Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– How politics have conspired to spoil our sport
– It’s too soon to write off Schuey and Jenson
– Shame the former champions weren’t racing…
– B?C?Ecclestone and the 107 per cent rule

Sorry to mention this boys,” said my colleague Maurice Hamilton in the Bahrain press room, “but we’re only just at the halfway point…”

There was a distinct feeling of anti-climax as we gathered at the airport late on the Sunday evening, and perhaps inevitably so, given that this Grand Prix had been anticipated more feverishly than any for a very long time.

The first race of any season is like this to some degree, for it is only when you get to qualifying that the teams really strut their stuff, when you see who has worked well over the winter and who has not. Testing times give you some clue, but historically too much store should never be set by them, for you never know who was running how much fuel, who was sandbagging, or whatever. In years past it was not uncommon for impoverished teams to run their cars underweight – sometimes way underweight – so as to register startling times, in the hope of persuading a potential sponsor that here was a good place to put his money. It worked, too, any number of times.

Thanks to all those darling bankers, it seems that everyone in the world – save them – is relatively impoverished these days, and Formula 1, as we know, has not proved immune. We may not have the ‘$40 million budget cap’ that Max Mosley was so keen to introduce, but there is no doubt that the teams – all of them – are operating on vastly less money than they were. Mercedes-Benz, for example, may have gone into business for itself this year, running a team in its entirety rather than being merely ‘a technical partner’, but the company’s F1 budget is one quarter of what it was five years ago.

Say what you will about Mosley – and I have said plenty, good and bad, over the years – he was indisputably right to insist that costs had to be slashed if F1 were to survive in any recognizable form, and it should be acknowledged that he was saying this for some little time before the financial meltdown.

In terms of assessing a season to come, the only testing times of real worth are those set on ‘long runs’: if a driver does 25 or 30 laps and runs quickly throughout, you can be confident his car is fundamentally good. As part of the cost-cutting programme, the facility for testing is now literally decimated, with no intra-season testing whatever permitted. And this year, more than ever, long runs were the order of the day during the February sessions in Valencia, Jerez and Barcelona.

Why? Well, because refuelling is now banned, and teams were working with a new, longer breed of car, one required to carry enough gas for 200 miles – and to work well with both full and near-empty tank. Given that we’d had refuelling in F1 since 1994, most people were in uncharted territory.

What you had to throw into the mix, too, was the new regulation requiring that the drivers who made it into Q3 – the top 10 – had to start the race on the tyres on which they had set their quickest time. Catch 22, on the face of it, for you would obviously want the softer compound Bridgestone to do the banzai lap – but you would not, ideally, select it for the first, fuel-heavy segment of the race.

Everyone was very nervous about this, very conservative, very cautious. As usual, it was hot as hell in Bahrain – mid-30s every day – and there were fears that the soft tyres, with all that weight on them, would last no time at all, putting those starting outside the top 10 – free to choose whichever tyres they wanted – at a distinct advantage.

Perhaps, if that had come to pass, we might have had a rather more entertaining race, but as it was the soft Bridgestones proved more durable than expected, and it wasn’t until lap 15 that such as Lewis Hamilton (who is harder on tyres than most) began to come in. Once on to the harder compound, the front-runners then ran non-stop to the flag, 140 miles later.

Afterwards the talk was all of what a procession it had been, how difficult the struggle to keep awake on this torpid afternoon. Impossible to take issue, but, that said, I did find much of the criticism of the new format over the top – to listen to some people, one might have believed that F1 had previously been a riot of overtaking, now abruptly curtailed.

Were it so, there would have been no need three years ago for the FIA to form an Overtaking Working Group, akin, let’s face it, to FIFA’s setting up a Goal Scoring Group. Over time, as the influence of aerodynamics has become ever more predominant, overtaking has become about as commonplace as Gordon Brown saying he got something wrong. All right, that’s overstating it, but you get my gist.

Perhaps the silliest thing Max Mosley ever said was that, “We should think of a Grand Prix like a chess match”, by which he meant that he personally found tactics every bit as enthralling as wheel-to-wheel racing. In that, as in so many other matters, Mosley belonged to a club with a membership of one, but eventually even he cottoned on to what the much reviled, but so often right, Flavio Briatore had long said: “Formula 1 is a product, like anything else – and these days our product is rubbish…”

That being so, in early 2007 Max duly appointed an Overtaking Working Group, made up of Rory Byrne (Ferrari), Paddy Lowe (McLaren), Pat Symonds (Renault) and Charlie Whiting, the FIA’s technical delegate. A great deal of research was undertaken into how racing cars might be enabled actually to race, and at the beginning of ’09 a raft of aerodynamic rule changes was introduced, including bigger front wings, narrower and higher rear wings, a ban on bargeboards and turning vanes, a smaller diffuser.

“We’re confident that the changes will make a significant difference,” said Whiting at the time, “but how much we don’t know. The target was to reduce downforce by 50 per cent – but, as always with these things, you never know how much the engineers will manage to claw back…”

True enough, and as we have seen since the beginning of time in F1 the letter of the law is one thing, the spirit of it quite another. In pre-season testing in 2009 the new Brawn-Mercedes may have made its first appearance late in the day, but when it did it was instantly, shatteringly quick. The opposition was not slow to note that the Brawn, like the Williams and the Toyota, had a double-decker diffuser, and at once the murmurs began, more than one team claiming that they, too, had spotted this apparent loophole in the rules, sought clearance from the FIA to build something similar, and been advised it would not be acceptable.

Quite obviously this little matter would come much to the fore at Melbourne, the opening race of the year. At technical scrutineering the controversial diffusers were declared legal, after which Red Bull, Ferrari and Renault lodged a protest. Five of the six ‘trick diffuser’ cars qualified in the top eight, and the Brawns of Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello, having started 1-2 in the race, finished that way, too.

At a meeting in Paris a couple of weeks later, the FIA Court of Appeal threw out the protest, declaring that, yes, the controversial diffusers were indeed permissible. Already the other teams, anticipating this outcome, had begun work on their own trick diffusers, but getting them to work – on cars which had not been designed for them – necessarily took time.

It will be remembered that at just that moment Mosley was confronting potential opposition from FOTA (Formula One Teams Association), which had recently held a muscle-flexing press conference in Geneva and demonstrated an apparent unanimity never before seen.

A concern for Mosley (and Bernie Ecclestone), this, for they had long relied on the element of self-interest to keep the teams in a state of perpetual discord. Now, if these people really were for once of a common purpose, that was a worry…

However, a policy of ‘divide and rule’ had always served Max well, and the diffuser row seemed to offer a perfect opportunity for more of the same. The matter could have been settled long before the teams actually went to a race, but how much better to have a protest involved, and all the friction that would go with it…

Politics won the day, in other words – and racing emphatically lost. Long before the matter came before the FIA Court of Appeal, even before the teams had finished pre-season testing, many, including Adrian Newey, suggested that this ‘trick diffuser’ would hugely compromise the aim of the new rules, as suggested by the Overtaking Working Group – the FIA Overtaking Working Group, remember…

The object had been to increase a car’s ability to follow another closely through a corner – and thus to give it a better opportunity to overtake before the next turn. Simples. By ignoring the intentions of Byrne, Lowe, Symonds and Whiting, the FIA did the sport a massive disservice – what the hell had been the point of setting up an Overtaking Working Group in the first place if one of its key recommendations were now tossed aside?

Perhaps I’m in a minority, but I was gratified to learn of the move to ban refuelling in 2010: it had, after all, been re-introduced in 1994 only as a means of disguising the lack of overtaking, an artifice to create ‘changes in order’ apparently not achievable on the race track. ‘I didn’t want to risk passing – I was waiting for the stops…’ How many times did we hear a driver say that over the years?

Many longtime F1 fans get dewy-eyed as they recall the 1960s, and ‘70s, but it’s worth bearing in mind that then, as now, we didn’t have refuelling. The cars went to the grid with fuel for the entire Grand Prix, and we should remember that tyre changes, too, were not the norm.

In 2005 the FIA, for reasons it never satisfactorily explained, decided to introduce a new rule banning tyre stops. Personally I thought this worked well, for if a driver babied his tyres in the early stages of a race he was necessarily in better shape at the end of it, and thus we had cars quick at different times in the afternoon – there was even overtaking in the late laps at Monaco, for God’s Sake!

Michelin proved far more adept at building a 200-mile tyre than did Bridgestone, which meant that Ferrari had a terrible season. After a single season of ‘no tyre stops’, the FIA rescinded the rule.

In the immediate aftermath of Bahrain there was widespread criticism of this ‘no-refuelling’ F1, much of it coming from folk with no previous experience of it. It’s a personal thing, of course, but I always disliked the sprint-stop-sprint era, rather agreeing with Alain Prost that it was crude, unsubtle. When I’m in the USA I enjoy watching baseball, but am swiftly wearied by basketball, where the frantic non-stop scoring ceases to register after a while. In the same way, I like to watch a race evolve.

Some have suggested that two pitstops should be mandatory, others – astonishingly – that Bridgestone should be persuaded to manufacture less efficient and durable tyres! Now there’s a turn-on for a manufacturer with a product to sell…

All such solutions merely cloak F1’s fundamental problem. Already there are way too many fiddly little regulations – you really should not have need of a handbook in order to understand the sport you’re watching. Unless and until radical changes are made to the rules concerning aerodynamics, the lack of overtaking will remain, and there’s an end to it. “All these rows about which diffusers are legal and which aren’t,” said Keke Rosberg last year. “Why didn’t they just ban the bloody things, along with the bargeboards and all the rest of it?” He had a point.

Bahrain was indeed soporific, but I agree with Bernie Ecclestone that a knee-jerk reaction would be ill-advised, that the revised format of Grand Prix racing should be allowed a little more time to bed in. The teams, as I said, behaved very conservatively, but you couldn’t blame them – they played it safe because they didn’t know what to expect at this first race of the season.

When I saw Jacky Ickx at Goodwood, a few days after Bahrain, he was quietly amused by what he had seen and read of the event. “All these brilliant engineers and drivers,” he smiled, “having to cope with doing a whole race on one tank of fuel! Imagine that…” Drivers of his era, of course, knew nothing else.

It must be said, too, that the circuit played its part in the anodyne afternoon. Although everything is superbly organised at Sakhir, and the people are friendly and hospitable, the circuit itself is hopeless for Grand Prix racing, and a new and lengthy ‘second gear’ extension made it even worse.

I remember a conversation with Alain Prost soon after the inaugural race in 2004. “All the new tracks… for me they are nonsense! I’ve never seen a new track that’s a nice design, that’s good for TV, for spectators, for drivers.

“And of course,” Alain went on, “another problem is that the drivers today are afraid to speak. When they were asked about the track in Bahrain, for example, they all said to the press that it was fantastic, and everything else. Well, I’ve talked to quite a lot of them – and they all said it was s***!

“People talk about the drop in F1’s popularity. They say that it’s Schumacher winning all the races that is the problem, but I don’t think it’s only that. It’s a bit of everything. People in F1 seem to have less character, less personality – they talk less and less, because the manufacturers say, ‘You must say this, you must do that…’ But the fans smell that – they know…”

So they do. And they miss overtaking, too.

*******

So that was decided upon. After the first practice session at Bahrain, on Friday morning, two newspaper journalists were discussing the performance of Michael Schumacher. “Well,” said one, “it’s over, isn’t it?” The other agreed.

A little precipitate, it seemed to me, but if the opening Grand Prix of the season fell short of expectations, so also, it has to be said, did Michael’s return to F1. To qualify seventh and finish sixth hardly constituted a disastrous weekend – but this was Schumacher (and not Ralf, either), the anointed one, the most successful Grand Prix driver of all time, and many had unreasonably expected he would simply take up again where he had left off.

Some, admittedly, were more circumspect as they anticipated Schumacher’s comeback. There were those, like Eddie Jordan, who thought his decision mad, suggesting it could only detract from his reputation. But perhaps these people missed the point about Michael, whereas such as Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti did not: for one thing, he was pushed out of F1 before he was quite ready to go; for another, he retains a fierce need to compete; for another yet, he is one of those – like Andretti – who simply loves to drive a racing car.

That said, Stewart’s comment, when asked at the time the Schumacher-Mercedes deal was originally announced whether Michael would – could – be the driver he had been, seemed to me the wisest: “Well, the one thing we know for sure is that he won’t be better than he was…”

I had breakfast with Jackie on the Friday morning in Bahrain, a couple of hours before the start of the first practice session, and of course much of the talk was of Schumacher. “I think,” he said, “Michael is going to be looser, with the press and so on, than he was before. I mean, he came over and said hello to me yesterday, so there’s a difference!”

Maybe so, I said – but how long will that last?

“Well, I suppose it depends on how well he goes! I think he’ll go very well: my only concern – and I might be proved wrong, perhaps as early as today – is that I don’t think the car will be up to the Ferrari and the McLaren and the Red Bull. My logic – and to me it’s no more than common sense – is this: an F1 car is laid down in June, OK? The ’09 car had been laid down in June 2008, when it was going to be a Honda and at the time Ross [Brawn] obviously had the big Honda money available. In June ’09 he laid down the 2010 car – but there was no money because they’d used it all up to run properly in ’09. They didn’t have the big budget, and when you don’t have that you need to cut down on all sorts of things – I know that from my experience with Stewart Grand Prix. I’m talking about things that Ferrari or Red Bull or McLaren would just do automatically.

“Therefore I suspect that the Brawn – or Mercedes as it became – suffered from a lack of funding, and at the time when it was most necessary, at the time of the laying down of the car. I think they’ll struggle until the Mercedes money starts to talk – and I don’t think that’ll happen until about the fifth race. Until then I think Nico and Michael will struggle to keep up with these three other teams – and that’s six drivers we’re talking about, all of whom know the key to the door…”

There has also been the suggestion, I said, that this new generation of F1 car, necessarily longer and heavier than before, will be a fundamental understeerer and as such will not suit the natural style of Schumacher, who has always liked his cars edgy, pointy, nervous. When Michael left Benetton for Ferrari, at the end of 1995, Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi – neither of whom was known for being of a nervous disposition – found the car they inherited from him virtually undriveable.

“When I first went to Benetton,” Berger said, “I just couldn’t drive the car, and that looked really bad because one guy had won the World Championship with it, and now the other guy couldn’t even drive it – automatically people say the second guy is a w*****! I knew what I needed, but it wasn’t easy to get it into the system in a team that had just won the championship – normally, in those circumstances, they just say ‘Don’t change anything, because it can’t be that bad’. Everything was geared to suit Michael’s way of driving, you see – and a car set up for him was exactly the opposite of what I liked: everything was on the nose – no rear end at all – and for most people it’s undriveable like that.

“It’s simple: if a car fits your style, you’re confident – if it doesn’t, you’re not. I couldn’t be confident in a car set up to suit Michael’s style – and it seemed like no one could, because no one got near him in the same car. I remember following [Eddie] Irvine’s Ferrari at Silverstone in ’96 and thinking, ‘Jesus, it looks just like the Benetton last year!’ Michael was developing the car in that direction, you see, and there’s nothing to criticise there, because that’s what he wants. It’s just not very good for anyone else who has to drive it…”

In the coming months that could prove to be an increasing problem for Nico Rosberg, who at Bahrain had the edge on Schumacher throughout the weekend, most particularly during qualifying.

“The car may not suit Michael at the moment,” said Stewart, but he’ll develop it the way he wants it – a way he knows, and that Ross knows too. In Michael’s cars, the brains of the car are always up front – like karting. Alain [Prost] didn’t drive like that, and neither does Jenson [Button] – and I think that that might be the only problem for Nico. Over the last two years, with Williams, what Nico hated most was turn-in oversteer – but that’s what Michael likes! That’s why he went off the road so often – a pointy car is very fast if you can keep up with it, but every now and then it’s going to get away from you…”

The other big talking point of the Bahrain weekend, not surprisingly, was the situation at McLaren, where Lewis Hamilton and Jenson – the last two World Champions – were going up against each other in equal cars for the first time.

“In a funny sort of way,” said Stewart, “I think it’s the same situation between Lewis and Jenson as it is between Michael and Nico. It will be an enormous temptation to both Jenson and Nico to over-drive – to try too hard to beat ‘the man’ – and it’s vital, particularly for Jenson, that he doesn’t get intimidated into doing that. If Lewis is that bit quicker than him, there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Lewis is much busier with the steering-wheel than Jenson is – it’s very similar to the difference between Senna and Prost. Ayrton’s strength was his capacity to bully a car at the limit, and keep it there, but you never saw Alain do that – one of his great strengths was that he always resisted the temptation to over-drive. How many times did he go off the road? Very few…

“Last year Ross said to me, ‘I’ve never had a driver who drives like Jenson does – never had a driver who gets so much out of his car without thrashing it’. That was an enormous compliment – and at the time, of course, he was still winning…

“Lewis goes off the road a lot more than Jenson, but he drives the car more to its limits – if something then goes wrong there’s no space, no leeway.

“I’ll never forget watching Senna at Monaco. Something I often do is go and stand in front of a car when it comes in during a practice session. Ayrton looked like he was easy in the cockpit – but if you looked at his eyes… His eye functions were like somebody on coke or something! He was so up that that gave everything away, as far as I was concerned. That was the way he was – and the way he drove a car. You saw 100 per cent of him every time he got in – again there was no leeway, and that’s why, although Senna was the quickest of his generation, I have always rated Prost above him: Alain was a more complete racing driver, in the way that Fernando [Alonso] is the most complete now.”

Ever since the news broke of Button’s joining Hamilton at McLaren, a source of mischievous humour in the F1 community had been speculation about how their fathers – the intense Anthony and the laid-back John – would get along. Shortly before the first race, though, it was announced that Hamilton pere was no longer managing his son, and henceforth would come to the Grands Prix only rarely.

“I don’t think that’s a disadvantage to Lewis,” said Stewart. “At all. The year before last Anthony came to talk to me about managers, and I introduced them to IMG – they had Roger Federer, they had Tiger Woods, all the big sports people, and it seemed the logical thing for Lewis. All right, it’s more expensive if you go outside the family, but I said to Anthony, ‘It’s just not a good thing for a father to be managing a son’. The family unit is too important – how can you not threaten it when the manager has a different opinion from the driver? I think it’s good Anthony’s not managing Lewis any more – I don’t think, in principle, that fathers are a good thing to have around, although John Button is amazingly good at it because he stays in the background, like Keke always has: if Nico asked him a question, he’d answer it, but he wouldn’t interfere at all. Anthony, though, was very ‘in your face’, wasn’t he? And I don’t think it was a comfortable situation for McLaren, either.”

A few hours later the first day of practice was done, and a couple of days after that the opening Grand Prix of the season. At McLaren Hamilton had come out very much on top, Button admitting that he had been too conservative; at Mercedes, Rosberg had the edge on Schumacher, although less obviously in the race – where they finished four seconds apart – than in qualifying. If Bahrain were any guide, overtaking under the new rules – is going to be even more Herculean than in the recent past, in which case qualifying is going to be yet more crucial than before.

Even on Friday morning Michael was evoking memories of the man we knew, rushing into the pits every time, practising for the stop on Sunday, assessing what was necessary in braking a fuel-heavy car for the pitlane speed limit. But when I saw him that afternoon, 10 minutes or so after the session finished, he looked bemused, not to say a little stunned. Even one such as Michael has been through times when his car was not truly competitive, times when he understood how much work lay ahead: the early years at Ferrari were often like that. But not to be the fastest driver of that car… now that was a new experience for him, and clearly it didn’t sit well.

There were suggestions that his mood was anything but light that evening, and I thought back to something Rubens Barrichello had once murmured to me in his days as Schumacher’s Ferrari team-mate: “If I’m quicker than Michael – even in a practice session – he really does not like it, and gets very upset. Much more than any other team-mate I’ve had. I just don’t understand how someone with his level of talent can be so insecure…”

True enough, but then there are those who would say, ‘Ah, but that’s why Schumacher’s the driver he is…’ Renault people had similar memories of Alonso on those rare occasions when Giancarlo Fisichella out-qualified him, or whatever.

One cannot, I think, form too many conclusions on the basis of one weekend at a race track. When Lauda returned in 1982, after missing two complete seasons, he was well out-qualified at the first race by McLaren team-mate John Watson, but by the end of the year had a comfortable edge, 10-4.

If Alan Jones’s post-Williams spells with Arrows and Haas Lola are best forgotten, Lauda’s performances were proof positive that comebacks can work. At only his third race, Long Beach, he qualified second and finished… first. And then in 1984, of course, he went on to win a third World Championship.

It will be fascinating, over the coming season, to see how the new driver partnerships develop. Schumacher has all the skill and experience in the world, and three years away isn’t that long, but much has changed in that time. There is a new breed of Grand Prix car, and one perhaps not naturally suited to his style; there is an absence of testing, of which Michael made more productive use than any other driver; there is a greater, wider level of talent ranged against him than ever he faced before; there is, at Mercedes, a young and quick team-mate not obligated – let alone inclined! – to play a supporting role.

Much to adapt to, in other words, and there are those who believe he will conquer everything in the end, and those who do not. In Bahrain there was no sign of anyone racing anyone else – Schumacher included, they simply ran round in orderly formation all afternoon, and for once there was nothing remotely controversial for the stewards to consider. As and when the situation improves, Michael will surely find himself in the position of having to defend his place, and intimidation is in his racing DNA.

In the past he got away with sometimes horrendous behaviour on the track, and other drivers were bemused by it, suggesting that Schumacher, like Senna before him, was treated as a ‘special case’ by the stewards. In the years since his first retirement, though, things have changed, so that now relatively innocuous offences result in penalties. “Oh, sure, but with him it was always different, wasn’t it?” Juan Pablo Montoya said to me recently. “I’d be surprised if anything changed…”

I wonder, though. Since replacing Max Mosley as FIA president last autumn, Jean Todt has been unobtrusiveness itself, in the sense of not constantly issuing statements about this, that and other, but that doesn’t mean he has been inactive – far from it.

In his days at the helm of Ferrari, Todt was widely disliked in the paddock, not least because his actions demonstrated an allegiance to his employer and to nought else: if people didn’t like it, well, so be it. Now, if Jean can apply the same single-mindedness to his new job at the FIA, and devote himself to the betterment of motor sport, there are good reasons for optimism. Like Mosley before him, he clearly has a boundless ego, but a less overt one, and that can only be good. It greatly pleases me, for example, that he has made changes to the way stewards operate at a Grand Prix, removing from the picture ‘an advisor’ who also happened to be Mosley’s eyes and ears at the races. In the place of this individual, an ex-F1 driver will be on hand to offer his counsel to the stewards, and in Bahrain this was Alain Prost.

There were many, myself included, who worried that a Todt presidency might simply mean ‘more of the same’, but so far the evidence is distinctly to the contrary, and that is something quietly to celebrate.

*******

It was a delight in Bahrain to see assembled a collection of former World Champions such as will almost certainly never be seen again. One might have thought Silverstone, as the venue for the first-ever World Championship Grand Prix, a more logical choice for the celebration of the championship’s 60th anniversary, but we are into an age of austerity, and who knows how much it costs to put these things on.

There were some glorious cars on hand, many of them the property of B?C?Ecclestone, and several drivers took to the track in those with which they had been synonymous. Damon Hill, back in his championship-winning Williams-Renault FW18, fairly hammered round, as did Mario Andretti – a fortnight after his 70th birthday – in the Lotus 79 and Jody Scheckter in his own Ferrari 312T4. Oh, mama, the sound of that flat 12…

Given that so many savoured the sight of these men and cars, it was absurd that on race day they were confined to a single flying lap. The timetable allowed for nothing more, we were told, but why could not the timetable have been a little more flexible? Later in the afternoon, indeed, the thought occurred that a sensible plan might have been to cut the Grand Prix to one lap (which, after all, contained all the overtaking) and to let Emerson, Jackie, Big John et al entertain us a little longer.

Since retiring from F1, at the end of 1986, Keke Rosberg had always resolutely refused to get back into a Grand Prix car, even for events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed, but in Bahrain he was persuaded to drive the Williams FW08 with which he won the 1982 World Championship. And, of course, once into the car he went like hell… these people can’t help themselves, never could.

In some cases, period overalls had been dug out for the occasion, and in some cases they still fitted. How about Keke’s helmet? “Oh, that’s no problem – I’m not as big-headed now as I was then…”

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On the Friday afternoon in Bahrain Monsieur Todt took part in a long press conference, in the course of which he spoke at one point of reviving the ‘107 per cent rule’, which required, in order to qualify for a Grand Prix, a driver to set a time within 107 per cent of the pole position man’s best lap.

Harsh as it may potentially be on the teams new to F1, that seemed eminently sensible to me. It’s very early days, of course, but if it were no surprise to find Lotus, Virgin and the unfortunately named HRT at the back at the grid, few had expected them to be quite so many seconds adrift.

For HRT, Bahrain was a particular nightmare, for there had been no time for any testing, and this was assuredly not the way anyone called Senna would have wished to make his F1 debut. That said, Bruno did at least get out in practice; poor Karun Chandhok was obliged to run his first laps in the new car at the start of qualifying, and I was amazed – in an age preoccupied with ’elf and safety – that he was allowed to do so. In the circumstances, Chandhok acquitted himself well.

Renewed talk of the 107 per cent rule recalled to mind a conversation with Bernie Ecclestone at Magny-Cours some 15 years ago. “I think,” Bernie said, “we’ve got a little bit back to the startline specials there used to be years ago. These people get their sponsors to turn up, and they break everyone’s balls, saying they don’t get seen on TV. Well, the reason they don’t get seen is obvious: they’re only on the screen when they get lapped!”

He paused. “Actually, now I think about it, they get seen more than most people, because they get lapped five or six times…”

Bernie then warmed to his theme. “We’re the best, right? Formula 1 is the best, and we don’t need anything in it that isn’t the best. We’re having the 107 per cent rule next year, no matter what, and if people don’t want to enter for the championship on that basis they don’t have to. That’s the way it is.

“People keep going on about only having 19 or 20 cars in the race – but so what? If I got someone who hadn’t been to races to look at the grid today, they wouldn’t know whether there were 16 or 25 cars. What I want to get away from is breeding people who shouldn’t be in F1. Frankly, at the moment there are people in it who shouldn’t be in it, and why are they here? Because they thought it was easier than it is.

“What I don’t like is people walking around with begging bowls, and crying as if it’s everyone else’s fault. People who do that we should never have let in to start with, and it’s my fault for allowing them to do it. If they hadn’t come in, we wouldn’t have had the embarrassment of them going out. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, but it’s not F1’s problem when someone goes out of business.

“As to the size of the field, it doesn’t bother me at all. It is much better for us to have a smaller, better quality grid than have a lot of… We’re in the quality business, not quantity.”

In the course of the same interview, Ecclestone also said this: “I would never, ever, ever put more than 16 races on the calendar.” And this: “Any guy who starts talking about what’s going to be happening in four years’ time is an idiot. A complete idiot. Long-term planning is a nonsense…”

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