The Reject Mindset

One of the most common questions people that care about unsuccessful sportsmen and sports teams are asked is “Why?”. Why do sports fans sit through loss after loss, why do fans of reject teams go through Q1 elimination after Q1 elimination, DNQ after DNQ and retirement after retirement? In other sports, the answer is often location. Even if your local team is a horrible one, it is your local team. In motorsport, this question is a bit harder to answer quickly because it is relatively unlikely that you live all that close to a Formula One team to the point that you would consider it a part of your community. 

This becomes even more true when the relatively short life of reject teams in the sport is considered. Only a select few backmarker teams were around long enough for the location of their offices to develop into a synonym for the constructor. The most prominent example for that is Faenza, which housed Minardi for a couple of decades and still is home to their current incarnation, Scuderia AlphaTauri.

May20ATo the author, the appeal of reject drivers and reject teams can best be explained using two men who arguably are as far away from the definition of a GP Reject as you can come in the world of Formula One: Michael Schumacher from Germany and Rubens Barrichello from Brazil. These former teammates demonstrated the human psychology that can draw someone into caring for the unsuccessful participants in a race in just one overtaking manoeuvre on the pit straight of the Hungaroring.

It is August 1st, 2010, 3:37 p.m. local time. Schumacher, driving the Mercedes MGP W01 and Barrichello, driving the Williams FW32, have just completed their 64th lap around the track. Barrichello, enjoying the benefit of much fresher Bridgestone rubber due to an arrhythmical late pit stop, goes down the inside of his former teammate on the finish straight. The German responds aggressively and pushes to the inside, squeezing off Barrichello and leaving a car width plus maybe twenty centimetres space between his Mercedes-Benz and the pit wall.

This aggressive move was, in itself, nothing new for Michael, who had used it to great success on a couple of occasions, including once against his brother at the 2001 European Grand Prix. More often than not, if he used it, it worked. Not this time, however: Barrichello used what little space there was and kept his foot on the gas pedal, just squeezing by. The move was a success, and the Williams driver had moved up to 10th place. The Williams crew was delighted and Barrichello was upset on the team radio. In the aftermath of the event, many former drivers criticised Michael Schumacher for his aggressive drive and he was given a grid penalty for the upcoming Belgian Grand Prix. The move became the highlight of a race otherwise only noteworthy for Sebastian Vettel’s drive-through penalty and the future world champion’s agitated reaction towards the FIA’s judgement.

Of course, the question is: what does that have to do with anything on this website?

To answer that question, the author proposes the following: that move, as amazing at it was, was completely pointless.

In what way can an overtaking move be important? The first aspect that comes to mind is championship position. Did this move affect the championship placing of either Michael or Rubens to a relevant degree? Not really. While Schumacher and Barrichello were within nine points of each other before the race. this was more a product of Schumacher not using the Mercedes to its full capability. It was therefore reasonable to assume that Schumacher would get away from Barrichello in the championship down the road; that ended up happening, Schumacher was 25 points ahead of Barrichello at the conclusion of the season. The duo were both around 120 points off championship leader Lewis Hamilton at the start of the Grand Prix.

Neither of the two had much to worry about regarding their teammates, for better or worse. Better in Barrichello’s case: he was well ahead of Nico Hülkenberg, having a 6-2 record when both finished. As Hülkenberg was well ahead due to his orthodox strategy, this was going to move to 6-3 even if Barrichello had gotten past Michael a couple of laps earlier. Michael, on the other hand, looked very weak in his duel with Nico Rosberg, being behind 2-8 when both finished. He had literally half the points Rosberg had before the start of the Grand Prix, so even if he managed to hang on to take 10th, it would not have closed that gap by any significant amount.

May20BAnother point in an overtake is to advertise your driving skill in order to secure a cockpit for another season or advertise yourself for stronger teams. Some expected that one of the Williams drivers would be replaced by a well-funded paydriver as key sponsors RBS and AirAsia were expected to depart from the team at the end of the season. It was unlikely that keeping Hülkenberg over Barrichello was in consideration given the described domination of the intra-team battle by the Brazilian. In contrast, Michael was beaten by his teammate, but his marketing value was immeasurable for Mercedes-Benz, so the decision to stay was more likely his than Mercedes GP’s. Because of their age, it was also highly unlikely that either one was in contention for a drive with one of the elite teams of Formula One.

So if the tangible factors did not come into play to make this move relevant, then perhaps the answer is in the intangibles. In motorsport, just like in every other sport, one move at the right or wrong time can create a reputation. J.R. Hildebrand could write a book about that unfortunate truth. Certainly, this move must have done something to change the perception of Rubens Barrichello or Michael Schumacher.

As it turns out, that was not the case. As far as Schumacher was concerned, he enjoyed a reputation as a driver who was always balancing on the edge between savviness and unfair driving. Even in his comeback, that reputation was upheld with a sneaky attack against Fernando Alonso on the final lap of the Monaco Grand Prix. Barrichello demonstrated bravery with this move, but to the knowledgeable fan, Barrichello’s audacity was demonstrated by feats like out-qualifying Eddie Irvine by 1.6 seconds mere four weeks after nearly dying in qualifying at Imola, his choice to stay out on dry tyres at the 2000 German Grand Prix and one of the most audacious overtaking displays witnessed at Silverstone in 2003.

May20CTherefore, the final way the author could see in which a move matters is in terms of narratives. Selling the narrative of this overtake is easy: the poor oppressed number two driver getting revenge on the “evil emperor” of Formula One. Unfortunately, looking at the actual reaction of Barrichello pulls that narrative apart. Of course, he was extremely upset in the heat of the moment. However, even in the post-race interview with the BBC expert crew – a mere thirty minutes after the conclusion of the Grand Prix – Barrichello mostly rejected the attempts by David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan to quote mine and focused on appreciating his own driving:

“I’m delighted in a way, because, you know, I can get to my 38th [birthday] and my physical condition, and with that, I mean, I got there and Patrick [Head] was screaming. He was so happy. We only got one point today and I’m still buoyant.”

In his commentated on-board lap on the official F1 season review, Barrichello even appreciated that this move was mostly fun for the fans, even if he himself was angry in the moment. Outside of an ironic quip towards Michael’s first justification of his driving, Barrichello’s behaviour basically puts an end to any revenge narrative. Even in terms of making the once-unstoppable winning machine Schumacher looking mortal, this race was relatively irrelevant. 2005 and 2006 had already started that process and the first part of the 2010 season finally destroyed most of the mysticism regarding “Schumi”.

Having exhausted all ways a move can be relevant, the author feels that the move was completely pointless. Two millionaires in their late 30s, both fathers of two children, risked their physical health in a completely pointless and dangerous move. They did it solely for the sake of doing it. Solely to beat the other, with no concern to rational thought or realistic risk-assessment.

May20DIt is this determined spirit of competition that made Franco Rocchi try and see whether a W12 engine can be competitive in a F1 environment. The same spirit that made three teams enter a sport that was completely different from originally promised in 2010. The same spirit that made entries like Phoenix Racing and Stefan Grand Prix undertake massive investments into F1 cars even without so much as having an entry into the premier series of motorsport. Those are just the modern examples. Pretty much anyone squeezing themselves into the death traps of the 50s and 60s just for the sake of glory, in many cases either consciously or subconsciously knowing that their personal death trap had no chance against the major outfits of the time, possessed this fascinating mindset.

This “racer” mindset that can also be demonstrated with many examples outside of F1. One example being the 2019 GT4 European Series; more precisely, the first round of the championship at Monza. The sheer desire for competition brought 36 cars to a grid for a race where there were more drivers at the track than fans in the audience. This claim sounds hyperbolic, but the video of the race is available on YouTube on the GTWorld channel, so it is easily possible for the claim of the author to be proven or disproven. 72 drivers risking their lives in high-speed racing for an audience that cannot be much more than 50, at most 60, people. Even when counting the views on YouTube, the situation hardly becomes better. According to YouTube statistics, the race had 34,809 views (on April 28, 2020). That’s less than all but one video of small YouTube channel “Dark Simpsons”, which edits Simpsons episodes to turn them into depressing dark tales. While video editing is a skill in and of itself, the author doubts it is disrespectful to point out that motorsport is a significantly more complex endeavour.

This strange, but amazing mindset drove and drives some members of our species to compete, even though any rational observation would reveal the pointlessness of the endeavour. It is the mindset that makes the tale of every reject driver, every reject team and everyone that helped them to get to where they are and were, truly impressive and noteworthy to the author. That is what the appeal of GP Rejects is.

With one move, an eleven-time Formula One race winner and a seven-time Formula One World Drivers Champion and demonstrated the above mentioned passion in a dangerous and irrational way and truly embodied the reject spirit on a summer afternoon in Hungary – and it was beautiful.

Sources:

Autosport, BBC, FOM, motor1.com, Spiegel, RaceFans, Speedweek, Pixabay, PublicDomainPictures.net, Unsplash, Youtube