It’s your round-up
A great season of F1 such as we’ve just enjoyed provokes some heated discussion. Time then for the Motor Sport team to descend on our local, the Chelsea Ram, for a pint and a pub debate
– Insight –
Destined for greatness
He had a few wobbles this year, but Vettel was always a champion-in-waiting
Sebastian Vettel – youngest Formula 1 point scorer, polesitter, winner and now… You know the rest. Twenty-three years and 135 days isn’t long to wait for motor sport’s greatest crown. Not long, either, to prove what we already knew: that Vettel was a born veteran. Ready on his debut to score an F1 point; ready in only his third full season to smash-and-grab the drivers’ title.
And that’s what he did. While others bickered, politicked, mind-gamed and washed themselves down the plughole of points permutation, Seb V just went for it. Isn’t that what racing drivers are meant to do, the very reason why we thrill to their skill? He wasn’t always the fastest this year, nor was he unbeatable, indomitable. Midseason, with team-mate Webber at his own formidable peak,Vettel looked rattled and tried to force things (Istanbul, Spa…).
The mark of this young man, though, was his recovery from the realisation that, no, for all his mercurial gifts and status as a Red Bull chosen son, this wasn’t his title by right. Speed alone would not be enough. He’d have to fight to the very end to attain his birthright and rediscover the joy he’d always found in being a race driver. And my, how he did. Over the final four races, he won three times and took three poles, a full house denied only by the lap 45 Korean detonation of a Renault R527 V8. He forced himself into contention with a combination of immense skill, error-free driving and the coolest of heads. In Abu Dhabi, pressure at its greatest for all four remaining title battlers, he asked race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin not to tell him what was going on behind: “I’ll do my job in the race, I don’t want to be distracted by anything else.” He only knew he’d won the title when ‘Rocky’ name-checked the finishers, then screamed “Du bist Weltmeisterr into Seb’s cans. The tears flowed and there, still, was the sunny and heart-on-his-sleeve youngster who wooed us all when he first arrived in the Istanbul paddock in ’06.
Four years on, he isn’t much changed, despite some added armour. And while steely speed was always bound to cause sparks against a flint like Webber,Vettel has never fanned the flames. The only game he’s played is one called the Formula 1 World Championship. He does it well. There are signs in Germany that this young man’s style is proving popular. Broadcaster RTL has noted its F1 audience figures not only going up, but improving in quality: Vettel fans are younger, richer, smarter and, er, more sophisticated than Schumacher’s barmy army ever was. (Hockenheim main grandstand, any ‘Schumi summer’ from 2000-06: a vision of mulleted F1 hell.
These new acolytes are turning out in their tens of thousands to fete this younger hero. In Seb’s home town of Heppenheim earlier this year, a Vettel F1 street demo drew so many punters that local motorway exits were closed to prevent traffic meltdown. Within Planet Red Bull, Vettel’s loved, too. His success has vindicated every energy drink Euro spent on the company’s costly and otherwise patchily successful young driver programme, while also allowing Dr Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s talent spotter and motor sport special adviser, eternal bragging rights. It’s also likely to ensure the future of the F1 programme. Race teams can never be considered ‘core business’ for drinks companies, but when said team has won both world titles with a driver who’s emerged from its own talent academy, it keeps the naysayers at bay. Next year, in an RB7 that inevitably will be tailored to his desires, he’ll potentially be unstoppable and it’s here where there may be trouble. Already the team’s centre of gravity has shiffed his way, and henceforth, with a champion on one side of the garage, any gravitational pull will increase. Mark Webber has done a remarkable job these past two seasons to force his team to afford him equal respect, and next year that challenge will be greater. As he so publicly stated (and proved) at Silverstone this year, he’s no one’s number two, so Christian Horner is going to have quite a job keeping internal tribal loyalties from disuniting a thus far remarkably cohesive team.
Will any of this be worrying Seb? Not now, and likely not next season either. He’s a ferocious competitor, a devil behind the wheel, and he’s remembered again how to grin when he’s winning. Having lost, then found, this precious thing during a tempestuous season, he won’t be letting it go any time soon. Anthony Rowlinson
Vettel vs Webber: an inconvenient truth?
Mark Webber even said it himself. The team with the quickest car expected its young superstar to be number one this year —didn’t it? When it mattered the Red Bull protégé hit the top of the points standings, but he couldn’t have left it later. It was the 30-something Aussie who led the championship through the summer, not 23-year-old Vettel. And team boss Christian Horner had the tough job of improvising as the story got stickier, particularly at the twin peaks of Istanbul and Silverstone.
Nigel Roebuck: Occasionally you get a situation where it is perceived that a team has a driver and the other guy is always the other driver. We were all aware of it, for instance, in the McLaren era when Mika Hakkinen was teamed with David Coulthard, and we were certainly aware of it in the Schumacher/Ferrari era. I don’t think in the case of Red Bull that it’s as overt as it was at Ferrari. But, like it or not, there are reasons why Vettel could be considered the favoured one. He was brought on by Helmut Marko from way back as a kid. He’s young, he’s German-speaking, Red Bull is an Austrian company and he’s going to be around for a long time. Webber, on the other hand, is getting into his mid-thirties and he’s had a very different… I hate to use the word ‘journey’, God help me… to where he is now. The perception is that to some degree Vettel has had it easy. Of course you’ve got to be able to do the job and he has this fantastic fundamental talent, but he was brought on and everything was paid for. It was all quite seamless and straightforward, whereas Mark has fought and grafted every step of the way.
ED FOSTER: Before Vettel came into Red Bull Racing at the start of 2009 everyone perceived that he would blow Webber away.
DAMIEN SMITH: The thing about Webber is that he always tries to dominate his team-mates. In every team he’s been in, he psychologically gets on top of them early on and puts them in their place. Earlier in the season when he would outpace Vettel he’d use that by saying ‘hey mate, you’re supposed to be the wonderkid and here’s me beating you. What’s going on?’ Just putting a doubt in Sebastian’s head.
NR: Yeah, and he wouldn’t even have had to say it. At Monte Carlo — the one everyone wants to win — each time they restarted after a safety car Mark disappeared again. I certainly at that stage had the impression Vettel was nonplussed, because if someone is quicker than him in the same car fundamentally he feels there is something wrong. My feeling is that when Mark is really on it he’s almost unbeatable. Spain and Monaco and Silverstone — it was hard to imagine Mark getting beaten in any of those races.
DS: The same is true for Sebastian in Suzuka, Brazil, in Abu Dhabi, too. They say Vettel is the ‘new Schumacher’ which is a little glib, but there are some parallels to Michael’s early Benetton days: you could see the quality and the talent there, but he would make big mistakes in racecraft; he’d upset other drivers; he didn’t like losing. All these things we see in Sebastian.
EF: A lot of the moves he pulled off on starting grids this year, chopping across a rival, they should have been picked up on.
NR: Yeah, particularly Hockenheim. Behaving like that — not just Vettel, any of them — that has come from Michael Schumacher. No question.
DS: So how do we think Christian Homer handled the management of the two drivers? He had Helmut Marko in one corner, who has Dietrich Mateschitz’s car, backing Vettel to the hilt; Webber lifting his performance beyond a level he was expected to. Over the course of the season it is very hard to choose which one drove better, really. They both made errors at key points, but both put in great performances, too.
EF: In Christian’s situation you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. He’s done very well. Both are spiky characters, with Webber coming on the radio at the end of Silverstone saying ‘not bad for a number two driver’, etc.
NR: What strikes me is you think of Red Bull this season and of course you think of the races both drivers have conclusively won. But you also think of one that was tossed away, which was Istanbul. And it’s easy for the outside world to understand why Webber has this perception that the team is fundamentally supporting the other guy because anyone with eyes in their head could see that that accident was caused by Vettel. He was alongside Mark, then slightly ahead of him and turned right before he had cleared him. That was the end of it. There was no argument. Despite that, Helmut Marko blamed Webber. It was an idiotic thing to say, but more to the point it’s formed this perception that they are on Vettel’s side.
Rob Widdows: Then there was the new front wing at Silverstone [taken off Webber’s car and given to Vettel] which was probably Christian Homer’s only big mistake of the year. I think if he could have his time again he wouldn’t have done that.
DS: OK, last word on Red Bull. Cards on the table. Which one drove better this year?
EF: I’d say Vettel, mainly because his lost wins were mostly due to mechanical failure.
RW: I’d say Webber, only because he is not as fast as Vettel in my view. Vettel is eyewateringly quick, very exciting to watch, a bit like Lewis Hamilton. But I think Mark has done a better job for the team this year — despite his comments to the press — against the odds and so-called wise opinion.
NR: Let’s face it, without mechanical problems Vettel would have won this year’s World Championship quite easily. But some of his mistakes have been absurd: Jenson at Spa, Istanbul as we’ve said, and there is always the likelihood that he will do these things. Mark made loads of mistakes at Melbourne, in front of his home crowd. And Korea, well, what do you say? It was a little mistake he made that led to it, but the cost was very high. I would say of the two Vettel is probably quicker. But I honestly don’t think there’s a great deal in it.
DS: No, there’s nothing in it. I think Vettel edges it because of his reliability problems. But either — both — would have been worthy World Champions. And Vettel drove a champion’s race in Abu Dhabi.
NR: Yup. The last thing I would say is that I do sympathise with Mark, although I know he has perhaps laboured it too much. But if you talk to Coulthard about his McLaren days with Hakkinen he will tell you what a difference it makes to feel you are not quite what the team wants, that they would prefer it to be the other guy. It’s a very hard thing to get past.
Ferrari: a team order of merit?
The biggest point of controversy in 2010: the not-very-coded message to Felipe Massa at Hockenheim to gift a win to new Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso. The tabloids screamed, the fan forums frothed… and the FIA punished a clear breach of the rules with a modest fine. Was that because the governing body knew its rule banning team orders was unworkable? Or did Ferrari get away with the crime of the season?
DS: I still think there was a huge overreaction. Now, I understand why there was an overreaction. None of us want to see team orders. But what were they to do? Massa was never going to win the World Championship this year. OK, at Hockenheim he drove very well, but he was in the lead because of the circumstances at the start between Vettel and Alonso. The reality was that Alonso was the guy who could take the fight to McLaren and Red Bull. This whole rule has never worked properly.
EF: You can’t enforce it, can you? You can write it down, but you can’t always tell what the teams are ordering their drivers to do.
RW: But it was so early in the season. That’s why everybody made such a fuss.
NR: Well, in part it was, but some people appear to be unaware of the fact that it was only the Schumacher/Barrichello scandal in Austria [in 20021 — and to my mind that was a scandal — that made team orders so controversial. This was entirely different. If you look back to the races before Hockenheim, Ferrari had had a terrible run, in terms of poor reliability, bad luck, mistakes and so on. They were effectively out of the title hunt and to me it was no more than common sense to conclude that with the best will in the world Massa ‘just ain’t gonna do it. If we are going to have a World Champion this year it can only be Alonso’. Ferrari has always said the team comes first. It was strange that it caused this great hue and cry. Of course it’s not something you want to see happen, but neither Ferrari nor McLaren nor Red Bull — nor anyone — is doing this to provide entertainment for the public. They are doing it to win. They were entirely justified doing what they did — team orders have always been a part of Fl. Had they not used them, Mike Hawthorn and John Surtees would not have been World Champion.
RW: Except they broke the rule and were taken to court for doing so. And then they weren’t really punished, were they? What does it say to everybody else if you break the rule, you go to court and to all intents and purposes you are let off?
EF: I think the FIA realised the rule is unworkable. They know they can’t enforce it. The mistake Ferrari made was not to rein in Rob Smedley and tell him what to say.
DS: Ferrari being too honest!
NR: And Max Mosley being against them, which is also rare…
DS: One thing we can rule out is this was not a case of Ferrari favouritism by the FIA because Jean Todt is no great lover of Ferrari these days. That love affair is long over.
EF: The saddest thing to come out of it was the effect on Massa. He put in some good drives early in the season given that he was coming back from a head injury. But after Hockenheim his season tumbled.
NR: Brazil was a case in point. He’s never started there in a Ferrari in anything other than pole position, until this year. There had been all this suggestion that Massa would step up to the plate and help Alonso, as he did Kimi Raikkonen three years ago. Now explain that to me: he let Raikkonen by to win the World Championship in 2007 and as I recall not a word of criticism came anybody’s way.
DS: Because it was the last race, I suppose. People think there is a different rule — but it’s not written that way, is it? The rule has to go.
Button vs Hamilton: the perfect team?
At first we wondered if it would be a re-run of Prost vs Senna. The reality was more Hill vs Clark at Lotus: two British World Champions who got on well, paired in Britain’s most famous team. The combination of intelligent, super-smooth, at-ease-with-himself Button and tough, super-fast, edgy Hamilton worked well for Martin Whitmarsh’s McLaren — and not just for the marketing department.
DS: Everyone rubbed their hands at what could be coming up: the reigning World Champion arriving at a new team and everyone asking ‘is he mad? It’s Lewis’s team’. We all know what a tough character Lewis is and we thought this was going to be fireworks. What we didn’t take into account is that Jenson is just incredibly at ease with himself, very confident. He knew going in that Lewis was going to be quicker on occasion, probably more occasions than not. Lewis is a great qualifier, Jenson is not. But I think coming off the back of the championship with Brawn last year he was ready for something new. Clearly something went wrong with Brawn which has never been fully explained in public, and he fitted into McLaren so well.
NR: Yeah, I must confess I was one of those who thought, ‘God Jenson, is this a good idea?’ Of course it turns out it was an extremely good idea. But I think when we were looking ahead and seeing a Prost/Senna situation we were looking at it in terms of driving and results rather than personality. In point of fact, as far as driving is concerned and what they’ve achieved this year it’s been remarkably like Prost and Senna, the difference being that Lewis and Jenson actually get along. Jenson’s victories in the early part of the year were classic Prost. I’ve always looked at Jenson as a sort of lesser Prost. Not to denigrate him at all because I think Prost was one of the very greatest of all time. But in many ways they are very similar. And I think Lewis has benefitted hugely from Jenson’s presence, and admits it himself. Not least in terms of what to say, how to behave and so on. There’s been a sea change for him this year — Lewis has been without his father for the first time.
RW: Jenson’s almost been an elder brother…
NR: Well, there’s no question Lewis has been a looser, more relaxed individual this year than I ever remember seeing him.
DS: Another comparison to the past you have made, Nigel, is Lewis Hamilton and Gilles Villeneuve. He’s absolutely flat out all the time and there is no compromise — which I think is what is great about Lewis Hamilton.
NR: I absolutely agree with you. We’ve talked about Prost/Senna and Hill/Clark comparisons. You could also make a case for Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter.
Michael Schumacher: a sleeping giant?
‘Return of the King’, we proclaimed on the cover of our April issue. Oh dear. As comebacks go, it was a disaster. But were there green shoots towards the end of the season? Was Schumacher finally getting a handle on F1 after three years out of the sport? Maybe, and it might bode for better things next season. Whatever, his poor form in 2010 must have hurt him — and certainly Mercedes-Benz.
NR: Michael is a fantastically skilled Grand Prix driver, but the incident with Barrichello in Hungary illustrated perfectly why I’ve never been a fan. As far as this year is concerned, what I’ve personally become a bit weary of is hearing this endless thing that Michael can’t get on with the tyres. My first thought about that was I remember interviewing Ross [Brawn] eight or nine years ago and saying to him ‘what is the difference between Michael and the rest?’ Ross immediately said ‘it’s what Michael can do in adversity. It’s what Michael can do with a bad car’. At one time that may well have been the case. But I think that it’s a bit poor, a bit flimsy, to say poor old Michael can’t get on with these front tyres. I was interested to hear Alain Prost say recently that it is obviously just an excuse.
DS: The thing about Michael Schumacher is that in 2010 he was coming back into an F1 that is far more competitive than in any other era. Comparatively the competitive level has gone up hugely and you’ve got more good drivers at the top of their game, plus Felipe Massa, plus Nico Rosberg — who deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done — not to mention Robert Kubica…
NR: That can’t be said enough. Nico has somehow been barely noticed. Here we are not talking about Mercedes, but Michael Schumacher. And Nico has simply annihilated him. Nico hasn’t had the best of luck this season, but I think he has had a tremendously good season and he is underrated and overlooked.
RW: Rosberg seems to me to go about his business with a singular lack of drama and controversy, and therefore he’s not really of that much interest to most sections of the media. What I don’t get is that so many top racing drivers have told me over the years that you do not forget how to do it.
EF: Michael hasn’t forgotten how to drive an F1 car, it’s just that edge that makes all the difference has faded a little.
NR: I’ll confess, when I interviewed Alonso and started to talk about Michael, pretty much everyone had said the same thing: he’s 41, life changes, the cars and tyres are different. And Fernando is adamant that if the Mercedes is decent next year and the tyres suit him he will be right back. There aren’t many people who will say that.
DS: F1 comes down to having the right car, doesn’t it? We saw that last year with Brawn coming out of the traps with the double diffuser, which gave Jenson the chance to do the business. If Mercedes comes up with something for next year — and there’s no reason to suggest they won’t — if he’s got a car advantage, Michael will be right there.
NR: If he’s got a car advantage. Which is what he did have for the great bulk of his F1 career.
RW: I should say at this point that in my New Year predictions I said Schumacher would win a race this season. Oh dear.
EF: That, and Kimi Raikkonen would come back to F1…
NR: Having won the World Rally Championship! RW: With permission from the editor, may we move on?
Robert Kubica: no he’s the sleeping giant! Right?
It’s often said that Lewis Hamilton fears him more than any other driver. But not in a Renault. Robert Kubica often pushed his car into the Red Bull/Ferrari/McLaren mix this year, but could rarely maintain his challenge. It is universally agreed that he can challenge for the title in a truly competitive car. But we’re starting to wonder — will he ever get one?
NR: Well, first of all I’m sure he will get one. Kubica is about as good as there is. Personally I believe Alonso’s the best, but I suspect Alonso probably fears Kubica like Lewis does. I really like Kubica — he’s a nice guy, a nice dry sense of humour and in terms of his personality he is very laid back. But I don’t think he’s laid back in terms of driving his team and I think he’s driven Renault hard this year and it’s shown in the results. They’ve got a fairly tiny budget compared to the McLarens and Ferraris…
DS: It’s not a fair comparison these days.
NR: A driver can have an immense effect on the progress of the team. I think Robert is bound, in the end, to finish up in a Ferrari or a McLaren and when that happens the rest need to watch out.
DS: I just hope he doesn’t have to wait as long as Jenson did to get in a competitive car — Jenson had to wait 10 years for his chance. It seems such a shame to see him not where he should be. Having said that, I do think Renault deserve credit this year because financially it’s not easy for them. Genii Capital has taken it over and it’s been well documented that the team is strapped for cash, and I think Eric Boullier has done a great job of keeping that team together. Robert’s clearly galvanised them on the track and he’s certainly, in my mind, knocking on the door of the top five drivers of the year.
NR: Yep, yep… I would say Kubica and Nico Rosberg I think. One point I would add about Kubica, it almost seems a negative thing, but it truly isn’t. Jenson makes remarkably few mistakes, but Robert makes fewer mistakes than any of them. He’s almost like Prost in that respect. He hardly ever screws up.
EF: Until Abu Dhabi, there were three drivers who have made it into Q3 for every race, and that’s Kubica and the two Red Bull drivers…
DS: At Williams, Rubens Barrichello has driven extremely well this year, as you’d expect him to. But what do we think of Nico Hulkenberg, who is out of a drive for 2011? I guess people expected a little more from him this year. That Brazilian pole apart it hasn’t been quite the season we expected from him.
NR: No, I mean there have been flashes of ‘wow’ when you suddenly see him in P5 in qualifying and that sort of thing. He’s crashed a lot and I wasn’t impressed at all with the way he drove against Webber at Monza, for instance. I mean some of the things he did to keep him back were very reminiscent of Michael, but he probably is close to the complete package with a few more years behind him. He just needs to be able to progress with decent teams. I’d hate to see him pitched into a poor drive for reasons of sponsorship and nothing else.
EF: Nowadays, with so little testing, it’s so difficult to expect rookies to come in and perform straight away. We’ve seen it with Vitaly Petrov, we’ve seen it with Hulkenberg, they get hardly any time in the car compared to five years ago and you’ve got to expect them to make mistakes. And once you go off the F1 radar it’s very rare to get back on it. Someone like Romain Grosjean — he’s never likely to get back into F1 again.
NR: I agree with that and I actually felt quite sorry for Petrov. Eric Boullier has done a very good job this year, but he’s probably spoken a little too much about ‘A, we might keep Petrov, we might not, we’ll see how he goes, he has to qualify better, he needs to score some points’. That has multiplied the pressure on Petrov and I felt quite sorry for him. I think he is a pretty handy driver, as he showed in Abu Dhabi.
New teams: wasting their time?
Lotus, Virgin and Hispania (HRT) achieved what USF1 could not by making it to the grid in Bahrain and surviving their first seasons — although in Hispania’s case, making it to Abu Dhabi was far from a foregone conclusion. Now all three teams have to justify their places in F1 by climbing off the bottom rungs of the ladder in 2011. But can they really do it?
DS: First of all, they all deserve credit for getting F1 teams up and running from a standing start because everyone knows how hard it is these days. Lotus and Virgin have clearly done a better job than HRT. The HRT thing really hasn’t been worthy of F1 2010, it reminded me a bit of the early ’90s when you had these start-up teams coming from nowhere, not doing much, embarrassing themselves and then disappearing. Now, HRT are still there, but they haven’t featured in any way for me. The Lotus and Virgin stories are more interesting. They’ve been nip and tuck for a lot of the year in terms of being the best of the new teams. But what a long way to go for both of them.
NR: The interesting thing is they haven’t significantly closed the gap. We started off with a fouror five-second difference to the front of the grid, which is… Jesus, that’s a lifetime in F1 terms. There were some races where particularly the HRTs were qualifying slower than the GP2 cars. I’m probably quite harsh when it comes to backmarker teams and I always have been. But there were races this year when the serious end of the grid was trying to find its way round the HRTs and I honestly think they are a thundering nuisance.
RW: I take Nigel’s view about backmarker teams but what’s been more disappointing than HRT or Virgin is Lotus, and I only say that because they’re constantly talking up the car and the team and yet nothing happens.
NR: Well, Mike Gascoyne said that Lotus gave up the development of this car long ago and all their thoughts are on 2011. They’ll have a Renault engine etc for next year, so Lotus do show signs of aspiring to become a bigger team. I remember interviewing Bernie [Ecclestone] about 15 years ago and at that time there were one or two little teams, and to say Bernie had no interest in them didn’t make a start on it. He thought essentially they were a nuisance and he wished they’d go away and compete in a Formula where they could be competitive. We have these three new teams fundamentally because of the situation that arose with Max Mosley and his capping costs and budgets. The budget was going to be $30 million, then $40m, then it got increased a bit more and this is when the whole thing looked like it was going to splinter apart with the official F1 World Championship not having many cars. I think they came into it thinking the costs would be much lower than they’ve turned out to be. Whether they would do the same now, knowing what they do, I wonder. I can’t tell you honestly I was aware that there were half a dozen more cars in F1 this year than last. I’ve been surprised how much it’s been a second division.
The racing: best season ever?
Eight changes of championship leader during the season; five title protagonists for much of the way; few ‘dud’ races; and competition perhaps more intense than ever from the front to the back of the field. F1 2010 will be remembered as one of the best in history. But is the quality of the racing as good as it should be?
NR: The first race in Bahrain was probably one of the dozen most boring races I have ever been to in my life, and I remember at the airport there was such a hue and cry about ‘oh God, what have we done?’ And there was panic — ‘we’ve got to change it, what do we do? Do we bring back refuelling?’ Bernie fortunately was very sanguine about it and just said ‘let it settle’, and eventually the hysterics calmed down. Everybody in Bahrain was ultra-conservative as no one had any clue about how long the tyres were going to last on a full tank. Once it settled down I think we had a fantastic season. I always thought refuelling was a waste of time anyway because all it did was more or less keep the cars in qualifying spec the whole time, so it was sprint for 20 laps, stop, more fuel, a bit more fuel… The car was always light, the car was always on relatively fresh rubber and nothing ever happened, and weren’t we all surprised?
DS: You can’t fault the ban on refuelling. Some of the drivers have professed frustration that once a race starts there’s not much they can do on strategy because they’ve got what they’ve got. Before you could pit early for more fuel, or pit later, but in essence we’ve got Grand Prix racing back again as it was historically meant to be. There was always an endurance element to Grand Prix racing; it isn’t meant to be sprint racing. It’s interesting that in the age where TV matters more than anything else we should go back to a more traditional form of Grand Prix racing and I think it’s worked brilliantly. There have been very few dud races this year — apart from the first and last one — but almost all of them have been interesting in one form or another.
NR: Absolutely. The ban on refuelling has for the first time in a long time made tyre wear and how you treat your tyres important, which really wasn’t a factor at all for 15 or 20 years. Then throw in the fact we’ve had three companies that have been able to make comparably competitive cars. Red Bull did have a discernible advantage, but Ferrari and McLaren were thereabouts, and on top of that we’ve got the best crop of drivers since the mid to late 1980s.
EF: But they need to sort out not being able to follow a car closely. They’re unlikely to sort it totally, but they’ve got to do something to help. You can see people closing on the car in front by half a second a lap, then they get within that one-second gap and it’s like hitting a brick wall.
DS: It’s very hard to turn back time on this, though, you can’t deny the fact that the past 20 years have happened and we have to live with aero. Even if they vastly reduce the size of the wings like they did in 2009, the teams find a way round it. There’s been quite a bit of overtaking this year — OK, some tracks make it harder than others, but overall I think the balance has been pretty good.
RW: And to be fair to Sauber, they have found a way to do this: he’s called Kamui Kobayashi. Yeah, we’d all like to see more overtaking, but I’m sure Nigel would agree with me that there never was a time when we saw huge amounts of overtaking in Grand Prix racing, was there?
NR: No, you’re probably right, but certainly more than in this era and it’s purely because of aerodynamics. Just look at Hockenheim, and Massa and Alonso. Alonso was quicker than Massa, they were in identical cars, but Alonso being a quicker driver didn’t mean he was able to overtake a slower team-mate.
RW: So what can be done about it? Do any of us know?
NR: Well, it seems to me we need to get rid of some of the downforce. Go back to ground effects to a degree so the downforce is created by tunnels under the car rather than this endless reliance on wings.
RW: Damien, you say we can’t turn back the clock, but on the other hand this is a pretty important element, isn’t it? There is no racing without overtaking, so surely somebody somewhere has to come up with a solution?
DS: Yes they do, and I guess the frustrating thing was that the Overtaking Working Group was created [by the FIA] where a lot of good work was done, but then you get a team come in with a double diffuser and all that work is undone. There will always be somebody coming up with something that will create dirty air or make it difficult for cars to follow each other.
RW: I think from an entertainment point of view it’s a big problem because if you don’t have people fighting for the lead, passing and repassing, then it’s not a race, it’s not thrilling.
NR: That’s true, Rob, but I don’t think it should ever be easy. I remember that era on the superspeedways in CART when they had the Handford wing, which was palpably absurd because you’d get two cars having a hell of a race at a place like Michigan, but you knew that A would pass B exactly there every lap and B would repass exactly there every lap, and so it ceased to mean anything.
The F-duct: too clever for its own good?
McLaren’s aero innovation, which allowed drivers to control airflow to the rear wing down the straights, was in the best traditions of clever thinking in Fl. Other teams copied it, but the fact that few made it work highlighted how brilliant it was. Typically, it is banned for 2011. But is it right for the FIA to constantly peg back inspired engineering?
EF: F1 is such a good forum for technical innovation and I find that really exciting. But the problem with the F-duct we saw with Alonso, who had both hands off the steering wheel going into a corner, which isn’t a great situation. This one I think should be banned, but I’d like to see a bit more freedom in the rules for technical innovation.
DS: The problem is that variables make for good racing, and the more variables you add in the more chance you have of cars being unequal. Who actually wants equal cars? That just leads to processions and that’s why F1 should never be a one-make formula. F1 is just too restrictive. Obviously you’ve got to keep control of the costs, we all understand that, and it’s always been the case that you come up with something and the FIA ban it. That’s the nature of the sport — trying to contain it — but to me it’s a shame to point-blank ban something as soon as it comes in.
EF: If you took all the paintwork and sponsors off these cars I’d say there is a very, very small percentage of people who could tell one from the other, and most of those will be the ones who designed them. That’s really sad. The days of differentlooking Grand Prix cars are long gone.
NR: Yep, that’s true. But it’s all very well to think back to the days of Gordon Murray and huge innovation, but potentially it is very expensive. And what are we short of at the moment?
Jean Todt: Napoleon Dynamite?
We feared more of the same when Todt succeeded Max Mosley as FIA president last autumn. He was Max’s man, wasn’t he? Well, yes. But only until he assumed power, and then he dropped Mosley like a stone. With hindsight, we should have known: Todt’s ruthless singleminded approach was the backbone of Ferrari’s dominance in the past decade. He was never going to be a puppet president. Instead, we’ve had regime change and a new, subtle approach. No big public statements, no games played out through the media — and the least politically volatile season in years. So Todt’s reign so far has been a success, right?
DS: What has been really refreshing is that it was the least political season for years. Todt has had an incredibly low profile this year. We all feared that it would be more of the same after Max Mosley and it hasn’t been at all. Todt’s his own man who does things his own way.
EF: One of the very telling moments was immediately after Hockenheim. There were quotes from everyone, but I did not see one from Todt, whereas Mosley would have been — and was — right in there.
NR: Yes, that’s true. Todt was in a kind of embarrassing position there because you could say that it was only because of his actions at Ferrari with Schumacher and Barrichello that we had a ban on team orders in the first place! But I must say I agree with Damien: I feared that because Mosley was so strongly behind him and almost daring anybody to vote for someone else that we’d be in for more of the same. But from everything I hear, Mosley and his cohorts —many of whom I have to say are no longer at the FIA — have been somewhat disappointed with Todt’s behaviour this year, which many would say can only be a good thing.
RW: I think the whole situation’s extremely worrying. I take entirely the opposite view about Todt’s virtual silence and low profile. What has he been doing all year?
NR: He’s been doing a great deal, Rob. What he hasn’t done is scream and shout about it every other day, which is what we’d become used to. Something that had driven me nuts over the years was the behaviour of the stewards, because I thought they were inconsistent in their responses, and they were often just plain wrong. For the last few years, until the end of 2009, the stewards were advised by an FIA man who was very much Max’s right-hand man. He’s not there now, instead of which we have an ex-GP driver advising the stewards, which common sense tells you should have happened years ago. It might not seem like a huge thing but as far as I am concerned it’s not insignificant.
RW: Well, I guess one thing we can say is that the atmosphere has improved enormously, hasn’t it?
DS: Without a doubt. It’s refreshing. And speaking of refreshing, who’s for another pint?