Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– Rising star Vettel shows shades of Prost
– Spa penalty protest brings no surprises
– The legacy left by American champ Phil Hill
– Bernie’s tribute to his friend Stuart Lewis-Evans

Leaving aside Monaco, where his profile was ultra-low during a brief visit to the paddock, Max Mosley chose Monza, the last European Grand Prix of the season, for a first ‘public appearance’ since his unusual leisure interests hit the headlines last spring. And when, on Friday evening, my pass failed to work at the turnstile between press room and paddock, I confess that my first thought was that the two events might not be unconnected. Motor Sport, after all, had suggested on more than one occasion that, in the interests of the sport, the president of the FIA should step down.

If my pass didn’t work, others’ did, but in fact my suspicion proved to be an unworthy one. The glitch occurred because of a fault in the water-logged electrics of the turnstile, and once the pass had been re-programmed, or whatever, there was no further problem.

Perhaps I should have taken more account of the weather, for that day at Monza was as bad as any I have ever known at a race track. Mid-morning was like night, and such lights as were on around the circuit shone like Times Square after dark. As thunder crashed and lightning forked across the sky, the drivers for a time abandoned practice, concerned not only by the belting rain and huge pools of standing water, but also by the fact that they couldn’t see very much. After this, someone murmured, the thought of Singapore’s forthcoming night race held no terrors at all.

Saturday was a little better, and Sunday a little better yet, but still the climatic conditions remained foully wet and cool, and on the face of it they were heaven-sent for McLaren, for not only does the MP4-23 handle kerbs (vital at Monza, where chicanes abound) better than anything else, it also runs its Bridgestones hotter than Ferrari’s F2008. On sweltering days this does not work to the advantage of Lewis Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen, but when there is rain, and tyre temperatures plummet, they are in very good shape indeed, as evidenced by Hamilton’s suddenly huge performance advantage over Kimi Räikkönen in the wet closing laps at Spa.

Oddly, though, it was Kovalainen, rather than Hamilton, who got it together in qualifying at Monza. In saying that, I mean no offence to Heikki, but two of Lewis’s most memorable victories – at Fuji last autumn and Silverstone in July – had come on torrential days, and one expected that he would take pole position at Monza, and waltz the race. In the event Kovalainen was fastest in Q1, but although Hamilton was next up he seemed rather to be scrabbling, whereas his team-mate simply banged in the quick laps, one after another.

If that were unexpected, the second ‘knock out’ phase of qualifying was something else again. It continued to rain, but only lightly at this point, and everyone – save Hamilton – dashed out immediately, figuring that conditions would probably deteriorate rather than improve. Again Kovalainen was much to the fore, but by the time Hamilton came out the rain was indeed worsening – and, we were astonished to note, he was on intermediate Bridgestones, rather than the ‘extreme wets’ used by every other driver.

Later Lewis explained that this decision, unfathomable as it seemed, had been a joint one between himself and the team, based on an expectation of better track conditions. Very quickly he came to appreciate the mistake, but by the time he had been in for ‘extreme wets’, the rain was coming down ever harder, and in those circumstances he was essentially wasting his time: hence his 15th position, one behind Räikkönen.

To say the least, though, it was surprising that, as he strove to find a lap that would get him into Q3 – at one point spinning harmlessly at Ascari – Hamilton was lapping two seconds slower than the Ferrari of championship rival Felipe Massa. Lewis spoke vaguely of ‘not being able to see his braking points’, but the same was true of all the drivers out there, and we wondered if there had been another fundamental problem with his car. The team, however, said not.

For the first time in his career, therefore, Hamilton was not involved in Q3, the final shoot-out between the fastest 10 – and Massa, crucially, was. Felipe might have wished for better than sixth on the grid, but he was greatly heartened by the fact that Lewis was nine places behind him.

If Hamilton’s problem was one story from qualifying, the other lay with the man – the boy – on pole. And in years to come, I have no doubt, we will remember Monza 2008 as the race in which a World Champion gave first notice of serious intent.

Actually, that is a little unfair. From his very beginnings in a Grand Prix car Sebastian Vettel looked like one of those special talents, and this is not 20:20 hindsight at work.

At a race early in the European season last year my colleague Alan Henry and I were having breakfast at BMW when one of the PRs joined us, together with a schoolboy whom neither of us had properly met before, but knew to be the team’s test driver.

Charming kid, we agreed afterwards, and an unusual one, too: not only was his command of English remarkable (as is his French and Italian), but also his strong affection for certain very English institutions, like The Beatles and Monty Python and Fawlty Towers. There was a smiling natural openness about Sebastian, who was on the fringes of Formula 1, and clearly relishing every second of it.

Then came Montréal, where Robert Kubica had an enormous accident. Somehow he came out of it essentially unhurt, and was keen to race at Indianapolis the following weekend, but there the medical authorities concluded that would be unwise, and thus, at very short notice, the 19-year-old Vettel found himself partnering Nick Heidfeld in the US Grand Prix.

He wasn’t short of speed, you could say that. Fourth in the first practice session, he was beaten only by Fernando Alonso in the third, and went on to qualify seventh on his F1 debut, then score a point in the race.

Problem was, it was necessarily a one-off, for Kubica was back in the car at the next race, and as both he and Heidfeld were under contract for the remainder of the year and beyond, there seemed little likelihood of a second race for Vettel any time soon.

In a BMW, anyway. But, fortunately for Sebastian, Gerhard Berger was becoming ever more dissatisfied with Scott Speed, the singularly charmless – and somewhat mis-named – American foisted upon his struggling Toro Rosso team by Red Bull’s ‘Young Driver’ programme. After the European Grand Prix, Speed was ‘let go’, as they say, and for Budapest Vettel, released by BMW, was in the team alongside Tonio Liuzzi.

By the time of Fuji, where the weather conditions were appalling, he was able to qualify in the top 10, and in the race even briefly led for the first time.

Vettel’s Japanese Grand Prix did not have a happy ending, however, for during a safety car period he ran into the back of another car – and what made it worse was that it happened to be Webber’s Red Bull, which was in second place at the time. Both cars were out on the spot, and Mark was understandably livid.

Sebastian made amends – to Toro Rosso, if not Webber – by finishing fourth in Shanghai a week later.

At Monza some forecasts for Sunday anticipated a dry, if cloudy, race, and it’s quite reasonable to suggest that had it turned out that way Vettel would not have won, for while the Toro Rosso worked superbly in the wet, no one would claim it ordinarily the equal of a McLaren or Ferrari. When I saw Berger late on race morning, though, he was rubbing his hands, for now a wet afternoon seemed a certainty and he had every confidence in his young driver: “If it stays wet, Sebastian can do it, yes”. No doubts about that? “No doubts…”

And he was right. Of course, on a wet day, the man on pole has an instant advantage, for he alone can clearly see where he’s going – but he can only do that if he makes the most of his starting position, and stays in front on the run to the first corner. Vettel, with all the pressure in the world on him, did it perfectly, and an hour and a half later, scarcely believing it himself, was on the top step of the podium.

Some compared Sebastian’s victory at Monza with Estoril in 1985, where Ayrton Senna – also in dreadful weather – won his first GP, in a Lotus-Renault. That, too, was unquestionably a virtuoso performance, but afterwards Ayrton admitted that a certain amount of luck had been involved, too, for he had been off the road more times than he cared to remember.

Apart from getting crossed up at a chicane in the early laps, Vettel, on the other hand, made the winning of his first Grand Prix look simplicity itself, and as I watched him, ticking off lap after immaculate lap, I was reminded more of Prost than Senna, for this was the kind of metronomic drive we saw from Alain so many times. No driver, I think, ever made the winning of a Grand Prix seem more straightforward than Prost, and if there is genius apparent in anyone who can make something very difficult appear effortless, Alain had it in spades. Early days it may be, but on this evidence Vettel has that same quality.

It was a lovely thing to see such uninhibited joy on the face of a winner, and a lovely thing, too, to see Berger, who won at Monza for Ferrari 20 years ago, back on a Grand Prix podium, now in the role of team owner and cheered to the rafters by the tifosi, who do not forget.

A week earlier, at Spa, most of us had left the circuit in a distinctly downbeat frame of mind, thanks to the severity of the punishment meted out to Hamilton by that week’s FIA stewards. At Monza, though, we may have been cold and damp as we splashed our way back to the quagmire car park, but we were all of a mind that the day’s events had been a tonic for F1.

In 2009 Vettel will be Webber’s team-mate, having been promoted to the ‘mother team’, although in light of the relative performances of Red Bull and Toro Rosso in recent weeks, maybe ‘promoted’ is not quite the mot juste. At Monza, after all, Toro Rosso overtook Red Bull in the constructors’ point standings, and Adrian Newey must surely be regretting his decision to go for the Renault V10, rather than the Ferrari. An engine ‘freeze’ there may be, but still there are things you can do to find a little more horsepower, assiduous work on fuels and oils, for example, producing as much as 30bhp, believe it or not. And in an era when engines are pegged at around 700, that’s a lot.

As I write, four races remain in the 2008 World Championship, and at this time of the year rain could figure in any of them, potentially good news for Toro Rosso and, of course, McLaren, but not so for Ferrari.

Especially for Räikkönen, if Monza were any guide, for while Massa – who was lamentable in the rains of Silverstone – got his head down, qualifying sixth and finishing the race in the same position, his team-mate started a lowly 14th, and made little impression in the first two stints of his race. Only in the third, by which time the track had dried out quite a bit, and he was now on intermediate Bridgestones rather than ‘extreme wets’, did Kimi come to life, and to such a degree that all in the Ferrari team, together with all of us who watched, will have thought yet again, ‘Why doesn’t he drive like this all the time?’

On the Thursday before the Italian Grand Prix, Ferrari announced that Räikkönen’s contract had been extended by a year, to the end of 2010, and, in light of a string of substandard performances in the recent past, not many had seen that coming.

True, there have been occasions this year when the reigning World Champion has looked like the driver he can be, but they have been few indeed.

In Kimi’s McLaren days, Martin Whitmarsh has said, they would get a very fair idea on Thursday afternoon, when he reported for duty, whether or not this would be a weekend when he might be touched by genius, or one when he made little impression.

Since his move to Ferrari, Räikkönen has been more erratic still, and the explanation put forward is that he has never been at ease on this generation of Bridgestones as on the Michelins used by McLaren throughout his five seasons there. In the first half of 2007 he was invariably out-qualified – and beaten – by team-mate Massa, and this was put down to the fact that he couldn’t find a Ferrari/Bridgestone set-up that suited his driving style. Then, at Indianapolis, a breakthrough was made, and thereafter Räikkönen’s season was utterly superb. Twenty-six points behind Hamilton after seven races, he was one ahead by the end of the year.

In 2008, though, Kimi has been a consummate disappointment, generally much in the shade of Massa, and again, apparently, the problem has lain with his inability to get the best out of his tyres: Felipe can make them work in qualifying, and he cannot.

I’m not sure that’s acceptable from one of his fundamental quality – nor, for that matter, from the highest-paid driver in history. Last year Fernando Alonso, too, found the transformation from Michelin to Bridgestone (in conjunction with a move from Renault to McLaren) tricky, but he got on with resolving the problem, and it didn’t take him long.

For a year now, Alonso, becalmed at Renault, has nurtured serious hopes of a move to Maranello, and I’d have thought that the prospect of Alonso in a Ferrari would make most of his rivals quake. Räikkönen looked like Räikkönen again at Spa, where he led the bulk of the race, but at Monza he made little impression, and again folk wondered why his contract had been extended.

Word went that originally his management had negotiated a two-year deal with Luca di Montezemolo, plus a further year of option, should a certain number of points be scored in the second season. That number having been achieved, insiders suggest, Ferrari was obliged to honour the option.

The night before the Italian Grand Prix, though, Alonso confided to friends that he had not yet completely given up on the hope of becoming a Ferrari driver – and, what’s more, in 2009.

Time will tell, but in the meantime, Fernando, like every other Grand Prix driver, will wonder how long it will be before Ferrari makes a pitch for Sebastian Vettel. Not very long at all, one suspects.

It was hardly a surprise that the FIA Court of Appeal decided against removing, or indeed lessening, the penalty meted out to Lewis Hamilton at Spa. At Monza, a week after the Belgian Grand Prix, folk in the paddock barely bothered to discuss the matter: they understood why McLaren had felt obligated to appeal, but believed it a complete waste of time – and, presumably, not a little money.

There are times when I think there’s a conspiracy afoot to cut this sport off at the knees. First we give the drivers racing cars so clever that they can do everything but race, then we take them mainly to circuits apparently designed to prevent overtaking, and then, the coup de grace, should anyone be rash enough to attempt a – necessarily desperate – pass, it is scrutinised to death by a bunch of amateur sleuths, and invariably punished. We are speaking of the incident between Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen, but it could be any of a dozen and more happenings in recent years.

There were two laps remaining at Spa when the rain began to come down seriously, and Hamilton’s prayers were answered.

In the dry he had concluded he was not going to beat the Ferrari, but as the circuit got wetter he found himself in the pound seats, for his tyres retained a lot more heat than Räikkönen’s. In no time Kimi found himself driving on ice.

As they approached the final chicane, Räikkönen got on the brakes so early that Hamilton was taken by surprise. Jinking left, he actually drew slightly ahead as they got to the corner – but on the outside. Holding his inside line into the first, right-handed turn, Räikkönen nosed ahead once more, and then chopped across to claim the line into the left-hand flick.

Perhaps the smart thing for Hamilton would have been to tuck in behind the Ferrari, for his advantage was such that he would surely have passed it early in the following lap. As it was, though, Lewis sat it out with Kimi until the last second, and then – to avoid contact – steered his car off the road.

Having taken a shortcut, Hamilton necessarily emerged on to the pit straight slightly ahead, but he at once backed off, so to allow Räikkönen to re-pass: telemetry confirmed that the McLaren was 6kph slower than the Ferrari over the start-finish line. Once ahead again, Räikkönen took a complacently wide line into La Source, whereupon Hamilton, believing his debt now paid, dived down the inside, and took the lead.

At the same moment McLaren’s team manager Dave Ryan contacted FIA race director Charlie Whiting, and asked if he were satisfied with what had just happened. Whiting confirmed that he was, at which Ryan, to be doubly sure, asked the question again, and received the same reply. “That was important,” Martin Whitmarsh said, “because if Charlie hadn’t been happy, we would have told Lewis to let Kimi by once more – and then re-pass him.”

On they went, Hamilton struggling to keep his car on the road, and Räikkönen failing. As the Ferrari smacked into a wall, the McLaren, now at a crawl, proceeded on to win the Belgian Grand Prix. And almost immediately there came the announcement of ‘an investigation into an incident involving cars 1 and 22’.

In the press conference Hamilton was informed, and responded that he had done nothing amiss. Further, he said, if any penalty were to be imposed, there would be, “Something very wrong somewhere…” Then he added, “Still, we know what they’re like, so…”

Well, yes, we did know, but the days of Ayrton Senna press conferences – “You try and do your job properly, and you get f***** all the time by stupid people from the FIA…” – are long gone, and free, let alone inflammatory, speech is not tolerated the way it was. While everyone in the room knew exactly what Hamilton meant, our first thought was that his words might cost him dear.

Later – two hours later – came the verdict (right) of the FIA stewards, and it says everything that it came as a surprise to no one in the press room. Hamilton was adjudged to have, ‘Cut the chicane, and gained an advantage’, and his punishment was a ‘drive-through’. This – given that the race was long over – was somewhat difficult to administer, so the stewards instead added 25 seconds to Lewis’s elapsed race time, which neatly moved him from first to third, and made Ferrari’s Felipe Massa the winner of the Belgian Grand Prix. Instead of leading Massa by a comfortable eight points, Hamilton found himself a scant two ahead.

At Monza I spoke to several drivers about the incident, and their response, to a man, was that undeniably Hamilton had ‘gained an advantage’ by cutting the chicane. Yes, he may have been fractionally slower than Räikkönen over the line – but he was more or less alongside the Ferrari at the time, and that, had he taken the chicane conventionally, behind Räikkönen, would simply not have been possible. How many times, they pointed out, do you see overtaking into La Source, save on the blast away from the start? Almost never – because if you follow another car through the ‘Bus Stop’ it is nigh impossible to get a run on it at the next corner.

In recent months, I have noticed, Hamilton has become less popular with his fellows almost by the weekend, and it is clear that they find his arrogance, overwhelming self-confidence, call it what you will, increasingly not to their taste. At Monza, for example, perhaps it wasn’t the smartest thing to say of Räikkönen, “If he hasn’t the balls to brake late, that’s his problem…”

If, though, the drivers felt a certain coolness towards Hamilton, I had no impression that this figured in their attitude to the Spa affair. If they thought it beyond doubt that he had ‘gained an advantage’, so also they believed his punishment disproportionately severe.

So it was. Perhaps what made it the more unsatisfactory was that it promoted to ‘race winner’ Massa, who had been nowhere near Hamilton (or Räikkönen) all afternoon. A more sensible penalty, perhaps, might have been the docking of a championship point – no small thing in these days of the 10-8-6-5-4 scoring system, yet a solution which would at least have allowed Lewis to keep a deserved victory.

For about as long as I can remember, there has been regular, almost routine, criticism of the stewards appointed by the FIA to oversee the running of Grands Prix. These people are changed around, from race to race, and the judgement of some has been widely held to be less than completely sound.

If F1 is a mirror of society, in being absurdly over-governed, it wasn’t always that way. For countless years such as Senna and Michael Schumacher pulled the most hideously dangerous stunts on the race track – and did it, what’s more, with almost complete impunity. Now the thing has swung the other way to such an extent that it would be no surprise to find speed bumps at the entry to the pitlane.

Worst of all, though, is the lack of consistency in the stewards’ actions. At Valencia, for example, Massa’s Ferrari almost caused a collision in the pitlane, and the matter was investigated after the race. In the end, it was correctly adjudged that the team, rather than the driver, had been at fault, and as a consequence Ferrari was fined 10,000 Euros. Massa kept his victory.

Fast-forward to Spa, and in the Saturday GP2 race Bruno Senna also had a near coming-together with another car in the pitlane. A fine? Why, no, an instant ‘drive-through’ – and that cost Senna, who had been leading, the race.

Had a similar penalty been handed out to Massa in Valencia, he, too, would have lost the race – to the benefit of Hamilton. The very opposite, in other words, of what happened at Spa.

FIA people become very agitated when people voice the opinion, held virtually throughout the paddock, that the governing body has for years shown favouritism towards Ferrari. If such is not the case, you would have to say that over time the powers-that-be have been appallingly served by coincidence.

*******

Amid the hysteria which surrounded Lewis Hamilton’s penalty at Spa, one of the things said was that, had there been a wall, rather than a painted line, at the ‘Bus Stop’ chicane, the incident with Kimi Räikkönen would never have occurred in the first place.

There are some profound thinkers about, are there not? Of course it would never have happened, for thoughts of preservation – personal and mechanical – would swiftly have intruded into both men’s minds: Hamilton would not have gone into the corner alongside Räikkönen, and nor would Kimi have chopped across Lewis’s nose the way he did.

But so what? That fact is, there wasn’t a wall there, and therefore liberties were invited. It is the same at the left-right flick into the swimming pool area at Monaco: where once there was unyielding masonry now there is… a line painted on the road.

In theory it’s the same corner – but don’t tell me it’s the same challenge as when I would marvel at the sight of Senna shaving the wall at some unimaginable speed. Now, with only a bit of Dulux on the floor, are we surprised that they go over that line as a matter of course, when a few years ago similar abandon would have landed them in hospital?

When folk started spouting about ‘if there had been a wall there’ at Spa, I thought of Phil Hill, who had died only a few days earlier.

In the course of a long career at an immensely hazardous time in the sport, Hill never once hurt himself in a racing car, and he would say, in that lovely self-deprecating way of his, that maybe he hadn’t been trying hard enough. But he would murmur, too, that maybe he had given a little more thought to self-preservation than some of his fellows.

“There was something you had to have going for you in those days, which was having a part of your brain sorting out where it was safe to mess around, and where it wasn’t. I mean, take Thillois at Reims: I was the master of spinning there – I could see it was on its way, and be down into first gear and on my way again before the stopwatch could tell that anything had happened! But if Thillois had had a wall around it, it wouldn’t have been that kind of corner, and, believe me, I wouldn’t have spun there…”

Hill was an unusually lucid man, one who often seemed too intelligent, too reasoned for the profession which he had chosen – or which had chosen him. In the course of eight seasons as a Ferrari works driver (half of them in F1), several team-mates – Castellotti, Portago, Musso, Collins, von Trips – perished in the service of the Ingegnere, and he was hardly unaware of the perils intrinsic in what he was doing.

“Safety,” he said, “was something that you didn’t really want to talk about, because if you did someone would start legislating, and then you wouldn’t have your precious racing any more. Even inside the sport, we never talked about it. There was already enough of that – people on the outside asking, ‘How can you do this? Your friends are dying, and yet still you do this…’ It was little different from wartime, where you just had to do it.”

Racing has been a constant in my life, and certain years, as I was growing up, seemed to have a particular magic about them. One such was 1961, in part because I was a Ferrari aficionado in those days, in part because, in the aftermath of Jean Behra’s death, I became a great Hill fan – always Phil, with his plain white Bell ‘Shorty’ helmet, never Graham. There seemed to me a great glamour about a Ferrari team made up of Hill, Richie Ginther and Wolfgang von Trips, and the extraordinary visual appeal of the ‘sharknose’ completed the picture. It wasn’t only the F1 cars, either, for Ferrari’s sports cars of the time also featured the ‘twin nostril’ look, and things of raw beauty they were, too.

Hill and Ginther, together with Dan Gurney, made their names driving Ferraris in sports car races all over the USA, and Luigi Chinetti, the chief importer of Enzo’s cars and founder of the North American Racing Team, would make a point of talking up any American up-and-comer he thought worthy of Ferrari’s attention. Apart from anything else, it was good for business, and over time Hill, Gurney and Ginther all came to Maranello.

“If you raced,” said Phil, “to drive for Ferrari was all you wanted to do, because… you just did. It certainly wasn’t for the money – because there wasn’t any! Ferrari’s approach was kind of feudal – ‘I’m allowing you to drive my car, and you’ll probably die in it – but don’t you understand how privileged you are? Are you saying you’re expecting to be paid?’”

In this era, of course, we have Räikkönen banking two million dollars every time he races a Ferrari, and, as well as that, the sport has become safe to a degree unimaginable during Hill’s time as a racing driver. That being so, it surprised him not at all that track manners have deteriorated comprehensively over the years.

“It’s like today’s kids growing up with political correctness – they’ve known nothing else, so most of them unquestioningly accept it, right? It may be sad, but it’s a fact – and in the same way today’s drivers have been brought up to believe that chopping and baulking and all that stuff is entirely acceptable.

“Why? Because they feel they can get away with it, I guess – that’s the only possible explanation. If guys drove like that in my time, they usually sorted themselves out pretty quickly with a big accident – or else somebody else did it for them. It was just unthinkable to touch another car, because of the potential consequences. I know it sounds corny, but those were the facts.

“So often they were little nothing accidents in little nothing cars – and they were happening all the time. I mean, take a simple little accident like Mackay Fraser’s in the Lotus at Reims. I remember Denise McCluggage and I going over to the hospital to find out how he was, and having a hard time understanding all these French words for ‘dead’. They finally got to one we understood – decedé – that was the one…”

In 1961 Phil Hill won the World Championship, but a year later left Ferrari. It wasn’t an amicable parting, and for a long time the Old Man – as was his invariable way in these circumstances – passed up no opportunity to belittle this driver who had brought him so much success. Phil, for his part, found it hard to reminisce with affection about his years with the team, but time had a mellowing effect on both men, and ultimately there was a rapprochement.

Back in 1967, though, it certainly pleased Phil to win the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, and pleased him greatly that a factory Ferrari P4 followed his Chaparral 2F across the line. But he didn’t make a lot of noise about it, because that wasn’t his way, and nor, for that matter, did he announce to the world that this had been his last race:

“I just went back to California, and kinda… stopped driving race cars…”

In fact, Hill never did stop driving race cars, but merely ceased to compete in them. For many years

he was a contributor to Road & Track, and his tests and impressions of countless cars, the majority of them Ferraris, were required reading. I always thought Phil wrote quite beautifully of this sport. On working for Enzo Ferrari: “When you came to see that the emperor had no clothes, you were more comfortable with your own nakedness...”

Usually Hill came to Monaco and Spa, and always to Monza, where he won his first Grand Prix, and where he clinched his championship. At lunchtime in the paddock it was a delight to listen to his laconic tales of a time when the risks were high and the rewards low; when, as he said, “You just had to do it”. This September he was terribly missed.

*******

As part of preparing my article on the 1958 championship-deciding Moroccan Grand Prix, which appears on p86 of this issue, I asked Bernie Ecclestone in Valencia about his memories of Stuart Lewis-Evans, the Vanwall driver who died from burns suffered in that race.

As ever, Bernie was in a hurry – but when I mentioned that the 50th anniversary of his close friend’s death was near at hand, he forgot all the rush, and went completely still and silent for several moments.

“Fifty years? Are you telling me it’s 50 years…?” I assured him that it was. “Well, I’ve got one of these wonderful memories, you know, where I can manage to switch off the bad things – which is a bad thing in itself, I guess. I’m amazed it’s 50 years – that shows you how much I’ve remembered, doesn’t it?

“I’ve got so many wonderful memories of Stuart. He was a lovely bloke, just a super guy. I can’t remember where we met, but I used to compete against his father in the 500s. We both lived in Bexleyheath – his father was in the second-hand car business like I was – and Stuart and I travelled together. We used to drive around in a Metropolitan convertible!”

I wondered if Bernie had gone to Casablanca that year. “Yes, I did,” he said. “I was with Stuart when they put him in the ambulance, and then in the hospital. The thing is, today he’d be alive, I’m sure of that. In that bloody hospital they wrapped him in a blanket, and sat him in a chair, waiting for four hours for someone to come and take a look at him.

“The old man [Tony Vandervell] organised for him to come back to England quickly – and the quickest way was on the Vandervell charter. Stuart was on a stretcher, which was strapped across three seats, and the only medical help he had with him was one nurse. He was conscious all the way back, and all he could do was talk about the future, and racing again. It was an endless bloody flight back to England in those days, and then they took him to hospital, but by then it was too late – the damage was too bad, and the initial lack of treatment was crucial...”

Lewis-Evans was taken to the McIndoe Burns Unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, where its founder Sir Archibald McIndoe was still in residence. After examining him, the great surgeon said sadly that nothing could be done, that he could only make him as comfortable as possible until he died.

And six days after the race, on Saturday, October 25, Lewis-Evans succumbed.

“We travelled a lot together,” said Ecclestone. “Stuart was never the strongest guy – he had an ulcer, and I remember we had to take gallons of milk with us wherever we went! In terms of ability, though, he was one of the very best – Christ, he was quick!”

Thereafter Ecclestone disappeared from the racing scene for the best part of a decade, returning only in the late 1960s, now as Jochen Rindt’s manager. Did he simply lose interest after Lewis-Evans’s death?

“I did, yes. That’s exactly what happened – I walked away from it. I was really upset – I mean, he would have been alive now, there’s absolutely no discussion about that. And he was such a lovely guy. I’m sorry you reminded me about all that – but I’m glad, too. He shouldn’t be forgotten…”

Nor should he, and two thoughts were in my mind as I left Bernie. First, don’t let anyone tell me that, fundamentally, this man doesn’t love motor racing; second, not everything was better about the good old days.

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