THE HACK LOOKS BACK
... at comebacks
AUGUST 21, 2009
BY MIKE DOODSON
On Saturday morning at the British GP, possibly because I happen to have the cutest tush in the press room (or possibly not, the process being entirely random), I was selected by the charming PR lady from the Williams F1 team to join Nico Rosberg and a small group of fellow journalists for breakfast. Since the state pension doesn't seem to cover my travels to more than half a dozen GPs each year, this was a marvellous stroke of luck because, inevitably, I don't have as many opportunities to get to know young drivers these days as I used to do. Rosberg Jr. is a bit different in this regard, because I actually made his acquaintance, sort of, approximately seven months before he was born, when the first Mrs Hack and I joined Keke and Sina for a pleasant afternoon's tanning on a beach in Queensland, Australia. He was only a bump then, of course, but even at that early stage in his career I was sure he looked like a very fast bump.
Anyway, I happened to mention the Australian beach meeting over the kedgeree in the Williams hospitality unit, and Nico did his generous best not to look bored as he reminded me that I'd already told him about that encounter a year earlier. Rather amazing, that, when you think about it. Not only had he been listening but he'd actually remembered! I hastily switched the conversation to another proud Dad's story Keke had told me about taking a six year old Nico for his first day at the American School in Monaco and leaving him in the same classroom as Nelson Angelo Piquet. "We started on the same day and sat next to each other," Nico recalled, "but I didn't talk to him. He had long hair and I thought he was a girl."
Eighteen years on, Nico's F1 career is curiously becalmed. Both he and his capable team mate Nakajima look good in qualifying, while two fifths and two fourths in the last four races demonstrate that Nico is a fast and canny racer. On the basis of solid results like those, his place in F1 is assured, of course, and there is talk of him going to McLaren. But is he tough enough for the big time? Would he be happy to be de facto number 2 to the even more glamorous Lewis Hamilton? How much weight do floppy hair (not at all girlish, of course) and Leonardo di Caprio looks carry with big sponsors? Only time will tell.
Meanwhile, Nico's former classmate at primary school has failed to stay the course. On this subject, though, I had expected Renault to have thought twice about firing Nelson Jr mid-season, for a variety of interesting reasons which would have been likely to attract the attention of m'learned friends if I had been rash enough to reveal them here. Let's just say that the Piquet/Renault story is almost certainly unfinished, with some potentially fascinating and possibly even scandalous turns in the road still to come.
Back to Rosberg and the Williams breakfast. I put to him one of my favourite questions, which was about reading material. Did he just look at newspapers and magazines? Or did he ever open a book? Oh, he said, he had taken up reading about economics, exclusively in English. "I figured that I wouldn't be racing cars forever, so I decided it would be a good idea to know what to do with my money."
Wise boy ...
Contrast Nico with some of the sport's greats who have retired from driving only to discover that life away from the race track is a dull existence. Think Emerson Fittipaldi and his several ill-advised come-backs, or blokes like Stefan Johansson and Gil de Ferran who either never actually retired or reversed their decisions at the drop of a hat. In England we have the perennial Johnny Herbert, who never actually retired and is about to be reborn as a tin-top ruffian; and then, of course, there's dear old Nigel Mansell, whose sons' racing talents appear to have fallen rather a long way from the family tree. As if to apologise for the boys' failure to match his own achievements, Nigel has announced yet another come-back, in a Ginetta sports car of all things, at the age of 55, insisting (it says here) that "it's going to be very special for me to be racing again at Silverstone where I've some on my most memorable wins." As usual with Nigel, the words don't make much sense, but you get the idea.
And then, of course, there's Michael Schumacher. Three years ago, when he announced his retirement, it was self-evident that he'd be back. Here was a man who was born to race, whose competitive instincts went back to the age of 4 and who was evidently being prematurely squeezed out at Ferrari in the clash of wills between Jean Todt and Luca di Montezemolo. On the beach at 37, it was obvious that Schuey would rapidly get tired with sitting at home with Corinna and counting his money. I should have headed straight down to the bookie and put the next six months' pension on seeing the seven-time world champion back in harness.
What I would never have anticipated was the utterly insane plan to start racing bikes. Here was a man who'd parlayed his serenely superior abilities into winning all those F1 races in return for virtually blank cheques, who had survived a surprising number of major shunts and had reached the age of 37 with all his physical and mental abilities intact. So he goes and buys a SuperBike and starts racing it in clubbies, presumably in return for a couple of fivers. When he fell off the bloody thing in a test session at Cartagena in February and broke his neck, he said he had abandoned plans to contest the German national championship. "Cartagena was an example of driving too close to the limit on the wrong kind of track," he commented. Yes, Michael, that's what happens when you're twice the age of most budding bikers and broken bones take longer than a week to heal.
I don't blame him for jumping at the chance to help out Ferrari in its hour of need when Massa was hurt, because -- assuming he'd managed to show Kimi the way around Valencia or Spa -- this would have been a very public opportunity to spank Montezemolo for easing him out of his seat at the end of 2006. What does concern me is that he seems to have been so anxious to start testing the 2007 Fazazz at Mugello that he didn't bother to consult the FIA's medical men about the possible effects of the neck he'd broken barely six months earlier. Yes, he had a chat with his personal medico, Doktor Peil, who has since stated that it could be months before the neck fracture heals, indeed it may never heal. If I were a doctor whose patient happened to be the richest ex-racing driver in the world, I suspect I might not have slept too well after giving him the OK to go testing a modern F1 car with a broken neck that had yet to knit together ...
None of this would have happened, of course, if Schumacher had planned out his future when he was still racing. Instead, rather predictably, he discovered as soon as he retired that he was no longer the centre of attention. As an adviser to Ferrari, he never looked very comfortable, and slipped away for a while after copping the blame for a couple of dodgy calls on tyres on which he had been unwisely consulted. Outside Ferrari, with the media, he'd burned all his boats years ago. I concede that it's difficult for a sporting super-star to forge close links with news-hungry journalists and commentators, but Michael only ever got close to two hacks: the bloke in the weird suits from German TV (which paid him for his cooperation) and a proper journalist from the written media (who was rapidly recruited as a press advisor and put on the Schumacher payroll, where she remains).
Schuey, advised presumably by his manager Willi Weber (who has reasons galore not to trust the press), never allowed himself to befriend a journalist. Hacks like me were left in awe of his racing talent, but not one of us ever got the invitation to go skiing with him, to get to know his family or sit down to chew the political gossip over a beer, as we did from time to time with drivers like Martin Brundle or Damon Hill, and even sometimes with David Coulthard or Eddie Irvine. Most F1 journalists worth their salt have a covey of special chums among the drivers. I hit it off with Nelson Piquet père when he was still in F3, and got to know Ayrton Senna pretty well before he ever raced an F1 car. I don't know why Senna dropped me from the favoured gang (I suspect it was because I dared to write that a true Christian could not in good conscience demand help from the Almighty to beat his fellow-competitors), but then Senna DID have a conscience, of sorts, as he disarmingly revealed on the half dozen memorable occasions when he took over press conferences to confess sins like deliberately colliding with Prost at Suzuka in 1990.
Michael, in contrast, insisted on playing the innocent, even with a smoking gun (metaphorically, of course) in his hand. We grudgingly gave him the benefit of the doubt when he deliberately elbowed Damon Hill off the road at Adelaide in 1995, but the moment that he tried to pull the same stunt on Jacques Villeneuve at Jerez two years later, we knew he was a bad 'un. After he parked his Ferrari on-track at Monaco in 2006 to deny pole position to Alonso, he threw away all remaining fragments of the respect which a sportsman of his stature might command from the press corps. He and his team boss even spouted flagrant lies in mitigation! If Michael were to sidle up to me in the pitlane at Spa next weekend, put his arm around me and invite me to lunch, my first reaction would be to hope that none of my mates had seen the incident. The second would be to check my pockets.
I've had a heavy mailbag (well, three of you) following my piece here last time about rascally Ricardo Londoño, my tearaway Colombian chum whose life came to the shockingly violent end which I described in my last column here. I believe there's some sort of blog on this site where readers can post their observations, but for the life of me I've never been able to find it. Relying on a more traditional form of communication, John Watson mischievously rang to complain that I had failed to mention that I, like Ricardo, had been accompanied by a Californian cutie of my own on that trip from Los Angeles to Rio in late March 1981.
In light of what I've written above about the friendships which are can be established between F1 drivers and the media, it's appropriate that Wattie should have chosen to remind me of that brief but slightly libidinous encounter in my past life. One of these days I shall make sure that I perform the same service for him, secure in the knowledge that scandalous stories involving a race-winning F1 driver tend to be much more interesting and extensive than mine.
As it happens, the passion which the young woman in question evinced for me rather faded when she saw the almost endless possibilities which the F1 paddock held for an ambitious social climber with good legs, glossy dark hair and dark brown come-hither eyes. She was only unfaithful to me once, albeit with virtually the entire Williams team. The honourable exceptions were the team principals and the drivers, although I believe that one of them eventually succumbed to her charms when he had moved to another team. Why stick with an inky-fingered scribe when you have the chance to be embraced by the same arms that once hoisted the Borg-Warner Trophy?
This same young woman was so entranced with the world of Formula 1 that she made her home in Europe and stayed as close as she could to our world. Eventually, she corralled one the several team managers that Ferrari employed. He and I were both enthusiastic consumers of red wine and good jazz, and had therefore spent quite a lot of time in each others' company before he even met my one-time amour. One of the moments which will remain in my memory is the one when he realised that wine and music were not the only passions we had in common ...
Incidentally, John Watson says he wasn't aware back in 1981 of Keke Rosberg's role in the incident which almost certainly cost my friend Londoño the chance of an FIA Superlicence. Unfortunately, Wattie couldn't offer any opinion one way or the other about whether the tough Colombian deserved a chance to mix it with the high and mighty of F1, so perhaps I'm going to have to do a bit more research into the subject.
So, be warned. When we claim that grandprix.com is a racy website, we're not just talking about the things that happen on-track.