Joe-Pinions: Sports

10 Jan 2013 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 10/01/2013

A new year, a new blog post!

We march on towards the top of this list with the driver who occupies the # 4 slot of my personal top 10 F1 drivers.  But before we do that, let’s look at the list thus far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

We’re now in rarefied air, since any one of at least three of the remaining four drivers on my list would probably be tops on other peoples’ lists.  Remember, though, that my top 10 does not include the sport’s first 5-time world champion (the great Juan Manuel Fangio) or Michael Schumacher (a 7-time world champ who will never be one of my favorites).  So you can rule these two out.

The remaining four drivers on my personal list are all World Champions, of course, accounting for eleven titles between them.  But it’s not a simple matter of going by sheer numbers of titles won as far as ranking them.  I freely disclose that this entire list is more subjective than objective.

But that’s the fun of such a list, isn’t it?

So, then, the driver who sits at # 4 on my top ten list of F1 drivers is:

4.  Jim Clark

Before Senna, there was Clark.

Jimmy Clark, the youngest of five children born to Scottish farmers (and the only son), was universally lauded as the preeminent driver of his era, the benchmark, the one whose natural talent to drive racing cars was far in excess compared to everyone else.

I never saw Jimmy race – he’d been dead a full seven years before I was even born – but no other driver from before my time as a fan of the sport has captured my imagination as he has.

By the time fate ended his rule as the greatest Grand Prix driver of them all, he was the record holder for victories (25, from 72 starts, for an incredible strike rate of 34.72%!) and pole positions (33).  Jackie Stewart broke his record for GP victories in 1973, and it took twenty-one years until Ayrton Senna took the lead of the all-time pole positions list at the United States Grand Prix in 1989.

But it isn’t the magnificent statistics of his achievements that inspired my admiration for Jimmy.  Rather, it’s the sheer style of his driving and the beauty of his humanity which make Clark one of my all-time favorites.

Jimmy Clark:  2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Jimmy Clark: 2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Though I never saw him in his prime, there is thankfully enough film of him around to confirm just what everyone said about the way he drove:  He was the smoothest driver out there.  Jackie Stewart himself said of his fellow Scot, “Jimmy was absolutely a great driver, so smooth and understated when he drove yet went so fast.”

That is a huge part of my admiration for Clark.  That smoothness of technique blended with his spectacular speed against the stopwatch creates the illusion that this incredibly difficult and dangerous activity is something mere mortals could do.  To me it is the supreme magic trick, a mark of the work of the greatest masters.

And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.

He drove anything and everything:  NASCAR stock cars; touring cars; sports cars; open-wheeled formula cars.  He even indulged in some rallying.

Just watching him at work, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy was born to drive racing cars.

In this onboard footage, observe just how slow and deliberate Clark is at the controls of his Lotus 25 at Oulton Park.

There is nary a hint of oversteer anywhere, or any other big steering corrections; he never locks the brakes up, never misses on any of his gear changes.  There are no curbs at the corner apexes, but even if there were the Lotus would never have clambered all over them as is the style today.

Big deal, right?

Then you look at the car – very obviously primitive compared to what today’s pilotes have under them – with its lack of downforce-producing wings, the narrow treaded tires, the lack of seatbelts (!), the aluminum monocoque chassis construction (carbon fiber was almost two decades away), the super-soft suspension, and you just cannot help but marvel at just how prodigious Clark’s natural talent and sheer feel must have been.  Granted, everybody else raced in similar cars, but Jimmy drove away from most of them, most of the time.

An interesting thing about Clark:  More than once he’d been asked about the secret behind his speed.  What made him quicker than everybody else?  How did he do it?  Sheepishly, Jimmy would often shrug and smile, confessing that he truly didn’t know how to answer that question.  He basically just got in the car and did his thing.

If driving a racing car is an art form (and it is, in my opinion), then Jimmy Clark was definitely Leonardo da Vinci in the cockpit.  The impression one gets when watching the great master at work is that his was a light touch.  When Clark is in his car, working hard but making everything looks so calm and gentle, it’s as if he is trying to paint in da Vinci’s sfumato technique:  What you see is beautifully delicate and fine, almost ethereal.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

There is nothing harsh in Clark’s driving.  Even when he three-wheels his Lotus Cortina around corners, it never looks brutal.  Instead, it all looks natural, as if that’s how Lotus Cortinas should behave whilst attacking bends.

His ability to go so obviously quickly and yet look like he was out for an easy Sunday drive was a very rare gift indeed, and this made him a hero to many drivers, including Stewart, Senna, and Prost, themselves charter members of many a fan’s personal pantheon of F1 gods.

And yet, for all his prodigious natural ability, Jim Clark was a gentle, shy man.  He had a predilection for biting and chewing his fingernails (a nervous habit shared by one other driver on this list, in fact).  He was never bombastic, never one to cultivate attention to himself, never arrogant.

Nigel Roebuck, easily my favorite F1 writer of all time, once shared an anecdote featuring Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and a host of other Grand Prix drivers.  The story goes that, one day at the paddock at Monza, Jackie was very animatedly talking about how on one of his laps around the frighteningly fast Curva Grande, his Matra’s throttle stuck open.  These days, the Curva Grande is a straightforward corner, easily flat in a Formula 1 car.  But back in the mid-1960s, it was a frightening corner that tested a driver’s courage and will.  Anyway, obviously Jackie survived his moment without crashing his car; all he suffered was a huge helping of sheer fright.  His coterie of mates, of course, reacted with applause.  With impeccable timing, Clark then reportedly said, “Are you saying, Jackie, that you normally lift off there?”

It says much that someone with an ego as huge as Jackie Stewart always looked up to Jimmy.  Jackie once said, “We became known as Batman and Robin. And there was no doubt who was Batman and who was Robin.”

It wasn’t just his fellow drivers and competitors who looked up to Jimmy.  Colin Chapman, boss of Lotus, the only team for whom Clark ever raced in Formula 1, admired Clark like no other driver.  Their first encounter, in fact, was in a GT race at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day in 1958.  Chapman won that race, with Clark (at that time still very much an amateur) finishing in second.  Chapman was so thoroughly impressed with the young Scot that he offered Clark a ride in one of Lotus’ Formula Junior cars.  So began what is probably still the most famous driver-team owner relationships the sport has ever seen.

The Chapman-Clark collaboration was obviously fruitful; how else would you classify the entirety of Jimmy Clark’s professional career?  Two World Championships (1963 and 1965), his record-setting tallies in pole positions and victories, a famous win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, all in seven and a half years as a professional.

His death at Hockenheim in an otherwise inconsequential Formula Two race on April 7, 1968 shook all of auto racing like very few accidents have.  More than a few drivers have been killed or maimed whilst driving a Lotus, but as Nigel Roebuck tells it, the mere mention of Clark’s crash was enough to move Colin Chapman to tears.

No one knows for sure what happened to Clark – most say that Clark could not have made a mistake even in the wet just past the old Ostkurve where he went off, that the fatal crash must have been caused by a mechanical failure or a deflating rear tire.  What is beyond dispute, though, is that everyone – EVERYONE – who had any emotional or psychological investment into auto racing was devastated.

Racing drivers are abnormally brave people, but Clark’s death forced them to confront their own mortality in a manner they perhaps never had to before.  Chris Amon‘s words spoken in reflection say it all:  “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”

When I think of Jimmy Clark, I often think of all the words that were spoken or written about him.  But I also think of him in pictures.  My all-time favorite photograph of a racing driver, in fact, is of Clark, taken by Jesse Alexander.  It is a candid shot of Jimmy right after his first Grand Prix victory in Belgium, won at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps in all its 8.76-mile uncut glory.

Jesse Alexander's iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s photo is not of a man pleased with winning his first-ever Grand Prix, but of a haunted soul.  It might surprise you to hear that Jimmy hated Spa-Francorchamps like he did no other track.  Much of his hatred for Spa could be traced to 1960.  In just his second-ever Grand Prix, Clark finished fifth (and in the points) at the mighty Belgian track.  Unfortunately, two of his colleagues – Chris Bristow and teammate Alan Stacey – were killed in separate accidents at the same race.  Clark had actually almost run over Bristow’s decapitated body at the fearsome Masta Kink, a flat-out left-right in between houses that is still considered one of Grand Prix racing’s most daunting corners.  No wonder Jimmy is absolutely joyless during a moment where countless other drivers would have been celebrating wildly.

For all his seemingly otherworldly talent behind the wheel of a racing car, Jimmy Clark was a simple, straightforward person.  It’s no surprise at all to read and hear that his contemporaries not only respected him like they did no other rival, but considered him a friend.

There will probably never ever be another Jim Clark in Formula 1.  And that is probably how it should be.

19 Dec 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 5)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 19/12/2012

So here we are, breaking into the top half of this Top 10 list of my favorite F1 drivers.  Where spots 10 thru 6 were perhaps filled with names that many fans would probably never put in their own top 10, I’d dare say it’s very likely that every single driver in spots 5 thru 1 would be in most observers’ lists.

The only thing that would differentiate one list from the other would be the order in which the names would appear.

Before we start with the driver in the # 5 spot, let’s recap our list so far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

And now, my # 5 favorite F1 driver:

5.  Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart Modern 002

Jackie Stewart’s helmet livery, with its distinctive Tartan headband.

Whether they know about it or not, every single racing driver today and forever after owes a gigantic debt to Sir Jackie Stewart.  It doesn’t matter which championship series they compete in.  Motor racing will never ever be 100% safe, but thanks largely to Sir Jackie’s courage, dedication, and tireless efforts to the cause of safety in motorsports back when he was an active competitor, as well as his endeavors after his retirement from competition, the sport is immeasurably safer.

In an era where death was a fairly common occurrence in a Grand Prix season, Sir Jackie was a true pioneer.  Undoubtedly influenced by his accident at a rainy Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, Stewart became a passionate crusader for driver safety.  Many of his contemporaries, and some from previous eras, derided Stewart’s efforts to make auto racing safer than it was; likewise, he was branded a coward by old-school members of the motor racing press corps.  All of his critics asked, “weren’t danger and the possibility of dying in a racing car part of the allure of the sport?”

Some even asked this most unbelievable of questions:  “Didn’t he (Stewart) want to die in a racing car?”

Stewart, of course, was far more sensible than these romantic yet misguided observers and participants.  He saw motor racing not as a bloodsport that extracted its toll in lives and grievous injuries, but as a test of skill, talent, and courage.  Somewhat ironically, Stewart’s courage is most in display in his crusade to reduce the mortal dangers that all racing drivers faced.  His willingness to absorb all the slings and arrows of misguided criticism – even outright disgust from some quarters – for his quest speaks of a courage far greater than that required whenever he stepped into his Tyrrell’s cockpit.

Some may object to the following description, but I truly think and feel that Sir Jackie is a type of Messianic figure:  He took upon the crushing gigantic burden largely by himself, sacrificing a good measure of his own comforts, for the betterment of all those to follow in his footsteps.  Thanks to his willingness to carry that particular cross, we (the people who truly love the sport) somewhat take for granted the many advances today’s racers now enjoy:  Seatbelts, the HANS device, safety barriers at the circuits, run-off areas at dangerous corners worldwide, ever-safer racing cars are just some of the fruits of Jackie Stewart’s crusade for safety.  Where before you could have as many as a dozen or so racing drivers lose their lives in racing incidents, the rare story of a single racing fatality inspires such shock and disbelief today.

As far as legacies go, Sir Jackie Stewart’s is almost impossible to match.

Given his monumental contributions to the relative safety of modern motorsports, it might be easy to forget that Sir Jackie was a brilliant racing driver.  Though I don’t think statistics are the end-all, be-all, Stewart’s career numbers are impressive:  27 Grand Prix victories out of 99 races (for an astonishing strike rate of 27%, which roughly means he won slightly better than one out of every four Grands Prix that he contested); 17 pole positions from his 99 starts; 15 fastest race laps; 43 appearances on the podium; 359 career World Championship points (earned during an era when 9 points was the maximum possible score, and there was an average of 11.5 Grands Prix per season).  He won the Drivers’ World Championship three times in his nine-year career (in 1969, 1971, and 1973), and finished second twice (1968 and 1972, to Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi, respectively).

As breathtaking as Jackie Stewart’s career statistics are, they really aren’t the reason why I rate him so highly in my personal countdown of favorite F1 drivers.  You see, Jackie is as famous for his approach to driving – both racing and on the road – as he is for his monumental achievements as a multiple champion and race winner.

As with Niki Lauda (and two more, yet-to-be-disclosed, drivers in this countdown), the hallmark of Stewart’s approach to driving is smoothness.

Here’s what Stewart himself once said about driving a racing car:  Well I think a racing car is something very special, almost in the breed of an animal. Not only is it like an animal it’s also like a woman. It’s very sensitive, it’s very nervous, it’s very highly strung. Sometimes it responds very nicely, sometimes it responds very viciously, sometimes to get the best out of it you have to coax it and almost caress it, to get it to do the thing you want it to do and even after you done all these things and the car is doing exactly as you want it to. It will immediately and with no warning change its mind and do something very suddenly and very abruptly.

Stewart’s words are poetic, eloquent for their straightforwardness.  Anyone lucky enough to have had seat time in a very powerful and responsive automobile, even racing go-karts, would appreciate the essential truth in Sir Jackie’s brief discourse.

And that’s a huge part to why I have Sir Jackie so high up on my personal favorites list:  His driving style, so smooth and precise, is poetic in its own way:  There is very little waste, just the purity of technique applied to making the racing car go forwards as quickly as possible.  He never looks like he is struggling, as all racing drivers do, even as he fights to keep his car right on the knife edge of control.

That he makes it look so easy is nothing short of genius.

5 Jul 2012 – Fernando Reigns in Spain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 05/07/2012

Sometimes the race falls to the swiftest.

Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver of the 2012 Grand Prix of Europe weekend.  He won the pole position by a staggering .33secs over Lewis Hamilton.  Given the fact that P2 through P10 were covered by about .5secs, the gap between the pole and the second-fastest qualifying time is nothing short of astonishing.

He converted his pole position advantage at the start and led with imperious ease, leaving all his pursuers huffing and puffing in his Red Bull’s wake.  Things looked very grim for anyone who were hoping for an unprecedented eighth different winner in eight Grands Prix.

Behind Vettel, Grosjean had a great start from his P4 grid spot, hassling and harrying Lewis Hamilton.  After several laps of closely stalking the first of the McLarens, Grosjean put a brave move on the outside of the Turn 12 right-hander, which put him on the inside of the subsequent Turn 13 left-hand corner.  Grosjean thus seized second place and set off after Vettel, easing away from Hamilton without much effort.  Though he was around twenty seconds or so behind the leader, Grosjean was the only one setting comparable lap times to Vettel’s.

Other drivers were carving their way through the field.  The most notable of these was Spain’s own Fernando Alonso.  Alonso started from 11th on the grid, but he had a great opening stint, scything through the cars in front with sublime controlled aggression.  By the time he took his first pit stop at the end of Lap 15, he had climbed up to fourth place.  Post-pit stop, Alonso dropped to P9, though critically he just beat Kimi Raikkonen’s quick Lotus.  The upshot was that, after all the important stops and a collision between Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi on the run down to Turn 8 which resulted in nothing worse than a wrecked race for Senna and minor damage to both cars, Alonso found himself in a charging P4.

Moreover, he was inexorably catching up to Lewis Hamilton lap after lap.

Vettel, meanwhile, was not only faster than everybody else, he was also using less of his tires.  He had the longest first stint among all the leading drivers – excluding those drivers who were evidently attempting to go through the race with just one tire stop – but he was still gradually stretching his lead over the impressively quick Grosjean.  For all but Red Bull’s staff and their fanbase, Vettel’s resurgence to the status as the unchallenged king of Formula 1 must have felt like the beginning of the end of this season’s exciting unpredictability.

The two-time defending World Champion’s dominance notwithstanding, there was still plenty of action in the race.  The battle between Jean-Éric Vergne Toro Rosso and the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen ended in tire punctures for both cars – the left front for the green Caterham and the right rear for the dark blue Toro Rosso – and a retirement for Vergne.  Vergne was attempting to pass Kovalainen into Turn 12 when he inexplicably veered right into Kovalainen’s car, which resulted in the contact that damaged both cars.  The contretemps also caused the deployment of the Safety Car due to bits of Toro Rosso and Caterham littering the track, which obviously required the efforts of the brave marshals to clean up prior to the resumption of the racing.

The Safety Car period helped Grosjean immensely as it eliminated Vettel’s big lead.  Although all the leaders took the ideal opportunity to change tires, Grosjean was the biggest beneficiary of the Safety Car period.  The young Frenchman (who had made his Formula One debut on this circuit back in 2009 when he replaced the just-sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.) was now in the ideal position to challenge the Red Bull for the lead once the race restarted.

Meanwhile, McLaren had yet ANOTHER botched pit stop.  Hamilton dropped down behind Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen due to a problematic front jack which lengthened his pit stop.  The team’s other driver, Jenson Button, who had been suffering yet another miserable weekend away from the sharp end of the grid again, was also effectively punished by the Safety Car period due to the fact that he had pitted just before the Vergne-Kovalainen accident.  The upshot was that Button lost time in the pits changing tires while most of the rest of the drivers he was racing were able to pit under the full-course yellow.

The race resumed on lap 34.  Alonso pounced immediately, passing his old Renault teammate Grosjean with an audacious move around the outside of Turn 2.  A few seconds later, Alonso’s current teammate Felipe Massa became a victim of a Kamui Kobayashi banzai maneuver.  Massa was left with a puncture that dropped him down the order, while Kobayashi also limped back into the pits to retire with a broken steering system.

Lap 34 was also unlucky for the erstwhile leader Vettel.  Going down the long back straight past the bridge, the leading Red Bull lost drive and was swallowed up by the charging field.  Vettel’s car coasted for a couple more corners before the German abandoned his car, ripping his gloves off his hands in an obvious display of frustration.

With a championship battle that is so close and unpredictable, DNFs were potentially campaign killers.  I am certain that the same thought occurred to Vettel, Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

Anyway, Fernando Alonso now found himself leading in Valencia, much to the vociferous delight of his fellow Spaniards.  Romain Grosjean stayed in touch with the leading Ferrari with apparent ease.  Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso was in third, benefiting from keeping track position during the Safety Car period whilst nearly everybody else changed tires.

Hamilton dispatched Raikkonen not long after the restart, then the pair of them swept by Ricciardo easily.  The sole remaining Toro Rosso took the hint and changed tires, which dropped him further down the order.

Grosjean shadowed Alonso, seemingly content to bide his time.  On lap 40, however, Grosjean was slow through the bridge between Turns 8 and 9, then was overtaken easily by Hamilton and Raikkonen.  His Renault engine suffered an alternator failure, which was the same exact problem suffered by Vettel when he had dropped out.  Grosjean coasted a little bit down the curving back straight, then abandoned his Lotus, displaying no histrionics whatsoever.  Perhaps he knew that he was in with a shot at victory.  His weekend in Valencia, while fruitless in terms of championship points or any other statistic, was bountiful in that he enhanced his reputation immeasurably with his performance.  Many felt that a win for Grosjean in the Lotus was imminent.

The race at the front, then, left Alonso in front of Hamilton and Raikkonen, then a big gap to everybody else.  Only the Hamilton-Raikkonen pair had any chance of catching up to Alonso.  However, Alonso was in inspired form in front of his home crowd.  He stretched his lead over his immediate pursuers.

Hamilton had no realistic chance to catch Alonso with Raikkonen being his constant shadow, and inevitably his efforts to stay ahead of the more efficient Lotus wore his McLaren’s Pirellis faster than Raikkonen did with his tires.  Raikkonen stalked Hamilton for lap after lap, until he finally overtook Lewis on lap 55 in a finely-judged maneuver.  By this point, Pastor Maldonado had crawled his way up to P4, his Williams clearly with more performance left in its Pirellis than Hamilton’s McLaren did.  On lap 56 (the penultimate lap of the race) Maldonado attacked, but Hamilton rebuffed him with some hard but fair defensive driving into the first few corners of the lap.  Maldonado smelled blood, though, and attacked again at the end of the DRS zone entering Turn 12.  Hamilton bravely braked just as late as Maldonado, keeping to the inside line going into Turn 12 and staying just in front of the Williams attacking down the outside.  Hamilton therefore had the line and squeezed Maldonado off the circuit, a hard but still fair tactic, which should have obliged Maldonado to surrender Turn 13 to Hamilton.  However, Maldonado did not cede anything and drove way inside the apex of Turn 13; his Williams clipped Hamilton’s McLaren, which pitched the chrome silver-and-red car into the outside wall and into instant retirement.  Maldonado damaged his own Williams’ front wing in the collision, which meant that not only did he not take Hamilton’s P3 away, he didn’t finish in P4 either; he finished in twelfth place, out of the points, by virtue of the 20-second penalty he was assessed for his role in the accident with Hamilton.  Such a huge waste, that accident was.

None of these things mattered to Fernando Alonso, though, as he took the checkered flag at the end of the 57th lap.  Alonso therefore became the first repeat winner of the 2012 season.

Vettel and Grosjean – indeed, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado, and several others – were faster than Alonso throughout the weekend.

But sometimes the race doesn’t always falls to the swiftest.

Sometimes, indeed, the swiftest are also the first to fall out of the race.

25 May 2012 – Frank Williams and the Magic of South America

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 25/05/2012

My apologies for the extreme tardiness of this blog report, but, unbelievably, I missed the Grand Prix of Spain from a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t hear my alarm clock go off.

Since I don’t have a TV at my apartment (I watch the races online live or, if I’m at my parents’ house, on their TV), there was absolutely no chance for me to watch a re-air of the race.  I begged the gods for one of my friends to come to my aid and provide me a recording (or some other way to watch the race) of what turned out to be a truly classic F1 race.

Though it took some time, I did have a couple of friends come through for me.  Thank goodness for their help!

As I type this paragraph, I have just finished watching the Spanish Grand Prix, a couple of days before the next race on the schedule, the Grand Prix of Monaco.  Since I have made it a personal goal to write something about each and every Grand Prix of this season, here then are my thoughts of the race:

Carlos Reutemann.

Nelson Piquet.

Ayrton Senna.

Juan Pablo Montoya.

Rubens Barrichello.

Bruno Senna.

All of these men have driven for Sir Frank Williams‘ eponymous Williams Grand Prix Engineering F1 team.

Three of these six men have also won at least one grand prix for Sir Frank.  The ones who never won in a Williams are Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed in a Williams in his third race with the team; Barrichello, who drove for the team during two of its least competitive years; and Bruno Senna, the nephew of the great Ayrton who is still trying to establish himself at the top level of motorsports.

All of these men hail from somewhere in South America.  Reutemann is from Argentina; Piquet, Barrichello and the Sennas are Brazilian; Montoya is from Colombia.

By any measure, this is a hugely impressive roster of pilotes.  These are all names that mean a great deal to anyone with a nuanced appreciation of the history of grand prix racing.

After a riveting, enthralling 2012 Grand Prix of Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya, you can now add Venezuela’s Pastor Maldonado to the list of South Americans who have won a grand prix driving a Williams Formula 1 car.

Maldonado’s victory was the first of his F1 career.  Just as significant, this was also Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s first F1 victory since the 2004 Grand Prix of Brazil.

Maldonado started the 2012 Spanish GP from the pole position, even though he actually ended the qualifying period with the 2nd best time.  Lewis Hamilton, driving for McLaren, actually set the fastest time in Q3, but was relegated to start dead last due to the fact his car stopped out on the circuit because of a lack of fuel.  Hamilton’s McLaren contravened regulations stipulating the car must return to parc fermé after its qualification run and provide a 1-liter sample of fuel.

At the start, two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso took the lead from Maldonado with a hugely impressive take-off from his 2nd place on the grid, much to the approval of his adoring home crowd.  The Ferrari stayed in front, with Maldonado’s Williams (and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus in tow) staying in touch during the first part of their run.  Behind them, Hamilton was scything his way through the gaggle of slower cars at the back end of the grid.  The 2008 World Champion was 20th by the end of the first lap (from 24th on the grid).

The Red Bulls were among the first to make tactical pit stops (as opposed to Sergio Perez’s, whose Sauber was damaged after a contretemp with Grosjean’s Lotus at the long Turn 3 right-hander), with Mark Webber calling into the pits on lap 7 and Sebastian Vettel coming in the following lap.  The leading cars, though, took their first stops several laps later, with Hamilton being the notable exception.  He was the last to take his first scheduled stop on lap 15.

Alonso and Maldonado maintained their track positions through the first round of stops, the Venezuelan driving with impressive coolness and pace, keeping up with Alonso with remarkable ease.  The two leaders swapped positions at the second round of pit stops circa laps 20-30, with Maldonado’s Williams crew doing a brilliant job outperforming their counterparts at Ferrari.  Raikkonen had a brief stint at the front while Alonso and Maldonado made their pit stops, but he returned to P3 when he made his second stop of the race.

Maldonado stretched his lead over Alonso in the pursuing Ferrari, looking to have a small but crucial advantage in race pace.  In the current F1 era of KERS and DRS facilitating overtaking, it is critical for a leading car to lead a pursuer by more than 1.5seconds; at one point, Maldonado’s Williams led Alonso by around eight seconds or so, but the lead stabilized at around six seconds when Alonso decided to increase his own pace.

In the final round of pit stops, Maldonado’s crew had to deal with a problematic left rear tire change, costing the Venezuelan around 3 extra seconds.  Coupled with the fact that he stopped earlier than Alonso did (meaning Maldonado had a greater distance to cover on his last set of tires), conventional wisdom suggested that the time lost in the pits snafu would cost Maldonado and Williams any hope of winning the race.  The upshot of all this drama was that Maldonado’s lead over Alonso shrunk to about 3 seconds maximum after both drivers had come in for their final pit stops.

With Raikkonen again being the last of the three leading runners to call into the pits, Maldonado regained the lead over the Finnish champion.  Meanwhile, Alonso pushed hard to position himself into DRS range of Maldonado.  With the Venezuelan now on a tire conservation strategy (because of the extra laps he had to run relative to Alonso) and Raikkonen completely free of concerns over tire wear compared to both Maldonado and Alonso, the end game was shaping up to be special.

Could Maldonado stay in front of the Ferrari?

Could Alonso get a good-enough tow past the leading Williams-Renault and catapult himself into the lead of his home grand prix?

Could Raikkonen catch both leaders with his superior final-stint pace before the race ran out of laps?

Pastor Maldonado never made a mistake despite the red car menacingly close behind him lap after lap down the DRS zone on the main straight.  Alonso kept up the pressure for lap after lap, tantalizing his home crowd and Ferrari fans everywhere with the possibility that the two-time World Champion would become the 2012 F1 season’s first two-time race winner.  And behind them, Raikkonen’s pace was increasing lap after lap, shrinking his deficit to the leading duo.

By lap 63 of 66, Maldonado started stretching the gap between himself and Alonso, strongly suggesting that his Williams was using its tires much more efficiently than Alonso’s Ferrari.  So unless he made a mistake or hit some kind of trouble, Maldonado was in prime position to break his F1 duck and take his maiden victory.

With each corner it was clear that Alonso’s tires had fallen off their performance cliff, for not only was the gap to Maldonado growing inexorably, but the gap to Raikkonen behind was being decimated.  Would he even get to keep his second place?

Maldonado drove a faultless race, driving with cool precision and withstanding the enormous pressure of fighting with Alonso – perhaps his generation’s most complete F1 driver – for the entire race.  This was no mean feat, considering most people outside of Venezuela had never considered Pastor Maldonado to be anything more than just a journeyman.  This victory, as unexpected as it truly was, was won on merit.  It ranks as among one of the most memorable and impressive in all of motorsports as I can remember.

Spare some beautiful thoughts as well for Sir Frank Williams and his great team, one of Formula 1’s most successful ever.  After almost eight full years since their last victory, this unexpected win in Spain was a wonderful surprise.  Maldonado’s performance over the entire weekend owed nothing to luck – the weather did not assist him in any way, for example, as it stayed dry throughout the grand prix weekend.  How often do we get unexpected race results because of inclement weather?  Rather, this was a genuine, fully-deserved victory achieved in grand style.  Maldonado’s maiden victory may never be followed by another one, as some probably thought when Sir Frank’s team first entered the ranks of grand prix winners with Clay Regazzoni and the iconic FW07 way back in 1979.

But who knows?  This might only be the beginning of the latest renaissance for Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

22 Apr 2012 – McLaren Miserable in Bahrain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 22/04/2012

McLaren had a nightmare of a race in Bahrain.  Lewis Hamilton finished in eighth place, almost a full minute behind race winner Sebastian Vettel after a strangely muted race in terms of ultimate race pace and two separate badly-executed pit stops that conspired to drop him down the order.  Teammate Jenson Button ran with more pace, but as he did last week, he also lost places with yet another slow stop in the pits.  Ultimately, the bad pit work paled in comparison to Button’s car problems (his McLaren had a puncture very late in the race, then his Mercedes-Benz V8 sounded horribly sick as he coasted into the pits on the penultimate lap of the race), McLaren’s first for 2012.

Things certainly didn’t start so badly for the McLaren boys.  After all, Hamilton was starting from second, and Button from fourth.  Only the Red Bulls were faster in qualifying, with Vettel scoring his first pole position of 2012 and Mark Webber taking P3.  After the red lights went off, though, McLaren’s hopes of fighting with the resurgent Red Bulls were nothing more than a desert mirage.

Hamilton started sensibly, keeping his second place right at the outset, but almost immediately Vettel had created a DRS-proof gap ahead of him even before the third lap, when race control enables the Drag Reduction System for the first time in the race.  Hamilton held second place until his first pit stop, which dropped him from contention.  The 2008 World Champion had some notable battles with old nemesis Fernando Alonso as well as last week’s Chinese Grand Prix winner, Nico Rosberg.  His attempt to overtake Rosberg on lap 11 right after his disastrous first pit stop was particularly scary:  Rosberg swerved to his right and squeezed Hamilton completely off the track in between Turns 3 and 4.  Hamilton’s McLaren had all four wheels in the desert sand off the track surface, and in my opinion Rosberg’s “defensive” maneuver was stupid and dangerous.  That Hamilton did not lose control of his McLaren owes some to pure luck, and some to his skill as a racing driver.

(That Rosberg duplicated the trick and conspired to do the same to Fernando Alonso and completely escape ANY censure for either maneuver is stupefying to me; it indicates there are a few things fundamentally broken in F1 if moves like these are deemed legal.)

Meanwhile, Button slid down from his fourth place starting spot, running just within the top ten, seemingly content to run at his own pace until some fuel burned off.  He pitted on lap 10, dropping to 16th place, then immediately went on the attack, taking P8 from Fernando Alonso before running most of the first half of his race in P5.  Because of his poor start, however, he never got close enough to threaten Webber’s 4th place.

If Hamilton’s first pit stop was a disaster, it was frankly amazing to see his pit crew suffer a repeat performance.  For a team with a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best pit crew work in all of motor racing, it was shocking to see, to say the least.  That this was the THIRD such botch in two races surely must have the team’s boffins (never mind the drivers themselves) scratching their heads raw.

But as nightmares tend to go, there were a couple more shockers left in store.  Jenson Button also suffered with an extended visit to the pits, but this problem didn’t set him back as much as his teammate’s pit lane misadventures did.  However, the same could definitely NOT be said about first his puncture right at the end of lap 52, which forced him back into the pits for tire change.  The late-race tire change dropped him all the way down to unlucky P13.  However, a damaged exhaust caused not just an off-song Mercedes-Benz V8 engine note, but also, more critically, problems with his McLaren’s differential.  The problem with the differential put paid to Button’s race and heavily underlined McLaren’s terrible Grand Prix of Bahrain.

It used to be that problems with routine pit stops and mechanical unreliability were regular features of a Formula 1 season.  It was just simply impossible to expect every single pit stop to be executed perfectly, and for every team to expect both of its cars to finish every single race.  Engine failures, accidents, suspension and tire problems were all part and parcel of racing.

These days, though, such problems are aberrations.

And these aberrations, the type which cause you to drop out of points-paying positions, tend to decide the outcome of both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ World Championships.

Although the Grand Prix of Bahrain was just the fourth race out of twenty, McLaren and its drivers lost a lot of points, especially relative to who are likely their strongest opposition this year, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s two points (and Button’s zero) just do not compare to Vettel’s twenty-five and Webber’s twelve.

McLaren’s two points are almost inconsequential compared to Red Bull Racing’s thirty-seven.

If neither McLaren driver lifts the World Champion’s cup at the end of the year, and if McLaren fall short in the race for the Constructors’ World Championship, they can all rightly point to their nightmares in Bahrain as one of the 2012 season’s critical moments.

26 Mar 2012 – Alonso Shines in Kuala Lumpur Downpour

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/03/2012

Although I stayed up until around 4:15AM PST to watch the Grand Prix of Malaysia live, the race at the Sepang International Circuit did a good enough job to keep me awake and hold my attention until the very end.  Though I honestly had no vested interest in either of the top two protagonists, the race was singularly riveting and exciting.

Because I was at my parents’ house visiting, I didn’t have time to write a blog entry about my post-qualifying and pre-race thoughts.  Playing with my four year-old nephew and enjoying my sisters’ and my parents’ company has that effect on me.  Had I had the chance, though, I would have made note of the following:

  • Don’t be surprised if a race-time monsoon scrambled the order.
  • Watch out for both Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, especially if it rains and if both are able to avoid any incidents during the likely wet weather.
  • Michael Schumacher might be a factor, given that he was starting from P3.
  • Romain Grosjean impressed again in qualifying, but can he translate the obvious pace he has into a good performance in the race.

As things transpired, the rain did start to fall around fifteen minutes before the start of the race.  Accordingly, the FIA allowed the teams to change tires prior to the race due to the change in weather conditions.  Ordinarily, of course, each car on the grid is required to start the race on the set of tires with which it set its best time in qualifying.  However, in a nod to enhancing the safety of the competitors, the FIA allows a change in tires should sufficient rain dropped to warrant at least the intermediate tire be run.

The onset of rain spoiled what could have been a very interesting tactical maneuver made by two-time defending champion Sebastian Vettel.  The World Champion, uniquely among the drivers who participated in Q3, set his best time on the harder-compound primary tire.  Many pundits thought this to be a shrewd choice, if a bit of a gamble.  In effect, Vettel had sacrificed his ultimate potential in qualifying by eschewing the slightly quicker soft-compound option tire (and a better starting spot on the grid) in favor of better early race tire durability.  The idea was that perhaps Vettel could improve his position on the track while his rivals running in front of him called into the pits for the first of their tire stops earlier than he would have to.  With enough rain wetting the surface of the Sepang International Circuit, though, we never saw how Vettel’s interesting tactic in action.

As in Melbourne, the McLarens took the first two positions.  As in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton eked out a small advantage over his teammate Jenson Button to take the pole position.  Third on the grid was Michael Schumacher, who ran very strongly all weekend in his Mercedes AMG.  Mark Webber took P4, outqualifying Vettel, who set the sixth best time.  Kimi Raikkonen set a quicker lap time in Q3 than his teammate Romain Grosjean, but due to a necessary gearbox change was handed a five-place grid position penalty; what should have been fifth on the grid turned to tenth instead.  For the second race in a row, then, Grosjean was starting ahead of his Finnish teammate.

Both McLarens started well, Hamilton converting his pole position into an immediate lead.  He edged Button towards the outside of turn one as both scrabbled for the lead rather aggressively, but thanks to Button being a sensible chap, neither McLaren came to grief.  By turn four, though, Michael Schumacher found himself spinning to the back of the field, thanks to an assist by Grosjean.  Grosjean would later fall foul of the increasingly bad conditions, spinning into retirement in the gravel trap at the difficult turn five and turn six left-right complex a few laps later.

Almost unnoticed by observers, Sauber called in Sergio Perez to change to full-wet tires to cope with the worsening weather.  At one point, before everyone else had cottoned on to the tactic, Perez was an amazing three seconds per lap faster than anyone else.  His early pit stop as well as his overwhelming pace allowed him to leapfrog most of his rivals to find himself third behind the McLarens after starting P9 by the time the rest of the field followed his lead and changed to wets.

However, nature simply would not be denied, and with the rain only becoming more intense and the track becoming even more unsuitable for proper racing, the stewards of the race hung the red flag and suspended the race pending a positive change in the weather conditions.  The race stoppage lasted for fifty-one minutes before it restarted behind the Safety Car.

When the racing resumed, the McLarens maintained their lead until they decided they needed new sets of intermediate tires.  Alonso stayed out longer than most and inherited the lead when the McLarens found themselves bottled up in traffic.  Perez was also near the front, of course, and even overtook Alonso’s Ferrari and led very briefly before the red car retook the lead.

The running order at the front stayed until the very end, but behind them there was a lot of action.  Jenson Button found himself in front of teammate Hamilton, but probably wished he didn’t when Narain Karthikeyan chopped across his McLaren’s nose in the middle of the very tight Turn 9 climbing left-hander.  Button found himself near the tail end of the field after a pit stop to change his damaged front wing.

But Button was not the only world champion to fall victim to Karthikeyan’s shenanigans.  Late in the race, Sebastian Vettel also dropped down the race order after he damaged his left rear tire against Kartikheyan’s front wing.

Despite the lack of change in position at the front of the race, Alonso never looked absolutely safe with Perez lapping significantly faster.  With each passing lap the Sauber closed on the Ferrari, and clearly it became a question of which driver would do better at managing the escalating pressure.  Alonso, of course, is a two-time world champion, and so despite his Ferrari’s lack of speed relative Perez’s quickly closing Sauber (did I just write that?  Yes, I did.  The F2012 is one bad car) he never made a mistake.  In contrast, Perez did make a big mistake with seven laps to go, overcooking the complicated Turn 13 right-hander and going off-track.  He did well to recover and resume his chase of Alonso, again closing the distance, but ran out of laps.

Alonso thus won an unexpected victory for Ferrari, again proving just how brilliant of a driver he is.  Perez, too, impressed greatly, hauling up his Sauber to 2nd place.  Except for his late-race mistake, he may have pressed Alonso harder; who knows, maybe the Ferrari driver might have been the one to make the critical error, and Sauber would be celebrating their first victory in Formula One.

Nonetheless, it was probably Alonso’s best drive yet in his already distinguished career.  His victory in Malaysia took his career Grand Prix victory total to twenty-eight, taking him past the legendary triple World Champion Jackie Stewart.

18 Mar 2012 – Hamilton Cedes First Corner, First Battle to Button

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 18/03/2012

Lewis Hamilton looked like he was a new, refreshed man entering the season-opening Grand Prix of Australia.  Per most accounts he had spent the long cold winter off-season shrugging off the troubles of 2011.

As if to prove the reports of his newly rediscovered mojo, he took the pole position for the Australian Grand Prix by almost two-tenths of a second over his McLaren teammate, Jenson Button.  After the scintillating qualifying session, he looked and sounded like a new man indeed.

Gone was the grave, self-conscious, muted Lewis we saw all too often last year.  Instead, we saw a more enthusiastic, more visibly confident former 2008 F1 Drivers World Champion, looking forward to his season’s campaign.

Then the race started.

On Sunday, 18 March 2012, the five red lights winked out, and the roar of a grid full of 18000RPM V8 engines heralded the start of the Australian Grand Prix.  Lewis Hamilton shot out of his starting position, going up the gears, in prime position on the left side of the track on the racing line for the first right-hander of the 58-lap race.  I’m sure he believed in his heart of hearts that he would be first going into the first corner, especially given his pole position and the fact that he was starting on the clean side of the track.

Except Jenson Button had gotten an even better start than he did and had pulled alongside.

Hamilton had no choice but to cede the first corner to his fellow Brit and ex-World Champion teammate.

I was somewhat surprised to see Button, not Hamilton, pushing hard right from the beginning of the race, clearly trying to create a gap big enough to prevent being vulnerable to having a pursuer close enough to exploit a DRS advantage.  Why was this surprising?  Button is typically one of those drivers who is the easiest on his tires, while Hamilton is clearly more aggressive and tends to wear his tires out earlier and faster.  With Button in front and pushing hard, it looked to all the world that the McLaren teammates had switched roles.

Button’s tactics worked, creating – indeed, growing with each passing lap in the early going – a comfortable DRS-proof cushion between himself and Hamilton.  Hamilton, too, was pulling away from his closest pursuers, a testament to the early-season excellence of the McLaren chassis compared to the rest of the field.  But for Button to be staying in front of Hamilton without Lewis being able to respond, well, that was a bit of an eye-opener.

Since Button led on the track, he had strategic control of the race, even insofar as dictating when to call into the pits and change tires and who goes in first between the McLaren teammates.  Button made his pit stop, surrendering the lead to Hamilton at the conclusion of his in-lap, then wresting it away and increasing it impressively when Hamilton dove into the pits on the very next lap.

The race order at the front remained static despite the action throughout the rest of the field.  Fernando Alonso proved his worth, somehow getting his Ferrari up to P5 despite the obvious problems it seems to have.  2007 World Champion Kimi Räikkönen, returning after a couple of years away from F1, was also having a great race, hauling up his black and gold Lotus into the top 10 after starting a poor 18th.  Finally, two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel had come up to third place after starting from P6 from the grid.

The McLarens were controlling the race from the front, Button around twenty seconds in front of Hamilton, when they both pitted on the same lap.  It looked like a master stroke that was brilliantly executed by the McLaren pit crew, keeping their two drivers in essentially the same track position relative to each other.  However, just as Hamilton was about to enter his pit box, Vitaly Petrov’s Caterham broke and stopped on the pit straight.  The race organizers deemed this a hazardous situation and dispatched the Safety Car for its first call of duty for the 2012 F1 season.

The Safety Car period scrambled McLaren’s tactics a little bit, since Vettel was able to pit and change tires during the Safety Car period and managed to climb one more spot.  Hamilton was probably annoyed and frustrated beyond description to find himself in P3 as the field followed the souped-up AMG Mercedes SL around beautiful Albert Park.

When the Safety Car returned to its station and the race restarted in full anger, Button repeated his early-race tactics and created a DRS-proof cushion between himself and Vettel.  As it did at the start of the race, Button’s tactics worked, and with Vettel’s attention occupied by a madly-pursuing Hamilton and Red Bull teammate Mark Webber now, the two-time World Champion dropped further and further away from the leader.

Thus the race ended with Button taking the first victory of the 2012 Formula 1 season.

Post-race, Hamilton looked absolutely shattered.  He seemed like a man who invested so much into this first race of the new season, as if this would set the tone for his year’s campaign.  Finishing third, despite an early-season car advantage over his rivals from Red Bull and Ferrari and Mercedes, was clearly not the result he wanted nor expected from the Australian Grand Prix.  He clearly believes – quite rightly, too, in my opinion – that he is a faster driver than Button.  But Button is hugely underestimated because of the lack of overt flash in his driving.  Maybe, just maybe, Lewis Hamilton had completely underestimated his teammate’s abilities, and this race was a rude wake-up call.  Button, remember, drives the same car as Hamilton; he therefore has the same car advantage over the rest of the field.  For Button to beat Hamilton in the same car must be a shocking truth that Lewis must now face up to.

As he said himself at a post-race interview, P3 is just “not a good enough standard.”

Lewis Hamilton looked broken, emotionally, psychologically, mentally, at the end of the race.  Whether his dejection is merely temporary – it is just the first race of twenty, after all, and there’s so much racing left to do – or is a further blow to his apparently fragile psyche is going to be a very interesting item to watch out for as the season rolls on.

3 Oct 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 9)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 03/10/2011

Last time we started off my list of my personal top 10 favorite F1 drivers with Nigel Mansell.  Click here for that entry.

Today we find out who takes the 9th spot in the countdown.

9.  Jean Alesi

Alesi's helmet: The livery is an almost perfect copy of the late Elio de Angelis' own colors

Jean Alesi’s place on this list, I must admit at the outset, is based purely on my emotional attachment to him.  I have always been a fan of Alesi’s, right from the moment he burst onto the Formula 1 scene at Paul Ricard during the 1989 French Grand Prix, up until he finally retired from the top tier of motorsport as a Jordan driver at the end of the 2001 season.  But while I always loved Jean as a grand prix driver, deep down I knew that he was one of those rare exceptions for me, in that he was so far removed from my ideal type of racing driver.

But maybe sometimes the exceptions to the rule are amongst the most memorable.

Alesi was recruited into the Tyrrell team in 1989 after team boss Ken Tyrrell fell out with veteran driver Michele Alboreto.  His first race for the team was the Grand Prix of France.  Amazingly, Jean finished fourth in his debut race, which also happened to be his home grand prix. The fact that he scored points on his F1 debut – a rare achievement indeed – marked Alesi as perhaps the  most exciting new young driver in years.  What made Alesi’s 1989 racing season even more astonishing was the fact that he ran with Tyrrell in 1989 while also racing – and winning the championship – in F3000.

Jean scored twice more in his 1989 Formula 1 season, in the Italian (5th place) and Spanish (another 4th place) Grands Prix.  Earning eight championship points in eight races (he missed two grands prix – in Belgium and Spain – out of the remaining ten, racing in F3000) was hugely  impressive; the fact that he achieved so much in an under-powered Tyrrell-Ford only raised his stock even more.

Alesi started the 1990 season with a sensational 2nd place in the United States Grand Prix.  One might argue that it wasn’t the result which was sensational.  Jean’s 1990 US Grand Prix will always be remembered not for the result he got at the end of the race, but for the titanic battle for the lead he shared with the mighty Ayrton Senna.  For twenty five laps Alesi led the US grand prix, and for most of those laps, Senna stalked him, inexorably gaining on the French-Sicilian from Avignon.  For lap after lap, Senna closed on Alesi.  Jean drove cleanly and confidently, being caught not through his own inadequacies, but because Senna’s McLaren-Honda was the much quicker car than Alesi’s Tyrrell-Ford.  Senna finally lined Alesi up for a pass at the end of the main straight, going inside on the 90° right-hander.

To everyone’s surprise, though, Alesi retook Senna immediately at the following 90° left-hander!  The young pretender, so green and inexperienced, was not intimidated by the 1988 World Champion.  The battle with Senna in Phoenix remains one of my favorite moments in Formula 1 history.

Watch this clip (from ESPN’s coverage) of the battle’s climactic moments and appreciate Alesi’s bravado:

Alesi scored only twice more in 1990, 1pt for a 6th place finish at Imola and 6pts for a great 2nd place at Monte Carlo.  His 2nd place at Monaco was particularly impressive.  Although he didn’t threaten race winner Senna as he had in Phoenix several weeks previously, Alesi stayed in front of such luminaries as Senna’s McLaren teammate Gerhard Berger and Thierry Boutsen (who won the Hungarian Grand Prix in 1990).  On balance, though, Jean was involved in several notable incidents and crashes.  The ones that stand out the most in my mind were when he spun his Tyrrell during a sodden Canadian Grand Prix, his adventurous battle against the more powerful Ferraris and Berger’s McLaren at Monza, and his lap 1 accident  in Jerez.  In Canada, Alesi lost control of his car while battling for position.  The Tyrrell slid into Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton, which had spun off a few laps earlier and was just resting in the tire barrier.  Thankfully, Nannini had already vacated his Benetton, since Alesi’s Tyrrell slid up over the Benetton’s nose and would have certainly killed anybody still sat inside the car.  Both the Tyrrell and the Benetton were written off in that accident.  Later in the year, at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Alesi overtook Mansell and Prost’s very heavy Ferraris and was steadily catching up to Berger’s McLaren, when he spun the car into the barrier at the first chicane.  His stunning speed in the early laps against the much more powerful Ferraris and the Honda-powered McLaren showed not only his Tyrrell’s superb aerodynamic efficiency, but also Alesi’s bravery.  Unfortunately, he pushed too hard too early and clearly made a mistake.  Two races later, in Jerez, he eliminated himself on the first lap of the Spanish Grand Prix jostling for position with Riccardo Patrese.  He weaved and hit Patrese’s front wing endplate, which sliced his left rear tire.  He spun into instant retirement in the gravel trap in the first corner.

Largely on the strength of his early season performances and his exploits from 1989, Alesi’s stock rose to stratospheric levels.  At one point, he actually contrived to have three firm contract offers – from Tyrrell, Williams, and Ferrari, no less – for his services in 1991 and beyond.  He very quickly dismissed notions of returning to Tyrrell due to the team’s limited finances, and so had a straight choice between Williams and Ferrari.  He chose to go to Ferrari, teaming up with Alain Prost.

How I'll always think of Jean Alesi: ATTACKING in his red Ferrari

More than a few observers opined that Alesi was now going to show France’s first (and still, only) F1 world champion the way in 1991.  Alesi himself was confident yet still deferential to his more senior teammate.  As things transpired, Prost outperformed Alesi, outscoring the younger Frenchman 34-21 in the final season points standings despite the fact that Ferrari sacked him with one race remaining on the 1991 calendar.  Unfortunately for Jean, he had made the wrong choice of team:  Ferrari was now about to enter one of its leanest periods, and Williams was on the verge of breaking McLaren’s domination of the Formula 1 world championships.

1992 and 1993 saw scant success for Ferrari and Alesi.  In terms of pure results, the best he managed during this period were three podium places (a heroic race to 3rd in a sodden Spanish Grand Prix a and another lucky 3rd through attrition in Canada during 1992, and a very fortunate 2nd place at Monza the following year).  His Ferraris were rubbish, down on horsepower and handling worse than a grocery cart.  Nevertheless, Jean endeared himself to the tifosi by driving with bravery and skill, conjuring up memories and favorable comparisons with the late Gilles Villeneuve.  The fact that Alesi’s Ferrari wore Villeneuve’s legendary number 27 no doubt enhanced the comparisons.

Jean was breathtaking in the wet.  In the 1992 Spanish Grand Prix and in the French Grand Prix a few weeks later, Alesi demonstrated his superb car control.  Wet races often served as the great equalizer, masking horsepower deficiencies and emphasizing a driver’s raw feel for his car and his ability to continually adjust its trajectory as it scrabbled for precious traction.  It was during these wet races when I truly became an Alesi fan.  I appreciated his great bravery most of all, but his performances in the wet made his imperfections a lot easier to forgive.

And Jean had a lot of imperfections.  First off, he had a tendency to over-drive, to want to go faster than what his car was able to do.  This caused many driving errors, some of which only penalized himself (such as his 1990 Monza mistake), but sometimes also causing grief for others.  One notable example of this was the 1992 Grand Prix of San Marino.  Alesi was running third behind the two all-conquering Williams-Renaults of Mansell and Patrese, but ahead of the two McLaren-Hondas of Senna and Berger.  Jean let Senna pass him at the Tosa hairpin, but was not willing to extend his generosity to Berger; the two touched at the exit of the hairpin, and both were eliminated on the spot with both of their cars damaged.

But the tendency to overdrive was not Alesi’s only flaw.  Perhaps his biggest was his personality.  A passionate man, he seemed to have too little control over his emotions, especially when his anger and temper became aroused.  Where a cooler head would have prevailed, Alesi would lose out to opportunities to shine, if only because the red mist blinded him too much and inflamed his emotions beyond the boiling point.  The 1994 Italian Grand Prix demonstrated this most spectacularly.  Alesi had won the pole position (he only took one more in his career, again at Monza in 1997) and led the race confidently until his pit stop on lap 14.  His Ferrari refueled and fitted with new slicks, Jean selected first gear and found no one home.  He tried again, his Ferrari’s V12 responding only with the furious scream of twelve pistons at maximum revs and no forward motion.  Disgusted, Alesi undid his safety harness and stalked out of the Ferrari.  After the race, Ferrari technical director John Barnard revealed that all Alesi had to do in the event of a failure of first gear was to bypass it and go to second; Alesi’s anger and frustration over yet another broken Ferrari and another victory lost had blinded him from realizing his dream of winning the Italian Grand Prix in a Ferrari with number 27 was still within reach.  Alas, it was not to be.  Indeed, in the wake of his chronic misfortune with Ferrari, it seemed as if Jean would never drink the sweet champagne from the winner’s cup.

Fortunately for Jean and for the fans that loved him, he eventually did win.  The 1995 Canadian Grand Prix saw Alesi finally take P1 at the end of the final lap.  The stars seemed to have all aligned for Jean on this one day:  The race was run on his 31st birthday, on the track named for Gilles Villeneuve, in the car and number that Villeneuve made famous more than a decade ago.  Not surprisingly, Alesi confessed that he was weeping a bit before the end of the race.  He said his tears were hitting the inside of his visor under heavy braking a few laps before the checkered flag!  Thankfully, he kept his emotions under control just enough to cross the finish line first for the only time in his career.  Few victories in Formula 1 were celebrated with more gusto and fervor by everyone involved in the sport, participants and fans alike, than Alesi’s win in Canada.

Sadly, though, his one win in Formula 1 was to be perhaps his final highlight in his career.  Ferrari deemed him unworthy to stay on beyond 1995, and he effectively swapped seats with Michael Schumacher starting in 1996.  At the time, it seemed as if Jean was going to have the better car, but unfortunately Benetton’s form was about to begin its own precipitous drop, just as Ferrari’s did when Jean joined them in 1991.  In contrast, Ferrari was about to begin its climb back up to dominance.  Alesi, then, had tragically bad luck when it came to joining the wrong teams at precisely the wrong time.

His two years at Benetton never lived up to expectations, and from there his stay in F1 was rather forgettable.  He spent two years with perennial mid-pack dwellers Sauber, then slid further down the grid to the Prost (formerly Ligier) team.  His career finally ended with a handful of grands prix with the Jordan Grand Prix team, just when the team was starting its own inexorable slide towards its own eventual death.

So how do we best sum up Jean Alesi?  Well, to me, he became a personal favorite not because he conformed to my favorite “type” of grand prix driver, but because he did not.  Passionate and emotional to a fault, perhaps Alesi reminded me of some of my own flaws.  Instead of being an ideal hero, Alesi was all too real, a man whose image was reality.  A man of undeniable bravery (but not really to the point of sheer recklessness – he never did indulge in the kind of tactics designed to intimidate a rival battling for position, as Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna did on a routine basis, for example), exceptional car control, and good (but not really top-drawer) speed, Alesi represented an example of how passion could spur one to great heights.  The results cupboard was bare for Jean Alesi, but for many passionate fans of Formula 1 and of Ferrari during those dark, winless, yet honorable days in the early-to-mid 1990s, Alesi was the beacon of hope.  Anything seemed possible for the man from Avignon.

Anything but the consistent runs to victory, as we all hoped he would do.

But I certainly never penalized him for that.

26 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 10)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 26/09/2011

Last time I listed a few drivers who didn’t quite make my list of top 10 F1 drivers.  Those guys were a mix of typical selections made by people who pick “best of” lists (Fangio, Ascari, Moss) based on reputation and achievement and drivers who probably would never have been considered anywhere close to the top of any lists bar the ones that are most subjective.

The drivers who didn’t quite squeak into my top 10 provide a handy illustration of the nature of this particular countdown:  It relies not so much on statistics or any other kind of “objective” metrics as it does on more subjective criteria.  This list is intended more as an enumeration of my favorite Grand Prix pilotes, not so much as arguments for these drivers’ places in the ultimate “best ever” lists.

(I will have to confess, however, that my top driver is often underrated in such lists.)

Anyway, I’m invoking the writer’s privilege here of shifting tactics a little bit.  Instead of listing the #10 thru #7 drivers as I had originally intended, I’ll be devoting one blog post per driver.  So today’s post will be exclusively about the #10 driver in my personal top 10 drivers list.

With all that preamble all dealt with, let’s see which driver gets the tenth spot.

10.  Nigel Mansell

I have to confess something.

I’m not a Nigel Mansell fan.

I was never a Mansell fan.

Two things I will admit, though, are that I wished that he had given Ayrton Sennaa stronger challenge in 1991, and that I was genuinely happy to see him finally earn the world championship that he’d been chasing for his entire career the following season.

Mansell's distinctive helmet livery, as done during his Ferrari years (Photo courtesy of anf1blog.com)

To be perfectly honest, Mansell never really captured my imagination on a consistent basis.  He started his Formula 1 career as a Lotus driver, the last grand prix driver personally recruited by Colin Chapman himself.  He drove a small handful of races as Lotus’ third driver in 1980 before earning a full-time ride with the team the following year.  His stay at Lotus was unremarkable in terms of results, scoring five podium places (five 3rd places) in four years, no wins, and 38 world championship points.  He did score his first career pole position while driving for the team in 1984, at the Dallas Grand Prix, the season’s ninth race.

But while Mansell’s results ledger whilst at Lotus was respectable at best (Lotus was in the doldrums in the early 1980s, the prelude to one final, all-too-brief resurgence after Mansell’s departure at the end of the 1984 season), he was acquiring a reputation as one of grand prix racing’s most dramatic performers.  Mansell wasn’t good enough to rise above his rivals in the early 1980s, but more often than not he grabbed his share of attention for how he went about his racing.

Mansell was dramatic not in the way Gilles Villeneuve or Ronnie Peterson were before him, or Jean Alesi afterwards.  His contemporary and 1985 teammate, Keke Rosberg, was more similar to these other drivers than Mansell was.  These drivers had dramatic driving styles, a flamboyance and flair that was spectacular and very easy for spectators to appreciate.  Mansell wasn’t dramatic in the way he drove; rather, he was just simply dramatic.  You watched him, and you remembered not impressions of his style behind the wheel, but specific moments, the high points of a narrative.

For instance, even before he became a Formula One driver, you remember hearing about the time when he and his wife sold their house and most of their other possessions just so he could continue racing.  You remember the story of his Grand Prix debut at the 1980 Austrian Grand Prix, when his Lotus’ fuel cell leaked into the cockpit and gave him significant (and painful) chemical burns to his lower body and legs.  You remember the time when he took his first career pole, but ran out of fuel in Dallas in 1984; I can still see him pushing his empty Lotus to the line, then collapsing with considerable theatrics into the tarmac as soon as he crossed the line.  And I’ll never forget how he qualified brilliantly for the Monaco Grand Prix earlier that final season with Lotus, overtook pole sitter Alain Prost early in the race, then threw the race away after losing traction on some painted street lines on the way up to the Casino Square.

He left Lotus and joined Williams in 1985.  Mansell was a bit of an unknown quantity at the time; his years with Lotus were rife with unreliable cars and erratic performances.  On occasion, Mansell’s performances teased you with hints of brilliance; there was no doubt that he was a fast, fearless driver who was capable of great results when inspired.  Too often, though, he would make critical errors and remove himself from contention.  And he never was a threat to win the world championship, with his best finish in the final standings being 9th, in 1984.

His Williams years saw him begin to blossom.  In 1985 he took his first two Grand Prix victories, winning the European Grand Prix at Brands Hatch and the South African Grand Prix at the mighty Kyalami circuit back-to-back.  He finished 6th in the Drivers’ World Championship that year, almost doubling his career world championship points total in one year (he scored 31 in 1985; as mentioned earlier, he had earned 38 from 1980-1984).

1986 proved to be even better.  Now teamed with Nelson Piquet (Rosberg moved to McLaren for 1986), he won five Grands Prix.  He lost the drivers’ championship at the last race, the victim of a spectacular tire failure in the closing laps of the Australian Grand Prix.  He was cruising at a safe fourth place when the tire burst on the Brabham Straight, running in a position that would have earned him enough points to clinch the title no matter what eventual champion Alain Prost and teammate Piquet did.  Yet fate deigned to not smile on him.

The following year saw Mansell emerge as an even stronger contender.  This time, the championship battle was, for all intents and purposes, an all-Williams affair.  Prost and Senna were also in play, but in reality neither of them had a car that was as consistently good as the mighty FW11B.  Mansell won the most races (six), but frustratingly also fell victim to more car failures than his other co-contenders (I remember him losing a wheel nut in Hungary, causing him to retire).  He also occasionally made some bad decisions on the track, too, such as when he made a poorly-judged overtaking maneuver on Ayrton Senna at Spa-Francorchamps.  The ill-advised pass saw both Mansell’s Williams-Honda and Senna’s Lotus-Honda spin off into the gravel trap at the les Fagnes complex.  All told, Mansell retired from four of the fourteen Grands Prix he contested.  That’s 25% of a full Grand Prix season lost to retirements.

But wait:  4/14 does NOT equal 25%.  That’s because the 1987 season featured sixteen races.  Mansell ran only fourteen on account of his accident during the 1987 Japanese Grand Prix.  He made a mistake in the Esses and crashed his Williams-Honda, injuring his back and therefore ensuring that he would take no further part in the final two races.  He lost his chance to beat teammate (and now fierce rival) Nelson Piquet, who lifted the champion’s laurels despite winning half as many Grands Prix as Mansell.  Piquet did not score four times, but showed excellent consistency by finishing second seven times, thereby outscoring Mansell very easily (73 (Piquet actually scored 76 total points, but he had to drop 3pts due to F1’s rule of taking only the best eleven results of the season into account) vs 61).

Mansell and Williams lost their Honda engines in 1988; consequently, they were relegated to the status of also-rans in the year of total McLaren domination.  Mansell’s contract with Williams ended at the end of 1988, and though the team wanted dearly for him to return, he had another option to consider.

Ferrari came knocking, and Mansell could not refuse the call.  1989 saw him teamed with Gerhard Berger, driving the beautiful John Barnard-designed Tipo 640, the first Formula One car fitted with the now-ubiquitous semi-automatic gearbox.  The transmission was a brand new innovation, and inevitably it suffered through some serious teething troubles (pun not intended) throughout the 1989 season.  Nevertheless, Mansell took a memorable victory in the year’s first Grand Prix (in Brazil), forever endearing himself to the Ferrari tifosi, who grew to love him.  They even christened him il Leone, the Lion of England driving one of their beloved red cars.

Though Mansell could only finish 4th in the final standings (earning 38pts and winning only two grands prix), he continued to burnish his growing stature even further.  Not only did he win on his Ferrari debut (incidentally, Murray Walker famously said that Mansell was the first driver in Formula 1 history to have a five wheel-change pit stop, as Mansell also changed his steering wheel – which housed some of the electronic control mechanisms for the revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox in his Ferrari – along with the four tires at one of his pit stops in Brazil), but he also pulled off one of the most exciting overtakes ever captured on video.  Watch his breathtaking pass of Ayrton Senna in the 1989 Hungarian Grand Prix as they both came up to lap Stefan Johansson:

1990 saw him paired with Alain Prost.  Initially pundits thought that they would be a strong combination for Ferrari, but in reality Mansell was no match for his more accomplished new teammate.  Prost won five races to Mansell’s one.

What I remember of Mansell from 1990 are three huge moments.  First, I’ll always remember his overtake of Gerhard Berger on the outside of the fearsome and dangerous Peraltada corner, the wickedly fast fifth gear final corner of the Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez in Mexico.  To me, this is THE signature positive Nigel Mansell moment.  It demonstrates Mansell’s audacity, his sheer chutzpah, that so few drivers in the history of motorsports have.  The second moment from Mansell’s 1990 that I will never forget is his retirement announcement at the end of the British Grand Prix.  Borne from the frustration of having yet another race-ending car failure (this despite his Ferrari being sat on pole position for his home race), he theatrically threw his racing gear (gloves, balaclava, helmet) into the crowd and then convened an impromptu press conference to tell the press and the world that he was quitting F1 at the end of the year.  This shows Mansell’s unparalleled flair for the dramatic.  Finally, I will always remember the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril.  Mansell beat his teammate Prost to the pole, then pushed Prost towards the pit wall at the start.  This dropped Prost down the order, eventually finishing in third, but crucially behind title rival Ayrton Senna.  By this time Mansell’s relationship with Prost had soured badly, with Mansell accusing Prost of indulging in intra-team polemics a bit too much. Mansell took his only win of the 1990 season and seemed ready to go into retirement.

Not long after the end of the 1990 season, however, Mansell had a change of heart and decided he wanted to continue on in F1 after all.  Some people theorized that he staged the retirement announcement to terminate his contract with Ferrari without penalty whilst secretly arranging another ride.  Luckily for him, Williams decided to jettison Thierry Boutsen, thereby allowing Mansell to return to the team with which he had his greatest successes.  Now driving the Williams-Renault FW14, Mansell entered the 1991 Formula 1 season with optimism.

Though the FW14 had a few teething problems (again, due to a new-for-Williams semi-automatic transmission, ironically repeating his experience with Ferrari in 1989), by mid-season Mansell and the Williams-Renault were the combination to beat.  He won three consecutive grands prix in the middle of the season, and ended up the year with two more victories, bringing his career total up to 21.  He was Ayrton Senna’s strongest challenger for the 1991 title, but Mansell lost far too many points to Senna due to his car’s unreliability and his own mistakes:  I’ll never forget Mansell stalling his Williams exiting the hairpin in Canada just a few hundred meters from the end of the race, costing him the win, as well as his mistake in Japan that saw him sliding out into the gravel trap because he tried to follow Senna too closely, which cost him critical front downforce.

1992, though, saw Mansell finally winning the world championship he had so fiercely desired.  Armed with an evolved FW14B now featuring a fully-reliable semi-automatic gearbox and stunningly effective active suspension which controlled the car’s sophisticated aerodynamics, Mansell dominated the 1992 season.  He reduced grands prix to demonstration runs.  He won nine grands prix (then a record) and took the pole position an astonishing fourteen times, a record that still stands to this day.

Mansell won his one and only F1 Drivers World Championship in 1992 (Photo courtesy of carazoo.com)

But it’s not so much for Mansell’s dominance on the track that I remember his 1992 campaign.  I remember three classically Mansell moments:  His duel with Ayrton Senna in the closing stages of the Monaco Grand Prix, his last-corner crash-and-feign-injury shenanigans early in the Canadian Grand Prix, and his dramatic retirement (again) press conference at Monza just before the Italian Grand Prix.  In Monaco, Mansell had to pit late in the race for what he suspected was a slow puncture, which lost him the lead of the race to Ayrton Senna.  Senna drove a masterful defensive race for the remaining laps, precisely placing his McLaren-Honda on the piece of the track that Mansell needed to execute the overtaking maneuver.  At Montreal, was not on pole position for the first time that year and was again chasing Senna when he botched an overtaking maneuver going into the final third gear right-left chicane; Mansell then feigned unconsciousness for a few laps, staying in his Williams (perhaps trying to force race officials to halt the race, therefore possibly giving him the chance to rejoin with a healthy car) while the field roared past at full racing speed.  Eventually, Mansell was persuaded to climb out, whereupon he told anyone who’d listen that Senna had “pushed him over” into the gravel trap, when video replays showed no such thing had occured.  Finally, when it became clear that Alain Prost was returning from a year’s sabbatical and joining him at Williams for 1993, Mansell decided he didn’t want to team with Prost and announced he was calling it quits at the end of 1992.  So much drama surrounding just one person.

Mansell’s ultimate retirement from Formula 1 was postponed, however.  He went to the USA to compete in CART in 1993 and 1994 (winning the championship in his first try), before returning for a few events in 1994 as Damon Hill’s teammate.  He even managed to win the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, his final victory.  He finally ended his grand prix career the following year with McLaren (a truncated season which saw him either quit or get dismissed due to the McLaren-Mercedes’ poor performance).

It’s impossible to be indifferent to Nigel Mansell:  You either love him and his racing, or you don’t.  My own feelings about Mansell are not as clear-cut; it’s not a case of just black or white.  Mansell takes my breath away in ways few drivers ever have.  When he pulls off such brave maneuvers (like his epic Peraltada overtake, or his “Silverstone Two-Step” in 1987, or his awesome battle against Jean Alesi in a Suzuka monsoon in 1994) he is almost unique.  But then I don’t care for his penchant for excessive dramatics.  I could do without his Brett Favre-like prima donna tendencies vis-a-vis retirement.  I don’t care for his theatrics.

Here’s my bottom line as far as Nigel Mansell is concerned:  I respected his great bravery tremendously, but I could do without his tendency to indulge in melodrama on and off the track.  He will always be considered as one of Formula 1’s most colorful and memorable characters, but apart from his prowess at overtaking (which, to me seemed more a function of his bravery exceeding his rivals’ and not so much an indication of his transcendent skills), there is precious too little of Mansell for me to give him more than just the respect he is due.

16 Sept 2011 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (Part 1: Who Didn’t Make The Cut?)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 16/09/2011

Earlier this year, I wrote a three-part blogging miniseries on my personal Top 10 NFL Quarterbacks.  (Parts 1, 2, and 3)  The compilation of my ten favorite NFL quarterbacks came as a result of a random flood of thoughts deep into 2010-2011 NFL playoffs whilst driving down to my parents’ house one weekend.

It’s been forever (well, four months away feels like forever) since I wrote anything in this blog.  I’ve been terribly busy, writing and editing every day of the week to produce good content for CMHD.tv Blog (see my contributions to this blog here).  But I’ve managed to get ahead of schedule just enough to be able to eke out some time to update some of my other blogs that also desperately need updating.

Though the 2011-2012 NFL season has just got started (and my beloved San Francisco 49ers started off the Jim Harbaugh era the best way possible by beating the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1), I decided not to reprise my weekly NFL Pick ’ems from last season.  I have to confess that I didn’t just pick games and possible outcomes out of the ether when I did those; I actually did try to put some thought behind all of those picks.  In other words, duplicating that effort would result in even a bigger slice of my private time, all of which is so precious to me.

Anyway, enough of this preamble.  I decided that my return to my sports-exclusive oriented blog should be about one of most favorite sports of all, Formula One.  I thought it would be interesting to count down my personal top ten favorite F1 drivers.

Before we get to the drivers who occupy spots #10  thru #7, I figured I’d give you some drivers who missed the cut, and briefly explain why I didn’t include them in my countdown.  Particularly keen readers will notice I have not included currently-active drivers, as their careers are still ongoing.  I’m very certain that some of today’s great stars – Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, and Sebastian Vettel – will someday take a place or two (or three) in my Top 10.

So who didn’t make the cut?

  • Juan-Manuel Fangio:  El Maestro, a five-time World Champion, seems like an automatic choice to any top ten discussion of F1 greats.  But he didn’t make my list?  Why?  Well, to be perfectly honest I simply haven’t seen enough of his driving.  This absolutely isn’t his fault, as he ruled F1 in the 1950s.  There is precious little film footage available from this era, and I find myself feeling deprived of not being able to see how this great master practiced his craft.
  • Alberto Ascari:  The last Italian World Champion was a fascinating man, but, as with Fangio, I’ve seen almost next to no film of this master at work.  He beat Fangio to the world title twice (I’m not counting Giuseppe Farina, the first F1 World Champion, who is universally considered to be nowhere close to Fangio in terms of driving ability), and he possibly could have added more to his tally of world championships had he not died at l’Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in 1955.  The Variante Ascari at Monza is named in his honor.
  • Jack Brabham:  This taciturn Australian is a three-time world champion, the first driver to score a title hat trick since Fangio.  Though he won three world titles, the name Brabham is probably more synonymous not for Sir Jack, but for the now-defunct Brabham F1 Team.  Sir Jack Brabham remains the only F1 driver to win a world title in a car bearing his own name.
  • Stirling Moss:  Moss is considered the greatest F1 driver never to have won the World Championship.  Though a near-fatal accident at Goodwood in 1962 put paid to the best portion of his racing career, he is still remembered fondly and admired as an all-time great, particularly by those fortunate to see him race at his peak.  Though I hold him in the highest esteem, I simply couldn’t add him to my top 10, as I never saw him race.  That’s my loss, for sure.
  • Gerhard Berger:  This Austrian is eternally associated with Ayrton Senna, as the two shared the McLaren team from 1990-1992.  Berger was overshadowed by the great Brazilian, but who wouldn’t have been?  People may have forgotten that Berger was a very fast driver himself.  Not only that, but he also had a very strong work ethic, never refusing opportunities to test the car.  I never thought of him as a potential World Champion, but he is undoubtedly one of my own favorites.
  • Riccardo Patrese:  Like Berger, Patrese was never seen as a potential World Champion.  But I liked Riccardo very, very much.  He had the reputation of being a very good test driver, able to provide to the designers and engineers high quality feedback.  Not only that, but he seems like a genuinely good chap, a very down-to-earth character inhabiting a world with so few of those.
  • Niki Lauda:  Niki was the hardest cut to make.  I admire this great three-time World Champion from Austria like I do very few others.  Honest to the point of bluntness, he ruffled the feathers of many of the F1 world’s most powerful figures.  He also remains one of the greatest symbols of courage in F1 history:  He survived a fiery near-fatal accident at the fearsome Nürburgring in 1976 and came back to race at Monza an unbelievably scant six weeks later, his wounds still fresh and bleeding.  He just lost the 1976 world title, but won his second crown the following year (he won his first in 1975).  Seven years later, he won the closest championship ever, beating Alain Prost to the 1984 Drivers’ World Championship by an unbelievable half-point (0.5)!
Next time, I’ll start our countdown, from #10 thru #7.
I’ll just close this post saying one final thing: Do not expect to see 7-time World Champion Michael Schumacher anywhere on my Top 10 Favorite F1 Drivers list.  No iteration of this list will ever include him.  The man has no value to me.  My feelings for the man and everything he has stood for for the entirety of his Formula 1 career are too ugly to express, if I may be perfectly honest.  The only time Michael Schumacher will ever be the subject of a best-of list from me is when I enumerate my most hated sportsmen and athletes.
See you next time!
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