Ask Nigel - August 16

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday here at If you have a question - concerning past, present or future - e-mail it to Nigel at

Ask Nigel - August 16

Dear Robert,
I was extremely fond of James, and his death in 1993 - aged only 45 - came as a particular shock, not least because he had latterly changed his way of life, started thinking about his health and even taken to using a bicycle to get around.

He arrived in this fashion, I remember, for Denny Hulme's Memorial Service in Chelsea. As we all stood around outside the church, the former World Champion hove into sight - his bike an old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg type, complete with basket on the front.

"Morning, chaps! Back in a minute..." And with that he briefly disappeared. It had not escaped us that James was less than suitably dressed for an occasion such as this, but soon he was back, immaculately suit-ed, having popped around the corner to change. After the service, he reversed through the procedure. That was James.

It was only after his retirement from Formula 1 that he and I became friends - indeed, truth to tell, in his racing days I never much cared for him. At the height of his fame, in the mid-1970s, he had about him a bunch of hangers-on guaranteed to set your teeth on edge.

It wasn't that they were offensive people, in any important sense, but they maddened you with their self-importance. Glamorous and successful, James was an obvious target for folk of that kind, but when he gave up racing, they mercifully disappeared, and what remained was a man urbane, charming, lucid, kind.

There was nothing about James that was phoney. Later he began a second career in racing, as a broadcaster and journalist, and I was one of many former detractors who came to hold him in great affection, as well as respect.

As a racer, Hunt was of the instinctive kind, and never one to work at it very much. It was the same with squash, another sport in which he was highly gifted: put him on a court, and he gave everything.

He would admit willingly that his approach to racing was not particularly deep, and that he believed both good and bad. He was not one to 'think himself' into a Grand Prix for a week beforehand, and never allowed distractions to get to him. Conversely, by his own admission, he was not the man you needed to regenerate enthusiasm in a team when things were going badly.

It was in such circumstances that James retired, and, typically, he did it in the middle of a season. Following his World Championship year, he won several races for McLaren in 1977, but after a poor season in '78 left to join Walter Wolf's team. At the Monaco Grand Prix of 1979, his car broke, and he walked away from it without a backward glance. "I knew this was my last race, and I hated that car, anyway. I felt no sadness at all, just immense relief."

If Hunt always raced with consummate bravery, he was well aware of the risks in an era far more perilous than this one. Often he was sick before a race, but from tension rather than fear. Once in the car, he was all business.

In a car, his natural ability was high, his audacity considerable, his racing brain unusually sharp. Tactically, James was always strong in a race, and this was also to serve him well in his BBC TV work.

He became, I think, one of the great sports commentators, the mahogony voice and dry humour meshing perfectly with Murray Walker's more overt delivery. As an analyst of Grand Prix racing, he was unmatched. There was always the substance of personal experience.

Hunt never artificially romanticised motor racing. "I won't compromise myself by saying things I don't mean," he said. "What tends to happen, in fact, is that I compromise myself by saying exactly what I think!" So, too, he did. James was always honest, not least with himself.

He was a rich man when he retired, but the 1980s were to deal harshly with him. There was a costly divorce, and a series of poor investments progressively dissipated a considerable fortune. There remained, however, his beautiful, slightly tatty, house in Wimbledon, where he lived in splendid anarchy. Invariably the front door, like the French windows, would be open, and a variety of folk would wander through the sitting-room in both directions. Presumably James knew most of them. With his beloved Alsatian gnawing at the sofa, and one of the parrots squawking unsuitable English, he would sit back and smile.

It was an irony that towards the end of his life Hunt worked hard at his fitness, and had given up both cigarettes and booze. "Quite simple, really," he cheerfully acknowledged. "The tail was starting to wag the dog." And in the same way he made no attempt to hide that - in his terms - he was close to broke. Whatever his turmoils, his demeanour never changed, and it was perhaps this quality his friends most admired. He had not a grain of self-pity.

Ultimately James came to love racing a great deal, but it wasn't always so. While he was actually doing it, he once told me, he didn't really like it very much. He retired young, a few months short of his 32nd birthday, and never regretted it.

After his retirement, the drivers he most admired were Senna and Prost. Not only did he consider them the best, he also had boundless respect for their staying power. "To run at the front in Grand Prix racing - and to stay there - is mentally exhausting. The brain gets tired before the body does. I mean, you've only got to look at some of the geriatrics tooling around nowadays to see who's got tired brains..."

For all his laid-back irreverence, however, James could be intensely serious when the moment demanded. That was what made him such a gem of a commentator. The mellow voice helped, of course, but he was never bland, never followed party lines. A great performance from a driver or team received due tribute, a poor one stinging rebuke.

Like all journalists, admitted or not, he had his likes and dislikes, and sometimes rattled a cage or two with his observations. On these occasions, when confronted by the object of his criticism, he would fight his corner vigorously, but always with good humour.

I still miss the visits to that lovely house in Wimbledon, with the old Mercedes and A35 van outside, the soppy Alsatian, foul-mouthed parrot and bare-footed owner within. In an age made colourless by political correctness, he was truly a free spirit, and it was terribly sad that, personally happier than at any time in his life, he left the party so early. "It's always the bores that stay to the end, isn't it?" he would say.

Dear Neil,
Forgive me while I take a second to think back to the German Grand Prix - I've just returned from Hungary, where the big problem on Sunday afternoon was to keep from dropping off.

Yes, Hockenheim was interesting and exciting - as you say, the cars could pass, and did. Even in this era, you tend to get that when you have long straights, followed by hard braking. The mixed weather also came into the equation: there are times when I start to think we need rain at every Grand Prix...

There are those who feel that Hockenheim should be shortened; they point out that, for most of the lap, the cars are running in front of few spectators, and that those long straights are meaningless. I disagree, actually. Not by any stretch of the imagination could Hockenheim be called a great circuit, but the only feature which at least makes it different from most is those long straights. And if you turned the place into a short squirt out into the forests, plus the fiddly stadium section, it would lose such character as it has.

That said, I'm told that BC Ecclestone Esq. is in favour of a shorter Hockenheim, so you'd have to say that the chances are it will happen...

Dear Trevor,
Double standards in Formula 1? The very idea! There are those team owners in the paddock who murmur that the only way to stay on side with the powers-that-be is to build your car in Italy, paint it red, and stick a yellow shield on the side, but this is merely wicked cynicism.

You're right about DC at Interlagos: the infringement for which he was disqualified, involving his car's front wing, was not the result of any sharp practice by McLaren, but a consequence of the appallingly bumpy track surface. Word was that David's car was not the only one to 'fail' in this respect - but it was the only one whose driver suffered punishment. Doubtless untrue.

In the same way, the FIA seal missing from the electronics box of Hakkinen's car in Austria did not signify that McLaren had been cheating - indeed it was admitted by the governing body that all was in order, from a technical point of view.

So why did driver and team lose their points in Brazil, where in Austria only the team suffered? I have absolutely no idea. But then I still don't understand how, or why, Irvine, Schumacher and Ferrari got their points back last year, after being disqualified from the Malaysian Grand Prix.

In 1994, at Interlagos, Irvine was considered guilty of causing a multiple accident, albeit quite involuntarily, and he was banned for three races. In 1997, at Jerez, Schumacher - all too voluntarily! - tried to cause an accident with Jacques Villeneuve, and, stripped of his second place in the World Championship (although not of his wins, points, etc), and required to take part in an FIA road safety campaign.

I didn't understand that, either.

Dear Andrew,
Lucky you! I take it the Ireland book you're talking about is Arms and Elbows which is one of the funniest racing autobiographies I've ever read - and if it's signed by Innes, so much the better.

It's an odd coincidence that your question about Ireland should come in the same week as Robert Killian-Dawson's earlier one about James Hunt, for, although they were not contemporaries as drivers, they were very similar, and I always think of them in the same breath.

Innes was a good friend of mine, and, like James, I miss him a great deal. Feisty and tough, he was essentially a gentleman, and as humane an individual as I have known. He was also one of the fastest drivers of his generation, and in 1960 created a sensation in the new Lotus 18, with which he won squarely at Goodwood and Silverstone.

A race I recall more vividly, though, is the Oulton Park Gold Cup of that year, when he simply ran away from the field, which included Stirling Moss in Rob Walker's similar car. When the mood was on him, Innes could hack it with anyone, but invariably his luck was poor, and that day was typical in that the car eventually broke.

There was always a strong element of fatalism in Ireland, and it is a fact that his career was signposted by a number of huge accidents. He was under no illusions about the Lotuses of the time, accepting, if unwillingly, that if Colin Chapman's radical cars were blindingly fast, they were also fragile.

In practice at Monaco in 1961 there was a particularly huge shunt. "We had this new wrong-way-round gearbox on the Lotus, and in the heat of the moment I got second instead of fourth, locked the back wheels solid, and that was that. No bloody seat belts in those days, of course. Came out of the tunnel without the car..."

Compounding the problems of a man who crashed many times was his medical inability to tolerate pain-killers. His silver identity bracelet bore the legend, 'Innes Ireland - A Rh Pos - Allergic to morphia'. To whisky, however, Innes had no such adverse reaction, and he always asserted that "Scottish wine" was a pain-killer beyond compare. He was wonderful company, one of the most amusing people I've ever met.

He was a trusting man, and a part of him never quite got over being brusquely fired by Chapman, immediately after scoring the first Grand Prix victory for Team Lotus, at Watkins Glen in 1961. Times were ruthlessly changing, and even then Innes, a professional racing driver with an amateur's spirit, was considered something of an anachronism.

After retiring, in 1967, he took up journalism. An unusually well-read man, he could write quite beautifully; no words on motor racing have ever moved me more than his piece in Autocar on the death of Jimmy Clark.

The last time I saw Innes was at the Memorial Service for James in the autumn of 1993. The atmosphere was light, for although the sense of loss was still very much there, it had been weathered a little by the passing months. Most poignant of all was the Lesson read by Innes, whose own time was near. A month or so later, he died of cancer, aged only 63.

Whenever I'm asked about Innes Ireland, there is one particular anecdote I always relate, for it says everything about him.

I was sitting with him on the short flight back from Hockenheim one year, and Heathrow approached before Innes was quite ready for it. As the tyres hit the tarmac, his seat belt was undone, his table down, his seat back. In one hand was a cigarette, in the other a whisky. There was not, I pointed out, a single rule he had left unbroken. "Right, lad!" he beamed. I could have said nothing to please him more.

Dear Andrew,
If you were at home, slumped in an armchair, as you watched the Hungarian Grand Prix, you did well indeed to last 15 laps before dropping off.

Probably, it was a little easier for me, because, being on the spot, there was at least plenty of noise as the cars screamed past the press room every lap. And I had a lap chart to keep, bottles of cold water to hand, cigarettes to light, that kind of thing. I'd also drunk three cups of black coffee after lunch - always a sound policy at the Hungaroring, I find...

Dear David,
As a rule of thumb, I think Formula 1 would be very well advised to avoid copying anything to do with contemporary football - although there are odd times when I think a red card could be used to advantage in a Grand Prix. I believe we used to call it the black flag.

Don't think your idea of relegation and promotion, to and from F1 and F3000, is entirely feasible somehow. Keep in mind that a team must raise many millions simply to enter for the Formula 1 World Championship - and that's before you start spending money on actually building or racing any cars. And I rather doubt that a potential F1 sponsor, looking to sign a contract for several years, would be too keen if he were told, 'Look, you won't mind, if things don't go too well, that we'll be in F3000 instead...'

Dear Antonio,
Yes, without a doubt, many F1 team bosses do have short memories, but I don't think that's a factor when it comes to Bruno Junqueira's current situation.

It's true that there was little to choose between Bruno and Jenson Button, when it came to the Williams drive this year; true, too, that Jenson has done pretty well with the opportunity he was given, and that Bruno is indeed leading the F3000 championship.

Earlier this season Junqueira looked literally unstoppable, winning several races on the trot, but of late - Hungary apart - he has been rather less impressive, although he retains his points lead. He is indeed a very good driver, and I'm sure he will ultimately make it to F1, but I can't say I see in him the kind of once-and-for-all talent that Juan-Pablo Montoya showed in F3000 - and even he didn't step directly into F1...

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