Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Awaking from a winter slumber

Time was, not so very long ago, when there really wasn't a whole lot to keep us race fans amused during the winter months. The Monte Carlo and Swedish rallies were about all there was happening in the racing world, besides the Daytona 24 Hour Race, at least until mid-March. The racing season, though, spluttered into life early last weekend. In addition to the Daytona enduro, and the Monte we had the opening rounds of the Speedcar and Asian GP2 series over in Dubai.

The catalyst for much of this has been the emergence of Asia as a significant player in the world of motor racing. Even the most cursory glance at the news helps to illustrate why this is happening. While banks in Britain and France totter, and the US heads towards recession, the Middle and Far East is doing really rather well (and buying up a lot of those troubled Western businesses at knock-down rates). Motor racing being an expensive business, it's no surprise that the sport is following the money.

The weather may be far from ideal for racing in Europe at this time of year, but in the Middle East, Malaysia, Indonesia and China conditions are considerably better. Or at least they are meant to be. Qualifying for the inaugural round of the GP2 Asia series had to take place on the short course at the Dubai Autodrome after heavy rain left part of the long course underwater. If this had been Silverstone we might not have been so surprised. As the rules don't allow for the racing to be held on a different circuit configuration from that used for qualifying, we were stuck with the race on the short track as well.

It didn't do wonders for the quality of the racing. The short track perhaps has more in the way of passing places than, say, Valencia, but that is about the best that can be said for it. In fact, the greater problem is that the Dubai Autodrome is fundamentally a dull, soulless venue where the endless acres of tarmac runoff areas and total absence of gradient change lend the impression that the circuit has been hurriedly laid out in an empty car park. One can't help feeling that if the racing world is going to flirt with authoritarian dictatorships and corrupt third world regimes, they could at least ensure that the circuits are interesting. Say what you will about the money that the Malaysian government has poured into hosting a Grand Prix at Sepang, but at least the track's good.

What then, of this new series? It's evident that the overall quality of the field is rather lower than we are used to seeing in the GP2 series proper, even in comparison with the slightly second-rate field we had last year. A few of the big names are present - Romain Grosjean is getting up to speed with ART; Bruno Senna is accustoming himself to changed surroundings at ISport, and Luca Filippi is out on secondment at Meritus, prior to joining ART for the GP2 series proper. Vitaly Petrov is continuing to learn his trade with Campos, after showing unexpectedly well towards the end of last year, and even winning a race. Andy Soucek struggled last year with a DPR team that were fighting to keep their heads above water, but on his junior-series form, he ought to be up to the job if Dave Price has sorted out his end of things. Senna's team mate, Karun Chandhok can't be entirely discounted, and I've always thought that Hiroki Yoshimoto has greater potential than BCN ever allowed him to show. The last two have the added cachet of actually being Asian - and are probably the only two Asian drivers in the series with any realistic hope of winning races in the GP2 Asia series.

Behind these men, it has to be said, the field seems to be made up of journeymen and rich kids wanting to play at being serious racing drivers over the winter, before the heavy-hitters come off their holidays. Armaan Ebrahim and Adam Khan have never done anything to suggest that they belong at this level, having looked hopelessly outclassed in A1GP. Stephen Jelley needed three years in the best team in the field to win one solitary race in British F3. Now his father's construction fortune at least provides us with an illustration of how ART's success isn't all down to the car. With Jelley at the wheel, they were right at the back of the field. Grosjean lapped him in race one! That Jason Tahinci is back for another year is another disappointment. This time, he drew attention to himself only for severely delaying Luca Filippi by aggressively defending his position as the Meritus driver came up to lap him. Michael Herck, Alberto Valerio, Davide Valsecchi and Harald Schlegelmilch are all drivers of whom I know little. On the evidence of last weekend, it is unlikely we will ever come to hear much more of them either - although Valsecchi did a decent job in the sprint race. All in all, it might be for the best that the GP2 Asia series runs with more severely rev-restricted engines than it's big brother. One can't help but suspect that some of the drivers further down the order would be a liability to themselves if they had full throttle to play with...

The first pair of races went to Romain Grosjean, who got off to the ideal start to his GP2 career at ART. It is fair to say that, while his domination of the feature race was impressive (albeit helped by the fact that Bruno Senna lost a lot of time behind Soucek, before finishing second) his second win owed something to luck, as well as ability. He did well to find a way past Yoshimoto and surprise second-place man Fairuz Fauzy, but one can't help but feel that Luca Filippi might have offered a rather sterner challenge had he not fallen out early on with gearbox problems. Whether this promising introduction to the world of GP2 works in the Swiss/French man's favour, or merely lures him into a false sense of security before the season proper gets underway remains to be seen.

Perhaps the most important thing for him is that he had the upper hand over Bruno Senna throughout. I've yet to be entirely convinced by this latest scion of the Senna family. I first cae across him on a cold day at Knockhill in a Formula BMW race a few years back, and he didn't really stand out there. He's done a reasonable job since, but he was soundly beaten by Mike Conway when they raced together in F3 in 2006, and after an early win in GP2 last year, he faded considerably towards the end of the year. Either way, though, he has a seat at ISport, and alongside ART, they have got to be the team of the moment in GP2. One can't help but feel that if ISport are to retain their crown, it is going to have to be Senna, rather than Chandhok, who brings home the bacon.

Beating Luca Filippi won't do him any harm either. Filippi will be joining him at ART come April, and it could be argued that the fact that Grosjean has got his feet under the table first at the French squad will work to his advantage. Against that, though, one must factor in Filippi's two previous seasons of GP2. After a rather underwhelming debut season, he came on in leaps and bounds during 2007, and came closer to putting Super Nova right back at the top than anyone has since the days when they took Montoya and Bourdais to F3000 titles. That said, Filippi is with a brand new team who have no previous experience of the car, and so he too can take positives from the opening round.

They're off to Sentul, in Indonesia next. The track is another rather narrow, twisty affair and like the short Dubai circuit, is perhaps not the best place to take big powerful single seaters to. On the other hand, judging by the A1GP race, at least the locals are a bit more interested in what is going on than was the case at the deserted Middle East venue last weekend. There's grass, rather than oceans of tarmac, at the side of the track, and who knows, maybe they'll have a monsoon to enliven proceedings. I'm in two minds about the GP2 Asia series, but at the least, it's something to keep us amused over the winter

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Second (Placed) Sex?

There are some things which are so unremarkable, so much an accepted part of our life, that we rarely stop to ask the question why? Never even consider that they might be otherwise. Take sex for example. Why does it exist at all? (the answer as best we can tell, is rather esoteric and seems to relate to parasite resistance) But that's only one part of an answer. Why are there two sexes? Why not a system which allows any individual to breed with any other individual? Why not three sexes, or ten? To the best of my knowledge, biologists have failed to settle upon a definitive explanation for this puzzling feature of the natural world.

Back to the motorsport, and the question arises - why are almost all racing drivers male? It's a question I hadn't really ever given any thought to until someone asked me recently, and yet it strikes me as a rather interesting one. In most sports, the answer is obvious. Men tend, on average, to be larger, taller, and physically more powerful than women, so it is no surprise that they outperform them in the sporting arena. It is less clear, however, that such physical advantages should make any difference on the racing track. Sure, you need to be strong enough to drive a racing car, but providing you have sufficient strength, it is not clear that being physically stronger than your opponent will give you any additional advantage.

Broadly speaking, there are two possible answers to the question (or one could sit on the fence, and say that there is some truth in both the possible explanations). Firstly, it could be a cultural thing. Boys are drawn to fast cars and danger and want to emulate their (male) racing heroes, so they are more likely to take the first steps into karting. Parents are more likely to be supportive of such an interest in their sons than their daughters. Sponsors and backers have never seen a really successful female racing driver before, and so they are less likely to secure the funding to support their junior career, and so on.

I tend to be suspicious of claims that everything is down to culture, but there may be some truth in the claim. Certainly there can be little doubting that, if you go to any junior karting meet up and down the country, the vast majority of the competitors will be boys - and so perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised when the great majority of adult racing drivers are men. And, historically at least, sponsors may have found it hard to take the idea of a female Formula 1 driver seriously. Desire Wilson, a racing driver from the early 1980s, told Mark Hughes some years back that "When I first moved to America to race, I would go into boardrooms explaining that I was trying to do Indycars and the reaction was You mean you're going to be racing against Mario Andretti? Excuse me?"

The second possibility is that it is nature at work. That there is something about men (or at least the best men) which makes them better racing drivers than women. I've said above that physical strength is unlikely to be the explanation, as there clearly are female racing drivers who do not struggle in this area. That may be an oversimplification though. Clearly there are many drivers - including many male drivers, who simply don't have the strength to cope with F1 style downforce levels. If that is the case, it may be that many otherwise able female drivers simply can't adapt to big powerful single seaters. That's not so say that there aren't some who can, but it will certainly narrow down the field of potential contenders. Veteran racing journalist Mike Lawrence noted that "It is downforce and the massive forces which it places on the driver which has made the difference." which would certainly go some way to explaining why, when there were three female drivers in F1 during the 1970s, there have not been any Giovanna Amati's brief and ill-advised foray with Brabham in 1992.

Leaving aside the question of physical strength and endurance, various studies appear to have demonstrated that, on average, men have slightly better spatial awareness and depth perception than women do. The difference is arguably too small to account for the near-complete absence of women from top-level motorsport, but the focus on the average may be misleading. Professional sports people, including racing drivers, do not come from the middle of the bell curve - they are outliers - exceptional cases by definition. And the evidence suggests that, on almost any given measure of ability, the bell curve of ability for men tends to have a longer tail than that for women. Put simply, the best men will tend to be better than the best women and by extension, the worst men will be worse than the worst women. This may go a long way to explaining, why, for instance, almost all the great chess players are male, though superior depth perception or strength is unlikely to serve you well on the chequered board.

What, then, of the exceptions to the rule? Surprisingly, from the very dawn of motorsport at the beginning of the 20th Century, there have been a number of female racing drivers. In truth, this is a reflection in large part of the fact that motor racing was a wealthy gentleman's club at the time, and the wives and daughters sometimes joined in. As racing got more serious and professional, the proportion of female entrants declined.

Nonetheless, into the 1920s and 1930s, a small number continued to make a significant impact. 'Helle Nice', a former erotic dancer who raced Bugattis in the 1930s, is well known, thanks to Miranda Seymour's enjoyable biography The Bugatti Queen. Much less well known, but almost certainly ultimately the faster driver is Czech driver Elisabeth Junek. Junek was married to wealthy financier Cenek Junek, who was an archetypal gentleman Bugatti racer. Elisabeth, though, was rather more than that. Ultimately quicker than her husband, she came tantalisingly close to beating such established names as Guiseppe Campari and Tazio Nuvolari, Luigi Fagioli and Louis Chiron in the 1928 Targa Florio race, leading much of the way, before losing time near the end with brake problems and eventually finishing fifth. She might have gone on to greater things, but she retired from facing following her husband's death later that year in the German Grand Prix.

The post-World War II racing world was less fertile ground for women racers. Maria Teresa De Fillippis competed in a handful of Grands Prix in an aging Maserati 250F in the late 1950s, but did nothing to suggest she was anything more than a tail-end amateur of the kind that tended to make up the numbers in Grand Prix racing at the time.

Some sixteen years later, Lella Lombardi made her racing debut in a privately entered Brabham. She failed to qualify but came back in 1975 and did the best part of a full season in a March 751. In her third race, in tragic circumstances at Montjuic Parc, she recorded a sixth place finish in a race stopped prematurely following an accident which killed several spectators and marshals. In so doing, she made a bit of history in becoming the first, and so far only woman to score points in an F1 Grand Prix. She competed in a further 14 Grands Prix, but never looked like repeating the feat. Thereafter, she went on to some success in sports cars, winning a number of FIA World Sports Car races in the late 1970s. She was certainly notably more successful than former British Olympic ski-ing captain, Divina Galica, who unsuccessfully attempted to qualify for 3 Grands Prix between 1976 and 1978. To be fair, Galica had almost certainly been catapulted into top-level machinery far too early, and she did at least achieve some success in the peculiar sideline that was the British Formula 1 Championship.

It was in the British F1 championship that F1's next female entrant, South African Desire Wilson achieved her greatest success, winning a round at Brands Hatch and so becoming the only woman to win a Formula 1 race of any kind. Had she had the right breaks, though, she might have achieved rather more than that. The bare statistics don't really suggest she was more than a non-entity - a single failed attempt to qualify for the British Grand Prix in a RAM Williams in 1980. That, however, is to ignore the fact that the Williams she attempted to qualify had severe chassis damage, and it is doubtful that anyone could have got it onto the grid. The 1981 South African Grand Prix was a non-championship event, owing to a dispute between FOCA and the FIA and in that event, driving a Tyrrell, she qualified a respectable 16th, around 0.5s slower than more experienced team mate Eddie Cheever. Come the race, she had to start from the pitlane, but in the rain began to pick off the likes of Salazar and Stohr, only to slide back down the order when she found herself on the wrong tyres, before ending up in the wall on lap 51.

It was all we would ever see of Wilson in top level F1 racing, but she was, with little experience, really not far from the pace in her first race. Who is to disagree with her own assessment, years later, that "I don't think in all honesty, that I was world championship material....but I'm pretty sure that I would have been a regular point scoring type of driver."

Thereafter, the only woman to enter a Grand Prix was the hopeless Giovanna Amati, whose previous CV included an awful lot of DNQs in F3000 who made a half hearted attempt to qualify a Brabham in the South African and Brazilian Grands Prix of 1992. If there was a woman who was up to the task of F1 at that time, it is more likely that it was German Ellen Lohr. There is little to suggest that Lohr was really from the very top drawer, talent wise, but a second place finish in the blue-riband Monaco F3 event in 1990 (ahead of such as Alex Zanardi and Olivier Panis) and a win in the DTM at Hockenheim in 1992 establish her as easily the most accomplished female driver of her time.

In recent years, it has been across the pond in the USA where female racing drivers have made the biggest waves. Danica Patrick may be disparaged in some quarters for the fact that she has never won a motor race of any significance, but it is hard to deny that she has established herself as a significant force in the IRL with 3 poles and 3 podium finishes to her name (the best of these, a second place at the tricky Detroit street circuit). She wasn't the first woman to achieve a modicum of success in IRL. In its earlier, more amateurish guise, Sarah Fisher became the first woman to score an IRL podium, at Kentucky back in 2000. A couple of years later, she achieved another first, becoming the first woman to record a pole position in a major US open wheel race at the same circuit. Neither of these two drivers have actually won a race of note. Englishwoman Katherine Legge, on the other hand, has 3 Formula Atlantic wins to her name and finished a promising 3rd overall in her rookie season in 2005. That said, her subsequent performances in the moribund Champ Car series suggest that this is perhaps reflective of the rather poor quality of the opposition in Formula Atlantic that season (after all, what became of series winner Charles Zwolsman?)

Perhaps as a result of this, various other female racing drivers, including Cyndie Allemann (a middling F3 Euroseries racer) and Simona Di Silvestro (a competent FAtlantic driver) have made the trip across to the States to further their career. It has to be said, though, that none of the above names look like potential F1 stars. A symptom of the relative dearth of women at the junior level, or a demonstration that on a brute biological level, the best women just can't compete with the best men behind the wheel? We may never know for sure, but there is a tantalising suggestion that this might not be so, from over in the world of rallying.

None of the drivers I have mentioned above have won events at the very top level. Some may have competed at the top of their sport, others may have won races in more junior or less prestigious categories, but one cannot point to a female Grand Prix winner. The same is not true of the rallying world. In 1981, Frenchwoman Michele Mouton won the San Remo rally for Audi, and in doing so became the first, and only woman to win a round of the World Rally Championship. The following year, she won a further three rallies, and wound up second in the drivers' championship, ahead of team mate Hannu Mikkola (although it must be said, that on the occasions when they both finished, Mikkola was always ahead).

In doing so, she stands out as surely the only female racing driver whose achievements would be considered worthy of note had she been male. Sure, the Audi was the class of the field in 1982 (at least when it was running reliably) but the Group B monsters of the time were no easy beasts to tame - with over 450BHP running through primitive 4WD systems, they were a great deal more tricky to drive than today's WRC machinery. She may have faded quickly from note in World Rally circles (she was 5th in 1983, with 3 podiums, while Mikkola won 4 rallies on his way to the world title) but that was not the end of her achievements.

In 1984, she made the trip over to the USA to take part in the fearsome Pikes Peak hillclimb event as a works Audi driver. On her first attempt at the mountain course, she finished 2nd overall, and won the rally car section. A year later, she came back and won the event outright - the only woman to have done so. It is reported that Bobby Unser was far from happy at being beaten at an event he had made his own by a French woman in a European car, and that Mouton's response to his grumbling was "If you had any real balls, you'd race me back down as well." She remains, for now, a one off. A hint at what women might be able to achieve in motorsport, or the exception that proves the rule?

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Trap

There has been a long, slow drift towards increasingly restrictive technical regulations in F1, gradually closing down the space in which teams can seek to find the 'unfair advantage' and design a better race car than their rivals. Of late, this tendency has rather accelerated. Max Mosley's announcement earlier this year of a ten year engine freeze has been the most dramatic example, but the move to standardised ECUs (driven by the understandable desire to eliminate traction control) and even the recent move to a single tyre supplier, are examples of the same underlying trend.

I'm not going to start defending Max Mosley as a person. His behaviour, particularly this year, has been ill-fitting of a man who, as head of the FIA, ought to be able to stand above the day-to-day scandals and spats of the F1 paddock. In this context, his remarks about Jackie Stewart, his insistence that Ron Dennis "probably lied" during the Mclaren spy-affair and his legal action against the Sunday Times all suggest a man who has forgotten the requirements of his office, and is descending into an undignified pettiness. Let's not pretend, though, that the issues that he, and the FIA, are wrestling with, do not really exist, or that there is an easy and straightforward solution which the FIA are boneheadedly ignoring.

Anyone designing a set of rules for F1 might reasonably be aiming to achieve five objectives.

Firstly, the rules should promote close, exciting racing.

Secondly, the rules should ensure that there is scope for engineering innovation and technical excellence to shine through.

Thirdly, the rules should ensure that the sport remains affordable (I'll get into more detail about what I mean by that later).

Fourthly, they should ensure that the cars are a genuine challenge to drive - that a great driver will be faster than a merely good one.

Finally, the rules should ensure that the sport remains acceptably safe - in particular, it should guarantee in so far as it is possible, that the spectators are not put at risk.

The trouble is that these five objectives will always end up conflicting with each other. A complete technical free-for-all would almost certainly result in cars that all but drive themselves, are absurdly expensive, and profoundly dangerous. While many officials will claim that "safety must always come first" this is true only in relative terms. The only way to entirely guarantee safety would be not to race at all - as ticket stubs remind us "motor racing is dangerous."

These are extreme examples, but nonetheless, the FIA has a very difficult job on its' hands in trying to balance these objectives. Take engines for example. The ten year engine freeze (now apparently reduced to five) represents a very serious restriction on the ability of teams to develop their cars. Between 1995, when the 3.0l engine formula came into being, and 2005, when it was phased out and replaced with the current 2.4l formula, the power output of F1 engines improved from around 700BHP to over 1000BHP. Now, that battle has been stopped in its' tracks and engines will remain essentially as they are. Thus the desire to ensure that the sport remains affordable comes into conflict with the desire to keep it technically interesting.

Why? The argument for the engine freeze is that engine development represents a hugely expensive dead end, in which rival car manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of pounds running to stand still, all advancing at, give or take a few BHP, exactly the same rate, until eventually the engines produce sufficient power that the FIA feel they have to cut engine capacity again in the name of safety - thus forcing yet another costly development cycle on the engine manufacturers. At a time when many large car manufacturers are struggling somewhat, pouring vast amounts of money into the development of ever more powerful small capacity engines must seem something of an expensive indulgence.

There has been a lot of focus of late on the need to control costs - to ensure that F1 remains affordable for the teams. Now, of course, leaving aside the possible solution of budget-capping, the cost of F1 will always be some percentage of what the wealthiest team is prepared to spend. When the richest teams had $30m budgets, the smallest teams could get by on about $3m. Now the Ferraris and Mclarens of this world have as much as $400m a year to play with, the likes of Spyker need at least $40m even just to stay at the races. However, the sport can be made more affordable by 'closing off' those aspects of car development where additional research and development budgets are likely to produce the greatest improvements. Before the engine freeze, customer engines were far and away the greatest expense for the smaller teams, severely curtailing their ability to spend money in other areas. With the freeze in place, engines inevitably begin to come down in price. The engine makers no longer have to recoup immense development costs, and so can cut the price being charged to the likes of Williams, Red Bull, Spyker et al. This frees the smaller teams up to spend more money on things like wind tunnels and CFD, and so should help to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor.

Restrictions on technology aren't always about saving money. The recent introduction of the standard ECU has more to do with ensuring that the driver remains an essential part of the equation than anything else. There has been a growing suspicion that modern F1 cars have dramatically reduced the difference between the great and the merely good drivers. The fact that Felipe Massa was able to run Kimi Raikkonen so close last year may - or may not - help to illustrate the point. In reality, traction control is only one small part of that particular equation (fundamentally, the problem is that F1 cars now have too much grip and too little power), but nonetheless, it has become something of a totemic cause for the purists, and so the FIA have stepped in. The standard ECU has become necessary because, without it, any ban on traction control would be all but impossible to enforce. It is simply too easy to hide software code away in proprietory ECUs. In contrast with many of the changes the FIA have brought through in recent years, it will probably have the effect of making the sport ever so slightly less safe. But then there has always been a conflict between the desire to ensure safety and the requirement that F1 cars are challenging to drive.

For all the focus on engines and ECUs, the vast majority of the performance difference between current F1 cars almost certainly derives from their degree of aerodynamic efficiency. In general, the front running cars have tended to look visibly more aerodynamically intricate than their less well-funded rivals. Like the engine horsepower battles that raged until last year, highly competitive teams are spending millions to fight each other to a stand-still. As with the engine battle, it is hard to see what possible wider use all this development could have, beyond the world of motorsport. And, to an even greater extent than the engine battle, it is genuinely difficult to see what the FIA could do to stop it. Short of forcing teams to homologate a single body shape for what? A whole season? Five seasons? or introducing standard bodywork pieces that would surely be the first part of a move to make F1 a spec-formula, there is little the FIA can do but let the battle continue to rage. Talk of wind-tunnel time limits and suchlike strike me as fundamentally unworkable, and liable to open up F1 to constant allegations of rule-bending and outright cheating. Something we have frankly already had enough of last year.

These are problems which motorsport has faced since its earliest days. However, I can't help but feel that motorsport, and perhaps particularly F1, has become a victim of its own success. The problem is that, over the last eighty years , so many incredibly bright individuals have given so much thought to the question of how to make racing cars go faster and faster, that there really is little scope for the truly novel innovation left. Not only do teams now know more about the physics of race car design than ever before, but they know much more about the science of determining how to go about making a racing car faster.

In the 60s and 70s, when budgets were much smaller and computers available to few outside NASA and the military, the intuition and intelligence of individual engineers and designers could still produce quantum leaps in performance. And those did not necessarily rely on the team being better funded than it's rivals. When Lotus dominated the sport in 1978, they did not do so because they had more money than their rivals, but because their engineers had developed a means of producing dramatically more downforce than any other car on the grid (so called 'skirts'). Nowadays, car development consists to a much greater degree of exhaustively enumerating possible detail changes to aerodynamic parts, in the hope of finding maybe a few thousandths of a second a lap. The more money you can throw at your exhaustive search, the better you will do.

This is of course, a caricature of the real situation. If race car design really were as simple as throwing as much resource at the problem as possible, there is no way that Toyota would have failed to win a race and that Renault would have picked up the World Championship twice in recent years. Nonetheless, F1's collective knowledge and understanding of the science of building a racing car is now such that radical innovations and giant-killing achievements from small teams are vanishingly unlikely. The sport has fallen into a trap of it's own making - a victim of its own success. The restless, ceaseless desire of some of the cleverest and most competitive minds on this earth, seeking to understand perfectly how to make half a tonne of carbon fibre around a 3 mile ribbon of tarmac quicker than anyone else, has produced an expensive stalemate. The FIA face an almost impossible task in balancing the contradictory objectives in a satisfactory way to enable the sport to survive in some recognisable form into the coming decades.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

When your time is up

British F1 viewers will have been treated to, or perhaps that should be, subjected to, a series of adverts for the mobile phone company, Vodafone, in which Dame Judy Dench tells us (over a montage of pictures and clips of one Lewis Hamilton) that "a dream can only become reality if you chase it and chase it and chase it." Maybe so, but the thing about dreams is that they tend to be unrealistic, to be flights of fantasy. Else they wouldn't be dreams.

Lewis Hamilton's 'dream' - that of becoming Formula 1 World Champion, is a case in point. In the 57 years that the World Championship has been in existence, just 29 individuals have achieved this feat. Given that there were around 29 drivers on the grid over the course of this year alone, (and, according to Wikipedia, nearly 800 different drivers over the years) the odds are not especially good.

Even making the F1 grid, though, is a kind of statistical lottery win. As a young kid, I had dreams of being an F1 champion myself. As with probably almost every kid who got hooked on watching the sport, I didn't have the family connections, or money, to pursue this ambition in any meaningful way. I was a couple of years older than Lewis Hamilton is now when I even first got behind the wheel of a kart. If I had wanted to become an F1 driver, I would have had to have been racing karts since my early teens The vast majority of those dreaming of F1 stardom fall at the very first fence, and through no fault of their own. (Incidentally, there have been odd exceptions to this rule. Damon Hill was the last World Champion who did not come up through karting. To my knowledge, the last driver who did not spend his teens in the karting ranks was Robert Doornbos).

That still leaves hundreds, perhaps even thousands of young men across the world who take their first steps into the world of Junior single seater racing each year. The options are myriad - Formula BMW, Formula Ford, Formula Renault, and various less well recognised routes exist in Britain alone, and most of these championships have their analogues in every western country as well as, increasingly, many less traditional motorsporting countries in the Far East, the Arab world and South America. Most of the drivers in these categories will never progress beyond them - to Formula 3, International Formula Masters, Formula Atlantic or any of the other categories that make up the next rung on the ladder. Sometimes this will be because they simply didn't have the requisite ability to pursue their career to the next level - sometimes it will be a shortage of funds. Sometimes, given that many drivers have backers who see 'their' man as an investment, it is hard to disentangle the two.

While there are drivers who make the leap straight from Formula 3 to Formula 1 (or even from Formula Renault to Formula 1, in the exceptional case of Kimi Raikkonen), the final step these days, is almost invariably a stint in GP2, or perhaps the Renault World Series. Most aspiring single seater drivers never get this far, and yet still there is no getting away from the fact that even most of those men who do will never race an F1 car in anger. In the three years that GP2 has been running, just 5 drivers have made the leap to F1. Thus far, of those five, only Lewis Hamilton has actually won a race (though one would not necessarily bet against Heikki Kovalainen or Nico Rosberg eventually joining him on the list of GP winners). For every Michael Schumacher, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of men who might have wanted it just as much, but who lacked the talent, or the breaks.

What, though, of two drivers sloping out of the back door after a decade in Formula 1? In the final analysis, were Alexander Wurz and Ralf Schumacher successes or failures? Both came into Formula 1 in 1997, and both initially looked like young guns who were going places. Alex Wurz began his career as a substitute for fellow Austrian, Gerhard Berger, picking up a podium in only his third race. After this promising showing, Benetton gave him a full time ride alongside Italian Giancarlo Fisichella in 1998. His time at Benetton started well enough, with a string of points finishes in the early part of the year, but gradually tailed off
as the season went on. The following years were not great for Benetton, but over time, Fisichella comprehensively established himself as the more promising of the two, and it was no great surprise that Wurz found himself without a drive in 2001.

Wurz's decent technical understanding of the sport and his work ethic made him an ideal candidate for the role of test driver, and it was in this role that he was employed for five years at Mclaren. In a sense, it must have been immensely frustrating for a man who had his heart set on reaching the top in Formula 1, but it was perhaps not such a bad way to earn a living really. Mclaren almost certainly paid its test drivers rather more handsomely than any middling team that Wurz might otherwise have ended up at would have paid its racing drivers. Perhaps the Austrian had figured out from his time at Benetton that, while a perfectly decent racing driver, he lacked that extra something which separates the good from the great. In view of that, a solid career as a test driver must have seemed a sensible option.

On some level, though, he must have hankered to try his hand at race driving again, for little else could explain his move from Mclaren to take a testing job at the much less well-funded Williams team. Sure enough, when Mark Webber exited stage-left for Red Bull, he was drafted in to drive alongside Nico Rosberg. This brought a final podium finish (at Canada) but on the whole must be judged a disappointment. While reasonably quick in the races, he was hopelessly lost in qualifying, and in modern F1, that is always going to leave you at a massive disadvantage. Whether it was because his competitive edge had been dulled by too many years testing, or whether it simply was an illustration of the fact that Wurz lacked the last few tenths of a second a lap that make a really great F1 driver, there can be little doubt that by the end of 2007, his time at the top of the sport was done.

All the same, when assessing whether a driver succeeded or failed, some account must be taken, I think of what he did with what he had. In this respect, I think Wurz came out well. In terms of sheer, innate talent, I don't think he was anything exceptional, but he was a good solid worker, and he picked up a few podium finishes when the cards fell his way. I think he can retire, comfortable in the knowledge that he achieved about as much as could have been expected.

It is much harder to know whether the same can be said of Ralf Schumacher. He has always struck me as something of a mercurial talent. There were times when he was absolutely imperious - and all too many others when one scarcely noticed he was there at all. He has, of course, the misfortune of being Michael Schumacher's younger brother - and compared with him, Ralf's F1 record looks decidedly second-best. But then, in comparison with Michael, whose doesn't?

It was widely suspected that he reached F1 largely because of the family name, but his first couple of seasons with Jordan identified him as something of a diamond in the rough - quick, if prone to mistakes. It was in 1999, when he moved to Williams, that his reputation was made. Paired alongside Champ Car champion Alex Zanardi, and given the least competitive car Williams had built in over 10 years, he set about picking up a very decent haul of points and finished sixth in the drivers' standings. His team mate, by contrast, failed to score a single point all year.

2001 was, in a way, both the making and the breaking of Schumacher Jr. Paired against another Champ Car champion, Juan Montoya, Ralf picked up his first victory in the San Marino Grand Prix and followed this with further wins in Canada and Germany. He finished up fourth in the driver's championship - about as much as could be expected from anyone driving a car other than a Ferrari or a Mclaren. The trouble, for Ralf, was that his inexperienced team mate looked ultimately the more exciting prospect - the driver who had more potential.

2002 was a bit of a non-event, such was the sheer level of dominance achieved by the Ferrari F2002. Ralf was one of only two non-Ferrari drivers to win a race, but while Juan Montoya somehow hustled the Williams to seven pole positions, Ralf never started from P1, cementing the view that the Colombian was the quicker of the two.

In 2003, Ralf Schumacher found himself, for the only time in his career, with a car which had the potential to win the world championship. The Williams was no race-winner at the start of the year, and it was noticeable that Juan Montoya was able to do a lot more with it than Ralf Schumacher. Thus, while Montoya was second in the opening race, Ralf could only manage 8th. While Montoya managed to salvage 8th on the grid when the car proved all at sea in Malaysia, Ralf was 17th!

The thing is, when the Didcot squad got the car really sorted, the pendulum swung. Nothing could touch the Williams for pace in the middle of the season - and at that point, it was Ralf, rather than Montoya who was able to extract the greatest pace from the car. Had it been the other way round, Juan Montoya just might have ended the year as World Champion. Interestingly, the moment the Williams began to fall away from the ultimate pace, sure enough, it was Montoya who was quicker again.

After that one opening that Ralf Schumacher had for a title campaign (it's easy to forget that at mid-season, he looked as good a bet as anyone to take the championship), he would never win a race again. To be fair, though Juan Montoya won his final race at Williams in 2004, he never really had a race-winning car again. It is open to question, how much the blame for that lay at his own door. To the surprise of many, Ralf Schumacher moved to Toyota for an absurd sum of money in 2005. At the time, it looked like a case of pecuniary greed getting in the way of furthering his career. In retrospect, it can be argued that he correctly foresaw Williams decline, and Toyota ought to have been the more promising team.

For a while, in 2005, it looked like he might be right. In the early part of 2005, they were briefing Renault's closest challengers, but it was noticeable that Jarno Trulli, rather than Ralf Schumacher, was the man racking up the results for them. The situation reversed in 2006, but it scarcely mattered - Toyota have never maintained the momentum they showed at the beginning of the 2005 season, and have slid ever further back into mediocrity. In 2007, the situation had reversed again, and generally, Jarno Trulli was the man who managed to eke a little more out of yet another undistinguished Toyota chassis. When the team decided that Ralf Schumacher was an expense that made little sense, it was no surprise that a long queue did not form for the German's services.

So how should Ralf Schumacher's career be judged? As a success - on the basis of those 6 wins? Or as a failure, because of the tantalising hints that he was capable of so much more. Much depends on the answer to one question. When the car wasn't quite there, was it simply that his driving style required a car that was absolutely right for him to show his abilities to best effect or did he simply get lazy. If the former, then he probably achieved about as much as he could. If, on the other hand, it was a lack of application on his part, that's another matter. He would be a driver who had the talent, but just didn't work hard enough - wasn't consistent enough, to deliver all that he might have been capable of. Another Juan Montoya, if you like. In the words of Dame Judy, he had a dream, but he didn't keep chasing it, and chasing it.

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