Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Tyler Alexander is gone, and with him another link to a simpler time in motor racing, to what many look upon as the sport’s golden age. Note I used the word ‘sport’, for that was how – in the face of increasing evidence to the contrary – Tyler stubbornly saw motor racing right to the end of his life. “I’ll grant you it’s not easy sometimes,” he acknowledged when we had a heart-to-heart about the state of play a while ago, “but once you’ve learned how to push the bullshit to one side, you can do it…”

This was a man of real quality. In today’s politically correct world to use a phrase like ‘old school’ is to invite opprobrium, as I noticed in a recent newspaper piece about a TV presenter currently under suspension. “He’s very ‘old school’,” a colleague sniffed. “He tends to say what he thinks…”

Well, mercy me, imagine that! The deadly combination of PC and PR may exert a steel grip on free speech these days, but thankfully there will always be a few who slip through the net, and the late Mr Alexander was one such. Tyler was indeed ‘old school’, and not in any modern pejorative sense, either: he worked tirelessly for more than 50 years, his sense of loyalty was unquestioned – and, yes, he said what he thought, usually in words of one syllable. 

For ever, of course, Tyler will be synonymous with McLaren, by which, first and foremost, I mean Bruce, for whom he went to work in 1964, for whom he would have taken a bullet.

“It’s a fact that Bruce left a mark on everyone who ever met him,” Tyler said. “He had this incredible ‘never give up’ attitude. We’d be looking for something in the factory, and none of us could find it – he’d just keep going until he found it, and an hour later he’d come back with it. That kind of mentality sort of transferred itself to us, and in a great many of us it stuck, and stayed there.”

Alexander was not at Goodwood that Tuesday morning in June 1970 when McLaren was killed in a testing accident. “Actually, I was at Indianapolis, in the restaurant of the Howard Johnson down the road from the race track, where we stayed. I was having breakfast with Dan Gurney, when a message came over the speaker system to say ‘phone call for Mr Alexander’. It was Teddy [Mayer], calling to tell me what had happened. Then I had to tell Dan, of course…

“Teddy got Dan to drive both the F1 car and the Can-Am car, and he was absolutely the right man at a time like that. He got everyone back on track. Such a wonderful guy – he really helped McLaren through a terrible time.

“Something you have to remember, too, is that, at the time of Bruce’s death, Denny [Hulme] was also injured. He’d burned his hands badly in testing at Indy, and came back to racing long before he should have done – drove the Can-Am car at Mosport, where Dan won, and somehow finished third. He couldn’t get out of the car at the end – one of his hands was actually stuck on the steering wheel. He and Dan did what they did because it was for Bruce, and it was the same for all of us. The guy was like no one else I ever met…”

Gurney also won the second race, at St Jovite, but soon afterwards was obliged by contractual conflicts to part company with McLaren. Essentially, though, his work had been done, and the recovering Hulme went on to dominate the balance of the Can-Am season.

Over the years, apart from brief spells with Carl Haas’s short-lived Formula 1 venture and with BMW’s IMSA team, Alexander was always a McLaren man, readily adapting to working in Formula 1, Can-Am or Indycars, and it occurred to me a while ago, as I read his memoirs, that, with the possible exception of Roger Penske, he must have worked at more different circuits than any man in history. I mentioned it when last I saw him, at Silverstone in July: “You know what? I’d never thought about it, but you could be right. There are probably places I’ve clean forgotten – I’ll start a list, and let you have it next time we meet…”

If you didn’t know him well, Tyler could come across as gruff and hard-nosed – we’re back to the ‘old school’ thing again. If he worked hard to hide his sentimental side, undoubtedly it was there, but it wasn’t on show to everyone. Like all worthwhile people, he took a little getting to know, but once he had concluded you were not a phoney, that you knew motor racing and were to be trusted, you had a friend for the ages.

One of the younger members of the press room, who had not experienced Formula 1 during its truly perilous days, once told me that he thought Alexander’s attitude to racing callous. All that showed was that he didn’t know Tyler very well, or the times through which he had lived. If the death of Bruce McLaren had been the most significant tragedy of his professional life, it was only one of many losses he had experienced. Time was when fatalities were so frequent that if they were always a shock they were not a surprise.

“You have a lot of emotion when things go wrong, sure,” Tyler said, “but you’ve got to learn to deal with it – as we have in this business for years and years. You just do, don’t you? Some of us… learn some things, you know: in simple terms, things like that toughened you up. The emotions were there, but you had to get on with it, and Bruce instilled some stuff into us that helped us do that – talk to anyone who knew him or worked for him, and they’ll tell you the same: he just did.

“I learned a long time ago to deal with that stuff – I had to. It’s just the way it was in those days. By the time Senna was killed, everything had changed so much, and for some people Formula 1 kind of folded up – but they were people who didn’t understand the sport. For the rest of us,
it was, you know… it happens, right? I remember that day like it was yesterday, saying to myself over and over again, ‘Don’t die, you son of a bitch – just don’t die’ – with the tears running down my face…

“Despite the horror of the whole thing, the race was eventually restarted, and the other side of your mind said, ‘You’d better get on with things here.’ If you let yourself drop into some kind of pit, it just screws you up, and you’d be better off walking away from it completely. In this business there are a lot of nasty things, as well as a lot of good things, and if you’re going to survive in it you’d better face that.”

Hard-nosed? If that’s how you care to see it, perhaps, but Tyler would have called it ‘realistic’, and he was right. In my book he had all the right values, with class – in the important sense of the word – to throw away. As with a man like Innes Ireland, I shall miss him a great deal.

Within hours of Tyler’s death there came news from Italy that Maria Teresa de Filippis was gone, too, at the good old age of 89. I never knew the aristocratic lady well, but always greatly admired her: how could I not when, as the first woman to compete in Formula 1, she drove a Maserati 250F at the ‘old’ Spa-Francorchamps in 1958?

Prior to this, de Filippis had been successful for some years in Italian sports car racing, but although she adored the world in which she lived inevitably there was great sadness at the loss of people around her. In 1957 Eugenio Castellotti was killed at Modena, and Alfonso de Portago in the last Mille Miglia, and in ’58 the lives were lost of Luigi Musso at Reims, Peter Collins at the Nürburgring and Stuart Lewis-Evans at Casablanca. World champion Mike Hawthorn died in a road accident at the beginning of 1959, and when Jean Behra, a close friend, was killed at AVUS later that year, Maria Teresa called time on her racing career. “Jean was a wonderful man, very kind to me, very simpatico,” she told me at Monza years ago, “and when it happened to him, I decided the racing world had become too painful…”

De Filippis married soon afterwards, and concentrated on her family, but if she had no direct contact with the sport for many years, she never lost her love of it, and in 1978 joined the Club Internationale des Anciens Pilotes de Grand Prix, of which she was to become General Secretary, and ultimately Honorary President.

Periodically the club organised events for its members, and one such – in Venice, immediately after the Italian Grand Prix in 1992 – I was privileged to attend. Maria Teresa scurried everywhere, very much the earth mother of the affair, which was superbly organised, and included memorable outdoor dinners at sumptuous villas, some of them owned by club members.

More than 40 anciens pilotes were on hand, so that wherever one looked there was a god of the sport, as well as evidence of a camaraderie long lost. I mentioned this to Phil Hill, and he nodded in agreement: “They were different days, weren’t they? Yes, of course we’re all thrilled to see each other again – apart from anything else, I guess it’s a reminder that we survived…”

***

It may sound rather less glamorous, but the renamed F1 Grand Prix Drivers Club, with Howden Ganley as its president, survives today, and I’m very glad it does, for contemporary Formula 1 has long cared little for its heritage or for those who created it.

You may think this surprising and not a little ironic, given that in these troubled Formula 1 times it is largely the heritage of the sport that persuades many of its older supporters – who are apparently not being replaced in great numbers – to keep faith with it.

When I watch The Masters on TV, I am every year struck anew by the reverence in which the greats of golf’s past are held, but sadly it isn’t like that in Formula 1: I remember one year at the Hungarian Grand Prix, for example, when Dan Gurney and his wife were held up for ages before being granted paddock passes, and another occasion when – for the same reason – I ran into a quietly raging Derek Warwick at, of all places, Silverstone.

It’s the lack of respect that one so much deprecates, and it would do the powers-that-be no harm at all to study the events in Augusta, see how the heroes of the past are honoured and take notes.

Perhaps, now I think about it, to some degree this is an American thing. Recently, at a Q&A evening, I was asked which race weekend I had most enjoyed in 2015, and without needing to think about it I said Indy. Very well, I had the sublime experience of being driven around the Speedway by Mario Andretti in the two-seater Dallara-Honda, and whereas my two favourite Grands Prix – Spa and Monza – were dull affairs last year it delighted me to see Juan Pablo Montoya win a fantastically close 500.

There was even more to it than that, though. Whatever problems Indycar racing may have been through in the last 20 years, however much it struggles to pull a crowd at many of its races, the Indianapolis 500 remains a glory of our sport, which is why – just as the Nicklauses and Palmers and Players return to Augusta, year after year – so many past drivers come back to Indiana in the month of May.

Last year I was invited to a private dinner (below) at a restaurant in town on the Friday evening before the race. Hosted by Borg-Warner, it was a relatively small affair, but had a guest list that rather got your attention: AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan, Arie Luyendyk, Dario Franchitti and Kenny Bräck, 500 winners all – oh, and Daniel Sexton Gurney, who somehow never won it, but should have done. To complete the picture, joining us for the occasion, a silent, powerful, presence in the corner of the room, was the immortal Borg-Warner Trophy.

It won’t surprise you that this was an evening I shall remember always, quite unlike anything I have ever come across in Formula 1 – save that sojourn in Venice 24 years ago, organised by the drivers’ own club.

***

Thanks to Indycar’s ludicrously abbreviated season – which ended last year in August! – it seems a long time since anything very noteworthy to do with the series has made it across the Atlantic, but recently its reigning champion Scott Dixon came forth with a few observations that also ring true of Formula 1.

In recent years Indycar has been very much a ‘spec series’, with every car built by Dallara, but in an attempt to introduce a little differentiation in appearance, for 2015 the two engine suppliers, Chevrolet and Honda, were permitted to design their own ‘aero kits’. Those for oval use, such as I saw at Indianapolis, were relatively easy on the eye, but the street and road course bodywork was unsightly, with lots of appendages and front wings fussy and vulnerable in the manner of contemporary Formula 1.

More significantly – and no more than inevitably – increased freedom in aerodynamics led also to increased downforce, and that did not sit well with many of the drivers. “In my opinion,” said Dixon, “the aero kits were very unnecessary, and in some areas made the racing slightly worse: behind cars the dirty air was much worse, and it was hard to get close on road courses. I think the money could have been spent in better areas…”

As the Formula 1 season approached its end, rumours circulated about the rule changes due to be introduced for the 2017 season. The cars, according to the powers-that-be, needed to be much faster, to the tune of perhaps five seconds a lap, and for that to be achieved it would be necessary to have 1000bhp and considerably more downforce.

Quite where this figure of 1000 horsepower was conjured up is anyone’s guess, but what’s the big deal? Thirty years ago, in the first ‘turbo era’, that would have been a humdrum figure. Remember the words of Patrick Head, on the Honda engines used by Williams in 1986: “We had quite a big power advantage, and were therefore also able to run more downforce than anyone else. Honda couldn’t actually tell us how much power we had – 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 13,500 or so!”

Nothing very remarkable about 1000 horsepower per se in Formula 1, then, so how and why this figure has lately acquired a ‘magic bullet’ status in the minds of some, one doesn’t understand. Quite apart from anything else, if you were Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg, and had a ‘state of the art’ Mercedes hybrid power unit behind you, you already had not far from 1000 horsepower in 2015.

About the same, come to think of it, as the best V10s were producing a decade ago, when lap times at, say, Monza were almost four seconds faster than now. As I mentioned in a previous column, Hamilton’s 2015 pole time – 1min 23.397sec – would have qualified him 18th for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix, ahead only of the two Minardis.

It will be remembered that for 2006 Max Mosley’s FIA outlawed the 3-litre V10 engine, replacing it with the 2.4-litre V8, as part of a package of changes, all of them introduced, we were assured, in the interests of safety. “Periodically,” Max told us, “Formula 1 starts to get a little too fast, and when that happens we need to take steps to slow it down…”

This he did very effectively, as evidenced by the fact that some lap records from the V10 era still stand today. The drivers had little enthusiasm for the rev-limited 2.4-litre V8s – all noise and no go – and if the best of today’s hybrid power units are producing a goodly amount of power, they are also very weighty.

Over time Formula 1 cars, like road cars, have grown increasingly portly. Today’s minimum weight limit stands at 701kgs; 10 years ago, in the V10 era, it was 600 – and in the mid-1980s, when turbo qualifying horsepower nudged 1500, it was a mere 540. Interesting, is it not, that Mosley brought in the 2.4-litre V8s for safety reasons, saying that F1 needed to be slowed down, whereas now, a decade on, there is a clamour for the very opposite. How the world turns.

In the course of our lunch in December, Martin Brundle and I spent a good deal of time discussing the state of Formula 1, pondering its fall from grace in recent years, and trying to figure out what could be done about it.

As the powers-that-be consider the future, the need to speed up the cars, and bring back some of the lost drama, it seems to me that they are taking a sledgehammer approach. One thing to up the horsepower, surely quite another substantially to increase downforce: “That,” Lewis Hamilton remarked in Abu Dhabi, “is the very last thing we need…”

“Absolutely right,” said Brundle. “That should almost be a blueprint – the opening item on the agenda when discussing the future of F1.
I had a long chat about it with Alex Wurz, a sensible guy that I rate very highly: he’s the right bloke to be chairman of the GPDA, and someone I’d like to see one day as president of the FIA. He said to me, ‘I don’t like the sound of where this is heading…’

“I said to Alex, ‘Presumably you figure somewhere in this,’ but he said no; he was trying to get the drivers together, but no part of the process, regarding the new regulations, involved talking to them – and that must be because they haven’t presented themselves in a credible, cohesive, manner. You’d think the drivers would be invited to be part of it as a matter of course, but the problem is that they’d then get briefed by their own teams: ‘OK, this is what you’re going to say…’ Inevitably, therefore, they think, ‘You know what? This isn’t going to make any difference whatsoever to my life, so why should I give up my time?’”

***

Last year Brundle tested the dominant Mercedes, such as took Hamilton to a second consecutive championship. “I thought it was an extraordinarily beautiful piece of equipment, and couldn’t get over how it functioned: the pleasure I had was all I ever dreamed about as a racing driver – although I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing for F1.

“A few years ago I tested a Ferrari at Fiorano, and it was lovely to drive, except that the 2.4-litre V8 was very noisy but gutless – all fur coat and no knickers. The Mercedes wasn’t like that, believe me – to be honest, it put me more in mind of the 1980s. 

“Before I drove it, I had a one and a half hour briefing on the steering-wheel – there are over 40 controls in the thing, and a quarter of those have sub-menus! I don’t know how the drivers cope with it…”

Martin said that he thought the likes of Senna and Prost and Schumacher would have loved this generation of Formula 1 because on the steering-wheel there are enough devices fundamentally to change the performance of the car. 

“The sort of things I’d have to wait two or three years for in my career – now they’ve got that on their steering-wheel!

“Guys like those had so much capacity – beyond driving the car – that they would have made the absolute most of it. Mind you, whether or not that’s good for the sport is a whole new conversation: all of a sudden you’ve got a car that’s just an extension of your mind…

“On the track the Merc was so consistent. In my day the approach to a corner was dominated by trying not to lock the rear wheels up, and being in the right gear before turning in, because otherwise you were going off. When you’d got all that sorted out, you started to pick up the throttle and sort of jockey it round – it was far more exciting to watch, and it generated errors, which in turn generated overtaking and surprise results. Now I realise that what the drivers have done is transfer their focus to braking within half a metre – how often do you see them make mistakes these days?”

“As for the engine… I thought it was the most amazing I’d ever driven, and probably the most powerful. Yes, I drove the old turbos, and at the start of the lap – when you had no brake and front tyre temperature, because you had to creep round to save your ‘one lap’ qualifying tyres – you just let it go on the pit straight. I remember going up the hill at Monaco on qualifying boost in 1986, and feeling as if I kept my foot on the throttle I’d go into space!

“It was pure violence. It had a lot more power than anything else – at least 1250 – but I’m pretty sure that by the end of the lap I hadn’t much over 1000, because a lot of the power went into wheelspin, messing around with a manual six-speed gearbox. Today’s Merc, though, has a seamless eight-speed ’box, and it just goes… It’s not often a car’s acceleration frightens me, but you think, ‘Is it ever going to slow?’

“You can’t help but admire these people for coming up with such a masterpiece – I’ve driven everything now from Fangio’s ’55 W196 to the 2015 car, and I’m telling you, the current Merc is a dream racing car. Problem is, it’s boring to watch – and, compared with cars of the past, boring to drive…”

Actually, I’m less certain than Brundle that the current cars would have appealed to the likes of Senna quite as much as he suggests. At the end of 1992, after all, when F1 cars were increasingly festooned with gizmos like active suspension, traction control – even ABS, for God’s sake! – a disillusioned Ayrton tested a CART Penske in Arizona, and raved about the experience: “It’s a human’s car…”

Recently Jenson Button suggested that, in considering the path Formula 1 cars should follow in the future, emphasis should be put on mechanical, rather than aerodynamic, grip. This is not by any means a new thought, yet seems unfathomably always to be ignored by those who make the rules.

Button was echoing the words of Aldo Costa of Mercedes: “By going to a car that has an enormous amount of downforce and a very complex aerodynamic shape, in our opinion it will make overtaking more difficult. We believe we should go towards improving mechanical grip, more than a pure aerodynamic exercise…”

“That’s definitely the way to go,” Jenson said, “because it doesn’t impact on following. In terms of ‘aero’, I guess most of it should come from the diffuser, because that’s the area which least affects the following car.”

While the forthcoming cars will be wider, and run bigger tyres, the latest word is that plans to introduce a huge diffuser have been dropped, that in many respects the 2017 cars will be less radically different than originally envisaged.

Pat Symonds feels that everything is in a bit of a rush at the moment, that it would be wiser to delay the introduction of the revised F1 car until 2018, allowing more time to think things through, so as to come up with the right solutions. “The regulations want five seconds a lap, but there’s some dispute as to whether that’s the right thing, anyway…”

I agree. If we’re talking about the importance of spectacle in Formula 1 – and we should be – of far greater significance than brute speed is the balance between horsepower and grip. Load a car with ‘aero’, with more and more downforce, and it goes round a corner as if on rails. Once you have that scenario there is nothing more you can do for the spectacle: the impression – however mistaken – is that the car is doing all the work, that the driver is merely along for the ride.

If I curse whomever it was who first described Formula 1 as ‘The Show’, so also I lament the day when ‘downforce’ came into the language of motor racing. At Indianapolis last year I talked to Rick Mears about it for, as Scott Dixon’s remarks indicate, the problem is universal rather than one confined to Formula 1, and I related the conversation to Brundle.

“Why,” Mears said, “is racing so afraid of saying, ‘We had a great product – and we completely screwed it with aerodynamics?’ You want to know why people aren’t so interested in racing these days? In my opinion, you can trace it back to aerodynamics – yes, it’s made the cars quicker, but it’s also made them less spectacular, and it’s made overtaking infinitely harder than it was.

“If a corner is completely flat for every car, what’s the driver for? Back in the days when we had way more horsepower, and way less downforce, you couldn’t even think of going round Indy flat, so cornering speeds had more to do with the driver…”

“I can’t argue with any of that,” said Brundle. “Look at somewhere like Eau Rouge – easy flat these days, and obviously when it’s like that, the skill sets shuffle up, don’t they? The difference between them becomes minimal.”

I showed Martin a photo on my iPad of Chris Amon’s Ferrari skimming through Oulton Park’s Old Hall Corner in an elegant power slide. This was 1968, and if F1 was starting to play with simple wings, downforce was still in its infancy, and Chris had less than half the thousand horsepower now considered essential. To savour the sight of a car ‘stepping out’ is surely something any racing enthusiast is born with, I suggested. “You’d watch that all day, wouldn’t you? That balance of power and grip…”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Brundle agreed. “Like that it’s an art form – and that’s somebody mastering it…”

Living in the past? Well, perhaps so, but I tell you what, race tracks were packed in those days.

“Coming back to today,” Martin said, “the current cars are harder to drive than the 2.4 V8s, and I think the reason why the drivers complain about them is that they’re too heavy – and the tyres aren’t good enough.

“At the beginning of the hybrid era, early in 2014, before the cars had been sorted out, they were spectacular – I remember standing at Turn 11 in Melbourne, and drawing breath! A car that’s sliding around always looks much faster than one that’s bolted to the track, doesn’t it?

“To be honest, I really don’t think the engineers and drivers are frustrated by the power units – I think it’s the tyres. In these current cars you can spin off at every corner, wet or dry, because of excess power over grip – so when they do a restart, after a safety car or whatever, believe me, that’s a challenge. But the frustrating thing is that, as soon as they spin their wheels up three times, the tyres have changed properties – and they’re going nowhere. A couple of times last year I thought, ‘He’s got a problem…’ – and he hadn’t, he was simply baby-sitting the car. If the guys could push these cars to their limits, it would be fantastic, but… they can’t. Their frustration is aimed at the new regulations – but I think it should be aimed at the weight and the tyres.

“I’m absolutely convinced that the reason the drivers complain about the cars is the tyres. I really don’t want to criticise Pirelli, because I think they’re only doing what they’ve been asked to do. I’m afraid I think of the F1 tyres of today like I think of success ballast, reverse grids, DRS, all that stuff. It’s a fix, isn’t it?”

It has long seemed farcical to me that teams spend untold millions on creating a car as perfect as it can be – and are then compelled to run it on deliberately inefficient tyres, and I’ll admit that it was my hope, admittedly a forlorn one, that Michelin would get the contract as the next F1 supplier because it had long indicated it had no interest in creating tyres aimed at ‘spicing up the show’. After he left F1 at the end of 2013, and began testing for (Michelin-shod) Porsche, Mark Webber told me that the most difficult thing to get into his head was, ‘I can drive this thing as fast as I can – for as long as I want…’

“Yes,” said Brundle. “There’s no tyre degradation – and you go faster every lap, because you’ve used up another lap’s worth of fuel. I remember talking to Pat Symonds about ‘keeping the tyres in the zone’ in today’s F1. I said, ‘How narrow is this operating window?’ and he said, ‘Two to three degrees…’ On a complete knife-edge, in other words, so if you don’t get these tyres right – as Mercedes didn’t in Singapore, for example – you’re nowhere. Seems a bit silly, doesn’t it? Certainly we need to keep the downforce in check, but I actually don’t think we need to change the cars as much as the tyres…”

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