Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

The Bianchi accident, Montjuich Park 1975, Vettel and Alonso

In the hours following Jules Bianchi’s accident, several moments and conversations came back to me, one of them with Martin Brundle at Suzuka in 1995, in which he recalled the Japanese Grand Prix a year earlier. In appalling conditions – worse even than those at this year’s race – Brundle’s McLaren flew off the road at the Dunlop Curve, scene of Bianchi’s disaster.

The circumstances of both accidents were remarkably similar: slippery track, poor visibility, a car going off the road, then another one at the same point on the next lap. Twenty years ago Gianni Morbidelli crashed his Footwork, and marshals were working on its removal with one of the yellow tractors long synonymous with Suzuka. Brundle, out of control, appeared to be heading straight for it.

“Up to that point,” Martin said, “I was having a bit of a stonking weekend. The first qualifying session was dry, and I was one place behind Häkkinen, my team-mate, but thereafter it was wet, and I was quickest in both second qualifying and the race morning warm-up.

“At the start the conditions were awful, but I was going OK, in the top six, and at first the car was fine, but then it started aquaplaning wickedly. Certainly the rain got worse, but I’m also pretty sure I’d picked up a right rear puncture, because quite a few people – including Johnny [Herbert] – had gone off on the start-finish straight, and there was debris everywhere.

“I really thought the safety car should have been used, I must say – in fact, when Johnny went off I was screaming for it to be brought out, although I’ll admit it’s a very difficult call, especially on long circuits, because it can be saturated at one end and acceptable at the other. At Spa a few weeks ago we had the opposite situation – the safety car came out, but the track was actually fine.

“I understand that there’s a lot of pressure on a lot of people in these circumstances, but as a driver you know pretty damn soon when the conditions are unacceptable – put it this way, when I’m out testing I know when the time is right to get off the race track. And that time was well past at Suzuka last year – it was a cloudburst.

“I was running behind Frentzen when I went off, and the visibility was so bad that initially I knew I was going off only because the noise suddenly disappeared. As you break traction, and start going backwards, you’ve lifted off, and suddenly it’s quiet. As soon as you hit the grass, you seem to accelerate – I don’t know if that’s a fact, or an illusion, but that’s how it feels.

“Then the car spun round, so now I was going forwards, heading straight for this tractor thing, and I could see all the guys there, the marshals. To be honest, I just closed my eyes – at that moment I thought it was over for me.

“As it was, the car got into a slide, and I just missed the tractor. It had nothing to do with me: in those circumstances you can be Superman, but there’s nothing you can do.

“It was the most terrifying moment of my life, and I was unbelievably fortunate to get away with it, but sadly one of the marshals was less lucky. When I hit him, I thought, ‘Jesus, he must be dead...’ I went to him at once, and miraculously he was alive, but there was a bone in his leg sticking out through his trousers...

“Actually, I’ve just seen the marshal again – I’ve kept in touch with him ever since. Poor guy. His leg’s still a hell of a mess, and he’ll have to walk with a stick for the rest of his life. When I saw him just now, I remembered his face coming over my cockpit – he went across it, right after I’d just missed the tractor.

“After I’d gone off, they finally brought out the safety car, but d’you remember what happened later that afternoon? The stewards chose to reprimand me! I was criticised for not seeing the yellow flags, but, Christ, I was stuck under Frentzen’s gearbox – I couldn’t see my own f****** dashboard, let alone any yellow flags…”

Another conversation I remembered was with Professor Sid Watkins over a bistro lunch in Paris one wintry day in early 2005. As usual Sid was in wonderfully irreverent form, telling me all manner of things I will never be able to write. Although still deeply involved with the FIA on matters of racing safety, he had by then stepped down after more than 25 years as ‘the Formula 1 doctor’, and as we reminisced laughter was interspersed by the odd tear, his and mine.

Back at his flat he produced a bottle of very old Armagnac, and we carried on talking until the last daylight was gone and I needed to leave for the airport.

“When you think about it,” said the Prof as I put on my coat, “it’s a bit silly to put ‘motor racing’ and ‘safety’ in the same sentence, isn’t it? If I say it myself, we’ve improved things a hell of a lot, and certainly these lads often walk away from accidents that would have killed them not so long ago.

“Always remember this, though: because it’s much safer than it was, that doesn’t mean it’s safe! If you think about it, how can 20-odd highly competitive people in 200mph machines ever be safe?”

Watkins was right, of course, but it’s only human nature to become complacent, even if he never did. When my childhood hero Jean Behra was killed in 1959 I had come to understand the meaning of grief for the first time, and a dozen years on, in my first season of working in Formula 1, I attended memorial services for Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. Like so many others, I suppose I had always tacitly accepted that this was simply the way motor racing was, and probably always would be.

Something I have never forgotten is a remark made by a representative of the CSI (then the sporting arm of the FIA) at Montjuich Park in 1975. When we arrived at the track on the Friday morning, practice should have been underway, but instead there was silence, and in the paddock we discovered the reason why. An inspection of the fabled street circuit had revealed that the Armco barriers around it had not been properly assembled – in places, indeed, lengths of guardrail were simply resting against each other, with not a bolt in sight. Unsurprisingly the drivers – mindful not least of the safety of the spectators – declined to proceed until matters had been put right and, believe it or not, ultimately it fell to the Formula 1 mechanics to get to work on the barriers.

In the race Rolf Stommelen’s car shed its rear wing at the fastest part of the circuit, took off and hurtled into – and over – a barrier. It was an accident I happened to witness, and after the race had been red-flagged we walked up the track to a scene of carnage. Stommelen, legs and ribs broken, was still in the cockpit, but although, by the grace of God, he had gone into an area prohibited to the public, around and under his car were the bodies of three marshals and a photographer. One hesitates to imagine the consequences had the barrier not been properly secured, and simply folded back.

What was it one of the CSI men had said a couple of days earlier? “Well, what is a safe circuit, anyway? I’ve never seen one…” By now it was Sunday, of course, and all representatives of the governing body, wishing to sidestep the controversy, were long gone. James Hunt, as so often, was on the mark: “Where are the f****** blazers now? Having a gin and tonic somewhere, I suppose…”

If that were the prevailing mentality in the Place de la Concorde, it was hardly surprising that Grand Prix racing remained horribly perilous, but in other quarters fortunately more enlightened souls had long been striving to bring about a change of attitude, and spearheading them was Jackie Stewart. It didn’t make him popular with many in the racing establishment, of course, but he has never been a man afraid to say his piece, and was unrelenting in his crusade. “We all supported what Jackie was trying to do,” said Chris Amon, “but, if I’m honest about it, I guess we were all quite happy to let him take the flak…”

Stewart was uncompromising in his efforts to force the powers-that-be to face up to the need for change, and it’s a fact that every racing driver of the last 40 years is in his debt. “Over time I lost a lot of friends,” he said, “and apart from the sadness it also made me angry , because in many cases the accidents should not have been fatal: the cars had got a lot faster, and the circuits simply hadn’t kept up.

“Too many times Helen had to go to the room of someone who had died, and pack up his belongings. In fact, it was on the Saturday afternoon at Watkins Glen in ’73 – a few hours after François Cevert’s accident – that I told her that was it, I was no longer a racing driver. Only then did she tell me that Paul had been saying to her, ‘When’s Daddy going to die?’ Helen asked him why he’d said that, and he said, ‘Well, all racing drivers die…’ The Rindts and the Bonniers had lived in the same area as us in Switzerland.”

Something else that has come back to me in recent days is a lunch in London with Mario Andretti and Jacky Ickx a few years ago. As with Sid Watkins, there were many good stories and much merriment, but at one point the conversation turned quietly solemn.

It was in September 1978, on the steps of the Niguarda Hospital in Milan, wherein Ronnie Peterson had died a few hours earlier, that Andretti, speaking to the assembled press, came out with a sentence that has stayed in my memory: “Unhappily, motor racing is also this…”

Now, in 2010, he and Ickx reflected on the previous summer, during which – in the course of a week – Henry Surtees died after being hit by a flying wheel at Brands Hatch and then Felipe Massa suffered a briefly life-threatening head injury at the Hungaroring.

“It was a shocking time,” said Ickx, “because we are not used to tragedy now, are we? Bad accidents don’t happen often in the modern racing world… but it will never stop, it will always happen.”

“It’s true,” Andretti agreed, “even though we’ve come so far on safety. We can say today that the great majority of drivers will be able to retire on their own terms, but that was a statement we couldn’t make, and when I look back to how it was, I can hardly believe it. People who didn’t understand the importance of advancing safety… to me they were living under a rock. In the ’60s and ’70s I would ask for the odd safety change in the States and they looked at you, like, ‘What is he – some sort of a cissy?’

“Apart from anything else, as racing got more commercial, sponsors spending millions of dollars wanted to celebrate – they did not want to go to funerals. Our sport would never have made it into modern times if it hadn’t addressed safety in the way it finally did – and it took somebody like Stewart to pioneer that, because the sanctioning bodies never gave it a thought.

“Most of all,” Mario concluded, “what we have to do is guard against complacency. You look at what happened to Massa in Hungary, and probably you couldn’t duplicate that accident in a hundred years – the fluke situation will always be lurking out there.”

Fundamentally, I don’t think our sport is complacent about safety in this era: year in, year out, the improvements keep coming. Over time, though, our perspectives have changed out of sight, in the sense that whereas once we looked upon tragedy as an inevitable, if unwelcome, adjunct to a sport that could never be safe, nowadays we have come subconsciously to assume that, however severe the accident, the driver will be as good as unscathed. Think of Robert Kubica at Montréal or Mark Webber at Valencia.

Therefore it is hardly surprising that we are stopped in our tracks by a disaster such as befell Bianchi at Suzuka. Twenty years have gone by since that weekend of horror at Imola, and in that time there has been a generation change in F1, be it in the cockpit, the pits or the press room. For the vast majority of folk in the paddock today, Andretti’s remark that morning in Milan long ago has no personal resonance, and therefore the effect of a disastrous accident is the more shocking.

Perhaps it was no more than inevitable, in the culture of ‘blame’ in which we live today, that the questions, the inquests, began immediately, even as doctors were striving to keep Bianchi alive. Should this have happened? Should that not have been done? Why was a green flag waving at the site of the accident?

Many of the questions asked were hysterical in tone, and revealed a lack of knowledge not only of racing practices but also of racing itself. I do not propose to get into most of them, but two points I will make.

First, with a threatened typhoon on the way, it seemed unfathomable that the circuit promoters rejected suggestions, from the FIA and elsewhere, of an earlier start time. Suzuka never starts until three o’clock, which is late, anyway, and by declining to listen to sensible advice they left themselves no leeway with regard to weather and – equally important – light.

Second, my chat with Brundle back in ’95 left its mark, and ever since I have felt deep unease at the sight of heavy tractors at the trackside, surrounded by vulnerable marshals. In this respect, at least, nothing has changed in more than 20 years, and anyone who proposed that in future their presence inside the guardrail should be accompanied automatically by a safety car would have no argument from me.

A fantasy phone call between Maranello and Woking.

“Buongiorno, Ron. It’s Marco…”

“Marco?”

“Mattiacci – you know, the guy who runs Ferrari these days…”

“Ah, yes, I remember. Good morning, Marco. What can I do for you?”

“Actually, it’s what I can do for you, my English friend! I’m calling about drivers.”

“Well, it’s very kind of you, Marco – but I’m not interested in Kimi. We had him at McLaren before, and… most of the time he was very quick, but a bit… unreliable. And, frankly, after the sort of season he’s had in 2014…”

“No, no, it’s not Räikkönen I’m calling about.”

“Ah…”

“I’ve been told that Alonso drove for you in the past, and won a lot of races, but that you and he didn’t get on, and parted after only one season.”

“Yes.”

“Now, though, people are saying that you want him back – that Honda is very keen. Is that right?”

“Mmm, could be.”

“Well, maybe we can help each other…”

“How?”

“Well, because I want to change everything in Maranello – and I want to do it without Alonso…”

“Seriously? I know he can be difficult – but where would Ferrari have been these last few years without him?”

“That’s not the point! Alonso has ideas above his stazione – just because we have given him shitboxes to drive for a few years, he dares to criticise the holy name of Ferrari! [Sotto voce] Between ourselves, more important is that he has too much power in the team – and I have to show the world that I, Marco Mattiacci, am in charge…”

“OK, but Alonso’s under contract to Ferrari for the next two years. What you seem to be talking about is going to be very expensive…”

“Mmm, maybe not. I have an idea.”

“Go on.”

“For many weeks I have on my desk a letter of intent with another driver who is getting, how you say, blown off by his team-mate and is ready to come to Ferrari in 2015. You know how Alonso is – Latin, very proud, very fiery – and if I can make him mad enough, question his commitment, that sort of thing, I can see him losing his temper and tearing up his contract…”

“OK.”

“Now here’s the clever part. Alonso and his manager think they control the driver market – but if this other driver unexpectedly announces he’s leaving his current team, and word gets about that he’s coming to Ferrari… The other team will promote one of its juniors because that’s what it always does, and suddenly Alonso is, how you say, up the creek! There’s nothing for him at Mercedes at the moment, so where else can he go but McLaren? And in that situation, my dear Ron, you just might be able to bring his price down…”

Throughout his 14-year career in Formula 1, Gerhard Berger was unique among the top drivers in never bothering to employ a manager. For one thing, he would joke, Austrians are famously tight, and he was no exception: “I don’t want to give away a big percentage to anyone.” For another, he preferred to keep it simple: “When I go to do a deal, I have two figures in mind: what I want – and what I’ll take…”

Berger’s philosophy seemed never to hurt him too much. “Gerhard,” says Martin Brundle, “was always a very smart cookie – and a tough player. He had his ear closer to the ground than anyone, and I really used to admire the way he pulled deals – some of his contracts were just bloody outrageous!”

In today’s Formula 1 world, Sebastian Vettel is the only driver to follow that path. A four-time world champion he may be, but off-track Seb has always been an intensely private man, and none the worse for that. No social media for him, for example, and I’ve always thought that very savvy: over time, after all, more than one of his fellows has foolishly tweeted himself into strife… and if you’ll forgive that sentence, you’ll forgive anything.

Like Berger, Vettel has never employed a manager, preferring to rely on the counsel of his father and one or two close friends. And like Gerhard, too, Sebastian appears well able to take care of himself: until Jules Bianchi’s accident dwarfed all else at Suzuka, the major story of the weekend had been the unexpected announcement that Vettel and Red Bull – for several years the dominant partnership in Grand Prix racing – were to part.

It was late on the Thursday evening that Seb told Christian Horner and Helmut Marko of his decision, and the following morning they lost no time in informing the paddock, mischievously adding that he would be a Ferrari driver in 2015.

To some the news clearly came as a bombshell, and certainly it was unusual in its timing, but was it really that much of a surprise? For all Vettel’s titles and successes, people have long murmured that, if he wished to be considered one of the greats, he needed at some stage to leave the cradle of Red Bull, and win a championship with a different team.

Horner and Marko have predictably spoken of Sebastian’s ‘wish for a new challenge’ after so many years, and that’s understandable, too – particularly if a new team-mate has unexpectedly had the upper hand, and you are well aware that a second season of that would seriously lower your stock. Add in the forthcoming change in Adrian Newey’s role at Red Bull, and you can understand that, in all respects, this was the right time for Seb to move.

To me, rather more of a surprise was that by Friday morning at Suzuka the Red Bull hierarchy was ready to announce that Vettel would be replaced as Daniel Ricciardo’s team-mate next year by Daniil Kvyat. Certainly the young man has impressed in his maiden F1 season, and the importance to Red Bull of its ‘academy’ system is well known, but still one was surprised by the speed of his confirmation – not least because apparently available for hire was one F Alonso. Although Marko had some weeks ago said that ‘Alonso will not drive for Red Bull’, it seemed amazing that the opportunity at least to investigate the possibility had been passed up.

A year or so ago, when Martin Whitmarsh was engaged in trying to persuade Alonso to return to McLaren at some stage, he made a simple point: “If you sign a driver as extraordinary as Fernando, you not only have him with you... you also don’t have him against you.” It was this thinking that figured strongly in Red Bull’s determination to accommodate Newey in whatever he wished to do in the future: he might not be in day-to-day technical charge of the F1 team any more – but neither would he be doing that job for anyone else.

Marko and Horner, to say nothing of Dietrich Mateschitz, obviously had their reasons for not, in the aftermath of Vettel’s departure, pausing to consider a deal with Alonso. No one needs telling that Fernando is not the easiest of racing drivers – as any team principal will tell you, the really great ones almost never are – and it’s a fact that, like Senna or Schumacher, he likes to play a central role in the running of a team. This is the reason for his falling-out with Mattiacci, who, for all his mild manner, is described by an Italian colleague as ‘the smiling knife’.

Strange now to look back those months to April, when Stefano Domenicali was pushed onto his sword, and this new man turned up in Shanghai as Ferrari team principal. Previously he had been the company’s successful North American CEO, but that meant nothing to a former team member with whom I spoke: “Pah! Selling Ferraris in America is like selling ice cream on the beach! What does he know of Formula 1?”

Whatever else, clearly what Mattiacci did know was that he liked to be in charge, and as the months went by it became apparent to him that while Alonso might routinely deliver results for Ferrari in a manner utterly beyond his team-mates, more important was that Fernando was not as manageable as he required. That being so, he began to plan an alternative future for the team, and a ‘letter of intent’ with Vettel was signed as long ago as June.

In light of the frustrations Alonso has suffered through his years with Ferrari, and the fact that the team – unlike Red Bull – has yet to win a race in the ‘new F1’ era, many have been nonplussed by Vettel’s decision to leave the one for the other.

Perhaps his former team-mate, Mark Webber, was on the money with a remark he made to me at the beginning of the year. “You know what?” Mark said. “I think Seb will do everything early in life: he’s got his championships early, he’s going to have a kid early and I think he’ll retire early – probably a blast in the red car, and then sayonara… It’ll be just his luck to go to Ferrari when they have one of their golden periods!”

If Webber’s last observation turns out to be right, that will be Alonso’s cross to bear, just as with Chris Amon, who left Ferrari at just the wrong time – at the end of 1969 – and then had to watch the team’s resurgence, with a huge injection of Fiat cash and a new flat-12, the following year. Sometimes it happens that way, and if Ferrari – with James Allison’s first car – bounces back finally in 2015, undoubtedly there will be those who ascribe it to Vettel’s presence in the team.

Certainly his announcement at Suzuka wrong-footed Alonso, for now the world knew not only that Sebastian was going to Ferrari, but also by implication that Fernando was definitely leaving, and would not need to be financially wooed away from Maranello. In essence, though, it damaged only Alonso’s bargaining power, for nothing was anyway on offer at Red Bull or, more importantly, Mercedes, so that left only McLaren.

By the time this is read, a deal between the two parties may well have been announced, but as I write the sticking point in negotiations is believed to be not so much financial as length of contract: Alonso wants an initial deal of one year only, enabling him not only to see if McLaren has rediscovered its mojo, and Honda made a success of its comeback, but also allowing for the possibility of a move to Mercedes in 2016, should either Hamilton or Rosberg depart. Given his obsession with winning at least one more world championship, time is much on Fernando’s mind: five of his best years have been largely squandered at Ferrari, and next July he will be 34.

As for Mattiacci’s brave new world, Vettel and Räikkönen may be great mates, but the thought occurs that Ferrari had better come up with something good in 2015, for – on the evidence of this year – the team no longer has a driver who can wring the neck of a so-so car.

Meantime, the situation in which Alonso finds himself has echoes of that facing Jackie Stewart at the end of 1969, the year of JYS’s first world title, at the wheel of what was always his favourite car, the Cosworth-powered Matra MS80 run by Ken Tyrrell.

After a single, unsuccessful, season of running its own V12 car in ’68, Matra withdrew as a factory team for ’69, but declared its intention to return the following year. It was the hope of chairman Jean-Luc Lagardère that Stewart might be persuaded to drive for Matra in 1970 but, after testing the car, Jackie, while enthusing about the chassis, found Matra’s screaming V12 nothing like the equal of a Cosworth DFV, and declined the offer.

Problem was, Matra had already informed Tyrrell that, returning to Formula 1 with its own team, it would be unable to provide Ken’s outfit with any more chassis. Enquiries made to such as Brabham and McLaren were coolly received: predictably there was little enthusiasm for supplying a ‘customer car’ that would enable Stewart to beat their own drivers.

Max Mosley and Robin Herd, proprietors of newly founded March, had no such qualms, however, figuring it would do them no harm at all to have the world’s best driver in one of their cars.

Tyrrell was thus left with no alternative, and in the short term it solved a problem, but so average a car was the original March 701 that Ken swiftly concluded that he needed to become a constructor in his own right: by August, at the Oulton Park Gold Cup, the first Tyrrell had made its impressive debut.

Coming back to the present, once it became sure that Alonso and Ferrari were done, all manner of rumours circulated as to what Fernando might do.

I thought back to a remark murmured by Niki Lauda during practice at Montréal, wherein the most serious opposition to Mercedes seemed to be coming from Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa: “Thank God Alonso is not in a Williams…”

In recent weeks many have said how much they would love to see Fernando in one of Frank’s Mercedes-powered cars, and there’s little doubt that the team would also benefit from the devoted sponsors who would follow him there, but long ago Massa and Bottas were confirmed for next year. “To be honest,” a Williams man confided, “I don’t think that – as a team – we’re quite ready for Fernando in 2015. By ’16 it might be different…”

Personally there is nothing I would like to see more, but I should say that those words were uttered a while ago, when it seemed certain that Alonso would remain at Ferrari for at least one more year.

As things stand, it appears that his only option is McLaren – or a sabbatical, as taken in 1992 by Alain Prost, after being fired by Ferrari at the end of the previous year for… you guessed, daring publicly to criticise the sacred name. When, after the Japanese Grand Prix, Alain compared his car unfavourably with a truck, the Fiat men then in charge instantly cancelled his contract.

Not his retainer, mark you, for the deal had another year to run. “Brilliant!” commented John Hogan, then Marlboro’s man in F1. “Ferrari are in the shit, and they’ve sacked the one bloke who might have got them out of it! Now they’re going to pay him not to drive for them in ’92…”

By the time Prost was shown the exit, it was very late in the day to organise another drive, and although he was persuaded to test a Ligier at Magny-Cours (where his pace startled team members into an instant re-evaluation of their existing drivers), he saw no future in it, and settled for a year off.

Alain wasn’t idle, though. As well as working for French television at the races, he also lost no time in sorting out his return to the sport, and he did it with Williams-Renault, the team for which everyone wanted to drive.

Nor did his sabbatical appear to have hurt him too much, for in 1993 he came back reinvigorated, winning on his return, at Kyalami, and going on – at 38 – to take his fourth world championship.

It can be done, therefore, but Alonso seems unlikely to follow Prost’s path. “After two months,” Jacques Villeneuve recently commented, “Fernando wouldn’t know what to do – he’s a racing animal…”