February 16, 2006

The Scar That Would Deface, Defame and Define a Champion

By Raam Shanker

A new season was taking shape. There were speculations galore in the Piranha Club, which is the inside word for the F1 team bosses’ unofficial league. Sir Frank Williams had signed Heinz-Harald Frentzen after his world champion driver Damon Hill opted out. Frentzen would now partner Jacques Villeneuve, son of the famous Gilles Villeneuve, who incidentally drove for Ferrari.

Maranello bosses had reasons to smile, too, as it was the reunion of two Formula 1 greats, former world champion, Michael Schumacher and his technical director Ross Brawn, who also quit Benetton for Ferrari. The big question: Will they succeed this time around?

A word about Ferrari, the oldest and most prominent of the teams in Formula 1. The racing division of Ferrari Automobili is called Gestione Sportiva. It is famously known as Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro as Phillip Morris is the chief sponsor for the team.

Jean Todt was at the epicenter of resurrection at Sportiva. His first major change was to bring world champion
Michael Schumacher and the car No 1 to Italy. He achieved this in 1996. He then set forth inviting Ross Brawn to join the stables in 1997, which was quickly accepted. All set, they had the motivator (Todt), the strategy wizard (Brawn) and the best driver in the world (Schumacher). But more importantly, what they did not have was a world-beating machine, a fact best illustrated by Giovanni Agnelli’s words: “If Ferrari does not win the title with Schumacher, the fault is with the car and the team.”

Testing over, and it was race time. The 1997 season was about to be flagged off. Before we get into the nitty-gritty’s of the moment that motivated me to write this article, let’s take a moment to understand what defines a driver and how one distinguishes between a good and a great driver. We talk of only good and great because, if one is not good enough, then there is no job in Formula 1.

In simple terms, a Formula 1 driver is just an overpaid employee. Yes, that is what he is. But why is the driver given importance above all people in the high-risk circus of Formula 1? Simply because, what we see on TV on Saturday and Sunday is just the icing on the cake, baked over months and months of research and development.

A famous quote in the Formula 1 pits goes: “The glamour is only outside, inside it is all work, work and only work.” The driver’s inputs in the development of a car are as essential as the engineers’ or the mechanics’ and good teams make it a point that the driver, his race engineer and mechanics share a good rapport.

A very good example is Schumacher, Chris Dyer and Francesco Barletta. I am sure you would not have heard of Dyer and Barletta. Well, a good driver needs to be naturally fast, aggressive and should have amazing car control. Now ideally we will want the driver to treat the car as an extension of his persona. The four corners of the car are like natural extensions of his limbs. He feels every rev of the engine which conveys subtle secrets. Every time the car hits the kerb, the suspension sends coded messages to the driver. The relationship between a driver and his car is so unique and mystical that it cannot be defined or explained; it has to be experienced. The ability to read, understand and to communicate this message to the engineer is what makes a great driver. The reports given by the driver after a sortie of a few odd laps adds a lot of input to the way the final machine takes shape on Sunday afternoon. This symbiotic relationship with the car and the team is what makes him a champion and a multi-millionaire. This is precisely what Michael Schumacher is and always will be.

A point separated Schumacher and Villeneuve as the latter was disqualified from the penultimate race in Japan, bringing the championship to the wire. If you thought this was all, hold your breath! A cracker was in store. The top three cars, Schumacher, Villeneuve and Frentzen, had all set the same qualifying time! Sounds scripted, doesn’t it? Well, you never know!

The final round of pit stops had been made and now it was the relative temperaments of Schumacher and Villeneuve that would decide the outcome of a topsy-turvy season. Villeneuve was growing on Schumacher’s mirror with every passing lap. Then, at Dry Sack Corner, he made his move - a daring one, I must say. He jumped on the inside of Schumacher, who moved away, only to move back in. What happened thereafter is history. Yes, Schumacher was severely criticized by everyone around, most importantly by La Gazzetta Dello Sport, the Italian sports daily.

Now back to those three moments. Let’s freeze time and slowly analyse the situation, including the build up. Picture this, Schumacher sees Villeneuve coming and is expecting him, but he does not know when or where it will happen. Villeneuve knows getting behind Schumacher is one thing, getting past him is something else. The cat and mouse game continues while the world watches. The men in red and the men in white are barking team orders. But nobody in the world knows what will happen, not even the two drivers. This is the mystery, thrill, suspense and excitement surrounding a Formula one World Championship that makes it so glamorous and money spinning.

Will he? Won’t he? Questions are asked. Is this Schumacher and Ferrari’s year, or is this the year of a great son born to a great father? Questions, questions and more questions. And then the answer!

Villeneuve makes his move on Dry Sac Corner and catches Schumacher asleep. By asleep, I do not mean he slept off, I mean a momentary lapse in concentration. Schumacher suddenly wakes up. He does what is morally right, he moves out of the way. But then came the moment, the scar that defaced, defamed and defined the champion that he is. He had the ability to think what was right and move away. The very next instant, his logic and reason was back and he cut back in, resulting in a shunt and far greater repercussions like confiscation of all his points earned for the season and being antagonised by the world.

Knowing what is right, what is wrong, but more importantly, processing a set of complex events and arriving at a decision so complicated, crucial and controversial, after judging and analyzing the situation, then prioritising, acting and counteracting, all within fractions of a second, combined a mesmerising ability to steer the disobedient car and making it behave according to his requirements make him the champion that he is – Michael Schumacher!

(The writer is pursuing MSc Research in Automobile Engineering in the UK to make his mark in the world of F-1)


At 4:50 am, Blogger Pratik said...

Interesting. Don't know much about F-1 racing at all, but that was interesting. What's even more interesting is that you're studying automobile engineering in a bid to become a better F-1 writer. Good luck!


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