Ask Nigel – July 26

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 26

Dear Jason,
The silly season is indeed in full swing now, and it may be that the pieces will fall quickly into place, for so much depended on the destination of Jacques Villeneuve - now confirmed as staying at BAR for the next three years.

I confess that JV's decision has astounded me and my colleagues. I go along with Patrick Head's belief that he is the only driver Michael Schumacher really fears, and there's no doubt that since he won the World Championship in 1997, his talent has been shockingly wasted - and particularly so in the last two seasons with BAR.

Still, there's no vacancy at McLaren, and Schumacher wouldn't countenance having him as a team-mate at Ferrari, so essentially Jacques was always going to have to choose between staying put and accepting Flavio Briatore's offer to lead Benetton - which becomes Renault in 2002, of course.

What I thought Jacques would probably do was re-sign with BAR - but for one season only, thus allowing himself the opportunity to see what was available 12 months hence. It's true that, for the first time, the team looked quite competitive in Austria, but still the fact remains that the car is light years from a McLaren or a Ferrari. How many times this year have we seen Villeneuve make a bullet start, get up to fourth or fifth, and then head a whole train of cars until the first stops?

In Montreal Rubens Barrichello - who followed Jacques for many laps in the race - said he was amazed by the top-end power of the Honda engine; ergo, if Villeneuve, with Honda horsepower, is holding up queues of traffic, it follows that there's plenty wrong with the BAR.

Still, his race in Austria may have made him more optimistic for the future, and who can imagine the money he has been offered to stay? Nor should his belief in Honda, and his close friendship with Craig Pollock (his erstwhile manager) be underestimated in the equation.

At present the word is that Olivier Panis will also drive for BAR in 2001, and I hope this comes to be, not because I've anything against Ricardo Zonta (who was able to show some of his considerable ability in Austria), but because Panis deserves a good F1 drive. In his year as McLaren-Mercedes test driver, he has hugely impressed the team, in terms of both speed and technical feedback, and he has regained complete faith in himself for the first time since his bad accident at Montreal in 1997. Panis would, I feel, now be a very considerable asset to any team.

Given that Villeneuve's plans are set, Briatore needs to find a new team leader, a role not truly fulfilled by Giancarlo Fisichella. Alexander Wurz, we know, is out at the end of the season (and perhaps earlier...) and there have been strong rumours that Jenson Button will go there for 2001. Renault, whose engines Button used in his F3 season in 1999, are said to be very keen on this idea, but even so Jenson is two or three years away from being a team leader.

Briatore's problem is that, frankly, there aren't many too superstars around at the moment. The next one - Juan-Pablo Montoya - will be at Williams next year, and all the current ones are already committed elsewhere. In its last season as Benetton, it may be necessary for the team to run with a 'make do' driver pairing, and then Flavio can set about landing a real ace for the first year of Renault.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, we know, will remain at Jordan in 2001, and Jarno Trulli is also expected to stay. Similarly, Eddie Irvine is fixed at Jaguar, where he has a three-year contract, but at present the identity of his team-mate is not decided. Button? Fisichella? Dario Franchitti? All we know is that it won't be Johnny Herbert.

You ask me what I would like to see in F1 next year. Two things, above all. First, I'd like to see someone have the wit to put Jean Alesi in a competitive car; he is as quick as ever he was, I'm quite sure of that, and folk tend to forget how good a finisher he is (in a car of any reliability). It's heartbreaking to see all that ability wasted year after year - this is a man who should have been World Champion, yet has only one Grand Prix win to his name. Problem is, Jean is an honest man who tends to speak his mind, and that sort of thing doesn't go down too well in today's paddock. But wouldn't it be wonderful for the sport to have a man of real character among the contenders? It's not too late...

Second, I think Formula 1 needs a good shake-up. Everyone's got a little weary of the endless McLaren-Ferrari domination - apart from McLaren and Ferrari, that is - and it really is time one or two of the other teams got on with challenging them. In that respect, we had high hopes of Jordan this year, but it's come to nought.

Schumacher, Hakkinen & Co need an enfant terrible in their midst, I feel, a newcomer who will open their eyes, much as Ayrton Senna did back in 1984. And my belief - and hope - is that Montoya will fill that role. It's up to Williams and BMW to give him the equipment to get on terms with the best; Juan-Pablo can undoubtedly do it justice.

Dear Bill,
I think I know what you're trying to say, but I can't agree that F1 is the poorer for Ayrton Senna, in the sense that he was one of the very greatest drivers of all time. In the turbo era, the sight of him on a qualifying lap, with boost off the clock, rivals anything I've ever seen at a race track. As well as that, he had charisma to throw away, and, boy, couldn't we do with someone like that in this era?

That said, for all I admired him, I think Ayrton's approach to motor racing was indeed responsible for a fundamental change in the ethics of the sport, and I think that's beyond doubt. A few years ago, I said as much to Damon Hill, and this is how he replied.

"I agree - and in motor racing in general. When I was in Formula Ford, back in 1985, you could see that people were trying to be Ayrton Senna - they were using terrorist tactics on the track. The views that I had when I came into the sport, that I'd gleaned from being around my dad, and people like him, I soon had to abandon, because you realised that nothing was going to be done when a guy rammed you off the track. It would go to the Stewards afterwards, and you'd say, 'That was jolly unfair,' and they'd say, 'Oh, well, that's motor racing'. So then you said to yourself, 'Well, if that's the way people see motor racing these days, then I have to adopt the same sort of tactics.' I'm not in favour of that sort of driving behaviour - I try to avoid it at all costs. But if someone gives it out, I'll give it back - you've got to."

No one, of course, was better placed to have a view on Senna's ruthlessness than Alain Prost, who remembers it this way. "Hmmm, yes, Ayrton was very tough in that way, from the beginning. It's very difficult to talk about him, you know, and all these things, and not only because he's not here any more. I really think it wasn't so much a matter of being tough as having his own rules. He had his rules, you know, and he believed in them, and that was it. In his own mind, he was always right - on the track, and off it. He always felt he was correct.

"Really, I mean that - he really didn't know he was sometimes in the wrong! As I said, he had these rules, he played by them, and he wasn't interested in anything else. Looking back on it all, I really think he believed he was always in the right, always telling the truth - and on the track he was the same way.

"How many times in his career did he get the blame for anything? Never. No one ever said anything to Ayrton about the way he was driving on the track - so, in a way, I can't blame him for doing it, because he was getting away with it."

That's it, in a nutshell, I believe. On many occasions, Senna should have been sanctioned, but the powers-that-be always looked the other way, and so the message that went out to racing drivers young and old was: do what you like.

It is ironic now to remember that, at Interlagos in 1992 another driver said this of Senna: "He was deliberately blocking me - holding me back. You don't expect a World Champion to behave like that." Who was that? Why, Michael Schumacher, of course, the man whose genius - like Senna's - is acknowledged by everyone, and also the man whose behaviour on the track is routinely condemned by everyone.

If Ayrton got away with it, so also does Michael. When he tried to shove Jacques Villeneuve off the road, during their championship-deciding race at Jerez in 1997, the FIA came down on him like a ton of feathers. A perfect opportunity to right a fundamental wrong in motor racing had been passed up, and again the word went out to every kid with a kart: do what you like - after all, Michael does...

As for appointing a board of retired F1 drivers to adjudicate on these matters...all the ones I know have got more sense than to get involved! They believe, as I do, that we have a governing body to take care of it - or should have, anyway.

Dear Art,
Thanks for the question about Franchitti. Probably, I'm not the right person to answer it, simply because I've seen so few of Dario's races. Usually, I manage to get to a single CART race each year, and that's it.

I don't really know where a comparison with Jan Magnussen takes us. Yes, it's true he had the upper hand on Franchitti in F3. But, on the other hand, Mercedes personnel said that when the pair of them drove for the company in the DTM days, Dario got their vote over Jan. "I don't know why Jackie Stewart is taking Magnussen for his new F1 team," one of them told me at the time. "He'd be better to take Franchitti."

They felt that Jan had perhaps more natural ability than Dario, but that he was lazy, and didn't make the most of it, didn't apply himself properly. Franchitti, on the other hand, was completely committed to the job in hand. That was their opinion, anyway.

Since moving to CART, Dario has been a bit up and down, but he was the only driver seriously to threaten Montoya in the championship last year, and in the end lost the title only on number of wins.

Has he the talent, the speed, to make it all the way in F1? As I said, I can't give you an answer - I haven't seen enough of him. Given the way the world is these days, however, it's worth bearing in mind his potential PR value to a sponsor. He's a good-looking guy, who handles himself well, rather in the manner of fellow Scot, David Coulthard. I don't suggest for a second that this alone is going to get a driver into a competitive F1 car, but equally I don't doubt that it's a consideration - certainly for some companies, anyway.

Dear Keith,
Several names come to mind. You cite Murray Walker, but actually, although he began attending races long, long, ago, there have been periods when Murray has not been involved in F1 at all, notably during the Clark era in the 1960s. We should remember, too, that it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the BBC began televising every Grand Prix. Prior to that, they would do, say, Monaco, Silverstone or Brands, and Monza.

For all that, however, Murray must certainly be up there on anyone's long service list. I doubt, though, if he has been to as many Grands Prix as Jo Ramirez, McLaren's long-serving Team Co-ordinator. Ramirez came over from Mexico in 1962, and worked that year as a gofer at Ferrari, one of whose drivers was his great pal, Ricardo Rodriguez.
Although Rodriguez, just 20 years old, was killed at the end of that season in a Lotus, Ramirez was by then hooked on F1, and has been involved ever since, working for many teams, including Eagle and Tyrrell, before joining McLaren in the 1980s. I would doubt that Jo has missed a Grand Prix in nearly 40 years.

Tyler Alexander, another McLaren man, must also be very high up the list, for he began working for Bruce McLaren long before the team ever went into F1. Over the years he has also worked in Indycar racing, notably for Newman-Haas, so that took him away from F1 for a while, but still he must have attended a formidable number of Grands Prix. So also must Herbie Blash and Charlie Whiting, both former mechanics who worked for Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team, and are now employed by the FIA.

Among the team owners, I suppose that, with Ken Tyrrell now retired, Ron Dennis - who first appeared as a mechanic with Cooper in the mid-1960s, and Frank Williams, whose own F1 team made its debut in 1969, must be near the top of the list.

Now the press room. Jabby Crombac, who began going to Grands Prix in the late 1940s, is now in semi-retirement, attending only five or six races this season, but some years ago Bernie presented him with a special award on the occasion of his 500th Grand Prix. The only journalist I can think of who comes near that is the Austrian Heinz Pruller, a regular since the early 1960s.

Nor must we forget BCE himself. In the 1950s, after all, Bernie went to many races with his mate, Vanwall driver Stuart Lewis-Evans. And although he was rarely seen through the 1960s, by the end of that decade he was on board full time, first as Jochen Rindt's manager, then as owner of Brabham, then as the Man in Charge. Like me, he chooses to skip certain races these days, but still his tally must be quite something.

Dear Peter,
As a kid, my favourite GP years were 1957, when the beautiful Maserati 250Fs of Juan Manuel Fangio and my hero Jean Behra took on the Vanwalls of Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks, and 1961 - because I just adored the sight and sound of the 'sharknose' Ferraris driven by Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther.

Thereafter, I much enjoyed 1967 (the last year in which F1 cars were not disfigured by sponsors' paint jobs), when Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill were in the Lotus 49s (with then-new Cosworth DFV power), Denny Hulme and Jack Brabham were in the Brabhams, Dan Gurney in the Eagle, Jochen Rindt and Pedro Rodriguez in the Coopers, and my great friend Chris Amon was at Ferrari.

Other favourite years? I was delighted when Mario Andretti and the gorgeous Lotus 79 won the World Championship in 1978, although the year was terribly marred by the loss of his team-mate Ronnie Peterson at Monza. And I liked 1988, as well, for although the year was utterly dominated by one team - McLaren - the drivers were Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, quantifiably the best of their time. On wins, Senna nicked it, eight to seven, and it doesn't get much closer than that.

I also remember 1997 well, primarily because the outcome of the World Championship was so gratifying: Schumacher tried to take Villeneuve out in the deciding race - and failed, leaving JV to take the title.

Worst years? Inevitably those in which tragedy played some part. Through my childhood years, every season seemed to account for at least one great driver, including Behra in 1959. And later, like all fans, I was devastated in 1968 by the loss, in successive months, of Jimmy Clark, Mike Spence, Lodovico Scarfiotti and Jo Schlesser; in 1970 we lost Bruce McLaren, Piers Courage and Jochen Rindt, and in 1971, my first year as a journalist, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert. That's how it was in those days.

We don't, mercifully, have to deal with fatalities very often in this era, but that weekend at Imola in 1994 will of course never be forgotten by anyone who was there. I suppose, though, that for me the worst year was 1982, when civil war was rife in the paddock, the atmosphere was generally hostile as hell - and we lost two drivers, one of whom, Gilles Villeneuve, was the closest friend among the drivers I ever had.

Dear Luke,
A friend of mine, long involved in F1 as a very senior representative of one of the biggest sponsors, always considers people, including drivers, in terms of sitting next to them on a flight to Australia: which would be good company, in other words, and which would bore you rigid?

"It's not coincidence," he says, "that when you weigh up the list of drivers who would be enjoyable company, none are true number ones..."

I know what he means. Some of the qualities which take a racing driver to the very top - notably self-obsession, and a complete lack of awareness of a world beyond motor racing - do not necessarily make them a laugh a minute. I once wrote that the only thing some of them know about Kosovo is that it doesn't have a Grand Prix. Tasteless, I know, but you get the point.

The other thing, Luke, is that you make mention of fine wine, and that restricts us a touch, too. While it is a great passion of mine, you tend to find that most of today's drivers list their favourite drink as 'mineral water', and in my experience that rarely plays a significant role in a memorable evening.

In the end, I'm going to cheat, and go for three drivers, rather than two: Mario Andretti, Chris Amon, and Keke Rosberg. All three are close friends of mine, and, although, so far as I'm aware, Chris and Keke have never met, I know they would get on famously, not least because, like Mario, they relish good wine, and they have a tremendous sense of humour - why, they're even able to laugh at themselves, an immensely attractive quality, I've always found. Pity Nigel Mansell never acquired it...

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