Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Schumacher is returning to a very different F1
– Why Brundle has been revitalised by the Beeb
– A ‘short-cut’ to solving the lack of overtaking…

So… he’s back.

You think about it now, about that Saturday afternoon at the Hungaroring, and you conclude that had Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn not shed a spring, which injured Felipe Massa, we would almost certainly never have seen Michael Schumacher race a Grand Prix car again. But… events, dear boy…

Initially the news of Massa’s condition was not good, but he came through the brief critical period, and soon the doctors were saying he would not only recover, but also – eyesight prevailing – race again.

As the good word emerged about Felipe’s condition there was of course enormous celebration in the paddock, most of all at Ferrari where he is dearly loved. As soon as it became clear that he would indeed be fit for the start of the 2010 season, Luca di Montezemolo announced that there would be a car for him, and that meant the exit door for Kimi Räikkönen, for Ferrari had already committed to running Fernando Alonso.

This did not, however, solve the short-term problem of finding a driver for the balance of the year, and di Montezemolo lost no time in broaching the subject with Schumacher, who was still on the Ferrari books in the role of ‘consultant’ or some such nebulous title.

Initially Michael declined Luca’s invitation, but within a very few minutes allowed himself to be talked around, and thus the bombshell news went out to the world: Schumacher would partner Räikkönen at Valencia and beyond.

Few had believed that Michael would accept an offer to come back, but the more one thought about it the more it made sense that he would be able to justify it to himself. For one thing, he was coming to the aid of the team with which he had been synonymous for 15 years; for another, he was standing in for his pal Massa; for another yet, it was merely temporary, in a Ferrari which could not be expected to produce miracles; last, he had been bored out of his mind for a long time.

For a brief moment Formula 1 was agog, but soon there came another statement from Schumacher, sorrowful this time: after testing an obsolete Ferrari at Mugello, he had concluded that a neck injury, sustained in a Superbike test earlier in the year, made a comeback impossible. In Valencia he duly – sadly – turned up in his normal ‘advisory’ role.

Into the first turn at Mugello there is a notorious bump, and Michael said that when he went over it on his very first lap he knew immediately, wincingly, he was in trouble. For the rest of the day, he had to drive round the bump, and you can’t go racing like that.

The maddening thing was that the neck injury was gradually coming right – but too gradually to allow him to race an F1 car at that time. If the racing world was disappointed, Michael himself was mortified, for this opportunity to return, even only temporarily, had reawakened – if such a thing were necessary – all his competitive juices. After all, he had never wanted to retire in the first place.

Recently I listened again to the tape of that press conference in September 2006. A few minutes earlier, Schumacher had won the Italian Grand Prix for the umpteenth time, but now he was saying that he had raced at Monza for the last time, that he had decided at Indianapolis, two months earlier, to retire at season’s end.

In fact, we knew what was coming, for the instant the race concluded Ferrari people dashed into the press room and began giving out releases confirming Schumacher’s retirement – and Räikkönen’s arrival.

As Michael spoke, we noted tears in his eyes at one point, and were bound to wonder if he were going or being pushed. While it seemed unfathomable that the best driver in the world might have been faced with a fait accompli, a situation obliging him to quit, there had been rumours to that effect for some time.

Schumacher was closing on his 38th birthday, and Ferrari – in particular di Montezemolo – could hardly be blamed for considering the team’s future. There would, after all, come a time when Michael would take his leave, when Ferrari would need another superstar ready to replace him. Hence, in the summer of 2005, agreement was reached for Räikkönen to move there in ’07.

Quite when Schumacher became aware of this is not known. What is known, however, is that for some little time di Montezemolo had resented his influence in the vetting of potential team-mates. Throughout his career, Michael had been happy to have good drivers alongside him, but never any who might be considered a potential threat.

It always struck me as oddly insecure, and Bernie Ecclestone concurred. “The cars were so good,” Bernie said, “that the only person who could beat Michael was someone else in a Ferrari, and when that person wasn’t allowed to beat him – and, worse than that, was riding shotgun in case somebody could get near him – people didn’t have the respect for him that they might have done. I’d say to him, ‘It wouldn’t matter who was in the other car – you’d beat him’, but we’ll never know, will we?”

At all events, Schumacher was not prepared to have Räikkönen as his team-mate, which is ironic, because the evidence is that he would have dominated him – as, more often than not, did Massa. Most of all, perhaps, Michael was upset because he had not been consulted.

Whatever, if he duly left the stage, he remained in the wings. Part of his ‘consultancy’ role involved testing, and whenever asked to drive he accepted with alacrity – and invariably at least matched the times of the regular drivers. The spirit still burned bright.

At the races, though, it was a different thing. He gave an informal press conference at Barcelona in ’07, and the tone of it was disinterested, even faintly bad-tempered. This was not the role for which life had prepared him.

He continued to come to the races, doing what he could to help Massa, but rarely seemed to smile. I remember walking through a paddock somewhere at the end of a practice session, noting a figure in Ferrari clothing walking back to the motorhome, quite alone, not a photographer in sight. Life had changed a very great deal for the seven-time World Champion.

All the way through his ‘retirement’, Schumacher continued to compete in whatever events came his way – the Race of Champions, German Superbikes, karting – so very clearly the need to race had not been quenched. Hence, should we have been surprised that he acceded to di Montezemolo’s request that he stand in for Massa?

Even by normal F1 driver standards, Michael’s level of competitiveness is extreme. Long ago, during his Benetton years, he drove me round Silverstone in an Escort Cosworth on a monsoon day, and reminded me that ordinary mortals have no clue as to what a car can be made to do. Out at the same time, also in a Cosworth, was Johnny Herbert, his team-mate of the time, and what struck me was Michael’s need to catch and pass him, even in these playful circumstances. Once he’d done it, he started chatting again.

“Did you enjoy that?” he grinned, as we came in. I nodded assent. “Well,” he said, “imagine what it’s like in F1 cars – when we mean it…”

Quite.

Fast-forward to the autumn of 2009, and we find Schumacher ever more mindful of the way of life he had left behind. The opportunity to compete again may have arisen by chance, but it awakened in Michael something that had never been truly dormant, anyway.

Ferrari, with Alonso and Massa signed for 2010, asked the FIA about the possibility of running a third car (entered under a different team), but got a firm no, and that looked to be that for Schumacher – until Jenson Button visited McLaren, and decided he very much liked what he saw. As soon as his signing was announced, we began to speculate about his replacement at Mercedes, née Brawn. Be in no doubt about the overwhelming significance of Ross Brawn, perhaps the only man Michael has ever revered.

Schumacher, too, had been a Mercedes man before, a member of the sports car team almost 20 years earlier. Once he was into F1, competing against them, Mercedes people would routinely say they weren’t greatly concerned, suggesting that in Germany a win by Schumacher was a win by Schumacher, a loss the fault of his team. But while that may have been true, to a point, no one doubted they would have killed to have the Three-Pointed Star on Michael’s helmet. Of such things are marketing dreams made.

Soon after the deal was announced, I called Mario Andretti, and began by reminding him that long ago he’d told me of his belief that comebacks were a mistake.

“Mmm, well, hang on Nigel, that depends on when you leave and why. I was 54 when I left Indycars, and once I’d quit it would have been stupid and non-productive for me to come back. But look at Niki [Lauda], and what he did – came back at 33 or whatever, and won another championship. Now you think about Michael, retiring at the age that he did – not even 40, still in splendid physical condition, and so on. To come back in those circumstances… I mean, all day! You’d be itching to do it, right?

“What’s more, he’s coming back with Ross, who’s been so instrumental in the success of his career – I mean, why wouldn’t you do it? OK, the naysayers will say he has so much to lose, but you know what? He knows the potential negatives – but, most of all, he loves racing, loves driving, just like I did. Remember the emotion in the guy’s face whenever he won a race?

“You’re right that he never seemed happy just coming to the races with Ferrari – he was bored, he had too much energy left, too much still to give, and I understand that.

“In motor racing the only thing that ever stimulated me was driving. I was a team owner for one year, 1968, and I didn’t like it – at all! It just tied me down. I never looked at Colin Chapman or Roger Penske or any of those guys and thought, ‘I want to be like him’. Never. I just wanted to be a driver, and I think Michael’s exactly the same. I hope he goes out there and kicks butt – and I’ve no doubt that he will. Apart from anything else, his coming back will be phenomenal for Formula 1.”

Jackie Stewart I expected to be more circumspect than Andretti. I was wrong.

“I can only compare Michael with myself,” Jackie said. “That’s the only way you can do it. And since I retired, I’ve not had one day of regret – not one. In April 1973 I decided I was going to retire, come what may. I took Ken [Tyrrell] and Walter Hayes to lunch, and told them, but said I would finish that season. I wanted them to know so they could plan ahead, but only them – I never even told [my wife] Helen, because I didn’t want her mentally counting down the races through the season.

“For me, it was unquestionably the right decision, and it didn’t take any edge off my driving at all – I won my third World Championship. The end of the season was sad, obviously, because François [Cevert] was killed, but that had nothing to do with my decision, although a lot of people believed it had.

“I was absolutely ready to retire, that’s my point – and I don’t think Michael was. Something was going on at Ferrari at that time – they thought they had to move him on, and they convinced him it would be a good time to retire. It was clearly wrong – why the hell would he have gone racing Superbikes in Germany? It just wasn’t out of his system – it’s still in his blood, in the way that it’s still in Stirling’s blood. Stirling never wanted to retire – it was forced on him by the consequences of his accident.

“I think Michael made the wrong decision in 2006, and was not really ready for retirement. Yes, he’s 41, but the bug is still there, and I think he can still do it – I don’t think the age thing will be a problem. Whether he can do it for 70-odd laps, and for race after race, with the Alonsos and the Vettels and the Hamiltons and the Buttons and Massas and Webbers… that’s perhaps another thing. There’s a very good group in F1 right now, the best for a long time, and certainly the most competitive pack Michael has ever faced.

“I personally don’t rate him with some of the great drivers from the past, because he made far too many mistakes, and because he had this flaw we all know about – parking the car at Rascasse at the end of Monaco qualifying, the Villeneuve thing at Jerez, the Hill thing at Adelaide… But he had an absolutely magnificent career first time round, and I think his comeback is a huge shot in the arm for F1.”

Be in no doubt. In Italy, perhaps not surprisingly, the tifosi are not too thrilled about it – on the Ferrari website many erstwhile fans branded Michael a ‘traitor’, and he may well face a hostile reception when he gets to Monza in September. But everywhere else the news has been rapturously received, and many, myself included, are savouring the prospects for the coming season more than for a long time. As JYS points out, there are many really good F1 drivers at the moment.

One of them, of course, is Sebastian Vettel, and that raises an interesting point in itself, for Schumacher has never before had to confront another superstar from his own country.

Other things will be different, too. A few years ago, during their Ferrari days, Brawn attributed much of Schumacher’s success to the fact that he worked harder than his rivals: “You can say to him, ‘Have a couple of weeks off, Michael’, between the races, and you’ll get a phone call after a few days: ‘How’s the testing going? Any chance of trying it?’ And he’ll be down immediately! With some drivers, you’ve got to give them a schedule for the whole year, and pick out the days they’re going to go testing – and then if you change it, it’s, ‘Oh, I’ve made my holiday plans’ or whatever. My reaction to that sort of thing has always been, ‘Look, mate, this is your job’, but there’s never any need for it with Michael. He never gets tired of testing – in fact, he loves it…”

Now, though, we are into the age of austerity, and testing is confined to eight days, all before the start of the season. This is something Schumacher will regret more than most.

I have to admit, too, to a certain curiosity as to how Michael, with his… muscular attitude towards anyone presuming to try and pass him, will get along with the authorities in this day and age. It may be only three and a half years since he last raced a Grand Prix car, but in that time the ‘nanny state’ mentality has greatly intensified – in F1, as in life. Over time race stewards were generally given to looking the other way when it came to Schumacher and his excesses, but this time around it might be different – and if it isn’t, such as Alonso and Hamilton and Webber are going to want to know why.

*******

To Knightsbridge for lunch with Martin Brundle in a favourite Italian restaurant, where every member of the staff is – of course – an F1 fan. Almost before we had taken our seats, the maître d’ wanted to know what Brundle thought about Michael Schumacher’s comeback: he himself was delighted, he said. “Even though he won’t be in a Ferrari?” enquired Martin, surprised. “I don’t care!” came the retort. “Maybe Ferrari won too much, anyway. All that matters is that Schumacher’s coming back to F1 – we need some more excitement…”

A bottle of Amarone was ordered, and we chatted about Michael. “Everyone’s saying he’s going to wreck his reputation,” Brundle said, “but will he? I don’t think he will, actually. If he isn’t quite what he was, I think he’ll be forgiven. He’s been away for a bit, he’s 41 years old, and he’s coming back mainly because he misses motor racing – not for the big dollar.

“Perhaps he’s changed a bit,” Martin mused. “Did you see that the other day he said he regretted the Villeneuve thing at Jerez? All the strokes and tricks he pulled… But then that’s part of him, and you can’t have one without the other, can you?”

I thought of Schumacher’s role at Indianapolis in 2005, when Michelin got it disastrously wrong for once, its tyres proving incapable of coping with the final, banked ‘oval’ turn. Various solutions were sought, the most sensible being the insertion of a chicane before the corner; all the drivers signed their agreement – save Michael, who was unwilling to upset Max Mosley, knowing the FIA president to be agin the idea.

Thus, only six cars – the Ferraris, the Jordans, the Minardis, all on Bridgestones – started the race, and Schumacher duly won it after a scrap with team-mate Barrichello. Swathes of race fans left the Speedway vowing never to attend another F1 race.

“That really was one of the blackest days in the sport’s recent history, wasn’t it?” said Brundle. “The night before the race I remember asking David [Coulthard] what was happening. ‘We’re racing,’ he said. The drivers all left the track on Saturday night, thinking they were going to race, and even on Sunday morning some of them still weren’t prepared to accept that they couldn’t.

“Jean [Todt] was a major mover in not agreeing to a chicane, too – but I can forgive him that, because he had his Ferrari hat on, and Ferrari were fine with their Bridgestones. Still, though, it was one of the most dreadful days for F1 that I’ve ever seen. And it was completely self-inflicted.

“Oddly enough, it then turned out to be a great race between the Ferraris – and even on a day like that Michael still had to f*** Rubens! In normal circumstances Bridgestone couldn’t get near Michelin that year, so that was the only possible victory he was going to have – and there was no way he was going to lose it…”

Most in the paddock had long felt that Michelin was appallingly treated by the powers-that-be. As Brundle said, “It really wasn’t very smart to humiliate Michelin on a global stage like that – especially if we get to the middle of this year, and we still haven’t found a replacement for Bridgestone. If a new supplier hasn’t been found by then, the teams won’t have the data for the tyre they’ll be using – so how the hell are they going to design their 2011 cars? To me that’s the biggest peril F1 faces right now.”

Four new teams arrive this year, and there have been suggestions of a two-tier F1, but Brundle suspects that at least one of the debutants will cause a surprise or two.

“One thing I’ve learned is never to underestimate anybody in this business – and I learned that from Mario [Andretti], believe it or not. He will have no idea of that – he hardly knows me.

“When I did the IROC thing, I won races and I was going really well – and Carl Haas started talking to me about going Indycar racing. We were in the paddock at Michigan – and Mario was sitting nearby, listening. I thought, ‘Why would Mario Andretti give a toss about me talking to Haas?’ He was right onto it – of course this was 1990, when both he and his son were driving for Newman/Haas. I thought, ‘That’s interesting. I’m a nobody – yet Mario is still plugged in…’ He wasn’t going to miss a trick – he wanted to know exactly what was going on.”

Brundle reckoned he should have been more like that in his driving career – should have been more assertive, not least with senior figures among the sponsors. “I always used to think, ‘Oh, he’s a bit famous – I’ll stay away from him, I’ll speak when I’m spoken to’, and that was completely the wrong thing to do. Gerhard [Berger] was the best at that – man, did he work the system! I should have learned that a long time ago.

“I know we all laugh about Kimi [Räikkönen], about how he doesn’t talk and all that, but if he was winning every race we’d forgive him for it. If he wasn’t, though, and he wasn’t ticking the other boxes either, then it’s a different matter. Racing purists may hate that, but I’m afraid that’s the way it is. And that’s why Kimi’s out of it. What a waste…”

Good for rallying, though, I said. Martin agreed, adding that he considered the top rally drivers to be the most complete drivers in motor sport.

“When I did Rally GB, in 1999, I was testing in Wales, and Sainz and Auriol were in the other two works Toyotas. We were practising on a special stage, maybe 15 miles long, and by the end of the day I was within half a second a mile of the other two – and I was bloody impressed with myself! [Co-driver] Arne Hertz was impressed, everyone was impressed. But that’s what I do – I go over the same bit of ground and make it better, find the limits, that sort of thing.

“Anyway, we got to the first stage, where it was misty and raining hard – and I was 15 seconds a mile slower! OK, the other two had done it a few times in earlier years, and this was my first time, but… Jesus! They’re talking about ‘flat here’ and ‘flat there’ – 120mph over a blind crest in fog sort of thing – and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t see where I’m going…’ And it was then that I realised those guys have a skill that we – racing drivers – don’t have to employ any more. You might recce the stage in daylight and run it in the dark, or recce it in snow and run it on ice – and then you’ve got one shot, whatever the conditions…

“Whenever Sébastien Loeb wins the Race of Champions thing, or jumps in a Toro Rosso or a Le Mans car and goes quickly, I am not surprised in the slightest, believe me. Those guys have a talent we just don’t know about – like the MotoGP riders in the wet. And it feels a lot faster than it looks on TV, I can tell you…”

Speaking of TV, I wanted to know, how had Brundle enjoyed his first season of working with the BBC?

“I love working for the BBC,” he said immediately. “It’s rejuvenated me. When it changed from ITV to the BBC, I really wasn’t sure I was going to do it. But now, looking back, I can’t understand why. Maybe it’s because I’m a Norfolk boy – I don’t like change. I’d had a dozen years at ITV, and thought that perhaps this was a chance to have a third career.

“I won’t hear a word said against my old ITV crew, but the BBC has a multi-media platform that’s impressive beyond belief – I mean, some of our audience figures are 90 per cent up! Nine zero. There are no adverts, so it’s an open goal to beat that, isn’t it? And when you think about radio, digital terrestrial TV, the website, the iPlayer, the forums, the news channels… I’ve done F1 features on radio stations that I didn’t even know existed!”

What has impressed Brundle perhaps more than anything else about working for the Beeb is the time and energy and creativity put into promoting its F1 programmes. More than at ITV?

“Oh, 10 times more. I’m deeply impressed by the BBC and how they do their sport. They just go for it – the red button is another example of it, the post-race chat when the normal broadcast has finished. We get three times more people watching on the red button than football or rugby do. We’ll get to talk to Rubens or Jenson – whoever turns up – for five or seven minutes. The pressure’s off, and we can really chat.

“I’ve had much more interaction with the bosses at the BBC in one year than I had with the ITV guys in 12 years. I was kind of ready to give it up, and head off to do something else, but I’m so glad I didn’t – I’m really enjoying it.”

Still there were times last season, I said, when Brundle seemed to be far from enjoying it. On one particular occasion, indeed, when we were having lunch at McLaren, Martin appeared disenchanted with the whole sport.

“Yeah, I remember that,” he said. “It was the middle of the Mosley-FOTA thing, and I was depressed – that’s the word. Guys like us have a passion for racing, don’t we? We have a responsibility to tell the truth, to be honest. If I sugar-coated everything the audience would switch off, just dismiss me – and rightly so. You’ve got to tell it the way it is, and that means that sometimes you piss off Bernie or a team or a driver, and then they won’t talk to you – won’t even look you in the eye. You must have had that countless times, and so have I.

“I’ve noticed that, unfortunately, only the negative stuff ever seems to get back to them, and that’s one thing I really hate about this business. The good things you say are just glossed over – they’re expected. But say something spiky – and they hate you for it!

“I think this is something I’m coping with better these days. I have an immense understanding of and respect for what the drivers do – I know how hard it is, and I know how I would be if someone like me rocked up on the grid with a camera crew just as I’m getting ready to race.

“We have to work with these guys, and they’re very sensitive and I understand that. So you’ve got this juggling act of being true and honest about what’s going on, and how you feel about it, and yet maintaining relationships to a point where you can go and talk to them on the grid or in the paddock.

“I’ll admit I’ve no idea where I’m at with Lewis. I think I’ve been a great supporter of his, but I feel like Dracula turning up at a blood donor session when I walk up to him on the grid – and I think, ‘Why is that?’. I mean, it’s only lately I’ve been allowed to approach him on the grid! It’s really weird, and I find the whole thing massively uncomfortable, to be honest.

I know what it’s like on the other side of the fence, so it is necessary to juggle it a bit – but in the end my primary responsibility is to the fans watching on TV. If they ever think I’m bullshitting, I’m done for, and I need to stop.

“Having a strong opinion about something doesn’t always sit comfortably with some people. Bernie tolerates it, but Max couldn’t. But if I resent the way all the positive things you say are glossed over, taken for granted, and only the negative stuff gets mentioned, I’m not crying about how hard it is for me, or anything like that, because it’s the best job in the world…”

*******

Formula 1 ventured to the United States for the first time in December 1959, and it’s fair to say that the drivers were unimpressed by the circuit – Sebring – chosen for the settling of a World Championship between Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss.

I have an LP of the race, originally released by the long-defunct Riverside Records, and it stands as a remarkable document of the period, unlikely, I would venture, to get an airing at a GPDA meeting any time soon.

What did Brabham think of the track? Jack was dry as you like: “Well, it’s the first time I’ve raced at Sebring. I heard a lot of stories about it before I came here – but it’s not as bad as all that…”

Brooks, who had more than once competed in the 12 Hours, knew what to expect. “I’m glad to see the United States come into European-style Grand Prix racing,” he said, “but Sebring is an airfield circuit, and therefore a bit artificial. I prefer the road-type circuits.” What – with trees and brick walls? “Yes, that’s right…”

Moss, who had also many times raced a sports car at Sebring, was rather more overt in his comments. “I like it here, because it’s another World Championship race, but as a circuit it lacks a little character, because it’s an aerodrome circuit, and this is a general feeling among the Grand Prix drivers.

“They’ve cut down a lot of trees at the Esses,” Stirling went on, “and I’m sorry to see it, because, let’s face it, this is a World Championship race, and it would be better if it were run on a proper road circuit. The nearer we can keep it to looking like a road the better it is – and to us roads signify trees and telegraph poles and ditches and banks and houses and brick walls and kerbstones. We haven’t got any of those here…”

Not testing enough, then. Or dangerous. And there were other snippets, too, indicative of a somewhat different time. Four Ferraris were entered, and Phil Hill was asked if they were identical. “Two are,” replied Hill, “but another one has a longer wheelbase, and the fourth car is 42 kilos lighter…”

Just a bit of paring here and there.

It had been confidently expected that the title protagonists would line up first, second and third on the grid, and Moss duly took pole position with Brabham alongside him. As for Brooks, it looked as if his Ferrari would also be on the front row – but then the organisers discovered a time for Harry Schell which they found difficult to believe, it being several seconds faster than any of his other laps and third quickest overall.

This really did seem… unlikely. Through 1959 Schell had driven for BRM, but the team declined to make the trip across the water, and the Franco-American journeyman therefore privately entered a Cooper-Climax under the banner of Ecurie Bleue.

How had his miraculous time been achieved? Well, it went like this. In the course of practice – they didn’t call it ‘qualifying’ in those days – Schell came up behind the tardy Connaught of Bob Said, who failed to notice the Cooper in his mirrors and chopped across its bows. That being so, Schell took to the grass, continued straight on and then rejoined the track, having omitted to go through a corner or two. Taken a short-cut, in other words, admittedly by force of circumstance.

Now, 50 years on, it is proposed that short-cuts become an intrinsic feature of Grand Prix racing. Moreover, it is January 20 as I write, and not April 1.

One never quite knows, when it comes to Bernie Ecclestone and radical ideas about F1, what to take seriously and what not. As history shows, Bernie is not above floating provocative opinions during still periods in our sport, simply to get racing into the papers, but on occasion he apparently means what he says.

Twelve months ago he was obsessed with the awarding of Olympic-style medals to the first three finishers in a Grand Prix; at the end of the season, the driver with the most gold medals would automatically be named as World Champion.

In a perfect world one would always wish to see the World Champion win more races than anyone else, but to eliminate all else from the reckoning seemed a touch over the top, and most in the paddock thought Ecclestone’s plan more than a touch loopy. Not long before the opening race, the FIA announced that it would not, after all, be adopted in 2009 – but added that it had merely been postponed.

That, of course, was during the latter stages of Max Mosley’s protracted presidency; one trusts that Jean Todt will be less inclined automatically to do Bernie’s bidding, and that the medals idea, for one, will remain quietly at rest.

So to the latest madcap scheme. During a visit to the annual Ferrari/Ducati media event in Madonna di Campiglio, Ecclestone declared that he would like to introduce a short-cut at each circuit, with each driver allowed to use it five times in the course of a race.

This, Bernie suggested, would mean that a car wouldn’t get stuck behind a slower one, and the idea had come up, he said, because the FIA’s Overtaking Working Group seemed not to be getting very far in its efforts to facilitate passing.

I find it funny, in a way, that the powers-that-be have lately become obsessed with the lack of overtaking in F1 – it is as if this is a recent phenomenon, of which they have only just become aware. For countless years some of us have suggested that to call F1 ‘motor racing’ bordered on a breach of the Trades Description Act, and more than once it has been murmured that I shouldn’t rock the boat.

During the times of plenty, when F1 was more wealthy – and perhaps more fashionable – than it is today, there was a feeling that the lack of racing didn’t really matter. Look at the crowds, study the budgets, feel the width…

Now it’s a little different. Just as it is these days possible for politicians to discuss immigration without being instantly denigrated as racists, so there are increasing numbers of F1 people prepared to face up to the fact that, when it comes to exciting its fans, the sport has long come up short. Silly amounts of money were being tossed away on 24/7 wind tunnels, whose sole aim was to improve aerodynamic efficiency – and, in turn, make overtaking even more desperate, even more likely to end in contact. Throw in a new generation of ‘health and safety’ stewards, dishing out penalties like Gordon Brown at a private pensions party, and the picture was complete.

“I find MotoGP exciting,” Stirling Moss said not long ago, “and F1 interesting…”

Time and again we made this point to Mosley, and our lack of success was evident on one especially notorious occasion, when Max said he considered a Grand Prix rather in terms of a chess match – the strategy was endlessly fascinating, he thought, and perhaps the key word was ‘endlessly’.

Of late, though, there has been a change in attitude, perhaps spurred by declining Grand Prix crowds. The powers-that-be have at last become aware that ‘The Show’ needs spicing up, as Flavio Briatore alone suggested for years. To that end the Overtaking Working Group was set up, and if it has so far failed to yield the desired result, its very existence is at least an acknowledgement that a problem exists.

If Grand Prix racing is to remain a proud sport, though, and one true to its heritage, it is more than desirable – it is vital – that its problems should not be solved by contrived means, and this is where Briatore, by his own admission as far from a racing purist as you will find, sometimes went too far. “Change it to two short races – that way you get two starts and two finishes,” he said to me once. But when I said that was fine for the minor leagues, but not for something calling itself ‘Grand Prix racing’, I could see from his expression that I’d lost him.

So now we’ve got to short-cuts on race circuits – think of the effect of that on conventional overtaking moves. ‘I didn’t want to risk trying to pass – I was waiting for the stops’ has became familiar through the era of refuelling. But that, mercifully, has at last been concluded, to be replaced perhaps by, ‘I didn’t want to risk trying to pass him – I used the short-cut…’

I’ll confess that when first I heard of it I assumed the idea to be no more than a headline-grabbing scam, but an insider tells me otherwise. Apparently the idea came up first in connection with Monaco (where overtaking, in the normal course of events, is admittedly as good as impossible), and then took wings in the minds of some. It reminds me rather of Mosley’s barmy notion of having every driver compete in every car in the course of a season.

Whatever, the very fact that someone has even thought of something as off-the-wall as short-cuts on race tracks ‘to allow changes of order to take place’ is an indictment of the path F1 has been allowed to follow for way too long.

Then again, as Mosley suggested more than once, maybe I’m too much of a purist. Maybe Harry Schell was simply ahead of his time.

• Don’t miss our podcasts with Nigel and the team – plus special guests – on www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk

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