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Andrea de Cesaris 1959-2014

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The 1991 Belgian Grand Prix is usually solely remembered for being Michael Schumacher’s F1 debut. Qualifying 7th at a circuit he had never driven on before, his race lasted half a lap after he burned the clutch out of his Jordan. But what isn’t remembered is that over the course of the race, his new team mate worked his way up into 2nd place, and was closing on race leader Ayrton Senna, whose car was ailing, before he suffered his own technical failure just three laps from the chequered flag.

It was the closest Andrea de Cesaris would ever come to winning a Formula One race in the latter half of his career. The Italian, whose career overlapped with Mario Andretti and Rubens Barrichello, started a record 208 races without standing on the top step of the podium at the highest level. Many have dismissed him as a talentless crash-happy pay driver, but in that one race he demonstrated that this was a fallacy. Of all the drivers in F1 history, he is arguably the driver whose reputation was unfairly tarnished the most, preventing him with the shot at the front of the field he deserved.

Andrea’s breakthrough year was 1979, when he finished as the runner-up to Chico Serra in British Formula Three. The following year, he graduated full-time to Formula Two with Ron Dennis’ Marlboro-backed Project Four team, finishing 5th in the standings in a season marred by the deaths of two drivers, Hans-Georg Burger and Markus Hottinger. After winning the penultimate round at the Misano circuit in Italy, he was called up to race in the last two F1 grands prix of the season in North America by Alfa Romeo; here, De Cesaris benefited from both being Italian and backed by Marlboro, who sponsored the struggling manufacturer.

He retired from both races, the first due to mechanical failure and the second due to an accident, but he had shown enough promise to pick up a seat at McLaren, though it’s fair to say this reward owed much to circumstance: the Marlboro links were again key, along with his Formula Two team boss’s takeover of the team. Unfortunately, this was an opportunity that had come too soon. He crashed 18 times over the course of the season, earning the nickname ‘De Crasheris’, which would stain his reputation for the rest of his career. He finished in the top six only once, picking up a point at Imola, but also finished a further twice inside the top eight. Nonetheless, with John Watson winning a race for the team and performing consistently well, this clearly wasn’t acceptable.

De Cesaris was thus replaced by the returning Niki Lauda for 1982, but found his way back to Alfa Romeo. Though clearly a backwards step, Alfa were more competitive than two years before. At Long Beach, Andrea put the marque back on pole position for the first time since 1951 and led much of the early stages before being overtaken by Lauda and then crashing out. At Monaco, he could have won if the team had given him a small amount more fuel; instead, he ran out right at the end and was classified 3rd, giving him his first podium finish. But the season petered out with unreliability and the occasional mistake, with just one further points finish at Montreal.

1983 would be slightly better, with two 2nd-place finishes at Hockenheim and Kyalami, but he was robbed of a possible win at Spa, first losing the lead after a poor pit stop and then losing everything else with a mechanical failure. Such was the frustration of driving for Alfa Romeo – the cars had promise, but rarely saw the end of a race.

Instead, De Cesaris switched to Ligier, who were switching to turbo power for the first time with Renault units. Having had a disappointing 1983 season, this was the French team’s attempt at bouncing back, and Andrea was to lead their charge. Alas, there would be more of the same for the Italian, picking up the team’s only three points of the season; again the car was unreliable, and he made more mistakes. Going into 1985, the pressure was on. He was paired with the vastly-experienced Jacques Laffite, and although De Cesaris finished 4th in Monaco, his driving became increasingly erratic, culminating in a huge crash at the Osterreichring from which he was lucky to escape unhurt.

After another retirement at the next round in Zandvoort (though this time due to a turbo failure), he was fired by the team and replaced by Philippe Streiff. His F1 career looked in serious jeopardy, but Giancarlo Minardi gave him and his Marlboro money another chance. Sadly, it was another disastrous season in an underpowered, overweight car. He finished just one race all year, and even failed to qualify at Monaco, though the majority of the retirements were car-related.

1987 saw him move on again, this time joining a Brabham team Bernie Ecclestone had grown tired of. In the team’s last season before being sold, Andrea made the best of another bad situation, finishing on the podium at Spa. He finished just one other race all year, though, and the team was mothballed for 1988, leaving him in the wilderness again. Salvation was to be found at the new one-car Rial team, run by fiery ATS owner Gunther Schmidt. Again, it wasn’t a particularly quick or reliable car, but he snuck into 4th place at Detroit, a considerable achievement in the circumstance. He lost two further points finishes at Montreal and Adelaide due to running out of fuel.

He was clearly at the top of his game, but Schmidt was not an easy man to get along with. Instead, yet another move beckoned, this time to Scuderia Italia. Over his two seasons at the Italian minnow team, he again proved he had the ability to run at the front, picking up a fine podium in his sixth race for the team in Montreal. But the Dallaras weren’t especially quick or reliable, and the podium would be his only points finish for the team. 1990 was a particularly difficult year, with no points and another stack of retirements. It was as if he was stuck in Groundhog Season.

But 1991 would finally give him a car his ability deserved. Jordan were moving into F1 from Formula 3000, and signed up De Cesaris to lead the team, alongside Bertrand Gachot. The pair performed well, Andrea in particular. For once he managed to string together a series of good results, with four points finishes in five races between rounds 5 and 10, including two 4th places at Montreal and Mexico City, before the heartache of Spa. All in all, he finished in the top 10 eight times, enough to give him 60 points on the current system, although in reality it was only worth 9.

However, Jordan’s first-year success had come at an enormous cost to the team, who lost a vast amount of money and their Ford engines. De Cesaris switched teams with promising Italian Stefano Modena to join Tyrrell, who seemed to also be on a downward curve after an underwhelming 1991 season. But despite having Olivier Grouillard as his team mate, he shone in adversity once again, with another seven top 10s and 8 points. His best finish came at Suzuka, where he finished 4th.

The result was Tyrrell were able to attract a manufacturer to supply them for 1993. Unfortunately, this manufacturer just happened to be Yamaha. The team’s renaissance was stopped in its tracks, scoring no points. De Cesaris, for all his excellent performances over the previous two seasons, was now left completely out in the cold for the first time in his F1 career. Despite developing a reputation amongst team of being a steady hand on the tiller, it looked as if he would fall just short of 200 grands prix.

However, he would get two more chances. The first came at Jordan; when Eddie Irvine was banned for “initiating” a huge accident at Interlagos, Eddie Jordan first turned to Aguri Suzuki, but when he disappointed at Aida, the Irishman turned to his 1991 team leader, who jumped into a promising Jordan 194 for the ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix. Despite retiring from that race, he would finish a remarkable 4th on the streets of Monte Carlo a week later, providing a minor positive news story for the beleaguered sport. With Irvine returning for the next race, it seemed as if he was going out on a high.

But Karl Wendlinger’s accident that weekend had left a vacancy at Sauber, and De Cesaris’ good performances led Peter Sauber to call him up to fill the seat from Canada. But despite being armed with a quick car, Andrea was outshone by rookie team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen, and finished just one race, popping up in 6th at Magny-Cours. After the European Grand Prix at Jerez, the change was made – JJ Lehto, exiled from Benetton, was brought in for the last two races. De Cesaris snuck out the back door while no one was watching.

At 35, and after 208 races (the second-highest total at the time, well before the days of 20-race seasons), Andrea called it quits. Instead of moving into sportscars as other contemporary veterans did, though, he moved into currency dealing and windsurfing. His final racing appearances came in the Grand Prix Masters series in 2005-06. In the first race at Kyalami, he finished an impressive 4th after showing good pace in the build-up, but he failed to build on this in the championship’s last two races.

His premature death at the age of 55 has come as a great shock to the F1 community at a time when it is awaiting news on Jules Bianchi’s condition in Japan. It seemed as if Andrea had finally settled down after a frenetic career and would have a long retirement. Sadly, it was not to be.

But while many of the obituaries will focus on the crashing, the truth is De Cesaris is a driver who drove some of the worst cars in F1 history, both in terms of pace and reliability, and yet averaged over 1.7 points on the current system. By the second half of his career, he was a solid, dependable driver, an able leader of struggling teams and capable of phenomenal results in poor machinery. There is a reason why he was such a cult hero in F1 circles. The guy had talent, but never picked up the results his ability deserved. Hopefully it is this he will be remembered for.

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Written by James Bennett

October 5, 2014 at 22:55

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

The great what-ifs

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Tom Kristensen testing the distinctive but slow 1997 Minardi at Catalunya. Images uploaded in the spirit of fair use

I’ve been re-reading Autosport’s Top 50 Drivers Who Never Raced In F1, which they published in July. For me, it’s the best thing they’ve published in years – genuine insight into some of the greatest talents who never quite reached the top level for one reason or another. Some never made it due to finance, others due to injury or death, and some just due to circumstance.

However, there’s a clear divide there between those that were almost certainly going to race in F1 but for circumstantial issues, such as Gary Hocking, Jean-Luc Salomon, Christophe Bouchut and Sebastien Loeb, and those that were on the periphery but never quite made it, such as Dario Franchitti, Laurent Aiello and Tom Kristensen, who heads the list. I do wonder about some of the latter in particular – many drivers get rated as “lost talents”, but often there are reasons why they didn’t make it. If a driver like Kristensen, who I greatly admire and is clearly one of the greatest sportscar and touring car drivers of all time, didn’t make it, is it genuinely because of money/circumstance? Because ultimately if he was a brilliant driver who could have won F1 grands prix and championships, would he have slipped through the net?

That’s probably the only way in which the list fails. Yes, it’s nice to think there are drivers out there who were robbed of a good chance to succeed in F1 just by a set of coincidences, but do we really see Kristensen, Franchitti and Gary Paffett as potential F1 champions in an era dominated by Michael Schumacher, Mika Hakkinen, Fernando Alonso and numerous other talented drivers? These guys probably achieved far more in their respective fields than they would have in F1, where it’s more likely that they would have ended up tooling around in the midfield for two or three years before ending up exactly where they came from.

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However, there are some interesting cases where things might have been different. Gerry Birrell is the obvious candidate here, because he was lined up for a genuine front-running drive for the 1974 season – in place of Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell, alongside Francois Cevert. However, both prospective drivers were killed in 1973 (in frighteningly similar accidents), giving Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler second chances in F1, which ultimately led them to successful careers.


Milngavie’s Gerry Birrell

It’s difficult to pick apart where exactly a Cevert/Birrell partnership would have led Tyrrell, as certainly they would have spent the real 1974 regrouping after the loss of both of their drivers. Cevert in particular was a talented driver and would undoubtedly have won more races had he lived. Scheckter was able to jump in the 1974 Tyrrell and challenge for the title despite less F1 experience than Cevert, so it’s conceivable that the Frenchman could have been champion that year, ahead of Fittipaldi and Regazzoni.

Birrell is more difficult to fathom: his record in the lower formulae wasn’t fantastic but he was improving, the people who knew him or remember him racing speak highly of his abilities. Depailler was incredibly talented but wild and erratic. If Birrell was a bit steadier, perhaps that wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing. He was 28 at the time of his death, and would have been 29 at the start of the 1974 season, but breaking through at that age wasn’t as rare as it is today: Carlos Reutemann made his debut in 1972 when he was nearly 30 and yet still raced in F1 for ten years.

Had Tyrrell won the championship again in 1974, maybe they would have had a much more stable decade instead of the decline they actually faced. That said, the innovations of the late 1970s, particularly ground effect which Tyrrell were slow to master, are probably what ultimately sent them into a tailspin into the 1980s which ended with their demise in 1998.

As for Scheckter and Depailler, who knows – maybe they would be the subject of “what-if” articles like this…

———-

Jamie Green is another interesting case from a more recent time. When I first began to watch him race, he was making progress in the DTM in 2006 but unable to eke out a maiden win. “Oh, he must be another of those British bottlers then,” I thought. He did eventually win races in the DTM but has never quite translated this to a consistent season, which has hardly erased that perception.

However, looking at his results before then, I’m feeling a bit sorry for ever thinking that. In 2004, he won the Formula Three Euroseries by a massive 52 points while driving for ASM, with seven wins and six further podium finishes. Yes, he was driving for the dominant team and had Mercedes backing, and it’s still not quite the level of domination Lewis Hamilton achieved the following year (when he beat allcomers by 78 points, having won 15 out of the 20 races) but that’s still very impressive.

Green had been marked out before then as a future star, having won the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award for young drivers back in 2002 (beating Adam Carroll in the process) and thus earning himself a test with McLaren. In 2003 he finished runner-up in British Formula Three behind current F1 medical car driver Alan van der Merwe, before moving on to the DTM-supporting Euroseries in 2004.

As the Autosport article explains, ASM were keen to sign him up for their new ART Grand Prix operation for the first season of GP2 in 2005. However, Green’s backers were unsure of the new formula and decided to place him in DTM instead, thus consigning him to a career in touring cars. It’s difficult to escape from there: only Paul di Resta has jumped from the DTM to F1 in recent years, and even he had to perform miracles to do that. Di Resta was probably one of the reasons why Green didn’t get out of there: not only did the Scot suddenly become Mercedes’ favoured Brit, but his feats only made Green’s lack of wins in his first two seasons look disappointing.


Jamie Green’s only F1 test came at Silverstone for McLaren in 2004, alongside Alex Lloyd and Lewis Hamilton

The F1 what-if becomes intriguing if you know what happened next in GP2, though: ART hired Nico Rosberg and Alexandre Premat, whom Green had beaten comfortably in F3, and Rosberg went on to win the championship, earning himself a Williams drive and a successful F1 career. Had Green’s backers been braver with the new series, it’s conceivable that he could have earned himself an F1 drive. Even if it’s not the Williams drive, there are scenarios where he could do well, such as testing for McLaren for a year in 2006 before taking the seat destined for Lewis Hamilton in 2007.

So actually, despite initially dismissing Green’s placing at number 14 in Autosport’s countdown as “pro-British/current driver bias”, an alternative history where he would be a future F1 race-winner is actually more plausible than some of the more renowned drivers placed ahead of him.

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I could go through each individually and talk about how Jason Watt probably would have been no more than an Alex Wurz-type figure or Al Unser Jr would have done no better in F1 than Michael Andretti, but that would take forever. I may delve deeper into them in the future. However, for now, there are a few in particular that intrigue me.

Firstly, there’s Greg Moore. You could dismiss the continual mythologising of the great lost Canadian as simply being because he died young and was heading for a top drive in 2000. There’s a case to be made that he wasn’t as good as has been made out in the years since, that the IndyCar split may have cost him in the long run, or that he was too much of a risk-taker to be successful (a similar argument has been made about another lost Canadian, Bertrand Fabi).

However, there’s no getting away from the fact that F1 teams were interested. The GrandPrix.com archive has the odd story on him being linked to a potential McLaren drive in the late 1990s in place of either Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard, while the Autosport article suggests he had prominent admirers in F1 in the shape of Jackie Stewart and Jean Todt, both team bosses at the time. It’s easy to see the attraction: a good-looking young Canadian with natural driving ability who would satisfy both fans and corporations. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think Moore could’ve been handed a deal to drive a race-winning car around this time.


An evocative image of the late Greg Moore in the wet

Jorg Muller is another interesting case. I have the 2000 ITV F1 season preview book, and Muller is listed as the Williams driver, with his testing experience and BMW links being cited as reasons for his choice. He was also a damn good driver, though, as proven by his Formula 3000 championship success in 1996. However, winning F3000 was as much a curse as a blessing, as far as F1 was concerned, and Muller was beaten to the drive by Jenson Button; in fact, he fell behind Bruno Junqueira (who I’m surprised didn’t make Autosport’s list, by the way) in the pecking order before that too.


Jorg Muller testing the Williams-BMW test mule

Had Muller got that seat, it would have been a bit of a safe, boring choice compared to young Button, who went on to be a revelation during the 2000 season. However, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t have done a solid job. He has been a consistent performer in touring cars and sportscars for BMW in the years since. It’s doubtful that he would have been a world champion like Button was, which sort of proves Williams right (except that they didn’t hang on to him), but at least it would have given him a shot in a competitive car, and he may have gotten closer to Ralf that year than Button did, which may have given him a shot at a decent career in F1. It also raises the question of what might have happened to Button had he not got his breakthrough drive.

Incidentally, it’s good to see Marc Hynes, who beat Button to the British F3 championship in 1999, back in a competitive drive, this time in the BTCC.

There are other intriguing stories there too. Paul Warwick was very quick, and though one could question the impartiality of his brother if you really wanted to cynical, I don’t think Derek is the sort of person who would necessarily exaggerate. My gut feeling is Paul would have been successful in F1. And though they might read as excuses, the stories surrounding Laurent Aiello, James Courtney and Rickard Rydell seem plausible enough to suggest that they were also good enough to race to a reasonably high level in F1. I hadn’t heard the story behind Rydell’s British F3 campaign and I like it. Rickard’s such a nice guy off the track that it makes sense that people didn’t think he was enough of a racer, even though he later went on to prove he was as much of a racer as anyone under a tin top.


Touring car star Laurent Aiello was given a McLaren test at Estoril in 1994 due to his links with Peugeot

The IndyCar guys make for a nice story too, although I have my doubts. As I hinted earlier, I suspect Unser Jr didn’t have the focus for F1. It’s interesting to learn that Paul Tracy had potential deals for Benetton for 1995 and 1996, but the former was a seat alongside Schumacher and the latter would have been in his wake, so it’s probably better than he didn’t take them. I’m dubious as to whether Dan Wheldon would have done an awful lot in the BMW Sauber, Franchitti didn’t have a competitive ride offered to him, and there’s little evidence to show whether or not Stewart would have done well. However, the explanation in the article for Brack doesn’t cover the fact that he did a few F1 tests and was Ligier’s official test driver in 1996, but I doubt he’d have been more than a midfield runner. In fact, you could say the same about most of them: Power, Dixon, De Ferran. Of all those listed, Rick Mears strikes me as the one most likely to have been successful in F1, especially considering that it was Brabham offering him a deal.


Paul Tracy also had his only F1 test at Estoril in 1994, and was quicker than Lehto and Verstappen

Ultimately F1 is all about having the right car at the right time. Having a car to begin with helps, but there are countless cases of drivers dropping in and out of F1 because the competition for seats from the midfield back is so intense and, as Damon Hill once said, you have to keep proving yourself race after race. While I enjoyed the article, it’s an awkward subject to write about because the vast majority of extremely talented single-seater racers capable of winning the F1 championship didn’t slip through the net, usually because it’s so bleeding obvious that they’re good enough that they will attract the backing or that teams will hire them even if they didn’t have it. The cream always rises to the top. Anyone who misses out on F1 due to any reason other than death or injury almost certainly didn’t have that x-factor necessary to make a real success of F1.

So when Tom Kristensen or Dario Franchitti say they have no regrets about not racing in F1, they are telling the truth.


Dario Franchitti’s shambolic test at Silverstone for Jaguar in 2000 probably wasn’t a fair reflection of his ability, but he retires with a stack of honours

Written by James Bennett

December 20, 2013 at 23:25

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

F1’s blame culture

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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.

Written by James Bennett

October 7, 2012 at 17:17

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 politics

Why Schumacher’s legacy is undamaged by comeback

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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

Written by James Bennett

October 4, 2012 at 15:55

Posted in F1, F1 drivers

Team Vettel

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The Red Bulletin used to be Red Bull’s light-hearted magazine poking fun at the world of F1. Now it’s Red Bull’s light-hearted magazine but it focuses on all-round cultural and sporty stuff, and it’s now also available as an iPad app – check out the website to see what I mean.

They haven’t totally abandoned F1, by any means, though. This month, former Autosport editor Anthony Rowlinson and Werner Jessner have compiled an impressive series of interviews with the men that made The Man, i.e. 2010 and 2011 F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel. Included in there are chats with Christian Horner, Helmut Marko and race engineer Guillaume ‘Rocky’ Rocquelin (the French guy you hear on Vettel’s radio, who is apparently 41, which I didn’t know) of Red Bull Racing, and also other figures from Vettel’s career – former BMW Motorsport boss Dr Mario Thiessen who first stuck him in an F1 car in a race weekend, Toro Rosso’s Giorgio Ascanelli, Vettel’s Toro Rosso race engineer Riccardo Adami with whom he won his first race, Carlin Motorsport’s Trevor Carlin who ran him in the lower formulae, paddock veteran Ann Bradshaw who worked with him at BMW, and the owner of the Michael Schumacher Karting Centre in Kerpen, Gerd Noack, who spotted his enormous talent at a very early age. There’s a nice spread in there of well-known figures in the F1 paddock and those who perhaps don’t get as much attention.

Have a read – it’s a good laugh, it’s not too demanding and you will learn something, even if you’re an F1 expert. For instance, I didn’t know that Helmut Marko was a barrister, or that Christian Horner has his own (strictly unofficial) fan club called the ‘Hornettes’. There’s also loads of stats and the interviews themselves, which are quite revealing in places. So yeah, check it out in the magazine – find out where you can get it on the website, redbulletin.com

Written by James Bennett

November 9, 2011 at 23:37

Posted in F1, F1 drivers

The Liuzzi affair…

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I rate all four of Force India’s contracted drivers quite highly. I’m a big Adrian Sutil fan and feel he has a lot more to give than he’s already shown, Paul di Resta I’ve rated since he beat Vettel in F3 and am delighted to see in F1, Nico Hulkenberg’s a rough diamond but a star in the making, and Vitantonio Liuzzi has been quite hard done by ever since he got into F1 – he compared quite well to Vettel initially at Toro Rosso, and didn’t do badly at Force India. But it seems it was not enough to stop him getting the chop a year early on his contract.

Team owner Vijay Mallya has had a tendency to change his mind quite a lot regarding drivers. Tonio is said to have had a race deal with the team for 2009 in his initial test driver contract, but it seems they couldn’t find a way of getting rid of Sutil and Fisichella – I think he might have got a bit of compensation out of that behind slightly-ajar doors but I’m not sure. And then as soon as he did get his chance, he was out of favour and looked like being dumped in favour of di Resta – I seem to remember the feeling was that it didn’t look that great for him before the season even began, before di Resta had even participated in an F1 weekend.

The problem may be something behind the scenes. Liuzzi was signed thanks to Colin Kolles, then the team boss, who rated him highly, only to promptly get the sack himself – hence why Tonio is being linked so strongly to HRT. And the shift from being in favour to not was quite sudden, which perhaps suggest something sudden behind the scenes.

The other thing with Liuzzi is that while he’s clearly good, he hasn’t really improved at all. The guy’s been in F1 for 5 years, and was doing testing for a while before that too with Williams and Sauber. There have been no flashes of brilliance. And thus you have to doubt his ultimate potential – has he peaked already? Yes, he could win races in a decent car, but so could most of the guys on the grid now. You have to question that F3000 title that, let’s face it, even as someone who thinks positively of him, I have to admit was against less-than-average opposition.

And here’s where he doesn’t compare well with Sutil. Even if you don’t rate him, Adrian has shown he is capable of the odd very good race – the only particularly good race I can think of from Tonio was China 2007, but even then he was comfortably beaten by his team mate. And when you’re a midfield team, particularly one owned by an airline and alcohol magnate who owns most of the companies whose logos are on the car, it’s often better to have the driver who, once a year, pulls a blinder and gets a freak podium, rather than the guy who’s plodding around getting 7ths and 8ths every week – the former is what will get you the headlines and exposure, even if it’s not representative.

This is roughly what happened in 2010 – Sutil just about had the edge anyway, but had a couple of stand-out drives where he finished quite high up, whereas Tonio’s best race was arguably the very first one of the year, and everyone had forgotten about him. Standing out from the crowd, especially in times like this with pay drivers knocking around with massive potential sponsorship deals in their pocket, is what you need to do as a driver.

Either way, there is a question of trust now hanging over Vijay Mallya’s head as a result of this. While I am very much an outsider to all of this, my perception is that I don’t think of Force India as any more or less trustworthy than anyone else in the paddock. Why is Hulkenberg joining them? Because Williams got rid of him despite taking that pole. They wanted to loan him to Hispania, the weakest team on the grid. Williams ethically have been one of the worst teams in recent F1 history, dumping decent drivers because of money several times – remember Wurz “retiring” ahead of the last race in 2007 in order to give Kazuki Nakajima a run? Plus there’s Kimi getting paid by Ferrari off a year after signing a contract extension, Alonso being forced out of McLaren 2 years early, and plenty of other cans of worms to open. I don’t see any teams that could take a moral high ground these days – even Virgin were at it this year not giving reserve driver Andy Soucek any running, and they’ve only been in it a season!

At the end of the day, in F1, and perhaps sport generally these days, contracts are only worth the paper they’re written on. That’s not just Force India – all of them do it if they can get away with it. They may be getting the most attention for other reasons…

Written by James Bennett

January 26, 2011 at 22:54

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 teams

CFM: Clay Regazzoni – A Tribute

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Published at Chequered Flag Motorsport on 20th December 2006

Gianclaudio Giuseppe ‘Clay’ Regazzoni 1939-2006

On December 15 we lost one of the great characters of 1970s Formula One. Clay Regazzoni was killed in a car accident in Parma, Italy. Regazzoni’s career started at Zandvoort in 1970, and ended in unfortunante circumstances at Long Beach in 1980. He made 132 starts for Ferrari, BRM, Ensign, Shadow and Williams. Although he won just 5 times, he should be remembered in the same esteem as drivers like Stewart, Rindt, Ickx, Lauda, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Scheckter and co.

His debut came at Zandvoort in 1970 for Ferrari. Qualifying in sixth in the 312B, he finished in fourth, as Jochen Rindt took the win for Lotus (incidentally, the race was marred by the tragic death of Piers Courage). Clay then had to wait until Brands Hatch for his next turn, as Ignazio Giunti was also driving for Ferrari and drove the second scarlet car alongside Jacky Ickx in France. Regazzoni again qualified sixth and finished fourth at Brands Hatch, which put him equal 10th in the drivers’ championship. At Hockenheim, he battled with Ickx and Rindt for the lead from third on the grid, but retired with engine dramas. It was clear that Regazzoni had talent. At Austria he completed the second half of a Ferrari 1-2, taking the fastest lap in the process. Then came Italy. Rindt sadly died in practice, and Regazzoni took his maiden win (with a fastest lap to boot), but it was marred by the tragic circumstances of the weekend. With the untimely passing of Rindt, Regazzoni was now an outside chance for the title, but second to Ickx at Mont Tremblant (and another fastest lap), a disappointing 13th at Watkins Glen, and another second to Ickx at Mexico City saw him finish 3rd in the WDC, behind team-mate Ickx, and posthumous champion, Jochen Rindt. Third place in the Formula One WDC was backed up with a European Formula 2 Championship for Tecno, establishing his credentials.

Unfortunately, over the next couple of seasons, Regazzoni did not live up to the promise of his debut year. 1971 was an unlucky season – retiring while in contention for podiums three times did not help his cause on his way to seventh in the WDC. In 1973 he again finished seventh in the WDC, amidst more bad luck, including colliding with Carlos Pace whilst in the lead at Monza.

For 1973 Regazzoni turned his attention to BRM, however this turned out to be a mistake. Despite taking pole at the first race at Buenos Aires and some promising early grid positions, he scored just two points. But it could have been much worse. At Kyalami, he crashed and the car caught fire. Clay was trapped inside the burning BRM, but thanks to the brave, selfless actions of Mike Hailwood, he was pulled free with minor injuries. Hailwood was rewarded for his actions, and Clay continued his racing career

He returned to the Scuderia for 1974 for what was probably his best year. He stayed consistent throughout – 11 points-scoring results, including a dominant win at the Nurburgring, four second places, and two third places.The Championship had not been out of his reach either. Had it not been for mechanical failures at Kyalami (from 3rd) and Monza (from first), he may well have won. But 11th at the final round sealed his fate, as Emerson Fittipaldi won the title.

In 1975, Regazzoni was overshadowed by his team mate, Niki Lauda, who won the championship. Regazzoni was unlucky at times, but did take his second Monza win. He retired from second twice, in France and Germany, but finished third in Sweden and Holland – he finished the season fifth with 25 points. 1976 was a similar story. He took a win from pole in the first Grand Prix at Long Beach, and took podiums at Zolder, Zandvoort and Monza, but retired from podium places in France and Britain. So, it was fifth again.

1977 saw a new challenge. He joined Mo Nunn’s small Ensign team, so big results were not expected. And they did not come either. He was in the points just three times, with sixth in Argentina, and fifth at Monza and Watkins Glen, as the car improved towards the end of the season. At Mount Fuji, he was running second before an unfortunate engine failure. He ended up joint 17th in the WDC for his efforts, and was on the move again at seasons end, this time to Shadow for 1978. From bad to worse it went, and there were just two fifth places – in Brazil and Sweden.

Seemingly, Clay’s F1 career wouldn’t last much longer. But Frank Williams came knocking on his door in time, and Clay found himself in a Williams for 1979. After a slow start he soon gained momentum, and won the Didcot team’s first Grand Prix, fittingly at their home track, Silverstone. It did not matter that it only happened after Alan Jones hit troubles – it was a richly deserved result. Second places at Monaco and Hockenheim, and third places at Monza and Montreal helped him once again to fifth in the championship.

Unfortunately, it would be his last full season in F1. For 1980, aged 40, he rejoined Ensign for what would be a final fling. At round 4 at Long Beach, he was lying an impressive fourth (from 23rd on the grid), but on the run down to the Queen’s Hairpin, his brake pedal snapped. The car plowed into Ricardo Zunino’s parked Brabham. Regazzoni suffered bad spinal injuries, exacerbated by the awkward extrication process.

Paralysed from the waist down, it seemed his career was over. But it was not. He became determined to live his life to the full and tried to win equal opportunities for disabled people. He returned to compete in the Paris-Dakar Rally and sportscars in the 1980’s, using special hand controls which he did so much work developing, that have gone on to to help disabled people both on and off the track.

His last competitive race was in 1990, but continued to test cars and race in historic races, the last of which he competed in was in 2000. He became an inspiration to many disabled drivers including Alex Zanardi and Jason Watt. Ironically his death came just weeks after Zanardi tested a modified BMW Sauber F1.06 at Valencia. Incidentally, after Zanardi’s horrific accident at the Lausitzring in 2001, Regazzoni was one of the first men to send Zanardi his wishes, despite the two having never met.

Clay will always be remembered as a brilliant racing driver. Although Swiss, he was from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, and was adopted by the tifosi as a sort of quasi-Italian. You can’t get much more Italian-sounding than a name like Gianclaudio Regazzoni, can you?! When you consider he was the first man to win for Williams, and that he won at Monza twice – more than Gilles Villeneuve or Jean Alesi ever did – it is a wonder he was not more greatly revered. Maybe now in death, as sometimes happens, his legend will grow

The Wins

Italy 1970
Germany 1974
Italy 1975
USA West 1976
Great Britain 1979

The Stats

Starts: 132
Podiums: 28
Poles: 5
Front row places: 21
Fastest laps: 15
Points: 212
Races led: 20
Laps led: 360
Km led: 1851

Written by James Bennett

December 23, 2010 at 23:08