Twenty points left to play for and the leader of the title standings with a 14 point head start.  Never before has such a shoo-in seemed quite so parlously placed.  Jenson Button’s position is even stronger still, when you consider that he has won the most races of the 2009 season and cannot be overhauled on that count.  This leaves Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel needing to overtake his points tally – a tie will not be enough.  So, Rubens Barrichello needs 15 points and Sebastian Vettel 17.  With 20 remaining on the table.  It speaks volumes for the strangeness of the 2009 season that it is perhaps Vettel who looks like the champion-in-waiting following his blitz of the Japanese Grand Prix.  Today, Toto Roche’s Flag takes a look at what each man needs to do and how likely they are to do it.

Sebastian Vettel (69 points)

In needing 17 points with two races remaining, Vettel is looking to emulate Kimi Räikkönen, who pulled back that exact deficit to win the 2007 title.  The elephant in the room for Vettel, however, is his engine situation.  Vettel has now used all eight of his 2009 engine allocation, at least 3 of which are in a bucket somewhere in Milton Keynes, having lunched themselves in exotic locations around the world.  The question is, does Red Bull have enough good horsepower remaining to give him the best chance of chasing up the steep hill of Interlagos’ pit straight and securing top honours?  Taking a ten-place grid penalty for a ninth powerplant would surely signal the end of Vettel’s ambitions, as finishing lower than second place in Brazil would put him out of the fight for this season.  As such, I imagine they’ll be throwing caution to the wind.  It’ll be win or bust, or win or blow your engine, in São Paulo.

What Vettel needs to do:

Put simply, to outscore Jenson Button by 17 points in the final two races, Vettel needs a win and a second place at the bare minimum.  Even then he’ll be dependent on Button’s results.  In Brazil, he needs to outscore Jenson Button by 7 points, which means finishing second at the very lowest.  Vettel will be simplifying the challenge and chasing after two wins.  With the field so close, Interlagos thought to be a circuit better suited to Brawn and his engine worries, Vettel is still very much the outsider.  However, I have a sneaking feeling that, if the title chase goes down to a last race decider (for what would be the fourth consecutive season) it will be Vettel, rather than Barrichello, still in the hunt.

Rubens Barrichello (71 points)

Rubens Barrichello cannot win the championship before the last race in Abu Dhabi, which would be his 285th Grand Prix start.  This would see him comfortably overhaul Nigel Mansell’s record of 175 starts before a first world title.  What we’re looking at here, then, is the fairytale aspect which every good story needs.  Rubens needs 15 points on Jenson Button in the final races, which means he must finish at least 4th in Brazil (with some help from elsewhere) to keep the fight going.  To add to the fairytale aspect, then, it seems likely that Rubens will need to win his home Grand Prix if he wants to entertain decent prospects of his first World Championship.  Rubens Barrichello winning at Interlagos – the track where, as a child, he first glanced a racing car from over a wall – would be the biggest fairytale of them all, not least because of his indecently bad luck on home ground.  Next weekend’s event will be his 17th home race, his results in the previous sixteen are as follows:

1993 DNF (gearbox), 1994 4th, 1995 DNF (gearbox), 1996 DNF (spin), 1997 DNF (suspension), 1998 DNF (gearbox), 1999 DNF (engine), 2000 DNF (hydraulics), 2001 DNF (collision), 2002 DNF (hydraulics), 2003 DNF (fuel system), 2004 3rd, 2005 6th, 2006 7th, 2007 DNF (engine), 2008 15th

Raw statistics don’t always paint the most accurate picture, but these give, at the very least, a reasonable impression.  However, even these can’t fully describe the extent of Barrichello’s Interlagos curse… in 1999 he led the race on merit. He led again in 2000 and 2002, looking on course for a comfortable podium finish behind teammate Michael Schumacher (in a dominant and otherwise unfailingly reliable Ferrari).  In 2003 he started from pole, turned the fastest lap and was leading the  race easily when a fuel pick-up problem caused him to run out of juice.  He was on pole again in 2004 – a year when Ferrari won 15 out of the 18 races – but on race day his car couldn’t match the pace of Williams or McLaren.  It’s at times like this when you must be tempted to dig up your house’s foundations to make sure it’s not been built on a Native American settlement or the like.

If it was anyone else – taking into account the Brawn car’s likely pace at the track, taking into account the driver’s local knowledge and motivation – then Barrichello would be the comfortable pre-race favourite.  However, as much as I would love to see his luck finally change at home, I just can’t even picture what that would look like.

What Barrichello needs to do:

Rubens has to outscore Jenson Button by 5 points in São Paulo, which means he cannot finish any lower than 4th place.  He has said this week that he’s not interested in maths and contingencies, and will just be going for the win.  That’s all he can really do now.  Because whilst it must be said that his position is a little stronger than Vettel’s, he is in the same car as Jenson Button and his teammate has been regularly finishing right behind him.

Jenson Button (85 points)

Jenson Button won 6 out of the first seven races, you know.  Honestly, he did.  Four of them from pole position.  Two of them with fastest lap.  You must surely remember?

Since the Turkish Grand Prix, which was on June 7th, Jenson Button has only scored 24 points.  One-third of these came at one race, in Italy.  It’s fair to say, then,  that his championship chances are fairly heavily predicated on the 61 points he accrued before everything went to bits.

Duly, he’s come in for some frenzied criticism, most of it coming from anxious British journos, all secretly hoping for another home champion.  Some of it is probably well founded.  However, the beginning of his slide into mediocrity was to do with his car, rather than any issues relating to feeling the pressure: Rubens Barrichello did not finish ahead of his Brawn teammate until he won the 11th round in Valencia, emphasising the fact that the team’s problem was the team’s problem and not Jenson’s.  However, it is fair to say that since Rubens complicated the issue by his two excellent late-season wins, Button has looked a shadow of his former self.   Since Valencia in August, he’s only finished ahead of Barrichello once.  It’s almost comforting, the way British sportsmen always refuse the easy path.  Button’s two predecessors in his vaulnted position – Damon Hill and Lewis Hamilton – underwent similar wobbles.  For Hill, it was his starts.  During the summer of 1996, his inability to get himself cleanly off the line saw Jacques Villeneuve able to grab great handfuls of Damon’s points cushion at every race.  Hamilton, meanwhile, twice demonstrated a curious loss of judgement and composure, causing him to once just lose the title and once just win it.

Jenson’s problem is qualifying.  In the races, he is driving well.  However, with the entire field’s qualifying times usually covered by 1.5 seconds, he’s having to drive well mired in traffic with the flying wings and the wheels banging.  Martin Brundle has said that Button really needs a champion’s drive now, something commanding enough to demonstrate that the title being his was never in doubt.  Damon Hill did it at Suzuka in 1996 and Lewis Hamilton in Shanghai last year.  I honestly believe that if Button can secure the title in Brazil, the release of pressure will see him take a win of such dominance in Abu Dhabi, we’ll all wonder how anyone else could possibly have won a race in 2009.  Sadly, it currently seems that if the title will fall to him at Interlagos, it will most likely drop into his lap as his winning it any other way.

All of this said, the points never lie.  Button is 14 points ahead because he was an insuperable obstacle in the first races of the season.  No-one since has demonstrated the same mix of consistency and speed.  If he backs his way slowly into this thing, he’ll deserve it as much as anyone else.  Let’s be honest here: both Rubens Barrichello and Sebastian Vettel would love to be in the position of being able to stumble towards the title.  Whoever wins the World Championship always deserves it.  There’s no duffers there.

What Button needs to do:

Despite what he may be thinking, what people may be saying and the way that he may be driving, Button has the least pressure of the three contenders.  Put simply, Button will be in the hunt all the way to the end of the season.  In the worst-case scenario, he’ll arrive in Abu Dhabi for the finale with Rubens Barrichello needing to take five points on him.

To take Vettel out of the running, he needs to finish within 6 points of the German.  This means that if Vettel wins, Button has to finish 5th.  If Vettel is second, Button needs seventh.  If Vettel finishes lower than second, he is out of the race.

To take Barrichello out of the running, Button needs to finish within 4 points of him.  So, a Barrichello win would require 3rd.  Barrichello in second would need 5th, third would need 7th and fourth can be covered with 8th.  As I said before, Rubens cannot finish lower than 4th in Brazil if he wants to be World Champion in 2009.

If he manages to cover both of these contingencies – i.e. finishing within 4 points of Barrichello and six of Vettel – at the same time, he will be champion in Brazil.  If Button really wants to make things easy for himself, all he needs to do is finish in third place at Interlagos, which will put this thing for bed once and for all.

All Jenson Button needs is belief now.  Because winning the title from 15 or 17 points behind with two races left is pretty unbelievable. Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Slow starters

April 22, 2009

There has been much discussion in the press, on the broadcast media and online about the dismal start to the Grand Prix season being endured by Ferrari.  This reaction is understandable given their almost monotonous level of success over the past decade, where they have won all but two Constructors’ Championship titles.  However, Ferrari are no real strangers to adversity, as you might expect from any team of a 59-year pedigree.  Previous fallow periods include the early 1990s – when the team went for nearly 4 full seasons without a race win – the early 1980s and the early 1970s, which culminated in a season of such lacklustreness in 1973 that the team often ran just one car for Jacky Ickx and didn’t even bother entering four of the the last six events.

The common uniting thread in all this, however, is that competitiveness has always returned.  In 1974, under new management with a new car and new drivers, Ferrari began a 6-year spell which yielded 3 drivers’ and 4 constructors’ championship titles.  The early 1980s saw a pair of dismal years immediately followed by two title-winning efforts for the team.  And the 1990s slump led to the construction of the Todt-Brawn-Byrne-Martinelli-Schumacher superteam who swept all before it in unprecedented style.

Ferrari’s problems this year seem to be related to grip, which a new aerodynamic package will be looking to address.  More of a concern must be their lack of reliability.  Previously bulletproof, Ferrari will be mindful of the old motor racing truism that it is easier to make a reliable car fast than it is to make a fast car reliable.  I think it’s fair inconceivable that the team will be in the doldrums for the whole of the 2009 season.  Felipe Massa particularly has demonstrated good speed in the races, only to be let down by his machinery, and their technical team is second to none.  The fact, however, remains that the team go into this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix knowing that a failure to score any points for the fourth successive race at the start of a season will be a new low tidemark.

In the spirit of Toto Roche’s Flag, I have decided to take a look through the history books (literally, in this case), to look at Ferrari’s other bad starts to a Grand Prix season.

1993 After 3 events: 1 point (@ 0.167 points-per-start)

Ferrari were really in a hole in the early 1990s.  Their drivers – Jean Alesi and Gerhard Berger – managed just a finish apiece in the first 3 races of 1993, with Berger taking the only point at the season opener at Kyalami.  In the July of this year, Jean Todt was brought in as team manager after a success in a similar role at Peugeot motorsport. 

What happened next: Fortunes picked up slightly as the season wore on, but the team only managed a final total of 28 points, good enough for 4th place.  The high point were three podium finishes – two for Alesi and one for Berger – with a best of 2nd in Italy.

1992 After 3 events: 5 points (0.833)

At the end of a disappointing 1991 season, where the team failed to win a race a season after fighting for the drivers’ championship, lead driver Alain Prost was made the scapegoat and sacked for unflattering comments about his car’s handling in the press.  Lacking any real experience or direction, Jean Alesi and Ivan Capelli struggled on as best they could with an unreliable and slow car.  Their haul of points all came at the third round in Brazil as the cars finished 4th and 5th, after retirements for both drivers in the first two races. 

What happened next: The team again finished 4th, with just 21 points to their name.  Alesi managed two podium finishes again – including one in the fourth race.  Capelli, however, struggled badly and was dropped for the last two races, replaced by the none-more-successful Nicola Larini.

1986 After 3 rounds: 3 points (0.500)

Again, Ferrari made a meal of things a year after a season where their lead driver challenged for the world crown.  In this instance, their points came from Stefan Johansson’s 4th place at the season’s 3rd round in Imola.  The problems were again twofold, with a slow and unreliable car. 

What happened next: Ferrari finished 4th with 33 points, Stefan Johansson’s four 3rd places and Michele Alboreto’s second in Austria the highlights.  Behind the scenes, major changes were afoot.  For 1987, Ferrari signed McLaren designer John Barnard, whose Guildford Technical Office built a car which won the final two races of the 1987 season in the hands of Gerhard Berger.

1981 After 3 rounds: 0 points

1980 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari began the 1980s in a terrible state.  Their 1980 season was a disaster, with defending World Champion Jody Scheckter scoring only 2 points all year and failing to qualify for the Canadian Grand Prix.  In his teammate Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari had the generation’s outstanding driver, but even he was unable to wring anything out of the dire 312T5, a best of two fifths and two sixths.  He faired a little better in 1981, now alongside Didier Pironi in place of the retired Scheckter.  The season started even more woefully, though.  In 1980, the team at least managed a 16th place finish in the first 3 rounds.  In 1981 the first 6 starts yielded not a single finish. 

What happened next: Thanks in the most part to the brilliance of Villeneuve, Ferrari won two races in 1981, both of them masterpieces of the art.  Villeneuve won the Monaco Grand Prix in the worst handling car in the field when his exceptional teammate Pironi struggled to even qualify the car.  He followed this up with his famous Spanish Grand Prix win at Jarama, where he successfully used his car’s one major façet – it’s straighline speed – to defend against attack from a queue of four faster cars.  Ferrari went on to win the Constructors’ Cup in 1982 and 1983, but it was not without a cost.  Villeneuve died in a qualifying crash early in the 1982 season, whilst Pironi’s season was ended prematurely – with the Frenchman leading the championship – after a terrifying leg-breaking shunt in practice for the German Grand Prix.  1980’s tally was 8 points and 10th place, with an improvement to 34 and 5th in 1981.

1970 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Ferrari were all out of sorts at the beginning of the 1970s, as the new Cosworth DFV engine was adopted by the majority of their rivals, leaving Ferrari’s V12 hopelessly heavy and antiquated.  Behind also in chassis development, the team cut their losses and only entered a single car for Jacky Ickx in the early rounds, but it failed to finish a single one. 

What happened next: Ferrari’s fortunes picked up hugely from mid-season, the team eventually finishing second with 52 points.  Drivers Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni racked up 4 wins, 5 pole positions and 8 fastest laps.  Their form was not sustained, however, as the introduction of Tyrrell’s first self-made car took all the honours for 1971.  By 1973 the team were in turmoil, leading to wholesale management changes and the appointment of Niki Lauda as lead driver.

1969 After 3 rounds: 0 points

Similarly to their 1970 season, Ferrari’s main problem in 1969 was the new DFV engine.  Their sole entrant, Chris Amon, failed to finish in any of the first 3 races.  What happened next: Ferrari scored just 7 points in1969, finishing equal bottom of the standings.  The highlight of their year was Amon’s 3rd place in the Dutch Grand Prix.

1964 After 3 rounds: 6 points

A slow start to the season, their sole points score coming from John Surtees’ 2nd place in round two. 

What happened next: After a slow first 4 rounds, Ferrari burst into life in the final 6 races of the season.  Finishing with at least one car on the podium of each of them, John Surtees 5 such finishes were enough to give him the drivers’ crown after the final race decider in Mexico.  Teammate Lorenzo Bandini also won a Grand Prix, at Austria, to go alongside Surtees’ two victories.  With a further 3 third places from Bandini, Ferrari also won their first Constructors’ Cup since 1961.

This year’s Formula 1 World Championship is potentially the most open in decades, with a raft of new technical regulations and a last-minute change to the scoring system thrown into the mix.  I’ll be taking a look at the prospects of the teams and drivers for the year ahead every day this week.  Today, we’ll look at the changes to the rules and regulations and how they may stir things up in 2009.

The big news going into the final week of the pre-season is the change to the scoring system.  Gone (but not entirely forgotten) is the flawed 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 framework, with number of wins now being the first deciding factor in determining this year’s World Champion.  Points will still be awarded, and decide the championship standings from 2nd downwards, and, in the event of a tie in number of wins, the championship itself.  The reaction to this, a rather half-hearted application of Bernie Ecclestone’s Olympic-style medal system proposed last autumn, has been decidedly mixed.  Thirteen times in the 59-history of the championship the new regulations would have seen a different (although, to be fair, no less deserving) title winner.   Two of those – 1981 and 1983 – would have deprived Nelson Piquet of the crown when he was driving for the Brabham team owned by… Bernie Ecclestone.  My personal feeling is that it will most likely make scant difference to the championship as a spectacle or as a contest.  However, should one driver win the first 9 races and have the thing wrapped up by mid-summer – or one driver win 6 races and crash out of all the others, yet still beating a rival who won five times and finished 2nd the other 12 – expect to see hurried and rather bashful changes to the rules next year.

On the technical side, cars have been tweaked with a view to cost-cutting and improving the quality of the on-track action.  Each driver is now limited to just 12 engines – now detuned from 19,000 rpm to 18,000 – all year, eight for all practice, qualifying and racing and four additional units for testing.  However, how they use their ration is up to them, adding an extra tactical spice.  Continuing in the recent trend of long-life components, several bits of the drivetrain of the car will now be expected to last up to six events.  Finally, the daft-looking grooved slick tyre era of 1998-2008 is now at an end, with full-slick tyres making a welcome return to the sport.

On track, the cars have been radically simplified, with nearly all aerodynamic tweaks and fiddly bits outlawed with a view to reducing the negative impact of following another car closely on handling.  To this end, the dimensions of the front wing have also been significantly increased, whilst rear downforce is reduced by smaller, higher rear wings and simplified and raised underbody diffusers.  The initial aesthetic effect of all of these alterations is undeniably strange, although like always, one soon becomes accustomed to it.  Perhaps the most pleasing aspect is that, due to the biggest raft of changes since ground effect was banned for the 1983 season, each team’s car actually looks fairly distinctive from its rivals, as the designers all try to get to grips with their new parameters.

Finally, there are two important changes to assist the drivers to race their rivals.  Front wings will now be driver-adjustable from the cockpit – up to 6 degrees twice per lap – which should counteract the understeer caused by following a rival’s car too closely.  Also, Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems (KERS) are now permitted.  These store up energy created by braking in a battery.  This energy can then be used to boost a car’s power by up to 80 bhp for 6.7 seconds per lap.  These 6.7 need not be consecutive, and the clever drivers will time their use of the boost button to extract maximum performance from their engine and top speed.

Altogether, these technical changes are the most fundamental seen in a quarter of a century.  They should, at the very least, add an extra dimension to the skill of driving the cars, which is always a positive thing.  However, early indications seem to also suggest that, for the first time in the 15 years I have been following the sport, changes put in place to improve the chances of cars being able to race one another on track may actually have worked, Nick Heidfeld reporting that he has found it easier to follow other cars closely without as much detrimental effect on his own handling as the previous generation of cars would have produced.    Fingers, and toes, are therefore crossed for the new-look cars to produce some new-look racing.

Tomorrow, we start our team and driver guide to the new season with a look at Force India Mercedes and Brawn GP Mercedes.

Terrible defending

March 11, 2009

As I have no doubt mentioned here before, British Formula 1 World Champions are the most numerous in the 59-year history of the competition.  Nine English or Scottish drivers have taken the biggest prize in motor racing home with them in a little bindle slung over their shoulders, miles ahead of competitors from anywhere else (Brazil and Finland are the closest rival, with three drivers apiece).  However, despite this, not one of them has ever successfully managed to defend their crown.  Trying to break this hoodoo is Lewis Hamilton’s Mission For The Year Ahead.

Whilst it would be patently false to say that anyone can win ONE championship, scoring back-to-back world crowns is as sure a method as any to guarantee legendary status in any sport.  Alberto Ascari (1952-53, Juan Manuel Fangio (1954-57), Sir Jack Brabham (1959-60), Alain Prost (1985-86), Ayrton Senna (1990-91), Michael Schumacher (1994-95 and 2000-04), Mika Häkkinen (1998-99) and Fernando Alonso (2005-06) are the only eight men to have achieved the feat.  In the good old British spirit of wallowing in fatalistic inevitibility, then, I thought I’d recap the catalogue of near-misses, catastrophies and downright failures which have prevented any of the British world title holders from joining their ranks.

1959 – Mike Hawthorn (did not defend)

Hawthorn’s 1958 championship came at a huge personal cost following the loss of his close friend and Ferrari teammate Peter Collins at the 1958 German Grand Prix.  Immediately after the season-ending Moroccan Grand Prix, in which a second place finish guaranteed him the crown by 1 point over Vanwall’s Stirling Moss, Hawthorn announced his retirement from Grand Prix motor racing.  He was killed just 3 months later after crashing his Jaguar on the A3 Guildford bypass.

1963 – Graham Hill (2 wins, 29 points, 2nd place in the championship)

There was an element of good fortune to Graham Hill’s 1962 title, as the crown looked set for Jim Clark and Lotus midway through the title-deciding South African Grand Prix.  However, as was so often the way, Clark’s Lotus car let him down.  In 1963, however, things went much more Clark’s way.  Out of 10 races, he won 7, finishing on the podium in two others.  Until the Schumacher-Ferrari era, it was perhaps the most comprehensive rout in a single season the sport had ever seen.

1964 – Jim Clark (3 wins, 32 points, 3rd place)

Clark’s Lotus trouble was again in evidence for his first attempt at a title defence.  He won more races than any of his rivals, but John Surtees in his Ferrari and, to a slightly lesser extent, Graham Hill’s BRM achieved far greater consistency.  Surtees two wins were backed up by four other podium finishes, in an era where only the best 6 results from the ten races counted towards the championship.  Even so, Clark again saw his title go up in smoke at the last race, when his engine blew on the last lap.  In the lead – as he so often was – he was on course to be World Champion.

1965 – John Surtees (3 podium finishes, 17 points, 5th place)

As it had been for Graham Hill in 1963, so it was for John Surtees in 1965.  The Lotus team put all the nuts on the right bolts and Jim Clark did the rest.   He won six of the first seven races, putting the championship to bed early.  Surtees, beset by Ferrari’s occasional wobbles, struggled to match his form of the previous year.  His second place in the season-opening South African race was his best finish of the season, and political pressures saw him and his team not even enter the final two American rounds of the championship at all.

1966 – Jim Clark (1 win, 16 points, 6th place)

1966 saw the reintroduction of 3 litre engines into F1, as opposed to 1.5 litre units.  Jack Brabham’s eponymous team pulled a fast one, securing rock solid reliability from Australian-made Repco units.  Brabham won four on the spin in mid-season, rendering the rest of the championship year a tussle for second place.  Clark’s Lotus – fitted with a Climax H16 unit which may possibly have been last used to power the Ark Royal – was hopelessly heavy and unreliable all year.  Typically his one win – at Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix – was crushingly dominant.  However, in his other eight races, he retired 5 times, four of them car or engine related.

1970 – Jackie Stewart (1 win, 25 points, 5th place)

The field for Jackie Stewart’s first title in 1969 was very small – with only 13 cars regularly competing.  For a driver of Stewart’s skill, such a field plus a good car and a well-run team was always going to end well.  In 1970, his Matra chassis was replaced by a March which was starting to look hopelessly out of date, especially after Lotus introduced the revolutionary 72.  With it, Stewart’s great friend and rival Jochen Rindt racked up four consecutive wins in mid-season, doing enough to secure the title in spite of being killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix and missing the final four events.  Stewart’s sole consolation in a sparse, retirement-filled and ultimately tragic year was a win at the Spanish Grand Prix at Jarama.

1972 – Jackie Stewart (4 wins, 45 points, 2nd place)

Stewart’s fortunes changed in 1971 with his Tyrrell team’s move into building their own car and the brilliant 001 and 003 cars which resulted.  In 1972, he faced a fierce duel with Emerson Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72.   Despite winning the first race, though, Stewart’s early season was patchy and this was followed up by the Scot being sidelined with a stomach ulcer.  Missing the Belgian race, won by Fittipaldi, left Stewart playing catch-up.  A subsequent run of bad races and retirements in Germany – where he was eliminated by Clay Regazzoni on the final lap – Austria and Italy – where his car never even got off the grid – put paid to his chances.

1974 – Jackie Stewart (did not defend)

Stewart became Britain’s most successful ever World Champion in 1973 with his third triumph.  It was a case of enough is enough, in a sport where – despite Stewart’s tireless safety campaigning – friends were lost on a yearly basis.  Stewart stood down at the end of the 1973 season, finishing a race early due to the death of his teammate François Cevert in practice for the final Grand Prix of the year.

1977 – James Hunt (3 wins, 40 points, 5th place)

Hunt’s 1976 triumph at the final race made him an unlikely, swashbuckling, national hero.  In 1977, however, his McLaren M23 car started to show its age badly.  Not until the introduction of the M26 mid-season did he manage to win a race, but even then he either won or retired, as the car succumbed to teething troubles.  Meanwhile, the man he beat to the 76 crown, Niki Lauda, completed his remarkable recovery from his accident at the Nürburgring by consistently picking up results – six second places as well as three wins – allowing him to walk out of Ferrari politics two races early as a two-time world champion.

1993 – Nigel Mansell (did not defend)

Mansell found himself in an enviable position in 1991, as undisputed number 1 driver at a Williams team who were on the cusp of producing the most sophisticated car ever seen in Formula 1.  The first season was beset with problems, but in 1992 he was untouchable, winning the first 5 races on the trot and then 4 more before the championship was three-quarters done.  However, Williams baulked at his salary demands for a third season, especially since they had Alain Prost under contract for 1993.  Mansell instead cut a deal with Paul Newman and Carl Haas, taking his frustrations out in America and becoming the first ever driver to win the IndyCar championship at his first attempt.

1997 – Damon Hill (1 podium finish, 7 points, 12th place)

Hill – whose inconsistent 1995 performance saw Williams see fit to not renew his contract for 1997, even in spite his 1996 heroics – shocked F1 by turning up at the unfashionable Arrows team, recently bought by Tom Walkinshaw Racing.  It did not start well, Hill only just scraping his car through qualifying into the race in Australia and then it failing him before the green light.  Of the other 16 rounds, Hill retired in 6 and in the majority of the others simply did not have a competitive enough car to make a mark.  He did not trouble the scorers at all until the British Grand Prix that summer, whilst his legendary, inspired, drive in Hungary – where he came within half a lap of the biggest shock victory Formula 1 would have ever seen before a hydraulic problem dropped him to second – was the only other points-scoring contribution of a miserable season.  In the meantime, his 1996 Williams teammate Jacques Villeneuve took the laurels, as well as Hill’s  mantle as Michael Schumacher’s great rival.

2009 – Lewis Hamilton (?)

Hamilton’s defence begins on March 29th in Melbourne.  A season preview should appear here between now and then.

The 2008 World Championship was the first time in nearly twenty years that the driver who won the most races during the season did not also win the World Title. This was a common occurrence in the early part of the 1980s, but that was a very different age. Formula 1 noughties-style is a monolithic media animal, constantly striving to reach new markets. As such, Bernie Ecclestone is championing a major change to the way World Championships are decided from 2009. Taking its cue from the Olympics, the top three drivers will be awarded Gold, Silver and Bronze medals on the podium instead of trophies and points. Come the end of the year, the driver with the most gold medals will be the World Champion.

I have taken this system and applied it to every season in the World Championship’s history to see what effects it has. In each case, the champion is the one who had accumulated the most gold medals. In the event of a tie, the decider will be number of silver, then number of bronze medals. In the event of it still being a tie, best ‘other’ finish decides the winner. Champions listed in bold type are changes from the historical record.

1950 Guiseppe Farina (I) Alfa Romeo
1951 Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) Alfa Romeo
1952 Alberto Ascari (I) Ferrari
1953 Alberto Ascari (I) Ferrari
1954 Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) Maserati/Mercedes-Benz
1955 Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) Mercedes-Benz
1956 Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) Lancia-Ferrari
1957 Juan Manuel Fangio (RA) Maserati
1958 Stirling Moss (GB) Vanwall
1959 Jack Brabham (AUS) Cooper Climax
1960 Jack Brabham (AUS) Cooper Climax
1961 Phil Hill (USA) Ferrari
1962 Graham Hill (GB) BRM
1963 Jim Clark (GB) Lotus Climax
1964 Jim Clark (GB) Lotus Climax
1965 Jim Clark (GB) Lotus Climax
1966 Jack Brabham (AUS) Brabham Repco
1967 Jim Clark (GB) Lotus BRM/Lotus Climax/Lotus Ford
1968 Graham Hill (GB) Lotus Ford
1969 Jackie Stewart (GB) Matra Ford
1970 Jochen Rindt (A) Lotus Ford
1971 Jackie Stewart (GB) Tyrrell Ford
1972 Emerson Fittipaldi (BR) Lotus Ford
1973 Jackie Steward (GB) Tyrrell Ford
1974 Emerson Fittipaldi (BR) McLaren Ford
1975 Niki Lauda (A) Ferrari
1976 James Hunt (GB) McLaren Ford
1977 Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus Ford
1978 Mario Andretti (USA) Lotus Ford
1979 Alan Jones (AUS) Williams Ford
1980 Alan Jones (AUS) Williams Ford
1981 Alain Prost (F) Renault
1982 Didier Pironi (F) Ferrari
1983 Alain Prost (F) Renault
1984 Alain Prost (F) McLaren TAG-Porsche

1985 Alain Prost (F) McLaren TAG-Porsche
1986 Nigel Mansell (GB) Williams Honda
1987 Nigel Mansell (GB) Williams Honda

1988 Ayrton Senna (BR) McLaren Honda
1989 Ayrton Senna (BR) McLaren Honda
1990 Ayrton Senna (BR) McLaren Honda
1991 Ayrton Senna (BR) McLaren MP4/6 Honda
1992 Nigel Mansell (GB) Williams Renault
1993 Alain Prost (F) Williams Renault
1994 Michael Schumacher (D) Benetton Ford
1995 Michael Schumacher (D) Benetton Renault
1996 Damon Hill (GB) Williams Renault
1997 Jacques Villeneuve (CDN) Williams Renault
1998 Mika Häkkinen (SF) McLaren Mercedes
1999 Mika Häkkinen (SF) McLaren Mercedes
2000 Michael Schumacher (D) Ferrari
2001 Michael Schumacher (D) Ferrari
2002 Michael Schumacher (D) Ferrari
2003 Michael Schumacher (D) Ferrari
2004 Michael Schumacher (D) Ferrari
2005 Fernando Alonso (E) Renault
2006 Fernando Alonso (E) Renault
2007 Kimi Räikkönen (SF) Ferrari
2008 Felipe Massa (BR) Ferrari

Under this system, Alain Prost would have been a 5-time World Champion to equal Juan-Manuel Fangio, whilst Nigel Mansell would have won 3. Both Jim Clark and Ayrton Senna win four, Senna taking consecutive titles in the late-1980s and early-1990s. Meanwhile, one-time winners Mario Andretti and Alan Jones both double up in the late 1970s. But the real winners are Stirling Moss, Didier Pironi and Felipe Massa, each man scoring a world crown which in actuality eluded them (or has so far eluded them). This in turn would mean no titles for Mike Hawthorn (1958), John Surtees (1964), Denny Hulme (1967 – also removing New Zealand’s sole world title), Jody Scheckter (1979), Keke Rosberg (1982) or the reigning World Champion, Lewis Hamilton. Most severe of the all, however, would be Nelson Piquet, the 3-time World Champion losing all of his titles (1981, 1983 and 1987). Ironically enough, the first two of these were secured driving for the Brabham team owned by… Bernie Ecclestone. Another of Ecclestone’s former drivers, Niki Lauda, fares little better. Under the Gold-Silver-Bronze framework, Lauda – an all-time great of the sport – retains just one of his three world titles.

You don’t have to be Piquet, Lauda or Lewis Hamilton to argue that the Gold-Silver-Bronze system also has its shortcomings. From a contemporary point of view, it is widely accepted that Lewis Hamilton deserved his world crown on the balance of his stellar entry into Formula 1. Indeed, it is difficult to argue a case for any of the drivers who lose out being a particularly fair reflection on the sport’s history. And that is what the scoring system should be all about. Under the Gold-Silver-Bronze system, it is clear that there are some major oversights. Not only would Nelson Piquet lose his place in the record books –ridiculous considering that Piquet was one of the sport’s superstar drivers for an entire decade and won 23 Grand Prix races – but Alain Prost’s fierce battle with Ayrton Senna throughout the late-1980s would see the Frenchman emerge completely under-represented. Under the proposed system, Prost would have won one more title than he actually did, but he wouldn’t have deserved any of them nearly as much as the ones he grappled his way to in 1986 and 1989, against the most ferocious competition. And whilst it would be a hard man to say that Didier Pironi or Stirling Moss would not deserve their crowns, on balance there are now more drivers who have undeservedly missed out than there were before. This is not a particularly acceptable state of affairs.

This is all moot, of course. It is disingenuous to retroactively apply a new set of rules and then claim they would not work in the future. Had each of these seasons been raced under the Gold-Silver-Bronze paradigm, they would have ended differently than the above list – different choices made, different strategies employed, different motivations and calculations. If 2009 is to see this radical overhaul, it will be the first real test of the framework. Whether or not it will produce a true enough reflection of the season, and whether or not it will actually intensify and improve the racing, we can only wait and see. But in a choice between taking the risk or sticking to the old system – itself so fraught with potential problems that I earnestly believe that, in time, a driver could win the title without winning a single Grand Prix during the season – shaking things up is by far the more desirable option.

However, Formula 1 is rather different to an Olympic event. The 100 metres sprint final has only 3 medalists, but the five other finalists who leave empty handed aren’t designed and built from scratch, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, the Formula 1 World Championship is not a one-off race, but a series of events. It would, I believe, be unfair for the final table to see a driver who lucked into a third place finish just once finish ahead of a rival who had finished in fourth position seventeen times out of seventeen. The solution to this problem that I came up with is a supplementary points system – 3 points for 4th place, 2 for 5th and one for 6th, plus another 1 for pole position and one for fastest race lap. Points could then be exchanged for medals – a bronze for every 5, say, and a silver for every 10. Points would, however, never trump medals, and in the case of a tie, medals won for podium finishes would always prevail over bought medals. This is a neat and elegant solution to the problem of just three awards at the end of a multi-million pound twenty car race. And as such, expect it to be completely ignored.

For more Formula 1-inspired autism, remember to check the List of the week tab regularly.

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.