Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Drivers who speak their mind are a breath of fresh air in a Formula 1 paddock that trades all too often in banalities. Seldom a shrinking violet, Fernando Alonso chose an interesting moment to compare his Honda engine to that of a GP2 car. He did it over McLaren’s team radio, on live TV, during the Japanese firm’s home race at Suzuka…

One of the many criticisms expressed by fans of contemporary Formula 1 is that public relations – once essentially unknown in the sport, but now an industry unto itself – exerts such a vice-like control on the drivers that in TV interviews they invariably come across as automatons, chary of saying the wrong thing for fear of upsetting their team owner or sponsor, let alone Bernie Ecclestone. This is why, at press conferences, the trick is to keep awake.

In the 21st century, sadly, plain speaking has been subsumed by euphemistic gobbledegook, and the virus has taken hold everywhere from the House of Commons to the Formula 1 paddock. Thus, ‘a difficult problem’ is now ‘a challenging issue’, and while a team principal may be incensed by a remark from one of his drivers, if there’s a microphone within 50 paces he will simply bleat that it’s ‘not helpful…’

If a reminder were needed of why today’s drivers tend – in public – to come across as bland, at Suzuka Fernando Alonso provided it. Unlike some, he is not one to use his radio very much in the course of a race, and nor did he this time – but when he did, it was to some effect.  

So short of power was the Honda at his back that Fernando compared it with a GP2 engine, and said it was ‘embarrassing’ to be overtaken with such ease. When Räikkönen gives vent to his feelings, invariably the response – not least from me – is, ‘Good old Kimi, saying what he thinks’, but when Alonso did it, opprobrium came tumbling down on him.

Not for a second did anyone believe that it was by chance that he said his piece in Japan, but Alonso is like Senna, a warrior of a racing driver: remembering Ayrton’s ceaseless complaints about the Ford V8s used by McLaren in 1993 (allowing him to win only five races…), can anyone begin to imagine how he would have reacted to Saubers blowing past him?

In point of fact, given that Alonso has always been fearsomely competitive – and a Latin to boot – I have been amazed by how long he has kept a lid on his frustrations. Following dismal pre-season testing with Honda’s power unit, neither he nor Jenson Button went into the year with much optimism, but both might reasonably have anticipated – even given the strictures of the wretched ‘engine token’ system – rather greater progress than has been made. Here are two world champions whose presence in F1 this year has gone essentially unnoticed.

“Mercedes was on a different level – and the greatest driver of his time was wasted…” We could be talking of 2015, but in fact this was Denis Jenkinson recalling the 1954 season, when Alberto Ascari had left Ferrari for Lancia.

It was in Montréal that Alonso’s frustration with Honda first broke surface – in public, anyway – and again it was on the radio. While obviously unhappy in the second half of the pack, he was at least getting something from battling, albeit briefly, with those around him, so when – on top of everything else – his engineer asked him to save fuel, he responded vigorously: “No, no! I prefer to wait…” In other words, for now let me enjoy this scrap and save fuel later.

That put me in mind of a post-race outburst by Keke Rosberg in 1985, the midst of the first turbo era, when he had been obliged to turn down the boost so as to have fuel enough to go the distance. He, too, had felt embarrassed: “You want to scream out to the grandstands, ‘Hey, I’m not a wanker, you know! I could go a lot faster than this…’”

Given Alonso’s predicament this season, many have suggested that Maranello’s renaissance surely must have made him wish he had stayed put for 2015. Fernando, though, has continued to remind us that he grew accustomed to being second in his five years with Ferrari, and if he were there now it would still – for all the team’s improvement – be the same story.

What else can he say? Almost certainly he is right, in the sense that Mercedes has remained essentially unassailable, but one somewhat doubts that through the long night watches he has never allowed himself to think about the season he might have had.

There must be a reason why 18 months ago Sergio Marchionne, an avowed Alonso fan, chose to replace Stefano Domenicali with Marco Mattiacci, a sales executive with no racing background, but it has never occurred to anyone else. In his new role the arrogant Mattiacci proved clueless, but if at the end of the year Marchionne fired him, this came too late for Alonso. “Without Mattiacci,” said friend and compatriot Pedro de la Rosa, “Fernando would never have left…”

Perhaps so, but taking his leave was still a huge step, for not too much was available among the leading teams, and Alonso’s only realistic option was a return – once thought inconceivable – to McLaren, then about to renew its ties with Honda.

No one, least of all a kid who had plastered his bedroom wall with pictures of Senna’s McLaren-Honda, needed a reminder of the partnership’s glorious past, and a visit to the company’s HQ convinced Fernando of Honda’s commitment to the new project. Like Ron Dennis, he suggests that a partnership with a manufacturer is essential, that no team will win world championships with ‘customer’ engines.

Personally, as one who remembers the vivid observations of such as Alan Jones and Gilles Villeneuve, I never get upset with racing drivers saying what they think. Very far from it. And while Alonso’s radio comments at Suzuka led to criticism from some quarters, his very English team-mate was if anything even more to the point.

“I was just a sitting duck,” Button said. “There’s such a difference in speed – they go for moves into 130R, and I think ‘it’s not going to happen’, but they can see the speed difference whereas in the mirrors I can’t. The problem was that the closing speed was so great – there could have been a massive accident. They’ve got DRS, they’re 30-40kph quicker, and trying to judge that is very difficult for all of us. Fernando and I are used to fighting – but we can’t even do that. It’s like a samurai without his armour and sword…”

Going into the autumn rumours gathered that Jenson was about to retire, and indeed there was a flippancy about some of his radio conversations with his engineer that seemed to back them up. A year ago, after all, his future with McLaren was much in doubt, and we were mystified by the team’s endless indecision, which seemed grossly unfair to a man who had served it so loyally for so long. Insiders believed that Kevin Magnussen would partner the incoming Alonso in 2015, and it was only a last-minute change of mind that kept Button on board.

Magnussen, having been led to believe he had the drive, was devastated, but there was no alternative other than to accept the role of test/reserve driver, in the expectation that he still had a future in the McLaren race team. To that end, Kevin has been at virtually every Grand Prix this year, but if he has continued to gain experience from attending the debriefs and so on, not being in the car has torn him apart.

Nor will he be in it next year, or any time after. After the race in Japan Ron Dennis insisted that Button – perhaps against his own expectations – would again partner Alonso in 2016, and soon this was confirmed.

On October 16 I received a McLaren email, entitled, ‘A Fond Farewell to Kevin Magnussen’. It took the form of a statement from Ron Dennis, and concluded thus: “Evidently we have no space for him at McLaren-Honda as a race driver next year, but there is no shame in being edged out by two world champions, Fernando and Jenson. We wish Kevin well, and will do all we can to help him successfully embark on the next chapter of his racing career.”

On October 5 Magnussen, too, had received an email from McLaren, this a single paragraph advising him that his services were no longer required. It came not from Dennis, but from his personal assistant, so that was a nice touch, and what made the picture complete was that it arrived on his 23rd birthday.

Why could Dennis not have told Magnussen – to his face – that there was no longer a place for him at McLaren? Perhaps he preferred to sidestep a difficult moment, maybe he simply thought it unimportant, who knows? Whatever, it perhaps offers an insight into why the list of McLaren drivers – including Kevin’s father, Jan – who remember Dennis well is not a lengthy one.

Having sat out this season, Magnussen obviously had no opportunity to remind team personnel of why they signed him in the first place, while another ‘McLaren junior’, Stoffel Vandoorne, won the GP2 championship. At the post-race test session in Austria, it was Vandoorne, not Magnussen, who drove the McLaren, so that offered a clue. Now – flavour of the moment – Stoffel takes over Kevin’s role as reserve driver.  

On October 18 Nyck de Vries, on the McLaren books from his early karting days, won his first race in the Renault 3.5 series, so perhaps Vandoorne would do well to keep a sense of perspective about his future. These are indeed unsettling times at McLaren.

If a year ago we thought Alonso had put himself into a weak position with regard to his immediate future, it was as nothing compared with the one Dietrich Mateschitz & co have created for themselves in 2015. While Fernando may have had but a single option before him, that was one more than appears to be on offer to Red Bull. No one outside the team can quite comprehend how this situation has been allowed to arise.

Forgive what may sound like a digression, but in contemplating Red Bull’s dilemma, I cannot but recall a remark made to me by Jackie Stewart back in 1989. After the tangle between Prost and Senna at the Suzuka chicane, most laid the blame at Alain’s door, which on this occasion he had declined to leave open. JYS saw it differently: “Prost was ahead, and Senna came shooting up the inside: either Alain moved out of the way, or they had a coming-together, right? Ayrton was well behind on points, and had the most to lose: the one thing you never do in motor racing is put yourself at someone else’s mercy…”

Simple advice, it applies as much off the track as on it, as Red Bull folk are beginning to understand. By the time this is read, the matter may have been resolved, one way or another: at Sochi Bernie Ecclestone claimed that the team’s engine supply problem was ‘sorted’, and normally that means he knows something we don’t, but he didn’t sound very convincing, and at the time of writing Red Bull is still without a means of propelling its racing cars in 2016.

Back in early ’09, following Honda’s precipitate withdrawal from F1 in the advent of the worldwide financial meltdown, it will be remembered that team principal Ross Brawn decided to continue running the outfit in his own name. In difficult circumstances Honda behaved very honourably, not only taking care of the inevitable redundancies at Brackley, but also providing the wherewithal to enable Brawn to keep the team afloat.

What Ross didn’t have, though, was an engine for the forthcoming season, and to that end Martin Whitmarsh, then at the helm of McLaren (whose engine partner was Mercedes), went to Stuttgart and persuaded chairman Dieter Zetsche to supply Brawn.

This was still the era of the 2.4-litre V8, of course, and Zetsche’s agreement to accommodate Brawn set up quite a chain of events, for the revised team – with Mercedes power and a trick double diffuser – did rather well in ’09, winning eight of the 17 races, and taking Jenson Button to the world championship. Mercedes people liked what they saw, to the point that at the end of the year they bought the whole caboodle, and went racing in their own name.

Perhaps a more hard-nosed individual than Whitmarsh might have declined to help a rival in need, and had he done so who knows how different the course of F1 history might recently have been? Martin was – is – a decent man, though, and those were anyway the days of FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), a rare attempt at togetherness in the face of Ecclestone and CVC Capital Partners.

It didn’t last, of course, because Bernie applied his usual practice of ‘divide and conquer’, offering huge financial sweeteners to teams prepared to abandon FOTA, whose power – stripped of unanimity – was of course instantly lost. The second team to acquiesce was Ferrari; the first had been Red Bull. People don’t forget these things.

Even were Red Bull the most popular team in the paddock, there would surely have been little chance of its reaching an agreement with Mercedes. The days of ‘off the peg’ V8s are gone, and in this hybrid era F1 has become very much an ‘engine formula’, in which Mercedes is predominant. While Toto Wolff did not immediately dismiss Red Bull’s advances, Dr Zetsche and his directors were unequivocal. Picture the scene in the boardroom…

“So let’s get this straight. Up to now we’ve spent 43 zillion euros on designing and building and developing this hybrid engine, right?”

“Ja…”

“And we’ve done how many races with it so far?”

“Thirty-four…”

“And how many have we won?”

“Twenty-eight…”

“So it is easily the best in Formula 1?”

“Ja…”

“And who has won the other six?”

“Well, three have gone to Ferrari…”

“And the other three?”

“Red Bull…”

“With the Renault engine?! How?”

“Well, they tend to have the best chassis…”

“And now they want our engine to put in it?”

“Ja…”

“Nein…”

No joy for Mateschitz and his cohorts in Stuttgart, then – and not much in Maranello, either. Having failed to get a deal with Mercedes, their next port of call proved more receptive, but only to a point: yes, Ferrari would supply engines to Red Bull – but they would always be a year adrift of the latest ones. Now it was the turn of Mateschitz to say ‘Nein’, and he did it with some vim: the deal on offer was ‘insulting’ – it had to be the current engines, or nothing. Seemed a touch high-handed for someone in quicksand.

Red Bull is in this position, of course, because it has consummately – and quite deliberately – fallen out with Renault. If it’s undeniable that the French company has struggled in the hybrid era, still Red Bull’s behaviour towards its engine supplier, previously churlish at best, has this year been shocking.

Before we get into that, it’s worth blowing the dust off the record books of the recent past. As a result of dissatisfaction with its previous supplier (Ferrari…), Red Bull began its relationship with Renault in 2007. After a slow start – no victories in the first couple of years – the partnership began to click in ’09, and over the next six seasons won a staggering 50 Grands Prix, together with four world championships for Sebastian Vettel.

Given that every one of these was achieved with a Renault engine, you might reasonably have expected that from the long relationship an ethos of ‘win together, lose together’ would have evolved, but such was never the case. Even in the V8 era it broke Red Bull’s heart to say anything complimentary about Renault. More usually there were mutterings about ‘being at a disadvantage at power circuits’ – although that didn’t keep Vettel, Webber and later Ricciardo from winning at places like Monza and Silverstone and Spa.

The second half of the 2013 season was rendered soporific by the degree of the RB9’s superiority, none but Vettel winning a race after the summer break. “We should remember these days, boys,” Seb radioed in on his slowing-down lap in Abu Dhabi. “It won’t always be like this…”

And it wasn’t. Come 2014, the hybrid era was upon us, and Mercedes took over as the dominant team. As we said, Red Bull indeed had three victories, but all were scored by Ricciardo, while Vettel went curiously into surly decline, liking nothing about the new Formula 1 and missing no opportunity to say so.

Mateschitz, having grown accustomed to the notion that every fortnight his team won a Grand Prix, didn’t like it, either, and this year, judging by Red Bull’s vilification of its engine partner, he has liked it even less. Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have gone on at length about the shortcomings of Renault, and clearly instruction was coming from the top, for periodically Mateschitz himself weighed in, notably at his own Red Bull Ring back in June.

“Besides taking our time and money Renault has destroyed our enjoyment and motivation, because no driver and chassis in this world can compensate for this horsepower deficit. In addition, our chances were scuppered by aerodynamic regulations that meant Adrian Newey could not weave his magic on the front wings. Now we have used our fourth engine, which means we are penalised on the grid. How many more things have to happen before we lose all enjoyment?”  

Presumably it never crossed his mind that there wasn’t much in way of enjoyment for Red Bull’s rivals – to say nothing of TV fans, snoring on the sofa – when Vettel reeled off nine on the trot two years ago. And is he suggesting that for Red Bull ‘enjoyment’ in Formula 1 can be achieved only by guaranteed success?

For a long time Renault personnel behaved stoically in the face of endless, very public, criticism from its prima donna partner, but as the months went by their irritation became more apparent, so that it started to become clear that, contracts or not, the partnership would not continue beyond the end of 2015. Elsewhere, Lotus was in financial tatters and looking to be bought out, and this presented a more attractive option for the future. Once it had been confirmed, by both sides, that the agreement was at an end, Renault announced it would no longer supply ‘customer’ engines – to anyone.

Given the vitriol hurled Renault’s way by Red Bull people, one must assume that an end to the agreement was what they were actively seeking: what no one can quite understand is why they embarked on this path apparently without having a back-up plan agreed, much less inked.

In Russia Bernie Ecclestone said that what F1 needed was a contemporary equivalent of the Cosworth DFV – an engine available for sale to anyone who might wish to buy it. Whether or not – given Red Bull’s contemptuous disinterest in anything other than ‘state of the art’ engines – such a thing would be acceptable to one such as Mateschitz, one rather doubts, but in any case it is academic, for such an engine doesn’t exist.  

Logically, it is inconceivable that Red Bull folk didn’t begin quietly speaking to Mercedes and Ferrari long ago about engines for 2016 and beyond, and further one has to conclude that – somewhere or other – they must surely have believed an agreement would be forthcoming. If such were not the case, why – without an alternative engine supplier – would they so regularly have stuck the boot into Renault?

If it cannot be put down to simple stupidity – and presumably it can’t – one can ascribe it only to surpassing arrogance, in the DNA of Red Bull from the beginning of its involvement in F1.

Owning and entering four cars – one fifth of the grid – in each race has done no harm to Mateschitz’s powerbase in F1, and neither has putting on a Grand Prix at his own circuit. Assuredly he has the ear of Ecclestone to a greater degree than all save perhaps Ferrari, which is why rivals in the paddock have long been resentful of Red Bull – and also why Bernie has lately been running hither and thither, trying in a variety of ways (some more subtle than others) to persuade Mercedes
or Ferrari to come across.

Should such a deal not materialise, Mateschitz has threatened to pull the plug. Red Bull is among the teams in the F1 Strategy Group, all of whom have committed to the business until 2020, and quitting ahead of time would theoretically incur terrifying financial penalties, but for all that no one is taking the threat lightly. It is a characteristic of the ultra-rich – and Mateschitz is comfortably more affluent even than Ecclestone – that they believe the rules by which most of us have to live do not apply to them. “Sure, there are contracts for Formula 1 participation,” he shrugs, “but how many teams have dropped out of F1, despite the contracts? You cannot hold someone if he wants to get out…”

It need hardly be said that the root of the problem is that Formula 1, perhaps more than ever before, is ruled utterly by self-interest. There is little point in talking to these people about ‘the good of the sport’, because although all can see the desirability of a full grid – these days only 20 cars – those at the sharp end are rather keen on staying there, and are thus disinclined to assist the efforts of others to unseat them.

“We’re possibly going to be forced out of Formula 1,” said Adrian Newey after the Russian Grand Prix, “because Mercedes and Ferrari have refused to supply us out of fear…”

Gee, d’you think? For years Newey’s inventive genius ensured that a Red Bull was the car to have, so it’s hardly surprising that Mercedes and Ferrari are fearful. Would you wish to be Zetsche or Marchionne, explaining to fellow directors how we got beaten to the world championship – oh, and by our own engine…

Motor racing has always been about ‘the unfair advantage’, as Red Bull appreciates better than most. Did Adrian share the secrets of his ‘blown diffuser’ with the rest of the paddock?

As I said, it remains unclear quite what Mateschitz had in mind when he decided that he and his lieutenants should publicly slag off Renault. Did he believe it would sting the French engineers into action, and galvanise the process of improving the engine? Was he hoping they would become so enraged that they would tear up the contract? Not without another supplier to slip into the breach, one would have thought, but perhaps he assumed that would be no problem.

Whatever, it’s undoubtedly the case that the tactic hardly aided Red Bull’s quest to align itself with one of the other manufacturers, all of whom – perhaps wary of similar treatment down the road – were singularly unimpressed by it.

When Newey made his comments about Mercedes and Ferrari refusing to supply Red Bull ‘out of fear’, he added this: “Red Bull should not be put in a position where they’re only there to make up the numbers…”

That rather gives the impression that there is something sacrosanct about Red Bull, as if it were a special case, deserving of consideration not available to the riff-raff. Perhaps, in light of the team’s past successes, Adrian and his colleagues believe this to be so, but surely they cannot be unaware of the coolness felt towards Red Bull by much of the paddock, not least because of its ‘special relationship’ with Ecclestone.

As I write, a few days after the Russian Grand Prix, Bernie has again averred that Red Bull’s engine supply problem is ‘sorted’, and if this really is so, the assumption of most is that – because no other solution appears possible – some sort of paper-over-the-cracks agreement has been reached with Renault, despite its assertion that it would no longer supply ‘customer’ engines to anyone.

Why, after all that has gone down between them this year, might Renault countenance a renewal of its ties with Red Bull? Well, because Formula 1 has always been about expediency, about quid pro quo. Ecclestone is extremely keen for Mateschitz not to take his bat and ball home – and Renault is similarly enthusiastic about a more favourable financial arrangement with the commercial rights holder in the future. It is known that a while ago CVC – as ever mindful only of its investors – showed little enthusiasm for that idea, but perhaps Bernie has persuaded them that sometimes pragmatism brings its own reward.

This, I am only too aware, is not the ideal moment to be speculating about Red Bull and its engine problem, because quite probably, in the morass of political manipulation that is Formula 1, anything I write will be obsolete within minutes of pressing the ‘send’ button, and perhaps – who knows? – Mercedes and Ferrari will suddenly be competing for the honour of supplying ‘up to the minute’ engines to their esteemed rival.

If you’re still interested, stay tuned.

—–

“Are you going to Monza?” Bernie Ecclestone asked me at Spa. Yes, I said, of course I’m going to Monza – it’s the one race of the season I would never, under any circumstances, miss.

“Well, make sure you enjoy it…” Bernie grinned, with that blend of mischief and malevolence I have come to know so well over the last 40-odd years. Implicit in his response of course was, ‘because it might be the last time’, but there was no need to say the words. His intention had been to wind me up, and at one time it would have worked, but long ago I cottoned on to the fact that he likes nothing better than to be contentious.

Once in a while, either as a means of distracting attention from a problem elsewhere in Formula 1, or simply because he’s in a mood for stirring, Ecclestone delights in coming forth with outrageous comments, and the more hostile the response to them, the more he sits back and purrs.

In normal circumstances no one abhors political correctness more than I, but Bernie takes it way beyond that, and as time goes by, his problem – in seeking to say the unsayable – is that inevitably he’s running out of targets, and therefore, dare I say it, becoming just a touch predictable.

Over time, after all, he has variously suggested that Hitler was not without his good points, that women should be dressed in white ‘like all the other domestic appliances’, that he had little interest in attracting a young audience to Formula 1, preferring to focus on those who could afford a Rolex, and on and on…

A year ago, at the inaugural race in Sochi, Ecclestone outdid himself by proclaiming Vladimir Putin “a super guy”, and his fawning over the Russian president made many feel like sticking a finger down the throat. For some it wasn’t necessary.

Recently he did a new interview with Russian TV, and this time he took Lewis Hamilton with him. The world champion dutifully said all the right things – the circuit was challenging, the country was beautiful, the hospitality was wonderful etc – and this came on the back of remarks from Bernie to the effect that he was Putin’s “best supporter”, and that the F1 community couldn’t wait to get to Sochi.

I can offer no first-hand opinion on this, for I haven’t been there, but friends who have made the trip tell me that in fact what they can’t wait to do is get away from Sochi. “Suddenly,” an ex-driver told me last year, “everyone’s got a new least favourite race – the only saving grace is going on from there to Austin…”

Here again, you see, everyone is out of step with Ecclestone, who doubtless enraptured the country in general – and Putin in particular – by following his glowing comments on all things Russian with remarks lukewarm about the USA: “I’m not very enthusiastic about America…”

Perhaps, who knows, he was softening up the owners of Circuit Of The Americas, preparatory to fiscal discussion of their race’s future, but in fact Bernie is saying nothing new here: to the dismay of teams and sponsors, he has never been enthusiastic about the USA.  

Whether this goes back to foolishly calling Chris Pook’s bluff in 1983, and losing the Long Beach Grand Prix as a consequence, one doesn’t know. Perhaps more fundamentally, if anything warms the cockles of Ecclestone and CVC it’s a government writing a huge cheque for a Grand Prix, and in America – as in Europe – that doesn’t happen.

Later in the interview Bernie came out with a few remarks expressing his distaste for democracy, his assertion that ‘Europe is a thing of the past’, so nothing new there, either, but if I thought he had long since lost the power to stop me in my tracks, I was wrong. What, he was asked, did he have to say about the recent tribulations of Sepp Blatter?

A friend – the best Fleet Street sports writer of his generation – once suggested to me that, by comparison with football, in which he is also expert, Formula 1 was like a vicarage tea party, and that
has frequently come back to me when watching the news in the recent past.

“Blatter,” said the Russian interviewer to Ecclestone, “has run into considerable trouble, and has to leave his post. As an observer, do you think he should have gone on, and fought for it – or is it a good thing that he’s stepping down?”

Here on a plate was another opportunity to go against the public grain, and Bernie wasn’t about to pass it up. “I don’t think he should ever have stepped down, and I don’t think he should ever have been challenged – it’s because of him that we have a lot of countries around the world that are now playing football. And if these people allegedly have been corrupted to make things happen in their country, it’s good. It’s a tax football had to pay.”

So there you are… What does a bit of (alleged) corruption matter if it gets a sport into countries where it was previously unknown?

Not much, apparently.