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Archive for November, 2008

How to make an F1 genius

I read a fascinating article this weekend by a writer called Malcolm Gladwell, whose new book “The story of success” looks at what creates success in many walks of life.

He describes some studies by psychologists into music students and concludes that however much talent someone has at something, what makes the difference between them becoming a stand out or an also ran is practice and opportunity. Amazingly the studies couldn’t find any “naturals” – people whose natural ability allowed them to be better than the rest on a fraction of the practice. It’s talent and practice which make a genius. By the age of 20 all top musicians had done 10,000 hours of practice and those that hadn’t were already doomed.

Delving deeper, he finds that the same is true of sportsmen and women too, that magic figure of 10,000 hours comes up again and again. It is the number required to hit true expertise in a field. It is a huge amount of time, equivalent to twenty hours per week for ten years.

It got me thinking about racing drivers, especially modern ones. Since the rules were relaxed to allow children to start karting at the age of 8, many drivers have been able to focus their lives on racing from a very early on and are hugely practiced by the time they arrive in F1 at 21 or 22. And that is why drivers like Hamilton and Kubica can perform as they do from the start of their F1 careers.

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With all the fuss about medals, you might not have paid much attention to the story of the three young Italian drivers, who got to test a Ferrari F1 car at Fiorano this week. But digging into what happened, it seems the test was a minor revelation.

The top three finishers in the Italian F3 championship were invited to drive Kimi Raikkonen’s 2008 car on Wednesday and the guy who won the F3 championship, 18 year old Mirko Bortolotti, went two tenths under the lap record for that car at Fiorano, setting a 59.111s lap. Now this needs qualifying; the car hasn’t done much running there this year and the lap record was set by sometime test driver Andrea Bertolini, but in only 14 dry laps (after 26 on a damp track), the fact that this 18 year old could do that time is hugely impressive. The other two, Eduardo Piscopo and Salvatore Cicatelli were and second and two seconds behind respectively.

Luca Baldiserri, who took over Ross Brawn’s operational role at Ferrari and whom I respect enormously said, “These boys have stunned me. The extraordinary thing is that they didn’t make a single error, they went fast straight away and showed enormous potential. It’s also lovely to hear comments and views from boys who are not yet prejudiced..”

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The discussion about the medals system potentially coming into F1 has set fans buzzing again, since Bernie Ecclestone stated, “It will happen, ” on Wednesday.

We’ve had lots of intelligent and insightful feedback on this and I have to say that the antis outweigh the pros so far. I also noted Eddie Jordan’s comments, where he laid into the plan and virtually accused Bernie of being out of touch. This is clearly a foretaste of the kind of comment we can expect from dear old Eddie when he is unleashed as a pundit on BBC next year…what would he have said about the ruling on the Bourdais/Massa collision in Fuji, or even the penalising of Hamilton at Spa? He’ll have the stewards reaching for the smelling salts next year.

The teams I have spoken to give this initiative a cautious welcome, but with quite some reservations. They see it as a very big step that needs to be thought through and presented properly. No-one is in the mood to shoot ideas down at the moment, because we are in the ‘phoney war’ phase of the FOTA/FIA/ Bernie tussle, which will start to heat up more next week, when FOTA meets on Dec 4th and the FIA world council on the 12th.

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Just back from a press conference at the Landmark Hotel, London, where Bernie Ecclestone said more about the proposed “medals” scheme in F1 and announced that LG the consumer electronics group, will sponsor F1 next year. You as viewers will be very aware of this deal as you watch, because the timing graphics, which appear on screen every 20 seconds of so will be LG branded. I think they will also sponsor the rev counter graphic you see on screen. They will develop F1 branded telies and other products off the back of the deal.

The deal was put together by Just Marketing, who also pulled in Johnnie Walker, Hilton Hotels and Lenovo to F1. Interestingly the event was fronted by BBC’s new F1 anchor Jake Humphreys, with whom I had an enjoyable chat. He’s a decent bloke, from the looks of things and he’s followed the sport for a while, so he’s not without knowledge. And he must be a sharp operator as he got himself a nice little earner today before he’s even hosted an F1 show!

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Rubens settles some old scores

One of the most dramatic moments in my F1 broadcasting career was the end of the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002, when Rubens Barrichello, having dominated qualifying and the race on Michael Schumacher’s bogey track, was ordered to move over on the final lap to let Schumacher win the race. This was the event which brought in the rule we have today; no team orders allowed.

I called that race with Mark Blundell and we had discussed throughout the closing stages whether Ferrari would switch the cars. He said they would, I said they couldn’t. But they could and they did and the crowd hated it – they stamped their feet in the grandstand so hard the whole structure was shaking, with our commentary box swaying above it. The FIA also hated it (and the subsequent farce on the podium, where Schuey ‘promoted’ Barrichello to the top step) so much they fined Ferrari $1 million.

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I’ve had a peach of a comment from AK, in response to the posting yesterday about the new BBC team.

He says: “I’ve just been pointed here by someone who said “I know none of us like James Allen as a commentator, but check this blog out anyway”. It’s won over a large number of people who would have clicked it with the mindset “let’s all laugh at the guy crying over his P45″ and the unanimous opinion is that we all like your writing a lot and are looking forward to you having more time for it – and if you can win over heartless bastards like us you must be bloody good at it. There’s also several people who are going to or already have bought your Schumi book because of this…”

Well, if you say so, A.K. who am I to disagree! I love the spirit of this comment so much, I shall send a signed copy of the Schuey book to AK as my first “comment of the week” winner… If you prefer, AK, you can have a rare, unsigned copy!

In all seriousness, it has been gratifying to see how quickly this space is developing as a forum for informed and passionate Formula 1 talk. I am enjoying this new opportunity to interact with other fans and I just wish I had started it a little earlier. Maybe I would have won over more people like A.K. sooner.

PLANS FOR ’09

Anyway never mind, now that I have started, I have developed a taste for it, and so I can reveal that I am busy working on a cunning plan to develop this website into something more substantial in time for the new season. So get ready for a lot more in-depth content, interviews, and community features in the near future (there may even be some video content too…)

Updates: if you want to be kept updated with all the changes, be sure to subscribe to the email alerts (top right-hand corner).

And as sad as I may be to not be carrying on the old role next year, I am excited at the opportunity to interact in a more relaxed way with you all going forward.

After Christmas I’ll let you know where else I can be seen, heard and read during the 2009 season…

So here’s to my P45 and beyond! – James

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The new BBC F1 team

The new presentation team, which will bring Formula 1 to UK audiences on the BBC for the next five years was announced today.

Jake Humphrey, who hosted some of the Olympics coverage on BBC this summer, will host the programme. David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan will stand alongside him as pundits. Radio 5 Live’s football correspondent Jonathan Ledgard will commentate with Martin Brundle, while Ted Kravitz patrols the pit lane along with Lee Mackenzie, who despite her name, is a woman, with extensive A1 GP and GP2 experience.

I wish them all well and hope that they can keep all you lot satisfied, which is no easy task! Don’t miss out on the chance to give your views on the new line up at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/606/A44044012

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Get well soon, Mark

I was shocked to hear about Mark Webber’s savage accident today. On a fast descent on his bicycle, he collided head on with a 4WD vehicle while competing in his Tasmania Challenge. It sounds like a really nasty shunt and it left his right leg badly broken. He has had surgery to repair it, a metal pin inserted and it will be a lengthy rehabilitation. It’s probably along the lines of the surgery Barry Sheene had and although there is no bright side to an accident like this, it’s probably just very fortunate that it was not his left leg, which is the braking leg for an F1 driver. There are many corners in F1 where the driver needs to put 90kg of pressure into the brake pedal, so the left leg needs to be very strong and it would take more to rehabilitate that one, I’d imagine.

Mark is a very keen cyclist, he rides road and mountain bikes as part of his training for F1 and this event in Tasmania is a really stiff physical challenge. He’s the kind of bloke who likes to push himself to the limit physically and doesn’t hide from a challenge. He’s relentessly self critical too. Earlier this year he went riding with Lance Armstrong in the hills around Monaco and related how Lance said to him, ‘Right, now it’s time to go into the hurt box,” at which point he took off up a steep incline, pushing his body to the limit. Webber went after him and said later he knew exactly what “the hurtbox’ was that day!

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The end of an era

Poignant night at the ITV farewell party yesterday. It was held at the Langley in London’s Covent Garden and pretty much everyone who has worked on the programmes over the past 12 years was there, even some who only worked on that first, 1997 season, which seems like a different lifetime..

Neil Duncanson, the boss of the North One Production company, read out his diary from that first year with many great stories I had forgotten, like the first Monaco GP where the show was presented from a boat and the water got really choppy, so Simon Taylor had to be carried off seasick, or the moving camera in the pits at Silverstone, which came off its rail and smashed into the pit lane about five feet from where I was standing.

As well as all the current team, Jim Rosenthal was there, as was our old head of sport Brian Barwick, who has been running the Football Association since. So too many of the engineers, cameramen, sound recordists and so on. As most of them work for what was the BBC outside broadcast unit, I sincerely hope that the Beeb retain them for next year because they are the best in the business and there is no point trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the highly complex business of getting pictures and sound safely back to the truck and from there to the viewer, from some remote location in the paddock. ITV F1’s emphasis was always on “taking the helmet off the sport”, in other words personalising it and above all on “being there”, using the various locations of the circuit and giving the viewer a real feel of what it was like to be there.

It’s amazing to think that ITV had such a long run of producing F1 in the UK. In all we did 206 Grands Prix, only seven drivers have started more races. I was the only person to attend every one of those races , even managing to fit the birth of both my kids around the races! I’m very proud of what we achieved and of course we had the best possible ending to got out on.

The team is now disbanded. I know that many people had frustrations with the ad breaks and some found the build-up show’s emphasis on Lewis Hamilton unjustified, but there is no doubt that ITV raised the standard of F1 TV production very high indeed.

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Eyes on Barcelona

Life moves on. The story changes. UK papers pulled out of their tailspin over the recession and banking crisis once Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, Barack Obama and John Sargent gave them something else to write about and this week’s test at Barcelona has moved the F1 agenda on from memories of the dramatic finale in Sao Paulo. F1 is reinventing itself again and focussed on 2009. Revolution is the air, with radically different looking cars and technologies and some amazing ideas for spicing up the show, which take F1 away from much it has held dear for some time (see other story.)

There have been a lot of talking points from this week’s test;  the Honda tests of Senna and di Grassi, the ugliness of the 2009 cars with their mismatched wings and the safety of KERS with mechanics all wearing heavy duty Marigolds to handle the cars. Sebastien Vettel managed only a few metres on his first run at his new team Red Bull before a brake problem caused a fire, while Pedro de la Rosa got tongues wagging by driving the Force India car. Twitchy-bum time for Giancarlo Fisichella..

Let’s start with that. Why did Pedro drive the car? Is he going to race for the team in 2009? Quite possibly, if you recall he was slated to drive for Prodrive if that McLaren B team project had come together and I know that he feels his has unfinished business as a racer, but I think another reason he drove the car now is because a) it still has a Ferrari engine in it, so it was a rare chance for a McLaren man to assess the Ferrari engine b) this is a technical collaboration and the two sides need to understand each other well, so it’s vital for McLaren to assess where the Force India package is at the outset. Of course the 2009 car will be totally different, but de la Rosa has given McLaren’s engineers an understanding of the baseline. Fisi admitted to some Italian colleagues that his key relationship there was with the now departed Colin Kolles. He has a contract for 2009 and was announced by Vijay Mallya in Shanghai as one of his 2009 drivers, but the feeling from the test is that McLaren wants del la Rosa in the car to push the programme on. Adrian Sutil seemed calm, pointing out that he was over a second faster than de la Rosa.

Over at Honda, Bruno Senna and Lucas di Grassi appeared in a shootout for the second seat alongside Jenson Button, who has publicly stated that he would prefer Rubens Barrichello as his team mate. Of the two di Grassi has a lot more F1 experience, having been a tester for Renault this year. The engineers there rated him highly for his technical ability, but they went a little quiet if you asked them whether he is fast enough for F1. Honda are assessing that now, likewise with Senna. It’s always dangerous to read too much into headline lap times from tests, you need to look at long runs and directly compare new tyre runs on similar fuel loads in similar conditions to see who’s faster.

There has been a lot of chat behind the scenes as the year went on about the safety of KERS, especially after the BMW mechanic was knocked off his feet at the first test, with an electric shock. This week the mechanics handling KERS cars are using thick rubber gloves, to prevent a repeat. They have to wait 3 seconds once the engine is switched off before touching the car. It is clear that there is a long way to go before the teams are up to speed on this new technology. As I’ve mentioned before, it will be at the race starts that the KERS system is most apparent early in 2009, with the power boost likely to give a couple or three car lengths advantage over a non KERS car, once the car reaches 100km/h.

As for the new look cars, they will certainly take some getting used to, as the saying goes, ‘that’s a face only a mother could love’. The generation of cars which culminated in the 2008 models were beautiful and their ugly sisters are just that. If they produce brilliant racing, will they become beautiful?

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