The changing of the guard

Mika Hakkinen, Japanese GP 2001

Mika Hakkinen, Japanese GP 2001 

 © The Cahier Archive

In Japan they have a fish called fugu. It is the ultimate delicacy. If it is prepared correctly it is apparently quite delicious. If it is prepared wrongly you die. One fish can kill 30 people. In order to be allowed to prepare fugu chefs have to go through years of training and three-quarters of them fail.

When it comes to risking one's life in order to eat a piece of fish I must say that I don't see a great deal wrong with a good safe cottage pie, but I guess that the average Japanese is rather more adventurous than the average European. You don't hear of bored stockbrokers nipping down to the chip shop on a Friday night for a quick fugu and frites, followed by a game of Russian roulette.

Those who take the big risks often end up with the big rewards and this, more than anything, is why Grand Prix drivers are paid so much money. Nowadays it is probably more dangerous to eat fugu than it is to drive a Formula 1 car as safety is at an extraordinary level. Self-preservation is never high on the list of priorities for young racers but the older men always end up calculating the odds. It was interesting to hear Mika Hakkinen talking the other day about having seen signs that Michael Schumacher will quit the sport one day soon. In order to have seen that Mika must have gone through the same thing. And that has to mean that he will not be coming back in 2003. In many ways I hope he does not come back. It is a rare thing that a driver quits at the right time in his career and it is always sad to see great names drifting back down the grid as age wearies them and the memory of top machinery fades.

Hakkinen is going out on top. He has had a great career. He came back from a terrible accident. He is set for life. He doesn't need any more.

Suzuka is a place one associates with goodbyes. It has such a rich history of dramatic events but coming at the end of the season it has seen a lot of action through the years, particularly the great years of the Ayrton Senna-Alain Prost era. The last links with that era are now fading. Hakkinen is going. Jean Alesi is going. Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher will not be far behind. The world is moving on as it does and soon we will be able to judge the post-Senna era as history.

We will be amazed that Jean Alesi won only one race. Jean, the wild man with the big heart, all emotion and fire, adored by his mechanics and by the crowds, is retiring too and it would be hard to find a person in the paddock who will not miss him.

You cannot say that about many F1 drivers.

One cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Jean had not gone to Ferrari in 1991 but had stuck with his original plan of joining Williams. He would perhaps have won two or three World Championships.

There is a rather silly English expression about the study of what one might call "might-have-beens". If my auntie had had a moustache, they say, she would have been my uncle. Well, my auntie did have a moustache! (Luckily I have several aunties so I am safe if they happen to pick up a racing magazine by accident). It is in human nature to wonder how things could have been different.

But was is done is done. The only way one can compare one era with another is with statistics and we know that these prove nothing. Michael Schumacher is an extraordinarily impressive racing driver these days but, no matter how strong he is, he will never escape the question of what would have happened if Senna had not died young.

In Japan the future - Juan-Pablo Montoya - reflected on the achievements of Schumacher. Montoya is a man like Alesi. He is a breath of fresh air in a sport which has for years stifled the stars with PR jibber-jabber. Juan-Pablo fires from the hip.

"Ayrton was my hero," he said at Suzuka. "He is still the greatest racing driver in my mind. If Ayrton had not been killed he would have won another four World Championships."

At Suzuka you could feel the changing of the guard.

Change is an unsettling thing and the F1 team bosses have been feeling this in recent weeks. Everyone seems a little more on edge at the moment. Since September 11 money has stopped gushing into the sport. The gravy train seems to be on the verge of derailment and everyone is talking of the need to economize.

Well, whoopee! It's about time. At last we may see some good sense prevail. For years everyone has been talking about a million this and a billion that. Phrases like "industrial infrastructure" and "state-of-the-art machinery" are constantly bandied around. The boffins all want laser beams and wobbly-walled windtunnels. And it is not just the drivers who being paid silly money. If you are a composite laminator in Brackley you can earn about $110,000 a year. If you work in the boat business in Cornwall the going rate is about $25,000.

The obvious way to cut back on bills is to cut back on testing.

"You know," an engineer told me the other day. "If you take all the time sheets from the start of the year to now and you analyze where we are on the grid, you will find that we are at exactly the same percentage behind the pole position time as we were in Australia in March. The big teams have spent tens of millions developing this and developing that. We have done almost nothing. We did make some new stuff for the car at one point but it proved to be slower so we took it off again. And we are exactly where we when we started."

We started doing case studies. Who had improved and who had not: McLaren, Williams and Ferrari are pretty much as they were. Jordan and Sauber are the same. BAR has faded. Jaguar and Prost have been together for most of the year - and they still are. Arrows and Minardi are more or less where they were when we started.

And that leaves Benetton.

"Well," said my man. "They were not ready for the year. They didn't have an aerodynamic package at all and the engine had about 150 horsepower less than it does now so you would expect them to have made that kind of progress. Otherwise nothing has changed. The good cars are still good cars and the bad cars are bad cars. And tens of millions of dollars have been spent for absolutely nothing."

The team bosses have forgotten what money is worth. Well boys (I would say "gents" but not all of them qualify) it is time to cut back. Some will cash in their chips. Perhaps they will have to make do with First Class rather than the latest new executive jets. The boom is over. The rats are jumping ship.

But F1 will not sink. As long as there are men like Hakkinen and Alesi the sport will be as healthy as ever. The rest is window dressing - money-changers quibbling outside the temple...

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