Nigel Roebuck

Warring team-mates, matters acoustic, Senna and Ferrari

When Jochen Rindt’s Lotus crashed massively at Montjuich in 1969, he was extraordinarily fortunate to escape with relatively light injuries. This was the time of the ludicrous ‘tall’ wings, and the flimsy supports on Rindt’s car simply collapsed, as they had – a few minutes earlier, at the same spot – on the sister car of Graham Hill, the wreckage of which was hit by Jochen’s 49.

Rindt always hated the whole concept of wings, anyway, thinking them an abomination on a racing car, and now, feeling thoroughly ill from the consequences of the shunt, he wrote a polite, but unequivocal, letter to Colin Chapman.

“I have been racing F1 for five years,” he said, “and I have made one mistake (I rammed Chris Amon in Clermont-Ferrand), and had one accident in Zandvoort due to gear selection failure. Otherwise I managed to stay out of trouble. This situation changed rapidly since I joined your team: Levin, Eifelrennen F2 and now Barcelona.

“Honestly your cars are so quick that we would still be competitive with a few extra pounds used to make the weakest parts stronger. Please give my suggestion some thought. I can only drive a car in which I have some confidence, and I feel the point of no confidence is quite near.” He didn’t finish with three dots… but might have done.

At the next race, Monaco, the Lotuses arrived complete with high wings, but Rindt, still convalescing, was replaced in the team by Richard Attwood, who finished a fine fourth – and, like everyone else – raced without them, for although all cars ran with them on the opening day of practice, the CSI (then the motor sport arm of the governing body) decided literally overnight to ban wings forthwith.

Things were terribly ad hoc in Formula 1 back then, were they not? By the time of the next race, Zandvoort, wings had sprouted once more, but now of a sensible size and height. On the pole, as he had been at Montjuich, was J Rindt.

If Jochen was the first of them, Austrians in motor racing – not least Niki Lauda – have long been renowned for being famously direct. Like anyone else present, I have a clear memory of that morning in the Österreichring paddock in 1985, when Lauda announced he would be retiring at season’s end. After he had finished speaking, Ron Dennis got to his feet, and we all assumed he was about to thank Niki for bringing so much success to McLaren. Not a bit of it: instead Dennis paid fulsome tribute to designer John Barnard, added that the team for 1986 was already sorted out, that Keke Rosberg was coming in to join Alain Prost and, er, that was it…

Apart from the lack of simple gratitude, it was breathtakingly insensitive, and not surprisingly Lauda – hurt as well as livid – didn’t mask his feelings afterwards: “Well, that’s Ron – he thinks only of the future, and in his mind I’m already the past…”

In point of fact Niki has never left the F1 scene for any length of time, and after years of working in television is even more prominent these days as the non-executive chairman of a Mercedes team that is dominating Grand Prix racing in 2014 much as it did 60 years ago, in the time of Fangio, Moss and the W196. Alfred Neubauer may not ultimately have parted with the company on the best of terms, but he had Mercedes-Benz in his veins and up in Valhalla must, I fancy, be savouring the domination of Hamilton and Rosberg, who in five races have taken 197 points from a possible 215.

Back in 1955 Stirling clearly had the better of Juan Manuel in sports cars, but in F1 was only too content to follow the master, and learn. In 2014, though, the situation at Mercedes is not like that, and Gerhard Berger – another plain-speaking Austrian – reckons that as time goes by the likelihood is that the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership will need a little managing.

“Formula 1,” he said after the Spanish Grand Prix, “is always full of surprises, but Mercedes has such an advantage that I can hardly imagine the season will not keep going like this. It’s still early, with everyone getting on well, but I don’t think it will be long before Rosberg and Hamilton clash.

“Hamilton is maybe the fastest in the field, but he’s very emotional, and I think it’s possible to put him out of balance. Rosberg knows that he must be clever to compensate for the slight advantage Hamilton has with natural speed, and I’m sure that with his determination and perseverance he will make Hamilton’s life difficult. I’ve told Niki that he will be like a nanny this year…”

‘Rosberg knows he must be clever to compensate for the slight advantage Hamilton has with natural speed…’ Not surprisingly, Berger’s remark made me think of Prost and Senna at McLaren, particularly in 1988, before their relationship sank to the frigid depths.

All – including Prost – accepted that Senna was the out-and-out quicker of the two, particularly in qualifying, but if they finished 1-2, with Ayrton ahead seven times, so on five other occasions Alain had the better of him, and the notion that he could be beaten in equal cars invaded virgin territory in Ayrton’s mind.

There was indeed more than one way to skin a McLaren, as Prost, as intelligent a man as ever sat in a racing car, had learned in two seasons as Lauda’s team-mate. Take Monaco in ’88, where Senna rushed away at the start, while Prost, beaten into Ste Dévote by Berger, spent more than half the race behind the Ferrari before Gerhard missed a shift – which you could still do in those days – and he was able to get through into second place.

By now Senna was 50 seconds up the road, so what could Prost do? Start setting new fastest laps, that’s what. Who knows why this news should have been relayed to Ayrton, but it was and, as Alain had hoped, he at once reacted, setting several of his own. Urgently Ron Dennis radioed that he was under no threat, and should back off: Senna complied, but then – his race-long rhythm thrown out of kilter – began making mistakes, the last of which pitched him into the barrier at Portier. Nine points to Prost.

Then there was Monza. As usual Senna was on pole, Prost alongside him, but in a season of remarkable Honda reliability Alain had a misfire from the start, and knew he wasn’t likely to go the distance.

“I thought, ‘OK, what can I get from today?’ Because Monza is so quick, we knew we would have to be careful with fuel – but I knew I wasn’t going to finish, so I kept up the pressure on Ayrton, hoping he would respond. He did…”

On lap 35, with 16 to the flag, Prost’s Honda V6 let go, as expected, but by now his work was done: Senna, suddenly very concerned about fuel, backed off to the tune of three seconds a lap, whereupon the Ferraris of Berger and Michele Alboreto began to close in.

Had he kept his cool, Ayrton would surely, if narrowly, have won, but going into his penultimate lap he encountered the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser (standing in for a sick Nigel Mansell) at the first chicane and, rather than wait until they had cleared it, went for a gap that wasn’t there. Thus the Ferraris swept on to a 1-2 finish, and the McLaren drivers left Monza just as when they had arrived there, three points apart.

This was to be the only one of 16 Grands Prix not won by the McLaren-Honda MP4-4, and if its designer Steve Nichols remembered the season well, he conceded at the time that what Frank Williams calls ‘putting two bulls in one field’ had not been without its difficult moments. “Drivers at that level are very intense, you know. Senna’s like that in a very obvious, aggressive, sort of way, but even Prost… there’s the sweet guy we all know, but underneath he’s pretty goddam competitive! So put two people like that together, and you’re bound to get a few sparks…”

Now, a quarter of a century on, we again have a situation where the World Championship looks to be a straight fight between team-mates, and most assume that Berger is probably right, that sooner or later – because such is the way of these things – there will be a clash between Hamilton and Rosberg.

In the first race of the season, Melbourne, Nico won while his team-mate retired, but since then they have finished 1-2 every time out, with Lewis ahead. With his life at last fitting comfortably on his shoulders, he has been driving quite beautifully, putting bling to one side, concentrating solely on winning another World Championship.

As for his rival, there have long been those reluctant to concede that Rosberg belongs at the top level, but they must surely now be thinking again. Yes, he has been losing races, but sometimes by fractions of a second – and to the fastest driver in the business.

I’ve never forgotten a remark made to me long ago by Mauro Forghieri about Didier Pironi: “When Gilles [Villeneuve] was alive, maybe we at Ferrari underestimated Didier, because he was always getting beaten by someone in the same car. Because we were judging him against Gilles, we didn’t appreciate what a great driver he was…”

A couple of years ago, before Lauda became involved with Mercedes, he told me of his belief in Rosberg, then partnered by Michael Schumacher. “In the past no one could really judge Nico because of the competition he had within his team. I always rated him highly as one of the top guys, and with Mercedes he proves this to me at every race – his performance undermines Schumacher’s performance, there’s no doubt about that. I think Nico is doing a top, top job…”

About Lewis, though, Niki was at the time rather more circumspect. “He’s always there, because most of the time the guy takes chances like nobody believes, and sometimes he gets away with them. Every day, though, there’s a different hairstyle, a different beard, the earrings… I don’t want to criticise anybody, but I was always one who wanted to keep his feet on the ground – I did not change my personality because I was suddenly famous.

“Hamilton performs like hell – but he has changes going on in his life all the time, and I hope he will not get a conflict one day. It’s OK as long as you can keep the two apart – this is the glamour world I want to live in, and this is my racing – but it’s not easy and Lewis has to watch this. As a driver, I think he has to come back a bit in his aggression, but otherwise I like the way he drives, and he’s quick like you can’t believe…”

Lauda is credited with being the man who persuaded Hamilton to leave McLaren for Mercedes at the end of 2012, and as company chairman Dieter Zetsche watched Lewis win at Barcelona, perhaps he again congratulated himself for having rejected Ron Dennis’s advice not to hire the Englishman.

In his own career as a driver, Lauda’s relationships with team-mates were invariably cordial, the exception being that with Carlos Reutemann, pragmatically drafted into Ferrari after Niki’s accident at the Nürburgring, when the team was initially by no means certain he would return. Lauda was more than disappointed when Clay Regazzoni was dropped for 1977, and Reutemann confirmed. Early that season I asked him if he were looking upon Carlos as a team-mate or rival, and the response was duly withering: “Neither!”

At first Niki was also highly suspicious of Alain Prost, who replaced John Watson as his McLaren team-mate in 1984. “Alain told me I’d been his hero in his karting days, and was always very nice with me – and that just made me more uneasy! Eventually, though, I realised that in fact he was completely straightforward, that I’d been wrong to have doubts, and then I liked him very much…”

Now Lauda has the task of managing the situation with Hamilton and Rosberg, and if anyone has the experience – and nous – to do it effectively, it is surely he. I rather agree with Berger’s assessment that Hamilton is the fastest of all, but also decidedly the more emotional of the two, as evidenced by his radio conversation with the team during the late laps at Barcelona, when Rosberg, on fresher and quicker tyres, was closing in.

In this era of new, numbingly complex, technology, the contact between drivers and race engineers is far more frenetic than formerly, and in the case of some appears almost constant. “Where have you been the last couple of laps, lads?” said an anxious Hamilton on lap 40, fearful that the race might be sliding the way of Rosberg. A few laps earlier he had implored his team to, “Give me a hand – I’ve got too much oversteer. The rear end’s everywhere…”

In the closing stages Lewis sounded decidedly grouchy, occasionally almost frantic, but finally, with a couple of laps to go, and Nico drawing ever nearer, it was time simply to go to work: “No more feedback, please…” At the flag the two silver cars were six tenths of a second apart, and Hamilton had his fourth victory on the trot.

Whatever else, the clearly audible conversation firmly dispelled any doubts there might have been about the Mercedes drivers being free to race: the two sides of the garage are in fierce competition with each other. “Conserve your tyres,” Nico was advised a dozen laps from the flag, “to fight Lewis at the end of the race…”

My German colleague Achim Schlang has long been renowned not only for a quirky sense of humour, but also for lateral thinking. “At last I understand why the new cars are so quiet,” he said to me in Barcelona. “People keep complaining about it, but don’t they understand that they have to be quiet, so the drivers can hear instructions on the radio – telling them how to drive…”

Experience and logic should tell you that, 26 years on, it is unlikely that Mercedes will better McLaren (and equal Ferrari’s record from 1952) by winning every Grand Prix this season, but on the strength of the first five races I wouldn’t wager much on it. As in the mid-Fifties Mercedes is simply doing a better job, and it is up to Lauda to keep the peace. Neubauer might have had an easy time with Fangio and Moss, but he could tell a tale or two about Caracciola and Fagioli, or von Brauchitsch and Lang. It’s the way Grand Prix drivers are.

Not long after the 1967 release of Grand Prix – still to my mind the best racing movie ever made – two associated albums appeared on the market, one the memorable soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, the other essentially a collection of ‘off-cuts’, issued under the title of The Exciting Racing Sounds of Grand Prix. If ever you see a used copy somewhere, buy it and have it transferred to CD, if only for a couple of minutes on side two.

“The sound of a Ferrari,” says Phil Hill, introducing the segment, “is the favourite sound of just about everyone who ever drove one, and I am no exception. I think you’ll understand why when you listen to this track of Mike Parkes, who took our tape recorder on a lap of Monza.”

The recording was made during testing for the 1966 Italian Grand Prix, for which Parkes – making only his fourth start – took pole position, and the tape recorder of which Hill speaks was of course not some tiny digital masterpiece, but a reel-to-reel number accommodated with some difficulty in the tight confines of the Ferrari’s cockpit.

If, though, Parkes were in any way impeded by the machine’s presence, it is not apparent in his effort: this is very much a full-blown lap of Monza as it then was, devoid of chicanes, and is pure motor racing soul music.

That said, speak to a Ferrari driver of that era, such as John Surtees or Chris Amon, and they will tell you that the 3-litre V12 always sounded better than it went.

“At Maranello they’d fool themselves,” says Surtees. “I remember the ’66 car being wheeled out: I knew very well that the original plan had been for a proper Formula 1 racing engine – but I also knew that financial pressures meant that suddenly it became a short-stroke sports car engine! Le Mans was always Ferrari’s priority in those days.”

Amon, who joined the team in 1967 – when the Cosworth DFV made its debut – was similarly frustrated: “When they fired the thing up in the paddock, it always drew a crowd, that’s for sure, but I used to tell them that the exhaust note was all very well, but I’d rather have some horsepower! Still… it was a beautiful sound, wasn’t it?”

It was. And if it were that deep bark that we had recently lost, I could more easily understand the hue and cry about the new generation of power units in F1: as it is, frankly, I don’t. The anaemic 2.4-litre V8s signified nothing after the 3-litre V10s, and if the sound they made was indeed loud, to my ear it was an uninteresting racket, with one engine note indistinguishable from another.

The more I think about it, the more it amazes me that, at a time when so much else is wrong with the internals of Grand Prix racing, all this attention is given over to its sound. Down Barcelona’s long pit straight the ‘hybrids’ were indeed way quieter than we may have come to expect of an F1 engine, but the sound – mellow and muscular – was to me a pleasing one.

People talk airily about ‘getting the noise back’, but that’s folly: the latest power units are turbocharged, and there is no point in pretending they can ever be made to sound like the engines they replaced. Now the stated aim is to make them sound as much as possible like the previous generation of turbos, but even that is unrealistic, for much of the old engines’ enticing sound came from unburned fuel in the exhaust, and in this ‘green’ era unburned fuel is not to be countenanced.

During post-race testing in Barcelona Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes appeared with a trumpet-shaped exhaust tailpipe, but if it had no adverse effect on the car’s performance neither did it produce any more noise. A blessing, I felt, for it looked remarkably stupid, like something out of a cartoon, and had it worked as intended every car would have been similarly disfigured.

So many times over the last few years the thought has occurred that Bob Fernley, (deputy) team principal of Force India, speaks with more common sense than most of his colleagues put together. Given that his team is one of the smaller, more financially stretched, outfits in the paddock, Fernley was not surprisingly sad to see the destruction of FOTA (Formula One Teams Association) and – even more understandably – dismayed to witness the advent of the F1 Strategy Group (motto: ‘Let them eat cake’).

Given that his team routinely embarrasses those of Strategy Group members, it is easy to see why Fernley resents its having no say in the sport’s future. It was these people in April who blocked the introduction of a budget cap in 2015, and I can readily imagine his reaction to Bernie Ecclestone’s absurd pronouncement – between court appearances – the week after Barcelona: “Why don’t the teams spend less? I don’t think they need a budget cap. The people who don’t need one will find a way around it. There are four teams not in the Strategy Group, and why not? Because the teams that are have committed to racing in F1 to 2020, and have put up sensible guarantees if they don’t.”

Fernley and others might reasonably argue that it would be easier to commit to a long-term future in the sport if the F1 cake were sliced a little more equitably, allowing the smaller teams greater financial security down the road, but he well knows that such a scenario is unlikely so long as the sport remains in the ownership of the despised CVC Capital Partners.

On the vexed subject of F1’s new soundtrack, Fernley is also at odds with Ecclestone and his cohorts, suggesting – correctly – that the exhaust note is the one that comes with the hybrid power units, and should not be tampered with in an artificial attempt to stay in the past.

The key word is ‘artificial’, for that is what megaphone exhausts and the like are, and they belong in the same bin as DRS, double points and high-degradation tyres.

I’m growing tired of the criticism of the new Formula 1, of the moaning that it’s not only too quiet, but also too slow. All right, it was easy to take a cheap shot at it in Barcelona, to point out that during Friday practice Caterham’s pair of GP2 drivers set quicker times than Kamui Kobayashi and Marcus Ericsson could manage, but that is to ignore the bigger picture.

This era of F1 is very much in its infancy, and given the chaotic scenes in pre-season testing when the teams were first coming to terms with this mind-boggling technology, I think the progress made, only five races in, has been staggering, most of all in reliability. As for the cars themselves, how can you be other than impressed when, for all its complexities, Nico Rosberg describes the driveability and response of his Mercedes hybrid as better than that of his V8 car from last year?

Of course for the moment they are struggling – at some circuits more than others – to match the lap times of last year, but that should hardly be a surprise, in light of the fact that this year’s minimum weight limit is 50kg more than before, and downforce has been substantially reduced.

The fact is, Formula 1 has been getting slower for years. Glance at the lap records for long-established circuits, and you will find that most of them were set a decade ago, in the V10 era, when such as Michael Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya had close to 900 horsepower at their backs.

At the top end the new hybrid cars – those powered by Mercedes, anyway – are already streets quicker than the screaming V8s, and the prediction is that at somewhere like Monza we will see speeds previously unknown in F1. As well as that, with greatly increased torque going hand in hand with reduced downforce, these new cars – whatever their overall lap times – make for an infinitely more exciting spectacle than their predecessors, not least because they are patently more difficult to drive. It pleases me that Lewis Hamilton suspects that Eau Rouge may not be flat – let alone ‘easy flat’ – this year.

Shortly before practice began in Spain I went to the Mercedes pit to hear the cars being fired up – first the regular V6 engine, then ‘the ancillaries’ or whatever you wish to call them, and to me the sound was stirring, not least the clearly audible spooling up of the turbocharger as Lewis drove out of the pit.

Mercedes has done a comprehensively better job than its rivals in preparing for this new world of F1, and the superiority of its cars was never more clearly shown than in Bahrain, where – after the safety car period – Hamilton and Rosberg left the pack behind at a second and a half a lap. Let us remember, though, that Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull did exactly the same in similar circumstances in Singapore last year.

Dietrich Mateschitz plainly relished the one, but not the other. Perhaps, if Renault’s preparations had matched those of Mercedes, and Vettel had been able to continue his endless winning streak in 2014, the Red Bull patron might have been more welcoming to the new era; as it is, graciousness has been in short supply.

“To say I am sympathetic to the displeasure of the fans is an understatement,” Mateschitz said after Barcelona. “It used to be about ‘who is fastest wins’, but now we have a plethora of regulations, restrictions, rules and penalties, and as it is they can no longer go to the limit…”

I think Lewis and Nico might take issue with that. Yes, we have new restrictions on fuel, but fears that the drivers would be coasting for much of a Grand Prix have thus far proved unfounded – indeed the much anticipated topic has barely raised its head, and the only ‘saving’ has been with tyres, just as it was last year, when Vettel walked the championship.

Surely even Mateschitz must understand that had we not followed this route of engine technology, and stayed instead with the antiquated V8s, we would have lost Mercedes and Renault as manufacturers, and we would not be welcoming back Honda. In two or three years Formula 1 would have looked like NASCAR.

In the recent past there has, not surprisingly, been a flood of reminiscence, both written and broadcast, about Ayrton Senna da Silva, who left us 20 years ago, but remains for many the greatest racing driver of all time.

Probably it was no more than inevitable that at some point Luca di Montezemolo would wish to involve himself in the debate, and sure enough on April 30 – the day before the anniversary of Senna’s death at Imola – came a piece on the Ferrari website, suggesting that in his last days Ayrton was in discussion with Luca about the possibility of a move to Maranello.

Senna, di Montezemolo revealed, visited his home in Bologna on Wednesday, April 27 1994. “He told me he really appreciated the stand we [Ferrari] had taken against the excessive use of electronic aids, which didn’t allow a driver’s skill to shine through.”

That rings true, as – with a slight reservation – does, “He made it clear to me that he wanted to end his career at Ferrari, having come close to joining us a few years earlier…”

Why the reservation? Because, at a press conference in Maranello a couple of years before his death, the only question I put to Enzo Ferrari was about the possibility of Senna’s driving for him. The Old Man grinned – it was one of those moments when he forgot he didn’t understand English – and replied that the matter had been discussed, but that the driver’s financial demands had proved imaginativo…

This, of course, had been at an early point in Senna’s F1 career, when he was driving for Lotus prior to moving to McLaren, and I don’t doubt that several years on, after three World Championships, his fiscal requirements, however imaginativo, could – and would – have been met.

Although Senna’s name was endlessly linked with Ferrari, other team owners believed he was using the rumours pour encourager les autres, to get a better deal for himself at McLaren or wherever, and certainly he was not unmindful of Alain Prost’s Maranello experience. Whatever their personal differences, Ayrton respected Prost the racing driver like no other, and well knew that Alain’s approach to his work was very similar to his own. “If he couldn’t make it work,” he confided to a friend, “that’s not a very good sign…”

To this day, however, Prost admits that he always thought an F1 career somehow incomplete without a spell at Ferrari, and virtually every other driver of consequence has said the same. No matter how cynical the world of Formula 1, and no matter how disinterested in the sport’s past its drivers, still the word ‘Ferrari’ resonates like no other. “You don’t go there believing you will win all the time,” Didier Pironi said. “You go there because they ask, and you can’t refuse.”

Senna, though, did refuse, and more than once, because his entire raison d’être was winning all the time. At the same time, though, even on Ayrton Ferrari worked its spell. Adriane Galisteu, his girlfriend during the last year of his life, reveals in her book his wish to finish his career in a red car: “Even if Ferrari’s car is as slow as a Volkswagen Beetle, I still want to be driving it in my last race, on my last lap. Ferrari is the myth of F1, the tradition, the soul, the passion…”

This tallies with what Montezemolo has said, and the only part of his statement with which I struggle is the suggesting that, “Ways of allowing him to move from Williams were going to be evaluated”.

It’s a fact that the Williams-Renault FW16 initially fell short of expectations, that only Senna’s genius had put it on pole position at Interlagos and Aida (and indeed Imola), but it was a car from the pencil of Adrian Newey, and Ayrton had every confidence that it would be brought to heel.

Senna had, after all, ended his long association with McLaren specifically because – having been beaten to the 1992 and ’93 World Championships by Mansell and Prost – he felt he had to drive for Williams. “His manager, Julian Jakobi, was very close to him,” Frank Williams told me at the end of 1994, “and he said that Ayrton remained convinced he would win the World Championship…”

That being so, while Senna may have harboured a dream of one day driving for Ferrari, it is not easy to take seriously the suggestion that, only two races into his Williams career, he was looking to have his contract bought out so as to join a team which at that point had not won a Grand Prix in nearly four years.

Unless, of course, Ayrton, who admitted to his one-time nemesis Prost that he missed the motivation of competing against him, was beginning seriously to think in terms of retirement, and wanted that to come with Ferrari. As with so much else to do with Senna, we may never know.