Inspired by a thread on a discussion forum, I’ve come up with a much better 20-race calendar than the 19-race calendar F1 will be using next year, free of many of the charmless circuits that the circus visits this year. Yes, this does mean sacrificing visits to lucrative areas Bernie Ecclestone wants to tap into, but I think for most people, it’s more important to have interesting races at historic venues with character – so no Shanghai, Yeongam, Buddh or Yas Marina circuits to be found here. But I will be keeping it fairly realistic, sticking to (or close to) the safety requirements the FIA stipulates – so no Nurburgring Nordschliefe or Le Mans either.
Images are used in the spirit of fair use
Round 1: 16/03 – Brazilian Grand Prix – Interlagos
Back when I started following F1 in the 1990s, Brazil used to be the second stop on the calendar after Australia. Before that, it was the season opener. While the Interlagos circuit in Sao Paulo has done a fine job hosting the season finale or penultimate race, I’d rather see it at the beginning of the season. It’s a great circuit, one of the few to not be completely neutered down the years, and the unpredictable climate has led to numerous wet races, including the infamous 2003 race won by Giancarlo Fisichella in a dreadful Jordan-Ford.
Round 2: 23/03 – Argentine Grand Prix – Potrero de los Funes
Argentina’s round on the calendar has always been held at the Autodromo Juan y Oscar Galvez in Buenos Aires, with races held on the longer, faster layout in the 1970s and early 1980s, and on the twisty, narrow layout, derided as a “go kart circuit”, in the 1990s. It would be a logical host again, but it would be far more special if the race was held at the spectacular Potrero de los Funes circuit in San Luis Province, which runs around a lake in the mountains. It has been updated to modern standards and has hosted rounds of the FIA GT1 World Championship, so would just about be adequate for F1.
Round 3: 06/04 – Bahrain Grand Prix – Sakhir
Of all the modern circuits designed by Hermann Tilke, the Sakhir Circuit is perhaps the one with the most redeeming features. It doesn’t have the most challenging layout but has always produced good racing (except for the one race held on the long circuit in 2010, one of the most tedious races in F1 history), and it is uniquely set in the middle of the desert, making it immediately identifiable. While the reasons for it being on the calendar are, let’s say, questionable, it would be wrong to deny the Middle East a spot on the calendar entirely considering this is a world championship, and I’d rather this than Abu Dhabi.
Round 4: 27/04 – San Marino Grand Prix – Imola
Despite being heavily modified after the infamous 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, Imola remained one of the most popular venues on the calendar until it was unceremoniously dropped from the calendar after the 2006 race. It has since undergone further changes, with a new pits complex and start/finish straight bypassing the old Variante Bassa. Unlike most modern circuits, it has elevation changes and things to see beyond the circuit walls, which makes up for its lack of overtaking places. It’s also guaranteed to get a good turn-out from the tifosi, who will attend to cheer on their local team, Ferrari; the circuit is named after the team’s founder Enzo and his son Dino.
Round 5: 11/05 – Spanish Grand Prix – Jerez de la Frontera
Jerez hosted the Spanish Grand Prix from 1986 to 1990, before being replaced by the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona. But it is best known in F1 history for being the venue of the 1997 European Grand Prix, which saw Michael Schumacher try and fail to take Jacques Villeneuve out of the race in an attempt to become world champion for the third time. The circuit was banned from hosting F1 races after that after the mayor invited himself onto the podium, but it still hosts occasional test sessions. The reasons for the ban are trivial and no doubt could be bypassed if necessary, and it’s a more interesting venue than Catalunya and the Valencia street circuit, which has also hosted F1 in recent years.
Round 6: 25/05 – Monaco Grand Prix – Monte Carlo
The race at Monaco is traditionally considered the jewel in F1′s crown. By rights, it should have been abandoned decades ago for being far too unsafe, and it is the most difficult circuit to overtake on. But this is Monaco – a densely-populated tax haven in the south of France beloved by the wealthy, and because of this, the sponsors love it too. The rich and famous line up on the narrow grid every year, soaking in the atmosphere, before allowing the drivers to thread their way through the streets between the unforgiving barriers for 78 laps in the greatest driving challenge today. Yes, this reads like something Murray Walker would say, but every cliché is accurate – Monaco is an incredible spectacle.
Round 7: 08/06 – Canadian Grand Prix – Montreal
The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, named after the man who won the first race at the circuit in 1978, usually throws up one of the most entertaining races of the season. It’s another circuit which flirts with the regulations, with very little run-off area between the circuit and the concrete walls that line it. It’s one of the few circuits where you can really trash an F1 car these days. There is no better example than the final chicane, which has claimed numerous high-profile victims down the years, to the point where the concrete wall on the outside is known as the Wall of Champions.
Round 8: 15/06 – United States Grand Prix – Indianapolis
Look, I’ll admit it: I don’t like the much-hyped Circuit of the Americas in Austin. Yes, it has a few nice corners and a hill, but like most of the other modern circuits on the calendar, it lacks that je ne sai quoi. Instead, I’d rather see the race at a genuinely historic venue, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which hosted F1 on its road course layout from 2000 to 2007. The racing was usually good, only for the event to be blighted by the farcical 2005 event when all the teams running Michelin tyres (that’s all bar three of them) were forced to withdraw. It has since been modified for bikes, and will again change to host IndyCar this year. Alternatively, the race could be held at the New Jersey street circuit if they bother to finish it.
Round 9: 29/06 – French Grand Prix – Paul Ricard
The Circuit Paul Ricard in the south of France hosted the French Grand Prix from 1971, when it was considered one of the most modern circuits in the wall, to 1990, when it was replaced by Magny-Cours, a flat, featureless circuit in the middle of nowhere. Paul Ricard was bought at the turn of the century by Bernie Ecclestone, who funded a conversion of the track into an ultra-modern testing facility. In the last few years, it has begun hosting races again, and a return to the F1 calendar has been mooted. For me, this could only be on the classic layout, using the full length of the Mistral Straight to test the engines and the fast Signes curve to test the bravery of the drivers.
Round 10: 06/07 – British Grand Prix – Silverstone
Though I am no great fan of the new layout, Silverstone is a must for the F1 calendar. The former airfield hosted the very first F1 World Championship event back in 1950, and has been the permanent host of the British Grand Prix since the famous 1987 race, when Nigel Mansell overtook Nelson Piquet late on to win in front of a passionate home crowd. It remains one of the fastest circuits on the calendar, with the Maggotts/Becketts complex rated amongst the most challenging in F1, while the new arena section provides the circuit with the overtaking opportunity it perhaps lacked in its previous form.
Round 11: 20/07 – German Grand Prix – Hockenheim/Nurburgring
The German spot on the calendar currently alternates between two of the most famous circuits on the calendar. However, both are shadows of their former selves. After Niki Lauda’s near-fatal accident in 1976, the 14-mile long Nurburgring, arguably the most challenging circuit in the world, lost its spot on the calendar to Hockenheim, famed for its flat-out blasts into and out of the surrounding forest and the atmospheric stadium section after it. The owners of the Nurburgring then decided to build a new circuit next to the old one, similar in character but on a much smaller scale, and it hosted races in 1984 and 1985. However, it proved that you cannot replicate 14 miles in just 3 – it was immediately unpopular. However, in the 1990s, it returned and has gradually become established on the calendar. However, the owners of Hockenheim also decided to truncate their circuit, reducing it to a short Tilke-designed sprint between various hairpins and stadium sections. Both are no longer as magical as they used to be, and have been in serious financial trouble in recent years, but with Sebastian Vettel dominating F1, the German Grand Prix remains a fixture.
Round 12: 27/07 – Hungarian Grand Prix – Hungaroring
The Budapest venue was one of the least popular venues on the calendar for many years. One of the first circuits designed on a computer, the first F1 circuit to the east of the Iron Curtain was initially considered far too twisty and dusty. However, in the three decades since, what was once considered a weakness has now become its strength; with F1 circuits becoming increasingly about high speed corners, the Hungaroring has become increasingly unique and has thrown up many surprise results, including Jenson Button’s first win in 2006 and Heikki Kovalainen’s only win in 2008. The race here remains one of the most interesting of the year, despite the lack of overtaking.
Round 13: 24/08 – Belgian Grand Prix – Spa-Francorchamps
After the summer break, F1 returns with a visit to one of the greatest circuits in the world. Despite increasingly forgiving run-off areas, Spa remains one of the great challenges in F1, and includes arguably the two most fearsome high-speed corners – Eau Rouge and Blanchimont. The elevation changes are astounding and would surely be illegal if being built today, while the weather is genuinely unpredictable. It’s also the longest circuit on the calendar, with just 44 laps in a race.
Round 14: 07/09 – Italian Grand Prix – Monza
Monza is another unique circuit, being one of the oldest circuits on the calendar and the last of the true high-speed circuits left. Only here will you find the almost-vertical rear wings fitted to the cars to reduce drag. It’s also heavy on the breaks, with three low-speed chicanes after long straights. The circuit is enveloped by trees and contains the crumbling relic of the concrete oval, abandoned in the 1960s. The tifosi help make it one of the most atmospheric venues on the calendar. It’s a special place.
Round 15: 14/09 – Austrian Grand Prix – Spielberg
The circuit formerly known as the Osterreichring and the A1-Ring returns to the calendar in June 2014 as the Red Bull Ring, after it was bought in the mid-2000s by the drinks company’s owner Dietrich Mateschitz. It last hosted an F1 race in 2003, before it was forced out by the increasing Asian presence on the calendar. Though the Hermann Tilke-designed layout, which was constructed in 1996, isn’t particularly challenging in contrast to the frighteningly fast old circuit, it was always great for overtaking, and as it is in roughly the same place, it retains some of the character of the Osterreichring – the Styrian Mountains make for one of the most spectacular backdrops in world motorsport.
Round 16: 28/09 – Welsh Grand Prix – Ebbw Vale
From one mountainous circuit to another – albeit one that hasn’t actually been built yet. Yes, it’s self-indulgent, but when has there been a better time to consider the possibility of F1 in Wales? I’m confident that the Circuit of Wales will be a great venue for motorsport. F1 seems very unlikely at this stage but it is being built to the highest possible standard, and the layout looks great, especially if you factor in the elevation changes. The high altitude will also add in another factor for the teams to consider, and an F1 race in Wales in autumn will inevitably have a high probability of rain. Until it’s built, the European Grand Prix would be held at Brands Hatch or Donington Park in this slot.
Round 17: 5/10 – Portuguese Grand Prix – Estoril
Back on familiar turf here, with the venue that hosted the Portuguese round of the championship from 1984 (where it decided the championship in Niki Lauda’s favour by half a point from Alain Prost) to 1996, after which it was dropped for failing to improve its facilities. It has since done so, and is also now far safer than it once was, albeit with the loss of the first two fast corners. Nonetheless, it’s still recognisably Estoril, and while the list of successful Portuguese F1 drivers isn’t particularly long, it’s not as if we haven’t had a second event on the Iberian peninsular as a whole. The Algarve Circuit in Portimao perhaps might get a shot in alternate years too.
Round 18: 19/10 – Singapore Grand Prix – Marina Bay
Of all the circuits added to the calendar in the last decade, the only one that I’ve taken to is Singapore, because it’s the only new circuit to have been designed old school style. It’s a proper street circuit, unlike Valencia which has been purpose-built for the occasion and might as well be a permanent circuit. It has walls and buildings next to the road, markings on the tarmac, and even a tunnel. And it was also the first venue for an F1 night race, which adds the final touch to one of F1′s greatest events.
Round 19: 02/11 – Japanese Grand Prix – Suzuka
Honda’s Suzuka Circuit has been relatively unchanged since it was built in 1962 as a state-of-the-art testing venue. Designed by Dutchman John Hugenholtz, the Tilke of his day (but better), it features a rare crossover and some thrilling corners, including the double-apex First Corner which often causes a first lap collision, the Snake, Degner, and 130R, the super-fast left-hander at the end of the Back Stretch where Allan McNish trashed a Toyota in 2002. Back in the day, you could spot Suzuka straight away with its distinctive pits complex (now replaced by an equally-striking building) and the slightly different filming technique used by Fuji TV, which gave coverage a slight haze. Today, you can spot Suzuka straight away because it’s one of the most famous venues on the calendar.
Round 20: 16/11 – Australian Grand Prix – Adelaide
This might prove controversial, as Albert Park is one of the most popular venues on the calendar and has become the traditional season opener. However, a decade and a half or so ago and Adelaide was the traditional finale. Both circuits were/are hard on the cars and challenging to drive. But I’m giving the edge to Adelaide because it was that little bit tougher. Races would often run closer to the two-hour limit, and very few cars would finish. However, it also had a charm all of its own – the race was borne out of the need for the so-called City of Churches to revitalise its image, and they threw everything at it. Melbourne has so many sporting events that the Australian Grand Prix almost seems to be an after-thought. Sensational Adelaide, with its blue, yellow and red branding, created a unique image which Melbourne hasn’t quite yet replicated. I’d include both if Australia could sustain two races, but it can’t, so Adelaide will get the nod.
We all love overtaking in F1, right? We all love the great moves – the ballsy wall-of-deaths, the daring dummies, the late lunges. And we don’t like to processions where one car is sat behind another and can’t overtake. So it made sense that the FIA should make overtaking easier. The problem is there are two separate issues there, and while one has been solved, another has been made comprehensively worse, to the detriment of the sport.
Today’s Indian Grand Prix summed up just about everything that’s wrong with DRS. The DRS zones were on the two main straights, the start/finish straight and the following back straight. This made slip-streaming relatively straight-forward, especially when the gearing was set up for top speed, as Ferrari did. The vast majority of the overtakes in the race were DRS-assisted.
People who see raw overtaking statistics as the answer to every entertainment-related question ever proposed wouldn’t be bothered by this but there are a couple of points that would be missed by that. There is little entertainment value in seeing one car drive past another with ease at the flick of a switch – sure, it could potentially make a race interesting by releasing a car to chase another, but I don’t know anyone who gets excited simply by a slip-stream move. Alongside this, with it being so easy to overtake, the cars soon sorted themselves in order of pace, leading to a largely processional race, in which the only intrigue was centred on how many places the Red Bulls could potentially lose with reliability problems and how Pastor Maldonado could take himself/someone else out of the race.
Overtaking is not the be-all and end-all. The context of and in the race is vital. The moves that are remembered aren’t remembered simply for being overtakes – they have important contexts in the battles for race or championship, and/or they are remembered for bravery. There’s nothing brave about a DRS overtake, and they often spoil the tension. Sometimes one car being stuck behind another can be fantastic to watch – the finishes at Imola in 2005 and 2006 are a great example of this.
The other problem with DRS is that it’s masking other serious issues with overtaking. Since its introduction, it seems people have forgotten how bad the cars are at following other cars through corners, though it was clearly evident today through the fast sweeps of the Buddh circuit. This is certainly a problem that isn’t getting any better. The availability of DRS as a shortcut to working an overtake has simply led to a concentration of all the moves on the DRS zones. To an extent it doesn’t matter if the races are good regardless, and some of the races have been very good this year. But it does mean that the so-called “art” of overtaking is being lost – instead of working an overtake through a sequence of corners or with an act of pure bravery, drivers are happy to sit back and wait for the DRS zone. The challenge is now staying within a second of the car in front once you reach that line – easy enough if you’ve got the faster car.
I don’t believe, like some, that F1 has become less pure solely because of the ability to push a button to go faster – it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But the way it has been set up, the knock-on effect it has had, and the environment within which it has been introduced has given F1 a blander, slightly less authentic feel. DRS, in the majority of cases, seems to have had a similar effect to the reintroduction of refuelling – it’s put the emphasis back on lap time, gaps and pace: the things that are intangible, that you wouldn’t know unless the graphs and commentators told you.
Vettel dominating F1 once again wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the racing was entertaining – though he dominated last year, reaction towards the 2011 season was broadly positive. But the reaction to the past few races has been largely negative.
But on a personal level, I’d go as far as to say F1 has rarely wowed me since DRS was introduced. There have been a few exciting races but the vast majority of races, even the decent ones, have felt slightly hollow. This year has been the first in a long time where I’ve willingly missed races. I’ve barely seen any of qualifying. I just cannot get myself excited for F1 any more. On the one hand, a lot of the time it’s not very entertaining – on the other, changes are being made for the purpose of making it more entertaining, which I don’t think is totally within the ethos of a motor racing championship. It’s all a bit Hollywood. Should the quality of a grand prix effectively be determined by how long the DRS zone is? Because that’s essentially what has happened on several occasions – both being too long and too short.
As with rallying, F1 has been diluted, reduced to a few basic component parts, and jazzed up to make it seem more fun. I guess this may be just getting old but I do feel there is a more fundamental issue here. It’s no longer a stretch to see the FIA and FOM taking the jazzing-up further – the sprinklers and shortcuts mooted in the past no longer seem ridiculous in the context of go-faster buttons. The more rules that are added, the more discourses develop, and F1 becomes irretrievably very different from what it was meant to be and became popular by being, something that was understood as recently as 10 years ago but has been lost in continual attempts to “improve the show” – that it’s supposed to be 24 fast cars racing each other to see which one completes the required distance first.
When the champion was Farina or when the champion was Schumacher, that basic principle remained the guiding factor – now the guiding factor is what F1 people think normal people enjoy. This does seem to be at odds with DRS, since that has been “popular”, but refuelling was initially popular too – the novelty soon wore off. The novelty will wear off with DRS too.
But then I think F1 may now be lost to the marketeers and the businessmen anyway. I’m aware I’m out of step with what many others think. I know nothing can bring the past back. But that doesn’t mean I have to go along with the smelly rotting carcass that’s left. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I don’t like what I’m seeing. But I may have to get used to that.
As you’ve probably already seen, this weekend’s Japanese GP was marred by a number of first lap incidents which led to two cars eliminated, two penalties and lots of instant chuntering on the internet. Such a reaction is typical of any crash in F1 today – anything that happens can be debated instantly because of social media.
What concerns me in particular, though, is the culture that has developed around this. It seems fans are constantly searching for someone to blame for anything that happens. Any crash or collision has to be someone’s fault. We saw this today – Romain Grosjean was in the firing line but Fernando Alonso was also blamed by some for his own demise. I cannot understand either. Firstly, the venomous reaction towards Grosjean seems misplaced and over-the-top – he is a young, inexperienced driver trying to win races at turn 1, which isn’t great but it’s not as though his career is irretrievable. The reigning world champion had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time on first laps during his first full season, while even F1 demigod Ayrton Senna was considered wild during his debut year. It’s easier to calm a quick driver down than it is to get a calm driver to go faster.
Alonso, on the other hand, wasn’t really responsible for the accident which eliminated him – it was a classic first corner incident where he was trying to find his way through avoiding all the traffic around him and in the end couldn’t see Raikkonen. Kimi was blameless and so was Fernando. It was just bad luck – a racing incident.
The problem is bad luck as a concept seems to have been forgotten by F1 fans due to their constant search for culpability. A bad pit stop? “Sack the pit crew member responsible.” Gearbox failure? “Sack the guy who made the gearbox.” Driver error? “Give the driver a grid penalty.” I’m not saying I haven’t done this myself – I think anyone who has participated in an F1 forum or has tweeted about an F1 race or commented on Facebook has almost certainly said something reactionary. But some take it a stage further and want someone to be culpable for everything, and that’s a slightly worrying trend.
It seems so long ago that even when drivers spun off of their own volition it would be described as “bad luck”, something that would be laughed at today – witness Perez’s accident and the instant judgement of some to condemn it as his own mistake, something that ought to go without saying. To a certain extent, perhaps I’m just looking at Murray Walker here, who never blamed anyone for anything because he was too nice, and it’s also worth bearing in mind that drivers did make more race-ending mistakes 15-20 years ago and beyond. But even so, I don’t believe that F1 fans were so keen to judge and blame drivers straight away – for one, so many careers would have ended after a season because of driver errors.
As well as social media, the FIA is partly to blame for fostering this culture because of the development of the penalty system. Grid penalties for incidents where one driver takes another out of the race are standard fare, especially if your name starts in S and ends in R and you driver a silver Germanic car. Drive-throughs are common for minor incidents. Bans remain rare, however, with Grosjean’s this year being the first to be handed out since Mika Hakkinen was banned for crashes deemed his fault in consecutive races in 1994 (though it’s worth remembering Yuji Ide lost his superlicense after colliding with Christijan Albers at Imola in 2006, which, to all intents and purposes, was the equivalent of a ban). The penalty system is a recent phenomenon – only with the addition of engine change penalties in the mid-2000s did grid penalties become common-place, and such penalties for driving incidents didn’t really take off until later (the re-introduction of free-for-all qualifying in 2006 was perhaps a factor).
With the amount of penalties dished out going through the roof in recent years, an expectation has developed that penalties should be handed out for incidents of an increasingly minor nature, to the point where I’m starting to wonder whether soon we’ll be seeing penalties for spinning off the track. We like to think that we’re more enlightened than we were 20, 30, 40 or more years ago, and yet I see the whole penalty business as a retrograde development. One could argue that it’s a safety measure to protect onlookers, but ultimately it seems to be there to appease reactionary armchair viewers who now expect punishment for error, in the same way that the public expect criminals to be sent to jail for years for relatively minor offences. If it’s a deterrant, it’s pointless and it’s not working.
Take Michael Schumacher, for instance. Michael is the second most experienced driver in F1 history and yet has received more penalties since his comeback than pretty much anyone else out there (though Maldonado’s giving him a good run for his money). In particular, he has been given two grid penalties this year for taking other drivers out of the previous race. But what’s the point? He’s not going to learn from them, because there’s nothing for him to learn after over 300 GPs. Essentially they were simple mistakes, in that he misjudged his breaking point and smashed into the back of Senna and Vergne, and that just happens sometimes in motor racing. He hasn’t done anything deliberately. He has already been punished by being eliminated from the race. A grid penalty is just additional punishment, and doesn’t restore Senna and Vergne to their respective races in retrospect. The penalties only serve to make qualifying incredibly confusing and ruin another weekend for the driver at fault.
Twenty years ago, such incidents would have been passed off as “just motor racing”, in the same way that Alonso magnanimously summed up his accident today. If it was a regular occurrence, the driver in question would be given a ban, but this was very rare – even in 1994 it would have been considered heavy-handed. That avoided the problems of objectivity, inconsistency and general confusion – the guy who finished qualifying as the fastest driver was on pole, regardless of what had happened in the previous race, which is perfectly logical, as opposed to the guy in 2nd getting pole because the guy in 1st had an accident in the previous race. How do you explain that to a casual follower of the sport? And that’s before we get onto whether or not the stewards’ decision was right in the first place.
It’s time that penalties for minor incidents in F1 are abolished – what do we gain from grid penalties other than a sense of satisfaction that “justice” has been done? This is not to say I want to encourage dangerous driving, by any means, but there are other ways to make it clear to young drivers that dangerous driving is unacceptable – the teams should take more responsibility for this, and the FIA should look into a new system, perhaps something like a “three strikes” rule or license points that would lead to an instant ban after a number of serious incidents, as is the case with UK national racing licenses.
Grosjean will learn nothing from his stop-go penalty today. The only way he will learn is if his team takes responsibility and rests him for a few races with the threat of dismissal if this continues. That’s the way it always used to be, and it’s not as if F1 had major problems with dangerous driving as a result of less punishments dished out – in fact, driving standards have arguably got worse since then, so a stricter approach clearly isn’t preventing overly-aggressive driving.
But the fans should take responsibility too. Drivers are now under enormous pressure not only from teams and sponsors but from people sat at home watching the race getting ready to text Jake Humphrey their views two minutes after the chequered flag has come out. Such trivialities may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but public reaction and the expectation that drivers should be punished inevitably puts pressure on the stewards and the FIA to hand out penalties.
It has become a spiralling scenario – the FIA started punishing drivers, which the fans became accustomed to and pressured the FIA into more and harsher punishments. Where is this going to lead to? Who knows, but I’d rather F1 didn’t go there, because taken to extremes, you could find something to punish every driver. Imagine a grid where every driver had a grid penalty – essentially you’d just have the same grid, which proves the logical fallacy of grid penalties.
PS Corner-cutting and going off the circuit to gain an advantage is a separate issue. I’m specifically talking about collisions and dangerous driving here.
So Old Man Michael, one of the travelling F1 circus’ main attractions, has decided he doesn’t want a part of the freak show any more. Instead he will simply be an exhibit in the Museum of F1, which is probably how it ought to be.
The problem with Michael’s comeback is that it never really felt like him. Yes, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn with 2005, when Ferrari built an absolute dog and he struggled for most of the season, but other than that, this was the first time we’ve seen him genuinely struggle in his F1 career. From the day he stepped into a Jordan for the first time, he’d been wowing people. The Michael of 2010-12 was a diluted Schumacher, who struggled to match his team-mate’s pace, made numerous errors and was noticeably more aggressive than most of his contemporaries in wheel-to-wheel combat. Maybe he was over-driving. Maybe the recent rule changes haven’t suited his driving style. Maybe he just can’t hack driving in the midfield. I’m not sure really.
There were brief glimpses of the talent he has or had. There were the phenomenal first laps where he would carve his way through the field no matter how poorly he had qualified. There was the “pole” lap at Monaco. There was the fortunate but deserved podium in Valencia. But there have been just as many crashes as successes, very uncharacteristic of a driver that in his prime could always been relied upon to bring the car home. This year he has been hindered by various technical issues that have beset his car in particular, otherwise he would no doubt be much higher up the championship table and may have featured on the podium more. But the Mercedes has faded badly this year and it looks unlikely that we’ll see him at the front again, which leaves me with a nagging feeling that he should have just left it at that after that brilliant drive at Interlagos 6 years ago, where no one was in any doubt that he was still at or very near the top of his game. You can’t say that now.
But all of this does not change the fact that he is Michael Schumacher. He might not seem like the same Michael Schumacher out on track – he seems more like a cheap imitation Michael Schumacher made in Taipei or Dhaka – but it is definitely him. He who won 7 world titles. He who won 91 grands prix, just one short of the combined total of Senna and Prost. He who holds all the records bar the most starts. This cannot be taken away from him just because he decided he was bored and wanted to race a bit more again. He is still the greatest.
It’s important he leaves now, mainly so that he stays safe and doesn’t hurt himself, but also because he isn’t good enough any more to compete at the highest level and at nearly 44 he isn’t going to improve any time soon. However, I don’t believe he could tarnish his legacy – failed comebacks aren’t necessarily great to watch but no one ever remembers them. No one cares to remember the times when the great were merely good. In F1 terms, you don’t hear people talking about Lauda’s dreadful last season in 1985, Nigel Mansell’s stupid curtailed comeback season in 1995 with McLaren, Alan Jones’ botched comeback with Haas Lola, or Stirling Moss’ return to racing in the British Saloon Car Championship in 1980. In broader terms, Lance Armstrong’s legacy wasn’t ruined by his comeback but by the D-word, while everyone chooses to forget Muhammad Ali’s 1980-81 return when he lost to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. Tiger Woods’ sad decline will not erase the memory of that period of domination. And Bjorn Borg’s 1991-93 return while still using a wooden racket was utterly embarrassing but no one refers to that outside of the context of Sport’s Worst Comebacks or Most Ludicrous Perpetuations of Anachronistic Pieces of Sporting Equipment (hey, it could catch on).
This won’t stop sportsmen coming out of retirement, even if it ought to serve as a bit of a warning. People who prematurely give things up that they enjoy will usually fancy another shot. It will keep happening as long as sport is fun and has lots of money involved. Kimi Raikkonen’s return to F1 this year proves that successful comebacks can be made. So Michael was absolutely right to come back, given that he wanted to do it – he needed to do it to put his mind at rest.
My respect for him has gone up enormously since he retired the first time, especially through his willingness to come back and challenge the young bucks. It could have gone well – had Mercedes built a car as good as the 2009 Brawn, he may have won more races and titles. Back in the 2009-10 off-season, there was no consistent line as to how this was going to go – the possibility of success was still there. Everyone was quite excited. It was a nice idea – though in hindsight it was probably one of those nice ideas that should have been just left to pub debates. But, having said that, if Michael’s mind needed to be settled by trying it again and seeing what happened, it was right for him.
We shouldn’t criticise Michael for the last three years. Instead, we should make the most of the time we have left with him at the wheel of an F1 car in competitive races. Because this time he ain’t coming back – this is the last chance we’ll have to see the best F1 driver of our time competing for glory, alongside the best of the current generation. After this, we’ll just be left with memories.
All image sources unknown and used in the spirit of fair use
Those people at Red Bull are continually busy coming up with interesting stuff. This is a breakdown of some key facts on the Suzuka circuit and this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. The one of course that they haven’t included is that the race starts at 7 am British time – it’s early but it’s one of the few early morning races worth actually getting up for.
For more great infographics, to follow the performance of both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber for the rest of the Championship and to keep up to date with all the gossip from inside the paddock, download the FREE app here: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/red-bull-racing-spy/id504350767?mt=8 or search for the Red Bull Racing Spy in the app store
The story of 1994 is intrinsically tied to three very emotive issues. Firstly, there’s the Imola weekend, which included the unsolved mystery of the death of an F1 great at the precise moment where he was on the back foot. Secondly, there’s the continuing controversy surrounding Benetton, including the allegation of illegal traction control (and the links to claims Senna made shortly before his death), the Silverstone incident, and Schumacher’s disqualification at Spa. And finally, there’s Adelaide.
It’s difficult to imagine considering the season without these three things, in particular the death of Senna which is such a pivotal moment in F1 history. And given that Schumacher and Benetton usually don’t those ut of those very well, it’s very easy to frame it in a ‘good vs evil’ narrative. Indeed, it seems some people still consider Damon Hill the rightful 1994 World Champion, 18 years after it was settled once and for all, regardless of whether or not what Schumacher did at the last race was ‘right’.
But perhaps it is time for a new angle on this – take out the emotion surrounding Senna’s death and what was and wasn’t proven by the FIA, and it puts a whole new spin on the season. The fact is Michael and Benetton ran riot for half of the season. They were simply untouchable, to the point that it’s barely worth commenting on. Michael had matured into the best driver on the grid and no one was going to stop him – not even the FIA.
As an aside, I wonder how he compared to the accepted top 2 by the end of 1993. It’s difficult to tell whether or not he had actually reached Prost’s level – because as Prost was in such a dominant car, it was difficult to tell how good he really was. But it is worth considering that Alain was pushed quite hard by Hill in the second half of the year – in fact, with a bit of luck on his side, Damon could have won 5 races in a row, which would have put him into title contention. Judging by that, Damon is either a massively underrated driver, near the level of one of the all-time greats, or a past-it Prost was merely guiding the FW15C through the motions. Did Prost retire because he knew that Senna would have made a mockery of him in 94, showing that he was (no pun intended) over the hill?
It’s fair to say that Michael was already second best to Senna at the start of 94, if not by the end of 93. The rule changes shook up the order and suddenly Benetton had the best car – strictly, car number 5, because number 6 was clearly not up to the same standard, merely in the field to satisfy the FIA and pick up the occasional point or two. Michael used it to great effect, and it’s unlikely that Senna would have been able to do anything about this.
Some say Ayrton would’ve fought back – I really doubt this. The reason I doubt this is because Damon needed a lucky break to get back into it himself – after all, before the British GP he had won just once all year, and that was a Benetton gearbox-related gift. The rest of the time, car 5 was in the distance and there was little anyone could do about it. Sure, the Williams was better at the end of the season compared to the Benetton than it was at the start. But it still wasn’t the best car.
Damon got back into the title race because won in both races in which Michael was banned and inherited the win at Spa. Credit where credit’s due, he made the most of his opportunities, something James Hunt didn’t do in 1976, but it’s not like the opposition put up much of a fight – McLaren had dreadful Peugeot engines and a mediocre driving line-up, while Ferrari had too many reliability issues, and the rest were just making up the numbers as far as the title battle was concerned.
I am still a big Damon fan, but even I can see that he was very fortunate and was second best over the course of the year. He even needed a stroke of luck at Suzuka, with Benetton messing up their strategy and allowing him to capitalise and take the win on aggregate timing. A win for Schumacher there and the title would’ve been all but over there and then even with the two race ban and the disqualification.
The ban itself seems a bit of a farce, which is probably why some believe the conspiracy theory: that the FIA banned Michael in effect as a punishment for the illegal traction control that Benetton were allegedly using on his car. Either that or they did it to close up the championship. But why would they want to attract attention to the sport for the wrong reasons yet again?
I can only think that the FIA believed they handled the situation correctly, despite insistences from Benetton that they didn’t, and that the heavy-handed ban was a product of the atmosphere of the time – witness Irvine’s three race ban for the Interlagos pile-up, and Hakkinen’s one race ban for causing crashes in consecutive races. Looked at within that context, it – the punishment, at least – makes sense.
And so to Adelaide. Numerous times I have heard the incident described as “75-25 Michael’s fault”, or even “65-35″. Even as someone who will defend Michael more often than not these days, this is astonishingly naive. Think of it in the context of the day – Michael’s move, as blatant an attempt at cheating as you’ll ever see, was almost without precedent in F1 at the time. It’s so easy for an armchair fan to say today that “Damon should have been more cautious”. But why? Only Senna in recent times had deliberately taken a championship rival out, and that was motivated as much by his own personal squabble with Balestre as the guarantee of the title.
There would have been no reason for Damon to expect Michael to turn in on him, even if you ignore the fact that he only had a couple of seconds to react after it became clear Michael’s car was terminally wounded. And surely if you are willing to accept that Michael did it deliberately (and you’re entitled to think he didn’t, but you’d be very much in the minority), that should be it – if someone intentionally drives into another car on a race track to take them out, it is 100% their fault, end of. The question should not be “how culpable was Damon?” – how can he be culpable for his title rival deliberately crashing into him? The question should be “why didn’t anyone take any action?”
The stewards dismissed the collision as a racing incident. Michael was not punished. He retained the title. There have been a couple of suggestions of why this happened – that the FIA didn’t want the title to be decided off the track, or that it wouldn’t be a tasteful way to end the season after What Happened. It all seems a bit odd really – that is both the lack of a punishment and the potential reasons. The lack of a punishment is significant because it too must be viewed in the context of those heavy-handed bans – those incidents got excessive punishments but the most obvious of the year wasn’t punished at all. Meanwhile, the potential reasons don’t seem to fit – surely in a time where people were sensitive about accidents, the FIA would look to make an example of someone crashing deliberately.
But look at it another way – what punishment could they possibly hand out? They could ban him for a race (again), but that wouldn’t change the fact that it cost Damon the title. The only way they could ‘give’ the title to Damon was if he had points deducted or was just disqualified for the championship. The latter was of course the punishment dished out to Michael after the collision with Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez, but that had three years of hindsight and was also without the pressure of it changing the destination of the drivers’ title.
Did the stewards bottle it? Possibly – but then they must have been under pressure, since if they had disqualified him without concrete proof that he did it intentionally, they would have faced further uproar. It is worth bearing in mind that the stewards also absolved Michael of any blame at Jerez too. It took an FIA intervention to alter that – presumably because they were pressured into it, after an angry reaction from the media and the public demanding that he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it for a second time.
The only conclusion I can draw, therefore, is that the stewards simply didn’t have the evidence to nail Michael for his move (on either occasion), and the FIA were reluctant to step in on this occasion because it was the final round, they didn’t want to be put in the embarrassing position of announcing a different world champion to the one people saw on the telly at Adelaide, and they especially didn’t want to do this with no evidence. After all, there was only the one precedent, again after which no action had been taken – perhaps Max Mosley just accepted that it was ‘one of those things’.
In any case, regardless of moral victories, the right man won the title. Michael was the best driver by a country mile, and had the best car at his disposal. From here until 2006, he was unparalleled – in all 7 title wins, he was clearly the best guy out there, and if he didn’t dominate, it was either due to FIA intervention or a trick of the points system. And when he didn’t have the best car, he drove the wheels off it and nearly won another couple to add to the total. Anyone doubting the man’s ability needs to take a step back and look at how he won his titles. He didn’t just win 7 world titles. He utterly annihilated everyone 7 times.
All image sources are unknown, with the images reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’
It may inevitably fail, but I’m going to try and resurrect this blog. My interest in current F1 has waned over the last 18 months for one reason or another – my gut feeling is the sport is too ‘plastic’ these days for me to enjoy. Maybe it’s a generational thing – the races are exciting when they’re on but the stench of corporatism hangs in the air. Everything about it seems fake, from the smiles on the team principles’ faces to every overtake made with the assistance of DRS. I’m an old fart, I know.
The 1990s, on the other hand, was a simpler time, and I was more naive and new to F1. Though I’ve tried to take them off many times before, my rose-tinted spectacles will not come off. The cars were better looking, the format was simpler and traditional, money was around but not dictating absolutely everything, circuits were genuinely challenging in cars that were more difficult to drive, and drivers could get away with driving aggressively and occasionally crashing without getting criticised endlessly on internet forums. It was a more innocent time – not as innocent as the 1960s, but then I didn’t grow up in the 1960s, so that’s irrelevant.
Yeah, sure, it wasn’t as riveting as it is today, but 1990s races was far more unpredictable. Contrary to popular belief, F1 isn’t that unpredictable in 2012 – OK, so 7 different winners from 7 races is unprecedented, but today it’s considered a surprise if a Toro Rosso gets anywhere near the top 6, despite the team being only a 3 or 4 tenths off the pace; back in 1994, their poorer predecessor Minardi could afford to be 2 or 3 seconds off the pace and still pick up 3 top 6 places over the course of the season, precisely 3 more than Toro Rosso have picked up this year. The answer to the question I haven’t posed is of course unreliablility – cars broke down back in 1994. Regularly. And a crash wasn’t a once-a-season event. So while you weren’t necessarily watching constant meaningless overtakes as you do today, you weren’t sitting there thinking “nothing’s happening, hurry up and finish” either, because things did happen that people didn’t expect. You just needed a bit more patience.
So I’m planning on writing some season retrospectives which I have imaginatively entitled Season Retrospectives, starting in the pivotal season of 1994. I’ve always thought there is much untapped potential to write about F1 history in an original way. Too much F1 “history” is based on sentimental guff direct from the journalists who were there at the day – and if you weren’t there then, well, what do you know? But as a historian (ish), I believe that being a distant observer not caught up in the emotions or have relationships with those involved can at least be helpful. That’s not to say I won’t be sentimental – I’ve already admitted to that. But I think some things from the time need re-evaluating – not necessarily in-depth dry analysis, but looking at through modern eyes with the cursed benefit of hindsight, while trying to avoid the classic narratives.
There will be two parts to the retrospectives – an overall review of the season, not in race order but looking at the year as a whole, and a team-by-team review. I’ll try not to make them too long like some of my previous history articles, as I am aware that some people might actually want to read them. The first should be up soon.