Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

Putting the world to rights with Martin Brundle

Of course I’m a bit jaundiced about him at the moment – about racing drivers in general, in fact. One of the reasons for this team’s success over the last three years is that it’s always had the very best of everything – including drivers – so his departure so late in the season, besides being grossly inconsiderate to us, is a big setback to our plans. By the time he informed us of his decision, there was no one else of his calibre available to us.

“In the end, all I care about is the team, and the points we earn. I’m not bothered about who scores them – why should I care which one of them wins? They’re only employees, after all…”

In light of recent events, and his response to them, you might reasonably take these remarks to be from Niki Lauda, plainly irked by Nico Rosberg’s unexpected decision, after becoming world champion, to retire from motor racing, leaving Mercedes in something of a quandary when it comes to a team-mate for Lewis Hamilton in 2017.

In fact, though, the blunt words are from Frank Williams, and they were uttered 35 years ago, when I went to his house shortly before Christmas. While delighted that Williams Grand Prix Engineering had retained the championship for constructors, Frank remained livid about the departure of his number one driver, Alan Jones.

“As in everything, you have to learn the hard way,” he said. “You have to be realistic about racing drivers, to accept that most of them are in it to make as much money as they can, and as soon as they’re satisfied… gone!”

Given that such as Villeneuve, Piquet and Pironi were unavailable to him, Williams eventually signed a driver who had never been near a competitive car, whose career was becalmed after desultory years with the Fittipaldi team. This was K Rosberg, and the agreement turned out rather well, Keke – against all expectations – winning the world championship in 1982.

Now, all these years on, it is his son Nico who has created the headlines recently, first by beating Hamilton to the title, then by announcing he would not be defending it in the coming season.

If Lauda has typically made no secret of his disappointment at Rosberg’s decision, at the position in which Formula 1’s dominant team now finds itself, others at Mercedes have been more soothing, saying they understand why, having achieved his life’s ambition, Nico should wish to leave the pressure behind, to devote more time to his family.

Unlike such as Damon Hill, Jackie Stewart and Jody Scheckter, Martin Brundle is in Lauda’s camp. When we met for our traditional pre-Christmas lunch – four hours of good-humoured devil’s advocacy – it was clear he had been left aghast by Rosberg’s decision.

“Times have changed, and the thing is that these kids – David [Coulthard] was one of the first – have been lifelong professional racing drivers since they were eight years old: they do 200-plus Grands Prix, 10 or 11 seasons, and by the age of 31 they’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century – and they’re burned out. Nico’s decision is for me a sign of that – but still I can’t understand why he’s retiring!”

Well, I said, Rosberg’s life ambition was to become world champion; maybe to do it once was enough – and realistically he must have been aware that his chances of beating Lewis again were slim.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Brundle replied, “but you don’t have to be champion every year. The analogy that’s been used is, ‘I’ve reached the summit.’ Well, surely, if you do that you want to spend a bit of time enjoying the view – and then a jubilant descent. Nico hasn’t stayed around to savour the journey he’s had, getting to where he is. I suppose this is what I don’t understand about his retirement – how can you replace that adrenalin rush?

“Even now – at 57 – if Mercedes offered me the drive, I’d take it! When I was allowed to drive the car I only had 20 laps, in heavy rain, and it was unbelievable – better than most cars I raced in the dry! How can you walk away from that?”

Austin, in 2015, seems to have been a turning point for Rosberg. For one thing, Hamilton declined to use much lock at the first corner, putting his team-mate off the road, but there was nothing new in that; more to the point, in Nico’s mind, was that later, when leading, he made a mistake that let Lewis through for the victory – and the points he needed to clinch the title.

Thereafter Rosberg won the last three races of the season, and then the first four of 2016. Ask anyone at Mercedes what they most admire about Nico, and they will tell you that – apart from his unequalled work ethic – it is his ability to bounce back. As Lauda said, “For all his charm, Nico is one tough nut...”

This year it has seemed to me that Rosberg was not himself, in the sense that, while remaining unfailingly polite in endless interviews, his answers were more bland than before. Whenever invited to respond to Hamilton’s latest jibe, he declined, just as when asked if he were yet starting to think about the championship. No, he insisted; he was – absolutely – taking one race at a time. It was as if he had gone into a cocoon, shutting out anything that could be a distraction.

“Yes,” Brundle agreed, “he did get that mantra going, and I thought it was really smart. ‘Qualifying – the start – the race – 25 points. I’ll just keep collecting as many points as I can – and if I get to the end of the year with more than anyone else, I’ll be champion…’

“These days the drivers don’t have the danger, or the ceaseless testing, any more, and they’re pampered beyond belief – that’s the way it is. What they do have, though, is relentless talking into a microphone – and inevitably being asked the same questions 20 times a day, especially when it’s getting to the vinegar strokes of the championship. They need to have a strategy to manage the media, and I understand that. Of course, the Kimis of this world quickly learn that if they’re not good in interviews, they get fewer to do!

“As far as the rivalry between Rosberg and Hamilton is concerned, I think it’s actually been more intense than that between Piquet and Mansell, even – in some ways – between Prost and Senna. And I say that because those four guys – even if in the end they might become friends – could, at certain moments, really hate each other.

“Nico and Lewis, though, were friends from the age of 13, went karting together, talked about being world champion one day – and I think that emotional baggage made it harder for them, and when they did run into each other – at Spa or Barcelona or Spielberg – it was increasingly difficult for them to manage that. It’s like a rivalry with your best friend, or your brother, and that must have added to the intensity of it all.

“The season’s over, and Nico has beaten Lewis – but now he’s retired, and you know how this business is: when we get to Melbourne next year, who will be talking about Nico Rosberg?”

True, I said, but probably he isn’t going to worry about that – he’s never had a towering ego.

“No, you’re right – Nico’s a very nice young man. He may have grown up in a privileged background – as Lewis is forever reminding us – but he’s been properly brought up, he’s got lovely manners, a great sense of humour… It’s always seemed to me that everything Jackie Stewart did was absolutely rational, and I think there’s an element of that with Nico.”

At the time of our lunch, Mercedes had yet to make a decision on Rosberg’s replacement, and neither Brundle nor I was terribly excited by the probable choices. Ideally, I said, I’d like to see Fernando Alonso back in a team with Hamilton, not least because he is the one driver in F1 immune to Lewis’s attempts at intimidation, verbal or otherwise.

“Yes, I agree,” said Martin. “I would love to see him at Mercedes, I must say. He never has an off day – and he’s bullet-proof. You’re not going to intimidate Fernando. People like him are just driven to superhuman performances, dissatisfied with every lap, every race. ‘This is me, this is my calling – I’m better than all of you…’

“Zak Brown is new at McLaren, and keeping Alonso from moving to Mercedes could have been his first challenge, but it’s unlikely to happen: apparently Ferdy said at a Honda event in Japan that he was definitely staying put. The other thing about him is his comments about ‘GP2 engines’, sitting in the deckchair at Interlagos last year, and stuff like that – if you’re on the Mercedes board, do you want all that?”

I said I wasn’t sure that would be a problem. These people have, after all, tolerated Hamilton’s dark insinuations about his own team, his suggestion that there was more to the swapping of the two teams of mechanics for 2016 than Toto Wolff had suggested, his declaration after the engine failure at Sepang that, ‘Someone doesn’t want me to win this championship…’ and finally his parting shot, as he left Abu Dhabi, when asked if he were going to reclaim the championship in 2017: “Yeah – if we get equal cars…” These things being so, sitting in a deckchair shouldn’t present too much of a problem.

Brundle grinned. “Yeah – all right! It probably wouldn’t have been too easy for Toto to manage – but he’s got another problem, hasn’t he? He’s the manager of both Wehrlein and Bottas, the two favourites to be Hamilton’s team-mate – so how d’you think Lewis is going to take that? If you want to see some ghosts, try that one!

“It’s amazing that Wehrlein is in this position, isn’t it? Force India didn’t want him, preferring Esteban Ocon, and he didn’t seem to have much on offer – yet now he’s possibly in line for Mercedes!

“Wehrlein has a reputation for being truculent, as well as very pleased with himself. When he was doing the DTM for Mercedes, he succeeded in alienating all the team’s other drivers…”

Quite a feat, I said, at that age.

“It is, isn’t it? He comes across as quite a nice bloke when he’s interviewed, but remember that incident in the Manor at Austin, when he got into a gravel trap, and refused to switch the engine off? Six times they told him before he finally did it – I thought that not only stupid, but also arrogant beyond belief.

“As we’ve said, it looks certain that Alonso won’t be with Hamilton, but I tell you what, if I were Toto, I’d rather be managing those two than, say, Hamilton and Wehrlein – for all the occasional nuclear fall-out, it’s a lot easier to manage two amazing drivers than one who’s under-performing. Toto’s got a big ego and Lewis challenges it – I think he’d love to bring in somebody who could spank him!

“Going back to Nico, I wonder what Gerhard (Berger) thinks, having negotiated a new deal for him? I bet he got his commission up front!”

Back in their karting days Hamilton was already the quicker of the two, so Rosberg has had a long time to think, ‘How am I ever going to beat him?’ Nico is extremely intelligent, and you get the impression he spent every waking minute thinking about it.

As well as that, I said, anyone at Mercedes will privately tell you how much harder he worked than Lewis, in terms of time spent at Brackley, working in the simulator, and so on.

“Yes,” Martin laughed, “but I worked harder than Michael (Schumacher) and Mika (Häkkinen) when I was in teams with them – but they were just quicker than me!”

I thought it unlikely that Rosberg had ever been under any illusions about that. On the other hand, while he might very occasionally have had a poor race, like Monaco, fundamentally he brought his ‘A game’ to every Grand Prix, whereas Hamilton patently does not, and it is this that most mystifies me about him. For a driver of his greatness, how does one explain weekends like Baku and Suzuka? 

“I think he’s a confused boy,” said Brundle. “I don’t know if he’s Lewis from LA or Lewis from Stevenage – at different times he can be either. I think detail gets to Lewis – he can get distracted by things that shouldn’t bother him, and he hasn’t got anyone around him to give him some blinkers.”

Come to that, the press conference at Suzuka… Why, at a time when he had the sympathy of the press, after what had happened at Sepang, did he turn up, spoiling for a fight with them?

“God knows. It was disrespectful, arrogant and unnecessary. I presume something had pissed him off – maybe something he had read about Sepang, I don’t know. Undoubtedly he was still upset with Mercedes – let’s be honest, the blow-up cost him the title.”

So it did – but so, too, did the bad start at Suzuka…

“True – and Melbourne and Monza, come to that. I have no qualms in saying that at mid-season I don’t think Lewis was fully dedicated – in fact, as a Mercedes man told me, it was only post-Suzuka that he came with a new attitude. Undoubtedly he screwed up at Suzuka, on the track as well as off: he made a terrible start and was back in eighth, but once he’d cleared the pack I thought, ‘Here we go…’ Didn’t happen, though, did it?

“Having said that, thereafter he turned up with such a focus that he was unbeatable. Look at Interlagos in the wet: justifiably we all raved on about Verstappen – but there was one person that Max was not going to beat that day. It was a perfect drive by Lewis.

“God knows why he chose to pick a fight with the press in Japan – but something that strikes me about Lewis is that he doesn’t have anyone around him to talk things through, does he? I’ve noticed that on Twitter he posts these pictures of himself, and he’s always on his own. Of course you see magazine photos of him with ‘celebs’ like Rhianna or Serena Williams, but he seems to have no friends among the drivers, and apparently he doesn’t want any – on the truck, going around the circuit before the start, there he sits at the front, headphones on…

“Clearly it’s ‘a statement’, and I find that sad. You look at these pictures of him on Twitter – it’s always him with his jet, him with his dog… always by himself.  

“Something that strikes me as odd is that in other sports, like tennis or golf, if you don’t have a coach – a mind coach – you’re nowhere, but if you employed one in motor sport you’d be considered weak. I used to dismiss all that, but honestly I look at it now, and realise it’s just a part of your performance that’s wasted. I never thought I’d say that, but if I had my time over again I’d bring those people in – how can I be better?”

Something I have never understood about certain drivers, I said, is how they can be so great – yet at the same time so insecure that they feel a constant need to remind the world how great they are, relative to their team-mate.

“Yes,” said Brundle, “it’s strange, isn’t it? Lewis said he was probably the only guy who saw Nico’s retirement coming ‘because he hasn’t won anything for 18 years…’ When I first heard that, I thought it was a back-handed compliment, but then I realised it was no compliment at all – it was just back-handed! It was like this was his one last chance to rip Nico before he went out of his life…”

Conversation went back to Abu Dhabi, where Hamilton scored his fourth victory on the trot, and Rosberg clinched the title. Before the weekend Lewis was asked if he planned to ‘back up’ Nico in the race, in the hope that a Verstappen or Vettel or Ricciardo might get between the Mercedes drivers, and take points from his rival. He said not: it was more in his nature to win by the biggest possible margin, as, for example, Nigel Mansell liked to do.

“Was his nose growing when he said that?” Brundle laughed. “As it happens, that’s what Lewis should have done, because what he tried didn’t work – he might as well have gone for it, and looked amazing. In fact, Mansell went on Twitter and said what Lewis did was disgraceful.”

In the event Hamilton indeed backed up Rosberg in the late laps, and did it consummately, running flat out where overtaking was possible, crawling in the slow bits. Personally – save in the ‘artistic’ sense – I had no problem with that, accepting that it offered the only chance, however remote, of keeping his title.

“What Lewis did wasn’t pretty,” said Martin. “I didn’t enjoy watching it, or commentating on it, and I didn’t respect him for it – but I grudgingly accept that it was his only option that day.”

What I really didn’t care for, I said, was Hamilton’s churlish behaviour in defeat. Whereas Vettel warmly congratulated Nico in the ‘green room’, before the podium, Lewis refused even to make eye contact with him.

“It wasn’t classy, was it?” Brundle said. “Particularly when you contrast it with Nico’s behaviour in the same place two years earlier. The 2014 race was also a championship-decider between them, but although Nico had mechanical problems from the start, he chose not to park the car. That was absolute class – most drivers would have given up – and that mentality means the world to me. If you ask me what was the most impressive thing I ever saw Nico Rosberg do it was that. And once the race was over, he went straight to the green room to congratulate Lewis…

“It was like Massa at Interlagos in 2008, when for about half a minute he thought he was world champion. Under extreme circumstances, both guys behaved with grace and class. Sportsmanship still matters, doesn’t it?

“What I will say about Lewis is that he’s a thinker – he’s more intelligent than he’s given credit for sometimes. I’ve interviewed him many times, and found that you very rarely catch him out…”

OK, I said, but if he’s so much a thinker, why didn’t he think, ‘If I behave badly towards Nico, people aren’t going to be very impressed?’

“Well, he’s not stylish, is he? My ‘straighteners’ in life were my parents, my grammar school, my technical college, Ken Tyrrell and so on, but what straighteners do these kids have, when they’ve never known anything in life but motor racing? Where are their reference points?

“The last conversation I had with Michael Schumacher was at the Hotel de la Ville in Monza. This was 2012, his last year of racing, and he came into the restaurant and sat down at a table on his own. Liz and I were nearby. As you know, Michael and I never had the greatest relationship, but I walked over, and said, ‘Would you like to join us?’ He said yes, he would, and we got talking. At one point he said something that hit me quite hard: ‘You should always be totally supportive of your son, endlessly positive, arm round the shoulder…’

“I thought, ‘If I tell Alex he’s always right, how’s he going to know when he’s wrong?’ When I listed the guys who’d straightened me up, both Michael and Liz said, ‘That’s great – but they’re not your dad…’ I still didn’t agree with them: I thought of Ken and Dave Price and Tom Walkinshaw, and the way they ripped me to bits, and the way I reacted every time: ‘I’ll bloody show you!’

“From King’s Lynn to Ockham, where Tyrrell was based, was a seven-hour return journey, and I’d get there, and eventually be invited into Ken’s office. I’m just back from Monaco, where I’ve made 2700 manual gear changes, and there on his desk would be a gear cluster. ‘See the damage on these dog rings?’ Ken would say. ‘Any idea how much that’s cost me?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know, Ken, but I imagine quite a lot of money…’

“Then he’d get out the Longines timing sheets from the race. ‘On lap 43 you got lapped by Alain Prost, and you lost one and a half seconds. Do you know how much it would cost me to find one and a half seconds per lap?’ ‘I don’t know, Ken, but I imagine quite a lot…’

“Two things came out of that. One, I believe I became the best gear changer in F1 – and two, I also became the most hated driver! I remember Arnoux complaining that I would never get out of the way, and I told him I wasn’t allowed to!

“I didn’t want a seven-hour drive to talk about Longines times and bloody dog rings, but when you get that kind of straightener from a man you respect enormously, it registers, believe me. When your dad’s your manager, and you’ve got this enormous comfort blanket around you, it’s not the same, is it? Where are the straighteners in that? At Abu Dhabi Mercedes radioed Lewis, to tell him to get his foot down because he was risking screwing things up for Mercedes, and he says, ‘I’m very happy, thank you – I think you’ll find I’m leading this race…’ In other words, f*** off!”

The fact is, though, that there is such a thing as ‘team orders’ in Grand Prix racing, and always has been. In Alfred Neubauer’s time at Mercedes, I murmured, anything considered to be ‘insubordination’ would not have been tolerated.

“True. ‘Let me remind you that the chain of command goes from me to you, not the other way round…’ If the chain of command goes in reverse, I think you’re screwed – you cannot run a racing team from behind the steering wheel, and that’s what Lewis tries to do. Problem is, F1 is a team sport – but with individuals!

“At Monaco Rosberg was holding Hamilton up, so they asked him to let him through, and he did. Had their roles been reversed, would Lewis have done the same? I rather doubt it – but then give me an example of when capitulating to your team-mate ever did you any good? It doesn’t. I did it – and regretted it every time…”

So to 2017, and a Mercedes team without Rosberg – and apparently without Paddy Lowe. James Allison is expected to assume the role of technical director, and – as I write – Valtteri Bottas looks like the favourite to take over as Hamilton’s team-mate. There were shades of Frank Williams ’81 in Toto Wolff’s response when he was asked if Lewis would be involved in the discussions: “Like all the other employees, he’ll be told when we’ve made our final decision…”

‘Employees’ again. “That,” Martin smiled, “is a big statement, isn’t it?”

* * *

The 2015 season Brundle said he didn’t particularly enjoy, but this last one he relished, for Red Bull closed the gap to Mercedes, and Rosberg took his fight with Hamilton to a new level. As well as that, the ‘new talent’ greatly enlivened proceedings in 2016.

“I’m a massive fan of Verstappen – but also of Carlos Sainz, who I don’t think gets his due. He might not be quite as good as Max, but he’s not far away.” 

I thought it significant that back in May, before Räikkönen’s season came to life, and Ferrari was considering alternatives for ’17, Alain Prost suggested they should sign Sainz.

“I agree,” said Martin, “I’d have him in a top team in a heartbeat. Like his dad, he’s a winner.”

It would be mighty sad, I suggested, if Sainz were to miss the boat, as Hülkenberg has apparently done. In signing for Renault, Nico has finally got himself into a factory team, but it seems ridiculous that one of his talent has yet to make the podium. There was a time, after all, when he was considered the logical choice to partner Alonso at Ferrari. 

“Yes,” said Brundle, “but although he’s a nice guy, he’s too arrogant – I think he has a sense of entitlement that’s cost him a lot of results. Nico is a massively wasted talent, and I hope he hasn’t missed his moment, but I think he might have done. I don’t see that happening to Sainz – apart from anything else, Carlos Sr is too savvy to let it happen.

“Let me ask you something. If you had a team – and had a free hand in choosing drivers for 2017 – who would you have?”

Alonso and Ricciardo, I answered.

“Well, I understand why you say that – but they’d be my third and fourth choices, behind Hamilton and Verstappen. And if I were building a team for the future, I’d go for Verstappen and Sainz.”

Interestingly, when recently asked whom he considered the best driver of the moment, Alonso went for Ricciardo: ‘He’s very quick, makes hardly any mistakes – and he’s a great overtaker…’

“Yes, you can’t argue with any of that – but I think you have to accept that when Max turned up, Daniel found a quarter of a second he didn’t know he had. I’d hire him all day long – but I think Max will surpass him. I know Danny had a visor problem at Interlagos, but that day Max rewrote the textbook on how to drive in the rain…”

The way Verstappen – alone – experimented with different lines reminded me of the Race of Champions in 1974, when Jacky Ickx overtook Niki Lauda on the outside at Paddock. That day, too, one wondered why no one else was trying moves like that.

“Yes, when Max was darting around behind the safety car, he looked like an over-eager child, but what he was doing was gaining knowledge – and he was the only one doing it.

“It’s a fascinating situation at Red Bull. They’ve got two great drivers, and Daniel has all the tools to come back at Max in 2017 – but at the moment but I feel Max is close to parking him, in the way that Danny parked Vettel two years ago…”

Ah, yes, Sebastian. If anyone’s season fell short of expectations, it was surely his. Few would have predicted he would be outqualified more often than not by Räikkönen.

“Hmmm, Mr Grumpy! He’s aged 10 years in the last five, hasn’t he? I’ve been really disappointed by Seb – he’s got angry, frustrated and needs to refocus. This year has been a bit like 2014, when Ricciardo spanked him at Red Bull.

“It’s the endless radio calls I don’t understand – ‘Get him out of my way!’ or, ‘What’s the guy doing out here…?’ It’s so contemptuous and arrogant. I remember the days when Seb would turn up with his rucksack, smiling, ready to go…I adored him in those days. However, I still think the speed is there – when he was charging through in Abu Dhabi, I said, ‘Welcome back, the real Sebastian Vettel!’ and that came off the top of my head.”

How big a part, I wondered, did the looming spectre of Sergio Marchionne play in the tribulations of Ferrari in 2016?

“Well, remember Shanghai, where Kvyat passed Vettel into the first turn? It was a completely legitimate move – Seb left the door open, then swerved into Kimi, and immediately blamed Kvyat for what had happened. That was the first sign of it – I thought, ‘What the hell’s the matter with you?’

“When you listen to Seb on the radio, it’s almost as if he’s preparing for the meeting afterwards. If you look at what Ross Brawn did at Ferrari – with Michael and Jean Todt and Rory Byrne and everyone else – Marchionne is going about it in a diametrically opposed way to that, and it’s not smart. The thing is, he doesn’t understand racing, does he? It’s a matter of, ‘Here’s one of my 20 problems today – fix it…’

“As for Kimi, what do you say? I know him well – but at a Grand Prix I don’t know him at all, and that’s the way he chooses to be. Observing him, I think marriage – and having a kid – has focused him, and he had a new priority in life, and got back on it. I’m pleased for him, because I thought it was over.

“Would I hire him, though? No, I’d rather have Sainz all day long, to say nothing of Verstappen – I think Max’s skill is sublime. The only thing he has to learn is that you cannot move over on someone once you’re into the braking area. Ayrton and Michael used to do it, and to me that’s beyond the rules: once you’ve committed to overtaking someone, that’s it – you’ve posted the letter!

“Despite Max’s saying he doesn’t care, I think he’s learned that, and reeled it back in a bit. In the old days, Keke would have had him over the hedge, wouldn’t he? We didn’t have stewards or penalties back then – it was all settled on the track…”

* * *

After nine years of proudly working for what I have always thought of ‘Jenks’s magazine’, the time has come for a parting of the ways, so this – my 106th column for Motor Sport – is the last. In saying farewell, my hope is that you have enjoyed the reading of them as much as I have the writing, and please let me thank you for your comments along the way.