Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

>> The problem with Lewis >> Stefan Johansson on Formula 1

After a distinctly average weekend in Singapore, during which he was outclassed in both qualifying and race by Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton was back to his imperious best at Sepang, starting from a conclusive pole and leading all the way – until his engine expired with 16 laps to the flag.

Given also that Rosberg had been put to the back of the field after Sebastian Vettel spun him at the first corner, we briefly had an open race, as at Barcelona, where the two Mercedes accounted for each other on the opening lap. And once again it was Red Bull – not Ferrari – who capitalised, with Daniel Ricciardo at last getting redemption for victories lost in Spain and Monaco, and winning from team-mate Max Verstappen.

Rosberg fought his way back to third, however, dealing a further blow to Hamilton’s chances of retaining his world championship. A bad day for Lewis, certainly – but you can’t say he has had too many of those over the last three seasons: going to Malaysia for his 54th race in a hybrid Mercedes, he had won 27, and placed second to Rosberg in 11 more. For all that, when his engine let go in Sepang, the response – not only from himself, but also Toto Wolff and others in the Mercedes pit – was akin to Greek tragedy.

One thought wistfully of Boris Becker’s reaction at Wimbledon in 1987 when, as reigning champion, he was knocked out in the second round: “Hey, I just lost a tennis match – nobody died…”

Since the days of Senna and Prost, let alone Fangio and Moss, Formula 1 has changed immeasurably in every way, and no more strikingly than in the matter of reliability. Look back to the race results of days gone by and you will find that, routinely, at least half the cars weren’t around at the finish. Back in 1958 there were 10 Grands Prix in the world championship, and although Stirling Moss won four of them, to Hawthorn’s one, in five more his Vanwall retired, leaving Mike to take the title by virtue of a better finishing record.

Ten years on, Chris Amon could – and should – have been world champion, but his Ferrari finished only four of 11 races, and recently Alain Prost pointed out that even in his much later era reliability was nothing like what it is today: his six seasons with McLaren in the Eighties may have yielded three championships and 30 victories, but still he retired from one race in four.

As I write, we are 55 races into the hybrid era, during which Hamilton has failed to finish six times, Rosberg five – and that includes the Barcelona shunt that eliminated both. This – in an era of mind-boggling technical complexity – speaks volumes for Mercedes’ excellence, and when Wolff and Niki Lauda express deep concerns about reliability, it may be said that they speak in relative terms.

It’s a fact that in 2016 Lewis has faced greater problems – some of his own making, more not – than his team-mate, and certainly he was luckless in the extreme to come away empty-handed from a weekend he had dominated. All that said, still I was non-plussed by the response to his engine failure in Malaysia.

Ten years ago the engine in Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari let go at Suzuka, when he was leading, and keeping alive his championship hopes. In 2008, at the Hungaroring, another Ferrari motor expired, this time in Massa’s car, running at the front, with three laps to go. Had Felipe made it to the finish, he – not Hamilton – would have been world champion that year. 

It’s called bad luck, and it happens. Always has, always will. In 1984 Lauda beat Prost to the championship because, although he won fewer races than his team-mate, he finished more. The following year it was Niki’s turn to get the larger slice of McLaren problems, Alain’s to take the title. This is how motor racing has always been.

Nowadays, though, perhaps because it is such a rare occurrence at Mercedes, any mechanical failure is regarded as a catastrophe, requiring forensic investigation, the need to ‘regroup’ and all that tiresome rhetoric.

You may disagree, but I’m afraid I find it all a bit precious. Thanks to their consummately quicker car, for the last three years Hamilton and Rosberg have essentially needed only to worry about each other: of such a scenario do racing drivers dream.

At Sepang Lewis stumbled away from his car as if the end of the world were at hand, and when interviewed made statements that – to my simple northern mind – came across as bizarre. Why, he moaned, with all the Mercedes engines in Formula 1, did it always have to happen to him?

This, I remind you, from a driver retiring from a race for the sixth time in three years.

Then Hamilton’s tone darkened. What had happened, he said, “Doesn’t feel right. Someone has to give me some answers, and it’s not acceptable. Something or someone doesn’t want me to win this year.” Needless to say, his words were seized upon by moronic conspiracy theorists across the world.

I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the 1500 folk striving – with conspicuous success – to provide the Mercedes drivers with the best possible equipment, I’d have taken great exception to Hamilton’s veiled suggestions. “Not acceptable,” he said, and that also applied to his remarks.

Who knows what was said behind closed doors, but in public at least Wolff as always strove to play things down, to suggest that in the heat of the moment people say things they don’t mean, that in the circumstances it was all quite understandable.

While Lauda remarked that suggestions of ‘sabotage’ on Lewis’s engine were ridiculous, it was the comments of Paddy Lowe – a quiet man, who doesn’t get emotional, yet is well able to convey his feelings – that most struck a chord with me. At the suggestion that Hamilton’s engine might somehow have been programmed to explode, Lowe rolled his eyes, and said he couldn’t even conceive of the technology required to do that.

However off the wall Lewis’s comments might have been, undoubtedly he had been in a class of his own at Sepang and, with a sense of injustice burning inside him, I anticipated more of the same at the ultimate driver’s circuit, Suzuka, the following weekend. As it was, though, Rosberg was fastest in every session, while his team-mate’s off-track behaviour was even more erratic than before.

At a time when Hamilton, in terms of the championship, was on the back foot, one might have expected him to keep things simple in Japan, to avoid as many distractions as possible, but Wolff insists that Lewis functions best when up against it: “He needs the enemy – sometimes more than one…”

In Japan that was all too evident, but quite why he chose the press to antagonise remains a mystery. From the beginning of the FIA conference on the Thursday there he sat, in the middle of the front row, quite deliberately looking at neither audience nor moderator, instead focusing on his smartphone. The body language wasn’t subtle: ‘I do not want to be here.’

Actually, this was nothing new. I remember a McLaren press event at Silverstone a few years ago, in which Martin Whitmarsh made an impassioned speech about the team’s recent lack of results, and its determination to rectify the situation. His drivers, Button and Hamilton, were there, but while Jenson took an active interest, Lewis rarely looked up from his mobile.

Some time later I mentioned this to Martin. “Yes, I remember that, too! I said we weren’t doing a good enough job, but we’d turn it around and, to be honest, I was taking a disproportionate amount of responsibility on the team because one of the drivers – Lewis – wasn’t performing at the time, and actually I was trying to protect him…”

A year ago I went to talk to Whitmarsh about his new life at Ben Ainslie Racing, and the one he had left behind. Needless to say, there was much discussion of the drivers he had known, and Hamilton figured prominently.

“Lewis,” said Martin, “is one of the most talented drivers in the world, and although he could be maddeningly frustrating to work with, underneath it all I like him. Certainly he’s got the job done with Mercedes, but before that he often came off the rails, and I think if he has a weakness it’s that he wants to be something else: if he could be comfortable with simply being a great racing driver, he’d probably be a happier person. 

“What I think about him, I suppose, is ‘You’re a motor racing superstar, so just do that – because you’re not a rap star or whatever.’ He’s even changed the way he talks, and I find it sad that he’s trying to be something he’s not. I used to say to him, ‘Jenson is cool, because he’s so natural – he’s just himself, not trying to be anything else…’”

As Hamilton has frequently reminded us, he wears his heart on his sleeve, a trait some find winsomely appealing, others irritatingly self-indulgent. This was particularly apparent during his on-off relationship with Nicole Scherzinger and, certainly, it’s a fact that Lewis needs to have the world aware of his feelings, his state of mind, at any given moment, so you could say that social media was made for him.

On occasion his behaviour is no less than baffling. Think of Spa in 2012, where among the McLaren updates was a new rear wing, which Button opted to use, Hamilton to discard. By the time of qualifying, it was clear that Jenson had made the right decision, for he took pole position (and went on to dominate the race), while Lewis qualified only eighth and appeared to lay the blame for going with the older wing at the door of his engineers. Not so, one of them said tersely: the driver had been fully involved.

Unfathomably, Hamilton then took it upon himself – by means of Twitter – to put up for public scrutiny the team’s ‘trace’ of his and Button’s best laps, so as to show his followers where he had lost time. After demanding that Lewis immediately delete the images, team personnel – just as at Mercedes these days – sought to play down the incident, charitably describing it as ‘an error of judgment’.

In private their responses were rather more robust, and Hamilton – assuming he gave it any thought beforehand – must surely have known that his action would infuriate them.

Button was also unimpressed and at the next race, Monza, Lewis was asked if he had cleared the air with his team-mate. “Haven’t spoken to him, don’t plan to, moved on from it,” came the crisp reply.

I wasn’t at Suzuka, so watched the FIA press conference on TV. It was plain that Hamilton was intent on getting across that he thought it a waste of his time, and I have some sympathy with that. Back in the day they didn’t exist, so to get quotes from drivers, engineers or whomever you had to seek them out yourself. This took time, of course, but was infinitely more rewarding, for you got your own quotes, and if drivers were then both more available and forthcoming than today, so it must also be said that they were far less constrained by the constant presence of a zealous PR industry.

The press corps, while far from the size it was 10 or 20 years ago, is yet larger than back in, say, the 1970s. At the same time the length of team debriefs has increased substantially, so in the interests of mutual convenience the advent of conferences – FIA affairs in a dedicated room, plus smaller, more informal, ones at the teams’ motorhomes – was perhaps inevitable.

If Hamilton finds the FIA conferences a bore, it’s hard to take issue. Even on the occasions when interesting questions are asked, they tend to receive banal answers from folk fearful of saying the wrong thing.

Therefore, I can understand why Lewis has little interest in conferences, but that doesn’t give him the right to sidestep them. TV companies, as we know, have ready access to the drivers, but for journalists it’s not so easy these days, and for those employed by newspapers – with a daily deadline to consider – press conferences can be a lifeline.

Long ago I remember complimenting Mario Andretti on his ease and patience with the press, and his reply has stayed with me: “You’ve got your job to do, and I’ve got mine – but we’re all in the same business, so it’s only common sense to work together, right?”

That was then, and this is now. By behaving as he did in Japan, Hamilton was effectively declaring he considered the press of no account, and of course he is entitled to his opinion. I somewhat doubt, though, that he would take it well if one day his mechanics were to say, “Sorry, Lewis, we can’t be bothered today…”

As he fiddled with his smartphone, Alonso and Räikkönen, the two adults sitting either side of him, were plainly ill at ease as he tried to show them the images on the screen, all the while ignoring what was being said in the conference. It was impolite not only to his audience, but also to his fellow drivers.

Hamilton was striving to create an effect, and undoubtedly he succeeded. When some journalists were unimpressed, though, and wrote as much, he took umbrage, and most remarkable – given the way he had behaved – was that he accused them of being ‘disrespectful’!

He came forth with all if this at the Mercedes conference on Saturday afternoon. Probably it didn’t help that he had just been beaten to pole by Rosberg, but his mood was anything but light as he addressed the assembled press.

“I’m not here to answer your questions, I’ve decided. With the utmost respect, there are many of you here who are super-supportive of me, and they hopefully know I know who they are. But there are others, unfortunately, who take advantage of certain things.”

Like commenting on bad manners, presumably.

“The other day,” Hamilton went on, “was a super light-hearted thing, and if any of you guys felt I was disrespectful, it was honestly not my intention. It was just a bit of fun. But what was more disrespectful was what was then written worldwide.

“Unfortunately there are some people here, and it’s not them who have done it. And unfortunately the decision I will take affects those who have been super-supportive, but I really don’t plan on sitting here many more times for these kind of things, so my apologies, and I hope you guys enjoy the rest of your weekend.”

With that Lewis took his leave.

This, as I said, was at a Mercedes event, causing one to wonder at the small print in Hamilton’s contract. In his McLaren days, I know from Whitmarsh, driver contracts were made up of three agreements: “As well as a driver’s agreement and a promotions agreement, at McLaren we also have a link agreement. What that means is that I’m going to pay you X for being a driver, and X for being a promotions machine – and the link agreement says that if I fire you on one agreement, you also get fired on the other…”

One of the deciding factors in Hamilton’s move from McLaren to Mercedes was the German company’s willingness to allow him greater freedom to live life as he wished. That being so, the likelihood is that his contract is much less ‘tight’ than those traditionally served up by McLaren, but even so I cannot imagine that Toto Wolff – for all his endless tolerance of Lewis’s whimsical ways – can have been much impressed on this occasion. “If he’d been working for Roger (Penske),” an American colleague said to me, “he’d have been out the door…”

In trying to make sense of Hamilton’s demeanour in Japan, I can conclude only that he is suffering from a loss of perspective, not only believing his own publicity, but beyond that moving into a rarefied realm in which he considers himself immune to the rules by which others live. Having undertaken, like Rosberg, to drive a Mercedes at this year’s Festival of Speed, for example, at the last minute he decided he had better things to do. To the gratitude of the Goodwood organisers, his team-mate kept to his word.

From his observations in Sepang, it appears that Lewis splits journalists into two camps, those ‘super-supportive’ of him, and those not, who are apparently by definition ‘disrespectful’. This suggests a fundamental inability to distinguish between journalists, paid to say what they think, and PR people, paid to say what they have been told to think.

Interestingly, about the only other driver I have known to behave in this fashion was Senna, Hamilton’s hero and role model. When in late 1984 Ayrton signed for Lotus, blithely ignoring his existing contract with Toleman, I criticised him in a column, and at Monza – where Toleman, furious, stood him down for a race – he refused all weekend to make eye contact with me. Finally, at the airport on Sunday evening, he could contain his ire no longer. “How could you write that?” he fumed. “I thought you were a friend…”

Looking at the Lewis Hamilton of 2016, it is salutary now to recall the smiling kid of ’07, the electrifying rookie in his yellow ‘Senna’ helmet, lucky enough to be starting his Formula 1 career with the best car, endlessly repeating the mantra that he was ‘living the dream’. Still living in England, being paid a relative pittance, racing a Grand Prix car was all he wanted to do, and he seemed a happier character by far than now. 

Being the fastest driver in the world – which, when all the stars are aligned, indisputably he still is – will bring you admiration, even adoration, but respect, be you a world champion or a hack, must be earned. At 31, Lewis has some growing up to do.

* * *

Back in May, at Indianapolis, I was pleased to see my old friend Stefan Johansson, still – at 60 – racing occasionally, as well as managing Scott Dixon and others, and involving himself in all manner of activities, not least art. A thoroughly well-rounded individual, shrewd, with a fine sense of humour – there aren’t many Scandinavians who can do a decent impersonation of Nigel Mansell – and a fundamental streak of common sense. 

When I first knew Stefan, mind you, I somewhat doubted I would know him long, for in his early racing days, in Formula 3, he tended to live for the moment, at Monaco one year contriving to have a big accident after taking the flag…

When René Arnoux was precipitately fired by Ferrari early in 1985, Johansson got the job as Michele Alboreto’s team-mate, and I remember talking to him at Imola, his first race in a red car – and one he very nearly won. “I got a call from Marco Piccinini, telling me to get the first available flight to Milan, and I packed in 10 minutes, and went straight to Heathrow. I arrived at the factory at about 8.30 in the evening, and it was incredible – all the mechanics and staff were outside, saying, ‘Welcome to Maranello.’ Can you imagine how I felt?

“The following morning – still very confused – I met Mr Ferrari, and I was as nervous as hell! To me, it was like meeting royalty and I thought, ‘Even if I hadn’t got the drive, at least one of my dreams had been fulfilled’.”

In 1987, after being replaced by Gerhard Berger, Johansson moved to McLaren to partner Prost – knowing, as he signed the contract, that it was for one season only, pending Senna’s arrival. Having worked with Ayrton at Toleman in 1984, Stefan was not a fan, but he was always a realist and accepted Ron Dennis’s offer for what it was.

Although Johansson never won a Grand Prix, he made the podium a dozen times before moving to CART in 1992, and after five seasons of Indycars concentrated on sports car racing, in 1997 winning at Sebring in a Ferrari, at Le Mans in a Porsche.

If Stefan’s life has long been in the USA, occasionally he turns up at a Formula 1 race, and retains a keen interest in it, even though he has long believed it is set on the wrong course. Earlier this year he put forward his thoughts, and even though the powers-that-be on both sides of the water resolutely ignore the opinions of racing drivers – present as well as past – I thought them superbly argued, and told him so at Indy.

Next year a greatly revised Formula 1 – with the emphasis, sadly, back on ‘aero’ – is coming our way, and with that in mind I recently re-read Johansson’s dissertation. Some will of course dismiss it as ‘old school’, but with any racing driver of consequence I suspect it will resonate. Strongly.

* * *

Lewis Hamilton recently described increased aerodynamic downforce as ‘the very last thing we need’, and most – save those who make the rules – would agree with him, not least Johansson. “In every form of racing, straightline speeds are significantly lower than in the mid-1980s, yet lap times are much faster at every track where it’s possible to make a reasonable comparison. So where is the speed coming from? Via massively faster cornering speeds.

“Nowadays for a driver it’s all about momentum – about trying to achieve the best possible minimum cornering speed, as this will typically determine the best time over a lap. In the past, braking and exit speed were more the determining factors.

“Leaving aside car failures or any other freak situation over which a driver has no control, where do the majority of accidents take place? Last time I checked, they happen in corners! So why does every professional racing series, in the name of safety, keep mandating reductions in engine power? The reductions bring ever slower top speeds – yet cornering speeds keep increasing every year through permissible aerodynamic development.

“The main effect of this is that the racing suffers, for a variety of reasons. First, the difference between minimum mid-corner speed and top speed on the following straight is significantly reduced – which reduces the opportunity for a driver to get a better exit than his rival in front, and then have a run at him into the next braking area.

“Second, braking distances get shorter and shorter as the top speed is decreased, and grip level is increased. By definition this minimises the opportunity for a driver to outbrake the car in front.

“Third, most of the ‘challenging’ corners are now gone, as high-speed aero grip is so enormous. Corners like Eau Rouge used to be a huge challenge to take flat, whereas today even the least capable are flat by their third lap of practice. It’s barely a corner any more.

“There are no more ‘big balls’ tracks or corners left. Today it’s all about precision and hitting your marks perfectly – and of course understanding how to get a car dialled in with the endless adjustment of knobs and switches now available. Drivers have to play with them constantly to get the most out of a car – yet most of the decisions on what to change are determined by engineers in the pit lane.

“As well as that, tracks are now so sanitised that there is absolutely no punishment for going over the limit. The result is that every driver finds the limit within 5-10 laps by simply going beyond the track’s perimeter into generous run-off areas. Then they just peg their corner speed back a bit from there until they find the limit. There’s hardly a corner left where you have to ‘hang it out’, and as a result bravery is no longer part of a driver’s arsenal. Lap times are determined by how lenient race control is to drivers going beyond the track limits – the way those limits are abused these days is a joke.

“The essence of a truly great driver is a combination of raw natural talent, a good understanding of his car and ability to report its changing dynamics to his engineers. The best drivers have a highly developed ability to make the most of the situations they find themselves in, and score the maximum points allowed by the car on a given day.

“A really great driver can combine this ability with the will to stick his neck out when needed – to push past the limit of what he and the car are normally capable of, and make a difference. This is what every real racing driver craves.

“To watch Senna qualifying at Monaco was bliss – but even more astounding was some onboard footage I saw recently of Fangio at the old Nürburgring. It was the most humbling piece of racing footage I have ever seen, and made my eyes well up. The steering never pointed straight for more than a second, and he destroyed his opposition. It’s absolutely beautiful to watch, and should be an inspiration to every driver. 

“The fourth thing is that every car today relies primarily on aerodynamics at the front of the chassis as this affects what’s going on with the entire car. Today a top team goes through countless versions of its front wing design in a season, and the cost of this is mind-boggling – but apart from that, the fact is that when you follow another car, your front aero is inevitably ruined by the turbulence of the car you’re trailing. This makes it even more difficult to carry sufficient speed to make a run at the car down the following straight.

“In an effort to make the racing more interesting, several ‘artificial’ devices have been introduced, including DRS. It’s helped overtaking, for sure – but it’s taken away a big part of the art of racing: there’s no skill involved in pressing a button to gain on the car in front, when it’s a sitting duck and has no ability to respond.

“Then there’s the question of tyres. Supply is now limited to one manufacturer, and the mandate to Pirelli has been effectively to build a bad tyre, in the interests of making racing more exciting. It hasn’t improved the racing in any way – all it has done is make everyone drive 10-20 per cent off their real pace to make the tyres last until a set lap in the race, and it’s one of the worst ideas they’ve ever come up with in F1. We need drivers forced to be on the limit throughout a race, so we see who are the really good ones, and who makes mistakes when the pressure is on.”

So what would Johansson, given a free hand, do to change F1 for the better? He would set a fixed limit on downforce, obliging engineers to get back lost grip by means of increased mechanical grip and better tyres. He would freeze front wing design, and make it the same for all teams. He would increase the size and width of tyres (which is actually being done in 2017), open F1 to any manufacturer that wished to compete and allow more tyre testing. “I struggle to understand how it could cost more to go testing than to build the insanely expensive simulators that every team now uses…”

What else? Stefan would increase horsepower, to about 1200-1300bhp, increasing not only top speeds, but also necessarily braking distances. He would ban all driver aids: “The driver has to be in 100 per cent control of the car to make it spectacular to watch. I’m sure drivers would love it if they had to rely purely on throttle control, rather than getting messages from the pits telling them which of the endless knobs and switches to adjust...”

Gilles Villeneuve, always a man of strong opinions, once contemptuously said to me that, “Any idiot can block,” and Johansson feels the same way. “Blocking sucks – it has nothing to do with skill or racecraft, and is another reason for the lack of overtaking. It’s OK to weave once to try to break the slipstream from the guy behind you, but blocking has no business on the race track. If the guy behind is faster exiting a corner he has the right to try and pass, and should never be forced to lift in a straight line. If he’s close enough on corner entry, it should be down to who brakes latest or has the best line into the corner.”

So many ideas, so much common sense. Make the minimum weight limit such that, “Any driver within reason can compete on an equal basis without having to starve himself to death because he’s four inches taller than some of his rivals.” Dump the idea of different ex-driver stewards at each race, because, “They make things too subjective and inconsistent. Hire one person – respected by all the drivers – to go to all the races.”

And on and on. Johansson’s final point is on the nail: “To accomplish any of this, it’s critical that the teams are kept out of the rule-making process. They have proven time and again that they can’t agree on anything: democracy does not work in motor racing. The governing body should have a competent and consistent team of individuals to determine the rules: if the teams want to play, they simply follow the rules.”

In sum, Stefan suggests that, “It’s time to go back to the drawing board, and look closely at the philosophy of motor racing, revisiting the entire concept of how cars are designed and built. New technology is fascinating, but in my opinion racing should always first and foremost be about drivers.”

Amen to that. We shall indeed have quantifiably faster cars in 2017, but – with their hugely increased downforce, with tyres and fuel still needing to be ‘saved’ – will they race any better? I hope I’m wrong, but I have my doubts.