Ask Jonathan Noble: October 9

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck usually answers your questions every Wednesday, but he is away this week. So his colleague Jonathan Noble has stepped into the breach. Nigel will return next Wednesday. 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

Ask Jonathan Noble: October 9

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Dear Jason,

I think the prospect of such a 'serious' duel taking place is highly unlikely, but what a mouth watering prospect it would be. I was at Silverstone a few years back when Colin McRae swapped seats with Martin Brundle, who was then driving for Jordan. McRae was certainly impressive in the Jordan, while Brundle was left wide-eyed after his foray in a Subaru.

Driving either a World Rally or Formula 1 car at the speed that the top guys do it is certainly no easy task. While I am sure both drivers would have little trouble getting respectively close to each other's times after swapping machinery, I think both would prove to excel in their chosen disciplines.

Hand McRae a relatively simple track plus a decent amount of testing and, over one lap, the time between them would probably not be that much. But go to Spa or Monaco in the wet, and perform at the level F1 drivers have to over a whole race distance, and I think the difference would be quite staggering. Schumacher has this ability to perform at his peak lap after lap, without making errors, without over-stepping the mark and much better than anyone else at the moment.

Likewise, McRae would probably be streets ahead when it came to pushing it over a challenging rally stage. The closeness of the trees, the speeds, say, of Finland and the variable track conditions would be a great hurdle for Schumacher to overcome - and I don't think he would argue that over a whole rally event then McRae would come out on top.

I know my answer is sitting on the fence a little bit, but I think both men excel in their own very unique disciplines. Few drivers have successfully taken their skills from the race track to the rally stage - from my memory I seem to recall Mika Hakkinen crashing a rally car during a trial after only a few hundred metres. Likewise, I think a fairly recent F1 test by Tommi Makinen ended in a spin.

Perhaps the answer would be to put Schumacher and McRae in a rally cross showdown - using the Spa circuit but then tearing off into the Ardennes forest for some off-road running. Same machinery, same day and one stop watch. Wouldn't that make great television!

Dear Pete,

Yes, I was lucky enough to attend the event and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was my second visit to a midget race - having attended a race on the dust at the Indiana State Fairground last season and been blown away by it.

The events make no bones of showing off cutting-edge technology, of being the greatest motorsport series in the world or of using the best tracks in the world. Instead what you get is pure motor racing - big noise, close racing, overtaking and a few spills here and there.

Williams technical director Patrick Head was one of many F1 people who made the trip out of town at Indianapolis last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also think there are a few people in the paddock who were not there but could learn a great deal about boosting F1's image in the United States - undoubtedly one of the sport's key markets.

What lifted the event and made it a spectacle that left the entire crowd standing on their feet at the end was the chance for the winner of both races to go home with $50,000. While such a matter would be a foregone conclusion had such a prize gone to Ferrari in F1 under similar circumstances, in midget racing the excitement was increased because the grid for the second race was a reverse of the finishing order from the first.

That meant the only man who had chance of walking away with the big prize had to start way back down the field. His progress was very much the focus of the entire crowd - who were treated before the second race to fireworks, a local pair of glamorous twins proudly showing off the money before the heat and, of course, hot dogs and Budweiser.

The locals - a surprising number of whom were dressed in F1 gear - went ballistic during the races. It made great entertainment and reversing the grid was the sort of 'gimmick' that gave the event a real lift.

Now I am not suggesting that F1 should adopt gimmicks like reversing grids - but what about big-money prizes - perhaps sponsored by big American companies - for the man who can get pole, win and fastest lap at Indianapolis? It would be just the sort of thing that the American public would love, would make a great story for the media - and with it do you think the finish to this year's US GP would have been as farcical as it was?

Dear Simon,

Ralf Schumacher is a man whose personality and name has very much affected the reputation he has on the track. While he would probably not have had such an easy time getting into F1 were it not for his surname, I think that since making the grade it has very much held him back.

There has been an incredible amount of pressure on him to live up to his brother's achievements and you do wonder whether the endless comparisons - and the German media's obsession with reporting everything about him - have taken their toll. It could explain why he tries to keep away from journalists, keep himself to himself, and why the press and fans are not as empathetic with him as they are with guys like Juan Pablo Montoya and David Coulthard. I like Ralf, I think he is misunderstood by a lot of people, but he should open up more and try to get to know the media better rather than shut himself away and complain when he thinks they are out to get him.

Schumacher's four victories so far in F1 have been thoroughly deserved but you are right to say that none of them have come after a true wheel-to-wheel battle for the lead. Every time the overtaking has been done either in the pit-stop window or through cars ahead of him dropping out.

And while very few would argue that Schumacher Jr is one of the best qualifiers out there and a strong racer if he is running at the front of the field, the doubts remain about whether he can overtake. That was highlighted in Brazil this year, when he sat behind his brother for the end of the race, and in Canada this year when he was stuck behind Kimi Raikkonen for a number of laps.

What perhaps Schumacher does lack is that killer instinct. He does not have the 'devil-may-care' attitude that sits so comfortably with Montoya - and in F1 as soon as you are tagged with something then others drivers will use it and exploit it.

Ayrton Senna may have crashed into backmarkers in his time but the result was that from then on every driver about to be lapped would be absolutely sure to get out of his way as quickly as possible. And that also counted in races, where other drivers knew that the Brazilian would grab the smallest opportunity to try and get by - and they knew he wasn't worried about crashing. That resulted in the drivers ahead getting very nervous - and often being forced into mistakes.

The same is true of men like Michael Schumacher and Montoya now. If a driver is ahead of them they know that given half an opportunity they will come barrelling down the inside. Sit ahead of a Ralf Schumacher (or Jarno Trulli), however, and drivers feel comfortable because they know that he is unlikely to make a 50-50 move. His conservative approach may well be good at bringing the points in, but in turn it could work against him when it comes down to the head of the battle for the world championship.

Ironically the best thing Schumacher could do would be to get involved in an incident or two. In fact, the only driver whom Schumacher does not seem to worry about racing is his team-mate Montoya - most notably at the Nurburgring, Monza and Indy.

But does Schumacher's lack of overtaking make him unworthy of a Williams driver? Absolutely not. The team knows that if they hand him a car capable of winning races the he will perform and do it. F1 saw with Mika Hakkinen how a driver can win championships without getting involved in lots of overtaking moves - and no one would argue that Hakkinen was bad at racing.

Dear Tony,

The announcement that Dan Gurney was hoping to put together an F1 team certainly took the paddock by surprise at Indianapolis, and I am not sure that the man himself had planned for the kind of reaction it got. But it seems that plans are not as far advanced as was reported at the time.

But if the team did get off the ground, it would be great news to Formula 1, because if talk of the plans generated such a huge interest in the States then imagine what the reality of the situation would be. America remains one of the biggest untapped markets for F1, where the sport does not have the intense level of interest that it enjoys in Europe.

And while a successful Red Bull Team USA would be a good boost to the American market, imagine a team that has one of the country's big-name racers as its figurehead. Gurney is well known in a great deal of motor racing households in the States and even if he was not involved in the day-to-day running of the team it would be great just to have his name behind the project.

To have the American public more interested in F1 would not only boost ticket sales at Indy, but would also increase the profile of the sport over the whole season. That would then lead to more television interest, more sponsor interest and more business opportunities for F1 - which would be felt all the way through the grid.

Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone should welcome the plans for Gurney's team - and any further involvement from Phil Hill would also be of benefit.

Dear Richard,

Formula 1 has been accused of becoming a bit sanitised this season, especially with the arrival of the new Hockenheim. I was one of many people saddened to see the old Hockenheim go, because it took away a part of the soul of the sport, a part of its history. The new version of the track may well be good for racing - as was shown at this year's event - but why could it not have been built over the Hungaroring?

The Formula 1 paddock has mostly welcomed Tilke's work and the recent track designs have all been put together to help one thing - the racing. The growth of aerodynamic performance on grand prix cars means that high-speed tracks do not make for good racing. Cars cannot follow each other closely and that leads to processions on Sunday afternoons.

Track emphasis in recent times has focused on at least one area of track where a slow corners leads onto a long straight and is then followed by another slow corner. Look at the final section of Sepang or around the hairpin at Hockenheim. It is a concept that appears to have worked well.

Yes, it is a shame that F1 cannot create a modern day Spa-Francorchamps, but Malaysia's circuit certainly comes very close. There are some good high speed sections, changes of gradient and overtaking spots.

What should perhaps be made better use of, however, are gradients. Eau Rouge is only so fantastic because of the way it plunges into the dip and it would be nowhere near as spectacular if it was completely flat. The plans for Bahrain do not appear to have much use of land features - but here's hoping.

What I think should not happen is that all the tracks in the sport end up with a similar charateristic. Why not bring in some new design ideas and then let Tilke build them? Why not sit all the drivers down and come up with ideas for corner sequences? The F1 calendar needs a variety of different tracks, that all feel and appear different.

The focus on track design at the moment, however, is probably a result of the fact that the design of cars makes it so difficult to overtake. This year's Belgian Grand Prix was dull and few would argue that Spa is a rubbish track. If the sport's bosses slashed downforce and got rid of electronic driver aids - to put some racing back in the field - then I am sure we would even get a good spectacle from the Hungaroring. Well, maybe...

Dear Mark,

Takuma Sato has had what could best be described as a learning experience. His high profile accidents - most notably Monaco and Austria - and his bad luck with reliability have cast an unfair shadow over what has been a pretty solid job all told. I think what Sato's performances this season have shown is not testament to his skill level as a driver, but just how tough it is out there in F1.

On the positive note, what Sato has shown this year is incredible car control. One of the moments of the season that will stand out for me was during practice at the Malaysian Grand Prix when he got sideways in the plunging left-right sweep at the end of the lap. Rather than back off and lose time, he kept his foot in and managed to gather it all together in a flurry of steering wheel activity and wheel spin. Spectacular.

Sato has obviously shown the required speed to deserve a place in F1. Yes there have been mistakes, but look at Ralf Schumacher's first few seasons in the sport. And since getting up to speed, he has been as close to team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella as he had hoped he would be when he made predictions at the start of the season.

Despite all that, however, it looks unlikely that Sato will be racing in F1 next year. The current need of teams to have experienced hands to bring home the points - which is only increased by a dwindling grid and the ultra-competitiveness of the top three teams - has led to a drop in the fashion of signing up the 'next big thing'.

There is also the fact that money still talks loud in F1. Although Sato has a contract with Jordan for next season, the team's need to find sponsorship for the ever increasing costs means that Sato himself would probably need to bring some backing. Much will depend on progress made on that front over the next few weeks.

I think it more likely that Sato will be a test driver next year, so that he can further hone his skills and put to use all the lessons that he learned this season. It would then put him in a strong position to return to the grid in 2004 - a much improved driver and ready to make up for lost ground.

Sato is good enough for F1 and the brilliance he showed in F3 was certainly not a case of flattering to deceive. F1 also needs him to some extent because he is generating huge interest back home in Japan. Sato will, almost certainly, become Japan's most successful grand prix driver - it may just take him longer than originally expected to get there.

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