Ask Nigel: July 18

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at 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

Ask Nigel: July 18

Dear John,
Better start with the obligatory thanks...

I remember very well the aftermath of the 1978 Monza tragedy, which cost the life of Ronnie Peterson, and a thoroughly unsavoury episode in Formula 1 history it was. Most of us had fairly clear ideas about how, and why, that multiple startline accident came about - and they had little to do with Riccardo Patrese. Anyone with eyes only needed to watch the film once to know he was blameless, and later, of course, he was formally exonerated.

"I was only in my second season," Riccardo says, "and... quite fast. And maybe I did a few things that I wouldn't have done later in my career. Everyone thought I was arrogant, but the truth was that I was shy. I was very young still, and didn't know any of the other drivers very well. And I must admit, I was very intense..."

Disliked, too. Riccardo was one of those young drivers very quick from the outset, and he frequently drove over his head in those early days. In the hysteria which followed the Monza tragedy, other drivers judged him culpable for the chain reaction disaster. At the time it seemed not to matter that the blame lay plainly elsewhere; this upstart had been disconcerting them all season long, and was a natural whipping boy, who needed to be taught a lesson. If Patrese's entry for the next race, at Watkins Glen, were to be accepted, they said, they would not take part. Thus, they effectively had him banned for a race. Shameful.

"It was because they didn't like my attitude over the season, but by timing it when they did, it looked as if they were punishing me for the Monza accident. Psychologically, I had no problem with that, because I knew it hadn't been my fault. But it took a long time to forget how the other drivers treated me..."

Years later, one of them - a major star - told me that this was the only incident in his career of which he felt truly ashamed. It had been a witch-hunt, nothing more or less, and the loudest voice, sad to say, was that of James Hunt. To the end of Hunt's life, the rift between James and Riccardo was never repaired.

Dear Ian,
For 1981, the FISA (as the motor sport arm of the FIA was then known) announced that there had to be a six-centimetre gap between the bottom of the car and the ground. Also, 'skirts' - which had been attached to the bottom the leading edge of a car's sidepods - were banned. All of this was an attempt to cut cornering speeds. Prior to that, everyone had taken to using sliding skirts, which effectively created a seal with the ground.

As far as the six-centimetre gap was concerned, the teams were told there would be constant checks, and the rule would be rigorously enforced.

Yeah, right. By the second race of the year, in Brazil, Brabham had side-stepped the rule, Gordon Murray devising a hydro-pneumatic suspension system which made for a 'legal' car at rest - but one which brushed the ground at racing speed. The Brabham BT49C also had skirts, (albeit fixed ones), which had supposedly been banned. Immediately way quicker than anything else, Brabham obliged every other team to follow their lead, and there followed a sick joke of a season, in which every car blatantly flouted the rules.

If it ignored the intention of the rule, Murray's suspension system - relying on speed, on air pressure, to lower the car - was at least an elegant and inventive way of getting around it. The systems later used by other teams were less so: essentially what happened was that a driver would complete his qualifying run or race, and then, as he approached the pits, he would press a button, at which his car would suddenly rise sufficiently to clear the six-centimetre-high template which awaited.

Everyone knew that the cars were brushing the ground when they were out running at racing speeds - you only had to look - but so long as they cleared this wretched template, well, that was all right... Completely farcical. If ever Formula 1 made itself look ridiculous, it was then.

Given that the FIA declined to take action against the Brabham in the first place, however, the other teams had no option but to come up with their own systems. When the team's number two driver - Hector Rebaque, a journeyman at best - was able effortlessly to pass Carlos Reutemann's 'legal' Williams for second place in Buenos Aires, the writing was well and truly on the wall...

Dear Sarah,
Ayrton Senna's opening lap in the wet at Donington in 1993 was certainly the best I have ever seen, but I always found it interesting that, while his victory in that race was hailed by many as the greatest of his career, Senna himself did not think it so. "We had traction control!" he said. "A far better win was my first, at Estoril in 1985, when it was also wet - and the traction was controlled by my foot..."

We may be quite sure that Ayrton would have loathed the current 'automatic everything' cars. It was a letter from him to Max Mosley at the end of 1993, after all, which strengthened the FIA President's resolve to ban the wretched 'driver aids'. The pity is that cheating by some led to calls for a level playing field by the rest, and thus we have the damn things back.

Forgive the digression, but it makes me bloody angry to see the essence of Formula 1 diluted, and that's what we've got now.

Other great starts and opening laps? Well, that was a pretty good one by Ralf Schumacher at Imola this April, at the last race before the gizmos - including launch control - were legalised once more. Sadly, the scope for that sort of thing is now very much diminished. Michael Schumacher's only real weakness used to be getting away from the grid; now he just presses a button, like everyone else, and he's on his way. So long, that is, as the system functions properly.

Probably the best starter I have seen was Gilles Villeneuve. "I get the revs up close to cut-out," he would smile, "watch the lights, and then slip my foot sideways off the clutch. Simple!"

Very rarely did Gilles have a truly competitive car - Ferraris were not often the thing to have in the late '70s and early '80s - but his own incredible competitiveness was never compromised, and one of his greatest starts was at the Austrian Grand Prix of 1979. He had qualified his Ferrari T4 fifth, and was on the third row, lined up behind the turbocharged Renaults of Rene Arnoux (on pole) and Jean-Pierre Jabouille (third), with Alan Jones's Williams and Niki Lauda's Brabham-Alfa to his left.

The pit straight at the old Osterreichring was anything but wide, yet when they got the signal to go, Villeneuve - on the right side of the road, remember - aimed his car further to the right, and went between the Renaults and the pit wall, never lifting for an instant. Back then, of course, it was not done to use intimidatory tactics at the start (or anywhere else, really), and it would never have entered the head of Jabouille or Arnoux to swerve into Gilles's path. Apart from anything else, the potential consequences of an accident were rather more serious in those days.

Still, Gilles's start was one of those things you can barely believe you have seen. As the field headed off up the hill to begin the first lap, it was Villeneuve, Jones, Lauda, Arnoux and Jabouille.

"I was expecting something yellow (a Renault) to come by me at the start," Jones said, "but not something red! I knew it had to be Gilles, but even so I just thought, 'Where the hell did he come from?'"

The Ferrari was no match for the Williams, and by lap four Jones had displaced Villeneuve in the lead, but that didn't really matter. Gilles's fighting spirit - greater than I have ever seen in any other driver - had come through again. He had passed four cars in the first seconds of the race, because that was what he had been put on earth to do. A quite unforgettable moment. Launch control, we may be quite sure, would not have been to his taste.

Dear Nick,
I, too, was a great Laffite fan, and remain so to this day - there is no nicer bloke in the paddock. If, however, he was a hell of a good driver, I can't truly say I ever saw him as a potential World Champion, close as he came to it a time or two.

Why? Because Jacques was far too well balanced a human being - far too 'normal' - to have the dedication and self-obsession necessary to get to the pinnacle. It is a fact that the drivers who inspire the greatest affection in the paddock are very rarely World Champions.

This is not to say, though, that Laffite was other than a very formidable driver, and a great fighter, too. He began the 1979 season, in the Ligier JS11, with victories in Argentina and Brazil, and then never won another race for the balance of the season. The reason? Because, although the JS11, Ligier's first 'ground effect' car, was quick out of the box, the team was too disorganised to develop it properly.

It was the same in 1980, with the JS11/15: blindingly quick in some places, nowhere in others. To be competitive with the likes of Williams and Brabham, you needed to be right there at every race.

Throughout his long career in F1, Laffite was always the driver without any enemies, as universally popular as, say, Gerhard Berger was to become later.

I remember the anguish of his fellows when he had his awful accident, immediately after the start, at Brands Hatch in 1986. The race was immediately red-flagged, of course, and the drivers climbed from their cars. "Who is it?" Warwick asked, and I told him. "Oh, no," said Derek. "Not him. Not Jacques..."

Laffite suffered the terrible leg injuries so common in those days of forward-mounted cockpits, and was never to race a Grand Prix car again. To this day, he says, the legacy of those injuries is acute pain first thing in the morning, but Jacques has never been one to moan.

These days, he has a Public Relations role in F1, and I have to say that when it started, I found the notion of Laffite and PR a novel one, given his deserved reputation for saying exactly what comes into his head. At one point during a dinner a year or two ago, for example, he got on to the subject of cheating in F1, and a colleague suggested perhaps he should keep his voice down. "But why?" Jacques enquired. "Everybody knows..."

Even in his own era, Laffite somehow seemed a man out of his time, one who, like Clay Regazzoni, should have been a Grand Prix driver when the cars were front-engined, and their occupants put fun before money. "You know," he said, waving his arm expansively, (he is nothing if not French), "everyone in France assumes that Jacques Laffite must have a lot of money - after all, 13 years in F1, and all that. But, you know, in my last year, 1986, I was being paid two million francs (then about $300,000).

"OK, it was a lot of money, I know, but nothing compared with what they get now - and, anyway, I always spend what I have! What is the point of saving millions? Life is for today, no?"

It reminded me of the time when Mike Hailwood looked around the Zandvoort paddock, then came forth with a memorable comment. "Look at them," he said. "Have you ever seen so many miserable buggers - all earning a quarter of a million dollars - in your life?" The year was 1973, as the figure might suggest, and already, in Mike's mind, the fun was being pushed aside. I cannot imagine what he would have made of F1 in the current era. Well, I can, actually.

If there is a single story which sums up Jacques Laffite, and his approach to racing, and to life, it is something I witnessed in Canada in the early '80s. I had just arrived at the Meridien Hotel from the airport, and as I paid the driver, another taxi drew up behind. Out stepped M. Laffite.

Immediately, he bounded over, all smiles, to shake hands, then went to the boot of the car for his luggage, pulling out a suitcase, and then a great deal of fishing tackle, including a couple of rods. Down went the boot lid, and he paid the driver, then came over once more to resume the conversation. The taxi began to pull away.

"Merde!" said Jacques suddenly, and started to run after the cab, banging his hand on the roof to get it to stop. Up went the boot lid again - and he retrieved his helmet bag! See why I like him so much?

Dear David,
'Before Mika Hakkinen is completely consigned to the scrap heap...' Hmmmm. You sent the question in last week, David, before the Silverstone weekend, and just possibly you may now be regretting your words. Don't worry - we've all done it, and none more than I...

Before we get into the question of team orders, it's worth taking a brief look at how McLaren's season has gone thus far. They have won three races of 11, which is good by any normal standards, but lamentable by their own in the recent past.

Why? I think there are a number of reasons. First, the Mercedes V10 is - by the whispered estimate of one or two team members - perhaps 45 horsepower shy of the BMW, and, say, 25 away from the Ferrari. Second, the MP4/16 has been too much of an understeerer to suit Hakkinen's style; at Silverstone, on the latest Bridgestones, much of that understeer was dialled out of the car, and Mika was right on it all weekend, wet or dry.

Third, although David Coulthard has driven better than ever in 2001, and took superbly opportunistic victories in Brazil and Austria in what was not the fastest car, he has not been exactly lucky. Remember that pole position at Monaco, for example, which was then shot to hell by the failure of his car's launch control system? Fourth, not often does a driver of Hakkinen's quality suffer so much appalling luck in a single season, and unquestionably his motivation suffered. Fifth, the recent uncertainty about Adrian Newey's future did a great deal to destabilise the team at a time when it could ill afford it.

At Silverstone, there was endless talk - largely prompted by the tabloids - of McLaren team orders: would Hakkinen now concentrate for the balance of the season on helping Coulthard?

On the Friday Ron Dennis refused to be drawn on this question, reiterating yet again that a McLaren driver's contract required him to accept instructions from his team, under certain circumstances, but going no further than that.

Hakkinen also declined to answer questions on these lines, so it was left to Coulthard - perhaps with a touch of asperity - to express his own feelings on the matter. Was he expecting help from Mika?

"Well, it depends on the situation, but if there's a scenario that can help me gain points relative to Schumacher, then, yes, I would expect help - and I'm as curious as anyone else to know just exactly what will happen..."

What happened, of course, was that Hakkinen waltzed the race, passing Schumacher in the early stages, and winning for the first time this year, while Coulthard tangled with Trulli at the first corner, and flew off the road a couple of laps later, when his car's suspension - damaged in the initial contact with the Jordan - failed.

That being so, the question of team orders was academic, but a McLaren team member later told me that, yes, had the situation presented itself, it had been agreed that Mika would indeed have moved over for DC.

What now, though? There are six races left, and Michael leads David by an astonishing 37 points. Although, after the race, Ron Dennis kept saying, 'It's not over yet', in harsh reality something catastrophic would need to befall Schumacher and Ferrari for them to lose the 2001 titles. That's a fact, and there's no point in pretending otherwise. Quite apart from anything else, Michael has had just one mechanical failure in his last 18 Grands Prix. Even on the rare occasions when he's off the pace, still there are good points coming his way.

That being so, what do McLaren do? Ever since the formation of McLaren International, 20 years ago, Ron has been implacably opposed, in the normal course of events, to team orders, and he hasn't changed his views.

Think back, for example, to Spa in 1999. Schumacher was out of the picture at that time, having broken his leg at Silverstone, and the big rival to McLaren now was Eddie Irvine, Ferrari's number two. When they went to Belgium, Irvine was on 56 points, Hakkinen on 54, and Coulthard on 36.

Spa included, there were five races to go, and clearly Mika - 18 points up on DC - was the McLaren driver most likely to win the championship. For all that, though, when Coulthard beat Hakkinen to the first corner, and took the lead, there he was allowed to stay.

At the end of the race, Mika was untypically angry, and clearly felt that David should have been told to give way to him, but Dennis wouldn't have it: "Any change in the end position would have cost us our long-established reputation for dealing totally even-handedly with our drivers."

Hakkinen now led the championship again - Irvine finished only fourth - by only by one point, 60 to 59, when it could have been by five. Only in the very late stages of the season, at Sepang and Suzuka, was Coulthard told unequivocally to help him.

Given the way Ferrari goes racing in the Schumacher era - with one driver and one slave to help him - it must indeed be frustrating at times to be a McLaren driver, operating under very different circumstances, but I'll warrant that both Hakkinen and Coulthard fundamentally prefer McLaren's way of doing things, even if on occasion it must be hard to see it that way.

In answer to your question: is it the team which instigates team orders at McLaren, or is it Hakkinen who does not want to play ball? Emphatically, it is McLaren, and always has been. And I must say I very much prefer Ron Dennis's way of doing things to Jean Todt's.

As to the balance of the season, I have no idea what Ron will do. Should Mika and DC find themselves running 1-2 in forthcoming races, quite possibly he will suggest they change positions, but bear in mind that we're talking here only of four points' difference each time, and Michael, I remind you again, is 37 points away...

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