The pace of change
For all motor sport’s giant leaps since the pioneering days of the 1890s, the brakes have been applied in recent seasons. Rubens Barrichello is pictured at Monza in 2004, when his pole time on grooved tyres was more than three seconds quicker than Lewis Hamilton managed 11 years later on slicks.
As the cars came up to the grid at Monza I had a feeling that this was a race Lewis Hamilton was not going to finish. Even in these days of metronomic reliability, after all, F1 cars sometimes go wrong. Having missed the podium only once in 2015, Hamilton was surely due a mechanical failure.
My powers as a soothsayer have never been acute, however, and I soon regretted coming out with this in the press room, for Lewis – complete with newly ‘tokened’ Mercedes engine – duly strolled away again to as comprehensive a victory as any in recent memory. Christian Horner used the word ‘frightening’ to describe the latest incarnation of the Mercedes engine, and it was indeed the mot juste.
In Singapore a fortnight later, though, Hamilton did finally suffer a retirement, and he was fortunate that it should occur in what was the most uncompetitive race weekend for Mercedes since the start of the ‘hybrid’ era. Both he and Nico Rosberg were – mysteriously, by the team’s own admission – off the pace all weekend, unable to qualify within a second and a half of Sebastian Vettel, whose newly ‘tokened’ Ferrari engine was reckoned by some now to be a match for Mercedes.
Given the team’s fears of a possible time penalty following a check on tyre pressures conducted on the Monza grid – potentially yet another new cause of penalties in F1 – the team ordered Hamilton to speed up in the late laps, and until he came to appreciate the reason for it he wasn’t greatly amused.
Even so, Lewis lapped in only 1min 26.672sec, so he really wasn’t hurrying too much, for this was more than three seconds from his pole time – which was in turn pedestrian by comparison with the Formula 1 of a decade ago. Where would Hamilton’s lap – 1min 23.397sec – have qualified him for the 2004 Italian Grand Prix? Eighteenth, ahead only of the Minardis of Zsolt Baumgartner and Gianmaria Bruni.
Although the best of today’s hybrids are indeed producing serious amounts of power (while consuming remarkably little fuel), still there is no getting away from the fact that – for the moment – this is a generation of comparatively leisurely F1 cars: as Mark Webber put it, “Seven hundred kilos! That’s almost a sports car…”
Back in ’04 Rubens Barrichello, in a 3-litre V10 Ferrari weighing 600 kilos, took the Monza pole with a time of 1min 20.089sec – and this at a time when F1 was saddled with those wretched grooved tyres.
On the front row with Barrichello that year was the Williams-BMW of Juan Pablo Montoya, always something of a Monza specialist, as Kevin Magnussen reminded me over lunch at McLaren. “Have a look at this…” he said, holding out his iPhone.
Over the past few years, Sky TV has after qualifying frequently shown synchronised on-car footage of two drivers – usually Hamilton and Rosberg – fighting for pole position, and fascinating it invariably is, to see where four-hundredths of a second or whatever was gained. Over the Monza weekend, though, a website named wtf1 came up with the inspired idea of comparing, in just that way, Hamilton in 2015 with Montoya in 2004. The result was stunning.
What immediately hit you between the eyes – or rather, ears – was the soundtrack. After two years of becoming acclimatised to the hybrids, the sheer noise of JPM’s BMW – a ‘full fat’ 3-litre V10, remember, rather than an anaemic 2.4-litre V8 – was shattering, but so also was its pure performance, the Williams fairly rocketing out of the corners by comparison with the Mercedes.
As Juan Pablo went over the line at the end of the lap – nearly four seconds up on Lewis – the sound of his engine was cut, allowing us for the first time to hear the muted note of the Mercedes hybrid as it came out of Parabolica. The difference was surreal and one’s primary impression was how much more violent a Formula 1 car used to be. No wonder those who raced in the V10 era miss it to this day.
Once back from Italy, I was eager to share the wtf1 experience with friends, and lost no time in notifying them. Alas, too late. Upon trying to view it, they found merely a message beneath where JPM and Lewis had been: “This video contains content from Formula One Management, who (sic) has blocked it on copyright grounds.”
So there you are. One has been aware of this for years, this iron-clad refusal – however much it might help popularise Formula 1 – to allow anything in the way of footage to be shown unless it yields some shekels to the powers-that-be. “There are,” as Martin Brundle memorably said, “some people in this paddock who are ill with their money…”
Therefore we can assume that the footage was wiped for what Vettel, speaking of his fears of losing Monza from the world championship, described as “Shitty money reasons”, but on this occasion perhaps a secondary motive was involved: to be reminded of 2004, after all, was inevitably to be left flat by 2015.
Back in 1977 there may not have been – by decree – a single tyre supplier in Formula 1, but still there was only one, for Firestone’s withdrawal left Goodyear to provide tyres for everyone. That being so, in Akron, Ohio, they were able to predict with some confidence that Hockenheim would mark the company’s 100th Grand Prix victory, and to that end invited to the race the man who had scored its first, in Mexico City at the end of 1965. Richie Ginther was a man I hadn’t met before, and I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity of interviewing him.
Listening to his voice again brings back what a lovely guy Ginther was: funny, self-deprecating, irreverent yet respectful when he needed to be: “Stirling was the best driver I ever competed against – and by a long way. Any time you did well against him, you felt like you’d really done something: there was no one like him…”
Ginther was never a great driver, and knew it, but there were times when greatness touched him, as at Monaco in 1961, when he led the Ferrari team in its vain pursuit of Moss on what Stirling considers his day of days. In the late laps both men lapped three seconds faster than they had managed in qualifying. Quite a thought.
By the middle of 1967 Richie had retired as a driver, but he remained in the business, running teams in the USA, and also setting up a successful company manufacturing chassis and suspension components for Porsches. This he had sold, and I wondered what he was doing now.
“I’ve been asked that so many times today that it’s getting embarrassing,” Ginther grinned, “because I’m not doing anything! I sold my house, and still have an interest in the company, so each month I have some money coming in. I bought a motorhome, and I live in it – I dropped out!
“I’ve been like this for three years and it suits me very well – I can do whatever comes to my head. If I feel like some time at the ocean, in the desert, in the mountains, why, I just drive there. I don’t wear a watch any more, and in the motorhome I don’t have a clock – or even a calendar! If I want to know when it is, I go buy a newspaper. I carry a motorcycle on the back, and if I start running out of beer or food or cigarettes, I just ride into the nearest village. It might not be for everyone, but for me it’s a fantastic way of life…”
This was emphatically not how most retired racing drivers spent their later years, and in fact I can think of only one other who brings Richie to mind, in the sense that he, too, lived for a long time in a motorhome, content to let life take him where it may. Shooting Star On A Prancing Horse, the memoirs of Jonathan Williams, is the most beguilingly off-beat racing book I have come across in years.
Who knows who came up with the title, but I somewhat doubt – unless he intended it to be tongue-in-cheek – that it was Williams himself. True, he did spend the 1967 season on the Ferrari payroll, but while an extremely skilled racing driver, Jonathan never became more than that and it seems not to have much bothered him. In a car he was fiercely competitive, but when he stepped out of it he left ambition behind: if racing were one of the good things of life, he was perhaps too well balanced – too normal – to allow it to become life itself.
It is, God knows, unusual to come across a racing driver devoid of ego, but Williams was one such, and to read his book is to remember why one so much liked him.
This was the original ‘jobbing race driver’, and if he competed for the last time in 1971, at the Targa Florio, his racing career – which began with a Mini – was essentially bookended by the ’60s, and the evocation of the sport in that long-lost decade is one of the book’s particular joys. Williams was always keenly alert to the pleasures of fine weather and good food and, finding little of either in the UK at that time, preferred to base himself in France, Spain or – most of all – Italy.
In particular Jonathan adored Rome, where he lived while driving – with conspicuous success – for the de Sanctis F3 team. “In those days Rome was a delight, more like a village than a city, where you ran into the same friendly people, and your eyes were soothed by beauty everywhere, every day. There were not yet signs of the nightmare traffic, noise, pollution and crime to come. Spray cans hadn’t been invented.”
Although the late Jürg Dubler wrote an excellent book – Les Années Fabuleuses de la Formule 3 1964-70 – no definitive history of F3’s golden age has appeared in the English language, and it has long been my hope that eventually someone will tackle it: apart from the sight and sound of the cars, the quality of the racing, that era overflows with good stories.
It was, very much, a hand-to-mouth existence for most of the F3 drivers of the time: across Europe they plied their nomadic trade, relying on the money they made last weekend to get them through to the next. Most of the temporary street tracks were stupefyingly dangerous – albeit in many cases, as Jonathan told me, less so than the local hospitals.
Among the close friendships he made back then were with such as Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt and Frank Williams, who himself raced before wisely becoming an entrant. Years ago, at one of his pre-season lunches, conversation somehow worked around to those days of the one-litre F3 screamers and FW revelled in his memories.
“Dear old Piers… he came from a wealthy background, but there was no family money to pay for his racing, and he was as broke as the rest of us. He had a Ford Zephyr Six and a trailer, and when he was on the road – in a lay-by or wherever – he’d get into his pyjamas, lie across the back seats (with the doors open, because it was hot, and he was quite long), and kip like that…
“I remember him crashing his car at the Sachsenring, getting it back to Shepherds Bush and having the chassis straightened by his mate, ‘Tom the Weld’, part of which involved crushing the car between the wall and his Zephyr so that it would line up, and you could get the bolt through again!
“Anyone remember a guy called Tim Cash? A true eccentric – used to wear a sheikh’s head-dress all the time. Eventually got killed in Portugal in 1967. I remember one night kipping in a lay-by on the Autostrada del Sole, and we couldn’t get to sleep because of the lights. At about 11 o’clock there was a big flash and they all went out! He’d ripped open the fuse-box, or whatever it was, and snipped the wires…”
This was the world in which Jonathan Williams lived, and it’s probably as well that even in that era his attitude to racing was ‘old school’: had it been otherwise, he would never have found anywhere to compete.
“I loved racing on public roads,” he relates, “and my favourite win was Garda, which was in a beautiful setting on the shores of the lake.
It was 15 kilometers per lap, and everything a road circuit should be: plenty of walls and trees to hit, and ravines to tumble into, but magic at the time. This was 1966, and races had been held there off and on since 1921, with drivers such as Nuvolari, Farina and Ascari competing. You definitely felt you were walking and racing in the footsteps of history when you were there.
“Lucio [de Sanctis] and I made a reconnaissance run there a few weeks before the race, and we did many laps with Bob Dylan blasting on the radio of my Porsche 356, followed by a late lunch beside the lake, with swans swimming back and forth and birds singing. It was a memorable day made all the more so when I won the race, and was awarded a beautiful trophy. Forty years later, when I was travelling to Rome, I took it with me, and presented it to Lucio.”
That year, too, Williams took part in – and won – arguably the most curious race ever run for F3, or most anything else. “It was at the old Mugello road circuit, which included the Futa Pass of Mille Miglia fame, and was some 66kms round: because of that, the F3 race was only two laps, which seemed rather odd. I was only to do a couple in practice, and there was no way to memorise a great deal in that time, but none of the other drivers had much chance to learn it, either. I managed to work my way to the front early on, and then got into a rhythm and was never headed.”
From these quotes you will by now, I hope, have started to glean a flavour of Jonathan the man. So completely did he dominate Italian F3 – not least winning the heart-stopping Monza Lotteria ‘slipstreamer’ three years on the trot – that at the end of 1966 there came an invitation to Maranello for an audience with Enzo Ferrari. “He looked at me through his dark glasses, and his first words in Italian were, ‘So I hear you want to drive for me.’ This caught me a little off guard, but I found myself replying, ‘That would be nice…’”
A contract was duly signed, but it delivered far less than it promised. Primarily, Williams was engaged to drive Ferrari’s forthcoming F2 car, but development lagged, and ultimately he raced the car only once, at Rouen, where it was uncompetitive.
During his year with Ferrari Jonathan got to race but rarely. It was a tumultuous time for the team, and for most of the season, after the death of Lorenzo Bandini at Monaco, only a single F1 car was run, for Chris Amon. In the final race of the year, Mexico, Williams took part in what was to be his only Grand Prix.
“Before going to Ferrari, I had it easy. I was usually the one people had to try to beat. Testing with Chris, though, I was left with a hollow feeling in my stomach. Where did he save that little bit of time? I couldn’t see it. I never could see it. A sublime talent, the fastest driver never to win a Grand Prix, it is often said. But why? I cannot answer that one. He should have won 20 or more. If I could have been his number two for a couple of seasons, I think I would have amounted to something.”
See why I doubt Jonathan had much to do with the title of the book?
At Brands Hatch, in the BOAC 500, he partnered Paul Hawkins in one of three divine 330P4s. More disarming honesty: “Originally I was paired with Jackie Stewart, which I was not pleased about, as I knew he’d be faster than me and I’d be shown up, so I asked [team manager] Franco Lini to please put him with Chris, which he did.”
Come the end of 1967, Williams’s Ferrari contract was not renewed, but still he remembered the experience well. “It is an honour to be able to say that I knew, even for a brief period of time, such a giant of a man. I sometimes wonder if my career at Maranello would have lasted longer if I hadn’t made two mistakes.
“The first one was to wreck a Formula 1 car during a post-season test at Modena, which probably sealed my fate on its own. The second one, which with hindsight was more serious, occurred when Chris and I, with our girlfriends, were driving back from spending two days at the Hotel Marconi in Bellaria. We had eaten and drunk to excess at lunch, and could barely move.
“As fate would have it, we stopped at a gas station to refuel, and seconds later a silver Ferrari drove in, with Enzo’s faithful chauffeur, Pepino, at the wheel. A smiling Enzo asked if we would like to join him for a pizza. Speaking for everyone, I quickly replied, almost without thinking, ‘No, thank you.’ Bad decision. I should have eaten that pizza even if I’d had to go to hospital to have my stomach pumped…”
Post-Ferrari, it was back to F3, occasionally F2, and sports cars – a matter of accepting drives as and when they were offered, and Williams, contemplating a life after motor racing, also took up flying, from which he would later make a living, ferrying executives around in private jets.
Before that, though, came a spell of work on Steve McQueen’s fabled Le Mans movie in 1970. “For the first – and, as it happened, last – time in my short professional racing career I was offered the kind of money that makes one feel like booking a first-class ’plane ticket for a Caribbean vacation: $1500 to drive the Porsche 908 camera car in the race at Le Mans, and a further $10,000 for 12 weeks on the film as a stunt driver. In addition, I’d receive 100 francs a day expense money, and be housed in a chateau near Le Mans. When I hung up the phone, I did a little jig, then poured myself a drink.”
In later life Williams sold his apartment near St Tropez, and bought a small motorhome, in which he and his girlfriend Linda lived for several years. “It was,” he said, “a gypsy existence, but an enjoyable one, being able to pull up stakes whenever one chose, and move on.”
It was in 2007 that Jonathan was first diagnosed with cancer, but he fought it for a long time, and in 2014 declared his intention to come to Monza for the Italian Grand Prix, where Peter Windsor and I planned to have dinner with him.
Sadly it was not to be: on August 31 he died.
A softly spoken and gentle soul, who valued his friends, loved animals and jazz and books. No wonder Denis Jenkinson was so fond of him.
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” I remember saying to Jonathan one day, and if the topic of our conversation is long forgotten, his response abides. “Not much really matters,” he smiled, “and the rest doesn’t matter at all…”
We had been out for dinner that freezing Saturday evening of November 29 1975, getting back just in time to watch the late night news. At the very end – a breaking story – there was mention of an accident involving a light aircraft “en route from Marseille to Elstree”: to anyone in motor racing that meant “en route from Paul Ricard back home”.
Almost immediately the phone rang. It was Chris Amon. “Did you hear the news? I think it’s Graham…” said Chris. I did, too. We both knew the Hill team had been testing at Ricard that week.
In thick fog the aeroplane had crashed on a golf course close by the airstrip at Elstree: Graham, youthful number one driver Tony Brise and four further members of the Hill team all died.
People who knew nothing of motor racing were familiar with Graham Hill, with the wolfish expression honed for the TV camera, the risqué sense of humour that worked more often than not. He was a national figure, and now he was gone.
As my old friend Quentin Spurring relates elsewhere in the magazine, he and I were working with the Embassy Hill team that year, and the days after the accident were harrowing. Long before I had any involvement in the sport Graham had been important in my life: for so long he had been intrinsic to Grand Prix racing, and I had witnessed many of his finest drives.
At the time of his death, perhaps oddly, what remained uppermost in my mind was an interview given shortly after the loss of Jim Clark at Hockenheim in 1968. Shown on the BBC’s Sportsnight, it was intensely moving – the more so from a man whose television manner was invariably light-hearted. People were not accustomed to this face of Graham.
His voice was light and quavery, and if his affection for Clark came through in every word, beyond that there was a bewilderment felt by all Jimmy’s contemporaries: how could this have happened to him? Hill trod gently: “We don’t know what happened, but so far the indications are that it may not have been his fault…”
A month later Mike Spence, too, died in a Lotus. Called up, in the aftermath of Hockenheim, to drive one of the turbine cars at Indianapolis, he crashed in testing, whereupon Colin Chapman, already devastated by the loss of Clark, briefly retreated altogether from motor racing.
A single factory Lotus was entered for the Spanish Grand Prix, where practice began only three days after Spence’s accident. Hill qualified sixth, then picked off McLaren, Surtees and Hulme; after Rodriguez crashed, and then Amon retired from the lead, Graham went on to take as crucial a victory as any man ever scored for his team.
A fortnight later he won at Monaco, too, and by now Lotus people were beginning to see a point to the thing once more. Through the season he fought for the title with Jackie Stewart, and in Mexico clinched it as any world champion would wish, with victory in the deciding race. Not even the man who lost was too unhappy about it.
Personally I wished Hill had retired long before he did, but fans invariably feel that way when they see a man being beaten by some he would once have flicked aside. Most poignant of all was Graham’s failure in 1975 to qualify at Monaco, where he had won five times.
He would not, as it turned out, be seen in a Formula 1 car again.
That same weekend, in the F3 race, Tony Brise excelled. A couple of weeks earlier, at Montjuïch, he had made his F1 debut in a Williams, much impressing the team. In that race, too, Stommelen’s Hill crashed while in the lead, Rolf suffering injuries that would keep him out for many months: Hill, needing a driver, turned to Brise.
Truth be told I didn’t much care for Tony at first, for modesty is a quality I have always found attractive, and he seemed rather short of it. Through that season, though, he matured remarkably, not least in developing the confidence to laugh at himself. He had talent to throw away, and knew it, but he also appreciated that he was at base camp. I came to like him very much.
Even by the standards of the time Brise had clearly a traditional attitude to motor racing. I recall that he couldn’t wait to get to the Nürburgring, which meant the Nordschleife, of course. “For me,” he said, “that place is God’s gift to racing drivers…”
Although only 23, Brise had expected to make it to Formula 1 earlier than he did. “There you are,” he said, “plodding your way through Formula Ford and F3, with everyone saying you’re doing it the right way. And then someone comes along, turns in the right drive at the right time – and suddenly he’s the man of the moment, getting offers from all over the place…”
In fact, by his own admission that was how it turned out for Tony. “I came into F1 from Formula Atlantic, and I’m sure there are people who resent that, who feel they’d made it higher up the ladder than I had, yet not been given an F1 opportunity. And I can’t really blame them.”
Listening to tapes recorded with Brise is to be reminded that Grand Prix drivers once led a rather less ascetic life than now. “Last winter,” he said, “I decided that 1975 was going to be my make-or-break year. You can’t go racing forever – if you’re not successful, all you do is drag around the place, conning money from people, and generally becoming a bum. Therefore I decided to change my approach: I resolved, for example, not to go out late the night before a race – or touch a drink for 24 hours beforehand.
“I approached the whole thing much more calmly, and it all came right. I was suddenly into Formula 1, and very relieved, too, because I reckon if you’re going to make it you only have so many years in which to do it – otherwise you get known as the King of Club Racers, and that’s as far as you go…”
From the start of his F1 career, Brise’s natural pace was evident, and nor was there any doubt about his self-belief. At Zandvoort he was astonishing: prior to the start he had never driven an F1 car so much as a lap in the wet, yet before long was urgently signalling team-mate Alan Jones to move over – so he could lap him.
In the early laps of the British Grand Prix Tony dealt with such as Reutemann and Andretti, then proceeded, until problems intervened, to take a second a lap from the swarm – Fittipaldi, Pace, Scheckter, Hunt, Pryce, Lauda – which was contesting second place.
It was on the Friday at Silverstone that Hill announced he would race no more. As Spurring suggests, you were never quite sure, day to day, which Graham Hill you were going to get – witty and charming, or irascible, sometimes unspeakably rude – but on this occasion he was of course at his disarming best: it was time to concentrate on running the team – whose future, he said, would surely owe much to T Brise.
I remember Tony’s enthusiasm for Monza that September. It was his first visit, and he fell in love at once: “This place is wonderful! The two Lesmos… you can really get your teeth into them…” He qualified sixth, ahead of such as Reutemann, Hunt and Peterson, and was mortified to be put out in a multiple shunt on the second lap.
Perhaps, though, the race in which Brise made the strongest impression was the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix, run late in the year, for Formula 5000 cars. The entry, from both sides of the Atlantic, was top-drawer, the favourites being Mario Andretti and Al Unser, in Viceroy Lola-Chevrolets, and Brain Redman, in Carl Haas’s similar car. These people were not expecting to be headed by Brise, also in a Lola.
The race was run in two heats and a final, and Tony won the first, muscling by Andretti at the end of Shoreline Drive. A few days later, back in England, he was still high on the moment. When I asked how he had dared to sit it out with Andretti, he giggled. “Simple – I thought it was Unser! If I’d realised it was Mario, I probably wouldn’t have tried it…” Later in the afternoon he led the final, too, but retired near the end, leaving victory to Redman.
That autumn Brise and Hill were both full of optimism: there was a fresh contract for 1976, a new car to go with it, and Tony felt confident of winning Grands Prix before long.
“The funny thing,” he said one day, “is that, although I’m regarded as fairly brave, I was apprehensive about how life might be in F1 – after all, everything happens more quickly in these cars. I’d come to hate the way some people went racing in F3 – you’d get alongside them and they’d drive at you, try to have you off the road. In my book that has nothing to do with real motor racing – this is supposed to be a matter of skill, not lack of imagination.
“Since I’ve been in Formula 1, though, I’ve been delighted to find that the other drivers seem to think the same way – if someone outbrakes you, it’s done quickly and cleanly, and if you do it to them, they have the sense to realise they’ve lost the corner, rather than punt you off. I’m going to like this, I can tell…”
As it was, Brise would drive in only 10 Grands Prix before everything came to an end that murky November night. British motor racing lost a past world champion and also – I never doubted – one of the future.
We went to their funerals on consecutive days, Graham’s a lavish affair in St Albans Cathedral, attended by the great and good from sport and show business, Tony’s more understated by far, but to me more affecting, for this was such a young man, with all the great days of his life to come. When I think of Stefan Bellof, in the same beat I remember Tony Brise.