Only in Italy would you find a politician weighing into a debate about the outcome of a Formula 1 World Championship. Within hours of Sebastian Vettel’s winning the title in Abu Dhabi, one Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Northern League party, was so incensed by what he called Ferrari’s ‘demented strategy’ (to pit Fernando Alonso earlier than planned) that he publicly called for the resignation of company president Luca di Montezemolo.
Calderoli, who by all accounts has had a run-in or two with di Montezemolo in the past, couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tap inurail that grief, to capitalise on Ferrari’s failure to deliver.
Di Montezemolo, who was in Abu Dhabi together with Piero Lardi Ferrari, in hopes of being on the spot when Alonso clinched the championship, gave Calderoli short shrift. “The night hasn’t lessened the bitter taste after the sad end to an extraordinary season,” he said the morning after the race.
“We’re sorry to see that there are some politicians on the outside who are ready to push for the guillotine when things go badly. We don’t understand anyone who revels in self-defeatism, who sinks into the culture of ‘everything’s gone wrong, we have to start all over again’. They are vices that are very Italian, and we must learn to shake them off.”
Luca concluded by suggesting that only when Calderoli had achieved for Italy one per cent of Ferrari’s contribution would his remarks merit a reply. Beyond the one he had already given, that is.
I had every sympathy for di Montezemolo, but if Calderoli’s words were more than a touch over the top — a chance to score a cheap point — still I found it oddly pleasing that a politician should be even aware of ‘Ferrari strategy’, demented or otherwise, and it served to remind me why I have always loved Italy and Italian motor racing. Can you imagine such a thing here? Nor I.
The Grand Prix season finished frenetically, with three races — Korea, Brazil, Abu Dhabi — in four weekends. And when Vettel’s Renault engine blew apart in the first of them, leaving victory to Alonso, it began to look as though Red Bull, despite fielding emphatically the quickest car, were somehow going to lose the 2010 World Championship. That same day Mark Webber crashed out early, and handed his long-held points lead to Alonso.
In Vettel’s demeanour, as he walked back into the pitlane to be comforted by Helmut Marko, there was something different from before, however. Over the last couple of seasons we had come to see a rather different side of the sunny-faced kid who so charmed the paddock in his early days; in many a press interview there was no hint of ‘a rueful grin’ when things hadn’t gone according to plan, and tales abounded of toys being hurled from prams.
In Korea, though, there was nothing of the kind. From pole position Vettel controlled the race on a treacherous day, chased by Alonso, but under no real threat until his engine let go with 10 laps to the flag. In the circumstances we might reasonably have expected a major sulk, but instead there was evidence of a new maturity as Sebastian coped with all the questions put to him. He had, after all, done his part of the job to perfection; no blame lay with him. It was just… life, and whoever said life was fair?
A fortnight earlier Vettel had won at Suzuka, and now, as he put Korea behind him, there remained two races, both at circuits at which his car should excel.
In point of fact, we speak only in degrees here, for it has excelled virtually everywhere. Even allowing for all those Ferraris in the Schumacher era, this year’s Red Bull, the RB6, is perhaps the best F1 car — relative to its opposition — since the Williams FW14B, which swept Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese to first and second in the World Championship of 1992. The Williams, like the Red Bull, was powered by Renault; more significantly, it was also designed by Adrian Newey.
I can’t remember now who originally coined the phrase, ‘If you’ve got Newey who needs Schuey?’, but if there has been a bona fide genius in our sport over the last couple of decades it is surely this quiet fellow who still draws everything, who simply understands race car aerodynamics better than anyone else on earth. If it be the case that statistics can be made to say anything, not all truths can be hidden, and if hiring Adrian is not for the financially faint of heart it is as close to a guarantee of success as may be found in F1. This is not to suggest that he is a one-man band — and nor would ever claim to be — but look at the great years of Williams, of McLaren, now of Red Bull, and the common factor is the name on the technical director’s door.
What Newey has achieved at Red Bull is perhaps more substantial even than the championship-winning years of the past, for such as Williams and McLaren were already successful entities before him, and he merely made them more so; when he arrived at Red Bull at the start of 2006, though, it had only recently metamorphose d from the nondescript Jaguar team, and the immediate priority was to build a properly structured technical department.
Now, five years on, Red Bull has everything in place, and Newey’s influence is ever more apparent. He concedes that, like most others in the pitlane, the team was caught on the hop in 2009 by the double diffuser controversy, when Brawn, Williams and Toyota competed from the outset with something Adrian and other designers had believed outside the rules. For its own reasons, though, the FIA declared the double diffuser kosher, and it took time for the other teams to modify cars not originally designed to run with it.
During that time, of course, Jenson Button’s Brawn won six of the first seven races (the other going to Vettel), and the World Championship was already effectively out of reach. During the second half of the season, however, Newey’s RB5 was the class of the field, Vettel and Mark Webber winning five of the last 10 races.
Attempts to land a Mercedes engine deal for 2010 were thwarted, and so Red Bull continued with a Renault motor which has suffered more than most from the ‘engine freeze’ rule. Through the season the drivers found themselves at a straightline disadvantage, although in Abu Dhabi Vettel said the situation was better now that the team had its F-duct working well.
It was good for its rivals that Red Bull suffered a little in the power stakes — who knows how quick the cars might otherwise have been? As it was, a Red Bull started from pole at 15 of the 19 races, and had it not been for early season unreliability, plus some driving mistakes, Ferrari and McLaren would not have had so much as a sniff of the World Championship.
Although others — Alonso, Hamilton, Button, to say nothing of Webber — all had their days of domination in 2010, indisputably the Vettel-Red Bull combo was the fastest in the business. Ten times Sebastian took pole position, and he should — without mechanical problems and errors of his own — have won many more than five Grands Prix. In reality, the World Championship could have been sealed long before Abu Dhabi.
As it was, Vettel really cut loose towards the end of the season, winning three of the last four races, yet still taking the title by only four points. And there is no escaping the fact that if Ferrari had not goofed so absolutely in Abu Dhabi, Alonso would have won his third championship.
I have written before, and see no reason to change my opinion now, that I believe the team did absolutely the right thing to concentrate on Alonso through the second half of the season. At the time of the ‘team orders’ fuss at Hockenheim, Ferrari had been through a disappointing sequence of results, and it was obvious that if there were to be a late charge for the World Championship only Fernando could make it. If I had sympathy for Felipe Massa in Germany, he impressed but rarely in 2010.
Alonso won superbly at Monza and Singapore, then fortunately in Korea, and looked to be in the pound seats at the last race, particularly in light of the fact that Red Bull had two championship contenders to worry about, while Ferrari concentrated solely on Fernando.
It looked to be the chink in Red Bull’s armour, but as events transpired it proved to be anything but: while Ferrari chose to focus on Webber at Abu Dhabi, Alonso’s nearest pursuer, Vettel was racing away in the lead.
Webber had been curiously off the pace in qualifying, setting only the fifth-fastest time. From the start he was behind Alonso, the pair of them running fourth and fifth, and in Ferrari minds that was absolutely fine. If Mark won the race, Fernando needed to be second to take the title, but if Vettel won, fourth would do. Piece of cake, surely.
On lap 11 Red Bull brought Webber in, to get him off the soft Bridgestones and onto the hard as soon as possible. He rejoined in 16th place, behind Jaime Alguersuari, but if he might reasonably have expected the Toro Rosso driver — working for the family firm, after all — to let him by, he was in for a disappointment. For the best part of three laps, Alguersuari held him up, and it was now that Ferrari, thinking primarily of Webber’s place in the scheme of things and noting that he was losing time, opted to call Alonso in.
That decision settled the outcome of the World Championship. Yes, Alonso rejoined still ahead of Mark — but, as the frontrunners discovered, the soft Bridgestones, once through their ‘graining’ period, proved far more durable than expected, and Fernando could have gone way longer before needing to change them.
More crucially, he and Webber now found themselves behind Vitaly Petrov, who had taken on the harder tyres at the end of the first lap, when the safety car was out following an accident involving Michael Schumacher and Tonio Liuzzi. Like his pursuers, Petrov was good to go to the end of the race.
In normal circumstances he should have been easy prey for Alonso and Webber, but it was their misfortune that, seeking desperately to hang on to his Renault drive for 2011, Petrov proceeded to drive the race of his life — with great straightline speed, and at a circuit where overtaking is nigh unknown. Fernando and Mark got on his tail on lap 16; on lap 55, when the chequered flag fell, they were still there.
On the slowing-down lap Alonso, boiling with frustration, drew alongside Petrov and signalled his displeasure. But once he had calmed down he accepted that Vitaly had simply been doing his job, fighting to keep his place: the fault lay with Ferrari, and nowhere else.
Fernando knew, too, that even if he had managed to pressure Petrov into a mistake, that wouldn’t have been the end of the saga, for ahead of them sat Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes, an even tougher proposition. Had Ferrari waited, and brought him in when the Vettels and Hamiltons made their stops, he would have remained in his original fourth place — all he needed for the championship…
Still, Alonso had given his all in a car good overall, as he said, but not as quick as the Red Bull in the corners, nor a match for the McLaren — or, in Abu Dhabi, the Renault — on the straights.
It was no more than inevitable that the Fleet Street tabloids, continuing their endless Alonso witch hunt, should express outrage at his gestures to Petrov, in some cases indeed make it the focus of their postrace stories. Sensitive souls, they are of course more accustomed to the Corinthian behaviour routinely on display at such as Wembley and Twickenham.
Petrov himself was rather less concerned. He was doing his job, he said, fighting to stay ahead, but had he been in Alonso’s position he would probably have done the same.
Every sport has to have a villain, of course, and this year Fernando has been increasingly portrayed as The Man In The Black Hat. Foreigner, of course, swarthy sort of cove. Drives for a foreign team. Doesn’t care too much for Lewis Hamilton. Pretty damning, all in all, wouldn’t you say?
In the build-up to Abu Dhabi, some even cast doubts on the suitability of Emanuele Pirro as an FIA steward at the event. Wasn’t it true that he had been known to — whisper it — ‘drive vintage Ferraris’? The xenophobic inference was that Pirro, as honest a soul as I have known in racing, might just be… influenced in his decision-making. That took little account of the fact that Emanuele had for several years been a McLaren test driver, and on occasion enjoyed Red Bull sponsorship. “I don’t mind people criticising my driving,” he said, “but not my integrity.” If I were him, I’d have sued.
In the end, though, Pirro and his colleagues were not called upon to adjudicate on any matter of consequence, for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was a remarkably dull race. Endlessly one watched Alonso and Webber trying to pass one Renault, and Hamilton the other, while Vettel sailed serenely round at the front. So often it is the case that a World Championship decider fails to deliver.
On the podium, and afterwards, Vettel looked bewildered, as if unable to take in that, at the last, he had taken the title against most unlikely odds. In victory he was gracious, bringing back to mind the playful kid with whom the paddock originally fell in love, and, for all their differences this year, it was clear he was not unaware of what Webber was going through. If only he would jettison that profoundly maddening habit of stabbing one finger at the cameras…
Undoubtedly Webber was the driver most in the paddock wished to see as World Champion. One has thought occasionally this season that he might — in his own interests — have been better advised to keep to himself some of his observations about the team, and his position within it, but at the same time it is always pleasing, in this era of PR lockdown, to find someone prepared to speak his mind. Webber, it will be remembered, was the only driver — hell, about the only person — to say what he thought about the ‘Mosley Affair’ in 2008. As it happened, he spoke for most of the paddock — but he spoke alone.
If most in Abu Dhabi hoped to see Webber crowned, it was no surprise, for the feeling was that Alonso already had a couple of titles to his name, that Vettel had time enough to win a clutch of them, whereas Mark, at 34, might never get a realistic shot again.
As well as that, there was a wish to see all his years of graft rewarded. Webber, after all, came into motor racing with no money behind him, no benefactors easing his path through the ranks, no career mapped out. When he finally made it to F1, in 2002, it was with the Minardi team, then owned by Paul Stoddart.
The year before, another rookie — Fernando Alonso — had made his F1 debut with Minardi, yet the team’s technical director, Gabriele Tredozi — a man who reveres Fernando — recently said that, “Mark was the fastest — and perhaps the best — driver we ever had…”
It was Webber’s good luck, just as it had been Alonso’s, then to have his career picked up by Flavio Briatore, much maligned by some, but not by either of these two.
I remember a conversation about Briatore with Mark just as he was about to join Williams, from Jaguar, in 2005. I’d known several drivers, I ventured, who’d said, ‘Jesus, I’ve signed my life away to Flay!’, but in the end they’d invariably come round and conclude, ‘No, I did the right thing…’
“Absolutely,” said Webber. “In my case, I had to do it. I owed Paul Stoddart a lot of money — Stoddy had helped me, because I had absolutely nothing coming through. I had a friend paying for my bread, and that sort of stuff, but that was it. I went to Flavio and said, ‘Look, I’ve got some baggage’, meaning that Paul had bankrolled me to that point, and he was going to have a slice of my earnings for the future, and I didn’t want to see them all going away. So Flavio helped out, and he’s always been very, very fair with me. Without him I wouldn’t be in F1, it’s that simple.”
For 2005 Briatore was keen for Webber to join Alonso at Renault, but Mark felt that Williams was where he wanted to be, and probably — given that Renault took Fernando to the World Championship in both 2005 and ’06 — it’s a decision he regrets to this day. The relationship with Williams never gelled as both parties had hoped, and thus, after two seasons, he made the move to Red Bull. At the Niirburgring, in 2009, he took his first Grand Prix victory, finally shaking off his ‘Amon luck’ tag, and there have been five more since.
True, the second half of his 2010 season did not match the first, but his victory at Monaco, for example, was as emphatic as I have ever seen there, and moved Jackie Stewart to remark that it was a win of which he would have been proud.
This thing about how one feels within a team is difficult to pin down. Nearly 30 years ago, looking back on the seasons with Carlos Reutemann, Frank Williams acknowledged that he and the team should perhaps have played it differently: “There’s no doubt that Carlos needs psychological support — perhaps more than most drivers, and certainly more than Alan [Jones]. He needs to be aware that everyone in the team is wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf, that sort of thing. And looking back, I think perhaps we let him down a little there.”
Similarly David Coulthard has spoken of his years as Mika Hakkinen’s team-mate at McLaren. It wasn’t that he ever believed he was getting equipment inferior to Hakkinen’s, but that always he felt Mika was the favoured son, and he cited a day when he had fastest time until the dying seconds of qualifying, then witnessed the team’s ecstatic reaction when Hakkinen beat it. Inescapably, he said, he always felt like ‘the other driver’.
DC’s last years in F1 were spent with Red Bull, and when Webber arrived in 2007 he quickly asserted himself as the team’s pacesetter. Following Coulthard’s retirement, Vettel moved in seamlessly from Toro Rosso.
Just as Lewis Hamilton’s apprenticeship, first in karting, then in sundry junior formulae, had been overseen — and paid for — by McLaren, so Vettel was groomed by Red Bull, originally as part of Helmut Marko’s ‘young driver’ programme. When he joined the F1 team in 2009 it was obvious — and logical — that Sebastian should be regarded as ‘the future’, but for Mark that necessarily meant a certain amount of discomfiture. Having won in the rains of Monza with Toro Rosso, Vettel, at 21, had already broken his Grand Prix duck, where Webber had not.
For all his impression that, certainly for some elements in the team, Sebastian was the blue-eyed boy, Mark — like Coulthard at McLaren — has never suggested that he has been given other than equal equipment. A rumour has floated around the paddock that when the crop of new Renault engines arrive pre-season, and are dyno-tested, the eight best are earmarked for Vettel. But the only apparent favouritism shown Seb this year came at Silverstone, where his car’s new front wing broke in Saturday morning practice, and for qualifying the mechanics were instructed to take the one from Mark’s car — only two had been made — and transfer it.
This was explained, if not justified, by the fact that Vettel was narrowly ahead in the point standings, but it seemed to me an error of judgement, an unnecessary guarantee of unrest. By all accounts, the new wing was only a minimal improvement, but the effect on Mark’s psyche was profound, and the Red Bull management must have known that it was asking for trouble, just as when Marko absurdly blamed Webber for the disastrous comingtogether with Vettel at Istanbul.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen at the start,” Mark’s father Alan muttered to me a few minutes before the race at Silverstone. “I’ve never seen him like this…” In the event, it was no real surprise that he waltzed it.
When it counted, though, in the crucial races towards the end of the season, Vettel proved irresistible. There were suggestions at Interlagos that maybe, with Alonso leading the championship, and Webber 10 points closer to him, ‘team orders’ might come into the equation, but at Red Bull they were adamant that such would not be the case, and at the flag it was Vettel-Webber.
In Abu Dhabi they said the same thing, and in light of what happened the tactics of Red Bull were undeniably vindicated. An interesting nuance was the suggestion that if, on the last lap, Vettel were leading from Webber and Alonso, Sebastian might give way, for in that scenario only Mark could beat Fernando to the championship — but it would be Vettel’s decision, you understand, and absolutely not ‘team orders’.
In the event, of course, Vettel was the only Red Bull driver in a position to seize the title in Abu Dhabi — and had he allowed Webber by at Interlagos, he would not now be World Champion: as it was, he won by only four points, 256 to 252.
So now Red Bull rules the world. Wherever you turn — be it Formula 1, NASCAR, air racing, any ‘dangerous sport’ you can think of — there is no getting away from the name. The Fl team has had a momentous season, taking on such as Ferrari and McLaren, and beating them fair and square — quite remarkable when you think about it, given that Dietrich Mateschitz bought ‘Jaguar Racing’ only six years ago, and provided the wherewithal to hire the right people to turn it into a silk purse.
I must confess, though, to finding faintly irritating some of Mateschitz’s utterings in the build-up to the championship decider. On and on he went about the importance of ‘sport’, about his distaste for team orders, about how—in certain circumstances — it would be preferable to finish second, rather than first, etc.
All that came across to me as a touch sanctimonious, I’m afraid, and somewhat patronising towards a company involved in F1 for other than pure marketing reasons. As a Grand Prix team, Red Bull is as dedicated as you will find, as any conversation with Christian Horner, Adrian Newey or whomever, will attest, but the reason why the company is involved is to flog more cans to more kids, nothing more or less.
A company like Ferrari, on the other hand, while assuredly wishing to move on as many road cars as it can, has been in this for 60 years because it knows nothing else. To Enzo Ferrari, motor racing was never a game: winning the World Championship was everything. Which is of course why, when the title slipped away, a sly Italian politician spotted an opportunity to make hay.
What came to mind, the weekend of the Korean GP, was a remark made some years ago by a BA captain as we taxied along after landing: “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Gatwick — the only building site in the world with its own airport…”
It has become the norm, in recent years, for Formula 1 to venture ever more to new venues, and therefore new circuits. Invariably, the countries concerned have no cultural links with the sport, but think it a sound idea to tap into the glamour of F1, to have the prestige of hosting a Grand Prix. And because the government foots the bill, both for the circuit and the race fee, money seems not to matter very much.
Many years ago Bernie Ecclestone said that, in his opinion, it wouldn’t be long before Europe was ‘Third World’. At the same time, he said, anything calling itself a ‘World Championship’ should be just that, and it was his plan to expand the reach of F1, to take it to fresh corners of the earth, notably in the Far East.
As we look ahead to the next World Championship, a glance at the schedule reveals just how much the shape of a Grand Prix season has changed. Ecclestone once told me that he “would never, ever, ever put on more than 16 races”. But that thinking plainly changed some time ago, and in 2011, for the first time, there are 20 on the schedule — modest by comparison with NASCAR’s 38, I grant you, but then every Sprint Cup race is held in one country.
Eleven of the 20 Grands Prix in the coming season are what the paddock calls ‘flyaways’ — out of Europe, to put it another way. Of these, India is new for 2011, joining Bahrain, Australia, Malaysia, China, Canada, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Abu Dhabi and Brazil. On the near horizon are a return to the USA and a first venture to Russia, and Bernie says it is inevitable that European races will be shed — this despite the fact that it is in Europe that the bulk of F1 enthusiasts reside. Why do we have curious start times — a virtual guarantee of appalling weather, it seems, at the Far East races — night events and the like, at the ‘flyaways’? So as to broadcast the races at times approximately acceptable to the TV audience in Europe — which increasingly has fewer opportunities actually to witness a race in person — that’s why. And, not surprisingly, European fans grow ever more restive about this.
It’s salutary now to consider how much the pattern of a season’s Grands Prix has changed. Go back 10 years, to 2001, and you find that only six of the 17 races were outside Europe; go back 20, and it was four.
Inevitably, therefore, the circuits are changing, too. Only nine of those in the 1991 World Championship — Interlagos, Barcelona, Monaco, Silverstone, Hockenheim, the Hungaroring, Spa, Monza, Suzuka — figure on the ’11 schedule.
Increasingly the World Championship is becoming skewed towards the Far East — no surprise, I suppose, because that’s where the money is, and CVC, the private equity company to which Ecclestone sold the commercial rights to F1 some years ago, is concerned with a good return to its investors rather more than the good of motor racing. Time was that the FIA held the commercial rights, and when Max Mosley sold them — for 100 years! — to Ecclestone, at what may be termed a favourable rate, he assured us all that he had taken steps to ensure Bernie could never ‘move them on’ to an entity which might not have F1’s interests at heart. There was a clause in the contract, he said — the ‘Don King Clause’ — giving the FIA the right to veto any such deal. Why it was not invoked in this case remains a mystery.
While no longer the major commercial rights holder, Ecclestone continues to do the deals, and if anything is under greater pressure to seek out cash-rich countries than when simply in business for himself. Thus, we find ourselves now with six races in the Far East, two in the Middle East, and the evidence is that only Japan and Singapore give a damn about F1.
China — everyone’s least favourite Grand Prix — has never shown any interest, and at other places, too, the crowds are sluggish, to put it mildly. Half an hour before the start at Abu Dhabi, which holds a maximum of 55,000 spectators, I looked out at the first turn grandstand, and noted a great many empty seats — and this was at the decider of an epic World Championship.
As for Korea, it’s difficult to know what to say. A building site, indeed, with a race track running through it. According to the regulations dealing with such matters, the circuit should have been finished, inspected and signed off some months before the scheduled Grand Prix, yet workmen were beavering away throughout the race weekend, and one inevitably thought back to the litany of complaints made by Ecclestone about Silverstone. In light of the indulgence shown to Korea, Bernie, you would think, has now forfeited the right to complain about anywhere else.
It was in Korea that Mark Webber made the mistake that would perhaps cost him the World Championship, and mighty unlucky he was, too, for his Red Bull spun across the road into a wall! This, at a brand-new Grand Prix circuit… At any other of Hermann Tilke’s antiseptic masterpieces, Mark would have spun harmlessly into a Tarmac run-off area the size of a Tesco car park, and been able to continue on his way, presumably into a hatful of points. In Korea, though, a wall at that point was apparently acceptable.
There had, of course, been no preliminary race meeting run at the track, as the rules supposedly require. Remarkably malleable, these rules, it seems. As the saying goes, a dog will not howl if you beat him with a bone.
It has long been fashionable to denigrate Tilke’s circuit designs, and I am as guilty as any in that regard. But we should have some sympathy for him, in the sense that he has necessarily worked under severe constraints from the FIA, where safety has long been the overwhelming priority to a degree perhaps detrimental to the sport. I shouldn’t need to come out with the usual disclaimer, making clear I don’t want to see anyone hurt or worse — of course I don’t — but I do feel that taking safety to the level of obsession has driven out much of the panache once intrinsic to something calling itself ‘Grand Prix racing’. If Tilke ever goes to work for FIFA, expect a lot of goal-less draws.
It should perhaps be no surprise that many past drivers regard the F1 of today as something of a namby-pamby activity: “At some of these modern circuits they must need the noise to keep themselves awake,” one said to me recently. It is not, though, only retired drivers, looking on from their armchairs, who feel this way: there are also those of the current generation who suggest that the ‘edge’ has been thrown out with the bath water. There’s a reason why these people smile when they get to Spa or Suzuka.
To me, it was a tragedy that the World Championship — with an unprecedented four drivers in the frame — should have been resolved at a circuit with no heritage, no atmosphere, and, perhaps more to the point, no opportunities for overtaking, for racing. High horses were thick on the ground after the race, as folk huffed and puffed about Alonso’s gesture to Petrov on the slowingdown lap, and I’ll grant you that I, too, didn’t care to see it. That said, I can’t imagine the frustration Fernando must have felt, following a slower car for 40 laps, and not being able to find a way past it. Fierce racer he may be, but Alonso is also clean, and would never have resorted simply to punting Petrov into the air and out of the way, as Ayrton Senna did to Sandro Nannini’s pesky Benetton 20 years ago at the Hungaroring.
If the FIA won’t tackle F1’s abiding problem — ‘dirty air’ — and come up with aerodynamic rules which allow cars to follow each other closely in quick corners, then at least what they must do is ensure that circuit designs do not exacerbate the problem. In Abu Dhabi the facilities are fantastic, the organisation impeccable, but the actual track — like Bahrain, like Valencia, like so many others — might have been designed to prevent passing. And, that being so, for all but Red Bull people, the championshipdecider was a stone drag, precisely what F1 didn’t need at the conclusion of the greatest season in a very long time. There was so much to savour in this, the first season in years without the tedium of refuelling, but its bookends — Bahrain and Abu Dhabi — were soporific.
A few days after the last race, therefore, I was greatly heartened to hear the comments of FIA president Jean Todt. By general consent, it was not only the racing which greatly improved this year (at proper circuits, anyway), but also the ambience in which the business was conducted. As McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh said, “It’s so refreshing that at last the emphasis has been on sport, rather than politics…”
To my mind, much of that has stemmed from the fact that Todt, unlike his predecessor Mosley, has been content to stand in the wings, rarely making proclamations to the world, yet never missing a trick. The removal of an FIA spin doctor from the stewards’ decision-making process, and replacing him at each race with a retired driver, was just one of many significant improvements to come along in 2010. I’ll confess that, along with a great many others, I had my reservations about the notion of Todt in the top job, but I’m happy to admit that — thus far — I was wrong.
Todt, who was at Abu Dhabi, said this after the race: “We need to favour overtaking. It was impossible at Abu Dhabi…”
Hallelujah! Maybe the cavalry sometimes comes in strange guises.
“Take Hamilton,” he went on. “He had fresh tyres, he would have lapped two seconds quicker than Kubica — yet he didn’t manage to pass him. From now on, before homologating a circuit, we’ll evaluate its spectacle potential, besides its safety. On November 23, at the F1 Commission meeting, we’ll discuss the overtaking problem. It’s the fault of the cars and the tracks. We’ll create a report card about the circuits’ competitiveness, and see — if possible — if we can make some modifications as early as 2011.”
Highly encouraging, wouldn’t you say? It strikes me that a huge amount of money, given some of the circuits currently in World Championship use, will be required for the task, and that burden will presumably fall squarely on the circuit owners, for one rather doubts that such as CVC will feel obliged to contribute. In most cases, though, the tracks most in need of radical change are those of the new era, those paid for by government subsidy, so perhaps something really will get done. Either way, it’s quite something that the powers-that-be are even thinking about it, so for now I raise my hat to M Todt, a strange character in many ways, but apparently one who understands motor racing.