Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– A meeting with Jim France at Goodwood
– Cheever on Prost and the pity of GP Masters
– Ronnie Peterson’s final race weekend

What a pleasure it was, in the drivers’ enclosure at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, to meet Jim France, the executive vice-president of NASCAR, and son of the legendary Bill. Quietly spoken and charming, France has long had a passion for sports car racing, and remembered with great affection its early days at Daytona, when such as Dan Gurney, Phil Hill and Pedro Rodriguez were pre-eminent.

France now runs the Grand-Am sports car series (in which Gurney’s son, Alex, is one of the stars), and brought the original Daytona prototype over to Goodwood.

“I’ve only been to Europe three times,” he said, “the first in 1962, when I went to Le Mans with my father, because one of our NASCAR drivers of the time, ‘Fireball’ Roberts, was sharing a Ferrari GTO, entered by Luigi Chinetti’s North American Racing Team, with Bob Grossman…”

Roberts, who died from burns suffered in the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte, was one of NASCAR’s earliest superstars, and quite a character. In Automobile Quarterly, Grossman, who competed many times at Le Mans, described him as, “A different kind of co-driver than I’d ever had before”, and told of an episode in practice for that race in ’62.

He was talking to Roberts about the first corner, the sweeping uphill right-hander under the old Dunlop bridge, and pointed out that if you were new to the circuit, you needed to be very brave to go through without lifting. Problem was, of course, that it was close to the pits, so if you did back off, there was no hiding place: everyone could hear it. Fireball swiftly concluded that that was unacceptable: “He got a bottle of wine,” related Grossman, “took a big gulp, and then went out and drove through the corner flat-out…”

Roberts’s talents were clearly not limited to stock car racing. Earlier that year, at Daytona, he had raced a sports car – again a Chinetti Ferrari – for the first time, and finished second in the GT class only to one S Moss. At Le Mans, he and Grossman were sixth overall.

“Of course my father is remembered for NASCAR,” said France, “but he always had a very ‘international’ attitude: he loved sports cars, too, and promoted races for them in Florida in the 1950s. When he’d built the Daytona International Speedway, at the end of the ’50s, it wasn’t very long before he put on a sports car race there. Of course, the good ol’ boys from the South didn’t qualify as ‘international’, but in ’62 my dad put on the Daytona Continental, a three-hour race, and, boy, we had some great drivers: Gurney won it, with Hill second, but Stirling Moss was there, and Ricardo Rodriguez, Olivier Gendebien, Innes Ireland… even Jimmy Clark, in a little Lotus Elite! And the first retirement, I remember, classified dead last, was A J  Foyt…”

From that point the race metamorphosed into a 2000km event, and finally, in 1966, into the Daytona 24 Hours, which has been run every year since. In the golden age of sports car racing it was won by such as Ferrari P4, Ford MkII and Porsche 917, but thereafter, as we know, endurance racing – once considered every bit as important as Formula 1 – went into decline for a long time.

In recent years there has been something of a rebirth, and France’s ambition for the 24 Hours – now named the Rolex 24 at Daytona – is a straightforward one: “We want to get it back to what it was, and I think, with the Daytona prototype, we have the right formula. We’ve concentrated on keeping the costs under control, but the car’s got a lot of horsepower, and we’ve taken a lot of downforce out of it, so it’s very much a driver’s car, as a guy like Juan Montoya will tell you. He’s won the race the last two years, and more and more top drivers are coming back – we have maybe 25 cars which can win the race outright, and every car needs three or four drivers. And Florida, you know, is not a bad place to be in January…”

It was at this point that another – louder – American voice intervened, and at the same moment I found myself in an armlock. “I want to talk to you! I saw that story in Motor Sport – ‘Warwick on Cheever’ – and I demand to do ‘Cheever on Warwick’!”

“Good morning, Eddie,” I said. “I’m delighted to see you.” And I was, for I always enjoyed Cheever’s self-deprecating humour and unusual lucidity. These days he owns a company, Coyote, which builds Grand-Am cars, and it was a British customer, he said, who had alerted him to the Warwick piece. “He called me one day, and said, ‘Are you mates with Derek?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Well, you ought to read this article…’ I did – and it was typical Derek, tough but very humorous.”

Trust me, I assured him, it was all said with affection.

“Oh, I know, I know. And I tell you what, when the GP Masters thing came up, of all the people I’d been around in racing, he was the guy I most looked forward to seeing. Of course, of the three races we did, the twit spun out of two of them…”

The professional lives of these two were very much intertwined at one period, for both drove for Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar sports car team in 1986, and the following year began a three-year stint as team-mates at Arrows.

‘Cheever on Warwick’ will appear in a forthcoming issue of Motor Sport, but that morning Eddie got himself a cup of tea, and reminisced, too, about other aspects of his career in Europe, not least his time as Renault team-mate to Prost in 1983. He admits to being in some awe of Alain to this day.

“Being in a team with him was like walking into a food processor every day – I mean, if you had a good race, the next weekend it would be hell, because he’d have made sure that he’d taken a further step forward. Jeez, it was hard to keep pace with him…”

Was Cheever suggesting that Prost had behaved in an underhand sort of way?

“No, no, not at all. But, for example, all of his engines were built by one group of mechanics, whereas my engines – and the engines for Lotus – were built by a separate group, and we kept having alternators falling off, and throttle cables coming out, and so on. He didn’t have that – and I commend him for it. I never in my life came across anyone as detail-orientated as Prost was. He was like a little general in the way he went about his job, and he was so smart: sometimes he’d put little obstacles around, and if you walked into one it would keep you busy for a couple of days, and your mind would be off somewhere else…”

Back in ’83, I remembered, Cheever had told me of his mystification at Prost’s driving style. It seemed to defy explanation, and Keke Rosberg, Alain’s team-mate at McLaren in 1986, said much the same thing. Later, at Williams, Patrick Head would speak in wonder of the post-race condition of Prost’s cars: “It was as if he didn’t really use the brakes at all…”

In 1993, Alain’s last season, his team-mate was Damon Hill, then a virtual rookie in Formula 1, and Adrian Newey pointed out that telemetry had helped Hill tremendously: “At the end of a Friday, Damon could look at his ‘traces’, and compare them with Alain’s, and of course that was enormously beneficial to him for Saturday and Sunday.”

Ten years earlier, it was a little different. “Prost,” said Cheever, “was particularly unbelievable in slow turns. This was the turbo era, of course, and at Monaco I would lose three-tenths of a second to him just in the Loews hairpin! How he made up that time on me there I have no idea – and of course there was no telemetry.

“Alain never used his front tyres! Now, how is that possible? When I drove the car the way it was set up for him, I was very uncomfortable – I couldn’t get it to turn in. He was like a magician.

“If Prost’s driving talent was a nine out of 10 – and maybe only Senna was possibly a 10 – I think his ability to take advantage of political situations, and to prepare himself for something that was going to happen six months down the road, was maybe 12 out of 10! He had an uncanny ability to see what was going to happen inside a team, and to position himself for when it did…

“You know, it wasn’t until I’d gone to Indy, and run the 500 two or three times, that I started to understand how Alain had operated. In a stint at Indy, if the car wasn’t handling well, you just had to hold on, and then start working towards a set-up goal at the end of the stint. Prost was phenomenal at getting a car to work properly.”

Were you demoralised by him, I asked?

“Er, yes! But I had complete admiration for him – I was confounded by how he could do certain things with the race car, and over the whole length of a race. Without a shadow of doubt, Alain was by a long way the best driver I ever worked with, or was in a team with – and he was such great fun afterwards, that was the thing. I thought he was a really great guy, but when it came down to what we should be doing, as a team, I didn’t have a role to play in that. Renault had built two cars, and my job was to fill that second spot.

“At Hockenheim that year I was asked to go to a meeting and sign a new contract, but my wife had recently been very sick, and I took her to that race, and was spending time with her – and also I just did not want to do the number two thing again, quite honestly – so I didn’t go to the meeting. Of course, no one could have predicted then that at the end of the year Renault would fire Prost, for an extra-curricular thing, so maybe I did just the wrong thing. Still, too late to worry about it now, isn’t it?”

*****

The Grand Prix driver, as we know, is a highly competitive animal, and that doesn’t stop when he retires – or thinks he has. That much was reinforced in my mind three years ago when I went up to Silverstone one day to watch the inaugural test for the forthcoming GP Masters series.

The notion was to create a sort of ‘Seniors’ Tour’ for racing drivers, and when the helmets came off at the lunch break you couldn’t help but notice that there was plenty of grey hair in evidence – and also, in some cases but not all, overalls cut rather more generously than their wearers had once required.

Still, these were pretty serious racing cars they were driving, in effect 1999 Reynard CART chassis, powered by Nicholson-prepared 3.4-litre normally-aspirated versions of the Cosworth XB V8, giving upwards of 600bhp.

On hand were such as Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Patrick Tambay, Riccardo Patrese, Derek Warwick, Stefan Johansson, Andrea de Cesaris and Hans-Joachim Stuck. There was something of an old boys’ reunion feel about the day, with a lot of people very happy again to be with former colleagues they hadn’t seen in a long time. And happy, too, to be driving a racing car once more.

If the atmosphere was light, however, what couldn’t be disguised was the abiding competitiveness that had made these people F1 drivers in the first place. “How’s your neck, Riccardo?” I enquired of Patrese afterwards. “Fine!” he said, then, “Er, what are the other guys saying?” And of course they were saying pretty much the same thing. Probably the next morning it would have been painful for every one of them to lift, let alone turn, their heads, but there was no way any would admit to such a thing.

There were always doubts about GP Masters, it must be said –suggestions that it was insufficiently funded, and so on – and some drivers confided that they had their doubts they would ever actually race these cars. That proved wide of the mark – in fact, three races would be run, at Kyalami in 2005, Qatar and Silverstone in ’06. But in the end, after endless events had been announced, then postponed, then cancelled, the whole thing petered out, and I, for one, was rather sorry.

So, for that matter, was Cheever, who won the last race, at Silverstone. “The series didn’t last long,” he said, “but it was very enjoyable while it did.

“When we got together for the first race, at Kyalami, we did this TV show, and by the end of it Derek and Nigel and Emerson were saying, ‘This is the real Formula 1 – these are the real cars…’ I felt like going under the table, and saying, ‘Don’t you realise we’re a bunch of old men – and you’re comparing yourselves with Michael Schumacher?!’

“It was fun, seeing everybody getting so revved up about it, and soon it went right back to where it had been! I thought it was just going to be a jolly good time in Kyalami, but after 10 minutes of driving the car I was out of breath. Emerson, meanwhile, had spent the last six months training – here he was, fit as a rail, new, young wife…

“As for Derek, by the time we got to Qatar, he was exactly the same as before – it was like I’d never left Arrows! He’s all growly in the morning, and glaring at everybody… It was great stuff, a jolt of youth, if you like.

“The thing is, here you were, racing against the same people you had raced against 20 years earlier. And after the cobwebs had been shaken off, it was as if we were all racing in a Grand Prix again! When I was talking to Mansell on his own, it was just Nigel and me, but as soon as anyone else came into the room, the ‘we’ thing came out again – you know, ‘We are not happy with the car…’ What the hell’s that all about? Does anyone know?”

That first race, at Kyalami, produced an amazing fight between Mansell and Fittipaldi. “I know,” said Cheever, “that a lot of the drivers believed that Mansell had better equipment than anyone else, but actually I didn’t. He and Emerson were just committed – it was a question of honour, and when you looked at the speed going into corners… Nigel was on the gas. OK, probably he’d done more testing than anyone else – but then Emerson turned up with a game plan! I know everyone thought that race was staged – but, trust me, it was not staged!

“We get to Kyalami, and here’s Emerson, who’s been on a macrobiotic diet, or whatever, and, OK, his face has aged, but he’s like a whippet! He didn’t go there, thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be fun, being with my mates again’. No, it was, ‘I’m going to win this race – now how can I get more laps in?’ Everyone was angry that this 60-year-old man was doing more laps than anyone else – but I completely took my hat off to him.

“I was astonished that Emerson could still drive that well, that fast. Mind you, he was a conniving bastard in Kyalami – I mean, he played the Emerson card perfectly! He tested for two days beforehand, because he kept telling them, ‘My wife doesn’t want me to race – I don’t know if I can. Let me do another day, and I’ll make a decision’. So he kept getting laps and laps – and the rest of us hadn’t done anything! The morning before we had to qualify, Emerson said he still wasn’t sure – ‘OK, well, give him another set of tyres’. And he, in his mind, was lining everything up.

“You have to understand that many of us hadn’t driven at all since we quit. My God, Jones came to the second day of practice, and his head was over at 45 degrees – I mean, for two weeks he could not lift his neck up.

“Now Jones is an animal, right? Jones is not a human being. Remember him at Las Vegas in ’81, when he was team-mate to Reutemann, who I always thought was one of the fastest drivers I ever saw. But that track was the wrong way round, if you remember – anti-clockwise – and Carlos’s head was just leaning against the cockpit side. Alan’s head never moved.

“After Kyalami I went away and trained for two months – three hours a day – because I was so embarrassed by how badly I’d done. When we got to Qatar, everything had been bumped up by five levels – except that Jones never got in the car again. He was very straight about it, though – I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Alan.”

At the final race, Silverstone, Cheever won consummately in the rain, making no mistakes when many of his rivals flew off the road. “It would have been a great race if Mansell hadn’t spun. He said that ‘the diff broke’, but… I’m not really a technician, but I’m not quite sure how the diff broke, and he was still driving…

“It was slippery as hell that day, and the tyres were terrible, but if you put what we were trying to do in perspective, it was good fun. Actually, I was disappointed that Mansell spun – I’d like to have taken him on. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t anger some place in my head that I hadn’t had the right cars at the right time in F1, and all that stuff. So it was great to get in the same car everyone else had, and to have no team managers to worry about.

“It was a pity that GP Masters didn’t keep going – everyone got a bit carried away at the beginning, and I think the big mistake Scott Poulter made was not going to Bernie with it in the first place, and saying, ‘Here it is. Tell me what bit of it you think I can do well, and let me do it, and then you do the rest’. Bernie likes Emerson, he likes Riccardo, he’s fond of the drivers, and I think he might have found a place for it, but it wasn’t to be. Pity…”

*****

It’s 30 years since we lost Ronnie, and when I think back now to Monza, that weekend of the Italian Grand Prix has almost a ghostly quality, some details inevitably gone for ever, others still vivid in my mind.

A few days before leaving for that race, I had agreed with Mario Andretti that we would do a book on what was almost certainly going to be his World Championship season, and therefore spent an unusual amount of time over the Monza weekend in the JPS Team Lotus motorhome, in those days nothing more than a glorified Winnebago.

At different times Mario and I discussed ideas for the book, but although he was unfailingly good-humoured there was a touch of weariness about him, and that was hardly surprising. Getting back to Pennsylvania after each race was a religion to him, and while his beloved Concorde eased the pain, it wasn’t as though he was going home for a break until the next Grand Prix, for, unfathomable as it may seem today, Mario was also committed to as many USAC Championship (Indycar) races as the F1 schedule permitted. When he arrived at Monza in early September, already he had raced 15 times for Colin Chapman, half a dozen for Roger Penske.

After practice on the Friday he talked about that. “After this, we’ve got the Glen and Montréal – but I only remembered last night that I’m committed to Michigan and Trenton before them, and Phoenix afterwards. Dee Ann thinks I’m nuts…”

His wife, sitting across from him in the motorhome, smiled in a resigned sort of way, and Peterson said he was with her: “You are nuts! When are you going to leave those ovals alone?”

“I’m 38,” replied Andretti, “and I’m not going to do this commuting thing forever. Gotta have something to go back to…”

His mood was light, for he and the Lotus 79 had been fastest that day, but Peterson’s car had blown up in the morning, which had meant falling back on the old 78 for the afternoon. If he was fazed by it, he didn’t show it too much, but then that was Ronnie.

Twenty-four hours on, Andretti had made sure of pole position, and was back in the motorhome, being interviewed by an American lady from a news magazine. What, she wanted to know, did he think of Jimmy Carter, then the President of the United States? Mario, not exactly a natural Democrat, rather stunned her with the directness of his reply, and then in came Ronnie: “Has anyone seen my sunglasses? Lightly tinted Ray-Bans…”

Nobody had, so he forgot about them, and I asked him about his day, which had not been good. In the morning he had had his 79 back, and the fresh engine was fine, but clutch and rear brake problems had hampered him all day, and he had slipped from second-fastest to fifth.

“As well as everything else, this lizard had somehow got into the car! I kept trying to reach it, to put it out, but it kept getting away from me – it was still there at the end of qualifying…”

After the American girl had left, conversation turned to the problems of just being at Monza. Members of his Swedish fan club, Ronnie said, had a competition every year and the winners got to come to the Italian Grand Prix, to be shown around the paddock by their hero. “But this time,” he said, disgustedly, “I can’t get any passes for them.”

“Tell me about it,” said Andretti. “I tried to get a couple from Ecclestone – Colin tried first, but didn’t get anywhere, and I finally got one. The race is incidental in this place – what wears you out is getting a goddam pass! I go to Forest Hills, and Jimmy Connors snaps his fingers, and there’s a box for me. Here I can’t get my own family in…”

When Chapman told Andretti that Peterson would be his team-mate for 1978, initially Mario had not welcomed the idea: “Tell me where it’s written we need two stars in this team”. By and by, though, it ceased to be a problem, and in their few months of working together, their friendship became as firm as any I have known between drivers. Andretti admitted that he had reckoned without Ronnie’s absolute honesty: “Something, let’s face it, you don’t encounter too often in this business…”

Undeniably, though, there was a certain tension at Monza. It wasn’t that they were niggly with each other, or anything of the kind, more probably that each was preoccupied with thoughts of the race: one of them, after all, was going to be World Champion, and if the odds favoured Andretti, 12 points clear, nothing was set in stone. Apart from anything else, the Grand Prix car of 30 years ago was hardly the paragon of reliability we know today.

On race morning Andretti was at the track early, having driven with his wife down from Villa d’Este, his hotel by Lake Como, in a Corniche loaned by the Rolls-Royce agent in Milan. Peterson, on the other hand, was alone at Monza, for Barbro, recently unwell, had decided to stay at their apartment in Monte Carlo. Four years later, in exactly similar circumstances, Joann Villeneuve would do the same over the weekend of Zolder.

In the morning warm-up, Andretti was again serenely free of problems, but Peterson had a big accident at the first chicane when his rear brakes – the source of so much trouble the day before – failed completely, and the 79 flattened four rows of catch fencing before coming to rest against a tree.

Somehow Ronnie escaped with only bruised legs, but for the race he would have to revert to the 78 once more. It wasn’t the end of the world, Mario said, pointing out that he had won in a 78 the year before, and Ronnie allowed that the car had indeed felt pretty good on the Friday. He thought it capable of dealing with all but the 79.

They didn’t talk much after that, the tension still there. In those days the Italian Grand Prix didn’t start until 3.30, and there were four hours to while away. When Chapman came in to talk to Peterson about the morning shunt, I took my cue, and left for the press room.

By the time I went back to the Lotus motorhome, eight or so hours later, the world had changed. Andretti and Gilles Villeneuve, having qualified 1-2, had finished that way in the race, with no one near them, but in the late laps it had been announced that each was to receive a one-minute penalty for jumping the start, and thus the Brabham-Alfas of Niki Lauda and John Watson inherited first and second places. Chapman duly put in an official protest, but no one seemed to care too much.

“I felt it was a totally unjust penalty,” said Andretti, “and in normal circumstances I swear to God I’d have turned Italy upside down the next day, but with Ronnie’s accident I couldn’t have cared less about anything else…”

The accident had occurred within seconds of the start, and involved 10 cars. Peterson’s Lotus, which had made a poor start, was pitched left-to-right across the road, head on into a guardrail, and erupted into fire on impact. At once the race was stopped, but it was left to three drivers – James Hunt, Clay Regazzoni, Patrick Depailler – bravely to free Ronnie from the remains of his car. After that, it seemed an eternity before, conscious and rational, he was taken off to the Niguarda Hospital in Milan.

At first it seemed like a miraculous deliverance, for although the drivers were incensed that medical help had been so long in arriving, the word was that Peterson’s injuries were confined to fractures in his legs. At that stage there was greater concern for Vittorio Brambilla, unconscious after receiving a huge blow to the head, probably from one of his own wheels.

Two hours passed before the race, now shortened from 52 laps to 40, was restarted. By the time it finished, seven o’clock was approaching, and in no time at all the paddock was inky black, a nightmare for the mechanics as they packed up and tried to keep everything from the tifosi who had broken in and were scavenging for souvenirs.

It was a surreal scene, and a scary one, too, with police everywhere, waving batons, struggling to control edgy Alsatians. Most team personnel had long since left, but the lights of the Lotus motorhome still burned.

Outside was the clamour of noisy fans; inside no one could settle to any kind of mood. Andretti, still in his white Simpson overalls, was slumped in a chair, hollow-eyed, smoking one of his rare cigarettes. On a shelf at his side were bottles of champagne, unopened. He had clinched the World Championship, achieved his life’s ambition, yet hardly felt inclined to celebrate. Folk drifted in and out, offering congratulations, and he accepted them with a half-hearted smile, but there was a sense of suffocating poignancy as we sat around, making desultory conversation. The late lamented Bernard Cahier, I remember, kept telling Mario that Ronnie would be fine, that he should open the Moet, and raise a glass to his friend.

Then the phone rang. It was Sid Watkins at the hospital in Milan, and Andretti jumped up to take the call, returning a couple of minutes later, relieved beyond measure. “Ronnie’s going to be OK! The professor says his legs are bad, and maybe he’ll miss the start of next season, but all his vital signs are good. Thank God...”

Now it seemed right and proper to open the fizz, and Mario indeed toasted the recovery of his wounded buddy. After a couple of glasses, for me it was back to the press room, to my race report. A long night beckoned.

Or a short one. Next morning I was up at about five, and drove to Linate for my flight back to London. Everyone was pretty sleepy on the aeroplane, but conversation picked up as we waited for our bags. I collected mine, walked through customs, and on the other side ran into Colin Dryden, of The Daily Telegraph. He had just called his office, and he looked shocked: “Ronnie’s died…”

But how – he only had leg injuries – could that be possible?

An embolism, apparently. During the night, following an operation to reset Peterson’s legs, bone marrow had escaped into his bloodstream, and simply stopped his heart.

At the Villa d’Este Andretti took an early morning call from Emerson Fittipaldi. “He said there was a problem with Ronnie, that things didn’t look so good. Dee Ann and I went to the hospital, and a friend of Ronnie’s met us there, suggesting we didn’t even get out of the car, because of all the journalists and crowds. He told us Ronnie had just died. I drove on down the road a little way, and then stopped. What was there to say? I just wanted to get out of Italy, get as far away from it as possible, go home, but I knew I’d be hounded by the press over there, so we tried to lose ourselves in Florence for a couple of days.”

By the end of the week, though, Andretti was back in the States, and at the weekend duly raced his Penske at Michigan. Seven days after that, at Trenton, he won.

“In the weeks following,” said Mario, “I thought a lot about Monza. At Zandvoort I’d been very uptight, worrying that the championship was going to slip away, but the race went well, and at Monza I was more relaxed again. Ronnie, on the other hand, was more uptight than I’d ever seen him. Before every other race he and I used to level with each other, talking and planning, but at Monza we never did that – never even wished each other good luck or shook hands, which we’d always done before.

“Exactly what was happening there between us, I don’t know. I guess he was a little uptight about his position, and I was about mine. It was nothing bad, just something of the moment, but it bothered me at the time, and it did afterwards. The guy was so different that day, and the outcome was so disastrous. Just like there was something in the air…”

Andretti was the second American to win the World Championship. Seventeen years earlier, Phil Hill had clinched the title at Monza, and that same day Wolfgang von Trips, his team-mate, and only championship rival, lost his life. Coincidence can be a disquieting thing.