MOTOR RACING: FORMULA FOR SUCCESS

Published October 10, 2021
Max Verstappen in Italy in the lead this season in his home Grand Prix | AP photo
Max Verstappen in Italy in the lead this season in his home Grand Prix | AP photo

What was blindingly fast and meant for the demigods of Formula 1 (F1) till recently, is now becoming achievable. The fact is, it will soon be considered slow.

After all, F1 is not immune to the universal truth of evolution. Cars, circuits, regulations, budgets and every other thing associated with F1 has evolved over the years, fluently and flawlessly, at a pace that rightly complements the world’s fastest sport.

With all the progress on the technical and safety side of the phenomena, there were always supremely and amazingly talented drivers who have raced week in and week out to give the fans the spine-chilling rush they expect to get from F1. In a sport where only 20 athletes feature in any given season, it seems like the talent pool just never runs dry; there was hardly a stretch ever in the sport where things became lacklustre because of any lack of spark among the competing drivers.

If F1 eras are broken down based on the engines and technology in use, we are living in the modern age, dubbed as the hybrid era.

It started back in 2014, when F1 adopted the new tech-laden 1.6L V6 hybrid turbo engines, giving up on the roaring V8s. Across the last decade, F1 is possibly the only sport that has changed so drastically and dramatically. With all the good things happening in F1, technology and safety-wise, the current power struggle among the competing teams and their drivers is monumental.

Drivers who have been F1 powerhouses in recent years — such as Kimi Raikkonen, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso and, above all, the mighty Lewis Hamilton — are all in the latter half of their career curves. As things stack up in F1, it potentially makes the next couple of seasons all the more interesting, with a much wider, open competition.

Considering the trajectory of current drivers, even though it is not proving easy for younger drivers to bring down Hamilton — the reigning ‘King’ of F1— it will get doable, if not easier, with time. And those gearing up to pick the cherry at the top are some characters who are as interesting as they are exciting.

We might be enjoying one of the most competitive eras in the history of Formula 1 racing, with youngsters hot on the heels of the veteran powerhouse drivers. But where is Pakistan in this race?

Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen is evidently the poster boy for the future of the sport. The Belgium-born Dutch driver started his F1 career with Toro Rosso in 2015 and soon impressed Red Bull’s senior team enough to announce him as the replacement for Daniil Kvyat.

In Spain 2016, he represented Red Bull Racing for the first time at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, and announced himself as a worthy competitor by winning that very Grand Prix. Just 18 years old then, Verstappen became the all-time youngest race winner and the first Dutch driver to win a Grand Prix.

The thousand-mile journey for ‘Super Max’ (one of the popular nicknames for Max Verstappen) began with that single step and, since that day in Barcelona to his recent antics at his home race in Zandvoort, the lion-hearted Verstappen has proved himself as the number one contender to take the F1 throne as soon as he gets a chance.

The blow hot-blow cold camaraderie between Hamilton and Verstappen has taken somewhat of an ugly turn in recent times. In F1 even team mates are competing against each other. Both the drivers have a no-holds-barred approach when competing on the tracks. With a couple of recent skirmishes, at Silverstone and Monza, that ended in undesirable results for one or both, the heat is on an all-time high. Popular rivalries between their teams, Mercedes and Red Bull and the two team principals, Christian Horner and Toto Wolff, only add fuel to the flames.

Lando Norris

The cheerful and good-humoured 21-year-old McLaren driver, Lando Norris, gets surprisingly venomous once he is in the seat of his papaya orange F1 car. Hailing from McLaren’s junior programme and initially trying out his mettle as a test driver for them, Norris proved to possess all the ingredients to become a valuable asset for a team that had struggled for years to find their sweet spot after being immensely successful through the mid-80s to early 90s.

A team that has featured champions such as Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Nikki Lauda were not likely to go any lower on their expectations when deciding on the possibility of bringing Norris on board, full-time.

When Norris debuted for McLaren in 2019, the other seat was occupied by another exciting prospect, Carlos Sainz. Although the duo was criticised occasionally for being a bit too carefree, they proved their worth with a streak of consistent performances in their two years together.

After the disruptions of Covid-19 in the F1 calendar of 2020, Norris has appeared to be just on another level since normalcy in F1 has resumed. Apart from his speed, overtaking skills and awareness, his ability to stay cool in tricky situations is commendable at such a young age. His radio messages to the team when he was leading the Grand Prix at Sochi this year depicted the composure that even many senior drivers lack.

The Russian Grand Prix brought Norris in touching distance of his first F1 victory, but the weather gods were not so gracious that day and a rainy chaos at the end of the race cost the Briton his chance.

Wunderkinds of Formula 1

Although Verstappen and Norris are the most talked about young drivers in F1 this year, the sport is brimming with talent. Mercedes is bringing George Russell on board, who will be replaced by another promising Thai-British driver, Alex Albon, over at Williams Racing.

Ferrari has its own set of greasy speedsters in Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. Alpine has Esteban Ocon, Alpha Tauri has the exciting Frenchman Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda, Aston Martin has the budding Lance Stroll, and Mick Schumacher — son of the all-time greatest German driver Michael Schumacher — is now driving for the Haas.

From 1952, when crash helmets were made mandatory for all racers, to today’s modern cars with titanium Halo structures protecting the driver, the sport has come a long way. A very long way, indeed. We might be enjoying one of the most competitive eras of F1, witnessing the mighty giants struggling to keep distance from the fast-approaching, smaller but determined teams.

With such a bright and assuring roster of drivers in the F1 paddocks, the seasons ahead should, by all means, translate into excitement and drama for F1 fans when they watch those aeronautic marvels zipping down the circuits all over the world.

Is Pakistan in the race?

Saad Ali, a professional Pakistani racing driver who has proudly represented the green and white flag in racing circuits around the world, is cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of an F1 event in Pakistan.

He points out Pakistan’s excessive obsession with cricket as the fundamental reason we are losing out on all other sports that have undeniable potential to flourish. Ali is certainly not the first one to lament this situation of sports in Pakistan. While cricket unabashedly hogs the spotlight, football, hockey, tennis and even something as ‘present-day’ as eSports are completely pigeonholed in Pakistan.

Ali believes the corporate sector in Pakistan is yet to completely comprehend the dynamics and benefits of racing and motorsports in general. With appropriate sponsorships and support from the brands, a driver reaching world

racing forums can earn considerable mileage for the brands single-handedly.

Relishing the individual instances of Pakistani representation in mainstream formula car racing, Ali believes that — with support from all sectors of society — developing a Pakistani driver all the way through to F1 is not something unattainable.

According to the driver whose racing career is longer than that of Pakistan’s governing body for racing, but for the lack of necessary infrastructure, conditions in Pakistan are absolutely ideal for hosting an F1 mega event.

Well, imagine a Karachi Grand Prix on the F1 calendar. That would be something.

The writer is a marketing and communications professional. He tweets @adaffan

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 10th, 2021

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