Formula One, NASCAR, Triumphs and Tragedies.
Death in motor sport is, tragically, almost a weekly occurrence. Some where in the world, in a small, largely insignificant, race, (whether it be F1 or sand racing in Dubai) a driver, mechanic, or marshal is risking his or her life pursuing a glorious sport. Some do it for the financial rewards, others because they simply love the noise and passion and don't want to do anything else.
The recent, well publicized deaths of Dale Earnhardt and Graham Beveridge made world headlines. NASCAR suffered another terrible loss. The US fans' outpouring of grief and shock remeniscent to that which befell Brazil and Formula One fans on April 1st 1994. Senna's Tamborello accident was the motor racing equivalent of Deely Plaza and JFK. The fact that a volunteer marshal was killed in a freak accident (is there another kind?) was extremely unlucky. But the consequent furor in the Australian and International press was, I believe, unjustified. He was a professional who knew what he was doing and the fact is, as stated on every ticket you'll ever purchase at a race, "MOTOR RACING IS DANGEROUS". To put this in to perspective, twelve climbers a year perish on K2 and Everest alone. It might not be televised, but it's real enough. What is crucial in these incidents is not to ask how, why and what for, but to examine ways to honor these men's deaths by improving both passive and active safety in and around the racing car environment. The FIA is by no means an angel in these matters, and has consistently acted in reaction to, not expectation of, tragedy. However the deaths of Senna and Roland Ratzenberger did force F1 authorities and teams into action to reduce speeds and improve driver safety. Important steps have been made to protect drivers' heads, feet and legs, plus limit the way in which pit crews, fans and marshals are exposed to danger. After four tragedies in NASCAR I don't see the same impetus for improvement. The cars seem absurdly basic in design and construction when compared to F1 or CART chassis and survival tubs. Isn't it time money was spent in these areas? Certainly there seems to be plenty of it around. Just ask Michael Schumacher, (the richest driver in motor sport), who very easily could have been a victim, too, in Australia as his Ferrari barrel-rolled into the sand trap. On this occasion, Michael's guardian angels were watching. But this hasn't stopped him breaking his long-term contract with Bell and switching to a lighter and, he consequently believes, safer helmet.
Luck plays a significant part in any driver's career. Bertrand Gachot was unlucky to be caught in London mace-ing a taxi driver. He was even unluckier to find himself in jail during the Belgium Grand Prix of 1991. Had these events not transpired, Herr Schumacher certainly would not have driven a Jordan, nor any other F1 car, that weekend, making it very difficult for him to burst onto the scene and qualify 7th in an uncompetitive car! This lucky break set Schumacher and his support team on the road to incredible success and unheard of riches. Michael's win in Malaysia was his 6th consecutive from six pole positions. A modern record, surpassing Nigel Mansell's five from five in 1992 and Alberto Ascari's 1952/53 record. He now has amassed 33 pole positions, (Senna's record is 65) the most fastest laps and most kilometers lead, plus 46 GP wins. (Alain Prost will almost certainly lose his record of 51 this season). Michael's response when confronted with these raw numbers? "You know it's very nice to hear that, but for me it's more important to win races and Championships, and also how you win it." The last part of the sentence caused a small amount of sniggering in the press corp. For Michael's "how you win it" tactics (just like Senna's before him) have often landed the determined German in all sorts of trouble.
The reality is Schumacher is the current Michael Jordan of F1. And he knows it. Stuck out in eleventh spot in a monsoon, he simply dispatched with his team-mate (the only other notable car using the same compound tires that could have competed with him) and ran 5 seconds a lap faster than the race leader David Coulthard whom he caught and passed in under six easy laps. The Arrows of Jos Verstappen did a tremendous job holding off the Ferrari's and embarrassing McLaren lap after lap. But the race was a real indication of the confidence that the Ferrari stable has brought to the 2001 championship. Coulthard, who eventually came home third, was alarmingly honest. "Fact is our car isn't quick enough at the moment. Ferrari is the class of the field and getting what they deserve. They're doing to us exactly what we did to them in 1998".
Ron Dennis made some pathetic sour grapes remarks post race about how "he wasn't prepared to risk his drivers lives" by opting for anything but full wet tires at the time when Coulthard and Hakkinen pitted. The sorry truth being that once again the whole pit lane was out strategized by Ferrari's Ross Brawn. Had the red duo thought it was too risky, and both had already been off the track, they wouldn't have left the pit lane with intermediates.
Having said that, there are a few teams and drivers who probably shouldn't have bothered. Eddie Irvine, who, under threat of dismissal and the loss of his glamorous globe trotting life style has recently been trying quite hard to develop the Jaguar programme, lasted one corner. Heinfeld, Raikkonen, (in Sauber's "home" race) Panis, Villeneuve and Montoya faired little better. BAR enjoyed what Craig Pollack described as a "disastrous" and "disappointing" weekend. One real note of improvement came from BMW and Williams. The P80 powered car was consistently fastest through the speed traps and now possibly the most powerful power plant on the grid. And that in only their second year of competition! Ferrari's dominance may be great for Fiat and Marlboro, but isn't a good sign for the health of F1. McLaren will catch up, but apart from the top two, all the other teams are quite desperate for sponsorship dollars to invest in R&D, wind tunnel time and engine development programmes, trying vainly to bridge the ever-widening gap. However, even the cost of entry into this finite atmosphere with "cheap" teams is now so high that the global sponsors, who can afford it, cannot make the numbers work in a sensible, unemotional business case.
Sure the newly bought out Minardi Team will improve. But that's only because they have only one direction to go in. Owner Paul Stoddard has already brought in an Austrian technology firm as main sponsor. Let's hope for him (and his $40m gamble) it isn't a dot gone. No doubt tough times are ahead for the teams and their respective commercial directors. This time last year F1 had attracted $500m in new money. They'd be happy with 10% of that sum now. Sounds familiar doesn't it?