Weekend of a Champion

As this weekend is the start of the Formula One season, I thought I’d have a look through my motor sporting DVDs and recordings to get myself in the mood for a new season of the sport.

The official season reviews are rather expensive although I do have a few that I’ve picked up in stores like HMV when they are in the sales. I scanned through the season review for 2007 and fascinating stuff it was.

Kimi Raikkonen won the championship by 1 point after the final race of the season and McLaren were excluded from the results and fined an incredible $100 million because of the great McLaren/Ferrari espionage scandal! An employee of Ferrari was accused of passing confidential technical info to a colleague at McLaren. Further problems arose between Hamilton and Alonso at McLaren when Alonso blocked Hamilton in the pit lane. Yes, it was all exciting stuff.

Another F1 DVD I have is the Senna movie made in 2010. It’s a documentary film made for the big screen and consists of archive TV footage transferred to film. There is no commentary as such and the film focusses on Senna’s rivalry with Alain Prost although it is clearly slanted in Senna’s favour. It’s quite a fascinating film to watch and it was great to relive the epic battles of the 80’s with stars like Mansell, Prost and Senna.

Senna was killed in 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Senna’s Williams hit the concrete barrier at the Tamburello corner, the scene of numerous accidents in the past. I remember watching the crash, convinced Senna would be all right, after all, Piquet had crashed there years earlier and Gerhard Berger had also had a terrible crash in the same spot, his Ferrari bursting into flames. Both Piquet and Berger survived. For Senna though time had run out. His front wheel and suspension assembly had hit his head and fatally pierced his helmet. Senna was airlifted to hospital where he later died.

After I’d finished my F1 TV marathon I started searching about in my VHS video box and unearthed a forgotten gem: Weekend of a Champion, a documentary film by Roman Polanski about Jackie Stewart and the Monaco Grand Prix. I was surprised to find that the video was sharp and clear and I settled down to watch the events of the 1971 Monte Carlo event. It was so good to be taken back to my youth and see Jackie Stewart, my all time favourite driver as he once was, not an elder statesman of the sport as he is today but as a great Formula One star, cheered and hailed by the crowds at the trackside as he made his way down from his hotel to the pit lane. It was raining that weekend at Monte Carlo, much to the dismay of Stewart but the grandstands of the principality were packed with fans.

Jackie Stewart

My autographed picture of Jackie Stewart

Jackie pointed out to Polanski the relative skills of the Formula 3 drivers as they sped past, Stewart explaining ‘he had the wrong line’ or ‘he was in the wrong gear’ and so on. Later, Stewart explained his gear choices to new team-mate Francois Cevert. Cevert was eager to learn from the number 1 race driver of the day. He looked vital and fresh in the film. Sadly, Cevert was later killed in 1973, just as he was about to become the team’s number one driver as Stewart retired.

One particular scene stood out for me. Shot in Jackie’s hotel room, he is on the balcony talking to his wife Helen and director Polanksi. As they chat the camera comes back into the room and reveals Nina Rindt, the widow of the 1970 world champion Jochen Rindt, killed at Monza in practice for the Italian Grand Prix. She looks sad and ill at ease and later Helen explains that in the past she and Nina, Jackie and Jochen spent time together travelling the world as they competed in motor races. She had come to Monaco at Helen’s invitation, to spend time together and perhaps remember the happy times of the past. The Formula One of the 1970’s was no less glamorous than that of today, although perhaps tinged with a sadness for the many who lost their lives back then.

After a little bit of research I see that Roman Polanski restored the film some years ago and added a twenty minute interview with himself and Jackie Stewart. I must look out for that on DVD.

Today Sir Jackie Stewart is one of the elder statesmen of F1 racing. He speaks his mind as he always has done but I do get the feeling he is not universally popular with the fans of today. Quite a few times I have defended him in internet forums only to get into one of those annoying on-line arguments. Jackie pulls no punches and in the Senna video I mentioned earlier, Jackie took Ayrton to task for his on track actions although many of his meatier comments were not to be found on that video. I hope I will get a glance of Sir Jackie at the Australian Grand Prix this weekend although Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and co will take centre stage, and rightly so.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information!

F1: Looking back to 2017 and forward to 2018

F1 testing has been in the news lately and as usual that got me thinking about the new season. Firstly, I have to start by saying that I was under the impression, apparently erroneously, that Formula One racing was to be the exclusive property of Sky TV in 2018. Apparently the exclusive Sky deal begins in 2019 so terrestrial TV viewers like me still have another year in which to watch Formula One without paying for a Sky TV package. Formula One is not what it was, well, not for me certainly but it is still Formula One, the highest level of the sport and it is difficult to give up the habit of a lifetime and stop following the F1 teams and their worldwide races.

Let me start this post by looking quickly back at the 2017 season. Lewis Hamilton won the 2017 world championship taking his tally of championships up to four, joining Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel, two other four-time champions. Lewis may be a great F1 champion but his efforts in the field of social media have not been so successful. He released a video berating his nephew for dressing up as a princess and as a result released a storm of social media controversy. I’m not sure why because it was a completely innocent fun family video but one quite funny response was a Tweet showing a picture of Lewis in a tartan jacket twinned with a picture of Princess Diana in a similar jacket. All good fun you might have thought but it apparently led to Lewis deleting many of his social media accounts. Oh well, stick to the motor racing Lewis.

Lewis’ new teammate for 2017 was Valtery Bottas who had a reasonable season, scoring his maiden F1 win and first pole position but the main challenge to Lewis came from Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari who quickly won the opening round in Australia. Later, his campaign for the championship self destructed after not only car reliability issues but a major disaster when Vettel and team-mate Raikkonen collided with Verstappen’s Red Bull in Singapore. Vettel self destructed in more ways than one because in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku, cars were running behind the safety car and Vettel bumped into the back of Hamilton’s Mercedes. Thinking Lewis had given him a brake test he decided to drive alongside and bump wheels with the British driver in a decidedly unsporting gesture. As it happened, despite heavy criticism, he managed to escape a race ban.

The only other winners in 2017 were the Red Bull duo who scored a win in Azerbaijan for Daniel Ricciardo and wins in Malaysia and Mexico for boy wonder Verstappen.

2017 was the year in which McLaren lost patience with Honda and decided to end their fruitless partnership. In 2018 McLaren will be using the Renault engine and Honda will be working with the Torro Rosso team. Looking back at the success Honda and McLaren have had in the past, it’s hard to understand how this new partnership has failed but then again, I read an interesting article in the racing press last year about technology ‘cross fertilization’!

Let me explain. You’ve heard of Silicon Valley no doubt; it’s a place in the USA where computer and technology companies congregate. Companies working in a similar business and congregating in the same location is not a new idea. For instance, in the early 20th century movie makers set up shop in Hollywood, California, making it the centre of the movie making world. In the Formula One world a large majority of the current Formula One teams are located within 80 minutes drive of Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire and the area has been nicknamed ‘Motorsport Valley’. The result of this closeness means that the staff of these teams live nearby and when they seek pastures new, just like their F1 driving counterparts, they move to another nearby racing team. This results in a broadening of the general F1 knowledge base as ideas move from team to team with each exchange of staff. In an article on the BBC website, I read that now almost 3,500 companies associated with motorsport are based in Motorsport Valley, employing around 40,000 people. That represents around 80% of the world’s high-performance engineers.

Paddy Lowe left Mercedes for Williams last year and no doubt the technical knowledge he brought with him will mean a step forward for Williams with their new 2018 car. Anyway, here’s my point: the exception to this rule of course is Honda, who reside on the other side of the world in Japan. No ‘cross fertilisation’ there! Perhaps that fact has played a part in their lack of success.

Fernando Alonso was relegated to the sidelines in 2017 but he has broadened his wings by competing in the Indianapolis 500 and has made plans to race in the Daytona 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours this year. He has made it known he wants to emulate the feat of Graham Hill; the only man to win the so-called triple crown of motorsport: the Monaco Grand Prix, the Indy 500 and the Le Mans 24 hour race. Of course, once he starts to be competitive in F1 again, perhaps those plans may go on the back burner. Still, part of his thinking must be to leave his mark on the motor sporting record books. If he cannot do this in F1 then of course he has to set his sights in another direction.

Talking of motor sporting record books, Lewis Hamilton, the current World Champion, has made major inroads on those records recently. In 2017 he became the man with the most pole positions, 72 at the time of writing, beating Michael Schumacher on 68 and Ayrton Senna with 65. Only two men have won more world championships; Fangio who won 5 and Schumacher who won 7. Schumacher also holds the record for the most F1 race wins with 91 victories and Lewis is now in second place with 62. Alonso has only 32 wins; still a great tally but he has a long way to go to get close to Lewis Hamilton. No wonder the triple crown looks so sweet.

So what does 2018 hold for racing fans?

F1 cars will look pretty different this year with all cars required to use the halo device, a sort of extension of the roll bar that extends all around the cockpit. Some drivers like it, some don’t but if it saves lives everyone should be giving it the thumbs up. Here’s what it looks like from a driver’s perspective:

Robert Kubica is a name you might remember from a few years back. Robert was an F1 driver, tipped as a future world champion, who was badly injured in a rallying accident in 2011 in which his arm was partially severed. Happily, the arm was sewed back on but with reduced mobility. Since then, Kubica has inched his way back to fitness and has completed numerous tests in an F1 car and has been in the running for a place in the Williams F1 team. Williams have run their quest for their 2018 drivers something like a TV talent show and their deliberations have been constantly in the racing media. Who is in the running? Who will get the drive? Well, it turns out it isn’t Robert Kubica but perhaps if something goes wrong for the main drivers, he might get a chance to fill in because he has been announced as Williams 2018 reserve driver. Not quite sure if I understand that decision because Robert Kubica as well as his undeniable talent, brings a lot of press attention to any team he is in, which is just what the team sponsors need. Can he cope with a modern F1 car? Hopefully, yes. The other two drivers, Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin bring new talent and a great deal of financial backing to the team. Wonder what the main factor was in employing those two?

As I said earlier, 2018 will see a Renault engine in the back of a McLaren so hopefully Fernando Alonso will be up at the front of the grid again. If he isn’t, this season will be a disaster of epic proportions for McLaren who of course have dumped Honda because their engine wasn’t powerful enough. Toro Rosso will have the Honda strapped to the back of their cars so it will be interesting to see just how well they do in 2018.

One thing missing from the F1 grid this year will be grid girls. You know, the female promotional models who have been present on F1’s starting grids since -well, since forever really. New F1 owners Liberty Media say grid girls ‘do not resonate with our brand values’ so don’t expect to see pretty girls on the grid this year.

Will the racing be better or closer? The answer is anyone’s guess but Liberty Media also announced a revamp of its TV production this year. Apparently lower camera angles, improved on board footage and slightly later start times will improve the TV broadcasts. Liberty also have a much better appreciation of social media than predecessor Bernie Ecclestone which is why F1 video clips are much more prevalent on the internet today and why I can even link a few of them on this post.

So, F1 is improving the TV coverage and reaching out to internet users. Will the drivers and cars provide the excitement and competition we want? Well, to find out, make sure you tune in on the 25th March for the Australian Grand Prix season opener.


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. You can find the book at amazon by clicking here.

Past and Future: Some F1 Thoughts and Reflections

Back in the 1970’s I subscribed to a magazine called Motor Sport. The magazine was, and still is, a monthly motor sporting glossy and I kept each copy as my reference guide and revered it as my motor sporting bible. The F1 races were always fully covered in detail and there was also an interesting reflections column written by a journalist who signed himself DSJ.

DSJ was Dennis Jenkinson. Jenkinson served in the RAF where he met Bill Boddy the editor of Motor Sport and it was through Boddy that Jenkinson became the continental correspondent of Motor Sport. According to his Wikipedia page, Jenkinson or ‘Jenks’ as he was known, lived a wonderful life, well, wonderful for a bachelor motor sporting fan. He lived at a succession of digs in the UK in winter and spent the summer touring the continent watching motor sport and writing about it for the magazine. (Why can’t I get a job like that?) He famously partnered Stirling Moss in the Mille Miglia in the 1950’s and perfected a style of pace notes which later became the norm in rallying. The co-driver reads notes out to the driver about what is coming up; ‘fast left’, tight right turn’ and so on.

I always rather liked his Grand Prix reports, especially the interesting reflections he wrote which concerned motor sporting chit-chat and background stuff that he picked up in the paddock. The 1970’s era disappointed Jenks and it began to show in his writings. Jackie Stewart, who fought so hard for improved safety in F1 after seeing his friends die driving racing cars was someone who Jenks clearly loathed. To him the greats were people like Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez who were willing to race whatever the weather and didn’t care if the medical facilities were available or not. Both those drivers, I might add, were killed in motor races. Another hero of his, Stirling Moss, was lucky not to lose his life too.

In one issue, his reflections concerned a ‘jamboree’ that took place at Silverstone. He spoke at great length about the John Player Special cars, the Marlboro motor home and so on. At the end of this report he mentioned that in the midst of the ‘jamboree’ an F1 race had taken place and he listed the results. That was his Grand Prix report. It was, I suppose, a protest item. The sport he loved had become something else, actually it had become the sport I loved. I never read the magazine again and cancelled my subscription. The F1 of the 70’s was my world and the racing world pre 1970 was dark and gloomy. Sponsorship and aerodynamics gave formula one a look and feel that I have always loved and Stewart was and always will be to me, one of the great drivers of motor sport.

In the early days of the sport, cars were painted according to their home colours. The UK was British racing green, Silver for Germany, red for Italy, blue for France and so on. Italy was rather lucky, I think, to get red when the colours were given out and of course Ferraris are painted red to this day. Ferrari are the oldest and most historic team in the sport and something that has enhanced their image and prestige as much as the red colours is the prancing horse symbol. I’ve always liked the story of how Ferrari came to use the horse symbol, in fact I first read it in a comic strip in the Valiant or the Hotspur. The prancing horse was the symbol of an Italian first world war fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, who claimed 34 kills in action. He himself was shot down and killed in 1918 but in 1923 Baracca’s parents visited a motor race won by the young Enzo Ferrari. They were impressed by Ferrari and asked him to use the prancing horse on his cars, thinking it might bring him luck. Ferrari added a yellow background, the colours of his home city of Modena and the symbol has been on Ferrari cars ever since.

Today a new F1 team might employ a graphic designer to create a logo for their car or team. Such a designer, having studied art and design would surely come up with a good logo but, could he capture the history or the allure of the prancing horse? I doubt it.

The Singapore Grand Prix last weekend was the background to some interesting news, although some of it was not only expected but something of an open secret. Mclaren announced that they were ending their fruitless partnership with Honda in favour of becoming a customer of the Renault F1 engine. I had read rumours about this in the F1 press for weeks but in Singapore the move was finally confirmed. McLaren have arrived at a crossroads with two choices: One, carry on ahead with Honda, Two, turn sharp right with Renault. Clearly they have chosen the right turn option.

McLaren have waited nearly three years for their partnership with Honda to bear fruit and it looks as though time has finally run out. Personally, I would have given things another year but the added problem for McLaren is that the ace they hold in their other hand -star driver Fernando Alonso- is in danger of jumping ship if the team stay with Honda, so it seems to me that this move to Renault means Alonso is more important to the team than Honda. Ron Dennis, the former Mclaren boss who arranged the deal with Honda, felt that to succeed in modern F1 a partnership with a major engine manufacturer was vital. If that is true then Torro Rosso, who will run with Honda engines next year, could well find themselves a major player in the sport with Honda backing, assuming of course, that Honda finally get their engines to work properly. As Torro Rosso are the junior team to Red Bull, it might even be possible that a fully sorted Honda engine could be powering a Red Bull in the next few years, especially as the Red Bull/Renault relationship has soured recently. Renault are here for two main reasons, as are all the other car companies involved in F1. One, to tag their brand image with racing, hi-technology and success and two, in doing so, sell more motor cars. Once the Red Bull management started slagging off Renault and putting those ideals in jeopardy, that relationship was clearly on the way out.

Fernando Alonso. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Fernando Alonso is one of the great F1 drivers, up there in terms of talent with Lewis Hamilton but clearly Hamilton has made far better team moves than his rival. He must have looked at Mercedes from the McLaren motor home, skimmed over the past poor seasons when Schumacher drove for the team, considered the money Mercedes was spending and saw the talent, managerial and technical that they were attracting and made his move, an inspired move as it turned out. Alonso’s move, in retrospect, was perhaps not such a good one. Following the talent is always a good idea.

Some years back I was surprised to see Mark Webber move from Williams to Red Bull. What on earth was he doing I thought at the time? Webber could see first hand that the glory days at Williams were over and decided to follow that top design talent, Adrian Newey to Red Bull. Top notch move, Mark.

Another interesting item from the paddock in Singapore was that Valterri Bottas was signed up for another year at Mercedes. I was always of the feeling that when Mercedes signed him up to a one year deal in 2016, they had plans for someone else the year after. Did they have their eyes on Alonso, perhaps?

Alonso brings a lot to a team, his immense driving talent for sure but he also brings with him a hefty price tag. Honda footed his $40 million salary but next year, McLaren must cough up that cash themselves. If Alonso brings success back to the McLaren team then the big name sponsors will return and everyone will be happy. Personally, I think the winners here might ultimately be the Red Bull team . .

The British Grand Prix

Sunday was a rather lovely day. I awoke late after a night shift, had a brew and was all ready to sit down and watch the British Grand Prix. Sunday’s Grand Prix was quite a significant one, at least for me because it’s probably the last time I will watch this classic event live on terrestrial TV. Next year the F1 season will be exclusive to Sky TV and, as much as I love F1, having followed the sport since 1970 when I was 14, I will not be purchasing a subscription to Sky.

Still, I’ve lived through these times before, like the late seventies when the BBC declined to show F1 because John Surtees’ team ran cars displaying sponsorship from Durex. That was a bleak period for armchair racing fans until the championship livened up in 1976 and James Hunt battled Niki Lauda for the world championship. Then the BBC relented and decided to show the sport again. Once again it seems I shall have to turn to BBC radio for my fortnightly F1 fix.

Fernando Alonso. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Hamilton was justifiably happy at winning the Grand Prix from pole position but the highlight of the event for me was the moment in qually one when Fernando Alonso’s engineer radioed to him that he was now P1, which is F1 terms means he was the fastest driver out there.

Qually one is of course the first round of a knockout qualifying sequence and Alonso hit the top spot because a rain shower had disrupted qualifying and he decided to take a gamble, head for the pits and change to dry tyres and go out on to the drying track in the dying moments of the session. The gamble worked, Alonso heard P1 in his earphones for the first time in a very long time and the cheer for him at Silverstone was a joy to hear. Yes, despite the firm affection for British hero Hamilton the British fans also respect someone of very great talent and that cheer was richly deserved.

Sadly, in qually two Alonso was knocked out.

I read somewhere once that the great drivers will always gravitate to the top teams but on this occasion McLaren are perhaps no longer a team at the very top. They took a big gamble by allying themselves with Honda, confident that, just like in the eighties, Honda would once again produce a powerful engine but that engine has yet to appear. Instead an engine that is unreliable and woefully low on power is the power plant that has been strapped to the back of Alonso’s car these past few years and Fernando, one of the world’s best drivers must be sadly rueing the upturned fortunes at his former team Ferrari and watching as rival Lewis Hamilton goes on to break ever more records. Hamilton now has 67 poles, 1 behind all time pole position holder Michael Schumacher who has 68, and a tally of 57 wins, second only to Schumacher again who has totalled 91.

The fact is, Alonso’s experience this year is not altogether uncommon. Remember Emerson Fittipaldi driving his brother’s Copersucar or Jacques Villeneuve in the uncompetitive BAR? Then there was Damon Hill who had a similar experience after he won the World Championship in 1996. His employer, Frank Williams, clearly didn’t think Damon was capable of such a feat as before the end of the season he had signed another driver for the next year. Damon was dropped and accepted a drive with the Arrows team. He had perhaps thought that Arrows were a middle of the grid team trying to move to the front but the reality was that they were a back of the grid team trying to move to the middle. Like Alonso in 2017, Damon must have watched in frustration as Jacques Villeneuve drove his Williams to the 1997 championship, just as Villeneuve himself watched as Mika Hakkinen and Schumacher fought for the championship in 1998.

Will Alonso return to Ferrari? Will he stay at McLaren and gamble on a better engine for next year? Could he even slip into Mercedes and partner Hamilton? Will I sign up for Sky TV?

Only time will tell.


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to find out more.

8 Great Books from my Formula One Collection


Ayrton Senna
Ayrton Senna is one of the all-time greats of formula one. He is an absolute legend of the sport and I have about 4 or so books about him. The biography by Christopher Hilton, Ayrton Senna, the Hard Edge of Genius, is a pretty good one. A long time ago I ran a shop in Manchester called Armchair Motorsports and although I didn’t make much money, I did do a hell of a lot of talking about F1. I had a number of serious motorsport memorabilia collectors as customers and if they were not on the phone asking me to find a copy of this or that book, they were in the shop gassing about motorsport. One customer wanted a book about Senna and I managed to get him a copy of Hilton’s book. He told me that the most remarkable thing about the book was the list at the back, itemising Ayrton’s race records. The list went like this – 1st, 1st, 1st, DNF, 1st, 1st 1st, DNF. All the way through his career until his formula one days. DNF means did not finish. Senna either won his races or failed to finish which meant either his car failed him, or he crashed. Most of the time he crashed and that gives us an indication of his way of thinking, which must have been win at all costs. It also explains why he was not the most popular of drivers.
I remember visiting Silverstone in the late 1980’s and Senna was profusely booed every time he passed our location. Of course, times change, and now Ayrton is venerated as one of the legends of the sport.
Richard William’s book, The Death of Ayrton Senna, narrates the dreadful events of formula one’s black weekend at Imola, back in 1994. Brazil itself was crushed by Senna’s death and I honestly feel that the reaction of Brazil to the tragedy was even greater than the UK’s reaction to the death of Princess Diana. A fascinating but ultimately sad book.

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Murray Walker
Murray is one of the great characters of F1 racing. Somebody once said of Murray that in his quieter moments ‘he sounds a little like a man with his trousers on fire!’ That certainly sums up his passionate and energetic commentary style. Formula one will never be quite the same without him. Murray has published a number of books about the sport including his autobiography and numerous titles like the one pictured here.

Marlboro Grand Prix Guide 1973
This is one of the oldest books in my F1 collection. In years gone by Marlboro, the cigarette manufacturers, contributed a lot to motor sport. They sponsored many teams and drivers including the McLaren team, and produced many books and annuals like this one. In the 1970’s they sponsored the Prix Rouge et Blanc, a prize given to the driver voted man of the race by attending journalists. Nowadays we are mostly free of the noxious fumes of cigarette smoke but the cigarette companies did make a substantial contribution to sport in days gone by. On the cover of the guide is Clay Reggazoni driving the Marlboro backed BRM and close behind is Emerson Fittipaldi in his black and gold John Player Special aka Lotus 72. Those were the days . .

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Niki Lauda
If someone had said to me at the end of 1973 when Jackie Stewart had just retired that Niki Lauda would be the next great champion of formula one, I would have laughed in his face. In my eyes it was obvious who the next great driver was. It was Ronnie Peterson. Had I tested those theories with a substantial cash wager I would have found myself out of pocket because Lauda won two world championships, retired, then made a comeback and won a third championship. The story of Lauda’s dreadful crash at the Nurburgring has been told many times, it’s even been made into the movie ‘Rush’ directed by Ron Howard. To Hell and Back is Niki’s story in his own words and a great story it is too. On his return to F1 at Monza after his terrible crash, Lauda drove out onto the track and was so scared he began to shake uncontrollably. Nevertheless, he carried on, overcame his fears and became a motorsport legend.

Graham Hill
Another of the legends of formula one, Graham Hill, must be one of the great characters of the sport A double world champion and father of future champion Damon Hill, Hill was killed in a light aircraft crash in 1975. He was the only driver ever to win the triple crown of motorsport –the Le Mans 24 hours, the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. The book below, written in his own tongue in cheek style is a great read. In the days when I ran my motorsport memorabilia shop as mentioned above, I came across a signed copy of Graham’s previous book ‘Life at the Limit.‘ I was sorely tempted to keep it for myself but I thought no, think about the business, be professional. I sold it to a collector for a fair old sum but every time I read something about Graham I think -what a fool, why didn’t I keep that book!

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Gilles Villeneuve
In some ways I’ve never really gone along with the hero worship of Gilles Villeneuve. Then again, some people cannot understand why I think Ronnie Peterson is one of the F1 greats. Each man to his own, I suppose.
Villeneuve was killed in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1982. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?
One answer is simply that that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another is that he was still estranged from team mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.  Author Gerald Donaldson has produced a great motor sporting read and this is a book well worth looking out for.

Nigel Mansell
I’ve got the oldest book in my collection here so I may as well finish with the newest addition. Staying On Track is an autobiography by Nigel Mansell, who along with Prost and Senna was one of the three top drivers of the 1980’s. The Tifosi, the Italian Ferrari fans, named Nigel Il Leone (the Lion) when he signed up for the Scuderia In 1988, the last driver ever to be personally signed by the Commendatore himself, Enzo Ferrari. Nigel’s nickname was well earned. He took no messing from anyone, Ayrton Senna in particular, and once famously went wheel to wheel with Ayrton down the long straight at the Spanish Grand Prix in 1991 and it was Mansell who came out the victor. I bought this book, which I must admit I haven’t yet read, on E-bay. It’s a signed edition and I look forward to reading it.

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Hope you enjoyed this post. If you want to read more why not try my book Floating in Space? It’s not a motor-sporting book but a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page for more information.

F1 Racing in 2016: A Personal Look Back.

ferrari-96052_1280Formula One racing isn’t the sport it used to be. Well, it’s certainly different from what I used to enjoy as a schoolboy. Still, I’ve followed the sport since I was twelve or thirteen and it’s hard to break the habit of a lifetime so here’s a personal look back at the 2016 season.

One thing I’ve always supported in motor racing is the underdog. I love it when some underrated car or driver pulls out something extraordinary and beats the top men at their own game. 2016 would have been a wonderful year if Nico Hulkenberg could have produced a win, or one of the Saubers.  That long-awaited debut win from Valtery Bottas would have been – and will be when it happens- wonderful. Sadly, with the levels of technological advancement in F1 these days you don’t see new boys in under-financed teams win very often. Bottas is a great driver but he reminds me a little of Jean Alesi, another great driver who always seemed to me to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He left Tyrell when they had put together a great car. He arrived at Ferrari when they were on a downslide. He spent his career there waiting for a championship winning car but it never happened, until Schumacher arrived bringing with him Ross Braun and Rory Byrne from Benetton, his old team’s top technical men.

It seems to me that in recent years, the top cars come out top, no matter what. In times gone by in F1 the also rans were in with a chance when the rains came down. The cars with bigger and better horsepower didn’t have such an advantage in the wet and a great driver in a underpowered car could make a name for himself. Circuits like Monaco where aerodynamic wings don’t help so much favour the underpowered cars. Or at least they did in days gone by like when Stirling Moss in his underpowered Cooper won that glamorous event in 1961. These days, come what may, it’s pretty much the same cars at the front and the same cars at the back. The Mercedes of Rosberg and Hamilton are the class of the field and the blue cars of Manor Racing are bringing up the rear, just like Minardi used to do some years ago. I have to say, Pascal Wehrlein looked pretty formidable on a few occasions but not enough to challenge the top boys.

I read something a while ago, somewhere in an old racing magazine, that the top drivers will always gravitate to the top cars. It’s a rule of motor sporting life. Senna rose up to take his place at McLaren when they were the big cheese of F1 racing. So did Mansell at Williams, Schumacher at Ferrari, Clark at Lotus and so on. Alonso seems to be the exception to that rule though. Fast and talented, he was unhappy at Ferrari, broke free from his contract there and fell for assurances from Ron Dennis at McLaren that a partnership with Honda would return him and McLaren to the winners fold. Perhaps it will one day, but these last two seasons have seen Alonso looking more and more frustrated at the slow pace of development at Honda.

2017 will be a make or break year for McLaren Honda and will finally tell if they have scaled the heights they need to scale or if Mercedes will continue on the highly successful course they began charting some years ago. One casualty already from Honda’s lack of success has been Ron Dennis, removed from his rightful place as CEO of McLaren by a boardroom battle. Ron, to my mind, is one of the greats of Formula one, up there with Enzo Ferrari and Colin Chapman. His departure shows just how much the sport, and McLaren, has changed. McLaren has moved into the world of corporate business and shareholders and Ron has been bitten by the entity he was instrumental in creating.

Once again Mercedes came out top in the F1 world championship but this time it was Nico Rosberg who took the world crown, beating team-mate Hamilton by only a handful of points. Rosberg threw the gauntlet down at Lewis Hamilton’s feet towards the end of 2015 and began a highly successful break of seven wins in a row, continuing into 2016 and it was this momentum that took him, by a whisker, to the 2016 championship. A few days later he stunned the F1 world by announcing his retirement. Few things shock me in modern F1 but I have to say I wasn’t expecting that, in fact I can only think of two drivers who retired when at the absolute top of their game. One was Mika Hakkinen whose sabbatical petered out into full retirement in 2002, the other being Jackie Stewart, a master of both his career and his driving. Stewart retired at the end of 1973, not starting his 100th Grand Prix, saddened by the death of team-mate François Cevert in the US Grand Prix practice.

Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons

It’s interesting though that the vacancy in what is currently Formula one’s premier team is causing a mass of speculation. Alonso is a man who would relish that seat but would McLaren and Honda free him from his contract? Bottas too has been mooted as a possible replacement but it seems Williams have vetoed that idea, turning down a £5 million sweetener from Mercedes to facilitate the deal. Who will Hamilton’s 2017 team-mate be I wonder? As I write this it seems increasingly certain Bottas will be driving the Mercedes and therefore perhaps he will soon be enjoying his first win.

The Spanish Grand Prix of 2016 was an interesting race. Hamilton and Rosberg clashed and Verstappen, newly promoted to Red Bull at the expense of Daniil Kvyat won his maiden Grand Prix. He excelled too in the rain at the Brazilian Grand Prix looking every inch a star of the future.

Anyway, after all the hype, Rosberg has emerged as the world champion. Hamilton certainly deserved a fourth world title but equally, I think Rosberg deserved a first one.  Why did he retire? Well he is a young man with a lot of money in the bank and a young family. Perhaps it was time to devote more of himself to his wife and children. Perhaps the allure of racing motor cars had begun to lose its lustre. Who knows, but Rosberg has joined two other retirees this year – Philipe Massa and Jensen Button – although it seems Massa may be asked to stay on for another year at Williams if Bottas goes to Mercedes.

This was the first year of Channel Four’s terrestrial coverage. As a purely armchair F1 fan I enjoyed it, mostly. As I said earlier, Formula One isn’t the sport it used to be. It’s now a million dollar soap opera stage-managed by Bernie Ecclestone but even he may have had his day when new investors Liberty Media begin to flex their corporate muscles. I wonder if Bernie and his wealthy colleagues will spend some of Formula one’s millions by allowing the recently bankrupt Manor team to continue in F1?

Not on your life!

Do I care? Will I be even watching F1 next year?

Well, why change the habit of a lifetime?


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Confessions of an Armchair Formula One Fan

F1 fanI’m not a great sports fan but I do like my motor sport. I first started following Formula One back in 1970 when I was a school boy.

1970 was a pretty exciting year for formula one racing. Colin Chapman and his Lotus team had unveiled their new Lotus 72, a revolutionary ground-breaking car that set the standard for formula one cars for years to come. Jochen Rindt won the World Championship but sadly he was killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. His points score was never overtaken and so he took the crown posthumously. In fact three F1 drivers were killed that year, Rindt, Bruce Mclaren, the founder of the Mclaren F1 team, and Piers Courage who drove for Frank Williams, a black year indeed for motorsport.

Jack_BrabhamBack in the early 70s there wasn’t great TV coverage but I do remember watching the Monaco Grand Prix live on the BBC and I will always remember that moment when the potential winner, old hand Jack Brabham, slipped into the barrier on one of the last corners letting Jochen Rindt through to win.

A few years later the BBC was not happy about the explosion of advertising on Grand Prix cars and the crunch came when the cars of John Surtees displayed advertising for Durex. The BBC pulled the plug and F1 effectively vanished from British TV screens for a long while. Towards the end of the seventies the BBC began to broadcast the odd race now and again and then their show ‘Grand Prix’ with long time commentator Murray Walker began in 1978 although I don’t think they broadcast the entire season until 1979.

For most of the seventies I had to depend on BBC radio to find out what had happened at the Grand Prix. In 1978 I listened to a report from the Italian Grand Prix about a crash just after the start in which Ronnie Peterson was injured. Ronnie had broken both legs and been taken to hospital. I was glad to hear he was OK. Ronnie was one of those drivers who appeared to me to be destined for a world championship. If someone had told me in the early seventies that Niki Lauda would be a three times champion I would have laughed out loud. He didn’t look or sound like a champion, unlike Ronnie, his team mate at the STP March team in 1972. The next day I picked up a newspaper and was shocked to find Peterson had died during the night from a fat embolism resulting from his broken bones.

Senna, Mansell, and Prost were the great drivers of the eighties and Gerhard Berger sometimes looked like a future champion although he never made the cut. He survived a terrible crash at Imola in 1989 when he hit the wall at Tamburello and his Ferrari burst into flames. I was watching the race live and thinking how could anyone survive that but moments later a marshal’s van drove up and quickly put the fire out. Berger survived with only 1st degree burns to his hands.

Mansell won a great race at Silverstone in 1987, probably one of my favourite races. It was a gamble on Mansell’s part, turning up the boost on his Honda turbo engine to catch Piquet and on the last lap he should have ran out of fuel. According to his dashboard he had, but his Williams somehow kept running to the end finally grinding to a halt on the slowing down lap.

Alain Prost Mclaren 1988 German Grand Prix

Alain Prost Mclaren 1988 German Grand Prix

Alain Prost retired after a comeback season with Williams when he walked to his final world championship in 1993. In 1994 the Grand Prix circus came to Imola for the San Marino Grand Prix and I remember well watching the race live on TV when Senna crashed, again at Tamburello. Someone said to me ‘he’s dead’ but I disagreed, Berger’s crash was worse and he survived. Sadly, Senna did not.

Television has had a great influence on formula one racing. In the nineties Bernie Ecclestone seemed to be trying a lot of tweeks to get more viewers, especially after one rainy Saturday qualifying round when hardly any drivers went out on track. Naturally really because they could not hope to improve on the previous day’s dry running. That spelled the end of Friday qualifying and from then on, only times set on a Saturday counted towards the grid. That tweeking resulted in an interesting knockout qualifying format which is enjoyable and good for the sport but it hasn’t stopped the rulers of F1 trying to fiddle with it even more and that interference has cast a cloud over the first part of the 2016 season.

Bernie Ecclestone

Bernie Ecclestone (image courtesy Wikipedia)

Formula One team bosses are currently in something of a panic. Investors have poured millions of pounds into F1, not because they like the sport but because they find their investment can pay off big style in these days of multi million pound global TV and advertising deals. Reports of failing interest in the sport however has rung alarm bells and throughout the motorsporting media there have been calls to make F1 more interesting. Why are the cars not louder? Why are Mercedes winning all the time? Should we bring back refuelling? Is the high tech aspect ruining the driver input? There are even calls for Bernie Ecclestone, the aging F1 emperor to hand over to someone else. Only time will tell what will happen.

It sometimes makes me smile when I compare Formula 1 to other sports like cricket. Can you just imagine if Ecclestone and his investors had a stake in cricket and the TV viewing figures were down? What would happen then? Increase the number of overs? Maybe have an extra ball in each over, seven instead of six? Change the wooden ball to a rubber one? Add an extra stump?

Maybe they will resolve the issues, maybe not. F1 racing goes from terrestrial channels to Sky pay per view in 2019. Will I be subscribing? I’m not so sure . . .


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Three Champions of Formula One

I’m not a great sports fan. I’ve no interest in football and cricket does nothing for me but formula one racing is something I’ve followed since my school days. What I’ve always loved about racing are the true champions of the sport, those drivers that have gone down in the annals of motor sporting history as the greats. My own personal favourite driver and the driver who to me is the greatest driver ever, is Sir Jackie Stewart.

Jackie Stewart Image courtesy wikipedia

Jackie Stewart Image courtesy wikipedia

You’ve heard of course of the great natural talents of Ayrton Senna and also of the man known as the professor, Alain Prost and his intelligent and calculating approach to racing. Imagine then those two disciplines put together in one man, well if that were possible the result would be Jackie Stewart. Jackie has all the qualities of a great driver: Fast in qualifying, fast in racing. Fast in the dry, fast in the wet. He also has those other great qualities, car control and understanding of the car as well as a great race craft. You’ve heard of Michael Schumacher and his reputation as the rainmeister I’m sure but well before Schumacher was even a glint in his father’s eye Jackie was winning the foggy and washed out 1968 German Grand Prix by four minutes from his nearest rival. Four minutes! Can you believe that?

Believe it my friend because that was one of the great wet weather drives of all time.

My personal favourite of Jackie’s wins was the 1969 Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Monza at that time had still not been hampered by the chicanes that were to be added a few years later. It was a fast high speed track and the event was a slip streaming formula one sprint. Cars hurtled along sucking the following cars along in their wake and the following driver would use this slipstream to hurtle past. The trick to win the Italian Grand prix was to exit the last corner in second place, slipstream the leader and take the win.

In 1969 however wily Scotsman Jackie Stewart reasoned that if he added an extra-long fourth gear to his car the difference between hanging on to fourth for a while longer when his fellow racers were changing up a gear could enable him to win. In the race when the cars arrived at that all important last corner Jackie dived in front and exited in the lead. Jochen Rindt who was second, latched onto Stewart’s lead and was sucked up in his slip stream then ducked out to take the lead. His momentum eased momentarily as he flicked into fifth but Jackie hung on in his extra-large fourth gear and when Rindt slipstreamed past it was too late; they were past the chequered flag and Jackie had just won the race.

Senna by the author 1988

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1988 German GP

In 1988 two great drivers became teammates at McLaren-Honda, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. 1988 was a classic season for the Mclaren squad winning 15 out of the season’s 16 races but it could have been so different. The Williams team and their driver Nigel Mansell could have been in prime position to take the championship. The previous year, 1987, Mansell and team mate Nelson Piquet battled against each other and ultimately Piquet took the title but he had left for Lotus and Honda, who had been Williams’ engine partners for the previous few years had switched their allegiance to McLaren. The move had come a year earlier than had been planned and Williams were left in the lurch. Their relationship with Honda had soured when they declined to replace Nigel Mansell with Honda’s man Saturu Nakajima and they were forced to turn to a private engine manufacturer, John Judd. 1988 would not be their year. The McLarens were dominant. The only possible challenge could come from Lotus, the only other team with the unbeatable Honda engine. That challenge never appeared.

nelson Piquet Lotus 1988 German Grand Prix

Nelson Piquet Lotus 1988 German Grand Prix

Towards the end of the year, Lotus arranged for Jackie Stewart to test their car as part of a TV spot. Stewart, who had been retired for over a decade, took the wheel of the Lotus and almost straight away spotted the very issue that had dogged Lotus for the season. I well remember Peter Warr, the Lotus Team manager saying to TV cameras very diplomatically that Jackie had ‘correctly identified an issue the team were already working on.’ If only Jackie had tested the car earlier in the season, perhaps then they could have challenged the McLarens.

Jackie Stewart at Oulton Park in 1988 with son Paul

Jackie Stewart at Oulton Park in 1988 with son Paul

Three factors then cement Jackie’s position as one of the best drivers ever: his natural ability and car control, his affinity with the motor car and ability to translate that intuition back to the engineers and designers and his canny wisdom, intelligence and pure race craft. After he retired from the sport Jackie Stewart spent years as a PR man for companies like Ford. Later he built up his Stewart formula one team which later sold to Ford for it to become the Jaguar F1 team. Later still, Ford began to reduce its investment in motor sport and the team was sold again this time for it to morph into Red Bull Racing which won four world championships with driver Sebastian Vettel.

In later years Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna came together in a television interview where Stewart famously challenged Senna about his driving style and his collisions with other drivers. Senna brushed it off but later admitted that Stewart was right and that he had deliberately pushed Alain Prost off the track in Japan 1990. According to an interview with Stewart in the Daily Mail, Senna apologised to Jackie before admitting to the press what he had done.

Alain Prost Mclaren 1988 German Grand Prix

Alain Prost Mclaren 1988 German Grand Prix

Alain Prost, like Jackie became a team owner in the late 1990s with Ligier, renaming it Prost Grand Prix. Sadly the team went bankrupt in 2002.

Senna and Prost as is well known had numerous battles together on and off the race track. Prost left McLaren believing that team boss Ron Dennis supported Senna rather than him and left to drive for Ferrari. He joined Williams in 1993 but declined to partner Senna in 1994 and retired from driving.

Ayrton Senna was killed in the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In formula one the event is known as ‘Black Sunday.’ Happily, Prost and Senna were reconciled in the days before the tragedy. Senna had done an in car lap of the race track for french TV  and Prost was working there as a TV pundit. Senna passed a message to Prost saying ‘we miss you Alain.’

The death of Senna and Ratzenberger at Imola were the first formula one tragedies for over twelve years and that was due in no small way to the campaigns began in the 1970’s by Jackie Stewart for better safety in formula one.

The British Grand Prix

This is the premier weekend of British motorsport, yes, the British Grand Prix. Time once again for Hamilton and Rosberg to do battle, along with the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkanon and the Williams cars of Bottas and Massa, and all the lesser teams who gather at Silverstone to fight it out on the tarmac for the spoils of victory.

Years ago, when I was a schoolboy and followed Formula One with a religious fervour, the British Grand Prix alternated between Silverstone, the flat former airfield circuit in Northamptonshire and Brands Hatch, the picturesque track in Kent full of twists, turns and dips.

Today, it seems to me as though Silverstone is trying to turn itself into Brands Hatch because in the past decade they have added various twisty sections and an entire new pit and garage complex. Many other traditions have vanished too in F1 such as the annual post British Grand Prix cricket match; not possible today unfortunately as the latest drivers are prone to dash off home at the end of the race at the earliest possible opportunity. Even a DNF (did not finish) is not all bad if it fits in with an earlier flight.

Now that the F1 teams are flying off to ever more distant lands for their racing; places like Singapore, Soshi in Russia and Bahrain to name but three, it’s good to see the drivers return to a track where the greats of the past also raced. Fangio and Moss competed at Silverstone, as did Stewart and Clark, and Prost and Senna. What they think of the current Silverstone is anybody’s guess but perhaps I’m being mean, looking back when I should be looking forward. Silverstone today is the UK’s premier track and to a great extent, the UK is the centre of the Formula One world. Most of the current F1 teams are based within a stone’s throw of Silverstone and even Mercedes, the current number one team are based in the UK despite their German background. Within 80 minutes of Silverstone is an area nicknamed motorsports alley and the teams that are based here include Mercedes, McLaren, Lotus, Red Bull, Force India, Williams, and F1 minnows Manor Marussia. In many ways, the British Grand Prix is the home race, even for the Mercedes!

I’ve not visited Silverstone since 1992 when it was £60 just to walk in through the gates. What it costs nowadays to gain entrance I shudder to think. Even so, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg should hopefully deliver a performance that will make the entrance fee well worth paying.

My favourite Grand Prix was the 1987 event. I visited Silverstone that year to watch the qualifying and then returned home to watch the race on Sunday on television. Nigel Mansell won a terrific race after changing tyres and then chasing and finally overhauling team mate and race leader Nelson Piquet for a memorable victory.

Nigel Mansell German GP 1988 photo by author

Nigel Mansell German GP 1988 photo by author

Formula One team bosses are currently in something of a panic. Investors have poured millions of pounds into F1, not because they like the sport but because they find their investment can pay off big style in these days of multi million pound global TV and advertising deals. Reports of failing interest in the sport however has rung alarm bells and throughout the motorsporting media there have been calls to make F1 more interesting. Why are the cars not louder? Why are Mercedes winning all the time? Should we bring back refuelling? Is the high tech aspect ruining the driver input? There are even calls for Bernie Ecclestone, the aging F1 emperor to hand over to someone else. Only time will tell what will happen. It sometimes makes me smile when I compare Formula 1 to other sports like cricket. Can you if imagine if Ecclestone and his investors had a stake in cricket and the TV viewing figures were down? What would happen then? Increase the number of overs? Maybe have an extra ball in each over,  seven instead of six?  Change the wooden ball to a rubber one? Add an extra stump? Or even helmet cams on the batsman! Now there’s an idea!

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FIScoverbuynow

Touching The Glass

The 2014 formula one season is well under way and like me, many people must speculate about those who race these incredible machines at such high speeds. Measuring high speed lap times against car control and the desire to go ever faster is the juggling act performed by the Grand Prix drivers every time they step into their high-tech carbon fibre cockpits. The consequences of a mistake can range from an embarrassing spin in the gravel trap to a cruel death.

sennab copyeditbbThis year, 2014, marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest racing drivers of all time. Aryton was killed on the 1st of May 1994 at the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in Italy. Anyone who knows anything about motor sport can tell you that. The date lingers in the back of the collective mind of all racing fans, along with other tragedies of the sport, like the deaths of Gilles Villeneuve and Jim Clark to name but two. Clark’s death is unexplained to this day. His formula two Lotus left the track at an easy, straight section of road. The facts of Villeneuve’s accident are well known -he crashed into a slow moving car- but his death is perhaps only really explained under close analysis. Villeneuve was on a slowing down lap, on his way back to the pits after a handful of fast qualifying laps but still, he kept the hammer down, his right foot pressed down to the floor when there was no real need for absolute speed. So why? Why was he going so fast?

One answer is simply that was the way he drove; fast. Foot down to the floor. Full stop. Another was that he was still estranged from team mate Didier Pironi, who he thought had unfairly beaten him in the previous Grand Prix at San Marino in Italy. The two had diced together for the length of the race, team leader Villeneuve thought they were putting on a show, Pironi thought they were racing. When Pironi took the chequered flag it was an act of betrayal, or so Villeneuve thought and when they arrived at Zolder for what would be Villeneuve’s last Grand Prix, Villeneuve was still seething. And so perhaps that state of passion was a factor on his last lap.

For Ayrton Senna in 1994 that intense rivalry with a fellow driver seemed to be a thing of the past. Together, Senna, Alain Prost, and Nigel Mansell dominated most of the eighties and early nineties in formula one racing. Mansell had left the stage for Indycar racing in the United States and Prost had retired leaving Senna to take his vacant seat at Williams, or perhaps he retired because Senna had been offered a seat at Williams –it depends on which story you believe. Certainly after the intense animosity that developed between the two at McLaren you can hardly blame Prost for not wanting to work in that same situation again.

So now, the Young Pretender had become the Elder Statesman of Grand Prix motor racing and his two closest competitors had gone. Perhaps he even hoped that he could relax, let up the pace a little bit, just as Prost had thought in 1988 before Senna began to push him harder. But a new phase had begun for Aryton Senna, a new Young Pretender had appeared to challenge him in the shape of Michael Schumacher. Schumacher had won the first two Grands Prix of the year and Senna came to Imola without a single point. “For us the championship starts here” he told the TV cameras, “fourteen races instead of sixteen.” Further pressure mounted on Senna when fellow Brazilian Rubens Barrichello was injured in a crash and then Roland Ratzenberger was killed, the first fatality at a Grand Prix meeting since that of Riccardo Paletti 12 years before.

Many sources have said that after these twin disasters Ayrton did not want to race in the Grand Prix. It is hard to believe, Senna -not wanting to race? The man for whom racing was everything? Could it be that he was finally becoming more like his once deadly rival Alain Prost? Prost had always put his own life before winning motor races and as a consequence had driven a dismal race at the rain soaked 1988 British Grand Prix and completed only a token lap at the similarly affected 1990 Australian Grand Prix. Events may have pushed Ayrton’s thinking from the neutrality and detachment of the past towards a greater concern, a concern beyond the continual winning of races.
Whatever his inner feelings he started the San Marino Grand Prix in his usual fashion, leading into the first corner from pole position. Behind him though, JJ Lehto stalled his Benneton and was hit from behind by Pedro Lamy. Lesser events had stopped races in the past but on this occasion the organisers sent out the new safety car and the grid cruised round after it in formation for five laps while the crash debris was removed.

At the end of the fifth cruising lap the safety car pulled off, the lights turned to green and Senna, Schumacher and the rest floored their throttles. The Williams was not handling well and it felt nervous through Tamburello, that evocatively named but most dangerous of corners. Still, Senna kept ahead of Schumacher, he kept the hammer down. On lap six the Williams entered deep into Tamburello and Schumacher saw the spray of sparks as the car bottomed out and side stepped slightly. Senna caught and corrected the Williams and throttled onwards for the charge down to Tosa, the next bend. Both Senna and team mate Damon Hill knew their cars were nervous and to a certain extent unsuited to the bumpy surface at Imola. Someone like Alain Prost might have eased off slightly, settled for second or third, collected some points, and used the rest of the San Marino Grand Prix as part of a learning curve, collecting mental and electronic data to develop the car into another Williams race winner. For Ayrton Senna, a third defeat by Michael Schumacher was not acceptable. Putting points on the scoreboard held no interest for him either, except for the ten points that came for a win.

The next time round Ayrton entered Tamburello at 192 mph. We know his exact speed from his car’s electronic management system, which records such data. Tremors went through the car as it bottomed out again on the undulating track surface. This time Senna couldn’t catch the Williams, or perhaps something failed on the car. Later on the steering column was found to be fractured. Did it fail before the crash or was it damaged in the impact?. Some have speculated that his tyres were not up to pressure after many laps circling the track at low speed. We will never know. Whatever happened, the car went straight on towards the tyre barrier masking the concrete wall that lay behind. Senna’s last act was to slow the car down to 131 mph, but it was not enough.

I have never met Ayrton Senna. The last time I had seen him, in person, was at the Silverstone tyre tests of 1991 and even then he was a blur of yellow in the red and white of his McLaren. To understand someone we have never known is not an easy task. Sometimes we can only do so by looking into ourselves and searching for similar experiences. A long time ago, I must have been eight or nine, my Mother took me to visit my Grandmother. Sitting alone in the lounge while the two women gossiped in the kitchen, I became fascinated by my Grandmother’s new fireplace. It was a coal fire and the fire glowed dormantly behind a glass door. A real fire was not new to me, indeed we had one at home but the glass door seemed to attract me, so much so that I reached forward and held my hand a fraction of an inch from the glass. On an impulse I reached out further and put my hand on the glass. As you can imagine, I recoiled in agony having burnt my hand.

That moment, in 1994, as I watched my television images in disbelief, I came to think of that small boy, reaching out towards the glass door that enclosed a coal fire almost as one with Ayrton Senna, reaching towards the barriers of absolute speed, touching the zenith of his car control and going ever so slightly over his limits. He had done it before and had come back from the brink. Indeed it may have even been vital to him to occasionally push and go over his limits just to fix in his own mind where those limits lay. Ayrton was a man who could learn from his mistakes and could go on to better and faster things, but on that tragic day fate stepped in and stopped the process. A suspension arm crushed in the impact sprang back and hit Ayrton, piercing his most vulnerable point, the visor of his helmet.

sennab copy

Senna at the German GP 1988. Photo by the author.

Prost and Stewart, two of the all time greats of motor sport were men who came closer than anyone to touching the glass -without ever being burned. Perhaps that was their secret. Stewart was a man in absolute control of his skills as a racing driver, both on and off the track. After three world championships and twenty-seven grand prix wins Stewart was able to say goodbye to it all without ever looking back. What other driver can boast of doing that? Schumacher retired again after a disappointing comeback only for tragedy to strike while skiing. The careers of both Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger fizzled out inconsistently at Benneton. Mansell called it a day after joining McLaren and then realising that their epic run of success had run out of steam. Alain Prost retired after cantering to his fourth championship. It was clear that in Prost’s final year he was no longer willing to push hard. The motivation of his youth had evaporated with the grand prix seasons and with the relentless high-speed sprints of formula one. The day had arrived, as it will no doubt one day arrive for Hamilton, Alonso, and Vettel, when he was no longer trying to touch the glass.


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