Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Enzo Ferrari

Enzo Ferrari loved the way Gilles Villeneuve thrashed his cars (IPA Photo)


”I like to think Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars. Some
people called Villeneuve crazy. I said, 'Let's try him.'" - Enzo Ferrari

Gilles Villeneuve was the 71st driver to be hired by Enzo Ferrari and probably the least experienced of any of them. It seemed a strange decision at the time but it was completely in character for the living legend who created the most illustrious of all racing teams. Gilles once said that "Ferrari is devoted to racing cars like no man who ever lived." They were kindred spirits.

Enzo Ferrari was born on February 18, 1898, just after the
history of motor sport began. No other individual contributed more to that history.

Even the word Ferrari, symbolic of fast red racing cars driven by
brave men, is particularly apt. The family name Ferrari comes from the Italian word for iron: ‘ferro’, as does the word ‘ferrare’, which means to shoe a horse. Enzo Ferrari's father was the proprietor of a small iron working shop in Modena. When Enzo's life became devoted to harnessing mechanical horsepower crafted in metal ("I build engines and put wheels on them."), he chose as his personal emblem a prancing horse.

At first, the young Ferrari wanted to be an opera singer, a
tenor, or a sports journalist. Though he couldn't carry a tune (unlike another Modenese, Pavarotti), he did have a way with words and for a while reported on football games for local newspapers. (Later he wrote eloquently in several books, notably 'My Terrible Joys', a volume of memoirs published in 1963.) But these youthful ambitions soon took a back seat to motor racing.
The grand passion of his life began one day in 1908 when his father brought him to see the great Felice Nazarro win in a Fiat at nearby Bologna. "That day I felt a profound emotion."

Like many of those who later drove his racing cars the road to success was paved with hardship and heartbreak for Ferrari. He had only seven years of formal schooling. During World War One his humble position in the Italian army was that of caretaker for a pack of mules in a transport section. He was devastated by the deaths of his older brother Alfredo and his father during the war years and was himself discharged in 1918 with a lung ailment. He
applied for a job with Fiat in Torino but was rejected because there were not enough jobs for all the returning war veterans. He went to a nearby park and sat on a bench where "I wept with loneliness and despair."

He eventually found work as a test driver with a small car manufacturing concern in Milano, CMN, and even did some racing for the company. In 1920 he saw a girl in the Torino rail station: "She was a fine looking girl, blonde, elegant, vivacious, minute." Her name was Laura and they were soon married. Ferrari then was hired by Alfa Romeo, for whom he acted as a car distributor, competition manager, and, as a weekend bonus, racing driver. In the latter pursuit he competed 47 times (from 1919 to 1931) and won 13 events. It was a quite respectable record but Ferrari felt his mechanical sympathy was a limitation. "I had one big fault. I drove always with consideration for the car, whereas to be successful, one must on occasion be prepared to ill-treat it."

Speaking of those many occasions when Gilles Villeneuve
mistreated his cars, Ferrari was philosophical, referring to his "destructive powers" as a factor in improving the Ferrari
product. "Villeneuve contributed a lot to us with his intense competitiveness and his talent for taking anything mechanical and utterly destroying it. He continually brought us face to face with our limitations, with the most extreme tests for our cars that our engineers had ever encountered and had to solve, and he indulged in some of the most hair-raising acrobatics I have ever seen in the process. Transmissions, gearboxes, driveshafts - all were subjected to the utmost punishment. He was a high priest of destruction but his way of driving showed us how much we had to improve those parts so they could stand the assaults of any driver."

Enzo and Gilles were kindred spirits (Photo Olimpia Imola)

At one of Enzo Ferrari's race wins as a driver, near Ravenna in 1923, he was introduced to the parents of Italy's leading fighter pilot in the
war, Francesco Baracca. His plane had been decorated with a special insignia, ‘Il Cavallino Rampante’, The Prancing Horse, on a shield and Baracca's daring exploits in the air had made it a
symbol of courage and audacity. It turned out that the late Alfredo Ferrari had served on the ground crew of the same wartime squadron and after the Ravennna race the Baraccas befriended Alfredo's younger brother. They presented Enzo with their son's insignia for his personal use. When he established his own racing team in 1930, the Scuderia Ferrari, Enzo added a yellow background (the official colour of Modena) to the black horse on the shield and his cars have carried it ever since.

Following the birth of his son Dino in 1932 Enzo stepped out of
the driver's seat to mastermind his team, and the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos became the powerhouse of racing in Europe in the early thirties. Financed by wealthy partners, Ferrari was
able to engage the services of brilliant designers and remarkable drivers like Tazio Nuvolari. In 1935 the tiny, fiery Nuvolari drove Ferrari's Alfa P3 to an amazing victory over the nine cars entered by the mighty Auto Union and Mercedes Benz teams. This
effort, around the 177 dangerous curves per lap of the daunting 14.17-mile Nurburgring course in Germany, remains one of the most extraordinary drives of all time.

For Ferrari, Nuvolari's performance in that event epitomized all
that a racing driver should be. "He was a driver who, in any type of car, in any circumstance and on any track, always gave
everything and ended up being, on the whole, the best. Nuvolari, in contrast with many drivers of yesterday and today, never started out beaten because he had an inferior car." 

When Ferrari hired Gilles Villeneuve he noted a physical similarity to
Nuvolari (both were small men) and it helped influence his decision to hire him. "When they presented me with this 'piccolo
Canadese,' this minuscule bundle of nerves, I immediately recognized in him the physique of Nuvolari and said to myself, let's give him a try."

Ferrari's arrangement with Alfa Romeo ended in 1938 and during
the ensuing war years he built machinery to make ball bearings. His workshop in Modena survived two bombings and in 1946 he moved his premises down the road to Maranello to take up racing on his own. That it soon became a thriving enterprise was only a secondary benefit for Ferrari, who said: "I race because I am an
enthusiast. Others do it as a business."

The first all-Ferrari car, the 125 V12, became successful in the hands of drivers like Alberto Ascari and Luigi Villoresi in the late 1940s.

Ferrari sports cars first won the epic Mille Miglia and Targa Florio long distance races held on public roads in Italy in 1948 and the historic Le Mans 24-hour endurance race in France the next year.
Ferrari began producing road cars based on his racing machines and they soon became the most desirable vehicles for wealthy automotive enthusiasts and exotic status symbols for the rich and famous, or for those who wished to create that impression.

For Enzo Ferrari his "civilian" cars were simply a by-product of
his competition department and racing, especially single-seater cars, remained his first love. When the Formula 1 world championship was formally organized in 1950 it became his main
interest. Although Ferraris have won races in nearly every category of road racing around the world, it was putting his cars to the Grand Prix test that mattered most to the founder of the
team.  Here too, Ferrari is the most successful F1 constructor (221 wins versus 182 for McLaren and 114 for Williams – as of 2014) but in later years the man behind the name hardly ever saw them race in person. He restricted himself to watching the events on television because, he wrote, "It offends me to see the machines I have created being driven to death."

However, many people thought his absence from the circuits was
prompted by Ferrari's profound sorrow over the cruel death of his son Dino from muscular dystrophy in 1956. The grieving father even contemplated suicide: "Work was my only salvation, the anchor I had to grasp in order not to find myself adrift." Ferrari once told a friend that "Every morning I wake up with Death in my pocket." Following Dino's funeral Ferrari began every day with a visit alone to his grave, then said prayers for him in a chapel dedicated to his son's memory. When his wife Laura died Ferrari became closer to his illegitimate son, Piero Lardi Ferrari, who is now head of the company.

A complicated man of apparently conflicting emotions, Ferrari was
to say of Gilles Villeneuve, "I loved him like a son." But he was also accused of being a hard man who cared more for his cars than his drivers. There had been a great public outcry when the Marquis Alphonso de Portago's Ferrari went off the road in the 1957 Mille Miglia, killing himself, his co-driver and many spectators. Ferrari was charged with using unsuitable tires, then exonerated. But all too often, it seemed, race drivers were killed in Ferraris, and after Luigi Musso died in the wreckage of his Ferrari in 1958, no native Italian appeared in his famous red racing cars for many years. "The reason why I don't have any Italian drivers in my team," said Ferrari, "goes back to 1958 when the Italian newspapers said I was the devil eating my own sons."

In 1963 Ford tried to buy Ferrari, but he refused to sell to the
Americans. Then, in 1969, Fiat, the Italian state-owned conglomerate, bought a controlling interest in Ferrari, leaving Enzo in charge of motor racing and he was able to devote himself exclusively to the Scuderia. He was in his office each morning by 7:30 and (even at the age of 90) knew each of his employees in the racing division (200 of them before his death) by name. A
win in an F1 race was "like a blood transfusion" for Enzo Ferrari, said one of his drivers, Michele Alboreto (who had the number 27 made famous by Gilles Villeneuve), and his passion for the sport undoubtedly prolonged his life. He died on 14 August, 1988.

"I have known men who have undoubtedly loved cars as much as I
have," Ferrari wrote. "But I don't think I've known any who have been as obstinate as I have, motivated by the same wholehearted passion that has left me without either the time or the
inclination to do anything else. I have no other interests apart from racing cars. Whoever follows in my footsteps inherits a very simple doctrine: to keep alive the desire for progress which was
pursued in the past, pursued at the expense of noble human lives."

In his later years Ferrari spent much of his time in a converted
farmhouse located within the Fiorano test circuit, where he surrounded himself with racing memorabilia. It is a veritable Ferrari museum crammed with photographs and trophies, even a life-size bronze sculpture of a prancing horse. Pride of place in one corner is given to a wall hanging created by Georgette Villeneuve to commemorate her son's first win in a Ferrari, the
1978 Grand Prix of Canada. And outside the entrance to Fiorano, on the corner of the Via Gilles Villeneuve, is a bronze bust of the French Canadian driver from Berthierville, Quebec.

According to Ferrari, his hiring of Gilles was based on a hunch,
a gamble that he would develop into a winner. "I admired Villeneuve," he said. "He's the product of a bet I made with myself. When I engaged him I thought no one would ever have put
any money on him. It is a well known fact that many times in life one acts under emotional impulses rather than cold reason. There was a chorus of criticism when I engaged him because he was an
unknown entity. Taking into account that I had taken Lauda on as a virtual unknown, well, if Lauda was out there then must be others out there, too, others who can climb to the top. I like to think that Ferrari can build drivers as well as cars. Some people called Villeneuve crazy. I said, 'Let's try him.'"

- excerpt from Gilles Villeneuve, The Life Of The Legendary Racing Driver. Here's more information about the acclaimed biography...

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Winning Ways Of Ron Dennis

(While writing TEAMWORK, The Biography Of The McLaren F1 Team, I was given unprecedented access to its inner workings. Some senior personnel worried that the tome might serve as a handbook to help rival teams become winners. But none of them had McLaren's main ingredient for success: the most successful team boss in F1 history, Ron Dennis.)

In 1966, the year Bruce McLaren first entered a car bearing his name in F1 racing, Ron Dennis was beginning his career in motorsport. Two years later, when Bruce won McLaren's first Grand Prix, Ron was a mechanic on an opposing team. In 1970, the year Bruce was killed, Ron took the decision that would eventually merge his own destiny with that of McLaren. Born in Woking in 1947 Ron left school after taking his O-levels and in 1965 began an apprenticeship with an automotive engineering company based at the old Brooklands race circuit in nearby Byfleet. Following a take-over the premises became the headquarters for the Cooper Car Company and Ron began working for the race car manufacturer. After a period on the production line building cars for F2 and F3 racing, Ron was transferred to the Cooper F1 team, where, in 1966 and still in his teens he went to his first race as a mechanic on the Cooper driven by the Austrian Jochen Rindt in the Mexican Grand Prix. When Rindt moved to Brabham for the 1968 season Ron went with him as his personal mechanic. In 1969 Rindt left Brabham for Lotus (and was killed at the 1970 Italian Grand Prix), but Ron stayed at Brabham, where he became Chief Mechanic and where the flash of inspiration occurred that set him on course for the position he holds today.

While the Brabham cars were being shipped from the US Grand Prix to the last race of the 1970 season, in Mexico, Ron had a rare few days holiday in Acapulco. There, lying beside a pool in the Mexican sun, he contemplated his future. Though just 23 years old, he was in charge of preparing the Brabham cars, looking after much of the team's business affairs, even handling the prize money. Despite feeling somewhat over-awed by the responsibility Ron suddenly realised he was doing everything necessary to run a team. And so, he thought, why not run my own team?

Once his mind was made up the several characteristics that became his trademark were applied to forming his team. Among them was an obsession with cleanliness. As a mechanic, Ron hated getting his clothes soiled and his hands dirty and within half an hour of going home at night he had scrubbed himself spotlessly clean. He treated racing cars similarly. With his conviction that just because something was mechanical, it didn't have to be dirty, after each race Ron had what he called a 'Dirty Day,' when he would spend hours taking a car apart, meticulously cleaning every single component, then re-assembling them. The cleaning up process he disliked, but systematically putting the car back together again gave him great satisfaction, as did the pleasure of admiring the gleaming finished product. Top quality presentation became a cornerstone of his team-building philosophy, as did the pursuit of excellence, which he approached with the same zeal lavished on his racing cars. Brought into play was a passion for precision and an almost fanatical attention to detail. There were also intense powers of concentration, an unwavering determination to succeed and a relentless ambition to push that success beyond established frontiers. Any high profile authority figure possessed with such a combination of potentially aggressive personality traits risks being labelled something rather less than lovelable. His steely resolve can be intimidating and outsiders having occasional contact with his self-admitted often stern presence have called him cold, abrasive, egotistical, aloof, arrogant - characteristics that have also been attributed to his team.

Yet throughout McLaren scarcely a disparaging word can be heard about Ron Dennis. Instead, there is universal admiration and respect. Within the team he is regarded, at worst, as a benevolent dictator and, by those who know him best, as a caring and sensitive man. Rather than abusing his position of power he has taken advantage of it on numerous occasions to help employees, friends, even F1 rivals, sort out personal difficulties. Most of all, the McLaren people say, he is an inspirational leader and a motivator of the highest order. Just where all of this comes from, the man himself is not sure.

"You see, I have always believed that if you really want to do something, you can do it. It's like climbing a mountain of ambition. If things out of your control have an influence on the path you take, you can fall off. Some people get catapulted up the mountain by an amazing stroke of good fortune. But by and large, if you've climbed up the mountain in a sure-footed way and reached the summit, the path you have taken brings into your character one essential ingredient which allows you to stay on top: which is a wealth of experience. With that experience you can build on your successes and go beyond previous limits. I just don't think you have a limit. The possibilities are limitless."

His hard climb to the top was not without its pitfalls. In 1972, while operating Rondel Racing with his partner Neil Trundle, Ron worked himself into a state of exhaustion preparing the cars for a F2 race and fell asleep at the wheel while driving his E-type Jaguar. In the crash he received severe facial lacerations (repaired by plastic surgery) and a serious eye injury that put him out of commission for two months. Typically, he turned this negative into a positive. "In fact, it was probably the most positive thing that ever happened to me because it pulled me into management. We employed another mechanic to do my job and I ran the team. That was the big starting point." For Ron, there is no finishing point because, as he is fond of saying, "To stand still in motor racing is to go backwards."

To make rapid progress - from Rondel through his Project Two, Three and Four teams - he concentrated on developing comprehensive professionalism, highlighted by immaculate preparation and presentation. The factory floors were painted frequently, the teams brought a signwriter to the circuits to touch up the paintwork on the complex colour schemes of the cars and the truck driver was instructed to park in the paddock so that the names on the tyres were all pointing precisely in the same direction. At that time, when the commercial potential of motor racing was in its infancy, the Dennis-run teams were well ahead of the competition and Ron's reputation escalated accordingly. Among those impressed was McLaren's then main sponsor Philip Morris, which arranged a merger with Project Four as a cure for the doldrums in which Marlboro McLaren had floundered for several years. Thus, at the age of 34, Ron joined McLaren to start the 1981 season and the record of success that followed is a direct result of the goals he set.

McLaren's stated goal is to win every F1 race. It hasn't achieved that, but it has come closer than most. In terms of  Grand Prix victories only the team founded by Enzo Ferrari has more, albeit benefitting from having a 16-year head start on McLaren. To date the legendary Italian team has 221 Grand Prix wins versus 182 for McLaren (Williams ranks third with 114 wins). 158 of McLaren's wins - and 17 of the team's 20 Constructors' and Drivers' Championships - have come under the leadership of Ron Dennis. And while the team has occasionally faltered during his tenure it has seldom looked anything less than a potential winner. Even during the team's winless periods frontrunning rivals watched their mirrors expectantly for McLaren's inevitable return to the forefront.

According to Ron, a main reason why Mclaren is such a perennial powerhouse is: "Our attention to detail. Every single detail is important. You break down the whole Grand Prix scenario into the tiniest details. Individually, you might barely perceive them, hardly measure them. But you look at each of these facets and try to improve them. Those little improvements add up to considerable improvement. "You have to start with the really fundamental basics. When someone walks into a room I notice straightaway such details as fingernails, whether they are cleaned and manicured, how the person is dressed, whether they're scruffy or neat and tidy. If you don't have respect for your own body then I think you tend to lack personal discipline."

Ron's legendary personal discipline (which includes a steady regimen of 14-hour days in his office, interrupted by travels to the races, where he goes to "relax") is matched by a continual quest for self-improvement, especially for the acquisition of knowledge. While at school he was not a diligent student, though his subsequent development of his intellect and the eloquence with which he can express it - through 'Ronspeak,' which is sometimes ridiculed for its complexity, but seldom for the profundity of its content - would now easily enable him to stand tall in the halls of academe. Certainly, he could write the definitive textbook on how to create and run a successful F1 team. Listening to him talk is like being persuasively lectured on the art of winning.

"Built into my management approach is a commitment to many philosophies that I believe are important to maintaining and perpetuating a successful company. My knowledge comes from a commitment excellence, to learn and understand those elements which can contribute to the process of success. That can range from attending management and motivational seminars, reading management books and magazines (such as The Harvard Business Week and The Economist), wrestling with the concept of lateral thinking (influenced by the concept's inventor, Edward de Bono) and working hard to understand people. "I think the software of the company, its human resources, is absolutely vital to success. So we put a great emphasis on keeping our human resource quotient in its optimum frame of mind. We go into great detail to create the right working environment. This includes such things as carefully choosing the colour scheme for our offices and factory, maintaining the correct temperature and humidity, cleanliness, lighting, even the smell - we have used fragrances in our working environment. If you go into a room smelling of dirty coffee cups, with dirty windows and wilting flowers your mindset is completely different from going into a clean, well-lit and pleasant-smelling room."

Ron is a sore loser and has admitted feeling physical pain on the Monday morning after not winning a Grand Prix. Failure to succeed only inspires him to try harder and at the start of every day he hits the ground running. "There is a very brief period, that lasts from the moment I wake up to the moment my feet hit the floor at the side of the bed, that is just about the only amount of time I have where I could not be motivated. When things aren't working and you want them to work you either allow it to demotivate or motivate yourself. If I'm not motivated there is absolutely no possibility of motivating the rest of the people in the company.

"So, a fundamental requirement of being the head of the company is to be the prime motivating force. What you hope to do with all the people around you is develop a good positive attitude so that you're not alone in the process. And we've got people who have been with us for years and years who have a conviction that when things go wrong everything will eventually come right. We've had problems in the past and worked them out. Motivation is a strange but essential ingredient in the process of winning. You would think that it struggles in adversity, but it's the opposite. When you are winning everything, then motivation becomes a major issue. Whether you're winning or not winning, there is no solution other than hard work. Not just the physical, but also the thought processes."

Ron has developed his thinking powers to a very high degree and to illustrate the mindset necessary to think productively he draws an analogy to a sprinter preparing for a 100 meter race. "He has total concentration on what he is about to do. And just think of the kind of advantage you can have if you train yourself to apply that level of concentration on an hour-to-hour basis. Thinking is a very cheap commodity. The only thing it's costing you is time, but in the end well-considered creative thought processes will save you time. So, you train yourself to think in a disciplined way, playing a kind of mental three-dimensional chess to make sure you've covered all the options to solve the many complex issues there are in this business. You really have to keep your mind focussed and watch that everything functions in an optimum way. It can be very wearing, very fatiguing, and take all emotion out of me."

In Ron's mind there is no room for negative thoughts, because they are non-productive and a waste of energy. He has become a master at positive thinking, and also at controlling his emotions, in the belief that the extremes at either end of the emotional scale are obstacles on the route to success. He has developed enough mental strength to if not eliminate any feeling of depression, at least keep it at bay, and he also thinks it necessary to keep a careful check on "non-productive and non-professional" displays of elation. "When you see a doctor delivering a baby you don't see him jumping up and down. He has a professional approach to something which is an emotional moment. That's the way we want to be. The moment you stop being professional is the moment you start the downward spiral to failure.

 "If people say we look sterile and unemotional from the outside, I do think there is a level of warmth and commitment to each other that you can only feel on the inside. We have a personality that I hope reflects honesty, integrity, focus. We are also seen as predatory, a word I quite like. We carefully stalk and systematically approach our prey - which is winning a race. That aggressive approach to our goal is tempered by values within the company where we are caring, supportive, loyal to our employees.

"I think the thing that makes McLaren successful is that it is a very successful team, and team is the key word. My role in that team is to put it together, making sure that all the political, promotional and organisational considerations marry. I have to package the elements and make it a team effort. It's a knitting together of egos, likes, dislikes, motivating forces, things that destabilise, things that harmonise. Having the ability to try and dissect all these things and then getting them to mesh together, I'd like to think that's what I'm reasonably competent at." 

In his career to date Ron Dennis has come a long way and brought a lot of people with him. He has become a very wealthy man and he shares the wealth - the McLaren employees are probably the best paid in the business. He is a racer and also a businessman and when discussing the relative satisfaction he gets from both pursuits there is no question where his heart lies...

"The driving force has got to be a desire to be the best, not just to make money.  I've often said I would prefer to be recognised as a successful businessman, before a successful motorsport director. But if it came to a choice, I would most certainly choose winning a Grand Prix over making a million dollars."

F1speedwriter with the top team leader, Ron Dennis 

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...