Atlas F1 Reflections on the 90's

  by Roger Horton, England

In some ways it was fitting, that despite the tremendous changes which occurred during the last ten years in Formula One, the decade ended as it had begun, with a McLaren victory. Ayrton Senna won the opening race of the decade, the United States Grand Prix, driving his McLaren-Honda V10 MP4/5B in 1990, whilst Mika Hakkinen did the honours in the Japanese Grand Prix driving the McLaren-Mercedes V10 MP4-14 in 1999.

If the McLaren wins were a welcome reflection on continuity in the Formula One scene, there were many other changes that affected the teams, drivers, circuits and the whole business that is the soul of the Formula One circus, which still travels the globe staging sixteen or seventeen races per year in some unlikely destinations. Hosting a Grand Prix is now a legitimate way of putting a country or city on the map and that trend is likely to continue early in the next decade as China and Korea vie to join the elite club.

By the start of the decade, Grand Prix Racing had shed its gladiatorial image and was already well down the road towards being a mainstream sport, delivered gift-wrapped and sanitized into millions of homes every other Sunday during the (European) summer. The mass and intense media coverage of all sports has to a certain degree changed the sports themselves. What excites all media, both print and electronic, and makes worthwhile the huge investment required to produce the saturation coverage we now take for granted, are the raw images and drama on offer in so many sporting contests. Sporting heroes and villains are larger than life. If they are charismatic we are seduced into watching their exploits week by week.

Sport, especially one covered live, is a sure fire ratings winner because in some strange way our sporting heroes take us along for the ride too. The media savvy dealmakers saw this and the bids for exclusive coverage of sport of all types reached mind-boggling amounts. But when so much money is changing hands it is inevitable that there is also pressure to present the 'product' in the best possible light.

In the 80's Formula One racing had drivers such as Alan Jones and Niki Lauda in its ranks. Men with charisma to burn and not an agent-manager or media handler in sight to filter out the way they were. The Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost feud of the late 80's made for the most dramatic Formula One action, as they fought out their blow-by-blow battle for supremacy. It was Grand Prix theatre at its best and the world had a front row seat every other Sunday. Millions were eager to watch the next instalment.

The 90's, especially the latter half, pales in comparison with these earlier times. Drivers and various Formula One luminaries now sit through the tedium of FIA mandated press conferences - a chore to be endured, with barely a spark of spontaneity to catch the interest. Only the odd verbal barb, from one driver to another, sometimes breaks the tedium. But the sponsors' patches are on show and sadly that appears to be the main point of it all.

On the track, the decade was brutally torn in two before and after the San Marino GP of 1994. Everyone who followed Formula One through that period has a memory of the weekend where Ayrton Senna died. Could things ever be the same again? The era that was his, died with him and afterwards a new one dawned.

Michael Schumacher has dominated this era with the arrogance that comes from knowing that he possesses that extra something which all great champions have. In times past, drivers with that extra layer of skill took pains to carry it with dignity and let their skill talk for them only during the races. Senna used his speed to destroy his rivals on the track, his skill used as a weapon to humiliate his opponents. Yet somehow he managed to channel his venom only at his opponents and those who watched were usually only taken aback by his intensity.

Schumacher seems somehow to ram his superiority down our collective throats and in our faces. He crushes the field and leaps around the podium looking totally fresh and untroubled by pressure, heat or humidity. Rivals brushed aside with consummate ease. Not for him the agony displayed on the podium that made Senna seem so human after all, when he finally won his home race in Brazil in '91 at the eighth attempt.

Between them, Senna and Schumacher dominated this decade, both head and shoulders above their rivals. To Senna perhaps goes the ultimate award for the lap of the decade, that mesmerizing 90 seconds or so during the opening lap of the '93 European Grand Prix at Donington, when he went from being (briefly) in fifth position shortly after the start, to the lead, in an awesome display of commitment and car control that defies logic to rationally explain it to this day.

If that one lap of Senna's stands out as a stark reminder of his genius, then trying to pick out Schumacher's best race is perhaps harder still. There have been so many occasions when his driving has hit such heights of perfection as to leave any most observers struggling to find words quite adequate to describe his brilliance; the '96 Spanish Grand Prix - when he was at times lapping four seconds a lap faster than the field; or the '97 Monaco race - where again in the wet, he almost toyed with the field on the most unforgiving track of them all.

Schumacher has only had his number one status challenged twice since Senna died. Damon Hill raised the level of his driving at times in '94 to cause the cracks in Schumacher's aura of invincibility to show. In '98 Mika Hakkinen did the same and exposed Schumacher's only real weakness as a driver - his tendency to make mistakes when under extreme pressure, especially when the WC title is on the line.

Like Senna, Schumacher's career will straddle the next decade and winning the drivers' title with Ferrari is very much unfinished business. The partnership with Ferrari is without question good news for him financially, but in each of the last three seasons Schumacher has been involved in crashes or incidents that were potentially life threatening in nature, and it begs the question of just how much longer he can continue to drive at this level of intensity. Or, to put it another way, at what point does the pain outweigh the gain. Just to what lengths will Schumacher have to go to win that elusive crown, and is it worth the risk?

Jacques Villeneuve breezed into Formula One and made an impact straight away, his tell-it-like-it-is attitude a refreshing change. Blessed with driving the best car for his first two seasons he always gave the impression that he was prepared to drive as fast as required to win, but no more. He won, but seldom dominated. His below par performances in wet races remain perhaps his one Achilles heel if he is ever again to win another championship.

The decade also saw the transformation of Alain Prost from statistically the most successful driver of all time, with 51 wins, to (so far) an unsuccessful team owner. As an example as to why drivers are relatively low in the Formula One pecking order - despite getting the lion's share of the publicity - the Alain Prost transition from four times champion driver to struggling team patron is instructive. To achieve success as the latter is enormously more challenging than the former. Little wonder that following his team's victory at the European Grand Prix, Jackie Stewart was moved to state that, "This is undoubtedly the most important moment in my racing career. I have won Grands Prix, I have won world championships, but to win as a constructor is the highest emotion imaginable."

Increasingly during the decade the two most successful teams, Williams and McLaren, have invested in their technology and design departments at the expense of inflated driver salaries. Indeed it is possible to categorize Michael Schumacher's last four years at Ferrari as the Maranello team's attempt to use Schumacher's skill to prevail against the design abilities of Adrian Newey, first at Williams, and then at McLaren. This may perhaps be something of an over simplification, but Maranello may have won some battles (and the '99 constructors' title) but so far, they have lost the war.

The overwhelming lesson of the 90's is that if you wish to be a winning team in Formula One you need to be based in England, have a works or manufacturer supported engine deal, and have the political skills to navigate your way through the many and myriad pitfalls that exist in a business that often resembles full scale war but without the bullets. As stated, Williams and McLaren have succeeded the best, Jordan are showing signs of joining them, Benetton made it briefly only to lose their way, and Stewart have astounded with the rapid progress they have made, showing just what can be done if all the ingredients are in place from the outset. Arrows and Sauber seemed destined to always inhabit the mid-field, and the Prost team have shown little since its inception to suggest that it will be one of the winners in the next decade.

It was perhaps fitting that the team bosses of the two most successful teams - Sir Frank Williams and Ron Dennis - are racers from the old school; men with a genuine passion for the sport of motor racing and men who would have raced even if there had been little money to be earned. Perhaps sadly they may well be the last of the truly independent team owners, the last link between the original 'garagistes', who dared challenge the might of the factory teams way back in the '60's and '70's.

If McLaren and Williams run very similar operations, then the way they have handled their drivers throughout the decade has really set them apart. Williams have used no less then eleven different drivers since 1990, and on only two occasions has the driver pairing appearing at the last race of year been around at the opening race of the next. McLaren by contrast have used only six different drivers and have fielded six unchanged line-ups during the same period.

The situation regarding the unfortunate Alex Zanardi is yet another example of the sometimes-strange decision-making process in operation at Frank Williams' Grove based outfit. Given his rather poor performances during his first season a decision to replace him would have been understandable, but once the team's intention to replace him was leaked Zanardi was left in limbo whilst Ralf Schumacher tested and a search for a replacement continued.

Zanardi's failure to adapt to the modern breed of Formula One cars highlights a problem that has grown during the decade. If a highly talented and experienced driver has difficulty mastering the new tricks of the game then just what hope does a total F1 novice have? Increasingly even mid-field teams are reluctant to take chances on drivers without experience, and so the route into Formula One is now almost exclusively through an F3000 programme or its Japanese equivalent, and a Formula One test driver contract. This unfortunately will tend to make the F1 world even more insular and lessen even further the slight chance of a star from another series making the transition.

This is a consequence not only of the grooved tyres 'effect', which sees cars at the summit of the motorsport world use tyres that are totally different to every other discipline, but also to the growing technical demands involved with every aspect of driving a Formula One car. The brilliant seat-of-the-pants driver is a dying breed. What teams require now is the driver-manager, who can work his way through the seemingly endless amount of telemetry data that the modern systems spew out. Ayrton Senna was the first to grasp this change and Michael Schumacher perfected it.

The decade started with a brilliant driving performance from the ultimate natural racer, Jean Alesi, driving the unfancied Tyrrell against the might of Senna and McLaren and briefly holding the upper hand during the United States Grand Prix in Phoenix. Through the 90's, Alesi consistently gave us flashes of his brilliance, when the car was good or the conditions suited him. But Alesi is a driver of the 50's mould caught in a time warp. Team after team has failed to harness his talent in the way that the 90's demanded. Teams no longer require their drivers to have passion; they require them to be able to relate to their engineers in marathon technical debriefs.

It is now normal that races are won and lost on the pit-wall and that increasingly the driver is a victim of his technical package and not the master of it. Only in wet races can a superior driver now clearly demonstrate his mastery over both the conditions and his opponents. No wonder the decade has seen the rise and rise of the 'superstar' technical director, and the trend will surely continue. Make no mistake, the competition is just as fierce, but just a whole lot less romantic. There are now only a few circuits left that quicken the pulse in anticipation of the challenge that it presents to the drivers. Yet even the most mundane chicane or constant radius corner presents a challenge to a technical director.

Without question the emasculation of so many of the circuits has been the saddest aspect to observe in Formula One as the decade progressed. In 1990 Alain Prost set the fastest lap of some 241 km/h on his way to winning the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in his Ferrari. Ten years later, Mika Hakkinen's best lap was over 30 km/h slower on a track totally changed by tight corners and 'complexes'. Silverstone, the scene of Keke Roseburg's ultimate white-knuckle 257 km/h '85 pole lap now reduced to yet another bland facility. No doubt the technical directors are still challenged by it, but are the drivers?

One needs, of course, to move with the times as regards to safety, but safety and challenging corners are not mutually exclusive if the circuit owners and designers have imagination and vision. To witness the seemingly endless changes inflicted on the unfortunate Silverstone track in these last ten years is an example of an organisation that clearly has not much of either.

So the show that is Formula One continues into the new millennium. The past decade has seen changes and more will come. The next decade may well be dubbed 'the manufacturers' era' as the world's major carmakers increasingly take their sales wars to the track. As always there will be more losers than winners, but that has always been the case.

Some things just never change.

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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