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.

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.

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.