Ask Damien Smith: October 8

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck is on a well-earned holiday this week, so AUTOSPORT magazine's News Editor Damien Smith has stepped in to answer your questions. Nigel will be back next week, so if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at and we'll forward on a selection to him. Nigel won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here every week. Send your questions to

Ask Damien Smith: October 8

Dear Steve,

Making a judgement on a racing incident is, of course, a subjective matter, which is why the dishing out of penalties is such a juicy topic for discussion. Everybody has an opinion, but it's the race stewards that have to make a call as they see it at the time. Not an easy job, I'm sure you'd agree. So here's what I reckon about those two incidents.

Firstly, Montoya's move on Barrichello. The great thing about Juan Pablo Montoya is that he is so aggressive and will have a go at passing anybody, even if there is only a sniff of a chance to make it stick. But on this occasion he got it wrong.

The gap that Barrichello left on the inside of turn two must have been tempting, but it was not wide enough to fit a Williams. Montoya was completely reliant on Rubens making room for him, which he was never going to do. As Barrichello proved at Silverstone this year, he is not averse to a bit of hard racing and is no push-over. Bullyboy tactics won't work with him.

Montoya hit the left rear-side of the Ferrari with his right front side. He wasn't fully alongside and was lucky to escape without losing the front nose or wing. And it was the innocent Barrichello who came off worse and got tipped into a spin. For me, it's a clear-cut case. Montoya was too optimistic and he made a misjudgement.

But should he have been punished? Yes. Rubens' grand prix came to an end because of Montoya's mistake. The stewards had to penalise him for that. The uproar would have been greater had he escaped sanction. In fact, Montoya was lucky that the penalty used these days is a drive-through, rather than a 10-second stop-go. He would have rejoined even further back with that penalty.

Now for Schumacher's yellow flag pass. Which didn't actually happen. Michael was in front of the Toyota before he reached the yellow flag. Moreover, he had committed himself to the move near the start of the straight and it was too late to pull back.

It would actually have been more dangerous for Schumacher to brake and slot in behind Panis than it would have been to complete his move. To take such avoiding action could easily have triggered a big shunt with the cars around him. Not good in a part of the track where they are braking from speeds above 200mph.

The yellow flags are there to make motorsport safer. If Schumacher had panicked as he passed the Toyota, they could have been the cause for carnage instead. The move was not only legal, it was also the safest thing to do. The stewards had an easy decision to make on that one.

Dear Simon,

You've answered your own question there. I wouldn't disagree with any of it.

The blue flag rule has good intentions: to stop backmarkers influencing the outcome of races, and potentially championships, to the detriment of frontrunners. What it fails to take into account is that carving a way through traffic is an important part of the driver's skill.

At Monza, leading figures in Formula 1 suggested that there is a need for grand prix racing's technical regulations to be rewritten without the shades of grey that leave the rules open to interpretation. Well, that may be true, but in the sporting regulations there often needs to be a degree of flexibility. The element of judgement is required to treat each case individually.

There is no need for a hard and fast blue flag rule. If a driver holds up the leader for, say, half a lap, it is quite clear that he should be punished. But he should also be penalized if he only blocks at one corner, albeit in such a way that he loses the leader a large chunk of time. One chop can be just as bad as consistent blocking through a series of corners, and the stewards should be capable of deciding what needs action without a regulation to tell them so.

Having said all that, the art of slicing a path through the backmarkers is not dead anyway. Even if rules are in place to stop backmarkers making a nuisance of themselves, they still do, as Heinz-Harald Frentzen and the hapless Zsolt Baumgartner showed at Monza. On that occasion, Juan Pablo Montoya moaned about how much time he lost in his chase of Michael Schumacher. But the Ferrari had no problems getting through, did he? Maybe that's because Frentzen's Sauber is powered by a Ferrari engine. Maybe it was luck. Then again, maybe it was because Schuey is the best and most ruthless racing driver out there.

Dear Frank,

Don't be fooled into reading too much into the Indianapolis grand prix. BAR hasn't suddenly turned from being one of the major disappointments of the season into a Ferrari, Williams and McLaren beater. The team's performance is nowhere near Renault yet, nevermind the top three.

The weather was the key to just about everything that took place on that Sunday afternoon. As you say, 'those mighty fine Bridgestone wets' allowed Button to put in some competitive laps. Combined with that, a good call on the pitstop from BAR and a little dollop of luck gave Jenson the chance to lead.

What can be said about his form at Indy is that Button drove superbly and made the most of what was given to him. He deserved that podium finish more than any other driver that day.

Button has been excellent all year because he feels valued at BAR and is in the right environment to thrive. Meanwhile, Jacques Villeneuve has looked slower because he has maintained a policy of making his car as good as possible for the races to the detriment of his pace in the new one-shot qualifying sessions. And his appalling luck with reliability has also coloured the comparisons to Button.

The crucial problems at BAR have not been anything to do with the drivers. It's not even a chassis issue. Most of the blame for another year of disappointment has to lie with engine supplier Honda and tyre maker Bridgestone. As the drivers said in the wake of Indy, Honda needs to re-evaluate its approach to F1. And Bridgestone must give BAR more opportunity for tyre development instead of letting Ferrari hog it all. The trouble is Ferrari develops the tyres because it is the only truly competitive Bridgestone team, so until Honda helps make BAR a contender, it is unlikely to get its fair share. That's a bit of a catch 22 situation.

Honda will be determined to put on a good showing at its home track in Japan. Button and Villeneuve should certainly be contenders for points to deliver BAR that important fifth place in the constructors' championship. But a podium? Only if it rains.

Dear Rob,

Actually, I don't think McLaren and Williams are particularly reluctant for their respective partners to supply second teams. The issue is not centred on the teams, it is the manufacturers themselves.

The supply of engines to independent teams has become a huge issue in 2003. It's complex too. Paul Stoddart remains adamant that the manufacturers promised to supply V10s at an affordable price next year, but the magic figure of $10m (£6.6m) has been a difficult one to reach. Finally, Cosworth seems to be close to hitting the target.

As with so many issues in F1 at the moment, the threat of a breakaway manufacturer series hangs over the hopes for cheaper engines for 'indie' teams. If a deal can be cut between the Grand Prix World Championship and the creditor banks that own F1, a monetary pool could be created to subsidise the supply of engines.

Richard Parry-Jones, head of Ford's Premier Performance Division, has put a lot of work into the cheaper engines project. He is even confident that a solution will be found without a deal between the GPWC and the banks.

So the bottom line is that secondary supplies of manufacturer engines could become a reality. But there are many hours of meetings between F1's major players to be ground out before supply deals from the likes of Mercedes and BMW can be guaranteed.

Dear Andrew,

I've followed Mark's career closely too and have also been lucky enough to get to know him. I was covering the Formula 3000 International Championship during the two years he raced in the grand prix support series, and in that time his reputation blossomed - and with good reason.

Before 2000, when he joined Paul Stoddart's F3000 team, Webber was always considered to be a talented driver, but not one who really had a shot at F1. In 1999 the awful experience of flipping twice at Le Mans in a Mercedes - through no fault of his own - could have cost him his life and he vowed never to return to the great race.

It all went quiet for Mark until Stoddart showed his characteristic faith in a young charger. Suddenly Webber was making waves in F3000 and the F1 teams began to pay attention.

By the end of 2001, Webber was a title contender. In truth, he was outclassed by Justin Wilson in those final races. But he had already shown enough potential to convince Stoddart to take another gamble on him - this time in F1 with Minardi.

That first race proved to be a dream come true for Webber and Minardi. In his own Aussie backyard, Mark scored an emotional fifth place. That result played a big part in propelling him towards Jaguar for this year.

It's always great to see a good bloke make the best of an opportunity. Mark is developing into a real F1 star and rumours are now growing that he is attracting the interest of Frank Williams and Patrick Head.

Maybe they see something of Alan Jones in him. It goes beyond the nationality. Like the 1980 world champion Mark has true character, and is driven to succeed in everything he does. I reckon he is getting better and better as time goes on. The confidence is booming, his rivals respect him, the media and fans like him - he's got it made.

All he's got to do is keep it up.

It doesn't look good for Jacques right now, does it? I agree with you that it would be a great loss for F1 if Villeneuve is left on the sidelines next year.

But is BAR mad? No, I don't think so. Takuma Sato has bags of natural ability and potential. That much was obvious when I saw him race for the first time in Formula Opel back in 1999. This was clearly a Japanese driver who could go all the way. His team boss Hywel Absolom even compared him to one of his charges from another decade - Mika Hakkinen.

Sato created a buzz in F3 reminiscent of that created by Jan Magnussen in 1994. The Dane is still considered by some in AUTOSPORT's office to be one of the lost greats of F1. Let's hope Sato's grand prix career turns out differently to Jan's. If BAR harnesses that potential, it's sure to be.

Back to Villeneuve. I do feel some sympathy for him. He has put a lot into BAR and got very little back - at least in terms of results.

But how can you feel too sorry for a guy who has made millions out of racing cars? He could have stayed at Williams and waited for the good times to return - they were always going to with a team like that. But he took a risk and made a move to a brand new team, bursting with ambition and a big budget - and run by his manager.

It didn't pay off, and Villeneuve's amazing first two years in F1 seem a long time ago now.

Wouldn't it be great to see him get back in a competitive car and return to the sharp end of F1! What a great story that would be. But if it doesn't happen, he won't lose any sleep. As he says in AUTOSPORT magazine this week: "I've achieved my childhood dream, which was to win the F1 title and the Indy 500."

At least the speculation is over about his future at BAR. He can get on with his life - whatever it might throw at him in the future - and the team can concentrate on a young guy who might just prove to be a revelation next year.

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