ho’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 Fl 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 Fl 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 Fl 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 Fl 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 Fl 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 Fl 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, Fl 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 singleseaters, 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: NAS CA 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 ED
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 Fl? 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 Fl 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 Fl 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 Fl (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 Fl 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 Fl 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 JeanDenis 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 Fl 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 Fl 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. ED 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…”