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Istanbul Qualifying

I told you Massa was coming good. All weekend he has been on Schumacher’s pace and it was no surprise to me that he grabbed pole in the last few minutes of qualifying. In the race, of course, it will be different – Michael will gravitate to the front and Felipe will ride shotgun.

Felipe Massa

Felipe Massa

Ferrari and Bridgestone still have their advantage in the heat, obviously, but Renault should take heart from the fact that they are back at the front of the Michelin runners. The gap closes and Alonso should be in with a chance of retaining his championship at the end of the year.

BMW Sauber continue to improve and benefited from Ralf Schumacher’s ten-place demotion from fifth, with Heidfeld inheriting Ralf’s position and Kubica in eighth. Jenson Button looked very fast in the Honda but had slipped down to sixth by the end. I suspect that he will have a good race tomorrow with the team still on a high after Hungary.

The surprise of the session was the disappointing form of the McLarens, Raikkonen managing only seventh and de la Rosa missing the second cut in eleventh. It seems this season that as fast as McLaren make improvements, their rivals do the same. For Mercedes, it must be especially galling to see BMW ease past them.

Michael must be favorite for the race win and a Ferrari one-two looks quite likely too. But racing is a funny old game and usually confounds our best guesses. So I’ll not make any prediction but admit that I would dearly love to see the Honda team amaze themselves and everyone else with another win for Jenson Button.

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Non-Championship Races

Like everyone else, I am desperate to get into the Turkish Grand Prix this weekend and so escape the constant rehashing of rumors of driver changes and politics that has occupied us over the last three weeks. Yet Friday practice is so meaningless that it is hard to get excited about it. So Kimi is fastest with Schumacher (M) and Jenson Button next up – so what? The times have little significance for race pace and the Renaults did not even complete a timed lap.

Instead, my thoughts turned to the mists of history again, back to a time when there were non-Championship races to interest us as well. Some of these were important pointers to future talent and I remember very well when Keke Rosberg first came to the fore, winning the 1978 streaming wet Silverstone International Trophy race in a hopelessly uncompetitive Theodore car. All the greats departed into the weeds on that occasion but the fact remained that somehow that crazy Finn managed to go faster than everyone else and yet keep it on the black stuff too.

But the heyday of the non-Championship race was in the sixties, when most of the teams would stuff a 2.5 liter engine into their cars and go racing in the Tasman series down under. They were great races, a chance for the heroes of the premier stage to enjoy racing without the pressures of F1 and an opportunity for drivers in the far antipodes to match their skills against the best.

Tasman series

For the fans, too, it was something to follow during the off season. Without the Tasman series, the winter break could be very long in the northern hemisphere. A quick look at the results in the series shows a fascinating mix of famous names and local heroes. They were great races.

Nowadays, of course, such extra-curricular shennanigans are unheard of. The teams’ investment in their drivers is far too great to be risked in anything as dangerous as motor sport when no points are on offer. And the cost of transporting everything halfway around the world just could not be justified by even the best results.

Every age mourns the changes that time brings. Many of those changes are for the better but some take us further away from something that was good and valuable. And I think it would do no harm for the occasional non-Championship race to be reinstated, with suitable monetary incentives added to tempt the teams.

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The Mass Damper Judgment

The FIA’s Court of Appeal has ruled that the mass dampers are illegal after all. Which also means that it was optimistic to suggest the court might take into account the unfairness of banning technologies halfway through a season.

As we all know, the team that will suffer the most from this ruling is Renault. It is suggested that the dampers are worth half a second a lap to them, which would explain their loss of form ever since the ban came into effect. And the Hungarian race was no pointer to their having found a solution; what made the difference there was the superiority of the Michelin wet tires, a fact demonstrated by the resurgence of the other Michelin-shod teams in that race.

Renault

Renault R26

Although several teams, including Ferrari, have used the dampers at various times through the year, Renault seems to have been the only constructor to incorporate them into their design from the beginning. Since the system had been used in 2005 without objection from the FIA or the stewards, it was reasonable to assume that there would be no problem in this integration into the design. But, of course, that takes no account of the unpredictability and arbitrariness of the FIA.

The implications for the future are more far-reaching than might be thought at first. It is more than just one championship that is affected by the decision. What encouragement does this give to the designers in their quest to break new technological ground and so gain a performance advantage? If the FIA can ban previously-accepted technology in mid-season, what guarantees are there that any team that, through inspiration or hard work, gains a slight advantage over the others will be allowed to keep their new tweak?

Obviously, as long as the FIA continue to behave in this manner, there are no guarantees and the motivation to advance technology must suffer as a result. The situation is complicated further by the fact that the FIA does not ban all new tweaks and so it becomes a gamble to introduce anything new. It is tempting to say that, if your name is Ferrari, you can go ahead, but otherwise you had better be pretty careful about anything you put on the cars. But I won’t; I think things have moved on a bit since the days when it seemed that the FIA was a rubber stamp in Ferrari’s hands.

As for introducing a revolution, like Cooper’s idea of putting the engine in the rear or Chapman’s ground effect, forget it. Anything that gives such an enormous advantage will be banned as soon as it sees the light of day. I wonder how long it will be before F1 becomes a standardized car formula…

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Formula 1 Bad Boys

Kimi Raikkonen is rumored to have been in trouble with police in Hungary over a matter of alcohol and sitting behind the wheel of a car. This follows other stories of the flying Finn’s night club and partying exploits.

Kimi Raikkonen

Kimi Raikkonen and friend

It has echoes of an F1 tradition that we all thought had died out with the advent of the super-professional driver epitomized by Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher: the “bad boy” syndrome. In the 1950s, many drivers were renowned for their wild behavior at parties, Mike Hawthorn especially gaining a reputation for being heavily into wine, women and song. It was as though the working class lads, who suddenly found the heights of motor sport available to them, intended to make the most of their brief moments of fame. They worked hard and they played hard.

This continued into the sixties, although there were already signs of a growing professionalism that had no time for drunken high jinks. Drivers like Jim Clark and John Surtees were serious about racing and saw it as a profession rather than a bit of fun. Some, such as Graham Hill, still knew how to relax and party between races, however.

By the 1970s, advertising had upped the stakes so high that it was clear that F1 was now more of a business than a sport; the sober attitude of most drivers reflected this too. So James Hunt stands out as the last of the playboy drivers, an isolated throwback to F1′s wilder days. With his retirement, we all thought that era was gone forever.

Through the eighties and nineties we became used to the dour professionals, Prost, Senna, Schumacher, pursuing their career objectives with unwavering intensity. Flashes of humor from such as Johnny Herbert gave relief but the overall atmosphere was that this was far too serious a business to have fun in (hmmm, I think I just identified the reason for Minardi’s huge popularity).

And now Kimi Raikkonen arrives to upset all our preconceived notions. It would have to be someone like him, of course – a driver so talented that all his off track adventures can be ignored by the team manager. Oh, there might be the occasional “talking-to” in the motorhome but, when you’re paying the guy millions to drive for you, it’s not easy to lay down the law about his private life.

What Kimi does for us all is demonstrate that it’s possible to be damn good at your job and still have a good time on your days off. For too long we have believed that only the dedicated monomaniac can get to the very top of any profession. Kimi shows that, with youth, talent and energy, that doesn’t have to be true. After all, what is the point in being paid so much if you can’t live a little as a result?

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