conspiring against them, even if they try. There may have been races where one team has had enough of a performance advantage that they could dictate the finishing order if they chose (Mclaren at Monaco and perhaps Indianapolis and Ferrari at Magny Cours and, had Massa not hit trouble in qualifying, at Australia). They have been many other races though, where the gaps between the teams has been too marginal to indulge in such games. Bahrain strikes me as a particularly good example, but Barcelona and, perhaps, Silverstone, fall into the same category.

Take Mclaren as an example. At Bahrain, the maths dictated that the team would prefer Alonso to finish ahead of Hamilton. That, though, could not be arranged, as it would have meant giving points away to Heidfeld and Raikkonen, who were sandwiched between the pair on the road. Likewise, by the time they reached Silverstone, the numbers would point towards favouring Hamilton. There was little doubt, on the day though, that it was Alonso who was quicker, and who offered the only serious hope (forlorn as it ultimately was) of depriving Raikkonen of the win.

Which of the four, then, is my bet for the title? On the numbers, you might to conclude that it was Lewis Hamilton's to lose. Certainly, with the difference between 1st and 2nd just 2 points, and with four drivers in with a serious shot at victory at every race, a 12 point lead could look very useful indeed. On the other hand, though, while it might take Hamilton's nearest challenger, Alonso, 6 races to overhaul a 12 point lead if Lewis just keeps finishing second, a single engine failure or accident, could see that lead cut to 2 points at a stroke. What this serves to highlight is that a championship this tight is perhaps as likely to be decided by who is luckiest as by who is quickest.

It is I suspect no mere coincidence that Hamilton is the only driver not to have lost points to mechanical problems all season, and that he now leads the driver's standings. Massa lost points at Australia and at Silverstone when he had to start from the back. Raikkonen retired with gearbox problems at Barcelona, and Alonso's challenge was severely blunted by gearbox problems in qualifying at Magny Cours.

If it doesn't come down to sheer luck, then it could be little driver errors which decide the title. Last year, Alonso won the title not because either he or the Renault was quicker than Schumacher's Ferrari but because Schumacher lost points to driver errors - most notably at Monaco and Hungary. Once again, it is Hamilton who has so far avoided costly errors. This year, to my surprise, it is Alonso who comes out worst on this score - with silly first corner antics costing him points in Spain and Canada, and an unusual race error under pressure costing him another point at Bahrain. Felipe Massa has two significant mistakes to his name. The first, a botched pass on Hamilton at Malaysia, was understandable, but just might have cost him a win, and certainly a second place. The second error - ignoring the red light at the end of the pit lane in Montreal, was more fundamental (and it must be said, the team have to shoulder their share of the blame for failing to remind him of it).

Kimi Raikkonen hasn't really made any mistakes per se but unlike the other three, there have been occasions when he has just plain underperformed - failed to get enough out of the car. Hamilton, by contrast, has made mistakes (during the race in Melbourne, and in the pits at Silverstone) but the mistakes have been small, and he has been lucky enough not to have paid a points penalty for any of them.

Lets assume, though, that over the remainder of the season, mechanical reliability and driver errors somehow balance out. There's no reason to assume they will, and indeed, if I were a betting man, I'd suggest that one of the Mclaren boys will walk away champion for the simple reason that the 2007 Ferrari seems that bit more fragile. But let's just assume for a minute. Who, then, looks the likely winner? The honest answer, and perhaps what has made this season such a fascinating contest, is that I really don't know.

Contrary to what some would have you believe, I really don't think that there has been anything between Hamilton and Alonso in terms of sheer pace this year. Sometimes, as at Malaysia and Silverstone, Alonso has been clearly quicker. On other occasions, such as Bahrain and Canada, Hamilton was. On still other occasions, most notably Monaco and Indianapolis, the finishing order reflected minute differences in their qualifying performances, and the fact that one car has to finish in front of the other, more than anything else. Over the whole season, you might expect Alonso's greater experience to come to the fore, but to be honest, if it hasn't done so by now, it probably won't.

Over at Ferrari, things are a little more complex. Its fair to say, I think, that during the opening part of the season, Massa was demonstrably, though not vastly, quicker than his more celebrated team mate Raikkonen. At the last four races, though, things have seemed more finely balanced. In Canada, Raikkonen qualified ahead on a heavier fuel load, but damaged his car early on in the race and was never at 100% thereafter. A week later at Indianapolis, Massa finished ahead, thanks to track position, but its hard to ignore the fact that Raikkonen simply looked quicker for much of the race. Indeed has he not been compromised by being on the wrong tyre early on, he might have been able to give the Mclaren drivers something to think about. In France, there was again little to separate the two, but it was Raikkonen who held the whip hand in terms of strategy, and so finished ahead. As for Silverstone, we never really got to see what way a Massa/Raikkonen battle might have gone.

So, delicately balanced indeed. We may have had few really classic races this season, but it may nonetheless be a very memorable year.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The March of Time

Earlier this year, Baron Emmanuel 'Toulo' De Graffenreid passed away at the age of 93. With his death, just months after that of Eugene Martin, the last of the men who took part in the inaugural race in the Formula 1 World Championship back in May 1950, at Silverstone, was gone. A last link with an earlier era severed.

This could easily be filed away as just another mildly diverting but ultimately trivial statistic, but actually on closer inspection it reveals something rather interesting. I can well remember a time when no Formula 1 world champion had died of natural causes, and if the march of time has put paid to that, its still hard to get around the fact that 1950 is hardly so long ago as to be lost in the mists of time. My grandmother, still alive today, was older than most of the current Grand Prix grid when it took place. Put another way, plague, world war and pestilence aside, it would be a little surprising if, come 2064, there is not a single survivor from the 2007 British Grand Prix.

The key statistic which explains it all is the average age of those who took the start that day - 40 years. The meteoric rise of the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, the fact that Fernando Alonso is a double world champion at 25 and the impressive debut of the teenaged Sebastien Vettel at Indianapolis all help to illustrate that motorsport, and F1 in particular, is a young man's game these days. It emphatically was not back in 1950, though, and it is interesting to go back and ask why this should be so.

Perhaps the biggest factor was the impact of the Second World War. The conflict served to interrupt the careers of many drivers whose careers, in the late 1930s, were either at their peak, or else just beginning to flower. Had the war never happened, perhaps the likes of Guiseppe Farina (44), Louis Rosier (45) and Luigi Fagioli (52) would have been contemplating retirement by the mid to late 1940s. As it was, there was an unusual number of older drivers who still felt they had something left to prove - who were still captivated by the sport.

The corollary of that is that the younger generation - those born between, say 1920 and 1930, hadn't really had the opportunities to hone their craft in either the junior formulae or (as was more common in that era) in more minor Grands Prix. The war might have ended in 1945 , but austerity measures, in particular petrol rationing and the shortage of raw metals, went on a good deal longer. The Paris Cup may have taken place just after VJ Day, on the 9th September 1945, but all in all, the 1940s were a quiet time for motorsport. As an aside, it is perhaps notable that two of the younger front-runners in the first years of the World Championship, Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzalez, were from
South America, where the War took longer to interrupt racing activities, and where the post-war recovery was swifter.

There was another only partly related reason why the field at that first race was so old. The F1 championship was then a new development (though it had an antecedent of sorts in the European Championship that ran in the 1930s) and carried little of the cachet that it does now. Whilst there were a few works cars (the pre-war Alfa Romeo 158s that were, by some distance, the class of the field, and a couple of Maseratis and Talbot-Lagos) the vast bulk of the field was made up of wealthy gentleman amateurs, in private Maseratis, Altas and ERAs. Only a small handful of these were remotely competitive. It follows, unsurprisingly, that on the whole, those in a position to buy and run their own F1 car were a good deal older than most of today's paid professionals.

There may, however, have been yet another factor at work - one perhaps of more relevance to understanding why modern motor racing is the way that it is. A few years ago, Martin Brundle testeda 1950s Mercedes F1 car. Two things struck him about the experience. The first was how physically easy the car was to drive. With no downforce and relatively low-grip tyres, cornering speeds were, in comparison with today, very low, and the physical forces acting on the driver much reduced. One did not need to be an athlete to drive a racing car competitively in the early 1950s (as pictures of the rather portly Gonzalez amply illustrate - and to think these days people say Juan Montoya is porky!) With fewer physical demands on the driver, the impact of the ageing process on driver performance is reduced. Its true today, after all, that drivers too old for F1 can often build successful second careers in sports and touring cars.

Brundle's other observation was that he was amazed how mentally demanding the car was to drive. Not so much that it was difficult per se, but that there was so little room for error. Without modern crash protection structures (or even seatbelts - the thinking at the time being that in a serious crash, you were better off being thrown out of the car), any accident was potentially life-threatening.

In such circumstances, one would tend to be a little bit more circumspect when it comes to exploring exactly where the limits lie. The razor-sharp reactions of youth are less relevant - what mattered was experience. Learning where the limits lie by going over them and working back from there was a strategy for ending up in a pine box. The idea that for a young charger, a few big accidents were all part of the learning curve, was no part of racing in the early 1950s. The only way to find out where the limits were in such cars was through much practice (although as was ever the case, the extremely naturally gifted will always learn quicker, and learn better, than their peers). The scales, in those days, were tilted a notch or too further towards old age and experience, and away from youth and enthusiasm.

Lets not get things out of proportion though. I've seen repeated from time to time the suggestion that F1 cars are too easy to drive these days because "a quick kid can just jump in and be quick straight away". There may be some truth in this, but I wouldn't overestimate it., After all, when Boris Becker won Wimbledon at 17, and Martina Hingis at 16, nobody suggested that tennis was suddenly too easy. Hingis and Becker had been playing since they were very young children. What's changed is that this is now true of racing drivers too. In 1950, there was no such thing as karting, and there were no junior single-seater formulae open to 15 year olds (like FBMW today). Sebastien Vettel might seem inexperienced, but he had probably driven more testing miles in the BMW than the majority of those taking the start at Silverstone in 1950. In fact, after 2 seasons of Formula BMW, 2 seasons of F3, a Friday driver job with BMW in 2006 and a few Renault World Series drives (not to mention 8 years of karting) he was probably more race-experienced than Guiseppe Farina was when he won the opening round of the 1950 world championship.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Au Revoir, Magny Cours

So it looks like we've just seen the last French Grand Prix, for the foreseeable future. I have to confess that my reaction, on first hearing the news, was so what? No more dreary, overtaking-free Grands Prix at Mangy Course? Who cares?

Still, as Joni Mitchell sang, you don't know what you got 'til it's gone... I have to confess that, I'd never really noticed how spectacular a modern F1 car looks through the Nurburgring chicane, or how tricky the Imola chicane is, with its blind apex, leading to the big stop at Chateau D'Eau. Come to that, Grande Courbe is pretty noteworthy these days, as one of relatively few really fast, really challenging corners on the F1 calendar. There was even a fair amount of overtaking last Sunday - with the Alonso's pass on Heidfeld into Imola, of all places, perhaps the single stand-out move of the season thus far.

There's another reason to regret the passing of the French Grand Prix, though. It is another sign that the sport is losing touch with its roots, treating its history with disdain. From an Anglo-centric perspective, it is easy to think of the UK as the natural home of motorsport, and to some extent that is true. More than half of all the F1 teams are based here, we've produced more Formula 1 champions than any other nation, and at the grass roots, we have a large number of circuits and a huge number of club-level championships.

But the sport did not originate in Britain. Motorsport was born on the other side of La Manche. The earliest city-to-city races were almost exclusively French affairs and the first race to carry the title Grand Prix took place at Le Mans in 1906. While its winner, Ferenc Szisz, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is noteworthy that he won in a Renault - a French car. Those French roots are still reflected today in the fact that the sport's governing body is the Federation International De L'automobile, and has its home in Paris.

In the early years of Grand Prix racing, France was one of three major players. For much of the 1910s and 1920s, Germany's Mercedes Benz and Italy's Alfa Romeo and FIAT fought it out with French marques like Peugeot, Delage, Talbot and, most famously, Bugatti. Only as Mussolini and Hitler's regimes discovered the propaganda value of motorsport, and began to pump serious money into Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Auto Union, did France's pre-eminence in the world of Grand Prix racing begin to decline.

Despite this, as the world stood on the brink of war in 1939, France could lay claim to 3 of the best racing drivers of the era: Robert Benoist, Louis Chiron and Jean-Pierre Wimille. Sadly, the Second World War claimed the life of Benoist, and ruined the career prospects of Chiron who was well into middle age by the time top level motorsport began to re-establish itself after the war. Wimille, who was 10 years younger than Chiron, and might have offered a serious threat to Fangio and Ascari in the early 1950s, was killed in practice for the 1949 Argentinian Grand Prix.

Perhaps the most dramatic indication of the decline of French motorsport in the post-war years is the fact that, after Charles Pozzi's win in the non-championship 1949 French Grand Prix, the home fans would have to wait 30 years for another home victory. There were some moderately successful French racing drivers in the intervening years. Maurice Trintignant won a couple of Grands Prix, as did Patrick Depailler. Francois Cevert just might have become an immensely successful driver in the mid 1970s, but was killed in practice for the US Grand Prix before we really got to see what he was capable of.

Nonetheless, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for much of the period between 1950 and 1980, French drivers paid the price for the fall of the French racing teams. Grand Prix teams may profess to hire on the basis of talent alone, and that may even be true, but a strong racing culture will inevitably breed more top F1 drivers. Surely it is not mere coincidence that the UK has produced more world drivers champions than any other country and has, over the same time period, dominated the world of F1 car manufacturing. If you doubt this, then ponder the otherwise unfathomnable lack of first rate German F1 drivers until the emergence of Michael Schumacher.

Things began to change in the 1970s when the state oil company, Elf, and the tobacco company, Winfield, began to put driver training and development programmes in place. They were probably the most involved such schemes of their time, and in 1980, they hit the jackpot, with the arrival in F1 of Alain Prost. Prost's debut season, at the struggling Mclaren team (in the pre-Ron Dennis days) netted only a trio of points finishes, but it was enough to impress the team bosses at Renault, who were very much a team on the up as the advantages of their turbo engine experience paid dividends. If you think Lewis Hamilton's exploits have been impressive this year (and I wouldn't argue with that), then consider this: On no occasion when the car lasted did Prost finish lower than 3rd - every race he finished, he finished on the podium. Still, with 9 retirements, even a late winning streak wasn't quite enough to put him in contention for the world title.

The 1982 season again saw Prost frustrated by the indifferent reliability of the Renault, but 1983 looked for sure to be his year. Sadly, the great French victory never came - Prost's relationship with the Renault team went into meltdown as the season neared its conclusion, with the performance of the car going off the boil, and Nelson Piquet snuck in to win his second title for Brabham. (As an aside, it is now generally reckoned that Piquet's late season form owed much to illegal fuel being used by Brabham, and Prost's 1983 Renault hangs from the ceiling of the the Chapel at the Musee Des Arts et Metiers in Paris - the French-built championship winning car that wasn't). Renault sank into oblivion, gone from F1 by the end of 1985, and Alain Prost went on to win 4 world championships, driving for English teams, and establish himself as without question the best French driver of all time.

Alain Prost's success appeared, superficially, to have a positive effect on French motorsport. A flood of drivers began to emerge from the Elf Driver programme and elsewhere, but just as one suspects that Javier Villa, Felix Porteiro and the hordes of Spanish single seater hopefuls are no match for Fernando Alonso, so Yannick Dalmas, Philippe Alliot, Philippe Streiff, Olivier Grouillard, Eric Bernard and Erik Comas were ultimately not from the very top drawer. Then, as the 1990s got into their stride, the Elf driver scheme became mired in the more general corruption scandals surround the oil giant, Evin's law put paid to tobacco sponsorship, and the number of French drivers in F1 shrank slowly back to the current figure of 0.

Without top level drivers, a country's interest in Formula 1 is liable to wither away. Witness the difficulties Bernie Ecclestone has in selling F1 to the Chinese or the Malaysians - or, for that matter, the Americans. That's bad news for race promoters, and in particular for the FFSA, who were faced with the difficulty of bringing large numbers of people to Magny Cours.

The French Grand Prix has been held in various locations over the years - the fantastic Mini-Nordschliefe at Charade, the daunting Rouen Les-Essarts and the sunny, relaxed Circuit Paul Ricard on the Riviera. Some of them were better, location wise than others. Some of them were better, as circuits than others (Reims was particularly dreary, now I think of it). Magny Cours, though is built in the middle of nowhere. Why? Our old friend, political corruption again. Magny Cours became the home of the French Grand Prix at the behest of the Mitterand government (the same bunch who threw endless state tobacco money at Guy Ligier's people for seemingly no return whatsoever) because, amongst other things, he is reputed to have had a lot of friends in the area who appreciated the construction contracts. It would be like closing Silverstone down and building its replacement in Northumberland, or north of Inverness. And so, with no home heroes to cheer and no nearby population to come and watch, it is perhaps no surprise that in the end, the French Grand Prix died a death.

With no teams (unless one counts the Enstone-based Renault), no drivers and no Grand Prix, the outlook for the future looks pretty bleak. Is there a chink of light? Yes, I think. For F1 is not the whole of motorsport. France has two iconic events, the Monte Carlo rally and the Le Mans 24 hour race. It has 3 time world champion Sebastien Loeb lording it over the rallying world in a Citroen C4 (I have a nagging suspicion that, given some serious track time, he'd be as good a circuit racer as anyone, too). It has Sebastien Bourdais, aiming for his fourth consecutive Champ Car title for Newman Haas. Now, will someone give him an F1 drive next year?

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