Autosport 70: The "cheapest" world champion opens up

He had been a regular non-qualifier with Fittipaldi in 1981, but one year later Keke Rosberg was a surprising world champion with Williams. In the first of a series of FREE features celebrating Autosport's 70th anniversary year, we've dug into our archives to share then-GP editor NIGEL ROEBUCK's long-form interview from the 23-30 December 1982 issue

Autosport 70: The "cheapest" world champion opens up

It is a wet day at Silverstone in March of 1978, and the Daily Express Trophy has dissolved into fiasco. James Hunt, Patrick Depailler, Clay Regazzoni, Niki Lauda... all the stars are out, and much of the catch fencing is flat.

In the John Player Team Lotus motorhome there are long faces, for Mario Andretti and the new 79 have slithered out of the lead at Abbey, and Ronnie Peterson, too, is out, unhappy with a car hastily refettled after a warm-up shunt. Mario and Ronnie stare out absently through rain-soaked windows.

"Who's leading?" says someone. Colin Chapman thinks for a second. "Ro... Ro... Rosebury?" he ventures...

"That day taught me a lesson," said recently crowned Formula 1 world champion Keke Rosberg. "I always thought I was going to make it in the end - that was why I took the Theodore drive. I had no backing, and it was the only way for me to get into F1.

"Eddie Cheever didn't want the car. OK great, I'll take it! I even got paid for it.

"So I won my second race in the car, at Silverstone. Does it really matter what the circumstances were? I mean, at least I stayed on the road! Emerson Fittipaldi was second... I was a bit pissed off that Brett Lunger was third [fourth - ed]... but Emerson was second, and I was battling with him for the last few laps.

"So I thought that things were working out quicker than I expected, but I was in for a big surprise at the end of the season... By then Silverstone was forgotten, and people only remembered the races where I hadn't qualified.

"Ok, I thought, it's going to take a bit longer. The important thing was to keep busy, drive in F2 here, Can-Am there, a race in Japan, all kind of things. Who knows what they might lead to?"

In fact, Rosberg's eventual arrival at the top took much longer than he expected. Four seasons with, at best, indifferent Formula 1 cars brought no success. At 33, he was in danger of being passed over.

"Last year, 1981, was the worst of all. I'd been around for a long time, and I was still not qualifying sometimes. Everything was wrong. I tell you, in my last year with Fittipaldi I was terrified. I was a very scared man, and I found that interesting because I didn't really know why.

"After Las Vegas, I heard that Carlos Reutemann had retired, and I thought, 'I bet that wasn't in Frank's plans', and got in touch with him again" Keke Rosberg

"It wasn't that I thought the car was bad. It wasn't a matter of details, although I had two or three suspension breakages. Perhaps it was because we were not achieving anything, either, and the motivation wasn't there, that feeling that you're part of the gang in a competitive sense.

"I wasn't getting paid, so I had to fight for every penny, with a lawyer to help me. So everything was wrong, and I'll admit to you that I became bloody terrified. I still don't know what caused that to happen to me. It took me half a year to forget it completely."

Working with a car designed by Patrick Head must have helped, I suggested, bearing in mind the overriding consideration he gives to safety.

"Not really," Keke replied. "I know Patrick is very safety-conscious, but so is Harvey Postlethwaite. The problem was that Harvey left Fittipaldi early in the 1981 season, and it was later in the year that we had troubles.

"I moved to Williams, but even then my problem didn't disappear overnight. It wasn't until the early part of the summer that I was able to enjoy driving race cars again. I've never understood what the problem was, but I don't think it showed in my driving, simply because the will was so much stronger than the fear."

By the end of the 1981 season Rosberg was becoming depressed, starting to believe for the first time his big break was never going to materialise.

"We'd been so far off the pace at Fittipaldi, often not qualifying - and that gave you no chance to show people how you could race! Towards the end of the year I couldn't see where I would get a good drive.

"I had talked to Frank Williams, but at Montreal he told me that his team was settled for 1982. There was also a possibility of going to Ligier, but I heard at Las Vegas [scene of the final round of 1981] that Cheever had got that. And I had a small hope of McLaren.

"I had been a Marlboro driver for a long time, and obviously I had to be on the list somewhere. But realistically I knew Ron Dennis would never take me because he needs a big star around him, and I certainly wasn't a star at the time. Then Niki came back and that was the end of that.

"Then, after Las Vegas, I heard that Carlos Reutemann had retired, and I thought, 'I bet that wasn't in Frank's plans', and got in touch with him again. A little while later he called me to go testing at Paul Ricard."

So here was the big chance. There was no commitment from Williams, merely the offer of some testing, but Keke well knew what might come of it. In the circumstances you might have expected him to feel the pressure, but he says not.

"No I enjoyed it. I got a fantastic reception from the team, I must say, and that made a hell of a difference. There was no suggestion that the big stars had gone and now they were stuck with me. I travelled down with them and got to know them. And when I got there I forgot about the implications. It was simply a three-day test.

"What worried me a bit was that neither Frank nor Patrick came to Ricard, because I thought they were 'the team'. But I was fairly sure that the reports on me would be good, and finally Frank called me. He was just off to Saudi Arabia and was in a rush.

"'You can have the drive,' he says. I said, 'Frank, we haven't even talked about money or anything yet - but I'll take it!'

"He was away about seven days, and then we had our meeting. I was a bit worried about the money, but sure, I could get by. What Frank offered me was not really a lot... I said, 'Come on, we can't do it this way. You've got to offer me a living!'

"We talked for three hours, and Frank agreed to pay me exactly what I wanted. He was very fair with me because, let's face it, he could have said, 'Take it or leave it', knowing the position I was in. I probably would have taken it."

So the deal was struck, and Keke came away with a contract for one year, Frank taking an option on a second season, which he decided to exercise as early as last June.

"It's true that I've never paid for a drive, partly because of pride and partly because I never had the money, anyway. I've made sure that I've always been well paid" Keke Rosberg

"Frank will tell you that I'm the cheapest world champion that ever was! But I can't cry that I'm not paid enough. We did a deal, and I agreed to it. I would do the same thing again. All Frank's promises to me have been kept.

"But he already wants to discuss terms for 1984 - and then I want my real market value. He offered Alan Jones incredible money to come back, and I don't want him to think that now he can get world champions cheap! I'm asking Frank for less money than he offered Alan at the end of 1981."

Elvis and his 'Memphis Mafia' always used to wear badges bearing the legend 'TCB'. Taking Care of Business. It would be easy to envisage a similar thing on Rosberg's light grey track suit. If this actual retainer is comparatively low, his overall income is not. He doubts that any grand prix driver, save Lauda, earns as much as he does, and he puts this down to plain hard work.

"I've always loved the business side of my life - in fact, I enjoy it as much as the driving. To me, the two are equally important, and I wouldn't be happy with just one of them. And I do work bloody hard. It's been necessary.

"When I got into racing I decided that racing had to work for me, because I had no alternative! It's true that I've never paid for a drive, partly because of pride and partly because I never had the money, anyway. I've made sure that I've always been well paid. Sure, I've lived well, but I've worked for it, done my own deals, and that's the way it is now."

Certainly, all the trappings are there. A year ago Keke bought a glorious house in Berkshire, and he also owns a villa in Ibiza and apartments in Monte Carlo and Los Angeles.

"I love this place," he says, gazing through his study window at endless green beyond, "and I've always loved English people. Where else can you live like this, with so little hassle? The only problem is that I'm so seldom here. And my place in Ibiza... I guess I've been there for three or four days this year, not more. Crazy, isn't it?

"For the first time in years I have a garage to keep all the toys in."

The 'toys' include a Ferrari 308 GTS, a Stallion (an AC Cobra-copy bought in California), and sundry motorcycles. He also had a Mercedes 500SLC with all the flash AMG bits on it, but says regretfully that it has been sold "with only 2600 miles on the clock. I never had the time to use it."

At the time of my visit Rosberg was fretting about the endless days spent registering his latest aeroplane, a turboprop Cheyenne.

"I had my schedule all worked around it, and I still can't use it. I've got to be in Paris tonight, Bologna tomorrow, Helsinki on Sunday, back here on Monday... When the plane is operational, it will be fantastic. I tell you, learning to fly was the best thing I ever did. It changed me. I find it tremendously relaxing - you forget any problems you might have because you must concentrate so hard.

"I was terrified at first, a real 'white knuckle' pilot, but now I love it. It means that flying can be fun. Unfortunately, though, I don't have the time any more to plan flights and so on, so I have a pilot working for me, and I can fly when I feel like it.

"On the Marlboro tour, you know, Niki did all the flying himself, and I must say I was impressed by his stamina. The other extreme was John Watson, who doesn't work very hard, let's face it. He drives race cars, and that's all. Good luck to him. By the end of the trip, though, John looked 60 years old!"

This Marlboro tour, a frantic series of whistle-stop press conferences around Europe, was all part of the job to Keke. He takes a thoroughly positive attitude to being world champion, unlike his predecessor.

"There are two ways of going about it," he says. "Nelson Piquet likes driving racing cars, and that's it. He doesn't want to know about anything else, and he's happy in his own way. I couldn't do that, because I'd feel I was doing only half a job.

"Niki has changed a lot in this respect. Like he says, he gets $10 for driving and however many millions for publicity! I understand that, too, and I know that the harder I work, the longer I'll be associated with my sponsors."

"I said [to Carl Haas], 'Today I won the world championship, but my biggest pleasure of the whole day has been to see your face'. And then I left" Keke Rosberg

In saying this, Rosberg is looking beyond his driving career, retaining links with companies after his eventual retirement. Jackie Stewart has done this with immense success, of course, and Keke respects him for it. However... "Jackie handles his business incredibly well, and I admire that, even if he has been very critical of me in the past, which has not helped me at all!

"That was why I lost the Carl Haas Can-Am drive for 1979. I had a signed contract with Haas, who then calls me to say it's all off and he's having Jacky Ickx instead. I called my lawyer in Boston and told him to go for it as hard as possible.

"Well, I tell you, Haas was shaking. He was calling me all round the world, telling me that he's one of Bernie Ecclestone's best mates and he can do so many things for me - so long as I don't burn my bridges. I said to him, 'Listen, if I can't make it without you, I'll never make it.'

"Eventually I signed for Paul Newman's team, and that was the end of the lawsuit. But this hate from Haas - because I had the courage to start proceedings against him - was so strong that when he heard that Frank was thinking of signing me he called several times to say he shouldn't take me. He took the trouble to call from Chicago for that.

"So there we were at Las Vegas, about two hours after the race. I'm checking out, and there, at the reception in Caesars Palace, is Haas, big cigar in his mouth. He comes over with a broad grin and, 'Oh, I always knew you'd make it'.

"I said, 'Carl, you are the same guy who took the trouble to call Williams, saying not to sign me. Is that correct?' Well, he caught his cigar just before it hit the ground... and then I said, 'Today I won the world championship, but my biggest pleasure of the whole day has been to see your face'. And then I left."

Rosberg, as you can see, is an immensely self-assured man, chirpy and full of humour, but also a character of steely resolve. His mind is sharp, and he loves to talk - "Yes, as long as I know what I am talking about. If I don't, I shut up, and I wish the same was true of some of the people I have worked with."

For a long time, during his days of Formula Vee and Super Vee, he lived in Heidelberg, quickly becoming fluent in German. His manager, Ortwin Podlech, is based there still, and Keke raps away to him constantly on the phone, reverts to Finnish for a couple of minutes to speak with Yvonne, his girlfriend, and Jan, his pilot, then comes back to the interview: "Now, where were we?"

His English is perfect, too, to the point that he thinks in the language, and this allows him to be very quick on his feet when it comes to the quick rejoinder. I recall the press conference after Vegas...

"Keke, did you find the track different at all this year?"

"Yes, sure, I thought it was much better than last time?"

"Oh, really? Why is that, Keke?"

"Well, since last year we've been to Detroit..."

Languages, then, have always come easily - "I said to Ligier, give me two months and I speak French, no problem" - and Rosberg has always used them to speak his mind. After winning at Dijon, the joy of the moment was almost swept aside by the antics of Andrea de Cesaris, who stubbornly refused to let Keke lap him.

"I learned a very good lesson there, because I actually lost my temper. I went berserk, and that is a very dangerous thing to do in a race car. De Cesaris was going to make me lose that race - he cost me 12 seconds or something, which is why I only passed Alain Prost two laps from the end.

"It reached the point where I was banging my front wheels against the sidepod of his car - at 170mph at the end of the straight! That was as close as I could get because the Alfa was quicker in a straight line. How do you get the message to a guy like him? Afterwards he says he thought I was Derek Daly, racing with him - for 10 laps!

"When I came into F1, the basic etiquette was that you challenged a guy into a corner, but you never closed the door and you never weaved on the straight. You didn't behave like Formula 3 guys, in other words. You kept your line, and if you braked later it was your corner. If not, the other guy was going to take you - and you didn't close the door. Last three laps do whatever you want. That's the way it was, and I learned it there and then.

"I don't mind rules being changed, but I don't see how you can change them retrospectively. It was crazy to disqualify Nelson and me from Rio - and allow all the other 'water tank' cars to stay in the results" Keke Rosberg

"Now I don't know what's gone wrong. F1 today is like F3. There's a lack of discipline. So now we have a great association like the Professional Racing Drivers' Association. You know who is the loudest member at the meetings? Mr de Cesaris... he thinks he leads the whole bloody group."

After Dijon, Rosberg and Lauda (who was similarly delayed by the Italian) decided to put in a report to FISA, but Keke never got around to doing it, which he now regrets.

"If I'm honest, after Dijon everything but the world championship went out of my mind. And the other thing is that I was ashamed of myself for losing my temper, because I'm well aware that I could have caused an accident myself that day. I think FISA should have taken action, anyway, but that doesn't excuse the fact that I neglected my report.

"Andrea, you know, drives quite well these days - in terms of being quick. But he will not learn from his mistakes. At Monaco I was behind him and the only place I could think of overtaking was the tunnel at the approach to the chicane. Several times I got alongside - and what does he do? He edges me over into the barriers.

"Earlier I had been behind Michele Alboreto. I showed Michele that I was quicker, and he let me through. But de Cesaris - no way. Now this is not racing. This is not being a hard racing driver.

"Gilles Villeneuve was a hard racing driver, the toughest bastard I ever knew! If I'd have been in that position with Gilles at Monaco, he wouldn't have lifted - but he wouldn't have moved over on me, either. And that's the difference - apart from the fact that Gilles was about 10,000 times better."

It is inevitable that comparisons are made between Rosberg and Villeneuve, both out-and-out racers. Keke remembers Formula Atlantic battles with Gilles as the most enjoyable days of his racing life.

"I had enormous respect for Gilles - not that I ever admitted it, of course! We had some incredible races in 1977, and we never spoke to each other, believe it or not. We wouldn't even say hello to each other. Perhaps it was a competitive thing, I don't know. But it seemed like we hit each other in every race.

"I remember one race at Edmonton, where he was on pole and I was second. He took the lead and I was chasing him. Now my Chevron wasn't quite as quick as his March, and when he missed a shift I knew that was my only chance to get by. I took him, but he wouldn't give up! We came out of the corner side by side, and we hit each other because neither would lift.

"Off on the grass we went, one on each side of the road, came back on at the same spot - and hit each other again! At the end of the race there was a round piece of my sidepod missing, cut cleanly like a piece of cake. That had been Gilles's rear wheel.

"And, you know, I found myself thinking of that again at Zolder this year. I heard about the accident, knew how bad it was, and it was difficult for me to concentrate. At a race a driver is very absorbed in his own thing, you know. A driver is there in a very egotistical capacity.

"I am there to look after Rosberg. But that weekend was very difficult, very poignant. We had so many battles, and now here I was, leading a GP for the first time, and he had died the day before. I had to work hard to put it out of my mind during the race, I can tell you.

"But it didn't really hit me until the Monday, when I had to go to the track to do some pictures. And all that was left was garbage and Gilles's helicopter."

For a long time now I, and others, have been very critical of qualifying tyres, hopeful that one day they would be banned. Rosberg disagrees with this, although he goes along firmly with the contention that, at any rate, qualifiers should not be limited to two sets.

"That's the real danger, having only two chances to set a time. But if you banned qualifiers, everyone would simply use new race tyres, when they're at their quickest, so it wouldn't solve the problem. I think we should have unlimited qualifiers, so that you can sacrifice a lap if necessary. Yes it would cost the tyre companies more, but so what? They're the people who want qualifiers.

"I've had an idea for some time now that different types of tyre should have different colours. Rubber doesn't have to be black, after all. You could have white for qualifiers, red for soft race tyres, black for hard race tyres and so on. Think how good that would be for the public's understanding of what was going on.

"Frank works incredibly hard and I respect him very much in most ways. I always know that I will have the best equipment available to me. Whatever it takes, Frank will get it" Keke Rosberg

"They would know that so-and-so was leading by 10s, but that was on soft tyres, and that the guy behind might be in better shape later in the race. I think it would help enormously, provided you could get everyone not to cheat, of course. The public would love it - and it's the public we're there for, after all."

The public, I suggested, were given scant consideration at Imola when most of the Formula One Constructors' Association boycotted the event after FISA's decision to ban water tanks and to disqualify Piquet and Rosberg from the Brazilian GP. Keke considered his words carefully.

"First of all, my heart said that we had to fight for Brazil. I don't mind rules being changed, but I don't see how you can change them retrospectively. It was crazy to disqualify Nelson and me from Rio - and allow all the other 'water tank' cars to stay in the results. That moved Watson up to second for instance, which was the only reason he was in contention for the championship at Vegas!

"Having said that, I was surprised at Frank not going to Imola. Before anything else, the aim was to win the world championship, and you can't do that if you're going to miss races. Of course there were going to be points for Imola! By not going we could easily have lost the title. As well as that, I had two personal Italian sponsors, so it was a difficult situation for me.

"Frank was also in an awkward position. You have to remember that Patrick Head had given six months of his life, night and day, to FW08, which he designed with the rules in mind as they then were. And he came up with a fantastic car. In its original form it was amazing, quicker on race tyres than the Renaults were on qualifiers. And when Patrick heard of FISA's decision he went into orbit. I think they all wanted to get across to FISA the extent of their anger."

It took time for Keke really to settle down in his new team. At Zolder, he says, he and Frank had a screaming match during practice, but since then their relationship has been perfect.

"Frank works incredibly hard and I respect him very much in most ways. I always know that I will have the best equipment available to me. Whatever it takes, Frank will get it, and that is something I had never experienced before. He is a very reasonable man to work for, too, and I think the team settled down into a very happy atmosphere as the season went along."

Knowing both Williams and Head are obsessively anti-smoking, I asked Rosberg how he got away with it. Keke dips frequently into his pocket, one of very few modern GP drivers hooked by the weed.

"Ha! Well, I remember Charlie Crichton-Stuart - who also smokes - saying to me, 'For God's sake, don't light a cigarette until you've signed the contract!' After that you can chain smoke in front of him'. No, it's not a problem. They don't like smoking in the motorhome, but I understand that. It's a confined space. Before the season I think Frank was worried that anyone who smoked might not be fit enough, but after Brazil it was never mentioned again."

Rosberg is plainly at home in the environment of the Williams team, finding fault only with its members' attitude to PR and promotion work.

"I've said this to them, and I don't mind criticising them for it now. It's fine now when our sponsors are not necessarily the most commercial worldwide people, but the day may come when we have to go after companies like Coca-Cola, and I've been trying to get across to them the fact they must do PR - not for me, but for the Williams team. Make the team known.

"The same thing is true of this ridiculous anti-French thing. I do think the French journalists are biased towards their own teams and drivers, but one of the reasons I did the saloon car race at Montlhery was to show the French that Rosberg is not an iceberg!

"Anyone who drives for Williams gets this anti-French brain-washing and I think it's ridiculous. They think it's all a joke. I'm not anti-French, but then I'm not English. I feel international, quite honestly, cosy anywhere."

Keke is also cosy with his success, and it is a pleasure to find a driver who takes an unashamed pride in what he has achieved. In his study are trophies and mementos. The walls are covered with framed photographs, some of himself, others of people and cars important in his life. Since the beginning of his career, Lars, his father, has devotedly collected press clippings, pasting them into scrapbooks which chronicle Keke's racing life. At present there are 80, and half a dozen carrier bags' full await attention.

"My father has always been my greatest fan, I think. In fact, he has just published a book about me, written in the name of 'Lauri Temu'. He was a vet, and he always said he would like to write when he retired. I think he's done a very good job on it."

"That's the thing about driving for Williams. You always have this confidence that nothing will be wrong for long, that people are working away to solve your problems" Keke Rosberg

The telephone rings, and Keke starts discussing crash helmets, placing his order for next season. He wants half a dozen, all with the smallest window possible.

"I have an absolute horror of catch fence poles. In fact, the whole concept of catch fencing is primitive, considering that nowadays there are nets capable of stopping jets. And I don't like tyre barriers, either, because they throw a car up into the air. Didier Pironi had a huge accident at Paul Ricard in June, when the car went end over end purely because it was launched off a tyre barrier. I'd rather take a chance on hitting Armco barrier once or twice.

"Whatever people might think, I'm actually a very safety-conscious man in a race car. I've been around a long time, and I don't want to get hurt. I left the Grand Prix Drivers' Association at the time of that protest at Zolder in 1981, which I thought was irresponsible, and I haven't rejoined the PRDA because I don't consider it serves my safety needs.

"But that doesn't mean I don't take safety very seriously. I dislike catch fencing because I've seen what it can do. At Buenos Aires in 1980 I crashed in practice, and one of the poles completely destroyed my helmet."

One of the secrets of his success, Keke says, is knowing his limitations and making the most of his strengths.

"For the first two hours of every day I make a point of not doing anything important. I'm not good at that time of the day, and I must recognise that, allow for it. A couple of years ago I got up early and went testing at Snetterton - and I wrote off a brand new Fittipaldi in the pitlane! I was going to take the chicane in fifth, and then decided to come in!

"There is a little chicane in the middle of the pit approach road, and I was never going to make it in fifth. I'm not good when I'm tired, which is why I would never do Le Mans. Mulsanne in the night, rain, 350 amateurs on the track... no, thank you!"

He looks to the future with confidence, considering that his chances next year should be even better than in the season past.

"I'm pleased with the new regulations, mainly because we were reaching a point where spectators were going to be hurt, and that was unacceptable. We've got a lower weight limit for 1983, and more power from the Cosworth. I think the non-turbos are going to be much more driveable than the Renaults and Ferraris - a bigger difference than in the ground-effect days.

"And I've got much more confidence in the team. Look at the progress we made with FW08. After the rule change about weight, it was a very difficult car for everyone - engineers and drivers. Very hard to set up properly. And because it was so nervous, I drove it more sideways than was desirable. With all that downforce and being sideways, it would destroy its tyres.

"But Patrick, Frank Dernie and everyone worked away the whole time, and in the end we had a fantastic race car. It was never good at turning in to slow corners, but on quick ones it was tremendous. During the last 20 laps in Austria, when I was chasing Elio de Angelis, it was perfect. And that's the thing about driving for Williams. You always have this confidence that nothing will be wrong for long, that people are working away to solve your problems.

"I feel good about next year, pleased that Jacques Laffite will be with me. I think I'll be able to work well with him, but in the race we'll be rivals, just as if he was still in a Ligier. "I feel I need a rest now, some time away from the phone. Yvonne and I are going to a deserted Caribbean island for three weeks. It's been a tough year."

The telephone goes once more.

"Yes, yes, I wanted to speak to you about this flight on Sunday. Now look, I must be in Helsinki by mid-afternoon on Sunday. It's a strong commitment. Would you see if there's any earlier flight from Paris? Thanks. Talk to you later..."

 

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