Nigel Roebuck

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REFLECTIONS
– Amid the excitement, DRS is a gimmick too far
– It’s time the Formula 1 got rid of the ‘one move’ rule
– A joke or several courtesy of Frank Gardner

You could hardly fault the Chinese Grand P • in terms of action — and this on a track rdly renowned for it. At different points five drivers led the race, and all afternoon there was more overtaking than any longtime Formula 1 observer could take in. Lewis Hamilton, at his combative best, won for the first time in eight months, and McLaren, after looking down and out in pre-season testing, have every cause to feel gratified by the way the MP4-26 has been turned around.

Perhaps what said most, though, about the revised 2011-style F1 was what Mark Webber was able to do with his afternoon in Shanghai. If Adrian Newey has again designed the quickest car this year, the Red Bull RB7 has been compromised to some degree by KERS problems — problems that did not occur in 2010, of course, when the teams voluntarily opted not to run the hybrid system so beloved by the FIA.

This year, though, it’s back, and while such as the Mercedes-powered teams and Ferrari appear to have it working satisfactorily, such is not the case with Red Bull. In Australia the team did not so much as run it, and such was the car’s inherent superiority that still Sebastian Vettel was able to win as he liked.

Melbourne, though, is unusual in lacking any straight of real consequence, and at Sepang there was no alternative but to run KERS and hope for the best. Webber’s system was inoperative throughout the race, while Vettel was advised by his team to run without it from half-distance on — not that it mattered, for by then he had a handy lead.

In China, too, KERS had a part to play — and once again neither Red Bull driver had the use of it for the entire race. That being so, Webber’s race performance was the more startling, for he had been eliminated — together with Kovalainen, Trulli, D’Ambrosio, Glock, Liuzzi and Karthikeyan — in Q1.

How? Because the team, thinking in terms of saving soft tyres as much as possible, surmised that — even without KERS — Webber in a Red Bull would readily progress to Q2 on the harder Pirellis. Wrong.

That being so, Mark started from 18th on the grid — and again on hard tyres. Only two laps in he was already 12 seconds behind the leader, and after nine that had grown to 26. Next time round he made his first stop, and four laps later set a new fastest lap, but at that stage none could have foreseen a place on the podium for him.

Or perhaps, given the new way of things in F1, they could. In the closing laps Webber was quantifiably the fastest man out there, and readily picked off both Ferraris, both Mercedes and Jenson Button’s McLaren en route to joining Hamilton and Vettel on the podium. At the finish line, indeed, he was only a couple of seconds adrift of his team-mate, having started 17 places behind him.

Fundamentally the Chinese Grand Prix was all about tyres, and we’d better get used to that. This is by no means the first time in Formula 1 history that the tyres in use have been less good — in terms of simple grip — than they might have been. Back in the late ’70s, when Goodyear had a monopoly and saw no point in expensive development when there was no competition, I remember Mario Andretti talking about ‘wooden tyres’. Latterly, during the time of the Bridgestone monopoly, two compounds were required for use during a race, and while the Japanese company complied with the FIA regulation, there was limited enthusiasm for producing a soft compound intended to have a very short lifespan.

“It was one thing, in the old days,” a Bridgestone man said, “for tyre companies to produce pure qualifying tyres — for one balls-out lap — because they were built for a specific purpose, and everyone knew it. To produce a race tyre with a very limited life, though… that’s different. If you watch a race — and don’t know the rules — you might conclude that Bridgestone tyres don’t last very long.”

Perhaps this, together with having nobody to beat, was a factor in Bridgestone’s decision to quit at the end of last year. Some time ago the FIA decreed there should be only one tyre supplier in F1, and although several companies — including the much-wronged Michelin — expressed interest in replacing Bridgestone, in the end Pirelli got the nod.

I’m guessing here, but I wonder if — financial considerations apart — Pirelli was more amenable than some to the way F1’s powers-that-be wished the sport to go.

In Montreal last June unexpectedly high tyre degradation created the most exciting and unpredictable (dry) Grand Prix of the season, and although it was because of circumstance and therefore real, it seems to have sparked a line of thought somewhere. If that’s what it takes, why can’t we deliberately recreate it every fortnight?

Thus, in 2011 we have tyres designed and built with exactly that in mind — tyres of limited life, tyres which ‘go off’ abruptly, so that the timing of pitstops is more crucial than ever to the outcome of a race.

In terms of the Grand Prix we saw in China, you would have to say that Pirelli has complied magnificently with the brief it was given: one of the prerequisites for a memorable Grand Prix — as we saw in 2005, when tyre changes were forbidden and one set had to last 200 miles — is to have different cars quick at different points during the race, and that was emphatically the case in Shanghai, as Webber and others demonstrated.

All that said, I’ll confess that it astounds me that a company has been persuaded to build an artificially inefficient tyre. If I were merely quite interested in motor racing, and — without knowing the background — casually watched a 2011 Grand Prix, I’m not sure that my conclusion, when next buying tyres, would be that Pirelli P-Zeros (as they’re also known in racing) were the thing to have. As it happens, my road car has Pirelli P-Zeros, and I think they’re fantastic, but you get my point.

After his drive to third at Shanghai Webber was elated, for he had gone into the race hoping to scrape into the top six. At the same time, though, I thought his comment on the race significant: “Making progress in the early laps wasn’t easy, because everyone was using their DRS [Drag Reduction System] at the same time. I’m still not a huge fan of how it is now — sometimes the overtaking moves aren’t that genuine, because a guy’ll have nothing left to fight back with. Seems to me it’s more tactical now, and a bit less racing…”

Webber made up a mountain of time on team-mate Vettel in the late laps because he made three tyre stops (and was on soft Pirellis at the end when virtually everyone else was on hard), whereas Sebastian stopped only twice, and was required to do a long final stint (23 laps) on the hard compound. In the closing laps he could plainly do nothing to fend off Hamilton, whose tyres were seven laps younger — that’s how crucial tyre wear is in 2011.

“When people have got newer tyres,” Button commented, “you’re a sitting duck.”

Jenson is right, of course, but it can be argued that all drivers have the same allocation of tyres for a Grand Prix weekend, and it’s up to them, and their teams, to decide how best to make use of them. It may be a contrivance to have certain wear qualities designed into tyres, but everyone is operating to the same rule.

Such is not, however, the case with DRS. ‘Unless you’re the lead dog,’ read a bumper sticker I saw in Daytona, ‘the view never changes’, but in 2011 F1 to be the lead dog — or at the head of any queue down the order — is a reasonable guarantee that the view will change, and swiftly, for the dog behind is not operating to the same rules. So long, that is, as it’s a second or less behind, and at a prescribed portion of the track. I could readily understand — and sympathise with — Niki Lauda’s contemptuous remark about the FIA now deciding where and when a driver could overtake…

On the heels of the Malaysian Grand Prix, I wrote my monthly newsletter for the website, questioning the latest path down which Fl has chosen to take itself. The F1 bosses appear to regard all the changes favourably, but, judging from your comments, you — the fans — don’t necessarily feel the same. In reference to the effects of DRS, Charles Darley said that, “The predictable, undefendable overtaking is as bad as the lack of overtaking was…”

DRS puts me in mind of the notorious drag-inducing Hanford Wing, introduced by CART to increase overtaking — as if that were necessary! — on superspeedways. Without a doubt it worked, so much so that passing became commonplace to a point that one ceased to take any notice — a little like the numbingly dreary constant scoring in basketball.

If I dislike DRS, it is because its adoption means that not all cars are operating to the same rules at all times, and that surely should be fundamental in ‘Grand Prix racing’. As things stand, as soon as you have a car within a second of you (on a piece of straight determined by the FIA), you are at a huge disadvantage, for the guy behind can press one of the 97 buttons on his steering wheel, open his rear wing, lose a lot of drag — and motor on by.

You, meantime, can do little to defend yourself (apart from chop across his bows, which we’ll come to later on), and a situation could arise in which a Grand Prix takes on the hue of an old-fashioned NASCAR race, where the very last place you want to be — going into the last lap — is narrowly in the lead.

In Melbourne Fernando Alonso used the word ‘gimmicks’ to describe the 2011 innovations; discussing the state of F1 in our recent podcast, Allan McNish spoke of ‘trying to fabricate racing’…

For countless years there has been debate about the lack of overtaking, and how the problem could best be addressed. I am no scientist, no engineer, but the evidence is that the powers-that-be are reluctant, for whatever reason, radically to change the aerodynamic rules.

What does DRS do, after all, except synthetically create a situation that could be real if a car were able closely to follow another through a fast corner, and come on to a long straight right behind it? What kind of innovation is this that penalises a driver for being in front?

It’s a matter of statistical record that the overtaking problem worsened over the years, and I applaud the fact that finally the interests of the fans — who, one way and another, pay the bills — have been acknowledged, both by the F1 teams and the governing body. I have to say, though, that a device like DRS strikes me as an artifice working around a problem, rather than confronting it.

As I mentioned in the newsletter, when I asked Patrick Head some years ago how the quality of racing in F1 might be improved, his immediate response was to ban wings, although he knew that to be out of the question. I was quite taken aback, but Patrick went on seriously to talk about the challenge for an engineer of working around it, of getting back as much of the lost grip as possible.

I don’t — in a hundred years — envisage such a thing coming to be. Formula Ford apart, a single-seater has wings, and there’s an end to it. But — hardly an original thought — aerodynamics has long played an over-dominant role in F1, and undeniably that has been detrimental not only to the quality of the racing, but also the spectacle.

Of the Chinese Grand Prix it can hardly be said that lack of overtaking was a problem — indeed it was difficult sometimes to keep track of the order changes, and it would be churlish to complain that it was too much of a good thing. I do, though, think it no bad idea to keep the Hanford Wing syndrome at the back of our minds: I personally have never wished to see overtaking made easy, and on the evidence thus far it seems to me the new tyres alone do quite enough to shake up the course of a Grand Prix.

I’ve never been a fan of KERS in motor racing, never seen the point in spending tens of millions on new 2.4-litre V8s, rather than sticking with rev-restricted 3-litre V10s, and then spending tens of millions more on getting back — for six seconds a lap — 80 of the lost 200 horsepower. Still, I’m sure it went down well with the EU.

KERS is one thing, though. It may be a ‘green’ push-to-pass button, but at least all may have it, and use it in defence as well as attack. DRS is a different matter as far as I’m concerned — and, apart from anything else, in this safety-obsessed age it surprises me that the drivers apparently have such confidence in it. ‘Suppose it doesn’t close again as you go into the corner,’ some murmured at first, but if that hasn’t happened, in Shanghai Alonso’s DRS (having refused to operate in Sepang) opened of its own accord — and not in the prescribed area of the track. Fernando will rejoice it wasn’t at Eau Rouge or 130R.

Idly flitting around YouTube recently, I happened upon the footage of Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux in the closing laps of the 1979 French Grand Prix at Dijon. It was a fight which has gone into motor racing legend, and if you have seen it you won’t need me to tell you why.

Somewhat unfairly, Jean-Pierre Jabouille’s victory for Renault that day — the first for a turbocharged car, and before a home crowd — was rather overlooked, even as it happened. For everyone’s focus was a few seconds down the road, on the other Renault driven by Arnoux, as it tried to separate Villeneuve’s normally-aspirated Ferrari from second place.

Gilles had led most of the race, and his Michelins were shot. Tyre changes were not the norm in that era, but team-mate Jody Scheckter — who had not been near Villeneuve’s pace — had taken new ones soon after half-distance.

Looking at it again now, these 30-odd years on, the intensity of the moment comes alive once more, and two things strike you: first, there was late braking — and then there was Villeneuve’s late braking; second, as the pair of them blasted down the long pit straight, whichever driver was in front never deviated from his line. Therefore the two cars went down the straight as one — and mighty exciting it was when they got to the braking area for turn one…

Time was when that was the way things were done in Formula 1, and always — Giuseppe Farina and one or two others apart — had been done. To swerve in front of an overtaking car had always been considered, as Stirling Moss puts it, ‘dirty driving’, and not to be countenanced.

I remember talking to Dan Gurney about the last lap of the 1961 French Grand Prix, in which his Porsche was narrowly beaten by the Ferrari of rookie Giancarlo Baghetti. Gurney led out of Thillois, the last corner, and on to the long straight down to the finish line, but although he was only too aware of Baghetti’s power advantage he stayed resolutely on his line. Did you, I murmured, perhaps contemplate moving over on the Ferrari?

Gurney laughed. “Oh yeah, kind of! Up ahead was the guy with the flag, and here was the chance of my first Grand Prix victory! But not seriously, no — we just didn’t do those things back then.”

If ethics came into it, so, it should be said, did self-preservation, and a conversation with Phil Hill comes vividly back to me. “It was unthinkable, really, to touch another car, because of the potential consequences — it might sound corny, but those were the facts. Take an accident like [Herbert] Mackay Fraser’s at Reims in 1957 — I remember going to the hospital to see how he was, and having a hard time understanding all these French words for ‘dead’…

“They drive the way they do today because they can get away with it — that’s the only possible explanation. If guys drove like that in my time, they usually… accounted for themselves pretty quickly.

“There was another thing, too,” Hill continued. “To chop somebody seemed like a foul — what else can you call it? Now it’s, `Do you want to back off — or d’you want to go off?’ In my time there was one guy, with a reputation for… imprudence, and he used that as a weapon to scare other drivers out of the way. I thought that was evil. Can you imagine Fangio doing something like that? Maybe not everyone was a knight on a white horse, but something like that was unacceptable…”

Ah, but that was then. Once Ayrton Senna had swerved at the overtaking Alain Prost at Estoril in 1988, almost putting him into the pitwall, the world began to change. At the time we were all stunned, for we had seen nothing like it before, but Senna escaped sanction from the stewards and that was to have far-reaching effects.

For all I admired Ayrton, I said to Damon Hill once that I believed his approach had been responsible for a fundamental shift in the ethics of the sport.

“I agree,” said Hill, “and in motor racing in general — not just in F1. The moment with Alain in Portugal was extreme, but even before then… I was doing Formula Ford in 1985, and you could , see that people were trying to be Ayrton Senna. They were using terrorist tactics on the track. The views I had when I came into the sport had been gleaned from being around my dad, and people like him — and I soon had to abandon them.

“Why? Because you realised that nothing was going to be done when a guy rammed you off the track — it would go to the stewards and they’d say, ‘Oh well, that’s motor racing…’ So you’d say to yourself, ‘Well, if that’s the way people see motor racing these days, then I have to adopt the same sort of tactics’. I’m absolutely not in favour of that sort of driving behaviour, but if someone gives it out, I’ll give it back — you’ve got to…”

As Damon and others knew to their cost, none picked up the Senna ball and ran with it more ruthlessly than Michael Schumacher — indeed, it seems almost comical now to recall that, after the 1992 Brazilian GP, Michael expressed outrage at Senna’s antics: “I don’t know what his game was, but it wasn’t a nice one. For a three-time World Champion, it is not necessary to do something like this…”

It’s true. He said it. And then, for the remainder of his career, he acted upon it, as even his brother can attest.

Just as the powers-that-be should have stamped on Senna’s behaviour, and later on Schumacher’s, so they chose to look the other way. Everyone recalls Mika Hakkinen’s amazing pass of Michael into Les Combes at Spa in 2000; perhaps less remembered is that the lap before, in the same place, Schumacher moved over on Hakkinen, and at nigh on 200mph the cars touched. Mika’s marked front wing endplate adorns Martin Whitmarsh’s office to this day.

Had Hakkinen not backed off it would have been a plane crash, and it was in cold fury that he stalked Schumacher up the hill next time around: when Michael chose to go left of a backmarker Mika went right, and nailed him in a perfectly judged move. In parc ferme, using words of one syllable, he advised Michael never to try anything like that with him again. Assuredly Michael was listening.

That could have been the perfect moment for the FIA to step in, to condemn potentially homicidal driving once and for all, but the opportunity was again passed up. Indeed for many years now we have had a situation in F1 where ‘one move’ to protect your position is tacitly accepted as kosher, and if there has been an overwhelming absurdity in modern motor racing — well, beyond Max Mosley’s FIA sale of the F1 commercial rights to Bernie Ecclestone for a hundred years, anyway — it is surely this. And leaving aside all the morals, ethics, whatever you want to call them, the effect of ‘one move’ on racing has been disastrous.

How many thousand hours, how many million dollars, have been spent over time in an effort to increase overtaking in a sport dominated by aerodynamics? In 2011 we have seen the introduction of DRS to help drivers overtake — yet still we allow the car in front to chop across the bows of the one trying to pass! Am I missing something here?

Watch the movie of Villeneuve and Arnoux, as desperate a fight as ever you will see on a race track, and then note that they saluted each other immediately after taking the flag, embraced on the podium.

By the by, I remember watching the ceremony with a beaming Denis Jenkinson: “Got a little racer on our hands, haven’t we?” he said.

To this day Arnoux — although beaten by Villeneuve — looks upon that race as the best of his life. Hard as it may have been, it was also fair: pass me on the straight if you can —I’ll get you back into the next corner…

Years ago, in the 1970s, there was in Formula 1 a driver named Mike Beuttler who wasn’t very quick but was renowned for being very difficult to pass, even lap. I mention this only because, so unusual was his behaviour at that time, he was singled out for opprobrium and awarded the nickname ‘Blocker’.

There have been countless occasions when a driver wrongly escaped sanction for chopping across in front of another, yet after the coming-together between Hamilton and Alonso in Malaysia — which most saw as a ‘motor racing accident’ — both drivers were subsequently punished by the stewards, albeit for different reasons.

Just as we had all those years with Senna and then Schumacher, when you wouldn’t have known there were any stewards, now, unfortunately, we seem to have gone to the other end of the scale, with every little incident scrutinised and invariably punished.

Nor is there any consistency, race to race. I applauded Jean Todt’s decision to revamp the system at Grands Prix, to bring in an ex-driver to offer his expertise in the stewards’ decision-making, but perhaps it won’t be until we have the same panel of stewards at every race that a consistent pattern will begin to emerge.

The quest to make F1 more exciting has exercised many a mind for many a year, and the innovations this season — some good, some not — have undoubtedly had an effect. But it seems to me that there are other avenues, too, to explore, which would keep racing real and would not entail, in a time of economic darkness, spending hideous amounts of money.

For a start, we can do something about the circuits, as Jackie Stewart suggested in Motor Sport three months ago, and it’s encouraging that Todt seems keenly aware of this, declaring no-overtaking zones like Abu Dhabi unacceptable. Work is underway there to improve the situation, and similar modifications should be made at such as Valencia and Barcelona. As JYS says, it cannot be right that a driver can make a mistake, go off the road — and regain it without so much as losing a position.

And… we can jettison the absurdity of allowing ‘one move’ to keep a following car from trying to overtake. To me, it’s akin to permitting a boxer ‘one low punch’ every time he is threatened, and should never have been allowed to creep into the dictionary of F1 in the first place. Somehow — thus far — it has not been responsible for a major accident, but that will surely come, and when it does there will be a lot of handwringing, a lot of wondering what the hell we had all been thinking of, allowing this idiotic practice in the first place.

As well as that, ridding the sport of it would further improve the racing. If you doubt me, watch Gilles and Rene.

In the end, they say, life is about simple pleasures. You can agree or not, as you wish, but undeniably simple pleasures have their place. Through my life in racing journalism I have interviewed countless folk in the sport, some erudite, some self-obsessed, some fascinating, some soporific, some modest (and some emphatically not), and on and on. Life is life, and you get all types in racing, as in any activity.

Worst of all, perhaps, have been those who thought themselves funny and were not: nothing is more wearisome than having to pretend to laugh.

I have been mighty lucky, though, for in motor racing I have known many with a great gift for humour — particularly the dry and laconic kind which has ever been to my taste.

Take Phil Hill, for example, one of those you will miss for ever. No one ever had Enzo Ferrari’s number like Phil: “It always seemed to me that La Scala lost a great star when Ferrari chose to go into cars…”

Or Mario Andretti, speaking of Amon’s luck: “If Chris went into undertaking, people would stop dying…”

Or Rob Walker, on visiting Caesars Palace for the first Grand Prix in Las Vegas: “They’re terribly thoughtful here — d’you know, they put a mirror on the ceiling in the rooms? I suppose that’s so you can shave in bed…”

Unopposed, though, at the top of my list — and, I would guess, at the top for anyone who ever met him — was Frank Gardner. I talked to him many times, going back to 1973, and it was always something to savour, for Frank was the personification of ‘good bloke’, a compassionate man without being soft, witty without being overly cruel; just as Francois Cevert or Elio de Angelis might have been concert pianists, so Gardner could have made a very good living as a stand-up.

Although he dabbled with Formula 1, and was certainly good enough, it was never an absolute priority. “The question of doing F1 with Jack [Brabham] came up several times,” he told me, “but he was offering £6000, whereas Ford were offering £15,000 for sports cars, saloons” — he never called them ‘touring cars’ — “and so on. It’s a case of doing a job in a sphere, isn’t it? In the end, it’s all racing, it’s all competitive. I’d never want to run in midfield in any class, including F1. Why would you want to do that? Just to be able to say, ‘I’m an F1 driver’? Never made any sense to me. I’d far sooner have a competitive saloon or sports car drive than a midfield F1 drive…”

I must say Gardner’s words echoed in my mind when I heard that Tonio Liuzzi had signed a contract with Hispania.

In my archive of interviews there sit several tapes recorded with Frank over time, and I’ve found that if I need to dig one out, to find a quote appropriate for a piece I’m writing, that’s the morning gone. Start listening, and you’re lost.

In September 1999, 10 years before Gardner’s death, the Historic Sports & Racing Car Association of New South Wales put on a tribute race meeting in his honour, and at the dinner he was inevitably invited to speak. Very fortunately for all of us, one of the members — Marc Schagen — had the forethought to take his movie camera along, and thus the whole of Frank’s address is available on DVD. It seems a good idea to give you a flavour of the evening.

The longer you’re in this business, the more you come to see that in one particular respect racing drivers are no different from other people: they have their ‘good stories’ — or most of them, anyway — and over time these take on a certain familiarity. In the case of someone like Brian Redman or — overwhelmingly — Gardner, though, this matters not, for they invariably find a way of telling the tale a little differently each time. It’s a fact that I’d heard most of Frank’s ‘classics’ before — the early Porsche 917, the birth of the Niirburgring, and so on — but there were plenty related that evening in Sydney that were new to me.

Time was when motor racing abounded in black humour — as in the medical profession, drivers have told me that it was a defence mechanism, a means of coping with what was going on around them all the time, and Gardner was part of that generation.

“Of course,” he began, “I was there in the early days, when you had glass in your goggles and metal frames — so if the glass didn’t get in your eyes the frame went through your brain…

“You had a fuel tank on either side of you, the pick-up tank above the family jewels, and the final delivery tank under your bum, so… if you hit a fence at high speed you attended your own barbecue. Then, of course, if you went off you ran into straw bales, and there’s nothing like having a fire for a couple of days…

“The overalls in those days… they were blue and they had Dunlop on them, and nobody gave a bugger whether they caught alight or not. And if they did catch alight, the chances were that in (country deleted here), if you weren’t dead when you arrived at the hospital, you certainly were when they started work on you…

“Then there were the helmets — they were a brilliant design. They had leather coming down the sides, with little holes so that you could hear your engine. And you talk to Jack Brabham these days, and you say, ‘Jack, who’s on pole position at Monaco?’, and he says it’s half-past two. So his hearing’s not impaired at all…”

“In the days of the Tasman Series, we used to go to places like the Lady Wigram airfield in New Zealand — I always remember Piers Courage asking me what happened to Lord Wigram. Come race weekend, they would have the latrines in there, and the grandstands were all made of scaffolding, and of course there were the straw bales — and if you missed the straw bales you could go straight into a hangar where the petrol cans were kept…

“At Wigram they supplied beautiful porcelain trays, so that if you dumped an engine, you could pour the oil in there. I remember blowing a 2.5-litre Climax — which wasn’t too unusual — and we had a mechanic working with us called ‘Mumbles’, because he didn’t say anything. Mumbles took the porcelain tray, filled with oil, to the toilet, poured it down there, and then — it was a hot day, and he must have been thinking of something else — threw a match on it. There was a reasonable whoomph, but nothing too spectacular. The only end product was that an 18-stone man came out — which wasn’t too serious in itself, except that he still had his trousers round his ankles. I think he thought it was something he ate…” In the course of Gardner’s reminiscences, he pays generous tribute to such as Brabham: “You can’t speak highly enough of Jack — the tenacity of that man was incredible”, and Clark: “Jimmy never realised how good he was. You could have a better car — and he’d just out-drive you, and you’d look at the sky and think, ‘Christ, I hope it doesn’t come on to rain’, because if it did the bloke would just make you look second-hand. He was the best in the world, and he thought, ‘Doesn’t everybody do this?’ [Colin] Chapman knew he needed Jimmy — Jimmy could have gone anywhere without Chapman…”

One of the names synonymous with Gardner down the years was Alan Mann, for whose team he drove a variety of Fords. “Alan was like a Frank Williams ahead of his time. In the Ford days at Le Mans — you know, that unbiased, unprejudiced race, run by the French — he ran one of the cars, but for some reason I was seconded to drive the Holman-Moody car there, with John Whitmore — and that’s still the quickest car down the Mulsanne Straight. We were timed at 259.4mph, and you didn’t shift your chewing gum too far, I can tell you, because there was light rain and a little bit of fog about… We didn’t have the downforce in those days, of course.”

More than 30 years on, Gardner kept in touch with Mann. “I was over in Florida earlier this year, staying with him — he has a little estate down there. It was a bugger of a place to stay, because it had three golf courses and only one airport for jet aircraft. It’s terrible to think these lads have fallen on such hard times, but he didn’t seem to want a donation…”

Over the years there have been plenty of motor racing books about plenty of colourless individuals, and it beggars belief that Gardner’s memoirs never appeared in this form. Thankfully, though, this DVD exists, and if I thought I knew a lot about the man, I didn’t appreciate until watching it quite how extraordinarily varied his life had been.

I had been aware, for example, that Frank, like several other drivers, was involved in the filming of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans, but I never knew that he had done stunt work for McQueen on other movies — that, for example, he claimed to have been the man to jump the motorbike over the barbed wire fence in The Great Escape, and to spin the Mustang into the service station at the end of the celebrated car chase in Bullitt…

Last month I raved about a new book on the history of the Cuban Grand Prix, and this time around I’m doing the same in respect of a DVD about a wonderful man. It is not ordinarily my habit to endorse a product in this column, but occasionally something exceptional comes along. The 90-minute DVD is available from Marc Schagen at PO Box 382, Berowra, New South Wales 2081, Australia, and trust me, in 2011 you won’t spend 20 bucks better. If only Frank had written that book…