Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections:
— Why Ken Tyrell’s was a unique voice in Formula 1
— Time to reassess Michael Schumacher’s talent
— Bernie biography published – but why the delay?

While preparing the feature on the Tyrrell P34 which appears elsewhere in this issue (p75), I looked back on interviews — as I always do in these circumstances — relevant to the subject, and of course began with Ken himself. Oddly enough, he had rather little to say about the six-wheeler, beyond remembering that it had won the Swedish Grand Prix in 1976, and I suppose in a way that said everything about the man: “Jackie [Stewart] always said I wasn’t a celebrator, and he was right — if we did badly, I really felt bad, and if we did well, I felt we should have done well. I know it doesn’t sound right, but that’s the way I am…”
Start listening to tapes of old interviews and you can easily get distracted — in a trice a morning is gone. Since Tyrrell’s death, nine years ago, I’ve often found myself wondering, about this or that happening in Formula 1, Now what would Ken think of that?’
At the time of the ‘team orders’ controversy, following Ferrari’s actions at the German Grand Prix, I was as sure as I could be that he would have been dismissive of all the hysteria. Yes, a rule is a rule, and Ferrari made little attempt to disguise its breaking of it, thereby guaranteeing a punishment of some kind. Ken would not have quibbled with that, but I fancy he would have sympathised with Ferrari’s action, for if anyone believed absolutely that F1 was a team sport it was he. If he gave a driver an instruction, he expected it to be obeyed, and I don’t doubt he would have been wholly in favour of the FIA’s welcome decision to rescind the rule banning team orders.
So here I was, listening to Tyrrell reminiscing about his life in motor racing — and suddenly he was talking about ‘team orders’ in extremis, albeit not in F1.
“In 1964 we were running Jackie in F3, and I was also running the Mini-Cooper team for John Cooper in the European Touring Car Championship. I found it quite enjoyable, too — there was a lot of planning about how you would run the race.
“One of the races — a four-hour event — was run on an island in Budapest. We were about halfway through the season, and it was clear that the championship was going to be won by three or four cars who were winning their classes everywhere. It became clear that we could all win our classes by the end of the year — so who was going to be champion?
“Warwick Banks was driving for me, and he eventually won, but it wasn’t straightforward. Included in this series were three hillclimbs, and the rules said you had to score points in two of them. At one of these hillclimbs, earlier in the season, we’d had a problem when not enough cars turned up for it to count as a class — so from then on we took a whole class with us! In fact, I did one of the hillclimbs myself…
“The regulations said that if there was a tie at the end of the season, the driver who won his class by the biggest margin would be declared the champion. And, as we had the whole class there, we could decide how much we won by!
“The pit marshals in Budapest found it very strange that halfway through the race a car would come in to refuel — and we would wash it! They’d say, ‘You can go, you can go!’ And we’d say, ‘Well, we’re not quite ready to go…’
“One of the Swedish teams did it differently — instead of doing anything in the pits, they stopped out on the circuit and had lunch! I suppose it wasn’t really the right way to win a championship, but that’s how it was.”
Derek Gardner, who designed the Tyrrell P34, told me he found it a touch frustrating to work for a man ‘for whom the Ford Motor Company was the only company in the world’, and it’s a fact that Ken was an absolute devotee of the legendary DFV, Elf Team Tyrrell scoring all its greatest successes with it, and continuing to race with it — admittedly in part due to circumstance — long after his fellow team owners had deserted it for this turbo or that.
Zandvoort in 1967 was some kind of epiphany for Tyrrell, for it was there that the Lotus 49 — and, more importantly, the DFV — raced for the first time. Jimmy Clark won, and Ken was instantly hooked. “I wasn’t involved in F1 then, but it was in my mind, and I flew over to watch the Dutch Grand Prix — out and back in the same day. It was clear that this engine was the only engine in the race. Everything else was just old-fashioned rubbish. If you wanted to go racing in the future, this was the engine you had to have — and it remained that way for 10 years! As far as I’m concerned, the reason why F1 is the way it is — that there are teams like McLaren, Williams, and so on — is because of the DFV.
“I think I was incredibly lucky with the timing — so many things came together at the same moment. For one thing, we’d been running Matra F2 cars, and Matra were keen to make an F1 car. For another, Jackie was leaving BRM, and he was keen to drive for me — God knows why, because he could have gone to Ferrari — and last, the DFV was available to anyone who wanted to buy one: Colin [Chapman] did his best to stop that, to keep it only for Lotus, but fortunately he failed…
“Looking back, it was all so straightforward in those days, wasn’t it? You went up to Northampton, you gave them £7500 — and you came away with an engine which could win you Grands Prix. All you had to do was put it into a reasonably competitive car, with a good driver, and you could win the next race. It continued like that for years.”
The timing for Tyrrell was indeed perfect, not least with his driver. Stewart had concluded, after a wretched season with the H16 engine, that he needed to move from BRM, and believed he had done a deal — albeit not yet signed a contract — to join Chris Amon at Ferrari for 1968. At the Enna F2 race, though, a chat with Jacky Ickx revealed that he, too, had been made an offer by Ferrari, and when JYS heard that he suggested that Ickx should take it, that he and Ferrari were done.
The relationship with Tyrrell was long established, as we know, and now Ken had F1 aspirations. “Jackie came to see me, and he said, ‘You can’t afford me’. I asked how much he wanted, and he said, ‘Twenty thousand pounds…”
Even allowing for 40 years’ inflation, and all the rest of it, that doesn’t sound like a lot of money for a top Grand Prix driver, but we need to recalibrate here. In those days racing drivers were not hugely paid: in 1968 and ’69 Amon, for example, was paid a retainer by Ferrari of 25,000 dollars — at the time it was three dollars to the pound — and that was to cover not only F1, but also Formula 2, sports cars, the Tasman Championship, Can-Am and anything else that might take Enzo’s fancy. Different world.
Tyrrell admitted to being a little stunned by Stewart’s financial demand — “I didn’t have twenty thousand pence!” — but set about meeting it. “I went to Walter Hayes at Ford, and said, ‘I think I can find the money to do the F1 team, but I need to get Jackie sewn up, so we can sort things out with Matra and so on’. And Walter didn’t hesitate — didn’t have to get on the phone to Henry II or anything like that. He just said yes. I was amazed!
“In fact, I never took the £20,000 from Ford, because I got £80,000 from Dunlop, and gave Jackie his twenty — which left me with £60,000 to run the team. Therefore I never needed the twenty grand from Walter — and I only found out later that he gave it to Jackie!”
In 2011 there is something more than faintly surreal about these numbers, none more so than `£60,000 to run the team’. And here’s another: “When we went racing with our own car in 1971 we had a total of 27 employees. When we sold the team to BAR in 1998, we had over 120 — and that was nothing compared with most teams.”
Indeed it wasn’t. When Honda announced its decision to quit F1 two years ago, and Ross Brawn decided to continue the team under his own name, it was unfortunately necessary to make more than 200 employees redundant. “We’re now down to about 450,” Ross told me…
Once he was no longer day-to-day involved in Grand Prix racing, Tyrrell reverted to being simply a consummate — and very well connected — fan, staying in frequent contact with Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, well in touch with what was going on. The celebrated ‘froth jobs’ were less in evidence now, but still there were matters about which he felt strongly: “The worst thing in F1 today, without a doubt, is the lack of overtaking! For God’s sake, Bernie, do something about it — it’s the lifeblood of our sport…”
So many drivers, not least Stewart, have spoken of Tyrrell’s organising abilities, his unique way of running a team, his integrity, and a year or so before his death, in August 2001, I asked him about these special talents of his. Typically, Ken brushed the question away.
“Oh, I don’t think I had any — I think I just liked motor racing,” he said. “For 30 years I did what I loved doing — what a lucky man I was…”
We are all human, and I’ll admit it gratified me that an endof-season poll of the Formula 1 team principals, in which they were asked to submit their top 10 drivers of 2010, had Fernando Alonso at the top of the list. Just as Tories buy the Telegraph and socialists the Guardian, we all like to have our own opinions, beliefs, prejudices etc, validated, do we not?
When I asked David Coulthard whom he considered the best driver of the moment, he didn’t hesitate. “Oh, Alonso,” he said. “He’s the most complete, and he’s one of those few who can really inspire a team. I’ve thought of him as the benchmark for years.”
“In the Renault days,” said Martin Brundle, “Fernando had this bizarre driving style, and I remember thinking, ‘How will he ever get on in a McLaren?’ — and he went there and drove in a completely different way. The bizarre style in the Renault was simply him adapting to the car’s terminal understeer — it wasn’t his natural style at all, but he could produce it if he had to. He can simply adapt to whatever he has to drive, and that is a skill which is a step above the others.”
This last point struck a chord, for time was when it was said of Michael Schumacher — whose name, I noted, was absent from the team principals’ poll. Back in 2001, I asked Ross Brawn what, in his opinion, was the difference between Michael and the rest.
This, it will be remembered, was in the middle of that five-year period when the combination of Schumacher and Ferrari was nigh unbeatable, when he won the World Championship every year. “I think,” said Ross, “the biggest difference between Michael and the others is that, when the car isn’t working very well, he can get more out of it — certainly on a qualifying lap.”
Brawn’s remark kept coming back to me throughout the season just past — and may well have occurred to him a time or two as well, for throughout the year Schumacher repeatedly put his lack of pace down to an inability to get along with this generation of Bridgestone front tyres. What they did, he said, was give you a fundamentally understeering car, and under steer had never been his thing.
No one doubted that he meant it — he has always had a very distinctive driving style, to the point that others found a car tailored to his tastes near undriveable — but still one remembered Brawn’s comment, and was nonplussed that so fabled a driver was unable, over a 19-race season, to adapt his genius to the characteristics of the Bridgestones. If Alonso, as Brundle said, had been able to adjust his style to an understeering car, then why not Schumacher? Come to that, Nico Rosberg doesn’t care for understeer either, but he seems to have coped with it rather better than his team-mate.
It was during the Benetton years that Schumacher’s cars were perhaps at their most extreme, when his team-mates really struggled — indeed, the scenario was akin to the MotoGP world of recent years, when it appeared that only Casey Stoner could ride a Ducati properly.
At the end of 1995 Schumacher moved from Benetton to Ferrari, while Berger and Alesi moved in the opposite direction. You wouldn’t describe either of those two as nervous souls, but I have never forgotten a conversation with Gerhard soon after he had first tested the Benetton. He was frankly perplexed, and not a little concerned.
In the middle of the following season, happier now with a car better adapted to his style, Berger remembered his first days with the team, not least three testing shunts in a car completely unlike anything he had driven before.
No driver in my experience was ever more brutally honest than Gerhard about his own strengths and frailties. “I was very worried,” he said, “because… it’s very simple, I just couldn’t drive that car — and of course that looked really bad, because another guy had just won the World Championship in it! Automatically, the new guy is a w”, right? I know what I need, but it’s not easy to get that into the system if the team’s just won the championship. Everything was geared to suit Schumacher’s way of driving, you see — and a car set up for him is exactly the opposite of what I like.
“Lap times come from confidence, and I could not be confident in a car set up to suit Michael’s style — actually it looks like nobody can, because no one has ever got anywhere near him in the same car. Now he’s at Ferrari, and recently, when I was following [Eddie] Irvine at Silverstone, I thought, ‘Jesus, it looks just like the Benetton last year!’ So now Michael has moved to a different car, and he’s developing it in the same direction — I’m not criticising him, because that’s what works for him, and in the same way that’s what I’m doing at Benetton now.
“Michael likes a very pointy car — he likes everything on the nose, and no rear end at all, and you think that just cannot be right. Maybe he shouldn’t have a car with four wheels at all, just two at the front! When I first drove the Benetton it felt all right, all right, all right, but there wasn’t a stage where it felt not too good any more — just a stage where it felt bad and you were in the wall! It was missing a piece! And the Ferrari had had that piece…
“So you go to the engineers and say the car is undriveable — and a few months before it won at the same circuit, and the guy looks at you with big eyes and says ‘What’s going on?’ And you can’t blame him! But then you need to be very strong, because otherwise you get destroyed — by the people in the team, by the fans who say, ‘He’s finished’, by yourself. You get in the head, and it’s tough to go through a period like that, but it’s something a racing driver needs to be able to do. If he doesn’t get through it, he doesn’t have a strong enough character, and he won’t succeed, anyway. Look at Irvine at the moment: I think he’s just happy to get his money and drive around in whatever Michael likes…”
All these years on, though, Schumacher has at last been outpaced — and comprehensively so — by a team-mate, by a man driving the same car. It’s a fact that Rosberg has been woefully underrated for years — and a fact, too, that for the first time Michael found himself in a team where his team-mate was allowed to beat him if he could, where there were no strictures of the kind Rubens Barrichello has described in five years of partnering Schumacher at Ferrari. Even so, not many would have predicted that Nico would out-qualify Michael 15-4, and score twice as many World Championship points.
This was the great conundrum of the 2010 season, and it’s interesting now to reflect on what people were saying about Schumacher’s prospects before it began. At 41 he was almost twice the age of Sebastian Vettel, and he had been away from F1 for three years, during which time the cars had significantly changed. The tyres, too. For all that, though, we remembered that, prior to the testing ban introduced in 2009, Michael had continued occasionally to test for Ferrari and was invariably on the pace when he did so.
That said, as one who previously had tested at every available opportunity, the ban wouldn’t sit well, and there was general agreement that Schumacher would need time to shed the rustiness, to acclimatise to a new breed of car. While few believed he would simply pick up where he had left off, most assumed he would acquit himself well.
“Look at what Niki [Lauda] did,” said Mario Andretti at the beginning of the year. “Came back at 33 or whatever, and won another championship. Now, you think about Michael: he was under 40 when he retired, in fantastic physical condition — which he still is. What’s more, he’s coming back with Ross Brawn, who’s been so instrumental in the success of his career — I mean, why wouldn’t you do it? OK, the naysayers will say he has so much to lose, and I’m sure he knows the potential negatives — but, most of all, he loves racing, loves driving. In motor racing the only thing that ever stimulated me was driving, and I think Michael’s the same. I hope he goes out there and kicks butt — and I’ve no doubt that he will.”
A ringing endorsement from one exWorld Champion then, and another, while less emphatic, also understood why Schumacher was returning to F1. “When I retired,” said Jackie Stewart, “I was absolutely ready to do it — but I don’t think Michael was. Why the hell would he have gone racing Superbikes in Germany?
“I know Michael’s 41, but the bug is still there, and I don’t think the age thing will be a problem. Whether he can do it for 70-odd laps, and for race after race, with the Alonsos and the Vettels and the Hamiltons… that’s perhaps another thing. There’s a very good group in F1 right now — certainly the most competitive pack Michael has ever faced. Who knows what’ll happen, but I suppose the one thing we know for sure is that he won’t be better than he was…”
In Bahrain, the opening Grand Prix of the season, I talked to Stewart again before the start of practice. “I think Michael will go well,” he said, “but I don’t think the Mercedes will be up to the Ferrari and the McLaren and the Red Bull, and my logic — no more than common sense — is this: when the 2009 car was laid down, in June ’08, it was going to be a Honda, and Ross [Brawn] had the big Honda money available. But when the 2010 car was laid down there was no money because — as Brawn — they’d used it all up to run properly in ’09. Therefore I suspect that the team will struggle until the Mercedes money starts to talk.”
Barrichello agreed. “I didn’t expect Michael to come back and win, no. For one thing, I drove for that team — as Brawn — and from the middle of last year we didn’t get much new stuff…”
“The car may not suit Michael at the moment,” JYS went on, “but I’m sure he’ll develop it the way he wants it — a way he knows, and that Ross knows too. In Michael’s cars, the brains of the car are always up front — like in karting. Unlike most other drivers, he likes turn-in oversteer — which is why he went off the road so often. A pointy car is very fast if you can keep up with it, but sometimes it’s going to get away from you…”
Brundle had his own thoughts on the return of his one-time Benetton team-mate. “Everyone’s saying he’s going to wreck his reputation — but will he? I don’t think he will, actually. If he isn’t quite what he was, I think he’ll be forgiven — he’s been away for a bit, he’s 41 years old, and he’s coming back mainly because he misses motor racing — not for the big dollar, although I’m sure he’s getting it. And you never know, perhaps he’s changed a bit — just the other day he said he regretted the Villeneuve thing at Jerez in ’97, for example! You think about all the strokes and tricks he pulled… but then that’s part of him, and you can’t have one without the other, can you?”
No indeed. That much we were to discover in the early going, and at the Hungaroring — trying to keep Barrichello back — Michael put a move on Rubens which shocked even hardened Formula 1 observers. Trouble was, it was only behaviour of this kind that truly reminded one of the old Schumacher.
By this stage of the season Michael seemed often to be embarrassing himself, and if he had not, as Brundle said, ‘wrecked his reputation’, what he had done was cause some to begin thinking the unthinkable: for all the 91 Grand Prix victories and seven World Championships, was it possible that we had overestimated him in his ‘first’ career? Invariably, after all, he had had quantifiably the best car, plus a team-mate required to do his bidding, and all at a time when top-level opposition was assuredly less than now.
Stewart admitted that this thought had gone through his mind when I asked if he had reassessed his original opinion. “Normally,” he said, “there’s a small cluster of very good drivers — in fact, it’s abnormal to have as many as we have right now, and I think it was like that in my time: Clark, Brabham, Surtees, Amon, Rindt, Ickx, Hulme, Cevert… Think about those names, that quality…
“Now, when Schumacher arrived, Prost was about to retire, and then Senna was killed, and… to be perfectly honest, I never thought he had the highest quality against him. Now he has. OK, he doesn’t have the best car, but Nico’s not doing a bad job with it, is he?
“Some people will say there’s sour grapes in what I’m saying, but I’m trying to be objective. Just think of what Michael had at Ferrari — Jean Todt organising, Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, Luca di Montezemolo right behind everything… It was a hell of a package. As well as that, in the war with Michelin, Bridgestone were effectively making bespoke tyres for him.
“I’ve never rated Schumacher among the greatest, because I think he made far too many mistakes, and also there were the stunts he pulled on the race track, which I thought simply unacceptable. But having said that, in terms of putting together a package that suited him, Michael’s been the best ever.
“This year, of course, he’s been on and on about the front tyres, and how they don’t suit his style. But, you know, I think there have always been drivers who were supreme when the car was very good — but when the car was not very good, were unable to drive around the problems to the point of making it… presentable.
“All right, I know it’s a long time ago, but certain fundamentals never change. In 1970, both Chris Amon and myself drove the March 701, and it was a terrible thing to drive — you were constantly having to overcome its inadequacies to a point that you could still be quick. At the first race of the year, at Kyalami, Chris and I set identical times — and we were fastest. We were able to drive round the problems, but, quite honestly, no one else — including Siffert, even including Andretti — could. And maybe Schumacher is one of those.”
As the year progressed, and the results didn’t, Michael continued to stress how much he was enjoying his return, as if simply being on the scene were enough. But for anyone who had seen him in his pomp it took a bit of believing, and many of us were unsurprised by rumours that his three-year comeback might finish a couple of years early.
Not so. When the first Pirelli tests were held, in early preparation for 2011, Rosberg commented that the Italian tyres didn’t feel greatly different from the Bridgestones just shed, but Schumacher expressed a degree of optimism and said he was looking forward to the new season.
Mercedes chairman Dieter Zetsche confirmed that the driver line-up for next year would be unchanged: “We didn’t sign a one-year contract with Michael Schumacher — we signed for three years.
“We can’t have expected more as a newly-formed team. Of course we wouldn’t have complained if we had won the World Championship, but it wasn’t a realistic expectation. It is clear, though, that the public — and also ourselves — expect us to be looking better than this year.”
Fair enough, but Zetsche then wandered off into the mire of PR speak. “Schumacher has not disappointed us,” he said. “We need to provide him with the car that allows him to show his capabilities.”
Probably, the world being what it is today, Zetsche could have said nothing else, but it was inevitable that the outside world should respond derisively. One thinks of Sybil Fawlty on Mastermind: specialist subject, ‘The Bleedin’ Obvious’. We react as we do because we do not care to have our intelligence insulted. Max Mosley was a prime exponent.
Even as he spoke, Zetsche must have known that his words would not — could not — be taken seriously. After years of dreaming, Mercedes had finally hired the most successful, the most expensive racing driver in the sport’s history — and a German to boot. From a marketing standpoint it was a no-brainer, but that didn’t mean that — in terms of — results — it came without risk. For Zetsche to suggest that Schumacher’s season — three fourth places and a couple of sixths — had not been a disappointment was patently absurd. Let’s face it, anyone but Michael would have struggled to keep his drive for 2011.
Throughout the year he maintained that, poor results or not, he was enjoying being back in F1, he was having fun. Fine. No one doubts, as Andretti said, that Schumacher is one of those who truly loves driving a Grand Prix car, but he isn’t one to relish competing with Toro Rossos and the like, fighting with drivers he would once have flicked from his sleeve. And the fact is that, prior to the season, he didn’t say he was coming back for fun — no, he was returning in hopes of an eighth World Championship.
Alain Prost, as grounded a Grand Prix driver as ever there has been, thinks this was Michael’s big mistake. “I think Schumacher showed a lack of humility before the season — saying he was coming back to try for another championship, and so on. He should have said he was coming back to help Rosberg or Mercedes — or his friend Ross Brawn — in his first year, and that would have made it easier for him.
“For me it’s just a question of age. It’s just not possible to return to the top at that age after being away for three years. It’s a matter of physiology. Honestly, I think all this talk about the tyres is just an excuse, because Schumacher always adapted to anything — it was his great strength.”
Over the last year or so I have had countless conversations with racing folk on the subject of Schumacher. Some suggest it’s over, that the comeback was a great mistake, others — and I include myself in this group — that no, he — isn’t what he was, but in the right car can still deliver, if not perhaps a 92nd Grand Prix victory. All things being equal, it’s not easy to envisage his beating the Vettels and Hamiltons, the Alonsos and Kubicas, in a straight fight.
That being so, I’ll admit to being a little taken aback when I spoke to Alonso about Schumacher’s future prospects. Of all the current drivers, Fernando has the most experience of competing head-to-head with Michael — let’s remember that he won the World Championship in 2005 and 2006, Schumacher’s final ‘Ferrari years’ — and I suppose I expected him to follow the party line, to speak sympathetically of the difficulties in coming back at 41, after three seasons away, and so on.
Not a bit of it. Alonso was adamant that — yes, in the right car — Schumacher will be on it in 2011. “For sure I thought he would go better this year,” he allowed. “In fact, before the first race, in winter testing, I expected him to be a contender for the championship — although I also thought that he would not have an easy time with Rosberg.
“Since Schumacher retired, you know, Formula 1 has changed a lot. We have gone on to these very hard Bridgestone tyres, and the downforce now is maybe half what we had when he raced before. Overall, the cars are more tricky to drive — or, at least, they drive in a different way. He needs time — even Michael…
“Maybe his performance hasn’t been as good as we all expected, but I don’t think he’s forgotten how to drive. In 2011 I expect him to be a contender — from race one.”
Dieter Zetsche will be hoping — praying — that Alonso is on the mark. Much will depend on those Pirellis.

*

Some years ago Professor Sid Watkins asked me if I would read — for ‘racing accuracy’ — the manuscript of a biography, written by his wife Susan, of Bernie Ecclestone. The book was due for imminent publication, and I was pleased to agree.
They were at the time at their house in upstate New York, and as page after page came through by fax I devoured it, for if much of the book covered familiar ground — Ecclestone’s arrival as a major player in F1, and his subsequent adventures therein — it was laced with quotes and fresh insights from many whose paths he had crossed, and as well as that there was so much about Bernie that I had never known before.
In particular, I was fascinated by Susan’s research into his early life, which — prior to this book — had always been somewhat under-documented. Yes, like everyone else, I knew Ecclestone had been born in Suffolk, ‘the son of a trawler captain’, in 1930, that he had made his first money selling secondhand motorbikes, then cars, that he had raced in F3, that after the death of his close friend Stuart Lewis-Evans in 1958 he had withdrawn from racing for many years, that he had returned to it as manager of Jochen Rindt, that he had bought the Brabham team, that gradually, gradually, he had established himself as the sport’s major power broker to the point that eventually he ran the whole thing…
Those are the bare bones of Ecclestone’s life and career, but seldom have they been much fleshed out. As I said, I much enjoyed the manuscript, and told Susan I looked forward to the publication of the book. As did she…
Now, necessarily amended and updated, Bernie is at last published, and in her introduction the author briefly tells of the bumps along the road. Back in 2005, when Watkins’ contract decreed that the book could not be published without Ecclestone’s permission, he — despite agreeing every chapter — requested a last-minute delay.
Two years later, when publication was again due, it was explained that Bernie’s ‘service agreement’ with his business associates — no names, no pack drill, etc, but an inspired guess isn’t too difficult — gave ‘a third party’ indirect power over the book, and that third party wanted publication ‘delayed indefinitely’. Watkins stresses that Ecclestone reimbursed her in full, requesting that, in exchange, he or his estate should receive 50 per cent of future profits from the sale of the book. This claim has now been withdrawn, given that the book is no longer designated an ‘authorised biography’.
Having read it again, in 2010 form, one wonders where lay the cause of the problems. Yes, it’s a fact that there is a deal of fiscal detail in the book, but I doubt there is anything that has not — in various publications — appeared elsewhere. Very… private, these financial folk.
When Susan Watkins took it upon herself to write a biography of Ecclestone, it was something of a departure, you could say, for it came on the back on books about Jane Austen, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. Married to ‘The Prof’ (said to be the one man to whom Bernie always deferred), she had been around racing for many years, and Bernie had become ‘part of the walls of my Formula 1 world, part of our extended family, a loyal friend. Could I objectively write Bernie’s story? No, that wasn’t possible. The best I could hope for was some sort of balance’.
That I think she has consummately achieved. Certainly her fundamental affection for her subject is beyond doubt, but — as he would be the first to admit — Ecclestone has not led a wholly blameless life, and the book does not suggest otherwise. You don’t get to be a multibillionaire by being soft, and several of those quoted clearly remain bruised by their dealings with him.
Years ago a publisher suggested that I should write a book about Bernie, and I rejected the idea out of hand, not least because of the sheer magnitude of the task, of the time it would take. Fitting it in with my day job would have been impossible, I concluded, and reading Susan’s book I know I was right. Frankly I’m lost in admiration for the amount of work she has put in: Ecclestone has done rather a lot in his 80 years, when you think about it.
The second half of the book deals with Bernie’s time as the absolute ruler of Formula 1, and amounts to the most lucid imaginable account of the last three or four decades in this sport. I think all of us involved in racing journalism have at times lost sight of quite what was going on in this political dispute or that, but Watkins has pulled together a million — often conflicting — facts, and somehow made sense of them.
Her husband — a man who knows about minds — once told me he thought Ecclestone unique in his experience: “He has the most extraordinary mind I’ve ever come across, in the sense that he can hold a dozen different thoughts at one time, and respond to any of them instantly…”
The more you read this book, the more you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of things Ecclestone has done, disputes he has been involved in, agreements he has made, problems he has solved — and in some cases caused…
I’ll confess that I especially enjoyed the first part of the book, dealing with Ecclestone’s early life. Susan relates that a piece of research she particularly relished was into the ‘Warren Street years’ of the 1950s and early ’60s, when this area, just off Tottenham Court Road, was the centre of the second-hand car business, and by no means for the meek.
Although Bernie played a central role, Watkins says, he could recollect very little from this period, so it took some digging. “That resulted in a rather delightful afternoon in 2004 ‘down the pub’, interviewing a group of his former colleagues. One of them, Les Lilly, says, ‘That life was all about being sharp — thinking on your feet. If you’ve done business, and been successful, in Warren Street, how you deal with people in the future becomes easier — wherever you go after that, it’s easy.”
Clearly his Warren Street experiences stood Ecclestone in very good stead for anything Jean-Marie Balestre et al might later try to chuck his way.
Susan Watkins and her husband are friends of mine, so — like her about her subject — I can’t be truly objective, either. All I can say is that I learned a great deal from her book, and I can’t easily imagine how it could have been better done.