Nigel Roebuck

Spectacle trumps sound
Wizards of Oz
Andretti's concorde offer

Back in the day it was my invariable habit, for final qualifying at Monte Carlo, to position myself immediately behind the guardrail somewhere close to the left-right entry to the swimming pool area. Then defined by solid masonry rather than white lines, it was a place that rewarded the bravest, as well as the most deft, and in 1985 I was mesmerised by the commitment of Ayrton Senna as he hurtled through, time after time, shaving the walls with that black Lotus-Renault, visibly quicker than the rest.

I don’t recall being disappointed by – or even aware of – the muted sound of the car’s turbocharged V6. Instead I relished its underlying muscle, finding myself much in agreement with Denis Jenkinson, whose first love in motor racing was always engines: indeed the first turbo era, which began with Renault’s pioneering debut in 1977 and ran through to the end of 1988, was Jenks’s favourite.

It was, I grant you, very different from the new turbo era in which we find ourselves, in the sense that back in the 1980s ‘green’ was no more than a colour, and at the time F1 was an all-out power game. “I remember asking the Honda guys what sort of power we had,” said Patrick Head, “and they couldn’t tell us – because they didn’t know! Their dyno only registered up to 1000bhp – which they were reaching at 9300rpm. We were revving them to 13,500 or so...”

Short of an NHRA dragster, I have never seen anything accelerate like the F1 cars of that era. As with Senna at Monaco, embedded in my memory is a moment at Kyalami during qualifying in 1983, when Nelson Piquet – on maximum boost, questionable fuel and who knows what else – flung his Brabham-BMW through the uphill Jukskei Sweep. The thing was like an unbroken stallion.

In terms of sheer decibels, though, it wasn’t noisy – and it didn’t matter a bit, because the quality of the sound made you shiver. It was exactly the same with the turobocharged engines in the great days of Indycar racing.

Since the Australian Grand Prix weekend I have been surprised by the degree of adverse reaction to the new ‘quieter’ F1, but then, as I say, I always cared for the sound of turbo engines, and was never a fan of the high-pitched racket made by the 2.4-litre V8s, thinking it out of kilter with an engine that relatively – according to those who had experienced something more – couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.

To my ear, perhaps the purest sound ever made by a racing engine came from Matra’s 3-litre V12, which made its debut at Monaco in 1968. I can remember being awakened early on the Thursday morning, and thinking, ‘What the hell is that?’ This was some hours before the roads were closed for F1 practice, but life was rather more informal back then, and the police, keen to help this new French contender in any way they could, had erected temporary barriers at either end of the harbourfront, allowing Jean-Pierre Beltoise to scream up and down.

Thus was I stirred by a Matra engine for the first time, and if the noise it made was sadly never matched by its performance, it always had the abiding virtue of sounding like nothing else. To me the recently departed V8s were much of a shrill muchness, and I won’t miss them.

Given the clamour, though, perhaps I am in a minority, for the engine sounds in Melbourne appear to have riled some fans like nothing for a very long time, and that – in this showbiz era of DRS, deliberately inefficient tyres and double points – I find curious. God knows what the response would have been had not the FIA been talked out of its original plan to insist on four cylinders. Personally, I’m delighted to welcome this new breed of F1 car and relish the balance of the season with greater pleasure than for many a year.

Why? Because, thanks to a combination of significantly increased torque and reduced downforce, suddenly the rails around Albert Park had been taken up. As I watched Massa’s Williams or Alonso’s Ferrari ‘step out’ when the power was applied, I thought of something Tony Brooks said to me long ago: “A racing car should always have more power than its chassis can comfortably handle…” As a simple philosophy of what motor racing should be, that will never be bettered.

Of course you can argue – and I’d be hard-pressed to take issue – that this effect might have been achieved without the need to go to ‘power units’ vastly more expensive than those they have replaced. For all the teams involved in F1 – and particularly those fighting for crumbs from CVC’s grasping table – this has been expense they could emphatically have done without, but still I disagree with those, notably Bernie Ecclestone, who insist that we should have stuck with what we had.

F1, to my mind, had become stale – and not only because one man and one team were winning every fortnight. We could have arrived at a formula for ‘more power and less downforce’ by far cheaper means, but if F1 were to remain attractive to the manufacturers who produce its engines, it had to become more – forgive me – ‘relevant’ to the world in which, like it or not, we find ourselves. Had engine rules remained the same, Renault would not have continued and Honda would not have returned.

That said, many would argue that in quest of the Brave New World the FIA perhaps didn’t need to go quite as far as it has. These new ‘hybrid power units’ are not only exorbitantly pricey, but also scarily complicated, and personally I thought it a mistake, for example, to impose quite such a draconian reduction – 160kgs down to 100 – in the fuel available for a 200-mile race. Cruising does not belong in anything calling itself a Grand Prix: we’ve already had quite enough of that with high-degradation tyres, thank you very much.

Apart from anything else, it is a delight to see Formula 1 influenced – if perhaps only temporarily – by something other than aerodynamics. If ever you needed proof that downforce is the enemy of spectacle, Melbourne provided it. In time they will inevitably get a lot of it back – by definition the aerodynamicist is not the spectator’s friend – but let us savour the situation until they do.

In the era of ‘frozen-spec’ V8s, engines had ceased to count for very much. Once the rev limit of 18,000 had been imposed, they were effectively bullet-proof and there wasn’t much to choose between them – they all sounded the same, and rarely had much of an impact on the outcome of a race.

The FIA has not done away with the principle of freezing engine specifications, but as this new F1 gets underway there are plainly differences – not least in sound – between the three power units on offer, and at the moment Mercedes has a clear edge over Ferrari and, particularly, Renault.

That’s fine with me. I’m perfectly happy with one car being faster than another in a straight line, and have never understood why some get sniffy about it – as if it’s somehow not quite ‘cricket’, as if the only acceptable superiority is in the corners, in grip.

Back in 1981 Gilles Villeneuve won the Spanish Grand Prix at twisty Jarama, holding off four nimble ‘Cosworths’ in a turbocharged Ferrari 126C that he called, “My big red Cadillac.” If Gordon Murray described Villeneuve’s drive as “The greatest I ever saw – by anyone”, others moaned that it wasn’t fair, that Gilles won only because he had more horsepower, blithely omitting to mention that Messrs Laffite, Watson, Reutemann and de Angelis had vastly superior handling.

Jacques, nearest at hand to the Ferrari, didn’t see it that way. “Of course it was frustrating to be left behind on the straight every lap, but Gilles’s car was terrible! If he’d made one mistake, we would all have passed him – but he didn’t…”

What I liked about Melbourne, and what makes me optimistic for the future, was not only that, with youngsters like Ricciardo, Magnussen, Bottas and Kvyat around, F1’s future – in terms of drivers, anyway – is in safe hands, but also the fact that this new generation of cars appears far less amenable than those just gone. With all the endless systems to consider and adjust, you could understand Lewis Hamilton’s quip that “You need a degree to drive them”, but so you also need – to a far greater degree than before – sensitive throttle control, what Mario Andretti christened, “the educated right foot”.

Some appeared not to notice this. Perhaps they didn’t care. All they could do was rant that the cars were too quiet, and I found laughably fatuous the remarks of Melbourne promoter Ron Walker, Ecclestone’s close friend and frequent mouthpiece. One must doubt that Formula E will ever find its way into the Australian Grand Prix weekend schedule.

“We are an entertainment company,” said Walker, “and we have to entertain. When you take the excitement away, you have trouble selling tickets. You have to create demand, and part of that demand is people liking the sound of the race cars. We are resolving that with Bernie. It’s not what we paid for, and it’s clearly in breach of our contract.”

I could be wrong, but I somewhat doubt that there is any mention of ‘a minimum decibel count’ in Ecclestone’s contracts with race promoters. Second, Walker apparently threatened that failure to get satisfaction in the matter might lead to his races being run in future for Indycars, rather than F1.

Not the brightest thing he could have said. What do we know about the engines in this generation of Indycars? They’re turbocharged, and don’t make a loud noise. Presumably this was unknown to the Melbourne race authorities.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the complaints about the new, quieter, F1 appears to have come – Bernie apart – from folk with no knowledge or memory of the first turbo era. I must say I have no recollection of any such unrest back then: what the fans revelled in was that the cars were so fast and, being patently difficult to drive, a joy to watch.

While it is unlikely that this new generation of turbos will ever match the sheer drama of F1 30 years ago, more power and less downforce is what many of us have long craved for the top echelon of the sport, and for me this is greatly preferable to screamers on rails. Yes, of course ears have a part to play in appreciation of this sport, but so also have eyes – ask anyone who saw Ayrton on full boost at Monaco.

As the Australian Grand Prix came and went, more than once I remembered titbits from a conversation over lunch with Mark Webber in January. As we talked through the coming Formula 1 season – the first in which Mark would not be involved since 2002 – he recalled how, in successive years, Fernando Alonso and he had made their debuts with Minardi. Even though the cars built by the perennially breadline team were uncompetitive, still they allowed a couple of exceptional apprentices the opportunity to give notice of intent.

“Like Hamilton, Magnussen’s getting a dream start in F1 with McLaren, and I’m sure he’ll make the most of his opportunity,” Webber said, “but that’s something that hardly ever happens – most kids start in a small team, and it bothers me that it’s become so dependent on the cash they bring. I know that financially and commercially some of the team bosses have to do that, because so much money is being sucked from the sport, but somehow we really need to get the good youngsters – skilled, hungry, drivers – into the cars, rather than pay-drivers…”

It baffles me, I said, that the top teams continue to ignore Nico Hülkenberg, to my mind a potential superstar, and Webber agreed. “Yeah, you’re right. Hülkenberg’s a gun, a hard racer. I like him, too – a good handshake always goes a long way with me...

“And speaking of Nicos, the other one – Rosberg – will be in great shape this year, assuming Mercedes comes up with a good car. There’s a technological revolution in F1 in 2014, and Nico will thrive with that, just as Alain Prost would have done – he’s quick, he’s very smart and he always has the big picture going.”

On the nail. Of course it’s easier to look imperious in a clearly superior car – as we have seen times without number in recent seasons – but in Melbourne Rosberg looked just as he did in Monaco in 2013, or Shanghai the year before that: flawless.

For a long time many in the business resolutely harboured doubts about Nico. Yes, he was clearly brighter than most, and unquestionably quick – but was he the real deal? At Williams he sometimes excelled, and at Mercedes, too, but although he invariably had the beating of Schumacher in their three seasons as team-mates, it was a widely held view that Michael wasn’t the driver of old, that Nico should have had the better of him. It was only in 2013, with Hamilton – the yardstick for pure speed – now at Mercedes, that Rosberg’s performances caused folk not only to appreciate his true capabilities, but also to reassess Schumacher’s comeback years.

As Webber’s observation about Rosberg came back to me over the Melbourne weekend, so also did what he had to say about his fellow-countryman, and successor at Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo.

“He’ll go well, I’m sure of that. I think he’ll give Vettel a real hard time in qualifying – it’ll be 50:50 in the first year, I reckon…”

That rather surprised me, and I said as much.

“Well,” said Mark, “I took a few off Seb last year – and the blown floor, which he exploited brilliantly, is gone now. I reckon Daniel will be fine – and it certainly won’t hurt him that he’s come through the Red Bull system…”

That of course struck me as Helmut Marko hugged Ricciardo – certainly a first for Australian Red Bull drivers – after a superb performance on race day. The downside was that, five hours later, he was disqualified because his team had opted to ignore FIA demands that all teams should observe the governing body’s own fuel sensor readings (restricting fuel flow to 100kg/h), in favour of its own data.

Red Bull was not the only team to question the reliability of the FIA’s sensor, but whereas the others heeded Charlie Whiting’s warning of a ‘zero tolerance’ policy on the matter, and decided to play safe, Dietrich Mateschitz’s outfit did not, which was why there was afterwards rather more sympathy in the paddock for Ricciardo than for his team.

In absolute terms, it was unfortunate that this new F1 era should have begun with a late-night revision of the results, but rules is rules, and one has long clung to the belief that they should be fairly applied.

On occasion, of course, this naïveté has been put to the test, as we remember from the debacle in 1999 when the victorious Ferraris of Irvine and Schumacher were disqualified by the FIA stewards from the Malaysian Grand Prix – and then reinstated by the FIA Court of Appeal six days later. In Sepang the cars’ bargeboards didn’t fit the regulation; in Paris the regulation didn’t fit the bargeboards. Irvine’s reinstatement thus kept the World Championship alive to the last race, at Suzuka, and that satisfied the Great God TV. Nowadays, of course, we have ‘double points’ to take official care of such matters.

After Melbourne Ecclestone went on at length about the lack of noise, saying the race had been ‘farcical’ – an odd remark from one supposed to be promoting F1 – and suggesting that it would alienate the fans, and drive them away. Quite why he has failed to recognise their distaste for cheap gimmicks like DRS, silly tyres and double points remains a mystery. Employ such things in touring car championships if you wish, but to Grand Prix racing they are an affront.

Unfortunately such matters are now decided by the recently introduced – and thus far ill-named – F1 Strategy Group, which appears to be completely out of touch with the fans, if a recent remark by Toto Wolff is any guide: “The reaction to ‘double points’ was not what we expected…” Still, gimmickry aside, I was gratified by the Australian GP for several reasons, one of which – Saints Be Praised! – was that there was barely a mention of tyres, and Pirelli’s necessary move to something more durable meant that the circuit was not awash with marbles.

As well as that, because pre-season testing had been unusually chaotic, there was fevered speculation that few cars would make it to the end of this first race. It surprised me when, before the start of practice, Alonso predicted there would be 16 finishers, but he was only slightly optimistic, and one was – yet again – astounded by the abilities of F1 people, by the progress made in a short time.

Granted, the first session got away to an edgy start, with Hamilton’s Mercedes stopping out on the circuit on its first lap, but even more unexpected was that the first car to set a time was a Red Bull – and that of Ricciardo, rather than Vettel.

In all respects, the 2014 Melbourne experience will not be one the world champion cares to remember. In trouble with software problems, his failure to make it out of Q2 was greeted with a hail of cheers – clearly audible in this new era – from the spectators, for whom the Malaysian ‘Multi 21’ controversy still resonates. As Stuart Broad could have told Vettel, Australian sports fans do not quickly forget – and in this case, nor should they.

Who knows, Webber, too, might have permitted himself a wry smile, and perhaps remembered the start of 2012, when changes to the ‘blown floor’ regulations briefly compromised Red Bull’s superiority, during which time he routinely out-ran Vettel: “You could say he wasn’t too happy at that stage – very pissed off and bad-tempered, in fact…”

Although team personnel sought to play it down, Seb’s mood in Australia wasn’t too sunny, either, as evidenced by the tone of his radio contact with the team, but perhaps we should cut him some slack: it can be very trying to go through a Grand Prix weekend without winning – why, it had happened only last August.

In trouble from the word go in the race, both Vettel and Hamilton retired early, but whereas Lewis – deeply disappointed after starting from pole – stayed around with his team, by half-distance Seb was gone from the circuit, thereby passing up the opportunity to congratulate his new team-mate on a tremendous drive. A pity, one thought.

In point of fact, although Vettel’s weekend was a wash-out, still he must have taken heart from the progress made by Red Bull since its embarrassing test programme. Adrian Newey’s perfectionist approach can be a double-edged sword – his preoccupation with tight packaging makes life difficult for the mechanics, and has been known to cause the odd problem with overheating and vibration – but, as everyone knows, when his cars work as they should they work like no others. Even when the RB10 was struggling to complete a lap at Jerez, rivals looked at it nervously, hoping devoutly it would take a long time to come right.

If Melbourne disabused them of that, it surprised even Red Bull personnel, as Christian Horner acknowledged. Vettel’s car might have been troubled throughout, but Ricciardo’s was in the mix from the beginning, despite the fact that Renault’s engine is yet patently no match for Mercedes. If the team’s ill-advised – and lone – decision to ignore FIA warnings about the fuel flow meter flattered the car’s race performance to some degree (while reinforcing Red Bull’s already sturdy reputation for arrogance), still there are few doubts about the RB10’s fundamental quality.

Back in the 1930s it was said of Bernd Rosemeyer, who drove Auto Unions as no one else ever did, that, having made his debut with the team and remained there throughout his sadly brief career, he came fresh to the wilful rear-engined cars, and thus had nothing to un-learn, if you will.

Perhaps there was an element of this in the Melbourne performances of such as Kevin Magnussen and Daniil Kvyat, both of whom were patently unintimidated by the complexities – and driving characteristics – of this new generation of racer. “I’ve never driven a car with torque before,” said Jenson Button during practice, and he wasn’t altogether joking.

These things can catch a driver out in ways unknown through the V8 era. In qualifying Kvyat clipped a wall, but he had made it to Q3 by the time it happened, and Magnussen almost lost it away from the grid, just as did Gerhard Berger on his (turbo) F1 debut, at the Österreichring 30 years ago. Those moments apart, the two rookies were confident and assured throughout the weekend, and Magnussen’s performance, if perhaps not unexpected, was stunning.

Throw in such as Ricciardo, whom we have already discussed, and Bottas, and there is every reason to feel optimistic about the next generation. As he scythed through the pack, Valtteri was clearly revelling in his Williams FW36, and perhaps uttering a prayer of thanks that Frank’s team, on course for its best season in a decade, had made the switch from Renault power to Mercedes. Had he not clipped a wall and destroyed a tyre, he would have made the podium.

If one had to be impressed by the progress made in a short time by most of the teams since the pre-season tests, so the same was emphatically true of a majority of the drivers as they adapted to something so different: at no time was this more apparent than in qualifying, when it rained. Almost to a man, this was their first experience of the new F1 car in the wet, and one might reasonably have expected the torque to cause havoc; as it was they coped superbly, and Hamilton’s pole position lap – on the edge, contained by genius – was one for the ages. Again, I can’t say I noticed the lack of noise.

Permit me, if you will, a brief digression from motor racing, so as tell you a little about Jacques Anquetil.

One of the very greatest riders in cycling history, by the mid-sixties Anquetil had done it all, being apart from anything else the first man to win the Tour de France five times. Curiously, though – perhaps because he was too good – he was way less popular in his own land than Raymond Poulidor, one of conspicuously less achievement, but a country boy with whom the fans closely identified.

Thirty years ago it was just that way with Alain Prost and René Arnoux. “French mentality is odd in some ways,” Alain said to me once. “They don’t really like winners – they prefer the man who gloriously loses…”

It was Anquetil’s manager, former rider Raphael Geminiani, who came up with the notion of ‘Le Double’, believing – correctly – that if his man succeeded it would change forever the public’s perception of him. When first the idea was put to him, Anquetil thought it mad, but gradually he was talked around.

In Avignon, on May 29 1965, he triumphed in the week-long Dauphiné Libéré, completing the awards ceremony at five o’clock, then dashing off for a shower and a quick dinner – steak tartare and two beers – before boarding an aeroplane (laid on by President de Gaulle) at Nimes. This took him to Bordeaux, where he had a brief sleep and another swift meal.

At 2am, into a head wind and driving rain, Anquetil started the race to Paris, at 372 miles regarded as the toughest one-day event in cycling; when he entered the Parc des Princes more than 15 hours later, he was a minute clear of his nearest rival.

Hence ‘Le Double’, and the reception from the crowd that day was such as he had never known before. At last France, stunned by his courage, took Anquetil to its heart, and 35 years later, long after his death, a poll of L’Équipe readers rated his exploit as the greatest sporting achievement of the 20th century.

Deeds of this kind – pushing endurance to unusual limits – have always fascinated me. I remember, for example, August Bank Holiday Monday at Brands Hatch in 1967, when Jack Brabham, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, John Surtees, Graham Hill and Chris Irwin arrived only at mid-morning.

They were late because the day before they had taken part in the Canadian Grand Prix at Mosport (won by 40-year-old Brabham), then jumped on a ‘red eye’ to Heathrow so as to compete in the Formula 2 Guards International Trophy. Having necessarily missed practice, they were granted a brief session of their own, and by 12.30 were on the grid for the first heat, which Rindt won from Stewart. Later in the day they finished 1-2 in the final.

It astonishes me now to recall that at the time, while noteworthy, it was not thought especially remarkable. Racing drivers lived differently back then, not confining themselves to the Grand Prix schedule, but competing in different cars in a variety of events, and the man who kept this going longer than anyone was, of course, the most versatile of all time, Mario Andretti.

Following the death of Jim Clark, in April 1968, Colin Chapman suggested to Andretti, whom he had come to know and appreciate at Indianapolis, that he should take a shot at Formula 1, and Mario, who from childhood had dreamed of nothing else, swiftly accepted.

Problem was, where – and how? Andretti’s US commitments were many and varied, and it proved difficult to find a weekend that didn’t clash. When finally it was decided he should make his debut at Monza, the arrangements were anything but straightforward: the day before the Italian Grand Prix he was due to race on the other side of the Atlantic…

A glance at Mario’s schedule from that time is eye-opening. On Sunday, September 1, he drove a Lola T70 in the CanAm race at Elkhart Lake; the following day – a public holiday – he drove his Kuzma-Offenhauser to victory in a USAC Championship race on the dirt mile at DuQuoin; on the Wednesday he flew to Milan (with Bobby Unser, also due to make his F1 debut, with BRM); on the Thursday he practised at Monza in the Lotus 49; on the Friday morning he qualified for the Italian Grand Prix (all sessions counted for the grid in those days), and in the afternoon he and Unser flew to Chicago, and thence to Indianapolis; on the Saturday they competed in the prestigious Hoosier 100 (Andretti taking pole, and finishing second to AJ Foyt) at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, another dirt mile, after which they set off again for Milan, which – allowing for the time change – they reached on Sunday morning.

A busy time, you’d have to say, but the dramas weren’t over yet. “We were due to get to Monza by helicopter,” said Mario, “but instead of that we get met by a Lotus mechanic – in a Mini! We set off, and we’re going pretty good, but time is short, and Bobby says, ‘We need to go faster – Wop, you drive!’ And he just drags the guy out of the seat – I had to grab the steering-wheel, and take over! That was some crazy journey, over the sidewalks and everything, and when we get to the track we don’t have the right credentials to get in. Of course the police don’t believe we’re drivers, and one of them starts pulling his gun – I just gassed it and took off for the paddock…”

All to no avail, as it turned out, for during their absence it had been decided by the Monza authorities – after a protest by Ferrari on ‘safety grounds’ – that Andretti and Unser, having raced the day before, should not be allowed to compete. “It would have been nice,” said Mario, “if they’d let us know before we got on the goddam plane…”

Fast forward 10 years to Zolder in May ’78. By this point in his career Andretti’s first commitment was to F1, and in the Lotus 79 he knew he had a car in which he could realise his life’s ambition and become world champion.

At the same time, though, Mario continued to take part – for Roger Penske – in as many Indycar events as his schedule allowed, and the problem he had now was that the Belgian Grand Prix clashed with the first weekend of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

Yes, it was only qualifying, and in those days – when the 500 was wildly oversubscribed – there was a second weekend of it, too, so why the pressure to get it done in the first?

It was all a matter of starting position: the quickest qualifier of the second weekend – no matter what his speed – lined up behind the slowest of the first, and Gould Industries, sponsor of Andretti’s Penske, was very keen that he should be there.

This scenario was not unknown. In 1961, when John Cooper entered an underpowered Climax-powered car and thereby swung a lamp over the future of the 500, again there was a clash between Indy’s first qualifying weekend and a Grand Prix, this time Monaco. Jack Brabham duly did his thing, qualifying in the Principality on Thursday and at the Speedway on Saturday, but by the time he got back to Monaco, on Sunday morning, he was shattered, and not too disappointed to retire before half-distance.

On to Thursday, May 18 1978, to the Zolder paddock where my colleague Jeff Hutchinson and I are chatting to Andretti. “You guys interested in a trip to the States?” he says. We say yes, sure – when?

“Tomorrow…” Mario says. Jeff and I gulp. Then there comes a more intriguing question: “Either of you been on Concorde?”

We gulp again. Andretti might have become accustomed to using the supersonic jet like a commuter, but neither of us had yet experienced it, and by now he had our full attention.

“Well,” he grinned, “there’s this plan…” And he went on to explain that, all things being equal, the following morning he would qualify for the Belgian Grand Prix, then fly from Brussels to Paris, where he would take a Concorde – chartered by Gould! – to JFK, and then a connecting flight to Indianapolis.

On Saturday morning he would qualify his PC6 for the 500, after which the travel procedure would be reversed, and he would get back to Zolder in time for the race.

“Want to come with me?” he asked, and it won’t surprise you that we said ‘Yes, please’. All right, we would miss a chunk of the Zolder weekend, but what a story we would have…

A few hours later, though, we were brought back to earth with a jolt. “Sorry, guys,” Mario said, “but the trip’s off…” Thirty-six years on, neither he nor I can remember the precise details, but there is a sketchy memory of the booked Concorde having a technical problem, and no other being available for charter.

Whatever, none of us crossed the Atlantic that weekend, but it wasn’t all bad. On the Saturday, while journeyman Mike Hiss qualified Andretti’s Penske for him at Indianapolis, I did my first proper interview with Gilles Villeneuve and Mario put his beautiful Lotus 79 on pole. Twenty-four hours later he took the car to its first victory.

These memories are in my mind just now because NASCAR star Kurt Busch recently announced that on May 25 he will drive for Andretti Autosport in the Indianapolis 500, then later in the day switch to his Stewart-Haas Chevy for the longest stock car race of the season, the Coca Cola 600 at Charlotte.

It’s been done a handful of times before, notably in 2001, when Tony Stewart finished sixth at Indy, then third at Charlotte, but not for a while. Busch – an avid F1 fan, incidentally – describes himself as, “A bit of an old-school racer, a throwback. I enjoyed the era of drivers racing different cars, and testing themselves in other series…”

Good on him, say I, and I’m sure Mario agrees.