Reflections

Browse pages
Current page

1

Current page

2

Current page

3

Current page

4

Current page

5

Current page

6

Current page

7

Current page

8

Current page

9

Current page

10

Current page

11

Current page

12

Current page

13

Current page

14

Current page

15

Current page

16

Current page

17

Current page

18

Current page

19

Current page

20

Current page

21

Current page

22

Current page

23

Current page

24

Current page

25

Current page

26

Current page

27

Current page

28

Current page

29

Current page

30

Current page

31

Current page

32

Current page

33

Current page

34

Current page

35

Current page

36

Current page

37

Current page

38

Current page

39

Current page

40

Current page

41

Current page

42

Current page

43

Current page

44

Current page

45

Current page

46

Current page

47

Current page

48

Current page

49

Current page

50

Current page

51

Current page

52

Current page

53

Current page

54

Current page

55

Current page

56

Current page

57

Current page

58

Current page

59

Current page

60

Current page

61

Current page

62

Current page

63

Current page

64

Current page

65

Current page

66

Current page

67

Current page

68

Current page

69

Current page

70

Current page

71

Current page

72

Current page

73

Current page

74

Current page

75

Current page

76

Current page

77

Current page

78

Current page

79

Current page

80

Current page

81

Current page

82

Current page

83

Current page

84

Current page

85

Current page

86

Current page

87

Current page

88

Current page

89

Current page

90

Current page

91

Current page

92

Current page

93

Current page

94

Current page

95

Current page

96

Current page

97

Current page

98

Current page

99

Current page

100

Current page

101

Current page

102

Current page

103

Current page

104

Current page

105

Current page

106

Current page

107

Current page

108

Current page

109

Current page

110

Current page

111

Current page

112

Current page

113

Current page

114

Current page

115

Current page

116

Current page

117

Current page

118

Current page

119

Current page

120

Current page

121

Current page

122

Current page

123

Current page

124

Current page

125

Current page

126

Current page

127

Current page

128

Current page

129

Current page

130

Current page

131

Current page

132

Current page

133

Current page

134

Current page

135

Current page

136

Current page

137

Current page

138

Current page

139

Current page

140

Current page

141

Current page

142

Current page

143

Current page

144

Current page

145

Current page

146

Current page

147

Current page

148

Current page

149

Current page

150

Current page

151

Current page

152

Current page

153

Current page

154

Current page

155

Current page

156

Current page

157

Current page

158

Current page

159

Current page

160

Current page

161

Current page

162

Current page

163

Current page

164

Current page

165

Current page

166

Current page

167

Current page

168

Current page

169

Analysing one Rosberg, relecting upon another and fond memories of a chat with Ferrari’s first World Championship Grand Prix winner González, recently departed

If the recent form of Nico Rosberg has caused many to re-evaluate a driver long considered something of an enigma in formula 1, so it has also inevitably put Michael Schumacher’s ‘second career’ into fresh perspective. it may have fallen short of the expectations of some, but – even into his 40s – Michael was sometimes a match for the man now showing well against Lewis Hamilton.

According to those who had worked with Schumacher first time around, one of his problems in coming to terms with a very different F1 from the one he had known was the fact that in-season testing was now banned. For Michael, it had literally been a way of life in his Ferrari days, as Ross Brawn told me years ago: “You say to him, ‘have a couple of weeks off’, between the races, and you’ll get a phone call after a few days: ‘how’s testing going? any chance of trying it?’ and he’ll be down!” in-season testing looks set to return, on a limited basis, in 2014, but is for now banned, of course, so it was therefore no more than inevitable that conversation in the montréal paddock should have been dominated by the controversial three-day test conducted by Pirelli and Mercedes immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix. other teams, notably Red Bull, howled in outrage that Mercedes should face sanctions from the sport’s governing body.

The deadlines of Motor Sport are such that this, I know, is a remarkably stupid time to be talking about a topic that, for many, has become the bore of the age. it is monday, June 17, as I write, and in three days an fia international tribunal will convene in Paris to discuss the matter, and to decide what, if any, sanctions are to go the way of Mercedes. by the time this is read, therefore, the decisions of the tribunal will be known. however…

Beyond dispute is that the test came at the request of Pirelli, who booked the circuit, and paid for it. beyond dispute, too, is that Mercedes used current cars, and that the drivers – wearing unmarked helmets – were nico rosberg and Lewis hamilton. rather less defined is the precise reason for the test: originally the suggestion was that it had been conducted primarily to help Pirelli resolve the delamination problems that have recently occurred (and was therefore a matter of safety), but the company then stressed that the emphasis had been on developing tyres for 2014, when the new ‘turbo age’ begins.

Whatever, many mercedes rivals were not impressed. “I don’t know which tyres they used,” said sebastian Vettel, “but when you’re on the track you always learn…” In Montréal Mercedes folk appeared quietly conident that their explanations would satisfy the fia tribunal. From the outset Ross Brawn has said that the team sought, and got, clearance from the governing body to conduct the test, and the fact that it was conducted at a circuit like barcelona, rather than somewhere like the hinterland of Yeongam, rather militates against suggestions that it was all very covert – how on earth could it ever have been kept secret? Long before the test was over, a photograph of one of the cars appeared on twitter, and mercedes and Pirelli must have known that their test would become public knowledge. the mystery is that news of it broke in the F1 community only in the Monaco paddock, more than a week later.

Meantime the whole question of the dumbing down of F1 continues to rage, some suggesting that Pirelli’s brief to manufacture ‘deliberately inefficient’ tyres is a contrivance that has no place in anything calling itself Grand Prix racing, others that anything is preferable to processions.

At spa in 2005 Bernie Ecclestone told me he thought it essential that F1 should have a single tyre supplier: “I think if we don’t do it, we’re going to be in trouble. it’s important to reduce the necessity for so much testing – most of the teams are testing christ knows how much, and that takes a big chunk out of their budgets…” That much was undeniable – but going to a single supplier also, of course, made possible the doctoring of tyres to spice up the show. Thus Michelin was ushered out of the sport to leave only Bridgestone, which itself quit at the end of 2010.

It was at Montréal that year that Bridgestone got it wrong. Graining problems were much worse than expected, which led to an extremely unpredictable race, with different drivers dominating at different moments.

“The whole time,” said Jenson Button afterwards, “you never knew if you weren’t pushing hard enough because you were nursing your tyres – or maybe pushing too hard, and hurting them…”

As a one-off the race was very entertaining, because it was different, but someone took on board the remarks of Button and others, and thought, “Why can’t we have this every weekend?”

Thus we have the F1 of today, but on the basis of using Montréal 2010 – a freak happening – as a model, what next? Why not Suzuka ’05, for example? There, it may be remembered, conditions in qualifying – one car at a time in those days – were damp until the closing minutes when there was a sudden monsoon. To that point all the drivers had used intermediates, but full wets were the only option for the four drivers yet to qualify – who happened to be Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Räikkönen and Juan Pablo Montoya.

They started at the back, therefore, and the resulting race was mesmeric as they came through the pack, Alonso passing Schumacher around the outside of 130R, and Räikkönen taking the lead from Giancarlo Fisichella at the start of the last lap.

Freak circumstances, you see, and of course they turned the race upside down. How long will it be, I wonder, before some bright spark comes up with the idea of reversed grids? I hope I’m joking, but you never know. Not so long ago I’d have laughed at the idea of deliberately high-degradation tyres…

More and more people, I’m relieved to see, appear to be coming round to the view that Formula 1’s attempts to convert sport into showbiz have gone too far. Monaco did much to encourage them. When the drivers are going for pole, stand anywhere close to the irst left-right around the swimming pool, and it’s a certainty that you will be stunned by the sheer capability – not to say velocity – of the Grand Prix car, by its body language as it changes direction.

In the race inevitably it has always been a little less dramatic, of course, but the opening laps of this year’s Monaco Grand Prix were not dramatic at all – indeed, even Nico Rosberg, in the lead, looked as if he were on a warm-up lap. Why? Because everyone was aiming at a one-stop race, and although tyre degradation – even with soft and supersoft compounds – was far less of a problem here than at some other circuits, all the focus was on – yawn – ‘saving tyres’…

During the early laps Rosberg was circulating 10 seconds slower than his pole position time, running laps that wouldn’t have qualified him in the top half-dozen for the Renault 3.5 Series race, and friends of mine who had bought grandstand seats were starting to wonder why they had remortgaged their houses to do so. A grand spectacle it emphatically was not.

Eventually things began to speed up a little: by lap 15 Nico’s lap times would have been good for pole in the GP2 race, but still there was the impression of an orderly parade, rather than what is supposedly the blue riband event in the Grand Prix calendar. Later, after the stops, it speeded up a little more again, whereupon the accidents began, two safety car periods being followed by a red lag.

Wholly impressive through all this, though, was Rosberg’s composure. As with Mark Webber in similar circumstances in 2010, Nico judged every restart to perfection, each time picking up where he had left off, calmly pulling away once more. Fastest in every session, including qualifying, he simply dominated the weekend, and if this were not the way he – or any of his rivals – might have wished to drive a Monaco GP, he did the necessary job way better than anyone else.

In recent weeks I have been surprised by the reaction to Rosberg’s performances: leaving aside the victory, Monaco brought his third pole position on the trot – quite a feat when you consider, apart from anything else, that Lewis Hamilton is in the other Mercedes – and some have reacted as if a journeyman had suddenly come out of nowhere.

Lest we forget, back in 2006, aged 20, Nico set fastest lap in Bahrain, his very first Grand Prix, and at the next race, Sepang, qualified third. He has always been quick.

At the same time it has been curiously difficult to evaluate his absolute quality, in part because he has rarely had a truly competitive car, and it has not been easy to draw firm conclusions from his performance relative to his team-mates. After partnering Mark Webber in his first season, Rosberg’s succeeding team-mates at Williams were Alex Wurz and Kazuki Nakajima, neither of whom could be considered topliners, and when he joined Mercedes, for 2010, he was also – relatively – on a hiding to nothing, for the returning Michael Schumacher was in the other car. When, from the outset, Nico was quicker, the general response was that so he should have been – Michael, 41 years old, was not the driver he had been.

That much was undeniable, as we saw not least in the number of startling errors of judgement he made, but throughout their three seasons together Rosberg adamantly maintained that Schumacher was still very quick, thank you, and beating him was not the stroll in the park some perceived it to be. Ross Brawn, always a believer in Nico, was of a similar opinion.

When it became known last year that Schumacher, willingly or not, would be retiring, that Hamilton would be taking his place at Mercedes, there were those who trumpeted that now Rosberg – head to head with the fastest driver in the world – would be found out. No hiding place against Lewis, they said. But there were also those who suspected that, rather, Nico’s true quality would be recognised at last, and thus far, you would have to say, he has been doing a convincing job.

They do, of course, go way back, Rosberg and Hamilton, being karting team-mates in their teens. It was back then, I remember, that Nico’s father irst started telling me about Lewis: “Ron [Dennis] will make sure he goes all the way with McLaren, and so he should,” Keke asserted. “Lewis is very quick, and very brave – I mean, Gilles brave…”

Rosberg Sr had great faith in his son, though, always marvelling at his calmness, not, after all, a characteristic for which Keke was always renowned. And although for a time he acted as Nico’s (unpaid) manager, he consciously tried to let him do his own thing, to give advice if it were sought, but never to interfere. At Monaco I asked him something about Nico and Mercedes, and he said, “No point in asking me! Sina and I see a lot of him – but we never talk about racing, except in general terms, and that’s fine. You remember, all those years ago, when I told you I didn’t want to be ‘a racing father’?”

I did, indeed – and even times long before that, like the light back from the 1985 Detroit Grand Prix, which Keke won. On long hauls, he was invariably to be found in ‘steerage’, which, in light of what he was earning, I could never understand.

“Look,” he’d say, “what do I need on a long light? Somewhere I can sleep, and somewhere I can smoke – so why pay 10 times more to sit at the front? I’ve found it gets there just as quickly, wherever you sit…”

On this particular light, when the aeroplane paused for an hour at Montréal, Keke got off, made his way to a freight hangar, and somehow persuaded them to let him make a call to the hospital in Germany where Sina was about to give birth.

There was nothing to report, and off we set again. Through the night my colleague Alan Henry and I pounded away at our race reports, and as we neared Heathrow Keke blearily wandered over, cup of coffee in one hand, cigarette in the other.

“Have you been writing all night?” Yes, I said. “Well, there you are, that’s a different sort of stamina – Jesus, I couldn’t do that. I’ve been asleep for hours, and I still feel exhausted…” Reasonable enough, it seemed to me: the day before, after all, he had driven in a Grand Prix, whereas Alan and I had merely watched him. After clearing customs, Keke made another call to Germany – still no news – and then headed straight to Silverstone, where he tested all morning!

“Some people thought it was strange, but to me it was completely normal. I wasn’t one of those dads who need to be in the delivery room, thank you very much – to be honest, I’d much rather be testing! At lunchtime I got a call – to say that Nico had been born – and then I flew off to Wiesbaden to say hello to my son. And when I’d done that, I fell asleep again…”

Fast forward 17 years, to November 2002, and Rosberg Jr, as a reward for winning the inaugural Formula BMW Championship, was given the opportunity to test an F1 Williams- BMW at Barcelona. There the same day, for the same reason, was Nelson Piquet Jr.

Shortly before the test, Nico went to the Williams HQ for a seat itting. “They’re probably disappointed I didn’t go with him,” said his father, “but I don’t want to be sort of sitting on top of him, like some racing fathers do. I just said to him, ‘Enjoy it. It’ll be a very special day for you, meeting people like Frank [Williams] and Patrick [Head]. I was 32 when I was allowed in the Williams factory for the first time – you’re 17…’

“I am going to Barcelona for the test, though,” Keke said. “I have to say I wouldn’t miss that for anything, but I’m not going to get in his way – when he did an F3 test, he banned me from the garage, and I said, ‘You’re absolutely right: that’s exactly what I said to my dad when I had my first Grand Prix’.

“Nico isn’t going to Barcelona to impress anybody – the main thing is that he’s getting a fantastic chance to sniff the air of F1, to see what it’s all about. And if one day he’s invited for a serious test with an F1 team, it will help him, because he’s already been there. If he can impress people with his approach, being such a young lad, well, so much the better, but that’s not the main object of the exercise.”

All very calm and understated, you see, and that is how their relationship remains to this day. In Barcelona the young Rosberg – making the leap from Formula BMW, with 140 horsepower, to F1, then with about 900 – impressed everyone at Williams, and his father, watching from the grandstand, admitted that he had found the sight of him braking down from 190mph, brake discs aglow, an emotional one.

“Actually,” he said, “it was probably the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had in motor racing. I kept thinking, ‘That isn’t Juan Pablo [Montoya] – that’s my kid…’”

Something else that made an impression on Patrick Head that day was the relative behaviour of the Rosberg and Piquet families. “My feeling was that both lads were talented,” he said, “and had a future in F1 – but that Nelson Jr needed to go through a few more hard knocks before he’d actually make it, whereas Nico already had a discipline. Nelson Jr gave the impression that the path to Formula 1 was on steps already laid out for him, but Nico wasn’t like that. The other difference was that, while Keke had the sense to keep out of the way, Nelson was the very opposite – in the pit the whole time, demanding extra tyres for his kid – a pain in the neck, in fact…”

By 2005 Rosberg was a test driver for Williams, and that season, too, he was the inaugural champion in GP2. At the end of the year Williams and Head decided to sign him.

“We’d been very impressed,” said Patrick, “with his speed in the car, his consistency, his remarkable calmness and judgement – and all this at 20! He’d already started in more than 500 races, which was pretty amazing for someone so young. In GP2 undoubtedly he had very good equipment, but you could see he was making very, very good use of it.

“The other thing about Nico, of course, is his intelligence. We had a questionnaire, conceived by Sam Michael, with the odd trick question in it, and it’s a good way of telling whether a driver has a good technical understanding of his car and tyres. There are also questions indicating whether or not he’s able to take in a certain amount of information, and make good judgements from that information. Various drivers produced a very big spread of results, but Nico got the highest score we’d ever seen.

“I remember Keke once telling me that although Nico was karting at the time, he was actually more interested in becoming an engineer, and wanted to study it at a university in England. I think he went some way towards studying aerodynamics at Imperial College, but then, because his racing career progressed the way it did, he didn’t take it up. Keke’s always very self-deprecating, as you know, and he says Nico’s intelligence all comes from his mother! I don’t think he’s being quite fair on himself…

“On the face of it, father and son are quite different, with Keke much more of an extrovert, but as time went by I could see more of him in Nico. He gained conidence in himself, and I found him very thoughtful and analytical, whereas Keke could be quite excitable – although that shouldn’t really be criticised because that sort of driver can do an entire race as if it were a qualifying lap. In Keke’s case, that was something quite special, and if that same sort of emotional level is there in Nico, he’s got it much more under control…”

As drivers, father and son are very different. Those who saw Keke in his prime remember a spectacular stylist, entirely comfortable with oversteer, very much one of the brake-late-and-pitch-it-in school, whereas Nico is smoothness personiied, a cerebral Grand Prix driver in the Prost mould.

There was something very pleasing about the fact that he won the Monaco GP exactly 30 years after his old man, but the circumstances could hardly have been more different. In 1983 Keke won through sheer inspiration, but had the day been completely dry, his Cosworth-powered Williams would have struggled against the turbos.

As race time approached there was endless debate about tyre choice among the teams. All day there was intermittent rain, and as the cars went off on their warm-up lap it was still spitting. When they got back to the grid, Patrick Tambay told the Ferrari engineers that the track was damp, rather than wet, and he suspected slicks might be the way to go.

They disagreed, told him he was starting on wets, and that was the end of it. Rosberg, meantime, had actually run slicks on his warm-up laps, and had no doubts about starting on them.

“I was proud of that, actually, because we were very smart, trying slicks on the warm-up laps. I mean, where 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 no choice but to stay on wets. We had a quick discussion with the Goodyear guys – I said ‘slicks’, and Patrick said, ‘OK, slicks it is…’

“It was all so different, wasn’t it? We had so many tyre compounds, and we could use all of them: when I won at Dijon in ’82, I had three different compounds on the car! I had a hard left front and left rear, a very soft right front and a medium-soft right rear. That’s what you did in those days, and you always had these decisions to make – there was no data, except the tyre temperatures from the Goodyear guys.”

As Rosberg says, it was indeed all so different. In his Williams cockpit, he didn’t have a zillion buttons and switches to adjust and play with on his steering-wheel – but on the other hand, he did have a regular clutch and gear lever, which of course demanded constant use around a place like Monaco.

“These days, of course, they change gear with a inger on a paddle – they’re not blipping the throttle as they’re downshifting, not double-declutching, not watching the rev counter, or any of that stuff, and they have two hands on the wheel at all times – that’s why their driving is much more precise. It my day, Monaco was a one-handed race track!

“I’m sure that the communication between a driver and his engineer – in my case Frank Dernie – was much more intense back then than it is today, because there’s so much data, so much input from other people, which we didn’t have. Actually, I don’t think I’d have liked that – I’m sure I’d have got fed up with the ‘data meetings’. We’d have our technical debriefs in the motorhome, Frank, Patrick, Neil [Oatley] and me – and my wife was sitting there with us! We’d be talking about set-up and Frank would say to Sina, ‘What d’you think?’, and she’d go off and get sandwiches for the team!”

At Monaco in 1983 the only data Rosberg had, going into the race, was that he was on slicks, and his rivals weren’t. On the damp surface he made an electrifying start, and was up to second by Ste Dévote; on the second lap he passed Prost for the lead, and simply drove away.

It was, I remember, the most stupendous thing to witness, for we could see the track was treacherous – and we knew that Keke was on slicks. By all things rational, he should have been the one struggling, yet instead he was leaving everyone behind. As a demonstration of pure driving virtuosity, his drive that day ranks with any ever seen at Monte Carlo. At no stage was he threatened and he won by 18 seconds.

It was anything but an easy afternoon, though, and Rosberg was also in severe discomfort with blisters on his hands. I saw his palms after the race and they were like raw hamburger. “The vibration through the steering was so bad that it went through my gloves – and then through two layers of skin. That was sort of normal in those days – cuts and bruises, and everyone had blisters from the gearshifting, the vibration, and all that. It was part of the game.”

Had he gone to a doctor for attention to his hands? “What would have been the point? He’d have said, ‘You’ve got blisters…’ No, I remembered the old thing about salt water healing very fast, and I stuck my hands in the sea in Ibiza – a lovely place to heal yourself, although it hurt like hell at the time. It was hard to inish that race, I must say.

“Life changes, doesn’t it? And who am I to say that it was better then, or it’s better now? The safety has increased tremendously, and for that we should be grateful, but look at the area around the swimming pool here in Monaco: these days it’s defined by kerbs on the road – it used to be deined by stone walls! Where before you’d glance the wall, now you ‘take a bit too much kerb…’”

At 87, Jack Brabham is now the oldest living Grand Prix winner, for in mid-June the muchloved José Froilán González died in Buenos Aires, four months short of his 91st birthday. History, I feel, has always sold González short, for although he won only two Grands Prix – both of them at Silverstone – and was inevitably in the shadow of his compatriot and close friend, Juan Manuel Fangio, he was an undoubted star of the early 1950s, and a mere 32 when he turned his back on Europe, returning for good to Argentina, where he continued to race in local events for several more years.

González left his homeland rarely, but in 2002, following Michael Schumacher’s win for Ferrari at Spa – also Shell’s 100th Grand Prix victory – the fuel company brought to Monza the man who had scored its – and Ferrari’s – irst one, at Silverstone in 1951.

In South America they have always adopted nicknames for their sporting heroes, be they racing drivers, footballers, whatever. Where Fangio was ‘El Chueco’ (‘Bandy Legs’), González was ‘El Cabezon’, which he smilingly told me meant, ‘Big Head’…

This was meant not to imply arrogance, but simply an affectionately straightforward description, for González was indeed an unusually burly fellow for a racing driver. That said, Stirling Moss insists that he lacked nothing in fitness: “It was solid muscle, boy, believe me!” Nearing 80 when I met him in Italy, he seemed by then about half his fighting weight.

I remember with great pleasure our conversation in the Monza paddock, for González was immensely goodhumoured as he remembered his racing days, and it was easy to understand why Fangio had been so fond of him.

“Juan came over to Europe in 1949,” he said, “and the following year I followed, driving for a team from the Automobile Club of Argentina, racing as Scuderia Achille Varzi. We raced Maserati 4CLTs, in the dark blue and yellow colours of Argentina, but they weren’t very competitive. I had better luck in F2 races, driving a Ferrari for the same team, but at the beginning of 1951, in South America, the Ferrari was supercharged to use in the Formule Libre Temporada. There were two races in Buenos Aires, and they helped me with my career…”

Indeed they did, for MercedesBenz made a brief return to racing, entering three of the W163s which had dominated the 1939 Grand Prix season, and one of them was driven by Fangio. In his supercharged Ferrari, González beat the Mercs in both races, which did not go unnoticed in Maranello.

“After that,” González said, “I had a good relationship with Ferrari, and when I arrived back in Europe, I told the Commendatore that if he needed me I would be very willing to drive for him. He already had four drivers – Alberto Ascari, Luigi Villoresi, Piero Tarufi and Dorino Seraini – but then Seraini broke his leg in the Mille Miglia, and Ferrari asked me to drive at Reims…”

In the 4.5-litre Ferrari 375, González qualiied sixth, but then in the race handed over to Ascari, whose car had retired. “At half-distance I came in to refuel and the team director said, ‘Unfortunately, Ascari has to get in the car’, and there wasn’t much I could do: I didn’t have a contract at that time – they were just trying me out. Ascari eventually finished second, and got six points – and they were split between us.

It was the same for Fangio, who won for Alfa – he took over Luigi Fagioli’s car. Imagine that today,” he chuckled. “I can see Barrichello giving his car to Schumacher, but not the other way round…”

After the French Grand Prix, Ferrari offered González Seraini’s car for the season. “We made a contract, but to be honest I didn’t even know what it said, so I asked the Commendatore, ‘Are all your drivers insured?’ He said they were, so I said, ‘OK, I’ll sign!’ I did get a wage, and Ferrari also gave me some money for expenses.”

González’s irst race as a full member of the Ferrari team was the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a circuit new to him – and he shook everyone by taking pole position, and that by a clear second.

“There were four cars on the front row – myself, Fangio, Farina and Ascari – and at the drivers’ meeting they said that anyone who jumped the start would get a one-minute penalty. That made us so nervous that the four of us on the front row didn’t move, and the three cars on the second row – Bonetto, Sanesi and Villoresi – went straight past us! At the first corner I was in fifth place, but I passed Bonetto for the lead on the second lap, and Fangio got into second place. After that it was a ight with him all the way.

“Ah, that was a race! My first win, and also the first in F1 for Englebert tyres. Two of the Ferraris were on Pirellis, because of the money, and two were on Engleberts – also because of the money! But we didn’t get any of that – it all went to Enzo…”

Photographs of González that day invariably show the Ferrari on opposite lock, in a full-blooded power slide, and when I showed one to Fernando Alonso – who himself gave a wonderful demonstration in a 375 at Silverstone half a century on – he was open-mouthed, and wanted to know more about the driver.

After Alfa Romeo’s withdrawal, Fangio signed with Maserati for 1952, and persuaded González to join him there. “I didn’t want to leave Ferrari,” he said, “and the Commendatore wanted me to stay, but… Maserati paid better, and a little bit more money was very important – we didn’t get paid much in those days…”

The World Championship ran to Formula 2 regulations in 1952 and ’53, and if you were not a Ferrari driver those two seasons were pretty desultory ones. González supplemented his income by also driving the BRM V16 in selected races: “Ay, there were many problems with that car – when you started to brake, and you wanted to turn in… you just went in another direction! The big problem was always with tyres – they kept coming off the rims, and I remember a huge piece of tread hitting my helmet. Such power, though! There were plenty of stories with that car…”

González returned to Ferrari in 1954, and had a superb season, again winning at Silverstone (in both the Grand Prix and the Daily Express Trophy) and also, with Maurice Trintignant, taking the Le Mans 24 Hours in a Ferrari 375 Plus.

“My best race, I think – an incredible event. It rained for 16 or 17 of the 24 hours, and I drove something like 4000km on my own! It was a fight with the Jaguars, particularly the Rolt/Hamilton car – they had won the year before.

“In the wet the Jaguar handled better, but we had more power. Then, with half an hour left, we had our last stop, for a bit of fuel, and the engine wouldn’t restart because the ignition was soaked! After more than seven minutes they got it going at last, and we were able to win – by less than four kilometres…”

Two weeks after González’s second victory at the British Grand Prix, though, came the tragedy that was ultimately to bring about the end of his career in Europe. In practice at the Nürburgring his close friend Onofre Marimón crashed his Maserati, and was killed instantly.

“We never thought about safety then. Today if a driver dies it’s a big tragedy, but then you had about a 50 per cent chance of surviving – and at circuits like the Nürburgring and Spa there was no safety whatsoever: Marimon went off, hit the trees, and that was it. His parents were there, and mine, too. It was a nightmare…”

Demented with grief, González drove in the race, even led for a while, but eventually handed his car over to Mike Hawthorn, who went on to inish second. “I finished the season, but I started to have a lot of problems with my wife, because of Onofre’s accident. My parents also put a lot of pressure on me to stop, and I left Europe, although I carried on in South America, with a Ferrari, and won two championships.

“The car was given to me by the Commendatore – I mean, I bought it from him, but it was very cheap. A friend of mine also had a Ferrari, but broke the engine, so I gave him the one from mine, but kept the car – and put a Chevrolet engine in it! In those days, we used whatever was available, and actually it went pretty well – although I never knew what the Commendatore thought about it…”

Evidently it didn’t bother him too much, for it was in factory Ferraris that González had one last hurrah in 1960, driving in both the Argentine Grand Prix (for which he out-qualified race winner Bruce McLaren) and the Buenos Aires 1000Kms (sharing a car with Lodovico Scariotti). A lovely man, he seemed to me from our brief meeting at Monza, and on his day – as with Mike Hawthorn – a match for anyone.

“At my best, I could challenge Fangio,” he said, “but the difference was, Juan was always at his best…”

Nigel Roebuck

Related articles

Related products