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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/ Searching for a new superstar

by Gordon Kirby
Today, of course, is the fortieth anniversary of Jim Clark's death in a Formula 2 Lotus at Hockenheim. Clark was motor racing's greatest star of the sixties, winning three F1 world championships and the 1965 Indy 500 with Colin Chapman's Lotus team. Clark spent almost his entire career with Chapman, racing Lotus sports cars, F2 cars and Lotus Cortina sedans in addition to F1 and Indy cars. Like all the great drivers from those days, the Scotsman was a tremendous all-rounder, as well as a quiet, thoughtful, unpretentious gentleman.

My colleague Nigel Roebuck has written at length about Clark's career in the latest May issue of Motor Sport and for those of you who are not subscribers I highly recommend this month's edition of the magazine. Of course, Clark lived in a very different era in which safety was a marginal matter, held in contempt by many people in the sport. Commercial sponsorship was also marginal to non-existent in those days. Throughout his short but spectacular career, Clark drove a string of beautiful, yellow-striped green Lotuses. Other than the odd, tiny Ford, Esso or Firestone decal there wasn't a corporate logo to be seen and that's part of the purist charm of Jim Clark's legendary career. Read all about it in the latest Motor Sport.

F1 today is an entirely different creature and with Michael Schumacher's retirement it's also searching for its next dominant figure. Who will it be? Current champion and point leader Kimi Raikkonen is in the catbird seat as Ferrari's team leader. At this stage of the season Ferrari appears to be as strong as ever with Felipe Massa showing himself to be a much better number two than expected, witness his dominant performance in Bahrain last weekend. But neither Raikkonen nor Massa are charismatic personalities, much like the majority of the modern F1 field. Lewis Hamilton stands out a little, but it's difficult to see much of the real man in today's strictly, almost maniacally-managed F1 environment. And at this early point in the season, Hamilton also seems to be suffering a little of the sophomore blues.

If there's any surprise in F1 this year it's the strong performance of BMW. Robert Kubica took the team's first pole in Bahrain and finished a very competitive third with teammate Nick Heidfeld right there in fourth so that BMW takes the lead of the FIA's constructors championship. After three races BMW has thirty points, one more than Ferrari with McLaren-Mercedes another point behind in third. It's equally competitive in the drivers championship where Raikkonen has 19 points, Heidfeld is second with 16, Hamilton, Kubica and Heikki Kovalainen are tied for fourth with 14, and Massa is sixth with ten points.

But can any of these fiercely competitive racers transform themselves into Formula 1's next charismatic superstar? That seems unlikely, nor will such a thing be able to begin to take shape as long as the FIA president insists on dragging the sport through the courts and into the maw of a scandal having nothing to do with racing or sport, or even business. Let's hope this mess isn't allowed to prevail over Formula 1's most competitive and interesting season in some time.

A few good words need to be said about Sebastien Bourdais who outperformed his highly-rated young teammate Sebastien Vettel in Bahrain. Bourdais qualified fifteenth and finished in the same place, one lap down. It's difficult to imagine Bourdais getting much more out of the uncompetitive Toro Rosso and we can only hope he will continue to run as cleanly as possible and occasionally pick up the odd point.

Bourdais's wide experience and testing skills have been underestimated by most people in Formula 1. As a native of Le Mans he grew up with a great interest in the 24-hour classic and gained plenty of long-distance sports car experience at a young age. The many lessons he learned in sports cars at Le Mans were much appreciated when he arrived five years ago in Champ cars at Newman/Haas where he proved a quick study.

One thing Bourdais has always been good at is preserving and getting the best from his tires. This was a skill learned in sports cars and honed to a keen edge over five years in Champ cars. When Bourdais raced in the IROC series for just one year in 2005 he was able to score a rare oval victory in Texas, beating NASCAR star Mark Martin who worried Bourdais all the way to the checkered flag but could never find a way by or force him into a mistake. Martin was amazed that a stock car rookie could manage so well the notorious Goodyear tires which suffer the most fearsome degradation rates in modern motor racing.

With traction control banned, or at least temporarily curbed, today's F1 drivers are having to refine their crafts so that throttle and brake modulation are again relevant to driving an F1 car. As a result, the business of taking care of your tires by trying not to spin the wheels too much has become a factor again in F1 for the first time in many years. These are skills Bourdais has mastered in spades.

I feared for Bourdais in F1 because he is a smooth, fluid driver with considerable feel and sensitivity as well as a well-trained, analytical mind. For many years F1 has tended to reward a more banzai technique although the lessons were always there in Michael Schumacher's all-enveloping embrace of adapting the car to the driver. But at Scuderia Toro Rosso, Gerhard Berger and Dr Helmut Marko champion the 'stand on the gas and don't whine' approach endemic to many F1 teams. It's far from the steady, sensible, engineering-led environment Bourdais enjoyed at Newman/Haas/Lanigan, but it's beginning to look as if the smart, seriously competitive Frenchman may be showing Berger and Marko there's a better way. I hope so.

Meanwhile, in St Petersburg's Indy Car race on Sunday everyone was reminded that Newman/Haas/Lanigan is a great race team as Justin Wilson led strongly for many laps and Graham Rahal came through to score a convincing victory in very difficult conditions. The former Champ Car teams and drivers were much more competitive in St Pete than they had been on the Homestead oval the previous weekend with five ex-Champ Car drivers qualifying among the top ten and young Rahal coming through to score an excellent victory, his first in Indy or Champ cars. At 19 years and three months of age Bobby's son becomes the youngest driver in history to win an Indy car race and the first to do so as a teen-ager.

It was impressive to see how quickly the better Champ Car teams and drivers were able to come to grips with their new cars--on a street circuit at least. And too, it's a great shot in the arm for the unified IRL series to have a young American with an established name emerge as one of the series leading stars. Graham is a remarkably mature young man with a big future ahead of him. My personal congratulations to Graham, his dad, his mother Debi, and to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing for a tough job done extremely well.

As we all know, Indy Car racing desperately needs a superstar, least of all an American. Maybe he's arrived at long last.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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