Ed Gorman is a writer I respect a lot. He came into F1 at the same time as Lewis Hamilton’s debut and saw F1 from the inside, during a particularly volatile period, with Spygate, the FOTA breakaway threat, Max Mosley and so on, as correspondent for the Times newspaper until 2010.
He ran a successful F1 blog on the Times website (pre paywall) which some of you may have followed.
When he left F1, to take up a prestigious post on the Times Foreign Desk, he had certain expectations about what would become of the sport he had covered so closely for several years and the characters who populate it.
Now, in the first of a series of guest posts for JA on F1, he looks at those expectations and compares them to what has actually happened in the intervening four years. We hope you enjoy it and find it food for thought.
Ed Gorman writes: “For almost four years until the beginning of March 2010 Formula One – its machinations, thrills and scandals – were my lifeblood in my role as Motor Racing Correspondent for The Times.
Then I moved to other roles in the paper and the sport quickly returned to the background as it always had been. Of course I was probably more interested than many in what was going on in and out of the paddock but my day job left little time to watch races or read the coverage in the papers or on the web.
For me it was a clean break from the sport. Now, having left the paper and with some spare time on my hands for the first time in a while I feel like I have come back after being on a desert island for three years. What on earth has been going in that soap opera I used to love so much? That business that masqueraded as a sport run by that wily old fox Bernard Charles Ecclestone – a stand-up comedian I used to speak to almost every other day.
When I left the paddock the following things were happening. (I accept it may seem like an ice age ago to many of you). Toyota had just shocked everyone by walking away and there was much concern about the future in time of recession. Lewis Hamilton had just split with his dad(arguably a very significant moment). Mercedes had just got hold of Brawn GP, Michael Schumacher was about to step back into a car and was even talking about winning more championships and the newly-crowned world champion Jenson Button was about to begin his career at McLaren. (I predicted it would be a disaster and he would be crushed by the weight of Hamilton’s brilliance. I’m not sure if I was quite right about that).
In those days there was no DRS, most of the drivers were still ink-free(though Kimi may have just got that plant motif on his arm), and Jean Todt had barely got his feet under the table at the FIA. At that time, don’t forget, Formula One was as much a story about scandal on and off the track – think anything you like about Max Mosley or the outrage of Flavio Briatore’s scheme to have Nelson Piquet Jnr crash on purpose in Singapore – as it was about racing.
When I left I had some expectations about what might happen but I have also been surprised. To start with the action has returned fairly and squarely to the track. It is so clear to see now, in retrospect, that Mosley was just whipping up one controversy after another to keep his name in the papers at any cost. In his place Todt has operated on the principle of “not responding to news stories.” This is good isn’t it? The focus is back where it belongs on the racing but something has been lost too. After all, the racing can be pretty tedious at times and Max and Bernie always had something else up their sleeve to keep us interested.
So here are a few thoughts from someone who has been watching only out of the corner of an eye. What on earth has been going on at McLaren? This season they are rubbish and they have not been a fighting force by their high standards for the last couple of years. The last championship was, erm, back in 2008 when Lewis just scraped over the line at that incredible final race in Brazil. That was a long time ago. If it was football – and we’re talking Premier League which McLaren aspires to – Martin Whitmarsh may well have been shown the door by now (think Chelsea or Man City for example). He is one of the nicest guys in the sport but you always wonder whether he is tough enough to drive his people to the heights of championship-winning performance. You don’t have to be a bastard – Christian Horner has shown that – but in another field Steve Jobs demonstrated that it helps.
I guess the same questions should be asked of Ferrari. Under the genial and charming leadership of Stefano Domenicali the Scuderia have not managed to win a title since Kimi’s fortuitous victory in ’07. I may be being tough here but when you are not really concentrating you only notice the winners. The old adage about second being the first loser is never more true than in Formula One. Ferrari have the best driver – or possibly the equal best in Fernando – but they never quite have the machinery. Who’s ultimate responsibility is that?
The flip side of all this is the supremacy of Red Bull, a phenomenon which has been the dominant feature in my time away and which now seems to be boring everyone to death. Even other teams and drivers have been complaining. My view is fair play to the Milton Keynes-based squad. Horner, Adrian Newey and Sebastian Vettel have mastered the challenge set for everyone better than the others four years in a row and the rest should be asking themselves some tough questions about why they have failed rather than complaining.
On the driver side Vettel’s mastery has come with some attitude which seems to have driven Mark Webber out of the sport, Ferrari have taken ages to realize that Felipe is no longer the driver he once was, McLaren look to have made the wrong choice for a replacement for Hamilton and Lewis seems to have turned into the paddock’s answer to Zsa Zsa Gabor with his pet dog in tow and lots of other superstar nonsense but no sign of another title. Nico has failed to train on as they say and you wonder whether Jenson has enough fight in his belly to go for another title if he had the car under him capable of delivering it. On the positive side, it is frankly amazing to see Kimi back in full flow – paid or not – and offering his unique style in cockpit voice entertainment. He might be one of the things Ferrari need next year with a real knuckle fight for honours between their drivers in prospect.
Other elements to note include the reasonably positive impact of the changes at Silverstone, the consistently dull qualifying format – especially the interminable first session – and the continuing sterility of many of the new races out East. Bernie did those deals for money. Did he ever expect the locals to start turning up and for the public in those countries to start building a tradition of following the sport? Has he or anyone else made any effort to help that come about? I don’t know but those races look awful on TV. I still love it when we get to a heartland contest. Give me Suzuka or Interlagos any day but not South Korea, China or even Abu Dhabi.
And finally Ross Brawn about whom there is plenty of speculation just now. When I left Ross was a big prospect at Mercedes. He’d just won the title with the most expensive car ever developed – by Honda – and he had a glittering career at Maranello behind him. The view of many was that Brawn was then in a position to boss the sport but it has not happened. Again I don’t have the answers but it seems that his second coming, like that of Michael, has failed to reach the heights of his first.