April 12, 2012

Strange debutants

Both came into Formula One with tyres smoking. Both drove for Jordan and Ferrari. Both won many hearts, but not the championship. They are Jean Alesi and Rubens Barrichello. Now, they are trying their luck at the IndyCar Series. And they’re doing it at the tender of 47 and 39 respectively. Are they nuts? Not really. If statistics are anything to go by, they are old enough to win.

Since its inception as Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) in 1979, only 10 Formula One drivers had a go at it (re-christened as Champ Car World Series in 2004). Of them, four managed to nail the championship while six had to return with their tails between their rear wheels.

Those belonging to the “tail between the rear wheels” club are:
Enrique Bernoldi, Timo Glock, Justin Wilson, Antonio Pizzonia, Roberto Moreno, and Tora Takagi.

Those belonging to the “nailed the championship” club are:
Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti , Alex Zanardi and Nigel Mansell.

Except Alex Zanardi, the rest were Formula 1 champions to begin with. Mario Andretti was F1 champion in 1978. Emerson Fittipaldi won the F1 title twice – 1972 & 1974. Nigel Mansell won his much-deserved F1 championship in 1992.

Sadly neither Jean Alesi nor Rubens Barrichello are F1 champions. But what they have on their side are two very important things:

Racing Experience
With 202 & 326 grand prix drives respectively; Jean Alesi and Rubens Barrichello have more racing experience than Emerson Fittipaldi (149), Mario Andretti (131), Alex Zanardi (44) and Nigel Mansell (185).

Old Age
Barring Alex Zanardi who won the title (CART World Series) in 1997 at the age of 31 years, each of the other three drivers won it only when they were about 40 years or older. Emerson Fittipaldi won the IndyCar World Series in 1984 at the age of 43. Mario Andretti won it in 1989 at 44. Nigel Mansell won it in 1993, becoming the only man to win both Formula 1 and IndyCar titles back to back. He also became the only man in history to hold both titles in a year, as the 1993 F1 title was still undecided when Mansell was crowned IndyCar champion.

Of the two, Jean Alesi probably has a better chance as he’ll be driving for Newman / Haas Racing, the second most successful team in Champ Car with 8 titles – just one title behind Penske Racing. It’s worth noting that of the four F1 champs who also won IndyCar Series; two did it with Newman / Haas Racing (Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell). Rubens Barrichello, driving for an obscure KV Racing, simply has to pray for a miracle.

September 28, 2007

Dennis the menace

That clean-shaven face, that spotless white shirt, the neatly combed hair (or whatever is left of it) and that straight face with a hint of a squint. Oh, and those carefully thought-through, cleverly-worded statements, or in F1 parlance – Ronspeak. Don’t you be fooled by any of that!

Behind all that’s propah is a mind that works as niftily as the new lightweight gearbox that McLaren ran at the Hungarian GP, albeit illegally. That’s Dennis for you. The naughty boy who constantly annoys our Mr. Wilson (FIA’s Max Mosley), with his repeated misadventures.

Notable among many, is the use of a ‘third pedal’ in the McLaren MP4 during the 1998 season. Thanks to providence Mika Hakkinen’s car ground to a halt in the Luxembourg GP right in front of a nosey F1 photographer, who promptly thrust his camera into the foot-well and got shutter happy. Soon it was clear to the world why only one of McLarens’ rear breaks was glowing while cornering.

The third pedal allowed drivers to operate either of the rear brakes independently of the others, giving them two additional means of controlling the car and improving the performance – by reducing either understeer or wheelspin depending on which wheel was braked and when.

Anyone as naughty would’ve got a spanking good enough to keep him awake in the night even during adulthood. However, like little Dennis, Ron Dennis too gets away easy. And the similarities don’t end there.

While Ron Dennis’ current life is governed by what Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso do, little Dennis’ life is the handiwork of Marcus Hamilton and Ron Ferdinand. The name of little Dennis’ city begins with a W (Wichita), just like Ron Dennis’ (Woking). The creator of little Dennis was made the honorary Mayor of his city. Our Ron Dennis was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Cute, no?

August 15, 2007

The Darwinian truth

Did he actually think he can get away with it? On one hand, he puts up a brave front for the English press. Then he goes home and spits venom in front of the Spanish press. I mean, what was Alonso thinking?

If anyone needed evidence that Fernando was flustered by Lewis, that one swipe he took towards the pit wall in Indianapolis was damning enough. With that one move, he showed his displeasure not just to his team, but also to the entire world. At that very moment, he also proved my longstanding theory. Alonso is a bad loser.

Some might say what can be good about losing? For a generation raised on win-at-any-cost tactics promoted by superstars like Senna and Schumacher, relating to such a noble concept is understandably improbable. We simply have not been exposed to the grace and sportsmanship displayed by men such as Stirling Moss and Juan Fangio even in defeat.

Even Schumacher, for all the aggressive tactics he employed against teammates and rivals alike, never washed his dirty linen in public. He stood like the rock of Gibraltar even during the most difficult times – getting beaten by teammates Barrichello and Massa, completely let down by Bridgestone in the 2005 season, and so on. Surely, that’s the quality that earned him immense respect and unconditional support from his teams. This is something that Alonso should learn.

Not surprisingly, adversity has an uncanny ability to bring out the worst from some – sudden jinks to the right, the urge to perform brake testing mid corner, transforming into a moving chicane, inexplicably parking at Rascasse, etc. That’s not to allege that Alonso employs such deplorable tactics, but won’t he? He’s after all, for the first time in his career, being outclassed by a teammate. That too a rookie!

Fine, he’s operating with an evolutionary handicap – new team and new tyres; whereas the wonder-kid literally had a head start on both counts. But if Alonso intends to be the first grand prix driver to win back-to-back championships with different constructors, he needs to do what Prost did to beat Arnoux at Renault (1981), Senna did to beat Elio de Angelis at Lotus (1985) & Prost at McLaren (1988), Villeneuve did to beat Hill at Williams (1996), and Kovalainen is currently doing to beat Fisichella at Renault – adapt. Apparently, dinosaurs didn’t.

July 4, 2007

Year of the underdog

In the America of the 60s, there was a smart car rental company called Avis. However, it was a distant No.2 behind Hertz. Avis knew it was better, but people thought Hertz was the better one. Why else would it be No.1? So, Avis did the unthinkable. “We’re No.2. That’s why we try harder,” screamed their ads. And try they did. That changed people’s perception. In the end, Avis tripled its market share and earned itself a place in advertising folklore.

Something similar is happening now in Formula One. The B-teams are beating the factory teams and the No.2 drivers are beating the No.1s. Toyota-engined Williams are beating the real Toyotas, Renault-engined Red Bulls are out-qualifying the real Renaults, and worse – big brother Honda’s country cousin is turning out to be really Super!

The boffins at Toyota must’ve choked on their sushi as Takuma Sato forced his way past Ralf Schumacher in the dying moments of the Canadian GP. The feeling must’ve been worse back at the Honda headquarters. It’s nothing bad karma. Why else would the two biggest spenders in Formula One face such shame?

They got greedy. They wanted to win at any cost. Even at the cost of the sport. Not surprisingly, the likes of Sir Frank raised an alarm regarding B-Teams. Their argument was that the auto majors would deploy surrogate teams and turn privateers like Williams into endangered species. The threat was imminent, and the argument valid. Strangely though, the strategy is turning out to be detrimental to the biggies themselves.

The only one to escape such ignominy seems to be Ferrari, as both Toro Rosso and Spyker are where they were meant to be. But Ferrari is suffering a different kind of problem – indigestion. Their much-hyped, highly-paid star Kimi Raikkonen is turning out to be a damp squib, and it hasn’t gone down too well with Maranello. Felipe Massa meanwhile has kept a low-profile and worked harder. No wonder questions are being raised about driver compensation.

One gentleman in particular would have a lot of answering to do – Signor Montezemelo. The inside news is that, he had bulldozed his way through to hire Kimi Raikkonen at an astronomical salary despite resistance from Jean Todt, thus forcing Schumi into premature retirement.

But hey, Kimi is not the only one in trouble. Some of his counterparts are suffering too – but of a different kind. Rookies. Lewis Hamilton at Mc Laren is clearly unsettling the double world champion Fernando Alonso. Heikki Kovalainen at Renault is fast accelerating Giancarlo Fisichella towards retirement. And Adrian Sutil at Spyker is calling the bluff on Christijan Albers.

Clearly, the underdogs are doing better because they are trying harder. And the top dogs have their task cut out. Perhaps, they should pay attention to Ricky Ponting. When asked what the secret behind Australia’s winning streak is, he said, “We simply think that we are the second best team out there.”

June 13, 2007

What’s wrong with Krating Daeng?

There’s something strange about Red Bull Racing. No, it’s not the name. It isn’t even the lap times. It’s the image. While the brand is all about youthful vigour and dare devilry, the grand prix team is all stiff upper lip. And the drivers are not even young. In fact, RBR has the oldest driver pairing on the current Formula 1 grid – David Coulthard (36) and Mark Webber (30). Of course, youth has nothing to do with age, but what about youthfulness?

Of course, Red Bull throws tantalizing after-race parties; show off their multi-million dollar motorhome, distribute the irreverent Red Bulletin in the paddock, parade long-legged beauties wherever possible. But the world at large watches RBR on TV; which means, we don’t get to see the glitz and glamour. Instead what we see is Mark Webber trying hard to unlap himself and DC delivering sterile PR talk, which he had mastered during his years at Mc Laren (global headquarters for puppet-talk).

World over (of course Great Britain is always an exception), not many F1 fans care what David Coulthard does. With all due respect to his new stubble, DC is still too propah to represent the Red Bull stable. The same goes for Mark Webber. Apart from a couple of banzai laps during his Jaguar days, he’s hardly done anything to write home about. The two aren’t fashionable. They aren’t adventurous. They aren’t winners. They aren’t newsmakers. Hell, they aren’t even troublemakers.

So, what on Earth makes them the chosen ones for Red Bull Racing? Common wisdom might suggest that being F1 is not about building brands, but about winning races. The hiring of Adrian Newey, the winningest engineer, surely proves that RBR wants to win. Perfect. But a combination of DC and Mark Webber still doesn’t make sense. But who else could’ve been there? Let’s look back to 2004 and see, which drivers had both – youthful vigour & racing skills.

Jenson Button was busy extricating himself out of Williamsgate and was more than happy to take BAR to second in the constructor’s championship. Fernando Alonso was locked in at Renault. Jarno Trulli of Renault would’ve been perfect. However, he had won at Monaco and was proving better than Alonso. So, no one would’ve dreamt that he’d be kicked out by season end. Juan Pablo Montoya, with his Latin vigour and equally exciting on-track record would also have been perfect. But McLaren had already snapped him up. The rest were either high on youthful vigour and low on track record, or simply old but superb, or both. The only exception was Kimi Raikkonen, who was both young and quick, but not youthful.

So, when you do the math you’ll realize that the problem really lies with Formula 1 itself. Of the 28 drivers who had raced in the 2004 season, only 4 had what it takes to be an ideal Red Bull driver. How could Herr Mateschitz miss this? For a traveling salesman who turned an innocuous brown drink into the world’s largest energy drink brand, Dietrich could’ve done better. Oh by the way, Krating Daeng was a cheap tonic sold in brown bottles in Thailand. These days, it’s known to give you wiiings!!!

May 18, 2007

The world is not enough

One has to give it to the guys at Honda. Season after season, they offer enough fodder for the journalista to chew upon, by making tall claims well before they lineup on the grid. But two less than bright seasons and a political upheaval later, they seemed to have mellowed down. Or so I thought, until they began to hold secret talks with the Grinch. The result was the RA107. No sponsors. No advertising. No die cuts or carefully chosen typefaces. No logos. No corporate colors either. In one stroke, Honda rendered the entire racing decals industry useless.

Presenting the Honda way of building a formula one car. Simply assemble your car and accidentally run it through a paint factory. Or, simply assemble your car, put it in the wind tunnel, place a couple of paint buckets in front of the car and run the fan at full blast. It made me wonder how a solid brand like Honda can justify such a strange move. So I hurriedly logged onto www.myearthdream.com

There I was presented with a grand vision that certainly impressed me. I was even told that their car can be mine in return for a little pledge – nothing big, but a minor adjustment to my lifestyle in order to help the environment. The website offered, *your name would appear in a pixel not only on the digital car, but also as a teeny part of the artwork on the real F1 car.* Now, that’s innovative. So quickly filled in my details – First Name: Vijay Simha, Last Name: Vellanki, E-mail Address: vijay@wheel2wheel.com, Location: India, Pledge: Not leave any of my appliances on standby or on my phone on charge unnecessarily. Amount in GBP: Errr…..now what’s this? Thankfully, the amount box already had a zero in it, so I went ahead and clicked the next button. A message popped up. “Please enter an amount greater than 1 and less than 10000.”

Holy cow! I care for the environment. I even don’t mind being a pixel on a car. But I wouldn’t pay Honda for it! That’s when it dawned upon me that Honda is trying to fund its funny car project with our money. The tricky part is that we won’t even have the power to dictate the size of our names on the car. Instantly I knew that those darned MBAs were at it again. I should’ve known it. I’ve been in the advertising industry for a decade. Anyway, I sensed the con and quickly logged off. However, Honda’s sheer audacity impressed me. Why would they go to such lengths? It must be one hell of a car.

Cut to the Australian Grand Prix and Hondas were languishing at the back of the grid. The race pace wasn’t any different. The commentators talked about it, cricket fans talked about it, my wife who hates the ‘noise’ talked about it, and then an acerbic colleague talked about it. He said, “While all teams are hiring the best engineers to design their cars, Honda is hiring PR consultants to design theirs.” Beat that Honda!

* Text reproduced from http://www.myearthdream.com

March 16, 2007

Life without Schumacher

I’ve always hated the fringe crowd. Those boys who fill up the barstools on raceday for the free beer. And the girls who tag along just to show that they’re up there with the men. Come quiz time and they don’t know the Germans from the Austrians. But they are Schumacher fans by default, and Farrary!!….Farrary!!!…is their war cry. So, how’s life going to be without Schumacher?

To begin with, it won’t be that easy to predict the winner before each grand prix. The odds would be spread more evenly than they had ever been. Like it or not, all the teams have the same rubber – Bridgestone. So they’ve got nowhere to hide. Not even behind the engines, because 19,000 rpm is all there is to play with. Which kind of narrows down the difference in performance to two things – aerodynamics and driving skills. So, expect a lot of wind tunnel testing and finger-pointing.

Is that all? No sir!

F1 will be much younger and far more vibrant than ever before. Gone along with Schumi are oldies like Villeneuve, Monteiro, Montoya and Ide. It’s the beginning of a new F1 generation with young guns like Kubica, Hamilton, Massa, Davidson and Rosberg. It’s time sterilized F1 gets a complete makeover. So let’s look forward to lots of hot-blooded action, heated exchange of words, hot blondes in the pit lanes, and maybe some sex scandal??? I can already see the disapproving faces of over the hill F1 journos. Come on guys, don’t your remember the good old times when you were that young? Borrowing your dad’s car for the first date….tipping the driver to not use the rearview mirror…..

2007 could also be the last we see of drivers like Fisichella, Coulthard and Trulli. I’m tired of listening to Fisico proclaiming yet another championship-winning year. It won’t be. DC will finally realize that he’s better off as hotelier than as a grand prix driver. I told you I hate the fringe crowd.

March 1, 2007

Flavour of the season

The English press is more predictable than Michael Schumacher on race day. Every year, without fail, it chooses what I refer to as ‘flavour of the season.’ By design, the flavour would be not English, not Irish, not Scottish, not Australian either. It most definitely would be German. If not, it would be rest-of-the-world.

Each of the flavours is described using a distinctive set of words and phrases. For example, a supreme German flavour’s mouth would be referred to as “cat’s anus.” And yes, no matter how underwhelming an English flavour is, it would be labeled “the next Ayrton Senna.” The said flavour could be causing the rest of the world a stiff upper lip, but the English press stands united in its purpose, like the medieval Beefeaters. It also insists on a code of conduct for German and rest-of-the-world flavours. No pubbing, no lapdancing, no fiddling with gearshifts, no taking shit while a German flavour is retiring, and so on.

Strangely, the English flavours seem to have the Queen’s seal of approval to doze off in the cockpit during practice sessions, throw fists at track marshals, shout profanities at passing drivers during a race, block a race seat year after year despite not winning the championship in a dozen years…..so long as you are English-speaking. Or else, you should be British / own a hotel in Monte Carlo / respond in long, winding sentences that mean nothing / merely sit in the cockpit leaning a bit forward for the commentator to proclaim “look he’s willing the car to go faster!”

If you happen to be a ‘rest-of-the-world flavour,’ even a slightly unconventional demeanour will be dubbed “irresponsible,” “unacceptable,” “outrageous.” But if the flavour in question is English, it would be quickly titled something glamorous on the lines of ‘Golden Boy’ or ‘Irv the Swerve.’ And if the errant flavour is German, boy oh boy, out come the Spitfires swooping down on imaginary Messershmitts.

This season however, an all-time favourite German flavour has gone out of circulation. So the English press huddled together and through draw of lots or some sort of Victorian black magic, chose a new flavour. Ah, a Finnish one this time! The one that loves fiddling with the gearshift while its British masters are busy polishing their new toy. The flavour hadn’t even donned its new red overalls and out comes the verdict. “Maranello and monosyllabic don’t go together.” “Ferrari is Finnished.”

What nonsense! An iconic brand like Ferrari doesn’t need Marketing 101 from half-baked journos who pronounce Honda as Honder. And when have a grand prix driver’s PR skills or knowledge of the Oxford Dictionary influenced his racing prowess? If that’s the case, Mark Webber ought to be at McLaren and David Coulthard should’ve been a world champ eleven times. Samjha kya?

January 16, 2007

Remembering Clay

Death is a strange thing. It brings out events and stories of the deceased, which otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed. It raises curiosity and suddenly makes History seem interesting. More importantly, it gives newer generations a glimpse into a past that was so different and not so different. One such death is that of Clay Regazzoni.

To the Schumi-generation, he could be as obscure as a set of Engleberts. But to hordes of F1 fans from the bell-bottom era, the name was the V12 version of Cassius Clay. Ask Jackie Stewart who was shoved off the track at the notorious Nurburgring in 1971, or the Clerk of the Course at Watkins Glen who got punched back in 1974 or Luca di Montezemolo who used his charm and diplomacy to save his driver’s license, or worse ask those who saw British privateer Chris Lambert crash to death while being lapped at Zandvoort.

But then, he was not short of bravery. Like Jean Alesi on a good day, he was capable of blowing the opposition away. Just a day after championship leader Jochen Rindt was killed in his Lotus at Monza, Regga went on to win the Italian GP for Ferrari (only his fifth race). The tifosi had found a new darling. Never mind his Swiss roots, his Italian-sounding name helped.

Strangely though, he wasn’t astute when it came to his career. He was so naïve, he fell for one of Enzo Ferrari’s lies and shunned offers from both BRM and McLaren for the ’77 season, only to be left without a drive. By the time reality dawned upon him, McLaren was full. So he approached BRM, which was then Bernie Ecclestone’s team. Even thirty years ago, Bernie was as shrewd as he is today. Regga’s pride didn’t allow him to bite into a sloppy deal, so he went back to Ensign. A year later, he moved to Shadow and then to Williams whom he gifted their first ever F1 win at Silverstone in 1979, only to be replaced soon by Carlos Reutemann – the man who replaced him earlier at Ferrari.

Maybe he was paying for his earlier sins, or maybe he was destined to be relegated to the back of the grid, he again moved to Ensign for the ’80 season. He was running a commendable fourth at Long Beach when his brake pedal broke. The resulting accident severely damaged his spinal cord and brought his 10-year grand prix career to an abrupt end. He was 40 then.

The racer in him didn’t give up though. For years, he’d been a regular on the Dakar raid, raced on a few circuits, hell he even broke a leg in a 1999 karting event. He donned the role of a TV commentator, drove around in his Ferrari and even ran an Alfa-Romeo sponsored driving school for the handicapped. So it’s rather ironic that Clay had to lose his life in a road accident at the age of 67. Maybe this was the only way we could remember a man who will never feature among the greats. Death certainly is a strange thing.

September 8, 2006

Zorg and the olive

In Luc Besson’s Hollywood flick, The Fifth Element, Zorg is the head of an evil empire. In order to prove a point to his hostage, Father Vito Cornelius, he shows off an array of hi-tech gadgetry. Some of them utterly superficial. One such gadget brings up a glass of Martini, which he arrogantly gulps down, only to be choked by an olive. Zorg panics and presses every button possible, but nothing can save him, until his hostage comes to his rescue by giving a whack on his back, sending the olive flying out. Max Mosley might not be that lucky.

He talks of ‘fuel efficiency,’ ‘energy storage devices,’ ‘hybrid engines,’ ‘surge power,’ ‘CDG,’ so on and so forth. In fact, the FIA predicts that the first F1 surge power units will deliver an additional 60bhp for up to nine seconds and as developments are made this will increase to 120bhp.

While all this very fascinating, Max is missing the point. People want to watch the best racing driver win. Not wonder what hidden gadget in the car made him go faster. And there is the issue of costs one has to consider. So the show can get better only by simplifying technology; not by making it even more complex and elitist, as Zorg painfully discovered.

A case worth paying attention to
There are lessons to be learned from America, where NASCAR was once dismissed as a stone-age series where only rednecks raced. Until poor management of the leading open-wheeler racing series led to its split, into CART and IRL. The result has been a gradual drift of money, teams, and prestige to NASCAR, despite it being very low-tech (stock cars, carburetor-based engines, 4-gears, etc).

Similarly, as Bernie and Max pop the champagne for scuttling GPMA, there is a storm brewing in the Middle-east – A1 Grand Prix. It is the Worldcup of Motorsport, hence it appeals to intrinsic patriotic fervor. In fact, the series has broken all records for TV coverage right in its first year.

While Sheikh Makhtoum and his team have always said that the intention of A1 Grand Prix is not to rival F1, their recent announcement of upgraded cars that are “comparable with Formula 1” shouldn’t be overlooked by any count.

At the moment Formula1’s 2.4-litre V8 engines are producing between 750 and 800bhp but there are plans to freeze them at 2006 levels, with a 19000rpm limit. With the upgrade of A1, we’ll see a bigger and more aerodynamically-efficient chassis, a 90-degree all-aluminium 3.4-litre V8 at 720hp, which can be boosted up to 750hp, putting them at par with current F1 cars.

Trouble in Bernie’s own backyard
Grapevine has it that the Bernie- and Flavio-owned GP2 Series is falling apart. At par with A1 in terms of technology and performance, its cost-versus-earnings to the participating teams has been considerably high. And its TV coverage is not even a speck when compared to that of A1. Understandably the participating teams are unhappy (some of whom also run A1 teams) and are planning a winter series to counter A1 and achieve year-round earnings. The question is, at what cost? What if they find A1 more viable?

Laws of Economics apply to everyone
F1 demands huge sums in fees from teams, circuits and television channels. Many F1 tracks survive only because the governments help them. Otherwise they disappear like Spa, A-1, San-Marino and others. This is where F1’s biggest weakness lies.

Currently Bernie is the only one who deals with all the circuit owners and the 26-member WMSC. None of the team bosses have the time or the inclination to do the wheeling dealing. What if Sheikh Makhtoum offers the current F1 circuits a deal which reduces their dependence on government support? What if A1 manages to put cars that rival those in F1 in terms of performance but at a fraction of the cost? What if it gives global television channels a more equitable deal? What if GP2 teams join A1, which then turns into a year-round Worldcup of Motorsport?

If Max Mosley doesn’t climb down from his ivory tower, hi-tech Formula 1 could turn out to be more than he could swallow.

Thanks to Father Cornelius, Zorg survives the olive. But in the end, he is killed by a rival’s low-tech bomb.

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