Danger: Sunday drivers ahead

David Tremayne investigates the back-markers who trip up the F1 elite
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TAKE a West End production of Hamlet, let intransigent or incompetent spear-carriers blunder round in front of the leading players or hog the spotlight, and you have the bones of the situation that frustrates the best drivers in grand prix races. Consider: you are performing brilliantly, using up valuable fuel and rubber and taking the odd chance, have successfully opened a gap on your pursuers, and then here is some clown you are trying to lap refusing to move over, or picking a fight and trying to match your pace. It is the race leader's nightmare.

In last weekend's Italian Grand Prix Damon Hill fell foul of not one but two back- markers. He was challenging his arch-enemy Michael Schumacher on the 18th lap, but where Schumacher passed Tyrrell's Ukyo Katayama without a hitch, Hill hesitated momentarily and then found the intractable Japanese driver attempting to keep ahead even though he was being lapped.

For reasons only they know, some drivers do this sort of thing. Jean- Pierre Jarier, Rene Arnoux and Andrea de Cesaris all earned reputations as blockers when they succumbed to the temptation to break an unwritten law and race those trying to put them a lap down. Proud men do not bear humiliation lightly.

Katayama might indirectly have contributed to the subsequent incident as Hill and Schumacher came to lap the hapless Arrows driver Taki Inoue, six laps later. Schumacher tried to gain some respite by passing Inoue before a chicane as Hill attempted to avoid a Katayama situation and figure out what the errant Inoue was doing as he wandered across his bows. Hill kept an eye on the wrong ball for a fraction too long and misjudged his braking, running into the back of Schumacher and pitching both into another acrimonious retirement. It was a driving error born of another's inattention.

Some drivers baulk others deliberately. Jarier and Arnoux in particular were men who had shown winning pace themselves but who had become disaffected and bitter as their careers had taken downward turns. Others, such as Inoue, are simply out of their depth. All their faculties are concentrated solely on driving the car, leaving no spare capacity to take in the other nuances of their profession such as keeping out of the way of faster cars.

Somebody once suggested that what Alain Prost needed was a yellow crash helmet like Ayrton Senna's, because whenever backmarkers espied the latter's headgear in their mirrors they almost drove off the track trying to give him room, whereas few moved for Prost. The Brazilian, through speed, decisiveness and intimidation, virtually ensured a free passage through the minnows as he danced a tightrope the less committed preferred not to venture along.

Even Senna could come unstuck, though - in 1988 he lost the Italian Grand Prix (and McLaren a clean sweep of all 16 races) by falling foul of Jean-Louis Schlesser. And the phenomenon goes back further: in a celebrated incident in the 1982 German Grand Prix, the world champion, Nelson Piquet, rained blows on Eliseo Salazar after tripping over him in a chicane.

Back-markers have always been an occupational hazard, simply because there will always be room for them at the bottom of the pyramid. In the old days wealthy amateurs raced their own cars; today the rent-a-driver procures backing from sponsors and buys himself a seat with an impecunious team such as Arrows or Pacific.

In fact, without Giovanni Lavaggi, Pacific might no longer be around. Unable to secure full sponsorship, the owner Keith Wiggins had no choice but to swallow his principles and hire a driver to supplant his partner, the significantly more capable Bertrand Gachot. Soon they will replace the Sicilian count, who has at least mastered the art of keeping out of the way, with a Swiss driver of similar calibre, Jean-Denis Deletraz. Meanwhile, underrated drivers of real talent, such as the Italian Alessandro Zanardi, or the Dutchman Jos Verstappen, kick their fleet heels on the sidelines. Only close to its pinnacle is the pyramid a meritocracy.

The power-broker Bernie Ecclestone said some justifiably scathing things about Inoue's performance after Monza, but the fact remains that the sport's governing body, the FIA, which Ecclestone represents, has to grant super- licences to such drivers before they can race, so it did give him tacit approval.

Next year, however, every driver must lap within 107 per cent of the fastest lap-time in order to qualify. More often than not this would have eliminated both Pacific and Forti Corse drivers this season, and the small teams are aware of the need to sharpen up their acts. But improving the technology in a car takes money, and that again will spur them to opt for wealthy pay-drivers. Pacific have won races and championships in the feeder categories they contested before entering F1, but on present form seem unlikely to scale the K2 of the sport.

This should worry those who remember that Frank Williams started in similar fashion and scratched around with some real old lags before finding the key to success. Such is the cost escalation in one of the few sports in which money can outdo talent, the chances of others emulating such a feat are as unlikely as Schumacher taking a pay-cut. The small teams will continue to employ journeymen who will continue to drive out of their depth, while the leaders will continue to curse them - and continue to trip over them.