Saturday, 3 August 2013

Looking back: 2002 - F1 goes bad

Whatever you think about F1 now - indeed whatever you think about F1 for as long as the sport continues to exist - you can likely be thankful that it wasn't 2002. Then we had an F1 in crisis, one that was wrestling with itself. The sport perhaps wasn't quite dying, but it was certainly experiencing unpleasant symptoms of illness, and increasingly was staring at its deformed self in the mirror with rather a lot of disgust. As the year progressed more and more felt that radical and immediate surgery was not only desirable but essential to ensure F1’s renewed health.

The sport had faced crises before of course, but unlike those, such as in 1955 and 1994, this wasn't about safety. It was about the sport simply not delivering. No one wanted to watch the 'show' that it was serving up; reflecting this viewing numbers both at the track and on TV dwindled.

Dominant Michael Schumacher won the title as he liked
Credit: Mathieu Felten / CC
In 2002 the sport endured a year of soporific races wherein the Ferraris were simply on another level, particularly so that of its lead driver Michael Schumacher. The potency Ferrari 'dream team' of this era, with the great Schumi backed by Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, engine man Paolo Martinelli and others, is well-documented. This was right in the middle of its scarcely credible run of five drivers' and constructors' championship doubles, and perhaps appropriately it was by far the most crushing among those. There were 17 races in 2002, and Ferrari won 15 of them. Only in five races at most did even a token challenge to the red cars last beyond a few laps, quite literally. Moreover, for Schumacher the 17 rounds divided up as 11 won, five second places and a single third place - a day on which his front wing was knocked off at the first corner thus sending him to the back. Never once did he fail to finish, nor indeed did he fail to finish on the podium. And his record could have been even more towering: of those five second places he probably would have won in Monaco had passing been remotely possible there, and the remaining instances of being a runner-up were to his stable mate Rubens Barrichello and at least some of them appeared rather ceded.

Again, single car domination in F1 was nothing new by 2002. We'd seen similar, most notably in 1988 with the McLaren MP4-4s sweeping the board. But then at least we had the intrigue of the two drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost facing off; now Schumi was on an intra-team pedestal. And moreover even with its domination, and with two drivers' and three constructors' title in the preceding three years, to ensure that it was Schumacher that prevailed with the drivers' title Ferrari managed races from the pit wall with a caution and micro-management that often entered the realms of the absurd. As a result the two red cars routinely cruised around at the front apparently at half throttle, its drivers under strict orders from their masters. Even the mathematical tying up of the drivers' title altered little, as focus then switched onto ensuring Rubens Barrichello's second place in the table, meaning we had the same again expect with Rubinho ahead and Schumi sitting dutifully behind. Almost nothing was left to chance; it’s no exaggeration to say that in 2002 one knew far in advance with almost complete certainty how a Grand Prix would unfold.

Ferrari's last-gasp 'swap' in Austria was controversial
Credit: Paddy Briggs / CC
And it at points scaled the heights of farce. This was firstly and most infamously in Austria wherein Barrichello despite being ahead all weekend let Michael through to win within metres of the chequered flag, which ignited an explosion of anger. Then later in Indianapolis in front of a US audience then as now not totally convinced by F1 all were bewildered as this time Schumi, having led all of the way, let Barrichello pip him on the line. This one looked more cock up than conspiracy, Schumi simply making a mess of a 'formation finish', but he rather dug himself further into a hole by claiming later rather clumsily that he'd meant it, that it was payback for Austria. Whatever was the case it looked awful, just as Austria had, and rather made the sport look foolish and at the worst possible time.

All of this furthermore was going on amid an economic downturn and within a Formula One seemingly determined to spend itself into oblivion (sound familiar?) - indeed two teams, Prost and Arrows, had coughed their last in this calendar year (Prost before the season start). A number more were reckoned to be sailing close to the wind. And as Niki Lauda noted, this and the fact that the 'show' was severely lacking weren't entirely unrelated in the sport's woes: 'If the sport was strong, the racing good, nobody would have any doubts about F1. But now all the excuses people needed to not put the money in...we delivered them!'

Schumi had the championship in the bag mathematically in July, with no fewer than six rounds remaining. But in reality it was decided much sooner even than that. Many believed the exact moment that the opposition in effect raised the white flag was the San Marino race, round four of the year in mid-April. The F2002 had been introduced in the previous race, in Brazil, but rather ahead of time and Schumi won only just. But by the Imola weekend the thing was fully dialed in and had an impact on its rivals akin to an ice-cold bucket of water being lobbed at them. Michael's brother Ralf, the closest challenger to the red cars that day, summed it up: 'We had a good strategy, I had a good start and I stayed ahead of Rubens Barrichello until my first stop. Both pit stops were very good, the engine, the tyres and the chassis were very good. But Michael was still 20 seconds up the road from me at the chequered flag...'.

McLaren's David Coulthard said that he realised the game was up even sooner, in Malaysia, round two, before the Scuderia had even debuted its 2002 car. Perhaps even that Ferrari and Schumacher turned up for the first round in Melbourne and won with a year old machine, and at a canter, was indicative of Italian writing on the wall. At any rate, the opposition was slaughtered.

Rubens Barrichello - followed Schumacher home in the table
Credit: Rdikeman / CC
So, how did it all happen? Unlike the Lotus 79 there was no grand discovery on the F2002 which sent it a stride ahead. The Ferrari package was one rather that was very good at everything: it clearly, visibly, produced more downforce than anything else; its packaging, particularly at the rear, was a work of wonder; organisationally the team was unrivalled; reliability we've touched upon given Michael finished everywhere. With engine power, most thought in 2001 that the BMW unit in the back of the Williams the strongest out there, but by 2002 Ferrari had clearly clawed it back. Many thought it clean ahead indeed on grunt, and the way both Barrichello and Schumacher sailed past Juan Pablo Montoya's Williams on Monza's main straights was graphic evidence of as much.

Then there were the tyres. In the off-season between the 2001 and 2002 campaigns McLaren had jumped ship to Michelin from Bridgestone, joining Williams already there. This meant Ferrari had the longer-established Bridgestones pretty much to itself, and there was little secret that the Japanese concern produced rubber not just bespoke for Ferrari but also bespoke for Schumi's driving style. And compounding this (no pun intended) Michelin's rubber, in just the second year of the French company's return to F1, frankly was not up to the job. The tyres were good for a single lap admittedly, indeed Montoya took seven poles, but race day was something else entirely. Even after starting from the front Montoya's resistance tended not to last more than a few laps; sometimes it didn't even extend to a few corners. The French tyres further were notorious for undergoing a 'graining phase', wherein rubber 'balls' would appear on the tyres' surface and leave the Michelin-shod runners sitting ducks for a number of laps.

And all of this is without mentioning the considerable driving skill of Michael Schumacher. Mika Hakkinen's retirement at the end of the previous year, with the 'next generation' of talent yet to materialise entirely, had left Schumi unequivocally in a class of one in driver talent. Sadly though, and odd though it may sound initially, 2002 was not the best year to appreciate it, given the clinical managing of the races outlined above. There was at least one exception however, wherein Michael reminded us that underneath it all he really was all that. He had been content it seemed to allow team mate Barrichello to win in Hungary, to the end of helping his wing man finish second in the drivers' championship. Spa, the next race, in Schumi's mind was something else entirely: it was the most fearsome challenge on the calendar and very much his fiefdom. There was no way he was going to cede that one. He simply went for it and lapped often a second or more faster than Barrichello on his way to victory. Everyone - not least Rubens - was left a little stunned.

So all in, perhaps the explanation of the Schumacher-Ferrari dominance was in fact absurdly simple: you had the best driver, in the best (and utterly reliable) car, with the best tyres. Said in this way it's no wonder he won everywhere.

But as with everything there is context. As formidable as Ferrari was, equally a credible challenge to the red cars simply did not materialise. In short, in the 2002 F1 World Championship only Ferrari rose to the occasion.

Juan Pablo Montoya celebrates his Montreal pole -
but races were another matter
After undergoing a resurgence in 2001, many expected the famous Williams team to be Ferrari's closest challenger in 2002. It was, but strictly in the relative sense only. Once the F2002 appeared the FW24 simply couldn't live with it. As mentioned the BMW engine didn't rule the roost as it had in 2001, but it remained strong. Williams' main problem was its chassis, which was unadventurous and short of downforce, a fact that both Technical Director Patrick Head and BMW's Motorsport Director Gerhard Berger knew from early on (there was also some thinly-veiled finger pointing at the recently-departed Geoff Willis about this). One early-year win, for Ralf Schumacher in Malaysia achieved before Ferrari had debuted its 2002 car, was its lot and way below everyone's expectations at the outset.

For McLaren the problem was a mirror image of that of Williams: its chassis was reckoned to be a good one (though not in the F2002's league), it was its Mercedes engine that let it down. It was underpowered and woefully unreliable. New recruit Kimi Raikkonen had particular cause to regret this, as he failed to finish 10 times out of 17, six of which were down to engine failures. Most reckoned that a McLaren-BMW, if not taking championship honours or even coming close, nevertheless would have given Ferrari a little more to think about. As mentioned though, like Williams the McLaren team suffered from having to use sub-standard Michelin tyres. And in McLaren's partial defence, unlike Williams it can claim to at least once have put in a serious sustained race day challenge to the F2002 once it was in its full stride. Indeed it did so on a couple of occasions, probably not by coincidence at two tracks where engine power didn't matter so much. In Monaco Coulthard led off the line, and such is Monaco's way was still there at the end. While in France Raikkonen - helped by a drive through penalty for Schumacher - looked all set for his debut win only to be caught out on oil left by Allan McNish's unstitched Toyota engine late on, which let Schumi nip by. Otherwise though, there wasn't a great deal to write home about. And as also mentioned, the Woking team rather swiftly in proceedings admitted defeat for the year.

Michael Schumacher nips past Kimi Raikkonen in France
Credit: Mathieu Felten / CC
But even in a difficult season for Williams and McLaren, after them there was something of a drop-off before the following lot. The Enstone team was next up, and was in its first year under the Renault moniker after the French marque took over the rather drifting Benetton operation. Things moved in the right direction, indeed by the next season it had won a race, but in 2002 all it could manage was getting among the McLarens (helped by great starts) in the early rounds, and no more. For Sauber it was business as usual: respectable midfield plodding only. Jordan was on its gradual downward slide after its heyday of being an outside contender for the drivers' title in 1999, and in 2002 it wasn't helped by rather breathless Honda engines. Jaguar, having arrived in F1 two years earlier amid much fanfare as Ford's factory effort, was by now a laughing stock, and in 2002 continued to purge senior technical and management staff rather like Elizabeth Taylor purged husbands. Needless to say, its car was a disaster, worse even than the hardly-stellar car of the previous season (odd to think that the operation now lives on as the haughty Red Bull). Things were similar for BAR (the Brackley outfit which now lives on as Mercedes), which also had arrived in F1 in 1999 as if it thought that vainglory was the object of the exercise. However, in F1 laptimes are difficult to deny, and BAR despite floods of tobacco cash and Jacques Villeneuve on its driving staff rarely got it right. By 2002, it was beginning to apply the brakes on its runaway handcart under David Richards' stewardship, but for this season it was hamstrung by a heavy and unimaginative car, and an as mentioned powder puff Honda engine. Minardi remained popular back-of-grid triers, and this year it had the additional kudos of introducing Mark Webber to the sport. Webber famously claimed fifth place in the season-opener in Melbourne, which owed to a lot of luck and his drive to eighth in France was actually better, ahead of Jaguars and Toyotas. Toyota made its F1 debut, wherein it produced a better engine than chassis, started respectably in midfield but didn't keep up in the development race as the year progressed. Pretty much as it was to do in most of its years as a constructor. Arrows actually produced a decent car, but as intimated ran out of money, demonstrating that in 2002 the cost of running a mid-grid F1 team far outstripped its possibility of raising commercial finance.

Mark Webber debuted for Minardi
Credit: Mathieu Felten / CC
Faced with all of this FIA President Max Mosley sought urgent change both on cost and on the show, to be in place for the start of the following 2003 season. Again just like now, achieving consensus among the teams for the form that change should take was rather like herding cats, so after months of wrangling Mosley in the end went for the nuclear option. On the grounds variously of 'safety' and 'strict interpretation of existing rules' among other things, he declared that for the 2003 season there would be one-lap qualifying as well as parc ferme between qualifying and the race, in effect ruling out expensive qualifying cars and engine changes between qualifying and the race. And all this was forced through in mid-February, literally a matter of days before freight was to be despatched to Melbourne for the opening race. Hard to imagine, isn't it? But it happened.

Mosley had doubtlessly raised the stakes; there was much sound and fury in response, including promises of legal recrimination. But in the end Mosley got away with it, mainly because directly or indirectly we got the outcome that his changes were intended to create. In 2003 F1 had a renaissance, boasting eight different winners, many exciting and close races, and a world championship fight that went down to the final round. And crucially there was movement where it really matters: ITV's viewing figures in the UK for one were up by 65 per cent. How much of all of this was down to the FIA-administered medicine or instead down to the mere luck of coincidence, such as Ferrari doing a less potent job and other teams' improvement, is a matter of debate. But it all did the trick both for Mosley and for F1.

And the ramifications extended further, as in many ways the start of the 2003 season was the watershed moment heralding the modern F1 era, leading to the sport's template that we have today. 2002 was arguably the final year of gay abandon, F1 as nature intended, without cost control and, shall we say, artificial interference intended to spice up the show. Emboldened, after 2003 Mosley continued on a similar path for the remainder of his presidency.

Of course, the extent that this shift is a good thing has and will continue to be a matter for debate. Was it necessary change, both in terms of finance and spectacle, that saved the sport, possibly from extinction? Or was it an overreaction; unnecessary meddling? My view is much more towards the former. And whatever the case, when understanding modern F1, why it is how it is, why it's gone down the path it has with cost control, severe restrictions on numbers of engines and gearboxes, even in terms of it introducing DRS and degrading Pirelli tyres, the 2002 season goes a long way to helping us understand why it is so.

4 comments:

  1. great stuff.. cheers!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much, glad you liked it :)

      Delete
  2. Again, a brilliant article. Your posts never disappoint :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks very much, very nice hear such kind words. Glad you like my posts :)

      Delete