The Value of a Champion

Photo by Getty

Photo by Getty

To claim the Formula 1 title trophy: this is the glory that arguably all young karting champions aspire to. No more than two dozen of the best drivers in the world are given this opportunity every year; and out of the 21 running in this current season, five are looking to repeat this feat – some, more than once.

And yet, at this stage of the championship – two-thirds into the season – it seems there can only be one winner in 2015. With 48 points ahead of his closest rival and only five races to go, Lewis Hamilton is perfectly placed to defend his 2014 title, and claim his third career one. This did not happen by sheer circumstance: a change of regulations starting the new turbo-charged era, engineering ingenuity behind the Mercedes outfit and the life-long honed talent of the British driver all contributed to what seems a nearly seamless drive to victory in the eyes of a bystander.

But seamlessness is not what that bystander is tuning into Formula 1 for, especially if it becomes a common feature. So, as Hamilton continues to beat the all-time records of pole positions and grands prix wins, the F1 crowds grow impatient. In search of some on-screen action, TV cameras turn to the mid-grid to follow “thrilling battles” for the last point-scoring positions, because the leader is so far gone in the distance, that screens remain painstakingly empty until the second driver on the grid finally comes into view. Following the Japanese Grand Prix Mercedes non-executive chairman Niki Lauda was looking to seek explanation from FOM (Formula One Group) on the lack of TV coverage his team had received during the afternoon. You can’t blame him, the sponsors are paying the teams huge money to get their stickers seen on the cars as much as possible.

Neither can you blame Hamilton for “spoiling the show” for some – after all, he’s in it to win it, like all the other motorsport drivers in any other category. But, if we all agree the Formula 1 trophy is the pinnacle of a driver’s career ambition, is it true that every title equals to the one that proceeded it?

Taking his eight win of the season in Japan, Hamilton might have sealed the deal on his third career title. Photo by Getty Images.

Taking his eight win of the season in Japan, Hamilton might have sealed the deal on his third career title.
Photo by Getty Images.

When following the Suzuka race I heard one of the commentators say the Brit is pretty much set to claim his third championship, it did not feel thrilled, nor disappointed, nor annoyed – eventually, the only thing I felt was resignation. Over the years my simple interest in the sport had grown into a passion, one that I hone religiously every race weekend. And yet, today I am finding myself resistant to watching the live Sunday coverage knowing there’s no new names on the front row; and I end up wishing for a safety car moment, a flawed strategy or a mechanical failure to overturn the otherwise predictable outcome of the event.

I know I am not alone in this predicament – and yet it’s difficult to find someone criticising the current state of play openly. As I reside in the UK, it is no surprise the general public is pleased with the championship standings; even those who never considered themselves Hamilton fans support him, in line with the mantra “at least it’s not the German” – whichever title-winning German driver they might be talking about. And however easy a “Hammertime” race might look, they will still argue the win was hard earned.

“[Hamilton] felt sorry for the fans as the racing had become as predictable as it was in Schumacher’s day”

There is no doubt Hamilton is a fantastic driver, and a true champion – the 2008 season proved it, when it was the unpredictability and the gripping battles over that single point advantage in the last race of the season, that had – in my view – made it a sensational, and well deserved, title.

Roll the clock forward and we’re faced with new regulations in 2014 which turned the whole Formula 1 into what it’s sometimes called in media jargon – a circus. That year hardly half the grid would cross the finish line at times due to failing power units (never fully developed or understood) and spectacular tyre blowouts. Mercedes were not immune from these woes, but they were instantly – from the start of winter testing in January – at the top of everyone’s game, showing the most consistency and winning potential, and quickly leaving their competition far behind.

Mercedes' domination is assigned to the departed team principal - and contributor to three other champion outfits - Ross Brawn. Photo by AFP/Getty

Mercedes’ domination is assigned to the departed team principal – and contributor to three other champion outfits – Ross Brawn.
Photo by AFP/Getty

The credit here is given to Ross Brawn, who could have already take claim of delivering three championship outfits in his lifetime; but the team principal departed before he could receive official congratulations for making Silver Arrows constructors’ champions for the first time in the squad’s history.

For me, it was indeed a breath of fresh air to see Red Bull toppled off the champions spot. More encouraging, that this was done by a team who had struggled to get back to its championship-winning glory with their drivers after a 55 year absence from the sport, and four unsuccessful campaigns with record title holder Michael Schumacher in the top seat.

Although it quickly became obvious no one would challenge Mercedes in 2014, I still enjoyed the spectacle, knowing that the following year would be different… but it took only one race in 2015 to learn how wrong I was. It looked like the Silver Arrows had only excelled over the winter break – while the rest of the field seemed to have taken a few steps backwards.

Not only that; with reliability problems ironed out, there were few options left for Hamilton’s team-mate Nico Rosberg to renew his title pursuit from the year before, other than facing the Brit in an outright battle. But like so many “second” drivers in the F1’s champion teams’ history, the German seems to lack the winning particle (which can be the talent, the mentality or the gut, depending on opinion) to stand up to his team-mate.

So, with Hamilton still fighting for the title like he did in 2008, in a car that is far superior than anything else on the grid, against a field that seems to have used up all their engineering reserves and is now left hoping for a miracle, 2015 does – to me – look like an easy win for the Brit.

Schumacher's unbroken string of wins made him an F1 legend, but didn't make him many friends - on and off grid. Photo by Hertzog/Getty.

Schumacher’s unbroken string of wins made him an F1 legend, but didn’t make him many friends – on or off grid.
Photo by Hertzog/Getty.

Of course, this is not the first time this has happened in the sport’s history, and we don’t need to look far for other examples: Schumacher, claiming five consecutive victories with Ferrari between 2000-2004 or Sebastian Vettel, becoming the youngest ever four-consecutive-time champion with Red Bull between 2009-2013. In fact, F1 is proving to be quite redundant in this respect. A very simple search on the Internet brought up an article from the Independent on the Korean GP 2013, in which Vettel defended his run of wins against Schumacher’s tally, as Hamilton accused the German of putting on a bad show.

In the article the Brit was reported saying that “he felt sorry for the fans as the racing had become as predictable as it was in Schumacher’s day”. The report went on to say Hamilton suggested “he used to watch the start of a race, fall asleep, and wake up again knowing Schumacher had won.”

In turn, Vettel said:  “That’s a compliment, first of all. But it’s very different. There’s probably one race which was a bit of an exception.

“If you take Singapore, the gaps we had and were able to build up were incredible, to lap two seconds quicker than the cars behind us. If you take Korea, which was more similar to Spa, the gap was something between three and six seconds for the whole race.

Vettel's domination over the field - and his team-mate Mark Webber - for four years got everyone begging for a change. Photo by Reuters.

Vettel’s domination over the field – and his team-mate Mark Webber – for four years got everyone begging for change.
Photo by Reuters.

“If you look at 10 years ago (in Schumacher’s time), it was more like 30 to 60 seconds, which is a big difference.

“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice cushion to have in the car when you see you’re three seconds down the road. But equally, you know if you make one stupid mistake – in Korea, for example, a lock-up was very likely and three seconds is nothing compared to 30 or 60.”

The report went on to say both drivers took to Twitter afterwards to express their mutual respect, with Vettel recognising Hamilton as “one of the best drivers currently in Formula 1.”

The comments expressed by these drivers sum up the reoccurring theme in the sport: once the winner becomes too predictable, the fans lose interest. A testament to that are the two grands prix of this season that brought back the flame into F1: in Hungary and Singapore. Both were won by Vettel – now brandishing the red Ferrari overalls – who capitalised on Mercedes’ poor start off the line at Hungaroring and was then aided to victory by his former team-mate Daniel Ricciardo who rather misfortunately placed his Red Bull in all those places where the Silver Arrows were attempting an attack, forcing both parties to head for the pits. Singapore – although as recognised in the article, a track on which Vettel proves dominant – was a different story as for the first time this season Mercedes were nowhere near the pole position nor the race lead.

“…if you make one stupid mistake – in Korea, for example, a lock-up was very likely and three seconds [lead advantage] is nothing compared to 30 or 60.”

The result of that grand prix revived my hopes for an exciting end to the season – hopes that were as quickly destroyed as the Suzuka weekend began, just one week after Singapore.

It might be the frustration from the disappointment that followed, but I found it somewhat ludicrous to see to what the “show” has now been reduced – summarised by Hamilton’s lap 5 team order to “increase the gap to 10 seconds” – as if it was just a matter of pushing a button.

To that frustration adds the realisation of the predicament in which some other title-winning (or deserving) drivers find themselves in at this moment in time. Ricciardo, who has since his promotion from Toro Rosso proved himself a skilled and daring race winner, is now giving all he can but the Red Bull is still lacking the performance of Ferrari or Williams, let alone Mercedes – and things can even get worse as the outfit has terminated its contract with Renault and, as it stands, is left without an engine supplier for next year, and even considering a complete exit from the sport.

Despite initiating a dangerous crash in Spa 2012, Romain Grosjean is seen as winning material having made a few spectacular appearances on the podium following brave battles in his less spectacular Lotus – but what are his real chances of winning, when due to financial constraints the team is left without a hospitality building and forced to eat their meals in the garage, as it happened in Suzuka? Today we know the papers have now been signed for Renault takeover – and the team is changing hands for the fifth time in its history.

Double champion Alonso will have been regretting the multi-million euro move to McLaren at a time when Ferrari have finally found their footing. Photo by Sutton Motorsport Images

Double champion Alonso will have been regretting the multi-million euro move to McLaren at a time when Ferrari have finally found their footing.
Photo by Sutton Motorsport Images

But the most shocking case of them all must be McLaren with the most expensive driver line-up; the majority of the staggering driver wages is paid to Fernando Alonso (€35million), who had last year left Ferrari (this year’s only realistic contender to Mercedes on a suitable track) for his old team – in which head-to-head battles with his team-mate (Hamilton, for that matter) in 2007 robbed him of a potential third career title.

With the arrival of the new Honda engines, McLaren has slid from once being at the top of the championship standings to finishing most 2015 races in the pits, not even across the line. Alonso, who had for the better part of the season kept a brave face, became very vocal in Japan, calling the “GP2 engine… embarrassing”. Likewise, Brawn-Honda 2009 champion (and much lesser-paid) Jenson Button has lost the optimism that he so bravely carried earlier in the year and was reportedly considering finishing his F1 career, before the team’s principal Ron Dennis intervened on camera, stressing he wanted the Brit to carry on.

At the same time, Dennis did not appreciate his drivers’ non-constructive comments, but was himself open about where he believed the problems came from:

“Anything that’s coming out of our drivers at the moment has its origins in frustration, disappointment and demotivation. Yeah, we’re all demotivated,” he told Autosport.

“I still can’t understand why everyone doesn’t appreciate you’re not going to win a world championship if you have a second-string engine [as a customer team]. It’s just not going to happen…

“That’s not a derogatory comment against Honda. The president of the company, the president of R&D, the president of Honda Motor Company are totally committed. They understand what needs to be done, they’re increasing resources, putting more money and effort into it, and we will get there.

“It’s just a bit painful at the moment.”

In other interviews Dennis was hinting on what many pundits in the sport agree on: that the engine development freeze imposed on Formula 1 is one of the main reasons for the teams’ decline – not improvement – over the 2014/15 winter period. This is in agreement with the opinion of the fans, who believe the sport should ultimately be about the unconstrained genius of engineering, to deliver the most advanced cars on the planet – and therefore most exciting races.

Often compared - or seen equal - to the legendary Ayrton Senna, Michael first saw the Brazilian's fatal crash, running just behind him in 2. postion in the San Marino Grand Prix 1994 Photo: AFP

Senna and Schumacher – unquestionably two of the biggest names in F1 history.
Photo: AFP

Like many others, Hamilton has named Ayrton Senna his hero, and the Japanese Grand Prix equalled the Brit’s race wins with the legendary Brazilian’s tally. Like Hamilton, Senna was driving for a championship-winning team (these were the McLaren glory days) – and yet, he never got into the comfort zone of being in safe distance from his team-mate (also multiple champion Alain Prost) and the rest of the grid (with Nigel Mansell’s Williams-Renault soon to rob him of his edge in 1992).

The determination, the fierce battles on track and dubious retirements, and the tragic death – and not just the three career titles – all contributed to Senna’s place among the sport’s icons.

So, once Hamilton claims his third title and sets off on a pursuit of the next one, will he truly beat Senna’s record?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s