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Drivers, start your engines

Drivers, start your engines
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First Published: Sat, Mar 17 2007. 12 37 AM IST
Updated: Sat, Mar 17 2007. 12 37 AM IST
When 22 drivers in the world’s most expensive cars rocket from the starting line of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 18, fans of Formula 1 racing will be watching for more than just who crosses the finish line first, 58 laps later. As F1’s 2007 season kicks off, they’ll also be wondering who, if anyone, will become the sport’s next towering figure.
Much has changed since last season. Michael Schumacher, the dominant F1 driver for over a decade, has retired. The champion of the past two years, Fernando Alonso, has decamped from the Renault racing team to McLaren, an organization that hasn’t won a title since 1999. Ace Finnish driver Kimi Räikkönen has jumped from McLaren to Ferrari to replace Schumacher.
Additionally, an intriguing new generation of ambitious rookie drivers—some with championship potential—is also on the scene. Despite Alonso’s current two-year reign as champion, the field seems wide open, and fans will wonder whether a new racing star of Schumacher’s magnitude will emerge.
“I think F1 reached its nadir in terms of popularity when Michael seemed to be winning every race,” says Patrick Symonds, executive director of engineering with the Renault team and the man who devised the strategy that defeated Schumacher and Ferrari in 2005 and 2006. “We can be optimistic of the opposite this year: a close, competitive battle for the championship.”
While the sport has its roots in post-World War II Europe, F1 is now a world-wide franchise with 17 races this season, of which eight are held outside Europe: Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Japan, Canada, the US, China and Brazil. Eleven teams compete for the championship, with each team fielding two cars in every race. At the end of the season, two titles are awarded: The Drivers’ Championship goes to the driver with the highest point total and the Constructors’ Championship to the team with the most points. Points are awarded for finishing in the top eight positions.
Schumacher’s announcement after winning the Italian Grand Prix on 10 September, that he would retire at the age of 37, was the key event of the 2006 season and will have a lasting impact on the sport.
Statistically speaking, the German (who will continue as an advisor to the Ferrari team) is undeniably the greatest driver in the history of Formula 1 racing. Of the 250 races since his debut in 1991, he triumphed in 91, a 36% success rate. His nearest competitor in the all-time victory rankings, Frenchman Alain Prost, saw action in 197 races from 1980-1993, winning 51, or 26%. Schumacher won a record seven world championships; the next highest total, five, was won by Juan Manuel Fangio, who raced in the 1950s. Schumacher also holds the record for most pole positions—awarded to the driver with the fastest qualifying time: 68; the most wins in a season: 13 (2004); most successive wins in a season: seven (2004); most second-place finishes: 43; and the largest number of fastest race laps: 75.
Will he be missed? “We have a saying in Italy, ‘The King is dead; we have a new King’,” says Daniele Audetto, managing director of the Super Aguri F1 team and a former team manager at Ferrari. “I am sure that after the first three or four races of the 2007 F1 season, the fight will be on between the new kings.”
BMW Motorsport director Mario Theissen, the man in charge of the Munich-based car manufacturer’s F1 team, BMW-Sauber, agrees. “Michael’s career is unparalleled and will remain so,” he says. “But now other strong drivers, personalities and characters will step in to shape the face of Formula 1.”
Who are the likely contenders? For many fans, the new F1 king has already been crowned, and he is Alonso. Since 2001, the 25-year-old Spaniard has competed in 88 races and finished first in 15 of them. In 2005, Alonso became, at 24, the youngest driver ever to win the F1 championship. In 2006, he edged out Schumacher to capture his second title.
For Alonso, the absence of Schumacher isn’t the only X-factor in 2007. Alonso has changed teams, and this year, he will race for McLaren and not Renault, where he had secured both his earlier championships.
To Louise Goodman, pit lane reporter for Britain’s ITV network, Alonso’s defection to McLaren will have little effect on his chances for a third title. “In F1, you need to have won to know how to win,” she says. “Fernando has it within himself to win titles. Obviously, the success of a driver depends on his car, but early testing indicates that McLaren has come up with a very good car.”
But Alonso is by no means a shoo-in for a third straight championship. He will have real competition from several drivers. One of them is 27-year-old Räikkönen, who arrives this year at Ferrari from McLaren to fill the vacancy left by Schumacher. Since his 2001 debut, Räikkönen has seen action in 105 races with nine wins. “There is a general feeling that he’s the fastest driver in F1,” says Andrew van de Burgt, the longtime editor at F1 enthusiast magazine Autosport.
But speed isn’t everything, and some wonder whether the Finn has the whole package. In F1, saying a driver is “fast” means several things—the most obvious being that he is capable of driving and controlling a car at speeds that would cause mere mortals to faint, around 300km an hour. “Fast” also indicates that a driver pilots the car quickly from F1’s standing start to a high gear and a blistering speed. In addition, a fast driver possesses an almost superhuman blend of hand-to-eye-to-foot coordination, enabling him to take advantage of opponents’ on-track mistakes and to correct his own errors.
The sport requires other skills, however, including the ability to provide the team instant feedback about the car’s condition while hurtling around the track; an understanding of the effect of weather conditions on race day; and, most importantly, the strength of a team leader. Schumacher had all of these.
Does anyone else on this year’s racetrack? Jenson Button is a 27-year-old British driver on the Honda team with 120 races under his belt and one win since his debut in 2000. Like most of his fellow drivers, Button has competed in other motor-sport championships, such as Formula 3, which perform a similar function for F1 as the various youth leagues do for professional: provide experience and the chance for F1 teams to evaluate fresh talent.
Having done well in that milieu, Button was greeted by F1 as the heir to the British champions of the 1990s, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill. In 2003, Button electrified his fans by regularly finishing ahead of his more experienced team-mate and former world champion Jacques Villeneuve. The following season, Button again impressed by coming in third in the Drivers’ Championship. Observers expect him to do better in 2007. “The monkey’s off his back now because he won a race last year and he can relax,” says van de Burgt. “He’s proved that he’s not lacking in terms of speed; it’s whether or not he has a car under him that can challenge teams like Renault and Ferrari.”
Three new drivers on the Formula 1 circuit are also worth watching this season.
One is 22-year-old Lewis Hamilton, who will be making his debut with McLaren. “He’s quick and aggressive,” says van de Burgt. “It’s unusual for McLaren to hire a rookie. That should tell you everything you need to know about him.”
No rookie has ever won the title. Schumacher raced for three years before reaching the top and Alonso for four years. No matter how well a driver performs in the minor-league championships, experience in the cauldron of competition is what reveals greatness.
In 1998, Hamilton joined the McLaren Young Driver Support Program, and in 2000 the prestigious British Racing Drivers Club awarded him “rising star” status. To make room for Hamilton, McLaren moved another driver, Pedro de la Rosa, who competed in eight grand prix races last year, to the position of test driver.
Another rookie name to remember is that of Heikki Kovalainen, a 25-year-old Finn, starting this season with Renault.
“Heikki was the team’s test driver throughout 2006, and he impressed us with his calm, mature approach,” says Symonds in explaining Renault’s decision to race the rookie driver this year.
The first Polish driver in F1, 22-year-old Robert Kubica, appeared in six races for BMW Sauber at the end of last year and so isn’t technically a rookie. van de Burgt witnessed Kubica’s first F1 test drive and says the Pole “took to the car like he was made for it.”
At age 13, having won every go-karting prize in Poland, Kubica moved to Italy without his parents. By 1998, he won his first Italian karting championship. In 1999 and 2000, he won both the Italian and German karting championships, facing far tougher opponents than he did in Poland. Subsequently, Kubica competed in and won several minor championships. Last year, at the Italian F1 Grand Prix, only his third race on the senior circuit, he finished third.
“For my first full season as a regular F1 racing driver, I hope we will be able to fight for points in most of the GPs and have consistent speed,” Kubica says, when asked about his strategy. “Certainly it is a different situation for me than last year. Now I know I have to jump into the seat and compete.”
As for making history as the first Pole on the F1 circuit, he says, “It’s a nice feeling, getting recognized in the street.”
INSIDE TRACK
Once you’re at an F1 circuit you’ll need to know the lingo. Here’s a quick guide to key terminology
Apex: The middle point of the inside line of a corner. Drivers aim their cars at it while turning.
Blistering:When a tire, or part of it, overheats. Excess heat causes rubber to soften and break away in chunks from the body of the tire.
Chicane:A tight sequence of turns in alternate directions.
Downforce:Aerodynamic force applied downward as a car travels forward. It improves traction and handling.
Oversteer:When a car’s rear end doesn’t want to go around a corner and tries to overtake the front end as the driver turns in toward the apex. This often requires the driver to turn the front wheels into the skid.
Paddock:An enclosed area behind the pit area where teams keep their transporters and motor homes. Off limits to the public.
Parc ferme:Fenced-off area into which cars are driven after qualifying and before the race, where no team members are allowed to touch them except under the strict supervision of race stewards.
Scrutineering:Technical check of cars by officials to ensure they comply with regulations.
Splash and dash:A pit stop in the closing laps of the race when a driver needs a few litres of fuel to make it to the finish.
Tear-off strips:See-through plastic strips that drivers fit to their visors before the start of the race and then remove as they become dirty.
Telemetry:Computer system that allows engineers in the pit garage to monitor data from a car's engine and chassis.
Understeer:When the front end of a car resists turning into a corner and slides wide as the driver aims for the apex.
(Michael Clerizo)
(Who’s your favourite F1 driver? Write to wsj@livemint.com)
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First Published: Sat, Mar 17 2007. 12 37 AM IST
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