Press schedules being what they are, I am writing this before, and you’re reading it after, the Argentinian Grand Prix. But, going by the form of the first two rounds of this season, it seems a pretty safe bet that McLaren-Mercedes will maintain their crushing early-season form for a while.
Unfortunately, that means we’ll have to endure more wailing and whingeing from the newer members of Formula One’s now almost universal audience. Many of them – perhaps taking their lead from their favourite tabloid newspaper, which says authoritatively that Ovaltine is now an appropriate drink for an F1 spectator – seem to think that the current domination of Grand Prix racing by one team is a disaster unprecedented in motor racing history, and that it has suddenly reduced every race to a boring procession, devoid of any interest or sporting challenge.
What nonsense! Like it or not, the McLaren domination is nothing new. Five times over the past 10 seasons, a single team has won the first four Grands Prix. Actually, Williams won the first five in 1992 and 1996 and, more depressingly, McLaren took the first 11 in 1988.
Of course we’d prefer as many different teams as possible to provide race winners. But recent history shows that last season, when four teams shared the victories, was an exception and even then Williams and Ferrari were still doing most of the winning.
The fact is, the championship has usually been a two-team affair at most: Williams vs Ferrari, and before that Williams vs Benetton, and McLaren vs Williams. In 1996 Williams won 12 of 16 races, and scored 105 more Constructors Championship points than their closest rival: yet for most of us it was a season to remember. Because one of the challengers was our boy Damon, the inter-Williams battle was followed in this country with mounting excitement by its biggest television audience ever, down to the final round. In 1988, of course, McLaren won 15 out of 16, and only Senna’s impatience with a Monza back-marker prevented a clean sweep and gave us a rare Ferrari win.
(As an aside, I’ve always felt that on that day, with the Ferraris of Berger and Alboreto lying second and third on their home circuit behind Senna, the recently-departed Enzo was somehow able to pull a metaphysical piece of string from beyond the grave, and change the unfortunate Jean-Louis Schlesser’s line into the first chicane as Senna came up to lap him).
Go further back in history, and the seasons dominated by one team become even more obvious. In the first Championship year in 1950 every race was won by the Alfas, and the only unknown was whether it would be Farina or Fangio first. Then came Ferrari’s reign. From the first race of 1952 almost to the last of 1953 they were never beaten and all but three of the wins went to Alberto Ascari.
From the middle of 1954 to the end of 1955 the Mercedes-Benz team was almost but not entirely invincible (the Silver Arrows struggled at Silverstone and Pedralbes, and broke at Monaco). In 1961 the sharknose Ferrari won everywhere, except when it was beaten by the genius of Moss at Monaco and the ‘Ring, or the grit of Innes Ireland in his finest hour at Watkins Glen.
When Colin Chapman had his best ideas, domination usually followed. Jim Clark was pretty hard to beat in 1963; the 49 put the new Cosworth DFV to excellent use, taking the last two races of 1967 and the first three of 1968, even though its engine was by then available to other teams; and the 79s of Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson pretty much swept all before them in 1978. And so on: it’s nothing new to have one team demonstrating a clear edge.
We should rejoice in McLaren’s success. At the moment the most effective racing car in the world is British, and powered by a British engine albeit one designed by a Swiss and paid for in Deutschmarks. As always, it is the complete package that wins the race, a package which includes its Japanese tyres, as well as the products of an unsung number of other specialist component suppliers who can take their own satisfaction in McLaren’s current superiority.
Meanwhile the vanquished teams and engine manufacturers, and the vanquished tyre supplier, are setting about raising their game to equal and beat the cars from Woking. And they wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re in the game simply because the rewards when you win glory, satisfaction, commercial kudos, and big sums of money are very great.
That’s why Ross Brawn, Michael Schumacher, Rory Byrne and Jean Todt are working relentlessly to close the gap on McLaren; so are Patrick Head, Jacques Villeneuve, Gavin Fisher and Geoff Willis, and their equivalents at Benetton, Jordan and the rest. And that’s why everyone at Goodyear is working to outdo Bridgestone. The race, in every sense of the word, is on not just at each succeeding Grand Prix, but in the factories, the test sessions, the wind tunnels, the laboratories. That, like it or lump it, is Grand Prix racing today.
The rightful occupant of these pages, the late and much lamented Denis Jenkinson, used to get very impatient when admiring readers, hoping perhaps to curry favour, would bemoan the passing of the Good Old Days. After covering Formula One during six decades, Jenks had no time for nostalgia for its own sake. He would say, firmly: “These are the good old days. The good old days are today.” He loved the ceaseless technological pursuit year by year of extra tenths and hundredths of a second, and the ingenuity used by a Chapman, or a Newey, to exploit to the full what the rules did and didn’t say. For him, that was a major part of what Grand Prix racing was about. He would have been all for McLaren’s clever braking system – and would have been the first to cry foul when, after being pronounced legal by one FIA person in Melbourne, it was thrown out three weeks later by another in Brazil.
But the real point is that a modern Grand Prix has 22 starters, and they all count. Back when our only sight of motor racing was glimpsed from a windswept trackside enclosure, rather than by sitting in front of a TV, we saw each car in the field flash by once each lap. So, rather than concerning ourselves only with who was leading and who was going to win, we would follow the respective positions of every competitor on our lap charts. Now, with racing’s new mass audience, has come a failure to understand that a race, unlike a football match, is not just about who comes first,
It’s fair to say that at no stage of the Brazilian Grand Prix was there ever very much doubt about who would finish first, or second. But there was plenty of excitement in the action that went on behind the McLarens. The race for third place was great stuff, particularly when Michael Schumacher’s second pit stop went badly wrong. At the very moment his engine died on the jacks, the battle royal between Frentzen and Wurz was pounding onto the top straight. Then the Ferrari fired up again, and Schumacher was just able to get out of the pitlane and into the Senna S ahead of them. Otherwise we might have seen Wurz on the podium as the best of the rest.
As it was, young Alexander (in his fifth Grand Prix) made the move of the race on Heinz-Harald (in his 67th). He did it in the heart-in-mouth banked sweep at the end of the long undulating straight, and he did it the best way, in a confident committed move that brooked no argument from the Williams; and, if the superior grip of his Bridgestones helped him through, a good driver is one that makes full use of his equipment. Alex is still at the breathless, wide-eyed stage where he can hardly believe that his boyhood dreams of F1 are being realised; but in the cockpit he is already a steely performer.
There was much more of interest down the field: World Champion Villeneuve, more unshaven than ever this weekend, started from the fifth row, a legacy of his practice accident, and had to work very hard all race in the other red Williams. Seventh place was his scant reward. Little Giancarlo Fisichella, in the other sky-blue Benetton, didn’t get the chance to play to the gallery quite as Wurz had done, but his strong drive made it two cars in the points for David Richards.
The top four teams all had reliable races and brought both cars home. By contrast, most of the other teams had a dreadful weekend. For Jordan, Rolf Schumacher’s first-lap accident was followed by Hill’s ignominious disqualification, after an uncompetitive race, for being underweight. The first Jordan Grand Prix victory looks very far off at the moment: and meanwhile, if Damon wants to renovate his career, he must start by consistently out-qualifying his young team-mate.
Finally, within McLaren itself there is some interesting psychology at work. Häkkinen and Coulthard are nominally joint number one drivers; but in Australia, whatever you made of David’s noble gesture in moving over for Mika after the pitstop fiasco, the truth is the Finn was consistently the faster driver all weekend. In Brazil it was the same story. To keep his own World Championship hopes alive, David needs to have a weekend or two of outpacing Mika, and soon; otherwise he will find himself irrevocably sliding into the No 2 slot. It will be horribly ironical if in hindsight, David’s best chance of beating his team-mate turns out to have been the day he made that famous gift for which he has been so harshly, and unfairly, criticised.