Formula One and The Underdog


No passing through my dirty air please
As you read this old Bernie is probably sitting in a Jacuzzi somewhere being pampered by super models casually thinking to himself “I am Formula One”. Meanwhile over in Italy Stefano Domenicali is probably polishing Fernando Alonso’s shiny red nose cone whilst thinking to himself “We are Formula One”. At the same time any number of current big time drivers are checking their bank accounts, looking at their race stats and thinking “I am Formula One”. I’m sorry to be the one that has to break this to all of them but they are really not. Formula One is and has always been about the underdog, about drivers and teams pulling off results they really shouldn’t be doing, thats what generates the excitement and without the excitement would F1 even exist?

For me my life of F1 started at the Paul Ricard circuit in 1990. I’d been aware of F1 before this due to my dads interest, I have vivid memories of watching Senna and Prost collide with each other at Suzuka in 1989, but the obsession and genuine fandom started for me about a month before my 9th birthday in June 1990. What was it that dragged me in? Was in the skill and dominance of Senna in his bright yellow helmet and powerful sleek looking Mclaren Honda? Was it the calculated race craft of Alain Prost seeking revenge on his old team and willing his blazing red Ferrari to the front? No it was a long forgotten driver driving for a long forgotten team that somehow nearly stole a victory. The driver that day that made me glued to the race unfolding in front of me was one Ivan Capelli and the team were known as Leyton House. I now know that Leyton House were a team born out of the ashes of the rebirth of the March team and that their technical director just happened to be some bloke called Adrian Newey but at the time I saw some driver I’d never heard of in a team I’d never heard of suddenly out in front of all these named drivers and teams I was already aware of and knew shouldn’t be being beaten. As a certain Murray Walker informed me that this was a team that didn’t even qualify for the Grand Prix before my fascination grew, this didn’t happen in sport did it? Non-league Ilkeston Town never beat Liverpool in football matches and I’d never seen some bloke from down the road suddenly take on Borris Becker at Wimbledon. That was what it felt like I was watching as kid and thats what hooked me in. My heart of course broke when Prost eventually caught and past Capelli near the end and he was reduced to mere second place, by that time I was hooked on F1 and whilst my interest was to be taken by the front runners and front teams and never forgot that feeling of a shock result from the little guy.

By the time we reached Monza that year I was addicted to F1 and used to watch the highlight programmes I had on VHS over and over again I was unreservedly a Ferrari fan. Prost was the greatest, Senna was a cheat and Mansell was the best British driver ever, at least in my 9 year old head anyway. Then came Monza that day and the antics of a certain Jean Alesi. Now at this point in his career Alesi had already dazzled the world with a 4th on his debut, a duel with Senna at Phoenix and a 2nd place at Monaco but having come late into the 1990 season and only being 9 I wasn’t really fully aware of all of that and knew his name as a quick driver without having witnessed any magic, that was all to change that day. Alesi was 5th on the grid that day with the Mclaren’s and the Ferrari’s covering the first 4 spots, I was of course willing the Ferrari’s to get the jump at that start, they didn’t. The Mclaren’s sped off into the distance from the startline but to my surprise a certain Jean Alesi, in a stunning blue and white Tyrell, took Mansell at the first chicane on the first lap and then coming around the Curva Grande he pulled up behind the great Alain Prost, jinked one way, jinked the other and then pulled an awesome overtake on him under braking for the second chicane. I was a Ferrari fan so although I understood what I was witnessing was awesome I wasn’t sure how to react, lucky for me Derek Warwick crashed his Lotus hard at the Parabolica meaning the race was stopped and the original grid would be reassembled. Loving the crash and, just like the crowd, loving the fact that Warwick climbed from the car and ran back to the pits to jump in the spare car I forgot all about the incredible Alesi and focused on hoping the Ferrari’s got it right on the second go. They didn’t get it right and much to my disbelief not only did the Mclaren’s head off into the distance but Mr Jean Alesi once again pulled stunning moves on both Ferrari’s in the first lap to put himself in 3rd and his did this for the second time my Ferrari support completely wavered and I was cheering him on. My support for Alesi ended that day ended on Lap 5 when he spun the car out of the race starting a much lived cycle of excitement followed by disappointment over Jean who I still consider to this day as that generations Giles Vilenurve. In France the underdog had left me fascinated and in Italy the underdog had made my jaw drop but 9 year old me still had one treat left from the underdog that year and that was to come in Japan.

The 1990 Japanese Grand Prix will be remembered in the history books mostly for the second coming together of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost with all the politics and gubins that went with it. As a 9 year old I didn’t understand that and I just saw Senna crash into Prost on purpose to win a championship and decided he was more of a cheat than I’d already thought he was but in actual fact come the end of that race which I’d got up very early in the morning to watch that whole situation was nearly forgotten to me and it wasn’t either of those drivers I was pretending to be when I played later that day. The name on my lips? Aguri Suzuki. It will never be remembered as the greatest drive but Suzuki’s podium in a Larrouse that day behind Piquet and Moreno’s Benetton’s (still the last time F1 had a none European podium by the way) really excited me. With Senna and Prost gone at the first corner and Berger following them off their on lap 2 it was all about Mansell vs the Benettons or so we thought until Mansell’s drive shaft went pulling out of the pits. Benetton had the race sown up but meanwhile running in third was Ricardo Patrese in his Williams who, just like everyone else, was fighting a battle to make his tyres last the race distance. He failed and was forced to make another pitstop however just behind him the aforementioned Suzuki managed to do what Patrese was unable to do and make his tyres last and he moved up the order to be sitting in 3rd. A Japanese driver in 3rd at the Japanese Grand Prix, the crowd went crazy and even in front of my old style TV (with buttons on it you had to get up and press) I could feel the atmosphere rolling off the crowd and suddenly all I cared about was him making it to the line and getting this third place, which of course he did, which meant the underdog had given me a third treat that season with the ‘result out of nowhere’ fever.

F1 has been a staple diet for me since then and the underdog has given me constant thrills since. 1991 brought a whole underdog team along in the shape of the beautiful green Jordans than had to struggle through dreaded pre-qualifying before even getting in the race and would treat you to the excitement of them grabbing points (this was back in the days where only the top 6 scored). I remember actually jumping up and down as Oliver Panis won the Monaco Grand Prix, groaning in despair as Jarno Trulli’s Prost pulled off with a blown engine after leading the GP and watching Minardi constantly thrill us by punching above their weight. Even the modern era brings the thrill, Sato passing Alonso, Perez second in Malaysia and Maldonardo’s win in Spain are just some examples. That too me is F1 and I’m hoping the majority of us whilst we can disagree on most other things can agree on that. There is no doubt that the big name teams whip up our passions and the leading drivers get our support and we all want to see the best of the best winning in the top sport in Motor Racing but deep down the reason the sport drags us in is because it has the potential of the underdog to thrill us with something completely unexpected. As this article is on an F1 forum I’m pretty sure you have opinions on which team you think is the best and which driver you think is the best but I’m also pretty sure that during your time watching the sport you have grown an unexplainable fondness to a driver who has outperformed his machinery or even pushed past his true talent whether it be a one of brilliant race like the memory I have of Capelli and Suzuki or a constant fight to the big names in inferior machinery like the likes of Alesi or Kubica. I would love to hear about those lesser names you have a fondness for so please feel free to list them here and explain why you have such fond memories as above all thats what makes F1 special those emotions little performances like that can bring to its fans.

So my concluding message to all those Bernie big pants who think F1 can not run without them. F1 is the underdog, thats what keeps it interesting and thats what keeps it alive and long may it stay like that.
and in recent years the ultimate underdogs...
Jenson Button - a driver who started with great promise and appeared to have frittered away his talent through bad career choices.
Brawn - a team that didn't exist or have sponsors or an engine right up to the first test (some exageration).

Great article and absolutely on the money as to where the heart and passion for F1 really rests...
I remember the 1990 French GP well (although I'm a month younger than you, Rasputin). We were staying at my grandparents' house in Tonbridge, and my uncle and his family were also visiting from Hong Kong. The GP was on BBC2 at the same time that the Wimbledon Men's Singles Final was on BBC1, so, in deference to the adult's preference, we watched the tennis. When we turned over after Edberg had sealed the match, my brother and I looked at each other in disbelief to see the turquoise cars at the front of the race!

I remember having felt gutted earlier in the season when Gregor Foitek got barged out of the points in Monaco. He still got classified 7th, a result that the likes of Caterham would kill for nowadays. Which reminds me of another underdog result: just how did Stefan Johansson get his Onyx onto the podium at Estoril in 1989...?
Maybe it's a bit odd to think of a reigning world champion as an underdog, But that's just what happened to Damon Hill in 1997 when he ended up at Arrows, having driven his Williams to the title in 1996.

I remember the crowd at Club corner, Silverstone (of which I was one) going mad when Damon caught and passed Shinji Nakano in a Prost along Vale, three laps from the finish as the japanese driver suffered engine failure, to gain sixth place and his first world championship point for Arrows.
And again at Hungary, where he dominated the race in a car in which he had no right to, passing his nemesis Michael Schumacher's Ferrari along the way, only to be caught on the last lap by former Williams team mate Jacques Villeneuve after his Arrows developed a hydraulic problem three laps out caused by a 50p washer. He was far enough ahead and close enough to the finish to struggle along and claim second, but the feeling was still that he had been unfairly robbed of a deserving victory and what would have been Arrows' first ever win.

All part (along with the exploits of his father) of the reason for the last four letters in my username.
The underdogs of 2009 is what made that season a little exciting, Hamilton and Raikkonen, putting their cars where it shouldn't have been, and scoring the most points in the second half of that season separated by a point apart, that point also seperated them in the drivers championship and the constructors battle between Ferrari and McLaren.

Kubica was refreshing in 2010, despite us having several front runners, he showed his class that year.

Vettel, Alonso and Kubica were the underdogs in 2008.

Alonso in 2011, in my opinion was better in than the Alonso of 2012.

Raikkonen and Hulkenberg last year.
French GP '99, when Jordan's Heinz-Harald Frentzen nicked the win through a canny one-stop, followed by Monza the same year that put him in with a shout of the WDC - the crushing disappointment of that failure exiting the pits in the lead at the Nurburgring after getting pole - At least another perennial underdog won that race, when Herbert took Stewart GP's only win!

10 years later, it was the Button/Brawn fairytale, particularly so after the hideous Hondas of '07 & '08. I got so tired of reading all the pish that "my granny could've won in the Brawn" - she couldn't, and neither could you. What they did that year was probably the epitome of the "underdog comes good" mantra.

Great article RasputinLives! :thumbsup:
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