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The Fastest Of Them All

Whenever F1 fans get together, you can bet that the conversation will eventually turn to the subject of which driver was greatest of all. Years ago I read a short story that deals with this rather well and I am always reminded of it whenever such a discussion begins. I do not remember who wrote the story so I cannot give credit where it is due – but it was a long time ago so perhaps it will be sufficient that I put on record that the story isn’t mine. Anyway, here’s the basic outline of the tale:

It seems that there was a group of friends who were great fans of Grand Prix racing. They met often and enjoyed many long discussions on all aspects of the sport but things often became heated when the matter of the quickest driver arose – as it did often.

Nuvolari

The usual names were bandied about, Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Senna, Schumacher, but no final decision could ever be reached as each fan produced persuasive reasons as to why his choice must be the right one. Over the years, positions became entrenched and everyone knew the opinions and arguments of everyone else since they had heard them so often before. But nobody would concede defeat and the subject remained the one issue that was entirely deadlocked; yet they never gave up debating it, so determined were they that the matter be settled once and for all.

They were old men by the time they gathered together for the bus ride to Spa to see the Belgian Grand Prix. And, in a way, it was fitting that they should all be killed when the bus fell off a hillside in the Ardennes before they reached the circuit. Inseparable friends they had been in life and now, in death, the bond continued unbroken.

And so it was that they found themselves together again in heaven. St Peter had allowed them entry as a group and no-one was left behind. And, inevitably, the old subject came up again, undecided as it still was. Who was the fastest of all?

Even then, they were unable to reach agreement and things might have stayed that way for eternity if one of their number had not suggested settling the matter by asking the Boss, the Big G, who was reputed to know all things. Elated that they would finally know the truth and the controversy be settled forever, they proceeded to the Big House to ask their question.

The Boss was in residence and expressed Himself happy to answer anything they should ask. They explained the problem (not omitting mention of each one’s preference to ensure that he not be forgotten) and finished with the question that had dominated their lives – who was the fastest driver of all time?

The Boss smiled and answered immediately. “Heinz Hopflinger,” He announced with certainty.

The friends stared at Him and each other in complete perplexity. “Heinz Hopflinger?” ventured the bravest of them. “But I’ve never heard of him. How could that be?”

The Boss smiled again. “Oh, it was Heinz all right. I ought to know – I made him. He was a shepherd in Lichtenstein all his life and never actually saw a motor vehicle, let alone a racing car. But, if they had put him in one, he would have beaten all those you mentioned by a mile…”

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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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Gerhard Berger Tries Psychology

Apparently, Sebastien Bourdais is to be given another drive in the Toro Rosso while the contracted drivers, Liuzzi and Speed, are still waiting for confirmation of their seats this year. In an interview with Auto Motor und Sport magazine, Berger has been critical of his drivers’ performances in 2006, so it seems that I was wrong about the delay originating with Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz. My apologies to him, of course.

Gerhard

Gerhard plots his next move

But what is Gerhard up to? If he is genuinely dissatisfied with his drivers, it seems a bit late to be still dithering. There are no obvious winners left on the market and Bourdais is certainly not available for this season. Montoya has admitted that he did receive an offer from Toro Rosso and that it gave him a good laugh, the rumors of Mika Hakkinen returning to F1 in a TR have been firmly squelched, so who else is a possible? Robert Doornbos? That would be taking more of a chance than keeping Liuzzi and Speed.

This indecision seems so unlike Berger until you remember the tales of his practical jokes on Ayrton Senna. When dealing with Gerhard, things are not necessarily what they appear to be on the surface. And I think the wily Austrian is using a bit of psychology to motivate his drivers (Sigmund Freud was an Austrian, remember).

It is just not true that Liuzzi and Speed did not perform well last year. At almost every GP we were told that the TR’s V10 would not be able to compete with the V8s, only to see the cars perform far better than expected, especially through the speed traps. Liuzzi was rated highly enough for Red Bull to want him as a driver until Mark Webber came up for grabs and, as pointed out in my post, An American in F1 – Scott Speed, Scott was looking the better of the two towards the end of the season.

Gerhard knows better than anyone else how good his drivers are – he would not have fought so hard to keep Liuzzi from the clutches of Red Bull were it not so. This feigned dissatisfaction is a Berger ploy to get his drivers fired up for the coming races, to light a bomb under them, in fact.

And it will probably work. Both Liuzzi and Speed are no doubt well aware of what Berger is up to but they will still want to prove themselves to the world. When the lights go out for the start of the first race, I think Toro Rosso will have two drivers who are absolutely determined to show their boss that he was completely wrong about them – that they are instead the quickest drivers to be seen in F1 in a long time.

He’s a wily old bird, that Gerhard Berger.

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The Secret Weapon of F1 Design

If you want a winning car, hire a South African to lead your design department. Ferrari did so when they took on Rory Byrne and many years ago Brabham and then McLaren opted for Gordon Murray, also a South African.

Both designers have not been content to follow the herd in creating reiterations of established practice; they were innovative right from the start and always on the look-out for something different that might give their cars an edge. Byrne showed this very early on with his Toleman TG183 – putting the radiators in the front wings and attaching the rear wing to the sidepods. No wonder he was to become the revered force at Ferrari that he is now.

TG183

Ayrton Senna in the Toleman TG183

Murray too began with new ideas and created several championship-winning cars in his career. Consider this long line of excellent designs:

BT44

Brabham BT44, Carlos Reutemann aboard

Not quite a championship winner, the BT44 still won many races over a long career. Note the radiators in the nose and the triangular body section.

BT49

Nelson Piquet in the BT49

Murray’s take on the ground effect design of Colin Chapman’s, the BT49 was the most successful of all Brabhams, winning the driver’s championship with Nelson Piquet aboard in 1981. After driving the BT49 for the first time in 1982, Piquet’s new teammate, Riccardo Patrese, remarked that “anyone could win races in that car!” Piquet responded with, “Yes, and it took us two years to make it that good…”

BT50

Piquet again, this time in the BT50

Incredibly fast but unreliable, the BT50 was Murray’s first turbo-engined car. Piquet took on the task of getting the BMW turbo to last a race distance (while Patrese enjoyed the BT49) and also re-introduced refuelling to F1. He would hurtle off from the start, build a massive lead and then come in for fuel, usually rejoining the race still in the lead. The fragility of the engine meant that the strategy worked only once, however – the Canadian GP of 1982.

BT52

Patrese in the BT52

A new design for the first year without skirts, the BT52 benefited from the work done on the BMW turbo by allowing Piquet to win his second driver’s championship in 1983. The long sidepods of the ground effect era have given way to triangular stubs at the rear but the family resemblance to the BT50 remains.

MP4 5B

Senna in the McLaren MP4 5B

Well, okay, a McLaren looks like a McLaren – all the flair and brilliance of the MP4 5B is hidden by what now seems a standard body. But this was the car that dominated the early years of the 1990s.

It’s a list that any designer would be proud of. Murray called it a day in F1 after that and went off to design road cars. But he and Byrne have written in bold letters across the sport: South African designers have something special!

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