Ferrari – Motor Sport’s most glorious marque?

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” and there are few institutions where the shadow was cast longer than at Ferrari, undoubtedly the most famous name in motor sport. Its founder, Enzo Ferrari was the giant figure who created the marque after a modest driving career, and then presided over the growth of a name which became synonymous with the romance, passion and tragedy of motor racing. In so doing, he created a sporting organisation which regarded itself naturally more highly than any of its competitors, and one which has often given the impression that it feels itself to be above the rules which everyone else must adhere to.

Formula 1 is a different beast now from its 1960s heyday of glamour and danger (as memorably captured in John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix) but one constant remains: Ferrari. Ferrari have seen the other great names come and go (Cooper, Vanwall, Brabham, Lotus*, Mercedes*, Tyrell) and survived to become the most successful team in Formula 1 history. But little else about the sport is recognisable from those days.

Whereas in the fifties and sixties Grand Prix racing was the preserve of wealthy enthusiasts, whose drivers regularly risked their lives for the thrill of racing, modern Formula 1 is a massive global industry in which very little is left to chance. The team budgets are huge (the larger outfits will spend in excess of $400m a year putting two cars on the circuit) and the ‘product’ is now carefully marketed on behalf of its sponsors for consumption by a global audience.

It has always been said that the presence and competitiveness of the Ferrari team are crucial to this success, and this has often led people to believe that the sporting integrity of motor racing had, at times, been compromised to ensure that F1’s biggest name always remained in contention. Over the years I’ve been watching the sport events on the track have often been accompanied by rumours of rule-bending, illegal traction control systems and blatant disregard for the sport’s regulations, and there has always been the perception that Ferrari have been afforded special treatment over the other teams.

Now Ferrari have once again found themselves in controversial territory after being referred to F1’s Motor Sport Council and fined a laughable $100,000 for the crude application of team orders in yesterday’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim. As a result of Ferrari’s previous arrogance with staged finishes at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, team orders are against the current rules in F1, and the FIA’s response to yesterday’s events – presided over by Jean Todt, former Ferrari Team Principal – will be keenly awaited by observers.

Team orders are nothing new in Formula 1, of course. Many people forget that it is a team sport, often requiring drivers to ‘adjust their strategies’ to suit the team’s Championship aspirations, and this is perhaps understandable at the sharp end of a season. Yesterday was different because both Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso are still technically in the title hunt with eight races to go. It should also be remembered that, as a result of the shenanigans in Austria in 2002, Rule 39.1 of the FIA’s code states: “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of team orders, Ferrari clearly, blatantly broke the rules yesterday and they must surely be properly held to account as a result. Enzo probably wouldn’t see it that way though.

(*Lotus and Mercedes both returned to F1 as manufacturers this year.)

F1’s sparkling return to form

Fans of Formula One will have heaved a huge sigh of relief at the sport’s return to form at this morning’s Australian Grand Prix. After the crushing tedium of the season opener in Bahrain, Melbourne delivered an altogether different slice of entertainment.

F1 isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course. Most will complain that it is too processional, that it’s all about the car, and that you will see more overtaking in Moto GP, Nascar, Indy Racing etc, etc, etc. All of that is quite often true, but Formula One is not supposed to be like other forms of motor racing. F1 is a technical formula, more so than any other type of racing, and a large part of the challenge is to find a technological solution in order to win races. There is less passing than in many of the alternatives, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Overtaking in F1 is hard, that’s what makes a successful pass more exciting, more of an achievement. Mika Hakkinen’s relentless pursuit of Michael Schumacher at Spa in 2000 was far more exciting for me than watching the lead change hands half a dozen times each lap in other forms of racing.

For the F1 fan, the Australian Grand Prix was (mercifully) a wonderful advertisement for the sport. There was plenty of overtaking, the teams faced the technical challenge of adapting to uncertain conditions and the drivers had to use all their skill to deal with a slippery track. There were also scrapes, spins and the odd tantrum over the radio link.

Jenson Button put in a majestic drive to win the race comfortably in his McLaren. I’ve previously speculated that Button might struggle in the shadow of his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, but there were no signs of that in Melbourne. Admittedly Hamilton’s race was hampered by a poor strategy call from McLaren and a driving error from Red Bull’s Mark Webber, but his mini-rant over the radio to his engineer betrayed signs that perhaps he was more than slightly fazed by the performance and strategy of his cool-as-a-cucumber team-mate. It will be very interesting to see how he responds over the coming races.

Sebastien Vettel’s early-season run of poor luck continues, but I still believe he is a really special talent with a wonderful future in Formula One. Michael Schumacher and the Mercedes team still look short of sharpness but it would be foolish to write off a pairing (with Ross Brawn) who delivered seven Driver’s titles in their heyday.

And (I’ll show my bias here) it was lovely to see Ferrari not having everything their own way today. Formula One has much going for it but it only ever works as a competitive spectacle when the teams are closely matched. Many feared the worst after Bahrain, with everything pointing to a season of Ferrari dominance, but Australia has demonstrated that there are three teams (McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari) who look very competitive with Mercedes and Renault not that far behind. More of the same please, Formula One.

F1 – Looking forward to 2010

The return of Michael Schumacher to Formula 1 and his spiritual home of Mercedes may fill many motor racing fans with dread that he and Ross Brawn will repeat their Ferrari trick of the early part of this decade, and bore their way to Championship dominance (naturally bending the rules along the way, the cynics might note) rendering Grand Prix afternoons as nothing more than a chance to catch forty winks between the pit stops. Non F1 fans will doubtless already share this analysis.

As someone who kept faith with the sport throughout the depressing (for some) years of Schumacher dominance I have to say that I’m actually quite looking forward to his return, and I think 2010 has the potential to be the most exciting season for many years.

What looks set to make next season so potentially interesting is the possibility that there will be at least three (and probably four) constructors capable of producing a Championship winning car. It goes without saying that Mercedes, as last season’s Champions under the Brawn GP badge,  have a strong foundation upon which to build and Red Bull’s Adrian Newey-designed car should also continue to compete for honours. McLaren, starting last season with one of the worst cars the team has ever produced, arguably finished the year with the strongest car on the grid and while Ferrari’s season was hugely disappointing by their own extremely high standards, it would be foolish to write a team of such unrivalled resources out of the equation.

So what of the drivers? No one needs reminding of the extraordinary standards set by Schumacher during the glory years and it would seem inconceivable that he would have returned if he didn’t expect to be competitive. Nevertheless we shouldn’t be surprised if it takes a few races for the sharpness and reactions to return to the old levels. On the other hand his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, will have a golden opportunity to watch the old master at work without suffering from any undue burden of expectation in the shadow of the seven-time Drivers Champion.

Expect the Red Bull pairing, especially the outrageously talented Sebastien Vettel, to be looking for race wins from the start, and there could be a very interesting duel at Ferrari between Felipe Massa and his new team-mate, the double World Champion Fernando Alonso. If the Ferrari is competitive Alonso’s greater talent should see him with the advantage over the more erratic Massa, although the Brazilian is very well established in the team and will certainly expect to make an impact.

Perhaps the most fascinating pairing is that at McLaren. Last season’s Champion, Jenson Button, brings the Number 1 to the team alongside 2008 Champion Lewis Hamilton (in my opinion the most talented of all the current F1 drivers) and looks to have an unenviable task on his hands. Hamilton has been with the team since he was a boy, the car is built around him and (if the team are competitive) will expect to be fighting for the title from the very beginning of the season. Button, on the other hand, will need time to settle and to learn the intricacies of both the car and the team. In truth, I fear for him this season – I fully expect Hamilton to beat him by a substantial margin on a very regular basis. The major winner of his move from Brawn GP will surely be the McLaren team who will have the marketability of two British Champions to trade on; it’s very difficult to see how Button gains from all this.

So who’s going to win the title next year? It’s traditionally a foolish game making such predictions before the new cars are unveiled but, all things being equal, I would expect Hamilton to be the man to beat during the coming season. Having said that, Vettel has the look of the dark horse about him and Schumacher should enjoy a strong second half of the season as the old Brawn/Schumi magic comes back up to speed. Ferrari must surely improve on last year but I suspect they may have just a little too much catching up to do.

It’s difficult to predict with any certainty who will emerge as Champion Team and Driver next year, but that surely has to be a good thing. It’s good to have you back Michael, but I hope you’ll find things a lot less predictable than they were a decade ago.