1977 and a high-school buddy turned me on to a magazine that I had never seen before called Road &Track. I am sure that the magazine went on to extol the virtues of the newest Porsche 911 Turbo or Ferrari Daytona but what I remember was the Formula 1 coverage; tiny, really fast cars with huge slick racing tires, giant wings and stickered with sponsor logos from nose to tail. They raced in faraway places such as Brazil, Monaco and Japan and had an international cast of drivers including American racing hero Mario Andretti.
In the 70’s and early 80’s you could tune into ABC’s Wide World of Sports and hear Jim McKay talk about the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I prayed that every week they would show just a little of Formula 1 and sometimes they did - rough editing, grainy footage and all too short segments at maybe 15 minutes long, the announcers recapping the whole race. The drivers just looked different, exotic, almost like rock stars. And they were, across the pond. Guys like Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt; these guys were heroes to people in every other country in the world except the US. But I loved them, their heroic exploits, their triumph and tragedy.
As a teen living in Lexington KY; where did you get Formula 1 (F1) coverage? Road & Track was months behind in coverage due to its monthly format, ABC’s coverage was sporadic, so where could you turn? I found a magazine, razor thin and published weekly, it was called Autoweek. I think I found the only place in Lexington that carried the magazine and spent my hard earned money every week on the latest edition. What I discovered was coverage that recapped the race one week after it happened. One week, it was like a God send. I would grab the issue, turn past the features section in the front and the ads in the middle to the motorsports section in the back of the magazine and immediately read the F1 coverage. I was hooked.
There was this team, they drove black and gold cars and man…they were the coolest looking race cars ever! And they had technology, the first ground effects cars, meaning they used an inverted airplane like wing to actually suck the car to the track for better handling. There were the Lotus 77 and 78 and I loved the drivers, Mario Andretti and Ronnie Petersen. I was actually at the Italian GP in 78 when Ronnie had that horrific accident that later claimed his life. We knew something was wrong when we saw the column of rising smoke and the noticed that the cars moved past at a much reduced speed, the race already black flagged.
I had moved to Italy and discovered there were whole magazines dedicated to F1, like Autosprint, in Italian no less. It forced me to learn how to read Italian a bit faster than normal; that is if I wanted to understand what was written. And the Italian press dissected the race down to the individual lap. And if Ferrari won, it was a brilliant victory justly deserved and if they lost, it meant that the Vatican had not prayed hard enough and as the racing pundits surmised, that someone was surely going to be sacked, the blame placed on some poor unsuspecting mechanic that had turned the most important bolt in the car in the wrong direction. RAI Uno (the main Italian TV station) covered EVERY race live, with excited announcers telling their listeners that the Ferraris were going to win every race, unfortunately there were other cars on the track, mostly in the way, hindering the progress of the Ferrari’s on their way to victory. It was pretty one sided reporting. Even I got that…
There was this other team, a small outfit, underfunded but plucky, run by the scrappy duo of Frank Williams and Patrick Head. I pointed them out to my step-dad. He scoffed, saying they would never win a race…ever. But they had this new sponsor, Saudia Airlines and they gave Williams a lot of blank checks, with only one instruction – Win. Well Williams Engineering did go on to win a couple of races and a few driver’s championships and constructor’s championships along the way. He was wrong, very wrong and I enjoyed reminding him of that…every chance I got. Their drivers were my drivers and I loved all of them: Alan Jones, Kiki Rosberg, Carlos Reutemann, and of course Nigel Mansell.
Ahh, Nigel, the British Lion, Red 5, the Policeman from the Isle of Mann. He was my favorite driver of all times. I would live and die based on how he did in a race. It was amazing to watch, his natural rivals, Alain Prost and Aryton Senna would spring from their cars, looking fresh, ready to go again. I actually took a picture of Senna doing a summersault coming down from the podium at the 1991 US GP in Phoenix. But not Nigel, sometimes he would have to be helped from his car. He gave every race all he had, there was nothing left at the end, he’d left it out there on the track. Bathed in sweat, he wrung every ounce of performance from the car and himself. He was my F1 hero.
I will say that the one thing that has changed watching F1 has been Speed TV. Man I love those announcers, Bob Varsha with the play by play, the sardonic David Hobbs and the former F1 team mechanic Steve Machett providing color. These guys have been together for years and it shows; they really know the sport. But let me tell a quick story. Sometimes Speed cannot carry a particular race for some silly reason or another. It fell to another network, I think ABC had it and they had some other announcers calling the race. What I recall was some TV personality named Jason Priestly (remember he used to be on Beverly Hills 90201 and maybe did a celebrity race or two in a Toyota) being pulled in as the “color” guy. This “car-guy” had absolutely no idea about any of the inside aspect or knowledge of F1. Besides focusing on what earrings the driver’s girlfriend was wearing, they showed little of the actual race action. I remember that at one point a particular driver was running away with the race and most of the front runners where on Michelin shod tires and all the Bridgestone shod teams were way back in the pack…way back. With about 15 laps left (which is pretty much means at the end of the race) he actually said that he thought the Bridgestone guys could make an impact on the race and fight for the overall win. Really? With an interval of almost a minute? In F1, that may as well be an hour. What a moron. I hate coverage other than Speed TV and we collectively cringe when we hear another channel is providing coverage, unless Bob, David and Steve are doing the commentary that is.
After Mansell faded from the F1 scene, I was in search of a new hero. I was never a huge Senna fan. I respected his talent and hated it when he died driving a Williams. I think it still haunts Frank and Patrick. But there was this new kid, this fearless German and he won back to back titles with the upstart Benetton team. His name of course is Michael Schumacher. By now I had kids of my own and they followed F1 with me and we all watched Michael week after week. Yes we got sucked into that red Tifosi Ferrari fever. If Ferrari did not win, all was lost and we hung our heads all week wondering if the world would ever be right again.
But he rewarded us year after year after year after year. This guy is a machine and won a record 7 World Driver’s Championship titles, two in 1994-1995 with Benetton and five (!) from 2000-2004 with Ferrari. His records for most championships, most race wins, most points scored, most poles, most fastest laps will probably never be equaled (unless another German F1 sensation Sebastian Vettel can do it). Even in 2006 Michael was still in the hunt to win a record 8th World Championship and during the next to last race in Japan was dueling with the upstart Spaniard Fernando Alonso. My boys and I were on the edge of our seats when all of the sudden with only a few laps remaining, Michael’s engine blew up in spectacular fashion. A Ferrari engine failure? It had not happened since the 2000 season. My boys and I agree that Ferrari wanted to make room for new blood on the team and someone in Modena flipped a switch…causing the failure. We were collectively heartbroken and we still believe in the switch conspiracy to this day.
After Michael retired, we cast around for a new hero and we really do like Lewis Hamilton, but we rallied behind Jenson Button in the upstart Brawn Racing entry. After a huge start winning 6 of the first 7 races in the 2009 season, he held on (just barely) to win the World Championship. Those last few races were nail biters as it seemed that three other drivers including his long suffering teammate Rubens Barrichello made a run on Jenson’s point total. But they all come up short. I will long remember him singing Queen’s “We are the Champions” as he took his cool down (victory lap) after coming in 5th in the Brazilian GP and (finally) securing the Championship. By the way, Jenson is no singer; he would not make it too far on American Idol or The Voice. But the guy can drive a race car.
We still follow Jenson, but it looks less and less likely he will win another race. There are new fast guys and they are all fellow World Champions too. Guys like Lewis, Fernando and Sebastian and a few older guys like Jenson, Michael (will still think it was a mistake for him to come out of retirement) and Mark Webber entertain us week after week. I love F1, probably always will. It is no doubt a somewhat irrational love, but if you gotta love something, it may as well involve tiny, really fast cars with huge slick racing tires, giant wings and stickered with sponsor logos from nose to tail.
See you all next week.