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The Perfect Second

Mention of Riccardo Patrese yesterday reminds me of a quality that he developed in the later part of his career; in his era, he was the ideal second driver. Much fuss is made of a driver’s chances of becoming World Champion and we tend to disregard anyone who will obviously never make it. Yet, from a team point of view, it makes a lot of sense to have a clear number one backed up by a solid number two driver. And good second drivers are even less common than potential champions.

Patrese

Riccardo Patrese

Time and again in history we have seen the weakness of the “two number ones” strategy – they tend to push each other off, take points away from each other and end up squabbling over the amount of support each is given by the team. Much better is to have a stated number one backed by a sound, honest and capable number two.

I am not talking about the Michael Schumacher type of arrangement, where the second driver is not only expected to take points from the competition but also to sacrifice his position to the number one when necessary. That is where the honesty bit comes in – any driver needs some form of incentive and the possibility of beating the number one in a fair fight should always be left available.

The ideal second driver is capable of adding regularly to the team’s points score and moving up to the number one’s position should he drop out. Usually, the second is an experienced driver who has come close to beating everyone on occasion but now recognizes that he lacks that final edge of genius that belongs to the champion. Yet that does not deter him – love for the sport keeps him in the game and he becomes a real asset to any team, sharing his knowledge with the other driver and steadily racking up the points.

This was Patrese in the second half of his career. In his youth, he had been a little wild and was often accused (sometimes unjustly) of causing accidents. As time went on, however, he settled down and became a solid, dependable veteran, unlikely to win but always giving his best and a valuable yardstick to the performance of others as a result. It is no wonder that he lasted in F1 for so long.

Looking at today’s crop, now that Mickey the Shoe has gone, it is not immediately apparent that there are any perfect number twos around – or it would be so if David Coulthard had not kept popping into my mind as I wrote this. He has all the necessary ingredients and it remains only to be seen how he will react if Mark Webber starts to beat him consistently. I suspect that he will cope with it and continue to give honestly of his best, remaining an indispensible part of the Red Bull team, but only time will tell.

So few drivers manage to deal with such situations. Jacques Villeneuve went off in a huff at the mere suggestion, Webber himself found it intolerable that his employer seemed to put more faith in his rookie teammate at Williams, Barrichello struggles to prove that his Ferrari years have not broken him; all very understandable, since everyone comes to F1 with high hopes and rightly so.

But real character and maturity is shown by the man who learns his limits and comes to terms with them. And that is why perfect number twos are so rare. It’s a sport for huge ambitions, unassailable egos and belief in one’s own superiority. When time has eroded those youthful dreams, few are able to see that they still have much to offer.

But the wise team manager will grab such a driver and put him with their new hotshoe discovery, knowing that this is the sure road to success.

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Super Aguri and the Shadow of the Past

One thing about F1 can always be guaranteed: the off season will be enlivened by some controversy or other. This time it’s the Great Customer Car Row and we have been entertained by Gerhard Burger’s determined assertion that Toro Rosso owns the intellectual property rights to their car for 2007; the fact that Red Bull also owns those rights to a car that looks identical is neither here nor there, apparently.

Riccardo

Riccardo Patrese in the 1978 Arrows A1

But the ’tis/’tisn’t scenario can wear pretty thin after a while and, right on cue, Nick Fry arrives on stage to enliven the show with his denial that the new Super Aguri is really last year’s Honda. Ummm, yeah, okay Nick, so when are we going to see it?

There is a delightful thread running through Super Aguri’s part in the performance, however. Remember that last year SA were running an aging Arrows chassis – to which they had bought the intellectual property rights, quite correctly. And this brings echoes of history to my mind, shades from Arrows’ past when, just like SA, it was a new arrival on the F1 scene.

The year was 1978 and Arrows turned up for the races with a car that seemed suspiciously similar to the Shadow team’s entry. This might have been coincidence except that the Arrows designers were refugees from a big bust-up in the Shadow camp the year before. Shadow cried foul and took the matter to court, eventually being vindicated by a verdict that decreed that Arrows could no longer run their copycat car.

By that time, Arrows had designed a new car and so was able to continue racing; but it seems ironic that the distant inheritors of an Arrows product should be embroiled in so similar a kerfuffle. Are we talking some sort of F1 version of “the curse of the pharoahs” here?

Now that I have raised this specter from the past, I would like to mention something that puzzled me then and might have implications for the coming season. The driver of that first Arrows car, the A1, was a young Italian named Riccardo Patrese and he would have set an amazing record if the Cosworth engine had been a little more reliable. He was on course to win Arrows’ first race when the engine expired, thereby preventing what would have been a phenomenal debut for the new team.

For the rest of its brief career, the car remained very competitive, Patrese showing up amongst the leaders in almost every race. But the Shadow cars were nowhere, continuing the slide that was to end in their demise a few years later. One of their drivers was Clay Regazzoni who was no slouch and should have been able to give the inexperienced Patrese more than a run for his money – yet he finished the season in 16th spot, Riccardo in 12th.

My question is this: given that the Shadow and the Arrows were almost identical and that both used the Cosworth DFV, why was the Arrows so much the better car? Presumably the disruption suffered by Shadow when half their team defected may have crippled their ability to fight, but it still seems strange that a new team, also hampered by impending lawsuits, could defeat them so comprehensively.

It is all water under the bridge now and we might never know all the political and legal manouvering that went on at the time. Who cares now, anyway? I have one final thought, however.

We are told that history repeats itself; if that is true, is it possible that Super Aguri could prove quicker than the new Honda in the coming season? Highly unlikely, I know, but it would be deliciously ironic, you must admit…

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A Failed Experiment – the Arrows A2

Sometimes it takes a while for a new idea to be fully understood and implemented. This was the case when Colin Chapman introduced the idea of ground effect into F1 in 1977.

His first attempt at using the effect was the Lotus 78. It was a strange beast, with bulges and intakes in odd places, but it did demonstrate that Colin was on to something. Although it did not sweep all before it, some of the teams began to sit up and take notice.

Lotus 78

Lotus 78

In 1978, Chapman revealed the Lotus 79, the car that made full use of ground effect theory, and this proved unbeatable. Lotus ran away with the Constructor’s and Driver’s Championships that year.

Lotus 79

Lotus 79

Notice how much better a design is the 79 than the 78. It is cleaner, simpler and the wings, at the front especially, have been slimmed and flattened. Ground effect was providing so much downforce that there were suggestions that wings might disappear entirely.

Naturally, everyone climbed on the bandwagon then and designed ground effect cars for 1979. Most went the route of the Lotus 79, producing cars that were almost identical to it in looks, and the car to beat that year was one of these, the Williams FW07.

But Arrows, in a quest to get ahead of the rest, decided to take things to their logical conclusion. They produced the Arrows A2 which was immediately dubbed the “Buzz Bomb” upon its unveiling. It looked extremely odd but I could see the reasoning of its designer and I “kinda liked” it.

Arrows A2

Arrows A2

Theoretically, the A2 should have blown away the competition. The front wings had disappeared and stubby winglets appeared above the front suspension instead. The bodywork was basically a box extending right to the back of the car and incorporating the rear wing, thereby maximizing the area of low pressure under the car. Intakes and protuberances were kept a minimum. It really ought to have stuck to the road like a giant sucker.

In practice, it scared the drivers silly. Yes, it had plenty of downforce but this varied according to the ground clearance under the car, so that every bump in the road altered the car’s handling. The area of maximum downforce wandered around too and the car would porpoise down the straights, alternately sucked on to the track and then released.

It became clear that positioning and control of downforce was more important than masses of suction. The designers went back to the drawing board while the drivers, Riccardo Patrese and Jochen Mass, struggled on with the A2, finishing the year with only 5 points between them.

Yet it was a brave failure, a bold attempt by a small team to leapfrog to the front. The Buzz Bomb is largely forgotten now but I store it in my memory as one of those “might-have-beens” that I love so well.

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