Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Exhaust Notes

The dull drone of the 2014 power units left an emotional void in the hearts and minds of those for whom the soul-stirring sounds made by F1 engines have always been one of the sport’s major attractions. Having vastly underestimated the power of sound to rouse feelings of awe, wonder and passion – even the drivers were critical of the muted motors - the designers of the sophisticated new turbo hybrids have now been tasked with finding ways to provide exhaust notes worthy of the pinnacle of motorsport. Those searching for dramatic new sounds could find plenty of inspiration from the past.

The violent noise made by F1 cars used to shake the ground, make teeth rattle, eyes blur, ears ache, hearts race. In the previous turbo era the tiny 1.5 liter devices had a shocking ferocity, delivering a fearsome blast of bellowing sound and flame-spitting fury that fired the imagination.

In 1989 the turbulent turbos were banned and the new 3.5 liter engines came in three different configurations that produced wonderfully varied symphonies of sound. When we first heard the glorious unrestrained caterwauling I was standing bestide a veteran Italian journalist who – with eyes glistening – was experiencing ecstasies of sonic-induced euphoria comparable to any operatic performance at La Scala in Milano. “Bravo! Bravo! Bellissimo!”, he exclaimed as the V10s and V12s howled by, their anguished wailing underscored by the mournful basso profundo of the V8s.

It seemed possible to detect national characteristics in the exhaust notes. The Renaults screeching stridently in magnificent discord had overtones of a fierce Gallic argument. A French colleague insisted a hint of Garlic wafted through the air after a Renault-powered machine had bawled by. The Hondas, still higher on the decibel scale, howled with more technical proficiency as if a multitude of enormous tuning forks were vibrating in perfectly controlled harmony, 12,000 times a minute, but the barely tamed tone left no doubt raw mechanical mayhem was being committed here.

The Ferraris made a much more complicated noise, with each of the 12 cylinders apparently operating independently in a tortuous cacophony that seemed to imply a fervent cry for help. There were notes of desperation within the unholy hullaballoo, perhaps perpetrated by an anguished chorus of 3,500 operatic castrati who were distraught at the loss of the vital organs that gave them voice. Accompanying all this was a constant rasping commotion, sounding like glass being shattered at a tremendous rate, as if the mighty orgy of cylindrical detonations was being celebrated by an infinite number of wine glasses being enthusiastically smashed to smithereens against Armco barrier.

The even higher pitched Lamborghini V12s sang a spine-tingling aria, a richly melodramatic wail that came within screaming distance of the best ever F1 sound: the celebrated 1970’s era motors built by the French rocket maker Matra. The magnificent Matra V12s produced a spine-tingling combination of Stuka-divebomber-like shrieking that carried its own air raid siren accompaniment and a majestic melodiousness that sent spirits soaring into the stratosphere.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Time For A New Champion?

In this first season of racing under the most radical rule changes in many years there should be plenty of scope for a new world champion to emerge. Given their experience any of the five previous champions in the current field of 22 drivers might be favored to win again but uncertainties about the performance and reliability of everyone’s new equipment present a welcome opportunity for a change in the status quo that has prevailed for nearly a decade.

Following Alonso’s first driving title in 2005 Raikkonen, Hamilton, Button and Vettel have subsequently worn the crown. Collectively they have won nine championships, a number at odds with the fact that there have been 32 different champions in the 63 seasons since the driving title was first awarded. The statistical average of a new champion every couple of years suggests the time for a new winner is overdue.

But times have changed for drivers, with their team and equipment now having much greater influence than before. While the exceptional talent of Fangio enabled him to win five driving titles with four different teams in the 1950s, the next four decades each produced from six to seven different driving champions. Five drivers won championships in the first decade of the new millennium, when Schumacher dominated. In the first half of the current decade four driving titles have been won by Vettel who, like Schumacher, benefitted from having superior teams and cars, as well as team mates who were required to be subservient.

F1 is now more than ever a team sport, with drivers having to race according to instructions from the pit wall and under-funded teams ill-equipped to win. But this year’s circumstances featuring unfamiliar cars with unproven performance potential should level the playing field considerably. Double points awarded in the final race and the likelihood of good or bad luck having greater influence in the results make predicting the identity of the 2014 world champion much more of a guessing game.

If a new first-time champion is crowned a shortlist of likely candidates must be headed by Nico Rosberg, whose Mercedes team looked strongest in pre-season testing and whose father Keke won the title in 1982, a decade when Scheckter, Jones, Piquet, Lauda, Prost and Senna also won championships.

Enzo Ferrari's 'Parabolic Curve of Champions'...

"A champion is born, forms himself and grows until such time when the anxiety to test himself beyond his human capilities blinds him to anything else. He becomes blinkered, determined to win. Winning is all that counts. Having reached the peak of his career the champion has new needs in life, of environment and interests. The metamorphosis completes itself: The champion no longer manages to win as often as before and has a tendency to blame this fact on other people and situations, absolving himself, at times justifiably, but more often as a result of preconceived ideas. In reality the main cause of him becoming obscure lies with himself. The fighter has ceased to exist. The champion is now a suffering utility man, and only his intelligence can save him from becoming dim and tarnished." - Enzo Ferrari

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Change For Better Or Worse?

F1 engineers and designers are some of the smartest people at the pinnacle of motorsport. Certainly they are the best educated (most drivers leave school long before university) and when they speak they are impressively articulate about the increasingly complex technicalities for which they are responsible. But somehow, when they got together with the equally clever people who run the teams and the sport, their collective brainwaves intended by the F1 Strategy Group to ‘improve the show’ contrived to make a 2014 version of F1 that provoked ridicule from all and sundry, including the drivers.

“Ugly” cars, with “bizarre” noses, that are “too slow” – tyres that are “too hard” - new hybrid ‘power units’ (engines) that sound “dull” and whose unreliability made a “total farce” of early testing – a “crazy” and “absurd” rule to award double points in the last race – these are some of the negative comments (made by the likes of Vettel, Alonso, Massa) that in the past would have led to punishment by the FIA. (When Jacques Villeneuve dared to call a new rule “shit” he was threatened with suspension ‘for bringing the sport into disrepute’.)

To those critics who claim the ‘half-baked’ ideas incorporated in the radical rule changes are a classic case of the old kitchen proverb that ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’ apologists for the 2014 makeover respond with another culinary quote: ‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’

And for those purists who still think the modern rulemakers have egg on their face and that they've cooked up a silly souffle (from the French word 'soufflier' which means 'to blow up') that fans will find hard to swallow, another far-thinking theory is offered by the sport’s longterm chief cook and bottlewasher.

According to Bernie Ecclestone: “Everybody thinks the good old days were the best, don’t they. That's because as you get older you like to think the old days were the good old days. But I don’t think that way. I think each era has got its own special thing. Years ago you’d buy a pair of shorts and some plimsoles and you’d run a marathon. Nowadays you need high-tech running shoes and uniforms with sponsors’ names on them. To play tennis you need high-tech racquets. The same with golf and other sports. So this is something that’s inevitable. It’s not better or worse, just a change.”

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Downhill Racer

Steve Podborski , book cover from a painting by Ken Danby

"Do you realise what these guys are doing on a pair of skis? - going down a hill at 90 miles an hour - they really must be crazy!" - Gilles Villeneuve

Villeneuve was talking about the Crazy Canucks, the team of daredevil Canadian ski racers whom he knew and admired. They took Europe by storm, skiing the way Gilles drove: all out all the time. After Gilles was killed Steve Podborski, World Cup Downhill Champion in the 1981-82 season (the first non-European champion), gave ski lessons to young Jacques Villeneuve, who showed considerable aptitude for the sport.
Podborski, an Olympian and Canada's Chef de Mission Sochi 2014, wrote a book about his Crazy Canuck days. (It was my privilege to work with him on it.) In the prologue he describes a breathtaking run down the fearsome Hahnenkamm, a race where he had known both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat...

I stand in the darkness of the start hut perched on top of a mountain in Austria. Outside, in brilliant sunshine, two miles of treacherous ice and snow plummet spectacularly down into the picturesque Tyrolean village far below. In just a few minutes I'll be down there, in Kitzbuhel, if I survive the Hahnenkamm, the most difficult and dangerous Downhill race in the world.

My heart pounds. I feel the blood surging through my veins. I breathe deeply and rhythmically. I grip my poles to keep my hands from shaking. I stand in a line of ski racers in brightly coloured skintight suits. Barely restrained chaos surrounds us in the hut. Walkie talkie radios hiss and crackle between bursts of excited voices babbling in several languages. Equipment technicians fuss over last minute adjustments to boots, bindings and skis. Team masseurs scramble among us, slapping thigh and leg muscles into readiness. Harrased race officials gesticulate and scurry about, trying to keep us on schedule.

Suddenly the racer in front of me leaps from the shadows of the hut into the brightness of space and disappears. About a minute and a half to go!

My pulse quickens. Inside my helmet I can hear my heart thumping at nearly three times its normal rate. I shift my weight as Toulouse, my masseur, moves to my other leg. He chatters about something but I don't reply and he quiets. Hans, my ski rep, stands up from my skis, grips my arm and mutters, "Good Luck", and moves away. I nod but continue looking straight ahead out over the deep Alpine valley. Now I'm just a ski length away from the timing wand that separates me from the course...from the rest of my life.

"One minute," the Starter turns and announces the remaining time to me in German. I nod acknowledgement.

Toulouse rubs my lower back and mumbles something in my ear. The radios blare out reports of another racer crossing the finish line...or crashing off the course. I hear only the pounding of my blood. In my mind I'm running down the hill, feeling the tensions of muscles and ligaments as I plunge onward, making every turn perfectly. I will my body to do it now to win! not to fall. I've won Kitzbuhel before. I've also been very badly hurt here. But I can win again today. I force away the awful memories, the sickening feeling of tearing ligaments, the gut wrenching pain and the terrible hopelessness and despair. Not this time. Never again. I finish my perfect mental run and start over, repeating a single phrase: 'Gotta go for it Gotta go for it Gotta go for it'...

"Thirty seconds".

Toulouse gives me a final pat on the butt and says, "Good Luck". I nod and try to swallow. My mouth is dry. I slide forward into the gate. "Good Luck". The Starter says it too, a tradition between him and me. No one else. I blink in the dazzling sunlight. My pupils contract as I see the course for the first time today. The TV camera swings around and zooms in on my bright gold suit and black helmet with the red maple leaf on it.

The huge crowd below the start area focusses on me, screaming, yelling and jumping up and down in anticipation. I shut out the wall of noise and movement. A girl standing behind the start clock weeps with emotion. I ignore her. I concentrate hard with every fibre of my being, analysing and assessing the conditions. In my mind's eye I see only the snow, feel the cold air, hear the wind. 'Gotta go for it Gotta go for it Gotta go for it!'...

"Ten seconds".

Carefully, methodically, I lift my poles over the the wand in the starting gate and plant them in the snow. They must not stick or slip when I push off. My heart slams in my chest. My body is awash in adrenaline. My mind is stripped of all conscious thought. The last sound I hear is the final countdown of the electronic beeper: beep beep beep

I spring forward out of the darkness of the hut and into the light of the day, my boots snapping open the timing want to start the seconds ticking. Nothing matters now but speed and survival. 'Gotta go for it! Gotta go for it! GOTTA GO FOR IT!'...

I explode down the hill, accelerating wildly. My wood and fibreglass skis bang and clatter crazily over the rock hard ice through the first two gates. Right left and I'm airborne over Mausefalle. Seventy feet later I smack down onto the course again and readjust my line instinctively. It's a screamer today! The sun has warmed the snow and Hans has nailed the wax!

I rocket through the compression at the bottom of Mausfalle at 75 miles an hour. My thighs burn from absorbing the tremendous g forces. The wind howls in my helmet as I carve around the sweeping left hand turn. I dig in the razor sharp edges of my skis...just enough, not too much, or I'll slow down. 'Go for it Go for it Go for it!'

I shoot up onto the bank on the left, then plunge into the 180 degree right hand fallaway. My skis send up a roostertail of snow and ice chips as I hurtle towards the dreaded Steilhang, the toughest turn in ski racing. 'Go! Go! Go!'

Over a hump at 70 miles an hour. Dive onto the Steilhang. The gate whips past on my left. My skis rattle and slap violently across the glare ice that clings to the sheer rock face. The vibration blurs my vision. I slam on the edge of my inside ski for the fallaway right. I will my skis to change direction: 'Turn!'

I curse and yell. It's steep too steep! 'Turn! Harder! Turn!!' Over the first roller and my skis go light. Drop lower. Bounce off the last roller. Thump down onto the road heading for the safety net in front of the Bamboo Curtain at 55 miles an hour. I've hit it before and it hurts. 'Turn!'

I dig in, turning as hard as possible. The net looms closer. My projected line heads straight for it. I think I can make it safely by. Fight against centrifugal force. Must not panic or I'll lose control and hit the Curtain for sure. I struggle for more grip. But violent contact with the net seems inevitable. I will not give up! 'TURN!!!'

My ski runs over the edge of the net! I pull it in and drop into my tuck. I crouch down as low as possible to regain momentum. Nothing counts but speed. I'm down to 50 miles an hour. My average has to be nearly 70 miles an hour to win. And there are other slow sections to come. Tuck Tuck Tuck. Faster Faster Faster!

I slash through the shadowy forest, along the road, only thirty feet wide and bordered by threatening fences. Clearings are momentary flashes of light in my consciousness. My world is the track. I focus on the crystals of snow. I feel the ruts beneath me. I concentrate on keeping my skis as flat as possible. They are part of me. 'Go for it Go for it Go for it.'

I hit the Alte Schneise at 80 miles an hour. I careen over the very rough sidehill. My legs judder up and down like a jackhammer. The wind wails like a banshee in my ears. The sunlight flickers in my eyes like a berserk strobe light. I blitz through the Larchenschuss and tuck harder as the Hahnenkamm tries to shake me off. I bear down. My whole body aches with effort. I'm just over half way down the hill...

Left right, over the Hausbergkante cliff and into the air, soaring like a ski jumper. In mid air I switch edges to prepare for landing on the sidehill swinging left. I crash down at 60 miles an hour, turning. I'm close enough to the fence to hit it with my pole. Involuntarily, I growl deep in my throat. I don't think about the day I blew my knee to smithereens here in 1976. Just 'Go for it Go for it Go for it.'

I rocket across the sidehill approaching the fastest part of the run. The course bucks like a wild mustang beneath me. The ice tries to knock my skis off. The edge of the Zeilhang flies toward me at 75 miles an hour. I'm exhausted but must concentrate on hitting the right spot on the launching pad. I take off into orbit. My air speed accelerates as I fly for over 130 feet, bang down and ram through the compression at the bottom.

I hold my tuck and skip and dance over the frozen terrain a human projectile travelling at 90 miles an hour. The snow is sucked up in the turbulence of my wake like the contrail of a jet aircraft. My velocity is such that I steer with my helmet, turning my head a fraction to make adjustments in my line. Only a few hundred feet to go, a handful of seconds. I tuck even harder, willing another hundredth of a second off my time.'Go Go.'

My mind and body are numb. Instinct and relexes still work. I reach out at the finish line to cut the beam with my hand. I've worked it out and know it will save .05 of a second. People have won Kitzbuhel by that margin. I flash under the banners and stand up. The wind tears at me, slowing me down. With my last dregs of energy I throw my skis sideways. I skid to a halt in a shower of snow.

My body sags and I support myself on my poles. Panting, I lift up my goggles, hang my head and take deep gulps of the fresh Alpine air. It seems I've spent a lifetime racing down Kitzbuhel. And I have. But this time it has taken me less than two minutes.

Gradually, the sensations of my run fade. My heartbeat recedes. I feel the chill of the air on my skin. I smell the stale saliva on my face mask. The noise of the wind is gone, replaced by an ear splitting roar as the finish line crowd goes mad. I look up at the scoreboard...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Acronymanic Enlightenment

FOSG+FOC: Formula One Strategy Group+ Formula One Commission have
created a number of rather complex rule changes for 2014, several of which have been translated into acronyms (pronounceable words formed from the initial letters of names), a kind of linguistic shorthand intended to lessen the likelihood of a SNAFU.

The Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) that powered automobiles for well  over 100 years,
and F1 cars since the series began in 1950, is henceforth to be known as a Power Unit (PU),
which is comprised of six separate elements.
PUE: Power Unit Elements...

ICE: Internal Combustion Engine
MGU-K: Motor Generator Unit - Kinetic
MGU-H: Motor Generator Unit - Heat
ES: Energy Store
TC: Turbocharger
CE: Control Electronics

NTDFC: New Testing Definitions For Cars
Acronymanic enlightenment has also been issued to clarify what kinds of cars are allowed to be tested...
TCC: Testing of Current Cars
TPC: Testing of Previous Cars
THC: Testing of Historic Cars
PE: Promotional Events

ALWF: And Lest We Forget, here is a review of the complex acronymanic gestation of
DRS: Drag Reduction System...

A brainwave of the OWG (Overtaking Working Group) - a branch of the TRWG (Technical Regulations Working Group) consisting of some high tech boffins from FOTA (Formula One Teams'Association) - the DRS (Drag Reduction System) was known variously as MRW (Moveable Rear Wing), ARW (Adjustable Rear Wing) and RFA (Rear Flap Adjuster), before the FIA (Federation Internationale de L'Automobile) last year officially designated it DRS. Previously, an experiment with APE (Artificial Performance Enhancers) in the form of DAB (Driver Adjustable Bodywork) called FFA (Front Flap Adjuster) was a flop.

(SNAFU: Situation Normal All ****** Up)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

James Hunt Goes Testing

To distract himself from the boredom of lengthy test sessions James resorted to familiar diversions. Before one test, at the Paul Ricard circuit in the South of France, James spent an evening in Salzburg with Niki Lauda where, Niki reports: "We had a helluva time, drank and smoked far too much, but he outlasted me and I went to bed far earlier than him."

Niki flew his own plane (and would later found Lauda Air,a commercial airline) and the next morning he waited impatiently at the Salzburg airport for his friend to show up. Ferrari was also due to test at Paul Ricard and Niki prided himself in punctuality. Ten minutes after the scheduled takeoff time of seven o'clock James had still not appeared and Niki prepared to leave without him.

Five minutes later a taxi tore out onto the runway and screeched to a halt in front of Niki's Cessna. Two passenger's fell out, one of them an exhausted-looking but attractive frauline in a white dress which was conspicuously covered in grass stains.

Her escort, looking equally dishevelled and carrying a giant 'ghettoblaster' portable radio, embraced her warmly, then staggered aboard the waiting aircraft. James collapsed in the back of Niki's plane and slept all the way to Paul Ricard.

At the circuit Niki's Ferrari blew an engine and while it was being repaired he sat on the pit wall watching James roar around in his McLaren. A few minutes later the circuit fell suddenly silent and Niki exclaimed: "Shit! James is still pissed and he must have crashed."

An emergency alarm sounded and as an ambulance raced down the pit lane Niki and McLaren boss Teddy Mayer flagged it down and hopped in.

Halfway down the long Mistral straight the McLaren was sitting alongside a cement wall and the occupants of the ambulance feared the worst.

As the medical men ran over to see what could be done for the driver Niki noticed there didn't seem to be any damage to the car and when he came closer Teddy Mayer was leaning over the slumped figure in the cockpit. "James", said Teddy, "I think you'd better go back to the hotel and sleep it off."

Niki: "James - the silly asshole - he parked the car and fell asleep!"

(excerpt from James HUNT The Biography, by Gerald Donaldson)

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Compassion For Fallen Stars

There was far more good will directed toward Michael Schumacher after his terrible skiing accident than there ever was during his F1 career. This worldwide demonstration of compassion is a credit to the basic human decency of F1 fans. It is also a reminder of the profound effect F1 stars can have on the lives of fans.

Who can forget the tremendous out-pouring of grief when Ayrton Senna was killed. Like Schumacher, popular opinion was strongly divided as to whether he was a hero or a villain, but the universal mourning after Senna’s death left no doubt about the depth of heartfelt emotion he inspired even among his former detractors.

The late Gilles Villeneuve was always a hero, and remains so to millions of fans. Long after he was killed letters addressed to him were received by Ferrari. In one of them a grief-stricken 21-year-old woman wrote of her despair: ‘Hello Gilles. I still cannot believe that you are no more... I did not know the great Nuvolari but I will talk to my daughter with pride about you. I will be able to tell her that I delighted in you and that I cried for you. I have within me a sense of infinite emptiness that I feel nothing will be able to fill except my tears. I hope that up there you have found a circuit and when the starting light is green, go Gilles. You will always be first. When I look up towards a starry sky I see you in the most beautiful star. The brightest one. And I am sure for you up there, you think of us, you think of me, who died in my heart with you. One day I shall bring you a rose because you were my first shattered dream.’

Some fans find unique ways to perpetuate the memory of a fallen star. Once, while in a bookshop signing copies of my biography of Gilles Villeneuve, I met a man who told me he came from a poor family and had to leave school to go to work before he learned to read properly. He said Villeneuve meant so much to him that he was determined to know everything about him, so he used my book to teach himself to understand the written word. He said he had now read the book three times and asked me to sign his well-worn copy. I asked him who I should dedicate the book to. He pointed to the small boy standing beside him. “Please sign the book ‘To Gilles.’ I was such a Villeneuve fan that I named my son after my hero.”

Just as memories of a lost driver can live on in the hearts and minds of fans their collective compassion is surely a powerful force that can be beneficial to an injured driver. The last two F1 drivers to be seriously injured, Robert Kubica and Felipe Massa, both said the sheer volume of Get Well Soon messages from fans helped them on the road to recovery. Let’s hope this is the case with Michael Schumacher.

See the following post for some insight into MS, and more at an earlier post - Thursday October 4, 2012 - entitled 'Michael's Dream Comes True'

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Understanding Michael Schumacher

(The following item was the cover story on the first issue of F1 Racing Magazine - March 1996. My interview with Michael Schumacher took place during a Barcelona test prior to his first season with Ferrari)

"Sometimes," he says with a heavy sigh, "I get very tired of all the attention. I wish to drive my car, then go home. End of story."
But Michael Schumacher's story doesn't end there because the superlative way he drives his car has made him big news around the world. Just turned 27 (on January 3rd), he has already sped into the record books at a faster pace than any of the greatest names in the sport. He is the youngest to have won two consecutive World Driving Championships and, since he is still improving, there is every reason to believe the Michael Schumacher story will eventually become a saga of epic proportions.

Yet the hero is in many ways a reluctant one and he would prefer to let his driving do the talking. He insists "I am just a normal guy trying to live a normal life" but he can't because the insatiable demands of the media, and the public it serves, to know everything about the man behind the wheel place him under the closest scrutiny. While he understands and accepts this price of superstardom Schumacher often has difficulty with the apparent lack of understanding on the part of those attempting to tell his tale.

"Journalists use 10 minutes of my time, go away and try to judge me. They talk to me about the car set up, or what F1 is all about, and then try to make a complete picture of me. The story they get depends on which mood I am in, which time they get me. I can be free and relaxed but sometimes I am thinking about my car and I am not as free to concentrate on other questions. There is a big difference between the Michael Schumacher on a racing weekend and the private Michael Schumacher. You just wish the journalists had a little more understanding." (While he does not go as far as his new Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine, who claims he has never met a journalist who knows anything about motor racing, one gets the impression that if Ferrari designer John Barnard were to cobble up a version of the new 412T3 chassis with a passenger seat Schumacher would leap at the chance to take certain critical scribes on a terrifyingly fast tour of a circuit such as Spa. Preferably in the rain.)

"The advantage for the journalists", he continues, "is that they can judge a person without being judged themselves. But what they write can also be an advantage for a successful sports person because what they write is usually forgotten when something else is written. So I am not too worried about this. The future will show what I am. Time has been too short to really open myself up, to show people what I am really like. I've only been here for five years. Give me a little bit of time and we'll see what the real Michael Schumacher is going to be like." Meanwhile, the current version of Michael Schumacher is shrouded in a whole climate of opinion, much of it distinctly chilly. "This is the worst thing, that people tell stories about me which are not true. A good example is that they say I am a cold person without any feelings." They also say that he is arrogant, ruthless, an automaton - traits that were attributed to the late Ayrton Senna, the driver Schumacher has succeeded as the dominant of his era. But since his death Senna has been elevated to near sainthood by many of those who formerly disparaged him.

"Exactly!", Schumacher exclaims. "Ayrton had to go through the same thing. It seems this is part of the procedure." The problem with the procedure for F1 drivers is that they are required by the media to participate in a personality contest, a competition in which the better they are the less chance they have of winning. Nobody feels the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat more than a top driver. It's hard to look humble when you're standing on the top step of the victory podium. It's equally difficult, especially when your're accustomed to winning, to remain a gracious loser. (As the McLaren team owner Ron Dennis once put it: "If I walk around with a grin on my face people say I'm smug. If I walk around with my normal scowl people say I'm miserable.")

At first, Schumacher's unrestrained joy on the podium was found to be charming and refreshing. Now, suffering from over exposure, his winning smile is seen by some as pompous and imperious and it is assumed he must personify the 'nice guys finish last' syndrome. Frank Williams, who has employed several World Champions (and also sought Schumacher's services for 1996, but refused to pay his asking price) claims that "The best Grand Prix drivers are driven, motivated, pushy, won't accept second best, immensely competitive people. This is what makes them good, because they're bastards!"

Like all the great drivers Schumacher has exceptional ambition, unshakeable confidence, unswerving dedication and fierce determination, characteristics which can easily combine to have them teetering on the bastardly brink. Yet, according to those who know him best, Schumacher may be the first nice guy to finish first. Pat Symonds, Schumacher's race engineer at Benetton, says: "I have the highest regard for Michael, both as a driver and as a person. On a personal level we are friends. I became very close to him, through the enjoyment of working with him and the fact that he is a very nice guy." Symonds enthuses about Schumacher's "British" sense of humour (his jokes over the radio, even in the heat of battle, often had the Benetton personnel convulsed in laughter), his even temper (never, despite several incidents of extreme provocation, did he succumb to road rage on the track, or have temper tantrums off it), his thoughtfulness and consideration (including taking a keen interest in the families of those he worked with) and his unfailing politeness. When this latter characteristic must necessarily come into conflict with his highly developed work ethic Schumacher worries that: "If you are too busy to talk to them people may think you are arrogant." Still, he takes some comfort from the fact that, in his native land at least, his fans appear to have been able to read between the lines of the anti Schumi crusade perpetrated by the media.

"I have just become German Sportsman of the Year, in both categories, spectators as well as journalists. This reflects not only my success, but also my personality as people see it. So I guess I really have no reason to be unsatisfied with my public image. I certainly feel a sense of responsibility to the fans. You cannot do it as well as you should in the beginning but I try to adapt to this better each year. Formula 1 is so intense that you go through as much in one year as a normal person does in 10 years. At first, so much was happening to me so soon that it was difficult for me to know who I was. You are always under such pressure and tension. This is especially true in the beginning. Later on, things change less. Personally, I'm not sure if Formula 1 has changed me much. It was difficult at first because I didn't have the chance to be relaxed. I always tried to hide myself and didn't want to cause any trouble because I didn't really understand everything that was happening. Now I can be more open because I am getting a clearer picture about Formula 1."

This season the F1 picture will feature Schumacher in a Ferrari, with the legendary Italian team and its sponsors shelling out $25 million for his services. Curiously, Schumacher's acceptance of this offer was entered by some on the debit side of his character ledger, a judgement which is at odds with the quite reasonable truism once pronounced by Jackie Stewart that, given the relatively fleeting and potentially lethal nature of his profession, a racing driver is worth every penny of whatever he can get, as fast as he can get it. While it was accepted that because of his superior driving prowess Schumacher's earning power was undoubtedly higher than that of any of his peers considerable mystification was expressed as to why he should be worth $25 million to any team. Yet the answer, rooted in the commercial nature of the sport, was there for all to see.

After the first five races of the 1995 season a survey of the total television air time logged by the teams showed that Benetton was in front of the cameras 28 percent of the time. This was just 2 percentage points less than Williams, which had the best cars and two drivers contributing more equally to the team's frontrunning performance, unlike Benetton whose other driver, Johnny Herbert, was seldom in the limelight. More significantly, Benetton captured 3 percent more exposure than did Ferrari, whose famously red and photogenic cars are traditionally a prime focus of television directors. To sponsors evaluating their F1 investment, the 1 hour, 40 minutes and 54 seconds Michael Schumacher spent driving around in front of a vast international armchair audience of potential consumers made him worth much more than his weight in gold. For the purveyors of the plethora of goods and services given identity on his flying Benetton - 33 of them, including the makers of clothing, cigarettes, automobiles, beer, petroleum products, energy food and drinks, tyres, brakes, sparkplugs, computers and software, tools, gym equipment, industrial cleaning products, vehicle inspection centres, health care products, paint systems, steering wheels, a TV station, model cars, shoes, and so on - Schumacher the superstar was also a supersalesman. Since prime commercial television time is sold at up to $1 million a minute (at events like the annual Super Bowl football game in America) and Schumacher in five races had tallied over 100 minutes of exposure to a cumulative audience of over 1 billion people, his $25 million asking price to move to Ferrari was peanuts to a sponsor like Marlboro. (Marlboro was no doubt further motivated by the fact that the TV air time survey revealed that its principle team, McLaren, had appeared on camera for only 16 minutes and 6 seconds). Also eager to capitalize on Schumacher's high profile was Shell, returning to F1 in 1996 with Ferrari and hoping their alliance with the German hero would help restore their petroleum product market share lost in his native land following the Brent Spar North Sea oil rig controversy. Then, of course, Ferrari was in desperate need of a winner, to restore its racing reputation and in the process sell more cars for its owner, Fiat.

So Schumacher's price tag was no problem for the vested interests which would pay it but when he accepted the offer, to move from a winning team to a floundering one, it was concluded that Schumacher's motives must be entirely mercenary. Such thinking does not take into account the fundamental need for winners to have new challenges to be able to keep on winning. They perform best under pressure, indeed they deliberately seek it out in order to inspire themselves to continue to progress. Fresh challenges are vital to maintaining motivation, which is further fueled by the fear of failure factor. Taking risks, pushing themselves beyond established limits to reach new ones, are hallmarks of high achievers in any endeavour. As Bill Gates, the computer guru and risk-taking founder of the Microsoft empire expresses it: "There are two possibilities: success and failure. But it is the possibility of BOTH that creates the best results."

The money and the prestige of driving for Ferrari were bonuses for Schumacher, for whom the bottom line is an overpowering need to continue his upward mobility. "Certainly, this is the case for me. With Benetton I achieved everything I could achieve. Two World Championships as a driver and the Constructors' Championship for the team. So it is correct to say that I went to Ferrari to give myself more of a challenge. I took the decision because I believe in myself and I believe in Ferrari, but I must prove it and this new target, to see if I can do the job, is very important to me. I feel that Ferrari is not very far away from the Championships, but I need first to go that last step, together with the team, which I feel I am able to do. The important thing is to keep improving. I think for my education it is going to be very good to work with a new team being able to learn a lot of new things, going in new directions, getting new impressions to build up myself. "I would never be satisfied just to sit in the best car and win all the races. I must have a strong challenge. I love REAL racing and to me that means having to work hard to win. I tried very hard for all my wins in 1995. They were not presents or gifts. They were not easy. When I compare my nine victories last season with the nine victories of Nigel (Mansell, whose 1992 record Schumacher equalled) I think he several times lapped everybody else (He didn't, but easily dominated in his superior Williams machinery). That was not the case with my victories. It was always tough and that is why they were so satisfying for me."

It will be even more rewarding to win with the most famous team in racing. Though he is supposed to lack the passion of a true enthusiast and not to be interested in F1 history, the mystique of Ferrari was indeed part of the lure for Schumacher. When he first came to the team's Maranello headquarters, late on a foggy night, he admits he got "goosebumps. And you know that if you are able to win with Ferrari it will mean more than if you win with another team because, in my view, Ferrari is 50 percent of Formula 1 and the rest of the teams have to divide the other 50 percent."

While he was able to win over 50 percent of the races last season in an inferior car, and having to fight his ill handling Benetton helped satisfy his desire to have to work hard for his success, Schumacher is quick to deny the widely held belief that he prefers a twitchy chassis. "It's true that the Benetton was more nervous than most. I had to live with it but I didn't really enjoy it. It's a different issue than in karting where you have to throw it around and slide through the corners. You shouldn't have to do this in Formula 1 but I have an adaptable driving style, which I learned in 15 years of karting, so I found I could adjust to this."

In his private life he now finds himself also making adjustments to certain of his formerly held beliefs. The progress of his journey of self discovery has been accelerated by the trappings of success, including a stable of exotic cars, but a wistful Schumacher sounds as if he might prefer to slow down and smell the flowers, perhaps even manure. "When you are younger you think a nice car might fulfill your dream. When you have the car you find out very early it doesn't fulfil anything, really. It may be nice to drive, but that's it. What's around us fulfil's my dreams. I am very interested in space, the moon and stars and everything around us. I can be happy just sitting watching the moonlight. I think nature is the most beautiful thing we have and the colour I like most is green, which is related to nature. I love animals and might even like to have a farm some day."

The only animal in his life at the moment is Jenny, a West Highland terrier, so named by the most important person in his life: Corinna (formerly the girlfriend of Sauber driver Heinz Harald Frentzen). They were married last summer, after living together for several years, and Schumacher treasures the domestic bliss they enjoy. He describes her as a "fantastic woman, very easy to get along with. Our life in Monaco is not very glamourous but I cherish being at home with her, since I am away so many days of the year. I am a very happy man to have found a woman like Corinna and we think about having a proper family." Schumacher's claim that he "is just a normal guy trying to live a normal life" is borne out by his tastes in reading (John Grisham thrillers, though he has plans to tackle Stephen Hawking's 'Black Holes and Baby Universes') and music (mostly of middle of the road material by Phil Collins, Michael Jackson and the German singer Marianna Rosenberger, though he also likes Tina Turner). "But what I like even more than these people are musicals: Beauty And The Beast, my favourite, Phantom Of The Opera, and so on. When I travel I would like to see more musicals but the problem is that I don't have much time for private life. That is one of the penalties for being successful."

But being able to cash in on his success has enabled him to satisfy charitable urges related to his highly developed social conscience. "I have become an ambassador and special adviser to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, & Cultural Organization) because for me it has always been a dream, a wish, to try and make the world more even. I hate poorness, especially for kids who have little to eat and live in very bad circumstances. I hate this and it has always been a target for me to do something about it, when it was within my possibilities. In my view people have more trust in a person who has enough money for himself and doesn't need any more. Therefore, now that I am a person who earns a lot of money, now and in the future, which is far more than I ever want to spend for myself, it is something I would like to use to try and make the world a better place."

(Michael Schumacher went on to donate many millions of dollars to humanitarian causes around the world, including $10 million to the 2004 tsunami relief fund.)  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Politically Correct F1

Once upon a time it was anti-social in the extreme – a noisy, wasteful, polluting, absurdly expensive and dangerous sport whose sheer defiance of convention was a major part of its attraction. Now the rulemakers are sending F1 racing madly off in all directions in pursuit of political correctness...
The move to make its technology more environmentally friendly and 'green' is now well underway. The governing body and the manufacturer-led teams have agreed that the sport's socially responsible future must include such planet-saving measures as quieter, more fuel efficient engines that discharge less harmful emissions, and so on. Never mind that learned scientists have calculated that all the fuel spewed out the exhaust pipes of all the F1 cars in a season is less than that consumed by a jumbo passenger jet on a single long haul flight, the powers-that-be have decreed that the pinnacle of motorsport should become a leader in seeking solutions to the issues that top political and social agendas around the world. The trend toward political correctness - which already includes such measures as a tree-planting program in Mexico that theoretically neutralizes F1's 'carbon footprint' - could gather speed and dramatically change the sport’s future.

While measures to end the ‘obscene money-spending contest’ that now exists have so far failed to take root, the Global Cost Cap concept to reduce budgets and make it easier for less well-funded teams to compete on equal footing could be the forerunner of a policy that promotes 'inclusiveness' by eliminating the dreaded 'elitism' that separates winners from losers. (The late Ken Tyrrell used to say that the responsibility to raise money for his team was his and his alone). And if  'disadvantaged' participants are not to be left behind something may have to be done about levelling the playing field for the drivers. Letting them choose their own car numbers would seem to be a step in that direction. Enzo Ferrari’s request to permanently retire the number 27 made famous by the late Gilles Villeneuve was denied. Purists might decry the injustice, but having the hard-charging daredevil’s illustrious number 27 on his car in 2014 would instantly endow even a confirmed backmarker with a degree of heroism he might not deserve.   

The equal opportunity for everyone movement could be further achieved by banning the anti-social behaviour - the constant speeding, tailgateing and irresponsible risk-taking – that tends to win races but is against the law on civilian roads. Instead of being ruthless, aggressive, intimidating and selfish, drivers could be required to become more polite, respectful, accomodating and considerate while behind the wheel. Should a driver behave badly and break any of the politically correct rules he could be sentenced according to a precedent set by Michael Schumacher, whose punishment for trying to prevent Jacques Villeneuve from winning the 1997 world championship by ramming him off the road included Schumi becoming a spokesman for the FIA-led road safety campaign.

While greatly improved safety measures and the introduction of artificial overtaking enhancers (DRS/KRS/tricktyres) have considerably reduced the need for big-balled bravery in a driver’s repertoire it has also created a climate of equal opportunity for less skilled drivers. The kinder, gentler computer-designed Tilkedromes that don't punish driving errors to any serious degree mirror the conditions found in the realistic video racing games that, according to hardcore purists, are too easy to master. One of the most popular games takes place on a simulated version of Germany's ‘Green Hell’ – the notoriously difficult and dangerous, 22.835km ooriginal Nurburgring circuit (where F1 racing has been banned since Niki Lauda's nearly fatal accident there in 1976). A recent critique of the game, which contended that the Nurburgring's lap record (despite the 177 corners that have to be negotiated to complete the 22.835km-long lap) could be broken by any computer-savvy five-year old child, concluded with the suggestion that this ersatz Green Heck of a game should be made more realistic by having each driving mistake result in a hefty electric shock being delivered to the player’s posterior. This suggestion might serve to jolt the rulemakers into remembering that a generous dose of reality must somehow be preserved in even the most politically corrected form of F1.





Thursday, December 05, 2013

F1 Needs To Smell, Shriek And Shake

When he saw F1 for the first time the spine-tingling spectacle left a five-year-old boy trembling with excitement…

“It was raining at Hockenheim and the cars were coming out for installation laps in practice, and just to hear the sound of the cars, to feel it in the ground – these are the first memories I have," Sebastian Vettel recalled recently. “I just hope that in future we will not lose this excitement. I think the cars need to  be loud, they need to smell. F1 needs to give you something you never forget.”

Vettel fears that F1, now facing the biggest technical change in decades, is in danger of losing that vital thrill factor that first inspired him to become a driver in the sport he has come to dominate. His misgivings are particularly centred on the 2014 move to smaller, quieter, more energy-efficient turbo engines that highlight the conflict between the sport’s ever-escalating technical emphasis and the pure raw emotion the pinnacle of motorsport should generate in the hearts and minds of its fans - and its participants.

Many critics go much further than the quadruple world champion, despairing that the data-driven geeks and nerds now running the sport are ruining it by dumbing it up, not down, with absurdly over-engineered racing that diminishes the role of the drivers, mutes the soul-stirring sound and fury that little Seb Vettel found so unforgettable.

F1 is in desperate need of a back-to-basics overhaul. It should stop blinding us with science, stop trying to ‘improve the show’ by artificial means, with KERS, DRS, tyre trickery, more politically correct engines and bewilderingly complex strategy that even the drivers don’t understand.

Let the clever technophiles turn their fertile minds and their controlling computers to recovering the sport’s lost energy by returning to its old-fashioned, hardcore roots. Shrink the ever-thickening rule books (and cut costs) by simplifying the sport, making it less cold and clinical, more animated and alive. Concentrate on making the cars smell, shriek and shake the ground. Let the drivers race, let them be heroes. F1 must continue to thrill and inspire small boys.