Reflections

Kimi's move to Ferrari recalls other feisty driver pairings; Shell film rekindles the bravery that the old Spa demanded, and Brundle goes back to the Fifties with boot polish

For the majority of Formula 1 fans, I like to think, that fortnight encompassing Spa and Monza remains the core of any Grand Prix season. As long-time enthusiast Clive James remarked in his column in the Telegraph, “When the F1 circus was away touring the world, there was sometimes no saving the show from tedium: the Tarmac sat cooking in the desert and you couldn’t see a tree. But lately, thank heaven, we have been back in Europe…”

Spa, with a respectful nod to Suzuka, remains the finest circuit on the World Championship trail, and Monza the greatest venue. As race weekends both were as diverting as ever, but unfortunately this time around neither produced a memorable Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull utterly dominated both races, with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari best of the rest each time.

At Monza Mark Webber, competing in a European Grand Prix for the last time, finished third, narrowly ahead of Felipe Massa, who had his best race in quite a while. Too little too late, as it turned out: a couple of days after the race Massa revealed that his eight-year spell at Ferrari was coming to an end, and on the Wednesday morning the team announced that Kimi Räikkönen would replace him in 2014.

On Ferrari’s website there appeared suitable remarks from Räikkönen: “I am really happy to be returning to Maranello, where I previously spent three fantastic and very successful years. I have so many memories of my time at Ferrari, memories that have stayed with me these past years, first and foremost winning the World Championship in 2007, which was really unforgettable.

“I can’t wait to be driving a Prancing Horse car again, and to reacquaint myself with so many people with whom I had such close links, as well as working with Fernando, whom I consider a great driver, in order to bring the team the success it deserves.”

That seemed to cover all PR bases, as these statements invariably do, and after four days of gossip in the Monza paddock the announcement was not unexpected. While there were suggestions that the deal with Räikkönen was concluded only after the Italian Grand Prix, within minutes of arriving on Thursday I’d been told by someone in the know that the contract was already signed.

Was I surprised? Yes and no. Although he was handsomely paid off at the end of 2009, Kimi was less than thrilled to be ushered out of Maranello with a year of his contract still to run, and until quite recently few would have predicted a new deal between the two parties. Of course there had long been speculation that Räikkönen would leave Lotus at season’s end, but for months his anticipated destination was Red Bull, and many relished the prospect not only of his going up against Vettel in equal cars, but also blithely ignoring the machinations of Helmut Marko.

In the end, though, Red Bull decided to place faith in its ‘Young Driver’ policy, to promote Daniel Ricciardo from within, and when that was announced it seemed likely that Räikkönen would stay put, as Eric Boullier and others at Lotus devoutly wished. Red Bull apart, only Ferrari was believed capable of meeting the fiscal aspirations of Kimi’s management – and many doubted a renewed alliance. As the saying goes, though, a dog will not howl if you beat him with a bone.

On the subject of drivers there had been for some time a difference of opinion between team principal Stefano Domenicali and company chairman Luca di Montezemolo. For Domenicali it was simple: he wanted the two best drivers available, and that meant hiring Räikkönen to partner Alonso.

For di Montezemolo, though, it was less straightforward: it had been he, after all, who negotiated Räikkönen’s original move to Ferrari (which had the effect of pushing Michael Schumacher into unwilling retirement) – and he also who terminated Kimi’s contract a year ahead of time. Were he to agree to have him back, it might be seen as an admission that he had made a mistake at the end of ’09, and Luca is not good at loss of face.

Still, at Monza the signs were that Räikkönen was indeed Ferrari-bound. On the Saturday di Montezemolo made his annual laying-on-of-hands visit to the paddock, and when the Italian journalists reminded him of Kimi’s last spell with the team, he simply smiled and said, “Yes, he won a World Championship…” No mention of the subsequent rather lacklustre seasons that led to his removal: Luca is nothing if not a politician.

He is also one not well disposed towards any perceived challenge either to the sanctity of Ferrari or his own authority. Back in 2006 he well understood the implications for Schumacher if he were to bring Räikkönen into the fold, yet pressed ahead with his plan: no mere driver was going to dictate whom he should or should not employ.

Seven years on di Montezemolo has been troubled by another bout of insubordination, this time from Alonso, who – like Schumacher – for so long could do no wrong. Hugely frustrated by Ferrari’s mid-season slump in development, in Hungary Fernando let his mask of perpetual optimism slip for once and there followed a very public reprimand from the chairman.

Since then, it’s fair to say, the state of play between Alonso and Ferrari may be described as tense, although both remain fundamentally committed to each other and aware of the need to repair the situation. Much has been written about Alonso’s assumed reluctance to have another top-liner alongside him at Ferrari, and inevitably criticism has come his way, but there is nothing new under the sun. Long ago Frank Williams, recalling the unhappy partnership between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, suggested that, “You can’t put two bulls in one field,” and di Montezemolo himself offered a variation on the theme only a few months ago: “You can’t put two roosters in the same henhouse…”

Back in 1985 Ayrton Senna vetoed Derek Warwick’s proposed move to Lotus, and eight years later did not respond well when McLaren debutant Mika Häkkinen outqualified him at Estoril. A conversation with Mika a few years ago remains vivid in my mind.

“This is a fragile subject for me, because Ayrton is not with us any more, but… in my experience he wasn’t the nicest guy in Formula 1 and, OK, I didn’t really expect it. It was a very tense atmosphere – I guess we all need that, to push each other, but in that case I didn’t feel it was positive.

“I understood his frustration – the McLaren wasn’t as quick as the Williams, and Ayrton was a three-time champion. If things weren’t working, he got upset. Logically. But I didn’t think he had a very good way of showing it – when I out-qualified him in Portugal he was really angry and didn’t want to talk to me…”

Similarly, I think of Rubens Barrichello on the subject of Schumacher: “Whenever I was quicker than Michael – even in a free practice session – he would be furious, and I never understood that: how could such a great driver be so insecure?”

Because that’s the way they are, and always have been. Gerhard Berger once defined his ideal team-mate: “Simple – someone three seconds a lap slower!”

The personalities of the folk involved count for something, of course. When Ronnie Peterson returned to Lotus in 1978, initially Mario Andretti was not impressed: “I’ve always liked Ronnie, but… tell me where it’s written we need two stars in this team.” As time went by, though, and the word of the uncomplicated Peterson was shown to beworth something, the relationship changed. “Team-mates,” said Mario, “aren’t necessarily friends – [Nigel] Mansell and I never got along in the Newman-Haas days, for example – but, with Ronnie, it was only when we were team-mates that we became really close friends…”

Then – of course – there was the unforgettable saga of Prost and Senna. In the mid-eighties Prost was king of the hill, McLaren very much ‘his’ team, but when Ron Dennis sought his opinion as to whom he should hire – Senna or Piquet – for 1988, Alain went for Ayrton: “I thought he was better – and would do a better job for the team. If I’d been thinking only of myself, I’d have suggested Nelson. It was probably the biggest mistake of my career!”

History shows, then, that while it’s not always a mistake to put two bulls in one field that’s the way to bet. Already folk are saying that the pairing of Alonso and Räikkönen is bound to be a disaster, but maybe not. If you work on the theory that a driver gives of his absolute best only when under pressure from the guy in the other car, then perhaps you will believe that the new partnership will be beneficial to both Fernando and Kimi – and also to Ferrari.

Life, though, is rarely as simple as that: if they express it in very different ways, as truly great Grand Prix drivers Alonso and Räikkönen are by definition ferociously competitive individuals. If – if – they share the workload in improving and developing the car, it will work to the benefit of both, but the risk Ferrari runs, of course, in going for two drivers on this level is that over the course of a season inevitably they will take points from each other, as we have so many times seen in the past, not least in 1986, when Prost nicked the title from Williams-Honda drivers Mansell and Piquet. The last Ferrari driver to win the World Championship – Räikkönen in 2007 – finished the season with 110 points, while McLaren men Hamilton and Alonso had 109 apiece.

Ferrari’s rehiring of Räikkönen suggests to me that uppermost in di Montezemolo’s mind is the championship for constructors, for there is little doubt that Kimi and Fernando – surely now the strongest driver pairing in F1 – will between them collect a mountain of points in 2014. Whether that will ultimately compromise their quest for the World Championship remains to be seen.

Bernie Ecclestone had hoped that in the end Räikkönen would stay with Lotus, because he prefers his stars to be spread around in as many teams as possible. And I’ll confess that if I felt any sense of disappointment at Ferrari’s decision it was only because I had hoped that, like Red Bull, the company would go for a young driver, a star in the making – which is to say, of course, Nico Hülkenberg, who reminded everyone of his potential with a stunning drive for Sauber at Monza. As I write, Hülkenberg is expected to take Räikkönen’s place at Lotus, where much needed investment is imminently expected, and where he should flourish.

What now, one wonders, for Massa, another potential Lotus candidate? There is no more well-liked driver in the paddock, but that alone will not guarantee him a place in a worthwhile team, and Felipe has more than once said that he would leave F1 if a topline drive were no longer available to him.

It’s sad but true that, since the accident at the Hungaroring in 2009, when he was struck on the helmet by an errant spring from Barrichello’s Brawn, Massa has never been quite the driver he was. Time was, let’s remember, when he won many races as he pleased, and at Interlagos in ’08 for about 20 seconds he believed himself to be World Champion: had the rain kept from suddenly worsening for another half-minute he would have been, for Hamilton would never have caught and passed Timo Glock’s Toyota on the last lap. Back in Italy, Luca di Montezemolo smashed his TV set to pieces.

Felipe did everything perfectly before his home crowd that afternoon. For the sake of the title, he had to win the race, and that he did consummately, allowing him momentarily to touch the hem of the World Championship. When it was snatched away, I was one of millions who admired deeply the manner in which he coped with his loss.

In an era of sport in which the clenched fist and contorted face are so much the norm, Massa’s quiet dignity as he stood there, acknowledging the crowd, his expression anguished yet proud, was extremely moving. He handled a cruel scenario with consummate grace, and I agreed with Jackie Stewart’s comment: “Probably the most impressive moment I’ve seen in this sport…”

The film begins serenely. Here is a country road on a summer day, birds singing in the background, a horse and foal in a field, a man on a bicycle, another on a moped…

A very English voice, of the kind long ago drummed out of the BBC, describes the scene. “From time to time,” he says, “this peaceful life is ripped apart, and the road is now being got ready for different – and exciting – things.”

As he speaks, straw bales are being placed across the road after Holowell, indicating that here drivers should turn right into Stavelot, rather than continue straight on. Fangio thunders through, then Castellotti, then Moss: “Yes,” the narrator says, “we are on the Francorchamps national circuit, near the town of Spa. Nine miles of ordinary country roads form a triangle that is one of the finest, and fastest, motor racing circuits in Europe…”

Ye Gods. Footage shot from a road car illustrates what Spa- Francorchamps was like in those days, and it’s somehow the more striking for being accompanied by the understated commentary: “Now for the winding return run – easy enough until the wooded corner at La Carrière, which the experts whip through at almost full throttle: there is a ditch to catch a misjudged exit…” No mention is made of the buildings and trees, nor the barbed-wire fencing that lines much of the circuit.

As a young kid, I was occasionally going to Formula 1 races in those days. I took it at face value, because that was what the sport had always been: dangerous. So imbued are we nowadays with a ‘risk-averse’ society that it seems scarcely credible that Grand Prix racing could ever have been like this. When I see footage of those days, I immediately think of Phil Hill, who – like Tony Brooks, like Chris Amon – adored Spa like no other circuit.

“Back then,” Hill said, “safety was literally never discussed: for one thing there was a feeling that racing had never been safe – and never could be – and for another it was something you didn’t really want to talk about, anyway, 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 these questions: ‘How can you do it? Your friends are dying, and yet still you go out and do this...’ It was little different from wartime, where you just had to do it – and you wanted to do it. We sure as hell weren’t getting rich!

“There was something you had to have going for you in those days, which was that you needed a part of your brain sorting out where it was safe to mess around, and where it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t safe to mess around at Spa – and yet I was not intimidated by it, for some reason, whereas some people were. I didn’t mind fast turns – I was always more intimidated by the Nürburgring…”

Brooks, like Hill, excelled at both, but had a preference for Spa, which he considered, “The perfect Grand Prix circuit. The big attraction was driving a racing car on closed roads, and we accepted that the name of the game was keeping it on the island. If you went off, you were in the lap of the gods – you might get away with it, you might not.

“Of course nobody wanted to get killed or hurt, but the challenge was to drive as fast as you could, while realising the consequences of going off. Nobody will persuade me that there isn’t more of a challenge to the driver if he knows he might hurt himself if he goes off the road. Of course you can afford to have a go if you know that making a mistake might mean going into a run-off area, and losing a few seconds or, at worst, retiring from the race. But when you were going into a corner faster than the next man – but not so fast that you were going to hurt yourself – that was a completely different ball game. Brick walls and trees and ditches instil a discipline, believe me: I can remember drivers who were very quick on ‘aerodrome’ tracks, but no threat at all on true road circuits, and the only explanation is that a totally different attitude of mind was needed at a place where you couldn’t go off with impunity…”

The film of which I speak is of the 1955 Belgian Grand Prix, made by Shell and rediscovered only recently. You can now find it on YouTube and I recommend it highly.

On the Thursday before this year’s race, the company organised a splendid ‘period’ evening at a suitably venerable cinema in Malmédy, and a fine time was had by all. Given Shell’s long ties to Ferrari, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa were both in attendance, and they had been asked to turn up in appropriate garb. Where on earth, they said, were they to find 1955 Ferrari overalls, but they were told not to worry: the mechanics of the time had indeed worn overalls (always brown in that era), but not so the drivers: chinos and a polo shirt would be perfect, with goggles around the neck as a finishing touch.

Thus attired they showed up, but if Fernando looked uncannily like Eugenio Castellotti, Felipe was unable to explain quite why he had gone for a ‘Tyrolean’ look, complete with braces and hat. They watched the movie, and afterwards they rolled their eyes.

It was a lethal time. The 1955 race at Spa was run on June 5, the weekend before the catastrophic accident at Le Mans, in which Pierre Levegh and almost 100 spectators lost their lives. Ten days earlier Alberto Ascari, the Lancia team leader, had been killed in an impromptu test at Monza, and the company’s immediate inclination was to withdraw from the sport. Castellotti, who had worshipped Ascari, begged Lancia to let him have a car for Spa, and this was granted, although it was entered in his, rather than the company’s, name.

When he got to the circuit, which he had never seen before, clearly Castellotti was on a mission. This was the era of the dominant Mercedes W196, yet on the first day of practice Castellotti’s D50 was fastest, ahead of Fangio and Moss, and when it poured down on the Saturday, his pole position was assured.

Denis Jenkinson, who may be seen in the movie in the pits wearing a natty beret and talking to Maserati’s Roberto Mieres, told me that many feared for Castellotti that weekend. A wealthy young man, who raced purely for the love of it, Eugenio had always been considered abnormally brave, but that weekend there was an added ingredient, a firm impression that he was doing this ‘for Ascari’, determined to honour the memory of his mentor – and at the most perilous circuit of all.

Castellotti was 24 at the time, exactly half the age of his fellowcountryman Giuseppe Farina, who had become the first World Champion five years before and led the Ferrari team at Spa. The patrician Farina may have been a beautiful stylist in a racing car – the young Moss consciously copied him – but he was also singularly ruthless, and had no taste for young upstarts, particularly if they were Italian.

When the race started Fangio and Moss lost little time in asserting themselves at the front, but Castellotti hung on in third place, then coming under increasing pressure from Farina. More than once, Jenks told me, the pair of them came down from La Source side by side and running dangerously close to the unprotected pits. Although he was moved by Castellotti’s performance, he admitted to feeling relief when the Lancia’s gearbox broke at half-distance.

Farina went on to finish third in what proved to be his last race in a Grand Prix car. “He was furious afterwards, for he had driven a magnificent race, going after the Mercedes, in vain taking every risk in trying to make up for the lack of performance of his car.” The words, which come from Paul Frère, may have a resonance for Alonso.

“Nothing had availed him,” Frère wrote, “and Farina decided he would not touch the wheel of a racing car again until he was given one in which he could fight on equal terms with his opponents. He kept his word, and we saw him no more on the tracks for the rest of the season.”

Not until Monza, anyway, where he set the fifth-fastest qualifying time in a Ferrari-entered Lancia, only for the car to be withdrawn on safety grounds (!), following severe tyre problems on the banking. Farina never raced a Grand Prix car again.

When he wrote of the great Italian’s drive at Spa, Frère knew whereof he spoke, for in an identical ‘Squalo’ Ferrari he himself finished fourth, after battling all the way with such as Karl Kling’s much faster Mercedes. How extraordinary it seems now that this delightful man, who died five years ago at 91, should have been not only an exceptional journalist, but also so accomplished a ‘part-time racing driver’, as he liked to call himself.

Two years later Frère went to Spa simply to cover the race, with no plan to take part, but was there implored by Ferrari to stand in for Luigi Musso who had broken his arm at the Nürburgring the previous weekend. With some reluctance Paul allowed himself to be talked into it, climbed aboard – and finished second to team-mate Peter Collins!

Many journalists are racing drivers in their dreams: this one truly was.

Given that Ferrari finished 1-2 at Spa in 1956, it could be said that Shell commissioned their movie a year too soon, for in ’55 Fangio and Moss duly swept in first and second, with Ferrari best of the rest.

All I can do is give thanks that the film exists, for it sublimely evokes a time in Grand Prix racing long gone, an era infinitely more perilous yet also more romantic, when legendary Mercedes engineer (and superbly talented driver) Rudolf Uhlenhaut could take to the track in a W196 during official practice, when the cars were housed not in a central paddock but at garages in such as Stavelot and Malmédy, then driven to and from the circuit each day, when spectators were dressed to the nines, when many of them stood in the woods at trackside on the Masta…

I thought the movie astonishingly good, not least because so many different corners figure in it. Granted races were longer in those days – Fangio’s winning time was a few seconds short of two hours and 40 minutes – but even so the crews must have been busy indeed, getting themselves and their no doubt cumbersome equipment around so much of the 8.76 miles, lapped – even 58 years ago – at more than 120mph.

And that’s the thing: the speed. It hardly need be pointed out that the Grand Prix car of the 1950s lacked anything like the sort of acceleration we take for granted in the modern era, but on top speed – at a place where it could really stretch its legs – it was good for more than 180mph, and when you mate that sort of pace with the environment of Spa-Francorchamps in the middle of the last century, the effect is startling. Watch Fangio drifting through Stavelot and the camera tells no lie: he is going fast.

That is one of the film’s particular joys. So often it is rightly said that TV kills the impression of speed, but there is none of that here, believe me. In places the sheer velocity of the cars is numbing – particularly when one bears in mind, as Brooks said, the possible consequences of a mistake.

There was but one accident in 1955. At the exit of what used to be known as the Seaman Curve (in memory of the great British driver who died there in 1939), Jean Behra heavily crashed his Maserati. At that spot now there is a tight right-left (replacing the infamous ‘Bus Stop’), but back in the day it was a flat-out left-hander on to the straight leading to La Source. Behra’s wrecked car finished up off the road (in the vicinity of today’s pit lane entrance), and he immediately hurried back to the pits (then on the run downhill to Eau Rouge), where he took over the 250F of Mieres and went on to finish fifth. As you did.

It all looks terrifyingly hazardous, and so it was, but, as Stirling Moss says, they knew nothing else: that was how Grand Prix racing had always been.

When Martin Brundle arrived at the Shell evening in Malmédy, he emerged from his glorious E-type in old-fashioned racing overalls. Not only that: his face was partially blackened, with white ‘goggle marks’, as seen so often at the end of front-engined races back then.

“Took me for ever,” he said. “I sat there, trying to copy a picture of Stirling at Aintree in ’55…”

In 1998, a couple of years after his retirement from F1, Brundle was given the opportunity to drive a Mercedes W196 at the ‘new’ Spa, and not surprisingly the experience has remained vivid in his mind.

“What’s never changed about Grand Prix racing,” he said, “is that the limit is the limit is the limit. In other respects, though, I’ve come to realise over time that there are huge differences in the job of the driver from one era to another.

“When I got into the Mercedes, it was the first time I’d even sat in something like that, and I really didn’t know what to expect. You knew the driving position was going to be odd, mind you, because there’s a huge gearbox bell-housing between your knees, so the distance between the brake pedal and the clutch must be about two feet!

“It was a bit like Dr Who’s ’phone box – bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Probably that’s because your legs are splayed out, and the steering-wheel’s big and the bonnet seems very long, almost like looking down the nose of a speedboat that you’re trying to steer.

“The first thing I felt was that I seemed to be sitting on the car, rather than in it, and the mirrors are like those on a motorbike – all you can see is your own shoulders. Clearly in those days they didn’t pay too much attention to them, and I quickly began to understand why – you had to concentrate so bloody hard on what was going on in front of you! Physically I found the W196 relatively easy to drive – although you have to remember they were doing it for three hours at a time – but mentally it was incredibly hard.

“I was extremely aware of the absence of seat belts, roll-over bars and so on – to say nothing of a nice, safe, carbon monocoque. I began to look around and think, ‘If you were going to hit something, what would you do? In a modern car, if you know you’re going to crash, you make sure you do certain things beforehand, but with this one I really had no idea what I’d do.

“As far as the actual driving of the car was concerned, it wasn’t as powerful as I’d expected, but it is a slog up from Eau Rouge to Les Combes, and I had to keep in mind that the car was from 1955. I didn’t wear earplugs the first time I went out, and that was a mistake, because it was unbelievably noisy – I could hear it echoing off the grandstands and it sounded fantastic.

“Changing gear was a little different, too. In a modern F1 car it happens in milliseconds, flicking an index finger, but in the Mercedes it was a very conscious thing: you blip the throttle, you place the lever, you push it, all very deliberately. I really had to concentrate – it would have been quite easy, for example, to go from fifth to second…

“As far as handling was concerned, the car turned in quite nicely, and the basic balance was good – although suddenly there’d be some curious loads coming through the steering-wheel. In medium-speed corners, you could place the car more or less where you wanted it.

“The brakes were a bit of a revelation, I must say. Because I always braked early for Les Combes, anyway, at first I didn’t grasp that it didn’t slow down very well, although, funnily enough, it seemed to depend on which corner you were in, and how fast you were going. Coming into the Bus Stop, for example, it didn’t seem to want to slow at all…”

“I was supposed to be keeping pace with the Safety Car – which was a special 5.5-litre Merc CLK, with Mass driving it. A very quick car, and Jochen was pushing quite hard, but he couldn’t keep up with me. To be honest, I didn’t think I was going that fast, but then I began to realise that the car must be quite slippery through the air. I gather they used to do more than 180, and I was doing 150 or so through the kinks before Blanchimont.

“I didn’t slow down, because I was enjoying it so much – but I did begin to feel nervous in the high-speed corners, because occasionally the car seemed to have a mind of its own. It was rather like flying a helicopter – that sense that if ever you let anything develop, you’d have a hell of a job getting it back again.

“OK, in the back of a current F1 driver’s mind is the acceptance that he might get hurt doing this – but back then it must have been right at the front of your mind, and very much part of your decision-making process. It isn’t – at all – for the current drivers.

“Look at Eau Rouge. These days the drivers go through it flat, lap after lap – and they know they’re not going to die if they get it wrong. But the guys who raced cars like the W196… they didn’t have that security. No soft landings for them.

“I’m sure their focus wasn’t so much on a bit of understeer or oversteer as on keeping the machinery together, not missing a gear, not hitting a wall – today’s drivers haven’t a clue about all that. After driving the Mercedes, I came away with even more respect for the drivers of those days. I’ve been round the old Spa many times, and to me it’s literally incredible that they raced F1 cars there. When you try and put together what you’ve felt in the car and a circuit like that… Jesus!”

Nigel Roebuck