Nigel Roebuck

Alonso & Mclaren reunited, Vettel’s woes, Brundle’s thoughts

Amidst all the chaos and uncertainty of F1, there remain certain inalienable truths, and one of them is that every new Ferrari driver gets dewy-eyed about Maranello. No matter how many years have gone by since last it produced a competitive car, the Prancing Horse never loses its magnetic pull, and if you have been to the factory, driven round Fiorano, visited the Old Man’s farmhouse, you need no one to explain it to you. Ferrari was a brand before anyone thought of brands.

Thus Sebastian Vettel recently waxed lyrical about his new environment, just as Alain Prost did 25 years ago, and Gilles Villeneuve a dozen before that. When Fernando Alonso joined Ferrari for 2010, he said it was his hope to spend the rest of his career there.

Ah, but then – sooner or later – reality starts to get a toehold. “When you go to Ferrari, and you see the facilities, the test track and everything else,” said Villeneuve, “you wonder how they ever manage to lose a race. Then over time you see all the politics and intrigue, and you wonder how they ever manage to win one…”

For all that, Gilles always had a special relationship with Enzo Ferrari. “I’m hopeless,” he would say. “I start thinking I’ve got to drive for someone else, and then the Old Man holds out a new contract, and I say, ‘OK, where do I sign?’ ”

That said, had Villeneuve survived the 1982 season, I little doubt that he would have moved from Ferrari to McLaren the following year, just as Alonso is doing for 2015.

There have been two significant driver transfers this winter, with logical reasons for both. Vettel had long expressed a wish one day to drive for Ferrari, and if the process were accelerated by Alonso’s growing disenchantment, it was further hastened by the thought of another season being blown off by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull.

No facility exists, until the new year dawns, for Seb to experience a ‘new generation’ Ferrari, but he lost no time in donning red overalls and having a run at Fiorano in an old V8 car from 2012. A local paper ran a photo of him, bare-headed in the cockpit, and his quizzical expression prompted a jocular caption from an Italian colleague: “Are you telling me Alonso nearly beat me to the championship in this?”

Fernando, meantime, was in Woking, pleased to have Jenson Button confirmed as his team-mate, stressing that he and Ron Dennis had put their 2007 problems behind them. It may be a while yet before we fully understand quite why it took RD and his colleagues so long to make a choice between Button and Kevin Magnussen, but there’s no doubt that McLaren’s coup in signing the world’s best driver got somewhat lost amid the outpourings of sympathy for Jenson as he waited, with remarkable dignity, for a decision on his future.

A week before McLaren’s drivers were finally announced, I had my annual pre-Christmas lunch with Martin Brundle at a favourite Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge. On these occasions we chew over the season past and the one to come, and given that the conversation becomes ever more irreverent as afternoon slides into evening, one is inevitably left with the problem of determining what may go into the piece – and what emphatically may not.

Not surprisingly a good deal of time was given over to the driver moves. “Fernando Alonso and Ron Dennis working together again…” Martin mused. “I’ve got to say that’s one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever witnessed in F1.

“This time last year, when Martin Whitmarsh was talking to Alonso about a return to McLaren, I asked him, ‘Is it a proviso of Fernando coming back that Ron’s not there any more?’ ”

And? “Well, you know Martin – push the green button, and he’ll tell you the truth! When he was shoved out, and suddenly Ron was at the helm again, I thought that was the end of a new deal with Alonso. Now, though, it’s all in place, and you wonder how – given everything that happened in 2007 – that’s been achieved. Can they really put it all behind them, and trust each other again?

“Maybe they can: Ron claims he’s mellowed over the last couple of years, and is easier to get on with now. I remember at a dinner somewhere he was raving about Fernando, saying he was still the best – that’s fair comment in itself, but I still wasn’t sure a deal would be done.

“When they parted last time, it looked like a marriage that had irretrievably broken – you know, you find your partner in bed with somebody else, plus they’ve cleaned out your bank account. With characters as extreme as those two, it looks like a remarriage of convenience, doesn’t it? Maybe, though, they really can bury the hatchet.

“At Suzuka I interviewed Ron for Sky, and when I asked him who his favourite driver had been, he went all glassy-eyed and said it was Mika Häkkinen. At the end I mentioned that I’d thought he’d say Senna, and he looked at me and said, ‘Remember what I said about loyalty…’ And he was actually quite negative about Ayrton leaving him for Williams.

“I always understood that Fernando was pretty heavily involved in triggering the ‘Spygate’ thing, but when I asked Ron about it, he said, ‘No, no, you’ve got that wrong…’

“Who knows what really happened back in ’07? There are always two sides to every story. As David [Coulthard] always says, ‘No one does honeymoon like Ron Dennis’, and I’ve always assumed that Fernando, when he signed that first McLaren contract – a year ahead of time, remember – was made promises that weren’t kept.

“In 2015 everyone’s going to be watching the body language between him and Ron, aren’t they? At successful moments it’s going to be fascinating – a polite handshake or a hug? People say Eric Boullier has a tough job, being a sort of buffer between Ron and Fernando. I wouldn’t underestimate Eric. He’s got a very determined, steely way about him.”

Alonso recently said that he had left Ferrari with a heavy heart, but surely – as things stand – he is well out of it. In the course of the last year there have been endless changes of personnel, and Maranello appears to be in a state of ferment.

“Absolutely,” said Brundle. “I saw Stefano Domenicali and Rob Smedley at a party last week, and they were both saying the same thing. You worry about the whole Ferrari scenario, don’t you? You think, ‘How the hell is all that ever going to work?’

“More to the point, how did they not get Adrian Newey? It’s my understanding that an agreement was reached around the time of Barcelona – they even had Adrian sitting in a car! – yet still they didn’t get him to sign a contract. Apparently someone cleverly leaked the story to the Italian press, and that put him off the whole deal…

“If that had gone through, what a difference it might have made to Alonso’s decision-making! As it was, he was there five years, struggling with average cars, but 2014 was the worst, wasn’t it? Ferrari fell away through the season. A statistic I like is the percentage of a car’s fastest lap, relative to the quickest car, and Ferrari’s most competitive race was Shanghai – that was where they were closest to Mercedes.”

It was also where Marco Mattiacci turned up to replace Domenicali. Almost from the outset the signs were that Alonso was unimpressed with Mattiacci, previously a brilliant salesman for Ferrari, but one who knew nothing of racing.

“When I interviewed Mattiacci at Spa, I said, ‘How are you going to keep Fernando Alonso happy?’ and he said, ‘It’s not my job to keep Fernando Alonso happy…’ In other words, ‘He’ll do as he he’s told’ – although he then qualified it by saying, ‘It’s my job to give him a fast car…’ Now he’s gone, too, along with all the rest. Even di Montezemolo…

“One way and another, there’s a lot at stake with this new Alonso-McLaren alliance, isn’t there? The team’s got to get back on track with a decent car, Honda has to play catch-up to a very high target, you’ve got the Fernando-and-Ron dynamics… On the face of it, a lot can go awry, but we know how wrong we can all be. That’s the wonderful soap opera of F1, isn’t it?”

Speaking of how wrong we can all be, I said, let me take you back a year, to something you said in this very restaurant…

“Oh God,” Brundle winced. “Is this going to be embarrassing?”

Well, I said, you suggested that Lewis Hamilton would never beat Vettel or Alonso – and, for good measure, added that you now thought Sebastian, in terms of pure speed, superior to Fernando…

Martin groaned. “I knew it would be something like that! What can I say in defence? I’ve always thought Lewis the quickest driver in F1, and I do believe he matured this last year. As for Vettel… that’s probably the most wrong I’ve ever been about anything in motor racing.

“Quite seriously, what happened – or didn’t happen – with Sebastian in 2014 is the most confusing thing I can ever remember in F1. At every race I’m out on the track on Friday, and having watched him all these years… I mean, I know what I’ve seen, and at some corners I’d think, ‘You’ll never get through there like that’.

“I remember saying to Ricciardo, ‘Mate, you’ve got the worst job in sport…’ I mean, Sebastian Vettel’s team-mate – at Red Bull?

“I’ve come to the conclusion that maybe Vettel was a man of a specific time, with a specific car. The tools he had – notably the blown floor – suited him to a tee. People in the team say Seb’s great strength was carrying a lot of speed into a corner – which he could do with those cars, but can’t with the new ones. They say he was still trying to drive as if he was in a ‘blown floor car’, and all he did was damage his tyres.

“If you talk to someone like Jackie Stewart, he’ll tell you of the difficulties involved in winning back-to-back championships. Vettel did four on the trot, so there may have been a bit of burn-out – and then he couldn’t make the cars work. Also he was in a group of people – including Bernie – who took against the new F1 from the start. I remember a chat with his dad, and he was hugely negative about it, and I realised that what I was listening to was obviously the family position. As well as that, Seb had a kid this year and perhaps all those things added up.

“Towards the end of the season he looked a bit better – but then look at the last race, in Abu Dhabi, where both Red Bulls started from the pitlane: that was a real test for the pair of them, and Ricciardo blew Vettel’s doors off, didn’t he?

“In 2013 I drove a Red Bull, complete with blown floor, at Silverstone, and even though it was wet the grip of the thing was staggering. Maybe Seb was just a driver who excelled in cars like that.

“You can see why he left Red Bull – he had to, because another year with Ricciardo like he’s just had, and his value would have been nothing. So can he turn it around? If he can’t, I would say he’s the bloke I have most misinterpreted in all these years.

“Now he’s at Ferrari, and it’s entirely possible that James Allison’s first car for the team will be a good one – certainly it has to be better than this year’s. And, whatever else, Seb’ll trim Kimi up, won’t he?”

If he doesn’t, I said, people really will say it’s over.

“Yes, they will,” Brundle replied, “and they’ll be right. I expected Alonso to have the upper hand on Räikkönen, but didn’t think it would be like it was. You pay a driver to leave a year early, and then four years later take him back again – on a fixed three-year deal! Who wouldn’t have an exit route from the contract, in case he’s still no good?”

Räikkönen’s argument throughout the year was that the car didn’t suit his style, that he had no confidence in its front end, but surely that was not acceptable from a driver of his pedigree and, come to that, stipend. “No, it’s not,” Martin said. “He’s a world champion, when all’s said and done, and a great driver should be able to adapt, to make the most of what he has. Alonso’s been doing it for years.”

In Italy the response to Vettel’s arrival at Maranello has been mixed. Indeed, after the 2014 performances of Seb and Kimi, relative to their team-mates, one prominent journalist was moved to suggest that Ferrari now had a pair of number two drivers. Harsh, perhaps, but pithy.

It amazed me, before the start of the season, when Mark Webber said he expected Red Bull qualifying to be 50:50 between Vettel and Ricciardo: “Seb exploited the blown floor brilliantly – way better than I could – but there’s a chance he won’t get on with less downforce…”

Well, maybe so, but still it’s fair to say that no one, Red Bull folk included, expected Daniel to dominate his team-mate as he did, to be the only non-Mercedes driver to win in 2014.

“Absolutely,” Brundle said. “At Toro Rosso he didn’t look that amazing against Vergne, did he? You could understand why Red Bull took him, but by their own admission it was, ‘Well, Jean-Eric was better in qualifying, but Daniel seemed to be a little bit quicker in the race, so he got the nod…’

“The problem we always have is factoring in the machinery, isn’t it? We make judgement calls from what we see from the side of the track, from the stopwatch, from where they end up in the running order… but how d’you factor in the differences between the cars? Not easy.

“Daniel amazed me this season, and not only because he creamed Vettel. He looked so sure in the car, made very few mistakes, and he raced so well, didn’t he? Some of his overtaking moves were fantastic – even against a guy like Alonso, he gave as good as he got. And on top of all that, of course, there’s always that huge grin on his face. I’m sure that must have really got to Sebastian, too!”

For some years, I said, we have all talked about ‘the big three’ in F1, and there has been general agreement that Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel were in a category of their own. On the strength of 2014, though, there’s a case to be made for replacing Vettel with Ricciardo.

“Yes, I agree,” said Brundle, “and don’t let’s forget Bottas, either. He’s knocking on that door, too. The return of Williams has been the feelgood story of the year – they’ve really shown, like Lotus did previously, that it’s possible to be competitive without a massive budget.

“The arrival of guys like Pat Symonds and Rob Smedley has made a huge difference, and Frank’s also got two good drivers. I know Massa well, and he’s a quality little man. I suppose I’d classify him as a worker-driver, but in his time with Ferrari, there were days when he beat Schumacher, Räikkönen and Alonso, and that’s not something you luck into… He drove some excellent races in 2014, particularly in Abu Dhabi, but Bottas has outshone him, hasn’t he? A very nice young guy, Valtteri, and a hell of a talent. He’s pretty well up there with Ricciardo, in my opinion.

“Going back to Vettel for a moment… It’s always interested me that remarks by both Hamilton and Alonso suggest they don’t really rate Seb that highly. The thing about these guys is that every morning, when they’re shaving – although they don’t shave very much these days – they look in the mirror, and say, ‘I am the best driver, and I will win the world championship’. Then this kid comes along, and wins four straight titles, and they can’t cope with it. Lewis and Fernando have suggested that it was all about the car and not the driver, and I always suspected there was a bit of frustration showing, but they know which way is up, don’t they? And right now, it seems they were absolutely right.

“Having said that, I think I have more faith in Vettel than they do. I don’t believe the best is yet to come from him, but I still think there’s a great racing driver in there.

“Let’s put it on the agenda for next year’s lunch…”

And, of course, the Mercs, which – on sheer superiority of performance – dominated a Grand Prix season perhaps more consummately than anything since the ‘active’ Williams-Renault FW14B of 1992. Hamilton and Rosberg had the world championship to themselves, between them winning all but three of the 19 Grands Prix, and it was no more than justice that Lewis, with 11 victories, took the title.

“Where do we start?” said Brundle. “For one thing, I think Lewis definitely grew up a bit this year. In some ways he’s very streetwise, and Spa was the turning point of the season between him and Nico. They had that touch on the second lap, and after the post-race `meeting, Lewis said, ‘Nico admitted he’d done it deliberately…’

“Now that was… slightly a play on words, let’s say, and I think Lewis realised he could turn a negative into a positive. He’d heard Rosberg being booed on the podium – which clearly ripped the guy to shreds, as it would most people. Michael Schumacher could cope with being booed – he didn’t like it, but he could cope with it. I think Nico’s a much more sensitive soul, and it was clear from his demeanour over the next few races how much the whole Spa scenario had affected him.”

Alain Prost, I said, thought the whole thing was completely out of perspective: “He made a small mistake, that’s all – these things have always happened in motor racing…”

Brundle said, “Yes, absolutely right. The way I read it was that Nico was trying to make a point, trying to show Lewis – after what had happened in Hungary – that he wasn’t going to be intimidated. As Alain said, he made a tiny mistake, but I don’t believe he intended to clip Lewis – if you run into the back of someone, you might give him a puncture, but it’s guaranteed you’ll damage your own wing…

“I never thought for a second that Nico did it on purpose – but, on the other hand, I’ve become increasingly convinced that his trip down the escape road in Monaco qualifying was deliberate. When it first happened, I didn’t want to believe it – Nico’s a nice guy, and I’d championed him since the Williams days.

“Let’s consider what was involved. I’m not sure there are many things in life more intense than driving an F1 car on that final lap on Saturday afternoon at Monaco, and I found it quite difficult to believe that you could come out of Casino Square, and see your delta time on your dashboard. I’d say that the braking zone for Mirabeau is the toughest in the world – crowned road, downhill – and I thought, ‘How can he have consciously made the decision, between the exit of Casino and the entry to Mirabeau, that the lap wasn’t going to be quicker – abort!’

“Nico knew he’d left the pits ahead of Lewis, but I thought, ‘No, that’s not in the boy’s mind…’ With one or two others, it wouldn’t have surprised me. I interviewed him that evening, and he gave me a totally credible account of what had happened, and why.

“Then I heard a couple of whispers from inside the team – although I’ll grant you they were from people with a vested interest! If you read my words at the time, I said, ‘I will forever be suspicious, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt’. Now I think my suspicion has taken over.”

Perhaps, I said, there is a steel in Rosberg that people hadn’t previously suspected.

“Yes – including me...”

And at the same time Hamilton was playing the victim, at which he is brilliant…

“Absolutely – just as Ayrton was! I also think Lewis has a killer instinct on the track that Nico will never have. Lewis did one or two things to him that were a bit marginal this year, but most of his drives were top-drawer.”

Almost certainly, I suggested, Hamilton will have been taken aback by Rosberg’s sheer pace in 2014, most of all in qualifying. Lewis, after all, is generally accepted as the quickest around, yet Nico started many more times from the pole.

“Well, Lewis sometimes got the yips, didn’t he? I’d love to see his qualifying brake traces – I’d bet that he puts more bar into his brake pressure. Sometimes he demands things that the car can’t give. At Spa he was complaining about glazing of the brakes, just as he’d done in Austria, but when I spoke to Toto [Wolff] about it, he said, ‘Complete bullshit! They’ve both got a bit of glazing on the brakes – it was just that Lewis made a big thing of it…’

“I must say I was very impressed by Nico in Abu Dhabi. His car was progressively breaking down, he had the ultimate disappointment of losing the championship, and finally – just as he was about to be lapped by Lewis – the team offered him the opportunity to park it, but he said, ‘No, I want to get it to the end’. I will forever respect him for that.”

At the end of Abu Dhabi, I said, the thought crossed my mind that if similar misfortune had befallen Hamilton the post-race scenario might have been rather more theatrical.

“Yes, for sure!” Brundle said. “One of the senior members of the team – and I won’t name him – said to me, ‘What happened today with Nico was our worst nightmare – but at least it wasn’t Lewis’s car…’

“They knew that both their world championships would have been absolutely buried in a flood of negativity if it had happened to Lewis. I’m pretty convinced they wanted him to win the title – he’s box office, isn’t he? I thought the instinctive reaction of Toto and Niki at Spa – straight after the race, with the adrenalin flowing – was very telling. Very telling…”

At Spa it occurred to me, I said, that the controversy might have been dealt with very differently had Ross Brawn still been part of the Mercedes operation.

“Yes, I agree,” said Martin, “but actually – as fond of Ross as I am – I suspect that, had he still been aboard, other aspects of the season might have been different, too. His contribution to Mercedes’s success in 2014 was enormous – but would he have been happy to allow Lewis and Nico to race the way they did? Would we have had the fantastic duel in Bahrain, for example? I could be wrong, but I doubt it…”

Looking back on 2014 as a whole, there was, we agreed, much that was good, and much that was not so. Into the latter category, overwhelmingly, belonged Jules Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka.

For Brundle that disastrous afternoon had a personal resonance, for it was at the same corner – Dunlop – that he crashed in similarly dim and torrential conditions back in 1994. Then, as now, a tractor was used to remove a damaged car, and Martin said it was only by the grace of God that he missed it. Twenty years on, he found it depressing that nothing in this particular safety procedure had changed.

“After my son, I probably had more affinity with Jules than with any of the other drivers. A super little kid, modest, and with a great talent – definitely a star in the making…”

A matter of consummately less moment, but one with which some became preoccupied in 2014, was the exhaust note produced by the new generation F1 ‘power units’: in other words, the relative lack of noise.

“Well, for a start,” said Brundle, “I don’t miss the ‘white noise’ of the V8s at all – I just don’t. Those engines wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding, they all sounded the same and to me it was a painful, horrible racket. You couldn’t function with that going on – you couldn’t have a discussion when they were out on the track.

“As far as the new ‘power units’ are concerned, I was out on track at every race, and what really struck me was how much the sound varied from circuit to circuit. On street tracks, unsurprisingly, it was much better – it reverberates against buildings, and you’re much closer to the cars.

“Think of somewhere like Turn Five at Singapore – I still instinctively stand back sometimes when a car comes through, just because of the sheer energy it generates, and that was the most amazing I saw all year. In itself, it’s a bit of a nondescript 90-degree right-hander, but what really struck me was how early Alonso, in particular, picked up the throttle, apparently drove at the wall, and then just missed it when he got there. Fantastic!

“At other circuits which had a lot of canopy grandstands – Malaysia, China, Bahrain – the sound was still acceptable, but then there was somewhere like Silverstone, where there are no canopies, and you’re 100 metres from the cars – and it was awful, quite honestly.

“As the year went on I realised that if you were behind it the sound coming out of the centre exhaust was really soulful and meaty – but it was a narrow window, in terms of angle. When you could literally look down the exhaust pipe, as they accelerated out of a corner, it was actually a fantastic sound.

“Mind you, when I drove Senna’s Lotus-Renault turbo at Donington, I was amazed. When I got there they were warming it up, and everyone had fingers in ears! Then I drove it – and the noise was three times greater than the 2014 cars! I was shocked: I thought they’d be similar.

“Think about it, though. If you give some of the best engineers hundreds of millions of euros to suck as much energy out of the exhaust as they can, we shouldn’t be surprised it doesn’t make much noise…”

From the outset I was much in favour of the move to these hybrids, delighted by the prospect of more power and, particularly, greatly increased torque, but also convinced that if F1 were to retain its place as the sport’s technological apotheosis, the change had to come.

“Yes,” said Brundle. “They had to do the new engine, because otherwise Honda wouldn’t be coming back, and Renault and Mercedes would be gone, and we’d be back to Ferrari, Cosworth, Judd, whatever…

“I want to see more engines in F1, not fewer, so we had to do it – but where we completely screwed up was that we gave Formula E the high ground on the eco front: instead of celebrating what the engineers in F1 had achieved, some chose to deride it at every opportunity. Mind you, as Ross Brawn pointed out to me, they made a huge mistake in not putting a cost cap on it. If there had been some commonality of parts in the engines, it would have restricted the costs – and also made it much closer than it is.

“As for the noise, I think that what comes out of a current F1 car is actually quite pleasant, but it’s too defined – we need to spread it out a bit more, and get some of it into the crowd. The noise issue has sort of dropped off the agenda now, hasn’t it? We have what we have, but I have met enough fans to know that a majority are a bit disappointed with the sound.”

Very well, I said, but what has baffled me is that, while they may not sound as good as once they did, the increase in torque, combined with reduced downforce, has meant that the cars looked way better out on the circuit.

“Oh, absolutely,” said Martin. “But you know what people are like, generally: they’re much more ready to moan than praise, aren’t they? Look at blogs, look at letters to magazines… People very rarely write in to say, ‘I really liked that…’

“You’ve got to balance it out. I’ve met many fans who say, ‘Actually I like the new sound – I can talk to my mate, I can hear the PA, I know what’s going on in the race’. I mean, why turn up, and stick your fingers in your ears or put bloody headphones on? I think there’s room in the middle somewhere, but it’s not easy to achieve – and of course Mercedes or whoever are going to vote down anything that might give somebody else an advantage.”

This time last year, as we anticipated ‘the new F1’, a great concern was that we might see a driver cruising along in fifth place, and then, because he had saved a load of energy, passing the real racers, and winning the Grand Prix. An unfounded fear, as it turned out.

“That’s right,” said Martin, “and to me one of the outstanding aspects of the year was how they harnessed the new technology. There were concerns about the fuel capacity limit, but – whatever the era – we watched the fuel, didn’t we? All that’s happened is that, because there’s an absolute limit of 100kgs now, it’s come into focus.

“You’re never going to carry more fuel than you have to, and all the scare stuff building up to 2014 turned out to be a non-story – especially as they got on top of it better than we thought they would. I mean, think about it… 30 per cent less fuel! Could you believe that they could generate that power with that fuel consumption? That has been massively impressive.

“Remember how chaotic the pre-season tests were – even Mercedes was struggling to get its engine functioning as it wished – and then we went to Melbourne, and there were 16 finishers! I think it just reminds you of the excellence that’s in Formula 1, doesn’t it? The technology involved in the new power units is staggeringly complex, yet look how quickly they were made to work properly.

“It all just serves to remind me how much I love F1.”