Ask Nigel - August 23

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 23

Dear Andrew,
I have an intense dislike of political correctness in all its insidious forms, be it in motor racing or anything else - freedom of thought is surely the most essential freedom of all.

However, we're stuck with it, at least for the moment, so for me the best way to deal with it is to try to laugh it off - after all, a great deal of it is very funny, not least because the PC militants themselves always appear to be completely devoid of a sense of humour, poor souls.

As far as writing about Formula 1 is concerned, yes, I have always tried to speak my mind - if you're not going to do that, I can't really see the point of being a journalist in the first place. That said, there are those who have done very well, thank you, out of pretending that everything in the garden is rosy, never criticising anything, and staying 'on side' with everyone. Good luck to them if that's how they want to operate, but I don't consider them journalists.

In today's Formula 1, in some quarters, there is a tendency to confuse journalism with PR; there are those who seem to think that a journalist's job is to present the sport only in a favourable light - not to rock the boat, in other words.

There's no doubt, too, that a 'climate of fear' exists in the paddock - it might sound melodramatic, but I assure you it's true. All manner of people will tell you all manner of things about developments in Formula 1 they consider plain wrong, and they will go on to say it is your job to expose it. Fine, you say, back up what you're saying with some quotes we can use - go 'on the record', in other words. That's when the silence tends to set in.

There have been occasions when, as a consequence of something he has written, a journalist has been 'banned' by a team; denied access, in other words. I can't, in all honesty, ever recall that happening to me, and in fact it happens very seldom, usually because the relevant journalist has written something scurrilous or plain inaccurate.

Indubitably, the corporate PR machine makes for poorer motor sport journalism, and I don't think there's a single one of us in the press room who would say otherwise. It's all about 'control' these days, and the drivers are notably more circumspect than they used to be. Good quotes - such as we used to get from the likes of Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Gilles Villeneuve, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger - add hugely to any article or report, but nowadays drivers decline even to talk about problems with their cars, such is the paranoia which appertains in the pit lane.

"We couldn't get a balance yesterday, but we 'made a step' this morning..." That's typical press conference fare in this era; not terribly exciting, is it?

The real fun comes when a team and driver start talking about each other after they have parted! In some cases, too, a driver's new team is a source of invaluable information, for then they learn from him how his last one cheated...

Dear Danny,
I've been writing about F1 for nearly 30 years now, and in all that time Gerhard Berger is one of the people within it I have most liked.

He is, I think, a man of real quality. First of all, unlike most Grand Prix drivers, he always had the importance of motor racing in perspective. For Gerhard, it was one of the good things of life - but it was not life itself. Somehow, he always had the knack of saying the right thing at the right time, having an instinctive ability to know how to behave on any given occasion - yet always able to season it with the right soupcon of irreverence.

I remember, for example, talking to him about Senna, a couple of years after Ayrton's death. This is what he said: "I've never had a friendship with another driver like the one with Ayrton. At the moment I don't have one at all. Honestly, yes, I miss Ayrton - as a friend. Not on the circuit at all, because he always beat me, so it's better he's not there! But as a friend, I miss him very much..."

See what I mean? There was an affectionate chuckle as he spoke of not missing Senna on the circuit, but no doubting his sincerity in missing him as a friend. And the other point in there is that remark, "Because he always beat me..." Gerhard - again unlike most racing drivers - knew precisely how good he was, and never had a problem in facing the fact that one or two others were better.

As a driver, I thought his natural talent very high, if not on the Senna-Prost level. Perhaps, if he had had their all-consuming dedication to racing, he would have been even better, but I don't think he would accepted the compromises in his life that would have entailed. In everything he did, and does, Berger aims to have fun, to enjoy himself. Nothing was worth living like a monk.

When he won in Adelaide, in 1992, I bumped into him in the paddock a couple of hours later. It was the last race of the season, and he was simply doing the rounds, saying bye-bye to everyone for the winter - and as he strolled around, a silly grin on his face, he was swigging from a bottle of red wine. Don't see that kind of thing too often.

Sometimes, after a race, Berger would enjoy a schnapps or two - and this, in fact, was one of many things he introduced Senna to. When he joined Ayrton at McLaren, in 1990, for a while he tried to change his life, behave in all ways like Ayrton, but it was disastrous. Introspection was simply not his way, and a life of endless training, passing up any kind of fun, did not work. At the end of that first season with McLaren, he went back to being Gerhard Berger again, and we were all relieved to see it. His driving noticeably improved, too.

For all that, working with Senna taught him a lot, and he never pretended otherwise. By the same token, though, I always thought he did a lot for Ayrton, lightening him up, showing him there was more to life than thinking all the time about how to improve the car. "It was as if," he said, "Ayrton had a sense of humour all along, but never learned how to use it." Their friendship was as close as any between two drivers I have known.

A few weeks after Senna's death, I had dinner with Berger at the French Grand Prix. We sat outside on a beautiful evening, and I taped our conversation for an AUTOSPORT feature. I've never forgotten it. Much of what he said was intensely personal, and I would never publish it, but a wonderful aspect of talking to Gerhard is that he never interrupts his train of thought by saying, every few seconds, "This is off the record." He simply trusts you to know instinctively what is for publication, and what is not. For a journalist, this is more than gold.

The first race after that terrible Imola weekend was Monaco, and Gerhard called a press conference. Following Senna's accident, he had lost himself for a few days, and in that time there was considerable speculation that, as Ayrton's close buddy, he might quit.

Now he wanted to set the record straight. For nearly three-quarters of an hour, he spoke quietly about his feelings, about his future, and in that packed room there was rapt silence. It was intensely moving, and I remember talking about it to Professor Watkins later that day. "I think the world of Gerhard," the Prof said. "Lovely bloke, doesn't take himself too seriously, but very mature when it matters. A man among boys, isn't he?" That said it perfectly.

Perhaps what said most about Berger's standing in the sport was the reaction to his last win, at Hockenheim three years ago. He'd been ill, missed three races with the synus problem that bugged him for so long, and then suffered the loss of his father in a plane crash. He was at a very low ebb, in other words, but he came back, took the pole and dominated the race. When he walked into the press room afterwards, there was huge applause; this doesn't happen very often.

Press conferences are very dull without him these days, but occasionally he makes an appearance in his capacity as BMW's competitions director. When he retired from driving, at the end of 1997, we missed him a lot, and rejoiced when he took a job that would keep him in our midst. I'm not surprised you say you have yet to find a driver you like more than Gerhard; neither have I.

Dear Andrew,
I, too, like Olivier Panis, and am glad he'll be racing again next year - the only pity is that his signing for BAR keeps Jean Alesi, the other man to whom the team were talking, out of what might be a competitive car.

A year ago, Panis's spirits were very low. He knew he would not be keeping his Prost drive for 2000, and he had been extremely upset by the death of his manager earlier in the year. He didn't know what the future held.

Fortunately, Keke Rosberg and Didier Cotton (Mika Hakkinen's management team) had faith in him. They took over his management, and, as Olivier himself says, changed his life. After speaking to various teams about a contract for 2000, they concluded that his best option was to accept an offer from McLaren to work as the team's test driver. Rosberg reminded him that back in 1993 Hakkinen had done the very same thing.

It's not easy for a Grand Prix driver voluntarily to stop racing, even if only temporarily, but Keke and Didier persuaded him this was the best thing to do, and he agreed - even though it meant turning down an offer to race for Williams; not easily done.

In fact, Panis's year with McLaren-Mercedes has done only good things for both parties. Speak to anyone in the team, and they will rave about the work he has done, about the quality of his technical feedback - and about his speed. Not infrequently, Olivier has proved quicker than Hakkinen and Coulthard in test sessions.

From his own point of view, he has learned a huge amount from a year of working with the best team in the business - and that experience he will of course take with him to his new team. I heard tell of a huge offer to him from Sauber, and the suggestion was that the money was coming from Ferrari, who wished to learn all they could about McLaren...

Most of all, Panis has got his self-belief back. He now knows precisely what a great F1 car can be, how a great team can operate - and also how quick he is, relative to two blokes who are embroiled in the fight for the World Championship. Of course his dream was ultimately to race for McLaren, but if that can't be, at least he will be a racing driver again.

In accepting BAR's offer, Olivier has turned down a very considerable offer to remain as McLaren's test driver - an indication of how highly Ron Dennis values him.

Do I think Panis will upset Jacques Villeneuve? All in all, I would say JV is more impervious to outside pressures than any other driver, and I doubt that Olivier's presence will upset him - unless, of course, he should begin regularly to out-qualify him! I'd expect Jacques, in those circumstances, to raise his own game. This could be an immensely strong driver pairing.

Dear James,
Yes, I suppose there might be a case to be made for having a points-scoring system which went down to 10th, rather than sixth, place. It would be nice, I grant you, for a team like Minardi to have something to show for all the effort they put in.

More importantly, though, a system offering points to the first 10 would give more incentive for a front runner, perhaps delayed by a bad pit stop or something, to drive his nuts off for the balance of the race, in the hope of a point or two.

More than anything, though, I'm glad we no longer have some of the silly ideas tried in the past, such as the 'best 11 results' system in use a few years ago. This sometimes entailed drivers having to drop points, which seemed to me an absurdity, and occasionally decided the outcome of the World Championship: in 1988, Alain Prost scored a total of 105 points, yet was beaten to the title by Ayrton Senna, who had 94...

Dear Sheeram,
I'll grant you that, with his flat vowels and usually unsmiling expression, Ron Dennis comes across as anything but an emotional man. In fact, though, I've always thought he was a great deal more emotional than you might think - certainly, he's far more inclined to speak his mind than some of the other team owners.

There's no doubt at all that there is an 'emotional link' between Ron and Mika Hakkinen, and, while I've never spoken to him on the subject, I can hazard a guess or two at the reasons for it.

For one thing, Hakkinen and McLaren go back a long way. He began with the team in 1993, during which time he was employed primarily as test driver, and he is now into his seventh season as a fulltime member of the race team. Remember, too, that Mika was at McLaren at the same time - even if only for one year - as Ayrton Senna, which creates an emotional link all its own.

He became team leader in 1994, and at beginning was one of the very few fallow periods in the history of McLaren in F1. The team went through three complete seasons without winning a race, and for Hakkinen there was the frustration of seeing other, lesser, drivers beginning to win, and win consistently. In all that time, his loyalty to McLaren never wavered - and loyalty is a quality Dennis values above all others.

And... there was Adelaide in 1995. Hakkinen came very close to losing his life in that qualifying accident (caused by a puncture), and an event of this kind inevitably strengthens an emotional bond between the man in the car and the man who owns it. If you don't believe Ron capable of any emotion, talking to him of that awful time dispels the notion, believe me.

As for any question of his favouring David Coulthard because he is 'a fellow Brit', don't even think about it. Nationality doesn't come into it, and in this all team owners are the same. This is not to say there is never affection between a driver and his employer, but what counts more than anything else is results.

Dear Barry,
Hmmm, my favourite-sounding Grand Prix car... I'd have to say that this year's Mercedes V10 comes pretty high up the list, but I guess the very best sounds has always come from a twelve, and it's a shame that such engines are now not permitted in F1.

I adored the sound of Ferrari's V12 engines in the late sixties - although, as Chris Amon always said, they sounded a lot more powerful than they were! That was pretty much the story of Amon's F1 career, in fact, for it was the same with the Matra V12, which he later drove.

For sheer drama, though, I'd have to agree with you: I don't think any F1 engine ever sounded better - or purer - than a Matra V12 on the limit. Problem was, too often it didn't run on all 12...

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