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Friday, July 15, 2011

F1 Drivers who just didn't cut it

Talking of Grosjean and his atrocious 2009 season with Renault made me wonder about all those guys who didn't quite make the grade.  This Blog post is a big salute to all of those drivers from 1990 - 2011 who only managed to race at the pinnacle of motorsport for one season or less.

We can criticise drivers all we like, but Grosjean's return to form in GP2 after THAT season has made me take a moment to realise that each of these guys made it to F1 even if they couldn't hold down their seat.  These guys MADE it.  The horrible part of the story is that they couldn't sustain it and that we, the fans, tend to have very short memories of drivers who were there one day and gone the next.#

Who, for example, remembers Marco Apicella? Other than Marco Apicella himself, his family and his mates?

He holds the dubious record of shortest F1 career ever.  He was taken on by Jordan for the Italian GP in 1993.  He qualified in 23rd position and was caught up in a first corner accident (not his fault).  He never raced F1 again.  In 1994 he won the Japanese F3000 title.  While he hasn't won another title since, he has won races and has continued to compete.  At one stage he was test driver for Dome who were hoping to launch into F1 with Shinji Nakano and A.N. Other but the attempt failed.  Fair play to Apicella for being there in 1993 and continuing to race with success elsewhere.

What about Gary Brabham? Yeah you know the surname - Son of Jack, who like his brother David made little headway in F1.  While David raced for back of the grid teams for two or three seasons and doesn't make it into the criteria for inclusion in this Blog Post, Gary (Yeah son of Jack Brabham!) joined the LIFE team in 1990 and failed to Qualify on two occasions in USA and Brazil. He quit the team and never got another F1 opportunity.  He had won the first ever British F3000 title just the year before and in 1991 won the 12 hours of Sebring IMSA GT Race with his brother Geoff.  He retired in 1995.  Hard luck Gary, it's just a shame that the 1989 test drives with Brabham and Leyton House F1 teams didn't work out. I mean, HOW could the BRABHAM team not take on a BRABHAM? I just don't understand!

Should Paul Belmondo even be on this list? He did race in two seasons with Pacific in 1994 and March in 1992. I actually remember the name but that's probably because he was sleeping with Princess Stephanie of Monaco in the '80's.  Obviously he had buckets of cash because he paid for his drive at March where he spectacularly failed to qualify in all but 5 races of the season, ran out of sponsorship, and was replaced.  He did come 9th in one of those races but he was not a racing driver and he's here just so I can say - DID NOT DESERVE THE SEAT! His previous results along with those afterwards show that he had no racing talent whatsoever.  He appears to have lucked into about 4 wins in a driving career that lasted from 1983 - 2001.  He makes me think I should do a worst paying driver ever Post.

We move on to Robert Doornbos, Jordan test driver in 2004, Minardi Race Driver in July 2005, When Minardi were taken over by Red Bull he was retained as test driver and raced three times for RBR.  Another Driver who could have made it.  He was slow to come to terms with racecraft but his testing speeds often put him into the top ten and sometimes into the top three when with Red Bull.
In his combined total of 11 F1 races he never finished above 12th place but, in his first race for Red Bull in China in 2006 he qualified in 10th place and would probably have had a decent result if he hadn't collided with Kubica in the first corner necessitating a change of front wing.  He finished that race in 12th position. Both before and after his F1 career he took wins in F3, F3000, and Champcar and while he's never won a championship he has been brought back as test driver with both Jordan (2005) and Red Bull (2007) a testament to just how well he was thought of and how close he was to the top 24 in the world.

This could go on and on so I'll turn it into a series and stop after just one more driver - and the Americans in the audience won't be happy - Michael Andretti at McLaren 1993 (Sorry Guys!) - There's no doubting Michael's racing abilities and this horrific stint at McLaren followed on from a 1991 CART Championship Title and 2nd in the 1992 CART series.
Let's get beyond that and focus on F1, Michael as just another damn good driver who just didn't make it. He competed in just 13 races for McLaren and achieved one podium, third at Monza. So what happened? Let's look at this objectively (Unlike Marco his son!).
  • He came in as team mate to Senna, so he was already going to find it difficult.
  • He had no preSeason testing under his belt.
  • In-Season testing was limited to tracks within the team's own country - Britain.
  • Michael refused to move over to England, remaining in the USA - a six-hour flight away so testing was never going to be easy
  • The FIA imposed a limit on the number of practice laps on race weekends and limited the number of tyres.
  • He had no experience of Active Suspension, Semi-automatic gearboxes or Traction Control.
  • He had never done standing starts.
  • With little testing and no track knowledge there was little opportunity for him to learn the circuits for the races.
These are the preSeason facts of the case.
For a driver used to simple, turbo-charged brute force CARTs he now had to get into a technically advanced piece of machinery filled with gizmo's, with little or no testing, and find a result.
The odds were stacked against him.
Marco's rant against McLaren was low on facts.  He claimed that they were desperate to replace him with Mika Hakkinen but there is no doubt that Mika was hired in order to provide cover for Senna, who was looking for a Williams Drive and had only agreed to race for McLaren on a Race-by-Race deal - so he could leave at any time.

By not moving to Britain testing had to be carried out for him at specific times and this hampered his development.  This was definitely Michael's own fault, probably not helped by Mario's opinion: "All he needs is one or two tests. He doesn't need to grind away. Michael's not a test driver like some of those other guys, you know, there to do the donkey testing. He's there to go for it". (subtle!)
Let's face it, things had changed from Mario's time.  Testing was vital to get to know, and improve, the car, to familiarise yourself with all of the electronics, and to spend time with your team to build morale.  Michael's line was that he was not moving.

After first Quali put him in 6th onthe grid in his first race in South Africa the gremlins hit his active suspension system and put him down in 9th, three seconds behind his teammate (don't forget - Senna). His gearbox left him stranded on the grid at lights out and even though they got him going he crashed into the back of Derek Warwick on lap 4 breaking his front suspension - CRASH

Brazil - pulled himself up to 5th in Quali (less than a second behind Senna) but forgot at the standing start that he had to physically paddle shift up from 1st to 2nd gear and was overtaken by the cars behind him, forcing him into the path of Berger's Ferrari and Launching him into the barriers.  Big accident! - CRASH

At Donnington he Qualified 6th - less than half a second behind Senna - but on the first lap of the race Karl Wendlinger closed the door on him and both cars ended up in the gravel. - CRASH

San Marino - He was fighting with Wendlinger again, for 4th, when he spun in Variante Alta due to a rear brake lock-up - MECHANICAL FAILURE

Spain - 5th - RESULT

Monaco - Crash in the Wet at quali - Crashed in the race at Loews but finished the race in eighth nonetheless - STRONG DRIVE

Canada - Qualified 12th - a flat starter battery lost him 3 laps at the start of the race - TECHNICAL FAILURE

France - Problems with his gearshift in Quali meant he only came in 16th on the grid but then he raced to 6th place in the race - STRONG DRIVE

Silverstone - Qualified 11th - though he had rain on his quick lap - Spun into the gravel at Copse on the first lap - CRASH

Hockenheim - Poor Quali - Race - CRASH

Hungary - 11th on the grid but raced strongly in 6th up until he suffered throttle failure - TECHNICAL FAILURE

Spa - poor Quali followed by a sad race - finished in 8th - he already knew he was going by that time and chose to race for the final time in Monza - Finish

Monza - Started from 9th on the grid and finished in 3rd - PODIUM

Let's count them up 5 crashes, 3 Tech/Mechanical Failures, 2 points scoring finishes, 2 strong drives, and one sad race.

Not bad really when you look at the state of McLaren in that year.  Though it has to be said that Mika immediately outqualified Senna in Estoril.  Practice time is what it was all about!

Michael - No matter how you feel about the situation at McLaren I have to salute you - you deserved better than you got and your talent never really managed to shine through consistently whether by virtue of Berger and Wendlinger who seemed to be your two nemesis, or the gremlins in your McLaren.

to be continued...