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F1 History F1 Opinion 16

Backmarkers and the art of blocking

The handbagging afters between Sebastian Vettel and Narain Karthikeyan in Malaysia were pure sanitised Formula 1: nothing more savage than a sound bite or two. Idiot. Crybaby. Hardly bare-knuckle.

Neither man was free from fault in the trigger incident: Karthikeyan dozily drifted a mite right – having gathered up a moment over a slickery kerb – as Vettel skimmed an obstacle that, in his own mind, had already been dealt with. Summarily.

And therein lies the reversed-logic problem: nowadays, backmarkers are hardly an obstacle. Pass three successive blue flags without sufficient supplication being shown and they receive a pit-to-car flea in their ear and some form of penalty – and probably a letter of censure from Kofi Annan. Expected to jump, preferably leap, out of the way, they usually do. That’s why the frontrunners, in the manner of a lorry driver with a cyclist, cut them no slack. Whack!

opinion history  Backmarkers and the art of blocking

I am not advocating a return to the bad-old-good-old days, but I will admit to a sneaking regard for the Obstreperous Backmarker of yore. Who am I kidding? I miss ’em. Racers of Thatcher, at least you knew where you were with them: on your own, fending for yourself. Openly derided in paddock and pit lane, they had to be awarded grudging respect on the track: Caution! Wide load.

The French were rather good/bad at it, usually in a Ligier.

Tempestuous Guy Ligier (below) is a tough nut that butted heads as a rugby union B-international hooker in the days before video refs. Fatherless from an early age, his first major vehicular purchase was a bulldozer upon which a construction empire was cussedly founded. He raced bikes, then cars – determinedly rather than out-and-out quickly – and achieved the dream: F1 in 1966-’67, as a privateer in a Cooper, then a Brabham.

opinion history  Backmarkers and the art of blocking

He returned to F1 in 1976 as a team owner, with Jacques Laffite at the wheel of a patriotically blue car bedecked by a quintessentially French sponsor: Gitanes. ‘’Appy Jacques’ doesn’t have a nasty bone in his body and his freewheelin’ attitude – allegedly he once had to re-hail a cab after removing his fishing rod and tennis racquet but not his crash helmet from its boot – provided a counterpoint to his volcanic boss. They rubbed along just so, a relationship no doubt salved by Laffite’s winning of six of the team’s eventual tally of nine Grand Prix victories.

Things changed when Laffite jumped ship for Williams for 1983. Ligier slumped – but went down blocking. I doubt that there was an official directive, but it seemed clear that Guy’s guys were not employed to be in the business of opening the door for anybody at anytime, rather to ruck and maul.

That Jean-Pierre ‘Jumper’ Jarier was Laffite’s replacement set the tone. His ‘Sorry, mate, didn’t see ya’ performances caused the incorrigibly incorrect James Hunt to rewrite several unwritten broadcasting rules.

opinion history  Backmarkers and the art of blocking

The next ‘Frenchie’ to register 11 on the industry-standard Hunt-ometer was René Arnoux (above), who joined Ligier in 1986. Unlike Jarier, who had the talent but not the application and, therefore, rarely the opportunity, ballsy Arnoux was a proven winner at the highest level. Mere haplessness – think Eliseo Salazar of Nelson Piquet heel-of-hand/toe-of-boot fame – is insufficient. Chip-on-shoulder bloody-mindedness and the couldn’t-care-less (preferably Gallic) shrug of a fading star are required for full-on backmarker devilment.

Actually Arnoux, dumped by Ferrari in 1985 after just one race, made a good fist of restoring his career in that first season with Ligier: 11 top-10s in qualifying, three fourths, two fifths and a sixth. But Ligier’s deal to run Alfa Romeo’s no-go turbo four-pot, and Arnoux’s brutally honest opinion of it, left the team in the lurch in 1987, and he and it slid remorselessly down the grid and lap chart, first with Megatron, then Judd, then Cosworth power.

René, God bless his Nomex socks, had always been an outsider looking in – this is the racer who felt no need to paint his crash helmet because doing so would not make him faster – and he had no compunction about making a pest of himself during his last two seasons. Hunt went apoplectic.

opinion history  Backmarkers and the art of blocking

And then Olivier Grouillard (above), another uncompromising competitor from France’s rugby heartland, and a frontrunner in F3000 to boot, joined Arnoux for 1989. Block-a-chock. He arrived in F1 bright-eyed and bushy tailed – and scored a point at home. By the time he had been through the run-of-the-mill at Osella, Fondmetal and AGS, however, he had proved beyond all doubt that he had absorbed the Ligier/Arnoux ‘spirit’. During his 1992 season at Tyrrell, he was considered a genuine menace.

Still unconvinced? Ligier also employed Andrea de Cesaris, Philippe Alliot and Piercarlo Ghinzani, none of who were renowned for the width of their peripheral vision.

My point? Vettel has it easy in this regard. His reaction in Malaysia said more about his state of mind than the state of F1’s rules of engagement. Blessed with talent and a sense of humour in the main, he does tend to whinge when he’s not winning. Which, to be fair, hasn’t been often in recent times.

In contrast, Jenson Button shrugged off his cock-up that skewed his McLaren’s front wing against Karthikeyan’s left-rear Pirelli at Sepang – they were jostling, no more, for position at the time. By any measure, this is a better way to deal with the modern-day makeweight make-ways. Button’s was a far classier nought than Vettel’s. By such ‘margins’ are titles won. And lost.

Add your comments

16 comments on Backmarkers and the art of blocking

  1. Andy, 5 April 2012 16:11

    Remember Jarier blocking Tambays leading Ferrari at Austria in 1983, such that he subsequently emerged third. None of your subtle finger waved in Jariers direction – Patrick looked like he would climb out of the cockpit and give him a good punch in the fag’ole. On the other hand, remembering the 87 British Grand Prix. If you get the chance to watch the race, dont fast forward to Mansells famous out-fumbling of the humiliated Piquet, stop it a few laps before and watch him lap Palmer in the Tyrell at Abbey. I’m sure Palmer hadn’t seen him, but Mansell was, lets say, quite committed. A closing gap as Palmer took his line, about two millimetres to spare, a speed differential of who knows what – if they had touched they both would have ended up in the burger stands. Exhilarating and a bit scary – Backmarkers are people too!

  2. Rich Ambroson, 5 April 2012 17:38

    Interesting piece; I do remember thinking the Ligiers were almost always blocking in the late 80s.

    Grouilliard… not as famous as Arnoux, but a blocker extraordinaire, for sure!

  3. Mikey, 5 April 2012 18:27

    Chin up SV, normal service will no doubt be resumed shortly.
    JB continues to impress – he even does failure with aplomb.
    Remember the end of qualifying coasting (blocking) of a few years ago? Perhaps that could be called blocking by “frontmarkers”.
    Backmarkers? Someone has to do it. The speed differential between the pointy and blunt ends of the grid is huge nowadays so I don’t sympathise too much if an “Ace” can’t hustle his championship contender past an underfunded also-ran. Getting past slower cars is part of the game isn’t it? As a golfer once said to me, “There are no ‘Gimmes’ when I play”.

  4. chris b, 5 April 2012 19:35

    seems to me we have forgotten the skills the better drivers used to lap other drivers – don’t seem to recollect Senna having too many problems – in fact i remember the ruthlessness which he would lap someone and create a gap for whomsoever was chasing him and it was part of the craft, sadly pampered now, reminds me of the story and Paul, perhaps you know this better than i – but seem to remember when Jimmy and Innes weren’t exactly the best of friends and at Monza in 1963 – Innes chopped Jimmy several times until Dan Gurney caught them and Jimmy let Dan through and Innes went to block him and as Jimmy said you don’t do that to Dan and the pair of them wobbled off whilst Jimmy overtook the pair of them and went onto win [again!]

    worst choppers? Farina? De Cesaris? Foitek?

  5. John Browett, 5 April 2012 22:51

    And how about Rosberg’s chop on Senna at Brands in 85 after Senna had him off the lap before. Won Mansell the race that did – then look what happened!
    Ligier were legendary…

  6. John Read, 5 April 2012 22:51

    I am reminded of ex-Tyrrell drivers in fear of froth-mouthed bollockings from Uncle Ken if their lap times drifted whilst being lapped.
    I reckon Ken Tyrrell also was of the view that the overtaking driver had the principal responsibility.

  7. N. Weingart, 6 April 2012 19:39

    Senna is praised for his qualifying form but I’ve never seen a more proficient blocker, just ask Nigel Mansell!
    Senna had the knack of perfect car placement, remember that in his day the cars were wider than now, not so near the apex as to allow an outside pass nor to far from it to allow a rush up the inside. Monaco 1992 is a perfect example, a maestro in action.

  8. Andy, 7 April 2012 10:06

    Ignoring the fact he wasn’t a backmarker, Senna only had to block Mansell for a handful of laps – what about when Bernoldi blocked Coulthard for nearly the whole race – another maestro in action (!)

  9. John Saviano, 7 April 2012 22:03

    I am so tired of complaints about “back markers” and “blue flags.” I believe this is something called “RACING,” in which, in theory, a faster car passes a slower car, or at least I think that’s what F1 is about. While nobody wants to see blocking or hazardous driving, since when does a slower car really have to disappear when some prima donna appears behind him? I have no respect for a driver moaning about back markers – if you’re a better, faster, driver, then get around the slower one!

  10. Al D, 8 April 2012 03:58

    But, John, it doesn’t work like that…not any more.

    Current F1 cars no longer produce the bulk of their aerodynamic grip from ground effect. Instead, they rely on numerous contoured wing surfaces that quickly lose effectiveness when a driver is closely following another.

    Without DRS – it’s is vitually impossible for a quicker car to lap a slower one because the faster car cannot exit a corner sufficiently close to the slower car to have a chance to slipstream & outbrake.

    It simply cannot be done and it matter little which of our heroes, current or past, is at the wheel.

  11. Ray T, 9 April 2012 17:48

    Murray, “they gave Andrea DeCesaris number 8 this year”.
    James,” how convenient, it’s the same number upside down”.

    CLASSIC.

  12. John Saviano, 10 April 2012 14:39

    Al D, understood (‘m well aware of the current aero issues in F1), however, I believe these incidents would have allowed DRS to be used, there enabling the faster driver to get by. My point was intended to be somewhat sarcastic.

    Aero aside, even in street driving, it’s generally the “passing” car that should be most observant, and not being careful towards the “passed” car is always troublesome.

  13. Ray T, 10 April 2012 19:09

    Al, good point, exactly why F1 should go back to ground-effect downforce and ditch the DRS.
    It’s better racing, closer racing and one can argue it is safer.

  14. Carlos Sanchez, 11 April 2012 08:50

    To mention Senna as a blocker in Monaco ’92 is really misleading and unfounded, or maybe it stems from a nationalistic (assuming you’re Nigel’s country mate) feeling as that position defense prevented the British driver from winning, and that’s ok with me, but then we shall accept it as part of the game.
    Come on Motor Racing fans (Weingart)!?, on the one hand we all in the end praise pure competitive attitudes from true RACING Drivers (see Villeneuve’s stories) and on the other hand you criticize such competitive spirit. What would you have expected from racing driver Ayrton Senna on that race he had in his fist to win, to park his car/move aside in a surrendering attitude?
    Bear in mind that for a driver to be be able to handle a car without any grip spinning all over the place in that gutter of a circuit would require phenomenal amounts of talent, let alone staying ahead defending first place… true greatness proof and a Jolly good race indeed as the British, Mansell first, would agree.

  15. Mike, 23 April 2012 21:49

    I think the comments about Senna were meant to illustrate his “blocking” ability in the sense of defending his position (to the limit of sporting fairness, “car placement” as opposed to weaving), and Senna was certainly a master at that when needed. Big difference between that and being lapped… I’ve seen Senna move dutifully out of the way as well. My feeling about backmarkers is, if you don’t like having to move out of the way when being lapped, build a faster car. I’ve been a backmarker in a race once, and I immediately changed my mindset to calculating the most convenient place to let the leaders through – if you don’t do that, you’re not showing well-rounded professional racing character. The other thing that sucks this year is the tires are so fragile that you have to be even more careful getting around lapped traffic… but don’t get me started on that one.

  16. Terry Jacob, 23 June 2012 14:28

    Nothing like a bit of blocking and weaving to liven things up , a little wheel banging wouldn’t go amiss either !!!!

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