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The Canadian Grand Prix

Predictably enough, Fernando Alonso won the Canadian Grand Prix in style, making it look easy in spite of the bunching of the field after a late pace car intervention. He seems unstoppable this season.

Alonso in Canada

Alonso leads the rest

The win was also the 100th for Michelin in F1 and the Michelin men were out in force to celebrate as a result. Plus, the race was held on the centenary of the first ever Grand Prix, the French, held at Le Mans in 1906. It is a strange coincidence that Renault won that race too and the winning car was shod with Michelin tires.

But the similarities go even further. Second in Canada was Michael Schumacher in a Ferrari, while the same position in the French race was occupied by a FIAT, the company that now owns Ferrari. It would be easy to assume from this that nothing ever changes in F1, especially when you remember that the likely champion this year will be going from Renault to McLaren at the end of the season, just as did Alain Prost at the end of his most successful year with Renault.

Yet we know that, in between these strange coincidences, GP racing and F1 has been subject to incredible changes and upheavals. For many long years there were no French constructors involved and many other tire companies have come and gone. We have seen the races become the virtual preserve of German manufacturer teams and other times when the small private teams from Britain dominated. Circuits have become shorter with huge run off areas and the race through city streets is almost extinct. It has been a turbulent 100 years.

The one constant has been that the fastest drivers of the times have competed using cars at the leading edge of technology. The cars of earlier times may look primitive and dangerous to us now but, in their day, they were the most advanced machines on the road. And every driver has known that, to reach the top, he must compete in GP races. Other forms of motor sport may have more passing, excitement, thrills and spills, but F1 remains the pinnacle, the finest expression of both driving skills and engineering.

So Renault’s feat in winning the first Grand Prix and its centenary is almost miraculous. Countless manufacturers and constructors have come and gone in those intervening 100 years yet Renault are still here and winning races. They deserve every accolade they will have from their achievement.

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The F1 Drivers’ Press Conference

I was thinking today about the bland press releases and statements made by F1 teams and their drivers prior to a GP, when it occurred to me that there might be a principle at work here. Is it possible that teams perform in direct inverse proportion to the excitement value of their public pronouncements?

Looking at the press releases, this theory falls down immediately – they are all uniformly berefit of entertainment value and shattering surprises – but there is reason to believe it might hold good for the drivers. Think of all those post-race press conferences (what my young son used to call “the glasses of water”) and the delivery style of the successful three. By my theory, Kimi Raikkonen would be the clear winner, both for flatness of speech and for driving speed (admittedly, he has a huge advantage in being Finnish). Fernando Alonso would be next up and then we could let Michael Schumacher have a look in. It sounds strangely similar to how we rate their driving ability.

Press Conference

Raikkonen and Fisichella in conference

Ralf is considerably more animated and probably more truthful than his brother, yet is rated below him on the track. Jacques Villeneuve is outspoken and good for a scandal or two but seems past his best when it comes to driving. And good old David Coulthard can provide us with the control part of our experiment – he is mid-range in everything, solid and dependable in both press conference and race.

Looking back, probably the most entertaining driver in recent years was Johnny Herbert. He was always ready to crack a joke and make light of disasters. Perhaps this happened to him after he mangled his ankles in a pre-F1 accident, thereby forever preventing him from joining the top rank of boring interviewees and fast drivers.

Of course, we must make allowance for the fact that most drivers are not answering in their native tongues; it must be quite difficult to relax and joke when speaking a foreign language. Yet Michael Schumacher manages to be smooth enough in English to convince us that he has a complete grasp of it. And most of the others are fluent enough to have a style.

The native English speakers seem to give the lie to my theory at first glance. Jenson Button can be quite amusing and has even been known to smile for the cameras. But are we seeing a secret unveiled here? Is Jenson really as good a driver as we wish he was? Perhaps Barrichello could give us some answers on that one.

So the theory looks as if it holds true in general. I propose it in jest only but don’t be surprised if you see Frank Williams and Ron Dennis taking more than the usual interest in their drivers’ press conferences in future…

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The Canadian Grand Prix begins today with free practice. Now we can stop speculating over the speed of Schumacher’s Ferrari and whether Alonso can improve on Renault’s poor finishing record at the Montreal circuit – all will be revealed in these three days of practice, qualifying and the race. To me, it seems a good moment to remember the man after whom the Canadian circuit is named: Jacques’ father, Gilles Villeneuve.

It is fitting that the circuit should be named after Gilles for he was reputed to be the fastest driver of his time. But there was so much more to him. He was endlessly competitive and determined yet philosophical when dogged by bad luck. The fans loved him because he was a wild card, always driving at the limit of his machinery and getting in amongst the established stars. And there were times when he would continue even after his car had lost a wheel.

Gilles Villeneuve

Gilles admits defeat at last

There was a moment in 1979 that epitomizes all that was Gilles. The French Grand Prix that year was held on the Dijon circuit and the Renault team put out a massive effort to win their home race. As it turned out, the one fly in their ointment was the irrepressible Gilles.

From the start, he jumped into the lead and held it for most of the race. He was having to force his Ferrari beyond its limits, however, and the tires began to go off towards the end of the race. Jean-Pierre Jabouille in the lead Renault passed him and stayed in the lead to the end. But then René Arnoux in the second Renault caught up and a battle ensued that many think made this race the best ever in F1.

There is a video of the last three laps of the race at this address. I would urge you to have a look because it shows how good F1 can be at its best. The page mistakenly states that Villeneuve and Arnoux were fighting for the lead; in point of fact, their squabble is over second place but both drivers give their utmost. At the finish line they were separated by a mere two-tenths of a second.

Yes, they banged wheels, risking putting themselves out altogether. But, as both said afterwards, they trusted each other not to do anything too foolish. They were racing and enjoying it to the hilt; it almost does not matter who crossed the line first (it was Gilles). And Ren̩ was gracious in defeat Рhe pronounced himself honored to have been a part of such a high point in F1 history.

This is why we loved Gilles: he raced because he loved the sport and there was no cold calculation or careful balancing of the odds in his character. When he won, it was because he drove faster than anyone else; when he lost, it was because even he could not wring enough speed from a car that was not the fastest. He reminds us of an earlier age when the driver was more important than the technology of his machinery, when politics was unheard of and everyone competed just because they wanted to race. Long may he be remembered.

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F1 Points System

One thing I don’t understand about F1 is the constant dissatisfaction with the way the points are awarded. For many years, the 9-6-4-3-2-1 format held sway and I saw nothing wrong in the system. Someone, somewhere, was unhappy, however, and occasionally the system was tinkered with, usually by counting scores only from a limited number of races. Drivers who scored in more races than this limit would have to drop points from the extra races.

This led to some interesting situations, with the champion not always having the highest points total. Inevitably, the system would be dropped, only to be tried again in later years when everyone had forgotten the injustices of the past.

The usual argument against the traditional scoring method is that it does not give enough credit for winning. The fact that a driver could win the championship through consistency rather than by winning the most races seems to annoy some people. And it’s true that winning a Grand Prix deserves recognition and reward; it is not something achieved with ease.

The chequered flag

The chequered flag

The problem is that it’s also unfair to ignore the lower places in a race. Finishing second may take just as much skill, effort and commitment as has the winner; it depends on circumstances such as how much of a battle for the lead there was, who has the better car and what setbacks were overcome. And it seems strange to penalize reliability and consistency in finishing every race in the points whilst perhaps not winning any of them.

So I do not think that there is a perfect system for awarding points. Whatever is decided will always be a compromise between the conflicting pressures to reward both speed and reliability.

The present 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system is a reflection of this conflict. Originally, the points for a race win were increased from 9 to 10 in an attempt to give more credit to the victor. The later addition of points for 7th and 8th places has resulted in a spread of the points that actually negates the earlier effort to reward the winner. Note that there is now only a 2-point difference between first and second places, as opposed to the old 3-point gap.

This has some bearing on the championship this year. Theoretically, Michael Schumacher can still catch and pass Fernando Alonso if he equals or betters Alonso’s performance in the first half of the year. But much depends on what happens to Alonso in the later races. If Michael wins all of the remaining races but Alonso comes second in each, the Spaniard will still be champion. It begins to look as if Michael has a Herculean task ahead of him, especially when we consider the reliability of the Renault.

And that is really my point; the scoring system still rewards consistency above everything else. All the tinkering of previous years has failed to get around the fact that, in a championship, it is more important to finish often than to win occasionally.

To my mind, this is how it should be. The winner of each GP has his reward, the place on the podium, the adoration of the crowds and a trophy for the mantelpiece back home. But the championship is much more about stamina and remaining in the hunt. It’s about lasting the course, rather than outright speed on a day when everything went right.

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