News and views on motorsports

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Spot the World Champion

David Coulthard has had an interesting run in the Red Bull Racing (nee Jaguar) team lately. The old guy managed to end the day a half second quicker than Christian Klein and about a second faster than new boy Vitantonio Liuzzi.

Vitantonio as you may well know won the CIK World Kart Championship back in 2002 before jumping into car racing the following year in German F3. After a good season in F3, winning a race along the way, he graduated into F3000 and absolutely dominated the series. He's now a test driver for Ferrari and is looking for a seat in Formula 1 with Red Bull. Not bad. From Karts to Formula 1 in just a couple of years. Just like the man Kimi.

Vitantonio's career has barely begun. But what I'd like to comment on is his performance compared to Coulthard. Back in 1983, I remember a young Brazilian conducting a test with McLaren. You remember him. Three time world champion Aryton Senna. Along with him was Martin Brundle, now commentator with ITV and part time sportscar driver. These two were incredibly talented and were at the time fresh out of British Formula 3. Senna having won that year from Brundle.

I remember during that test at Brands Hatch, a certain John Watson, who incidentally retired that year, did some laps in the car to set the benchmark. Both Senna and Brundle summarily blew it away on their first go in the McLaren. You knew you were watching some special people right here. Especially Senna.

Fast forward to 1991 and Michael Schumacher's Formula 1 debut with Jordan. Again, superbly quick almost straight out of the box. He qualified in seventh I believe ahead of his team mate during the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. Prior to that, he deeply impressed Eddie Jordan in testing. Admittedly the 7-Up liveried Jordan 191 was a brilliant Gary Anderson design.

Still, with both Senna and Schumacher you could sense that these guys simply knew what was going on immediately. No need for acclimatisation or a period of getting used to things. They just simply stepped up and looked like they were already old hands in the business. This is what one would call genius. Pure and simple. Senna came close to winning in his first year and won his first race in the second year of his career. Michael of course going one better, winning at Spa 12 months after his debut. In the process, Michael summarily dismissed his vastly experienced three time world champion teammate Nelson Piquet.

After Schumacher and Senna there was also the sight on Mika Hakkinen, first time racing in a McLaren in the 1993 Portugese Grand Prix, taking pole position away from Senna. How about Jacques Villeneuve grabbing pole in his first ever race in Melbourne in 1996 in a Williams.

All these guys have won world championships. All can be considered geniuses. The only one left is Michael of course. And just look at him go. Seven world championships and a win count far in excess of anyone else. Only Senna's pole record has not been broken but next year it will be.

These days when a new guy steps in to a Formula 1 car, you expect him to go through a feet finding phase before he can start blitzing the car. Take Liuzzi for instance. He's definitely finding his feet. If he were a true genius in the mold of Senna and Schumacher, he'd have blown away the geriatric Coulthard without even trying. As it is though he's still struggling.

He sort of reminds me of Jos Vestappen. Fantastic pace in German Formula 3. But when he stepped into a Formula 1 car he was seconds slower than team mate Michael Schumacher. Not the stuff of genius. He looked really lost in the Benetton those early days. Michael by contrast had stepped into the Benetton on his first go and annihilated Nelson Piquet. And look where Jos is now. Complete and utter failure.

In recent times, Montoya, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have fit the genius bill. Raikkonen more than Alonso and Montoya, I'd say. His magnificent debut with Sauber impressed the Swiss enough to take him straight from Formula Renault with Ron Dennis signing him up after that. That's probably why Ross Brawn keeps repeating the fact that once Schuey rides off into the sunset, they'll be in touch with either him or Alonso to take over the town.

So, if you want to spot the next world champion, look for a young driver (Webber didn't count - he'd had plenty of experience by the time he stepped into a Minardi). Look closely at his first go in a Formula 1 car. If he starts destroying incumbent drivers' times and has that immediate awareness of everything that goes on around him, then he's got what it takes. He will be the world champion.

By that standard, Ralf Schumacher as I've always said is a lemon. The jury is still out on Liuzzi.

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