Fourteen seconds in, Nico Rosberg was having the Spanish Grand Prix he wanted, having overtaken an unexpectedly tentative Lewis Hamilton at the first corner; 16 seconds later Bernie Ecclestone was having just the Spanish GP he wanted: a race without Mercedes. And if we’re honest, I suspect most of us felt the same way.
Prior to the start all the talk – well, save that to do with Max Verstappen – had been of Nico and Lewis who, for all their cars’ superiority, had yet to do proper battle in 2016. Chances were that they would walk away with it, but at least there was uncertainty about who would win.
In the event, the scrap was over within half a minute of lights out, and it ended messily, as perhaps these things are occasionally bound to do. Unlike the scenario at Suzuka in 1990, however, where Ayrton Senna deliberately took out Alain Prost at the first corner, malice played no part at Barcelona: simply, Hamilton laid claim to a piece of track that Rosberg denied him, and into the sand trap the pair of them went. The great unforgivable sin in Formula 1, first expressed eons ago by Ken Tyrrell: “Whatever else, do not take out your team-mate…”
So the inquest began. Nico and Lewis spoke at length with Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda, then later with the stewards, who formally investigated the affair before declaring that no action would be taken: it had been, they said, ‘a racing incident’.
Immediately after it happened, Lauda’s instinctive response had been to blame Hamilton, to suggest that his move had been too aggressive, that Rosberg – being in the lead – had no obligation to ‘give him room’. Jacques Villeneuve, on the other hand, reckoned that it was Nico’s defence that had been too aggressive.
Most astonishing to me was that pole man Hamilton was behind Rosberg in the first place. Both made good starts from the front row, but heading into the first turn Lewis was narrowly ahead, with the inside line, and I was stunned when Nico left his braking later and cleanly motored by on the outside. Perhaps more to the point I’ll warrant that Hamilton was stunned, too: this is a much more confident and assertive Rosberg in 2016.
Obviously Lewis wanted to take back the lead as soon as possible, before the race settled down, and an apparent mistake by Nico gifted him the opportunity. This was not, in these days of hybrid technology, anything as workaday as a driving error, but instead one of selecting the wrong engine setting: as they accelerated through the long right-hander towards Turn Four Lewis had close to 200 horsepower more, and his closing rate was startling.
At that point Rosberg ‘closed him off’, in the modern parlance of Formula 1, which is to say that he put his car where his rival wished to go. At that point Hamilton either didn’t or couldn’t back off in time, got on the grass, and… that’s all she wrote.
It seemed to me another example of the folly of the ‘one move’ rule, a phenomenon which back in the day people like Stirling Moss would describe simply as ‘dirty driving’. Giuseppe Farina, the sport’s first world champion, may have been supremely talented, but he was notorious for chopping across other drivers’ bows. In those perilous days, when touching wheels was an invitation to death, that made him deeply unpopular with his fellows.
Fundamentally, blocking – or ‘baulking’, as it was known in the days of my youth – remained an unacceptable practice until the latter years of the 20th century. “Any idiot can block,” Gilles Villeneuve would say contemptuously, not least after his legendary battle with René Arnoux in the 1979 French Grand Prix. That was hard, uncompromising, racing in extremis, but watch the Ferrari and Renault down Dijon’s long pit straight and note that, lap after lap, neither Gilles nor René changed their line, the one behind the other, before diving by into the first turn.
Move on to Estoril in 1988, to the end of the first lap, with Prost slipstreaming Senna, then ducking out to pass. At that point Ayrton flicked to the right, obliging Alain almost to graze the pitwall. So untoward was this at the time that the reaction in the press room, I remember, was one of outrage. Had they touched, with 20-odd cars behind them, there would have been carnage.
Senna’s ruthlessness was in his DNA, however, and it was no more than inevitable that it should trickle down into the sport as a whole. “Suddenly,” Damon Hill said, “every kid in Formula Ford wanted to be like Ayrton Senna…”
As time went by – and the sport got safer and safer – the practice of moving over on someone, of intimidating him into backing off, became mainstream, to the point that eventually it was decreed by the FIA that ‘one move’ to block a rival’s advance was permissible. Whatever your thoughts about that, unquestionably it has contributed in no small part to the endless complaints about the lack of overtaking in contemporary Formula 1. If you doubt me, watch a tape of Stewart and Rindt at Silverstone in 1969.
Still, it’s kosher to do it now, and that being so Rosberg can’t be blamed for the move he made at Barcelona: does anyone doubt that, had their roles been reversed, Hamilton would have done the same? That said, assuming that the wrong engine setting had not been selected through any technical problem, Nico found himself in that position because he had goofed: he hadn’t missed a shift or whatever – you can’t do that any more – but pressed the wrong button, and time was in motor racing that if you made a mistake you accepted it was going to cost you.
This is the third consecutive season of Mercedes domination, and perhaps – since the world championship has distilled to a two-hander between Hamilton and Rosberg – the surprise is not so much that they had a coming-together in Spain, but that in 40-odd races it has happened so rarely. There have been niggles and the odd tantrum along the way, but prior to Barcelona the only race that caused turmoil in the team was Spa in 2014, when Rosberg’s front wing nicked Hamilton’s left rear tyre. Lewis may have been livid, but not even he believed the incident had been other than inadvertent, a tiny mistake by Nico that had major consequences.
On that occasion the Mercedes management came down on Rosberg like a landslide, publicly castigating him and exacting a financial penalty. That was the unsavoury day, if you remember, when Nico was booed on the podium, and there was evidence in subsequent races that it took him a while to recover his equilibrium.
This time around the controversy was dealt with in far more circumspect fashion. If Lauda were spontaneously unequivocal in saying that Hamilton was responsible, Wolff declined to apportion blame, clearly determined to avoid a repetition of the bad feeling stirred up at Spa. Later Niki said that Lewis had admitted responsibility for the shunt, and that was fine: the matter was now closed. All that said, he and Toto will not want an encore at Ste Dévote on the first lap.
The big guns were on hand in Barcelona, and as I noted Dieter Zetsche’s reaction to the debacle – a slight shake of the head – the thought occurred that, had it been the Ferrari drivers who had taken each other out, Sergio Marchionne’s response might have been rather more overt. These are not relaxing times at Maranello, with rumours of jobs being on the line, but when I asked Wolff about one suggestion – that Aldo Costa might leave Mercedes to return to Ferrari – he firmly refuted it: “No way – not after what happened the last time…”
Once the Mercs had accounted for themselves, we were left with a straight fight between Red Bull and Ferrari, and a reasonable expectation was that ultimately it would come down to the number ones, to Daniel Ricciardo, back to his best this year after a curiously downbeat season in 2015, and Sebastian Vettel.
That said, Kimi Räikkönen, while not the man who showed flashes of genius in his McLaren days, has had his interest reignited by a competitive Ferrari this year, and as for Ricciardo’s new team-mate…well, who knew?
It was perhaps not inappropriate that Daniil Kvyat happened to be watching Game of Thrones in his Moscow apartment when the call came through from Helmut Marko, advising that he and Verstappen would be swapping places on the Red Bull chessboard, Max moving up to partner Ricciardo, Daniil returning whence he had come, to Toro Rosso.
This was on the back of a disastrous Russian Grand Prix for Kvyat, who made contact – twice – with Vettel on the opening lap, punting the Ferrari into retirement and causing Seb’s oddly ‘Latin’ side to come furiously to the fore.
Undoubtedly the first contact had been Kvyat’s fault, but the second was a different matter, for Daniil could hardly have anticipated that Vettel, concerned about possible damage to his car, would back off on a flat-out section of the track.
As well as that, at the previous race in Shanghai, Kvyat had finished third, after incurring Vettel’s quite unreasonable wrath for a superb piece of opportunism at the first corner, causing Seb to overreact and nudge his team-mate off the road. Only too aware of Marchionne’s presence at the race, Vettel raised the matter immediately before they went on to the podium, but Kvyat dealt with him admirably, declining to be intimidated, laughing the whole thing off.
When the Verstappen/Kvyat switch was announced, some assumed it to be the consequence of the fracas in Sochi, but if Marko’s action were characteristically merciless – as former Red Bull boys like Sébastien Buemi and Jaime Alguersuari can attest – rather more to the point is that he was protecting Dietrich Mateschitz’s investment in the most startling F1 prospect in a generation. Verstappen was on everyone’s list, not least Ferrari’s, and to expedite transferring him to Red Bull, on a multi-year contract, was no more than common sense.
Not even Marko, though, can have anticipated what Max produced in Barcelona. It took him little time to acclimatise to a level of grip rather greater than he had known at Toro Rosso, and throughout practice and qualifying he was well to the fore, prompting Ricciardo to come up with an inspired lap in Q3: that in itself will hardly have displeased the management.
Two stops or three? Red Bull and Ferrari decided to split their strategies, and it was their bad luck that Ricciardo and Vettel, the two team leaders, drew the short straws. I was surprised after the race to hear the normally phlegmatic Daniel use the word “bitter” to describe his feelings about the situation: “More stops meant more overtaking – and you can’t overtake at this place…”
Sebastian admitted that he had been mistaken in pushing for three stops. Could he have won on a two-stop? “Yes.”
That left Verstappen in the lead, with a man exactly twice his age – Räikkönen – trying to separate him from it. “We felt the Ferraris were quicker in clean air,” said Christian Horner, and probably he was right, but clean air was what Räikkönen didn’t have. Even with DRS and more horsepower, Kimi was never able to take a serious run at Max: “I couldn’t get close enough at the last corner, leading on to the pit straight…”
Verstappen – a smart boy already adept at not answering questions – was only too aware of this, and lap after lap made sure of capitalising on his car’s superb traction, on exiting the last turn perfectly, keeping himself out of reach. One watched all this with some amazement: Max’s inherent pace we long ago took for granted – but how could an 18-year-old kid remain so unflustered, with his mirrors red, with a wholly unexpected first Grand Prix win beckoning?
It was one of those days – think of Senna at Estoril in 1985, or Schumacher at Spa in ’92 – when one was aware that here was a special force scoring the first of very many victories.
Some have suggested that Verstappen, making his debut at 17, would have struggled with the more physically taxing cars of a dozen years ago, and perhaps they are right, but it doesn’t matter. We have what we have, and like all the potentially great ones Max from the outset looked born to F1: if anyone were happier at the events in Barcelona, it can only have been Helmut Marko.
Regular readers of this column will know of my childhood hero-worship of Jean Behra, whose death at AVUS in 1959 brought me face to face with grief for the first time in my life. That day – August 1 – I was watching Grandstand, the BBC’s Saturday afternoon sports programme, when the cricket was interrupted by a news flash: “The French racing driver Jean Behra has been killed…” Fifty-odd years on, that voice, those words, are like crystal in my mind.
Obviously I never knew Behra, but over time have met many who did, always asking them for their memories. When long ago someone told me of Jean’s arriving late – very late – at the circuit in Buenos Aires on race day, obliging Maserati to take emergency measures, I rather assumed the story to be apocryphal, but when I mentioned it to Stirling Moss, Behra’s team-mate in 1956, he recalled it with some relish.
“The traffic used to be appalling in Buenos Aires, and maybe Jean had forgotten – although he was shacked up with some girl he’d met, so more likely he was keen to delay leaving her as long as possible!
“At Buenos Aires I always made sure of getting in early, so I had no trouble, but race time got nearer – and he still hadn’t arrived. There was his 250F – on the front row – with no driver…”
So what happened next? “Well, Guerino Bertocchi [Maserati’s legendary chief mechanic – and also, fortuitously, test driver] got in just before the start and did the first few laps until Jean got there! Then he came into the pits, hopped out – and Jean hopped in! Not easy to imagine in today’s world, is it?”
Not easy, no. One can’t really envisage, say, Jock Clear temporarily subbing for Kimi Räikkönen.
As I have collected tales of my idol down the years, so I have built up quite a vault of Behra memorabilia. Just recently, for example, I bought a copy of L’Équipe, dated September 14 1954, simply because Jean was the front-page lead.
This was a month after I had seen him for the first time, in the Oulton Park Gold Cup. It was a brief sighting, I have to say: he started from the front row, and immediately took the lead, but after only a couple of laps the Gordini failed, as Gordinis nearly always did.
For several years Behra had been a loyal number one for the small and perpetually underfinanced French team, winning the odd race, but growing increasingly frustrated by the cars’ unreliability and lack of competitiveness. As well as that, he had tired of living on what must have been close to ‘the minimum wage’.
“Given the way things are now,” Phil Hill once said to me, “you’d probably laugh if I told you the two things drivers never talked about in those days were money and safety – there wasn’t much of either…”
Other than the time his BRM, leaking oil on to its rear tyres, spun at Spa’s infamous Masta Kink in 1958 – somehow missing the house at its exit – there is no evidence that Behra ever gave a thought to safety. He was fearless in the way that Gilles Villeneuve was fearless – indeed Juan Manuel Fangio’s only criticism of him was that he was “too brave”. Many times badly injured, he always came back for more, and to a kid like me that served only to magnify his allure.
Money, though, was a different matter, something he had to think about, at least to a point. Fiercely patriotic ‘Jeannot’ may have been, but when Maserati offered him a contract for 1955, for all he felt immense sadness at leaving Amédée Gordini, he knew he had to make the move.
The reaction from L’Équipe, however, was predictably one of Gallic outrage: “Jean Behra is leaving Gordini to earn money!” ran the headline. Imagine…
This got me thinking about Grand Prix drivers and money, about how their financial status has changed over the generations. First off, it is worth pointing out that Behra’s deal with Maserati, while of greater value than his Gordini stipend, hardly made him a wealthy man. That isn’t how it was in the F1 of 50 and 60 years ago. If it seems safe to assume that Fangio earned more than his contemporaries, back then a driver’s retainer was minimal, and to make a reasonable living he needed to supplement it with prize money: hence Behra’s words: “I am a professional – I need to earn money…”
How much he made from driving for Maserati (in both Formula 1 and sports cars, let’s remember) I have no idea, but conversations with other drivers of the era lend a clue. Dan Gurney (who shared a Testa Rossa with Behra at Le Mans in 1959) has told me that his Ferrari contract that year paid
him $163 a month.
“As well as that, at each race I got half of what they called ‘starting money’ – which was never defined, incidentally – and one plane ticket from California to Milan and back. And that was it. So, you see, with an offer like that, how could I refuse?!
“Tell you what, though, I never regretted making that decision, because it was a super opportunity. Money was never in your mind – at all. I was just thinking I was a professional road race driver, and it looked pretty good to me.
“I don’t think anyone ever mentioned ‘marketing’ in those days – if you said the word, people would say, ‘What does that mean?’ Nobody was making much money – but Stirling was certainly the best at generating it, and he deserved every last penny. He was a pioneer!”
I have always savoured conversation with S Moss – Behra apart, the only hero I ever had – about his life and times, not least because of his humour and disarming candour. One day I asked him about the financial aspect of his career, whereupon he dug out all his contracts and put them in front of me.
“In those days, of course, you were paid according to your box office appeal – and that applied to both teams and drivers. Starting money would average out at £200-250 a car, so after paying all expenses a team might make a profit of about 100 quid from a race.
“When I started driving the HWMs for John Heath in 1950, the cars weren’t competitive, but for a young guy – I was 20 or so – it was a fantastic life, travelling from town to town, mainly in France and Italy, most of the races on public roads, with a few straw bales strewn about.
“Heath gave me 25 per cent of my car’s starting money, which was about £50, and I could just about live on that, so long as I stayed in small hotels, and kept meals to a main course. That was how it was, and there was no sense of being hard done by. You accepted that was the situation – at least until you saw John taking his cow of a bloody girlfriend to expensive restaurants, and you were thinking, ‘We need a new gearbox!’
“There really wasn’t much money in the sport then. I remember one race – in Rome, I think – when my wheel came off, and when I got back to the pits Heath asked me what had happened. After the race we went to where the car was – and the wheel was missing. John said, ‘Well, we’ve got to find it’ – I mean, Borrani wire wheels were 50 quid apiece, and it had a drum in it, which was another 50 quid!
“Anyway, here was this bloke – and the wheel had sailed into his garden. I said, ‘Can we have it back?’ He replied, ‘Yes – when you’ve rebuilt my wall!’ It was a sort of dry stone wall, with rocks sitting on top of each other, and I had to set about rebuilding the bloody thing! Can’t really see Lewis & co doing that, can you?”
Back in the day, of course, racing was way less specialised than now, and drivers tended to compete in several types of car. On the one hand, Stirling says, he was happy to do that because he could never get enough of racing; on the other, the more you drove the more you earned.
“When I raced my own Maserati 250F in 1954, the money came in – but of course we had to pay it out again to have the car rebuilt at the factory! When I moved to Mercedes for ’55, it was a different world. You got 90 per cent of the car’s starting money (with 10 per cent going to the mechanics), and the rest of your pay depended on where you finished: I think it went down to fourth place or something, but of course you never did finish fourth with Mercedes – it was always first or second! They also gave you $20 a day to live on, which was quite a lot then.”
Other contracts were rather less lucrative. “For years I drove sports cars for Aston Martin – and you can see from the contract that I got an annual retainer of 50 quid, plus expenses, to lead the team! David Brown was quite mean, whereas Tony Vandervell was pretty generous: I drove for Vanwall in 1957 and ’58, and he paid me £1000 a race. I got 60 per cent of the car’s starting money, too, and I see that Vandervell also paid for my flights – of course we travelled economy, all of us, in those days. Can’t see Lewis doing that, either!”
Moss’s best year, from a financial point of view, was 1961, his last full season as a racing driver. “I made a total of £32,600, but had to pay my own expenses, so I probably paid tax on eight or 10 thousand. It was about the same as a top surgeon was making, and I thought that was pretty good…”
Given that this was 55 years ago, it indeed sounds like a healthy amount of cash, but let me take a moment, if you will, to lay out exactly what Stirling did to earn it – and keep in mind that he was forking out for his own plane fares, hotels and so on.
European races apart, in 1961 Moss competed in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Canada, South Africa and Nassau. Including heats, he started in a total of 56 races (27 of which he won), driving 13 different cars. Throw in that at one point in the season he raced on 18 consecutive weekends, and I’d say he earned his money, wouldn’t you? As he points out, it was all for driving: “In my day we didn’t have to do all this PR stuff for sponsors – I mean, nobody had heard of PR, and anyway there weren’t any sponsors!”
Not commercial sponsors in today’s sense, anyway, although fuel companies chipped in to some degree. “In the latter part of my career,” says Moss, “I was getting a thousand quid a year from BP, and occasionally there’d be offers to promote things unconnected with racing, like Ronson shavers and Craven A cigarettes…”
Such was Stirling’s public profile that, as Gurney says, he was better at generating income than any of his fellows. It rather tickles me, at a time when Formula 1 drivers experiment endlessly with facial hair, that Behra’s only known ‘outside’ commercial deal was with Gillette!
Not really a man for diamond studs, our Jean, but even had such things been to his taste, they would have been well beyond his pocket. In 1957, when he won the Daily Express Trophy for BRM, his fee was £500. The racing driver’s lot has indeed changed over time.
Following the death of Stuart Lewis-Evans at Casablanca, the last race of the 1958 season, Tony Vandervell withdrew his team, whereupon Moss agreed to drive for his old friend Rob Walker, with whom he remained for the balance of his career. There was never a contract – just a handshake – but perhaps more remarkable is that neither, apart from a token affair in 1964, was there ever one between Jackie Stewart and Ken Tyrrell.
“After three years with BRM,” JYS says, “I was all set to go to Ferrari, alongside Chris Amon, for 1968. It was all agreed – but then I found out they were also talking to Jacky Ickx, so I dropped that idea, and started talking to Ken, who was on the verge of coming into Formula 1 with a Matra chassis and a Cosworth DFV.
“He never could understand why I went to drive for him when Ferrari was beckoning, but I did it because I couldn’t trust them, and I did trust Ken. We’d worked together before, and I’d had a contract in 1964, when I was driving Formula 3 for him. That was for the retainer – which was £5! Ken also offered me an alternative – £10,000, in return for 10 per cent of my future earnings. At the time that was a fortune to me, but fortunately I had enough savvy to go for the £5…
“Whenever we worked together after that, it was always done on a handshake – somehow I felt that if I’d asked Ken for a contract it might have blemished the relationship. My retainer was £20,000 – that was what we agreed when I went there, and I don’t think it ever changed!”
Tyrrell himself remembered it this way. “In 1968 you went up to Cosworth in Northampton, you gave them £7500 – and you came away with an engine that could win you Grands Prix: it was like that for years.
“For me the timing was perfect. Matra was keen to make an F1 car, Ford had the engine – and Jackie wanted to drive, although he said, ‘You can’t afford me.’ I asked how much he wanted, and he said, ‘Twenty thousand pounds.’ I didn’t have 20 thousand pence! I went to see Walter Hayes [of Ford] and said, ‘I need to get Jackie sewn up, so we can sort things out with Matra, and so on…’ And Walter didn’t hesitate, he just said ‘Yes’. In fact, I never took the £20,000, because I got £80,000 from Dunlop, and gave Jackie the 20 – which left £60,000 to run the team. I never needed the 20 grand from Walter – and I only found out later that he gave it to Jackie!”
If Moss is considered by Gurney and others to be the first truly ‘professional racing driver’, Stewart picked up that tag and ran with it. “In the late ’60s the total money situation changed, because more benefits came in from outside. You’d get bonuses if you won a race, and that sort of thing, from Matra, Elf, Dunlop, then Goodyear, but it still wasn’t a huge amount, so I raced other things, as well – I did Can-Am with Carl Haas, which paid pretty well, and drove Capris for Ford Germany, things like that. By 1970 I was earning a million, but it certainly wasn’t all from Formula 1…”
These days, of course, it is all from Formula 1. When last year Le Mans for once did not clash with a Grand Prix, Nico Hülkenberg was able to drive – and win – for Porsche in the Vingt-Quatre Heures, but fundamentally in today’s world an F1 driver is just that.
“When I won the German GP in 1961,” says Stirling Moss, “that was worth £500. Now, no one knows what drivers get when they win…”
In fact, in terms of direct prize money, they get nothing. “Until about 1981,” former McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh told me, “prize money was paid to the drivers, and by the event, but today the only prize money comes from Bernie Ecclestone’s central prize fund, and that stays entirely with the team. The drivers aren’t involved – but they do have quite lucrative retainers…”
I went to see Whitmarsh one day in 2012 because I had lately acquired a copy of Gilles Villeneuve’s 1977 McLaren contract and thought it might be instructive to compare it with a current one.
“Hmm! McLaren was going to pay Gilles $1000 for each race he drove for them! Well,” Martin laughed, “that’s not bad, is it? He was also to get 30 per cent of whatever prize money the car won, and the company was going to pay his expenses – stipulating that he had to fly economy!
“That’s changed a bit, hasn’t it? These days we don’t pay the drivers’ expenses – mind you, we’re not paying them $1000 a race, either! I see there’s a clause here saying that, ‘Should the driver earn less than $15,000, McLaren will pay him the difference’…”
In fact that worked out quite well for Villeneuve, for in its wisdom McLaren ran him only once, at Silverstone, before letting him slip away to Ferrari, so in effect he got 15 grand for a single race, and 40 years ago that was good money. Whitmarsh then gave me sight of a contemporary contract, albeit with the figures ‘redacted’. “It’s split into three: a driver’s agreement, a promotions agreement and a link agreement. That’s saying I’ll pay you X million for being a driver, X million for being a promotions machine – and the link agreement says that if you get fired on one, you get fired on the other, too…”
The contract ran to about 60 pages, whereas Gilles’s – typed, on foolscap – had been six. I know not how many there are in Fernando Alonso’s current contract, but I’m told it is worth $40m a year. Quite a way from handshakes and Gillette ads, is it not?