– The young Germans outshining the older one…
– Should there be room for ‘the little guy’ in F1?
– A moment with Rindt that money couldn’t buy
After qualifying at Monte Carlo, Sebastian Vettel muttered something about traffic being a problem, even though there had been but 10 cars in Q3, the final segment. Doubtless there was something in what he said – Vettel was third-fastest when it was all done, but he set his time only at the very end, and was disconcerted to find that the other Red Bull – driven by M Webber – was on pole position, just as he had been at Barcelona seven days earlier. Worse, Webber was four-tenths of a second quicker than him; worse yet, even Mark’s second-best time would have been good for pole position.
For Sebastian, a situation like this doesn’t compute. If someone has driven an identical car quicker than he, then normality has been suspended – it cannot be. And when, the following day, Webber went on to win the Monaco Grand Prix as majestically as I have ever seen it done, his young team-mate seemed at the press conference to be almost in a state of shock.
I first met Vettel as I first met Robert Kubica, when he became a test driver for BMW. The team’s PR invited me to breakfast at the motorhome, ‘to get to know our new driver’, and when Sebastian arrived it would have been easy to take him for ‘our new driver’s’ kid. He looked about 12, and seemed very eager to please, laughing easily, and revealing a clearly genuine enthusiasm for British institutions like Fawlty Towers and The Beatles.
When in mid-2007 Toro Rosso decided – not a moment too soon – to dispense with the services of Scott Speed, a pitch was made to Vettel, Gerhard Berger being very well aware of how much of a talent this was. Unaccountably BMW allowed Sebastian to slip through its fingers, and in 2008 he scored Toro Rosso’s only Grand Prix victory at Monza, after an astonishingly mature drive in appalling conditions.
Since transferring to the Red Bull team in 2009 Vettel, championed by no less than B?C?Ecclestone, has grown accustomed to success, and if the schoolboy smile has been less in evidence perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. “Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,” said Frank Gardner (perhaps not originally) countless years ago; it has become clear that Vettel is not a good loser – but then the great ones rarely are, and assuredly he is on course to be numbered among them.
“If I had a team,” said Martin Brundle in Monaco, “the guys I’d go for would be Alonso and Vettel – but I’d go for Sebastian first, because he’s five or six years younger than Fernando…”
At the press conferences in Monaco Vettel said all the right things, complimenting his team and so on, but it was evident from his body language – as we have seen before – that he does not enjoy those occasions when the spotlight is on Webber.
“The one thing about motor racing that never changes,” Jacky Ickx said to me recently, “is that your team-mate is your worst enemy – he may be your best friend, but he is also your worst enemy…”
Vettel became BMW’s test driver when Kubica was promoted to the race team following the departure of Jacques Villeneuve. Robert, for all his sad bloodhound eyes, has a dry sense of humour and a nice sense of irony, sometimes expressing himself in a manner which reminds you of a young Mario Andretti. A no-nonsense character, in other words.
A superb racing driver, too, for my money as good as there is in Formula 1. Whenever he is asked to define what he sees as his strengths, he is inclined to put emphasis on his consistency rather than outright pace, and in this respect is very similar to his buddy Fernando Alonso. Both sell themselves short: yes, they have the ability – and the will – to keep banging in the times, lap after relentless lap, but they are also blindingly quick. Drivers’ drivers. Although such things are never revealed in interviews, it is a fact – I have it from an unimpeachable McLaren source – that Lewis Hamilton fears Kubica more than any other rival. And Lewis has known whereof he speaks for a long time – he and Robert go back to karting days together.
What makes Kubica so formidable is that, although he wrings the last drop from his cars, he makes remarkably few mistakes. At Renault they love him, because although he drives them hard, he requires at least as much of himself, and nothing rewards a team like seeing its efforts reflected instantly in lap times. Invariably Kubica is the last driver to leave the paddock at the end of the day, but if he has Michael Schumacher’s work ethic, his reputation on the track is never questioned: hard, undoubtedly, but always fair.
Although Robert was a BMW driver for several seasons, he did not enjoy the cosiest of relationships with the team, for he said what he thought, and quite often that didn’t chime well with the management. In 2008, during which he took the team’s first pole position and scored its first victory, he was in with a shot at the World Championship, and it hugely frustrated him when an early decision was taken to abandon development of the car so as to concentrate on 2009, when the rules were due substantially to change. In the event, the ’09 car was profoundly disappointing, and the company announced its intention to quit.
That put Kubica (and Nick Heidfeld) on the street, of course, and I was amazed that none of the front-running teams made a serious pitch for Robert. Although his name was quickly mentioned in connection with Renault (which was losing Alonso to Ferrari), there was considerable doubt that the team would continue with F1, and for a long time Kubica’s immediate future looked to be in doubt. Had I been a team principal, I would have signed nobody until Robert’s unavailability was confirmed.
Of late there has been considerable speculation about the composition of the Ferrari team in the coming years. Alonso may be taken for granted, of course, but Massa’s Maranello future is much less secure. Felipe is immensely popular within the team, and over time has produced many an apparently effortless flag-to-flag victory, but Fernando’s arrival has inevitably brought about a certain amount of reassessment (not least of Kimi Räikkönen’s contribution to Ferrari over the three years past).
Massa, should he impress over the next few races, may yet survive in the team, but the Scuderia has an option on Kubica, and there’s little doubt that an Alonso/Kubica combination would make most people quake.
At Monaco a Ferrari man told me of the impact Alonso has had on the team. “He’s very firm in the way he talks – how he wants things to be. Maybe even more than Michael [Schumacher]. But Ferrari – and the tifosi – have taken Fernando to their hearts, like no one since maybe Gilles [Villeneuve]. Michael was admired, you know – really admired, obviously, for what he achieved with Ferrari. But loved? No, he was never loved. And Kimi? Well, everyone liked Kimi, but in the end he was not so… interested in the job, was he? He liked to race, but that was about it. Sometimes you get a guy who was born to be a Ferrari driver, and Fernando seems to be the latest one. Of course it helps that he is a Latin, that he has passion…”
This is, I think, a quite exceptional crop of Grand Prix drivers, the best for a couple of decades – as Schumacher is finding out. In Spain and Monaco he and Nico Rosberg drove a much-modified version of what had worked very well for Nico in the first four races, less well for Michael.
Before the season so much as started, Jackie Stewart suggested that it wouldn’t be long – the start of the European season, he correctly assessed – before Schumacher’s influence began to make itself felt. “The car may not suit Michael initially,” said Stewart. “He hates understeer, and he can’t cope with it very well. He’ll develop the car the way he wants it – a way he knows, and Ross [Brawn] knows, too.”
The revamped Mercedes is indeed less of an understeerer, which in fact pleases both drivers, but is bound relatively to benefit Schumacher more than Rosberg, because Nico was comfortably quicker with the original configuration. At Barcelona he had a horribly messy weekend, when everything possible went wrong, and for the first time Schumacher finished ahead of him. But in Monte Carlo – once a holy grail for Michael – Nico was again the quicker of the two.
After qualifying Schumacher was uncharacteristically – and overtly – angry as he spoke to sundry German TV crews, suggesting that Rosberg had held him up during the final segment of qualifying. He might have done better to speak to Brawn before shouting the odds.
In Q2 Nico had been fastest of all, and looked a sound bet, if not quite for pole position, at least for a place in the top two or three. With only 10 minutes available, the team wished devoutly to keep its drivers from being on the same part of the circuit at the same time, so as to keep them from inadvertently delaying each other. As it was, Rosberg popped out on the circuit immediately behind Barrichello’s Williams – and immediately ahead of Schumacher. Rubens, clearly, couldn’t run at quite the Mercedes pace, but he was out there to set a time for himself and not about to say, ‘After you…’
Thus neither Merc driver finished the session with the time he felt he could have achieved – hence Michael’s ire when interviewed by TV. In point of fact, though, Rosberg’s exit from pitlane, to begin his final qualifying run, was delayed by 30 seconds, and the reason for this – the car stayed up on jacks for too long – lay with the team, and not the driver. When informed of this by Brawn, Schumacher was mollified to a degree, but the damage to the perception of the team, and the camaraderie within, had been done.
In the race Michael nipped ahead of Nico into the first corner, and the two silver cars ran in tandem (again behind Barrichello, whose getaway had been brilliant) until lap 19, when both Rubens and Michael came in to exchange the soft compound Bridgestones, on which they had qualified and begun the race, for the harder ones which would see them through to the finish.
This left Rosberg, finally, with a clear track, and immediately he set the two fastest laps of the race, building up an advantage which was bound to leave him ahead of Barrichello – and Schumacher – after his own stop, which would presumably come soon.
It didn’t, though. Everyone assumed that the team would bring Nico in on lap 22 or 23, but instead of that he was left out until lap 28, by which time his tyres were seriously past their best and losing him at least a second a lap. Although his ‘pitstop’ lap was a second and a half quicker than his team-mate’s, when he rejoined the race he found himself behind… Schumacher.
I think it’s fair to say that one or two people in the press room found that rather curious. There were even some who found it rather… convenient.
No one needs to be told of the commercial significance of the tie-up between Mercedes-Benz and Michael Schumacher. It is, in the Fatherland, the ultimate marketing deal from heaven, something of which Mercedes people wistfully dreamed through all those years when Schumacher and Ferrari dominated F1 as none had ever done before them. Whenever pressed on the subject, they would insist that, no, no, they were entirely happy with their drivers at McLaren-Mercedes, that having Michael on board was to them potentially a double-edged sword – in Germany, they said, when he won a race, it was Schumacher who had won; when he lost, it was the fault of the car. Thus there were risks implicit in being associated with him, and they were well satisfied with the drivers they had, thank you very much. You almost believed them, too, although methinks they did protest too much…
The deal, when it came to be, was almost too deliciously easy to be true. Mercedes had long wished to have a team, rather than be known simply as an ‘engine partner’ (even with a team as celebrated as McLaren), and Ross Brawn’s immensely successful outfit, now devoid of Honda money and major sponsorship, was clearly open to an approach. Mercedes bought a majority shareholding, Petronas was signed as the primary sponsor – and then Jenson Button, against all expectation, decided to leave for McLaren.
In the wings, meantime, was Schumacher, who had been bored stiff through three years of premature retirement, and whose competitive juices – never dormant – had been well and truly stirred by the possibility of a return to racing with Ferrari, as temporary stand-in for the injured Massa.
I don’t believe for a second that at that stage Michael was contemplating more than a brief adventure, a step back into the environment he had most relished, with the team he had most loved. When his neck injury, sustained in a Superbike accident, ultimately made impossible a return at Valencia and beyond, he was mortified. Ferrari, rewarding loyalty as loyalty had never previously been rewarded in F1, put the hapless Luca Badoer in with Räikkönen for a couple of races, then the fading Giancarlo Fisichella for the balance of the season. And Michael, when he turned up at the races in his ‘consultancy’ role with Ferrari, looked more miserable than ever: that could have been him out there alongside Räikkönen…
Still, that was that. Luca di Montezemolo assured Massa from the outset that, as and when he recovered, one of the two Ferraris in 2010 was for him, the other for Alonso.
Perhaps, with 20:20 hindsight, it’s a pity that Schumacher’s neck injury kept him from a temporary comeback last summer. Assuredly, even denied the testing he always so much savoured, he would have done a far better job than Fisichella, an infinitely better one than Badoer, but Ferrari’s ’09 car was by no means a great one (KERS alone taking it to its one and only victory at Spa), and miracles would not – could not – have been expected. Michael could have done half a dozen races or so, enjoyed the sensation of driving an F1 car again, and then slipped back into retirement.
As it was, his thirst was unquenched, and the thought of working again with Brawn, the architect of so much of his success, proved impossible to resist. Now, when he returned, it was with every fanfare imaginable – but how odd it seemed to see him in silver overalls, not red. Mercedes marketing people were out of their minds with joy: at last they had him to help them sell cars. The great German icon, who had raced sports cars for the company as a youngster, had finally come home.
The problem is that Schumacher isn’t what he was, despite understandable Mercedes protestations to the contrary. He is still an extremely fine Grand Prix driver, perhaps on a given day even a great one, but he isn’t the man who made F1 his personal fiefdom for a generation. There are more great drivers competing in 2010 than ever he has come up against before, and one of them – Rosberg – is driving his car faster than he is, a situation which he has never before had to confront.
I don’t suggest, at this stage, that Michael will never win another Grand Prix, to add to the 91 already in the bag, but the fact is that the perception of him – as, for rather different reasons, with Tiger Woods – has changed irrevocably, in the sense that his very name no longer makes rivals quake. I can well understand why Mercedes folk are willing him on in the way that all too clearly they are, but their best hopes – in terms of success on the race track, anyway – lie with the younger man in the other car.
Who’s fast?” someone said, arriving at the side of a track years ago. “They’re all fast…” Denis Jenkinson murmured.
Typical Jenks response, and he was right, of course. Think of a safety car period, when all the F1 cars circulate behind the Mercedes SLS AMG, driven by Bernd Maylander. I’ve been driven by Maylander, and trust me, he can move a car along. When he is pacing the F1 field, he is clearly driving very seriously, making full use of the Merc’s 570 horsepower – yet behind him the Grand Prix drivers are struggling to keep awake. All right, they’re on the radio to the pits, playing around with this and that on the steering wheel, trying to keep some heat in their tyres, but plainly they are tooling. That is what an F1 car is like, so yes, they’re all fast…
Some, of course, are faster than others, and nothing new there. Not every team has the resources, financial or human, to come up with a natural pole car, and that’s accepted. In 2010, though, the gap between fastest and slowest has mushroomed. Take Barcelona. I’m aware that the qualifying procedure has changed this year, but even so the differences are striking.
Last year the fastest time set in qualifying for the Spanish Grand Prix (by Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn in Q2) was 1min 19.954sec, the slowest (by Giancarlo Fisichella’s Force India in Q1) 1min 22.204sec. To save you bothering with a calculator, that’s a difference of 2.250sec. This time around Webber’s Red Bull set the pace (1min 19.995sec in Q3), and at the other end of the scale was Bruno Senna’s HRT (1min 27.122sec, set in Q1). And that is a difference of 7.127sec…
Back in the days of my youth, in the 1960s, for a brief period there was the curious phenomenon of cars in a supporting race being faster, and by some margin, than those in the F1 race on the same programme. These were the Group 7 sports cars (forerunners of those in the Can-Am series), built by such as McLaren and Lola, powered by American V8s, and driven by Jim Clark, Bruce McLaren, Chris Amon, John Surtees et al. Personally I loved the cars, with their muscular sound and lurid angles of drift, but at the same time it disconcerted me that anything should be faster than a Grand Prix car.
At Monte Carlo I felt the same when I took in that the qualifying times of several F1 cars were slower than half a dozen of the GP2 cars. Can’t be right, can it? If I’m making a fuss about nothing, and it doesn’t really matter, then why don’t we put Alonso, Hamilton, Webber and the rest into GP2 cars, and have done with it? Max Mosley’s ‘budget caps’ wouldn’t be so much as approached.
For a long time there was a culture, very much promoted by Bernie Ecclestone, that in F1 quality mattered far more than quantity, that only the best were welcome. “We don’t,” Bernie would say, “want any of these ‘startline specials’ any more…”
Ah, but that was then, and this is now. A year or so ago, F1 was in a state of tumult, with Mosley, then still president of the FIA, at war with the newly-formed FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), and Ecclestone as usual managing to keep a foot in both camps. By the time of last year’s British Grand Prix, a FOTA breakaway championship looked to be very seriously on the cards, with all the leading teams – save Williams – apparently committed to going their own way.
You need only look at Indycar racing to see what happens when a series splits itself in half. In 1995 Tony George took it upon himself to form the Indy Racing League, and there was a lot of rhetoric about looking out for the ‘little guy’, about promoting American grass roots talent, bringing into the big time kids from midget and sprint car racing, as had been the norm 30 and 40 years before.
It was all hot air, of course, because in the end motor racing always comes down to money. All the major teams stayed with CART, and the IRL teams were obliged to run drivers who had a budget, whatever their country of origin. The ‘little guy’ remained just that, and one of the many reasons for the sad decline of Indycar racing is that it contains virtually no home-grown talent. Such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart made their names in sprint cars and, in their hearts, would probably have preferred to stick with single-seaters, but they ‘went south’ because in this era that’s where big-time racing – and big-time money – is in the USA. As the veteran journalist Chris Economaki said to me countless years ago, “This is how you spell auto racing in this country nowadays, Nigel: N-A-S-C-A-R…”
It’s true. Fundamentally, there is NASCAR and there is the Indianapolis 500, and that’s it. Had Tony George – until being deposed by his own family last year – not been at the helm of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he would never have had the clout to get the IRL off the ground, but he did, and in the end it was the overwhelming significance of the 500 that caused CART, riven by in-fighting, finally to collapse. In 1995 one strong championship split into two weak ones, and now, following ‘reunification’ last year, into one weak one. As a lifelong aficionado of Indycar racing, championship racing, call it what you will, I find its decline extraordinarily sad, and for those who have given their professional lives to it, of course, it is rather more than that.
Could a similar thing have happened in F1? Although the pragmatist in me always assumed that wiser counsels – or, to put it another way, vested interests – would prevail, there did come a point last summer when I began seriously to believe that FOTA might go it alone, that the FIA might be left with an official F1 World Championship entry list comprising Williams and not much else.
Undoubtedly Mosley had been right in his long-time assertion that costs had to come down (albeit not to quite the draconian degree he advocated). There was a moment, if you recall, when he proposed a ‘budget cap’ of €30 million, later amended to 40, and on this basis a number of teams aspiring to membership of the F1 fraternity thought they could see a way of making it work. Later the ‘budget cap’ was quietly forgotten, replaced by a commitment from FOTA to work towards reducing spending levels to those ‘in the early 1990s’. Suitably vague, you might say, but undoubtedly they were serious about drastically cutting costs – in this financial climate they had to be.
Suddenly, after years of making it prohibitively expensive to enter F1 (with huge ‘registration fees’, and the like), the FIA had become the friend of the ‘little guy’, and four teams – Lotus, Manor (later Virgin), Campos (later HRT) and USF1 – gave notice of their intention to compete. The last named unfortunately disappeared even before the season began, but on the grid in Bahrain were indeed six new cars. If it were no surprise to find them at the back of it, many of us were taken aback by the number of seconds they were adrift of the slowest F1 regulars.
There are always people keen to support the underdog, of course, and that’s as true of motor racing as anything else. In the USA, particularly, they love to get behind ‘the little guy’. I have some sympathy for the sentiment, but I’ve never been convinced that the ‘little guy’ syndrome has any place in Grand Prix racing.
The first F1 race of which I have any memory at all was the Gold Cup at Oulton Park in 1954. I was disconsolate when Jean Behra’s Gordini expired after only a couple of laps, but gratified that my other hero Stirling Moss won in his Maserati after starting from the back, the car having arrived too late to take part in practice.
Even at eight, I was aware of a severe discrepancy in performance between the cars, and if I have a clear picture in my head of Stirling drifting his 250F through Old Hall, so I can still recall the leisurely progress of the car at the other end of the race. All these years on, I remember that the driver’s name was Horace Richards, and he was at the wheel of the presumably self-built HAR.
It probably sounds cruel now, and perhaps it was then, but so tardy were Horace and his car that the spectators at Old Hall were reduced to fits of laughter every time he came through.
Not quite as extreme, but memorable in its own way too, was the time – in the ’90s – when, so slowly was he going, that Jean-Denis Deletraz managed to stall his engine on the steep climb out of the hairpin at Estoril. Then there was Philippe Adams, who somehow talked Lotus into allowing him to buy – or promise to buy – his way into one of its cars at Spa, his local race. Even if we couldn’t see him, we could tell when it was Adams approaching La Source for he appeared to back off somewhere round the start/finish line.
What I’m saying is that if Jenks was fundamentally right that ‘they’re all fast’ in terms of what normal mortals can imagine, some are considerably less so than others. One of Mosley’s loopier ideas was that, in the course of an F1 season, all the drivers should drive all the cars. “Be absolutely fascinating,” Max would say, “to see what Michael could do in a Minardi…”
Given the huge discrepancy between the fastest and slowest in F1 this year, many drivers were extremely apprehensive as the Monaco Grand Prix approached. Within half a dozen laps of the start, someone calculated, the front-runners would be looking at lapping the backmarkers – and as for Q1, the first segment of qualifying, when all 24 cars would be out, trying to set a time to get through to Q2…
There were even suggestions that qualifying should be broken up somehow, so as to limit the number of cars on the track at any one time, but the FIA decided to leave things as they were, and rightly so.
Keke Rosberg and Martin Brundle were among the retired F1 drivers to agree with the governing body. “Oh, give me a break!” said Rosberg. “We used to have 26 cars qualifying at Monaco – and half of them were… slow. It’s the same for everyone – you’ve got find your way past people…” Keke concluded by pointing out that, oh by the way, in the old days the drivers were expected to change gear, as well.
True enough. As Alain Prost has said, “In reality, Monaco used to be a one-handed race circuit – your right hand was always on the gear lever…”
These things being so, there was little sympathy from retired drivers for the predicament faced by the current lot. Brundle, a motor racing fundamentalist, put it this way: “It gets crowded sometimes, but you’ve just got to find a clear lap – and all the good guys will manage to do that, like they always have….”
By and large, Martin is much encouraged by many changing aspects of F1 in 2010. “Since the whole steward system has been revamped, and Max’s man [Alan Donnelly]has been removed from the process, and a retired driver installed at every race to advise the stewards, the whole thing’s been much more adult, hasn’t it? It was getting ridiculous last year, with drivers being fined – sometimes to the tune of €20,000 – for quite minor misdemeanours. Now the drivers are getting away with things they haven’t been able to for years…”
Some years ago, at the auction at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, two of the lots on offer were trophies won by Jochen Rindt in his final season of 1970. One was from the French Grand Prix, run at the majestic Clermont-Ferrand circuit (right up there with Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring and Rouen Les Essarts as far as I’m concerned), which Rindt won in the Lotus 72.
The other, though, was of far greater consequence, for it was from Monaco, where Jochen scored the most fabled victory of his life in the Lotus 49. The trophy was in fine condition, and also included in the lot was a photograph of it being held aloft in the Royal Box (below), Rindt standing there with Prince Rainier and the divine Princess Grace. I looked on that scene myself, and remember that tears poured down Jochen’s face, evidence of the stress involved in those final laps as he chased down Jack Brabham.
After Ayrton Senna set pole position at Monaco in 1988, two seconds clear of McLaren team-mate Prost, he spoke afterwards of some kind of out-of-body experience in the course of his fastest lap – it was as if, he said, he were somehow above and ahead of the car, rather than in it, and the experience frightened him, for he knew it was beyond conscious understanding. Returning to the pits, he declined to go out again that day.
Rindt was a far more down-to-earth character than Senna, but if in 1970 he had had a similar experience, it would have been no surprise – for he, too, went beyond the bounds of what was logically possible. In qualifying he set a best time of 1min 25.9sec, and that seemed pretty good for what was now a vintage car. But in the race, once he had sight of Brabham, he found… something from somewhere, there’s no other way to describe it, and put in consecutive laps at 1min 23.3sec and 1min 23.2ec – almost a second faster than Jackie Stewart’s pole position time. As he announced Rindt’s time – ‘Un record du tour sensational: une minute vingt-trois secondes deux dixiemes!’ – the commentator’s voice quavered with emotion, and the gasp of the crowd, even in the post-race tumult, was audible. You could understand why Jochen trembled and wept.
And now here was the trophy, available to the highest bidder, which I knew could not be me, for I expected it to go for telephone numbers. Even if I were to get involved in the bidding, I suspected I would swiftly be left behind, so I simply listened as three, then two people went for it – and then suddenly down came the hammer!
It was at that moment that I took in – yet again – that I am not from the Ecclestone mould. Rindt’s trophy, remarkably, had gone for a little over £2000, and a dealer had bought it. I think he probably picked up the Clermont trophy, too. Within days an ad appeared in Autosport, and there was the Monaco trophy, offered, you will not be surprised to learn, at a figure many times the price paid at Goodwood. I can hope only that the trophy’s eventual purchaser was one to whom it meant something.
I have my memories, though. I did witness the moment, at the last corner – the old Gasworks Hairpin – on the last lap, when Brabham understeered straight on into the barrier and Rindt, utterly disbelieving, took the lead in the last 10 seconds of the race. And a few hours later I was in Casino Square when Jochen and Nina emerged from the Gala in the Hotel de Paris, and walked – swinging that trophy between them – down the hill to the Tip-Top Bar, where the fans awaited.
There wasn’t a PR in sight. Forty years ago, come to think of it, there probably wasn’t one in Monaco.