F1 2019 and the Sky TV Era

The start of a new formula one racing season is always an exciting time. Drivers have settled into their teams, the testing of the new cars is over, the journalists are busy making their predictions and we, the fans and viewers, can finally settle down to watch the first race.

Photo by Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash

Great, but this year is the start of a new era in television. Live F1 has vanished from terrestrial TV and if you want to see the races and their qualifying sessions live you must now cough up £10 per month to subscribe to F1 on Sky and that’s on top of the charge for the basic Sky TV service. Just to rub that fact in, the very first advertisement shown on the first ad break on the qually show on terrestrial TV’s Channel 4 was an ad for Sky TV’s F1 coverage!

Today we are in a sort of elitist TV age where those willing to spend a great deal of money can see all the latest and trendiest TV shows whilst the rest of us have to make do with whatever the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and all the other Freeview channels can offer.

I have heard that Game if Thrones is something pretty exciting, in fact the other day one of my work colleagues told me she was ‘obsessed’ by the show. As far as I know it’s some kind of sci fi fantasy show with a liberal handful of sex thrown in but sadly, as it’s not available on terrestrial TV, I am not one of the lucky few who can watch it.

In a few years’ time we might get a rerun on the BBC but by then all the fuss and excitement will be over and some new show will be in the limelight. I can just imagine perhaps turning to that same work colleague and saying something about a Game of Thrones and her replying, ‘Game of what?’

Ah, the fickle nature of TV. Anyway, back to the F1 season and you might perhaps be thinking if this guy is so keen on F1 why not cough up the dough and subscribe to Sky? Subscribe? Pay for TV that traditionally has been free? My generation can of course remember the days of black and white TV, the days of only two or even one channel. TV to us is like free school milk, the NHS, the number 17 bus. TV is something one takes for granted and as for actually paying for it, surely that’s undemocratic, unBritish and simply unacceptable!

So what is happening then in the world of F1? Are Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton still at the top? Are Ferrari still challenging? Of course they are. The big story for me was the ninth place qualifying spot of Lando Norris in the McLaren. McLaren were once one of the giants of the sport but in the last few years they have slid down towards the back of the grid. Their relationship with Honda fizzled out but when they strapped a Renault engine to the back of their car they still found themselves under performing and that excuse of blaming the Honda engine was no longer acceptable. Either way, it was enough for star driver Fernando Alonso to throw in the towel and say ‘I’m off!’

Hopefully McLaren have started down the road which may one day return them to the winners circle. Another once great team, Williams are not looking good either. Paddy Lowe who contributed so much to the success at Mercedes has not been able to work the same technical magic at Williams and they have found fundamental issues with their new car, so much so that Paddy has had to take a break from the team for ‘personal reasons’.

Only Ferrari seem to have been able to keep their team viable across the changing vista of Formula one. Lotus, Brabham and many others have come and gone. Will Williams and McLaren be able to carry on? Only time will tell. Neither team finished in the points in Australia but at least the performance of McLaren was encouraging. Williams though were not looking good. During the interviews from the paddock the shouts of the fans praising F1 returnee Robert Kubica were quite evident. Kubica’s story is one of those great F1 success stories. Kubica, a rising star and Grand Prix winner had turned to rallying prior to the beginning of the 2011 season but was involved in a terrible crash in which his right arm was partially severed. Surgeons were able to sew the arm back on but the terrible injuries left Robert with reduced mobility in his hand. Now, many years later, Kubica is back on the F1 grid and with a few adjustments to his Williams steering wheel, he is back racing once again. Sadly, he is driving a car not worthy of his talents but with his feedback and the talents of the Williams engineers, maybe things can be turned around. Everyone loves a comeback story.

Valtteri Bottas took Mercedes back to the winners’ circle once again and brought home an extra point for fastest lap. That single point incidentally is something new for 2019, a point for the fastest lap. So, we might find that no longer will drivers decide to rest their engines on the final laps, in fact they will be putting the hammer down in an effort to bag that one extra point for fastest lap.

Getting back to Valtteri, the Finnish driver didn’t have such a good season last year so this win was exactly what he needed. The Ferrari’s took fourth spot for Sebastian Vettel and he didn’t look too happy about it but things could have been a lot worse.

The Red Bull team came home in third place with a great drive from Verstappen in their new Honda powered car. It looks as though Honda might be finally getting things together.

Yes, I may moan about Formula One and pay per view TV but I did manage to get to the 2pm Channel Four broadcast time without finding out who the winner was. I had steered clear of the Internet, no mean feat for cyber geek like me. I didn’t even look at my emails because that could have given rise to the possibility of seeing an e-mail about the event. I subscribe to a number of F1 web sites and their e-mail newsletters always have the winner’s name in the subject so e-mails and Internet were a no-no. TV news? No, kept well away from that too.

Yes, I managed to stay well away from the media and as a result the race was almost as enjoyable as watching it live.

Well, almost but not quite.


Floating in Space is a novel by author Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

Ally Mcbeal, Eddie the Eagle and my TV Hard Drive

Looking back at some of my previous posts I see that back in April I was waxing lyrical about the onset of spring, the lengthening of the days and how nice it was to finish a night shift and find myself greeted by daylight as I left my workplace.

This week I was back on the night shift again but as I climbed into my car I had to crank up the heater for the first time in many months. I always think that September going into October is a sad time of the year. The days get shorter, the weather is colder and it is time to start wearing my fleece to work.

Being back home after three weeks in France is frankly, something of a let-down. The washer is humming away cleaning our holiday gear. I’m thinking about where I can put all that unnecessary stuff I bought at the brocantes and vide greniers we visited. The prospect of returning to work is no longer looming on the horizon, the moment is actually here. There was a time, I remember sadly, when I actually loved my job and looked forward to going back to work. Alas, those days are gone.

My car, my trusty Renault Megane convertible is a veritable hive of CDs. The glove compartment is full of them as are the pockets in the driver and passenger doors. Down in the passenger footwell there is a box of CDs which is interchangeable with one in the boot. When I get fed up with the selection I swap them round and the box I am tired of goes in the boot and the other one comes into the front. When I am tired of both boxes, I take them back home and make up a new selection.

Today, going back into work I had a good search through them for something new to listen to. Radio adverts are just not on my agenda. TV adverts, OK I can live with them, you can pop into the kitchen and make a cup of tea, yes, OK but radio ads: Not on my watch as they say. Anyway, the CD I decided to listen to was an album of songs from the TV show Ally McBeal, mostly by Vonda Shepard but with a sprinkling of guest singers. Ally McBeal was a comedy drama that aired back in the nineties and it’s surprising that it hasn’t turned up on some random Freeview TV channel yet. Ally McBeal played by Calista Flockhart was a Boston Lawyer and the show focussed on the antics of Ally and her colleagues not only in the courtroom but also in the local bar, which is where the music comes in. There were a heck of a lot of songs sung in that bar.

Music played a major part in the show and Vonda Shepard covered some classic pop tunes all slotted in carefully with lyrics that corresponded to the storyline of the show. One of my absolute favourites was Vonda’s cover of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s ‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ a hit single for O’Sullivan from 1972.

Gilbert O’Sullivan featured regularly in the music charts until the 1980’s when he began a legal battle with his music publisher Dick James regarding royalties and the ensuing legal contest stopped him from releasing his music.

In Ally McBeal, John Cage and Richard Fish were the co-owners of the law firm where Ally works. Cage was an oddball attorney nicknamed ‘the biscuit’. I loved his odd ways, his ‘taking a moment’, his antics in the communal toilet area and his invocation of the spirit of Barry White when he needed a confidence boost. Richard Fish was another oddball lawyer and also part of the firm was Billy, Ally’s former boyfriend and his new wife Georgia. Legal cases were up there in the foreground, actually the background and in the background, actually the foreground, if you see what I mean, were the loves and lives of the cast.

One thing that was important on returning home from holiday was checking the hard drive on my TV recorder and finding out just what was lurking there. What had recorded and what had failed.

There was of course three weeks of our favourite soap, Coronation Street lying in wait so we decided to have a duvet day, actually two duvet days of non-stop soap action. In some ways Corrie is best watched just like that. Fast forward through the adverts and no waiting between Friday night’s cliff hanger episode and the Monday night follow-up.

Some things seem to sort of leap out when you watch a soap in that fashion. One storyline involved Sean Tully, one of the Street’s gay characters. Sean packed his job in at the local factory in favour of a new job and new flat in the city centre. It turned out though that his job had fallen through, then he returned to live with friends who had to give him notice due to some new arrangements. Then it was revealed Sean had lost his job and now was actually homeless. Sean endured a few weeks of living rough in a tent and trying to conceal the shame of his new position from friends but suddenly, the way it is in soaps, his old friend Billy offered him a room at his house, he got his old job back and hey presto, all is well again.

It was nice that the soap tried to show a little of what life is like for the homeless but couldn’t they have carried the storyline on a little longer, like things are in, you know, real life?

Then again there was the storyline when poor old Rita started losing her memory and was diagnosed with dementia. Luckily there was that quick lifesaving operation and Rita’s brain power and memory were restored just like it never happens in real life. And there was the one about young Simon who had become violent towards his mother. Luckily, he quickly grew out of that phase. Oh well, that’s soaps for you.

Also there on my hard drive were two formula one Grands Prix. The Belgian Grand Prix from the impressive and historic Spa Francorchamps and the Italian race from the equally historic Monza. There was a time too when I would have hungered to watch those races. As it is, Formula One still has its moments and I do still love the sport but not like the days when I bought a shed load of racing magazines every week and hungered for every snippet of racing information I could find.

While in France I subscribed to Radio Five Live’s F1 podcasts. Now the podcasts are not quite what I had thought they were going to be. I thought they might be an audio version of the race highlights with the commentators breathlessly describing the race track action in the way Murray Walker used to do in the old days. (Murray, for those of you who have never heard of him, was a BBC commentator who was once described as a man who talks like his trousers are on fire -in his quieter moments!)

No, the podcasts were not like that. They start off, unlike the TV highlights show on Channel 4, by telling you the results, and just how they came about. Then there are 30 to 50 minutes of driver interviews and endless discussion about what happened, why it happened and why didn’t something that didn’t happen, not happen. Yes, interesting but maybe the production team assumed we listeners had watched the race on TV. Actually we hadn’t, or at least I hadn’t, which is why I was listening to the podcast in the first place.

There were some exciting elements to those races, Hamilton and Vettel colliding at the first corner at Monza and Hamilton hunting down Raikkonen’s Ferrari and just pipping him for the win. Still, watching those races a few weeks after they had happened just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Anyway, soon it was time to go back to work but before that we sat down one evening after our tea looking for something to watch. Nothing was on TV (naturally) so once again I scanned through the hard drive and came across a film I had recorded about Eddie the Eagle.

In 1988, Eddie became the first skier to represent Britain in Olympic Ski jumping since 1928. The film describes Eddie’s life as an Olympic obsessed youngster and his progression to ski jumper. He self-trains in Germany where the seasoned skiers belittle him. However by grit and determination, Eddie qualifies for the Olympics in Calgary despite resistance by the Olympic team for his amateur and uncouth appearance. Eddie turns the tables on everyone by his determination and humour and in fact becomes the star of the Olympics, feted by the world’s press.

The film is an enjoyable and affectionate portrait. I’m not sure just how accurate or true it is but I enjoyed every minute of it and if I had been there at the Olympics, I would have been cheering for Eddie myself.

Well, that first night shift was hard. Not actually hard in itself just hard to endure, sitting there wishing I was back in my rented villa tapping away on my laptop trying to finish a new blog post so that I could hurry out for a dip in the pool, after decanting some vin rouge to breathe, of course.

When I finished at 6 am it was still dark and rather cold. As I pulled away from the car park I turned up the heat and switched on the CD player. Vonda Shepard was singing another of my favourite songs, a cover of the Dusty Springfield’s hit, I Only Want to be With You . .


Floating in Space is a novel by Steve Higgins set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

 

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!

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 . .


Steve Higgins is the author of Floating in Space, a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.

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.

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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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.

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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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The French Grand Prix

The 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, are fantastic and teams like Marussia are desperate for points in order to tap into the incoming TV revenue to stay afloat.Even though, we do need some semblance of a sporting ethos in our sport. It is still a sport not just a million dollar business, isn’t it?

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.

 

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.

 

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.

This 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. 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, whom 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 had 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 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. Sat 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.

Prost and Stewart, two of the all time greats of motor sport were men who come 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 Grands 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. 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 ran 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.