Talking Money

This week’s racing press has seen perhaps the biggest split since Ayrton Senna died, between those who ‘get’ racing and those who do not. I cannot believe those who comment that Kimi Raikkonen should have jeopardised a potential Grand Prix win by changing his damaged tyre.

Newsflash: Raikkonen is a racing driver and he is paid to win. He took a calculated risk which, had the suspension lasted another five kilometres, would have paid off. I should add that Raikkonen is paid many millions of pounds to take such risks. Raikkonen and McLaren should be applauded for taking the chance, and for taking such a pragmatic view in the aftermath. Let us not forget that the new tyre rules have transformed F1 this year, and turned Sunday’s race, which last year would have petered out, into a thriller.

Furthermore, to the many whingers on the Autosport letters page – you’ve all obviously never seen a Formula Ford race at Brands Hatch. If you had, then you’d realise the Raikkonen incident was tame. If you don’t like it, sod off and watch golf instead.

A similar ignorance has been displayed by all those complaining and questioning why British driver Dan Wheldon is racing in the USA and not in F1. Firstly, had it not been for his stunning victory at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday night, Wheldon would remain in relative obscurity, known to the connoisseur but few others.

Secondly, quite simply the answer is money. Had Wheldon not been able to continue his career in the USA he could not afford to be a professional racing driver.

Wheldon’s story is all too familiar to so many talented British drivers, except that in Dan’s case it has a happy ending. Few people remember, or even realise, that Wheldon was Jenson Button’s closest rival in British Formula Ford in 1998, but whereas Button enjoyed a meteoric rise to F1, Wheldon has had a rather more convoluted route to Indy glory. A friend in the racing world once told me Button spent ???1m on PR alone, prior to his entry to Formula One. That’s pounds, not lire. True or not, it says a great deal about British single seater racing (where the ‘entry-level’ Formula BMW series will set you back roughly ???200,000 for the year).

Now there is no doubt that Jenson Button is an exceptionally talented driver and worthy of his place in F1, but let’s not forget he finished 3rd in the 1999 British Formula 3 championship. Button went straight to F1, whereas title winner Marc Hynes has had barely ten races since. Hynes’ talent was certainly equal to, if not superior to, Button’s, and he remains perhaps the greatest talent for many years to have been so completely overlooked. Then we have the cases of Alan Van Der Merwe and Robbie Kerr, both dominant in Formula 3 and both currently unemployed beyond the odd outing.

Whilst there is no doubt that most of the drivers in F1 are exceptionally talented, it is also arguable that they are by no means the best available. In today’s racing environment PR and sponsorship are essential. Failing this you need a rich daddy (Pedro Diniz) or that’s it – career finished. There are literally hundreds of drivers out there who were stellar in Formula Ford or Formula Renault, and way more deserving of a drive than others who have gone all the way, whose careers have petered out.

I discovered this first hand racing in the BRDC Formula Ford series last year. Of the top four in the championship, only two have found regular drives (one of those is the champion whose prize was a career enhancement fund). All four had the ability to be competitive in F3 at the very least.

In contrast, some of the less able drivers (so bad even I was thrashing them on a regular basis) have sailed into drives in which, quite frankly, they are way out of their depth. Even at the most junior forms of motorsport, money talks.

A more high profile example is this year’s Formula 3 Euroseries and GP2 Championships. British drivers in the form of Lewis Hamilton and Adam Carroll respectively are comfortably the series stars. Hamilton has been funded by McLaren (and recently Mercedes), since karting and has never been in an underfinanced, uncompetitive car (I’m reliably informed his winter testing budget in Formula Renault was in the region of ???200,000).

Carroll has struggled his way through the ranks, finishing second in last year’s British Formula 3 championship to Nelson Piquet Jr. by doing deals on a race-by-race basis (Carroll’s budget for last year is probably less than Piquet Sport spent on snacks), and is now competing in GP2 on a similar basis. Both are deserving of an F1 race seat, Carroll is arguably the better driver, but I guarantee you it will be Hamilton on the Grand Prix grid. He has better PR and a history of manufacturer backing. Game, set, match and pair of Oakleys.

There have traditionally been two exceptions to this rule: the USA and Japan. Here sponsors back winners rather than family friends. The Japanese F3000 series has been renowned for producing F1 drivers (Eddie Irvine, Heinz-Harald Frentzen), but the Asian recession means it is not the gold mine it once was. It is now the USA which is the primary place of refuge for the fast-but-broke brigade. Wheldon has shot to prominence this week, but Darren Manning, Dario Franchitti and Justin Wilson have all achieved success in the USA at a time when their British driving options were limited to minicabs.

This is a complex issue and one that has historically dogged motor sport. This is a sport as accessible to the common man as is polo. Likewise to reach the highest echelons of motor sport you must be fantastically talented.

Zsolt Baumgartner may not stack up too well against Michael Schumacher, but he’d kick your arse at the local kart track. Furthermore, motor sport, and especially F1, is business.

The Ferraris of this world don’t want introverted dwarves (most racing drivers are very short) driving their cars, they want charismatic, attractive, marketable people like?????? um??????. Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello.

It is easy to knock pay drivers. But please bear two things in mind. First, F1 champions such as Niki Lauda started out as pay drivers, and second, if you had the money you’d be doing exactly the same thing. Or at least I would. So if anyone has a few million burning a hole in their pocket, please send cash or cheques made payable to Ben Evans.

Editorial: Unintended Consequences

A chance Google mix-up earlier this week got me musing on the problem of unintended consequences. Plan for one thing, get the other. Luckily for us, unintended consequences have played a major part in making the 2005 season rather good so far.

Take Ferrari’s sudden and shocking decline in form relative to the opposition. The car may not quite be the gem its predecessors were and maybe, just maybe, Schumacher is beginning to feel the pinch a bit, but the real cause of the Scuderia’s woes this season has been their Bridgestone tyres. Ironic, given that these same tyres were the bedrock on which much of their success since 1999 has been built.

Ferrari never chose to go with Bridgestone in the first instance. When the Japanese tyre firm arrived on the scene in 1997 Ferrari, like most front runners, sided with long-time suppliers Goodyear.

But when Goodyear turned their back on F1 after the use of the somewhat preposterous-looking grooved tyres was enforced in 1998, the entire field, Ferrari included, found themselves stuck with Bridgestone from 1999 onwards.

In 2001 Michelin arrived, allied to Williams – team head Frank Williams being mindful of the beatings Michelin doled out to their rivals in the early eighties. They were quickly competitive and Ferrari seized the opportunity to court Bridgestone over the favourability of working more closely with Ferrari, even to the disadvantage of other Bridgestone-shod teams.

Bridgestone, having already won three constructor’s and two driver’s titles with Ferrari, were doubtlessly seduced by this and centred their tyre development around the needs of Schumacher. Meanwhile, more of the major teams defected to Michelin. McLaren changed after 2001, BAR after 2003 (and released damning statistics to F1 Racing magazine about how much better 2003 would have been for them on Michelins – before proving it with an exceptional 2004 season), Sauber after 2004. The only teams remaining on Bridgestone were Ferrari and minnows Jordan and Minardi.

The immediate consequence for Ferrari was overwhelmingly positive – they won the 2002 and 2004 championships by mind-boggling margins, simply because they had the very best tyres and no other team could get to their level. But the 2003 season was a warning shot – Michelin produced a more competitive tyre, and Ferrari found themselves swamped by the opposition. It took a late rule change by the FIA to swing the advantage back to Ferrari.

But that advantage has now deserted them. The 2005 rules package stipulated that tyres must last for an entire race distance and Bridgestone, with only one competitive team on their roster, have been unable to clock up enough testing mileage to produce a competitive tyre.

The Michelin teams, now even greater in number than in 2003, have been rampant so far this season. Ferrari have struggled even to score podiums.

Ferrari may be bleating that they should be exempt from a testing restriction because they run Bridgestones, but that exclusivity has been their trump card in the past. It’s just an unintended consequence that it may be about the cost them their first title in six years.

What of the Google mix-up? Ah. Yes. Let’s just say this – be very careful if you’re searching the web for information on nineties cult drama The X-Files. I’m off to clean out my Internet cache??????

United States Grand Prix 2005 Preview

2005 sees the sixth running of the United States Grand Prix on the Indianapolis ‘infield’ circuit and, for the first time in this period, the field of drivers will include an American. But will F1′s brave new rules win over the notoriously indifferent American audience?

F1 has had a rough time in America. Although for many years two races a season were held in America, this was always more out of financial expedience than any burgeoning passion for ‘European’-style road racing in the US. The Grand Prix has chopped and changed its way through seven different venues before winding up back where it started, in Indiana.

In Canada Kimi Raikkonen clawed back the ground in the title chase he lost at the Nurburgring, and will hope to make another step forward as rival Alonso is forced into an early qualifying slot.

Ferrari had their best weekend and carry a qualifying advantage going to Indianapolis: surely they can finally translate their ever-growing speed into a race victory? Toyota, meanwhile, must be looking to harness their reputed engine power to claim victory at this power-orientated circuit.

Race history

The US GP has always been something of an oddity. The Indy 500 counted towards the world driver’s championship from 1950 to 1960, but remarkably few European drivers bothered themselves with the trip. A second, one-off race was held at the unloved Californian Sebring circuit in 1960.

For 1961 the race moved East to Watkins Glen in New York, and it was here that the race enjoyed its best years. It remained at the Glen until 1980 and usually provided a warm, golden, autumnal end to the year’s racing.

Even if the championship was already decided, in the years before the Formula One Constructions Association fixed race winnings it offered the greatest prize money, and the combination of that plus the fast, undulating circuit enticed teams across the Atlantic.

From 1976 a dispensation allowed a second race to be held, back on the west coast of California on the streets of Long Beach. This, one of the more popular street venues Formula One has visited, sadly lasted only until 1983 and in 1980 ended the career of Clay Regazzoni who crashed horribly and suffered paralysis.

When Watkins Glen became too unsafe for the turbo and ground effects generation in 1980, Long Beach was left as the only American Grand Prix. But for 1982 a new race appeared, fittingly, at Detroit, the ‘motor city’. The exceptionally tight street circuit was not quite the equal of Monaco (despite also having a tunnel).

There was precious little practice for the first race and the inevitable first-lap shunt caused a two-hour delay. But when the race finally started John Watson put in an amazing drive to win from 17th on the grid.

With the passing of Long Beach, the second US Grand Prix in 1984 was held at Dallas, and it was nothing short of a farce. The lunacy of trying to hold a race in Texas in the height of summer has perhaps never been equalled in F1 history. The double-whammy blunder of not having the track surface properly tested before the weekend caused the circuit to disintegrate beneath the cars’ wheels. The race was won by the fearsomely strong Keke Rosberg aided, ingeniously, by a water-cooled skull-cap. One of the organisers made off with the proceeds and F1, thankfully, never returned.

This left only Detroit, with its pitifully low and unimpressive average speeds. After 1988 it, too, was dropped from the calendar after a late attempt to switch the race to scenic Belle Island was thwarted by environmental lobbyists.

The US Grand Prix hit a new nadir by moving to the angular Pheonix street track until 1991. The race suffered the final ignominy in that final year when it held the season opener, yet drew a smaller audience than a nearby ostrich race.

That was it for F1 in America until Bernie Ecclestone finally brokered a deal with Indianapolis and Indy Racing League owner Tony George to run the United States Grand Prix on a track combining the historic oval with a purpose-built infield section. In practice, the circuit combines the sublime with the ridiculous, as the machines scream through the mighty banked turn of the oval, then pootle about in a skinny circuit alongside a golf course for the rest of the lap.

The Grands Prix held at the new venue have been mixed affairs. The 2000 race, held at the height of the Schumacher-Hakkinen championship battle, promised high drama but petered out, taking the championship with it, when Hakkinen’s engine blew and Schumacher strolled home untroubled. Ferrari dealt F1′s hopes of achieving popularity in America a hammer blow when Schumacher inadvertently handed victory to Rubens Barrichello on the final lap while trying to engineer a dead heat.

In 2003, as in 2000, the race proved the undoing of the championship battle as Juan Pablo Montoya received a ridiculously harsh penalty for tangling with Barrichello, and a wet race handed Schumacher a much-needed win. The drama in 2004 was supplied by a serious of frightening high-speed punctures and a serious accident that befell Ralf Schumacher.

A lone American in a spare Red Bull on Friday is not going to be enough to win over US audiences to F1. The circus goes to Indianapolis off the back of an entertaining season’s racing, but badly needing to keep the excitement up to turn more Americans on to the sport.

Canadian Grand Prix 2005 Review

The Canadian Grand Prix proved dramatic and incident-filled from start to finish, if lacking in much outright racing. But, with Kimi Raikkonen winning and Fernando Alonso failing to score, it gave a welcome shot in the arm for the championship battle.

Jenson Button and Michael Schumacher provided the Saturday shock by stealing the front row of the grid. But within fifteen laps of the Canadian Grand Prix they had been found out. Schumacher stopped first after just twelve laps, and Button three laps later. Crucially, neither were able to press home their low-fuel advantage as they both made terrible starts, possible precipiated by Button’s slow warm-up lap.

When the red lights faded out the Renault made their once-customary lightning starts and simply drove around the front row-sitters, with Giancarlo Fisichella leaping from fourth to lead team mate Alonso.

Further back Juan Pablo Montoya got away cleanly from fifth and demoted Michael Schumacher, then baulked him at the hairpin to allow Raikkonen to move through. Thus the championship protagonists were lined up intriguingly behind their team mates.

As early as lap seven it was clear that Alonso was quicker than Fisichella, but with Renault refusing to verbally impose team orders (which, at any rate, have been banned since 2003, although no-one has yet been punished for it) he was stuck in second. Button was not falling away but after lap fifteen Montoya and Raikkonen began reeling in the Renaults. From 9s on lap 17 Montoya was within 5.5s of Alonso on lap 20.

Alonso’s frustration was compounded two laps later when Christian Klien, returning to Red Bull in place of Vitantonio Liuzzi, exited the pits and badly held the the Spaniard for four corners, costing him at least two seconds.

Now Montoya was almost close enough to pounce on Alonso, but there would be no time to try a move on the track as the first round of pit stops were just about to start. They began with those of the title rivals on lap 24.

Montoya and Fisichella followed on lap 25, giving Montoya a clear shot at passing Alonso via the pit stops. But as he swept back onto the circuit the rear of his car stepped out of line and the correction pitched him onto the grass at turn two. He crawled back on, but Alonso was already four seconds up the road.

Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve had a strong qualifying position ruined after contact with Takuma Sato’s BAR on lap one forced him to pit for a recplacement front wing.

On lap 26 Narain Karthikeyan clouted one of the many conrete barriers that line the circuit Villeneuve and retired with broken right rear suspension. This was another blow to the Jordan team that had already lost team manager Trevor Carlin prior to the weekend and suffered a public spat between Kathikeyan and team leader Colin Kolles. It would turn out that Karthikeyan was in good company, though.

Alonso was quickly back on Fisichella’s team mate and furiously radioed the Renault team, who impassivley responded, “we understand, we know you’re quicker, overtake him.” On lap 30 he went for it, even briefly drawing alongside his team mate who calmly maintained a defensive line.

Alonso, frustrated, began to make mistakes. At the start of lap 31 he braked too deep into turn one and clattered the exit kerbs, all the time allowing Montoya to move ever closer, even if Raikkonen wasn’t quite on the pace at this point.

But the next time around the pressure seemed to lift from Alonso for good. Fisichella slowed and Alonso and Montoya quickly zaooed past. Hydraulic failure, it transpired, was the cause, and Fisichella was livid at his third mechanical failure as Alonso again enjoyed a reliable race.

All the same, this was a race Alonso would not finish. Free of Fisichella, he still had Montoya bearing down on him and was more than aware that the McLaren driver could run a longer second stint and pass him at the pit stops. On lap 38 he asked just a little too much of his Renault and smacked the barrier at turn four. For the first time in 2005 Alonso would fail to complete a race distance, and retired.

Further back, Rubens Barrichello was having an eventful race. After a gearbox failure in qualifying (Schumacher having suffered the same in practice) he had started last, from the pits, in a car brimmed full of fuel. On lap 34 he ran wide at the hairpin, then cut the final chicane five laps later, but was still making progress.

Schumacher, meanwhile, was bearing down on Button for what was now third place, with Jarno Trulli back in fourth in a Toyota that was suffering one of its periodic bad races.

Takuma Sato had ‘retired’ as early as lap 22 with apparent gearbox problems, but the quick-thinking BAR team set about fixing a working gearbox and engine to the car and sent him back out after a mammoth 24-lap stop, simply to rack up as many laps as possible to secure a more advantageous qualifiyng slot for the United States Grand Prix. It meant that Sato could pass anyone who retired in the next three laps.

And that was exactly what happened to, who else, but Sato’s own team mate. Schumacher’s pressure on Button finally told on lap 47 when he hit the ‘wall of champions’ in time-honoured fashion by taking too much kerb at the preceding chicane. The mess caused a safety car perior, and inadvertently triggered the end of Montoya’s race.

As the teams scrambled to bring their drivers in Montoya apparently missed his chance of a stop and Raikkonen, lying second, made it in instead and seized the advantage. Montoya stopped the next time around but on leacing the pits and merging bck into traffic was promptly disqualifed for leaving the pits when he shouldn’t have – an instant black flag situation.

This at least spared McLaren the dilemma of trying to swap their drivers to give Raikkonen the massive championshop advantage. Now began the traditional Montreal brake failure retirements late in the race – Trulli on lap 62, from third, and the hapless Sato, on lap 65.

Fpr Raikkonen, the win gave him a renewed shot at the championship with the margin cut back down to 22 points as it had been before Nurburgring. With still 11 rounds left in this ever-changing championship, it is a more than realistic prospect. But, with Ferrari finishing second and third, nor can they be discounted at this stage.