Write Better English - Day 8

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Back in 1993 I can remember Benetton progressing their technical development at an impressive rate and a bunch of media talking to Tom Walkinshaw about drivers.

William were dominant and Alain Prost was on the way to his fourth and last world title. But, before the end of the year, in Portugal, it became known that Ayrton Senna was going to a William driver in ’94.

Prost announced his retirement but a lot of people thought it was only because he couldn’t face driving alongside Ayrton again. Reigning champion Nigel Mansell, meanwhile, had gone off to the US in a huff when Frank William refused to pay him what he thought he was worth.

He was busy winning the IndyCar crown at the first attempt – a hugely impressive accomplishment considering he’d never driven on an oval in his life.

“Tom,” someone said, “Will you be chasing Prost or Mansell?”

Walkinshaw looked at the guy as if he’d taken leave of his senses. “Why the hell would I want Prost, Mansell or Senna when I’ve got Schumacher?” He said it such that if he’d called the guy a half-wit it would have been compliment.

Although Schuey was obviously special, at that stage not everyone fully appreciated quite how special. But Walkinshaw knew. He was at races and he’d seen the testing data. He added that you sometimes have to take a bit of pain when a guy like that is inexperienced, but it doesn’t last long. “You’ll see …” he said. And we duly did.

Shortly afterwards Prost said that for a driver to win a championship in a close year, he can make one, maybe two mistakes. Michael, then, was making three or four. It’s practically inevitable with a new driver and Prost well knew that when it stopped, Michael would be hugely formidable.

Drivers have to learn to focus on what’s important. Even Schumacher.

Given the amount of testing done in the modern era, Hamilton’s experience bank is probably at a similar level now to Michael’s in 1993 when he was a very different animal to what he came to be and to the way in which he is generally perceived.

Back then, believe it or not, Michael wasn’t that keen on testing the car. He had huge confidence in his ability and thought it wasn’t going to get better by testing, so someone else could do that.

Benetton therefore did much of their testing with Alex Zanardi, and on some of the days that he did show up, Michael would arrive a bit late because he didn’t want to waste time flying out the day before.

By 3pm he’d be enquiring what was left on the job list because he wanted to be away to catch a flight home.

They also discovered that they probably learned as much, if not more, with Zanardi. And that was because Michael was so damned good. Give him an imbalance and he’d just alter his line, drive around it and still get the same time out of the car. Which is great, but not that helpful when you’re trying to improve the car.

The ultimate example of that was Barcelona ’94 when he got stuck in fifth gear most of the race and still finished second. At the hairpins, instead of breaking, turning in, apexing, and accelerating out in second gear, he took a great big arc around the outside of the slow stuff in fifth gear and was pretty much as quick. Looking at the data post-race, Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds and the lads were astounded.

But it didn’t take long for Schumacher to realize that application was just as important as god-given talent. The team was doing a lot of active ride development, indisputably worth time, and Schumacher didn’t like to race something he hadn’t tried. Delays cost results, and that was proof enough for him.

A few years later I can remember having to wait until almost 9pm to interview him one Tuesday evening as he pounded a Ferrari around Mugello until the light had gone.

Schumacher didn’t need to be shown anything twice and Lewis, you suspect, may turn out just the same. He shouldn’t be hung for Montreal and I’d wager money he never crashes in the pitlane again …

Excerpt from Dodgy Business