Modern times

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It’s a truism that marshals are the unsung heroes of motorsport. Motor racing simply wouldn’t take place, at any level, without the skilled dedication of those orange-overalled enthusiasts who give their time and wholehearted involvement to making racing work.

Many people still think that getting the closest view of a Formula One race for free in return for waving a flag is a cushy number, but they couldn’t be more wrong. These days, the marshals who do the key jobs at major events are invariably well-trained and very experienced. They’ll have done their share of whatever is their national equivalent of standing in the rain at Lydden Hill or Cadwell Park. In this country most marshals at this year’s British GP will have worked the previous weekend at a far less glamorous event, and will be working again somewhere else the weekend after.

I’ve got close to plenty of marshals down the years. More than once, during my own inept efforts to be a racing driver, they’ve pulled me out of a wrecked car. And countless times, as a journalist lucky enough to have a track pass, I’ve stood by as they’ve done their job, and got to know many of them by sight if rarely by name. Their common denominator is an extraordinarily well-informed understanding, and love, of motor racing. Without that they wouldn’t work from dawn till dusk, exposed not only to all weathers but often to considerable danger, and usually for little more than a complimentary sandwich. Added to that is usually an indomitable sense of humour, together with a common-sense ability to react to any sort of incident They are, in motor racing terms, the salt of the earth.

Marshalling in Britain has always been considered the best in the world, primarily because the sheer amount of sport in this country allows for a lot of experience. But, like everything else in Formula One, the levels of competence in marshalling around the globe have changed out of all recognition over the past two decades. I still feel a shudder of horror and regret at the needless tragedy at Kyalami in 1977, when Renzo Zorzi’s Shadow came to a halt beside the undulating main straight with a minor fire. As the driver climbed out, two inexperienced young marshals ran across the track to his aid. One of them got to the other side moments before Hans Stuck’s March and Tom Pryce’s Shadow came over the brow, wheel to wheel at about 170mph. The other, a 19-year-old ticket clerk from Johannesburg Airport, had grabbed a heavy fire extinguisher and was still in the middle of the track when Pryce struck him. The Shadow killed the marshal and the fire extinguisher killed Pryce, in one of the saddest and most unnecessary of F1 accidents.

Such a thing surely wouldn’t happen today. But when a marshal does get hurt or worse at a grand prix, the hard-bitten, cynical world of Formula One feels genuine sadness and concern. Each driver knows the marshals help to make his world go round, and realises he may one day owe his life to one of them. Two marshals have died in the last five grands prix and, although the circumstances of each death are different, the FIA must now be under strong pressure to ensure that marshals are better protected while they do their job.

In the long run, perhaps, part of the problem will be solved by technology. For some time there have been plans for flag signals to be replaced by a system of lights, both on gantries around the circuit and automatically in the cockpits of approaching cars. FIA president Max Mosley also expects the safety car procedure to be superceded in a season or two’s time by a speed limit flashing up in each cockpit, which will be centrally monitored in order to punish disobedience. (He proudly reckons the authorities will soon be able to demand the same on-board system in our daily cars, to adjust speed limits according to conditions and identify speeders. After Dutch rally driver Gatsonides gave us the Gatso, will ex-F2 driver Mosley’s contribution be dubbed the Moso?) But, as far as I can see, none of these technical innovations will totally remove the need for some human involvement trackside to help the race run safely and efficiently, and to rescue drivers who need assistance.

The Australian fatality had nothing to do with this year’s dramatic increase in lap speeds, and I hope the FIA doesn’t try to pretend it did. Nevertheless, the governing body must feel frustrated that its efforts to reduce cornering speeds by insisting on raised front wings and simpler rear ones — and, three seasons ago, by bringing in grooved slicks — have been obliterated by the instantaneous effect of Michelin’s return to Formula One. Bridgestone, very sensibly, produced conservative tyres when it had a monopoly, but has reacted at once to the return of competition. Mika Hakkinen’s pole position time around Albert Park last year was 1m 30.556s; this year Michael Schumacher achieved 1m 26.892 — an extraordinary leap of 3.6 seconds.

In fact, I regard this combination of reduced downforce and improved tyres as thoroughly encouraging. I’ve said for a long time that the way back to races that are won and lost by overtaking on the track rather than in the pits is to have less aerodynamic grip and more mechanical grip. To a small degree that, perhaps without the FIA wanting it to be so, is what we’ve now got. I hope David Coulthard’s neat, decisive and successful move on Barrichello was something we can expect a little more of this year.

Of this season’s other regulatory innovations, the admirable insistence on stronger monocoques and extra cockpit padding must have done Jacques Villeneuve no harm at all during his horrifying accident. The doubled requirement of twin retaining cables on each wheel failed to keep any of the BAR’s wheels on, even though they are calculated to withstand 10 tonnes of force. But that simply underlines the frightening energy of a car launched at 175mph, and I have no doubt that the cables will play their part in reducing mayhem and potential injury this season.

As for other lessons from Australia, the domination of Schumacher M. and Ferrari is a depressing augury for the rest of the season. In 1992, so great was the supremacy of the Williams-Renault that Nigel Mansell had clinched the world championship by mid-August, with five races still to run, and we could be in for something sirnilar this year. I thought McLaren might be hunting for reliability this early in the season, but I wasn’t expecting them to be short of speed.

Most frustrating moment of the race was when Barrichello’s Ferrari clumsily booted Frentzen’s Jordan into touch, because the yellow car could have finished ahead of everyone except Schumacher, and that would have pleased a lot of people. Grand prix returnee Olivier Panis was never far from team-mate Villeneuve’s pace all weekend, and the penalty that dropped him from fourth to seventh ended a harsh weekend for Craig Pollock’s team. Prost disappointed again, despite its Ferrari engines and its apparent speed in winter testing, but Sauber was the biggest surprise of all. What odds would you have given over the winter for Sauber going to its main sponsor’s home race lying third in the constructors’ championship?

Which brings me to the much-hyped rookies. Jenson Button’s success last year has started a trend for teams to take a low-cost gamble on a young driver. Of this year’s crop, Enrique Bemoldi put his Arrows in the wall on lap three. Juan Pablo Montoya — just as Villeneuve was in 1997, a rookie of a rather different hue — ran a strong, sensible race and would have given Williams and Michelin an impressive fourth but for a blown engine late in the race. Fernando Alonso, a Spanish teenager who was noticeably quick and courageous in Formula 3000 last year, brought Paul Stoddart’s underpowered, totally untested Minardi smoothly home. And Kimi Raikkonen wrote himself indelibly into the record books as the most inexperienced driver in history to have scored a world championship point. In his 24th car race ever — and his first in a car of more than 185bhp, or lasting more than about 20 minutes — he brought his Sauber home seventh, which became sixth with Panis’ penalty. More to the point, his lap times were pacy and consistent throughout the race.

Listening to Kimi’s dispassionate, relaxed comments after the race, I was reminded of his countryman Keke Rosberg, who as an F1 newcomer astonished everyone except himself by winning the torrentially wet 1978 Silverstone International Trophy in, of all things, a Theodore. But, though Keke’s name was new to many, he’d already had several hard seasons in SuperVee, Atlantic and F2. That Finn was world champion four years later. Sixteen years on another man from the same sparsely-populated Scandinavian country was winning the first of two consecutive world titles. Surely this new Finn is on his way to great things, too.