Since getting Speed Channel on DISH Network back in June, I've been enjoying watching the Formula One World Championship unfold on Sunday mornings (for the most part, being the races are in Europe). Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett, and Peter Windsor provide phenominal insight and coverage of the races, and my interest and knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds in just a couple of months.
The title run is down to the final three races of the season, with defending champ Fernando Alonso leading seven-time champ Michael Schumacher by two points.
This is some exciting stuff!
F1 features the most technologically advanced racing cars on the planet. Tens of millions of dollars are tied up in each team. Research and development has an much brain power going into it as the space shuttle. The designs are exotic, the engines turn 20,000 revolutions per minute, and the cars can decelerate from 200 to 60 to make a 90-degree turn then accelerate back up to top speed in distances less than a couple of football fields.
Anyone who's ignorant enough to try to say race car drivers aren't athletes need only watch an F1 race sober. Those same pundits may also incorrectly claim that fighter jocks aren't athletes either. The driver of a F1 racing machine has to be able to handle the extreme g-forces for two hours at a time. On, off, left, right...sustain five g's for several seconds. Try it, you'll like it—not. These guys are the creme de la creme of the racing world.
Many in the U.S. don't know them as national heroes for their countries, but they are. Names like Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill, and Michael Schumacher, are legends in their own time—and beyond. F1 is a true national/international sport. NASCAR fans are about to get a true taste of this nationalism when Juan Pablo Montoya drives a Nextel Cup car for Ganassi Racing in 2007. Here come the Columbians!
Michael Schumacher is in Germany what David Beckham is to England, what Pele was to Brazil, what Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods is to the United States. But make no mistake about it: It takes an athlete to drive an F1 car (and most race cars) in their various conditions and styles.
One stark difference between auto racing and say, the NFL, NBA, NHL, etc, is that those professional sports leagues have unions that their players belong to. No so in motor sports. Teams are part of the series, and they hire drivers under contract. Unlike the unionized sports, auto racing has no trade deadline, and drivers can be sent packing fairly easily (though there may be substantial money involved in that termination).
Usually drivers are given about half a season to show they're up to speed with the team in a given year, and then the fun begins. The coming of summer brings with it the "Silly Season" in auto racing. We normally hear about this in NASCAR, with drivers being fired, others being hired or promoted up from the Busch or Truck Series into Nextel Cup rides.
This year has seen it's share of silliness, with Jeremy Mayfield being given the boot from Ray Evernham's #19 Dodge after Indianapolis being the most notable firing. But not to fear: Elliott Sadler got his release from Robert Yates Racing to take over the 19, and David Gilliland was promoted into the #38 M&M's Ford from...well...kind of from obscurity. As for Mayfield, he's sitting out the rest of the year before taking over one of Bill Davis' new Toyota Camrys in 2007.
Lots of other announcements have been made, including which teams are switching to the new Toyotas, and which drivers are going to where at the end of their current contracts. Brian Vickers has been most noteworthy - leaving the #25 car of Rick Hendrick to drive for the new Red Bull Toyota Team. Casey Mears will vacate the #42 Ganassi car (for the aforementioned Montoya) and take the helm of the 25 next year. Dale "Race the truck, people love the truck" Jarrett will carry his UPS sponsorship over from Yates to Michael Waltrip Racing's Camry for '07. And it appears that Mark Martin will finally retire... but that's still not official.
In Formula One they have some serious silliness going on. Friday test drivers are bring promoted to starting rides on some teams, while drivers will be leaving one team for another in some cases. Others, such as the lone American in F1, Scott Speed, find themselves with an uncertain future at years' end.
The biggest news in the racing world this week is that seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher will be retiring (subject to conjecture) at the end of this season from the Ferrari team that he's driven to five titles. Michael's future has been in question for some time this year, as some have seen the edge of the sword starting to dull slightly. Others believe Ferrari is trying to push Michael out while he is still at the top, to make room for the next champion-to-be. They have a potential in Feliepe Massa (Schumacher's teammate) who won his first GP in Turkey almost a month ago.
Michael's seat will not be cold for long, as Finnish driver Kimi Raikkonen will jump into the Ferrari after leaving McLaren-Mercedes, where his seat will be filled by reigning World Champion Fernando Alonso, who's being replaced at Renault by rookie and test-driver Heikki Kovalainen. And breathe....everyone catch all that?
Of course, there's also the changes that have already taken place in the F1 ranks this season: Montoya out at McLaren, Pedro De La Rosa in; Jacques Villenueve out at BMW-Sauber, Polish driver Robert Kubica (pronounced Ku-bit-za) in (and finishing 3rd in his 3rd race this past weekend at Monza, Italy); Christian Klein is out at Red Bull Racing, test-driver Robert Doornbos is in for the last three races this year, but Mark Webber will be coming over from Williams for 2007, and his former seat will be filled by Alex Wurz.
So, as you can see, keeping up with drivers can be like keeping up with The Joneses. When it comes to Formula One, it's like Indiana Jones and his worldwide adventures.
And these can be silly indeed.