“There’s no doubt Vettel’s a fantastic talent, but Alonso’s the best driver of the moment…
Sir Jackie Stewart expects the Scuderia to make up for its 2010 title heartbreak this season, not least because it has the most complete driver on board
To Jackie Stewart’s house in late January, for lunch and a couple of hours of talking over the prospects for the 2011 Grand Prix season. JYS, just back from the Detroit Motor Show, is ever forthright in his opinions: “A few years ago Jean Todt took me to task for something I’d said about Massa — he said remarks like that could damage his career. I repeated to him what he already knew — that Felipe might change, but at that time he was inconsistent, and if someone asks my opinion, I give it…”
The way Stewart actually put it was that Massa’s driving went through a series of ‘peaks and valleys’, and he thinks that still the case. “I like Felipe a lot — he’s a guy with a nice personality and good values. A few years ago you never knew what sort of performance you were going to get from him, and I thought what a pity that was. Then, in 2007 and particularly ’08, he seemed to have put that behind him. When Massa’s on it, I think he’s near-perfect — some of his wins in those years were as close to flawless as you’ll see — but I think, in his case, the car has to be near-perfect, too. “Then Felipe had the accident in ’09 — and when he came back he had Alonso, rather than [Kimi] Raikkonen, as a team-mate. A very different proposition! Since he’s come back, he’s gone back to the ‘peaks and valleys’ thing — and there weren’t many peaks in 2010. Maybe he’s not the quite the same driver since the accident — or maybe he’s a bit overwhelmed by Fernando, I don’t know.
“I thought he should have been World Champion in ’08 — certainly he deserved it — but it remains to be seen whether he can get back to those heights…”
Massa has said — like Michael Schumacher — that last year Bridgestone’s front tyres didn’t suit his driving style, but that cut little ice with Stewart. “I’m sorry, but I don’t buy that. Unless you’re very fortunate, you don’t get a package that ‘suits’ you every year of your career: in 1969, for example, I drove the Matra M580, and without a doubt that was the best F1 car I ever drove. Then, in 1970, I drove the March 701 — which was the worst! After that it was Tyrrells, but although they were very successful cars they were always much harder to drive than the Matra. A great driver adjusts to whatever he has to deal with — Alonso’s incredibly good at that…”
Like most of us, Stewart expects Ferrari, further spurred by the unexpected loss of an Alonso championship at Abu Dhabi last November, to be extremely strong this year. Although Sebastian Vettel snatched the title at the last race, it didn’t surprise Jackie when the team principals voted Alonso the number one driver of 2011.
“There’s no doubt that Vettel’s a fantastic talent, but for me Alonso is the best driver of the moment — without any doubt the most completely equipped in what is an extraordinarily strong bunch of drivers, the best for 20 years. I never thought the overall quality was very high during the ‘Schumacher era’, for example.
“Some of Fernando’s drives last year were extraordinarily good, I thought: look at Singapore, for example, where he was under incredible pressure from Vettel all the way. He never made the tiniest error — and the thing is, you never expected he would make one, either.
“The thing about Alonso is that he’s always there, every race, every lap — a lot of drivers go off the boil at some point in a race, but not him. He’s at Ferrari now, and he’s a natural leader and has everything available to him — but, you know, I don’t think Fernando should ever have left McLaren! I think that should have been made to work by both parties, and perhaps, in this era of the team, it might have been handled differently, so that the circumstances that arose… didn’t arise, but there you go. I like Fernando, but I think it’s a pity that he comes across as so reserved — almost dour, to use a good old Scottish word — because in private he’s not like that.
“Of course there was all that fuss at Hockenheim, when Ferrari told Massa to let Alonso through, but what amazed me was they didn’t have something better ‘worked out’ for an eventuality like that! It came across as very clumsy, didn’t it? I thought Ferrari did the right thing, mind you, because for me the team has always been the most important thing. They broke the rule, and they got punished — but it was a rule which should never have been introduced in the first place.”
You think of the season ahead, and of course you come up with the usual suspects, but there are good reasons to believe that Red Bull can carry on where it left off in 2010. Two years ago there was enormous controversy over the double diffuser, which all but three teams — Brawn, Williams, Toyota — had omitted from their designs, believing it illegal. Somewhat against expectations the FIA declared it kosher, thus obliging the other teams, including Red Bull, to embark on a ‘catch-up’ programme, which necessarily took time. It’s worth remembering, though, that in the midst of that Button blitz of six wins in seven races, Vettel’s Red Bull — sans double diffuser — took both pole and victory in China, testament to the inherent quality of Newey’s RB5 design. And in 2011, of course, double diffusers are once and for all banned…
“David Coulthard was instrumental in getting Adrian to Red Bull in the first place,” said Stewart. “After years with Williams and McLaren, he knew as well as anyone what that was worth. I was pleased that Red Bull won the championships last year — they deserved it, no doubt about that. I like Christian Homer, and I think he’s grown into the job extremely well. He had some difficult things to sort out last year; the only thing I didn’t understand was the decision to take Webber’s front wing at Silverstone — without telling him in advance! — and give it to Vettel. Mark’s a very upfront sort of character, and it was absolutely bound to make him livid — and to reinforce his belief that, because of Helmut Marko, the team was favouring Vettel.
“I think Sebastian’s a worthy World Champion — at Abu Dhabi he simply drove away at a pace the others couldn’t match, and that was the end of it. I’ve heard from people that when things go wrong for him at Red Bull his behaviour is something else, and I must say that I don’t care for this stabbing one finger at the camera all the time. But he seemed to be maturing as last year went on, and perhaps he’s putting that behind him.
“Like most people, I hoped Mark would win it. He’s a lovely guy, a very straightforward guy — what you see is what you get, and there’s a lot in F1 who aren’t like that. I thought his victory at Monaco was as good as I’ve ever seen there, but in the end, when it counted, he didn’t do it. He had the broken shoulder for the last four races, but didn’t tell anyone about it — presumably he thought his rivals would see it as some sort of weakness. Mountain biking is very good for fitness training in a variety of ways — but it’s also quite dangerous, in terms of possibly compromising yourself through incurring an injury. But Mark loves his bike, doesn’t he? Quite often he arrives on it…”
At the first race of 2010, in Bahrain, I talked at length with Stewart, and one of the big topics of the moment was Lewis Hamilton‘s decision no longer to have his father manage him. At the time Jackie saw that as ‘not a disadvantage’ to Lewis, and he hasn’t changed his view.
“Lewis had a lot going on last year, one way and another — somehow you don’t get the impression that he’s at peace with himself the way that Jenson is, and I didn’t think it was by any means his best season. On balance it’s probably a good thing that he and his father… not that they had a falling-out, which is not something you ever want to see between father and son, but I never thought it was a good idea for Anthony to be Lewis’s manager. Fine to be his biggest supporter, like John Button, by all means, but for a manager you should always have someone from outside. Actually, on more than one occasion Anthony asked my advice about managers, and I tried to help him — introduced him to IMG, for example — but I always felt there was an… arrogance there. And certainly I think Lewis was over-controlled by his father…
“It’s strange, but I still feel I don’t really know Lewis. There’s no doubt that he’s a fantastic racer, but I think he could — and should — have achieved more last year. His major weakness is putting himself in situations where he’s at someone else’s mercy — at Monza, for example, he was out on the first lap and you could almost sense that was going to happen, couldn’t you?
“As for Jenson, after his victory in Melbourne I sent a bottle of champagne to his room, and on the note with it I said that it was a victory of which I would have been very proud. I’ll admit that I was one of those who thought he was walking into the lion’s den when he went to McLaren with Lewis, but that wasn’t the case. And the fact is where else — among the top teams — could he have gone? Mercedes didn’t want him, so I think he was pretty glad to land up at McLaren.
“Jenson drives absolutely beautifully — but I think he lacks that last bit of aggression, and he needs to sort out his inconsistency. In some ways he’s like David Coulthard — when DC was in a car that was just right for him, he was just about unbeatable. But, you know, there are always going to be lots of days when the car isn’t just right for you.”
Prior to the beginning of last season, Stewart anticipated that Mercedes (nee Brawn) would struggle to compete with the best, reasoning that a lack of funding at the time the car was laid down (midway through 2009) would inevitably compromise it, that matters wouldn’t begin to improve until the Mercedes money began to talk. At the time Jackie also suspected that Nico Rosberg would have the better of the returning Michael Schumacher.
“I think Nico drove brilliantly throughout last season — in fact, it’s interesting to think what he might have done in a Red Bull. In the Williams days he had a habit of sometimes going off the boil two-thirds of the way through a race, but there was no sign of that last year.
“The Mercedes wasn’t great, by any means — but it wasn’t as bad as Schumacher made it look sometimes. The worst of it, with Michael, was that he was still up to his old tricks — and it wasn’t just the incident with Rubens [Barrichello] in Hungary, either. That part of him seems to be unchanged. I’m not sure exactly what the powers of the stewards are, so I don’t know what they could have given him as a punishment in Hungary. To me, the choices were either disqualification — although that wouldn’t have been much of a punishment, given where he was running — or a ban from the next race.
“I got the feeling that when he retired, at the end of 2006, Michael was sort of pushed out by Ferrari — whatever, without a doubt he retired before he was ready to go. That was a mistake — and only he knows whether or not coming back was a mistake, too. The fact is, the MercedesBridgestone package didn’t suit Nico either, but in his hands it looked pretty respectable, didn’t it? Who knows how Michael will go this year, but… does anyone see him beating Vettel?”
Martin Brundle, I said, recently told me he now bracketed Robert Kubica with Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton. Stewart nodded vigorously in agreement. “Robert is top class, no doubt about it. I know he doesn’t look like a racing driver, but my God, he drives like one! If Massa leaves Ferrari at the end of this year, you would think Kubica would be the guy they would go after — he’s certainly the one I would go after — although I’m not sure Ferrari would be the right thing for him, because Alonso’s so well established there now.”
Then, a couple of weeks after my talk with Stewart, Kubica was seriously injured in a rally accident in Italy, and the likelihood was that he would miss most, if not all, of the 2011 World Championship. As we went to press, and I spoke to Jackie again, there had been no announcement of a replacement driver. ”
If it were going to be a short-term thing,” he said, “I guess you would put one of the reserve drivers in the car — Bruno Senna or Romain Grosjean — but it’s not ideal to do a whole season with two rookies. I guess I would try and get Raikkonen or Heidfeld, because they’re experienced, but in many ways my choice would be Hulkenberg — he’s still a bit raw, but he’s got the talent, no doubt about that.
“The situation puts a lot of pressure on [Vitaly] Petrov, of course, but although we still don’t know much about him, I must say he sometimes impressed me last year. He wasn’t afraid to run wheel-to-wheel with Lewis in Malaysia, was he? And in Abu Dhabi he was under fierce pressure — from Alonso, of all people — for a very long time, and he didn’t crack…”
After my visit, too, it was announced that Stewart is to become a partner in Genii Business Exchange, the company which now owns completely the Lotus-sponsored Renault team. Prior to that, working for RBS, he had a close association with Williams for several years, and was pleased last year when Barrichello — at one time a Stewart Grand Prix driver — joined the team.
“I’ve always been very fond of Rubens, and I think that, even after all these years in F1, he still drives very, very well. People are amazed by the way he keeps going — he still has the enthusiasm of a boy, and there’s no doubt he played a huge part in Williams’ progress last year.
“I was sad to see Hulkenberg gone from Williams, but of course [Pastor] Maldonado is bringing sponsorship with him. Nico was somewhat erratic in the first part of the year, but he got better and better — I like the boy, and I think there’s real talent there. It was good for him to be in a team with Rubens — although I know, from listening on a headset, that it used to amaze him the way Rubens could invariably produce ‘the lap’ in qualifying when he needed to.”
Another rookie who impressed Stewart in 2010 was Kamui Kobayashi, now the team leader at Sauber: “I like him a lot for his attitude — I don’t know the guy, but he’s very refreshing, isn’t he? He just gets on with it, and he’s a hell of a good overtaker.
“I’m also pleased to see Narain [Karthikeyan] back. He drove for us in F3 — a very nice guy, and not slow, either. My only concern would be with his ability to maintain concentration for a whole race…”
And, of course, Jackie was thrilled to see another Scot back in F1: this season Paul di Resta — Dario Franchitti’s cousin — replaces Tonio Liuzzi as Adrian Sutil’s team-mate at Force India. “Paul has a very good pedigree, and not just because of the family bloodline. He’s very quick, but also level-headed. To do what he did in European F3 was very impressive — I mean, he won the championship in 2006 when his team-mate was Sebastian Vettel, no less! Last year he was DTM champion, and not many single-seater drivers have been successful in that class, if you think about it.
“As well as that, I think last year — as Force India’s test driver — will have done him a fair amount of good, too, because it gave him time in an F1 car when testing is otherwise banned, and because he’ll have learned a lot of the actual circuits rather than simply in a simulator.
“However, it’s one thing having a great record in other forms of motor racing: get to Saturday afternoon, to qualifying for a Grand Prix, and it’s something else. You only have to ask David [Coulthard] about how the pressure affected him during the ‘one-lap’ qualifying days: he would tighten up in those circumstances — he was already a man of considerable F1 experience, the winner of 13 Grands Prix, yet the pressure of that moment was something he didn’t enjoy. Paul’s got to go through that experience — and that moment hasn’t yet arrived.
“Sutil is his team-mate, and he makes quite a lot of mistakes — but he is quick, no doubt about that. An awful lot of folk — not least in Scotland — will have high expectations of Paul, but we’ve got to give him time. I’d love to see him do well, and I believe he will. It’s good that he’s not coming into F1 in a back-of-thefield car — Force India are usually around midfield, but occasionally they threaten the established front-runners.
“Having said that, it’s probably not the end of the world if you do start off in a tail-end car. I’ll confess I was surprised that the new teams last year were so far off the pace, but let’s not forget that Alonso — and Webber — made their F1 debut with Minardi! If you’re good enough it will always become clear.”
Last thing. If Stewart were betting now, with testing for the new season only just begun, where would his money go for the World Championship?
“Alonso,” he said. “Ferrari have been pretty starved of championships for quite a while. I think that, as long as Adrian Newey has still got his enthusiasm high — and I’m sure he has — the Red Bull will be the quickest car. But no matter what Ferrari say, they do have more resources than any other team, plus, in my opinion, the best driver…”
Circuits must change to improve F1
Forget the cars —Jackie Stewart believes a few simple track redesigns would greatly Improve the F1 spectacle
New for 2011 are the return of KERS and the introduction of the moveable rear wing. Will they succeed in producing more overtaking, where previous changes have failed? Jackie Stewart believes that affention to the circuits could have a greater effect.
“If we think back, Max Mosley brought in grooved tyres to replace slicks he said it was to reduce cornering speeds, but in fact it was to help passing. That was quite a manufacturing challenge, and hugely expensive for Bridgestone and Michelin.
“Then KERS was introduced an extraordinary expense for the teams at a time Mosley was going on endlessly about the need to reduce costs and now we’re seeing yet another affempt to allow passing to take place. It’s being done with the right intentions but it’s ignoring a fundamental problem, which is that the aerodynamics have to change.
“There’s another thing, too. Think back to the ’69 British Grand Prix, to my baffle with Jochen (Rindt): there were 30 lead changes on a highspeed circuit we’d pass into Woodcote and into Stowe. Of course aerodynamics played a much smaller role, and braking distances were longer but we were also able to do it because of the character of the racetrack…
“Since the creation of the Catalunya track in Barcelona in 1991, almost all the new ones have been designed by the same man (Hermann Tilke) and they have not allowed overtaking to be part and parcel of modern Grand Prix racing.
“Look at golf, at some of the great challenges in the game: St Andrews, Carnoustie, Troon, Muir-Meld, Royal Lytham, Pebble Beach, Augusta… They all have tees, greens, bunkers and so on but they’re all drastically different from one another and have their own character. And no two were designed by the same person…
“Looking at the new tracks, there is no penalty for over-driving, for making a mistake, running wide and using way more than the intended racing surface. In Abu Dhabi Alonso went off the road four times in his efforts to get by Petrov, yet still Webber couldn’t capitalise on it, and when a driver of his calibre can’t pass a car that’s gone off I think that’s wrong. Turn eight at Istanbul is a fantastic corner, but we’ve all seen drivers go off there into the asphalt run-off area and not even lose a place…
“I don’t want to create accidents, God knows I worked very hard for safety for a long time but I do categorically believe that a driver who makes a mistake should lose by it. For a relatively small investment, changes to improve overtaking could be made to the circuits, and more or less overnight. Rather than subject competitors to the huge expense brought on by technical changes, let’s think about the tracks. No maffer which one, if you put a proper rumble strip or whatever in at the exit of a corner, the drivers would not be able to make an error sometimes by a couple of metres! with impunity.
“When I was driving I always tried to create the ultimate smoothness, so as not to scrub speed off, but now it seems as though you can say to yourself, ‘Well, I’ll take the steering angle off I’ll go wide, but I can still keep my foot in it…’
“Making a mistake should not mean injury or death, but in my opinion it should categorically mean you’re going to be passed. It would be a very inexpensive change that Hermann Tilke could make to the circuits and it ought to come with the blessing of both the FIA and the track owners, because the spectators and the massive TV audience want to see more action!
“In analysing drivers and teams, I might have some things right and I might have some things wrong but on this I know I’m right.”