– Title decider had shades of Hawthorn vs Moss
– Why standard engines have no place in F1
If the rain at Interlagos had kept from suddenly worsening for another half-minute or less, Sebastian Vettel and, more importantly, Lewis Hamilton would never have caught Timo Glock on the last lap, and Felipe Massa would be the World Champion of 2008. For a brief moment indeed, as he took the flag after a perfect drive, Massa – and all in the Ferrari pit, including his parents and brother – thought he had done it. Twenty one seconds later Hamilton overtook a stricken Glock for the fifth place he needed, and Luca di Montezemolo, watching at home, smashed his TV set to pieces.
In the following days endless words were published about this convulsive conclusion to the Formula 1 season, and if every cliché – not least the one about no racing movie script daring to come up with a climax like this – was served up, it was hardly surprising. I remember thinking the same about the 1970 Monaco Grand Prix, when Jack Brabham understeered into the barrier at my feet, and Jochen Rindt, shaking his head in disbelief, nipped by to win.
That, however, was merely the last corner of the last lap of a race. What we saw at Interlagos was a matter of the last corner of the last lap of a season, and in a trice it all came back to Hamilton, while Massa, who had touched the hem of the World Championship, was plunged into his own private tragedy. Hero and zero, shuffle them as you will.
As Hamilton’s eternal chaperone, his father Anthony, steered his boy through the photographers and TV crews in pitlane, there was an overpowering poignancy about the day. While McLaren and Mercedes folk hugged each other, their joy amplified by relief, by the sheer unexpectedness of it all, the crowd, its mortification the more overwhelming for coming on the heels of brief rapture, began sullenly to boo.
Hamilton père expressed disappointment at what he perceived as a lack of sportsmanship, and you could understand him, but in reality he could have expected little else. Had this been Silverstone, after all, and the fortunes of Lewis and his rival reversed, the response would have been no different. Let us not forget the enchanting banner unfurled in the Woodcote grandstand before the start of the 1992 British Grand Prix, when most of the populace apparently dared anyone to challenge Nigel Mansell. ‘F*** Senna’, it said. Without the asterisks.
What made the post-race scene at Interlagos surreal was that the title fight had been settled, and in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, yet the new World Champion was nowhere to be seen, for in the podium ceremony he had no role to play. And adding to the paradox of the moment was that in the lights, harsh against a gloomy sky, Massa was struggling to keep from tears, Alonso and Räikkönen apparently at a wake.
In this age of sport, in which the clenched fist and contorted face are so much the norm, Massa’s behaviour was from another time, and it would have been a stony heart left unmoved by the conflict in his face, the mix of anguish and pride. I thought he handled a cruel scenario with consummate grace.
Felipe has, after all, lately made Interlagos his own, and not only by virtue of his nationality. Two years ago – on the occasion of Michael Schumacher’s final race – he won with ease, and in 2007 was similarly untouchable before moving over to allow Räikkönen through for the 10 points he needed for the championship. This time around Massa, to have any realistic shot at the title, had to win in Brazil again, and he could have done nothing more, starting from pole position and putting a lock on the race from the outset.
In a way, the occasion was reminiscent of the championship decider 50 years ago, when Stirling Moss had to win in Casablanca, and did so emphatically, but Mike Hawthorn needed only second place to become Britain’s first World Champion, a position duly handed to him in the late laps by Ferrari team-mate Phil Hill.
Like Moss, Massa won more races than anyone else in the season, but there the comparisons end, for there was no question, as some fatuously suggested, of Glock’s making a present of fifth place to Hamilton. If Timo could have finished ahead of Lewis, he would have done, but, as we have so many times seen, on a streaming track a modern F1 car on dry tyres is about as agile as a reveller in a swamp, and on its final lap the Toyota was 18 seconds slower than Lewis’s intermediate-shod McLaren. For the record, it’s worth pointing out that Jarno Trulli’s Toyota, also on slicks, was fractionally slower still.
In the end, then, it all came right for Hamilton, but as he freely acknowledged, a sizeable chunk of luck was involved, for in the late laps he had been powerless to do anything about Vettel, who had passed him for that crucial fifth place, and the World Championship looked lost, just as at Interlagos in 2007. Neither Lewis nor anyone in the McLaren pit, after all, could positively have known when the rain was going to intensify, when Glock was going to slide back into their clutches. This was the closest of calls in the history of the championship, shading even Adelaide in 1986, when the title swung between Mansell, Piquet and – finally – Prost.
It has been a curious season, 2008, in the sense that occasionally one began to wonder if anyone really wanted the title. Räikkönen, the reigning World Champion, was rarely a factor, and if it worried him he didn’t show it, while Alonso, pound for pound the best all-round racing driver on earth, had talked himself out of McLaren, and gone back to a Renault team understandably off the boil after a year with Fisichella as number one. Robert Kubica did more with what he had than anyone, but after a victory (the aim of the season) had been achieved in Montréal, BMW turned down the flame on development of the ’08 car, preferring to concentrate on the delights of KERS and everything that next season will entail.
All of which distilled the championship to a fight between the two motivated drivers at McLaren and Ferrari, Hamilton and Massa, both of whom were often sublime, occasionally awful.
In the build-up to the Brazilian Grand Prix some frankly absurd things were written and said about the protagonists in the forthcoming battle, some observers suggesting that Felipe’s challenge to Lewis amounted to effrontery – how dare this journeyman presume to take on a god?
Utter nonsense, it seemed to me. Massa may not have the once-and-for-all talent of a Senna, a Schumacher – or a Hamilton, but he has annihilated the more naturally gifted Räikkönen this season, and done it with a minimum of fuss, on more than one occasion simply disappearing into a race of his own, just as he did several times in 2007, and at Istanbul the year before, when Schumacher couldn’t live with him in either qualifying or race.
They say of Felipe that he is at his best only when he starts at the front and leads all the way, that he is less certain when he needs to fight, to come through the pack. For what it’s worth, there were those who said the same of such as Alberto Ascari and Jim Clark. It is undeniable that the great majority of Felipe’s victories have been flag-to-flag affairs – as Alain Prost used to say, “That’s surely the aim, no?” – but his pass, for example, of Hamilton around the outside at the first corner in Budapest was a masterpiece of audacity and self-belief. Thereafter no one got near him, and he lost the race only because the Ferrari’s engine let go three laps from the finish.
In a way, Massa reminds me of Pedro Rodriguez, not because he wears a deerstalker, or because he is a genius in the wet (Silverstone, let’s face it, was an embarrassment), but because he simply gets better and better and better, just as Pedro did.
To belittle Massa, to suggest he doesn’t really belong in the top echelon, is in any case to compromise the significance of Hamilton’s achievement. This has been by far Felipe’s most impressive season, while Lewis, I would suggest, has not been consistently as strong as in 2007.
That said, like Jacques Villeneuve, he became World Champion in only his second season as a Grand Prix driver, and if, like JV, he was instantly into a front-running car, after a phenomenal amount of preparation, still he had to deliver.
After that remarkable debut season, when Hamilton lost the championship only at the very last, many suggested that logically, with a year’s experience to work with, he ought to waltz the title in 2008. Before the season’s opening race, though, Jackie Stewart offered a cautionary word or two.
“I think many people’s expectations of Lewis are far too high,” he said. “For all his talent, he is still a young man – and still short of experience. He had a truly astonishing first season, but – while I hope it doesn’t happen – I think he could easily fall into the ‘second season’ syndrome, which is so common: after a great beginning, the second season falls short of expectations. I know all about it, because it happened to me.
“Things have changed in Lewis’s life, haven’t they? No longer is he living near the factory, no longer is he in every morning, with his mechanics and engineers, and so on. He’s in Geneva – and he’s becoming a non-resident, so therefore he’s only going to be allowed a small amount of time in the UK.
“There’s another thing, too. However difficult the relationship may have been between himself and Alonso, he may find that, in some respects, he misses his influence this season. Fernando is very good on set-up, for example, and there will have been times when Lewis benefited from that. As well as that, in 2007 he was the rookie, with very little to lose – if Alonso beat him, well, that was to be expected of a double World Champion, but if he beat Fernando… wow! In 2008, though, he is the team leader at McLaren, and in only his second season. I know he’s a very confident young man, but that sort of thing brings pressures of its own…”
So it did, and there were occasions this year, most notably at Bahrain, where Hamilton had nothing like the sureness of touch we had come to take for granted in 2007. There were times when he over-drove, and times when he made apparently unfathomable decisions, as in qualifying at Monza, where he opted to go out on intermediates in a monsoon, and found himself 15th on the grid.
All that said, Lewis’s blinding speed and other-worldly car control were invariably in evidence. He won brilliantly at Monaco, and at Silverstone produced not only the victory of the season, but also a wet-weather drive which stands comparison with any in the sport’s history.
Before Hamilton arrived in F1, Keke Rosberg, who had known him from the karting days, told me of another of his attributes. “Lewis is incredibly brave,” Rosberg said. “I mean, Gilles brave…”
So, too, he is, and sometimes, according to rivals, a little too much so. Thirty years ago they were saying the same of Villeneuve, and although Hamilton has told me how much he bases his approach to the job on Ayrton Senna, the great hero of his youth, if anything I find more parallels – certainly at this stage of his career – between himself and Gilles. Mauro Forghieri used to talk about Villeneuve’s ‘rage to win’, and it is also apparent in Hamilton, sometimes with disastrous consequences, as at Fuji in October, when, with the title beckoning, he tried to outbrake half the world into the first corner. In Shanghai a week later, though, there was a victory in the metronomic manner of Prost.
A worthy World Champion, then? Yes, unquestionably – but so, too, would Massa have been, for through 18 Grands Prix the title see-sawed between the two of them, with occasional interventions from Robert Kubica. At the last, though, it all came down to Timo Glock’s tyres.
“Er, Commendatore, have you got a moment?”
“I have all the time in the world, since I am-a retiring from racing…”
As I suggested last month, Peter Ustinov’s sublime spoof on motor racing, The Grand Prix of Gibraltar, may have been recorded half a century ago, but still resonates today. Commendatore Fanfani’s threat to withdraw from racing, for example, merely echoed a pattern of behaviour long ago established by E Ferrari. Lest we forget, not one car bearing the yellow shield was on the grid at Silverstone in May 1950, when the first World Championship Grand Prix was run, Enzo having withdrawn his team after a dispute over ‘starting money’. Nothing like beginning as he meant to go on, and if Messrs Ascari and Villoresi were disappointed, well, so be it.
Over time Ferrari, only too aware that his team had a pulling power like no other, ruthlessly badgered race organisers everywhere with his financial demands, and if they were not met the transporters stayed in Maranello, simple as that.
He was in a unique position, and knew it. All through the years of my youth, when there were several non-championship F1 events in this country, as well as the Grand Prix, a race became ‘a proper race’ only if Ferraris were on the grid, and this had little to do with the team’s competitiveness at a given moment. If the only red cars on show were privately-entered Cooper-Maseratis or whatever, entered by such as Scuderia Centro-Sud, the entire occasion was automatically downgraded in my mind, and countless others felt the same.
Having joyfully watched Jean Behra and Tony Brooks finish one-two in the 1959 Aintree 200, for example, I was mortified when Ferrari declined to send any cars to Liverpool for the British Grand Prix later in the year. ‘Metal workers’ strike.’ Yeah, right.
A couple of years later the Old Man didn’t even trouble to come up with an excuse for not entering any cars in the US Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, even though his number one driver Phil Hill – an American – had clinched the World Championship a month earlier. Hill and his public were therefore denied the opportunity of celebration at home, and I once put it to Phil that he must have found it difficult to forgive Ferrari.
“Oh,” he laughed, “I didn’t have enough sense to know that he was supposed to enter for the Glen, you know. I’d won the championship at Monza, but the same day we lost von Trips, and I thought it was clever – and typical – of Ferrari that he could go into mourning, and get out of going to the last race! Yes, it was terrible we didn’t go to the Glen, and certainly I was pissed off, but the whole Trips thing was a big trauma. I was with Ferrari for days afterwards, and there was all this, ‘Oh, what are we going to do?’ hand-wringing stuff, and I just sort of fell into it, and felt that I would be selfish, in this time of great trauma, to say, ‘I want to go race some more’…
“You can’t imagine what it was like at Maranello at that time. I mean, the Vatican didn’t send anyone, but everyone else in the damn country was milling around down there, and there was Ferrari, with three days’ beard growth, and bathrobes and everything, to appear grief-stricken… and I sort of fell for it! He’d probably been through the same thing dozens of times…”
Nor, over the years, did Ferrari hesitate to make a theatrical gesture in order to make a point. In 1964, for example, he got into a major row with the Italian Automobile Federation over the disputed homologation of the 250LM sports car, eventually declaring that he was giving up his entrants’ licence, and would never again race cars in his own name in Italy.
On the near horizon were the last two Grands Prix of the season, in America and Mexico, and Enzo’s final flourish was to place a call to New York, to his old buddy Luigi Chinetti, the Ferrari importer in the USA and proprietor of the North American Racing Team. At Watkins Glen and Mexico City, the Ferraris of John Surtees, Lorenzo Bandini and Pedro Rodriguez were in white and blue – and it was thus in these colours that Surtees won the World Championship. Due notice was taken: the 250LM’s homologation problems melted away, and at the start of the 1965 season Ferraris were red again.
Even more overt – and emphatically more costly – was the Old Man’s response, in the mid-80s, to an FIA proposal to restrict Formula 1 engines (in the forthcoming post-turbo, ‘normally aspirated’ era) to eight cylinders. This being four fewer than he considered desirable, Ferrari said that unless the proposed change were rescinded, he would abandon Grand Prix racing altogether, and instead commit his company to the CART series.
Given the state of Indycar racing today, no one would take such a threat seriously, but back then, before greed and self-interest began to strangle it, CART was an immensely popular and very well supported series, growing at a rate which was increasingly a concern to the powers-that-be in F1.
Still, there were many who believed that Ferrari’s threat was nothing more than hot air, but Bobby Rahal was one who took it seriously, for the Truesports team, for whom he drove, was contacted by Maranello, and asked if it would be interested in running a car built by Ferrari. Team owner Jim Trueman had a meeting with Piero Lardi Ferrari, and arrangements were made. Rahal duly tested his March-Cosworth at Fiorano, and the car was closely studied by Ferrari engineers.
What’s more, the company’s CART car was actually built, and a beautiful thing it was. But although it was tested by Michele Alboreto, Rahal never actually got to drive it, for by then the FIA had concluded that, now they thought about it, there wasn’t really a whole lot wrong with 12-cylinder engines in F1 after all.
That being so, Ferrari – predictably – lost interest in the CART project, but although the car itself never raced, its turbocharged V8 engine did later surface in the American series, now rebadged as an Alfa Romeo. And, given the way it performed, perhaps it’s as well that Enzo stuck with what he knew. From 1989 to 1995, Ferrari drivers had V12 engines at their backs.
Why this look back to some of Enzo’s little idiosyncrasies? Well, because recently his successors in Maranello advised the FIA that, unless the governing body’s proposed changes to the engine regulations were re-thought, Ferrari would have to ‘re-evaluate, with its partners, the viability of continuing its presence in the sport’.
Here we go again…
To some considerable extent, Enzo Ferrari’s bullying tactics with race organisers were curtailed in the early ’70s, when Bernie Ecclestone became a team owner (of Brabham), and lost little time in unionising – sorry to use an obscene word, Bernie, but it’s the right one – the teams. Once FOCA – the Formula One Constructors Association – had been formed, and Ecclestone entrusted with the task of negotiating with race organisers on behalf of all the teams, even those owners with initial reservations looked at their new bank statements, and concluded that Bernie was just the ticket.
That included Ferrari, of course. Ecclestone’s contracts with the Grand Prix organisers (and, later, the TV companies) guaranteed the presence of all the major teams at every event, so suddenly Ferrari’s occasional absenteeism became a thing of the past. Enzo, for his part, was delighted by Bernie’s negotiating skills, which swiftly proved superior even to his own.
For some little time, therefore, Ferrari – in terms of putting cars on the grid at every race – have been as good as gold. But, following a board meeting in Maranello the week before the Brazilian Grand Prix, the company issued a statement suggesting that its long-term commitment to F1 should not be taken for granted, and this time – for once – I found myself wholly in sympathy with its sentiments.
The press release read thus: “While reiterating its wholehearted commitment to a substantial and needed reduction in costs in F1, starting with propulsion, the Ferrari Board of Directors expressed strong concerns regarding plans to standardise engines as it felt that such a move would detract from the entire raison d’etre of a sport with which Ferrari has been involved continuously since 1950, a raison d’etre based principally on competition and technological development. The Board of Directors expressed the opinion that should these key elements be diminished, it would have to re-evaluate, with its partners, the viability of continuing its presence in the sport”.
For the umpteenth time, no one needs to be told that costs need to be reduced in Grand Prix racing, and drastically so. In 1995, not long before he died, Denis Jenkinson told me of his mounting fear that one day F1 was going to ‘implode’. “We’ve lost our sense of proportion,” he said. “There’s so much money around at the moment that they don’t know what to do with it, but I can’t get away from the feeling that it can’t be sustained, that it’s all a house of cards…”
Ahead of his time, Jenks. Not least of Mr G ‘Prudence’ Brown.
While Jenks had the conviction that F1 profligacy was out of control, however, he would have been appalled by the FIA’s proposal of a ‘standard engine’, for, like Enzo Ferrari, he loved engines above everything else. “Don’t understand tyres,” he would airily say; nor did he have a deep interest in aerodynamics. Engines, though, were a different matter, and the notion of ‘standardising’ them – obliging everyone to run the same motor – might well, I suspect, have killed his interest in the contemporary sport of racing.
For a couple of years now, we have had ‘standard tyres’ in F1, in the sense that the governing body decided all teams should run on the same rubber, and put the contract out to tender. To no one’s great surprise, Michelin, whose motivation came from competition, had no interest in competing against itself and declined to bid, leaving the goal open for Bridgestone, a scenario precisely duplicated recently in MotoGP.
Now, however, the FIA wants to develop the ‘standardisation’ theme in F1, and in a late October letter to FOTA – the recently-formed, long overdue, Formula One Teams Association – Max Mosley offered three options on engines, the most draconian of which was ‘A homologated engine produced by a single supplier after an invitation to tender, with the current suppliers free to build an identical engine themselves (but not the gearbox), subject to rigorous controls’.
Option 2 read thus: ‘A consortium of teams obtain an engine to current rules, but at a much lower cost, from a single supplier. Engines from other sources to be subject to rigorous controls to eliminate differences in performance’. The italics, incidentally, are mine.
And so we come to Option 3, clearly the most desirable – or least undesirable – of those on offer: ‘A proposal from FOTA, backed by solid guarantees, for the supply of complete power trains to independent teams for less than five millions euros per team per season, to include 30,000 kms of testing and all on-track assistance’.
A move, in other words, to keep the small teams from going under.
It has been a feature of the FIA’s working practices, in the Mosley era, to lead F1 teams by the nose towards what the governing body wants, and to achieve that by putting on the table only completely unacceptable, often patently absurd alternatives. Max wants to slash the costs in F1, and also to guarantee an affordable source of engines to the independent teams. But, while both are clearly laudable aims, to threaten the imposition of a ‘standard engine’, or even to inflict ‘rigorous controls to eliminate differences in performance’, is surely to destroy the entire ethos of Grand Prix racing.
How different things used to be, did they not? And not so long ago, either. When Mosley decreed that 2.4-litre V8 engines would replace the 3-litre V10s for 2006, there was already a pressing need to cut costs, and the manufacturers howled in pain at the thought: to design and manufacture a wholly new engine – and long before the previously agreed expiry date of the V10 era – would, they said, be prodigiously expensive, so how did that square with ‘reducing costs’?
Mosley insisted that the change was being made on safety grounds, suggesting that horsepower (while still nowhere near the levels of the turbo era) had become unacceptably high. Very well, the teams argued, why not peg it back by simply imposing a rev limit on the existing V10s? BMW and Honda, in particular, stuck to their guns, and their refusal to fall into line for a long time stood in the way of the unanimous agreement required for the change to go through. Ultimately, the two companies were advised, in words of one syllable, that failure to conform might lead to… repercussions, whereupon they meekly signed on the dotted line. Their anger, though, is evident to this day.
Once the 2.4-litre V8s got the reluctant green light, a couple of hundred horsepower were instantly lost, and immediately the quest began to get some of them back.
Bernie Ecclestone was never a fan of the move to reduce power, to go to a smaller engine. Even before it was introduced, he could see what it was going to mean: “What we’ll have to do, probably, is limit the revs on the 2.4, because otherwise they’re going to be revving like crazy, and everyone’ll be spending a fortune to get another seven horsepower. This change hasn’t really achieved anything – except put the cost of engines up…”
As ever, Ecclestone was on the money, and it wasn’t long before we had the ‘engine freeze’, which required all manufacturers to submit for FIA inspection and approval an engine whose specification could then not be changed through the following season. At the same time a rev limit of 19,000 was imposed.
This being F1, it was no more than inevitable that some would take advantage of the period coming up to the ‘inspection’ date, frantically maximising their engines’ performance, while others worked on the understanding that ‘engine specs’ were already frozen, and consequently lost out in a big way through the season just past.
During the season, indeed, the differences between one engine and another were further exaggerated when some manufacturers, employing modifications permitted in the interests of ‘reliability’, found ways of making those mods work in the interests of ‘horsepower’. What a surprise. As the year went on, it became more obvious that some were doing this while others were not, and increasingly Fernando Alonso complained that, as a Renault driver, he wasn’t participating in a fair fight. If you doubt him, look no further than the increasing competitiveness of the Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso, relative to that of the Renault-powered Red Bull.
Given that engine specifications are supposedly ‘frozen’, and for several years, it is therefore hardly surprising that such teams as Renault and Honda (both of which were left gasping in the power stakes this season past) have requested of the FIA that in future the engines should also be ‘equalised’.
Otherwise, as Ross Brawn has pointed out, those at the top – and the bottom – will remain there ad infinitum. The FIA has accepted this argument, and agreed that – so long as cost-cutting measures are accepted for 2009 – ‘equalisation’ should go ahead. Quite how this is to be achieved, however, remains unclear.
So where, one may ask, is all this going? When the engine ‘freeze’ was imposed, more than one team principal told me of the difficulties implicit in informing his board that, yes, the company was involved in building engines for F1, but, no, it was henceforth not allowed to seek more power than it already had – and, perhaps more importantly, more than its rivals had. If the engine ‘freeze’ is indeed to be the long-term status quo, I suppose it makes sense, at least in terms of competition, that the engines should be somehow ‘equalised’, but that, as I say, seems to cut across the whole point of Grand Prix racing, which has always preened itself as the technological pinnacle of motor sport.
As for a ‘standard engine’, produced by a single supplier with other manufacturers, in the FIA’s words, ‘free to build an identical engine themselves’, the mind boggles. This is supposed to be Formula 1! Can anyone explain why, in those circumstances, a Renault or BMW or Toyota or Honda or… Ferrari, might wish to remain involved? No, nor I. Hence my support for Ferrari’s warning shot to the governing body.
Engines, surely, are what racing at the top level has always been fundamentally about.
If we are to have ‘spec racing’ in F1, then why the foolishness of ‘freezing’ what was already a prodigiously expensive engine? Why not simply put all the top drivers into GP2 cars and have done with it? It would probably turn out a reasonable show in itself, and cost a tiny fraction of Grand Prix racing as she is wrote.
That we need to cut costs there is no doubt, which is why this is an unfortunate moment, for all its clearly ‘green’ credentials, to be introducing KERS energy recovery technology into F1. But we’ll let that go. If the powers-that-be wish to slash expenditure, then instead of stultifying engine development, let them look at other measures, such as paying drivers sensibly, drastically reducing testing, and putting restrictions on the absurdly expensive wind tunnels, which run 24/7 and produce nothing that improves F1 in the eye of the fan. Who, in the end, pays for the whole damn thing, anyway.
And if none of that works, we can always look for outside assistance. Anyone got a number for Lehman Brothers? Oh, that’s right, they don’t have one any more.