Modern Times

In the month since our last meeting on these pages, we’ve had two totally contrasting Grands Prix. You might say there was one modem one, and one old-fashioned one. Michael Schumacher predictably won the former: David Coulthard took a heartwarming, if lucky, victory in the latter.

Anyone who has ever watched cars being driven in anger around the indomitable old 14-mile Nurburgring will find a Grand Prix at the new one depressingly modem: an artificial track, with obligatory chicane and wide runoff areas, and a large, convenient and featureless paddock with transporters and motorhomes lined up in exactly the same order and to the same spacing as almost everywhere else on the F1 calendar. You have to remind yourself— apart from the climatic evidence — whether you’re in Barcelona, or Budapest, or even Sepang.

This year the climatic evidence at the Nurburgring certainly made it clear you weren’t in Sepang. It was ferociously cold all weekend, and during the race, after a dry start, it rained. Perfect Schumacher weather, in fact, and — whatever Ron Dennis may have tried to say to the contrary — once Michael disposed of the brilliantly starting Hakkinen on lap ten, no-one else ever looked like winning the race. It was a stand-alone performance, and it put me in mind of another occasion when the Eifel weather was as bad, or worse. In August 1968 Jackie Stewart, helped by the latest Dunlop rain tyres, scored one of the finest wins of his life on the proper Nurburgring. On a waterlogged, fog-bound track his margin at the flag over second man Graham Hill was over four minutes.

I reckon if the 2000 European GP had been on the old ‘Ring — wouldn’t that have been something! — Michael would have won by a still larger margin. As it was, cheered by his adoring Ferrari-capped German fans, he was very much a man at home.

Monaco was, in every way, a contrast But then, Monaco always is. On occasion we’ve had dreadful weather there, too, but this year it was stiflingly hot — the track temperature before the start was 41deg C. Of course, Monaco is one place that hasn’t changed a whole lot since William Grover-Williams won the first Grand Prix there 71 years ago. In fact, with Spa (radically changed and shortened, but a still real drivers’ circuit) and Monza (slowed by three dreary chicanes, but still redolent with atmosphere and history), it is one of three GP circuits that were in use in the ’20s — remarkable when you think how much the demands of F1 have changed.

And therein lies Monaco’s problem. We all know how difficult overtaking is on every circuit on the F1 calendar, but at Monaco it really is impossible. Almost the only significant overtaking manoeuvre I saw all afternoon was Hakkinen neatly slotting past Frentzen on Lap One going down to what we must now call Grand Hotel Hairpin, but which I still find myself calling Virage dela Gare. Only trouble was, the race was red-flagged, and when it was restarted Heinz-Harald, forewarned and forearmed, made sure he kept the door shut The reigning Champion ate the Jordan’s dust until he had a long pitstop, after which he caught up Mika Salo and couldn’t persuade his McLaren past his countryman’s Sauber.

By the same token, compare the lap times set by Coulthard when he was stuck behind Truth with his laps after Jarno had retired. As soon as the Jordan was gone, David started to match or even beat Schumacher’s times, although the Ferrari was more than half a minute up the road.

So, is it still appropriate to run a GP on such an anachronistically narrow track? Or is it time to bring down the curtain on the Monaco Grand Prix? Certainly, if you proposed today that the steep, narrow streets of a busy seaside resort would be a good place to run a new Grand Prix, you’d be regarded as certifiable. The answer is that F1 wants the race to continue, for the usual overwhelming commercial reasons. It’s all to do with the sponsors’ hunger tomb shoulders with what they perceive to be the beautiful people, and be seen on a large white yacht Monaco helps keep the moneyed wheels of F1 turning, and for that reason alone the race seems guaranteed to survive.

But, cynic that I am, let me enter a plea for retaining the race. The people who really keep the F1 wheels turning — mechanics, engineers and team personnel, used to the working conditions of a modem paddock —would love to see the back of it, with its cramped (and dangerous) temporary pits, its paddock several hundred metres further down the harbour on the other side of the track, and its difficult access through hordes of public. But, going by the Monaco GP we’ve just had, it is still capable of providing at least some of the elements of a good old-fashioned motor race.

First, it wasn’t won or lost in the pits. The routine stops — only one for everybody, because whatever else happens you don’t want to lose track position and risk getting stuck behind traffic that you can’t pass — made no difference to the outcome of the race. And secondly this track, anachronistic as it is, remains an awe-inspiring challenge which will find and punish the smallest weakness in man or machine. Coulthard won because he didn’t make any mistakes, and because his McLaren performed faultlessly: two thoroughly worthy reasons to win a Grand Prix. Of the 22 starters, just seven managed the 78 laps without visible mistake or mechanical problem. Michael Schumacher drove a flawless race, but his car let him down, and the same applied to Trulli. Hakkinen and Herbert had delaying stops. Frentzen, Ralf Schumacher, Wurz, Verstappen, Diniz, Zonta and Mazzacane all had accidents — and, in the case of Heinz-Harald and probably Ralf, lost podium places thereby. In this race, just to finish was a signal achievement, requiring human and mechanical stamina as well as speed and controlled consistency, and every point earned was richly deserved. And that includes Jaguar, who thanks to Eddie Irvine have some points at last.

The very fact that Monaco is so different means you need to be a special driver to win it. It’s no coincidence that Senna won it six times, and would have taken seven in seven years but for his lapse of concentration in 1988. Nor that Alain Prost won four times, or that Schumacher has done four so far and will probably do more.

Every schoolboy knows that Graham Hill, that most determinedly dogged of drivers, won Monaco five times. But the other statistics are pretty amazing, too. He entered the race 18 times between 1958-75, completing no fewer than 1,211 racing laps of the Principality. He was on the podium every year for seven years, and in the points nine years running. In 1962 he was leading after 92 of the 100 laps when his BRM’s engine blew.

There are many Monaco examples of the dogged pursuer getting lucky as the leader hits trouble, going back to the steady Maurice Trintignant in 1955, after Fangio, Moss and Ascari had all stopped. Olivier Panis is the most recent: in 1996 Damon Hill was in front and going away when he had a rare Renault engine failure, and then Jean Alesi was on course for a popular victory until his Benetton’s rear suspension broke. So Panis took a surprise win: lucky, but Olivier was better that day than he’ll ever be again. Like Senna and Schumacher, Stirling Moss was always brilliant at Monaco. He led every one of the seven GPs he started there. Three times he won, three times his car let him down, and once — also like Schumacher and Senna — he had a most untypical accident. His win over the much faster works Ferraris in 1961 was, he thinks, his best F1 victory, because he had to drive his year-old Lotus 18 absolutely flat out the entire way. The race lasted getting on for three hours in those days, and Stirling’s race time for 100 laps was exactly 40 seconds more than one hundred times his pole position time. In other words, including the start and lapping the back-markers, his average lap time for the entire 100-lap race was just 0.4 sec more than pole: unbelievable.

Now David Coulthard is the first Briton, and the first Scot, to win the Monaco Grand Prix since Jackie Stewart’s third victory 27 years ago. No wonder the normally reserved Coulthard was genuinely overcome with delight as he walked up the steps to Prince Ranier’s royal box to get his trophy. He said afterwards that there have always been four Grands Prix that he wanted above all others to win. His home race at Silverstone, of course — which he’s done for the last two years. Then Spa, because it’s his favourite circuit; Monza, because it’s a place of such high emotion; and Monaco — because it’s Monaco. The three good old-fashioned Grands Prix. So I make no apology for ending this month, as I ended last, with a tribute to Coulthard. While Michael Schumacher, the modem sporting hero, smirks at us from our television screens advertising hair shampoo (“because I’m worth it”), DC is daily looking more and more like a good old-fashioned racing driver.