Formula 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.
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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