Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mountain High




F1 left Austria for more money. More money has brought it back. All hail more money. (RedBull photo)

FLASHBACK TO 2003: THE LAST AUSTRIAN GRAND PRIX

Race Preview…

The 2003 Austrian Grand Prix takes place in one of the most glorious settings for a race anywhere in the world. Snow-covered peaks towering majestically overhead, brown and white cows cows grazing contentedly on lush green mountain meadows, spring flowers blooming, ancient church bells ringing, charming villages sleeping, birds singing in the clear, cool alpine air - the A1- Ring track presents a picture of postcard perfection.

It may look like a trophy destination but after performing amidst such scenic splendour 26 times F1 seems hellbent on bidding it a fond farewell. Next year the much-loved Austrian race will likely be dropped from the calendar to make room for either of two new events. The Austrian venue’s glorious setting will be forsaken in favour of a track now being constructed on a sandpile in a barren desert somewhere in Bahrain or another being floated in a festering swamp outside China's largest city, Shanghai.

Before it’s consigned to the scrapheap the Austrian organisers have invited past winners of the event here for the weekend to commemorate what has gone on before. Among them is the country's most successful F1 driver, the three-time World Champion Niki Lauda.

"I am sorry to see this go," Lauda said, "not just because I am Austrian but because the environment here is a big plus for F1. But the modern sport does not rest on tradition. It goes where the money is, so it is better to have a race in China or the Middle East than Austria."

Recently fired as Jaguar team boss and now a TV commentator, the outspoken Austrian is notoriously unsentimental, not to say fatalistic. After being nearly burned to death in his flaming Ferrari in an appalling accident in Germany in 1976 he said the loss of his ear was not a problem because it made it easier to talk on the telephone.

Talking about the modern version of the sport Lauda noted that it is mercifully much less dangerous, and that the last fatality here was in 1975, when the American driver Mark Donohue was killed in a Penske. Like all the other modern tracks the A1-Ring has been sanitised in the interest of safety, a situation he feels has led to a new breed of driver.

"In the old days each year a driver died," Niki noted. "Racing drivers were a different kind, no family types like today. Everything has become a lot safer, and death is not part of racing any more. This means the tension for the driver is smaller. It has become another sport, but not less interesting. There is a lot more going on, a lot more angles for fans to consider. Remember what Ferrari did here last year? People are still talking about that."

Lauda, the most successful Ferrari driver until Michael Schumacher came along, was referring to Ferrari's now infamous decision to order the 2002 race leader Rubens Barrichello to move aside on the last lap and let his team mate Schumacher win.

Their appearance on the podium provoked an outburst of jeers and catcalls from thousands of incensed spectators who felt they had been robbed. Schumacher, who was visibly shocked by the crowd's hostile reaction, made an impromptu attempt to smooth things over by paying tribute to the moral victor. But his hauling Barrichello up onto the top step of the podium and presenting him with the winner's trophy resulted in even greater outrage.

It also resulted in Ferrari being fined US $1 million, for not observing the correct podium protocol, thereby bringing the sport into disrepute. But the incident - on the track, not on the podium - escalated into an internationally-condemned sporting scandal. In a knee-jerk response to this the F1 governing body, the FIA, this year instigated a new rule banning team orders.

Many observers think the new regulation is unenforceable, and that teams will continue to play the game the way they want, though perhaps more surreptitiously.

"Certainly, obvious team orders will be enforceable," said Michael Schumacher, whose Ferrari was fastest here in Friday's qualifying session. "And that's obviously what the public wanted. But we have already stated that we will continue racing for the good of Ferrari."


The Race…

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong - but that is the way to bet on it, as Damon Runyon once sagely observed. And yes, Ferrari superstar Michael Schumacher started from pole and eventually won an extraordinary Austrian Grand Prix, but his 67th career victory was on several occasions during the drama-filled race a very long way from being a sure thing.

Schumacher had a torrid time of it, surviving first of all some fierce in-fighting that followed the three separate race starts, then needing all his skill to handle a track made treacherous by a brief rainshower, before having to make a stirring comeback from a potentially catastrophic pit stop fire, and, finally, pulling off a breathtaking overtaking manoeuvre to wrest the lead from McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen.

Raikkonen then hung on to finish a worthy second, having for the last few laps had to fight off the best efforts of Schumacher's hard-charging team mate Rubens Barrichello, who finished third. Jenson Button's BAR-Honda and David Coulthard's McLaren, were fourth and fifth and the last unlapped cars among the 13 survivors from the 20 starters.

With Ralf Schumacher's BMW-Williams, Mark Weber's Jaguar and Jarno Trulli's Renault collecting the remaining points, six different teams made their mark in the thrilling race, albeit playing supporting roles to the scintillating performance put on by Michael 'Showmaker.'

"It was an interesting and entertaining race, wasn't it," understated Schumi, whose third win in succession brought him to within two points of league-leading Raikkonen, while Ferrari moved one point ahead of McLaren in the team standings.
"I guess my mechanics wanted to warm me up," Schumacher said of the conflagration that erupted beside his right ear, when spilled fuel dripped onto the Ferrari's hot engine. "Seriously, seeing the fire wasn't very nice, and it could have been a big problem. But the team did a good job to control the situation, reacting quickly with the fire extinguishers. It also proved how strong our car is because it went through a lot, right from the start."

In light of his pit stop fire, the race winner was asked if he considered himself to be a lucky man.

"I don't know whether you should call it lucky," smiled Schumacher, who does have a sense of humour. "I think it was unlucky to have the problem."

Friday, June 13, 2014

James Hunt's Last Newspaper Column


For several years after he retired from racing James Hunt (assisted by f1speedwriter) wrote a F1 Grand Prix column that was syndicated by several major newspapers. His last column, written a few hours before he died, concerned the Canadian Grand Prix that took place in Montreal on 13 June, 1993.



(In the photo a shoeless James Hunt, with f1speedwriter, appears in his favourite F1 paddock attire)







THE CANADIAN GRAND PRIX
by James Hunt


Though it tended to be processional I found the Canadian Grand Prix thoroughly entertaining. While the intensity of action in the early laps made them quite obviously thrilling, the last half of the race was equally engrossing.

For Alain Prost this race must have come as something of a relief. His confident control and consistent speed in Montreal, where he enjoyed probably his smallest car advantage to date, showed us that the Prost of old is alive and well. His performance did a lot to allay the criticisms of his driving that have tended to overshadow his season so far. It was indeed fortuitous that he needed to work so hard for this win.

Ayrton Senna's opening laps were, I thought, absolutely sensational - at genius level - and at least equal to the way he simply threw himself past the opposition in the rain at Donington. Spine- tingling to see, Senna's charge from eighth on the grid to third by the second lap, was nevertheless supremely controlled. At no time did he look as if he was going to go off himself, or take anyone else off. Thereafter, his momentum hardly slackened and he was eventually able to take command of second place despite having a car inferior to his closest challengers.

The latter stages of the race, following the pit stops for fresh tyres, were best appreciated by focussing on the gaps between the leading cars. We had the spectacle of the eventual winner Prost having to work very hard to regain control of the race after his stop. Meanwhile, Michael Schumacher was charging after Senna and, though the traffic they encountered changed the interval between them from time to time, their battle for second place was riveting.

Here we had probably the greatest driver of all time being chased by the heir apparent to become the best of the next generation. Not to be outdone by Senna, Schumacher's early laps were similarly spectacular - if less visible because he was back in the pack - after his car's traction control played tricks on him at the start and he lost several places.

That these two drivers should find places to pass where others fear to tred in Montreal is no coincidence. Schumacher regained most of his lost ground in short order and by the time the tyre stops were complete he was right back in the race, ahead of Hill and only a few seconds behind Senna.

What a pity that within three laps of Schumacher finally catching Senna their conflict was resolved by the mechanical failure which put Senna out of the race. Senna will certainly rue the alternator failure which, had he been able to continue to fend off Schumacher, cost him the second place points - to add to those lost at Imola when mechanical failure also cost him a secure second place - that would have kept him ahead of Prost in the championship.

Damon Hill deserved his third place after driving a good solid race but, when he found himself right behind Senna and Schumacher after the tyre stops, I would have liked to have seen him stay with them. Earlier, Prost was able to drive away from Hill unchallenged in an identical car and this, together with Hill's inability to keep pace with Senna and Schumacher in inferior cars, raises questions about Hill's outright speed. Granted, the other three drivers are among the fastest in F1 but Hill, quite rightly, has high ambitions and will no doubt be looking to pick up his pace.

The Ferraris were best of the rest in Canada and, though Jean Alesi's car eventually failed him, Gerhard Berger was an encouraging fourth. That Ferrari is coming back on form is good news for Grand Prix racing, which sorely needs the famous Italian team to be competitive.

Less becoming to the sport is the awkward way the powers-that-be announced that fully 24 of the 25 cars on the grid in Canada were illegal, though, it was decreed, they would be allowed to race.

Although the cars in question were undoubtedly contravening long standing regulations, most had been doing so for some time. It is transparently obvious that this development is a political manouevre by the governing body to counter the intransigent and isolated postion of the McLaren and Williams teams have taken over the proposed rule changes which will ban some of the technology next year. But FISA's being forced to handle it in this very public way, on the doorstep of the IndyCar series by which F1 feels it is being bruised, is unfortunate.

Everybody accepts that rule changes are urgently needed, firstly to halt the two tier structure that has developed between the 'haves' and the 'have nots.' The success of the top teams brings them more sponsorship to further develop the technical advantage they have over the others. Meanwhile, the consequent lack of success of the less financially endowed teams leaves them struggling more to survive than to improve. Secondly, for sporting reasons, the insidious advance of computer technology needs to be reversed in all areas in which it has taken over the driver's job.

What worries me is that instead of wasting enormous amounts of energy in fighting each other over procedures and detail, FISA and the McLaren/Williams alliance should be combining all their considerable knowledge and experience on the real issue. This is to create a climate in which 30 or more cars, of which at least half should be fully competitive if driven well enough, can compete for 26 places on the starting grid at an affordable price.

At a recent meeting of the teams on this subject I understand that McLaren stated that the "name of the game" is to win races. Robin Herd, of the Larrousse team, pointed out that this was secondary to the necessity of "staying in business."...Hear, hear!

To satisfy both requirements the goal should be to create an environment similar to the halcyon days of the mid-1970's when the sport was at its most competitive and affordable.

/end


My book, JAMES HUNT The Biography in print and ebook editions is available from Amazon

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Gilles Villeneuve Attacks His Home Track




(photo by ricardopaterni.lifeplan.it)

"It's a wee paradise in the middle of a great river," said three-time World Champion Jackie Stewart when he first saw Le Circuit de l'Ile Notre-Dame. The Scot, at that time the winningest driver of all with 27 F1 victories, was there as a race commentator and, like all the Grand Prix People he was highly impressed. "It's one of the most beautiful settings in the world for a motor race, with the metropolis of Montreal right in the background."

The parklike setting included trees, grassy knolls and gardens, a lake and ornamental ponds and canals running between the futuristic pavilions built for Expo '67, the world's fair held in Canada's centennial year. The site also featured venues including the rowing basin where the 1976 Olympic Games were held. Just a short Metro ride away from the cosmopolitan delights of North America's most culturally unique city, much appreciated by the visiting international F1 fraternity, the location was an ideal compromise between the urban and rural venues in other parts of the world.

Twenty eight drivers from 15 nations arrived to put the new 4.50km circuit to the test. But from the moment the cars began circulating the spectators only had eyes for the local hero in the number 12 red Ferrari. They packed the perimeter of the seventeen corner course, 36,181 of them on Friday and Saturday, to watch their boy from nearby Berthierville in action. His reputation had preceded him and now his countrymen saw it first hand.


Gilles came howling down the pit straight, foot-to-the-floor in fifth with the 500 prancing horses in the Flat-12 behind his back singing a siren song at 11,300 revolutions per minute. He gave a quick glance at the pit board held out by the Ferrari crew but had to file it away for future reflection at an easier place on the circuit, because the first turn was looming up between the guard rails like a speeded-up movie.

The flattened S-section began with a gradual right-hander that quickly tightened into a kink in the opposite direction just beyond the overhead pedestrian bridge. For the spectators, this was one of the most thrilling places to watch their heroes at work, because the middle of the S featured a bump in the pavement that picked the car up and hurled it sideways. More timid types lifted off briefly, but the bravest (and quickest) did not. Gilles did not.

Moving at something like 265 kph, Gilles came flying around the right-hander on full opposite lock. Instead of detecting the telltale engine note of a cautionary right foot being exercised the fans noted that Gilles never wavered. Rather, the engine revs soared as his Ferrari T3 achieved momentary liftoff on the bump, lurching sideways at least two meters, with the fat rear Michelins pawing aimlessly in the air before regaining traction with puffs of blue smoke erupting from the tires.

From their vantage points on the surrounding hillocks the awestruck fans gasped in amazement at the fearsome spectacle. As they looked down into the beehive of activity in the Villeneuve cockpit they saw the steering wheel being yanked vigorously right and left as Gilles grabbed handfuls of lock, in opposition to the directions his car threatened to go. The sound and fury of it all shook the ground and was over in little more than the blink of an eye. Until the next lap.

Gilles blasted down the causeway, a blur of red between the rowing basin on his left and the ornamental lake on his right. He flashed through a speed trap here at nearly 270 kph, then slammed down through the gears into third and braked sharply for the sweeping right-hand turn, followed by a quick left. This brief detour in the otherwise straight causeway made the T3 skitter viciously from curb to curb and Gilles felt the heavy pressure of tremendous g-forces being exerted on his neck. Safely through the kink he floored it again up through fourth and fifth, only to have to hit the brakes and double-clutch back down through the gearbox a few seconds later. Through the left-hander in third, then up into fourth for the gradual looping turn in the opposite direction.

More hectic steering wheel, pedal, and gearlever activity saw the Ferrari swing sideways around an abrupt left to encounter a second-gear hairpin to the right, the slowest part of the circuit. But Gilles was busier than ever, his feet beating a constant tattoo on the brake, clutch, and accelerator pedals, his right hand flicking up and down from the tiny gearlever as he twirled the steering wheel right, left, and centre. All the while he was being pitched violently from side to side, his body straining at the six-point safety harness as he carved out the apex at each corner in search of the fastest line. The hairpin sent the Ferrari corkscrewing uphill and to the right, powering it along a parallel course with the menacingly turbulent St. Lawrence River and slingshotting it along beneath the leafy canopy of overhanging trees. Gilles snatched third, then fourth and shot forward at what seemed suicidal speed in view of what lay ahead. The short straight terminated dramatically in a sharp curve where the driver must stamp very hard on the brakes, simultaneously snicking down through the gears into second and effect a hard right turn. The alternative was to encounter the unforgiving steel of the guard rail or, should it fail to do its work, to wind up flying over a cliff and into the raging river.

Gilles managed to hold the middle ground, though hovering marshals feared he would be unsuccessful and clutched their fire extinguishers and crowbars expectantly every time he went by. They watched in amazement as the Ferrari disappeared over the brow of the hill in a tremendous full-blooded powerslide that surely was not conducive to keeping it on the island.

Thus inclined, Gilles dropped down the hill, changed up into third and hurled his lurching machine around the ensuing left hander. The marshals on the outside of the circuit here made no bones about their misgivings and moved well back from the barriers. They were chased by dirt spewn up in their faces by the right rear Michelin which also, on several occasions, left a black streak on the guard rail.

Gilles was long gone, throwing the gearlever into fourth and caution to the wind in a thunderclap of sound, down a valley and around a kink to the right beneath a pedestrian bridge only to be confronted with another S configuration. It coiled sinuously uphill, beginning with a second-gear left turn, followed smartly by a circuitous right-hander. Here Gilles kicked down the accelerator and was rewarded with an instant rear-end breakaway of alarming proportions. He applied the necessary corrective movements on his Momo steering wheel and brought everything approximately back into line for the momentary straight section that followed.

Third, fourth, and fifth were selected in instants, then the process was reversed just as quickly for another right-left situation taken in second gear. Gilles sailed sideways out of the left-hander and rowed up through the gearbox into top to scream down the long gentle curve to the left which afforded a breathing spell of a few seconds before all his faculties would be required to negotiate the final turn on the circuit: the ninety degree bend before the pit straight.

Fifth-fourth-third-second-first, with blasts of flame and bursts of noise from the bundle-of-snakes exhaust of the redhot engine. Accompanied also by the screeching of tortured Michelins and squealing of burning brake discs, the Ferrari came from top speed to almost a halt in less time than it takes to read about it.

Gilles cranked the wheel hard right and tromped hard on the loud pedal to whip the car sideways. He held it in this attitude for a full hundred meters, with the left rear of his car intent on overtaking the front. He played another concert with the gearlever, gradually fed in the required lock to straighten the car out and was up to 260 kph again by the time he streaked across the finish line to complete one flying lap.

It took him less than a hundred seconds to complete, he made about two dozen gear changes en route, and his average speed was about 165 kph. That was one lap for Gilles Villeneuve on the circuit that would one day be named after him.


-excerpt from GILLES VILLENEUVE, The Life Of The Legendary Driver by Gerald Donaldson

http://www.f1speedwriter.com/2012/11/gilles-villeneuve-ebook.html

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.


WHY CHAMPIONS COME AND GO
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) http://www.amazon.co.uk/James-Hunt-Biography-Gerald-Donaldson/dp/0753518236/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1366011727&sr=8-1&keywords=james+hunt

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'