The story of a season

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With Nigel Roebuck & Martin Brundle

Lunch with Martin Brundle in an Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge, the plan to spend a relaxed couple of hours talking over the World Championship just past.

As expected, it was thoroughly enjoyable, with a good deal of scurrilous chat, some of which, alas , cannot make it to the printed page. Raise a glass, one and all, to Judge Eady. Or not, as the case may be. We began, perhaps not surprisingly, at the end. In the dying seconds of the Brazilian Grand Prix, the see-saw between Hamilton and Massa finally came down on Lewis’s side, and thus we had the first British World Champion for a dozen years.

Nigel Roebuck: I was delighted that Lewis won the title, but actually I didn’t feel that, overall, he drove as well as in 2007, his first season in Formula 1.

Martin Brundle: You’re probably right, but there are a few indisputable facts, one being that Hamilton was penalised more than Massa. I’m not making a case for any kind of discrimination, but… there were some seriously marginal calls on Lewis, weren’t there? I looked at it in some detail, and he suffered more than Felipe, to the tune of 11 points. Mind you, that figure doesn’t match the number Massa lost through unreliability and pitstop dramas and so on.

NR: Felipe dominated in Hungary until the engine blew, and he would have walked Singapore. On the other hand, without the intervention of the stewards, he wouldn’t have won at Spa – and Lewis would have…

MB: When we got to Bahrain, for race three, Massa had zero points on the board, and he was partly to blame for each of the retirements. But after that Felipe did what he’s always done: when he dominated, he really dominated, and this year he did that even more than before.

NR: When Massa’s on pole, and disappears in the race, more than anyone he reminds me of Prost. Complete lack of drama, not the tiniest mistake. In those circumstances you can positively bank on him.

MB: Yes, you can – whereas at one time you could bank on him falling off! He dominated in Bahrain, Istanbul, Valencia and Interlagos, and he also won at Magny-Cours, where Räikkönen had a problem, and Spa, where Hamilton got the penalty – which I still believe was an outrageous decision, by the way. Massa won more races than anyone else, but still there are people who don’t really rate him, and I don’t understand it. I mean, to beat Michael Schumacher in equal cars, and to beat Räikkönen regularly, by some margin… that means something! Felipe raised his game this year, although on his off days you don’t really expect to see him flying up through the field. He had an awful time in the rain at Silverstone, but in fairness his car did look terrible.

NR: At Spa, although he finished up winning, he was pretty lacklustre, too, nowhere near Hamilton and Räikkönen, and he didn’t really figure at Shanghai, either.

MB: No, that’s true. It was a typical Massa season, if you like – except that he ramped up the good days to a new level.

NR: What really did impress me was the way he went round the outside of Hamilton at the first corner in Hungary. It was a bit of a do-or-die thing, but he judged it perfectly, and once in the lead he was gone…

MB: Yes, and that was right after he’d been humbled by Hamilton at Hockenheim – I mean, Lewis really did put manners on him there, didn’t he? But Felipe gets strength, advice, whatever, from somewhere – whether it’s from Schuey or from Rob Smedley, his race engineer – and comes back at the next race sort of renewed. I must say I thought Lewis at Silverstone was just out of this world – a different quality of drive altogether from what he produced at Interlagos, which just showed how much pressure he was under there. Mind you, in Brazil he was being ‘managed’ almost lap by lap…

NR: And what about Monza? After that performance at Silverstone, you might have expected him to dominate wet qualifying, but he blew it, and that looked like over-confidence to me.

MB: It was, for sure. Completely crazy. He wasn’t trying to set a grid time, he was simply trying to get through to Q3. It was pouring down – and he went out on intermediates! What I couldn’t understand was that, even after he’d changed to wets, he was still seconds off the pace. This was the same guy who’d left them behind at Silverstone, and I found that very confusing.

NR: The race was confusing, too. He started back in 15th on the grid, and in the early laps was going nowhere – but then there was a point where he just took off!

MB: Yes, and I’ve never heard any rational explanation of that. OK, these cars are complex bits of kit, and the matter of tyre pressures and temperatures and all that is a science in itself – or maybe voodoo would be a better word. I remember saying, on the TV commentary, ‘What is Lewis Hamilton doing?’ Then he just came alive! Having said that, I thought he was daft in that race. Yes, he was incredibly quick, but he was so aggressive – he put Glock on the grass, chopped Webber, chopped Alonso, and it really wasn’t necessary. I would have penalised him for the incident with Webber, but it never even came up for investigation.

NR: Well, this was just after Spa…

MB: Fair point! It seemed that the whole penalties thing was being jockeyed along through the season, but as soon as there was any negative press about it, they backed off. But, going back to the original point, there are times when Lewis succumbs to pressure, and then his mind just goes.

NR: Some of the things he does rather remind me of Gilles Villeneuve, like the first corner incident at Fuji, where he tried to outbrake the whole field. That was exactly the sort of thing Gilles would have done, but when you think what was at risk for Lewis, who was trying to win the championship…

MB: I can’t argue – but on the other hand you can’t really cherry-pick the bits you like about a driver, can you? On a personal level, I find the kid lovely to deal with, but I think he does sometimes come out with some slightly unfortunate things – his message is clear, but his choice of words isn’t always right. There’s such a fine line between confidence and arrogance, isn’t there? And how much of that… confidence do you want to knock out of the lad? He’s an instinctive racer – and these are instinctive moments we’re talking about, rather than calculated ones. The night before the race at Fuji, he told me he was going to play the percentage game – and he was very convincing. But as soon as the race started, his instincts took over…

NR: Yes, and he could have taken Kovalainen out, let alone anyone else. Actually that moment made me think of Senna, and some of the moves he put on Prost when they were McLaren team-mates…

MB: As I said, you can’t cherry-pick the good bits. As with Senna, there are some rough edges about Lewis that he might want to round off a bit, but we all do things we regret, don’t we? It’s a fact that he’s not the most popular boy in the paddock, but I think some of that is driven by jealousy and frustration – after all, here’s this kid, who’s had the magic carpet ride since he was 12, who’s got the best, most reliable, car… I think there’s an element of, ‘Alonso started off with a Minardi, and Räikkönen with a Sauber – you’ve had it too easy, son, and now you come out with this arrogant stuff…’ Lewis may have had the best car from the start of his F1 career, but he was a serious contender in his first Grand Prix, wasn’t he? And this year, unlike last, he had a team-mate who wasn’t going to be a lot of trouble – Kovalainen was never going to bother Hamilton, was he?

NR: Well, I thought he was going to bother him more than he did, I must say. And there were odd times when Heikki did have the upper hand on Lewis – in dry qualifying at Silverstone, for example, and the same in the wet at Monza.

MB: Yes, that’s true – but remember the look on his face after the race at Monza, when he knew he should have beaten Vettel. After his win in Hungary, he was very disappointing for the rest of the season, I thought.

NR: It’s been said that, as the season went on, the car was developed in a way that would suit Lewis, rather than Heikki, but it’s always been like that, hasn’t it? Inevitably that a team will focus on the driver most likely to win for them.

MB: Yes, I know all about that – I experienced it with Schumacher at Benetton and Häkkinen at McLaren! I actually think Kovalainen is a lot better than we’ve seen so far, but I don’t think his first year in F1, with Renault, did him a lot of good – I think Flavio [Briatore] convinced him he wasn’t up to it. The pace he shows in practice demonstrates that he’s got what it takes – what he can’t do, so far, is deliver under pressure.

NR: The biggest disappointment, though, was surely Räikkönen. There was all this stuff about ‘Kimi can’t make the Bridgestone fronts work in qualifying’, but is that acceptable from a World Champion, and the highest-paid driver in history?

MB: No, it isn’t. Massa makes them work, doesn’t he? At the very top level, with that amount of resource and expertise and data and support – and at that money! – there are no excuses. It was a pretty underwhelming season, wasn’t it? Come to that, I also think Kimi was quite lucky to win the championship in ’07.

NR: Yes, he was, but in the second half of that season he really came on strong, and I thought he’d turned the corner at Ferrari. For most of this year, though, he’s been lacklustre, just as in the first half of ’07. He won in Sepang and Barcelona, two of the first four races, and then never looked like doing it again, except at Magny-Cours, where he had a problem, and Spa, where he went off.

MB: Kimi hasn’t looked strong, has he? Last winter I interviewed him at a test, and I never saw a man more happy, more confident, but by the beginning of the season that had all gone. In a way, F1 needs Kimi, but you look at the Ferrari, and you think, ‘What would Alonso have done with it?’ But the bottom line is that, whatever we think, whatever the world thinks, Kimi doesn’t give a toss! As ever, there’s no single explanation for his poor season. I think he lost motivation, I don’t think he was fit enough…

NR: Yes, but where does pride come into it? The other Ferrari driver is starting from pole, and winning a lot of races – and you’re the World Champion!

MB: Nige, you’re thinking like a logical elder statesman! I know exactly what you mean – but you’re not thinking as a twenty-something-year-old who’s never had a job, who’s got tens of millions in the bank, a World Championship under his belt, and opportunities beyond belief – on every level imaginable. Wherever you go, you’re treated like a god. David [Coulthard] describes it as ‘Bring me the M&Ms – without the green ones’!

NR: Yeah, you’re right, but this year it still seemed to me that Ferrari and McLaren were each wasting a car…

MB: Well, you’re braver than I am to say something like that – that’s the difference between TV and the printed media! But it’s true that I would love to have seen Kubica in a McLaren and Alonso in a Ferrari – or Vettel in either. Talk about ‘must watch’ sport…

NR: Actually, it’s easy to forget that Kubica was a championship contender until late in the season, and if, after his win in Montréal, BMW hadn’t abandoned development of the car to concentrate on ’09, who knows where he might have finished up? Robert’s a bit of a maverick, isn’t he? A real racer, yet he makes remarkably few mistakes.

MB: I agree with you – although I find him very hard to work out. I look at his driving style, and it seems to me extremely unusual. There’s a lot of movement going on – the car moves, and so does he – but the whole thing somehow comes together as one, and keeps moving forward. Nick Heidfeld had a strange season, I thought, very impressive in some races, all at sea in others. Because he’s such a quiet bloke, he’s more difficult to read than most of the drivers.

NR: For me, in terms of what he did with what he had, Kubica was probably the driver of the year – and I don’t think Alonso was far behind…

MB: I’m not as black and white on that as you are. Actually I thought Alonso was pretty ordinary in the first half of the year – in my view he really came alive in the second half, when the Renault got interesting, and he got interested. How they suddenly made the car that much better I don’t know, because they claimed they hadn’t changed it that much. Certainly they were down on power until late in the season.

NR: I know Alonso’s results were ordinary until the last few races, but I always think you learn more about a driver when he’s in an average car, and he impressed me. When you’ve won two World Championships, come close to a third, and then suddenly find yourself in a midfield car, it must be pretty difficult to motivate yourself…

MB: Very! To me Alonso is the most complete driver out there – I’ve no doubts about that. So why is he finding it so hard to find an absolutely top drive? Fernando should be in the Ferrari – unquestionably. But he, and the people around him, have got it wrong with their package of demands. That’s indisputable, and it’s a great shame, because he’s a fantastic racing driver. Look at Fuji, where he won. He was actually managing the race strategy from the cockpit! Because of the tyre degradation problems, he was telling the team to fuel him shorter than Kubica, his main rival – ‘Just keep me in front of him, and I’ll handle the rest…’ His ability to have so much thinking capacity available while driving a Grand Prix car is amazing – it reminds me of Prost. If you were starting an F1 team tomorrow, which two drivers would you want? You’d want Fernando Alonso – and Lewis Hamilton!

NR: Well, yes – unless you were Ron… Alonso’s team-mate this year gave him rather less trouble – in fact, Fernando out-qualified him at every single race. I thought Piquet might raise more of a blip than he did…

MB: Me, too. Quite honestly, I can’t believe he’s got the job again next year. He’s a pleasant kid, but his driving doesn’t do a lot for me. A situation was handed to him by the safety car at Hockenheim, and he did a good job there, but he made an awful lot of mistakes. Is he worthy of an F1 seat? Yes. Did I think Renault would keep him? No. Was he told to crash in Singapore? Don’t know! Only joking…

NR: Of course you are, Martin. Let’s swiftly move on to Toyota, who finally made some progress. For all his foibles, I remain a Trulli fan, and I think the decision to hire Timo Glock looks like a pretty good one.

MB: Yes, I’m a fan of Jarno, too, as a bloke and as a qualifier, although as a racer I think he’s… a bit variable. Is he still worthy of an F1 drive? Unquestionably. Does he know how to drive a team forward? Yes, I think he does. Good bloke, knows which way is up, communicates well. As for Glock, at first I wasn’t convinced by him, but cunningly – being the ice-skater I can be – I said we should wait and see. And, honestly, he really impressed me. He may not be an Alonso or a Hamilton, but I do see him as a long-term serious F1 driver.

NR: In his GP2 days, what struck me was that he was a no-nonsense racer who got stuck in…

MB: Well, I remember in Turkey that he was passed by Piquet, and it looked over – but he got him straight back again. Young drivers need to realise that reputations are won and lost on things like that. Think of Montoya in the F3000 race at Monaco years ago, passing somebody in Casino Square – where nobody passes anybody! That was a significant moment, and people remember those things.

NR: Monza was a pretty significant moment, too, you’d have to say: pole position and victory for Vettel and Toro Rosso. I thought that was the most pleasing result all year long. And who knows, in the end Sebastian may turn out to be better than any of them…

MB: Yes, that could well be the case. Monza was a proper race, too, with real speed, and an adult strategy. As you say, everything was right about it. Vettel didn’t put a foot wrong – when others did. He’s got phenomenal promise, that boy.

NR: One thing about Vettel which must be disturbing to some of the drivers is that he looks as though he’s having fun! He always has a grin on his face, and then he gets in the car, and goes like hell…

MB: That’s right. A guy like him doesn’t worry about tyre graining or how the car reacts off the kerbs – he just drives through it. I did an interview with Vettel in practice at Monza, and, you know what, he thanked me! Then he shook hands with all the guys on the crew, and asked if there was anything else we needed. You, of all people, don’t need telling that this is not how most Grand Prix drivers behave! Gerhard [Berger] is going to miss him next year.

NR: He certainly is, but if I were him without a doubt I’d keep Bourdais. He looked a bit shaky in the early part of the year, but at Spa he was superb, and at Monza, after starting a lap late, set the second fastest lap, and ran the whole race at virtually the same pace as Vettel…

MB: Yes, I thought Bourdais was genuinely unlucky this year – not least at Fuji, where he got that ridiculous penalty for the incident with Massa. There were some races where he unquestionably outperformed Vettel – and you’d be mad to drop someone capable of doing that.

NR: It was a touch embarrassing that Toro Rosso, the supposed ‘B’ team, had the better of Red Bull, but then they had the Ferrari engine, rather than the Renault…

MB: Mmm, Red Bull got the worst of that, didn’t they? A couple of blogs said I was always negative about Webber on TV, which I don’t think I am. I rate Mark, and I think his raw speed is unquestionable, but to me he’s a bit like Trulli – I find him difficult to work out. He’s still seven podiums behind me – and he shouldn’t be. I like the guy, and I think he’s got a good take on life.

NR: He was also the only driver with the balls to say what he thought about the Mosley affair…

MB: Yes, he was, and that said a lot about him. I think his potential is high, but so far he hasn’t lived up to it. The arrival of Vettel will make or break him. Either he’ll raise his game, and look good against Sebastian, or it’s over.

NR: Your boy DC had a disappointing final season, apart from that third place in Montréal. It was sad to see him punted out of his last race at the very first corner.

MB: Well, what do you say? It was the poorest season I’ve seen from him – he always seemed to be wearing either his own front wheel or someone else’s car, which was not at all like him. Basically DC was a quarter of a second slower than Webber, and when you’ve mentally decided to retire, that’s not a bad effort.

NR: What of Williams? The season began so promisingly, but I hated seeing them mainly towards the back again…

MB: Me, too, and yet, as you say, it looked quite good at the beginning, didn’t it? Nico [Rosberg] was third at Melbourne – and he was fast with it. You do have to worry for Williams, though. Where’s the succession? Where’s the influx of new talent and money? [CEO] Adam Parr doesn’t strike me as the guy to pick it up and run with it. As for the drivers, from what I’ve seen, Nakajima frankly doesn’t do anything for me. Nico I admire for his loyalty to the team, and I also like his intellect and the way he presents himself. The car was off the pace so often, but whenever an opportunity came up he didn’t blow it. I think Nico’s a class act, and far better than he’s been able to show so far.

NR: If Williams had another poor season, Honda had another terrible one – 14 points from 18 races. On balance, though, I think this year Barrichello did a better job than Button.

MB: Without a doubt. I know Jenson has said, ‘Let Lewis try a crap car, and see how he gets on’, but, honestly, particularly through the second half of the season, Rubens did a better job than he did. Jenson’s made some bad decisions, and he’s had to live with the consequences, hasn’t he? If he’s going to make it, he should be in a McLaren or a Ferrari by now. I still believe in him, but… I think it’s all been a bit too cosy for too long. Very long-term deals, like that between him and Honda, aren’t necessarily a good thing – for either party. I thought Ross [Brawn] would have made a bigger difference than he has, but probably you can’t judge him and Honda until the end of next year – boy, they’ve got some work to do.

NR: Last, Force India – which, with the new McLaren-Mercedes deal, should be a very different proposition in 2009. Should the team keep Fisichella?

MB: No – nor Sutil, really, although probably he deserves another chance. I thought he looked better when he first started than he does now.

NR: Well, he did drive a superb race in the wet at Monaco, until Räikkönen turfed him off the road. How the hell did Kimi get away without a penalty that day?

MB: Well, didn’t mean to do it, Guv, did he? It was just an absolutely crass piece of driving.

NR: Let’s finish with the highlights of the year, starting with the best drive of the year. I’d go for Lewis at Silverstone…

MB: Yes, I’d agree. Tell you what, I think we should construct the championship schedule so that the races coincide with the rainy season, whenever that is! Either that, or install sprinklers at every circuit, because a wet Grand Prix is always sensational.

NR: Best result of the season? For me, it was Vettel at Monza…

MB: I think most people would say the same. It was refreshing, wasn’t it? A warm result. One of the smallest teams on the grid, with a car supplied, a new driver winning – and no luck involved whatever.

NR: And the best driver? Did the right man win the World Championship?

MB: Overall, yes, I think Hamilton was the outstanding driver of the year, with Massa not far behind. Alonso and Kubica are the others in the ‘dream four’, but over the season I don’t think they were on it consistently enough. For me, the ideal in ’09 would be to have Robert at McLaren and Fernando at Ferrari – pity it isn’t going to happen, isn’t it? But then go a year or two beyond that, and think of Vettel in a Ferrari…

NR: Another grappa, Martin?

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