If the rain won’t stop, should the racing? Mark Skewis considers the controversial issue highlighted by the Spanish GP
Two matters of concern arose from Barcelona’s rain-lashed Grand Prix: one was an issue for Damon Hill, the other for the sport as a whole.
The tour de force with which Michael Schumacher scored his first victory for Ferrari, and his team’s first success with a V10 engine, was a worry for Williams’ championship leader. Having been comfortably quickest in race morning warm-up, which was also wet, Hill and his crew eschewed the conservative route and instead went into the seventh race of the season with a set-up best suited to dry conditions. After three spins in 11 laps, the last of which saw him end in the barriers, he had plenty of time to reflect upon the folly of the move.
His rival also adopted a bold strategy, for he alone opted for a two-stop gameplan, but the crushing nature of his success owed more to the German’s prowess in the atrocious conditions than it did to strategy. At one stage he comfortably lapped four seconds faster than all opposition, easily overhauling first Villeneuve, then Alesi, to take a lead that he would never relinquish.
John Barnard, designer of Ferrari’s F310, readily conceded that the win should be attributed more to the driver than to his car “In fact, he even had an intermittent misfire as well, so it was no bed of roses for Michael.”
If that was Schumacher in charge of an ailing car, you wonder what he could have done in a healthy one. Likewise, if the torrential rain and poor visibility weren’t bad enough to stop the race, you wouldn’t want to be caught out in a thunderstorm which was!
Of course Formula One can, in the form of its Safety Car, already claim to have a device in place to deal with the vagaries of such weather. Schumacher contended that it should have been used at the start in Barcelona, where the first lap claimed five cars in accidents. He looked to have a point.
But is it necessarily safer to start a race under the Safety Car? Opinion is split.
“I’m not sure it would have been much safer, because the speed at the start/finish line would have been that much higher,” reckons Jacques Villeneuve, who has a wealth of pace car experience through his time in indycar racing. “If there had been a crash doing it that way, people would merely have said that it was the wrong way to go, and that we should be doing it the other way! So I don’t think there is any one clear solution.”
In Spain nothing was clear. Certainly not if you happened to inhabit the ball of spray purporting to be the Formula One grid as it left the startline. “In the middle of the pack it was very difficult even to see the dashboard in front of you,” recalls a bewildered Heinz-Harald Frentzen hardly your average shrinking violet when it comes to putting his tackle on the line. “In 10 laps I nearly hit the wall about 20 times!”
Notwithstanding the carnage, the German was still impressed by the discipline of those around him. “It was a very similar situation to what we saw in Brazil and Monaco. We didn’t speak to each other, but it was like a gentleman’s agreement.”
The truth, sadly, is that all the discipline in the world won’t help if the conditions are too diabolical. “I said when I got out of the car that I was relieved to be out of it and I stick by that,” insists Damon Hill, normally a good wet-weather racer. “I don’t mind racing in the wet, and yes we do have monsoon tyres, but you must remember that in such weather it wasn’t a question of what tyres we had, but one of visibility.
“I came through on that first lap and there was a car either side of the track. For all I knew there could have been people working on those cars or the track could have been blocked. I would never have seen the yellow flags.
Yet the race went ahead, even though conditions were such that only six cars survived to the flag. Everybody knows why Grands Prix start, even if conditions beggar belief, as they did at Adelaide in ’91 Assuming that Gazza isn’t belching for England al the same time, or that Steve Davis being interesting at the Crucible, as many as seven million viewers tune into the Beeb’s GP coverage. Multiply that figure by the hundreds of countries which accept FOCA’s TV feed, and you begin to appreciate why everyone is so keen for the show to go on.
Ron Dennis may have a point when he suggests that GP racing is one of the last remaining gladiatorial sports, and that the risk factor is part of its attraction, but where do you draw the line? Are we in danger of sacrificing drivers on the altar of the Great God Television’? Will we ever find someone brave enough to take a stand and, if necessary, face the cameras and say, ‘Sorry folks… ‘? One top driver believes he knows the answer: “Yes, but we’ll have to wait until someone is killed on the start line, or a wheel goes into the grandstand, it would appear…”
Villeneuve can be forgiven if he looks puzzled at F1’s soul-searching. After all, if it rains on the ovals lndycar simply postpones the race and everybody returns the next day. In fact, pretty much as they do in practically any other sport TV audience or not.
“What do they do in cricket?” asks Hill. ‘Pull the covers over. Football is snowed off. Wimbledon stops when it rains. What’s the problem?”
What indeed? After all, the cricket fraternity doesn’t shrink from locking its commentators in the studio with copious amounts of cream cakes, a stream of celebrity player guests, and a stack of film from the 1981 Ashes. Heaven forbid, some anoraks actually prefer those days to the live action itself!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m suggesting the principle, rather than issuing a grand decree that Barcelona shouldn’t have taken place. We are not advocating that at the first twitch of the barometer we go running for the TV studio. Far from it, for some rain not only gives talented drivers the chance to demonstrate their ability but, let’s be honest, increases the spectacle.
It’s just that there may be the odd occasion when subjecting the TV audience to Murray Walker, Jonathan Palmer, a slab of Battenburg and a video of Fuji ’76 may appear a far more sensible proposition than actually exposing the drivers to those conditions again.