May 23rd 1998, bright sunshine, and qualifying is underway for the most glamorous and demanding F1 race of the year, in Monaco. Drivers must coax their cars through the impossibly tight and narrow streets of the principality and achieve a time within 107% of the pole time to make it on to the grid for the race. With just minutes remaining, nearly all of the drivers have achieved this comfortably, each at least a second under the 1minute 25.3 cut-off. All the drivers, that is, except one – the Brazilian Ricardo Rosset, in the Tyrrell.
Already under pressure because of a dismal failure to qualify in the preceding race at Barcelona, and knowing that his team-mate, the hardly-stellar-himself Tora ‘Tiger’ Takagi is currently nearly 2 seconds faster than he is, Rosset is nervous, uptight, struggling to cope. He has already ruined his previous lap by locking the brakes at Mirabeau, amateurishly failing to release the brake pedal in time to make the corner. This time he pushes, pushes, pushes, carrying more speed into corners, pushing the car closer to its limits, setting a time in the first two sectors that might just see him into the race, when he comes up to the tricky ‘swimming pool’ section of the track. Coming in marginally off-line, Rosset, desperate to avoid humiliation for the second race in succession, tries to carry more speed through the right-hander, lined on both sides by unforgiving Armco. The car starts to slide. Rosset tries to catch it, but the car snaps back, the driver too late. Eventually, the Tyrrell pirouettes to a halt, facing the barriers.
The team radio crackles into life: “four minutes to go – there’s time for another lap if you get going again.” The driver, sweaty, nervous, heart racing, crushed by this latest setback, needs to execute a spin-turn to get going again. This is a fairly basic skill that is mastered in junior formulae, and allows a spun car to rapidly face the right way again – without a reverse gear, it is also a must from the on-track position Rosset finds himself in.
In the meantime, other cars stream past, their qualifying laps, giving all-important track position at this twisty circuit, ruined by the yellow flags Rosset’s half-spin have brought out. Eventually a gap in the traffic appears and Rosset floors the throttle. But he hasn’t applied enough steering lock. The car beaches on a kerb, and the nose whacks the Armco, the car now completely stuck in a gap between the barriers. Having failed to execute a basic spin-turn in front of millions of disbelieving fans worldwide, Rosset is out of the race before it has begun.
The onlooking, yet sympathetic Murray Walker says to his co-commentator, Martin Brundle:-
“I hate to say this, but some people are debating whether Rosset is really Formula One material”
Martin’s reply is instant.
“It’s a fairly short debate, Murray….”
Later in the day, with Rosset out of qualifying, and his long-suffering mechanics faced with repairing the Tyrrell with nary an apology from the driver – who has blamed his car for his travails, one mechanic sneaks out of the garage and heads to Rosset’s paddock scooter. The name ‘ROSSET’ is written on the side, in transferable stickers. Giving a furtive glance to ensure no-one is looking, the mechanic swaps the ‘R’ and the ‘T’ round….
How did it come to this? An heir to, bizarrely, a successful lingerie company, Rosset looked to have a reasonable future in the sport back in 1995, having just come second in the F3000 feeder category, and having won races in F3. He was never a star in either category, but was at least a competent points-scorer. With plenty of sponsorship backing, he took the F1 plunge in 1996. His subsequent career is an example of how psychology and arrogance can destroy a sportsman, culminating in his Monaco humiliation.
Signing for the Arrows team in 1996, Rosset was paired with the more experienced Jos Verstappen, who had done partial seasons for Benetton and Simtek in the previous two years. His debut was competent, if unspectacular, as he qualified 18th, 0.9 seconds off Verstappen, and brought the car home to finish 9th. At his home race in Brazil, he got even closer – 0.3 seconds off Verstappen – but blotted his copybook by spinning off in the wet. That was as good as it got, however.
Rosset was noted to have a slightly haughty, superior attitude by his mechanics, which didn’t go down all that well with men labouring for up to 16 hours a day to build his car. “It was almost like he thought ‘I’ve made it to F1, so I’m now the big guy’”, recalls one, “In fact, making it to F1 is only the beginning.”
His results weren’t matching his self-belief. In Argentina, he qualified a dire 2 seconds adrift of Verstappen, and was passed off the line by both of the appalling Fortis as he claimed he “couldn’t see the lights”. Odd then, that both cars on the row behind him could. Rosset then spent an uncomfortably long time behind both Fortis, which he really should have passed with ease in what was a vastly faster car, before retiring. The next 3 races were all ended by crashes, and Verstappen was ahead in qualifying in each.
In fact, throughout the 16-race season, Rosset failed to outqualify his Dutch team-mate even once., and sometimes the gap in qualifying was a little embarrassing: 2.1 seconds, 2.2 seconds, 2.7 seconds (in Monaco, and a harbinger of things to come?). In the early part of the season, Verstappen usually put the car in the midfield, whereas Rosset was to be found on the back two rows. As the season went on, they drew closer, but only because the team had been bought over, and no work was therefore done on the 1996 challenger, such that Verstappen – through no fault of his own – slipped back down the grid, rather than any improvement on the part of his Brazilian team-mate.
At season’s end, Rosset had scored no points (nor had he looked like scoring any), and had been outqualified by his team-mate 16 times out of 16. A dismal failure. With complaints about Rosset’s persona from the mechanics on top of all this, unsurprisingly, Arrows’ new management didn’t retain his services and he took his sponsorship money to the new Lola Mastercard team for 2007, where he would be partnered by F1 debutant Vincenzo Sospiri.
The whole thing was a fiasco. The cars were so badly built that they didn’t even change gear correctly, and were deathly slow. In qualifying, they were twelve seconds off pole, and needless to say, didn’t qualify. Well, to be accurate, Sospiri was 12 seconds off pole – Rosset was 13.5 seconds off. Even paired with a debutant, he still couldn’t outqualify him. Although Lola turned up in Brazil, Mastercard had jumped ship, and after just one attempt at qualification, the plug was pulled on the project. Rosset would spend the rest of 1997 on the sidelines. Dismal failure number two.
For 1998, he received an offer from Craig Pollock to drive for the Tyrrell team. Pollock had recently bought Tyrrell with a view to starting the BAR team in 1999, and was looking for two ‘pay drivers’ for what would, essentially, be a ‘holding year’. Ken Tyrrell, who had founded the team back in 1969, was so furious about the choice of Rosset, however, that he quit his eponymous team. A sad end for a man whose marque had once briefly dominated the sport, in the early seventies.
With that none-too-ringing endorsement, Rosset started the season in Australia. This time, he was partnered by the Japanese driver Toranosuke Takagi, who had an average record in junior formulae, and was making his debut. Takagi was 1.9 seconds faster than Rosset, nonetheless. Neither finished the race, but this was the second year in succession that a rookie had blown Rosset out of the water at the opening race. Ken Tyrrell, if nothing else, was always reknowned as a good judge of driving talent…
The pattern repeated in the next 3 races – Takagi 0.5 seconds, then 1.6 seconds, then a huge 2.2 seconds faster than his hapless team-mate in qualifying, and the general consensus was that Takagi wasn’t even all that good himself. Just what was going on?
Rosset later claimed that he had been deliberately hobbled by his team, alleging that there were two forces at work in the Tyrrell set-up, and they were the influences of Honda and Reynard (the chassis manufacturer) respectively. In a 2003 interview, Rosset alleged, in a convoluted non sequitur ramble that the “Honda faction” were favouring Takagi, and trying to show that he would be a good driver for BAR in 1999 by putting the best parts on his car and – wait for it – putting dud parts on Rosset’s. Apart from the improbability of a team, dependent on points for prize money, deliberately setting out to hobble the chances of one of its drivers, this is also a great slur on the professionalism of one of the longest-standing Formula One teams – the team for which Jackie Stewart, Francois Cevert, Jody Scheckter and Jean Alesi had all starred.
Team members remember Rosset differently – always complaining, always blaming the car, bad-mouthing people behind their backs but never to their face, and full of conspiracy theories as to why he was so much slower than a mediocre rookie. They didn’t swap round the stickers to read ‘TOSSER’ for no reason…..
At Barcelona, the season’s fifth race, things came to a head, when Rosset failed to qualify the car. And then came Monaco, and abject humiliation. Of course, it was the car’s fault. Apparently it “couldn’t do a spin-turn.” In other races, it could certainly spin, though….
The rest of the season was little better, although at Magny-Cours a miracle occurred, and at the 25th time of asking, Rosset actually outqualified a team-mate, 18th to Takagi’s 20th. Normal service was resumed in Britain however, and worse still, in Germany and Hungary Rosset brought his total number of ‘did not qualify’ performances to four.
The 1998 race at Spa in Belgium, held in pouring rain, was a classic, with incident aplenty. It is famed for two crashes – one where Michael Schumacher, leading by a mile, hit the back of David Coulthard whilst coming up to lap him, putting both out of the race and nearly leading to fisticuffs in the pitlane, where Schumacher claimed Coulthard had “tried to kill him”. The second, even more spectacular crash occurred at the start, and again involved Coulthard. Creating possibly the biggest pile-up in the sport’s history, DC lost control of his McLaren on the rundown from La Source in the treacherously wet conditions, and speared into the wall in front of the oncoming pack. In total 12 cars – half the field – were wrecked in the ensuing pile-up. What is intriguing about watching the footage back, however, is that while the cars immediately following Coulthard were doing racing speed when they collided, those at the back clearly saw something was afoot ahead, and most managed to slow down somewhat before the accident. All except one, a white car right at the rear of the pack that, a few seconds after the main accident, slammed into the wreckage at completely unabated speed. Needless to say, this was Rosset – seemingly the only driver totally unaware of the carnage ahead. It was all very reminiscent of his ‘couldn’t see the lights’ excuse in Argentina 1996, and it was fortunate that no-one was injured. It’s also intriguing to consider how he might have blamed that one on the team…..One thing the Tyrrell mechanics remember, is that their driver never apologised for his mistakes.
Rosset achieved his second and final, outqualification of a team-mate in Italy, but nonetheless finished the actual race a full lap behind Takagi. At the final race of the season, at Suzuka, he was an unbelievable 2.6 seconds slower than his mediocre Japanese team-mate, and ended his F1 career with his 5th DNQ of the season. It’s worth noting that no driver in the field, including Minardi’s 19 year-old rookie Esteban Tuero, failed to qualify during the entire season, other than Rosset.
After this third dismal failure, Rosset took his ball home, ‘quitting’ the sport (not that there was a rush of potential suitors) and returning to the family’s underwear trade. He did, after 7 years, come out of his huff, and made a partial return, and has thus driven in various forms of GT and Stock Car racing in Brazil, with modest success at this modest level. However, he is more than happy, in interviews, to explain his on-going conspiracy theories as to why his career in F1 was deliberately hobbled, first at Arrows (who allegedly gave him an unsafe car) and then at Tyrrell. In contrast, most who worked with him have little good to say, citing an arrogant and complaining attitude..
So: you have a choice. You can choose to believe that Ricardo Rosset was the victim of a malign plot by first Tom Walkinshaw to run the Arrows team on the cheap, and then by a mysterious Honda faction within Tyrrell to undermine him, both villains deliberately placing worn or inferior components on his car, but not on his team-mate’s. Or you could go with the majority opinion, and just apply Occam’s razor, and decide that he was a spoiled little rich-kid, who when push came to shove, and the slightest pressure was applied, proved completely and utterly crap at the highest level.
It’s a fairly short debate, Murray.