Ask Nigel: July 24

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 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 24



Dear Hasan,

Trulli is a bit of a mystery to me, I must confess. When he first came into F1, with Minardi, some of us thought we saw latent greatness in him, and there's no doubt that - in terms of raw speed - he has pretty well fulfilled that promise. When Jarno is really on it, in a car with he feels entirely happy, there are very few quicker over one lap.

Time and again, though, in his Jordan days he would qualify brilliantly - remember Monaco in 2000, for example, when he started from the front row at Monte Carlo, slower only than Michael Schumacher - but in the races then invariably disappoint.

That said, I well remember his drive at the A1-Ring in 1997, when he took an early lead in his Prost-Mugen Honda, and thereafter looked very calm and assured, holding first place until well after half-distance, when his engine unfortunately blew up.

In cirumstances like that, Jarno looked like a man put on earth to win Grands Prix. I'll grant you that this was a' Bridgestone day' - the Japanese company was new in F1 that year - and that perhaps his car was flattered by its tyres, but still there was no doubt that he looked the part, and drove it.

To look good while leading is one thing, however; getting there is quite another. Trulli, it seems to me, is an extremely good driver, and sometimes rather more than that, but I have to say I don't find him a great racer - and I think exactly the same, quite honestly, about his fellow-countryman, Giancarlo Fisichella.

In his Jordan days, Trulli privately to sought to explain the disparity between his qualifying and race performances by saying that, invariably, he could have gone faster than he had in a race, but that he had been restrained by his boss, whose mind was primarily finishing, on scoring a point or two.

That may or may not be the case, but the fact remains that, since moving to Renault (nee Benetton), Jarno's race performances have not significantly improved. He has driven well enough this year, without a doubt, but not with a great deal of sparkle. At one time I thought him a real ace in the making, but not any longer, I'm afraid. Hope I'm wrong.



Dear Bill,

Having known Al Jr for many years, I'm more sad than I can say about what has befallen him. At his best, he was a fantastic racing driver, I thought, a real racer, and as good on a short oval as anyone I have ever seen. Places like that are all about opportunism, about a deft touch, and Al had both in spades. Over the years I saw him make so many passes, inside and outside, at tracks like Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Phoenix, and it was always a blend of courage, confidence, and sweet execution. In 1994, particularly, he was almost unbeatable through the CART season - and CART at that time was intensely competitive. Al's team mates at Penske were Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy, but he had much the upper hand.

Over the years I heard the rumours about Unser and booze and drugs, but tended not to take them too seriously, because the consequences never manifested themselves in his driving. Certainly, I never saw him do anything remotely questionable on the race track, and it's interesting that last week, following his arrest, and so on, in Indianapolis, many drivers, including such as Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy, have come forward, not only to wish him well, but also to stress that they never had misgivings about racing closely with him - indeed, they said, he was a clean a driver as you could find.

Did he have any F1 potential? In my opinion, no - not because he lacked the fundamental ability, but because I always suspected he lacked the necessary commitment. I don't think he had any real idea of what F1 would require of him. When he tested for Williams, at Estoril in 1990, team members were taken aback by his general lack of fitness, and the test, frankly, was not a success. I don't believe Frank Williams and Patrick Head ever gave a thought to a second test for Al, let alone offering him a drive. A shame, because I always thought he had talent to throw away.

In recent years, particularly since leaving CART for the IRL, Unser's physical appearance suggested he was leading less than a healthy life. His weight ballooned, and his complexion reddened. Last winter, though, he got serious about fitness again, lost a lot of weight, and came back this year looking better than for a long time. That, as much as anything, was why I was so shocked to hear this recent news of him.

I understand that Al is to abandon his racing career for a while, that he is going into a drug/alcohol 'rehab' centre for a month, in the hope that this will set him on the road to recovery. I can only join the well-wishers, and hope he can begin to get his life back on an even keel.



Dear Jack,

Although some bits of Laguna Seca are indeed spectacular, I think recent processional CART races there have shown that, in its current configuration, it's no longer much of a track for racing. The CART guys think it too tight a track for modern single-seaters, and I rather suspect that an F1 race there would suffer from the same problem.

Road America - Elkhart Lake - is a different matter altogether, though. To my shame, I've never managed to get to a CART race there (it invariably clashes with the Hungarian Grand Prix, not a race I like, but unfortunately one which I'm contracted to attend), but I've seen many races at Elkhart on TV, and it looks like a road circuit which can match any on earth - right up there with Spa-Francorchamps.

It would, I have no doubt, make a quite sensational F1 circuit. Only recently I was talking to Juan Montoya about it, and he rolled his eyes at the thought of a Grand Prix at Elkhart. "A fan-tastic track," he said. "As good as any I've ever seen."

More's the pity, therefore, that we'll never see F1 cars run there. If a great circuit were all you needed to have a Grand Prix, F1 would never have left Watkins Glen, let's face it. Leaving 'financial issues' (to use contemporary parlance) aside for a moment, the problem with Elkhart Lake is that, on safety grounds, most of the F1 drivers wouldn't countenance racing there. The lack of run-off at the ultra-quick kink, for example, would alone be enough to rule the place out.

A lot of people who raced there thought Bridgehampton, on Long Island, the best track in America, but that is sadly gone now, torn apart by 'developers', and turned into a golf course for the local rich. Vandalism, if you ask me, but, hey, count the dollars...

Of the current circuits, apart from Elkhart Lake and the Glen, Mid-Ohio looks a pretty reasonable place to me, and so does Road Atlanta. There are people who tell me Sears Point is good, too. Really, though, Elkhart is the place.



Dear Bob,

An academic question, isn't it? Rahal wasn't allowed long enough in the job to make much of an impression, one way or the other. Since his departure, it has been fashionable to denigrate him, say he was out of his depth in F1, but I can say that several Jaguar employees quietly told me they were extremely sorry to see him go. Once the Reitzle/Lauda machine was involved in the Jaguar programme, however, I think it was only a matter of time before Bobby was ousted. As he said, 'If I'd known they would be coming aboard, I'd never accepted the damn job..."

The only thing to be said is that, in one respect, Reitzle and Lauda did Rahal a good turn, for not only was Bobby spared the further embarrassment of association with a team which had not so much lost its way as never found it in the first place. As well as that, his three-year contract - which one presumes was paid off in full - will have done only good things for his burgeoning collection of classic racing cars, the latest being a Porsche 917, which he will share with Brian Redman at the Le Mans historic meeting in September.

From the very inception of the Jaguar F1 programme, it has been beset by political problems - there are those who say, even now, that the last Ford man really to understand F1 was Walter Hayes, the man responsible for the Cosworth DFV engine, which won on its debut, at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1967, and scored its final victory at Detroit some 16 years later...

When Ford bought the Stewart Grand Prix team in 1999, the first mistake they made was give the impression that it wouldn't be long before they were challenging the likes of Ferrari. The whole affair was ridiculously over-hyped - the very opposite of the intelligent, low-key, approach taken by Toyota.

Rahal's last race with Jaguar was the 2001 Hungarian Grand Prix, since when Lauda has been in charge - and since when, it must be said, the team's fortunes have scarcely improved. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many have expressed surprised that Niki is still in the job, but others murmur that yet another change of leadership would leave the team open to ridicule.

When I was in America recently, I had a chat with a senior Ford man on the subject of the Jaguar F1 programme, and strongly got the impression that, in an ideal world, he wished it would simply go away. "Yep," he said, laconically, "Rahal really was the problem there, wasn't he? I mean, look at how things have turned around since he left..."



Dear Nick,

Many a time I've been tempted to believe that there must be 'a racing gene'. You talk about the likes of Scheckter, Rosberg and Piquet, about a possible influx of second generation drivers in F1, but the phenomenon is hardly a recent thing, when you think about it. Antonio Ascari, for example, was one of the very greatest drivers of the 1920s, and his son, Alberto, was twice a World Champion in the 1950s.

The list is quite a long one. We've already had father and son World Champions (Graham Hill in 1962 and '68, and Damon in '96), and many other great drivers have fathered illustrious sons: Gilles and Jacques Villeneuve, Mario and Michael Andretti, the whole Unser clan, and so on. That said, there have also been sons of great racing fathers who have signally failed to make the grade.

As much as 'a racing gene', it may well be that simply growing up in a racing environment leads kids to want to become drivers themselves. As Mario Andretti once said to me, "Racing is our family trade, let's face it. Michael grew up around racing people, and used to come to a lot of the races, when his school schedule allowed it. He was always a kid who loved speed, just like me, and it was inevitable he was going to be a race driver."

There's no question that having a famous surname can open doors for a young driver, as most would agree, but it can also be a double-edged sword: think of the weight of expectation on the shoulders of a youngster whose father was a legend. In the end, a great name gets you only so far; if you're not good enough, you won't make it, and that's the end of it.

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