Slow news year? Perhaps we need Max Mosley back…

Since we watch far too much television nowadays, many of us tend to forget that real life doesn’t always coalesce into the kind of neat three-act narrative we’re used to seeing on the goggle box. It has long periods where not much happens, and the few things that do occur tend not to come to any resolution, happy or otherwise.

This thought came to me in conversation with fellow scribblers at the Silverstone launch a couple of weeks ago, and it came to me again while watching the Spanish GP on Sunday afternoon – round about lap 25, when my pen fell out of my mouth and into my lap, waking me up*. For pretty much the first time since Formula 1 slipped into an internet-enabled 24-hour news cycle we’re missing the kind of long-running story that keeps readers happy when they return to the news trough every day.

Sadly, though, because those readers are so accustomed to their daily updates, if they find the trough empty** they tend to go on the AUTOSPORT message board and vent spleen about how lazy and inept the journalists are. Thus the newshounds have really had to raid the store cupboard for odds and ends this year. When the most exciting thing to talk about is whether an F1 car’s mirrors ought to be in an outboard or inboard position, it’s time to pop outside for a reality check.

I blame Jean Todt. He’s determined to keep a low profile and not annoy anybody – at least for now. When Max Mosley was in the driving seat you could be sure that conflict would eventuate, because he combines an almost insatiable appetite for mischief with the frustrated politician’s hunger to wield absolute authority – you know, without all those other troublesome idiots getting in the way with their pettifogging demands.

Perhaps F1 could take some lessons from successful TV dramas, with their meticulously planned character development and story ‘arcs’. When viewing figures decline, the producers swing into action rather than denying that the product is losing its popular appeal.

Not that I’m suggesting we should wake up and find Max Mosley in the shower, of course, but many soap operas do get a boost when a familiar rogue reappears on the scene. We’ve already had a touch of that; Michael Schumacher’s return puts me in mind of Dirty Den coming back to Eastenders, although I hope that Michael’s comeback isn’t scuppered by some unfortunate business with a webcam.

Or could this actually be that other trope of the failing drama, when a much-loved character returns but is played by a different actor? I say this only because going by Schumacher’s race pace this year, his role is actually being performed by his younger brother – or perhaps even by Jarno Trulli, he of the ‘Trulli Train’…

* Mind you, if you think Formula 1 is boring at Barcelona, you should try watching the DTM there.

** Obviously, if you are an avid consumer of GMM crap then the trough is never empty.

Getting a little Crazy thanks to an errant Seal

I knew it was too good to be true. The sun was shining as I brought the mighty Skoda to a shuddering halt behind a silver Mercedes at the gates of Silverstone and a cheerful security guard waved me through, saying, “Just follow David Coulthard…”

First, the good news: Silverstone is ready to host the 2010 British Grand Prix and the revised layout has been granted FIA Grade One status pending what circuit boss Richard Phillips describes as “a couple of tweaks”. This in itself is a remarkable achievement given the severity of the last winter; my local sports centre has been retiling its swimming pool since November and it still hasn’t reopened yet.

The chief motivation for amending the layout was Silverstone’s new contract to host Britain’s MotoGP round. Bridge corner was adjudged too dangerous – you wouldn’t want a bike to have the same shunt as Andrea de Cesaris did in the Jordan in 1991 – but the bridge itself is integral to the circuit infrastructure, and for reasons too boring to go into at length they couldn’t just build a bigger one. Ron and Leon Haslam essayed several laps on a pair of roadgoing superbikes, while David Coulthard appeared in the Red Bull demo car (which I think is a 2006 Toro Rosso chassis with the 2009 RBR nose and rear wing), and Damon Hill took HRH the Duke of York round in the Santander two-seater.

It’s too early to call the possible effects of the new section but it represents an effective and imaginative use of existing space. Village corner has a tricky approach (complicated for the demo runs yesterday by ‘green’ asphalt, lots of dust, and a large stage directly in the drivers’ sight line), the effects of which were more pronounced for the bikes, which had a very gradual turn-in phase. The short squirt to the Loop will emphasise traction and may provide a further overtaking opportunity if someone has overcooked their approach to Village and run wide.

True to form for this part of the world, almost as soon as the engines were fired up after lunch the skies began to bruise. I was due to have a run in the Santander two-seater once the BBC finished filming, and after commiserating with one of the Motorcycle News testers (green surface? Dust? Rain? On a GSX-R1000? After you, Claude) I donned my flameproof garb. As I finished lacing up my Sparcos I realised it had all gone rather quiet. Enter the two-seater, on the back of a truck.

David Coulthard had been driving Martin Brundle round at the time, and apparently the radio conversation went something like this:

MB: I think there’s something wrong with the engine.

DC: No, it seems okay.



DC: Yeah, there’s something wrong with the engine…

A very long afternoon ensued as the mechanics traced the fault – a blown crank oil seal – and finally had to give up and call for a new engine. Still, there was amusement to be had. I learned that my otherwise risible phone insists on trying to substitute “Trundle” for “Brundle”.

My optimism ebbed and flowed as the clock ticked around towards the curfew point of 7pm. At around four o’clock the skies cleared and the sun shone once more. Almost everyone else except the various camera crews had gone home. I felt as if I was going to have the last laugh on this one. What a shame the car was still in several pieces, on axles stands, with a puddle of oil underneath.

It was half past six before the beast was reassembled and Martin set out for an installation lap with Sky’s John Desborough shoehorned into the back seat. In very short order a man in a suit appeared brandishing a walkie talkie. This is never a good sign, and indeed he seemed very put out that the car had sallied forth without appropriate clearance. Off he flounced, still gesticulating with his walkie talkie, muttering darkly that at 7pm the ambulance (an insurance requirement) was going to leave and that would be that.

The vindictive clouds chose this moment to gather again and deposit their contents upon this hallowed loop of Northamptonshire asphalt. Cue further delay as the car, now with James Allen strapped in the back, took wet tyres. You can see the video of their journey, including the new section of track, on James’s site.

I had the fireproof gear on and was about to slip on my crash helmet when the grumpy troll in his ambulance arrived at the back of the garage to signify that playtime was over.

So, a disappointing end to the day, but nothing that a restorative pint of Kingfisher, a deluxe mixed starter and a chicken jalfrezi at Farnham’s finest curry house couldn’t sort out. And there’s always a next time…

In praise of… Michael Schumacher

Michael Schumacher: a masterpiece of defensive driving in China. Photo by Darren Heath

Michael Schumacher: a masterpiece of defensive driving in China. Photo by Darren Heath

I never thought I’d look down and see my fingers composing the sentence that makes up the headline of this piece. Nevertheless, since so many munchkins out there are heaping unqualified criticism upon Michael Schumacher’s ageing shoulders, someone ought to point out some balancing positives.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that during a drearily slow news month (when the most interesting thing anyone could find to talk about in print was where the wing mirrors ought to go, I knew it was time to head to the bar), Schumacher’s woeful results in the opening rounds should propel him somewhat prematurely into the firing line. Certainly his overall pace in the understeering MGP-W01 has been disappointingly ordinary, although you have to wonder how the Mercedes designers managed to conjure a chassis whose natural balance is so diametrically opposed to that of the cars that delivered him seven world championships.

So, has Michael Schumacher lost it? Speed-wise, until (or unless) Mercedes GP equips him with a ‘pointier’ car, we may never know. But last Sunday, in China, he demonstrated that his formidable racecraft is as sharp as ever. Even as he slid down the order, his dogged defence of every lost position was so mesmerising that I couldn’t wait to see it again.

Viewing all this through a 600mm lens was Formula 1’s best photographer, Darren Heath; as you can see on his blog this week, he and I see eye to eye. Regardless of where Schumacher finished on Sunday, his was a marvellous display of defensive driving. He knew the weaknesses of his car (principally a lack of traction, brought about by shifting the ballast forward to get the front end working more to his liking) and ensured that his adversaries couldn’t take advantage of them.

As Darren writes, there is an art to defensive driving:

It’s all about simple yet fundamental factors: judging your competitor’s speed and trajectory; where the grip is (and isn’t); your braking in to the corner relative to the acceleration out; and, surely, in the art of both passing and being passed the failure to slow your assailant down to your speed (so that you remain in control) is a cardinal sin.

That was the key. Watch the race again and see how Schumacher – fairly, and with exquisite precision – placed his car so as to neutralise each opponent’s speed advantage. It was textbook stuff.

*Apologies for the paucity of updates recently. I’ve been hellishly busy on several projects at once (the old curse of the freelancer; you can never say “no”), and the deadline for my second book is looming. More on that, and other things, in the coming weeks…

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…