Nigel Roebuck

Reflections

- Formula 1 receives warm welcome in Texas

- Fate gives Vettel a helping hand... or two

- NASCAR promoter Smith requires maths lesson

*

Over the years veteran US race promoter Bruton Smith has frequently been given to loud-mouthed, ill-advised, proclamations. As the founder of Speedway Motorsports Inc, a company that owns eight tracks and hosts 11 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup races each year, his life has fundamentally revolved around stock car racing, and everything else must find its place.

Following the catastrophic multiple accident at his Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October 2011, which cost the life of Dan Wheldon, Mr Smith expressed remarkably insensitive contempt for the many IndyCar drivers who said they had not wanted to race at the 1.5-mile high-banked `NASCAR' oval in the first place and now wished very profoundly never to go there again.

Las Vegas, mercifully, did not figure on the IndyCar schedule in 2012, but — rather to my surprise, given what some drivers had said — Mr Smith's Texas Motor Speedway, a track of similar configuration, was again included.

NASCAR is its main thing, though, and the second of its annual Cup races was run on November 4, just a fortnight before the inaugural Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas, a couple of hundred miles to the south. That weekend Mr Smith — 85, thus three years older than Bernie Ecclestone — said he had no concerns that the race would have an impact on either the NASCAR or IndyCar events at his oval. "Formula 1 has never done anything in this country," he said, perhaps unaware of a small town in upstate New York called Watkins Glen. "We've checked and about ten people we know are going to this race, so I'm not really concerned..."

Well, perhaps not — but I couldn't help but notice, as I watched the Texas NASCAR race on TV, that the place was rather far from full. While we must take Mr Smith at his word that apparently only ten of his customers were beguiled by the prospect of F1, it didn't really matter, for on race day in Austin, a couple of weeks later, they were joined by 116,990 others. Perhaps there are gaps in Texas Motor Speedway's customer database. Whatever, the proprietor has subsequently been silent on the subject.

It was in May2010 that Bernie Ecclestone announced the return to the World Championship schedule of the USA. Not since the days of the Glen had F1 cars raced in America on a permanent road circuit; now, he said, in Austin, a 'world-class facility' was to be built specifically for ED the hosting of a Grand Prix.

I confess that, while delighted at the prospect of an Fl return to North America, I rather shrank from those words. In the past 15 or 20 years, after all, we've been overrun with new 'world-class facilities' in Grand Prix racing, and the majority — while abounding in superficial glitz — have had about as much charisma as Ed Miliband. Ask Fl regulars to name their favourite venues and they rarely come forth with 'Shanghai' or 'Bahrain'. Flashy buildings alone don't do it.

Prior to November's race in Austin, Fl last appeared in the USA in 2007, at Indianapolis, where the last of eight races was run. If you had no feel for a city with racing in its very bones, you were left unmoved by the races at Indy. Although the track took in part of the celebrated oval, its infield section — like the covered pits, built specifically for Fl — was uninspiring. And with DRS still years away the races lacked overtaking, not an easy thing to accept for spectators accustomed to the 500.

For all that, though, if the spectator attendance at the inaugural race — 225,000 — was never approached thereafter, the Grands Prix at Indianapolis continued — even after the six-car fiasco in 2005 — to attract crowds to make other Fl race promoters drool. As one imbued with the heritage of the place, I loved going there and was mortified when, over that final Fl weekend, a shell-shocked Tony George told me he had failed to agree terms with Bernie Ecclestone for the continuation of the deal: "Jesus Christ, can't Bernie understand that other people need to make a profit, too?"

Anyway, that was that, and when we left Indianapolis I doubted that Fl would return to America any time soon. This, after all, was the most fabled race track on earth, with all the facilities anyone could want — if a Grand Prix couldn't be made workable here, what were the chances anywhere else? Inevitably, we remembered Indy's shortlived predecessor, the dreary street circuit in Phoenix, where Bernie had to schlep to a local DIY store to buy tables and chairs (at a very good price, according to others present) for the press room, where 15,000 people came through the gate, where rather more ventured down the road to watch a competing race. For ostriches.

Even if Indianapolis lacked the nine-star hotels required by F1's A-list, many felt as I did and were furious that the race was allowed to disappear from the calendar. It was all very well to take Fl ever more eastwards, often to countries where they didn't give a toss about motor racing, where the sole criterion was a governmental willingness to sate CVC's fiscal appetite: for many manufacturers and sponsors, the USA remained a huge market, and — apart from anything else — the country's absence from anything calling itself a World Championship was an absurdity.

Then... enter Austin. And as we listened to Ecclestone speak about the plans for the Circuit of the Americas there seemed to be good reason for optimism, not least because it was in Texas.

Over time Bernie has for some reason had particular difficulties with race promoters in the US, for whom his tolerance level appears to be especially low. It's a fact that there were... financial problems to do with the Dallas Grand Prix in 1984, which is why we never went back there, but for those of us present that scalding July weekend it was evident that the event, per se, was a considerable success.

The temporary track was far from safe — as I arrived there, my friend Pino Allievi animatedly described it as `Francorchamps in the streets!' — and parts of the surface became molten in the heat, but the race undeniably pulled a hell of a crowd, which saw such as Niki Lauda and Alain Prost hit the wall, while Keke Rosberg and Rene Arnoux, chargers both, finished first and second.

Perhaps because it was something new — foreign and therefore exotic — Texas, unlike Michigan (Detroit) or Nevada (Vegas), appeared to embrace F1, but it would be 28 years before it ventured back and there were times when this latest venture began to look like a pipedream. As recently as November 2011, indeed, Ecclestone sounded one of his warnings, muttering at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that he wouldn't put money on the Austin project coming to fruition.

The path — for reasons of both finance and changing personnel — was indeed rocky at times, with work on the circuit starting, then stopping, then restarting in earnest in December '11. Given the scope of the scheme, time seemed very short if a race were to be run less than a year later.

Still, Charlie Whiting made periodic visits and always expressed satisfaction with the progress being made. Inevitably, though, given the pressure of time, some wondered if the first visit to the Circuit of the Americas might be a little like that to Korea's Yeongam, where the actual track was finished, but not much else.

As it turned out, they could not have been more wide of the mark. The mechanics murmured that the pit garages might have been a little larger, but otherwise none could find a critical word for the place, and not for countless years — if ever — has a new Grand Prix been such an unqualified success. It might have been first time around for the Circuit of the Americas, but the slickness of the organisation made you wonder why other F1 venues — not least one in business for going on 70 years — don't do it this way.

"Amazing, isn't it?" a team principal murmured. "A new race — in a country you might actually want to go to..."

True enough, but amazing, too, was that the race had been scheduled on the same day as the final, championship-deciding, round of NASCAR's Sprint Cup season, run at Homestead. More extraordinary still is that the two events will again clash in 2013 — and on top of that Austin will also that weekend host a football match, expected to pull a crowd of over 100,000, between the University of Texas and Oklahoma State.

Fears that the city will be over-run, hotel rooms impossible to find, have led COTA chairman Bobby Epstein to request a different date for the race, and one hopes he will get it. They have, after all, recently changed the date of the German Grand Prix — to July 7, so that it now unfortunately clashes with the Goodwood Festival of Speed — so it can be done. In the opinion of many, there are too many Grands Prix nowadays, anyway, so how about dumping dread Yeongam for a start?

Before we left for Texas, the suggestion was that, while we would be impressed by the circuit, further work was needed on the access roads — getting in and out, in other words, might revive nightmarish memories of Silverstone in the old days. Not a bit of it. I stayed in Round Rock, 35 miles away, and the journey was a breeze.

What I found especially appealing about the Circuit of the Americas — apart from the track itself, emphatically the best to come from Hermann Tilke's pen — was that it seemed instantly familiar. The buildings were functional, rather than elaborate, and the paddock felt intimate and welcoming.

F1 paddocks you might expect to be essentially the same the world over, but, believe me, they are not. Some lack atmosphere, some have it in spades. Some feel like industrial estates, others like natural meeting points. The old Silverstone paddock had a beating heart; the new one does not. There is something unique about Monza that encourages people to linger and chat. Autumn sun, I suppose, and soul.

The Austin paddock was brand new, yet at once I felt I knew it, that I'd been going there forever, and others said the same. Of course it didn't hurt that the weather was sublime, or that, being out of Europe, there were no forbidding motorhomes in which so many hide away for the weekend. Instead, as in Montreal, each team had a cabin, with tables and chairs out front, which always makes for a more sociable ambience, reminding one of gentler times, of Ken Tyrrell sitting in the sun with a mug of tea, listening to a Test match.

It was a pleasure, of course, to come across old friends one rarely sees, like Dario Franchitti, but rather less of one, I must say, to bid farewell to Gary Hartstein, who joined the FIA's medical team years ago at the behest of Sid Watkins, and got the top job when the Prof stepped down at the end of 2004.

Eight years on, Hartstein was told — a month after the death of Watkins — that, as of the end of the 2012 season, his services would no longer be required. In Austin I asked him if he knew why. "Not a clue," he shrugged. "I was asked to put in a bid for the job, which I did — but it can't be anything to do with that, because it was for the same amount I've been paid for years. They haven't told me a thing..."

Quite apart from being astonishingly discourteous to a charming man who has well served the sport, the FIA has taken an apparently unfathomable decision, for Hartstein — a New Yorker based in Liege for nearly 25 years — has long been well liked and respected by the drivers, who invariably stress the importance, in the event of an accident, of having on hand a doctor both familiar and absolutely trusted. Strange are the ways of the Place de la Concorde.

My experience of Texas previously, as I say, had been limited to that single visit to Dallas nearly 30 years earlier, and I never forgot the ad in the lift of my hotel there, extolling the attractions of one of its several restaurants: 'A wonderful place to see — and be seen'. Austin, I had been told, was very different from Dallas — indeed, from anywhere else in Texas — and so it proved. As well as being the State Capital, it is known as 'The Live Music Capital Of The World', and feels like a university town, a liberal sort of place, where they tell you with some pride that they did not vote for George W Bush. Fighting talk, this, in the Lone Star state.

It was with pride, too, that the locals spoke of this new association with Fl, in a way that rather reminded me of Adelaide. While everyone likes Melbourne, the Australian Grand Prix is merely another major sporting event there and the city doesn't get behind the race in the way of smaller and more relaxed Adelaide, which was plainly thrilled to bring Fl to Australia. For a few days the place became the race, as does Montreal to this day. Who knows whether Austin will follow the same path, but this was more than a promising beginning: "Be sure and come back next year, honey," said the hotel receptionist as I checked out. "Formula l's the best thing that's happened to Austin in my lifetime..."

A Silverstone-size crowd came in on race day, but even on the Friday — when there was an attendance of 55,000 — it was apparent that the reincarnated US Grand Prix was going to be a success, not least because the track is readily accessible to Mexicans, who have always been besotted with Fl, have no home race at the moment and now have one of their own — Sergio Perez — to cheer for. The estimate was that 40 per cent of the crowd was from Mexico, and next year, when Esteban Gutierrez will also be aboard and — more to the point — Perez will be in a McLaren, the clamour for race tickets will presumably be all the greater.

Sadly for his adoring countrymen, Sergio — who curiously has not had a decent race since signing his new contract — was a middling 11th in Texas, but at the front there was an engrossing scrap between Vettel and Hamilton, and that was good because everyone had recognised the importance of putting on a memorable first show. One thing to get them in, after all, another to get them back.

This was Lewis at his absolute best. He had started alongside Sebastian on the front row, but although he gave relentless chase one had the feeling that the Red Bull would need to falter if it were going to be passed. On lap 42, with 14 to the flag, this duly came to be: through the flat-out swerves (modelled on Becketts) early in the lap, the leaders came upon Karthikeyan's HRT.

Narain was driving as fast as his hapless car would allow, but he had qualified seven seconds away from Vettel's pole time and the track layout at that point offers no opportunity to move over. It was therefore inevitable that Hamilton would close up, and once they were into the DRS zone he jinked by into the lead.

Vettel angrily communicated his feelings over the radio, but really there was nothing whatever Karthikeyan could have done. Later he said he'd had about enough of the World Champion's ranting insults, having already borne them earlier in the year, at Sepang.

And when you thought about it, it wasn't as though Sebastian had always suffered at Narain's hand. Why, only a fortnight earlier, in Abu Dhabi, the impoverished HRT's hydraulics had failed (again), precipitating the accident with Rosberg's Mercedes, which brought out the safety car, which closed up the field, which wiped out a 24-second deficit for Vettel, which helped him on his way to an unexpected place on the podium, which gave him 15 points, which...

Some you lose, some you win. Bruton can tell you all about it.

*

Before the race in Austin the big talkingpoint, of course, was Ferrari's decision to change the gearbox of Felipe Massa's car — or rather not to change it, but, simply by cutting an FIA seal, to incur the five-place grid penalty for doing so.

It occurred to me that someone landing that morning from Mars might have had a problem in understanding this curious behaviour: why would a team volunteer for a penalty — and how could that penalty be beneficial?

Well, because the track was brand new, rendering the dirty side of the grid even more of a disadvantage than usual. The Ferraris of Massa and Alonso had qualified seventh and ninth, but a five-place penalty for Romain Grosjean (whose Lotus really did need a gearbox change) moved them up to sixth and eighth — and to the slippery side of the grid.

Ferrari, it will be remembered, was at the time rather keen on trying to help Alonso win the World Championship, and someone twigged that a five-place penalty for Massa would move Fernando up to fifth, while the selfless Felipe would also be on the clean side, albeit now back in 11th.

Thus, after Charlie Whiting had been advised of the team's intent, it was the work of a moment to cut Massa's gearbox seal — and at once a torrent of abuse came Ferrari's way. What they had done was unsporting, not in the spirit of motor racing, and on and on. I could see the point people were making, even if I somewhat doubted the indignant protestations of some team principals that they would never countenance doing anything of the kind. Heaven forfend...

Did I like it? No, honestly — but nor was I surprised by it. For one thing, this is the age of expediency, and if ever there were an Olympian spirit in our sport, it long ago drowned in the commercial sea. For another, in recent years the rules and regulations in Fl have multiplied, sometimes in damn silly ways, one of which is that if a car's gearbox needs changing there is a penalty, and the only one to suffer is the blameless driver.

On this occasion Ferrari — positively wishing to incur the penalty — turned the rule around to suit its own needs. Article 28.6 (e) of the Sporting Regulations reads thus: 'A replacement gearbox will also be deemed to have been used if any of the FIA seals are damaged or removed from the original gearbox after it has been used for the first time'. Out came the tin snips.

I couldn't really understand the strength of the opprobrium hurled Ferrari's way, I must say, for at the previous race, in Abu Dhabi, Red Bull had employed similarly lateral thinking, the only difference being that the driver of its other car did not suffer as a consequence.

Vettel, it will be remembered, was required to start from the back because, after he had stopped his car out on the circuit at the end of qualifying, it was discovered by the scrutineers that less than a litre of fuel — the amount required for testing — remained in the tank, a shortcoming that automatically wipes all a driver's qualifying times.

Back to the Sporting Regulations. Article 34.5 states that, 'If a competitor modifies any part on the car or makes changes to the set-up of the suspension while the car is being held under parc ferme conditions, the relevant driver must start from the pit lane'.

Coming at that from a different angle... accept the penalty of starting from the pitlane (rather than the back of grid) — and you can make changes to the car. Given that Vettel was anyway going to be starting 24th, it was surely a no-brainer, and thus — almost uniquely in this era of Fl — Seb was able to go into the race with a car very different from how it had been in qualifying. Among the wholesale changes, for example, was a much longer top gear, which made for a Red Bull muscular on top speed — something we haven't seen for years, because it doesn't fit in with the team's qualifying philosophy.

Not much, curiously, was said about Red Bull's action at the time — certainly not in a critical sense, anyway — but the logic surely was no different from Ferrari's in Austin: take a 'new era' rule and turn it around to your own advantage. Like it or not, on both occasions it worked a treat.

*

A text from Keke Rosberg: 'You journos should put pressure on the FIA to homologate helmet designs for the season!!!'

I'm not sure that the governing body has ever been terribly interested in the opinions of the press, but I couldn't agree more with Keke's sentiment. One of the reasons why, in childhood, I was originally drawn to Jean Behra was that I loved his helmet design. In those days Grand Prix drivers' helmets tended to be the colour in which they had left the factory, but Behra's white one had a black chequered band around it, and that made him instantly identifiable. In 1958, for reasons I have never been able to discover, he took occasionally to wearing a plain brown helmet. I didn't like that at all: it wasn't him.

Innes Ireland also admired Behra's chequered design, adopting it himself after Jean's death in 1959 and gradually 'individual' helmets began to proliferate in the sport. Almost from the beginning of his life as a racing driver, for example, Graham Hill had adopted the colours of the London Rowing Club, a tradition carried on by Damon and now by Josh. A helmet colour was synonymous with a driver: Michele Alboreto's, for example, was metallic blue in honour of his hero Ronnie Peterson, and Lewis Hamilton's is yellow because he idolised Ayrton Senna.

Throughout a driver's career, therefore, his fans could recognise him at a glance, but of late it has increasingly become the custom — among some, anyway — to have a different helmet design for virtually every race, and I am at a loss to understand from where this has come from, and why. Given that the race numbers of Fl cars today are tiny, and difficult to spot in the morass of sponsors' names and logos, the colour of a driver's helmet — itself less easy to see in this era of high cockpit sides — has long been the spectator's way of keeping track of the order. Red helmet? Michael...

At Interlagos we saw it in a racing car for the last time, but whereas Schumacher's first finale, at the same circuit in 2006, had been memorable, involving a stunning comeback drive after a puncture, this time around his retirement race was more a subplot than the main event.

Six years ago Michael went to Sao Paulo knowing he had only the flimsiest of chances to beat Fernando Alonso to the World Championship, but well aware that, whatever else, he could go out on a high, with victory in his last race. It didn't happen, though: after being fastest in Q2, he missed Q3 altogether with a fuel feed problem and thus started 10th. Teammate Felipe Massa took pole position and duly ran away with the race, while Schumacher, puncture and all, charged back to fourth, overtaking Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren with three laps to go.

It was a beautifully incisive pass into the first turn, simply obliging Raikkonen to yield, and symbolically it was important to Michael, too, for Kimi's signing was the reason he was being ushered out of Ferrari, and into — what? Three years of insupportable boredom, as it turned out, during which he desperately missed driving Grand Prix cars. Having retired before he was done with racing, Schumacher was always going to be more susceptible than most to a comeback.

This time around Michael's retirement race was rather quieter than before. As in 2006 he started back in the pack, and as before, too, he picked up a puncture. In the treacherous conditions he then put in a fine drive back to seventh — which perhaps could have been sixth, had he chosen to resist Vettel in the late laps. In 20 years surely no one ever 'overtook' Schumacher as easily as this.

Christian Homer described the gesture as 'gracious': others had a different word for it. Probably we shouldn't have been surprised, though, for Michael was taking his leave, after all, and he and Sebastian are close. Obviously he wouldn't have wanted to jeopardise his friend's World Championship prospects in any way, and of course another couple of points could come in handy. In the end Vettel scraped it by three, but 30 seconds into the race it looked as though he had thrown it away.

'Yes — but is he lucky?' The words are traditionally attributed to Napoleon when considering promotions in his army, when the qualities of this or that general were trotted out to him. Beyond question Vettel is a Grand Prix driver from the very top drawer, but it's undeniable, too, that good fortune tends to ride with him. In Abu Dhabi, for example, he drove a strong race from his pitlane start, but only a couple of safety cars — which each time wiped out a 20-odd second deficit to the leader — allowed him to make the podium.

After the first lap in Brazil, though, the chances of Sebastian's finishing at all seemed slim, for he came by dead last and in a plainly damaged car. Even so, the more you studied the chaotic events at the fourth turn, Descida do Lago, the more you came to realise just how many bullets he had already dodged.

Uncharacteristically tentative, Vettel arrived at the corner seventh, having already lost three places. There Raikkonen locked up under braking, and charitably went off the road to avoid him. Kimi didn't miss the Red Bull by much.

Vettel then made contact with Senna, who had made to overtake him into the turn. Coming out of it, the Red Bull spun, then again ran into Bruno, this time sizeably, which pitched the Williams into Perez's Sauber. Both were eliminated on the spot, while Sebastian went down the middle of the track backwards, somehow avoided by the following pack.

If still mobile, his car was all too evidently damaged. Several times, at the end of the lap, he kept to the left as he passed the pits, enabling his crew to get a look at the sidepod and rear corner. Soon they came back to him, reporting that it was nothing they could fix, but, fearing that the broken exhaust might set the bodywork on fire, they instructed Seb to change the engine mapping in the hope that a richer mixture would keep the exhaust temperature to a manageable level. At his first stop they also made an aero adjustment. Extraordinarily, the Red Bull kept going. It might have been fortunate for Vettel that for most of the afternoon the surface was at least damp, for his car had lost a chunk of downforce, and when the track was at its driest — around mid-race — he was a second off the pace, but altogether Sebastian adapted superbly to its deficiencies and thus a third World Championship was won.

Napoleon would have hired him like a shot, mind you. If he was fortunate to have come through the chaos on the first lap, he was also mighty lucky not to have been investigated by the stewards — and given a 'drive-through' penalty — for causing the shunt with Senna in the first place. Bruno, not at all amused at being punted out on the opening lap of his home Grand Prix, rightly pointed out that he was on the correct line in turn four, that Vettel had chopped across him.

In the course of the race there were suggestions that Seb had passed Kobayashi's Sauber 'under yellow', but these were swiftly and correctly dismissed. During the following week, though, a clip from Vettel's cockpit came to light, suggesting that he had passed Jean-Eric Vergne illegally, and indeed there was no disputing that the yellow lights on Seb's dash were on as he went by the Toro Rosso.

It was surely unthinkable to change the result of the World Championship days later — and indeed the controversy in any case came to light too late for a protest to be made. Nevertheless Ferrari sought 'clarification' from the FIA, which predictably brought condemnation from far and wide, but which, as Stefano Domenicali explained, was thought necessary to quell the howls of outrage from fans bombarding the team's website.

An FIA statement absolved Vettel of any offence, pointing out that, no matter what lights were on (at trackside or on the Red Bull's dash), Seb had passed a green flag before passing Vergne, that flags had precedence over lights and so on. Nobody doubted the governing body's findings, and Ferrari declared the matter closed, but it struck me — yet again — that contemporary Fl has become absurdly complex in so many ways: it was easy to understand why — on a murky afternoon, when trackside flags were difficult to spot on a TV screen— those who noted yellow lights in Vettel's cockpit initially presumed him guilty.

The affair necessarily precipitated a frenzy of internet activity, of course, and I'll confess to finding quite disturbing much of the reaction to sundry blogs and the like. In fact, this has been the case for quite a while: many 'fans' seem to hate Alonso, to hate Vettel and so on: I don't know where this virulence has come from, but the tone of many comments smacks more, I'm afraid to say, of football than motor racing.

During his ongoing battle with Ayrton Senna, 20 years ago, Alain Prost once told me he'd noticed a similar phenomenon. "I want to say to people, 'By all means, support Ayrton if you want to — but don't hate me!' For God's Sake, this is supposed to be sport, not war..."