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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Raikkonen snares his first world championship. Or does he?

by Gordon Kirby
This was quite a year for Formula 1. We witnessed the sublime arrival of Lewis Hamilton, the dismal transformation of Fernando Alonso from quiet hero to petulant villain amid the insidious 'Stepneygate' affair, and finally, the emergence at Interlagos last Sunday afternoon of Kimi Raikkonen as the rightful world champion and dominant driver of the year. Raikkonen won six races, two more than both McLaren drivers and finished the year with a flourish, making the podium in every race he finished over the season's second half and winning three of the last four races.

Unfortunately, Formula 1 is characterized by the great industrial espionage 'Stepneygate' saga and the way it's been handled by the FIA rather than the on-track competition. And following Sunday's Brazilian GP there was more squabbling, this time over fuel temperatures with BMW and Williams facing disqualification which would elevate Hamilton a few places. Under Max Mosley's leadership the FIA has turned F1 into a lawyer's paradise where it's all about legal arcana and big egos trying to demonstrate who's the smartest of all. As my colleague Nigel Roebuck has written, spitefulness and paranoia rule, and I have to say I cannot disagree with Jackie Stewart that a change in leadership is needed at the FIA to push F1 in a new direction where sport is more important than politics. It seems futile to believe that such a thing is possible, but you can only hope.

Meanwhile, despite all the raving about Hamilton it has to be said that on his and Ferrari's day, Raikkonen was the man to beat this year. He had one or two uninspired races but was the strongest performer in the second half of the season and showed how tough he is by shrugging off a big crash in practice at Monza in September and coming back to finish third in the race. Before the season there was plenty of talk about how difficult it would be for the laid-back, party-hearty Finn to replace the disciplined, hard-working Michael Schumacher as Ferrari's team leader. Yet Raikkonen and the team seemed to get stronger, not weaker, as the season wore on. Kimi's pure speed and uncomplicated ways may not be so bad after all. Different than Schumacher for sure, but maybe just as effective.

Teammate Felipe Massa proved to be better than expected. He was great on his best days, won three races and showed his class at home in Brazil last weekend. Having spent a very pleasant evening with Massa in London five or six years ago, I have to admit I'm a fan of the little Brazilian, and I'm delighted to see him enjoy such a strong season with Ferrari.

Hamilton has been hailed as the most impressive rookie ever to appear in F1 and it's difficult to argue otherwise. He's been carefully groomed by Ron Dennis through four years in England and Europe's open-wheel ladder system reckoned to be worth at least US$8 million, followed by some 6,000 miles of F1 testing prior to the start of this season. I can't think of anyone who was more carefully prepared for his rookie F1 season. In the end, you can say Hamilton lost the championship because of a series of rookie mistakes after slithering into a sand trap in China then messing-up on the opening lap in Brazil, but it was still a superb rookie season.

Alonso made quite a few mistakes on and off the track. Across the board, he didn't look like the same guy who won two championships in such consummate style with Renault. But there were times when we saw every inch of the great driver inside the enigmatic Spaniard. He was clearly faster than Hamilon in four or five races and scored a great victory at the Nurburgring after rapidly catching and passing Massa in the closing laps.

Maybe the big lesson of the season is that teamwork really is the key to success. When you get dissension and squabbling inside a team it's going to cost you and Ron Dennis has a terrible track record of managing his drivers and creating an environment in which they work closely together like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in NASCAR and Raikkonen and Massa in F1. You can go back to the Prost-Senna days, but let's not forget that in recent years Dennis wasn't able to get the best out of the remarkable Raikkonen-Juan Montoya combination. Raikkonen spent five years with McLaren before leaving last winter for Ferrari where he appears to have come into his own.

"I need to give a big thanks to the team," Raikkonen said on Sunday after winning the championship. "I love the team. I have such a good time in the team. I enjoy Formula 1 much more now than I enjoyed last year. I have much better feelings from this year than any other year."

Of course, F1 continues as it has for many years to be a two-team race. This year, Ferrari and McLaren won all the races and swept all but five podium places through the entire season!

BMW-Sauber was the next best team. Nick Heidfeld responded to Robert Kubica's raw speed and BMW had a great year, finishing all alone in second in the constructors championship after McLaren were excluded. After winning two championships in a row with Alonso, Renault had a very disappointing year. Heikki Kovalainen blew off the overrated Giancarlo Fisichella, but neither had much to show from the year.

Nico Rosberg had some good races for Williams-Toyota and showed himself to be a real racer but struggled to put together consistent results. Alex Wurz, renowned as a test driver, was comprehensively outpaced by Rosberg and announced his retirement at the end of the season. Some people are campaigning for the thoughtful Austrian to challenge Max Mosley for the FIA's presidency, which might not be a bad idea! Kazuki Nakajima joins the team next year backed by Toyota to the reported tune of $50 million. Nakajima finished fifth in this year's GP2 series and is the son of retired F1 driver Satoru Nakajima.

For all the hype and investment, Red Bull was disappointing although there were signs of resurgence in Brazil last weekend. Mark Webber had some good races this year, but David Coulthard seemed to be barely there much of the time.Yet he's been re-signed and has settled in as a nice piece of the F1 furniture.

Sebastien Vettell replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso in the season's second half and showed plenty of speed. Sebastien Bourdais joins Vettel next year and everyone wishes him well in a tough situation. Scott Speed came home to ARCA, of all things, after doing more damage to Americans in F1, sad to report, than even Michael Andretti managed in his abortive two-thirds of a season with McLaren back in 1993.

Then there's the factory operations from Toyota and Honda, both of whom had terrible years. Misspent budgets and bloated bureaucracies seem to define these two teams--the opposite of the corporate mentality promoted by the car companies who own them.

After eight years at Indianapolis, the United States GP goes missing again in 2008. Theoretically, Bernie Ecclestone is trying to cut a deal with Steve Wynn to stage a true street race in the heart of Las Vegas's new downtown rather than the old part of town where Champ Car ran its first Vegas street race last April. Tony George hopes this deal doesn't come to pass and Ecclestone is compelled to return to Indianapolis because there's no other race track or city in America that could possibly afford an F1 race.

After a brief fling for a few races last year on network TV, F1 is back to SpeedTV this year and for the forseeable future with its reliable, 200,000-400,000-strong market. Those hardcore viewers are a solid, little group (a 0.2-0.4 rating) but building beyond that small base appears impossible for F1 in America. Of course, the F1 ratings are no better than the pathetic numbers Champ Car draws for many of its races these days.

Ecclestone may be happy that the old CART series no longer exists so that Indy car racing has been removed as any kind of global TV competitor for F1. But the backward slide of American open-wheel racing has not helped F1 in the United States. The lost position of open-wheel racing in the minds of the American media and public means that F1 is smaller and less relevant than ever across the United States. F1 needs a healthy, vibrant form of American open-wheel racing to help promote its cause which is a great dichotomy for Ecclestone and Max Mosley.

Meanwhile, the A1GP series's recently-announced Ferrari connection may be one of the smarter unholy alliances hatched in recent years by Mosley and Ecclestone. For many years, international open-wheel racing has suffered from the proliferation of too many lower and mid-level spec car categories fueled by the automobile manufacturer providing the series engines. What once seemed a great idea has resulted in far too many open-wheel series and total confusion about what each series means and who's who among the up-and-comers. Now, in partnership with A1GP and Ferrari, Mosley and Ecclestone may be doing the right thing for the sport by providing a clear primary stepping stone to Formula 1 with a worldwide identity and the potential to become a very strong series in its own right.

Ferrari is the leading brand of Formula 1, of course, if not racing as a whole. The red cars define F1. They provide the category with its historical flavor and cachet, and bringing all that to the A1GP series will give the 'World Series of Motor Sport', as the series organizers call it, exactly the image it needs. The Ferrari connection should provide a perfect promotional and marketing platform for A1GP and for the expansion of F1-affiliated open-wheel racing around the world.

The new A1GP chassis will be based on this year's Ferrari F1 car and will be built by an outside contractor which can only be Dallara. Gianpaulo Dallara's company has a long-standing relationship with Ferrari and is perfectly suited to the job. Ferrari will manufacture the F1-based V-8 engines, of course, and they will be restricted to around 700 horsepower. Plans are also taking shape for a smaller, A2GP series with 450 hp Ferrari engines. And as part of the deal A1GP major domo Tony Teixeira is being encouraged to put together his own F1 team which will be used to help promote A1GP. You might expect Teixeira's F1 team to run Ferrari engines.

If all this comes to pass it would provide the strongest and most closely-allied final steps on the ladder to F1 than we've seen in years, maybe ever. Quite how GP2 would work with, or compliment, the new A2GP category remains to be seen. What is clear is that the entire concept of Ferrari and A1GP means Champ Car's vain hopes of becoming a major FIA-affiliated international racing series have been cut off at the pass. But with a steadily growing global pool of aspiring young racers trying to make it in the open-wheel racing world the evolving A1GP series seems set to be a key player in the sport's future.

In Surfers Paradise last weekend, Sebastien Bourdais scored his seventh win of the year to wrap-up an unprecedented fourth Champ Car title in a row. Bourdais dominated this year's Champ Car World Series in his fifth season with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Surfers was the Frenchman's thirtieth win since joining the team in 2003 and he has sustained a better winning average during that time than any other driver competing in a major racing series. But such is the diminished state of Champ Car that Bourdais has been able to earn nothing better than a midfield seat in F1 with Toro Rosso, rather different to twelve and fourteen years ago when Nigel Mansell joined Newman/Haas after winning the world championship with Williams, then briefly returned to F1 with McLaren a year after winning the CART title. Times most certainly have changed.

And Jacques Villeneuve and Dario Franchitti continued their NASCAR hazing in the truck race at Martinsville on Saturday afternoon. Villeneuve qualified twenty-seventh and Franchitti thirtieth and both proceeded to crash out of the race. They were joined by former road racers Colin Braun and Mike McDowell who have also made the move to stock cars. Braun and McDowell have raced in the Grand-Am series and McDowell ran a couple Champ Car races in 2005 but all the road racers--Villeneuve, Franchitti, Braun and MacDowell--wound up smacking the fence at Martinsville.

In America at least, the racing world has been turned on its head.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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