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So What’s New?

Good old Kimi has been keeping the tabloid journalists in copy – F1-Live has the story of his latest adventures in a karaoke bar. Not only was he singing, apparently, but also (shock, horror) he autographed a bottle of Koskenkorva Viina (some form of Finnish booze). No doubt he was drowning his sorrow at everyone saying that Massa will beat him at Ferrari.

It’s all a fuss about nothing, of course. What does it matter if he relaxes in a rather robust way as long as his performances in racing continue at as high a level as they have been in the past? The fact is that Kimi is not worried about Massa’s testing form and is looking forward to the races – he knows that racing is the spur that brings the best from himself and that he’ll produce the goods when it matters. I have no doubt that he will beat Massa comprehensively in the coming season.

Kimi

Kimi in action

What remains to be seen is how well he will settle in the team. In previous posts I have wondered about this but this morning it occurred to me that he resembles another guy who once drove for Ferrari – Gilles Villeneuve. He has that same speed and cavalier approach to the sport that made Gilles so good to watch. Gilles also had his wild moments, all forgiven by the adoring tifosi because they knew he would always give of his best and never give up.

That was why Gilles became the darling of Ferrari and the fans – and Kimi could do the same if he has a few good races at the beginning of the season. Then will all the speculation about Massa cease.

The story does highlight the fact that there is a dearth of interesting news in F1 in these last few days before the Australian GP however. About the most exciting thing has been the expected announcement that Bridgestone will mark the different types of tires so that we can tell which each car is on – which is hardly earth-shattering news.

And that is why this article in Grand Prix dot com made me smile. If I may quote:

In terms of real news, there is currently very little and as we do not believe in manufacturing news stories we are keeping quiet for a few more days.

Now that is honest journalism!

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Motor Sport Without Michael

Former rally champion, Walter Rohrl, reckons that the end of Michael Schumacher’s career as a driver will be good for all forms of motor sport. He points out that, in the last few years, advertisers have lined up to have even a tiny decal on Michael’s car, rather than use the same money to sponsor an entire rally car.

Michael

Michael in the office

For those of us primarily interested in F1, it has been easy to overlook Michael’s influence beyond our favorite sport. If Rohrl is relieved to see him go, the ripples of Michael’s success must have reached way beyond our limited horizons. And I can believe that he is right; the Schumacher years changed F1 itself to such an extent that it is only logical that the effects should have spilled over into other areas.

Michael was both good and bad for F1. In becoming a household name, he attracted many more viewers, come to see what all the fuss was about, and this automatically brought the advertisers clamoring for a piece of the pie. But his domination of the sport also raised the most common criticism of the races: that they were predictable and boring as a result. For those of us who became fed up with the same guy winning all the time, the only enjoyment left to us was the hope that someone, somehow, would beat the blighter.

It is a danger that always threatens F1. In the past there have been flashes of domination by a driver or a team that have hinted at the boredom of such a situation. The total domination of Mercedes in the mid-1950s, Jim Clark’s succession of wins in the Lotus 25, Chapman’s Lotus 79 in 1978 and the swapping of dominant years between McLaren and Williams in the 1980s and 1990s were examples of how F1 races can become foregone conclusions.

What saved us in those years was that the boredom never lasted too long. Mercedes got out after a couple of years, Clark was always subject to the fragility of the Lotus, Chapman’s designs after the 79 were not as effective as others’ and neither Williams nor McLaren could achieve total dominance for long. Michael’s reign, however, just seems to have gone on and on.

So F1 breathes a sigh of relief to see Michael go. Suddenly there are new stars in the shape of Alonso and Raikkonen and a hoste of young bloods eager to make their names. This is what makes for great racing years: uncertainty as to who will win, real battles between several drivers and cars, the championship won by a point or two.

Already the advertisers spread out and begin to hedge their bets. McLaren and Renault find new sponsors and even lesser teams such as Spyker manage to attract good money. Perhaps Rohrl is correct in assuming that some of the money will go to rallying – and that has to be good for all motor sport.

Not that Michael is really to blame for all this; the object is to win and, if he proved the most complete racer for ten years, succeeding as a driver, politician, strategist and team builder, he was only doing his job. But F1 loves the real racer, the guy who fights through adversity, doesn’t always win but gives his all in the battle and cares nothing for the politics and strategy – hence the enormous popularity of Gilles Villeneuve and the fans’ preference for the skill and courage of Senna over the clinical approach and carefully planned races of Prost.

F1 might lose a bit of advertising revenue in the coming years – there are no obvious stars that will dominate in Schumacher style and the household will have to deal with several names rather than just one. But the health of the sport will improve immensely. Big names may attract new viewers but it’s competition that keeps them.

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Imola 1982

Some may think that the farce of the Indianapolis Grand Prix last year, when the Michelin runners withdrew from the race after the warm up lap, was the first time such a thing had been seen in F1. In fact, the events were similar to what happened at the San Marino Grand Prix of 1982.

That was the year when it became apparent that the teams were going to have to have a turbo engine to stand any chance of winning races. Renault had demonstrated the enormous power available from turbo engines and Ferrari had seized upon the idea and looked set for the title as a result.

Gilles

Gilles Villeneuve in the turbo-engined Ferrari of 1981

Other teams, mostly the British-based ones, had been unable to find turbo engine suppliers and were soldiering on with the Cosworth. But they were also finding some clever loopholes in the rules to keep up with the turbos. At the time, the cars were weighed after all liquids had been replaced and so some bright spark (it was Brabham who thought of it first) invented “water-cooled brakes”. The idea was that you topped up the water tank before the race, the water promptly ran out during the first few laps, thereby allowing the car to run at less than the legal minimum weight. Top up the tank before the post-race weighing, and everything was legal again.

In classic style, the FIA stepped in and banned the idea by insisting that the cars be weighed without liquids being replaced after the race. Since topping up had been allowed for years, this amounted to a mid-season change in the rules and the British teams objected. The debate became so acrimonious that there seemed a chance that the FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association) teams might even split from the FIA to start their own championship. And, to show how serious they were about the matter, the FOCA teams boycotted the Imola GP that year.

Seven teams turned up for the race but only two, Renault and Ferrari, stood any chance of winning; the others were tail-ender teams. So the race was really between four cars, and this became two after the Renaults had self-destructed. Gilles Villeneuve led Didier Pironi in what was becoming a Ferrari demonstration.

Until Pironi passed Villeneuve, that is. There had been a pre-race agreement between the drivers that whoever was leading after the first few laps would win the race. Villeneuve assumed that Pironi was putting on a show for the crowd and he willingly joined in, passing and being overtaken again and again. Then came the final lap and Pironi unexpectedly passed the Canadian one last time and took the flag.

Imola 1982

Pironi wins by stealth

Villeneuve was furious and refused to speak to Pironi from then onwards. And the argument may have had some part to play in Villeneuve’s crash and death at Zolder two weeks later.

The cause of this non-race disappeared in the meantime. Realizing that the FIA was not going to retreat from its position, the FOCA teams gave in and accepted the rule change. And, incidentally, that is why even today the teams are not allowed to touch the cars after the race. Funny how such long forgotten incidents shape the world we live in.

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Gilles Villeneuve Again

I was digging through the videos in YouTube this morning and came across yet more reminders of the bundle of determination that was Gilles Villeneuve. Regardless of whether you think he was the fastest of all time or just a little crazy, there is no doubting the man’s refusal to give up, no matter what happened.

Gilles

Here are a few samples of Gilles in all his glory:

Dutch GP, Zandvoort, 1979 – Gilles gets a puncture in the left rear, slides off the road but keeps the engine running and drives back to the pits. On the way, the tire comes off and the wheel begins to do the same; Gilles keeps going, right front wheel waving in the breeze, so low is the rear corner of the car. When he entered the pits, expecting a new tire, the mechanics just looked and shook their heads…

Canadian GP, Montreal, 1981 – The race is held in pouring rain and cars are sliding off everywhere. Gilles has a bit of an altercation and crunches the front wing but, hey, that’s nothing to this guy; he continues undaunted. The wing folds up on itself and eventually falls off, leaving Gilles to finish the race in a car without a nose. He was third.

Spanish GP, Jarama, 1981 – Gilles manages to get into second spot before Jones exits and leaves him in the lead. The Ferrari’s tires are going off, however, and the car handles like a pig through the corners. A train of cars builds behind Gilles, all much faster than him now, but somehow he holds them off and wins. This was probably the victory he had to work hardest for – at the end he was exhausted.

That was Gilles Villeneuve, a racer through and through.

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