Nigel Roebuck

A sense of perspective
The Ferrari conundrum
Farewell to a friend

Back in 1964 three British drivers – Jim Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees – went to the final Grand Prix, in Mexico, to settle the world championship. In the end the title went to Surtees, after Clark’s Lotus had led all the way until its engine seized on the last lap, and Hill’s BRM had been delayed by a coming-together with Lorenzo Bandini at half-distance.

Bandini was Surtees’s Ferrari team-mate. Can you imagine, in today’s world, how the conspiracy theorists would have gone to work on his incident with Hill? Must have been a Ferrari plot, couldn’t have been accidental…

The thought never crossed Hill’s mind – nor anyone else’s, as far as I know. Bandini, if sometimes impetuous on the track, was a fair and decent man, and everyone knew it. His mistake cost Hill the world championship, but his apology was accepted, and a couple of months later, at Christmas, Graham’s stylishly good-humoured follow-up was to send Lorenzo an LP of Advanced Driving Lessons…

Fast-forward half a century to Spa, to the second lap of the Belgian Grand Prix. All season long we had been wondering not if, but when, the two Mercedes W05s would come into contact with each other, and here it duly happened. At the Les Combes chicane, Rosberg’s wing lightly clipped Hamilton’s left rear tyre. Blink, and you’d have missed it, but there were consequences: while Nico continued, albeit with damaged wing, Lewis, Pirelli punctured, struggled back to the pits.

The stewards studied footage of the happening, then looked at it again. Undoubtedly Rosberg had been responsible for the touch, but the stewards concluded that it had been simply ‘a racing incident’, one of those things that occur every time Formula 1 cars compete. In the course of his comeback drive at Hockenheim, for example, Hamilton at different times clattered into Sutil, Räikkönen and Button – but none, of course, was driving a Mercedes.

At Monza Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, both of whom had been close at hand when the two Silver Arrows touched, said they concurred with the stewards’ opinion, and suggested it would have been unjust if Rosberg had been penalised.

Not so the conspiracy theorists, however, who at once – via Twitter – began spewing forth knee-jerk accusations that Nico had to have done it on purpose.

If they had stopped to think for a second or two, they might have realised the absurdity of what they were suggesting: leaving aside any question of morality, only an idiot would deliberately drive into the car in front, and Nico is anything but that. “Hit the guy in front of you,” Martin Brundle said in the press room afterwards, “and you might give him a puncture, you might not – but what’s guaranteed is that you’ll damage your own wing…”

So Rosberg did, but whereas he was at least able to finish, in second place, Hamilton’s day – in terms of scoring points – was done.

Hence the blizzard of abuse on social media, hence the shameful booing of Nico on the podium, which brought back memories of the ‘F*** SENNA’ banner held aloft by moronic mouth-breathers at Silverstone when ‘Mansell Mania’ was at its height in 1992.

Did I feel sympathy for Lewis at Spa? Of course I did – how could anyone not? – but as one who was at Suzuka in 1990, when Ayrton Senna took aim at Alain Prost, and pitched him off the road at 150mph, or Jerez in ’97, where Michael Schumacher tried to ‘take out’ Jacques Villeneuve, I could hardly see Rosberg’s mistake as a capital offence. Are we not all capable of a momentary lapse of judgement?

If the stewards thought his sin undeserving of punishment, however, Rosberg’s employers did not, and I’ll confess to being astonished by the reaction of some in the Mercedes pit.

Given the degree of their car’s superiority, we have all had cause this season to be grateful to Mercedes folk for having the courage to allow their drivers to race. For sundry reasons, as we know, the TV figures have anyway dropped alarmingly in 2014, but had Mercedes adopted the sort of policy pursued unyieldingly by Ferrari during the Todt/Schumacher era, they would have gone into free fall.

As with McLaren throughout its history, Mercedes has allowed its drivers to get on with it – the only proviso being that they must not run into each other.

This is, of course, easily said. When the world championship is there for the taking, and the only thing standing in the way is the other man in the same car, chances are that sooner or later the blue touch paper will be lit.

This is why, as I mentioned to Niki Lauda during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, Frank Williams has long been of the opinion that “You can’t put two bulls in one field”, the more so when they have at their disposal quantifiably the best car of the moment, so that the championship is distilled to a two-hander.

Lauda, though, vehemently disagreed with FW’s contention. “In normal circumstances, I think if you have two really top drivers, there’s a benefit for the team, no question about it. Everyone in the team works harder, because every engineer is trying to help their driver, preparing the car better than the other guy. So for me, having the right two drivers – as Mercedes has with Rosberg and Hamilton – is essential for a successful team…” A pause. “Even with all the difficulties – because you can’t have only one side of it…”

Not if your drivers have free rein to race, no. At Spa, Mercedes people with a knowledge of racing history will have been hoping for a repeat of 1955, when the W196s of Fangio and Moss came in for an easy 1-2, but the circumstances in the team then were that Juan Manuel was very much the master, the youthful Stirling his willing pupil.

More than with any driver of the time, it was, I think, a conversation with Louise Collins, the widow of Peter, that best conveyed to me just how different was the ethos of Grand Prix racing in that era. When I told her that nowadays a driver’s biggest rival was invariably his team-mate, she was aghast. “Are you serious? That’s unbelievable to me…”

Late in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix her husband voluntarily handed over his car to Fangio, thereby enabling him to win his fourth world championship. Hard to believe now, but in so doing Peter abandoned his own hopes of the title.

Louise smiled. “Well, let’s face it, in those days there wasn’t the money, so maybe it was easier to be a sportsman! And I think the danger back then contributed to a sense of camaraderie between the drivers. It wasn’t that long after the war, remember – there was this feeling they were all doing something they loved, and weren’t they lucky? Everyone was on the same side.

“Yes, Peter gave up his car that day at Monza – but he revered Fangio, and team spirit was very important to him: what mattered, above all, was that someone in a Ferrari won the championship. Probably, that doesn’t even make sense to anyone today…”

Phil Hill, a friend of Collins, was promoted to the Ferrari Formula 1 team following Peter’s death at the Nürburgring in 1958. Three years on, he found himself in a situation akin to that at Mercedes now, driving the best car, with his team-mate – Wolfgang von Trips – his only rival for the title.

“Trips and I always got along,” Hill said, “but, face it, it’s not a normal situation, is it? You try to beat the other guy on the circuit all day, and then at night you’re supposed to forget all that.”

In disagreeing with Frank Williams’s theory, Lauda cites his relationship with Prost as proof that in fact you can ‘put two bulls in one field’. On the face of it, he’s right: Niki won the championship with McLaren in 1984, Alain in 1985, and the pair of them never had a cross word, although Lauda allows that it took him time to trust this new, extremely swift, team-mate.

Because it all worked out with them, though, does not set Niki’s argument in stone: so much depends on the personalities of the drivers involved, and whether or not they gel. Nigel Mansell trusted Keke Rosberg implicitly, Nelson Piquet not at all. If Prost and Lauda made for a harmonious partnership, Prost and Senna emphatically did not.

After Spa, I read in one of the following day’s papers that the situation between Hamilton and Rosberg threatened to become ‘one of the deadliest feuds for decades’, and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Nico had lightly clipped Lewis at a slow corner; he had not, like Senna at Suzuka, deliberately used his car as a weapon.

At Melbourne, the opening race, Hamilton retired early, leaving Rosberg to take an untroubled victory, but then Lewis won four on the trot and his second world championship began to look like a formality. Thereafter, though, the momentum swung back to Rosberg, and a combination of mechanical problems and errors of his own put Hamilton on the back foot. He is anyway, as we know, adept at playing the victim, and there’s no doubt that as time went by Mercedes personnel became ever more concerned by the perception in some quarters that Lewis wasn’t getting a fair shake.

Perhaps this played a role in their response to the Spa debacle.

No one can reasonably dispute that Rosberg was at fault, but any F1 driver will tell you how easy – given that he cannot even see his front wing from the cockpit – it is to make such a mistake. On the last lap of the Belgian Grand Prix Alonso clipped the back of Button’s McLaren at La Source, but little was said about it, for although the Ferrari’s front wing was in shreds, Jenson’s tyre survived. And they were not, of course, team-mates.

Not only was Rosberg’s error of judgement responsible for the touch with Hamilton, it also benefited his quest for the title, for he went on to score 18 points, Lewis zero. That said, the aftermath of the race was decidedly unpleasant for him, first with the hostile reaction of elements in the crowd, then with a decidedly unsympathetic reception from his own team.

Mercedes did, I think, magnify the episode into something of a cause célèbre. There was talk of crisis meetings, and the like, and during the following week the team used – deep breath – social media to gauge public reaction to the events at Spa. Finally it was announced that Rosberg had been punished – not by the race stewards, but by his employer.

Probably Nico’s extraordinarily calm demeanour didn’t help his case. Yes, he said after the podium ceremony, he understood why British fans were angry with him: naturally they supported Lewis, as German fans sided with him. No, he said, he wouldn’t comment on the incident until he had seen footage of it. Later, having watched it, he accepted responsibility and apologised.

For all that, it was not surprising that at Monza Rosberg came across as somewhat chastened by recent events. In the race he made uncharacteristic mistakes, twice braking too late for the first chicane, and taking to the escape road, at which point Hamilton passed him.

Everything in the Mercedes camp post-Spa is now subject to ludicrously forensic examination, as revealed by the publication of a photograph purporting to show Toto Wolff ‘smiling’ at the moment the lead changed hands…

One had the impression in Italy that, not surprisingly, what mattered most to Mercedes during this cooling-off period was a nice, safe, 1-2 finish, which was how it turned out. In the fall-out after the Belgian GP there had been murmurings about the possible need to introduce team orders, but hopefully that has been forestalled.

Even more, though, we must hope that the world championship doesn’t ultimately change hands – in either direction – as a consequence of the ‘double points’ fiasco that awaits in Abu Dhabi. At a time when F1 is finally awakening to the need to please its fans, to attract new ones, we really don’t need them to be saying, “Yes, he’s world champion – but he isn’t really…” Given their performances this year, both Mercedes drivers deserve better than that.

Following the post-Spa hysteria, conversation in the Monza paddock was predictably dominated by Mercedes matters, by the state of play between Rosberg and Hamilton, but in fact the main story of the weekend was rooted in Maranello, rather than Stuttgart. Although as ever Luca di Montezemolo was due to be at the track on Saturday, allowing the tifosi its annual opportunity to genuflect before him, this time it would be different because it wouldn’t be happening again.

Right on cue di Montezemolo made his pitlane entrance, waving both arms at the grandstands like the emperor he has always believed himself to be. In the same place, 12 months earlier, he and Fernando Alonso had barely acknowledged each other, but now there was a great public bear hug, and Alonso was smiling broadly. “Of course he is,” murmured an Italian colleague. “He knows Luca’s going…”

In the course of 23 years as president of Ferrari, di Montezemolo has presided over a period of success for the company, most notably with regard to booming profits from its road cars, and it should be remembered, too, that, it was on Luca’s watch that for quite a while Ferrari was almost unstoppable in Formula 1, Michael Schumacher winning five world championships on the trot.

Ah, but the times – and the circumstances – were different back then. Jean Todt was at the helm of Ferrari’s race programme, and he had working with him such as Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne and Aldo Costa. Todt’s power was such that the racing department, which had enormous strength in depth, became an entity unto itself, still ultimately responsible to di Montezemolo, of course, but essentially immune to any interference from him.

In terms of success, it was akin to McLaren in the late ’80s. “Not surprising, is it?” Bernie Ecclestone muttered to me at the time. “Honda engines, Senna, Prost…you could start a bleedin’ war with that lot…” So you could at Maranello in the early years of the 21st century: with a colossal budget, unlimited testing, an effectively bespoke tyre manufacturer, a supreme technical staff and the best driver in the world, Scuderia Ferrari became as good as unbeatable and its chairman was content to bask in the reflected glory of it all.

Then, bit by bit, it began to unravel. First, in 2006, Brawn concluded that, after 10 years of working for Ferrari, he needed a break. “My wife and I decided to take a year off, travelling the world,” he said, “but the sabbatical had several purposes, one of which was to put a full stop at the end of my Ferrari career. By now both our daughters were married, and if grandchildren came along, Jean not unnaturally wanted to spend more time in the UK. We left Italy at a time when we still loved everything: in every respect the time was right to come home.”

As Brawn left Ferrari, so also did Schumacher, and even now, all these years on, when I walk into the Monza press room, often I think back to the post-race conference in 2006. Michael had won the race – of course – but as he announced his forthcoming retirement there was a break in his voice, a tear in his eye and, for all his insistence that this was a decision he had taken at Indianapolis months earlier, he looked and sounded like a man who didn’t want to go.

As much as anyone I have known in the business, Gilles Villeneuve included, Schumacher was a man who loved driving racing cars, one who suspected – rightly – that he would be lost without F1. Now, as he tried to put a brave face on it at the conference, I was not alone in feeling this wasn’t really what he wanted.

Looking to the future, di Montezemolo had personally taken it upon himself to sign Kimi Räikkönen for 2007. Not only was Schumacher less than thrilled about this, there was also the complication that three into two didn’t go. Of course one knew of Michael’s high regard for team-mate Massa, but was he really intimating that considerations for Felipe’s F1 future had figured seriously in his own decision to quit?

In fact we were aware of Schumacher’s impending announcement before he so much as arrived in the media centre, for within seconds – literally seconds – of his crossing the line, in had swept Ferrari PR people with armfuls of press releases, one confirming Michael’s retirement, the other Kimi’s arrival. It was a stark and graceless way to treat the most successful driver in the history not only of Ferrari, but of Grand Prix racing itself.

In August ’07 Brawn interrupted his sabbatical to visit Maranello, for by now he had decided that he wasn’t done with F1, and he had promised Todt that if he came to that conclusion he would talk to him first. There were several discussions, some of them involving di Montezemolo, but if they were entirely amicable, they failed to come to anything, not least because Ferrari had decided to give Stefano Domenicali an opportunity, and Ross didn’t wish to stand in the way of a close friend.

“What was being discussed was how Stefano and I might share the role of team principal,” he said, “but I didn’t see that as a workable solution, and I think we all reached a point of thinking, ‘We’ve talked it all through, and it hasn’t crystallised, so it’s better to part as friends, and do our own thing’.”

Thus Brawn went off to Honda, and Domenicali settled in to running Ferrari at the races. For a couple of years the strong results continued, with Räikkönen nicking the world championship from the McLaren drivers at the final race, Interlagos, in 2007, and Massa unluckily losing it in the same place a year later.

Perhaps, though, Domenicali’s efforts were ultimately doomed from the start, for he was a local boy who had been promoted ‘in house’, and as such was never regarded in the same way as Brawn, never had the clout he needed to do the job properly. When Todt finally parted company with Ferrari in 2009, the F1 powerhouse was finished, and – to Domenicali’s dismay – di Montezemolo began again to play a more intrusive role in the running of the Scuderia.

After winning his title in ’07, Räikkönen was far less effective the following year, invariably in Massa’s shade, and such was also the case in ’09, the year of Jenson Button’s world title with Brawn GP, of the looming dominance of Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing. By the time of Massa’s serious injury in that freak accident at the Hungaroring, Ferrari had not won a race, although at Spa, where he has traditionally excelled, a reawakened Räikkönen put that right.

As a team, though, Ferrari was in a curiously suspended state, as if the 2009 season had already been written off, which in effect it had. Briefly – sensationally – there was a plan for Schumacher to come temporarily out of retirement, to stand in for his recovering buddy until Massa was fit enough to return, but that came to nought when it was found that a back injury, sustained in a superbike accident, made it impossible for Michael to drive.

Thus, to replace Massa, it was decided unfathomably to put long-time test driver Luca Badoer in the car, di Montezemolo proclaiming this to be a reward for his years of loyal service.

All well and good, but Badoer had not raced an F1 car for 10 years, and had never been quick, anyway: at both Valencia and Spa he started – and finished – stone last. For Monza through to the end of the year Giancarlo Fisichella, another sentimental choice, at the end of his F1 career, drove the second Ferrari rather faster, but again with no results.

In effect, Ferrari was marking time. Di Montezemolo had promised Massa that, assuming a return to full fitness, his drive was safe, but he would no longer be partnering Räikkönen. Having signed Kimi to perhaps the most lucrative contract in F1 history, Luca had decided to end it a year ahead of time, to accelerate the long-established plan to bring Fernando Alonso to Maranello.

One quakes at the thought of Ferrari’s wage bill in 2010, with Alonso on board, and Räikkönen – who had gone rallying with Citroën – receiving his full stipend not to drive for the team. Perhaps fortunately for di Montezemolo, where Fernando goes, Santander follows.

Now the pressure on Domenicali – already relentless – only grew for, as during the Schumacher years, Ferrari again had the best driver on its books, and if results fell short of expectations, the fault wouldn’t lie with the man in the cockpit.

“At Ferrari,” Brawn remembered, “each year everything was structured to that moment the new car got on the track – if it wasn’t immediately quicker than what you already had, it was a failure. The pressure at Ferrari is born of the media, the tifosi, the history – if you make one wrong move you’re castigated in the press, and that creates a pressure, believe me.

“When Honda pulled out of racing, following the financial meltdown in ’08, and we kept the team going as Brawn Grand Prix, everyone assumes that must have been the most highly pressured time of my life, but it was nothing compared with what I felt at Ferrari all the time…”

Brawn had been an integral part of Todt’s iron-clad regime at Maranello, but following Jean’s departure Domenicali had no such protective structure around him. Nor, as we have said, was he viewed in the same way by di Montezemolo, who took it upon himself to play an increasingly ‘hands-on’ role in the racing team.

Luca, it must be said, was always adept at cashing in on the name and mythology of Ferrari. He might have been instrumental in the setting up of the short-lived Formula One Teams Association in 2008, and served briefly as its first chairman, but when Red Bull withdrew from it in return for a more advantageous fiscal accommodation with Bernie Ecclestone, di Montezemolo lost no time in following suit.

Ferrari receives more money – by far – from the commercial rights holder than any other team, yet year after year fails to make the most of it. Alonso has come close to winning the championship a couple of times in recent years, but he has consistently flattered the cars he has been given to drive.

Along the way there have been scapegoats. Following the mistaken strategy call in Abu Dhabi, which cost Alonso the title in 2010, Chris Dyer was sacked as chief track engineer. The following year Domenicali was required to fire technical director Aldo Costa and, if he reluctantly complied, he refused to do the same again early this season, with regard to Luca Marmorini. In April Stefano announced he was leaving Ferrari – and Marmorini was anyway dispensed with three months later.

Following Domenicali’s departure, a new Ferrari team principal appeared at the Bahrain Grand Prix. Marco Mattiacci, previously the CEO of Ferrari North America, had no racing experience whatever, and as such was seen as a curious choice for the post. Di Montezemolo claimed he had selected him because he had proved himself a superb manager, who would cast fresh eyes on the problems confronting the team.

In point of fact, someone who should know told me at the time that the decision had been taken elsewhere. “Mattiacci,” he said, “is not a di Montezemolo appointment – he’s a Marchionne appointment…” In other words, the CEO of Fiat, Sergio Marchionne, had gone over Luca’s head.

There had for some time been signs of an increasing loss of perspective on racing matters from di Montezemolo. He may have presided over a period of considerable growth in the road car business, may have negotiated an immensely favourable financial deal with Ecclestone, but when it came to the racing team per se, he was living in the past, unwilling to countenance criticism of it – from anyone save himself.

In 2013, following the Hungarian Grand Prix, a frustrated Alonso for once let his mask of perpetual optimism slip. When asked at a press conference what he wanted as a birthday present, Fernando’s throwaway reply contained more than a scintilla of weary truth: “Someone else’s car…”

While over time di Montezemolo had repeatedly complained about Ferrari’s lack of competitiveness, such a thing was not to be tolerated by a mere employee. Back in 1991, following the Japanese GP, Alain Prost compared his Ferrari unfavourably with a truck, and was sacked forthwith. No such action was taken against Alonso, but di Montezemolo issued a very public reprimand.

Bad move. If, before reacting the way he did, Luca had paused to consider how desultory the Scuderia’s recent seasons would have been without Fernando, it might have stayed his hand. As it was, he came forth with the usual clichéd stuff about the honour of driving for Ferrari, the need for everyone to pull together, etc, etc…

Alonso is a proud man, and was not impressed by di Montezemolo’s remarks. Thereafter his attitude to the Ferrari chairman was resolutely cool – hence, as my friend pointed out, the wide smile and embrace on the occasion of Luca’s farewell appearance at Monza.

Perhaps his departure had been coming a while. Certainly much of his behaviour this year has come across as even more theatrical than usual. At Bahrain, Mattiacci’s first race, di Montezemolo made rather a fool of himself, damning ‘the new Formula 1’ to anyone who would listen, then flouncing out of the circuit before the end of the race, thereby passing up the opportunity to watch the Ferraris limp in ninth and 10th.

Later in the year he would come forth with an announcement that he regarded it as ‘his duty’ to save F1. Most reckoned that in this, the most exciting season for a couple of decades, he would be better advised to focus on saving his team.

Quite obviously Marchionne was of a similar opinion. Although at Monza di Montezemolo continued to suggest he was going nowhere, would continue at Ferrari for at least three more years, the word was that in October, following the Paris Motor Show, it would be announced that he was leaving Maranello to take up the new challenge of running Alitalia.

Perhaps Ferrari’s lamentable showing in the Italian GP – one ninth place, one retirement – was responsible for bringing that forward. “For Ferrari,” said Marchionne a couple of days after the race, “the important thing is not just financial results, but winning. Doing better in F1 is essential…”

By the Wednesday di Montezemolo was gone.

In the Monza press room there was great sadness when we got the news, a couple of days before the race, that Eoin Young had died in New Zealand at the age of 75.

Having got to know Bruce McLaren in his home country, Young accepted the offer of a job from him, and moved to Europe in 1962 (the two are pictured below). After four years, during which time McLaren set up his own team, Eoin left to concentrate on a career in journalism.

I met him in 1971 and, like my contemporaries, for a long time envied him, for it seemed he really had this business worked out. While we struggled to make a living from writing, he knew everyone, syndicated his features and wonderful Straight From The Grid column all the over the world, and – I was stunned to discover – drove a 911! Clearly this was a man from whom one could learn.

As well as that, Eoin was marvellous company, enjoying the odd glass or three of red wine, keeping us amused with his often acerbic tongue, delighting not least in telling tales against himself.

I remember one such in Adelaide in 1987, on the occasion of the Australian GP. As he joined a group of us for dinner, he gave details of his ride to the restaurant. Outside his hotel, he said, taxis had been in short supply, and when one finally stopped, the bloke behind him in the queue asked where he was going – and could he share it? Eoin agreed, and off they set. “I asked him what he did, and he said he raced motorbikes. ‘You any good?’ I asked. ‘Not bad,’ he said. ‘I’m world champion’. So I’ve met Wayne Gardner…”

Later he took to dealing in memorabilia, and – in my experience – there was no one like him. One day we went to a favourite haunt of mine, a little shop in Paris called ‘Le Sportsman’, which sold sports memorabilia of all kinds.

Digging through a box of racing stuff, I came across something I suspected Eoin might find to his liking. It was a special edition of a Parisian newspaper, printed in commemoration of the very first motor race, run from Paris to Rouen in 1894. In remarkably good nick, it was also astonishingly cheap – 100 francs, which was then about 12 quid. When I handed it to Eoin, he momentarily lost the gift of speech. Back to the hotel we hastened, and at once he dialled a number in California. “I’m in Paris – and, at great cost, I’ve just come across something you may feel you need to own…”

After hearing a description of the item, the hapless client asked if the cover of the newspaper could be faxed to him. This was duly done, and we sat there, waiting for the return call, which wasn’t long coming. How much was this piece of history going to cost him?

“Well,” said Eoin, “what would you consider a reasonable sum?” “Four thousand dollars,” the man ventured. “Isn’t that amazing?” my pal responded. “The very figure I had in mind…”

After 40 years of close friendship, I shall miss Eoin a great deal.

One of the most memorable characters I have known, assuredly he would have been delighted by the number of glasses of rosso raised to him that evening in the Hotel de la Ville.