Is there a brake on F1 talent?

Is money the overriding factor which influences driver choice, graduation and progression?

It’s still there, on my notebook for the 1989 Brazilian GP at Rio. A long, inky stroke across the lap chart. The legacy of a nudge from a hyper-excited Mike Kranefuss as he had drawn to my attention the progress of Benetton driver Johnny Herbert. It was not as if I hadn’t been following him throughout, even pointing out his performance to Ford’s Director of Motorsport, but Mike hadn’t been listening until his boy moved into the points. Then it was different. Mike wanted to tell the world.

Herbert was still a bruised, sore and stiff shadow of his former self. Sunken eyes bore brutal testament to the violence of the F3000 shunt seven months earlier which had threatened to wreck a glittering career, but he went on to finish fourth in that race, his first Grand Prix. By any account, let alone considering the agony he had been through just to get on to that grid, it was a terrific performance, one of the best by any F1 newcomer. Overnight some began to claim him as the next Jim Clark.

Less than four months later I listened to Kranefuss vehemently denying that Herbert was to be rested, and spat out a few well deserved poisoned words in print when it was confirmed the next day. Benetton boss Flavio Briatore and Kranefuss had decided the kid ‘needed time’, that he would be stood down until he was fully fit. He’d come back too soon. Rio, it seemed, hadn’t really happened.

F1 is a cruel world. Nowadays excellence is expected from any rookie, the big impression is everything. Time was, a driver at least had a season to prove himself, but 1989 set new records for driver changes. Herbert wasn’t up to it, they said, even though he’d also slogged home to finish a gutsy fifth in Phoenix, and he was out. Though supposedly only ‘rested’, not sacked, he never was recalled to the Benetton seat.

In the very French GP that Herbert thus missed, Jean Alesi made his Grand Prix debut. That was the year the Frenchman was rebuilding his career with Eddie Jordan’s F3000 team after being written off as a psychological wreck following a tough maiden 3000 year with Oreca. He’d agonised about testing a Larrousse in the pre-British GP tests, then had suddenly been offered the Tyrrell when Michele Alboreto defected to . . Larrousse. Jean had, quite literally, come to F1 by chance.

That day Alesi set himself on the road to Ferrari with a scintillating performance that saw him running second at one stage and suddenly made the Tyrrell a car in which everyone took interest. Like Herbert, he too was fourth in his first F1 race. Uncle Ken was temporarily back on the crest of a wave that so nearly broke all over McLaren in Phoenix and Monaco the following year. Alesi had arrived.

In 1991 a young German had made his GP debut at Spa. He wasn’t exactly the last choice for the second Jordan seat after Bertrand Gachot had been jailed, but he wasn’t the first, either. Only seasoned sportscar observers, and those who would listen to them, paid much serious attention to Michael Schumacher before he began electrifying Belgian qualifying, because it now seems the way of F1 that nobody takes any notice of such things until they are stuck right under their noses. Suddenly, from non-rated, Schumacher was the man everyone wanted. Benetton wanted him more than anyone else and got him, despite Jordan’s protests and apparently tight legal case. There were loopholes, and Schumacher disappeared through them, he never looked back. There were now two new boys in star seats.

If there is a moral to these tales it is that Herbert was probably the first F1 graduate certainly the first British F1 graduate since Jackie Stewart joined BRM in 1965, to move up with a top team. Even Senna moved in with Toleman and then struggled with Lotus before finding nirvana at McLaren. It’s easy to look at Alesi and Schumacher now, as the young pretenders, and say they were always going to make it. But both came into F1 by peculiar chance rather than deliberate design. Before they got in few fully appreciated their potential.

Both were lucky to find competitive machinery from the outset. Had Alesi come to Tyrrell a year earlier, with the unloved 017, it might all have been very different…

Time was when F1 team managers used to hang over the pit wall at Monaco and watch the new talent in the F3 race. Remember how quickly Alan Rees of Shadow snapped up Tom Pryce after his brilliant 1974 victory? Now you scarcely know what to tell upcoming drivers as they fondly delude themselves that the F1 world is watching their every move.

An exception is Peter Collins, the man who along with former journalist Peter Windsor had the foresight to appreciate Nigel Mansell’s driving ability. It is directly thanks to him that Herbert remains where he belongs, in a competitive F1 car. Also, that Mika Hakkinen graduated directly from F3 to a Lotus seat in 1991.

At a time when one can be forgiven for thinking there is a brake on F1 talent, Collins is one of the few who is prepared not only to maintain belief in meritocracy, but also to act on it. God knows, it must have been tempting for the revitalised but financially precarious Team Lotus to go for a couple of quick pay drivers, but he hung tough to keep his two chargers. What sort of factors does he consider when choosing such hotshoes?

“At Lotus in the past two years we could take risks, but it’s quite a question what we do next. We too are now subject to sponsor pressure. But you have to remember that experience is not quick necessarily. You could sit an experienced guy in your car for the whole season and the team knows straight away he’s slower than the other guy. And they know that all year. Not good.

“I always believe you should get the fastest guy you can into the car; you minimise the risk by how quickly he can learn. And you can assess that. You can’t teach a slow guy to be quick. The latent talent must be there.

“The majority of teams go for experience before speed. If you can balance speed and experience and speed and inexperience then you’ve got a good team. Effectively that’s what we had with Johnny and Mika in 1991 . You look first for natural speed and ability and, the other point which isn’t widely understood, the psychological make-up of the driver. Whether my own criteria are right or not, on average we’ve had success over the last 10 years. You can apply specific criteria to driver selection and actually analyse it; I think far too many people in F1 just judge drivers by what they see on the video monitor.”

Hakkinen is an interesting case in point, for he long figured in the Williams second seat equations after a flurry of exciting performances for Lotus this year. Yet somehow he didn’t quite seem to be able to make the final push that could secure himself the seat despite having Keke Rosberg as his manager. Against an old stager such as Frank Williams there is no way a young star can push himself further through the door, even if it is ajar. The matter does not rest in his hands. Patience remains a virtue Fl drivers need.

Damon Hill was likewise poised agonisingly at Williams, his situation perhaps even tougher to endure. Last year he made his GP debut at last for Brabham at Silverstone, drawing on every scrap of experience he had garnered as Williams’ test driver. Going from the best car in the game to one of the worst was difficult enough, but this winter he has faced the situation wherein he could win everything, or lose it all as he awaited Williams’ decision on Alain Prost’s partner. “It does not,” he stressed, “do to keep agonising over things, but you often find you can’t help doing exactly that. I know I have to keep close to Frank, that I have to try and keep any other potential situation on a backburner without losing it altogether, and I know that at the end of the day I could end up without any kind of drive.”

He does have one major advantage, and that is that he can still test for the team. Throughout 1991 and ’92 he impressed whenever he did that, to the point where Mansell once exorted Frank to give Damon his job when he decided to concentrate on lndycars. The Fleet Street press loved that, but it was a point Mansell made sincerely.

The issue, you begin to appreciate, is nothing like as clear cut as it seems. Collins, on the one hand, has been in a position where everything he aspires to achieve for Lotus requires serious gambling (although, as he admits, the bigger Lotus gets the less easy it is to do that). Other team owners, such as Ken Tyrrell or Eddie Jordan, require at least one driver who can bring funding. That is the way of F1 life.

Jordan, like Collins, has a reputation as a talent spotter. He too recognised Herbert’s abilities early, likewise those of Martin Brundle and Donnelly, and Alesi, although even he failed to coax anything special out of Stefano Modena this year. “Most teams tend to go for experience,” he agrees. “That’s down to the cost of the machines. But when you’re like us and you can’t afford Nigel Mansell, the best thing is to try and find one. In F3000 we could pick and choose, now it’s not so clear-cut because of financial implications.

“We look for a stable, consistent background. I need to be very clear in my mind and insist on several meetings. We need to eradicate risk in a driver’s mental approach.” Modena’s name hangs like a spectre during the conversation.

“I have strong ideas on drivers. They are better younger; you may pay for that for the first half of a year as they learn, but then they begin to repay. If you can continue a relationship for a number of years, that’s the ideal position. I would dearly have loved to have been able to continue our F3000 relationship with Jean, but his F1 opportunity came too early for us. Drivers who grow with you don’t come to F1 with preconceived ideas, but the flipside is that teams such as Jordan Grand Prix are training grounds for the big teams. You develop a good guy and everyone tries to poach him!

“Today though money helps. Of course it does. With technology the way it is, it’s sometimes better to take a less dramatic driver who has money, because with that you can continue to do new things. F1 at present has two divisions. To get from the second to the first you need to keep pushing.”

The problem is that some teams choose to take pay drivers, but then allocate their money elsewhere.

Teams such as Jordan are seeking that fresh spark of success. For Williams, after a hyper-successful 1992 season, it is a different ballgame. Success is no longer hoped for, but expected. Expected above all by Frank himself, and partner Patrick Head, but also by Renault, Elf and myriad sponsors. Big business has less leeway for quixotic gestures.

But why has Williams been prevaricating. why didn’t he sign Hill or Hakkinen without delaying? Ask the man himself those questions and its interesting to see that after all the considerations and factors that present themselves aren’t altogether different.

“We can’t allow commercial considerations to decide our choice,” he states firmly. “The decision has to be based on speed, and therefore talent. Some experience, too, because we have to be encouraged to believe the guy will score points regularly if the car is reliable and competitive. It’s possible that 1993 will see us run someone who appears to abrogate those rules – Damon. But there are unusual circumstances there, because he’s done over 20 or 30,000 kilometres in the car. Essentially though, we are looking for speed and sufficient commonsense and intelligence to finish races.

“Sure, Renault might say ‘We’d love to have Alain Prost in the car’, but there is never any pressure. Camel might say it would prefer to have a Frenchman or a German, because those are its best markets, but the truth is that the word pressure doesn’t apply. They might instead indicate preference.

“Honda never put pressure on us, but after the thing was dead it did approach us to see if we would consider taking Nakajima as a means of reviving things.

“At the end of it all, the guy’s gotta be quick. He’s got to be blindingly quick. That’s what counts.”

What’s taken the time at Williams is not just deciding who is quick, but also waiting for political situations within F1 to rationalise themselves so that it becomes fully clear just which drivers are available.

Meanwhile, down the road at Woking, Ron Dennis has been obliged to face some new situations chez McLaren, facing the lack of a topline performer for the first time since he steered the old McLaren organisation back to respectability. Senna seems gone, his love affair with the team over; Berger appears to have been seduced by Ferrari’s plentiful lire. Michael Andretti is undoubtedly a very quick driver with a wide range of skills, and anyone who has seen him in Indycar action has little doubt that he is as aggressive, especially in traffic, as Senna. “But the fact remains that he has taken a gamble,” insists Jordan. “The circuits, the technology and the racing will all be new to him, and even if he’s a quick learner he’s going to have a lot of fresh information coming at him every race. I think Ron took a brave decision.”

Again, though, it’s an indication of the Collins theory in action. Get the fastest guy you can in the car, and then let him learn. Watching Michael’s progress will be one of the fascinating aspects of 1993. After all, Schumacher has shown that it can be done, for a rookie to burst aggressively on to the scene and win, and his performances have indeed proved at a stroke just what a difference a totally committed racer can make to a team. It’s proof that there is always room at the top.

In any pyramid there will by definition be a greater number of objects at the bottom than at the top, but improvements in safety have prolonged careers, as has the conservatism wrought by the fresh accent on technology. It is staggering nonetheless how many good drivers there are still currently outside F1 for 1993: Alessandro Zanardi, Perry McCarthy, Mark Blundell, Eric Bernard, Ivan Capelli, Roberto Moreno, Andrea Montermini, Jean-Marc Gounon etc. The indications remain, however, that as long as commercial interests dictate driver choice, the next generation of stars will more than likely continue to be held back unless they can fund themselves into reasonable seats. Sponsors know about putting up funding and should stick to exploiting their investment in the marketplace. With few exceptions, they have precious little real idea about assessing levels of driver ability. Something so critical should be left in the hands of those who run the teams and the cars and have a more realistic appreciation of what’s required. The sad thing is that they themselves are few and far between.

So, getting into an F1 seat generally requires money; getting into a really good one requires a blend of speed, experience and perceived charisma. And luck. Stick around long enough and it should happen for you, although poor old Martin Brundle proves an exception to that rule. None of the topline stars – Senna, Prost, Berger, Mansell, Patrese, Alesi or Schumacher bought their way in or paid their way to decent drives, but certainly the latter two got where they are despite rather than because of the system. But here’s a thought: smooth-talking, sponsor-pleasing, guest-handshaking public relations men who race are all very well when it comes to off-track activities, but at the end of the day you still need racers to win. There aren’t too many of them, and neither are there too many people in F1 who seem able to recognise them, but few of the top teams have room for passengers.