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F1-MOMENTUM AND MISSING THE FULCRUM

  In formula one, as in all competitive sports and much of life, momentum is everything. When you have it, you catch all the breaks and everything seems to going for you. But if you slip or stumble just once, even when it’s not your fault, that can be the tipping point, the fulcrum, which unleashes torrents of crap upon your head. From the rose garden to the dung heap in a split second. Sometimes it might even seem that initially you may have gotten away with your slip, even to others, but as time draws on, it becomes evident what was the precise moment the excrement began to pour and your momentum waned. Sometimes it’s blindingly obvious, say Niki Lauda, the Nurburgring 1976. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Brabham and Williams switching from Michelin to Goodyear rubber between the Spanish and French Grand Prixs in 1981 or Alonso passing Schumacher on the outside of 130R at Suzuka in 2005. Sometimes it should have been obvious, but it just took a while to become so.

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  Lets have a quick study of these first three scenarios. In 1976 Niki Lauda, the reigning champion had all the early momentum. Nine races, five wins, two seconds and a third. Then came that fiery crash at the Nurburgring and despite his miraculous recovery, the momentum was gone. Gone to James Hunt who ended the season with four wins from the final seven races while the gruesomely injured Lauda could only manage a meagre seven points. Don’t get me wrong here, they were seven extraordinarily bravely earned points, especially the fourth on return at Monza, but just seven points never the less. Arguments will probably rage as long as the sport exists whether it was braver to race on in the appalling conditions in Japan that year or it was braver to risk being branded cowardly for pulling out of the race. Me, I think it took more guts to pull out, especially so in Lauda’s case as he was still the championship leader at the time he made the decision. Hunt continued on and finished third, enough to take the title by a single point. Momentum.

   In 1981, despite a brief period of dominance for the Brabhams at Argentina and Imola while everyone else was catching up on their wheeze of having a hydraulically adjustable ride-height system which gave them full ground effects while everyone else was racing at the required height (more on this, and other dubious Brabham methods, some other day), the early season momentum was all with Carlos Reutemann in the Williams. He easily won the season opening South African Grand Prix, although that was later ruled not to count for the championship (again, more on this and other FISA/FOCA brawling on another day), finished second at Long Beach, won in Brazil, came second and third behind the dubious Brabhams in Argentina and Imola and won again in Belgium. When Williams switched back onto the returning Goodyear tyres prior to the French Grand Prix Carlos had 37 points. Piquet in the Brabham in contrast had just 22 points and 18 of them came in those two wins in Argentina and San Marino. From the French Grand Prix onwards Nelson would score 28 points to Carlos’s 12. It wasn’t that the Williams was suddenly a lot slower, Carlos took a superb pole for the final race at Las Vegas after all, he just didn’t enjoy the feel of the Goodyears as much as he had the Michelins and the momentum was gone. So was his championship, again by just one point. Unless South Africa had counted that is.

   OK 2005 was the year that Michelin whipped the floor with Bridgestone and Ferrari one just one race, the farce at Indianapolis. But previously no-one would have even considered passing Herr Schumacher on the outside of a corner, even in a superior car. You just didn’t do it. It was a one way path to instant retirement. Even on a fairly safe corner you didn’t do it. But around the outside of the fearsome 130R at Suzuka? What sort of lunatic would have that much of a death wish? King Fernando, that’s who. After being delayed early in the race due to an unfortunate, and incorrect, stewards decision that forced King Fernando to give a place back to Christian Klien twice the reigning champion and his heir apparent got embroiled in a fierce battle for fifth place. For lap after lap the German used every trick in his armoury to keep the Spaniard behind but on lap twenty the Renault pulled out of the Ferrari’s slipstream on the entrance to 130R. To the right. The outside. And he stayed there, sweeping by to the astonishment of all those that watched. Had they touched the consequences would have been horrific, but they didn’t. In hindsight, that is the moment that Michael Schumacher’s career lost it’s momentum.

   Ironically enough, the momentum swing this year also involves King Fernando. At the time it just seemed like a blip as all his rivals were still struggling with consistency and taking vital points away from each other, but now, Stuka Grosjean’s aerial assault at Spa was where Fernando lost his mojo. Until then, even in the third best car, King Fernando could do no wrong. He maximised every weekend, and in a topsy-turvy season had been the first guy to score two wins, and then three. But since then he has scored just three third places and retired in Japan as well. Things are just not going his way as they were a couple of months ago. Meanwhile over at Red Rags, the momentum is all with the young master Vettel who in those same five races has won three times and finished second once. The first guy this year to score two wins in a row. And then three. And the championship lead…….

   While this was going on on the track, a similar pattern was playing out off it. Early in the season Michael Schumacher had all the momentum needed to continue with Mercedes. His great qualifying lap at Monaco and his podium finish at Valencia had him on the verge of resigning for at least another year. But by Belgium his dithering was beginning to wear on the Mercedes management and their discussions with The Hoon became ever more serious. It quickly became a situation from which Schumacher would not recover and shortly after the Singapore Grand Prix, where Hamilton’s McLaren had broken down while in the lead, and Schumacher contrived to have an amateurish crash with Jean-Eric Vergne, it was announced that the Hoon would become a Mercedes driver at Michael’s expense from 2013. Another fulcrum had arrived and in just a few days it was announced that Sergio Perez was joining McLaren, Felipe Massa was staying at Ferrari and Raikkonen and Grosjean would be staying at Lotus. After months of speculation all the top seats were sorted within a week. And Schumacher was left standing when the music stopped. So he will retire at the end of the season. Again. His comeback dreams unfulfilled as they were probably always destined to be. After all, his momentum departed at 130R in 2005.

   So with four races the momentum has swung away from King Fernando to Sebastian Vettel. Will it swing again? One more fulcrum? In this season, who knows, there just may be a sting in the tail.

Sam Snape 

21/10/2012