The unspeakable event’s of September 11th left their mark on everything and everyone around the globe, jerking our priorities into a new awareness of what really matters. It was almost a relief to find that the insular, self-important world of Formula One was not immune to this process, and at Monza a few days later there was an all-pervading sense of unreality.
A subdued Michael Schumacher spoke much of his children and, privately, discussed retirement with Ross Brawn. The cynics who reckoned he would have behaved differently if the Championship hadn’t already been settled can’t have seen the blank shock in his eyes. Others displayed anger more than grief, and a determination that the terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to achieve any more disruption than they had already. Life must go on.
There were no doubt good intentions behind Schumacher’s efforts to turn the first two corners of the Italian Grand Prix into a sterile procession and Alex Zanardi’s dreadful CART accident in Germany the previous day must have been a strong ingredient. But this was a misguided effort to interfere in the running of an event that was, for the right reasons, going ahead in front of a Monza crowd which had paid to see a Grand Prix. A lot of us have severe misgivings about the Monza chicanes, and not just on the score of safety: they are a cheap-fix way of adapting a great old circuit to modem requirements. There has to be a better solution than these crude obstacles. But race morning is not the right moment to focus on their inadequacy: that should have been done after the marshal’s death at the second chicane 53 weeks before.
Any doubts that the United States GP should have gone ahead were unequivocally answered by F1 ‘s reception at Indianapolis. Cancelling the race would have been an insult to every enthusiast who wanted to be there, or wanted to watch it on TV. As it was, the crowd’s welcome made the whole event a kind of American catharsis, a public celebration that life was indeed going on. Banners in the stands read “Thanks for coming, F1”, and the gestures made by the drivers and crews a Stars & Stripes sticker here, a tiny slogan there were all noticed and appreciated.
Such a collision between motor racing and world affairs is unusual, but not without precedent. Days before the 1938 Donington GP, with the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams already assembled at the track, Hider threatened to march on Czechoslovakia. Anti-aircraft guns were set up in London, sandbags surrounded public buildings, gas masks were issued. After a muddle of conflicting instructions and rumours, the German teams packed up and returned to Stuttgart and Zwickau. Chamberlain flew to Germany and, with Hitler and Mussolini, signed the Munich Agreement, flying home to wave his famous piece of paper and proclaim “Peace in our time.” Next day Hitler invaded Sudetenland. By then the Donington race, which without the German cars would have been a feeble show, had been cancelled.
But, in the universal relief that perhaps there wouldn’t be war after all, the race was reinstated three weeks later. Hitler’s silver cars set off for England once more to battle before the British crowds, and Nuvolari became Donington’s last GP winner until Ayrton Senna, 55 years later.
This year’s Italian Grand Prix, despite its curiously tense, detached atmosphere, included two events of long-term significance: Juan-Pablo Montoya finally won the first of what will surely be many F1 victories, and Mika Hakkinen announced that he would not be racing in 2002. He’s had a desperately frustrating season. His McLaren has often let him down and, while there have been flashes of the old brilliance, plus a fine win at Silverstone, his once indomitable motivation seemed to be weakening. Great drivers have taken sabbaticals before: Alain Prost did it in 1992, and came back to win another World title. But, 10 years on, F1 is a different animal, with new talent constantly knocking at the door. Most of us felt Japan 2001 would be Mika’s final race.
Then came Indianapolis, and the stewards’ harsh punishment for Milca’s sin of missing a pitlane light during the warm-up. Instead of the usual fine, they removed his front-row qualifying time — he’d dug deep to get alongside Schumacher — and demoted him to fourth on the grid. To say that the normally phlegmatic Finn was furious is an understatement: he was (to use one last Murrayism) in-can-DES-cent! And that rage seemed to give him motivation by the buck-etload. In a brilliantly strategic drive he started with his McI nren brim-full of fuel, but looked after his soft Bridgestones until his late stop on lap 50 of the 73-lap race, by which time he was uncatchable. It was perhaps the most satisfying of his 20 F1 wins. If he can reproduce that form in 2003, he deserves to have his seat back.
Rage is not usually a helpful ingredient for a racing driver, and can be a very dangerous one. Perhaps its most absurd display was in an F3 race at Brands Hatch in the 500cc days, when Don Parker and Alan Cowley were disputing the lead. Their two cars touched: Cowley spun to a halt on the infield, while Parker raced on. Cowley, his engine revving, waited until Parker came round again, and then charged, using his car as a battering ram to take Parker out .For that, Cowley lost his racing licence for life, and was never seen again.
In today’s media-swamped F1, anger is usually expressed privately, behind closed motorhome doors. But in 1982 Gilles Villeneuve was furious after his Ferrari team-mate Didier Pironi broke their agreement to hold station at Imola, and two weeks later at Zolder we all knew he was striving, come what may, to beat Pironi’s grid time when he crashed fatally.
The previous year Nelson Piquet built up a towering resentment against reigning World Champion Alan Jones. After they collided at Zolder an enraged Piquet publicly accused Jonesy of driving him off the mad, and promised to do the same to him at the next round in Monte Carlo. As it was, Piquet went off at Tabac under pressure from Jones, who derived not a little amusement from the incident
A row with a team boss is sometimes a powerful motivator. At the Osterreichring in 1985 Niki Lauda announced his retirement, and was then insulted by Ron Dennis’ graceless refusal in front of the gathered journalists to pay him any sort of tribute. The next day, in his best drive of the year, he was leading the race when his McLaren’s turbo failed.
In 1997 Gerhard Berger’s relationship with Benetton’s Flavio Briatore reached an all-time low. It had been a dreadful year for the Austrian: he missed several races because of illness, his father had died in a light plane crash, and Benetton hadn’t won a race for two seasons. Berger returned to the team for Hockenheim, to find that Briatore was now making no effort to hide his view that Gerhard was past it Furious, he called a conference to tell the press he was leaving the team at the end of the season, and would probably hang up his helmet. Then he qualified on pole position and led the race virtually from start to finish, setting fastest lap for good measure. It was the last, and perhaps the most pleasing, victory of his career.
So at Indianapolis, after the absurdity of his grid penalty, Hakkinen’s victory was a fine piece of poetic justice. Meanwhile Barrichello’s pursuit of victory from a courageously gambled two-stop strategy was enthralling. And Montoya’s swooping, tyre-smoking dive past Schumacher was not only the moment of the race: it was one of the moments of the year, standing with his move on the German in Brazil back in April like two bookends around a superb F1 rookie season.
The Indianapolis crowds, of course, had no homespun American driver to cheer on. But, going by the whoops and yells from those immense grandstands, last year’s Indy 500 winner was their man. As far as they’re concerned, Juan Pablo learned his craft in their county, and now — until his Williams failed again — he was showing these F1 guys how it should be done.
But, most of all, they were cheering the fact that the event was taking place at all. F1 had presented them with one of its best races and, as Bernie Ecclestone said afterwards, the US Grand Prix now seems bound to thrive. This time, Formula One has behaved properly, and in so doing it has earned many new friends.