Ah, July. The summer, the sun is high in the sky, the temperature is high and the rain is actually refreshing (unless you live in Georgia, so we’ll see). And apparently the sun was doing strange things to F1, as the pinnacle of Motorsport spent very nearly all season in some form of meltdown, as the baton was passed from breakaway to crash-gate. But there were more important things to consider.
The Darkest Weekend
While these reviews have been concentrating on the lighter sides of motorsport 2009 also reminded us of racing’s potential for tragedy. At no time was this reminder more clear than one weekend in July.
That one weekend rally co-driver Flavio Gugelmini and 18-year-old Formula Two driver Henry Surtees were killed. Surtees’ death was especially powerful, it being one of the grotesque, yet inevitable, occasions when a fatal accident is caught live on camera, flashed around the world and watched by millions who had only sat down to watch simple motorsport.
Surtees was struck on the head by a tyre from an accident ahead of him. That’s all you need to know for this article. You want more, knock yourself out, you know how to use Google.
It was also, as any major event is now, the subject of thousands of Facebook updates and tweets over the day, fans reacting to the accident, theorising what happened and why, and daring to speculate on the health of the driver. When the first conformation came, it was from a fellow F2 driver’s Twitter page.
Younger racing fans, and I include myself in this group, are increasingly unfamiliar with the danger of racing. Sure there are cases like Ayrton Senna and Dale Earnhardt, but perhaps due to their lives, the stories of their deaths have become akin to folklore, fuelling their legend.
The fact it was a Surtees, the son of F1 champion John, made it all the more shocking. His dad had made his living in one of the most dangerous times in motorsport, yet had survived, but Henry, racing at a time when the safety equipment on cars is better than ever, when more technology has been invested in drivers’ safety than ever before and when marshalls are better trained than ever, had been killed.
A death in international racing, such as Surtees’, in largely unheard of now. Tens, or even hundreds of drivers will pass away in accidents every year, but (sadly) most are unreported and unnoticed away from those who knew them. I would venture to suggest that the name Flavio Gugelmini was greeted with blank looks.
If I may stretch to an obtuse metaphor here, it is often said that a vast majority of an iceberg lies beneath the water, invisible unless you happen to be the water and look down. Yet that vast majority is the damaging part. The passengers on the Titanic didn’t stop and stare at the mass out of view, but rather the tiny, but still very noticeable part above water.
Spring has Sprung
It was, still with something of a cloud over racing that F1 went to Budapest the next week, anxious to put a new story in the headlines. Little did they know it was only going to get worse.
Late in the second part of qualifying TV pictures suddenly cut to a Ferrari having straight-lined a corner and ploughed nose first into a tyre wall. There was no visible damage to the car (other than that caused by the wall), but the driver was not moving.
Track workers poured around the wall and towards the car, ambulances pulled up, TV images cut to the track doctor walking down the pitlane. He wasn’t doing anything, but you knew from the fact that he was being shown that something was wrong.
Once more the dangers of live TV appeared, the director not wanting to show replays for fear of unintentionally debuting a snuff film. TV presenters found themselves broadcasting in a vacuum, they knew as little as we did at home, yet we wanted to know what was going on and expected them to tell us (it is their job). The BBC’s Eddie Jordan lost another scrap of respect by telling viewers that Massa had only bashed his chin on the steering wheel in the final impact. Little did he know.
Slowly a bizarre, yet terrifyingly familiar picture materialised. Brawn mechanics were peering at the back of Rubens Barrichello’s car. Maybe something had fallen off Rubens’ car. Maybe Massa then had the misfortune to run over it.
Once the first, reassuring pictures of Massa waving had been broadcast, the interactive, digital, TiVo school of broadcasting was back underway. The first pictures were scarcely believable, a spring from the Brawn’s suspension had broken free and happened to be bouncing down the track at precisely the right trajectory to strike Massa on the helmet.
Massa, then at least dazed, if not unconscious, straight-lined the following corner, over the concrete run-off and into the tyres, where the original pictures had found him.
For the second week running, a driver had been struck on the head by flying debris, the helmet apparently offering scant protection and the driver left with “life-threatening” injuries.
Henry Surtees’ had died, but Massa survived, after several operations, and months of speculation as to whether he would race again. His reappearance on the Ferrari pit wall late in the season, apparently none the worse for wear, was the most encouraging thing that F1 saw all year.
But perhaps the real star of the story was the spring. It became arguably the most famous kilogram of metal of 2009.
Thanks to TV (again) the accident was replayed so many times the spring probably needed an agent. He (that’s the spring, it was male. I decided) was highlighted, simulated, measured, weighed and enlarged. It was only a wonder that the spring was not asked for quote during Massa’s recovery.
Before I end the review of this rather dark chapter of 2009, and depart for lighter, brighter pastures, I leave you with undoubtedly the most sobering image of 2009. Felipe Massa, shortly after the accident (WARNING: don’t look at if you’re squeamish. Or Eating)
Tyred and Emotional
Unsurprisingly, especially if you’ve clicked on that link, Massa wasn’t on the grid for the race the following day. That was headed by Fernando Alonso.
Alonso’s qualifying pace, especially in a Renault with the aerodynamics of Barry Manilow, was astounding, and his tactics plainly obvious. Not that we knew it for a while, thanks to the timing system in Hungary deciding to take a coffee break (probably trying to get The Spring’s autograph) at the crucial moment.
That left only racing drivers with information, a dangerous state of affairs I’m sure you’ll agree, and even then they only had their own time, thanks to the display on the steering wheel (I don’t know about you, but I have trouble remembering which way I have to twist the stalk to get the back wiper on).
Drivers wondered around Parc Ferme, trying to collect everyone’s times like children playing Happy Families, and mentally order them into grid positions. Jenson Button and Alonso’s exchange of the Briton saying “me 22.5”, Alonso replying “me 21.5” only to be greeted by a shocked expletive (live TV once more) had more humour than most modern sit-coms.
But Fernando had only managed to make Jenson swear by running incredibly light on fuel, so it was no surprise that, when the race started, the Renault shot up the road like surprised Peeping Tom (though we should be thankful the car was finally moving quickly so we didn’t see the livery as clearly).
Unfortunately (again like many Peeping Toms) the Renault couldn’t run far without having to stop for a drink, and new tyres, which is where the metaphor falls down, unless the Peeping Tom is wearing Heelies, which is an entirely different social problem.
And that was Fernando’s race went from good to bad.
As soon as the car left the pits you could tell something was wrong, and so could Fernie, the car wriggling all over the place despite the Spaniard being gentle with the car.
From exterior shots you could see the wheel cover on the front right wheel spinning madly, slowly wobbling the wheel off the car.
It was deja vu all over again. The wheel came loose, despite Alonso trying everything in his power, short of climbing out the cockpit and holding onto the tyre, to limp the car back to the pits, and began bouncing down the track, trying to escape the hoard of talent scouts eager to sign it up as the next Spring.
You could almost here the FIA’s leg hit the bottom of the table such was the ferocity of the knee-jerk reaction they were concocting.
Within hours it was decided, Renault would have a one race ban for an “unsafe release”. That one race ban would be the following round.
The European Grand Prix.
In Valencia, Spain.
Fernando Alonso Spain.
The race that was created to give Spain a second race due to the enormous upsurge in popularity after Alonso’s back-to-back titles.
It’s not hard to imagine thousands of Spanish fans ripping up their tickets in disgust that the couldn’t see their home hero (sorry, but Jaime Alguersuari just doesn’t cut it). Luckily for Valencia (and Bernie Ecclestone’s bank account) almost immediately had posted their intentions of appealing the decision. It took almost the entire three weeks of F1’s summer break (because even millionaire drivers who jet-set around the world need a holiday) to sort it out, with the inevitable decision being to allow Renault to compete after all (that back-hander works every time doesn’t it Bernie?).
What a pain in the neck!
Massa’s accident had left Ferrari with an empty seat, and that was a problem.
Over the three week break Ferrari turned into USF1, with everyone who had ever driven a car being linked with jumping in the Ferrari in Valencia.
There was a call for Ferrari to promote from within and reward one of their long suffering test drivers, Marc Gene or Luca Badoer, with a race seat (to be proved spectacularly wrong later).
Ferrari thought differently, with Michael Schumacher quickly being rumoured to be back in the red car. Michael Schumacher’s manager, Willi Weber, thought differently, venturing into percentages that only football players (and, so I have recently found, TV advertised Pawn Shops) can reach, claiming he was 200% sure his driver would not be in the cockpit.
Ferrari’s PR department were back on supreme form, producing, under the title Waiting List, an alphabet of drivers that been linked to the seat (though it must be mentioned their alphabet has 14 letters, and didn’t include one mention of a xylophone).
The suggestions ran the gamut from sublime to ridiculous, Alonso linked with the seat before Renault’s slap on the wrist was rescinded, Jos Verstappen and Jacques Villeneuve both being brought out semi-retirement (and securing the letter ‘V’ in the Maranello Abridged Alphabet(MAA) ). And all that without venturing, as Ferrari put it into “some suggestions from the afterworld”.
But from the pile of names re-emerged Michael Schumacher (not included in the MAA, as the PR men opted for Bruno Senna and Takuma Sato – see what I meant about ridiculous). Of course there were obstacles before the champion could return to boring us all rigid again, mainly the fact he hadn’t driven an F1 car in three years and, with the sort of timing that has ended several relationships, was returning the year the FIA decided to ban meaningful testing.
Ferrari asked the rest of FOTA, who had kissed and made up after their tiff over the breakaway series, to allow Saint Michael a special test in the car, regardless of the fact that Jaime Alguersuari, who had joined Toro Rosso for Hungary wasn’t allowed. But he wasn’t the cheating Ferrari demi-god, so he obviously didn’t count.
Of course the heads of the teams, or one head saw through the Germans’ spotless aura and vetoed the special test. Frank Williams.
That anyone dare disagree with them angered Ferrari and launched the Maranello media machine back into life.
“Guess who opposed the test with the F60,” roared the press release (feel free to add an ‘a’ to a few words to translate it back to its original Italian). “A team that hasn’t won anything for years and yet didn’t pass over the opportunity to demonstrate, once more, a lack of spirit and fair play”.
Now, firstly since when did not being any good mean you lost your right to complain?
Secondly, I hope Ferrari had their tongue firmly in their cheek when suggesting they and Schumacher were the permanent custodians of the morale high ground. Perhaps through their opaquely rose-tinted glasses they had forgotten Schumacher’s previous indiscretions, notably spending much of the 90s driving into Williamses
In the end it all didn’t matter, as Schumacher remembered he had a neck injury (or he didn’t want to embarrass himself in Ferrari’s 2009 dog) and Ferrari opted to put Luca Badoer in the car. Yea, about that.....
First it was boring, now it’s insane!
Indycar was suffering.
The media storm over Helio’s accounts had gone (though I’m not sure having your start driver exposed as a cheater of the government is a good thing).
The Indy 500, about the only time Indycar pokes his head above the parapet and doesn’t find NASCAR ready to shoot it off (with a blunderbuss, or something similarly NASCAR-ishly arcane), was gone and the series had endured a clutch of races boring enough to cure insomnia, all watched by an audience numbers that would worry a late-night TV psychic.
To cure this they took a page out of NASCAR’s book, specifically the ‘moving the goalposts’ chapter. The decision saw a raft of changes to the aerodynamics, adding and taking away flaps and winglets all over the car, and giving drivers a ‘push-to-pass’ button, though Indycar don’t like it being called that as it makes it look like Champcar was better. The result, so Indycar hoped, is that not only would overtaking return to ovals, but someone might be able to break the coma inducing grip Penske or Ganassi had.
The new rules went to Kentucky, and caused havoc.
Not only did someone else nearly win, Ed Carpenter coming close enough to ending the oval monopoly that for once he was something other than “that bright yellow car”.
It was, for just about every reason, a triumph for the series’ overhaul, with close racing making a return to ovals – the 13 lead lap finishers were covered by less than nine-tenths of a second.
Now, allow me to point out here that Indycar writers are the most pessimistic people on earth, just above the people who wonder around cities with “the end is nigh” sandwich boards. So, of course with this close racing, there was no silver lining, only cloud, no good racing, only the impending doom of serious accidents.
Being occasionally capable of string sentences together and even more occasionally capable of watching entire Indycar races without wondering if pets do indeed do the funniest things, I joined the Mayan-2012 like doom-mongering, likening Indycar’s new set-up to NASCAR’s restrictor plate, an ethos echoed by somebody called Robin Miller (I like it when I appear right).
Of course there was also criticism, though I think being criticised alongside Robin Miller is pretty good company. I also quite like criticism, as it proves people are reading – hey, look there’s an entire section for criticism at the bottom, there (If you criticise I at least know you’ve made it this far).
The Good, The Badoer and The Ugly
Spa was one of those weekends when as an F1 fan you weren’t sure what was going on.
Giancarlo Fisichella started off Saturday with a lucky Rabbit’s Foot, and the rest of the rabbit (still presuming it’s a rabbit as three months of tests have proved inconclusive) as he proved that F1 wings are an effective form of pest control (still waiting for the change of Australian GP venue to be announced.
It got even more bizarre in qualifying as the Force India was, well, not rubbish.
It managed to get pole.
Of course conspiracy theorists saw the hand of the Reptilian Humanoids, Stonemasons, Space Aliens (or as we know them Bernie Ecclestone) in the order, which saw Force India (a team struggling with financial dilemmas) lead Toyota (a team who were considering leaving F1) and BMW (a team who already had).
The race didn’t get any less strange, Fisichella leading as Kimi Raikkonen circumnavigated Belgium round the La Source hairpin, before running over the grass later as behind him Romain Grosjean (who had taken Nelson Piquet’s Renault seat from Valencia) introduced himself to Jenson Button as they went onto a trackside mixer with Jaime Alguersuari and Lewis Hamilton, Jenson happening to tell Lewis that he though he looked good in silver.
Raikkonen was up to second, behind the Force India, a sight to scare the daylights from Vijay Mallya, with Raikkonen’s record of finding ways to ruin good races for his team.
Luckily this time Kimi managed to go past, rather than through, the Force India, engaging his KERS button shaped unfair advantage and making the Kemmel Straight in 12 parsecs (that’s good right?).
That left Ferrari book-ending the field with Luca Badoer, who had been given the seat after Schumacher’s withdrawal, exhibiting the sort of speed you expect from a fully laden supertanker, or a planet. Though it must be mentioned he still beat Jarno Trulli, the Toyota driver failing to overtake Badoer on his orbit around Spa and eventually giving up in retirement.
Ferrari were obviously not happy, and so re-opened the book on a replacement, and straight to the top of the list went Giancarlo Fisichella, who Ferrari had suddenly become interested in on the back of a single decent performance in several years, and the Italian was in at Ferrari in time for Monza, and a dream (though it would end as a nightmare).
Even if the Spa race was good, there was another story developing as Brazilian media began to report that Nelson Piquet Jr. claimed he was asked to crash deliberately in Singapore 2008 (this is 2009 review, so I’m not going to say anymore about that).
At the start it looked like little more than a petty lash out from a fired worker, Piquet bypassing the normal revenge tactics of sleeping with the boss’ wife or keying his car (both of which you have to believe would be very rewarding in Flav’s case).
However, the FIA took Piquet seriously (probably the first people ever to do so) and launched an enquiry into the race, calling “representatives of ING Renault” to a meeting the week before F1 would return to the scene of the (at this point) alleged crime.
Who, you thought, would be stupid enough to crash deliberately? The answer was Nelson Piquet Jr., Renault using the fact it wasn’t exactly unusual as the perfect cover for their crime. Yet despite this (and the fact that the “I was only following orders” defence went out with Bernie’s favourite dictator) Piquet Jr. was granted immunity for his honestly, all be it nearly a year after fact and falling squarely into the same category as a mass murderer leading police to the graves of his victims a week before his execution.
Still, the ruse had something of an elaborate blackmail about it, the kind Jessica Fletcher might investigate after discovering her second cousin twice removed was the left-rear tyre changer for Renault.
That wasn’t helped when it became a family affair when Piquet’s dad, also called Piquet, opened his mouth. It emerged that Piquet the Elder had first reported this during the Hungarian GP and Flavio making it sound even more like the work of the mafia when he claimed he was a victim of extortion by the Piquet family (Jr.’s extorting obviously better than his driving).
Flav, and Pat Symonds replied to Mafia-like threats with schoolgirls’ claims that Piquet Jr. started it, suggesting he should crash, presumably opening the conversation with “you know what I’ve done a lot this year....”
But just when the whole scenario was getting more and more surreal Flav and Pat Symonds left the team, admitting the accident was their idea. Renault was given either a two year suspended ban, or a permanent ban, suspended for two years (this depended on where you read it, and was once more thanks to the fact that the FIA likes to write things in French, then translate them into English, just to vague it up).
Flavio was given a lifelong ban from anything with wheels, Symonds a shorter ban, Piquet's career was shot in the leg. But "Teflonso" i managed to get away without punishment.
The final word on this subject belongs to Romain Grosjean, who was bearly a twinkle in his father’s eye when Piquet crashed, yet took to the Singapore track in practice. What followed was either perfect comic timing, or the best coincidence ever, Grosjean swinging his car round Turn 17 (now called Piquet Corner) and quickly finding himself parked in Piquet’s spot, much to the amusement of, well, just about everybody.
Rob Bell, the man who had been plucked from obscurity to take Flavio’s place had a look on his face that mixed amusement with the “may the ground open up and swallow me now” feeling that knowing every TV station on earth is now looking at you for a reaction.
Grosse pluie aux Petit – That’s actual French (almost)
Petit (it’s pronounced Pet-ee, being French) Le Mans, started off normally enough when the American Le Mans Series visited Road Atlanta, but quickly turned into one of the weekends that only a major sportscar race (or a visiting circus) can deliver.
The first act on was the tumblers, led by Scott Sharp in the P1 class Patron Acura. Late on during one of the practice sessions Sharp found himself cart-wheeling through the esses, his car riding a wall of death around the safety fencing, before flipping though the grass, scattering bright green bodywork, in what commentators described as “more like a plane crash”.
Even more incredible was that Sharp climbed from the car even before the work marshalls had reached the car, or what was left of it, walking towards the astounded safety workers asking what happened, all while having enough Georgia clay on his helmet to make a fine dinner service.
What had happened was that a GT2 Porsche had managed to hide itself behind one of the front wheels on the Acura (quite a feat given it’s about as easy to hide a Porsche behind anything as hiding Beyonce behind a stick) at the crucial point.
There were questions as to whether Highcroft would be able to race, reports being that there were only two chassis in the world, one had just been reduced to scrap, and the other was trying to beat it. That was until the people at Acura found another one, hidden away in a janitor’s closet, or being used a desk tidy, and flew it to Georgia from California.
Highcroft’s through-the-night rebuild was genuinely incredible, the timelapse images of the work lying somewhere between interpretive dance and the swarm-of-ant sequences nature documentaries are so fond of. Even sped up the sequence lasts over two-and-a-half minutes, though the seven-foot-high bottle of Tequila on the wall must have spurred the team on.
Come the race the rain had arrived, and the Audis quickly took control of the race as they rejoined battle with Peugeot, while behind Klaus Graf drove a P2 Porsche Spyder from the back of the field to very nearly the front as the French cars struggled in the wet.
Then it got wetter. Cars started to go in directions other than that which they were intended. A P1 privateer went straight on rather than right, a Corvette went left rather than right, and the brand new Drayson P1 car went round-and-round instead of straight on.
Even the Audis, and the great and small Allan McNish, suffered, throwing away the lead in a pair of spins, one behind the safety car (still the ultimate indignity in racing), so it was hardly surprising that it was the Scot who led the call for the Red Flag to be put out until conditions improved from Ark worthy.
Perhaps they never did, perhaps they did, but the hours dragged on without any official word. Times went past when something was expected and nothing was said. The cars sat underneath sheets in pitlane, sheltering them from the rain (these weren’t the professional NASCAR car-macs, more just the rain coat from the biggest guy on the team).
It began to less and less likely, especially when it was considered that the big prototypes needed most of a hour to warm their engines (seriously, you can build a whole car in a day, but it takes an hour to warm up the car, have these people never heard of Castrol Magnatec).
Eventually, at very near the original 10-hour time limit, the chequered flag was thrown, the cast-off raindrops from the flag illustrating just how inclement the weather was. The race was final, the first ALMS race to be stopped because of rain.
NASCAR would be proud (though the ALMS couldn’t confirm it was a move designed to get more stock car followers interested in the series).
Missed Parts One and Two, no you haven't.
Part One is here
Part Two is here