Ask Nigel: July 11

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your motorsport questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at Autosport.com and we'll forward on a selection to him. Nigel won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here every week. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel: July 11



Dear Patrick,
An American F1 fan...yes, I guess you are somewhat of a rare breed, but I still remember the days when we had two US Grands Prix each year, one on the West Coast (Long Beach) and the other on the East (Watkins Glen): both invariably attracted huge crowds, so perhaps it's simply a matter of getting the word across in this era. The pity is that, thanks to the CART/IRL split, the fortunes of open wheel racing in America generally have plummeted these last few years. Makes me very sad.

Schumacher and Brawn do indeed make a formidable partnership, when it comes to race tactics - and particularly when it comes to changing and adapting those tactics as a race evolves. Today, I would say, they are without equal in this respect, and of course much of that is due to Schuey's amazing ability to think while driving: believe me, this is not a characteristic universal among racing drivers...

Nor, for that matter, is the ability to react 'on the spot' to changing circumstances a universal characteristic among those in the pits. For example, I know of one leading technical director, widely hailed as a genius, who is quite hopeless in this regard - indeed, I've heard members of his team say they wish he would keep away from what politicians are pleased to call 'the decision process'...

You ask about great 'race day tacticians' of the past, but in fact time was when tactics, as such, were of far lesser importance than they are today. Time was, after all, when you made up positions in a race by passing the people in front you on the track, rather than when they were in the pits, taking on fuel and tyres. Through most of the 51-year history of the World Championship, after all, refuelling has been banned, and for many years tyre stops were unknown. In 1965, believe it not, Jimmy Clark won four Grands Prix on the same set of Dunlops...

The other thing, of course, is contact between the driver and his team. These days, we have radio contact, enabling lengthy discussions to go on, but at one time the only contact possible was from team to driver - and then only by pit board, once a lap. When a driver went into a race, he was on his own back then.

Once radios had come in, we in the press room invested in scanners, and for a couple of years were able to 'listen in' on conversations between drivers and their teams. I remember, in particular, the race at Monza in 1987, and a particularly tense talk between Ayrton Senna and Peter Warr, then the boss of Lotus. Ayrton could not keep pace with the Williams-Hondas of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, nor the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger, but when these three pitted for tyres, at half-distance, he took over the lead, and at once got on the blower to Warr: "Find out about the tyre wear situation..."

Warr conferred with the Goodyear people, and got back to Senna: "Mmmm, it's possible you can make it without changing, but...it's going to be marginal..." Silence. Then Ayrton gave his response: "OK, we go for it..."

It didn't quite work out on that occasion, for Piquet reeled him in half a dozen laps from the flag - but Senna did finish second, ahead of Mansell and Berger, so the gamble had been worth taking.

Sadly, it wasn't long before our expensive scanners were useless. If we could hear what a driver and team were saying to each other, so also could other teams: after a couple of years, all the relevant frequencies were scrambled...



Dear Rob,
To me, there's not much doubt that Chris Amon was the unluckiest driver of all time, with Jean Alesi, as you say, not far behind. On talent, both should have won many Grands Prix, but at least Jean did have one day in the sun, at Montreal in 1995. Chris won the Argentine Grand Prix (for Matra) in 1971, but - typical of his luck - that year the race didn't count for the World Championship!

The luckiest driver of all time, however, is somewhat harder to establish. Not too long ago, in a contemplative moment, Amon said to me he thought it strange, in some ways, to have this 'unlucky' tag: "All right, I never won a Grand Prix, but just look at the statistics in that era: I'm a hell of a lot luckier than a lot of guys - I'm alive..."

In that respect, you could make a case for, say, Phil Hill, who, in a hellishly dangerous time in motor racing, won the World Championship (in 1961), the Le Mans 24 Hours three times, and countless other races - and never once hurt himself.

You could say that Mike Hawthorn was lucky, too, in the sense that he won the World Championship in 1958, a year in which he won only one Grand Prix, when Stirling Moss won four, and Tony Brooks won three. That said, Hawthorn, having announced his retirement, then died in a road accident only three months later.

Moving into the modern era, I think there's a very strong case to be made for Michael Schumacher. For example, it was his good fortune - although of course he would not have wished it, given the circumstances which brought it about - to have the field to himself in the mid-'90s, when Ayrton Senna would still have been very much at his peak. For Senna, there was always a Prost to worry about, but while Mika Hakkinen has often been a worthy adversary, for the bulk of his career Michael has not had a rival of Alain's quality.

For most of the time, too, Schumacher has enjoyed quite phenomenal reliability in his cars, both at Benetton and at Ferrari. In the last year, for example, he has suffered but one mechanical failure in a race (at Imola in April); when things break on his cars, it is almost always in testing or practice. Undoubtedly, Michael is one of the greatest drivers of all time, but he is also one of the luckiest. Look at Barcelona this year, when Hakkinen's clutch expired three or four corners from the end: who was around to scoop up the 10 points?

However, if you want to talk about luck - in the statistical sense - I guess probably Giancarlo Baghetti stands alone, for what are the chances of a driver winning his first F1 race? Driving a Ferrari, in 1961, Baghetti did that - and then went on to win his second and third F1 races, too! All right, the first two (at Syracuse and Naples) were non-championship events, but the third was the French Grand Prix at Reims. He remains the only driver in history to win a World Championship Grand Prix at the first attempt. I thought Jacques Villeneuve was going to emulate the feat at Melbourne in 1996, and he nearly did, but the chances are that Baghetti's record will stand for ever.




Dear John,
Fuel capacity variation is a big part of the answer to this question. I am far less informed about the inner workings of CART, as opposed to F1, but, to the best of my knowledge, in a CART race every car goes to the start absolutely full of fuel, whereas in F1 this is not necessarily the case.

At Monaco in 1999, for example, the McLarens of Hakkinen and Coulthard were first and third on the grid, with the Ferraris of Schumacher and Irvine second and fourth. By the first corner - Ste Devote - Schumacher was by Hakkinen (into the lead), and Irvine was by Coulthard. Why? Because Ferrari, mindful of the supreme importance of track position at a circuit where overtaking is impossible, had sent their cars to the grid with a smaller - and therefore lighter - fuel load. On acceleration, they thus had the better of the McLarens.

At a more traditional circuit, it can pay dividends to go to the grid with a higher fuel load, for it enables you to stay out longer than your rival, put in super-quick times on a clear track when he has made his stop, and give yourself enough 'cushion' to make your own stop without losing the lead. We've seen Michael Schumacher win countless races this way - and just recently, in Canada, we saw his brother beat him with the same strategy.

All sorts of things come into play. For one thing, given that it is very much harder to overtake in F1 than in CART, track position is far more crucial. For another, 'yellow flag' periods, behind the pace car, while commonplace in CART, are a comparative rarity in F1, and absolutely not to be counted upon. In a typical CART race, you can virtually rely on a number of yellows. You will notice in a CART race that if there should be a full-course yellow in the early part of a race, a number of drivers will normally pit to have their fuel topped up; this does not happen in F1.

Given that far fewer people are allowed to work on a car in a CART race, a pit stop inevitably takes considerably longer than in an F1 race, and thus pit stops - under 'green' conditions - are to be kept to an absolute minimum, if possible: in terms of time, they are very costly.

That being so, quite often you will see drivers like Adrian Fernandez and Roberto Moreno come into play late in a CART race; they may not have been running very fast, at anything like the leader's pace, but they have saved fuel, and can maybe get through a race on one stop fewer than the quick guys - either that, or they need only a very swift 'splash and dash' fuel stop towards the end of a race.

In F1, a policy like this wouldn't work. For one thing, you would be too far behind to come back into contention. For another, pit stops are so quick, it simply isn't worth thinking about. It's true that drivers have won races by making one stop fewer than their leading rivals, but this is achieved by carrying more fuel, at any given time, rather than cruising around, saving it.

It can work the other way, too. Who knows how many races Schuey has won by virtue of making one more stop than his rival, by running three or even four sprints, each of them with a light fuel load and fresh tyres?

Time was, of course, when F1 was very different. In the turbo era, particularly when fuel allocation was limited, and refuelling not allowed, a driver had to juggle revs and boost so as to last the 200 miles. As Alain Prost put it: "If you get it absolutely right, you should run out immediately after you take the flag..."




Dear Brad,
I guess I'm old-fashioned, but even if Schumacher wins 100 Grands Prix, in my mind he will never be the equal of Prost. Why? First, because Alain achieved his successes at a time when there were many more great drivers - not least Ayrton Senna - than there are at the moment, in my opinion. And second, because throughout his career he was the epitome of sportsmanship; people seem inclined to laugh at that these days, but to me it was, and will remain, a fundamental requirement.

So which was Prost's greatest drive? There are so many from which to choose. You could go for Monaco '86, when he started from pole, led all the way - from McLaren team mate Keke Rosberg and Senna - and did it with ridiculous ease, never appearing to hurry.

Then again, you could go for Spa the same year. At La Source, on the first lap, his McLaren was pitched into the air in an altercation between Senna and Berger. After a slow lap, he came into the pits for a new nose, had the car checked over, and then resumed, stone last. In the course of the race, he shattered the lap record, and finished up sixth.

"Afterwards," John Barnard said, "we found that the engine mountings were bent - that car was like a banana! How Alain drove it the way he did, I'll never know. It was probably the greatest drive I ever saw - by anyone."

What else? Well, how about the Mexican Grand Prix of 1990, when Prost qualified his Ferrari 13th, after endless problems in practice, then came through to win by 26 seconds, from team mate Mansell and pole man Berger? What's more, he did it by passing the people in front of him: no refuelling, and planned pit stops and 'strategy' back then...

On balance, though, I think I'll go for Suzuka in 1987, a race in which Alain did not so much as score a point. At the start of the second lap, running on the tail of Berger's leading Ferrari, he picked up a puncture - which meant running a whole lap very slowly before he could get back to the pits.

Although his position was obviously hopeless - it took him 22 laps to catch the next car in front of him - he drove as if the World Championship depended on it. Although Berger led all the way, in the course of the race Prost made up almost a whole lap on him, and twice lapped in 1m 43.8s. The quickest lap by any other driver was 1m 45.5s, set by Senna.

In the end Prost finished seventh, but that day he seemed to be running at the limit for the sake of it, simply to show how the race might have gone, had he not punctured. Undoubtedly, Senna was his superior in qualifying, but in terms of fastest race laps, Prost is ahead, 41 to 19. When he really needed to race, Alain was as good as anyone I have ever seen.




Dear Brian,
First of all, thanks for your kind words.

Thierry Boutsen was, and is, a charming fellow. Also a hell of a good driver, if not, perhaps, from the very top drawer.

You are right when you say that, in his two years with Williams-Renault, 1989 and '90, the car was not the best, and right, too, in your assertion that he shone brilliantly on occasion: he did, after all, win three Grands Prix in a Williams, at Montreal and Adelaide in the wet in 1989, and also at the Hungaroring in '90, where he started from the pole, and resisted attack from sundry drivers, notably Senna, his great friend.

After the race, indeed, Ayrton was heard to murmur that if it had been anyone other than Thierry in front of him during the closing laps, he would have shoved him off, but that's another story...

I think the problems between Boutsen and Williams were these: first, as you say, he was brilliant 'on occasion', but I think there too many times when his presence in a race went unnoticed. Week in, week out, his team mate Riccardo Patrese was more reliable, more consistent.

Second, he was an inveterate 'fiddler' with a car, never quite happy with his set-up, and certainly he was one of those drivers who needed to feel the car was perfect before he could give of his best. I had the impression that his constant 'fiddling' got on Patrick Head's nerves, and certainly Thierry's inability to gel with Patrick, in their working relationship, did not aid his cause.

Later Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Alex Zanardi would encounter similar problems: in their different ways, all three exasperated Head with their inability sometimes simply to stop complaining, and get on with it.

In that period, it may be said that Williams did not truly have a number one driver, in the Senna/Prost sense of the phrase, and when Nigel Mansell announced in mid-'90 he was retiring from F1 (or certainly leaving Ferrari, anyway), Frank and Patrick decided they had to get him back for 1991. Certainly, they had misgivings, for already they had spent four seasons with Mansell (1984-'88), but, whatever else, there were no doubts about Nigel's ultimate speed in an F1 car. Thus, he allowed himself to be persuaded into a change of mind, and duly signed.

That being so, there were never any doubts that it would be Boutsen, rather than Patrese, who was shown the door. Of all the drivers with whom they have worked down the years, Frank and Patrick liked Riccardo as well as any, and a good deal more than most. While he may not have been at the very top level (although, on some days, he certainly was), he was unfailingly cheerful, completely apolitical, not at all avaricious, and willing to work endlessly, testing as and when he was required, with never a word of complaint. Uncomplicated, in a word.

Boutsen, who was extremely bitter at the time, moved to Ligier for a couple of years, where his fortunes predictably slumped. A final season with Jordan, in 1992, was disastrous, and he was replaced before the end of it.

If you have a question, email it to AskNigel@haynet.com.

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