Ask Nigel – July 19

Autosport's Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday here at If you have a question for Nigel e-mail it to him at

Ask Nigel – July 19

Dear Kenneth,
Yes, I suppose you're right - there are similarities between the careers of Chris Amon and Jean-Pierre Jarier, in that both had tremendous natural ability, yet somehow contrived never to win a Grand Prix. Personally, I would put Amon on a different level from Jarier (and doubtless you would argue to the contrary!), but undeniably they were similar in many respects.

Were their careers successes or failures? In terms of their results, I guess you would have to categorise them as failures, but then we unfortunately live in an age preoccupied with statistics. Neither Amon nor Jarier won a Grand Prix, it's true. But both dominated races in their time, only to have the car fail them. And if you look at the list of drivers who did win a race - or finish first, anyway - there are many (Lodovico Scarfiotti, Vittorio Brambilla, Jo Bonnier, Giancarlo Baghetti, etc) who were not on the same planet, in terms of talent, as Amon or Jarier.

It's a pity we have this obsession with statistics these days, not least because they can be so misleading. Racing being conspicuously safer than it was, after all, Grand Prix careers tend to be considerably longer than used to be the case - and there are also many more World Championship Grands Prix than there were.

Consequently, it is drivers of the present and recent past, such as Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, who easily lead the way when it comes to Grand Prix victories. In themselves, though, the numbers tell less than the whole story. Nigel Mansell, for example, stands fourth on the all-time list, but would anyone seriously suggest this makes him 'better' than such as Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss, Jimmy Clark or Jackie Stewart? Of course not.

Of greater consequence than his number of victories is surely a driver's strike rate. Although Mansell won 31 races, these came from 197 starts, giving him a winning percentage of 15.7, but Fangio's 24 victories came from only 51 starts, and his percentage comes out at 47.06, which will never be approached.

I tend to judge a driver's Grand Prix career more by my own memories of it than anything else, and quite often my favourite drivers had less than the best cars at their disposal much of the time. Four of the fastest and most exciting drivers I ever saw were Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson, Gilles Villeneuve and Keke Rosberg - yet they won only 27 Grands Prix between them.

No, no, there has always been more to it than bald results. Mika Hakkinen, for example, did not win a Grand Prix until the 96th time of trying; that was precisely the length of Amon's F1 career.

Dear Nigel,
You make a very good point. I'm delighted we're to have a CART race at the Rockingham oval next year, but, like you, its siting in the calendar worries me a touch. When we had two rounds of the USAC Championship in England back in 1978, the first of them, at Silverstone, was much hampered by rain. It was scheduled for September 30, just a week later than the Rockingham date...

However, the organisers fortunately had the sense to anticipate possible interruption from the elements, and wisely went for a Saturday race, giving themselves the possibility of postponing for 24 hours. In the event, the race was run on the Sunday, but halted early - more rain.

On the other hand, the Brands Hatch race, a week later, was run on the most perfect autumn day imaginable, rather like the weekend that graced the first Goodwood Revival Meeting, in 1998. So let's hope we get lucky next year. And again, I'm pleased to note, the Rockingham race is scheduled to be run on Saturday, with Sunday a 'rain date', if required.

The problem, of course, is that now we're talking about a pure oval, where racing in anything other than bone dry conditions is necessarily out of the question. In the Silverstone race, all those years ago, the USAC guys - who then ran almost exclusively on ovals - weren't too thrilled at running in the wet, but it wasn't until the skies really opened that the race was stopped.

Let's think in terms of 'the glass being half full', shall we, and say a prayer for a dry weekend in September 2001.

Dear Christophe,
You ask for my opinion on the current F1 rules. This could take us into November...

In my opinion, the problems lie in two areas: the technical regulations and the format of the races. There are links between the two.

First, the technical regs, which are in some ways too constricting, and in others too loose. On aesthetic grounds - and aesthetics in motor racing do matter, in my opinion - I hate the pinched-in look of the cars, following the introduction of the 'narrow track' regulation at the beginning of the 1998 season. I also, for that matter, dislike the raised noses of the current cars, although I accept that these are dictated by wind tunnel data, rather than the whim of the FIA.

So that gets that out of the way. In short, I agree with Patrick Head that this is the ugliest breed of Grand Prix car in living memory.

Next, grooved tyres, which no one - apart from Max Mosley - seems to like. The tyre companies hate making them, the drivers hate using them and the fans hate looking at them. The FIA introduced them, together with the 'narrow track' rule, as a means of keeping cornering speeds under control, and while that, in itself, is quite understandable, most people in the paddock to whom I have spoken feel that there are better ways of achieving that aim.

The problem is that no two seem be of like mind on the subject, which is one of the reasons why so frequently the FIA says, 'OK, we've asked you to come up with a solution to this or that problem, and you can't agree among yourselves. Therefore, we're going to do this...'

If the various designers and engineers can't agree on the details, however, they do seem to be on the same page when it comes to the basics: they feel we should go back to slicks and hugely reduce downforce - increase mechanical grip, in other words, and significantly cut aerodynamic grip. The drivers, too, are unanimous in their support of this course of action, for undoubtedly it would make the cars nicer to drive, and it would also improve the quality of the racing.

Think about it: we came away from Magny-Cours the other week in a state of near delirium - and why? Because we'd actually seen one car pass another for the lead on the track, rather than when one was in the pits. It was undoubtedly a very fine race between Schumacher and Coulthard, but it seemed a little sad that we all got so excited merely because one car overtook another. This, as Ken Tyrrell has repeatedly said, is what motor racing is supposed to be, after all. Every weekend.

I was recently at a team dinner in the paddock, and sitting nearby were the team's owner and technical director. The owner was coming forth with the usual stuff about Formula 1 being better than it had ever been, and so on, when he was interrupted by his technical director. "I have to say I disagree with about 95 per cent of what you've just said. F1 may be thriving like never before, in terms of the attention it gets, but, let's face it, the races are usually f****** dull!" A small round of applause seemed appropriate.

The fact is that aerodynamics dominate F1 to a ludicrous degree, yet year after year, although the question of reducing downforce is endlessly discussed, nothing gets done. And that, primarily, is because of the complacency of the people who control the sport. Whatever anyone says, there is a widespread belief in the paddock that - as entertainment, as RACING - F1 leaves a great deal to be desired in the modern era. Mosley and others can go as long as they like about thinking of a Grand Prix 'in terms of a chess match', about too much overtaking being boring; the fact of the matter is that RACING is what people want to see.

It was to help disguise the lack of changes of position that refuelling - having once been banned, on safety grounds - was reintroduced in 1994. I am one of many who would like to see it banned again, and not only because it seems to me, in an age otherwise preoccupied with safety, a quite unnecessary danger (and not only for the drivers), but also because it has made Grand Prix racing somewhat crude: sprint-stop-sprint-stop-sprint...

Last year I had a long talk with Prost about possible changes to F1, and this is some of what he said.

"I really think that if we want to do something important, we need to ban refuelling. At the moment the cars are always light, always on a fresh set of tyres, and we need to come back to something like we had 10 or 12 years ago - when I think the drivers were even more important than now.

"F1 has a big problem with overtaking, yes, but the first thing we have to do is understand why - and why overtaking was easier in the past. For me, the big problem is that you have less and less mechanical grip; I think it would have been better to have wide slick tyres, to keep the mechanical grip high, and reduce the downforce.

"Another bad thing, in my opinion, is the semi-automatic gearbox. Before we had them, it was impossible in the course of a race not to miss at least one or two shifts. That was how I got by Berger one year in Monte Carlo - it was the only way to overtake there. He missed a shift on the pit straight, and I was able to pass. Can't happen now.

"For me, though, the main problem is the refuelling. If you look at the technical changes they have made, plus refuelling, what do you have? First, a gearbox that's always in good condition, because you can't miss a shift; second, your brakes are always good, because the car is always light (carrying relatively little fuel); third, your tyres are always good, because they're changed so often. So the performance of the car stays very constant throughout a race - and therefore you can't overtake...

"Nowadays the cars run all the time with relatively little fuel in them, but in the past, when you started with 200 kilos of fuel, you had to be very careful with the brakes and the tyres. At some point in the race the performance of the cars changed significantly - but the thing was, they never deteriorated equally, and that depended on how you had driven the first part of the race.

"At the moment, there's no need to think - it's just flat out between the stops. So unless something goes wrong in the pits, the order you have after five laps will be the order at the end of the race.

"For me, the dream would be to have at least two tyre companies involved. You start the race with a full fuel load, and you have no refuelling. You have a minimum of two tyre compound choices, and use whatever you like during a race. You start with hard tyres, and maybe your rival starts with soft, and another one with an intermediate compound.

"So, OK, the guy who starts on soft tyres can stop after 20 laps, then put on hard tyres for the rest of the race - and you can also have the opposite. That way you always have uncertainty. You would still have the pit-stops that TV likes so much - and when only tyres are involved, you're talking about maybe four seconds, which is even more impressive to see.

"What do you have now in pit-stops? It's the fuel that governs the length of the stop, but people watching TV don't understand why this stop took six seconds, and that one 11 seconds - they don't realise that on the first stop 40 kilos of fuel went in, and on the second it was 80. Yes, pit-stops are important for the show, I understand that, but you don't need refuelling to have pit-stops; you would always have them, anyway, because of tyres.

"With the rules as they were," Alain concluded, "you had some surprises. At the moment we don't have any surprises, and that's the biggest problem, isn't it?" It sounded like common sense to me.

PS. Glad you like Fifth Column. No, no plans to write a book at the moment. I did one last year, called 'Chasing The Title', but almost certainly won't tackle another while I'm still on the road. I like to have some weekends off!

Dear Martin,
When we consider F1 cars going through Turn 1 at Indianapolis, I think, first of all, it's important to bear in mind that they will not be travelling at 'Indy' speeds. The cars will come on to the oval section of the track at what - in the conventional direction - would be the entry to Turn 2. They will then be under full acceleration down the short chute to Turn 1, and - according to Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who has driven the track in a road car, they will still be accelerating through the turn.

By contrast, Scott Goodyear recently told me, when the CART cars still ran at Indianapolis, on a really quick lap you would turn in to Turn 1 (when running the conventional oval, of course) at a little over 240mph...

Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that the F1 cars won't be going very fast through the turn - just that it won't be at Indy 500

This does not mean, however, that there is no potential for a big accident. A concrete wall is a concrete wall, and certainly it will be a new experience for the F1 drivers to go through such a quick corner without any run-off area, should you get it wrong.

Jacques Villeneuve, who won the last 'real' Indy 500, in 1995, and
is the only one of the current F1 drivers to have experience of running on a big oval, said recently that he wished the US Grand Prix were being run on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway proper - but then he added that he wouldn't want to have an Indy 500 accident in an F1 car.

It will interesting to hear the drivers' reactions to the track, when they get there in September. Charlie Whiting has visited Indianapolis several times, on behalf of the FIA, and has expressed complete satisfaction with the track to be used for the Grand Prix. Frentzen, too, was happy enough with it, although he conceded that the oval section was a bit of an eye-opener.

If there are any complaints about the track from the drivers, it will not be easy to sympathise with them too much because over the last 18 months or so, they have all been invited to drop by, perhaps en route to Montreal, to take at look at the work being done and offer their comments. Thus far, Heinz is the only one to bother.

Dear Junaid,
As a circuit, pure and simple, Brands Hatch, I always thought, knocked spots off any other in this country, save Oulton Park. That said, I also felt it somehow lacked the ambience of a British Grand Prix at Silverstone, that sense of 'A Big Occasion'. And I also recall that the worst journey home I ever had, in terms of traffic snarl-ups, was from Brands, in 1986. Yes, believe it or not, it was even worse than Silverstone...

If - if - the British Grand Prix ever goes back there, it is obvious that pretty fundamental changes would have to be made to the circuit, but the main stumbling block, in my estimation, would be the sheer lack of space available at Brands Hatch, compared with Silverstone. I simply can't comprehend how a 2000-scale British Grand Prix could be housed there, but perhaps the track owners know something I don't.

If Brands were to come back as the venue for the British Grand Prix, then Silverstone would necessarily be the circuit to disappear from the World Championship. Given a free hand, though, I'd get rid of either the 'Nurburgring' - such an insult to the original Nordschleife to call it that - or Barcelona, which is blandness personified.

Dear Peter,
Interesting question. Yes, I think there's a small core of 'must have' books on motor racing, but of course everyone's choice is very personal, and depends on enthusiasm for the writer's work, and his choice of subject.

You mention 'The Racing Driver' by DSJ [Denis Jenkinson], and I would certainly have that, together with his 'A Story Of Formula 1'. What next? I would have 'BRM', by Doug Nye, for its wealth of detail and anecdote; 'For The Record,' by Niki Lauda, because it so truly reflects the man and his sublime irreverence; 'All But My Life', by Stirling Moss and Ken Purdy, which changed the way motor racing biography was written; 'It Beats Working', by Eoin Young, because it's funny, and reads in part like a diary of my own professional life; and 'The Chequered Year', by Ted Simon, a brilliant warts-and-all dissection of a Grand Prix season (1970) by a man who was leaving the sport, and knew he wouldn't have to face anyone afterwards...

Given my passion for American racing in the 50s and 60s, I would also need 'Fabulous Fifties - American Championship Racing', by Dick Wallen, a labour of love if ever I saw one; and 'Standing On The Gas', which is by Joe Scalzo, one of my favourite writers, and deals with the great days of sprint car racing.

There, that's nine, and I haven't really made a start on it...

Dear Bob,
I must admit that I don't quite understand your question, in the sense that I've never thought of Formula 1 as something that needed to be justified.

People want to do it, and lots of other people want to watch them doing it, simple as that.

Ye Gods, there are folk who want to hear George Michael sing, or watch Mike Tyson beat someone's brains out; if these things can be justified, I'd say Formula 1 was on pretty safe ground...

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