Nigel Roebuck

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Reflections
– Winning Webber has the wunderkind in his sights
– Spectre of Todt looms over fragile Formula 1…
– Surtees tragedy proof that racing can never be safe

When Rubens Barrichello superbly won the 2003 British Grand Prix for Ferrari, having outclassed Michael Schumacher all weekend, there was considerable pleasure in the paddock, for Rubens is among the most well liked of Formula 1 drivers.

I remember running into Martin Brundle a few minutes after the race, and he was delighted for his former team-mate. “Great result, isn’t it?” he said. “Proper bloke wins Grand Prix…”

Brundle couldn’t have put it better. Once in a while, as after the German Grand Prix, Barrichello can fall prey to Latin histrionics (probably the consequence of being for years required to live on the crumbs Jean Todt allowed to fall from Schumacher’s table), but you know exactly where you are with Rubens, an honest and decent man. A ‘proper bloke’.

Another such is Mark Webber, which is why there was such delight in the press room when the number 14 Red Bull took the flag at the Nürburgring. First pole position on Saturday; first Grand Prix win on Sunday. As Webber took his slowing down lap, the screams of ecstasy from the cockpit were almost primeval, reminiscent of Ayrton Senna, and graphically conveyed how much this meant, for Mark is not normally given to this sort of thing.

From first stepping into Paul Stoddart’s Minardi at Melbourne in 2002, Webber had gone through 130 Grands Prix without winning, and was all too aware of the increasingly frequent comparisons drawn between him and Chris Amon, the supremely talented New Zealander who should have been World Champion in 1968, yet was somehow never to win a single Grand Prix.

In sporting circles, as we know, Australians love to describe us as ‘whingeing Poms’, and we, in our turn, are pleased to note in them a certain shortfall in the humility department. In his love of virtually all sports, Webber is a true child of his race – but, like Jack Brabham, pleasingly devoid of any hint of brashness or arrogance. And a less ‘precious’ F1 driver it would be hard to imagine.

Some while ago we were chatting in a paddock somewhere, and the question of speedway was brought up. Webber has a passion for it, and I mentioned that I, too, had enjoyed it all my life, starting with meetings at Belle Vue when I was a kid.

At Silverstone Mark invited me to Cardiff the following weekend, to watch the speedway British Grand Prix from his box at the Millennium Stadium. I very much enjoyed the day.

So, too, did Webber – not least because his Aussie mate, and World Championship leader, Jason Crump was in dominant form: seven rides, seven wins. As the winner was presented with his trophy, Mark and his dad, Alan, rapturously waved an Australian flag, just two more fans in the 50,000 crowd.

That was what struck me most, really. It was difficult to imagine any other Grand Prix driver behaving in so ‘normal’ a fashion in an environment in which, for once, he was not the star. Going round the pits – wonderfully informal, reminiscent of the ambience of F1 in the ’60s – Webber was just another happy aficionado. A couple of days before Cardiff he and his partner Ann had been at Wimbledon, watching Lleyton Hewitt; the day after they would be at Donington for the World Superbikes. And a couple of weeks after that, of course, Mark would win the German Grand Prix.

Even more remarkably he did it in spite of incurring a drive-through penalty, following a touch with Barrichello on the run down to the first corner. It was nothing compared with the sort of stunts Michael Schumacher used to pull – with impunity – every weekend of his racing life, but that was then, and this is now. In a very short time we have gone from unpunished crimes against humanity to the nanny state.

He’s a tough old boy, Webber. Only a few months ago, lest we forget, he suffered a badly broken leg while competing in his own charity event, the Mark Webber Pure Tasmania Challenge.

Grand Prix drivers of the modern era tend to be terrifyingly fit, but Webber trains even more obsessively than most, just as Schumacher used to do. To be out of action for so long, dealing with an endless period of recuperation, was nightmarish for him. But typically he didn’t wallow in self-pity, and simply set himself a goal of being back in the Red Bull by February, ready to race in Melbourne the following month. He made it – but admits now that it was even harder than he could have anticipated, that the leg took longer to heal than expected.

As well as that there was the little matter of a new team-mate. With David Coulthard (coming to the end of his career) in the other car, Webber was invariably Red Bull’s pacemaker, but Sebastian Vettel was another proposition entirely, and while Mark worked away on his rehab the precocious youth was logging the miles in the new car.

There are those who believe that Vettel is already fundamentally the fastest, the most naturally talented driver in F1. Since arriving at the top level, with Toro Rosso in 2007, his refreshingly gauche public manner has charmed the paddock, but be in no doubt that there resides within him the steel core essential in anyone who would be World Champion. The schoolboy grin may be real enough, but Sebastian is as ambitious as he is quick, which is to say ferociously so.

At 22, Vettel is also 10 years younger than Webber, and has had a very much easier passage into the top echelons of F1. Mark knows as well as anyone that in this business comparison with one’s team-mate is a never-ending process, which is why it was so pleasing to see him – in Germany – not only win the race consummately, but also comfortably beat the wunderkind to pole position.

Perhaps the handshake from Vettel, the slap on the back, as he and Webber headed for the post-race weigh-in, seemed a touch perfunctory, compared with the pleasure for Mark evident in the greetings of Jenson Button or Felipe Massa, but there was nothing churlish in Sebastian’s remarks at the press conference: “Congratulations to Mark – he was unbeatable today…”

As of the Nürburgring Vettel and Webber were separated by only a point and a half, and Christian Horner has said that unless, or until, we arrive at a situation where only one of his drivers is in contention for the championship there will be no team orders.

Unlike the sort of bloodless solution routinely sought by Todt in his Ferrari days, this news is excellent for F1 fans – and also for Jenson Button, who must hope that Sebastian and Mark continue to take points from each other, as famously did Emerson Fittipaldi and Ronnie Peterson back in 1973: Lotus handily won the constructors’ title – but Jackie Stewart was World Champion.

*****

One of the reasons for my thinking highly of Mark Webber is that he is not afraid to say what he thinks. In the climate of fear which has long pervaded F1 that is no small thing, believe me.

In the wake of the News of the World affair in 2008, for example, everyone thought – and, off record, said – that Max Mosley should resign as president of the FIA forthwith, suggesting that had he been the CEO of a major company he would have been gone within the hour. Through the whole paddock, though, Webber alone had the courage to say that on the record, not least because he couldn’t see how Mosley could ever again accuse anyone else of ‘bringing the sport into disrepute’.

To Mark, everyone else was shilly-shallying around, terrified of saying what they felt for fear of recrimination. He wasn’t unmindful of that himself, plenty of folk warning him there would be a ‘payback’ of some kind, but he’d been brought up with decent values, and that was that.

It wasn’t that – like most people – he cared very much what the FIA president chose to do with his leisure hours; it was that the whole saga was so irredeemably tacky, and did not present to the world an image of F1, and the people within it, he considered favourable to the sport. Everyone – not least the sponsors – agreed with him, but they all kept shtum, because that is what frightened people invariably do. When I asked one team principal to say for the record what he had said in private, his response was immediate: “But supposing Max survives…”

And Max, of course, did survive. He took the NOTW to court, on the grounds that his privacy had been invaded, and won. Even before that, he had persuaded a majority of the FIA member clubs that he should stay in his post, and – as ever – they had acquiesced.

All this occurred, of course, before the formation of FOTA, but if in public the F1 team principals behaved like mice, in private they spotted an opportunity perhaps to unseat Mosley. If, unanimously, they were to sign a declaration to the effect that he should go, that would carry some serious weight. At the Canadian Grand Prix they told Bernie Ecclestone of their plan, and his response was that if they all signed it, so, too, would he.

Unworthy thought it may be, but it’s just possible that all along Bernie had a shrewd idea that unanimity among the teams wouldn’t be achieved. In the Montréal paddock Mosley’s FIA spin doctor rushed around telling us that Ecclestone and Mosley really were at loggerheads this time, that Max – back in Europe – was refusing even to take Bernie’s calls.

Hmm. In the end the question of Ecclestone’s signing the declaration never came up, for only nine of the 10 teams put their names to it. Ferrari declined, and it was a decision that everyone in the team regrets to this day.

“We had the chance to get rid of Mosley, and we missed it,” a Maranello man told me recently. “And why? Because of Todt. And why did Todt say we shouldn’t sign? Because already he had his eyes on succeeding Mosley…”

Let us fast-forward 12 months, to Silverstone in June. Over that weekend there was a state of euphoria in the paddock, for on the Thursday evening FOTA members had concluded they could waste no more time on Mosley and his machinations, and would therefore secede from the FIA and its official F1 World Championship, and in 2010 run a series of their own. It would feature every team and driver of consequence, and it would have a calendar which actually involved countries attractive to them and their sponsors.

Any doubts about the seriousness of this intent were dispelled by the revelation that the five ‘manufacturers’ involved in F1 had signed an agreement to the effect that if any were to defect from FOTA to the FIA they would pay each of the others 50 million euros. This was agreed at board level, and amounted to a potential outlay of 200m euros. Sounded like a reasonable commitment to me.

Mosley’s instant response to FOTA’s declaration of independence was to threaten legal action – yes, that again – but by race day at Silverstone reality had set in, and he backtracked furiously, asserting that he didn’t want go to law; no, no, he simply wanted to talk…

FOTA people, still light-headed at the thought of being rid of him, were not interested. While the rows with the FIA had their roots originally in Mosley’s ‘budget cap’ plans, the whole thing had gone way beyond that, and now distilled simply to dissatisfaction with the governance of the sport: we cannot, they were saying, work one more day with Mosley.

Nor was this sentiment confined to the team principals. Over the Silverstone weekend the drivers were privately assured by Ecclestone that Mosley ‘was history’.

Before leaving the circuit, Bernie said he had given 30-odd years of his life to F1, and wasn’t about to see it disintegrate now. It was reasonable to assume, I think, that he must at that time have been feeling more than a touch of pressure from the gentlemen of CVC, for on the face of it FOTA appeared committed to its own ‘breakaway series’, while on offer from the FIA appeared to be an F1 World Championship – to which CVC owns the bulk of the commercial rights – featuring Williams, Force India and a few new ‘Cosworth teams’.

Say what you like about CVC – and plenty, myself included, have said plenty – if there’s one thing private equity companies understand it’s money. They make nothing else, after all. And now the bosses at CVC went into panic mode, aware that their cash cow was heading swiftly for the abattoir.

That being so, a meeting with FOTA was urgently sought, and Luca di Montezemolo – to the disappointment, it must be said, of some of his members – agreed. Frantic debate, with a lot of coffee and not much sleep, followed, and by the Wednesday after the British GP, following a meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council, there was an announcement that it was ‘peace in our time’. The FIA F1 World Championship would go ahead as normal in 2010, and all the FOTA teams would take part. While the question of ‘budget caps’ had been dispensed with, all the teams had agreed on a gradual return to a level of spending similar to that ‘in the early ’90s’ – and, oh by the way, Mosley would not be standing for re-election as FIA president in October.

So there we were, all friends together again, with Luca, Bernie, Max et al on the same page at last. Mosley smoothly gave the impression that ‘because there was peace, he wouldn’t be standing for re-election’. The reality was rather different: ‘because I’m not standing for re-election, there is peace…’

At a press conference di Montezemolo went as far as thanking Mosley for the part he had played in resolving the problems. Unfortunately, though, he didn’t leave it there. When he got home to Italy Luca was interviewed again, and now – perhaps swept away by elation – he wasn’t quite so complimentary. There were even remarks about ‘dictators’…

Oh dear. Within hours, the toys came positively flying out of the pram. Di Montezemolo had said some horrid things, even – imagine – giving the impression that he, Mosley, had been ousted.

What Max did, of course, was revert to his default position, to play yet again a hand so many times a winning one in the past: he suggested that the authority of the FIA – the Sainted Governing Body – was being challenged, and that only one man on earth could safeguard the interests, not only of the sport, but also of the million trillion ordinary motorists represented by the member clubs, etc, etc… Unless a letter of apology were forthcoming from di Montezemolo, Mosley said, he would have to reconsider his decision not to stand again…

Luca grovels like Gordon Brown chuckles, so that was obviously not a runner. The F1 community sighed with exasperation: Mosley was now simply playing politics, fermenting more uncertainty in the sport for the hell of it, and – most surprising, perhaps – becoming what at one time he might have dreaded most of all: a bore.

Did Max really entertain thoughts of standing for re-election in the autumn? Or was this latest turnaround merely a ploy, a means of buying a little more time for the man he saw as his successor, namely J Todt, at that time Global Expressing his way around Africa, drumming up support for his candidature in the autumn?

Carlos Gracia, president of the Spanish federation, dismissed that suggestion out of hand: “Unless Max has gone even more mad,” he said in a radio interview, “I don’t think he’ll back Todt…” Subsequent events were to indicate that Sr Gracia may have been out of the loop.

For a couple of weeks there was a virtual silence in Formula 1 that was quite uncanny. Mosley, who had been ‘grossly insulted’ by di Montezemolo’s remarks about him, gave an interview to the Mail on Sunday, in which he predictably came forth with a few gratuitous insults aimed at Luca – he may have the title of Chairman of Fiat, but in reality he is merely a bella figura, not taken seriously in Italy, that sort of thing – but from the F1 team principals there was hardly a word, save murmurings of disquiet about the nature of the relationship between Alan Donnelly, one of Max’s right-hand men, and Manor Motorsport, one of the new teams aspiring to F1 in 2010.

At this time Mosley also chose to inform the world that one FOTA team – inevitably one of the hated ‘manufacturers’ – had in April secretly asked him to declare illegal the controversial ‘double diffuser’ used by Brawn (and Williams and Toyota). This Max described as ‘wholly improper’, and we wondered which team had made the request. Not Ferrari, obviously, because they already had an official ‘right of veto’, as agreed – unfathomably – with the governing body…

Next, piercing the still air suddenly was controversy – and how – from another quarter: in an interview not directly connected with motor racing, Bernie Ecclestone came out with a number of contentious remarks, some suggesting that Mosley would have made a very good Prime Minister, others – rather more seriously – that Adolf Hitler hadn’t been all bad.
When it suits him, Bernie, we know, is not above voicing deliberately perverse opinions, but this time he was plainly shaken by the reaction – worldwide – to what he had said. He shouldn’t have been, but he was. Profuse apologies duly followed, but the damage was done. Newspapers everywhere discussed the long alliance between Ecclestone and Mosley, losing no time in linking Bernie’s remarks with Max’s family history, and concluding that it was time for these two ‘gruesome old men’ to quit the public stage.

Emphatically, there were some within the hierarchy of CVC – many of whose directors are Jewish – who felt the same way. Donald Mackenzie allowed that the company had been appalled by Ecclestone’s remarks, but said that rumours of his being replaced were not true. Sir Martin Sorrell, on the other hand, was unequivocal: “Any other CEO in any other business would be gone”.

Now when and where had we heard that before?

Off we went to the Nürburgring. On the Wednesday there was an FIA Technical Working Group meeting, attended by all the teams, including the three new ones (USF1, Campos, Manor), but it proved a waste of everyone’s time.

“The eight FOTA teams,” said an FIA statement, “were invited to attend the meeting to discuss their proposals for 2010. Unfortunately no discussion was possible because FOTA walked out of the meeting.”

Well, of course FOTA walked out of the meeting, because upon arrival its members were informed that, while their presence as observers was welcomed, they – unlike the three teams who have yet to appear in F1 – had no voting rights!

If their time had been gratuitously wasted, their reaction was surprisingly calm. Yes, there had been yet another drearily unproductive stunt by the FIA, but… do we really care that much any more?

In the paddock, indeed, the mood was generally upbeat. CVC had taken the step of dealing directly with FOTA, and it appeared that much progress had been made. There remained those team principals fundamentally in favour of breaking away, but generally the feeling was that to organise a FOTA championship would require an enormous amount of time and money, and if a more equitable financial agreement could be reached with CVC, it would be better to continue as before, at least for the time being. A new Concorde Agreement would be signed by FOTA and CVC, after which it would be sent to the FIA who could sign it if they felt like it, but, frankly, my dear…

The time for silly play-acting, in other words, was done. And there was a further breath of clean air in the shape of Ari Vatanen, who announced his candidature for the FIA presidency, talked to a lot of people, and much impressed everyone with his straightforward words. By the end of the Nürburgring weekend, there wasn’t much doubt as to whom the teams wished to see take over the post in the autumn.

Three days later Mosley announced once and for all that he would not stand again, issuing to the press the letter he had sent to all the FIA member clubs. Elation at the news was short-lived, however, for just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water you got to page two.

“I believe,” Mosley said, “the objectives of those who have been kind enough to support me can be achieved if you elect a strong, experienced and competent team, one which will maintain the independence of the FIA and ensure that both the sport and the mobility side are properly run. As an ex-officio member of the Senate, I hope to play a modest role myself.”

The last sentence made one shiver, in a Putin sort of way.

“I believe,” Mosley went on, “the right person to head that team would be Jean Todt. If he agrees to stand, I think he would be the ideal person to continue, but also to extend, the work of the past 16 years. I very much hope you will give him your support.”

Even by Mosley standards, this was breathtaking: an outgoing FIA president was effectively instructing the delegates to vote for his chosen successor.

No one needs telling that Todt is an extremely able man, in some ways a brilliant one.

His achievements for Peugeot-Citroën speak for themselves, and it was on his watch that the Ferrari F1 team was transformed into the relentless winning machine of the Schumacher era. Speak to anyone who worked with him, drivers included, and it is difficult to find a critical voice.

Outside, though, the picture is somewhat different – indeed it would have been near impossible, over the last decade, to find a man in the paddock more widely disliked. Todt was regarded as fiendishly clever, yes, but also manipulative and vindictive. Any bells ringing out there?

As well as that, he was always curiously bloodless – and perhaps this is why he was so effective. I think back now to the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, to the notorious day when Rubens Barrichello, having dominated the race from pole position, was ordered by Todt to give way to Schumacher, which he duly did on the run up to the chequered flag.

In all my years of reporting Grand Prix racing, I have never witnessed a crowd reaction such as that at the A1-Ring that day. As one, the folk in the grandstands turned their thumbs down, and howled their disapproval. Patrick Head, like everyone else, was stunned by the turn of events: “What Ferrari did was disgusting,” he said. “We have an obligation to motor sport, and the public, and it was ignored today. That obligation comes before anything else…”

Most astonishing of all, perhaps, was that Todt was plainly stunned by the general response to what he had done.

At a hastily convened press conference he muttered endlessly about, “Having sometimes to take difficult decisions, and accepting the consequences.

“We are fighting for a championship,” he said, “and it’s a difficult fight.” Well, absolutely. To that point in the season, after all, Ferrari had won only five of the six races run.

“Michael,” Todt went on, “has more chance in the championship than Rubens, so if we have to decide in favour of one driver, at the moment it’s Michael. OK, now some people are not so happy – but we have the result. Maybe you don’t understand, and I’m sorry for you, but I must say that I’d rather Rubens understood than you…”

He missed the boat on that one, too.

The final question left him clearly bemused: had not the whole affair been disastrous for the image of Ferrari? “You know,” he said, “I think it’s very good for Ferrari’s image to be first and second…”

There wasn’t a flinch at any point, and we trooped out amazed at the behaviour of such an emotionless man, to whom ‘an obligation to the sport’ was clearly of no consequence whatever. As such, one can readily understand why Mosley should consider Todt to be his anointed successor.

The day after Mosley’s announcement a multilingual e-mail arrived from ‘JeanTodt&Team2009’. It gave the impression of having been in preparation for quite some time, running to 23 pages, and listing all the FIA appointments Todt will make if elected president.

The second paragraph read thus: ‘It is my intention to continue and expand the outstanding work of President Mosley, who for 16 years has worked tirelessly to strengthen the FIA’s major motor sport championships, and to position the FIA as the voice of the motoring public, actively promoting safe, clean and affordable mobility for all’.

A chip off the old block, then, just as everyone expected, so it’s just as well that, given the strength of FOTA, the possibility of a ‘breakaway championship’ will continue to exist in the wings.

It is a tragedy that those most affected by the machinations of the governing body – the teams, the people who actually compete for the World Championship – have no influence in deciding who its president shall be. That task is performed by FIA delegates, many of whom do not even have motor racing in their own country.

So there we are. Another month in the cosy world of Formula 1. On the face of it, Ari Vatanen has an uphill task as he takes on the Todt steamroller, but we must hope that ultimately he prevails. Should that come to be, his first task will be to throw open the windows at the FIA.

*****

Professor Sid Watkins, as we know, has done more to improve safety in motor racing than anyone before him. Through his many years as ‘Formula 1’s doctor’, the great neurosurgeon came to be revered in the paddock, not least because he was known to be the only man to whom Bernie Ecclestone deferred.

The Prof has a lovely sense of humour, which has come through in every interview we have ever done, and countless times he has had me laughing almost to the point of tears with his observations of those in the sport for whom he does not care. A better dinner companion you could not find.

For all his irreverence, though, Sid has always been utterly dedicated to the task of making our sport safer, and sometimes, when he has a very serious point to make, his voice quietens. I remember one such occasion in Montréal three or four years ago: “You know, Nigel, it’s easy for people to delude themselves into thinking that racing is safe now. It isn’t. It’s a lot safer than it was, yes – but it will never be safe in any normal sense of the word, and we should never ever forget that…”

I thought of Watkins, and what he had said, when I heard the appalling news that 18-year-old Henry Surtees had died from injuries received in a Formula 2 race at Brands Hatch.

You could say it was a freak accident, in the sense that the boy was struck by a bouncing wheel from another car – a fraction of a second earlier it would have hit the nose of his car, a fraction later the rear wing. As it was, it came down in the cockpit area, just as occurred at Hockenheim in 1980, when an errant wheel took the life of a young Austrian F2 driver, Markus Höttinger.

There is probably no way to legislate against accidents of this nature. Yes, we have wheel tethers these days, and usually they are effective, but still there are occasions every season when they do not hold.

I was chastened when Sid Watkins quietly reminded me that motor racing had not become safe, and never could be. “Whatever we do,” he said, “there will always be circumstances which result in tragedy, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. It’s the nature of the game. We’ve got immensely strong cars now, and the HANS device and run-off areas and tyre barriers and so on, making it possible to have an almighty accident and step out of it unhurt. But you cannot legislate against everything.”

After Surtees had been struck by the wheel, his car went straight on at the next corner and hit the barrier at an acute angle, but when it came to rest finally there was no deformation in its frontal area, testament to the design and build of the modern racing car. The injury to the driver, sadly, had been caused before his car left the road.

In April I spent a few hours in Edenbridge, interviewing Henry’s father about his life and times in Italy, working with MV and then Ferrari. John was on extremely good form as he went through his memories, good and bad, of Domenico Agusta and Enzo Ferrari, and he admitted that, “Part of me will always be in Modena…”

There had been something about Italy that attracted John from the very beginning, and he had never lost his love of it. “It must run in the family,” he said. “Henry went to Italy recently, for training, and he’d never been there before. When he got back, he said, ‘D’you know, dad, I think I could live there’.”

We talked about Formula 2, about Henry’s forthcoming season, and John’s pride in his son was evident in the look on his face, in everything he said.

Time was when it seemed I was constantly writing obituaries and tributes. Nowadays, when tragedy is relatively infrequent in our sport, the impact, when it comes, is somehow all the harder to bear. I can only offer sympathies to John and Jane and the family, and let them know we all share their loss. This really is the saddest thing.

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