WHY IT’S SO HARD TO STAND OUT IN F1
Well, how was it for you? The season I mean. Not a classic, perhaps, but I think we can say that a star was re-set in the heavens where it rightfully belonged. Lewis’s season was pretty much untroubled by mechanical failures, accidents, political issues or undue pressure from his team-mate. Sure, Nico stepped it up a notch in the closing races, spurred, no doubt, by the sting of finishing second and that humiliating cap-tossing incident in the Austin green room. But we shall have to see whether a winter of snowboarding in the Rockies and celebrity partying will restore Hamilton’s enthusiasm for another title tilt, going for four against arch-nemesis, Sebastian Vettel. Three is nice alright, but four is just that little bit extra special. Having just the one, I am an F1 commoner, by comparison. It blows my mind that a man can win seven championships, as Michael Schumacher did: put that in your crash helmet and smoke it.
Lest we forget, it’s nearly two years since Michael’s life was changed forever. Right now I’m sure he would trade every championship to get back to a normal life. But he’s still top of the tree and some way off being toppled. Which puts Fangio’s record – five titles, 1951, then 54-57 – into sharp relief.
Imagine. Not Senna, not Prost, not Stewart, not Clark, not Fittipaldi (I could go on, so I won’t) managed to beat Fangio’s record. Was racing in the fifties less dangerous? Certainly not. Were the cars more reliable? Not by a long chalk. Was the competition less intense? Hmmm… perhaps? Some statistics to consider: There were almost half as many people on the planet. Even fewer could ever contemplate a life as a racing driver, especially a South American. We live in more affluent times, despite all we hear. More people in Europe and around the world fly in aeroplanes, take foreign holidays and own cars. Last year, roughly 90 million vehicles were produced globally. In 1955 it was only a little over 10 million, and 70 per cent of those were in the USA. Amazingly, though, at the British Grand Prix of 1952, there were 35 entrants for 32 places on the grid and 22 of them finished the race. The start must have been bonkers! But there were only eight rounds in the championship then. Each season now is almost 2.5 times as long.
If F1 were a pyramid, the base would be at its widest right now. The logic goes that competition strengthens the breed. I think it was Lotus founder Colin Chapman who said that somewhere in China was a driver better than Jim Clark – except that he’d never sat in a car. It must be true that if we increase the pool of talent, the chances of finding two Fangios increases and the differential between the very best decreases. If the internet has proved anything, it is that one individual is not so unique. Being different is getting harder. So, perhaps the value of being first is greater now?
Comparing drivers from different eras is fun but somewhat meaningless. I tend to think that a championship today makes lower demands of courage. Today’s drivers have to contend with danger, of course they do, but not nearly as much as their Fangio-era forebears. The chances of a nasty, violent, fiery death in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was considerably greater than it is today. Thank the FIA for that.
Nowadays the psychological pressure comes from the business side, the press and ‘fame’. The modern F1 driver is more worried about his Twitter account than his chances of survival. And well he might be. For without it, his chances of keeping his seat are vastly diminished. But to win today against a solid batch of proven world champions and grand prix winners (and with well-budgeted GP2 drivers from nations desperate for a slice of the action snapping at their heels), the pressure at the top is greater than ever. Perhaps we cut them less slack because they appear to have a more cushy job, with less risk to life and limb? Perhaps our admiration is diminished?
As self-knowledge increases exponentially, boundaries between individuals are eroded. Computers reveal the smallest differences for all to see. What would Sir Stirling have given to see Fangio’s data? All he could do was hang onto his rear axle, listen to the gear changes and watch his lines. Harder to get an edge when your team-mate can see all your tricks.
Nope. The margins of differential today are measurable only in hundredths of a second per lap. It’s getting harder to stand out from the crowd. You need a whole season to discern the smallest differences. Don’t worry. Another one will be along, right after the break…
“Being different is getting harder. So, perhaps the value of being first is greater now?”
It’s tougher than ever to stand out in F1
Arch-rivals Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, hold three and four titles respectively. Can Lewis make it four-all in 2016?