Nigel Roebuck

The rain masters

Wet tracks have allowed outrageously talented drivers like Moss and Villeneuve to demonstrate all their remarkable skill

If ever you needed proof that grip is the enemy of racing, last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix provided it. Ever since the first race at the Hungaroring, back in 1986, the circuit has been regarded as the dreariest in Formula 1, devoid of challenging corners, absurdly lacking in overtaking opportunities. Even the lengthening of the pit straight, some years ago, did little to address the problem: the Hungarian Grand Prix, traditionally, is a drudge.

Traditionally, too, it is run in extreme heat. Budapest in August is invariably sticky, but in 2006 something of a miracle occurred. Race day was not only cool, but also – Saints be praised – wet. And thus it was that this theatre of tedium was transformed into the venue for the most exciting grand prix of the year.

It is remembered, of course, as the race in which Jenson Button finally broke his duck, and it’s not easy now to believe that, only a year or so ago, Honda actually won a grand prix. Jenson himself would not deny that his victory owed something to luck – neither Alonso nor Schumacher nor Räikkönen was around at the end – but that should not detract from a superb drive in very treacherous conditions. And what made it the more remarkable was that Button had started 14th on the grid.

Had the day been hot and dry, as usual, Jenson might have progressed to ninth or something by the end, but, the Hungaroring being what it is, he would have found it nigh impossible to make up places, for the track is notoriously slippery off line – which is necessarily where you need to go when the driver in front is on line.

Now, though, the circuit was slippery everywhere, and when that happens all bets are off. Even with traction control, people make mistakes impossible in the dry, while others – those blessed with delicacy and flair – start to make conspicuous progress. Wet or dry, a great car is still a great car, and a poor one poor, but rain is indeed a leveller, in the sense that a car’s limit on a slippery track is defined more than usually by its driver.

Over time there have been those renowned for their prowess in the wet. In the German-dominated Thirties, Rudolf Caracciola was known as the ‘Regenmeister’ – think of the skill needed to control perfectly a 640bhp Mercedes W125 on hard and skinny tyres, on the sodden cobbles of the Berne circuit in 1937, where he was completely untouchable.

Bernd Rosemeyer, meantime, was christened the ‘Nebelmeister’ (fog master), following a superhuman display at the Nürburgring in 1936, when fog was even more of a problem than rain, and – in the wayward Auto Union – he left the rest behind. Thirty-two years on, at the same place, and in similar conditions, Jackie Stewart would win the German Grand Prix in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra – by four minutes.

An understanding housemaster allowed my father to take me to the British Grand Prix at Aintree in 1961, and there I watched the dominant ‘sharknose’ Ferraris of Wolfgang von Trips, Phil Hill and Richie Ginther finish one-two-three in nightmare conditions.

What really stuck in this schoolboy’s mind that day, though, was the unrewarded performance of a really great driver. Stirling Moss, in Rob Walker’s underpowered Lotus-Climax, gave von Trips all he could handle until the car broke, whereupon he took over the other Walker entry – the four-wheel-drive Ferguson P99 – from Jack Fairman and, once acclimatised, began lapping faster than the leaders! Given that Stirling later won the Oulton Park Gold Cup in the Ferguson, I have always wondered what might have happened had he started the British Grand Prix in that car. Moss was extraordinary in the rain. At the Nürburgring, three weeks later, he trounced the Ferraris in the German Grand Prix, only because the conditions allowed his virtuosity full rein.

A few weeks before Stewart’s unforgettable triumph at the ’Ring in 1968, there was another memorable victory in the rain. At Rouen Les Essarts, a circuit daunting even on a cloudless day, Jacky Ickx dominated the French Grand Prix for Ferrari.

Ickx was but 23 at the time of his first win, and an F1 rookie, but he was swiftly to acquire the reputation of a master craftsman in the wet – as also was Pedro Rodriguez, who may have have been raised in the dust and heat of Mexico, but invariably excelled when visibility was limited, when grip levels were low.

Rodriguez’s drive in the Porsche 917 at the 1970 BOAC 1000Kms at Brands Hatch has gone into legend. On a dreadful day, he gave an exhibition of artistry, making everyone else look clumsy and inept, and I always wished that in F1 he were driving for Lotus or Ferrari, rather than BRM.

When it rained at Zandvoort, for the 1971 Dutch Grand Prix, it was perhaps no more than inevitable that the battle for the win should be between the BRM of Rodriguez and the Ferrari of Ickx. Ordinarily, one would have expected Stewart also to figure – he had dominated a wet race at Zandvoort in ’68 – but whereas Jacky and Pedro had Firestones, JYS’s Tyrrell was on Goodyears, and at that time its rain tyres were so lamentable that Stewart could finish only 11th, lapped five times. A lesser man would have given up, thinking to save face.

On that miserable afternoon, the race between Ickx and Rodriguez was mesmeric, the two sometimes exchanging the lead more than once in the course of a single lap. At around half-distance the track began to dry out, and only then did the Ferrari begin to pull away; when it rained again, towards the end, the deft Rodriguez closed in once more, but his engine had never run cleanly throughout the race, and there was nothing he could do about Ickx. These would be Pedro’s last World Championship points, scored three weeks before his death in a meaningless Interserie race at the Norisring.

In the canon of great wet weather drivers, one thinks inevitably of Michael Schumacher, and of his quite awesome first victory for Ferrari at Barcelona in 1996. That year’s Ferrari, the F310, was not a very good car, in truth, and ordinarily Schumacher struggled to get anywhere near the Williams-Renaults, but in Spain the weather was foul, and Michael was in total command, faultless on a day when 10 of his fellows went off.

By that time, of course, Schumacher had already won two of his seven World Championships, and his superiority was well established. He had been clearly the man since the death, in 1994, of Senna – and if one of Ayrton’s victories lives in the mind like no other, it is Estoril in 1985, his first in a grand prix.

Senna in the rain we already knew about by then. Although beginning only his second season in F1, had he not, the previous year, hassled Alain Prost’s McLaren in the floods of Monaco? More to the point, he had done it at the wheel of a Toleman! Clearly, the boy was something out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t until he moved to Lotus for 1985 that he had a car that could win.

What Senna turned in at Estoril was a drive for the gods, and the tragedy was that few were on hand to see it. A combination of untypically miserable weather and high admission prices kept the crowd down to around 10,000, and so many who stayed away missed so much.

I watched the race at the first corner with Denis Jenkinson, already a confirmed Senna fan, and somehow we forgot about the rain. Jenks, cap dripping, glasses misted up, danced a jig as Ayrton took the flag. A new era was beckoning, and we both knew it.

Senna, from pole position, had taken the lead immediately, and had simply driven away from everyone. For a man in only his 17th grand prix, and in conditions unthinkable for racing today, it was a performance that beggared belief. As the likes of Rosberg, Berger, Patrese – even Prost – crashed, and one or two others simply gave up in the dreadful conditions, Ayrton kept it together for two hours. And did it, what’s more, with 1000 horsepower, and without the benefit of traction control…

“Maybe people think I made no mistakes,” he said afterwards, “but that’s not true – I’ve no idea how many times I went off! On one occasion I had all four wheels on the grass, totally out of control… but the car came back on the circuit. Everyone said, ‘Fantastic car control!’ It was just luck…” Not really. “It’s Villeneuve all over again, isn’t it?” said Jenks as we trudged back to the paddock. “Remember Watkins Glen?”

Ah yes, Gilles at the Glen. Friday, October 7, 1979, and perhaps the most stupefying single performance I ever saw in a racing car. A practice session, this, rather than a race, and again I was watching with DSJ.

It was a filthy day in upstate New York, cold and grey and wet, and the temptation was strong to leave the track at lunchtime and return to the hotel for a shower and a Scotch. We stayed, though, and it was good we did.

So awful were the conditions that only eight drivers took to the track that afternoon, and undoubtedly Michelin’s wet tyre, as used by the Ferraris, was the thing to have. Goodyear’s fastest runner, Vittorio Brambilla’s Alfa Romeo, lapped in 2min 25sec, and then Jody Scheckter, Villeneuve’s Ferrari team-mate, went round in 2min 11sec, later admitting he had scared himself rigid.

Out went Villeneuve, immediately travelling at a different sort of speed from anyone else, and soon he turned in a lap a fraction over 2min 1sec – nine and a half seconds faster than the next man.

In the pits other drivers giggled nervously every time the number 12 Ferrari skittered by. “Look at him,” murmured Jacques Laffite. “He’s different from the rest of us – on a separate level.”

Jenks just shook his head, barely able to speak. He had only felt like that once before, he said, at Monaco in 1964, when Jimmy Clark came by in the Lotus 33 with a three-second lead at the end of the first lap.

“Almost too much to take in, isn’t it?” he murmured. “Hope he wins on Sunday – it’ll be a joke if he doesn’t.”

He did.