November 6, 2009

Hello to all my loyal and, as such, long-suffering readers.  For technological reasons best summed up by my saying that WordPress scares me a bit, all of my future blogging updates about motor racing will now take place here:

If you have enjoyed any of this bumpf, please amend your bookmarks, links and RSS feeds accordingly to the new site, where I am honestly going to try and update more frequently than I managed to this year.

As for this place, it will remain up at this location, so you can relive all of your favourite articles and typographical errors again and again.

Thank you.



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.

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.


August 6, 2008

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