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.

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