Archive for the ‘ Sporting ’ Category

In praise of… Fernando Alonso

The indefatigable Fernando Alonso. Photo by Darren Heath

The indefatigable Fernando Alonso. Photo by Darren Heath

A couple of months ago, when I was interviewing Sir Stirling Moss for my next book, he was keen to draw a distinction between those drivers who can simply conduct a car quickly and those who have a special mindset – a sort of heroic indomitability, if you like:

There are very few real racers in the world, as opposed to mere racing drivers. They’re the people who have a ruddy good go. I don’t mean to say that the others aren’t trying, because they are; but they don’t have the mental ability to push to the same extent, to really take it to a higher level. In my day it would be Juan Manuel Fangio, who to my mind was the best driver there has ever been; and Jean Behra was a real racer, too. Today you would say that people such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton are the real racers.

Lewis Hamilton’s combative drive to sixth position from 20th on the grid in the Malaysian Grand Prix last week demonstrated precisely those qualities, although many observers (including, perhaps, Moss himself) would have frowned upon his abrupt treatment of Vitaly Petrov. For any race fan with a soul, though, the most impressive drive of last weekend ended with a result that will not trouble the statisticians’ figures: 13th place for Fernando Alonso.

Hindered from the off by a recalcitrant gearbox and a clutch that appeared to have turned into chocolate, Alonso just drove around the problem, booting the throttle to persuade each gear to engage. Surely it’s not possible to drive a modern F1 car like this? On Sunday Alonso proved that it is.

There was overtaking, too; while anyone in possession of a laptop, some fingers and enough brain cells to rub together has spent the past few weeks venting spleen on the internet about the lack of passing in F1, when the need arose Alonso just got on with it. And when his engine cried enough he was attacking Jenson Button – for what? Eighth place?

Here is the real weakness of the reliability formula in which each driver has a restricted quota of engines and gearboxes to last the season. A driver taking a more corporate, long-term view of the championship would have coasted back to the garage and parked in the hope that his engine and gearbox could be salvaged.

Not Alonso, though. He was having, in the words of Moss, “A ruddy good go.” He is a real racer, as was the man who gave Alonso’s team its name. At any point in the Malaysian Grand Prix Ferrari could have ordered Alonso to retire. They didn’t; Enzo would never have stood for it…

Jenson Button: Inspired or desperate?

M’learned colleague James Allen set off quite a kerfuffle yesterday on his blog with what I considered to be a nicely balanced and thought-provoking piece about McLaren’s fortunes at the 2010 Australian Grand Prix. Unfortunately the thoughts it provoked among James’s readers weren’t uniformly positive…

F1 fans are a passionate bunch, and as a journalist it’s very hard to write anything about anyone without being accused of bias; especially when we indulge our penchant for hyperbole, as we do. I found during my time on customer magazines that sometimes a client will focus on something that catches their attention – something they don’t like – and it plays merry hell with their ability to judge the rest of the product. In this case, it’s James’s second line that has caused many readers to chafe:

Jenson Button won the race with a performance of measured perfection and instinctive tactical brilliance, while Lewis Hamilton lit up Albert Park with his audacious passing, but ended up looking diminished in comparison with Button, less in control of his destiny, less mature.

It’s part of the folly of sportswriters that we occasionally overcook our opening paragraphs. While we’re in confessional mode, I’ll admit to describing Jenson’s early pit call as “inspired” in my post-race wrap on Formula Santander. But was it inspired or merely an act of desperation?

When analysing any tactical move, many people fall into the trap of judging it in the context of data that has subsequently come to light. But you have to come to it as if it’s a fresh page: on that particular lap Jenson didn’t have access to the split times of his car and those surrounding him, or to video images or still pictures showing how much he was losing or gaining. He was merely a man with a decade of Formula 1 experience, sitting in an F1 car – a harsh, stressful and vibratory environment – feeling a lack of balance in his tyres, seeing his team-mate pass him and pull away, and probably feeling rather than seeing the car behind him closing up. What, then, to do?

The choice was to KBO (“Keep Buggering On,” as Winston Churchill put it) in the hope that the tyres would improve, or roll the dice there and then by fitting a new set. It was a snap decision made in the heat of the moment, not a considered analysis based on all the facts. Don’t forget that when he announced over the radio that he was coming in, his pit crew were still sitting around picking their noses.

Had the decision not paid off we would now be describing it as foolish and inept. But Jenson’s call worked out, so in the flowery phraseology of sports writers it becomes “inspired” rather than “potty”. That’s how history is written. We remember Alexander Fleming, who lucked into the discovery of penicillin because he couldn’t be bothered to do the washing up, but we forget what’s-his-name* who spent years slaving over a means of mass-producing it.

What was the exact proportion of luck involved in Jenson’s win? Impossible to say. People on F1 forums like everything to be neat, clearly defined, black and white; sorry, ladies and gents, but sometimes inspiration and desperation run into one another down a dark alley and end up doing something their mothers wouldn’t want to see. Journalistic bias doesn’t come into it…

*Howard Florey

Want more overtaking in Formula 1? Don’t send a committee to do a man’s job*

Overtaking: a rare beast? Picture by Darren Heath

Overtaking: a rare beast? Picture by Darren Heath

Yesterday I suggested that we ought to wait a few races – gather more data, if you like – before we start rushing to apply a ‘fix’ to Formula 1. It’s a touchy subject, and one that polarises opinion. I was struck by Mr C’s comment:

i think the issue is, the circumstances that unfolded in bahrain were entirely predictable by anyone with half a brain, 2 years ago, when the FIA said “we’re banning refuelling, but we aren’t changing nothing else”. or words to that effect.

The former president of the FIA often spoke about how difficult it is to effect change in F1, chiefly because of the intransigence of the stakeholders. It’s the same in many sports and industries; the more people involved in making a decision, the more diluted, compromised, ineffectual and utterly loathed the result.

In recent years the FIA formed the Overtaking Working Group with the aim of putting technical experts from various teams together to find ways of ‘improving the show’. They had some good ideas, but the package of new regulations they arrived at was fundamentally flawed, for it permitted the widely despised double diffuser – a concept used to great effect in 2009 by Brawn GP, whose team principal sat on the OWG.

I’m reminded of a wry joke told by the former Labour MP, Tony Benn, to satirise the British Broadcasting Corporation’s obsession with steering committees and working groups:

The BBC had a rowing competition with the Japanese and lost. So John Birt [former BBC Director General] set up a working party to try and find out why. They found that while the Japanese had eight people rowing and one steering, the BBC had one rowing and eight steering. The working party decided to employ consultants to devise a solution. They decided that what the BBC really needed was three steering managers, three deputy steering managers and a director of steering services. The rower, meanwhile, should be made to row harder. When they faced the Japanese and lost again, the director of steering services decided to sack the rower, sell the boat and give himself a pay rise.

If we’re to acknowledge that F1 has an overtaking problem, then the solutions we apply cannot be piecemeal, for that in itself is continuing the tradition of the ugly compromise. We must reject short-term fixes. ‘Edgier’ tyres? Sorry: no can do. Under no circumstances would Bridgestone willingly submit to a solution that guarantees bad PR for them; and in any case, it’s merely a sticking plaster. Reverse grids? Over my festering corpse, and those of everyone else who believes in the purity of motor racing.

A couple of years ago I interviewed some senior technical personnel from various teams for a ‘science of overtaking’ piece in F1 Racing magazine. The feedback on how to improve overtaking was very clear: it should be 50 per cent geared to changing the cars and 50 per cent towards changing the circuits. The cars should be rebalanced so that the majority of downforce is created by the underbody rather than the wings; and circuit designers should aim to create more than one ideal racing ‘groove’ through corners. The former is obviously more attainable than the latter, but it still requires an effort of will to push through.

This is usually the point at which otherwise intelligent people take leave of good sense and suggest that Hitler, while out of order on many points, at least got the trains running on time. I’ve never been able to understand why being a genocidal maniac was a prerequisite for adherence to a timetable. In F1 I’d settle for a disinterested (in the proper definition of the word, ie ‘unbiased by personal interest’) party with the technical expertise to envision a long-term regulatory framework and the clout to push it through against the sport’s torrent of vested interests. Any volunteers?

*Apologies for the gender-specific title. Of course a woman would be equally capable of performing the task – but ‘person’ makes for a weedy headline, don’t you think?

Fuel if you think it’s over

It’s been a very exciting week in the F1 universe. We’ve seen the first Formula 1 test session of 2010 and the launch of the Virgin Racing team – or, at least, we would have seen the launch of the Virgin Racing team if they’d remembered to put 50p in the meter.

Ferrari set the pace throughout the Valencia test, but at the risk of being labelled a sourpuss (you’d have good reason to; well over 30,000 people attended the test, and some websites went down more often than Didier Drogba in the penalty box) I ought to point out that it’s far too early to draw any firm conclusions. The Valencia circuit has very few straights or fast corners; besides, the potential variance in fuel weights between cars is 150kg or thereabouts. On a circuit like this, which is composed of short squirts and is principally a test of traction, you need to know the fuel weights to understand which cars are working and which aren’t.

Or you can ask a photographer. These doughty souls spend their professional lives lining up fast-moving cars in their telephoto lenses. They can tell you which cars and drivers are out of shape.

Feel free to put a tenner on Fernando Alonso being champion in 2010. I may even do so myself. But don’t forget that Ferrari were quick in winter testing before the 1991 season, and before that year was out Alain Prost had been given his marching orders for comparing his car to a truck. 

Still, Renault must be fretting a tad that Bobby K ran out of fuel before the end of his long run…