In my book, the 2001 season began on 4 December 2000. That’s when F1 testing got under way again after the FIA’s November ban. Now we’re into the customary annual segment of rumour and counter-rumour that filters back from the test sessions. Have you heard? The new Ferrari’s got an insoluble handling problem. They’re having to do a total redesign on the Benetton’s oil system. The new Prost is faster than the new McLaren. The Jaguar’s had three engine failures in two days. Montoya is 2sec faster than Ralf Montoya is 3sec slower than Ralf. And all this is offset by expressions of bland optimism from each team member you manage to speak to.
I’ve been to some of these winter test sessions in Spain, and they’re eerie. A bleak, deserted race track, flurries of rain, naked spectator banks populated only by last season’s crumpled programmes and rusting cans. A paddock that, devoid of the throng and energy and crowded colour of a grand prix weekend, looks vast and forlorn, with just a couple of transporters huddled in one corner. The pitlane a dead end of closed garages. But no: one is open, with three or four mechanics, and there’s an engineer on the pitwall.
And, echoing around this emptiness like a ghost from last summer’s grands prix, the sound of a single Formula One car, its engine note rising and falling through the gears, going round and round and round.
And round. An out lap, three flying laps, an in lap. A quick conference, some adjustments. An out lap, three more flying laps, an in lap. And so on, all day, from 9am to 6pm, perhaps for three or four uninterrupted days. Then pack it all up and trek across Spain, from Jerez to Barcelona, and from Barcelona to Jerez, and unpack it again and carry on. Most teams like to swap circuits every few days, not because everyone is going out of their minds with boredom, but because you can miss something if you spend too long on the characteristics of the same track. It’s an unglamorous and hugely expensive process, and for the richest teams it fills much of the three months from December to February. Of course, if those three months can settle a difficult car’s handling, or solve an elusive reliability problem, the money will be well spent.
If, that is, you’ve got the money. And testing budget is one way to differentiate between a team that gets the results, and a team that doesn’t. In 2000, every single F1 race was won by one of two teams. Stewart had a single lucky win in 1999, but otherwise over the past three years only Jordan has scored victories, two of them helped, it has to be said, by problems in the McLaren and Ferrari camps and really only one — Magny-Cours 1999— in a straight fight. There has always been a huge gulf in F1 between the top teams and the rest. Sometimes there has been total domination by a single team. Alfa Romeo won every round of the world championship’s first year (apart, pace the pedants, from Johnny Parsons’ Kurds at Indy). Then it was Ferrari, and then Mercedes. By 1958 it was Ferrari versus Vanwall, although in those days of greater mechanical uncertainty, underdogs always had a chance, because sometimes all the favourites broke down. But if you look down the last 50 years you’ll find that more seasons than not have tended to be a battle between the two top teams of the day.
Sometimes one team gets the upper hand to such an extent that the only excitement is which of its two drivers will win — like Ayrton Senna versus Alain Prost at McLaren in 1988, or Damon Hill versus Jacques Villeneuve at Williams for much of 1996. For the lesser teams further down the grid, victory has become an impossibility. So why do they do it? What, for example, motivates those perennial tail-end charlies, Minardi? In their case, the answer is sheer enthusiasm and love of the sport, from founder Giancarlo Minardi downwards. Since 1985 the team has taken part in a remarkable 244 grands prix, and has introduced drivers like Alessandro Nannini and Giancarlo Fisichella to Fl, as well as giving the once great Michele Alboreto his final F1 drive (he scored a point for them in Monaco in 1994). It has had fleeting moments of glory, like when Pierluigi Martini led the 1989 Portuguese GP for one glorious lap, or qualified on the front row for the 1990 US GP at Phoenix. But on today’s ultra-big-bucks stage, despite a budget which would have seemed generous when they started 15 years ago, the brave little team from Faenza is out of its depth.
In fact, it’s an achievement that Marc Gene and Gaston Mazzacane qualified for every round in 2000, and finished 21 times in 34 starts. Minardi’s cruellest moment came in that topsy-turvy 1999 European Grand Prix at the Ntirburgring, when Luca Badoer was holding an astonishing fourth place. Then the engine blew. Badoer slumped down beside his smoking car and sobbed. As it turned out, with so many other retirements that day, team-mate Marc Gene finished sixth, and earned Minardi’s only point in five years. Of course, they’re facing the new season with their usual optimism but, as I write, it’s still not clear who will actually own the team by the time the circus arrives in Australia next March. Start making a list of unsuccessful Fl teams, and it’s hard to know when to stop. If unsuccessful means teams that have never won a grand prix, then Arrows after 354 GPs still has to be included, at the moment along with Sauber, BAR and Jaguar. But you have also got, from the 1990s, Lamborghini, Pacific, Simtek, Lola, Dallara, Andrea Moda, Life, Larrousse and Forti. The 1980s brought us Eurobrun, Onyx, Zakspeed, Osella, AGS, Coloni, Spirit, ATS and Rial. In the 1970s, when the kit-car concept of a Cosworth DFV, a Hewland gearbox and other bought-in parts made producing an F1 car of sorts comparatively simple, the list included Connew, Amon, Ensign, Hill, Kojima, Surtees, Be_llasi, Theodore, De Tomaso, Copersucar/Fittipaldi, Token, Tecno and Parnelli. There were others, too.
If Minardi’s motives are sheer enthusiasm, there are multitudinous reasons why other teams have come into F1, and failed. Some, in their ignorance, thought it was going to be easy, found out how wrong they were, and retreated. Or they underestimated the speed with which the cost ofjust participating, let along winning, was accelerating: the two noble efforts in 1994/5 from Pacific and Simtek come to mind. Others never expected to get to the front, but reckoned they could make an honest living mid-field and, for a while anyway, some of them did just that. One or two found a rich sponsor and took him for an expensive ride, until either he got wise or his money ran out. A few were private individlials who wanted to do their own thing, in their own car. This gave us marques like the Merzario, which had a cockpit so small that only its diminutive stets-on-hatted principal Arturo Merzario could drive it. The brave David Purley got Mike Pilbeam to design a neat car for him in 1977, named Lec after the family refrigeration firrn. It was scarce ly competitive against the Laudas, Andrettis and Scheckters of the day, but during the pitstops in the wet Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder that year David heroically led the race and was castigated by Niki Lauda for not humbly waving him by.
The enraged Austrian categorised him, along with other slow and presumably timid drivers, as a “rabbit”. The irrepressible Purley, who was the very reverse of timid, turned up at the next race with a rabbit proudly painted on his helmet. The following month he was dreadfully injured, and the Lec destroyed, in a horrifying accident at Silverstone.
In every decade there have been parallels to the gallant Minardi team. Once in a while a David would slay a Goliath. When cars that won races were all painted red (or, for a time, silver), I was a fan of the Gordini team because, as a nervous nine-year-old autograph hunter in the Silverstone paddock, I found the cheerful French team more approachable than most, and the heroic Jean Behra signed my programme. Amedee Gordini’s cars, lacked power, but they were simple, light and handled well, and Behra got astonishing results, notably holding off Ascari’s hitherto invincible Ferrari to win the 1952 non-championship Reims Grand Prix. But Amedee was always strapped for cash, and the more complex straight-eight T32 of 1955 was a bridge too far. He was saved by Renault, who wanted the Gordini name on their warmer road cars.
There in lay a prophecy for the future. Today, the great god Marketing has turned Formula 1 into a game for giant manufacturers: DaimlerChrysler, Fiat, Ford, Honda, BMW, Renault and now Toyota. Never again will we see brave little teams beating the big boys at the sport’s highest level just as I doubt we will see for much longer brave little road car firms worming their way through the maze of regulations and legal tripwires to put their own dreams on the market for you and me to buy.