Ask GK: June 6

Autosport's American Editor Gordon Kirby fills Nigel Roebuck's shoes this week. But Nigel returns next Wednesday, so if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at Autosport.com 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 AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask GK: June 6



Dear Philip,
Good question! Certainly, Mears defined Penske Racing from the end of the 70s through the early 90s. Rick was fast, smooth, ultra-precise and a very wise racer. He was also a true gentleman and sportsman who gave Penske an image that Roger could not have otherwise dreamed of.

Rick joined the team in 1978 as a third driver or substitute for Mario Andretti, who was primarily engaged in F1 with Lotus going after the world championship. Rick won at Milwaukee in his fourth start for Penske, went on to win two more races that year, then won the Indy 500 and inaugural CART championship in 1979. He won the CART title again in 1981 and '82 and also won three more Indy 500s in 1984, '88 and '91, joining A.J. Foyt and Al Unser as the race's only four-time winners.

Mears made a remarkable comeback after shattering his feet and lower legs in an accident at Sanair, Quebec in September, 1984. His feet were literally balloons of blood and smashed bone, but he was back in action six months later and won the Pocono 500 in August of 1985 and went on to win 10 more races of the next six years including two more Indy 500s. Rick retired unexpectedly at Penske's Christmas Party in 1992 after an exemplary career, but continues with the team as a driver coach and practical engineering consultant as well as one of the most natural representatives the sport has ever seen for a corporate mogul like Penske and primary sponsor Marlboro.

But Mark Donohue was the driver who gave life to Penske Racing. After retiring from a very successful driving career, Penske started his team in 1966, running a couple of Corvettes in the Daytona 24 hours and Sebring 12 hours. But the new team's main thrust was to run a Lola T70 in the new CanAm Group 7 series and the SCCA's similar United States Road Racing Championship. Donohue won the third CanAm race to be run, at Mosport in 1966, and went on to win the 1967 and '68 USRRC titles. Penske and Donohue also branched out into the SCCA's TransAm series, then at its historic height when it was much more important to Detroit's manufacturers at the time than NASCAR, and won the 1968, '69 & '71 TransAm championships.

Donohue and Penske also went USAC Championship racing at the end of 1968 and the team ran a handful of USAC races over the next few years, with Donohue scoring the team's first Indy or Champ Car win in the Pocono 500 on July 3, 1971. Donohue and Penske made their debuts as an F1 driver and team owner respectively in the 1971 United States GP at Watkins Glen (Penske drove his own cars in the 1961 & '62 United States GPs, finishing eighth and ninth) and Donohue came home third at the Glen driving a McLaren M19. Mark took the first of Penske's 11 Indy wins in 1972 aboard a McLaren M16B after team mate Gary Bettenhausen's car broke its turbocharger while leading, then dominated the 1973 CanAm championship in the Penske's unlimited boost turbo Porsche 917/30.

Donohue retired in February of 1974 after winning the first IROC championship, but came out of retirement in September to drive Penske's PC1 Formula 1 car, running the Canadian and US GPs at the end of the season. Donohue and Penske tackled their first full F1 season in 1975 but struggled with their own car, switching to a March 751 at the British GP in July. He was fifth in the March at Silverstone, but was killed a month later after crashing in the morning warm-up for the Austrian GP.

Donohue was first and foremost an engineer and technician. He had almost as much to do with running and organising Penske's team as he did driving the car. This is not to underestimate Donohue's driving skills. He was one of those rare drivers who raced successfully in virtually every kind of car, a true master of diversity. Donohue was not a raw, natural racer, but he willed himself to perform the many tasks Penske asked of him and has gone down in history as one of America's if not the world's greatest all-round drivers.




Dear Steve,
The original, unlimited CanAm series ran from 1966-74 and until its last year was a fantastic spectacle. The cars were overpowered, noisy and tremendously quick and attracted the top drivers from F1 and American sports car and USAC racing. Prize money was better than in F1 or most USAC races and for a few years winning the CanAm title was almost as prestigious as winning the world championship or the Indy 500. At the time, outside of the Daytona 500 and a few other races, NASCAR was a strictly regional, second-level form of motor racing, nothing like as important as the CanAm which drew huge crowds and worldwide press coverage.

The CanAm was defined by the factory McLarens of Bruce himself and Denny Hulme and the high-winged Chaparrals driven by Jim Hall, Phil Hill and others. In 1970 Hall also produced, in partnership with General Motors, the Chaparral 2J 'sucker car', the sport's first ground-effect car, which was subsequently banned by the SCCA. Jackie Stewart and Vic Elford drove the 2J which marked the height of the CanAm's essential, innovative spirit. A few years later in partnership with Penske Racing, Porsche's turbocharged 917/10 and 917/30 destroyed the big-block Chevy V8-based opposition which in turn resulted in the SCCA banning turbocharging.

I covered the original CanAm series in 1973 and '74, my first two years as Autosport's American editor, and was awestruck by the speed and power of the Porsche CanAm cars driven by Donohue, George Follmer, Jody Scheckter and a few other lesser souls. After the Porsche turbos were shoved aside, the series was left with only one truly professional team, which was Don Nichol's UOP Shadow operation with Jackie Oliver and George Follmer driving. The rest of the field were SCCA semi-pros or amateurs and interest in the series collapsed during the course of the year.

The original CanAm met its demise at Elkhart Lake in August when both Shadows dropped out and Scooter Patrick won the race in his own McLaren M20. A few days later the promoters at Riverside cancelled the final round and the CanAm slipped rather ignominiously into history.

The problem with the CanAm was the SCCA which wasn't able to control the rapidly developing technology of the times. Nor did the SCCA's amateur philosophy permit the old boys club to manage or promote the sport. Once they lost Johnson's Wax as the series sponsor it all went downhill rapidly.

With the CanAm's demise, Formula 5000 took over as the SCCA's major series, but at the end of 1976 the F5000 series was turned into the 'new era' CanAm with fenders on the 5.0 litre stock-block single-seaters. The SCCA's brain trust believed the American public wanted to see closed-wheel cars rather than open-wheelers and that by reviving the CanAm name the glory days of the sixties could be restored. Unfortunately, there was more to it than that and the new-era CanAm passed away of its own accord in 1983. In the end, it was amateurism that killed the CanAm and unfortunately, there's still too much of it around at the top levels of the sport in America today!




Dear Iain,
Some people would say I'm prejudiced against Mansell, but I believe Villeneuve's achievement was greater. Mansell was a superb racer in the right car on the right day, and in 1993 he stepped into the best chassis-engine combination (Lola-Ford) and one of the top teams (Newman/Haas) at exactly the right moment. The Ford-Cosworth XB engine had been introduced in 1992 with Newman/Haas and Michael Andretti won five races, took seven poles, and led 1,136 laps that season before making his abortive jump to F1 with McLaren.

Mansell took over Michael's seat beside Mario Andretti at Newman/Haas and the small, powerful but unreliable Cosworth XB came into its own in 1993. Mansell duplicated Michael's record of five wins and seven poles and took the championship thanks to a much better finishing record than the younger Andretti endured in 1992. He also led only half as many laps as Michael had the previous year and was outpaced in the laps-led department by Paul Tracy, who ran his first full season that year, replacing Rick Mears who had retired at the end of 1992.

Indeed, it was too bad we never enjoyed any Mansell versus Mears battles. You could not find two more dissimilar drivers, on and off the track, and I always thought it was a great shame that Mansell wasn't able to match himself against the great Mears. The following year, 1994, Mansell really disappointed of course, as the Lola-Ford wasn't quite up to the latest Penske-Ilmor/Chevy and he gave up, refusing even to test in the last two-thirds of the year. In adversity, Mansell laid down rather than standing up, and even pulled out of two races because he believed his car wasn't sufficiently competitive to warrant the effort.

Mansell made his move to Indy cars while he was at the zenith of his career. Sure, he had to master oval racing, but he had all the skill required in high-speed corners as well as experience with top teams like Williams and Ferrari. Villeneuve, on the other hand, was a fast-rising kid who spent only two years in CART, winning both the Indy 500 and CART championship in his second year. Some people wondered if he was seasoned enough to step into the Williams team, but he quickly proved himself and stood up toe-to-toe with Schumacher.

Many people seem conveniently to forget that Jacques was a product of Champ Car racing. He mastered fast corners, passing on the outside, and race strategy in CART, but had to climb a steeper mountain than Mansell in learning about late braking with a much lighter car and carbon brakes. He also had to work with and understand the more technically-driven, but more restrictive and less pragmatic, methods of car set-up prevalent in F1 versus Champ cars.

Jacques also had to adapt to the over-hyped, media-saturated F1 culture. The veteran Mansell was able to dominate and dictate to the much smaller CART press corps while Jacques had to adapt to the full-bore scrutiny of F1's media circus.

Most important of all, Jacques has shown himself to be a persistent and resilient racer, regardless of his situation with team, car or engine. He never gives up. He races for the love and spirit of the sport. The media hype and adulation of the fans means little to him. Jacques wants to enjoy himself, indulge himself in his sporting life and enjoy the respect and admiration of his peers.




Dear Ellis,
I'm not on the panel, which is comprised primarily of writers covering NASCAR. Few of the panelists cover any open-wheel racing and at least two of them have never come to a single CART or IRL race, so it's not surprising that NASCAR drivers dominate the voting.

I do think it's possible to compare and contrast the achievements of NASCAR and CART drivers and I thought it was ridiculous that Juan Montoya didn't win the driver of the year award the last two years. Winning the CART title in his first year and then taking the Indy 500, also in his first try, should have made him driver of the year both years. Anyone who stood close enough to enjoy Montoya's magnificent racer's spirit and insouciant style would have instantly been aware that Juan was galaxies ahead of last year's driver of the year, NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, who is a thoroughly competent journeyman driver but hardly a candidate for the pantheon of greats in NASCAR let alone wider world.

For these same reasons, your Sennas or Schumachers don't make it onto the radar screen of the panelists. Most of them don't understand or appreciate road racing, which is portrayed in today's NASCAR-soaked America as an effeminate, secondary version of automobile racing.




Dear Roger,
Tim Richmond was a very quick, aggressive driver who came up through supermodifieds in his native Ohio, then drove Super Vees for one year. He broke into Indy cars in 1979, then drove a Penske PC7 owned by his father and sponsored by a fellow named Bob Tezak, who owned the rights to the UNO card game.

At Indianapolis in 1980 he finished ninth, three laps down after running out of fuel on the last lap, and won the race's rookie of the year award. At Milwaukee the following weekend however, he crashed mightily in qualifying, reappearing at Mid-Ohio a month later only to crash on the race's first lap. The following week at Michigan, Richmond crashed again early in the race. He raced an Indy car only once more, at Indianapolis in 1981.

Richmond was a true racer to be sure. There was always a swagger to his walk and his talk. He usually wore an infectious grin and was as much a "party animal" as any racing driver, Innes Ireland and James Hunt included. After crashing out of Indy cars, Richmond recreated his career in NASCAR, winning 13 Winston Cup races between 1983 and '87. His best year was 1986 when he won a season-high seven races and finished third in the championship behind Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip.

Richmond rapidly became one of NASCAR's biggest and certainly its most irreverent star. But his high-flying lifestyle got the better of him. There were too many parties, too many women, too much drink and drugs, and longtime sponsor and old friend Bob Tezak proved too much of an evil influence. Tezak eventually went to jail for burning down his own bowling alley - an insurance job - while Tim succumbed to promiscuity and drugs. When Richmond died in 1988 from Aids, it was a sad end to one of the greatest talents America has ever seen.




Dear Alister,
Michael, Mario and I disagree on this, but I believe Michael failed in F1 because he didn't make the absolute commitment to living and racing in Europe. Michael will argue that he didn't complete sufficient pre-season testing to challenge team mate Ayrton Senna and the rest of the F1 field, but that surely was because he refused to move to Europe. He should have based himself close to McLaren, whether it was Sussex or Monaco, ready and willing to jump in and test anytime and to push the team's focus towards him as well as on the great Senna.

I admired Michael for relishing the challenge of being Senna's team mate. It was the right way to attack F1, but by continuing to live in Pennsylvania he did not prepare himself for such a serious challenge. A great difficulty for Michael at the time was his slowly deteriorating marriage to his first wife Sandy. She was uncomfortable with travel and life in foreign lands and culture, and preferred to fly home to Pennsylvania as soon as possible after each race. As Michael's 1993 season with McLaren went from bad to worse, their strained relationship also went downhill.

Michael's best F1 race was his last at Monza that year where he qualified ninth and finished third, albeit a lap behind winner Damon Hill. Michael is very much a carbon copy of his father on the racetrack - confidently fast and aggressive, always ready to surprise with a half-impossible move - but while Mario is an urbane, world-wise man imbued with a sharp wit and natural affinity for story-telling, Michael is shy and retiring - very much a quiet, American country boy.

Back at home, Michael immediately rekindled his career, outduelling Nigel Mansell and winning his first CART race with Chip Ganassi's team at Surfers Paradise in 1994. Today at 38, he's CART's most successful active driver and as fierce a racer as ever. All I can say is it's too bad he wasn't able to fully embrace his F1 opportunity when the chance came his way.

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