Sunday, 23 October 2011

A Sad Week for Motorsport

It has been a sad week to follow in motorsport, with the passing away of Dan Wheldon and now Marco Simoncelli in horrible accidents. They were both exciting, personable and greatly likable racers and will be sorely sorely missed. I hope the reaction to the accidents by the authorities is calm and meaningful, taking time to reflect on the lessons learnt, not ruining the sport, but implementing practical changes that improve safety. I read a comment many years ago from Stirling Moss comparing motor racing to tightrope walking (in that walking a tightrope wouldn't be exciting if it was done a few centimetres above the ground), and on one level I do agree, but I think motorsport should be always working to make the tightrope element NOT refer to injury or worse (and in todays enviroment letting it be so would be seen as disrespectful and a ridiculous attitude). It should be about losing time or places, losing rhythm, all about racing, what the fans have come to see, not the big accidents which I find (rightly) core motor sport fans detest. Of course as part of that core elements should persist - the cars should be very powerful, with more power than grip, and encourage variables to affect the car (for example tyre wear). None of these factors if impelmented correctly should make for fundamentally unsafe racing, neutering cars to make sure they don't possess these attributes is also in my opinion disrespectful to the sport, and of course leads us towards Stirlings 'tightrope off the ground' motorsport, which of course through being dull would threaten the future of motorsport in its own way. The rule makers have a constant challenge, avoiding this fate, while continually keeping a rein on the machines getting to the point where the tightrope goes beyond racing and threatens worse. I see that the new Indycar has 'bumpers' on the back wheels, although a purist, this is something I would have no problem with other single seater series looking at, as launching of cars appears to me to be happining more often in other open wheel series as well (with a large accident in Superleague last year coming to mind), and it is incrediably important to guard against as the consequences of a car launching can be severe, and if one got near the crowd, then the ramifications for motorsport would be potentially very high.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Hungry Man!

Really looking forward to a great weekend of watching motorsport - I am very interested in how the Grand Prix will go now Pirelli have said that they are going for even more 'edgy' tyre selections now the championship has been decided, and then after that the BTCC decider, now that could be explosive! I am out late on the Saturday but have no worries about staying awake for it all.....and this after a great Grand Prix and schintellating Bathurst last weekend. Bring it on!


Well well well, even mentioning the name seems to start the sirens rattling. Niki Lauda, countless British journalists, teeming internet forums, the clarion calls abound, Lewis Hamilton has monumentally lost it! But...I just don’t buy into this analysis, while conceding he has hit a big dip in the rollercoaster. But I think he has the talent and ability to pull himself out of the trough, and start cresting the rises again.

What informs this is my belief that we are dealing with the best potential of any driver on the grid. Potential isn’t everything of course, but if all drivers perform to their maximum, I can’t see anything better. Yes, as the experts say, Alonso is a magnificent all round driver. But who tied him in the championship (and made him look frankly silly at many points) in his first year? I think that either people have forgotten this, or enough time has not passed to put this achievement into perspective. Fort oh my goodness, it was an astonishing achievement! I think when Lewis Hamilton is retried it will form a key part of the narrative of his career, much more then it does now, when it has evaporated into the mist of 24 internet news and comment. But I think it was sensational, and to put it in its present context, if say Jules Bianchi or Jean Eric Vergene were announced right now as the second Ferrari driver, and tied on points with Alonso next year, then my goodness, my cap would be off to them, just after my jaw hit the floor! Of course, there is one very good argument why this should not be treated as gospel, that is implicit in much of the media coverage. This is the ‘flash in the pan’ theory, where we can hypothesis 2007 was a brilliant drive by a focused young man, eager to impress, and it has been all downhill since. Certainly you won’t find much argument from me to the proposition that Lewis drove better in 2007 to not win the championship than when he won it in 2008. But then....I thought he was absolutely magnificent in 2009, carrying a dog of a car round ahead of this teammate, being really competitive at the end of the year, and producing one of my favourite ever Formula One moments (when he crashed the car out of third place at Monza on he last lap, and when asked of it had been too chancy risking all for second place, started on a long explanation of how he was going to take second, and then in the last few corners would have taken the lead...born racer!). And then in 2010, again for my money he was absolutely brilliant, gunning what was for long stretches the third best car close to the championship. I thought last year he did so well to remain in contention for so long, and again was unfortunate that two incidents in a largely error free season came consecutively, at Monza and Singapore, giving more credence to the ‘Lewis is a wildman’ theorists then it should have.

Against these fine drives I will fully admit that 2011 seems a comedown, He has in the last few races been outraced (and sometimes even outqualified) by Button, and the mistakes have wracked up at a faster pace. But some of this stems I think from his instinct to attack, to want to win. We hear he is unfocused, but then from the same journalists hear that he made an exhibition of himself ‘chatting up’ Red Bull and Christian Horner in Canada, reportedly due to angst that Sebastian Vettel is storming ahead in the acheivement stakes. Not the sign of an unfocused driver to me! I admire the hunger, and even the semi paranoia, and think this will stand him in good stead, in what could be a viciously competitive next five years, with such a strong field of drivers. And I think this ‘reaching for the stars’ attitude explains many of the misdemenours this year, when the McLaren has simply been not as good as the Red Bull. Such an uncompromising pursuit of excellence led his idol Senna to three world championships after all. And I think he has ‘lost’ nothing. What sticks in my mind is the German Grand Prix. Simply put, I have severe doubts that any of the other drivers could have pulled of the coup de main of flat out driving, instinctive passing and speed on new and worn tyres that Hamilton did. And I just can’t in my mind apply that to any of the other drivers this season. For example, Button was absolutely magnificent in Japan, but I don’t think you can rule out the possibility that Alonso could have pulled off the same victory in the McLaren. And the same could be said of Hamilton and Alonso in the Red Bull. His drives in China, Australia and Spain were top levels as well. More mistakes have crept in, and he hasn’t been to the level of previous years, but his capacity to produce these high-level; performances makes me confident that when he has a more competitive car, his tendency to ‘reach for the stars’ will lead to wins, not flying into the hedge. And as for his focus and hunger, his obvious will to be back at the front confounds that.

Against this there is one cloud on the horizon. In more articles than I can remember, top journalists have referred to Lewis needing to ‘sort out issues in his personal life’ or somesuch. It is there I question whether these journalists are hinting at the problems of having a celebrity girlfriend based in the United States, or something more serious. I don’t know, but whatever way I hope it is sorted! Either way, Lewis does seem to be turning into a modern Nigel Mansell, drama at every turn, every press conference! But did it really hurt Mansell?  As long as he can get winning again I can’t see this having a long term effect. Neither can the rather spurious stories of his management not turning up to races – after all Vettel manages without such figures, and for goodness sake Hamilton is 26 now, and would such a free sprit appreciate having someone there trying to control him? He is, after all, already at his ‘family’ team.

I guess I have a big soft spot for a driver who creates constant drama, can pull off incredible victories, amazing passes, and chucks the car in the hedge on the last lap pursuing victory. Things are a longer game that the 24 hour media sometimes admit, and I would be stupefied if Hamilton never wins another championship, and that man Vettel had better watch out, as McLaren and Ferrari will be closer next year, and Mercedes the year after. I don’t think he is ‘finished’, and my best guess is that after some more public moping around, he will win one of the last four races, go into the off season in good spirits, and ne a mighty contender next year. And if he doesn’t, it will still be fund finding out, because he is such a passionate, explosive, attacking ten tenths racer, with so much ‘tiger’. Good luck Lewis!


Much of the reaction and comment over the Spa Grand Prix weekend was about the 20th anniversary of Michael Schumacher’s debut in Formula One, in the beautiful Jordan 191 at Spa. It was interesting reading, and listening, and recently I have been thinking back over his career, and is place in the pantheon of greats.

My assessment of Schumacher is bound around one thing, which has been little explored, and may be a personal peccadillo of mine, but I think is interesting. And it is this: did Schumacher improve the sport by being there? By that I don’t mean being the greatest driver ever, or his strengths or weaknesses, but did he in some way make the sport better by being there? If he had taken up a job as a mechanic in his home town would the sport have improved, or been massively hurt? It is there where things become murky.

Well the first certainty is that we would have been robbed of the early years, the fresh faced young German, in the gorgeous Jordan, and then the rough and ready manual gearboxed Benetton, fizzing and glistening with promise, when anything was possible. Socking it to the greats, racing with and beating Mansell, Senna, and Prost. Destroying Piquet and Patrese, fighting off an exceptional rearguard from the wily Martin Brundle in 1992. Racing, overtaking, smiling on the podium, defending, scrapping, fighting, winning. I must admit at the time, as a younger man myself, I was a TREMENDOUS fan of this vibrant young driver, rocking the established order. I couldn’t imagine him as part of the old generation of drivers, and was so excited about watching him grown, and be a champion, and continuing on....well you though he could be timeless (as it seems to have turned out). No question, the Schumacher of 1991-1993 brought another dimension to the sport, challenging the established order, propelling a Benetton that could quickly, with Ford engines, have run out of steam, and deservedly becoming one of the big beasts himself.

But...did this vibrant young man subsequently add to the sport? Did his being there make a significant contribution, even if you were not a fan of his, similar to, say, Fernando Alonso today? My contention would be that he did not. If you had taken Schumacher away from the late nineties and early noughties era of Formula One it would probably in my eyes have significantly improved the sport. In some ways it would have been lacking, but the sport could have made a virtue of it. There was discernibly a drop in quality of the field post Senna, Prost, Mansell, but sans Schumacher the field could have been flattened out, and the pressure of competition between Messer’s Hakkinen, Villeneuve, Montoya, Hill et al could have been close, competitive, and exciting, a field of equals racing hard. After all, late nineties Champ Car only needed fields headed by Zanardi, Vasser or Montoya to be absolutely riveting. The absence of Schumacher would also have taken away from the feeling that one side (in this case the Schumacher/Ferrari axis) was being unfairly favoured by the FIA. Perhaps we might have had a level playing field...?.... well, probably not, but maybe not quite such a jaundiced one either. All in all, it would have been a fitting response to the state of Formula One, an interim era between the big beats of the eighties and nineties and now. Of course we would have missed Schumacher’s wet weather skills and his ability to prostitute a car to do multiple qualifying laps in a race, flat chat, to pass people ‘at the stops’. Well, for the first, Jean Alesi and others would have provided their moments, and for the second... you can take it or leave it as far as I’m concerned! I did not find it monumentally fascinating at the time....

And this is why I have enjoyed Schumacher more in his second incarnation. All the refuelling rubbish has gone, and he actually has to race, and finally I feel there is some sort of connection again with the young Benetton driver in the thick of the pack from all those years ago. His performances have been a lot better this year and he has....mostly....kept it clean, apart from reverting to the revolting old antics with Hamilton at Monza (and I make a distinction between this year and last, just ask a Mr Barrichello about that!). He is even only three points behind Rosberg at the time of asking in the championship. Although he is defiantly still a ‘but...’ driver! 

So, I enjoy him more since his comeback. But a lot of that is down to the different Formula he races in. Do I value him as an essential part of making Formula One great? No!