Sunday 14 April 2013

Famous five: F1's honourable acts

The debate about the Sebastian Vettel-Mark Webber case from the recent Malaysian race has indeed been an enduring one, as well as is more nuanced than many on both 'sides' of the debate are appreciating. But one notion that has been fairly commonly expressed in the discussions that I do refute is that ruthlessness is required to prevail in F1, and that Vettel's actions were commendable on these grounds.

I do not believe that is true. While I am not so naive to think that ruthlessness doesn't help you I also absolutely do not believe that it is necessary. And for various reasons I'd like to think that there's still room for honour in sport, including in F1. Indeed, we can cite many of F1's greatest champions and purest racers who - while their will to win cannot be questioned - were also always absolutely honourable: Fangio, Moss, Clark, Stewart, Villeneuve, Hakkinen among others, and the positivity of their legacies reflect their honour as well as their talents. And it troubles me the number of people who appear to take the view that honour can if anything be considered as a weakness. I don't know if it in this case represents partisan Vettel/Red Bull supporters falling into line, the dubious legacy of Senna and Schumacher (both notorious for their win at all costs attitude), or is a more general indictment of our age. But I for one will always rail against such a notion.

And in my attempt to redress the balance ever so slightly I have complied five examples from history wherein honour did prevail in F1 and drivers prioritised doing the right thing to the detriment of their own chances.

Peter Collins, 1956
When we are given cause to agonise over the rights and wrongs team orders in F1 some talk about it like it's a new thing. Indeed in Monaco in 2002, the race after that wherein Rubens Barrichello notoriously had slowed on the line to let Michael Schumacher through to win, a protest banner could be spotted among the crowd stating 'Fangio didn't need team orders'. Not so, on either point. Back in F1's good old days when men were men and racing was pure team orders were even more endemic, and applied much more vigorously, than they are now. Simply ceding position to your team mate was just the beginning of it, it was common to go so far to cede your car to a nominated team leader mid-race should he have broken down or crashed earlier (and any subsequent points from that race would be shared).

Juan Manuel Fangio -
benefitted from Collins' generosity
Credit: Desconocido / CC
And yes, Fangio did need team orders. Never more so than on the day that he clinched his title number four of five, the day of the Italian Grand Prix in Monza which closed the 1956 season. Going into the race Juan Manuel Fangio was favourite for the title, though his Ferrari team mate Peter Collins as well as Maserati’s Stirling Moss also harboured a chance of taking the big prize for themselves. And back then Monza was a monster, not only shorn of the chicanes of now but also featuring a fearsome banked section. And the Ferraris' steering arms as well as the Englebert tyres they ran on seemed unable to cope with the challenges; both would play a crucial part in the race, and ensured that it was one of survival.

Sure enough, on race day Fangio peeled into the pits with a broken steering arm after 19 laps, and it seemed his title hopes were dashed, particularly as his team mate Luigi Musso ignored persistently the subsequent pit signals requesting he hand over his car to Fangio (partly out of being wrapped up by the excitement of being an Italian in a Ferrari at Monza, but also that the plan in advance was for Alfonso de Portago to be the one to hand his car over, but he'd retired from the race early). It therefore looked like the title might be coming to Peter Collins as he rose to third place, but on lap 35 when he came into the pits for a tyre check, as one of his tyres had failed earlier, upon seeing Fangio standing in the pits and without being asked he gave up his red machine to Fangio. Fangio in it proceeded to finish second behind Stirling Moss, thus cementing the championship for himself, but had Collins taken second on his own then he, not Fangio, would have taken the crown. Fangio never forgot Collins' generosity, and sadly Collins never was to become world champion as he died tragically in a crash at the Nurburgring in 1958.

To the modern perspective, wherein the F1 driver would rather chew on a razor blade than express admiration for a rival let alone go out of their way to help them, Collins' actions may seem strange. But these were different times, as Collins' widow Louise noted some years later: 'Peter never gave it a thought. He was only 24 years old at the time, and never felt there was much urgency about winning the championship. For one thing, it always seemed that he cared much more about winning individual races; for another, he felt that, as long as Fangio was racing, no one else deserved the title of World Champion. Peter simply revered him.'

Stirling Moss, 1958
In an F1 equivalent of the word association test Stirling Moss is paired often with the tag of 'the greatest driver never to win the F1 world championship'. This of course sells him way short, as world championship or not Moss was among the very best drivers that motor sport has ever seen. That he never won an F1 title is an indictment of the world championship rather than of him and emphatically so.

Stirling Moss - some years later
Credit: Franca / CC
The year however that Moss came closest to title honours was 1958. By the time of the third to last round of that campaign, around a street track in Oporto in Portugal, the race for the championship had boiled down to one between Moss in a Vanwall and Mike Hawthorn in a Ferrari. Late on in the Portuguese race Moss was winning by a distance with Hawthorn second. However, Hawthorn then spotted a green car in his mirrors which he assumed was Moss's team mate Stewart Lewis-Evans in third place challenging him, though in actuality it was Moss coming up to lap him! Flustered, Hawthorn started to press, and on his last lap it all got the better of him and he spun down an escape round.

Hawthorn thought he had to keep going to keep his second place intact, but now it was under threat not from following cars as they’d been lapped and thus had finished (though Hawthorn did not know this at the time) but from the rule book. Hawthorn waved away spectators who’d crowded round to 'help', as outside assistance would have disqualified him, and returned to the race after push-starting the car himself and finished in second place. However, the stewards still weren’t satisfied and reckoned that he'd in effect disqualified himself by pushing his car along the track in the opposite direction of the traffic in the course of restarting. Hawthorn's disqualification was overturned on the corroborating evidence provided by another driver: one Stirling Moss! He confirmed that when he’d passed Hawthorn on his slowing down lap his rival had actually done his push-start on the pavement, rather than on the track, which was within the rules (indeed, at the time Moss had also shouted advice to Hawthorn on the best way to restart!). Thus, Hawthorn's seven points for his second place and the fastest lap (which got a point at the time) were safe. In the end he beat Moss to the championship by just one.

But for Moss winning on a technicality, as well as winning thanks to a disqualification that he knew was undeserved, would have not been like winning anything. Even though Moss was one of the purest and most determined racers in the sport's history, winning no matter what way it was achieved was simply not on his agenda.

David Purley, 1973
It was one of F1's sorry, shameful and harrowing incidents. It resulted in the death of a young promising British driver called Roger Williamson, and was all pitilessly captured on film for future generations to pore over. And of the whole affair fellow driver David Purley is about the only one to come out of it with any credit.

David Purley - in action on track
Credit: Gillfoto / CC
It happened in the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 at Zandvoort. Early on in that race Williamson and Purley ran in tandem in the midfield. But then in the fast Tunnel Oost section of the track Williamson's left front tyre burst, sending him into the barrier on the left of the track, but this barrier bent back on impact and acted as a launching ramp, and Williamson's car came to rest upside down and on fire on the other side of the circuit. Purley, upon witnessing this, immediately parked and ran to Williamson's assistance. He later was to say that he could hear Williamson screaming from the cockpit as he was trapped in the upside down burning car; subsequent investigation indeed confirmed that Williamson was alive after the impact. Purley sought initially to upright the overturned car but without success, and then after sourcing a fire extinguisher set to work with it. However by the time it ran out the fire is not yet over and thus returned, and after a minute or so ballooned. And all the while Purely was accompanied by a handful of others (none of whom were dressed to deal with a fire), a mixture of marshals and policemen, but Purley and only Purley was seeking to help Williamson. The actions of the rest were feeble, indeed some of the policemen accompanied by dogs mainly concerned themselves with keeping the crowd - understandably agitated - away from the scene (though someone in the crowd might have been able to help).

Purley also waved at other drivers, who passed the scene several times, to stop (and before long thick black smoke was curtaining the track), but none did. Some, such as Niki Lauda, claimed subsequently that they thought the burning car was Purley's and he'd therefore got out OK, and the marshals' inactivity appeared to back up that hypothesis. Others, such as Jackie Stewart, noted that in a damning reflection of the safety standards of the time driving through fire wasn't unusual in a motor race. And what of race control? Several laps had passed before they sent a fire truck to the scene. Later they claimed word of the accident had not reached them, as well as justified their inactivity with something of a 'the Titanic is unsinkable' defence. Various safety changes had been made to the Zandvoort circuit prior to the 1973 race, and they said they assumed such bad accidents couldn’t happen there anymore. Indeed, they claimed that when they saw black smoke billowing from the scene they thought it was a result of children setting fire to tyres away from the track. If all of this is true then it seems an astonishing leap of faith, particularly so in such a perilous era for F1. Another fire crew, nearer to the incident and further up the track, was not used. By the time the fire was out Williamson was long since beyond saving.

Many then (and now) assumed that Purley was moved to his actions as he was a close friend of Williamson's. Not so. Purley hardly knew him, and was simply motivated by the desire to save a fellow human being. As he noted some years later: 'what happened was purely a reflex action. In Aden (where Purley had served in the military), if one saw a burning tank or something, one tried to help the people inside. With Roger’s accident it was exactly the same. It was a case of a man needing help.'

Gilles Villeneuve, 1979
'He was the hardest bastard I ever knew, but absolutely fair.' Keke Rosberg's words just about sum up the phenomenon that was Gilles Villeneuve. Ferrari's Mauro Forghieri, who'd witnessed plenty of drivers in his time, reckoned Gilles more than anyone else he’d ever known 'had a rage to win'. And yet in seeking to win he would never consider unfair moves on the track, which included never considering duplicity via disobeying team instructions.

Gilles Villeneuve - refused to go against his word
Credit: ideogibs / CC
And so it was in the Italian Grand Prix in 1979, again at Monza. It was a year that was Villeneuve’s best statistically as well as in which both Gilles and his Ferrari stable mate Jody Scheckter had a chance of the championship. But by this point, with three rounds remaining, Jody stood poised to wrap it all up while Gilles thanks to a combination of bad luck and occasional poor judgement was an outsider. A win for Scheckter would almost certainly make the title mathematically his. And come the race the Ferraris inherited first and second places when Rene Arnoux's Renault dropped out after 13 laps. But Jody was ahead of the two and Ferrari's practice at the time was that if its cars were first and second they would hold station, and that applied here. Gilles knew that a win for Jody would end his title hopes, but refused to countenance going against his word and for the remaining 37 tours simply sat on Jody’s tail, never seeking to pass. And come the chequered flag they remained in that order; Jody was champion.

Was Jody worried that Gilles would pull a fast one? Not a bit of it: 'In the race I had no real worries. Gilles was right behind all the way and there was a still a chance that he could win the title. But he gave me his word that he wouldn't try to pass, and he had more integrity than anyone else I ever met.' Gilles did admit though that all the while he was 'hoping like hell he (Jody) would break!'

As it transpired, results in the final two rounds meant that Gilles passing Jody that day would indeed have changed the destination of the world championship. And - notoriously and tragically - Gilles was later to find out to his cost that not all drivers shared his priorities when faced with such a situation.

Felipe Massa, 2012
Sadly, finding more recent examples of honourable acts in F1 is a lot more challenging. In the 1950s, '60s and '70s there seems to have been plenty, to the point that I had to leave out a number of deserving cases from this list. These include Juan Manuel Fangio (probably, but discretely) letting Stirling Moss will the 1955 British Grand Prix, Graham Hill rescuing Jackie Stewart from his crashed BRM in Spa in 1966 as fuel leaked into the cockpit burning the Scotsman, and Arturo Merzario, Brett Lunger, Guy Edwards and Harald Ertl pulling Niki Lauda out of his fiery wreck in the Nurbrurging in 1976. From the 1980s onwards such acts appear to become rare. Draw whatever conclusions from that as you will.

Felipe Massa - difficult to find drivers like him
Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
But they're not entirely unheard of in this time, and we only need to look back to late 2012 to find one. And it's probably not for nothing that it came from Felipe Massa, one of the few modern F1 pilots who for the most part behaves with a dignity from another age. The story remains familiar, but is worth retelling. The circumstances were peculiar: the circus turned up to the new Circuit of the Americas facility in Austin for the US Grand Prix, and while its debut meeting was an overwhelming success the surface was characterised by extreme low grip off the racing line. This created a particular problem for those who qualified in an odd-numbered grid slot and therefore would start on the slippery off-line side of the track. Massa himself noted in advance that starting there would be akin to starting in the wet.

Come qualifying Massa's team mate, Fernando Alonso who was in title contention, struggled, and Massa and he qualified in seventh and ninth places respectively. In terms of the side of the track for the starting grid this would have been OK, but then Romain Grosjean ahead was given a five-place grid drop for a gearbox change, putting both Ferraris onto the 'wrong' side for the start. Faced with this Ferrari got ruthless, and took advantage of an unintended consequence of a technical rule by engineering a grid drop for Massa simply by breaking the seal on his gearbox which would be considered a gearbox change of his own, and thus moving Alonso back onto the grippy side to start in seventh place! Massa himself was clearly disappointed with all of this, but faced it with a stoicism and class that seems increasingly rare to encounter.

In the warped world of F1 today many, both within the sport and among those watching on, view Massa's concession in the aid of assisting his team mate's title bid as evidence of weakness. I don't. Indeed, on the contrary, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Massa to have thrown a standard F1 tantrum, to dig his heels in. What he actually did instead took strength. The man himself, subsequently, noted that 'it's difficult to find a driver like me'. More's the pity Felipe, more's the pity.

1 comment:

  1. Massa is and will always be a gentleman, he's also a great driver as he shows it on the track.