Almanac Motorsport – I Like Your Old Stuff Better Than Your New Stuff

The two-seater Minardi buzzes and screams through its gears as it takes a passenger around the Albert Park circuit at 7:00am on the Saturday morning of Grand Prix weekend. The autumnal stillness of this inner-bayside morning is blown away as the F1X2 and its 10 cylinders drag the beast to its full 700hp alongside Powerhouse as it heads towards Fitzroy Street and the St Kilda Junction.

The single-seat Minardi in which Mark Webber claimed fifth place in 2002 is the template for the F1X2 and was among the slowest the sport had ever seen in its day. In terms of experiencing what the ride in a modern Formula 1 car is like, the two-seater – despite its age –  by all accounts, faithfully reproduces the experience.  I’m told though, that being in the passenger seat is like porn; given the choice, you’d much rather be doing it than watching it.

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My love of F1 goes back to 1986. In November the year before, I watched Ayrton Senna, Niki Lauda and Keke Rosberg throw their machines around the streets of Adelaide in a thrilling race. Senna, after making some fundamental errors, chased down Lauda in a car that experts continually told us shouldn’t be going as fast as it was. Somehow, Murray Walker and James Hunt kept telling me, this enfant-terrible Brazilian was throttling his Lotus to within an inch of its mechanical life; extracting speed and performance out of his machine that no one had seen it reach before.

Neither knowing nor caring who Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Keke Rosberg, Jaques Laffite, Michele Alboretto or Ayrton Senna were, it was the race itself that kept me watching. Murray Walker’s screeching commentary explaining what was happening literally had me on the edge of my seat. In the blink of an eye, however, Senna’s Renault engine disintegrated on its engine mounts and his out-of-body, eyes-rolling-into-the back-of-his-head charge to victory was over and history would record Keke as the inaugural winner of the modern-day Australian GP. And I was hooked on the sport.

Around six months later, I landed my first job flipping burgers in a western suburbs McDonald’s. Somehow I wound up working Sunday evenings and would return home in the late hours of the night drenched in a putrid mix of sweat and the detritus of a day’s burgers, fries and other horrors after being given a couple of hours to clean the kitchen and its hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment after closing. To this day, like some kind of bloodhound suffocating in Stockholm syndrome, I can smell a McDonald’s a mile off. Which is fine when you possess the metabolism of an athletic teen. Not so good when you’re in your forties.

Loaded up on adrenaline after rushing to get the job done and get home, sleep wasn’t easy to come by, so I gravitated towards Channel Nine’s coverage with Big Darrell Eastlake – by this time immortalised by the 12th Man’s piss-take – and Alan Jones who still basking in the glow of being the 1980 World Champion.

Names like Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Riccardo Patrese, Renè Arnoux and of course, Senna would do their thing every other Sunday in places like Monaco, Belgium, Italy and Germany and in watching the cars do battle, my mind would slowly – perhaps ironically – defragment itself enough to let me sleep.

As the burger flipping and kitchen cleaning declined with age, Formula 1 telecasts remained an essential  part of my Sunday nights from March until around October. Although essay writing and weekly reading lists replaced spatulas and aprons, the routine was the same; bludge my way through the weekend, only to give in to study on Sunday evenings. The mind-numbing boredom of Marxist interpretations of post-modernism churned out by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was enthusiastically traded for Murray Walker and James Hunt around 11:00pm or sometimes later.

The Adelaide Grand Prix was the final race of the calendar and more often than not, was the race in which the drivers’ championship would be decided. Senna versus Prost versus Mansell (the almost iconic Murray Walker cry of “oh my goodness, that’s Nigel Mansell… spinning, spinning…”); Schumacher versus Hill, Adelaide more often than not provided many a memorable denouement to almost every F1 season it hosted. Late November in Adelaide was a time to look forward to between the thudding hooves of Melbourne’s spring racing and the distinct sound of leather on willow. And very rarely did it let anyone down as a bona-fide event.

*     *     *     *     * 

It is the evening of Sunday May 1st, 1994. I have a major assignment due the next day. The San Marino Grand Prix is being shown on Channel 10. I have the telly on in the background, but I’m paying it scant attention, as I try and crunch out the final 500 or so words of the 3,500 I need to meet the essay’s word count.

I’m jacked up on coffee and cigarettes, unaware that in the previous 48 hours, a Brazilian rookie by the name of Rubens Barrichello should have, but mercifully didn’t – lose his life at Variante Bassa turn, and another rookie, Roland Ratzenberger would lose his life at (ironically) Villeneuve corner after the rear wing of his Simtek parted ways with the body of the car at an estimated 300kph, launching him into a concrete wall. At this point of the race, I care more about the High Court’s Mabo decision and its possible impacts on Australia’s economy than the car which has just left the track in my peripheral vision, careening into a wall at Tamburello corner at an estimated 200-plus kph.

Although I have the volume turned down, my study has become strangely quiet, save for the tap of my fingers in the keyboard and the delete key in equal measure. Murray Walker’s voice has returned to its lower octaves and the familiar buzz of the hornets nest that is an F1 race has ceased. The camera is fixed on the track marshals gathering around the monocoque of the car’s ruins.

Concentration broken, I put my pen down and look over at the telly. The director has cut to images from a helicopter that hovers over the crash. There is wreckage everywhere and the attendants appear to have little urgency beyond making the crash site as safe as possible. The driver’s head rests forward and to the left, motionless against the side of the cockpit.

It is then that I notice the familiar yellow with a green hoop of Ayrton Senna’s helmet. Having watched F1 for over a decade and seen drivers walk away from wrecks before I’m not overly concerned, even though Walker’s tone of voice betrays that he suspects the worst, but is hoping for the best.

As the medical team arrives on the scene the host broadcaster cuts to a replay of footage from the car’s on-board camera. As Senna’s Williams slams into the wall, his head ping-pongs left and right like a ball-bearing bounces around in a can of spray paint as it gets shaken. Walker’s seen almost a lifetime of motor racing, has seen Gilles Villeneuve, Françios Chevert and Roland Ratzenberger die behind the wheels of F1 cars and watched as fire melted Niki Lauda’s skin off his face. After this replay screens, Walker can’t speak. I have never seen this footage since. Within moments, a Medivac helicopter lands in the middle of the track. Senna has been removed from the wreckage and Professor Sid Watkins –  his good friend – waits for it to become safe enough to board the chopper. This is bad.

Hours later, the news breaks that Senna is dead. And Formula 1 is never the same again.

*   *   *     *     *

That a 12 year old car can be modified to reproduce the speeds and handling of a 2013 and 2014 era Formula 1 car tells you everything you need to know about where F1 is currently at. It’s a sport that in the wake of Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Jean Todt’s Ferrari dominance of the 90s has lost its way. It is now a sporting infomercial that exists purely to make one man, and one man alone wealthier than you or I can possibly imagine.

Every measure adopted by the FIA to improve the quality of racing since Maranello’s domination has only served to castrate the sport. As the wee man has taken the sport beyond Europe and into the brave new world of Asia and the middle east, the Hermann Tilke-designed expansion tracks in places like China, Russia and India are sterile enough to perform heart-lung transplants and facilitate about as much overtaking as Sydney freeway in evening peak.

The current crop of drivers have all the charm, individuality and character of a pile of house bricks. The charisma of Jenson Button and (possibly) Lewis Hamilton are the dying remnants of a sport for which part of its allure was the perception of racing drivers as jet-set playboys who dragged themselves away from bedding supermodels in the presidential suite at the Hôtel Hermitage in Monte Carlo to race cars.

Risk-taking, for drivers like James Hunt, Eddie Irvine, Stefan Johansson and others of that era was de-riguer but the insatiable desire to push the envelope, as the cliché goes, has given way to conservatism; an inoffensive beige-cardigan cultural hegemony of stultifying orthodoxy that makes Disney’s Mouseketeers seem uncontrollably rebellious by comparison. In the present-day F1 paddock the greatest risk a driver allows themselves is to be caught speaking to reporters without a PR flack having first cleared the questions or that the computer that controls their pre-ordained breaking points, engine revs, gear changes and handling may require a re-boot during practice.

In 1996, the Australian Grand Prix moved from Adelaide to Melbourne and became the starting point of the season. With the stroke of a pen, the Australian GP went from a championship deciding-race more often than not to a glorified testing session for points. Too many Australian Grands Prix have become last driver standing affairs. Gone are the days when the fastest and best driver won; Melbourne Grands Prix have too often been won by teams who managed to get fractionally ahead of the reliability curve in February. Melbourne has become a mere dress-rehearsal and testing ground for the European and central Asian leg of the season. If I live approximately two Red Bull’s walking distance from the circuit and I couldn’t be arsed attending because of how poor the actual race is, why on earth is someone from Indonesia, India or Europe shelling out to come to the Australian GP? Especially when it will be in their neighbourhood – and the cars more thoroughly shook down and performing better – later that same year.

Yet somehow an elite few from the Melbourne Club have cajoled, and influenced successive State governments of both cloth to bend over backwards to ensure the wee man keeps the race at Albert Park.

Under the spurious philosophy of the ‘economic benefits’ the GP supposedly provides, it appears to be yet another example of where business is allowed to privatise profits and socialise losses using taxpayers money. The Grand Prix is so good for Victoria, apparently, that you and I – the people who fund this event, its principal investors – aren’t even allowed to see the contract between the State government and the wee man’s company that owns F1.

Debate me on this with a straight face: If an ASX-listed company refused you permission to see their balance sheet or a copy of an annual report at the AGM, then told you that there’s no franked dividends being delivered this reporting season, but that the annual salaries the executives received outweigh the benefits of providing you with a return on your investment, tell me you wouldn’t shake like a shitting dog.

We’re mugs. We’re mugs and we cop it.

And by this time next week, the F1 chassis’ and engines and telemetry computers will be in, or en-route to Malaysia. Albert Park will slowly be returned to the hundreds of sporting clubs and joggers who use the park for fifty weeks a year. The ovals, with the exception of Collegians and the Junction Oval, will have begun their descent into the bog-heaps that they inevitably become by winter.

Parks Victoria will continue issuing parking fines to people who overstay their meters and the State Aquatic Centre will fire up the pools and basketball courts once again. But the race, a race in which little of consequence outside of Daniel Ricciardo’s fortunes is ever likely to happen again, and has become predictably banal will have been good for ‘us’.

Or so I’m told.

 

About Stone Cold Steve Baker Thompson Harvey Duckworth

Weapons-grade Grump. Quixotic. Jack of all Trades and Master of None. Ex-power forward for Melbourne Superules FC. Quoter of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. Gun-for-hire, sleep enthusiast, contrarian. Meshuggener. Nebbish. Kibitzer. The dude abides.

Comments

  1. Bob Morrow says

    HOORAY SOME MOTORSPORT.
    Great to see.
    I was at Monaco in 1984 , the day it rained ALL day , when a rank rookie in a nowhere car [ Senna in a Toleman ] , was catching Prost at a rate of seconds a lap. Monaco being French & Prost being French they, the French controlling body , stopped the race before Senna could catch & overtake him which he certainly would have. I was also at the aforementioned Adelaide when Senna in the Lotus was top of the leader boards for the whole 3 days of practice – no one . at any stage was quicker than him.
    I agree with some of what you say about todays Drivers & their PR [ notice when ever they speak the PR yobbo is there with a recorder } however aren’t all sportspeople these days tought to talk PR crap ?

  2. Thanks Bob!

    I agree most sportspeople are coached within an inch of their lives to ‘respect the opposition,’ ‘take it one week at a time’ and ‘thank Jesus’, F1-speak takes media performing to new levels.

    Q: Lewis, you appeared to have some braking issues out there this morning?

    A: We’re still attempting to find our optimum braking performance characteristics while ensuring we extract the maximum acceleration efficiency from the car, so it was a challenging morning for us, and the track conditions weren’t optimal, so we’ll analyse the data and see what we can deliver in afternoon practice.

  3. Skip of Skipton says

    Great article Steve. I liked F1 and the local V8s back in the day. Haven’t given a fig for either in 15 years. Boring, sterile, 100% professionalism etc. Same with Tennis.
    The 24/7 spotlight of the internet, news cycle, sponsors dollars and political correctness has suffocated the life out of everything.

    I liked the idea that the heroes might have been bedding a supermodel the night before, or even eating some of your fast food, smoking their sponsors product and playing pinball; rather than counting calories and studying data.

    P.S. Allegedly Senna had an Austrian flag in his car that day which he intended to unfurl after the race as a tribute to Roland Ratzenburger.

  4. Dave Brown says

    Nice one Steve. I’m firmly of the opinion that the Grand Prix ‘moving’ was a great triumph for SA. At a much lower cost we now have two better events in its place and we no longer have to pay the wee man a single dollar, let alone 50 million of them per year. Plus we get to keep that oh so attractive chip on our shoulders…

  5. A thoughtful read there, Bakes.
    I went to the Adelaide grand prix three times, it was a fantastic spectacle, a fun weekend and a fabulous atmosphere. Ironically, I have not been to the grand prix since it came to Melbourne.
    The cars do not look – or sound – as good now, the racing is as boring as bat-shit, and (as you allude to) I reckon even the drivers had better names back in the day.
    Like Skip, I too was a tennis fan, but could not care less about that these days either.

  6. If AJ was basking in the glory back then, does his continued existence in our ears now equate to a sunburnt, overweight, g-string wearing and loud European tourist on a Balinese beach?

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