2009 Formula 1 preview

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Nigel Roebuck

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Sir Jackie Stewart – who was spot-on with his predictions for 2008 – once again shares his thoughts on the season ahead with Motor Sport, and explains why he thinks that Lewis Hamilton could be the next Jim Clark
By Nigel Roebuck

The jury’s still out on Kovalainen, isn’t it?” mused Jackie Stewart. “I expected more from him last year, but we have to remember he was in an unusual situation, in that it was Hamilton who was his team-mate. I mean, Lewis could develop into a Jim Clark…”

Stewart, like all his contemporaries, has always revered Clark, believed by many to be the greatest driver the sport has known, and that gives a particular resonance to his remark about Lewis Hamilton, in whose potential greatness he has believed for some time.

Stress the ‘potential’ greatness, though, for although Lewis won the World Championship in only his second season, Jackie believes he has still some way to go. When I suggested that, champion or not, Hamilton did not drive as well as in his first season, he agreed. “Absolutely – and you can say it without fear of contradiction.”

We began, though, with the highlight of last season, that phenomenal performance by Lewis at Silverstone, which most would rank as one of the great wet-weather drives of all time.

“Terrific,” said Stewart. “I don’t care how many simulators or whatever you’ve got, when it rains like that, and at a circuit like Silverstone – which is slower than it was, but is still a quick place – it was incredibly impressive.

“However, you have to say that the Ferrari was bad in the rain all season long, and that being so, where else was Lewis’s opposition coming from? What Vettel did at Monza was extraordinary, but he and his car weren’t at that point yet. And Alonso’s Renault still wasn’t performing well.

“The McLaren was certainly good in the wet – but Lewis had to drive it, and I think Silverstone was just unadulterated natural ability in a car that allowed him to drive in that fashion. Driving a racing car – or a road car, for that matter – should never be a challenge. It’s like a human relationship: for it to work well, both sides have to be able to give something.

“I do think Lewis’s season was very mixed. In Australia he started with a bang and left everyone behind, but in Bahrain, for example, he was terrible – when Massa was flawless. I don’t want it to sound like, ‘I told you so’, but I’ve mentioned this ‘second season’ syndrome before, and I definitely think it’s valid.”

A year ago Jackie said this: “Lewis had an astonishing first season, but, while I hope it doesn’t happen, I think he could easily fall into the ‘second season’ syndrome, which is so common: after a great beginning, the second season falls short of expectations – and I think the expectations of many people are far too high. I know all about it because it happened to me…”

Now, as he surveys Hamilton’s 2008 season, Stewart’s opinion hasn’t changed.

“Lewis did win the title, it’s true, but he had some races that contained major errors. And I don’t blame him for any of those, because I remember what it felt like to have expectations without experience. Apart from having the gift from God, in terms of natural ability, you need to have experience. Only after getting it do you gain any knowledge that is instrumental in heightening your potential performance: it doesn’t come from any more of God’s gifts – it comes from you making the talent more useable, more consistent, and finding more speed not by clinging on with your fingernails, but from being able to use your skills, and the motor car, more completely.

“When you’re a young and naturally gifted driver, in your first season in the big time you just drive by the seat of your pants, because whatever preparation you may have had in the formative classes of the sport – and Lewis must have had more than any previous World Champion – when you get into an F1 car, even if you’ve been in a GP2 car, it’s a different thing. I mean, there’s no time to breathe between accelerating out of one corner and putting the brakes on for the next. You don’t get that in the formative classes – nobody ever got it.”

Hamilton did an enormous amount of testing before his first Grand Prix, and also spent a deal of time in McLaren’s simulator, the most sophisticated in the business. What would all that have been worth to him?

“Well, it was worth winning four Grands Prix in his first season! I thought I’d done well in my first year, winning two F1 races, and finishing second three times to Jim Clark. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve learned so much – I can’t imagine how good next year’s going to be!’ For a variety of different reasons, though, it didn’t work out. I won at Monaco, but in F1 terms it was not a good year.

“If you think back to Lewis’s first season, he was so fresh, so exciting to watch, that it was like seeing a Labrador puppy who had been bred for a job – keen, enthusiastic, wanting to be there. And you knew he was going to grow up into a fantastically good gun dog! If you’ve been there, and come through that free, unadulterated excitement and fulfilment – everything happening that you could only have dreamed of before – you can’t exaggerate how good it feels.

“What happens, though, is that you get a little carried away, and for me Montréal last year spelt that out more than anywhere else.”

In Canada Hamilton led from the start, and looked untouchable until lap 19 when Adrian Sutil parked his gearless car out on the circuit. At once the safety car was deployed, and the front runners headed for the pits.

“Here was a young man who had been leading, driving beautifully, not abusing his tyres and so on. But when he came in he was upset because he’d built this lead, and it had all been for nothing.

“You sit there – and what do you see? A Ferrari and a BMW going out ahead of you. You’ve not only lost your seven-second advantage, you’ve also lost the lead on the track. In effect you’ve lost out twice – and you’re annoyed because the McLaren strategy has kept you in the pits longer than Räikkönen and Kubica. You’re in radio communication with your team, and they’re saying, ‘The pitlane is closed, the red light is on – they’re stopped’.

“However, the frustration, the adrenalin rush and the desire still to win were overriding – and clearly the lack of accumulated knowledge kept Hamilton from being calm and clinical. I thought it significant that afterwards Räikkönen just pointed at the red light – ‘Did you not see it’? Somebody had been talking to him on the radio, too – but he’d been doing this a few years longer…

“That was a real wake-up call for Lewis – and I’m saying this about somebody whose ability had already been recognised, and about which I had enthused.”

I wondered if Stewart could think of anything comparable in his own career, and he said yes, absolutely. In 1965, his debut season, he damaged his BRM on the opening lap at the Nürburgring.

“I just let it run wide at Brunchen. It was so stupid – I was sitting behind Clark, and we’d already left the rest behind. I didn’t go wide because I was going too fast, but because I wasn’t paying attention – looking too far ahead, and thinking, ‘Well, this is all right, running just behind Jimmy…’ At the edge of the track there was a drain, and I hit it, and that was that – bent front wishbone. At the time I felt angry and humiliated by my own lack of concentration, but I certainly learned a lesson from it.”

More than by the events in Montréal, I personally was taken aback by Hamilton’s behaviour at Fuji, where he was slow away, and then attempted to charge past everyone at the first corner, in the process nearly taking out team-mate Kovalainen. And what made it the more inexplicable was that Massa, his only title rival, was always behind him.

“Well,” said Stewart, “again what was at fault there was his mind management – I know I’ve said it countless times, but it’s true. Lewis’s mind management had jumped out of gear in Montréal, and it did at Fuji. I don’t know why he was slow off the grid, but if you look at the tapes you see that he then swerved from one side to the other. As you say, he nearly took out Kovalainen – and he did it blindly. Had the mind management been there, that wouldn’t have happened, so he was back to being the young, inexperienced racing driver, to a point that was almost reckless.

“Now, I’ll be criticised for saying that, but what happened in Japan could have ended in tears – and unnecessarily. They always say you can’t win the race at the first corner, but you can sure as hell lose it.

“I think Lewis was lucky to win the championship because of the number of errors he made – and because of things like Massa’s engine failure in Hungary. On the other hand, he was penalised in Spa, which I thought – and still think – a hideous travesty of justice. Only a few can get over hurdles like that, and come back and still win. And I think it says a lot for Lewis that he still won the World Championship.

“Like the year before, it all came down to the last race, and of course the whole nation wanted Hamilton to win – and in the end he delivered, by the skin of his teeth…

“I know that in Brazil McLaren were working to a strategy of doing everything that Ferrari did, and as long as they stayed close they were going to be OK – but in reality Lewis wasn’t close enough. If the rain had held off from worsening for another few seconds, Massa would have been champion, and frankly I just don’t believe these suggestions that McLaren had it all worked out – I mean, does anybody?

“I’m trying to be as analytical and objective as I can, and my respect for Lewis’s delivery of performance, on and off the track, is very high. I think that if he has any shortcomings it’s just because he got on board the rocket ship faster than anyone else I can think of, in sport or anything else, and all that happened almost too rapidly to allow him – out of the cockpit – to gain knowledge and experience and wisdom as it came along. I mean, you can’t say the wisdom is there yet. I’m not being unfair to him – it just can’t be there…”

“At Monza Lewis came through after qualifying poorly, but to me his drive smacked almost of desperation. I think that quite often he doesn’t show proper respect for his fellow drivers – it comes across as, ‘Well, this is what I’ve got to do – and if you don’t like me for it, well, you don’t like me…’ I don’t think that’s a skill you would want to develop – the ruthlessness, I mean.”

If Stewart believes Hamilton fortunate to have emerged from the season as World Champion, still he has no doubts that here is one of those special talents.

“Lewis is very fortunate to have been taken on by Ron Dennis at such a young age. I remember meeting him first years ago at an RAC prize-giving – I recall this wee boy in black tie. Ron met him in similar circumstances, and at that time was wanting to choose somebody new with the hope of bringing him up through the ranks.

“To get your very first F1 season in a McLaren – with, as it turned out, a two-time World Champion – was an immense privilege, and I don’t think anything like that has ever happened before. Whatever difficulties there may have been, I don’t doubt that Lewis learned a lot from Alonso – just like Senna did from Prost.

“I expect Lewis’s season to be more consistently good in 2009, because he’s going to be better prepared for it. I’m sure he knows in his own mind that overall last year – although he won the title – was not as good as it could have been, but equally I’m sure he learned a lot from it, and he’ll benefit from that. And he’s sufficiently clever to understand it, too.

“In a sense, I don’t think Ron’s stepping down can be overlooked, because, for all his idiosyncrasies, if anyone knew how to win motor races it was him. I know Ron’s said for a long time that eventually Martin [Whitmarsh] would take over as team principal, so it’s not a surprise as such – but when it happens there’s still always a period of adjustment.

“Having said that, I’m sure everyone – including Lewis – will cope. We may have our criticisms of some of what happened last year, but remember he was only 23, and he is the World Champion. As I said, his fundamental talent is such that in time, yes, he could be another Jim Clark…”

Title rivals and the rest

“In Bahrain a couple of years ago,” said Jackie Stewart, “Jean Todt said to me, ‘You’ve got to stop criticising young drivers. It’s a scandal what you’re saying about Massa, talking about peaks and valleys in his driving and so on – it’s ruining the boy’s career’.

“I said, ‘Jean, that’s what he is at the moment – inconsistent. And if somebody asks my opinion, I’m going to give it…’”

These days Stewart believes that Massa is a far more accomplished driver than he was: “I think Felipe came of age in 2008, and frankly I think he deserved to win the championship.”

On his best days, I said, Massa reminds me of Alain Prost – fast, undramatic, flawless from flag to flag…

“Absolutely,” said Stewart, “and he had quite a number of them, too. His drive at Interlagos was completely masterful in every respect – and when he lost the championship at the very end, I thought the behaviour of himself and his family had a dignity and style beyond anything I’ve ever seen in motor racing.”

Occasionally, though, Massa did not shine, and invariably this was on wet days. At Silverstone I lost count of the number of spins – five, was it? – and although the Hamilton penalty handed him victory at Spa, Felipe was never on the pace of Lewis or, for that matter, his team-mate Kimi Räikkönen.

“In the dry,” said Stewart, “Massa was consistently right there, so you have to conclude that the Ferrari was simply a bad car in the wet, and I don’t understand that…”

Ferrari’s struggle was ascribed to the fact that the car ran its Bridgestones way cooler than McLaren – a boon on hot afternoons, but a disaster when track temperatures were lowered by rain.

“Well,” said Jackie, “I know times have changed, but I never drove a car that was good in the dry but bad in the wet. The Ferrari was better than the McLaren in the dry, and if the team couldn’t make it work in the wet, the drivers have to take some blame for that.

“I remember being lapped in the wet at Zandvoort in ’71, because Goodyear’s wets were hopeless compared with Firestone’s. But last year everyone was on the same Bridgestones…”

If Massa was ‘the most improved driver of 2008’, then Räikkönen went in the other direction. Frequently he set the fastest lap, but too often had started way back on the grid. His poor qualifying performances Kimi ascribed to ‘not being able to make the fronts work’, but some found that unacceptable from the highest-paid driver in history.

“Yes, there’s a link missing somewhere, isn’t there? Qualifying comes at the end of a day and a half in the car, and if it isn’t ‘driveable’ by then it should be – I mean, Massa’s clearly was…

“I think Kimi has almost an over-abundance of natural talent – and he totally relies on that. That’s fine when you’re coming through the ranks, but when you get to F1 there’s more than one outstanding driver, and you’re not necessarily king of the castle any more.

“I suspect that Massa will keep the upper hand, but I do think Räikkönen will come back – he’s got all the ingredients necessary to do it. I think he felt somewhat humiliated by what happened last year, and maybe he’s thinking, ‘OK, I’ve made my money – now let me go racing again, because I’ve lost a little of that somewhere…’

“On the other hand, he won’t come back if his lifestyle has a negative effect on his performance, and could say, ‘Screw it, I’ll just take the money – I only need to do this for one more year, anyway’.”

Most expect another year of Ferrari versus McLaren, but for much of last season both teams effectively wasted a car, with Heikki Kovalainen, like Räikkönen, failing to deliver.

“Yes, I expected more from Kovalainen – but being constantly compared with Hamilton is an unenviable position to be in. Heikki came to McLaren after a disruptive season within the team, and I think there was an element of ‘Thank God it’s a young driver coming in – we don’t have to worry so much’. He was more servile than Alonso, a back-to-back World Champion with expectations of preferential treatment, which he’d had in his previous team.

“If Kovalainen has learned from last season he is maybe capable of doing it, but only time will tell. After all, both Trevor Taylor and Peter Arundell were very good drivers, but they were team-mates to Jimmy Clark at Lotus, and it never happened for them.

“In the end there’s only one way to do it in a racing car – you’ve got to make it happen. If Heikki’s able once in a while to do a Silverstone or Monza qualifying lap – and repeat that form in the race – it’s going to be a bit of a culture shock for Lewis, and it’ll up his game. But if he doesn’t show himself this year, McLaren will be looking for someone else. If you’re going for the constructors’ championship you need two cars consistently scoring good points for you.”

And what of Alonso? For much of 2008 he was hamstrung by an uncompetitive Renault, but later, as the car progressed, he won a couple of races and scored consistently well.

As a complete driver, I suggested, Alonso remains the best.

“Well, I think Fernando matured last year,” said Stewart. “Actually, he was mature before he went to McLaren, but his mind was totally disrupted by the Hamilton factor, and also by the lack of passion in the team – it was more clinical than he was used to, and I don’t think that suited him.

“I was disappointed because I’d been a huge admirer. He was one of those ‘not too busy’ drivers – the in-car camera said everything about him. He was a clean, calculated, Alain Prost type of driver, ahead of everything that was going on.

“When he went to McLaren, and said – and did – all the things he did, it ruined my image of him and I thought, ‘Hmm, we might have seen the end of him’.

“Last year, though, he came alive again. The Renault was very good late in the season, but he had to drive it, and at places like Singapore and Fuji he was superb. The big question is whether or not Renault can provide him with a car to keep up that level of enthusiasm.

“As for Piquet… I’m not close to Flavio [Briatore], so there may be something I don’t know. I like the boy, but the jury’s still out on him, and I was surprised when Flavio announced he was keeping him for ’09. Renault have been in and out of F1 more than any other company, so there’s a fragility about them, and I think they’ve got to keep winning in order to stay in F1. If I were them I’d want a strong second driver, and at the moment I’m not sure that’s Nelson Jr.”

Maybe Renault can run with McLaren and Ferrari this year – and maybe so, too, can BMW, which abandoned development of its ’08 car after the win in Montréal so as to concentrate on the very different animal required for the coming season. Kubica, we know, is the driver most feared by Hamilton.

“Well,” Jackie smiled, “first of all, he’s the most unlikely-looking racing driver I’ve ever seen! He’s the wrong size and he doesn’t look like Stirling Moss, but some people have a certain charisma – you just know they’re going to do it. Sometimes they’re unlikely starters – like Alain Prost – but still that special something is there in them.

“And the boy can drive! Some of his performances were truly exceptional, and – again like Prost – he makes remarkably few mistakes, which is all the more impressive, given that he drives very hard. I’m a big admirer of Robert.

“Heidfeld is about the most experienced driver in F1 now – but he hasn’t won much, has he? Occasionally he delivers very well, but it’s getting rarer. A team like BMW needs two cars well up in case one breaks down – and at some races Heidfeld just wasn’t there. Mario Theissen is a very smart guy, and it still amazes me that BMW let Vettel get away…”

Just as one feels that Renault requires success to remain in F1 down the road, so emphatically that must be true of Toyota: seven years, still no victory on the board.

“I think they’ve got to show themselves now,” Stewart said. “[Team president] John Howett is a good man – very much with his feet on the ground, in my opinion. And I’m sure he knows very well that he’s got to deliver.

“I love Trulli – he’s a delightful guy – but he is ‘peak and valley’, and in F1 you can’t afford that. He often qualifies that car where it has no business to be, and then in the race he’s the most difficult guy to pass, and not because he does anything wrong – he’s a very clean driver. The thing about Jarno is that he’s got it – but it doesn’t stay somehow, it’s an occasional, brilliant, visitor.

“I certainly believe Glock has a future – I think he’s a proper driver, and a good racer. He was a bit of a surprise to me, I’ll admit, but he impressed me several times.

“Another team that’s got to make it happen is Red Bull. They’ve spent the money – they’ve got Adrian Newey, who’s one of the most expensive boys in the business, after all. At one time Adrian maybe went a little soft, for this reason and that, but as long as he’s totally focused and committed, then with his brilliance the sky’s the limit.

“For one reason and another, Webber still hasn’t delivered – but he is a very skilled and intelligent driver. Having said that, if it doesn’t happen this year, it may be difficult for him to continue with a leading team.

“Vettel, of course, impressed me in 2008. I like the look of the guy, the straightforward honesty of him – he doesn’t pretend to be something he’s not. Just a very nice kid, very down to earth, very polite.

“As for his driving… that performance at Monza didn’t just come out of a hat! He took pole, and then he was faultless in the race. Of course now he’s got to prove us right, but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t. I think he might well give a wake-up call to quite a few people…”

Vettel will be much missed by Red Bull’s second team, Toro Rosso, but at least, after months of dithering, the step has been taken to re-sign Sébastien Bourdais, a man with unfinished business in F1.

“Bourdais showed a considerable amount of talent last year,” said Stewart. “In fact, I was surprised – I expected him, like everyone else who has come over from Indycars, to be lost. But at times he was really delivering, and he’s the right man for that job, not least because there’s a new boy – Buemi – in the other car.”

JYS has always been a believer in Rosberg, and fervently hopes that Williams can end a long sequence of poor seasons. “I’ve always thought Nico had abundant talent, and my only concern is that he has a lifestyle which doesn’t leave much to be desired – and perhaps he’s not hungry enough. When I found out that Nakajima was about as fast as Nico during a race I was a little disappointed. Nico needs to deliver – but in fairness to him he hasn’t had the car.

“Some of Nakajima’s race drives have been very robust, but he’s a poor qualifier – and if you can’t qualify you ain’t going to make it. At the end of the day a team’s points tally is based on the performance of two drivers…”

When the technical relationship between McLaren and Force India was announced, many were optimistic that it might influence the choice of drivers, but not so. Thus, while I for one had hoped to see Paul di Resta come into F1, Fisichella and Sutil continue with the team.

“Yeah, that would have been much better,” said Jackie. “Di Resta is being wasted, I think.

“The McLaren deal is a good one for Force India – and I think Sutil has potential. He crashed a lot, yes, but I was impressed by his drive at Monaco. I think of where I was, as a young driver coming up, and I would have been proud of that one. Of course it’s difficult to assess him at the moment, because we haven’t seen him in a decent car.

“Fisichella is an anomaly. He’s had some awfully good races, but also a lot of very ordinary ones. A very experienced driver, but to me one who never quite clicked, and he’s been at it a long time now.”

At the time of writing, the future of the erstwhile Honda team was still not known, which meant in turn that Jenson Button’s participation in F1 remained uncertain.

“Jenson still has the ability,” said Stewart, “and he’s always had it. You watch on-car footage of him, and even in a difficult car he’s effortless and smooth. But I’m not sure he’s got the killer instinct. I’ve always thought he got too much money too early in his career, before he’d really served his apprenticeship.

“Barrichello is a very skilled driver, and it’s a shame that he’s never really come into his own – he was never allowed to do that at Ferrari, after all, even though sometimes he out-drove Schumacher. Rubens would love to have had one more season, to finish on a higher note.”

Last thing: if Stewart were betting now, where would his money be going for the 2009 World Championship?

“The rules are changing so fundamentally that it’s quite possible that another team or two – say, BMW or Renault – will be in there, in which case you’d have to consider Kubica and Alonso. But the likelihood is that McLaren and Ferrari will again be the front runners, and on that basis I’ll go for Hamilton – or Massa!

“Felipe hasn’t won the title yet, and desperately wants to. Lewis has won it, which takes the pressure off, but on the other hand I don’t think he can be totally satisfied with last year, and that would be his spur this time…”

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