Nigel Roebuck

Justice done in Abu Dhabi, Smedley & Massa on the Williams revival

As the last Grand Prix came and went, most of all, I suppose, I felt relief that the ‘double points’ gimmick had played no part in the destiny of the 2014 world championship. If it was sad to see Nico Rosberg’s race ruined by ‘power unit’ problems, as he said himself, “I’m not sure it would have made any difference…” Lewis Hamilton won the title, and won it squarely.

Even though Rosberg – devoid of ers, which brings diverse problems, not merely a drastic loss of power – began to slip down the order, still for a long time it was impossible for Hamilton’s side of the Mercedes garage to relax. If Nico could somehow scrape fifth place, and Lewis’s car didn’t make the flag, Bernie Ecclestone’s tacky rule would have handed the championship to the man who had won half as many races.

It would have been interesting to watch Bernie’s attempts to worm his way out of that one: he it was, after all, who years ago suggested that winning races was all that mattered, and to that end he tried to abolish the points system altogether, and in its place introduce the awarding of medals, Olympic-style, with the driver collaring the most ‘golds’ named as world champion.

On that occasion he was unsuccessful, mercifully, but when he proposed the ‘double points’ foolishness, at a meeting of the F1 Strategy Group at the beginning of the year, his fellow members, instead of denouncing the idea, lamely argued it should apply only at the final race, rather than the last three.

One trusts it will now be quietly buried. Formula 1 dodged a bullet at Abu Dhabi, and it hasn’t done too much of that in the recent past.

After the race Hamilton said that this, his second world championship, meant “way, way, more” than his first, in 2008, and you could understand that, not least because on that occasion he won fewer races than the runner-up, Felipe Massa. Overall, he hadn’t – by his own admission – driven as well as in ’07, his debut season in F1.

This year was a different matter. Yes, of course there were mistakes, perhaps inevitable in one who takes it to the edge as routinely as Lewis does, but in the races he invariably had his team-mate covered, if sometimes not by much.

Like so many of his contemporaries, Hamilton has often spoken of his childhood hero-worship of Ayrton Senna, but as a driver he has always reminded me more of Gilles Villeneuve. There might be considerable differences in their personalities and tastes, but it seems to me that Lewis finds an uncomplicated joy in driving a Formula 1 car, just as Gilles did, and something else that unites them in my mind is an absence of malice.

Hamilton is known for ‘wearing his heart on his sleeve’, and if that is sometimes tiresome – particularly for those with whom he works – it seems to go down well in the wider world, where anything perceived as ‘real’ is unusual in this politically correct age, and therefore of value. That said, there have been times when I’ve cringed at something Lewis has said or done – particularly during periods when he and his girlfriend were estranged – and there’s no doubt that on occasion, when his mind was all over the place, his driving followed a similar path.

Villeneuve was not like that, but he was certainly emotional when he felt an injustice had been done to him – indeed I will always believe that is what killed him. At Imola in 1982 his Ferrari team-mate Didier Pironi dived past him on the last lap, when he believed they were cruising to a 1-2: in final qualifying at Zolder, two weeks later, he had his last accident.

A long ’phone conversation with Gilles, between those two races, left me profoundly apprehensive, for his trusting nature had been betrayed and his normally ordered approach to life was blown apart: “Second place is one thing, but second place because the bastard steals it… No, I haven’t spoken to Pironi, and I’m not going to again – ever…” And, of course, he never did.

There were in F1 no press conferences, as such, 30 years ago, and neither did we have the unedifying ‘pen’, to which the drivers – unfailingly accompanied by PRs recording everything said – are marched for mass interviews after practice sessions and the race. Back then conversations with journalists therefore tended to be one to one and, as such, of considerably greater value. If you knew a driver well, all kinds of confidences were laid bare in the heat of the moment, and you were trusted not to let him down.

In this era, Hamilton is perhaps the only F1 driver still – sometimes, anyway – occasionally to behave like that. Even nudging 30, after seven years in F1, he retains an almost childlike innocence, and that – given some of the influences around him – is a constant source of surprise. If Lewis is poker-faced, there’s a reason for it and he wants you to take note.

As was Villeneuve, so Hamilton is the fastest driver of his time, neither of them, for example, needing to ‘think’ himself into a qualifying lap. With people like these it’s an instinctive, rather than intellectual, exercise: there’s no need to sit there for minutes on end, eyes closed, as if working oneself into a trance. It’s a twirl of the finger, engine fired up, into gear, go for it. Sometimes there will be a mistake, because no margin is left, but more usually there will be a sublime lap.

That being so, an apparent anomaly of the 2014 season has been that more often than not Hamilton has been beaten to the pole by Rosberg. Time and again Lewis has topped the sheets in the free practice sessions, and taken that advantage into qualifying, only for Nico to produce a stunning lap in Q3, when it counts.

In the races it has generally been the other way around, if often not by much, but even so the season-long fight has been a close one, and I’ll warrant that Hamilton, like most in the paddock, has been taken aback by Rosberg’s pace. He was always appreciated as a cerebral man in a racing car, but although he had comfortably the better of Schumacher through three years as his team-mate, the general belief was that Michael was far from the driver he had been. It has been Nico’s performances relative to Lewis – in terms of speed an absolutely known quantity – that have caused many not only to recalibrate their opinion of him, but also to reassess the quality of Michael’s comeback.

Some have spoken of Rosberg’s occasional mind games as if they were somehow not quite cricket, but that is laughable. Since the dawn of time racing drivers have revelled in trying to unsettle their rivals. Think of Stirling Moss, standing on a torrential grid, and rubbing his hands: “I didn’t want a wet race any more than they did, boy…” Or Alain Prost, knowing he could go no faster in qualifying at Estoril in 1988, changing into civvies for the last 10 minutes, casually looking on as Senna vainly tried to equal his time…

Whatever, it seems to me that both Hamilton and Rosberg have done us proud in 2014. It’s rare indeed for a team to have the sort of advantage they have enjoyed, and the Mercedes management is due considerable praise for allowing the drivers free rein to race.

That said, I thought it a touch ridiculous that, after the debacle at Spa, Nico was treated like a naughty schoolboy, and fined by his team. One thing to be punished for ignoring the terms of your contract, as was Carlos Reutemann by Williams after the 1981 Argentine Grand Prix, quite another for making a simple driving error. I don’t believe for a second that Rosberg deliberately glanced Hamilton’s tyre – apart from anything else, damage to his own front wing was guaranteed – and I was as disappointed by the team’s over-the-top response as I was by the booing of Nico on the podium.

For me that was the pivotal point of the season. In the short term it was Hamilton who suffered, but in the long run it was Rosberg who paid the higher price. While Lewis’s resolve was further stiffened, Nico’s morale took a beating from all sides.

Speaking of morale, who can have felt other than profound sympathy for Jenson Button and – to a lesser extent, because he has time on his side – Kevin Magnussen through the closing weeks of the season? Although still not officially announced as I write, Fernando Alonso’s deal with McLaren and Honda was agreed long ago, yet with December almost upon us, Damocles still apparently lurks above his potential team-mates.

As yet we know not whether this is a matter of contractual problems, money or simply indecision about the best option for the team, but for five years Button has done very well by McLaren – and never more so than in recent times, when he has not only shaded his team-mate, but dealt with questions about his future with unfailing dignity, patience and even a humour he can scarcely have felt. A proper bloke, Jenson, and a loyal one, too, but then we knew that, and would have expected nothing else from him.

He, on the other hand, might reasonably have expected more consideration – in terms of yes or no – from his employer.

In three seasons as his team-mate, after all, he scored more points for McLaren than the new world champion.

If in 2014 the paddock has been pock-marked by dissension to a degree I can rarely remember in 40 years of being around Formula 1, so there has been much that is good about this season, not least the much improved spectacle guaranteed by more torque and less downforce. Forgive me, aerodynamicists one and all, but it has been a delight to see cars ‘stepping out’ again.

From a personal point of view, though, the most pleasing single aspect of the year has been the return to prominence, after far too long in the shadows, of the team that Frank built.

I am hardly alone in this, I think. In the press room, certainly, there has long been admiration for Williams, but beyond that an affection that extends to no other team in quite the same way. That being so, its decline over the last decade has been widely lamented: in two of the three seasons leading into 2014 a mere five points went on the board, and one really began to wonder – however reluctantly – if the possibility of resurrection had passed.

Maldonado’s 2012 victory at Barcelona apart – and forgive me, Pastor, if I still have moments of doubt that it ever happened – Williams’s great days appeared to have ended 10 years ago, when Juan Pablo Montoya held off Kimi Räikkönen’s McLaren to win the season-closer at Interlagos. JPM had BMW’s mighty 3-litre V10 at his back, of course, and – despite being on the grooved tyres of the time – set a lap record that stands to this day.

After the parting from BMW in 2005, Williams went through engines from Cosworth, Toyota, Cosworth again and Renault, before switching to Mercedes this year. Without a doubt this has contributed significantly to the team’s resurgence, but there has been rather more to it than that, not least the hiring of Pat Symonds, a man rated so highly by Alonso during their Renault days that he tried – to his dismay, unsuccessfully – to persuade Ferrari to employ him a couple of years ago.

And there have been other Williams recruits, too, notably Felipe Massa and Rob Smedley, a double act at Ferrari for eight years, and now working together at Grove. Revelling in it, too, as they told me in Austin. When I asked Smedley how difficult it had been to adapt to life in England again, working with a very different team, he said it had been no problem at all.

“You know, one thing Ferrari teaches you is to be very adaptable – and to have a very thick skin! I think that if you survive 10 years in Ferrari, and you leave on your own accord – and on your terms – then you’ve managed to understand the company very well. And if you’ve understood a company as complex as Ferrari, it stands you in good stead for anything. It’s been pretty easy, to be honest. I think this team has been a dream.

“I remember in April or May, when I’d only been back a while, saying, ‘It’s given me back my enthusiasm for Formula 1 – I understand again why I got into this in the first place’. Honestly, it’s like being a kid again. We’ve got a really focused group of individuals here.

“Yes, we know there’s a long, long, road ahead of us to get back to where we want to be – and not only that, to stay there, as well – but there’s such a positive atmosphere inside the team, and that comes from Frank downwards. It’s a company with a huge amount of determination, but it still feels like a family business.”

To me, it has always seemed to be a purist’s team, and Rob agreed: “It is, yes. Williams is all about racing...”

Contrary to what many assumed at the time, his decision to join Williams was not influenced by Massa’s move – if anything, indeed, it was the other way around.

“Felipe had nothing to do with it. Yes, we’re very close, and have been for a long time, but actually I signed a contract way before he did. There were several people – Mike O’Driscoll [Group CEO], Frank and his daughter Claire, then Pat when he came on board – who convinced me this was the right place to be, and it was then a case of us getting Felipe involved. He was going to be out of contract at Ferrari, and it was a matter of saying to him, ‘OK, it doesn’t look good at the minute, but it is going to be good’. You have to have a great deal of imagination – it’s like walking into a ruin of a house, and your wife’s saying it’s going to look brilliant…

“It was clear, though, that the place had a great deal of potential, with a really good bunch of people all committed to the same thing. I was certainly sold that idea, and then we were able to sell it to Felipe.”

In one sense at least, though, moving from Ferrari to Williams must surely have been sobering, I suggested. Had this year brought home to Smedley just how much Ferrari had of everything – not least money?

He smiled. “Well, it’s very clear that in all aspects of their business Ferrari has… a huge resource they can call on, that’s for sure. But I think what this year has to a certain extent taught me is that it’s not just about resource: it’s how you use it, how efficient you are, where you position yourself, what battles you want to get involved in – you don’t have to get involved in every single battle to do well.

“We’re a team that’s growing, and needs to grow – we’re not shy about admitting that. Do we need to get as big as the very biggest teams in F1 – does that buy you success? Absolutely not...”

In days gone by, I said, Patrick Head always considered that Ferrari was incredibly wasteful – yes, they had this huge resource, but a lot of it was tossed away.

Another smile. “Well, it’s difficult to talk about someone else’s organisation – one I’m not involved in any longer – but look at the teams awash with cash at the moment, and consider where some of them are. The easiest way to answer that is to take the top five in the championship at the minute, look where their spend is, put an arbitrary base engine in for everybody – call it ‘engine X’, so you take out the engine advantage or disadvantage – and see where they end up. I think you’ll see that it’s not always about how much you’re spending – it certainly wouldn’t be in linear order, put it that way. There’s waste that goes on, definitely, and not only at Ferrari.”

In the course of Smedley’s Maranello years as Massa’s race engineer, Felipe went through some very difficult times. After touching the hem of the world championship in 2008, he then suffered a briefly life-threatening injury at the Hungaroring the following year, when struck on the helmet by a spring that had fallen from Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn.

Thankfully he made a full recovery, but by the time of his return to racing at the beginning of 2010, his erstwhile team-mate Kimi Räikkönen had been paid off after too many lacklustre drives, and in his stead came Fernando Alonso, a very different proposition. In their first race together, Bahrain, Felipe was second – but Fernando was first.

Over time many suggested that Massa simply wasn’t the driver he had been before the accident. After all, had he not invariably outshone Räikkönen, even on occasion had the measure of Michael Schumacher, his first team-mate at Ferrari?

While Massa has always insisted that the accident in no way affected his driving, the performance gap between Alonso and himself only grew – as did Fernando’s power within the team. For a long time Felipe’s confidence seemed to be in the depths, and I wondered how difficult it had been for Smedley to be ‘on the other side of the garage’.

Had he felt any resentment towards Alonso?

“No,” he said. “Not at all – because Fernando’s power was created by his brilliance. If he hadn’t been turning in the results week after week – dragging the team forward, kicking and screaming, almost single-handedly at times – I don’t think he would have had any power whatsoever.

“It’s like anyone in any organisation. OK, you might arrive with a reputation, but reputations fade very quickly: if you say you want this, and you want that, and then you don’t deliver for two or three races... people will forget about you, believe me. F1 is a very fickle business.

“What I’m saying is that that power has to be earned, and Fernando has done that. For a long time he’s been in... not the best car, let’s face it, but he’s turned in some absolutely incredible results – and consistently, too.”

Very well, but there must surely have been occasions when Smedley felt frustrated by certain goings-on at Ferrari. What about this race in Texas in 2012, I said, when Massa was required – by means of a deliberately induced penalty (for snipping the seal on his car’s gearbox) – to lose grid positions, which moved his team-mate up?

“Yes,” Rob agreed, “there were times when it was like that. As you say, two years ago Felipe out-qualified Fernando here, then took a penalty to put Fernando in a more favourable position on the grid, but the point is, it was the penultimate race of the year – and Fernando was trying to win the championship! I’ve been in the sport long enough to know what the bigger picture is, and the team has to come above everybody and everything.

“All in all, Felipe had a great career at Ferrari – in 2008 he came within a point of the championship, after all. There’s no reason for him to feel any resentment at anything that happened there – he should be happy, and magnanimous enough to move on. Now he’s got a great life here at Williams.”

It was interesting, I said, that Massa, asked to comment on Räikkönen’s poor form since returning to Ferrari, said that in his opinion Kimi’s primary problem was psychological, rather than shortcomings in his car.

“Yes – and perhaps he was alluding to his own experience at Ferrari,” said Smedley. “It can’t be an easy proposition to be Fernando’s team-mate. In a normal situation, you’d think, ‘Oh, well, he’s having a good run at the moment, but in three or four races I’ll get back on top – it’ll swing about, like it always does between team-mates...’ With Fernando it’s not like that – because he never, ever, has an off day, and psychologically it must be so difficult for another driver to live with that.

“There’s no one like him. It’s not just about the number of medals you’ve got – that doesn’t always equate to who’s the best, and in Fernando’s case it definitely doesn’t: he’s got two world championships, and he should have had a lot more…”

Long ago Bernie Ecclestone told me of a conversation he had with Gerhard Berger, then Ayrton Senna’s team-mate at McLaren. “He was nearly in tears: he said to me, ‘I’m going to stop’. He said that if he closed his eyes, and dreamed the most incredible lap of his life, he knew he’d come into the pits, and they’d tell him he was a second slower than Senna. I said, ‘This is what you do. Ignore Senna – he doesn’t exist. You take absolutely no notice of him. Get on and race – in your mind it’s for first place, even though actually it’s for second. Forget him, and worry about the other people. Maybe you’ll get lucky – sometimes he won’t finish, or whatever, and then you’re in good shape. But if you start thinking about him, then you’re history. Sometimes it happens that one guy is just better than anybody else, and that’s it…’”

After a lengthy period of being demoralised at Ferrari, Massa started eventually to come out of it, after which his performances significantly picked up.

“I think,” said Rob, “what you’ve got to accept is that you’re not going to beat the other bloke week in, week out, so you’ve got to take the little highs when they come – and build on them. That’s what Felipe managed to do in the last couple of years at Ferrari – he managed to get himself in a happy position, where he thought, ‘I know it’s not actually a disgrace being beaten by Fernando, because he’s just that good...’ Whether you say those words out loud, or just accept them in your own mind, that’s the important thing...”

Certainly Smedley comes across as a contented man in his new environment. For a variety of reasons, not least to do with his family, he felt that it was the right time to return to England and, as he says, he was fortunate enough to have good offers on the table.

“Williams was the best one – and not because it offered me the most obvious benefits. What really appealed to me was the challenge of getting Williams back to where you expect to find them, to be where they should be. And actually I think it’s an honour to be part of it...”

A few minutes later Massa sat down in the chair lately vacated by the man he describes as, “Not just a friend – more like my brother…”

You have seemed, I said, happier this year than for a very long time.

“I am! Much happier! OK, maybe not so happy with some results I’ve had, some unlucky races – but I’m so much more relaxed than I have been for years. I’m totally happy to be part of this team, and with how it’s grown, and is growing. I think Williams has gone back to how it was in the past, and that is really important.

“Look at McLaren this year – they have the same engine as Williams, and more money, but they haven’t been on the same level as us. So many changes have happened here – and it’s an honour for me to be part of this change…”

There’s that word ‘honour’ again. Say what you will, there is something about Frank’s team that registers like no other, save – in a different way – Ferrari. Had coming to Williams been in some way a sentimental choice for Felipe, just as it was for his fellow-countryman Rubens Barrichello?

“Yes, absolutely,” he said. “In the past Williams was an incredible team – and always very popular in Brazil. In fact, I’d say that at home the two big teams – although I always had a big passion for Ferrari, because my family is Italian – were Williams and McLaren, because they had so much to do with the country: Senna was at McLaren, Nelson [Piquet] was here at Williams – and of course Ayrton finished here. But even though he won all the time with McLaren, I always preferred Williams...

“I knew my time with Ferrari was finished – and I knew, anyway, that I needed to change. It’s difficult to explain why I’m so much happier, but when you change everything, for one thing you feel younger! Everything feels... you know, fresh. It was better, for me and for Ferrari, that we parted.

“Mind you,” Felipe laughed, “I don’t think the team changed completely when I left! For sure the car is not 100 per cent where Kimi wants it to be, but I know what his big problem is. To be in a team with Fernando is not easy, because you need to have the car suited to your style, to have the team helping you – and you have to be 100 per cent perfect in your driving, because otherwise he will be quicker than you. Fernando is the top driver, and to beat him you need to be on the level of perfect – if you’re not, even in one little way, you will be behind him.”

Did he think Alonso better even than Schumacher, his Ferrari team-mate in 2006?

“Yes.”

Really?

“Yes, because although Michael was at the top, and an amazing driver, I had an easier time with him – I suffered more with Fernando than I did with Michael. What I said about Kimi was not because I have anything against him: I respect him – but I understand what it’s been like for him, because I went through it, too!”

Still, I said, it’s surprising in a way, because Kimi comes across as almost horizontally laidback, as if he doesn’t care about anything…

“Oh, he cares!” smiled Felipe. “He may not show it, but he does – remember, I was his team-mate, too, and I know him. He is not completely The Ice Man...”

If Massa has left Ferrari, there remains within the team an enormous affection for him. For one thing, he won many races for them, and came within an ace of winning the championship, but more than that he is immensely likeable, a popular man in the paddock and known as an honourable one, too.

“Here in Austin, two years ago, I took a penalty, and gave up grid positions for Fernando. It was definitely not nice at the time, but I did it – I think I was always very professional with my team, wherever I’ve been. In the end you need to do what the team wants – apart from anything else, if they want something, and you don’t do it, in the end you will sometimes be the one to pay more… I can’t complain about what happened – I tell you what, I can sleep 100 per cent well after everything I’ve done in my life.

“After I knew I was not in Ferrari any more, I was talking to four teams – McLaren, Williams, Force India and Lotus – and the big possibilities were with the last three. I have to say, though, that when it became serious with Williams I stopped talking to the others.

“It certainly helped that Rob was coming here – he’s an engineer, and I wanted to understand how the team worked from a technical point of view. Rob was able to explain that to me, and then I wanted to understand the philosophy, the mentality – and where the team wanted to be. I had a long meeting with Pat Symonds and Mike O’Driscoll and Claire, and then I think I understood pretty well.

“As well as that, there was the matter of engines – everyone I spoke to seemed to think that Mercedes was in front, so that was another positive thing. I started to put the pieces together, and I became ever more sure that this was the best team for me to be in. I have a good relationship with Valtteri [Bottas]: he’s a very serious guy – doesn’t talk so much, but then I never saw a Finnish guy talking a lot! He’s very quick and he works hard, as well.

“You asked me why I’m so happy here: well, it’s because Williams today is like a good family. Now what I need is three good races to finish the year, going into 2015…”

He got them, didn’t he? Fourth the following day, at the Circuit of the Americas, third a week later on home soil at Interlagos, and then a really magnificent drive to second place in the seasonal finale in Abu Dhabi.

“I’m looking forward to better times,” smiled Alonso after his Ferrari swansong, when he finished 80 seconds behind his former team-mate.

“Like Felipe is having…”