If you’re a news journalist, Formula 1 has the refreshing ability to throw the kitchen sink at you. In F1, a budding newshound can happily take his pick of the stories: right now, if you’re attuned to the sport’s political side, you’ll be writing reams about the prospect of three-car teams and the potential demise of the F1 minnow. If you’re commercially inclined, you’ll be fascinated by the demise of both Caterham and Marussia, and the new financial model being thrashed out to push the sport on. If you’re a technical writer, you’ll be wanting to know just what will be on show at the post-Abu Dhabi test, when we’ll get our first idea of who’ll be doing what for 2015.
If, however, you’re simply a sports journalist (and I believe there are still a few who file into the paddock’s media centres every other weekend) or simply a race fan, then there’ll be only one subject on your mind: the outcome of this year’s drivers’ championship.
The next week or so will be a pretty nervy time to be either Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg. The world championship trophy is a racing driver’s holy grail – something you don’t get to hold in your hands every day, and a prize so powerful and alluring that people will do strange things to attain it.
The last time McLaren was in the fortuitous position to be in with a shot at the drivers’ title at the final round was back in 2010, when Lewis had an outside bet at stealing it from Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber or Fernando Alonso. That weekend, I remember, was pretty low maintenance for the McLaren men – Lewis’s title chances were so mathematically slim that it was more about what the others could, or couldn’t, do than it was about Lewis pulling off a mesmeric drive to scoop the trophy.
The team’s next most recent shot was a couple of years earlier, in 2008 – and they way they handled that one was quite a bit more stressful!
That season’s penultimate race had been in Shanghai, back when the Chinese Grand Prix still traditionally occupied a position at the end of the season, and Lewis had utterly dominated it. If you remember, he’d just come off the back of a terribly disappointing race in Fuji the week before, where he’d outbraked himself on cold tyres at the first turn, and was then pitched into a spin one lap later. He finished outside the top 10, tetchily questioning the sanity of continuing to the finish with his engineers over the radio.
Anyway, I digress: in China, a rejuvenated Lewis – who in the interim had locked himself away in a Tokyo hotel room for several days to wash away his sins and exorcise his demons – arrived in China in bullish mood. A quick glance at the always-reliable FORIX.com informs me that he blitzed the weekend – he was fastest in FP1, FP2, second in FP3, then easily fastest in all three qualifying sessions. The history books record that he started from pole position, led all but three laps and set fastest lap of the race.
You’d think the men and women of McLaren would have found solace in such a strong result as they retreated to Woking to prepare for the final race of the year in Brazil, a fortnight later, wouldn't you?
Wrong. I remember speaking on the phone with some of those estimable management types during the build-up to the trip to Sao Paulo, and I clearly remember one of their number frankly telling me that they were ‘bricking themselves’ about the title-deciding race.
Except that he didn’t say ‘bricking’…
There’s something about a title decider that just ups the stakes and prompts those of even the most sensible disposition to break out in a cold sweat.
You start to question your own sanity, your own processes, your tried-and-trusted methodologies, in a bid to wipe the slate clean of worry that you may have accidentally left a bolt partially untightened, a loom of wiring only partially attached, a valve-cap off a tyre, or a metaphorical spanner in the works.
In Brazil, I remember the McLaren boys huddling together at the start of the weekend for a quick pep talk from then-sporting director Dave Ryan. “Boys,” he instructed. “Treat this as just a normal race weekend. Put the title at the back of the your minds. Just do everything as you’d do it normally and we’ll be fine.”
Everyone nodded sagely and walked back to their corner of the garage, immediately questioning themselves as they queried whether their version of ‘normal’ was normal enough to withstand the pressure of a world title decider. In that moment, I’m sure some valve-caps were over-tightened, and several more were left rolling around on the garage floor. Few, I’m sure, were tightened just as they had been for the previous 17 rounds of the world championship!
I remember the inimitable Tyler Alexander drawing breath and taking a long hard look at the collective nervousness throughout the garage. In typically laconic style, he stated: “We spend the whole year being told to wipe our asses with our right hand, and now we’re wiping our asses with our left hand. So is it any wonder that we’re left with shit on our fingers?!”
Who else but Tyler could have put it better?
Invariably, however, that sort of pressure gets to you. Deeply.
A title decider, you see, is a mind game – it preys upon your weaknesses, creeps into the darkest recesses of your brain and lodges there, like some infernal gremlin, gnawing away at your self-confidence, your ability to do the job properly.
Is it any surprise that Michael Schumacher, who, on a normal day, could happily take on anybody and win, became such a flustered and internally conflicted character when playing win-or-bust on the last day of the season? Is it simply a coincidence that he fluffed his lines on at least three memorable occasions (Adelaide 1994, Jerez ’97 and Suzuka ’98, when he stalled on the parade lap)? I think not.
Back to Sao Paulo, 2008. The McLaren crew were noticeably flighty, ill at ease and flustered. As was its habit, the MP4-23 was struggling with front-locking around the Interlagos circuit, and the fantastic, fluent pace that Lewis had exhibited at Shanghai was now nowhere to be seen. Lewis would start fourth, nearly half a second adrift of pole-sitter, and championship rival, Felipe Massa.
In those situations, a team hopes for a nice, straightforward race – the kind of afternoon that can be reasonably well planned; one that doesn’t need to factor in unnecessary complications like rain, Safety Cars, or accidents.
On the grid, things looked good. Then it started to absolutely pour down. Everyone dived for cover, the start was delayed while the grid fitted Intermediate tyres. Then the chaos began. The mistake that McLaren arguably made – and which is a testament to the theory that you can’t help but recalibrate when the title is at risk – was to simply allow Lewis to race for fifth, rather than aiming for the best result possible.
Having him run safely in fifth was fine as long as he wasn't affected by any further mishap… like a late-race shower.
When Lewis dropped to sixth after being overtaken by Sebastian Vettel’s Toro Rosso just two laps from the end, it felt like a flickering flame deep within me was suddenly extinguished. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for those men and women working for McLaren! On the Intermediate tyre, Lewis simply had no grip, the onboard footage showing the front-end slithering wide at corner exit, before the rear received a massive kick under power requiring further steering correction to halt the slide. Vettel’s car simply grew smaller and smaller as he made good his advantage.
We all know how the story ended – and reviewing the footage while writing this blog reminded me just how electric and emotional those final laps were – but it ultimately showed that when the chips are down, it’s often instinct that drives you on. I admire Lewis so much because he never gives up – and while Brazil was certainly the most vivid example of his never-say-die attitude, you get that same spirit on pretty much every single lap of every single race. The guy is a fighter. And fighters don’t know when – or how – to stop fighting.
I hope next week’s denouement in Abu Dhabi (it doesn’t have quite the same ring about it as, say, ‘The Thrilla in Manilla’ or the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’, does it?) retains its sporting purity. I’ve never been a fan of the double-points concept, and I’d hate for it to benefit one driver only to deprive another. The way I see it, Lewis’s 17-point advantage means that Nico Rosberg needs to finish at least second and score 18 points, with the cards falling his way, to ‘fairly’ scoop the title. Mercifully, given the race pace of the two Mercs, that seems a reasonable ask.
It would be cruel if Formula 1 were to forego even its sporting principles next week. Thinking back to that thrilling day at Sao Paulo in 2008 leads me to hope that everything will come good in the end.
But, still, here’s hoping for a fair fight. And a bloody great one at that…