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…