Monday, June 23, 2008

First you've got to be good...

What does it take to win a world title? Ability? Yes. Application? That never hurt either. A team that is 100% behind you? Not for nothing did Michael Schumacher always demand a say in who his team mates were. The right car? Few have won the F1 championship in recent years without having the best machinery on the grid. None of that, on its own, will necessarily be enough, and last weekend's action at Magny Cours demonstrated the point amply.

It was a sportsman of a much earlier generation, the baseball player Vernon 'Lefty' Gomez who famously remarked "I'd rather be lucky than good" and I can't help feeling that Felipe Massa might, very quietly, see what the Portuguese pitcher meant. In the last couple of races, he has had no answer for his team mate, Kimi Raikkonen in terms of absolute pace, but events have conspired to ensure that while Raikkonen has picked up only 8 points from the last couple of races, Massa has scored 14 and has now taken over the lead of the championship from BMW's Robert Kubica.

When Massa spun out of both of the opening rounds of the World Championship, I have to confess that I quietly wrote him off as a serious title prospect. He might be quick, I thought, but the championship would be too closely fought to allow the mercurial Brazilian to get away with mistakes like those. I'm beginning to wonder if I'm wrong. Firstly, I hadn't counted on his most obvious title rivals, Raikkonen and Hamilton making so many mistakes of their own. Secondly, I had forgotten the influence of Lady Luck. After all, if Hamilton hadn't made that disastrous error when exiting the pits in Canada, he and Raikkonen would most likely be comfortably ahead in the standings. Come to that, Raikkonen would be a lot closer to Massa on points had his exhaust not failed during last weekend's French Grand Prix and handed victory to his team mate. After a couple of races, at Monaco and Turkey, where Massa had seemed to have the edge at Ferrari, he never really looked on terms with his team mate in the last couple of races, but nonetheless emerged with more points. It's this sort of thing which could decide the destination of the title.

Also working in Massa's favour is the fact that it this year's title battle is beginning to look like an exclusively Ferrari affair. Their advantage over Mclaren just appears bigger than last year. Perhaps, whisper it, the Woking team are missing the input of experienced double world champion Fernando Alonso, and are suffering for running a pair of sophomore drivers who aren't as used to developing a car over the season, or setting it up under the pressure of a race weekend. Last year, there were clearly 'Mclaren' tracks and 'Ferrari' tracks. To an extent, this remains the case, but Maranello appear to have closed the gap considerably at the 'Mclaren' tracks like Monaco, while Mclaren look further adrift than ever at places like Magny Cours which have always favoured Ferrari. Come to that, some tracks, like Sepang, had better suited the Mclarens last year, but clearly favoured the Ferraris this year.

In light of this, if Hamilton is to have any chance of snatching the title, he really cannot afford to throw away results in the way he did in Montreal, in Bahrain and (to a lesser extent) last weekend at Magny Cours - where from the moment he cut the chicane in the aftermath of his pass of Vettel, I found myself thinking - "let him back through, the stewards will do you for that". He didn't, and the stewards duly did. A marginal call, and one which could have gone either way, but - call me a cynic - I wouldn't take any chances if I were in a silver car. As I have written at F1-Pitlane, Hamilton and Mclaren do have the ghost of an opportunity in that a clear No. 1 has not yet emerged at Ferrari, but increasingly, I'm coming to doubt they can pull it off.

Until last weekend, Kubica was actually leading the title chase, but I somehow can't quite bring myself to take him seriously as a title contender. He drove the wheels off the BMW in Magny Cours, but still ended up finishing behind Jarno Trulli's Toyota in fifth. Nick Heidfeld could do no better than 13th, over a minute off Massa's winning time in the sister-BMW, which further illustrated just how hard Kubica was having to push. To be blunt, I just don't believe that even someone as quick as Kubica can win the world title in a car that isn't even always quick enough to beat the Toyotas, regardless of the fact that, thus far, he has been alone among the top four in the title race in not having made a mistake worth the name./

It wasn't just in the Grand Prix where luck turned out to be the deciding factor last weekend. The GP2 series may appear wide open - there have been 7 winners in the 8 races so far this season - but looking underneath the bare statistics, it seems to me that there are really only three driver/team combinations who have consistently shown the kind of pace that marks them out as real contenders.

Unsurprisingly, two of those three drive for the established top teams in the series - ART's Romain Grosjean and ISport's Bruno Senna. That doesn't necessarily mean its all about the car, to be fair. Their respective team mates, Luca Filippi and Karun Chandhok, proven race winners both, have so far failed to make any kind of an impact and perhaps suggests that, while being with the right team is important, it can be overestimated and sometimes the best teams appear so in part because they have the best drivers, especially in a spec-formula such as GP2.

The interloper in the ISport/ART battle is of course Racing Engineering's Giorgio Pantano. The vastly experienced Italian is the only man to have won two races this year and, what is more, they have both been feature race wins. All the same, Pantano owes his lead at least somewhat to luck. In France, Romain Grosjean looked on course to win until his gearbox packed up, which appeared to hand certain victory to Bruno Senna....except just a few laps later, his gearbox went the same way. Pantano, who had been set to score 6 points while his rivals picked up 8 and 10, now picked up the win while his rivals got nothing. Come Sunday, Pantano bent his steering and failed to finish in the sprint race, but he didn't pay the price he might have done - Grosjean fell off the road at Grande Courbe on slicks on a still-damp track, while Senna, who had started on slicks from the back looked set for a podium only for a recurrence of his gearbox gremlins to force him back down to 5th. So Pantano has a 7 point lead over Bruno Senna, and Romain Grosjean, to my mind still the fastest man in the field, is 16 points adrift and fourth in the title chase.

Right now, it would appear that the gods are smiling upon both Felipe Massa and Giorgio Pantano. However, it is oft said that "luck balances out over a season" and while this isn't always entirely true, it could be that after Silverstone, an article about how lucky Massa and Pantano have been could look very ill-timed indeed. An old Swedish proverb comes to mind. Luck never gives, it only lends...

ENDNOTE: Motorsports Ramblings will be taking a short break next week while I go climbing hills, taking pictures of the windswept isolation and, most likely, getting rained on an awful lot in the Scottish Highlands. I'll be back with you all the other side of the British Grand Prix.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Iconic Cars - The Second in an Occasional Series

Last month, I wrote the first of a short series on iconic cars from the 1980s, singling out Austin Rover's brutal 4 wheel drive, rear engined Metro 6R4 rally car. My second choice is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the in-yer-face Austin-Rover. The Porsche 956/62 that becam3e the mainstay of sportscar racing through much of the 1980s was an elegant exemplar of German efficiency - all flowing lines, a classic design. Oh, and unlike the Metro, it was also enormously successful.

Sportscar racing was in a bit of a mess as the 1980s dawned. Open top Group 6 sportscars that looked some years past their sell-by-date competed against road-car based GTX Porsche 935s and odd privately built GTP coupes. The dearth of real competition was perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Jean Rondeau was able to win the 1980 race with a self-built car. It would be the last time that a car not built by, or at least funded by, a major motor manufacturer would win Le Mans.

For 1982, the FIA threw out the Group 5/6 rulebook under which sportscar racing had been run since the early 1970s and created the 'Group C' formula, which restricted performance mainly through fuel consumption limits which, theoretically at least, allowed small capacity normally-aspirated powered cars and large-bore turbo-charged machines to compete on equal terms. Rather than being about outright horsepower, Group C would be all about efficiency.

Porsche, whose 935 and 936 machines had been at the forefront of sportscar racing through the late 70s, decided that they wanted to be in on the new Group C category from the very beginning. Taking the 2.6l 'boxer' engine which had won Le Mans when installed in the back of an ageing Porsche 936 the previous year, the works designed and built a very modern looking replacement around it - the Porsche 956.

The car made its debut at the opening round of the Group C championship - the Silverstone 1000kms of 1982. The car was light years ahead of the Group C competition: the ill-fated Ford C100, Joest Racing's hastily converted 936, an early WM-Peugeot and a Cosworth DFL engined Sauber C6. As it would turn out, however, this would be the only Group C race where the Porsche 956 was ever beaten - not by one of its Group C rivals, but by an old Group 6 Lancia LC1 Spyder which had been given dispensation to race (as a matter of accuracy, I should point out that, what I mean is that the 956 was never beaten until its replacement, the 962, appeared).

The Porsche works skipped the next round, their home race at the formidable old Nordschliefe and returned to the fray at Le Mans with a 3 car entry, in the now legendary Rothmans livery. The cars finished an easy 1-2-3. The winner finished 30 laps ahead of the first non-956 finisher (a private Porsche 935(a six year old Group 5 machine, which perhaps served only to illustrate the lack of strength in depth in sportscar racing at the time).

Such was the sheer scale of Porsche's dominance that Group C could quickly have died a death - with every race a foregone conclusion. Think of how great an advantage Audi have had in the ALMS and the LMES in recent years, at least until Peugeot turned up in the LMES and Penske started to extract some real pace from their Porsche RS Spyder, and then multiply by a factor of two. The only other manufacturers in at the beginning were Ford, who never really managed to sort their problem-child C100, and Lancia, whose Martini liveried LC2 might have been a beautiful piece of kit, and stunningly quick over a single lap, but had neither the fuel efficiency nor the reliability to threaten Porsche over a race distance.

Fortunately, Porsche had, from the very beginning, built the 956 as a turn-key racing car which could be sold to private teams. One year on from the 956's debut, at the Monza 1000kms of 1983, there were a total of 8 Porsche 956s in the field. And just to prove the point that the private teams were serious, Reinhold Joest's 956, in the hands of Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen, won the race. In 1984, in the absence of the works team, Joest won Le Mans with a privately entered 956 and then repeated the feat a year later with exactly the same car, this time beating a squadron of 3 works Porsches into the bargain.

Over the following few years, John Fitzpatrick Racing, Brun, Kremer and the late Richard Lloyd's RLR outfit all proved themselves capable of beating the works and winning outright with customer Porsches. For me, this is one of the key reasons I have singled out the Porsche 956/62 as my 'iconic Group C sportscar'. The Sauber Mercedes C11 may have been prettier, the TWR Jaguars may have attracted more of a following at the time, and the final evolution of the Peugeot 905 might have been far and away the outright quickest Group C car ever made, but through its sheer ubiquity the Porsche 956/62 remains for me the quintessential Group C car.

The cars weren't just successful on this side of the Atlantic. The Porsche 956's replacement, the near-identical 962 was originally created to comply with tougher IMSA safety regulations which required that the driver's feet must not sit forward of the front axle-line. The car initially struggled against the Jaguars and Marches in IMSA, which did not have the fuel-economy based rules of Group C, but a larger 3.2l engine brought it into contention and enabled Porsche to pick up five wins in the Daytona 24hr race between 1985 and 1991 and pick up several IMSA GTP titles.

In the end, Porsche were unable, or unwilling, to keep up in a development race with entries from other manufacturers, including Mercedes (Sauber) Jaguar (TWR) and Nissan (Lola). As a Group C car, the 962 took its last Le Mans win in 1987, after the quicker Jaguars broke, and its last World Sportscar Championship race win a couple of years later at Dijon in 1989 (a Joest car, unsurprisingly). They did come close to winning Le Mans again in 1990, after a once-in-a-lifetime drive from wealthy amateurs Jesus Pareja and Walter Brun, but a battery problem knocked them out of contention for the lead and then engine failure saw them fall out of a safe second place with just minutes left on the clock.

The Porsche 962, though, was a car that would not die. Though the Group C category for which it was designed collapsed at the end of 1992, the cars would go on winning. Jochen Dauer and the Porsche works got together to create a one-off Porsche 962 road car to enable them to enter the GT category of Le Mans. Though this was an especially blatant way of sneaking a 962 Group C in through the back door, the plan worked and Mauro Baldi, Hurley Haywood and Yannick Dalmas chalked up one last win at La Sarthe for a car built to the same basic design as the 956 which Ickx and Bell had won the race with 12 years previously.

A year later, longtime Porsche stalwarts Kremer recorded one last 24 hour race win for a 962 of sorts when they won the Daytona 24hr race in a WSC spec, 'spyder' which was essentially a 962 with its roof chopped off. Come to that, the Porsche WSC95 which Joest took to 2 Le Mans victories in 1996 and 1997 relied on the 962 engine and running gear, albeit installed in what was essentially an old Jaguar XJR-14 with, yes, its roof chopped off.

Older readers might pick out the Porsche 917, the Ferrari 250LM, the Ford GT40 or the Jaguar D-Type, but for me, the Porsche 956/62 will remain forever the very definition of the sports prototype racing car.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

All Day And All Of The Night

I've always meant to make the trip to Le Mans for the 24 Hour race, but somehow I never seem to have a free weekend for the trip in mid-June. Neil, at Fastest Lap, made it all the way over from the US to the race last year and It's something I really must put right someday. It won't be this year though. Once again real life has got in the way, this time in the form of a looming deadline at work which will probably see me chained to my desk over the weekend.

Le Mans is undoubtedly one of the three big motor races. It ranks alongside the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500 as an event whose name will mean something even to those whose interest in motorsport is no greater than mine in golf. For me, it is most special event of the three. While Monaco is really just another Grand Prix, and one where on-track overtaking is even less likely than usual, and the Indy 500 is only of many oval rounds of the Indy Racing League, albeit one with an absurdly long build-up and more press attention than that series can usually attract, Le Mans is a truly unique stand-alone race. Not merely one round of championship, it is simply the big sportscar endurance race of the season. I

It is not the only 24 hour race but it is far and away the most significant. The Daytona 24hr race always attracts a solid line-up of the best US driving talent but the circuit is not a patch on Le Mans and the cars are little more than spec-formula racers. The Nurburgring 24 hour race is held on a still more legendary circuit and attracts a huge entry, but is largely an amateur affair. The clincher, for me, it was also the subject of the only ever decent movie about the sport, Steve McQueen's atmospheric Le Mans.

When the sport first got its hooks into me, Le Mans was an annual epic battle between the likes of Porsche, Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan with their fantastic looking Group C prototypes. It featured the longest straight in motorsport and was perhaps the one event which still retained something of the spirit and the danger of an earlier era. I can well recall the Porsche/Jaguar fight of 1988, Mercedes win in the final year before they broke up the Mulsanne with chicanes, and Mazda’s shock win for its rotary engined 787 in 1991, ahead of all the fancied runners.

In recent years though, the race itself has not been especially interesting Since 2000 the fastest LMP1 category has been not so much a race as a day-long advert for Audi, save in the year they put a roof on the Audi R8 and called it a Bentley in order to generate a bit of publicity for a different part of the Volkswagen-Audi Group. The efforts of such as the well organised but underfunded Courage team, the big-bucks but hopeless GM Cadillacs or Don Panoz' team with its front engined LMP1s never looked to be a serious threat. Jan Lammers' Racing for Holland Dome-Judd was an outside bet for pole in its early days but never stood a chance against Audi over 24 hours. Last year, Peugeot joined the party with their diesel engined and daftly named 908 FAP HDI coupe (has nobody told the team that fap is a slang term for masturbation?) but they stood little chance of coming out ahead of the all-conquering Audis at their first attempt.

This year, though, things look a little different. The early rounds of the Le Mans Endurance Series have demonstrated that Peugeot now have a car which has edged ahead of Audi's older R10. Audi, with sportscar veterans Joest Racing in charge of their team, have decades of experience running in this category of racing to call upon, and by now near bullet-proof reliability to call on. It's a battle being played out according to the oldest plot in racing. Outright speed against solidity and experience. If you're an Aesop man, you'd back Audi's tortoise, but if you're more inclined to take the advice of legendary sportswriter Damon Runyon and remember that "the race is not always to the swift... but that's the way to bet" you might back the French team. They do have form after all - their 1993 victory remains the fastest achieved by anyone at Le Mans since they put those pesky chicanes on the Mulsanne straight. Who knows, maybe Jacques Villeneuve can follow in the footsteps of Graham Hill and win the F1 title, the Indy 500 and Le Mans.

Behind them, there's plenty else to keep the enthusiast interested. The class-within-a-class battle to be fastest petrol engined car, and first non-manufacturer entry, home looks equally intriguing. It will probably come down to a fight between Hugues De Chaunac's ORECA Courages and Henri Pescarolo's Pescarolo Judds. On driver line-up, you'd have to back ORECA. who have a very solid line up of French guys like Duval and Grand Prix winner Olivier Panis at the wheel, but it would be a fool who would write off the Dumas/Boullion/Collard Pescarolo. An interesting wild-card comes in the form of Czech businessman Antonin Charouz's Lola-Aston Martin coupe. The only petrol engined car to have threatened the diesels on pace, it probably won't go the distance but you never know.

One of the wonderful things about sportscar racing is the sheer variety of equipment on display. Japanese chassis builder Dome is running its own car for a trio of little known Japanese drivers. Desperately short of mileage, it is unlikely to figure, but it is the most beautiful machine on the grid, at least to my eye. The Epsilon Euskadi Judd runs it close, and a line-up of three former Grand Prix drivers in the second car- Johannson, Nakano and Gounon should get some pace out of it, although I'd be surprised if it was still running at the end.

Sadly. the most competitive LMP2 teams, all of which are based Stateside, are giving Le Mans a miss, as the ACO's rules, unlike those of the ALMS, give them no serious chance of mixing it with the Audis and Peugeots. A shame, as the Penske and Dyson Porsche Spyders, and the Acuras would certainly make a race of it. As it is, the Porsche Spyders of Team Essex and Verschuur are likely to emerge victorious, if only because their customer Porsches are most likely to run trouble-free for 24 hours.

GT1, on the other hand, is almost a mirror-image of the Audi/Peugeot battle for overall honours. Works Aston Martins and Corvettes go head to head and predicting a winner is far from straightforward. Both teams have well-sorted, competitive cars, and both have put together serious, professional driver line-ups. Me? I'm hoping that the Astons win, though I must confess this is mainly because they are painted up in the same Gulf colours as those awesome Porsche 917s of the early 1970s. There's some decent private Astons and Corvettes in the field too, although there's little chance of them winning unless the works cars race each other into the ground.

GT2 I can't summon up much enthusiasm about, though it can often end up the closest fought of all the categories. The cars are just too slow. It will be interesting to see whether Ferrari can finally break Porsche's dominance of the category though, as a mere trio of 911s go up against 7 Ferrari 430s, several of which boast all-professional driver line ups.

Now, I've just got to work out how I can get away from my desk for long enough to keep up with the action. As for making the trip to La Sarthe. Maybe next year..

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Monday, June 02, 2008


It was a conversation I was having with someone I met at a barbecue over the weekend that got me thinking. A long time F1 fan, she was telling me of her trip to Spa last year for the Belgian Grand Prix. "... And at the end of it all, the right team won." she told me. She's a life-long Ferrari fan, and as regular readers of my ramblings might be aware, it's not an enthusiasm I share. I was interested, though, how it came to be that she became a member of the 'English Tifosi'. "Ah" she replied "As a little kid, I just loved the colour red. As simple as that."

At the same age, I was a fan of Lotus and of their young Brazilian star, Ayrton Senna. I'd love to claim that, even at the age of 6, I'd seen something special in Senna. My Dad likes to claim it was the impact of seeing him hustle the 97T through Dingle Dell in qualifying the European Grand Prix back in 1985 but I think that made far more of an impression on him than on me. If I'm absolutely honest my early loyalty probably had more to do with the fact that I had a black and gold Lotus scalextric car than anything else. Such is the arbitrariness of these things. Maybe if Mclaren had let Hornby model their cars, I would have been a Prost fan through the late eighties.

As it was, my allegiance to Lotus switched to Mclaren when Senna made the switch in 1988. As a kid, it was Senna's sheer bloodyminded determination to win, the overwhelming impression that it mattered more to him than it did to any of his rivals that left its mark on me. I was too contrarian to follow the herd and back the hero of the British press, Nigel Mansell. Piquet, by the time I was following the sport, seemed sullen and lackadaisical and no match on pace for his English team mate at Williams. Whilst, with the benefit of hindsight, I can find much to admire in Alain Prost's calm, methodical approach, as a child his adherence to Fangio's maxim that the object of the exercise is to win the race at the slowest possible pace did little to excite me.

I had the good fortune to be sat in the stands at Stowe during the British Grand Prix of 1987, where Mansell made the decisive move on team mate Piquet to take the lead in the dying laps of the race and secure an enormously popular home win. However, it was Senna's win in atrocious conditions a year later which I savoured more (although it must be said that Mansell's drive to second place in the underpowered Williams Judd was perhaps the drive of the day). For many who were there though, especially those who were at Stowe, that race will stand out as perhaps the most memorable they have been to - certainly several others I have met who were there that day remember it that way.

My standout memory, though, came six years later, standing on the banking above the Craner Curves on a cold, wet Easter Sunday at Donington, watching Ayrton Senna put in what was perhaps the greatest drive of his life - and certainly the most outstanding opening lap I've ever seen, to win the European Grand Prix of 1993 against the all-conquering Williams Renaults. As my father wrote of watching Jim Clark drive to victory in the 1966 Gold Cup at Oulton Park - "15 years old and your hero performs according to script. A memorable day."

These days, I fell no such partisan attachment to a particular drive or team. In fact, to do so seems to me to be a little childish - an impediment to fully appreciating the sport. It is only with the benefit of hindsight, for example, that I am able to fully appreciate what a great job Alain Prost did for Ferrari in 1990. I do wonder whether the reason such fanatical, unbreakable loyalty to a particular club is so common among football fans is a consequence of the fact that football teams, unlike F1 drivers, and to a lesser extent, teams, do not retire or disappear,
leaving footie fans permanently in thrall to the allegiances they formed in childhood.

That doesn't mean, however, that I don't have my own little idiosyncratic preferences and biases, as regular readers will doubtless have already picked up. Take the team I mentioned at the start of the article - Ferrari. In the days when they were passionate, shambolic, stereotypically Italian underachievers, I was always pleased by their rare victories with Alesi or Berger at the wheel. These days, though, I can summon up little enthusiasm for the grindingly efficient, characterless winning machine which has taken the drivers and constructors titles 6 times. Their refusal, at least in the Schumacher days, to let their drivers really race each other never impressed me, and I've never been able to shake off the nagging suspicion that the FIA have made many more decisions in their favour than against them.

My attitude towards Mclaren has kind of gone in the opposite direction. For a long time, through the late 90s, their clinical, corporate attitude to the sport (typified by the infamous Ronspeak) characterised everything I thought was wrong with the sport, and their deliberate interference with the results at the Australian Grand Prix of 1998 was not so different from the actions of Ferrari four years later in Austria. These days, though, the corporate approach to running an F1 team has spread to the point where Mclaren simply seem to have been ahead of their time and their willingness to let their drivers race against each other is refreshing (even if it arguably cost them the 2007 title).

However, it is the approach of the Williams team which most chimes with my own attitude towards the sport. Their fierce independence - refusing to sell out to BMW in the manner that Mclaren did to Mercedes - is much in line with my distaste for the way in which the corporate beancounters have taken over from the dyed-in-the-wool racers over the last decade or two. With Williams, it has always been clear that they exist in order to race. Teams backed by soft drinks magnates or multinational car firms, on the other hand, could be here today and gone tomorrow. The Williams boys will still be around when they're gone. Come to that, one can't imagine, Flavio Briatore, for example, selling his private jet to pay for a wind tunnel for the team as Frank Williams did.

That's not intended as a slight on the Renault team, however. While Briatore may personify all that I don't like about F1 - the obsession with tawdry glamour, the desire for a quick buck and the sense that many of the top player sin the sport are not truly interested in the racing, he is nonetheless bright enough to let the people back at the factory and on the race team just get on with the job, and act as a buffer between the corporate Renault men and the race team itself (in marked contrast with the way in which Ford, in particular, seemed far too keen to micro-manage Jaguar Racing). I've always had a soft spot for the Renault boys because guys like Pat Symonds seem like such smart operators - real racers - who in 2005 and 2006, with Fernando Alonso, took two World Championships on a fraction of the budget of rival teams like Ferrari, Mclaren or Toyota.

What of the drivers? Of the sport's current big three, the men who fought it out for last year's world title, I've always had a great deal of respect for what Alonso and Hamilton can do behind the wheel, but wouldn't exactly describe myself as a fan of either of them. Alonso I used to be greatly impressed by, keeping his cool in a battle with Michael Schumacher for the 2006 title despite the fact that fate, and perhaps the FIA, were determined to wrest it from him. I was disappointed, though, by how poorly he took to being challenged by team mate Hamilton last year at Mclaren after two seasons of having it all his own way at Renault.

As for Hamilton, there is no doubt that he's an exceptional talent, and exciting to watch behind the wheel, but I can't help feeling he's little more than a cipher for the PR and marketing men behind his career outside the car. The way he is accompanied everywhere by his father also leaves me wondering just whose ambitions and dreams he is seeking to fulfill? His own, or his frustrated would-be racer dad's? (That, though is a point which could be made of many a modern F1 racer, given how young they start these days).

Kimi Raikkonen, by contrast, is someone who's attitude out of the car I have rather warmed to. The snowmobile and powerboat racing, the idolisation of louche 70s World Champion James Hunt, the refusal to be fazed by anything or to get into tedious moaning about how the team are favouring the other driver. On the other hand, since his move to Ferrari, I haven't been so impressed by his driving. What is the man who was once talked about as the outright fastest driver in the sport doing being outpaced in the rain around Monaco by Felipe Massa? And when did he last put in a really convincing, against-the-odds drive in a car that did not look the class of the field?

More broadly, I've always supported drivers whom I feel have been wrongly ignored by the top teams. For years, I was convinced that Giancarlo Fisichella, who had outpaced every team mate he had ever had, and had got some pretty awful cars surprisingly far up the grid, was a potential champion. Then he got a drive in a potentially title-winning Renault in 2005 and demonstrated that sometimes, the team bosses know a lot more than I do by being comprehensively outpaced by Alonso.

The man who turned down the 2005 Renault drive was Mark Webber. He's another man whose qualifying pace has been exceptional, and who has never really been seriously challenged by his team mates, but who seems to have been crossed off the wish-lists of the bosses at Mclaren, Ferrari et al. It's hard to see why. Here, after all, is a man who put a Jaguar on the front row in Malaysia back in 2003, and who looked in with a shout of victory at Monaco in 2006 and at Japan last year in cars which were far from true race winners, before fate intervened. On the other hand, had Fisichella gone to Williams in 05 and Webber to Renault, would I now be wondering why Fisi never got the breaks he deserved, and why Webber never lived up to his early promise? Or would Webber be a double world champion?

If Mark Webber strikes me as the clearest example among the current field of a driver who hasn't had the opportunities his talent merits, there are a number of examples of drivers whom I suspect are where they are only because of who their fathers were. If Kazuki Nakajima and Nelson Piquet Junior's surnames had been, say, Premat, Carroll or Filippi, does anyone really believe they would be in F1 now? And have either of them really done anything to suggest they merit the breaks that have been given to them? To be fair, I ought to acknowledge that another son of a famous father, Nico Rosberg, has more than earned his place in F1 and I rather doubt anyone else could have done much more with this year's Williams.

Who has caught my attention most this year though? As a regular follower of the GP2 series, I was intrigued to see that one man who always seems to be standing at the pitwall paying close attention is Robert Kubica. In an age when I'm left wondering how many of the current F1 drivers are real fans of the sport (Michael Schumacher admitted that the first time he went to see an F1 race, he was rather bored by it) Kubica strikes me as a race fan through and through. His enthusiasm to try his hand at rallying is just another facet of this.

Like Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen, and in contrast with most of the rest of the grid, he does not come from a wealthy background, but has relied on his own talent to make his way into F1. This year, it's hard to think of a single significant mistake that the young Pole has made, which is more than can be said for any of the other men towards the top of the points table. He has frequently got his BMW in amongst the Ferraris and Mclarens while his team mate Heidfeld has fallen back into the clutches of the Red Bulls, Renaults and Williamses. In short, in his second full season of F1, he's been doing a very impressive job. He was the only one of the front runners not to make a mistake in the tricky conditions at Monaco last weekend. A first win cannot be far away.

Now, Canada this weekend.... The BMWs were very quick there last year.... And it was the scene of another young gun's first Grand Prix victory.... Let's see....

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