Waiting for the Silly season

Waiting for the Silly season
by Michael Whitfield

After last year's action packed silly season amongst the top teams, it seems like this year's episode of "Days of Our F1" is going to be later and calmer. I may be putting my ear in the wrong places, but just about the only interesting rumor I've heard up to now is that Hill may be replaced at Williams by Frentzen. There is a reason for this lack of action, and that reason helps predict Hill's future.

The F1 powers that be (Bernie) have been trying for several years to get a more even field, which would create more interest in F1, thus attract more fans and of course their dollars.

When Mansell and then Prost won the championship with Williams, interest in the sporting side of F1 was at a low. Their cars were so far ahead of the rest of the field with their electronics that the only reason to watch the race was to see if the car would break down and give somebody else a chance to win. The main interest during Mansell's year was how many records he could break. The rain gave us a touch more interest during Prost's year. He hates the rain, and as there were several wet races at the start of the year, Senna in the McLaren was managing to keep up with him. But of course as soon as the weather cleared up, Prost's electronics allowed him to relax and claim his title at the end of the year.

Bernie had to act to keep up interest in the competition, and he took the most direct course of action: ban the electronics that gave the Williams its edge. The official reason given was to put the driver back in control of the car, as the competition is supposed to be a driver's championship. Everyone knew that it was the Williams that was directly targeted.

The next year showed that their plan worked a little too well. The Williams engineers had lost touch of how to build a car that wasn't full of electronics, and their car was not a great success. It took all Senna's talent to keep the car up at the front of the pack, and he never managed to win with it. Williams and in particular Senna were unlucky to come across the rising star Schumacher and the incredibly reliable Benetton that year. My personal opinion is that Senna's accident was due to him pushing himself and the car too hard, starting with a relatively poor car and taking it upon himself to win at any cost. The Williams engineers were working full speed behind the scenes to get the car up to speed, but Senna couldn't wait.

So we were left with a year dominated by Schumacher. The Williams advantage had been leveled, but only to be replaced by the Schumacher advantage. The equivalent of removing the electronics of the Williams would have been giving Schumacher a lobotomy, which may have met with a few ethical problems. Bernie was panicking at the thought of a third year straight with the championship decided very early in the season, so we saw the bans on the driver himself. The actions against Schumacher did create close competition, but it was so false and fabricated that instead of creating interest in the competition, it did exactly the opposite with people seeing just how manipulated the sport was.

The following year started looking like another anti-Schumacher year, with the Elf affair. During the weekend of the Brazilian Grand Prix, the fuel used by Williams and Benetton was found to be nom-compliant with the technical regulations. Schumacher had won the race, and Coulthard was 2nd, Hill and Herbert had both failed to finish.. Both the Williams and Benetton finishers were immediately disqualified. Rumor has it that Schumacher said that if this continued, he'd go to IndyCar the next year. Whatever happened, the disqualification’s were lifted, and for the rest of the year there was unmanipulated competition.

Schumacher won the championship with a very comfortable margin, and it looked like the Bernie had given up trying to manipulate the competition. He had achieved their stated goal of making it a driver's championship so that the best driver won, but with Schumacher so far ahead it was getting just as monotonous as when the Williams were winning everything. Bernie was already hard at work planning for this year.

Bernie's big plan was to take control of the silly season, and give "hints" to the teams which drivers they should take. Some cars are always better than others, and some drivers are always better than others, so rather than try to make all cars and all drivers the same, why not just match the better drivers with the cars having a bit of difficulty. That's the recipe for an even field without the need for new rules or decisions against anyone.

We had reliable Schumacher in the reliable Benetton. For Ferrari, no one really knew whether it was Alesi and Berger destroying Ferraris, or Ferraris self-destructing under Alesi and Berger, but most believed it was a bit of both. So what better solution than a swap between these teams? Bernie had managed to save us from another Schumacher/Benetton whitewash, and no-one knew whether it would be Schumacher or Benetton the stronger.

Hill was allowed to stay with Williams as he seemed very effective at making sure that the best car of the field didn't do too well and spoil the excitement. Villeneuve was the perfect choice in the other Williams. Picking a driver with talent and F1 experience would risk having him win everything. Villeneuve had more than enough raw talent, but Bernie was confident that his lack of F1 experience would make sure he didn't steamroll the competition when given the best car. And as a bonus, taking the IndyCar champion would attract the attention of many IndyCar fans, helping Bernie's effort to re-establish F1 in the States, where there are many potential dollars (and fans too).

With this insight into last year's silly season, we can try to predict what will happen this year. Benetton and Ferrari are still recovering from the driver swap, so I don't think there'll be any changes there. Its tempting to think that Flavio will try new drivers because he's not winning, be he surely understands as well as anyone that it takes time to really understand a car and to win with it, so changing now will be a step backwards. In order to really capture the attention of the IndyCar fans, Bernie wants Villeneuve to win the championship, so I think he'll stay at Williams until he does.

Hill, on the other hand, is reaching maturity in the Williams, and letting him stay there next year risks seeing him win next year's championship well ahead of the rest. Hill's only chance to stay with Williams next year is to convince Bernie that he won't dominate the competition. After watching the last few Grand Prix's, I'm starting to think that Hill understands this. He has this year's championship pretty much wrapped up, its only the TV commentators wanting us to watch the upcoming races that speak of an exciting race to the finish. Hill only has to finish second in each race to be sure of winning the championship, so he's purposely missing the start each time, and only pushing his car hard enough to get up to second place (Berger's abandon in Germany was not what Hill wanted!). Its as if he's trying to say "look, I'm not really that good a driver, let me stay". Why else would Hill miss three starts in a row - he never used to have problems. He could guarantee a seat at Williams next year by losing the championship, but I don't think he wants to stay at Williams that badly. He's already asking for so much money next year that if he finds himself out on his ear, he can always say that it was because of money problems (like Mansell).

Looking further ahead we could imagine more driver changes to keep the field even in the years to come. If Schumacher wins another title with Ferrari, he'll be politely asked to pay back Mercedes for all their kindness to him in his early years, and move to McLaren. When Villeneuve has a couple of F1 years under his belt and is up there with the best, it wouldn't be surprising to see him go to Ferrari, to follow in his father's footsteps. The only problem is that if he's left at Williams long enough to win the championship, then he'll have Ferrari No.1, when everyone wants to see him in No.27!

Of all the methods available to create an even field, I think that controlling the silly season is the least intrusive and most efficient. Trying to even the competition using rules and regulations doesn't work in modern F1, as the best teams have enough money to quickly adapt and just keep on being the best. And I am certainly against the methods used in IndyCar, with the pace car on the circuit every time the cars aren't close enough, and any driver that's too far ahead in the championship (such as Villeneuve) finding that his tires keep deflating towards the end of the season.

And finally, my Hill prediction: he'll make a load of mistakes up until the end of the season, but still win the championship. Bernie won't be fooled by Hill's antics. He will realise that it's Hill's experience at Williams that has let him win the championship, and his experience will only increase next year, so he will not be allowed to stay at Williams. Frentzen will take his seat, and be second driver to Villeneuve, who has a big chance of being champion next year.

Michael Whitfield
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