Once upon a time not so long ago, Formula One drivers could be seen in action nearly every weekend; in non-Championship Grands Prix, Group C Sportscars, Touring Cars or even just thrashing a Saloon Car for a bit of fun. But why no more?
Even in the mid-90s Giancarlo Fisichella intermittently alternated between the International Touring Car (ITC) series and F1, and Eddie Irvine was a Le Mans regular well into his Jordan career. But as F1 has become more ‘professional’, drivers need permission just to pop down to the supermarket, let alone race in a discipline other than F1. Renault test driver Frank Montagny recently won a battle with his team to allow him to race at Le Mans this year. I should emphasise: Montagny is the test driver.
This decline in extra curricular activity is disappointing, but not surprising. Although Sportscar racing is spectacular it is also dangerous as top-line drivers are pitted against amateurs in vastly different machinery. From 1985-86 alone four F1 drivers were killed at the wheel and many more suffered serious injuries. Three of those deaths (Stefan Bellof, Manfred Winklehock and Jo Gartner) and most of the injuries occurred racing in Sportscars. Grand Prix bosses became very concerned about seeing their drivers head off to Le Mans or Spa and return with two broken legs, if they returned at all.
Other series serve to equalise in a way F1 never will. With Renault so dominant at the start of 2005, would Flavio Briatore like to see his charges beaten in a Saloon race by Christijan Albers? Likewise, while Michael Schumacher took part in the Race of Champions, it is unlikely he would actually engage in serious racing away from F1 for risk of being shown up. Would he really be prepared to go to Sportscars and risk being humbled by Giovanni Lavaggi?
Although these are both valid reasons, F1 drivers sticking to their day job has robbed fans of the opportunity to see the versatility of the drivers that are called the world’s best. I for one find it hard to have blind faith in the absolute talent of Kimi Raikkonen and Jenson Button given that they have had careers strictly within the confines of top-level single seater formulae, cosseted by competitive machinery fitted (since 2001) with traction control. This is not to say that I don’t believe they are unworthy of their place in F1, but that it would be interesting to see how they’d get on in the Renault Clio Cup, for example. Furthermore this would give some an opportunity to shine in a way that they never can in Grand Prix. Felipe Massa and Juan Pablo Montoya would be spectacular sliding Caterhams around (though it might be safer to watch from a distance).
Today most F1 drivers make extra-Grand Prix racing excursions with exceptional rarity. Yes, the Race of Champions was stuffed to the gills with top drivers, but it was little more than a glorified kart race on a circuit so twisty it made the Hungaroring seem fast and flowing. Likewise the proliferation of city-centre demonstration runs is entertaining and good public relations for F1, but offers no impression of the drivers’ comparative abilities.
The most recent example of a top-level F1 driver going elsewhere was Giancarlo Fisichella when he made a cameo appearance (without success) in the European Touring Car Championship. Doubtless today’s drivers are bound by restrictive contracts that state that when drivers are not testing and racing they must be giving foot massages to the sponsor’s wife. Such duties allow little time for other outings. I also sympathise that the 19 race calendar is busier than ever, but seeing as NASCAR driver Robby Gordon (only 36 races a year) found time to do the Paris-Dakar this winter anything is possible.
Pehaps current drivers are simply not in demand away from Grand Prix. I find it hard to believe that Ralf Schumacher or Jacques Villeneuve are inundated with calls enuiring about their availability (let us not forget that Ralf’s wife has slammed his driving). Since his season at Jordan, Ralph Firman has found it hard to get a race at an ‘Arrive and Drive’ kart track let alone in a competitive racing car. Money, as always, is a factor. F1 drivers are for the most part accustomed to gettiing paid for their talents. Away from F1 the opposite is the case. Sadly, most sponsors get hysterical when one of their supported drivers gets too close to a machine sponsored by a market rival – this almost stopped Valentino Rossi testing for Ferrari until common sense prevailed.
It would be great, though, to see the current F1 stars moonlighting in other racing activity on weeks off or, better still, having various one-off races in Saloons or Formula Fords during downtime. It would be fascinating to see the winners and losers from such a scenario. Imagine Michael Schumacher back in Sportscars? A man now renowned for his unwillingness to share a team with another driver having to accept two other drivers in the same car. What about Takuma Sato in Banger Racing? He could drive into other people to his heart’s content.
There would be flaws – doubtless Max Mosley would find a way to intervene (probably by attempting to lower costs in Formula Ford through the introduction of titanium components). Furthermore (and this is really disturbing), if F1 drivers were to race elsewhere on weekends off they may be at risk of being approached by the public. That’s right, they may actually have to meet fans and sign autographs, as Saloon and Sportscar paddocks don’t have F1-style security levels comparable to Alcatraz.
I would love to see a return to a previous era when Grand Prix drivers could be seen almost every weekend thrashing around the circuits somewhere in Europe. Some did this for the money, most because, quite simply, they loved racing. I just wish the same attitude were more evident amongst the current grid.