Crunching engines

October 29, 2008

The story of the world’s last great financial crisis and its effect on motor racing can more or less be summed up in two words: Harry Miller.  Miller is perhaps the single greatest figure in the history of American single seater car production.  Together with his chief mechanic and engine guru Fred Offenhauser, his factory’s cars completely dominated the single seater scene on the other side of the Atlantic from the 1920s until the 1960s.

During the roaring 20s, 83% of the field at the Indianapolis 500 was made up of Miller cars, with the marque taking victories in 1922, 1923, 1926, 1928 and 1929.  The thirties proved similarly fruitful, with further wins in 1933 and 1934.  In the period between 1928 and 1938, every single winning car was powered by either a Miller or an Offenhauser engine.  By this point, though, Harry Miller was a spent force, having succumbed to bankruptcy following the Stock Market crash of October 1929.  Without a sideline in road car production to bolster his factory’s income, Miller was particularly vulnerable.  The USAC, well-aware of the parlous situation which may be facing what was still a sport in its infancy, reacted in 1930, opening up the formula to tempt more manufacturers to compete at Indy.

This ‘Junk Formula’ was particularly distasteful to a man of Miller’s purity of thought in producing thoroughbred racing cars.  Much of the field was made up of various old Miller chassis, cobbled together with bits and bobs from elsewhere.  Harry Hartz won the race in a Summers chassis – based, again, on one of Miller’s – with a Miller engine.  The same sort of revulsion was felt in Europe two decades later, as Enzo Ferrari decried the Garagistes – people like John Cooper or Tony Vandervell, cobbling together racing cars from their own chassis and someone else’s engine and then having the nerve to beat the Manufacturer teams’ cars.  More of this in a minute.

Because, in the interim, the market crash of 1929 had very little discernable effect on the fortunes of Grand Prix racing.  Indeed, for 1930, the only change to the formula was to alter the fuel regulation, allowing more exotic blends, increasing speed and expense.  At the time, Grand Prix racing was very much dominated by the big European car manufacturers.  Throughout the 1930s, a pitched battle between the great Italian and German marques was fought around the continent.  Financial concerns were very much secondary.  The Fascist governments in Italy and Germany were using dominance in the world’s newest, most cutting-edge sport as a propaganda exercise as much as a sporting one and no expense was spared.

69 years on, the sport is similarly dominated by manufacturer-owned teams.  However, the sport is now a global one, and the only people dictating anything are the concerned and puffy-looking middle aged suits in board rooms.  Formula 1 will not, in other words, be spared penury this time round.

The teams have already begun reacting to this.  Indeed, cost-cutting measures have been on the agenda for them all since the beginning of the century.  In the late 1990s, fields of just 18 or 19 cars were common.  The Concorde Agreement, upon which Formula 1 is run, states that should fields fall below 16 entries, teams will be obligated to run 3 car teams.  This prospect makes team managers nervous, so the 21st Century has so far been a tightrope walk.  The big teams’ priorities now include keeping a good size field, and so they will occasionally make concessionary scraps available for the bottom feeders.  The FIA, too, are concerned with the ongoing health of the sport’s blue riband event.  To this end, next season’s regulations will continue the recent trend towards cost-cutting and energy saving, with three-race engines and kinetic energy recovery systems compulsory on all cars.

In the past week, though, things have started to get a bit less savoury.  The FIA already raised eyebrows by allowing those people left behind by the Engine Freeze bring their power plants back up to spec in time for 2009.  The most notable effect of this so far has been the resurgence of Renault.  However, such an egalitarian move is not particularly in keeping with the meritocratic principles of Grand Prix racing’s history.  It’s nothing, however, on the next suggestion – standardised engines.  So far, Toyota and Ferrari have both darkly muttered about a pull out of Grand Prix racing if this is made statute, and I can hardly blame them.  Standardisation as a means of cost cutting is nothing new, of course.  This season’s welcome return to the banning of traction control systems was made possible, for instance, by the introduction of an FIA-issued ECU box.  An engine, however, is a rather more fundamental part of a racing car.  As well as being the thing that makes the car move, it’s worth remembering that it is also a stressed member of the chassis.

This brings us back to the Garagistes.  These pesky people eventually sounded the death knell for the majority of the manufacturer teams, which were still utterly dominant in the early days of the Formula 1 World Championship in the 1950s.  By the end of that decade, though, only Ferrari were really still able to take the fight to the people at the front of the field.  Mike Hawthorn’s title for Ferrari in 1958 was the last for a manufacturer team until Niki Lauda’s in 1975.  His successor as the Ferrari team leader, Jody Scheckter,  won a 1979 triumph which was then the last until Michael Schumacher heralded the rebirth of the manufacturer team era in 2000.  Indeed, it’s now the constructor teams who have been in the doldrums – the last garagiste to take the crown was Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren-Mercedes in 1999, and even then it must be remembered that McLaren are the official Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team in all but name.

The constructor-era was built on technological innovation at first.  Brilliant men and their brilliant breakthroughs were the order of the day.  John Cooper’s masterstroke was to put the engine in the back, whilst Lotus’ presiding genius Colin Chapman made huge strides in chassis and monocoque design.  However, the single biggest step forward was taken in 1967, with the introduction of the Ford Cosworth DFV engine.  A three-litre V8, available (after an initial season of exclusivity at Lotus) for just £7,500, the DFV engine was more powerful than any unit ever seen in the sport.  Its first win came in its first outing, at Zandvoort, Holland in 1967.  Its last – and 155th – was taken at Detroit 16 years later.  In the years in between, Formula 1 wasn’t so much manufacturer teams versus constructor teams as Ferrari versus the Cosworth teams.  The Cosworth era was finally seen off by the Turbo revolution started by Renault in 1977.  Even so, it was not until 1983 when Nelson Piquet, driving a BMW-powered turbo Brabham, broke the Ford monopoly.

Here’s the thing, though.  Ubiquitous it may have been, but the DFV was never obligatory.  The reason for its popularity was its cost-effectiveness and its competitiveness.  The fact, too, that the majority of the cars had the same engine made little visual impact, as the 1970s saw the most exciting selection of designs throughout the field ever seen on a Grand Prix grid.  The reason for this was freedom.  Freedom to experiment and introduce a ground-effect car like the Lotus 79.  Freedom to design a 6-wheeled car like the Tyrrell P34.  Both cars, incidentally, powered by the DFV engine.  Such freedoms are not something available to designers or teams in the current era, and combined with the financial pinch, it could wreak havoc on the sport.

The solution is simple.  Junk Formula.  Giving people freedom to try different things is the only way to entice people to keep viewing competing in Formula 1 as a viable proposition.  Give people freedom to miss a race if they can’t make it, without fining them to the point of inevitable extinction.  Certain things – which history has proven to be expensive or dangerous sidelines – should be specifically outlawed.  But aside from that, let people run a V6 engine, or a V10, or a V12 if they want.  Let them put a mad airbox on.   Forget trying to make all the car companies stay in F1.  They won’t.  Even in a positive economy this would be the case, because only one of them can win at any one time.  In a depressed economy, it is even more vital to make Formula 1 open for business rather than a closed shop.  Libertarianism, rather than socialism, will be the key to a healthy Formula 1 World Championship.

We’re all winners

October 22, 2008

The 29 Formula 1 World Champions, listed in order of the number of Grand Prix wins they had to their name at the time of their first title.  (Lewis Hamilton currently has 9, Felipe Massa 10).

1: Keke Rosberg (SF) (1982)

2: Jack Brabham (AUS) (1959-1960, 1966)

3: Guiseppe Farina (I) (1950); Mike Hawthorn (GB) (1958); Phil Hill (USA) (1961); John Surtees (GB) (1964)

4: Graham Hill (GB) (1962, 1968); Denny Hulme (NZ) (1967)

6: Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) (1951, 1954-1957); Alberto Ascari (I) (1952-1953); Jochen Rindt (A) (1970); Emerson Fittipaldi (BR) (1972, 1974); Niki Lauda (A) (1975, 1977, 1984); Nelson Piquet (BR) (1981, 1983, 1987)

7: James Hunt (GB) (1976); Fernando Alonso (E) (2005-2006)

8: Jim Clark (GB) (1963, 1965)

9: Alan Jones (AUS) (1980); Mika Häkkinen (SF) (1998-1999)

10: Jody Scheckter (ZA) (1979); Michael Schumacher (D) (1994-1995, 2000-2004)

11: Jackie Stewart (GB) (1969, 1971, 1973); Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) (1997)

12: Mario Andretti (USA) (1978)

14: Ayrton Senna (BR) (1988, 1990-1991)

15: Kimi Räikkönen (SF) (2007)

21: Alain Prost (F) (1985-1986, 1989, 1993); Damon Hill (GB) (1996)

29: Nigel Mansell (GB) (1992)

Better than nothing

October 22, 2008

Fear not, Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa.  Although only one of you can win your first World Championship crown, the other will also guarantee their best ever season at the top level, with a Championship runners-up spot.  And you’ll be in some fairly fast company.  Here’s the list of twenty drivers, for whom runner-up was as close as they ever got.

José-Frolian Gonzalez (RA) – 1954

Stirling Moss (GB) – 1955, 1956, 1957 & 1958

Tony Brooks (GB) – 1959

Bruce McLaren (NZ) – 1960

Wolfgang von Trips (D) – 1961

Richie Ginther (USA) – 1963

Jacky Ickx (B) – 1969 & 1970

Ronnie Peterson (S) – 1971 & 1978

Clay Regazzoni (CH) – 1974

Gilles Villeneuve (CDN) – 1979

Carlos Reutemann (RA) – 1981

Didier Pironi (F) – 1982

John Watson (GB) – 1982

Michele Alboreto (I) – 1985

Riccardo Patrese (I) – 1992

Heinz-Harald Frentzen (D) – 1997

Eddie Irvine (GB) – 1999

David Coulthard (GB) – 2001

Rubens Barrichello (BR) – 2002 & 2004

Lewis Hamilton (GB) – 2007

Last gasp

October 20, 2008

Embittered old hacks will often mutter that, nowadays, the Formula 1 World Championship ALWAYS boils down to a last race decider because it’s just too good for the viewing figures to contemplate otherwise. Some even go as far as to insinuate that certain things are “influenced” throughout to ensure this. These people would probably be less audible come the day that the FIA stop doing strange, bizarre and inconsistent things. Needless to say, in 2008, there’s plenty of ammunition for the conspiracy theorists.

Ockham, however, was a fine fellow. His Razor can normally be applied with great confidence, and 2008-spec Formula 1 is by no means an exception. The real reason this title has come down to the last race is that neither Hamilton or Massa have had the experience, confidence or ruthlessness to nail it down yet. Conspiratorial types can also be muffled by the simple historical fact that since the Championship’s inception in 1950, 2008 is the 24th season to have come down to a final round shootout, and the 23 others are spread out nice and evenly throughout the history books. Here they are.

1950 (Italian Grand Prix): Juan Manuel Fangio led Luigi Fagioli by 3 points and Guiseppe Farina by 5. Farina won the race with Fagioli third and Fangio retiring – twice. Upon his own car’s gearbox failure, he took over his teammate Piero Tauruffi’s Alfa Romeo only for the engine to give out. Farina won the title by 3 points from Fangio and 6 from Fagioli.

1951 (Spanish Grand Prix): Juan Manuel Fangio led Alberto Ascari by 2 points. Ascari, let down by his tyres and forced to repeatedly pit for new rubber, finished a distant 4th. Fangio won the race and his first World Championship title by 6 points.

1956 (Italian Grand Prix): Juan Manuel Fangio led Peter Collins by 8 points. The first ever title decider between teammates. Fangio’s Ferrari was stricken with mechanical problems throughout the race, eventually being handed over to Eugenio Castelotti and finishing four laps down in 8th place. Collins volunteered his own car to his team leader, and the two shared the points for a second-place finish. Fangio won his 4th World title by 3 points.

1958 (Moroccan Grand Prix): Mike Hawthorn led Stirling Moss by 8 points. Moss, needing to win the race with fastest lap and doing so, advocated for his rival at the one and only Moroccan Grand Prix. Hawthorn finished second, good enough for the title, but was initially disqualified for driving the wrong way down the course in recovery from a spin. Moss’ testimony to the contrary saw the stewards reverse their decision, making Hawthorn Britain’s first World Champion by 1 point.

Jack Brabham at Sebring, 1959

Jack Brabham at Sebring, 1959

1959 (United States Grand Prix): Jack Brabham led Stirling Moss by 5.5 points and Tony Brooks by 8. Moss, starting from pole position, retired early with a broken transmission, leaving Brooks in the Ferrari needing to win with fastest lap with Brabham third or worse. The Englishman made contact with his teammate von Trips early on and, unwilling to risk his life to win the title, made a precautionary pit stop. This cost him 2 minutes and he could do no better than 3rd place at the flag. Brabham led much of the race only to run out of fuel, having to push his car much of the way round the final lap to finish 4th. This gave the Australian his first title by 4 points from Brooks.

1962 (South African Grand Prix) : Graham Hill led Jim Clark by 9 points. Clark, needing to win the race to stand a chance, dominated the weekend only for his Lotus’ Climax engine to fail late on. This gifted the win and the championship to Hill, his and BRM’s first, by 12 points.

1964 (Mexican Grand Prix): Graham Hill led John Surtees by 5 points and Jim Clark by 9. Hill needed only to finish 3rd as long as neither of his rivals won, but lost time in an early race collision with Surtees’ Ferrari teammate Lorenzo Bandini and could do no better than 11th. This left Clark in the lead with Surtees third, enough for the Scot’s second consecutive title, but his Lotus’ Climax engine again failed – this time on the very last lap – allowing Surtees through to become the only World Champion Motorcyclist to also win the four-wheeled equivalent, by 1 point from Hill.

1967 (Mexican Grand Prix): Denny Hulme led Jack Brabham by 5 points. Brabham, stymied by the best 5&4 results scoring system, needed big points to catch his teammate, who only needed to finish 4th. In the event, Hulme cruised to 3rd place to win the title by 5 points.

1968 (Mexican Grand Prix): Graham Hill led Jackie Stewart by 3 points and Denny Hulme by 6. Graham Hill did everyone a favour here. Abacuses were thrust aside as, starting 3rd, he led most of the race and scored a comfortable win to take his second title by 12 points from Stewart.

1974 (United States Grand Prix): Emerson Fittipaldi was equal on points with Clay Regazzoni, both led Jody Scheckter by 7. Curiously, the championship contenders fared poorly in qualifying, Scheckter (in the Tyrrell) the best-placed in 6th with Fittipaldi’s McLaren and Regazzoni’s Ferrari in 8th and 9th. Regazzoni’s challenge came unstuck early, a fault in his car’s suspension making it undriveable. His teammate, Niki Lauda, gamefully tried to hold up Regazzoni’s title rivals until his car, too, encountered handling maladies. Lauda subsequently retired upon learning his countryman Helmuth Koinigg had been killed in a crash on lap 10 of the race, as Regazzoni’s challenge evaporated with a string of pit stops. This left Scheckter fourth and Fittipaldi a lurking 5th. The Brazilian inherited 4th place when Scheckter’s engine failed with 15 laps remaining, stroking the car home for his second title in three attempts, by 3 points from Regazzoni. This was also the McLaren team’s first ever drivers’ title.

James Hunt at Fuji, 1976

James Hunt at Fuji, 1976

1976 (Japanese Grand Prix): Niki Lauda led James Hunt by 3 points. Lauda had dominated the early part of the season, but his near-fatal crash at Nürburgring had seen him miss 2 races and allowed Hunt – whose McLaren had been beginning to get on terms with Lauda’s Ferrari even before the accident – to catch up. Upon the Austrian’s return, Hunt drove brilliantly to take vital wins in Canada and America to keep his hopes alive. At Fuji, Lauda parked his car after 2 laps of the streaming wet track, unwilling to risk his life for a second title. Hunt pressed on in the lead, but lost half a minute when the track began to dry, causing his wet tyres to fail. Rejoining 5th, he “passed anyone I saw”, emerging 3rd to win his only World crown by a single point.

1981 (Las Vegas Grand Prix): Carlos Reutemann led Nelson Piquet by 1 point and Jacques Lafitte by 6. Leader since the spring, Reutemann lost confidence in the face of Piquet’s mid-season form in the hydraulic suspension-toting Brabham BT49, his championship lead slowly eroded. At Caesar’s Palace, Reutemann took pole position but was rapidly engulfed by the field. His car handling poorly, coupled with the loss of 4th gear on the second tour, saw him fade to 8th place. Piquet passed Reutemann early on and defied exhuastion and dehydration – which caused him to vomit in the car during the race – to finish in the 5th place he needed to take the title by 1 point.

1982 (Las Vegas Grand Prix): Keke Rosberg led Didier Pironi by 3 points and John Watson by 9. Rosberg’s consistency had been an oasis of calm in a bewildering, insane and tragic season. Pironi was out of the championship by mid-season, legs smashed in a practice accident at Hockenheim. Watson needed to win with Rosberg not scoring to take the title on countback. The Finn drove a measured race to finish 5th, whilst Watson could do no better than 2nd, to win the title by 5 points from Watson and Pironi.

1983 (South African Grand Prix): Alain Prost led Nelson Piquet by 2 points and René Arnoux by 8. Prost and his Renault team had set the standard from the start of the year, but Piquet and Brabham came back from mid-season. Arnoux, in the Ferrari, came alive midway through the year too, to be an outside contender. It was the French outfit who lost their cool, a turbo failure accounting for Prost, but the Frenchman was never really in Championship contention from the race’s start. With Arnoux also retired with engine trouble, Piquet cruised to 3rd place, winning his second title by 2 points. It was also the first ever Championship secured by a driver in a turbo-powered car. Renault, the pioneers of turbocharging in F1, took this very hard. Blaming Prost, he was dismissed a few days later.

1984 (Portuguese Grand Prix): Niki Lauda led Alain Prost by 3.5 points. Another intra-team squabble, Lauda and Prost dominated the 1984 season in the McLaren TAG-Porsches. Prost had been the quicker of the two, winning 7 times to his teammate’s 5, but Lauda was more consistent and benefitted from greater reliablity than his teammate. On the day, Prost dominated the race, leading the whole way. Lauda, needing second place to secure the crown, struggled in midfield with an underpowered engine. From mid-race he began to make his move, although he was lucky to avoid a puncture during a dice with Stefan Johansson’s Toleman Hart. Having passed Johansson’s teammate Ayrton Senna for third place, Lauda then benefitted from Nigel Mansell’s misfortune, the Englishman’s brakes failing, spinning him out of 2nd place. The Austrian therefore prevailed, winning the title by half a point, the smallest ever margin of victory.

Nigel Mansell at Adelaide, 1986

Nigel Mansell at Adelaide, 1986

1986 (Australian Grand Prix): Nigel Mansell led Alain Prost by 6 points and Nelson Piquet by 7. The most famous title decider of them all. Mansell needed 3rd place to secrure the title, with Prost and Piquet both needing to go for broke. Piquet and Mansell, teammates at Williams, had benefitted all season from the best car, but their squabbling served to take points away from the other. Prost drove with brilliant skill and consistency in a McLaren whose TAG engine was starting to show its age to stay in the hunt. The race was a nail-biter, with the three challengers battling with Ayrton Senna (Lotus) and Keke Rosberg, Prost’s teammate, in his final Grand Prix. Rosberg led with Piquet and Prost challenging, Mansell keeping his powder dry. Rosberg’s final drive was ended after his tyre failed, whilst Prost was forced to pit early due to a puncture. This left Mansell in third place and comfortable, until a massive blow-out of his right rear tyre on the back straight forced his retirement. Piquet pitted as a precautionary measure, allowing Prost into the lead, which he kept to the flag, winning his richly-deserved second consecutive title by 2 points from the desperately unlucky Mansell.

Michael Schumacher gets defensive, Adelaide 1994

Michael Schumacher gets defensive, Adelaide 1994

1994 (Australian Grand Prix): Michael Schumacher led Damon Hill by 1 point. Schumacher dominated 1994, before and after the death of Hill’s Williams teammate Ayrton Senna at the third race. Losing one win to a technicality and having served a 2 race ban for misdemeanours at the British race, Schumacher still went to the penultimate round with a 5 point advantage. Hill brilliantly won that race, at a streaming wet Suzuka, to close the gap to a single point. On the day, Schumacher overtook Hill and Mansell into the first corner to lead, but unlike the majority of the races that year, was unable to shake the Englishman, driving brilliantly, from his tail. The pressure told, and Schumacher ran off the track on the 36th lap. Seemingly about to pull off and retire his mortally wounded Benetton, the German swerved wildly in defence of his position as Hill tried to pass at the next corner. Hill’s front suspension was broken in the incident, winning Schumacher his and Germany’s first World Championship in deeply unsavoury circumstances.

1996 (Japanese Grand Prix): Damon Hill led Jacques Villeneuve by 9 points. Hill had dominated the early running in 1996, but his rookie teammate gained ground in the second half of the campaign, winning in Portugal to take the battle to Suzuka. In the event, Hill won consumately from pole, oblivious to the fact Gerhard Berger had oh-so-nearly bunted him out of the race at the chicane on lap 2. Villeneuve made a poor start and was recovering through the field when his rear wheel fell off. Hill’s eventual winning margin of 19 points was perhaps a little unfair on the Canadian, an unfair reflection of just how uncomfortable he had made it for Hill at times.

1997 (European Grand Prix): Michael Schumacher led Jacques Villeneuve by 1 point. A thrilling and controversial finale between drivers who made no secret of their dislike for one another. Schumacher, in pursuit of Ferrari’s first drivers’ title since 1979, and Villeneuve set identical qualifying times – as did Villeneuve’s teammate Heinz-Harald Frentzen – but it was Schumacher, from second place, who made the best start and led much of the race. On lap 48, after a relentless pursuit, Villeneuve made a bold outbraking move into the Dry Sac hairpin midway round the lap. Schumacher’s in car camera clearly showed the German make two distinct steering wheel moves to deliberately collide with the Canadian, in an attempt to force him out of the race. Villeneuve continued – prompting Martin Brundle, commentating on British TV, to remark “you hit the wrong part of his car, my friend!” – and finished 3rd to win the title by 3 points. Schumacher was subsequently disqualified from the 1997 championship, making Villeneuve’s margin of victory a rather more comfortable 39 points from Frentzen.

Michael Schumacher gets defensive at Jerez, 1997

Michael Schumacher gets defensive, Jerez 1997

1998 (Japanese Grand Prix): Mika Häkkinen led Michael Schumacher by 4 points. Again, the pattern of early-season dominance (Häkkinen) closed down by a middle-season charge emerged. Going into the penultimate race level on points, Mika won a decisive victory over a shellshocked Schumacher, unable to make his early lead count. At Suzuka, Schumacher won the pole but stalled on the grid, forcing him to start from the back. Häkkinen cruised to an easy win and his first title, the margin of victory – 14 points – the result of Schumacher’s retirement following a puncture.

1999 (Japanese Grand Prix): Eddie Irvine led Mika Häkkinen by 4 points. A season of shenanigans culminated in a rather unlikely duel. Häkkinen had been the fastest driver in the field, but he was too frequently let down by his car and too inconsistent when he wasn’t. Irvine, thrust into the limelight at Ferrari by Michael Schumacher’s leg-breaking shunt in Britain, won 4 races – inheriting victory in Australia, battling to it in Austria, then being handed the win by his teammates in Germany and Malaysia – but was more consistent and reliable than Mika. Come the race, it was a mismatch. Irvine had a messy practice, leaving Schumacher to take the main Ferrari fight to Häkkinen as the Northern Irishman finished a distant 3rd. As was so often the case, Häkkinen proved unbending under pressure, and won his second title in much the same way as he had the first, by 2 points from Irvine.

2003 (Japanese Grand Prix): Michael Schumacher led Kimi Räikkönen by 9 points. The 2003 season saw the origins of the modern scoring system, a result of Schumacher’s crushingly dominant 2001 and 2002 seasons seeing the title wrapped up before the leaves had changed. It worked. In the event, Räikkönen, whose inexperience had cost him valuable points throughout the year, needed to win with Schumacher out of the points. In the event, Schumacher drove his most uncharacteristically shambolic race of his stellar career, muddling home in the final points position, 8th. However, his teammate Rubens Barrichello dominated the race, guaranteeing Schumacher’s fifth world title by 2 points. The only time Schumacher managed to prevail in a last race shootout, without deliberately running into anyone.

Fernando Alonso at Interlagos, 2006

Fernando Alonso at Interlagos, 2006

2006 (Brazilian Grand Prix): Fernando Alonso led Michael Schumacher by 10 points. Schumacher’s Ferrari engine had failed whilst he was leading in Japan, allowing Alonso to win and build a virtually unassailable margin. Schumacher, in his last race, needed to win with Alonso out of the points. But it all went wrong in qualifying, Schumacher’s Ferrari succumbing to a rare mechanical gremlin, leaving him 10th on the grid. Characteristically, Schumacher flew during the race, whilst a circumspect Alonso just let him get on with it. Despite a puncture, Schumacher finished 4th. Alonso cruised to 2nd, to win his second title by 13 points. In so doing, he took Schumacher’s record for being the youngest-ever double World Champion.

2007 (Brazilian Grand Prix): Lewis Hamilton led Fernando Alonso by 4 points and Kimi Räikkönen by 7. Hamilton, in his rookie year, had been the sensation of the year. Following his win in Japan, he’d enjoyed a 12 point gap to his teammate Alonso, but it all started to unravel in China. A tyre mishap whilst leading led to a mistake in the pits, causing his only retirement of the season. In Brazil, Hamilton needed to finish in 4th place to secure the crown, but it all went very wrong, very early. Too racy in the first corner, he ended up on the grass after battling with Alonso. Shortly afterwards, an electrical problem put him to the back of the field. Hamilton eventually recovered to finish 7th, with Alonso 3rd and Räikkönen – who had been 17 points behind with just 20 left to play for – taking his second consecutive race win to win his first title by 1 point from Hamilton and Alonso.

2008 (Brazilian Grand Prix): Lewis Hamilton leads Felipe Massa by 7 points. Lewis Hamilton, it will of course be pointed out, must still be haunted by the demons of his first visit to Interlagos. However, last season he drove very well aside from losing his cool in the first corner (which, naturally, he learned from and will never do again) , only hindered by a mechanical problem and a bad strategy choice by his team. Massa, meanwhile, is exceptional at Interlagos. He won with mercurial ease in 2006, and finished 2nd last year. He’ll simply have to match that this year – if he finishes third or lower it’s all over for his chances. Hamilton needs to finish 5th to make everything else academic, which in theory means he can finish behind both Ferraris and both Renaults. In practice, god alone knows what sort of red mist will descend. And speaking of mist, there’s the prevailing chance of rain in São Paulo. When it falls, it tends to do so in a deluge and create absolute havoc. Hopefully that can be one variable we can avoid, at least.

Just deserts

October 13, 2008

There has been a discussion recently – unsurprisingly eminating from the UK – about whether or not Felipe Massa would be a desrving World Champion.  Is he too inconsistent?  Does he have sufficient class?  All of this muttering isn’t entirely motivated by Lewis Hamilton-related anxiety, I don’t think.  It’s also a hangover from the previous generation of drivers, where Schumacher, M. was so clearly superior to his rivals that the debate could focus on who was his closest challenger.  Formula 1 these days, however, is dominated by a new guard, without a clear class leader.

Fernando Alonso is, perhaps, the most complete product – which I think is a fair assessment, and one also born out by the statistics – but his reputation took a hell of a knock in 2007 when he was matched, blow for blow, by Lewis Hamilton in his rookie year.  Raikkonen is perhaps the quickest driver outright, but there are question marks about his reliability and motivation.  Hamilton combines Raikkonen’s speed and Alonso’s competitiveness, but has a streak of impetuousness which is all very much his own and may still cost him another World Championship at the last gasp.  But it is drivers like Vettel or Kubica, rather than Massa, who are talked of as being the most likely gatecrashers.

Massa is currently the 4th most successful driver in the field on statistics alone – behind the vastly experienced David Coulthard but ahead of the similarly worn-in Rubens Barrichello.  He is also, undeniably, hugely fast.  His reputation really begins to suffer when his race craft is called into question.  He spun out of the first two Grands Prix of this season, as well as adding five more to his tally in the British round alone.  In Turkey, Monaco and Germany, Lewis Hamilton passed him like he wasn’t even there, and would probably have done the same in Japan had Massa not gotten a little bit liberal with the kerbs in his defence.  Some of the revulsion at the Belgian Grand Prix’s post-race shenanigan probably boiled down to the fact that it was Massa who picked up the win.  Massa, who had been tooling around, steadfastly behind the leaders in the world’s most inevitable-looking third place, rather than the cavalier, swashbuckling Hamilton and Raikkonen, duking it out at the head of the field.  I think that people also look back at his early days in the sport, where Massa was uniquely wild and woolly, never on the same line for a corner twice.  Whilst the latter thing was hugely helped by his experience in 2006 as Michael Schumacher’s teammate, this mixture of question marks and snobbery has cost Massa a place at the top table, something even a world title is unlikely to change.

It’s a little bit unfair, if you ask me.  Whilst the criticisms of his racing are empirically verifiable, so is his growing maturity and ability to get the job done when the chance presents itself.  This is not a combination unseen in World Champions previously, nor would Massa be the last example.  Damon Hill had much the same arguments put against him during his time, but the general consensus is that in retrospect, it would have been an unfair reflection of the era had he not won a title – even if it was just the one.  When I look at Massa, I see a driver who – like Hill, Jody Scheckter, Nigel Mansell, James Hunt or Keke Rosberg – has “one-time World Champion” written all over him.  Too good, too fast, too skilled to not win one in his time, but probably not complete enough a package to win multiple crowns.  Lewis Hamilton increasingly demonstrates the same characteristics, but because of the cloud of excitement and wheel-to-wheel madness he brings with him, far fewer people even think of arguing that his place in the pantheon would not be merited.  Both men, however, still have youth and inxperience on their side – Hamilton moreso than Massa – and could yet buff away the untidy edges.  Lest we forget the flaws in Michael Schumacher which bitter experience helped to address, to turn him from a young double-champion thrust into the limelight by Ayrton Senna’s death, into the winning machine which history now remembers.

So, two rounds to go, twenty points available and three drivers still in it.  Hamilton, with the 5 point advantage, is the only driver who can wrap things up in China, leaving Brazil as a nice end-of-season jolly.  Of course, last season at this stage, he took a gap of 12 and 17 points respectively over Alonso and Raikkonen to Shanghai and still emerged one point in arrears at the end of the year.  Massa has the advantage of the stronger teammate, and also has countback on his side – he can currently win the title if he and Hamilton finish the year equal on points, by virtue of his five wins to Lewis’ 4.  Robert Kubica is the rank outsider, 12 points behind Hamilton and 7 behind Massa.  His key advantage is that of consistency – he has scored points more times than anyone else this year – allied to the fact that there’s every chance the two men in front of him will spend the final two race weekends of 2008 losing control of more or less everything they have.  It is difficult to see Kubica winning the title, though, without another race win this year.  Even if neither Hamilton nor Massa troubled the scorers again this year, Kubica needs at least a 2nd and a 3rd-place finish.

My heart says Hamilton.  My – aching, nervously twitching – guts say it will be Massa.  The brain doesn’t have a clue, beyond the simple statistical fact that were it to be Hamilton or Kubica who prevails, they may very well be invoking the spirit of Keke Rosberg.  It was Rosberg who, 26 years ago, was the last driver to win the world crown without taking a single fastest lap in the season.  It was Rosberg who was the last driver to win the world crown without having won a race prior to his triumphant season.  And it was Rosberg who was the last man to win the World Championship with but a single win during the season.  In other words, even my old fallback – statistics – seems to be against me.

Who will be the most deserving winner?  They all know that going in to the first round, and they should bear it in mind now more than ever.  The one who will win the most points.  There are no bonuses for artistic expression in Formula 1.