There is something special about F1 racing. I saw my first F1 race in 1956 and it is undeniable that the sport has changed immensely since then. Some of the changes have been technological of course, and for setting the development of the current cars in motion I would credit four inspired pioneers. The Cooper brothers, working in their little factory in Surbiton were not the first to build rear engined cars but they developed a basic approach to the configuration that has remained unchanged to this day, and were the first to see the full benefits of a rearward weight distribution. Jim Hall, the genius behind the Chaparral cars, first suggested the significance of downforce, which is now the biggest single contribution to the almost unbelievable performance of the current machines. Colin Chapman’s team at Lotus also have to be given an honourable mention for making the first effective application of underbody aerodynamics. The first venturi car was so unreliable, because of other weaknesses, that few of the rival F1 teams saw it as a breakthrough concept. But after Mario Andretti strolled to the championship the following season the writing was quite clearly on the wall. Currently it seems inconceivable that anyone would attempt to utilise anything but a rear-engine layout. Downforce is pursued almost blindly to improve performance. And the underbody configuration of the car is the main focus of both the designers and the FIA rule makers.
At the start of this season I was driving back to the UK from the French Alps. I caught and overtook a large truck as I headed South West out of Geneva. The huge rig was pure white with no major sign-writing or logos. And yet it was so imposing, and had such a palpable presence, that it seemed clear that this was no mere haulage machine. Looking in my mirror as we swept past I saw a small red badge. It was the Sauber transporter, and the scale and expensive nature of this transporter speaks of the other huge change in F1 over the last 50 years: it is now awash with money. Bernie Ecclestone has been the inspired impresario who seized the moment as spectator sports went global thanks to the development of satellite communication and the world TV networking it made possible. The Sauber truck displayed no major sponsorship at the start of the year, but in every other way it epitomised the wealth of the modern sport. There was a time when half the Grand Prix field arrived on open trailers, converted second-hand coaches, or inside large vans. But that was long ago.
The sheer strength of this sport, now grown into an industry, can be judged by the arrival of four new teams this season despite the tremendous economic crisis that has pushed the whole world to the brink of recession. Moto GP was seen as an appealing commercial model by those FOTA members who wanted to break away from the FIA and Formula One to run their own “super series”. This year Moto GP has seen significantly shrinking grids and even the most arrogant of the top F1 teams must thank their lucky stars that they were persuaded by Max Mosley to remain inside the big tent.
The race engineer rides with the driver
What a season it has been. I thought that last year would have been hard to beat for excitement but this season is moving towards an amazing finish. I suppose that if there was any problem last year it was that Jensen Button won six races early on. From then on it was simply the agony of tension that remained as he and Brawn failed to clinch the big prize until the penultimate race. It is almost impossible to lose a world championship after six victories and the possibility really only occurs because of the wretched points system. Nonetheless Button was nearly undone by Brawn F1’s slow pace of development in mid season , triggered by the lack of big-money sponsorship during the year, which was in stark contrast to the massive funding that Honda had poured into the development of the design before the season started. He also suffered some bad luck now and then, but I think it was significant that his main rival was his team-mate. Rubens Barrichello was engineered by Jock Clear, and it has always seemed to me that Clear is not only a very clever race engineer but also one who is prepared to fully engage in a contest with his opposite number on the other side of the garage. It also seems significant to me that Michael Schumacher has struggled this season to match the pace of Nico Rosberg who has been engineered by Clear. I am certain that one of the reasons that Button chose to leave Brawn just as it became Mercedes was that he felt he had been let down by the team in the latter half of last year. Whether that move out of the frying pan was to a better or a worse place remains to be seen…
They primary moral of this observation is that, being harnessed together like the team of a tandem bicycle, the driver has a tremendous dependence on his race engineer, and mistakes or misjudgements by the latter will cost more time than any driver can regain. Some engineers will inevitably be less inspired than others and nothing can alter this. However, if there is any significant gap between the abilities of the two team race engineers it should have minimal affect on the relative performance of the two team cars if all data is shared and all decisions are discussed openly. But if the race engineers begin to identify with their drivers rather than with the team things can turn ugly. Uglier still if the team should choose to manipulate (or “control” as Ron Dennis used to say) the drivers through choice of engineer or secret orders given to them.
Secrecy and suspicion can weaken teams
This is an explosive issue for only one reason. Many teams have chosen not to impose any reasonable discipline or logic in the way they handle their drivers as they attempt to win the world drivers’ championship. The drivers’ crown is the only worthwhile goal for the top teams as all the big sponsorship flows from this gold ribbon. In spite of what Eddie Jordan says, it is only the tail-enders who struggle for manufacturers points in an attempt to maximise their income. Having two drivers race each other in a serious way is always going to risk manufacturers points, and as Williams proved during the Piquet v Mansell era it can lose you drivers’ championships as well. Come to think of it McLaren demonstrated the same thing only three years ago. Red Bull may be about to give us another vivid demonstration of this truth.
Back in the day things were always clear within F1 teams. There would be a number one driver. The number two, unless capricious fortune placed him in a much better points position towards the end of the season, was expected to follow the leader as closely as possible without compromising his race. Thus Giles Villeneuve would dutifully follow Jody Scheckter and Francois Cevert would follow Jackie Stewart. This understanding maximised the team result and avoided risking lives and machines. Nowadays F1 is as potentially dangerous as ever, but luck, circuit design, and car construction has protected the sport from serious injuries for many years. But allowing two closely matched drivers compete flat-out in the same machinery remains a recipe for disaster. It can do nothing but reduce the chances of winning anything.
Now clearly something sometimes has to be done, but because of ill-considered rules, shallow PR concerns, and perhaps the destructive presence of the gambling industry, it now has to be done in an underhand way and remain a secret. Perhaps the team could manipulate things: tyre pressures (as Alonso said McLaren were using to slow him), strategy (as Ron Dennis even admitted on TV that the team was using to stop their drivers racing), or simply inequality of engineering leading to good or bad set-up, to keep the unacknowledged number two behind the secretly chosen team leader?
What is more damaging is that even if this is not being done, the drivers themselves may suspect that it is. Thus first Webber and more recently Vettel have accused their team of deliberately sabotaging them. Button has stepped from his car recently saying that he was “wondering” why he had been told to adopt the tactics during the race that seemed to have cost him places. And Button has also been left incredulous that his car has been set up so badly and been so much slower than Hamilton’s. Whether or not there is any truth behind the drivers’ suspicions, neither Button nor Vettel are happy at the moment with the teams they are contracted to for next year. And Vettel must still be upset by the events in Hungary. I am sure that his own team must have told him to open up the gap to Webber just before the safety car came in. The strategy was designed to maximise Webber’s chance of jumping Alonso but the resulting drive-through penalty cost Sebastien yet another win.
Although everyone now starts with full-distance fuel the timing of the tyre stops remains tactically significant and only one team car can pit on any given lap if they are running close together. Thus there is no way a team can give an unequivocal “equal opportunity” (to use the McLaren team’s phrase) to both drivers. It is madness to allow the relationships within the team to fester and sour. The very least that I would expect as a team manager would be an agreement that, if one car caught the other the faster car would be let through. An understanding as to who is regarded as the lead driver might not produce the fireworks that we enjoy, but it would serve the best interests of both the team and the drivers themselves.
Team mates can race each other to destruction
It took several races where Alonso, for one reason or another, ended up stuck behind Massa for the situation at Ferrari to boil over. Alonso’s robust move on Massa in the pit lane signalled his refusal to endure this ambiguous situation any longer. Explicit team orders were eventually applied at the Hockenheimring, but only after Alonso had tried to overtake Massa earlier and the resulting wheel banging as Massa defended had almost taken both cars out. The two Ferraris have touched heavily in at least four races this year, and Alonso has been lucky that none of these incidents cost him a finish.
I have every sympathy for Felipe Massa. Using the medals system that I favour he won the World Championship two years ago. But he is not yet as fast as he was before his accident. From the pressure he put on Kimi Raikkonen before his injury I would have expected him to be only a couple of tenths adrift of Alonso. But this season he has usually been much slower. The decision to allow the faster Ferrari to overtake was correct, especially in light of the earlier wheel banging, but Rob Smedley made the team decision obvious to the world in his radio call to Felipe. His lack of diplomacy cost the team a substantial fine and I see no way that Rob can remain with the Scuderia next year. Fine engineer though he is I think he will probably leave with Fernando.
The McLarens have also collided. When team orders were given to Button to allow Hamilton to retake the place he had lost in Turkey, the two cars touched very dangerously at the first corner as Lewis dived aggressively inside Jensen. Given that Button was responding to team orders there was no reason for Lewis to have made this lunge, unless he wanted to make it look like a genuine overtaking manoeuvre rather than a team-controlled switch, but he slid into Button who did well to avoid an accident and to keep quiet about it after the race.
But of course the most dramatic and notorious intra-team incident was the clash between the two Red Bulls. This was preceded by an exchange on the radio in which hints were dropped but no orders given to Webber, who had been caught by Vettel who was himself fending off a hard-charging Hamilton. Vettel had a clear run on Webber who was slow out of the previous corner. Webber moved to the right to block Sebastian, who then darted to the left. Mark then moved back to the left even as his team-mate’s front wheels entered the gap. Sebastian held his nerve to thread through the smallest of gaps but even then Mark did not give any more room. Seb reacted by trying to push Webber to the right as soon as he was three-quarters of the way past, and as Webber simply refused to budge they made contact. In the circumstances the majority of young drivers would have done exactly what Vettel did. In the heat of the moment and after being squeezed so robustly a move to push the culprit back across the track is almost a reflex for most. But only a very small subset of drivers would have done what Webber did and continued to hold the squeeze on such a fast straight. That says it all for me; and Webber was immensely lucky to survive to the finish after the collision. It is a robustness of style that is perhaps more common among ‘hard’ Australian sportsmen than among others. It was the way the late Ayrton Senna raced of course.
Webber showed an equal stubbornness when he collided with Hamilton in Singapore. Lewis was blameless in that incident, but again Mark survived with his championship hopes still alive. With a comfortable championship lead he had nothing to gain by taking a risk; his was the error of judgement, but again he was the lucky one. At least he wasn’t racing a team-mate that time. But the tension and stress within Red Bull must be intense. The self-destructive atmosphere that has been allowed to build up within the team is perhaps reflected by events in Korea. Webber made an unexpected unforced error, perhaps in his desperation to keep in touch with Vettel. When he then allowed his car to spin back across the track without any attempt to lock the brakes I was immediately suspicious. Frankly, when you are having an accident in front of the pack you do everything you can to avoid swinging back onto the racing line. But I dismissed my suspicions until they were voiced by Gerhard Berger on German TV. Gerhard said he thought that Mark deliberately allowed his car to spin back onto the racing line in the knowledge that two of his closest rivals were close behind him. This was exactly what had I had thought as the accident happened. If it is true his luck ran out this time and it was a non-contender who was speared into retirement.
This weekend’s race should be every bit as tense as the last few. What a season. My next posting will be concerned with the technical issues. And the results from Brazil where I have to remind myself that only one man stands a chance of securing this year’s title. A man who seemed to have no chance all a couple of months ago: Fernando Alonso.
And to see how the World Championship looks using the “medals” system (which I much prefer) look here: Brian Jordan
It is interesting to observe that the only way the ‘medal-system’ table differs from the current points situation is that Jensen is already out of contention for the top spot, and that if any other contender for the crown is to displace Fernando they will have to win races to do so. I find this so much more satisfactory than the points table on a philosophical level, and every bit as exciting as the Grand Prix season enters its last laps………Ciao