Monday, July 26, 2010

Only Following Orders

If there is a God then, at least when it comes to the world of Formula 1, he would appear to have a dry sense of humour. Eight years on from the Austrian GP fiasco in which Ferrari's instruction to Rubens Barrichello to pull over and allow Michael Schumacher to win the race after one of those rare afternoons on which he simply had no answer to the Brazilian, it is Ferrari who have been the first team to fall foul of the ban on team orders which resulted from events in Austria that day. And who should be in charge of the governing body now, but Jean Todt, the man who was in charge at Ferrari on that day.

Whatever some people might have you believe, team orders to drivers were not invented by Jean Todt on 12 May 2002. Back before the war, when pit to car radio was but a gleam in the future's eye, Alfred Neubauer devised a complex system of signals to send messages and instructions to his drivers when he was Mercedes' team manager, and in the 50s when he ran the Mercedes F1 team, it was always clear that Juan Manuel Fangio was its lead driver, and where they found themselves 1-2 (which was most of the time, given Mercedes' margin of superiority), his team mate Stirling Moss was not expected to race him. Later, in the 1970s, Ferrari would have a clear policy of having a number 1 and 2 driver, ensuring that Jody Scheckter took the 1979 title despite the fact that many reckon Gilles Villeneuve was the faster driver. Three years later, at Imola in 1982, it was what Villeneuve perceived to be Didier Pironi's disregard for team orders which led to their falling out. More recently, Mclaren twice ordered David Coulthard to move over for Mika Hakkinen (at Jerez in 1997 and then again in Australia the following year (in both cases, Mclaren's justification for this was that they were merely righting a wrong done to Hakkinen in the pitstop procedure) while ordering drivers running 1-2 to hold station and not fight each other has long been common-place.

So what was different about Austria 2002? In the past, team orders had been used when there was a championship at stake and one driver was in clear contention for the title while the other was not or where a team were struggling to make their mark and secure a first victory (e.g. Jordan at Spa in 1998), but in May 2002, it was really quite apparent that there was no way that anyone but Schumacher and Ferrari were going to win the world title. By that time, he had won four of the opening five races and there was no realistic challenger. Equally, it was quite clear that, on that particular weekend, he was not the equal of Barrichello. He had been outqualified by Rubens, and had been a good quarter of a minute behind him at the point when Barrichello was ordered to move over by Jean Todt. Whether it was because of a lurking paranoia at the centre of Ferrari, a sense that they had to make absolutely certain that their lead driver maximised his points haul at every opportunity in order to absolutely guard against a (frankly rather unlikely) title charge by a Mclaren or Williams driver, or whether it was done at the behest of Schumacher, a mind-game aimed at destroying Barrichello's will to race him, is not entirely clear. Either way, it was uncalled for, it caused a media storm, and it helped to bring about the 'team orders' rule.

What happened at Hockenheim last weekend doesn't really fall into the same category. For one thing, Ferrari are locked in a battle for the drivers championship with rivals from Red Bull and Mclaren and, with Alonso considerably better placed than Massa in the driver's championship, unlike their major rivals, they really only have one dog left in the fight especially as Alonso has almost always seemed the quicker of the two this season. For another, while Barrichello plain beat Schumacher in a straight fight, only the vagaries of fuel strategy, the near impossibility of overtaking in similar machinery and the fact that Alonso had been victim of some very dubious driving from Vettel at the start had enabled Massa to get into the lead in the first place. What happened at Hockenheim is what has happened in F1 since time immemorial, until the ban on 'team orders' came in eight years ago.

Except, of course, the ban is all but unenforceable. What got Ferrari into trouble last weekend was their lack of subtlety. The fact that Massa's engineer, Rob Smedley, apologised to his driver after he let Alonso through, and the breathtakingly obvious way in which Massa did it, short-shifting to a ridiculous degree on the exit of the hairpin, made it clear to the world exactly what has happened. Because, while the letter of the law is that "team orders which interfere with the result of a race are prohibited", the rule is really "teams must not take the piss." There are plenty of ways in which teams can arrange that their drivers switch position. Sometimes it can be done simply by clever use of pit strategy. Under the current rules, the driver who is called in for tyres first will tend to make up time on a driver called in later as he will have the same fuel load and fresh rubber. So if you want to swap your drivers around before the pit-stops, all you need to do is call your preferred driver into the pits a few laps earlier.

Where all that is required is that drivers are instructed to hold station and not race each other as, perhaps, happened between the two Mclaren drivers at Istanbul, it's even easier. You can tell them to conserve fuel, or go easy on their brakes, or whatever, and, provided the drivers know the code, are aware what that message means, the rest of the world need never know. And indeed, it's not even clear whether such instructions are actually against the rules. Telling one driver to move over to let another one through is fairly clearly 'interfering with the results of a race' but is telling drivers to go steady and bring the cars home?

Even if the decision requires to be made too late in the race to be done via pit strategy (at Hockenheim, Ferrari might have been reluctant to compromise Massa's race until they were sure that it would be Alonso and not Vettel who was running behind him after the pitstops) there are other ways of doing it. A codeword a touch more subtle than "Alonso is faster than you", especially if the driver is willing to cede the position by, for example, missing his braking point into the hairpin on one lap, might leave us all wondering if there had in fact been team orders, but we'd never know for sure. Of course, Massa probably wouldn't be too happy with such an arrangement. If he's going to have to give up the race, he'd probably rather the world knew it.

I don't really see what alternative the FIA had but to penalise Ferrari. The rules are quite clear: Team orders are forbidden. If there are all sorts of subtle, covert ways of imposing team orders that have been going on ever since the rule came in, so be it - when it is done as blatantly as it was at Hockenheim, the governing body have to do something if they are to retain any credibility. And penalising the drivers seems somehow unfair: After all, Alonso simply did what any driver in the same situation would do: he saw a door open in front of him and he walked right through it. Penalising Massa for obeying a team order would be even more unfair. That said, a $100,000 fine for a team like Ferrari probably won't act as much of a deterrent. By F1 standards, it's a pretty cheap way of buying points for their title contender.

The question is whether, in the long term, the rule does more harm than good. When there are so many ways in which the teams can work around it, so many ways in which they can camouflage the use of team orders, does it do more damage to the sport to ban them than it does to permit them? Is it perhaps better that what happened last weekend at Hockenheim be permitted than that Ferrari had choreographed things more subtly so the world would never have known that Massa had not simply been beaten fair and square. And where a championship is at stake, and only one driver in a given team is in with a shot at winning it, is it really so unreasonable to allow a team to ask the driver who is out of contention to move over to let the one who can take the title maximise his points tally? And what about the situation where the drivers are not fighting for the lead, but for fourth or fifth place, and the guy behind looks quicker - better placed to take the fight to the guys ahead? It's not a purely hypothetical problem - it's arguably exactly the problem that Ferrari faced when a delayed Alonso cruised up behind Massa in the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year. One for Jean Todt to untangle. Appropriately enough, since the whole knotty problem is arguably of his making....

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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The 'Monaco of the Midlands' and other Tales of the Streets

It's perhaps a trend which has already reached its peak and is beginning to blow over, but for a while recently, there appeared to be something of a revival of the idea that street races are the future of Formula One. We have the Singapore night race, the rather underwhelming race around Valencia's principal container port (sorry, I mean, harbour) and Bernie Ecclestone has long pushed for a Grand Prix in downtown New York, though I would be more than happy to bet the farm that this will never come to pass. At the height of his protracted battle with the owners of Silverstone, the BRDC, and before the Donington folly came on the scene, there was even talk of a race around the streets of London.

To be honest, I've never been a great fan of street races. It's true that there's little that quite matches the spectacle of final qualifying at Monaco, with the world's best drivers playing dare with the walls in the search for the perfect lap but the very reason that qualifying is so important at Monaco - the fact that it's all but impossible to overtake around the Principality, means that it's produced very few genuinely exciting races and an awful lot of follow-my-leader processions. As one of 19 races, it might be a glorious, unique anachronism, but hardly a template to be followed. Singapore and Valencia, both the work of Hermann Tilke, are supposed to offer more in the way of overtaking opportunities, but in reality have produced fairly processional races on each of the occasions that the F1 circus has visited.

It begs an obvious question: Given the current vogue for 'improving the show', what is behind the drive for these events? As ever, it comes down to that old adage, "follow the money". FOM wants to extract as much hard cash as it can from race promoters, and in justifying the increasingly exorbitant fees being charged, they now seek to sell a Grand Prix as being - like the World Cup or the Olympic Games - not just a mere sporting event, but an opportunity to put your city, or your country, on the map, a big event to promote tourism, a 'marketing opportunity'. The trouble is, if the race is taking place on some waste ground out in the sticks that happens to provide the space for a purpose-built circuit, as is the case with two of Tilke's better works, Sepang in Malaysia, and the deceptively named Otodrom Istanbul in Turkey, it's not clear that the event really does much to promote its alleged 'host city'. The Turkish race, in particular, despite being hosted on a race track that ranks alongside the best on the calendar, has signally failed to attract any sort of a crowd and does the square root of nothing to promote Istanbul (which, I'm told, is actually well worth a visit).

From the promoter's point of view, particularly when the promoter is a country's Minister of Tourism, or a city administration, it makes far more sense to bring the race to the city centre. People are more likely to visit, and when they do, they will spend their money in your city, take a proper look around, maybe stay on a few days, and if they enjoy themselves, go home and tell all their friends what a great time they had in Singapore, or Valencia, or wherever it is (a side-note - I've never been to either place and have little idea whether they have anything to offer, but the point stands). It's something which is worth paying a little more money for than the chance to bring a few tens of thousands of race fans to some place thirty or forty miles from the city centre, where they might well camp, or hide away in distant hotels, never venturing out except to go to the circuit. As I say, it makes sense for everyone, apart, unfortunately, from us poor sods who end up watching the resulting processions on television.

A question sprung to my mind: Could Britain do the same? I'm not thinking of a London race - the problem with that is that London, like Paris or New York, is a world famous city with no need of such promotional events (although it hasn't stopped them from bidding for and winning the Olympics (London) or the World cup (France, but effectively, Paris)). But what about one of the country's other major cities? A part of me thinks that, with this country seemingly seeking to become more like Brazil (the Terry Gilliam film, not the South American country) with every passing year, it would never get past the bureaucrats, the lawyers, the not-in-my-backyard brigade and the Health and Safety Executive. But then I remembered, we've already done it, and I was there...

As an eight year old, I spent a rain-lashed Sunday (the tailend of Hurricane Charly) sat on a grass embankment above a roundabout, watching the first motor race on public roads on the UK mainland Britain. Yes, there were bureaucratic hurdles, it required an Act of Parliament, the Birmingham Road Race Act, which took nearly a year to make its way through the Commons, but these were overcome and on the August Bank Holiday of 1986, the first Birmingham Superprix was held, a round of the Formula 3000 Championship. Unfortunately, the weather turned out to be so horrendous that there was relatively little on-track action on race day. The F3000 race was won by Spaniard Luis Perez Sala from Pierluigi Martini, but it ran for just 24 of its scheduled 52 laps, after Andrew Gilbert Scott collided with Alain Ferte's stationary car, blocking the circuit. Those of us who were there were treated to a Thundersports support race in the morning and, if memory serves me correctly, a rather processional race for Metro 6R4s in the wet in the afternoon, but all in all, I doubt there was more than an hour or so's track action in return for a whole day spent being battered by hurricane winds and heavy rain.

It was not the most successful race weekend I've ever been to, to put it mildly. Future events ran more smoothly, though the event was never a huge success. It probably didn't help that Formula 3000 had very little resonance with the wider public. It wasn't Formula 1, which people (especially in Birmingham, the home city of Britain's star of the time, Nigel Mansell) and neither was it British Touring Car racing, which might have lacked the star names and the glamour of Grand Prix racing, but provided entertaining racing and was regularly on the telly back in the 1980s (a time when, thanks to the relative paucity of terrestrial channels, that meant rather more).

The circuit, too, needed work, consisting as it did of a series of 90 degree and 45 degree left handers (with a single right-hander thrown in) and the only real challenge coming from the proximity of the barriers. Then there is the problem that, no matter what way you dress the place up, Birmingham is no Monaco, and come to that, it's not even any kind of a rival to Macau, Pau or Valencia. It may be host to some great cultural events, but it's genuinely difficult to think of a major European city that is less conducive to sight-seeing. Though if you think Bladerunner is a touchstone for architects, you ought to check out the new Bullring. If Birmingham City Council thought that the Superprix was going to turn Birmingham city centre into the Monaco of the Midlands, they were sorely mistaken....

All that said, I'd love to see someone give a city centre street race in the UK another crack. Formula 1 is probably not realistic, Silverstone has a 17 year deal in place with FOM, and in any case, it's a much better race circuit than any lovechild of British town planners and Hermann Tilke is ever likely to be. But a touring car race around the streets of Glasgow or Newcastle? That would work, I'm sure. And I still think there was a spark of genius underlying the Scotsman newspaper's April fool about a race around Holyrood Park in Edinburgh....

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Monday, July 12, 2010

The Half Time Scores

So we have reached the half-way point in this year's Formula One season with Mark Webber's convincing victory at the British Grand Prix last weekend, and what an intriguing year it has been. The year got off to something of a faltering start with a processional race at the soporific Sakhir circuit in Bahrain which left observers wondering whether Alonso and Ferrari might be about to reprise the Scuderia's classic 2004 season and run away into the distance. As it's turned out, they haven't won since and the title battle appears to be distilling into a fascinating contest between two sets of team mates, Red Bull's Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, and Mclaren's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.

There can be no doubting that Red Bull have built the fastest car this year, but a combination of ill fortune and silly errors have resulted in their lying only second in the constructors' championship and third and fourth in the drivers race after ten of this year's nineteen races. Life has not been made any easier by the terse, difficult relationship between their two drivers, Webber and Vettel. Through 2009, they appeared to be getting on fine, and indeed the Red Bull camp appeared a rather more harmonious place than the pit garage of their title rivals Brawn, but the apparent calm has been shattered this year. The reason? Last year, the young Vettel had a small, but definitive advantage over his team mate in terms of outright pace that ensured there was no debate as to who the team's de facto number one driver was. But whether we really saw the best of Webber, who was still struggling with the after-effects of the broken leg he sustained in a cycling accident over the winter, remains open to question. Either way, Webber has come back stronger this year - fast enough to match Vettel but, crucially, not so quick as to emerge as the team's unchallenged number one driver.

The fierce intra-team battle cost points in Turkey, but in reality, it has been mistakes from its drivers and the mechanical frailty of the RB6 which has ensured that at the half-way point, they trail Mclaren and its drivers. Vettel saw a potential win disappear when his engine lapsed onto 7 cylinders in Bahrain, and another victory went astray with a wheel failure in Melbourne two weeks later. Webber lost points in Melbourne when he ploughed into the back of Hamilton as his frustration got the better of him and was plain unlucky at Valencia. Both drivers paid the price for rather sub-optimal tyre strategy in the rain at Shanghai, and without those errors, one or other Red Bull drive would almost certainly be heading the driver's championship, and the team might have won eight or nine races by now, rather than the five they have actually won.

Ironically, before the start of the season, it had been the pairing of Hamilton and Button at Mclaren that many observers had thought the most potentially explosive. Could the Woking team contain the egos of two World Champions, two men who undoubtedly believed themselves worthy of unquestioned number 1 status? The answer, thus far, would appear to be yes. In reality, it might well help that both drivers have a World Title to their name. I can't help but think that much of the tension in the Red Bull camp arises from the fact that Webber, at 34, knows that this year might just represent the only serious shot at winning the driver's championship that he will ever get, while Vettel, in only his third full season in the sport, still feels he has everything to prove. They certainly pose a stark contrast with the relaxed demeanour of Jenson Button this year.

It perhaps helps that, while neither he nor the team would admit it, Button is probably a tenth or two a lap slower than Hamilton. He's quick enough to pick up the pieces when his more high-wire team mate drops the ball, experienced enough to make the right calls in marginal situations such as at Melbourne, when his early switch to dry tyres enabled him to leapfrog the early front runners to take his first victory for Mclaren. He's not going to beat Hamilton to the title on outright pace. Since moving to Mclaren, he's shown that he's a genuine front running driver, whose title success was not solely down to happening to luck in to a very quick car last year, but he's not yet put in any performance quite the equal of, for example, what Hamilton was able to do in a Mclaren that looked out of sorts at Silverstone last weekend. On the other hand, if Lewis' impetuous side gets the better of him too often, it's not impossible he could end up winning the championship through dogged consistency and making fewer mistakes than any of his rivals. Button is not the fastest driver on the grid, but he just might have reasonable claim to be the smartest, the one with the sharpest racing brain.

One can't help think that, all else being equal, it will be Hamilton rather than Button who will lead Mclaren's fight for the title this year, but there have been just enough occasions on which he has got the better of his young team mate that it would be dangerous to write him off entirely. And if both of them are still in with a shot of the championship in the final races, it will be interesting to see whether things remain harmonious in the Mclaren garage.

It would be a brave man who would bet against one of the Red Bull or Mclaren drivers walking away with the title, but Fernando Alonso would beg to differ, telling reporters after the British Grand Prix that "I am more convinced than before this race that we will win the championship." Since Bahrain, the Ferraris have never quite looked to be on the pace and indeed at Istanbul, struggled even to make the top 10 in qualifying. At Silverstone, though, Alonso, at least, looked the quickest man after the Red Bulls, and under the new points system, he's not so far from the lead as to be out of the title race entirely. And unlike his rivals at Mclaren and Red Bull, he appears to have established himself as the team's clear number one. Only at Istanbul, always something of a favourite for Massa, and the place where he won his first Grand Prix, has Alonso been out-raced by his team mate.

The best of the rest are the two remaining manufacturer teams, Renault and Mercedes. Neither has yet won a Grand Prix, though both have picked up podiums. Kubica has been the star of the season for me. He might not have won a race - though he came surprisingly close at Monaco, and drove a measured race in difficult conditions to pick up a second place in Canada. The field is surely too competitive this year to give the Pole any chance of repeating his surprise run at the title in 2008, but if the cards fall his way, and if the team's rate of progress is kept up, a race win is not completely out of the question. Renault's biggest problem has been that it is effectively a one car team. Vitaly Petrov has scored just 6 of Renault's 89 points this year, making it difficult for Renault to challenge Mercedes in the constructor's title race. That said, in being paired up with Kubica, a man I reckon to be as quick as anyone on the grid, he has in many ways the toughest task of all the newcomers. One can't help but think his place in the team next year will depend on his continued ability to funnel money in the direction of the Enstone team.

If Renault's greatest strength has been the performance of its lead driver, Robert Kubica, who has barely put a foot wrong all year and has dragged the R30 far further up the field than it really has any business being, then Mercedes, by contrast, has been let down by the shortcomings of its number 1 driver. Some may be reluctant to say so, but the sad truth is that, at 41, Michael Schumacher just isn't quite the driver he once was. This, after all, is a man who won races in the awful Ferrari F310, who finished on the podium in a Benetton at Barcelona which had spent much of the race stuck in 5th gear. And now, he's being beaten by Nico Rosberg?! It's not that Rosberg has been doing a bad job, but I just can't believe that he ever would have much troubled Schumacher in his full pomp. At first, it was possible to explain this away as simple race-rustiness after 3 years away, but of late that excuse has been wearing rather thin, and a slightly sad air of desperation has crept into his driving - forcing Kubica off the road and then chopping off one-time protege Massa's nose in the closing laps at Montreal. I can't be the only person beginning to wonder whether the only pertinent question left is whether Schumacher will jump or be pushed.

Down in the lower reaches of the midfield, Force India, Williams and Sauber have all had a rather mixed year. In terms of points, Force India leads this group, and when compared with their performance up to the middle of 2009, their leap forward has been incredible - from the very back of the field to being regular points scorers. On the other hand, there has been no repeat of the incredible performances they put in towards the end of last season - nothing to match that pole and second place in the Belgian Grand Prix for Giancarlo Fisichella. To my surprise, Adrian Sutil has maintained his edge over Tonio Liuzzi though he still remains in the awkward position of being fast enough to justify his place in F1, but not so special that he's likely to attract the attention of any of the top teams.

Williams have had an up and down kind of a year. They started the season with a car that belonged in the outer reaches of the top 10 - at least when the experienced and seemingly evergreen Rubens Barrichello is at the wheel, but as the season got into its swing, they began to slip back, with the nadir coming in Spain when Barrichello failed even get out of Q1. It has been difficult to assess to what extent this is down to shortcomings of the car, and how much is down to their use of Cosworth engines not generally reckoned to be a match for Renault's units, let alone those of Mercedes or Ferrari. In the last couple of races, though, there has been something of a revival in their fortunes, with Barrichello running in the company of the Ferraris and Renaults at Silverstone, and even Hulkenberg outpacing Petrov and scrapping with Michael Schumacher for the final points. If they can maintain this momentum, there is at least half a chance they'll beat Force India to finish best of the rest, behind five potentially race-winning teams. Such has been the fall of Williams in recent years, that this would count as a solid year for the Grove squad, all told.

If Williams have occasionally looked to be in trouble, it has been nothing when compared to the disastrous start to the year the Sauber team have had. Left high and dry by BMW at the end of last year, it was far from certain that they would even make the grid this year. When this year's car appeared, though, it looked quick in winter testing, only for the team to fall flat on their faces come the opening race. The 2010 Sauber appears still to be a bit of a 'mare at any track featuring a lot of slow corners, but at Silverstone, they crept into the top 10 on merit, and Kamui Kobayashi (the latest in a line of mercurial racers from Japan?) has begun putting in performances that remind us of his attention-grabbing debut in the Toyota last year. If they can sort out the low-speed cornering problem, they too could launch themselves into the thick of the battle with Force India and Williams, though they lie some way adrift at present.

Of the rest? Toro Rosso continue to occupy a couple of slots on the grid to no particular effect. It's hard to know quite why a team with a machine derived from Adrian Newey's all-conquering RB5/6 is so uncompetitive. Whether this is down to the limitations of the former Minardi team running them, or of two drivers about whom I can summon little enthusiasm (the vagaries of the Red Bull young driver programme will forever remain a mystery to me) I don't know. Lotus have emerged as the most serious and competitive of the new teams, but the established runners are unlikely to be much troubled by them this year. Looking down the road, though, the combination of Fernandes and Gascoygne appear to mean business. I'm not sure the same can be said of Virgin, though the VR01 is perhaps the prettiest car on the grid - proof that wind-tunnels are the enemy of beauty? They can at least console themselves with the thought that they are not HRT. Quite how an established race car manufacturer like Dallara can have got things so wrong is a mystery to me. I'd be surprised if they're still around this time next year - 2010's Super Aguri?

Forced to pick a winner? My hunch is that, reliability and team management problems notwithstanding, it will be Red Bull. Adrian Newey's RB6 is simply too good not to win titles. And if it's going to be Red Bull, then logically, it ought to be the man they want to win the title - Sebastian Vettel, though I can't help but admit that I rather hope I'll be proven wrong and the Aussie battler, so long dubbed the unluckiest man in F1, can pull it off.

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Home Race Memories

It has been nearly a quarter of a century since I was taken to my first Grand Prix, the European Grand Prix of 1985 at Brands Hatch, as a late seventh birthday present. For many years, I went to every Grand Prix in Britain and even now, more than fifteen years on from my last such trip, it feels a little odd that the British Grand Prix can be happening without my being there, camped out in a field near Becketts.

The first race I went to was notable for being the occasion of Nigel Mansell's first Grand Prix win, and of being the day on which Alain Prost wrapped up the first of his four driver's titles with a low key run to fourth place behind both Williams and Ayrton Senna's Lotus. These milestones, though, meant relatively little to me at the time, and are not what sticks in my mind. At 25 years distance, what I remember most clearly, aside from a frozen night before the race spent failing to sleep in the boot of the family Escort, was being blown away by the sight of 1000BHP turbo F1 cars streaming down Pilgrim's Drop towards Hawthorn Bend, trails of sparks flying from their titanium undertrays like fireworks (why can't we bring them back?). At the age of 7, it was the sheer speed of F1 cars which imprinted itself on my mind, made me insistent on watching the race from the entry to Hawthorn, to what I suspect was probably the irritation of my father who would rather have been somewhere better suited to trying out the new telephoto for his Olympus OM10. I was already a Formula 1 fan when I went to that race in early October, but I think now it was that weekend which sealed the deal, which turned a passing childhood fancy into a life-long love affair with the sport.

The British Grand Prix memories which remain strongest in my mind, though, came later. 1987 - the first time I saw Formula 1 at Silverstone. Not the modern circuit (good as it is), but the fearsomely fast old circuit. Sitting in the stand at Stowe, which in those days was an even more frighteningly quick corner than it is now, watching a titanic struggle play out between home favourite Mansell and his nemesis and team mate Nelson Piquet. There was no way that, at such a fast circuit, anyone was going to win in anything other than a Williams Honda, but the question was which one. Piquet led early on, and Mansell fell back by half distance, his tyres having taken too much punishment on a heavy fuel load. So he was forced into an unplanned tyre stop, emerging around half a minute behind Piquet with 28 laps to run. It seemed a lost cause, but then he began lapping very quickly. He broke the lap record 11 times in his pursuit of Piquet, and four laps from the end, right in front of where I was watching, he ducked out from Piquet's slipstream, with much better grip on his newer tyres, and grabbed the lead, to score a famous victory. I was not a Mansell fan as a child. Even at nine years of age, I was far too much the contrarian to support a British driver, but that afternoon, I was too caught up in the moment to care.

A year later I was once again in the grandstand at Stowe, and lucky to have a corrugated iron roof over my head for my first sight of Formula 1 in the rain. That day would, as it happened, see one of Mansell's finest drives, while being the first Grand Prix I had ever gone to that he did not win. As with more or less every wet race in the second half of the 1980s, it was won by my childhood idol, Ayrton Senna, though Mansell's drive to second in the underpowered Williams Judd, which had been hastily converted from active to passive suspension only the previous evening was the standout performance. If race-day was all about Senna's wet weather genius and Mansell at his very best, Saturday provided some comic relief. Andrea De Cesaris' altercation with a marshal as he abandoned his stricken Rial by the pitlane exit at Copse on Saturday morning stays with me even now, perhaps because I remember seeing the photos my father took of him apparently trying to thump the marshal (that telephoto lens again...)

This race was followed by two hot summer races won by Alain Prost, the first in a Mclaren and the second in a Ferrari. His team mate Mansell had grabbed the pole that day, but he never quite had an answer to Prost, and at the end of the afternoon, he announced his retirement. They were not the most memorable of races, but on the other hand, they were the first races of the 3.5 litre atmo engine era, and for the first time, after the slightly underwhelming whistle of the 1.5 litre turbos, F1 cars sounded like racing cars again. The Lamborghini V12s that powered the Lolas and Lotuses of that era, in particular, made a fantastic racket.

Two more Mansell victories followed in 1991 and 1992, the latter of these, especially, marred by the migration of a minority of the kind of idiots who have made following the England football team such a depressing experience. A drunken clown wrapped in a Union Jack ran out onto the circuit to 'celebrate' as Mansell crossed the line for a win which, given the superiority of the 1992 Williams FW14, could hardly be said to rank among his best. I don't remember much of the race.

There's a neat symmetry of sorts about the fact that the last Grand Prix in Britain I went to was, like the first, a European Grand Prix rather than a British Grand Prix. Tom Wheatcroft had dreamed of bringing Grand Prix racing back to Donington for the first time since the 2nd World War, and on Easter Sunday, 1993, he got his way. The combination of that Easter date, awful weather and the disappearance State-side of home favourite Mansell resulted in a rather sparse crowd but those who did make the trip were treated to a race that has gone down in motorsports folklore. The race where, thanks to the wet conditions, Ayrton Senna took a Mclaren Ford that was far from truly competitive and made everyone else look like amateurs up against a professional. The yellow helmet, sailing serenely to victory through the rain. Shades of what Lewis Hamilton did, another yellow helmet in a Mclaren in the rain, at Silverstone fifteen years later.

I'll be up in a field in Balado this weekend, rather than down Silverstone way. The fact you can never get near the pit or paddock, the way that the grandstands and spectator banks have gradually crept further and further back from the circuit in the name of safety and the silly ticket prices have all rather put me off going back. Nonetheless, a part of me will miss it. If you're going, enjoy yourselves.

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