Ask Nigel: July 25
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
Ah, Jean-Marie! One of the more unforgettable characters in motor racing over the last 25 years, you would have to say...
How did he become President of the FISA (as the governing body's sporting arm was then called), and later President of the FIA? By influence - he was President of own country's federation, the FFSA - by assiduous canvassing and also by hard work, of which he was never afraid. Got there, in fact, in precisely the fashion adopted later by Max Mosley, who ultimately replaced him.
From the beginning, Balestre was quite evidently not going to be one of those meek little nonentities one traditionally found at the top of the FIA. That being so, it was not going to be long before he found himself at loggerheads with Bernie Ecclestone, the founder of FOCA (Formula One Constructors Association), whose burgeoning power and influence he saw as a threat to the authority of the governing body.
Everything came to a head in the winter of 1980-81, in what became known as the FISA-FOCA War, and the great irony was that Ecclestone's aide-de-camp, and resident lawyer, was none other than Mosley, who would later switch sides to such effect. Indeed, 10 years on, Mosley and Ecclestone would be firmly established at the head of the body from which they sought once to break away. The whole thing had come neatly full circle.
The FISA-FOCA War was resolved - as it had to be - with the spoils equally divided. Officially, anyway. Henceforth, the governing body would make the rules, and FOCA - Bernie - would do the commercial deals.
It is easy to suggest that Balestre achieved little in his time in office, but I would dispute that. For one thing, he gave the governing body some teeth, which it had singularly lacked. Before J-MB arrived, the CSI - as it then was - had a well-meaning, but weak, leader, in Pierre Ugeux. He and his delegates were not the people to curb FOCA's mushrooming power, and it was this which prompted Balestre to make his moves. Always a man to thrive on conflict, he was clear in his aims from the beginning: the authority in world motorsport, he stressed, would be reverting to Paris.
Not surprisingly, there was considerable turbulence during the early years of his presidency, the great majority of it to do with Formula 1, but perhaps we should recall how very different from now was the nature of the sport back then.
Enzo Ferrari used to refer to the British teams as 'garagistes', and while the word was patronising, it was not wholly unjustified. These days, we link automatically the names of McLaren and Mercedes, Williams and BMW, Jordan and Honda, and so on. Back then, though, you built a car, bought off-the-shelf engines from Cosworth, gearboxes from Hewland, tyres from Goodyear, found sponsorship and went racing. Of course it wasn't quite as simple as that, but you get my gist. 'Big Business' - in the shape of the major manufacturers - had yet to arrive in force.
Renault was already on the scene, though, and pioneering the turbocharged engine in Formula 1. On raw horsepower, it was swiftly obvious that a 3-litre normally-aspirated engine could not match a 1.5-litre turbo; and it was obvious, too, that the gulf between them would only widen with time.
It was an equivalency formula which had been drawn up in the mid-'60s, intended to accommodate anyone thinking to supercharge an engine from the previous Formula 1. Nobody had gone that route, but the rule remained in the statute book, and eventually Renault - then committed as a manufacturer to the concept of turbocharging - decided to exploit it.
Ferrari later went the same way, and soon the FOCA teams, having screamed 'Unfair!' in the wilderness, sought means of balancing the performance scales. We were into the time of 'ground effect', whereby cars had shaped underbodies and sliding skirts, these effecting a seal with the ground which took cornering speeds into a new dimension.
By and large, their drivers disliked them, but undeniably the 'garagistes' built them with considerably more success than such as Renault and Ferrari, now known as the 'grandees'. From the beginning of 1981, Balestre announced, skirts would be banned; there would be a mandatory ground clearance of 6cm, which would be checked at the entry to pit lane.
He had reckoned without the ingenuity of the Formula 1 designers, however, and thus it was we soon had 'hydraulic suspension', which enabled a car to run with almost zero ground clearance, then rise ridiculously, by means of a cockpit switch, as it approached the pits for checking. The whole thing, blatantly cynical, made a parody of Grand Prix racing.
The situation the following year was, if anything, worse still. Now skirts were permissible again, but only fixed ones, so that to keep them from being destroyed, suspension was effectively done away with. The cars were now ridiculous, devoid of feel, lethal, and the drivers were close to rebellion.
In the autumn of '82 Balestre announced that, henceforth, skirts were banned, once and for all, and that flat-bottomed cars were mandatory. Still he faced mammoth opposition from many constructors, but he shovelled their objections aside pushed the change through purely on grounds of safety. And if he had done nothing else in his years of office, that alone would have justified Balestre's tenure of the job. After that, Formula 1 cars were sanitary devices once more, and a horrible era was past.
Had he not stuck so resolutely to his task in the FISA-FOCA War, Balestre would have been discredited, and he would never have had the authority to get away with changing the Formula 1 rules at a stroke. On that occasion, he was absolutely justified, and we should rejoice he acted as he did.
Over time I was a frequent critic of Balestre, primarily because his behaviour as FISA president seemed to me uneven, unpredictable. It seemed fatuous that one putting himself forward as such an authoritarian figure should sometimes so blatantly disregard his own rules.
There was the time, for example, when he and another FISA official crossed the track at the end of the first lap of the British Grand Prix - and were almost mown down by Nicola Larini's Osella, which had started late, and was some way adrift of the pack. And there was the pantomime at Magny-Cours, when he was photographed in the pits with a bint (who turned out to be a transvestite...) on roller-skates. During a practice session.
If incidents such as those tended to reduce the credibility of Balestre and his office, so also did his addiction to pomp and ceremony, which ballooned alarmingly over the years. To witness his arrival at a circuit, complete with flags and out-riders, was to be reminded of some tin-pot dictator in a banana republic. It had nothing to do with authority, everything to do with ego.
His public image, it must be admitted, sometimes worked against him. To see J-MB in full flood at a press conference, face contorted, voice raised, fists thumping the table, was sometimes to wonder if here was a man completely steady in the head.
Quite a surprise was the discovery, at a small private dinner in Paris a few years ago, that he had a fine sense of humour. His observations of many Formula 1 personalities are clear in my mind from that evening, but perhaps it would be a sound plan to wait 50 or 60 years before repeating them.
I look back now with mixed feelings on his years at the helm. Yes, on many occasions he behaved like a bully, and on many occasions, too, he made a complete fool of himself. But if he was a fellow who relished power, and enjoyed combat, so I never doubted he also truly loved racing. And that is more than I would say of some.
You're quite right, there is nothing like hearing a Grand Prix 'live', but I wouldn't necessarily agree with you that older race cars sound less impressive than the current ones.
Much as I love the sound of the current engines - until, that is, their song is interrupted by the blight of traction control - there is a certain 'sameness' about them, for all are V10s. In the '70s virtually all the cars were powered by the Cosworth DFV V8 engine, and that era suffered from the same problem, although less so, for there was the sound of 12-cylinder engines from Ferrari, BRM and Matra to give a Grand Prix some aural spice.
I'm sorry that 12-cylinder engines are no longer permitted, because to my ears there is nothing sweeter, and perhaps the most glorious of all - when it was on full song - was the Matra V12. To hear - in isolation - the sound of Chris Amon flinging the MS120D around the beautiful and mountainous circuit at Clermont Ferrand sent a shiver down your spine. I still have a cassette tape of that race.
Looking back to the 1.5-litre era of F1, from 1961 to 1965, I have fond schoolboy memories of listening to the V6 engines in the Ferrari 'sharknose' cars of '61 and '62, and before that I adored the six-cylinder noise made by the Maserati 250F, and the unmistakable 'thrummy' sound of the straight-eight engines in the Mercedes W196.
Formula 1, though, does not have a monopoly on great engine notes. The 1-litre 'screamers' in the cars of Formula 3's golden era - the late '60s - always sounded wonderful, and I have always very much cared for the deep rumble of a Chevy V8, for it reminds me not only of the Lola T70 days, but also of American sprint car racing, for which I have a passion.
You will note I have not mentioned the BRM V16 of the early '50s. This is traditionally held up as the exhaust note to end all exhaust notes, but as the engine was rarely on all 16 cylinders, and as it powered one of the silliest, most over-hyped, racing cars in history, I'm afraid it leaves me cold!
Thanks for the question - and also your compliments.
Yes, I loathe the 'gizmos', as you say, because I loathe anything which reduces the art of the racing driver. Period.
So, which inventions do I wish had not been banned? More than anything, slick tyres, I guess, because banning them was a way of - temporarily, anyway - sidestepping a fundamental problem, which remains to be addressed. Almost since the beginning of time, it seems, the FIA has constantly sought means of keeping cornering speeds under some sort of control, but to ban slicks - as they did at the end of 1997 - was to apply a sticking plaster to a gaping wound.
The introduction of grooved tyres (and the unsightly 'narrow track' cars on which they are fitted) entailed colossal expense for the tyre companies, but if they chose to continue in the business, that was up to them. Quite wrongly, in my opinion, the governing body opted for this route, rather than confronting the fundamental problem in F1: the ludicrous over-importance of aerodynamic grip. If the FIA would bite the bullet and decimate downforce, the emphasis would go back on mechanical grip (ie, from the tyres), and we could then have slicks back tomorrow. Together with consummately more exciting racing.
I confess I don't understand the thinking of the governing body much of the time. We are now saddled with the gizmos - traction control, launch control, fully-automatic gearboxes - and yet, for 2002, supposedly in an attempt to limit 'driver aids' again, power steering is to be banned. Apart from being a complete red herring, this seems patently absurd: all right, power steering may make the driver's job a little easier, physically, and assuredly helps combat exhaustion, but what does it have to with skill?
Should the size of your biceps have anything to do with your lap time? I don't think so.
Glad you like the columns. Thanks.
The only surprise in the recent newspaper coverage of the Genoa summit riots is that we have not yet heard Eddie Irvine's thoughts on events there... As you say, he appears to have opinions on everybody and everything under the sun, and, like many others in the paddock, frankly I'm fed up to the teeth of hearing them.
As far as drivers are concerned, Eddie appears to rate only two: Michael Schumacher and himself. Through their four years at Ferrari together, he said ad nauseam that Michael was the best - a fact which scarcely needed saying, let alone constantly repeating - and this pattern has continued since he joined Jaguar.
Is Irvine as good as he thinks he is? The answer has to be no - he couldn't be. To my mind, he is an extremely good driver, but by no means a great one, in the Prost/Senna/Schumacher/Hakkinen sense of the word.
Niki Lauda may have suggested to Sid Watkins that the driving in his day was just as dirty as it is today, but went undetected because there were fewer cameras back then, but I can't believe he was serious.
Tactics which are now mainstream were less common by far - and universally condemned in the sport. At present Formula 1 appears to be tying itself in knots on the issue of what precisely is meant by 'motor racing' - or, to put it another way, what is permissible between two drivers, when one is seeking to overtake the other.
Until recently, this was never really an issue. All right, there were always some drivers more mindful than others of a basic code of ethics, but time was when rule by intimidation was rare. Stirling Moss will tell you that Giuseppe Farina, the first World Champion, was a man utterly without scruples when it came to keeping a rival back - but he will add that Farina's behaviour was most untypical of the era.
Whenever anything controversial occurs on the track these days, I have noticed, there are those who immediately cite the scrap between Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux at Dijon in 1979 as an example of how 'twas ever thus. I disagree. Certainly it was combat of incredible intensity, in which the Ferrari and Renault banged wheels who knows how many times, but the essential difference between that and certain subsequent battles was that not a trace of malice was involved. Immediately after taking the flag, Gilles and Rene saluted each other, and on the podium they were all smiles.
"However it may have looked, we were actually looking out for each other, giving each other some race track," Villeneuve told me, and when, years later, I reminded Arnoux of that day long ago, he remembered it well: "Ah, yes, the best race of my life. Gilles beat me, but it was the best race of my life..."
Part of the problem, of course, is that increasingly, in today's world, the trademarks of sport are the clenched fist and the contorted face, and to have any awareness of etiquette is to be considered a wimp.
For the magnitude of his ability, Ayrton Senna is rightly held in reverence, but I will always contend that not all that he brought to the sport was good. In every aspect of the job, he was remorseless, and the least attractive aspect of his racing personality was a willingness to use intimidatory tactics against his rivals.
"Even when I was doing Formula Ford, in 1985," Damon Hill said, "you could see that people were trying to be like him, using terrorist tactics on the track, and the views that I had gleaned from being around my dad, and people like him, I soon had to abandon. You had to say to yourself, 'Well, if that's the way people see motor racing these days, then I have to adopt the same sort of tactics.'"
In fact, I don't believe Damon ever abandoned those original principles, which is perhaps why the hard-nosed chose to look upon him as a whinger. In his time, Alain Prost occupied exactly the same territory, and he, too, was frequently castigated for it.
I remember Adelaide in 1990, when the only topic of conversation was the first corner accident between Senna and Prost in the Japanese Grand Prix, two weeks earlier. Most of us were pretty clear in our minds that Senna had deliberately set his sights on Prost, and simply shoved the Ferrari driver off the road, but by the time of Adelaide all manner of folk who should have known better were laying the blame at Alain's door. He had, they said, 'left a gap'.
Jackie Stewart listened to this nonsense with mounting impatience. "If - if - there was a tiny gap there, a blind man could have seen that it wasn't going to stay open for more than a millisecond. But what I really can't get over is that Ayrton said to me, 'Prost should have let me through - because of the points situation, he couldn't afford to have an accident'. What the hell sort of thinking is that?"
Seven years on, JYS also believed that the FIA should have punished Michael Schumacher severely for trying to shove Jacques Villeneuve off the road in the championship-deciding race at Jerez. It went without saying that what Michael did was unethical; more to the point, according to Jackie, was that what he did should not be tolerated.
"I think behaviour of that type has to be...not just discouraged, but eliminated," Stewart said. "You can bet that every young Formula Ford driver will have been watching that Jerez race. And when they see someone getting away with that sort of behaviour, it will be mirrored at every level of the sport."
For those who think racing was always this way, let me close with the Caesars Palace Grand Prix in 1981, where the World Championship was to be decided between Carlos Reutemann and Nelson Piquet. After the race - in which Piquet clinched the title - I remember a remark from another driver.
He spoke of Reutemann not with sympathy, but with contempt. "What was he playing at?" he said. "Piquet had to get past him - all he had to do was put him in the wall, and he was World Champion! No one could have proved anything..."
This fine fellow might perhaps have done the job for Carlos himself, had he been in the race. As it was, he had failed to qualify.
My colleagues and I were literally stunned by what he said, having never heard anything of the kind before, which serves only to prove how much times have changed. When next I saw Reutemann, I mentioned it to him, and he, too, was lost for words. To win a World Championship like that, he replied, wouldn't have been winning anything. No one would have known, the other driver had said. "I'd have known," said Carlos.
This is not a matter of being prissy or high-minded, or anything of the kind. As a matter of fact, I loathe much of the watering down of Formula 1 which has taken place in recent years, but on the track certain basic standards must remain, or else the sport of Grand Prix racing is done. For me, barging your way to a championship, deliberately taking out the opposition, has no more worth than a drugs-assisted Olympic medal. You didn't do it the way it was supposed to be done, and that's the end of it.
If you have a question, email it to AskNigel@haynet.com.
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