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?

Don’t write the script for misery

Martin Whitmarsh addresses the media. Picture by Darren Heath

Martin Whitmarsh addresses the media. Picture by Darren Heath

Back in the dog days of F1, Mrs Codling would take a nap on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon. Roused only by Bob Constanduros’s strident cry of “Champaaaaaaaaaagne,” she would open a weary eye and enquire as to the identity of the winning driver; usually it was Michael Schumacher, and, thus apprised, her only comment would be, “Borrrrrrrring!”

She’s taken more interest over the past couple of years, but about 10 laps into the 2010 F1 season opener my wife decided that her time might be more productively deployed in the manufacture of some carrot and orange soup. Should we now, like many of the sport’s luminaries, be pressing the panic button?

I ask only because there has been an unseemly, tawdry and tedious rush to screech from upon high that F1 is broken and must be fixed NOW, NOW, NOW. You could understand if this noise issued forth solely from journalists who’d been left without much to write about by such an uneventful grand prix; but no, we’re getting it from those team principals who are never knowingly last to reach an open microphone.

Saint Martin of Whitmarsh beat the Frystarter to it on this occasion (maybe we should assign points and turn it into a championship). Before the engines were even cold he was assuring the BBC that the tyre situation needed a ground-up rethink:

We were one of three teams that said we should have two mandatory pitstops because we were worried about one-stopping. I think we have to re-examine that. But I think if we can now push on Bridgestone to have ‘racier’ tyres, we need a super-soft tyre that is really going to hurt if you take it to 20 laps.

Sounds good enough, but a man in Martin’s position would know that it’s unworkable. The tyre allocation for the season has already been determined. Melbourne’s allocation is already on the boat. Bridgestone can’t simply torch a load of tyres it’s already produced and come up with an entirely new set of compounds overnight; that would be asking a lot, even if the company hadn’t already decided to pull out of F1 at the end of the year. Such talk is shamelessly populist.

Speaking of shameless populism, enter the Frystarter:

I think it would be bad if we didn’t react. I think we have all seen a race that was far from the most exciting that we have ever seen, and what we now need to do is between us have a look at it and establish what we do need to do.

I know what we need to do: declare a moratorium on outright guff.

Perhaps Bahrain was the wrong venue for the season opener. I don’t wish to demean it as a location; no other nation to have joined the F1 calendar in the past decade has shown such unswerving commitment to getting it right. The royal family takes a personal interest in the running of the circuit (compare and contrast with China and Turkey, who host grands prix to the ever increasing indifference of the authorities and the local populace). But it isn’t used enough, it’s dusty (an absolute deterrent to overtaking), and the fiddly additional section had no meaningful effect on the racing.

We’re one race into a season. One race that has overpromised and underdelivered. There have been boring races in the past and there will be again. We shouldn’t extrapolate one set of circumstances to arrive at a storyline for the whole season. Could we at least see what happens at Melbourne and Sepang before we decide that F1 is heading off to hell in a handcart?

Less reactionary heads may prevail. Stefano Domenicali of Ferrari has it right:

Let’s wait and see how the other races will develop. It may be a different situation in different conditions, so I would like to tell you my opinion after a couple of races so we can at least have a different scenario that we can say, this is the real situation or not.

Friday afternoon burial: Phillips leaves Force India

Popping into inboxes worldwide in the traditional Friday afternoon graveyard slot is the news that Ian Phillips is to leave Force India. Ian has been with the team since it began, as Jordan, but his relationship with team principal Vijay Mallya has been frosty since he broke ranks and prematurely announced Giancarlo Fisichella’s move to Ferrari at the Belgian GP last year.

Ian entered motorsport as a journalist, on Autosport’s national news beat, in the 1960s – working with Paddy McNally, who now runs the Paddock Club at grands prix. Even after moving on to the commercial side he retained the hack’s nose for gossip; many of the breaking news stories you’ll have read over the years will have originated over coffee and a cigarette in the Leyton House/Jordan/Midland/Spyker/Force India motorhome.

Word is that Ian has known for some time that his departure was desired, but he has been holding on for the right pecuniary package to be put on the table. It’s possible that he will go into business with Eddie Jordan, following Anthony Hamilton into the market for grooming new talent.