Nigel Roebuck

Reflections
– So, the British Grand Prix is saved. Or is it?
– Lewis at Silverstone – a moment to savour
– It’s time for Kimi to step up his game again

He wasn’t to know it, but DC’s timing wasn’t the best. For some time the word had been that Sebastian Vettel would be partnering Mark Webber in the 2009 Red Bull team, as formally confirmed at Hockenheim, and Coulthard, at 37, had decided that the run-up to the British Grand Prix would be the ideal time to announce his retirement from Formula 1 at season’s end. Apart from anything else, two of the 13 wins in a fine career had come at Silverstone.

Even in this Hamilton era, David’s announcement would ordinarily have attracted a lot of ink over the Grand Prix weekend; as it was, though, it – and everything else of apparent note – was overtaken by what Harold Macmillan called, “Events, dear boy, events”.

Friday morning in the Silverstone press room was par for the course – chatting about this, laughing about that, moaning about the lack of space, even typing a little. In The Times there was news of a rapprochement between Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley, the suggestion that – to a degree, anyway – it was peace in our time, and since Ecclestone has lately taken to using the journal as his conduit to the outside world (once the practice, until his difficulties with News International, of Mosley), we were inclined to go along with it. That was the main topic of conversation – until a colleague, sitting opposite me, routinely checked his e-mails, and came forth with an expletive that silenced us. “The Grand Prix,” he then said, “is going to Donington!”

Once the shock had receded, the first response was cynical. Had there not, in recent days, been rumours of discussions between Bernie Ecclestone and the owners of Donington? Surely this was just a scam, another way of putting pressure on the BRDC, which is to say Silverstone.

“Well,” our colleague said, “the announcement is from the FIA…”

By now we all had our e-mails up, and by now, too, everything else was forgotten. Towards the end of the morning session, Felipe Massa hit Fernando Alonso’s newly-laid oil at Stowe, and had a sizeable accident, but at lunchtime many in the paddock were unaware of it. Has Massa had a shunt, then? Is he OK? For the last hour or two, minds – as has been the case way too often this year – had not been on the track.

Two thoughts swiftly occurred. First, no surprise at the gratuitous brutality of the timing, even if it necessarily took the edge off the weekend for a huge number of Silverstone devotees; second, why had the announcement come in the form of a press release from the FIA? Had not Max Mosley many times spoken of the governing body’s resolute lack of involvement in the commercial side of F1, always insisting that that was the sole province of the ‘commercial rights holder’, one B C Ecclestone? Max and Bernie, it seemed, were straining to present to the world a united front.

Whatever, the news was relayed to us thus: ‘Following discussions with Formula One Management, the FIA can confirm that the British Grand Prix will be maintained on the World Championship calendar. From 2010 the new home of the British Grand Prix will be Donington’.

Nor was the FIA’s statement left at that, for there followed comments – hardly unbiased in tone – from the president: “After many years of patient but fruitless negotiation” – sob! – “with the BRDC, we are delighted that Bernie has nevertheless been able to ensure that the British Grand Prix will keep its place on the F1 World Championship calendar.

“We understand that the development programme planned for Donington will achieve the very high standards we and FOM expect from a modern F1 circuit.” (Like Interlagos?) “Finally, British F1 fans will get the Grand Prix venue they deserve.”

Next – I say again, in this FIA statement – came remarks from another president, this time of FOM. “Finally the uncertainty is over,” said Ecclestone. “A contract has been signed with Donington Park, and the future of the British GP is now secure.

“We wanted a world-class venue for F1 in Britain, something that the teams and British F1 fans could be proud of. The major development plans for Donington will give us exactly that. A venue that will put British motor sport back on the map.”

Given that six of the 10 F1 teams are based in this country, one hadn’t been aware that ‘British motor sport’ needed to be put ‘back on the map’, but there you are.

“I am sorry,” Bernie concluded, “that we could not have helped Silverstone to raise the money to carry out the circuit improvements and run Formula 1. I believe that the government should have supported them, which would have cost probably less than .002 per cent of the government’s commitment for the Olympic Games.” (sic)

For some little time now Mosley, when not distracted by outside events, has gone on at length about the need dramatically to cut costs in F1, and while some have struggled to balance that with the FIA’s simultaneous introduction of the highly expensive KERS technology, all agree with the fundamental premise: costs do indeed need to come down – not least because it is now apparently as good as impossible to put on a Grand Prix without ‘government help’, and that is surely an absurdity.

When I was in Montréal a local journalist told me that recently it had been announced that the bill for the city’s Olympic Games had finally been signed off, and this was considered cause for celebration. Given that Montréal staged the games in 1976 – the year James Hunt won the World Championship – one inevitably wondered how long it will be before London’s slate is wiped clean, and how much the final cost.

Personally, I quite understand why Ecclestone should resent the government’s Olympics budget which, predictably, has developed a mind of its own, but is it realistic – let alone reasonable – to expect government help for Grand Prix racing, which positively wallows in excess, and which puts precious little of its wealth back into the sport?

Damon Hill, the president of the BRDC, had a meeting with Gerry Sutcliffe, the Minister of Sport, only the day before practice began at Silverstone, but can he, or anyone, have seriously believed that government help would be forthcoming for an activity which, lest we forget, fines its own to the tune of $100,000,000, a figure insane in any sort of normal world?

No one needs to be reminded that our ‘prudent’ Prime Minister is hardly awash with cash at the moment, and, as well as that, of course, the spectre abides of that £1m donation to Labour from Ecclestone back in 1996: it’s a fair bet that to revive memories of it by renewed association with motor racing is a concept most in the cabinet would find ‘challenging’, the modern word for ‘impossible’.

Therefore, being seen to subsidise such an ultra-rich activity was surely never a runner, although some years ago Tony Blair was persuaded to stump up for a new road system around Silverstone, which at last made access to the circuit a single-day exercise. The pity is that the event for which it was primarily created – the British Grand Prix – is moving 60 miles up the road. Apparently.

If government money were sought by the BRDC, in aid of the race, why should not the same be true of the owners of Donington, who will apparently need not less than £100m to bring their circuit up to F1 standards before even thinking about the annual fee required by Bernie to bring his 20-car circus to town?

The tariff for a race is not a fixed one, as we know. In the case of Silverstone, it is apparently £11m, which makes the British Grand Prix among the cheaper races (although £11m more than poverty-stricken Monaco pays). In overall terms, though, the cost of a Grand Prix has sky-rocketed in recent years, thanks to the advent into F1 of such as China, Malaysia, Bahrain and Singapore, countries which, while lacking any cultural link with the sport, wished to have the kudos of a Grand Prix, and paid for them with ‘tourist budget’ funds. The extremely high fees paid by such countries have had a knock-on effect, so that ‘traditional’ Grands Prix, which do not benefit from government support, have been left breathless.

That being so, how can Donington – within two years – find the wherewithal, to say nothing of the time, to put on a state-of-the-art British Grand Prix in 2010?

Initially the suggestion was that a single investor was putting up the money, some murmuring that it could be Ecclestone himself, that he would then ‘own’ the British Grand Prix. That seemed unlikely, but for whom else could that sort of investment make any sense? One pictured an individual who spent his leisure hours humming mindlessly while tossing £50 notes into a brazier.

Rumours continue of a man prepared to risk half the total outlay, but not a penny from TV or on-circuit advertising is forthcoming, remember, and the only cash coming in will be ‘gate money’. That being the case, how could one such as he hope to recoup his investment, let alone make a profit? If you have answers, Mr T George of Indianapolis, for one, would like to hear from you. To say nothing of Mr D Hill.

Silverstone was a complete sell-out, as is invariably the case, but in many countries F1 crowds have been on the wane for years, not least because of the cost of admission. As Flavio Briatore puts it, “When you start talking about £200 or more for a grandstand ticket... you don’t come to the race by yourself, you bring the family, and suddenly it’s over £1000! For that money you go on vacation in Marbella, and watch the race on TV, right?”

Right. But if you’re a circuit owner, with an ever-mounting bill for putting on a Grand Prix, and only admission charges are allowed to come your way, what alternative to raising ticket prices do you have?

Once the shock of the Donington announcement had begun to subside, the next was learning, in an interview with Simon Gillet, one of the track’s joint CEOs, that no, unfortunately there wasn’t a single huge investor involved in the plans. The funding would come instead, he said, from debentures! As for planning permission, well, there was great optimism that this would be granted, but it had been impossible to apply for it ahead of the British Grand Prix deal’s announcement ‘for fear of giving the game away’.

When I heard this, my first thought was that Ecclestone is not renowned for doing deals – deals that he expects to come off, anyway – with people on that basis. A born gambler Bernie may be; one who throws money on a fire he is not.

As we left Silverstone, warmed by Lewis Hamilton’s imperious victory, and grateful for Radio Five Live’s commentary of the Nadal/Federer epic to help while away the stationary hours on the A43, what were we thinking? That next year we’d be back here for the last time? That in 2010 we’d be trying to get out of Donington, wondering why we’d ever complained about the A43? Or that we would be at home, watching TV coverage of the new Grand Prix in Mumbai or Jakarta or somewhere?

Over the Silverstone weekend, the politically correct reaction – even, officially, from the BRDC – to the bombshell news was that, oh well, at least the future of the British Grand Prix was assured, but I was one of many to feel less than confident about that.

“So it’s Donington, then?” I said to one of the inner circle on the day of the announcement, and he responded with what may be termed a wry smile. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see…”

In the paddock several possible scenarios were put forward, the first being that Donington would raise the necessary money, do the necessary work, and achieve both in the necessary time. Not many takers for that, I have to say. The second was that Donington would stumble, although not necessarily at the first hurdle, and that the promoters would have to come back to the BRDC, and seek a deal to put the race on at Silverstone, where they’ve been running Grands Prix for 60 years. We all remember the Nicola Foulston/Brands Hatch episode in 1999, do we not?

And the third scenario? Well, it went like this. Under pressure from CVC Capital Partners, the private equity company to whom he sold the commercial rights to F1, and which tends to put earning vast profits rather higher on its to-do list than benefiting motor racing, Ecclestone needs must find ever more cash-rich countries thirsting for a Grand Prix. There are to be 20 races in 2010, and the teams are adamant that they will countenance no more than that. If, down the pike, such as India, Russia or wherever are to be accommodated, it is no more than logical that others – from among the impoverished – must follow Imola into the skip.

Many at Silverstone suspected that what Ecclestone was truly seeking was a more palatable means of removing the British Grand Prix from the World Championship calendar. When I mentioned this to Eddie Cheever at Goodwood the week after, he responded with disbelief: “You can’t be serious! No Grand Prix – in Britain? My God, that’s like the Pope not going to Mass!” Changing times, Eddie, I said; changing times.

It’s a fact, of course, that – while a member himself – Bernie’s relationship with the British Racing Drivers Club has never been a warm one, and a fact, too, that he has long prided himself on being a very good friend and a very bad enemy. The BRDC contains many blazers of the kind he detests, and perhaps his attitude towards the club was set in stone the day someone stood up at a meeting, and came out with words to the effect that, ‘We really shouldn’t have to deal with some second-hand car dealer’. Nor was his animosity in any way assuaged when the BRDC chose a few years ago to build a new clubhouse – known as ‘Terminal Five’ – rather than invest the money in updating what he saw as the circuit’s tired facilities.

The argument of the BRDC, of course, and other track owners, too, is that if they were allowed to make a decent profit from running a Grand Prix, rather than struggle to break even, they would have the wherewithal to do as Ecclestone wishes, to plough money back into improving the facilities, as is continuously the case at such as Wimbledon and Ascot.

At Silverstone Ecclestone was asked if Donington would – could – be ready in time to run the race in 2010. “Don’t ask me,” he replied. “I’m not a civil engineer.” There were those in the BRDC clubhouse, it must be said, who would hesitate to suggest he is a civil anything, but Bernie plainly wasn’t concerned by that. He – F1, in other words – wasn’t ever coming back to Silverstone after 2009, he said. And if Donington didn’t come through? “Well, there won’t be a race in Britain – I’ll sign a contract with another country.”

Of course there have been times, not least with regard to Silverstone, when Ecclestone has had a change of mind. In an interview I did with him a dozen years ago, for example, he said, “I would never, ever, ever put more than 16 races on the calendar”.

Mind you, he did then add this: “The world changes so bloody fast these days that long-term planning is a nonsense. Any guy who starts talking about what’s going to be happening in three or four years time is an idiot. A complete idiot.”

That being so, I’d hold off a while before thinking about where to book a hotel room for the weekend of the 2010 British Grand Prix. It may be here, it may be there, or, who knows, you might not need one at all.

It was at Donington, of course, that on Easter Sunday in 1993 Ayrton Senna scored one of his most fabled victories. In appalling conditions, Senna’s McLaren was sixth at the first corner, in the lead by the end of the first lap, and for anyone there that memory is surely indelible.

Ayrton’s victory was hailed as one for the ages, and certainly it is a fact that his Ford V8 engine, as well as being less powerful than the V10s of most of his rivals, was also less ‘driveable’ on the slippery surface. When I talked to him about it later in the season, though, he was disinclined to rate it among his greatest drives. For one thing, he said, the downshift of his gearbox was markedly smoother than that of the Williams-Renaults – on the opening lap, he said, as he caught and passed Damon Hill and Alain Prost, he had noticed their rear wheels locking momentarily as the lower gear went in.

For another, Senna added, he had had traction control. So, I pointed out, had most of his rivals, but he brushed that aside.

“It was a good victory, sure,” he said, “but not like my win in Estoril, with a lot more power, a manual gearshift – and no traction control…”

It struck me that Ayrton was unduly playing down his Donington win, but I could see his point about that day in Portugal in 1985, when he and the turbocharged Lotus-Renault humbled everyone else in the place, the achievement all the more remarkable for being his first Grand Prix victory.

At Spa one year I watched the final qualifying session with Denis Jenkinson, and when it was done he said something to the effect that it was all too easy to be witness to a golden era in the sport, and truly to appreciate that only after it had ended. As usual, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had dominated the session, which, according to Jenks, was just as it should be: “At Spa, of all places, there’d be something wrong if they weren’t at the top of the list.

“It’s not often,” he said, “that we get two really great drivers operating at the same time, and we should be aware of it now, while it’s happening. They’re artists, both of them.”

Jenks was quite right, of course. To the end of his life he remained dewy-eyed about the turbo era, which he reckoned the greatest he had witnessed. As for drivers, well, he had respect for anyone who drove a Grand Prix car competently, but it took a special driver to gain his real interest, and as I watched Lewis Hamilton at the British Grand Prix I didn’t doubt that DSJ would have raved about his performance, for
he always got emotional on those days when one driver was visibly superior to all the rest.

As technology has increasingly taken on tasks once the province of the driver, we have quite often seen races won by good drivers in great cars, then seen those drivers fade into the background when driving merely ordinary cars once more.

It is more rare by far, in this era, to see a great driver triumph in an average car – look no further than the plight of Alonso this season. But there have always been days when hostile conditions have allowed a genius to go beyond his car’s recognised capabilities: on a slippery track the limit is defined more than usually by the driver.

Over time there have been many drivers with this special touch – Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Moss, Stewart, Ickx, Rodriguez, Villeneuve, Senna, Schumacher – and although Hamilton has been an F1 driver for only a season and a half, I am already persuaded that he is worthy of inclusion in the list. In the Fuji monsoon last year he was in a race by himself, and in treacherous conditions at Monaco comfortably out-drove everybody. Finally, at Silverstone, he made the rest – not least his World Championship rivals – look clumsy, in some cases inept.

It’s true, certainly, that McLaren were right on the ball that day, and Ferrari were not, and true, too, that there was at least a measure of luck in the fact that the shower, which fell immediately after Hamilton and Räikkönen made their first stops, was heavier than Ferrari had anticipated. Lewis, on a new set of intermediates, was thus in much better shape at this crucial point in the race; had the rain been brief and light, Kimi, who had stayed on the same set of now near-slick intermediates, would have found himself in the pound seats, but that was not the way the afternoon went.

As all around him flew off the road periodically (and, in the case of Massa, regularly), Hamilton continued to circulate as if in different conditions from the rest, as if he alone had the ability to ‘read’ the road, to know exactly where to place his car, and where not. There was one small off-course excursion that TV picked up, and, according to Lewis, another one ‘unseen’, but it was as close to a flawless wet-weather drive as could be reasonably imagined. After a couple of up and down Grands Prix since Monaco, he was utterly supreme, and I hope, as Jenks said, that we all recognised it as it was happening.

The previous day, in dry qualifying, Hamilton had not been at his best, visibly over-driving the McLaren as he strove to get on terms with team-mate Kovalainen. And there was a moment, caught on TV, when, as Heikki waited to be weighed, various drivers slapped him on the back, and offered their congratulations. This Lewis did, too, but only later. For now he stood to one side, staring blankly into space, as if in a trance.

I remember a similar expression on the face of Senna after qualifying at Estoril in 1988. Prost had easily beaten him to pole position, and clearly that didn’t compute with Ayrton: how was it possible for another human being, in the same car, to go so much faster than he? And he was scarcely soothed, as he stepped sweatily from his car, to note that Alain was up on the pitwall, having changed into civvies some minutes earlier, his work done.

Hamilton didn’t have quite that sort of psychological indignity to deal with, for he well knew that he had screwed up his crucial runs, but throughout dry practice and qualifying Kovalainen had undeniably been the McLaren front-runner.

Martin Whitmarsh believes that, had race day also been dry, Heikki would have won his first Grand Prix, but in the event, of course, the elements turned capricious, and Lewis was away and gone – when, let’s remember, everyone was on the same make of tyre, and no one had traction control. Without a doubt, one of the great wet weather drives of history.

The pace of change in Formula 1 – in all respects – never ceases to amaze. Only two years had passed since the last German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, and yet nine of the drivers on the grid at this year’s event had never before raced an F1 car there. Even more remarkable, perhaps, was that five of the 20 were German, and on that basis one might have expected a sizeable crowd, if not one comparable with the old days at Hockenheim, when upwards of 120,000 routinely packed in.

In point of fact, fewer than 70,000 tickets were sold in advance, and on race day there were great empty spaces in many of the grandstands. For the third time in four weeks, I found myself at a circuit whose F1 future appears, at best, to be seriously in jeopardy.

Over the weekend, indeed, there rumours that the track might be declared bankrupt within a matter of days, although that seemed unlikely, not least because Hockenheim is a fundamental pillar of the DTM, which may not count for much in the rest of the world, but in Germany has a huge following, which is greatly significant to Mercedes-Benz and Audi, its only participants.

Whatever else, though, the suspicion was that this was the last time Hockenheim would host the German Grand Prix, and many reasons were put forward for its decline. For one thing, Germany is suffering badly from the widespread economic downturn (although so, too, is Britain, and look at the capacity crowd at Silverstone); for another, locals said, many long-time Hockenheim devotees turned against the place in 2002 when, with one slash of his scalpel, Hermann Tilke removed a mile and a half from the track. While never a circuit for the gods, Hockenheim, with its long straights through the forest, did at least have the benefit of a character all its own, and even though Tilke pragmatically designed ‘an overtaking place’ into the new layout, a lot of folk took against it, and never went back.

As well as that, of course, there was another factor to consider. For 15 years the Hockenheim crowd had had Michael Schumacher to root for, and although his luck at the circuit was never the best – he only won there four times in 15 races, believe it or not – they took great pride in the fact that the best driver in the world was one of their own. Without him, a Grand Prix wasn’t the same.

One senses a similar case of Post Michael Stress Disorder at Ferrari. It may be the case that Kimi Räikkönen and Felipe Massa went to Hockenheim with 48 points apiece, thereby sharing the World Championship lead with Lewis Hamilton, but within the team there is less than total satisfaction with either driver.

They say of Jean Todt (considered a shoe-in for the FIA presidency when Max Mosley steps down finally in the autumn of 2009) that he lights up a room when he leaves it, and there is no doubt that since the charming Stefano Domenicali replaced him as team principal relations between Ferrari and the rest of the paddock have quantifiably improved. Within the team itself, however, there is some discontent, and one hopes that the blame will not be laid at Domenicali’s door.

I once asked Ross Brawn, in his Ferrari days, how he felt it would be to work with any other driver after Schumacher, and he admitted that the thought had many times gone through his mind.

“‘Very difficult’ is the answer to that, I suppose! You look at his professionalism, his level of ability, all those things… I mean, he’s just the best, so of course if you haven’t got the best, it’s more difficult. Michael earns the respect of all the people around him – they know he’s utterly committed, and doing the best job he can, so naturally everyone around him does the same. You don’t have to motivate people very much when Michael’s around…”

On the evidence of Silverstone and Hockenheim, both superbly won by Lewis Hamilton, the see-saw at mid-season has come down in McLaren’s direction, but still there is a feeling at Ferrari that Räikkönen and, to a lesser extent, Massa, are not doing justice to what they believe to be the best car they have built in five years. “Technically,” one close to the team said, “they are useless…”

Harsh, perhaps, and perhaps it’s inevitable that those familiar with working with Schumacher would find any other driver ‘technically’ deficient.

Massa, whose performances veer uncertainly from scintillating to embarrassing, is managed by Nicolas – son of Jean – Todt, and there was some surprise when a four-year contract was negotiated at the end of 2006, his first season with the team: not even Schumacher was ever signed for more than two at a time.

When Massa was paired with Schumacher, he was out-qualified 14-4, and when Räikkönen joined the team, it was expected that a similar ratio would be maintained. As it was, Felipe had the edge on Kimi, 9-8, in 2007, and this year is ahead again. Given that Räikkönen is the highest paid driver in the history of F1, many at Maranello feel this situation is not as it should be, that Kimi has a fundamental talent greatly beyond Felipe’s, and is not doing justice to it – or to their car.

Martin Whitmarsh thought much the same of Räikkönen in his McLaren days. “Let’s put it this way,” he said, “there were times when Kimi’s brilliance was apparent – and there were times when it was less so… It’s only human for performance to fluctuate to some extent – and it was only human for all of us involved in the team sometimes to question his application. Over the season his performance was good, but by the levels of genius that he could show on occasions, there were times when his performance was… less than we might have expected.”

By any standards, Räikkönen’s insouciance is legendary in the sport. He is, as Whitmarsh says, “A free-spirited individual, let’s say…”, and he goes his own way, often in a manner reminiscent of James Hunt. In this PR-dominated era, that can be an attractive quality – but to get away with it you have to deliver, to demonstrate beyond doubt that it isn’t affecting the way you do your job, and in this respect Kimi, like James, sometimes falls short. Fitness, not least, is ever more important in F1.

Räikkönen won the World Championship last year, by virtue of a quite brilliant ‘second half’, having at one stage trailed Hamilton by 26 points. It had taken him many races, he said, to find a set-up which worked for him, particularly in qualifying, but although he was new to both team and car, I’m not sure that’s acceptable from a driver of his essential greatness – or salary, for that matter. Kimi looked superb as he chased down Hamilton in the first stint of the British GP, but has more usually looked to be in one of his ‘down’ periods; at Monaco – a race he has won – he was awful.

Kimi’s contract with Ferrari expires at the end of 2009, and he has more than once hinted that he may retire from racing at that point. There are those within the team who hope he will do just that – indeed some who would like him to bring the decision forward a year, so that then the path would be clear for Fernando Alonso to move in. Santander, who signed to sponsor McLaren for three years (the original duration of Alonso’s contract with the team), are expected to announce their move to Ferrari for ’09.

At the moment Alonso is having a miserable time with Renault, the team with whom he won his two championships, and evidently his sights are set only on Maranello, for thus far he has resolutely refused to discuss a contract of more than one year with such as Honda and Red Bull, who have of course confirmed that Sebastian Vettel will partner Mark Webber next season.

In light of what we have seen in the past, it is by no means an impossibility that Räikkönen will suddenly reignite his season, and become again the great racing driver he can be, but in the opinion of most he ought to be dominating Massa, and that isn’t the case. Until it is, Lewis Hamilton has every reason to smile.