Genetic engineering

Formula 1 team bosses like to go on and on about being at the cutting edge of engineering technology. You might argue that thundering around with gas-guzzling 3.5-liter engines and banning electronics is somewhat prehistoric in these days of holey ozone layers and "thinking" cars. Yes, it is all a little backward, but I reckon they make up for it in genetic engineering. In fact they seem to well ahead of the game.

I don't know about you lot, but I have great difficulty understanding genetic engineering. I have this bizarre image of a bloke with a white mask, a scalpel in one hand, a spanner in the other and little bits of DNA all over his gown.

You might think that biology is one of the few sciences which has hardly touched Grand Prix racing. Drivers have gurus who tell them which exercises to do and force them to eat rabbit food - although the drivers tend to sneak away and eat something greasy as soon as the guru disappears. Given the little queue of folk from rival teams which appears at the rear or the Ford motorhome at breakfast time, the muesli munchers of the paddock are heavily outnumbered. That, seemingly, is about as far as biological matters go in F1 - at least in public. I once wrote an article about the sex lives of racing drivers but biology was really not very important in that - libel lawyers played a rather more significant role as I recall.

The fact is that Formula 1 team bosses appear to have twigged that one should choose a driver because he comes from the correct "gene pool". This automatically means that they have the necessary ability behind the wheel of a racing car. This is radical stuff.

Even as you read this a vast number of wild-haired boffins at British Universities are in the process of making a catalogue of the various gene clusters which exist in the world and the combinations which they form. From this, it is hoped, genetic chains which do harm can be identified and negated and those which do good can be promoted. This is genetic engineering.

If one follows the logical progression of thought from this it should be that, in the millions of chains being catalogued, they will find combinations which occur only in certain professions. Cloning of such genes - the man with the scalpel and the spanner seems to have access to a photocopier as well - could mean that one could produce any number of talented race car drivers. It would, therefore, only be a matter of time before some mad professor in the Brazilian jungle started mixing up genes to produce 30 clones with the speed of Jean Alesi, the brains of Michael Schumacher, the looks of Mika Hakkinen and the wit of Damon Hill.

That would suit F1 very well, because the racing would be close, particularly if the biologists could cook up some talented - but identical - designers as well.

The F1 team bosses have been pioneering this genetic approach for some years now but this particular column has been sparked off by the signing of Ralf Schumacher by Jordan - and because this year's World Championship is being fought over by two sons of famous racing fathers.

But is driving talent really genetic? Or do relatives of racing stars simply have better opportunities for success because they know the right people in the business and can attract sponsorship because of their famous names? Would Ralf Schumacher be in F1 if he were called Ralf Bahnhof? You may say "Yes" because he has proved his worth in Formula 3 and in Formula 3000 but one could argue that he would never have had the money in those formulae if Michael had not been successful before him.

This gives rise to an interesting philosophical question: What is the difference between nepotism and genetic talent?

In many spheres of life talent seems to run in families - or, at least, families tend to follow the same professions. Tinpot dictators have, traditionally, promoted their relatives to positions which often they do not enjoy the talent to hold. One might think, in this modern world, of Iraq's Saddam Hussein or North Korea's Kim Il Sung II. Or historically of Haiti's Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier; or Oliver Cromwell and his son Richard (who was known as Tumbledown Dick because he single-handedly demolished the English Commonwealth built by his father).

But where does nepotism end and a "family business" begin? In the days when everyone lived in villages and no-one went anywhere it was quite normal for the son of a blacksmith to become the blacksmith. The father taught the son. Today things are rather different and yet sons still follow fathers, their interest sparked at an early age and the connections easy for them to use.

In politics one can list such families as Kennedy, Roosevelt and Churchill. In movies one can mention the Fonda or Douglas dynasties. In the world of music there were John and Julian Lennon and so on and so forth. One of the most bizarre examples, I can think of, is the Pierpoint Family which for generations were the official executioners for Great Britain.

Doctors - the opposite of the Pierpoints one might say - also tend to run in families. I used to know a country practice called Dansie, Dansie, Dansie and Dansie. Ringing up and asking for Dr. Dansie would be a confusing business.

I guess you could argue that motor racing's equivalent is Brabham, Brabham, Brabham and Brabham - Sir Jack, Geoff, Gary and David - all racers of some note. When it comes to tribes of racers, however, the Americans seem to have the edge. The Andretti crew of Mario, Michael, Jeff and John is only outshone by the army of Unsers: Bobby, Robby, Johnny, Big Al, Little Al and so on.

It extends into organizing - NASCAR's Bill France and Bill France Jr. and the Hulman-George families at Indianapolis - and into engineering. Well-known F1 engineers Gordon Coppuck and Robin Herd both have sons who work - or have worked - as F1 engineers.

But is talent controlled by genes? Only the boffins can answer that question. At the rate of progress the university boffins reckon they will have unravelled most of the genes by the turn of the century.

F1 has not attacked the problem is such a massive way but over the last 30 years has been chipping away trying to prove the point that genes do dictate talent. The results have been thoroughly inconclusive. There have been a long series of brother combinations - but one has always been much quicker than the other. The father-son thing is currently being tested fully by Jacques and Damon.

In the case of brothers it appears from F1 research that in most cases it has been the younger brother who has been the faster. Think about it. OK, I accept that Manfred Winkelhock was probably faster than Jo - although Jo never really got a decent chance in F1. Jackie Stewart was faster than his brother Jimmy; Emerson Fittipaldi was faster than Wilson; Corrado Fabi was faster than Teo, Ricardo Rodriguez was quicker than Pedro, Vittorio Brambilla was faster than Tino. Then you have Jacques and Gilles Villeneuve (the present Jacques's uncle).

This may not be a genetic factor but more likely to be psychological - with the youngsters driven on by sibling rivalry - but it makes sense that rather than looking around for rich kids who do well in F3 and F3000. So should F1 team bosses follow the example of Eddie Jordan and simply look around for younger brothers of established stars? Should they be asking whether there is another Salo and whether Fisichella has a baby brother.

I do not think so. I have been frantically number-crunching to unravel the secret of genetics. My research has revealed one or two fascinating facts which prove that perhaps the F1 team bosses are actually barking up the wrong trees. My own personal research reveals that rather than trying to find good brothers and sons of great stars, F1 team bosses would be better off looking at racers who have brothers-in-law.

Jean-Pierre Jabouille and Jacques Laffite were brothers-in-law. They married two sisters - Genevieve and Bernadette Cottin - and went on to win a total of nine Grands Prix between them. Jean-Pierre Beltoise married Francois Cevert's sister and both he and Cevert became Grand Prix winners...

Actually, I have a vague suspicion that in the years ahead biology will become a more important science for the world at large - and probably for motor racing as well. The other day I read an astounding article which revealed that a new life form has just been found at the bottom of an ocean somewhere - where superheated water gushes from a vent in the earth's crust. In this strange place - under 200 atmospheres of pressure - there lives an organism called an Archaea. It needs only nitrogen, carbon dioxide and hydrogen to live and genetically it in structure is unlike the other two kinds of cell which are found on earth.

Yes, I know this is boring but what you need to know is that this strange blobby thing produces methane - which means that the world has just discovered a vast renewable source of energy... Methane is no longer a fossil fuel. I suppose before I am old and grey we will see Archaea powering racing cars - with cloned drivers (perhaps they will be able to clone brothers-in-law by then) dashing into the pits for a quick bucketful of ocean slime...

Print Feature