The archives: August 2018

A double triumph for Australian drivers reminds us what true world class is – in the face of whatever fate throws up

It was nice to appreciate there was something really to savour from this year’s Monaco Grand Prix. What to the layman was plainly brain-numbingly dull – not so much watching paint dry as just gazing fixedly at the tin, still sealed – was for those who realised what was actually in train quite a nail-biting, tense experience…

It was so pleasing that the brightest smiley-person in decades of Formula 1 – Danny Ricciardo – was actually putting on a master-class in the multi-faceted skills demanded today of a Grand Prix racing driver. From selecting sub-menu B to managing overheating brakes, to experimenting with multiple engine, drive and diff settings, to compensating for lost gear ratios, the engaging Australian must have been juggling physical, intellectual (and emotional) challenges like a demented paper-hanger in a storm within the cockpit of that slinkily matte-finished Red Bull-Renault RB14.

At any split second – as is the nature of motor sport at any level – it would have been all too easy for a moment’s further distraction to have put him into the ever-threatening Monte Carlo guardrails and out of the race he so longed to win… and seemed set so to do.

What sprang to mind within my fevered memory banks was Graham Hill’s famous observation after stepping aside under the blue flags on Paddock Hill at Brands Hatch, during the 1972 British Grand Prix. His tweak at the steering wheel to make space enabling others to pass had put his Brabham onto loose marbles off-line. He promptly slithered straight off, and careened into the unforgiving safety bank – very firmly out of the race. The cleaned-up version of his subsequent admission, printed in the media at the time, was “From gentleman to twit in a tenth of a second…”. What he certainly said within my hearing was “From ace to a****ole in a tenth of a second…”.

So, at any moment during his admirable drive at Monte Carlo, Danny Ricciardo could most easily have fallen foul of exactly similar misfortune – “From ace to a****ole” indeed. But of course he did not.

In fact, what a great day Sunday, May 27, 2018 really proved to be for Australian motor sport. Not just one Antipodean son hit the headlines by winning a great motor racing classic – but with Will Power winning the Indianapolis ‘500’ in his Team Penske Dallara-Chevrolet we could surely celebrate a double-headed success for our old friends – without ever forgetting that the same bunch of colonials are also my country’s deadly test-cricketing foes… but then I am not at all prejudiced.

I do, however, know one thing for sure. Australian triple-World Champion Jack Brabham – who won at Monaco in 1959, who threw away a second win there in the very last corner in 1970 and who also contested the Indy ‘500’ in 1961, 1964 and 1969-70 – would have been chuffed to bits by such a day.

Set such single-seat open-wheeler international success for Aussie drivers against a national motor sporting regime down under in which ‘proper’ racing cars have long been submerged by an over-hyped diet of tin-top super saloons and it makes me think that perhaps there is some proper taste and true style left in the world after all.

What prompts me to demonstrate what an Italian friend of mine refers to laughingly as such ‘snobismo’? Well, about six or seven years ago I remember a plainly young Australian fan contributing to one of the internet enthusiast fora in which an argument was raging – now there’s a surprise – over candidates for the title of being ‘The Greatest Racing Driver of All Time’. Well, this poor, quality-deprived and thereby deluded kid offered his contention that – well, I can’t recall which driver it was exactly, but I think it would have been either of the multiple Aussie Super Saloon Champions Mark Skaife or Jamie Whincup – was his stand-out candidate for plainly just having to be the greatest racing driver the world had ever seen.

Now against a perhaps more considered – and certainly better-advised listing of such names as Nuvolari, Caracciola, Clark, Stewart, De Palma, Lockhart, Peterson, Hamilton etc – I’m really sorry, but I figure that Skaife and Whincup are truly unclassifiable, however fine their true talents might be.

But put a well-tuned Aussie racing driver upon the genuinely international stage in a mainstream single-seater like a Formula 1 car round Monte Carlo or an Indy car around the Motor Speedway, and hey, here are colonials with a proper claim to fame. It’s called, I believe, world-class. And I know for sure that dear old Jack would have been on the ’phone, absolutely relishing it. How would the call have started? Probably “’Allo. It’s Jek. I see your blokes got well and truly beat, then – not just once, but twice… Whaddaya think about that, then?”. He was, after all, a very proud Orstrylian. And all credit to them on that great, great day.

AS THIS YEAR’S British Grand Prix looms large at Silverstone we can think back 30 years to the 1988 edition. Remember that? It was the day when the darkest ash-grey rain clouds clamped down all over Northamptonshire and cold, drenching, incessant rain simply hosed down upon Formula 1’s finest. And at the end of that benighted race’s opening lap it was Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari which burst first out of the grey-blue gloom and spume ahead of Ayrton Senna’s McLaren-Honda MP4/4.

Now of course 1988 was the season in which those darned McLaren-Hondas won virtually everything in sight, and but for Senna tripping over Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams in the first chicane late in that year’s Italian Grand Prix, they most certainly would have done so. And so great had been the MP4/4s’ domination, so firm their grip upon the competition, that Berger’s appearance in the lead at Silverstone on that opening lap of the British Grand Prix – round 8 of the World Championship series, mind – was actually the very first lap of the entire season not to be led by a McLaren-Honda…

So intense was the rain and so dense the spray cloud that Berger’s Ferrari F1/87/88C was towing behind it that the genial (and capable) Austrian actually held his lead over Senna’s McLaren-Honda for the next 13 laps. Senna explained later “There was no way I was going to finish if I kept up that sort of speed throughout the race so I figured that there wasn’t much chance for him…” – and in fuel conservation terms that was certainly true.

Now in contrast that day McLaren’s second driver, Alain Prost, was having a really bad time and it was as the leading duo tore through the murk and came up actually to lap the second MP4/4 driver, that Senna made his decisive move – tearing into the Woodcote chicane. Berger had hesitated for just one fleeting moment leaving Abbey Curve and nobody could afford to give Senna such a momentary opportunity. The Brazilian ripped surgically up the inside of the Ferrari – held what for mere mortals would have been a heart-stopping moment out of control on the puddles – and then the McLaren’s nose was ahead – and in front of Prost too as the French star intelligently surrendered room, that day utterly out-classed.

The Ferraris thereafter were falling ever further behind on fuel requirement, and after 90 minutes or so it was Senna who finally twitched and danced his McLaren over the finish line to win the first really wet British Grand Prix in three decades – while Berger, almost out of fuel, stammered his Ferrari home ninth.

Meanwhile Alain Prost had never been in contention – seeming totally out of sorts he drove as if he was on a running-in programme – and had finally given up the struggle, voluntarily retiring his McLaren. He simply admitted “When there is a lot of standing water on the track I don’t like it. I have never pretended I do. I can be quick in the rain, especially if I’m on my own.

“At the start I was simply swamped in the middle of the field. Okay, it’s the same for everybody, but when you are flat out on the straight, you see absolutely nothing at all. Nothing! I’m not worried about driving on a slippery track surface. That’s all part of the business we’re in. But when you’re driving blind – that’s not motor racing in my book.

“My view is that motor racing should be run in the dry. Look at the British Open golf last week. They cancelled the third day because the weather was so bad. And in America, of course, they don’t race Indycars in the rain…”

Our old friend and colleague, the late Alan Henry, said it all when he wrote: “Ayrton Senna just smiled the smile of a winner. A winner who perhaps now felt that he had established a wafer-thin psychological advantage over his most dangerous rival…”.

The temporarily tortured Prost meanwhile (perhaps in fact affected deep down for ever after) was excoriated by the French press for this poor Silverstone showing, sparking further verbal self-defence. “At the end of the day…”, he protested, “…it’s my judgement, and my life and if people won’t accept that view, it’s their problem, not mine. I can live with that…”.

Many of his fellow world-class racing drivers – throughout history – would not have said as much, and a few indeed would not have thought as much – but Alain Prost is a very bright bloke, indeed. And he is still here – and many of those fellow superstars with a differing mind-set are not. In all cases, in every aspect of life, it’s the end result that counts.