Ask Nigel

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers questions here every Wednesday on motorsport topics past, present and future. However, in a few weeks Nigel is planning a holiday, so on Wednesday October 4, Autosport's American editor, Gordon Kirby, will fill the hot seat. If you have a question for either Nigel or Gordon, e-mail them to autosportnews@haynet.com, with "Gordon" or "Nigel" in the message header

Ask Nigel


Dear Martin,

Over the years it's been a source of increasing disappointment to me that so few 'current' racing drivers have the slightest interest in the sport's history and heritage. For the overwhelming majority, their interest in F1 began the day they became involved in it.

Years ago, I remember, Michael Schumacher was asked if he had been interested in it during his youth. "No, not really," he replied. "After all, I was involved in karting then..." It was as if he were suggesting that the two were fundamentally different activities, that there was no link, no logical progression from the one to the other. Perhaps, to use a ghastly modern word, he was so 'focused' on karting that nothing beyond it existed.

There are innumerable examples of drivers' ignorance of their predecessors in the sport. A few years ago, at a party, a contemporary superstar was introduced to the daughter of one of the greatest drivers of the '70s. "So what's your father doing these days?" he asked her, and there followed what may be termed an uncomfortable silence. Her father had been killed 20 years before.

This contempt, or whatever you want to call it, for the past was not always as pronounced as it is these days. When I first became involved in F1, 30 years ago, the first close friend I made was Chris Amon, and one of the reasons we got on so well was that he, like me, had been obsessed with racing since childhood; when he talked of Fangio and Moss, he was simply another besotted fan.

Indeed, Chris often said that when he came to F1 in 1963, as a 19-year old, one of his biggest problems initially was that he found himself racing against people who had been his heroes. For a time, he said, it was difficult to persuade himself that he belonged in their company.

John Watson was, and is, much the same. We share a particular love of the Grand Prix cars of the '50s, and down the years have spent hours talking about that era. John, like Chris, has a profound knowledge of the sport's history.

Mario Andretti - no surprise there! - is the same. As a young boy, growing up in Italy, his hero was Alberto Ascari, whom he saw at the Italian Grand Prix in 1954. "I never met him," Mario says, "but he had a greater influence on my life than anyone else."

Another with a profound awareness of the sport's heritage was Ayrton Senna. Once, in Brazil, I saw Juan Manuel Fangio walk up behind him, and tap him on the shoulder. Ayrton, in the middle of a conversation, swung round, clearly annoyed; then he saw who it was, and as he put his arms around the old man, his eyes were full of tears.

Fangio was Senna's earthly god, and not merely because both men were from South America. Jo Ramirez, Ayrton's close friend, as well as colleague through the McLaren years, always believed that his ambition was to win five World Championships, as Fangio had done. "I think that then he would have retired," Ramirez said. "He had so much love and respect for Fangio that he wouldn't have wanted to beat his record."

Michele Alboreto, too, was a man with a feel for the past. Dressed in 'period' Auto Union overalls, he looked very proud as he posed for photographers at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last year. Next to him was the 1939 supercharged 3-litre V12 Type D car he was to take up the hill.

"Look at me," Michele said. "Dressed like Nuvolari! I tell you, I think I was born 50 years too late. Must have been incredible to be a racing driver in those times.

"What I cannot imagine is how it must have been to race cars like this. At the Nurburgring! In the rain! Think of it, no seat belt, no helmet... Since driving this car, I have incredible respect for those people who raced them."

Today there remains, to the best of my knowledge, only one out-and-out enthusiast of the sport, a man who loves it for its own sake, and always has: Jean Alesi. For me, he has always belonged more at the wheel of a Maserati 250F than anything else.

Last weekend, at Monza, I told him that some of us were planning, on the Friday night before the race at Indianapolis, to go to the Hoosier Hundred, a classic event run on the one-mile dirt oval at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. His eyes opened wide. "Really?! Can I come, too?"

If I had to be teamed with two drivers in a pro-celebrity motor sport quiz, I'd pick Amon and Watson. If they had to be from today's paddock, I'd go for Alesi and... the second one might take a bit of finding.

As for the one I would definitely not pick, probably it would be Eddie Irvine, the one-time Ferrari driver. When told that Chris Amon would be coming to the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1997, to be reunited with his 1968 312, Irvine looked mystified. "Who's he?" he said. It may have been for effect, or it may not.


Dear William,

You're right, there haven't been too many racing drivers who had previously been successful bike racers, but one who springs to mind immediately was my great childhood hero, Jean Behra, who was Champion of France several times, on a red Moto Guzzi, before turning his attention to cars.

Before the war, the practice of beginning with bikes, then transferring to cars, was a lot more common. Keep in mind that Tazio Nuvolari, considered by many to be the greatest driver the world has ever known, began with bikes - and for several years, indeed, raced both! So, for that matter, did Surtees in 1960, when he drove for Team Lotus and rode for MV.

Nuvolari and Surtees were exceptional in that they were as good in cars as they had been on bikes, which was not true of, say, Hailwood. That said, Mike was the greatest on a bike there has ever been, so probably it was unlikely he was ever going to be as good in a car.

In recent years, of course, Eddie Lawson - one of the best riders in history - also turned to cars. In Indy Lights, and then in CART, he was more than competent, but not a patch on what he had been on bikes.

As for Hailwood's remark at Monaco in '72... I don't think that even on a website, rather than in a magazine, I can reveal exactly what he said! The circumstances were that the weather had turned very unpleasant, and so the drivers were allowed an extra 'acclimatisation' session shortly before the start. Somehow, this was not communicated to the palace, and their Serene Highnesses Rainier and Grace took to the track, for their traditional pre-race lap of honour, in the middle of the session. Mr Hailwood and his Surtees very nearly collected them at the Loews Hairpin; he was not impressed...


Dear Simon,

Jenks was one of my closest friends, and, like all who knew him, I miss him still. You're right that he always spoke - and wrote - his mind; it was a feature of his work I deeply admired, and I've always done my best to do the same. If anyone fired in me the desire to write about motor racing, it was Jenks; when a piece had those initials, DSJ, at its foot, you knew it was the real thing. Like many of my colleagues, I owe him more than I can say.

His standards were always exacting, you could say that. At Silverstone, years ago, several of us were given a ride in a factory Porsche 935, driven by a man who had won a Grand Prix. No slouch, in other words.

Jenks - of course - was the first to be taken round, and afterwards we asked how it had been. "Fantastic!" he said. Pause. "Just think what it would have been like with a proper driver..."

He was overdoing it, of course, and knew it, but then everything was relative in Jenks's world. "I've never been interested in who won a race," he would say, "until I know who was behind him."

Like anyone involved in racing journalism, Jenks well knew that to admire the driver was not necessarily to like the man. He had his villains, as well as his heroes, and once you were into either file, there you stayed for ever. That said, though, there remained a fundamental esteem for anyone who raced, be it in cars or on motorcycles.

During the years in which I knew him well, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna were his greatest heroes. It pleased him enormously, I remember, to receive a Christmas card each year: 'To friend Jenkinson, from Ayrton Senna.' And although he would probably have denied it, I don't believe he ever felt quite the same about racing after Imola in 1994. I was glad he wasn't there that day.

Gaining entry to Jenks's personal hall of fame was not the work of a moment: "In my teens," he said, "my hero was Bernd Rosemeyer, and everybody's hero was Nuvolari." And since the war? "It's a waste of time comparing different eras; you can only go for drivers supreme in their own time. There are just five in my top bracket: Ascari, Moss, Clark, (Gilles) Villeneuve and Senna."

Arguing with Jenks - on this or any other subject - was like trying to fold a paper in a high wind. "What about Schumacher?" you'd say. "Does nothing for me..."

In a certain mood, black was white, and that was the end of it. He took a special delight in playing devil's advocate. "Hang on a minute," you'd splutter, "how can you criticise Prost for doing no more than necessary to win a race, and then praise Fangio for always trying to win at the slowest possible speed?"

"Different," he would reply. "Well, how is it different?" "Just is..."

A minute or two later, once he had got you to the point of apoplexy, there would come a sly grin, and you would realise once again that you'd been had.

As for getting the wrong side of drivers, I recall that in the mid-'80s he wrote something trenchant about de Angelis, to which Elio took strong expection. In the Lotus pit at Hockenheim, they exchanged heated words, and eventually an exasperated de Angelis pushed Jenks aside. It wasn't a hard shove, but Jenks somehow tripped, and fell over.

He wasn't hurt, but he was mighty angry. Later that day I watched the race with him, in the stadium section, and as the cars came round on their warm-up lap he said he was going to put a 'hex' on de Angelis. This he duly did, pointing the index and little fingers of his right hand at the black car as it came by, and muttering oaths as he did so.

Trouble was, he got the wrong Lotus. "That was Mansell," I pointed out, "not de Angelis." "Oh, bugger me!" said the venerable scribe. "I've wished bad luck on the wrong bloke..."

Actually, I don't think DSJ's witchcraft powers were up to much, after all, for Mansell finished fourth that afternoon, and de Angelis blew up after half a dozen laps...


Dear Larry,

You're right, Bernie doesn't do many interviews, particularly on TV, but at Monza he told the ITV people - I mean, suggested to them - that he wanted to be a studio guest. Perhaps not surprisingly, they found they could accommodate him.

We all heard about this in the press room, and immediately began to wonder what he had to impart - whatever else, it was a certainty that there was a good reason for his going on the box. And later we learned that he had slagged off Silverstone - nothing new there - and corrected the impression given by some of us that Michael Schumacher may be less than a perfect human being.

It doesn't surprise me that you found him highly amusing and mischievous, because that's exactly what he is. A lot of the time, anyway. I've always thought him one of the funniest people I've ever met, and this is a side of him which doesn't always come over.

His sense of humour is...salty, let's say, and many of his best stories cannot easily be written in magazines for 'family consumption', but one thing you can always count on with Bernie is an ultra-quick rejoinder. Someone once told me of an occasion when he was driving somewhere around London, and inadvertently cut up a lorry driver.

This man got very upset, and at the next traffic lights pulled up alongside Bernie's car, and advised him of his shortcomings, in words of one syllable.

Bernie waited until he had finished. "You're absolutely right," he said, disarmingly. Then the killer punch. "If I was as intelligent as you, I could be up there in that truck, instead of down here in this Mercedes..."

A few years ago, I did a long interview with him, which was published in Autosport. The morning the magazine came out, my phone rang. "Mr Roebuck?" Gawd, I thought, he only calls me that when he's upset about something.

Actually, though, it turned out that he was quite happy with the story. "In fact," he said, "my wife read it, and at the end of it she said, 'I don't know how he's done it, but he's made you sound like a nice man...'"


Dear Bill,

My opinion of NASCAR is that I like it a lot - but not nearly as much as I did.

I first went to a NASCAR race in 1972, to the Daytona 500, in fact, and I've subsequently been many times, the last about five years ago. And my impression is that NASCAR has changed every bit as much as Formula 1, in the sense that it's become hugely commercialised - and, correspondingly, de-humanised. These days it seems as though getting Jeff Gordon's autograph is about as easy for a fan as getting Michael Schumacher's. And I have the impression that 'characters' - with the exception of Dale Earnhardt - are getting pretty hard to find.

In short, I find NASCAR pretty homogenised, compared with the way it used to be, and the same is true of F1. Both series have boomed massively in recent years, and as the money has rocketed, so the human aspect has gone into free fall. If anything, there seem these days to be more PR folk at Daytona than at Monte Carlo, and I confess that I feel like throwing up when the winning driver starts - like an automaton - winding through the list of sponsors, engineers, mechanics, helpers, floor cleaners at the factory, you name it, whom he has to thank for this victory.

The other thing is, I don't think the racing is anything like as good as it was. Time was when the place to be, at the beginning of the last lap, was second, so that you could draft by the leader before the flag; now the place to be is in the lead, as in F1, because there's so little chance of being passed. I HATE 'restrictor plate' races!

When I was at the 500 one year in the mid-eighties - 1985, maybe - Bill Elliot was on the pole, at over 210mph. Now, with restrictor plate engines, the pole is usually around 190, and the visual difference - if you remember how they used to look - is startling. We're talking about a lap time difference of five seconds, after all.

I know that changes had to come, for reasons of insurance cover, after Bobby Allison years ago tore down a lot of debris fencing at Talladega, and of course the first priority has to be spectator safety. Inevitably, though, the changes have reduced the spectacle, and also the quality of the racing; I wish they could find a way to keep speeds in check, yet allow the drivers to retain some throttle response - allow them to race properly, in fact.


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