Sunday 25 February 2018

Hamilton may come to regret Hungarian act of generosity

Lewis Hamilton Photo: Getty
Lewis Hamilton Photo: Getty

David Kennedy

The F1 summer break is over. The battle of wits and willpower has resumed at the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. It should be gripping today. The first of the remaining nine races in part two of the season usually separates the wheat from the chaff, such are the demands on skill that this circuit elicits.

Sebastian Vettel - who has now signed a new deal with Ferrari which ties him to the team until 2020 - currently leads Lewis Hamilton by 14 points and with 25 per win it wouldn't take much to redress that balance. They each have four wins so far. Hamilton has had the qualifying edge on his Ferrari rival with more poles, and he has also had six fastest laps in 11 races to Vettel's one. Speaking of poles, Hamilton equalled Michael Schumacher's record of 68 with top spot in Belgium yesterday. You can safely assume that one of his primary ambitions for 2017 has already been accomplished.

In the last seven years, Hamilton and Vettel have each won Spa twice. In the last 13 races Kimi Raikkonen has won it four times - if it is ever going to happen for the Finn again it could be today. However, what happened in Monaco will surely be repeated there as the season hots up, and Ferrari's favourite son Vettel gets to do more finger-clicking.

The last race in Hungary could be one that Hamilton rues. His team-mate Valtteri Bottas allowed Hamilton to pass him ten laps from the end, so the Englishman could challenge the Ferraris of Vettel and Raikkonen. Hamilton failed to pull it off and conceded the place back to Bottas a lap from the end.

Failure can be measured with precision in hindsight. Will the 'Fall of Hungary' be judged as a deliberate but stupid act of kindness? The team's moral principles were impressive but were they misguided? Are they all going soft? Three points are three points. Is it better to be a chivalrous loser or a callous world champion? If, as they say, a clear conscience makes the softest pillow, Hamilton will sleep well for eternity.

However, I don't really buy into the big love-in Mercedes are having about this. Team boss Toto Wolff said: "If the consequences are losing the championship we will take it." I doubt Niki Lauda agrees with that statement. It's probably convenient for later in the season when they'll have to come over all Ferrari-like and demand one team-mate makes way for the other. It's the swapping of internal IOUs that's going on at present. Although Hamilton is probably frantically scribbling a note to self, 'No more Mr Nice Guy'.

In 1984, Niki Lauda won the title by half a point from Alain Prost who had won more grands prix. Although it wasn't an act of largesse that caused the Frenchman to miss out on winning his first title. Had Prost not asked for the Monaco race to be stopped because of the treacherous conditions, he would have been 4.5 points up on the final tally and in the F1 history books with five titles instead of four.

A revelation in Hungary saw Fernando Alonso finish sixth and set the fastest lap. It wasn't an apparition, it was his best result in a long time. Bottas, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Esteban Ocon and Carlos Sainz Jr have shown high wattage this season. However, only Bottas and Ricciardo have interrupted the wins tally of the top two protagonists. In Bottas's case, he did so twice. Verstappen will be gunning for a win in the second half of an underwhelming season that has seen him retire five times.

In the world outside F1, I'm pleased to report that Theodore-Prema is enjoying something of a whitewash, with the team's Formula 2 driver Charles Leclerc achieving six poles and five wins. There have been no fewer than seven different winners in 14 races. Leclerc is leading the championship by 50 points with four races remaining.

Sadly, Irish motorsport lost an iconic figure earlier in the summer when Mondello Park's former owner Stuart Cosgrave passed away. I was privileged to say a few words at Stuart's funeral and with his family's permission, the homage is reproduced here, slightly abridged:

Stuart Cosgrave, what a trailblazer he was. In the late '60s, when the economic clouds of despair hung ominously over Ireland, Stuart, together with his partners Eddie Regan, Jim Morrin and latterly Bosco O'Brien, dreamed the impossible dream - the birth of Ireland's first racing circuit.

Like many an entrepreneur, this brave little flotilla forged ahead ignoring the impossible odds. Mondello Park was duly born. Over the years he brought the gods of motorsport to Mondello: Hailwood, Fittipaldi, Hunt, Senna and other luminaries. He created spectacles that ignited the flames of determination. Gripping the wire fence with my teenage hands, I gasped as these legends flung their machinery around, revelling in the cacophony, it was a window to the world of the fantastic.

Those Formula 5000 race cars were beasts that shook the ground we stood on and changed our very DNA. Those drivers inspired us to dare to dream the dream. These were life-changing experiences.

For people like me and my peers, Mondello was a place that fuelled our ambition, it was our Mecca, our university, our launchpad to fulfilling our equally crazy notion of professional race driving in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world, which luckily I was very fortunate to do with the help of my mentor John Hynes.

Mondello ensured there were no borders to that ambition. If we could win there, we could win everywhere. The adverse camber, the imperfect tarmac, the bumps, the diversity of corners - it provided masterclass after masterclass in adversity which we needed.

Motorsport in general, and myself in particular, owe Stuart an enormous debt of gratitude, from ex-F1 team owner Eddie Jordan, Eddie Irvine, Martin Donnelly, Derek Daly, Michael Roe, Bernard Devaney, not to mention Tommy Byrne, who would never have won all those championships that gave us the book and that movie Crash and Burn.

It can't have been easy for Stuart. I recall an anecdote about a meeting he had with a particular motor club in The Yellow House in Rathfarnham. They were moaning about this and moaning about that and this wasn't right and that wasn't right and their demand for change only just fell short of them complaining that the tarmac was too dark or the gates were too rusty.

Stuart listened patiently and when they'd finished he got up and announced he was going home. 'What?' they said. 'What do you mean you're going home?' He said: 'You'll just have to find yourself another venue to race in because you're obviously very unhappy.' He left to the sound of begging, pleading and apologising and he didn't look back, safe in the knowledge there was no other venue. When you take the risk, the flak, the financial burden, one day you just have to take a stand and say, 'Enough is enough'.

I recall first meeting Stuart at the Enniskerry hill climb in the late '60s as a teenager. I was thumbing a lift home and he kindly stopped. I was dumbstruck in his presence. I remember another time going to his home to get advice. I paced up and down the road a hundred times trying to summon the courage to speak to this demi-god. I eventually knocked on the door and Stuart was more than welcoming to this racing refugee.

Although he owned Mondello, he and Sheila rattled around on carpet-less floors with hardly two brass farthings to rub together. Those were years of hardship and he recognised penury. He offered me his two-piece Dunlop race suit because I couldn't afford one. My mother tested it with a match and once it had passed her kitchen lab test she sewed a miraculous medal in the label and off I went racing. When Stuart gave me that race suit I knew I had a friend and more importantly a mentor. In effect Stuart was my first sponsor.

Many people go racing on a wing and a prayer but I went on a rope which pulled the Formula Ford behind me because I couldn't afford a trailer. Stuart watched as the rope got shorter and shorter so he gave me his washing line. I'm sure Sheila wasn't too impressed. She became my second sponsor. He watched bemused at this scrawny kid suffer the agonies of trying to be a racing driver with no budget so he offered me free practice at Mondello. That was beyond my wildest dreams. Stuart became my third sponsor.

His enthusiasm and passion is rarely found in business today. He and Sheila made you feel safe. Sheila was a huge support. Stuart and Sheila - in racing parlance this was a perfect double S bend.

She went on a journey with Stuart and gave him a strength of purpose. How much easier it would have been for her to run off down the road screaming, 'Let me out, you're all mad,' but she stuck by him through thick and thin and raised their beautiful daughters Alison and Nicola along the way.

When Mondello ran into financial problems and Stuart had to say goodbye to his life's creation, it ended up eventually in the safe hands of Martin Birrane. Martin never forgot Stuart's legacy and always looked after him whenever he and the family returned 'home'. In time, Stuart got back on the saddle and started up Kylemore Karting and once again a generation of drivers went through those doors and honed their craft. He's probably responsible for better driving standards on our roads as a result and was someone who should have had government, or at least the governing body of Irish motorsport, support him for what he created.

Had Stuart made prams there wouldn't be anyone in the country who escaped his influence on two, three or four wheels.

'Mondello' could be interpreted as meaning 'little world'. Which brings to mind the words of Archimedes: 'Give me a place to stand upon and a lever and I will move the world.' Stuart didn't just move our world, he made it, and we are forever in his debt.

Belgian Grand Prix,

Channel 4 / eir Sport 1, 1.0pm

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