Nigel Roebuck

REFLECTIONS

  • A revelation from Rubens, and a Monza masterclass
  • When the Wood Brothers went to Indianapolis…
  • A Grand Prix driver doesn’t often come out with something that takes your breath away in these days of PR control and ‘spin’. The press room is – of course – always alive with rumour and gossip, and as each season draws on there is increasing speculation about who goes where next year. It is a matter of professional pride at least to believe you are up to speed on the latest movements in the driver market, to know who is talking to whom.

    Once in a while, though, you learn – quite some time later – of a story that somehow never came out at the time. At Monza I interviewed Rubens Barrichello (for a piece that will appear in a forthcoming issue), and we talked about his move to Williams, after a very successful season with Brawn GP. Had there been any possibility, I asked, of Rubens’ staying with the team (which metamorphosed into Mercedes) for 2010?

    “Well, it was quite funny,” he said. “I had talked with Williams as early as Barcelona in May, and we kept in touch. As far as staying with Brawn was concerned, it… seemed to be taking longer than normal to talk about it. It was like… you call your girlfriend and her friend says, ‘Oh, she’s taking a shower - she’ll call you later…’ She doesn’t call, so you call back and it’s, ‘Oh, she’s studying at the moment – she’ll call you later…’ Soon you think there’s something wrong here, and you want to find out what it is. At the Nürburgring in July I asked Ross why it was taking so long to talk about re-signing, and he said that maybe nothing would be done until after the ‘young driver tests’. I got a message from that – I didn’t want to wait for four months again, like I had the year before.

    “I have always had a passion for Williams - when I was kid, racing my kart, it was always Williams I dreamed of driving for one day, and I signed a contract with Frank. Then we got almost to the end of the season, to Brazil, and I had an offer from Brawn – and also from McLaren…”

    McLaren? Never, I said, had I heard so much as a whisper about that at the time. Was this before the team had spoken to Jenson Button? “Well, I could be wrong,” Rubens said, “but I guess so. The McLaren deal with Jenson was done pretty quickly, after all – why would they have talked to him, and then to me? As it was, I told Martin Whitmarsh, and also Ross, that I’d already signed for Williams, and I was a happy guy.”

    Barrichello is a happy guy, and a well-loved one, too. At Spa, on the Thursday evening, there was an informal ceremony at Williams in celebration of his 300th Grand Prix, and it was attended not only by Bernie Ecclestone, but also by virtually every driver in the paddock. Notable by his absence was Michael Schumacher, but, given that he had apologised by text for trying to drive Barrichello off the road at the Hungaroring, that was probably no surprise. Rubens just shrugged and smiled.

    Spa marks the beginning of my favourite part of the racing year. Comatose August is drawing thankfully to a close, together with F1’s mid-season break, and after Spa we go to Monza and thence to the Goodwood Revival. All in all, a series of blissful events to remind you again of why you fell in love with motor racing in the first place.

    In terms of the World Championship, Spa suggested that perhaps the five-man battle for the title might be starting to splinter, for Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber, first and second in the Belgian Grand Prix, were the only contenders to score points. At Monza, though, Lewis – obligingly for his rivals – cannoned into Felipe Massa on the opening lap, and Mark, after a very poor getaway, spent the afternoon playing catch-up, not the easiest thing when the track has a lot of straights and you have a Renault engine.

    In the space of a fortnight we saw the two extremes of Hamilton. At Spa he produced a stunning last-second lap in qualifying to put his McLaren on the front row with Webber’s Red Bull, and what made it memorable was that by now rain was lightly falling, and no other driver was anywhere near his time. Come race day, Webber’s clutch played up at the start, and Hamilton disappeared into a lead he was never to lose. Towards the end there was a tremulous moment when a rain shower caught him out and he skimmed a barrier, but otherwise it was a masterclass in the art of driving a Grand Prix car.

    I have written before that, although Ayrton Senna was the driver idolised by Hamilton, the one he most reminds me of - in terms of attitude and approach – is Gilles Villeneuve. On the last lap of the 2009 Italian GP Lewis had a huge accident, trying to take the second Lesmo at a speed beyond his car in an unlikely attempt to catch Button’s Brawn. This time around he was out within seconds of the start, but as Martin Whitmarsh said, “That’s Lewis – he’s a racer, and he always goes for it, and I don’t want him to change…”

    Nor I. There must be days – as at Monza - when members of his team find it hard to smile at his excesses, but for every one of those there are three or four sublime drives. It’s a fact – surprisingly voiced by Ron Dennis – that at mid-season McLaren folk were nettled by both their drivers’ carping about the car’s shortcomings, but neither Hamilton nor Button ever make excuses for their own failings. “That’s not how you win World Championships,” Lewis commented at Monza, and he was right. The drive at Spa, on the other hand, had been exactly how you win them.

    If Hamilton tried to play things down at Monza, though, to claim that he had swiftly put the debacle behind him, still there was no doubt that his had been a very expensive mistake, for this was a circuit emphatically suited to the McLarens, while most of those ahead look heaven-sent for Red Bull.

    It might have been expected that the F-duct, originated – and perfected – by McLaren, would be in its element at a circuit as quick as Monza. But in the weeks before the race there seemed doubt that the team would run it, perhaps preferring to go with a more traditional, ultra-low downforce Monza set-up.

    On the Thursday evening, in the Hotel de la Ville, Martin Whitmarsh dropped by the table for a glass or two of Amarone, and said that on the morrow both Lewis and Jenson would be running the F-duct. “It’s about 10kph slower on top speed – 330 against 340,” he said, “but of course you can run so much more downforce, and we think it’ll be quicker round the lap. We’ll see…”

    After running with the F-duct on Friday morning, Button opted to stick with it for the balance of the weekend, but Hamilton was keen to try the low-downforce set-up in the afternoon, after which he and his side of the garage decided to concentrate on it.

    All very unusual, then: two team cars, in very different configurations, and therefore quick – and not so quick – at different points on the track. Through the speed trap in qualifying, for example, Hamilton was third fastest, at 344.3kph (214mph), while Button was 22nd, ahead of only the tardy HRTs, at 329.5kph (204mph). Around the whole lap, however, Jenson was second-fastest and Lewis fifth, with six-tenths of a second between them. A lot.

    After qualifying Button rejoiced that he had stuck with the F-duct. “Yesterday Lewis said he preferred the low-downforce set-up,” he grinned. “Don’t know how he feels about it now…”

    Not too great was the answer to that, but still the race looked intriguing, for clearly the Hamilton McLaren, while slithery through the turns, would be travelling faster than any of its important rivals in the last part of the long pit straight. And one could envisage Lewis – the arch racer – diving past people at that point, then trying to get his low-downforce car stopped in time to make it through the slow right-left which follows.

    It sounded like fun, and surely it would have been, but we were never to know, for in the race Hamilton never made it to that point. Not even once. And while he walked back – helmet on throughout – to the paddock, to the sanctuary of the McLaren motorhome, his team-mate – F-duct and all – was in the lead, eyes glued to the mirrors, watching out for Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari.

    If Hamilton’s style of driving reminds me of Villeneuve, so Button’s has always put me in mind of Alain Prost: smooth as can be, and therefore deceptively quick, almost wholly devoid of mistakes. Jenson drove a fabulous race at Monza, holding off Alonso for 36 laps until coming in for his tyre stop.

    McLaren brought Button in a lap earlier than originally intended, thinking to get him on to new ‘prime’ (harder) Bridgestones - which the team believed quicker – as soon as possible. The logic may have been right, but of course now Alonso had a clear lap, out of Button’s ‘dirty air’, before his own stop, and this in-lap was six-tenths quicker than Jenson’s had been. Add in that the Ferrari mechanics changed Fernando’s tyres in a staggering 3.4 seconds (perhaps their fastest time ever), and you see how he scraped out of the pits just in front of the McLaren.

    Had Alonso not been able to take the lead on the stops, Button would have won the Italian Grand Prix. For although the Ferrari was a touch quicker overall, the exit speed of the McLaren from Parabolica was such (thanks to its greater downforce) that Alonso was never able to get quite close enough to take a run at Button into the first chicane, Monza’s only real overtaking spot.

    The scenes after the race were predictably ecstatic, the tifosi packed so tightly on the pit straight that the track itself was hidden from view. Not since 2006, after all, had a Ferrari triumphed at Monza, and there was much celebrating to be done.

    Throughout the build-up to the Italian Grand Prix, there had been an upbeat mood in the Ferrari camp, and not surprisingly so, for on the Wednesday before the race a meeting of the World Motor Sport Council confirmed the $100,000 fine originally imposed on the team after the ‘team orders’ brouhaha at Hockenheim, but decided that no further action should be taken. Thus, Alonso, Massa and Ferrari did not lose their points from that race, and Fernando remained a World Championship contender.

    Elsewhere – quelle surprise – there was outrage at the WMSC’s decision. Elements of Fleet Street ranted about it, suggesting that it was a scandal, that the fans had spoken, that their wishes were being ignored, and on, and on, and on. I awaited a comment from Simon Cowell.

    Perhaps they did not appreciate that it is only in the last eight years that ‘team orders’ have been against the rules – or for that matter that all teams, admitted or not, apply them, albeit perhaps rather more surreptitiously than did Ferrari in Germany.

    Perhaps they did not realise, either, that had Ferrari not previously enforced team orders, neither Mike Hawthorn nor John Surtees would have won the World Championship.

    Whatever, the signs are that the rule banning team orders is soon to be either rescinded or at least modified, and that cannot come too soon. Formula 1 is also for grown-ups.

    At the Thursday afternoon press conference in Italy Alonso faced aggressive questioning from certain British tabloid journalists, all of them presumably hoping to provoke him into an angry response, such as would have been guaranteed with someone like Ayrton Senna. All questions were on the lines of, ‘If you ultimately win the World Championship this year, will you feel you have won it fairly?’

    Fernando kept his cool, even smiled benevolently. “Yes,” he said. He may have been seething inside, but I doubt it. Later in the afternoon I mentioned the hostile questioning he had faced, and he smiled again. “The longer you do this, obviously the more experience you get,” he said, “and the more experience you get, the easier it becomes to understand what is important, and what is not…”

    Speaking of that, Max Mosley, talking quite some time before the World Motor Sport Council meeting, offered his opinion that Ferrari should be further punished. “Most teams are in favour of the ban being lifted,” he said, “but if one wants to fulfil the needs of the audience, then one must maintain the ban. In the event that it is brought into play by a team, we have to impose a severe punishment.”

    We…?

    “Both cars and both drivers should lose the points they achieved in the German Grand Prix,” Max went on. “I will not make any recommendations, but on the facts at the moment there should have been some sporting sanction, and not only a fine.”

    When Mosley’s remarks were reported, I confess to an initial feeling of bewilderment, and I was not alone. Max being tough on Ferrari… well, that was something of a departure in itself. As during his two decades as president of the FIA, he was offering his verdict on a controversial matter before it had come to court, but the last time I checked he had been replaced in the job by Jean Todt, so… why should there have been any question of his ‘making recommendations’ or not? Does anyone care what Gordon Brown thinks about anything any more?

    It has to be said that, for sheer crust, Mosley probably can never be beaten, and of course one wondered what his agenda might be this time – with Max, there is always an agenda, after all. That said if he wished to offer judgement on a happening in F1 – wished to be in the news once more – I would rather he had condemned Schumacher’s lunatic driving in Hungary. Then again, that would have put him on flimsy ice, for all through his presidency he did nothing about Michael’s excesses, and he should have done.

    For some folk, the matter of team orders seems to be far more important, however, and even within the teams themselves there appears to be a divergence of opinion, some principals continuing to insist that they would never impose them, whatever the circumstances. They must hope that they have not talked themselves into a corner, that by allowing their drivers to fight between themselves to the bitter end they do not find themselves in the position of Lotus in 1973, or Williams in ’86, when a pair of number one drivers took points from each other so successfully that another driver, in a slower car, nicked the World Championship. And they will know, too, that when the title fight gets down to its final knockings, their every move will be scrutinised…

    If anything vindicated what Ferrari did at Hockenheim, it was what happened at Monza. As with McLaren, Red Bull, Renault, Mercedes… any of the major teams, Ferrari personnel wish to see one of their drivers finish the season as World Champion, and it didn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure that only Alonso – faster than Massa, and with a lot more points – had a chance of achieving that. At Monza Felipe was there or thereabouts, but the fact is that, without Fernando, Ferrari would not have won the Italian Grand Prix.

    *

    The Wood Brothers. I first became aware of them, I suppose, soon after I left school, when it was announced in early 1965 that they were to do the pitstop work on Jimmy Clark’s Lotus at the forthcoming Indianapolis 500. In NASCAR circles there was already a kind of mythology around them: the Wood Brothers – you need the capital ‘B’ in their case – had long operated their own, very successful team. But it was their pitstops that truly set them apart: simply, they were better at them than any other crew.

    Ford left nothing to chance at Indy in ’65. Working with Colin Chapman they had clearly the fastest car, and in Clark had the best driver on earth, but still they thought it necessary to go the whole nine yards, and they brought in the fastest pitcrew anywhere.

    From the beginning, the Woods had run only Fords (as they do to this day), so it was perhaps no more than logical that the company should request their involvement in the Lotus-Ford onslaught at the Speedway – even though it would entail their missing the World 600 at Charlotte, one of the biggest NASCAR races of the year.

    Of the five brothers – Glen, Leonard, Delano, Clay, Ray Lee – the most prominently involved in the team were the first two, but it was Delano (who gave up racing to work in the church back in 1983) who accompanied Leonard to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July, and it was my great pleasure to meet them there.

    “Before he quit,” Leonard said, “Delano was a jack man on the 21 car, and one of the best I’ve ever seen. Thinking back, the Wood Brothers were very fortunate – all of us always had very quick reactions.”

    Delano Wood was also in the crew taken to Indianapolis in 1965. “What happened,” said Leonard, “was that an executive of Ford Motor Company called my brother Glen to find out if the Wood Brothers would go up to Indy to pit Jimmy Clark. We didn’t hesitate – we figured we already had pitstops worked out in NASCAR racing. We went up there a week early – we didn’t know if these people were going to accept us or not, but if they didn’t then this thing wasn’t going to work. As it was, they welcomed us, and they gave us complete control of the pitting part of the deal.

    “Before that, we’d had AJ Foyt driving for us sometimes, and he sees us at Indy and rolls out the red carpet and invites us in. There he is, showing us his car – how he’s got his gas tanks fixed, and how he’s got a spare tank and so on! – and he says, ‘Anyway, what are you guys doin’ here?’ We said we were there to pit Clark, and he said… well, you can guess what he said!”

    This was the first time in their lives that the Woods had worked on anything other than a stock car, but that proved no problem to them: “A pitstop’s a pitstop…”

    At Indianapolis, Leonard went on, the fuel was under gravity flow rather than pressured, and the Lotus’s fuel tank had a giant venturi inside, allowing fuel to flow quickly through it.

    “We start to put the car through technical inspection, and the inspectors are looking at the fuel tank, and one of them says, ‘I bet you $1000 you can’t pour 20 gallons a minute into that tank…’ We didn’t bet with him – first of all because we didn’t want to tick him off – but mainly because we wanted to keep quiet: we already had experience with the NASCAR cars, and we knew how to make the gas flow into the tank. In fact, we timed it before the race and we got 58 gallons into it in 15 seconds, so we knew the first stop was going to be under 20. Nobody knew how fast we were going to do it…

    “Of course a car like the Lotus was completely new to us, but we practised a lot – connecting and disconnecting the hoses, and so on – and the key was getting the fuel to flow to start with. We had the flow really worked out, and the first stop was 17 or 18 seconds. Sam Hanks [winner of the 500 in 1957] was commentating, and he said, ‘Well, you can bet they’ll be back in – they’re a green crew, and they didn’t get all the fuel in…’ But, you know, that car kept runnin’ and runnin’, and it never did come in. So then Sam says, ‘Well, they must be using a mixture of gasoline and alcohol, so they don’t need to put as much in…’ He sent a runner down to ask Colin Chapman what Lotus were using, and he told them it was pure alcohol, and it just blew their minds! The second stop was always going to be a little slower, because there wasn’t as much fuel in the tank, so the gravity feed wasn’t as strong - it was about 19-20 seconds…” Other teams were taking as long as a minute.

    The Woods relished their task at Indy, and have only good memories of the Lotus folk with whom they worked. “We’d heard all these stories about Chapman, you know, but we got along really well with him – after the second stop, he jumped over the pitwall and hugged us all! Our job was done at that point, of course - if anything else happened to the car, it was up to him and his boys.

    “Clark and Chapman didn’t come into town until the last part of the week,” Leonard recalled. “I remember Colin and Dave Lazenby working on a fuel valve – when the car accelerated down the straightaway fuel was blowing out the back and getting wasted, so they made a little shut-off valve device with a cork float in it, so that when the car accelerated the cork came back and shut the fuel off. Neat.

    “As for Jimmy… boy, that guy ran so well on the race track! Before the start he says, ‘I’m not going to run hard’, but on the second or third lap he just drops down, passes them, and drives away – no one even got close to him that day.

    “I remember telling him how important it was that he stopped in exactly the right place in the pit – otherwise the hoses wouldn’t reach. Of course there was no refuelling in Formula 1 back then, so he didn’t have a lot of experience of that. But he just says, ‘Tell me where you want me to stop’ – and then, when he comes in, he puts it right on the money. I took the hose off, and at the same time I got out of the way he was gone! He was that alert, that precise with his timing.

    “As it turned out, changing tyres never came into it. My brother Ray Lee checked them both times Jimmy came in, and of course we were ready to change them if necessary, but they were perfect – they were treaded tyres, and the more you wore them down the better they gripped; they got to be like slicks. At the finish, they weren’t even half worn out…

    “Clark was a quiet guy, but friendly, and very competitive, very on the mark – you could tell by the way he stopped the car that he was extremely focused, and on the race track he was so smooth. We knew Dan Gurney well – he’d raced our stock car at Riverside, and won it four times – and of course he’d raced against Jimmy so much and always spoke so highly of him. He just thought he was the best. In fact, we went back to Indy in ’66 and pitted Dan’s Eagle – or at least we were supposed to, but he wrecked on the first lap when all those cars were taken out at the start.

    “Gurney was a hell of a race car driver. Glen and I always used to say, ‘If you’ve got as good a car as anyone else, and you’ve got Gurney, then you’re home free…’”

    From Stuart, Virginia, where they still live, the Woods personify ‘Southern gentleman’ – courteous, softly spoken, quietly humorous. For many years the day-to-day running of the team (set up in 1950) has been in the hands of the second generation, but Leonard still attends every race in which the family firm competes.

    “We don’t run the full NASCAR schedule - only 13 races this year. I go to the shop every day, Monday through Thursday, and then go home and fly up race day. Before I stepped down as crew chief, I worked with more than 35 drivers – I guess the Wood Brothers have had over 60 drivers in total, some of them among the very greatest…”

    The team’s original driver was Curtis Turner, about whom stories abound. Possessed of phenomenal natural talent, if minimal mechanical sympathy, Turner was also a party animal of heroic proportions. Just imagine, one or two of his contemporaries have murmured to me over the years, how good Curtis might have been if he’d kept off the Canadian Club…

    Leonard laughed. “Oh, I don’t think it would have made any difference – I mean, he could run either way! I don’t think it affected him at all. There was a guy who had a car in the modified division in Richmond, Virginia, and this car had never run better than last. Well, Curtis was to drive it one time, and when he showed up - late – he had a suit on, wingtip shoes and all! And he won the race…

    “It’s hard to make anybody believe how much control Curtis had of an automobile. It seemed like he could just pick it up and set it somewhere! I’ve never seen anyone who could hold on to a car sideways like he could. Rather than hit the brakes or back off, he’d just throw the thing sideways – I know that’s normally not the fastest way, but, believe me, the way he did it was fast!

    “I think Curtis was the most naturally talented driver I ever saw. In terms of controlling a car, no one was better than him – not even David Pearson, who was with us in the 1970s and who scored more wins for the Wood Brothers than any other driver. He was a really great one, and so smart…

    “Pearson always used to say that if you drive as hard as you can for the whole race, you’re going to make a mistake. He always drove conservatively until it was time to go - and then the other guys never knew what hit them because they figured they’d got this guy out-run, and all of a sudden it was, ‘Where did he come from?’ He knew how to work on your mind, David.

    “He always took his cigarettes with him, and he’d smoke during the caution periods. I remember one time, when he was battling Buddy Baker at Darlington… he ran that thing high through three and four, and he got a real slingshot on Baker. Thing was, he already had a cigarette in his mouth, and as he passed Buddy over the start/finish line he took out a lighter and lit it as he looked over at him! He might have been driving as hard as he could, but still he made it look like he wasn’t really trying. When Pearson was with us, we always put a lighter in the car…”

    One of the Wood Brothers’ most celebrated wins came in the 1963 Daytona 500, primarily because of the extraordinary circumstances which led up to it.

    The team’s driver of the time was Marvin Panch, who had contracted not only to run the number 21 Ford in the 500, but also to drive a Maserati in the Daytona Continental sports car race. During a test something happened to the car as it went through turn three, and after hitting the retaining wall it flipped, then slid down the banking in flames, coming to rest upside down, not far from the track access tunnel.

    “Tiny Lund was in a car with three other guys,” said Leonard, “and they came through the tunnel into the track and saw this thing on fire. They ran over and picked the car up, turned it back on its wheels, and then they got him out. Saved Panch’s life.

    “Marvin later told me that he’d been getting ready to take a big breath of flame and put himself out of his misery, because he wasn’t going to be burned alive – and right before he did that he felt the car being moved, and then they got him out. It was very close. And after that, yes, it was a Cinderella story, for sure. Panch asked us to put Lund in his car for the 500 – and he won the race!”

    When he flew over for Goodwood, Leonard Wood was visiting Europe for only the second time. “When I was in the Army I spent a little time in Germany – and in fact I went to Monza in ’58, to the Race of Two Worlds, I think they called it, and I saw Stirling Moss and the other boys there, running against the Indy roadsters – I still have an 8mm film I took of that race.

    “I remember Fangio was on outside pole - Luigi Musso was on pole in the Ferrari, and boy, I can hear that V12 now! Jim Rathmann qualified third, I think, and he took the lead after two or three laps. Then Musso came screaming off the banking and took the lead on the pit straightaway - and, I mean, he cleaned the pits out he came so close to the wall going by! I was watching from the grandstand right across from the pits, so I had a perfect view – I mean, people were throwing themselves back over the pitwall – and one of them was AJ! You ask him about that…

    “Rathmann eventually took over, but Musso… boy, that guy was brave! Of course it was the following weekend, at Reims, that he got killed…”

    Through all his years with the family team Leonard Wood, considered as great a crew chief as NASCAR has known, was very much the mastermind behind its fabled pitwork, but mainly he is revered as a builder of engines.

    “I’ve always been interested in the way engines perform – the way they sound. I’ve never been to a Formula 1 race, and I want to go to one, but it would be to see the cars perform and the drivers perform, rather than, ‘Is this driver passing that one?’ I’d love it, because an F1 car is the ultimate high-performance machine, isn’t it?

    “You know, there’s two things I pride myself on – two things that I do know. One of them is what a good engine sounds like, and the other is what a good-looking lady looks like…”

    An amazing array of special guests join Nigel and team in our Goodwood podcast. See www.motorsportmagazine.co.uk