Walking into the garage, the team turn around and greet me like an old friend. I place my helmet and overall bags down on the table and introduce myself to the men in front of whom I will now have to do my all to not embarrass myself. They show me around the car, and talk me through the specs.
Built and designed by Van Diemen’s Ralph Firman, the MSV F4 013 has superb pedigree. A spaceframe chassis in compliance with FIA A.277 safety standards including front and rear carbon fibre impact structures, Diolen anti-intrusion side panels, cockpit head surround protection and wheel tethers. It’s a proper slicks and wings racer with adjustable front and rear wings, eight inch front and ten inch rear OZ wheels, fitted with Yokohama tyres. In the back, a 2 litre Duratec engine, using a Cosworth management system, kicks out 185bhp. The steering wheel features padel shift for the six-speed Sadev transmission, with Cosworth having also provided the gearbox control system. And to slow the thing down, AP Racing 4-piston brake calipers with cockpit adjustable brake bias.
I take this all in, wondering if anyone in the garage has any idea that I have literally only passed my race license moments before meeting them.
And then I see it… my name, on the side of the car. Today has just officially become the coolest day. Ever.
I get changed into my spangly new Alpinestars kit, looking very much like the new kid at School in his shiny uniform, and settle into the cockpit for the first time to get acquainted to what will be my office for the afternoon. Richard Gates, Team Manager for the Test and Development Project of the F4 championship oversees everything, as Christian Vann is back on hand to ensure that I am comfortable and that the pedals are in the right position.
There is a foot clutch for first gear and a double pedal brake in the centre. Throttle on the right, naturally.
Andy Wildman, the Chief Mechanic, wrings the changes up front, and when I feel comfortable, everything, including me, is bolted into place.
I’m reminded of the advice Vicky Piria gave me the day before. “Just find your braking points and work from there. Build up your speed steadily. You’ll do fine.”
Richard gives me a smile. “You’ll be great,” he says. “There’s no pressure, nobody to beat, nothing to prove. Just get a feeling for the car, the track, the conditions. It’s going to feel a lot faster and very different to the Peugeot. Just enjoy it.”
Christian is the last voice I hear. “You OK?” he grins.
I nod my head. I can feel my eyes are out on stalks.
“Just to warn you, there are two McLaren GTs testing out on track today too. They will be MUCH faster than you. Don’t change your lines. Stick to your line. They will drive around you. OK? Have fun.”
And with that, the engine is fired up.
It’s a lovely and yet brutal feeling, somewhere between the most gorgeous back massager in the world, and a pneumatic drill made out of rubber pointing at your kidneys.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Closing my hands around the steering wheel, I push down the clutch and select first gear with a flick of my right fingers. I raise the revs, lift off the clutch, and the car jumps forward. I keep the revs up, Richard smiles and waves me on, beckoning me towards the pitlane.
Somehow I’ve managed not to stall. I push the throttle down, pull my visor shut and then, for the first time, I’m all alone.
“Don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up, don’t screw it up…” is all that is running through my head.
I know the track from earlier in the day. But do I know it THAT well? I really don’t.
I use the same gearing as in the Peugeot, and for this first tentative lap it seems to work out fine. I delicately press the throttle, not wanting to unleash all the power to the rear tyres and spin myself around. I have no idea how much torque this thing has, I have no idea how much downforce it produces at high speed. Hell, I don’t even know what a car with downforce even really feels like. It’s cold, the sky is grey. Is that going to make a difference? Will I spin easier in conditions like this? Theoretically. Yes. I’ve seen the pros do it, so I sure as hell can. Oh what am I thinking, this is my first lap… Stop talking to yourself. STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF!
I reach the back straight and for the first time I push the throttle all the way to the floor. The lights shoot across the steering wheel and I shift up. And again. And again.
OH MAN! Now that’s what I’m talking about. I feel my helmet lift up slightly as the air buffets underneath and I am pushed back into my seat. I lift off, coasting into the left hander, brake, shift down, pull right, through the Bomb Hole… the lap is almost over.
I bring her back in. I haven’t spun. I haven’t hit anything. I haven’t crashed into a McLaren. Huge relief.
But wait, crap… I have to brake with my right foot now as I need the left for the clutch. The footwell is small and cramped and, unsure of the exact placement, I hit a touch of throttle as I come back to the team. I slam on the brakes, aim for the clutch, miss and stall.
The friendly faces are back. All is OK.
“How was it?” asks Richard.
“Immense,” I reply. “Can I go again?”
“Absolutely. Five laps, build up your speed. Steady increases, remember your braking points.”
The engine is fired up again, and I’m back out. With that first lap out of the way, I have a confident base to start from. I know I’m not going to fall off. I can see where I’m going. And, if we are being completely honest, it feels an awful lot more natural to drive a single seater than to drive the Peugeot. The steering is direct and with no driver aids, you know exactly where you are. You feel the engine through your right foot and your arse, you feel the tyres and the grip through your fingers.
Each lap, I gain in confidence. I am on the brakes later, on the power earlier, I am carrying more speed through the corners. It is starting to feel really good.
Tony Kent is the Systems Manager back in the garage, and when I come in after my five lap run I’m feeling pretty good.
“20 seconds off Jolyon’s best,” is not the news I was hoping for. Reality sinks in. Jolyon Palmer may be the F4 development driver with Christian Vann, he may be a GP2 race winner, F2 championship runner up and all round quick racing driver (the best overtaker in the current GP2 field it should be added)… but 20 seconds?
My disappointment is clear to see. But then I buck myself up. I’ve done six laps. Ever. At least I’ve not done anything stupid yet. And the guys seem not to think I’m a total idiot. I’ll take these small victories.
The next run, Jason, my friend and producer at NBC, attaches GoPros to the car to catch some footage for a piece we are filming about the day. One of them sits in the middle of the tub, right in my line of sight.
“I hate that,” Christian admits. “It screws up your focus and line of sight. Try to look though it, just forget it is there.”
I listen, learn, and get ready for my next run.
There’s one corner that’s been catching me out so far: Hamilton. It’s a fast 4th gear left hander. There’s a bollard on the apex, but I’ve been miles from it all day. This time I pick up the pace, determined I’m going to nail it. I turn in way too late and way too fast. Trying to compensate for missing the apex so desperately I tighten the lock.
Buxton, you’re doing it wrong.
The back snaps around on me in the blink of an eye. I follow the front around as the car is launched up over the curbs and onto the grass. I look around and see one of the McLarens blast through the enormous puff of dust I’ve left behind.
What an idiot.
The car isn’t broken, so we go out one last time before the rain hits. But just as I leave the pits rain starts to fall. At speed, the rain streaks effortlessly off my visor and I can see with absolute clarity where I’m going. But grip? Forget it. I spin at the second corner. Then again at the chicane under the bridge. I’m sitting in the middle of the track, on the exit of a blind left hander and one of the fastest parts of the track.
Clutch in, first gear, hit the start button. The engine fires up. Full lock right, light up the rears. The back swings round and we’re off and out of the way of the speedy McLarens.
I don’t think I’ve ever sworn so much in the space of 30 seconds. But I’m back off again, and the car and thankfully I, too, are still in one piece.
I try one more lap, but the grip and my confidence are being erased with every passing corner.
We have some down time while the small rain storm passes, and so we all pour over the telemetry with Tony, while eating Cornish pasties. I can’t eat though. I’m buzzing on adrenalin. We look at Jolyon’s trace against mine. There are so many places I can be making up time. We decide to concentrate on Turn 1.
My first run, that of the 20 seconds off the pace, had seen me braking 156 metres before Jolyon. By the end of my second serious run, I had brought the gap down to 8 seconds, and the braking at Turn 1 down to 71 metres.
I still had some way to go, clearly.
Once the rain had passed and the McLarens had created a dry line we out again on the old tyres. My first lap was incredibly tentative. All my confidence had been wiped out by that wet run on slicks and the spins. But then, out of nowhere, a revelation. I carried way too much speed into Palmer, the fast left hand third turn. But the car stuck. And it felt great.
So I pushed a bit harder and faster into a few more corners. And the car loved it.
“So THIS is what downforce is supposed to do!” I screamed. It was a Eureka moment.
I came back into the pits, buzzing and eager to get going again.
“Not just yet,” smiled Richard. “We’ve just got to change your tyres.”
A brand new set of Yokohama slicks were brought out. I honestly hadn’t expected this.
“You’re doing really well,” Richard said. “So we want you to see what new tyres will do for you. Experience the increase in grip. Enjoy.”
Christian sits down by me again and explains how to work the tyres for the first two laps. Long progressive braking, building up brake temperature to put heat into the tyres is what is required. Then, after one flyer, go for it.
I’m now in absolutely determined mood. My missions are two-fold. Get my braking as close to the final marker as possible at Turn 1, and get the most out of these new tyres.
I call to mind the final piece of advice I was given by Antonio Felix da Costa on Snetterton’s unique challenges. “You can take more speed through Turn 1 than you think. It’s a really late apex. Oh, and enjoy the final corner. A long right, keep one lock, late apex, hit it and get set up for the final left. It’s tough, but a buzz when you get it right.”
I enjoy every second of the run. I have no idea what times I’m running but the car feels great. The extra grip in the new tyres means I can push hard, take more speed in, the car goes where I want it to. It’s better on throttle, it is better under braking. It just feels alive. And so do I.
I bring it in, and everyone seems impressed.
A 2:00.61. My fastest lap of the day, and less than 4 seconds of Jolyon. My braking for Turn 1 is now down to 11 metres.
I am jumping inside the cockpit. I want one more go. I know I can go faster. I’m convinced. There’s so much more I can do, so much speed I can make up. I know where I’m losing out. The rain has meant I’m not attacking the curbs because they spun me, and I’d lost my confidence. If I attack them more, there’s tenths to be gained in each one. I can hold Bomb Hole faster, I know I can. I can brake later for Turn 1!
One final run, then. But after just a few laps, a red flag. The day is over. Time has run out.
I’m bummed not to be able to attempt a real run at my best lap, but (cue racer’s excuse) I think I’d already taken the best from the new tyres.
Did I improve anything on that last run? Tony grins. My braking for Turn 1 is down to 5 metres.
I am absolutely exhilarated. It has been the most incredible day. From passing my license to a full afternoon testing the Formula 4 car, I can barely believe the progress made in one sitting. I want to get back in. As I sit here writing this now, weeks later, I want to get back in the cockpit. And race.
With the world going through a period of economic austerity, you might ask whether there’s room for another junior championship. But with the death of Formula BMW, Formula 4 fills an incredibly important void.
The championship carries the BRDC label, and the Club’s President Derek Warwick explained early on why the new championship was so crucial to him and the BRDC. “I have been very worried over the last few years about how our young British drivers of the future are supposed to make that big move from karting to circuit racing. Back in the day there was a relatively simple ladder if you had the talent; Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 2 and then Formula 1 if you were good enough. We currently have total confusion within our sport in terms of formulae, cost and the best way to gain experience in a cost effective way.
“The “BRDC Formula 4 Championship” gives us exactly what our sport is missing; reliability, slicks, wings, good horsepower and affordability. Most drivers want to gain the right experience as quickly as possible before moving up the racing ladder and this is why the BRDC is backing F4 and MSV.”
Jonathan Palmer himself is no stranger to running race championships, and the costs associated with F4 make it hugely tempting to anyone aiming to get onto the single seater ladder. Incredibly, the car, minus engine, can be bought new for less than £30,000. That’s actually quite astonishing when you think about it.
The car itself is responsive, but forgiving. For a novice such as me, it was a blast. I can only imagine what it must feel like to race it.
And trust me, I’m in discussions to do just that.
I’ve got the F4 fever. And the only thing that can cure it, is more F4.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Jonathan Palmer, the entire F4 test and development crew and all the staff and marshals at MSV and Snett for the most incredible day. I’ll never forget it. And hopefully I’ll be back, at the wheel of a car, on the grid, soon.
For more info on Formula 4, please visit the website
“Use the throttle. Use the brakes. Use the steering wheel. Douchecopter.”
As advice goes, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Thanks Conor.
I’ll be honest. I was really nervous. Well, maybe not nervous. Apprehensive is maybe more accurate. Apprehensive, but so excited.
Snetterton on a glorious British summer’s day (overcast, grey, with rain looming on the horizon) seemed a million miles away from Monaco, and yet it was in the Principality that Jonathan Palmer had, off the cuff, thrown out an offer I leapt upon.
“You should come and test the F4 car one day,” he proffered.
Having only ever driven a few fun laps of a Formula Yas at Abu Dhabi a few years ago, and taken some incredible two seater F1 and Indycar runs, naturally I jumped at the chance to get behind the wheel of a proper single seater, under my own steam.
Cue a few emails, some suggested dates… and then the question.
“Do you have a race license?”
“Not to worry, we’ll do your ARDS test when you get there.”
And so I arrived at Snett, ready to take my license examination and, so long as I passed, jump into Britain’s latest and greatest entry level formula car. I’ve been writing and talking about racing cars for over a decade. I’ve raced karts and driven some pretty awesome cars over the years, but now was the time for me to quite literally put up or shut up. No pressure.
The first job was to learn the track, and so I stepped into the Peugeot RCZ GT THP 200 Sports Coupe with my driving instructor and coach for the day, Le Mans and Sportscar ace Christian Vann. Having never driven or commentated on Snetterton before, I’d watched a few youtube clips the night before to try and get my head around the relatively new “300 track.” It’s not an easy track in the slightest, with some tricky corners that can easily catch you out… and the trick of passing ARDS is just that. You have to show consistency, knowledge of racing line, improvement, pace… and not chucking the thing off the track.
My examiner for the written and track test was Andrew Crighton. We went through the MSA DVD on flag etiquette, race weekend timetables, dos and don’ts etc… and then I had a folded piece of paper put infront of me with a bunch of questions and spaces to write my answers. I am 13 years old again and sitting my exams. I’m in a cold sweat and nervously tapping my pen.
Boom. 100%. Apparently most sensible people get 100% on it. It’s mostly common sense. Rumours have it however that when the ARDS was placed in front of 32 current British racers only 6 got top marks. Make of that what you will.
Next up, the driving test. Andrew is vocal over the first few laps. The lines he’s looking for are slightly different to the lines I’ve learned with Christian so I have to make a sudden mental note to alter turn in points… and then, all of a sudden, he stops talking. This is it. I’m now being tested.
I have no idea why, but my hands become clammy and the steering wheel feels loose in my hand. I’m second guessing myself on every corner. Is that the right turn in point, where’s the sodding apex, where should I be braking? The lap feels like it takes 10 minutes. But then it’s over.
“Well done,” Andrew smiles. “You passed. Really smooth, good lines, you’ll be great in the F4.”
Andrew and I get to talking about where I started karting. My very first foray was back in Guildford when I was about 12, and then on the indoor track in Weybridge before it closed down and I was recommended a new track in Esher, at Sandown Park. It was a modest affair to start with, a car park with cones marking out a track. I never raced properly. Just fun days out with my parents and friends.
Andrew grins. He ran the track at Weybridge. And Sandown. He laid out those cones.
Back in the day, 20 years ago, Sandown gave you a little laminated card to show that, as an underage kid, you knew what you were doing and were considered good enough to drive. Andrew gave me such a card. Two decades later, he’s giving me my race license. The moment isn’t lost on us. But I’m not the first. Many a racer started out at Sandown, or that indoor track in Weybridge. Tom Gaymor (racer turned commentator) forged that path… so too my good friend Sam Bird.
It’s a small racing world.
Want to get racing? Learn how you can take your ARDS with Jonathan Palmer’s Motor Sport Vision at some of Britain’s finest race venues, here.
The past 48 hours has seen a flurry of reaction to the accident in the pitlane during the German Grand Prix.
None of them would have stopped the accident. None of them deal with the cause of the accident. And all will impact the way in which you receive your information on Formula 1.
I dealt with the FIA’s first response in yesterday’s blog. It was a perfectly useless statement which changed little. However, FOM’s announcement late yesterday afternoon that all TV crews would now be banned from the pitlane for all sessions, was a far bigger blow. Here’s why:
For qualifying and the race, only FOM employed cameramen – those who worked directly for Bernie – were allowed in the pitlane. They roamed free. The immediate reaction after Germany was to restrict them to the pitwall. This would mean a less than ideal view of pitstops, but should theoretically have ensured greater protection.
Regular TV crews from the likes of NBC, Sky, the BBC, Canal + etc were not allowed in the pitlane during qualifying or the race anyway. We, as pit reporters, were not allowed into the pitlane either. Few, and I mean very few, pit reporters were granted access to certain team garages in order to garner information from press officers.
The only time that TV crews and pit reporters were allowed into the pitlane was during practice. This allowed us time to see with our own eyes the modifications that teams were running. It allowed us to look at tyre wear, talk to team personnel, engineers, PRs, and conduct interviews live on air with team representatives. Many TV crews also took this opportunity to film what we term as “B Roll.”
Practice is the safest period of pitlane activity. It is not the competitive arena that it becomes in a race or qualifying.
The announcement from FOM yesterday is that we, as broadcasters and FOM pass holders, will not now be able to enter the pitlane to provide this insight or gather this information in any of the three practice sessions during the weekend. However, FIA media pass holders with pitlane access, will, I believe, still be able to enter the pitlane during practice sessions. It is unclear whether FOM cameramen – those working directly for Bernie – will still have pitlane access for practice, and if so whether they will be limited to pitwall, or even garages.
The issue, from a broadcast perspective, lies now with how information is disseminated from the teams to the TV media. I cannot foresee every team allowing every TV crew in the paddock to wander freely into the back of the garage, past engineers pouring over telemetry, past KERS units, fuel cells, engines, gearboxes and into an already crowded workspace. It isn’t feasible. It certainly isn’t safe.
During a race we have, for many years, had to rely on what the teams tell us, or are willing to tell us. This information is limited and often hard to come by as press officers often prefer to remain in their garages than to come out and give over any information that may help us, and in turn their rivals, understand what is going on.
I’ll give you an example. During a race, driver X has retired. There is no sign of a press officer in the hospitality unit. A text message is sent asking what was the issue for the retired driver. The response says that this press officer does not know, and so to ask the other press officer who is in the garage. Cue a reply from us which says we do not have garage access. After 15 minutes a reply arrives saying somebody will come out to tell me what is going on. But by this point, I’m down the other end of the paddock interviewing another retiree.
If we have no access to the garages, nor to the pitlane, then the teams are going to have to buck up their ideas tremendously from Hungary onwards.
I would like to see, and I have been pushing ever since my election to the FIA Media Communication Group (formerly known as “The Press Council”) that teams are forced to keep one press officer in hospitality and one in the garage, such that the easy flow of information can be established between TV crews in the paddock and what is going on in the garage.
Teams have been quick to embrace social media, but many have done so to the detriment of the dissemination of information to those of us on the ground who rely on it in real time to update our TV viewers.
I hope that the new changes to pitlane access will only sit in place for the Hungarian Grand Prix. I can think of no TV station that will be happy with what has been announced, and furthermore I cannot see how any teams will be happy with the drop in coverage their teams, sponsors and partners will receive as a result.
While it is better to be safe than sorry, the ban on TV crews from the pitlane does not address the issue which remains the speed and safety of pitstops themselves in race situations.
If I genuinely believed these changes would make the pitlane safer, I’d accept them in a heartbeat. But I don’t believe they will. And I fear the people watching F1 at home will suffer as a consequence.
At the end of last year, we as pit reporters lost a key tool with the end of Fanvision’s deal in F1. Having lost one critical link to real time information we had to rely on what we could see again with our own eyes in the pitlane in practice. Now this tool has been taken away, too.
FOM is, I’m sure, simply looking out for the broadcasters it has accredited for the races. And we must be thankful for their swift action. Should this change negatively impact the broadcast as much as I and many of my paddock colleagues fear it will, however, I do not envisage it will be long before a more workable solution is met.
Yesterday, the FIA released the following statement:
Following a pit lane incident at last weekend’s German Grand Prix, the FIA has decided to take steps to increase F1 safety and is to institute an immediate ban on anyone other than event marshals and team personnel being present in pit lane during races and grand prix qualifying sessions. Access for approved media will be confined to the pit wall.
Last weekend’s incident at the Nürburgring occurred when, following a pit stop, a wheel became detached from the Red Bull Racing car of Mark Webber as he made his way towards the pit lane exit. The loose wheel struck a television cameraman who was hospitalised as a result. He is expected to make a full recovery.
In order to reduce the risk of similar accidents in the future, the FIA, on the initiative of its President, Jean Todt, will be seeking to make changes to the Formula One Sporting Regulations. In order to effect this, the FIA today informed teams that the approval of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) will immediately be sought for two changes to the Sporting Regulations. Both of these changes have already been approved for 2014. However, for safety reasons, the WMSC will be asked to approve their immediate implementation. The changes are:
1) Article 23.11*, which will now require all team personnel working on a car during a pit stop to wear head protection.
2) Article 30.12**, which will provide for a reduction of the pit lane speed limit during races from 100km/h to 80km/h (with the exception of Melbourne, Monaco and Singapore, where due to track configuration the limit remains at 60km/h).
Finally, in relation to the incident at the German Grand Prix, the FIA is expecting a written report from Red Bull Racing tomorrow. This will also be shared with the other teams in order to help improve pit lane safety.
* 23.11 Team personnel are only allowed in the pit lane immediately before they are required to work on a car and must withdraw as soon as the work is complete. All team personnel carrying out any work on a car during a race pit stop must be wearing head protection.
** 30.12 A speed limit of 80km/h will be imposed in the pit lane during the whole Event. However, this limit may be amended by the stewards following a recommendation from the FIA F1 safety delegate. Any team whose driver exceeds the limit during any practice session will be fined €100 for each km/h above the limit, up to a maximum of €1000. However, in accordance with Article 18.1 the stewards may inflict an additional penalty if they suspect a driver was speeding in order to gain any sort of advantage. During the race the stewards may impose either of the penalties under Article 16.3a) or b) on any driver who exceeds the limit.
Marvelous, you might say. Bravo. Firm immediate action.
But it’s not. And it completely misses the point.
The FIA says it will impose an “immediate ban on anyone other than event marshals and team personnel being present in pit lane during races and grand prix qualifying sessions. Access for approved media will be confined to the pit wall.”
A bold step you might say. But then what if I told you that is precisely the arrangement that currently exists?
Nobody, not FIA media (written), not FOM media (TV and radio), are allowed in the pitlane during qualifying or the race. There is a red “PIT LANE” line over which no member of the media is allowed to pass during those sessions. Do so, and your pass is taken away. No arguments.
The only media which is allowed into the pitlane is a select group of photographers granted a special tabard. Their access is limited to the pit wall.
So what, exactly, has changed?
Well, the only thing that has really changed from this perspective is that the FOM RF cameramen will now be limited to the pitwall and will not be roaming in the pits themselves. But this decision had already been announced by Bernie Ecclestone in the immediate aftermath of Paul Allen’s injury at the weekend. It was a smart move in the short term, made without fuss and fanfare.
The FIA release is quite the opposite. It screams of wanting to be seen to be doing something, whilst in reality doing very little.
So we have a preposterous announcement that the FIA will ban everyone who, before the statement, didn’t have pit access in qualifying and the races anyway, from being in the pitlane during qualifying and the races. This is with the exception however of those who have special permission to be on the pitwall who will still have special permission to be on the pitwall. So nothing has changed.
The other changes noted, were due to be brought into effect in 2014 anyway and have simply now been rushed through. Helmets for everyone working on the car, and a reduction in pitlane speed.
But again, I question how either of these changes would have impacted the accident that befell Paul on Sunday. The fact is, they wouldn’t.
Team pit helmets wouldn’t have helped Paul. I’d question how much they’d even help the pitcrews themselves, given that most appear to be about as strong as a kid’s Iron Man dress up mask. A tyre, with wheel rim, bouncing into your head at speed… those flimsy helmets aren’t going to stop your face from getting smashed in or your neck from snapping like a twiglet.
And reducing pitlane speed limits isn’t going to help either. The power of the engine is the same, the torque is the same, the rear wheels are still going to spin at the same speed when a car is released from a stop. What reducing pit speed limits will do, however, is increase the pit delta, thus meaning that teams will be even more determined to secure a lightning fast pitstop. So, if anything, it could prove to be a counter productive measure.
The simple fact is that, once again, the FIA is dealing with consequences rather than causes. We’ve seen it all year in the woeful stewarding of the junior categories GP2 and GP3, where the FIA stewards have not looked at the causes of accidents but merely what the consequence was. And now it is seeping up to F1.
What caused Paul Allen’s injuries at the weekend? What was the cause? That’s the question that needed addressing.
The cause was a non-secured wheel that became disconnected from the car and bounced free down the pitlane. But nothing, and I mean nothing, in the FIA’s statement deals with this.
The best suggestion I’ve seen thus far was to reintroduce clips in the wheel nuts, which we used to have in the days of refueling. These clips had to be secured before a car was allowed to leave the pits. Now, this type of change isn’t the making of a moment, but with the August break I’m fairly sure it could have been implemented in time for the second half of the season, starting at Spa.
Instead, however, the actual cause of the incident is not dealt with. The risk remains the same today as it was at the weekend. What’s to say the same thing won’t happen in Hungary? What’s to say that this time it won’t be a rear left and that it won’t bounce into the cameramen who are now on the pitwall… or that it won’t strike a member of a team, sitting with his back to the action on his prat perch?
The pitlane is a dangerous place. It always has been. Those who work within it accept those risks. Paul accepted those risks. Everyone does. Paul, I’m sure, will be bloody frustrated when he gets back to work that he’ll be limited to filming from the pitwall. I’ve worked with the FOM boys for a decent amount of time now. They’re great lads. Hard working. Brave. No bullshit. They’re proper blokes. They love their job and they accept that it’s dangerous. We all do.
But what is even more dangerous, is to pretend that what the FIA announced yesterday would have prevented what happened. The causes have not been dealt with. The changes made will, in my opinion, do very little to actually improve safety.
Look at the wording of the release again. “In order to reduce the risk of similar accidents in the future, the FIA, on the initiative of its President, Jean Todt, will be seeking to make changes to the Formula One Sporting Regulations.”
After years of silence, suddenly within the space of two weeks we have two releases from the FIA, both on the issue of safety, both lauding the initiatives and swift action of the President.
A President seeking re-election. A President who wants to appear to be strong and decisive.
Appearances can be deceiving.
There’s more to this mess than meets the eye. That’s my over riding thought in all this Pirelli furore.
Here’s the crux.
Pirelli was asked to make less durable tyres for 2013. It duly delivered. Not everyone was happy with this, Red Bull in particular taking umbrage to the new spec and decrying from an early point of the season the shift in racing philosophy that these tyres demanded.
There’s an interesting angle to take on all this. Some teams clearly designed their car around the tyres and the running they made on the development models late in 2012. Lotus and Force India, particularly, can be grouped in this camp. Many other teams designed a car to exploit the technical regulations, but found to their detriment that the new specification of tyre could not put up with the abuse the mechanical grip of the cars demanded from them. More fool them you might say. Certainly that’s the line the likes of Force India, Lotus and Ferrari took when refusing to assuage to the desires of their rivals and see a mid-season shift in tyre construction following their disparaging comments after the Spanish Grand Prix.
Safety, of course, was the get-out clause used at the time to allow a mid-season shift. The interesting thing is that the tyres themselves actually seemed safe. The failures we saw up to Silverstone involved the tread coming away from the carcass, but the carcass itself remained in tact. The steel belts, used for 2013, were blamed. Cheaper and heavier than the Kevlar they replaced, the steel belts also increased the transfer of heat through the tyre. This affected thermal degradation, but also the bonding of the tread to the tyre. So Pirelli altered the bonding.
Then we had the failures at Silverstone where the tyres ripped themselves apart. This, it could be argued, was due in part to the new bonding process. Pirelli has also laid the blame with reverse fitting, a process whereby teams this year have switched rear lefts onto right and vice versa, lower than suggested pressures and greater than suggested camber angles. The kerbs also played their part.
I find it fascinating that we now face a situation where, in Hungary, the fix that was suggested post Spain will be the fix that is imposed upon the sport. Now, the teams that stood against such change will no longer have a voice, not only because those teams have said they will not stand against the change but because the rules have been shifted mid-season to allow Pirelli to make changes on the grounds of safety without unanimous agreement.
The safety argument is an interesting one, too. Pirelli insisted in its release this week that the tyres are safe when used within suggested parameters, but regardless will make an interim change for Germany (Kevlar belted rears) and a wholesale shift for Hungary (2012 construction with 2013 compounds.) Interestingly all teams will test these new tyres at what was the Young Driver Test at Silverstone. All, with the exception of Mercedes, banned from the YDT after conducting their own, and who have said they will not attend despite it no longer being the YDT. If we’re dealing with safety grounds, you’d have to ask how safe it is for Mercedes to run in Hungary on tyres they haven’t tested. But that’s an aside.
What has been most interesting of all in this has been the role of the FIA President Jean Todt. The quiet President, who has focused so much of his attention away from F1 in his tenure, is finally making noise. A lot of noise. His name has been prominent in all communication on this subject. But why? Why now? Shouldn’t he have dealt with all this long ago?
Again, there are two arguments.
The first is the pessimist’s view. A long supporter of Michelin, the doubters will argue that Todt didn’t want to make Pirelli’s life any easier. The ridiculous in season testing regulations, the lack of availability of a current car for Pirelli to develop its tyres with, the lack of support from the governing body in all regards. And then, this week, as Pirelli insists its tyres are safe, the FIA, on safety grounds, unilaterally changes testing regulations and tyre testing regulations. Was this a case of the FIA and its President flying directly in the face of the statements of its F1 tyre supplier and saying that they didn’t believe their product to be as safe as they claimed?
Furthermore, is rushing a newly designed tyre through really the best course of action? If Pirelli says the tyres are safe within the parameters they have established, would it not be simpler for the FIA to impose these parameters on the teams? Again, is the FIA making life too hard on Pirelli although I understand that such a move is now being discussed?
The second argument could be even more political. Jean Todt always said he would run for one term as FIA President. Elections will need to take place later this year for a new President, and discussion on this topic has been incredibly quiet. The F1 teams have, for a long time, demanded greater freedom from the control of the FIA in the running of the sport. They have wanted to make the rules and for the FIA to uphold them.
Perhaps Todt’s silence over the last few years has been to enable the teams to do just that. But this whole mess has ultimately been caused by the teams failure to agree, based upon their own self interest generated by their competitive instincts rather than a unified vision for the furtherance of the sport. Perhaps this is Todt finally taking the power back. The teams have had their chance and they’ve blown it.
With re-election to a post he said he’d only hold for one term now looking more and more likely, is this the emergence of a stronger, more vocal, more hands on FIA President? Is this the return of power politics in F1?
Ultimately, the Pirelli situation could be about far more than tyres. Its result could be the re-election on a stronger mandate of a hard line, hands on FIA President. If this whole mess has taught us anything, it is that, perhaps, that’s what the sport needed all along.
I looked around and couldn’t see anyone I knew.
“Will, hey Wiiiiiiiill!”
Nope, nobody there. An empty paddock but for a few mechanics and journalists, the odd driver skulking off to their motorhome.
I carried on my way.
Two hands slammed down on my shoulders and pulled me around.
“What, you’re just going to ignore me now are you mate?”
It was Mark Webber.
“I’m sorry,” I replied, a bit stunned. “I just didn’t think you’d remember who I was.”
It was the Magny Cours paddock, Friday night, 2008. It was my first season back in F1 as a journalist and I honestly didn’t think Mark Webber would know me from my short stint as a jobbing scribe four years previously or my three years out in GP2.
I have always liked and respected Mark. Never afraid to speak his mind, always thoughtful and attentive, he’s as honest as the day is long and just a wonderful bloke both on and off the track. But Mark is off to pastures new, and I wish him well for 2014. He’s no stranger to sportscars having competed for Mercedes a decade ago, and he will relish and I am sure flourish in the brilliantly exciting world of Endurance racing.
His departure, however, has opened up the silly season a few weeks early and the paddock has, of course, gone into a somewhat predictable meltdown of rumour over who will step into one of the most highly sought after seats in Formula 1. Many people seem to think that Kimi Raikkonen is a dead set certainty for the seat. The extreme sports tie in, the fact he’s been Red Bull backed before… the fact vodka goes rather well with the foul tasting stuff. Nope, it’s a done deal. Kimi is off to Red Bull.
Or is he?
The thing is, right now, it does both Red Bull and Kimi absolutely no harm at all to not deny the rumours. Red Bull has no need to give away its intentions because if everyone thinks Kimi is a shoe in, then if Red Bull starts negotiating with anyone else they can drive the financials lower.
For Kimi it makes no sense to deny interest, because if he starts negotiating with anyone else, including Lotus, then he can drive the financials higher.
Would it be good to see Kimi in a Red Bull? Absolutely. When you look at what he is achieving at Lotus, the thought of him in the best car on the grid is delicious. Equally salivating is the prospect of having a world champion lining up alongside Sebastian Vettel, and one who won’t give two hoots about Multi 21 orders.
While I wish to take nothing away from the incredible results Sebastian Vettel is accumulating at Red Bull Racing, to many in this paddock the belief exists that his ultimate level in the pantheon of greats cannot truly be gauged until he either moves to a different team to face a new challenge, or has somebody alongside him that can provide that challenge. And Kimi, as a world champion and a driver who doesn’t give a damn, would be a truly great challenge.
The question remains, however… would Sebastian want Kimi as a team-mate? Would Helmut Marko allow Kimi in as a team-mate? Is the risk of seeing Sebastian beaten too great?
And for Kimi, would he ever play number two if he was asked? Would he be happy with the increased media commitments? Red Bull Racing is not the partytown it used to be, it is serious business. The team travels in blazers these days! I’m not saying that Lotus isn’t a serious outfit, merely that its structure is loose enough and its media arm savvy enough to allow Kimi the space and freedom he needs to just get on with the job. Would Red Bull afford him such independence? I doubt it.
So no, I don’t believe the Kimi deal is done. Sure, he’s a genuine consideration and despite the recent investment in Lotus by Infinity the supposed financial issues at the black and gold team may yet cause the Finn to look elsewhere. But is he a certainty for that Red Bull seat? Absolutely not.
The Toro Rosso boys are both doing outstanding jobs in 2013, and if one of them doesn’t get the nod at the big team in 2014 you’d have to ask what in heaven’s name is the point of Toro Rosso, and for that matter, the entire Red Bull junior driver system? Now is the opportunity to promote from within. If it isn’t taken, what hope do any of the kids in that ladder realistically have?
The second seat at Red Bull will be the key to the driver market. Every racer in Formula 1 found out this morning that a dream opportunity has opened up. They’ll be fluffing up their tail feathers like brooding peacocks at every opportunity to try and get their backsides into that seat.
Who will it fall to? Right now, I don’t think even Red Bull knows. Let alone we paddock types. There’s a long way left to run on this one.
Anyway… back to Mark.
Back in 2006 I was doing PR for GP2. It was my first season running the Press Office and I’d organized a huge launch in Valencia. I’d invited Mark and Ann Neal along but they couldn’t make it. Because F1 was racing eslewhere that weekend.
When GP2 finally made it back onto the European F1 calendar, Mark came down to the paddock for a spot of dinner. On seeing me, he called me over.
“I’m really sorry we couldn’t make the launch,” he said. “It looked great though. I saw the photos. Well done, I heard it was a big success.”
Mark Webber. Just a properly good bloke.
You can tell when Jon Noble is onto something. His nose goes down, his tail starts wagging, and like a foxhound he’s off, caught by the scent of a massive story. He’s a newshound, pure and simple. He is a good friend and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I both respect his work and envy his skill and tenacity as a journalist tremendously.
Jon’s tail has rarely wagged faster than it did on Sunday morning in Monaco this year. He’d got the scent of something juicy, and over the past few weeks what probably started off as a throw away comment by someone’s loose lips, ended up as the biggest story of the season and an International Tribunal.
These kind of stories fascinate me. As a student of law and politics long before I entered a Formula 1 paddock, the concept of rules and regulations, the Concorde Agreement as a binding constitution, contracts between suppliers and rights holders, teams and governing bodies absolutely fascinates me. Sure I love the sport for the racing, but I can’t deny a little bit of political and legal intrigue gets my blood flowing too.
The Montreal weekend was thus a wonderful opportunity to simply stand back and people watch. In particular, the team boss presser on Friday. Paul Hembery had pulled out on advice of his lawyers, so we had the three main protagonists in the affair, plus Martin Whitmarsh and Monisha Kaltenborn. Martin stayed out of it, while Monisha was her usual eloquent, legally astute, salient, brilliant self.
The big guns, however, were an amateur body language reader’s dream.
Ross sat there, like a rock in a slow moving river, letting everything wash over him. No nerves. No hesitations. Nothing given away. Cool Hand Luke.
Stefano twitched and turned. He played with his fingers, rolling his wedding around on his wedding finger. His answers were clipped, his voice seemingly agitated. This was somewhere he didn’t want to be.
And Christian. Strong at the start, his back as straight as the bat he was playing. But as the conference went on he started to slump forward, his chin now resting on his hands, sliding up to rub his nose, his lips pursed, his eyes like daggers into Brawn’s back. With every evasive answer Brawn gave, Horner’s anger boiled inside him.
It was brilliant.
It was a great snapshot in time. But when they came out to talk to we TV crews afterwards, I found their responses to the questions we handed out even more interesting.
What interested me most was Christian Horner’s immediate and categorical comment that Red Bull had been approached to conduct a test for Pirelli but had turned it down as it had clearly breached regulations. I asked Horner to expand on this. What had made him so sure? He avoided a direct answer. So I pushed again. I asked if Pirelli had asked, specifically, that Red Bull run a 2013 car. Again he avoided a direct response, so I cut in and asked Yes or No.
Yes, Christian claimed that is precisely what Pirelli had asked for.
When talking to Ross and Stefano, what was interesting is that when I asked that same question, they both used the same wording in their answer… that Pirelli had asked for a REPRESENTATIVE car.
I believe that this is what Red Bull was also asked to provide, and if I understand correctly, until this all kicked off, they were in fact due to conduct a similar test (having turned down Pirelli’s original advance) later in the season.
It’s the definition of what constitutes “representative” that has created so much outrage and moral indignation.
I’m not going to debate what went on with Mercedes at the test. That’s been done. We know how it differs to the Ferrari tests. We know what the Tribunal decided.
And yet we still have people insisting that Mercedes cheated. That they got away with murder. We have ludicrous claims that the testing ban is now worthless and that teams will just go off and test when they want and sacrifice the Young Driver Test.
I understand why these things are being said.
But Formula 1 is about pushing the envelope. It’s about seeing what you can get away with under the regulations.
What Mercedes did was actually quite smart. An in-season tyre test is not covered by the sporting regulations definitively. There is merely a stipulation that, other than the Young Drivers Test, testing is banned. But here comes Pirelli with a contract saying it’s OK, and an FIA legal department that says it is fine so long as everyone else has the chance to do something similar.
So Mercedes took their 2013 car. They acted, as the Tribunal stated, in good faith.
Afterall, we exist in a ludicrous situation where the control tyre supplier needs a representative car to develop their tyres, but regulations dictate that only an out of date model can be used. And when they want to develop tyres for the new generation of car, how is a car that isn’t even relevant to today supposed to help matters?
To me, this has much in common with flexi wings, advanced engine maps, double diffusers and off throttle exhaust blown diffusers. In each case over the past three seasons teams, often Red Bull, sometimes Brawn / Merc, pushed the envelope. They did something that wasn’t exactly in the spirit of the regulations, and so the regulations changed to outlaw the loophole which the teams had exploited.
To me, this entire affair was another such example of a team pushing a loophole. That loophole has now been closed.
Christian Horner is upset about what happened and with the Tribunal’s findings. But he’s probably even more upset that he didn’t send a 2013 car along to a Pirelli test IF Mercedes have gained as much from it as is being claimed. That was his choice. His ball to drop.
I’m not condoning cheating. I’m merely saying, where such uncertainty over regulation existed, why not push? Do you think Ross Brawn, with the axe swinging ever closer to his neck at Mercedes, would have risked his and his team’s welfare if he hadn’t been convinced that what he was doing was, at the very least, defendable under the vagueness of the regulations as they stand?
And while we’re on that subject, I’m not overly convinced how much Mercedes really did learn. Particularly their drivers. Even Pirelli’s own testers have no real knowledge of what tyres theyre running. It’s not like Nico or Lewi would have been told, “OK Lads, we’ve bolted on some development super softs.” If I understand the way Pirelli do their tyre tests, they’d have asked the driver to go out, run 20 laps, 30 laps… whatever was required, and report their findings.
People point to how improved Mercedes form has been in the two races since the Barcelona test. All I would say is that neither Monaco nor Montreal is comparable with any of the races that went before. Let’s leave that question until after Silverstone and Germany. If the team drops, as I think they may in race trim, then we’ll know.
Ultimately this whole sorry affair has shown us what a pitiful regulatory state the sport exists in today. We have contracts at odds with regulation. We have a tyre supplier with one hand tied behind its back, fighting an unwinnable battle in trying to keep a commercial rights holder, a governing body and every team happy. Self interest from the teams blurs their vision, a lack of unity in FOTA weakens the very concept. The teams say they want to make the rules, but they can’t even agree on what type of boots their soldiers should march in. Who runs the sport? Where is the decisive action of the FIA President.
The testing ban probably is a fallacy. Christian Horner went on the record to say that every time a team runs a car it is learning, be it past or present. We know that teams use filming days to covertly test internals. How much does Ferrari learn from its Corsa Clienti programme? How much does Red Bull learn from its demo runs at WSR races? The answer may be zero. But we know the situation needs to change. And chances are, with the 2014 calendar, it will.
As will the regulations. And the Concorde.
It’s been said that if Max still ran the show, he’d have released new terms and given the teams a week to agree. The terms would have been so unthinkable, that the teams would have had to come together to agree. That’s how Max worked. That’s how Max won.
Todt is not the politician that Mosley was. And it seems to have slipped people’s attention or memory that the Frenchman pledged in his original electoral campaign that he would sit for one term and not a day longer.
He currently seeks re-election for a second term.
The one upshot is that the International Tribunal, one of very few meaningful changes made to the FIA structure by the current President, works. Its composition was above reproach, its findings clear, its punishment measured and representative. No $100million penalties here thank you very much.
The Tribunal, then, in more than one aspect, managed to find the definition of the word representative.
Now, if only we could find a body so wise and so devoid of self interest to sort out the regulatory mess the sport is in, we’d have a real result.
I loved the Spanish Grand Prix. Every lap of it.
I jest not. I loved. Every. Single Lap.
You may ask why, with the world at large seemingly set on berating another race in which tyre strategy played too large a role. I hope I can go some way to explaining myself.
Earlier in the weekend I had a fabulous conversation with a driver in the paddock. I didn’t record it as it was just two friends chewing the fat, and he probably wouldn’t want me to quote him anyway. So please forgive the paraphrasing.
“Mate, everyone is complaining about the tyres. But the guy who wins… does he complain? No. You should ask them why they don’t complain when they do well, when the day before they were saying it was the end of the world. The only one who understands it is Kimi. He says it’s the same for everyone. If you don’t like it, fuck off, do something else. He’s right. If you make the tyres more durable and you only have three stops in a race everyone will still try to make only two stops. It’s the same now as it was with Bridgestone. You always try to do one less stop. By complaining you only damage the sport. It’s the same for everyone. Get on with it and race.”
I loved the opinion. I loved the candor.
There’s nothing more depressing than standing in the pen at the end of the race and asking a driver how his day went, and how happy he must be with his result, only to get an answer that racing to a delta is boring and gone are the days of pushing during a race.
So ask yourself. What did Ferrari do on Sunday?
Did they drive to a delta? Did they try and make one fewer stop than their rivals? Did they hell. They went out and they pushed. Every. Single. Lap.
Fernando Alonso’s opening stint was mesmerising. He was running quali laps on full fuel. It was an absolute joy to behold. And while he might not have been putting in quali laps all day, he certainly wasn’t hanging around.
What Ferrari did in Spain was to completely flip the script. Rather than going into the race and telling their drivers to hold back, they told them to push with everything they had. Four stops was always their intention and it caught everyone else off guard.
Red Bull realised what was going on too late and switched from three stops to four, but by then the race had already been won.
Formula 1 loves a villain and this year Pirelli has been cast into this pantomime role. But, as I explained at the end of the Spanish Grand Prix in my final thought on the NBC Sports Network, the job of a Formula 1 team is to design a car around the variables which are unchangeable. Hermann Tilke used to get the blame for ruining the show for his apparently dreadful circuit design. But is it not the job of the teams to design a car for the circuits on which the championship races? Of course it is. Just as it is the job of the teams to design a car that maximizes the tyres on which it runs.
The problem we’ve had of late is this unfortunate trend towards the creation of a formula based upon the misheld belief that preservation is a better mode of attack than consumption.
What Ferrari showed in Barcelona was that yes you may have to make more pitstops than we’ve seen in the past, but that it is possible to push from the moment the lights go out to the moment that the flag falls. That so much of the press is decrying the race shows, I believe, a disappointing cynicism. Pirelli has become too easy a target.
But should we blame Pirelli for simply doing what they’ve been asked to do and make the tyres less durable? Or should we blame the teams who have seemingly got themselves into the rut of a blame culture that hides the true fact that some have not designed a car capable of maximizing one of the unchangeable variables that has defined the history of the sport?
Because this is nothing new.
I remember with great fondness an interview I conducted with Sir Stirling Moss about a decade ago about his greatest races. And the one that always sticks in my mind is his explanation of how he won the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix. He lined up in a privately entered Cooper and against the might of Ferrari he won, taking the first F1 victory for a mid-engined car in the process. How he did it holds as much relevance today as it did back then.
The tyres were only good for 30 laps. 40 tops. The race was 80 laps long. You couldn’t finish without stopping for new tyres. The Cooper’s tyres were fixed with studs, rather than the quick hammer release nuts on the Ferraris. Moss couldn’t win with such a long pitstop delta to change a studded wheel.
He pulled into the lead but nobody paid it any attention. He’d have to stop and all would be lost. But he didn’t stop. He carried on. And by the time Ferrari figured out he wasn’t going to stop, it was too late. The pack gave chase, but Moss won… by 2.7 seconds from Luigi Musso. His tyres were down to the canvas. He’d been driving on the grass for the last few laps to try and cool them down.
“Was I brave that day or stupid?” Moss confided in me. “To this day I don’t know as the two were very closely related. I did everything you shouldn’t normally do to win that race.”
In a way, and although actually completely the opposite of Moss’ fabulous Argentine win in that Ferrari made more stops than expected, that’s precisely what the Scuderia did on Sunday. Because they did everything that, apparently, you shouldn’t normally do on Pirelli tyres to win the race.
They actually raced.
As the Moss story highlights, trying to make fewer pitstops has always been a part of F1. It is nothing even vaguely new.
But, for me, the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix was a game changer. Ferrari’s victory was the perfect riposte to those who claimed that Pirelli’s tyres could not be raced on. Does anybody now have the excuse of saying that it is impossible to push in a race on these tyres, when Ferrari showed that for 66 laps you could… and that by doing so you could win?
With the exception of Lotus the other teams have every reason to feel frustrated after the Grand Prix, as do their fans. Ferrari showed what was possible. It is now up to everyone else to react. For while it might not be achievable for everyone at every race to do what Ferrari did today, what they proved is that Formula 1’s greatest misconception is that doing so at all was impossible.
That’s why I loved the Spanish Grand Prix.
Think about it for a minute.
It’s why you should have loved it too.
With the motorsport world still seemingly debating the issue of women racers, it was heartening to see two female friends achieving success at the weekend. Vicky Piria recorded her first F3 podium at Paul Ricard, while Alice Powell romped to yet another F3 victory at her home circuit of Silverstone. It was further proof, if it was needed, that women do, of course, have the requisite mental aptitude not only to race but to race fast, hard and successfully.
I’ve been thinking about the topic quite a lot recently. Why haven’t we seen more women racing in F1? And it has led me down many paths. Paths based not simply upon gender, but upon nationality, race and, latterly, paths based upon sexuality.
Today, my attention was drawn to a tweet to an article from NBC Sports, announcing that an active NBA star had come out as homosexual. Jason Collins has made his admission via the front cover of the American sporting bible that is Sports Illustrated, and to the American sports world it is a very big deal.
The issue of sexuality in sports remains a taboo topic. Think about it. How many sportsmen and women can you think of who are openly gay? Actually, it isn’t too hard to think of a few in almost each major sporting discipline, be they active in the present day or having long since hung up their training shoes. But if we are discussing why there haven’t been more women racers in F1, I started to wonder why we haven’t yet, at least to my knowledge, encountered many, if any openly gay racing drivers in our field?
Motorsport is a male dominated world. It is still inherently sexist. From the grid girls and the post race “tunnel of totty,” even in this politically correct era, motor racing and particularly Formula 1 remains defiantly stuck in the past. Oh how we tittered when grid boys first appeared in Valencia. It remains, despite the world having seemingly moved on, unflinchingly macho.
In the UK, Gareth Thomas, the third most capped Welsh International rugby player in history came out in 2009, but even such an admission from such a huge star in a sport usually deemed to be so macho, has seemingly not served to open the floodgates.
British football (soccer) still struggles hugely with the subject of homosexuality. The BBC ran a fascinating investigation into the subject by Amal Fashanu, whose Uncle Justin was the first and thus far only openly gay English footballer in the UK, and who tragically committed suicide over non-footballing issues in 1998. The findings of this documentary were that there are numerous players within the sport who are homosexual, but that almost all still feel incapable of admitting it.
One notable exception to this is Robbie Rogers, the US International footballer (Soccer star) who until recently played for Leeds United. Having revealed his sexuality, he walked away from the game.
Ever since I first became a Formula 1 journalist a decade ago there have been rumours, hushed whispers, over whether certain drivers are gay. It’s nothing new. The rumours have always existed. Nelson Piquet reportedly once insinuated Ayrton Senna was gay… but this was around the same time that Senna had insinuated he’d been a naughty boy with Piquet’s wife.
There are openly homosexual members of the F1 paddock. Matt Bishop, former Editor of F1 Racing and now Group Head of Communications and PR at McLaren came out to friends and family when he was in his teens. He has worked with some of the sport’s biggest names over the past two decades. His civil partner Angel Bautista attends many races with him. Matt’s sexuality is not an issue in the paddock. It never has been.
But of our sport’s greatest stars, in spite of swirling whispers that some have wanted to, nobody has yet felt comfortable enough to come out.
If true, if there are now or have ever been drivers who felt incapable of being honest about their sexuality, isn’t that an incredibly sad indictment of our sport?
It is tough to find examples anywhere of openly gay men or women racing drivers. But there are a few.
Mike Beuttler was perhaps the only openly gay racer in the 70s and his story is a truly tragic one. A talented F3 star, he graduated to race in one of Formula 1’s most dangerous eras, and survived it, only to succumb to complications arising from AIDS shortly after his retirement from racing at the age of 48.
Evan Darling raced in the US in a world of closed wheel racing and NASCAR where, perhaps even more so than Formula 1, perceptions of masculinity rule the roost. He was openly homosexual from the age of 18, but said he found it tough to find sponsors owing to his sexuality. I know too little of him to debate his talents as a racer and whether that had more to do with it, but it is alarming that, certainly in the modern era, his is the only name upon which I can stumble.
Fascinatingly, however, NASCAR now operates a “Drive for Diversity” program which is intended to see a wider range of racer than your average white male. Danica Patrick, of course, is evidence of this program at work inspite of her history in single seaters, but reigning champion Brad Keseolowski has already spoken out openly in favour of welcoming homosexual drivers to NASCAR.
“I don’t think anyone cares (if a driver is gay)” he told Queers4Gears. “If you can win, you’ll have a ride in NASCAR. I can’t speak for the fans, I can only speak for myself, but in this garage, if you can win, people will want to be a part of what you can do.”
It’s a tough business. But incredibly, one example crosses the lines between our quest to find an openly gay racer and a female one. Robert Cowell, a successful pre-war racer, went through gender reassignment surgery and continued to race post war as Roberta. She won the 1957 Shelsey Walsh Speed Hill Climb.
I understand why we are having the debate about female racing drivers reaching the top level, but as Edd Straw pointed out in his fabulous article on the subject, we must not give undue attention to average performance simply because it has been achieved by a woman. The only way to get a woman to an F1 race seat is on merit.
For me, it’s the same argument as race or nationality. Did Lewis Hamilton get to Formula 1 because of the colour of his skin? No. He got there because he is one of the finest talents of his generation. Talent must win over every other consideration. Will we see a Chinese F1 driver? Will we see a Russian F1 race winner? A Qatari World Champion? In generations to come, as grass roots racing is established in these new F1 heartlands, there is an increasing chance that we will.
It is tough to get to the top, just ask any karter who never made it into single seaters. And there are enough boys out there, let alone girls, with their own stories of what might have been.
Women will make it on merit, when one who truly has the talent emerges. Just look at the results at the weekend. Piria on the podium. Powell on the top step… again. Women have the talent. It’s only a matter of time.
But women are making their way and forging their paths in plain view. Yes they will face hurdles, but they will face them head on and overcome them.
What my recent musings have left heavy on my mind however, is how many drivers have made it to F1, but have never been able to admit to who they really are. It is more than statistically likely that somewhere in the motorsports ladder today there are boys and girls, men and women, who are fighting not just against their rivals on track, but against prejudice off track. Because of their sexuality and a life they have to keep hidden.
While NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” is not without its detractors that it will promote diversity for diversity’s sake over and above the most talented out there, to have the reigning champion speak out openly in favour of welcoming homosexual drivers to NASCAR is a huge leap.
In this most masculine of sports, while we must not lose focus on the talented female racers out there struggling to make it to the top, perhaps it is also time to take a closer look at the hundreds of boys and men racing around the world and to realise that they may not fit the 1970s macho mold that this sport seems to exist upon. Perhaps it is time to become more accepting of those who make up our current grids and to allow them the same respect that we are offering to women.
To judge them on their merits as racers, and on these merits alone.