Archive for the ‘ F1 Politics ’ Category

Rancour at McLaren too?

Lewis Hamilton: miscommunication?

Martin Whitmarsh and Lewis Hamilton: miscommunication?

The problem with modern racing drivers is that racing is all they’ve ever known: all that time spent honing their natural, instinctive feel for how to make a car go as quickly as possible, from an early age, leaves them undeveloped in other crucial areas. Chief amongst these is their capacity to form effective relationships with other people.

Of course, even if you’re paranoid it doesn’t necessarily follow that they aren’t out to get you – but for an F1 driver, trapped in their own self-centred bubble from the moment they first grasped a steering wheel, paranoia can be extraordinarily corrosive. The merest whiff of partiality is all it takes; and then, like any message board conspiracy theorist or tinfoil hat merchant, once they have reached their conclusion they shape and interpret all incoming data to suit it, and discard anything to the contrary. It’s all downhill from there.

This mentality is what precipitated Fernando Alonso’s meltdown at McLaren in 2007. Odd, isn’t it, that someone with the inner steel to go wheel-to-wheel with their rivals at 200mph and beyond could so easily be provoked into a destructive sequence of hissy fits? And yet that’s what happened: by the end it didn’t matter whether McLaren really were favouring Lewis over Fernando or not; it was enough that he believed they were (and let’s not forget that Lewis had a tantrum of his own that year, in Monaco, because he felt the team had favoured Fernando over him – sometimes being a team principal must be like herding cats).

As documented in my previous post, a whiff of not-invented-in-Salzburg syndrome is in the air at Red Bull after the Turkish Grand Prix. But what of McLaren? Never have I seen Lewis Hamilton look so unmoved after a race win.

Having inherited the lead after the Red Bulls eliminated one another at Turn 12, Hamilton was challenged by his team-mate at exactly the same spot nine laps later. It was a brief battle, which Hamilton resolved in his favour by edging Button wide into Turn 1 at the beginning of the following lap. And then, as if in receipt of an urgent injunction from the team to play nicely, they held station for the rest of the race.

There were the beginnings of a muttered conversation between Hamilton and Jenson Button in the drivers’ pre-podium ‘green room’, but they broke it off when they realised they were within earshot of a live microphone and camera. McLaren’s race feed on their excellent new website contains no radio conversation pertaining to the events of lap 49.

Questioned later, Hamilton explained that he had been instructed to save fuel and given a target lap time, which he thought was too slow, and which enabled Button to catch him up. He also alluded to a “miscommunication” with the team (given his recent penchant for slagging them off on the air, they can be forgiven for leaning on the mute button for that one). Fleet Street drilled down into this during the official presser. He responded:

For me it was just… the communication wasn’t clear for me. When they suggested ‘save this much fuel’ it was not easy to save that much fuel unless I went particularly slowly. I tried to reach that target and in doing so, Jenson was all of a sudden… he just appeared from nowhere and he was up my tail and then there was nothing I could do.

Button, for his part, said:

For about four or five laps beforehand they were saying you have to save fuel. They didn’t put a lap time on it. They just said you have got to save a bit of fuel. That was quite early in the race I was told to do that, probably about lap 30.

It’s possible that Button, having stayed in touch with the leading trio in the first half of the race without seriously pushing them, had burned less fuel and therefore had more ‘in his pocket’. Does the team’s failure to set him a target lap time, as they did with Hamilton, equate to favouritism? As conspiracy theories go, this is very thin gruel.

Still, as I said, it doesn’t matter whether there is any favouritism or not. What matters is the individual’s belief that it exists. At the end of the FIA press conference there was an illuminating exchange prompted by F1’s pre-eminent banana-eater, Michael Schmidt:

Q: Lewis, what happened at the pit stop because Sebastian was able to jump you. Was there any problem?

LH: I don’t know, I have to…

MW: We put fuel in, I think, at the pit stop.

LH: It seemed to be quite a…

MW: My guys weren’t quick and I thought ‘Lewis’s guys are also having a bit of a break.’

In the toxic mental landscape of the paranoid, even a sticky rear wheelnut can be taken as evidence. Mark Webber clearly has a monkey on his back. Is there one astride Lewis Hamilton’s shoulders too?

What Sebastian Vettel needs…

Mark Webber: hard but fair? Photo by Darren Heath

Mark Webber: hard but fair? Photo by Darren Heath

Mike Conway, currently recuperating from major surgery to his legs and spine, will know precisely what AJ Foyt meant when he described the consequences of two cars touching at racing speed on the banking at Indianapolis: “School’s out, baby.”

As the simmering tension behind the scenes at Red Bull Racing manifested itself before our very eyes at Turn 12 of Istanbul Park on Sunday, I was minded of another quote – one that is (pluggety plug) going to feature in my next book. Graham Hill, in a 1967 interview, said:

I have a little mental card index for every driver. No driver responds in exactly the same way, so I have this little mental index which I look up whenever I come up on another driver so that I know what to expect from him. If you know all this, obviously you’re not going to put yourself in a position which might be very embarrassing.

This might sound terribly self-righteous, and I don’t intend it to be, but very often a lot of near misses can be anticipated and this comes through experience with the people you’re driving against.

If Sebastian Vettel was in possession of such a card index he’d have known not to swerve into the path of Mark Webber in a crass attempt to intimidate him out of the way (if that’s what it was). Steering a Formula 1 car is like flying a kite; at 200mph the merest dip of the hand on the steering wheel can induce a sharp change of direction. Close analysis of the onboard footage shows that this is what Vettel did.

Webber? He moves over for no one. That nugget would come at the top of his entry in the card index. He is hard but fair, and tough as old boots.

On the face of it, a racing incident – an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Behind it we can trace the fault lines of an increasingly fractious relationship – not so much between the drivers as between the racing team and Red Bull itself.

Commentators have been quick to accuse the team of outright bias towards Vettel. Let’s look at that in a level-headed way, shall we? Both Red Bull and McLaren approached the Turkish Grand Prix with a risky fuel strategy; McLaren were running light so as to push, and their quarry was doing the same in the hope that they could build a gap and then turn down the wick later.

The consequence of these opposed tactics was that Red Bull entered the middle segment of the race without the gap they desired. Worse, by lap 38, when Webber was instructed to change to a leaner fuel map, Vettel was carrying around a kilo more fuel – whether this is because he had embarked with more, or had burned less through running in the slipstream of Hamilton and then Webber, is open to question. Either way, Vettel had three more laps at full chat before he too would have to ‘lean off’.

We know what happened next on-track. Off it, the picture is murkier. Helmut Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport consultant, gave an interview to the energy drink’s TV channel on Monday in which he pointed the finger at Webber’s engineer, Ciaron Pilbeam, for failing to communicate the fact that Vettel was approaching rapidly in the laps before the collision.

On Sunday evening several journalists were briefed to the effect that Christian Horner had instructed Pilbeam to tell Webber to move over and let Vettel past, but that Pilbeam had been unable to bring himself to do so. This conversational lull may be what Marko was alluding to.

In an interview with the official Formula 1 website, Marko also emitted the following curious piece of doublethink:

The fact is that if Sebastian hadn’t passed [Webber] he would have been overtaken by Hamilton.

The manoeuvre was certainly born of desperation. And the irony here is that Hamilton was also fuel-critical. Still, it begs the question: why was protecting Vettel’s position the priority? Why should Webber sacrifice his lead?

You could make a strong argument here for saying that Vettel is the favoured driver at a most senior level – not so much within the race team, but back in Salzburg, whence the money flows. Marko has the ear of Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz and he was the most unequivocal in blaming Webber – when the majority of experts saw it quite differently. Horner initially sat on the fence, but during the course of Sunday evening gravitated towards the Marko view; interestingly, he appears to have dragged Marko back to a position of neutrality in their most recent pronouncements.

Helmut Marko: Give this man a boating lake! Photo by Darren Heath

Helmut Marko: Give this man a boating lake! Photo by Darren Heath

Webber’s key failings are that he is too old and not cool enough for Red Bull’s core demographic, and above all that he is neither German nor a product of the Red Bull young driver scheme (overseen by – ah yes – Helmut Marko).

Not that being any of the above would have yielded Webber any benefit as he hauled himself up the ladder all those years ago. Marko’s attention-deficit approach to superintending the careers of young drivers has wrecked every one but Vettel’s thus far; perhaps his management style would be better suited to running a small boating lake. You know: “Come in number six, your time is up…”

Quick! Change Luca’s password

We’ve all been amused by the intermittent Twitterings of F1Scoop, an F1 journalist whose scurrilous alter ago has four times as many followers as his real self. But for genuine sauce one has to turn to ‘The Horse Whisperer’, an unnamed writer (believed by some to be Luca Cordero di Montezemolo himself) who appears on the Ferrari homepage. This morning he brought his scathing but elegant turn of phrase to bear once again on F1’s new teams in a piece entitled For whom the bell tolls.

I loved this bit:

As for the twelfth team, Campos Meta, its shareholder and management structure has been transformed, according to rumours which have reached the Horse Whisperer through the paddock telegraph, with a sudden cash injection from a munificent white knight, well used to this sort of last minute rescue deal.

It’s no secret that Bernie Ecclestone is the man behind the cash injection in question, although how much was injected and into which vessel remains a mystery. What is interesting, though, is that Colin Kolles comes as part of the package. When Bernie puts money into an enterprise he likes to have eyes and ears on the factory floor. It looks like Colin has taken on the mantle of John Macdonald.

Next, we have the Serbian vultures. Firstly, they launched themselves into a quixotic legal battle with the FIA, then they picked the bones of Toyota on its death bed. Having got some people on board, around whom there was still a whiff of past scandals, they are now hovering around waiting to replace whoever is first to drop out of the game, possibly with backing from that very same knight in shining armour whom we mentioned earlier.

Could he mean Mike Coughlan?

This is the legacy of the holy war waged by the former FIA president. The cause in question was to allow smaller teams to get into Formula 1. This is the outcome: two teams will limp into the start of the championship, a third is being pushed into the ring by an invisible hand – you can be sure it is not the hand of Adam Smith – and, as for the fourth, well, you would do better to call on Missing Persons to locate it.

All very amusing stuff, and executed beautifully. Still, this is the sort of thing that would cause an employee to get into a lot of trouble, residing as it does in a prominent spot on the website of the oldest team in F1. If I were working in the comms department, I’d be asking IT if there was a way of blocking Mr Montezemolo’s access to the content management system, at least until the first espresso of the day had kicked in.

In any case, given the fragile state of F1’s economic health at the moment, perhaps the Horse Whisperer ought to pay closer attention to the sentiments of the John Donne poem he alludes to in the title of his piece:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manner of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls.

It tolls for thee.

Briatore: justice has been served (sort of)

To wails of angst in many quarters, Flavio Briatore yesterday succeeded in overturning the lifetime exclusion from motorsport imposed on him and Pat Symonds by the FIA World Motor Sport Council. The judgement seems to me to be fair and proper.

Let me clarify. I have no great sympathy for Briatore and have little liking for what he represents: a vacuous ethical continuum inhabited by overly wealthy and out-of-touch old men. He is the epitome of the grasping plutocrat who seeks success and personal enrichment above all else, and it was this mindset that led him to a dark place in September 2008.

Some people will tell you that the end justifies the means. And yet, even if the goal in question is winning a grand prix, no reasonable person could sanction a means by which a driver is permitted or compelled to recklessly endanger their own life as well as those of the marshals and spectators. From this angle the matter of whether Nelson Piquet was the originator of the stratagem, or whether Briatore and Symonds coerced him, is irrelevant.

To my mind the original punishment fitted the crime. What the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris found yesterday was that the FIA had no power to impose that punishment on Briatore and Symonds because they were not FIA license holders. This was the argument Briatore had put forward before the WMSC hearing, and was so confident in that he did not turn up for the hearing itself.

The WMSC’s verdict was, at best, a fudge – and one that was motivated by political expediency. Under Article 123 of the International Sporting Code, Renault F1 was responsible for the actions of its employees. It escaped punishment because it took rapid and severe action in mitigation; but one doesn’t have to be too cynical to observe that the last thing the sport needed at that time was to lose another manufacturer. Thus the verdict, which in its legalistic agility and its attention to detail bears the stamp of the outgoing FIA president, Max Mosley:

As regards Mr Briatore, the World Motor Sport Council declares that, for an unlimited period, the FIA does not intend to sanction any International Event, Championship, Cup, Trophy, Challenge or Series involving Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever, or grant any license to any Team or other entity engaging Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever. It also hereby instructs all officials present at FIA-sanctioned events not to permit Mr Briatore access to any areas under the FIA’s jurisdiction.

It is therefore not a ban, as such, but an edict to all involved in motorsport to send Messrs Briatore and Symonds to Coventry. Even so, it is what it is: a clever piece of linguistic legerdemain, but ultimately a fudge.

I know I’m slightly unfashionable in my belief that Max Mosley did much to improve motorsport during his tenure. But he frequently demonstrated an unpleasantly patrician and autocratic mindset – one that drove him to deploy his considerable intellect with a steamrollering flourish.

No person or body should have the power to impose a punishment that is not properly enshrined in law. This is a fundamental principle of justice. The FIA must take the opportunity to provide itself with the mechanisms to punish miscreants fairly and transparently. In its statement yesterday, it suggested that something may be on the cards:

The FIA intends to consider appropriate actions to ensure that no persons who would engage, or who have engaged, in such dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating will be allowed to participate in Formula One in the future.

Amen to that. The more transparent and straightforward the legal process, the less likely it is that those such as Briatore can attempt to shift the terms of debate. Throughout this case he has ignored the ethical dimension of his conduct and concentrated solely on protesting that Mosley is pursuing a vendetta against him. This is what statisticians and philosophers call the Motivational Fallacy: failing to engage with another person’s argument by calling into question their opponent’s motivation. Slippery politicians do it all the time.

If there is anything less edifying than an ageing plutocrat, it is the sight of one publicly handbagging another. The learned fellows of the Tribunal de Grande Instance clearly believed this, too, and awarded Briatore a pitiful fraction of the €2million he was claiming in damages.