Friday, 17 July 2009

Au Revoir, Seb

Sebastien Bourdais’ F1 fate has been sealed - for now at least. Toro Rosso have cut him loose and set him free into the big wide world of motorsport once again as a free agent. After 9 rather lacklustre and unimpressive performances, his promising points score in Australia has been a very far cry from the situation he finds himself in now. Nurburgring was the final straw, with his car and his F1 career finally giving up the ghost after just a few laps. Handshakes and hugs all round to his mechanics, it was a scene that plainly said “Thanks guys, nice knowing you”.

What has happened to the Bourdais that took 4 straight Champ Car titles, from 2004 to 2007, in a row? The Bourdais that was F3000 champion and did well at Le Mans? Are drivers that come from across the pond really destined to fail when they answer the call of F1? Some will argue that Jacques Villeneuve was a success, with a great debut season to finish 2nd in the championship behind eventual champion teammate Damon Hill in 1996, before seeing off Michael Schumacher all the way to the infamous final round at Jerez a year later to take the crown himself. But what else did he achieve? Nothing! Now he seeks a return to F1 after 3 seasons away in 2010. Somehow, I fail to see what would attract team bosses to a driver that likes his overalls at least 3 sizes too big.

Other such American imports that have tried and subsequently failed include Michael Andretti and Cristiano da Matta. You could half count Alessandro Zanardi since he started in F1, went to America and then came back as CART champion. By mentioning them, it’s made me come to a conclusion. All of these drivers are Indycar/CART/Champ Cap champions, a series which was mainly a half-spec series with 3 different chassis, 3 or 4 different engines and 2 tyre compounds. A lot of combinations there, but essentially every team didn’t have their own car. It was essentially a customer series. No works teams at all, just outfits buying what they needed to run in the championship. When Champ Car became a spec series, this is where I think Seb’s problems started. With him being so used to running against other drivers in identical machinery, he essentially was only going out there to prove he was the best driver in that car as a whole. Once he came to F1, with teams building their own cars and different engines and tyres and such, it was certainly a shock to the system.

It did seem as though something was starting to come good when STR hit their stride late last season, but it was Sebastien Vettel who benefitted from it most, netting his and the former Minardi team’s first victories. Since then of course, Vettel has moved on to the senior Red Bull team and become a winner with them twice over this season. It was thought that before this season even began, Bourdais would not keep his seat. He was up against Takuma Sato for it, and personally I wanted Taku in there purely for his experience and the fact that it would help Red Bul as a brand break into the Japanese market. For some reason, Franz Tost decided Le Seb was the better option and stuck with him to plonk alongside the sole new boy in the class, another Sebastien – Buemi, that is. So far the man has shown promise, especially with an impressive drive early on in the season in the soaking wet of Shanghai. Since then, the car hasn’t been updated but for Hungary the STR4 is getting an identical update to that which the Red Bull RB5 received at Silverstone at the hands of Adrian Newey. Buemi is hopeful of points, and after seeing what this upgrade has done for Vettel and Webber’s championship charge, I think he’s right to be.

Another problem I’ve found with drivers coming over from America is that they don’t get enough track time in the car prior to the new season. When Williams poached Villeneuve, they made sure he had as much testing mileage under his belt as possible in order for him to get up to speed quickly. It certainly seemed to work as he almost win the opening race of 1996 in Melbourne had it not been for techincal difficulties meaning he had to relinquish the victory to Hill and finish 2nd. But all this good form came when he was in a competitive car. 1998 was only a terrible season due to the fact the car was too far off the pace of the McLarens and Ferraris to even trouble them.

That’s another problem – these drivers have all entered F1 (bar Villeneuve) in rather uncompetitive cars. When they make their debut and not everything quite goes to plan, we make assumptions such as “Aww, he’s only new. Give him a few more races and he’ll be up to speed”. It’s only when they still continue to fail to impress and struggle that we assume they’re actually a load of rubbish and call for their heads. It was the same with Andretti. He got fed up and ran off back to his homeland leaving Mika Hakkinen to take over. He of course went on to greater things with the team.

So we see these champions in a different light, on circuits they seem befuddled by, in cars they don’t recognise the look or more importantly the feel of. Plus the fact that mainly, their racing is done on ovals which just means they turn left constantly for some 200 laps, or on street circuits which is a lot of stop-start, 90 degree, usually low speed mazes. Oh sure, they do run on road courses and some of them are brilliant. But none of them can really compare to the modern, European and Asian motordromes that have such advanced and excellent facilities. Our efforts seem to make the US look like they’re still in the 60s and 70s. Also one thing could be that because their racing is predominantly an oval series, the normal circuits tend to see those who dominate on them normally struggle.

In recent years, F1 exports to America such as Justin Wilson and Robert Doornbos have seen them win races. I feel this is because they’ve been at the pinnacle of motorsport and they know what it’s like. They can use that invaluable knowledge and experience they gained on the European circuits to their advantage when the Yanks visit their road courses. Wilson recently won the IndyCar race at Watkins Glen which is, of course, a road course. There aren’t many of them around in the US, apart from in my opinion Laguna Seca and Road America.

It’s a shame. They come over full of such promise, yet they leave empty-handed and seemingly red-faced. There needs to be more track time available to them if this is going to work in future, testing ban or not. Also, they need a competitive car to showcase their talents. Otherwise, they’ll end up the same as the rest. As for Bourdais, I’m tipping a future in the Le Mans Series with Peugeot. He seemed at home at Le Mans, finishing 2nd with Franck Montagny and Stephane Sarrazin. He’s also been there before with Pescarolo so I think there’s something there for him. As for now, time has been called on his F1 adventure. If you ask me, it was for the best.


Anonymous said...

Great blog! loads of interesting ideas, and something I haven't really thought about that deeply!

I think that maybe you are being too harsh on Villeneuve, he came across and one the world championship in his second season, that's a huge achievement!

American single seater's may look similar to f1 cars, but in reality adjusting to the radically different breaking distances, as well as learning how to adapt to a car which is constantly changing is difficult.

It will be interesting to see how the likes of Rossi and Loeb adjust if they make the move to F1, adjusting to a completely different type of racing.

One other man that has raced on both sides of the atlantic, Timo Glock (although admitedly he isn't the classic example). He is showing a lot of promise, and although he wasn't ultimately successful in Champ car it will be interesting to see how he develops..

LukehMuse said...

I like your view on Andretti and Hakkinen, never thought of it like that but massively true.

It's a shame really because I think le Seb is a good driver and I kinda feel bad for him, but at the same time, c'est la vie. Life goes on and he has his chance.

Look at what Vettel did with the Toro Rosso at Monza, for example...

Woodwiss_F1 said...

@racingpolitics - Thanks Nick. I get what you mean about Villeneuve. Of course, winning the World Championship is a massive thing in F1. But to be fair, afterwards his form went nowhere. Perhaps it might have been different if he hadn't gone to BAR. We'll never know.

@LukehMuse - Bourdais certainly has talent, that's a given. Purely, it seems, it's put to better use somewhere other than F1. Vettel just plain outclassed him all season, as has Buemi so far this to be fair. As I said, he promised to much and ultimately failed to deliver. When he did occasionally, it never lasted. Sounds strangely like a certain Brazilian, doesn't it?...

Dr.J said...

You have forgotten Montoya, who it could be argued was moderately successful in F1.

I't's also not true that Champcar was a "predominately oval based" series. Ovals only ever made up about 1/3 of the tracks, and in the years of Bourdais championships, ovals had been left completely to the IRL.