By Matt Bishop, England
F1 Racing Editor in Chief
It was only a month ago that Autosport-Atlas' editor declared Alex Wurz a has-been and accused F1 Racing's editor of being biased in favour of the Austrian. No sooner after the McLaren substitute crossed the finish line at the San Marino Grand Prix in a solid fourth place, driving a car he has had little experience in, did she make the call to grovel for forgiveness. Now Matt Bishop gets his chance to explain why he was actually right, and why that doesn't necessarily mean he's biased...
As I write, on the morning of Wednesday May 4th, the immediate future of Jenson Button is being decided in a Paris Court. The evidence consists of his immediate past. His and his team's best interests are being represented by a prodigiously able (my lawyer friends tell me) and fabulously expensive (ditto) QC by the name of David Pannick. Pannick usually specialises in human rights cases, incidentally, and numbers among his regular clients Her Majesty's Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Like the present leader of that once-venerable institution, Button will learn his fate on Thursday, May 5th. My guess is that both Tony Blair and 'Jens' (his favoured spelling, by the way) will get a hefty kick up the backside, but will avoid ultimate defeat. But, since what goes on in courtrooms and poll booths is notoriously tricky to make accurate predictions about, who really knows at this stage?
So... enough of Button for the moment (and enough, certainly, of Blair). For, at the same time as all at BAR-Honda and New Labour were working feverishly to optimise their chances of survival, three other young men were equally anxiously awaiting the decision of their masters. I'm referring to Pedro de la Rosa, Alex Wurz and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Montoya has declared himself fit to race at Barcelona this weekend, and it goes without saying that I'm glad that McLaren's de facto number-two (sorry, Juan, but you're no Kimi) has recovered from his injuries so speedily. Ron Dennis and Martin Whitmarsh are both intelligent and diligent, and I'm sure that they'll have insisted that Juan undergo very thorough tests and simulations before reinstating him.
On the other hand, even before his 'tennis' crash, he wasn't the fittest man on the grid, and six weeks of inactivity will surely have induced some muscle atrophy. Perhaps by Sunday evening we'll all be saying that McLaren would have done better to have waited until JPM had spent some time in the gym, or until he'd driven 120 laps in a day at a test, before bringing him back; on the other hand, perhaps he'll have won the Spanish Grand Prix from pole, and all will be well.
As for de la Rosa, well, I expect he's gutted. The word on the street this past week was that Juan Pablo wouldn't be match-fit for Barcelona, and, although Pedro would have tried his damnedest not to allow his hopes to be raised, the prospect of campaigning a potentially race-winning car in his home town would have been an utterly thrilling one for him.
But, if Montoya hadn't been fit, would Pedro have raced... or would the lucky sub have been Wurz? We'll never know.
But I think it should have been Wurz. In fact, for the reasons I've hinted at above, I think it should still be Wurz - Montoya or no Montoya. But I'll return to that later.
At this point, regular readers of this column, and of F1 Racing, may be sighing and muttering, "He's not going to start banging on about Wurz again, is he?" To which my reply is, yes, I am. Indeed, although the editor of Autosport-Atlas, Biranit Goren, usually allows me to decide the subject matter of this column on my own, this week she specifically asked me to explore the subject of bias (alleged bias, please, Bira!).
"Okay, you were right about Alex," she began. "He did a good job at Imola, I admit it" - Bira and I had an amiable difference of opinion on the subject of Wurz a couple of weeks ago: she said that Sauber would be mad to hire him in place of Jacques Villeneuve, should such a vacancy arise; I said that Alex would bring just the right blend of pace and professionalism to the dispirited Swiss team.
"Ye-e-es?" I replied, sensing an approaching 'but'...
"But what I want you to write about next week is bias. Because some people perceive you as biased in favour of Wurz - and biased in favour of Fisichella, too, for that matter."
So... here we are. And... here we go.
So why do I write nice things about Alex and Giancarlo? For the same reason that I write nice things about Kimi (see above). In other words, I think they're good drivers. Period.
Formula One may be a big sport, but it's a small world. And 'bias' among journalists isn't actually bias at all. Let me explain.
Am I friendly with Wurz and Fisichella? Yes. Is that why I write nice things about them? No.
What happens is that a journalist notices something about a driver, and writes about it. If it is a positive thing, the driver concerned may be shown it by his manager or his team's head of PR, and the driver may make a mental note of the writer's name.
In football, for instance, that process would take five years or more - if it happened at all. In F1 it can happen in only a few months. Why? Because there are only 20-odd drivers (rather than the 90-odd football clubs that make up the English football league, each consisting of a squad of 35-odd players), and there are very few specialist magazines and websites devoted to F1 (football, by contrast, is fabulously well served). And those 20 drivers get to read everything nice (and nasty, if their assistants have a spiteful streak) that's written about them.
As long ago as 1997, I saw in Alex (at Benetton) and Giancarlo (at Jordan) two sparks of unusual talent, and wrote about them positively in F1 Racing. In 1998, when they were Benetton teammates, I wrote about them positively again. I guess their assistants noticed, because after that both drivers were ever-so-slightly more co-operative with my regular fortnightly questioning than they'd been theretofore.
At around the same time, I began writing about Eddie Irvine in a less-than-positive way, because I could never see what all the fuss was about. Here was a man who was being serially outclassed by his teammate, and yet the British press in particular were lauding him endlessly.
Should it really therefore surprise anyone to learn that, years later, I haven't changed my mind? And should it be construed as 'bias' if, after half a dozen more years spent praising drivers I rate (eg, Wurz and Fisichella, but also Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen and so on) and criticising drivers I don't (eg, Irvine, but also Jos Verstappen and Takuma Sato and so on) I've ended up on better terms with Alex and Fisico than I have with Irv or Jos or Taku?
I mention Michael and Mika not because I think Alex and Giancarlo are their equals, by the way; a combined total of nine Drivers' Championships and 103 Grand Prix wins as against a combined total of zero and two would seem to make that a foolish view to posit, so I'll not do so. No, I mention them because, believe it or not, F1 Racing's Championing of those two great, er, Champions is just as often called 'bias' by our magazine's critics as is our supporting comparative under-achievers such as Wurz and Fisichella (and Anthony Davidson and Heikki Kovalainen and so on). You really can't win, can you? I guess if F1 Racing had been around in the 1950s, we'd have been accused of being biased in favour of Fangio.
So 'bias' isn't really bias at all. I'm pally with Wurz and Fisichella because I rate them highly, and they've noticed; it wasn't pally-ness that caused me to rate them highly. Chicken and egg.
So... to return to a loose end I promised I'd tie up: why do I think McLaren should be running Raikkonen-Wurz at Barcelona? Again, let me explain.
If you accept (as I think you must) that the only McLaren driver who has a realistic chance of winning the 2005 Drivers' Championship is Raikkonen, then it follows axiomatically that the other McLaren driver's (or drivers') prime role is (1) to score as many Constructors' Championship points as possible. You might add, if you took a deep breath and decided to advise Dennis and Whitmarsh with utter forthrightness, two other considerations: (2) Kimi's Drivers' Championship interests are probably best, er, optimised by pairing him with a man whom he respects but who will not attempt to discombobulate his mind in order to gain intra-team psychological advantage (as Juan Pablo might), and (3) for every Grand Prix that Montoya cannot compete in, Ron, old chap, you save US$500,000 (or some such hefty figure) in wages you don't have to pay him.
Montoya may have declared himself fit. He may also have passed some tests that would appear to support that. But wouldn't it have been safer, and better in terms of fulfilling the above three goals, to wait until he had driven 10-dozen laps in a day at Jerez or Valencia or Silverstone, and checked how his recovering shoulder muscles coped with it?
In my view, it would. And it might then have been best to decide, now, that the most sensible Grand Prix at which to reintroduce him was not Barcelona, nor even Monaco, but the Nurburgring.
Why not Monaco? For two reasons: (1) because, alongside Sepang (but for different reasons), Monaco is probably the most tiring race of the year for drivers. Moreover, two hours of almost constant sawing at the wheel is hardly ideal treatment for damaged muscles and ligaments. And, also, (2) because of the 2005 qualifying rules. If a driver hasn't competed at the previous Grand Prix, he's forced to run first in the all-important light-fuel first qualifying session on Saturday afternoon.
Most tracks become between 0.3sec and 0.5sec faster as they rubber-in during a session, which means that a driver running first is significantly disadvantaged compared with one who runs near the end. At Monaco, a tricky track that rubbers-in significantly with every lap driven on its dusty asphalt, and at which attaining a good grid slot is paramount (because overtaking is impossible), starting first in quali-1 would be an almost insuperable handicap. Nurburgring, by contrast, is a 'normal' circuit.
So, to extrapolate this thinking further, and to turn our attention to the academic (but nonetheless fascinating) Alex-or-Pedro question, it's pretty obvious that the McLaren number-two who drives at Monaco should also drive at Barcelona. And, extrapolating further, and assuming that Montoya were being saved for the Nurburgring (as I believe he should have been), it therefore follows that, in order to decide who drives at Barcelona, the question Dennis and Whitmarsh should have asked was: "Which of our drivers will be most likely to score Constructors' Championship points at Monaco?"
Now, let's have a think about that. A difficult choice? I don't think so. The man (Wurz) who was "rock solid" (McLaren team manager Dave Ryan's words) between the dauntingly precipitous kerbs of Imola, earning fourth (or perhaps third, depending on the success of Mr Pannick's efforts in Paris) place on merit without putting a Michelin wrong all afternoon... or the man (de la Rosa) who was undoubtedly fast in Bahrain, but who was also artificially advantaged by the fact that, uniquely among modern F1 circuits, Sakhir has 50-odd miles of desert as run-off at every turn, allowing him to have more harmless 'offs' in 90 minutes than Montoya has had hot burgers in his entire lifetime. At Monaco, such indiscipline would result in a bent MP4-20 by lap five. Or earlier. Sorry, Pedro, but it's true.
And don't forget that, unlike Juan Pablo or even Pedro, Alex would have been fourth- (or perhaps third-) last out in quali-1 at Barcelona - a big advantage.
Bias? If you say so.