Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Will the real Schumacher please stand up?
– Crazy mirrors and commonsense stewards
– Jacky Ickx – one of a kind in motor racing

There was a time, 30 or so years ago, when Formula 1 seemed to be very French, thanks mainly to the efforts of Elf, which was then deeply involved in motor racing and sold on the notion that Gallic drivers should proliferate. Jabouille, Arnoux, Laffite, Depailler, Jarier, Pironi, Tambay… let me count the names.

At the present time, however, although the last two World Champions have been English, the flavour of F1 is increasingly German, exactly one quarter of the drivers being of the Fatherland. After qualifying at Sepang four of the top five drivers were German, and if that caused something of a surprise, a greater one was that Michael Schumacher was not among them.

Or perhaps not. Four races into the 2010 World Championship, the jury remains out on the subject of Michael’s comeback. Mercedes people understandably continue to talk him up, to say that much has changed during his three-year absence, that the car is unsuited to his natural style, that he has suffered more than most at the hands of the narrower front tyres, that he must be given more time, that eventually he will again be the Schumacher of old. Perhaps, though, their words would carry more weight if Nico Rosberg – in the same car – were not lying second in the World Championship; many are increasingly of the view that Michael has made a great mistake, that he is simply not the driver he was, and there’s an end to it.

Where lies the truth? Somewhere in between, probably. As Jackie Stewart suggested before the first race, the one certainty was that Schumacher would not be better than he was first time round. Stewart made the point, too, that Michael has mellowed – perhaps, in his case, a relative term, but there is no doubt that he is more user-friendly, less clipped when being interviewed than he was in the Ferrari days.

“Mind you,” said Jackie, “he’s still got that slight… arrogance about himself. When Alonso blocked him in Australia, he went over and gave Fernando a bollocking before he was even out of the cockpit! I don’t think he’d be doing something like that if he were completely relaxed.”

So is Rosberg the quiet revelation of the new season – or just simply quicker than a 41-year-old?

“Well,” said Stewart, “as far as I’m concerned, Nico was always waiting to happen – as soon as he got his hands on a competitive car – but the fact that he’s quicker virtually all the time must be difficult for Michael. He’s never had that with a team-mate before. I’m sure he’ll get a podium sooner or later – but he’s not podium material at the moment. I think the group of drivers at the moment is really good – unbelievably good, in fact. It’s not going to be easy for him…”

I must say I thought significant Ross Brawn’s response, on being asked in Shanghai why Schumacher had been so off the pace in qualifying: “Good question…” he said.

What has gone through my mind of late is a remark Ross made to me in 2001: “The biggest difference between Michael and the team-mates he’s had is that, when the car isn’t working very well, he can get more out of it – particularly on a qualifying lap.”

In 2010 there has been no sign of that, nor of his erstwhile genius in the rain. I think back now to the Spanish Grand Prix of 1996, Schumacher’s first year with Ferrari. The F310 was really not a good car, but as it bucketed down that afternoon in Barcelona, and his team-mate Eddie Irvine immediately spun into retirement, Michael simply left everyone behind, his fastest lap well over two seconds faster than anyone else managed.

It was a masterclass in driving a Grand Prix car on a slippery track, and one might have expected – hoped, anyway – to see some of that ability resurface in the wet days we have had in Australia, Malaysia (qualifying) and China. Following the race in Shanghai Lewis Hamilton, after a mid-race tussle with Schumacher, described him as, “About the most aggressive driver I’ve raced against – to put it politely…”, but if Michael’s inherent stubbornness perhaps abides, something else has gone, perhaps for now, perhaps for ever.

What we’re seeing is a pale version of what we saw, and it’s oddly unsettling. While only too aware of Schumacher’s ability – you know genius when you see it – I was never a fan, for I disliked his ruthless contempt for his fellow drivers, and believed that on too many occasions he showed little regard for the ethos of Grand Prix racing. Yet now, for reasons yet unclear, I find myself willing him again to do justice to the memory of what he was: in his pomp, at Spa on a sunny August afternoon, he could make the domination of a Grand Prix seem like something you or I could do.

I don’t suggest – at this stage – that Michael is done, that the mesmeric days are history, but I will confess to feeling unsettled at the sight of him running in the midfield, just another good driver.

Should the volcanic ash cloud allow, Mercedes will have its cars back to Brackley in time for a major upgrade before the Spanish Grand Prix, and in Shanghai Schumacher suggested that the changes ‘will help the front end’ – which is another way of saying that they will help him, for Michael has always been a ‘front end’ driver, happy to put his trust in a nervous car, to leave the rear end to do as it will.

No surprise, this. As Stewart said in Bahrain, “Michael will develop the car the way he wants it – a way he knows, and Ross knows too.” But the problem for the team is that, as history shows, a car perfectly set up for Schumacher is near undriveable for anyone else, and it would be unfortunate, to say the least, if a Mercedes tailored to Michael’s tastes worked against the interests of Rosberg, at this stage of the game unquestionably the quicker of the two.

It was no more than inevitable that Schumacher’s return should have been the story of the 2010 Grand Prix season. Before the first session in Bahrain a great throng of photographers hung around the Mercedes garage, waiting for shots of the great man as he set off down pitlane for the first time. It was the same in Melbourne, in Sepang, in Shanghai, and probably it will be so in the races to come. But unless things change it will dissipate as time goes by, and will in any case last only for this season, when Michael is a novelty in each new country visited.

Rubens Barrichello, not always content as Schumacher’s good and faithful servant at Ferrari, reckons that much depends on Michael’s motives for coming back. It isn’t money, that much is obvious, and it’s a matter of fact that he, more than most drivers, always adored the sensation of driving a racing car, much as, say, Clay Regazzoni did. Clay, though, was otherwise a different animal altogether: for him motor racing was merely one of the good things of life, and although he savoured the whole business of being a Grand Prix driver he was never haunted by insecurities, never obsessed with winning. If the new Schumacher can come to terms with that, simply enjoy the driving and the competition, he need have no regrets about coming back, as Barrichello suggests. But if the old Michael still lurks – and it’s difficult to believe otherwise – three years might seem a very long time.

It is odd now to think that, had Jenson Button not opted to leave Brawn/Mercedes, Schumacher’s return would never have come about. At the time we thought Jenson’s decision… eccentric, for the Brawn team was very much what the French call ‘son jardin’, and now here he was, away to McLaren, to be team-mate to Lewis Hamilton. ‘Into the lion’s den’ was the cliché of the moment.

There is, however, more than one way to win, as we saw in the McLaren days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, and four races into the 2010 season, one sees parallels between then and now. I don’t suggest that Jenson and Lewis are on a collision course – literally or metaphorically – for the evidence is that they genuinely get along well, and it would be a surprise, in this Whitmarsh-managed era, if a feud of any kind were to develop.

In terms of the way they drive, though, in how they approach a race, Button and Hamilton are very different, and here I do find similarities with Prost and Senna. Lewis is very much the full-blooded one who runs at the edge, who provides the drama, the muck ’n bullets, just as Ayrton, his great hero, did; Jenson, while perhaps a shade away in absolute pace, is better at driving and thinking at the same time, and hardly ever makes a mistake.

Few, I suggest, would have predicted that Button, with two wins from four Grands Prix, would be in the lead of the World Championship as the European season beckoned, and he finds himself there because of nous, because of his greater experience and ability to form his own judgements. It was he, not his team, who opted for the early change to slicks in Melbourne, and had it proved the wrong decision he would have had no one else to blame. In the same way, when most drivers dashed in early for intermediates in the drizzle of Shanghai, Jenson – and Rosberg and Kubica – stayed out on slicks, and built themselves a massive lead.

Hamilton, on the other hand, appears more inclined to rely on McLaren to tell him what to do and when, and in Australia, after being brought in for a second tyre stop, radioed in his… disappointment at the team’s decision.

To digress for a second, I remember Juan Pablo Montoya doing something similar at Magny-Cours in 2003, and his outburst – admittedly more colourful than Lewis’s – led to a ‘warning letter’ from Williams, which made JPM even more livid, and left him susceptible to an approach from… McLaren.

Hamilton is not as volatile a character as Montoya, but he is more prone to reacting to the moment than Button. His driving in the races this year has been spectacular, frequently brilliant, but there have been ‘incidents’ – off track as well as on – and some have suggested that the well-publicised parting of the managerial ways with his father has played a part.

Had Anthony been in the Mercedes with him as he left the track in Melbourne, I doubt that Lewis would have done the ‘burnout’ that got him into trouble with the local police. He did it simply to please the fans, and I thought the hysterical response to it symptomatic of the dreary times in which we live. A man like Gilles Villeneuve used to do things like that all the time, and it was that free spirit that the tifosi so much loved. But that was then, and this – sadly – is now. Nothing frivolous, thank you; this is the 21st century…

I suspect at the moment Hamilton is feeling that, for the first time, he’s off the leash. No one ever doubted that his father had his best interests at heart, but he did, it seemed to me, control Lewis’s life to a degree that might have become oppressive.

At Spa in 2008 I interviewed Hamilton in the paddock. We were on the third floor of the McLaren edifice, and all went very well, Lewis enthusing about the wonderful circuit, then going on to talk about Senna and the effect of him on his young life.

At the end of it we shook hands, and he left immediately, for qualifying was not far away. As he got to the top of the spiral staircase he met his father coming the other way, and at once Anthony was wanting to know how the interview had gone. Absolutely fine, I said, and the McLaren PR man – present throughout – concurred. Well, what had we talked about? Oh, this and that, I said: Senna, Spa, Kovalainen, Alonso… Alonso?! “No way,” said Anthony. “We can’t have Alonso in it!” Note the ‘we’ – and the presumption that they, rather than I, would decide what went into this article. I pointed out that Fernando, whatever the Hamilton family’s feelings about him, was a great racing driver – indeed, that it had been his son’s performances against him in his debut season that had caused the world to say there had never been a rookie like this. How on earth could an interview with him not include references to Alonso?

Anthony was far from convinced, not at all happy, and I suspected he would be raising the subject with his son later in the day. I don’t doubt, as I said, that he was thinking about what he saw as Lewis’s best interests – his image or whatever – but I had never encountered attempted control on this level before, and didn’t appreciate it. More to the point, I suspected there might come a time when Lewis didn’t, either.

After the Chinese Grand Prix, he was asked if scrapping with Schumacher had been somehow different from duels with other drivers. “Jenson says ‘tell the truth’,” replied Hamilton, and I thought that significant in itself. “The truth is, it’s just as exciting racing with any other driver.”

Button has always been a straightforward bloke, unusually free and open in what he says. Sometimes, in this world of ‘spin’, that can get a driver into strife with his team or whatever, but down the pike it works much better, because you know he means what he says, and possible ambiguities are shed. The signs are that Hamilton is benefiting from Button’s presence in the team – and Jenson, leading the World Championship, isn’t doing too badly from it, either. If they can continue down this path, genuinely working together, nothing is beyond the scope of McLaren.

So long as they found a way back from China, that is.

*******

I know we’ve had the benefit of rain, and all the unpredictability it brings with it, in two of the four Grands Prix so far run, but still I continue to have faith in the new ‘no refuelling’ F1. Some major players persist in suggesting we need urgently to introduce rule changes to spice up The Show, but I remain to be convinced. As Robert Kubica has said, drivers now need to ‘manage a race’ rather than simply go through two or three qualifying sessions, which is what we had before.

At the very least I believe the new format should be allowed more time to bed in, and if the time comes when we need to alter this and that, I hope devoutly that F1 remains true to its roots, and does not resort to artifices and scams. That said, the odd rule change needs to come without delay, simply for reasons of common sense.

When Alonso was pitched into a spin at the first corner of the Australian Grand Prix, after a touch with Button, I was surprised, for while Fernando is a no-nonsense racer, he is not one to jeopardise his race in the first few seconds. Similarly, when Mark Webber positively held the door open for Sebastian Vettel at the first turn in Malaysia, I wondered what on earth he was thinking about. In both cases, as it turned out, the cause was inadequate mirrors: Alonso and Webber simply couldn’t see clearly what was behind them.

There are, as we know, any number of ferociously bright people in Formula 1, well able to put their ingenuity to work in sidestepping the intentions of the sport’s rulemakers. Think ‘double diffuser’.

Sometimes, though, common sense is sidestepped, too. One thinks of the design of the Schnorcedes cars in Peter Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar, in which the driver is required to sit ‘on the floor, but with one leg forward, and the other backward’. This is in the interests of perfect weight distribution, and doubtless achieved – but it caused great pain to the driver, and left him unable to stand for half an hour when he got out of the car.

Actually, now I think about it, not even Ustinov’s comic imagination came up with a racing car without the ability to carry fuel enough to get to the finish of a race. Another digression, forgive me.

Consider the mirrors on certain current cars – Ferrari and Red Bull among them – which are situated on stalks separate from the bodywork, beyond the edge of the sidepod. This, in an era when bargeboards and other appendages are banned, is a ploy to create a degree, surely minimal, of aerodynamic advantage. The fact that the mirrors, already too small, are situated too far from the driver to be of much use to him appears to have been overlooked.

Given the preoccupation with safety which exists in motor racing, it seems something of an anomaly that near-useless mirrors should be countenanced. My new car, due imminently, has huge mirrors, because this is what the benighted EU now requires. They are by no means things of beauty, and, given a choice, I’m not sure I would have gone for them, but assuredly they do present a clear view of what is behind. Why, then, could not something similar – albeit with less brick-like aerodynamics – be introduced into F1? Seems simple enough, even if it would present drag problems – and it would be the same for all of them, after all.

Clearly, the mirrors – cockpit-mounted – on the McLaren work better than on some other cars, for at Sepang they allowed Hamilton to know precisely where the speedy Petrov was as they powered down the pit straight. Why, Lewis seemed able to anticipate Vitaly’s every move, and to counter it even before it came.

For years the custom, if not the rule, in F1 has been that a driver is allowed ‘one move’ to protect his position, but on this occasion it did seem as though Hamilton exceeded that, and by a factor of three or four.

Lewis and his team argued that the weaving did not constitute ‘blocking’ on this occasion as it all occurred under acceleration, rather than approaching a corner. As such, they claimed, he had merely been ‘trying to break the tow’, and there was some literal truth in that. The stewards, however, decided the incident merited their attention, and undoubtedly many of Hamilton’s fellow drivers were of the opinion that he should have received a penalty.

In China Alonso was handed a drive-through penalty for jumping the start, but there could have been no dispute about that, as Fernando himself acknowledged. In the case of Hamilton at Sepang, however, the misdemeanour went unpunished, but it was made clear to him – and to all his fellow drivers – that weaving of this kind was not acceptable, that there would be no such leniency next time.

Fine. Everyone now knows where they stand, which is just as things should be. Lewis was merely reprimanded, and this ‘lighter touch’ from the stewards (now advised at every race by a retired or uninvolved driver) is a very welcome change to the F1 scene, redolent of the refreshingly sensible approach apparently being taken to such matters by the FIA since Jean Todt replaced Max Mosley.

*******

Asingular man, Jacky Ickx. It was perhaps inevitable that several hours of conversation with him and Mario Andretti would produce more material than might be accommodated in a single magazine feature. As you will see elsewhere in this issue, I had lunch with the two of them in London, but then met up again with Mario in Bahrain, and a few days later with Jacky at Goodwood.

Recalling their days as Ferrari team-mates, Andretti spoke of Kyalami in 1971 – not the South African Grand Prix, which he won, but the Nine Hours sports car race, run at the end of the year.

Although not a round of the International Championship of Makes, Kyalami offered another opportunity for Ferrari to put some miles on its glorious 312PB, which had been quick in its debut season, but not conspicuously reliable. Looking ahead to 1972, engines were now to be restricted to three litres, so such as the Porsche 917 were consigned to history, and Ferrari’s chief opposition would come from Matra.

Two PBs were entered in South Africa, one crewed by Ickx/Andretti, the other by Clay Regazzoni and Brian Redman. Mario remembered the race with relish.

“Ferraris were always so strong. We started from pole, and I was leading until the car stopped out on the circuit – flat battery… They sent a mechanic out to me with a battery, but he couldn’t touch the car – I had to do everything myself, and we lost 23 laps to the other Ferrari. Jacky and I figured there was nothing to lose – we’d just drive flat out, and if it broke it broke.

“It was just the greatest feeling – going balls out, just for the sake of it – and I was leaning against all these little sedans and stuff. God knows how many I hit! Obviously Clay and Brian weren’t going really hard, with the lead they had, but before the finish we took eight laps out of them. Best second place I ever had in my life.

“Next day the two cars were on display in Johannesburg. The other car was totally pristine, but ours looked like it had been through the Battle of Normandy…”

At Goodwood I mentioned this episode to Ickx – and he looked quizzical. Did he not remember it?

“Mmm, I have some difficulties to think about the past,” he said, “because honestly, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t count – it’s behind me. I’m much more interested in the present, and what’s coming next – even if it’s not so glorious.

“I don’t remember that Kyalami race, no – but certainly I can tell you there is nothing more exciting for a driver than starting from last position on the grid. It’s fascinating – you don’t have any strategy except one: you can use your car and your talent at the limit permanently. You start off last, and then you become 40th, and then 20th, 10th, sixth, third…”

One race in which Jacky started last, of course, was Le Mans in 1969, when he walked – rather than ran – across the road to his Wyer Ford GT40, and a day later took the chequered flag after the closest finish ever seen in the Vingt-Quatre Heures.

“Ah, but that was different,” Ickx said, “and to make a point. You are against the idea of putting your seat belt on at 300kph down the straight, you are against starting like a maniac – but you have to hurry up when you walk across the track because the others are already starting their cars, and you don’t want to be eaten by them! And then, by mystery, 24 hours later there are only 100 metres between two cars at the end. That’s how you become a legend, maybe! But it’s also pure luck…

“That wasn’t the same effort as at Le Mans in ’77, with the Porsche. My car broke down, and I went as reserve driver to the remaining car, which was 40th at the time – and we won. We all raced like maniacs all the way – [Hurley] Haywood, [Jurgen] Barth, me, the engineers, the mechanics… it was just unbelievable. We had ahead of us four Renaults, which were the fastest cars, but we put so much pressure on them that at 11 o’clock the last one retired. For the last hour our car, driven by Barth, was on five cylinders, and we didn’t know if we could finish or not – but it was one of those days when nothing will stop you.”

It seems extraordinary, I said, that you recall that so clearly, but the race at Kyalami you don’t remember at all…

“Ah – because the result was not the same! The point is not finishing second – the point is winning. I’m much happier today than when I was younger, because I feel I’ve grown up – in so many ways I’m another person. I think I was quite difficult when I was young – I wanted to win, and that was my only goal.

“What interests me in conversations about memories is not times and details. You say to me, ‘Do you remember Kyalami in ’71?’ No – it’s gone! Of course I remember some things, but mainly I remember the people, the good moments. When I think of Kyalami, I remember the Kyalami Ranch, with all the drivers staying there, being together around the swimming pool, the sun burning – we were there in January, and after one day you were like a lobster! And in those days, of course, the press were in the same place, and you could speak as friends. Yes, it’s true, it was another planet…”

I didn’t know Ickx in his early days as a coming superstar, but, talking to people who did, the picture that emerges of the young Jacky is of quite a cocky individual – never one to scream and shout, but a man who knew what he wanted, and quietly made sure that he got it.

“Honestly,” he said, “I think the biggest difference between drivers is the degree of desire – there is less difference between the amount of talent. OK, some drivers are more fit than others, more resilient, but the key is the desire to win. This is a very individualistic sport: one thing that never changes is that your team-mate may be your best friend – but he’s also your worst enemy! The only way you can truly compare drivers is when they are in the same car.

“In the rest of life selfishness is a defect, but in racing it’s probably necessary if you are going to be a winner. You must have a lack of sentimentality. These days, you know, I can hardly believe I did all that. I was in the spotlight without wanting to be – some people love the spotlight, and they do it very well, but for me it was never a key satisfaction. Even when I was still winning from time to time, it was already over: as soon as I crossed the line, I was thinking about the next one. It was difficult for me to express my joy – it was much more personal, something within myself.

“I don’t know how many races I did. I think I won 50 long-distance races or more – maybe I have the record on that, I don’t know. But that can only happen when you’re at the top of a pyramid – when you have all these people behind you, the wonderful mechanics, who work day and night to repair what you break. They get no glory, like the drivers, but still they’re happy to have won. And you depend on these people who are also maestros in their own work.

“Why am I a different person now? Because I am reflecting, and if I have one regret in life it is that I didn’t take enough care of all these people. I always said ‘thank you’ to them, but I didn’t measure properly the level of their effort, I didn’t offer them the right reward.

“I have been lucky everywhere I’ve been – Ferrari, Porsche, everywhere – and, you know, the key to all that, in coming from amateur to professional level, was Ken [Tyrrell].

“Even before I started the season with Ken, I had already damaged two cars. He put me in a single-seater – an F2 Cooper – for the first time in ’65, at Goodwood, and I crashed at the first corner. At Oulton Park I was testing a Matra F3 car – boom! I went to Pau: I crashed on Friday, and again on the Saturday – at the same corner. At Monaco I had an accident, trying to overtake at the hairpin. Maybe the speed was there, but it took me time to understand. And Ken never said a word, never said, ‘Maybe you have to think differently…’ Fantastic.”

In many respects, Ickx was never what one might call a typical racing driver. He always hated testing, for example, and made a point – between race weekends – of putting racing as far from his mind as possible. Winning the World Championship – the Holy Grail for most drivers – was never a matter of surpassing importance.

“No, compared with other people, the World Championship had no meaning for me. The goal was always to win races – no calculation about how many points I would get for this position or that. In that way I was very relaxed, very simple.

“When I think back now, it’s not a drama for me that I never won the championship, because I raced everywhere – F1, F2, long-distance sports cars, Can-Am, Paris-Dakar, Bathurst – and I have to say that I was very often in the right car. But what is more impressive, I believe, is that I have survived from that era. I promise you that every morning when I wake up, and sometimes when I think about certain situations in the past… I think, shit, that was close…

“To me, the championship was not a score by itself, so not having won it doesn’t create any kind of sorrow at all. Why? Because I am a survivor.”

Clearly Ickx is proud of that, of having survived so many years in an activity immeasurably more perilous than now. Consider for a second the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, where Jacky made his F1 debut in a Cooper-Maserati. Of the 18 drivers who went to the grid, seven ultimately died in racing accidents.

“I think,” Ickx said, “that part of the reason I changed is because racing is not made only of good moments, but also sad ones. When you start, you cannot be aware of the danger. When you’re young, you can dream – you can climb a mountain and have no fear. You believe in everything, and you don’t have that instinct of preservation – because you don’t know what it is! OK, some have it maybe more than others, but it’s clear that if you start motor racing and you have the danger in mind, you’re going to be beaten non-stop. Later, I think, you become more aware that it’s a calculated risk.”

At one point, when we were discussing the Ferrari days, I asked Ickx for his recollections of Ignazio Giunti, who was killed in a freak accident during the Buenos Aires 1000Kms in 1971, and who now, sadly, is almost forgotten.

“Giunti was very promising, very smart, but I didn’t really know him because he was not around very long – there were a number of drivers that you never knew. At the end of ’74, at Watkins Glen, there was a young Austrian new to F1, driving for John Surtees. Helmut Koinigg. I remember taking the helicopter with him from the Glen Motor Inn to the track – and in the afternoon he was dead. There were very few comments about that – he was unknown. Unbelievable now, isn’t it?

“All these accidents, these fatalities hit you, and you may recover, but the traces remain for ever. I lost a co-driver in the Egyptian Rally – it was a dreadful accident, horrific. And although the risks are accepted by both parties, you remain the one who made the mistake – who made the misjudgement.

“Think of Stefan Bellof, who was the future of German motor racing. Unbelievably talented. In the rain unbeatable. He died at Francorchamps in a crash which is still unexplained, in a way…”

Bellof was killed in the 1985 Spa 1000Kms, after trying unfathomably to pass Ickx into Eau Rouge. “I was in front of him, and if I’d known what he was going to do, I would have given him more space, but nobody did that, so I was unable to expect it. Total surprise. He hit the guardrail head on, at maybe 160kph…

“When I think back, I feel so sorry for all the people around me – probably more talented than I was, and certainly more dedicated – who didn’t have that extra piece of luck that made you a survivor. That was the thing about that era – survival. If I meet people like Jackie Stewart or Carlos Reutemann, the first thing we say is… lucky. And it’s really not a matter of talent – it’s only luck. Look at Jimmy…

“Jimmy Clark was my hero. In 1965 I was given a watch by Ford Belgium, and it’s inscribed, ‘To Jacky Ickx’ followed by the signature of Jimmy. There is only one motor racing picture in my house, and it’s of him.”

Even as a young man, Ickx was something of an introvert, one who loved nature, enjoyed peace and calm. Today we find him, as he says, reflective of his past, but increasingly at peace with himself. Gentle, impeccably courteous, softly spoken, he has manners from another age.

“So many people have said to me, ‘Don’t you regret you were not born later? You would have made so much money, you would have been known worldwide…’ No. I was born at the right moment. As you said, I hated testing, for example – I was doing well in what I had to do, but to spend three days at Modena or Fiorano… it was hard for me.

“I have always been fairly realistic about my abilities. I was never able, like some drivers, to say, ‘I’m going to gain half a second in this afternoon’s practice session’ – I was always doubtful. OK, I was able to go fast, but I was never certain of things. Because of that, it was always full of surprises, because when it was going well, it was unbelievably nice!

“Of course racing was much more dangerous in my era than now, but it was even more so in the ’50s, and before that… I’m tempted to say that the real heroes came before. When you have driven an Auto Union, as I have, it brings you down to earth. This was a car that was outstanding in its time, but… 600 horsepower, no suspension, no brakes, no rollover bars, no helmets, no seat belts, very narrow tyres… and these people were at Spa, going down the Masta Straight, with no guardrails or run-off areas, just earth banks and trees and houses… Respect. Real respect.

“Racing was always considered a chivalrous thing. You do – and you die – for the sport. And when someone… was going, it was always accepted in a way. What has changed in life generally – and I think it’s good – is not to accept to die in a certain way any more. The progress made in safety – really since the ’80s – is wonderful, because now you can do it and you’re almost at risk zero. If we speak about racing, we speak about speed, so there will always be fatalities occasionally – but the aim is to go for risk zero.

“F1 today is a world I don’t know any more – I don’t know anybody in it, although I’m still part of the racing community in a way. I love to go to Goodwood, or to the Monaco Grand Prix or to Spa, but honestly today I hardly recognise the person I was in those days.

“I did the Paris-Dakar for maybe 12 years, and that new experience – off road, in the desert – changed my view of the world from what I call ‘monorail’. When I was a star, and I knew glory and success, that was my only concern – but there I discovered, apart from a different sport, another continent. When you are in the desert, you realise you are nobody, you don’t exist…

“We are all on the planet for such a short time, aren’t we? And my value, your value – among six billion people! – doesn’t change anything, does it? You’re in, you’re out. But every one of these six billion people has a different story. The Jacky Ickx story in motor racing… for me it’s a beautiful one, but it’s difficult for me to speak about my past life, because… it’s over.

“On the other hand, last week I met three people in the street who recognised me, and one said, ‘When I was young, you made me dream…’ You go through life thinking only about winning, but then you find that you made other people smile along the way, and that’s fantastic. That’s why I love going to Goodwood – you meet people, and they make you feel good.

“The advantage I have today is that I don’t have any ego any more – I don’t have to make any effort to be seen, to be recognised. I like that peaceful way, where I can choose who I want to meet, where I can say yes or no. I love that song from [Louis] Armstrong – What a Wonderful World. Even the way it is, still it’s wonderful…”

A good and decent man. And emphatically a singular one.

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