Montoya's nerve and verve fight losing battle with man-machines who run F1

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The Independent Online

When we clear away all the hype and the aggravation of Silverstone these last few days, we are left with a poignant deficiency: a true mano-a-mano battle between two great racers, something to invoke the memory of legendary ones like Fangio and Moss, Clark and Stewart.

But then just when you thought Formula One was down to the last morsels of eating itself, that the roar of Silverstone is exclusively about the noise made by burned-out egos, there is an astonishing revelation. The petrol-head fans have been consulted. They have been asked what they want as they inch their way to the track.

Amazingly enough, they don't want another peep of pit-lane politics. They don't want to hear Jenson Button declaring he is a better driver than Michael Schumacher from the sandcastle podium of zero victories. They don't want Bernie Ecclestone - who in an earlier safety dispute blithely reported that one of the reinvigorations of his business was the natural "culling" of drivers - itemising all the good deeds which he has bestowed upon the sport that down the years has made him so fabulously rich. They don't want interminable battles between the teams and drivers and the administrator of motor sport authority, Max Mosley.

What they want - in descending order of priority - is real racing based on the possibility of an occasional overtaking manoeuvre (94 per cent), a systematic effort to make driving talent the most decisive element of the sport (88 per cent), and the relegation of technical aids in an effort to make the nerve and the skill of the driver more important than that of some aerodynamic whizz who spends almost every waking moment poring over computer print-outs.

These are not revelations but confirmation of a reality that has been overhanging Formula One for the best part of the 30 years.

The late world champion James Hunt raised the issue most pointedly in the wake of his success in beating the world - and the brilliant Niki Lauda - in 1976.

"By my calculation," said the immensely popular - and human - Hunt the Shunt, "the value of the driver's contribution to any victory is down to about 10 per cent, and it's getting smaller all the time. At some time in the future it's going to be infinitesimal. I don't think this is good for the idea of real racing."

Much more recently, in the middle of the driver controversy which came when he deposed the putative world champion and British hero Damon Hill in favour of the French-Canadian Jacques Villeneuve, Sir Frank Williams rather confirmed Hunt's point. Irritated by the popular opinion that somehow Hill was a victim, and that his upcoming title did not owe a massive, overriding debt to the work of the team, Williams said: "You know, picking a driver these days is a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey. A lot of it has to be guesswork. If a guy is fast, how much has that to do with the car rather than the driver? Of course you do have to get someone to do the steering."

Maybe the result of the Formula One survey will give everyone a little pause for thought, including David Coulthard, the leader of the drivers' association. When Hunt's point was put to him a few years ago it might have been transcribed from ancient drawings in a cave. Slightly bemused, he explained patiently that the role of the driver had grown hugely in recently years. He worked so closely with the engineers and the designers. He was their eyes and ears and their touch. As well as any computer, he could report the efficacy - or not - of their work.

This, inevitably, brings us to the nub of the issue addressed by both Hunt and today's fans. With the growth of the power of the big production guns - Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, BMW and Honda - the point of Formula One, it is increasingly clear, is not to entertain the public but to sell them cars - and refine the product. This is all very well and logical in the boardroom, but where is the line drawn? How many processional races will it take to drive home the point that brilliant driving talents like the current leader Fernando Alonso, his challenger Kimi Raikkonen and the lurking, desperate maestro Michael Schumacher, need a deeper test of their ability than the mere supervision of technical mastery from one grand prix to another.

Last week in France, Alonso was masterful as he cruised in 12 seconds ahead of Raikkonen, yet how delicious it would have been if a different order of technical and design limitations had closed the gap between the winning Renault and its challengers, and that they included both the Ferrari of Schumacher and the McLaren of Juan Pablo Montoya.

In a sport more conscious of the need to provide spectacle and a much more competitive parity among the drivers, Montoya surely would not have spent so much time in the shadows. Before winning in Monaco a few years ago, the Colombian said he liked to think he had the spirit of a matador. But then the greatest of toreros didn't look so good when they were presented with a bad bull. That day Montoya drove exquisitely, as he had when he had the nerve to overtake Schumacher in a breathtaking move, but for some time now he has been becalmed along with much of the old aura of his business.

It is the likes of Montoya who give Formula One its edge and its oxygen, and making an arena for him as well as the technocrats has become the sport's most vital challenge.

Hunt knew it well enough so long ago. Once, after winning the French Grand Prix, he reported that he had been physically sick on the last lap.

"Was it the terrible tension, James?" he was asked. "No, it probably had more to do with the foie gras and the champagne." Back then he was taken for a playboy, but really he was something of a prophet.

What price loyalty in football's world of inflated egos and ingrates?

The more you probe the Steven Gerrard affair the more mysterious it becomes. No one can provide the ultimate explanation of why he brought so much dismay to the followers of the European champions when his loyalty to the club he swears to love wavered so critically again. Suggestions that his agent, and the renewed interest of Chelsea, sowed fresh doubts about the wisdom of tying himself to Liverpool remain at the top of the speculation.

However, in the end it doesn't really matter how unsettled he felt, or was made to feel; he could not indefinitely ignore an obligation to commit himself one way or the other.

This has become less a human drama than a wearisomely familiar pantomime. All season Gerrard put his club and his manager Rafael Benitez on trial. He said he wanted evidence that the club was capable of winning the big prizes. Then, after the European Cup was gathered in, he was said to be monitoring the quality of Benitez's signings.

This was outrageous. Benitez has proved himself an honest winning manager and no one has charged him with a whiff of deceit. Gerrard was offered the biggest contract in the history of the most successful club in English football. He had a simple duty to say yes or no, and the fact that he again failed to do so posed fresh questions about his oft-stated loyalty to Liverpool. Some talk about a lack of resolution. Others, not unreasonably, wonder how you separate that from another act of betrayal.

Rio Ferdinand, on the other hand, permits no confusion. His agent says that he is the best defender in the world and that this has to be reflected in Manchester United's agreement to a demand of £120,000 a week. Hard judges would seriously dispute Ferdinand's ranking - especially when directly compared to such as Alessandro Nesta, John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho - but there is not much question about his off-field status. After the support given by his club - which included full wages - during his eight-month suspension for failing to take a drug test, Ferdinand has no rival as football's leading ingrate.