Nigel Roebuck hasn’t missed many races since he started covering Grands Prix in 1971, but when he skipped the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos for the first time, he wrote about relieved he was not to be going to Sao Paulo – and incurred the wrath of the most powerful man in Formula 1:
When I turned up at the next race, at Imola, and held up my permanent pass to the scanner at the paddock entrance, I was refused entry. A little message popped up saying ‘No Interlagos’. Eventually I got a temporary pass and went in search of Bernie Ecclestone, who kept a straight face, and pointed me in the direction of someone who – predictably – didn’t know anything about it.
The next day I put my pass through the scanner, and the turnstile worked as normal. Plus, a new message appeared: ‘You’re forgiven’
Over a couple of pints Nigel treated me to a selection from his treasure trove of F1 anecdotes – all of them highly amusing, only some suitable for public consumption. And he explained why, after 31 years at the top F1 weekly Autosport, he has moved to the re-launched Motor Sport magazine.
Nigel Roebuck’s ‘Fifth Column’ for Autosport has been an essential weekly read for a generation of F1 fans. But December 19th 2007 marked the final appearance of the piece in the magazine:
I think Autosport and I had reached our sell-by date together. I’d already been writing a column for Motor Sport, but then Haymarket Publishing sold it, and the new owners wanted to take it in a different direction. Instead of remaining purely the ‘historic’ magazine it had become, it will also cover contemporary racing, particularly Formula 1, as well, just as it used to.
Covering F1 these days involves more time writing about politics than sport. Nigel gave me his take on the McLaren espionage row:
First of all, I remain convinced that Ron (Dennis) didn’t know the full extent of what was going on. I believe that when Fernando (Alonso) told him at the Hungarian Grand Prix that he had these e-mails, that was the first Ron
knew about them.
As Jackie (Stewart) said to me, ‘It was certainly going on in my time’. What’s changed now, in the computer age, is that the volume of material people are able to take with them has grown enormously.
Shortly before McLaren received their heavy punishment, I spoke to John Hogan, who for many years was ‘Marlboro’s man in racing’, and is regarded as the marketing guru in the sport. At Monza he said to me, ‘This is the worst situation I have ever come across in F1’. He said that several major companies, who had been looking at getting involved in F1, had been put off by accusations of cheating. Yet recently, when I asked Max (Mosley) if he thought F1 had been damaged by ‘Spygate’, he said no, if anything its reputation had been enhanced because the FIA had been seen to tackle the problem.
The latest row to hit F1 has been the furore over the racist abuse of Lewis Hamilton while testing in Spain. Nigel offered a historical perspective on it:
This kind of nastiness that we’re seeing is not new. At Silverstone in 1992, at the height of the Nigel Mansell craze, the tabloids were whipping it up and there was an element in that crowd then I’ve never seen before or since. There was a huge “F*** Senna” banner and they all cheered when Ayrton retired. Some of the Spanish journalists I’ve spoken to compare the hostility towards Hamilton in Spain with the sort of thing we saw on football terraces in England 20 years ago.
As someone who’s had the kind of access to drivers that F1 fans can only dream of, I have to ask Nigel his opinions of the current crop of drivers, starting with the world champion Kimi Raikkonen:
Well, he’s the worst interview in the world! But at the same time he’s interesting because he’s totally unlike any of the other drivers. He’s obviously a party animal, but at a race track he’s completely different. Kimi is also totally unaffected by his team mate – if it had been him at McLaren with Lewis (Hamilton) last year there wouldn’t have been the friction there was with Fernando.
Ecclestone criticised Alonso when he was world champion for not doing enough for the sport – does Nigel think Kimi is any better?
No, I don’t think he is – and Fernando didn’t do much, either. The same can be said of Michael (Schumacher), for that matter, but he had immense stature and reputation. I think we have the right to expect a little more from them. Niki (Lauda) used to say, ‘I’m paid $1m to drive and $5m to do PR…’
Looking forward to 2008
A regular theme in Nigel’s writings since 2001 has been criticism of the presence of traction control in Formula 1. With the technology finally banned for this year, does he forecast a better year of racing?
It will make a difference, I’m sure. Driver aids contribute towards making racing dull – because they limit the chance of a driver making a mistake. Already in testing we’ve seen a lot more spins than usual, and the loss of electronic engine braking (also banned this year) is causing them problems.
These are, after all, supposed to be the best drivers on earth. Many of them are paid hugely for their skills, and yet software has been doing a lot of the work for them. That serves to dehumanise the sport, I believe – symbolically it’s very important to the fans that they know that the driver alone is controlling the throttle. It’ll make it easier to see what the drivers are doing – Senna, for example, had a way with throttle control that was totally unlike anyone else’s. It should be done with what Mario Andretti calls ‘the educated right foot’. In contrast, Rubens Barrichello has described having traction control as ‘a parachute’.
Many F1 journalists are trying to assess what impact the ban will have on the current drivers. Does Nigel think it’s possible for an outside observer to describe accurately what’s going on in an F1 car?
Well, without naming the writer involved, I remember (Juan Pablo) Montoya reading one of his articles once, and saying afterwards how interesting it had been to read about his technique, because ‘he obviously knows more about it than I do!’
Examining the minutiae in different drivers’ techniques would be more interesting to me if they were all driving identical cars. The fact that they’re not makes it less valid to me. Having said that, I love to go and stand at a quick corner – like Eau Rouge in the old days, before it became comfortably flat for everyone – and watch what makes the difference between the Sennas and Schumachers and the more ordinary mortals…
Are all F1 writers diehard F1 fans at heart? I don’t know – but Nigel Roebuck certainly is.