Now that his son, Nico, is in F1 and showing well, it seems appropriate to remember the great days of Keke Rosberg. For sheer entertainment and guts, Keke was one to watch.
He was the master in adversity, known for his skills in the wet and a fighter in uncompetitive cars. Right from the beginning, the BRDC International Trophy race in 1978, which he won by speed in a downpour that was catching out all the great names of the time, his car control was amazing. Give him a street circuit and he would muscle his way to the front, regardless of whether his car was any good or not.
For many years it looked as if Keke would never get a competitive drive; he went from Theodore to ATS, Wolf and Fittipaldi, always getting more out of his car than it wanted to give but somehow beneath the notice of the top teams. Even when he secured a drive with Williams in 1982, it was in their last year of Cosworth engines while everyone else had turbos.
But Keke did wonders with the under-powered car, exploiting its reliability and handling to amass a points total that gained him the championship. 1982 is renowned as the year that no-one wanted to be champion, no driver winning more than two races and Keke only one, but this ignores the fact that the Finn was always up with the leaders, ready to take advantage of any problems they might have. He deserved his championship more than many who have cruised to it in superior machinery.
Keke’s awful luck continued after that, however, and he spent three more years with Williams, suffering as they struggled to get some reliability from their new Honda engine. With classic Rosberg timing, he left them just at the moment when they were about to become the cars to beat and joined the McLaren team as they slid from the heights.
One year with them was enough for him and he retired at the end of 1986. He had not fared well against his teammate, Alain Prost, and decided to call it a day. We should not forget that the McLaren was particularly suited to Prost’s smooth driving style, however, and that Keke was best in a car that didn’t mind being sideways occasionally.
Perhaps that is why Keke was never given a drive by the top team of the moment; the call was for smoothness and Keke’s ragged but quick style was as out of place as the man himself. For he was as unique off the track as on it. Unfashionably, he was a smoker and would disappear from the pits for a cigarette at quiet moments. And his priorities were different from those of the hard professionals who were dominating the sport.
There was one race where Keke came into the pits for refueling and a flash fire erupted around him. He leapt from the car but already the fire was out and the mechanics were urging him to get back in. Race forgotten, Keke was protesting, “My mustache! It burned my mustache!”
That was Keke, old school and flamboyant, but as quick as they come. I found a couple of clips on YouTube that illustrate his dashing style and grit:
Rosberg and Gilles, Long Beach 1982
Rosberg and de Angelis, Austria 1982