Kings and Princes

Bahrain’s sheikhs made way for a different kind of royalty at the season-opening Grand Prix, as 18 World Champions turned out for a special diamond anniversary
By Simon Arron

March 10 2010, Bahrain, the eve of a fresh Formula 1 campaign. In one corner of the paddock, the air is ripe with the sound of carbon components being filed to size as some of Grand Prix racing’s new teams complete last-minute preparations. It’s a hard slog after several all-nighters, but the mechanics have ample room to manoeuvre within the palatial garages that form the Sakhir International Circuit’s pit complex.

Not far away, just beyond the paddock’s electronic portals, a dedicated band of professionals tends to its flock with calmer methodology and, for the most part, analogue tools. Officially this is the Diamonds in the Desert Pavilion, hub of the F1 World Championship’s impending 60th anniversary celebrations, although the truth is more prosaic: it’s actually a tent, the flaps of which constantly waft open in the gentle breeze.

The plot is equal parts ambition and simplicity: attract as many World Champions as possible (20 of the 31 survive) and parade a broad range of cars to illustrate their title achievements. A little poetic licence is required – Nigel Mansell demonstrates the 1950 Thinwall Special and David Coulthard shares Mercedes W196 driving duties with Mika Häkkinen, for instance – but it’s an undeniably sumptuous assembly. Four of the targets (Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button) are necessarily present, as they are competing in the main event, but only two of the others (Nelson Piquet and Kimi Räikkönen) are indisposed.

“I don’t think we’ve all gathered in the same place before,” says Jackie Stewart. “I’m perhaps less out of the loop than some – I still tend to see a few of the guys around, just because I travel such a lot, so it’s not too much of a novelty for me. It’s a pity one or two couldn’t make it, but to have an event like this is still wonderful.”

The Fangio dynasty is represented by Juan Manuel II, nephew of the five-time World Champion, at the wheel of a Maserati 250F. “There cannot be a tree without roots,” he says, “so I think it’s a fantastic thing for the whole sport to see all the champions together. It’s a great idea and the fact it is a major anniversary makes it even more appropriate.”

Alan Jones and Jack Brabham flew together to the event from Australia. “We had plenty to catch up about,” Jones says, “and it’s pretty extraordinary that so many of us are here. You’ll probably never see us all in one place again, so it’s a real coup for Bahrain.”

Mario Andretti concurs. “It’s fabulous,” he says. “How else will we ever get all the living champions together? It’s a wonderful gathering of very special people and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to reacquaint myself with some familiar faces.”

The venue, though, is a touch ironic: a glorious concentration of racing heritage gathered in a region with no established motor sport culture. Bahrain became the World Championship’s first Middle Eastern host in 2004 and a fresh extension has made it one of the contemporary calendar’s longest circuits, at 3.914 miles. But crowds are traditionally modest and spectator facilities are concentrated around the paddock area and the first two corners. Beyond that the landscape is almost lunar: a number of palms have been planted during the past 12 months, but it’s hardly a tree-lined classic in the term’s accepted sense.

“I would hate to see any of the traditional circuits disappear,” says John Surtees. “If we talk about dispensing with Spa or even the modern Nürburgring for commercial reasons, we are imperilling the sport, but I think it’s important to strike a balance. When you create an oasis of motor sport within the desert, you have to applaud it. I think it is very good to bring the past and the present together – and for the majority of people it’s nice to get out of Europe at this time of year.

“There’s a wide diversity of machinery here, which is a good thing, because it shows the world how different the sport was in bygone times. In a way it’s educational for Bahrain, which is relatively new to motor sport, and for all the youngsters out there who might tune in via some form of media.”

Surtees has other, particular, reasons for wanting to be here. “We don’t all keep in touch very often,” he says, “but a number of former champions contacted me to offer support last year, when I had a personal tragedy with my son Henry [killed in a Formula 2 accident at Brands Hatch in July]. That’s partly why I came, to say a personal thank you.”

To a man, the drivers participating in the two-part parade – short runs on Saturday and Sunday – insist it’s a bit of fun, but it doesn’t take long for the competitive instincts to kick in. Following the second F1 free practice session on Friday, Surtees and Jody Scheckter are offered a passenger lap in one of the Mitsubishi course cars. “I want to drive,” says Jody, persistently, but the designated chauffeur – a circuit official waves him to the other side of the car, then asks those already ensconced whether or not the new arrival has any race experience, a perfect snapshot of the alternative cultures that prevail.

By Saturday morning the heritage tent is a cocktail of charisma and eye-watering fumes from simmering DFVs and suchlike. “It’s always good to have an excuse to gets the cars out,” says Classic Team Lotus boss Clive Chapman, son of Colin. “Running is the best thing for them. There are always a few things that need sorting out, but the Bahrain people have been incredibly well organised. It’s a bit of a treat for the lads, really. We aren’t spending a great deal of time on the track, we get to come to a Grand Prix and it coincides with the return of the Lotus name to contemporary F1, so it’s nice to be here.”

CTL is running a Lotus 79 for Andretti, a 72 for Emerson Fittipaldi, a 49B for Josh Hill – grandson of Graham, son of Damon – and Nick Fennell’s ex-Jim Clark 25. “We ran Mario on Wednesday,” says Clive, “to do a bit of filming with a camera van. I have to admit, the sight of a black and gold Lotus against a setting sun just blew me away.”

Fennell acknowledges that he feels a sense of privilege every time he sits in the 25 – “it’s very comfortable, too” apparently – but this is a step removed from the historic events in which he customarily competes. “I’m very aware of just how much the 25 has seen in the past,” he says. “It’s absolutely awe-inspiring, though, to see all these World Champions standing around as I prepare to get in. Did I ever imagine I might one day share a track with some of these guys, even at an event like this? Never, never, never, not in my wildest dreams…”

Just beyond his 19th birthday, Hill Jr – who will compete in the British Formula Ford Championship again this year – feels much the same. “It’s a wonderful opportunity,” he says, “and I’m pretty excited. The 49B is such an iconic car and it feels very special to be able to drive it. I had a quick run in it beforehand, at Lotus HQ, so this weekend I’m not quite as stunned by the car as I am by all the personalities. As I was putting on my overalls in the changing room, Nigel Mansell was standing to one side of me and Emerson Fittipaldi to the other. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute…’ That really brought it home.”

Dad Damon is feeling it, too. “I think everyone has responded brilliantly to the whole concept,” he says. “Not too many drivers have won the World Championship during the past 60 years and to have so many here is remarkable. To see John Surtees, Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and so on… they are among the greatest names in the sport and I still pinch myself that I’m allowed to count myself on the same list. We’re all so lucky that we had the chance to be Grand Prix drivers, never mind World Champions. The older you get, the more I think you appreciate it.

“I’m really looking forward to driving the Williams FW18 again – a bit too much so, probably. It’s not like Michael Schumacher, who is going through all this for real. You can dream about coming back and having a go, but to live through the pressure of being at the top is such an all-consuming thing and I remember that I actually felt quite glad when I stopped.”

And sharing the track with Josh?

“I’m delighted that he’s got such a chance,” he says. “It’s a great thrill for him and he’s taken to it really well. When he had a quick run in the Lotus recently, I stood and watched while Josh got in and Clive Chapman oversaw the whole thing. Afterwards, I said to Clive that I just wished our dads could have been there. They’d have loved to see it.”

Fittipaldi breezes up, asks the CTL crew whether his 72 is “ready for pole” and then checks his belts.

His overalls are the wrong colour, but everything else is perfect replication – his helmet is the iconic black and red of his early career, devoid of the spider’s web motif that came later.

“Am I looking forward to this?” says Andretti. “Absolutely, 100 per cent. Those competitive juices never stop.” He enjoys himself so much, indeed, that he ignores the chequered flag for a lap or two at the end of the first run. Afterwards, the 70-year-old starts chatting about racing lines and how he hasn’t yet quite worked out one or two parts of the circuit – as does Fittipaldi. Such things matter not in the overall scheme of things, but they can’t help themselves. They are prisoners of their own DNA.

“I think the way you feel rather depends on the car,” says Surtees. “Last year Henry drove our 1972 Japanese GP-winning TS10 F2 car in the Goodwood Festival and I tested it beforehand. We’d taken the car apart and put it all back together exactly as it was before – it was a wonderful sensation to drive it and feel that it handled just the way it used to.”

Time spent in the Thinwall Special adjusts Mansell’s world view. “Three hours around the old Nürburgring in one of these?” he says. “My respect for the guys who used to race cars like this has gone through the roof. It’s seriously quick, even by modern standards, and so physical.”

Initially, Scheckter is slightly more wary than most. “Generally I prefer looking at the older cars,” he says, “the ones that excited me as a young boy rather than the ones I raced. I’m not sure I’m feeling the big occasion, but a lot of people seem to appreciate it.

“We’re coming to a track and going through the motions as though we’re going to take part in a race, but we’re not. I suppose it’s a bit like foreplay without the sex. You’re looking forward to it, but you’re not going to get it. Mind you, that has happened a few times before…”

He drives gently during the first run, but gets stuck in on Sunday, provoking his old 312 T4 into a sequence of spectacular slides and conjuring a perfect advert for time travel. If anybody has a spare ticket to 1979, count me in.

Scheckter remains sufficiently trim to wear a set of his own period overalls, as does Stewart. “The Matra MS80 has my original seat from 1969,” he says, “and these are the original overalls. I’m amazed they fit. I did try to squeeze into a set from ’68, but couldn’t quite manage.”

On Sunday he switches to 1973 racewear to drive his old Tyrrell 006, which has just been refettled by Roy Topp, the man who built it originally.

There are other authentic touches, too. “The Ferrari 1512 still carries my signature,” says Surtees. “If you look at the side panels within the cockpit, you can still see the marks I left with a rubber hammer back in the day, when I wanted to add a bit more width.”

Primitive technology, though, has its benefits. Hill’s Williams FW18 – 14 years old, and the youngest car in the line-up – cuts out during the first run for reasons that aren’t abundantly clear. “It uses MS-DOS software,” says former Williams team manager Dickie Stanford. “We brought the right computers with us but couldn’t make them download the data – and all the blokes who might be able to fix it are back at the factory in Grove.” His crew runs over the car with a fine-toothed comb and pulls various hydraulic systems (and the fuel tank) apart, but can’t find anything obvious amiss. When reassembled, however, it fires up at the first time of asking and is fit to reappear on Sunday without Stanford quite knowing why.

F1’s proscriptive timetable means the second run has to be cut short – 30 minutes reduced to 15, a detail Mr Andretti, in particular, is asked to observe – and the weekend ends amid much cheerful banter during a gathering on the pit straight, 90 minutes before the Grand Prix. Hill Jr and Fittipaldi are all grins and backslaps after a spot of late braking enables the Brazilian to lunge past the younger driver’s older car at turn one, arguably a better move than any during the headline event that follows.

So far so cheerful, but does time really heal old wounds? “There are no wounds,” says Andretti. “There was always great camaraderie between drivers in our day,” adds Stewart, “and it remains very strong.”

I ask Surtees whether he has ever forgiven Scheckter for triggering the race-stopping pile-up during the 1973 British GP at Silverstone, when all three of his factory-entered TS14As were destroyed. He smiles.

“We all make mistakes in life,” he says, “and Jody made a stupid one that day. It was very costly to me, but at least he was trying at the time and I could never really condemn somebody for that. Although it was unwise, he went on to learn and do things correctly, which you have to admire.

“In 1960, in only my fifth car race and my third in F1, I threw away what would have been Colin Chapman’s first Grand Prix win when I crashed my Lotus while leading in Portugal. We all make mistakes and it’s water under the bridge. Of course you get on with some drivers better than others, but we have always been united by an important common factor.

“It’s called respect.”