Everyone agreed it was a delight to be back in Montreal, there having been no race in 2009, of course, after Bernie Ecclestone and the race organisers had failed to reach a financial accommodation. At the time the teams and sponsors were outraged by a World Championship which focused increasingly on the Middle and Far East, and — farcically — contained not a single race in North America. We had already, after all, lost the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis for the same fiscal reason.
The last race at Indy was run in 2007, and throughout that weekend there were discussions between Ecclestone and Tony George, the now ousted CEO of the Speedway. “If we are going to have a Formula 1 race here,” George said to me at the time, “it has to make financial sense to both parties. Sure, I want a Grand Prix — we’ve made the place into an F1 facility, after all, with the regulation pits and everything — but Bernie’s financial demands are off the wall. He’s gotten used to new countries coming into F1, and the government paying for everything, whatever the price. Well, it doesn’t work that way in this country — and I’m not going to run a Grand Prix as a goddam charity event…”
The heyday of Watkins Glen apart, it must be said, the USA has ever been equivocal about F1. I’ve never forgotten a brief conversation with a gentleman in Las Vegas as I waited to check in at my hotel back in 1981. It was the occasion of the first Caesars Palace Grand Prix, and the interest of the locals was minimal. “What’s this deal they’re fighting for?” the man asked. “The World Championship,” I said. “Jesus,” he said, “I hate race cars — I wouldn’t even care if it was the American Championship…”
Head north, though, and cross the border, and you might be talking about another planet. Canadians are as nuts about F1 as Americans are indifferent, and it has long been that way. I always far preferred Adelaide to Melbourne as a venue for the Australian Grand Prix, because I loved the way the small and friendly city became the Grand Prix for a week, whereas in Melbourne there is the impression of just another big sporting event. Go to Montreal and you find an absolute passion for F1, as potent as I have seen anywhere on earth. This year’s Canadian Grand Prix was officially sold out: you turned up with a ticket or you didn’t get in. Contrast that with such as Istanbul or Shanghai, where they need to kidnap people to create the illusion of a crowd.
Then there is the track, untouched by the hand of Tilke, and a circuit such as would never be built in this day and age. When first it opened its doors to F1, in 1978, we thought it a poor substitute for the open road circuits of Mosport Park and St Jovite, but time can change perspective, and now the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is rightly considered among the greatest tracks in the World Championship. Istanbul’s Turn Eight is justifiably regarded as a classic corner, and certainly Hermann Tilke’s masterpiece, but get it wrong and you simply venture into a Tesco car park, sort yourself out, and rejoin the track without losing much time. In Montreal, though, run-off area is in short supply, which means that mistakes are punished.
As with all the ‘flyaways’ (as Grands Prix outside Europe are known), the teams’ portable palaces are necessarily absent from Montreal, which gives the small-ish paddock a sense of community once taken for granted, but invariably these days lost. On Friday morning the place abounded with folk saying how good it was to be back in a country where Grand Prix racing is so much wanted. It isn’t like that at Sepang.
And then there’s the race, of course. Who knows quite why it is, but the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve has an invariable way of creating drama, of spawning the unexpected, and it was there in plenty on June 13. Apart from anything else, the Canadian Grand Prix provided absolute vindication of the decision to ban refuelling: where in the past it had been sprint-stop-sprint, with all cars in identical near-ideal state — fuel load light, tyres never old and tired — now tyre management and all that that entails came into it, and the thinking driver claimed his due reward. It was cat-and-mouse for 70 laps, and enthralling with it. Difficult to feel dissatisfied with a top six comprising Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Vettel, Webber and Rosberg, is it not?
Because of the proximity of the walls, a mistake at Montreal is, as I say, invariably costly, and retrieving damaged cars has led to many a safety car period over the years. Before the race everyone was predicting more of the same (and one or two had even allowed for it while planning their strategies), yet remarkably there was not a single accident over the entire three days. Felipe Massa gave a barrier a bit of a clout on the Friday, and Kobayashi-San nudged into a fence on the opening lap of the race, but that was about it.
This is not to suggest, however, that the race lacked incident. Bits of carbon fibre fluttered in the air and nose cones were changed, but at no stage was there a true shunt — and that, given the behaviour of one or two of the drivers, was surprising. Immediately after the race I ran into Derek Daly, and he was aghast at some of the things he had seen.
“All this blocking…” DD said. “I mean, do they not want overtaking in F1? How can it be allowed that a driver can chop across, damage the other guy’s car — and get away with it? How can that be allowed?” Ah, I said, well, that’s contemporary F1 for you — the unwritten law that says you’re allowed ‘one move’ to protect your position — in other words, to swerve in front of someone presuming to try and overtake you. “Well, I don’t get it,” said Daly, “and I think it sends completely the wrong message to all the kids in the junior formulae: ‘They’re the best, and they do it, so obviously that’s what we must do, too…”
I could only agree. “Some of the things I’ve seen today…” Derek said. “And, you know, the two worst were Hulkenberg, a rookie — and Schumacher.”
No argument there. After the race there were several drivers angry with Michael, who may have lost some of his old pace — he qualified 13th in Canada, and finished 11th — but apparently retains in full his old sense of etiquette. “The beast still lurks,” someone murmured. “I mean, look what he did to Massa — and Massa’s his friend, for god’s sake!”
Afterwards the stewards considered the incident between Schumacher and Massa, and concluded that no action need be taken, that it had merely been ‘a racing incident’.
I thought back to something Juan Pablo Montoya had said to me at Daytona a few months ago as we discussed Schumacher’s imminent return to racing. JPM was never impressed by Michael’s intimidatory ways on the track, and I suggested that this time around, with the stewards stricter than before, he might not get away with it quite so readily.
Montoya just laughed. “Yeah, but with him it’s different, isn’t it? It always was, and I’d be surprised if it changed.”
Never mind. There were three other World Champions in the race. They finished first, second and third.
In 1997, the year after Denis Jenkinson’s death, they had the idea at Goodwood to celebrate his memory not with a minute’s silence, but with something that would have appealed to Jenks infinitely more: a minute’s noise. The plan was for all the racing engines in the paddock to be lustily revved, then shut down, and anyone who knew — or simply appreciated — the little man reckoned that nothing could be more appropriate.
Sadly, a few local residents felt differently. They weren’t willing to have their peace interrupted for 60 whole seconds, and protested to the local council, which felt obliged to accede to their wishes. A plague on all their houses was how the racing community felt about it.
Wednesday, June 2, marked the 40th anniversary of the death, in a testing accident at Goodwood, of Bruce McLaren, and the company which bears his name felt the occasion should be marked in appropriate style. Bruce died, of course, in the latest Can-Am car, the M8D, and an example resides in the lobby area of the McLaren Technology Centre, along with one of Johnny Rutherford’s Indianapolis 500 winners and countless F1 cars. It was therefore decided that in Bruce’s memory the Can-Am car — in McLaren’s original orange, of course — should be fired up once again, and for a minute revved in the founder’s memory.
Among those present at this touching little ceremony was Tyler Alexander, who was with Bruce McLaren from the earliest days. In Montreal Alexander spoke about the occasion, and in his inimitably gruff, determinedly unsentimental style allowed that the occasion had pleased him.
“McLaren kept it very low-key, which was good, because those things can get out of hand. Neil Trundle and the guys got the car sorted out — and I thought the whole thing went very well. You have a lot of emotion, sure, but you’ve got to learn to deal with it — as we have in this business for years and years and years. You just do, don’t you?
“I was glad the whole thing didn’t get blown out of proportion — it went smoothly, like most things do at McLaren, because they’re well organised. I think the marketing people were a little bit amazed by how many people in the factory came down from their tea break to the other end of the building, where the Can-Am car was.”
I had heard, I said, that Ron Dennis — immaculately suited, as ever — stood a few feet behind the car for the full minute, declining even to cover his ears. That struck me as typical RD — not an overt gesture, more an act of stoic faith. There are almost as many opinions of Ron as there are people who have ever met him, but not even his fiercest critic would deny that he is a racer to his bones, which may not be said, as we know, of all in the F1 paddock.
“Yeah, that was a pretty brave thing to do!” Tyler agreed. “Someone asked me if I wanted some earplugs and I said no, it’s OK — but when they fired it up, boy, my fingers were instantly in my ears…”
Alexander was not at Goodwood that Tuesday morning when McLaren died. “No, I was at Indianapolis, in the restaurant of the Howard Johnson down the road from the race track, where we stayed. I was having breakfast with Dan Gurney when a message came over the speaker system to say there was a ‘phone call for Mr Alexander’. I went to the phone and it was Teddy [Mayer], calling to tell me what had happened. Then I had to tell Dan, of course…
“Teddy got Dan to drive both the F1 car and the Can-Am car, and of course he was absolutely the right man to come to McLaren at a time like that. Dan really helped everyone to sort of focus and get back on track. Such a wonderful guy, and what he did encouraged the team to keep going — and of course we won the opening Can-Am race, at Mosport, which was fantastic.
“For some reason he wasn’t quite as quick in the F1 car — the car wasn’t bad, but maybe he didn’t really take to it, I don’t know. I remember having dinner with him and we got talking about, you know, coping with losing someone, and he said, ‘Well, since I’ve been racing, 26 guys that I knew personally have died…’ And right away I just knew he was going to stop — I looked at Evi, his wife, and she looked straight back at me, and I thought, ‘Well, there’s no point in saying anything here, but I’m sure it won’t be long before he says he’s going to stop — it was there in his eyes. In all honesty, though, he really helped McLaren through a terrible time.
“What you have to remember is that at the time of Bruce’s death Denny [Hulme] was also injured — he’d burned his hands badly in a testing accident at Indy, and he suffered terribly with them. Being Denny, he came back to racing long before he should have done — he drove the Can-Am car at Mosport [on June 14], where Dan won, and he somehow finished third. He couldn’t get out of the car at the end — one of his hands was actually stuck on the steering wheel… I think having Dan there was a big help to Denny as well as the team. Dan was someone he knew, someone he could trust.”
Gurney also won the second Can-Am race, at St Jovite, but soon thereafter had to leave McLaren due to contractual conflicts, although to a great degree his work was done. Hulme, recovering, won race three, at Watkins Glen, and went on to dominate the balance of the season.
Sadly for me I never met Bruce McLaren, but he seems to have been one of those rare people who leaves a mark on all who come into their world, however fleetingly.
“Yes,” said Tyler, “that’s exactly right. He just did. Bruce had this incredible ‘never give up’ attitude. We’d be looking for something in the factory, and none of us could find it — he’d just keep going until he found it, and an hour later he’d come back with it. And that kind of mentality sort of transferred itself to us and in a great many of us it stuck, and stayed there.”
It’s doubtful that anyone ever loved motor racing more than Tyler Alexander, but he concedes that, after McLaren’s death, he developed a certain wariness about getting close to racing drivers.
“Some of us — certainly I can speak for myself here — learn some things, you know: in simple terms, things like that toughened you up. The emotions were there, but you had to get on with things, and I think maybe Bruce had instilled some stuff into us that helped us do that — you can talk to anyone who knew him or worked for him, and they’ll tell you the same: he just did.
“From a personal point of view, I learned a long time ago to deal with that sort of stuff — I had to. It’s just the way it was in those days. By the time Senna was killed, everything had changed so much, and F1 kind of folded up for some people — but they were people who didn’t understand the sport. For the rest of us, it was, you know, it happens. I remember saying to myself over and over again, ‘Don’t die, you son of a bitch — just don’t die’ — with the tears running down my face, you know…
“Despite the horror of the whole thing — the bad part of it — the race started again, and you couldn’t have your tail between your legs. Even though mentally you were aware of it, the other side of your mind said, ‘You’d better get on with things here’. If you let yourself drop into some kind of pit it just screws you up, and you’d be better off walking away from it completely. In this business there’s a lot of nasty things, as well as a lot of good things, and if you’re going to survive in it you’d better face that.”
Adrian Newey is a stoic sort of chap, well accustomed after all these years to coping with the slings and arrows of Grand Prix racing. Invariably he bears its triumphs and disappointments with equanimity, and, while well capable of expressing a firm opinion about this or that, he is emphatically not given to overt shows of emotion.
In the late laps at Istanbul Park, however, Newey sat there on the pitwall with his head in his hands, and you could hardly be surprised, for his Red Bulls, running 1-2, had just contrived to throw away the Turkish Grand Prix.
Anyone with memories of the Schumacher-Ferrari days has cause to rejoice when a team allows its drivers to race each other. McLaren and Williams have always been particularly admirable in this regard, and Red Bull, too, appear to take an even-handed approach. But in F1 the holiest of holies is, ‘Thou shalt not take thy team-mate off…’
The most fabled/notorious (delete to taste) example of this scenario came at Suzuka in 1989, when the McLarens of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, half a minute clear of the rest, tangled at the chicane with six laps to go. The World Championship was at stake, and Prost had a comfortable, if not decisive, points lead. As well as that, unable to stomach the thought of another season as Senna’s team-mate, Alain was about to leave for Ferrari. He had had enough of Ayrton’s way of doing things, and now had little to lose.
“Before the race,” he said, “I told the team, ‘There’s no way I’m going to open the door any more — I’ve done it too many times’. Ron [Dennis] had always said the important thing was that we shouldn’t hit each other, we should think of the team, and I’d always done that. At the start of the race at Silverstone, going into Copse, if I hadn’t moved five or six metres we’d have hit each other, and both McLarens would have been out immediately! And that sort of thing happened often.
“As for the accident at Suzuka, I know everybody thinks I did it on purpose: I did not open the door — which of course Senna was expecting me to do – and that’s it…”
Prost being Prost, of course, the whole thing was done with consummate subtlety. He didn’t slam the door in Senna’s face, but merely made sure it wasn’t open enough to go through… There was nothing remotely subtle, however, about what happened in Turkey, and it didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar, after watching the replay a time or two, to figure out what had happened, and where to lay the blame. On the long straight down to turn nine, Vettel swiftly pulled up on Webber. Mark didn’t make his permitted ‘one move’ to block his team-mate, but instead left a gap just wide enough to accommodate an F1 car, and then held his steering wheel dead straight. Sebastian drew alongside, and then halfway ahead — at which point he steered right, in search of a better line into the approaching left-hander.
Problem was, Vettel hadn’t cleared Webber, and if he were expecting Mark obligingly to go right with him, to allow him past, he hadn’t learned many lessons about his team-mate. Webber’s path to eminence in F1 has been a long and tough one, and he hasn’t got there by being a soft touch. ‘Hard but fair’ has always been Mark’s way, and that was precisely how he behaved on this occasion: ‘I’ll leave you room, mate, but the rest you’ve got to sort out for yourself…’
This Vettel signally failed to do. A few laps earlier, when Lewis Hamilton had taken a run at him (at the same point on the circuit), he had done the same thing — veered right — and Hamilton, anything but impressed, moved right too, thus avoiding a touch. Had Webber done the same — and presumably Vettel was assuming that he would — contact might have been avoided, but he wasn’t about to be intimidated into allowing his rival a better line into the corner. No, Mark kept the wheel straight, as he was perfectly entitled to do, and when Sebastian — only half a car length ahead — steered to the right, disaster was guaranteed.
In point of fact, he had no need whatever to do such a thing, for if he had simply continued straight, he would have drawn clear of Webber — and he already had the inside line for the next corner.
Immediately before it happened, my thought was that Webber must have some sort of problem, for out of the previous turn Vettel accelerated at a different rate entirely, almost as if he had a 3-litre V10 in the car. It turned out that Webber had been told, in the interests of saving fuel, to turn his engine down; running at the front, rather than in someone’s slipstream, he had used more than Vettel, and now Sebastian had a threelap window before he, too, would have to turn down the wick. The coming-together occurred on the third of those laps, the last on which Vettel would have an advantage; Webber, unaware that Vettel’s engine was still on full noise, was not anticipating a sudden assault on his lead.
‘You make a star, you make a monster,’ Sam Spiegel once observed, and while Vettel is hardly that, still it’s been clear for a while that the impish schoolboy is receding swiftly into the memory. When things go wrong for Sebastian, I’m told, it’s as well to stand back as the toys come flying out of the pram.
You can argue — and you would be right — that there has never been a great racing driver who coped well with defeat, although some have had the grace at least to try and disguise it. There is little doubt that Vettel is on the path to greatness, but I confess to finding increasingly unattractive his little arrogances — notably that stabbing of a finger, indicating ‘number one’, at the cameras whenever he takes a pole position or victory.
It is of course easy to understand why he was so desperate to beat Webber in Turkey. Early in the season a couple of certain wins were lost through no fault of his own, and of late Mark had really come on strong, taking pole at Barcelona and Monaco, then conclusively winning both races. Each time you had the impression that for Vettel there was something not right about this: how could it be possible that someone — particularly an old guy of 33 — was driving a Red Bull quicker than he?
My feeling is that he has been fostered in this attitude by certain people in his team. While Christian Homer has always struck me as a very fair and reasonable individual, there is no doubt that other factions at Red Bull regard Vettel as the blue-eyed boy, and don’t trouble too much to hide it.
This can have an extraordinarily divisive effect on a team, as we have many times seen in the past. For a start, ask anyone who was ever in a team with Michael Schumacher. Talk to Prost about the years with Senna at McLaren. Then bring up the subject with David Coulthard about his long McLaren partnership with Mika Hakkinen — I remember his telling me once of the sense of utter deflation he felt when team members ecstatically greeted the news that his pole time had been bettered by Hakkinen.
Few would dispute that Mika was the better of the two, but that didn’t mean that David was other than a very considerable Grand Prix driver in his own right, on a given day capable of beating anyone. Still, with some justification, he could never shake off the feeling that Hakkinen was much the favoured son, and of course he didn’t relish it. It wasn’t that DC didn’t like Mika — on the contrary, they got along well, and only recently shared a Mercedes 300SL in the Mille Miglia Retro; what he found unsettling was always being made to feel like ‘the other driver’.
Some drivers are more hard-headed than others, of course, but, whether they admit it or not, they are fundamentally no different from you or I: within their own environment they like to feel wanted, and for some it is not less than vital. Looking back to the early ’80s, when Carlos Reutemann was in his team with Alan Jones, Frank Williams was moved to say that, “People have said that we didn’t get the best out of Carlos, and perhaps we let him down a little. Alan, as we know, was a tough old boy, but Carlos needed more psychological support than most drivers — he needed to feel that everyone in the team was wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf, sort of thing, and we probably didn’t pay enough attention to that at the time.”
Jones and Webber are different types in many ways, but still they share more than nationality. Mark is a less abrasive Aussie than Alan, but still he doesn’t care to be messed around, and very much speaks his mind — as we saw at Fuji in 2007, where he and Vettel did not get off to the greatest start.
At two-thirds distance, the safety car came out after Fernando Alonso’s McLaren had aquaplaned off the road, and behind it Webber and Vettel (who was then still in the Red Bull ‘B’ team, Toro Rosso) were lying second and third. It’s never easy in these circumstances, when drivers are constantly accelerating and braking, trying to keep heat in their tyres, and Vettel contrived to run into the back of Webber, putting both out on the spot.
On that occasion Sebastian, very much the new kid, was extremely contrite, but contrition appears to be something he has set aside these days. As he walked away from his damaged car in Istanbul his hand gestures indicated he thought Webber loopy, and clearly responsible for the debacle. Perhaps a new word — vettulant — may come into motor racing lingo.
Vettel’s response was no surprise, though. Sooner or later, I’m sure, an F1 driver will admit responsibility for a two-car accident, but probably it will be some time after Gordon Brown accepts blame for destroying the British economy.
If you felt inclined to be charitable, you might have called the Webber/Vettel contretemps ‘a motor racing accident’, implying that it was just one of those things, with no one really at fault. Otherwise you agreed with the likes of Niki Lauda and Martin Brundle and Alexander Wurz: Vettel, trying to barge past Webber, had caused the whole thing.
Christian Homer, understandably angry, but trying to keep his team on an even keel, declined to condemn one driver over the other. But Helmut Marko made Homer’s position infinitely more difficult by not only taking sides, but squarely blaming… Webber!
Either Marko’s judgement had slipped its moorings, or his reputed bias towards Vettel was on full display. “Sebastian was already ahead, by at least two metres,” he said, “and there was a corner to the left side coming.” So far, so good — but two metres is not as long as an F1 car, which seemed not to have occurred to Marko. “Therefore,” he went on, “Sebastian had to go for the line. He cannot brake on the dirt because he knows what happens…”
For one thing, when you’re alongside another car, even halfway ahead of it, you cannot blithely change direction as if it isn’t there. For another, Vettel was nowhere near ‘the dirt’, as the head-on TV pictures clearly show.
Following Marko’s remarks, Red Bull’s website was inundated with outraged fans wishing to register support for Webber — at which point the team went into ‘damage limitation’ mode, swiftly coming out with statements to the effect that it was all very regrettable, but just one of those things, and nobody’s fault. Before long there was released one of those ‘We love each other, really’ photos, such as Williams published in 1981, when Jones and Reutemann were going through a similar thing.
A few months after that, I asked Frank to reflect on the fracas between his drivers. “Well, it stirred up a lot of controversy at the time,” he said, “but, quite honestly, I just found the whole thing very boring! As long as the team gets the points, I don’t care who scores them. Why should I care which bloody driver wins? They’re only employees, after all…”
Ah, but that was then, and this is now, and in 30 years the world has changed more than somewhat. The invasion of PR, of ‘spin’, has not been by any means confined to politics. Grand Prix racing is infinitely more ‘corporate’ than it was, and FW would be the first to concede that he is infinitely more cagey, more careful, with his comments than he used to be.
Despite certain personnel changes, Williams remains first and foremost a racing team, whereas an outfit like Red Bull exists for different reasons. Such as Homer and Newey — indeed all those in the team directly connected with racing — are involved in F1 for the same reasons as Patrick Head or Ross Brawn, but the raison d’etre of Red Bull Racing is marketing. The company is in F1 to raise its profile, so that it can then flog more of its product, simple as that — and for some time now there has been evidence of a belief that the youthful Vettel does more for its image than Webber.
Martin Whitmarsh was not alone when he mischievously said he had been surprised by the extent to which Red Bull people ‘cuddled’ Sebastian on his return to the paddock. And although Webber is a strong and self-confident character, it cannot be easy to feel, as Coulthard put it, like ‘the other driver’. Especially when you’re taking pole positions and winning Grands Prix.
After the race, McLaren led Red Bull on constructors’ championship points, 172 to 171; had Webber and Vettel not tangled, Red Bull would have been way ahead, 199 to 145. On such days are World Championships lost. Webber’s existing contract expires at year’s end, and even before the Turkish debacle he was refusing to discount a move to another team, although Horner emphasised that a new deal was a mere formality. As it was, within a week of the controversy, this was confirmed, Christian perhaps mindful of how Ron Dennis swooped for Montoya’s signature when he sensed Juan Pablo was unsettled at Williams — and, for that matter, how Ferrari swooped for Kimi Raikkonen when they knew he was unhappy with Ron…
As well as that, of course, re-signing Webber helped to dissipate the tension, to draw a line under Istanbul. The new contract is for one year only, whereas Red Bull is attempting to tie up Vettel until the end of 2015. Hardly a surprise, this, for Mark is 11 years Sebastian’s senior, and while he may still resent the impression that his team-mate is the favoured one, he has based his decision to stay on ‘performance’, just as Coulthard long did at McLaren. Hard to turn your back on a car by Adrian Newey.
Once the Turkish Grand Prix had been handed to McLaren, it was not expected — particularly in light of what had happened to the Red Bulls — that Hamilton and Button would do other than stroke home for a comfortable 1-2. As it was, Jenson put a move on Lewis with a few laps to go, and there was some disquiet in the pits, let’s say, as the pair of them went side by side through several corners until Hamilton came back with a very uncompromising pass into the first turn, in the course of which the cars touched.
Afterwards, in parc ferme, where the cameras were on them, there was a somewhat perfunctory embrace, but once they were out of public view Lewis was plainly cool — and I use the word in its original, uncool sense. Jenson was trying to be matey, but his team-mate obviously wasn’t pleased, and on the podium looked hardly elated.
Why the froideur? Well, because such had been the pace of the race that the McLarens, like the Red Bulls, were a little marginal on fuel, and once they assumed the leading positions both drivers were told to turn down their engines, Hamilton apparently being assured that Button would not threaten him. Whether this plan was transmitted to Jenson is not clear, but assuredly Lewis was not amused by what transpired.
If anything in F1 — even more than winning Grands Prix — may be deemed ‘a challenge’, it is the managing of two stars in one team. “If you’re going to put two bulls in one field,” Frank Williams said long ago, “you’re going to have problems.” And Francis, having endured Jones/Reutemann and Mansell/Piquet, knew whereof he spoke.
Flavio Briatore, never a racing man but always a pragmatist, never swayed from his belief that a team should have a firm number one, plus ‘another driver’, and invariably that works fine — so long as the number two is aware of his status, and doesn’t nurture ideas of going into business for himself.
Most team principals, though, yearn for perfection, and on a certain level you can understand why. If you’re aiming at building the fastest car, which of course you are, why would you not then want two drivers capable of winning races with it? And this, of course, is where the problems start, for by definition if one driver wins, the other doesn’t. He’s driving the same car as the winner, and he got beaten so…
It doesn’t always mean very much. In the 1962 Natal Grand Prix, to quote an extreme example, Trevor Taylor won, with Jim Clark second, and both were driving Lotus 25s. Mind you, it never happened again.
When you have a pair of number one drivers, it is no more than inevitable that the slower of the two, at a given race, is going to look for reasons — ‘excuses’ is such a pejorative word — why this is the case, and the chances are slim that he will acknowledge his team-mate’s superiority. If anything in the world is more fragile than a Dresden figurine, it is the ego of a Grand Prix driver. Remember Gerhard Berger’s definition of the ideal team-mate: “Anyone who’s three seconds a lap slower.” He was joking, of course — but he wasn’t really…
Once in a while you will get a superstar driver pairing that works — think of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve, even Keke Rosberg and Nigel Mansell — but it doesn’t happen very often, and nor should we be surprised.
The other extreme, of course, was the partnership of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins at Ferrari in 1957 and ’58. Such close friends were those two that they were equally happy to see the other win, and Roy Salvadori once told me he thought that wholly unnatural. “I was very fond of both of them,” he said, “but I thought they sometimes let Ferrari down — quite often they’d just play around in a race instead of trying to beat each other. People always talk about Fangio’s fantastic drive at the ‘Ring in ’57, and undoubtedly it was fantastic, but Mike and Peter relaxed for a lot of that race — they should never have allowed him to catch them.”
Given what McLaren went through with Prost and Senna, and then with Hamilton and Alonso, you might have anticipated a certain wariness about going down that route again, about ‘putting two bulls in one field’. But Martin Whitmarsh is a clear-sighted man, and once he had signed Button to partner Hamilton — both Brits, both World Champions — he took steps to ensure that they got along as well as possible, even sending them on a few days’ holiday together so as to get to know each other better.
Thus far, the slight glitch in Istanbul notwithstanding, the signs are that Lewis and Jenson genuinely do get along well, and certainly they have more in common than do Vettel and Webber. But these people do an unusual job, and their talents are on display — very publicly — week after week.
The late Phil Hill, as intelligent a man as ever drove a racing car, put it this way when talking about his season-long fight for the 1961 World Championship with Ferrari teammate Wolfgang von Trips. “Trips and I always got along — but, face it, friendship between racing drivers is not a normal situation. You’re trying to beat the other guys all day, and then at night you’re supposed to forget all that.”
“Honestly,” said Jacky Ickx, “I think the biggest difference between drivers is the degree of desire — there is less difference between the amount of talent. OK, some drivers are more fit than others, more resilient, but the key is the desire to win. In the rest of life, selfishness is a defect, you know — but in racing it’s probably necessary if you are going to be a winner. And the one thing in racing that never changes is that your team-mate is your worst enemy — even if he’s also your best friend…”
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