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F1 = FAKE ?
July 30 2003
The endless stream of discussion in magazines, on websites and between fans about deadly dull Grand's Prix, and just what it is we are supposed find exciting, was brought sharply into focus for me by watching a video of the 2003t World Superbike round at Silverstone.
Now I didn't catch this event as it went out live on the BBC. I like bike racing and I watch as often as I can, but I'm not a total devotee who has an axe to grind against those with four wheels. In some respects I am more like Max Mosley's 'man in the pub' about motorcycle racing. I have no great in-depth knowledge of the sport and my main experience of it has been through TV, so I tend to take it at face value. Something that Formula One is trying to encourage among the public at large.
Now I realise this event was over a week ago and so hardly burning hot news, but forgive me if I use it to compare what now constitutes motor sport as televised entertainment. What was offered up at Silverstone, was absolutely brilliant. It was wonderfully entertaining, it was superb sport and there wasn't a pit stop, a strategy or a quirky qualifying procedure in sight - nor any dubious weather. In short it had everything that we would want to see in Formula One, but never do, and it produced such a spectacle without any of the fudging and faking we have been getting increasingly subjected to over the past decade.
It was the real thing. One wonders if Formula one is capable of the real thing any longer? Or is it just faking it?
Max has of course run into legions of critics for comparing Formula One to a chess game and famously recalling those 'boring' slipstreaming battles which history (and everyone else) thought were breathlessly exciting! Well Max, there was no chess in the Superbike racing. No one ran low tanks to get onto the front of the grid and become a five-minute hero before an early fuel stop. No one sacrificed a front row slot to run heavy on fuel so that all those ahead would simply peel off out of the way. I didn't spot a single piece of 'after you Michael' lap-dogging and no one waited until the pit stops came around to get past an opponent running slowly, but defensively. There was no rain at the start, no rain at all in fact, so no one was risking a slick-wet-inter tyre gamble. There was a highly enthusiastic commentary team (take a bow Charlie and Steve) who didn't have to hype a "sensational" piece of procession, sorry precision - driving because we were already watching an amazing piece of racing instead. Frankly it hardly needed a commentary!
What there was, in abundance, was real, hard racing and that meant overtaking, out braking, running side by side through corners and, most importantly, not knowing until the final few yards who would actually win. I for one, found that almost unbearably exciting to watch. I dare say the millions all glued to GRANDSTAND would agree. Given the choice I guess most would water the garden rather than watch a "chess game". But then these are the men (and women) 'in the pub' who Max is trying to tailor Formula one to attract.
We all agree that the first few Grand's Prix of 2003 were entertaining, but they were unusually unpredictable. Initially due to new qualifying rules, but mostly to weather conditions. Lets not forget how much the rain affected things. Take away the weather and the jiggery-pokery of a new qualifying regime and there remained patently little real racing going on. What there was, was largely "faked" in one way or another. Cars began races on unequal terms and the safety car appeared every once in a while to shrink gaps and cause strategic rethinking. That isn't real racing in my book. It smacks of being stage-managed. Two cars on equal terms make a race of it; two cars running different strategies are really running different races. The interaction has become indirect. The art of passing has been supplanted by that of the hot 'in lap' or 'out lap' only truly appreciated on a stopwatch. The battle has ceased to be between two cars on a track as such and become a time trial.
What we see is, in many cases, not what's really happening. Car A may be holding off Car B at the front, with James Allen leaping off his seat in excitement, but A has no fuel left and will pit ten laps sooner. B will always win and the excitement was not real at all, it was faked. Was it faked intentionally or not? Well that's not for me to say, because it depends on your definition and how much you fancy legal action - but it was a fake, even if no one set out to make it that way. And the excitement as car C is pitting a lap after car D, which it was chasing. Can car C get out ahead? Pardon me but that's a battle of pit crews isn't it? Or at best a battle of 'in laps'? We sit around for two hours and the whole thing, in effect, resolves itself by two 'in laps' during which one car or other was stationary. Are we missing something here?
Thankfully the superbikes have no requirement to stop for fuel. Nor would Formula One cars if the rules were different of course. With no fuel or tyre stops, no one needs a hot 'in lap' or a sudden brainwave from a guy with a computer back in the pits who changes the strategy. What they do need is the ability to race each other without colliding or running off the road.
And the superbikes don't need a safety car to bunch them up - at one point there were nine bikes within spitting distance of the leader at Silverstone. One might say these motorcycles don't run in a series so clearly divided between the "haves" and "have-nots" ? But in truth there are still two red Italian factory machines out front with more performance than anyone else (sound familiar)? And one of them had won 9 races on the trot. On that statistic it should have been the most boring race imaginable, especially as race win number 10 was the end result. But it was riveting stuff. Wonderful, because the other bikes could and did overtake. In case you were wondering if the all-dominant red machine, a Ducati 999 ridden by Neil Hodgeson, was sand bagging to make for more interesting TV, one look at how far sideways the bike got under braking (how do they do that?) would stop you asking a second time. Everyone gave it all they had and Hodgeson was racing the other guys as hard as he possibly could, make no mistake. And the crowds loved it, absolutely loved it!
If Hodgeson had been slowed by anything; tyres, handling; power loss; then grid positions and fuel stops would not have saved him. A poor performance is there for all to see and likewise a good performance simply cannot be hidden away. What you see is generally speaking, what you get. It's real. The fastest rider/bike combination wins unless out RACED by someone inspired. There is nothing contrived. In formula one, as we saw in Canada, the fastest combination was actually third. If overtaking had been possible with a modern Formula One car, Montoya would probably have won, despite his spin, but only probably. Who knows how fast some of the others might have been once 'released' from the "dirty air" ahead? Neither Schumacher out drove Montoya in the later stages, technology merely decreed that no one was going to change positions and that was that. There were no pit stops left, no safety cars, in short, none of the essential outside influences that are needed to get one car ahead of another.
The fact Montoya got bogged down in the "dirty air" of two seemingly slower cars ahead negated what had been a striking recovery drive. It could have been a heroic win. It was in fact a bloody big yawn - a potentially exciting race had faked itself into boredom! Formula one, shooting yet another toe off.
Oh and Max? When next in that pub, ask "the man" who he values more on TV, Michael Schumacher or ace Superbike presenter Suzi Perry.... And just in case you were wondering, ask his wife as well?
Text & Photos copyright Simon Lewis 2003
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