Thoughts on the ever-changing Formula 1 landscape, extended front-line careers and one particular fallen hero from the past
One day in the noughties, Bernie Ecclestone seemed to be in a particularly playful mood when I went with him to inspect a classic car in which he was interested at a dodgy dealership in London. The conversation came around to the length of contemporary racing drivers’ top-level careers – the old concern about long-term durability effectively bed-blocking the category from fresh young talent emerging from below…
It was around the time that Michael Schumacher had just scored his third or fourth consecutive World Championship title – yawn – for Ferrari. Generally it was all becoming rather boring for the non-aligned general public, and Mr E admitted as much. At that time Schumacher was in probably the 12th or 13th year of his glittering Formula 1 career, with umpteen Grand Prix race starts already to his name.
Where top-line Formula 1 driving careers had once been so fraught with danger that they were quite commonly cut short by accident and injury, one side-effect of making the game safer had been to prolong not merely the best but virtually every driver’s career far beyond its natural sell-by date.
Where Michael Schumacher’s split career – 1991-2006, then 2010-2012 – ultimately encompassed no fewer than 22 seasons at the top (19 of them active), five-times champion Juan Fangio’s Formula 1 career had really embraced only nine, Mike Hawthorn’s a meagre seven and Jim Clark’s eight-and-a-bit, while Alberto Ascari raced in F1 from 1948-55, eight seasons in all.
And then there’s the question of Grand Prix races themselves having become a devalued currency, debased by increased frequency. Show a race promoter a Grand Prix and his eyes would light up with the neon sign reading “earning opportunity”. Mr E certainly wouldn’t concede this one, more Grand Prix races each year were A Good Thing, and he gave no credit to nonsensical mere-enthusiast arguments about the good old days of only 10 or 11 World Championship rounds promoting proper anticipation, genuine stature, for each one.
But if practice yields perfection, then modern-era Grand Prix drivers must be very slow learners. Where the first double-champion Ascari’s career total of World Championship Grand Prix starts was a mere 32, Fangio started only 51, Mike Hawthorn a meagre 45, Stirling Moss 66 and even Jimmy Clark just 72.
In stark contrast Michael Schumacher would start 306 GPs during his frontline career – Lewis Hamilton to the end of last season was on 208, Kimi Räikkönen on 271 (from 15 seasons) and even that other relative newcomer Sebastian Vettel on 198 starts over 11 seasons. Jenson Button should have got driving just about gripped after 306 starts. And then there are the journeymen no-hopers who were good enough to accumulate lengthy frontline careers without winning a single race at that level – the likes of Martin Brundle, 158 starts, or Nick Heidfeld, 183 starts – both over 12-year careers…
At one stage in our casual conversation Mr E agreed, “Yes – we no longer kill ’em off often enough,” (considering personal experiences from his motor racing past, he must have been feeling particularly relaxed). Of course I kept that quote absolutely to myself at the time, I’m not that kind of journalist, but in stark black and white it certainly wouldn’t have looked good at the time. Yet against such a background, and with such perspective in mind, we will all – surely – have cherished favourites lodged in our minds.
ONE OF MINE – most indelibly – is the late, great Ronnie Peterson. He was the most exciting driver I ever saw first-hand on track. Others will cite Gilles Villeneuve, or Jochen Rindt, or maybe Ayrton Senna. Alain Prost was able to set ferociously competitive lap times while making the process look unutterably dull. Lewis Hamilton is fantastic to watch whenever the track is wet, but only within the dynamic context of what ‘emotion’ his car’s engineering permits it to display.
That was the thing about Ronnie Peterson, dancing his Spitfire-winged March 711 around the Nürburgring, or flickering his JPS Lotus through Woodcote Corner at Silverstone – visibly and self-evidently on an absolute knife-edge, electrifying to watch. And then out of the car the tall, husky Swede would smile his slow smile and simply be relaxed, phlegmatic, rather reserved Ronnie again.
I interviewed him one time at his nice, neat yet surprisingly modest house in Maidenhead, with the lovely Barbro, and his beautifully kept, beautifully lit tropical fish aquaria bubbling away in the background. When I wrote the piece I presented his quotes spelled as he spoke them. “I woss offered two sports car drives, one by Alfa Romeo, the other by Ferrari. The Alfas had yust won a lot races which the flat-12 Ferrari led every time but always woss breaking. To me woss clear – driving the Ferrari could be more fun, so I signed with them. And the car woss reliable, and we won some races. Woss a bonus” – and he beamed at the then-recent memory.
Unfortunately, when Barbro read the story she assumed that I was merely taking the mickey, and she was quite upset with me. I was dismayed since that had been the very last thing I would ever have intended, and I had certainly not foreseen such a possibility. Aah well – an outsider’s best intentions will seldom sway a properly proud and protective wife.
But right now one of the cars I am working with is no less than Ronnie Peterson’s 1969 Formula 3 Tecno-Novamotor, in which he first burst upon the international scene by winning that year’s Monaco GP supporting race. And back in Monaco on May 11, that very car is to be offered for auction in the Bonhams sale.
In fact, Ronnie drove this Swedish-yellow Tecno that season to win no fewer than 16 times, including every one of his first eight consecutive outings in the car. Apart from the Monaco trip and another to Magny-Cours plus British appearances at Crystal Palace (second) and in the British GP support race at Silverstone (third), he concentrated upon Italian and Swedish Championship races.
In the Tecno he actually won at the Monza Pista Junior (twice), at Vallelunga (twice), Falkenberg (twice), Knutstorp, Karlskoga (twice), Monaco, Anderstorp (twice), Magny-Cours, Kinnekullering, Skarpnack and finally on the Dalslandring at Bengtsfors.
Into 1970, once he was taken under the brand-new March company’s wing and entered Formula 1 with Colin Crabbe’s private March 701, his F3 Tecno was sold to Swedish privateer Rolf Skoghag – who appears to have been sponsored by a sealed-wrapper mucky magazine publisher…
First time out at Falkenberg that April, Skoghag finished fifth, but thereafter in eight further Swedish and Finnish outings he had little luck. Into 1971 he took to driving a replacement Lotus 59 for Sten Axelsson who was better known as a sometime endurance racing driver and entrant. Eventually the discarded Tecno was bought for old times’ sake by Ronnie’s long-time friend and manager Staffan Svenby, who also ran Anderstorp Raceway amongst his growing business empire. The car was displayed for some time at the Ronnie Peterson Museum in Orebro, before finally returning to family ownership with Ronnie and Barbro’s daughter, Nina.
Now the time has come for a new owner hopefully to conserve and cherish this wonderfully successful and significant icon of the truly great. It really would be a pity to see it exposed to the dangers of pipsqueak, no-account historic racing amongst a bunch of replacement cars that have really been built only last Tuesday but, as the car in which the great Ronnie Peterson first made his mark, well, here’s a historic racing car with knobs on. And – just for once – I am very excited about it.
Doug Nye is the UK’s most eminent motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s