Modern Times

For most of the season, each Formula One team is in a constant state of double-focus. It has to concentrate on this week’s race; and it has to be working just as hard on the challenge of next season. From mid-year the designers will already be conceiving the new car, and if too many resources are devoted to staying competitive from Silverstone onwards, there is a danger in of arriving in Melbourne with too little development, too many unanswered questions.

Which is one more reason why the top teams tend to stay on top and why the scramble up from the back of the grid for the lesser lights is so steep and so slippery. While McLaren uses more and more technology, and money, hunting for the extra edge that will make next year’s car even harder to beat – what Mark Donohue called The Unfair Advantage – Minardi struggles to ensure that this year’s car will still have enough pace to qualify and run with the pack. As I write, the future of the Minardi team, the most friendly, enthusiastic bunch in the paddock, is uncertain. As always, the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

Of course, the wealthiest sponsors want their names on the cars that are most likely to win them races and titles, ensuring that these virtuous and vicious circles continue to turn. And the drivers follow the same pattern: the richest teams buy the champions, the mid-field teams gamble on the young lions, the struggling teams take whoever offers the biggest cheque.

But the process alters when teams change hands. Jackie Stewart achieved miracles with the launch of Stewart Grand Prix in 1997. With a budget that certainly wasn’t unbridled, they earned second place in Monte Carlo in their first year, and showed good mid-field pace, if not reliability, in 1998. As Jackie said at the time, history may show he was the last man to launch a new F1 team from scratch, without taking over at least the husk of another.

But it wasn’t until Ford’s lighter, more powerful engine arrived this year that Stewart made significant progress up the grid. By then Ford had already decided to own the team, and their takeover was made public in June. Now Ford money is installing Eddie Irvine, the best driver available, on a substantial three-year deal.

Meanwhile, Rubens Barrichello is applying the reverse judgement to Irvine. Insofar as he’s had any choice in the matter, he’s decided he’d rather be Number Two in a top team than Number One in a mid-field team. Rubens is far more talented than many observers suppose: but whatever the perceived magic of driving for Ferrari, several drivers will tell you – Martin Brundle, Riccardo Patrese, JJ Lehto, Jos Verstappen, Johnny Herbert and, most recently, Irvine himself – that being Number Two to Schumacher has its drawbacks.

When Craig Pollock persuaded British American Tobacco that they should bankroll his dream team, the takeover of Tyrrell was the mechanism to get through the F1 door, but BAR was in effect a fresh launch. There was a recent World Champion as lead driver, a state-of-the-art factory, proven personnel from almost every slot in the pitlane, and a wealth of aggressive optimism. No doubt BAT was expecting a pretty rapid return in results and exposure from their immense investment.

The reality has been desperate disappointment. As I write, after the 12th round at Spa, there has been not a single point. Jacques Villeneuve’s 15th place finish in Belgium was the first time his car was running at the end of a race. A suspension failure injured Ricardo Zonta seriously enough for him to miss four races. At Spa, with the cars running very low in search of qualifying speed, Villeneuve and Zonta had dreadful accidents at Eau Rouge. Both cars turned over and were destroyed, but neither driver was hurt – a tribute at least to the strength of the mono-coques (but also to the specification of today’s F1 safety seats, developed at the instigation of Professor Sid Watkins). And BAR do deserve congratulation for doggedly getting two cars onto the starting grid the next day. Almost as Villeneuve’s wreckage came to rest, Craig Pollock was on his mobile, turning back the test team’s truck from its trip to Monza with two chassis.

One would feel considerable sympathy with BAR if this were a brave Minardi-style effort on a shoestring purse. In fact it is common knowledge in the paddock that the team, now possessors of a hospitality unit the size of a four-bedroom house, have already spent their gargantuan budget. The lesson here is that money is not enough on its own. Nor is an army of individually experience personnel. A team has to generate from within its own cooperative spirit, and that’s something that has to grow organically, over time.

There is little new under the sun, and there have been new F1 teams before that have been confronted by the same hard lessons. Emerson Fittipaldi was a double world champion when he decided to leave McLaren and join his brother Wilson’s new team. There was huge backing from the Brazilian sugar organisation Copersucar and plenty of know-how among the personnel. But Emerson’s dazzling F1 career ground to an immediate halt, in terms of points at least – just as Jacques Villeneuve’s has done. Emerson persevered for five years, by which time the Copersucar money had stopped and the team was wound up. Emerson never raced in F1 again – although he re-invented his career in North America. And Alan Jones was a World Champion, bored in retirement, when he was lured back to F1 in 1985 by Carl Haas to drive a Lola paid for by a big budget from an American conglomerate called Beatrice. He did 19 races, scored just four points and returned to retirement in Australia.

But there have been successes too. Thirty years or more ago, when World Champions didn’t necessarily make enough money to retire on, it was almost the norm for a driver to set up his own team. Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren did so to tremendous effect. And one of the most spectacular, not in terms of’ results but in terms of class, was Dan Gurney, whose Anglo-American Racers produced the elegantly beautiful Eagle with its Weslake V12 engine. When Dan finally scored the team’s only Grand Prix victory at Spa in 1967, there can have been no more popular victory within the paddock and outside it. As it should be when, or if a BAR eventually wins a Grand Prix. After all, schadenfreude and budget envy have to be exhausted eventually. I regret the fact that so many people are prepared to take pleasure from BAR’s discomfiture, for the Formula One Establishment can benefit from new blood as much as anyone: Eddie Jordan was new blood once. And maverick Jacques Villeneuve lends a valuable element of off-beat variety to the Identikit F1 driver of today.

So to that pressurising double-focus, that need to solve this year’s problems, and also next year’s, by getting ahead with the 2000 car. Villeneuve has said himself that the need to catch up on the hoof in speed and reliability, so that something can be salvaged from this disastrous first season, is already in danger of compromising next year’s development.

But 2000 will be a whole new ball game. The persuasive Mr Pollock has concluded a remarkable deal with Honda, which has shelved plans for its own F1 team. BAR’s customer Supertec engine will be replaced by a no-doubt very powerful factory Honda engine. And both Honda and BAR have stressed that this is not just an engine deal: it is to be a genuine technical partnership.

This could bring as many conflicts as advantages, and certainly BAR’s troubles this year wouldn’t have been solved merely by a more powerful engine. There will now be high expectations of Pollock and his team from a major Japanese car manufacturer, as well as a multi-national tobacco giant.

Will BAR be a Copersucar, plodding on in the hope of finding the formula and dying without ever doing so? Or will it be a Williams, living and learning through long struggles to become, and remain, a title-winning team? For Craig Pollock’s sake, you hope that both BAT and Honda will understand, as Craig himself now certainly must, that Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor Formula One winners in a season.