Friday evening at Monaco, and a drink or two on Keke Rosberg’s boat, moored near the chicane. The host, as usual, was chattering away about this, that and the other, reminding us again that not all Finnish grand prix drivers are mute; Mika Häkkinen may have been a man of few words, but compared with Kimi Raikkonen you couldn’t shut him up.
Keke was regretting that his day had been a busy one, that he had been unable to attend a lunch for the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix: “I’ve been to it several times, because I think it’s important that it keeps going. The thing is, most of the guys in it… well, that was a generation of drivers thrilled to see each other again, wasn’t it? But… Piquet isn’t thrilled to see Rosberg, is he?”
Eventually conversation turned to Keke’s win in the Monaco Grand Prix of 1983, perhaps the best of his life, and — until Juan Montoya’s triumph this year — the last by a Williams driver in the principality. On paper, at least, Rosberg didn’t have much of a chance that day. Nimble and wieldy his Williams FWO8C may have been but, as Patrick Head always points out, Monaco is also very much a horsepower track. And grunt, in ’83, was what Williams didn’t have.
Rosberg may have been the reigning world champion, but now he faced a soul-destroying season, for although Frank had a deal in place for turbocharged engines from Honda, it was not due to come into play until 1984. For now, Keke and his team-mate Jacques Laffite, were stuck with the venerable Cosworth DFV, giving away perhaps 200 horsepower to Renault, Ferrari, and Brabham-BMW, all of whom had turbo motors.
Still, things could have been worse. Rosberg and Laffite may have been only fifth and eighth on the grid (Keke 1.4sec faster than Jacques!), behind the Ferraris of René Arnoux and Patrick Tambay, and the Renaults of Alain Prost and Eddie Cheever, but at least they were on the grid, and towards the good-looking end of it. The McLarens of Niki Lauda and John Watson, also Cosworth-powered, failed to qualify!
Just seven weeks before, at Long Beach, another street circuit on the F1 calendar, John and Niki had finished 1-2, so how could they have missed the show at Monaco? As he packed his gear away, Lauda was crisp on the subject: “Thursday — shit; Friday — nice weather, no practice; Saturday — rain. Thank you, gentlemen, and good afternoon. See you at Spa.”
Way off the pace on the opening day, Lauda and Watson were wasting their time on Saturday, for rain meant that Thursday’s times were now The Grid. As Niki and John headed home prematurely, and Marlboro’s countless guests wondered who they were going to root for, Prost was confirmed as pole man for Renault, followed by Amoux, Cheever, Tambay, Rosberg, Nelson Piquet in a Brabham-BMW, Andrea de Cesaris’ Alfa and Laffite.
In the wet conditions of the final session, though, Rosberg was fastest of all: “I wasn’t optimistic about the race, but I knew that at least there was the chance of rain on race day. That seemed to be our best hope.”
On Sunday morning it looked, as Mario Andretti puts it, like the Man Upstairs had been listening, for the sky was grey, and for a long time it rained. But by 12.30, warm-up time, the track had begun to dry out a little; Tambay duly set the fastest time, followed by Riccardo Patrese in the other Brabham-BMW, Amoux, Prost, Rosberg and Piquet. And what made Keke’s session different from anyone else’s was that he alone had tried slicks — so he alone knew how much grip there was.
“More than you’d have thought, actually,” he explained. “Now what I was really hoping for was uncertain conditions at race time. Basically, it seemed to me that if I had to start on the same tyres as the turbo guys — wets or slicks — I wasn’t going to have any chance. My only hope was to gamble, to have something different from them.”
Back then, Prince Rainier’s post-luncheon digestion was considered more important even than TV schedules, and the start at Monaco was always unusually late, at 3.30. As the afternoon slipped by, so spots of rain began to fall again and, as race time neared, the teams were in a quandary: the track was wet, yet the predicted downpour had not materialised. Out on the grid, the outpsyching began. Williams, however, had no doubts on the subject: Rosberg wanted slicks; Laffite followed suit. If the rain eased, they would obviously be in good shape — but would they be able to live with the wet-shod turbos in the early laps?
Keke answered that at the green light, rocketing away in a welter of wheelspin: “It’s all that power we have, you know!” By the time the cars reached Ste Devote, he was already up from fifth to second. Prior to the start, Cheever had been asked if he considered Rosberg a threat in this race. Eddie replied with a question of his own. “Where’s he going to pass me?” he smirked. Answer: during the first five seconds.
At the start of lap two Keke — slicks or not — outbraked Alain into Ste Devote, and at once drove away into the middle distance. He was stupefying in those early laps, throwing the little Williams around like an F3 car, making all his rivals look clumsy and tentative. At the rate of 2-3sec per lap, he pulled away from Prost — and Alain himself had left all the others behind.
After only four or five laps, those who had started on wets began coming in for slicks, and thus Rosberg was left in an even more impregnable position. If his Williams held together, no-one was going to get near him. Except perhaps his team-mate…
On pure pace Jacques was no match for Keke, but as the halfway mark approached the gap between the two Williams began discernibly to close. It was clear that Rosberg was in some kind of trouble.
“It started out as a misfire,” Keke remembered, “but then the engine began cutting out occasionally when I came off the throttle. In fact, the first time it happened it went completely dead and I thought that was it, my race was over. But I let the clutch out — and there was the engine again! That gave me quite a moment, too, because when it cut in it spun the back wheels.”
There were other problems, too. For some weeks Rosberg had been feeling listless. This was originally put down to ‘a virus’, but much later in the year it would be discovered that he was suffering from hepatitis. In the circumstances, it was hardly surprising that in the late laps he seemed a very tired man.
Nor was that the end of the ailments: “For some reason that day I had an incredible vibration from the front wheels, which made the steering wheel very hard to hold. And when I think of the race now, my first memory is always of my blistered hands. First the palms went — and then they blistered a second time, through the next layer. By the end they were literally like raw meat.
“Imagine that nowadays,” Rosberg chuckled. “You’d finish the race, come to the paddock — and you’d have three doctors looking after you! What did I do? Took the first plane to Ibiza, put my hands in the sea and said, ‘Pour me a beer!’ Never even went to a doctor. Salt water heals very quickly.”
There were other comparisons, too, between then and now.
“No-one’s saying it’s easy to drive round here these days — but for sure it’s different. Think of it: you’re left-foot braking now, not having to change gears, so you keep two hands on the steering wheel at all times, and you don’t move your feet on the pedals at all — you either press, or don’t press. So that’s it: you steer, and you brake.
“Back in 1983, though, we were dancing on the pedals like mad — nonstop. You had a manual gearbox with a conventional clutch, and you had to keep from over-revving the engine, of course; on a Cosworth, if you went 150 revs, max, over its 11,200rpm limit, the valve springs were gone. So you had to watch that needle the whole time, on that old Smiths tachometer.”
Keke thought for a second. “Mmm, well, we didn’t have anything like as much power as they have today, of course, so that was easier.” A pause. “Mind you, we were expected to control the power going to the back wheels ourselves! With the throttle! No traction control in those days, I’m glad to say.”
He burst out laughing. “We’re beginning to sound like old farts, aren’t we? But seriously, I think the driver did have a little more to do in those days.”