Interview: F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck

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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.

F1 politics

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.

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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17 comments on “Interview: F1 journalist Nigel Roebuck”

  1. Great interview with a really interesting subject!

  2. Completely agree with Alex. This is a great interview.

    PS: Keith, you always do a great work!

  3. Thanks guys, very kind!

  4. great interview!

  5. That was great, thanks a lot! My favorite motor racing book is the one Nigel did with Michael Turner’s paintings. I’m glad to see that he’s left Autosport and is revitalized in his work at MotorSport. But come on, give us a tease of some of at least one of the stories he has that is “not suitable for public consumption”!

  6. Keith, feel free to e-mail me the anecdotes that aren’t suitable for public consumption! I’m sure they’re quite interesting, lol. :D

    Great interview though. Just out of curiosity, why did he not want to go to Sao Paulo?

    Also, if you go to the Motor Sport website you can sign up for a free monthly newsletter from Nigel.

  7. It seems to be universal among journalists who get to go to all the races that the place they like least is Sao Paulo. Not the track, the city, which has both affluence and appalling squalor, and the massive social problems that go hand in hand with that. Anyone attached to the wealthy Grand Prix circus is going to be a target for the desperate.

    I know a Brazilian girl who enthuses about her home country’s wonderful food, climate, culture… even she advised me not to go to Sao Paulo.

    I still would, though, because there’s a Grand Prix there!

  8. Great interview but you’ve left out the thing I’m most interested in – how the hell did you manage to get an interview with him in the first place?!

  9. I would love to hear some of Roebuck’s off the record stories. He has been my favourite F1 writer for many years and Thursday will never be the same again now that he has left Autosport.

    I spent a week on business in Sao Paolo and I can understand why people would not want to go. I have to say I never felt in the slightest danger despite all the horror stories I have read in the motor racing press over the years.

    Every new building over ten stories high has a helicpter landing pad on the roof presumably to allow the rich and famous to avoid the traffic and the crime risk.

    However the clash between rich and poor is more stark than anything I have ever seen. The favellas have to be seen to be believed. I saw one on a hillside where there must have been 5000 people squeezed into a tiny space living in buildings made of corrugated iron. On top of this hill of poverty was the biggest Coca Cola sign I have ever seen. Sick and wrong. I only hope that the locals had tapped into the power supply used to light up the sign and were using that to light
    their dwellings.

    The business I was visiting was in a poor area and as a result it took security very seriously. The perimeter wall would have stopped a tank and was topped by razor wire. In addition to 28 close circuit TV cameras there was a bullet proof pill box above the gate which had a small slot to allow the occupant to fire his rifle through. Any time the gate was opened a second security guard crouched behind a parked car with his weapon trained on the gate in case some unwanted visitor would come through the gate. Anyone taking the chance of getting past that lot would get access to the car park and still have no chance of actually getting inside the building.

  10. We’ll, and it has to be said that São Paulo, in terms of visible social inequallity, is better than Rio de Janeiro or my hometown Salvador, where 20-floor luxury residential buildings and shantytowns are literaly built side by side. The thing is: São Paulo lacks the marvellous landscapes Rio and Salvador are proud to show the world… São Paulo probably seems like Mexico City, but without the Aztecs legacy…

    In terms of crime rates, São Paulo, again, is better than Rio or Recife…

    We brazilians have to face this everyday, and our most talented young men are devoted to social projects, and studying deeply how can we find a way out of these contraditcions… unfortunately most of them do it only for a couple of years, then they decide to “grow up” and “make money”…

    But F1 fans and journalists must be prepared to face similar scenarios in time for the first Indian Grand Prix…

  11. Great interview.
    I am always holding my breath as they tinker with Motor Sport magazine, but after reading this, I think we’re gonna be OK.

  12. brilliant interview, this is the sort of thing you expect from paid subscription sites or magazines! Thank you so much, that was great to read!

  13. Great interview. One suspects that Montoya was talking about one Mark Hughes, but who knows. Could equally have been Peter Windsor, now I think about it

  14. Very good interview bit of a cliff hanger in respect of what he couldn’t reveal – but proves that you have a great site Keith – only thing youve got too keep them coming lad

  15. Haha – methinks the journalist who knows more about JPMs style than JPM is Peter Windsor.

  16. hello!,I like your writing so so much! share we communicate more about your article on AOL? I require an expert in this house to solve my problem. Maybe that is you! Looking forward to peer you.

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