“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.