Jacques Villeneuve recently attempted to become the only person in history to win the Indianapolis 500, the CART Championship, the Formula One World Championship, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Villeneuve’s car suffered an engine failure at Le Mans but he had been on track for a podium finish up until that point. Jacques said afterwards “Until you have won this race, you have to come back”. His Peugeot team appear willing to oblige and are keen to retain the Canadian’s services for 2008.
If Jacques does return and conquer Le Mans his achievement will unique in an era when most drivers stick to one discipline. Motorsport has evolved over the past forty years from a time when drivers would race anything they could get their hands on. Formula One stars throughout the 1960’s drove all sorts of machinery, competing in something almost every weekend.
In 1965 Jim Clark won the Formula One World Championship in devastating fashion with six race wins. He did this despite missing the Monaco Grand Prix so he could compete in the Indianapolis 500, which he also won. Clark dominated at Indy by finishing a full two laps clear of second place. It was Clark’s second victory in America that year because he had already won the Sebring Three Hour Touring Car Race. He won that event in a Lotus Cortina and, just like Indy, finished two laps ahead of everyone else.
Whilst in England throughout 1965 Clark won a touring car race at Goodwood, a Sports Car race at Silverstone, and heat one of the Brands Hatch Race of Champions. He also finished the year as French Formula Two Champion and Tasman Cup Champion.
The year before he had won the British Touring Car title, and the year after he almost won the RAC Rally of Great Britain.
Jim Clark was simply astonishing and is rightly considered one of the greatest drivers of all time. He was able to take victory in whatever he sat in. Clark wasn’t alone though. Many Formula One drivers competed in numerous championships and would often enter support events leading up to a Grand Prix.
Drivers simply don’t do that sort of thing today. Insurance premiums are so high for F1 pilots they can’t even ride a dirt bike when they want to. Never again will we see someone compete and take victory in as many different races as Jim Clark.
It really is a shame such versatile driving no longer exists.
Having said that, there is no reason why specialised driving should ruin overall skill. In fact the 2007 season features possibly the strongest Grand Prix field of all time. Every driver on the grid has earned his place making it the first time in a long time they all deserve to be there.
Obviously some drivers deserve their place in Formula One more than others, but you cannot say there is anyone racing in 2007 that is way out of their depth.
The very philosophy behind Formula One is that it should represent the pinnacle of motorsport. Therefore in theory the grid ought to consist of the twenty two most skilled drivers in the world.
Unfortunately throughout the history of Formula One this has never been the case.
When the World Championship first started the field comprised of many ‘gentleman racers’. They were private entrants who could afford to buy themselves a Formula One car with little racing pedigree. The sport was still in its infancy and suffered little damage from including amateur competition.
As the costs of racing in Formula One increased, the private entrants were replaced by ‘pay drivers’ who were willing to offer cash or sponsorship in return for a drive. Grand Prix racing is a very expensive business so smaller teams need all the help they can get. If a driver can offer a wad of sponsorship dollars to a team, he is more than likely to get the seat than someone who can’t.
That is why every year there are a number of drivers who clearly do not belong. They aren’t worthy of a position on merit but have been able to buy their way into a small team desperate for cash. Drivers like this only tend to last for a short time but as soon as they disappear there are always others waiting to deal in.
Over the past few years we’ve seen Ide, Karthikeyan, Friesacher, Bruni, Baumgartner, and various others highlight this very point. All of those guys paid for their drives and none of them were up to Formula One standards. They certainly didn’t rank in the world’s top twenty two drivers.
Pay drivers have long tainted the quality of a Formula One field, but recent trends in Formula One are starting to change that.
Many of the smaller cash dependant teams have disappeared from the sport. At the turn of the century we lost Prost and Arrows to bankruptcy, and now we have also lost Minardi, Jordan, and Sauber.
Whilst it is sad to lose the colourful minnows of Formula One it has increased the level of professionalism. Both Minardi and Sauber sold out to larger companies (Red Bull and BMW respectively) who are able to fund serious Grand Prix campaigns. The number of opportunities for pay drivers to break into Formula One has greatly diminished over the past few years.
The only team offering seats for money in 2007 is Spyker, and even then they have come up with two decent drivers.
Adrian Sutil is no slouch as he proved during Monaco practice. If he can stop making silly mistakes Sutil will eventually become a race winner.
Christijan Albers may not be as talented as his German team-mate but the Dutchman beat Friesacher and Monteiro before Sutil’s arrival. He has had a few good performances over the past two years and is not entirely without praise. In 2004, after only 20 laps in a Formula One car, Albers was lapping quicker than his competitors during testing at Misano. Albers is the weak link of the 2007 field but he has enough skill to justify his position.
In fact, the driver who has come under most criticism this year is Ralf Schumacher. When the press are questioning the worth of a driver who has scored 326 world championship points you know the sport is in good shape.
Even the third drivers have awesome talent in 2007. You could easily compile a quality grid with the likes of Pedro De La Rosa, Sebastian Vettel, Gary Paffet, Ricardo Zonta, Nelson Piquet Jr, Christian Klien, Timo Glock, and Robert Doornbos.
There are only three drivers in Formula One this year that have never scored a point. This just shows how much skill there is throughout the whole pack, and how competitive the sport has become.
It is hard to think of another time in Formula One that has boasted such depth of talent, giving the class of 2007 have a lot to be proud of. There is no doubt the quality of modern Grand Prix drivers have made the current season a great year to be a Formula One fan.
Still, I’d be more impressed if they could also win a touring car race in a Lotus Cortina.