F1 reveals human side after Walton death

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The Independent Online

The commodity of sentiment is always in short supply in the dog-eat-dog world of Formula One. But every so often something happens that touches even the hardest, self-absorbed heart. So it was when Minardi's sporting director, John Walton, died on Friday after suffering a series a heart attacks while preparing for the "F1 comes to Regent Street" demonstration in London on Tuesday.

Walton, 47, was Eddie Jordan's first team member, he was a mechanic for Ayrton Senna, and later had spells with Benetton, Arrows and Prost. Motor racing was his life. In deference to a man of immense charm and popularity, the Minardi team owner Paul Stoddart ran his cars unbranded in Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, and another team loaned his personnel the black armbands that had been taken from their deepest drawer. It was a reminder, amongst all the glitter and razzmatazz and the celebrities and politicians cruising aimlessly through the paddock, that motor racing is also this, a beautiful mistress who can betray her suitors without a backward glance.

"I'm deeply touched by the level of support Minardi has received this weekend," Stoddart said. "It really does show that Formula One is far more of a family than people realise, but most importantly, it shows just how popular a figure John Walton was in the F1 community."

Walton would have been the first to appreciate the job that McLaren have done to turn around their dire season of failure and disappointment. Whether it is impecunious Minardi or well-heeled McLaren, every race team is bound together by the common goal of excellence and competitiveness with the money that is available. Walton, whose heart attacks may have been brought on by the stress of six races in eight weeks, would have applauded the effort that has gone into creating the B version of the McLaren MP4-19, the car that was supposed to erase the ignominious failure of last season's MP4-18, which was too unreliable to race.

The drivers and the team principals tend to be the men in the spotlight at races, but behind them is an army of engineers and mechanics and factory-based personnel who oil the cogs. When you are in as much trouble as McLaren were earlier this season, when their car was being trounced by rivals with far smaller budgets and heritage, there is only one way to go - forward. Kimi Raikkonen's pole position and fighting second place owed as much to this intangible spirit as they did to the design changes that finally brought out the car's true performance.

The return to form of McLaren is a timely fillip for a sport that desperately needs better competition for Ferrari. With Renault almost winning in France, BAR-Honda maintaining their form, and Williams-BMW making a major step forward recently, there is reason to hope that the second part of the season may be slightly less one-sided than the first. It is hardly Ferrari's fault that they are doing such a sublime job; the rest just have to do a lot better. "John Boy" Walton would have been the first to tell you that.

"Our underlying performance strengthens our belief that we have made a significant step forward," said the team principal at McLaren, Ron Dennis, a man who admits that the first thing he feels on the Monday morning after a race his cars don't win, is pain. "In the end our weekend was a great boost for the entire team who have worked so hard to achieve the difficult targets that we had."

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