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Martin Brundle

Mike Lawrence has written an article for Pitpass.com in which he writes about the growth of the test team in F1 over the years. He goes back to the days when it was three mechanics and a dog – all very interesting stuff – and then follows the gradual development into large teams of professional engineers and experts.

In the course of his article, Mike mentions being present when Martin Brundle and Ayrton Senna had their first tests with Tyrrell and Toleman respectively. Apparently both drivers were immediately so quick that the teams became excited at their finds and the two were signed up promptly to race in the approaching season. The rest is history, of course.

Brundle

Martin Brundle in the Tyrrell, 1985

This made me think about how chance decisions can make differences in a driver’s career, however. At the time, one would have thought that Martin had been given an excellent opportunity; Tyrrell were one of the great teams, a bit down on their luck in recent years but able to bounce back at any moment, surely. Ayrton’s choice seemed a lot more risky – Toleman were new to the game and had not impressed in their first few years.

Tyrrell’s expected revival never happened in the event. They had begun the long slide into eventual withdrawal from F1 and, during his time with the team, Martin never had a car that could compete with the best. From there he went from one team to another, always managing to be there at the wrong moment, putting in some excellent performances but never really having a shot at the championship.

Meanwhile Ayrton was to achieve wonders in his debut year, the Toleman coming good at last, and he would have won at Monaco had not Prost frantically waved to the organizers to stop the race for rain (it had been raining all race long and was actually easing up at the time the Frenchman decided it was too dangerous to carry on). Senna was gaining on him by seconds every lap, however, and we all knew who would have won if the race had not been stopped. It was not long before Ayrton was snapped up by the big teams and the championships began to roll in.

At the time of their first F1 tests, there was not much to choose between the two drivers. I was following F3 quite closely at the time and it was obvious that Senna was gifted – but Brundle was as well. They had a real battle for the British F3 championship, leaving everyone else in the dust, and Senna’s eventual triumph was not by a huge number of points. It was quite possible that such tiny winning margins were the result of differences in capability of their cars, and so we withheld judgement as to which of the two would do best in F1.

To speak of Brundle in the same breath as the master himself seems ridiculous now but things could have been so different had Martin’s luck been better. I have no doubt that Senna’s talent would have forced him to the front sooner or later but, if Martin had been the Toleman driver in 1984 and Ayrton in the Tyrrell, the Brit might well have become the Brazilian’s main challenger in later years.

On such hazards of fate are careers built or destroyed. Derek Warwick’s F1 reputation was ruined by his move to Renault just as they changed from having the best car to one of the worst. Mario Andretti, nothing if not a journeyman driver, became champion thanks to being at Lotus when Chapman produced the 79. The list of broken dreams and lucky strikes goes on and on.

What’s done, is done, however. And, if Martin had become a big star, perhaps we would never have come to know his wry humor in his role as a commentator for television. Perhaps all is for the best.

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Psychology in Formula One

Honda’s Nick Fry reckons that Juan Pablo Montoya would have fared better in F1 had he raced for a team more sensitive to the driver’s needs. It is certainly true that Williams, Montoya’s first F1 employer, is renowned for having a “robust” attitude towards drivers (although it should also be said that Frank Williams knows a good thing when he sees it – he wanted Senna as a Williams driver for years before the Brazilian finally made the switch). And Juan Pablo’s second team, McLaren, are also regarded as fairly picky when it comes to drivers – if you click with the team, you’ll succeed; if not, you might find yourself out in the cold. Whether Montoya would have done better with Honda, as Nick Fry is suggesting, is a moot point, of course.

Juan

Juan Pablo Montoya

But is it right that a driver should expect to be “understood” and assisted in his weak areas? The old saying, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” might come to mind at this point. I suppose it depends upon how much potential the driver displays.

Ken Tyrrell was known as the team manager that could build drivers into champions. Any number of drivers benefited from his advice and encouragement but the best example is probably Jody Scheckter. Early in his F1 career, Scheckter was blamed for an enormous pile-up in the British GP and he was labeled as wild and unruly until Tyrrell got hold of him. Under Ken’s guidance, Scheckter developed until Ferrari became interested in him and the result was a world championship.

Scheckter’s early problems were not really the result of a complex psyche, however – he was young and eager, just needing to be restrained and taught patience. The speed was always there. Drivers like Frentzen and Hakkinen were more complicated and needed to feel wanted if they were to give of their best.

Hakkinen had the good fortune to get on well with Ron Dennis and the rest of the McLaren team and his talent blossomed as a result. But Frentzen never felt at ease with the team that gave him his best chance, Williams, and he soon left. It was his bad luck to click only with second rank teams like Sauber and Jordan, achieving some outstanding results with them but never being in with a good shot at the championship.

So is it worth putting time and effort into a driver’s psychology? I think it must be in that a team that is working together without interpersonal stresses is bound to function more effectively than one that is riven by undercurrents of dissatisfaction. Nick Fry is right to think that Montoya could have been handled better and, judging from the patience with which Button and Barrichello are being treated at Honda, it could be that Fry would have brought out the best in the Colombian. Personally, I doubt it, however.

Montoya has an ego the size of Colombia. That is not really a problem, as demonstrated by Michael Schumacher, but Montoya also has a sensitivity to criticism that is completely alien to Michael. Let Juan Pablo hear that he is being blamed for a few accidents and his anger boils over at the injustice of it all. He is what we might call “fairly volatile”.

Whether Nick Fry could cope with a driver who reacts so passionately to criticism remains to be seen. In Barrichello and Button he has two of the most stable and well adjusted drivers in the paddock. Montoya would be a very different kettle of fish.

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Bernie and the USA

Bernie Ecclestone has been hinting at the possibility of a second GP for the States and is talking to people in Las Vegas and Chicago apparently. This is all very interesting but then he asks a rhetorical question that just begs for an answer:

Bernie said: “Why should we race in America for certainly half the fee we get in other parts of the world?”

Bernie

Bernie Ecclestone

Funnily enough, I can tell you why, Bernie – because the US remains the largest market in the world, that’s why. If F1 has to accept lower profits to get into that market, it will be more than worth it in the long run. Ever since it began, F1 has tried to interest Americans, adding the Indy 500 as a fake GP at first, then accepting races at some pretty strange places; anything to gain a toehold.

For fifty years nothing has worked – the Statesiders have remained doggedly fascinated by cars roaring around banked ovals at top speed but F1′s moment has come at last. American open wheel racing is in disarray, split into two camps, Champ Cars and IRL, and competing with NASCAR for viewers. If there were ever a time when those viewers might be persuaded to look at an alternative to their domestic series, this has to be it.

It is not due to F1′s success that its TV ratings are the equal of Champ Cars’ now – that is entirely thanks to the split. But this illustrates the chance that is going begging. Those Americans that have made the switch to F1 are already incredibly knowledgeable about the sport and hunger for more. Give them another GP and the word will spread; heck, give them three more and you’ll murder CC and IRL.

And, if you have to accept a bargain basement price for such races, grin and bear it – there’ll be plenty of opportunities to add to the FIA’s fortune in the future. Think of how the Japanese destroyed the British car industry: they sold their cars for ridiculously low prices and added a radio as standard. Naturally, the Brits bought them by the thousand. Once the competition was on its knees, they increased the prices and it was too late to save the local industry. That is how to invade a new market.

Money is all very nice and easy to get while Asian countries are prepared to pay ridiculous prices for a GP. But how long can the bonanza continue? Sooner or later those governments that are all for F1 now will realize that there are better places to spend their cash. Taxpayers have a way of demanding some return for their contributions. When that happens, F1 will have to fall back on its traditional source of funding, the fans. Will they still be there after an endless diet of featureless races in deserts and fading funfairs?

So yes, we need at least one more race in the States. And if it has to be done by special offer, a never-to-be-repeated price, then it must be so. When a chance like this comes along (and it’s been fifty years of waiting, remember), we should be prepared to give the GPs away if it means conquering America.

Stupid question, Bernie.

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Survival in Formula One

Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s feted designer, is of the opinion that McLaren will return to form this year after failing to win a race in 2006. I would agree, particularly as Newey makes many of the points I mentioned in my post of October 12th.

Bruce

Bruce McLaren

But it does not have to be so. Nothing in F1 is guaranteed and the list of famous constructors that eventually failed and disappeared grows longer as the years pass by. There was a time when we could not imagine the sport without Lotus but now they are but a distant memory.

Great names have come and gone; F1 respects no-one forever. Alfa Romeo (twice!), Maserati, BRM, Cooper, Brabham, Tyrrell, all came, won their races, and then experienced the long decline into also-rans and a quiet withdrawal when the money dried up. Only Ferrari seems immune to the aging process.

It is not inevitable that McLaren survive, therefore. Although they look set for the future with the giant Mercedes standing behind them, it would take only a few more years of disappointing results for their friends to desert them and the executioner waiting at the gates to be given the nod. Success is the lifeblood of F1 teams.

In fact, McLaren have done very well over the years, surviving the death of their founder, Bruce McLaren, a long period of decline under Teddy Mayer, and experiencing rebirth under the guidance of Ron Dennis. But it looks as though Ron is preparing for retirement and who knows what will happen after he goes? The likelihood is that Mercedes would take over the team but even then nothing is assured; manufacturers tend to come and go as they please.

This coming season is as much a make-or-break year for McLaren as it is for Giancarlo Fisichella over at Renault. Both are desperately in need of some success to rekindle the fires of old. If the MP4-22 fails to be the vehicle for Alonso’s continued challenge for another championship, Ron’s retirement will inevitably be hastened and the team put their hopes in an unknown future under the wing of a manufacturer.

That might well mean the disappearance of the name McLaren – team owners tend to like their own names to be on the cars. It may be entirely appropriate that a movie about Bruce McLaren is being made at this moment.

All conjecture, of course, and the future may turn out very differently. Only one thing is certain: F1 is a hard and unforgiving sport.

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