Saturday, December 08, 2007

Goodbye, Nigel

Tomorrow will see the appearance of Nigel Roebuck's final Fifth Column in Autosport. For racing fans, like myself, who grew up reading his Grand Prix reports and his weekly column in Autosport, this feels like the end of an era. It would be an exaggeration to say that Mr Roebuck taught me to read, but as a primary school kid, I probably read more of his output than just about anything else.

Roebuck had handed over the race reporting reins to Mark Hughes some time ago, but his weekly column has remained, for me, one of the few true highlights of a magazine which I can't help but feel has rather lost it's way. If it wasn't for the fact that I very much enjoy Mark Hughes' writing, and that it is still a reasonable source of non-F1 news, I'd probably be thinking twice about whether to resubscribe in future.

There are more than a few who will suggest that Roebuck went off the boil in his last years at Autosport. I'm not sure that's accurate. In recent times, it is fair to say that he has appeared to have become somewhat disillusioned with the direction that the sport is taking. He is still immensely readable however, and brings a level of insight which is well beyond that offered by many writing about the sport today. He is also one of only a very few current F1 writers who has been able to develop a distinctive style. You know a Roebuck column is a Roebuck column. The same can be said of Mike Lawrence, Joe Saward and Mark Hughes, but I'd struggle to think of many others.

Nonetheless, it is probably true that he was at his best when he was writing about F1 during the mid to late 1980s. Many of the drivers of the time were almost his contemporaries, and at a time when much less PR control was exercised over the drivers by anxious marketing types, Roebuck was able to develop genuine friendships with a number of the drivers, as well as several of those involved in running the teams, which enabled him to provide a distinct insider's view of the battles between Mclaren, Williams and Ferrari, Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet, in the latter part of that decade.

Of course, his critics would point out that his closeness to certain drivers could lead to bias in his reporting. And that is probably true - he always seemed to go easier on Alain Prost than on any of his rivals. In part I suspect that this was simply a matter of personal preference - that he got on better with the Frenchman than with the boorish, whinging Mansell, the win-at-all-costs Senna or the louche playboy, Piquet. In doing so, I always felt he passed over the fact that Prost too, was an immensely political animal, not entirely above the same kind of gamesmanship that the other three indulged in. As I pointed out last year in The Write Stuff, all writers have their biases, though. And any worthwhile opinion column writer does not attempt to hide this. The result of attempting to do so is usually flat, tedious reportage.

These days, Roebuck is probably strongest when writing about the sport's past. I'm not sure he understands the business of actually driving an F1 car on the limit in the same way that Mark Hughes does - which is no surprise as Hughes was a successful club racer who raced against such as Allan McNish in karts, while Roebuck has, to my knowledge, never put more than a toe in the water in this regard. I've often wondered if it is for that reason that he overestimates the importance of traction control, while Hughes seems more aware of how little difference it really makes. However, when it comes to the characters and history of the sport I doubt there is a better English-language writer alive today.

Some of his Fifth Columns on the subject have stood out as some of the most well-written pieces on motorsport to be found anywhere. In particular When Your Number's Up on the enigmatic pre-war racer, Dick Seaman, The Clock Goes Back, on Swiss star Jo Siffert and A Day In The Rain on the stunning performance of mercurial Mexican Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche 917 at the BOAC 1000kms in 1970 stand up as amongst my favourite motorsports articles of all time.

If I have a gripe about Roebuck's writing, it is his unfortunate tendency to pepper his writing with irrelevant, heavy-handed and partisan remarks about UK politics. I can only guess that he's been allowed to get away with it because his ire is usually directed at the Labour party and Autosport is owned by Haymarket - part of former Conservative Minister Michael Heseltine's empire. The effect, though, was to rather spoil what was usually a pretty good read. Suffice to say, I prefer his older columns, when he was ,more inclined to skewer yuppie excess. Perhaps the title Fifth Column is a clue though. The expression was originally coined during the Spanish civil war by nationalist General Emilio Mola, a supporter of General Franco.

That said, it's not all bad news. I understand that Roebuck is off to Motorsport magazine full time from next month. Motorsport has suffered from something of an identity crisis of late. During the late 90s, it became ever more confused about what it really was about, before formally relaunching as a motorsports history magazine. In the long run, though, this hasn't really worked. While the historically oriented approach produced some fine individual magazines, the fact is that the lack of anything new to report meant that eventually, Motorsport began to repeat itself. Recently, there has been yet another relaunch, and this time, the plan appears to be to mix articles about the history of the sport with less immediate, more considered commentary on the present day. It could work very well, and I can't think of anyone better than Nigel Roebuck to take on the task of editing it.

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Anonymous Steven Roy said...

For a lot of years the first thing I have done on buying Autosport is read Roebuck. Thursdays will never be the same.

The frequent references to politics (and smoking) are unnecessary but the quality of his writing is better than anyone I have ever read.

I still quote columns he wrote 25 years ago and some of them are as fresh in my mind as the day I read them.

Perhaps the single best piece of F1writing I ever read was his column about a telephone call with Gilles Villeneuve a couple of days after Imola 1982. He wrote in such a way that you almost felt like you were in Villeneuve's mind and understood his rage and the potential effects of it. That Villeneuve died within days of that column imprinted it on my mind for ever. It is rare for a writer to let you feel like you are in his mind but to be able to so clearly let you understand a third party is all but unique.

I will certainly miss my weekly dose of Roebuck.

5:04 PM  
Blogger Chris Sydney said...

Hi Patrick, I just happened upon your terrific blog as I was curious what was happening to Mr Roebuck. I get my news and Autosport hard copy late hear in Australia. I have read Autosport since 1978 and have had a love / hate relationship with Nigel's F1 writing.

I've never seen eye to eye with his pro-Conservative views though I was a massive fan of Gilles. F1 died somewhat for me in 1982 with Gilles death.

Whilst I agree that Mark Hughes et al have added greatly to F1 reportage over the years, it is with real sadness that I am hearing of the end of Nigel's F1reporting career.

Perhaps the sport has moved on more than I thought and its the time of the next generations per se.

I never have bothered to learn how to play F1 games on the computer. This probably says it all!

6:12 PM  
Blogger Nicebloke said...

How funny - as I was reading your post it became clear to me that a good destination for Nigel would be Motorsport mag, and then, presto!, you tell us that's exactly where he's going. Good luck to him I say, and to Motorsport. For a mag with such history I'd love to see them achieve greater success through a new focus.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

autounion, a BBC 606 F1 regular posted a link to this blog.

Most of the Roebuck I've read was his contributions in CAR Magazine in the 90s.

I've bought the current issue of Autosport as Roebuck's going and it appears to be a 2007 summary issue.

I didn't know Roebuck attacked the current government. I doubt I'd have minded as I leave in a city with 2 Labour MPs. Labour have hardly had any opposition, so why shouldn't Roebuck have a pop? He's gone up in my estimation having learnt that.

2:07 PM  
Blogger Gordon McCabe said...

Superb Patrick.

I'm also tempted to say that I learnt my English from Mr Roebuck. It's worth recalling that Nigel was taught English at school by Russell Harty (of chat-show fame). Nigel has a curious, but striking idiom, of writing key sentences grammatically back-to-front. From his love of French, I think, Nigel acquired this.

There are also certain French phrases, such as de rigeur, and sans pareil, which Nigel uses with distinctive frequency.

Mark Hughes has indeed a far greater understanding of the driving techniques, and a far greater understanding of F1 technology. For cutting irony, however, Roebuck is sans pareil.

10:17 AM  

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