Tiers and tantrums

May 12, 2009

As I had hoped, the Spanish Grand Prix answered a lot of questions about the potential direction of the 2009 season.  It’s now clear that Brawn are set fair to be the team to beat this year and that when it comes undone, as it inevitably will, in terms of reliability, mistakes or other japery, that Red Bull are the team most likely to pick up the pieces.  Ferrari, too, are starting to show their teeth, and in a season where the field is covered, front-to-back, by 1.5 seconds, it can’t be too long before someone other than Jenson Button or Sebastian Vettel wins a race.

The quality of the racing was also notable for its improvements.  The cars are now certainly following one another closer than they have been able to for some time, and although overtaking is still incredibly difficult (which, I have always believed, it should be… this is Formula 1, after all), steps which have been taken to improving the closeness of the racing have been steps in the right direction.

Of course, F1 being the sport it is, it threw up just as many new posers in the process of answering these points of competition.  Firstly, the budget cap issue has the potential to be the post divisive and damaging since the FISA-FOCA wars of the early 1980s.  Ferrari’s board are today meeting to discuss whether or not they would still be willing to enter a two-tier version of the sport.  Whilst I firmly subscribe to Max Mosley’s view that the sport can survive without Ferrari – it did so for great swathes of the 1980s and 1990s, from a competition standpoint at least – more of a concern is that the Scuderia are merely at the vanguard of a larger exodus.  Dietrich Mateschitz, the owner of Red Bull, was in Barcelona to state categorically that his teams would similarly not enter next season’s championship in the current proposed form.  It also looks likely that Toyota will follow suit… even if it proves to be  a move of financial expendiency dressed up as a sporting objection.

Formula 1 would be hugely devalued by such a walk out.  Ferrari, the Red Bull quartet and Toyota are more than just eight cars, they are thousands of exceptionally talented and experienced people, many of whom count the business of Formula 1 racing as their whole life’s work.  A turnout of hastily cobbled-together teams with new names, mercenaries and refugees racing to an arbitrary financial constraint, probably all with a Cosworth engine… it would be the end of the sport in everything but the name.

It cannot be denied that, particularly now, the costs of Formula 1 racing are totally unsustainable.  To complain that new teams are being put off from entering, blanching at the level of fiscal commitment, however, is to ignore the fact that it was ever thus.  During the insane turbo era, Formula 1 saw more entrants than at any time in its history.  Very few remnants of those heady days still exist in their current form, but notable drivers and engineers have been cherry-picked from the projects and have gone on to enjoy famous careers.  Formula 1 is a meritocratic exercise.  The better you are, the more money you earn.  The more money you earn, the better you can invest in being better still.  However, you only need to point to this season as an example of the fact that it’s not simply a case of money talking.  The raft of measures the FIA has instituted in recent years have been with a view to helping the teams to help themselves, to help the sport.  I think that they have worked.  Before the budget cap row erupted, talk was of two new teams entering the sport for 2010.  Things looked healthier than they had in nearly 20 years.  Perhaps the best thing the FIA can do now is to take a step back and try and help the sport themselves.

Maybe a better solution would be to get each team to declare their outgoings for the previous season at the start of the new, and then apply a penalty in that season’s constructor’s championship – let’s say a point for every $1 million dollars, over a certain sum of money.  This would allow teams to set their own budgets, but also allow them the option of balancing this against a better position – and ultimately more prize money – in the following year’s Constructors’ Cup standings.  Either way, to penalise the teams for their decades of excess is one thing, but to end up penalising the fans can simply not stand.

It’s a scary future, so the best thing we fans can do is relish the present.  2009’s big sporting issue is currently Rubens Barrichello.  After years of toeing the Ferrari party line, Rubens’ throwaway comment that he’d not tolerate a similar situation at Brawn has been gleefully jumped on by the media, trumpeted as a QUIT THREAT or an ULTIMATUM.  Things are, in reality, likely to be far less fractious.  Barrichello knows why it was he lost the Spanish Grand Prix – his pace in the vital 2nd and 3rd stints was just not sufficient.  He and his team will, I’m sure, work to work out precisely why this was.  Because if Rubens starts to find himself in a position where he can’t trust the team or their strategic judgement, he knows better than anyone that his role will be completely untenable.

This is a situation I simply can’t see a man as intelligent as Ross Brawn allowing to happen.  Barrichello’s huge experience – Jenson Button is Formula 1’s 4th most-experienced current driver, yet Rubens has started nearly 120 Grands Prix more – was an important part in giving Jenson the car that allowed him to win pole position and the race.  It will continue to be priceless, more and more so as Button and Brawn edge closer and closer to a sensational championship tilt.  Rubens Barrichello’s day in the sun will come in time.  At the moment, he just has to accept that no-one is driving at Jenson Button’s level.  This is evidenced by the fact that he won on Sunday on a non-optimal two-stop strategy.  If Ross Brawn, the sport’s most celebrated tactical genius, wanted to deliberately scupper Rubens Barrichello’s race, I’m sure he could think of a better way than giving him the faster strategy and hope beyond hope that it would go wrong somehow.

For all the new and exciting in 2009-vintage Formula 1, it’s in a way comforting that hot air, rumour and hearsay still rule the roost.

2009 season opener?

May 6, 2009

And so, then, the Spanish Grand Prix.  This is the one we’ve been waiting for, when the pre-season favourites will suddenly re-emerge and put the upstarts in their place.  Sadly, for them at least, this is not a theory I subscribe to.  I expect that McLaren, Renault and Ferrari will make some significant progress as the year goes on, but I do not see that it will be at the expense of the teams who have started 2009 running at the front.  It should present an almighty treat for us, though, if in an already extraordinarily close year we were to gain four, six or even eight new cars and drivers with a realistic chance of winning any particular weekend.

The new look to the front of the pack this season has, I think, tricked a lot of people’s minds into thinking that there’s something not quite real about the current championship situation, that things will soon be redressed when we all wake up.  The fact of the matter is, however, that all the races so far have been normal events with points to be had.  For all of the new winners and surprised-looking mechanics and grim-faced Ferrari management, Jenson Button arrives in Barcelona with 31 points from a possible 35, twelve ahead of his teammate and 13 ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel – looking increasingly likely to be a serious championship protagonist this year.

Had Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa arrived at the Circuito de Catalunya with such a margin, people would already be writing this season off as a contest.  They’d be treading dangerous ground to do so, but there’d still be a reasonable chance they’d be proven completely correct.  I don’t see why the same can’t be applied to Button’s chances.  The reason why we expect Hamilton, Räikkönen, Massa or Alonso to be in Button’s position is because they drive for teams who have, traditionally, done the best job in producing a fast car.  This year, Brawn did the best job.  Quite whether they will be able to match their more experienced rivals’ pace of development is a big question mark, as is how they will balance this season’s races with their efforts to maintain their competitiveness in 2010.  Let there be no doubt, though.  However plain their car’s paintwork, however unlikely the story, Jenson Button is very much in the mix to win this.  The points don’t lie.

Spain will, though, be a race of much intrigue.  Countless new parts will be appearing all over every car in the pitlane – including on a Brawn car which looked a little breathless against Toyota and Red Bull in Bahrain, if only in qualifying.  Ferrari and Renault will be looking for big steps forward, whilst McLaren – finally free from the Melbourne fiasco and able to concentrate on going forward – will be looking to continue to steadily build, as they have impressively been doing at every race this season.

Even the smallest teams will be looking for any advantage, in a season where half a second either can either bring you a point or see you last of the runners.  Force India’s KERS is, I understand, nearing being ready for race weekends.  Williams’ innovative flywheel system cannot be too far behind, either.  All of this brings BMW’s struggles into stark contrast: the Munich outfit will be without the system this weekend.

However, for me the most important indicator of progress I’ll be watching for on Sunday afternoon is whether or not the new rules – designed with the specific purpose of improving the racing on-track – are really working.  Barcelona has, in recent years, provided some of the starkest, bleakest and most dismally processional races you could ever wish to see.  Forget finding out who’s going to be competitive for the rest of the year… I want to find out if one car will be able to make a competition of it by passing another one on the circuit.  Fingers, as ever, crossed.

Useless prediction:

Pole position: Button (Brawn Mercedes) (because Barcelona favours the most aerodynamically efficient cars always)

Race result: 1st: Button (Brawn Mercedes); 2nd Vettel (Red Bull Renault); 3rd: Lewis Hamilton (McLaren Mercedes).

This time they are really spoiling us…

The BBC’s exceptional coverage of the 2009 Formula 1 season continues at apace with these magnificent pieces from their cavernous archives.  Readers in the United Kingdom can watch re-runs of their Grand Prix highlights package from the Spanish Grands Prix of 1981 and 1986 online. Watching even a processional dirge from those grainy turbo days is always a joy, so these two outstanding races have much more to offer.  They are especially noteworthy for two virtuoso, sleight-of-hand victories, under extreme pressure and in inferior equipment, by two of the sport’s greatest ever drivers. Commentary, of course, comes from Murray Walker and the delightfully thrummy James Hunt. Here’s hoping that the BBC – who have been presenting such online treats all season in the week before races – continue in the same vein throughout the 2009 season, particularly in the historically rich European season.

Ayrton Senna

May 1, 2009

It’s hard to believe that it has been fifteen years today since the death of Ayrton Senna in the San Marino Grand Prix.  Hard to believe because there is something seemingly timeless about Senna.  Hard to believe, too, because he represents a such a different time, a different challenge in a different age, that it is difficult to equate what we now know as Formula 1 with the activity he dominated for ten years.

Dominance comes in a variety of forms, of course.  Senna ran the gamut.  He was a man of unearthly talent: plainly, simply and demonstrably faster than all the rest.  To that, he added phenomenal determination and focus, the ability to transform this basic natural gift into results within the World Championship framework.  Most of all, though, his extraordinary personality projected such an air over the sport that it was inevitable, perhaps, that the day he was no longer there would be the day Formula 1 would fundamentally change.

It is rare that such genius – that word so over-applied in sport and in life – emerges.  In sporting terms, any given activity might be lucky enough to experience its emergence once per generation.  This has certainly been the case in motor racing.  However, in the 1980s, two men arrived at the same time.  That their battle would be titanic was never in doubt.  However, what actually transpired between Senna and Alain Prost was so fierce – to the point, sometimes, where it seemed like neither man had any fear for their own life – made it transcend the rather cosseted world of Formula 1 motor racing, or motor sport in general.  A genuine clash of the titans, you could honestly believe – watching them during their two years as McLaren teammates in 1988 and 1989 – that not only were there no other cars on the track, but that they were the only two human beings left in existence.

Ayrton Senna is the reason why I am so interested in Formula 1.  However, it took his death for me to follow it to an obsessive degree.  The first race I actively sought out to sit down and watch was the first race of the post-Senna era, the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix.  Before this, I was a casual observer, watching bits here and bits there, aware of the key protagonists and something of their histories.  I always knew exactly what Ayrton Senna was doing, though.  He was the star man of the piece, even in a world inhabited by terrifying 1000bhp turbocharged engines, exotic locations and drivers like Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell or Nelson Piquet.  There are some people who are just too big to be contained by a wood-veneered television.

I am particularly grateful to the gods of fate that, at age 9, I happened upon the re-run of the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix.  That race, the culmination of the Senna-Prost rivalry in their days together at McLaren, has been bored into my psyche.  Nothing I’ve seen since my days of study, passion or hunger for Formula 1 has been anything quite like it.  The atmosphere could peel paint from the walls.

Ayrton Senna was 20 years older than me.  When he died, he was 34, a completely distant concept to any 14 year old.  Now I am just 5 years shy of that mark, I still feel unable to understand him, his life or his motivations with any greater clarity.  Such is his enigma, I think he will always remain miles ahead – as he so often was – ageless and untouchable.  I have no doubt that soon another generation will tick over and there will be another Formula 1 star of such fingertip genius that his rivals are left floundering in his wake.  Maybe it will prove to be someone already in place, like Lewis Hamilton or Fernando Alonso.  They will always be younger than me, though, which makes a big psychological difference to how special they will be to me, to my life.  The difference with Ayrton Senna is that he was that special to everyone – from children as I was, to hardened, cynical motor racing journalists, years his senior and who should have known better.  For all the numbers – ages, years, career statistics – Senna will remain a man apart, different to the rest.  His achievements on the track have since been dwarfed by the exceptional career of Michael Schumacher.  They will, in time, be nudged further down the all-time ladder.  Nevertheless, his name will continue to be the first one anyone looks for in the list; whose achievement one tries to equal.

Ayrton Senna da Silva is the single greatest sportsman I have ever seen.   I feel increasingly privileged to have shared a planet, albeit for such a short time, with such an outstanding human being.  I loved him.

Roland Ratzenberger 1960-1994

It would have been convenient for me to finish this piece there, all punchy and whatnot.  However, to do so would be unfair to the memory of the forgotten man from that shocking weekend at Imola 15 years ago.  Roland Ratzenberger – whose 15-year anniversary was yesterday – was the first man to die at the wheel of a Grand Prix car in eight years, the first at a race meeting in 12.  He was, as are the majority of Grand Prix drivers, an exceptionally talented man.  His popularity with his peers was starting to infect the Grand Prix paddock on a wider scale when he died.  He was old for a Grand Prix newcomer by modern standards – 33 – and the greatest shame for us all is that the most notable lasting effect from his time in the sport was to become a grim historical footnote, rather than allow us the chance to get to know him better as a driver, as a sportsman, as a man.

Ratzenberger’s accident – a head on impact with a retaining wall at 195 mph – is the cruellest and most vicious I have witnessed in Formula 1 during my lifetime.  Partially because it was caused by a mechanical problem and was not his own fault, but mainly because at the time the world had grown blasé about the phenomenal strength and safety of the cars.

Ratzenberger’s greatest legacy to the sport he loved is that, aside from Ayrton Senna a day later, Formula 1 has now entered its longest ever spell without a mortal accident.  But more than the awareness he so tragically raised, the sight of him and of Senna sat lifeless in ruined cars on global television has made the powers that be – the FIA, the drivers and the circuits – never relent or rest on their laurels in trying to improve the chances for the drivers or spectators when, as they always will, things come unstuck.

It could be argued that Roland Ratzenberger will prove to be one of the most important racing drivers in the history of Formula One.  But I can’t help but wish he’d merely have slipped, alive and well, into gentle anonymity instead.