Monday, August 24, 2009

Losing the Edge

The othr weekend, I ventured south for a friend's Stag party and afternoon's kart racing. As the 'Stag' was a former F1 journalist (he's since moved off into the world of football writing) it was inevitable that we would end up talking motorsport. On the minibus out to Buckmore Park*, we got to discussing Luca Badoer's prospects in the forthcoming European Grand Prix. Our conclusion was that he wouldn't make a fool of himself, that he would doubtless be slower than Kimi Raikkonen, but that any professional racing driver, given the tools to do the job, would be able to get within seven or eight tenths of the car's ultimate potential. After all, Jaime Alguersuari, a man who hadn't particularly stood out in the Renault World Series this year, was able to get within about that margin of Sebastien Buemi in his debut at Toro Rosso in Hungary.

As everyone knows now, we got that wrong. Though our embarrassment must have been as nothing when compared to that experienced by Badoer himself. Qualifying plum-last, some 2.6s off the pace of Kimi Raikkonen's sister car, and spinning twice on his way to finishing last and a lap down, in a car good enough for a podium in his team mate's hands. There are more than a few intriguing questions around the whole Badoer/Ferrari story. How serious was Schumacher about stepping back behind the wheel? Did the team, and perhaps the FIA, have their eye on getting Alonso in the car? And why did the team pick Badoer over their other tester, Marc Gene, who has much more recent race experience? Is their willingness to give the man a seat a sign of a kind of soft-headedness that would never have happened in the days of Jean Todt?

But the question that has really puzzled me is simple. Why was Badoer so slow last weekend? OK, so he hasn't raced in 10 years, but he's done upwards of 10,000km for Ferrari in testing over the last decade. Yes, in terms of ultimate ability, he's clearly no Michael Schumacher, but in his time, he won the F3000 championship, and was usually quicker than his Minardi team mate, Marc Gene when they were paired together back in 1999. His credentials, in short, seem rather more solid than, say, Alguersuari or Buemi. There's no doubting, though, that he was a good deal slower than either of them. What lay behind this?

Before last weekend's race, there was much talk of how Badoer's lack of recent race experience might cost him in terms of racecraft - his ability to pass and to defend, but in the end, that was all but irrelevant. For all his thousands of kilometres of testing mileage, he simply wasn't as quick as a guy who was in his first F1 race, and a teenager in only his second F1 GP whose previous experience didn't extend beyond the World Series by Renault. Is it that Grosjean and Alguersuari are simply much better drivers? Perhaps, but I don't think that's the whole story.

I suspect that Badoer's real problem was that he simply had no recent experience of driving a racing car right on the limit. Testing does not require that a driver push the car to the very limits of his ability. On the contrary, if a test driver isn't holding something in reserve, isn't driving within himself, then it may be hard for him to accurately evaluate the effects of set-up changes and new parts. To do his job, in other words. The trouble is, if a driver gets out of the habit of driving at the limit, on the edge of his abilities, perhaps it simply gets hard to start doing so again, after a while. Certainly after 10 years. And remember that, unlike many F1 testers, Badoer has not been keeping his hand in racing in sportscars, or, in the case of younger F1 test drivers, competing in junior single seaters.

There are other difficulties. One which was not much remarked upon, but which might go some way to explaining his travails, is that an F1 tester in this day and age will typically spend a lot of time pounding around the same small number of circuits - Barcelona, Valencia, Bahrain, and in the case of Ferrari, Mugello. He gets out of the habit of learning new circuits, and in particular, difficult street circuits where the walls are right up close, and the smallest error risks being punished with a bent steering rod or damaged suspension.

Not convinced? Well, I might be wrong but it would go some way to explaining why Alex Wurz, after some 7 years on the sidelines, was so thoroughly outclassed when he drove alongside Nico Rosberg at Williams in 2007. The same might even be true to a lesser extent of drivers who have spent too long in uncompetitive cars which haven't exactly provided the inspiration to push to the very limit of what's possible. It would go some way to explaining how many F1 drivers careers eventually fade out - think Thierry Boutsen, Mauricio Gugelmin or Martin Brundle.

If I'm right, it poses something of a dilemma for the three new teams lining up to enter the sport next year, USF1, Manor F1, and Campos Meta. Do they go for unproven youngsters, fresh out of GP2 or WSR? Or do they hire an old hand like Pedro De La Rosa, all the while knowing that not only is he not a truly front running driver, but he almost certainly has had his edge blunted by years of pounding round Valencia and Barcelona for Mclaren? Probably the safest bet would be to go fifty/fifty, hiring one young gun and one old hand. But that risks the worst of both worlds. What if the 'young gun' is another Luciano Burti or Antonio Pizzonia - someone who doesn't quite make the grade? And what if the old hand is too slow to really expose this? How will the team ever know for sure that the problem lies with its drivers, rather than the car? Its an intriguing dilemma for all the new teams. It will be interesting to see how they resolve it. Oh and Stefano... Do the right thing. Give Anthony Davidson a call about a job you have for him in Belgium on Friday....

*52.04 in an RX7 in 'Pro' spec to beat, set in my first heat, if you want to see how you compare!!

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Nearly Was, Almost Ran....

Handbags at dawn. Thanks to Nelsinho Piquet's post-sacking outburst, we now know what many of us have long been pretty sure of anyway. That Flavio Briatore wouldn't know a diffuser from a differential. He was never a racer in the real sense. He started out selling clothes for Benetton and was brought in to run the clothes manufacturer's race team in the late eighties. He's in Formula 1 because he sees opportunities to make money, not because he's in thrall to the smell of Castrol GTX, the sound of a Ferrari V12, or the sight of an F1 car on the limit through Eau Rouge. All of which makes him a symbol of everything that has gone wrong with the sport.

It doesn't mean he's not good at his job though. Just as the CEO of an electronics company needn't have the first clue how to wire a circuit board, so long as he knows who does, in the modern era, an F1 team boss doesn't necessarily have to know the first thing about motor racing, provided he knows how to manage people who do. Having a team principal who knows how to play the political game with Bernie and the FIA, and who knows who understand the racing side of things is arguably more important. It's not an approach without its downside - arguably one of the root causes of the banking crisis was that so many of the men at the helm of the banks had little real understanding of banking, but the evidence suggests that Flavio knows who to hire and fire. How did Renault win two world championships on a fraction of the budget of Mclaren or Ferrari? In part, because Flavio ensured the team had Alonso and Symonds on the payroll - he might not have understood the intricacies of what either man does, but he knew their worth....

And whatever Nelson Piquet might say, I'm afraid I think Flavio made the right call in giving him the boot after Hungary. Now, you could argue that he has been treated unfairly. Yes, he was comprehensively outpaced by his team mate throughout his year and a half at Renault, but his team mate was double world champion Fernando Alonso. In the past, that might have been enough that he would have been cut some slack. Unfortunately for him, a couple of years ago, one Lewis Hamilton, the man who beat him to the GP2 title in 2006, showed the world that there was no intrinsic reason why a sufficiently talented rookie couldn't take the fight to even Alonso straight away.

Piquet's been about half a second a lap off the pace of Alonso this year, and has struggled particularly in qualifying, seemingly unable to unlock the pace he was sometimes able to find in free practice. With overtaking so difficult in Formula 1 these days, and with the field so close, being half a second off the ultimate potential of the car in qualifying is a tremendous handicap. Piquet's problems with nailing a qualifying lap suggest that the problems are as much to do with his response to pressure situations as with any lack of ultimate pace. The team might have been willing to forgive him this in his first season, but when he showed no real sign of improvement in his second year in F1, his head was never going to be far from the chopping block.

Nelson might have denounced Flavio. Calling him his 'executioner'... But I can't help but think that Briatore was simply learning from past mistakes. For two years, the team ran Fisichella, another driver who showed flashes of real pace but who struggled when the pressure was on. For a while, I at least wondered when he might come good. He never really did. With the constructors so evenly matched, the team simply couldn't afford to carry a sub-par driver any longer in the vain hope that he might one day come good.

Perhaps it might all have been different if Piquet had ever shown flashes of real inspiration. If there had been even one or two race weekends on which he had simply outpaced Fernando Alonso. Despite on occasion being able to best Lewis Hamilton in GP2, that simply never came. On occasion he finished ahead of Alonso, but that always owed more to the vagaries of fuel strategy and the impossibility of overtaking in modern F1 than to any genuine superiority of pace. In the end, he will go down as yet another driver who shone in the junior formulae - British F3 champion in 2005, runner-up in GP2 in 2007 - but who was found to lack that extra something at the very highest level.

In fairness to Piquet, though, he came into the sport at perhaps the worst time to be an F1 debutant. The multi-race engine and gearbox rules provided a strong disincentive to letting a driver do a significant number of laps during Friday and Saturday practice. The knock-out qualifying format puts extra pressure on drivers to make every lap count (how different from the days, many years ago now, when drivers got two shots at qualifying - an hour on Friday and another hour on Saturday, with no limit on the number of laps in either session!). And, of course, for some years now, there's not been a Sunday morning warm-up available in which to concentrate solely on running with race fuel. And then there's been the ever greater restrictions placed on in-season, and even off-season, testing.

It will be an even bigger problem for the man who will replace him in Valencia. Romain Grosjean has, despite being Renault's official test driver this year, had only very minimal time in an F1 car, and almost none at all in this year's R29. How will he fare? In truth, it's hard to be sure - you never really know whether a driver has what it takes until he steps up to F1. His career record to date is a rather chequered one. Way off the pace in the F3 Euroseries in 2006, he beat Sebastien Buemi to the title the following year. He followed that with victory in the GP2 Asia Series in 2007/08 and, driving for double champions ART, looked a shoo-in for the summer series title at the outset.

It didn't quite work out that way. He showed flashes of real pace, but made too many dumb errors, perhaps most notably the needless move on Kamui Kobayashi in the sprint race at Barcelona in 2008 which probably cost him victory and certainly second place. This year, with Barwa-Addax, he hit the ground running, and runs second in the championship, but has not been on the podium since Monaco in May. It's not clear that he will necessarily prove any better than Piquet.

But is there anyone obviously better? Anthony Davidson, I'd argue. But leaving him out of it, there's not any single driver in the junior ranks at the moment who stands out ahead of the others. Lucas Di Grassi? A solid enough performer, but he never looked as quick as Glock when they were up against each other in GP2 in 2007. Nico Hulkenberg? Maybe, but he's had a habit of binning cars when he's tested for Williams - who obviously aren't so enamoured of him as to give him their second seat ahead of Kazuki Nakajima. Bruno Senna, maybe? Perhaps, but I've never been entirely convinced. Haven't Renault had enough trouble with people with famous surnames from Brazil? What about Andy Soucek? He's been dominating Formula 2, and as the cars are all run centrally by Palmer's engineers, we know that it's not down to the brilliance of his race engineers - always a possibility in GP2. On the other hand, though, who exactly is he beating? Aside, perhaps from Robert Wickens, is there anyone in the F2 field who's really known to be quick?

I think the team have made the right move, though. Whichever way you look at it, Renault were going to need at least one new driver in 2010, and quite possibly 2. In an era of very limited testing, putting Grosjean in the car gives the team a chance to assess his potential, and gives Grosjean an opportunity to get some F1 mileage under his belt should the team decide he's worth keeping on for 2010. And if he doesn't make the grade? At least they find out now and can concentrate on giving other candidates seat time over the winter. Flavio might not understand motor racing, but that doesn't necessarily mean he doesn't understand Formula 1.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

After the deluge: IRL post-reunification

Did reunification come too late? After losing the Champ Car World Series at the end of 2007, could it be that the Indy Racing League won’t last much longer? The news that the series’ long-time Godfather Tony George had resigned – some say been forced out – as CEO of the Indianapolis speedway is only the latest sign that all is not entirely well at the top of US open wheel racing.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that reunification has not proven to be a panacea and the state of open wheel racing in the US remains parlous. While NASCAR viewing figures stagnate and race attendance figures appear to be dipping, the people behind the IRL would probably wish they had Bill France’s problems. The Indianapolis 500 aside, the sport has a negligible profile in its home country, and is hidden away on a relatively minor TV network. Those of us who hoped that reunification of the IRL and Champ Car might help the series to rebuild its media profile have so far been disappointed. What, then, is the problem?

I think we’re still seeing the after-effects of the split, and in particular, the devastating impact it has had on the wider single seater racing landscape in the US. For years, the leading junior single seater series in the US was the Formula Atlantic series. As recently as 2007, it was boasting 25-30 car grids and appeared to be a serious feeder category, even if it was far from clear what exactly it was supposed to be feeding. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it’s not hard to see how US open wheel racing is in such a precarious state. Formula Atlantic, in particular, has been something of a playground for European drivers without either the budget, or sometimes, it seems, the ability, to really succeed back across the pond. One has to go back to 2004 to find the last US-born Atlantic champion – Jon Fogarty. And that championship wasn’t enough for him to break into the IRL or Champ Car – he now plies his trade in the Grand Am Series alongside Alex Gurney.

The Indy Lights Series, which these days looks the stronger of the two championships thanks to its links with the IRL, hasn’t seen an American winner since AJ Foyt IV took the title back in 2002. And some of the subsequent winners have sunk into utter obscurity. Whatever happened to 2006 winner Jay Bridger? Or 2004 champion Thiago Medeiros?

The truth is that promising young American racing drivers for the most part see their future as being in NASCAR, and are more likely to be found in the ARCA series, in sprint cars, or whatever, than trying their hand in single seaters. There are some signs that this may be changing – American JR Hildebrand is looking odds on to win the Indy Lights Series this year, while John Edwards and Jonathan Summerton both look reasonable bets to overhaul series leader Simona De Silvestro and win the Formula Atlantic title.

The logical end consequence of the weakness of the lower rungs of the US racing ladder is that there is a dearth of really first-rate American drivers in the Indy Racing League itself. Now I might not give two hoots as to the nationality of racing drivers, but I expect I’m in a small minority on this. And I seriously doubt that there’s any realistic chance that the IRL will regain anything like the hold it had in the popular consciousness through the late 1980s and early 1990s for as long as it remains a series in which Australian, New Zealander, Brazilian and Scottish drivers do battle in Italian cars with Japanese engines at American circuits. Look at where F1 is most popular… Europe, and in particular, Germany, the UK and Italy, and South America, and in particular, Brazil. Could that have anything to do with where the leading drivers and teams of the last 30 years have hailed from?

Not one of this year’s 13 races has been won by an American driver. The closest that any has come was Vision Racing’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, with his second place at the opening race of the season at St. Petersberg back at the beginning of April. Since then, Hunter Reay has scarcely figured at all.

The leading American drivers in the series at the moment are Andretti-Green’s Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti and Newman-Haas’ Graham Rahal. All three have huge marketing potential – Patrick is the most successful female racing driver in the world today, and Andretti and Rahal are both sons of famous fathers. All three of these drivers are good, solid professional single seater racers – all have race wins to their name – but in the end, I’m not convinced that any one of them is really from the very top drawer. The fact that not one of them has won a race this year tells its own story.

Of course, it might be that Newman Haas and Andretti-Green simply aren’t quite on the pace of front-runners Ganassi and Penske. There might be some truth in this, but it is interesting that Dale Coyne’s tiny one-car operation has often outpaced them, at least on road courses. Why? I suspect, because in Justin Wilson, they have one of the best drivers in the series – they won at Watkins Glen, and ran right at the front in Mid Ohio last weekend until screwing up their fuel strategy. It will be interesting to see how Franck Montagny – another fast European whose F1 career never quite worked out – does when he races for Andretti-Green at Sears Point later in the year.

When Peter Windsor’s USF1 operation announced that it plans to run a promising young US driver alongside an experienced old hand in F1 next year, I can’t help but think that Andretti, Patrick and Rahal were probably not names he had in mind (although Patrick, in particular, would be a good name around which to build a marketing programme). To be fair, the state of US single seater racing is such that it’s not immediately clear who the alternatives are – Hildebrand? But is there too much of an oval series bias in Indy Lights? Summerton or Edwards? Maybe, but I’m not sure that I’d have two guys being beaten by De Silvestro marked as “future F1 drivers”. Could Allmendinger, Speed, or Hornish Jr. be tempted? Maybe. If I could persuade him to give it another go, I’d probably run Speed, but whether he’d want to do it is another matter.

That’s for another day, though really. In the here and now, the biggest problem facing US single seater racing is that it can’t even produce enough home grown talent to support it’s own series. Which is a shame, because there’s a fair bit to be positive about in the post re-unification IRL. The balance between ovals, street circuits and road courses is much better than it was in either the last days of Champ Car (when the series seemed to go to any two-bit street course that would have them) or in IRL’s earlier guise, when it was an almost entirely oval-based series. OK, so I’ll not be entirely happy until they go back to Road America – surely the best race track in North America, but in the meantime, I’ll settle for a series that includes Indianapolis, Long Beach, Mid Ohio, Watkins Glen and the Milwaukee Mile.

The quality of the drivers is considerably better than was ever the case in either the recent years of Champ Car or the pre-unification IRL too. It’s a shame that Hornish Jr. and AJ Allmendinger appear to prefer a life of obscurity in the lower mid-field of NASCAR, but drivers like Castroneves, Franchitti, Dixon and Wheldon are proven front-runners (Castroneves, I understand, thanks to his appearance in the US version of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is the closest thing the series has to a household name besides Danica Patrick too). There is, in short, something worth saving here.

A weakness of the series this year has been the processional quality of the races themselves, especially on the ovals. If you’re marketing a racing series full of foreigners the average television viewer has never heard of, you’d better make damned sure the racing itself is worth tuning in for. And the oval races, in particular, were sleep-inducing. Because it’s a spec-formula, it’s rather easier for the series organisers to address this than has been the case in Formula 1, though, and the IRL series does seem to be serious about forcing through changes to make passing on oval courses easier.

Will the IRL survive and prosper in the long term? If you’d asked me a few years ago whether the Indy Racing League had a future, I’d have said that this rather depended on whether the Champ Car Series went to the wall, or whether Kalkhoven, Pettit et al held out longer than Tony George. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The end of Champ Car might have improved the quality of the field in the IRL, but neither the TV audience figures nor the crowds at the gate seem much changed. I had always assumed that there would always be enough of a fanbase in the US to support one top-flight single seater series. But nothing is certain, nothing can just be assumed…

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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Nothing But A Number?

Will Michael Schumacher really be stepping back behind the wheel of an F1 car at the European Grand Prix in Valencia in three weeks time? Is it perhaps all nothing more than a very elaborate PR stunt intended to keep the sport in the press during the month-long summer break?

When I first heard that Michael Schumacher had emerged as the most likely candidate to fillin for Felipe Massa at Valencia, I assumed that Ferrari were simply trying to drum up some publicity during what has hardly been a stellar year for the Maranello squad. However, no matter how enthusiastic Massa might be about getting back behind the wheel it is unlikely that a driver who has suffered significant skull injuries would be given the green light to race even if he felt ready. And somehow, I can't imagine Ferrari being overly enthusiastic about the idea of running either of its regular test drivers, Luca Badoer and Marc Gene, even if the latter might be a popular choice in Valencia.

Will Michael, though, be put off by the refusal of Red Bull and Williams to allow him to test the 2009 F60 ahead of his first race? He shouldn't need it - if teenaged Jaime Alguersuari can cope having never driven an F1 car prior to Hungary, then the 7 times world champion shouldn't be too seriously hampered by his unfamiliarity with 2009-spec KERS-equipped F1 cars. After all, he has more experience of racing cars on slick tyres than just about anyone else in the field. That said, given his uncertainty about whether his neck has fully recovered from his accident while testing for the German Superbike Championship back in February, he might be nervous about going back into F1 'cold', as it were. And how big a factor in his thinking is concern about his reputation?

With so many imponderables, I'm not entirely sure I'll believe Schumacher come-back is really happening until he appears in the Ferrari on Friday morning at Valencia. That said, it does all look rather more definite than it did when it was first talked of on the Monday after the Hungarian Grand Prix. If Schumacher does come back, he will be the first man in his 40s to race in F1 since Nigel Mansell raced in Spain for Mclaren in 1995.

The memory of Nigel Mansell's brief, embarrassing return to full-time F1 might be one thing that is gnawing at Schumacher's mind right now. Three years after winning the world title - he was already 39 years old when he did so - Mansell returned from US Indycar series to drive for Mclaren alongside young gun Mika Hakkinen in the first year of their partnership with Mercedes. On the surface of it, the auguries appeared good. Mansell had won the Indycar Championship in 1993, and had taken pole and victory for Williams in a guest-drive for the team at the last race of the 1994 season in Australia.

Scratch beneath the surface, though, and it wasn't too hard to see that the Mclaren-Mansell partnership might be destined for trouble. For one thing, Mansell might have been able to win in Australia for Williams, but this happened only after his team mate, Damon Hill, had had a race-ending collision with Michael Schumacher. What's more, the team reported that Mansell sounded rather more tired and out of breath in the car than they remembered him being in his heyday, just a few years earlier.

Mclaren and Mansell always seemed an unlikely partnership, in any case. Ron Dennis had never hid his distaste for the Brummie in the past, and had even gone so far as to say he would never hire him. More to the point, the team was in something of a trough in terms of its form that year. They hadn't won a race since Senna left the team at the end of 1993, and were left trying to make things work with their fourth different engine supplier in as many years. In short, it was going to be a "building year" and Mansell, clearly in the twilight of his F1 career, was not much interested in helping to develop a car which might win races in a year or two's time.

Schumacher's in a different position. For one thing, he's a couple of years younger, and has always seemed to take his physical fitness more seriously than the Brit ever did. More than that, though, Mansell's motivation was always subject to peaks and troughs, throughout his whole career. If the car wasn't really on it, as for example in his latter days at Ferrari in 1990, or with Newman Haas in Indycar in 1994, he tended to lose interest. That's not an accusation which could ever be levelled at Schumacher. Come to that, while the Ferrari has yet to win a race this year, it has looked like a much more serious package in the last couple of races than was the case earlier in the year. How ironic it would be if it was Schumacher that took the F60's first victory.

Taking a broader historical view, though, there's perhaps nothing so remarkable about Schumacher racing in F1 at 40. He's still some 13 years younger than F1's oldest winner, Luigi Fagioli, who won the French Grand Prix of 1951 at the age of 53 (he is, I think, the only driver born in the 19th Century to win an F1 Grand Prix). Now to be fair, he shared the car with Juan Manuel Fangio, but the Argentinian maestro was no spring chicken himself, by modern standards. He was older than Schumacher is now when he won the first of his five world titles. And the oldest F1 driver of all time? Well Louis Chiron was only a couple of years shy of 60 when he attempted to qualify for the 1956 Monaco Grand Prix, although, to be fair, the oldest man to actually start a Grand Prix was 55 year old Philippe Etancelin, in 1952.

Different times. For one thing, the younger drivers who might have been coming through in the early 1950s would have lost years of their careers to the Second World War. There is always a trade-off, I suspect, between youth and experience. Drivers began racing at a later age in those days, with karting still 10 years away and the idea of letting fourteen or fifteen year olds loose in racing cars had yet to catch on. Put simply, it took a driver many more years to build up enough experience to reach the peak of his abilities. Jaime Alguersuari, by contrast, would have had the benefits of hours in what are increasingly sophisticated simulators. I doubt they are yet quite like the real thing, but the gap is doubtless narrowing.

The other side of the coin is that the cars were physically easier to drive and less demanding of absolute fitness. When Martin Brundle tested a 1950s Mercedes F1 car at Spa a few years back, he was struck by two things: How mentally demanding it was to drive, and how physically easy it was. The cornering speed of cars was much lower, the g-forces correspondingly lesser, and as a consequence, drivers didn't need to be at the peak of physical fitness, as even a cursory glance at the portly Jose Froilan Gonzalez amply illustrates.

It is this, perhaps, which explains why a good many F1 drivers go on racing successfully for many years in other racing categories where the physical demands are not as great. Sportscar racing may require considerable endurance (although with driver-sharing, this isn't necessarily the case) but the absolute fitness required to race an LMP car is not as great. Mario Andretti came tantalisingly close to winning Le Mans at the age of 55, after all. NASCAR drivers quite frequently go on racing into their 40s and Mark Martin has won four times this yer at the age of 50.

Is Schumacher too old, at 40, to race competitively in F1? We'll not know for sureunless and until he competes at Valencia. Me? I think that, provided his neck doesn't cause him trouble, he'll be right up there with Raikkonen, and leave us all wondering whether he might, by now, be a nine-times World Champion had he not hung up his helmet at the end of 2006. Any which way, it will be interesting finding out.

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