Monday, February 25, 2008

Book Review - The Last Road Race - by Richard Williams

The Last Road Race - Richard Williams

Trivia question: What was the longest circuit ever to host a round of the Formula 1 World Championship? The common wrong answer would be the 14-mile Nordschliefe - the legendary undulating strip of tarmac that snakes through the Eiffel mountains and which last hosted a Grand Prix back in 1976. In fact, though, the longest circuit ever to appear on the F1 calendar was the 15 mile road circuit on the Adriatic Coast, based around the Italian town of Pescara.

Pescara held but a single F1 Grand Prix, in 1957. While the Nurburgring was an ever-twisting constant challenge, Pescara was a triangular course consisting in large part of two very long straights, with a third side which twisted up the Abruzzo hills before gently descending back down towards the sea. It was not a driver's circuit in the same way that the 'Ring was, though opinions on its merits differed. Stirling Moss told Williams "I thought it was fantastic. It was just like being a kid out for a burn up. A wonderful feeling, what racing's all about." Jack Brabham, on the other hand, opined that "Those road courses were bloody dangerous and nasty, all of them. And Pescara was the worst."

Richard Williams' slim volume tells the story of the 1957 race. Had the book been about the race alone, which was no classic in the conventional sense, it might have ended up a rather dull read. The truth is that, while Luigi Musso put up a decent initial fight, Stirling Moss was never really challenged in his Vanwall after the opening laps, and finished over 3 minutes ahead of his nearest pursuer. The other Vanwall drivers hit trouble, and the Maseratis of Behra and Fangio simply couldn't live with them for pace.

Readers of Williams' motorsport books though, will know that he is all but incapable of writing a dull book, and this is no exception. The book provides pen portraits of the event's major protagonists - be they drivers like Moss, Tony Brooks, Luigi Musso and Roy Salvadori, or team owners such as Enzo Ferrari and the Vanwall chief who aped and despised him, bearing magnate Tony Vandervell. These give an interesting background not only to the race, but to the state and nature of Grand Prix racing as a whole in the late 1950s. Of particular intrigue is the rather convoluted tale of how Enzo Ferrari opted to boycott the race, in the wake of the Mille Miglia tragedy earlier that year, but contrived to ensure that Luigi Musso turned up in a Ferrari 801 anyway.

The book also gives some of the history of the Pescara circuit itself. While the venue only ever hosted one F1 Grand Prix, the annual Coppa Acerbo race had been taking place since the 1920s and had a considerable history. The first race had been won by none other than Enzo Ferrari himself, shortly before he gave up driving. The circuit was as dangerous as Brabham suggests, claiming the life of Algerian ace Guy Moll after he collided with a backmarker and ploughed into a house in 1934.

Interviews with the surviving protagonists also add much to the book. The reminiscences of Moss, Salvadori, Brabahm and Brooks help to give a flavour of what the world of Grand Prix racing was like back in the 1950s. Of equal value are the diaries of legendary motor-racing correspondent Dennis Jenkinson, provided for use by Doug Nye. Together, they paint a picture of a very different racing environment, where drivers did deals from race to race, and would gather to party together on the evening after the race, rather than flying off in private jets or hiding in personal motorhomes.

Much more informal and ad-hoc than it is today, there are nonetheless hints of the transition that was already beginning to take place, and which would eventually lead to the TV dominated, corporately controlled, multi-million dollar sport that is modern F1. By 1957, the Pescara race was already something of an anachronism - a throwback to an earlier time when motor races were point-to-point affairs, racing through the countryside from city to city. The track may not have been on the scale of the Targa Florio, but at 16 miles, it was substantially longer than all but a handful of the other F1 circuits of the time, and unlike the Nurburgring, it was held not on a permanent circuit, but on dusty, rough public roads.

Richard Williams admits that Pescara was not, in fact the last road race in F1. Road racing continued at Spa for another 15 years or so, and if street racing counts, continues to this day in the form of the ever more anachronistic Monaco Grand Prix. Rather, Williams feels that the title conveys an emotional truth. For him, "It marked the end of a certain philosophy of road racing. No longer would massed-start races, on open roads from town to village and back again, be organised in that ad hoc way, without permanent facilities or even the vaguest notion of safety precautions."

In a world where two-bit production line biographies of current F1 stars are ten a penny (quite possibly literally, in the case of remaindered copies of the many rushed biographies of Lewis Hamilton produced for last Christmas) Richard Williams book offers something different, and worth seeking out. Others have written more comprehensive histories of this period of the sport (Doug Nye, in particular) but no other book I have read does so well in capturing the spirit of that age. An unreserved recommendation.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Equality before the law?

It was a throwaway remark from Christine in a recent edition of sidepodcast which got me started. While talking about the livery of the newly rebadged Force India team, she suggests that they had perhaps had to drop the original (and much prettier) red colour scheme after pressure from Ferrari - who wanted to ensure that they remained the only red car on the grid. And now I think about it, it's been a very long time since anyone other than Ferrari had a red car on the F1 grid. I might be forgetting someone, but I think the last car other than a Ferrari to be decked out in red was the 1992 Scuderia Italia Dallara. And the only other one I can remember from the 25 years or so that I have been following the sport was the 1990 Life W12. Which was in no danger of being confused with a Ferrari, or indeed with a working F1 car.

Now, to be honest, I'm being a little facetious. I don't really believe that Ferrari have some kind of exclusive right to the colour red. Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief that the powers that be in F1 have tended to look after the interests of the Maranello team. In the wake of the Renault mass-damper affair back in 2006, after all, the FIA were being referred to in some quarters as Ferrari International Assistance. It is a matter of public record that the team benefit from their reputation and supposed 'star power' in terms of the sport's financial arrangements - they get more TV money simply for being Ferrari. The allegations, though, go deeper than that. It is suggested that Ferrari get favourable treatment not just from the sport's promoters, but from the supposedly neutral governing body.

As a matter of fact, allegations of favouritism towards Ferrari have a much longer history than that. They go back to a time before the FIA even existed, when Ferrari's name had little of the cachet that it does today. At the end of 1960, the governing body of the sport replaced the 2.5l formula which had been in use for some years with a new small-capacity 1.5l formula for the following season. With research and development budgets much smaller in those days, few teams had time to react to the sudden change in rules, and so most teams were forced to fall back on the Coventry Climax 1.5l 4 cylinder engine, which had begun life as a fire-pump unit.

The result was that Ferrari, who were pretty much alone in being truly prepared for the change of rules, dominated the season with their iconic Sharknose 156 design. There remain suggestions, to this day, that the governing body deliberately introduced the rule change when they did in order to give Ferrari a helping hand. Phil Hill won the championship that year, after the death of lead driver Wolfgang Von Trips in the Italian Grand Prix. In the event, though, Ferrari would win the title only once more in the following fifteen years.

It would not be until the early 1980s that talk of governing body bias towards Ferrari resurfaced though. This time, it was not so much specific bias in favour of Ferrari that was the accusation, but rather that the FISA was systemically tilted towards the works 'grandee' teams of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault, and against the mainly English 'garagistes', Lotus, Williams, Mclaren, Brabham et al. The garagistes tended to build the best chassis, and in particular, had perfected the art of building 'ground effect' cars with 'skirts' which created a vacuum under the body of the car, sucking them to the ground and generating immense downforce. The grandees, by contrast, tended to be behind the curve when it came to ground effect, but had a near monopoly on the manufacture of turbo engines. The turbos were clearly better than the normally aspirated Cosworths that the garagistes were using, but they were rarely bolted to the best chassis.

In 1983, the FISA announced that they were banning 'skirts' in the name of safety. Many among the garagistes saw this as a blatant attempt to favour the interests of the continental manufacturer grandee teams. After all, by Ken Duckworth's logic, turbos had never been legal in the first place, and yet it was ground effect where the FISA decided to take action. A more balanced analysis, however, would concede that there was a much greater need to do something about ground effect than there was to ban turbocharging. Towards the end of the 'skirts' era, the cars had so little feel, and so little suspension travel, that the driver had almost no feel for what the car was doing. A driver entered a corner relying on blind faith that the car would stick, knowing full well that he would have little or no warning if it did not. By contrast, turbocharging was an interesting and potentially fruitful new technology with possible road-car applications, and an interesting new avenue for the sport to explore.

If the rule change was intended to change the balance of power in favour of the grandee teams, and in particular Ferrari, then it did not work. In the final year of ground effect, Ferrari finally got it more or less right, and had it not been for the tragic death of Gilles Villeneuve, and career ending injury of his team mate Didier Pironi, one or other of them would almost certainly have been crowned champion. As it was, Keke Rosberg snuck through to win the title in spite of winning only one race for Williams. Come 1983, Brabham's partnership with turbo engine maker BMW married the best of both worlds - the chassis know-how of the British 'kit car' builders and the turbo engine building of the car manufacturers. Nelson Piquet claimed his second world title. For the rest of the turbo era, the titles would be won by British teams using car manufacturers' turbo engines (Mclaren with Porsche, Williams with Honda, and then finally Mclaren with Honda).

The end of the turbo era saw Ferrari engaging in an intriguing piece of brinkmanship with the FISA. In the late eighties, the Scuderia built an Indycar. The car never raced, and the question has often been asked: What were their motives? According to Mark Jones' piece for AtlasF1, the answer is that the car was being used to bully the governing body into allowing V12 engines in the post-turbo epoch. It should be remembered that, by the late eighties, Ferrari's mystique was considerable, and had the team opted to desert F1 for Indycars, it is all too possible that the Grand Prix racing's prestige and credibility would have been damaged. If it is true, then it worked, for Ferrari did indeed turn up for the first post-turbo race at Brazil in 1989 with a V12-engined car. They won that race, too, although in the long run, the V10 configuration turned out to be the optimal solution and over the course of the 1989 season, the Mclarens of Senna and Prost remained dominant.

Through the first half of the 1990s, Ferrari fell into such an abyss that any question of favouritism from the FIA, now under the control of Max Mosley, was irrelevant. They would have had to have been allowed to run 4 litre engines to stand a chance of offering a serious threat to Mclaren, Williams and Benetton. The picture began to change with the arrival of former Peugeot rally boss and one time rally co-driver, Jean Todt at the Scuderia.

It was Todt who hired Michael Schumacher, and with him Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. Undoubtedly. these three men, when put together with the organisational nous of Todt and Luca Di Montezemelo, were the driving force behind the Ferrari dream team of the early years of the 21st Century. Most of the significant allegations of FIA favouritism towards Ferrari, though, also date from this era.

It began, I suppose, at the end of the 1997 season in Jerez. Then, if you recall, Michael Schumacher made a particularly blatant attempt to win the world title for Ferrari by driving Jacques Villeneuve off the road. The attempt failed, and Schumacher's only, and purely symbolic punishment, was the loss of his 1997 drivers points. As he hadn't won the title anyway, one rather doubts that he lost sleep over this. It has sometimes been said that, had Schumacher been driving for any other team, the punishment would have been rather more harsh. I'm not entirely convinced. After all, it was not the first time a driver attempted to win the title by driving his rival off the road. When Ayrton Senna did it in 1990, he got the title, too. Come to that, there are those who say that it was actually Alain Prost who started it all by deliberately running Senna off the road the year before (though this is far from clear cut, as unlike Senna, Prost never admitted to doing any such thing, and should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt. Neither driver was penalised. In fact, neither was Schumacher after his controversial first title win in 1994, following a collision with Damon Hill in the final round at Adelaide. On balance, the failure to impose a harsher punishment on Schumacher probably reflects more on the governing body's reluctance to dole out severe penalties to the sport's biggest box office draws than to any bias towards Ferrari in particular.

A couple of years later came the Malaysian barge boards fiasco. For those who can't remember, Eddie Irvine was in the running to win the world title for Ferrari after Schumacher had lost much of the summer to injury. Irvine, aided by Schumacher, won the Malaysian Grand Prix, but both Ferraris were later disqualified when their barge boards were found to be outside the regulations. This seemed to hand the title to Mika Hakkinen and Mclaren. However, for reasons that were never made entirely clear, the Ferraris were later reinstated and the title fight went on to the final round at Suzuka (Irvine ultimately lost). Was this a sign of FIA bias towards Ferrari? Or a desire to create an artificial final round title showdown? Or simply the inevitable result of botched post-race scrutineering in Malaysia? Again, the answer is frustratingly unclear.

As the 2000s have rolled on, there have been persistent mutterings that Ferrari have some kind of 'inside line' on regulation changes. It has been suggested that, at the very least, the Scuderia are getting early warning of regulation changes, and that at worst, they are actually getting considerable control over what the changes are. The switch to Bridgestone control tyres (despite the fact that all the major teams other than Ferrari used Michelins) has been cited as one example, and the abandoning of the single-tyre rule which had badly hurt Ferrari in 2005 was another. However, there is another way to look at these. Michelin, it could be argued, had badly let the sport down when it failed to turn up with tyres capable of holding together on the banking at Indianapolis in 2005, leading to the farcical race of six cars that year. The FIA perhaps weighed that in mind when deciding who should get the tyre contract for 2007. Likewise, the strongest argument against the single tyre rule was that it was inherently dangerous - as Kimi Raikkonen's accident at the end of the European Grand Prix in 2005 neatly demonstrated. That Ferrari happened to benefit from these decisions does not necessarily mean they were made with the welfare of Maranello in mind.

Perhaps the strongest circumstantial evidence of pro-Ferrari bias at the FIA has been the mid-season decisions which have hurt and destabilised their major rivals in the course of tense championship battles in 2003, 2006 and 2007. In 2003, there was the ban, just prior to Monza, of Michelin's tyres, on the grounds that they deformed too much under heavy g-force loadings. A necessarily vague rule, the sudden requirement that the French team redesign their rubber certainly seemed to take the fire out of title charges from both Juan Montoya at Williams and Kimi Raikkonen at Mclaren. But then who is to say that the rubber wasn't simply illegal? If Ferrari were sharp enough to notice, that's to their credit...

The banning of Renault's 'mass damper' system in 2006, while Fernando Alonso was locked in combat with Michael Schumacher for the world title seemed to be equally suspiciously timed, especially as the system had previously been declared legal by the FIA. Fernando Alonso's bizarre grid penalty at Monza must be grist to the mill, too. That, however, would be to ignore the penalties handed out to Schumacher at Monaco (justifiably) and at Hungary (rather less so).

Last year, of course, we had the spygate affair. One can argue until that cows come home about whether what Mclaren was doing was significantly different from the kind of clandestine information exchange which has gone on since the dawn of the sport's history, but there is little doubt that the team were caught. If Ron Dennis didn't know about it, so be it, but there is no doubting that Mike Coughlan, who was a senior Mclaren man, certainly did. And again, if there was, as Martin Brundle suggested in the Sunday Times, a witch-hunt against Mclaren, does that reflect pro-Ferrari bias, or simply anti-Mclaren sentiment (though that would of course be significant in itself). The $100m fine may have little grounding in reality, and certainly seems at odds with the absence of any punishment at all in Renault's superficially similar case, but in this case, no action was taken which damaged Mclaren's title chances. It was bad luck and errors from the team and Lewis Hamilton which gifted the 2007 driver's title to Raikkonen and Ferrari.

So what's the conclusion? Maddeningly, perhaps, the only one I can come to is that, if this were a court of law, the case would have to be dismissed owing to insufficient evidence. There's no doubt that Ferrari have benefited from certain decisions of the FIA in recent years, and equally there is little doubt that they have been aggressive in lobbying the governing body when their interests are at stake, but on the question of whether the FIA are in some way in their pocket? I work in the Scottish legal system, and in Scots law, we have not two, but three verdicts: Guilty, Not Guilty and the so called 'bastard verdict' - 'Not Proven. And that is the verdict I am forced to come to in this case.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

A Record Tumbles

It's a wonderful feeling, being proven right. Five years ago, I jumped on a train to Berwick upon Tweed to watch the Jim Clark Rally. After much wandering around near the rally's base in the Borders town of Duns, vainly trying to locate the actual stages using only the rather ropey map that came with the event programme (and a fair amount of fighting through the overgrowth), I finally caught up with the action at Stage 3. The first few cars through were ex-works WRC beasts in the hands of the visiting Irish Tarmac Championship regulars. And fine viewing they were too. However, a white Ford Focus stood out as being driven seemingly much closer to the limit than anything else. Whoever was behind the wheel, he seemed comfortable using every inch of the road. I glanced down at my programme. Jari Matti-Latvala. A 17 year old Finnish kid. A name to watch, I thought to myself. By the I'd trekked over to the other side of Duns to watch SS7, Latvala was gone, crashing out in damp conditions on the previous stage. Still, it struck me that he was a more likely future star than anyone else I had seen that day.

It was at the end of 2006 that he came to my attention again. Gifted a one-off drive with the Stobart Ford team at the season-ending Wales Rally GB, he drove a surprisingly mature, measured rally to fourth place. It was enough to secure him a full-time drive with the team in 2007. Retirements in the first two events of the season did not bode well, but he recovered to finish 5th in Norway, taking his first stage wins along the way. A trickle of 4th place finishes followed, but Latvala also had more than his fair share of accidents. He might not have looked an obvious bet for the future were it not for the fact that, in only his first full season in WRC machinery, he was frequently setting fastest stage times when he was staying on the road.

The last two events of 2007 rather demonstrated Latvala's unpredictable nature. In Ireland, where drivers went off the road left, right and centre on tricky, damp muddy tarmac, Latvala drove a fine rally to take his first podium. A couple of weeks later, on returning to the forests of Wales, he lost several minutes after damaging his fog lights in the murk on Friday, but with a points finish out of the question, dominated the second two days of proceedings, setting 11 fastest stage times on the way to 10th place. It was warning enough that if Latvala could marry some consistency to his prodigious pace, he would be one to watch.

Malcolm Wilson, team boss at Ford, clearly thought along similar lines. With Marcus Gronholm heading off into retirement, he hired Latvala to partner Mikko Hirvonen in the works team for 2008 (maybe he took my advice!). Some might wonder if he ought to have gone for a more experienced driver, and Latvala's scrappy, accident-packed run to 12th in the Monte Carlo rally perhaps appeared to bear this out, but the youngster turned things round in style in Sweden.

In his second outing with the works-team, he led the event from the start, and looked in control throughout. While Sebastien Loeb went off the road early on and thus eliminated what might have been Latvala's strongest opposition, it was nonetheless remarkable that he seemed so comfortably to outpace his more experienced team mate, Mikko Hirvonen. No doubt, Hirvonen was a slow learner, and never really struck me as being truly from the top drawer, but equally, he's had several years of experience with works teams, and has won rallies from the front, most notably in Norway last year.

In winning the Swedish rally last weekend, Latvala became the youngest ever winner of a World Rally, and broke a record which had stood for nearly thirty years. Henri Toivonen's 1980 Lombard RAC Rally win, shortly after his 24th birthday, had been the benchmark for a very long time. Latvala admitted afterwards that he had always wanted to snatch Toivonen's record, but surely not even he expected to do so quite so soon (he had until mid-2009 to do it).

The parallels with Toivonen are almost uncanny. Both are Finns who came to rallying at a very young age. Latvala drove his first WRC event at 18, while Toivonen's first event, the 1975 1000 Lakes Rally, came only days after his 19th birthday. Both were the sons of rally driving fathers. Pauli Toivonen won the 1963 Monte Carlo rally for Citroen (rather controversially, following the spurious disqualification of the works minis) while Jari Latvala Sr drove in the Finnish championship through the 1980s and 1990s, taking the Gp N crown for Mitsubishi in 1995.

Toivonen was regarded by some as potentially one of the all time greats in the sport. Yet in the years between his 1980 win and his tragic death 6 years later at the Tour De Corsica, he would win only two more rallies - both at the wheel of the awesome Lancia Delta S4 in which he died. In part, this was because, until the arrival of the S4, he was never in the right car at the right time. That is not the whole explanation though. For while Toivonen was undoubtedly blindingly fast, he was also very accident-prone. Part of the reason that it took him until 1985 to secure a full time works drive in the WRC was his reputation for crashing.

It's a criticism which could also be levelled with some seriousness at Jari-Matti Latvala. While he made the finish at most events last year, he often ended up artificially far down the order after losing time with various 'offs'. In this respect, the combination of prodigious pace and a tendency to bend machinery is also more than a little reminiscent of another now-deceased rally hero - Colin McRae. I could yet be wrong, but I do sense that in Latvala, the sport at last might have found a new star to stand alongside the greats of the past - and - of course, Sebastien Loeb.

His early success might potentially present Ford's Malcolm Wilson with a rather awkward dilemma - one with which Ron Dennis would be all too familiar. Conventional wisdom would have it that Ford's obvious championship challenger - the man most likely to take the fight to the dominant combination of Citroen and Sebastien Loen - is Mikko Hirvonen. Yet this just might not be the case. If Latvala can beat Hirvonen in a straight fight so early on in his time at the blue oval, who's to say that he isn't actually the man with the raw talent to go toe-to-toe with the Frenchman?

And what if it's even more awkward than that? It's entirely possible that, while Latvala will turn out to be quicker than Hirvonen, he won't be as consistent. There lurks the danger that Latvala will succeed in taking points away from his countryman, but will not rack up the kind of consistent finishes needed to mount a serious tilt at the world title.

Perhaps it's irrelevant. It's at least arguable that Loeb is the overwhelming favourite to such an extent that Ford would be better off not even worrying about the driver's championship and concentrating on doing what they can to retain the manufacturer's title while - at the same time - giving Latvala a chance to gather experience to make a tilt at the 2009 title a serious possibility. Certainly, I'd be disappointed if it took him five years to win another rally as happened with the previous youngest ever world rally winner...

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Idiot Fringe

Even the most cursory glance at the F1 internet message boards and forums confirms that I was far from alone in finding the coverage lavished on Lewis Hamilton last year a little tiresome. That's not to diminish the scale of his achievements. In coming close to winning the World Championship in his debut year, he achieved something very unusual. In doing so whilst paired up with a double world champion who had just beaten the outstanding driver of his era to claim his second title, his performance was truly exceptional. Nonetheless, reading the British press and - in particular - watching the ITV coverage, one could sometimes be forgiven for wondering what had happened to the other 21 drivers.

One cliche, though, which I feared we would hear a lot of but which I was pleased to see the media largely ignored was that of "first black driver to... ". Perhaps it was because Hamilton's accomplishments were such that "first driver to..." applied equally well, but either way, the colour of Lewis Hamilton's skin has approximately nothing to do with how quickly he drives a racing car, and it was refreshing to see it wasn't given undue prominence.

Except, of course, a small group of moronic Spanish 'fans' who went down to Barcelona to watch winter testing thought otherwise. After a season in which Lewis Hamilton's blackness took second place to his speed in terms of media attention, they saw fit to start chanting racist abuse at Hamilton from across in the pit garages. Such behaviour is of course completely unacceptable, but I am not convinced that it is necessarily a sign of a deeper problem of racism among Spanish racing fans, or of infiltration by the Spanish equivalent of the National Front.

Rather, the problem is more likely one of mindless nationalism. To my mind, George Bernard Shaw had it right nearly eighty years ago, when he observed that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It strikes me as more than a mere coincidence that it should be in Spain that we should see race fans direct racist chants towards Lewis Hamilton, rather than any number of countries F1 visits where race relations are more fraught. After a fractious 2007 season, Hamilton and Spaniard Fernando Alonso are seen by many as sworn enemies, and in the minds of simplistic fans, if you are 'for' Alonso, you have to be 'against' Hamilton. Fundamentally, I suspect, what the Spanish fans really don't like about Hamilton is not his skin colour, but the fact that on occasion, he was capable of making their national sporting hero look rather ordinary. And for some, it would seem, this extends to 'blacking up' and holding up banners insulting his family...

This sort of thing is usually the province of football, rather than Formula 1, (where racist chants were commonplace until recently, though tellingly, they were always directed at the opposing team). As someone born in England, I need no reminding of the disgraceful depths of behaviour plumbed by those supposedly motivated by patriotic support for their football team. I remember feeling saddened and even ashamed when I read that two German tourists visiting my home town had been assaulted after the German national side had succeeded in eliminating England from Euro '96. I doubt it cheered the tourists at all, but I was glad when Germany went on to win that tournament.

Sometimes, though, the mindless nationalism that seems so endemic in team sports (at least, quelle surprise, when played at a national level) comes to infect individual sports. Often, it is harmless, or merely hugely embarrassing, as the 'come on Tim' brigade used to demonstrate at Wimbledon every year, with their fervent belief, in the face of all the available evidence, that Tim Henman would actually win a Grand Slam tennis tournament. As someone who has resided in Scotland for most of my adult life, the brief obsession with curling following Winter Olympic success is one of the peculiar moments in the nation's sporting history.

F1 has not been immune. The first time I can recall it coming into play was at the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch in 1976, when a partisan crowd looked ready to riot when it appeared that louche national hero James Hunt would not be allowed to take part in the restarted race after he had become involved in a first corner accident at the first start. Fearing what may happen if they refused to let him start, Hunt was allowed to race, and was disqualified after the fact, handing victory to arch-rival Niki Lauda.

It was the next British world champion, Nigel Mansell, who did most to attract the football hooligan contingent to F1 though. Maybe it was just the mood of the times, or maybe it was a certain tabloid-friendly side to Mansell's personality, but he did much to attract the Union-Jack boxer shorts brigade to the British Grand Prix. Humourous banners have long been a feature of Grands Prix, but there was nothing particularly funny or clever about the banners that appeared at the 1992 race and simply read "Fuck Senna". When one beered-up idiot took it upon himself to run across the track while the race was still going on, to celebrate Mansell's victory, we had a chilling reminder that motor racing is not like other sports, and that even the well-meaning drunken antics of so-called fans have the potential to end in tragedy. Thankfully, we got lucky that time, as we did again when defrocked priest Neil Horan decided to take to the track in 2003, wielding religious banners.

It's not only been Britain which has had a problem with it's idiot fringe. Michael Schumacher had always attracted a loud and colourful 'barmy army' (I should know, I once shared a camp site with them) and they were friendly enough. In the run-up to the German Grand Prix in 1994, though, following Michael Schumacher's disqualification for ignoring a 30s penalty at the British Grand Prix a fortnight earlier (the details of the affair have long slipped my mind, I seem to recall that the old reptile Tom Walkinshaw was involved somewhere along the line), some took in upon themselves to issue death threats to his chief rival, Damon Hill.

On that occasion, Michael Schumacher went to great lengths to distance himself from the unacceptable actions of his fans. Thus far, while the FIA have been quick to make clear that the kind of behaviour displayed by so-called fans in Spain will not be tolerated, there has been deafening silence from Fernando Alonso. On-track, Michael Schumacher was no paragon of virtue, but in this instance, I can't help thinking Alonso would do well to follow his example.

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