My goodness what a fuss! While the happy news last Sunday was that Mercedes-Benz – built in, and run from, the UK – had clinched the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship title from Ferrari of Italy, hasn’t the media made much of the collision which denied Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing what could have been well-earned victory in the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos.
Doug Nye: Two drivers who could show Verstappen and Ocon a thing or two
Of course most media reaction seems to have condemned Force India driver Esteban Ocon for a ridiculous attempt by a back-marker to affect the race leader’s progress. Verstappen, who has tangled with Ocon in the past, back in their Formula 3 days, was plainly convinced totally of his own blamelessness. His boiling indignation at being taken out of the lead and having to settle instead for ‘only’ second place might have been damped somewhat by race winner Lewis Hamilton’s coolly unconcerned reaction just before they went out onto the victory podium. The now seasoned and near-fully mature veteran simply reminded the Dutch boy “which of you had more to lose?”. And that wise-headed retort should certainly become part of the potential future-World Champion’s learning curve.
For whatever faults he might demonstrate – and smirking at the still-furious Verstappen’s initial verbal approach at the post-race weigh-in was certainly one of them – Esteban Ocon appears to be a proper racer, quite as much a case-hardened street fighter as Verstappen himself plainly is.
In the Dutch boy’s case he inherited his no-compromise style from his racing driver father Jos who has a record of allowing his elbows, and occasionally his fists, to make his point (both inside and outside the sport) although he in turn could say that – within Formula 1 – he learned a measure of physical reaction from the not-always-so-saintly Ayrton Senna, no less.
It was in the Senna Ess just after the pits at Interlagos that the Red Bull and Force India collided. Verstappen cut inside Ocon – who was on fresher, faster tyres and freshly pumped-up by the bungled pit stop at which they had been fitted – into the first left-hand apex. From there to the ess-bend’s second-element right-hand apex is 95-100 yards. The complex is a mirror-image of Goodwood’s St Mary’s ess, but downhill to boot.
So what did Ocon do wrong, and what did Verstappen do right?
Official and media opinion combined seems to condemn Ocon for not letting Verstappen sail by in what was the leading – but at that moment, on its wearing tyres, a marginally slower car. Ocon instead held his station alongside the Red Bull to the right, and gained a little – surging further alongside – as the pair entered that right-hand element. With his overall race lead not really at stake, all that Verstappen had to do then to preserve his car and his advantage was to unload the steering, run a tiny bit wide and let that silly-arse pink-overalled Frenchman take his fleeting – and meaningless – advantage.
But such things are decided within a worthwhile racing driver’s head by nano-second decision making. And Max the Racer turned in, Esteban the Racer (forgiving him, for the moment, his pink overalls) stayed on it, so the pair met. The initial impact was taken – as I am sure you will have seen – by the Red Bull’s protruding right-side floor panel, then the leading face of its right-rear wheel contacted the leading face of the Force India’s left-rear, and both cars spun. But what on earth did Verstappen expect would give him room? Was the Force India to evaporate? Its nose must have been within Verstappen’s peripheral vision, and if it wasn’t – because it was alongside – then he has a positional awareness problem which must surely trouble him again in future. No – here was the impetuous arrogance of an inexperienced race leader, not appreciating that to win a war it can be expedient to avoid a battle…
Verstappen of course went on to finish second, the still incandescent Ocon finished a lap down in 14th and was understandably defensive of his own actions. And while the ensuing confrontation itself, when Max “lost control” and shoved Esteban, might have provided headline-making images for an easily-shocked and precious modern media, what on earth would they have made of some of motor racing’s really hard men from the past?
Two instantly spring to my mind, both Italian stars of their time – Luigi Fagioli and first FIA World Champion Driver Dr Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina…
Fagioli was a truly tough grizzled veteran who built his world-class racing reputation with Maserati through the 1930s. Born in Osima near Ancona in 1898, Fagioli came from a wealthy middle-class family whose business was making pasta. At high school he earned a middling accountancy degree, but he spent more time shooting birds and wild boars before racing cars. His tactics and demeanour – both on and off the track – were aggressive and always assertive. He racked-up the results for Maserati. In 1933 with the Scuderia Ferrari he won four GP-class races in their Alfa Romeos, and for 1934 Mercedes-Benz hired his services for their new Grand Prix team.
Fagioli would drive the Silver Arrow cars through 1934-36, winning three races in each of his first two seasons. But Mercedes-Benz racing director Alfred Neubauer and team No 1 driver Rudi Caracciola both found Fagioli hard to handle. Team orders? Forget it. Fagioli would always race for himself, and no-one else.
In 1937 he moved to the rival German Auto Union team – by which time (at 39) he was suffering badly from rheumatitis. The inescapable pain did nothing to improve his demeanour. Just as Verstappen and Ocon perhaps had old scores to settle at Interlagos, Fagioli nursed old animosity towards Caracciola. With them now driving for different teams it boiled into open conflict.
One of the fastest race tracks in the world back then was the Mellaha course outside Tripoli in Italian Tripolitania, modern-day Libya. Fagioli and Caracciola battled wheel-to-wheel at various times during the 1937 Tripoli GP there. In the closing stages Caracciola’s Mercedes blocked Fagioli’s Auto Union repeatedly to stop the Italian going after race leader Hermann Lang’s Mercedes. A furious Fagioli finally barged by, and when the finishers pulled into the pit lane he scrambled from his Auto Union and limped as quickly as his painful feet would allow to the Mercedes pit. There, staring-eyed, incandescent, he yelled and gestured wildly at Caracciola… who just grinned at him, dismissively.
And Fagioli didn’t respond by merely pushing the German. Oh no. Instead, he grabbed a wheel-nut hammer from the pit counter and hurled it straight at Caracciola’s head. Racing driver reflexes; Caracciola ducked and the hammer missed. Neubauer and the Mercedes mechanics, joined by Auto Union’s finest, grabbed the still-screaming, swearing Italian, and bundled him away.
Fagioli subsequently retired from racing, only to resume postwar, joining Farina and Fangio in the fabulous ‘Three Fs’ Alfa Romeo works team of 1950. In 1951 he became the oldest Formula 1 race winner (at 52) sharing victory with Fangio in that year’s French GP. Early in 1952 he finished third overall in the mighty Mille Miglia, driving a Lancia Aurelia saloon… But in practice for that year’s Monaco sports car GP he crashed his Lancia in the Tir au Pigeons Tunnel. He was lifted from the wreck with a broken arm and leg. Complications developed and three weeks later – in hospital – he died.
First World Champion Farina was another hard man. He was Torinese, son of the oldest of the Turin brothers who founded the Farina coachbuilding company and styling house. He earned his Doctorate – every respectable Italian has to have a title – at college while excelling as a sportsman in athletics, cycling, football, riding and skiing. He abandoned a military career as a cavalry officer to take up motor racing, driving Alfa Romeos and Maseratis. He joined the Scuderia Ferrari in 1936 and learned at legendary driver Nuvolari’s knee. Farina became Italian Champion 1937-8-9 and postwar rejoined Alfa Corse only to walk out over a disagreement about the position of team leader. He ran private Maseratis and works Ferraris 1948-49, and clashed repeatedly with Enzo Ferrari – not least in preparation for the debut of the new Ferrari marque at Piacenza in 1947. There two cars were fielded during practice, one for him (as an invited celebrity) and the other for Franco Cortese. After Farina had crashed his allotted car he demanded Cortese’s in its place. The team turned him down, so he flounced off home.
In 1950 with Alfa Romeo he became Formula 1’s first World Champion Driver, then rejoined Ferrari 1952-53, winning the German GP that last season before finally retiring in 1955. He became an Alfa Romeo dealer and Italian agent for Jaguar. He also promoted Pininfarina interests and – as a senior member of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association – his still muscular frame and tanned totally bald bullet head (both bearing multiple old battle scars) remained a familiar sight at Grand Prix events into the mid-1960s. But while driving a Lotus-Cortina to the 1966 French GP at Reims, he careered into a telegraph pole near Aiguebelle in the Savoy Alps, and was killed.
Several of his racing rivals in the late-1940s/early-50s told me that the only advice old-timers gave them was “Watch out for Farina”, entirely because of ‘The Great Farina’s ugly on-track reputation.
In the 1936 Deauville GP, his Alfa Romeo struck quick Algerian driver Marcel Lehoux’s ERA from behind, both cars overturning and Lehoux suffering fatal head injuries. In the 1938 Tripoli GP, Farina’s Alfa Romeo struck quick Hungarian driver Laszlo Hartmann’s Maserati from behind, both cars again overturning, and this time Hartmann receiving fatal spinal injuries. Farina simply took no prisoners…
Old habits die hard. On track, postwar, rival drivers often found themselves being unceremoniously barged aside by Farina attacking from behind. Even backmarkers were shown no mercy, being treated instead with intentional disdain. Indeed Cooper-Bristol driver – and Goodwood habitué - Eric Brandon told me how he had been warned before the Swiss GP, on the dangerous Bremgarten circuit at Berne, to watch out should he be lapped by Farina’s Ferrari.
Eric explained: “I saw him coming in my mirrors – moved aside to give him room… and he drew alongside, and then just whacked me, side-to-side, hub-to-hub, before tearing away and leaving me to sort it all out. Leaning back, straight-armed, he was just showing me how he, ‘The Great Farina’, was surely on another planet…”
So when the media make much of driver A being beastly to driver B, by shouting at him, insulting him, or – heavens forbid – by actually jostling him, take it all with a pinch of salt. All such incidents are relative, and many pale into total insignificance when judged against what has gone before.
Photography courtesy of The GP Library.
Doug Nye began writing about racing cars at ‘Motor Racing’ magazine in 1963-64. Today he is a multiple award-winning motor sports journalist and author of over 50 years’ experience, with some 70 books to his name. He is Goodwood Motorsport’s founding Historian and consultant and fulfils similar roles for Bonhams Auctioneers and the Collier Collection/Revs Institute in Naples, FL, USA. He is a member of the National Motor Museum Advisory Council at Beaulieu, Hants, and is a regular columnist for ‘Motor Sport’ magazine, while contributing to many other specialist periodicals worldwide.
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