Bob McMurray: A day for winners and whiners
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Last week in Mexico we saw the most successful driver in the long and proud history of British circuit racing crowned champion for the fourth time.
A remarkable feat for any driver and an achievement that will restart that old question: “Is Lewis one of the ‘greats’ of the sport?”
It’s a question many have debated on previous occasions and undoubtedly will do so again.
This was a bizarre race with the eventual winner, Max Verstappen, acclaimed as a deserving one and the new world champion justifiably applauded.
There can be no doubt that Hamilton has a talent for driving a Formula 1 car, and a simple look at his achievement statistics shows his brilliance. A brilliant driver does not have to be unanimously popular, and whatever lifestyle Hamilton chooses — as different and perhaps odd as it is in some people’s eyes — is purely his own business.
Unfortunately we were, once again, denied the chance to see Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen race wheel-to-wheel over a race distance with that battle lasting no more than three corners after the race start.
Similarly, New Zealanders were denied the chance of seeing just what Brendon Hartley could achieve with a straightforward qualifying, a non-penalised starting position and a full count of racing laps.
I feel most of all for Hartley, who has yet to prove to the general public what the Toro Rosso team clearly already know — that he is a great racing driver and belongs on the Formula 1 grid among the 20 best single seat drivers in the world.
Although all the pre-race hype was directed at the anticipated battle for the 2017 Formula 1 drivers’ crown, there was yet another “hand grenade” (as Mercedes boss Toto Wolff would call them) lobbed into the mix of paddock rumour and debate — by the 87-year-old, now almost shadowy character. Hovering in the background, always quotable and seemingly growing chips on both shoulders over his alleged banishment from “his” sport; one Mr E, or “Bernie” to all.
Bernie Ecclestone’s latest little destabilising detonative gem was the almost offhand comment that appeared to insinuate that the Ferrari team were always “helped” by not only him but by the FIA, the ultimate guardians of the sport.
He is widely quoted as saying “Helping Ferrari has always been the smartest thing to do. It was always done through the technical regulations. The teams are important to F1, but Ferrari is more than that. So many things have been done over the years that have helped Ferrari to win
“Max [Mosley FIA President 1993-2009] has often helped Ferrari. And I, too, wanted them to win.
“There can be a season won by others, but even the other teams have an interest in challenging a competitive Ferrari.
“It’s one thing to win against Sauber and quite another to win against a red car.”
These comments were immediately refuted by all of those concerned, including Ross Brawn the now Formula 1 managing director of motorsports who Ecclestone seemed, indirectly of course, to accuse of taking technical information from Ferrari to Mercedes.
In all my years in the paddock there were always the underlying thoughts, and not always joking thoughts, that Ferrari had a “BIG” engine especially built for its home Grand Prix at Monza. Or that some rules did not apply to it in engineering terms or were, at the very least, stretched to accommodate the team. And there are a considerable number of “hearsay facts” that back up those thoughts.
It was many years ago that the initials FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) came to also stand for “Ferrari International Assistance”.
Perhaps Bernie’s utterings are just well-timed ramblings of a sad, old, rejected former tsar of the sport. Or perhaps the slow release of past skeletons in the cupboard is designed to get back at those who have rejected him, and apparently denied him even a paddock pass.
I stick to my opinion that he is still a major force in the dark recesses of the sport, and one who should be listened to despite the occasional percussive device landing in the paddock from his desk in Princes Gate, London, SW1QJ.
He has also not lost his famously acerbic wit by also commenting on the US Grand Prix pre-race show when he was quoted as saying “Maybe it was great for the Americans, but not for F1.”
He added: “I built a five-star restaurant and they are turning it into McDonald’s. At one point I saw drivers dressed in pink. If I had anything to do with it, I would have told them to go back and dress appropriately.”
With just two grands prix left in the season — first at the wonderful, atmospheric, challenging Interlagos track in Sao Paulo, Brazil, then finally at the outrageously expensive car park by the sea in Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi — they could both be called “dead rubbers”. But in the world of Formula 1 there is no such thing.
The competition will be as fierce as always with the probability that there is no championship to worry about. So the racing will be even more intense, more free, especially among some team-mates.
Perhaps also Hartley will get a clean, competitive and ultimately successful weekend of Formula 1 under his belt. That would also quieten the doubters who are questioning his selection for the role of Toro Rosso F1 driver. A great result would prove he does have the goods and deserves a place among the select 20.