Monday, October 27, 2008

David Coulthard's Final Hurrah...

I'll leave analysis of this year's F1 title race until next week, when it's all over and whatever I write is not almost immediately outdated. Whether Lewis Hamilton and Mclaren will succeed in throwing away a second World Title in as many years will soon become apparent. This weekend will see David Coulthard's long Formula 1 career come to an end and that is of some interest to me, not least because he is perhaps the first F1 driver whose career I have seen almost right from the beginning (I was at several of his early Formula Ford races as a kid) to his retirement nearly 20 years on.

Clive has written recently on the prospective battle between his replacement, Sebastien Vettel (who would have been all of 2 years old when I was sat in the stands at Woodcote and Lodge, watching a young Coulthard doing his stuff in Formula Ford!) and Mark Webber. Of Webber, he remarked "For every driver who manages to grab a world championship, there must be several who never get a decent shot at it. Many of them could claim to be capable of the feat, if only they could get their hands on a good car. But fortune dictates that some will never have that chance and the years roll by with potential never fulfilled".

The same could not be said of David Coulthard. Coulthard got himself a potentially championship winning car, I would estimate, 5 times in his career (on two of those occasions, his team mate did win the title with it) and yet the best he ever managed was a very distant second to Michael Schumacher in 2001, ironically not one of the years in which I would have said he had a car capable of winning the title. Coulthard himself appears to recognise this, commenting after announcing his retirement earlier this year that "I did have a world championship-winning car. I just didn't win it."

Coulthard, then, was not quite world champion material, but he wasn't far off. You don't last 9 years at Mclaren without being pretty handy in a racing car. In the early years of the Hakkinen/Coulthard partnership, it was Coulthard who actually appeared more often than not to be the faster of the two men. It was, after all, Coulthard who won the Mclaren/Mercedes partnership's first two races, and would have won their third had he not been ordered to hand the win to team mate Hakkinen in the final round of the 1997 World Championship in Jerez.

He would be ordered to hand over victory to Hakkinen again at the opening race of 1998, after a radio-communication mix-up had put the Scot ahead of his Finnish team mate. At the time, it was the source of almost as much outrage (at least in the British press) as Ferrari's Austrian GP incident did four years later. Some see this as the point at which Hakkinen established his de-facto Number 1 status at Mclaren, a moment at which Ron Dennis decided that Hakkinen, rather than Coulthard would lead Mclaren's title charge. Perhaps. Though it must be remembered that Hakkinen was only ever behind Coulthard in the first place because he had erroneously been called into the pits, reputedly because the team's radio system had been hacked by an outsider.

There is, in any case, another way of looking at it. Rather than Hakkinen having established the upper hand at Mclaren because he was Dennis' favoured man, he was the Mclaren's boss's choice for Number 1 driver precisely because Dennis had already fingered him as the man who had the greater ultimate potential. There was never any need for team orders throughout the rest of the 1998 season because Coulthard never got close enough to Hakkinen on pace for it to matter one way or the other. Hakkinen won eight races that year on his way to the title, while Coulthard picked up but a single victory. Perhaps all Hakkinen had ever really needed to unlock his potential had been the knowledge that the Mclaren team were behind him. Maybe Dennis simply knew that Coulthard was never quite in the same league. Certainly, he made a very good number 2 - he always obeyed those team orders when they were given to him, and he had sufficient pace that he could pick up a useful haul of points for the constructor's championship.

It became something of a cliche that, at the beginning of each year, there would be a big interview with David Coulthard in which he would claim that this year would be his year - this time he really would challenge for the world title. We now know, of course, that that day would never come. But how close did he get? In 2001, he wound up runner-up, ahead of a rather demotivated Mika Hakkinen, but to my mind, his best season came a year earlier, in 2000.

Though he fell away towards the end of the year, for much of that season, he was every bit as much a title contender as Mika Hakkinen and eventual winner Michael Schumacher. He won 3 races in the first half of the season, including an impressive victory at his home race at Silverstone which saw him go round the outside of Barrichello at Stowe to take the lead and arguably his most memorable victory, in France, which saw him go toe-to-toe with Schumacher and come out on top.

Ironically, though, probably his best opportunity for a world title came much earlier in his career. Coulthard had a contract with Williams for 1996, but bought his way out of it to move to the then rather less competitive Mclaren. The 1996 Williams Renault was easily the class of the field and it was clear that anyone driving it had only to beat his team mate to take the driver's title. Damon Hill eventually claimed that honour, after seeing off rookie Jacques Villeneuve but one is forced to wonder whether Coulthard, who by then would have been in his second full season, and who sometimes matched Hill for pace in 1995, might have stood a better chance of wresting the title from Hill.

Coulthard's final couple of years at Mclaren were a disappointment. He never got to grips with single lap qualifying, and as a result he struggled rather more against Kimi Raikkonen than he ever did against Hakkinen. His last win came in the opening race of the 2003 season in Australia, after Montoya, Schumacher and Raikkonen all lost time making mistakes. Thereafter, he never really looked a threat again, despite the 2003 Mclaren being quick enough to allow Raikkonen to mount a quietly consistent campaign for the driver's title. The 2004 Mclaren was one of the worst cars to come out of Woking, and Coulthard finished a distant 10th in the championship, failing to make the podium all year.

It would have been easy for the Scot to walk away from F1 at this point, tail between his legs, but to some surprise, he signed for Red Bull to race alongside Christian Klien, replacing Mark Webber, who had departed for Williams. With the pressure off, and with a car which was perhaps better than he expected, Coulthard did a pretty good job with Red Bull, scoring as many points for them in 2005 as he had for Mclaren the year before. Klien rarely troubled him in terms of pace and he did much to repair a reputation somewhat tarnished by the later Mclaren years. In the end, he probably stayed in F1 a year or two too long. Certainly, when Mark Webber returned to the team, it soon became apparent that Coulthard had no answer for him in terms of pace. This year, too, he seems to have got frustrated by it all, and has been involved in far too many silly collisions with other drivers.

So, in summation, David Coulthard was never quite world champion material, and one suspects that he knows as much. He was, though, a very quick driver on his day, and through the late 90s and into the early part of this century, he was quick enough on occasion to trouble men who did win world titles. What did he lack? It's hard to say. Consistency, perhaps. His lack of qualifying pace, especially in the single-lap format, suggests that he perhaps had trouble accessing his full potential when it was required. Perhaps he just didn't want it enough. He'd always had good breaks in his career - his wealthy father ensured his junior series days were well-funded and he broke into F1 with a race winning team, before moving straight to another race winning team. Maybe he didn't have the hunger to succeed that a driver who had had a harder time of it might have done. Whatever the truth of it, though, he won 13 Grands Prix, which is more than all but a handful of the most successful F1 drivers ever manage, and he was the best driver to come out of Scotland since Jackie Stewart. Not bad, all in all.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

It was a relief to get through the Chinese Grand Prix without any stewards investigations and drive-through penalties, wasn't it? Not a few of us were beginning to suspect that this season's championships would be decided in the Stewards' office rather than on the track. After Shanghai though, it now looks likely that Lewis Hamilton will win the title in spite of the decisions emanating from Race Control, rather than Felipe Massa winning because of them.

Interesting, though, to note that there was no investigation of Sebastien Bourdais' first lap collision with Jarno Trulli. Of course, any thinking race fan would realise that the stewards made the correct call here - the start of the race is inevitably somewhat chaotic and mistakes will be made. That said, I couldn't help feeling Bourdais was more obviously at fault than he was in Fuji where it seemed he was stripped of his sixth place finish mainly for having the temerity to race a Ferrari. Certainly, when I saw on the screen that the stewards would be investigating the accident, my first thought was that it was Massa who had reason to be concerned. Until of course, I remembered, that Ferrari drivers don't tend to be penalised in marginal situations... What this highlights is the near undeniable truth that there has been serious inconsistency in the way penalties have been handed out this season. I've not seen any coherent explanation as to why Felipe Massa's unsafe release from the pits in Valencia warranted only a fine while his unsafe release in Singapore earned him the more usual 10 second penalty (unless of course, you adopt the conspiracy theory explanation that the stewards are under instructions to favour Ferrari, or to make life difficult for Mclaren, or to keep the championship points battle close. At Singapore, Massa was out of the running before the penalty was applied). Come to that, I struggle to explain why Hamilton's admittedly aggressive startline antics at Fuji earned him a penalty while his downright dangerous wheel-banging with Mark Webber while defending his 7th place at Monza last month did not. In fact, the failure to penalise Hamilton at Monza suggests that even the conspiracy-theory explanation can't account for the stewards' decisions this year.

The FIA might want to bury its head in the sand and insist that there is nothing wrong with the system as it stands, but that really won't wash. That their decision-making has been inconsistent is incontrovertibly true. Either this is the result of systemic bias - a claim that Advisor to the Stewards,
Alan Donnelly has strenuously rejected, or it is down to incompetence, the decision makers not knowing their own rules and resorting to making it up as they go along. Fashionable as it may be to suspect conspiracy, there is plenty of reason to believe it may be cock-up. I have to confess that until the Spa debacle, I had little idea who the stewards were or where they came from, but if asked, I would have assumed that they were old hands with plenty of experience officiating at major racing events in their home country. This does not in fact appear necessarily to be the case. Some are, but others appear to be blazers from the national sporting federations with little real experience. This might help to explain why an adviser was brought in - ostensibly to bring coherence and consistency to stewarding decisions following earlier controversies. The trouble is, said adviser is not an experienced old racer, but a former MEP who, surprise, just happens to be a good friend of Max Mosley. When trying to argue that there's no truth in the conspiracy theories, it doesn't help, by the by, that he is the CEO of Sovereign, a company which has previously done work for Ferrari.

This really isn't a satisfactory arrangement for anything which wants to consider itself a professional sport. It would be like having linesmen at the Champions League Final who don't know the offside rule and a referee who sits on the board of one of sponsor of one of the competing clubs.
It strikes me that what is needed, at least when it comes to arbitrating on on-track incidents, is an experienced and respected F1 driver who knows what it is like from the driver's perspective to make the decisions. Someone with a feel for the difference between a racing accident and an act of gross stupidity or worse. Someone, who, unlike the stewards at Jerez in 1997, could tell straight away when a driver commits a 'professional foul'. Alan Donnelly has rejected the suggestion, commenting that "I don't feel that is the correct solution, because their experience is tied to the past, from when they used to drive. And since then, let's say ten years ago, racing has changed." Following this line of argument, though (it's not entirely unreasonable - braking distances, turbulence, aerodynamic sensitivity, etc will be considerably different from the early 1990s) it is hard to see how a man who has never raced in any capacity can be expected to do a better job. As it is out of the question to get current drivers to do the job, it seems to be that the use of an ex-driver is the best option there is, whatever the problems. It's not a new idea. Back in the late 1980s, when some were critical of the reluctance on the part of the stewards to penalise overly aggressive driving, Nigel Roebuck suggested the same solution, and proposed Keke Rosberg for the job. A hard but fair racer, he would have been ideal, though given his son is now on the grid, I don't think he'd be seen as a neutral observer.

Which brings me to another point. Having an ex-driver make the calls on penalties might address the problem of competence, but it would not in itself address questions around bias or corruption which, whether the FIA like it or not, have gained considerable credibility in racing circles. To my mind, the best way to do this is to have an open election to the post in which all the teams can participate. Make the post sufficiently well paid and I'm sure there will be suitable candidates coming forward, and while an election would not guarantee getting the best candidate for the job (I'm nervously reading coverage of the US presidential elections as I write this...) but it should ensure that whoever takes the role is not considered to be too close to any particular team.

I don't know if this is the only or best solution to the problem. Perhaps it can be addressed by making much clearer exactly what is and is not now considered to be acceptable driving behaviour. Perhaps it simply requires more careful selection of who serve as stewards at F1 races. Certainly, I don't recall there being nearly so many penalties and investigations when I first followed the sport in the mid 1980s. What is required, though, is that the FIA get their heads out of the sand and admit that there is a problem to be fixed.

ENDNOTE: I was saddened this week to learn of the death of a long-standing and tremendously well-informed and funny member of the internet motorsports community, Pete Fenelon. I never knew him personally, but I always looked forward to his F1 season previews, which were works of comic genius, and he was amongst the most consistently interesting posters on Atlas F1's Nostalgia Forum. I first stumbled across his postings in the dim and distant past when I would sit in my freezing student flat with an ancient Amiga 500, logged in remotely to the University's AI department, spending far more time on than I should have, when I was meant to be learning about Hidden Markov Models, Finite State Grammars and many other things I have mercifully forgotten. He will be much missed. My condolences to his family and friends.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Quantity and Quality

This might seem like an odd thing for a motorsport fan to complain about, but I can't help but think that right now, there are too many racing series out there.

I'm not talking about the many hundreds of national club-level racing championships across the world. These have always existed for the enjoyment of those taking part and while they can provide entertainment for paying spectators (I make the trip to Knockhill for the SMRC's races from time to time and it's well worth the price of admittance) that is not why this championships exist. Rather, my concern is that there are too many serious sub-F1 single seater series in existence at present.

Why, you might ask, should that be a problem? Racing is racing, and the more of it the better from the fan's perspective?

I'm not convinced. For one thing, who has the time to follow the myriad single seater formulae now in existence? GP2, GP2 Asia, the World Series by Renault, Indy Racing League, A1GP, Superleague Formula and now, it would seem, GP3 and Formula 2? Even as avid a fan as myself simply doesn't have either the time or the inclination to keep track of all those. There simply aren't enough hours in the day.

And that matters, because several of the above series really depend on paying spectators and TV audiences to survive and thrive. GP2 and Formula 2 might subsist from the money drivers bring to the teams to pay for rides in the hope of making enough of an impact to break into F1, but the rest really depend on having a fan base to survive in the long term. And in that regard, all of those series are struggling to a greater or lesser degree. IRL is probably the best placed of them, attracting reasonable crowds thanks to the Champ Car merger and the emergence of names like Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick (not to mention, of all things, the success of front runner and alleged Lester Piggot copyist Helio Castroneves in Dancing With the Stars....) All the same, it is a mere shadow of the glory days of the pre-split Indy Car Series and is a distant second in the American public's eyes to NASCAR. A shame, because the IRL, with its mix of street, road and oval circuits, is a much more worthwhile racing series in my book.

Nonetheless, it is I think suffering from the perception, both at home and abroad, that it is not really a top-level racing series, but a dumping ground for those unable to break into F1 and into US stock car racing. It is at least rather stronger than A1GP is right now - to the extent that the organisers are trying to use Andretti and Patrick to attract some attention to the series. There have been problems with the new car which have led to the cancellation of the planned first round at Mugello and a depleted field turn out at Zandvoort, but that isn't the real problem. Fundamentally, the problem the championship has is that it has been entirely unable to attract any real star names to its driver line-up and racing fans have never been like football fans and aren't interested in supporting a team just because they share a nationality.

Talking of football, at least A1GP isn't quite the monumental folly that the recently launched Superleague Formula is. Try as I might, I really can't understand what the thinking behind this racing series really is. For those who aren't familiar with the concept (and it's had pretty well zero-publicity, so you could be forgiven for not having heard of it) this involves racing cars entered by major football teams competing in a one-make single-seater formula. Quite what is in it for the clubs I cannot fathom. Is anyone suggesting that football clubs really need to advertise their existence to the world? And if someone hasn't heard of Liverpool FC, for example, is there really any chance that he will become a Liverpool fan because he sees the club's name on the side of a re-badged Champ Car. And if it's not about advertising the clubs, what is it about? I honestly don't know the answer, but I suspect that it's either a vanity project for football clubs drowning in cash, or else the series organisers have blinded the clubs to common sense with the power of a good marketing presentation. Somehow,

A shame, really, because while I can't imagine the average football fan, or even the typical racing fan, is going to be all that excited by the idea of watching Tuka Rocha and Davide Rigon fighting it out around Zolder or Mugello, I caught a bit of the Nurburgring Race on Youtube and was actually rather impressed with the cars. Big V12 single-seaters which had enough power to be interesting and sounded absolutely fantastic. It would make a far more interesting junior single seater championship than the Renault World Series. While I couldn't care less what happens to Superleague Formula, it would be a shame if the cars and engines went to waste.

The other problem with the sheer profusion of championships has the unfortunate effect of diluting the quality of each of them. How much more interesting might GP2 have been this year if such as Giedo Van Der Garde, Bertrand Baguette and Salvador Duran were in the field, instead of Michael Herck, Carlos Iaconelli and Giacomo Ricci? Come to that, how much more competitive might GP2 as a whole be if teams like BCN Competicion, Fisichella Motorsports and DPR, who have shown little in the way of pace, were replaced by the guys from Tech 1, Interwetten and Carlin? There are only so many really clued up race engineers in the world, and having them spread across multiple formulae is bound to affect the quality of the individual series, just as having the best drivers in different series does.

Of course, cynics might reasonably ask whether the current set up actually quite suits certain young drivers and their managers. The other week, I reviewed Tommy Byrne's autobiography, in which it was suggested Senna deliberately spent a year in FF2000 to avoid having to go up against Byrne in F3. Whether there's any truth in the claim we'll never know - the only man who could tell us is long dead. Either way, there have been other drivers who have taken unusual career paths which, it has been suggested, are best explained by a desire on the part of the driver or, more likely, his manager (for racing drivers as a breed are not given to self-doubt, especially in their early years) to avoid going up against someone who is too good too early. All of which may be good for the driver in question, but it doesn't do much for the sport.

However, in recent weeks, it has been hard to avoid stories of trouble brewing in the world economy, and it is equally hard to imagine that this won't have an impact on the cash-hungry world of motorsport. It is therefore more than likely that some of the above series will go to the wall, which leaves only the question - which ones should we hope are left standing?

It doesn't take a genius to predict that Superleague Formula is unlikely to be long for this world. Race day crowds have been tiny, the drivers are largely unknown, and it is hard to understand what on earth the series is really for. I wouldn't be sorry to see the end of GP2 Asia either really. It is hard to see this as much more than an expensive extended test series for the summer series, and I can't help but think that the fact that one of the leading teams, ART, is selling rides in the series on a piecemeal, race-by-race basis suggests the championship isn't being taken entirely seriously. Its main function seems to be to destabilise A1GP, and in that, it is probably successful. Nonetheless, I'd be keen to see A1GP survive, not least because the new cars look rather fantastic. To do so, though, it really needs to attract a more worthwhile driver line-up than it has done so far. Thus far, there has been little sign of this, and I wouldn't be surprised if the series was consigned to the dustbin of history within the next year or two.

I've never really been able to understand quite where the Renault World Series fits in. It seems to be pitched somewhere between F3 and GP2, which doesn't entirely make sense, as the most promising F3 drivers usually move straight into GP2 anyway - budget allowing. That said, it provided a useful stepping stone for Robert Kubica, but I can't help but think that the cheaper Formula 2 category will probably destroy its reason for existing - that of providing a cheap alternative for drivers with the talent, but not the budget, for GP2.

The IRL, I hope, will survive. Unlike the other series I've mentioned above, it is much more clearly a professional race series in its own right, and not merely a stepping stone for young guys trying to break into F1. Post-reunification, it doesn't initially appear to have made great inroads into NASCAR's popularity in the US, but America has always had a homegrown professional single-seater formula and it would be a shame to see it go. Nonetheless, the brutal truth is that it wouldn't be quite the loss that it once would have been.

Time will tell which of the above series will survive in the years to come. I honestly can't believe they will all still be in place, even by 2010. However, I'm not persuaded this is necessarily a bad thing for the sport. If a little less quantity leads to a little more quality, that would be no bad thing.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008

A Golden Age?

A question for motorsports anoraks to ponder upon over a pint or two: What was the most talented grid of F1 drivers ever assembled? What was the golden age of Grand Prix racing, in terms of the sheer quality of the field? There are, I think, a few possible candidates...

A strong case could be made for 1967. That year, there were no fewer than seven past or future world champions in the field. Jim Clark was very much at the height of his powers, with the DFV engined Lotus, Jack Brabham had just become the first man to win the World Championship in a car of his own construction, and John Surtees, the only man to win world championships on two and four wheels, took Honda's first victory at the Italian Grand Prix. All of these men were beaten to the title that year by the gruff New Zealander, Denny Hulme, who may not feature in many people's list of the all-time greats, but beat an awful lot of drivers who do regularly make such lists.

The unreliability of the early Lotus 49 may have ensured that Graham Hill didn't figure in the championship battle that year, but he was still near the peak of his powers, and, with the more sorted 49B, would go on to win a second driver's title the following year. In addition to these 5 world champions, the field also featured future world champions Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt. While Rindt may have shown little of the talent which would eventually bring him the World title (posthumously) in 1970 - Denis Jenkinson famously remarked he would shave his beard off if Rindt ever won a Grand Prix - Stewart had made a big impact on the sport when he made his debut 2 years earlier, scoring 4 podium finishes, and 1 win, on his way to 3rd in the driver's championship. Proof, if it were needed, that Lewis Hamilton's achievements are not entirely without precedent. Only the sheer awfulness of the heavy, slow, unreliable BRM H16 ruled him out of contention in 1967.

Not every first rate racing driver wins a world title, of course, and in addition to the 7 World Champions mentioned above, the field featured a number of other quality racers. Dan Gurney, racing for his own All-American Racers team, was, it has been said, the only driver that Jim Clark ever really feared. Pedro Rodriguez may have been at his very best in sportscars, but he was quick enough to win the opening race in South Africa in an elderly Cooper Maserati. Other Grand Prix winners in the field included Jackie Ickx, Bruce Mclaren and Joakim Bonnier, while Chris Amon served as proof that not every quick Grand Prix driver even ever won a Grand Prix.

A case can also be made for the drivers lined up at the start of the 1982 Grand Prix season. The '82 Championship was famously one of the most close-fought battles there has ever been, with no driver winning more than 2 races all year. Sadly, a major part of the reason it was so close-run was that the most likely champion, Gilles Villeneuve, was killed early on in the season at Zolder, and his team mate Didier Pironi would suffer career-ending injuries later on in the year in Germany. Nonetheless, the 1982 season brought together many of the drivers who would dominate the sport throughout the first half of the 1980s. The champion that year, the last man to win a World Championship with a Cosworth DFV, was Keke Rosberg, but others in contention for honours included a young Alain Prost at Renault, returning former champion Niki Lauda at Mclaren, his team mate (who came within a few points of the 1982 title) John Watson, and the eccentric French charger, Rene Arnoux.

Seemingly out of contention that year, but a reigning world champion who would go on to win another two titles, Nelson Piquet was one of two other past or future champions in the field that year. The other? a seeming no hoper in a Lotus whose place in the sport seemed precariously balanced - a moustachio-ed Brummie by the name of Nigel Mansell. If it looked unlikely that he would ever go on to great things, it is perhaps worth remembering that, prior to 1982, Keke Rosberg had just two points finishes to show for 4 years in F1, although whether anyone else would have achieved much more driving for Theodore, Fittipaldi and ATS is an open question.

There were plenty other accomplished racers in the field at the beginning of that year, including Patrick Tambay, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto - the man who took Tyrrell's last GP win, Elio De Angelis and Carlos Reutemann. By the season's end, Reutemann, Villeneuve and Pironi would all be absent (though Mario Andretti would make a fleeting return) but the opening couple of races of the 1982 season just might have featured more Grand Prix winners than any other. Certainly, it featured a veritable raft of talent.

My next candidate grid is the line-up that existed from the Belgian Grand Prix of 1991, when Michael Schumacher made his stunning debut in the sport, to the Japanese Grand Prix, after which Ferrari fired its multiple champion lead driver Alain Prost, for suggesting that it's 641 car "handled like a truck." This grid featured men who, between them, won 20 drivers titles between 1981 and 2004, and there is a fair argument that in terms of the number of out-and-out greats in the field at once, it was the most competitive grid ever. There was Ayrton Senna, at Mclaren, Alain Prost, at Ferrari, Michael Schumacher and Nelson Piquet at Benetton, Nigel Mansell at Williams and a young Mika Hakkinen was part way through his first season at Lotus. OK, so it is hard to argue that all of those drivers, and in particular, Hakkinen, Piquet and Schumacher, were at anything like the height of their powers but in terms of drivers who were, at their best, amongst the all time greats, I'm not sure there has even been a more standout line-up.

Aside from these six drivers who together dominated the sport for two decades, past and future race winners including Gerhard Berger, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto, Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert were also competing that year, the first two in potentially race winning cars. OK, so of all these drivers, only Senna and Mansell were in contention for the title, and Alain Prost was enduring a nightmare of a season with a Ferrari team which, after a tilt at the title the previous year, were collapsing back into the anarchy which had characterised much of their history, but it depends on the question. If it's about the number of great drivers in race winning cars at the peak of their powers, then perhaps 1991 doesn't deserve mention, but if it's simply about the greatest concentration of natural talent, it has to be a candidate for the greatest grid of drivers there has ever been.

My final nomination for the most talented grid of F1 drivers ever assembled is.... the current one. When Michael Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, I, for one, thought we would be entering an era dominated by two men - Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso. In the event, it hasn't turned out that way. If anything, that brief period where the sport appeared poised on the brink of domination by those two drivers now looks like something of an interregnum between the disappearance of Schumacher and the emergence of a new generation of stars such as Lewis Hamilton, Robert Kubica and, perhaps, Sebastian Vettel. That's not to say that Raikkonen or Alonso have been eclipsed, more that they now look like merely two of perhaps five or six really exceptionally quick racers in the field right now.

Add to that the fact that the tutelage of Rob Smedley and Michael Schumacher appears to have taken the raw talent of Felipe Massa and smoothed away the rough edges to produce a driver able to embarrass Raikkonen and make a bid for the world title and that's six potential or actual world champions in the field. But what of the rest? Red Bull's Mark Webber is fast gathering a reputation for misfortune to match his fellow Antipodean Chris Amon but has shown enough raw pace to suggest that were he in a half-way competitive car, he would have a string of race wins to his name by now. Webber's team mate David Coulthard may be well past his best now, but let's not forget that, back in 2001, he was the only man to put up a fight against Schumacher for the World title.

And there's plenty more really quick drivers in the field. How about Jarno Trulli, over at Toyota? A man who gave Fernando Alonso a serious run for his money over at Renault in 2004 until he fell out with Flavio Briatore and his performance went off the boil accordingly? Or either of the Honda drivers, Barrichello and Button? Barrichello was an outside bet for the 2003 title until well after mid-point and was about the only team mate capable on occasion of out-pacing Michael Schumacher, while Button is outstanding in the wet - always the hallmark of a driver with innate ability, and, until time seemed to pass him by without his ever ending up in a race winning car, marked as a potential future champion.

Of those not so far mentioned, Giancarlo Fisichella and Heikki Kovalainen are both Grand Prix winners, while Nico Rosberg, Timo Glock and Nick Heidfeld have all looked as if, given a fair wind and the right car, they too could win races and perhaps even make a bid for the world title. Certainly I reckon all three of them are at least as good as Damon Hill was...

Perhaps, though, what most marks out the 2008 grid is the almost total absence of time-servers and journey-men in the lower orders. In any of the years I've mentioned above - 1968, 1982 or 1991, the bottom third of the grid was largely made up of pay-drivers and hobbyists who didn't really belong in the sport's topmost level. The same could hardly be said of the current line-up of drivers. OK, so perhaps it would be a fair criticism of Kazuki Nakajima (although he wasn't exactly slow in GP2 and he's hardly disgraced himself with Williams) and there's no doubting that Nelson Piquet Jr has been a disappointment - though I believe he was hired on merit and I suspect he'll get the heave-ho because he hasn't lived up to that promise.

2008 may not be the golden age of close racing. Or great circuits, or technical variety and innovation among the teams. The cars may not be the prettiest, and the fans certainly can't get as close to the action at the circuit as once was possible, but in one crucial way, I really do believe we are living through something of a golden age of Grand Prix racing.

So have I got it right? Or have I missed a year to top all of the ones I've listed above. And if you think I have got it right, which of the four years I have picked - 1968, 1982, 1991 and 2008, had the best driver line-up of the lot?

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