August 02, 2003


Knowledge of one’s own abilities is a powerful thing; perhaps more powerful than ability alone. A few years ago I met Mark Webber, then a Formula One test driver. Asked how he might perform if given the opportunity to race in F1, he said: “Under the present rules, with the cars as they are, I can drive very quickly.”

That’s an unusual thing for a racing driver to say. Most -- like athletes in any field -- tend to rate their abilities highly no matter the circumstances. But Webber, before he’d competed in a single F1 race, understood that his particular gifts would mesh with the demands of today’s twitchy, unforgiving, 850-horsepower F1 machines.

And he was right. Webber is now in his second year of F1, and following a string of impressive qualifying and race efforts is being spoken of as a future driver for the multi-championship winning Williams team. He truly can drive these cars very quickly.

Perhaps in another era -- the early 60s, when F1 cars were small-engined flyweight devices, or the mid-80s, when brute horsepower overwhelmed chassis development -- Webber’s skills may not have shone. Today’s machinery is moved fastest by a combination of rhythm and rage. This fits Webber ideally.

Another Australian racer, Alan Jones, also drove during a time when the available F1 technology suited his abilities. He had to wait a few years, however. Jones was usually in the front half of the field from 1977 onwards, but the advent in 1978/9 of wing cars -- with scooped underbodies that created aerodynamic downforce -- saw him suddenly vault to the front.

The reason? Well, wing cars were able to corner massively more quickly than previous F1 cars. Drivers had to convince themselves that they would remain on the track having entered turns at speeds formerly unknown to the sport. Extracting the maximum pace from a wing car took a certain, ah, force of will.

(His team once wired Jones to monitoring equipment during a testing session, and were surprised to discover that for large parts of each lap Jones didn’t appear to be breathing. He explained later that he’d hold his breath entering high-speed corners, “in the same way you would as if you were aiming a rifle.”)

Jones, who’d previously won just one race in four years, suddenly won three in a row in 1979, and a year later claimed the world championship. Where other drivers would lift, Jones kept his foot down. Even his build -- stocky, bull-necked, able to withstand huge g’s -- was suited to that era.

Qualifying for Sunday’s German Grand Prix at Hockenheim -- where Jones won his first race for Williams 24 years ago -- is at 10pm Australian eastern time. Webber was fourth in pre-qualifying. If everything falls Webber’s way during his one-lap qualifying sprint, he could make it to the front row. He knows he can do it.

UPDATE. Not this weekend. Webber qualified 11th -- but, of course, we don't know what fuel load he was carrying. I suspect both Jaguars are on heavy strategies, given that Wilson dropped from a pre-qual 7th to 16th. Montoya on pole, followed by Ralf Schumacher, Barrichello, Trulli, Raikkonen, and M. Schumacher. Jenson Button is way down in 17th.

Posted by Tim Blair at August 2, 2003 08:01 PM

Tim, I'll take your word for it.

Posted by: Gabor at August 2, 2003 at 10:51 PM

Don't forget the greatest of them all - Jack Brabham.

Posted by: caesar at August 3, 2003 at 03:12 PM

... okay?

Posted by: Marty at August 3, 2003 at 09:02 PM

Whoa, something seriously screwed up in the comments there. So that response ended up in the wrong post. Oops.

Posted by: Marty at August 3, 2003 at 09:03 PM

I like this "a man for his time" analogy about GP racing.
Of course, we can take it further - into other fields.
John Howard was rejected by the Australian people and his own party (twice) ... then after the divisive and lamentable prime ministership of Paul Keating suddenly the very same man is unassailable.
No wonder Paul Keating is so miserable these days - HE GAVE AUSTRALIA JOHN HOWARD!
I never thought I would say thank-you to Paul Keating ... but "thank you".

Posted by: The GOP Elephant at August 3, 2003 at 11:54 PM

Wing cars have scooped underbodies?

Where does the driver sit?

Posted by: volvo245DL at August 4, 2003 at 12:34 PM

Montoya Stakes Title Claim.,8659,6861048-23209,00.html

Gee Montoya is starting to look more and more like David Coulthard everyday!

Posted by: Anthony from Chippendale at August 4, 2003 at 01:19 PM

BMW kicks ass!! At least this series seems competitive this year.

Posted by: The Meatriarchy at August 4, 2003 at 02:30 PM