Ask Nigel

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions here on Autosport.com every Wednesday. However, Nigel has taken a break after the United States Grand Prix, so taking the hot seat next week will be Autosport's US editor, Gordon Kirby. So if you have a motorsport-related question past, present or future, e-mail it to us on autosportnews@haynet.com

Ask Nigel



Dear Ian,

Yes, I was astonished to learn that ITV would not be televising the US Grand Prix live - or, rather, that they would be doing so only on ITV2, which not too many folk have. Certainly, when the original contract was signed between ITV and Bernie Ecclestone, our understanding was that every race would be live, full stop. Obviously, we were wrong.

ITV's answer is that, as the race was scheduled to start at 7pm, British time, that ate into peak viewing hours, and they had to consider the wishes of 'the majority' of their viewers, who presumably could not be deprived of the intellectual fare - 'Coronation Street', and the like - normally on offer at that time; could not indeed, tolerate even a delay of a couple of hours.

This is the one Grand Prix that happens to fall badly, from the point of view of peak viewing hours - and ITV gave it the thumbs down. I thought it very disappointing, if predictable, but I would like to know why ITV doesn't give a damn about 'the majority of its viewers' every time they foist some bloody evening football match upon us, which seems to be about every two or three days...





Dear Carlo,

Yes, I think Michael Schumacher would have lasted this long at Ferrari, even if the Old Man were still alive, because what Enzo loved more than anything else was his cars' winning races, and Schuey has won a bundle of them.

I think, too, that Ferrari would have loved his fighting spirit - he always particularly valued 'racers', and Michael is undeniably that.

Having said that, I have my doubts that the two would have been close, in the way that Ferrari was close to, say, Gilles Villeneuve, not least because Schumacher's ignorance of the heritage of racing would have...disappointed him. Remember what Michael said when he and Eddie Irvine finished first and second at Magny-Cours in 1998: "It's fantastic -- I don't know if Ferrari's ever had a 1-2 before..."

I also don't believe for a second that he would have allowed Schumacher effectively to take over the team in the way that he so clearly has, and the same goes for the choice of the 'other' driver. What Enzo always wanted in his team was the two best drivers available, and I'm quite certain he would have gone for someone like Jacques Villeneuve, rather than such as Irvine - who was there, let's remember, for four seasons, and hired specifically to back up Michael. Schumacher's opinion on the choice of second driver would not have been relevant to the Old Man - indeed, it would not even have been sought.





Dear Al,

It's an abomination! And the same goes for chicanes named after Jimmy Clark, or any other great driver from history.

Following the accident at Monza the other week, I was delighted to hear Bernie Ecclestone come out strongly against chicanes, and hope that his words will be heeded over the coming years. Bernie being Bernie, you'd have to say there's a fair chance of that.

Chicanes, as we know, are an artificial device aimed at keeping speeds under control, and usually they are inserted in what would otherwise be flat-out sections of a circuit, such as before the Curve Grande at Monza, or the Ostkurve at Hockenheim.

For both driver and spectators alike, they are of no interest whatever, and serve only to break up the flow of a circuit. They are also the cause of a great many unnecessary accidents.

For me, the two best tracks in Formula 1 use these days are Spa-Francorchamps and Suzuka, both of which feature open, flowing, corners all the way - until you get to the end of the lap, when each is interrupted by a fatuously tight chicane.

Damon Hill, like virtually every other F1 driver, always adored Spa. "You could really get your teeth into it, get a rhythm going, and it was so satisfying when you got it really right. Eau Rouge, Pouhon, Stavelot...all fantastic corners - and then you'd get to this ridiculous 'Bus Stop' thing, which could have been anywhere. You'd brake hard, and bounce it over the kerbs, and it was such a contrast to the rest of the circuit. Every lap, I'd get there, and think, 'Oh, Jesus, this is awful!'"

The one at Suzuka is, if anything, even worse. Ridiculously tight and narrow, it was where Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna notoriously tangled during their championship-deciding race in 1989, and every year at least one accident there is guaranteed.

For endless years now, some of us have been saying that we'd rather see slower cars - or slower cornering speeds, anyway - on faster circuits, but while everyone seems to agree that aerodynamic downforce should be massively reduced, nothing is ever done about it. Ecclestone says he would rather see more slow corners than chicanes, and I suppose I agree with him, as far as it goes. But, much more than that, I'd rather see cars chiefly reliant on mechanical, rather than aerodynamic, grip, and have them operate on proper circuits.

"It's almost unrecognisable in places, isn't it?" said Professor Watkins of the Imola circuit, following modifications in the aftermath of Senna's fatal accident in 1994. "And it's ironic that, while it was changed because of Ayrton's accident, he would have hated it, the way it is now..."

So he would. "If you take away Eau Rouge," he once said, when the celebrated switchback at Spa was under threat, "you take away the reason why I do this." It is the greatest irony that all the corners renamed in honour of Senna, from Interlagos to Hockenheim, have been the chicanes he so detested.


Dear Alan,

It depends on whether or not we're talking about any drivers from history, alive or dead. To my mind, the best father-and-son pairing in history has to be the Villeneuves, Gilles and Jacques, both absolute top-liners in their own periods of racing; the Hills, Graham and Damon, both won World Championships, which is even more remarkable, in terms of results, but on sheer talent I'd go for Jacques and his father.

In terms of Formula 1, these two families are rather the exception to the rule, for more usually racing sons tend to fall short of their world-class fathers. The Brabhams are a case in point: although Geoff and David, particularly, have had very successful careers in their own right, neither was in the same class as Jack.

Racing tends to be a family trade much more in America than in Europe, of course, and one thinks particularly of dynasties such as the Andrettis, the Unsers and the Bettenhausens. It was unfortunate that Michael Andretti's single year in F1 was such a disappointment, but that shouldn't detract from the fact that he has had a very considerable career, winning more CART races than any other driver.

He was - and is - not the equal of Mario, though, and the same, ultimately, is true of the Unsers. Al Jr, at his best, was fantastic in an Indycar, but these days is unfortunately a shadow of what he was, whereas his old man, Al Sr, was a contender throughout his very long career.

Is it 'in the genes', as they say? Well, yes, to some degree, perhaps, but there have been some racing sons who have been frankly an embarrassment to the family name. Sad, but there we are.

All things considered, if I could turn back the clock, and re-write history, I'd go for the Villeneuves. A French colleague recently wrote an article about Jacques; he called it, 'The apple didn't fall far from the tree'.





Dear Neil,

In the nine-year interval between the last race at Phoenix, and the new one at Indianapolis, I greatly missed going to America for a Grand Prix each year, although usually I managed to get to a CART race, and occasionally the Daytona 500, too. More than once, the thought has occurred to me that if I didn't need a passport for France, Italy and the USA, I'd happily chuck mine in the fire! Actually, that's not quite true, but you get my point.

As for the two countries you mention, yes, I invariably enjoyed going to Estoril, but this was almost entirely because the circuit there used to be such a good one - I would invariably watch the Grand Prix from the first corner, a very quick right-hander, with another one immediately beyond it. It was a place for the brave.

They began to spoil it, though, with a laughably tight chicane, followed by a very steep climb, which was begun in first gear; so steep was it that on one occasion Jean-Denis Deletraz, who should not have been anywhere near a Grand Prix car, actually stalled, simply because he didn't have enough revs on to get up the hill!

Sorry, I digress. Recently, I watched a motorcycle race from Estoril, and was mortified to find that 'my' corner had now disappeared completely -- indeed the two quick right-handers have been replaced by two very slow ones. It may be we'll go back to Estoril again one day, but I can't say it bothers me, one way or the other.

Zandvoort, too, is now barely recognisable, for the local council has seen fit to tear up large parts of it, and use it for housing. A track still exists, of course, and includes some of the great old corners, but I doubt if it would be big enough for Formula 1 - although, now I think about it, that's a silly thing to say: we did, after all, have two Grands Prix at Aida, a track previously shunned by the Japanese F3000 brigade as being too short and too tight...

This rather reminds me of a remark by Keke Rosberg, typically crisp and to the point, on the morning of the chaotic Dallas Grand Prix, in 1984. In the enormous heat of Texas in July, the newly-laid track surface was breaking up to the point that, quite literally, you could removed pieces with your bare hands! A lot of the other drivers were posturing about, saying they wouldn't race, that the Grand Prix should be cancelled.

Rosberg chuckled when I brought this up. "Look," he said, "there are 90,000 people here, plus the TV companies are all ready to go. Of course there'll be a race! Let's face it, we're all whores, aren't we? We'll turn up, and do our stuff anywhere, if the price is right..." Thus it was with Aida.

Back to Zandvoort, which was, in my opinion, the best circuit for pure racing anywhere. I loved the place: it had every kind of corner as it wound its way, up and down, through the sandhills, and it also had an abnormally long pit straight - a little like Indianapolis -- at the end of which was the legendary Tarzan hairpin. I always watched from there, and in the course of one afternoon would see more overtaking than in the rest of the season put together. It was here, in 1979, that Gilles Villeneuve took the lead from Alan Jones's Williams - on the outside...

Most of us would stay in Amsterdam, a city much to our taste, and commute to the track by train. The journey took about 20 minutes, and at the other end there was a short walk to the track in the brisk sea air. It was a great race weekend, and quite unlike any other.

Unfortunately, though, Zandvoort paid the penalty of being 'old'. It may have provided the best racing anywhere, but its paddock and pits were small and tatty, and by the mid-80s, an increasingly 'corporate' Formula 1 felt out of place there. I miss it still.




Dear Marcus,

I really don't know what to make of Schumacher's tears at the 'unilateral' TV press conference after the Italian Grand Prix, and neither do my colleagues, frankly. We've talked about it quite a bit, and failed to reach any conclusion.

Long exposure to F1, and its people, tends to lead one towards cynicism, and there was some evidence of that in the press room, where, it must be said, there tends to be more admiration for Michael the driver than for Schumacher the man. As we debated the possible causes of his loss of composure, one veteran journalist suggested we had all got it wrong. "It's quite obvious," he murmured. "He took an onion with him into the press conference..."

My own feeling is that probably it was an outpouring of sheer relief. After a long period without a win, Schuey had beaten the McLarens, and done it at Monza. Apart from the fact that the crowd is unusually emotional and effusive, his victory had also brought him right back into the World Championship. Had he been beaten by Hakkinen at Monza, his title hopes - for the fifth year running - would have been in the bin.

Certainly, by the time he came to the press room for the main post-race conference, he was quite back to normal.

I found it interesting that, while many - for reasons unclear - actually clapped Schumacher after his display of emotion the other weekend, there was a very different response twelve months ago when Hakkinen, too, wept at Monza. On that occasion, Mika had thrown away the Italian Grand Prix - and, as it looked then, quite possibly the World Championship - by losing concentration momentarily while leading consummately.

Actually, I found his tears very easy to understand that day: he was simply raging at himself, well aware of what he had possibly lost, and frustrated beyond belief. At the time a lot of people dismissed his behaviour as that of a wimp, which I thought unfair.

Some have suggested that Schumacher was simply trying to win public support, to give the impression that he was 'human, after all'. I don't believe that, actually - and it certainly wasn't too true of Hakkinen, either. Mika, in fact, sat down behind a bush, where he mistakenly thought he was hidden from the TV cameras' gaze.


Dear Jonathan,

I agree with you about Bernd Schneider; I always thought him a very talented driver, and it was a great shame that he never got his hands on a proper Grand Prix car - Zakspeed's attempt at Formula 1 was something of a joke, let's face it, particularly in 1989, Schneider's year with the team, when they were using Yamaha engines.

"Eight seconds," one of the mechanics said to me one morning. "That's a new record!" He was talking about the life of a new Yamaha V8 engine, from firing it up to blowing it up...

That debacle unfortunately put an end to Schneider's F1 aspirations, but he has had a very successful career elsewhere, in sports cars, DTM, and so on, and he remains - like Hans Stuck - one of the great enthusiasts of the sport. I've always found him a delightful bloke, and one with a real feel for motor racing, doubtless inherited from his father, who was a tremendous enthusiast, and named his son 'Bernd' in memory of one of his great heroes, Bernd Rosemeyer.

Three or four years ago, Schneider took me round the old Nurburgring in a Mercedes C36, and even though this was only a road car (albeit a quick one), the lap made a great impression me, for Bernd knew every inch of the track, and it showed. He was very, very, quick, yet asbolutely at ease, steering much of the time with one hand, while the other rested on the gear lever.

Most impressive of all, his mobile rang at one point, and he calmly dealt with the caller without backing off even a touch!


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