Nigel Roebuck




REFLECTIONS ‘ormu a 1 awats tne fa Letna Lang none tne out over BBC/Sy dea LS tracK feared by dhvers

here’s more t n one way to skin a McLaren, and we saw that again in Hungary. A week earlier, at the Niirburgring, Lewis Hamilton was at his best and scored an emphatic victory, while Jenson Button had one of those unaccountable weekends when he was never a factor. At Budapest, though, the mixed conditions were made for an intelligent driver, and in these circumstances Jenson invariably shines. No one is better at blending pace and tyre wear, and neither is anyone better at not making mistakes. As

amilton’s childhood hero was Ayrton Senna, so Button’s was Alain Prost. There are indeed similarities between the McLaren teams of then and now. Strange now to think of the atmosphere at McLaren at Silverstone, where Hamilton was sullen, Button frustrated and Whitmarsh beleaguered. Martin came out with the

usual stuff about the team fighting back, as he was bound to do, but the fact is that McLaren is one of those teams, like Ferrari, which always fights back. And perhaps, as he won — brilliantly — at the Niirburgring, Lewis may have felt a touch embarrassed by his behaviour a fortnight before.

Two on the trot for McLaren then, but if you were British the main talking point at the Hungaroring lay elsewhere. As the clans gathered in the paddock on Friday morning, they were met by the news — announced at 7am — that, as of the end of this season, the BBC would provide live coverage of only half the Grands Prix, while Sky would do the lot. The day of free-to-air coverage of the entire World Championship, in other words, was done. It had been clear for a while that change — of some sort — was coming. In these austere times virtually everyone and everything in

the world needs to save money, and the BBC is no exception. For some little time there had been suggestions that the corporation was looking to end its Formula 1 contract early — to find a way out. At Silverstone the word was that only the details of the exit plan remained to

be sorted out. At the Niirburgring insiders were murmuring that the Gribkowsky bribery saga would provide the ideal justification for withdrawal. Can’t be seen to be mixed up in a sport where that sort of thing goes on… As it turned out, though, the BBC did not sever its ties with F1, but merely loosened them. The new deal is similar to that introduced this year for coverage of The Masters, in which all four days were covered by Sky, only the last two by the BBC. I have to say that, as I watched in

April, I could not wait for the Saturday and Sunday, when I could listen to Peter Alliss. Choice of F1 commentary teams in this new era is going to be crucial. When I heard the announcement regarding coverage of the 2012 World

Championship and beyond, my first thought was that, given the recent ‘phone hacking’ scandal, only Bernie Ecclestone could do a big deal with Rupert Murdoch at a time like this. My second was that we had long been led to believe that the Concorde Agreement positively required live coverage of F1 to be free-to-air, this giving sponsors the confidence to invest in the knowledge that their names and logos would be seen by the largest possible audience. It turns out, though, that while Ecclestone himself had long stressed that freeto-air live coverage was sacrosanct, and would remain so, the clause in the masonically-secret Concorde Agreement states that, ‘The Commercial Rights Holder may not permit F1 events to be shown only by pay television in a country with a

significant audience…’ Thinking about it, there was also a time when Bernie was adamant about a maximum of 16 Grands Prix per season. I thought — not for the first time — of something he said to me years ago: El>

“These days the world changes so bloody fast that anyone who talks about what’s going to be happening in four years is an idiot. A complete idiot. Long-term planning is a nonsense…”

The world does indeed change so bloody fast. Who knew, after all, when the BBC signed its contract to replace ITV as the broadcaster of F1 in the UK that all those darling bankers were stripping the lead from the roof of financial stability, thereby imposing a fiscal austerity on the world from which only they — of course — would be exempt?

Fifty million pounds a year (£45m in fees, plus another £5m on production and talent costs) is what it has been costing the Beeb to cover the World Championship. If that sounds like a lot, it is — but when you understand that it equates to 14 pence per viewer per race, it doesn’t seem too outrageous, does it?

Nonetheless, F1 is by far the BBC’s biggest single outlay on anything, so obviously it was going to be at the top of any list when it came to cost-cutting, and that was only exacerbated by the government’s refusal to allow the corporation to increase its licensing fee. Bernie, came the message, we need to talk…

Under the terms of the new agreement, the BBC will pay about £15m a year, and Sky about £35m, so the total income has increased, and these figures will of course rise, based on Ecclestone’s always imaginative interpretation of inflation, year on year.

When news of the BBC/Sky deal broke, it was greeted — not surprisingly — by outrage from F1 fans up and down the land. I personally can’t remember so vociferous a response to any other racingrelated matter, and it was no more than inevitable that it should be almost entirely condemnatory. People, after all, don’t care to be asked to pay for something they had hitherto had for free. Next time you fly anywhere, check how much of the ticket price is tax: time was — until G Brown thought it up — there was no such thing. Welcome to the 21st century.

Not a few folk have suggested — rather sweetly, I thought — that Ecclestone, in acknowledgement of the sheer excellence of the BBC’s coverage and also of its financial predicament, might have swallowed hard and simply agreed to a lowering of the tariff. Yes, it would have cost CVC a few million, but on the plus side it would have pleased F1’s public — and at the same time maintained the high free-to-air viewing figures so crucial to companies as they contemplate sponsorship of a team or event. Kept the paddock happy, in other words, as well as the fans. Dream on. Sometimes it seems to me that

F1 continues to live in a world that time forgot. Yes, the teams have cut their own costs, but the sport as a whole — in terms of race and TV fees — appears not to have noticed that there’s been a bit of a financial downturn over the last few years, and most everyone else has been obliged to cut their cloth accordingly. Don’t imagine that CVC give a damn about anything but their investors. As soon as the time — and the offer — are right, they’ll be gone, lamented by no one. Rupert is standing by. Would it have been impossible quietly to make an exception for the BBC, simply to reduce the fee and carry on as before? Well,

in Bernie’s eyes it would be inconceivable, for apart from losing some income — a concept which has always made Ecclestone fretful — there would also have been the risk of word getting out, of others seeking to cut a similar deal.

It was whispered a while ago that the powers-that-be of the Chinese Grand Prix, mindful of the fact that not many go to watch their race because not many in China give a damn about F1, were able advantageously to renegotiate the race fee with Bernie, who famously said many years ago that the future lay with the Far East, that soon Europe would be ‘Third World’.

Given China’s burgeoning financial power, and the lamentable state of virtually all EU economies, he wasn’t far wide of the mark, was he? For all that, though, because the Chinese people have signally failed to embrace F1, the authorities there began to make public noises about not renewing the Grand Prix contract unless a different financial accommodation were reached. Although the Shanghai race would struggle to make anyone’s list of favourites, the presence of the country in the World Championship is considered symbolically important, and it was for this reason, I’m told, that Bernie was willing to cut them some slack on the race fee. Doubtless the folks at Indianapolis — where they do quite like motor racing, actually — will wonder why the USA wasn’t considered in the same way, and why the tariff could not have been adjusted for them. No

government subsidies available there, after all. To a degree, I suppose, we have become spoiled in this country by the TV coverage of our sport. It is only people of a certain age, after all, who can remember a time when very few Grands Prix were televised, when we relied on Denis Jenkinson’s

reports in Motor Sport as the definitive record of what had happened at Zandvoort or Oporto: he was there, and we were not. A while ago I bought at auction some items from the estate of Raymond Baxter, including all his programmes and notes from the races he had covered for the BBC,

and what struck me was how rarely he had been sent abroad. All the British nonchampionship F1 races (of which there many in the 1950s and ’60s) were there, but Baxter’s yearly trips out of the country usually amounted to Monaco, Monza, occasionally Reims and the Niirburgring, plus Le Mans.

More to the point, as I remember well, the races were by no means covered in their entirety. You’d get the start and the opening laps, and then you’d go to cricket or showjumping or whatever, once in a while going back to the race for an update, then returning for the finish and a summary of events. And that was it.

In 1976, I recall, it was a very big deal when the BBC announced it would be transmitting live the Hunt/Lauda World Championship decider from Fuji. Apropos nothing, that same year there was considerable debate at the Beeb as to whether F1 should be televised at all, given that Alan Jones’s Surtees — sponsored by Durex— might offend viewers’ sensibilities…

For a very long time the British F1 fan has been extremely well served by the television companies, and now that the era of free-to-air coverage of the entire season is over, it’s hardly surprising that the news has been greeted with fury. Many have said they’re not prepared to fork out for something previously free, others that they might have done so — albeit unwillingly — but no way were they going to give a cent to anything connected with Murdoch. Given the revised structure of the F1 coverage in 2012 and beyond — all the races televised live on Sky, half of them on the BBC — it seems highly unlikely, to say the least, that audiences over the season will be a match for those we have at the moment. Routinely four million people watch qualifying, and six million the race. Perhaps more impressively, the ‘share’ of the total TV audience — more significant to the companies these days than actual numbers — is around 40 per cent for F1, which is extraordinary when one considers how many channels are available now. El,

Interestingly, too, in 2011 the Fl viewing audience is far less inclined to peak (at the start and through the early laps), then fall away as it used to do, when people went off to the garden centre or whatever, and then returned to catch the finish. Presumably because the races have been more exciting, viewers have tended to stay with them throughout the broadcast. So will the audiences fall away next year? I would be amazed if they did not. Assuredly there will be some who have never subscribed to Sky, and never will, be it because of distaste for Murdoch and all his works or because it costs money. Of course — particularly at a time like this,

— when cash is short — there will be some who cannot afford a subscription. And there will be others, too, who simply bridle at the idea of paying for something they have been accustomed to getting for nothing — save payment of the BBC licence fee, anyway. I think in the end that priorities always assert themselves. For the vast majority money is not in unlimited supply, and beyond mortgages and electricity bills and the like — we tend to spend what’s left on what

matters most to us. For some it’s holidays, for others clothes, eating out, cigarettes, you name it. In the coming years we are going to find out how many people are casually

many are interested in Fl, and how many are devoted to it. I do have Sky Sports — not for football, which I strive to avoid — but for Indycar racing and for speedway, which I have loved all my life. For that matter, I also subscribe to Premier Sports, simply for NASCAR. That’s me — obsessed with racing, if you like — but I appreciate that not everyone is like that.

Therefore I have nothing but sympathy for those thousands who have penned livid letters and e-mails since the BBC/Sky deal was confirmed, suggesting that the only people to benefit from it are Ecclestone, CVC and — down the road — Murdoch, whose ambitions regarding Fl extend way beyond merely televising it.

I must admit to being amazed by the response of some of those within Fl, who — mindful of the effect it might have on their sponsors — might have been expected to be at best lukewarm about it. Williams chairman Adam Parr arrived in motor racing only recently, but on what seems like a daily basis he expresses opinions about anything and everything, most of which seem to chime with those of Mr E. “Of course,” said Parr, “I am sympathetic to the fans. I understand it will be difficult, but English Premiership fans have had that for a while, haven’t they? People have to

bear in mind what it costs to put on this show. It’s not two blokes with a tennis racquet and a pair of trainers, at zero cost.

“What I do know is that Bernie is a very passionate believer in getting the broadest audience possible, and I think he has almost certainly done this in order to do that.”

Not simply to rake in more money, then? The great pity of it is that, since taking the place of ITV (whose ad-strewn coverage so got on people’s nerves), the BBC has raised the quality of Fl coverage to a level

never seen before, and now that is to be chopped in half. When I was talking at Silverstone with Niki

Lauda, who has himself worked in TV for many years, he brought the subject up.

“Some of the people who direct coverage of the races need to get better,” he said. “There are things happening at the front of the race, with the leaders — but the camera stays on something going on at the back. I hate that, because it becomes impossible for the viewer to follow what’s going on…

“Now we have so many pitstops, the TV director has to be aware of what’s going on, to concentrate on the cars that might win this bloody race! The people running the show at the moment have no idea about this — they don’t even think about it.

“Because of all the pitstops this year,” Lauda went on, “the critical tyre choices, the artificial overtaking from DRS and so on, commentating is much more complicated than before. But I must tell you, I think the British — the BBC — do a perfect job. Martin [Brundle] and David [Coulthard] — I think they’re the best of the lot, and they also have so many others working with them. They see so many different things, which a lot of the commentators don’t even recognise.

“I can’t believe,” Niki said, “what I hear — that maybe the BBC is going to stop doing Formula 1. They must be nuts — they do it perfectly, the audience is big, so…”

So. If you can only agree with what Lauda said, so you can only accept that the BBC felt it had no option other than to `downsize’. I confess I have the impression that the new BBC/Sky deal was done relatively quickly, that the headline story was rushed out — and that very little of the detail has been worked out. Which commentators will work for which companies, and that sort of thing? It could even be that there will be some overlap.

In many respects, I think one can expect the Sky coverage to be excellent, and I’ve heard suggestions that it may be angled more towards the serious racing enthusiast than to a ‘lifestyle’ audience. Beyond doubt, it will be more comprehensive than at any time in the past, with, for example, every practice session being broadcast live, as well as qualifying and the race. And though it may be a commercial channel, Sky has already undertaken not to interrupt races — ITV-style — with ads. All of that sounds promising — but will people pay for it?

Come to that, given the BBC’s predicament, was a joint venture with Sky the only way forward? Maybe not. I’m told that Channel 4 put in a bid — and a strong bid — for the rights to televise Fl in the UK, but that it was from 2013 onwards, rather than next year. There are those, I should point out, who murmur that the whole thing is about much more than merely the question of TV rights in Britain. Negotiations for a new Concorde

Agreement, which which will come into effect in 2013, have of course been going on for a long time, and while Ecclestone routinely scoffs at FOTA, rumours of a possible ‘breakaway championship’ continue to bubble away.

Bernie is said to be unusually pleased with his latest coup, for not only does it increase ‘the revenue stream’ into Fl, it also demonstrates that he is very much still in charge. QED on all fronts, you might say.

lsewhere in this issue of Motor Sport, in a feature about the Niirburgring (p44), I quote Karl Kling as saying that, whenever

he raced there, he would wonder as he left his hotel room each morning whether he would ever see it again. The ‘Ring had that effect on some drivers, and so — perhaps even more so — did the old Spa-Francorchamps, nearly nine miles of ultra-fast corners in the most unforgiving terrain. Brian Redman always excelled there, and he loved the circuit like no other — but admitted that it frightened

him like no other, too. “Every time I went there I’d lie in bed, perspiration pouring off me — because I thought I was going to die the next day. I had a fairly religious upbringing, and the words of the 23rd Psalm kept going through my mind: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…’ I used to fall asleep repeating it.”

Redman also had great respect for the Niirburgring, but didn’t fear it as he did Spa, whereas the late Phil Hill — always outstanding at both circuits — was the very opposite: “You certainly didn’t mess around at Spa, but — I don’t know why — I was never intimidated by it like some people were. I didn’t mind fast turns. I loved both places, but I was always more… leaping out of control at the Niirburgring than at Spa.” I have always savoured conversation with retired racing drivers, and it’s not too difficult to understand why — by and large — they are infinitely more rewarding to interview than their current counterparts. Not only were they born before political correctness was thought of, and perhaps fundamentally are more open than the drivers of today, but they also have the great luxury of no longer having to worry about upsetting team owners or sponsors or FIA presidents. Very occasionally there

may be repercussions, in the sense that flames of feuds past can be reignited, but more usually water under the bridge takes care of it.

Like retired generals, they love to fight their battles again, not infrequently with suitable embellishment. As the old saying goes, ‘The older he gets, the faster he was…’

Every year the Goodwood Festival of Speed affords a priceless opportunity to get these guys reminiscing, and this time around there was considerable focus on the Indianapolis 500 in this, its centenary year. I was very much in my element, chatting with such as Bobby >, Unser, Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford. In Europe, as I said, the

circuits most feared by the drivers in times gone by were Spa and the Niirburgring, both of which disappeared from the Fl schedule in the 1970s. In the US the track with the most lethal reputation was undoubtedly Langhorne, a one-mile oval not far from Mario Andretti’s home town of Nazareth in Pennsylvania.

My fascination with Langhorne began back in 1978, when I wrote a book with Andretti in that year of his World Championship. As kids, he told me, he and his brother Aldo would go to watch the races there, always with some trepidation.

“They always called the place ‘an oval’, but in fact it wasn’t an oval at all — it was a circle, which meant that a car was sideways, held there on the throttle, for virtually the whole lap. It also meant, of course, that wherever you were the guard rail was never far away. A fantastic place to watch racing, to see the genius of a guy like Don Branson — but it seemed like every time they ran there someone would buy the farm…” Back in the day the USAC Championship embraced different disciplines, from the traditional paved ovals like Indy and Milwaukee and Phoenix to the dirt ‘miles’ at such as Springfield, Sacramento — and Langhorne. Andretti, who graduated to the ‘Big Cars’, as they were known, in 1964, had his first drive at Trenton in April. Ea

A dozen years ago Rodger Ward, one of the all-time Indy greats, came to the Festival of Speed, where I asked him to tell me of his first impressions of Andretti.

“The first time I met Mario,” Ward said, “we were doing a tyre test at Trenton, New Jersey.

This was early ’64, and he was driving a roadster for Clint Brawner. I was there in my new rear-engined car — got a little careless, brushed a wall, and that was the end of my test.

“I’d driven for Brawner and knew him well. He came over to me and he says, ‘Rodger, I’ve got this new kid here, and I don’t know if he’s going to be any good or not. Will you take a ride in the car, to see how it is?’ “I ran about three laps in it, then came in. I says, ‘Well Clint, this kid may be the greatest race driver in the history of the sport. That car is such a shitbox I can’t believe it! It rides like a —

truck — I don’t know how he was even able to keep it in line down the straightaway…’

“Anyway, I showed him what he should do, changing the rollbars and all that stuff. The next time I see him it’s a race at Phoenix, Arizona, and I’m leading — and who d’you think is trying to pass me? Mario — in that goddam roadster!

“I enjoyed Mario from day one — such a great driver, and such a nice kid. A lot of people thought he was in over his head in his early days, but I never did. If you really watched him closely, he could run faster than anybody, and still be in control. You’d keep saying to yourself, ‘Nobody can be that good’. But he was…” Ward, twice a winner of the Indy 500, was at least as strong on dirt as on paved tracks, but he drew the line at Langhorne and simply would not race there. “In 1960 Brawner told me Jimmy Bryan wanted to drive my car there, and I begged Bryan not to do it. He was one of the best that ever was, had won everything, but now he was semi-retired and only did the 500. I says, ‘Jimmy, why do you need this?’, but he

loved Langhorne and had won it several times. He went there, qualified second, took the lead at the start — and went end for end at the first turn, which was always known as ‘Puke Hollow’. Dead before the car came to rest.”

Not surprisingly Brawner hated the place ever after, and although he entered a car for the 1964 race, and although Andretti was contracted to him for the season, he refused to allow Mario to drive at Langhorne.

“Clint said no way was I ready to run there, and he was smart to say that, no question. If a guy like Ward refused to go there, it had to be one spooky place. But I was just getting started in the big time, full of vinegar: right, if Clint wouldn’t let me run there, I’d find a ride someplace else…”

What Andretti found was the Windmill Truckers Special, a car not in the first flush of youth, with a tired Offenhauser engine, and — crucially — devoid of power steering. That said, the car handled well, and Mario soon began enjoying himself. “At the same time,” he said, “I’d never even sat in a championship dirt car before

— and it was Langhorne, of all places, for my first race. The year before I’d been there to watch the sprint cars and seen Bobby Marvin burn to death. “It was the only race in my whole life where, the night before, I really was very concerned. Never happened any other time — not going to the Niirburgring for the first time, not anything. Langhorne was the only track I ever felt intimidated by. It was hot as

hell, and although I wore gloves, of course, by the end of the race my hands were skinned — literally like raw hamburger — because of fighting it over the ruts with no power steering. No way I wasn’t going to make the finish, but honest to God, I was just glad to be alive — almost felt like I’d won a war…” On pole that June day was Rutherford. “Langhorne was a special animal, you know,” he said at Goodwood. “I enjoyed going fast and I enjoyed driving on the dirt — but Langhorne was fast on the dirt! That made it kind of knife-edge — you couldn’t force things in the way that you would normally do on a dirt track. It wasn’t flat either — you were going downhill towards Puke Hollow, and of course the water drained down there, so the surface was soft and got ploughed up. Then you’d get 100 degrees in the summer and it would bake

— you could so easily hook a rut, get onto two wheels and then upside down. That was what happened to Jimmy Bryan. “It was a track where you got all the way in the throttle on some points, and 1111,

you were never less than half on the throttle anywhere. Langhorne was a challenge, no question — it killed a lot of people. Parnelli never liked it, plenty of people didn’t, and I could understand. I thought it was fun, though, and I enjoyed it: it was a special event — and for a new, young driver like I was it was something… “The track surface was oiled dirt, and who knows how many thousand gallons of crude Pennsylvania motor oil they dumped on it to get it prepared? You know what, one of the hardest things to do at Langhorne was actually to get your car out of the pits! On a hot day, with all that oil glistening on the track surface, you’d release the clutch to pull out of the pits — and the car would start sliding towards the guard rail! You

were trying to get it to go forward, to get traction, and sometimes you just barely made it out before touching the fence! I remember that so vividly…” Rutherford, like Andretti, came through a hard school en route to the big time. “In the ’50s and early ’60s you paid your own expenses, you drove everywhere from race to race — no interstates then — and you got 40 per cent of whatever your car won. I can remember doing a 200lap midget race in Toronto one night — and we had Langhorne the next day. The race went way past midnight, and then my wife Betty drove through the night to Langhorne while I napped in the car — we got there just in time for me to suit up, practise,

qualify and race! I was very lucky though, wasn’t I? I competed in a great era against the best drivers that ever came down the pike. “I enjoyed Langhorne — but I knew it was very treacherous. It was fun to drive there, but it was certainly a challenge, and you had to be… aware all

the time.”


By the time they went back to Langhorne in 1965 the track had been paved, a change which appalled the fans, now robbed of the sight of cars being steered on the throttle. Conventional Indy cars were now the thing to have there.

“We thought they were crazy,” said Rutherford. “I think they figured that if they paved it, it would be the world’s fastest one-mile oval, like it had been the world’s fastest dirt track. “It was awful after they paved it — I didn’t like it from the first lap on. It was way too fast for the cars we had at the time

— it was easier to get in trouble than when it had been dirt. The g-forces were terrible, because there was no let-up — you were in a turn the whole time, after all. It was the first time I put what we called a `cissy strap’ on my helmet, just to be able to hold my head up — otherwise you couldn’t do it…” As JR and his wife went off to get

some lunch, Bobby Unser arrived. I was just talking to Johnny, I said, about his memories of Langhorne.

“Did he tell you he liked it?” demanded Unser.

“He did, actually. And A J Foyt once told me the same thing…” “See, right there you got two liars! Nobody liked Langhorne! It was — dangerous, but it wasn’t just that — all race tracks in the ’50s and ’60s were dangerous. Langhorne was extra dangerous, because the car was always sideways, all the way around — and a pretty good amount of sideways, too. In Puke Hollow sometimes you had to lift a little bit, to kind of settle it down, but you had to ease off the throttle

— if you backed off suddenly the thing would swap ends so fast you wouldn’t believe it, and it would take you straight into the wall. At that place the wall was like a magnet — face it, it isn’t normal to have a race track in that shape, like a circle…

“I did fairly well there, I understood it. But did I like it? Hell no, I’m not that dumb! It just wasn’t a good place for guys trying to live a little longer…

“After they paved it I won the last two Indycar races there, in 1969 and ’70, but even when it was paved.., if you said you liked it you had to be telling stories, but I sure as hell liked it more than when it had been dirt.”

Rutherford, I murmured, told me he thought it was more dangerous after they had paved it…

“Was he drinking when he told you that? See, it’s sad what the passing of the years can do…” • Don’t miss our podcasts with Nigel and • the team — plus special guests — on