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The Dampers Controversy

It seems I was premature in congratulating the FIA for dealing with Renault’s and Ferrari’s weighted dampers so quickly and efficiently (see my post The FIA Dampens Some Ardor). The Hockenheim stewards have thrown a spanner in the works by accepting them as legal when the Renault team presented their cars for scrutineering with the dampers still fitted.

So we have the interesting situation of stewards appointed by the FIA disagreeing with a ruling by the FIA. We can look forward to a storm of protest, argument and law suits as a result and the possibility of race results being changed once everything is decided finally. Ah, the glories of Formula One.

Scrutineering

A steward at scrutineering

Personally, I wonder what Renault were up to when they left the dubious dampers on their cars. Do they make such a performance difference that they were worth risking the ensuing fuss? And it is a risk; getting them past the stewards is one thing, but a later ruling that they are illegal could result in any points won in Germany by the Renaults being taken away. Surely it makes more sense to accept the FIA’s judgement, knowing that Ferrari will be without the tweak as well and therefore without any advantage it gives. At this stage, Renault would be better employed making sure that Alonso finishes no lower than second in the remaining races.

At least it seems that everyone is happy with the banning of BMW Sauber’s upright wings. The FIA’s reasoning that they interfere with the drivers’ vision seems a bit flimsy, given that all three BMW drivers maintain that they can see fine, thank you. Admittedly, their case is a bit weakened in that they were saying so long before the FIA made their ruling; they must have known that any objections would center on the restriction of the driver’s view of the road.

But we all know the real reason why the wings were outlawed: they are just plain ugly. Is this the first time the FIA have had to step in on a matter of aesthetics?

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Auf Wiedersehen, Hockenheim

As the owners fight to keep Hockenheim on the F1 calendar, perhaps in rotation with the Nurburgring, is there no-one who sees the irony in the fact that they have just emasculated the circuit in true modern fashion? It was never the most exciting circuit in the world, but at least it had those long blasts into the atmospheric German forests; now they are gone in the interests of safety and we are left with the usual twiddly bits surrounded by grandstands.

Hockenheim

The Hockenheimring

Did I say “safety”? Hasn’t anyone noticed that accidents are not caused by going fast in a straight line? They happen in corners, exactly those things that we sprinkle in abundance into modern circuits. But it’s too late for Hockenheim to point this out; the deed is done and now the FIA comes with the axe. Never mind that the organizers were probably counting on the proceeds from future GPs to help pay for the “improvements”.

It was inevitable that one of the two German races would have to go, however (and Imola, of course). With countries lining up with wads of cash in their hands, desperate to have a GP, those countries with two GPs were always going to be the ones to lose. And no-one was ever fooled by talk of the “European” and “San Marino” GPs; we knew it was just a way of giving more than one to the favored nations.

And now it seems that European countries have dropped off the favored list. Whoever bids highest can have a race and, increasingly, that means the Far East. If we lose some of the most famous and best loved circuits in the world to be replaced by more sterile and “safe” chicane-fests, who cares as long as the FIA gets richer still?

Surely there has to be a limit somewhere. It’s all very well taking the money for new races in Asian countries but can it last? They may be huge markets but surely not for the stuff F1 is selling (especially with the ban on cigarette advertising). China still gets around on a bicycle and India walks. How many extra BMWs, Renaults and Toyotas are going to sell in those countries thanks to their having GPs? The races there are PR exercises only and, as such, can be guaranteed not to last for long.

I can only presume that the FIA doesn’t care. Now that they have the habit, they can shut down any GP and sell a new one as and when they please. And the sport becomes a mobile circus without tradition or soul, for sale to whoever bids the most.

Sometimes I think Montoya was right – that F1 will end up racing on ovals so we might as well go straight to NASCAR. The only bright spot on the horizon is the return of Spa next year. For how long, I wonder.

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Hockenheim Thoughts

The war of words continues in the run up to the German Grand Prix this weekend. Both Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso remain bullish in their public statements, talking of winning races and the championship. Yet I detect a change in the air.

There are signs of nerves in the Renault camp. Alonso has been muttering about the need for his teammate to provide more assistance and Flavio Briatore talks of tires and urges Michelin to provide the goods. Meanwhile all seems well at Ferrari, with Massa enjoying the approval of the team after his defense of second place in the first stint in France, and Lauda asserting that Schumacher’s determination will result in his being champion again this year.

Helmets

Face-off!

Renault have been through this movie before. In 1983, they were so sure that Prost had done enough to be champion that they concentrated their development efforts on next year’s car (which turned out to be a dog anyway). This allowed Piquet in the Brabham BT52 to sneak through and steal the championship at the last. It’s no wonder that sweat is beginning to break out on the Renault forehead.

The most galling thing for the team must be that, to a large extent, their fate is not in their hands; as Flavio has hinted at, much depends upon Michelin continuing the development of their tires right up until the final race of the season. Although they deny it emphatically, there remains the thought that they might ease up now, knowing that they will no longer be in F1 next year. Renault must hope that Michelin’s desire to leave on a high note remains strong.

The performance of Fisichella also depends on the tires. In races where the Michelins have been competitive, Fizzy has been equal to the task of assisting Alonso’s drive to the championship, usually finishing ahead of Massa. But, when Bridgestone get the upper hand, Fisichella seems to suffer more than Alonso and he can end up fighting with the Toyotas rather than the Ferraris.

So all eyes are upon Michelin this weekend. Will they be able to catch Bridgestone or even pass them? It remains to be seen. But in the meantime, some words of comfort for Renault: if disaster happens and Alonso has to retire from a race that Michael wins, he will still be in the hunt for the championship; if Michael fails to finish a race, he can forget being champion this year. Fernando remains the best bet.

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Piquet and Salazar

One of the American commenters to my personal blog, Gone Away, had this to say after reading of my new blog on F1:

Just know that I will certainly stop by to enjoy hurling a few fresh peanut shells occasionally, and that altho high-end tech-talk only confuses this bent caveman, I find myself inexplicably attracted to the chaos of almost any sort of automobile race track, along with the dust, the lights and the noise, whereby I become so absorbed in all the goings-on that any chatter from nearby bothers me not.

But if you have any dirt on any of these drivers…

I replied to his last sentence as follows:

Dirt on the drivers? The trouble with these modern guys is that they have to be so darn fit that they don’t get time to do anything naughty. Although they do say that Kimi Raikkonen spends many nights in raucous night clubs. And back in the fifties and sixties there were some pretty wild guys involved and parties could get really hectic, I believe.

Come to think of it, even today’s drivers lose their tempers on occasion. For instance, there was the time Nelson Piquet tried to remove another driver’s helmet without undoing the straps first. Hmmm, there may be a rich vein of posts in this one…

Having promised (well, sort of) to do so, we could start the ball rolling with a look at that particular incident. It is so famous in F1 that all you have to do is say “Nelson Piquet and Eliseo Salazar” and all fans will know what you’re talking about. But it bears repeating as a good example of Brazilian hot blood.

It was 1982 at the German Grand Prix. Nelson was driving for Brabham and it was the first year that they had obtained a turbo engine – a BMW that produced huge amounts of power but broke more often than not. To contain it, Brabham’s designer, Gordon Murray, produced one of the most beautiful cars ever – the Brabham BT50.

The team devised a cunning plan to ensure that, when the engine lasted the race, they won. It was the first time refueling had been seen in F1 for decades and it caught everyone by surprise. Nelson would hurtle off from the start in a seriously-light BT50, establish a huge lead and then come in for refueling. If everything went according to plan, he would still be in the lead when he emerged from the pits and the race would be in his pocket. The theory worked once – in Canada – but otherwise Piquet’s year was a long list of retirements.

We were used to these tactics by the time the circus came to Hockenheim and were not surprised when Nelson leapt into the lead and began to build a huge cushion. Until Eliseo Salazar entered the picture, that is.

It was still in the early laps when Nelson came up to lap one of the back markers, the said Eliseo. On the approach to a chicane at the end of a long straight, Nelson came screaming past Salazar, braked, and began to turn into the corner.

At this point, I have to say that I disagree with other commentators on what happened next. They all say that Salazar was not aware of Piquet’s presence but it is quite clear from the videos that the Brabham was ahead of the ATS when Nelson began to brake for the corner. Watch the video here and you will see that Salazar must have been asleep not to have noticed Piquet passing him. It is quite simple: Salazar did not even begin to hit the brakes and cannoned into the side of the Brabham at full speed. Both cars were out of the race immediately.

Understandably, Nelson was a little upset at the summary way in which he’d been bumped off the track. Remember, too, that he must have been in “absolute limit” mode – it was imperative that he build as big a lead as possible in a short time. He leapt out of the car and ran over to Salazar (who was calmly walking away) to explain his displeasure. And it must be that Eliseo’s answer to Piquet’s protest was insufficient, for it incensed the Brazilian even more. There followed the famous scene of Piquet attempting to hit a man in the head through a racing helmet. When that failed (for obvious reasons), he aimed a kick at the guy but, by that time, Eliseo was exiting stage right and was out of range.

Piquet and Salazar

The Big Fight

That is all we saw on the television during the race but, apparently, there is a sequel. Standing nearby was a van ready to take the drivers back to the pits. Piquet strolled over and found that Eliseo was already sitting smugly in the back. And the fight began all over again, forcing the driver to get out and separate the combatants. Piquet promptly jumped into the van and drove off, leaving the van driver and Salazar to reflect upon the events of the previous few minutes.

Much later the Brabham engineers informed Piquet that the engine had been about to blow up anyway – Salazar had actually saved the BMW chiefs the embarrassment of yet another engine failure and in their home race. Nelson immediately phoned Salazar to apologize.

So ends the tale of F1′s biggest punch up. And I still say Nelson had every right to demonstrate his feelings on the matter. If only he’d persuaded Salazar to remove his helmet first…

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