Friday, January 09, 2015

F1's Place In An Uneasy World

(The 2001 Italian Grand Prix took place at Monza a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US. This piece describes how F1 responded. Jarno Trulli crashed on the first lap of the race but was still the star of the show) 



Historically, many sports originated as alternatives to war. Enlightened societies sought to avoid conflict by organising games and competitions as relatively harmless outlets for potentially dangerous aggression.

And while sport has gone on to become a unifying force of international proportions - witness the Olympic Games and the World Cup of football - warlike tendencies are still an unfortunate aspect of humanity, as the terrorist attacks on the US have so sadly shown.

Those who play the F1 game are fond of saying their sport is like war, so it was interesting to observe the reaction of some of the featured players when faced with the reality of what happened in America.

In the immediate aftermath of the attacks against New York and Washington several drivers felt the Italian Grand Prix should not have taken place. Michael Schumacher was particularly disturbed by the situation in the US, then by the life-threatening accident to former F1 driver Alex Zanardi in a CART race in Berlin (where he lost his legs) and by the fact that a track worker had died in a first-lap crash in the 2000 Italian Grand Prix.

"It is a very emotional time," Schumacher said, "with what happened in America and this weekend with one of our former drivers in hospital and with what happened here last year. We should question whether we should race and we tried to get an agreement to not overtake on the first lap. We all agreed except one."

The dissenting vote was cast by Jacques Villeneuve, who defended his position on the grounds that as professional racing drivers it was their duty to get on with the job.

'You cannot make all the money we do and tell the fans you are not willing to compete from the very start," Villeneuve said.

"If Michael felt that felt that strongly about it and really wanted to make a point, then he shouldn't have started at all.

"For me, it was a question of princples I've had since I was a boy dreaming of being a racing driver. I believe you have to go flat out from the start and give 100 percent to the chequered flag."

Arguments for and against these points of view raged on, as did the Italian Grand Prix, which fortunately finished without any serious incidents and was in fact quite an entertaining distraction from the unrest prevailing in the world at large.

But beyond that, the sport has a valuable contribution to make especially in times of international strife, as was most eloquently summed up by Jarno Trulli, who received a standing ovation in the Monza media centre for his heartfelt impomptu speech.

"It's not just a US tragedy," Jarno Trulli said, "it's a tragedy for the whole world. We have to show to everybody that we are together with the USA, that we are all together in the whole world. Formula 1 is a sport and all sport is also a way to show somehow that the whole world doesn't have to stop. We still have to carry on, we have to take care of what is happening but we can't stop, otherwise the people that attacked the USA will have won their battle and we cannot let this happen. We have to show that we are strong enough and we have to look forward."



Friday, October 24, 2014

Tyler Alexander

(This interview with one of the sport's great characters is from my 1990 book Grand Prix People. At the time Tyler was not a big fan of F1 journalists, though he has mellowed and recently authored two books about his eventful life.)

Tyler Alexander first became involved in McLaren when it began, having been one of the team's founding members. He must have some special insights into Formula 1 racing. What does he think about the pinnacle of motorsport and the people who shove tape recorders in his face when he's trying to work?
"I think this thing's like an overbred cocker spaniel, and most of it's created by the journalists, because it isn't anything any different than it's ever been.  You come here, you fuck around with a car, it's got four wheels and a motor in it, you start it up, and you're on. But the journalists pump it up into something else. I mean, there's all those people crowding around in the garages.  There must be fifty million pictures of Ayrton Senna, sitting in there picking his nose!"
Well then, what about all the prestige, glamour and mystique that you hear about in Formula 1?
"Bullshit! Racing is just a plain old bunch of very difficult, complicated hard work that's a pain in the ass. Sure, it's an exciting big deal thing.  And the drivers are very important. The good ones are very good and certainly deserve a lot credit. But to be successful you have to have a lot of good people. It takes a whole bunch of people.  It takes a design team, engineering team, the backup people at the factory, the driver, the race team itself."
After studying aircraft engineering in Boston, Alexander helped a friend prepare a Formula 3 car which they raced successfully. He became friends with Teddy Mayer and his brother Tim, Roger Penske and Jim Hall, all of whom went on to become deeply involved in racing, though Tim Mayer later suffered a fatal racing accident. In 1964 Alexander and Teddy Mayer came over to England and teamed up with Bruce McLaren's new organization. Now, in the hierarchy of McLaren International personnel Tyler Alexander is listed as Special Projects Manager, responsible for the management of all development programs.
Over the years Alexander has also spent some time in Indycar racing in his native America. Where then, would he prefer to be?
"In Mexico, Scuba diving."
According to Alexander, racing takes up too much time, too much of the time. He might also rather be sailing or even taking photos of Ayrton Senna picking his nose. In fact, Alexander is an accomplished photographer. Some of his work has been published in American magazines and there have been exhibitions of pictures he took during his early days in racing. His preferred subject matter is not cars, but people. His technique for getting candid shots is to "basically, hide in the crowd."
Speaking of people, how would he compare Formula 1 people with those in Indycar racing?
"They all put their pants on one leg at a time."
But aren't the CART people more relaxed and casual?  They actually talk to each other, while in Formula 1 there seems to be a lot of animosity...
"I guess if people have their head up their ass, they have their head up their ass, you know. I don't think there's anything here that breeds the animosity except the people themselves, and if they choose to be like that, well that's their own problem."
He must have noted big changes in the Grand Prix people over the years...
"Well if you look around, you'll find that a lot of the people here are exactly the same ones."
One of the big changes since the early days is the money, the sponsorship aspect of the sport. Some people, the purists, say that it was better in the old days.
   "      "Well I've never really been able to understand what a 'purist' is.  That sounds like a phoney load of bullshit for somebody to call something a sport when it's really a business. Once upon a time it was a sport, yes, but that was an awful long time ago. It was a business to us when we started. I mean that's what we were doing for a living. That's it, that's all we did."
Nowadays, when he walks down pit lane, is it possible to describe what goes on in his mind.
"Not that you'd want to hear, No!"

Friday, October 03, 2014

Suzuka Shambles


The early laps on the rain-sodden Suzuka circuit’s serpentine configuration were a shambles, with cars slithering off in all directions. In the worst of the many accidents in which nine cars crashed terminally a track marshal received a broken leg when hit by Martin Brundle's aquaplaning McLaren. Mercifully the 50-lap race was red-flagged after 13 chaotic laps to enable debris to be cleaned up and wits to be collected.
Some thought it madness to continue but following the restart an enthralling race ensued, featuring a spirited battle for third place between Jean Alesi’s flamboyantly-driven Ferrari and Nigel Mansell flogging his Williams hyper-aggressively, while the varying pit stops of the world championship protaganists Michael Schumacher (Bennetton) and Damon Hill (Williams) meant they took turns leading.

The final laps were breathtaking as Mansell relentlessly attacked Alesi (who hung on for third place) and Schumacher crept closer to Hill who slid around spectacularly but remained in front when it counted - at the chequered flag - and the stage was set for their title showdown next weekend in Adelaide.


* Senna Remembered - Ayrton Senna (killed earlier in 1994 at Imola) is revered to the point of sainthood in Japan and at Suzuka thousands of mourning Japanese fans wept inconsolably during the Senna Memorial Service before the race. A helicopter painted in his helmet colours descended through the mist and deposited Senna's sister Viviane on pole position on the grid where she gave a short, emotional speech: "Ayrton could not take with him from our world all his gold and silver trophies. But not even death could take from him the special trophy he received from the Japanese people: a trophy made of honour, admiration, respect and love." The fans made pilgrimages to the nearby Senna Memorial Gallery and the Senna Forever exhibit where the vivid reminders of their dead hero (photos, videos and voice recordings, his passport, birth certificate, helmet, driving suits, fireproof underwear, his 1991 McLaren, go-karts, model planes and boats, sunglasses, tennis racquet, etc) and background music of sad songs produced floods of tears. In the Gallery the welcoming message said:  'We will never forget your gentle and warm smile responding to cheering fans coming from all over Japan just to see you. Thank you Ayrton, you will live in our memory forever.’

* Mansell Manouevres – Mansell, having been hired by Williams for the final four races following his successful IndyCar sojourn, was in his usual charging mood here, but whether or not he can impress Williams enough to employ him for next season he can't lose financially: he gets $1.5 million per race now and will receive a reported $4 million if Williams decides not to take advantage of their option on his services for 1995. Yet at Suzuka Mansell showed a distinct lack of charity toward his main rival for the job: David Coulthard, who had replaced Senna for the previous eight races. On Friday Mansell decided Coulthard's presence would be too much of a distraction for his mechanics and had him banned from the Williams pit. Mansell was not amused (though the mechanics thought it hilarious) when Jochen Mass (the former driver now working for German TV) cut a Coulthard photo from a magazine, drew a red stroke through it and posted it at the Williams garage door. Coulthard, when not doing duty as a TV commentator, was forced to seek sanctuary in the pressroom.  

* Engine Machinations - Ron Dennis, smarting after his first losing season since he took over McLaren in 1981, thinks he can again create a powerhouse by switching engine partners. In fact, by replacing Peugeot motors with the Mercedes Benz variety (built by Ilmor Engineering and funded by the German automaker to the tune of $200 million over the next five years) Dennis says his goal is to win several races next year, and all 16 in 1996. Heading the queue to impede the progress of any such a potential Anglo-Teutonic steamroller will be next year's Jordan/Peugeot partnership, since the French automaker is not well pleased about being abandoned by McLaren after just one year of their three year contract. Ford, facing rejection from the top teams despite the fact that their (Cosworth-built) motor in the back of (Schumacher's) Benetton is the most successful powerplant of 1994, will also be keen to prove a point, especially to the forthcoming Benetton/Renault alliance. After Benetton bought Ligier to get the French team's supply of Renault motors for 1995 it was assumed Ford would next year transfer their impressive Zetec-R V8's (in 3 liter configuration to satisfy next season's displacement reduction of 500cc) to Jordan. Peugeot's surprise choice of Jordan as a replacement for McLaren means the factory Fords will probably appear in the back of next year's Sauber cars, that team being left powerless with the departure of Mercedes to McLaren.    

* Drivers' Travels - Karl Wendlinger, following a successful test session, thought he had completely recovered from the Monaco crash which left him in a coma for 19 days and made plans to resume his career in Japan and Australia, whereupon Sauber dismissed replacement driver Andrea de Cesaris. But in a subsequent test, just before leaving for Japan, Wendlinger experienced severe neck pains and was advised by doctors to postpone his comeback until next season. Sauber then began a frantic search for the veteran Italian, whose whereabouts could only be narrowed down to several thousand square kilometers of the Pacific Ocean where he was indulging in his great passion: windsurfing. To replace the missing De Cesaris (who was finally located, too late, in Hawaii) Sauber then turned to Wendlinger's team mate from last season: JJ Lehto, who was eventually also discovered at sea - on a boat sailing from Monaco to Finland - but he eagerly abandoned ship and flew to Japan where his Sauber failed him on the first lap.

* Odds and Ends - Though the McLaren F1 and Penske IndyCar teams will share engine maker Mercedes, fuel and lubricant supplier Mobil and sponsors Marlboro and Boss, Roger Penske says his only involvement with McLaren comes indirectly through his 25% ownership of Ilmor and Dennis says rumours of Penske buying a piece of McLaren were started by rival teams intent on "destabilizing McLaren."...The "mystery consortium" which last week bought debt-ridden Team Lotus is variously reported to consist of such personalities as Nigel Mansell, Bernie Ecclestone, Japanese driver Taki Inoue (who raced here in a Simtek) and Laurence Stroll, the Canadian owner of clothing maker and longtime Lotus sponsor Tommy Hilfiger...On Thursday Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger borrowed a several sizes too small policeman's uniform and cap and appeared in the Williams pit where he staged a mock arrest of Frank Williams. The Austrian prankster, who later used the uniform to mask his identity from aggressive fans, was asked to sample a new Japanese fast food product, which he pronounced awful, then was told it was named after him: 'The Gerhard Burger.'




Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Greatest Wheel-To-Wheel Duel In F1 History: Villeneuve vs Arnoux At Dijon

Rene and Gilles. Friends, rivals, real racers (
They were called stupid and crazy, criticised by their peers, accused of dangerous driving. But both drivers loved it. (

The Grand Prix de France was an historic day in the republic when a French driver in a French car won the race. It was Jean-Pierre Jabouille's first F1 win and the Renault EF1 motor in his Renault RS11 chassis marked the first victory for a turbo engine. But hardly anyone remembers 1 July, 1979, at Le Circuit Dijon-Prenois for those reasons. They remember it for the electrifying or terrifying, depending on the point of view, wheel-to-wheel, no-holds-barred duel between Jabouille's teammate Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve. It was one of the most ferocious fights ever seen in the history of motor racing.

The 3.800 km track in the heart of French wine country resembles a Mexican sombrero with a slightly battered brim. Certainly it gave the F1 drivers a severe battering in ground-effects cars that were negotiating its succession of switchback curves and up-and-downhill plunges at astonishing speeds. Compounding the punishment were tremendous g-forces generated during cornering that caused some drivers to nearly black out. Even for the fittest drivers the prospect of 80 laps in the race was a major headache.

Their extra horsepower put the Renaults on the front row, with Jabouille just ahead of Arnoux. Gilles was next up after a typically energetic performance in his Ferrari, while his team mate Jody Scheckter was fifth fastest. The news of the all-French front row helped lure well over 100,000 spectators to Dijon on Sunday and, though the overcast and cool weather was less than perfect for the crops in the surrounding vineyards it was ideal breathing weather for turbocharged engines.

The turbo motors were difficult to get under way abruptly and that played into Villeneuve's hand. Jabouille lagged, Arnoux nearly stalled, and Villeneuve took full advantage of their hesitation to blast away in the lead. He did a rather ragged version of a Mexican hat dance all around the first lap, intent on putting as much distance as possible on the sure-to-catch-up Renaults. His scorching pace continued throughout the early laps until after five of them he was nearly as many seconds ahead of his pursuers. That Gilles's charge was being made at the expense of his Michelins became evident when the Renaults, led by Jabouille, began to steadily reel him in. By lap 15 the race was between one red Italian car and two yellow-and-black French ones. The Ferrari was behaving ever more luridly, less from the driver's famously flamboyant style than from rapidly deteriorating tyres. It oversteered madly in right hand corners and behaved exactly the opposite way in left handers. Jabouille's constant hounding of Gilles paid off on lap 46 when he dove past him at the end of the pit straight and took the lead he kept to the finish.

And thus the stage was set for the epic Villeneuve-Arnoux battle. There was a small but vociferous contingent of Ferrari-mad tifosi on hand in the heart of France but they had to do their hollering best to make much of a dent in the cheers for ‘Little Rene’ Arnoux. A great crowd favourite, he had come up the hard way into Formula 1, like Gilles. He served a lengthy apprenticeship in the lower echelons of the sport, even doing time as a humble racing mechanic before making it to the big league on driving merit alone. Rumpled and a bit rough around the edges, Arnoux had much of the street urchin about him. His facial expression varied between a look of pure deviltry and perpetual astonishment (the latter aspect seemingly more predominant post-Dijon). Somewhat shy and retiring outside a racing car, he was the reverse behind the wheel, being brave, tough, and determined in much the same way as the man in the Ferrari in front of him.

On lap 71, with just nine to go, Arnoux set the fastest lap of the day, over one full second quicker than the next man, Jabouille, and the French fans screamed mightily at the prospect of a Renault one-two finish. With five laps remaining the second Renault shoved its nose rudely up the Ferrari's gearbox. Two laps later and three to go till the end, the deed was done and Arnoux led Villeneuve over the line. The joyous fans thought it was all over but the shouting - but it had only begun.

Gilles noticed that Rene was not able to pull away from him, and, indeed, the Renault turbo was stuttering slightly, suffering from fuel pickup problems. It put the cars on a more level playing field, with any remaining performance differentials being overidden by the sheer guts of the drivers.

The Ferrari pulled alongside the Renault on the inside line for the approach to the Double Droite de Villeroy, the right-hander at the end of the straight. The Ferrari braked at the last possible instant, locking up all four tortured Michelins in fearsome looking clouds of smoke. The Renault held its position, refusing to budge, and the two cars rounded the corner as if welded together.

Nobody, including the two drivers, was able to accurately count the number of times the cars actually touched in those final kilometers, how many times their wheels interlocked, how many times they both slid off the circuit, only to regain it in unison and bang together once again.

Through the 'S' de Sablieres they careened, around the Gauche de la Bretelle as one, through the Parabolique in unison. Arnoux inched ahead but slid wide and forced Villeneuve into the dirt. Villeneuve held his ground in the flying dust and barged his way back onto the tarmac. Through the Double Gauche de la Bretelle and out onto the Courbe des Gorgeolles they caromed off each other and into the Virage de la Combe. In a final fit of demonic late-braking Gilles nosed ahead. Arnoux threw all remaining caution to the wind and attempted a suicidal-looking counterattack around the Courbe de Pouas - but it wasn't enough. The Ferrari crossed the finish line on the Ligne Droite de la Fouine after one hour, 35 minutes, and 35.01 seconds of racing. It took the Renault twenty-four-one- hundredths of a second longer.

On their cool-down lap the two protaganists, who had just engaged in what was surely the most heart-stopping battle in the 321 races since the World Championship series began, raised their arms in a mutual salute of appreciation. The frenzied crowd, their loyalties forgotten, cheered them madly as one.

The Ferrari and Renault cruised into the pits together to be engulfed in a sea of tumult and pandemonium. Somewhere in the crowd Jabouille was being crowned the winner of his first Grand Prix but all eyes were on the place and show men. The sweat-soaked warriors dismounted, embraced fondly, and congratulated each other. From then on Gilles and Rene were good friends.

"No," said Rene, grinning from ear to ear, "I am not sad to be third. All you needed was for one or the other of us to become frightened and there might have been a terrible accident. But Gilles drove a fantastic race. I enjoyed it very much!"

Gilles was equally high-spirited, laughing and joking. "I tell you that was really fun! I thought for sure we were going to get on our heads, you know, because when you start interlocking wheels it's very easy for one car to climb over another. But we didn't crash and it's okay. I enjoyed myself amazingly!"

"I think Ferrari has got a wonderful driver," was Enzo Ferrari's reaction to Villeneuve’s heroics at Dijon. Ferrari team boss Mauro Forghieri, had mixed feelings about it. "I think it is the big story in the sport for Gilles. It was a very good story for automobile racing. A nice picture. Nice television. I was angry that day, but what could I do. In my opinion it was too much risk-taking.”

Most of the rest of the racing world, having viewed endless replays of the battle on television, thought it was wonderful, if very scary to see. Mario Andretti, then driving for Lotus, made light of it: "Just a couple of young lions clawing each other."

But the Grand Prix Drivers' Safety Committee, Jody Scheckter president, condemned Villeneuve and Arnoux for unruly behaviour. The two were hauled on the carpet before the Committee at the next race, in England, and roundly censured for dangerous driving.

Jody (who finished seventh at Dijon) had spoken to Gilles privately before that. "When I saw Francois Cevert killed (in 1973) it was the first time I ever thought about dying in the sport. It was horrible. After that all I was trying to do in F1 was save my life. You have a lot of drivers talking about the excitement, romance and glamour of the danger. For me that was the ugly part of the sport, an unfortunate part. And I believed I had to do everything in my power to drive as slowly and carefully as possible to give myself more chance, just to keep alive. But Gilles was always wanting to prove himself, for every lap. I never knew him to say I will take it easy now. It was always the maximum.

"Because I had such a good relationship with Gilles I could talk to him quietly and tell him he was a silly ass. He was intelligent enough to know that it was a stupid thing to do and that you don't last long doing that kind of stuff. But he liked that image of knocking wheels together and the idea of being crazy. He wouldn't admit it was foolhardy but I think he realised it. At the Silverstone drivers’ meeting we spoke to the two of them in front of everybody. We asked them for their points of view. Then we were tough on them."

Arnoux recalls the heated session vividly. "At Silverstone a lot of drivers - Scheckter, Fittipaldi, Regazzoni, Lauda - said it was too dangerous. 'You guys are completely crazy! You could have a big crash. Etc. Etc.' After Lauda said it was too dangerous, I said, 'Yes, maybe for you and Gilles. But not for me and Gilles.' I said to Niki, 'There is no possibility for you to do that because you would take your foot off the accelerator!' Gilles said to them all it is not dangerous and you are completely stupid to have a meeting for that!"

For Gilles Villeneuve his Dijon duel with Rene Arnoux was the highlight of his career. "That is my best memory of Grand Prix racing. Those few laps were just fantastic to me - outbraking each other and trying to race for the line, touching each other but without wanting to put the other car out. It was just two guys battling for second place without trying to be dirty but having to touch because of wanting to be in front. It was just fantastic!"

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

Here's a video clip of the famous Arnoux/Villeneuve duel...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mountain High

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


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)

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.


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

"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

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.”