Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Rossi coasts to victory,’ ran the front page headline in the Indianapolis Star the day after the 100th running of the 500, and that summed things up pretty well. For most of the race the former GP2 and, briefly, F1 driver figured nowhere on the leaderboard, and in the closing laps a classic shoot-out for the victory, between such as Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan and Carlos Munoz, looked on the cards – so long, that was, as they had fuel enough to complete the 200 laps.

Sadly for the capacity crowd – the first at Indianapolis for countless years – they didn’t. Through the last handful of laps in they came, one by one, and thus it was that the name of Rossi moved to the top of the order. “You’ve got to save fuel,” Bryan Herta calmly but firmly said to him on the radio. “That’s the only way we’re going to win this, OK?” Fellow Andretti drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay – who had earlier looked the likely winner – and Townsend Bell had a role to play in this, running in front of Rossi, helping with his fuel consumption.

By his last lap – run at only 179mph – Alex was operating virtually on fumes, but he made it to the line, and thus the 500 had its most unexpected winner since Graham Hill half a century earlier. “However,” Rossi said after taking the flag, “did we manage to do this?”

As ever I was struck by the gulf between Indycar racing and Formula 1, in the sense that each really is a world unto itself. Writing about Rossi the day after the race, one local journalist suggested that IndyCar was going to have a hell of a job keeping hold of him, for now F1 teams would surely be clamouring for his signature. I hadn’t the heart to point out that in F1 terms the Indianapolis 500 is of little account, just as at the Brickyard there was an awareness that, as usual, the Monaco Grand Prix was being run the same day as the 500, but no more than that.

Back in 1957 the Indy brigade brought its roadsters over for a race at Monza, whose newly built banking allowed for an oval layout. The concept was of a challenge race between Europe and the USA, and it was named – entirely appropriately – The Race of Two Worlds. Problem was that Europe, with the exception of Ecurie Ecosse, chose to boycott the event on safety grounds, and the Americans won as they liked.

They did the same in 1958, too, although this time the race was spiced up by entries from Ferrari and Maserati, driven by such as Luigi Musso and Stirling Moss. At the wheel of one of the roadsters – shared, extraordinarily, with Maurice Trintignant – was a rookie, one AJ Foyt, who remembered the race well when I asked him about it. “Because Monza was high-banked,” he said, “it was way faster than Indianapolis back then, and although it was bumpy as hell I really enjoyed it.” Pause. “They still use that place?” Two Worlds, indeed.  

Only one man truly straddled them. If Jim Clark and Graham Hill both won the 500 back in the ’60s, the only other world champion to do so was – of course – Mario Andretti, who continued through his Formula 1 years also to compete in Indycar races that did not conflict with the Grand Prix schedule. In 1978, two weeks after clinching the title at Monza in his Lotus 79, Andretti won for Roger Penske at the Trenton oval.

This year I arrived in Indianapolis on the Wednesday evening before the race. There had been no track activity for the 500 drivers that day, and friends told me that Mario had been pounding round in the Dallara-Honda two-seater, in which I had been fortunate enough to have a ride the previous year.

“Yeah, that was a busy day,” he smiled when I saw him in the garage area next morning. “We started just after nine, and – apart from a short lunch break – ran through ’til five…” By this time Andretti had run more than 320 laps – or, to put it another way, better than 800 miles! Not too many 76-year-olds would be capable of this, I think.

These laps are run at 185-190mph, and other drivers are mystified by Andretti’s unending desire to drive a racing car. “When I retired,” Rick Mears said to me, “it was the end of a chapter in my life – but for Mario that chapter will never close…”

When I mentioned it to Eddie Cheever, who won the 500 in 1998, he just giggled: “Everyone says, ‘Don’t worry about going in the two-seater – the driver’s only too aware that if he hits something he’s going to get hurt, too…’ but when it comes to Mario, I think, ‘That doesn’t work with him! I mean, he did not get that gene!’

“If you think about it,” Cheever went on, “oval racing is insane – you’re in a missile. I’ve never forgotten my first accident here, soon after I’d come across from Formula 1: I was doing shock absorber testing, and as I went over the ‘yard of bricks’ at the start/finish line, the car felt different, but I thought, ‘Oh, it’s nothing…’ As I went into Turn One, I got sideways, corrected it a little bit, but it was gone…

“I hit the wall so hard that I finished up in Turn Two, and when the car finally stopped I wasn’t brave enough to look down and see if I still had any legs. I remember procrastinating, thinking, ‘Sooner or later you’re going to have to look down…’ and when I did fortunately it was all there.

“The next problem was that I couldn’t breathe – I’d had all the wind knocked out of me – and I thought, ‘This is not good…’ Then a radiator, which had been broken, started smoking, so – breathing or not breathing – I got out in a hurry. Then I sat on the front wheel, just laughing – I could not believe I was alive! When the ambulance came out, I heard one of the guys say, ‘He must have hit his head…’

“I absolutely did not want to go through that again, so after that any time I drove a race car that didn’t feel right I would come out of the throttle. These days, thank God, we have the ‘Safer Barrier’ – it may not be perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than concrete.”

‘Safer’, in this context, stands for ‘Steel and Foam Energy Reduction’, and the barrier has many times proved its worth. At Texas, a fortnight after Indy, Newgarden had a huge accident, at one point hitting it cockpit-first, yet he sustained remarkably light injuries. Afterwards the barrier was in need of repair, for the top of Newgarden’s roll-over bar had punched a hole in it; not so long ago the shunt would have been unsurvivable.

At Baku, I was interested to note, the Safer Barrier made its maiden appearance at a Formula 1 race. Not before time, perhaps.  

***

In Montréal I had a long chat with Niki Lauda, which began with his feelings about Formula 1 in 2017, when major rule changes are to be introduced. Given that the races have been mainly good this year, that stability in the regulations has inevitably allowed other teams to close the performance gap to Mercedes, Toto Wolff believes it precisely the wrong time to make changes, but Lauda doesn’t necessarily agree with his colleague.

“My hope is that it will be much better next year – what we want to achieve is lap times five seconds quicker. At the moment the cars are too slow, and too easy to drive – they are so progressive that when you lose it you control it like in a saloon car. You go over the limit, and you have understeer, and you just wait until it comes back – this is the way the cars are today. They’re like Formula 3 cars – little tyres, so they can slide and do this and that – but although it’s still difficult to drive them really quick, it’s always controllable.

“Nobody knows yet how next year’s cars will be, but my hope is that, with this new package we’re creating – with wider tyres, different downforce and whatever – we’ll come back to what we had in the past, where you go up and up to the limit, and when you go over it, you lose it. There are only a few guys who can operate in this last tenth or two – like the motorbike guys. In MotoGP they are fighting all the time not to crash, and this we have to get back in F1, because then you will see the difference between drivers again – that’s vital. Whether or not it will happen I don’t know, but I hope so.”

Part of the package is considerably more downforce, and recently Lewis Hamilton spoke for most of his fellow drivers on the subject: “More grip is fine, but it should be mechanical grip, from the tyres or whatever. More downforce is the very last thing we need…”

Lauda made a face. “Yes, sure, because they’ll have to work harder – their necks will hurt more, and all that! I understand what they’re saying, but without more downforce how can we have cars that are much quicker? OK, you can get some speed from bigger tyres, but you’re limited – the rest is downforce…”

In 2017 the cars are necessarily going to be even heavier than the 700kg creations we have now: surely, I said, that will work against the ‘edgy’ aspect you are looking to see revived.

“I don’t think the weight is really an issue,” Lauda said. “It depends on how well balanced the cars are – at the moment they’re too easy to drive, including physically, there’s no question about that.”

Surely a part of that, I suggested, comes from the tyres of today – and from the restricted fuel allocation for a race. As Fernando Alonso recently observed, “All the time we have to save the tyres, save fuel and so on – Formula 1 shouldn’t be about saving anything…” I recalled the Monaco Grand Prix in 1978, when Lauda stormed through the field in his Brabham-Alfa, eventually finishing second. “At the end of the race,” I said, “you looked absolutely…”

“F****d!” said Niki, ever the man with the mot juste, obligingly finishing the sentence for me. “That day I came from nowhere, took chances like you do not believe – I drove my ass off, and I was exhausted. Now you never see a driver like that at the end of a race – in qualifying they’re sometimes close to record speeds, but then on race day they’re several seconds off that.

“Even so, though, people are saying, ‘Why change it? The racing’s pretty good at the moment’. In a way I can’t argue with that, and it’s because there is more balance between the cars: last year, when Mercedes had an advantage of five or six tenths, you knew that whichever one – Lewis or Nico – led into the first corner was going to win the race. For the fans it was a bore, but that was the fault not of Mercedes, but of the other teams not being competitive enough.

“This year, quite logically – because of development in a set of rules that hasn’t changed, as Toto says – everybody’s coming back at us. Now we have a very good season, because there’s less certainty about who’s going to win, but I’ll say it again: the main thing that will improve Formula 1 – in terms of being the top of all racing cars – we’re only going to get if we make the cars quicker.

“With the new rules, we won’t know if overtaking will be better or worse until we see the cars running – but I think it’s the right step if we want to get back the DNA of F1, to make it more attractive for the fans. One thing will be the sight of it – the wide tyres will look more aggressive, and hopefully the cars will be more difficult to drive, so that the drivers are again sweating on the podium, like I was at Monaco!”

If, as Lauda says, we want to get back the real DNA of Formula 1, surely an ingredient of that should be tyres as good as they can be – like every other component of a Grand Prix car – rather than what Pirelli is asked to manufacture these days. 

“Well, I really don’t care about Pirelli, but we have to be careful not to be unfair: they’ve been asked to build tyres that don’t last very long, and that’s what they are doing. In terms of the future, I think they are trying really hard – and under the most stupid rules you can impose on a manufacturer: not to test the bloody tyres! It’s completely crazy – we complain about Pirelli, but nobody can do a good job if they’re not allowed to test. We’ve been fighting this rule for years, and now some testing will be permitted – but only with a two-year-old car!”

Most would agree that the rule is idiotic, so why does it exist?

“Very simple. Because the structure of Formula 1 has changed over the years, and unfortunately in a bad way. We had the old days, when unanimous agreement was necessary for a rule change – so of course nothing changed, because unanimous agreement was usually impossible to achieve. Now we have the F1 Strategy Group, and although there has been a lot of criticism of it, theoretically it’s a better system, because now you need only a majority decision. The problem is that, because a mixture of different interests has developed over the last three or four years, it still doesn’t reach any f*****g decisions!

“At their meetings there is Bernie’s group on one side of the table, and Jean Todt’s on the other. Then there are the teams, which can never be united on anything. So we have this mixture of people sitting round the same table, and it makes it impossible to take the right decisions…”

Very well, I said, but surely at some point common sense has to come into play: what possible reason could there be, for example, for not allowing the testing of tyres?

“Because a rule was written – I don’t know how many years ago – that says you cannot test tyres on an existing car. Instead, the car has to be two years old – this was thought up by idiots. Now we have new rules coming, with completely different tyres, and we cannot test! The easiest way would be to use an existing car, putting new suspension and more wings on it, but no – we have to use an old one. It’s crazy, but these are the rules we make…

“In the same way, we restrict ourselves all the time on wind-tunnel use, on CFD, on track testing – the cheapest way to test the cars is on the track. Everyone complains that it’s too expensive – and they’re building test-rigs and so on at the factory, which never get the right results, and cost twice as much! There are so many stupid rules. Why can we not test tyres, except on a two-year-old car? Why can’t young drivers test? We have very few test days allowed, and teams complain that it costs a lot of money – yet they throw away hundreds of millions on other things! It’s all gone in the wrong direction, and sooner or later we have to stop it…”

Most people, I said, would agree with you, but what will it take to stop it? Clearly Lauda believes that attempts at democracy in F1 are a waste of time.

“Bernie should go back to being a dictator,” he said at once. “Honestly, I believe that. We need to have a new start, with logical thinking, and we need a dictator again.”

We then got on to the vexed question of haloes/canopies on ‘open cockpit’ racing cars. Recently I wrote a column on the subject for the Motor Sport website, and if my opinion – that I wished never to see such things in Formula 1 – resonated with many readers, others suggested I should be ashamed of myself for opposing a safety innovation.

“I think you were completely right in what you wrote,” said Lauda. “If you go too far with these things, it’s no wonder that fewer people are watching these days. We’re slowly going to destroy the DNA of F1 if we keep on inventing what are – for me – too many safety issues.

“Generally speaking, Formula 1 has never been as safe as it is today. Why? Because of improvements in the cars, and because over the years all these tracks have been designed by Mr Tilke, so there is no more guardrail you can hit because the run-offs are so wide: you go off, you drive over asphalt, and you come back on the track without even slowing down – maybe you even pass people like that! OK, because we have to worry about safety, this was a development which had to be done.

“People have said that a halo or canopy might have made a difference in Jules Bianchi’s accident in Japan, but it wouldn’t – that was a one-off, because there was a truck on the circuit.

“Taking this into account, Formula 1 is very safe now – look at Alonso’s accident in Australia – so now the question for me is how far do we want to go? In the end the attraction of any sport, like downhill skiing, which is the same as Formula 1 – think of the Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel – is how far can we go on safety issues without losing the interest of the people?

“In Formula 1 we show drivers going right to the limit, controlling these cars at enormous speeds and, no question, there is a danger involved, but I think – in a very respectful way – that the DNA of Formula 1 should be maintained. This thing with haloes was started a year ago by the FIA, and it’s gone too far, it’s got out of hand. I understand why the drivers say they want it, but no one asks them about the DNA of Formula 1. They’re part of it, they know the risks they’re getting themselves into, they love to go to the limit, they know when they hit something they could get killed, so if you ask them about the halo for sure most of them will say they want it.

“My worry is that we go over the top, and the attraction of Formula 1 slowly disappears: the racing on its own is interesting, but there is also the aspect of what these guys are really doing, in the end risking their lives – and without that people are going to lose interest. Therefore I’m against the halo idea: for one thing, we don’t even have a proper solution yet, in terms of what the things should look like, and worst of all would be to make it so stupidly high that you can’t see the drivers’ helmets any more – the numbers on the cars are impossible to see, anyway, and you won’t even know who’s sitting in the bloody car! It’s another layer between the fans and their heroes, and I think – unless we can get a proper solution both for the sport and for safety – we should leave it. That halo they had on the Ferrari looked completely ridiculous…”

In a conversation a few years ago, I said, I remember that you – who knows rather more than most about the dangers of motor racing – made the point that in your day Formula 1 had a gladiatorial aspect, which has now been greatly reduced.

“Yes,” said Niki, “and it’s true. If drivers are willing to do it – because they have talent and they want to take the chance – fine, but it’s their decision. If someone says he wants to make $40m a year, with an easy car to drive, and no risk, this is not reality. The drivers know what risks they are taking – other people worry more about them than they do themselves! They have to take the decision themselves: ‘Do I want to take the risk or not?’”

Daniel Ricciardo has made the point, in itself difficult to argue against, that if the halo saves one life in 20 years, it is worth adopting.

“Yes,” said Lauda, “but mainly I’m upset that the FIA started all this – if they hadn’t, Ricciardo wouldn’t have said anything. As I say, I can understand why the drivers want it, but in the end it’s not only the drivers who are involved with this sport.”

***

On to the Mercedes season thus far: in the first four races Nico Rosberg was supreme, but then Lewis Hamilton chopped into what was a huge points lead for his team-mate, restored to some degree in Azerbaijan. Neither, though, scored a point at Barcelona, where they crashed together within seconds of the start. This has always been the great unforgivable sin in Formula 1, but perhaps – given that for three years the world championship has distilled to a battle between Hamilton and Rosberg alone – such a thing was sooner or later inevitable.

“I agree,” said Lauda, “that everybody was waiting for it, yes, but I must say one thing: after Spa in 2014, when Nico touched Lewis, we told them, ‘You guys can drive as hard as you want – but if you damage Mercedes as a team, and neither car finishes, that’s too much.’ If you hit other guys this can happen in racing, I accept, but when it’s your own team-mate you damage the whole team effort, and that’s different.”

Surely, I said, this has happened since the beginning of time. Think of the first corner at Brands Hatch in 1976, when Clay Regazzoni ran into you at the first corner…

“Yes, sure, you’re right – but nevertheless we have to make Nico and Lewis aware of it. Otherwise someone else will win the championship, and that’s not funny.”

The coming-together at Barcelona came about, after Rosberg had passed Hamilton at the first turn, when Nico – having selected the wrong engine mode – found himself 200bhp down on the run to the next corner, and was obliged to defend vigorously against Lewis’s attack.

“The drivers make these little notes for themselves, which they put on the steering-wheel, and basically Nico didn’t realise that it was the wrong note he’d put there. Last year his engineer would have told him, but now the rules have changed, so these things can happen. As he went towards the corner, his red light was blinking, so everyone could see he had less power available.”

Lauda’s immediate response to the accident was to blame Hamilton, and he stands by that. “For sure Lewis was a bit shocked at being passed by Nico at the first corner, and then he made a super-aggressive attack into the corner where they crashed: this he did on the inside, and that was avoidable – he could have passed him on the outside. I accept that it was a racing accident, but it didn’t need to happen.”

In the early laps at Monte Carlo, while Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull streaked away in the lead, Rosberg and Hamilton ran second and third, but plainly Lewis was being held up, and eventually Nico was ordered to let him through. This he did, but some have wondered if, had their roles been reversed, Lewis would have been similarly obedient.

Niki was unequivocal. “Yes, for sure. Nico knew his car was not going well, knew how slowly he was going, and in that situation anyone would do what he did – even Lewis! Nico knew that if he didn’t let him through, pretty soon he was going to be passed, anyway, and in the Mercedes team it’s very clear: we are there so that the team can win the race, OK? In the end both drivers understand that.”

Going back to the incident at Spa in 2014, there was a widespread view, I said, that Mercedes overreacted to what had happened: yes, Rosberg’s front wing glanced Hamilton’s rear tyre, and the resulting puncture put Lewis out of contention, but it had all been the consequence of a tiny mistake, and the treatment meted out to Nico afterwards seemed a little over the top.

“No, I don’t think so,” responded Lauda. “After the race I had a meeting with Nico in Vienna, and he complained heavily that I had criticised him so much without speaking to him first. I said, ‘Give me a reason why I was wrong’ – and he couldn’t give me one. I said, ‘If I got it wrong, I apologise – but if now you can’t explain that it was not your fault…’

“You know me. I’m not one of these corporate bullshit guys – this is the way I am. It was the same at Barcelona: both Nico and Lewis were upset at the time, but I think that saying what I thought was the right thing to do. I have a very good relationship with both of them, and I think I understand them, because I raced myself and I speak the same language. I believe this is good for the whole team – there are the drivers and there are the managers, and I try to help to put them all together.”

Last year Hamilton clinched his third world championship – his second with Mercedes – at Austin, but Rosberg then won the last three races of the season. Was it the case of ‘job done’ for Lewis, after which he was a touch off the boil?

“There are two explanations,” Lauda said. “Either Lewis fell asleep – or Nico suddenly woke up! These things happen in racing, and when it happens to you, you can’t even explain it to yourself. Nico was pissed off that Lewis had won the championship again – and he responded by beating him in the three remaining races. Suddenly your head changes, and you get more confidence, and you get better and better. Then he won the first four this season, and put Lewis in a situation where he was the one who needed to come back. Nico is very different this year. He’s very mature, self-confident and strong – and he was always quick, of that there was never any doubt.”

If Hamilton faded in the late races of 2015, most anticipated that, come the start of the new season in Melbourne, the Mercedes situation would revert to normal, with Lewis in control again.

“Probably that’s right,” said Niki, “but it didn’t happen that way, because Nico had so much confidence from the end of last year. I’ll admit that, in a way, everyone at Mercedes was surprised, because honestly all the weaknesses Nico had last year he has corrected 100 per cent. Psychologically he is much stronger than he was. The thing about Nico is that he never stops improving – he works much harder than most drivers.

“Let me tell you something: I believe we have the two best drivers we could have today. Why? Because they push each other – all the time. Maybe you think Nico gave up for a time after Spa two years ago – but he came back. Same with Lewis: if he gets blown off he comes back. 

“It’s always the same, from the start of practice through to Sunday night, and this is why our car is going so well: both drivers develop it in the right direction, and they always have speed in the car, so we’re not losing out anywhere.”

Rosberg’s Mercedes contract expires at the end of this year, and his father Keke has prevailed upon old friend Gerhard Berger to help with the negotiations. Lauda says that all parties are working hard on them, and he is sure that Nico will stay at Mercedes. From the outside, I said, it is not easy to understand why such matters invariably take months to resolve.

“Well,” said Lauda, “we’re working here to win races, so we don’t have a priority in January to sign a driver, whatever people may think. We have until the end of the year to sign Nico – and we will. Of course, thanks to these internet idiots, the longer it goes on the more people assume there has to be a problem – it was the same last year with Lewis. We said then that nothing was wrong, that we just had to put it together, and it’s the same with Nico.”

Down the road Lauda believes Mercedes will face increasing opposition, notably from Ferrari and Red Bull. “Ferrari is an interesting team, because – most of the time – they don’t have this aggressive English one-direction development programme, having the right people working in the right way, developing the car step by step.

“At Ferrari they often have a lot of confusion, with too many people taking decisions, but it can very quickly happen that this confusion suddenly clicks – it happened when I was there – and when it does Ferrari is suddenly right there: the motivation comes back, and the group that took the decision that made things click becomes the leader, and adopts the English way of developing logically. At the moment Ferrari doesn’t click – but it could happen quickly, and if and when it does, they can really be a threat to us.

“As for Red Bull, at the moment they are really coming on strong – the car was always good, and now the Renault engine is improving. I think we’re still at the top, but next year we have to watch out. The combination of Ricciardo and Verstappen is a very strong one…you wonder how good is Verstappen going to be…”

Last year, in talking about the cars being physically easy to drive, some suggested that it really shouldn’t have been possible for a 17-year-old kid to come into Formula 1, and be competitive immediately…

“Correct,” said Lauda. “That’s why we need to change the rules – so that at least on the podium they sweat!”