Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Mosley wins, but F1 could be the loser
– Brundle’s assessment of the season so far
– Kubica sparks memories of old-style Monaco

The effects of ‘Whippergate’ smoulder on, and threaten at any moment to erupt into forest fire. Over the Montréal weekend there were serious concerns about the state of the track, which in several places broke up alarmingly during qualifying, but not too much time was given over to it in paddock conversation: wherever you went, the talk was all of Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone – and the immediate future of Formula 1.

We may have been incredulous, on June 3, that Mosley survived the FIA vote – incredulous that it could have been allowed to happen – but we were not surprised. As the federations and clubs of countries such as the USA and Germany publicly condemned the FIA president, and urged him to resign, Mosley had continued to assert that he was receiving many more messages of support than criticism, and while that could have been just another tale, there was good reason to believe he would survive the vote, and probably by a handsome margin.

A total of 222 countries belong to the FIA, and the voting system, as employed on occasions such as this, appears straightforward: one country, one vote. No kind of proportional representation is involved: a country whose federation has only a few hundred members has every bit as much clout as the AAA, which has several million. Might seem a touch illogical, but that’s the way it is.

In his most patiently avuncular manner, Mosley would explain that this system was entirely desirable – indeed vital, if the interests of the smaller countries were not to be submerged. Very fair-minded, you might say. Also extremely clever. Africa, for example, had a total of 36 votes in the FIA General Assembly meeting to decide Mosley’s future; the USA had one.

To put it another way: clubs representing 86 per cent of FIA membership wished him to resign – but that 86 per cent had only 13 per cent of the votes. A novel concept of democracy, you’d have to say.

After the vote, one of Mosley’s henchmen was keen to put across the message that, ‘Now we’ve got a strong FIA president again’, but in the opinion of most the reality of the situation was somewhat different. In Monte Carlo, a week before the vote, a senior F1 figure put it this way: “I hope Mosley loses the vote, but I don’t think he will. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever happens, ultimately he’s dead in the water, isn’t he? How can you have an FIA president who’s persona non grata?”

And that really is the whole point at issue here. Mosley has said ad nauseam that his personal life in no way impinges on his ability to do his job, and while in a workaday sense that may be true, for he is nothing if not an able administrator, what the events of the last few weeks have done is rob him of the ability to be looked upon as the president of the FIA.

It is the height of absurdity to suggest that one in his position is other than terminally compromised if, for example, he is precluded from attending major motor sport events, because members of royalty or politicians or whomever will not countenance the possibility of meeting him, or even appearing in the same photograph. For that matter, how can he do the job, in any meaningful sense, if the CEOs of major business corporations – not least the major motor manufacturers – are unwilling to have anything to do with him?

I spoke to many folk in the Montréal paddock, and was struck anew by the remarkable amount of ill-will that exists towards Mosley. Few, if any, were surprised that he had survived the FIA delegates’ vote, and there weren’t too many, either, who were overly concerned about his eccentric sexual proclivities per se – so long, that is, as it could be proved beyond doubt that no Nazi element were involved. No, within the sport the distaste for Mosley stems primarily from events past, from perceived injustices over the years, from the manner in which he has operated.

“I think Mosley, by his refusal to step down, is doing massive damage to the sport,” said Martin Brundle. “All right, to some extent F1 has always thrived on intrigue and skulduggery, but I think this goes much deeper than that. Personally I couldn’t really care less what turns him on – that’s up to him, and I’d probably prefer not to know about it.

“I think the real story here is that so many people were ready to seize on this situation, because of other experiences with Max in the past. And there’s this ‘climate of fear’ thing: I think the level of intimidation against team owners and journalists is staggering – what we’re talking about here is fear of stepping out of line, for fear of retribution, right?

“I was at Suzuka in ’91, as a driver, when he had just taken over as president of the FIA, and I was cheered by it. Balestre had been ridiculous, blasting away at us at drivers’ meetings on Sunday mornings, but Max said, ‘You’re going to see very little of me’, and immediately there was a great cheer from the majority of the drivers.

“However, in 1994 I became chairman of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, and then I saw some of the tactics, some of the techniques he employed – letters that were published before they actually arrived to you, information leaked to the press, that kind of thing.

“Then I moved into ITV, and on at least one occasion Mosley tried to have me removed from the commentary team because I hadn’t been ‘on message’, as they say. One of his spin doctors wrote to ITV, saying that, ‘Your commentator (currently Martin Brundle) is not up to an acceptable standard’, but the ITV people said, ‘Brundle’s our man, and that’s it’. I must say I really didn’t appreciate the fact that someone was trying to have me booted out of my job.

“Then, in ’96, I joined the board of the BRDC, and ended up as chairman. And one thing absolutely enraged me: we were trying to get a master plan together to improve Silverstone, and I invited Max along, and showed him the site and the plans, and he was incredibly charming, which we all know he can be. He said he’d enjoyed it, and thanked me.

“Three days later I walked into the press room at Indianapolis – and he was laying into Silverstone like you couldn’t believe! Now, if he had said to me on the day, ‘I think you’re wasting your time’, I could have accepted that as his point of view. But all this ‘wonderful’ stuff – and then the dagger… I can’t cope with that. On the other hand, I can cope with Bernie, because, while he may give you a hard time occasionally, you know where you are with him.

“I will not have people trying to intimidate me. I’ve spent all my life fighting against quality people like Häkkinen and Senna and Schumacher, and so on – top drawer, competitive, high-achieving people – so the last thing I’m going to do is allow myself to be intimidated by people for whom I have little respect.

“I thought Max was just extraordinary at Spa last year, the way he lost his rag when he was being interviewed, and said McLaren had polluted the championship. I’m afraid that if you want to play that game, you’ve got to be whiter than white. What goes around comes around, doesn’t it?”

It does indeed, and there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of people in Formula 1 wish to see Mosley gone. At the moment the teams are debating with Ecclestone the details of a new Concorde Agreement, but their ideas for it are at odds with Mosley’s, and in two important respects: for one thing, they wish to be directly involved in the decision-making when it comes to technical regulations; for another, they want what Mosley calls ‘the Don King clause’ – which precludes the selling on of the sport’s commercial rights without the FIA’s agreement – to be dropped. Both these requirements, an FIA spokesman in Montréal avowed, are not to be countenanced by the governing body.

These things being so, rumours began to emerge of the possibility of a ‘breakaway’ championship, such as Bernie and Max – together – envisaged in 1980/81, at the time of the ‘FISA/FOCA War’. It was all an elaborate scam, of course, but it won them the concessions they sought from Jean-Marie Balestre, then the big man in Paris, and thereafter they never looked back.

Was a breakaway championship a serious possibility now?

I somewhat doubt it, I must say. Ecclestone grinned when I asked the question: “I’ve no idea”. Surely, I persisted, you would prefer the championship to stay within the FIA?

“I don’t know,” he said, apparently more serious now. “It depends on the conditions. We’ve got a big problem in F1 at the moment, no doubt about it, and whether or not it can be solved is another story – I mean, it can be solved, but in which way I don’t know at the moment.”

Well, can it be solved while Max is still in office? “I don’t know that, either. I hope so…”

*****

Some people are just good with words, aren’t they? With his laconic turn of phrase and enviable timing, Mario Andretti, for example, I always felt could have made a very acceptable living as a stand-up, had not his primary attention been given over to winning things, like the World Championship, the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, and so on.

I remember, in the late 1970s, an occasion on which Jody Scheckter complained about the amount of space given over to Mario in the racing press. “I don’t read that stuff myself,” Scheckter said. No, no, of course not. “But my wife was saying, everything is ‘Andretti this’ and ‘Andretti that’. What’s it all about?”

What it was all about was that Mario, naturally a gregarious man anyway, was smart enough to realise writers, too, had a job to do, and that if he put a little effort and thought into his responses, chances were he would get plenty of ink, which in turn would hardly displease his team and sponsors. You don’t need Einstein to lead you to that conclusion.

Andretti also had a gift for coming up with unexpected phrases, which in themselves often meant nothing, in the literal sense, but which yet conveyed absolutely what he was trying to get across. After he had taken pole position by an unlikely amount of time at the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix, I asked him how his Lotus 78 was behaving. “Man,” he said, “like it’s painted to the road…”

Martin Brundle is another with that knack. One day we were talking about those people in F1 who are already rich beyond imagining, yet still seem unable to step off the treadmill of ever-burgeoning wealth. “There are people in this paddock,” said Martin, “who are ill with their money…”

Mercifully untouched by political correctness, Brundle is very much a traditionalist when it comes to the sport he so much loves: “The guys in F1 today now whinge about a kerb that’s two centimetres too high! I mean, it’s a bit ‘Jessie’, isn’t it…?”

It’s always a pleasure to be in Martin’s company, for he is of a species endangered in this day and age, one who always says what he thinks.

“I’m a straightforward bloke. I realise I’m not always ‘on message’, as they say, but I am absolutely passionate about Formula 1, and I think we should all be in it together.”

This passion was there in spades during his years as a Grand Prix driver, and it abides, too, in his life today as a journalist and broadcaster. There have been retired drivers of my acquaintance who have taken a somewhat cavalier approach to commentary work over time, some of them clearly regarding it as something almost beneath them, but Brundle has never been that way. When the ITV offer came up, more than 11 years ago, he thought long and hard before making a decision, some of his colleagues, like Gerhard Berger, advising him not to move into the TV world. As it was, Martin opted to accept the ITV proposition, and his enthusiasm and commitment have never wavered.

Over time, too, he began to involve himself with the printed word, and his columns in The Sunday Times quickly became required reading, for – as in his commentaries – there was no shirking ‘difficult’ topics: he is a man of strong opinions, and not about to be gagged. It was just such a piece, written last September (over the Monza weekend), that brought him grief from Max Mosley and the FIA, who lost little time in launching legal proceedings – since dropped – against both newspaper and writer.

“As far as I’m concerned,” Brundle said, “I go into the media centre – or the commentary box – to do my job, not to be manipulated or intimidated. I was warned about my Sunday Times columns last year. If Mosley is doing such a good job, why does he need to surround himself with spin doctors and henchmen – political people? Why doesn’t he surround himself with true motor racing people?”

Ah well, now, there’s a question. But let’s get away from contentious territory, and look at the season thus far – by which I mean the racing season, a topic somewhat overlooked of late, given the events of the recent past.

“Well, first of all,” said Brundle, “McLaren have done better than I thought they would – I thought all the events of the last year would have taken longer to wash through than they have, although I think it’s still cost them plenty.

“Hamilton lost a bit of focus early in the season – I know he dominated the first race, in Melbourne, but if you analyse it Ferrari made it very easy for Lewis that day. He had an awful race in Bahrain – did absolutely everything wrong – but that was inevitable sooner or later. But then he recovered well, and really began to come on strong again. His drives in Istanbul and Barcelona were excellent, and at Monaco he was brilliant. Pity about Montréal – he’d have walked that race if it hadn’t been for that silly incident in the pitlane.

“Ferrari have obviously improved their car where it mattered – over kerbs, and out of slow corners. Those were their only real weaknesses before, and now they’ve got a hugely strong package.

“As for the drivers, sometimes I think I’m the only Massa fan in the world! I know he’s not the most consistent guy, but on a number of occasions he has absolutely dominated both Kimi Räikkönen and Michael Schumacher, in the same car, on the same day. And you don’t do that – when they’ve also probably got more inertia and support in the team than you have – unless you’re bloody good. It’s a fact that Felipe excels at some circuits – Istanbul, Bahrain, Interlagos – and he’s less certain at others. And you also suspect that, in a head-to-head at Magny-Cours or Silverstone or wherever, when it’s a matter of going another couple of laps on the fuel, getting the quick laps in when you need to, Kimi will do it more often than Felipe. But I still wouldn’t write him off, in terms of the championship. At all.”

We have for years tended to think of the scrap for the World Championship as purely a two-hander between Ferrari and McLaren, but during 2007 there was evidence of a sizeable step by BMW, and this year that momentum has been maintained, to the point that Robert Kubica has emerged as a serious factor more often than not. The win in Canada was perhaps unexpected, but not wholly so.

In terms of pure natural talent, Kubica, we know, is the rival Hamilton most admires, and the one, down the road, he most fears. And Lewis knows whereof he speaks, having many times competed against Robert in their karting days.

“No getting away from it,” said Brundle, “BMW are pretty strong these days. And Kubica’s slaughtering Heidfeld, which, as highly as I rate him, strikes me as a bit odd, because Nick’s a pretty handy driver, let’s face it. He’s changed his management, and I think he’s looked… out of sorts, really.

“Of the rest, I think Mark Webber’s driving really well this season, and Nico Rosberg, too. Remember him at Monaco in the first session, on the Thursday morning? Absolutely bloody awesome, I thought. Just the right approach – really attacking the race track. I rate Nico highly, and I like watching him drive.

“Force India’s a breath of fresh air, I reckon. They’re here for a reason – and for the right reason, which hasn’t been the case with that team, under its various previous guises, for a long time. They’re not here for a party. I’m pleased that they’re going in the right direction – and I was very sad to see the end of Super Aguri, because those guys well outperformed their budget.

“It’s interesting to see Ross [Brawn] making an instant impact at Honda. All right, they’re not at the front yet, or even close to it, but they’ve definitely progressed considerably in the time Ross has been there.

“Just shows you, doesn’t it? You move teams, and you go to an outfit like McLaren, and you look for the three big light switches, so you can flick them on, and say, ‘Ah! So that’s how they do it!’ And you know what, there never is anything. The difference between the top teams and the midfield teams is so small, believe me. It’s just detail, really – and focus and determination and a winning mentality. Ross has obviously instilled some of that into the team.

“The midfield scrap has always interested me – Williams, Toyota, Red Bull, Renault. I thought Renault would be better than they have been, I must say…”

True enough, and from the sport’s point of view, the worst aspect of that has been that Fernando Alonso, as good a driver as there is in F1, has been relegated almost to the role of bit-player.

Brundle agreed. “Yes, it’s true, Alonso’s being wasted at the moment. Mind you, I think, after the way he behaved at McLaren last year, he’s getting his just deserts, quite honestly.

I mean, what do you not do on your own doorstep? I think he handled that whole affair so badly – there’s such an air of negativity about that whole group of people he’s got around him…”

Alonso’s future in F1 has been the subject of much debate this season. There is all manner of talk about ‘get out’ clauses in his two-year Renault contract, suggestions that if certain performance parameters are not met, he can walk away at the end of this season – but where to? After all, Brown and Cameron will take holidays together before Fernando goes back to McLaren, and Luca di Montezemolo not long ago said – perhaps disingenuously – that Ferrari had no interest in changing the team in the foreseeable future. And as for BMW, the remaining team in the big three, well, Mario Theissen has confided that he has reservations about Alonso the team player, given the way he behaved at McLaren.

“Yes,” Brundle shrugged, “unless Renault can get back to something like their best, by the look of it Fernando’s screwed. And that’s a tragedy, because he’s such a pleasure to watch, isn’t he? Those championship years were just extraordinary – he won races where he didn’t have to pass a car, and that’s pretty impressive. I’m a huge fan of Alonso the driver, and in terms of the person… well, I’m kind of getting over it. I thought what he did last year was shocking – there’s some stuff you keep behind closed doors, and he didn’t. I very well know what an extreme and complicated man Ron Dennis is – I’ve been around him quite a lot, both as a driver and as a driver’s manager. Ron’s got a lot of qualities, but he’s a bit of a challenge, as well. I can imagine the frustration Fernando felt, but that’s Ron, and you’ve got to manage it, haven’t you? Other people have managed it…”

He may be edging towards his fifties, but the racing driver in Brundle still abides. The weekend after the Spanish Grand Prix I texted him about something or other, and back came a reply, saying he was at Spa for a Formula Palmer Audi event. I took this to mean that Martin was simply accompanying his son Alex, a regular competitor in the championship, and it was only a couple of days later that I discovered he had actually taken part. According to various of his contemporaries, that put him somewhere between eccentric and loopy.

Brundle clearly feels sorry for people like that. “I just fancied driving something, and for me this was a no-brainer – I mean, who wouldn’t want to drive Spa? I told them that if there was a spare car there, I’d like to drive it. I was going there with Alex, anyway, and I took my kit with me – and there was a spare car…

“I wouldn’t have missed it – believe me, the memory of following my son through Eau Rouge at 150mph is something that will live with me for ever. How many opportunities like that come up? He’s racing, and I’m getting older, and all the rest of it – and here you are, racing against your boy.

“There were several reasons for doing it, all of them positive, but of course the big downside would have been if I’d been terribly slow or crashing into things or hurt myself. Every other weekend I stand up, and say, ‘Alonso should have done this’ or ‘Hamilton shouldn’t have done that’, and there was a great danger – if it had gone wrong – of people saying, ‘Well, he can’t even keep a Formula Palmer Audi on the track – what does he know any more?’”

Liz Brundle was at Spa with her husband and son, and loved it, according to Martin. “She misses racing terribly – she was an unusual racing wife, in that she came for the racing, not for the shopping. She really enjoyed the weekend – apart from the fact that every time a red flag came out, there was a one in 10 chance it was one of her two men…”

That prompted thoughts of the Dunlop family. Not long before, Robert, brother of the late Joey, had been killed in practice for the North West 200, and I was surely not alone in being stunned to learn that, two days later, his son Michael then went on to win the race.

“They’re made of different stuff, those road racers, aren’t they?” Brundle mused. “It’s like a calling, isn’t it? A religion. Joey died on a road circuit in Estonia. I ride a bike a lot, and faster than I should. And yet, believe it or not, I got whacked in London recently, doing about 20mph, and it really got my attention, believe me. I was hit by a woman pulling out of a junction, and got knocked across the other side of the road. I didn’t hit anything, and didn’t even come off, but even at that speed the impact gave me quite a whack, and the idea of coming off a motorbike at 180mph – on a road circuit, with trees and stone walls and all the rest of it…

“It’s not as though they make a shed-load of money, either. I’m full of admiration for them, because they do it purely for the love of it, and they’re prepared to take the risk. I wonder if they believe it’ll always be somebody else, or if they’ve absolutely come to terms with the fact that it could be them. It’s a bit like F1 in the ’60s and ’70s, isn’t it?

“The balancing point, though, is that Steve Hislop died in a helicopter, and Mike Hailwood died on a Saturday night, going out for chips. I really believe that when your number’s up, that’s it. If I think back to some of the shunts I had, and some of the shunts I saw… I’m a complete fatalist. It’s just the luck of the draw, isn’t it?”

*****

One of the most appealing aspects of the Goodwood Festival of Speed is the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing. Who could ever have imagined the sight of a Formula 1 car, being driven – and with some anger – along a narrow strip of asphalt through a country estate?

As well as the novel surroundings, there is also the ingredient, increasingly unfamiliar in the F1 of today, of proximity. People attending the Monaco Grand Prix for the first time invariably rave about being so close to the action, but Monaco, as we know, is a special case. Speeds may be modest, by F1 standards, for most of the lap, but nowhere is one so aware of the sheer violence of a Grand Prix car’s performance.

These days at Goodwood the F1 runs tend to be rather more measured than was once the case, but still the impression of speed, particularly acceleration, is overwhelming. There is something very pleasing about the sight of a racing car in an incongruous environment, even when it’s not hurrying.

When I first started attending the Monaco Grand Prix, in the late 1960s, everything was very informal. At the ’68 race I was in my hotel, at the top of the town, early on the Thursday morning when suddenly there was the distant scream of a racing engine. I headed out immediately, simply following the noise, and down on the harbour front, beyond the old Tabac corner, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was giving the brand-new Matra V12 a workout. First practice was still hours away, but, hey, this was a French driver in a French car, and needs must.

There were a few police on hand, the odd official, and of course some of the Matra mechanics, and that was it. J-PB would squirt the car one way for 150 yards or so, then turn round, and repeat the procedure in the opposite direction. It went on for about 20 minutes, and I have never forgotten it.

A year on, I was in the same hotel, having breakfast on the balcony, which overlooked a crossroads at the top of a steep hill. It was Friday this time, and early morning practice – then a traditional feature of the Monaco GP – had finished a while earlier.

Back then there was no formal paddock in Monaco, such as we know today, and the teams were housed in a variety of garages around town. As I enjoyed my coffee and croissant in the sunshine, suddenly there was the shattering sound of a 12-cylinder racing engine. In the middle of the traffic, on the hill, was a Ferrari F1 car, and Chris Amon – holding it on the clutch – was very keen to proceed. The gendarme on point duty instantly appreciated his problem, stopped everything else, and waved Amon through, the gorgeous red car leaving black lines as it vanished up the road. If only my camera had been to hand.

In earlier days there were even fewer restrictions. I have a wonderful video, bought years ago, which tells the story of Amedee Gordini’s under-financed, invariably chaotic, little team, and there is 1948 footage of Jean-Pierre Wimille giving his car a little test in the streets of Paris, at one point giving a hand signal to indicate his intention to turn left. And I was entranced to learn from Jabby Crombac that when, in 1952, Jean Behra’s car was finished only after the truck had left for the Swiss Grand Prix, ‘Jeannot’ proceeded to drive it from Paris to Berne – where he finished third in the race!

Italy, though, was something else again. Anywhere around Modena you were likely to see a factory Ferrari or Maserati sports racing car thrashing around, complete with ‘PROVA’ stencilling in place of a conventional number plate. It was all very stirring and romantic, and it would have given Dawn Primarolo the vapours.

One of the reasons why I so adore Italy is that, even in 2008, something of that free spirit still abides, certainly to a greater degree than anywhere else. Thus I was not entirely surprised to learn of the arrangements made for the presentation of this year’s Lorenzo Bandini Trophy.

Named for the charismatic Ferrari driver who lost his life in the 1967 Monaco GP, this trophy is awarded not in recognition of a driver’s successes, but in honour of his ‘fighting spirit’. Lorenzo’s widow, Margherita, makes the presentation, and traditionally the ceremony, in the little town of Brisighella, was held over the weekend of the Grand Prix in nearby Imola, but even after the removal of that race from the F1 calendar it has continued, and this year the winner was Robert Kubica.

Some genius working for BMW Italia came up with a terrific idea: wouldn’t it be something, he thought, if Kubica turned up in his F1 car?

This being Italy, getting authorisation was apparently the work of a moment, and thus Robert was strapped into an F1.08, and drove the 30 kilometres from Faenza to Brisighella. All right, there were some concessions to dull modernity – a police escort accompanied Kubica on the journey, and speeds were relatively modest – but often Robert gave the car a screaming burst of throttle, and I’ll warrant that any kid who saw and heard him will never forget the experience.

Not too easy to imagine something similar in Guildford or Harrogate, is it? Dawn & Co would never go for something so frivolous, so dangerous. Italians tend to smile a lot: there may be a clue here.

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