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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.

Images used in the spirit of fair use

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Written by James Bennett

October 5, 2014 at 22:55

Posted in F1, F1 drivers, F1 history

Mexico City, essence and slash-and-burn

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Images used in the spirit of fair use

In historical terms, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez has contributed very little of note to F1 history. The Mexican Grand Prix hosted the season finale in the 1960s, back when the world championship was something of a sideshow that only an exclusive number of races were part of, but it dropped off the calendar after the 1970 race due to safety fears associated with the large crowds. It returned in 1986, hosting seven further races before dropping off again after 1992.

The circuit itself was never really regarded as a classic, being bumpy, twisty and located in the middle of one of the most crowded, polluted cities in the world. But the popularity of circuits evolves over time. A circuit built in the 1960s (or even more recently) would often begin its existence unpopular because it was being compared to the alternatives, this being a time when road circuits and the likes of the Nurburgring Nordschliefe were still hosting grands prix, but by the 21st century, it’s a relic of the past, with the Nordschliefe, old Spa and many others consigned to the history books.

Even if you look at the circuits of the 1980s, you can see this transformation. The Hungaroring and the new Nurburgring were initially despised, to the point where the latter disappeared off the F1 calendar for a decade. But now, the Hungaroring receives credit for being something different on a calendar largely consisting of modern identikit circuits, while the Nurburgring is considered favourably to the truncated Hockenheim.

In addition to this, what makes a circuit popular has changed over time. Fast technical sequences of corners are popular now but that’s not to say they always have been. For example, Suzuka wasn’t regarded as a great circuit when it first appeared on the F1 calendar because it was too tight and twisty, but today this is regarded as a positive boon, the circuit’s raison d’etre.

The Mexico City is a good example of this. It had one great corner, the fearsome Peraltada, a 90-degree right-hander linking the back straight with the start/finish straight that was slightly banked until fairly recently. But the rest of the circuit was regarded as unremarkable. Looking at it with modern eyes, though, and it is an interesting circuit – a long straight leads into a tight sequence of corners, followed by another straight, a technical section, and then a fast, flowing series of esses that would really test a modern F1 car, before the back straight and the Peraltada.

It has everything a modern F1 circuit would want – fast sections, slow sections, long straights and overtaking opportunities. Add in the historical aspect and a thriving following thanks to the rise of Sergio Perez, and surely there’s no downside to the announcement that F1 will return there next year…

Well, until seeing this. Yes, there had been subtle hints that the circuit would have to be altered – Hermann Tilke had been contacted a year ago – but to this extent?

The future:

The present:

(Credit for the screenshots: http://forums.autosport.com/topic/194344-mexican-gp-confirmed-for-2015/)

So what’s the problem? It’s not that the proposed layout itself is inherently bad – it looks like an interesting circuit. And it’s not exactly that different from the overall silhouette – it’s pretty similar.

But look closer and every corner has been changed in some way. Some of the changes are fairly minor – a tightening here and there – but the overall result is a circuit that’s quite different from the current one. What was once a flowing circuit with smooth curves is now a bog standard modern circuit with sharp corners joined by straights and the token very slow hairpin sequence. I appreciate that safety is a problem but was all this necessary?

Turns 1-3: All tighter, with Turns 2 and 3 particularly tightened to singular apexes from smooth curves. Why? It’s beyond me. There are no safety concerns associated with this – they are slow corners.

Turns 4-5: Turn 4 tightened to a hairpin, Turn 5 also seems slightly tightened. This again is not safety-related – instead, it’s more likely to be to create overtaking. Also the massive new grandstands next to these corners probably have something to do with it…

Turns 6-8: Turn 6 might be the only corner to just about get away unscathed, but its character is fundamentally changed with Turns 7 and 8 being bypassed by a straight, with another new grandstand plonked on top of the old corners, which again is your likely explanation for the changes.

Turns 9-13: Every single one of these corners looks like they have been tightened to not far off a single apex. What was once a series of constant arcs will instead look like a series of different corners seemingly designed to be similar to the sort of sequence we get in every modern F1 circuit, particularly Austin’s Circuit of the Americas. In fact, looking at the overall circuit, this will leave Mexico City looking very much like a flat Austin, albeit with slightly less tarmac run-off and slightly more character.

Turn 14: The Peraltada will be bypassed with a route through the large baseball stadium inside it, as Champ Car did in the mid-2000s. But unlike Champ Car’s route, which consisted of three 90-degree corners, F1 (which of course has to go one step further, because it’s F1) includes a tight hairpin and another corner coming out of it, seemingly designed to slow the cars down a little bit more. The old corner will remain and will probably be used by other series, as is the case now.

These changes will be billed as necessary for safety, but that seems a bit hollow to me looking at what they’re actually going to do. One of the bizarre things about this is that there isn’t actually that much run-off on the outside of most of these corners even after the changes, particularly the Esses. This is following the recent trend in modern circuits of not having the barriers too far from the track (see the fast section at the Valencia “urban circuit” or some parts of the Yeongam circuit, host of the Korean Grand Prix) – F1’s “run-off is needed” policy has always been inconsistently applied, which makes me suspicious.

The reason for the changes can be found in the mentions of “new grandstands” and tightening corners to slow the cars down a little bit more. The grandstands are there to pack more people in, no doubt at a premium rate compared to general admission. The slower corners are there to slow the cars for the cameras, so that they get good shots of the adverts and sponsors’ logos. Of course, these are usually included in modern circuits under the pretence of safety or “compromising setup”, but in this case in particular, it seems egregiously excessive.

The changes to the circuit aren’t about the circuit – they’re there for F1 and its various parties to make more money, sold under the false pretence that they are necessary when they clearly aren’t. In this case, it’s not even subtle.

Obviously there are genuine safety concerns. For one the Peraltada isn’t particularly safe in its current form because there’s no run-off on the outside and expanding that would be very difficult due to the presence of a road behind it. But it wears thin when you look at the proposed layout of the Esses and you see very little run-off anyway, or when you look at other modern circuits and see less safe corners that were allowed to pass. The changes to the Esses smack of change for the sake of change – making it “modern”.

And that’s what troubles me in particular. Changing or updating an old circuit is by no means a new thing, but there are a lot of examples in recent years in particular – the Osterreichring, Hockenheim, Fuji, Silverstone, and now seemingly Mexico City are the most prominent. These are always billed by F1 as returning to an old venue, even though the layouts of these circuits are often very different. The Osterreichring (or A1-Ring and Red Bull Ring as it became), Hockenheim and Fuji were particularly different, bearing little resemblance to the circuits they once were.

What F1 is effectively doing is giving you an essence of the past – it’s not quite the old circuit but it’s in the same place and includes small parts of it so it could be it. It’s as if they treat it as a modern interpretation of the past, even though these circuits were still the present for many series outside the F1 bubble. Fuji aside (sort of), it was only F1 which required these circuits to be changed, but every other series that uses them will be affected by this.

But the reason the issue of essence and modern interpretation is important is because it can be applied to a lot more than circuits – it can be used as a way of describing the sport as a whole. F1 today is obsessed with its history, fetishising its past. Everything that happens today is compared to the past. Everything is put into context of the mythology of the sport.

Modern culture as a whole is like this. There is less effort to create great culture these days because it is considered that it cannot be great itself, so instead everything has to refer to great culture from the past, an “interpretation of”, a “homage to” or “satire of” something. F1 in particular seems to have fallen into this trap. F1 in 2014 has become a sort of warped homage to the F1 of 1968 or 1991. The Mexico City circuit of 2015 will be a warped homage to the Mexico City circuit of 1968 or 1991. It’s all a shiny artifice.

The problem with warped homages is that they aren’t the real thing. I know most viewers won’t care and will watch in regardless – to be fair, I probably will as well – but the more circuits that go into the knife to be “modernised”, the more F1’s actual historical basis is irreversibly eroded.

I appreciate that small changes have often been made over time, including at Mexico City prior to its 1986 return, but as with the famous brush (i.e. “it was my great-grandfather’s brush, though my grandfather changed the handle and my father changed the head”), how many actual links to the past are there?

To put it another way, here is the proposed 2002 F1 layout for Brands Hatch which eventually fell through, from Guido di Carli’s circuits website:

As you can see, while it retains the essence of Brands Hatch, it’s radically different. Would it really be Brands Hatch with the fastest corners slowed, the trees cut down and the pits moved? It would be in the same place and retain a couple of notable features, but surely it would be hollow and superficial.

And yet while this would be considered quite shocking, it’s also reality. F1 has allowed its actual circuits to be changed to an extent where they are also similarly unrecognisable from their previous versions, often only for financial gain and to the detriment of the facility as a whole.

And then consider how things like DRS and energy recovery have been added to F1 cars in order to facilitate great racing, to recreate the mythical great racing of the past. Consider how double points have been added to the last race of the season to ape the drama of past title deciders. Consider how the Lotus brand was basically resurrected to provide a fictional link to the past (something I was originally favour of, which I regret).

Trying to recreate the past is futile, especially using such half-arsed methods. The past is gone. Some may argue that for that reason it’s pointless complaining about the loss of the “old” Mexico City circuit, and other former versions of circuits. It’s a fair point, but it ignores that the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is still here and still being used by series. As recently as 2008, the circuit (including the Peraltada) was considered safe and up-to-date enough to host A1 GP and the NASCAR Nationwide Series – why does F1 require such ludicrous special measures?

The point is the circuit is about to be desecrated not for the reasons that they will give, but for making money. And yet the organisers won’t make money from it – F1 venues lose money on grands prix, because it all goes to FOM. It’s F1’s slash-and-burn policy in action. Knowing Mexico’s volatile history on the F1 calendar, it’s not unfair to suggest that in five or ten years’ time, the circuit will be abandoned by the circus again, having extracted all the revenue it can. The regeneration will most likely all be for very little, but the old circuit will be lost for good.

The problem is F1 itself. It is in the middle of a profound identity crisis but those running the show are only interested in short-term financial gain. They are happy to provide a cold, diluted, sterile series which provides a plastic inauthentic sample of what it was like once upon a time, and to provide this, they take advantage of naive regional governments, billionaires and circuit owners prepared to make a Faustian pact with them, leaving a trail of struggling white elephant circuits in their wake.

This is clearly unsustainable, because there are only so many rich people and countries in the world prepared to bankroll a grand prix, and the more you piss off, the less “untapped markets” there will be. Meanwhile, the longer it goes on, the more authentic sites of historical importance will be irreversibly altered in the name of “progress”. It’s a mess, and it’s sucking the rest of motorsport into this whirlpool too. The longer those running F1 continue to chop and change their minds over what they want it to be, the more damage will be done.

Written by James Bennett

July 24, 2014 at 15:43

Posted in F1, F1 history, F1 politics

Brian Hart Ltd in F1

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Sad news today – Brian Hart, the former Formula One driver and founder of the eponymous engine manufacturer, has died at the age of 77. Hart’s engines were a feature of the grid from 1981 to 1986 and 1993 to 1997, and though never successful, they played a small but important role in the period, helping the likes of Ayrton Senna and Rubens Barrichello to their first successes at the top level of motorsport.


Hart engines first appeared in F1 in 1981, with the new Toleman team making its debut at the 1981 San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. The Hart 415T was the only turbocharged engine in F1 not to be made by a manufacturer. Derek Warwick was the mainstay of the driver line-up for the first three seasons, and helped them progress from backmarkers to regular point-scorers. In 1982 at Zandvoort in the Netherlands, he picked up a fastest lap, and later went on to run an impressive second at Brands Hatch before the halfshaft failed. After the 1983 season, he switched to Renault.


Hart engines are indelibly associated with Ayrton Senna, who took his, the team’s and the engine’s first three podiums in 1984, his first season in F1, driving for Toleman. At Monaco he was lying second and catching leader Alain Prost, setting the fastest lap in the process, when the race was halted due to rain, with half-points awarded. It later emerged that Senna probably wouldn’t have finished the race as he’d already damaged the car.


Senna left the team at the end of the season for Lotus, and it would be another decade for a Hart-engined car finished in the top three. However, Teo Fabi, Senna’s replacement, took the company’s first pole position a year later at the Nurburgring. In 1986, Ted Toleman sold the team to Italian clothing company United Colors of Benetton, who were already the main sponsors. It was renamed Benetton and went on to become one of the most successful teams in F1 history, winning the 1994 and 1995 F1 world drivers’ championships with Michael Schumacher, before further championships in 2005 and 2006 as Renault with Fernando Alonso. The team is now known as Lotus F1.


During this time, Hart also supplied engines to British minnows RAM and Spirit, and the ambitious American team Haas. The 415T last appeared at a race in 1986, before Haas switched to a Ford turbo.


Both the next Hart podium and pole position came from another Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, who finished third for Jordan at the Japanese circuit of Aida in 1994, and went on to take pole at Spa-Francorchamps later in the year. Jordan had switched to the new Hart 1035 engine in 1993, bringing the company back into F1. However, after a successful 1994, Jordan became the works team of Peugeot.


Hart instead switched to supplying the Footwork Arrows team in 1995. Gianni Morbidelli (on the right) took Hart’s last podium at Adelaide that season. He was one of only eight classified finishers in the race.


The partnership continued into 1996 with few results, in part thanks to the ineptitude of this guy, Ricardo Rosset. Tom Walkinshaw, the new owner of the team, opted to switch to Yamaha engines for 1997 as he welcomed reigning champion Damon Hill to the team.


The last official Hart engine participations were in 1997 when Italian minnows Minardi used the engines. The company was bought out by Walkinshaw, who had quickly chosen to ditch Yamaha, and in 1998 and 1999 a Hart engine design appeared on the grid branded as an Arrows V10.


Mika Salo and Pedro Diniz picked up the last significant result for a Hart-designed engine at the 1998 Monaco Grand Prix, finishing fourth and sixth in the gorgeous but slow Arrows A19. After failing to woo manufacturer backing for the engine, Walkinshaw abandoned the plan and switched to Supertec engines for 2000.

Two pole positions, two fastest laps and five podiums is a good return considering they were often up against the might of the big manufacturers like Renault, Honda, Ferrari, Ford and Mercedes. Along with Judd and Ilmor (now owned by Mercedes), they were one of a small number of private engine manufacturers competing in F1 who were relied upon by the numerous small teams that soon died out as F1 became increasingly professional during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hart may not have had enormous success but he played an important role at the back of the grid, where efforts were rarely noticed.

Images used in the spirit of fair use

Written by James Bennett

January 6, 2014 at 15:50

Posted in F1, 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.

———-

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

Season Retrospective: 1994 Review

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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’

Written by James Bennett

September 17, 2012 at 12:12

Announcing Season Retrospectives

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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.

Written by James Bennett

September 16, 2012 at 19:59

The Top 10 Most Beautiful F1 Cars of the 1990s

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After posting a couple of motorsport-related entries on my Welsh Gull blog, I’ve decided to post them here too, hopefully in order to inspire me to write some more F1 and motorsport stuff here. This was first published on Welsh Gull on September 16th 2012

I could have done this as a “Top 10 Sexiest F1 Cars of All Time” article, but then gone for all 1990s cars and as a result be accused of bias and neglecting the beauties of the 50s, 60s, 80s, and 2000s (it is of course fact that no beautiful F1 cars were made in the 1970s). I grew up with 1990s F1 so I prefer the cars from that period. So instead of attracting pedantic whinges about a trivial subjective matter, I’ll just restrict my choices to The Official Best Decade of F1. To help with this, I’ve restricted to one entry per team. And liveries count – of course they count, they are a big part of what makes a car attractive.

So stick on some appropriate music and read on.

All image sources are unknown, with the images reproduced in the spirit of ‘fair use’

10. Andrea Moda-Judd S921 (1992)
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Yes, I’m starting with one of the worst cars to hit the track during the decade. Now, obscure or slow F1 cars aren’t always automatically attractive because of novelty value – the 1997 Lola T97/30 is a nice-looking chassis with a pretty ghastly livery that more people would complain about had it seen more than a couple of practice and qualifying sessions.

But the only ever Andrea Moda to officially participate in a race is a thing of beauty, with a complex background. It was originally designed by Nick Wirth’s Simtek firm (more on them shortly) for a provisional BMW entry for the 1990 season which was aborted. The designs were hurriedly bought by shoe magnate Andrea Sassetti in early 1992, the new owner of the former Coloni team, when it became clear that the 1991 Colonis were awful – the Andrea Moda team had been denied entry for the first race in South Africa for not having bought Coloni’s entry.

When the S921 eventually turned a wheel for the first time at Interlagos, the third venue of the season, it was pretty evident that it was a poor car. Well, not just poor – absolutely abysmal. After all, it was a design that was a good two or three years out of date, and now it was being prepared by a small team working on a shoestring. There were numerous technical issues – second driver Perry McCarthy, who made his first appearance in Spain, got as far as the end of the pit lane before breaking down, and later survived a steering seizure going through Eau Rouge at Spa, somehow avoiding a huge accident.

But before the inevitable end of the team, booted out after the Belgian Grand Prix for sheer incompetence and financial irregularities, they did at least manage to start one race. Somehow Roberto Moreno, lead driver of the team and a favourite of minnow teams, dragged the heap of junk through pre-qualifying and then to 26th in qualifying, enough to get him into the field. It lasted all of 11 laps before engine failure, but it was still a remarkable feat, a testament to the Brazilian’s under-appreciated abilities.

If you want to read more on the Andrea Moda saga, have a look at Scott Russell’s comprehensive article about the team at CFM.

9. Williams-Renault FW18 (1996)
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This one is a bit personal, because I was a massive Damon Hill fan and am currently in possession of a massive framed print of this car. But you can’t dispute that it is a great looking car.

It was of course bloody fast as well. Damon became the first driver in the modern era to qualify on the front row of every GP in a season, and the team won 12 out of the 16 races. It will go down as one of the most dominant cars in F1 history that no one really acknowledges as dominant, overshadowed by the earlier McLarens and Williamses and the later Ferraris, which is odd considering no one seems to rate Hill and Jacques Villeneuve that highly.

The Rothmans livery is a classic, regardless of which car it was on – the 1982 March, mid 80s Porsche and Metro rally cars, the early 90s Subaru Legacy and the four Williamses. The 1998 change to Winfield red was a travesty in my eyes – no Williams should have ever been red, and it still doesn’t look right today. Over a decade later, the team decided to paint the 2011 car in the style of the Rothmans colours, as a homage to a more successful period in the team’s history. However, if the intention was to bring back the good times, it didn’t work.

8. Simtek-Ford S941 (1994)
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This is a brilliant picture, of a beautiful car. It is, of course, tinged with regret, for this is Roland Ratzenberger blasting around Imola on That Weekend in 1994. It is for this that the Simtek team is generally remembered.

Nick Wirth’s outfit was a consultancy firm, backed by none other than future FIA generalissimo Max Mosley. As mentioned earlier, they designed what became the Andea Moda S921 (hence the similar name code), and also designed a car for the Bravo team, which was due to enter F1 in 1993 until the team owner, Jean-Francois Mosnier, died suddenly. Despite the fact that someone on high was clearly telling Wirth he shouldn’t be doing this, he made the decision for the company to enter F1 in its own right in 1994. The Bravo designs were updated, and he obtained backing from MTV Europe which was supposed to involved a TV show that never happened. Ratzenberger was hired alongside David Brabham, whose father Jack was a shareholder in the team.

After the Austrian’s death, the second seat became a revolving door of pay drivers – Andrea Montermini was injured in a crash in practice at Catalunya, while Jean-Marc Gounon was eventually superseded by the monied Domenico Schiattarella and future F1 clown Taki Inoue. The car did manage a couple of top 10s, but back then only the top 6 was rewarded with points, so it was academic. The successor, the S951, had a bit more potential, especially in the hands of Jos Verstappen who ran in the top 6 in Argentina before a heart-breaking gearbox failure. But the team soon ran out of money and was liquidated shortly after skipping the Canadian GP. Wirth later had a stint as designer for Benetton, and later founded Wirth Research, essentially Simtek Mk 2, designing cars for Acura and Virgin Racing.

Both Simteks were very attractive in their purple and black colours. Like the earlier Andrea Moda, the S941 was a very clean, simple design, which is always great F1 eye candy. It is a shame that the team is not remembered for this.

7. Prost-Peugeot AP02 (1999)

The 1999 Prost is one of only two cars from after 1997 on the list. The reason? For 1998, F1 cars changed forever, with rules restricting the width which led designers to new and increasingly ugly ways of finding downforce, leading us to today’s hideous lot. The grooved dry tyres were a bit of an issue as well. So it would have to take a pretty special car to get on the list.

And it was a pretty special car. But in looks only. The Prost Grand Prix story is one of failed promise. When Alain Prost bought the Ligier team, he inherited a team on the up, which had just designed one of the best cars of the year, with one of the best engines, on the new Bridgestone tyres which would prove surprisingly effective over the course of the season. Prost proved that his driving skills did not guarantee he was any good at running an F1 team by blowing most of this – he traded engines with Jordan, taking their Peugeot units in exchange for Prost’s Mugens, which proved to be disastrous, while the follow-up to the 1997 car was a sack of shit, scoring 1 point all year.

The one thing Prost GP did get right, though, was introducing metallic blue into their livery, moving away from the lighter shade of the last couple of Ligiers. The cars were great to look at but usually slow. The 1999 car was the best of the four cars designed after Prost’s takeover. Jarno Trulli picked up an unlikely 2nd place at the increadible European GP at the Nurburgring, thanks to not crashing, clever tyre changes and not crashing. Aside from that, there was nothing much to shout about – three 6 places, and that’s it. 9 points. But still, that’s 9 points more than they scored the following season.

The enigmatic ForzaMinardi wrote this on Prost for CFM which details their struggles further.

6. Tyrrell-Ford 019 (1990)

Any car Jean Alesi drove is beautiful. Regardless of his abilities as a driver (and he was the second most naturally-gifted driver of his generation, behind one M Schumacher of course), he had a knack for picking teams that built staggeringly awesome cars. Two of them will feature in this list.

Now the Tyrrell 019 is a bit before my team, as I wasn’t actually born until just under a year after it first appeared. But I didn’t restrict this to cars built in my lifetime, and it’s such a gorgeous car it would be wrong to not include it. It was also significant for launching the career of Jean Alesi – design veteran Harvey Postlethwaite designed a pretty damn good car, Tyrrell’s first for 7 years, and came up with a radical new nose in the process that was to reshape F1 cars forever. Alesi drove the wheels off it, picking up a couple of podiums and battling with Senna along the way. It was to be Tyrrell’s Indian summer, though, and unfortunately it would end without a final victory.

An honourable mention must go to the follow-up, the Honda-engined 020. It was very much the same in appearance but painted black and white instead – it’s nice, but to me, not very Tyrrell-ish. It was also not as good, and thus not as iconic as the 1990 car.

5. McLaren-Mercedes MP4/12 (1997)
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For McLaren, 1997 was, visually at least, a break from the past. Their long-running partnership with Marlboro ended after the 1996 season, and they agreed to replace one tobacco brand with another with West, who had previously sponsored the Zakspeed team. But while the Zakspeeds had a similar(-ish) red and white scheme to the Marlboro McLarens, when the covers came off at the huge, over-indulgent launch party at Alexandra Palace (which included performances from the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai), what was revealed was not another red and white McLaren, but something that looked more like…hmm, I don’t know, a Mercedes?

Which is rather convenient considering the German marque had strengthened its ties with the team over the winter. The choice of a German tobacco brand and a livery evoking the Silver Arrows of the 1930s and 1950s thus make sense. But corporate reasons aside, it was a brilliant livery, quite a shock to the system at first but an instant classic.

The livery would adorn McLarens until West ended their sponsorship of the team after the EU tobacco advertising ban in 2005, with McLaren choosing the current chrome silver colour scheme that their cars still carry today. This was by far the best of the cars to carry those colours, mainly because it was the first and thus had the biggest impact. But it’s still a great-looking car regardless – unconventional but it works. It was also the first McLaren to win an F1 GP for 3 and a half years when David Coulthard won the season-opening Australian GP. After this, McLaren were back as a competitive force.

4. Arrows A19 (1998)

Yeah, I’m a sucker for black cars. Who isn’t? But this one is the best of them all, even if it’s a post-97 car. What an absolutely stunning livery. What an absolutely stunning car. Especially when combined with Mika Salo’s distinctive helmet.

All-black cars are sexy because they are generally quite rare. BAR/Honda occasionally had a black testing livery, while A1 GP’s Team New Zealand had a similar scheme. But the A19 is the pinnacle, because it’s black and silver.

It wasn’t necessarily a brilliant car. Arrows never exactly made brilliant cars, anyway – even when John Barnard was designing them, as was the case with this one. The A19 came off the back of the enormously-disappointing 1997 season, where Damon Hill arrived, tried, crashed, nearly won and then disappeared in the space of a season. They also lost Yamaha backing at the end of the season, leading to the team badging their own engines for the season in the absence of Tom Walkinshaw’s deal with another manufacturer.

The car’s best result came, like the other black car on the list, at Monaco, where Salo finished an impressive 4th and Pedro Diniz followed him home in 6th. A 5th at Spa for Diniz gave the team a total of 6 points for the season – not exactly unexpected but not very good either. This would lead to the infamous deal with the Nigerian prince (yes, people got suckered in before the internet was popular), Tora Takagi and more failed promises before the team eventually went under in 2002.

3. Benetton-Ford B194

Benetton is known for two things – provocative ad campaigns involving AIDS victims, newborn babies and the like, and owning an F1 team. Quite a successful F1 team too. And one that made beautiful cars.

From 1989 on, Benetton became an increasingly powerful force in F1. Though the company’s name and colours had been on cars since it hooked up with Alfa Romeo in 1984, two years before buying out the Toleman team, it was when the team started edging towards the head of the field that people started taking notice, in much the same way that people didn’t really think much of Red Bull until Adrian Newey got involved. In Benetton’s case, the key was not one man but a number of them – genius designer Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds were later joined by Ross Brawn, with Flavio Briatore overseeing it all by 1990. The win total gradually crept up.

1994 was the big year. The new rules limiting technology shook up the order, lead driver Michael Schumacher was maturing, and Ayrton Senna…well, yeah, we know what happened to him. The B194 was the best car out there and was now being driven by the best driver. What could possibly go wrong?

1994 is a year of myth and legend, and I don’t think you need me to go into it for the nth time. What Benetton did or didn’t do is a matter of immense, tiresome debate in the pub (or an internet forum, as is more likely for 21st century F1 fans). The fact is the car was, err, officially legal. But regardless of what was going on inside (and I can say the same for the Toyota Celica GT-Four too), it’s a beautiful car. The combination of Mild Seven blue and Benetton green is an odd one at first glance – and some may prefer the earlier yellow and green Camel liveries – but for some reason, it works for me.

Also, I have a programme from the 1994 Australian GP, and it’s on the front cover (from above). So it’s a personal thing too. I appreciate it may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s one of my favourite F1 cars ever. So there.

2. Jordan-Ford 191 (1991)

That picture is iconic. This is of course Michael Schumacher during his first F1 race weekend at Spa, his only race for Jordan which lasted all of a few hundred yards. Michael caused a stir when he turned up, at a track he had never driven (despite telling Eddie Jordan otherwise), and trounced his team mate Andrea de Cesaris, before burning up his clutch at the start.

But while that classic F1 story is usually the only mention the 191 gets (other than in beauty contests like this one), the background is quite interesting. This was Jordan’s first season in F1 after considerable success in junior formulae. Gary Anderson nailed the car design, and the team was competitive straight away. The competitive Ford engines helped, but you can’t fluke a consistent point-scoring machine in your first season – 5th in the constructors championship was a great achievement. Indeed, De Cesaris very nearly finished 2nd at Spa until his engine blew in the dying laps. But Jordan’s early success nearly proved the team’s downfall, as Ford pulled their engines leaving them with the dreadful Yamaha units, and the team ran into serious financial problems it was lucky to recover from.

It’s also special because 7-Up haven’t been seen on an F1 car since, having only made a brief appearance previously on the back of the 1989 Benetton. That’s a real shame, because the logo and colours had so much potential. Since then, they’ve stuffed up the logo anyway, and soft drinks aren’t really into F1 any more. Energy drinks is where it’s at, apparently. Pfft.

1. Ferrari 412T2 (1995)

Quite simply, the most beautiful F1 car ever, bar none. Everything is right about it – the livery, the lines, the drivers, and the incredible V12 engine, one of the greatest F1 engines of recent times simply because of the sound.

I don’t need to say anything. Just look at those pictures, watch these videos and listen to that engine.


Written by James Bennett

September 16, 2012 at 18:49

Posted in F1, F1 history