So said Denis Jenkinson as we stood watching final practice for the Grand Prix of Monaco in the early summer of 1978, our feet against the barrier between Tabac and the swimming pool.
That’s how close you could get back then. We could, had we been so inclined, have reached out and touched the cars.
It was a privilege for me to watch with Jenks that day on the harbour front in Monte Carlo. The Sage of Crondall was a man I looked up to. Despite his diminutive stature. He was a mentor, an inspiration for those of us new to the business of working at a Grand Prix.
I had travelled to the Principality to make a radio programme about a weekend in the life of the Brabham team, and in particular the fortunes of driver John Watson who lived, not in tax exile, but in the south of England where my radio station was based. His co-conspirator in those gorgeous Brabham Alfa-Romeos was one Niki Lauda who, at breakfast in the Loews hotel one morning, suggested to my (first) wife that she might enjoy a day with him while I was working. Thanks Niki. She declined the offer from the double World Champion.
But I digress. The reason I mention the words of Denis Jenkinson is that we have seen two Grand Prix drivers unceremoniously sacked during the course of the season just past. And, equally importantly, both were replaced by men who appeared to do no better in the same car. First, Sebastien Bourdais was relieved of his duties at Toro Rosso, to be replaced by a very young Spaniard called Jaime Alguersuari. Just weeks later Nelsinho Piquet was fired from the Renault team by none other than his personal manager Flavio Briatore – who also happened to be the team manager. Remember that at this point Briatore was well aware of what had happened in Singapore in 2008, making his decision to sack Piquet Minor completely unfathomable. It was a major strategic error. Sitting in a sulk back home in Brazil young Piquet and his father decided to get their revenge. Briatore must wish he’d kept the lad in a Renault until the end of the year.
Are these two drivers really so inadequate? Even the bad ones are good, even the slow ones are fast. If you don’t believe me, ask Maurice Hamilton what it’s like to be thrown around a Grand Prix circuit by Martin Brundle for a handful of laps. (Or read about it in the new edition of Motor Sport). These cars are hugely demanding on both reflexes and stamina. It could just be that there is such a thing as a bad racing car.
How well did Alonso do in the 2009 Renault? Not very well. And he’s generally acknowledged to be one of the very best there is. How well did Sebastien Buemi do in the Toro Rosso? Better than Bourdais, yes, but nothing to set the world alight. This is not to say that either Piquet or Bourdais deserved to stay on the grid until they collected their pensions. No, I am simply questioning the strategy of sacking sportsmen who don’t deliver immediately. In football there has been a spate of sacking managers who don’t produce the instant results that are somehow expected.
In their early days, racing drivers can disappoint to deceive. Before they got into good Grand Prix cars James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansell and Jenson Button, to name a few, did not display championship potential. I suggest both Renault and Toro Rosso acted too hastily. Mr Briatore might even agree.
Returning to Monaco it was Patrick Depailler who won, beating Lauda into second place while Jody Scheckter pipped Watson for third. But my goodness those Brabhams looked and sounded so good. As we know, none of this mattered. Mario Andretti made them all look silly once he got his hands on the Lotus 79. Even the fast ones looked slow.