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There’s No Business Like F1

I have said quite often recently that F1 is show business and has little to do with the real world as a result. Like most sports, it tootled along happily in its early days, just being a bit of fun for a few crazy drivers and some equally crazy teams, watched by a dedicated few but largely ignored by the outside world. Many participants had to fund their efforts from their own pockets and some had other jobs as a sideline – Jim Clark was a sheep farmer, for instance.

Sutil

Adrian Sutil

Just a few of the most successful drivers entered the public consciousness; Jim was one and Stirling became a figure of folklore in the speed cop’s inevitable question: “Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?” But very few ever saw these heroes race – race crowds were small, although enthusiastic, and television did little more than show an occasional two-minute clip of grainy, black and white footage.

Then the seventies arrived and, with them, two events that propelled F1 into the traveling circus it is today. Advertising came with big bucks and put pressure on the sport to increase the number of bums on seats and so repay its investment; and television became interested, for the first time showing entire races (in color!). In a very short time, F1 was heading for stardom, soon to become the number two televised sport after football.

In common with other sports, F1 has adopted the ways of show business as a result. Suddenly the competition becomes subsidiary to how much money can be made, just as movies are judged by their takings and not by the quality of the film. And drivers become stars, sharing in the wealth that is poured into the sport by the fans, advertisers and vested interests.

A few years ago in the States, the professional baseball players went on strike for higher wages. They were already paid obscene amounts of money compared to the average fan’s take-home pay and so they received little sympathy in their quest. The fans deserted in droves and baseball still struggles to recover from the disaster. Which illustrates an aspect of show business that may well be affecting F1 – the unreality of it all.

No doubt you and I have dreamed of making a million, working out just how we would invest it sensibly and so ensure that it provides us with an income for the rest of our lives (it can still be done – just). When we read of the multi-millions paid to the likes of the Schumacher brothers, Kimi Raikkonen and others, it does not really sink in; these figures are almost unimagineable, way beyond our wildest dreams. It is rumored that Ron Dennis managed to pick up Fernando Alonso’s services for this year for the paltry sum of 16 million dollars – a real coup in the fairy tale world of F1 pay rates.

So how long can the sport sustain these incredible salaries? Will we see a time when reality intrudes to the extent that drivers’ pay actually begins to decrease? It seems likely, especially when one remembers the rumor that Frank Williams took on Alex Wurz rather than continue to pay the contracted amount to Mark Webber.

Very often we hear that F1 is a dangerous sport and the drivers deserve their money because they risk so much. Yet the risks have decreased enormously, particularly since the death of Ayrton Senna, and still the pay scales have shot up in the meantime. The reality is that drivers these days are paid according to their star quality – the better their names are known outside F1, the more they can be expected to earn. It even helps if you have the same surname as the most famous of them all, as demonstrated by Ralf Schumacher. The public knows the name but has never heard of Jarno Trulli – guess who gets the fatter paycheck from Toyota.

I am not really complaining about the situation; if the drivers can get such salaries, good luck to them, say I. But I do wonder how long it can continue and how they manage to spend it all. They say that Kimi recently bought a yacht for $3.4 million, but that is little more than pocket change from a salary rumored to be in the region of $50 million a year.

And there is also the matter of differentials here: we have some idea of how much the stars are paid but how about the guys at the other end of the grid? I doubt that Adrian Sutil and Christijan Albers get anything like the amounts paid to others and some of Spyker’s test drivers bring advertising money to the pot, leaving us in doubt that they receive any monetary reward at all for their efforts.

It’s a strange world and often an unfair one…

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Drivers Online

Some time ago I compared the F1 team websites, ranking them for ease of use, information, news, design, etc. Keith Collantine, of F1-Fanatic, reckons Felipe Massa’s blog is the most tedious in existence, so I thought I’d have a look at the what the other drivers offer online.

Scott

Scott Speed – the winner online!

I went through each one and was quite surprised at the variety of styles and presentations out there. Massa’s may be boring but Raikkonen’s is still under development. Does it mean anything that one of the fastest drivers is also the slowest to have an online presence? If so, Nico Rosberg can feel pleased – his site has yet to go live too. Fernando Alonso’s is very lacking in information but Lewis Hamilton just has a page that redirects you to the McLaren site. Maybe he really is the quickest of them all…

Generally, the drivers’ sites are pretty ordinary, with little imagination and sparse information and news. There are a few that excel, however, with good graphics, videos, personal messages and interactivity. BMW won my previous tour of the team websites and Robert Kubica uses the same web designer, so his site looks good, although it is a bit sparse on actual information and has no news. Nick Heidfeld’s is also clear and efficient but could do with a little more information.

You’re going to think that I have a Scott Speed fixation but it just happens to be true that his website is by far the best in terms of looks, information and real interactivity with the viewer. Thanks to the provision of several videos, it is possible to get to know Scott to a greater extent than other drivers and he comes across as a very likable guy. How you react to his informality is up to you, of course, but I like it.

Another driver from the wrong end of the grid, Christijan Albers has a good-looking site that has the interesting innovation of scrolling news updates from f1.gpupdate.com but, unfortunately, his own news is out of date and there is no photo gallery. Adrian Sutil’s is by the same designer but has even less information, perhaps because he is so new to the sport.

Jarno Trulli has a good site with plenty of info, lots of of photos and some quotes, but the news is sparse. Perhaps the strangest is Alex Wurz’s, with a very flashy intro but news that is hopelessly out of date. He gets bonus marks from me, however, thanks to his use of classical music.

The others are average, although there are one or two that deserve special mention as examples of how not to build a website. David Coulthard’s looks as if it was designed when he first entered F1 and the lack of news is a definite loser. Mark Webber’s is marginally better but his news has not caught up with testing in Paul Ricard yet.

Wooden spoon goes to Jenson Button, however. The site looks reasonably good at first but requires registration before you can get to anything really interesting. Try to join up and you will find that the Country of Origin scrollbar doesn’t work – making it impossible to register! Maybe the dreaded Honda disease is spreading…

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On Giving the Drivers a Break

I have written before about the pressure the arrival of new and talented young drivers puts on the old guard of F1. Even recent arrivals like Mark Webber must be looking at the hype surrounding such hotshoes as Kubica, Kovalainen, Sutil and Hamilton and wondering where their next drive is coming from.

Lewis

Lewis Hamilton

The first few races have put some of this into perspective, with Kovalainen and Kubica struggling to make an impact at first, but Hamilton’s amazing form has upped the ante for everyone, including the young ones. Suddenly every team owner wants another Hamilton and the pressure transfers to the new arrivals to prove that they, too, can work miracles.

No doubt reality will break through eventually and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief as Hamilton makes the occasional mistake or suffers a run of bad luck (he had both in GP2 – it will happen in F1 too). But the benchmark for new drivers has moved higher than ever before and will stay there.

Like him or loathe him, Michael Schumacher has become the model for drivers to be measured against now. The extreme levels of fitness, commitment, technical ability, tactical astuteness, public persona and speed he demonstrated are now expected of all drivers and we may have seen the last of the drivers who rely only on a God-given talent to see them through.

Hence the pressure on Raikkonen at the moment; he is seen as supremely talented but uncommitted to his task and his early departure from the Barcelona GP is cited as evidence of this. Rumors abound that Scott Speed is about to be replaced at Toro Rosso (by Vettel, of all people) and the denials by Berger and Tost do little to quell speculation. The pressure on drivers mounts to the point where the message becomes “deliver the goods by mid-season or you’re history”.

It is all faintly ridiculous and ignores the fact that many champions have taken time to find their feet in F1. Nigel Mansell was one and it took Keke Rosberg years to be offered a competitive drive. We need to face the fact that not every potential champion is a Schumacher, that many great talents of the future will have other approaches to their task.

All of which is leading up to another plea for Speed not to be dismissed. I have already pointed out his excellent performance at Barcelona, in spite of bad luck preventing any fulfillment of the promise. Here now are the midday practice times from today’s testing session at Paul Ricard:

1. Webber – Red Bull – 1:29.687
2. Raikkonen – Ferrari – 1:30.051
3. Speed – Toro Rosso – 1:30.053
4. Barrichello – Honda – 1:30.108
5. de la Rosa – McLaren – 1:30.457
6. Montagny – Toyota – 1:30.478
7. Rossiter – Super Aguri – 1:30.575
8. Kovalainen – Renault – 1:30.917
9. Kubica – BMW – 1:30.931
10. Wurz – Williams – 1:31.324
11. Winkelhock – Spyker – 1:32.756
12. Albers – Spyker – 1:32.960

Enough said.

Update – Final Times from Paul Ricard, 3rd Day:

Raikkonen, Ferrari – 1:28.833
Speed, Toro Rosso – 1:29.039
Kovalainen, Renault – 1:29.070
Kubica, BMW – 1:29.157
Webber, Red Bull – 1:29.179
Montagny, Toyota – 1:29.205
Wurz, Williams – 1:29.359
de la Rosa, McLaren – 1:29.528
Barrichello, Honda – 1:30.108
Klien, Honda – 1:30.235
Rossiter, Super Aguri – 1:30.286
Albers, Spyker – 1:32.245
Winkelhock, Spyker – 1:32.756

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Okay, Lewis Hamilton

I must seem a miserable old geezer, with my refusal to join the general hubbub over Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton this year. It comes of being hasty in the past, placing too much hope in unproven drivers or teams and disillusionment after disappointment as a result. These days I’m slow to pass judgment, preferring to wait and see long after others have cast their votes.

Lewis

Lewis Hamilton

Even so, my views on Massa are probably fairly obvious through various unguarded phrases and sentences in posts and comments. It has been Hamilton that I’ve been very careful about, watching and waiting to see how this season pans out. I want too much for him to be all that he is trumpeted as, the new British hope that will conquer the world, the one who will out-Schumacher Michael himself. Ever mindful of the crushing disappointments of former years, I hold my dreams close to my chest and put on the poker face.

But it is four races into the season now and Lewis has not put a foot wrong, in the car or out of it. If anyone ever looked a star on the rise, he is it. No-one, not even Michael Schumacher, broke the records for new arrivals as Lewis is doing.

So how good is he really? Never mind the pre-F1 resumé – we have seen those become irrelevant too often in the past – it’s how he races that matters. And thus far he has been very impressive, swapping fastest McLaren laps with his illustrious teammate and taking the fight to Ferrari. In a rookie, that is almost unheard of. The lad can drive, there is no doubt of that.

The detractors point out that he has had the luck to begin his F1 career with a team that has just returned to greatness; which is true – most new drivers start out in the lesser teams and hope to be noticed by those that matter. But how many of them would do as well as Lewis has, given the same circumstances? It didn’t help Alex Zanardi (second attempt, admitedly) or Michael Andretti to be in a top team.

Luck is an important part of a champion’s success anyway; if Lewis has it, that is one more string to his bow. But he has made his own luck, making himself known to Ron Dennis at a very early stage in his career and winning in whatever formula came his way. Everything looks so carefully planned that the only element of luck seems to be that he was available at the moment when McLaren had secured the services of the world champion and were prepared to take a little bit of a chance on the second seat as a result.

Out of the car he is just as good too. He oozes confidence yet retains enough humility for us to warm to him. His statements stick to the McLaren line with precision, yet are delivered with a breezy smile and obvious enthusiasm for his job. In fact, he has been the model of the good team driver and hardly needs the protection from the media that Ron has given him.

So why am I still hedging my bets? Perhaps I am too cautious but I want to see how he behaves when circumstances turn against him. Yes, he has held off both Raikkonen and Massa when challenged for position; how will he fare when someone gets past him? What will he do when the car breaks underneath him three races in a row? How will he handle it if Alonso manages to gain the upper hand in the mid-season?

I suspect that he will sail through such tests with all flags flying. I just want to see it, that’s all…

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