Posts Tagged ‘ F1

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.

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…

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?