Fifth col­umn: Nigel Roebuck

As Lewis Hamil­ton signs off on his most ac­com­plished sea­son yet, Fer­nando Alonso shuf­fles into re­tire­ment – and he’s not all we’ve lost…


Love him or not, none can deny that Lewis Hamil­ton’s sea­son has been im­pe­ri­ous, un­ques­tion­ably his great­est to date. As with Michael Schu­macher, the statis­tics long ago ceased to reg­is­ter – that tends to hap­pen when a driver wins more than he loses – but what has most im­pressed me this year, what has been dif­fer­ent about it, is that, while his team-mate has been quicker the odd time, Lewis has shed those mys­te­ri­ous ‘off’ week­ends that had pre­vi­ously been a hall­mark of his ca­reer. At no stage in 2018 has he gone miss­ing, even win­ning races af­ter clinch­ing the world cham­pi­onship; in times past, he didn’t bother.

Hamil­ton’s 11th vic­tory of the sea­son came in Abu Dhabi, and if the race was a pretty hum­drum af­fair that was no sur­prise, for in 10 years Yas Ma­rina has pro­duced lit­tle in the way of mem­o­rable rac­ing – in For­mula 1, any­way. As at so many tracks, the rel­a­tively sim­ple aero­dy­nam­ics of For­mula 2 pro­vide a bet­ter show, to the point that a friend re­cently ques­tioned the wis­dom of run­ning the se­ries at grand prix week­ends.

“You wouldn’t have thought the Lib­erty lot would want to re­mind peo­ple of how rac­ing can be, would you?” he said. “It’s the same with the F1 two-seater – when­ever

I’ve heard it out on the track it un­set­tles me, be­cause it brings back how en­gines used to sound. Then the cur­rent cars go out, with their anaemic sound, and it hits you again what we’ve lost…”

Not even the most fer­vent hy­brid be­liever – and I’m told there are such peo­ple – can take is­sue with that, although I’ll con­cede that I never had much en­thu­si­asm, ei­ther, for the last it­er­a­tion of con­ven­tional en­gine in F1: the 2.4-litre V8s of 2006-13 may have been loud, but they didn’t have much horse­power, and their sound – iden­ti­cal from one man­u­fac­turer to an­other – came across as so much scream­ing white noise.

The mus­cu­lar three-litre V10s that pre­ceded them, though, were a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, as Fer­nando Alonso or

Kimi Raikko­nen can tell you. Be­fore Max Mosley’s FIA banned them, the best V10s were giv­ing close to 1000 horse­power – and the cars of the time were 150kg lighter than the leviathans of to­day.

Amaz­ing now to think that Mosley jus­ti­fied go­ing to the smaller en­gines on grounds of safety: with the V10, he ar­gued, it was all get­ting a lit­tle too fast, but in the no-holds-barred turbo era horse­power had been on an­other level again. “In 1986,” re­called Wil­liams tech­ni­cal direc­tor Patrick Head, “Honda couldn’t tell us how much power we had, ac­tu­ally, be­cause they didn’t know them­selves! Their dyno only reg­is­tered up to 1000 horse­power – which they were reach­ing at 9300rpm. We were revving them to 13,500 or so…”

On qual­i­fy­ing boost, the best turbo en­gines yielded as much as 1500bhp, which is why those who ex­pe­ri­enced them – Keke Ros­berg, Nigel Mansell, Ger­hard Berger et al – roll their eyes at the mem­ory, but as an en­gine to use most pre­ferred the in­stant re­sponse of the V10.

“The turbo era was be­fore my time,” said David Coulthard in a chat ear­lier this year, “but I loved the V10 cars. Adrian Newey re­cently re­minded me that in my Mclaren years the car weighed 605kg – and car­ried 20-odd ki­los of bal­last… Those cars felt fast, felt like grand prix cars – now the hy­brids are up around 1000 horse­power, like the V10s, but we’re at more than 740kg, for God’s sake, so to get back to the lap times of 15 years ago they’ve mas­sively in­creased down­force – which of course has been detri­men­tal to the rac­ing.

“These re­ally are very silly cars we have now,” he went on, “and it’s a con­se­quence of all the hy­brid, ‘save the planet’, road rel­e­vant, bull­shit that at­taches to For­mula 1 these days. As well as be­ing fright­en­ingly ex­pen­sive, the power units are in­cred­i­bly heavy, with MGU-H and MGU-K and what­not – all stor­ing en­ergy to over­come that weight, bring­ing you back to where we were on horse­power in 2005. It’s ab­so­lutely ridicu­lous – like ev­ery­one car­ry­ing a back­pack of 20kg all the time, be­cause it con­tains some­thing that makes your heart live longer – but the down­side is that you need ex­tra mus­cles in your legs, which will make you heav­ier, so you’ll need more blood pumped to your legs, which will make your heart work harder.

“Now we’ve got 743-kilo cars, with all the hy­brid tech­nol­ogy that some peo­ple want to cel­e­brate – but be­cause of them we’ve lost a lot from the show that

For­mula 1 is sup­posed to be. To me it’s crazy…”

You’ll have no ar­gu­ment from me, DC – nor, I sus­pect, from any­one else with mem­o­ries of F1 be­fore the sledge­ham­mer su­per­seded the rapier. Re­cently I chanced to see one of Sky’s Clas­sic Races se­ries – the 1998

Hun­gar­ian Grand Prix – and got a stark re­minder of how the F1 world has changed.

Twenty years ago we had re­fu­elling, of which I was never a fan, and this was also the era of grooved tyres, which the driv­ers loathed, but on the plus side the cars, as Coulthard stressed, were vastly lighter than now, and as well as that – de­void of ugly barge­boards and ab­surd front wings – were not glued to the road. Run­ning at the limit, Schu­macher’s V10 Fer­rari looked de­li­ciously edgy and alive, Michael con­stantly cor­rect­ing in­cip­i­ent slides, and isn’t that what we all love to see?

In­ter­est­ingly, when I asked Ross Brawn to choose a sin­gle grand prix from all his years of work­ing with Schu­macher at Fer­rari, it was this race at the Hun­garor­ing that he se­lected. In qual­i­fy­ing Michael was un­able to match the Mclarens of Mika Hakki­nen and Coulthard, which started from the front row, and in the open­ing stint of the race was obliged to fol­low them.

It was only at the time of the Fer­rari’s first stop, on lap


25, that Brawn took the de­ci­sion to change the strat­egy from two stops to three, hav­ing con­cluded that this – al­low­ing for Schu­macher’s vir­tu­os­ity – would be the quick­est way to com­plete the 77 laps. Once back out, Michael was stuck be­hind Vil­leneuve’s Wil­liams for sev­eral laps, and found him­self won­der­ing if Ross’s call had been the right one, but once Jacques had made his own stop, the road was clear and he put his mes­meric skills to work.

“I never did a deep anal­y­sis of all the races,” Brawn told me. “With Michael, there were so many you thought ex­cep­tional that pick­ing one out is dif­fi­cult, but I es­pe­cially re­mem­ber that day in Hun­gary be­cause

I was closely in­volved in the race, so it gave me a lot of per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion.

“I re­mem­ber say­ing to Michael, ‘We’re chang­ing the strat­egy, and to make it work you’ve got to make this time up – end of story’, and he put in, sort of, 20 qual­i­fy­ing laps. He had to make up some­thing like 19 sec­onds in

19 laps – had to go at least a sec­ond a lap faster than the op­po­si­tion for that pe­riod. I told him what was needed, and he just said, ‘OK’. There was no, ‘Oh Christ, there’s no chance…’ The thing about Michael was that he just en­joyed it so much, and peo­ple didn’t al­ways see that – I mean, he loved driv­ing a rac­ing car.”

In the end Schu­macher beat Coulthard to the flag by nine sec­onds, his fastest lap 1.3s quicker than ei­ther Mclaren.

“Look­ing back to that time with Fer­rari,” said Ross, “I went to ev­ery race think­ing there was a chance of win­ning, and un­less you have that it’s very dif­fi­cult to get mo­ti­vated – that’s why I’ve so ad­mired Fer­nando these last few years. What I’ve al­ways said – and I mean it – is that it’s much tougher at the bot­tom than at the top…”

As he takes his leave of For­mula 1 af­ter 17 sea­sons, Alonso knows all about that. More than five years have passed since his last vic­tory, at home in Barcelona, and in that time Hamil­ton’s Mercedes has won 52 grands prix. “Put Fer­nando in a com­pet­i­tive car,” com­mented Ser­gio Perez the other day, “and he’d be world cham­pion again – his leav­ing shows what a state For­mula 1 is in…”

Re­cently Hamil­ton was asked if he had any re­grets that Alonso had not had a com­pet­i­tive car in re­cent years, and he said no – he’s not daft! Fer­nando, he ar­gued, could have had bet­ter equip­ment if he had made bet­ter de­ci­sions along the way, and if that’s be­yond ques­tion, on a daily ba­sis Lewis must cel­e­brate that back in 2012 Niki Lauda talked him into leav­ing Mclaren for Mercedes: as­ton­ish­ing as it now seems, at the time many thought it a mis­take.

Hamil­ton went on to say that he thought Alonso the best driver he had com­peted against, and, given that both men are war­riors, through and through, there must surely be a part of him that re­grets miss­ing the seis­mic bat­tles they would have had in the last few years, had Fer­nando opted to re­main with Fer­rari. For all Se­bas­tian Vet­tel’s qual­i­ties, fun­da­men­tally


nei­ther Hamil­ton nor Alonso has ever con­sid­ered any­one else – save Robert Ku­bica – on their level.

Un­de­ni­ably, though, since the re­tire­ment of Nico Ros­berg, it is Seb who has of­fered the great­est chal­lenge to Lewis, and if he can find a way to calm down, to erad­i­cate the silly mis­takes, he will take an even greater fight to Mercedes in 2019. The loss of this year’s cham­pi­onship has af­fected him pro­foundly, but he has borne it with dig­nity, and all were touched by the im­promptu dis­play of re­spect shown by both cham­pi­onship pro­tag­o­nists to Alonso on the slow­ing down lap in Abu Dhabi.

Twenty-five years ago, in Ade­laide, we saw some­thing sim­i­lar with Senna and Prost. For all the fe­roc­ity of their ri­valry, as soon as Alain’s last race was done, Ayr­ton em­braced him on the podium, and later frankly al­lowed that with­out him his mo­ti­va­tion wasn’t the same.

It won’t be like that for Hamil­ton, for Alonso has been no threat in re­cent years, but – ad­mit­ted or not – both he and Vet­tel are aware of their good for­tune that em­bar­rass­ingly slow Mclarens have kept him on the side­lines. As Fan­gio said of his 1954 world cham­pi­onship, “I had the Mercedes, which was the fastest car – and Al­berto As­cari was out of the pic­ture…”

If Alonso leaves F1 on a down­beat note, it is per­haps not for ever, and at least he has had many days in the sun, which is more than may be said of his team-mate: Stof­fel Van­doorne ut­terly dom­i­nated the ju­nior for­mu­las en route to join­ing Mclaren, but now, af­ter two dispir­it­ing years in lamentably un­com­pet­i­tive cars, has been cast aside.

The same fate very nearly be­fell Kevin Mag­nussen, who had a sin­gle sea­son with Mclaren in 2014, then – af­ter a last-minute change of plan, in favour of re­tain­ing Jen­son But­ton – lost his drive at the time of Alonso’s re­turn to the team. Rel­e­gated to the role of test/third driver, Mag­nussen was a de­spair­ing fig­ure the fol­low­ing sea­son – and more than that at the end of it when Ron Den­nis dropped him al­to­gether, in favour of Van­doorne.

For­tu­nately for Kev, a life­line ma­te­ri­alised, in the shape of a drive with the re­turn­ing Re­nault team, and that in turn led to an of­fer from Haas, where very hap­pily he still re­sides. That said, he well knows how close he came to F1’s piti­less scrapheap, and told me of his sym­pa­thy for Van­doorne.

“It looks as though his F1 ca­reer’s over – he’s had an even tougher run with Mclaren than I did, be­cause at least I had one de­cent sea­son with Mercedes en­gines, and got out with some sort of rep­u­ta­tion, whereas his has been ru­ined be­cause of the lack of sup­port. I feel very sorry for him.

“The thing is, even a very, very, good driver – which

I think Stof­fel is – can look bad with­out be­ing bad.

Through no fault of his own, he’s had ter­ri­ble cars for two years, and that’s the end of him – bring on the next guy! It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is.”

Pa­tience is in­deed short in F1, and so much hangs on the way you ar­rive. When Hamil­ton made his de­but, in 2007, a Mclaren was the thing to have, and by half-sea­son he was win­ning races; when Van­doorne came in, 10 years later, it was the car no­body wanted, and he raised barely a blip.

Peo­ple have al­ways slipped through the net, and many do not so much as touch it. Forty years ago I asked Gilles Vil­leneuve which of his fel­low driv­ers he rated, and af­ter go­ing through the ex­pected names, he added an­other: “In For­mula At­lantic I raced against a guy called Tom Klausler – he was quiet, not as pushy as per­haps he needed to be, and prob­a­bly most peo­ple in Europe have never heard of him, but for pure tal­ent he was as good as any­one I’ve seen.”

For­tu­nately come­backs, while rare, do come about, and it pleases me that Red Bull, whose lad­der of ap­pren­tices is not what it was, are bring­ing Daniil Kvyat back to Toro Rosso in 2019. I thought him shab­bily treated last time round.

Some­times, too, a driver leaves the scene in the sure knowl­edge that it is only tem­po­rary. It may be an in­dict­ment of con­tem­po­rary F1 that a po­ten­tial su­per­star like Este­ban Ocon will be con­fined to sim­u­la­tor work in 2019, af­ter los­ing


his Force In­dia drive to Lance Stroll, but noth­ing speaks louder than gelt, and any­way even if Valt­teri Bot­tas raises his game, the wide­spread as­sump­tion is that the Mercedes­owned Ocon will be Hamil­ton’s team-mate in 2020.

Whether Lewis will wel­come that, any more than Vet­tel does the ar­rival at Fer­rari of Charles Le­clerc, one doesn’t know. As with Seb’s sup­port for Raikko­nen, he has de­scribed Bot­tas as the best team-mate he has ever had, and why not? Like Kimi, Valt­teri is an equable and non-po­lit­i­cal team player – more im­por­tant is that rarely has ei­ther con­sti­tuted a threat. Could be very dif­fer­ent with Este­ban and Charles.

For me the shin­ing mo­ment of the In­ter­la­gos week­end came in the clos­ing minute of Q2, when rain was fall­ing, and Sauber sug­gested to Le­clerc that he come in. No, no, he said, tak­ing mat­ters into his own hands, he was stay­ing out – and that lap, on an un­pre­dictable sur­face, was enough to get him into Q3. Like Pierre Gasly, Charles is now pro­moted to the Elite Class in For­mula 1, to one of the three teams able to think about win­ning: there are those who be­lieve that, even in his first sea­son with Fer­rari, he will con­tend for the cham­pi­onship, and I’m with them.

Given the cur­rent state of com­pet­i­tive­ness at Mclaren and Wil­liams, Lando Nor­ris and Ge­orge Rus­sell face a tough For­mula 1 bap­tism, but both have ex­cep­tional po­ten­tial, and one hopes they will be given time enough to re­alise it: the cruel fate of Van­doorne will not have es­caped them.

In look­ing ahead to 2019, though, it is the re­turn of Ku­bica that most pleases me. Like ev­ery­one else, times with­out num­ber I have won­dered how dif­fer­ent For­mula 1 might have been these last few years had he not been dev­as­tat­ingly in­jured in that mi­nor rally back in Fe­bru­ary 2011. At the time he was con­tracted to Re­nault, but all was in place for him to join his buddy Alonso at Fer­rari in 2012, and what a team they would have made. “In my opin­ion,” Fer­nando told me, “Robert had the best tal­ent of all of us.”

Given his phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, Ku­bica knows he can never again be the driver he was, and as well as that is mak­ing his re­turn with Wil­liams, com­pletely out of the pic­ture this sea­son past. All that said, if come­backs are not un­known, there has never be­fore been one re­motely like this: eight years – and 158 grands prix – have gone by since Robert last went to the grid, and his droll hu­mour has been missed al­most as much as his driv­ing.

Think of that press con­fer­ence at In­di­anapo­lis in 2007, five days af­ter his mon­u­men­tal ac­ci­dent in the BMW at Mon­treal: be­fore ask­ing his ques­tion, a lo­cal jour­nal­ist went through an in­ter­minable blow-by-blow de­scrip­tion of the shunt, as if ac­quaint­ing Ku­bica with what had hap­pened. “I know,” Robert said, “I was there…”

Sim­i­larly, when I talked to him about it, he said that while the first im­pact had been light, a glanc­ing blow, the sec­ond was rather dif­fer­ent: “I was still trav­el­ling at 260km/h [160mph], and from 260 to zero into the wall was not ideal.

“I think,” he went on, “when some­thing like that hap­pens – whether you are in­jured or not – dur­ing the time you are away, you are not the same per­son: you are look­ing for­ward to com­ing back, you are much more mo­ti­vated. I re­mem­ber when I had a road ac­ci­dent, and broke my arm, and wasn’t able to race. It was in­cred­i­ble: I was train­ing seven or eight hours a day – it was like I was a dif­fer­ent per­son. I would like to be so mo­ti­vated ev­ery day of my life!

“I’m quite sure that some of the dif­fi­cult times I had in the past made me stronger – as a driver and as a per­son.

One thing I be­lieve is that there are al­ways pos­i­tive things about a sit­u­a­tion which seems neg­a­tive.”

As with Niki Lauda’s re­turn to rac­ing, fol­low­ing his fear­ful ac­ci­dent at the Nur­bur­gring, this is an ex­traor­di­nary tri­umph of the hu­man spirit.

Lewis Hamil­ton has reached a whole new level this sea­son

Brawn and Schu­macher played a mas­ter­stroke in 1998 Hun­gar­ian GP

Alonso signed off with the oblig­a­tory ‘donuts’ and maybe some re­gret

Alonso re­garded Ku­bica as the most tal­ented driver of the lot

Ocon might just end up re­plac­ing Bot­tas at Merc come 2020…

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