In another life I used to have to go to an annual car testing day somewhere on the European continent. This particular year it was in Italy. These test days were characterised by the large number of males, badly dressed as only German and Polish car journalists can be. Hardly surprising then that a sex-starved 20-something British writer should feel optimistic upon seeing a blonde sitting alone with their back to the crowd. “Who’s the blonde in the corner?” My lascivious colleague asked.
My friend, who was already working out how he was going to get this stunner up to his room, was even more interested when I said ‘she’ was called Nico. He was doubtless imagining I was going to be his ‘in’ to the exotically named foreign girl. Then Nico turned round, whereupon my friend suddenly lost interest.
At that time Nico Rosberg was 17 and had just won the German Formula BMW championship in his first year of car racing. I went over to talk to him about the cars we were testing and discovered that he’d only just qualified to drive and didn’t have any experience at all of testing road cars. However, like the majority of young racing drivers, he was mature way beyond his years. We had a sensible conversation about cars, racing and why he was competing under a German flag when his father was Finnish.
Just a couple of years later, he had a test with the Williams F1 team. I was discussing this with a friend who worked at Williams and wasn’t remotely surprised to find that the team had been impressed by Rosberg’s maturity and the quiet, focused way he got on with the job. It was a counterpoint to the other son of a famous father on the same test, Nelson Piquet Jr, who was considered a spoilt prima donna by the team.
Fast forward a decade and on the day Rosberg won the most famous prize of the lot – the Monaco GP – Piquet was failing in a World Rallycross round at Lydden Hill in Kent. Can’t say I was surprised. But whatever he achieves in his career, Rosberg will always be the blonde in the corner for me.
Never meet your heroes, they say, and ‘they’ could have a point. The reminiscing about James Hunt reminded me of the time I met him. A bit of background first. Niki Lauda’s fiery accident and James Hunt’s subsequent last-gasp dash to the 1976 World Championship is what alerted me to Formula One. I was a Hunt fan, briefly, until I was alerted to Carlos Reutemann. But that’s another story.
Anyway, fast forward to 1992 and I was working for Autosport. As such I had to host a table at the Autosport Awards ceremony. On that table along with ex-F1 driver and now the late Innes Ireland, there was ex-Williams technical director Patrick Head, scribe Nigel Roebuck and James Hunt. I can’t remember now what Hunt was wearing but I struggle to imagine he was in Black Tie.
As nominal head of the table, I had to organise the collection for charity. And I remember Hunt had the usual racing driver’s long pockets and short arms. In fact when I suggested he might like to contribute, his rebuttal was pretty firm. But then I was blissfully unaware that he was as skint as he apparently was. Nonetheless, it rather took the sheen off the legend for me.
A few months later, it was a Tuesday afternoon. Autosport was just closing for press, everything had been written, designed, subbed, and proofed when one of the writers said he’d heard Hunt had had a heart attack. All hands to the pumps. I rang Mark Wilkin who was the producer of BBC Sport’s F1 coverage. He answered the phone after a couple of rings and I could tell instantly from the shock in his voice that the rumours of Hunt’s heart attack were true. In fact, they were worse: Hunt had died. We really earned our money that afternoon, putting together an obituary on the fly and getting a news story about his death researched and in the magazine within hours. It somehow seemed wrong that after racing in one of the sport’s most dangerous eras, he should die at home aged just 45.
Did meeting him ruin the myth? No. But it’s fair to say it tarnished it for a while. Twenty years down the line though and Hunt is still up there with the greats in my mind.
One of the stranger evenings I’ve had was spent with Michael Schumacher, Eddie Irvine and a model at the Dorchester Hotel. First a bit of house keeping. The model was Irvine’s girlfriend of the time (it was 1996). And we weren’t doing the sort of things footballers are famous for doing in hotel rooms. We were in a private part of the Dorchester’s Chinese restaurant.
At the time I knew Eddie pretty well. I was ghost writing a magazine column for him and he was in London for a Ferrari sponsor do. He asked me if I wanted to meet for a drink and after we’d had a couple he casually mentioned Michael was joining us. And that’s how I found myself having dinner with the reigning F1 world champion of the time. I found Schumacher quiet, a bit shy and quite serious but with remarkable humility. He didn’t appear over burdened with charisma but in the company of Irvine that was unsurprising.
The next time I met him was a couple of years later. I’d gone to Monza in Italy where he was testing to interview him. My plane was late departing so I was late arriving at the track. Schumacher however knew I was coming and altered his schedule to fit me in. After we’d done the interview, we carried on talking about life; the pain of delayed planes, sleepless nights as a dad of young kids and road cars, something he’s fascinated with.
For those reasons I’ve always had a soft spot for Schumacher. And unlike the rest of the world I’ve enjoyed his comeback. This year he’s had the better of Nico Rosberg in qualifying and when his car hasn’t broken he’s proved there’s plenty of fight left in him. And at 43 he’s a man.
Without wishing to get all homo erotic about this, when I got into F1 the drivers were all men. James Hunt won his title aged 29. In 1978, the top three in the championship, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson and Carlos Reutemann, were 38, 34 and 36 respectively. Now most drivers still have spots and are generally viewed as past it when they get to 33. For us older geezers, 43-year-old Schumi is driving proof that age doesn’t have to count against you.
When double Paralympic gold medallist Alex Zanardi first featured on my radar it was 1991 and he was driving for an Italian team called Il Barone Rampante (The Rampant Baron). Colleagues close to the team alleged that rather than driver debriefs, its motorhome was used mainly for the rampant snorting of white powder. It was an ‘interesting’ environment, not least for Zanardi who unassisted by the devil’s dandruff was attempting to win a major motor racing championship.
I met him first eight years later on his second coming to Formula One. I interviewed him two thirds of the way through the year. Things weren’t going well. He hadn’t scored a point and as it turned out wasn’t going to. But he was punctual, polite and gave full attention to my questions about how he could turn his season around. Some of his erstwhile fellows – stand up please Ralf Schumacher – managed to hide those qualities remarkably well.
Three years later I spoke to a very different Alex Zanardi. His Formula One career had ended and racing an IndyCar he’d lost his legs in a horrific crash. Yet the same competitive instinct and trade mark good humour was present.
Asked if he wanted to give son Niccolo a sibiling, he laughed: “No, (wife) Daniela is happy with one. I would like more, and believe me I could! I might have lost my legs but I’m still capable. All the blood that was in my legs has to go somewhere!” And you couldn’t keep that grin away. You might have wondered if Ralf Schumacher, his one-time Williams team mate, had been in touch after Zanardi’s life-changing crash. Again, that broad grin: “That’s a ridiculous question! Ralf can drive a car quickly but not much more. Of course he hasn’t called me.”
Rather than wallow in self-pity, the overriding impression he gave was of a man determined to continue enjoying life. He’d designed his own prosthetic legs after growing frustrated with the ones he’d been given. And one of the other memorable quotes in the interview was when he said: “I have so much in my life.” Now of course he has even more: two Olympic gold medals and the promise that a US team will provide a car for the legendary Indy 500 oval race. Don’t bet against it happening.
Why does it seem to be the law that the BBC has to have pundits that can’t speak English?
I spend a lot of time at weekends listening to Radio 5 Live. One of their football pundits (I’d name him if I could remember his name) seems to have real problems with his verb tenses. Sorry mate but: “He’s came into the box” isn’t English. Neither is: “He’s went and done that.”
But at least I know what he’s getting at. Listen to the F1 coverage and you have the slick skills of James Allen on the one hand. And then there’s Jaime Algersuari. His English is an awful lot better than my Spanish. And he’s obviously a much better driver than me. Shame his English isn’t good enough to convey that.
You can almost hear his brain whirring as he translates from his native language before adding his pearls of wisdom. Which actually don’t bring any kind of wisdom at all. As far as I can see his only function is to give Allen the chance to have a rest and a mouthful of water. The result is you could have just about any F1 fan sitting in the pundit’s seat and they’d probably bring more value to the show.
Then on the BBC there’s Eddie Jordan, another commentator for whom English is a second language. Trouble is, he’s got an ego too. The result is complete gibberish most of the time. As Eddie Irvine recently said: “He waffles and waffles and doesn’t say anything. He goes round and round and hopes that by the end you’ll have forgotten what the question was because he sure has.” To the point as ever.