Ask Nigel - August 9

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

Ask Nigel - August 9

Dear Chris,
I passed my driving test, at 17, in August 1963, and an indication of how different things were then may be seen from one of my examiner's questions during the oral part of the test. I've never forgotten it, because briefly I worried that it might cause me to fail.

"What is wrong," he said, "with doing 120mph in the inside lane of the M1?"

You need to bear in mind that, in those halcyon days, there was no speed limit on motorways and major roads. I thought I had the answer, though.

"You shouldn't be doing 120mph on the inside lane of the M1," I said, very confidently, "because that's the lane for slow traffic. If you're doing that sort of speed, you should be in the outside lane."

"Wrong answer," the examiner replied. "There's nothing whatever wrong with it - so long as traffic is light, and the inside lane is empty."

Some kind of trick question that was... In point of fact, though, it was irrelevant to my early motoring career, for my first car - like most people of my generation - was a Mini, which swiftly acquired what for a rabid racing enthusiast were the essentials of the time: Weber carburettor, Minilite wheels, lowered suspension, straight-through exhaust, etc.

This was followed, around the time of my 21st birthday, by a new Mini-Cooper 1275S, which I adored, and then came a succession of Lotus Elans. Colin Chapman's maddening masterpiece rather redefined the parameters of road car performance at the time.

Getting into the thing was always where the excitement began. Just going down the road for cigarettes felt like the start of practice at Monaco. You snuggled in, and the tiny wheel, close gear lever and laydown driving position confirmed your fantasy. An Elan felt like a race car, and if you had any susceptibility at all to that sort of thing, you were hooked.

I had three Elans in four years, and the first of them, a coupe bought new - £1442 15s 9d - in early 1969, was a disaster from first to last. After years of fitting Weber carburettors to the twin-cam engine, Lotus changed to Strombergs, and my S4 was one of the first so equipped. As a consequence, the engine was all flat spots and occasional forays onto four cylinders.

The dealer said he'd like to help, but couldn't. "See, your Stromberg's a sealed unit - there's no means of adjustment." Unlikely as it seemed, this proved to be the case. If the settings were out when the carb was assembled, in other words, they stayed out.

I suggested putting some Webers on it, but he whistled through his teeth. Difficult, that. "See, your manifolding's all changed now..."

It wasn't long before Lotus abandoned the Strombergs, but it was too late to help me, and I straight-swapped the S4 for an older S3, complete with Webers. The dealer - a different one, I wasn't that stupid - couldn't believe his luck when I ingenuously said I simply wanted a convertible, that was all. Fortunately for me, the deal was concluded before anyone fired up the stammering coupe, and with all speed I departed with my new acquisition, which went like a jet.

Without a doubt, this was the car I best remember from my Elan trio, for not only did it have the sweetest engine and the slickest gearchange, but it was also - in Elan terms - comparatively reliable, in the sense that I tackled 50-mile trips without qualm.

Or even longer ones. This S3, in point of fact, I used as transportation for the first Grand Prix I ever covered, at Barcelona in '71, driving all the way there from Regents Park Road in one hit, what's more. And it ran like a watch.

Hindsight being 20:20, I should have hung on to the S3, but when the Sprint was introduced, I had to have one. In performance terms, it was undoubtedly the fleetest of all production Elans, but I never cared for it as much as the S3. Sleeping by the side of a country road near Bordeaux, Rotoflex coupling sheared, can do that to you.

Why was I so ensnared by Elans? Well, because it was like having a sulky, but irresistibly gorgeous, girlfriend, the very kind your mother warned you about, thereby guaranteeing that you never stopped looking for them.

That was the thing about Elans: the pleasures always had the edge on the pain. Just. Drive one now, and it's very obviously a sixties car, but still the steering is a marvel, its weighting perfect, sensitivity a match for anything I have ever driven.

In these days of engine management systems, the tick-over of the twin-cam, burbly and irregular, takes you by surprise now. And it smokes so! Until I accepted that this was the norm, I used to worry about the oil consumption, and dared one day to broach the subject with Chapman.

Colin was ever a man to think on his feet. "Of course it uses oil!" he responded at once. "What d'you think's lubricating it? What you need to worry about," he added, darkly, "is an engine that doesn't use oil..." You could see how he got on.

The secret, of course, was to look upon an Elan as a toy, as something to give you pleasure. My mistake was to think of it as a means of transportation.

When I finally tired of being marooned by the side of the road, I bought an Alfa Romeo 1750GTV - gorgeous to behold and listen to, wonderful brakes, not quick enough - and then a BMW 2002 Tii, which went like a train, was competent at everything, but never captured my soul.

After that, I bought what was a very rare car indeed, a Ford Capri RS3100. This was a sort of homologation special, and Ford built very few; it was quite garish, complete with huge rear spoiler, and didn't catch on with the public - hence I was able to buy mine at a knock-down price. I liked it, too, for it was quite quick, and handled well; like all Capris, though, stopping it was always a problem.

What next? A VW Scirocco GTi, which was a great little car, and then another Capri, a 2.8i. People always belittled Capris, thanks to their 'Essex Man' image, but I thought the performance models were marvellous cars, and a bargain, too. Jackie Stewart told me he thought the 2.8i one of the best handling cars on earth, and I agree. I had the car for four years, and it never once let me down, its only shortcoming - and a major one, I grant you - being its lack of brakes.

After that came a VW Golf GTi 16V, of which I have good memories, and then a BMW 325i, which had a lovely engine, but far too much understeer for my taste.

Since 1991, I have had Porsches. It's a shame that the marque has acquired such a 'yuppie' image, the choice of the city trader who cares first about 'the badge', but I always loved Porsches, always admired the company's engineering standards - and always wanted to own one.

Thus, nine years ago, I bought a new 944S2, followed, in 1995, by a 968 Sport. Of course, endless folk taunted me that these were not 'proper Porsches', but I disagreed. Yes, I love 911s, but a new one has always been financially beyond me, and the earlier cars' wayward handling characteristics put me off, to some degree.

About 20 years ago I remember driving a 911S press car round Goodwood, with John Watson behind me in his '73 RS Carrera. I got braver and braver in my efforts to keep him from passing, went into Fordwater too fast - and committed the cardinal error of lifting off. After spinning who knows how many times, I finished up about a foot from the bank, somewhat chastened.

All right, you wouldn't drive that hard on the road, and equally I know that the newer 911s - from the 993 on - are very much more forgiving, but still the 'slow in, fast out' approach to cornering doesn't really suit me. In a 911, it seems to me, you have to concentrate 100% for 100% of the time, and in reality life isn't like that, even if it should be.

I really loved the 968 Sport, which I think had the most perfect handling of any front-engined car I've ever driven - in fact, its only real shortcoming was its four-cylinder engine, which delivered everything it needed to deliver, but never made the right noise. A 968 with a flat-six engine would have been close to perfection. The only problems I ever had with the 944 and 968 were persistent failures of the cigarette lighter; fuses blew about every three weeks.

In March this year, I took delivery of a Boxster S - which does have a flat-six engine, of course. In so many ways, it's a fantastic car: goes well, sounds great, handles and steers beautifully, brakes - like all Porsches - sensationally. It's also made me a devotee of convertibles again, although England's lousy summer has kept the hood up more often than not. So far, it's done nearly 5000 miles, and on the journey back from the Nurburgring to Calais averaged 86mph, consuming fuel at the rate of 26.9 miles to the gallon. Pretty good, I thought.

Which car would I own, money no object? Great, huge, cumbersome supercars, like the Lamborghini Diablo, leave me cold, but a part of me has always yearned to own a Ferrari, and I'd be mighty tempted by the 360 Modena, even though I prefer the looks of the 355. Given, though, that I have to think of a car in terms of something to be used every day, I'd go for the latest, four-wheel drive, 911 Turbo. I haven't driven one yet, but recent comparative tests in sundry magazines have found it superior to the Ferrari 360, and if that really is the case, it must be something else again.


Dear Juha,
I think you may be doing both Hakkinen and Prost a bit of a disservice. Although Michael Schumacher is indisputably the best wet-weather driver of this era (just as Ayrton Senna was in the previous one), both Mika and Alain had their moments in the rain, too.

Prost, in fact, always said he loved to drive in the rain, loved the sensation of controlling a car on a slippery track. What he hated, though, was conditions so bad that visibility was non-existent. If you couldn't see anything, he argued, the skills of the greatest driver in the race were worth no more than those of the rookie at the back; it was simply a matter of how foolhardy you were prepared to be.

Remember that day in Adelaide, when Senna ran into the back of Martin Brundle's Brabham, having not an inkling that there was a car in that ball of spray? Prost's strong feelings on the subject came from a torrential practice session at Hockenheim in 1982, when Didier Pironi's Ferrari hit the back of his Renault, flew over the top, and had a catastrophic accident, which ended Pironi's career. Again, he simply hadn't seen a thing.

I'll grant you that Hakkinen is generally no match for Schumacher in the rain, but think back to the British Grand Prix of 1998, another wet race. Late on, there was an absolute downpour, and Hakkinen was the first to come across newly appalling conditions at Bridge. He went off, got back on again, only to see his lead wiped out when the Safety Car was sent out. At that point, he was leading Schumacher by nearly 50 seconds.

Dear Wayne,

You're quite right. In their early days, in F3, Derek Warwick looked far more likely to make it than Nigel Mansell, and it has always saddened me that it turned out the way it did.

After success in FF1600, F3 and F2, Warwick got into F1 in 1981, with the fledgling Toleman team. That season the car was both uncompetitive and hopelessly unreliable, but the following year Derek was able to show his ability on a couple of occasions, notably at Brands Hatch, where he ran as high as second, and at Zandvoort, where he took the fastest lap. In '83, there was more of the same, and Jean Sage, the Renault team manager, was keen to sign him for 1984.

This duly came to be - and Derek very nearly won his first race for his new team, at Rio. All season long he was very competitive, but too often the car broke, and at Dallas, where he had the race on a plate, he made a mistake on the disintegrating surface.

By mid-season in '84, Frank Williams had decided to replace his number two driver, Jacques Laffite, for 1985, and Warwick was his first choice. Ultimately Derek turned the offer down, and if that seems utterly unfathomable now, remember that at the time Williams was hardly the hot ticket in F1. First, the team was in its first season with the turbocharged Honda engine, which had a lot of horsepower, but was about as user-friendly as a chainsaw; second, the FW09 chassis - Williams persisted with an aluminium tub, after everyone else had gone to carbon-fibre - was perhaps the worst ever produced by the team.

Renault, by contrast, looked in pretty good shape, so long as something could be done about reliability. Warwick was offered a lot of money to stay, and it seemed like his best option at the time.

Mansell, meantime, had been informed by Lotus that his services would not be required for 1985, when his place, as Elio de Angelis's team mate, would be taken by the young Ayrton Senna. For a time, Nigel couldn't give himself away, and Frank Williams has admitted that he signed him as a last resort - even though team leader Keke Rosberg initially threatened to leave if Mansell should be brought aboard.

So what happened in 1985? Renault's new car was far less competitive than its predecessor, a complete waste of Warwick's time; by the end of the year, with the Regie in serious financial trouble, it was decided to close down the F1 operation.

Williams, meantime, came good again. Towards the end of the season, Mansell won his first Grand Prix, at Brands Hatch, and followed up with another at Kyalami. Nigel was on his way.

Renault decided to continue supplying engines to Lotus for 1986, and did their best to get Warwick into the second car, alongside Senna. The team management was also in favour, as was the primary sponsor, John Player, but Ayrton said no. It wasn't that he had anything against Derek, he said, but he thought him too good to be a number two, and he seriously doubted Lotus's ability to field two competitive cars. Warwick's presence, in other words, would compromise the effort put into his own car, and he wasn't prepared for that to happen. It was mighty tough on Derek, but probably Ayrton was right in his reasoning.

Thereafter, Warwick drove half a season for Brabham in '86 (following the death of de Angelis), and also drove for Arrows for several seasons, but unfortunately he was no longer 'fashionable', and he was never to get into a competitive F1 car again.

Perhaps you're right that he was too much of a 'normal bloke' to become a superstar - I can think of no F1 driver I have liked more, nor one who changed less over the years. Just a delightful fellow, absolutely genuine, and with a tremendous sense of humour. I've often thought of how great a British sporting hero we would have had if Mansell's successes could have been combined with Warwick's personality.


Dear Vyjayanthi,

Sorry, I don't agree with you. I've no doubts at all that Francois Cevert was good enough to become World Champion. He was a lovely bloke, and he just got better and better. As well as that, he was utterly devoid of jealousy, and never resented the successes of Jackie Stewart, whom he worshipped, and from whom he learned a lot. Yes, he won only one Grand Prix, at Watkins Glen in 1971, but think of the number of times he finished on Stewart's tail, as the pair reeled off 1-2 finishes for Tyrrell.

A little story from Ken. "The car Jackie won his last championship with, in '73, was 005, and it was a very quick car - he and Francois finished 1-2 on several occasions, including at the Nurburgring - the old Nurburgring. Now you've heard how Jackie helped Francois - he couldn't have done more, told him everything, OK? At that race at the Nurburgring, they went round together, start to finish, first and second - and afterwards Jackie said to me, 'Francois could have passed me any time he liked...'"


Dear Rob,

Yes, I've been surprised by the speed of Pedro de la Rosa this season, and not only that: I've been highly impressed by his consistency, too, and also by the few mistakes he makes. All right, he goofed at Monte Carlo a time or two, but at the Nurburgring, where conditions were awful, he never put a foot wrong. For me, de la Rosa has been the revelation of the 2000 season to date.

It seems to me that he scored over Verstappen most in consistency. Jos can be blindingly quick, and it's not a surprise when he is - but he doesn't do it every day. To be honest, I think that's been a trademark of his F1 career from the beginning

Of the other drivers you mention...Salo is something of a known quantity from his Ferrari outings last year: he is sometimes very quick, and sometimes not. However, he has quite often been way higher in the Sauber than might have been expected. Diniz I don't rate at all, and never have. He's capable of being quick on a single lap, but in a race I have the impression he is out of his depth at this level. Too often he does something completely unpredictable, as poor Jean Alesi found to his cost at Hockenheim the other weekend.


Dear Mark,
Easy question. Raymond Mays, 'father' of the BRM project, and a leading ERA driver before the war, was present in the Roxy Bar in Berlin when the Mercedes drivers came in. Manfred von Brauchitsch, the aristocratic Prussian, stepped up to the bar, and said, "Champagne for (Rudolf) Caracciola and myself - and a beer for Lang..."

Hermann Lang (an infinitely better driver than von Brauchitsch, incidentally) was a working-class boy who had joined Mercedes as a mechanic, then persuaded the management to give him a test. He, like Caracciola, was among the greatest drivers in history.


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