At his peak in the 1980s Keke Rosberg was the swashbucking buccaneer of grand prix racing. Nigel Roebuck looks back with the legendary Finn
Moments from the life of Keke Rosberg. The 1982 World Champion has always been a fine story-teller — and well able to tell a tale against himself. Rosberg’s sense of humour, dry and cynical, is never far from the surface, but there is also a deeply sensitive side to the man which one might not immediately suspect.
Keke has a very quick mind which flicks from this topic to that, but it’s always best simply to let him talk, follow the conversation wherever it leads rather than lose the anecdotes.
By common consent, Rosberg was among the very fastest drivers in the sport’s history, always exciting to watch, always apparently close to the edge. On a sunny afternoon in Monte Carlo, drinking beer on his boat, we began by talking about that day of qualifying at Silverstone in 1985, when he ran the first 160mph lap in Formula One history, and then it was a natural progression to the subject of fear and how a driver copes with it.
Nigel Roebuck: Why did you decide to do that run at Silverstone? After all, you were on pole already…
Keke Rosberg: It had nothing to do with trying to do a 160mph lap or anything like that. I was already fastest by half a second, but I had a set of tyres left so, if nothing else, going even quicker would demoralise everyone else. We were racers, after all, so let’s go for it. I was a horse that never needed to be pushed.
NR: You picked up a slow puncture as well…
KR: Yeah and it made life quite exciting! Really I only remember Woodcote, because I ran wide but didn’t lift. It was spitting with rain too but that helped the engine, so it was give and take.
NR: Everyone would remember you as being among the more fearless of the drivers, yet you say not. When were you consciously afraid?
KR: I’ve never really opened my mind to that subject, actually. But I wasn’t fearless, totally on the contrary, in fact. I was very aware of the risks involved and tried to minimise them. On the other hand I enjoyed pushing to the limit, so it was always a bit of a conflict — brain said this and heart said that.
NR: Well, if you felt fear, no one ever hid it better than you did.
KR: Yes, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I always said that fear is your life-saving angel. If you don’t have it, you’re going to hurt yourself.
NR: Like Gilles Villeneuve?
KR: Well, I didn’t want to say that, but of course when I think about this I always think of Gilles. I raced with him in Formula Atlantic, and I remember at Mosport there was a huge jump at one point, where all four wheels got in the air and we hit each other just at that point!
Gilles probably didn’t have fear, but even if I did I still kept my foot down, and that’s what it’s all about in racing. You should not get carried away to the point that you can’t sleep because you’re so scared but controlled fear is good protection.
I was certainly scared at Adelaide in ’86, but I think that was normal, honestly. You’ve raced for a long, long time and this is your last race. I always said you have 150 reasons why you become a race driver and 150 reasons why you retire. On your last day in a race car, of course some aspects of your career — your life — pop up higher than others.
Rosberg’s last grand prix was among the best of his life. He didn’t win it — a tyre blew in the closing laps — but his McLaren-TAG/Porsche led for most of the way, well clear of the rest. On the morning of that race he had told me how important it was to him to remember the day well.
KR: You want to go out on a high note, maybe to prove to yourself and to others that, even if you’ve decided to retire, your heart’s still in racing. It would have been beautiful to have won in Adelaide and walked away.
NR: On the other hand, you told me at the time that, if necessary, you’d have given that race to Alain (Prost) to help him win the World Championship.
KR: I would have, yes but I’d have led it until five yards before the line! It was the easiest race of my life — 28 seconds lead or something. But the fact is that, when I later went to pick up my gear from McLaren, I was shown my left-front brake disc, and you could see through it! It had maybe half a lap left in it and then I’d have been in a wall somewhere, exactly like Niki (Lauda) the year before. If McLaren ran out of brakes with Lauda, what chance did they have with Rosberg?
I misread the situation with the blown tyre, though. I thought the crankshaft was gone, because it was like a bomb had gone off on the straight. And as I walked back I heard from a spectator, ‘Oh, you had the same problem as Mansell…’ I’d looked under the car, but I never looked at the left-rear tyre which was in pieces! Actually, I didn’t mind too much. I’d been leading and the tyre went. End of story. I just took a deep breath and said, ‘Boy, was I lucky!’ And walked away, the happiest man in the paddock.
Through his early years, Rosberg was known as a driver who worked hard, travelled constantly, competing in a variety of series, proud of the fact that he never paid for a drive in his life. Although his fundamental speed was never in doubt, F1 was a long time coming, and it wasn’t until 1982 that his career truly turned around.
KR: In ’81 I was with Fittipaldi, but the problem was always that we had no money. In the autumn I was in California and got a call from Jeff Hazell, the Williams team manager, who said, ‘We’d like to do a test at Paul Ricard in a couple of days can you be there?’ I said of course I’d swim over the ocean if I had to!
He said it was just a test, but I got on to my lawyer, told him Fittipaldi had failed to meet its payments to me and I wanted to cancel the contract immediately. And when I landed at Heathrow I was handed papers saying it wasn’t valid any more.
I went to the factory for a seat fitting and said to Frank ‘I know it’s only a test, but I want you to know I’m a free agent’. I’m sure he thought, ‘This guy means business’.
Then we went to Ricard and did the test. Frank phoned them and said, ‘Stick him on qualifiers at eight o’clock in the morning, let’s see if he has it or not’. Normally I’m not good in the morning, but at 8.10 I set a new lap record and that’s how l got into the Williams team!
Although Rosberg finished his career at McLaren, he will be forever synonymous with Williams. In that first season with the team, 1982, he won the championship, and he remained there for three more seasons, very much the ‘racer’ type so appreciated by Frank Williams and Patrick Head.
NR: Something I’ve never forgotten is the sight of you, in the Williams FW08, clinging on to the leading bunch of turbos through Eau Rouge at Spa…
KR: Well, that was probably the time when I was at my absolute quickest, but of course no one noticed because I was in a normally-aspirated car. Tell you what, I’ll take the honour of being the first driver to go through Eau Rouge flat but of course it was easier with 500 horsepower than with a turbo. Of course. Eau Rouge now is just a sandpit for kids.
KR: It is! I have a photo, taken from the top of Eau Rouge, where I’m flat through the corner with three wheels in the air. In those days it was so bumpy you could see almost nothing — but of course now you can’t have a bump anywhere, because racing drivers don’t like bumps.
It’s like the area around the swimming pool in Monaco. These days it’s defined by marks on the road — it used to be defined by stone walls! And you’ve also got visibility through the corner, where before you hadn’t. You don’t glance the wall any more going in and then bang into the wall at the exit no, you just take a bit too much kerb.
Life changes, doesn’t it? Who am I to say that life was better then or better now? The safety has increased tremendously, and for that we should be grateful. I’m sure if Stirling Moss had looked at us in the ’80s he would have said. ‘Oh look, these kids with their fireproof overalls and full-face helmets. They’re chicken, aren’t they?’
NR: Having said that, which were your favourite circuits?
KR: Oh, the bad ones of course! That’s the whole contradiction. I thought Brands Hatch was magic — there was nothing better than the old Paddock and it was the same with Eau Rouge at Spa. In fact. doing F2 at the old Nürburgring was probably the biggest thrill l ever had. I was on pole by six seconds and I was totally carried away. All four wheels in the air, maximum speed, four times a lap. I was dead scared, but I-just-loved-it!
NR: You once told me that, in races, you talked to yourself.
KR: Well, not exactly — but I thought aloud. I thought through every corner. In complete sentences. It was the same when I was coming up behind someone. I always approached every driver in a different way — because everyone has a different style of driving.
There were a few guys you could never read, like Andrea (de Cesaris), but with Mario (Andretti) or Carlos (Reutemann) or Jonesy, you knew exactly what was coming. Same with Gilles…
Rosberg and Villeneuve had a lot of history, beginning, of course, with their Formula Atlantic rivalry in Canada in the mid-70s. Over time the pair of them had innumerable battles on the track, and Keke remembers them — and Gilles — with affection and relish.
NR: It was always said of Gilles that he was hard but totally fair. Would you go along with that?
KR: Absolutely. I loved racing with him — he’d never make an incorrect move, never move over on you, but he’d fight for the last inch. That’s what motor racing was about or should be.
NR: And you never chopped each other?
KR: No. We were too busy trying to keep on the road!
NR: Was that the most intense racing you ever did?
KR: Atlantic with Gilles? Oh yes, for sure by a million miles — much more intense than F1 ever was. In Atlantic it was him and me, at each other all day long.
In fact. Gilles was too brave for my world, for the parameters I had set. He was fantastically quick, there was no one in our era as competitive as Gilles. Remember the Arnoux battle at Dijon in ’79? It couldn’t have been done with anyone else but Gilles. You think of them at the end of the race, embracing each other! Today two guys like that would be screaming at each other, and that’s the difference.
Back to Williams. Keke, always feisty, always honest, fitted the team to a tee and always had a good, straightforward relationship with Frank and Patrick. For some reason, Head seemed to produce cars that suited Rosberg’s style, just as they had his predecessor, Alan Jones.
KR: The FW08 was a lovely car in ’82. Front wings off, small rear wing as a flap, all the downforce coming from the underside. Jesus, it was quick! I felt I could do anything with it, and the ’83 car was the same just not as quick, because now we had the ‘flat-bottom’ rule.
I don’t know why it was, but Patrick just built cars that I liked to drive. I always needed a car with a front end — and then the back just followed. That was what really caught me — in a big way — when I went to McLaren.
NR: I think of you and Williams, and a couple of races always particularly come back to me, both of which you won in adverse conditions. Let’s start with Monaco in ’83.
KR: Well, I’d say I was at my best from ’83 to ’85. And yes. I suppose that was a good win because it was so hard to finish the race, given the pain from my hands. The vibration through the steering was so bad it went through my gloves and then through two layers of skin.
NR: Did you go to a doctor about that afterwards?
KR: What would have been the point? He would have said. ‘You’ve got blisters’. No. I remembered the old thing about salt water healing it very fast and I stuck my hands in the sea in Ibiza. But in those days that was normal — everyone had blisters because of the gear shifts, the vibration and all that. It was part of the game.
NR: The early laps of that race were incredible the track was damp and you were on slicks, leading, with everyone else on wets…
KR: Well, I was proud of that race because we were smart. I was the only one — apart from Marc Surer — who did the warm-up lap on slicks. I mean, what was the downside? If it hadn’t worked then, OK, you go on wets. I knew exactly how much grip the slicks had — but the others didn’t, so they had to stay on wets.
NR: The other race I always remember was the Dallas GP in 1984, the unbelievable heat, the track surface coming apart. You were in the most wilful car in the race, the Williams FW09, with ‘lightswitch’ power delivery from the Honda turbo. Was that perhaps your best win?
KR: No. not at all. It was a question of survival — being smart and staying away from the marbles at all costs. You had to go only at the speed the track allowed you to go.
You know, I used to get flak from Frank about smoking. Of course he was a health freak, always running like crazy, but he had to admit that I never showed any physical weakness during a race. And that wasn’t because I was so strong it was because I was able to handle the pain.
NR: You did have incredible stamina…
KR: I did. yes. Once I got over the boiling point, which was painful, l could go on forever. About halfway through the race, when you think you’re finished, that’s when you start running on pure… adrenalin. I suppose.
I remember Dallas, when Elio (de Angelis) and Nigel (Mansell) were sitting under an umbrella with ice packs all over them. And I was having a fag on the pit wall, overalls top down, enjoying the sunshine. Elio was looking at me like I was from the moon! Dallas was the hottest race I can remember, about 45 degrees wasn’t it? Williams were the first to use a cooling hat in F1 like they had in NASCAR, but of course ours didn’t work! It was OK for a bit, but it sort of blew up, making the helmet way too tight, and it hurt like hell! After 10 laps, in 45 degrees, it was cooling nothing — it was just pressing you on the head.
D’you remember the esses after the pits? It was incredibly bumpy and fast there, and in the Williams I had that year you had to hang on for dear life — the tub was twisting and you never knew where it was going to jump next. That was the last pre-carbon car they did.
The only race in which l ever gave up was Austria that year — I came in with a completely intact car and I said to Patrick, ‘I cannot drive it. The Osterreichring was so fast, and in the Boschkurve, when you started loading it, it would just let go. I think I had some car control, but it wasn’t possible to finish a race at that track in that car on that day. And, luckily, Patrick understood. It would have been easy to blame me, but he never did.
NR: If Dallas wasn’t your best race, which one was?
KR: I never thought about it, actually. I think probably it was the ’83 Brazilian GP when I was on pole — with a normally-aspirated car — and I thought that was a good effort. Behind me were all the turbos. We finished second, after I’d been out of the car for a minute, when we had a pit fire. Patrick said. ‘Get back in the f****** car!’ and I thought he’d gone mad. Anyway. I went back out and we were just flying. Physically, it was no problem at all — I could have gone on for three days.
NR: The year before, (Nelson) Piquet had fainted on the podium and you held him up…
KR: Yes — which I was very happy to do!
NR: Because it was saying, ‘Well. I’m all right?’
KR: Exactly! There was no way I’d have fainted, even if I’d wanted to.
NR: Looking back on your time at Williams, when you think of Frank, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
KR: Well, it was really so clear in those days that Frank was in charge of financing the team and Patrick was in charge of running it. He’s still the same Frank today, but of course it’s easier to talk to him — now he can’t run away! I loved the bugger. It was his team and he was the man whose respect you had to get first but at the end of the day it was all car, and car was Patrick.
NR: When Frank said he was having Mansell for ’85. I seem to remember you didn’t take it very well…
KR: No. I didn’t. I said I was leaving! And Frank said. ‘You ain’t going nowhere!’ And I didn’t go nowhere! I thought I could twist his arm, but not a chance. And later I respected him for that.
I didn’t want Mansell as my team-mate because Elio was with him at Lotus and he’d been telling me about this awful atmosphere in the team. I’d had a lovely time with Jacques (Laffite) and I was keen to maintain harmony. But like always, when it comes to drivers Frank makes the decisions.
In fact I was proved completely wrong — I know other drivers had problems with Nigel, but I worked fine with him. I think we pushed each other, in a great way: in ’85 we were the dominant team in the second half of the season. Of course, in hindsight it would have been great to continue with Williams, but I already knew I was going to retire after one more year and I said to Frank. ‘I’m going’. I’d got to know Ron (Dennis) well, and I wanted to see how he and McLaren operated.
After four seasons with Williams, Rosberg found life very different at McLaren, better in some ways, not so in others. He appreciated the way the team was run but never really got along with the MP4/2 — or, for that matter, its designer.
KR: I got off on the wrong foot with (John) Barnard on day one, when I hit a bump in Rio and went off into the bloody catch fencing. That did it! After that he was never interested — he thought I was a rock ape who didn’t belong in his car. I had no communication with JB at all.
That car was very slow in its reactions — it was like a Rolls-Royce, softly sprung and wallowy. It had some speed, but it had no crispness in it and the engine never felt powerful. What was good? Well, I suppose the driveability of the engine and the grip of a softly sprung car. But I never had the feeling. ‘Hey, this is great’ whereas, with Williams, you knew this thing was going to go.
I remember saying to Alain. ‘Does it understeer?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Would you go quicker if it understeered less?’ ‘Yes.’ he said. So I said. ‘Well, why don’t we do something about it?’ But nobody would do anything about it.
Alain drove differently. I always braked in a straight line and then turned in, but Alain had this ability to drive deep into the corner with the car down on its knees, and because of that he had less understeer — I was already on the throttle with the nose going up! It was phenomenal, the way he took the performance out of that car.
I was never blown off by a team-mate like I was by Alain, but it was great working with him — I really like the guy. And, don’t forget, Ron was the same age as us. Now these guys are approaching 60 and they’ve got young kids driving for them. We were all of one generation: the team owner didn’t have to see in the paper that his driver had been in a disco — because he’d been there himself!
NR: You’d made up your mind to retire at the end of 1986. Did you waver at all?
KR : I didn’t. Don’t forget that we lost Elio in June and that finally made up my mind we were very close friends.
I remember the night before his funeral. I sat up, debating not if I should go, because I knew I should, but whether I could go or not — and in the end I decided. ‘No. I cannot. If I go there I cannot continue racing’. I didn’t go to that funeral and I haven’t been to another one except my dad’s. I won’t go. Family, yes. Otherwise, no. I had my suit and everything ready, and at five in the morning I decided I wasn’t going. Even today it’s something I don’t like to think about.
The two worst things I remember in racing were the accidents to Gilles and Elio. I remember leaving Zolder on the Monday morning and I had to pass the track. There was nothing but a ton of rubbish and Gilles’s helicopter. That was when it really hit me hard.
After Elio’s accident I drove back from Marseille with Nigel, and I’ll never forget that either. Not much was being said, you know. Nigel spoke one sentence during the whole trip: ‘How long is a piece of string?’
And that’s the single sentence l’ve heard in my life that I remember better than anything else.
A particularly fascinating aspect of Rosberg’s career was its variety, and some of his most memorable stories come from the days before he was a full-time grand prix driver. In Can-Am, for example, he drove for Paul Newman, and remembers the time with great affection.
KR: I loved the guy — in fact I think he’s the best single person I met in my career. There’s an aura around him — and it has nothing to do with the fact that he’s an actor or whatever. He’s so uncomplicated, so warm.
NR: And did you like the cars?
KR: Oh. they were shitboxes — but they were quick! And they sounded great. They were men’s cars. We went to some great circuits: Elkhart Lake, Riverside, Watkins Glen and so on — that were incredibly dangerous but wonderful to drive on. And the cars themselves were lethal, with that great V8 lump in the back and just a little tub at the front.
I had a huge shunt at Laguna Seca at the first corner — which in those days was flat. I blew the offside front tyre and went into an earth bank at what felt like the speed of sound. That happened in qualifying on the Saturday and I raced on the Sunday! I can’t even remember if I went to the hospital or not. I had a lovely hotel room in Carmel, complete with fireplace. I was dating an American stewardess at the time and she looked after me, and I didn’t feel too bad at all… On Sunday, though, I was so out of it that, after the warm-up, I went back to the hotel and slept until the race. I should never have raced — I had concussion! But the medical checks in those days were sort of: ‘Are you OK’? ‘Yes, I’m OK’. ‘ All right then….
I couldn’t hold the steering wheel because I was so badly bruised, so we put double-sided tape on it and I just stuck my gloves on it! Of course it got away from me — I spun in the Corkscrew, but I still finished fourth. When the tail came out I just didn’t have the strength to correct it.
I don’t think I broke anything, but then for two weeks I lay in bed, unable to move, in a house in LA belonging to Michael Brockman, a good friend of Paul’s. Michael would come home every lunchtime from the movie studio to feed me. I felt completely destroyed.
Then one day it was beautifully sunny and I thought I’d go out on roller skates which I found in the cupboard! I’d never been on roller skates in my life, but I stuck them on my feet and they seemed OK. Thing was, Michael’s house was on a hill which led down to the beach. I got out of the door and this sidewalk was going down and I suddenly thought, ‘Hey, I don’t know how to stop these things!’ I’d been ice-skating all my life, and those you can put sideways to stop. These rollerblade things today have brakes but roller skates didn’t…
Anyway, I went flat-out straight across a four-lane highway — on a red light– somehow got missed by all the traffic, and then fell over on the other side. I had a cigarette lighter in the back pocket of my jeans and I sat on it, from a height of about two metres. Had a black mark on my bum for weeks after that. So that was my first day of fresh air. For many years after that accident I had to warm up my feet in the morning because I’d crushed the heels so badly. Different days…
NR: Last thing. Being Finnish, why did you always want to race rather than rally?
KR: I never even thought of being a rally driver. My dad had a kart and I started driving that, and then Formula Vee came along, offering a cheap way of getting into racing. I was just a little computer trainee at the time.
NR: I remember in your house in Cookham Dean you had your business card, framed, on the wall…
KR: Yes. ‘Keijo Rosberg. Systems Analyst’. I still have my last business card and my wife’s on the wall, framed, to remind us of the last day when we did honest work!
Keke Rosberg — From Formula Vee to DTM
1965-71 Karting: won Finnish and Scandinavian titles.
1972 Formula Vee in Veemax: third in Finnish championship, fourth in Scandinavian.
1973 Formula Vee in Hansen MkIVB: won European, Finnish and Scandinavian titles.
1974 FSuper Vee in Kaimann: third Gold Cup, second in Castrol series (both Euro-based).
1975 FSuper Vee in Kaimann: won Castrol GTX and German titles, fourth in Gold Cup.
1976 Formula Two in Toj-BMW, 10th in Euro championship.
1977 F2 in Fred Opert Racing Chevron-Hart: sixth in Euro championship. FAtlantic/Pacific in Opert Chevron: winner of New Zealand title, fourth in North American championship.
1978 F1 in Theodore ATS and Theodore Wolf: winner of International Trophy. F2 in Opert Chevron-Hart: fifth in championship. FAtlantic/Pacific in Opert Chevron: winner of NZ title, second in North American
1979 F1 in Wolf. Can-Am in Newman-Freeman Racing Spyder: fourth in championship. Some F2 in ICI March-BMW.
1980 F1 in Fittipaldi: 10th in championship. Some Can-Am in Newman Lola.
1981 F1 in Fittipaldi.
1982 F1 in Williams: World Champion, one win. Various touring car/saloon races.
1983 F1 in Williams: fifth in championship, one win. Some sportscars in Porsche/Lancia.
1984 F1 in Williams: eighth in championship, one win. Some FPacific (second in Australian GP).
1985 F1 in Williams: third in championship, two wins.
1986 F1 in McLaren: sixth in championship.
1987/88 In retirement.
1989 Races Ferrari Mondial in Spa 24 Hours
1990 Two World Sportscar rounds in Peugeot.
1991 World Sportscar Championship in Peugeot, two wins.
1992 DTM in AMG Mercedes: fifth in championship.
1993 One DTM round in Joest Opel.
1994 DTM in Joest Opel: 14th in championship.
1995 DTM in Rosberg Opel: 23rd in championship.
Rosberg has rallied on occasion from the 1970s to date. He also did some ice racing in the early days!