Sunday 19 December 2010

Looking back: 1981 - F1's strangest season

The recently ended 2010 season is commonly accepted as a great one. When thinking of great F1 seasons some readily spring to mind, such as the dramatic championship finishes of 1964, 1986 and 2008, or the competitiveness of 1974, 1997 and 2003, or even the drama and controversy of 1976 and 1989. The season of 1982 however tends to rise above others in such debates. It after all can boast no fewer than 11 different winners (for seven different constructors) in 16 races, no individual winning more than two of them. This all was alongside multiple acts of drama on and off the track, conducted in an atmosphere of extreme acrimony. Such is the myth that surrounds 1982 that it even had a specialist book about it written and published a quarter of a century later, by the sadly recently-departed Christopher Hilton.

However I feel that the season which preceded 1982, 1981, is somewhat forgotten about, and has a strong claim as a memorable and dramatic season. It can certainly match 1982 for controversy and acidity. Indeed, much of the 1982 politics were simply a continuation of those in 1981! The 1981 championship battle was tighter and went to the wire to a much greater extent than 1982's did. Plus the on track racing action (easy to forget in all of this) was generally much more diverting in 1981. It seems to have been lost in time somewhat that most of the races in 1982, i.e. the hour and a half on a Sunday, were soporific spectacles. And 1981 isn't far off 1982 in terms of variation of winners, no driver won more more than three races, the world champion totalled but 50 points, and in the final drivers' table no fewer than five drivers were within seven points of the top of the table. Eat your heart out 2010.

Even if one maintains that 1981 was not among the sport's greatest seasons, it certainly has a claim to being one the sport's strangest. It started with a race that never was in South Africa, attended by only 19 cars, the races were participated in by a field of cars, for the most part, in flagrant breach of the rule makers' flagship regulations, and it ended in a car park in Las Vegas, wherein the three contenders stumbled disastrously over the line, and Nelson Piquet claimed his first World Championship by a point, almost in spite of himself.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Whisper it, there's been an over-reaction to 'Crashgate'

Last week, 'Crashgate' had what hopefully was its last hurrah, with Nelson Piquet Jr and his father being awarded 'substantial damages' from Renault, who had accused the Piquets of lying over the affair.

'Crashgate' of course is what the media and others commonly refer to as the incident in the Singapore Grand Prix of 2008, wherein then-Renault driver Piquet, in a pre-arrangement his team, deliberately crashed his car to initiate a safety car period, to the end of helping team mate Alonso leapfrog several cars on the way to victory.  Whisper it, I can't help but think that there's been something of an over-reaction to the whole case.

The language of the apocalypse has been in plentiful supply in the 'Crashgate' reaction, making front pages as well as back. Simon Barnes in The Times declared it as 'the worst act of cheating in the history of sport', and most others weren't much milder in their assessment. And time doesn't seem to have been much of a healer, as the case's recent re-emergence in the media has shown, with ESPN F1 editor Martin Williamson calling it 'one of F1's most sordid affairs' and 'nobody...has come out of this with any credit'.

But was it as bad as is commonly accepted? Calling it the worst act of cheating in any sport ever is surely excessive (what, worse than East German mass doping of children in the 1970s? I'm sure the list of worse acts than Renault's in Crashgate is almost endless). Calling it a 'race fix', as many have, is also inappropriate as a race fix would surely have involved other teams, and pre-arrangement of the whole final race result. I instead see it as little more than a crude attempt to take advantage of an imperfect rule that existed in F1 at the time (i.e. the closure of the pit lane at the start of a safety car period, giving massive advantage to those who had already pitted). F1's equivalent of the professional foul in football, to use a rough analogy.

Sunday 5 December 2010

Final thoughts on 2010: F1 mostly looking rosy

Hopefully the 2010 F1 season will be viewed in years to come as a watershed rather than a blip. It was a season wherein F1 was strangely at ease with itself, and delivered a level of on track action not seen in years, and a championship battle of a competitiveness probably not seen ever.

Given F1's capacity for false dawns and for shooting itself in the foot, I feel slightly reluctant be so positive about F1's state, but at the topline level 2010 was a great season for F1.

On the track it was the year of the Bull, with the Red Bulls continuing their almost uninterrupted upward trajectory over their six year stint in the sport, by claiming the drivers' (for Vettel) and constructors' championship titles. Indeed, their competitive advantage, particularly in aerodynamics, was compared by some to some of the Ferraris in the Schumacher/Todt/Brawn era, and to the Williams FW14s. The car's pace advantage, particularly through the quick corners, appeared to indicate a fundamentally different approach from their rivals.

That they didn't finally claim their championship crowns until the very end of the season was down to a number of well-documented factors, including unreliability (for Vettel), driver errors and having two competitive drivers taking points off each other. But it also reflected the resurgent Ferrari and McLaren teams' ability to pounce on any slight opportunity that Red Bull presented them with.