Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Motorsports Ramblings Top 10 - 2007

It may not be the Autocourse list, but it is a good two months earlier. Argue with my selection all you will, but this represents my best attempt to decide who did the best job in 2007. Without further ado...

10. Heikki Kovalainen

It must have sounded like an enticing prospect. For your debut season, you get last year's World Championship winning car, a year's prior preparation as their official test driver, and Giancarlo Fisichella as your team mate. It didn't quite work out as hoped for the young Finn. There is little doubt that this year's Renault R27 was a pale shadow of its predecessor, and Fisichella is a tougher nut to crack than is popularly assumed (just ask Ralph Firman, Alex Wurz, Felipe Massa or Jenson Button, all of whom came off second best to him).

The low point of his season came at the beginning. While fellow GP2 graduate Lewis Hamilton was grabbing all the plaudits at the front, Kovalainen had a messy race, with a spin and an off-track excursion, and finished a long way off the pace of his team mate. In other words, he looked like a rookie. It didn't immediately get a whole lot better, and indeed some of his early season performances were so poor there was talk of him being shown the door and replaced with Nelson Piquet Jr.

A promising showing in Spain, where for the first time he outraced Fisichella, gave hint that there was potential, but it was in the North American races that Kovalainen began to really turn things around. In Canada he recovered from a poor qualifying performance to finish 4th, ahead of such as Alonso and Raikkonen. A week later in Indianapolis, he ran rings around Fisichella and fought hard with Raikkonen and Heidfeld in the opening stages, eventually coming home 5th. From there on in, he was in a roll, almost invariably outpacing Fisichella and scoring points on all but two occasions. Late on in the season, he put in his most impressive performance to date, keeping the Renault on the island in very tricky conditions to finish an excellent 2nd in Fuji. Wherever he ends up when the Alonso saga shakes out, he's served notice than there's more than one quick Finn in F1.

9. Robert Kubica

Such was the explosive pace which the Pole showed when he burst onto the F1 scene at the end of last year, one could be forgiven for thinking his 2007 season a little disappointing. After all, he didn't quite get onto terms with team mate Nick Heidfeld over the course of the whole season, despite the widespread assumption he would comfortably outpace the German this year. He was genuinely quicker at Melbourne and (most notably) at Magny Cours, but elsewhere he appeared to be ever so slightly overshadowed. On reflection, though, he did about as much as anyone really had any right to expect. He was amongst the drivers who found the control Bridgestone tyres hardest to adapt to, and as someone who skipped GP2, many of the circuits were quite unfamiliar to him. Given these disadvantages, its impressive he ran Heidfeld as close as he did.

A potential surprise win fell by the wayside in China when his hydraulics packed up while leading and fueled to the finish. On the plus side, he could count himself lucky simply to be alive and unscathed after a truly horrific looking accident at 190mph during the Canadian Grand Prix. On balance, a pretty solid performance for a man in his first full season of F1.

8. Mark Webber

What is it with Mark Webber? Without fail, the man always seems to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He spent two years with Williams while they were in the depths of their troubles, and then he goes and moves to Red Bull just in time to end up racing the woefully unreliable RB3. On the plus side, it was at least reasonably quick when it kept going.

On points, David Coulthard actually came out ahead over the season, but that only goes to show how misleading raw points tallies can be when it comes to the performances of drivers further down the field. Look at it this way: Was the Red Bull really a car which you'd expect to make it through the top 10 run-off in qualifying on a regular basis? No? Well Mark Webber got it through on no less than 10 occasions. Coulthard, by contrast, got there just twice. OK, so there was less to separate them in race conditions, but still, with the notable exceptions of China and Bahrain, it was the Australian who had the edge.

Like many a true racer, he was at his absolute best in wet conditions, taking a podium for Red Bull at the Nurburgring and looking like he might challenge for victory at Fuji before being eliminated by Sebastien Vettel - under a safety car, no less. It was emblematic of a season, and a career, which seems to have been dogged by bad luck throughout. One can only hope that in 2008 he'll finally get a chance to show what he can do.

7. Jenson Button

If Mark Webber had a frustrating time of it in 2007, he can perhaps console himself with the thought that at least he wasn't driving a Honda. The Japanese concern has spent years carefully building up a reputation as an engineering-led company with some very well-made cars and bikes, only to go and sabotage itself by establishing a colossally awful F1 team.

This year's RA107 was terrible. So bad, that for much of the season, it was outpaced by a group of ex-Arrows mechanics running last year's Honda with a pair of drivers rejected by the works. Initially, Button seemed to take this rather badly, and he found himself being outpaced by Rubens Barrichello. In reality, he was probably suffering, as many drivers had done, from the swap from Michelins to Bridgestones. Once he got that licked, he drove better than almost anyone. How else to explain how he dragged his car into the points in Magny Cours and Monza, ahead of sundry Williams and Toyotas? If that were not enough, how about sticking the car on the third row in Fuji? With the weather acting as something of a leveller, Button got a rare chance to make full use of his supreme delicacy of touch and demonstrate why some consider him to be in the same sort of class as Raikkonen, Alonso and Hamilton.

A wet/dry track provided another opportunity to show what he could do a week later in China, and he seized it with both hands, taking a 5th place finish which was comfortably the team's best result all season, and which finally hauled them ahead of Super Aguri in the points table. The thought occurs that had Button been in a Super Aguri, he might actually have done better, so lets hope that Honda get their act together in 2008. If they do, Button could really fly in the brave new world of standard ECUs and no traction control.

6. Nick Heidfeld

He's got a reputation for being a touch dull, has Nick Heidfeld. A perception, one might add, which is unlikely to be significantly altered by his decision to sport the weirdest facial hair the sport has seen since the 1970s (when, lets face it, weird facial hair really wasn't all that weird). Still, there must be a few teams pondering upon the advantages of dullness in a lead driver, right now. Especially when its married to the kind of prodigious pace which Heidfeld has demonstrated this year.

Remember how, at the beginning of the season, he expected he would be blown away by Robert Kubica? Didn't happen. Instead, Heidfeld was the one man who could just occasionally gatecrash the Ferrari/Mclaren battle at the front. Recall, for instance, his wonderfully opportunistic move on Alonso for 4th in Bahrain? Remember, too, that he was the one man able to give Hamilton pause for thought in Canada. Not convinced? Here's another stat. On occasions where both the BMW drivers finished, only twice did Kubica beat Heidfeld all season.

I don't know if there is any chance of it happening, but think how convenient it would be for all concerned if Mario Thiessen and Ron Dennis were to organise a Heidfeld/Alonso swap. And if it were to happen, who's to say that Heidfeld wouldn't given Hamilton more of a run for his money than anyone would expect?

5. Nico Rosberg

How good was this year's Williams? We'll never know for sure, but it didn't look very good in the hands of an experienced guy like Alex Wurz. Chances are, Nico Rosberg was making the FW29 look a good deal better than it actually was. Certainly, he seemed determined from the outset to extract every last drop of pace from the 2007 Williams. He signaled his intent with 7th in the Australian Grand Prix, pulling off the race's only pass of any account in the process, at a circuit where such things are supposed to be next to impossible. Two weeks later, he hung gamely on to Felipe Massa's Ferrari in Malaysia until his engine let go. He was damned quick in qualifying at Monaco - a circuit where he has not previously shined - and was let down only by a strategy that really relied on his not getting stuck behind a heavily fueled Nick Heidfeld.

While Alex Wurz was lucky to pick up a bundle of points in a couple of very high-attrition races, Rosberg by contrast had to work very hard for every point he scored, doing what he could against BMWs and Renaults which were usually faster. In the final race, he even went one better, keeping much closer to Fernando Alonso's Mclaren than anyone had any right to expect, and passing both BMWs on the track, on his way to fourth place. I'm not at all sure anyone else achieved so much with so little, this season.

4. Felipe Massa

First, a disclaimer. The performances of the leading 4 drivers were so closely matched this year, that I could make a good case for any of them as my driver of the year. Certainly, had the dice fallen a little differently over the course of the year, we might now have been looking at Brazil's fourth world champion. Think about the times that he lost points needlessly. The gearbox failure in qualifying at Melbourne, the refueling error in qualifying at Hungary, his failure to get off the grid at Silverstone. And that's without even mentioning the two races where he failed to finish at all - thanks to suspension failure at Monza and a silly error on the part of both driver and team in Montreal which led to his disqualification.

In the plus column, Massa was frequently mighty in the first part of the season. We'll never know how much of a threat he might have posed in Melbourne, but based on his pace in the subsequent races, Raikkonen might not have found it easy to secure a win on his Ferrari debut. In Bahrain and Barcelona, he was imperious, comfortably having the measure of his more illustrious team mate. He would probably have equalled Raikkonen's win tally too, had he not had to sacrifice his own desire for a home victory at Interlagos to help his team mate's title ambitions.

So why doesn't he feature higher up my list? Two reasons really. Firstly, once Raikkonen really got to grips with the Ferrari and its Bridgestone rubber, Massa rarely looked quite as quick as his team mate (save of course at Brazil). Over a single qualifying lap, he perhaps still had it, but over a race distance, he seemed to lack that last tenth of a second a lap. The second reason is that he never showed quite the 'fight' of the other three. Sure, he was unlucky with his start position on a number of occasions, but one can't help but feel that Raikkonen, Hamilton or Alonso might have made up more places in Hungary or Melbourne. He was also a tad underwhelming whenever the track was wet, come to that. These are minor niggles though, and like any of the big 4, he would have made a worthy champion.

3. Fernando Alonso

How short was the reign of the man who finally toppled King Schumacher. If you only ever read the British tabloids, you might think that Alonso's year consisted of being blown away by a fresh faced British newcomer and going off in one almighty sulk. Which, of course, would be nonsense (apart, perhaps, from the bit about the sulking).

Yes, there were days when Hamilton appeared to have his team mate beaten on pace, but equally, there were occasions when Alonso was comfortably the quicker of the two. Think of his dominant performances at Malaysia and Monza, for example, or the way he just left his team mate for dust at Spa or Silverstone. Fernando Alonso was also responsible for two of the most astounding passing manouvres of the year - on Massa for the lead of the German Grand Prix and most impressively of all, round the outside of Heidfeld at the Lycee in the French Grand Prix.

The falling out with Mclaren was unedifying, for sure, and his public pronouncements suggested an unhealthy degree of paranoia. On the other hand, though, how much more impressive that a man who was barely on speaking terms with his team, and who had fallen out spectacularly with the boss of the operation could simply tune it all out and drive as he did in Monza and Spa, while at the very eye of the storm.

So why only 3rd? Firstly, I can't help thinking that he made more mistakes than Hamilton or Raikkonen - he just got lucky and didn't pay as heavy a penalty for them. His startline move on Massa at the Spanish Grand Prix was ill-judged and his multifarious Canadian errors smacked of desperation. He looked scrappy at Indianapolis and Bahrain, come to that. It seemed he was far more rattled by Hamilton than was the case the other way round. Secondly, at the very death, in Shanghai and Interlagos, he seemed, well, flat. Had he been at his mighty best in Shanghai, he just might have taken the fight to Raikkonen, and who knows, he could have been a triple world champion by now.

2. Kimi Raikkonen

Let's be clear about one thing. If this list were based only on drivers performances in the latter half of the season, Kimi Raikkonen would be my driver of the year. From Indianapolis onwards, he was on the form of his life. He dominated Grands Prix at Silverstone, Spa and China, looked quicker than Massa in race trim in Turkey and gave Hamilton far more of a fight that might have been expected in Hungary. It was said that the 2007 Ferrari didn't really work well in wet conditions, but this did not seem to trouble Raikkonen at the Japanese Grand Prix, where he thoroughly shaded his team mate. If he needed a little assistance from Massa in Brazil to be sure of the title, well, so be it.

Mark Hughes once opined of Kimi Raikkonen that "he refuses even to acknowledge the game". He was talking about the constant psychological warfare that seems to be a standard part of Formula 1 at the very top level these these days. Kimi doesn't go in for it, and he doesn't let others throw him off his stride either. When he found himself outpaced by Massa at the beginning of the year, there was no self doubt, nor any petulant suggestion that Ferrari were favouring the Brazilian. He showed no outward sign that this had gotten to him at all. He simply kept his head down and worked on finding the missing tenths of a second. It's an attribute which would have been much appreciated in the Mclaren garage this year, and one which just might have helped him secure the title. Both Hamilton and Alonso made mistakes under pressure this year, pressure which was at least partly of their own creation.

So why's he not at the top of my list? Simple, this is about performance over the whole season and he was really rather lacklustre in the opening part of the year. A man who is supposedly the outright fastest driver in the world really should not be getting beaten by Felipe Massa, and in Malaysia, Bahrain and Spain, he was simply outclassed. He might have had the pace in Monaco, but a rare unforced error in qualifying meant we had no way of of knowing. Still, as I have said before, he's a worthy champion nonetheless, and his comeback drive to win the title must rank amongst the most extraordinary in the sport's history.

1. Lewis Hamilton

The British press have a lot to answer for. Here was a driver of astonishing natural talent, a man with a seemingly innate ability to make an F1 car dance on the very edge of adhesion, and by Brazil I was simply sick to the back teeth of hearing about hm, and quietly hoping that Kimi Raikkonen might wrest the title from his grasp.

It's usually assumed that it takes at least a couple of seasons to get fully to grips with F1. Lewis, armed with the most complete preparation any rookie has ever had, and access to the most advanced simulator in the sport, set about making a mockery of this. By his third race, he was outpacing his double world champion team mate Fernando Alonso and after two victories in North America, the lad from Stevenage had emerged as the odds-on favourite for the World Title.

Over the course of the season, he ticked all the right boxes. He demonstrated tremendous spatial awareness and racecraft at the start of both the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix, pulled off an excellent move under braking to snatch second from Kimi Raikkonen on Ferrari's home turf at Monza, blocked out intra-team strife to take an assured win in Hungary and proved himself equal to the worst the elements could throw at him in Fuji. All in all, it was the performance of an established Grand Prix great, rather than a fresh faced rookie.

Let's not go overboard with the superlatives. There were certainly times when Alonso made him look rather ordinary, though equally, there were times when he made Alonso look rather foolish. And while it could be suggested that it was misfortune (in the form of a duff gearbox) which cost him the title, he really suffered no greater mechanical misfortune than either of his title rivals, over the course of the season. In the end, it was his one real elementary error, sliding into the gravel trap while coming in to pit at Shanghai, that cost him the Championship. Still, who'd bet against him coming back stronger next year?

The Rest

10 is an arbitrary number. If there was space for a few more, then three or four other drivers would merit consideration. Jarno Trulli's efforts to rag what pace there was out of the 2007 Toyota were impressive on occasion, though more often than not he qualified well only to sink back down the order come race day. Both Super Aguri drivers had their moments. Takuma Sato had the upper hand in the early part of the year, and even passed Fernando Alonso for position during the Canadian Grand Prix - not something anyone would have predicted before the season began. Anthony Davidson generally outpaced the Japanese driver in the latter half of the year, and his qualifying effort in Turkey was one of the standout performances of the year. Adrian Sutil did all that could be expected in the hopeless Spyker, outclassing all his team mates and occasionally dragging the car a touch further up the order than it had any business being (most notably at Spa and at Indianapolis). He went off the road too often to merit inclusion in the top 10 though, and indeed this tendency may preclude his picking up a more worthwhile drive next year.

David Coulthard did a solid job for Red Bull, without ever quite appearing to be on the same level as his team mate. He was impressive in the wet, picking up a couple of 4th places, and coped admirably with a broken gearbox on his way to 5th in Barcelona. Rubens Barrichello, too, did a better job than he was credited for. Unfortunately, he was generally at his best when the Honda was at its worst, and so ended up pointless at the season's conclusion. If, as rumours suggest, this is his last season, it was a sad note on which to end.

Three other old stagers who may be staring retirement in the face are Giancarlo Fisichella, Ralf Schumacher and Alex Wurz. Wurz was a terrible disappointment in the Williams, and jumped before he was pushed. Schumacher achieved little in the Toyota, and was outclassed by Jarno Trulli. Fisichella had a good start to the season with the disappointing Renault, but appeared to lose interest mid-season and rarely figured after the British Grand Prix.

Vitantonio Liuzzi might just have done enough to salvage his F1 career, but his performances at the troubled Toro Rosso team were hard to judge. His team mate, Sebastien Vettel, initially looked out of his depth but came on in leaps and bounds when Toro Rosso finally began to understand the RB3 towards the season's end. He did enough to suggest that the mid-season replacement of the unexceptional Scott Speed was the right move.

Christijan Albers, whom I had been impressed by last year, was rather shown up by the appearance of a talented young team mate, and when the money ran out, he was shown the door at Spyker. Neither Markus Winkelhock nor Sakon Yamamoto made much of an impression either, though the number 2 seat at Spyker was perhaps F1's least desirable drive this year.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Narrowest of Margins

I watched the Brazilian Grand Prix in a bar in France. In all honesty, my French really wasn't up to following what was going on. I can just about understand it when its written down, but the accent defeats me completely. However, I did make out one very familiar voice among the commentary team, that of four time world champion Alain Prost.

It was apposite, I suppose, as there are distinct parallels between Kimi Raikkonen's stealthy run to the 2007 World Championship and the greatest of Prost's four title victories - for Mclaren in 1986. Both went into the final race as outsiders, and both were interlopers in an intra-team battle between team mates who had grabbed the lion's share of the press attention, and who did not get on at all. While it is hard to imagine two more different individuals than Prost and Raikkonen, there were certain similarities in the way that they won the title too. In 1986 Alain Prost didn't have the fastest car, and in 2007, Kimi Raikkonen did not have the most reliable car, but both made sure that they did not compound any disadvantage they had by making mistakes of their own.

There has been some debate as to whether this year's title went to the right man this year. An argument can be made, I think, that any of the three drivers separated by a single point at the end of the year would have been a worthy world champion, and certainly the very narrow gap at the top accurately refelcts what has been a very close fought season. In the run up to the final race, Keith Collantine's excellent F1 Fanatic blog had guest articles making the case for each of Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen. To my mind, they all made a good case and it simply underlines the fact that this was an incredibly close fought championship, where nobody succeeded in establishing themselves as the runaway favourite.

Off track, I have to admit that Fernando Alonso's antics have left a somewhat sour taste in my mouth (although that could be because everything I read is refracted through the British press, who needed a villain), but on the circuit, he has out in many impressive performances. If his 2007 season didn't quite live up to his incredible 2006 title drive? Well, how many drivers ever have a season as good as that?

However, while I could point easily enough to mistakes by Hamilton and Alonso which cost them points (Alonso's crash in Fuji, Hamilton's gravelly exit from the Chinese Grand Prix, not to mention Alonso's scrappy race in Canada, or Hamilton's off at the Nurburgring) I really struggled to think of any similar errors on Raikkonen's part. There was the qualifying accident in Monaco, but if we were to restrict ourselves to what went on during Sunday afternoon, then the only thing one could really accuse him of is being a little too cautious on occasion.

I was disappointed that he didn't make more of an effort to pass Heikki Kovalainen at Fuji (think how his team mate fought tooth and nail with Kubica, further back) and felt he ought to have been able to do more to keep Lewis Hamilton behind him at Monza. This is, after all, the Ice Man, reputed by many who ought to know to be the outright fastest driver in the world. But perhaps I do him a disservice. After all, it was quite possibly Hamilton's desire to win the title from the front (at Shanghai) which cost him his chance to win it at all. The Kimi of old might have taken more risks, but then the Kimi of old never won a world championship. I never had Raikkonen down as a percentages player, but its hard to argue that he played them other than brilliantly this year. Sure, he might have got another couple of points in Fuji if he could have got past Kovalainen's Renault, but he might equally have collided with his fellow Finn and eliminated himself from the title battle entirely.

In a predecessor to this blog, I argued that Kimi Raikkonen ought to have won the World Championship as far back at 2003 (I'm afraid I can't find the article, so you'll have to bear with me). With a year-old Mclaren which was not the match of either that year's Ferrari or the Williams BMW, he forced the championship all the way down to the wire, and came within a handful of points of denying Michael Schumacher his sixth world championship. Critics might point out that he only won one race all season, though he would have won a second, had his engine not failed at the Nurburgring. In the car he had, though, he was never going to win a lot of races, so he concentrated on racking up points. Even as early in his career as that, Raikkonen knew when to attack and when discretion might be the better part of valour. And had the Mclaren been a shade more reliable, that might have been enough.

If I'm honest, I really do think that Lewis Hamilton actually did the best job of the title protagonists this year and I would have liked to have seen him wrap up the title in Interlagos. Much as I have got sick to the back teeth of hearing about him in the media (one of the big plusses of being on holiday in France when the final race took place was not having to put up with James Allen's commentary) I think he did a pretty outstanding job against some seriously tough opposition. The fact that it was his first season in an F1 car and that he had never seen several of the tracks before only added to what would have been a pretty remarkable performance for even a seasoned superstar.

I'm glad, though, that an unreconstructed, old fashioned, 1970s kind of racing driver can still succeed at the highest level in the sport. When Raikkonen had a lacklustre start to the season, there were many who questioned whether he really had the commitment and the professionalism to succeed in the modern era - there were even dark (and by all accounts unfounded) rumours that his drinking was out of control. He ignored all of that, kept his head down, refused to engage in the tit-for-tat media war that his rivals sometimes got dragged into, and simply got on with the business of winning more races, and scoring more points, than anyone else. A worthy champion.

Post Script: Fuel temperatures? Appeals? Championships decided in the courtrooms? Let's hope it all goes no further. I'll be charitable and just assume that Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh just want to get one over Max Mosley by showing up how bad the FIA are at enforcing their own rules (Imagine having a rule about how fuel temperature relates to ambient temperature and neglecting to decide how ambient temperature would be determined.... And this is meant to be the pinnacle of technology...) None of the drivers appear to want the result to change. And quite right too.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Who You Know...

Twenty years ago, Williams had just claimed their second straight constructor's championship and Nelson Piquet had brought the driver's title to Grove for the first time in five years. In one sense, the Didcot team were at the very top of their game and appeared invincible. If one looked a little closer though, they seemed very much to be staring into the abyss.

Honda, their partner in the successes of the two previous seasons, were abandoning the team, and Frank Williams' men would be left to do what they could with specialist engine builder John Judd's atmo V8s. Not only that, they would have to find the budget to pay for them. Reigning champion Piquet was abandoning the sinking ship for Lotus, who were keeping their Honda V6 turbos.

Quite why Honda elected to leave Williams high and dry has never been entirely satisfactorily explained. Sure, the fact that Mclaren had Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna on their books for 1988 explained why they were a catch for the Japanese manufacturer, but why abandon Williams in favour of Lotus?

It has been said in some quarters that Honda were irritated that the team allowed supposed number 2, Nigel Mansell, to race and beat his double world champion team mate, Nelson Piquet. Perhaps closer to the truth, they were frustrated that an absence of team orders enabled Alain Prost to sneak through between them in 1986 and win the world title in a demonstrably inferior Mclaren Porsche.

Still, why stick with an increasingly shambolic looking Lotus and end the deal with Williams? One possibility is that it came down to Frank Williams' refusal to countenance employing one Satoru Nakajima. Satoru was the first full time F1 driver from Japan. He had come into his ride at Lotus at the relatively late age of 34, and his record in the junior formula suggested he was competent, rather than exceptional. Paired alongside Ayrton Senna at Lotus Honda in 1987, he never really stood a chance. The most telling statistic is that while Senna won 2 races that year with the awkward but not entirely hopeless Lotus 99T, and was even an outside bet for the World Championship at one stage, Nakajima finished in the points on just two occasions. About the best that can be said is that he did no worse than John Player's man, the Earl of Bute, the previous year (Scottish aristocrat, painter, and some-time racing driver, Johnny Dumfries, in case you're wondering...) when he found himself alongside the Brazilian.

Nakajima was in Formula 1 not because anyone was under any illusion that he would set the world on fire with his pace, but because Honda's marketing man demanded a Japanese driver in F1, and their engine supplier status gave them leverage to place him in one of their cars. Nakajima was a long-time Honda man, and was one of only a handful of Japanese drivers of the time who would not embarrass themselves in a Grand Prix car, and so the job was his.

To be fair to Nakajima, he had his moments. A fine drive in monsoon conditions at the 1989 Australian Grand Prix, where he scored his best finishing position, of 4th, on a day when many more illustrious drivers failed to keep it on the island, springs to mind. In hindsight, his biggest problem was probably that at just over 9st, he simply lacked the brute physical strength to get the most out of an F1 car. Nonetheless, it was entirely understandable that Frank Williams, who was running a team that had just won the constructor's championship twice in a row, did not wish to employ a journeyman in one of his cars on the mere say-so of his engine supplier.

In the long run, he was probably right. A year later, Lotus lost their Honda engines and began to spiral into a terminal decline, which ended with them messing around with drivers like Phillippe Adams in 1994, before being declared bankrupt. Williams, meanwhile, endured a torrid season with Judd, nonetheless picking up a couple of second places, courtesy of an inspired Nigel Mansell, before embarking on a fresh relationship with Renault which would yield multiple titles.

Fast forward twenty years, and all of a sudden, Satoru's son, Kazuki has been gifted a drive in the Williams FW29 in the final race of this season, and is being talked of as a serious option for a full-time seat next year. On balance, this seems rather odd. Nakajima has looked decently, rather than exceptionally quick, in GP2 this year, against a field that is perhaps not the strongest. He finished fifth in the championship, but in a GP2 grid that produced 12 different winners, he never finished higher than second. His wild driving style, all Peterson slides, and armfuls of opposite lock, looks spectacular, but is unlikely to translate well to an F1 car.

So why has he got the drive? There is a saying, which I've oft heard repeated gleefully by people who on any rational analysis look hopelessly out of their depth that "It's not what you know, it's who you know" (this is sometimes echoed by the more competent and somewhat bitter people they have been promoted over...). Unfortunately, this is all too true in the motor racing world. Given a completely free hand, Williams might be more inclined to try out Timo Glock, or even to have made a bid earlier this year for multiple Champ Car champion, Sebastien Bourdais. Come to that, I actually felt that Hiroshi Yoshimoto did more with what he had in GP2, having done about as much as anyone has with the haphazard BCN team last year, but he seems to have been perversely ignored by those on the lookout for Japanese drivers. However, Frank has an engine supplier to please...

Williams are not in the position they were 20 years ago. They have not won a race since 2004, have not scored a podium since 2005, and can hardly any more be thought of as front running team. They get their engines for free from Toyota, and in exchange for that, the team might be well advised to show a little willing. Nakajima, being the son of a man who for a long time was Japan's most famous racing driver, has plenty of contacts in the Japanese racing world. Doubtless, this has opened plenty of doors for him with the major manufacturers whose support is becoming increasingly vital in developing a career in motorsport. For a couple of years, he's been a Toyota development driver, and at a time when Honda have been seen to be doing rather more for Japanese drivers, Toyota now want in on the act. Frank Williams, this time around, has found he holds none of the high cards, and has judged it is in his team's best interests to accede to Toyota's request and hope that Kazuki is a shade better than his F3 and GP2 results suggest.

And who knows, it might even be the case. Certainly Nakajima looked a good deal more convincing in GP2 this year than he did in the F3 Euroseries the year before. Perhaps he's just taking a while to develop. All the same, I can't help but feel that this could be a move too far, too soon. Another season of GP2 might provide an opportunity to smooth over some of the rough edges which are undoubtedly still there, away from the limelight. I hope I'm wrong, but I can't help thinking that Kazuki may find out in a fortnight's time that , beyond a certain point, it really is about what you can do...

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