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.

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 French grand Prix

sennab copyeditThe European grand prix season is well underway and it would have been rather nice to have combined my visit to France with a trip to the French F1 event, of course that’s clearly impossible as despite being the most historic race of all -there is no French Grand Prix.

Why ever not you may ask? The answer is this : the formula one season is a tv event first and foremost. It is the tv companies of the world that pay money into Bernie  Ecclestone’s F1  franchise and a race in France doesn’t fit into his the global tv vision of F1.

What does fit in then?  The Abu Dhabi grand prix,  with its multi million dollar circuit that is used only a handful of times  per year? Where there is no local motor sporting infrastructure, no local race teams and no local race drivers, in fact no local interest at all! There is interest though in publicising this small Arab nation to the western world through the power of tv and the same holds for Bahrain, another new race in the F1 firmament where the primary focus is Bahrain, not F1. Similar events now crowd the F1 calendar, China, Korea, Russia,  and Singapore.  Speciality non events far from the hub of traditional formula one racing like Spa Francorchamps, Monza, Zandvort, Silverstone, and the Nurburgring.

Recently Bernie Ecclestone was asked about the return of the French race. No, he said we will be having a race in Azerbaijan next year!  What? Can this man be serious? Clearly he is.

Ecclestone, who is currently facing bribery charges in a Munich court can clearly see the cash register jingling on the F1 till.  Still, when you consider he has been accused of slipping someone a forty four million dollar bribe, well,  the potential profits in that deal must presumably be in excess of, well. forty four million dollars!

The time has come for formula one racing to hand the managerial reins over to someone who is more interested in the sport than the million dollar pay check. OK, the sport has to make money, who would argue with that?  After all, the costs of todays race machinery, cars, engines, race tracks, drivers and logistics, is fantastic and teams like Marussia are desperate for points in order to tap into the incoming TV revenue to stay afloat.

My advice as a long time race fan; ditch Bernie, ditch the exotic locations and go back to basics. recruit a CEO like Jackie Stewart, a highly respected F1 elder statesman who loves the sport and from that one standpoint will be on a level field with formula one fans the world over.