Reflections with Nigel Roebuck

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Richard Petty has ever had a laconic way with words, and one day – after hitting the wall at the top of a banking – he was asked what had happened. “Well,” he said, “I guess I got a little behind in my steerin’…”

This practice – on a deliberate, rather than mistaken, basis – has long been popular in Formula 1, for it allows a driver to run another out of road. Ayrton Senna was especially adept at it, as Alain Prost can tell you, and Lewis Hamilton, for whom Senna has always been a role model, also has it down pat, as Nico Rosberg has come to know. Executed properly, it can look almost like an oversight: ‘So sorry I didn’t leave you any room – didn’t see you…’

James Hunt did it to Mario Andretti at the exit of Zandvoort’s Tarzan in the 1977 Dutch Grand Prix – and, had Andretti backed off, and fallen into line behind him, it would have worked a treat. As we know, though – and James had apparently forgotten – Mario was never one to be bullied, and he kept his foot in it. As a result the McLaren and the Lotus, running first and second, made contact and both were out on the spot.

In all the years I have known Andretti, never have I seen him as livid as he was that day. “He’s blocking me down the inside into Tarzan, so the only place I could try was the outside. The first time he put me on the grass on the way out, but that was legitimate – he was ahead of me. The time we hit, though, I was pretty much alongside him and he moves out like he has the track to himself. I mean, I can’t just disappear – I’m there, man!”

So here we were on the last lap at the Red Bull Ring, with the Mercedes pair running one-two, Rosberg narrowly ahead, but – with a flapping bargeboard, badly grained Pirellis, and brake problems – looking like a tethered goat as Hamilton closed in for the kill.

Over the last two or three years, in which Mercedes has been dominant, as I have watched Hamilton and Rosberg scrapping back and forth I have surely not been alone in detecting faint echoes of Senna and Prost, ‘team-mates’ in 1988 and ’89 when McLaren-Honda held sway. For sheer ferocity, nothing comes close to the feud between Ayrton and Alain, but still I can see some parallels between then and now.

Is it possible for there to be harmony in a team that has quantifiably the best car, to a degree that essentially eliminates all others? Certainly it is, but only in very particular circumstances. You can have a situation like that at Lotus in 1978, where the ‘ground effect’ 79 was in a league of its own, but one of its drivers – Ronnie Peterson – was under no illusions about the world championship. When the contract was signed, Colin Chapman made it clear to Peterson that 1978 was to be Andretti’s year for the title: he had come close the year before, winning more races than anyone else, and had played a pivotal role in bringing the team back to the top.

Peterson, whose career was somewhat in the doldrums at the time, agreed to that, but still Andretti had his doubts: “When I signed my Lotus contract for 1978, it was as number one driver – that was unequivocal, and I felt it was my due. Ronnie signed as number two, but although I knew he was an honourable guy I felt that ’78 would give me my best shot at the title, and I didn’t want anything to screw that up. When he was with Emerson at Lotus in ’73, they won a whole bunch of races – and neither one won the championship! I didn’t want that to happen again.”

The agreement was that if both Lotuses were running at the front with no problem then Andretti was to win. “Ronnie accepted that when he signed his contract,” Mario said, “but more important was that he gave his word…”

Kept it, too – even though, after agreeing in August to join McLaren, he knew he would not be at Lotus in 1979. “If I were Ronnie,” another driver said to me at the time, “I’d just go for it now – what’s he got to lose?” Nothing really, save his integrity, and if that sounds prissy in today’s world all I can say is that you didn’t know Ronnie Peterson. As Andretti said, he gave his word.

In a situation like that, therefore, two stars in one team can work, and it was the same at Williams in 1980, when Carlos Reutemann came in to partner Alan Jones in precisely similar circumstances: all things being equal, it was to be Jones’s championship, understood? As with Lotus, it worked out as planned, with Alan getting his title, and began to come off the rails only the following year when Carlos – having unfathomably agreed to re-sign on similar terms – started to rebel.

The other way in which a team with a dominant car can remain relatively harmonious is to hire a lesser driver to partner its numero uno – and, further, to crack the whip if he should entertain thoughts of going into business for himself. Ferrari did this most successfully in the Schumacher era: who can forget the sight of Rubens Barrichello, his ears full of Jean Todt, crawling along the finish straight in Austria, waiting on Michael’s pleasure?

Racing fans understandably hate this sort of thing – and so, for that matter, do many team owners and principals. Ron Dennis, for example, has always believed in allowing McLaren drivers to race each other, even in the Prost/Senna era, and at Mercedes they feel the same way – although the last lap at the Red Bull Ring rather put that philosophy to the test: for the third time in five races Hamilton and Rosberg came into contact, and at Silverstone Toto Wolff said the pair of them were on their last warning.

That being so, if they were to collide again… then what? Toto declined to go into detail, but the word was that sanctions would be indeed draconian, perhaps to the extent of the driver at fault being ‘stood down’ for a race. This may well have caused the pulse of Pascal Wehrlein momentarily to lurch, but most found it difficult to believe such action could be taken.

Wolff and other members of the Mercedes management find themselves in an unenviable – if entirely predictable – position with regard to Hamilton and Rosberg. As rewarding as it may be to have a pair of top-line drivers, each well capable of winning, there is inevitably a down side. “You can’t put two bulls in one field…” Frank Williams said long ago, and if team orders are off the agenda he is right – particularly when there is only one cow in the field, only one world championship to be won.

This goes to another level, of course, when the relevant team has a consummate performance advantage, so that, barring the unforeseen, each of its drivers has but one rival every time he goes to the grid. At the time of writing, 48 Grands Prix have been run since the start of the hybrid engine era in 2014, and Mercedes has won 41 of them, 25 going to Hamilton, 16 to Rosberg. In situations like this, the record book can change shape rather dramatically: going into the ’14 season, Hamilton had 22 victories, 10 fewer than Alonso; now, two and a half years on, Lewis has 47 and Fernando still 32.

During their two seasons together at McLaren, Senna and Prost also had emphatically the best car, in 1988 between them winning all but one of the 16 Grands Prix. Rarely were they troubled by other drivers, which served – as with Hamilton and Rosberg – only to magnify the focus upon them.

“Face it, these people are not normal,” said Steve Nichols, remembering his days of working with Senna and Prost at McLaren. “Certainly Ayrton was the more overtly aggressive of the two, but Alain… trust me, beneath the sweet, friendly, guy we all know, he was pretty goddam competitive! They may have gone about achieving it in very different ways, but they both wanted the same thing, and only one of them could have it. It was probably more extreme with those two, but it’s been like that since two guys started racing cars, right?”

If I can’t bracket the rivalry between Hamilton and Rosberg with that between Senna and Prost, nevertheless I can see certain similarities. Lewis may have abandoned the yellow helmet long worn in hommage to his late hero, but I remember a conversation with him specifically about Senna, and the influence he’d had on him.

“I was first drawn to Ayrton,” he said, “because his driving style seemed to be different from anyone else’s. He seemed to be a daredevil and, compared with all the others, he appeared never to be afraid – he just seemed to me to have that little bit of an edge. I’ve always felt like I had a connection with him – I do crazy things that other people wouldn’t do, and I feel like I have an edge, too. Ayrton did his talking on the track, as I think I do, and he was never one to drive half-heartedly – that was what I loved about him.

“When I got to Formula 1, he was very much in my head, and I wanted to assert myself in certain ways, one of which was to show that I don’t care who you are, I’ll go up the inside of you. It was important to get across that in a situation where most people would back out of it, I won’t.

“I can totally relate to what went on with him and Prost: being in the same team with someone who’s very competitive, very quick, who’s pushing you…it is tough, you know, because it’s either one or the other, isn’t it?”

Prost would admit that occasionally Senna’s ruthlessness on the track truly disturbed him: “So many times he’d chop across me, and if I hadn’t given way we’d have crashed. Two McLarens out on the spot – how stupid would that have been?”

Very stupid is the answer to that, and in the cauldron that was McLaren in those days several team members privately confided that they were only too aware of being grateful to Alain. Not that it helped him, of course: into Ayrton’s mind had firmly gone the conviction that in extremis his rival would always back off.

That was why it was such a shock to him when, in their championship decider at Suzuka in 1989, he came shooting down the inside on the approach to the chicane – and Prost did not give way. “Before the race,” Alain said, “I told the team, ‘I am not opening the door any more…’” They should have listened.

In the ongoing battle between Hamilton and Rosberg, there is no doubt that Lewis has taken on the Senna mantle of being the ruthless one, if not to the same degree as his idol. Not least he has used the tactic of ‘getting a little behind in his steering’ to good effect, ushering Nico off the road at the Hungaroring and Suzuka last year, at Montréal just a few weeks ago.

Perhaps the most striking example, though, came at the first corner of the US Grand Prix last autumn, when the on-car footage revealed that he simply didn’t turn the wheel when the sharp left-hander came up, thus obliging Rosberg – to his right – to go off the road and lose several places.

Not long after Austin, over lunch with ‘a Formula 1 man’, I raised the subject and my friend offered a forthright opinion. “Nico’s been justifiably upset recently,” he said, “and I think he should have held his ground and taken Lewis off a time or two – even if it had cost him the race, it would have been worth it to get the message across, ‘Never,  ever, do that to me again…’ I feel sorry for Nico: he’s a nice kid, but I think he needs to find the strength – like all the great drivers do – to let people know it’s a disproportionate risk to try and run him off the road…”

This was not, of course, advice calculated to sit well with the Mercedes management – although I would venture that perhaps, in the long night watches, one or two of them might admit to at least a sneaking sympathy for the point of view.  

Back to the accident in Austria. Going into the last lap, although Rosberg’s tyres were older than Hamilton’s and his ‘brake by wire’ system on the blink, his lead looked to be enough, but at the first turn he clipped the inside kerb, which compromised his exit speed. Suddenly the Mercedes duo were right together, and down the following straight Hamilton moved alongside, then slightly ahead – albeit on the outside – as the two cars reached the following corner.

Here Lewis did everything right, taking a wide line, leaving his rival some racing room – and also keeping as far away from him as possible. The in-car footage from Rosberg’s car was a carbon copy of Hamilton’s in Texas: Nico ‘got a little behind in his steering’ – simply didn’t turn when the corner arrived – and clouted Lewis on the exit.

Beyond doubt the coming-together was Rosberg’s fault, although in the time-honoured style of Grand Prix drivers he saw it differently. Certainly his brakes were compromised at this point, but the fact remains that his steering wheel remained straight ahead long into the corner. Was this payback for previous injustices?

Only he knows. Nico is a highly intelligent man and one would have thought that – even with a decent points lead – logically he would not have wanted a shunt with his rival on the last lap of a mid-season Grand Prix.

When it occurred, though – particularly after seeing the in-car footage – I was reminded of something Niki Lauda said to me in Montréal: “For sure Nico is very different this year – much more self-confident and psychologically strong. All the weaknesses he had last year he has corrected 100 per cent, and this was a surprise to us – including Lewis, I think…”

As I write, they are a point apart.

***

Back in 1955 Jim Rathmann’s car for the Indianapolis 500, the Belond-Miracle Power Special, differed from other roadsters in the race in having rather futuristic ‘aerodynamic’ bodywork, not least between the wheels – rather in the manner of the Lancia D50 then competing in Formula 1.

It was innovative in another way, too, being equipped – at least in practice – with a pit-to-car radio, the first such in motor racing, as far as I am aware.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it had its shortcomings, as Rathmann recalled. “A few days before the race I was running down the back stretch at about 160mph when I heard this voice telling me to go to some address and fix a stopped-up sink! They’d given me the same frequency as an Indianapolis plumber…”

Ah, from little acorns. In Formula 1 pit-to-car radios (with plumbers tuned out) have long been de rigueur and – because this is Formula 1 – they have managed to become a subject of controversy and dissension. Following the British Grand Prix, during which he received radio instruction to help cope with a gearbox problem, Nico Rosberg was given a 10-second penalty by the stewards, costing him three points that could in turn – who knows? – ultimately cost him the world championship.

Back in the 1980s, before teams took to ‘scrambling’ their frequencies, I was one of several journalists to acquire a portable scanner, which came with me to all the Grands Prix. It took a little while to become proficient with it, to sidestep police messages and airline pilots and static until finally it stumbled on to something relevant and familiar: ‘Back off, Niki, the oil flags are out at Stowe – one of the Alfas has blown up again…’

So now you had the frequency for Lauda and the McLaren pit, and you saved it in the memory, then let the thing scan away again until it came across something else of interest. This took a bit of time, and was somewhat hit-and-miss, in that – of course – a conversation needed to be in progress at the moment the scanner passed through the relevant frequency.

Easiest by far to locate initially was Lotus, for it seemed that Ayrton Senna and Peter Warr were rarely off the air to each other. Other, less loquacious, outfits were more difficult to pin down, but eventually you finished up with a pretty full set. Then, of course concentrating on the major teams, you had the scanner happily work through them, and occasionally you were privy to a gem of a moment, as at Monza in 1987 when Senna, leading at mid-race, got into discussion with Warr about tyre wear.

This, of course, was long before the days of silly ‘fall apart in seven laps’ tyres, and Ayrton was keen to establish whether or not it was feasible to go the distance without a stop, figuring this was the only conceivable way to beat the Williams-Hondas.  “Well,” said Peter, “we’ve spoken to Goodyear, and they say it’s marginal…”

At this, apart from the ‘old’ Silverstone the fastest circuit on the calendar, Senna was silent for fully half a minute; then, “OK, we go for it…”  It was a moment to make you shiver.

A few weeks later, out on the circuit during practice at Suzuka, my scanner was off, but my friend Maurice Hamilton was listening intently to his – and suddenly there was consternation in his face. “Jesus,” he said, handing me the headphones, “listen to this…” I did as bidden, and right enough there was the sound of terrible groaning. The scanner was tuned to Williams, to Nigel Mansell, who had obviously gone off. Initially we were greatly concerned, but then Maurice – ever a clear thinker – reasoned that Nigel couldn’t be that badly hurt. “Think about it,” he said, “the fact that we can hear him means he’s pressing the button…”

Eventually – inevitably – the teams began scrambling their frequencies, not so much to thwart nosy journalists as to keep their conversations from rival teams, but these days, of course, they are freely available, indeed considered by some an essential ingredient of ‘The Show’, as seen on TV.

Once in a while there is undeniably entertainment to be had when a driver gives furious vent to his feelings, be it about an unhelpful backmarker, a dangerous chop by a rival, or simply his car’s lack of pace. More usually, though, it’s pretty bland stuff – and increasingly, in this time of ultra-complex hybrid engines, as good as incomprehensible to anyone without a Master’s in engineering.

Fernando Alonso recently lamented that the Formula 1 of this era is all about ‘saving’, be it tyres, fuel, engine life, whatever, so that much of the time a driver is effectively cruising. For countless years this was necessarily par for the course in long-distance sports car racing, but in recent times there has been something of a reversal of roles, so that while Le Mans has become a day-long sprint, a Grand Prix is far from the two-hour blast it used to be. This is why Alonso is keen one day to race at the Sarthe, and also why, as Niki Lauda points out, nowadays on the podium Formula 1 drivers hardly break sweat. After winning at Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton looked fresh enough to do it all again.

If – with power steering, finger-tip gear-changing, and so on – Formula 1 is far less physically taxing than it was, mentally it has gone in the other direction, thanks to the sheer complexity of the cars, the numbing multitude of adjustments available to modify their behaviour. “In my day,” says Stirling Moss, “of course you set up the car the way you wanted it, just like they do now – but you did it with damper settings and tyre pressures, and that was about it!”

Now it’s a little different. Think of Barcelona, for example, where the first-lap accident between the Mercs came about because Rosberg – having passed Hamilton at the first corner – was then vulnerable to attack from Lewis because he had mistakenly selected the wrong ‘engine mode’, and found himself 200 horsepower down to his rival.

In Austria Nico had the race bought and paid for, until the last lap when a failure in his car’s brake-by-wire system – which the team was not allowed, under the current convoluted rules, to bring to his attention – led to a mistake that allowed Lewis to get close enough to take a run at him.

There was a time, a year or two ago, when the radio conversations between a driver and his race engineer bordered on farcical, in the sense that the man in the cockpit was effectively receiving instruction in how to drive. He would be informed, for example, that his team-mate was quicker in a given corner, and told how to address this situation, be it by using a different gear, modifying his line, whatever. It amounted to ‘driving by numbers’, and was clearly unacceptable in anything calling itself Grand Prix racing.

Thus the FIA took action, announcing stricter enforcement of article 27.1 of the sporting regulations, which states that ‘the driver shall drive the car alone and unaided’.  

“The driver,” said Formula 1 race director Charlie Whiting, “should be doing the things a driver is normally expected to do, but over the last few years so much information has been given to him by the engineers, to manage every aspect of the car, that we felt it had got to an intolerable level.”

Whiting was quite right: it had. And so it was that the FIA came forth with a revised list of topics which could be legitimately discussed between driver and engineer. In principle I was all for this, having long since tired of the endless driver tutorials, but now of course semantics came into the picture, so that all radio contact would need to be monitored for ‘legality’, and – for fans, as well as teams – a further complication was introduced into a sport already befuddled by a Chilcot-sized rule book.

Included in the ‘permissible’ list is, ‘Indication of a critical problem with the car. Any message of this sort may only be used if failure of a component or system is imminent and potentially terminal’. What, one may ask, is meant by ‘critical problem’? On the evidence of recent events, this appears to be open to question.

One might have thought, given the FIA’s obsessive preoccupation with safety, that imminent brake failure – or even a sudden reduction in a car’s braking ability – could be considered ‘a critical problem’, but apparently not. In Austria Mercedes felt unable to notify Rosberg of his ‘brake by wire’ problem, and similarly Force India did not inform Sergio Pérez that his brakes were finished: as the two Mercedes ran into each other Pérez went off the road and into a barrier. 

“It seems a bit silly,” said Bob Fernley, commenting on the paradoxical aspect of the FIA’s stance on safety, “having a halo on a car, but not being able to tell a driver his brakes are about to go…” It seemed a fair point.

Then, at Silverstone, came Rosberg’s gearbox problem in the late laps. Upon notifying his team that all was not well, he was told by his engineer, Tony Ross, to ‘go to chassis default zero one’ (which presumably meant something to Nico, if not to the wider world), then further instructed him to avoid seventh gear. How was he to do that, the driver asked – shift through from sixth to eighth? Yes, he was told, and those few seconds of chat could ultimately decide the destiny of the 2016 world championship – just as also, for that matter, could a raft of grid penalties later in the season for Hamilton, who is already down to his last engine.

Not exactly gladiatorial stuff, is it?  

It took the stewards forever to decide whether or not the snatch of conversation between Rosberg and Ross warranted a penalty, but ultimately they concluded that it did, to the tune of 10 seconds – or, to put it another way, three points – for this was just enough to drop Nico behind Max Verstappen in the final classification.

To quote Christian Horner, whose team benefited from the decision: “The radio rule is complete rubbish – but it is the rule…”

Yes, it is, and it needs to change, but the FIA takes a different view, and appears immovable on the subject – indeed the word after the British Grand Prix was that it may in future toughen up the regulation even further. The fact, of course, is that teams will use coded
messages, so that remarks apparently permissible have a very different hidden meaning.

When a while ago I suggested – only half in jest – to an FIA man that maybe the simplest way out of this tangled web might be a complete ban on radios he was aghast: “The current cars are so bloody complicated that, without radio, the drivers wouldn’t know what to do half the time! And, anyway,” he added darkly, “from a safety standpoint they need to be warned if something is failing on the car…”

I’d have thought that the inability to arrest its progress by means of pressing a pedal came into that bracket, wouldn’t you? Even more than fixing a stopped-up sink.

***

From Silverstone to Shelsley Walsh, a place whose soul happily abides. The Midland Automobile Club puts a high value on tradition: for one thing, the 1000-yard hillclimb is as it was in 1905, when the first event was run; for another, enormous care has gone into the maintenance and restoration of its buildings. 

“This is the first time I’ve been to Shelsley,” said Hans-Joachim Stuck, “and I’ve fallen in love with it! It’s wonderful that they’ve kept it the way it always was – so easy for me to imagine my father here. As I drove back down the hill after my first run, I had tears in my eyes…”

Thank to the efforts of a number of people, not least my friend Toby Moody – whose MotoGP commentaries I still much miss – a long-held Shelsley dream became reality over the middle weekend of July.

Back in 1936 Auto Union entered a car for Hans Stuck, winner of several Grands Prix for the team, but known particularly for his brilliance in the European Mountain Championship, which he won many times. The team’s entry at Shelsley marked the first appearance of an Auto Union in Britain, and those who were there – including my dad, aged 18 – never forgot the sight and, overwhelmingly, the sound. Now, 80 years on, it was back again.

I had seen Auto Unions before, of course, not least at Goodwood, where such as Hans-Joachim and Michele Alboreto appeared in them at the Festival of Speed, but this felt very different, for now the supercharged 6-litre V16 C-Type was back where it had competed in its pomp, twin rear wheels and all.

“I suppose I’ve driven the car – beginning at the Avus in 1990 – about 25 times,” said Stuck, “and every time I’ve thought, ‘How crazy must my dad have been?’ The very upright seating position is uncomfortable, and the steering incredibly heavy.  The races were always three or four hours, and I just don’t know how they did it – especially at the Nordschleife! No seat belts – not even helmets…

“The gearbox is wonderful, and the torque simply unbelievable: I’m only using half-throttle going up the hill, because of the traction – any more than that, and you just spin the wheels!” 

Hans-Joachim is the most delightful of men, friendly and unpretentious, as I remembered from his Formula 1 days. Even then, perhaps because of his background, he was very much ‘old school’ when it came to racing, and remains so. “I watched Silverstone on TV last week,” he said, “and I couldn’t believe it when the race started behind the safety car. OK, the track was wet – but so what? These are supposed to be the best racing drivers in the world! Honestly I think it’s rather pathetic, you know, but I guess Charlie [Whiting] is under a lot of pressure…

“I said to Bernie, ‘Something like this takes so much of the drama out of motor racing, and this is what the people don’t like’ – it’s not too difficult to understand, is it? I still watch Formula 1, but I think it’s lost its way. Recently I drove my 1976 Jägermeister March again, and it was fantastic – gear lever and clutch, no PlayStation systems… that is what a Formula 1 car should be! At the end of a race the drivers should be exhausted…”

Between his runs up the hill on Sunday – he also drove Audi’s fearsome IMSA car – Stuck was interviewed at lunchtime by Moody on a stage set up in the courtyard, and the audience, sitting around in the sun with a beer and a sandwich, was simply rapt. It was a harkback to another, gentler time in motor sport, savoured by all who were there.

As for the Auto Union, it goes without saying that Stuck drove it beautifully, flicking into opposite-lock just as his father did. “For sure,” Hans-Joachim smiled, “this has been the best day I’ve had this year…” He spoke for a lot us.