In the latest of his columns on the state of the F1 nation, former Times Formula One correspondent Ed Gorman muses on noise, the return of Bernie Ecclestone and how paternal competitiveness might have made Nico Rosberg a stronger character than we all imagined.
I imagine the script when Lewis Hamilton moved to Mercedes was that the cars would be built for him and that he would then drive them to successive world championships.
I have always had a recurring thought about Lewis, having seen his first championship back in 2008 when almost everyone was predicting multiple wins on a Schumacherian scale: Will he ever be champion again? I still wonder about that.
But I digress. The script did not include Nico Rosberg. Well it did, but only as a bit-part player. I am not sure many people knew he had the steel he has shown this season – the fight and the determination he has shown. Of course, he has had the rub of the green in some respects, but he has dispelled once and for all the notion that he was just another nice – albeit hugely talented – guy making up the numbers.
I suppose his early seasons in the top tier lulled us into a false sense of his mediocrity at this level. That and his natural impulse to please out of the cockpit and his privileged upbringing in Monaco all led to the impression that Nico was a good looking lad who could drive fast but was never going to scale the heights.
My guess is that the toughness comes from Keke, a very different character on the surface to his son – hard-arsed, aggressive in the car in his day and hardly the diplomat.
Indeed, I remember my first – and only – encounter with him back at Interlagos some years ago. I had arranged to have a chat with him – probably about Nico – and arrived at the appointed time at his table where he was holding court in the cramped paddock. In fact, he had not finished his previous conversation and so I nervously drew up a chair, leaving a little distance between the former world champion and I, so that he could continue in private. Keke was having none of it, however, and turned to me – someone he did not know – and in no uncertain terms told me to f*** off. I remember thinking ‘wow, this guy doesn’t give a stuff.’ We never did have that chat.
The rivalry with his father has driven Nico – a man gifted with great charm – but he has his own ambition and his own paradigm of perfection to pursue as well. This remark from an interview he gave to a Finnish newspaper, on the eve of his first season in Formula One when he had just won the GP2 championship, remains instructive. “No external pressures come close to the expectations that I set on myself when I’m driving. I’m a fighter to the very end, very ambitious, and I hate losing.”
Will Lewis get past him and if he doesn’t what will the consequences of that be?
Weirdly that year at Interlagos was also the setting for one of the funniest moments in the paddock in my first season when, very green behind the gills, I requested an interview with Ferrari’s chief mechanic, their race and test technical manager, one Nigel Stepney whose untimely death was reported in May.
In those days Ferrari were very secretive – I am sure that has not changed – and you could not talk to someone like Stepney without the team’s PR chief, Luca Colajanni, hovering about three inches away with his tape recorder rammed into the proceedings.
Anyway, I arrived for the interview at the back of the garage, thinking the name Stepney seemed familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. As we started chatting in the sunshine, with people cruising by all around us, I began by trying to pin it down.
“Where are you from Nigel?” I asked.
He replied that he was from the Midlands.
It was a village near Southam – where he got his first job at Broadspeed.
“What village exactly was that?”
Ufton, he replied. (Ufton is a tiny little place on top of a hill between Southam and Leamington Spa).
It was at that moment that I realized that Nigel Stepney had been born and raised 200 yards from my home on the little road of then council houses in the middle of the village. So there we were laughing our heads off at the improbability of this fresh encounter and the enormity of the journey we had both taken to meet in adulthood at Interlagos of all places… in Brazil, me working for The Times, he for Ferrari. Colajanni, who was ready to intervene when it all got too technical or political, was somewhat bemused by these two English Midlanders and our childhood recollections.
On a serious point, I was genuinely stunned and impressed to see how far Nigel had gone. He had drive, talent and passion for motorsport in abundance and it took him right to the top of his profession, even if his career was to be dogged by controversy.
I suppose Nigel would be very interested in the rearranging going on at the Scuderia currently, as the proud Italian team tries to find a way out of its current woes. The moves are about trying to inject competitiveness, new blood, fresh thinking etc. One area the team might want to revisit is it’s unbelievably unimaginative choice of drivers – specifically its replacement for Felipe Massa (who himself was arguably kept on for too long, something underlined by what he has done since). Surely there are hungrier, slightly more risk-laden choices with better long-term prospects than the once mighty Kimster?
The racing on the track has been surprisingly exciting this season – given that only one team can win it – but if anyone was getting bored by the Mercedes-dominated wheel-to-wheel combat, there has always been the noise surrounding Bernie’s struggles to stay out of jail to divert us.
Throughout the past six months or so that has always been the question people have asked. Not who will be world champion but do you think Bernie will go to jail?
God knows I am not familiar with the fiendishly complicated detail of the cases against him, but I never thought wily old Bernie would end up in a German prison. I always imagined him paying a very large fine – actually it’s turned out to be a very large “settlement”. So once again, Bernard Charles has defied the predictions of those who saw his demise. He remains a remarkable character who has not finished running Formula One quite yet.
Now, on to noise of a different nature. At the beginning of the season the loudest noise coming from Formula One was being made by people complaining that the cars weren’t loud enough. That noise seems to have been drowned out by the cheers of those applauding the racing we have seen from the likes of Hamilton, Rosberg, Alonso and Ricciardo. Have we got over the lack of noise issue? Does it matter anymore? Maybe Formula One is better off not causing permanent damage to the hearing of its most fervent fans, many among them very young people.
Final thought: there is an on-going debate about the sport’s dwindling audiences and so on. My contribution is that Bernie’s biggest mistake has been his determination to sell Formula One and new tracks to territories where there is no history or interest in the sport whatsoever while at the same time ignoring some of its traditional strongholds.
These mainly Far Eastern deals are short term and have shown repeatedly that they do nothing to grow the sport. I am thinking of China (empty stadium), Turkey (empty stadium, now white elephant), South Korea (cancelled), India (future uncertain), Bahrain (always a struggle and politically very tricky), Abu Dhabi (a long-term “maybe”).
At the same time as these duds were wasting the sport’s energy, there was no race in the United States for much of the time, or France, a race was dropped in Germany and Italy and even the British Grand Prix was under threat at one point. Isn’t it time for Formula One to play to its strengths, to build on its history, not ignore it?
Do you agree with the points Ed raises? Is Nico Robserg a more formidable racer than many gave him credit for being? Has the noise issue been overcome thanks to the quality of racing? What does Bernie’s reclaiming of his F1 throne mean for the future of the sport? And does his reinstatement spell a continuation of journeys to new markets at the expense of the traditional heartland of F1? We’d love to know.