30 years after Keke Rosberg won the Formula 1 World Championship, RACER editor David Malsher pays tribute to the driver who became one of the brightest stars in F1's turbo era...even when he didn't have a turbo!
When the car came into view of the TV camera, it was already drifting off the right side of the course with half of its right-rear tire in the dirt, its front wheels remaining parallel to the line that marked the edge of the track. The driver kept his foot buried in the gas. The car dropped both right-side wheels off. Still the driver held the throttle down, held the slide, and held off his pursuer. Having churned up a dust cloud and come within a foot of the guardrail, he got all four wheels back on asphalt j-u-s-t in time for the car to negotiate the 140mph left-hander that followed.
That was the 1984 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder, the driver was Keke Rosberg and he was busy holding off the far faster Ferrari of Rene Arnoux. The whole incident lasted barely more than three seconds, but I never forgot that nor the sharp intake of breath from my similarly enthusiastic father as we sat on the couch in the living room, watching TV. A couple of laps later, with Arnoux now through, Dad and I whooped with astonishment as Rosberg dived past both Stefan Bellof and Elio de Angelis (both for position) to go from sixth to fourth in one gloriously opportunistic right-left-outbrake swerve near the end of the pit straight.
Both maneuvers were scrappy, purposeful, exhilarating and showed Rosberg at his finest. As I got older, I came to appreciate the artistry of making fast driving look slow, a la Alain Prost and Niki Lauda, but at the age of 11, I was drawn to racers who looked in a mad hurry. F1 race highlights weren't always on TV at a good time of day for a kid who was, inevitably and invariably, running late with his school homework by Sunday. (When it came to increasing my knowledge of racing, by contrast, this reluctant brat became a willing student who memorized information seemingly without effort. Odd, that.) But 1984 was the first year I watched all the F1 races in the season, when motorsport switched from being one of a few interests to being the main one.
Simultaneously, I was gaining a better understanding of road car behavior and car control, gleaned from reading Motor and Road & Track, and that helped me appreciate just what miracles were being performed by Rosberg race in, race out. Keke's career seemed to be full of snap-oversteer snapshots, and stringing them together for the length of a qualifying session or a race, he'd turn sparkling moments into dazzling demonstrations.
For example, the superficial side of me wanted to see glory for the beautiful black 'n' gold Lotuses of Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis at Dallas in '84, one of those rare weekends when the McLarens were strong but nowhere near dominant. But the Lotus drivers, McLaren drivers and other potential winners screwed up on the crumbling track surface and hit the wall while Rosberg, a contender from the very start, didn't – despite having the most unsuitable car for the track.
The Honda turbo V6 of 1984 pushed out approximately 850hp but, in only its first full season, it still had light-switch, all-or-nothing responsiveness. The car ran on Goodyears at a time when Michelin was the tire of choice. And Williams' aluminum chassis FW09 was a rare miss by designers Neil Oatley and Patrick Head, a car which its drivers were convinced flexed too much compared with the carbon fiber competition. But that scorching July day in the Dallas heat, Rosberg bent the most willful car to his will.
That victory, one of grand prix racing's all-time classics, showed the depth of Rosberg's genius at the wheel of a racecar, and there'd be yet more evidence in the far more competitive FW10 in 1985. If Williams-Honda-Goodyear wasn't the perfect combo of equipment in 1984, the progress made over winter and throughout the following season was remarkable. The FW10 was Patrick Head's first carbon fiber monocoque design, and was more than capable of handling the increased power of the constantly developing Honda unit. Reliability was some way off McLaren-TAG threatening level, but Rosberg won in Detroit and Adelaide, and starred in pretty much every race.
The heroic drive through the field at Montreal that left the following Ayrton Senna gasping. Final qualifying at Silverstone (LEFT) with a slow puncture on a slightly damp track, when he set a 160mph lap that would remain F1's fastest ever for the next 17 years. The charge through the field to third at Brands Hatch after colliding with Senna in the opening laps. The charge through the field (see a theme here?) to second at Kyalami, after spinning off the track, having been the first to encounter the oil slick caused by another car's engine blow-up. And then in Australia…Well, I hadn't yet accepted the inevitable – that Senna was the fastest driver in F1 – and that inaugural Australian Grand Prix further convinced me that Rosberg held that role.
Consequently, I was one of many who assumed Keke would outpace new World Champion Alain Prost when he moved to McLaren in 1986. And had the MP4/2 handled in the way that his Williams had, I'm reasonably sure we'd have been proven right (in qualifying at least). But a car in its third iteration since designer John Barnard developed it around the Prost/Lauda early turn-in/understeering style was not adjusted to suit the team's new recruit. And maybe it couldn't be. Maybe.