On Tuesday 16th January 2007, your regular correspondent Ian and I went to see Worthing play AFC Wimbledon in a league game. The programme for that day proudly marks the occasion of Worthing stalwart defender Mark Knee’s 400th game for the club. This is not why we went, however. A late – too late to make it to the programme – change saw Steve Claridge lining up for the home side. It was his one and only game for Worthing, aged just 94. At half time two men from the Victoria & Albert wearing camel-coloured overcoats came on to the field and returned him to his protective packing crate. For Claridge it was part of an extended fairwell tour, which also took in periods at Bournemouth (one game), Harrow Borough (four games, two goals), a third spell at Weymouth (one game in 2009) and Gosport Borough (eleven games, four goals in 2011/12). Had he just held out another couple of years, he probably could yet have got a game for Liverpool.
Steve Claridge is older than the sun. His knees are made from bread, and the extra yard of pace he had in his head has migrated down to his nipple line with the force of gravity alone. But as late as 2006 he was playing in the Football League. He played pretty well in the game we watched, too. The point is, there’s enough room for anyone, of any age, background, shape or creed, to be able to make their presence felt in soccer. This is one of the great things about sport, generally. If your opening batsmen in the cricket match breaks his toe, you can always send his mum out to the crease instead. Lose your horse’s jockey, just find another small person hanging about. Even I could take part in the Olympic 100 Metres final. I confidently predict that I would not win. In fact, I just as confidently predict that I would finish last. But running in a straight line is an easy thing to do. I would be doing just the same thing as everyone else, just in slow motion.
Formula 1 Grand Prix motor racing, however, is an exception to this rule. Very few people would even fit inside the cars in the first place and, out of the ones who did, fewer still would be able to successfully control them. Lose your Formula 1 driver, in other words, and you can’t just slide the first person you see walking past into their seat for the next race. As skillsets go, it is a very specialised world. Even the worst Formula 1 drivers of all time could drive your family car around in such a way as to make you stare at them in awed wonder. If I got into a Formula 1 car, perhaps fresh from my Olympic excursion, I wouldn’t even begin to know how to even make it move.
In July 2009, Ferrari had difficulties. After a problematic start to the defence of their Constructors’ title of the previous year, the team had started to get on top of a difficult car. The second half of the season looked rosy. Then, in a split second, everything changed. A piece of Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn GP car’s rear suspension worked its way lose during qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix. The heavy spring bounced idly down the road and straight into the head of Ferrari driver Felipe Massa. Massa suffered a skull fracture but, in all honesty, he was lucky to escape with his life. There’d be no more F1 for him until the following year. This left a plum seat at the sport’s most historic and glamorous team up for grabs for the season’s remaining seven races.
Initially, people expected a return for Michael Schumacher. The German champion had won 72 Grands Prix (out of a total 91) and five World Championships (out of his seven) driving for Ferrari. Moreover, retirement did not seem to suit him. Two and a half seasons out of the sport had given him an itch. But therein lay the problem: in trying to scratch the itch he’d injured his neck racing motorcycles earlier in the year. For the best will in the world, Schumacher would not be able to fill the breach.
So if not Schumacher, then who? For a brief moment of exquisitely Italian madness, sentimentality took over and they chose Steve Claridge. Steve Claridge in this particular incidence was not called Steve Claridge, but Luca Badoer. Badoer, the 1992 International Formula 3000 champion, was the first Italian to drive a Grand Prix for Ferrari since Nicola Larini in 1994. He had also been the prancing horse’s test driver since his own Formula 1 racing career floundered in the mid-1990s. By the time he got the nod, he’d been a part of the Italian team set-up for over a decade.
There were but a few stumbling blocks. Firstly, Badoer held an undesirable record in the sport, having started more races than anyone else, ever, without scoring a championship point. Forty-eight times he’d sailed off the grid and into statistical obscurity. But this was a consequence of the substandard cars he’d had to compete with and not a great concern for Ferrari. More of a worry was that Badoer hadn’t really driven their latest car, the F60. At all.
Time was that being the Ferrari test driver made you about the busiest racing driver on the planet. Uniquely among all the Formula 1 teams, Ferrari’s factory at Fiorano is surrounded by their own private test track. Ferrari could, and did, run cars from dawn to dusk every day, in order to gain a performance advantage for the next Grand Prix. But at the start of 2009, a new rule was passed as a cost-saving measure, strictly limiting the amount of testing that Formula 1 teams could do, whether they had their own track or not. Outside of “Official” tests, the teams were only able to run their current cars sparingly – no more than 100 km in a day for restricted days a year – for publicity purposes.
Longer run testing could still be done, but only in a car that was at least two years old. This is the equivalent of only letting your football team train between matches properly on the condition that they kicked a decapitated head between two villages. Being the Ferrari test driver had become a ceremonial title, like Admiral of the Swiss Navy. Badoer, who’d last driven the F60 car in December 2008, cracked his knuckles, did some go-karting to sharpen up and said no to every second helping of pie for a month. He was ready to go. What happened next was perhaps the greatest sports film never made.
Badoer arrived in Valencia for the European Grand Prix on August 23rd. The circuit – a street track around the harbour for the America’s Cup yaching event – was being used for only the second time in a Formula 1 event, and so if Badoer didn’t know which way the corners went, his nineteen rivals didn’t have much additional experience to call on. He set off in practice at a steady pace. Gentlemanly, you could call it. It was Badoer’s first Grand Prix since Japan 1999 and he was determined to not make a schmuck of himself and crash the car. The downside of this approach was that the only place that Badoer was proving quick was in the pitlane. For a Grand Prix meeting, the speed limit in the pits is 80 kph, rather than the 100 kph testing standard to which he was accustomed. By the time qualifying was over, Badoer had broken the speed limit on five occasions, running up a proud £4000-worth of fines.
He’d qualified last, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the amount of time he’d been away from frontline Formula 1 racing and his inexperience with the car. The grids in 2009, too, were unusually close in terms of lap time. In Valencia, the entire field , front to back, was covered by a time difference of a shade under 1.3 seconds.
Front to back, that is, excluding Badoer. His fastest time was a further 1.5 seconds slower than Jaime Alguersauri’s penultimately-placed Toro Rosso. It was only Alguersauri’s second Formula 1 race and he was just nineteen years old, the youngest man ever to start a Grand Prix. The field could boast a debutant, too: Romain Grosjean in a Renault. In Friday practice, with no previous F1 experience and just as much testing behind him as Badoer, Grosjean was so green as to have to double check which way round you are supposed to sit in the car. Nevertheless, Romain qualified 14th for his first F1 race, 2.5 seconds faster than Badoer. Badoer’s teammate Kimi Raikkonen started 6th, 2.6 seconds a lap to the good.
The race itself didn’t go a lot better. Badoer made up six places in the opening stages but then tangled with Grosjean’s Renault and his old achillies heel – the pit lane – came into play. After his first stop for fuel and tyres, Luca was chased out of the garages by his new rival Grosjean. Upon being alerted to this fact by his engineer’s call of “traffic” he obediently got out of the way, thereby not only losing the place but in so doing successfully managing to cross the white line that demarcates the pit exit, an offence that carries with it a mandatory drive-through penalty. After a fairly trying and definitely over-long afternoon of motoring, Badoer finished the race seventeenth out of eighteen classified runners, although the last of these had retired three laps from the flag with tyre failure. Coming back into parc ferme after the race, Badoer topped a memorable return to Grand Prix racing and crashed into the back of Adrian Sutil’s parked Force India. Never mind, the next race was in Belgium at Spa-Francorchamps and this was a track that he had raced on before! A fairytale ending to this particular live action Disney film was therefore, just about, still plausible.
This plausibility lasted until Friday 28th August 2009, the first day of the Belgian race meeting. Things had, it was surprising to note, not improved. This in spite of the fact that in the intervening period, nothing had changed whatsoever. Badoer did manage to use his previous experience at the track to some effect: although after qualifying he still lined up 20th and last, this time he was only 1.8 seconds shy of the fastest time. However, this was still 0.6 seconds slower than Grosjean, who qualified in nineteenth place. On a day when the field was otherwise covered by 1.2 seconds, Badoer somehow contrived to be 50% slower on top. Perhaps a consequence of a spin on his final lap.
Come race day, Badoer shuffled about breathlessly at the back, stubbornly off the pace. His race engineer Rob Smedley had, the previous season, come within mere seconds of seeing his driver Felipe Massa crowned the World Champion. His face is rather too expressive to carry off the situation in which he now found himself with any kind of air of dignified detraction. He sat there aghast, sometimes mouthing flabbergasted obscenities but mainly just staring forlornly into space. Badoer finished fourteenth and last. The thirteen cars in front had been separated by just 54.2 seconds after 190 miles of racing. Badoer was another 48 seconds back. His teammate, meanwhile, had contrived to chivalrously help his beleaguered fellow’s cause no end by winning the race in an identical car.
For the next race, the Italian Grand Prix, Badoer was moved aside to be replaced by Force India’s Giancarlo Fisichella. Fisichella had surprised everyone in Belgium by taking pole position and finishing a close second in an unfancied car, and the lure of Ferrari was just too great to pass up. He would go on to be closer to Raikkonen’s pace, yet still fail to score a point in any of the final five races. Some small crumb of comfort for Badoer, whose dream had become one of those dreams where you end up naked and you get an unwanted erection AND your nan is there; and whose career as a Ferrari driver had served only to extend his record of Grand Prix starts without scoring a point to a nice round fifty.
Badoer himself blamed negative media coverage on the decision to move him aside. And if this whole sorry tale has taught us anything, it should be that the media are ruining everything for everyone.
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