Tuesday, 21 January 2014
Formula 1 testing is soon to begin, and so we'll be getting our first feedback on who's hot, who's not, and how the cars are this year. And the unspoken consensus seems to be that that what these cars are is twitchy.
Let's recap those "regualtions": single exhaust pipe exiting out of the very rearmost part of the car? Check. Shallower rear wing with lower wing removed? Check. Torquey electrically-boosted turbo V6 engine? Check. Add all that up and you get a car giving much more shove out of the corners with less downforce to stick it to the road. In other words, you get a car that's much more tail-happy than last year. Webber says that'll suit his friend Sebastian just fine, but I can think of someone else who'll probably love it: Kimi Räikkönen. And I can think of corresponding driver who probably won't love it too: Jenson Button.
Kimi's always been a gutsy, stick-it-in-and-let-it slide kinda driver, so I can imagine he'll have a lot of fun driving this year's Ferrari. And unlike Fernando Alonso, fun is all he's after, so I have no doubt who'll be the happier driver at the end of 2014. It's gonna be amusing to see how that all pans out, in a tense kind of way.
Jenson, on the other hand, has always been a much more precise driver, one who drives with a soft touch, almost with the fingertips. That gives him certain advantages. I was there in Melbourne in 2010 when he did what I thought was impossible, making a single set of soft Bridgestones last fifty-two laps. And it's not like he lacks speed either: after a qualifying lap at Silverstone, then-Honda sporting director Gil de Ferran was moved to comment: "I remember looking at his data after qualifying and thinking, 'Jesus Christ!' He had basically judged every corner to perfection. It was all done with surgical precision; the throttle, brake and steering were just perfect. There was not one correction too many."
After his disappointing 2013, it's become fashionable to claim the weakness of Jenson's driving style is that it doesn't allow him to really hustle the car to find its extreme limits. That's what Lewis Hamilton can do, and that's why they were such a good pairing, because Lewis gave Jenson something to aim for, a lap time that showed what the car could really do. Sergio Perez did not, and that's why he's not around this year. Only time will tell if the rookie Kevin Magnussen can, but he certainly has the DNA for it. Kevin's old man is former F1 driver Jan Magnussen, who in '94 made British Formula 3 his bitch and brought Paul Stewart Racing 14 wins out of 17, and then made his F1 debut when the team became Stewart Grand Prix three years later. Jackie Stewart, a triple World Champion himself and not a man prone to hype, nevertheless went on record saying, "Not since Ayrton Senna a decade earlier have I seen a driver with more natural talent and flair."
Unfortunately, Jan Magnussen went down in history as one of F1's great lost talents: he came along at a time when F1 was tinkering with the qualifying format to make it more TV-friendly, and their answer in the late 90's was a kind of "one lap, one chance" deal. Jan was the sort of driver who liked to get in the car and work himself up to a really fast lap time, so this was a bit of a disaster for him. Add to that a general lack of application and you'll see he disappears from the entry list after only a couple of seasons.
On that level at least his boy Kevin has a better chance - "failing to apply yourself" isn't really a thing when you drive for McLaren, a team notorious for micromanaging every aspect of their drivers' lives. Diet and nutrition, fitness and training, PR, advertising their sponsors' products, not to mention testing and working on the car, McLaren really doesn't leave you to your own devices much, not even in your extremely hypothetical spare time. All in the name of maximising the efficacy of the package with a focus on minimising wetware malfunction, or something like that I guess. His CV isn't that impressive - just a Danish Formula Ford title and a Formula Renault 3.5 title, with no experience in the GP2 that's done such a fine job breeding champions, and the time elsewhere spent in German and British F3, which aren't really top-tier series anymore - but he did set the fastest time of the McLaren drivers at the Abu Dhabi Young Driver test, so there's that.
Throw in the death of his father John a couple of weeks ago and it seems 2014 is going to be a tough year for Jenson. Not that I'd bet against him, of course. The last time he was in for a tough season was 2009...
Ironically, the man who'd love this new slide-happy generation of F1 car the most is probably Jenson's old BFF from Brazil, Rubens Barrichello. Rubens loved him a tail-happy open-wheeler, and like Lewis he gave Jenson something to shoot for, because he was still bloody fast when he was finally booted from F1 - fast enough to get a seat in IndyCar before "retiring" to Stock Car Brasil (which is more like DTM, by the by). Which reminds me, guess who Jan Magnussen's teammate was the year he made his F1 debut? Yep, the very same Rubens Barrichello. Given that, I don't think he retired too soon, but credit where it's due: he was still impressively fast for an old man. And having been for a spin with an old, arthritic former NASCAR driver, I can promise you an old racing driver is still waaay faster and tougher and more talented than any of we fat civvies.
So Rubens, enjoy your working retirement, just don't forget to spend some time at home with Silvana and the kids. Jenson, our thoughts are with you, and we're all glad the Old Boy got to see you become World Champion at last. And Kimi... Kimi, yeah, never mind.