Badger’s Rob Watts caught up with Sky F1’s Rachel Brookes, to get some insider knowledge on the key stories that shaped the 2016 F1 season.
Rob Watts: I wanted to start off by asking you about Nico’s decision to quit Formula One. How did you see the tension progress between him and Lewis progress this season, and what were your thoughts when you first heard the news of Nico’s retirement?
Rachel Brookes: Firstly, I was really shocked by the news. I had just come out of the gym and was sat in my car. I had paid for my parking, and I’d got word that there might be some big news coming, and then I heard what it was and messaged Mercedes. I said ‘Is this true?’, and the response was ‘Yes, it is.’ and I was really shocked – disappointed as well because I wanted to see him defend it. Going out the way he has, I understand it’s really good for him and obviously the right decision for him, and I’m not in his shoes. I know from what I’ve seen, how much it’s taken it out of him, but in terms of his life, obviously I don’t know. I just don’t like seeing a world champion go out like that, having won just a single title and then go – I want to see him come back and defend it and maybe even get a second and really prove a point.
RW: It must have been difficult to interview Nico Rosberg this season, as he appeared to give the same answers week in, week out. How difficult is it to get anything out of him when he’s in that mindset?
RB: It’s really difficult. It’s been interesting also because his body language at the start of the season, despite having such a good start, wasn’t telling me that he was a man who thought he could be a world champion or a man who thought he deserved to be a world champion. There wasn’t enough fight in his body language for me, but it changed actually after the summer break. As we got towards the end of the European season, he seemed to be a bit more pumped up and seemed to have a bit more belief – that was a definite change.
I think from Lewis’ point of view, everyone says how he wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s very up and down, but in fact, he is fairly constant. I always say about Lewis that he quite often has a flat Friday, and then a super Saturday. On Friday, he’s quite flat and quite measured in his answers – then he goes and puts it on pole position the next day, and he’s happy, but you never know what’s going to happen on Sunday – more to do with reliability I suppose than his performance. He’s fairly constant.
Nico’s constant, but in the other way – he always gives the same answers regardless of what’s happened, so he can be very difficult to get anything out of. He also can be quite brusk. I remember in Belgium, he came into the drivers’ interview pen having just got pole, and he looked around, did a couple of interviews before making his way over to me. He then rolled his eyes, looked around the pen and sort of shook his head. I had already started the interview, so I stopped my question and asked him ‘Are you ok?’ and he replied ‘Yeah…. I’ve just got to do all of these still’ and nodded his head in the direction of the other reporters. I said to him ‘That’s what happens when you get pole, Nico’ and I felt it wasn’t the right attitude from him at that point. I felt he wasn’t embracing the success, and I wonder whether that was a slight bit of his insecurity as to whether he could follow it through with a win. He didn’t want the attention necessarily there on a Saturday, but he’s fine with the attention if he wins the race. A part of me wasn’t sure whether that was a lack of self-belief maybe that he could convert it, and he didn’t want to play up the pole.
After the race in Abu Dhabi, he came over to me in the evening at the party afterwards and was chatty and friendly, and gave me a hug. That was the Nico that I wanted everyone to see but it just doesn’t come out on camera.
RW: After the race in Abu Dhabi, Nico seemed understandably emotional and spent time hugging several of the journalists. What did you make of that at the time?
RB: When he came into the pen, he hugged everyone on three sides of the pen, but the side I was on, with a Spanish journalist and a couple of others, he didn’t hug anyone our side – I don’t know why. I wouldn’t say it was personal necessarily, as when he comes in he goes straight to the Germans always so he gave all the Germans a hug.
He did hug us that evening at the party, so I don’t know whether he’d realised that he’d missed us out. I don’t think it was a slight because he was very friendly to everybody all day after he’d won – but you’re right, you don’t see that kind of emotion from him normally.
RW: Do you look back on that now, with hindsight, and see any tell-tale signs that he was about to quit the sport?
RB: I watched back our coverage, especially the interview I did with him, and the thing that struck me the most, and I do remember thinking this at the time, was how worn out he looked. In recent weeks I’ve actually sat down and watched back through the whole season in terms of interviews, and you see his physicality change throughout the season and just how much this has taken out of him. He was absolutely rung out at the end of that Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – I know that race was difficult, but you can see it in his face how much of a toll this season has taken on him.
Watching it now, I can see that, and I can understand his decision – and you can also see a sense of relief. The emotion he showed in those last interviews in Abu Dhabi was more than I’ve seen from him in five years in the sport. I guess it was the sheer relief that he’d done it, that chapter is over, and he’s free now to do whatever now.
RW: Do you think there’s a chance we’ll see Nico ‘do a Lauda’ and reverse his decision in a few years time.
RB: No, I really don’t think he’ll come back. He’s a different character to a Lauda – especially with the family side as well. He’s a driver that after every race goes home to his wife, to see his baby, to see his dog. He spends his time between races at home, and it’s clear that it’s the most important thing in the world to him and I really don’t think we’ll see him back. I think it’s a relief that he’s done it, and also that he doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. His whole career has been about proving that he can win a world title and he’s done that now, so I don’t see any reason why he’d want to come back.
RW: Another driver that seemed tricky to interview at times was Sebastian Vettel. His behaviour seems out of character; what do you think is the reason behind that?
RB: He’s been difficult this year, and I can remember a couple of instances in particular. I remember interviewing him after second practice one day, and when he do interviews on a Friday afternoon, we have to queue really early to get a spot so you don’t get to see the end of the practice session. All you can do is watch it on the timing app on your phone – the official Formula One timing app.
So I remember talking to him about the compound of tyres he’d used and he contradicted me and said ‘No I didn’t! You need to tell the person in your ear that that’s not [the compound] that I used.’ Now I didn’t have an earpiece in at the time, and I had no one in my ear telling me anything, they were my questions. So I said to him ‘There’s no one in my ear, I got that information from the official timing app’ and he was really brusk with me and I was quite offended by that.
I said ‘For one, you’re assuming that I didn’t write my own questions, and two, this information is from the official timing app’. So I spoke to his press officer afterwards and she said ‘You need to tell him that it came from the official app’, but I thought it was a one off and left it. Then in Mexico, after qualifying when he had finished P7, I remember him coming over to me, and I said ‘P7 Seb, what happened?’, and he responded ‘So you didn’t look? You didn’t watch?!’.
Those drivers know that we’re in the pen from the start of Q1, and while there is a screen in there, you’re interviewing other drivers all the time, so there is a chance that maybe something might have happened to him and I hadn’t seen it. As it happens, there wasn’t, but I wanted him to tell me from his point of view. So he was already on the back foot that weekend and the way he behaved in the race didn’t really surprise me. I was disappointed that he got so angry and said what he said on the radio, but actually, I think it was just a sign of the frustrations that were going on at Ferrari.
We’ve heard Arrivabene’s comments, and we’ve seen that relationship and the way that’s played out and I think he’s just really frustrated. He went to Ferrari to win, and he spent all that time at Red Bull with people saying it was the car and not him, and he just wants to prove people wrong. He’s a fantastic driver, and he desperately wanted to go to Ferrari and say ‘I can win with Ferrari as well’, and it’s not happening – and that’s all it is. He’s not suddenly a bad driver; I just think he’s had a really really tough year.
RW: You mentioned how Seb has been particularly challenging this past year. How do you typically deal with a driver who doesn’t like your questions, or who says something you think they may later regret?
RB: It depends; a lot of the time our stuff is live, or it gets turned around near enough immediately. A lot of the time when I’m interviewing a driver, I can hear it being played out straight away. Often, they’ll see it in the gallery and say ‘She’s got Lewis, turn it around now’ so I’m hearing my interview going out with a ten-second delay. So if a driver swears, I can say ‘Obviously emotions are running high, I apologise for the bad language’, things like that are ok.
There have been occasions where a driver has come in to the pen and said something pretty controversial, and I’ve let the team know. We’ve had to run it because the cameras are on and they know the cameras are on, but I have let the press officer know and said ‘By the way, your driver has said this’. At the end of the day, we’ve got a job to do, and the drivers know when they walk into the pen, who is live and who is not – they get briefed by their teams, so they know. So when something like that happens, I always let the press officers know, because it gives them a chance to deal with it. We all work together in the paddock, and everyone helps each other out.
Also, if a driver comes into the pen without a press officer and they’ve had a shocker, you always let the press office know that they’re in the pen without somebody. I’ve had Lewis on a weekend when he’s been particularly short, and you can usually tell how he’s going to be by his first answer.
I had a weekend in Abu Dhabi a few years ago when he was being particularly short and off with me – he’s the only driver I think I’ve ever done this to, but I went and found him and asked ‘Is there a problem? Have I, or anyone at Sky, upset you?’, he said ‘No, why?’, So I said ‘Your answers have been very short and curt this weekend. Is there anything we need to sort out?’, and he replied ‘No, I’ve just been feeling unwell this weekend, I’m so sorry’, and after that, he was absolutely fine with me. There aren’t many drivers I think I could go and say that to.
RW: Another driver who’s had a tough year has been Jenson Button, and it looks as though he’s driven his last race in Formula One. Do you think he’s made the right decision?
RB: When he announced he was taking a sabbatical in Monza, I felt like I wanted him to say ‘I’ve had enough, I want to go. It’s my last year; I’m going to enjoy my last few races’ because I wanted him to be celebrated for the driver that he is and was, rather than just sort of go out with a whimper.
The chances of him coming back in 2018 when he’s 38 when there are others coming through so young are slim. I just thought ‘If you don’t get back in a car, the fans haven’t had a chance to say goodbye, and the sport hasn’t had a chance to say goodbye’. When he actually got his head around it, those last few races when he admitted ‘I’m treating this as my last race, everyone else should too now’, I was glad for that because it gave everyone the chance to give him a proper send-off. It’s like anything when you know you’re leaving; you do kind of switch off. I understand it; it’s just a shame the last few races panned out in the way that they did.
In Brazil, everyone was saying ‘It’s wet, Jenson’s going to storm it’ but he had such a poor race in Brazil, and I think that really affected him as well because he seemed really disappointed when he got out of the car. In Abu Dhabi, he just wanted to go out on a high, and then he had the DNF, so that was a tough way for him to finish. I think we’ll see him back in the paddock, though. He said that he’ll be coming to four races this year – and I hope that we get to hear from him on TV or radio as well, as he’s very bright, talks a lot of sense and is a nice guy to be around.
RW: You mentioned that the drivers coming into Formula One these days are so much younger now. What do you make of the latest new boy, Lance Stroll, and how does he compare to Max Verstappen?
RB: I remember the first time I spoke to Lance, I was amazed at how together he is. He gives good answers, a good length of answer, he says the right thing – I think he’s great. He’s a really bright guy, and I hope he’s quick in the car too because he’s going to be great to have in the paddock.
Max is great, and he’s become more effusive over the course of the season. His answers were quite controlled at the beginning of the year, but now he’s expanding more as he gets more confident. Towards the end of the season, Texas and Mexico onwards, I thought he handled interviews very well under pressure. For a 19-year-old, having to face the questions that he was facing, having just got out of the car as well, I thought it was incredible.
So whoever has been training them on the way up, I know Max’s dad, Jos, is very involved, and Lance’s father also, whoever it is, they are doing a great job.
RW: Finally, to wrap up, I’d like to ask you about Valtteri Bottas. He’ll be stepping into Nico’s shoes next year, and he’ll have a tough job on his hands. What’s your gut feeling on how you think he’ll perform?
RB: A one-year contract is a risk for him, but if you’re a driver who is confident, you’ll think ‘In that one year, in a Mercedes, I can prove I deserve to stay’ so I can see why he would take that risk, as opposed to staying with Williams. I think in 2018, there are so many drivers up for grabs – Lewis needs to be secure, Seb, Kimi, only Red Bull are the only team who have nailed their drivers down for the next couple of years. I think Valtteri will have enough belief to think he can stay for longer [than one year].
I would have liked to see someone like Carlos Sainz get a chance because I think Mercedes have nothing to lose in putting a young driver in who could be extremely good. At the end of that one year, if he’s not done the job you let him go, but if he has then you’ve got a great young driver in your team. I understand they want someone to secure the constructors point that they need, so in that case, Valtteri is a safer bet. I believe Valtteri could be as quick as Nico in that car, if not quicker because I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of his talent.
Many thanks to Rachel for her time, and for sharing some of her experiences with us.