Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Forgotten Formula 1 passion remembered

 I used to be a seriously passionate and committed Formula 1 fan. I'd forgotten about this. I'm watching the 'Formula 1: Drive to Survive' series on Netflix, which focus on 2018 in the first season of the show. I'm not only enjoying it, but it has reminded me of how absolutely Formula 1 crazy I was.

My uncle has always been a Formula 1 guy. If family gatherings were on a Grand Prix Sunday, he would duck off to watch. One Sunday afternoon in 1992, I sat down with him to properly watch a race. While he has always been a Mclaren supporter, I favoured rooting for a driver instead of a team. I remember asking him which driver would be a good one for me to support. "Damon Hill," was his reply.

During the race, I tried to get into Hill-supporter mode but something about Hill just didn't sit well with me. I found my driver when he stood on the podium for the very first time, in 3rd place, and in only his second season in Formula 1: Michael Schumacher. What won me over was his exuberance and joy. That 3rd place may as well have been 1st place. 

I watched most of the races that season and saw my driver climb on to the top step of the podium a few months later. This young Schumacher was driving among the grizzly, experienced drivers of the likes of Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost... names I'd heard my uncle speak of for years already by that stage.

From my uncle, I started learning more about F1 - teams, drivers and some of the technical aspects. I lapped up every bit of commentary; these were the days of Murray Walker. I learned about refueling, tyre changes, pit-stop strategy and, of course, the race tracks. 

Schummie was driving for Benetton and I knew stuff like that they had a Ford V-Tec engine and then the next year a Renault engine (and somehow I remember this stuff almost 30 years later but I can't remember a phone conversation I had yesterday!). 

I first got onto the internet (redimentary as it was at the time) at university towards the end of 1994. There I found Formula 1 newsgroups (remember those!) and I absorbed discussions. In time there were F1 and news websites too. I'd browse Formula 1 content in magazines at my local CNA. I entered a competition on SABC Sport and won a black golf tee with embroidered racing logos (I can't remember which). I wore it the day I did my driver's licence (the examiner was also a F1 fan).

I loved watching Saturday's qualifying rounds and I rarely missed a Sunday Grand Prix over the next eight-odd years. In 1994 and into 1995 I had a part-time waitressing job. I would work from about 10am on a Sunday and finish the lunch shift at 2pm. I would run home to make it in time for the start. I'd hang over the arm of the couch, barely blinking for the duration of the race and then get back to the restaurant for the 5pm shift start. My boss knew the extent of my F1 addiction and so he was always lenient if a race had gone overtime and I rocked up a few minutes late - having run back to the restaurant. 

I've bumped into my old boss a bunch of times over the years - last time was a few years ago. He always comments that the moment he sees me he thinks of Formula 1 and Michael Schumacher.

I could recognise the drivers from their eyes, from their helmets and from their cars - even in those distance shots. I could predict Schummie's pit-stop strategy and pit-stop duration (related to refueling amounts), which were often different to most other drivers and were always a point of speculation for Murray Walker in the commentary box. I loved rainy races because there was the excitement of when to pull the driver in for rain tyres and if it dried out, when to get him in for slicks again.

Every year there were new rules, technological changes and technological advances.

It goes without saying that my choice race combination was Schumacher, in Monaco, in the rain. Schumacher in the rain anywhere were my favourite races.

When I applied to university, my three degree choices were BSc, medicine and aeronautical engineering. I fancied being an engineer on an F1 team - designing those wings and working in wind tunnels.

I also fancied being a F1 commentator. I do love David Coulthard and Martin Brundle as F1 commentators. I remember when they would sometimes partner with Murray Walker or they would step in to cover for Murray. I learned so many more interesting tidbits about racing, driving, strategy and the cars from them.

In 1996 Schummie moved to Ferrari. They were not top dogs at that time. I remember listening to interviews with and about Schummie that spoke of the amount of time he spent working with the crews, in the garages to get the car tweaked, practicing pit stops and improving everything. He'd done well at Benetton and then put that focus and ambition into building the Ferrari team. He spent 11 years with Ferrari - that's the longest stretch than any F1 driver has been with a team. He also put a lot of work into physical training - gym, running and the like. More than drivers had done before - something that is commonplace now.

"Ferrari and Schumacher wasn’t just a meeting of a top driver and a top team. This was a turnaround story that revived Ferrari—in results, reputation and spirit—and Schumacher was the beating heart of that renaissance. Over 11 seasons, Ferrari went from being a bumbling midfield team to a slick front-running outfit." - quote from this article.

At the end of 2006, Schummie retired from F1 for about three years. Schummie out of F1 took away a lot of the appeal for me. 

It was around then too that Formula 1 went off SABC television. They had the live broadcasts and then they went to recorded screenings late on a Sunday night (I liked the live screenings because it was no fun watching later if you already knew the result). Then, Formula 1 went off SABC completely when SuperSport got the contract. In these years there seems to have been a lot of changes and comings-and-goings of drivers. I quickly lost touch with who was who and didn't have much of a connection with any of them.

That was me out of Formula 1. I stopped watching and I mostly stopped following, except to listen out for the results. Schummie returned in 2010 - driving for Mercedes - but I wasn't following too closely. I'm not big on comebacks (Nigel Mansell's comeback was memorable for not being memorable). Midfield Schummie is not 'my' Schummie. 

He retired permanently from F1 in 2012 and sadly had a skiing accident in 2013 that landed him in a coma for six months, hospital for a long time and now full-time care at home. 

In his career, Schummie won seven World Championships, had 91 Grand Prix victories, stood on the podium 155 times and he started on the front of the grid in pole position 68 times.

Other drivers that I liked included David Coulthard, Mikka Hakkinen, and later Mark Webber. I was more of a Prost fan than Senna; Mansell was never it for me. I also never took a shine to Damon Hill, Jacques Villeneuve, or Lewis Hamilton. (I can't believe that Fernando Alonso is still racing; he was never my favourite but he has stood the test of time).

I catch the odd sports news items and the names of winning drivers, but I really haven't paid the sport much attention for a decade.

This Netflix series... well, my interest is sparked. The only thing - maybe showing my age - is that it seems to me that these young whippersnappers are quite spoilt and entitled. Looks to me too that the whole 'team' aspect of F1 is absent. Sure, there would have always been rivalries within teams for the number 1 driver seat, but I can remember where teammates sometimes worked together - there was strategy - to get a win or highest placing for the team, not self. Along the lines of how a cycling team gets their main contender to the front. Boom - that's all gone now. 

And I definitely do not remember as many stupid crashes. These young guns trash cars in qualifying and racing through too risky and quite stupid manoeuvres. This takes them out of the race and stuffs up things for their team with constructor points. Sure, push hard and drive on the edge, but when you're DNF-ing, you blow it for everyone that works so hard to get them on the start line. There seems to be a lot of team hopping too - drivers after the next best offer. 

Suffice to say, I run a bit of my own parallel commentary while watching the show... I am enjoying meeting the drivers and I'm looking for candidates to be 'my' driver. 

Even if you have never watched a day of Formula 1 in your life and you don't get how people can watch cars going around and around and around a race track, watch this show. Of course, it has a bit of a reality-tv spin, but other insights - cars, drivers, teams, technology, money - are really quite interesting. 

There is a race this weekend. I'll be checking out the line-up. 

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