Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Moss and Jenks’s record average speed run
– An F1 deal, Schuey, and a pain in the neck…
– Reasons for BMW to follow Honda out of F1

’ll tell you something amazing,” said Stirling Moss. “Well, I thought it was amazing, anyway – for some reason I only realised the other week, and it absolutely staggered me…”

We were chatting about May 1, 1955, which many regard as Stirling’s day of days. His victory in the Mille Miglia, with Denis Jenkinson sitting alongside him in the Mercedes 300SLR, long ago went into motor racing legend, and who knows how many times I have read Jenks’s account of the race?

It makes me shiver still to think of the circumstances in which DSJ dispatched the most celebrated piece of racing journalism ever written. It had – of course – been written longhand, rather than typed, and he simply assembled the pages, made sure they were correctly numbered, and put them in an envelope, which he shoved into a postbox in some tiny Italian hamlet. “Did you have any sort of copy?” I asked him. He looked at me quizzically. “How d’you mean?” he said.

Moss and Jenkinson averaged just short of 98mph in the course of their 1000 miles over public roads more than half a century ago, a fact that, as I told Stirling, I have always found difficult to take in. It was then that he said he had something ‘amazing’ to tell me.

The very last leg of the Mille Miglia ran from Cremona to Brescia, a distance of 134kms – a little over 83 miles. There was a special prize – the Nuvolari Cup – for the fastest average over this section, and Jenks wrote of it thus: ‘Although the road lay straight for most of the way, there were more than six villages to traverse, as well as the final route card stamp to get in the town of Mantova.

‘In one village, less than 50 miles from the finish, we had an enormous slide on some melted tar, and for a moment I thought we would hit a concrete wall, but with that absurdly calm manner of his Moss tweaked the wheel this way and that, and caught the car just in time, and with his foot down hard we went on our way as if nothing had happened. The final miles into Brescia were sheer joy, the engine was singing round on full power, and after we had passed our final direction indication I put my roller map away and thought, “If it blows to pieces now we can carry it the rest of the way”.

‘The last corner into the finishing area was taken in a long slide, with the power and noise full on, and we crossed the finishing line at well over 100mph, still not knowing we had made motor racing history, but happy and contented at having completed the whole race and done our best.’

They had indeed. They had won what would be the fastest Mille Miglia ever run – and, to boot, the Nuvolari Cup.

“This is what I thought was so amazing when I found out the other day,” said Moss. “We did the last 83-mile section in 30 minutes and 54 seconds – that’s an average of 161.6mph!”

Ye Gods, no wonder Jenks described the final miles as ‘sheer joy’. For the record, the fastest ever qualifying lap for a World Championship Grand Prix, recorded by Juan Pablo Montoya’s Williams-BMW at Monza in 2002, was 161.4mph.

“I remember,” said Stirling, “that at one point we overtook a twin-engined plane – and now I’m not surprised! Bloody quick, wasn’t it?”

Wasn’t it, though? And I thought of Jenks, exhilarated but calm, sitting there, watching Moss at his work, travelling at this other-worldly speed. No seat belts, of course, no rollover bars. “I had a little grab handle to get hold of sometimes,” he told me.

For the rest of his life Jenks’s victory medal was on display in his house, wedged – typically – between a couple of nails tacked into the wall.

Moss was immensely fond of Motor Sport’s ‘Continental Correspondent’. “I can’t remember exactly where and when I met him, but I can remember how. I was running a 500 – either a Cooper or Kieft – in those days, and Jenks would be at some of the same meetings. I think he was still competing on bikes – in fact, at that time I remember him more as a racer than a writer.

“From the start Jenks struck me as fairly weird – I mean that in the nicest possible way, but some of his personal habits took a bit of getting used to, let’s put it that way!

“He had a very dry sense of humour, and his evaluation of people was always pretty good, I thought. If he came up to you after a race, and said you’d done a good job, that was the highest praise you could get from anybody. There might have been journalists who worked for big newspapers, and so on, but they weren’t specialist press people, and none of them came anywhere near Jenks. If he praised you, boy, it was like getting an endorsement from the headmaster!

“I remember his reports in Motor Sport – fortunately in those days my eyesight was good, because quite often his stories would finish in an absolutely minute typeface. I don’t think they cut his stuff, did they?”

No, Stirling, I said – no one would have been brave enough even to suggest it, let alone go through with it.

Once he had got to know Jenks, what, I wondered, had led him to conclude that here was the man to have alongside him in the Mille Miglia?

“Well, first of all Jenks obviously enjoyed speed – I mean, he was addicted to it. I remember when we were at the start of the Florence to Bologna section – which takes in the Futa pass, and which I wanted to do in one hour – I started my stopwatch, and Jenks rubbed his hands in anticipation.

It was sort of ‘Now we’re going to go!’ – and I’d been trying like hell all the way! Typical Jenks…

“The thing was, he obviously had enough faith in me that he could relax and take in everything I was trying to do. When we were talking about doing the race together, I remember saying to him, ‘Would you come with me in an MG?’, and he said no way. I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because I can drive an MG! I couldn’t drive the 300SLR properly – that’s why I want to watch you, and see what you do…’”

At one point in his journal, Jenks described a moment early in the race. ‘Entering the main street of Padova at 150mph, we braked for the right-angle bend at the end, and suddenly I realised that Moss was beginning to work furiously on the steering-wheel, for we were arriving at the corner much too fast, and it seemed doubtful whether we could stop in time. I sat fascinated, watching Moss working away to keep control, and I was so intrigued to follow his every action, and live every inch of the way with him, that I completely forgot to be scared.’

Ultimately Stirling’s genius got them through with nothing more than a light bump into the straw bales, and they continued on their way.

“Jenks always seemed to me to be fairly fearless, I must say. The following year, in the Maserati, we had a huge accident in the rain – over a stone wall, into an earth bank, under a barbed-wire fence, God knows what, and finally into the only tree around, which stopped us going down a ravine!

“We clambered out, and later I found I had a tiny cut just below my right eye. I also discovered that the glass of my watch and the lens of my goggles had been scratched, together with the car’s windscreen – obviously that had all been done by the barbed wire, so we’d been incredibly lucky. It really could have been very serious…

“Jenks was pretty fearless, without a doubt – I mean, he’d been in the sidecar, riding with Eric Oliver, which I’d have thought must have been pretty scary. All right, he was with the best rider, and they won the World Championship, but, Christ, think of hanging out of one of those things at somewhere like Spa!

“The thing is, Jenks had confidence in Oliver, as I hope he did in me. And I think if you’ve got that confidence, there are no boundaries, quite honestly.”

In the course of working together on three Mille Miglias, Moss and Jenkinson spent a good deal of time in each other’s company, and this inevitably strengthened their friendship.

Yes, there was race day, but also several ‘recces’.

“It would take two days to do one lap,” said Stirling, “and of course the roads weren’t closed then, so 500 miles a day was working very hard. I forget how many laps we did, but it was quite a few. We’d stop for lunch, and stay somewhere overnight, talk over dinner, and so on, and Jenks had an incredible fund of knowledge – about racing, of course, but all sorts of other things, too.

“In the car he gave me great confidence – I had complete faith in him. We didn’t have the ‘roller map’, with all the route and notes on it, for practice – I’m pretty sure we used it for the first time in the race itself. I had the actual box made somewhere in Kent, but Jenks did all those notes on his own, and wrote them out on the ‘toilet roll’ as we called it. That was a lot of work. I’d done the Mille Miglia before, in a C-type Jag, but we realised that of course there was no way either of us were going to ‘learn the circuit’, so it was absolutely invaluable.”

The idea for the roller map had come from John Fitch, who was to drive a factory 300SL in the race, and had asked Jenks to go with him. Fitch, according to Moss, was very reasonable about it when Stirling asked Jenks to go with him instead. “I think the idea of going in an SLR was a lot more exciting to him than going in an SL,” he said, being far too modest to point out that more exciting, too, was the prospect of accompanying a driver who could win.

The only shortcoming of the roller map – and an unavoidable one – was that marker stones, noted by Jenks as reference points for braking and so on, were not always a lot of use on race day. “That was because they’d often be hidden by people standing in front of them, or sitting on them. When you’ve got people standing at the sides of the road, it’s like a wall 5ft 9 high, so you quite often couldn’t see the apex of a corner, for example, and that’s why the technique of driving in the Mille Miglia was completely different from driving in a normal race. It was pretty unnerving to drive in those circumstances, I must say, because quite often the spectators would crowd in to a point that the road wasn’t much wider than the car. I used to jiggle the wheel left and right to get them to move back a bit…”

In December 1996 we said our farewells to Jenks, and in a manner of which he would thoroughly have approved. At his own request – nay, instruction! – the funeral service contained ‘no religious content whatever’, and in conducting it, Canon Lionel Webber, Chaplain to the British Racing Drivers’ Club, while acceding to Jenks’s wishes, yet achieved a balance of affection and serenity which moved many of us to tears.

Canon Webber knew Jenks well. “I’m sure,” he said in his address, “that he’s up there now, with all his old pals – Ayrton and Gilles and Jimmy – and having an argument with God about whether He exists or not…”

On a necessarily sad but pleasingly light-hearted occasion others, including Moss and Tony Brooks, also paid affectionate tribute, and, as I reminded him the other day, Stirling couldn’t resist making mention of DSJ’s sometimes curious sartorial tastes, notably the ‘Colorado Beetle’ socks.

“That was my doing, actually. Quite often, you know, Jenks didn’t have socks on – and this was long before it was fashionable! Anyway, somewhere in Italy I saw these extraordinary socks for sale – they had black and yellow stripes, and I thought, ‘Those were made for Jenks’. I bought them for him, and he loved them – problem was, of course, that he’d never take them off to wash them!

“It was very difficult to understand how his mind worked sometimes, and the thing about Jenks was that all the stories about him – like Alan Henry and the poached egg – were true!”

Ah yes, Alan Henry and the poached egg. The tale has been told many times, but perhaps bears repetition. Early one morning long ago my friend arrived at Jenks’s house in a Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, the plan being that they would spend the day thrashing around in this creation on loan from Maranello Concessionaires.

“Want some breakfast?” AH said yes, that would be nice, and Jenks set to poaching a couple of eggs. When they were done, one was slid on to a plate and handed to the visitor, while the other was flipped on to the draining board, whereupon the chef began to eat.

Henry, taken aback by this development, cautiously asked Jenks why he wasn’t using a plate. “You’ve got it,” came the answer.

Similarly, I once questioned the siting of a Daimler V8 engine in Jenks’s bedroom – at the foot of his bed, in point of fact. He looked askance: “Well, there’s no room for it in the sitting-room.” Ah, of course…

Stirling roared with laughter. “Yes, he’d look at you as if you were asking a bit of a stupid question! I mean, isn’t it obvious? All those stories were funny to us, but they wouldn’t have been to him because he’d just think it was normal and logical. That’s the mark of a true eccentric, isn’t it? And Jenks was certainly that – boy, did they break the mould when they made him. He really believed that he was living in the normal way – and the rest of us weren’t! I think he thought the rest of the human race was a bit odd.

“Wonderful bloke, though, wasn’t he? Never met anyone like him…”

*****

On the night of July 31 Max Mosley, on behalf of the FIA, signed the 2009 Concorde Agreement, which document already bore signatures from the Formula One Teams Association and from CVC Capital Partners. That being so, the most turbulent and vindictive period of Formula 1 politicking on record was mercifully – at least for the time being – put to rest.

It was back in April 1981, at the end of the FISA-FOCA War, that the first Concorde Agreement was drawn up. Announced as ‘a working document, under which Formula 1 is run’, it has since its inception been cloaked in secrecy of masonic proportions, its contents known only to F1’s inner circle.

Happily, though, 30 years ago the era of spin and stealth had yet to descend, and not all team owners were control freaks. I called Morris Nunn, the proprietor of Ensign, to talk about this new epistle of peace, and he began reading out chunks of it. “What d’you suppose they mean by that?” he said at one point.

I couldn’t help, I said – I wasn’t a team owner, and therefore not privy to the contents of the Concorde Agreement. “Well, I’ll send a copy down to you,” Mo suggested, and I said I thought that a fine idea. Over time the document has gone through many incarnations and updates, making my original copy perhaps almost meaningless now, but its essential aims have remained largely unchanged.

Among the leading architects of the original Concorde was M Mosley, then of course – as Bernie Ecclestone’s legal apparatchik – working very much in the interests of the teams, rather than the governing body. For the last 20 years it has been one of life’s little ironies that Max, now lord of all he surveyed at the Place de la… that’s right, Concorde, has frequently found himself hamstrung by the very document he created. Following the expiry of the last one (at the end of 2007), he was of course freed to trample where he wished, and look at the fun we have all had in that period.

The new Concorde Agreement appears to go quite a way towards achieving the aims of FOTA, for henceforth the teams will have considerably more control over the rules, and the power of the FIA president – be it Ari Vatanen or, deep breath, Jean Todt who succeeds Mosley in October – will at last be subject to at least some restriction. No longer, with any luck, will the teams have numbingly expensive and utterly useless ‘innovations’ such as KERS dropped upon them at the whim of one man. In the end, it was the budget cap that proved to be Max’s ‘poll tax’.

On the debit side, FOTA was unsuccessful in its aspiration to shape the World Championship calendar, to introduce venues (not least in North America) attractive to them and their sponsors, and to dispense with those not so; their wish had also been to reduce the cost of a race to a promoter, thus enabling ticket prices to be cut.

In F1 altruism has always been a tricky putt to sink, and this was clearly a step too far for the gentlemen of CVC. There will be some concessions, notably the return of the Canadian Grand Prix in 2010, and Bernie Ecclestone has spoken of a race ‘somewhere in the US’ the year after. But for now, at least, we remain stuck with the proliferation of top-dollar, bottom-rank ‘white elephants’ in the Far East – while at the same time rumours abound of running a Grand Prix at Spa one year, at the Nürburgring the next. Europe? Where’s that?

The thought of an appealing schedule was one of the reasons why I, and so many others, were exhilarated at Silverstone to learn that FOTA appeared firmly to have taken the decision to go it alone, to run its own championship. Ah well…

If political wrangling and screaming have for the time being subsided, still it has been anything but a quiet period in F1, and perhaps the highest point in the decibel range was achieved by Nelson Piquet, sacked by Renault – finally – after the Hungarian Grand Prix. Assuredly it may be said that Piquet’s verbal attack on Flavio Briatore has attracted more ink than anything he has ever done in a racing car.

Moving on to serious matters, the freak circumstances of Felipe Massa’s accident at the Hungaroring – uncannily similar to those which cost the life of Henry Surtees only six days earlier – prompted the announcement of an FIA inquiry into accidents of this kind. I have to say, though, that in this instance it’s not easy to see what, save further work on wheel-tethers and helmet visors, can be done.

There has been talk of introducing full rollcages on single-seaters, but such things are not without risk in themselves, for they necessarily make it more difficult to get out of a car quickly, should the need arise, and would inevitably hamper the efforts of marshals and medical personnel to help an injured driver.

While incidents of this kind essentially come under the heading of ‘Act of God’, it does not mean that they shouldn’t be studied. I trust, though, that there will not be a knee-jerk reaction from the FIA, such as was evident in its stewards’ decision to impose a one-race ban on Renault following the loss of a wheel from Fernando Alonso’s car in Budapest.

Yes, it’s true that Alonso’s pitstop was botched, that his right-front wheel wasn’t properly attached, and that ‘human error’ was responsible, but in this ‘culpability culture’ which now infects motor racing like everything else in life, where the hell are we to finish up? People – even FIA stewards – are fallible: they have always made mistakes, and they always will. In recent years, after decades of looking the other way, the stewards have become obsessively punitive, dishing out penalties for ‘offences’ – like trying to overtake – which never used to exist. Bit like everyday life in the UK, really.

In Singapore last year Massa, leading the race, was given the signal to leave his pit before the refuelling hose had been disconnected, and as he set off the thing flailed around like a mad serpent, slightly injuring a couple of mechanics.

Massa was duly given a drive-through, but such a penalty wasn’t feasible for Alonso, for although he duly got his three-wheeler back to the pits, it was retired shortly thereafter.

Thus the stewards deliberated, and then decreed that Renault should be banned from the next race. Smart thinking, boys. Apart from the fundamental absurdity of carrying over a penalty from one race to another, what was the next race on the calendar? Valencia. And where’s that? In Spain. Who drives for Renault? Alonso. How many spectators would go to the race if Fernando hadn’t been there? Er, not many… Renault of course put in an appeal, which was heard in Paris just ahead of the European Grand Prix. Common sense prevailed for once, thus keeping Valencia from being like a ghost town.

Alonso, the first truly great Spanish driver, has transformed the level of interest in F1 in his homeland, but even without him the race in Valencia could – could – anyway have been the most hyped in recent memory, for Michael Schumacher was due to stand in for Massa in Ferrari No 3. It was going to be the story of the year, a piece of gratifying news at last in what has been an immensely troubled summer for F1.

Schumacher has so far not completely discounted the possibility of driving in subsequent races, but on August 10 he regretfully informed Luca di Montezemolo that he certainly wouldn’t be able to drive at Valencia.

From the outset Michael had stressed that his return was dependent on his health, and while his overall fitness remains exceptional, there were concerns about his neck, which he had injured during a German Superbike test in February.

Although precluded by the rules from testing the latest Ferrari F60, Michael did have a run in a 2007 car, equipped with slicks from GP2. On the face of it, all was well afterwards, but in reality it was clear that his neck – in which several small bones had been broken – was going to be a problem, and possibly an insurmountable one. “Medically and therapeutically,” he said, “we tried everything possible, but unfortunately the consequences of my accident have turned out to be too severe still, and we didn’t manage to get a grip on the neck pain I had after the test…”

As soon as it had become clear that Massa was out of danger, there was intense speculation as to who would drive during his convalescence. Briefly the suggestion was that Alonso – widely expected to drive for the team in 2010 – might bring forward his move from Renault, but a more straightforward solution seemed to be at hand. Although Willi Weber was adamant that a Schumacher comeback was out of the question, once di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali had sat down with him, Michael readily agreed.

In so many ways, it made sense. For one thing, he had remained on the Ferrari payroll – to the tune of $10 million a year – since retiring at the end of 2006; for another, he is a close friend of Massa; for another yet, he never could resist a challenge. Not long ago Robert Kubica organised a charity karting event in which several current F1 drivers took part: Schumacher, 40 years old or not, beat the lot of them.

Would he have been quick? In normal health, of course he would. Bernie Ecclestone was not alone in believing Michael could have added to that 91-victory tally – and maybe there is still time for that. In light of recent developments, it would surprise me now to see Schumacher race an F1 car again, but you never know.

When it seemed as though Michael’s return truly was for real, I found myself particularly intrigued by two aspects: would his presence galvanise Räikkönen – and would he, in this era, fall foul of over-zealous FIA stewards? Whenever threatened on the race track, after all, Schumacher was renowned for offering his rival – even his own brother – the choice between backing off or being ushered off the road. Unfathomably, for countless years his unsubtle behaviour went unpunished, but these days nanny is firmly in charge.

I doubt, frankly, that Schumacher’s presence would have had any outward effect on Räikkönen, because nothing does. Kimi may have nicked the World Championship in 2007, but in the course of nearly three years with Ferrari he has rarely looked anything like the driver he was at McLaren, and one has had the impression of a sublime natural talent fallen into disuse. Massa, not Räikkönen, has been the de facto team leader, and it is no surprise that the Ferrari hierarchy wish to have Alonso aboard as soon as possible.

Schumacher’s temporary return would have given F1 a consummate lift, and when it was announced that he would not, after all, be coming back all the air went out of the balloon. One wonders how many fans, entranced by the thought of seeing Michael race again, rushed out to buy tickets for Valencia – and particularly Spa, so close to his home town of Kerpen.
A huge number, by all accounts, and it’s just possible that for them Luca Badoer, who last raced an F1 car 10 years ago, won’t take up the slack.

*****

The announcement from Ferrari that Michael Schumacher was to sub for Massa came at a particularly welcome moment, for earlier that day there had come news from Munich of the BMW directors’ decision to quit Formula 1 at the end of the season. Although there had been rumours of such a thing, the company had been firm in its support of FOTA, outwardly committed to a future in F1, and, as in the case of Honda, the team members themselves were poleaxed by the announcement. As for the FIA, well, all too predictably a press release from Paris regretted BMW’s forthcoming withdrawal, but wasn’t surprised by it: these manufacturers… as we’ve told you so many times, they just can’t be relied upon, can they?

A variety of reasons have been put forward for the BMW board’s conclusion, and perhaps all have played a part. First off there is the credit crunch, but while it’s undeniable that not too many new BMWs have been registered in the past nine months, the company is fundamentally in robust health, and would not have been driven out by the financial climate alone.

Next, the team’s lamentable performances in 2009. Last season Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld finished one-two in the Canadian Grand Prix, and in the eyes of many Kubica was the driver of the year. It maddened him that development of the F1.08 was halted at mid-season, robbing him of any hope of the World Championship, but there was some solace in the thought that early concentration on the ’09 car would make him ultra-competitive this year. I think we all believed that – all suspected that 2009 would be the year when BMW challenged not merely for victories, but also for championships.

Instead of that, the season has been an utter embarrassment for a great name: eight points, at the time of writing, from 10 races. At this stage in 2008 BMW ran second – sandwiched between Ferrari and McLaren – in the constructors’ championship, with 89 points.

Of all the manufacturers, BMW had more enthusiasm by far for KERS than any other, and it was confidently expected that the team would have the best handle on this controversial technology; in the event they abandoned it some time ago.

Given the ‘performance’ nature of the company’s image, it has of course been humiliating to be outpaced by such as Toyota and even Renault, but again I don’t believe this alone would have led to the directors’ pulling the plug. Nor, for that matter, can I imagine they would have wished to leave on such a low note.

It is certainly a fact that BMW, along with other manufacturers, had little enthusiasm for the ‘frozen’ engine rules, for in a situation like that how do you demonstrate any quantifiable superiority over your rivals? And if you don’t have that possibility, how do you justify the expense of participation in F1?

And then, of course, there is the question of the FIA, of the governance of the sport, of the burgeoning autocracy of Max Mosley over the past few years. It is known that some members of the BMW board have long been appalled by the manner in which F1 has been run, and some suggest that Mario Theissen has more than once been hard pressed to persuade them to continue with the project. This goes back quite a way – more than five years, in fact.

It will be remembered that when Mosley arbitrarily decided that the 3-litre V10 engines should be superseded – on grounds of safety – by 2.4-litre V8s, his declaration was not surprisingly greeted with outraged howls from the manufacturers. Already the FIA’s ‘cost-cutting’ campaign was underway, and the manufacturers couldn’t readily see how the design and manufacture of a wholly new engine dovetailed with this policy.

Why not, they suggested, stick with the existing V10s, and simply impose a lower rev limit? It would be simpler, they argued, and immeasurably cheaper. Mosley, though, was not to be swayed, and gradually the manufacturers began to bend the knee, so that eventually only two – Honda and BMW – refused to give their agreement.

Eventually they were… persuaded, but, trust me, the means by which it was achieved wasn’t pretty. At all. Now, within the space of a few months, Honda and BMW have both opted to take their leave of F1: maybe it’s coincidence, but I can’t help but wonder if the seeds of their decisions were sown some little time ago.

Perhaps the man for whom I feel the most sympathy in all this is Peter Sauber, that rare blend of gentleman and racer, who sold his team to BMW in 2005, watched it begin to blossom with Bavarian money, and now has to look on as it evaporates. Prior to buying Sauber, BMW was of course the engine partner of Williams, and in point of fact tried hard to buy that team. In light of recent developments, thank God Frank gave them a firm no.