Ask Nigel

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every week here on Autosport.com. If you have a question for Nigel, on topics past, present or future, e-mail it to him at autosportnews@haynet.com

Ask Nigel

Dear Nigel,
I was at Spa for the recent Grand Prix, and it is an anticlimax not to see the drivers on the lap of honour. Why do they go straight to park ferme?
Jim Fergusson,
Pershore, UK


Dear Jim,

Interesting question. Speaking to colleagues in the press room, none of us could even remember when there was last a lap of honour - in the true sense of the word, when the winning driver was taken round the circuit in an open car, waving to the spectators, and so on.

Now, of course, quite frequently we don't even have a slowing-down lap; where it is possible - where there is a short 'loop' back to the pits - the cars come back as quickly as possible, and into the parc ferme. In part, I think, this practice was adopted after 'crowd trouble' on the slowing-down lap, such as we saw at Silverstone in 1992, when spectators mobbed Nigel Mansell's Williams, and there was every chance of folk getting hurt.

Then there is the Great God TV. The post-race ceremony is now firmly regimented and standardised: the drivers stop in the parc ferme, go immediately to be weighed, after which the first three to the podium, then to the 'unilateral' TV interviews. After that, they are brought to the press room for the full post-race press conference.

People quite often tell me that, as race fans who actually go to races, they feel they are sold short these days, in a number of ways. I can't disagree with them.


Dear Hamish,

My feelings about Nelson Piquet were always a touch equivocal. On the one hand, I thought he had tremendous natural talent, as well as a very clever racing brain; out of the car he could - in the right mood - be excellent company, with a fine, irreverent, sense of humour, and a willingness to say exactly what he thought. This last quality, almost unknown today, was of course highly valued by the members of the press.

Without any doubt, Nelson was happiest during his long spell with Brabham. The mechanics, whom he treated as friends, adored him, and their quest to help him to the World Championship was an unusually personal one. In short, it was far more than the normal team-driver relationship.

Problem was, Piquet's opinion of his worth, as a two-time World Championship, did not coincide with Bernie Ecclestone's, and when he received a substantial offer from Williams to replace the departing Keke Rosberg, for 1986, he took it. At Brabham, they were heartbroken, but they understood.

In his two seasons with Williams-Honda, there were many more victories, even another World Championship, but he never enjoyed life there as much as at Brabham, not least because he and team mate Nigel Mansell emphatically did not get on. Nelson believed he had joined the team as number one driver, but often Nigel was the quicker of the two, and a deep mistrust developed between them.

His two seasons with Lotus, in 1988 and '89, were rather tragic. The team was by then in serious decline, and frequently Piquet seemed not to be himself at all; it was sad to see a great driver languishing towards the tail of the field, and once in a while he failed even to qualify.

Largely on the recommendation of Jackie Stewart, Benetton-Ford hired him, and on occasions there were flashes of the old Nelson; he won three races for the team, and was highly rewarded for them, for the team - also at JYS's suggestion, in light of his lacklustre showings for Lotus - paid him 'on results'.

At the end of '91, he left Benetton, who preferred to concentrate on their new star, Michael Schumacher, and got a drive at the Indianapolis 500 in '92. After running some very quick laps in practice, sadly he had a colossal accident at the exit of turn four, and suffered appalling leg injuries, from which he has recovered well.

Piquet still shows up at the Brazilian Grand Prix each year, and his sharp tongue has lost none of its edge. He always had a mischievous character, and some of the remarks he made over time - about such as Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Enzo Ferrari - left some of us occasionally feeling a touch uncomfortable. Nothing was ever 'off limits' to Nelson, and he remains that way to this day.

While not quite on par with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - he never had their dedication - Piquet was nevertheless a great driver, and probably history tends to undervalue him.


Dear Paul,

I also have a great interest in Grand Prix racing in the 1930s - in fact, the first driver really to capture my imagination was Bernd Rosemeyer, who was killed more than eight years before I was born. He became a hero of mine when, as a kid, I read my father's books about pre-war racing.

As for books about the '30s, there are a great many, and over time I've built up quite a collection of them. The problem facing you is that many are long out of print, which means that they're pretty hard to find - and when you do find them, they tend to be somewhat pricey. For example, a dozen years ago I bought, in Germany, a book called 'Mein Mann, der Rennfuhrer', by Elly Beinhorn-Rosemeyer, and published a few months after her husband's death, in 1938. It was bit of an indulgence, really, because it cost over a hundred quid, and I can't read German to any great degree! However, I was later able to ask Elly to sign my book, and the photographs are great, so I consider it money well spent.

There have been biographies or autobiographies of many of the drivers of the day, including Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Hermann Lang and Richard Seaman, but all were published long ago, and are, as I say, expensive. However, in recent years a number of new books have appeared, most of them written by Chris Nixon, who has made a speciality of that period of racing. I would thoroughly recommend 'Racing the Silver Arrows', 'Rosemeyer - A New Biography', and, Nixon's most recent book, 'Shooting Star', about the life of Dick Seaman.

As for anecdotes about that era, well, there are hundreds. If you want an illustration, though, of just how different Grand Prix racing was in those days, let me give you a quote from von Brauchitsch. Although primitive crash helmets were available by then, none of the drivers ever wore them, preferring to stick with the traditional cloth helmets.

The good Manfred - who is still alive, at 95, by the way - was asked if he would be switching to a proper helmet. "No!" was the reply. "Motor racing will remain a pure sport only if you die for your mistakes!" Well, I suppose it's a point of view...


Dear David,

Your letter revives a poignant time in my life. In 1974 and '75, I worked for Graham Hill's F1 team, and still recall so clearly that freezing November night when I heard on the TV news that 'a light aircraft had crashed in fog while en route from Marseille to Elstree'. To anyone in racing, those words meant, 'en route from Paul Ricard back home', and I knew that the Hill team had been due to finish Ricard testing that day.

A few minutes later the phone rang. It was Chris Amon. "Did you hear the news? I think it's Graham..."

The following week I went to Hill's funeral, and also to that of Tony Brise, his young star driver, whom I had come to know well. It was sad, but inevitable, that in all the huge coverage of the loss of Graham, that of Tony was somewhat overlooked. If Hill had been a World Champion, Brise undoubtedly was going to win the title one day.

I confess I didn't much like him at first; he seemed rather too pleased with himself. But through that season of 1975, secure in a Grand Prix team, he matured remarkably, never losing that innate confidence in his ability yet also developing the ability sometimes to laugh at himself. He had talent to throw away, and knew it, but quickly came to see that he was at base camp, and no more.

I have several tapes recorded with Brise, and you don't need to get far into them to realise again how much the nature of F1 has changed. On one, Tony was about to go off to the German Grand Prix at the 'old' Nurburgring: "I can't wait to get there," he said. "For me, the Nurburgring is God's gift to racing drivers..."

Although only 23, he had expected to make it to F1 much earlier, having shown himself more than ordinarily promising through several seasons in the lower formulae. And here, you appreciate, is an unchanging aspect of the business.

"There you are,' Tony said, "plodding your way through Formula Ford and F3, with everyone saying you're doing it the right way. And someone comes along, turns in the right drive at the right time - and suddenly he's the man of the moment, getting offers from all over the place."

By his own admission, that was exactly how it panned out for Brise. "I came into Fl from Formula Atlantic, and I'm sure there are loads of people in F2 who feel resentful about that, who reckon they've made it higher up the ladder than I have, yet not been given an Fl opportunity. And I can't really say I blame them."

Even then, you had to be fashionable. But there wasn't the need for quite such an ascetic way of life as most drivers follow now. "I decided," Brise said, "that 1975 was going to be my make-or-break year. You can't go motor racing for ever - if you're not successful, all you do is drag around the place, conning money from people here and there, and generally becoming a bum.

"I decided to change my approach. I resolved, for example, not to touch a drink for 24 hours before a race - or go out late the night before a race..."

From the beginning of his Grand Prix career, Tony showed himself to be a man of natural pace; his style had that ease apparent in all real talents, and there was no doubting, either, the presence of a real racer's mentality. In the early laps of the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, he dealt with such as Reutemann and Andretti, then proceeded, until problems intervened, to take a second a lap from a bunch - including Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt, and Niki Lauda - which was contesting second place.

At Zandvoort he was astonishing. Before the start of the race he had never once driven an F1 car in the wet, yet before long was urgently signalling team mate Alan Jones to get out of his way - so he could lap him...

Perhaps, though, the race in which Brise made the strongest impression was the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix, for Formula 5000. It had a remarkable entry, but the likely winners were Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr, in Viceroy Lola-Chevrolets, and Brian Redman in Carl Haas's similar car. They were not expecting to be led by Brise.

The race was run in two heats and a final, and Tony won the first, from Andretti, muscling by the great man at the end of Shoreline Drive. Mario was surprised, to say the least. Years later, he remembered that race vividly: "Jeez, that guy Brise...he was something special.

A week afterwards, back in England now, Tony was still high on the moment. "How," I asked him, "did you dare sit it out with Andretti at a place like that?" He giggled. "Well, you might not believe this, but I thought it was Unser! If I'd realised it was Mario, I might not have tried it... "


Dear Mr Robbie,

Who is there to replace Max Mosley, as President of the FIA, and who is the next Bernie Ecclestone? Ye Gods...

Taking the last first, I really don't see anyone emerging as 'the next Bernie', in the sense that I don't believe any other single individual is capable of running as complex a business as Grand Prix racing has become during Bernie's long spell at the tiller. Professor Sid Watkins, one of the world's leading neurologists - and therefore a man who knows about such things - once told me he thought Ecclestone's the sharpest mind he had ever come across: "He has this incredible ability to keep 10 or 12 different things in his head at one time, to think clearly about them, and to switch from one subject to another in an instant. Amazing..."

What happens 'after Bernie' has long been the great unmentionable topic in F1, in that, while it's talked about endlessly, no one really has a clue. I imagine that in the end some sort of 'committee' will be formed, but the element of dictatorship - of having one strong man in charge - will inevitably be gone.

I have no idea who will replace Mosley, either. He has now decided he will stand again, as President, and no one doubts for a second that he will be re-elected. As and when the time comes for a new president, it may well be someone unexpected - as indeed Max was. By the time Jean-Marie Balestre registered that he faced a challenge from Mosley, his cause was lost. By then Max had done all the hard electioneering, and he won conclusively.

Your last question, I would guess, is a facetious one! First; I'm nothing like smart enough to do a job like that; second, I can't think of anything I'd like to do less...


Dear Anze,

When I was kid, racing drivers' helmets tended to be rather less than flamboyant than now - any sort of design, in fact, was virtually unknown. I did, however, very much like the helmet of my childhood hero, Jean Behra: white, with a black 'chequered flag' band around it. I also liked Stirling Moss's plain white helmet, which struck me as crisp and clean. Years later, Rene Arnoux wore a similarly unadorned white helmet, by which time everyone else had elaborate designs.

I loved the 'Aztec' design on Ignazio Giunti's helmet, 30 years ago, and of today's designs, Mika Hakkinen's is probably as good as any.


Dear Edgar,

Yes, I have been to Le Mans but not for a very long time. In fact, my two visits to the 24 Hours were right after I left school, in 1965 and 1967...

Until the mid-70s, or thereabouts, I really loved sports car racing. The major factories were involved, most of the top F1 drivers took part, and I think I saw two classic races. In '65 Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory won in the North American Racing Team Ferrari 275LM, and what that remarkable was they had had a major mechanical problem early on, and then drove absolutely flat out thereafter, figuring either to win or to blow up trying. When the chequered flag came down, that car was literally on its last legs - in fact, Gregory once told me that he doubted it could have done another lap!

As for the 1967 race, all I can tell you is that my friend Jabby Crombac, who has seen virtually every Le Mans since the war, reckons that to have been the best ever. Virtually every world-class driver on earth was in that race, from F1, from Indy cars, even from NASCAR. It was essentially a fight between Ford and Ferrari, with such as Chaparral and Porsche also prominently involved. In the end, victory went to the seven-litre Ford of Dan Gurney and AJ Foyt, at an average speed of over 135mph...

I was just out of school in those days, and money was tight. I allowed myself a single 'foreign' trip to a race each year, and thereafter preferred to spend my cash on going to a Grand Prix somewhere. And when teams like Ferrari turned their back on sports car racing, together with the 'major' drivers, so, I am afraid did I. That said, I confess that every year - I'm always in Montreal that weekend, for the Canadian Grand Prix - I take a keen interest in the goings-on at Le Mans. As you say, it has an atmosphere like nowhere else.


Dear Paulo,

You may well have a point. I, too, have begun to wonder if F3000 is the logical stepping-stone to F1 which many claim it to be, and others - rather better placed than I to judge - clearly feel the same way.

Quite honestly, I don't know what can be done to make F3000 the final step to F1. It's a fact that F3000 has never caught the imagination of the public in the way that F2 once did. It was its failure to attract decent crowds, as a championship in its own right, which led to its being adopted as a supporting series at the Grands Prix. The races, it must be said, are usually pretty dull affairs, with little overtaking.

Only last weekend, at Monza, Jenson Button said this: "My opinion is that F3 is much more technical than F3000, because of the restrictions on what can be changed on an F3000 car. Also, the racing is a lot closer in the F3. I think it's the way to go."

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