Lewis Hamilton threatens to torpedo Red Bull's title ambitions, Ferrari's internal politics, the potential pitfalls of two-way radio and a Polanski documentary revisted
In August 11 1991 Ayrton Senna won at the Hungaroring, and two weeks later did so again at Spa. “It seems to me ridiculous,” he said, “that I get the same number of points for both…”
It was typical of Senna that such a thought should have occurred. For most drivers 10 points were 10 points, wherever and however they were earned, but in Ayrton’s world it was somehow not right that victory at the best circuit on the World Championship schedule was worth no more than the one he considered the worst. “It’s very… technical,” he allowed, when speaking about the Hungaroring, “but not fun to drive, not satisfying…”
As the years go by, circuits initially greeted with contempt have a habit of gaining acceptance, even praise. When first we went to the new Nürburgring in 1984, drivers disliked it heartily. Such as Keke Rosberg expressed outrage that this nothing track should inherit the generic name of the majestic Nordschleife, in whose shadow it sat. Now, though, with more than a quarter of a century of bottle age on it, the Nürburgring is seemingly regarded as a modern-day classic, and these days there are those who speak with enthusiasm of the Hungaroring, too. Because the circuit is ‘high downforce’, sinewy and slow, with overtaking nigh impossible, people say it’s like Monaco without the walls – but that surely misses the point: in large part Monaco is Monaco because of the walls, so it remains one of few tracks where mistakes don’t go unpunished.
There is a line from Jackie Stewart in Weekend of a Champion (of which more later), in which he is comparing Monaco with more routine tracks: “On a normal circuit you go over the white line, and it means Sweet Fanny Adams…”
One understands his point, of course – but in 2013 it can also mean a Roebuck Lewis Hamilton threatens to torpedo Red Bull’s title ambitions, Ferrari’s internal politics, the potential pitfalls of two-way radio and a Polanski documentary revisited O drive-through penalty. There may not be walls at the Hungaroring, but there are white lines – and you’re expected to look upon them in the same way, as Romain Grosjean discovered at the end of July. In one of the overtaking manoeuvres of the season, he went by Felipe Massa on the outside of a fast, blind, left-hander, in so doing putting all four wheels of his Lotus minutely over the white line at the exit. As fans across the world applauded a move sumptuously brave, exquisitely judged, the stewards of the meeting saw it in a different light: Romain, they concluded, had broken a rule, and must be scourged with a drive-through penalty.
It reminded me of a movie – Support Your Local Sheriff – I once saw, starring James Garner as the lawman. All these years on, I remember nothing of it, save a scene in which Garner, his newly built jail still lacking cell doors, draws chalk lines on the floor, and requests that the inmates don’t cross them…
Grosjean’s penalty in Hungary I thought not only unjust, but worrying. Are we really at a point now where everything in Formula 1 is so regimented – so subject to rules – that a moment wholly illustrative of the Grand Prix driver’s art and courage brings him not plaudits but punishment?
Whatever, I wonder, would Gilles have made of this? Were there any white lines at Dijon in 1979? I suppose there might have been, but if I have no memory of any such debate, I do recall what an exultant Jenks said as the Ferrari, tyres in shreds, beat Arnoux’s Renault to the line: “We’ve got a little racer on our hands, haven’t we?” All these years on, folk – René included – still get misty-eyed about that battle; in today’s world it would probably have meant a lifetime ban.
If I greatly admired Grosjean’s move, so I appreciated Massa’s part in it, too, for he could easily have ushered Romain off the road, as some of his fellows would have done: as it was, Felipe quite rightly didn’t make it easy – but he did leave just enough room for the Lotus to make it through, albeit momentarily the wrong side of the dreaded white line. It seemed to me a beautiful piece of driving by both men – the sort of moment that has always been the lifeblood of Grand Prix racing– and it was significant that afterwards Massa volunteered his opinion that Grosjean had not deserved a penalty.
Romain remains an enigmatic figure in F1, fundamentally a very quick driver, capable of sublime moves like this, yet also of cack-handed carelessness. A few laps before catching Massa he had passed Jenson Button: although he had won the corner he had not cleared the McLaren, yet chopped back across it to take the best line in as if he had the place to himself. The cars touched and there would have been little surprise if Grosjean had immediately been penalised, although stewards initially opted to take no action. Later, however, 20 seconds were added to his race time – a punishment that did not affect the final result.
The big story of the Hungarian weekend, though, was that Lewis Hamilton won his first race for Mercedes, against the expectations of most, the driver included. The afternoon was, after all, blazing hot, and in such conditions Mercedes has long been discounted, however quick its qualifying times.
As at Silverstone and the Nürburgring, Hamilton started from pole position, but his demeanour after qualifying was less than jubilant – indeed he expressed surprise that the lap had been good for pole, and no optimism at all for the race: it would, he suggested, be a matter of hanging on, doing the best job possible. In the scorching temperatures anticipated for Sunday, his Mercedes would inevitably eat its rear tyres in absolutely no time…
In the post-Silverstone Pirelli era, however, tyre degradation has become rather less of an issue, so that Barnum & Bailey have mercifully been pushed from centre stage, and we’re getting back to proper motor racing again. Hamilton, at a circuit at which he has traditionally excelled, was flawless, beyond serious threat, and as the clans left Budapest for the summer break the feeling was that the second half of the season might not be the Vettel cakewalk many had anticipated.
Hamilton, as we know, wears his heart on his sleeve – indeed he is fond of reminding us of it – and for much of the summer has carried that taut, unsmiling, expression so familiar a couple of years ago. Lewis leaves no one in any doubt that his on-off relationship with Nicole Scherzinger is central to his life, his face apparently a barometer of how that relationship stands at any given time.
Whereas, though, he was plainly distraught for much of 2011, and his driving very clearly suffered as a consequence, this time around he has remained on top of his game. As expected, it has taken time to acclimatise to new car, new team, new work practices, but if plainly not at peace with himself Lewis has been driving beautifully, reminding us – if it were necessary – that there is no one quicker.
If his private life is unsettled, however, at least he has no professional decisions to worry about at the moment: the Mercedes team of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg is set for 2014, but the same cannot be said of Red Bull and Ferrari. Mark Webber’s decision to go sports carracing with Porsche leaves a vacancy alongside Sebastian Vettel, and the
likelihood is that Ferrari, having offered Massa a late lifeline 12 months ago, will not do so again this time.
As I write, there are flurries of speculation that Kimi Räikkönen has been invited back to Maranello, and Ferrari’s denial of the story has served merely to confirm in many minds that it must be true. Well, stranger things have happened in F1 over time, but I’ll confess – in light of the circumstances of their parting last time around – I would be astounded if Kimi were seen in a red car again. There has been talk of Paul di Resta, even promoting Jules Bianchi to the team in only his second F1 season, but there is clearly a more obvious choice, even if this year he has been out of the limelight, languishing in a poor car. When Hamilton moved to Mercedes, McLaren passed up the opportunity to sign Nico Hülkenberg: Ferrari should not. Inescapably the team has been on the skids of late, Fernando Alonso successively finishing second in Canada, third in Britain, fourth in Germany and fifth in Hungary. Having begun the season with a car apparently far superior to last year’s difficult F2012, Ferrari has seen its competitiveness ebb away, and at the Hungaroring Alonso’s frustration, contained so well for so long, broke surface, albeit not, one thought, in a particularly overt way. Asked after the race what he wanted for his birthday (the following day), Fernando gave a quick response: “Someone else’s car…”
Oh dear. While it may have been intended as a throwaway line (albeit one containing a kernel of truth), back in Maranello Luca di Montezemolo failed to see the joke, and that led to a pompous statement on Ferrari’s website: “There is a need to close ranks, without giving in to rash outbursts that, while understandable in the immediate aftermath of a bad result, are of no use to anyone. All the great champions who have driven for Ferrari have always been asked to put the interests of the team above their own. This is the moment to stay calm, avoid polemics and show humility…” And on and on.
One thought of the withering observations di Montezemolo – a Latin, like Alonso – has himself made about the team’s shortcomings over the years, but then he’s the guv’nor and it’s his game.
One thought also of the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, wherein Alain Prost’s Ferrari finished a distant fourth. Afterwards a frustrated Prost, asked about his car, compared it unfavourably with a truck, whereupon the company promptly fired him. At the final race of the season, in Adelaide, Gianni Morbidelli was pressed into service as Jean Alesi’s team-mate and I recall a conversation there with
Marlboro’s John Hogan. “Brilliant, isn’t it?” he said. “Ferrari are in the s*** and they’ve sacked the one bloke who might have got them out of it. What’s more, they’re going to pay him next year not to drive for them…”
That was then, this is now. The management at Ferrari in those days was in a state of chaos, being made up of faceless figures from Fiat, who hadn’t a clue how to run a racing team. Montezemolo, though, should know better: back in the Seventies, during the Lauda-Regazzoni era, he was team manager at Ferrari and good enough at it to have Niki’s
Nearly 40 years on, now long established as president of the company, Luca is master of all he surveys, and if he were angered by Alonso’s remarks, he really should have known better than to go public with it. For four years, like Michael Schumacher before him, Fernando has been trying to win a World Championship with Ferrari, and twice has been within touching distance. Through all that time his effort has been matched only by his resolute optimism, a quality greatly admired throughout the paddock, if perhaps under-appreciated by his boss. In 2010, his first season with the team, Alonso lost the title at the final race only because of a bad strategy call, and I can think of drivers who would have ranted in that situation; never once did Fernando publicly criticise his team. “The best thing about that Ferrari,” a rival team principal said to me recently, “is sitting in the cockpit, and if they’re too stupid to realise it they deserve all they get…”
In all probability, of course, what really got up Montezemolo’s nose in the aftermath of the Hungarian Grand Prix was that Alonso’s manager Luis Garcia Abad (pictured with his charge, left) was seen in conversation with Christian Horner, this of course instantly sparking speculation that Fernando might be a candidate for the Red Bull seat shortly to be
vacated by Webber.
Were this a serious possibility, one would have thought it more likely that Abad would have made contact with Horner away from the public gaze, rather than in the paddock. If you recall, there was a similarly hysterical response when Lewis Hamilton visited Red Bull in the Montréal paddock a couple of years ago.
In Hungary Horner declined to bury the story, instead airily commenting that, yes, “An Alonso/Vettel partnership would be interesting. Obviously the pairing we want to put together for next year has to be right for the team, the two fastest drivers we can find, who will work well together. Last week there was speculation about Kimi – this week it’s about Fernando…” Christian smiled faintly as he spoke, playing the situation like a violin. If he’d intended to stir things a little at Maranello, I’d say he succeeded.
I hope I’m not being premature, but perhaps we have come to the end of a remarkably silly period in Formula 1, wherein race pace was dictated entirely by tyre conservation. Nico Rosberg may have dominated at Monaco, but in the early laps he – in the lead – was running at GP2 pace, patently not what fans of Grand Prix racing expect to see. This focus on tyre life spawned some extraordinary remarks on the teams’ two-way radios. In Shanghai Jenson Button enquired about the state of Lewis Hamilton’s tyres, then asked a question ordinarily unthinkable for an F1 driver: “Do we want to fight?” And remember Lewis’s response in Barcelona to his team’s request that he back off: “I can’t drive any slower!”
At Montréal, by contrast, an entreaty that Hamilton speed up, to hold off Alonso’s Ferrari, got short shrift of a different kind: “Just let me drive, man!” Afterwards he said this: “Being hunted down by Fernando Alonso is like being chased by a bull, so I didn’t need anyone in my ear when I was already at the maximum…” In US oval racing, be it NASCAR or Indycar, spotters have long been an intrinsic part of the game. From a high vantage point, these people have a view of the entire track and keep their drivers precisely informed of what’s going on, particularly invaluable – ‘Go high!’ or ‘Go low!’ – when a 190mph accident is unfolding before them.
You might think a driver would find this distracting, but Juan Pablo Montoya told me he wouldn’t be without it: “When there’s a multiple up ahead and all you can see is tyre smoke, you need all the help you can get…”
That I could understand, but in F1’s ‘joke tyre’ era radio contact between driver and engineer necessarily increased considerably, to the point that in some cases – as between Felipe Massa and Rob Smedley– it appeared almost to be a permanent conversation, and sometimes one had the impression of racing by numbers.
Some drivers liked constant debate with their team personnel – Jacques Villeneuve, for example, used to be forever talking with Jock Clear – but others prefer virtual silence. Hamilton, as we know, understandably doesn’t care to be told how to drive, and the same – emphatically – may be said of K Räikkönen. If, out of a car, the Kimster is rather far from chatty, within it he is still less so, preferring that the radio be used strictly on a need-to-know basis. This can be unnerving for an engineer daring to instigate conversation, as we noted during a safety car period in last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, wherein Räikkönen was reminded to keep tyre and brake temperatures up as much as possible.
“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” came the response, and momentarily one thought Basil Fawlty had found his way into a Lotus. Setting aside the exceptional circumstances of the silly tyre interlude, as a rule of thumb, I’m told, the better the driver the less his taste for constant communication – and to some degree this is self-fulfilling because a top driver should be in no need of geeing up. “One of Fernando’s great strengths,” said Lotus’s Alan Permane, who worked with Alonso in his Renault days, “is that he never goes to sleep in a race – every lap he’s on it…”
At Monza in 2005 Alonso comfortably led the World Championship, with Räikkönen his only rival. I watched that race from the Renault pit, complete with headset, and it was a surreal experience, for outside noise was virtually eliminated, so that when there was sound in the headset – engineers communicating with drivers – the effect was isolated, dramatic.
Permane was then race engineer to Giancarlo Fisichella, while Rod Nelson was working with Alonso. “Twenty seconds, Fernando,” said Nelson, counting him down to the formation lap. Away they went. “Go to clutch trim five, please – and throttle P6 (position six) for tyre-warming...”
Soon they were forming up on the grid, and now there was no talk at all. Out went the lights, and Montoya led Alonso away to the first turn.“Throttle P5, please,” said Nelson on the opening lap, then, on lap two, “Mixture three, Fernando, please.” There followed complete radio silence until lap seven, by which time Montoya and Alonso had checked
out. Now Nelson was on again, not to tell Fernando of the gap to Montoya, for that, in championship terms, was irrelevant, but to let him know that Räikkönen – who had started 11th, following an engine change – was not making progress: “You’re 16 – one-six – seconds ahead of him…”
Exactly what Fernando wanted to hear, of course. Juan Pablo was one thing, but the man in the other McLaren – Kimi – could still beat him to the championship, and that was where his focus lay. Not until lap 30 did he quietly open a conversation: “Tell me the order, please.” Then, “Can you repeat, please? What position is Räikkönen now?”
Fifteen laps later he asked the same question, then didn’t speak again until the race was over. “Terrific job, mate, well done, brilliant,” said Nelson on the slowing-down lap. “Thanks to all of you,” said Fernando. “How many stops did Räikkönen have?” The radio chat between Fisichella and Permane could hardly have been more different. In the early laps Giancarlo had run behind Trulli, who pitted on lap 20. Now, if all went to plan, there was theopportunity to leap-frog Jarno: “OK, mate,” said Permane, “we need your best lap ever!” If Fisichella perhaps fell short of that, he obliged with his best middle-sector time of the race, and after his own stop was ahead of the Toyota, where he stayed.
On lap 35 Permane was on the blower again: “Giancarlo, pick the pace up a bit, please – you’re lapping half a second slower than Fernando...” There was no response, but on the next lap Fisichella was only five-thousandths from Alonso’s time.
Lap 44, and there came a warning: “Giancarlo, you’re seven seconds in front of Räikkönen…” Three laps later, it was more urgent: “Giancarlo, Räikkönen’s five seconds behind you – you’ve got to push, mate, you’ve got to push...” Lap 47: “Räikkönen’s catching you, mate – there are only six laps to go, keep pushing...”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been necessary, but it worked. At the flag it was Montoya-Alonso-Fisichella-Räikkönen, and at season’s end Fernando won the World Championship, Renault – rather less comfortably – that for constructors.
Radio contact, long taken for granted in motor racing, is invariably trouble-free nowadays, but it wasn’t always so. In 1955 Jim Rathmann turned up at Indianapolis to drive his Belond Miracle Power Special, and learned that his team was experimenting with a new-fangled two-way radio.
“It was a great idea – being able to talk to the pits,” said Rathmann, “but it had its problems. One day I was running down the backstretch at about 180, and suddenly I heard this voice telling me to go to some address and fix a stopped-up sink. They’d given me the same frequency as an Indianapolis plumber…”
"Look at the film now,” says Roman Polanski, “and see myself as silly, you know. The sideburns… everyone had them then and they looked really good – but now they look so silly!”
In 1971 Polanski made a film, entitled Weekend of a Champion, which focused on Jackie Stewart at the Monaco Grand Prix. The movie, which I first saw at the time of its original release, has always had a sentimental resonance for me, bringing back as it does a time when my life was dramatically changing: after Barcelona a month earlier, Monaco ’71 was only my second race as a journalist.
Now the film, co-produced by Mark Stewart, has been remastered (to spectacular effect) and amended, and recently I saw it again for the first time in years, finding it a more emotional experience than I had anticipated. It wasn’t just my own past rushing back to confront me, but also a stark reminder of how much Grand Prix racing has changed,
in some ways unquestionably for the better, in others – equally emphatically – not.
I found it entrancing to be reminded of the F1 scene as it was when first I became involved. Forty years ago long, bushy, sideburns were indeed de rigueur – remember Emerson Fittipaldi’s Planet of the Apes look? – and here again were those bulky, stiff-looking, grey NAZA overalls worn by the Tyrrell drivers, a corduroy cap then inseparable from Stewart…
I have to say Polanski is on the mark about the sideburns. Back theneveryone had them, myself included, but nowadays they indeed look… silly, just as in 40 years folk will perhaps study footage from 2013, and recall that quaint period when tattoos – apparently obligatory – were thought attractive, when helmet designs changed by the day.
In his suite at the Hôtel de Paris Stewart chats over breakfast with Polanski, and in that environment he is JYS pure, chatty and goodhumoured as he invariably is, but at other times – even conversing with Ken Tyrrell – he seems edgy, unsmiling, almost distracted. In one scene he is walking towards the pits, surrounded by folk seeking his autograph, and although he is looking directly at the camera, his eyes have a vacant, unseeing, quality. Something is awry – yet if, unusually for him, he doesn’t favour his fans with a smile, even a glance in their direction, still he signs their programmes. Stewart, along with Richard Petty, has never been known to refuse an autograph.
The clue lies in part of his conversation with Polanski, wherein Jackie reveals that for a while he hasn’t been sleeping properly, that he’s a little out of sorts. As it turns out, of course, this was the beginning of a duodenal ulcer, and a year on his health was suffering even more, this time with a bout of mononucleosis: at Monaco in 1972 – when Jean-Pierre Beltoise won for BRM in the rain – JYS was clearly off his game, qualifying eighth and finishing fourth.
At the following Grand Prix, in Nivelles, only one Tyrrell was entered, for Cevert, and although François finished second to Fittipaldi, he once told me how lost he had felt without his mentor. In a way it was good for it brought home to him that sooner or later Jackie would retire, that his ready counsel would no longer be instantly available: “I grew up a lot that weekend,” he said.
The nature of their master-pupil working relationship is amplyrevealed in Weekend of a Champion, Stewart answering Cevert’s questions about gearing for Monaco, explaining in hushed tones why it is better sometimes to use a gear higher than might seem ideal, so as to keep the car calm and balanced.
Jackie’s health problems at that time were the consequence of trying to do too much. Like Denny Hulme and others, he was driving not only in F1, but also the Can-Am series, and – unlike Denny – undertaking all manner of other work, too. In one year he took 86 transatlantic flights and, by his own admission, was burning himself out, which was why in 1972 he withdrew from a McLaren Can-Am contract to partner Hulme.
If Stewart felt less than ideal at Monaco in ’71, still he took pole position – by more than a second – and won the race, flag to flag. A chat with him at Zandvoort a month later emphasised once more how great a driver this was. “At Monte Carlo you don’t want the car to be nervous,” he had said to Cevert. “You want to be very smooth and very quiet…”
As it turned out, he had needed, even more than usual, to follow his own advice: “Before the start we knew there were no rear brakes – a joint on the brake balance bar had come unwound – and there simply wasn’t time to fix it. You couldn’t be aggressive with braking on only two wheels…”
In the circumstances it’s unsurprising that Jackie counts Monaco ’71 as one of his greatest victories: we watched that day and we hadn’t a clue. In its adherence to detail, F1 was still relatively informal in 1971: in the pits during practice, with rain pouring down, Jackie was belted into his blue Elf Tyrrell by mechanics clad in borrowed yellow Yardley BRM waterproof jackets. In today’s world you’d get 30 lashes for that. And the circuit, of course, was indeed very different. The chicane on to the harbour front was so quick, literally a left-right flick betweenbarriers. The old railway station might have disappeared from Station Hairpin, but in its place stood not the monster hotel (originally the Loews, now the Fairmont) of later years, but merely grandstands and a few straw bales. The tunnel was much shorter – but darker – and then, towards the end of the lap, the original, very narrow,
Tabac was still in use, after which the cars blasted straight down to the Gasworks Hairpin – no swimming pool complex then, no tortuous Rascasse – and thence to the start-finish line. Watching any movie from times gone by, one is inevitably struck by the lack of protection afforded not only the drivers, but the entire F1 contingent. It seems astonishing, as time goes by, to recall that only 20 years ago there was no pitlane speed limit, that cars came blasting in for their stops, then left again as if from a grid. Go back another couple of decades, though, and at most circuits there was no pitlane, as such, in the sense that there was no barrier of any kind between pits and track.
To make a stop, a driver simply pulled in at the side of the road. At Monaco in 1971 I stood there under the trees, and thought little of it, although I remember Frank Williams, whom I had just met, advising that I keep my wits about me.
In the movie, too, one is amazed by the relative absence of guardrails, by whole swathes of pavement on which photographers blithely stand, snapping away. Abnormally brave or simply lacking in imagination? I have no idea, but incline to the latter, as for some of the time I was one of them, trying to keep the rain off my Canon FX. At the time it didn’t occur to me that there was anything remarkable about this: after all, I’d been to Monaco as a spectator the three previous years, and that was how I had always known it. The only thought in my head was that at last I had the uncluttered views of which I’d dreamed.
Amazing how perspectives change. That same summer of 1971, I remember an afternoon at the Nürburgring, taking pictures at the Sudkurve during practice and feeling the usual rush of exhilaration at being so close to the action. At one moment my film ran out, and it was good that it did because as I went back to my camera bag Jo Siffert’s BRM spun over the very spot I had lately vacated. Had a few more frames been available, my new career might have been brief indeed, but once Siffert had sorted himself out, and departed in a welter of revs and grass, I put in a new film, and returned to my vantage point. It didn’t hurt, I suppose, that I was in my mid-20s, and therefore immortal, but even so, looking back on it now, I find myself indeed coming down on the side of lack of imagination.
In the original movie Stewart drives Polanski round the circuit, mentioning salient features like braking points and gear changes (then performed with a lever and clutch, of course), and in the latest version he does so again, 40 years on. If everything seems greatly changed – the track layout, the abundance of Armco, the size of the grandstands, the modernised pits – perhaps no difference registered with me more than the kerbs.
In contemporary F1, of course, a car’s ability to ride the kerbs well is essential, and those in Monaco are smooth and bevelled, as on permanent circuits the world over. Back in the day, though, they were normal, roadside, kerbs, and you clipped one at your peril: “Do that, and you were looking at a broken wheel,” says JYS, “or at the very least a puncture…”
Bringing the film up to date was an inspired idea, for apart from illustrating the differences between Monaco then and now, it ends with Jackie and Roman, close friends of long standing, now in their 70s rather than 30s, reminiscing in that same suite at the Hôtel de Paris. “I never,” says JYS, “worked out why you wanted to do this movie…”
“Well, in those days I was a great enthusiast of motor racing,” says Polanski. “You took me to a test session, and I wanted to do a movie about a friend. I always remember you as the safety champion – fighting for the red light on the back of the car in the rain, fighting for more barriers…” And he adds that the death of Cevert, whom he knew well, caused him completely to lose interest in the sport for a long time.
Stewart acknowledges how lethal racing was in that period, how many people died, how nothing was being done to address the situation by either governing body or track owner:
“One night Helen and I counted up, and we got to 57 people who’d been killed racing, some of whom were close friends. Today a modern Grand Prix driver would not know how to deal with the type of circumstance that the drivers of my era had to endure, looking after the wives and the girlfriends, Helen having to go and pack the suitcase of a close friend who was no longer with us…
“Lorenzo Bandini died here in Monaco. There was a fire, and they couldn’t put it out. Lorenzo never got out of the car – the fire just enveloped everything and there wasn’t enough equipment to cope.
Today we don’t get fires, because we’ve got fuel tanks that don’t explode – and if there should be a fire now, we’ve got the best extinguishers in the world to cope with it and the best medical people to give resuscitation. Quite a few drivers over the years, you know, have died in the car, but been jump-started by someone expert in bringing the heart back to life – and these people are here today, whereas in past years they were lost forever.”
Together they celebrate that today’s racing is immeasurably safer than it was, that accidents of extraordinary violence are now routinely survived. “Sometimes,” Polanski says, “you see accidents that blow your mind: you think it’s a cinema special effect – and the guy gets out of it, and walks away…”
“Yes,” says JYS, “and for someone like me – who knows the dynamics of an accident… When Kubica had his accident in Canada a few years ago, I thought, ‘He’s dead – nobody can survive impacts like that…’ Robert was taken away on a stretcher – but he was conscious, and next morning he walked out of the hospital.
“Then there was Mark Webber’s accident in Valencia in 2010: he hit the back of another car, went five or eight metres into the air, came down upside down – and the car then righted itself, and shot into the tyre barrier at maybe 130mph. Again I thought, ‘My God, he’s got to be dead’ – but he took off his seat belts, climbed out, and walked away. Changed times…”
Perhaps the most affecting part of their conversation, however, is that in which Stewart talks about his dyslexia. “When we did the movie, I did not know I was dyslexic. I was a disaster at school, a complete failure – I left at 15 with no education, and that was my greatest loss. I still can’t read or write properly – I don’t know the alphabet, I don’t know the words of my National Anthem…
“At the time we did the movie I was faking any perceived wisdom that I had – I was insecure because I knew I wasn’t as clever as people thought I was. I knew I could drive racing cars, and that I could communicate with people – but I still couldn’t read or spell. All those years I thought I was stupid…”
“You never told me any of that…” murmurs Polanski.
“Well, in those days I would have been ashamed,” says Stewart. “I mean, Helen didn’t know – I couldn’t tell her. I had no idea that my life – in terms of victories or money or whatever – was going to turn out as successfully as it did. I never thought I could ever reach that level – or keep it at that level, either. I always thought that other people were cleverer, better, more skilled than I was…” In the circumstances he coped rather well, did he not?