– Champion Vettel is also a winner off the track
– IndyCar was an accident waiting to happen
As each Formula 1 season evolves, press conferences inevitably take on a familiar hue, because some cars are much quicker than others and you tend to get the same drivers, time after time.
There are conferences after qualifying and after the race, and they feature the top three, as we know. Thus after 18 Grands Prix in 2011 there have been 36 press conferences and Sebastian Vettel, remarkably, has taken part in 34 of them. We should be grateful, I think, that Seb is not a monosyllabic drone, like some from the past. If he finds the conferences a bore, he disguises it well, and invariably arrives with a smile on his face.
There is unquestionably a steely, ruthless side to Vettel’s personality – as with all the really great drivers since the beginning of time – but it comes out only when necessary, and he rarely gives a hint of it in public. Indeed he seems to me now as fundamentally affable as when I first met him.
“Come and have breakfast with our new test driver,” said BMW’s PR Ann Bradshaw one morning in 2006, and so Alan Henry and I duly did. Out of the motorhome came this schoolboy, a big grin on his face, and before long he was telling us of his enthusiasm for Fawlty Towers and The Beatles. Not your standard F1 newcomer, we concluded.
Vettel, just past his 19th birthday, succeeded Robert Kubica in the test role at BMW when Mario Theissen promoted Kubica to the race team, replacing Jacques Villeneuve, at the Hungarian Grand Prix. At that time it was the norm to run test drivers in the Friday sessions, and in Turkey, first time out, Vettel was fastest in the afternoon. At Monza, a fortnight later, he was quickest in both sessions. We took due note.
The following year Sebastian made his race debut at Indianapolis, standing in for Kubica, who had crashed massively in Montréal the previous weekend. In finishing eighth, he became the youngest point scorer in World Championship history – and then, when Toro Rosso tired finally of the curious Scott Speed, he became a full-time Grand Prix driver as team-mate to Tonio Liuzzi.
At the time I wondered at the wisdom of Vettel’s move – BMW, after all, was a far bigger outfit than Toro Rosso, and his test drive there would surely have matured into something more – but more surprising by far was Theissen’s unfathomable decision to release him from his contract, to let him go. A year later, at Monza, Sebastian won his first Grand Prix, and for 2009 replaced the retiring David Coulthard in the first team, Red Bull. The rest we know.
Success – overwhelming success – has changed him little, if at all. There is a confidence there now, of course, but it manifests itself agreeably and he doesn’t strut around a paddock as if he owns it – even though, for the moment at least, he does. Even at a press conference, as I say, he behaves as if he is enjoying himself, indeed worries sometimes that he has gone on too long, rather than said too little.
Having won five of the six previous races Vettel did not, though, make the post-race press conference in Abu Dhabi, and – I don’t know about you – I felt something close to shock when he spun abruptly off the road at the second corner of the opening lap. If there is any weakness in Seb’s game it is that he is not normally the greatest starter, but on this occasion he got away perfectly, putting himself under no threat at the first turn – and then away she went. Vettel, unbelievably, was not going to finish a race.
As I write the cause of the sudden deflation is not established. But, as Seb admitted, his drive back to the pits on three wheels, while not of the vigour we saw from Gilles Villeneuve at Zandvoort in 1979, was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic: “On the way back I damaged the suspension so badly that we couldn’t carry on…”
Out of the reckoning in the first minute of the race, most drivers would swiftly have been out of the circuit, too, but it was no great surprise that Vettel chose to stay, to spend the race on the pitwall with Christian Horner and the engineers. No surprise to Christian, either: “Of course he was disappointed, but he hung around to help the team – and to try to help his team-mate with the benefit of his experience. He also saw an opportunity to experience what the pitwall was like, and hear how the strategies unfold.”
Vettel’s departure from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix robbed us of what could have been a memorable afternoon, for although he had again started from pole, the absolute fastest time in qualifying was set by Lewis Hamilton (in Q2), and throughout practice, too, Lewis had set the pace. In the inaugural race in India Vettel simply marched away into the distance, but in Abu Dhabi there was every sign that he would have a race on his hands. Apart from anything else, there were two DRS zones – and the Red Bull’s only real weakness is its straightline speed.
I have written before of my distaste for DRS: some racing cars will always be quicker than others, but for me it should be sacrosanct that all cars are in the same specification at all times. That said, it has now become the norm, an intrinsic feature of Grand Prix racing, and over the Abu Dhabi weekend the thought occurred that if it had been introduced a year earlier Alonso, rather than Vettel, would have been World Champion.
Alonso was leading on points when he, Webber, Vettel and Hamilton went off to Abu Dhabi, the final race of 2010, and the situation was that, to be sure of the championship, he needed to be second if
Webber won, fourth if Vettel did. Although Seb was leading, Mark was not in true contention for the win, and thus Fernando looked to be in the pound seats – until Ferrari, its focus too much on Webber, brought him in for an early tyre stop, aping Red Bull’s strategy for Mark.
For both, it was a disaster, for inevitably they ‘lost track position’ and found themselves behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov, which proved astonishingly fleet in a straight line. On a circuit where overtaking was unusually difficult, the pair of them followed Petrov all the way to the flag, finishing seventh and eighth. Thus Alonso lost his third World Championship – and Vettel won his first.
There are no ifs and buts and maybes in motor racing, but nevertheless it is endlessly fascinating to ponder how this might have been different if that had happened. Vettel, who had never led the World Championship points table until the very last day of the 2010 season, went away to the winter break in serene frame of mind, his first title unexpectedly won. Had he not, would he have come into the 2011 season with the confidence that he did? Probably yes, but you never know…
I always much admired the fact that Alonso, having lost the title through no fault of his own, kept his anguish to himself, and did not scream and shout about the injustice of it all as some would have done. Instead he continued to stress his allegiance to Ferrari, and has never wavered throughout 2011, despite being stuck with patently the third-best car on the grid.
You always learn most about a racing driver, I think, when he is up against it, forcing an average car along faster than it cares to go. Long ago the Renault engineers spoke in awe of Alonso’s relentlessness: where Giancarlo Fisichella would invariably ‘go to sleep’ in the course of a race, Fernando, they said, was always on it, every lap, to a degree none of them had known in another driver.
It was the characteristic that I most admired in Villeneuve, who had some truly terrible Ferraris to drive in his four-and-a-bit seasons in F1: in the course of his 67 Grands Prix, Gilles – unquestionably the fastest driver of his generation – started from pole only twice, and that said it all.
Alonso, happily for him, has not had such as a T5 or 126CK to cope with, but neither has he had equipment routinely comparable with McLaren, let alone Red Bull. In 2011 he has qualified only three times in the top three, yet 10 times he has been on the podium, and he has done it by wringing his car’s neck, putting it in places it had no right to be. Felipe Massa, by contrast, has not made the podium once this year.
Mind you, neither have most drivers. Renault, despite the enforced absence of Kubica, began the season in sprightly fashion, with Petrov finishing third at Melbourne, the opening race, and Nick Heidfeld doing the same at Sepang a fortnight later. Since then, in 16 Grands Prix, only five drivers – Vettel, Jenson Button, Hamilton, Alonso, Webber – have shaken the champagne. It’s been a similar story in qualifying, too: Nico Rosberg qualified third in Istanbul, and Massa did the same in Montréal. Otherwise, the top five have cleaned up.
Statistics, as we know, can be made to say anything, but still it is fascinating, when studying the drivers’ records, to look at ‘what they did with what they had’. If Alonso has converted three top-three starts into 10 top-three finishes, Hamilton, by contrast, has started 12 times in the top three, yet finished there on just six occasions.
Lewis’s troubles have been documented to death over the last few months, and it has been poignant, to say the least, to see such a remarkable talent being frequently compromised, on occasion squandered. There has been evidence of extraordinary mood swings – and not just in private, either. Three years ago Jackie Stewart was moved to remark that Hamilton seemed to be ‘not at peace with himself’, and in 2011 that has been evident to a far greater degree than ever before. Lewis has plainly looked like a lost soul, and in the car has made mistakes that would have been unthinkable in 2007, the year in which he erupted on to the Formula 1 scene.
Towards the end of October he and Nicole Scherzinger announced the end of their long-distance relationship, and the very next day Anthony Hamilton declared that in 2012 we would see the real Lewis again. In Korea he took pole position and finished second in the race, but declined to smile on either occasion. In India, for one reason and another, he didn’t figure seriously, but in Abu Dhabi he was right there from the off, fastest throughout practice, second on the grid, first in the race. Very well, it could have been a different matter if Vettel had not departed so early, but many felt that Hamilton might anyway have had the beating of him.
Although he has declined publicly to cite the end of his relationship as the source of his troubled frame of mind, Lewis has at least alluded to it, in the sense that he has spoken – with remarkable frankness, it must be said – of his team-mate’s much happier situation, with his father and girlfriend always there, his way of life settled. Support, in other words: unobtrusive but unmistakable. John Button I have always thought an object lesson in what a racing father should be: simply he is there as his son’s greatest fan, and he never gets involved in the politics of the sport.
Following their rift at the beginning of 2010, Anthony Hamilton is no longer his son’s manager, but they are on good terms again, and Lewis’s mother was in Abu Dhabi to celebrate his victory. It was a pleasure, above all, to see him once more smile afterwards: the drive, with Alonso always quite close at hand, had been perfect.
Throughout the history of the sport there have always been drivers who needed more support than others. Thirty years ago, for example, Frank Williams said of Reutemann, “Carlos had everything going for him in ’81. He got the best of everything – except that he needs psychological support more than most drivers, and perhaps we let him down a little there. He’s a bloke who needs to feel loved – to be aware that everyone in the team is wearing a Reutemann lapel badge and an Argentine scarf, that sort of thing…”
I think there’s no doubt that throughout this year everyone in the McLaren team, from Martin Whitmarsh down, has done everything possible to support Hamilton – on occasion to a degree that perhaps he did not deserve – and to help him through a difficult time. But it seems to be the case that, as a race, Grand Prix drivers today appear to need a posse of helpers of all kinds in a way that would once have been unthinkable.
Not all, of course. Throughout his career Gerhard Berger never employed a manager, preferring to do his deals himself, and Vettel is the same today. Sebastian does not travel with a great entourage, but not all his fellows are the same, and perhaps, as Martin Brundle suggests, this comes from the fact that these days kids start racing karts almost before they can walk, and if they show exceptional talent by the age of 12 they are already effectively professional racing drivers, their future careers mapped out for them. A conventional childhood passes them by, and quite often they emerge into F1 stardom, suddenly earning more money than they can imagine… with zero experience of real life.
Hamilton drove quite beautifully in Abu Dhabi, and his demeanour afterwards was that of a man emerging into the light once more. For the first time in his F1 career he will finish a season with fewer points than his team-mate, but if his father is right that in 2012 we’ll see ‘the real Lewis Hamilton’, next season could be one to savour. Now all we need is for Mercedes to step up to the plate, to put the name of Rosberg in with the top five.
When Jackie Stewart, in his capacity of guest editor, penned the leader for the last issue of Motor Sport, he cautioned against complacency on the question of safety in motor racing. Having for much of his life campaigned tirelessly to make the sport less perilous, Jackie was concerned that nowadays, because we have become accustomed to seeing drivers emerge unhurt from accidents which not so long ago might have been fatal, it has become – perhaps inevitably – too easy to take safety for granted.
As Professor Sid Watkins said, “Racing is infinitely safer than it used to be – but that doesn’t mean it’s safe. It isn’t – and it never will be, because it never can be…”
After Stewart had written the piece he was obliged by events to amend it – in fact, sadly, to update it – for before the magazine went to press Dan Wheldon was killed in the final round of the IndyCar season at Las Vegas. The next weekend Marco Simoncelli lost his life in the MotoGP race at Malaysia, and thus, in the space of seven days, tragedy twice imposed itself on our sport.
While I have always been a fan of motorcycle racing, it is by no means my field of expertise, and I’m hesitant about offering any comment on Simoncelli’s accident. That said, as I watched the horrible events at Sepang, I couldn’t help but remember something Kevin Schwantz said to me at Barcelona years ago.
We were talking about the dangers inherent in different forms of motor sport, and Schwantz spoke approvingly of the safety changes progressively introduced into Formula 1. In NASCAR – this was, of
course, long before the ‘Car Of Tomorrow’ – the greatest fear was being T-boned in the driver’s door. While in his world, he said, the abiding dread was coming off the bike into the path of following riders.
“In the old days in car racing,” Schwantz went on, “before there were belts, if you crashed there was a high chance you’d get thrown out, but obviously in bike racing that’s the way it will always be. We can make equipment – helmets, leathers – better, and it’s the same with the tracks, in terms of run-off areas and so on. But the one thing we can never change is the possibility of coming off the bike on the track with other bikes behind you…”
It was in precisely these circumstances that Simoncelli died, just as did Moto2 rider Shoya Tomizawa in 2010. As Schwantz said, it is difficult to see how the possibility of such tragedies could ever be eliminated.
I confess, though, that I had a very different response to the accident which took the life of Dan Wheldon, and left me not only profoundly sad but also rather angry. It was, as commentators Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear said, the ‘Big One’, the calamity that had been so long feared – and that said it all: it had been coming for years. The sheer velocity of the accident was beyond, I think, anything I had seen before, and its enormity – 15 cars were involved – was at first difficult to take in.
The news of Wheldon’s death, of course, swiftly reverberated around the world, and the fact that he was British led to mass coverage of a form of motor sport essentially ignored by UK papers since 1994, when Nigel Mansell abandoned Indycars to resume a career in F1. When Dan won his second Indianapolis 500 last May it sent barely a ripple across the surface of the British dailies, just as it had the first time in 2005, just as when Dario Franchitti took his brace of victories.
In all honesty, it isn’t too different that side of the pond, either. Whenever I’ve been in the States in recent years, I’ve been amazed by the lack of coverage given to Indycar racing, be it on TV sports shows or in the papers. In this era motor racing in the USA essentially means NASCAR, and if the stock car monolith, too, appears less popular (certainly in terms of spectator attendances) than it used to be, its absolute dominance of the American racing scene is beyond dispute.
What’s more, it has long seemed to me – looking on as a regretful outsider – that IndyCar has passed up few opportunities to bolster NASCAR’s stronghold.
Time was when I was a passionate fan of Indycar racing, going right back to my school days when the glorious roadsters held sway. That passion endured through the early ’60s, when first John Cooper and then Colin Chapman obliged the Gasoline Alley establishment to face the fact that the optimum place for the driver was in front of the engine. And it went right on through the formation of CART – right on, in fact, until the beginning of the 21st century, when Indycar racing began seriously to come apart at the seams.
Down the years it has invariably been the case that the Monaco Grand Prix clashed with the Indianapolis 500, and consequently I was able to get to the Speedway only rarely. It was a source of great regret, for the two races I saw in the ’80s and the two in the early ’90s were unforgettable – as start time approached, one felt as if at the centre of the world, to a degree not experienced in the Principality.
If I couldn’t go to Indy very often, however, other opportunities presented themselves, and over time I went to races at such as Pocono, Phoenix and Long Beach. Best of all, Milwaukee invariably dovetailed with the Canadian Grand Prix, and for many years I went to the venerable ‘Mile’ before going on to Montréal.
This, of course, was in the CART era, and there is no doubt that at that time it was the best racing series anywhere on earth. The cars were things of beauty, and they sounded as good as they looked. At a flat – by which I mean ‘not banked’ – oval like Milwaukee, they would overtake inside and outside through the turns, and with 900 horsepower on tap it didn’t take a science degree to see who was good, and who was not.
Throw in an ambience that made an F1 paddock seem stiff and formal, and you will understand why I so looked forward to the first weekend in June. No matter that the paddock area was grass, the facilities primitive, here was a mile oval in the classic tradition, showcasing Indycars at their best: Milwaukee was unfailingly a highlight of my racing season.
After winning the Indianapolis 500 in 1995, Jacques Villeneuve came in August to test a Williams F1 car, preparatory to joining the team for the ’96 season. I went up to Silverstone that day, stayed to have supper with the team, and wanted to know from JV how different the experience had been.
“Well,” he said, “this track is new to me, first of all, so of course I’ve never driven the Indycar round here. I could be wrong, but I don’t think it would be much slower than the F1 car – it would be slower in the corners, yes, but it would make up time on the straights.
“The biggest thing to get used to on the Williams is the brakes – they’re carbon, whereas we have steel, and of course the car is also much lighter. Fundamentally, the F1 car is much easier to drive – when an Indycar lets go there’s a lot of mass and it takes longer to get it back. The F1 engine has much better response than the Indycar’s, obviously, because it’s normally-aspirated rather than turbocharged – but it certainly doesn’t push as hard…”
At the end of 1992 Ayrton Senna, disillusioned by many aspects of F1, not least its increasing preoccupation with electronic ‘gizmos’ (which he felt detracted from the driver’s contribution), had a run in a factory Penske at the Firebird International Raceway, a road circuit to the south of Phoenix. He loved it: “It felt like… a human’s car…”
At that time Indycar racing seemed to have found a formula that worked supremely, but two or three years on, as Villeneuve contemplated his move to F1, the wheels began to come off the wagon. I have neither time enough, nor patience, to go into the minutiae of the civil war which came over Indycar racing in the mid-90s: suffice it to say that, at the end of the 1995 season, it split itself in two, and history shows that whenever that happens you finish up with two weakened sides. Everyone loses, in other words.
Tony George had long felt that, as the man at the helm of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of Indycar racing’s seminal event, he should have more say in the way the series was run. Finally he decided to go into business for himself, and announced the formation of a whole new series – the Indy Racing League.
At the time there was a lot of guff about taking Indycar racing back to its roots. Costs would be way lower, the focus would be entirely on ovals, and every effort would be made to bring through young American drivers from the ranks of midget and sprint car racing – at one time the traditional route to the Speedway for any aspiring racer.
All this paid no heed to the fact that the world had changed, that this was no more than a pipe dream. My laconic friend Robin Miller, who has lived in Indianapolis all his life, wrote this of Foyt’s signing Br?ck to his team: “I guess AJ spotted Kenny at one of those Stockholm Saturday night shows…”
The big guns of Indycar racing – the Penskes, the Ganassis et al – appeared firm in their commitment to CART, and if for some years the two series operated side by side, you looked at the cast of the Indy Racing League – one competitor, I recall, went by the name of ‘Racin’ Gardner’ – and concluded that it couldn’t last long. CART, it seemed, held all the cards.
Except one. The Indianapolis 500 was now an IRL race, necessarily off limits to all the major teams and drivers, and if it were plainly – by comparison with the recent past – a shadow of what it had been, still there was no doubt that, as an event, it continued to resonate like no other in American motor racing. If some CART team owners bullishly maintained that they could get along very well without the Indy 500, the evidence was that their sponsors felt otherwise. Indy was always the only strong card in the hands of George and the IRL – but a very strong one it was.
And gradually, gradually, as its collective resolve dissipated, CART began to come apart. One by one, the leading players started to drift away to the IRL, and if I – an outsider – viewed this with dismay, the feelings of some of my American friends and colleagues, committed Indycar aficionados from the cradle, can only be imagined. If they were contemptuous of T George and all his works, so also they spoke bitterly of the greed and self-interest which splintered CART apart, and ultimately left us with nothing but the IRL.
From the very beginning, I confess, I struggled to find any enthusiasm for this new breed of Indycar. Compared with the Penskes and Lolas I had seen at Indianapolis and elsewhere, it was a sinfully ugly thing, and – to my eye anyway – remained so. It had way less horsepower, and it had way more downforce. Where once I’d stood at the exit of turn two at the Speedway and marvelled at the commitment of the top drivers, grazing the wall as they powered away down the backstretch, now, in these new cars, they didn’t need all the road – indeed would come off the turns in the middle of the track, then immediately dart over to the left, hugging the inside line down to the next turn.
It goes without saying that they were nothing like as quick as the cars they had replaced – Arie Luyendyk’s 237mph lap of Indianapolis 15 years ago has not been remotely approached since – but that could have been lived with if they at least put on the sort of show we used to take for granted in the CART days.
They did not. At a track like Indianapolis – very quick, barely banked – it is still possible for an ace to excel by means of taking off downforce, trimming the car right out, driving it. The edge is always the edge, whatever the car or track, and only a great driver can run there routinely without dropping it, as Franchitti demonstrated in his emphatic victory in 2010.
Elsewhere, though, it is less straightforward for sheer ability to assert itself. With not much horsepower – about the same as a GP2 car – and far too much downforce, the recent breed of Indycar was simply too easy to drive, and all the more so at some of the banked ovals which proliferated as time went by. “Anyone,” one driver told me, “can go round those places without lifting – but it’s one thing doing it on your own, and quite another when you’ve got cars all around you, and you’ve got to hold a line.”
Before coming to F1, Juan Pablo Montoya had two years in Indycars, and sensational he was. But JPM was competing in the late years of the CART series and only once drove an IRL car, at the Indianapolis 500 in 2000. His victory remains, of course, among his fondest memories, but when once I asked him how the car had felt compared with what he was used to, he simply laughed…
Much later, when Montoya had left Grand Prix racing for a new life with Ganassi in NASCAR, I wondered if he had talked to Chip about returning to Indycars. “No,” he said firmly. “Not interested. For one thing, it would have been a big step down – F1 and NASCAR are the only big series left in the world – and anyway I didn’t want to get involved in what Indycar racing had become.”
It wasn’t that Montoya had any fears of driving single-seaters on ovals per se – indeed, Morris Nunn, who ran him during the CART years, said he never came across another driver so immediately at ease on them – but that he really didn’t care for the ‘pack racing’ that was an inevitable consequence of pitting nigh identical cars against each other on a banked oval. One thing to do that in a stock car, with plenty of sheet metal around you, he said; quite another in an open-wheeler.
And that really was the whole point. A great swarm of cars would circulate together around a high-banked track, and because everyone was flat to the floor it was virtually impossible for ability to assert itself, for the superior driver to demonstrate it. Overtaking became an endangered species, and it was no surprise that the fans – long ago turned off anyway by the split in their sport – stayed away. In front of largely empty grandstands the pack would drone round and round, and if you were watching on TV it was easy to get drowsy… until something went wrong.
I remember watching the race at Texas in 2003. It was evening my time, I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and my eyelids were starting to droop – and then suddenly Kenny Br?ck and Tomas Scheckter touched wheels and everything went on to fast forward, and I was jolted out of my doze. Scheckter stepped out without a scratch, but down the road a long way, upside down, was the cockpit survival cell – nothing else – of Br?ck’s Dallara. Although severely injured, Kenny happily survived.
His car, like Wheldon’s, was ripped apart by the stout metal debris fence above the wall, and it was the same with Mike Conway’s shunt at Indianapolis in 2010. Dan’s car, though, was the only one to strike the fence on the cockpit side.
Since the disaster in Las Vegas, many luminaries from the Indycar world have offered their thoughts, and the opinion which most chimed with me came from Bobby Unser – plain speaking as ever – who described the circumstances on that day as ‘the perfect storm’.
“Indycar racing,” he went on, “has been very fortunate. It could have happened at any time over the past six years, and they’re very fortunate that more drivers weren’t hurt in that mess at Las Vegas.
“For a lot of reasons, Indycar racing has become a ‘spec’ series. Every car is exactly the same, and it’s created this pack racing – which is not racing at all. No one likes it – the drivers, the fans. At first pack racing was exciting for the fans, but then they realised that there was no passing – it was just guys running side by side – and they don’t want it now. The IndyCar Series tried to emulate NASCAR – but NASCAR fans don’t want pack racing, either.
“The cars have so little horsepower and so much downforce that you can take a hitchhiker off the street and put him in a car, and if he’ll just do what he’s told he can drive that car wide open. He can’t race, because he doesn’t have the experience, but he could drive flat out. That’s not right.
“They need to go to work and up the horsepower, and get rid of a lot of the aerodynamic rules. Make the guys have to back off, and the cars will separate. The racing becomes safer, and better, because a guy can actually pass. It doesn’t take a genius to see this, but the leadership needs to make it happen.”
For much of the 2011 season the venue for the final race was listed only as ‘TBA’. Finally, against the advice of several drivers, Las Vegas was chosen, presumably because it was considered a glamorous setting for a finale. Since IndyCar’s last visit some years ago the oval had been reconfigured, the banking steepened, to make it even more of a NASCAR track – and even less suitable for open-wheeled cars.
Later came the announcement of a $5m bonus for any non-regular in the series who entered for the race and managed to win it. The hope had been that maybe it would attract someone like Montoya, but in the event there were no takers from the outside, and Wheldon – who had not had a regular ride in 2011, but was due to make a full-time return with Andretti Autosport next year – was nominated to try for the money.
As I said, in recent times IndyCar has struggled in all ways, with teams writhing financially, poor crowds, even worse TV figures, and it’s understandable that the powers-that-be were desperate to get publicity for this final race of the season. But I’m afraid that the idea of a $5 million bonus – available only to a non-regular in the series – struck me as nothing more than a gimmick, out of place in any racing championship wishing to be taken seriously.
Throw in that 34 cars, some driven by experienced drivers, some not, started on a high-banked 1.5-mile oval – one more than in the Indianapolis 500 on a flat 2.5-mile track – and, as Unser said, “It was the perfect storm”. No surprise that on race morning so many drivers were uneasy, apprehensive, about what was to come. Once it started it was not less than terrifying to watch: “It was a 200-lap race,” one driver said, “and five laps in people were already wheel-banging…”
The loss of Wheldon, and the circumstances which led to it, have necessarily forced IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and his people into a period of intense self-examination. As – I stress – an outsider in the Indycar racing world, it seems to me no more than common sense that, whatever needs to be changed in the specification of the cars and engines, they should never again venture to a high-banked oval, where a ‘race’ is no more than a crapshoot.
Ovals are in the DNA of Indycar racing, and no one wishes to see them disappear, but flat tracks such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Loudon are one thing; from what I hear, if such as Vegas or Texas are included in a future schedule, the drivers are likely to vote with their feet.
In 2001 CART ventured – insanely – to Texas, and so extreme were the speeds and g-forces to which these much faster cars were subjected that during practice drivers were close to blacking out, and would stagger when they climbed out. The day before the race it was decided that cancellation was the only course.
Wheldon played no part in the build-up to the crash that took his life. In a 220mph pack, as soon as any car decelerates, for whatever reason, a chain reaction is inevitable. On this occasion one car clipped another, got unsettled, got sideways – and the mayhem began. The unfortunate Dan, coming up on the pack, had neither the means nor the time to avoid it.
The inescapable fact, surely, is that high-banked tracks are for NASCAR, and NASCAR alone. As Bobby Rahal once said of the two-mile Michigan International Speedway, “If you raced an Indycar there, any time you drove out of that place on Sunday afternoon, you’d won…”