Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

On October 29 I visited the Portsmouth HQ of Ben Ainslie Racing to see Martin Whitmarsh, and fresh in everyone’s mind was the US Grand Prix, run just four days earlier.

There Lewis Hamilton had clinched his third world championship, but the race had been not without controversy. Through the last two seasons of Mercedes domination, the conflict between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has invariably been settled by the first corner – whomever got there first usually went on to control the race, and more often than not that was Lewis.

At the Circuit of the Americas, though, the pair of them arrived more or less together, with Rosberg – starting from pole – slightly ahead, but on the outside. There was space enough for them readily to go through the corner side by side, too, but – as the cockpit footage confirmed – Hamilton decided against using much steering lock, and at the exit of the turn his team-mate was left without any track.

It was a move of which Ayrton Senna, in his constant struggles with Alain Prost, might have been proud, and Lewis’s subsequent remarks on the subject were also an echo of his idol.

“You’ve got to be fierce, you’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to be hard. You can’t be nice out there, you can’t be, ‘Hey, here’s some space…’ It’s, ‘Hey, I’m taking it, I’m in business, I’m not here to make friends…’”

To be hard but fair is a fine line in motor racing, and many a time Prost would say that essentially Senna had put him in a position where, “Either I back off, or we both crash. Two McLarens out on the spot – how stupid that would have been…” Invariably, therefore, Alain did back off, and many a time – as at Austin – Rosberg has done the same.

Whitmarsh suggested that it was time for Nico to change his approach. “He’s been upset recently, with some justification, and I think he should have held his ground and taken Lewis off a time or two – even if it had cost him the race, and upset Mercedes, it would have been worth it to get across to Lewis, ‘Never, ever, do that to me again…’”

In the subsequent races it didn’t come to that, but clearly the events in Texas left their mark on Rosberg. The fastest man in the place that weekend, he passed Hamilton on the track – something we have rarely seen – then twice had his lead wiped out by the safety car, but each time kept his composure and looked set for victory – until a costly mistake in the late laps handed victory to Hamilton. Amid the celebration of Lewis’s title, Nico was a picture of dejection.

He responded the right way, though, winning conclusively in Mexico and Brazil, and if Hamilton looked a little off his game in those two races, most expected him to be back on it in Abu Dhabi, where logically he would wish to end the season as top dog once more.

“That was certainly what I thought would happen there,” said Martin Brundle. “I was sure we’d see normal service resumed, with Lewis saying, ‘Right, OK, I’d better get on with this’ – but when push came to shove, he couldn’t do it, could he? To me the late part of the season was just bizarre…”

It was, not surprisingly, the first topic of conversation when, just a couple of days after Abu Dhabi, Brundle and I met for our annual pre-Christmas lunch in Knightsbridge. Had Lewis lost something – or had Nico found it?

“I was thinking about it on the flight home,” said Martin, “and mostly I think Nico has gained a bit of confidence. Without any doubt Austin made a big difference: there was the first-corner incident, the cap-throwing thing in the podium room, Lewis’s cocky comments at the press conference… Nico blew it that day – not the championship, because that was gone, but the race, and he knew it.”

In terms of the world championship Rosberg’s season indeed came together too late, but it concluded impressively, with six poles on the trot and three victories. Had his car not failed, he would probably have won at Sochi, certainly – without the mistake – would have done so in Austin, and he then marched off with the last three races.

“Yes,” said Brundle, “and, as well as that, if you take away Nico’s dodgy starts in a couple of places, and add in that Lewis’s only car failure came in Singapore where Mercedes was having an off weekend, anyway… Pull that lot together, and the circumstances could have changed quite dramatically – for every extra point Nico earned, you’ve got to double it, because Lewis would have lost them.

“In Brazil I said to Nico, ‘How have you got your head back together?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve done this, I’ve done that…’ What, in three days? ‘Yes…’

“Nico’s always saying, ‘I’ve always been here, I haven’t changed…’, but actually I think he’s missing a psychological trick by not saying, ‘I’ve changed a few things, I’ve aligned everything – and I’m on it…’ I think that would hit Lewis even harder than having his arse handed to him on a plate, like in the last three races.

“As I said, I expected Lewis to be right back on it in Abu Dhabi, but it didn’t happen. I thought Nico’s qualifying lap there was quite exceptional – in fact, Anthony Davidson said to me, ‘I reckon that could be the best qualifying lap I’ve ever analysed at the Skypad.’
I raved about it – and predictably got a lot of abuse for it…”

And what of Whitmarsh’s suggestion that Rosberg needed to stand up for himself a little more, be more assertive against Hamilton’s muscular moves?

“I can only relate it to the experiences I had with Senna and Schumacher,” said Brundle. “First, you did have to stand up, because they were bullies, and psychologically they wanted to dominate you – that’s why they were winners – and second, I can completely relate to ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to lose now…’ In my experience, your natural skills flow much better in those circumstances – in any sport, a massive percentage of it is in the head, isn’t it?

“Hamilton and Rosberg are more complex than 99 per cent of sports people, because they were mates when they were kids – I remember them bouncing around together in the paddock. So there’s all that sub-story to go with the head-to-head that’s going on at present – they can’t just forget all that.

“In Brazil Lewis came out with that comment: ‘My job is done for this year.’ Then he came out with, ‘I was rubbish because I’d partied for a week, I’d been drinking, and I hadn’t slept enough…’

“Damon [Hill] has been on about this all year, and he took a bit of flak because the more he talked about Lewis’s lifestyle not being good the more he kept winning races! But I’m beginning to think Damon was right. To me, a lot of Lewis’s life now looks like an act, but as I’ve said before, where are his reference points? He’s never had a real life, has he? Clearly, with his new American management, things have changed a lot.

“Remember Monza last year, when Rosberg was under pressure from Hamilton – right after the coming-together at Spa, where he was booed on the podium, and then got a big dressing-down from Mercedes. What did he do? Outbraked himself at the first chicane – twice! Austin this year was another one where he made an error under pressure, and I think this is what he has addressed – I think he’s found a way of doing that. I don’t think you could ever question his speed, but I always think of Nico as the privileged young man and Lewis as the streetfighter – and when it comes to it, one is hungrier than the other.

“Lewis is a supremely fast Grand Prix driver, and at Mercedes he’s got not only demonstrably the best car, but also a team prepared to cut him a lot of slack in the way he lives. We know he doesn’t go to the factory, doesn’t do the simulator and so on. One of the senior team members told me, ‘Lewis believes he’s three-tenths quicker than Nico – and if he isn’t, he automatically wants to know what’s wrong with the car…’

“Back in his McLaren days, Ron Dennis – in his way – tried to control him, didn’t he? I remember being with him in the motorhome at Magny-Cours one year, when Lewis came in. He had a slight ‘Afro’ haircut – and, in front of us, Ron ripped him to shreds. I saw in Lewis’s face how embarrassed and angry he was, so now when Ron says, ‘He wouldn’t be behaving like that if he was still here,’ he’s rather missing the point – that’s why he’s not still there!

“I’ll admit that the thing that disappoints me about Lewis is… I know all about, ‘Show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser,’ but I wish he wasn’t so churlish when he loses. OK, you don’t expect him to enjoy being beaten, but there’s a better way of handling it than the way he does it.

“When they pull up at the end of a race, for example, he never goes over to Nico to shake hands.

“There were the two of them, with Kimi, in the podium room at Abu Dhabi, and they never said a word to each other! You think, ‘What is the matter with these people? This is the pinnacle of the sport, the end of a long, hard, season, they’re still breathing, they’re all squillionaires – and where are the smiles?’

“From a media perspective, if I was in Bernie Ecclestone’s shoes, I’d want my world champion to be out there over the winter, picking up awards, on the red carpet, on the front cover of glossy magazines… When he was world champion, Jenson went to all the functions and so on – and I think that’s an obligation, actually. We’ve got three months without any Formula 1, and I’d want him to be out there, selling it – mostly because it does nothing to sell itself…”

Some have begun to compare the battle between Hamilton and Rosberg with the legendary feud between Senna and Prost, but anyone with memories of those days finds that risible.

“No, that was a different thing altogether – that was all-out war, wasn’t it? I’ll admit I conveniently ignore the dark side of Senna because I was so overwhelmed by his natural gift in a racing car. There was a man prepared to do anything… 

“As far as Hamilton is concerned, if – after the last few races in 2015 – he’s not asking himself a few questions, he should be. It’ll amaze me if he’s not right back on it at the start of next season, but then I expected him to be like that at the final race this year. I think it’s going to be very interesting to see what he does this winter to put things right, because next season, with an on-form Rosberg, consistently delivering his full potential, and a fast Ferrari, with Vettel at the wheel… he’s got his hands full, hasn’t he?”

***

At lunch 12 months ago Brundle – like most in the business – admitted to being mystified by the season Sebastian Vettel had just been through. After winning four world championships on the trot, Seb’s familiar grin was rarely in evidence and he missed no opportunity to denigrate the new ‘hybrid’ Formula 1.

True, Renault’s power unit was no match for Mercedes, but that wasn’t the whole story, for Vettel’s new Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo was consistently the quicker of the two, and won three Grands Prix. Was it conceivable that Seb, after all, was a one-trick pony, brilliant at working with Adrian Newey’s unequalled blown diffuser, less at ease with reduced levels of grip?

Brundle didn’t want to believe that, but at the same time was baffled by Vettel’s underwhelming season. “Perhaps,” he said then, “Seb was just a man of a specific time – with a specific car. The tools he had – notably the blown floor – suited his style to a tee, but people in the team say he’s still trying to drive as if he were in a ‘blown-floor car’ and all he does is damage his tyres.

“The thing is,” Martin went on, “can he turn it around with Ferrari? If he can’t, I would say he is the bloke I have most misinterpreted in all these years – I mean, I know what I saw him do for four years! I don’t think the best is yet to come from him, but I do believe there’s a great racing driver in there, who will resurface…”

Brundle was on the mark. In his new life Vettel thrived, swiftly – predictably – asserting himself as the team’s number one. James Allison’s first Ferrari was vastly superior to its predecessor, and in Maranello there was also a massive step up in horsepower. Sebastian won three Grands Prix in 2015, and won them well.

“A year ago I thought I’d satisfied myself that the new F1 – without all the tools that Vettel made so much of – just didn’t suit him, but this season he’s demonstrated that wasn’t the case. Look at Abu Dhabi – he’s got so much self-confidence that he pulls over, lets Räikkönen through, and then comes on the radio, and says, ‘I’m assuming that was in the game plan…’ Obviously nobody had dared to ask him to let Kimi by, but he did it, anyway. What maturity and confidence, compared with the Hamilton/Rosberg situation, which is all emotional and churlish. 

“Ferrari’s return to competitiveness was one of the big stories of the season, but as for Kimi… I know he did a good job at Abu Dhabi, but it surprised me that Ferrari took him back two years ago, and astonished me that they decided to keep him on next year. I’m afraid I think that’s a wasted seat, just as it was last year, when Alonso blew him away.

“Mind you, Räikkönen is the perfect team-mate for Vettel – Seb certainly doesn’t want another Ricciardo in there! He wants somebody fast enough to be useful, just like Schumacher had with Barrichello, plus Kimi’s still a big name, so he gets credit when he beats him – and he knows he can beat him, all day, every day.

“How exciting would it be if it were contractually feasible to have Max Verstappen alongside him next year? And can you imagine if Alonso were still at Ferrari with Vettel? Unbeatable…”

From every point of view, the timing of Sebastian’s move to Ferrari was inspired, for Red Bull had a poor season and Ricciardo never looked like adding to his tally of victories.

“I think Danny lost a bit of focus in 2015,” Brundle said. “What I really like about him is that he can drive a car that slides – and it doesn’t matter whether it’s at the front or the back, he can carry speed, and I enjoy watching him out on track.

“Having said that, he’s not been as exuberant this year, and I think he might have been a bit like Vettel in 2014, and got caught up in the negativity of it all: if you drive out of the pitlane, and you think your car or your engine is hopeless…

“Daniil Kvyat came under massive pressure because he wasn’t doing a good enough job – I really can’t imagine the sort of aggro he was getting from Helmut Marko – but I think he pulled it round as the season progressed. If you think about Red Bull’s four drivers… if you could replicate them through the 22 cars next year, it wouldn’t be a shabby show, would it?”

No argument there. Toro Rosso, with rookies Verstappen and Sainz, had an excellent season, and if 17-year-old Max unsurprisingly got most of the attention and kudos, Carlos, too, made a considerable impact, not least by outqualifying his team-mate 10-9.

“I think Sainz has done an extraordinary job, and I like his approach and attitude. He’s a charming lad, as well. There was actually very little between them, but in a brutal head-to-head I’d put my money on Verstappen, albeit not by much. It’s a bit like Lewis and Nico.

“When I interviewed Max in Abu Dhabi he absolutely blew me away. He had no idea of the questions that were coming, but there was never an, ‘Errr…’ or a glance to the sky. If ever a kid knew who he was, and where he was heading, it was him. Now whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. There is a certain… overconfidence there, let’s say.

“As Max was answering the questions – bang, bang, bang – without any hesitation, I realised that that’s also how he drives, isn’t it? Think back to the press conference in Canada, where he was questioned about the shunt with Massa at Monaco: did he know that was coming up? He wasn’t on the defensive – far from it, he came right back at Felipe. Now is that impressive – or robotic? I don’t know.

“As for Red Bull, and their problem with engine supply in 2016, I think they played a supremely bad hand – and to be fair, from conversations I’ve had with them, they know that. Through their years of success, as far as they were concerned it was always Red Bull who won, and Renault who lost – and that arrogance has smacked them right in the face. They’ve gone full circle – ended up with pretty much the same engine, and tens of millions less to spend. I have no sympathy for them at all – and neither, more importantly, do the fans.”

***

In MotoGP they have long referred to the special riders as ‘The Aliens’, and in recent years the only change has been the replacement, alongside Valentino Rossi, Jorge Lorenzo and Dani Pedrosa, of the retiring Casey Stoner by Marc Márquez. In Formula 1 ‘The Aliens’ have long been regarded as Hamilton, Vettel and Alonso, but a year ago Brundle said he suspected that the next to add to their number might be Valtteri Bottas, at the time thought very likely to replace Räikkönen at Ferrari. In the event, that didn’t come to be, and Martin’s opinion of Bottas is perhaps not what it was.

“I’m still very much a fan of his, but I think he’s got to give more. I like the way he’s always there, every weekend, and he’s very consistent, but he seems to me to be Mr Percentage – I just don’t think he’s very dynamic. At Silverstone, for example, both Williams drivers made a fantastic start and led into Copse, but then two or three corners later Valtteri just left the door open, and Lewis was past him. I think he certainly needs to step up a gear, but when I said that to him, he said, ‘Well, when it’s worth it…’

“Massa had a good season, didn’t he? He impresses me – he’s still got the passion, and he’s the kind of guy who, when this particular adventure is over, will say, ‘I think I’ll do Le Mans…’ Felipe’s a very smart little guy, and very easy to underestimate. 

“Williams had a very good year – third in the constructors’ championship, with a relatively small budget – but I’ve heard Pat Symonds say to Bottas, ‘We need to score 20 points a weekend’, and I think that’s how they go racing at the moment, rather than, ‘Let’s go and win this…’

“Probably, because of the money situation, that’s how it has to be. Look at what happened in Brazil, where Massa lost his points because of the pre-heated tyre temperatures supposedly being too high. Williams people told me they were absolutely in the right, but they just couldn’t afford to fight it. 

“As well as that, next year’s world championship entry fee is based on the number of points you score from this season, so if they’d got the points back it would have cost them another 80 grand on top of the 150 grand it would have cost to fight it – therefore it was better to look as though they’d cheated! Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about the whole bloody business at the moment?”

***

Second only, in the tedium stakes, to Red Bull’s constant bitching about sundry manufacturers’ unwillingness to supply them with engines for 2016 was the endless debate about Renault’s future in F1 – would they take over hapless Lotus, and move back into Enstone, or simply take their leave of the sport?

The affair rambled on and on, with chairman Carlos Ghosn – not a fan of Formula 1 – insistent that the deal would go through only if CVC could be persuaded to take a rather more open-handed attitude towards Renault. Shortly before the last race a company press release was prepared, announcing the company’s withdrawal, but over the Abu Dhabi weekend an accommodation was finally reached.

The word a while ago was that Renault’s hope had been to keep Romain Grosjean, and to bring in Kevin Magnussen as his team-mate. That, as Brundle said, would have been ‘a hell of a team’, but by late September the Frenchman had lost patience with the uncertainty of the situation, and signed for Gene Haas’s new outfit, and soon Lotus – for all they knew perhaps continuing to struggle along in their own name – had committed to Pastor Maldonado and Jolyon Palmer, both of whom brought sponsorship. When that was announced Renault was a little surprised.

After a season as reserve driver, Magnussen was in the meantime dropped by McLaren. “It’s not five minutes,” said Brundle, “since Ron Dennis was in Denmark with Kevin, saying he was the greatest thing, but now he’s saying he didn’t fulfil his objectives – well, how could
he, when he wasn’t in the bloody car? What a waste of talent…”

We went on to Force India, agreeing that the team, given its financial constraints, did an extraordinarily good job in 2015. “I must say I always thought Sergio Pérez was a bit lazy,” said Brundle, “but I tell you what, in this era of F1 he gets the job done.

“It’s difficult to know what to say about Hülkenberg. I’ve always been a fan of his, but whenever there’s a good result in the offing he seems to trip over somebody – just goes diving in, and I think, ‘If you’ve got that kind of mindset…’

“Nico’s never had a podium finish, because when it’s there he keeps having shunts. Remember when he could – and perhaps should – have won at Interlagos a few years ago, he tripped over Lewis, trying to take the lead. He had the measure of him, and should have waited for the right moment, but instead he made a move that was never on.

“Having said all that, Nico knows how to hustle a car, and I like that. He knows how to carry speed through a corner, that boy – it’s the sort of speed that Alonso carries. Sometimes, when you’re watching out on the track, you stand back, thinking, ‘That’ll never stick to the road…’ Usually it’s Fernando who makes you do that.”

In our conversation a year ago the big topic was the return, against all expectations, of Alonso to McLaren. “What I can’t wait to see,” Brundle said at the time, “is the body language between Fernando and Ron – it’s going to be fascinating, isn’t it? What happens when they get their first podium, win their first race – if they do? Is it going to be a polite handshake, is it going to be a hug…?”

Nineteen races later we are still none the wiser, for at no stage in 2015 did a McLaren-Honda come remotely close to a podium finish, far less a win. By season’s end Alonso and Button had scored 27 points between them, and in the constructors’ championship McLaren headed only Manor Marussia. If pre-season testing had suggested a difficult season, none – including the team’s two world champions – could have predicted such a catastrophe.

“Let’s be honest,” said Brundle, “we all thought a McLaren-Honda would be at least moderately competitive, and moving forward – not ninth in the world championship! Nobody on earth could have foreseen that.”

Honda’s power unit was not only gutless but also chronically unreliable, and to the dismay of McLaren people its progress through the season was apparently negligible.

It didn’t help that the Japanese company’s return to F1 was constrained by the wretched ‘token’ system, which limits the number of changes that may be made during a season, but Brundle saw that as no excuse. “Andy Cowell of Mercedes – who seems to know his business pretty well – said to me, ‘With 25 tokens, we can start again…’ So if Honda actually knows what to do, they should be able to do it this winter. To be honest, I think Ron made a terrible mistake in not allowing Red Bull to have the engine, because it would have speeded up the process of getting it right.

“For a pair of drivers like Alonso and Button, I can’t imagine what this season must have been like, but I’m sure it was easier for Jenson than for Fernando. At the end of 2014 it looked as though he was out of the team, and then he was back in again, so to some extent he had nothing to lose, whereas Fernando had the double-edged sword of having a hopeless car – and of Ferrari coming on song just after he left.

“The Honda was so bad that I think, down the straights, both the drivers were scared, quite honestly, because the power would suddenly evaporate – and everyone around them was suddenly closing at a hell of a rate…”

When I talked to Whitmarsh about the McLaren-Honda situation, he said he was surprised, given Alonso’s famously Latin temperament, that – apart from losing his rag on the radio in Montréal and Suzuka – he had more or less kept a lid on his frustrations this year. 

“Yes, I agree,” said Brundle, “but on the other hand I think it’s Fernando’s own fault that he’s in this situation – I don’t mean with the engine being so bad, because that’s nothing to do with him, but leaving Ferrari with McLaren as his only alternative. You reap what you sow...

“When something goes wrong for Vettel – like in Q1 at Abu Dhabi, where Ferrari screwed up – he gets out of the car, plays the team game, says the right things – and then closes the door and rips them to shreds! That’s smart, but with Alonso you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do – if I were a team boss, and I employed him, I’d be scared!

“At the Brazilian Grand Prix, for example, he knew exactly what effect the deckchair incident would have, just as in Japan where he said the Honda felt like a GP2 engine…”

This seemed like a fair moment to point out that, in his admittedly subtler fashion, Button was if anything even more cutting in a post-race interview at Suzuka: “Today it was like being a samurai – but without sword or shield…”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Martin laughed. “I can’t imagine the frustrations they must have felt, but I still think Fernando would have been better doing none of that stuff, and instead getting a number of people by the throat behind closed doors, and saying, ‘F****** sort this out!’

“Alonso is a fantastic racing driver – I’m reminded of it every time I go and watch on track, and I can’t argue with what he’s achieved: for those five years Ferrari would have been nowhere without him, and he constantly outperformed the car. I could do that in sports cars – but I couldn’t remotely approach it in F1. There are not many people who can win Grands Prix by outperforming the car – Michael, Ayrton, Alain, Fernando and that’s it.

“Once the helmet’s on, and he’s in the car, Fernando is simply extraordinary – there’s no other word – but I keep coming back to the baggage he brings with him. I guess all I’m saying is that he played some cards at Renault, Ferrari and McLaren that were not smart, and
I think he’s compromised himself with the people around him. By and large he has kept a lid on it this year, yes, but in Abu Dhabi his great pal Mark Webber said to me, ‘Mate, at the moment Ferdy’s like an unexploded bomb…’”

All right, I said, but I still think that if Alonso had been in a Ferrari this year, he would have frightened Mercedes like no one else.

“I can’t disagree with that,” said Brundle, “and I’m sure, whatever he says, that must haunt him. It probably helped a bit that he and Jenson were getting a fat cheque at the end of every month, but – I’ll say it again – I really don’t know how they’ve coped with this year.

“These are difficult times for McLaren, aren’t they? I remember when I was there, in ’94, they had 14 sponsors who weren’t even on the car: they were laying off the ones who conflicted to Tyrrell and Jordan – they had money coming out of their ears. For their sake
– and for the sake of Formula 1 – let’s hope things turn around in 2016: we can’t afford to have drivers like Alonso and Button running around near the back…”