Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Balancing risk: the thoughts of Lauda, Stewart, Räikkönen and Ken Tyrell

Among the photographic folders on my iPad is one entitled ‘Offbeat’, wherein reside a couple of hundred racing images meeting that criterion. Here you will find such as Gilles Villeneuve airborne – naturally – on a snowmobile, John Surtees, wearing goggles but no helmet, driving his Lotus 18 through Riverside traffic at the 1960 US Grand Prix, Lorenzo Bandini chatting up Françoise Hardy at the launch party for Grand Prix, the retrieval of Alberto Ascari’s Lancia following its plunge into the Monaco harbour in 1955…

One of my favourites is of Spa Francorchamps in 1968: a farmer is milking his cows in the rain while Graham Hill’s Lotus 49 flashes by in the background. Separating them is a fence of barbed wire, erected to keep the animals in the field, and there was – is – much of it around the old circuit. If you doubt me, park by the friterie at the exit of the Masta Kink, walk back a few yards and take a look.

For countless years it has been my ritual, on the Thursday before the Belgian Grand Prix, to drive around the old circuit, frequently pausing to take photographs, most of which get deleted because they merely duplicate those from previous visits. Even as I take them, I am aware of this, but still I can’t help myself because this place has a mystic hold on me. No matter how many times I set off around the ‘old’ Spa, still the same thought occurs: no, no, they can’t possibly have raced Formula 1 cars here…

They did, though, and it is to my eternal regret that, although I saw the Ferrari 312Ps of Redman/Merzario and Ickx/Regazzoni finish 1-2 in the Spa 1000Kms in 1972, I was never there for a Grand Prix. In 1970, the year before starting work as a racing journalist, I went to Monaco, Zandvoort and Monza, so why not Spa? Had I known this would be the circuit’s F1 swansong, assuredly I would have made the trip, but I didn’t – which shows how little nous I had in those days, for it was known that there was pressure to have it removed from the world championship schedule. Ah me…

According to those who raced there back in the day, the most testing part of the circuit was the Masta Kink, a left-right flick – bordered by houses – with a downhill approach, and taken flat only by the very skilled, the very brave. Jackie Stewart remembers ‘the Kink’ as the most challenging corner in all of motor racing: it was here in 1966 that he aquaplaned off the road in what was the worst accident of his career.

According to the lamented Innes Ireland, “The excitement of Spa stemmed from driving on an everyday road. The first time I drove there, I was sort of putting my front wheel across somebody’s doorstep and I found that idea very appealing…”

One of Spa’s great glories, which happily survives in the current circuit, is of course Eau Rouge, as dramatic a series of swerves as ever you will find. Thanks to ‘aero’, in the modern era it has become comfortably flat for one and all, and I find that regrettable, for time was when it separated the great from the good, when a Prost or Senna would reckon to keep from lifting maybe once or twice in a weekend, and that was it.

Twenty-five or so years ago there were rumblings about the need for change at Eau Rouge: it’s a fact that run-off was minimal, and the death of Stefan Bellof in the 1985 Spa 1000Kms was a shocking reminder of its perils. Given the local topography, not much could be done about the actual sequence of corners, so there arose the question of a chicane before them. Senna the purist was outraged, I remember: “If you take away Eau Rouge,” he said, “you take away the reason I do this…”

Ultimately, though, there was a chicane before Eau Rouge, and the irony was that it came about as a consequence of Ayrton’s fatal accident in 1994.

For anyone too young to remember, it is probably nigh impossible to appreciate how Grand Prix racing was at that time. When Gilles Villeneuve and Riccardo Paletti were killed, in 1982, the public reaction was much as it had always been: yes, it was desperately sad, but once in a while inevitable in a sport that could never be safe.

Twelve years on, though, when Senna and Roland Ratzenberger died at Imola, the world had clearly changed, and the ‘risk-averse’ mentality we take for granted these days manifested itself vividly in press coverage across the world. “In the name of sport,” screamed the Daily Star, sandwiching the headline between photographs of Senna and Ratzenberger slumped in their cockpits. And at the bottom of the page: “These young men were killed giving us thrills.”

Had any driver other than Senna been lost, society’s response would have been way less acute, but as one of the most celebrated people on earth his death transcended sport, and as shocked as anyone by the worldwide response was Max Mosley, then president of the FIA. “I’ll confess I was stunned,” Mosley said, “because, to me, being an F1 driver was like being a fighter pilot – there was a small but finite risk that you would come unstuck. That didn’t alter the fact that it was very sad, particularly if you knew the person, but it could happen. However, the public doesn’t seem to react like that these days…”

Pressure on the FIA was therefore intense to make changes to this ‘killer sport’, and although Mosley wisely resisted any knee-jerk reaction, that pressure only increased at Monaco a fortnight later, when Karl Wendlinger crashed his Sauber at the chicane. Initially it didn’t look very serious, but Wendlinger suffered life-threatening head injuries and suddenly it felt as if it were impossible to escape unhurt from a Formula 1 accident.

Not surprisingly the ambience in the paddock was jumpy in the extreme, and at a press conference hastily convened the following morning Mosley announced a plethora of changes, some to be introduced immediately. By the terms of the Concorde Agreement that would ordinarily have been impossible, but these were not normal circumstances. “Because of the gravity of the situation, and the force of public opinion,” Mosley said, “the time has come to push aside such considerations, and simply do what is right, in the general interests of the sport. There will be loud criticism from certain quarters, but it will have to be ignored.”

The rule changes related primarily to a reduction of downforce and horsepower, as well as safety modifications to the cars. All of these duly came into effect – but so also did manifold alterations to circuits. And while many of these were justified, some were not. At Barcelona, a month after Imola, practice was delayed so that a temporary, wholly unsatisfactory, tyre barrier chicane could be inserted before a corner through which the drivers had for years raced without qualm.

Mosley announced a plan to eliminate what he called “life-threatening corners” from Formula 1, and 16 were identified. As time went by, though, several drivers began to reflect on the circuit changes, and to allow that there had been a degree of overreaction.

“It seemed,” said Gerhard Berger, “that the world had gone crazy, that, for some reason, F1 had suddenly become much more dangerous. We looked for some common link in the accidents at Imola and Monaco, but really there wasn’t one – it was all horrible coincidence…”

After an exhaustive investigation, the FIA reached the same conclusion, but still the conviction remained that certain corners were unacceptably perilous, and one of those – perhaps inevitably – was Eau Rouge. When we got to Spa in late August, it was with dismay that we looked on a chicane at the bottom of the hill – a slow left-right leading into the fabled switchback.

As Berger remarked, this if anything was more dangerous than the corners it sought to protect: “You’re still coming down the hill flat out, but now if anything goes wrong you’re going to run head on into a guardrail…” Many of us that weekend remembered what Senna had said about Eau Rouge, about his raison d’être as a racing driver.

That said, it was undeniable that some changes had to be made, not least to Tamburello, where Ayrton had died; with a river immediately beyond the corner there was no way to increase run-off, and when we went back to Imola in 1995 a chicane had taken the place of the flat-out left-hander. “Ironic, isn’t it?” murmured Professor Sid Watkins that weekend. “It’s been changed because of Senna’s accident – and the way it is now, he would have hated it…”

A chicane before Eau Rouge, though, was a different matter, for it changed the whole ethos of the Spa we knew, and although the word was that it was only temporary, pending a significant increase in run-off area, not many of us believed it. That being so, in 1995 it was a delight to be proved wrong: the work had indeed been carried out and the chicane was nowhere to be seen.

Earlier that year, at Magny-Cours, I interviewed Bernie Ecclestone. At one point we got on to the subject of TV audiences, which – unpalatably, if perhaps not surprisingly – had surged upwards in the aftermath of the Imola disasters.

“After Senna got killed,” said Ecclestone, “everyone said, ‘That’s it, Formula 1’s finished, forget it’. Remember that? ‘Brazil,’ they said, ‘don’t even have a race in Brazil…’ This year we had the biggest crowd ever in Brazil. The TV ratings have been bigger than ever, and at every circuit the crowd has been up. Now, don’t ask me why…”

All I could suggest in possible explanation was that the death of Senna had inevitably exposed Formula 1 to a wider world, and also that – in the starkest terms – it had served to remind a new generation that this was indeed a serious business, where tragedy meant what it said.

Twenty years on, though, F1 has changed out of recognition, with ever more emphasis on The Show, and – coincidence? – ever smaller audiences, be it at the circuits or in front of the TV. The cars are way slower – and quieter – than they used to be, and fans are befuddled by a multiplicity of rules, penalties and the like, which never used to exist.

As well as that, the classic circuits are gradually disappearing from the schedule, replaced by new ones in countries where there is no cultural link with Formula 1, where very often a Grand Prix is sought by a despotic regime keen to buff up its unsavoury image with a big cheque. CVC stakeholders, studying their portfolios, really like this; the rest of us do not.

As Martin Whitmarsh said a couple of years ago, “Modern-day circuits are not only boring – they’ve also been designed terribly for overtaking. The place that leaves me speechless is Abu Dhabi: one of the longest straights in F1 – and you put a single-file chicane at the end of it!

“Here’s a flat piece of sand, together with apparently unlimited money, so you could do anything, couldn’t you? You could say, ‘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 a combination of the preceding straight, and the corner before that straight, but apparently that’s not given any thought…”

Throw in the fact that since 1994 attention to safety has been so obsessive as to eliminate as much as possible anything even vaguely risky, and the cumulative effect has been to dilute the excitement of F1 – which in turn has diluted its audience. There might have been massive crowds at such as Silverstone and Montréal, but in 2015 these are against the trend.

The downturn in interest has of course had a dire effect on the finances of most – not all – of those involved in F1, which is why in the recent past such efforts have been made, by the so-called F1 Strategy Group and others, to come up with ideas to halt the slide. Nearly all have smacked of panic, of blundering round in the dark, a readiness to try any gimmick going.

A return to refuelling? Well, why not? Might work better than last time. How about a reverse grid? Now there’s an idea…

Others, though, have considered rather more fundamental aspects of the sport. What was it that people used to love about F1 that isn’t there any more? And perhaps it is no more than inevitable that some have lately dared to suggest that maybe one element lacking today is danger.

These words I wrote yesterday, and in light of this morning’s news – not unexpected, but no less raw for that – they of course seem crass: Jules Bianchi, a shy and charming character, and potentially a great racing driver, succumbed to the grievous head injuries he suffered at Suzuka last autumn.

‘Safety’ in motor racing must remain a relative term, for tragedy will always find a way to intrude, as on this occasion. Cars and circuits may be immeasurably safer than they used to be, but Bianchi collided not with a rival or barrier, but with a heavy-duty recovery vehicle, and I could understand in the immediate aftermath what his father was getting at when he said he felt as if, rather than racing, his son had been involved in a road accident. Remembering the Mosley list of ‘life-threatening corners’, one should surely include any with a JCB operating on the track side of the guardrail. As Alain Prost commented, had Bianchi run into Adrian Sutil’s abandoned Sauber, he might well have been hurt, but the consequences would have been far less severe than hitting a tractor.

This morning, too, I have been remembering something Kevin Magnussen said to me in Montréal. As a friend of Bianchi, he was naturally much distressed by what had befallen him, but at the same time he considered – rightly, in my opinion – that the circumstances of the accident were exceptional, and not a reflection of contemporary F1 as whole. “I know Jules well,” he said, “and it’s terrible when there’s an accident like his – but it doesn’t mean that the sport is fundamentally unsafe. No matter what you do in the world someone will get hurt…”

That same weekend in Canada, speaking of the need to galvanise Grand Prix racing, Räikkönen raised more than an eyebrow or two during a TV interview with Jean Alesi.

“When I first arrived in F1,” said Kimi, “it was more exciting for everyone – it really was the top. You would have thought the cars would have become faster, but with rule changes they have tried to make them slower. We must do something to make watching F1 more exciting, and – although we don’t want to see anyone hurt – make it a little more dangerous. It’s part of the game…”

You may say, if you wish, that Räikkönen has never been mainstream, and if anyone in the paddock were going to come out with a phrase like ‘make it a little more dangerous’, it was surely he; his words, though, resonated with not a few, including Niki Lauda, who, God knows, has a greater understanding of racing safety – or, 40 years ago, the lack of it – than most.

Niki stopped a little short of Kimi: “Dangerous, no – but riskier. I’m not saying we should neglect safety, but if the cars were faster the thrill for both the drivers and the spectators would automatically increase. In that way, we have to go back…”

As calls ring out for the magic solution of ‘a thousand horsepower’, it seems odd now to remember that, according to Mosley, it was for reasons of safety that the 3-litre V10s – the best of which were approaching 1000bhp – were replaced by the 2.4-litre V8s, which made a lot of racket but not much else. Now, as Lauda suggested, the mood is to go back, to return to the days when Grand Prix cars were difficult to drive, when many more people wanted to watch them. In other words, to bring back some ‘edge’.

Whatever else, Niki said in closing, there must be no ‘manipulation’ in Formula 1. “It’s the worst thing you can do in a sport – and I mean artificial elements like a reverse grid, or adding weight to cars, as Bernie has proposed. This must not happen.” Amen to that.

I may have begun this column by mentioning barbed wire at Spa half a century ago, but, pondering the ruminations of Räikkönen and Lauda, I’m hardly advocating a return to those days.

Having said that, it does seem to me that one or two of the ingredients of contemporary Formula 1 might be open to revaluation, and I talked them through with Jackie Stewart, the man who – more than any other single figure in motor racing – forced the powers-that-be to confront the question of safety: as Chris Amon has said, every driver in the last 50 years is in his debt.

“Stirling Moss,” Stewart began, “is a great friend of mine, and someone I’ve always profoundly admired, as a driver and as a man, but we’ve always had different views on safety. Stirling has always said that it was not a good thing for motor racing because it reduced the challenge, and so on. I think that if we were to have multiple fatalities in this day and age, the whole future of the sport would be put into question, not least from an insurance point of view.

“At the same time – and no one loves Formula 1 more than I do – the fact is that on many occasions over the years it’s been criticised for… dullness. During the Schumacher-Ferrari years, for example, the cars clearly had a considerable advantage over the competition – and team orders were strongly in force – so it wasn’t surprising that spectators became frustrated.

“Whenever you get domination by a particular team – like four consecutive world championships for Red Bull and Vettel – it seems that no one else can win a race, and it’s the same now with Mercedes-Benz: you can hardly blame them for doing a better job than anyone else, and it’s to their credit that Hamilton and Rosberg are allowed to race, but even so periods of one team dominating are never good…”

So how, in terms of fan appeal, can Formula 1 be reinvigorated? For a start, we agreed, there needs to be a drastic reduction in the almost ceaseless radio conversation between driver and engineer. When Richie Ginther was chasing Moss in the closing laps at Monaco in 1961, he was shown a pit board by Ferrari saying, ‘Ginther Give All’, which rather got on his nerves: “What the hell did they think I was giving?” These days, by contrast, a Grand Prix often comes across like a seminar.

Nico Rosberg recently commented that he was happy to see changes made to reduce pit wall influence, with regard to starting clutch procedures. “It gives me the opportunity to try and beat Lewis in that area,” he said. “Until now it was difficult, because it wasn’t really in the driver’s hands…”

“I’m glad to see attention being paid to this,” said Stewart, “but it needs to go a lot further – the public doesn’t like the idea of a driver being instructed all the way through a race. And another strong negative that I get from the sport currently is that it’s completely wrong that people can go off the race track, and regain it with no penalty, in terms of time or position.”

‘Give them an inch, and they’ll take a mile’ might have been coined for racing drivers, and it was no more than inevitable that ‘run-off’ – particularly after it metamorphosed from gravel to asphalt – should have fundamentally changed their approach to the job.

“Back in the day,” Phil Hill once said to me, “there was something you had to have going for you, which was your brain sorting out where it was safe to mess around, and where it wasn’t – like Spa or the Nürburgring. But take a corner like Thillois at Reims – I was the master of spinning at Thillois! Why? Because there was an escape road there. If there had been a wall, it never would have been that kind of corner…”

“Exactly,” said Stewart. “Take a track like Abu Dhabi, where the run-off areas are huge – and with a surface compatible with the circuit. I’ve never forgotten the 2010 race, when four drivers were in contention for the championship, including Alonso and Webber. The two of them made early first stops, which was a mistake, and then found themselves stuck behind Petrov’s Renault – this was the last race before DRS was introduced.

“In his efforts to get by Petrov, Fernando – whose driving I admire enormously, as you know – went off the road four times, but Mark was unable to benefit because there was so much grip in the run-off area that running wide didn’t penalise the driver – or provide an opportunity to overtake for the one who’d stayed on the track. For me that ruined the race.

“The new culture of building circuits with such enormous run-off areas – not gravel now, but hard surfaces that in some cases give even more grip than the track itself – has allowed drivers an unrealistic amount of privilege in terms of using more than the race track without losing out. I know Charlie Whiting introduced a system whereby they can be penalised for it – but then it takes time for that to be judged, by Charlie or the stewards, and that doesn’t help the spectators or the TV audience.

“I think more penalties should be introduced for using more than the actual surface of the race track, so that drivers will be categorically penalised, either through losing time or else through the judgement of the stewards.

“Of course nobody wants to see drivers seriously injured or killed: we can’t have that – but neither can we have them routinely using a metre or two off the race track, and not losing by it. I don’t see anything wrong with putting something over a certain width at the edge of the track before they get on to a surface that will allow the cars to be slowed down before hitting the deformable barriers: on the outside of the kerb, for two or three metres there should be a slick surface before you get grip again…”

And what about tyre-warmers? For many years they have been the norm, and whenever a ban is proposed – as, most recently, a year or so ago – the drivers immediately shriek about safety. In the dread ‘traction control’ era – by which I mean the years during which it was officially permitted, rather than a means of cheating – moves by the FIA to outlaw it again were welcomed by most drivers, but not all. “Well, it is safer, you know… ” one said to me. Ye Gods.

It is only in Formula 1, of course, that tyre-warmers are used. Everywhere else, including in IndyCar, they are banned, and somehow the drivers manage to cope – just as they did in Grands Prix before somebody thought of them. Prior to his debut with Williams, Juan Pablo Montoya spent two electrifying seasons with the Ganassi team, and I have a particular memory of a race at Elkhart Lake, when all the front-runners pitted at the same time, and JPM – putting his flair and car control to work – pulled out three or four seconds on the rest on that first ‘cold tyres’ lap.

In F1, though, the drivers apparently want no part of that, and Pirelli, too, has shown little enthusiasm for it.

Personally I think Max Mosley’s observations were on the money in 2008, when a tyre-warmer ban was again under discussion: “Some of the things that have been said are just ridiculous, as with the ban on traction control. There are no safety issues whatsoever – particularly with a single tyre supplier.

“It’s all such rubbish, this. In F1 the reaction to any proposed change is always to say it’s either unsafe or unworkable – they said that about the parc fermé rules, remember? Now they’re glad to have them – the mechanics get a night’s sleep, and still the cars are ready for the race. People adapt, don’t they? A ban on tyre-warmers will reduce costs, that’s all…”

In terms of bringing back some ‘edge’ to Formula 1, how did Stewart view it? “Well, it would certainly be a start. There’s no down side to banning tyre-warmers, as far as I can see. For one thing, they cost a lot of money, and I think that’s an unnecessary expense, particularly for the small teams.

“More importantly, it would provide a greater challenge to the driver – and that would apply in qualifying, too. One thing about motor racing that never changes, you know, is that you have to drive according to the conditions, whether it’s a wet track or cold tyres or whatever.

“In the old days Ken Tyrrell used to say to me, ‘Forget pole position, Jackie – it doesn’t matter. You make good starts because your head’s together at the beginning of a race…’ I’m not claiming any credit for that, but if I won most of my races in the first five laps, mainly it was because most of the other guys did not have their heads together. It wasn’t to do with tyre-warmers or anything else – because we didn’t have them. You had to drive in a way that allowed you to take the advantage…

“Doing away with tyre-warmers would unquestionably put more emphasis on the driver: you’ve got to drive within the limits of the track and the car, and that’s the end of it.”

Something else that has undeniably served to reduce the drama of a GP is the pitlane speed limit, introduced by the FIA immediately after the catastrophic Imola weekend in 1994: once the race had been restarted, following Senna’s accident, Michele Alboreto’s Minardi shed a wheel as it accelerated away and four mechanics were injured.

Watch a pre-1994 race now and it’s startling to be reminded of how pitstops used to be. By contrast, there remains something almost comic about the way they are now, with a car trundling down the pitlane, getting its tyres changed in a blur, and then trundling out again. While few would advocate a return to how it used to be, could not the speed limit be raised a little?

“Undoubtedly,” said Stewart, “pitstops used to be much more spectacular without the speed limit, and certainly on television these days they look too slow – the contrast between the car crawling in, the mechanics going mad for two and a half seconds, then the car crawling out again… it’s not much of a spectacle, I agree.

“My problem with getting rid of the speed limit, though, is that there’s so much tyre-changing these days – it’s an intrinsic part of Formula 1 now, and so the pits are much more crowded. Maybe a bit more speed wouldn’t do any harm, but I don’t think you could open it up again.”

Finally we got on to the question of the safety car, introduced to Formula 1 back in 1993. At the time the idea did not meet with universal approval, some deprecating the very idea of the field being closed up, of a leader’s advantage being lost. Leaning out a long way, you could see their point of view, but the system had been in use for ever in the USA and, as Mario Andretti said, “Sometimes you gain, sometimes you don’t, but over a season it balances out…”

Whatever else, it was difficult to take issue with the proposition that, in some instances, the use of a safety car was a necessity, nothing less. Everyone’s judgement is different, and of course the race director has in front of him information we do not, but there have been occasions when its deployment seemed unnecessary to me, others when I was surprised that it wasn’t sent out.

Something I really dislike, though, is the ‘safety car start’ – in effect, a rolling start, employed nowadays whenever race day is wet, and sometimes when the track is merely damp.

Time was when really terrible weather would occasion a delayed start, but TV schedules wait for no man, so that sometimes the pack has tooled round behind the safety car for several laps until conditions were considered acceptable for racing to begin.

In today’s world there is probably no alternative, but to have a ‘safety car start’ simply because the track is wet seems a step too far to me: these are, after all, supposed to be the best drivers on earth.

Stewart concurs. “I don’t think that’s right, I must say. By all means, give the drivers more than one lap to see the track properly – with some of them, you know, after one lap their head’s not together, so if it’s raining, give them two warm-up laps to acclimatise, to see where the water is, but… if you’ve got to start, you’ve got to start.”

Whenever the subject of safety comes up, a jumble of remarks made to me over the years comes to mind, but none more so than one from Ken Tyrrell: “It’s a matter of finding a balance, isn’t it? Keeping it safe – but not finishing up with something no one wants to watch any more…”

Amen to that, too.