Matters of moment , March 2014

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The outpouring of dismay and heartfelt sadness at the passing of John Button said so much. Jenson’s old man, who died of a suspected heart attack at the age of 70 on January 12, was a popular character in Formula 1, that rare case of a figure universally liked. He just made everyone smile.

That crinkly face with the mischievous grin and twinkle in the eye, the permanent tan and ‘dangler’ gold chain, the pink shirts and Mediterranean slacks… sartorially, he saw no need to stray far beyond 1983. I first met him back in 1998, when karting sensation Jenson burst onto the car racing scene. Snetterton was a long way from the Med, but he’d already mastered the F1 look.

That year, his scrawny 18-year-old kid claimed the double: British Formula Ford title and Brands Hatch Festival. John was there at every race, as he would be through Formula 3 and at nearly every one of the 247 Grands Prix his boy has started to date. A rallycrosser of note during the 1970s, John just loved motor racing: the tracks, the paddocks and more than anything, the people.

They were mates as much as father and son, although if Jenson gave any lip a glare and a sharp word would remind him who was boss. Racing fathers are often overbearing, pompous and generally best avoided. Not John. From early on he stepped back, chest puffed out proudly as Jenson developed from a boy to a man, and eventually at BAR and Honda into a clear team leader. John wheeled and dealed ‘Jense’ through karting, but now the lad was his own man. Dad would be found in the motorhome, behind a large glass of red, always willing to chat and gossip, but always keeping well out of the way. All racing dads would do well to learn from John’s example.

Jenson’s 248th GP start might just be his toughest. Our deepest sympathy to him and the whole Button family.

*******

To survive and thrive for more than a quarter of a century in a sport where risk lurks around every corner, and only then to be cut down by severe injury following retirement, on a seemingly benign day of holiday-making… it’s so cruel, so tragic, so senseless. We can only repeat what has been said by so many in the motor racing world during the past few weeks: Michael Schumacher carries all our best wishes as he fights the toughest battle of his life.

As we wait and hope for a positive outcome, we’ve charged our new Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes with the task of offering some thoughts on the man himself, a character of contradictions on every level.

Judgements on the merits or otherwise of his career are beside the point right now. Instead, ‘what’s Schumacher like as a bloke?’ is the question I’ve been asked most since the skiing accident on December 29. Tough to answer in the face of the wall he built around himself. But as Mark describes on page 18, the glimpses we did get left us intrigued and fascinated by a man of seemingly stark and simple character, but coloured by a complex intelligence.

There will be much more from Mark next month, as one of motor racing’s finest journalists joins us to offer his cultured view of the modern Formula 1 landscape. Indubitably Mark is one of us: a purist enthusiast with an instinctive approach to a glorious sport that continues to captivate us, despite – and sometimes because of – its deep and obvious flaws. We’re excited to have him on board.

Some have already questioned why we are enhancing our F1 coverage at a time when the sport has compromised so many of the principles upon which it was built. As I wrote last month, I don’t remember a time when so many have voiced their disenchantment with F1 as right now. But that is exactly why we must speak louder. Grand Prix motor racing is evolving and changing at a vast rate, most obviously from a technical point of view but also – and crucially – economically and politically, too.

These are critical times, and it’s Motor Sport’s duty to record and comment on them fully. Would you really expect anything less?

I should add that this increased focus on F1 doesn’t mean we’ll be diluting the depth and variety of other subjects we offer each month, and each day online. Mark is an addition to our team, not a substitution. We’ll launch the new F1 section next month as we preview the 2014 season, with all the elements you can read in this edition still very much in place. In other words, no compromise.

*******

It’s a big year for sports car racing, if you haven’t already noticed. The World Endurance Championship steps up a gear with the arrival of Porsche and Mark Webber, whom Nigel Roebuck interviews on page 50. And by the time you read this, an exciting new era will already have begun in the USA.

The Daytona 24 Hours heralded the birth of a new, unified American sports car championship, bringing together the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am series and Don Panoz’s more Europe-centric American Le Mans Series. No doubt the balance of performance will have been a talking point as two vastly different rulebooks were brought together under the United SportsCar Championship banner, but in the long term everyone recognises the value of endurance racing finding common ground in the world’s largest market. Chris Aylett, chief executive of Britain’s Motorsport Industry Association, puts it succinctly.

“Sports car racing around the world is probably the fastest-growing sector in motor sport, from LMPs to GTs,” he says. “To take the world’s largest market for both motor sport and car sales, and unify all sports car racing under the ownership of the most powerful sanctioning body in the world (NASCAR, but under the guise of IMSA), you have a seismic change. And it’s going to have a significant effect on British motor sport, too.

“It’s a staggering commitment and of course it’s not easy. It will take a year or two to see the true value of the unification. But the grids will be huge, the media coverage will be powerful and they are already bringing in big sponsors and big names.”

More than ever, the budget bottleneck to break into F1 is deflecting young racing drivers into the long-distance form of the sport traditionally considered the domain of experienced old-timers. That perception has long been out of date.

It’s an indictment of F1, but the spread of talent to the WEC, United SportsCars and the various prototype and GT series around Europe is a good thing. One recent convert is Sam Bird, the 27-year-old Briton who came so close to winning the GP2 title last year. Bird was Mercedes’ reserve driver in 2013 and on merit has earned a shot at an F1 race drive. Sadly, merit has little to do with it. Without millions of sponsorship bucks behind him, F1 is a closed shop – so he’s trying his hand at sports cars instead.

Starworks boss Peter Baron claimed he was “stunned” that a talent such as Bird was available and duly signed him for America’s ‘big three’ at Daytona, Sebring and Petit Le Mans. As the newly retired Allan McNish found back in the mid-1990s, sports car racing isn’t the old man’s backwater young turks might consider it to be. Bird could be at the beginning of a rewarding and long career, but in a way he never expected – just like a sceptical and desperate McNish, back then.

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