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...

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Anonymous Clive said...

Brilliant, just brilliant.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an absolutely wonderful piece.

9:50 AM  

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