Reflections

By Nigel Roebuck

Muddled priorities at a muddy Silverstone
Mark Webber’s similarities to Dario Franchitti
When the courageous choice is not to race

Reincarnation. If there is such a thing, I want to come back as an Olympic official. Setting aside all the other benefits, driving in the 21st century can still be a pleasure if you are so blessed – clearly, were the Red Sea in London, someone would have organised for it to part for these people.

I have read, for example, that for the duration of the Games, one of the ‘VIPs only’ traffic lanes near the Olympic site is to be stripped of its speed bumps – which will afterwards be reinstalled for mere mortals to endure once more. It’ll only cost about £50,000, apparently. Snip.

That got me thinking. Perhaps – as an Olympic official, only one step removed from Royalty – I might get my own dedicated lane into Silverstone… In the lobby of my hotel, on the Saturday morning of this year’s British Grand Prix weekend, a fellow resident spotted my credential, and offered to share with me his experiences of the day before. He had made an early start from Dorset, he said, and reached the environs of Silverstone in good time, only then to spend five hours attempting to gain access to the circuit. As he sat there, he could hear Formula 1 cars, but he couldn’t see them. And, given that he and his wife had paid hundreds of pounds for the privilege of attending the British Grand Prix, he was inclined to feel a touch aggrieved.

“Instead of building that Taj Mahal thing,” he said, “why didn’t they spend a few quid on car parks that can be used even when it rains?”

I offer the gist of his remarks, rather than the more colourful form in which they were originally delivered. He had finally parked his car long after F1 practice had finished, only to be requested – in the interests of Sunday – not to come to the circuit on Saturday. He was very angry.

‘That Taj Mahal thing’ was of course a reference to ‘The Wing’, the quarter-mile-long edifice in the new start/finish area, constructed at a cost of £30m, and opened in 2011. It is an elaborate structure, to be sure, encompassing the pits at ground level, and such as press room, restaurants and conference centre on the loor above. Built at the behest of Bernie Ecclestone, who had long previously expressed dissatisfaction with what he called the ‘country fair’ facilities at the UK’s premier circuit, it was part of the price that had to be paid if the British Grand Prix were to remain.

Some like it, some don’t. In the paddock, at the 2011 race, a former British Grand Prix winner looked around in bewilderment:

“Where the hell are we?” he asked.
“England? Bulgaria?”

This is always the problem, of course. Fundamentally we Brits like our traditions, relish a sense of familiarity, and that is fundamentally at odds with the philosophy of Mr E, who cares nothing for yesterday.

I remember talking to him at Zandvoort in 1985, lamenting that this was the last time around at a classic circuit, renowned for producing the best racing anywhere. Even as I spoke, I knew I was wasting my breath: “Yeah – but look at this bloody paddock,” Bernie said. “Old, tatty…”

I couldn’t argue about that. It was indeed old, and more than a touch careworn, but the place felt like a race track, had F1 in its footings, and for many – myself included – these things will always matter. The facilities at such as Bahrain or Abu Dhabi may indeed be state-of-the-art, but… who cares?

Well, Bernie, that’s who, and CVC and the rest of the brave new world of Grand Prix racing. Image is all – together with the appropriate cheque, of course. Farewell Imola, hello Yeongam or whatever the hell it’s called.

Speaking of the very wonderful Korean Grand Prix, in the Silverstone press room there were foreign journalists swearing they would never come back. “I’d rather go to Korea,” one barked at me, “twice!”

It was not the weather per se that had really got to him and others – it has, after all, been known to rain in countries other than Britain. No, it was the way the consequences of that weather had been dealt with – or not. For my own part,

I arrived at the track at nine o’clock on Friday morning to be told that the press car park was already full. “Where do I park, then?” I enquired, and the uninterested youth thought for a moment, then said, “Well, you’ll have to go back over the bridge, and ask…” Still, I was only too aware that, compared with the fans, I was in a privileged position, as confirmed by the man in the hotel lobby.

He was going to do as requested, he said, and not go to the track that day (Saturday): nowthe decision was whether to spend it mooching about in Milton Keynes or say the hell with it, and head back home. “They’re talking about refunds,” he muttered. “Does that include hotels, too?”

Like me, he had been at Silverstone for the race in 2000, and was at a loss to understand why lessons had – apparently – not been learned. That year, it may be remembered, the British Grand Prix was allocated a date in April, rather than in the traditional July, and although it was claimed by the powers-that-be that it was impossible to schedule it at any other time, the widespread belief was that Silverstone was being brought vindictively to heel, given a reminder as to who was in charge. At the time (as at so many others) Ecclestone was at loggerheads with the BRDC, not only over the price of the race, but also the facilities at Silverstone, which Bernie thought no longer acceptable.

It rained and rained through that spring, and the conditions at the circuit were truly appalling, recalling to mind a weekend at Zeltweg in the seventies, when you needed towing into the car parks, let alone out. My new friend in the lobby couldn’t figure why, a dozen years on, he was having to endure more of the same. It has, after all, been known to rain in July, too, as anyone present at the 2008 Grand Prix can attest.

When F1 made its single visit to Donington, in 1993, the race – the European Grand Prix – was run over the weekend of Easter, and the weather was similarly awful. Noting the forecasts, Tom Wheatcroft at the last minute spent a fortune on asphalt for the public car parks, but that was a man choosing to shell out his own money on his own land, and one cannot imagine how much it would cost to do the same at Silverstone, where the size of the crowd is at least twice that seen at most Grands Prix these days. Come to that, it has to be debatable that covering green fields in asphalt can be justified for a single weekend of the year.

Whatever else, though, it is abundantly clear that some changes must be made. The fan from Dorset had been at Goodwood the previous weekend, and made the point that, while there had been some delays, everything had gone reasonably smoothly there. Yes, the crowd had been smaller than at Silverstone, and the weather somewhat less unfavourable, but in the public car parks, he said, use had been made of ‘those metal mesh things’ that help traction in a muddy field: why had they not been in greater evidence at Silverstone?

What struck me most of all, though, was the resentful focus he put on ‘The Wing’. All that money had been spent, he said, on something that benefited only F1’s ‘insiders’, and did damn all for members of the paying public. He understood that its construction had been necessary if Ecclestone were to continue with a British Grand Prix, and sympathised with the Silverstone authorities’ consequent lack of cash for improved facilities for folk like himself. He knew all about that; he just wasn’t sure he could stomach it any longer.

I was by no means without sympathy for Richard Phillips, Silverstone’s MD (inset, left), and his team. Yes, at times the weekend was shambolic, but they worked tirelessly to make the best of an impossible situation, and with hardly an unlimited budget at their disposal. That said, they will appreciate how fortunate they are that the British race fan is stoic beyond compare. No Olympic official he or she.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the size of the British Grand Prix crowd was capped, but now no limit is set, and the plan is to continue that way. In part this has to be because so much money has been spent (and needs as much as possible to be recouped), and in part because Silverstone’s only Grand Prix income comes from ‘gate money’, with everything else going the way of Ecclestone and CVC.

Had fees been more reasonable over the years, and proits accordingly larger, more investment in the place – for things other than the Taj Mahal – would have been possible, but such has not been the way of it. In virtually all the ‘new’ Grand Prix venues the government signs the cheque, and the facilities are invariably first-rate, even if the circuits themselves are not. What these places don’t have, of course, is any soul. Or, come to that, any spectators.

Against all expectations, on Sunday the rain held off at Silverstone – until late afternoon, anyway – and so we had a dry British Grand Prix, and a fine race at that, with Mark Webber joining Fernando Alonso as a two-time winner in 2012. For most of the afternoon it had looked as though Alonso, fresh from his sensational victory (from 11th on the grid) at Valencia, would make it two on the trot. In wet qualifying an intelligent, beautifully delicate lap had taken him to Ferrari’s first pole position for nearly two years, but – more significantly – he had also been fastest in the one and only dry practice session.

After a palpably weak opening to the season, Ferrari had progressively upgraded the F2012 into a competitive tool, not on par with Red Bull’s latest-spec RB8, but pretty much a match for anything else.

Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes – nothing like as effective as it had been in the wet – served as a buffer in third place, effectively guaranteeing that the British Grand Prix would be a straight fight between Alonso and Webber. For 47 of the 52 laps the Ferrari held sway, but in the end Fernando – on soft tyres, with Mark on hard – had no answer, and so Red Bull took the British Grand Prix for the third time in four years.

They had plotted tyre strategy in different ways, the two teams. Dry running in practice may have been confined to a single session, but it was enough for Alonso to experience serious graining problems on the soft-compound Pirellis, and he opted to start on the hard tyres, then take more of the same at his irst stop, and leave himself with the shortest possible stint – and with a much lower fuel load – on the softs towards the end of the race.

That was the plan – and better yet would be the onset of rain, for that would suspend the rule requiring both types of dry tyre to be used. Would there be rain, though? Some teams’ forecasts indicated yes, others’ no.

Red Bull, like most of the front-runners, elected to get the questionable soft tyres out of the way, starting both Webber and Sebastian Vettel on them, and it was this decision that was to win Mark the British Grand Prix. All the rain on Saturday – after the dry morning session – meant that the circuit was ‘green’ for the start of the race, and in these conditions the soft Pirellis worked more effectively than later in the afternoon, when the track had ‘rubbered in’ – as evidenced by the fact that Felipe Massa (with a full fuel load) ran the first 13 laps without significant graining problems, whereas team-mate Alonso was in trouble with them almost from the start of his final 15-lap stint. As Webber closed in, he was hamstrung – and if the race had been even a lap longer, he might well have lost second place to the other Red Bull.

How the pendulum swings. Three years ago Vettel ran away with the British Grand Prix, with Webber second; two years ago, it was Mark’s turn to dominate; one year ago Alonso won for Ferrari, with the Red Bulls second and third, and Webber incensed that he had been ordered not to fight with Vettel in the late laps. This time around Mark had the edge over Sebastian in both qualifying and race, and we are seeing again the driver who led so much of the World Championship in 2010. This was a superb performance by the most down-to-earth driver in the paddock.

In so many ways, Webber reminds one of Dario Franchitti, for neither is remotely ‘starry’, and both have an unusual awareness of a world beyond their own. As Dario speaks of former drivers with reverence (as if unaware of his own achievements in the same line of work), so Mark – off duty – indulges his passion for other sports, not least speedway.

The British Grand Prix, run these days in Cardiff, invariably clashes with an F1 race, but the weekend was free three years ago, and Webber invited me to be a guest in his box. Naturally he was rooting for his Aussie mate Jason Crump (who duly dominated), but as we wandered round the pits before racing got underway, I was struck by his lack of self awareness. Some of the riders were plainly in awe of this ‘Formula 1 star’ in their midst, but to Mark they were the stars this night, he simply a fan. Trust me, there are not many like this.

The following weekend, at the Nürburgring, Webber won his first Grand Prix. And this year, the evening after his victory at Silverstone, there he was at the Norfolk Arena in King’s Lynn, supporting Australia in a qualifying round of speedway’s World Cup. Not a Grand Prix driver who makes life too complicated, Mark. He may have been a little off his game in 2011; not a bit of it this year.

For months, during Massa’s slump, there had been suggestions that Webber might go to Ferrari in 2013, and that made sense, for he and Alonso get along well, and virtually every driver will admit to the pull of Maranello. A couple of days after Silverstone, though, Red Bull conirmed that Mark’s contract had been renewed for 2013: yes, he allowed, there had indeed been talks with Ferrari, but in the end he preferred to stay put. The relationship with Vettel, once borderline hostile, has stabilised, which is not to say that they will ever be bosom buddies, but they work together professionally, and Webber highly Mercedes, but the belief in the paddock has long been that he would stay where he was.

There has been much talk of ‘negotiations’, but in reality McLaren have been playing it cool, not because they don’t value Hamilton, but because endless negotiations are inevitably a distraction – and there would anyway be no wish to sign a driver who would prefer to go elsewhere.

On the face of it, other doors are closing for Lewis. Red Bull is now out of the picture, and it is doubtful that most teams could meet XIX’s lofty inancial demands on behalf of its client. Ferrari? Although Alonso and Hamilton are more chummy now, that seems unlikely, not least because the team’s focus is on landing Vettel for 2014, which would create what Bernie Ecclestone has called his ‘dream team’: few team principals would take issue.

I’ve been wrong before, but it seems the likelihood is that, for all his management’s posturings, Hamilton will ultimately renew his ties with McLaren. That said, if any team came away from the British Grand Prix in a disappointed frame of mind it was surely this one, for the lat-out swerves of Silverstone should have been ideal terrain for the MP4-27. As it was, Lewis finished where he qualified, eighth, and Jenson Button’s poor run continued, with a single point scraped for 10th place.

At the post-qualifying press brieing one might perhaps have anticipated an atmosphere similar to that of a year earlier, when Martin Whitmarsh made what Button light-heartedly described as ‘a Churchillian speech’, conceding that the team’s performance was currently falling short of expectations, but emphasising that no team excelled McLaren in its ability to bounce back. One felt that perhaps Whitmarsh was taking a disproportionate amount of responsibility on himself and the team, so as to go easy on one of his drivers, who wasn’t performing well.

At that meeting Button did his best to jolly things along, but Hamilton kept his comments to a minimum, and spent most of the time iddling with his iPhone. ‘I’m not happy,’ his body language said, ‘and I want you all to know that…’

This, of course, was in the middle of Lewis’s ‘strange phase’, when he was making a lot of mistakes in the car, and giving the impression that his mind was elsewhere – which it was. In 2012, though, Lewis, his personal life more settled, has been different again, driving beautifully and – perhaps more significantly – displaying a new-found maturity when things go wrong, as in motor racing they always will. Qualifying may not have gone well at Silverstone, just as it hadn’t the year before, but this time around he was smiling, fully engaged, and expressing confidence in his team. As a vignette, it could not have been further removed from that of 12 months earlier.

To the disappointment of most of the 127,000 who crammed into Silverstone next day, the McLarens had no major role to play, Button suggesting that not only Red Bull and Ferrari, but also such as Lotus, Williams and Sauber were now quicker. Monday’s papers duly reported that the following day there was to be a get-together at the team’s HQ, where the atmosphere was bound to be downbeat.

Some were even moved to suggest that it amounted to – sharp intake of breath – ‘a crisis meeting’, which seemed a touch over the top, given that only four weeks earlier Hamilton had decisively won the Canadian Grand Prix.

“In fact, there was always going to be a meeting after Silverstone,” sighed Martin Whitmarsh. “Each season we have about five scheduled ‘driver technical’ meetings – one after two winter tests, another immediately prior to the first race, another prior to the start of the European season, a mid-season one (post-Silverstone) and one after Monza, prior to the ‘lyaways’. Both drivers are required to be there, and the meetings are larger than normal, with about 30 people present. The department heads of the various engineering functions present reports on what they’re doing, and it gives an opportunity to the drivers, to the management, to the other functions, to discuss whether or not we’re focused on the right place.”

Victorious over at Montréal, midfield at Silverstone a month on. In many ways, I said to Whitmarsh, these days it’s harder to write about contemporary F1 than ever before, simply because of this scenario – thanks to the tyre situation – in which a car can be the class of the field one weekend, relatively nowhere the next.

“Yes,” Martin nodded, “and it’s even more than that – you can have ‘a driver’ in ‘a car’ competitive, and the other driver in the same car not. At the moment tyres are a massive dilemma. At some races – as with Lewis in Barcelona and Montréal, for example – we made better use of them than anyone, in terms of pace and wear, but there have also been races where we’ve been virtually the worst. Four weeks ago, after Montréal, I was sitting here, thinking ‘We’re getting on top of this…’, but today it’s a different matter, and it’s frustrating!

“Look at Lewis at Silverstone. He ran 21 laps on his irst set of prime (hard) tyres, then did a quick burst of seven laps on the option (soft) tyre, then we lipped him back to the primes – probably too quickly – because of the good experience on them in the first part of the race, but within a lap or so he was telling us that the second set just didn’t feel the same as the first. Now, they’d been notionally set to the same pressures, and with the same blanket temperatures – yet he was saying they weren’t like the first set. What d’you do then? You’re committed to a strategy, after all. There were 20-odd laps to go, and I just thought, ‘This is going to be painful…’

“Some drivers deal with frustration better than others, but generally the winners deal with it badly! So then you think, ‘What do you tell the driver?’ When things are going well, you say, ‘Your pace is good… you’re losing a bit of time here, gaining a bit there…’ Suddenly, though, every one of those comments is useless, and the driver’s trying to hold back – not always successfully – from saying, ‘I’m driving the f****** nuts off this car – get out of my ear!’ The whole complexion of the communication, and the motivation of the driver, swings on the tyres…

“Let me make it clear that I’m not throwing rocks at Pirelli. As I said to the guys at the post-Silverstone meeting, probably there is always going to be a variability in manufacturing – some sets are better than others – and we’ve got to accept that. One, it is what it is; two, it’s outside of our control; three, there could also have been other factors within our control: it’s possible that the moisture in those tyres was different, that the thermal history and preparation of them was different, that the pressures were different, that the track surface temperature had cooled down a bit, that the track had rubbered in a little bit…

“What’s absolutely clear, though, is that these tyres – certainly in my 24 years’ experience – have the tightest, smallest, peakiest ‘window’ we’ve known. You can fall one side of it or the other – and if you fall the wrong side, you’re two seconds slower than you should be…

“Personally, I think it’s a little too severe at the moment, but Pirelli are only doing what they were asked to do by F1. Twenty years ago, you know, I was the hardliner in technical working groups when it came to the purity of F1 – whereas now I’m the one who bullies the group into doing things either for reasons of cost reduction or entertainment. At one time, for example, I’d have fought like hell against DRS – the artificiality of it would have been so offensive to me – but I’ve changed my position over the years.

“I was very personally involved in the fans’ survey thing we did a while ago, in which 85,000 people were asked a whole series of questions, and the overwhelming thing they wanted – whether I like it as a purist or not – was more overtaking. Obviously we had to take that on board, but everything you’d try to do, be it reducing dependence on the front wing, reducing overall downforce… it’s not easy conventionally to improve overtaking if you’ve got cars running closely, driven by top drivers – particularly on modern-day circuits that have not exactly been designed to help overtaking…

“Why does Interlagos generally have a good race – or Spa? Overtaking is an outcome, isn’t it? It’s not just a matter of ‘a corner’ – it’s also the straight that comes before it, and the corner before that straight. Yet Abu Dhabi has one of the longest straights in F1 – and at the end of it is a chicane, with a single line through it!”

Proper circuits, that’s what we need – why, even more than glitzy facilities. Forgive me if I may have touched on that before…

On Friday afternoon at Silverstone Jenson Button voiced some concerns about the weekend to come.

“You wouldn’t want to be racing, going wheel to wheel, in these conditions,” he said. “There’s so much standing water. I just hope it’s not like this on Sunday – if it is, I can’t see us being allowed to race…”

Button’s remarks didn’t raise so much as a blip, and one realised again how much the prevailing mentality in F1 has changed. At Silverstone in 1988 – a long time ago, I grant you – the weather was similarly foul, but when Alain Prost parked his McLaren after 24 laps, he was widely castigated, particularly by the French press. “Prost,” I remember a senior journalist saying in the press room, “is no longer on a pedestal…”

Back then the philosophy was still as it had always been, that ‘men are men’, that real drivers get out there and compete, whatever the conditions. Typically, Prost – like Niki Lauda, when he withdrew from the Japanese Grand Prix in 1976 – made no excuses. At the next race, Hockenheim, I talked to him about his decision to pull out of the British Grand Prix, and about the criticism that had come his way.

“First,” he said, “I don’t care about what people have said – at all. I’m used to the press in France – it’s always the same people, and they’re never objective, never consistent. One day you’re fantastic, the next you’re finished!

“At Silverstone I could have said I had a problem with the clutch, the engine, the handling... and the story would have been over – they would have written that Prost had problems with the car, and that’s it. As it was, I said that I didn’t feel good, that the car wasn’t very good either, so I didn’t want to take risks, and I stopped. It was my decision, and either you respect it or you don’t. What really annoyed me, though, was that after I beat Senna at Ricard they were equally over the top, saying that Prost was still the best, that I could go on at the top for another four or five years; then, after Silverstone – one week later – they were saying I was obviously going to retire at the end of the year!”

Some reports in France, Prost went on, had suggested he had needed oxygen after stopping at Silverstone, that he was completely spent after all the effort at Ricard, and had nothing left for a race the following weekend. “You see why I don’t take these people seriously?

“The more I think about it,” Alain said, “the more I realise I should have stopped at Silverstone after one lap. No one objects to racing in the wet because the track is slippery – we’re supposed to be the best drivers in the world, and we should be able to handle that. But not being able to see is a different thing, and that’s what I don’t like. Skill has nothing to do with it – it doesn’t matter if you’re the World Champion, or driving in your first race.

“In the last few years I always said that if we had a ridiculously wet race, I would not start – and one day I’ll do that, even if I’m on pole position. I’m quite serious. And, to some extent, that goes back to what happened here in ’82…”

This was of course a reference to the accident which befell Didier Pironi, an accident I happened to witness. In those days the press car park was actually a stretch of Hockenheim’s short circuit, and, being a little late that morning, we had to go to the far end, closer to the track in use.

As I buttoned up against the teeming rain I chanced to look across to the end of the straight leading into the stadium, and thus my first sight of a racing car that day was that of a Ferrari tumbling end over end. A minute later, and we would have arrived in the midst of tumult. A minute earlier, and we would have been walking the other way, towards the paddock.

As it was, I saw that blur of red, and even now the image is clear in my mind. It was almost impossible to believe that the driver – was it Pironi or Tambay? – could have survived. I walked tentatively over to the scene, where the doctors were already working on Didier. Mercifully his shattered legs were saved, but he was in hospital for months – 31 operations, nearly 40 general anaesthetics – and never raced a car again.

Imagine, then, the accident from Prost’s perspective. Alain had been slowing, preparing to come in at the end of the lap.

“I had Daly’s Williams behind me,” he told me at the time, “so I kept to the left, at maybe 200kph, allowing Derek through.” Pironi, meantime, was on a quick lap, hurtling up on the pair of them. When he saw Daly move to the right, he interpreted it as an effort to get out of his way, give him room to go by on the left. Hence, quite unable to see Prost, he headed lat out into a wall of spray, into what he thought was an empty space. His left front wheel hit Prost’s right rear. At perhaps 160mph the Ferrari vaulted over the Renault.

“I felt completely helpless,” Prost said. “Pironi’s car actually overtook me in the air. It landed, gearbox first, in front of me, then bounced away, somersaulting down the road. Awful. And I was worried about running into him, because now I had hardly any braking – the right rear corner of my car was gone...”

Prost got his car stopped, and ran to the wreckage. No surprise that the moment made a deep impression on him; nor that it had a profound effect on his attitude to racing in the rain.

“It wasn’t just that, though,” he said. “It was a succession of things. I like to drive when it’s wet, but I don’t like it when there’s a lot of standing water. Remember Estoril in ’85? I was having quite a good race there, behind Ayrton and Michele [Alboreto], but it ended when I spun – on the straight by the pits! I hit a puddle and the car was gone.

“Now, think of Silverstone. At the start I was in the middle of the ield – OK, same for everyone. You are lat on the straight – you just see the side of the track, and sometimes the light on the car in front. Sometimes you see nothing. You hear the noise of the engines, and you listen hard – are they running lat out, full throttle? When you hear the revs coming down, you know there’s a corner approaching…

“No one objects to driving in the wet because the track is slippery – but not being able to see is something different. When you’re flat in top gear, and you can’t see 10 metres in front of you, it’s just a matter of luck – good or bad. For me, that has nothing to do with motor racing…”

That same day in 1988 I asked Professor Sid Watkins, always driven round in the medical car behind the pack on the opening lap of a Grand Prix, how it had felt to follow in the wake of 26 cars at Silverstone.

“Couldn’t see a bloody thing!” said the Prof. “At Copse there were bits of car all over the road, but in the spray we never even saw the car that had had the shunt…”

It was the same in Adelaide a year later, when Sid was driven by Frank Gardner.

“We were driving blind,” he said. “As Frank murmured, it wasn’t a matter of whether we were going to hit anything as much as what we were going to hit...”

That day, when conditions were as bad as I have ever seen at a race track, and when race oficials declined to delay the start until the rain abated, Prost resolved to do what he had long promised, to refuse to race. Then, perhaps in deference to his contract, he decided to run a single lap, then come in, and many of his colleagues concurred. Come the moment, though, no other car followed.

“We’d agreed,” said Gerhard Berger, “that we’d stop after one lap. When I saw Alain go in, I felt ashamed – only he had the balls to do it…”

“I always respect other drivers’ decisions,” Prost said, “but what I couldn’t understand that day was that most of them agreed we should stop after a lap – and then didn’t. One day there will be a big accident, and someone will be killed because he couldn’t see where he was going. This has nothing to do with a slippery track – you need skill to cope with that. But skill is useless when you’re doing 280kph, and you can’t see the car in front.

It’s the straights that are so dangerous...” Down the years I have railed against many a safety change that seemed over the top, smacking of the ‘nanny state’ in which we all increasingly live, but in this particular matter I agreed wholeheartedly with Prost then, for it seems to me to be no more than common sense. “Not everyone agrees with me,” Alain acknowledged, “but what I always say to them is, ‘Do you drive flat out on an autoroute in thick fog? No? Why not? It’s the same thing – if you can’t see, you can’t see…”