Nigel Roebuck

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REFLECTIONS
– F1 pays the price for Bernie’s shift eastwards
– A Cuban lesson in how not to run a Grand Prix
– Gizmos that are still detracting from the racing

On one of the websites I saw a headline that made my heart skip with delight. ‘Imola replaces Bahrain round’, it said, but my elation was short-lived. As I read on, I realised they were talking only about the GP2 Asia Series race; no such luck for the Grand Prix.

It was in the middle of February that Bahrain — succeeding Tunisia and Egypt — became the lead story on the news. Before long it was superseded by the dreadful happenings in Libya, but for a time the events in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, held sway. After a night of protests, and a degree of violence, one Nabeel Rajab, the vicepresident of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said on Tuesday, February 15, that the forthcoming Grand Prix would provide an ideal opportunity for protesters to get publicity for their cause.

“Formula 1 is not going to be peaceful this time,” Rajab said. “There will be lots of journalists, a lot of people looking, and the government will react in a stupid manner, as they did yesterday and today. And that will be more bloody, but also more publicised.”

Later that day Bernie Ecclestone admitted to concerns: “The danger’s obvious, isn’t it? If these people wanted to make a fuss and get worldwide recognition, it would be bloody easy, wouldn’t it?” Meantime the CEO of the Bahrain International Circuit, Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, announced that safety was the priority, but the focus remained on delivering a successful Bahrain Grand Prix — one month hence.

The following morning — Wednesday — FIA president Jean Todt said that the governing body would not rush into a decision, but would wait until after the coming weekend’s GP2 Asia race before making any decisions. “I always try not to over-react to breaking stories,” said Todt, and while in normal circumstances that is an admirable trait, on this occasion one thought it perhaps calm to a fault.

That evening matters took a distinctly ugly turn in Bahrain, with several protesters killed, and now surely anything as essentially frivolous as putting on a motor race was untenable. When I heard on the news that ambulances had been actively prevented from reaching the injured, right there I started making a decision about my own Bahrain plans.

To no one’s great surprise, the organisers of the GP2 Asia race announced that day (Thursday) that their event — due to be run that weekend, remember! — was off. Quite why this decision had not been made somewhat earlier remains a mystery.

In the meantime it was status quo from the Bahrain GP officials: while safety was the priority at all times, ‘Our focus remains on delivering another successful event’, etc, etc… Ecclestone, reacting to the previous night’s violence, allowed that it wasn’t looking good, but said that no decision would be taken before the following week. At this stage, indeed, even the final preseason test — due to be run in Bahrain on March 3-6 — remained on the agenda…

After the horror of Wednesday night, Thursday night was quieter, prompting Bernie to tell the BBC the following morning that he was ‘more hopeful’, that ‘things have changed’. “I’ve spoken to people who are there,” he said, “and they say it’s quiet, no big problems.” So that was all right, then.

Ecclestone then said that it wouldn’t be right to cancel the race on purely political grounds, saying — tellingly, one thought — that, “It seems as if people thought it [Bahrain] was democratic a few weeks ago.

“We don’t know what the protest is really about,” Bernie went on. “We’ve never, ever, ever been involved in religion and politics. We don’t make decisions based on those things. It’s not for us to run a country. We want to make a positive contribution to the countries we visit, and our intention is always to be there as a positive presence — we wouldn’t want to make a negative impact. Clearly, if F1 were to become a focal point of unrest, that would be a concern. It’s not just about the safety of those involved, but being sensitive to what is going on in the country.”

That same day at the Barcelona test, FOTA had a meeting, with Bahrain at the top of the agenda. The team principals declared their complete trust in Ecclestone, and said they would go along with whatever he recommended.

In the evening there was further violence in Manama, and on Saturday morning the Foreign Office issued a warning that no one should travel to Bahrain unless it were essential. That, it seemed to me, was surely the moment when this farce should have been put to bed, once and for all. From the powers-that-be, though, not a word…

On the Sunday — February 20 — Ecclestone announced that he would let the Crown Prince of Bahrain make the decision — “He will know whether it’s safe for us to be there” — and he expected that by the following Tuesday. This was becoming surreal.

As it was, the Crown Prince made up his mind on the Monday. “At present,” his statement read, “the country’s entire attention is focused on building a new national dialogue for Bahrain. Although Bernie Ecclestone has graciously made it clear that a decision on the race was entirely Bahrain’s concern to make, and was not yet required, we felt it was important for the country to focus on immediate issues of national interest, and leave the hosting of Bahrain’s F1 race to a later date.”

Only now was there — finally — an official statement from the FIA, supporting Bahrain’s decision to call off the GP, but making it clear that only the governing body could decide whether or not the race should be rescheduled this year.

Perhaps Bernie missed that, for soon he announced that he would do his best to find a slot for it. “If everything is peaceful, which we hope it will be, then we will try our best to fit it in,” he said, adding that FOM would pay the costs of the cancelled event, estimated at $30 million. “The fee that is normally paid for the event is not being paid. I am not charging them for a race they are not getting. If and when it is rescheduled, they will pay their usual fee.” One began to understand his enthusiasm for finding an alternative date.

While FOTA may have declared their support for Bernie, their willingness to agree to whatever he decided, once the decision to call off the race had been taken, a rather different picture began to emerge. Williams, for example, let it be known that it wouldn’t have gone to Bahrain in any circumstances, and it suspected that neither would any of the other teams. Conversations with one or two suggest to me that such was indeed the case.

So, assuming — and it’s a big assumption — that the unrest in Bahrain is swiftly quelled, when could a new date be found in an already overcrowded season? To general disbelief, Ecclestone speculated that the Bahrain Grand Prix could be run in August, between Budapest and Spa. “I think the teams are sensible enough even to race there in the summer break, despite the high temperatures, because this is the way we can support the country.”

I could be wrong, but I somewhat doubt that the average F1 mechanic gives a toss about showing ‘support’ for Bahrain. Why should he? Precisely what is in it for him? While Ecclestone has always expressed a loathing for holidays, not everyone feels the same — and, of course, not everyone stands to make a few more million by schlepping to Bahrain in August or whenever. The ‘summer break’, let us remember, was instituted to provide an opportunity for F1 folk to reintroduce themselves to their families, even to take a proper vacation — and in a place which probably wouldn’t be Bahrain.

Perhaps someone acquainted Bernie with this thought, for he swiftly announced that, no, August wasn’t an option, after all: “Forget it — it’s too hot for the public to sit in the grandstand when it’s 40 degrees.” Not ideal for working on — or, come to that, driving — F1 cars, either.

“I’m hoping things settle peacefully in Bahrain,” he said, “and we can try and get a slot later in the year. Whether or not, if we’d gone there now, it would have given the opportunity for more unrest, I don’t know. But I’d hate it if we had been the cause of people suddenly getting a lot more publicity by sabotaging F1…

“It wasn’t an easy decision for the Crown Prince — F1 put Bahrain on the map. Before 2004 — when F1 raced there for the first time — not many people knew Bahrain.”

Exactly. In recent years the shape of the World Championship calendar has changed out of recognition because many of the lands new to it pitched for a Grand Prix not because F1 was madly popular at home, but because major sporting events confer a degree of prestige on a country — and also, let it be said, a certain respectability. As Ecclestone himself said of Bahrain, “It seems as if people thought it was democratic a few weeks ago…”

What Bernie seemed then to suggest was that it was none of F1’s business, when setting up its stall in a country, to question — or even consider — how that country was run. “F1 must never be political — full stop,” he said. “It’s not my business to make politics. My job is to do the best deals possible for F1 — to secure jobs. Five thousand people have jobs directly or indirectly connected to F1, and I want to secure those jobs.”

And there was I, thinking all this time that CVC had bought into F1 solely to make money for its investors. Shame on me.

The FIA has given the Bahrain authorities a deadline of May 1 to make a decision about rescheduling their race this year. Now that August has been discounted, the only possibility would seem to be November, perhaps the weekend after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but that — if a triple-header is to be avoided — would mean moving the final race (Interlagos) into December. Come to that, you can’t imagine that the Abu Dhabi organisers would be too thrilled to have a back-toback with another race in the same region. They couldn’t even fill the place last year, after all, when staging the World Championship decider.

In some respects, F1 has an obsession these days with being seen to do the right thing — particularly with regard to ‘green’ technical regulations — yet appears to have no concerns about some of the countries it visits. Does it really wish to be seen as a collection of folk who know the price of everything, the value of nothing?

I’ll admit that time was when I naively thought — and wrote — that politics and sport should remain resolutely separate entities. Back then the only controversial Grand Prix, from a political standpoint, was that run in South Africa, which had first come into the World Championship in 1962.

By 1985 South Africa’s apartheid regime had rendered the country persona non grata for all international sports, save motor racing. As the Grand Prix drew near, there was increasing criticism in the press, which in turn prompted consternation within the sport. Renault withdrew its cars from the race, while other teams competed without their usual sponsorship identification.

In some cases, this was wholly disingenuous. The name of Marlboro, for example, was missing from the McLarens, yet as you drove from the circuit into Johannesburg you noted that every single bus shelter — well away from the TV cameras, of course — carried large advertisements for the brand.

Immediately after we got back from Kyalami, the FIM announced the cancellation of the following year’s motorcycle Grand Prix, and soon it became clear that neither would F1 be going back to South Africa any time soon. I’ll admit at the time I was sad about that, for Kyalami was a wonderful circuit, and — unlike, say, China — there was no doubt of the country’s passion for F1: why, there was even a domestic F1 championship there.

Later, though, I began to feel rather differently about it. For one thing, I heard a long radio interview with John Arlott, doyen of cricket writers, who had long previously ceased to cover MCC tours of South Africa, and very persuasively explained why. That had a considerable effect on me, as also did a book The Nazi Olympics, which told how Adolf Hitler manipulated, to his own ends, the Games in Berlin in 1936.

Perhaps, to that point, I had chosen not to think about sport as a political tool — it can only have been that, for although Hitler died before I was born, I had read extensively about pre-war Grand Prix racing, and well knew that he had shamelessly used it for reasons of political propaganda through the 1930s, spending liberally on the MercedesBenz and Auto Union teams whose drivers were required — on the podium — to give the Nazi salute. He even had his own representative — NSKK-Fiihrer Adolf Hiihnlein — at the races.

So I had read about it, knew about it, but in my mind all that was somehow ‘of its time’, a time before I was alive, a time now gone. For reasons I can’t explain, I was far more shocked, brought down with a jolt, by that book on the Olympics of the same era.

My late father, with some university friends, attended both the pre-war Donington Grands Prix, in 1937 and ’38, and I remember his telling me of the circumstances of the second of them. It was originally scheduled for Saturday, October 1, but although both the Mercedes and Auto Union teams arrived in good time for practice, they were then ordered home, for it seemed that war between Britain and Germany was imminent. On September 30, though, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Hitler brandishing a paper signed by both of them, and famously — or infamously— proclaiming that it was, ‘Peace In Our Time’.

It was nothing of the kind, of course, merely a postponement of hostilities, but the Donington Grand Prix was hastily rescheduled for October 22, and back the Germans came. After they had watched Tazio Nuvolari win for Auto Union, my dad and his pals set off back to Cambridge, rightly suspecting there might not be another Donington GP for some little time. Although a date was set in 1939, it came after September 3, when Nuvolari won the Belgrade GP — and, rather more to the point, Chamberlain announced that a state of war now existed between Britain and Germany. Donington swiftly disappeared from the front of anyone’s mind.

Knowing all that, you may wonder how I could ever have persuaded myself that politics could — and should — be kept out of sport. I wonder myself.

Once Kyalami had disappeared from the World Championship calendar, for 1986 we had Grands Prix in Brazil, Canada, the USA, Mexico and Australia, together with 11 races in Europe — but one of those, in Hungary, was new. A few weeks beforehand I booked my flight to Budapest, and happened to ask Denis Jenkinson if he had done the same. “Not going,” said Jenks tersely. I asked why. “It’s unstable,” he said, “a communist country full of people who don’t want to be communists…” And he went on to tell me of a moment he had never forgotten.

“It was in the autumn of 1956, and I was driving somewhere in the Porsche, at about two in the morning. I was listening to a jazz station — and suddenly the music was interrupted by this hysterical voice, saying, ‘Save us — please save us…’ There had been a revolt against the communist government, and the Russian tanks had arrived in Budapest to crush it. I can still hear that voice…”

Even when democracy came to Hungary, Jenks never did go there, nor, for that matter, to any Grand Prix in South America. He adored the USA and never missed a race there, but for him Fl was fundamentally a European thing, and I cannot imagine what he would have made of the World Championship in the 21st century. Not much, I fancy, with its proliferation of endless flights and soulless `Tilketracks’.

He would, though, have been much amused by the fact that the races run in the Far East are increasingly scheduled at times favourable to European TV audiences, rather than those on the spot. ‘Clever old Bernie — he gets the big money from these places, but he knows where the fans are, and he doesn’t want the ratings to fall…’ I can hear him saying it.

In the summer of 2009, when F1 was tearing itself apart, it looked briefly as though FOTA, the teams’ association, had reached breaking point with Max Mosley and the FIA, and was intent on breaking away and establishing its own F1 championship. At a meeting on the Thursday before the British Grand Prix, indeed, such a decision was taken, and I can remember the sense of giddy euphoria in the paddock the following morning. “For one thing,” an elated team principal said to me, “we could have a World Championship calendar that we want. Bernie keeps saying, ‘We don’t need America’, which is crazy — ideally we’d like at least two races in America! After all these years of being told where we’re going, we’ll be able to have the races where we — and our sponsors — want them…”

Well, it was a nice thought. Within days, though, CVC — in a state of unsurprising panic — had persuaded the disparate parties to sit down and talk, Mosley had agreed not to stand for re-election in the autumn, and it was… peace in our time, one of the casualties being a race schedule that the teams actually wanted.

For now, though, we are stuck with what we have: a great many disillusioned lifelong F1 fans, angry at the loss of a Grand Prix within their reach, and a great many countries where they have Grands Prix solely for political reasons, and where — as the old joke goes — they announce the crowd changes to the drivers.

We have lost the opening Grand Prix of the season, and for no reason that has anything to do with motor racing. Perhaps it’s the price we sometimes pay for the life we choose to lead. Don’t ever recall problems like this at Magny-Cours. That’s in France, of course, where Grand Prix racing started — and where they don’t have a Grand Prix any more…

*

Forgive me, if you can, for going on about the effects of politics on motor racing, but the events in Bahrain made it unavoidable — and I’m afraid I am not done yet…

Just as the unrest in Bahrain came to the attention of the world, I happened to be reading a book purchased during my recent trip to Daytona for the Rolex 24 sports car race. Entitled Caribbean Capers, it is not, as you might surmise, a history of reggae, but rather a volume devoted to the three Cuban Grands Prix, run for sports cars in 1957, ’58 and ’60.

My sort of book, this: expensive, obscure, exhaustively researched, gloriously illustrated. The author is Joel Finn, an American racing historian who specialises in what may truly be termed labours of love — I simply cannot imagine the number of hours that will have gone into the researching and writing of this book.

Before reading it, I knew relatively little of those races in Cuba, the first of which was won by Juan Manuel Fangio (after low fuel pressure crippled a dominant Alfonso de Portago), the last two by Stirling Moss.

They raced through the streets of Havana, and clearly this was a track perilous even by the normal standards of the day — most of all for the unprotected spectators, who simply stood by the roadside and watched.

Of the three races, the 1958 event was the most chaotic, and also the most tragic. Even before it began, the Cuban Grand Prix had made headlines across the world, for the night before the race Fangio — the big attraction, of course — was kidnapped at gunpoint from the lobby of his hotel by a Communist group (the 26th of July Movement) violently opposed to the government of the day, a brutal military dictatorship controlled by Fulgencio Batista.

If that were not enough, rumours began to circulate of a plan by this group to shoot the driver who won the race. I quote from Finn’s book: ‘General Fernandez Miranda ordered a large contingent of machine guntoting troops to be stationed around the circuit, with orders to shoot anyone who might disrupt or sabotage the races. There were reports that the course was even more slippery than during the two days of practice. Some ascribed the increasingly dangerous track conditions to sabotage by the Communists who were rumoured to have surreptitiously dumped large quantities of oil in several spots’.

There was bedlam on race day, with endless delays and a complete lack of organisation. A crowd estimated at over 250,000 packed in around the circuit — literally, as I said, standing by the roadside, with not so much as a fence between them and the cars.

Hours late the race finally got underway. Six laps in, Moss and Masten Gregory were disputing the lead when a local driver, Armando Garcia Cifuentes, lost control of his Ferrari Testa Rossa, hit a kerb, and scythed through the crowd before hitting a crane. Six people were killed instantly, and at least 40 more injured. From Race Control they couldn’t see what had happened — the accident was out of their sight — and it was left to Phil Hill and Bob Said to stop and tell them to put out a red flag.

Later, away from the chaos, with the drivers back in their hotels, there was mounting concern about the fate of Fangio. Finally, late in the evening, the Argentine ambassador was telephoned and informed that Fangio would be at a certain address. The great man, having signed dated autographs for all his captors, was duly picked up unharmed; he had been well treated, he said. Well rewarded, too, in the end, for although he had obviously not been able to race, the organisers paid him his promised $5000 appearance money.

By 1958 Cuba had become an extraordinarily dangerous place, and assassinations and executions were rife. Under the Batista regime Havana had long been a tourist playground of clubs and bars and casinos, but all that was set — very fundamentally — to change, for Fidel Castro’s Communist forces, having tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Batista and his family, could not ultimately be resisted.

On New Year’s Day 1959 Batista fled into exile in the Dominican Republic — but not before stripping the Cuban central bank of its $500m in gold reserves, thereby taking care of his own immediate needs, and also leaving the victorious Communists a bare cupboard. As seems so often to be the way with despots, Batista eventually found political asylum (in Portugal) and died of natural causes in ’73.

In Cuba Castro now ruled, and one dictatorship had been replaced by another. In a manner remarkably reminiscent of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, he began seizing large land holdings and dividing them for distribution among his followers.

He also completely changed the face of his nation’s decadent capital. Gone were the clubs and the roulette tables and the girls — and gone, too, were the tourists and their dollars. A dress code — drab, military-style — was imposed for both men and women. Public dissent of any kind against the Castro government’s policies was not tolerated. Vibrant Cuba became deadly dull; the economy went into free fall.

Not surprisingly there was no Cuban GP in 1959, but in 1960 the race was duly scheduled, billed ironically as the Gran Premio Libertad — the Freedom Grand Prix. As a condition of approving it, the FIA required that ‘A proper communication system and a full complement of trained flagmen and corner workers would be on hand during the race’. So that was nice.

As race HQ, the new Havana Hilton Hotel was chosen, and all the drivers, entrants and officials stayed there — Castro wished to have them all in one place, the better to keep track of their movements.

Appearance money for the drivers — $5000 for Moss and Pedro Rodriguez, $3000 for Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Gregory et al — was unsurprisingly required up front, and came from the Cuban Tourist Board, whose cash reserves were cleaned out. The Castro government, hoping against hope that the race would make big money, as in 1957 and ’58, announced that profits would be spent on ‘tractors’…

The entry list, it must be said, was an impressive one. As well as the likes of Moss, Brabham, Gurney, Gregory, Harry Schell, Maurice Trintignant and Jo Bonnier from Formula 1, there were also such as Carroll Shelby and the Rodriguez brothers, plus three Indianapolis stars of the day — Rodger Ward, Jim Rathmann and Eddie Sachs. For the record, Stirling, in a Camoradi-entered ‘Birdcage’ Maser ati, walked the race, followed by P Rodriguez (Ferrari TR59) and Gregory (Porsche RSK).

In new, drab, bankrupt Cuba, though, the crowd was nothing like it had been, and although another race was proposed for 1961, Castro & Co decided, as Finn puts it, ‘that the sport of automobile racing was frivolous and of no social value’…

Forgive me for saying it again, Bernie, but in some countries politics and sport are entwined; always were, always will be.

*

When Dario Franchitti was in Europe in February, to be inducted into Motor Sport’s Hall of Fame, he took the opportunity to nip down to Jerez where Formula 1 testing was underway, and Paul di Resta, to whom he is related, was getting acclimatised to the Force India he will race this season.

“I think you’re going to have a hell of a season with these tyres,” Franchitti laughed. “I know the plan was always to have Pirelli build something that ‘went off’ reasonably quickly — but these are something else! The most amazing thing, though, was when I watched some of the boys doing practice starts at the end of a session. The cars would rocket away, wheels spinning — but there were no tyre marks left on the track! I really don’t understand that…”

All things being equal, I should this month have been writing about the opening Grand Prix of the season. But events in Bahrain took care of that, and so, in the middle of March, we are none the wiser as to exactly how the 2011 changes will affect the course of a Grand Prix.

That being so, I’m a little wary. When we went to Bahrain last year, for example, the ban on refuelling was new, and everyone wondered how it would pan out. In the event all the teams were ultra-conservative in assessing the wear of Bridgestone’s softer compound: as a consequence no risks were taken, and the race was as dreary as any I can remember.

What amazed me afterwards, though, was the level of panic. At the airport that night people were saying that it was all a disaster, that getting rid of refuelling had been a huge mistake, that we were in for a numbingly dull season, that the fans would turn off…

As one who had been delighted to see refuelling go, I was greatly in favour of returning to a time when a driver had to think about his tyres, when technique might bring its own reward, when different cars would be quick at different times. It seemed to me absurd, on the strength of one race, to suggest that changes were urgently required, and I was pleased when Bernie Ecclestone offered the same thought. All the new format of Formula 1 needed was a little time to settle in, he said, and he was right. After the year we had in 2010, no one any longer mentions refuelling.

However, if the 2010 season was extraordinarily close, in the sense of uncertainty over who was going to win the World Championship, it was far less so in terms of actual racing. The perennial problem — lack of overtaking — remained, and so it always will until the aerodynamic regulations are changed in a way which allows cars closely to follow each other through all but slow corners.

There is a further element, too. In Motor Sport last month Jackie Stewart spoke of an urgent need to modify the circuits, so that a driver paid a price for making a mistake. It was ridiculous, he said, that you could screw up, run wide into an enormous asphalt run-off area, and regain the circuit without losing a place. And I was heartened to note, in a statement from Jean Todt, that the FIA has instructed its circuit commission to look into track changes designed to encourage more overtaking. They can start with Barcelona, Valencia and Abu Dhabi.

Lest we forget, there was a time — during which Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari metronomically won every fortnight — when the powers-that-be ignored this problem, when Todt’s predecessor at the FIA, Max Mosley, infamously suggested we should think of a Grand Prix in terms of a chess match, become absorbed in strategy, rather than lament the absence of actual racing. It was as if the wish to see cars passing each other was somehow… unsophisticated.

Flavio Briatore, uniquely among the team principals, saw it differently, looking upon Fl as a product which needed to appeal to potential buyers, and wasn’t making a very good job of it. “How is it possible,” Flay inimitably said, “to have a lot of cars that can go over 200mph, and make it boring? But somehow we have managed to do it…”

Ultimately, though, the message began to get through, and now in the paddock there is a distinct awareness of the need to keep the customer happy, and the hope is that new measures will make the racing better this coming year. KERS, giving a temporary boost of 80 horsepower, is back, and an innovation is the moveable rear wing. As well as that, of course, there are Pirelli’s new tyres, and I’ll confess it flabbergasts me that a major company has been persuaded to manufacture a deliberately inferior product: after pre-season testing, the drivers were clear that it was now out of the question to contemplate two stops — let alone one — for a 200-mile Grand Prix, that three or four would become the norm.

Ecclestone has also spoken of further possible changes to spice up ‘The Show’, and the problem with Bernie is that one is never entirely certain whether or not he is joking. A year or so ago he came up with the idea of ‘short cuts’ (as used in rallycross), to permit changes of order to take place, and now his latest wheeze is for every track to be kitted out with sprinklers, enabling ‘rain’ to play a part in every race…

On the one hand, I can understand why such an idea would come to his head, for it is undeniable that wet races are far more diverting and unpredictable than those in the dry, and it doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to work out why. We are mercifully long rid of traction control, but delicate throttle control is obviously even more crucial in the wet, and some drivers are rather better at it than others. Braking distances are of course significantly longer, and — of course — there is far less grip, which puts a car’s cornering speed far more into the hands of the driver than can ever be the case in the dry.

“The engineer in me spends all his working hours looking for more grip,” the late Harvey Postlethwaite once said to me, “and the racing enthusiast in me hates it…”

Superficially appealing as it may be, I don’t ever want to see sprinklers introduced into F1, any more than I could countenance ‘short cuts’, because this is Grand Prix racing, for God’s sake, and supposed primarily still to be a sport rather than a show. That being so, I inherently dislike the idea of anything artificial — including inefficient tyres — being introduced as an attempt to disguise a fundamental shortcoming. That was why refuelling was brought back, after all — a means of creating changes in the order not attainable on the track.

Jarno Trulli recently said he thought it a great mistake constantly to change the rules in Formula 1, and I much agree with him. The sport seems to get more complicated by the year, and this is no way to keep the spectator’s interest. As the season approaches, I feel great sympathy for Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, to whom falls the task of explaining to the TV audience why Lewis Hamilton can press the KERS button here, but not there, why Fernando Alonso is close enough to the car in front — and on the right part of the circuit — to be able to use his ‘moveable wing’ button, and on and on…

Fernando made a good point, I thought, when he said that the need to press all these buttons (together with all the others on the steering wheel) detracted from actually driving the car. Furthermore, he added, the buttons merely activated systems: there was no skill involved.

Remember when Ayrton Senna tested Emerson Fittipaldi’s CART Penske at the end of 1992? At the time F1 was festooned with ‘gizmos’, from active ride to traction control to launch control to ABS, and Senna loathed the lot of them — quite reasonably, too, for they served to flatter a driver, to reduce the gap between the good and the great. Now Ayrton got into the Penske, with more power — and much less grip — than an F1 car, with a manual gearbox, without gizmos. “I love it,” he said. “It’s a human’s car…” We would do well to remember that, at least to some degree, it’s a human’s sport as well.

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