Ask Nigel -- August 30

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions on motorsport topics past, present and future here on every Wednesday. If you have a question for Nigel, e-mail it to him at

Ask Nigel -- August 30

Dear Nigel,
It's been over 15 years since Stefan Bellof died. A lot of people said he was very talented. Some even believe he could have beaten Ayrton Senna during the 1984 Monaco GP. Unfortunately he died too soon. What do you think? Could he have won at Monaco if the race had lasted longer? And would he have been the first German world champion? Were there any rumours he would get to drive for one of the top teams?
Tom Vandenhecke,
Ronse, Belgium

Dear Tom,
Years ago I was asked to write a story for some magazine about the great lost talents of motor racing, in terms of drivers who had died before achieving what they should have done, and I put Stefan Bellof at the top of the list.

Wolfgang von Trips, who was killed at Monza in 1961 when on the verge of becoming World Champion, was long before my time as a journalist, of course, but from speaking to people who knew him well, von Trips sounds to have been remarkably similar to Bellof, both as driver and man. Fiercely quick, dedicated to racing, yet fun-loving away from the track, and wonderful company.

Stefan really was a delightful fellow, with a character very different from the 'next' great German driver. Nothing fazed him. In the appalling traffic on the way into the Dijon circuit, for the 1984 French Grand Prix, he - like everyone else - got badly delayed, but where the rest of us just sat there and swore, the insouciant Bellof simply drove his Porsche 911 through a farm gate, and proceeded to the circuit across ploughed fields!

Very pleased with that, he was, and it taught him a lesson, too. For ever after, it became his practice to arrive at a track very early in the morning, then sit down to breakfast with the Tyrrell mechanics. Gilles Villeneuve was very similar in that respect; no wonder that both men were so loved by their teams.

Martin Brundle, Bellof's Tyrrell team mate, once described him as "the fastest driver since Villeneuve", which was a hell of a compliment, honestly paid. In a racing car, Stefan was very much of that school, incredibly fast, with freakish reactions. Like Gilles, too, he was also apparently without a sense of fear.

Had the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix not been stopped, would he have won it? Yes, possibly - so long, that is, as he managed to keep it on the road for the duration, and the same goes for Ayrton Senna. As it was, the race, in truly dreadful conditions, was stopped after 31 of the scheduled 78 laps.

At that point, Senna's Toleman was on the point of passing Alain Prost's McLaren for the lead, and Bellof was running third, 13 seconds behind. Significantly, though, when the rain became really atrocious (ultimately leading to the stopping of the race), Bellof was catching Senna at a greater rate than Senna was catching Prost.

There were 27 drivers at Monaco that year, attempting to qualify for 20 positions on the grid, and Bellof was the last man to get in. At that time, Tyrrell continued to run the venerable Cosworth V8 engine, whereas every other team had turbo motors. While it may said that, at Monaco, the throttle response of a normally-aspirated was preferable to that of a turbo, still the fact remains that the Cosworth was massively out-powered - and at Monte Carlo, with its multitude of short squirts between corners, that was a significant disadvantage, even in the wet.

Of course we'll never know whether Stefan would have beaten Ayrton that day, had the race run its full distance. With 47 laps to go, it's quite possible that he would have caught him, but getting by might have been a rather different matter - particularly when Senna was heading for what have been his first Grand Prix victory...

Interestingly, there are those who reckon that ultimately Senna or Bellof - or both - would have overdone it, as Nigel Mansell did earlier in the race, and that Prost would have gone on to win. Had that happened, of course - indeed, had Alain even been second - he would have been World Champion in 1984. As the race was stopped before half-distance, only half-points were awarded - and in those days you got only nine for a win. Thus, Prost got 4.5, and in the end he lost the title to Niki Lauda by only half a point. Even finishing second in a 'full' race would have given him six.

Would Bellof have been Germany's World Champion? Without any doubt, he had the ability, and, although this has never been officially confirmed by Ferrari, there is little doubt that he would have partnered Michele Alboreto in the team in 1986. His death, in the Spa 1000 Kms, was a truly dreadful loss to the sport, and even more of one to those who knew him.

Dear Peter,
Giorgio Piola has been a good friend of mine for more than 20 years, and I have said many times I consider him one of a handful of true geniuses working in Formula 1. Only last weekend I was given a copy of his latest book, 'Formula 1 '99', and spent a good hour relishing it in the press room, when I had other things to do...

Patrick Head has often said that Giorgio is the only journalist capable of having a proper conversation with an engineer about the technicalities of F1, and admits he is astonished by Piola's ability to notice the tiniest change on a car, compared with how it was on its last appearance, a fortnight earlier.

One time Williams even tried to catch him out. They manufactured a very small piece of kit - which actually served no purpose at all! - and stuck it on the car.

Giorgio duly walked into the pit, prowled around the car, and looked puzzled. Finally, he approached the technical director. "Patrick," he said, "what is that? And what can it possibly do?" P. Head was duly impressed.

The pit lane is a paranoid place these days, as we know, but Piola is not bound by any oath of confidentiality - indeed, he would never accept such a thing. He is, however, totally discreet, and would never, for example, talk to McLaren folk about what he has seen at Ferrari, or vice-versa. I don't know anyone more honourable in the business.

Giorgio takes a huge number of photographs, and draws from them - it's not really feasible actually to draw in the pit lane or garages.

His drawings are works of art, in my eyes; he has a gift I simply can't comprehend, and there's no one in his field who is anywhere near as good. To watch him at work is an education - not least because he's able to draw so quickly.

At Suzuka, years ago, some of us stayed in the most extraordinary hotel, whose rooms, while large by Japanese standards, did not contain tables of any kind. For a journalist that was a nuisance, but I've typed many a Grand Prix report with the computer on my knees, be it in departure lounges, aeroplanes or whatever; for Piola, though, it was obviously a catastrophe.

I knocked on his bedroom door one evening, to offer him a drink or something, and - to my utter astonishment - found him at work. He was holding the paper to the wall with his left hand, and drawing with his right! A truly amazing fellow.

Dear Bill,
I think CART's testing ban is an excellent idea - for CART. That said, given that every F1 team is required to manufacture its own cars, rather than simply buy them from Reynard or Lola, I don't think it's workable in F1.

I do believe, however, that F1 testing should be curtailed, to some degree. At present, it seems completely out of hand, with a major session somewhere virtually every week - why, Michael Schumacher habitually tests at Fiorano on the 'free' Friday of the Monaco Grand Prix weekend!

It seems to me that a good idea would be to ban testing at any circuit which hosts a round of the World Championship. To give you an example: the teams test so endlessly at Barcelona, have so much data on the place, that when they get there for the Spanish Grand Prix, some of them hardly bother to run at all on the opening day, preparing to 'save' their precious tyre allocation. You can't blame them for that, but it's not great news for any poor sap who has paid to come in and watch them that day.

For the same reason, tracks habitually used for testing tend to produce unspeakably dull races - the teams simply know too much about them, and the 'unknown quantity' so essential for exciting racing is lost. As we speak, there are moves afoot to reduce testing, and to forbid it altogether at World Championship venues; I hope they succeed.

Dear Dino, Yes, I do like having fun, but, sad to say, I've never played 'Grand Prix Legends' - and there's really no excuse, because I bought it as soon as it came out!

Some of my colleagues in the press room, however, have played it quite a bit, and all report that it's a fantastic game - and also incredibly difficult.

The thing is, I've never been able to persuade myself to go out and buy all the steering-wheel and pedals and stuff that real afficionados swear by; fond as I am of racing games, it seems a bit ridiculous to clutter up the house with all that paraphernalia, although I realise this will come across as heresy to true believers.

Thus, racing games played on a computer - fiddling around with the cursor buttons - have never really appealed to me. I have a Sony Playstation, and use that quite a lot, but unfortunately there has never been a version of 'Racing Legends' available for it; if there were, I'm sure I would play it constantly.

Having never done so, however, which would be my favourite car and track? Almost certainly, the Chris Amon Ferrari and the 'old' Spa-Francorchamps, although I imagine that the 'old' Nurburgring and Rouen Les Essarts would come close.

Dear Paul,
You're right - during the season I do travel a lot, and it's been that way for nearly 30 years. In an idle moment recently, I worked out, for example, that I've spent more than four months of my life in the Monza paddock...

Formula 1, we hardly need say, has changed out of sight during the time in which I have covered it, and therefore my enthusiasms have changed with it. I used, for example, to anticipate trips to the old Nurburgring with huge pleasure, but since the ersatz version was built, in 1984, heading off to the Eifel region means nothing to me.

It's the same with Austria. Where the Osterreichring was as majestic a circuit as anyone could imagine, the inappropriately-named 'A1-Ring' is a typical modern nothing track. The mountain backdrop is as lovely as ever; otherwise, I could take or leave the Austrian Grand Prix.

The countries I enjoy visiting most are France, Italy and America - North America, I hasten to add! Although France no longer has a Grand Prix circuit worth the name, I simply love being there, and always will. Italy, too, I adore, for its scenery, its food and wine, and its absolute passion for motor racing.

As for the USA, I've always felt very comfortable there, and New York is my favourite city on earth - in fact, we've had a least one holiday a year in Manhattan for as long as I can remember. After the race in Indianapolis, I'm off to Long Island, and then New York City, for a 10-day break.

When it comes purely to circuits, though, for me Spa-Francorchamps stands alone these days, and for that reason I always look forward to the end of August - not least because the holiday season is drawing to a close, and the airports step back from bedlam to mere routine chaos!

At the other end of the scale, Barcelona is a lovely city, but has a boring circuit, and the same - even more so - goes for Budapest. Interlagos is the very opposite: the track, even in its modern configuration, is superb, but even that isn't enough to get me to go there any more, so intensely do I dislike Sao Paulo. Sorry, Rubens, but it's true...

In the press room, we all have our particular mates, of course, with whom we tend to travel, and for as long as I can remember, mine have been Alan Henry (of Autocar and The Guardian) and Maurice Hamilton (of The Observer). The group used to include Denis Jenkinson, now sadly gone, and Eoin Young, who tired finally of living out of a suitcase after 30-odd years.

Dear Raouf,
It's a fact of life that a team will always first consider the needs of the driver most likely to win the race for them, and in the two races you cite - Hockenheim and Spa - that was emphatically Mika Hakkinen.

It's true that David Coulthard would have lost less time in Belgium if he had come in on the same lap as Hakkinen, even though it would have meant queueing up behind him - indeed, Norbert Haug of Mercedes acknowledged this in the team's post-race press release: "Sorry for David, we should have brought him in for a tyre change earlier."

Hockenheim, though, was a different matter altogether. There Hakkinen came in for his stop on lap 26, and the plan was for DC to come in a lap later - by which time the Safety Car was out, following the antics of that halfwit at the trackside. Thus, poor David had to follow the Safety Car round for nearly a whole lap before he could come in. It was terrible luck, I grant you, but no more than that.

For a long time now there have been mutterings about a 'conspiracy' at McLaren, suggestions that Hakkinen was always favoured. I actually don't believe it for a second. If, for example, there had been a sudden change of weather at Magny-Cours, demanding a change of tactics, I don't doubt for a second that David would have come first in McLaren's calculations, because that day he - not Mika - was obviously the guy who was going to beat Schumacher, if anyone could.

It's that simple. Like any other team, McLaren-Mercedes go racing to win, and their first thought will always be for the bloke most likely to do it for them. And the fact is that, more often than not, that is Hakkinen.

It's not a matter of 'How long will DC put up with it?' No team is better at providing its drivers with equal equipment than McLaren - and what they give them is invariably better than anything else. Last Sunday, when the time came for a change from wet to dry tyres, Hakkinen was approximately 20 seconds ahead of Coulthard, having started from pole position, four slots ahead of his team mate. Which one would you have put first?

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