Reflections

By Nigel Roebuck

For Rosberg, China win could be the first of many
Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s only F1 victory, 40 years on

During his very irst Grand Prix, at Bahrain in 2006, Nico Rosberg – then just 20 – set the fastest lap of the race, and did it, what’s more, in a Williams-Cosworth. No disrespect to Frank’s team, but this was long after its golden age had ended; no disrespect, either, to Cosworth’s V8, but it was designed and built to a very different budget from those available to such as Mercedes and Ferrari. At Rosberg’s second race, in Malaysia, he qualiied third, one place up on Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari.

A fair start to his Formula 1 career, you’d have to say, and evidence of abundant nascent talent, but in the press room over time Nico has been considered something of an enigma, some always rating him extremely highly, others less convinced – even when, after four seasons with largely uncompetitive Williams, he was invited for 2010 to join the newly constituted Mercedes team, and proceeded consummately to outpace the returning Schumacher.

His detractors shrugged this off, arguing that Michael was not the driver he had been, that it was only to be expected that Nico should be quicker. As well as that, while Mercedes struggled for a couple of years, another young German – S Vettel – was winning World Championships.

If some were unconvinced that Rosberg had the right stuff, though, others were not. Once the Mercedes GP team was being put together, for example, Ross Brawn was determined that Nico should be part of it, and in Shanghai driver and team put together the performance many long believed was on the cards. Rosberg utterly dominated in China, taking pole position – from team-mate Schumacher – by a clear half-second, and Had Jenson Button not been delayed by a botched pit stop, he might well have been able to pressure Rosberg into hurting his tyres in the closing laps; as it was, Nico was untroubled, his first victory coming from what a clearly emotional Brawn called, “A stunning drive”.

That was beyond dispute. In this ‘Pirelli’ era, success or failure in a Grand Prix is dependent on how you manage your tyres, and at the irst two races, in Australia and Malaysia, the Mercedes, having promised much in qualifying, fell away on Sunday, suffering from excessive tyre degradation.

Even though Rosberg and Schumacher started one-two in China, many in the paddock expected them to fade in the race.

Most surprising of all was that, with the majority favouring a three-stop strategy, Mercedes went for only two – yet still had no problems. “We made changes to the car that helped the situation,” said Brawn, “but still Nico had to manage his tyres, and he did it perfectly…”

The criticism invariably aimed at Rosberg over the years has been that he is somehow too… cerebral in his approach. In the face of disappointments, he remained resolutely unrufled and polite, and some felt he should show more emotion, more frustration, reveal more of himself – as his father invariably did.

It is nearly 10 years ago – December 2002 – since Nico, a mere 17, first drove an F1 car, this a Williams with 3-litre V10 BMW engine, at Barcelona. For 2003 he was planning to do F3, but to that point had been competing in Formula BMW, so it was some leap from 140 horsepower to around 900, but in 38 laps he set a time seven-tenths away from Schumacher’s lap record, set in that year’s Spanish Grand Prix.

Nelson Piquet Jr was also invited to test for Williams at the same time, and it was hardly surprising that both fathers should have been present: hardly surprising, either – knowing them – that they behaved very differently. A Williams man told me at the time that while Keke kept well away from the pit, preferring to sit unobtrusively in the grandstand, Nelson Sr insisted on being present at all times, constantly demanding this, that and the other for his kid: they all decided fairly swiftly, I was told, whose approach they preferred.

In 2005, when Nico was appointed test driver for Williams, and later confirmed as a team driver for ’06, I asked Patrick Head about that first test. “Well, of course,” he said, “both Keke and Nelson had driven for Williams, so I knew both of them of old. It’s certainly true that Nelson was rather more… overt than Keke when their sons did the test with us, demanding an extra run for his kid, another new set of tyres, that sort of thing…

“My impression at the time was that both were talented – but I rather felt that Nelson Jr needed to go through a few more hard knocks before he’d actually make it in F1, whereas Nico already had a discipline. Nelson Jr gave the impression that the path to F1 was going to be on steps already laid out for him; Nico wasn’t like that, and of course that registered with us.

“Some time before that, I remember Keke once asking me for some advice. He said that although Nico was karting at that time, he was actually more interested in becoming an engineer, and wanted to come and study engineering at a university in England. I said, ‘Well, I can’t actually get him a place, but if I can give him any help, I will’. I think he went some way towards studying aerodynamics at Imperial College, and was offered a place there, but then, because his racing career progressed the Nigel Roebuck way it did, he didn’t take it up. Keke’s always very self-deprecating, as you know. He says that all Nico’s strengths – his intelligence, his calmness – come from his mother! I don’t think that’s quite the case, although maybe the calmness…”

Before joining the race team, Nico took what amounted to a Williams ‘exam’, this being a test paper – a team-developed questionnaire – aimed at determining whether or not a driver has a good understanding of his car and tyres. “It had the odd trick question in it,” Head grinned, “and also questions to tell you whether or not he’s able to take in a certain amount of information – and to make good judgements from that information. Various drivers have done the questionnaire over the years, and there’s a very big spread of results.
Nico got an exceptionally high score.”

When Nick Heidfeld left Williams to join BMW, at the end of 2005, Nico got the job as Mark Webber’s team-mate.

“We had,” said Head, “been very impressed with Nico’s speed in the car, his consistency, his intelligence, and his remarkable calmness and judgement – and all this at 20! Mind you, it wasn’t that he was inexperienced in terms of racing – by the time of his irst F1 race he’d already started in more than 500 races…”

On the face of it, the Rosbergs, père et fils, are very different in temperament, but Head says that the better he got to know Nico, the more of Keke he could see in him.

“He was very young when he joined Williams, but he quickly gained confidence in himself, and related well to other people – he’s certainly thoughtful and analytical. As you know, Keke could be quite… demonstrative and excitable, although that shouldn’t really be criticised – Juan Pablo [Montoya] was the same – because that’s part of the attraction of that sort of driver, the fact that they could drive an entire race as if it were a qualifying lap. I think that same sort of emotional level may be there in Nico, but perhaps he’s got it more under control than his old man!”

All the way through Keke has continued to play very much a background role in his son’s career, to give advice when asked, always to support him, but absolutely not to be ‘the racing father from hell’.

“I always tried at all costs to avoid that,” he says, “but sometimes it’s not easy. I remember when Nico had his irst F3 test, someone asked me how it went, and I said, ‘Well, I have to be very careful now, so that I don’t sound like every other father on this planet – but how do I describe it without sounding like that? I mean, it was brilliant!’ Then I said to the guy, ‘Did I sound like every other father?’ He said, ‘Very close...’

“All those years ago, before he had the first Williams test, he went to the factory for the seat itting, and I’m sure they were disappointed I didn’t go with him, but I just didn’t want to be sort of sitting on top of him, like some racing fathers do. I just said to him, ‘Enjoy your day. I was 32 when I was allowed in that factory for the first time – you’re 17...’ I knew it would be a very big day for him, meeting people like Frank and Patrick.

“It was the same with his irst test at Barcelona. Nico wasn’t going there to impress anyone, to set amazing times – the main thing was that it was a fantastic opportunity to smell the air in F1, to see what it was all about. If he could impress people with his approach, being such a young lad, well, so much the better, but that wasn’t the main object of the exercise. If one day he was invited to do a serious F1 test, he would have some experience of what it was all about.

“I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, but I wasn’t going to get in his way. Not that he’d have let me, anyway – when he did his first F3 test he banned me from the garage! I said to him, ‘You’re absolutely right – that’s exactly what I said to my dad when I had my first Grand Prix…’”

Grand Prix racing’s newest winner was born the day after the 1985 Detroit Grand Prix, which his father won, and I remember it well, for I was on the same flight as Keke back to
London – indeed, he was sitting near me in ‘steerage’. With all your money, I asked him once, why do you fly economy? “Listen,” he said, “what do I need on an aeroplane? I need to be able to sleep, which I do most of the time, and when I’m awake I need to be able to smoke – I can do both wherever I’m sitting, so why the hell pay a fortune for it?” Always a straight answer from Keijo.

“Whenever I hear drivers today complaining about their hectic schedules,” he said, “I always remember that time. I won the race, lew overnight back from Detroit, and went straight to Silverstone – or was it Brands? – to test.”

On the light there was a brief stopover in Montréal, and there Rosberg was somehow able to disembark, and to make his way to a freight hangar, where he persuaded them to allow him to make a call to Wiesbaden to see if there was any news of the birth. No, he said when he got back on board, nothing yet.

“Next morning I got off the ’plane, and went testing until lunchtime – some people seemed to think that was strange, but to me it was completely normal. I wasn’t one of those dads who needed to be in the delivery room, thank you – to be honest, I’d rather have been testing! I got a call that morning to say that Nico had been born, and then I flew to Germany to say hello to my son…”

They are close, the Rosbergs, but not in a cloying sense. Keke is proud of his son, but when he goes to a Grand Prix he is happy to hang out in the Mercedes motorhome, leaving Nico to get on with his job.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Ross Brawn observed in Shanghai, “to watch Nico develop, now he’s won his race…” It is indeed. For some time I have felt that Rosberg was perhaps akin to Mika Häkkinen or Jenson Button, in the sense that the first victory might be a long time coming, but that, once won, it would be the first of many. Certainly Nico has been around long enough to understand the slings and arrows of F1, and – admitted or not – it must have been frustrating, these last two or three years, to watch another young German rack up the wins and championships, to be hailed as the Second Messiah. Suddenly being without the best car appears to be something of a shock to Vettel; six years in, Rosberg has yet to experience it.

Behind Nico in China were the McLarens of Button and Lewis Hamilton, and it’s interesting now to relect on that fact that Rosberg himself could have been a McLaren driver for some years, had Williams agreed to release him in return for Mercedes engines and a considerable quantity of cash. It was frustrating for Nico that the offer was declined, of course – but it says much for the team’s opinion of its driver, does it not? Messrs Brawn and Haug evidently feel the same way now.

Last month, in writing about Gilles Villeneuve, I railed against the statisticians in our sport – those whose opinions are shaped, more than anything else, by numbers. Through the history of motor racing, it seems to me, there has been many a defeat more glorious than many a victory, but for some such things – emotion, legend – count for little, and these people tend, too, to consider the almighty World Championship as the only matter of real consequence.

Villeneuve never won one, and for some that automatically downgrades him, but, as I suggested, surely any list which omits Stirling Moss – while including many others of consummately less gift – can hardly be considered an absolute arbiter of anything.

There is also the question of race victories, and while these have always had for me a greater resonance than championships, there is in many ways little point in considering statistics from different epochs. For one thing, in today’s world of virtually bullet-proof reliability – FIA-imposed rev limits, long-life engines and gearboxes and the like – mechanical failures, such as Pastor Maldonado’s blown Renault V8 in Sepang, raise eyebrows, but that’s a relatively recent phenomenon in Formula 1: drivers from times past had to reckon on a 50/50 chance of making the finish, and often it wasn’t as high as that.

Then there is the sheer quantity of Grands Prix in this era. Time was when there were umpteen non-championship F1 races on the calendar – sometimes six or seven a year in England alone – but only a small number of what used to be known as Grandes Epreuves, events counting towards the World Championship. In 1950 there were just seven, increasing by 1958 to ten, and although – in the Ecclestone era – the non-championship races swiftly evaporated, and the number of Grands Prix ballooned, in the late ’90s Bernie told me he would ‘never, ever, put on more than 16…’ These days – give or take Bahrain – we have 20, and there are those who would like yet more.

Whatever, it’s clear that we cannot truly compare the records of drivers from different times. According to the bloodless record book, after all, Fangio won 24 Grands Prix, one more than Piquet. About even, right? Not really. Juan Manuel’s victories came from 51 starts, Nelson’s from exactly four times that number, 204.

One of Fangio’s great gifts was contriving invariably to be in the right car at the right time. In the ‘Formula 2’ era of the World Championship, 1952-53, he struggled a bit with his Maserati against the might of Ascari and Ferrari, but otherwise he always had the tools to do the job, and it goes without saying that he made the most of them, driving with matchless pace and panache when he had to – as at the Nürburgring in 1957 – but more usually holding to his dictum of ‘winning the race at the slowest possible speed’. It wasn’t only by chance that over time his cars let him down less frequently than those of his rivals.

When I interviewed Fangio in 1979 we chatted for a while about the drivers of the day, and his eyes lit up when we got on to Villeneuve. He was concerned, he said, that Gilles might be ‘too brave’, in the manner of his one-time Maserati team-mate Jean Behra, but he thought his natural ability on another level from the rest. “I just hope he lives…” he said.

From his 67 Grand Prix starts, Villeneuve won six times, and while that wouldn’t raise a blip in the F1 of today, it puts him in company with such as Jochen Rindt, John Surtees and Tony Brooks, all members of the deity as far as I’m concerned.

It is all too easy to be seduced by numbers. By virtue of the fact, for example, that he won 91 Grands Prix – 40 more than Prost, 50 more than Senna – and seven World Championships – two more even than Fangio – Michael Schumacher is genuinely reckoned by some to be the greatest driver who ever lived.

I think it unlikely that a set of circumstances such as Schumacher had going for so many years – Ferrari, Todt, Brawn, Byrne, bespoke Bridgestones, unlimited testing, bottomless budget, slave team-mate – will ever come the way of an F1 driver again. No one could reasonably dispute that Michael invariably made the best of what he had (nor, for that matter, that he was responsible for creating much of it), but – Vettel last season notwithstanding – it would astonish me ever again to see victories stacked on trays the way they were for five years, from 2000 on. Even before leaving home for the next Grand Prix, one knew who would win it.

In terms of absolute domination, that period in Ferrari’s history eclipsed even the Ascari era, for it went on so much longer, and many have been the drivers down the years – Brooks, Surtees, Villeneuve et al – who must have wished the team had been that way when they were there. Iron man he may be, but perhaps even Alonso looks occasionally at old posters in Maranello, and thinks wistful thoughts.

Arguably the man most entitled to feel that way is Chris Amon, who was pitched at the age of 23 into the Ferrari team leadership after the death of Lorenzo Bandini at Monaco in 1967. For three seasons Chris was a front runner, setting pole positions, leading races, so often having the car fail under him when victory looked assured.

Glorious as it may have sounded, Ferrari’s V12 was no match for a Cosworth DFV, and as well as that, however hard it may be to believe now, money – in that pre-Fiat era – was in short supply at Maranello, and the F1 budget was dwarfed by those of the major British teams.

“It’s a fact,” said technical director Mauro Forghieri, “that we never gave Chris a car worthy of him. For me, he was as good as Jim Clark…” A nice tribute, but it didn’t help. Just as Moss is eternally regarded as ‘the greatest driver never to win the World Championship’, so the world remembers Amon as ‘the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix’. Such is the way of it, and both long ago learned to live with the tags – Stirling, indeed, rather relishes it now: “At least it’s different, isn’t it?! I mean, if I’d won the championship once… some pretty ordinary drivers won it once, didn’t they?”

The same goes for some who won a single Grand Prix. Plainly there were those – Ireland, Alesi, Trulli – who should have had more against their names, and others – Cevert, Pace, Nilsson – who doubtless would have had, but on occasion a good journeyman, be it by good fortune or momentary inspiration, has taken the lag first, as when Richie Ginther won in Mexico in 1965, Peter Gethin at Monza in ’71, Sandro Nannini at Suzuka in ’89, or Olivier Panis at Monaco in 1996.

For me it is not inappropriate that Panis’s sole victory came where it did, for I always thought of him in much the same way I thought of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, whose only win also came in Monte Carlo. While Olivier happily allowed that his triumph owed much to luck, however, Beltoise won his Grand Prix because that day he simply drove faster than anyone else. Forty years ago this month.

Thinking back, it was an odd race, the 1972 Monaco Grand Prix, and not only because it produced a most unexpected winner. The weather, for a start, was foul, not at all what one expects; the pits were nowhere near the start/finish area; and only days before the race there looked to be a possibility that it would be called off…

Since the beginning of time the number of starters permitted at the Monaco Grand Prix, given the tight confines of the track, had been 16, but in 1971 this was increased to 18, and for ’72 the organisers put it up to 20.

Not enough, according to FOCA, the newly formed association of teams masterminded by B C Ecclestone, then the owner of the Brabham team, and a man beginning to exert some muscle in the paddock. Bernie had long before learned that a dog won’t howl if you beat him with a bone, and that philosophy translated itself readily into the language of Formula 1. After years of acting individually, of being taken for a financial ride by Grand Prix organisers, the team owners had now embarked on an adventure which would bring them – most of them, anyway – wealth beyond imagining. They found they liked it.

“God forgive me for saying it,” Frank Williams said to me once, “but FOCA was essentially a union…” For a bunch of resolute independents, this notion didn’t sit well in itself, but whatever you chose to call it, there was no denying it worked. What FOCA required was not 20 starters, but 25, and the organisers indicated that this would be acceptable – until, that is, the teams had actually arrived in town, and installed themselves in the paddock, whereupon they declared that, no, the grid would remain at 20.

Before the days of Mr E, probably there would have been a grumbling acceptance of the situation, but now the world of F1 was changing, even if the Monegasque officials had failed to spot it. Not until it was agreed that 25 cars would start, FOCA said, would their cars take to the track.

Everyone knew you didn’t treat Grand Prix organisers – let alone the Monaco Grand Prix organisers – like that, and the response from the Automobile Club was typically calm and measured: the police were sent in to impound all the F1 cars, that year housed in an underground car park. It was no surprise that the mechanics took this development ill: angry scenes ensued.

For a time it looked like deadlock, but fortunately the French delegate of the CSI (then the sporting arm of the FIA), was able to prevail upon the Monegasques to honour their original undertaking – to permit 25 starters, after all. By now we were into Thursday, and much of the opening practice session – on what was a revised circuit – had been lost.

Although major alterations to the track, including a loop around the swimming pool area, were still a year away, there were some changes in 1972 – and for that year only, as it turned out. These were introduced because there had long been concerns about a possible accident in the pits, which were situated at trackside – completely unprotected – in the start/inish area.

In response to the teams’ request, the organisers agreed to a resiting of the pits, but a month before the race – quelle surprise – said it wouldn’t be possible. Fine, said the teams: it doesn’t matter, anyway – because we’re not coming. And lo, it became possible to move the pits, after all. The blazers, though, were distinctly unsettled by these exhibitions of insubordination: one way and another, the atmosphere was frosty that year.

The pits, it transpired, had been repositioned on the harbourside, on what had previously been part of the circuit – the stretch between the exit of the chicane and the left-handed Tabac. The revised track now went straight on down what had been the chicane escape road, then through another chicane much further down, immediately before Tabac. Rejoining from the pits was mighty hazardous, for you emerged into the middle of this new chicane: Vic Elford, fortunately, was selected as the man to decide if it were safe for you to do so.

Back in the day the times from every practice session were ‘oficial’, and counted for the grid. Back in the day, too, there was a session in Monte Carlo early on Friday morning. Very early – in fact, I remember in 1969, before I was working in F1, going straight to it after a long and sociable evening in Nice. As John Wyer once said of Mike Hailwood, “Amazingly, he was at the track before we were – one wasn’t sure if he was up very early or up very late…” This pre-breakfast session in 1972 was to settle the grid, for it alone was run in the dry. Fittipaldi’s Lotus 72 set the best time, and therefore took pole position, followed by the Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni, the BRMs of Beltoise and Gethin, and the Matra of Amon.

Chris was feeling decidedly below par that weekend, still on antibiotics after minor surgery, and not at his best, either, was Stewart, only eighth fastest in his Tyrrell. As one who traditionally excelled at Monaco, Jackie admitted that he felt short of energy, and simply wasn’t on his game. A few days later he was found to have a bleeding duodenal ulcer, which obliged him to miss the next GP, at Nivelles.

There was heavy rain on the Saturday and no one could touch Ickx, who marked himself down as race favourite for Sunday’s forecast was for more of the same. From Beltoise, four seconds slower, there was little indication of what was to come.

The weather on race day was dreadful – worse even than in the red-lagged Grand Prix of 1984, for as well as lashing rain all day there was also a raw wind blowing hard in from the sea. In today’s world starting a race in such conditions would be out of the question.

So as to allow the Royal Family time to take a leisurely Sunday lunch, traditionally the Grand Prix did not get underway until 3.30, and this time there was a piece of impromptu comedy which might have had decidedly unfunny consequences.

Given the appalling conditions, it was decided to allow the drivers an additional ‘acclimatisation’ session. A sensible plan, and it would have been better yet if someone had thought to inform the palace, for when the Rainiers arrived for their lap of honour, their car took to the circuit at Portiers and found itself jostling for position with… a gaggle of F1 cars. Accident was mercifully averted; embarrassment was not. The start was also theatrical, for as the drivers arrived from the dummy grid (on the harbourfront, where the pits now were) to the grid proper (in its traditional location), they were shown a ‘10 second’ board – whereupon the flag was immediately dropped, and the race was on.

None of your ‘safety car’ starts in 1972, of course: it was a lat-out blast to Ste Devote, and while Beltoise and Regazzoni may have been on the second row, they made a better job of it than front row starters Fittipaldi and Ickx. As they splashed their way up the hill to Casino Square Beltoise, hell-bent on leading – and thus being the only man who could see – was where he wished to be.

We thought it only a matter of time before others, notably Ickx, reeled in the BRM, but J-PB was on a mission. Three laps in he had pulled out ive seconds on Regazzoni, who temporarily held up Fittipaldi and Ickx before taking to the escape road at the chicane on lap ive. Emerson, who could see little but Clay’s red rear light, followed him in there…

Now Ickx was in an uncluttered second place, and all expected to see the Ferrari swiftly close on Beltoise. As it was, though, the gap barely changed, and most astonishing of all was that as and when they went through lapped trafic – which was often – the BRM actually increased its advantage. Jean-Pierre, not normally the most assertive of drivers, was this day unassailable.

It was as if he had concluded that this would probably be his one shot at winning a Grand Prix, and no one was going to take it from him.

I confess, though, that as I stood there near the old Gasworks Hairpin, frozen to the bone, struggling to keep some kind of soggy lap chart, still I favoured Ickx eventually to overhaul Beltoise. It was going to be a very long afternoon, that much was clear, for there was no question of halting the race early – which Jacky, as Race Director, would himself do a dozen years later – and nor was there yet the ‘two hour’ rule, when a race is declared over.

The Monaco Grand Prix was scheduled for 80 laps, and 80 laps it would be. When they were inally up – after two hours and 27 minutes – 18 of the 25 starters were still mobile, which was remarkable. Indeed, given the unforgiving nature of the circuit and the daunting weather, it was barely credible that there were only six accidents, one of which involved Regazzoni on lap 52.

After stepping from his damaged Ferrari, Clay thought to make his way back to the pits, and took it ill when some gendarmes sought to prevent him from doing so: after taking a swing at one of them he was instantly arrested!

One thought of Peter Ustinov’s Grand Prix of Gibraltar, wherein the same fate befell World Champion Jose Julio Fandango, after going down an escape road and inadvertently crossing the Spanish frontier. “Of course,” the commentator noted, “he didn’t have his passport with him – they like to travel as light as possible…”

So completely did Beltoise hold sway that Ickx, 38 seconds behind at the lag, was the only driver not lapped by the BRM, which averaged just 63.85mph in the atrocious conditions. Fittipaldi made it through in third place, followed by the subdued Stewart (two laps behind), the McLaren of perennially underrated Brian Redman (subbing for Peter Revson, who was at Indianapolis), and Amon, sixth in spite of coming in four times – no planned pitstops in those days, remember – to have a misting visor cleaned.

Undoubtedly the treacherous track surface worked in Beltoise’s favour that day, for an accident at Reims in 1963 had left him with a permanently weakened left arm, and in a dry race he would often tire towards the end. Power steering was unknown in F1 in those days, although Matra, Jean-Pierre’s previous team, had already experimented unsuccessfully with a system in an attempt to alleviate his problem.

At Monaco, though, with far less grip available, and correspondingly less steering effort required, Beltoise had no such problems. There were those who murmured that he had been fortunate to have behind him a V12, with smoother power delivery than a Cosworth V8, but that argument can be swept aside by the fact that Ickx – perhaps as good in the wet as the sport has known – also had a ‘twelve’ to work with, and could make no impression on Beltoise.

It was dank and frigid in Monaco that day, and it was also Jean-Pierre’s day in the sun. Neither he nor BRM were to win another Grand Prix.

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