5/7/2003 0 Comments
The thing is, it was all for nothing - so much noise, so much fury, and the end result of it all is that everything remains the same. Or perhaps worse; we've still to see what the long-term fallout of Jaguar's folly will be. Jaguar not only undermined the driver who mere months ago they were describing as a young charger in front of the world, but they managed to turn the positive reception build up over the previous four races into a PR disaster, the equivalent of a game losing own goal scored deep in extra time. And nothing has changed at the team; the driver still hasn't performed, the team still suffers from appalling reliability, and fans worldwide still have no faith in the team's management to deliver results. The sun rose early on Thursday, warming the dry, dusty Montmelo area on another beautiful spring day, the first day of the Grand Prix weekend. The team members began to arrive early in the morning, followed in the afternoon by the journalists who were there to report on the action, and the only story that they had was the imminent sacking of Jaguar's Antonio Pizzonia, the 22-year old Brazilian who made his Formula One debut only four races earlier. Formula One is a tough business, but this move was brutal even by its own standards.
It started in Imola; questions were being asked as to why Pizzonia was consistently over a second slower than his teammate. Juan Pablo Montoya was the first to say it publicly, followed shortly by other members of the Williams team. No one outside of Brazil expected Pizzonia to dominate his teammate Mark Webber at the start of the season, although he was seen as fast enough to be in the game on merit. Webber, the laconic 25-year old Australian, was fresh from an eventful debut year at Minardi, where he had more often than not put the underfunded car ahead of his more highly fancied competition, including the cars of his new team. Pizzonia, on the other hand, spent most of last year testing for the Williams outfit, putting in thousands of miles on circuits around Europe.
Nonetheless Pizzonia was supposed to keep Webber honest, and four races in he was struggling with the task. Pizzonia's highest grid position was 15th, whereas Webber had finished three qualifying sessions in the top five. The only qualifying session where Pizzonia finished ahead of his teammate was Saturday in Malaysia, when he was 0.1 seconds to the good and on softer tyres. Qualifying may be an inexact science with the new regulations, given the variances involved in tyres, fuel loads and track temperatures, but there is no question that Pizzonia was struggling in comparison to Webber. Pizzonia brought the car home in Imola, the first time a Jaguar saw the chequered flag this year albeit two laps down on the leaders, following driver errors in Malaysia and Brazil and a mechanical breakdown in Melbourne. In every race he was well down on Webber when they retired.
So maybe it wasn't such a surprise when The Guardian reported that Pizzonia's position was under review, the quote coming not from 'unnamed team members' as could be expected, but rather from Jaguar's PR boss Nav Sidhu. Not a surprise, that is, unless you happened to be Antonio Pizzonia, who Jaguar had failed to mention this review to. Barcelona should have been the easiest race of his short F1 career - he had put in over 15,000 km there last year in testing with Williams, and knew the place like the back of his hand - and yet the confidence he felt going into the race was destroyed by a dozen or so words in a newspaper.
Maybe Jayme Brito saw it all coming, or maybe he was just quick on his feet. Pizzonia's manager, a former Globo journalist, knows the value of public relations and that this weekend, more than anytime in his short career, his young driver needed help in the field. Jaguar have some good PR people working for them, but when the dispute between the team and driver became public he needed someone else in his corner. Cue Ann Bradshaw, the charming Englishwoman who had worked with Pizzonia in his time at Williams, as well as with countless other drivers in her decades of motorsport PR experience. Bradshaw is known and loved by a large percentage of the Formula One press, and she relished the chance to get back into the paddock, roll her sleeves up and get to work.
And Pizzonia had to do this too. The weekend got off to a bad start for him when he hit a mechanic, Andy Saunders, when he overshot his box coming into the pits on Friday morning. Saunders was taken off to the medical centre after flying six foot through the air, and was later sent home to England to recuperate. Pizzonia was also fined twice for speeding in the pitlane, an otherwise minor indiscretion which was picked up by the press for the irony value.
The pressure didn't seem to be getting to him though - throughout the weekend Pizzonia was remarkably calm and upbeat about everything, and kept focused on the job at hand. When asked if it was a difficult weekend for him he replied "Well not that difficult to be honest - we've had worse - and we managed to run the car this morning. I had a gearbox problem this morning, and I had to jump to the T-car for the second session. I had a problem with the power steering which didn't affect my run at all because we kept running to the end." Bradshaw's fingerprints are all over this statement. Keep calm she told him, keep smiling. And talk about the job you're here to do.
The biggest difference from a media perspective was the amount of access we had to Pizzonia. After qualifying and the race Jaguar usually assign a table to each of the drivers and the media, and at Imola Webber was surrounded by the international press while Pizzonia sat with a single Brazilian journalist. In Barcelona everyone wanted to talk to Pizzonia, and Bradshaw was there to greet them all, dressed in casual clothes rather than a team uniform, a warm smile on her face and an anecdote not far away. She charmed everyone in the paddock, new faces and those she'd known for decades alike, and the story was turning softly in her charge's favour.
There were a number of delays for the waiting press over the weekend as he was pulled in to talk to various people. For example, after Friday qualifying Pizzonia was called into one of their private rooms to talk to Sir Jackie Stewart before coming out to talk to us; Stewart, an experienced public speaker, told him to stay calm and focused, to concentrate on his driving this weekend and to talk about that, and to be honest above all.
Q: There have been lots of rumours about your future at Jaguar - what do you know? What have you been told?
AP: Nothing (smiles) - the only thing I know is I have a contract with them, and I think I'm staying here until the end of the year.
Q: And they've said nothing to you?
AP: Nothing to me.
Q: You must be pleased though - 13th overall.
AP: Well actually I'm a bit disappointed because this morning I managed to do a quicker lap time, and also I had more fuel in the car than at qualifying, which is a little bit frustrating because I knew I had a bit more in the back end, but unfortunately it didn't happen.
For someone so young he was looking unfazed by the pressure being brought to bear. "Well, there is a little bit of pressure - everyone knows that - but when I get in the car I just have to forget about what's going on outside and do my job," Pizzonia commented. "When I'm in the car I don't think about what's going on outside it, and I think it's important for me to get my head where I need to be, you know - I need to do my job in the car, and not concentrate on what's happening here."
Bradshaw is famous for hugging her 'boys', giving them a motherly figure to support them when they are out of the car, and it was clearly working. The biggest question was why Jaguar, with all their personnel and resources, didn't have someone to put a hand on his shoulder and give support to Pizzonia, one of two men in the team who has to actually go out on the track and bring back the results that the team is looking for. Jaguar pushes an image of advanced technology and cutting edge technical advances, and maybe the powers that be haven't looked up from their banks of computer screens for long enough to realise that they are relying on a human being to bring it all home, a young man whose family lives on the other side of the world and whose girlfriend is away for long periods of time. A man alone in a new, and often hostile, environment.
You could see it in his eyes; even though he was always seen with a smile on his face, even though he handled the intense media pressure well, he didn't have the intensity of the other drivers this weekend. When you are talking to a Formula One driver they will focus intently on you, staring straight at you with a concentration that can be unsettling. Often Pizzonia would look away if you looked in the eyes, an outward betrayal of his confused emotional state.
It's a pretty astonishing situation to think that he is being looked at for replacement so early in the season, and Pizzonia seemed as surprised as anyone as to why it was happening. "I don't know really, because on the first four races I had a lot of mechanical problems, a lot," he noted. "In Imola before the qualifying I had two engine problems and one gearbox problem before qualifying, and I did very very little running before qualifying. Of course what people are concentrating on at the moment is qualifying, and racing is not only about qualifying. Anyway I think I still didn't have the opportunity to show what I can do, and I'm sure when I have the opportunity I'll do a good job."
Q: You've had a lot of support from the Williams team - Frank, Patrick, even Juan Pablo - how much has that helped you?
AP: Well, I mean, I think it's good to hear them saying good things, but in the end it doesn't make a lot of difference because I've still got to go out there and forget what's happening inside - it doesn't matter if it's good things or bad things, you know?
Q: Do you feel like you're getting enough support from the team?
AP: Well, at the moment yes - you know there's a lot of things going on in the press but at the moment I'm getting the support from the team that I needed, and that's the main thing.
Q: And how are things going in the car? Are you approaching anything differently today?
AP: No not really, nothing different, and I think we did quite well this morning. Unfortunately we didn't do a very long fuel run this morning, so I had a little bit more time in the back to come - I was hoping to be at least half a second quicker than the time this morning. And unfortunately we made a set up change which didn't help the car at all, and in qualifying the car was worse than this morning - I think that's why I couldn't do a better time than this morning.
Q: What are you looking for at the end of this weekend - what kind of goals do you have?
AP: Well in four races we could only finish one race so far, with one car only, so basically you have seven failures, which is quite a lot you know. The main thing is to finish the race, and hopefully in the points.
Q: And after that?
AP: Well I think that if I finish in the points then things will change here a little bit (laughs).
Over at McLaren the other side of the story was emerging. Jaguar spoke briefly to Ron Dennis before starting negotiations with Alexander Wurz to take over Pizzonia's seat, and although Dennis was a little annoyed by this situation he was happy to discuss the matter. "We were approached by Jaguar. They really didn't wait for a response before approaching Alexander, which was not particularly correct," he said. "We have made a proposal to Jaguar that could see Alexander leave and go to Jaguar. We think it's a very balanced proposal and it's for them to decide whether to accept it or not."
Dennis is at heart a racer, and although he understandably doesn't want to disrupt his testing processes, particularly with the new car coming through at the moment, he is not one to stand in the way of a tester who wants to get back to racing, as Olivier Panis, Nick Heidfeld and Ricardo Zonta will attest. "We have considered the position and we have made a proposal to Jaguar that could see Alex join them, but it is not negotiable and it is a fair reflection of what we believe he is worth," said Dennis. "We have always had a provision with our third driver of never standing in the way of their race careers, so we have made the position clear."
And the situation seemed clear enough - Jaguar were unhappy with Pizzonia's performances to date, and they wanted to replace him with Wurz, who could go to Jaguar if the price was right. Meanwhile the opinion in the paddock was turning - Pizzonia was being hard done by, as he hadn't had a reliable car under him yet to show what he is capable of. Frank Williams, a man who knows Pizzonia's abilities intimately, commented in Imola that he didn't think Pizzonia was over a second slower than Webber, the unspoken inference being that a lot of problems come from within the Jaguar camp. And although the drivers were available to the press, most of the team were invisible all weekend.
On Saturday free practice and qualifying came and went in a flash, and Pizzonia was to line up 16th on the grid, four places and 0.7 seconds behind Webber. A lot of the problems have arisen because of the comparison between the teammates, but Pizzonia disagreed with the media's take on the situation. And he was fighting back. "Well, probably with what's coming from the press I think that's the main reason," he notes, "but in the end people don't really know what's happening in the car - they just look at the lap times and the grid positions, and that's it. But anyway my problems are purely because I've been having a lot of mechanical problems, and tracks that I don't know really well and I don't have enough track time - I think that's a problem."
Q: With you being new there was always the assumption that you would be a little slower than Mark because he'd had an extra year in F1, but I don't think anyone expected quite the distance that there's been between you, especially in qualifying. How do you explain that difference?
AP: It's like I just said, you have to see the whole picture - in Imola I was on a totally different strategy to Mark; I was on two stops carrying a lot more fuel than him and he was on three stops carrying a lot less fuel than me. So it's not only lap times and positions - you have to analyse Sunday when you see when one guy is coming in, when the other guy is coming in to the pits - those kind of things.
Q: How is the co-operation between you and Mark?
AP: Okay - I am getting on with the team well, and I get on with Mark really well. I think we work well together.
Q: Do you exchange data?
AP: Yeah yeah - we do all those kind of things.
There was a suggestion in the paddock that Pizzonia should quit the team, because his paymasters were discussing his flaws in the media rather than approaching him about it. In the real world this might be a possibility - no one would accept their boss talking publicly about their failings without first discussing the situation with them, and the thought was that Pizzonia shouldn't either. And although this would have disrupted Jaguar's season - they have no reserve driver, and it would be difficult to find anyone of note before Austria - it wouldn't work in Formula One, where quitting would be seen as an admission of failure, that Pizzonia himself wasn't up to the task of competing at the pinnacle of motorsport. And that is not what he himself believes, so there was no chance of it happening.
On Sunday the team were discussing their options, and no news was forthcoming on the matter. Jaguar would have had to pay out a lot of money to drop Pizzonia - his year's salary at least, plus the 'transfer fee' to McLaren (who have a three-year contract with Wurz, and were reportedly looking for $2m to nullify it) as well as Wurz's salary. On top of yet another staff dismissal, and the subsequent scandal that was already erupting in the press, the top ranks at the team had to consider whether it was all worth it.
Everyone at Jaguar kept their head down and concentrated on the race, and understandably Webber was staying out of the fight - he had his own job to do here and nothing to be gained by entering his teammate's battles, and he didn't need to let it disrupt his preparations. "To be honest I've tried pretty much to stay out of it," Webber states. "There's been loads of stuff going down, and that's between Antonio and Jaguar really; I've just kept my nose out of it. As a team we can't ignore the fact that something was happening, but was it actually hurting our preparation, our laptimes? I don't think so."
Pizzonia obviously agreed, as his preparation had been pretty much as usual for the race. Which is unfortunate, as this weekend has gone much the same way as his previous four, with mechanical difficulties and subsequent disappointment from his laptimes and grid positions. If he was going to let his driving do the talking to shore up his position in the team then this weekend can be seen as a failure.
The perfect summation of his short Grand Prix history happened at the start of the race, where the launch control failed entirely and he was hit by Kimi Raikkonen without even crossing the start line, a victim once again of an unreliable car which led to a dangerous impact.
Q: Do you know what happened at the start yet?
AP: Well, we don't know exactly what happened, but the launch control didn't work and we had the same problem in Imola. It's a shame really, because we've been working so much on it, you know - we did so much work on it when we were testing last week in Mugello, and here as well Friday. Saturday we had no problems at all, and at the start it didn't work again.
Q: You and Mark had a similar problem in Imola - is it the same problem?
AP: We don't know exactly what happened yet, but it is similar to the one I had in Imola, very very similar.
Q: It's pretty unlucky with everything that's been hanging around this weekend - what now?
AP: Well, at least you know I'm safe in the team now - that's official.
Q: How's that?
AP: Well basically they came to me and they said that they realized that they made a mistake, and we carry on from now on, and hopefully get better and better each day. That's good news.
Q: Obviously this changes things - do you have more testing to come?
AP: Well I have a test next week on Friday in Paul Ricard, so hopefully we can do a lot of work on the traction control again, and the launch control systems to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Q: And then look forward to Austria obviously.
AP: Yep, yep - hopefully my season will start there.
He looked me in the eyes the whole time he talked to me, and the smile on his face was genuine. There was relief there, but pride too - he has fought his corner and won, in one of the most difficult work environments in the world.
And that was it: no official statement from Jaguar, with only a vague comment about both drivers raring to go at the A1-Ring slipped in at the bottom of their post-race release. It's hard to know what was the reason behind Jaguar's decision to keep Pizzonia - they suffered a public relations nightmare this weekend, which turned the positive press regarding the car's performance (in Webber's hands, at least) into a massive backlash for failing to support their young driver. On top of which there were some not unsubstantial financial costs to come if they carried through with their decision to drop him.
Whatever the reason, Pizzonia has a second chance at a Formula One career. There are a lot of people in the Jaguar organisation that are happy about this - when I showed one of their press people his comments about Jaguar apologizing to Pizzonia she laughed and called him a cheeky bugger, and there is a clear affection for the young driver in the team's motorhome.
But at the end of it all nothing has changed - Pizzonia has still got to prove he is worthy of a regular Formula One drive, because there are no second chances in this game. But equally Jaguar needs to improve too - two finishes from ten starts is an appalling result, and their reliability this year has been woeful. Could Pizzonia do a better job? Undoubtedly, but this doesn't forgive the team management for underperforming to date.
Because Formula One is the pinnacle of motorsports, and neither side of this equation has any claim to being there on their efforts so far.
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