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F1’s overtaking fixation is missing the point

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We all love overtaking in F1, right? We all love the great moves – the ballsy wall-of-deaths, the daring dummies, the late lunges. And we don’t like to processions where one car is sat behind another and can’t overtake. So it made sense that the FIA should make overtaking easier. The problem is there are two separate issues there, and while one has been solved, another has been made comprehensively worse, to the detriment of the sport.

Today’s Indian Grand Prix summed up just about everything that’s wrong with DRS. The DRS zones were on the two main straights, the start/finish straight and the following back straight. This made slip-streaming relatively straight-forward, especially when the gearing was set up for top speed, as Ferrari did. The vast majority of the overtakes in the race were DRS-assisted.

People who see raw overtaking statistics as the answer to every entertainment-related question ever proposed wouldn’t be bothered by this but there are a couple of points that would be missed by that. There is little entertainment value in seeing one car drive past another with ease at the flick of a switch – sure, it could potentially make a race interesting by releasing a car to chase another, but I don’t know anyone who gets excited simply by a slip-stream move. Alongside this, with it being so easy to overtake, the cars soon sorted themselves in order of pace, leading to a largely processional race, in which the only intrigue was centred on how many places the Red Bulls could potentially lose with reliability problems and how Pastor Maldonado could take himself/someone else out of the race.

Overtaking is not the be-all and end-all. The context of and in the race is vital. The moves that are remembered aren’t remembered simply for being overtakes – they have important contexts in the battles for race or championship, and/or they are remembered for bravery. There’s nothing brave about a DRS overtake, and they often spoil the tension. Sometimes one car being stuck behind another can be fantastic to watch – the finishes at Imola in 2005 and 2006 are a great example of this.

The other problem with DRS is that it’s masking other serious issues with overtaking. Since its introduction, it seems people have forgotten how bad the cars are at following other cars through corners, though it was clearly evident today through the fast sweeps of the Buddh circuit. This is certainly a problem that isn’t getting any better. The availability of DRS as a shortcut to working an overtake has simply led to a concentration of all the moves on the DRS zones. To an extent it doesn’t matter if the races are good regardless, and some of the races have been very good this year. But it does mean that the so-called “art” of overtaking is being lost – instead of working an overtake through a sequence of corners or with an act of pure bravery, drivers are happy to sit back and wait for the DRS zone. The challenge is now staying within a second of the car in front once you reach that line – easy enough if you’ve got the faster car.

I don’t believe, like some, that F1 has become less pure solely because of the ability to push a button to go faster – it isn’t an inherently bad thing. But the way it has been set up, the knock-on effect it has had, and the environment within which it has been introduced has given F1 a blander, slightly less authentic feel. DRS, in the majority of cases, seems to have had a similar effect to the reintroduction of refuelling – it’s put the emphasis back on lap time, gaps and pace: the things that are intangible, that you wouldn’t know unless the graphs and commentators told you.

Vettel dominating F1 once again wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the racing was entertaining – though he dominated last year, reaction towards the 2011 season was broadly positive. But the reaction to the past few races has been largely negative.

But on a personal level, I’d go as far as to say F1 has rarely wowed me since DRS was introduced. There have been a few exciting races but the vast majority of races, even the decent ones, have felt slightly hollow. This year has been the first in a long time where I’ve willingly missed races. I’ve barely seen any of qualifying. I just cannot get myself excited for F1 any more. On the one hand, a lot of the time it’s not very entertaining – on the other, changes are being made for the purpose of making it more entertaining, which I don’t think is totally within the ethos of a motor racing championship. It’s all a bit Hollywood. Should the quality of a grand prix effectively be determined by how long the DRS zone is? Because that’s essentially what has happened on several occasions – both being too long and too short.

As with rallying, F1 has been diluted, reduced to a few basic component parts, and jazzed up to make it seem more fun. I guess this may be just getting old but I do feel there is a more fundamental issue here. It’s no longer a stretch to see the FIA and FOM taking the jazzing-up further – the sprinklers and shortcuts mooted in the past no longer seem ridiculous in the context of go-faster buttons. The more rules that are added, the more discourses develop, and F1 becomes irretrievably very different from what it was meant to be and became popular by being, something that was understood as recently as 10 years ago but has been lost in continual attempts to “improve the show” – that it’s supposed to be 24 fast cars racing each other to see which one completes the required distance first.

When the champion was Farina or when the champion was Schumacher, that basic principle remained the guiding factor – now the guiding factor is what F1 people think normal people enjoy. This does seem to be at odds with DRS, since that has been “popular”, but refuelling was initially popular too – the novelty soon wore off. The novelty will wear off with DRS too.

But then I think F1 may now be lost to the marketeers and the businessmen anyway. I’m aware I’m out of step with what many others think. I know nothing can bring the past back. But that doesn’t mean I have to go along with the smelly rotting carcass that’s left. I don’t claim to have the answers, but I don’t like what I’m seeing. But I may have to get used to that.

Written by James Bennett

October 28, 2012 at 16:12

Posted in F1

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

A Suzuka infographic

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Those people at Red Bull are continually busy coming up with interesting stuff. This is a breakdown of some key facts on the Suzuka circuit and this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix. The one of course that they haven’t included is that the race starts at 7 am British time – it’s early but it’s one of the few early morning races worth actually getting up for.

For more great infographics, to follow the performance of both Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber for the rest of the Championship and to keep up to date with all the gossip from inside the paddock, download the FREE app here: http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/red-bull-racing-spy/id504350767?mt=8 or search for the Red Bull Racing Spy in the app store

Written by James Bennett

October 4, 2012 at 10:58

Posted in Circuits, F1

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