Nigel Roebuck

– Brundle on the Beeb, Daytona and F1 2011
– Reducing sound while improving the vision

The idea," said Martin lundle, "was that David [Coulthard] and I would go to the BBC, have a coffee and spend half an hour talking through the broadcasts for 2011 — but they said they wanted us to do a commentary on last year's Australian Grand Prix! I said, 'How long? Ten minutes?' No, no, they said — all of it. So we did the commentary, without any notes or anything, and it really went well — we never tripped over each other once — and they loved it..."
For 14 years, working first with Murray Walker, then James Allen, then Jonathan Legard, Brundle has been the 'expert opinion' on British Formula 1 broadcasts, but he now becomes the lead commentator.
"The way I see the commentary box," said Martin, "is two circles with a slight overlap — and I think from now on, working with DC, there'll be more of an overlap than there was. I'll do more of the 'colour' stuff, and DC'll take over what was my role — let's face it, he's more 'current' than I am. It's only a couple of years since he retired from F1.
"I'll give you an example of how I see it working: when we did this test Australian GP commentary, we discussed the firstcorner shunt — between Button and Alonso — as two racing drivers, and, as it happens, we disagreed over who had caused it! But that was good, I thought — we both had valid opinions, and there's no way we're going to agree about everything. We'll be in the commentary box together, but DC will still do the paddock stuff with Jake [Humphrey] and Eddie [Jordan], and I'll still do some grid walks..."
Recent Fleet Street speculation had it that Brundle was responsible for the departure from the BBC team of Legard, but Martin insists that such was not the case: "Absolutely not. It was not my decision — as I always say, I work for the BBC, they don't work for me! My relationship with Jonathan was always good — he's the easiest guy in the world to get along with."
A busy boy still, Brundle. At the end of January, for example, he was due to return to Daytona (where he won the 24 Hours for Jaguar in 1988 and finished second in '90), to drive a Grand-Am car.
"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "the Daytona 24 Hours is the toughest race in the world — certainly the toughest I ever did, and that was 20 years ago! Mind you, at least there are four drivers per car now. When I did it before there were only three — or two and a half, really...
"We went out to test at Daytona at the beginning of January, and I loved it. Hadn't been there for such a long time, but the place looks a million dollars, and the resurfaced track is like a billiard table. At 51, I'm going to find the race a massive physical challenge, but I'm in reasonable nick, because I did actually work out last year."
Brundle remains the consummate racing enthusiast. When the opportunity arose to return to Daytona — with Mark Blundell, his closest friend, as one of his co-drivers — he thought about it for all of five minutes before saying yes. Through all his 14 years of commentating he continued to race occasionally, and he still harbours a wish to go back to Le Mans, ideally sharing a car with his son, Alex.
"It's a fact that I can't get rid of this passion — it won't let go. I haven't done more racing in the last few years because there's just been so much else, but now I've got rid of all the management commitments, and all the garages, and a number of other things in my life. "I just had too many things going on — and DC's the same now. He's taken everything on, the broadcasting work, the DTM... The thing is, when you stop F1 you're a lost soul, really — where are you going to spend all that adrenaline? I can still do it — I know I've still got speed..."
One concern, a few years ago, lay with Brundle's eyesight. When testing a Super Aguri at Silverstone (for a pre-race TV 1119, feature) he realised he "couldn't really see the apex at Copse", and Copse in an F1 car is a very good place to be able to see properly.
Therefore Martin — who has never worn glasses — had his eyes lasered, and if the procedure, as he described it, made me feel a touch queasy, he said it was painful only for about 10 minutes afterwards. More to the point, it transformed his sight. "I remember going out in the garden, and being amazed by the vividness of the colours of flowers...
"A couple of months later, again at Silverstone, I drove a Williams — and it was like night and day! What the specialist did was amazing — my eyes are set so that one sees in the distance, and the other one reads. If I pick up that menu I can instantly read it, no problem — with my left eye. If I look up, across the room, I do it with my right eye..."
Although Brundle never passes up an opportunity to say how much he loves working for the BBC, still there came a point in 2009 when, like so many of us, he found himself ever more disenchanted with the sport itself. This was the time when FOTA, the Formula One Teams' Association, was at war with the FIA, then still headed by Max Mosley.
By the end of that year, though, Mosley was gone, and a degree of harmony had been restored. Towards the end of last season McLaren's Martin Whitmarsh made mention of the fact that in 2010, pleasingly, the emphasis in the paddock had been on sport, rather than politics.
On top of that, of course, it was a classic Grand Prix season in its own right, one of the most diverting on record. As Brundle says, the quality and depth in the teams and drivers was altogether remarkable: "Last year there were so many races you'd go to without a clue who was going to win it."
When the World Championship was all done, the team principals were polled for their top 10 drivers of the year. Fernando Alonso came out on top, and Brundle wasn't terribly surprised. "If I did a top 10, though, I'd have [Sebastian] Vettel as number one. When you look back at the year, the kid was immense — OK, I know he had the best car, but he should've won it by August or thereabouts. Certainly he made mistakes, but it wasn't always his fault."
The feeling among the team bosses was that Alonso was the most complete of the current drivers. Just as in the Stewart-Rindt era Jochen was regarded as the out-and-out quickest, but Jackie the best, so JYS himself has always insisted that, for him, Alain Prost comes out ahead of Ayrton Senna.
"Yes," said Brundle, "I saw that comment from Jackie recently — with a very rational explanation, I must say. In the end there's no right or wrong answer to this, is there? Someone's opinion is the right answer, because that's what they think — you can challenge it, but it doesn't mean they're wrong. It always amazes me, if I look at F1 forums, how violently people will disagree with an opinion you've expressed! It's a bloody opinion, that's all, and we're all entitled to them, aren't we?
"Going back to Vettel... I spoke to him on the grid in Abu Dhabi. There he was, an hour and a half away from becoming World Champion, but he spoke so eloquently — not in his own language — and so calmly. His serenity in the circumstances seemed to me extraordinary for a lad of his age.
"When the championship was coming down to the wire, Sebastian won three of the last five races. As well as that, he would have won in Korea if his engine hadn't blown, and he should have won in Singapore where he was beaten by Alonso.
"To my mind, Fernando's win there was the best of the season — he stole that race, didn't he? The Red Bull was plainly quicker than the Ferrari, but he laid down a time in Q3, and Vettel nudged a barrier trying to beat it.
"Mind you, the pivotal moment of the race was the start, when Alonso moved across Vettel — that was absolutely brutal, but you could say it was payback for Hockenheim, where Vettel did the same to him. Actually, that was very stupid of Sebastian in Germany — when he chopped Fernando, he delayed himself too, and that let Felipe [Massa] pass both of them. That sort of impetuosity very nearly cost the boy the World Championship, didn't it?"
True enough, and although Vettel indeed calmed down later in the year, his behaviour in the aftermath of the incident with teammate Mark Webber at Istanbul suggested that maturity was still some way off. 'We have had an accident — and therefore it's your fault...', he appeared to be implying with his gestures to the camera, and one remembered sundry tales of toys flying out of prams.
"We still don't know the full story of what was going on behind the scenes there," said Brundle, "and probably we never will. I entirely agree with you about that — but then compare that with his behaviour in Korea, where it looked as though his championship hopes were blown. Maybe he just thought, 'Well, the title's gone now — there's no point in getting upset...' Perhaps he grew up in the second half of the year."
Twelve months ago, looking ahead to the 2010 season, Brundle said that if one were starting a new no-expense-spared team, it would be essential to sign either Vettel, Alonso or Lewis Hamilton: those three, he felt, were in a separate category, and I wondered if he still felt the same way.
"Yes — but I'd add Kubica to it. When he was with BMW I used to think Robert had too many off-days, but now... I was hugely impressed with what he did with Renault — there's a guy who could have won the title in a Red Bull, no question about it."
Polling F1 folk for a drivers' top 10, you're bound to come up with different opinions, but there's little doubt that the man most in the paddock wished to see as World Champion was Webber, who led the point standings longer than anyone else, but came up just short.
"Everyone likes Mark, don't they?" said Brundle. "Just a good bloke, and always very easy to deal with. Mind you, I'll admit I was amazed by the revelation — in his new book — that he drove with a broken shoulder at the last four races! However did he manage to keep that quiet at the time? I liked Christian Homer's remark — that he didn't even know about the book, let alone the shoulder!
"After he'd lost the championship, I sent him a text saying, 'Mate, some of your victories... Any driver who has ever graced an F1 grid would have been proud of them'. Mark seems to be at his best when he thinks the world — or the team — is against him, or when he's angry with himself after a mistake. He seems to need that spur — look at Silverstone, when he was pissed off by what happened in qualifying. I mean, no one was going to beat him that day.
"Why the team took the front wing from Mark's car and gave it to Sebastian, for qualifying, I'll never understand — it was absolutely guaranteed to incense him. That new wing was a bit better aerodynamically, but the big thing was that it was lighter: Mark's incredibly fit and slim, but he's also very tall, and he struggles like hell on weight compared with someone like Vettel.
"He had this thing about the Red Bull team not being behind him, and I thought he played it brilliantly at Silverstone — but when he brought it up again in Brazil, with two races to go, I just couldn't understand it. Here he was, leading the championship, so why did he choose to alienate the team — including the bloke who was maybe going to have to help him? Obviously, Mark saw it as a tactical move, but I couldn't see any upside to it, I must say..."
The friction within the Red Bull team last year has been well documented, the underlying tension at Ferrari rather less so. Massa, returning to the sport after months of convalescence following his Budapest crash in '09, started the year well enough. But it was soon evident that, whereas he had usually had the upper hand on Kimi Raikkonen, he was no match for Alonso.
"Felipe's certainly got to turn it around, hasn't he?" Brundle agreed. "You knew there was something wrong when he didn't even shine at 'his' tracks, like Valencia and Interlagos — places where he'd previously been just about unbeatable.
"There was all that stupid fuss about Ferrari ordering Massa to let Alonso past at Hockenheim, but in reality it went back way further than that — they should have told him to do the same in Melbourne, because Fernando could have won that race.
"He'd lost time in that spin with Jenson at the first corner, but then he came through the field — until he got to Felipe, and there he stayed. I know from the Bridgestone guys that Fernando's tyres were in a far better state than anyone else's — even Jenson's — and the other guys' tyres were worn through. It was the same in Korea, come to that — obviously Fernando is an especially smooth driver, in the way he applies the throttle.
"It was an absolute no-brainer in Melbourne for Ferrari to tell Massa to get out of the way, but instead they just parked Alonso behind him. I said that in the commentary at the time, and when I saw Fernando in the hotel lobby the morning after, I said, 'Your team isn't very happy with me because I said they should have let you pass Felipe.' He said, 'I know they're not — but you were right...'
"I think Fernando is like all the really great champions — passing through F1, taking what he needs from it. He doesn't want any new best friends — his close friends are his old mates from school days: he doesn't want anything apart from victories and titles. Senna was the same — and in both cases their teams really rallied around them because that's what they want, too. Fernando has galvanised Ferrari in his direction, and that's no easy job — a lot of drivers have tried to do it, and failed. Kimi never even tried...
"Actually, I tried to behave like that once when I was at Benetton, in a top team for the first time — I felt I had to, because my teammate was Schumacher! When I was going to my debrief I used to have to push journalists out of the way — they were all there to — speak to Michael, and that was quite hard to cope with. I thought, 'Right, how do I need to act here? I need to be more confident, more aggressive and all the rest of it.' But you can't invent that, and eventually one of the journalists pulled me back down to earth with a bump.
"There's no point in Massa spending all winter thinking, 'Right, I'm going to be like Alonso' — you can't be someone you're not, and if you try you get found out very quickly. I wouldn't want to be Fernando's team-mate, but, at the end of the day, I like the guy. In the paddock I'll say to him, 'Are you up for a chat on the grid?', and he'll always say, 'Yes, sure' — he doesn't mind at all, which is not like some of them..."
At McLaren Hamilton came out ahead of Button, but not as emphatically as many expected. As Brundle remembered, a year ago he suspected that Jenson might be walking into a lion's den, but early in the season he won superbly in Melbourne and Shanghai, and at that point Lewis was the one who seemed unsettled.
"Perhaps Jenson was a tad lucky to win in Australia, although he drove beautifully there, but I thought he was exceptional at Monza — he had the confidence to go with his own set-up, quite different from Lewis's, and make it work. And although he couldn't quite beat Alonso, I'd like to have seen him win that race.
"I love to go 'on board' with Jenson, because the way he drives is just poetry, rather like Prost. Alain used to amaze me. Yes, he always had a better car, but he'd come past me — and it was like he was on an in-lap. I'd expect him to go into the pits — and he didn't, because he was on a hot lap! The guy was literally working at half my rate.
"The only unfortunate thing about Jenson — and DC was the same — is that halfway through a qualifying session there'll be a radio call saying, 'I've got no grip, I've got no balance, I can't get the power down', or whatever, and you know he won't fix it. Now, Prost probably would've fixed it. You just sense there are weekends when Jenson goes on the missing list — he did that sometimes even in '09, when he won the championship.
"A lot of drivers are like that, whereas some — like Michael used to be, and Lewis is — just jockey it along. I get so much pleasure from watching Lewis... acrobatically manage what he's got to deal with. In one top 10 I saw, Lewis was put at number one, which I thought was a bit eccentric, but the guy is a brilliant driver.
"It seems to me, though, that there's a lot he needs to sort out in his life: I think he's still trying to find out who he is, and where he's going — and doing it in the most intense spotlight, which is bloody hard. I can't say I found it any easier to deal with him in 2010 than I had before — in fact, it was even harder, to the point that on a professional level he was almost unapproachable. On a personal level, he's better. But you know as well as I do, if we're at McLaren having lunch, Jenson rolls up, happy as Larry, gives you a wave, comes over to chat. A minute later Lewis comes in, dark glasses on, head down, walking at 40mph, straight into the motorhome..."
It is said of many contemporary politicians that they are ill-equipped to deal with much in their working lives because they have gone straight from university into politics, and therefore know little of real life. As Brundle suggests, there are echoes of this in an F1 paddock.
"These days guys like Lewis are professional drivers from the age of eight, so what experience do they have of life? None whatever. They've never been to university, never been for a job interview... nothing's ever happened to them, has it?
"If you do an apprenticeship, you get punished badly by the older guys you're working with. When I first worked in the [family] garages, I remember getting sent down for a radiator for a Volkswagen Beetle — you wait and you wait, and everybody else is in the know... Stupid little things like that — but you learn from them.
"These guys, who've never known anything but racing, are going to make mistakes, aren't they? It must be hard for them to understand normality — they're multi-millionaires, they've got a huge spotlight on them, they're forbidden to say anything interesting — a nightmare, of course, from your point of view and mine! But when you see them in any sort of social context, they're completely different animals. At the track it's just a lockdown these days, isn't it?
"One of the reasons we all love Rubens [Barrichello] is that he's different. To me he's incredible — the way he keeps the enthusiasm, the passion, going for so long. We had dinner in Tokyo, and I said, 'How do you do it?' He said, 'I just love it — I don't want to do anything else.' It's amazing — he was my last team-mate in F1, and that's 13 years ago! I suppose the thing is, you can do that these days — you can last that long, because you're not going to get smashed up or killed. And I also think the cars, relatively, are quite easy to drive..."
Mention of Barrichello made me realise that we had not yet discussed Rubens's nemesis, one M Schumacher. Recently, I said, Prost offered the opinion that all this talk about Schumacher's problems with the Bridgestone front tyres was an excuse for poor performances. "Before Michael was known for his ability to adapt," said Alain. "It was his greatest quality..."
"It's true," said Brundle. "We used to joke that he could win in a wheelie-bin, didn't we? Michael certainly wouldn't have made it into my top 10 last year. Mind you, I defended him all year — and still he treats me like something that's stuck to the bottom of his shoes.
"For a long time, after we'd been together at Benetton, Michael and I were mates, but then he got very upset about something he thought I'd written — which I hadn't — and we ended up not speaking for five years. Last year there was a bit of a charm offensive after the incident with Rubens in Hungary, but Michael still doesn't understand why everyone got so upset with what he did there.
"As far as his driving was concerned, all year long I felt he needed more time — and I think that's been proven to be true. In some races — Montreal, Shanghai, Singapore — he was appalling, but towards the end of the year he was definitely looking better.
"The big mistake Michael made was to say, 'I'm only coming back to win another championship'. If he'd said, 'It's Mercedes, it's my friend Ross [Brawn], I'm coming back to drive because I love it, let's see how far I can get...', that would have been so much better. He set himself up, didn't he?
"Fans have said to me, 'Mercedes are going to get rid of Michael', but there's no way that could ever happen — Mercedes could not freeze a season like that, could they? Having said that, I'm sure if 2011 is more of the same, he'll just wander off. There is no way he can take that punishment indefinitely..."
I said I thought it ridiculous for company chairman Dieter Zetsche to come out with a statement like, 'Schumacher has not disappointed us...' Mercedes hadn't brought him back for a couple of fourth places, had they?
"I know. It's been a horror story, hasn't it? They bought Brawn — the reigning champions — and they've ended up paying the price of Ross cutting the staff and downsizing — and then they threw Michael into it.
"It was a horrible year for Mercedes — but it wasn't all horrible. I've always been a big fan of Nico [Rosberg] — I think the kid's really good — and if he's trimming up Michael, he should be given credit for that. Instead it's been, 'Michael's having a really a bad time — even Nico's beating him...'
"I really don't understand some people's attitude to Nico — the boy is an extremely good Grand Prix driver. He's not spectacular behind the wheel, but he's very effective, and you notice that quietly and calmly he goes forward in races, rather as Kubica does. He was unlucky in Korea to be taken out early by Webber — he'd already passed Lewis, and not many people do that! You get to the end of a race and you suddenly think, 'Nico's had a good afternoon', without having noticed he was there!
"Nico's got a very.., specific style out of the car that might not endear him to some people, but I really like the guy. He might not be on your 'must-have' list at the moment, but he's knocking on the door."
Brawn, I said, insists that Rosberg was always on his list, even before Mercedes came into the equation, and Brundle was not surprised. "People like you and me go out on the track, and we watch, and we get a feel for it, and we see the results — and we build a picture in our minds. But people in the teams — people like Ross — have a forensic investigation going the whole time.
"Sometimes a team chooses a driver and you think, 'Hmm, that's an unusual one...' and you start looking for all the political and financial reasons and so on. But in reality they've been checking inand outlaps, and everything else — they spot these guys, and that's why you get your Alonsos and Webbers plucked out of Minardi: they're out-performing their cars. If you think about it, the two biggest decisions you'll make — with your €400 million a year — are the drivers you'll put in the cars."

Although contemporary drivers might dispute it, their predecessors insist that the modern Formula 1 car is considerably easier to drive than those of times past, and certainly, when one recalls the height of the turbo era and considers the specification of the mid80s car, it's not difficult to see their point.
Take gear changing, for example. "I can't imagine," said Keke Rosberg, when semiautomatic gearboxes arrived in the early '90s, "how it must be to have both hands on the wheel at all times. In my day, Monte Carlo was a one-handed race track..."
In that period Williams was running Honda engines, and on horsepower only the Renault motor, as used by Ayrton Senna at Lotus, came anywhere close. "Honda couldn't actually tell us how much power we had," said Patrick Head, "because they didn't know themselves! Their dyno only registered up to 1000 horsepower — which they were reaching at 9300rpm. We were revving them to 13500 or so..."
As for qualifying — with boost up — Senna told me the Renault V6 was giving all but 1500bhp. No surprise that Denis Jenkinson — who, like Enzo Ferrari, loved engines above all else — counted the turbo era as his favourite. Those cars were ferocious.
By the standards of today, they were also unsophisticated. Far less, obviously, was known about aerodynamics, but in the cockpit, too, everything was much as it had always been: when a driver changed gear, he pressed a clutch pedal with his foot and moved a lever — and if he got things not quite right, there was a big bang behind him.
Until the end of 1982 the cars also had the benefit, if such be the right word, of 'ground effect' as pioneered by Lotus in the late '70s, wherein shaped underbodies, together with 'skirts' which bridged the gap between bodywork and ground, created a vacuum which sucked the cars to the ground. Cornering speeds went up phenomenally, but when the governing body banned sliding skirts and insisted that in 1982 they must be fixed, suspension — in any real sense of the word — necessarily disappeared: to prevent the skirts from being swiftly destroyed, the cars had to be rock hard — which made them extraordinarily unpleasant to drive.
I remember a conversation with Gilles Villeneuve at Rio, a couple of months before his death. In all my life I never met a driver less of a whinger, but he was very angry about the state of F1 just then. "I think," he said, "that I probably enjoy driving — for its own sake — more than a lot of drivers, but I hate these cars. No one outside F1 can know how bad they are to drive.
"There is a moment, going over a bump while turning into a corner, when you lose vision — when everything goes blurred. The g-forces are unbelievable, and the steering is ridiculously heavy — like a big truck, with the power steering not working. And, of course, we have no suspension. You go over a bump and you feel like someone is kicking you in the back. Your legs are flung around in the cockpit, and your head constantly hits the back of the cockpit or the rollover bar. After a while your head aches and your sides ache — and you become aware of not enjoying driving a racing car.
"Think of it like this: if you make love to a woman, and every time someone sticks a knife in your back, eventually you won't like making love so much, right? In the same way, if you like driving, but feel your head's being punched every time you come into a corner, eventually you won't like that so much. But.., take away the knife, and I still like making love!"
At the end of the year — too late, sadly, for Gilles — Jean-Marie Balestre did take the knife away. The choleric FISA president may have had his detractors, but no one ever doubted his love of the sport — or, for that matter, his conviction that the welfare of the drivers came before all else. JMB took a unilateral decision: henceforth Fl cars would be flat-bottomed.
At the time it was unquestionably the right thing to do. Not only, as Villeneuve said, had the previous cars been horribly uncomfortable to drive, they also — thanks to the lack of suspension — had remarkably little 'feel' in terms of appreciating where was the limit, and where was beyond it. The '82 season had been perilous, with two drivers dead and another grievously injured; as well as that, at Paul Ricard a car — Jochen Mass's March — finished up in a spectator area, miraculously without killing anyone.
After the last Grand Prix, at Las Vegas, I chatted at the airport with the late Derek Ongaro, then the FISA circuit inspector. "To be honest," he said, "I've hated every second of this season. There's something very wrong when the chequered flag comes down, and all you feel is relief that another race weekend is out of the way without someone getting killed..."
Therefore major change was necessary, and Balestre recognised it, and acted upon it. Early in 1983 the teams began testing their flat-bottomed cars, and the drivers found it a dramatically different experience. "It doesn't hurt to drive any more," Rene Arnoux (of Ferrari) told me, "but suddenly it feels like you're always driving in the wet! There is so little grip..."
It was true, but F1 designers being what they are, it wasn't long before they began to pull back lost grip — which now, of course, had to come primarily from the wings. Over time that would be supplemented by such as bargeboards and other appendages — vile to look at, but highly effective.
What suffered, of course, with this greater reliance on wings was the racing. 'Dirty air' — created by the car in front — had a massively greater effect than before, and it became nigh impossible to follow closely that car through a corner of any speed.
Often, when attending CART races in the '90s, I was struck by how much better was the racing — the opportunity to overtake — than in F1. There, of course, shaped underbodies — 'tunnel cars' as they called them — remained, albeit never as they had been in F1 with skirts and so on. So it was therefore possible to have the best of both worlds, to have considerable downforce created by other than external aerodynamics, and at the same time to have a compliant ride.
Perhaps because the stigma of 'ground effect' has remained in the F1 psyche, following those dark days in the early '80s, there has long been a reluctance to entertain a return to shaped underbodies, but now such a thing is on the near horizon.
At the behest of the FIA, Patrick Head and Rory Byrne have for some time been working on a blueprint for future technical regulations, which the teams and the FIA Technical Working Group will discuss at the beginning of next year, and which will form the basis of the 2013 Grand Prix car. Their brief is to come up with a technical specification which achieves greater efficiency — and also an improved ability to race. My understanding is that a fundamental is a return to shaped underbodies, together with considerably smaller wings.
Strange how things can sometimes go full circle. Towards the end of the '80s, when turbocharged engines were banned in F1, I remember being told — by FIA folk and others — that it was merely in line with industry thinking, that yes, there had been a flurry of turbo road cars but the belief now was that this had been a fad, that turbocharging's future lay with trucks and trucks alone.
More than 20 years on, my road car is turbocharged — yours too? And the next F1 engine — considerably smaller, presumably more 'green' — will also be a turbo motor, albeit restricted to four cylinders, which will have an inevitably deleterious effect on the soundtrack of Grand Prix racing. I much agree with Luca di Montezemolo's contention that the new engine should be a V6, but apparently a 'four' it will be. Sad.
This year we see the return of KERS, for which some have more enthusiasm than others, together with the advent of the 'moveable' rear wing and both, it is hoped, will improve the possibility of overtaking. At the same time, though, one can sympathise with Fernando Alonso's concern that things of this kind do detract from actual driving. "It's getting to a point," he said, "that at every corner there are three or four buttons to press, and from a driver's point of view that's not fantastic..."
While they are no longer required to bother with such as gear lever and clutch, therefore, today's drivers must perform tasks previously unknown — the problem, as Alonso says, is that they require the press of a button rather than the input of individual driver skill.
All told, the nature of the Grand Prix car is going to change fundamentally in the near future, of that there is no doubt, and in ways — some ways at least — that will not necessarily have much appeal to the driver, let alone the spectator. Turbocharging may be returning, but don't imagine we are going back to the no-holds-barred days of the mid-80s. "We're only going to have about 65 per cent of the current amount of fuel available for a race," said Head. "That's a given. We were told that's what it will be — and that we have to come up with a spec that's not going to be more than five seconds a lap slower than a current F1 car..."
Ye Gods, five seconds a lap? Since the advent in NASCAR of the carburettor restrictor plate the pole lap for the Daytona 500 has been pegged at around 190mph, but back in 1985, when engines were unrestricted, I watched Bill Elliott lap his Ford at 205 — a sight never to be forgotten. The difference in lap time was three and a half seconds, and trust me, you can readily see that difference.
Then again, there's a whole generation of NASCAR fans who never saw Elliott et al a quarter of a century ago, just as in F1 most of today's aficionados never saw Senna — with one-lap qualifying tyres and 1500 horsepower at his back — going for pole.
And there's some truth, too, in the suggestion that absolute speed per se is of less account than great motor racing. If ever I'm asked to name the greatest pure race I ever saw, I go for the supporting F3 race at the Monaco GP in 1969, when Ronnie Peterson and Reine Wisell swapped the lead constantly, each lapping three seconds faster than they had managed in qualifying.
The next generation of F1 cars look set to be slower, and also to sound less dramatic, than the current one. It seems to me rather important, therefore, that the race they put on should amply compensate. Then, once we've got the cars right, perhaps we can do something about the circuits. Jean Todt seems mindful of the spectator's interests, and for that we should raise a glass.