Reflections

Saturday, September 5 1970. Lunching with friends at a favourite Soho bistro, I was in a state of high excitement, for the following day – by means of a Page & Moy one-day trip – I was going to Monza for the first time, and could speak of little else.

Back in the day there was hardly any TV coverage of Grand Prix racing, and qualifying – or practice, as it was then universally known – was never so much as mentioned. Heading home in the late afternoon, I wondered how it had gone, but as I came out of Baker Street tube station an Evening Standard hoarding stopped me in my tracks: ‘World’s leading race ace dies in crash’. I bought the paper, and there it was: Jochen Rindt, touching the very hem of the world championship, was dead. Back to the flat I stumbled, inconsolable.

Even by the standards of the time, it had been a bad year. In early June Bruce McLaren had been killed in a Can-Am testing accident at Goodwood, and three weeks later Piers Courage died at Zandvoort. Courage had been a close friend of Rindt, and his death strengthened Jochen’s resolve to call it a day at the end of the season. First, though, there was a championship to be won.

Next morning I duly flew off to Milan, everyone on the aeroplane speaking of nothing but Jochen. It was a blazing day, and as our coach inched its way to Monza, I saw something I have never forgotten: a red Fiat 500, crammed with an unlikely number of people, and – across its rear window, stuck there with respectful black tape – a simple message: Jochen non ti dimenticare. Jochen, you will not be forgotten.  

At the circuit, though, no mention of the tragedy was made over the PA, and from my seat in the old stone grandstand opposite the pits the only sign of anything untoward was the sight of Jackie Stewart, dressed entirely in black. Later, after an epic race on what was still a flat-out slipstreamer of a circuit, he finished second to Clay Regazzoni’s Ferrari. Formula 1 was strong meat in those days.

I never knew Jochen Rindt, and the more I have talked about him with folk who did, the more I have come to realise what I missed. For me he was the personification of a racing driver, and to watch him through a corner like the old Woodcote was to be reminded of why you had fallen in love with this in the first place: the cars were anything but bolted to the track, and if ever you needed proof that a thousand horsepower – Rindt had perhaps half that – means nothing in itself,
that what matters is the right balance between power and grip, you had only to watch Jochen.

When it came to racing cars, he was a purist – why, he didn’t even care for wings! For one thing, he considered them dangerous (which, in their infancy, indubitably they were); for another, they made the cars easier to drive, and that went against the grain for one consummately more skilled than most of his fellows. Through his last season, 1970, Jochen was acutely aware of his Lotus 72’s fragility, but nevertheless appreciated its superiority. “A monkey,” he said, after beating Ickx’s Ferrari at Hockenheim, “could have won in my car…”

Although Rindt never had a manager per se, he took advice on commercial matters from Bernie Ecclestone, to whom he became increasingly close in the latter part of his life, and Herbie Blash – a Lotus mechanic at the time of Jochen’s death – once told me he reckoned there was a strong chance that, were he alive today, he
would be running Formula 1 with Ecclestone.

“Yes,” Bernie said when I put that to him, “I think that might well be right. We were close enough – we trusted each other enough, respected each other – so probably that’s right, yes. I thought the world of Jochen – just a lovely guy, and a really bright one, too…”

Over the years, whenever something of real significance or controversy has occurred in Formula 1, quite often I have found myself thinking, ‘What would people like Ayrton or Ronnie – or, for that matter, Jenks – have made of this?’

There are, for example, many who find fascinating the endless radio conversations between drivers and engineers, and while I agree it can be diverting to hear a Vettel or Alonso give vent to a particular frustration of the moment, can anything sound more out of place, in the heat of a Grand Prix, than a flat, unemotional, voice requesting that his driver ‘Go to setting 497B, please…’?

When Hamilton complained in Melbourne that he couldn’t get past Verstappen, he followed up with, “We need a new strategy, guys…” Not exactly gladiatorial, but not uncommon these days, either. We laughed when years ago Max Mosley said he thought of a Grand Prix in terms of a chess match. Perhaps he was simply ahead of his time.

Steps have been taken this year to reduce the ‘driving by numbers’ aspect of contemporary Formula 1, and that’s good – save that it adds another layer to an already ludicrously over-complicated sport, for now the radio conversations need to be monitored, so as to ensure that the driver isn’t getting too much stage direction. Just as I think we may be fairly sure of Gilles’s response to a Formula 1 in which he was given radio instruction on how to drive his car, so it seems a fair bet that Jochen would have felt the same way. How might things have been in this business now, had he been involved in the running of it?

Different, for sure. Rindt was always commercially minded, highly entrepreneurial in spirit, and he would certainly have savoured the wealth that, in partnership with Ecclestone, would have come his way. That said, from everything I know of the man he was, I somewhat doubt that he would have approved of the thinking which these days pollutes our sport. By this, of course, I mean the suggestion – at a time when spectator attendances and TV viewing figures are plummeting – that F1’s fall from grace may be ascribed to domination by one team – oh, and the fact that the cars aren’t as noisy as they were.

In their facile attempts to ‘sex up’ the sport, the powers-that-be bring to mind every cliché in the book, from fiddling while Rome burns to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. And while we’re about it, let’s throw in not seeing the wood for the trees. As they panic themselves into wholesale changes for 2017, discuss everything from reverse grids to success ballast, they fail to get it that real racing enthusiasts loathe anything contrived, that what they crave is a return to simpler times, with fewer silly little rules, with the emphasis on pure racing. As Gerhard Berger puts it, “Take Formula 1 back to where it used to be – when people loved it…”

Instead, in their mistaken belief that making the cars way quicker will solve all the sport’s problems, the powers-that-be intend greatly to increase downforce – the very last thing, as Lewis Hamilton says, they should be doing. This blight has long assailed the sport across the world: the hideously ugly ‘aero kits’ in IndyCar, for example, have of course increased cornering speeds, but – surprise! – have made overtaking way more difficult than before. At Long Beach the drivers were vociferous in their criticism, but that side of the water, as in Europe, it seems that their opinion is of little account.

Understanding what’s going on in F1 these days is like gripping a glass doorknob with soapy hands. Grounded I may have been for the last two or three months, but I have kept in touch with the anarchic goings-on, been aware of all the dissension, yet somehow been curiously unmoved by it – angered, yes, that’s a given – but not much moved. Maybe, because it has all gone on for so long, like others I have simply become war-weary.

For a start, who – if anyone – is in charge these days? Bernie? Emphatically not as he used to be. Jean Todt? Give me a break. The F1 Strategy Group? Let’s be serious. Dieter Zetsche and Sergio Marchionne? You might be on to something. CVC? Don’t get me started…

For countless years this was a question one had no need to ask. Once Ecclestone had bought Brabham in 1972, swiftly taken on board that he and his fellow team owners were being shafted by race organisers, and proposed that in future he do the deals on everyone’s behalf, it was inevitable that over time the business would fall into his absolute control – if he acquired inordinate wealth along the way, so also he made others rich beyond their imagining, and dogs don’t howl when beaten with a bone. For a very long time Ecclestone was essentially unopposed, his cause in no way hurt when, after a few little difficulties with the FIA, Jean-Marie Balestre was succeeded as president by Max Mosley, Bernie’s long-time ally.

Let us say it one more time: as far as the fundamental health of Formula 1 is concerned, the most disastrous event in its history was the sale of its commercial rights by Mosley’s FIA to Ecclestone. Not only was this done on what may be called terms advantageous to Bernie, it was also an agreement for 100 years! “Have you ever,” murmured Jackie Stewart at the time, “heard of any commercial deal for 100 years…?”

This was 2001, and JYS’s long-time team owner Ken Tyrrell, nearing the end of his life, was outraged by the turn of events. “You wait,” he said in the course of our last ’phone conversation, “in time Bernie’ll move the rights on to a bunch of bloody asset-strippers…”

Ultimately, of course, that came to be, but for a while the rights were handed around like a tray of cakes, involving sundry banks, a German TV company and God knows what else, until finally, in late 2005, they passed into the hands of CVC Capital Partners.

If this has put Ecclestone’s wealth into the stratosphere, so it has also come at a price, in the sense that while he may still do the deals, his one-time autonomy is gone, for these days he is essentially an employee, and if frequently he laments the advent of what he calls ‘democracy’ in Formula 1, really he has no one but himself to blame.

In the days when Bernie was a one-man band, he could use his power – and money – as he wished. On occasion, for example, he would take over as promoter of a given race, often to the relief of the organisers, and he would risk his own cash in so doing. “I’d ask the Rons and Kens and Franks to come in with me,” he told me long ago, “but they never wanted to take the chance…”

When he reported to no one, once in a while, too, Ecclestone was able to cut an organiser some financial slack, so as to allow his race to stay on the calendar. He made that point during an interview we did at Spa back in 2005: “If this wasn’t Spa, there’d probably be complaints about it, because they’re always short of money here. But it is Spa – a race circuit, rather than a Scalextric track…” Ah, but that was then. Within a month or two of our conversation came the announcement that, as Tyrrell had forecast, ‘a bunch of bloody asset-strippers’ had indeed acquired a controlling share of the sport’s commercial rights, that CVC Capital Partners now effectively ‘owned’ Formula 1.

Even before that happened, though, Bernie was lamenting that times had changed, that he no longer had absolute control. That day at Spa we discussed the debacle at Indianapolis a few months earlier, when – for once – Michelin got it wrong, and turned up with tyres incapable of coping for long with the Speedway’s newly ‘diamond cut’ track surface. Thus the grid for the 2005 US Grand Prix comprised two Ferraris, two Jordans and two Minardis, and although Michelin behaved very honourably, reimbursing angry fans, still there were many who vowed they would never be back.

That weekend, certainly for the first time in my hearing, Ecclestone admitted that he no longer had the power that had once been taken for granted.

***

“In the good old days I’d have sorted it out – most people used to rely on me, but now everybody wants to be in charge…”

At Spa I reminded him of what he said. “Yeah, that’s right. The Michelin teams believed the FIA would back down, and put a chicane in before the corner causing the trouble, but that was never going to happen. And not,” he added, in a Freudian afterthought, “just because Ferrari was on Bridgestones…

“For one thing, from an insurance point of view the FIA wasn’t going to agree to a chicane – what if there was an accident there, and someone got killed? And anyway, if one company turned up with suitable tyres and the other didn’t, why should you change things for people who’ve basically cocked it up?”

This was a very reasonable argument – and it occurs to me that it surely still resonates in 2016, as the powers-that-be – not least Bernie – flounder around with imbecilic attempts to ‘fix’ the rules, in the hope of compromising Mercedes, which has done a better job than its rivals.

That, since the beginning of time, has been the object of Grand Prix racing. As Jacques Villeneuve recently said, throughout the sport’s history there have been exciting races, and dull ones, and to expect anything else is unrealistic. Did anyone contemplate some artificial means of trying to peg back the Mercs in the mid-fifties, when the W196 ruled? Were ever there moves afoot to compromise the supremacy of Clark and Lotus 10 years later, or Schumacher and Ferrari in the early years of this century? Not as I recall – so why now does the spectre of Barnum & Bailey suddenly come into play?

Fifteen years ago you set off to a Grand Prix in the virtual certainty you were going to see a Ferrari victory – and you knew, too, which one it was going to be, for under the iron control of J Todt, Michael’s various team-mates were on hand only to pick up any crumbs that fell from his table. Speak to Rubens Barrichello.

At least Mercedes allows its drivers to race each other, as McLaren has always done – but there again Ferrari is a special case: in how many other sports, after all, does one competitor have the right of veto over any rules it doesn’t like? Always potentially risky, that ill-advised agreement, and all the more so now with a bruiser like Marchionne in control.

Back to Indy. “In the old days,” Ecclestone went on, “I would simply have said, ‘Michelin hasn’t done a very good job, and because of that we’re in trouble – we’ve got 150,000 people out there, who are going to be super-upset. Why don’t we ask Bridgestone if they’ll supply everyone with tyres? In the days of Colin Chapman, Teddy Mayer, guys like that, I’d have been able to do it – they’d just have said, ‘Bernie, get it sorted…’ But with this lot, we’ve got ‘democracy’…”

At the time it amazed me to hear Bernie conceding that his vice-like grip had been loosened, but particularly since F1 passed into the hands of CVC that has been ever more apparent. Consider the matter of TV coverage in the UK: recently it was announced that – with the exception of the British Grand Prix – from 2019 on the races will be broadcast only by Sky.

At a time when teams are struggling to attract major sponsors, when the sport is haemorrhaging fans across the world, this – for all save the money men – is an appalling development. If you doubt me, look at the example of MotoGP, and compare the viewing figures in the ‘free’ era of the BBC and Eurosport with those of today, when – following the handing over of a huge cheque to Dorna – it is available live only on BT Sport. In terms of F1, many will be unable to afford the monthly Sky subscription, and of course there are many, too, with such a distaste for Rupert Murdoch and all his works that they won’t touch it on principle.

Just as at one time he swore blind to me that he would never, ever, put on more than 16 races a year, so Ecclestone once assured me that this would never happen: “I’m not stupid – whatever happens in the future, Formula 1 will always be available ‘free to air’…”

Ah, but that was before the asset-strippers arrived on the scene, and the sport is now in the hands of folk with no investment – let alone interest – in its long-term future: having very successfully reamed Formula 1 for more than a decade, CVC is looking to get out, and in September Bernie will be 86 years old.

Donald Mackenzie, the CVC chairman, has always been a shadowy figure in this business his company controls, rarely showing up at the races, and keeping a low profile when he does. I have grown weary of folk trying to assure me of his enthusiasm for Formula 1: “Over time Donald’s really got to love it, you know,” someone said not long ago.
“I mean, he’s bought one of Jimmy’s Lotuses…” That made me feel a little sick. If he loves it so much, why does he allow his rapacious company to run it into the ground?

Still, doubtless the Sky cheque will be eye-watering, and I’m sure
Mr Mackenzie’s investors are rubbing their hands.

***

If, over the years, Ecclestone has come up with some quaint ideas for Formula 1 – remember the plan to introduce ‘Olympic-style medals’ instead of points? – by no means have all been laughable, and one of his best was the qualifying system used in recent years, whereby the hour is split into three mini-sessions, with cars being eliminated along the way, leaving just 10 to fight for the pole on a relatively uncluttered circuit.

The system was neat, easily understood, and provided plenty of action. Prior to that, if you recall, we had Indy-style one-at-a-time qualifying, and if that works well at an oval, where lap times are short, and spectators have a clear view of much of the track, on a road circuit it sent people to sleep. “I was always against that,” Bernie said. “It was brought in to give the small teams’ sponsors some TV exposure – in the races they were never on screen, but that was their problem, not mine…”

If, from the fans’ point of view, Ecclestone’s revised system worked a treat for 10 years, in today’s Brave New World it had one serious shortcoming, in that the fastest car tended to start at the front, the slowest at the rear. Thus, great minds went to work, coming up with
a new system so asinine and convoluted that not even the TV commentators could understand it. If, with their assistance, we found it near impossible to fathom what was going on, what chance was there for folk actually at the circuit, particularly those out of sight of the pits? In Melbourne Q3, invariably a highlight of any Grand Prix weekend, finished with Sebastian Vettel already changed into civvies and a chequered flag waved over an empty, silent track.

It was literally farcical, and immediately after the session team principals and drivers were unanimous in their condemnation. “We tried it,” said Christian Horner, “and it didn’t work – we need to go back to the old system immediately…”

That day I watched qualifying on TV, then drove to Goodwood for the wonderful Members’ Meeting, highlighted – for me – by the sight of a couple of W196s, driven with some enthusiasm by Mika Häkkinen and Jochen Mass. As I wandered around the paddock, a number of people came up to chat about Melbourne: they, too, had watched the early morning qualifying session. “I’ve loved Formula 1 all my life,” one said, “but this was so ridiculous that in the end all I could do was laugh. The sport’s got a death wish, hasn’t it?”

Initially, it was decided to revert immediately to the old qualifying system, but then Ecclestone and Todt – for once curiously united – said no, the revised procedure should be given another chance. “This,” Todt insisted, “is what the fans want…”

Thus we had more of the same in Bahrain, and it was just as in Melbourne: a joke. Why, in the face of overwhelming criticism from all sides, did the powers-that-be dig in their heels? Well, because they had decided that what F1 needed was a mixed-up grid, and this was potentially a way to achieve it. What it was actually doing was attempting to turn the whole ethos of Grand Prix racing upside down, to penalise excellence, rather than reward it. “F1,” Frank Williams said to me long ago, “is a meritocracy – always has been, always should be. If you don’t agree with that, go and do something else…”

The great irony of the 2016 season to date is that, amid all the off-track acrimony, it seems to me that the races themselves – Shanghai in particular – have actually been pretty good.  

Fernando Alonso recently said that Formula 1 should not be about ‘saving’ anything, be it fuel, tyres, battery, whatever, that it wasn’t terribly satisfying to be driving cars several seconds a lap slower than they used to be. One can well understand his point of view: if the power from the best hybrid engines is now at least a match for the 3-litre V10s so beloved by all who experienced them, today’s power units are extremely heavy, so that the all-up weight of a contemporary chassis is, as Martin Brundle has said, “More sports car than Formula 1…”

All that said, if we can set aside for a moment all the paddock bickering, the vested interests, the unsavoury deals, the greed of CVC, the machinations of the wretched F1 Strategy Group, I continue to believe that – once the cars get out on the circuit – there remains much that is good about Formula 1 in 2016. For example, although I was one of many to regret that Pirelli, rather than Michelin, got the nod to continue as Formula 1’s solus tyre supplier, and I well understand the drivers’ frustration with the near ‘road car’ tyre pressures imposed on them these days, still there is no doubt that the choice of three compounds, rather than two, and the freedom to decide in advance which to use – and how many sets of each – at a given race, has done much to liven up proceedings.

And there have been some surprises this year. I’ll confess that, after Nico Rosberg’s three consecutive victories at the end of last season, when Hamilton was off the boil after clinching his world championship, I rather expected Lewis to be back in charge from the first race on, but such has not been the case, and even more surprisingly – given that Nico, driving beautifully, has racked up another hat-trick – his disposition has been outwardly sunnier than we have seen for some time.

Ferrari, as expected, has narrowed the gap to Mercedes, but not completely closed it, and clearly this is on Sergio Marchionne’s mind:
“I think the team knows the clock is on,” he said in Shanghai. “We need to fix this – now…” It came across like a line from The Sopranos.

Compared with the Luca di Montezemolo era, these are indeed very different days at Maranello – there is nothing of the dilettante about Marchionne – and, however much he may protest to the contrary, Alonso must surely regret he is not there to benefit from them. Ultimate reliability apart, there is not much awry with this year’s car, as evidenced by the rekindling of Räikkönen’s long-dormant enthusiasm. One trusts that Marchionne will not demand a rebate on Kimi’s salary cheques from 2014 and ’15.

An immutable rule of F1 is that the longer the fundamental rules remain unchanged, the more the pack closes up. In the ‘hybrid’ era Mercedes may have had things all its own way for a couple of years, but if the team retains an advantage in this third season, Ferrari is increasingly a threat, Red Bull is coming up on the rails and the midfield positively seethes. The season looks intriguing.

That said, there remains this blind determination to change everything for 2017, to bring in cars with far greater downforce, to the sure detriment of racing. Madness, if it happens. If you want to make the cars quicker in a constructive way, to sidestep any question of ‘cruising’, increase – or scrap – the fuel allowance for a race.

Let me finish with a quote or two. “You sit 10 competitive people down, from different teams, and you ask them to find a way to solve a problem, and they all think, ‘What’s good for me, and bad for the others?’  

“You need a dictator, really. Colin Chapman used to say, ‘Do what you want with the regulations, but I need two years’ notice of what they’re going to be, and then you can’t change them for a few years, OK? Then I’ll decide if I want to be in the championship or not’.  

“As soon as you write a regulation, it costs a fortune to get round it. If you kept the same regulations for five years, whatever anyone came up with, the rest would soon know about it, so it’d be difficult to get an advantage. It’s only when you change the regulations that people get an advantage – because the rich teams can react quickly – so that’s why it’s best to keep them stable…”

This was Bernie on my tape in 2005, and what he said then was right on the money. I suspect that Jochen, the racer pure, would have agreed.

***

Another date from the distant past: November 11 1997. We were in Colnbrook for a press conference with FIA president Max Mosley, following the World Motor Sport Council’s deliberations into Michael Schumacher’s collision with Jacques Villeneuve in the European Grand Prix at Jerez. “The World Motor Sport Council,” Mosley began, “has come to the conclusion that, although the act was apparently deliberate, it was instinctive and not premeditated.”

No one said a word, but many an eye rolled: already we could see how this was going to go. As Damon Hill – who knew whereof he spoke when it came to incidents with Michael – pointed out, surely what you do instinctively is avoid an accident, not cause one.

“The WMSC,” Max went on, “has given careful consideration to banning Schumacher for 1998, but has concluded that to do so would be futile, because there is no driver who would not be ready to accept a ban in 1999 – if he could win the championship in 1998. It would not be a deterrent in any sense. The WMSC has therefore decided to exclude Schumacher from the results of the 1997 world championship. That is to say, his race results remain, but he will not feature in the 1997 championship.”

Even by Mosley’s standards, this was pushing it a bit, but surely there was more to come: what was Schumacher’s punishment to be? Plainly he had tried to take Villeneuve out, and many had thought that only some sort of ban was appropriate, but the WMSC had decided that would be ‘futile’. Plus, of course, bad for business...

“In addition,” Max continued, “the WMSC considered imposing a fine. It discussed, however, with Schumacher the possibility of his participating in a road safety campaign the FIA is mounting in 1998, with the European Commission. He immediately agreed to take part. Accordingly, there will be no fine, there will be exclusion from the 1997 world championship and Schumacher has agreed to participate in our road safety campaign...” The momentary stunned silence was broken by a trenchant voice to my immediate left: “Excuse me,” Alan Henry said. “Is this April 1?”

At that the room erupted into laughter, and even Mosley struggled to keep a smile from his face. It was a typically irreverent ‘AH’ moment from one who made me laugh as much as anyone I have ever known.

My dear old friend died on March 3, and if this were not wholly a surprise – he had been ill for some years – still it was a shock to all who knew and loved him. For countless years a small band of us – Denis Jenkinson, Eoin Young, Maurice Hamilton, Alan, me – travelled to the races together, and rejoiced in each other’s company. They were good times, and as I have long missed Jenks and ESY, so I shall AH.

The timing of his death struck a particular resonance with me, for it came within a few days of my returning home from hospital, following a brush with The Reaper early in February. After a few weeks of convalescence, I’m happy to say that I’m feeling well, pleased to be working again, and looking forward to going to Barcelona, then to Indianapolis and Montréal.

In the meantime, I have been overwhelmed by the cards and messages and gifts I have received not only from the racing community but also from well-wishers outside it, most of whom I have never met. Inadequate as it feels, to every one of you I offer my grateful thanks.