Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, June 27, 1997

In Formula 1, Talent Is Not Enough

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
Gianni Morbidelli calls it Formula One's ''natural selection of drivers.''

To get a coveted drive in a Grand Prix, it is not enough to have talent. Many of the drivers in the French Grand Prix at Magny Cours on Sunday are also well connected or have simply been in the right place at the right time.

Some of those who won't be driving have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Morbidelli is one of those.

Morbidelli, who drives for the Sauber team, skidded off in testing at Magny Cours last week and broke an arm. A few days earlier Olivier Panis, the star driver for the Prost team, crashed during the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal. He broke both legs and won't be driving this weekend either. This is natural selection at its most brutal. If you crash you might not drive.

There's no telling what such a sabbatical will do to Panis, whose career had been steadily advancing first with Ligier with whom he won the Monaco Grand Prix last year then with Prost where he recently set the fastest time in testing at Magny Cours. Alain Prost, the team owner, had hoped Panis could win their home race.

Forced to replace his lead driver on short notice, Prost faced a difficult decision. In the end he selected a sliver of experience over a large potential.

He turned first to Emmanuel Collard, 26, a Frenchman who had been considered earlier as a possible replacement for Prost's disappointing second driver, Shinji Nakano.

Collard was France's first world karting champion in 1988 at 17. He was champion of French Formula Renault in 1990, and was Porsche Supercup champion last year. He has been a contender for a seat in Formula One since 1990 and has test-driven for Ligier, Williams, Benetton, Tyrrell and, last week, Prost. But he has never driven a race in Formula One.

Ken Tyrrell, the doyen of Formula One team owners, said of Collard: ''Of all the people I've ever met who are not in Formula One, and who ought to be in Formula One, he tops the list.''

Tyrrell also called Collard, ''the next French world champion.''

But Collard said: ''I'd just like to race first. I'd like to start by getting into a car.''

His problem is the same for all prospective Formula One drivers.

''The top teams don't want the driver to have a 'learning year' with them,'' said Tyrrell. ''They want somebody who's going to win now.''

After testing, Prost passed over Collard in favor of Jarno Trulli. Trulli, an Italian, is just 22, but he drove the first seven races of the season for Minardi. He never finished better than ninth.

''Selecting somebody that was immediately operational,'' said Prost, ''especially in terms of physical fitness, was clearly a key consideration.''

Collard is by no means unfit, but having not driven a Formula One car since last fall, his neck muscles were not ready to undergo the beating by the g-forces in such a car through a race. But that was not the only problem.

''I haven't practiced starts,'' said Collard. ''I haven't practiced pit stops for fuel either. But as long as no one allows me to race, I won't get the experience.''

His Prost testing was not done under the best conditions, since he had just finished driving in the Le Mans 24 hour race, so he was tired.

''But I think I did the necessary,'' he said. ''And I think that this week things would have gone a lot better already. The neck is something very specific, and if you don't drive in the car, you cannot reproduce anywhere else what happens there. You can always do exercises, but it never replaces the actual driving. You need a minimum of four, five days of testing to get your neck in shape.''

At the start of the season Trulli did not have any Formula One experience either. He was given a seat at Minardi for a learning year. Minardi is not a top team. One of its shareholders is Flavio Briatore, who is also Trulli's personal manager. Briatore is also managing director of the Benetton team and he owned the Ligier team and sold it this year to Prost, who changed its name to Prost.

Collard remains optimistic as the possibility of driving as a replacement for Nakano has not been ruled out. Nakano has been kept on thanks only to his relationship with the team's engine suppliers, Mugen-Honda.

Collard says that the natural selection of a driver these days is not quite the same as it used to be. Morbidelli, 29, got his drive at Sauber this season because Nicola Larini had not been achieving the expected results. Both Morbidelli and Larini had been test drivers for Ferrari which Sauber's engines.

''These days,'' said Collard, ''a driver is a pawn that they place where they want.''

At Sauber, Morbidelli will be replaced by Norberto Fontana, a 22-year-old Argentine who was a test driver for the team, but who has never raced.

''Sometimes it's more important to be in a good political situation, to know the right people,'' said Morbidelli. ''It's not important that you are a good driver.''

The absence of Panis eliminates one of the French pawns from the French Grand Prix. It will be exclusively a home show for Jean Alesi.

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