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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 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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Theissen on Customer Cars

BMW’s Mario Theissen has come out strongly against customer cars being allowed in F1. The rules are due to change in 2008 to allow this and Theissen is looking beyond the current storm brewing over Toro Rosso’s and Super Aguri’s plans to run something very like customers cars in 2007.


Customer McLaren M23

His point is that the rule change could result in a reduction of the number of constructors, with only about six manufacturers producing chassis and supplying them to ‘B’ teams. This would allow manipulation of the championship by concentration of effort on one driver’s car and other drivers within the constructor’s orbit being ordered to support him.

It is certainly one way things could turn out but history would not suggest its likelihood. In the seventies there were innumerable customer car teams, some of which, like Williams, were to go on to become important constructors in their own right, while others fell by the wayside. There was no apparent collusion between constructors and customers; you could buy a McLaren M23, for instance, and be reasonably competitive but there was no support from the supplier – you were on your own as regards development and maintenance.

Of course, the situation is different now that big manufacturers are involved and it may well be that each constructor will effectively run four cars. But, if they are all using the tactics suggested by Theissen to push one driver forward, it evens out and not much has changed. With the extinction of small constructors (which is inevitable in the future mapped out by the FIA), the fight will be between only half a dozen manufacturers anyway.

So, if our hypothetical six manufacturers are all putting their support into one driver, that leaves us with six guys fighting for the championship. Hey, that’s an improvement over the present – there were only two drivers in with a chance this year.

The real problem is not the customer car rule; this is just a bone thrown to the little guys to suggest that the FIA really means its stated intention to keep small teams in F1. Now that the FIA and manufacturers are in bed together, the rules change to suit the big guys and it will become impossible for genuine independents to compete. If customer cars were to remain illegal, the only result would be that you have the same six manufacturers racing but no small teams. Which would mean 12-car grids…

Whether the FIA and the manufacturers like it or not, small teams have always been the lifeblood of F1. All innovation comes from them and they represent the true drama of the sport – the David against Goliath scenario. In the past such teams have dominated in spite of the rules being weighted against them but I fear that the latest proposed changes will exterminate the little guy altogether. F1 is to become a testing bed for road cars and anyone who wants to compete for the sheer joy of racing had better look for another formula.

Customer cars offer the last lifeline to smaller teams. They will be getting a secondhand product without all the latest tweaks available to the works team but it’s better than nothing. And there will always remain the faint possibility that some bright spark will find a way to make the chassis perform better than the supplier’s cars. Let the rule stay, say I.

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Prodrive’s Different Strategy

David Richards, boss of Prodrive, has been talking about how the team plan to enter F1 in 2008. His ideas are very interesting, stemming from previous experience with the Benetton and BAR outfits, and he makes some good points.


David Richards

As we knew before, Prodrive do not intend to build their own car but to buy in a chassis as well as an engine from a manufacturer, effectively to become a manufacturer’s second team, similar to the the arrangement between Honda and Super Aguri. You can see why he wants to take this route; after years of struggling to make the BAR effective, he knows how difficult it is to start from scratch. With the regulations changing in 2008 to make this sort of deal legal, it becomes possible to shortcut the learning process and become competitive within a year or two.

Richards points at Toyota and Honda as examples of how long it takes to develop a car sufficiently for it to win races. And it is true that any team new to F1 has years of hard work in front of it before it can expect success. Or is it?

History can give a few examples where things happened the other way around. March, Wolf and Arrows were immediately competitive when they arrived on the scene and time only saw them slip further and further down the field. Logically, they should have become better as they learned the ropes; in reality, they may have improved but it seemed that everyone else did so faster.

So Prodrive’s strategy may well be the way to go. Certainly, it seems to be the trend of the moment and there might come a time when every manufacturer has a second team. This has benefits for both sides: the client team gets to go racing on a smaller budget and the manufacturer gets double the chance of doing well. Again historically, however, it has the disadvantage that second teams finish second.

It also raises the question of which manufacturer would enter such an arrangement with Prodrive. With the rest already committed to engine deals with other teams, only BMW and McLaren/Mercedes could do it. Word on the street is that Prodrive fancy Mercedes, but I wonder why either German company would bother with such an added complication. Both are hard at work trying to get to the top step of the podium – it makes little sense that they should dilute their efforts by the addition of another team at this stage. Give them the success that Renault has achieved over the last couple of years and they might be prepared to do it; until then, I think it’s a non-starter.

You could say that Toyota are taking that chance by allowing Williams to have their engines but, as I have mentioned before, I think there are good reasons for this. In a few years there will be only one Toyota team and it will probably be called a Toyota-Williams.

It will be very interesting to follow Prodrive’s progress in establishing an alliance with another team. Personally, I like this move to customer teams and it might be the only way for small teams to continue in F1 in the future that looms over them so ominously. But it is not going to be easy, that’s for sure!

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Pascal Vasselon on Interlagos

In the recent FIA survey, Toyota emerged as the least popular of the F1 teams. Why that should be so I have no idea, especially when one considers that the team’s main spokesperson, Pascal Vasselon, is one of the most articulate and level-headed people in the sport. When he speaks, I listen.

TF 106B

Toyota TF 106B

Autosport magazine has posted an interview with Pascal today and he discusses the Brazilan race from a position of considerable knowledge and understanding of the Interlagos circuit. For instance, we have heard a lot about the bumps on the track but only M. Vasselon has pointed out that they are a problem that won’t go away. As the name suggests (Interlagos means “between the lakes”), much of the circuit is built upon a lake bed and it is the instability of the underlying ground that causes the bumps.

He then goes into some detail on how the unpredictability of the Brazilian weather affects race strategy and it makes interesting reading. The fact that the rain does not cool the track surface much has an effect on the suitability of wet weather tires, for example. It all adds up to an explanation for the Brazilian Grand Prix often springing surprises. And that has to make the racing more exciting for the fans.

Most team managers are very bullish when asked about a team’s prospects for the next race; they will talk about it as if they were in with a real chance of victory (and we know they can’t all be right). But Pascal is refreshing in his sober assessment of Toyota’s chances. They are “reasonably optimistic of a strong performance” it seems.

To me, that seems exactly the right blend of optimism and realism. Pascal is one of those who are not afraid to “tell it like it is”.

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