Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– Brundle says Sky coverage will be for the purists
– Senna’s Williams ride removes Barrichello from F1
– Toro Rosso recruits know to whom they must aspire

Although the 2011 Grand Prix season was dominated by Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull RB7, I think most would agree that, in terms of racing, it was substantially a better year than for a long time. Some of this, true, was achieved by the phoney means of DRS (Drag Reduction System), but to my mind far and away the biggest contribution came from Pirelli, who built tyres with wear characteristics aimed specifically at spicing up ‘The Show’.

It pleased me greatly when Ross Brawn suggested towards the end of 2011 that DRS might well be quietly dispensed with, that the new generation of tyres was on its own quite enough to provide the variety and unpredictability that are the lifeblood of F1 – and which had long been missing during those endless years of Schumacher, Ferrari and (bespoke) Bridgestone tyres.

In point of fact, though, it was tyres that brought an end to Michael’s spree of world championships. Having taken the title in 2000/01/02/03/04, he won only a single Grand Prix in 2005 – and that in a race, at Indianapolis, in which only six cars started.

All the Michelin runners, it will be remembered, were obliged to withdraw because of safety concerns for the French tyres through the long ‘oval’ turn at the end of the lap. Only those on Bridgestones – two Ferraris, two Jordans, two Minardis – went to the grid, and thus it was that names such as Monteiro, Karthikeyan, Albers and Friesacher figured in the top six of a Grand Prix, all of them lapped by Schumacher and Barrichello.

One way and another, it was a pretty still afternoon: Michael – to keep his hand in – ushered his team-mate off the road while taking the lead, but otherwise there was little to sustain the disillusioned spectators’ interest, and understandably many of them never came back to Indy for an F1 race.

In the paddock we had known for quite a while that the Michelin runners wouldn’t be starting, but this information was not shared with the fans, and it was the height of cynicism – presumably to honour some financial commitment – that 20 cars came out for the parade lap, only for 14 of them to peel off into the pit lane at the end of it. Only then did 120,000 folk in the grandstands begin to understand that they had been had. It was one of the more shameful episodes in the sport’s history, and the FIA’s intransigence, in refusing to consider any solution to the problem (including the insertion of a temporary chicane), made a joke of the phrase ‘governing body’.

If tyres played a considerable role in the outcome of races last year, so also – for a very different reason – they did in 2005, for during the preceding winter the FIA had, out of the blue, decreed that in-race tyre changes were henceforth banned. The companies therefore went to work on building tyres good for 200 miles, and – the Indy debacle apart – Michelin did a very much better job than Bridgestone. Schumacher contrived still to finish third in the world championship – but his 62 points fell rather short of Alonso and Raikkonen, on 133 and 112 respectively. Bridgestone, in sum, was humbled, and no one was greatly surprised when the FIA announced that – after a single year – the ‘no tyre changes’ rule was to be rescinded…

On occasion, though, Schumacher did manage to be genuinely competitive in 2005, as at Imola, where he goofed in qualifying and started only 14th, but came through to second in the race, with only Alonso’s Renault ahead. Fernando, whose engine had already taken him to victory in Bahrain, was obliged to run all afternoon with a reduced rev limit, and faced a busy time with Michael through the last dozen laps.

It was indeed a mesmeric scrap, and everyone was transfixed. Friends at home later told me that they, too, had been glued to the screen – hence their keen disappointment when suddenly, with four laps to go, the race was interrupted by a commercial break! By the time coverage was resumed the San Marino Grand Prix was all but done.

That day stood as a low watermark in ITV’s coverage of Grand Prix racing – indeed, all these years on fans still remember it, as do I the scene at the airport in Bologna that Sunday night, when everyone was commiserating with Jim Rosenthal, then ITV’s F1 anchorman. In the press room we had learned – almost as it happened – of the fateful decision to ‘go to commercial’ in the UK, and of the almost simultaneous meltdown of ITV’s websites and phone lines.

Rosenthal was only too aware of the furore back home, and clearly relieved to get a sympathetic response from F1’s insiders. He personally had had nothing to do with the decision, and readily understood why British fans were as livid as they were. Problem was, contracts were contracts, and there had to be a certain number of ad breaks in the course of a Grand Prix…

Why, though, leave it until four laps from the flag? One charitable theory was that the man making the decisions perhaps assumed that Schumacher would swiftly dispense with Alonso (as he had Jenson Button), at which point the ads could spew forth without causing too much offence. If such were the case he was unlucky, for Fernando resolutely stayed in front, and with every passing lap the decision to ‘go to commercial’ necessarily became more agonised. By the time it was finally taken, furious condemnation from viewers was guaranteed.

As many pointed out, it was not, after all, as though a sainted football match were ever interrupted by commercial breaks. Can you imagine a situation, with Manchester United and Chelski 2-2 with five minutes left, and a commentator obliged to say, ‘We’ll be back in three minutes…’? Nor I, and that was always the great failing in ITV’s coverage of F1: never from the beginning of discussions should it have been countenanced to have the race – the race – interrupted for any reason, let alone something as irritating as adverts. A friend of mine kept a list of those companies pumping their products at him during the Grands Prix, and resolved never to buy any of them. Illogical it may have been, since it was this that was paying for the coverage in the first place, but I could understand his point of view.

“Yes, the ad breaks infuriated everyone,” said Martin Brundle, who began his broadcasting career with ITV in 1997. “If ever there was a sport not cut out for them, it’s F1 – but ITV’s business model was such that they couldn’t afford not to put the ads on when they did, because they were paying so much money to cover it. And, of course, over time the ad breaks got longer – going from one minute 45 seconds to two minutes 45…

“Naturally the viewers hated that, and I completely understood it, but to make any financial sense out of covering F1 that was what ITV had to do. Having said that, though, it annoys me to read that ITV weren’t very good. I don’t subscribe to that. They did the broadcasting of F1 for 12 years, and – other than the ad breaks – I think they moved the coverage on massively, given what they inherited from the BBC…”

Brundle has a point. Although the Beeb’s coverage of F1 had always been highly professional, it was very much of the ‘no frills’ variety, the corporation relying heavily on the popularity of Murray Walker and, for many years, the astuteness and irreverence of James Hunt.

A poignant memory is of arriving home on the Tuesday morning after the 1993 Canadian Grand Prix, and playing back the messages on my answering machine. One was this: “Nigel, J. Hunt, Monday evening. Just ringing for a catch-up – give me a shout. Bye…” On my way in from Heathrow I’d been given the news of James’s death late the previous night. He, like Murray, had not been in Montreal, because it was a long-haul race, and cheaper for the BBC to have the two of them watching a monitor in London.

So well were these broadcasts put together, however, that few viewers were aware that Murray and James were not always where they appeared to be. Relatively, the coverage was done on a shoestring, and if, when ITV won the contract, some fans found the music and glitz took a little getting used to, still there was no doubt that many more background stories and interviews were aired than had previously been the case. Brundle is right: in the era of ITV the coverage of Grand Prix racing undoubtedly became more comprehensive. If only it hadn’t been for those wretched ads…

When the BBC got the British TV rights back for 2009, coverage of F1 reached a new level of popularity. “No doubt about that,” said Brundle. “It was more of a Top Gear style programme, and the audience figures reflected that – four million for qualifying, and six million for the race...”

“I think the British – the BBC – do a perfect job,” commented Niki Lauda, who has himself worked in television for many years. “Martin and David [Coulthard] – I think they’re the best of the lot, and they also have so many others working with them. They see so many different things, which a lot of the commentators don’t even recognise.”

True enough. It was an inspired idea, for 2011, to put Coulthard in the commentary box with Brundle, and for many the biggest loss in the new BBC/Sky arrangement is that the partnership has been broken up. While David remains with the Beeb, Martin – after long deliberation – is away to Sky.

“I’m slightly crestfallen not to be working with DC any more,” he said. “I feel a bit as though I’ve moved from McLaren to Ferrari, or from Man U to Man City. I don’t like change – I’m the Norfolk boy who lives five miles from where he was born, 52 years ago. It wasn’t an easy decision to take. Rest assured, I’ve lost a lot of sleep over it…”

It was in Hungary, early on the Friday morning, that news broke of the BBC’s decision to cut back on its commitment to F1, to cover only half the Grands Prix live, while Sky would transmit the lot. In these austere financial times cutbacks have become a way of life and the BBC concluded that its spending on F1 – close to £50m a year – had become untenable. Many believe that, had Bernie Ecclestone been approached for a discount, it might well have been granted, but in the event apparently that never arose, and so the deal with Sky was done.

Done very quickly, too, so that it took everyone – Brundle included – completely by surprise. On Twitter, Martin at once made his feelings clear: “Not impressed…”

“I’ll admit,” he said, “that for a time I actually got a bit demotivated. After Hungary I don’t think I went into the track on a Thursday at any of the other races. The last thing I want to do is beat up on the BBC, but I do want people to understand why I would at least engage with Sky. Frankly, I felt the BBC let us down because they changed the ground rules – they told me all the way through that they’d never ever not completed a contract, but then they bailed out a couple of years early and that’s what caused this situation.

“I thought it was very badly handled. We got the news in the TV compound in Hungary that morning, and after very little briefing we then had to walk into the paddock and face the world’s F1 media. It really didn’t need to be announced instantly.

“I went to see Bernie that weekend, once we’d got the glad tidings, and I said, ‘What d’you want me to do?’ He hesitated for a second, and then he said, ‘I want you to go to Sky’. It wasn’t that that made my decision, but it was worth paying attention to…”

Brundle knows that many have assumed he is going to Sky simply for the money, but while he admits that was hardly a deterrent, he is emphatic that there was much more to his decision than that. “As I said, I agonised a long time over it, but I’ll admit to some frustrations with the BBC – I wanted to do more technical stuff, but increasingly it seemed to me that the content was coming under the control of one person, and I didn’t always agree with some of it.”

What struck me, I said, was that there appeared to be an increase in gimmicky stuff in the pre-race content, sometimes at the expense of more interesting and relevant stories. When I got home from Silverstone, for example, and watched a recording of the afternoon’s events, I was astonished that Alonso’s exuberant laps in Bernie Ecclestone’s ex-Gonzalez Ferrari 375 – for many spectators a true highlight of the day – were nowhere to be seen.

“Yes,” said Brundle. “We missed the whole thing with Fernando – and then he goes and wins the Grand Prix! The other thing about Silverstone was that the story of the weekend was the blown exhaust controversy – something that at that one race made the cars a second a lap slower – and we gave it maybe two minutes…

“It wasn’t until race weekend in New Delhi that I finally made up my mind to go to Sky. There was one moment when I thought, ‘I don’t care how many people are watching – this is not the sort of F1 television I want to be making…’ I know not everyone would agree with that – the BBC have been getting the sort of audiences for qualifying that ITV used to get for the race, and that’s extraordinary, so something’s right! If they’d played a different hand, I wouldn’t have left. Sky will be more for the F1 purist than the casual viewer…”

When first I heard that, I’ll confess to being surprised, but Brundle said it was indeed the case, and had played a big part in his decision. “Ever since the deal was announced, Sky’s had people at the races, just filming promo stuff: in Abu Dhabi they had 17 people there, with five cameras. They’re going to show the new car launches, the pre-season tests, and at the Grands Prix they’re going to show both practice sessions on Friday, and the one on Saturday morning, as well as qualifying and the race – which they are not going to interrupt with ad breaks…

“I took for ever to make up my mind, but I’m convinced I’ve done the right thing – even if I’m probably going to be doing three times more work than with the BBC. Everyone I’ve met at Sky talks my language, and I’ve been astonished by the commitment they’re making to F1. When I was there recently, a McLaren F1 show car was being delivered – it’s in the lobby, just to motivate everyone!”

If Brundle’s enthusiasm for his new job with Sky is unbounded, he well knows that not everyone shares it. On websites and blogs some fans have called him a traitor for leaving the BBC, and of course some of this animosity stems from a widespread distaste for Rupert Murdoch and all his works.

There is also the question of cost: not surprisingly folk instinctively baulk at the idea of paying for something previously free, and a Sky Sports subscription is not cheap – particularly at a time when everyone, at least to some degree, is suffering from the financial holocaust spawned by those darling bankers, with a little local help from G Brown. For some the cost of a subscription will simply be too high, while others will perhaps find a way to finance it by making economies elsewhere. It seems beyond doubt that Sky’s coverage will be more comprehensive than anything previously seen, so perhaps in the coming years we are going to find out how many people are casually interested in F1 and how many are devoted to it.

“When I was a kid,” said Brundle, “I used to struggle to stay awake until 11 o’clock, listening to Murray and James doing a one-hour highlights programme of that day’s race, and then I’d struggle to get to school on time the next morning. Now you’re going to have a dedicated channel covering F1 and you’re going to get the might of Sky versus the might of the BBC – I mean, which bit of that do the fans not get?”

Time will tell. Whatever else, though, it’s reassuring to know we will not have a repetition of Imola 2005…

*

It is mid-January as I write, and as of now we know the identities of all but one of the drivers who will be competing in this season’s World Championship. Pedro de la Rosa still awaits a team mate at HRT, and while this is unlikely to keep anyone – save candidates for the drive – awake, rather more surprising is that only now have we learned that Bruno Senna will partner Pastor Maldonado at Williams, this putting an end to Rubens Barrichello’s hopes of a 20th season in Formula 1.

Williams had an atrocious time of it in 2011, Barrichello and Maldonado contriving to score but five points in a season in which Toro Rosso, immediately above them in the table, ended up with 44. Frank’s team finished ninth in the constructors’ championship, ahead only of the ‘new’ – or not so ‘new’ – outfits, which again failed between them to put a point on the board. In 2010 Williams had been sixth, with 69 points, and both Barrichello and Nico Hulkenberg had their moments; this time around a more radical car simply didn’t work, and even Rubens struggled to maintain his perennially sunny demeanour.

As Frank has always maintained, F1 is a meritocracy and should remain so. Reward according to results, in other words, not only in terms of what a team receives from Bernie Ecclestone’s bottomless vault, but also from the point of view of sponsor interest and outlay. Williams have not won a Grand Prix since Juan Pablo Montoya’s BMW-powered car beat Kimi Raikkonen’s McLaren at Interlagos in 2004.

Lately times have been hard, therefore, as clearly evidenced a year ago by the replacement of the immensely promising Hulkenberg by Maldonado. When this was announced the press uniformly concluded that Pastor’s Venezuelan petro-dollars had swung the drive in his direction, and it was an absurdity when Williams CEO Adam Parr denied this was the case, somewhat curiously describing the journalists’ reasoning as ‘repulsive’.

It wasn’t repulsive any more than it was incorrect. In the press room down the years I would say there has been more natural sympathy, in every sense of the word, for Williams than for any other team in the paddock. Occasionally that was perhaps over the top, but such has been the essential affection for Frank and Patrick Head that there was always pleasure in their successes, resolute support for their team in less felicitous times.

After several disappointing seasons, to say nothing of the worldwide economic meltdown, it was no surprise that Williams needed to take a ‘paying driver’, and no disgrace, either, so quite why Parr reacted as he did remains unclear: the press room wasn’t born yesterday, and history shows that few have been the teams unfailingly able to pick their drivers simply on merit. As last season came to an end at Interlagos, Maldonado was the driver confirmed for Williams in 2012, Barrichello the one left dangling.

Several friends of Rubens tried gently to point out to him that probably this was the end of the road. His had been a distinguished F1 career, ranging over an unequalled 326 Grands Prix, but maybe now it would be better to quit, have a big celebration at his home Grand Prix, than face being shown the door, as has happened to so many others over the years.

Barrichello, typically, declined to go along. He may have earned a great deal of money from his marathon spell in F1, but essentially Rubens is one of those rare souls who loves driving for its own sake, and his enthusiasm for the life of a Grand Prix driver is just as it was back in 1993. Three years ago, when Honda’s late-in-the-day withdrawal from F1 left him without a drive, he had weeks of anxiety while Ross Brawn decided who should partner Jenson Button in the reconstituted and renamed team, so this was not a new situation for him: he would not do the ‘emotional farewell’ thing at Interlagos, he declared, because he wasn’t ready to say farewell.

Many suggested it was time for Barrichello to go because, well, because he was getting on a bit, wasn’t he? True, he will be 40 in May (four months after Michael Schumacher’s 43rd birthday), but that in itself was no reason to stop – the car, after all, doesn’t know how old the driver is.

When he got the Brawn drive for 2009 finally, plenty of observers thought that a younger man should have been signed, but Rubens won twice that year, at Valencia and Monza, and through the second half of the season undeniably had the edge on Jenson, who went on to become world champion. After years in the wilderness with Honda, both men showed that in the right car they could get the job done.

“That’s the most frustrating thing about F1,” said Barrichello. “If you haven’t got the car, you can do nothing about it – it’s not like tennis, where you just have a racquet, and, OK, sometimes you have a bad phase, and then you come out of it. I had success at Ferrari, none at Honda, then success again with Brawn, and it was nothing to do with talent – my mind has changed over the years, but I don’t think my actual talent has ever changed...”

After a single season as Brawn the team was bought out by Mercedes, Button going over to McLaren, Barrichello to Williams. After the successes of 2009 this was widely seen as a step down for Rubens, but he refused to see it that way. “If you look back to interviews I did when I was karting in Brazil, you’ll see that when I was asked which team I wanted to drive for in F1, I always said Williams. I think this is the right moment for the team to get me – they’re getting all my experience and enthusiasm and love and passion for driving.”

It should not be forgotten, either, that his signing of a Williams contract obliged Barrichello later to turn down another offer from… McLaren, no less. “It didn’t bother me,” he said. “I’d made the agreement with Frank, and I was a happy man.”

Quite apart from anything else, Rubens – for the first time in his F1 career – was unequivocally number one driver for a team, and he had a staunch ally in technical director Sam Michael, who had worked with him at Jordan in the early days. In 2010 I asked Sam how the renewed partnership was working out, and his response was instant: “Rubens is the best driver I’ve ever worked with, full stop.” Really?

“Absolutely. How he hasn’t been world champion three or four times I can’t imagine. He’s not far off 40 – and he still has the enthusiasm of a rookie. When I talked to Ross about him, he said, ‘You know, the cars that took Michael to all those victories would never have been the cars they were without Rubens…’ I can only say that I’ve never met a driver who understood racing cars, and how they work, like him.”

Now, though, Sam Michael has left Williams for McLaren, and there’s no doubt that the last year has been one of seismic change for Frank’s team. As Mike Coughlan moves in as technical director, so Patrick Head, while remaining a Williams man, ends his time with the F1 team, and although for some years he had been less directly involved than formerly, symbolically his departure truly does mark the end of an era. Doubtless Head will continue to pop up at a Grand Prix here and there, for racing is in his DNA, but in future Williams will not – cannot – be Williams as she is spoke.

There appears in some circles to be a belief that racing drivers have a sell-by date, that once a certain age has been reached they should gracefully step aside to allow guys perhaps half their age to move in. I have a certain sympathy for this view, in the sense that it appears – in this era of testing bans – ever more difficult for a young driver to register his talent and lay claim to a race drive. That said, there is no logic in dropping a driver simply on grounds of age: experience, after all, will always have a hand to play, and as Sam Michael said of Barrichello, “there’s almost nothing that can happen over a Grand Prix weekend that he hasn’t seen a hundred times before…”

When Rubens was awaiting word from Brawn three years ago, one of his rivals for the drive was Senna, and the same applied now with Williams. In an ideal world no team would choose to go racing with two virtual rookies – Senna and Maldonado – but Bruno had considerably more financial backing behind him than Rubens and that was not to be discounted in this financial climate. Even before the credit crunch ‘drivers with a budget’ always found themselves welcomed by the smaller teams, but time was when Williams could pick and choose. Let’s remember that Nigel Mansell, in his world championship season, left the team rather than go up against Alain Prost in 1993, and a year later Prost did the same, because Ayrton Senna was coming on board for ’94. Fifteen and 20 years ago everyone wanted to drive for Williams.

*

Elsewhere on the grid, there was some surprise when Toro Rosso announced that neither Sébastien Buemi not Jaime Alguersuari would be retained for the coming season, but I must say it seemed to me no more than logical, if perhaps a touch harsh. Toro Rosso, after all, exists very much as a proving ground for young drivers, with a view to their possible elevation to the Red Bull team, and while Buemi and Alguersuari both did a competent job, there was little evidence that either could one day reach the top level. The feeling was that they had had their chance, and now it was time for others from the ‘Red Bull Academy’ to try their luck. Hence Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne drive for Toro Rosso in 2012, and there seems good reason to believe that one of them may eventually move up to partner Sebastian Vettel.

This, after all, is how Vettel himself progressed. As BMW’s test driver, he made his F1 debut at Indianapolis in 2007, standing in for Robert Kubica, who had suffered an enormous accident in Montreal the previous weekend. Sebastian finished eighth at the Brickyard, but Robert was back at the next race, Silverstone, so that looked like the end of his racing for the moment.

Not necessarily so. Over at Toro Rosso they had tired of Scott Speed’s unwelcome blend of modest pace and curious behaviour, and Vettel, just celebrating his 20th birthday, seemed the obvious candidate to replace him. For all that, it amazes me still that the approach to BMW proved successful, that Mario Theissen – who must surely have been at least thinking in terms of replacing Nick Heidfeld with Vettel for 2008 – allowed him to go elsewhere. When I asked Mario about it at the time, he said BMW had not wished to stand in Vettel’s way, and while that was all very laudable, still it seemed extraordinary that this German company would let this German prodigy slip through its fingers.

It should be remembered that back then the regulations were somewhat looser, in the sense that a Toro Rosso was effectively a Red Bull, if always an update or three behind. Having said that, Adrian Newey’s Renault-engined RB4 was a good car, rather than a great one, and as the 2008 season progressed the Ferrari-powered Toro Rosso was able to close the performance gap. At Monza, where the weather was unspeakably foul in qualifying, Vettel shook the establishment by taking pole position, threatened – remarkably – only by Heikki Kovalainen’s McLaren.

These two were comfortably quicker than the rest and I can remember the exhilaration in the McLaren camp afterwards, for the forecast for Sunday was similarly dire, and Kovalainen looked a strong bet. “You’ve got it made…” an engineer said to Heikki.

As it was Kovalainen indeed drove a fine race to second place the next day, but he could do nothing whatever about Vettel, who led confidently from the start, and in the atrocious conditions never looked like making the mistake under pressure many – the McLaren man included – had predicted. Not least because he was never under any pressure.

It was one of those days you never forget, a race destined to sit in motor racing legend because it went so much against the state of play and featured a driver you knew instinctively was going to be one of the great ones. “This kid’s the real deal, isn’t he?” said Martin Brundle afterwards.

He was. At the end of the 2008 season David Coulthard announced his retirement and, as had long been planned, Vettel duly slid into Red Bull. The rest – three seasons, two world championships, 20 Grands Prix victories – we know. Messrs Ricciardo and Vergne will dream of such things.

“Seb’s a brilliant racing driver,” said Brundle, “but he’s also smart. Something I’ve learned since I stopped driving – and something the current drivers, by and large, have failed to learn – is that journalists, whom they hate bothering them, are the opinion formers. And in the time since I turned from gamekeeper to poacher Sebastian’s one of the very few I’ve met who’s worked that out. They’re all obsessed with saying the right thing at press conferences, but they haven’t worked out how much more it means if you’ve got a journalist or TV guy wandering round the paddock, saying, ‘Tell you what, that Vettel is a lovely kid…’”

So he was, and – perhaps more remarkably – so he still is. Without question there is a tungsten side to Vettel, as members of his team can attest, but in normal circumstances he remains as unaffected, as witty, as the day I first met him. Perhaps he learned lessons from Gerhard Berger, co-owner of Toro Rosso during his season and a half with the team. “All through my career,” Gerhard said, “I always tried to be myself. It’s much easier that way, and I told Sebastian he should do the same – when you put on an act, people can always tell…”