Friday, October 30, 2009

From Zeroes to Heroes - F1 2009 in Review - Part One

Part One - The New Stars and the Old Guard

What a strange, strange year it was. By season's end, we had got used to watching Brawn and Red Bull fighting it out for victories, but this time last year, if you had told me that the constructors and drivers titles would be fought out between a team that had never so much as won a Grand Prix before and one that didn't yet even exist in its current form, I wouldn't have taken you very seriously. And never mind this time last year, on the eve of the F1 season, the Guardian's F1 Season Guide declared that Jenson Button had about as much chance of winning a Grand Prix in the 2009 Brawn as he did with the VW Camper van he keeps at home.

For as long as I have been following the sport, it's been the rule that Grand Prix teams do not suddenly emerge from the wilderness of the lower reaches of the midfield and start challenging for World Championships. They slowly creep towards competitiveness and respectability, over a period of years, as Toleman/Benetton did between 1984 and 1994. Or else they gradually fall into decline, as with Lotus, which went from winning championships in the 1970s to ignominy and, finally, collapse, in the 1990s.

A number of factors came together this year with the result that things were a little different in 2009. Firstly, the most significant rules change since the banning of slick tyres in 1998, in fact perhaps the most significant rewrite of the technical rules since the banning of ground effect before the 1983 season, meant that the inbuilt advantage that the leading teams had from refining the same basic designs over many years - of always starting from a higher base than anyone else - was gone.

Secondly, gone are the days when, aside from a few big teams at the very front - Mclaren, Williams, Ferrari and Benetton/Renault, the rest were mere bit-part players, content to make up the numbers. All ten of the teams on this year's grid are large, serious operations with designs on winning races and even titles. Force India and Toro Rosso are small only relative to the size of such as Toyota and Mclaren. They have large factories and staff numbers well into three figures. A far cry from the days when the back end of the F1 grid was made up of such operations as the tiny AGS, who, in their early days, ran with a staff of just 7, operating from the filling station owned by team principal Henri Julien. The rules change provided a golden opportunity for the likes of previously struggling Honda to steal a march on their more established rivals. Whatever they might claim publicly, they are probably still kicking themselves back in Tokyo that they ducked the challenge.

It begs an intriguing question, though. If Honda had stayed in the game, would they, and Jenson Button, now be World Champions? On the face of it, if Brawn GP could do it, with no winter testing, after having to lay off many of their staff in order to make ends meet, and in spite of the last minute compromises required to shoehorn Mercedes' V8 into a car designed around the Honda power plant, then there is every chance that a full works Honda effort might have dominated in the manner of Ferrari in the early years of the decade, or Mclaren in the late 1980s.

But, but... If the car had been present at the earlier winter tests, might that have given rival teams a heads-up as to the key elements of the design that ensured that in the early races, it was as much as half a second a lap quicker than anything else - in particular their creative interpretation of the rules governing diffusers? After all, Brawn never looked quite the force they had been in the second half of the season, as more and more teams brought their own take on the double-diffuser concept along. And might the last minute change from the Honda V8 - widely reckoned the least powerful engine in 2008, to Mercedes, generally reckoned the strongest unit, have been a net advantage, even allowing for the butchering of the chassis required to fit it in to the Brawn? After all, while the differences between the performances of the engines is probably not great in this rev-restricted, 'performance equalised' era, it might have been enough to blunt Brawn's competitive edge and ensure they were scrabbling around for podiums, rather than winning everything in sight in the opening races of the season. And how much did Rubens Barrichello's vast experience of developing and setting up a car help? More than once, Button is reported to have gone down a cul-de-sac and ended up copying his team mate's set-up wholesale. Word was, before their sudden departure, Honda wanted one Bruno Senna in the car...

We'll never know, but that it all worked out must be no small credit to the genius - for once surely the right word - of Ross Brawn. It is said that he took the Honda job in part because he was miffed at having been passed over for the job of replacing Todt at Ferrari but surely he never thought that it would end in him winning the world title with a car bearing his own name?

It was his arch-rival Adrian Newey's team which ran him closest in the battle for the titles. It's a rivalry which stretches back over nearly 20 years now - Newey's Williams against Brawn's Benettons, Newey's Mclarens versus Brawn's Ferraris, and now Brawn's eponymous team were chased by Newey's Red Bulls. Red Bull were almost certainly another team to benefit from the major rules changes over the winter, even Newey having been unable to overcome the inbuilt head start Ferrari and Mclaren appeared to have under the old rules.

Had the decision regarding the legality of double diffusers gone the other way at the start of the year (remember that? quite a storm at the time as I recall...) I rather suspect that nobody would have got close to the Red Bulls this year. As it was, Newey's car was designed in such a way as to make it very difficult to simply 'bolt a double diffuser' on, and only when they produced the beginnings of a solution at Silverstone did their season really take off. As a generalisation, it appeared that on aerodynamic downforce, there was nothing to touch the Red Bulls by mid-season, but that they still struggled for pace through the slow and medium-speed corners in comparison with Brawn, and perhaps, Mclaren.

Nonetheless, a team which went into the season never having won a race ended up with 6 wins on the board, and kept themselves in the running for both titles until the penultimate race. They might have run Brawn still closer had they not been hampered by Renault engines which appeared neither as powerful nor as reliable as the Mercedes units in the Brawns. Mateschitz and Newey might ponder too, whether Vettel might have been World Champion had he not thrown away points with silly mistakes in Australia and Monaco. Probably he still wouldn't quite have outscored Button, but who knows...

Behind Red Bull and Brawn came the two teams which had fought a titanic battle for the previous year's championships. That very fight might have been a part of the explanation for their falling short of the absolute pace this year. Such was the intensity of the development war between them last year, that they couldn't direct as much development time to their '09 cars. They still ended up third and fourth in the constructors championship this year, and were the only other teams to win Grands Prix. One wouldn't bet against a reversion to the status quo ante next year.

Mclarenstarted the year in real trouble, perhaps even further from the pace than they had been with the 'problem child' MP4/19 in 2004. There was turmoil off-track too when the storm in a teacup that was 'liegate' threatened to seriously destabilise the team's season. With no testing allowed, and with a car that was going on for 2 seconds off the pace, it could easily have been a truly miserable season for the Woking time. Yet, thanks in part to access to the best simulation tools in the business, and probably in no small part to having maybe the out and out fastest driver on the grid on their books, the team turned things around enough to pick up two Grand Prix victories [add in note on cons. title pos] and in so doing, became the first team to win with a KERS-equipped car.

Mclaren and Ferrari were the only teams to stick with KERS throughout the whole season. Whether the weight penalty and design-compromises forced by the system were such as to negate any performance advantage it offered, or whether it just so happened that the best sorted chassis happened not to be so equipped, was never entirely clear. With an agreement between the teams not to run KERS in 2010, we are unlikely to find out any time soon, but I'd be surprised if we have seen the last of KERS.

There were times when it seemed that Mclaren was suffering for not having a number 2 driver able to get near Hamilton's pace. Rather than settling into the role this year, Kovalainen was if anything less competitive relative to his team mate than he had been last year. While Hamilton was rarely off the podium in the latter part of the season Kovalainen never got on it. Whether he'll keep his job at Mclaren remains to be seen...

The same was true, only more so, of Ferrari after Massa was put out of action by head injuries sustained in qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. While Raikkonen won the Belgian Grand Prix, the Finn seemingly having been put on this earth for the purpose of going quickly round Spa, neither Badoer nor Fisichella succeeded in so much as scoring a point for the team [check]. In contrast with Mclaren, Ferrari didn't seem to improve much over the course of the season. They started the year fighting for the minor points, and broadly, that's how they finished. Whether the car was quicker or slower than it would have been without KERS, the system played a crucial part in securing their only win. There was no doubt that Fisichella's Force India was quicker round Spa, but the KERS button was enough to ensure that, with an identical fuel strategy, there was no way that he could find a way past Raikkonen.

For all that the team seem to lack some of the hard-nosed discipline of the Schumacher/Todt/Brawn era (surely they wouldn't have roped in Luca Badoer) I see no signes of an early-90s style collapse at Ferrari. With Fernando Alonso heading to the Scuderia, and with the focus switching relatively early to the 2010 car - where, though the rules appear to be relatively stable, the ban on refuelling may result in the need for fairly radical changes - one wouldn't bet against a return to form for the Scuderia. And who's most likely to take the fight to them if they do? Well Hamilton looked pretty awesome in qualifying in Abu Dhabi didn't he. ...

(I've split this into two parts owing to sheer length, soreness of fingers and uh, a feeling of idleness. Next week - the departing manufacturers, and the rest...)

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Loeb Makes it Six from Six

One week after Jenson Button claimed the F1 title, another World Championship went to the wire down in the forests of Wales last weekend, when Mikko Hirvonen went head to head with Sebastien Loeb for the World Rally Championship. In the end, Hirvonen fell at the final hurdle, dropping out of contention when he damaged the bonnet on his Ford Focus WRC on the penultimate stage, costing him just over a minute. And so Sebastien Loeb extended his record run of consecutive world titles to six.

I had been paying only the scantest of attention to what had been happening in the world of rallying this year - only when the digital TV transmitters were changed and I found myself able to pick up Dave for the first time did I start paying attention again. When I was last taking notice, Sebastien Loeb had won all five of the opening rounds of the World Championship, and I figured that if he could win in the snows of Norway, there wasn't any realistic chance of a challenger emerging over the remainder of the season. Miko Hirvonen had, to be fair, been doing a very good job of keeping Loeb honest in points table terms. In those opening rounds, only in Argentina, when he was put out by an engine failure, was he not on the podium. Nonetheless, if Loeb was winning on tarmac, on gravel, and on snow, there seemed little realistic prospect that Hirvonen would be able to do anything to reel him in during the second half of the season.

It didn't work out that way. Amazingly, Loeb didn't win a rally for nearly six months, and after five straight wins came five straight defeats. It started in Sardinia. In the days when the Rally Italia was an all-tarmac affair, I doubt anyone could have touched Loeb, but as a mixed tarmac-gravel event, Jari-Matti Latvala dominated from the start. Loeb was hampered with punctures and ended up finishing a distant fourth, behind Petter Solberg in a privately entered and rather elderly Citroen Xsara WRC. Then came crashes both in Greece and Poland, a straightforward defeat to Hirvonen in the Finn's home rally, a time penalty which cost him victory in Australia for running unhomologated anti-roll bars, all of which meant that when Loeb reversed put the form book back on its head by winning the Rally Catalunya last month, he was still one point shy of Ford's Hirvonen in the title race.

With six wins to Hirvonen's four, though, Loeb only needed to tie Hirvonen on points in order to retain his crown, and so a potentially thrilling finale was set up. Each had simply to beat the other to win the title. There was no room for team tactics, gamesmanship, or other nonsense of the kind which rather seems to have infected rallying of late. Normally, in a straight fight, it would be a very brave man who bet against Loeb, and I've never seen Hirvonen as being in quite the same class to be honest. But, but... If there was anywhere, Finland aside, where Hirvonen might be able to beat Loeb in a straight fight, it must surely be the sodden, muddy, foggy forests of Wales. Loeb has made no secret of the fact that he's never felt entirely at home on such stages, whereas for Hirvonen they are perhaps the closest thing on the WRC calendar this year to the forest stages of Finland which he dominated in August.

In the end, Loeb led from start to finish, but his winning margin of over a minute was a deceptive. While he went into the final day with a 30 second lead, Loeb found himself under attack from Hirvonen over the final stages, and with two stages to go, the Ford driver had cut his advantage down to 18s. Then, trying perhaps a mite too hard, Hirvonen landed heavily on a jump, damaged his radiator, and lost the best part of a minute on the stage when he had to stop to allow his co-driver to rip the offending piece of bodywork from the car. And so the way was clear for Loeb to go one better than Michael Schumacher and score his sixth consecutive World Title.

Unfortunately for Loeb, I doubt his achievements can be seen as being of quite the same order as those of Schumacher. The sad truth is that the state of rallying in the latter part of the decade has been such that Loeb has faced relatively little in the way of real opposition. Since Subaru first went off the rails and then withdrew from the WRC, Loeb's only competition has come from the Ford team, and usually only from one of its drivers at a time. The lack of more than a handful of works drives means that this year, there have never really been more than three or four contenders for victory (four only if you believe than Dani Sordo would be allowed to beat Loeb, even if he were capable). When one compares the current state of the WRC with the time when the likes of Makinen, McRae, Sainz, Burns, Gronholm and yes, at the very end of this era, a young Loeb, were going for the title it's sad just how far it has fallen.

As a result, there simply aren't the places for promising young junior drivers to be given
seat time in a pukka WRC car. Yes, there is the second-string Stobart Ford team, and the Citroen Junior Squad, but if these were really concerned with bringing on young talent, rather than generating revenue for the works teams, there would surely be places for Kris Meeke, Jan Kopecky and Per-Gunnar Andersson ahead of such as Henning Solberg, Matthew Wilson, Yvgeny Novikov and Conrad Rautenbach (whose money, it seems, may come from a particularly unsavoury source.)

I half wonder if Sebastien Loeb's apparent dip in form in the middle part of this year was indicative of the fact that even he was beginning to get bored by life in the WRC. He told L'Equipe that he was interested in replacing Sebastien Bourdais at Toro Rosso, and had tested a year old Red Bull fairly competitively the previous Winter. In the end, I suspect that it was only his lack of pace in a GP2 test earlier in the month, where he ended up the slowest of all, that put paid to his hopes of driving in the final round at Abu Dhabi this weekend. On this, I think the FIA were right. Loeb might be one of the most talented drivers in the world, but he has relatively little experience of race driving, and still less of single seater racing. As Luca Badoer demonstrated earlier this year, being decently competitive in an F1 car requires rather more than a basic familiarity with the car, and Loeb would almost certainly have succeeded only in embarassing himself. What the FIA should be concentrating on, is ensuring that the World Rally Championship is competitive enough in future than its stars feel no need for such distractions...

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Button: 10th Champion at the 10th Attempt

About the first piece I ever wrote on the subject of motorsport, for the now long-defunct Parc Ferme Magazine, was an article asking whether the young Jenson Button had been catapulted into Formula 1 before he was really ready, and if in the long term, his early stardom might do more harm than good for his career.

It was a long time ago, now that I think about it. I remember having a rather long debate about what I had written with a guest at the launch party for a dotcom start-up I had become involved in - so yes, for all that it doesn't feel that way to me, Jenson Button's been around in F1 long enough that his entry into the sport coincided with the dotcom boom.

Ten years later, Button had become the tenth British driver to win the Formula One World Championship (unlike the aforementioned dotcom, which went the way of all flesh about a year and a half on from the launch party). Whether that was far more than I ever thought he would achieve, or whether he took far longer to nail the title than he might have done, I can't quite make my mind up. So did history prove me wrong when I said he came into the sport too early? Or did my younger self have a point?

Truth be told, Button's first season in Formula 1, at Williams, went rather well, all told. Team mate Ralf Schumacher scored more points, but had the advantage of being in his fourth season in the sport. Button, who had just a single season of F3 to his name before he got the call from Sir Frank, was usually slightly shadowed by the younger Schumacher, but what was interesting were the flashes of exceptional pace that he showed. The third place on the grid at Spa, or his third row start at Suzuka, a circuit he had never been to before in his life (and this, remember, some years before advanced simulation tools would make life rather easier for newcomers).

Then it all went wrong. Jenson got the drive at Williams, at least in part, because the team had precipitously parted with Alex Zanardi, had Ralf Schumacher on long-term contract, and Juan Montoya lined up to join them in a year's time. In short, they needed a driver for one year and one year only - and they hired the relatively unknown Button for because none of the established stars would be interested in such a deal. The next year, he wound up with Benetton, which was in the process of being taken over by Renault, and the 2001 Benetton was possibly the worst machine ever to have come out of the Enstone factory.

And Button floundered. Given a good, quick car, he showed well in 2000, but it seemed he simply lacked the experience to know where to begin with the desperately underpowered 2001 Benetton, which was running the earliest iteration of Renault's extreme-wide-angle V10. In consequence, he was completely outpaced by team mate Giancarlo Fisichella, and his head appeared to go down. His hurried elevation through the junior ranks just hadn't equipped him to deal with a difficult and uncompetitive car.

His relationship with team principal, Flavio Briatore, appeared to be holed below the waterline, though it always struck me that there's something a tad absurd about Briatore writing anyone off as a 'playboy'. Physician heal thyself... He fared much better in 2002, with a now much more competitive Renault (running, for the first time, as a 'Renault' rather than a 'Benetton', though the sale had actually taken place some years earlier) but never quite matched new team mate Jarno Trulli, and when it became clear that the team really wanted to get their impressive young test driver, Fernando Alonso, into one of their cars in 2003, it was Button whose contract was up, and for a time, it seemed if Button, who had arrived in F1 with a bang in 2000, would be leaving with a whimper just three years later.

He was saved by Dave Richards, who had taken the helm at BAR. Bernie Ecclestone had apparently advised against hiring the Briton to partner Jacques Villeneuve but Richards saw things differently and threw Button, still only 23 years old, a career lifeline. Older, and perhaps wiser, than he was when he went to Renault, he seized it with both hands. He was at least as quick, perhaps actually a shade quicker, than his former World Champion team mate, and when the team took on Takuma Sato in deference to engine-supplier Honda, who wanted a quick Japanese driver in one of the cars, it was Villeneuve, rather than Button, who was shown the exit door.

From there on in, Button's fortunes were tied to those of BAR/Honda. In 2004, when Mclaren and Williams stumbled, BAR came good, and Button led the team to second in the constructor's championship, taking ten podium finishes along the way, establishing himself as the clear team leader. 2005 didn't go so well for the team, with a poor early season and exclusion from two Grands Prix for an irregularity in their fuel tank but Button did no harm to his own reputation, scoring two podiums and picking up all but one of the 38 points BAR scored that year. The following year, the team again started slow, with the car proving almost embarassingly off the pace for much of the first part of the season. In a peculiar premonition of what was to come, at Silverstone Honda and Button were so hopeless that the British press all but gave up on Button and switched their focus to a young chap called Hamilton who was doing amazing things with a GP2 car in the support race. In the second half of the year, though, he finally broke his duck and won his first Grand Prix, at his scored more points than either eventual World Champion Fernando Alonso, or runner-up Michael Schumacher. In the process, he established his superiority over a new team mate with rather more of a reputation than Sato, in the form of Ferrari refugee Rubens Barrichello.

With Honda going into their second year as a full works team, with Button having gotten
the monkey off his back in winning his first Grand Prix, it seemed that 2007 might be his year. Instead it was the start of a precipitous decline. Honda's second F1 car was just possibly the most disappointing racing car to appear on the F1 grid this decade. Outpaced by just about every other team on the grid, including Super Aguri, which was essentially nothing more than a bunch of ex-Arrows personnel running the previous year's Honda - designed for Michelin tyres, on Bridgestones, and with drivers passed over by the works operation. In '07, Button actually had some moments of real inspiration, most notably, somehow dragging the car into the top 5 in the rain in China, but as the British press were rather more excited by a young hopeful parachuted straight into Mclaren, it seemed like he had been written off by many as a might-have been.

When Honda produced another clunker in 2008, it seemed Button's will to get the best out of it finally went out of the window. For the first time in the three seasons they had been paired together, it was Barrichello who usually got more out of the hopeless RA108. Then came the news that the Japanese carmaker were pulling the plug, and with almost everyone else having their drivers in place for 2009, it seemed that Jenson Button's F1 career was effectively over. There was the outside possibility of a drive with Red Bull 'B Team' Toro Rosso, but that aside, it looked like the Somerset man was looking at a future in sportscars. With the global economy having tanked, it seemed unlikely that anyone had the resources required to do anything with the remains of Honda, who, after all, hadn't done anything in the previous couple of years to suggest that their unfinished 2009 car would be a particularly competitive proposition.

If the Button story had ended there, what would we have made of him? A talented driver, smooth in the vein of Alain Prost, easy on his equipment, who had a knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who perhaps lacked the killer instinct necessary to be a World Champion. What might he have done at Williams alongside Montoya in the early part of the decade? If Flavio had kept him on instead of Trulli, how might he have fared against Alonso as the Spaniard went for his two titles in 2005 and 2006? Given the chance, we might have wondered, would he have seized it with both hands, or would he have let it slip through his fingers?

Against all expectations, though, 2009 gave us the chance to find out. The Brawn BGP001 was the best racing car Honda never made. Not dominant in the way that the 2002 Ferrari or the 1988 Mclaren was, but on balance, probably the best car on the grid over the course of the season - though a case could be made for Ross Brawn's old nemesis Adrian Newey's Red Bull RB5. And Button hit the ground running like a man who had been leading Grands Prix from the front for his whole life - winning six of the first seven races. It seemed he was taking up where the last man to partner Barrichello in a team run by Brawn left off...

Of course, things were never quite the same after Turkey. Button hasn't won a race since, and some have suggested it was down to nerves, or a loss of form. Well, perhaps, in part. More likely, it was simply a combination of the Brawn's loss of competitiveness relative to Red Bull and Mclaren in particular, and the fact that Button could afford to play the percentage game, nursing a huge lead in the drivers table, while his rivals were forced to go for broke. A few small but costly errors in qualifying aside, he didn't make any real mistakes, and to some extent his relatively paltry points total subsequent to Turkey was down to his inability to get the best out of the tyres over a single qualifying lap and the sheer difficulty of overtaking in a modern F1 car, rather than any greater failing.

There have been mutterings in some quarters that Button somehow isn't a worthy champion, but to my mind that's nonsense. Of the drivers who found themselves at the wheel of potentially race-winning cars, he did a better job over the season than anyone else. And that is what you need to do to be a World Champion. Occasionally, a driver overcomes the odds to win the title in a car not truly worthy of the prize - Alonso in 2006, Schumacher in 1994 and 1995, and Prost in 1986, are, for me, examples of years where the best driver triumphed over a better car. But that's rare and while I'm not sure Button is in quite the same league as Alonso or Hamilton, who for me are still the outstanding talents in the sport right now, that is true of many who have become World Champion down the years. After all, was Barrichello really any closer to him on pace most weekends than he was to Schumacher, back in their days together at Ferrari?

Finally, though, what is the answer to the question I asked at the beginning? Did Button come into the sport too early? Might he have been World Champion many times over by now had his career been better managed? Maybe. But maybe not. Undoubtedly, his lack of experience led him to sully his reputation considerably at Benetton/Renault, and maybe had he spent a couple more years in F3 or F3000, he would have been better equipped to deal with the awful 2001 Benetton. But on the other hand, who's to say that he would ever have gotten his break into the sport in the first place? An F3000 title is no guarantee that you immediately will be picked up by one of the F1 teams - Ask Bjorn Wirdheim, Jorg Muller or Bruno Junquiera. Had Button had the luxury of having his career carefully planned in the way that, say, Lewis Hamilton's was, he might not have chosen to debut as early as 2000. But the vast majority of drivers just have to seize what opportunities come their way. And Button did that in 2000 when he signed for Williams, just as he did this year when he became the 10th Briton to join the pantheon of World Champions.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Waving the Saltire

Trivia Question: Name the small Northern European country whose drivers have racked up five Formula 1 World Titles over the years. If you think the answer is Finland, then you're wrong. Between them, Keke Rosberg, Hakkinen and Raikkonen have racked up four titles, though there remains the possibility that Raikkonen or perhaps even Kovalainen, could add to that total (Rosberg fils races under a German licence and doesn't count).

The correct answer is my adopted home, Scotland, as a recent visit to the National Museum of Scotland, where Jackie Young Stewart's 1973 Tyrrell currently takes pride of place by the entrance, reminded me. Now you can get into an argument as to whether Scotland is really a 'country' in its own right at all (though it's not necessarily a debate I'd recommend starting on the streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh, especially in the evening after the rugby or the football), but there is no doubt that for a decade, between 1963 and 1973, Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart ensured that Scotland was preeminent in the world of Formula 1.

Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell 006

For all that the two men came from the same small part of the world - southern Scotland, they appeared to be very different people. Where Jim is remembered as a quiet, shy man of few words, who let his driving do the talking - a BBC documentary on his career, which aired earlier this year, was titled The Quiet Champion', Jackie was and remains a flamboyant, outspoken personality, never afraid to say what is on his mind. He campaigned hard on driver safety, and an astute businessman, he was perhaps the first to see race driving as a 'career' in the modern sense of the word. What the two men did have in common was that they were the outstanding talents of their age.

Tyrrell 001

Despite its achievements in the F1 world, motorsport has a low profile north of the border. The two big Scottish newspapers, The Scotsman and The Herald, generally provide only the most cursory coverage of the sport (in marked contrast with some London-based broadsheets, perhaps most surprisingly the left-leaning and hardly car-loving Guardian which has, perhaps, the best coverage of the lot). Nor does it much impinge on the popular consciousness. Certainly, in my office, I'm in a minority of one in being more interested in Button vs. Barrichello vs. Vettel than in the Auld Firm rivalry and the latest tribulations of Hearts under its Lithuanian owner. I don't think anyone else regularly tunes in to BBC1 for the F1. And as for any other forms of motorsport....

Part of the explanation, I suspect, lies in the absence of any really successful Scottish racing drivers for the best part of 20 years after Jackie Stewart retired. Yes, Johnny Dumfries won the British F3 championship, but his career never recovered after he found himself partnered with Ayrton Senna at Lotus in 1986, though he did go on to win Le Mans with Jaguar. At a national level, the likes of John Cleland and David Leslie met with considerable success, but for 20 years, no Scottish driver really established himself on the international stage (though I always thought that the late David Leslie had the talent to do so, if not the breaks).

I suspect it doesn't help, either, that there is now only one permanent race track in Scotland - the small though deceptively tricky Knockhill circuit, across the bridge from Edinburgh. At just 1.3m in length, and lacking much in the way of passing places for anything not capable of running door-handle to door-handle it means that, an annual visit by the BTCC circus aside, it rarely plays host to race meets of real significance (though the Scottish Motor Racing Club do put on a good show). Contrast that with the south and midlands of England, with Silverstone, Donington Park, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and a host of smaller venues and its easy to see why the sport has never caught the public imagination to the same degree up here. At one time, there was the Ingliston circuit on the outskirts of Edinburgh, but that had disappeared by the time I moved here in the mid-1990s and the place is now used only for the Royal Highland Show - rather oddly as it is a good 3 hours train ride from the Highlands...

It can't be down to a lack of successful Scottish racers any longer though. In the early 1990s a trio of youngsters driving for the father-and-son David Leslie Racing operation would go on to make a very significant impact on the sport. First came Allan McNish. Shooting to prominence in the 1990 F3000 championship, his career thereafter spent some time in the doldrums, before he hooked up with Porsche to win Le Mans, and then moved to Toyota to work first with their sportscar programme and eventually with their fledgling F1 effort. This led to a season in F1 in 2002, but things never really worked out there, and he has subsequently established himself as a sportscar racer par excellence, one of the lynchpins of Audi's sportscar programme, winning the ALMS three times and claiming another Le Mans victory in 2008.

Next up came another Dumfries and Galloway man, David Coulthard. In his early years, he didn't strike me as quite as quick as McNish, but he was the one who progressed easily to F1, first with Williams and then with Mclaren. If he never quite had the last couple of tenths that might have enabled him to add to the five titles picked up by Clark and Stewart, but though he may never have entirely convinced people like myself he was truly from the top drawer, he did win 13 Grands Prix which is more than all but a small handful of racing drivers can claim.

A year or two behind him was Scots-Italian Dario Franchitti. Unable to make the break into Formula 1, he instead went off to ply his trade in the US, first in the then-strong Champ Car Series, and later in the Indy Racing League. In 2007, ten years after his debut, he won the IRL series and the Indianapolis 500. There followed an unsuccessful diversion into NASCAR, but this year he came back to the IRL with Chip Ganassi Racing and secured his second title by winning the final race at Homestead last weekend.

And what was the extent to which all this was followed in Scotland? A brief mention on the evening news and that was it. Chances are, nothing short of a Scottish rival to Lewis Hamilton will change that. Though you never know, maybe a street-race round Glasgow would be just the ticket....

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Incredible Hulk? GP2 In Review

Since its inception, I've been enthusiastic about GP2. Always making time to watch the coverage, first on Eurosport, and then more recently on ITV4. This year, though, I ciuldn't summon up much enthusiasm. Maybe it was the fact that the GP2 coverage had switched from Eurosport with its informative and entertaining team of Martin Haven and Gareth Rees, to the seemingly disinterested and certainly uninteresting bunch at Setanta. By the time Setanta had collapsed and the GP2 coverage had reverted back to its natural home at Eurosport, I'd cancelled my subscription so was reliant on rather patchy (Finnish language) coverage in one of the murkier corners of the internet to keep in touch with F1's leading feeder series, on those occasions when I could be bothered.

Maybe, though, it was just the sense that the 2009 GP2 series felt a bit of an irrelevance. The vast bulk of the field seemed to be made up of drivers who had been around in the series for a while, who had had their opportunities and been found wanting. Lucas Di Grassi was back for, what, his fourth season in GP2 with reigning champions, Racing Engineering, who went from having one of the prettiest liveries on the grid last year in their Repsol colours to one of the most jaw-droppingly awful when they were rebranded 'Fatburner Racing'. And Di Grassi did nothing in his fourth season in the category to suggest he is anything more than a 'nearly was'. His only hope of progressing into F1 must surely lie in how badly the other Renault test-driver is currently doing in the race seat. Talking of which...

...Romain Grosjean had the same kind of opportunity that Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton seized with both hands when he was signed with ART last year. He didn't take it, and while it lookd in the early part of the year that he was going to make amends for that with Barwa-Addax, it didn't work out that way. He was the class of the field in the opening races, though to judge by the fact his closest rival was team mate Vitaly Petrov, that might have owed as much to the old Campos team having got the car right as to anything the driver was doing, but as the season went on, he found himself increasingly being outperformed by Petrov, and after a dominant win in the Monaco Feature Race, he never won again.

Vitaly Petrov is, without doubt, the best driver yet to have come out of Russia. He didn't show badly this year in the GP2, winning a couple of races - feature races at that, but all the same, given that he was in his third full season in the category, nothing he did really screamed out "Future F1 star". He clearly has a lot of money behind him and isn't out of his depth in a powerful single seater, and a such, he might get a ride in one of the new F1 teams, providing at least one or two of them actually make the grid next year. I'd be surprised if he amounts to much when he gets there, though you can never be sure. He was, let's not forget, the man who finished second in the title race behind Nico Hulkenberg.

What of the champion, Hulkenberg? I'm not quite sure what to make of him. There's much to suggest that he might be a real talent. He won the title quite comfortably at his first attempt, though we'll never know for sure quite what might have happened had Grosjean raced the whole season. This was quite impressive, given that he was up against a host of drivers in their second or third year in the category. It will go some way to erasing the still-awkward memory of his lacklustre first attempt at the F3 Euroseries back in 2007. What leaves me a little uncertain about Hulkenberg's ultimate potential is that I never saw any sign of the kind of dominance that Rosberg and Hamilton demonstrated on occasion. A part of me thinks that a driver who is really the class of the field ought to be able to rack up more than 3 feature race wins over the season. On the other hand, Timo Glock didn't manage to, and he's looked at home in F1. And Hulkenberg was a rooki up against an awful lot of sophomores and seniors (the university metaphor seems curiously apt, anyone spending more than 3 years in GP2 is surely wasting his time and someone else's money.) We'll find out soon enough, if as is widely rumoured, he ends up partnering Rubens Barrichello at Williams next year.

For me, the disappointment of the year was the lack of pace from Hulkenberg's ART team mate, Pastor Maldonado. The Venezuelan has been the beneficiary of the state oil company largesse once showered on Ernesto Viso, and in the past had looked quick if rather wild. In the latter part of last year, at Piquet Sports, he seemed to find some consistency to marry to his prodiguous pace. This year, though, that once mighty pace seemed to vanish out of the window. About the one thing that can be said in his favour is that the second ART seat has been something of a poison chalice in recent years. Ask Michael Ammermuller... Or Luca Filippi.

Another man signed to a title winning team who failed to live up to expectations was Giedo Van Der Garde. At the start of the year, in spite of a rather torrid time in the sideshow GP2 Asia Series, I expected the reigning Renault World Series champion to be a serious contender in the ISPort car. As it was he was left scrabbling for reverse-grid wins, and only really hit his stride late on at Monza. Maybe it was simply that ISport have lost their way a bit - Diego Nunes was even less of a factor in the other car.

Of the rest? None really figured. Kamui Kobayashi never looked like repeating the form that took him to the GP2 Asia crown against admittedly hardly stellar opposition. Team mate Jerome D'Ambrosio figured early on in the year, but fell into something of a trough mid-season, from which he never really recovered. Alvaro Parente surprised everyone by winning a Feature Race - at Spa no less, with the team formerly known as BCN, but at 25 is probably already too old to make the break into F1 (though you never know). The likes of Luca Filippi, Roldan Rodriguez and Javier Villa continued to tread water, probably burning the family cash to be there. Davide Valsecchi never really lived up to his promise when he replaced Romain Grosjean at Barwa Addax and down at the back of the field, the lack of strength in depth in this year's GP2 grid was all-too apparent. Ricardo Texeira, Nelson Panciatici and Michael Herck all looked like men with no business racing at this level.

So, not a classic year for the series. If GP2 is to maintain its credibility as a feeder formula for F1, it is crucial that Hulkenberg gets on at Williams, if indeed that is where he winds up. After Grosjean and Piquet Jr, I suspect there may be an ever greater reluctance among F1 team bosses to hire on the basis of a good showing in GP2 alone. More to the point, when Red Bull's large junior programme all but entirely ignores GP2 now (its drivers being placed variously in British F3, Formula 2 and WSR) and when last year's British F3 front runners, Jaime Alguersuari, Oliver Turvey and Brendon Hartley all gave GP2 a miss, one wonders whether there is a risk that Bruno Michel's baby is fast becoming the new F3000

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