F1 Rumors - news ahead of the headlines

25th August, 1999

Dumb and Dumber

"Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated" Sun Tzu, The Art of War, 5th century B.C.

by Peter Mooney

Hands up, who wants to win the World Championship? Hello?

While the races at the Nurburgring and Sepang, on the face of it, were exciting, many of the top F1 teams seem to be losing it completely. The level of incompetence shown per dollar spent would find many drivers and team members out the door and on skid row in the real world. Hero to Zero was the tag for the day at both events, and it appears that a creeping disease has taken over the Formula One grid this year.

Following Michael Schumacher's crash in Silverstone, it's acknowledged that Ferrari gave up the fight and made zero development on the car, allowing other teams to catch up - and McLaren to get away. Niki Lauda said, "Ferrari has abandoned developments after Schumacher's accident. It was still competitive for two or three races, then there was an abrupt halt and the reality is clear to see." So much for the car, but we also knew strategy would be the crucial difference if Ferrari were to harbour any ambitions of winning the championship. Even this fell apart at the Nurburgring, with the team managing to screw Irvine up twice, once with a botched pit lane job, and further in selecting the wrong tyres. It will go down in history as "The pitstop from hell," where the Ferrari mechanics played "find the tyre" for half a minute, then looked suspiciously at the actual tyre for a few seconds when it did appear… because it had been found by an Italian TV reporter! The team looked more Keystone Cops than slick, high tech professionals - these are the people who remove the fuel nozzle from the car before all the petrol has left the refuelling rig? One is tempted to suggest that for future races the TV people do the pitstops, and the pit crew work the TV cameras instead - we wouldn't see much, but at least it would be a decent race. Jean Todt said that then was not the time for recriminations (he would say that, wouldn't he), but Luca di Montezemolo brought everyone together, presumably gave all concerned a good kicking. He then publicly guaranteed that the errors would not happen again - which is a very dangerous prediction like "winning the title next year", which we have heard before.

It is impossible to expect Eddie Irvine to give of his best in a situation like this, but he has really disappointed. He was out-qualified in two races by Mika Salo, needing team orders to pass him in Hockenheim, and, worse, developed an upsetting habit, in twice disappearing off the track as soon as a McLaren's nose is parked on his rear wing. Recent performances where he failed to make the most of the car were depressing, but the truth is plain that the team obviously couldn't give a toss about Irvine. Incredibly, Ferrari switched off when they were in with a chance of the championship they have chased desperately for years, which is a serious indictment of a once great team. Doubtless, the apathy is being led by Jean Todt, and Ferrari must be amazed Irvine was still in with a chance of the championship with two races to go, given McLaren's dominance in terms of the car. But not even trying - and making themselves look like clowns in the process - leaves a sour taste in the mouth of F1 fans.

Meanwhile, we had to put up with the endless poncing around over the "will he, won't he" of Michael Schumacher's return. We had been told he would not even grace the Ferrari pit with his presence for the last two vital races, because, "I am a racing driver, and to go to a circuit without competing would hurt even more." It appeared that if there was any vague possibility Schumacher could assist Irvine's championship hopes, then - fit or not - hell would freeze over before he returned. Even at a long distance from the F1 circuit, Schumacher managed to display small-mindedness and tunnel vision. After announcing his inability to race, Schumacher tested the Ferrari, then met with Luca di Montezemolo privately for an hour, and has been forced into an amazing turnaround, thanks to the determination of the employer who pays his vast wages, and an abusive German press. So, the twisted Nurburgring saga has embarrassed Ferrari and di Montezemolo so much that they have dragged the German cat back among the F1 pigeons. If Eddie Irvine knew before the Nurburgring that he would have to sacrifice two points to Hakkinen in order to have Michael Schumacher back, he would gladly have accepted. More sickeningly, with Schumacher back, the team tested every day, obviously making a huge effort, but Irvine is pragmatic enough not to care as long as it helps his chances, and it clearly appeared to when Ferrari romped to a one-two victory in Malaysia.

Or so everyone thought. The big effort appears to have been to produce a car which is subtly, but definitely, illegal. That the world can plainly see it's moved forwards in leaps and bounds is irrelevant, if it is going to fail scrutineering and be disqualified anyway. Schumacher's return, Irvine's assisted win, and all the rest is so much chaff in the wind, thanks to a ten millimetre error of judgement on the drawing board. Will di Montezemolo be making another public statement that Ferrari won't have sixteen points thrown away in future from a simple conformance error?

McLaren have nothing to laugh about either, through a combination of a fragile car in the first half of the season, amazingly fragile drivers, and a lack of concentration from the pit lane. Both cars finished in only one of the first eight races, with Coulthard having his title challenge ruined early on with huge reliability problems. By now the car seems much better, but the drivers are blowing fuses. Coulthard threw a race win in Austria by shunting Hakkinen and then falling asleep and letting Irvine catch up. In Hockenheim he blew the start, shunted Salo and then got a stop-go penalty trying to pass Panis. He ruined a super win in Spa by following up with a miserable fifth in Monza, and then completely threw the car away at the Nurburgring when he had a glorious opportunity to seize the championship by the scruff of the neck. All through the season, his frailty in terms of passing opponents in the best car on the grid, and his inability to make the most of a car that is not quite set up perfectly, have haunted him.

Hakkinen, who should have won the driver's championship on merit, has thrown away 20 points through simple driver error in Imola and Monza, blew the start and a win in Spa. He drove in a very strange fashion at the Nurburgring to take two undeserved points… when a determined effort should have netted a podium at least. His entire season has been schizophrenic, showing extreme caution at some races, saying he didn't want to take silly risks because the championship was his main aim, and then red mist by throwing away two races while in the lead. We got a bit of both at the Nurburgring, but his reaction to a wrong call on tyres and then driving snail-like in the mid-race wet conditions was not the stuff of a World Champion. Will the real Mika please stand up, is it the man who charged magnificently through the field in the rain in France and who hammered Schumacher at the Nurburgring last year, or the man who drove so badly at the Nurburgring recently? It became so bad that McLaren had to resort to pointing out the Ferrari's illegality to the FIA at the Sepang scrutineering to gain Hakkinen his second World Championship - the odds were definitely against him managing it himself, based on the season to date.

Meanwhile, Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh seem to have taken their eye off the pit lane in selling many of their business interests, presumably to buy a large stake in the FOA when Bernie Ecclestone sells it. Ron Dennis, always a "big picture" type of guy, in the past has accused teams such as Williams of diversifying too much, losing their focus on the F1 team. He may be committing the same sin now, in assuming this year's championship would be a doddle with Michael Schumacher out of the picture. Not only may this turn out to be a serious misjudgment, but his inability to impose team orders when they were clearly needed - stuff the objectors - may also haunt him badly.

What about Jordan? They say that their cars suffered from electrical problems - what does that mean? It could cover a multitude of sins - St Paul was knocked off his donkey on the road to Damascus by a bolt of lightning, and he could just as well have claimed that he had electrical problems. Is this as good as Jordan can do, apart from stating po-faced in the offical press release that "this fault is being investigated by the Benson and Hedges Jordan team to ensure it does not happen again"? Nasty rumours abound - allegedly from within the team - that both drivers neglected to switch off the anti-stall (or a legal traction control) device used on the grid and at pitstops. Both cars expired just after they got going, in Frentzen's case just after a pitstop. Again, allegedly, it wouldn't have been the first time for Damon, but if it is true, and particularly in Frentzen's case, it would be appalling. Not to mention disappointing for a man who has covered himself in glory this year as a reborn racer, after driving so coolly this season. If it is the case, how do you "ensure it does not happen again" - train a mechanic to run alongside the car as the lights go off and hit the switch? Or have a mechanic at the end of the pitlane with a large board saying "HEINZ HARALD, DON'T FORGET TO SWITCH THE ANTI-STALL DEVICE OFF"? Maybe Frank Williams recent comment along the lines of "he used to be flaky, but he's alright now" got to Frentzen, but in fairness, he is well down the leaderboard for stupid mistakes this season. In any case, the problem - whatever it was - combined with a poor qualifying in Sepang ruined his chances of being World Champion this year.

Apart from this, we have had to suffer Damon Hill's driving the Jordan for a final year. Damon has displayed the family gene of being a great driver who doesn't know when to stop. He said in his book "F1 through the eyes of Damon Hill" that he didn't think he was the sad old man of Formula One. But he also said "In my case, the only criteria for deciding how long I will continue racing will be my level of competitiveness and whether I am happy doing it, which all boils down to a single question - can I still win?". Sadly, the Jordan this year has won Grands Prix, but not in Damon's hands, and he has proven a gross disappointment. His driving has possibly robbed Jordan of an opportunity of coming second in the constructor's championship, and his sole current function in the team seems to be to hang on for his final paycheque. Benson and Hedges are probably responsible for Damon seeing the season out, but it's a bloody dangerous profession to be driving at 80 percent.

The others? Benetton, despite having a wind tunnel bigger than a Titanic film set, displayed schizophrenic tendencies throughout the season by yo-yoing from the excellent to the ridiculous. Discussions on their performance seemed to focus on Alex Wurz being too heavy - some idiots even suggested that the lanky Wurz could have an operation to take inches off his legs! The team must have felt like doing an operation on Fisichella, who threw away a glorious chance of winning at the Nurburgring. And Sauber, who yet didn't claim optimism at the start of the season, spent it going backwards as usual. Then we have BAR, a pointless team in every sense of the word for 1999 - anyone who slags off Ferrari for spending millions and going nowhere now have new heroes to follow. Prost, the team who flew the French flag so proudly that their French engine supplier threatened to walk away. Not to mention Arrows, who are the only team in F1 history to have a rear wing split cleanly down the middle, not that anyone in Monza could tell from the lap times.

Some of the teams at this stage clearly have "For Sale" signs up, and no-one in their right mind would jump at the inflated price tags. You wonder why team managers and PR people speak with such enthusiasm about "next year" when this one is not yet over, and then you realise it was over for them months ago. Even Ecclestone has a "For Sale" sign up, and has been conspicuous by his absence through the year, which in truth is probably the main reason that the lunatics are threatening to take over the asylum.

Are there any bright spots, then? Ralf Schumacher has been sublime in a plainly poor car. Jordan's car has finally walked the walk this year, rather than the talk of previous years. Frentzen, brain fade at the Nurburgring and Sepang aside, has been clinical. Stewart have impressed and followed the plan faithfully - the only new team to do so - and Ford's buyout will push things further. And, oh yes, Minardi have delighted with a point at the European Grand Prix, but it should have been five… and it looks like they won't have an engine for next year. But we'll say no more about any of them in case they catch the disease before the season ends.

So, this is it? The pinnacle of the sport, the best talent, total professionalism, millions upon millions of dollars, and presented brilliantly by more PR people than a dog has fleas? Substitute "Spot the moron" for "Feel the excitement," and switch on your TV set, terrestrial or digital, on Sunday to watch the latest episode. We are taught that you pay for your mistakes, but one team and driver in this year's F1 championship clearly will not pay for their sins when they lift the title. But being relieved at getting through at the last minute, despite your mistakes, hardly makes a worthy world champion, does it? Sun Tzu must be turning in his grave.

Article is written by and copyright (c) 1999 Peter Mooney.

Views expressed in these articles do not necessarily coincide with the views of the F1 Rumors Team.

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