>>Straight-talkin’ Petty >>Prost on the present >>Double points farce
A step into the obscene?
The F1 field heads for Turn One at Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi in 2013. When the sport returns in November, drivers will be contesting the first double-points finale in the world championship’s 65-season history – a detail that sits uncomfortably with many. Regulators, thy name is artifice.
If you read Simon Taylor’s wonderful interview with Richard Petty in the last issue of Motor Sport, you will perhaps recall that at the end of it he summed up Petty thus: “A man who has joined my short list of racing drivers who are not quite like other men.”
I knew exactly what he meant. This is indeed a short list, and ‘King Richard’ is indubitably on it.
I first met him back in 1972, on my first visit to the Daytona 500, and thereafter chatted with him – he was always the soul of courtesy – on subsequent trips to the race. It was only in 2006, though, when Charles March realised a long-time ambition to bring Petty over for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, that there was time enough for a proper interview, and it is one I have never forgotten.
“I spoke to some of the boys who’d been over before,” Petty said that afternoon, “and they said, ‘You’ve got to run up this driveway deal, that leads up to the guy’s house, OK?’
“Now I’m here, I can’t get over how big this deal is at Goodwood – and how organised it is. Everything works! There’s nothing like it in the States at all. It’s much bigger than I imagined it would be – I can’t believe some of the cars I’ve seen here. Come to that, I can’t get over how many English fans know who I am, or how much they know about my career.
“They keep telling me they love this deal because it celebrates the history of racing, and that’s really pleasing because these days generally it comes across that there’s no respect for the history of it at all – particularly from the guys who are doing it…”
The interview was memorable not only because, in terms of achievement, one was aware of talking to one of the true gods of our sport – the man won 200 NASCAR races, for heaven’s sake, a total unapproached by anyone else – but also because, racing at a time before political correctness was invented, he retains that persona to this day, answering straight questions with straight answers, unconcerned with how they might be received.
Unconcerned, too, with fears that he might come across as one of those for whom ‘everything was better in my day’. “Something’s better if it’s better,” he said. “It ain’t better just because it’s new…”
There were aspects of the path NASCAR had taken, and was taking, that were emphatically not to Petty’s taste, and – in that inimitable ‘life gits tee-jus, don’ it’ drawl – he made little secret of it.
“See, NASCAR’s not in the racing business any more – they’re in show business. The long-time race fans don’t like it, and the new fans don’t know any better – they never saw it when it was pure racing. I guess it’s very similar in F1, from everything I hear…” And this, remember, was said nearly eight years ago, long before DRS, let alone high-degradation tyres and now – deep breath – double points.
Just the other week Petty was in the news the other side of the water when he gave a typically frank answer to a question about Danica Patrick, massively sponsored and constantly in the spotlight even though her track performances, since moving to stock cars, have been rather less than stellar.
Would Danica, Richard was asked, ever win a NASCAR race? “Only,” he said, “if everybody else stayed home. If she’d been male, nobody would ever know if she’d showed up at a race track …”
As with Stirling Moss, if you don’t want a straight answer, leave the question unasked. Petty’s opinion is one widely held in NASCAR circles, if very rarely voiced on the record. “This is a female thing that’s driving her,” Richard added, “and there’s nothing wrong with that if more fans come out, and more people are interested in the sport. She’s helped draw attention to it and that helps everybody in the business. I mean, NASCAR is ‘show time’ now, isn’t it?”
Unfortunately, this seems to be increasingly, incontrovertibly, true of motor racing across the world. As with F1, the appeal of NASCAR appears to be nothing like it was, with audiences – both at the track and on TV – way down on what they were a few years ago. And the worst of it is that, in their panic, the powers-that-be seek not to examine and improve the fundamental quality of the sport, but instead mistakenly to attempt to address its shortcomings by means of cheap, short-attention-span gimmickry.
Just as in F1, in an attempt to keep interest in the World Championship alive as long as possible, we have the introduction of double points at the last race of the season (ironically at Abu Dhabi, perhaps its blandest race track), so since 2004 NASCAR has had The Chase – in effect a separate championship, for the 12 leading drivers, over the last 10 races of the season. And if, as Petty said, established fans of the series care not for this sort of thing, neither, it would appear, does it seem to be achieving its objective of drawing closer the sport’s more casual followers.
In 2014 The Chase has been further refined, and in ways too complicated and wearisome to discuss here: suffice it to say that the result of this year’s Sprint Cup Championship will be determined by the ‘winner takes all’ result of the season’s final race, at Homestead in November.
With NASCAR fans, this has gone down the way the double points rule has been received by F1 aficionados: they hate it. Over here we have been struggling with the notion that a driver could build up a 49-point lead in the World Championship, then lose the title by blowing up in Abu Dhabi; over there in NASCAR, though, it is yet more extreme – a driver could dominate the entire season, then lose the championship simply because of a problem on one afternoon.
Recently I read an extremely well argued article about this foolishness, by Mark Crossman, and so many times through his story you could substitute F1 for NASCAR. Let me borrow a quote or two from it, and you will see what I mean.
“NASCAR is so obsessed with where it wants to be that it doesn’t pay any attention to where it is.
“Instead of focusing on being the best it can be for NASCAR fans, NASCAR seems to want it to be the best it can be for non-NASCAR fans. The end result has been non-fans staying that way, and long-time fans joining them.
“NASCAR officials spend too much time concentrating on what will make it more popular, and not enough on what will make it better.”
Make it better, Crossman correctly asserts, and increased popularity will automatically follow. It seems a matter of simple logic, does it not, so why cannot the decision-makers – in all branches of the sport – see it?
It was, ironically, the result of a fans survey that spawned the unhappy sequence of events that led to the recent trivialising of Grand Prix racing. I remember Martin Whitmarsh, lately – sadly – deposed as McLaren team principal, telling me about it in the summer of 2012.
“I suppose,” he said, “that I’ve changed my position over time. Twenty years ago I was the most sore-arse person in technical working groups about the purity of F1, whereas now I’ve become the one who bullies the group into doing things either for reasons of cost reduction or entertainment. For example, probably no one put more weight behind DRS than I did, but at one time I’d have fought it like hell – the artificiality of it would have been offensive to me.
“The thing is, though, I was very personally involved in the fans survey thing. Eighty-five thousand people were asked a whole series of questions, and the one thing they wanted overwhelmingly – whether I like it as a purist or not – was more overtaking…”
Hence DRS, which in turn begat what amounted to a sea change in the whole philosophy of what F1 was supposed to be. For years there had been concerns about ‘the show’; now it became the only concern.
A philosophical corner had been turned, and there followed such delights as high-degradation tyres.
We got those as a consequence of what happened in Montréal in 2010, when for once Bridgestone (in its final F1 season) got it wrong, so that ‘graining’ problems were much more severe than anticipated, and that led to an extremely unpredictable race, dominated by different drivers at different moments. “The whole time,” said Jenson Button, “you never knew if you weren’t pushing hard enough because you were saving your tyres – or maybe pushing too hard, and hurting them…”
Quite novel at the time, in the Pirelli era words such as those soon became habitual, for someone had taken on board the remarks of Button and others, and concluded, ‘Let’s have this every weekend…’
Fatuous, of course, if you stop for a second to think about it. True enough, the Canadian Grand Prix had been highly diverting, primarily because it had been a freak happening, anticipated no more by the teams than by spectators. Everyone responded to it on the hoof, which was where the excitement lay, but once Pirelli had been instructed to build deliberately high-degradation tyres, everyone was ready for the consequences and it became simply the dreary norm.
“Personally I think we got that wrong,” Whitmarsh said. “It’s too much of a knife-edge thing. The problem is, though, that we’ve been trying to please the fans, to improve the show by increasing overtaking, and it’s terribly difficult to do that by… natural means, if you like.
“As well as that, let’s face it, modern-day circuits have been designed terribly for overtaking – and the place that leaves me truly incredulous is Abu Dhabi: one of the longest straights in F1 – and you put a single-file chicane at the end of it! What the hell’s that all about?”
Were the teams ever so much as consulted about the design of new circuits? “Well,” said Martin, “going back quite a long time, we had [Max] Mosley here in the simulator, where you can do overtaking studies. There’s some engagement with us these days, but when you get a circuit map like Abu Dhabi, you don’t need simulation, you don’t need anything – you just wonder, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’
“As a Grand Prix, Singapore is a great success, with a big crowd. If the circuit is disappointing from a racing point of view, perhaps that’s not surprising because it’s a street track and, of course, there are constraints in places like that. But somewhere like Abu Dhabi… here’s a flat piece of sand, together with apparently unlimited money – you can do anything, can’t you? You can say, ‘Why does Interlagos generally have a good race – or Spa?’ Overtaking is an outcome, isn’t it? It’s not just a matter of ‘a corner’ – it’s a combination of the straight that comes before it and the corner before that straight…”
Now, for 2014, we have a double-points finale – and at Whitmarsh’s favourite circuit, of all places. Jacques Villeneuve, always a man to speak his mind, is appalled by what is happening in F1: “Once you start going artificial, you have to do it more and more, to the point where it’s not even real racing any more.”
Recently a friend told me he was cancelling his Sky Sports subscription. “I only took it out in the first place for Formula 1,” he said, “but this double points thing is the last straw – I’m not paying to watch a pantomime…”
I doubt he is alone. Having for countless years kept F1 to a relatively purist path, the powers-that-be have of late embarked on a series of ludicrously short-sighted policies, all of them spawned by greed of one kind or another, all of them having the effect of cheapening a noble sport. Barmy as it is, the awarding of double points at the last race inevitably has the effect of halving those available everywhere else – Spa, Suzuka, Interlagos, places like that: Abu Dhabi, one assumes, is paying very handsomely for its unique status, and doubtless CVC’s investors are rubbing their wallets at the thought.
For my pal, though, it’s a step too far, in the sense that he sees it as an ultimate expression of the thinking in F1 these days. “Thank God for Goodwood,” he says.
It’s a fact that, in more than 40 years of covering this sport, I cannot remember any change to the F1 sporting regulations that has attracted such universal derision and condemnation. At the moment of its announcement Sebastian Vettel declared it “absurd”, and the world champion’s opinion has been echoed across the globe.
Not enough, though, to sway the opinions of those in power. While it is known that most team principals remain opposed to Bernie Ecclestone’s double-points plan, the subject was barely discussed at mid-January meetings in Geneva, called by the FIA to discuss the future of the sport. These people claim to be alive to the wishes of F1’s fans: here they had a perfect opportunity to prove it, to admit they had got it wrong, and they bottled it.
‘Vote with the remote’ goes the phrase. As with NASCAR’s rule-makers, perhaps someone should acquaint them with it.
Not long ago I watched on TV a re-run of the 1988 French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard: Prost and Senna, two McLarens, a battle all the way… pure motor racing. When Alain was in town recently, to be inducted into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame, I mentioned it to him, said how much I had enjoyed it.
“Ah, yes,” he said, smiling. “I remember enjoying it at the time – I won! It was simpler then, wasn’t it? Seems to me that the more restrictions you have, the more complications, the worse it is…”
As you might expect, Prost is a purist when it comes to Formula 1. No surprise, for example, that he has a distaste for DRS: “It’s an artifice, isn’t it? They introduced it to make overtaking easier – and now it’s too easy, so you have passing all the time, and it makes no impression.
“For sure it was always difficult to overtake, but it was a real challenge and I don’t want to see it made easy. You always want to stay positive about your sport, and I don’t like to criticise without proposing something different, but for me drag reduction systems are a step too far. If we must have them, they should be adjusted so that they help a little to overtake, but not too much.
“As for the tyres… I don’t want to criticise one brand, because I know Pirelli was asked to make high-degradation tyres, and obviously something like that can happen only when there is a single supplier. At one time we had three manufacturers in F1 together, and sometimes you were on the best tyres, sometimes not.
“I have a very clear opinion on this subject. At each race now we have two compounds available, and you must use both during the race. I remember a race a few years ago when Mark Webber was leading, and we all knew he could have finished and won – but he had to stop to change to the other compound two or three laps from the end, because that was the rule. To me, that was completely ridiculous.
“I would rather go back to what we had in the past, with three compounds available – but without the obligation to stop, so you can make your own choices. That can make a big difference to a race – for example, you can choose a very hard tyre and not stop at all. On the other hand, you can make a bad choice at the start, and then need to change to different strategy. Different drivers would do different things, making it unpredictable.
“It seems to me these things always go too far – it’s the same with the penalties. In my time no one was ever penalised for anything – as you know, I didn’t like some of the things Ayrton did on the track, but in a way I couldn’t blame him because he was never penalised. Now, though, it’s the opposite, isn’t it? Sometimes the penalties go too far, I think: at the end of the day you want the people to have fun watching the races, without them being interrupted all the time…”
In Hungary last year Romain Grosjean gave us one of the most memorable moments of the season with his outside pass of Felipe Massa through a quick left-hander. In so doing, though, he was momentarily ‘over the white line’ with all four wheels, so that instead of plaudits he got a penalty.
“Yes,” said Alain, “it was a fantastic move, and I must say that if I’d been the driver steward that day, I would never have penalised him. It’s very difficult to judge, though, isn’t it? That’s why I was a driver steward only once, and I didn’t want to do it again. In principle the idea is very good, but I agree with Jackie Stewart that we should have only one or two drivers doing it, so that it becomes more consistent.
“The problem is that you have to base the judgment on a rule – and maybe sometimes the rule is not right! These modern circuits are marked out with white lines, and they say you can’t go over them. If it’s on the straight, and you go off with all four wheels, and then come back on, OK, that’s one thing – but here Grosjean was overtaking at a corner on the outside, and it was a great move, but also a very difficult one. If you penalise a driver for something like that, obviously the message you send to the public is a bit negative, isn’t it?
“To me, these places all marked out with white lines are not proper Grand Prix circuits, but it’s part of society today, isn’t it? You don’t want to have any risk.
“The philosophy of safety has changed completely in the last 20 years. Sometimes – because of bad luck – something bad can still happen, but safety has improved a lot, both in the cars and the tracks – and maybe, with the tracks, we went a little bit too far…”
If he has misgivings about ‘artifice’ in F1, about recent attempts to focus on The Show, Prost is full of enthusiasm for the new technical regulations: “I would love to drive these cars, because this is something completely new – although I’d certainly prefer a lot of testing on the track, rather than being in a simulator all the time.”
It’s undeniable that Alain was at his greatest in the last turbo era, but as he says, it is very different this time around, with the emphasis on new-world efficiency, rather than all-out horsepower. He disagrees with Bernie Ecclestone’s contention that F1 should have stuck with the 2.4-litre V8s, not least because they made a lot of noise, and Martin Brundle feels the same way.
“I was at the Frankfurt Motor Show last year,” Brundle said, “and it seemed to me that every single piece of focus at the show was on hybrid – and mostly electric – engines. It really struck me then that if F1 didn’t do something to follow the trend, in three years it would look like NASCAR. I think, to some extent, F1 has to be ‘cutting edge’, doesn’t it?
“For a long time I wasn’t sure if they were doing the right thing with the new engine formula, but I’m now utterly convinced that they are. If you’re looking ahead, and thinking of the way the industry is going, things had to change. Just look at the new Ferrari, McLaren and Porsche road cars – hybrids, all of them.
“I’m less sure they’ve done the new F1 engine in the right way – that remains to be seen. I don’t know whether or not they’ve made it too complex, too fuel-dependent – too ‘green’, if you like.
“I’m not clever enough to know the technical details, and I’ll admit I have some concerns. From a TV point of view, the most important thing is that we have information – and of course it’s going to be information the teams aren’t going to want to give us. What we don’t want to be saying on TV is, ‘And what’s going to happen next, ladies and gentlemen?’ It would be a nightmare if you had someone bumbling along in fifth place all afternoon, and then in the last five laps – because he’s saved a load of ‘energy’ – he pisses past the lot of them and wins the race…”
Particularly, I said, if it’s at Abu Dhabi, with double points – and it gives him the World Championship. Brundle groaned.
Both he and Prost drove a Red Bull last year and – not surprisingly – were impressed by the experience. “It actually didn’t feel so different from the last cars I drove,” Alain said. “The gearbox was the same to use, just quicker, and the brakes were very impressive.
“It was easy to go reasonably fast, although this was at Ricard, which is a simple track, and it’s always the last two or three tenths that are difficult – obviously I wasn’t in that range. The power of the engine, though, was not an issue at all, because it was so much less than what we’d had in the past.”
Martin said much the same: “I did 32 laps at Silverstone, and my neck was starting to go – and that was in the rain! That’s how much grip it had. The car was extraordinary, but of all the things that stood out that day, the engine was not one of them – it was like a… domestic device. Completely underwhelming – nothing like a 3-litre V10, which in turn paled into insignificance compared with a turbo, of course…
“Occasionally,” he added, “I’ll chat with someone else who was around in the turbo era – Alain or Gerhard or Derek – and it’s like having a conversation with someone who just knows something that no one else in the world knows. Talk about an eye-opening experience – it could be utterly terrifying at any circuit where the walls were close. Believe me, to go up the hill at Monaco on qualifying boost was a truly extraordinary experience – I mean, you suddenly had 400 horsepower more than you’d had before!”
Back to today. Bernie, I said, goes on about the importance of the noise, but I was never that keen on the sound of the V8s, which after a few minutes was to me like hysterical white noise. As well as that, I always rather cared for the deep muscular sound of the turbos.
“Yes, I agree,” said Brundle. “Bernie’s right that noise is important – but 750 horsepower will always sound impressive. It’s just a pity that the new breed of turbo engine won’t spit flames like the old ones, because they can’t afford the fuel. I’m not bothered about the sound, I must say – all racing engines sound pretty good to me.”
Martin then made the point, which had never particularly struck me before, that of course what a driver hears is very different from the sound that reaches the spectator.
“As a driver, you hear the engine through the airbox, not through the exhaust. Fans always liked the sound of a Cosworth, for example, but for a driver it wasn’t exciting at all. I drove a McLaren M23 not long ago, and was reminded of that very gruff, mechanical sound. As great an engine as it was, the DFV was always rough, in terms of vibration and so on, and it wasn’t a nice sound to a driver at all. Quite agricultural, in fact.
“Something else I recall is that the Renault V10s had such a harmonic vibration that they used to make us feel sick – I remember Riccardo Patrese talking about it, and we all felt the same. As a driver you don’t hear the exhaust pipes, two metres behind you; what you hear is the airbox, as I say, and the Renault V10 sent this harmonic vibration through your whole body, and it wasn’t very nice at all. In the end your body got used to it, as it does to so many other things in life – jet lag, or whatever – but it had a horrible resonance.
“In a sports car, when you’re strapped into a carbon-fibre shell, you hear much more of the mechanical aspects of an engine. When I last did Le Mans, in 2012, I soon discovered that a Ferrari 458 is truly painful to catch up, and pass. You’re driving along, thinking, ‘What’s wrong with my car?’ – and then you realise that a kilometre down the road there’s a 458 Ferrari! You feel as though you’ve driven up its exhaust pipe, and you’re looking at valves and pistons. It’s a really invasive noise – and there are so many of them!”
In the course of a lunch with Brundle you get through a great variety of topics, some of which may be written about, some not. Martin was, for example, more than a little taken aback when I advised him – as I recently discovered, to my cost – that speeding fines are now subject to means testing. Maybe you didn’t know that, either. Now you do. Orwell’s England draws ever closer.
Inevitably, though, the bulk of our conversation was concerned with the state of the nation in F1, and we both felt that, in terms of rules and regulations, it had become way too cluttered. “I’m a car dealer,” Martin said, “and rule number one for a car dealer is: never confuse your customer. Why? Because confused customers don’t buy – they back off.
“I went to the TT last year and found it an absolutely life-changing experience. Don’t know how – or why – they do it. I stood at Bray Hill, did a lap of the track… the whole thing was absolutely magical.
“In the end, all you need to do is give the fans great racing, right? It doesn’t have to be contrived. Put the cars side by side, make them as equal as possible – and put in great drivers who’ll make the difference. People are more than smart enough to work it out for themselves. If they’re not going to the races, or watching something else on TV, you’re doing it wrong, simple as that.
“This business is tough, isn’t it? I was thinking the other day about Caterham and Marussia – in F1 for four years, and they haven’t got anywhere: not one point between them, and they’ve never even looked like getting a point.
“That tells you how tough it is. If you go and look at either of those teams you think what an impressive set-up they have, how many people are there, working very hard to make the car go fast: I’m pretty sure that if I raced the Marussia I’d think it was the best F1 car I’d ever raced, and probably by some margin.
“If you look at the scale of those teams, compared with how it used to be, it’s bloody impressive. At home I’ve still got the call sheet from my first ever Grand Prix, at Rio with Tyrrell in ’84: there are 12 people on the list – including Ken and Norah, and Stefan [Bellof] and me! That means that the whole team was eight people.
“As far as Caterham and Marussia are concerned… I think the right thing is to be impressed by F1, rather than unimpressed by them. Frankly, you wonder why they’re even in it – but thank goodness they are. It just shows you how hard F1 is, doesn’t it?”
It does indeed – and particularly so for teams striving to keep alive on crumbs from the Ecclestone/CVC table. “Yes,” said Brundle. “Money is being hoovered out of the business – with not one dollar being put back in. CVC’s job is to make money for its investors, nothing else.
“I know a lot of people won’t agree with me, but honestly I’d rather see Marussia being, say, McLaren’s ‘B’ team, half a second off the pace, than an independent outfit. If you had six ‘primary’ teams, each limited to supplying one other team, you’d have 24 cars on the grid, covered by a second and a half.
“I don’t believe any secondary team would be able to beat a primary team, with its top designers, works engines and great drivers – but if someone excelled in their car, that would be bloody impressive, wouldn’t it?
“And if you had a cost-controlled car that was quick, and a decent amount of money was guaranteed, I think a secondary team could actually make a profit, which in turn would attract proper business investors, rather than some of the people we’ve seen.
“Of course the teams that would say no to this idea would be the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari, because they want to keep an unfair advantage, but if you keep giving the lion’s share of the money to the top teams, you stretch the elastic to the point we’ve got to now, which is teams like Sauber and Lotus and Force India really struggling, to say nothing of Caterham and Marussia…”
As ever with Brundle and Prost, it all sounded like common sense.