Mika Salo, Tyrrell 025 Ford, Monaco GP 1997

Mika Salo, Tyrrell 025 Ford, Monaco GP 1997

People with a keen eye will no doubt have noticed that this year’s European Grand Prix was held on a street circuit in Valencia. It’s part of something of a renaissance for the street circuit in Formula 1, with Singapore’s night race also entering the calendar in a month’s time and a hybrid street-permanent circuit being used for the South Korean Grand Prix from 2010. The 2008 calendar features three genuine street courses, the most there have been since the 1991 season. With more on the horizon, it’s an exciting time.

The street race had fallen from favour recently, with Monaco often only being the only round the houses trip of the season. It’s a terrible pity – street races can be exciting and unpredictable in ways no permanent road course’s race could ever be. Failing that, even in a dull race (like Valencia’s was, a consequence of Formula 1 drivers these days having too much skill, itself a consequence of smaller entry lists) they look pretty and the aesthetic splendour of an F1 car stuck into an everyday environment is very much more enjoyable than a similar boring event on a ‘proper’ track. The race after the Monaco Grand Prix, I always felt, has a thankless task. After the magnificent and crazy background to the action by the harbourside, whatever follows it tends to look like a barren schmeer of browning grass, dust and gravel surrounding a uninspiring ribbon of tarmac. To celebrate F1 coming to its senses, then, I thought I’d take a look at its association with the street circuit, and all the fun they’ve had.

To date, there have been 18 different street circuits used in the Formula 1 World Championship since its inception in 1950; Singapore will be the 19th. Other notable street circuits, of course, have missed out on hosting a Championship race but are nevertheless still major parts of the Grand Prix racing story. Indeed, the first race to ever have the title “Grand Prix” was held, in 1901, at Pau in South-Western France. A Formula Libre race, it was won by France’s Maurice Farman in a Panhard 24CV at a dazzling average of 47 mph. The race has run, in various formulas and formats, since 1933, it’s current inception since 2007 has been as a double-headed World Touring Car Championship event. This year’s was shared bewteen Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus, whilst the lap record is still held by Lewis Hamilton, winner of the 2005 double-headed Formula Three event. Other circuits who miss out but are, nevertheless, worthy of mention here the insane, brilliant Macau race at the Guia Circuit – a traditional proving ground of future Formula 1 drivers through its Formula 3 Grand Prix, previous winners including Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, as well as David Coulthard, Ralf Schumacher and Takuma Sato – and the Circuit Sarthe in Le Mans, whose one World Championship event in 1967 was hosted on the timid Bugatti circuit, a permanent road course sited near its big brother’s pit complex.

Providing us with the highest proportion of these eighteen courses is the United States. Ironically for a country which is home to brilliant permanent tracks like Road America, Road Atlanta, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, the US Grand Prix has – but for an occasional welcome thrash around Watkins Glen in upstate New York – largely been a mainstay of street tracks and ratty old airfields. Whether or not this has any bearing on why Formula 1 has never quite displaced IndyCar or NASCAR in the American affections, who can say, but I have my suspicions. Nevertheless, of the five, one is pretty fondly remembered. Long Beach in California provided F1 with a memorable venue between 1975 and 1983, with the picture of the cars burbling down the steep hill of Linden Avenue after the pit straight being one of Grand Prix racing’s most enduring snapshots. The races, too, provided interest. The layout of the track provided the drivers opportunities to overtake and crash in equal measure, leading to some exciting results. The last GP in 1983 was particularly memorable, John Watson winning for McLaren from a gentleman’s 23rd place on the starting grid. This after Keke Rosberg achieved a full 360 degree pirouette trying to relieve Riccardo Patrese of his first place going into the first corner, without so much as losing his own second position. Watson was, in fact, repeating a feat he’d mastered the previous year at a less-fondly thought of venue, a harbourside track in Detroit (1982-1988). Here he won from 17th place, in one lap alone moving from 6th to 2nd place. The other three tracks in America are remembered, but not always for anything anybody had intended. The sole race in Dallas, at the State Fair Park in 1984, was littered with crashes and bad accidents, a legacy of the extreme heat melting the racing surface. Martin Brundle, in his first season of Grand Prix racing and having just finished a flying second at the previous race in Detroit, smashed his ankles to pieces in practice, whilst Nigel Mansell, having bounced off everyone and everything on his way to pole position, passed out whilst trying to push his fuel-starved Lotus Renault across the line on the final lap.

The Las Vegas Grand Prix lasted for 2 events, on an E-shaped track marked out around the car park of the Caesar’s Palace hotel. In a happenstance quite undeserved by its uninspiring nature, Caesar’s played host to the World Championship decider on both occasions, Nelson Piquet prevailing over Carlos Reutemann and Jacques Laffite in 1981 and Keke Rosberg doing the same over John Watson in 1982. To complete this rather neat summary, the other US street circuit managed three Grands Prix. An angular affair in Phoenix, this track is best remembered for Jean Alesi’s heroics in a Tyrrell at the season-opening 1990 event. Going into an early lead, he was passed by Ayrton Senna’s McLaren on lap 34, only for Alesi to hang fire and slip back past Senna into the next bend. After the 1991 event – won, as in 1990, by Senna – the city hosted an Ostrich race which gained a significantly higher attendance than the F1 cars had, at which point Grand Prix racing quietly slipped away until it’s loud and not always successful rebirth for the noughties at Indianapolis.

Ostrich racing and car parks aside, the US doesn’t have the monopoly on street race insanity. Putting aside for a moment the folly of nearly 60 years of continual World Championship competition in Monte Carlo, tracks like Pescara in Italy, Avus in Germany and Oporto in Portugal also deserve respect for their application of silliness. Pescara and AVUS both only hosted one Championship race, in 1957 and 1959 respectively. Pescara holds, as it likely will for all time, the record for being the longest circuit to ever host a World Championship Grand Prix, at 16.032 miles it even dwarfed the Nürburgring Nördschliefe. Other than that, though, it was a very picturesque and classic round-the-houses street course. The AVUSring, however, was much, much less sane. It was – and is – an autobahn just outside Berlin joined together by hairpins at either end. Even by Germany’s rather high standards of madness in motor racing circuit design – the Norisring in Nuremburg being a favourite of mine – AVUS was special. The old Nordkurve featured banking at a stupefying 43 degrees and was called, unsurprisingly, The Wall of Death. Meanwhile, the straights both clocked in at just under 6 miles long each. Fortunately, sense – or, at least, World War II – intervened and, by 1959, they had been cut in half thanks to new boundaries meaning the old Sudkurve was in Soviet-controlled territory. It was still lethal, though. On the day before the race, Jean Behra was killed after he was thrown out of his Porsche sportscar, hitting a tree. On the day of the Grand Prix itself, Hans Hermann enjoyed a miraculous escape from an accident under braking for one of the (two) corners, thrown clear of his barrel-rolling BRM but suffering no injury worth the name. Oporto‘s claim to fame is much less spectacular, but none less remarkable. On a track riddled with tramlines, World Champion Jack Brabham managed to hook his Cooper’s wheels into the groove in the 1960 event, finding himself with no other option but to follow them back to the tram depot before becoming disentangled.

Many other venues are remembered for their qualities rather than their foibles. France’s two contributions – Reims and Rouen – were both magnificent circuits, making use of some fabulously fast public roads. The latter in particular had some spectacular curves and a picturesque cobblestoned hairpin at one end, but it was sadly immasculated in the name of safety and progress in 1972.

In a similar vein but still going strong, Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium used to be an 8-mile hack around the Ardennes forests near the German border. Taken off the calendar in 1970, it returned in 1983, a shortened circuit which managed to retain much of the character of its grandpappy. Up until the late 1990s, the road from Stavelot right the way up to Kemmel at the top of the hill was also still in public use – although the Bus Stop chicane was, contrary to legend – not an actual fare stage for public transportation. Shorter tracks like Adelaide (home to two of the classic F1 final race title deciders, in 1986 and 1994) and Montjuich Park near Barcelona are also much missed by many in the Formula 1 firmament.

The sad thing about them is that they are all, in the most part, still there. Many have – as public roads – managed to escape the butchery of the designer to become shorter, safer or “better”, though some have been afflicted by the similarly-alienated pen of the town planners. They provide a unique and taxing challenge for the drivers, too often cosseted away in their air-conditioned motorhomes parked in a large anonymous paddock which could more or less be anywhere. It makes the sport look dashing, interesting, spectacular. Worldly yet other-worldly at the same moment. Whilst, equally, something would be lost in removing permanent courses from the calendar, what I hope Formula 1 is now moving back towards is a better balance of circuits.

A WORD ABOUT DRIVERS

I couldn’t go to all these lengths without debunking a myth. Many times in reviews of contemporary events, you will hear people talk about Nigel Mansell as the great street fighter, the street circuit specialist. Now, he was undeniably very quick on the streets wherever he went, but his sole win on a street course was at Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 1993 – his first race in an IndyCar. Jim Clark was similarly stymied with bad luck when there were houses in close proximity, his luck in Monte Carlo, time and again when leading, was monstrous. No, there really are only one or two genuine street racing specialists, that blend of speed and – vitally – accuracy along with a helping of luck. In Clark’s era it was Stirling Moss – winner of three Monaco Grands Prix as well as races at Monsanto, Oporto, Pescara and Ain-Daib, Morocco. In recent generations, nobody could touch Ayrton Senna. Six wins in Monte Carlo, plus multiple triumphs at Detroit, Adelaide and Phoenix made him perhaps the sport’s all-time outstanding street racer.

FACT CORNER

For your records, the full list of Formula 1 street courses is as follows:

Adelaide (AUS) (1985-1995); Ain-Daib (MAR) (1958); AVUS (D) (1959); Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas (USA) (1981-1982); Dallas Fair Park (USA) (1984); Detroit (USA) (1982-1988); Long Beach (USA) (1975-1983); Monsanto (P) (1959); Monte Carlo (MC) (1950, 1955-present); Montjuich Park (E) (1969, 1971, 1973, 1975); Oporto (P) (1958, 1960); Pedrables (E) (1951, 1954); Pescara (I) (1957); Phoenix (USA) (1989-1991); Reims (F) (1950-1951, 1953-1956, 1958-1961, 1963, 1966); Rouen-les-Essarts (F) (1952, 1957, 1962, 1964, 1968); Spa-Francorchamps (B) (1950-1956, 1958-1970); Valencia (E) (2008-)

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The first 100

August 7, 2008

Heikki Kovalainen’s rather fortuitous victory last weekend in the Hungarian GP made a special piece of World Championship history. He became the 100th different man to win a Grand Prix since the start of the modern series in 1950. In the spirit of being judgemental at the expense of men much braver and more talented than I, I’ve decided to take a look at the list. Who is on it, who shouldn’t be on it, and who fell between the lines?

Round and round in circles

One of the first notable things are ten American names, a legacy of the fact that, for the first 10 years of the Championship, the Indianapolis 500 was a part of the calendar. Aside from the fact that, in purely statistical terms, these drivers are amongst the most successful of all time (for example, George Amick‘s second place in his only Championship start, the 1958 event, gives him a points-per-starts ratio of 6.00, higher than that of Michael Schumacher), European racing history hasn’t been particularly kind to most of them. This tends to give them the appearance of being interlopers in a marble hall of success, which would be a very unfair assessment. Winning the 500 is an immense achievement even today, but in front-engined cars with narrow tyres, you were looking at a good 4 hours work with the Reaper waiting on every corner of every lap for 800 turns. So whilst you may have heard of Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan and Rodger Ward – a man who, unlike many of his fellows in the Indycar scene, continued to race in the American rounds of the Formula 1 championship after 1960 – people like Sam Hanks and Lee Wallard should stand out for more than just their curiousity value alone.

Race Oddity

Of the 100 winners, an impressive 33 were a one-time only event. Four of these – Jarno Trulli (Monaco 2004), Jenson Button (Hungary 2006), Robert Kubica (Canada 2008 ) and Heikki Kovalainen – are still current Grand Prix drivers, and ten are from the Indianapolis era. This leaves us with 19 people to hector and bully. Of course, motor racing being the activity it is, some of the 19 (Paul Hardcastle could well be taking note of this), only won once through sadder circumstances than others. Luigi Fagioli, the only man in the list to have been born in the 19th Century, became the oldest ever Grand Prix winner at Reims in 1951. It’s not impossible to imagine that, despite being an impressive 53, a man of his calibre behind the wheel could have added to his tally if not for a touring car accident the following summer. Racing’s brutal nature also foreclosed the career of Fagioli’s countryman Piero Taruffi, winner in Switzerland 1952, but for different reasons – after winning a particularly gruesome Mille Miglia in 1957, his wife persuaded him to retire.

Other stories are as poignant without being as henpecked. Luigi Musso (Argentina 1956, died at the French GP in 1958), Lorenzo Bandini (Austria 1964, died at the Monaco GP in 1967), Ludovico Scarfiotti (Italy 1966, died at the Roßfeldhöhenringstraße Hillclimb in 1968 ), François Cevert (United States 1971, died in practice for the United States GP in 1973) , Carlos Pace (Brazil 1975, died in a light aircraft crash in 1977) and Gunnar Nilsson (Belgium 1977, died of testicular cancer in 1978 ) all perished before they’d really been able to unlock their true potential. Of the remainder, they can be neatly divided into piles entitled “one day in the sun” and “plain bad luck”.

One day in the sun (but usually in the rain (and often in a BRM))

Our lucky devils include: Jo Bonnier – the solid but unspectacular Swede who racked up BRM’s first GP win in Holland in 1959. Twelve years later on from, Britain’s Peter Gethin gave them their penultimate success by winning the last great Monza slimstreamer – still the closest Grand Prix finish of them all – before the introduction of chicanes for 1972. In between, Giancarlo Baghetti won the 1961 French Grand Prix – famously on debut – before rapidly fading from prominence. 1975 was a notable year for the unworthy. Germany’s Jochen Mass and the unsolid but truly spectacular Vittorio “The Monza Gorilla” Brambilla scoring their only successes in Spain and Austria respectively. Mass’ triumph was aided by a race stoppage at the unsafe Montjuich Park circuit, caused by the race leader crashing out. Brambilla was aided by the rain, normally a substance guaranteed to cause him to have an accident, but that day at Österreichring he managed to hold out until just after the chequered flag. Upon which he knocked the nose off on the barrier. And whilst his drive from 14th on the grid at Monaco in 1996 was very skilled, you’d have to be a relative to claim that Olivier Panis ever really troubled the engravers before or after.

What might have been

Numerous names in the 33 could and should have been multiple offenders. Sticking out like a sore thumb is Jean Alesi, whose one win from 201 starts (at Montréal in 1995), was scant reward for a career of driving porcelain-fragile Ferraris very fast until bits fell off. He was robbed by car failures in Belgium 1991, and at Monza in 1994 and 1995. A change of team brought no respite, and the normally bulletproof Benetton let him down after he inherited the lead from Damon Hill at Monaco in 1996. However, his loss at the 1995 European Grand Prix was two-parts Schumacher, two-parts Alesi leaving the door open. Richie Ginther was a fellow similarly afflicted by the Ferrari curse, his sole win – at Mexico in 1965 – coming behind the wheel of a Honda. Jean-Pierre Beltoise had the talent to go further, but an arm injury early in his career inhibited him. His sole success was BRM’s last, at a streaming wet Monaco in 1972. Alessandro Nannini‘s sole win – at the legendary 1989 Japanese Grand Prix – had more than a whiff of luck about it, the Italian thrust into prominence after Ayrton Senna’s disqualification. Lest we forget, however, that Nannini was starting to come good as a consistent front runner, and it’s easy to imagine him – rather than Nelson Piquet or Michael Schumacher – racking up the early 1990s successes of his Benetton team. However, his loss of an arm in a helicopter accident shortly afterwards put a stop to a career which looked to just be taking off.

A special mention

Some drivers win more than once, dragging themselves out of the sad 33%. And all one can do is ask why. Jean-Pierre Jabouille is the archetype here. A testing mule for the Renault Turbo F1 car, Jabouille found himself in the right place at the right time at home in France in 1979. He surprised the world once again at Austria in 1980. The fact his two wins contribute 18 of his 21 career World Championship points speaks volumes.

The ones who got away

The list of 100 largely features a who’s-who of racing talent. But it is just as notable for some of its absentees. Some are missing due to circumstance, some due to fate. Others could easily have claimed a win, even just to join Vittorio Brambilla and Giancarlo Baghetti in the How On Earth? ward. I’ve looked for a cross-section of all of these.

The first mention has to go to New Zealand’s Chris Amon. Easily the finest driver to never win a World Championship Grand Prix, a man of whose luck was inversely proportional to his skill. Even his spells with top teams like Ferrari and Matra couldn’t push him over the edge once World Championship points were on the table. Away from the scoring table, Amon would happily win in non-Championship F1 races, sportscars, anything you had. Of the modern era, Nick Heidfeld could perhaps point to Amon as a precedent, but the German hasn’t quite managed to consistently threaten the leaders in the same way Amon did yet. Ditto Amon’s fellow antipodean, Mark Webber. Stories of what might have been surround many people in the history of Grand Prix racing, none more than Stefan Bellof, the brilliant German driver killed in a sportscar crash a year after his World Championship debut. Bellof – 3rd (and catching the leaders) at Monaco in 1984, the famous day when Ayrton Senna nearly won a soaking race in a Toleman – is, of course, far from a unique tale. Many other very talented drivers died before they were able to show what they could do – notable amongst them are Britons Tony Brise, Tom Pryce, and Roger Williamson.

Bellof’s teammate for his only season, Martin Brundle, was ultimately more lucky than Bellof but could still honestly say he deserved better. Ill-served by rubbish machinery, Brundle proved his class in winning the 1988 Sportscars World Championship. On his return to F1 in 1989, he regularly found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jean-Pierre Jarier was afflicted with a similar ability to go nowhere not particularly quickly. It’s notable that both men’s best ever chance came at the Ille Notre-Dame circuit in Montréal, and both were let down by their cars. Jarier – driving the dominant Lotus 79 at the 1978 event following the death of Ronnie Peterson in Italy – disappeared away at the front only for his machine to let him down, clearing the path for Gilles Villeneuve to become number 63 on the list instead. 14 years later, the circuit now named in Villeneuve’s honour, Brundle was about to assume the lead of a fractious Grand Prix when his Benetton’s Ford engine failed.

Finally, we can’t go without mentioning Italy’s legendary Andrea de Cesaris. Famous mostly for his preternatural ability to have accidents, de Cesaris was sporadically very, very rapid. Indeed, ironically for a man of his reputation, he would save his finest performances for Spa-Francorchamps, easily the most challenging venue on the calendar at the time. A charging drive in 1983 was curtailed by a failure of his Alfa Romeo’s turbo engine, whilst a similarly promising charge behind Ayrton Senna’s ailing McLaren Honda in the unfancied Jordan Ford in 1991 ended in a similar fashion. The cherry on the cake comes at Monaco in 1982. A race made chaotic by a rainstorm in the last few laps saw Alain Prost crash out in the Renault, only for the man who assumed his mantle – Riccardo Patrese – to spin on the next lap. Both de Cesaris and Ferrari’s Didier Pironi took the lead with a matter of miles to go, both running out of fuel and allowing Patrese to be number 69. De Cesaris remains, to this day, the driver with the longest Formula 1 career without a Grand Prix win – 208 race starts.

Nosey types or the bored can peruse the full list of 100 Grand Prix winners here (.doc file).

Hello

August 6, 2008

I’ll start an incisive blog about motor sport here when I remember.