Triple Crown

September 30, 2008

There are other motor races, of course.  For the purist and the historian alike, however, the Monaco Grand Prix, Le Mans 24 Hours and Indianapolis 500 is likely to remain the holy grail for many years to come.  The oldest of these events – Indy – celebrates the 100th anniversary of its first race in 2011, whilst Le Mans and Monaco joined it in the racing pantheon in the 1920s.  For all the laps of all the races that have been since then, only one man has won all three events – Graham Hill.

The sad fact is, the era of racing drivers being found competing every weekend in different formulae all over the globe has now passed – at the very top level at least.  Even so, it’s testament to what a unique achievement Hill’s is that even at the height of the moonlighting of the 1960s – an era which saw European teams trying to demonstrate their technical superiority by entering Indianapolis, and an era which saw warring car manufacturers hiring the cream of the driving talent to help them beat each other at La Sarthe – that nobody else completed the slam.  Even some legends of the sport failed to win any of them, but mostly you will find at least one win in one of these three events in their CV.  Jim Clark and Mario Andretti, for example, can both offer a single Indianapolis 500 win, whilst Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna only scored at Monaco.

By Lauda’s era, of course, the era of drivers trying to win disparate events all over the world was coming to an end.  These days, Formula 1 drivers are often cosseted to such an extent that their contracts explicitly forbid any such japes, the teams looking to protect their investments.  Le Mans has become the mainstay of sportscar and touring car specialists augmented by Formula 1 drivers the system has spat out.  Indy meanwhile has reverted to a insularity not dissimilar to the one which caused European teams to start making attempts on the title in the 1950s and 1960s.  The last Formula 1 World Champion to win at Le Mans was Graham Hill in 1972, whilst the last World Champion to win at Indy was Emerson Fittipaldi in 1993.

As you can see from the picture there, there are six other drivers lacking just one of the events in their permanent records.  Rindt, McLaren, Trintignant and Nuvolari are all now dead, so can be forgiven for not trying to amend this fact.  Foyt, meanwhile, is now 73 years of age.  Nuvolari and Foyt can also be commended for the breadth of their achievements elsewhere.  Foyt has a unique quadruple to his name just as weighty as Hill’s, winning Indianapolis and Daytona 500s, plus Daytona and Le Mans 24 Hour races.  Nuvolari, arguably the greatest racing driver of all, won both the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio twice.

It’s all down to Montoya, then.  Since he left Formula 1 in mid-2006, he’s been ploughing around in NASCAR.  It’s not particularly difficult to understand why, as he has a young family and the sport is very lucrative – much more lucrative, of course, than any romanticised feats which nerds and historians would get excited about.  It is also very much not the case to suggest that any one of the three events in question is “the easy one”, each demanding huge skill, dedication and commitment.

But, I can help but feel, well – it would be nice if he’d give it a go one day.

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Scoring

September 29, 2008

If I’m brutally honest, I have always found the current World Championship scoring system unsatisfactory.  The 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 framework dates back to 2003, to try and guard against a repeat of Michael Schumacher’s dominance in 2002, where he had the title wrapped up by early-July.  It’s rubbish, though.  The weight it affords a place negates the value of a Grand Prix win.  With three races left of a tight season in 2008, we are left with the rather tame prospect that Lewis Hamilton only needs three second-place finishes to be World Champion.  Indeed, this would be the case even if his main rival Felipe Massa won all the remaining rounds, a feat which would mean that Massa would have won exactly double the number of races Lewis has.

Another factor of the current system is that, as well as not sufficiently rewarding victory on the track, it can be utterly brutal in the case of failure.  Nothing wrong there per se, but considering the fact the current era of Formula 1 is characterised by its phenomenal levels of mechanical reliability, coupled to the meagre two point gap between a win and second, it can be near impossible to close down the gap that fate may have created.  This puts rather too much emphasis on lady luck for my tastes.

The scoring system’s role is to accurately reflect the flavour of a season’s racing and reward the single outstanding driver.  Despite its shortcomings, I do not believe that the 10-8-6 system has yet failed to do that.  However, as I have already intimated here, we could be facing that prospect this year.  The 2008 season has been all about Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa.  The two have been involved in a summit duel, enlivened by the fact that neither man is particularly experienced in the pursuit of the world crown, causing mistakes and inconsistency.  Ultimately, though, there has been very little to choose between them over the balance of the fifteen races.  The current points gap between them is 7, which is perhaps a little harsh on Massa.  I decided to have a look at some alternative scoring systems.  This is, FIA delegates please note, a service charged on a consultancy basis.

The 2008 results at-a-glance (click image for full-size)

12-8-6-5-4-3-2-1

12-8-6-5-4-3-2-1

1. Twelve points for a win

This system addresses the issue of adequately weighting a Grand Prix win.  Points awarded, as before, to the top-eight finishers: 12-8-6-5-4-3-2-1.  As you can see, it reduces the gap to five points rather than seven, which is fairer on Massa.  It also sees Hamilton in the driving seat, which is fair on him considering the fact he has finished in the points twice more than his rival.  Most importantly, however, it offers Massa greater chances to close the gap.  Equally, it presents Hamilton the opportunity to finish the competition quicker if he is willing to adopt an aggressive, race-winning strategy.

10-6-4-3-2-1

10-6-4-3-2-1

2. Old-school

This system is a return to the pre-2003 scoring.  10-6-4-3-2-1 to the top six finishers.  This strongly rewards a victory, as with the 12-points system.  It also increases the challenge by reducing the amount of points available at every round.  Again, Hamilton leads.  However, the solitary point here is perhaps scant reward for his slightly greater consistency over the fifteen races.  This said, it is a fairer reflection of Massa’s five wins to Hamilton’s four.

10-6-4-3-2-1, +1 pp, +1 fl

10-6-4-3-2-1, +1 pp, +1 fl

3. Pole position and fastest lap

This system retains the 10-6-4-3-2-1 framework, but adds one bonus point for pole position and one for fastest lap.  Here, the gap is closed to nothing, and it’s all to play for.  The real beneficiary here is Räikkönen.  Already thrust ahead of Kubica by the results-only points, he is spectacularly rewarded for his 10 fastest laps and two pole positions.  Herein lies the weakness of this system, however, as it casts significant doubt over the value of fastest laps.  Räikkönen has equalled his own record for most fastest laps in a single season in 2008, but you’d have to be his mother to argue that he has been a particularly competitive participant in the title fight.  Fastest laps are funny things.  Over F1 history, they have fallen to Bertrand Gachot, Jonathan Palmer and Brian Henton.  Meanwhile, Ayrton Senna racked up only 19 in a stellar career.  One can just imagine how he might have reacted to losing a World Title by a single, fastest lap-earned, championship point.

10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 (best 12 scores only count)

10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 (best 12 scores only count)

4. Dropped scores

The dropped score system was a regular part of Grand Prix racing up until the late 1980s.  It was abandoned largely because of the 1988 season, where Alain Prost comprehensively outscored his teammate Ayrton Senna thanks to grinding reliability as well as speed.  However, only allowed to count his best 11 scores, it was Senna who prevailed in a season where he would generally win or crash out in the attempt.  This system – Best Twelve out of 18 scores counted – would address the issue with the current scoring where a mechanical retirement can cost you dear and then take three or four races to redress.  All well and good in March, but slightly less so with only three Grands Prix remaining.  Its downfall is perhaps that it is rather more complicated for the casual fan, or even the dedicated fan without an Excel spreadsheet.  Regardless, as you can see, it leaves the points exactly as they currently are under the current system.  However, the excitement value would be much higher.  Hamilton and Kubica have both scored 12 times, and would have to start discounting their lowest points-scoring placings the next time they added to their totals.  Massa, on the other hand, has only scored ten times, rendering the seven point gap much less of a handicap.  Räikkönen, 27 points behind with 30 to win, could be the real beneficiary.  The Finn’s title in 2007 came after he overcame a 17-point defecit with only 20 on the table.  Under the dropped score system, he could win the remaining three races of the season without having to lose any of his accrued points, having only finished in the top eight on nine occasions.

Conclusion

My favoured system here is the second one – 10-6-4-3-2-1 for the top six.  It sees Hamilton just shading Massa with three races to go, but offers him no option but to attack to keep himself in that position.  It also increases the value of a championship point, which is somewhat lacking in awarding them to 40% of the race starters as they are under the current framework.  It is also a system which worked just fine between 1990 and 2002.  What’s that old expression?  If it ain’t broke, fiddle endlessly with it?  No?

Absolute statistical frenzy

September 24, 2008

You might have been expecting me to wiffle on about Lewis Hamilton or the impending excitement of Formula 1’s first night race, but I’ve had enough of all of that.  Especially the former.  The amount of conspiracy theories that have sprung forth since Lewis Hamilton didn’t win the Belgian Grand Prix have made me question the legitimacy of a project like this one.  Like a little rock in a stream though, I’m going to sit it out.  In order to do this, what I always do is seek solace in my numbers.

For a quite shameful number of years, I have kept Formula 1 driver career records.  When I was really insane, I used to keep team records too, but only the drivers have managed to keep my interest into my dotage.  At times of extremis, I plan to whack out a few statistical updates to titillate your stat glands. Today, I’ll be looking at the careers of the 20 current Grand Prix drivers.  For comparative purposes, I’ll also be including the record of Michael Schumacher, nearly always the standard setter for these things.

Winners

Twelve of the current crop of twenty have won a Grand Prix.

  1. Fernando Alonso has won 19, representing 16.10% of his total starts
  2. Kimi Räikkönen  17 (11.85%)
  3. David Coulthard  13 (4.96%)
  4. Felipe Massa  10 (12.75%)
  5. Rubens Barrichello  9 (4.92%)
  6. Lewis Hamilton 8 (35.48%)
  7. Giancarlo Fisichella  3 (0.96%)

Five drivers have won a single Grand Prix: Jenson Button (@ 2.01%); Heikki Kovalainen (3.23%); Robert Kubica (2.78%); Jarno Trulli (1.53%) and Sebastian Vettel (4.55%).

Michael Schumacher won 91 Grands Prix (record) at 36.69%.  Fernando Alonso’s 19 wins puts him 12th in the all-time list.

Non-winners

Not everyone can win, as my nan always told me.  Here’s the eight people who are still waiting, listed in order of Grand Prix starts.

  1. Nick Heidfeld  147 (years: 2000 – present; best finish: seven 2nd places)
  2. Mark Webber 117 (2002 – present; two 3rds)
  3. Nico Rosberg  49 (2006 – present; one 3rd)
  4. Adrian Sutil  31 (2007 – present; one 8th)
  5. Timo Glock  18 (2004, 2008 – present; one 2nd)
  6. Kazuki Nakajima  15 (2007 – present; one 6th)
  7. Nelson Angelo Piquet  14 (2008 – present; one 2nd)
  8. Sebastien Bourdais 14 (2008 – present; two 7ths)

The record here belongs to Andrea de Cesaris (208 starts, two 2nd places). Nick Heidfeld’s 147 starts without a win puts him 4th in the all-time standings.  I bet he’s pleased.

Points scorers

Points mean prizes.  Wins just clutter up your garage with trinkets.  Here’s the top ten overall points scorers, followed by the top ten in terms of points-per-starts ratio.

  1. David Coulthard  533 points
  2. Rubens Barrichello  530
  3. Fernando Alonso  518
  4. Kimi Räikkönen  507
  5. Felipe Massa  278
  6. Giancarlo Fisichella  267
  7. Jenson Button  232
  8. Jarno Trulli  209
  9. Nick Heidfeld  193
  10. Lewis Hamilton  187

Michael Schumacher scored 1369 points (record).  David Coulthard’s total puts him 4th in the all-time list.

  1. Lewis Hamilton  6.03 points-per-start
  2. Fernando Alonso  4.39
  3. Kimi Räikkönen  3.76
  4. Robert Kubica  3.03
  5. Felipe Massa  2.73
  6. Heikki Kovalainen  2.61
  7. David Coulthard  2.20
  8. Rubens Barrichello  2.01
  9. Jenson Button  1.56
  10. Nick Heidfeld  1.31

Michael Schumacher scored at 5.52 points per start.  Lewis Hamilton is the current record holder.

Starts

Because you can’t get rid of some people.

  1. Rubens Barrichello  264 starts from 1993 – present
  2. David Coulthard  242 (1994 – present)
  3. Giancarlo Fisichella  208 (1996 – present)
  4. Jarno Trulli 196 (1997 – present)
  5. Jenson Button  149 (2000 – present)

Michael Schumacher started 248 Grands Prix, which puts him 3rd in the all-time list.  Rubens Barrichello is the record holder.

Pole positions and Fastest laps

Because some people’s favourite Michael Jackson song is Speed Demon.

  1. Fernando Alonso  17 pole positions representing 14.41% of his total starts
  2. Kimi Räikkönen  16 (11.85%)
  3. Felipe Massa  13 (12.75%)
  4. Rubens Barrichello  13 (4.92%)
  5. David Coulthard  12 (4.96%)

Michael Schumacher won 68 pole positions (record).  Fernando Alonso’s 17 puts him 11th.

  1. Kimi Räikkönen  34 fastest laps
  2. David Coulthard  18
  3. Rubens Barrichello  15
  4. Fernando Alonso  10
  5. Felipe Massa  9

Michael Schumacher took 76 fastest laps (record). Kimi Räikkönen’s 34 is the third highest of all time.  He needs just two more in 2008 to break the record he and Schumacher jointly hold for most fastest laps in a single season (10).

Black hole

September 15, 2008

Talking uneducated rubbish about spacetime became something of a hobby online last week, as CERN started up their new particle toy.  However, something must be afoot here, because yesterday I witnessed someone win a wet Italian Grand Prix, from pole position, in a Toro Rosso.  This is likely to be by far and away Toro Rosso’s greatest ever result, especially after Sebastian Vettel leaves them for bigger and better things at the end of this season.  As such, to mark the occasion I thought I’d try and present a pair of lists to demonstrate just quite how strange last weekend really was.

Weather and the Italian Grand Prix

Italy being a sun trap is something of a myth, especially in the northern part of the country.  During the autumn and winter months, it will often rain merrily for days on end.  This perhaps makes it all the stranger to reflect that, in the history of the Formula 1 World Championship, there have only ever been five races affected by some measure of precipitation – even though the Italian Grand Prix has always taken place in the early autumn and always in Northern Italy (at Monza except for 1980 when it went to Imola). As if to emphasise the fact that normality had been somehow suspended last Sunday, the 2008 race was the only fully wet event of the bunch.

1956 – An event won by Stirling Moss in a Maserati 250F, the 1956 Italian Grand Prix was afflicted by occasional rain showers.  It is more notable, however, for being the race where Britain’s Peter Collins allowed his teammate Juan Manuel Fangio to take over his car after Fangio’s broke down.  Had Collins continued, he would have been World Champion, but his respect for Fangio was such he put his own title bid aside, allowing the Argentinian driver to score the 3 points he needed for his fourth drivers’ crown.

1962 – Graham Hill won the 1962 Italian Grand Prix for BRM, on the way to his and BRM’s first titles.  The race started dry but was visited by light rain showers later.

1981 – The scene of Alain Prost’s third Grand Prix win, with a backdrop of Nelson Piquet’s and Carlos Reutemann’s summit duel.  The 1981 affair took place on a misty day with occasional light rain, which could well have accounted for John Watson’s huge crash at the second Lesmo bend.  Watson clipped a kerb coming out of the then-flat out corner, spinning his McLaren wildly backwards into the barriers.  It was an early demonstration of the strength of carbon fibre, which the McLaren team’s pioneering use of had begun the year before.

2004 – A season totally dominated by Ferrari, Monza took place late enough in the season for Michael Schumacher (who by this point had won absolutely everything, 12 wins from the first 13 races and a 2nd place the last time out in Belgium) to be feeling charitable.  And so it came to pass that Rubens Barrichello had his day in the sun at Monza, although both men were forced to come through from the back after choosing the wrong tyres at the start of the race, when the track was damp.

2008 – A wet and wild day, the race starting behind the safety car.  Further expected rain failed to materialise in any major way, and by the end of the event the track was merely damp.

Things no-one saw coming

Let’s make this clear from the outset – Sebastian Vettel’s win in a Toro Rosso is without serious precedent in Formula 1, unless you count large, muscular-thumbed youths playing on their Playstations.  However, the sport has occasionally thrown a curveball or two.  These, pieced together into a whole, are approximately equivalent to one dominant win from pole in a Toro Rosso.

1975 Austrian Grand Prix – A wet event, cut short just over half way due to torrential conditions, and won by perennial midfield crash test dummy Vittorio Brambilla in the bright orange March.  It was the second ever win for March (Jackie Stewart took the first, in a car run by Ken Tyrrell’s team), and a triumph so unexpected that even Brambilla lost it after the flag, spinning his car on the pit straight.

1977 Argentinian Grand Prix– Remember when Jacques Villeneuve joined BAR, and they boasted their bold ambition to win their first ever race in 1999?  Well, Walter Wolf racing actually did it, in 1977.  The mitigating factor to this was that their driver – Jody Scheckter – was no stranger to the victory circle.  Still, their start was a darn sight better than BAR’s, who of course went on to score zero points in their first season and everyone laughed.

1977 Austrian Grand Prix – Wracking my brain for parallel results to Vettel’s yesterday, this was as close as I could get.  Alan Jones lugged the Shadow car – up to that point an occasional points scorer – to victory in another wet race at the Österreichring.  However, the mitigating factor here was his grid position, Jones coming from 14th place thanks to some canny strategic hocum.

1982 Las Vegas Grand Prix and 1983 Detroit Grand Prix – Two wins out of left field, both taken by a young Michele Alboreto in the Tyrrell.  As well as being Alboreto’s first, they were also the Tyrrell team’s last, and, at Detroit, the last ever for the all-time great Ford DFV engine.  Both times Alboreto came from a midfield grid slot, and found that the combination of his car set up and general attrition rates in the field much to his favour.

1984 Monaco Grand Prix – A very famous event, oh so nearly won by Ayrton Senna in the Toleman Hart.  A few years previously, Toleman had been the Skoda of the Grand Prix paddock, the running joke.  In 1984 they stopped being particularly funny, and this combination of brilliant young driver and decent little racing car is perhaps the best comparison to the Vettel-Toro Rosso partnership.  The race was stopped before half distance in a Biblical downpour, gifting the win to an ailing Alain Prost in the McLaren.  The joke was very much on Senna and Toleman, though.  Had the race been allowed to continue, it’s quite possible that Alain Prost would have won 6 points for second rather than 4.5 for first, which would have given him the World Championship come the end of the season.

1990 United States Grand Prix – Tyre wars are great fun, because sometimes insane things happen on their account.  At the Portuguese Grand Prix the previous autumn, Pierluigi Martini’s Pirelli-shod Minardi led a lap and all marvelled.  At the season-opening Phoenix race in 1990, his super-sticky Italian rubber – combined with a wet Saturday session – saw him qualify his car on the front row.  Come race day, he didn’t have the wheels to keep him in the running, and he faded away to a non-scoring 7th place finish.

1996 Monaco Grand Prix – A memorable and largely insane day at a drizzly Monte Carlo, which saw Olivier Panis come through the field from 14th to win his only and Ligier’s last Grand Prix.  A combination of attrition, well-timed tyre changes and – most importantly of all that day – the ability to keep it out of the walls or the rear end of the car in front, this was a result few people saw coming.  It was also the source of all of Martin Brundle’s pearls of wisdom included in the commentary for the Formula One 97 Playstation game, although they were originally spoken in the BBC commentary by Jonathan Palmer.  That is the saddest fact I think I know.

1997 Hungarian Grand Prix – This would be the closest result to Vettel’s in Formula One history, but for a 50 pence washer failing in Damon Hill’s Arrows’ Yamaha engine, a mere 3 miles from the flag at the Hungaroring.  Hill dragged his car up to 3rd on the grid at what was perhaps his best circuit, before proceeding to overtake Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari with 10 laps gone.  Driving into the distance, Hill seemed set to take the least probable victory by a reigning World Champion ever seen, until his engine lost drive and leaving him a disappointed 2nd.

Red Bull’s sporting arm likes to keep it in the family.  David Coulthard’s retirement from Grand Prix at the end of the season will be covered by the Red Bull Racing Team by promoting Sebastian Vettel from their junior Toro Rosso outfit to race alongside Mark Webber in 2009.  This leaves a free seat in Formula 1 – something which is at more of a premium now than it has ever been before.  It may even leave two, with dark murmurings about Sebastien Bourdais, Vettel’s teammate this year, being shown the door.  Bourdais worked for 10 years to get an F1 drive, becoming the most statistically successful CART driver in the United States in the process, and although he’s been largely outpaced by Vettel this season, I’ve not seen enough evidence to suggest to me he doesn’t deserve another go.  His performances at the last two GP, in Belgium and in Italy, have been outstanding and but for appalling luck would probably have seen him cement his position at the team.  But that is how competitive Formula 1 is in the 2008 vintage, that it is perfectly plausible that bad luck could see you on the wrong side of the door come next March.

Assuming, though, that Bourdais will remain, this leaves Toro Rosso looking for one new driver.  Historically, Formula 1 drivers mainly graduate through Formula 3 series in Europe to weed out the weak.  In the past few years, however, GP2 has been a particularly popular avenue.  The series – which runs identical cars with identical 600 bhp Renault engines – shares the bill with the Grand Prix circus during its European campaign, an innovation which has helped a number of its talents attract the attentions of F1 team members.  The Italian Grand Prix today contained a high proportion of GP alumni, considering the wealth of other similar-series available to young drivers today.  Nelson Piquet, Heikki Kovalainen and Kazuki Nakajima all came through the second rung of the single seater ladder, whilst Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and the reigning title holder Timo Glock are all past champions.  Bourdais, too, can boast form – he won the 2002 series when it was called Formula 3000.

On this note, a few weeks ago I read a rather fascinating quote from a senior Red Bull official, arguing that of the GP2 field in 2008, only two drivers are “any good”.  One of them is Sébastien Buemi, a 19-year old Swiss who is currently on the books with the senior Red Bull team as their test driver; the other is Bruno Senna, the 24-year old Brazilian with a frighteningly famous uncle.  Senna is widely tipped to get the nod, with many citing his uncle Ayrton’s close relationship with the now-boss of Toro Rosso, Gerhard Berger.  Indeed, they have both had good seasons in GP2, finishing the series (which ended this weekend) in 6th and 2nd places respectively.

Giorgio Pantano - could do with more Red Bull logos on his overalls

Giorgio Pantano - could do with more Red Bull logos on his overalls

It rather begs the question, doesn’t it?  Who is the man who beat everyone but is, in the view of the decision makers at Formula One’s biggest driver employer, not “any good”.  The answer: Italy’s Giorgio Pantano.

Pantano will be 30 by the time the 2009 Formula 1 season begins in Australia, which is fairly senior by modern standards.  But he’d not be a rookie, as some of you may remember he had almost a season at the top level in 2004 with Jordan.  Then, outpaced by Nick Heidfeld, Pantano’s chances really took a nosedive when he was forced to miss the mid-season Canadian GP.  Replaced for that race only by the team’s then-tester and current Toyota driver Timo Glock, Pantano saw his car being steered to a points scoring 7th place by the rookie, one spot ahead of Heidfeld.  When Pantano’s season resumed and carried on its underwhelming path, he found himself out of a drive for the last three races of the season.  Having come to Grand Prix racing from 3 seasons in F3000, he found himself back at the same level again in 2005, where he has been ever since.  Pantano has not been treading water either: now the most experienced pilot ever in the history of F1’s feeder series, during his victorious season in 2008 he also became its most successful, with a total of 14 wins in the category, encompassing F3000 and GP2.

Given that Grand Prix drives are now very much at a premium, what next for Giogio Pantano?  He does not have the official backing of Red Bull, nor an evocative racing surname.  All he has is his experience and his talent.  It’s not that he’s not good enough for Formula 1, it’s just that his face doesn’t seem to fit.  I’d not be surprised to see Pantano in GP2 again in 2009, trying to defend his title in the face of the inevitable fact that, even if he won every single race, he’ll never be given a chance in a Grand Prix car again.  I’d quite admire him for doing it, too.  Finding your level and sticking to it is common in some sports – take the example of footballers who will stay at a club until they are promoted or relegated before making a move and continuing a solid and professional career elsewhere.  It happens in motorsport, too, but normally the drivers who do it smoke pipes, have beer bellies and their race cars tend to have a roof.  For Pantano to keep plugging away at single-seater level in the face of total indifference is a brave decision, and one which deserves a great deal of respect.

Sebastian Vettel

Someone whose face does fit in Formula 1 is the sport’s newest winner, Sebastian Vettel.  His drive from pole at a treacherous Monza in a lower midfield car will deservedly enter the history books and be talked about for as long as cars are raced.  Standing on the podium, it is impossible to look past the fact that he already looks as though he belongs up there, possibly because he reminds me a little bit in appearance and manner of the young Michael Schumacher.

Now, it’s easy for me to say this at this stage, of course, BUT… I’d been meaning to do a post about Vettel on this blog or one of my other ones for some months.  No, honestly.  And it would have looked quite insightful, too, as I was going to argue that what we had on our hands was a future World Champion.  Now everybody knows it, and I’m sat here cursing my indigence.

I thought Vettel was a decent peddler from the first time I saw him, last year at the US Grand Prix.  At the age of 19, he was the 6th-youngest ever Grand Prix starter and, two hours later, the youngest ever world championship points scorer.  I knew he would be a race-winner from last autumn, when he ran third in the white-water Japanese Grand Prix before crashing out under the safety car.  I was confirmed in this belief a week later, when he put that disappointment behind him to finish 4th at a damp Chinese Grand Prix.  He began this season in spectacular fashion, viz. he crashed out of the first four races.  I knew he was a future World Champion, however, from the Monaco Grand Prix onwards, when Toro Rosso unveiled their new car.  In the nine races since, Vettel has finished in the points six times, been on pole once and now won the Italian Grand Prix, adding “youngest ever” records for the latter two things as well.  Sadly for him, as it stands it appears that his move to Red Bull will actually be a step backwards in 2009.   But that’s a case of ifs and buts.  Because there’s little which is going to hold Vettel back now.

First on the road

September 8, 2008

I think it is fairly clear that, of all the elements which contribute to the global popularity of motor racing, post-race amendments to the results are not one of them.  Yesterday’s Belgian Grand Prix was just one such example of this – a race full of thrills, tension and intrigue rendered completely meaningless by officialdom.  Of course, rules are rules in any sport, and they need to be applied lest the entire activity is to become a pointless and noisy demonstration-only run.  In my opinion, Lewis Hamilton’s impetuousness is what has cost him here.  With two full laps to run on a wet track, he could have passed Raikkonen at more or less any corner he pleased, such is his dominance in adverse conditions.  Whilst he undisputably let Raikkonen back past again after his abortive manouvre at the chicane, he seemed to do so in a way which allowed him extra momentum for a pass into the next corner.  In so doing, I believe, he gave officialdom the stick with which to beat him.  Nevertheless, in this case it seems like the stewards’ actions were at best over-zealous and disproportionate, at worst capricious to a point where conspiratorial rumblings are unavoidable.   People from inside the sport have been queueing up to voice their disapproval of the actions of Messrs. Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatti and Yves Bacquelaine, so I don’t really feel the need to add much to the invective currently spilling around the media.

What I will say, however, is that none of the triumverate – Deschaux, Thatti and Bacquelaine – is or was a world class racing driver.  If the job of the stewards now is to simply apply the letter of the law regardless of context or of circumstance, surely the stewards could easily be replaced by a computer program.  What Formula 1 needs is an ex-F1 driver – and a good one – to be party to the discussions and decisions of racing incidents.  If Lewis Hamilton loses his appeal – and as the beneficiary of the decision in this case is both Ferrari AND a closer battle at the top of the drivers’ championship, I would not bet against it – and goes on to lose the World crown by 6 points or less, he has three pen pushers to thank for negating a drive of some skill, bravery and flamboyance.  Whatever sport you choose to follow, such an eventuality can never be right.

Far be it from me to be cynical, but the amount of result amendments and disqualifications in Formula 1 really started to pick up towards the late 1970s and early 1980s, corresponding with the rapid growth in mass media interest and regular TV coverage.  Formula 1 became slave to the concept of “The Show”, and the stewards’ intervention could always be relied upon to add some extra spice to proceedings.  I’ve decided to take a look at six of the most famous post-race shenanigans in motor racing’s premier category.

1999 Malaysian Grand Prix

For a few days, this was the most brutal stewarding decision of them all, as the Ferrari pair of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher were both disqualified from first and second places in the race for having illegal barge boards.  Mika Hakkinen, who had finished a distant third, was elevated by this to both the race win and the World Championship.  However, for once, Ferrari had officialdom on its side.  The team successfully demonstrated that the stewards at the meeting had measured the silhouette of the board incorrectly, and Irvine and Schumacher were reinstated, Irvine going on to contest a World Championship decider with Hakkinen in Japan a fortnight later.  This time, Hakkinen won the race and title on merit.  The right driver won in the right way, on the track.  Are you listening, Belgium?

1997 Japanese Grand Prix

This one still sticks in my craw.  Again, rules are rules.  But rules are still rules at the start of the season, not just when it looks like the World Championship title battle might be getting too one-sided.  Jacques Villeneuve was disqualified from the penultimate meeting of the 1997 season for a yellow flag infraction in free practice.  Villeneuve, who was under a suspended ban for failing to slow down under yellow flags after a similar incident in Monza, was spotted by eagle-eyed stewards – possibly wearing red caps.  Villeneuve raced under appeal to fifth place, losing even the 2 points gained from this afterwards as the FIA upheld the stewards’ decision.  Handily this meant that Michael Schumacher – who won the race – was able to close down the Canadian’s 9 point championship lead, the German taking a 1 point advantage to Jerez in late October.  On that day, Villeneuve won and Schumacher cheated.  All rejoiced.

1994 British Grand Prix

In a baffling and bewildering move, Michael Schumacher blasted off the line on the formation lap, repeatedly overtaking pole-sitter Damon Hill.  After the first start was aborted, the German repeated his move on the second formation lap.  For this he received a 5-second stop and go penalty – itself strange, as 10 seconds is the standard measure here – which his Benetton Team seemingly failed to heed in time.  Chaos reigned as the World Championship leader was black flagged, all of which served only as a reminder to Schumacher to serve the time penalty, rather than coming into the pits and getting out of the car.  Despite an overwhelming sense of the rules having been totally suspended for the day, Schumacher went on to finish 2nd behind Damon Hill.  Afterwards, the stewards threw the book at him, awarding a two race ban for his troubles.  Meanwhile, the FIA’s chief race steward that day, Roland Bunseryde, was demoted to rather less vexing duties.  As an epilogue to all this madness, Schumacher was disqualified again – this time from first place – in the race before his ban commenced.  On that occasion it was for an over-worn plank on the car’s floor and the beneficiary was again Damon Hill.

1989 Japanese Grand Prix

The most fractious inter-team squabble of them all came to a head in one of the most famous ever Grand Prix.  At Suzuka in 1989, Ayrton Senna simply had to beat his McLaren rival Alain Prost or the Frenchman would win his third world crown.  With six laps to the flag, Senna made a lurid, brilliant opportunistic dive for the lead going into the chicane.  Prost, totally fed up with Senna and the McLaren team by this stage, obviously decided that enough was enough.  Declining to give Senna the room, Prost closed the door, and the two cars slithered up the escape road.  Prost looked at Senna, unbuckled and walked away.  Senna kept the clutch in and, following a push from the marshals, rejoined the track, following the escape road rather than doubling back to take the chicane he had missed.  Big mistake.  Sometimes, things are just going against you.  The FIA had clearly been upset with some of Senna’s antics, and were perhaps looking for an excuse to punish him for them.  This was all they needed.  The Brazilian won the race that day, but coming out onto the podium, he was nowhere to be seen, the race having been awarded to Benetton’s Alessandro Nannini.  At his appeal shortly afterwards, Senna was severely reprimanded for his overall conduct, and warned against future adventures.  I do perhaps wonder if the same thing is about to happen to Lewis Hamilton.

1982 Brazilian Grand Prix

Disqualifications were a race-by-race occurence in the early 1980s, as the FISA-FOCA wars between the haves (i.e. Turbo-powered teams) and the have-nots raged.  This one was perhaps the apex of the absurd Water-Cooled Brakes fiasco.  In summary, the FOCA, Cosworth-powered, teams spotted a loophole in the laws whereby they were allowed to top their cars up with coolants before they were officially weighed.  As such, the teams all merrily filled enormous water tanks, allowing their cars to come up to legal weight in the pits but race hugely underweight on the track, having literally pissed all their water away in the early laps.  As solutions go, it was not particularly sporting nor particularly elegant, but it did rather neatly make for a level playing field.  The Turbo teams, having invested heavily in their new-fangled engines with the express intention of not having to compete on a level playing field, were not happy.  After being soundly beaten by the normally-aspirated pair of Nelson Piquet (Brabham) and Keke Rosberg (Williams) at Rio, Renault made a fuss.  The top pair were summarily disqualified from the meeting, promoting Renault’s Alain Prost to the win.  And John Watson, Nigel Mansell, Michele Alboreto and Manfred Winkelhock to positions 2-5 in their normally aspirated McLaren, Lotus, Tyrrell and ATS.  Come the end of the season, Rosberg and Watson battled it out all the way to the finale in Las Vegas, but only, as Rosberg would later point out, because Watson had been allowed to keep his 6 points from Rio although his car was just as illegal as the Finn’s.  Renault not having been beaten by McLaren that day, though, they had not bothered to protest their car…

1976 British Grand Prix

1976 was, at the time, the closest ever finish to a World Championship season.  James Hunt beat Niki Lauda – who had dominated the early season running before his near-fatal brush with the scenery at Nürburgring – by the slim margin of 1 point.  It was close, too, off the track, each driver coming off best in one controversial decision.  Hunt had been disqualified for a too-wide McLaren after winning the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama, whilst the Ferrari team filled their boots.  Come France, however, Lauda’s red car blew its engine and Hunt won.  Momentum broken, Hunt received an extra fillip the week before his home race at Brands Hatch, as the FIA overturned his Spanish disqualification.  Hunt looked to have broken his hoodoo and went into the British Grand Prix hungry for more.  He got as far as the first corner, before Brands’ traditional mass startline accident got the better of him, his M23 taken out by Lauda’s Ferrari teammate Clay Regazzoni.  The rules of the day stated that that was that for Hunt, but in the face of a baying mob of a crowd, starting to turn ugly in the baking heat of the British summer of 1976, the officials agreed to allow Hunt to take the restart and sort it all out later.  Hunt and Lauda raced off on their own that day, Lauda leading just over half way before Hunt passed him up the hill on lap 46, carrying on for the win.  A win which was duly taken away again afterwards.

Looking at all of these examples, I have to say they have one unifying factor.  That is, that regardless of their specific ins and outs, the right man – the deserving winner – always prevailed in the end, be it the end of the race or the end of the year.  Maybe there is some good news for Lewis Hamilton after all.