Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Straws in the Wind

Things have been moving quickly these last few days in the world of F1. On Saturday morning, I'd been planning to put together a little piece about how Jaime Alguersuari was faring as the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix. By the conclusion of qualifying, that story had rather been overtaken by Felipe Massa's freak accident, which looks set to knock him out of action for the rest of the season. We can only be glad that the debris struck the side of his helmet as opposed to the visor, in which case he might not still have been with us at all.

The Hungarian GP itself didn't provide much entertainment, aside from Hamilton's as it turned out rather crucial pass of Mark Webber in the early laps on the exit of Turn One, so I got to pondering who might replace Massa at Ferrari for the rest of the season. I struggled to remember the names of their current test drivers to be honest (Luca Badoer and Marc Gene, in case your curiosity has been piqued) and I couldn't see either of them ending up in the car. I wondered instead whether the Scuderia might make a swoop for a current F1 driver. Robert Kubica, who hasn't seemed especially happy at BMW for a while, seemed a possibility.

The post-race penalty imposed on Renault for sending Alonso off down pit-road with a loose wheel-nut made me wonder if instead Ferrari had the Spaniard at the top of its wish list to replace Massa. With Renault seemingly out of the European Grand Prix at Valencia, and with it being Alonso's home race, it seemed all too possible that he might jump ship, especially as it's much rumoured he'll be heading over there in 2010 anyway.

Conspiracy theorists might wonder if the decision to penalise Renault (though not the driver who limped round the lap with a loose wheel. albeit to be fair he might not have known that the wheel was loose, as opposed to punctured) indicates that the FIA were somehow complicit in all this. After all, drivers have been sent out of the pits without wheels being properly secured plenty times in the past, it's just one of those things that happens from time to time.

To be fair, while it's possible, I'm not sure it's the most likely explanation. In the wake of Henry Surtees' tragic death at Brands Hatch the previous weekend, and in the light of Massa's practice crash, the stewards perhaps had reason to take an especially dim view of a team deliberately allowing a car with a wheel on the verge of flying off to continue back to pitlane. And besides, in these post-Todt, FOTA days, does the FIA really still stand for Ferrari International Assistance any longer?

What holed this particular theory below the water-line, though, was one of two further developments today - the news that Michael Schumacher will be returning to the cockpit to sub for Felipe Massa. To be honest I'm a little surprised that the German multiple world champion wants to get back into what does not look an especially competitive Ferrari, without the undisputed number 1 status. At the age of 40, he'll be by some margin the oldest driver to have competed in contemporary Formula 1 for a long time, and still nursing injuries picked up while motorcycle racing earlier in the year, it's not clear he's really at full fitness. Past returns by retired world champions - think Mansell at Mclaren in 1995 or Alan Jones in the admittedly uncompetitive Lola in 1986, have not gone well.

All the same, it will be interesting to see how he goes, even if it does perhaps threaten to overshadow what is fast becoming a very intriguing title battle between Jenson Button and the Red Bull pair of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. It seems pretty clear that, even on hot days on circuits where mechanical grip counts for more than absolute aerodynamic efficiency, the Red Bull appears to be ahead in terms of pure pace now. On the other hand, Button has a very handy points advantage, and provided that Rubens Barrichello can be made to recognise the reality of the situation, it is at least clear that only one of the Brawn drivers can realistically walk away with the driver's title, while it is far from obvious even which of the two Red Bull drivers the team would be better off backing if they wanted to.

Today's other story, of course, which just might overshadow even the return of Schumacher, is the news that BMW is to pull out of the sport. After four years as a full manufacturer team (having previously provided engines to Williams) the Swiss-German squad appeared to be making real progress last year, with Kubica winning his and their first race, and being in contention for the title until the penultimate race. They've gone dramatically backwards this year and it has been interesting that both Bernie Ecclestone and the FIA have insinuated that this lies behind their withdrawal from the sport.

Which is of course entirely possible. Teams that are winning don't tend to quit. Teams that are embarrassing the owners, on the other hand, like Honda last year, do. That said, BMW were a leading light in FOTA and it will be interesting to see what the impact of their withdrawal will be on the sport. Perhaps the most ominous reading is that their decision to quit has little to do with either the global economic picture or the team's current lack of competitiveness (which may after all be temporary) but is a judgment on the way that the sport is being run. Ecclestone's tasteless comments about Hitler, Max Mosley's seemingly deliberate combativeness, and perhaps now the nagging suspicion that if Jean Todt wins the forthcoming FIA elections, little will really change.

There remains the question, too, of whether BMW will be the last of the manufacturer teams to pull the plug. The vultures have been circulating over the Renault team for some time now, and the FIA's decision to ban them from the European Grand Prix for doing nothing that other teams haven't done down the years will hardly have done anything to encourage them to stay. Toyota continue to burn vast amounts of cash achieving relatively little - with that first win looking no more likely than it has. And if Dietrich Mateschitz ever decides that he's got better things to do, say once he's picked up a World Title for his Red Bull team, a real hole would be left in the sport.

That's perhaps accentuating the negative. After all, there's supposed to be three new teams coming in next year, and there were several others who applied for entries only to be turned down by the FIA (cynics suggest because when the FIA was playing poker with FOTA, it wanted to keep some credible 'would be' entries up its sleeve). If these teams were thinking of entering in their own right, and weren't mere paper tigers, it shouldn't be beyond the resources of one or two of them to pick up the pieces left behind by BMW and Renault. And that's if Peter Sauber doesn't retake the helm at his old team, and Flavio Briatore can't find a friendly billionaire to take over at Renault.

Interesting times, then. I only hope that it doesn't overshadow what is fast turning into yet another intriguing world title battle, both between Red Bull and Brawn, and between Webber, Button and Vettel. There are times when it seems the F1 world is focused more on next season that on what is happening on the circuit on a Sunday afternoon. Not surprising, perhaps, at this time of year when all but a few teams and drivers will know by now that this is not to be their year (Hamilton or Raikkonen could quite easily win all the season's remaining races without standing any realistic chance of taking the driver's title) but a shame if an intriguing fight between three drivers and two teams which have never before been in this position ends up being overlooked.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Coming Second

So Mark Webber has at last taken himself off of the list of candidates for the dubious accolade of being the best F1 driver never to have won a Grand Prix. Along with fellow Antipodean Chris Amon, I'd have had him down as far and away the leading candidate for such an award, too. Who else, though, might be in the running?

I'm not thinking, here, of drivers killed young who might have gone on to great things had they lived. Not, then, Stefan Bellof or any of the three subjects of David Tremayne's The Lost Generation, David Purley, Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce. Nor for that matter, am I thinking of those whom the hand of fate denied more than a handful of Grands Prix in uncompetitive cars such as Bernd Schneider or Mike Thackwell.

In fact that have been relatively few racing drivers who have eked out long-term careers in the sport without having ever won a race. There are exceptions though. The man with the questionable distinction of having started more Grands Prix than any other without ever winning one of them is the wealthy Italian Andrea De Cesaris. Elevated to Formula 1 on a pile of Marlboro cash before he was perhaps really ready for it, at the the age of 21, he was intermittently incredibly quick, but immensely accident prone. In his first full season in the sport, for Mclaren, he comprehensively proved the safety of John Barnard's revolutionary carbon fibre chassis, crashing 14 times in the course of the season.

In spite of this, and no doubt due in part to the fact his father was a Philip Morris executive, he got a ride at Alfa Romeo the following year. Amazingly, he stuck the car on pole at Long Beach in 1982, and led the race until a moment of madness - being so busy shaking his fist at a backmarker that he missed a gear, gave Niki Lauda, the man who replaced him at Mclaren, the opportunity to slip by. He would go on to crash out of the race around mid-distance. In many ways, it was a race that summed up his entire career - both the flashes of real pace, and the inability to keep out of the walls.

A reputation for being accident-prone stymied his career - Mclaren fired him in 1981, Alfa Romeo got rid of him at the end of 1983 (though that may have been a blessing in disguise) and the famously volatile Guy Ligier gave him the sack mid-season in 1985, leaving him nowhere to go but Minardi.

He always went well at Spa, though. One wag has speculated that he only really woke up and concentrated when the dangers of the sport were obvious. He grabbed a podium there for Brabham in 1987 and ran at the front in the hardly earth-shatteringly fast 1983 Alfa Romeo. It was also the place, after the Long Beach debacle, that he came closest to winning a Grand Prix. While enjoying something of an Indian Summer at Jordan in 1991, where he finally managed to marry some consistency to his speed, he was running second towards the race's end, and fast catching Ayrton Senna's hobbled Mclaren, only for engine to give out just three laps from the end. De Cesaris would never again come close to winning a Grand Prix. It seemed that as he found consistency, he lost the pace that marked him out early in his career, and he saw out his time in the sport as a steady step-slow journeyman at Sauber.

His misfortune, in a way, was to get his hands on competitive racing cars only at the beginning of his career, when he lacked the maturity to make the most of them. He was not one of the sport's greats, but I'd say that there was little to separate him from Jean Alesi, another man whose car control could be sublime, but whose racing brain was a little soft.

That's a criticism that could never be levelled at Martin Brundle, whom Nigel Roebuck once remarked was as intelligent a man as ever sat in an F1 cockpit. If De Cesaris' problem was that he got in the right cars at the wrong time, then Brundle's misfortune was the team mates he ended up paired with during his stints at Benetton and Mclaren. After years spent doing what he could to establish his reputation in non-turbo Tyrrells, the second-rate products of the re-animated Brabham squad and the truly awful Zakspeed, he finally got his hands on a competitive machine in the form of John Barnard's Benetton B192. One problem... his team mate was a young German novice by the name of Michael Schumacher.

In retrospect, Brundle did a good job. He was almost always out-qualified by Schumacher, but was often quicker in race-trim. He might well have won had his gearbox not failed during the Canadian Grand Prix in 1992, and was ahead of Schumacher at Spa - scene of the German's first win, until going off-track and alerting his team mate to the fact that it was time to change to slicks - a lap earlier than Brundle was able to do so. At the end of the year, the team, perhaps not appreciating the depth of Schumacher's talent, ditched Brundle after he'd been blown away by a rookie. He was replaced by Riccardo Patrese, a multiple race winner who was nonetheless unable to get anywhere near as close to the German star.

Mclaren came knocking in 1994, but once again Brundle was unlucky with his timing. Not only was the 1994 Mclaren-Peugeot quite the worst machine to come out of Woking in a very long time, but he was once again paired up with a then relatively inexperienced man who would go on to become a multiple world champion - Mika Hakkinen. Brundle did a respectable job, but again found himself outpaced by his team mate.

If De Cesaris' problems came down largely to mental attitude, the Brundle, who was probably a much more talented racer, lacked perhaps only that last tenth of a second a lap that separates the great from the good. Sometimes, it doesn't matter, plenty of Grand Prix winners haven't had it, and to my mind, some world champions haven't had it, but without it, a driver needs more luck than Brundle had in order to become a GP winner.

As I said at the beginning of the article, the list of drivers who had really long careers without ever winning a race is actually fairly short - I could perhaps have focused attention on Derek Warwick or Jean Pierre Jarier, but in reality, it is rare for a driver to be good enough to sustain a prolonged career as a paid professional, but not good enough ever to work his way into a team with a shot at winning a race.

What, though, of the current crop of F1 drivers? Well, it took a long time for Webber and Button to win their first races, but neither have been around any longer than one Nick Heidfeld.... Might the German be homing in on De Cesaris' record?

POSTSCRIPT: For anyone who's interested because a) it sounds like one hell of a prize and b) they were kind enough to invite me down to look around their factory, Williams are currently running a repeat of their competition to win a chance to drive their F1 car. For more details, visit: at

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Last Chance Saloon

Ten minutes before Qualifying Three. The track appears to be drying off. You look across the garage to where your team mate's car sits. He's what, 22 years old. He's won three Grands Prix and he's being talked about in some circles as the heir to Michael Schumacher. Silly hyperbole, maybe, but still... No point feeling jealous. That's not going to find you that last tenth of a second.

A thought flashes across your mind. Where were you when you were his age? Stuck in a cul-de-sac marked 'FIA GT Series' wondering if your single seater career was already over. OK, so it was a pleasant enough dead end. The GT series was a bit more of a serious race series back then, and the Mercedes CLK-GT-R was quite some beast, even if the damned thing near enough killed you at Le Mans. But without funding to do F3000, how to make the step to F1?

You got there in the end, notwithstanding ending up with the Arrows test drive just as the team was imploding. Flavio got you a seat at Minardi. Not a car you were ever going to do much with, you thought, but it had been enough for that Spanish teenager to serve notice of his talents the year before. You reckon you did about as much as anyone could have done with that car. You blow away your team mates, Alex Yoong and his temporary replacement Anthony Davidson. But there doesn't seem to be quite the same buzz there had been the previous year when Alonso had demolished Tarso Marques.

No matter, you've done enough to persuade the guys at Jaguar to take you on alongside the hotly tipped Brazilian, Antonio Pizzonia. Beating him? That should count for something, and Jaguar? They might be a royal shambles, so much so you were mixing it with them at Minardi on occasion last year, but they're a proper works team with the backing of the Ford Motor Company. There's potential, right?

Pizzonia proves no trouble. So much so that the team ditch him half way through the season and hire the guy you went up against in F3000 the year before last in his place. Justin Wilson's no more able to match your pace than Pizzonia was and he's out on his ear by the end of the season, replaced by some Austrian F3 hotshoe with a bag of Red Bull cash behind him.

Ah, Wilson... A reminder that it could always be worse. Five races in a halfway decent race car and that was it - his F1 career over. Went off to ply his trade in the backwater that is American single seater racing. You glance at the weather satellite picture. Looks like the top ten run-off's going to be dry. On balance, a good thing. You've no fear of a wet track, but today of all days you could do without the confounding elements.

Jaguar never got their act together, and the team was sold off at the end of the year. You jumped ship to join Frank Williams' squad. Frank and Patrick were your kind of people, no-nonsense racers, with none of the corporate bullshit that was constantly going on behind the scenes at Jaguar. Your fourth season in the sport, this should have been the moment it all started to come good. They might have had a rough time of it the previous season, but they had been title contenders the year before that, and Montoya had come good and won the last race of the season. This was the break you had been waiting for....Right?

Wrong. All told, the 2005 car was a bit of a dog. It just didn't have enough downforce to be competitive, and to make matters worse, their relationship with engine supplier, BMW was on the rocks. At the end of the year, they offered you a seat at their new joint venture with Sauber, but you opt to stay with Frank's team. A mistake? Maybe, but, you think, remembering how Heidfeld and Kubica have gone this weekend, maybe not.

The 06 Williams starts out fast but unreliable. Your new team mate, GP2 champion Nico Rosberg, grabs the headlines with fastest lap in the opening race, and goes and sticks the car on the second row next time out in Malaysia. You're left wondering if your own efforts are going unnoticed. Does anyone remember that, for the rest of the season, the new boy almost never even gets close to you? Or that you had a serious shot at victory in Monaco before the car broke, as it kept doing that year? When Frank decided he wanted to cut your pay to take up your option in 2007, you opted to move back to your old home, Jaguar, or Red Bull as it had become in the interim.

Once again, your new team mate, for all that he was once a title contender and has 13 Grand Prix victories you his name, proves to be no trouble. Over two years you out-qualify him 31-4, even if the vagaries of life in the midfield mean that he contrives to score more points than you. But still, there's the nagging, insistent thought that your career is slipping away from you. You're no longer the coming man. Raikkonen and Alonso, who entered the sport around the same time as you, are World Champions now. You haven't even won a race. Already, the spotlight has moved on to a new generation - Robert Kubica, Lewis Hamilton, these guys are nearly ten years your junior. You're in your thirties now. You've only got so many years ahead of you in F1. And for all that Red Bull look a serious team, for all that they have Adrian Newey heading up the design team, they haven't looked like winning a race. Then you go and break your leg - on a bicycle, of all things.

Lying in your hospital bed, you hear word from testing that the new RB5 just might be the car you've been looking for all your career. That at last the boys have produced a race winner. It's flying in new team mate Vettel's hands, but you're hobbling about on crutches, hoping against hope you'll be ready for Melbourne. You'd never paid too much attention to all this crap in the press about your luck, but now you begin to wonder....

You make the start of the season, but you know that you're not 100% fit. You don't let on that you're still struggling. In battle, show no weakness. But you wonder whether Vettel would prove so much trouble if you didn't have a bunch of metal in your leg. The podiums come, and you're lying fourth in the title race, but Vettel's winning races. You really need to win a Grand Prix if you aren't to end up Vettel's de facto Number 2.

This weekend, though. It's really now or never for you. Win the German Grand Prix. Or spend the rest of the year, hell maybe the rest of your career, as understudy to the wunderkind in the garage across from you. Pressure? Maybe, but with Q3 fast approaching, you feel energised, you feel this could be, will be your race. The energy of youth merging with the last-chance urgency of approaching old age. You've been quick here all weekend, the track's too cold for the Brawns, young Vettel appears a touch nervous about being the man of the moment, in front of his home crowd, expectations weighing heavy on his shoulders. It's there for the taking, you think. You flick down your visor. The mechanics fire the Renault V8 into life. Go out there and make it count...

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On Two Wheels

I'm a four wheel man, all told. I've watched the odd Moto GP race, and even took a trip to the Isle of Man for the TT a couple of years back, but fundamentally, my interest lies in cars, rather than bikes, being driven very quickly. I'm not one to turn down a freebie, though and when an old university friend volunteering as a trackside doctor offered me free tickets to last weekend's round of the British Superbike Championship in exchange for a place to crash down, I wasn't going to say no.

Joe Dickinson

It was quite an eye-opener in some ways. I'm only dimly aware of the BSB's existence - the last time I caught a race on television, it was being dominated by some Spanish guy called Lavilla, who wasn't even on the entry list at the weekend. However, it is clear that the sport has a very considerable following - the event attracted by some distance the largest crowd I've ever seen at Knockhill, including those for the BTCC rounds I've caught up there over the past few years. And to judge by the number of people wearing commemorative t-shirts from races all over the world, a good number were hard-core fans.

Me, I didn't really have an opinion on the relative merits of Josh Harris, Leon Camier, Stuart Easton (the local favourite) et al. All I cared about was seeing some good racing. So did I get what I'd come to see? Perhaps not in the Superbike races themselves. Josh Harris had nailed the pole, but Camier, who had won 8 of the previous 10 races, made short work of him in the races, and thereafter, they were a touch processional.

To be fair though, there was action further down the field, and it was noticeable that the bikes have a rather easier time of it actually passing each other around the twisty confines of Knockhill (which is only 1.3 miles in length) than most of the four wheel championships which have raced there recently have. F3, for example, abandoned the place in 2005 as passing was all but impossible, and in recent years, the Formula Renault boys have not come up on BTCC weekends.

BJ Toal

The battle for the second Superstock 1000 race, on the other hand, between Alistair Seeley and Steve Brogan (with cameo roles for Richard Cooper and Luke Quigley, who always looked ready to pounce if the lead two put a foot wrong) stands as just possibly one of the best fights I've had the pleasure of seeing at a race track in the nearly 25 years I've been watching motor racing. The two swapped positions back and forth throughout the first 18 laps of the race, rarely more than a few inches between them, but always keeping it clean and fair - at least from where I was standing, down at Butchers. Only an error down at the hairpin 2 laps from home finally settled it in Seeley's favour - enabling him to maintain his 100% victory record for the season so far.

Brogan vs Seeley

So what did my first taste of circuit bike-racing have going for it? There's certainly a more informal, friendly, feeling to the paddock than I've found at equivalent car racing events, where there can sometimes be a certain preciousness amongst those taking part. Perhaps it's something to do with the sheer amount of money floating around in categories like British F3, I don't know.

It's true, too, that racing a bike around a place like Knockhill looks more difficult than racing a car around it. Maybe it's an illusion brought on by the fact that you see more of the rider at work - throwing his body around to balance the bike through the corners, it looks in some ways more an act of acrobatics. What certainly isn't an illusion is that riders are putting life and limb on the line to a much greater degree than those on four wheels. A quick chat with my doctor friend about the injury rate in superbike racing was quite an eye-opener.

Leon Camier

So does this mean that, in future, I'll be watching Moto GP, not the F1? The BSB, not the BTCC? That Motorsports Ramblings will become Motorbike Ramblings? I'm afraid not. In the end, the sight of a car on the limit just does it for me in a way that a bike does not. Probably it's just a matter of what you have grown up with, what you have come to love, but for all I enjoyed my trip to see life on two wheels last weekend, and for all I can certainly see the attraction, it's racing on four wheels that remains my thing.

All photos author's own.

Labels: , , , , ,