Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Rosberg’s dilemma, Alberto Ascari, shifting attitudes

You will not, God knows, need to be reminded that the General Election is almost upon us, and personally I cannot wait for the thing to be done, so weary am I of listening to humourless politicians and their empty promises of milk and honey should they get the nod on May 7.

Formula 1 will be in Barcelona on election day, and in the paddock the following morning there will doubtless be some debate of the result and its consequences for all – save Monégasque residents immune to such trifles, of course.

It won’t be long, though, before the wider world is put aside, and F1 turns in on itself once more. Bernie Ecclestone, for example, will perhaps continue to wind us all up with his suggestion that Baku – that’s in Azerbaijan – will be a fine replacement for Monza, all the while wondering why the hardcore F1 fan base is not what it was.

For the locals, the Barcelona weekend will be what is these days known as ‘challenging’, for while their hero – whose last victory came here two years ago – should be more competitive than in the races to date, he is assuredly not going to trouble the front-runners. Indeed, with Ferrari in the ascendancy, and McLaren-Honda struggling, it has recently been very much open season on Fernando Alonso, who could have been driving the one and is instead driving the other.

In Sepang Lewis Hamilton said he was glad to see Alonso back ‘because you always want to compete against the best of the best’, but of course Fernando was in no position to compete with anyone very much, let alone a Mercedes driver. Sundry folk came forth with their thoughts on the matter, some simply to gloat over his predicament, others to suggest that the Ferrari resurgence has much to do with his departure and Sebastian Vettel’s arrival. I’d have thought there was a case to be made for James Allison and another hundred horsepower or so, but there you go.

Alonso is one of those drivers – like such as Senna and Mansell before him – who tends to polarise opinion, and in recent weeks not a few have been unable to pass up the opportunity to stick the boot in. Given its sources, most of the sniping has been inconsequential, but I’ll admit I was surprised to see remarks critical of Fernando from Niki Lauda. He it was, after all, who in Montréal last year murmured to me, “Thank God Alonso is not in a Williams…”

According to Lauda, Alonso was ‘selfish’ in his years with Ferrari, and the team is now benefiting from Vettel’s more relaxed approach to the job. It is of course not difficult to be like that when you’re in a honeymoon period with a new team – Fernando himself was very much that way five years ago – and easier still when your car is right on the pace, but Red Bull people will tell you that Seb’s behaviour, too, can deteriorate somewhat if things go awry.

The fact is that, to a greater or lesser degree, Grand Prix drivers are all like that. Perhaps, who knows, Lauda’s remarks about Alonso were fuelled by the fact that he was being interviewed by an Italian newspaper, for they were negated only two or three days later – and by himself! In the aftermath of the Chinese Grand Prix, commenting on Rosberg’s complaints about Hamilton’s tactics, Niki came out with this: “Sure Lewis will drive selfish. These guys are egocentric bastards, and this is the only way to win a championship. It’s the oldest thing…”

On the face of it, Lauda appeared to be saying it was fine for some drivers to be selfish, not so for others, but in fact the question is anyway academic, “You have to remember,” Frank Williams once said, “that great drivers are all ruthless bastards! They might come across as nice guys, and quite often they are – until the other nice guy beats them…

“Back in the days when we had Jones and Regazzoni, there were no problems because Alan was the quicker of the two, and Clay – about the most unpolitical driver we ever had at Williams – knew it. But then we replaced him with Reutemann – a move that did not go down well with Jones! – and all the aggro started. Two bulls in one field, you see. Never underestimate the power of ego…”

The ‘two bulls’ scenario has only worsened, it seems to me, as Grand Prix racing has become more complicated. No one needs to be reminded of the conflict between Prost and Senna, but in their time F1 was still relatively simple. Yes, they had to do all manner of things long since taken over by software, but the cars themselves were comparatively straightforward, and there were far fewer silly little rules of which one could fall foul. Fundamentally it was still the same as it had always been: there’s the car, there’s the track, get on with it.

Now all manner of new ‘ishoos’ have been introduced, some by virtue of technology, some at the hand of ‘health and safety’, others yet by often misplaced attempts to enliven ‘The Show’. It used to be the case, for example, that F1 tyre manufacturers simply built the very best product of which they were capable, but in recent times tyres have been seized upon as a simple means of making a race more unpredictable than it might otherwise be.

As I have said before, no blame attaches to Pirelli, who were asked by the powers-that-be to come up with artificially inefficient tyres, and accepted the brief. It still surprises me that they agreed to it, but they did, and in recent years ‘tyre wear’ has become of surpassing importance in the outcome of a Grand Prix.

When James Allison was at Lotus, the team may have struggled with budget problems (as it still does), but its cars were competitive, and a very high card in the hands of Räikkönen and Grosjean was remarkably light tyre wear. Now, in the Allison era at Maranello, it is a characteristic figuring strongly in Ferrari’s attempt to get on terms with Mercedes.

In the early laps at Shanghai, Hamilton led from Rosberg, with Vettel and Räikkönen close at hand, and after 20 laps or so Nico was on the radio to his team: “Lewis is driving very slowly – speed him up…”

In relative terms, Hamilton was indeed driving slowly, and afterwards he said that – aware of Ferrari’s advantage in this regard – his priority had been conserving his tyres. In the mind of Rosberg, though, what Lewis was doing was ‘backing him up’ to Vettel, who wasn’t very far away. If he had closed up on the leader, he said, and got into his ‘dirty air’, his own tyres would have been swiftly destroyed.

Undoubtedly that was true, and if Hamilton’s priority had been trying to ensure a Mercedes 1-2, he would have obeyed an instruction from the pits: “Lewis, we’d like you to pick up the pace a bit…” As it was, not surprisingly uppermost in his mind were his own interests, and he chose to ignore it, although he did respond a few laps later, when advised, “Lewis, pick up your pace – or we’ll pit Nico first…”

If I had sympathy for Rosberg’s plight, and could see his point, the inescapable fact was that Hamilton was trying to win a Grand Prix and had earned the right to control it by taking pole position, and leading from the start.

At the post-race press conference Nico suggested that Lewis had been thinking only of himself, rather than putting the interests of the team first, but racing drivers have done that since records began. Perhaps in extremis, when a world championship is at stake for their team-mate, they will sacrifice their own interests – as with Schumacher and Irvine at Sepang in ’99, or Massa and Räikkönen at Interlagos in ’07 – but in the normal course of events your team-mate is de facto your major rival: as FW said, ego is a mighty powerful thing. It’s not impossible for two bulls happily to co-exist, but offhand I can’t think of any since Scheckter and Villeneuve 35 years ago.

So, did Hamilton drive ‘selfishly’ in the early laps at Shanghai? Of course he did, and we should have expected nothing else because that’s what racing drivers do. On the one hand, he was saving his tyres, and on the other it was hardly against his interests to back Rosberg up to the Ferraris: Nico had virtually matched him in qualifying, and – as has been the case for more than a year now – constituted his major opposition.

As things stand, though, that situation could be changing. Like many others, I reckoned that Rosberg would be even more of a challenge to Hamilton this year than last, but so far we have been proved emphatically wrong. Over the winter changes in Lewis’s life – the end of his relationship with Nicole Scherzinger and the split with Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment – might once have destabilised him, but in fact the very opposite appears to be the case. This season there seems to be an armadillo shell around him, a cheerful insouciance rarely in evidence before, and his driving is even better for it. More than any time in his career, he feels he is holding all the cards, and maybe he is.

For one thing, Hamilton is more of a street-wise character than Rosberg. He is fond of saying that he prefers to let his driving do the talking, but that is not always the case. After the controversy in Monaco qualifying last year, when Nico’s trip down the escape road at Mirabeau robbed Lewis of his final shot at pole, he talked at some length, and it was the same at Spa, when a brush between the two Mercedes drivers left him with a puncture and out of the reckoning.

Granted, the outcome of that incident was disastrous for Hamilton, and it was the consequence of Rosberg’s error, but I think Spa marked a turning point in their rivalry, both personally and in terms of the Mercedes team’s attitude towards them. “Lewis came out of the team’s post-race meeting,” said Martin Brundle, “and announced to the world, ‘Nico admitted he’d done it deliberately…’ Now that was something of a play on words, let’s say: I think he realised he could turn a negative into a positive – he’s brilliant at playing the victim, just as Senna was. He’d seen and heard Rosberg being booed on the podium – which quite clearly ripped the guy to shreds, as it would most people. I also thought the instinctive reaction of Toto and Niki straight after the race – with the adrenalin flowing – was very telling. Nico’s quite a sensitive soul, isn’t he? Look at his body language at the next few races…”

In this PR-dominated age, I have been pleasantly surprised by the openness of Mercedes personnel, by their willingness to discuss topics that in other teams would be kept under wraps. Just as, during his years of running McLaren, Martin Whitmarsh was always unusually frank in response to questions, so the same is true of Toto Wolff, to say nothing of N Lauda.

After Spa both were harsh in their public criticism of Rosberg, but if he had undeniably ruined Hamilton’s day, it wasn’t as if he had deliberately pushed him off the road or whatever: as Alain Prost pointed out, it was a simple error of judgement such as we see in the course of any GP weekend. And although Nico came away from Spa with 18 points to Lewis’s zero, in the longer term he was the loser that day. Mercedes people lay great emphasis on their wish to be even-handed, and in terms of equal equipment and freedom to race, no one doubts them – but at the same time many feel that, for all Rosberg’s German nationality, fundamentally Hamilton is the favoured son.

“Last year in Abu Dhabi, for the championship decider between them,” said Brundle, “Nico’s car was in trouble from the start, and afterwards one of the senior team members said to me, ‘That was our worst nightmare – but thank God it wasn’t Lewis’s car…’ Mercedes knew that both world championships would have been buried in a flood of negativity if that had happened, and I’m pretty convinced they wanted Lewis to win the title – he’s box office, isn’t he?”

Yes, he is, just as Senna was, and today I can see in Rosberg’s demeanour echoes of Prost those many years ago. Many a time Alain had cause to feel aggrieved by Ayrton’s behaviour on and off the track, but as soon as he opened his mouth he was dismissed as a whinger, just as was Nico after Shanghai. ‘As a rule of thumb, keep schtum’ is a sensible motto for any Grand Prix driver: speaking out almost never works out for you.

All I’m saying, I suppose, about the Hamilton-Rosberg partnership at Mercedes is that the team, in its refreshingly candid way of dealing with the press, has always appeared rather more reluctant to be refreshingly candid about Lewis than about Nico. After Bahrain qualifying, for example, Lauda was blunt about the need for Rosberg to up his game: “The six-tenths gap between Nico and Lewis is worrying…”

Had he had the facts to hand – and were he not the polite lad that he is – Rosberg might have offered the rejoinder that in 1984, when the two McLaren drivers alone were fighting for the title, his team’s non-executive chairman was on average 1.3sec slower than Prost in qualifying…

In turn Niki might point out that he still won the championship by half a point, and he would doubtless argue – rightly – that the times were different, that overtaking was more straightforward in those days, that qualifying was less crucial than now. It has been in qualifying, especially, that Rosberg has disappointed thus far in 2015, for it was on Saturday afternoons that he particularly excelled last season, taking many more pole positions than Hamilton.

So has the new, carefree Lewis got even better this year, or has Nico regressed – or is it a bit of both? That will become clearer as time goes on. Sooner or later something will go badly awry for Lewis, because that’s in the nature of motor racing, and just how much his approach has truly changed will be apparent in his reaction to it. If he remains unflappable, the rest – not least his team-mate – should be very afraid.

Still, whether stung by Lauda’s words or not, Rosberg will have taken heart from the race in Bahrain, for although Hamilton won yet again there were clear signs of the raw combativeness Nico showed through most of 2014. As well as that, Ferrari is unexpectedly in the Mercedes neighbourhood these days, and although Lewis may be already looking like a shoo-in for the championship, I’d leave it a while before putting any money down.

When Stirling Moss had his day of days, at Monaco on May 14 1961, the Ferraris of Richie Ginther, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips finished 2-3-4 behind the Rob Walker Lotus 18, and back in Maranello Enzo did not take it well. There was, though, a glimmer of satisfaction for him, for that same afternoon a further ‘sharknose’ Ferrari, in the hands of an Italian driver – Giancarlo Baghetti – won the non-championship Naples Grand Prix. Yes, that’s right, two Formula 1 races on the same day.

The Old Man admired Moss as much as he had Tazio Nuvolari, and resolved that he could be without him no longer. At the end of the year Stirling indeed agreed to drive a Ferrari – to be entered, remarkably, by the Walker team – in 1962, but the plan sadly evaporated with his career-ending accident at Goodwood on Easter Monday.

That day he was driving a Lotus entered by the British Racing Partnership, and his patron was not even present, instead watching his own Lotus, driven by Maurice Trintignant, win the Pau Grand Prix.

Again, two Formula 1 races on the same day, a phenomenon inconceivable, even laughable, today. There was, however, a time when F1 cars were affordable and therefore plentiful: if, in 1961, Monaco and Naples were run the same day, so also were Zandvoort and Crystal Palace. Perhaps the most extreme example of date clashes, though, came the following year, when on Whit Monday British F1 fans were spoiled for choice: were they to go to Mallory Park, where John Surtees beat Jack Brabham and Graham Hill – or to Crystal Palace, where Innes Ireland won from Roy Salvadori and Bruce McLaren? Two F1 races on the same day in the same country…

Back then the international calendar overflowed with significant race meetings – hence, on April 7 1968, many of us were at Brands Hatch for the BOAC 500 when we learned of the death of Jim Clark in a Formula 2 race at Hockenheim.

Thirteen years earlier, two major sports car races were scheduled for the same weekend, and while Ferrari and Maserati were committed to Monza, so equally naturally Mercedes opted for the Nürburgring.

At his hotel Stirling Moss, down to race one of three factory 300 SLRs, wrote up his diary on Thursday, May 26. “The circuit feels very slippery. Four laps only. My best was 10min 19sec, Kling 10.19, Juan 10.16. Also did a lap in the GP car. Later a lap with Uhlenhaut in my 220. The SLR is overgeared, 2nd too high. Later, food at Adenau with John Fitch. Bed at 1am.”

News travelled less quickly in those days. At some point later Moss added a footnote: “Heard the awful news that Alberto Ascari was killed in practice at Monza.”

The previous Sunday, at Monaco, Stirling had written this: “Fangio then broke, and I led until the 81st lap, when I broke while 1min 38sec ahead of Ascari – who went into the harbour! Later called at the hospital and saw Alberto. Then reception and casino. Bed at 3am.”

Two diary entries, then, covering a four-day period in which Ascari miraculously escaped one accident, then died in the other. And because we are coming up on the 60th anniversary of his death, he – and that time – have been much in my thoughts of late.

Ascari loved England and the English, and was hugely popular here, so I find it astonishing that there has never – in our language – been a definitive biography of one of the motor racing gods, considered faster than Fangio by Mike Hawthorn, believed better than Fangio by Denis Jenkinson. On occasion our sport has a way of evolving opinion into sacred truth, and I’ll confess to being surprised when Jenks first came out with this, not least because in most people’s minds to suggest any contemporary superior to Juan Manuel amounts to heresy, just as years later Jackie Stewart would discover when he declared another driver – Prost – better than Senna.

It was Ascari’s blend of pace and finesse that Jenks so much admired. “When I watch drivers,” he said, “I sometimes think to myself, ‘Would I sit on a chair at the exit of a fast corner with him on the track?’ In almost every case the answer is no, not a chance, but with Ascari I’d have done it without thinking – even if he’d shaved my toes every time, I’d never have worried he was going to run over my foot.

“Of course Fangio was a great driver who had a lot of incredibly good qualities, but I always thought Ascari was better: in equal cars he could beat Fangio whenever he wanted. In my estimation he was the greatest driver of the ’50s, and he belongs in my ‘pantheon’ list.”

If it has been poignant, to say the least, recently to see a couple of world champions, Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, starting Grands Prix from the back of the grid, consider the plight of Ascari in 1954: as with Alonso this year, but for a very different reason, Alberto – then the reigning world champion – wasn’t even on the premises when the Formula 1 season kicked off in Argentina.

For two years he had been essentially unbeatable. In 1952 he missed the opening Grande Épreuve, at Bern, for the very good reason that he was that weekend qualifying his ‘Ferrari Special’ for the Indianapolis 500, but thereafter he was undefeated. The ’53 season was a mite less successful, with ‘only’ five victories from eight Grands Prix, but Ascari consummately kept his title, and only the name of Fangio was spoken in the same breath. Given that Ascari and Ferrari were considered synonymous, as would be Clark and Lotus a decade later, there was considerable shock in racing circles when it became known that they had come to a parting of the ways.

The problem was that Enzo, not for the first or last time, was threatening to withdraw from racing, complaining that he needed more financial support from an ungrateful country to which his cars had brought much glory. When Ascari and his close friend – and fellow Ferrari driver – Luigi Villoresi went to see him late in December 1953, he refused to commit to any firm programme for the following year, yet insisted that Alberto immediately sign a new contract. Ascari, who had told Ferrari of his offers from elsewhere, quite reasonably found this unacceptable. As well as that, in an era when even the top Grand Prix drivers were not highly paid, he had long been dissatisfied with his cheques from Maranello: he had been doing all the winning, after all.

Although driver and employer had always been close, there was no way out of a quite unnecessary impasse: Ascari, while wishing to be paid rather better, had no great desire to leave Ferrari, and the Old Man, for all his threats to withdraw, was always going to stay in racing, so why did he risk losing his star turn?

In the Monza paddock long ago an Italian friend introduced me to Villoresi, and on my behalf asked him if ever he had been able to shed any light on the matter. “He says that, as in so many matters with Enzo Ferrari, he never had any clue, and he still doesn’t!”

Whatever, Ascari and Villoresi at once went to Turin, where they signed contracts with Gianni Lancia, whose company was about to enter F1 with a car designed by Vittorio Jano. Ascari first drove the D50 in February, by when the first GP of the season had come and gone, and in the end it was considered race-ready only by the time of the last event, at the Pedralbes street circuit in Barcelona.

Having been long accustomed to racing most weekends, Ascari had therefore little to occupy him in 1954. Periodically he tested the D50, and although he hated the Mille Miglia to the point of excluding it from his Lancia contract, he agreed to replace the injured Villoresi in a factory D24, and readily won.

Following Fangio’s mid-season switch from Maserati to Mercedes, Alberto was invited to drive a 250F at Reims, where he was on the front row, and at Silverstone where – shades of Alonso and Button – he started from the back, Maserati having arrived too late for official practice. In neither race, though, did he finish, and it was the same at Monza, where he made a one-off return to Ferrari, and was in the lead when his engine let go.

Finally the Lancia made its public entrance in Spain, and Ascari put it on pole position, more than a second faster than Fangio’s Mercedes, then led the race comfortably before retiring with a slipping clutch. The Grand Prix season was over, and all Alberto had to show for it were a point for fastest lap at Pedralbes and half of one for a shared fastest lap (with six other drivers!) at Silverstone, where timing – believe it or not – was to the nearest second…

For all that, there was good reason to feel optimistic about the year to come. If Mercedes remained firm favourite for 1955, Lancia seemed most likely to trouble them. Ascari crashed on someone else’s oil in Argentina, but was leading when it happened, and then won a couple of non-championship races at Naples and Turin before splitting the Mercs of Fangio and Moss in qualifying at Monaco.

In the race, of course, Alberto had his celebrated flight into the harbour, the Lancia going out of control – on oil, from Moss’s blown engine – at the chicane, then charging through the flimsy barriers and into the sea. There was immense relief when he came to the surface, and began swimming towards a rescue boat. Apart from a cut nose he was fine, and after a precautionary night in hospital went home to Milan.

On the Thursday, though, Ascari was killed at Monza, taking an impromptu run in the new Ferrari 750S he had originally been down to share with protégé Eugenio Castellotti in the Supercortemaggiore sports car race that weekend.

Much has been made over time of the unsettling coincidences apparent in the deaths of Alberto and his father Antonio, who had lost his life 30 years earlier, in the 1925 French Grand Prix, also at the age of 36, also on the 26th of the month.

More striking to me, though, is that the younger Ascari, an intensely superstitious man, always regarded his helmet as a lucky charm, so that Villoresi and others were astonished immediately before his fateful run to see him donning Castellotti’s helmet. He had, after all, gone to Monza that day simply to watch Eugenio test a brand-new car; as evidenced by the collar and tie, there had been no intention to drive.

A useful new rule from the FIA has been introduced this season to torpedo some drivers’ puerile habit of turning up every fortnight with a different helmet design, confusing for commentators and spectators alike. At the time of his death, Ascari’s one and only helmet – pale blue, without a peak – was being repaired, its chin strap having been damaged at Monaco.

The accident occurred at Vialone, later renamed ‘Ascari’ and these days preceded by a chicane, but then a flat-out left-hander. Although a mistake there, for a driver of Alberto’s ability, was rightly believed out of the question, the cause was never definitively established.

Certainly that particular Ferrari, which became known as the 750 Monza, was a car unloved by its drivers. According to Paul Frère, it was extremely unforgiving, and Phil Hill went further: “I always thought it was a malevolent car – if you took your eyes off it, it would kill you, sort of thing…”

In the opinion of Hawthorn, and supported by the evidence of marks on the track, the likelihood is that the Englebert tyres – too wide for the wheels on which they were mounted – simply tucked under as the Ferrari came through the corner, allowing the rims to gouge into the road, causing the car to somersault.

Whatever the origin of the accident, though, Ascari – that blend of fierce competitor and gentle man – was gone, and Italy still awaits its next great Grand Prix driver. As a young kid, I remember feelings of disbelief when I heard the news, having only just seen newspaper photographs of his harbour plunge in Monte Carlo and marvelled at his survival.

The vast majority of today’s fans were of course not around in 1955, so it will be difficult for them to comprehend how perilous motor racing was in those times. As Stirling Moss said to me once, “Unfortunately it used to happen quite often, and I lost a lot of friends, but what people have to understand is that the world was very different in those days – for one thing, the war wasn’t long over. Racing was dangerous, but our concern was always for the spectators – we knew what we were doing when we got in the car, but it was unacceptable for spectators to be put at risk. Driver safety, though, was never discussed – it never entered anyone’s head that racing could be safe…”

By any standards, though, 1955 was a year like no other, with the death of Ascari only the beginning of the most tumultuous period our sport has known. Four days later American motor racing lost its greatest star of the day when Bill Vukovich, leading the Indianapolis 500 in his quest for a hat-trick of victories, perished in a multiple accident not of his making. Sixteen of the 33 starters that day would ultimately die in a racing car.

The tragedies at Monza and Indy, though, were dwarfed by the catastrophe at Le Mans on June 11, when the Mercedes of Pierre Levegh flew into the grandstand opposite the pits, killing not only the driver but also nearly 100 spectators.

We were on holiday at the time, and someone in the hotel told us there had been a big accident at Le Mans, that ‘a French driver’ had been killed. I shudder now to remember feeling only intense relief at later learning that it hadn’t been my hero, Jean Behra, but I don’t think I was a callous nine-year-old: this was the sport – good and bad – I had fallen in love with and, as Moss said, those were very different times.

For all that, the enormity of the Le Mans accident soon began to sink in, so clearly was it on a wholly different scale from any that had gone before, and with all but one of the victims – as Stirling also pointed out – bystanders, there to enjoy a grand occasion, to have fun.

My late colleague Renaud de Laborderie, then a junior reporter, happened to be in the pit straight tunnel when the disaster occurred. “When I went into the tunnel,” he told me once, “it was like a carnival, with everyone excited by the fight for the lead between Fangio and Hawthorn – and when I came out… you can’t imagine.

“It was like wartime…”

When looking at the broad spectrum of motor racing history, there are days, I find, when it’s difficult to care very much about the endless discussions between Hamilton and Mercedes over just how many noughts there should be on the next contract.

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