Reflections

By Nigel Roebuck

The inexorable growth of aero clutter

Missing AJ Foyt at the Daytona 24 Hours

Dario Franchitti’s love of motor sport history

When Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton pulled the wraps off the McLaren MP4-27, it was a relief — and perhaps a bit of a surprise — to note that the car did not have the 'stepped nose' common to all the other new cars revealed to that point.

A rule introduced for the new season requires that the height of the nose be lowered (this an attempt to reduce a car's tendency to 'launch' when running into the back of another), but at the same time the maximum height of the front bulkhead remains unchanged: hence 'the step'. Technical director Paddy Lowe explained that the smooth, unbroken shape of the McLaren's nose was a consequence of a lower chassis than those of rival teams — as the team had already done in 2011.

While I, along with everyone else present, was gratified to see MP4-27's svelte front end, I must admit to being somewhat taken aback by the virulence of the criticism aimed at the 'stepped nose' of the other cars. Even weeks before Ferrari's F2012 was launched, Stefano Domenicali, without going into detail, was warning the world that the car was 'quite ugly', and while it would be difficult to take issue with him, to me the Ferrari is no more unsightly than most of the others.

It's all in the eye of the beholder, of course, and the old clichés have been trotted out by Fernando Alonso and others: 'Any car that wins/doesn't win is beautiful/ ugly...' Perhaps the stepped nose offends me less than some because, frankly, it has seemed to me quite a while since the average F1 car could be considered a thing of beauty. Purposeful, yes, always dramatic, of course — but beautiful? If that's what you want, look to a time before wind tunnels alone dictated the shape of a Grand Prix car, to a 'long nose' Maserati 250E an Eagle-Weslake, a Ferrari 312B or a Lotus 79.

Since aerodynamics held complete sway in F1, a car's appearance has been of little or no consequence: if the data says it's quicker, that's the end of it. Why else, for example, would the high, pointed nose ever have seen the light of day?

Whenever I visit the McLaren Technology Centre, I can never resist a wander around the lobby area, wherein are housed a great number of cars from the company's past. I rather wish Bruce's original race car, an Austin 7, had not been so 'restored', but it's a remarkable stepping-off point for a collection which takes in not only F1 cars, but also some from McLaren's rich history in Indycars and Can-Am. Glorious.

When cars of a single marque are gathered together in this way, it is fascinatingly instructive to see the way Grand Prix racing has evolved. For all its many triumphs, the M23's looks never much appealed to me, and mercifully there is no example of the 1995 'twin rear wing' MP4/10 on display, but between times — notably in the Senna-Prost era — McLaren produced a succession of cars that were as elegant as they were successful.

I always particularly appreciated the last Honda turbo car, the MP4/4, with which Ayrton and Alain between them won 15 of the 16 Grands Prix run in 1988. The work of quiet and modest Steve Nichols, it remained Prost's favourite car to the end of his career, and when you see it now, in comparison with the devices of today, it strikes you as the essence of clean, uncluttered, design, and could live happily alongside another masterpiece, John Barnard's Ferrari 641, in New York's Museum of Modern Art. 'Clutter', though, was very much on the future agenda.

Through the 1990s, and into the 21st century, F1 cars increasingly gathered aerodynamic accoutrements — barge boards and the like — and if they added to cornering speeds, so they exacted a comparable price in visual appeal. "We've got to stop them sticking all these horrible-looking bits and pieces on..." Bernie Ecclestone said to me once, and he was right. The first car you see, on entering the MTC, is the MP4-23 from 2008, and if it was highly successful it remains, to my eye, shudderingly unattractive, an amalgam of 'horrible-looking bits and pieces'.

On the basis of 'cars that win are beautiful', though, I'll warrant that not too many in Woking would agree with me: Lewis Hamilton became World Champion in that car, after all, and you can't argue with results. The Scarab of 1960 — a sort of F1 Indy roadster, complete with Offenhauser engine — may have been one of the most comely Grand Prix cars ever built, but, tragically, it couldn't get out of its own way.

After 2008 much of the unsightly aerodynamic clutter was banned, mercifully, although too much still remains, and in that context I can't really understand all the fuss about 'stepped noses'. Yes, they're ugly, and I hope they won't be around for long, but in the meantime we'll quite quickly get used to them, just as we did the 'narrow track' look — watch footage from 20 years ago now, and the cars seem ludicrously wide — and the small rear/huge front wing changes that were introduced three years ago.

The cars — with the exception of the McLaren — will look the way they do this season because that is the way the designers have chosen to deal with the regulation requiring a reduction in the height of the nose. As folk have complained about the clumsy appearance of the 'stepped nose', so FIA Fl Race Director Charlie Whiting has quite reasonably pointed out that you can't have a rule outlawing ugliness: it may be unfortunate, and I'm sure it makes a man like Gordon Murray cringe, but that's the way it is.

At the very least, F1 people should rejoice that they don't have to deal with a regime as intransigent as Indycar, which introduces — to what may politely be termed 'muted enthusiasm' — a new car in 2012. It's a 'spec' car, built by Dallara, and clearly it's aimed at a 'spec' driver, as Chip Ganassi made clear to me in Daytona.

"The way the thing's been designed," he said, "a driver cannot right-foot brake — can you believe that? There are still drivers who prefer to brake with their right foot — and one of them is Franchitti, who drives for me..."

I'll admit I was aghast. Was this really true? "Absolutely..." Dario shrugged.

"I went back to Indycar," said Ganassi, "and said this had to be changed — but they said no, it couldn't be. I said, 'Well, OK — if you don't mind doing without the guy who's won the goddam championship the last three years!' I mean, are you suddenly going to tell [Phil] Mickelson he's got to play right-handed in the Masters this year?

"I'm about sick and tired," he went on, "of the people running the Indycar show —who don't know what they don't know. What we need is an organisation that will work with people. We thought there would have been big changes since the end of last year — but there haven't been..."

As for the question of right-foot braking — any change there? "Now they say they're thinking about it," said Chip. "They'd better..."

Once in a while F1 folk complain about a decision by Whiting, and that's to be expected. By and large, though, I think they're extremely well served. Stepped noses may be an unfortunate consequence of a new rule, and they may somewhat offend those of us who watch, but — last time I checked — they don't affect a driver's ability to drive as he sees fit.

People never believe me when I tell them that only twice in my life have I attended the Le Mans 24 Hours — and their jaws drop even further when I reveal that the years in question were 1965 and 1967, right after I left school.

It's a fact that back then, in terms of popularity and prestige, World Championship sports car racing was considered at least on par with Formula 1 — indeed time was when Enzo Ferrari's overwhelming priority was winning Le Mans, and John Surtees has told me of his frustration, when first he joined the team, at the pre-season testing priority being very much the sports, rather than the Grand Prix, cars.

Perhaps Ferrari's desire to win Le Mans was never more intense than when it was a matter of beating the hated Fords. A plan by Henry's company to buy out Enzo's had, apparently at the last minute, come to nought (although many believed that the Old Man was never serious about it, that primarily he was seeking to discover the market value of what he had), and afterwards elements in Ford Motor Company publicly made clear their displeasure at being messed about — and their vehement determination to beat Ferrari on the race track.

In this you would have to say they were — ultimately — pretty successful. Four times the factory teams crossed swords at Le Mans, and if Ferrari won the first two, in 1964 and '65, Ford came out ahead in '66 and '67.

Back in the mid-late-sixties I may have been living habitually beyond my means, but even so the budget for attending race meetings abroad was tight, and looking back it strikes me as not insignificant that I chose to go with Page & Moy to Le Mans, rather than to a 'foreign' Grand Prix. I'll curse myself forever that I never saw an F1 race at the old Spa Francorchamps, but who knew it wasn't going to last for ever? Me, if I'd thought about it, I suppose, but I didn't.

In today's world 24-hour sports car races, be they at Le Mans or Daytona, tend to be effectively protracted Grands Prix, in the sense that technological progress has allowed cars to be built that can be hammered around the clock. No worrying about reduced rev limits, about keeping to a prescribed lap time in an effort to make the finish — as Allan McNish declared at Daytona, these days, be you in an Audi or a Grand-Am Riley, it's flat out from beginning to end.

Back in the sixties such a thing was believed to be utterly out of the question, but at Le Mans in 1965 Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory came close to disproving it. In the very early going their North American Racing Team Ferrari 275LM was seriously delayed by condenser and starter motor problems, and the drivers — both renowned chargers, of course — resolved to drive the wheels off the car: that way, either it would break, in which case they could scoot off home early, or it would last, and come Sunday afternoon they would be somewhere in the mix.

From 18th place after four hours, as nearly as possible they drove, as Jochen put it, 'flat out all the way round' to the end, and the LM somehow held together, and they won.

At the finish I was in the stand above the pits, and I can still hear the horribly metallic grinding sounds coming from the Ferrari as Gregory, Rindt and the mechanics made their traditional way down the gulley in front of the main grandstand. The gearbox had been shedding teeth, and Gregory — at the wheel for the last stint — said he doubted the car could have done one more lap.

If I only went to Le Mans twice, I was lucky in the races I chose, for while that was a great weekend for my first time there, the next one was better yet — indeed my lamented friend Jabby Crombac, an aficionado of the Sarthe if ever there was one, always maintained that the 1967 race was the greatest ever run.

I have the programme here, so indulge me for a second, and allow me to list the more prominent entries: factory 7-litre Fords for Gurney/Foyt, McLaren/Donohue, Andretti/Bianchi, Hulme/Ruby, Hawkins/ Bucknum and Gardner/ McCluskey, works Ferrari P4s for Parkes/ Scarfiotti, Amon/ Vaccarella and Klass/ Sutcliffe — deep breath — works Porsches for Siffert/Herrmann, Stommelen/ Neerpasch and Rindt/Mitter, Chaparral 2Fs for P. Hill/Spence and Johnson/ Jennings, Lolas for Surtees/Hobbs and Irwin/de Klerk, Matras for Beltoise/ServozGavin and Jaussaud/Pescarolo... The list goes on — and then you look at the privately entered Ferraris and Fords, driven by such as Rodriguez/Baghetti, Mairesse/Beurlys, Attwood/Courage, Guichet/Muller, Redman/Salmon, Schlesser/Ligier, Piper/ Thomson, Maglioli/Casoni... tot up that little lot, and you can see that virtually anyone with claims to be a serious racing driver was at Le Mans on June 10.

I'd been trying for weeks to make up my mind as to whether my foreign jaunt for the summer of '67 should be to Monaco or Le Mans, but as that entry list began to take shape it seemed apparent that there might never be another like it, and there never has been. I was 21 years old, newly arrived in London, and Sgt Pepper — released days before the race — was floating around in my head as we went off to France. Life was indeed good in 1967.

As a spectacle the race proved so enthralling that I didn't sleep even for an hour. As the Fords and Ferraris blasted through the darkness, I watched from the Esses, then from the stand above the pits as the Chaparral mechanics laboured away on the transmission of Hill's 2F for what seemed like hours. Fruitless, as it turned out. As dawn broke, Le Mans had exacted its usual toll, and many front-runners were gone. In the lead was the Gurney/Foyt Ford, its only rival now the P4 of Parkes and an unwell Scarfiotti, and that was how they finished.

Although it had never seemed quite a fair fight — seven litres against four — the result delighted me, for I had long been a Gurney fan, and Foyt was almost a mythical figure in my imagination. Almost never did he compete outside the United States, and this was his first — and, as it turned out, only — venture to Le Mans. A few days earlier he had won the Indianapolis 500 for the third time.

It wasn't that I deliberately eschewed going to Le Mans in succeeding years, that anything after '67 was bound to be an anticlimax, more that thereafter my rationed trips were to such as Monaco, Monza, the Niirburgring, Zandvoort. And once I started working in Formula 1, it not only claimed my complete attention, but I'm afraid I gradually lost interest in a race which could be won by a Rondeau.

Increasingly most of the stars stayed away, inevitably bound by Fl contracts which precluded anything else, but in more recent years the Audi-Peugeot rivalry has reawakened my enthusiasm for sports car racing, and I would have been tempted to return to Le Mans, were it not for the fact that virtually every year the Vingt-Quatre Heures clashes with the Canadian Grand Prix. This year, ironically, Montreal is the weekend before Le Mans, but — helas — Peugeot have precipitately quit, so that, for the time being, is that.

Although AJ Foyt has all his life freely expressed a deep suspicion of anything 'non-American', there is no doubt that he takes a particular pleasure in that Le Mans victory 45 years ago. He competed in the race once — and he won it, just as Juan Pablo Montoya did in the 2000 Indianapolis 500.

I remember the first time I laid eyes on Foyt. It was August 1964, in the Brands Hatch paddock, and he was in England to race John Mecom's Scarab in the Guards Trophy, in those days a pre-eminent sports car race run on Bank Holiday Monday. The morning was blazing, but he resolutely kept on his leather jacket, and looked like a man who wished he was somewhere else. Hesitantly — very hesitantly — I asked him to sign my programme, and to my great surprise he flashed that famous smile.

In his own world AJ was at that time virtually unbeatable: there were 13 races, some on 'pavement' and some on dirt, in the USAC Championship that year, and 10 of them he won. As well as that, he was victorious in sprint car races and occasional forays into NASCAR, and the previous winter had won the prestigious Nassau Trophy in Mecom's Scarab, beating the Ferrari of Pedro Rodriguez, no less. Like Mario Andretti, Foyt was a man who could race — and win — in anything.

In 1978, it may be remembered, two rounds of the USAC Championship were run in England, at one of which Foyt was reacquainted with Brands Hatch. The weather was autumn at its best, but the weekend before, at Silverstone, it was murky and damp, so that the drivers had very little opportunity for practice. When they did manage to get out, we were startled to see Danny Ongais's turbocharged Parnelli-Cosworth annihilate the existing Fl lap record, hurtling towards Woodcote at a speed never previously seen, but most of the time everyone just sat about, waiting for the rain to stop. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to interview Foyt, and he was geniality itself as we talked for an hour and more. Next day he duly won the race.

Although Foyt's racing CV is extraordinarily wide-ranging, and although he was nominated to drive a BRM at Watkins Glen in 1964, and an Eagle at Spa in '67, the one discipline in which he never participated was Fl, and I wondered if — now 43 — he regretted it.

"You know what," he said, "I've reached a point where I feel I shoulda went Formula 1 racing. I think I'd have enjoyed it, but the problem is that if you're gonna do it properly — and that's the only way to do it — you can't really do anything else. I've got so many businesses and commitments in the States that it's never really been possible for me to think about a full season of Fl — and I wouldn't really want to pick up someone's third car for the odd race..."

Before the demise of CART — of proper Indycars, in other words — I went several times to such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Phoenix in the late '80s and '90s, and Foyt remained a regular through to his 35th consecutive Indy 500 in 1992; and in 1991, at the age of 56, he qualified second.

One moment, from a practice session at Milwaukee, has always stuck in my memory. They were all out there, flashing round the one-mile oval, and then suddenly the yellow lights were on, and past they came at very reduced pace. In front of me Andretti drew alongside Foyt, and gave him a signal of salute. The two men — for so long the absolute superstars of Indycar racing — did not always have the easiest relationship, and after the session I asked Mario to explain his gesture.

"I was right behind Foyt when he got completely crossed up in turn three," he said. "I thought he was gone — and so did the guy operating the yellow light! As it was, AJ somehow caught it — not too much correction, just enough — and I'm telling you that, even now, there aren't six guys in the world who could have got that car back. It was a sublime piece of skill, and I just wanted him to know I appreciated it..."

If I haven't been to Le Mans these many years, I have attended the last four 'Rolex 24' events at Daytona, and the annual trip to Florida in January — it was 86 degrees the day after my arrival this time — has become a highlight of my season. Every year a retired driver is nominated as Honorary Grand Marshal, and this time around, on the occasion of the race's 50th anniversary, it was to be AJ Foyt. Ahead of time I arranged an interview, and was much looking forward to renewing my acquaintanceship with him. You can therefore imagine my sense of disappointment when Dario Franchitti told me on the Friday that Foyt was in hospital, and wouldn't be coming to Daytona after all.

By some quirk of fate, both Gurney and Foyt — the '67 Le Mans winners — had major knee surgery in early January, and I'd heard that AJ, typically, had insisted in checking himself out before his doctors felt he should leave. There were suggestions that, in all probability, he would anyway be in a wheelchair for the Daytona weekend, but a few days before the race an infection set in. Back to hospital he went, and this time the doctors were implacable: he was going nowhere.

On the Friday night before the race, Rolex organises a dinner, and a highly enjoyable event it always is, not least because the evening concludes with the chosen Grand Marshal reminiscing about his career. This year, given that it was to have been Foyt, this was anticipated with particular pleasure, but there was nothing to be done.

"It wasn't until yesterday that AJ decided he couldn't make Daytona," declared host Murray Smith. "He wanted to — but the doctors said no. We decided not to wire him in on a live telephone call here — because there are ladies present..." Happily, an evening that could have been flat was rescued by three other guests — Jackie Stewart, Derek Bell, David Hobbs — who talked not about themselves, but about the missing guest of honour. "For me," said Stewart, "AJ was always the pussycat and the bear. There was one side of him that was generous and kind — and there was another side to him that was aggressive and unpredictable and frightening! When I was working for ABC's Wide World of Sports they would send one of the junior guys down to ask AJ to an interview, and AJ would be upset by one of the questions — and he'd physically throw the kid out of the door! That happened to a young guy called Sean McManus — who's now president of CBS! — and another one he threw out was Bob Iger, who became president of Disney! So AJ was very selective with his temper...

"I remember a non-championship Fl race at the Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971, which also included Formula 5000 cars. There was a USAC race at Phoenix the same weekend, run on the Saturday, and AJ was taking part, so he couldn't do qualifying at Ontario that day. His car owner decided to get 'one of these longhaired Europeans' to qualify the car, and asked Ken Tyrrell if I could do that.

"It was an F5000 McLaren. I said, 'Well, AJ's a different shape from me — it's going to be a bit awkward, but I'm happy to do it'. Great Englishman that Ken was, he thought it would be good for transatlantic relations if I qualified AJ's car, so I did. It wasn't a particularly good car, but I did a reasonable time with it, and afterwards somebody said, 'What did you think of the car? AJ's been complaining about it...' I said, 'Well, I didn't think it was that bad — and if AJ can't do such-and-such a lap time with it, they should pack it in...'

"Can you imagine? He got back — and when AJ Foyt got upset... You know, when we all walk, our left arm goes forward at the same time as our right leg, and vice versa, but when AJ's really upset, he marches along, and his left arm goes with his left leg! It really is the funniest sight, but it's best not to laugh — on the morning of the race he was doing that when I saw him coming towards my pit...

"He was really angry, and when he gets angry he gets quite hot. I'm thinking, 'This is AJ Foyt...' He said, 'I've just been told what you said about me and my car — if you said that, you wait... probably you're going to be the first to lap me, and you're going to be a dead man!' I thought, 'My God, these American drivers...' "Well, I did come up to lap him, and I started sliding further and further down in the cockpit, thinking, 'Well, he might not see the tartan band on the helmet...' And of course when I did pass him, he was a complete gentleman, and there was no problem at all.

That was AJ Foyt: for all his temper he was the fairest man on the race track you could imagine — I never ever saw him do anything remotely questionable, and other drivers have said the same to me.

"I've always liked AJ a lot — he's part bear, part pussycat, as I said, and as a racing driver, he was fantastic. I drove at Indy with him a couple of times, and once or twice got involved with him on the track — and, let me tell you, he was a driver. A really great driver, and America should be very proud of him..."

In 2010, as a sponsor's guest, Dario Franchitti came to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, and as soon as I knew of his plan I suggested that a visit to Mario Acquati's shop was a must. Situated close to the paddock, it is without equal anywhere, and every year I spend more than I should on books, photographs and memorabilia. Where else on earth would I have found a race entry form, filled in and signed by Achille Varzi?

Before Franchitti's visit I contacted Acquati, and suggested he bring to the shop every Jim Clark photograph he could find. "Believe me, you'll be glad you did," I said, and glad he duly was. At his home in Kentucky Franchitti has a room given over to his collection of Clark memorabilia, and this fellow Scot — who died five years before Dario was born — occupies a special place in his affections.

Among the countless photographs he bought that weekend were many of Jimmy at Indy, and he was enraptured particularly by those of the 1965 race, won by the iconic number 82 Lotus.

"But, Dario," said Acquati hesitantly, "you... have won Indy twice..." Quite true, and he probably isn't done with the 500 yet, but as he gazed at a picture of Clark in Victory Lane with Colin Chapman, it was as if Acquati's words took him aback, as if he hadn't really thought of it.

Sitting in Franchitti's motorhome at Daytona, I concluded again that this is a driver unique in my experience. So deeply is he into the sport's history that it's as if he forgets he is a racing driver himself. When I walked in he at once began talking animatedly about a book — Le Mans '59, by Stirling Moss — he had recently found: "It's fantastic — I read it from cover to cover last night..." Then he told me about items of memorabilia he had recently bought from the estate of Rodger Ward, like himself a two-time 500 winner, and wanted to know more about the forthcoming feature films on Hawthorn and Collins, on Lauda and Hunt.

On the coffee table sat a copy of The Brothers Rodriguez, together with long ago issues of Road and Track and the like. I have written before of my sadness in contemporary racing drivers' lack of interest in the past. The World Champion who asked the daughter of another driver (killed in 1978) what her father was doing these days is an extreme case, but by and large their knowledge of motor racing history dates from the day their own careers began.

Having been obsessed with racing from childhood, time was when I assumed that everyone else in the business — particularly the drivers — must be like myself, and it was quite a shock to discover this was not so. Over time I have known a few — Chris Amon and John Watson come immediately to mind — with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport, but they, too, fell in love with it from the cradle on. There are very few like them. At one time I made a point, when interviewing a driver, of asking who his personal hero had been, not least because I felt it would tell me something about his own character. Occasionally there would be an immediate response — I remember the tears welling up in Michele Alboreto's eyes when he spoke of Ronnie Peterson — but more usually it was a matter of, `Mmm, well, I didn't really have one...'

Michael Schumacher's dispassionate response was at least honest — and perhaps spoke for his generation. "When I was young, I didn't take a lot of interest in F1 — I was in karting, and that was all I thought about..."

Lewis Hamilton, in childhood a fervent fan of Ayrton Senna, is perhaps one exception in the contemporary age, but the F1 figures most caught up in the racing past are undoubtedly India's representatives, Narain Karthikeyan and Karun Chandhok.

In 2005, Karthikeyan's first year in F1, with Jordan, I was in a group chatting to him in the paddock at Spa when he suddenly asked if we liked curry. Indeed so, we assured him. "Well, if my wife and I make you a curry tonight, will you tell me all about Jochen Rindt?" We were stunned by the question, but a deal was struck, and a most pleasant evening ensued.

The Daytona weekend was disappointing for Franchitti, his car — shared with Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Jamie McMurray — put out of serious contention when four laps were lost to a gear lever problem during the night. Still, though, there had been a moment to savour, for on Saturday morning there was a track parade of victorious cars from the race's 50-year history, and at the last minute Dario was asked if he would care to drive the Porsche 917, such as won in 1970 and '71, driven by Pedro Rodriguez. Afterwards he was like a kid: "We did a couple of slow laps, and then, for the last one, we were pretty much free to go for it. I was alongside David Donohue, in his father's Lola T70, and we looked across at each other — and then floored it! Wow..."

Would Franchitti have changed if life had taken him in a different direction, and put him into Formula 1, where assuredly he belonged long ago? Possibly, but I doubt it. I think he has been a great loss to F1, but had he spent his career there, would he have enjoyed his life so much? Again possibly, but not necessarily. It's certainly not something on which he dwells.

"In 1995," he said, "I tested a McLaren at Jerez. In '97, when I was starting to do CART with Carl Hogan's team, Norbert Haug and Ron Dennis got together, and told me I was going to be the McLaren test driver. They asked me to go to Woking for a seat fitting. The idea was that I would race the CART car at the weekends, and during the week I would go back to Europe for F1 testing.

"This contract showed up — it was a five- or seven-year deal, 60 or 70 pages, and I've still got it. They were going to pay me quite well, but I was going to be tied up for all that time — and they could get rid of me whenever they liked. They wouldn't let my manager come into the meeting, and in the end I decided... no. Norbert and I fell out for a little while, and Ron and I haven't really spoken since..."

Don't miss our podcasts with Nigel and the team — plus special guests — on www.motorsportmagazine.com