Countdown to the 2011 British GP at new-look Silverstone

Who better to cast their views on the Formula 1 season to date and the upcoming British Grand Prix than three former home-grown winners of the race (one a former World Champion)? Rob Widdows caught up with Damon Hill, Johnny Herbert and John Watson to find out what they think about the new rules, the new-look Silverstone, Sebastian Vettel's F1 domination and News Corp's 'friendly' approach for ownership of the sport. Here's what they had to say...

Is Silverstone a better circuit now than when you won the British Grand Prix?

DAMON HILL: What drivers like is not always what the sport requires, but look, there were pressures on Silverstone to adapt, and we’ve tried to produce a blend of the old and the new. Silverstone was always fantastic to drive on but not always so good for the spectators. So we’ve improved the viewing enormously with more grandstands and banks for fans who want to stand and join the crowd — and at Silverstone you really do feel it when the crowd is behind you. You’d come down to Club and there was always a big crowd there, and there will be now. My battle [as BRDC president] was to make sure the essence of Silverstone didn’t get lost, that we kept the fast, sweeping corners as well as better places to watch and some overtaking opportunities. Silverstone is a part of history, like Indianapolis, Monaco, Monza and Le Mans, and we’ve been very aware of that. The homogenisation of circuits in recent times, all designed by the same person in effect, is a worry because they have no history. It can be boring going round a race track and you don’t want to be bored, you want to be excited.
JOHNNY HERBERT: It’s more technical now. I liked the old Bridge corner, but not those slow and twisty bits at Brooklands that followed. So yes, I think it’s better all round, and more of a technical challenge for the drivers.
JOHN WATSON: All I can say is that if you put a 2011 Grand Prix car on the circuit where I won in 1981 it would be one hell of a fast lap, so changes had to be made and I think we have a good new layout that still retains some of the high-speed stuff we had in the past. It’s different, but still Silverstone.

Can there be such a thing as too much overtaking in Formula 1?

DH: Maybe there are too many gizmos, and it’s a bit chaotic, but I’ve been a couch potato viewer for the past 10 years or so and I have to say that I didn’t bother watching a whole chunk of it between 2000 and 2010. You knew who was going to win before you switched on. Now, though, it works for me and I’ve really enjoyed races like Turkey. It simply confirms what we’ve all been saying — if you increase mechanical grip over aero grip, you get better racing. It must be pretty frustrating, though, if you’ve worked hard to pass the car in front and then he just overtakes you again with his ‘flappy’ wing. You might not need the DRS, I think. There’s a lot going on, that’s for sure, and sometimes I’ve found it hard to keep up with what is actually happening out there.
JH: Overtaking is what it’s all about, just as it was for Stewart and Rindt when they passed and re-passed each other about 20 times at Silverstone all those years ago. I think the race in Turkey was fantastic, lots of action. So no, [there’s] never too much [overtaking] for me.
JW: I think we will have a minimum of three pitstops at Silverstone with the tyres as we see them today — so it will be busy — but overtaking and racing are different things. We will see plenty of overtaking but what we want to see is plenty of racing, and you can’t have too much of that. I’d like to have just the new tyres and not the DRS or KERS.

How would you have felt about racing on tyres that wear out so quickly?

DH: You have to manage the grip and that’s where the art of driving shows up the better drivers. It’s a bit like a wet race with the way these [Pirelli] tyres are degrading so fast, so you have to use more judgement, feel things a lot more. I liked soft tyres — if you have bulletproof tyres there’s only one pace, and that’s flat out. So you have to feel these tyres, feel where the edge is, like you would in the wet, and I liked that when I was racing — it suited my style.
JH: I’d have loved it. I was always very good with my tyres, looking after them and getting the best out of them, so it would have suited me very well.
JW: Well, it’s a different world. When I won in Austria in 1976 we used the same set of tyres at the next race because they were the best set of Goodyears we had. Now the tyres are a kind of molten chemical mix, and that’s concrete and clay from my days in racing. There’s no comparison.

Is Sebastian Vettel the finished article as a Grand Prix driver?

DH: There are more tests ahead of him but he has a championship in the bag and he’s just enjoying himself. He’s sort of our Valentino Rossi — he loves doing it, loves the driving and that’s the key to becoming more formidable. Then it’s just down to how much ambition he has.
JH: No, there’s more to come, and he’ll only blossom as time goes on. He’s a young lad and he will grow in stature as a driver. Same for Lewis — more to come.
JW: You’d have to measure this if, or when, he goes to another team and then we will see if he continues his winning ways. He is doing a truly fantastic job right now but I think you judge a great driver over a longer period of time, in different cars. Jim Clark only ever raced for Lotus but he would have won in any car, I think.

Mark Webber won at Silverstone in 2010. Will this be his last British GP?

DH: I hope not. It’s not easy being number two in a team, if that’s what you end up being, because Sebastian is doing such a good job. But Mark is talented, he’s extremely quick and he’s a tough competitor. There’s more to come from him, I think, and he has the potential to take the challenge to Vettel, and that will secure his place in the team. Nobody likes being overshadowed in a team but it happens sometimes.
JH: It should not be his last, but it depends on his motivation. Sadly, his best chance of winning the championship went by him last year, but I hope this won’t be his last British GP.
JW: He’s still competitive and capable of winning races. Why would Red Bull want to change the line-up? And where would he go? It’s the best team in the paddock and I can’t see why he would want to make a change, and for the team continuity is very important.

Is Adrian Newey the most valuable asset in Formula 1?

DH: Yes.
JH: If you look at his record then yes, absolutely, at the present time.
JW: Creatively, yes, he is head of the pack. He is without doubt an exceptional engineer and now he has his own structure around him with some very good people. And I am sure he is rewarded appropriately.

If you were running an F1 team who would you sign as your number one driver: Hamilton or Button?

DH: I wouldn’t have a number one, would I? I would want the best pairing. And I guess that would be Hamilton and Button.
JH: Good question. Put me on the spot. Oh dear, I guess that at this time right now I would have to go for Lewis. Probably…
JW: Neither. I’ve always been a huge Alonso fan, he has all the qualities a Grand Prix driver needs. Overall he ticks all my boxes, but Vettel is knocking on the door very hard indeed. But right now, Alonso would be my choice for my team.

Is Fernando Alonso the best driver in F1, as so many pundits seem to think?

DH: Fernando is great — he’s a game player, a tough fighter, very quick and he’s got charisma. Exactly what we need for the show. But he’s prone to impetuosity, as we expect from Latin drivers, but then so is Lewis. Fernando is formidable, he really is — not necessarily the best but then again he’s not second to anyone in terms of talent. He’s exciting and entertaining, he does it his way, and that is what we need for the show.
JH: No, he’s not the best driver — he’s in the Lewis mould, all on the edge, and we do still see some mistakes from him, some inconsistency. You have to consider the car, of course, but Vettel is the best right now.
JW: The difference between the top five — Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel, Button and Webber — is minimal. We know what they can achieve and right now Vettel has the advantage, he has the momentum, and it’s tough to say who’s best of them all.

Should Michael Schumacher have come back to Formula 1?

DH: Yes, but he can’t reverse the ageing process, nobody can, and that’s well understood. He might win a race but he’s not going to dominate Vettel because you change as you get older — at least you hope you do, it’s part of the process. But he clearly felt he had unfinished business and so he was right to put it to bed.
JH: I don’t see why not. He hasn’t made a fool of himself, he’s still there or thereabouts and he obviously felt the need — or the motivation — to come back and get something more in the record books. So I don’t have a problem with it.
JW: He did the right thing. In 2010 Michael had what was effectively Jenson’s Brawn from 2009 and the tyres were — and are — totally different from his day. I mean, Bridgestone virtually made the tyres for Ferrari back then. But I do question if he has the ability now to dominate a race, and perhaps those chances are slipping away.

Which one is the real Lotus: Lotus Renault or Team Lotus?

DH: The whole thing is just a disaster, the classic balls-up. When something is dead, you should leave it dead.
JH: Neither of them. But Team Lotus is the closest because they brought the name back, they’ve used the green and yellow colours, and they’re based in Norfolk. OK, the other one is black and gold, but that’s not really Lotus, it’s more of a Renault.
JW: Neither. When a team ceases to function, and the leaders have gone, then the team should remain a part of motor racing history. Like Brabham or Tyrrell or others who raced in the past. It’s different when Mercedes-Benz buys Brawn— that’s fine by me, because Mercedes has a heritage in Grand Prix racing. Lotus was Colin Chapman, Jim Clark, Mario Andretti, people like that. What we have now is not Lotus.

Is Williams right to undertake an overhaul of its technical department?

DH: I’m a little bit perplexed about what is going on there. The team is in a stage of metamorphosis and I’m not sure what will be the future of Williams. It’s always been regarded as the British F1 team, especially when Nigel [Mansell] was there, and the fans have always loved it for that.
JH: Yes, because they need to make changes for the future. It’s not happening for them and, while it may not be the perfect time, they have to change things around.
JW: Frank [Williams] and Patrick [Head] are coming to the end of their period in Formula 1 and [CEO] Adam Parr appears to have a lot of control. There are issues that need to be resolved and there seems to be unease within the team. I don’t know what the core problem is but I do know I’m sad to see it because it’s a great racing team.

Ahead of his first home Grand Prix, have you been impressed by Paul di Resta?

DH: Yes, he’s strong and he’s been very impressive.
JH: He’s come by an unusual route, through DTM, and shown [he has] a very good head on his shoulders so far. I’m impressed, yes.
JW: He’s moved from DTM to F1 quietly and without any fuss, and he’s extracted as much as anybody from the Force India. I think Adrian Sutil has had a big wake-up call and he is a driver I thought had the potential to move forward. I’m not so sure about that now.

Looking further ahead, does engine noise still matter in F1?

DH: F1 is a show and it’s a powerful tool for communicating green issues connected with the automotive industry. But it’s popular because it’s exciting, it has a thrill factor, and the engine noise is part of that. There’s an aesthetic appeal to the sport, too — for example most people would prefer the wide-track cars to the new narrower-track cars. And the noise… Well, you only have to start up a BRM V16 and you’ve got a crowd because the noise is ridiculous.
JH: The noise has always mattered. Look at the diesels: they make hardly any noise at all, and I come from the era when noise was a big thing. The old turbos were good but then they were bigger. They have to get a ‘rasp’ from the new engines, you want to hear them coming, because the noise does matter.
JW: For the fans, yes it matters. The new smaller turbo engines will sound like a constrained fart, I think, and that’s not exciting. I don’t know how anyone could possibly make a 1.6-litre turbo sound like a 2.4-litre V8 revving to 17,000rpm. They can’t.

Would News Corporation be good for F1 if it succeeds in buying the sport?

DH: Do I have to answer that? I hate commercials, they are just so intrusive, and that’s why I don’t watch that kind of TV. That’s my worry, because I think it’s fundamental to F1 that it should be free-to-air. Most people have a Sky dish, don’t they, so they can watch what they like. Everything is being bought up and owned by huge organisations, and I don’t know why this has to be.
JH: I’m not sure what’s happening. They’ve made a ‘friendly’ approach but will they go hostile? It’s worked well under Bernie Ecclestone and CVC, but will Bernie still be around if it goes to Sky? I don’t know enough about the detail of the negotiations except that it’s been a ‘friendly’ approach so far.
JW: Will F1 be free-to-air, or will it be pay-to-view? That’s the key question here. The real enthusiast might pay to view but the vast majority of the audience will not. So would we see a reduction in the viewing figures? If that happens, the income from sponsorship will be reduced. We don’t know what Sky’s intentions are, so until we do, we can’t have a properly informed opinion. And we’re not just talking about the UK — there’s the global audience to consider.

Finally, your prediction: who will win the 2011 British Grand Prix?

DH: I think it’s going to be Vettel.
JH: Red Bull and Sebastian.
JW: You’d have to say Red Bull. But McLaren and Ferrari are fighting back, and people power will push Hamilton and Button. If it’s a wet race, then toss a coin.