Samuel Clemens, strange powers and beating McLaren-Mercedes

Samuel Clemens was a great traveller. Born in Florida, he was brought up in the town Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi river. Watching the riverboats ploughing their way up and down the great river, Clemens dreamed of travelling the world and in time he packed his bags and left Hannibal, heading for New York, in search of fame and fortune, using the unlikely pseudonym of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. Fame passed him by on that occasion and so he travelled west to California and tried his luck in San Francisco with the name Mark Twain.

Being a success did not stop him travelling and this made it very hard for his friends to track him down in a world without mobile phones. At one point, legend has it, desperate to find him some of his friends mailed a letter addressed: "Mark Twain, God Knows Where."

For a while they heard nothing and then there came a two word reply from the author.

"He did".

While the US Postal Service would probably like to take some of the credit for the delivery of the letter, Twain was probably right.

I cannot say that I am much taken by religion, magic and such things but there are times in life when one suspects that there are forces in this world greater and more powerful even than Bernie Ecclestone. This was driven home to me the other day when I was reading a story to my four year old son. He suddenly decided that he wanted to tell me a story and began to describe the day he was born. I had read somewhere that kids of that age can sometimes describe what it was like to be born although scientists have proved that within a few months that ability fades as the childish brain closes down memories of the infant years and prepares for growing up. I never really took it seriously, but here it was, a lesson of the incredible powers which humans possess which sometimes we do not understand.

There are times when watching motor racing that one has that same sense of magic. Some things are beyond explanation. Anyone who witnessed the great qualifying of Ayrton Senna in the late 1980s or who witnessed Michael Schumacher's drives in the wet in recent seasons is left in awe at the ability which comes so naturally to men like Senna and Schumacher. They know they can do something and they do it. It takes very little effort. Others have to use all their mental capacity to keep the cars on the track, these men are so naturally gifted that they have the ability not only to drive quickly but also to be able to think about technical and strategic issues at the same time. They can see if the wind changes direction and can watch what other drivers are doing on the giant television screens which are dotted around the modern race tracks. It is marvellous to see.

Formula 1 journalists are not very technical people but perhaps if we were we might appreciate more the kind of magic which lurks in the brain of Adrian Newey. How is it that a man can go from one team to another and have such a dramatic effect in such a short time, particularly when the McLaren folk admit that their windtunnel is not on a par with the one used by Williams. The answer is that it is not the machine that is brilliant, it is the interpretation of the results which the machine produces.

In Barcelona the Formula 1 paddock was ruminating gently over whether or not Michael Schumacher, the giant among the modern generation of drivers, will do the logical thing next year and go to McLaren to be in the best car. This is, fundamentally, a philosophical question. Michael has all the money he can possibly use in this world and so it is really down to whether he is keen on having more money and playing power games or whether he still wants to win races.

There is no doubt that from a commercial point of view, grabbing Schumacher would be a sensible move for McLaren partners Mercedes-Benz and West. At the moment they are being cast in the role of villains in Germany because they are keeping Michael from glorious victories. At the same time McLaren knows that if Michael does join the team it will be Schumacher who gets the glory for winning rather than McLaren itself.

It is also very much in Ferrari's interest to keep Michael because if he goes the whole operation will fall apart because it has been carefully built around him.

You might think that it is simply a battle between McLaren and Ferrari over who can pay the most but in any driver deal of such importance one must take into account the influence in F1 of Bernie Ecclestone. He does not want to see Schumacher driving a McLaren-Mercedes. Domination is dull and dull is not good for television viewing figures and as these seem to drive everything in Grand Prix racing today (except the cars) they must be taken into account.

The problem facing F1 is that right now McLaren and Mercedes have cornered the market and it looks like being a while before anyone else drags up into the same ball park. F1 is in essence a cyclical business and right now Williams and Benetton cannot react because the Mecachrome V10 is not a Renault. Ferrari is doing better than normal but is still not doing enough while Honda, Peugeot, Ford and so on have not got their packages sorted out.

So what can be done in the short-term to improve the show? There is a quick way around the problem if one listens to what the paddock gossip were suggesting in Spain. The fastest way to create strong opposition to McLaren is to apply commercial logic and have Mercedes supply a second team. In the past Mercedes has resisted this idea but the sudden announcement last week that Daimler-Benz and Chrysler are to merge gives F1 and Daimler-Chrysler an important opportunity for the future.

For years Chrysler has been sniffing around the edges of F1. The company funded the Lamborghini V12 engine in its latter years and was gearing up for a major assault of its own in 1994 when there was an unfortunate interlude which left the Chrysler bosses standing at the altar looking for a bride called McLaren, who had waltzed off with those charming French folk at Peugeot - a mismatch as it turned out.

The Chrysler boys went home and bandaged their wounds but the opportunity was gone and they were stuck without a top team and so they stayed out despite knowing that an F1 project would help them as they embarked on expanding their sales in Europe. The merger with Daimler-Benz does nothing to change those objectives and provide the new company with the opportunity to sell two types of cars through Formula 1. All they need to do is to badge the Mercedes V10 with Chrysler and next year two teams can be fighting for wins and it does not matter to Daimler-Chrysler which one is the winner because either one will sell cars for the new group.

It is not always going to be this easy because BMW and Honda will be thundering into F1 in the year 2000 and it is possible that other German and Japanese companies such as Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen and Porsche might all become involved. The world has too many car companies and those that are going to survive need to be growing fast or merging.

The middle-sized manufacturers seem to think that they will survive anything and are plodding along as they always have. Perhaps the management of Peugeot and Renault realize the dangers ahead but there are no signs of the two doing the most logical thing and merging with one another. Both need to make themselves more efficient but cannot because of the strength of the French unions. Renault had to pull out of F1 because it was felt impossible to keep an expensive program like F1 going while people were being laid off.

Renault would love to be back in F1 but there is a malaise in France these days which was typified recently when the French national arsenal - which incidentally used to build racing cars in the early 1950s - went on strike because the government had decided to give the service contracts for its nuclear submarines to a private company because the arsenal would cost twice as much and take twice as long.

The English used to say that Africa began in Calais but today it would be fair to say that Africa begins at Ashford, because France's taxation policy is so draconian that hundreds of small French companies have given up trying and relocated to Kent so that their staff can zip backwards and forwards through the Channel Tunnel.

But if France, the cradle of Grand Prix racing, is drifting away from the sport Grand Prix racing continues to grow worldwide and the Daimler-Chrysler deal could, if handled properly, be a big bonus for F1 in the United States of America. The sport's failure to get into America remains a great blot of F1's bright and shiny image. There are now two of the three giant automotive companies from Detroit involved in F1 and some day one of them will work out that it would be in their interest for Grand Prix racing to be in the states.

The problem is that F1 racing has veered from one extreme to the other in America. It was either held at tracks as remote as Watkins Glen or on the worthless streets of cities which did not care and soon gave up.

"See you in Boise, Idaho," said the cynical US pressmen when we left the media center in Phoenix for the last time back in 1991. Let us hope that the Daimler-Chrysler link and a little magic will help to take us back to the US. One can dream.

Still it worked wonders for Samuel Clemens in Hannibal.

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