Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– The importance of the edge of risk in Formula 1
– Why losing traction control is symbolically vital
– Life after Alonso and the spy scandal at McLaren

At the end of the ’60s, when I was not long out of school, I read an interview with Joakim Bonnier, the Swedish driver who gave BRM its first Grand Prix victory, at Zandvoort in 1959. Wasn’t it the case, Bonnier was asked at one point, that the pleasure he derived from racing had a great deal to do with the ‘possibly ultimate nature of the sport’? The risk, in other words; the fact that it could kill him.

“I don’t think so,” Bonnier replied. “On the contrary. Stirling Moss would say the same thing – that if you took all the danger out of motor racing it wouldn’t be any fun. But to me it’s the other way round. If you took all the danger out I’d enjoy it three times more – a hundred times more.”

I remember being quite taken aback by that, which says everything about how different was the world 40 years ago. It was a particularly perilous time to be a racing driver: in 1968 alone Jim Clark was one of four world-class drivers to die at the wheel, in 1970 Jochen Rindt one of three. Jackie Stewart was campaigning strenuously for improved safety in the sport – and making himself highly unpopular in many circles for so doing. What was wrong with the chap? By its very nature, motor racing was dangerous – always had been, always would be, and that was the end of it.

Certainly that was Moss’s philosophy, and it remains so to this day. “I was president of the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers Association),” he said, “and my main safety concern was that spectators shouldn’t get hurt – it was obviously not acceptable that they should face any danger. But we, the drivers, knew what we were taking on.

“That was what I felt, anyway, and when some of them – Bonnier, Graham [Hill], and so on – started going on about the lack of safety at this or that circuit, I’d say, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to drive, then don’t drive’. In my era, if it was too hot in the kitchen, fine, don’t come in the kitchen.

“People say, ‘My God, we don’t want these poor boys to hurt themselves’, and of course that’s true, but in my mind racing has to be unsafe – otherwise, you’re lessening the challenge. I mean, I’d try to walk on a wire two feet from the ground, but I wouldn’t try it over the Grand Canyon! Now the skill required is exactly the same thing in both cases, but the challenge is not...”

Moss’s opinions are hardly in tune with prevailing attitudes in the Formula 1 of today – indeed, in the ‘risk-averse’ world of today – but still there remain many who feel that, to remain recognisably the activity it has always been, motor racing must retain a degree of ‘edge’. Kimi Räikkönen, for example, recently said that he suspects he would have felt more at home as a Grand Prix driver of the 1960s or ’70s.

“It really is immeasurably safer than it ever was,” said Martin Brundle. “Look at Kubica’s accident at Montréal – not so long ago he wouldn’t have survived that, yet four days later there he was at Indianapolis, hoping to race! If you look at the improvements to the cars over the last few years, the huge Tarmac run-off areas there are now…

“I must say I hate the fact that the tracks are becoming anaesthetised – this was something that Michael (Schumacher) started. As soon as there’s a bump, or a kerb that’s a bit tricky, it just goes! To me, bumps are a fundamental part of F1 – it’s a matter of setting your car up to cope with them, right?

“At Montréal there’s a wall, on the outside of the last corner, and – thankfully – there’s nothing they can do about it, because of the river beyond. For me one of the highlights of the season is to see how brave a driver will get through that corner, how close he’ll get to that wall. I think bravery should be part of what a racing driver is. Of course you don’t want dead drivers, or injured drivers, but neither do you want a sport unrecognisably different from what it always was. Or I don’t, anyway…”

Of late, there have been two topics of debate regarding safety in F1, one of which is the proposed ban on tyre-warmers, due to be introduced in 2009 when slicks are expected to return, together with greatly reduced aerodynamic downforce.

David Coulthard – in recent times an increasingly vocal safety campaigner – has made clear, a year ahead of time, that he is opposed to getting rid of tyre-warmers, suggesting that the temperature differentials between tyres up to full operating speed, and those just fitted, cold, in the pits, will lead to considerable speed variations in the cars out on the track.

Juan Pablo Montoya is gone from F1 now, unfortunately, but if he were still involved he would disagree with Coulthard’s contention. During his two successful years in CART (where tyre-warmers were never permitted in the first place), Montoya invariably lost far less time on tyre changes than any of his rivals, who were astounded by the speed he could generate on ‘cold’ tyres.

“It was just a matter of feel,” he said. “You obviously had far less grip until the tyres got up to temperature, so the thing was to go as quick as possible until they did. You got plenty of order changes in those circumstances – I thought it added a lot to a race…”

Similarly, in the days before tyre-warmers were thought of, an F1 driver came out of his pit on cold tyres, and temporarily he was off the pace. It was that simple, and of course it added a vital ingredient – unpredictability – to any race.

In recent times, since the return of refuelling, a Grand Prix has become a sprint-stop-sprint affair, with every car in the race at any given time running with a relatively light fuel load and relatively new tyres. Strategies vary to some degree, of course, but basically the cars are being driven flat out at all times.

Superficially, this might seem desirable – surely how something calling itself ‘Formula 1’ should be – but in reality it invariably makes for a dull race: the cars are in close to optimum condition for the entire 200 miles, the absurd aerodynamics militate against overtaking, and the advent of ‘driver aids’ has greatly reduced the incidence of ‘driver mistakes’. Add these things together, and they do not tot up – for a spectator – to a stimulating afternoon.

Fortunately, the FIA has at last cottoned on to the fact that motor racing is not chess, that excitement is required, that overtaking – while it should never be easy – is an essential of the sport. And when you have a situation in which an Alonso or Räikkönen can struggle even to lap a backmarker, imagine the difficulty involved in passing someone in a comparable car.

Think of what Kimi said after last year’s Turkish Grand Prix, in which he finished second to Felipe Massa, the Ferraris unopposed throughout. On the penultimate lap he suddenly cranked out the fastest lap – more than half a second inside anyone else’s best – and we wondered why. “Well,” Räikkönen said, “the race was decided yesterday, really, in qualifying. It’s so boring these days, driving behind other cars all the time – there’s no passing, with the aerodynamics the way they are. I did the lap at the end because I just wanted to see what the car could do…”

If a man can get bored driving an 800-horsepower Grand Prix car, it is not a leap of imagination to suspect that those watching him, in the grandstand or on TV, may feel the same way.

Some time ago the FIA set up an ‘F1 Overtaking Group’ to study ways in which racing cars might actually be enabled to race. There is a need – at last recognised – greatly to reduce ‘aerodynamic grip’, while increasing ‘mechanical grip’. Profound aerodynamic changes are reputedly on the way in 2009, together with the likely return to slicks.

One hopes these things will come to be, and in the meantime the governing body has taken a good first step in eliminating some of the ‘driver aids’, including traction control, launch control and electronic engine braking.

Already, as with the proposed ban on tyre-warmers, there are concerns from some drivers that the elimination of traction control will make wet races more dangerous, because inevitably there will be more driver errors.

Undeniably that’s true, but let’s keep a sense of perspective here. Ken Tyrrell, a man with as much commonsense as anyone I ever met, took a position somewhere between Bonnier and Moss. “I think,” he said, in the wake of Ayrton Senna’s fatal accident in 1994, when wholesale safety changes were being introduced, “we have to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

It should go without saying that we don’t want to see drivers getting hurt, or worse, but neither do we want to finish up with something no one wants to watch…”

*******

It was at the Spanish Grand Prix, in 2001, that the electronic ‘gizmos’, including traction control and launch control, were allowed back into F1 for the first time since the end of the 1993 season.

I say ‘allowed back’ with tongue firmly in cheek, because throughout that seven-year period when ‘driver aids’ of this kind were officially banned, there were those in F1 who appeared to have forgotten. I remember one year being dragged by Jackie Stewart to the tight, slightly uphill, right-hander at the start of the lap at Montréal.

A practice session was about to begin, and I asked him what this was all about. He gave a one-word reply, the name of a famous team. And then he went on to say that there was something he wanted me to watch – and, more to the point, to hear.

We got to the corner, and soon enough they were out, and starting to go quickly. Stewart waited until one of the cars from this team was running in isolation, its engine note not drowned out by others. “Now,” Jackie shouted, “just listen to this…”

The car duly catapulted out of the turn, and as it did so there was that unmistakable rat-a-tat-tat misfire which means only one thing: traction control. I nodded at Stewart. I had heard it many times before, if not perhaps so starkly as on this occasion.

Whatever, in itself it was nothing new.

At the Pacific Grand Prix of 1994, only the second race of the ‘gizmo ban’ era, such a sound was clearly heard from the Ferraris, and this was drawn to the attention of Charlie Whiting, the FIA F1 Technical Delegate, who in turn had a quiet word with Jean Todt, advising that the device – whatever it was – should not be used for the balance of the weekend, after which its conformity (or not) with the regulations would be established.

Other team personnel thought Ferrari fortunate to have escaped so lightly. “I rather suspect,” said Williams’s Patrick Head, ever to the point, “that if it had been us, we’d have been on our way home before the race…”

At all events, Ferrari was ultimately found not guilty of infringing the regulations, as has so often been the case over time. An FIA statement suggested that the team was using devices which ‘changed the characteristics of the engine, according to certain predetermined instructions.

The engine mapping, or the permissible throttle opening, or the rev limit, may be different in each gear. Alternatively, the characteristics of the engine may change according to the whereabouts of the car on the circuit, or be set at will by the driver.

‘Devices of this kind are not traction control,’ concluded the statement, ‘because they are not influenced in any way by the behaviour of the rear wheels’.

So that was all right then. If it prosper, none dare call it traction control. Even if its purpose is to control traction.

Unfortunately, no one had thought to tell Gerhard Berger, who finished second in the race. After a spin in practice, he was asked if there had been a problem with the car. “Traction control…” said Gerhard, without thinking.

Undoubtedly, while a more sophisticated, considerably more expensive, means of controlling traction than the previous, cruder, ‘blanking off cylinders’ method, the intention of these ‘variable rev limiter’ devices was to achieve the same thing, if a great more expensively, and not so efficiently.

Throughout the 1994 season, too, there were widespread doubts about the Benetton which Michael Schumacher took to his first World Championship. “Senna,” said Frank Williams early in 1995, “was pretty convinced that Benetton had ‘something’ last year – that they were naughty somewhere, probably on traction control, and launch control, too. He talked to me about it. Why was Michael so much quicker than his team-mates? You could say it was slightly mysterious. I can’t sit here and say it was bent, because I don’t know – a wise man would just stay quiet! Certainly, one would assume that if they were being naughty, the fewer people who knew the better. The start in Magny-Cours – that was naughty…”

This last remark was in reference to Schumacher’s rocket getaway in the French Grand Prix, where – from the second row – he went past the considerably more powerful Williams-Renaults as if they were parked. Later, after an FIA investigation, Benetton conceded that launch control – legal the year before – had indeed been ‘left’ in the software, but they insisted that it had been used only in testing. (Quite why they should have wished to test with a system not allowed in competition remains a matter of mystery).

Through the long years of the ‘gizmo ban’ the rumours were unending that some in F1 were cheating, and Max Mosley rightly asserted that this was highly damaging to the sport’s image. That being so, he announced in early 2001 – with great reluctance, he said – that because the FIA could not effectively ‘police’ the traction control ban, it would be preferable to declare it kosher once more.

As usual there was an agenda, hidden at the time. Concerned about the availability, and cost, of engines for the smaller teams, the FIA had put pressure on the manufacturers each to supply a ‘second’ team, and to charge a maximum of 10 million euros for a year’s engines. To this the manufacturers agreed – so long as traction control were declared legal once more. And thus, at Barcelona in 2001, back it came.

By the beginning of 2004, though, it was evident that the manufacturers were not holding to their promise of ‘cheap engines’, and when Mosley mentioned this, I asked if it might be possible to play the ‘traction control card’, to ban it once more.

“To be honest,” he said, “we couldn’t do it. To police it requires massive effort and money, and it would take us several months to be in a position to do it. It’s annoying, but I’m afraid the era of ‘no traction control’ has gone…”

Or maybe not. The only way to be certain that traction control was not present on a car, Mosley always maintained, was to impose a standard ECU – and at the thought of that, of course, the engine manufacturers became hysterical.

While I have struggled to feel at ease with much of what the FIA has done in the recent past, I have always much approved of Mosley’s aversion to ‘driver aids’. In 1992, when Max was still fairly new in the job, he received a Christmas card from Senna, which contained a footnote: ‘You must get rid of the electronics…’

Senna’s words appear to have reinforced Mosley’s own conviction: traction control may be invaluable in protecting average drivers in fast road cars, but has no part to play in something calling itself ‘Grand Prix racing’, an activity featuring supposedly the best drivers on earth.

Shortly before Christmas that year, Ayrton, at the invitation of Emerson Fittipaldi, tested a CART Penske at the Firebird International Raceway, a road circuit to the south of Phoenix.

It had been a frustrating year for Senna in F1. He had won three Grands Prix, a tally meagre by his standards, but what had really rankled was that McLaren-Honda, dominant for the six previous seasons, had been suddenly – utterly – outpaced by the ‘active ride’ Williams-Renault FW14B, a car more superior to its opposition than any since the Mercedes W196 of 1954-55. Nigel Mansell walked the championship, but perhaps what said even more about the Williams was that his team-mate, Riccardo Patrese, was runner-up – ahead of both Senna and startling debutant M Schumacher.

What maddened Ayrton most, of course, was that he knew he was being ‘out-teched’, rather than out-driven. And one of the highest cards in Williams’s hand – apart from the ‘active ride’ – was traction control. Not even Senna’s unique ‘stabbing at the throttle’ technique could compete with software. Ultimately McLaren, too, had traction control – but although indubitably it made his car more competitive, Ayrton loathed it.

Thus, when he tested the Penske, under CART rules devoid of any electronic gizmos, he revelled in the experience: “I love it – it’s a human’s car!”

What he might have called it, of course, was ‘a super-human’s car’, in the sense that it allowed scope for a genius to express himself. In 1993, traction control became de rigueur in F1, and it was no surprise that the two drivers most antagonistic towards it (and other ‘driver aids’) were Senna and Alain Prost: as the two artists of their generation, clearly they had most to lose through technologies which served to ‘equalise’ the drivers.

Ten years on, Senna’s protégé, Rubens Barrichello, was expressing similar views. “You take traction control completely for granted,” he said. “Even in really quick corners, when the car is oversteering, you just say to yourself, ‘I’ll carry the speed into the corner, and hope that the traction control will hold everything.’ It’s like a parachute, you know.

“With traction control, driving in the wet was not such a big deal any more. Coming out of Club at Silverstone in the wet used to be the most difficult thing, getting the line right, and everything, but with traction control, you just nailed the throttle – and it shouldn’t be like that…”

Thus, Barrichello is a driver much pleased by the fact that this season traction control (together with launch control and electronic engine braking) are banned once more, Mosley having succeeded in his aim to impose a standard ECU.

Any right-thinking racing aficionado will surely feel the same way, for while it could be that, as some claim, the absence of traction control will have relatively little impact on the quality of the racing, symbolically – if nothing else – it’s important to know that what Mario Andretti calls ‘the educated right foot’ is in sole charge of the throttle.

Martin Brundle puts it this way: “I think that a driver not determining how much throttle to use is like a footballer not kicking the ball or a tennis player not swinging the racquet. Knowing how much power to apply, and when, is an absolute core requirement of being a racing driver – it’s as fundamental as that.”

When they go to the grid at Melbourne, only five drivers – Barrichello, Button, Trulli, Coulthard, Heidfeld – will have previously raced an F1 car without traction control, but I don’t doubt that all 22 will do just fine.

How did we all survive without mobiles? We just did, didn’t we?

*******

It was a surprise to see Bernie Ecclestone in Stuttgart for the launch of the McLaren-Mercedes MP4-23, for normally he doesn’t get involved in events of this kind.

I remember his attending Toyota’s original media event, but that was a one-off, a matter of welcoming the world’s biggest car make to Formula 1.

Max Mosley was present on that occasion, too, and he was also asked – by Dieter Zetsche, the Mercedes chairman – to come to Stuttgart, our assumption being that Zetsche saw this as a public opportunity to draw a line, once and for all, under the ‘Spygate’ affair which so disfigured the sport last year. Ultimately Mosley declined the invitation, but Ecclestone’s presence seemed to signal that McLaren – and, particularly, Mercedes – had been given the Good Housekeeping seal of approval once more.

Bernie did not play any formal part in the proceedings, beyond sitting there among the company dignitaries, and being photographed with team personnel as the car was unveiled.

That was as expected. Rather more of a surprise was that Ron Dennis played a very minor rule, too. Deeply tanned, after a West Indian holiday, Dennis started the ball rolling, thanking everyone for coming, and so on, but thereafter he was very much in the background, leaving Martin Whitmarsh, for example, to do the press conference with Norbert Haug.

It was all very muted and low-key, and inevitably one thought back a year or so, to a McLaren lunch, when spirits had seemed higher than anyone could remember. Fernando Alonso was newly on board, and Lewis Hamilton would be partnering him, and it was evident that Dennis and Whitmarsh believed they had put together the dream team.

Who could blame them? On the face of it they had, given the recent retirement of Michael Schumacher, the best driver in the world as de facto team leader, and alongside him the smiling youth whose talent and career McLaren had nurtured for close to a decade.

“For now,” said Dennis, “we have to base our opinions of Fernando on other people’s experiences with him – and people who’ve worked with him eulogise about him. He’s a very well-rounded individual, he’s extremely private – he strikes me as very undemanding, and very balanced.”

Talk about words coming back to haunt you. At some time anyone alive has been in that position, of course, and when Ron said what he said no one had any cause to take issue. At Renault Alonso had been revered as a driver, but they had also much liked him as a man. When he spoke to us at Monza in 2006, having been grossly unjustly ‘fined’ five grid positions, he came across like a kid who had just found out about Santa Claus.

The 2005 and ’06 seasons, though, had yielded two World Championships and 14 Grand Prix wins, so there seemed little to fear in signing him. When Fernando visited the fabled McLaren Technology Centre for the first time, he asked if it would be possible to address the entire workforce. “I’m yours now,” he began, and as one of those present told me, “The whole place instantly fell in love...”

There was only one aspect of Alonso’s character that gave some cause for concern, and that was the way he reacted on the occasions – and they were extremely rare – when his team-mate had the edge, even if only in a practice session. When reviewing Fernando’s time with Renault, Pat Symonds made mention of this: it was, he said, his only weakness.

Interestingly, and perhaps significantly, Michael Schumacher was exactly the same way. Like Alonso, he wasn’t outpaced by a team-mate very often, and Rubens Barrichello, with him at Ferrari for six seasons, told me he was unfailingly astonished by Michael’s over-the-top response: “He’d get really upset, and I could never understand how a driver of his greatness could be so insecure…”

Martin Brundle, though, has a theory that perhaps all the really great ones are like this, some of them hiding it more successfully than others. “I know what Rubens means,” he said, “but I think that’s one of the things that makes these people great – they literally can’t stand to be beaten, even when it doesn’t matter.”

Whatever, Alonso’s behaviour didn’t work at McLaren. When the proud Spaniard, the reigning World Champion, began responding churlishly to Hamilton’s astonishing rookie pace, they were unimpressed, and through the 2007 season that was a situation which only worsened. From August on, it was clear to Dennis and Whitmarsh that to continue with the same driver pairing in ’08 was unthinkable: as in the days of Senna and Prost, McLaren had begun to look like two teams that happened to operate out of the same pit.

In the end, of course, both Alonso and Hamilton were a point shy of Kimi Räikkönen in the World Championship standings, and – thanks to the efforts of Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan – their team was wiped from the constructors’ championship altogether. “Let us know when you’re doing the team photograph,” a McLaren man called out to Ferrari’s Stefano Domenicali at Monza, “and we’ll send Coughlan across…”

At that lunch in the board room a few months earlier, though, anything but an annus horribilis seemed to be in prospect. “We’re extremely well financed for the next five years,” said Dennis, “and we’ve got a great driver line-up. The ingredients feel right.”

That being so, it was perhaps no more than inevitable that the question of Ron’s long-term future came up. His 60th birthday was approaching, in June, and he had always maintained that he would stand down only at a time when his team was on top. In 2006 McLaren had failed to win a single race, but that looked set to change, so might the time be approaching when he stepped back a little?

He took the question in good part. “Well,” he said, “Martin has spent the last 10 years trying to persuade me to retire – and for the last three he’s intensified his efforts! In respect of F1, we consult constantly, but Martin does the vast majority of the work.

“But,” he went on, “I’m still passionate about F1, and where most people’s perception of retirement is that you stop working, mine is completely different: it’s just a systematic back-off. There isn’t a plan, as such, but there is a strategy – endlessly discussed between Martin and myself. We work exceedingly well together – we’ve had some difficult times in the past, but by and large we rarely disagree. Retirement for me will be a slow process of disengagement, but not an immediate switch. I don’t want to quit a loser.”

As the year wore on, though, and the strain of the ‘Spygate’ affair (to say nothing of warring drivers) began to tell, Dennis looked ever more haunted, and by the time of Monza appeared close to the end of his tether, his voice a croaky whisper as he talked to a few of us over breakfast one morning. Even when Alonso and Hamilton took a resounding 1-2 – in Ferrari land – Ron found it hard to smile.

Then came ‘Black Thursday’, when the World Motor Sport Council announced that McLaren was to lose all their constructors’ points – and face a fine of $100,000,000.

On it went. At Shanghai the team dithered too long in deciding to bring Hamilton in for new tyres, which cost the points that would have put his World Championship beyond doubt. At Interlagos a 30-second electronic ‘glitch’ – the first McLaren failure of the entire season – put the title beyond Lewis’s reach.

The nightmare seemed without end. In December Renault – potentially facing the same kind of punishment from the WMSC as McLaren – escaped without penalty, and at the same time it was announced that doubts remained about the amount of ‘Ferrari influence’ in McLaren’s 2008 car. A final decision would be taken about that, the WMSC announced, at a meeting on February 14 – just a month before the MP4-23 was due to make its debut in Melbourne.

No pressure there, then. One thought back to the occasion, a few years ago, when Jacques Villeneuve, in trouble with the FIA for speaking too freely, was summoned to appear before the beak. Being the local hero in Montréal, Villeneuve would invariably go back to his homeland a week or 10 days before the Canadian Grand Prix for PR and public appearances. The date set for his dressing-down in Paris was the Wednesday before the race.

A week before Christmas McLaren issued a statement of apology – to the entire world, it seemed – for everything that had gone on in the ‘Spygate’ affair, and undertook to impose a moratorium on developing parts on their car which could have been influenced by Ferrari intellectual property – whereupon, miraculously, the Valentine’s Day meeting evaporated, and everyone was friends again. Beneath the surface, of course, the entire episode heaped further humiliation on McLaren, which many interpreted as the object of the exercise.

As the new year approached, there was increasing speculation about Ron Dennis’s future as the CEO of the McLaren Group, and some of those close to him wondered if he any longer had the inclination to put his all into 18 Grand Prix weekends. The signing of Heikki Kovalainen was announced, but little was heard from Dennis himself.

In Stuttgart, as I say, Ron was present, but whereas, on previous occasions of this kind, he had been very much the dominant figure in the proceedings, this time he seemed content to blend into the shadows.

This time, too, the launch took place on German territory, in the magnificent Mercedes museum, and that was something new. ‘Vodafone McLaren Mercedes’ signs were in place, but it felt more like ‘Vodafone Mercedes McLaren’, and everything about the day fostered the belief, increasingly strong in recent months, that Mercedes was poised to take a majority share. Already we have BMW Sauber; how long before it is Mercedes-McLaren? Not very, one suspects.

The fundamentals of the launch were unremarkable, in that Whitmarsh and Haug expressed their absolute confidence in the competitiveness of the new car, in the team’s ability to fight for the World Championship, while Hamilton and Kovalainen assured us they had been friends for a long time, and were confident that no problems between them would arise. The usual stuff.

More than anything, one felt a sense of changing times, together with a keen desire to draw a line under the disagreeable happenings of the last year, to ‘move on’, as our beloved politicians say without cease.

Clearly not quite everyone shares that wish, however. Ferrari folk – notably Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt – clearly feel there is still much to be milked from the situation spawned by two tawdry men, Messrs Stepney and Coughlan. The day before the McLaren launch, Ferrari revealed the F2008 to the press in Maranello.

As my colleague Richard Williams was leaving, Ferrari’s press officer shook his hand. “So, Richard, you go tomorrow to the launch of the replica?”