The Other Champions League

Nigel Roebuck compares notes with Martin Brundle and assesses the depth of talent on show in the modern era

As the 2007 season got underway, in Melbourne, only one World Champion – Fernando Alonso – was on the grid, but now, five years on, the picture is startlingly different. This season, for the first time in history, no fewer than six World Champions will compete in Australia and beyond. Before it all got underway – indeed before the February tests began – I asked Martin Brundle for his thoughts on their prospects for 2012.

Nigel Roebuck: A quarter of this year’s grid will be World Champions. Pretty remarkable, when you think about it…

Martin Brundle: Yes – and it tells me two things: one, how safe Formula 1 has become, because they’re all alive and kicking, unlike previous decades; two, the cars are too bloody easy to drive – because the whole industry is so data-driven you can leave and then jump back in them without much problem. They’re more binary to set up, and to drive, than they used to be. As long as you’re fit enough, you can just get back in.

I wouldn’t underplay it, because great champions are great champions for a reason, but… I drove the Pirelli car last year for a TV feature on tyres, and… they stick like glue, like they’re on rails. You can barely lock a wheel, unless you’re being an idiot, and you can’t miss a gear; there’s power steering… they’re just dream machines. You spend every day trying to perfect a racing car, and whereas on a scale of 1-10 in the 1980s we might have got to two, now it’s 10.

Back then for most of the race your main role was getting it to the end and trying to stop it from crashing, whereas now it’s ‘brake three metres early, and you’ve blown the lap’. That brings in a different set of skills altogether – it’s the tiny detail that matters. Half a second here or there didn’t matter over a Grand Prix distance in the past, did it? Half the cars would drop out, anyway – now it’s highly unusual. For the first time in Formula 1 history six World Champions will line up on the grid.

Kimi Räikkönen

NR: People are saying it’s all a matter of motivation – if the Lotus is on the pace, so will Kimi be. Certainly there was evidence, first time round, that his motivation was up and down…

MB: Well, that’s certainly true. It’s difficult to know what to say about him. Petter Solberg told me that the Kimi they saw when he arrived in rallying was completely different from the one they knew two years later – much more approachable, much less smart-ass…

NR: Wonder if that’ll stay the same once he’s back in an F1 environment…

MB: Well, it’ll be interesting to see, won’t it? The great story for me is, ‘Will Kimi do a better job than Michael in his comeback?’ He should, because he’s much younger, he’s been away for less time – and he’s been competing while he’s been away. Will all the frustrations that made him leave in the first place still be there, or not? Let’s be honest, he did lack motivation, didn’t he?

NR: Yes, and you think, ‘Well, if he was like that when he was driving for Ferrari…’

MB: I know. There’s a hundred kids who’d give their right… to be driving for Ferrari. I suspect that, having dug a few Citroëns out of the snow, and hit a few trees, he’ll approach the things that used to piss him off with a slightly different attitude.

NR: At Ferrari they all liked him – but he hardly ever went to Maranello, and they felt he never really tried to integrate…

MB: Yes, but we have to take into account the approach of a Scandinavian – that’s how they are, isn’t it? Should he have put more effort in? Of course he should, but you take the whole package, don’t you? Kimi’s comeback depends completely on the car. If you give him a race-winning car, he can win the race – but then I think you can also say that of Michael Schumacher. My concern is whether or not Lotus have the wherewithal to give Kimi a car that will enable him to sniff a victory – to keep his interest, in other words.

NR: I wonder how much PR work Lotus will ask him to do? If they’re smart, they’ll keep it to a minimum, because he hates all that – it drove him nuts in the McLaren years…

MB: Yes, he never liked PR or media work or even, to some extent, testing. He’ll certainly be happier now there’s no testing – there are 20 races now, but they’re actually doing a lot less driving now than they were. They’re not pounding round Barcelona, doing three Grand Prix distances in a day… If Kimi’s that lazy again, it won’t work. He’s got to drive that team forward, and make them believe in themselves.

Michael Schumacher

NR: Two seasons since Michael’s comeback started – and still no podiums. That said, he had a better season last year…

MB: Yes, Michael had some very good races in 2011, but so far the return’s been a failure – I don’t think you can see it any other way, can you? As well as that, he’s pissed a few people off – running Rubens in the wall in Hungary in 2010, and so on. I thought his driving against Hamilton at Monza was very marginal – leopards don’t change their spots. Lewis had the patience of a saint there…

NR: If anything, I thought he was over-cautious that day – he was determined to finish, not to get into another coming-together, and he was well aware who he was fighting with! That was the first time they’d had a set-to…

MB: Yes, now you mention it, I suppose it was. Certainly Michael was pushing the boundaries, but that’s the way he is. I remember thinking that the only thing that could dent his return was if he compounded his reputation for not being sporting. He had a chance to right the wrongs of the past, by not doing the same things over again – and he hasn’t chosen to take it. The thing is, though, if Michael said today, ‘I’m stopping’, who’s on the market who would be guaranteed to be better?

NR: I reckon Adrian Sutil might do a better job overall…

MB: Do you really? As a package, as a tool for Mercedes-Benz? Actually, I agree with you – if Michael actually retired. But would you proactively replace him with Sutil? I might have done that with Hulkenberg or di Resta…

NR: Yes, either of them, I agree. Mind you, it wouldn’t have been an easy move for Mercedes to make…

MB: No! I can’t blame Michael for doing it – they’re paying him good money, and he’s enjoying it. I’ll admit the whole ‘age’ thing bothers me a bit, because F1 is all about tomorrow, not yesterday – but if he got offered a drive, you can’t blame him for taking it…

NR: Nico out-qualified him 16-3 last year…

MB: Yes, it’s nearly over, isn’t it? Some of that inherent speed has gone, and there were times when Michael looked decidedly clumsy in traffic, didn’t he? His racecraft has gone. A lot of fans have said to me, ‘Doesn’t this prove that before he had a lot of unfair advantages?’, and he obviously doesn’t have… all the tools available that he had then, let’s put it that way. He doesn’t have the whole team – including a tyre manufacturer – focused on him, and his driving style.

Overall, though, I’m pleased Michael’s staying this year – I think he’s still a worthy man to be on the grid in an F1 car, but if it doesn’t work out this time, I hope he stops. His stock in trade is obviously way lower than when he left. Would you agree with that?

NR: No question. Frankly, what strikes me is that a young guy like Hulkenberg should have been on the grid last year – and he wasn’t…

MB: That’s the way it is these days. There are 24 seats available, and a quarter of them need a big bag of change – five million quid minimum – even to knock on the door…

Lewis Hamilton

MB: Well, first of all, I think his skill and speed are undiminished. Lewis has learned a lot through working with Jenson, and he’s probably a more complete racing driver now than he ever has been. Having said that, I find him unapproachable, confusing – and unreadable, in terms of where he’s at.

Lewis is very extreme – one minute he’s over in one corner, and the next he’s in the other, over-compensating with the things he says and does, and it feels false…

NR: What struck me as very short-sighted last year was that, at a time he was making a lot of mistakes himself, he chose sometimes to slag off McLaren…

MB: I know. That very unsubtle dropping in on Red Bull in Montréal – what the hell was that about? Emotionally Lewis was all over the place, and you could see that on the race track. If he could produce his best – his best – performance every day through the season, I don’t think Jenson could hang on to him, but so far he can’t…

NR: As for Lewis’s emotional problems, you could sympathise with him, but I thought some of his behaviour a bit… theatrical – like taking pole position in Korea, getting out of the car, not taking his helmet off, then refusing to smile…

MB: He was sending a message to his girlfriend, wasn’t he?

NR: Presumably so, but it was also a message to the world, wasn’t it? I’m troubled, I’m not smiling – why am I not smiling?

MB: I love the intuition of women – in my experience, they’re way smarter than we are, aren’t they? I was at a dinner recently, and a woman who will remain nameless said – across the table, not to me specifically – ‘Lewis is a child’. I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re right…’ Still, we don’t know the details, and I don’t like people making summary judgements on my life when they know nothing about me. All we know is that he’s under-delivering on his potential, and I don’t know him well enough to understand why.

He has no reference points in his life, has he? I wrote in the BRDC magazine that I was one of 50 people in the paddock who would love to say, ‘Can I tell you a few things that might help you a little bit?’ That probably sounds arrogant, and I’m sure that’s what Lewis – if he reads it – will think, but it’s a heartfelt thing, believe me. You think to yourself, ‘The kid’s got more talent in his little finger than I ever had – I wish I could help him deliver that…’ You learn things the hard way, and he’s one of the new generation of drivers who have never known anything else in his life but motor racing. Put him in front of someone like Mario Andretti for an afternoon…

NR: I thought some of the things Lewis did last year were extraordinary – as if he just switched off for a few seconds…

MB: Yes – it doesn’t matter whose fault it is, if you lose your front wing, your race is screwed… On his day, Lewis is unbeatable, and yet I suspect McLaren are wondering whether or not they want to keep him, because he brings so much baggage with him. If Alonso doesn’t have in his contract that Hamilton must never come to Ferrari, I’ll be disappointed in him!

Jenson Button

NR: In 2011 I thought Jenson and McLaren looked a perfect fit…

MB: Well, you had to be impressed, didn’t you? I mean, he was dead lucky in Montréal – first he survived being clipped by Lewis, then he spun Fernando off, and got away without a penalty – but, having said that, what a drive!

Jenson’s driving so well – and he’s handling it all so well. He’s one of those guys who’ll see you in the paddock, and he’ll change direction to come and chat. Now does that matter? Well, all I can say is that it matters to me – so many of them will pretend they haven’t seen you…

NR: Or actually change direction to walk the other way…

MB: Yes! Jenson’s so comfortable with what he’s doing. Think of the times we’ve been having lunch at McLaren, and the drivers come in – one friendly and saying, ‘Are you going to come and see me on the grid today?’, and the other wearing dark glasses, head down, straight into the motorhome. Now that doesn’t matter, but I’m afraid – as a human being – you can’t help but react to that warmth. More than that, I just enjoy watching Jenson at the wheel – the economy and the precision with which he drives an F1 car is breathtaking.

NR: It reminds you of Prost, doesn’t it?

MB: It does – I think that more and more. I watch him, and I think, ‘God, I wish I could do that!’ It’s such a pleasure to watch him caress an F1 car into a corner – he never turn in more than once. I raced against Alain all those years, and I never saw him on a qualifying lap – I mean, I obviously did, but I never realised it! He was blisteringly quick, but he always looked as though he was on an ‘in’ lap…

NR: It’s just a different sort of art, isn’t it? If you had Lewis come past you on a qualifying lap, and then Jenson, it wouldn’t be greatly dissimilar from Senna and Prost…

MB: No, it wouldn’t. There’s no right and wrong – it’s just the way different people do it. If Alain had been racing now, he’d have been in his element with the Pirellis, and in the same way there’s been a dividend for Jenson. I’ve got much more respect for him than I had when he won the World Championship – and I had a lot then.

Fernando Alonso

NR: Last season I thought, ‘If ever I’ve seen a driver flatter his car…’

MB: He did, didn’t he? He picked up the car, and carried it. I thought Fernando did a brilliant job last year. P5 on the grid was basically his slot – his Ferrari was the fifth fastest car in the pack – and 10 times he finished in the top three. He made consistently fantastic starts, and just fundamentally raced the wheels off it, didn’t he? He won a race, and threatened to win others. I thought Fernando was absolutely exceptional in 2011.

NR: And he never once criticised Ferrari...

MB: No, that’s true – mind you, I’m sure he will if they don’t give him a good car again! How much longer can that last – they’ve got to give him a car that’s worthy of him.

NR: I’ve always thought you learn most about a driver when he’s up against it, in a second-rate car...

MB: Yes, absolutely. If you’re driving a race-winning car, you should win races; and if you can still win races when you haven’t got the fastest car, like Senna and Prost and Schumacher and Häkkinen all did, that is the true sign of greatness, isn’t it? And Alonso’s got that, there’s no doubt about it. The guy is a great racing driver.

Sebastian Vettel

NR: Adrian Newey being the genius he is, it’ll probably never happen, but I look forward one day to seeing Vettel in Alonso’s situation, making the most of a middling car. He’d drive the wheels off it – but would he also lose his cool?

MB: A year ago I’d have said yes, but not now. Let’s remember that he won at Monza – in the rain – in a Toro Rosso. All right, that was the year when Toro Rosso had all those hand-me-downs from Red Bull – and with the Ferrari engine, rather than the Renault, they actually had a better car during the second half of the season, but still I thought what Vettel did that day was extraordinary.

You have to look at Webber’s performances last year to understand just how strong Sebastian has become – I mean, he scored more points than Ferrari! He’s one of the few drivers I’ve ever seen who can find a third of a second in himself in qualifying. What’s a third of a second? A blink of an eye – but it’s so hard to find, without locking a wheel, running wide, screwing the lap up. That’s a gift, and you’ve got it or you haven’t. Vettel has it, which puts him on the front row – then he perfects the start, and he’s got the race under control. It’s such a key part of the weekend.

NR: Sebastian seemed completely at ease with himself last year, didn’t he? Mind you, he was fortunate that at Abu Dhabi in 2010 Ferrari screwed up on strategy with Alonso, and he came away with a World Championship few had expected – there he was, 23 years old, and with the monkey already off his back…

MB: Yes, that’s right. He’d made mistakes that year – collected Mark in Istanbul, collected Jenson at Spa, and so on. Finishing the year as champion, though, took all the pressure away, and now he hasn’t got any, has he? He moved up a gear psychologically last year – and he still hasn’t seen a birthday cake with 25 candles on it!

NR: One’s heard stories of how Sebastian can behave when things go wrong…

MB: Yes, I’ve heard them, too – but it’s all behind closed doors, which is as it should be. Think how Senna and Prost and Mansell were when they weren’t happy! The thing about Vettel is that he’s got the intellect to go with the speed, and somehow – God knows how – he’s fit enough. He looks as though he’s made of spit and sawdust, doesn’t he? There’s nothing to him...

NR: Well, yes – but look at Niki. He never looked strong enough to drive an F1 car, but there was never anything wrong with his stamina.

MB: Yes, quite true. I’ve noticed Sebastian’s always one of the first to rest his head – but, again, I think that’s just smart. He’s thinking, ‘Right, I’ve got to get through this weekend, and prevention’s better than cure, so let’s rest the head when we can…’

NR: It doesn’t hurt, either, that Vettel is a favourite of Bernie’s. There haven’t been many drivers Bernie has been close to – Stuart Lewis- Evans, Jochen Rindt, Carlos Pace, Riccardo Patrese, and now Sebastian...

MB: Yeah – they have holidays together, do birthday presents, and everything. You see, Sebastian’s smart to do that. We’re all quite smart, aren’t we? But are we close to Bernie? The kid’s got the whole team focused on him – because he delivers – and he’s got no weaknesses in his armoury any more.

NR: So how do you think he would be in other than the best car?

MB: Well, we don’t know, do we? Would he get impetuous again? Maybe – but I’d never bet against him. If all the bright young things want a target to aim at, it’s him. As well as that, of all the drivers I talk to on the grid, he’s the most relaxed. I know the single digit jabbed at the camera gets some fans angry, and I thought the move he put on Jenson at the start in Japan was unacceptable, but generally I think Sebastian is the template for a Grand Prix driver of today…

Nigel Roebuck