Ask Nigel: July 31
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
Sorry, but no, I don't think Michael is 'the greatest driver ever in F1', although of course I count him among the greats. At one time we thought that Alain Prost's record of 51 Grand Prix victories was unlikely to be beaten, although the chances are that, had he lived, Ayrton Senna would have done it eventually; Senna was on 41 at the time of his death, in 1994.
Now, one really does start to think that Schumacher may be setting records that will never be beaten, but it has only begun to look that way in the last three years or so, since the Ferrari steamroller really got moving. Yes, he's won the World Championship three times on the trot now, but let's keep in mind that in his first eight-and-a-bit seasons of F1 he was champion only twice.
Why do I think that the sheer statistics of Michael's career may never be beaten? For one thing, he has had the best car for some time now, and I see no obvious reason why that situation should change, at least in the short term. For another, not only has he the fastest car, but also far and away the most reliable: his Ferrari always seems to finish.
"When Michael has a bad day, he's second," Juan Montoya said to me recently. "When he has a disaster, he's third..."
So why won't I go along that Schumacher's the greatest there's ever been? First, we have never seen him in equal cars with another truly great driver. At the end of 1987, Alain Prost could have said no to Ayrton Senna's joining him at McLaren the following year, but his belief was that the team should have the two strongest drivers available to it - and the arrival of Senna, however much it might hurt his own chances, guaranteed that. Almost throughout his F1 career, Schumacher has been partnered by a strict 'number two' - and one required to subjugate his own ambitions to those of Michael.
Second, I'm constantly amazed by the number of mistakes Schumacher still makes - although not so much in the races, I grant you. In practice and qualifying sessions, it's never a surprise to see the number one Ferrari spinning, and I find that curious for one of his ability and experience. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I saw Prost lose control of a car.
Third, under pressure Michael is definitely fallible - and in that respect was no match for Mika Hakkinen, who was invariably at his greatest when in a crucial situation, such as when a World Championship was to be settled in a single afternoon - as at Suzuka in 1998, when Schumacher stalled immediately before the formation lap.
Fourth - and to me this is the most crucial thing - we come to what the French like to call, 'le fair-play'. By his actions against Damon Hill, at Adelaide in 1994, and against Jacques Villeneuve, at Jerez in 1997, Michael showed that, when the chips are really down, he will do whatever it takes to win - including driving into his rival.
Apart from the move on Montoya at Interlagos, he has rarely needed to resort to such tactics this year, such has been the superiority of his car, but time and again he has shown that he is prepared to do it, and I can't stomach that, I'm afraid. We all remember Hakkinen's classic pass of him at the top of the hill at Spa in 2000 - but do we also remember that, in the same place, a lap earlier, Michael moved over on Mika, at close to 200mph? Rather than fly off the road, Hakkinen backed out of it - but already Schuey's right rear wheel had clipped his front wing.
Hard racing is what F1 is all about, and rightly so, but to me intimidatory tactics have no place in it, and I'll never change my mind about that. I didn't like it when Ayrton Senna played this game, and I don't like it now, when Schumacher does it.
On sheer driving talent, Michael belongs in the pantheon, of that there is no doubt - but, in my opinion, there's a little more to it than that.
A great book, isn't it? 'Captain Nice' was Mark Donohue's nickname, and indeed he was a very fine fellow. I never got to know him well - there wasn't time, sadly, given his very brief spell in F1 - but I liked him a lot, not least for his complete unpretentiousness. After the 1975 International Trophy at Silverstone, I ran into him in the paddock, where he was availing himself of an outside tap to clean his black 911. As he leathered the Porsche - "Hell, there's no point in trying to get out in this traffic..." - we talked through his race.
He had finished sixth, ahead of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann. Not too bad, I suggested, but Mark grimaced. It was early days, yes, but the PC1, Roger Penske's first F1 car, was falling short of his expectations.
To Donohue, there was something almost offensive about a racing car which held out against his experience and touch. In much the same way as Alain Prost, he concluded very early in his career that it was no more than commonsense to hone a car, to have it do as much of the work as possible, and he sought constantly what he and Penske called 'the unfair advantage', the phrase adopted as the title of his autobiography.
Born in Summit, New Jersey, in 1937, Mark had no childhood dream of racing, but at the age of 20 he persuaded his father to go halves with him on a new Corvette, and began occasionally to compete.
The hook was in. He left university without any clear idea of what he wanted to do, but he suspected that maybe he could ultimately make a living from racing. "It seemed," he said, "to be the thing I did best."
Over time he competed in a variety of unlikely vehicles, graduating by 1963 to a Cobra, and by now other folk were asking him to race their cars. As well as that, he had met Walt Hansgen, and this was to be pivotal in his rise to prominence.
It was a rare friendship between drivers. By the mid-sixties Ford's sports car racing programme was fully unleashed, and Hansgen, a prominent team member, wanted Donohue as his co-driver. In Dearborn they considered Mark an unproven club racer, but Walt was adamant: no Donohue, no Hansgen.
They capitulated in the end, and named the veteran and his protege as drivers in a Mkll for the Daytona 24 Hours at the beginning of 1966. "A thousand dollars?" Donohue marvelled. "For one race? I'd have done it for
The 7-litre car was way quicker than anything he had driven before, but he and Hansgen finished third, behind two other Fords. Mark, though, felt somehow he didn't really belong in this elite company, and to some degree, for all the successes that later came his way, that impression stayed with him.
At the Le Mans test weekend in April, Hansgen crashed on the Sunday morning, suffering severe head injuries from which he died a few days later.
For the race in June, Donohue shared a car with Paul Hawkins, and all went well until the rear bodywork blew off on Mulsanne, lifting the rear wheels clear of the deck. "I thought, 'Hold the throttle and steering where they are - and maybe you'll be in control when it comes down'. It was like landing an aeroplane..."
Mark drove back to pits, talked to the team, then went out again. After parking by the trackside, he found the tail section in some woods, dragged it single-handedly back over the fence, and temporarily jury-rigged it back on the car. Different days.
While devastated by Hansgen's death, Donohue had a pragmatic attitude to the risks of racing. "I can't say I was ever personally concerned about my own safety, perhaps because I'm something of a fatalist - I figure no two accidents are ever quite the same, and even if you're prepared for every contingency, something else is going to get you some day."
In 1967 Donohue went to work full-time for Penske, and in the course of his years with Roger, worked with a huge number of cars, in every conceivable avenue of the sport. Looking back now, it is extraordinary to consider just how many cars, and series, they were dealing with at any one time. In 1971, Donohue was driving for Penske in Indycars, sports cars, Formula 5000 and Trans-Am.
In the autumn of '71, Penske also decided to hire a McLaren M19 for the Canadian and American Grands Prix, and although Donohue was unimpressed with the car, he qualified eighth at Mosport, and finished an extraordinary third, beaten only by Jackie Stewart and Ronnie Peterson.
It was, by any standards, a remarkable F1 debut, but Mark took it lightly. "I was probably lucky it rained," he shrugged. "In the dry I might have been nowhere." A typical piece of Donohue self-deprecation.
"Because Mark was always so polite, with this 'Boy Scout' image," said fellow racer Sam Posey, "I was surprised to discover that his regular form of post-race relaxation was to sit in the bar, and have a number of drinks - as if his life were so difficult that he welcomed the chance to blot everything out for a while. The win could be enjoyed on Sunday night, but at dawn on Monday it was back to work. And sometimes he'd drag himself out of bed at five, and drive one of the trucks right back to base in Philadelphia."
Donohue won Indy in 1972, at the wheel of Penske's McLaren-Offy M16. A year earlier, he had been walking the race when the gearbox broke, then gone on to win at Pocono and Michigan.
In many ways, the big ovals - where set-up is all - might have been made for Mark, and he was almost lyrical as he described how it was to be at Indy in a car that was 'hooked up'.
"When you're ahead, and everything is working properly, it's like living in another world. Driving at Indianapolis is like being guided down a corridor by some other force. I don't really see the car as such - I'm going very fast, there's a lot of noise, and I can feel the cornering and accelerating forces rising and falling. There's no conscious skill involved at that point: it's as if I were the car, just part of a machine. And that's the sensation in racing that's so thrilling to me - knowing that everything in the system is working exactly as it's supposed to."
While getting ready for Indy in '72, Donohue was also travelling back and forth to Europe, working on the Porsche 917/10, which was ultimately developed into one of the most dramatic and efficient racing cars of all time. A huge testing accident at Road Atlanta, brought about by the loss of the rear bodywork, caused him to miss most of the '72 season, but still - on crutches - he went to the races, helping substitute driver George Follmer to the championship.
In 1973, though, Mark completely dominated the Can-Am season, winning six of the eight races in Porsche's mind-blowing 917/30, which, at normal 'race' boost, developed 1100bhp at 7800rpm, put out 810lb-ft of torque at 6400, and exceeded 240mph on the Mistrale Straight during pre-season testing at Ricard! "I loved that era in racing - the era of the 'knife fight' rules..."
In the final race, at Riverside, Donohue got clear in the lead, then began to have fun. "I started playing with the cockpit-adjustable roll-bar, turning it up to oversteer, and I really had a good time, sliding all over the place, knowing I could re-balance the car at any time - and also knowing this was my last Can-Am race."
At 36, he had made up his mind to retire, and announced it after the race. He had been appointed President of Penske Racing, and would drive no more. But when, for 1975, Penske decided on an assault on F1, Donohue said he wanted to drive, and Roger agreed. It was not, Mark acknowledged, going to be easy, operating a one-car team in a new series, on unfamiliar circuits: by mid-season, with only a couple of fifth places to show, the team abandoned its own car, and ran a March instead.
I went to the Austrian Grand Prix with Chris Amon, and on race morning dropped him off at the paddock, then went to park the hire car miles away, to miss the post-race traffic. It was quite a walk back, and as I neared the circuit, it was eerily quiet when the warm-up should have been well underway. In the Ensign pit I found Amon, his face grim. "Donohue's gone over the fence at the Hella-Licht," he said.
This was a flat-out right-hander at the top of the hill beyond the pit straight, and the March had suffered a left front tyre failure as Mark turned in. Rows of catch fencing had been mown down, and collected underneath, raising the car to a level higher than the guardrail. It came to rest, completely destroyed, after striking lead-pipe advertising hoardings on the far side.
Initially, Donohue was unconscious, but a doctor's injection brought him round, and, although he was complaining of severe pains in his head, it seemed like a miraculous deliverance.
Then they carried him across the track, and put him into a helicopter for transportation to hospital in Graz. Nowadays, perhaps, surgery would have been attempted at the circuit, but medical care was primitive in those days before Professor Watkins arrived. Subjecting someone with a head injury to altitude - the Osterreichring was surrounded by mountains - was perhaps not ideal.
The day grew dark, and by race time the atmosphere was Wagnerian, with black skies and sheets of lightning. Shortly before the start, Denny Hulme, then President of the GPDA, whispered something in Amon's ear. "It's Mark," Chris said. "Fractured skull. Just a matter of time."
Mario Andretti remembered the day. "Mark felt a little out of it in Europe, I think. Just that morning in Austria, we'd been chatting, and he said, 'You know, the best thing about what you're doing - F1 and Champ cars - is that you're going home tonight, and I have to stay here'.
"I couldn't believe it when he passed away, because I talked to him after the accident, and although he was in deep shock - he recognised me without recognising me, kind of thing - it didn't seem like he had injuries that were terminal."
Two days later, Donohue died. And one year on, at the Osterreichring, John Watson won. It was to be the Penske team's only Grand Prix victory.
As yet, there is still no official confirmation that Honda will drop Jordan, and concentrate on BAR, for 2003, but the decision was taken some time ago. I am not privy to the reasons behind it, but suspect that the presence of David Richards at BAR probably has something to do with it.
Looking to the future, one would have to favour the longterm prospects of BAR over Jordan. Why? For one thing, because although both teams may thus far be considered under-achievers, Jordan has been an under-achiever for a decade, while BAR is still in only its fourth season. In 1999, when Heinz-Harald Frentzen won a couple of races, we all thought that EJ's team had finally turned the corner, but since then everything has reverted to what it was. Seventeen points in 2000, 19 last year.
Honda, it must be said, has recently contributed very little to the fortunes of either of its teams, supplying them with engines not only way down on power, but also of questionable reliability. That said, the company is desperate to regain its former standing in the sport (not least, one must assume, because of the very impressive Toyota V10), and few ever believed that it would supply two teams indefinitely.
Richards's credibility is high - Prodrive's achievements in rallying with Subaru will not have gone unnoticed, for example - and if he hasn't so far succeeded in F1, few doubt that ultimately he will.
David has a reputation for getting things done. When he took over, at the beginning of this year, he lost no time in trimming the BAR workforce - in the sense that he let go staff members many thought should have been replaced long ago. Geoff Willis, formerly of Williams, is now on board, and one expects to see the results of his influence come through over time.
Prior to Ricards's taking over, the BAR team was indeed known for spending huge sums of money to very little effect - not least on Jacques Villeneuve's colossal retainer. It is hardly JV's fault that bad cars have kept him from achieving much over the last four season, but he allowed himself to be wooed away from Williams (with whom he had won the World Championship), and a big part of that inducement was obviously financial. Craig Pollock, who founded BAR, is also Jacques's manager, of course. It is generally accepted that only Michael Schumacher is paid more by his team. My feeling is that David would like Jacques to stay - but not at the sort of money he has been earning.
As for Jenson Button, well, we'll see. Has he been hired primarily for his ability as a racing driver - or as a good-looking, personable, young guy, such as sponsors drool over? From what we have seen of him thus far, I would hesitate to put him on the level of Montoya or Raikkonen, but I don't doubt he can do a good job for BAR.
Will he come out on top, against Villeneuve - assuming, of course, that Jacques stays on? Very difficult to know. JV is famously good at playing mind games with his team mates, and I've always believed that if he were ever again to get his hands on a truly competitive car, he'd be right up there again, as in his Williams days. Question is: can BAR step up to the plate?
First of all, I'm interested in your suggestion that Nelson Piquet and Gerhard Berger 'never seemed quite the same again after big accidents'. If, in the case of Nelson, you're talking about his horrific testing crash at Indianapolis in 1992, I think we have to remember that this was very much at the tail end of his career, when he had found himself without an F1 drive. I saw him drive again at Indy in 1993, and I'll grant you he didn't make much of an impression, but that was the last big race he ever did, and I think that, as much anything, he drove in it simply to prove to himself that he could.
As far as Berger is concerned, I assume you're referring to his huge shunt in the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix, when he crashed at Tamburello, the corner at which Ayrton Senna met his death five years later. If this is so, I'm afraid I can't agree with you. To my mind, Gerhard afterwards was every bit the driver he had been before - even in his last season, 1997, he won a Grand Prix, at Hockenheim, and did it fairly and squarely.
In the case of Hakkinen, though, the recovery was truly astonishing, I grant you. During qualifying at Adelaide in 1995, his McLaren suffered a punctured tyre, spun several times, and then hit a retaining wall, which was inadequately cushioned by a single-layer tyre barrier.
It was only by wonderful work by the doctors on hand - notably a desperately urgent tracheotomy - that Mika was alive as he was lifted from the cockpit, but he had suffered a massive blow to the head, and for some hours his life hung in the balance. On recovering consciousness, he wanted first to know why he had gone off.
"If my accident had been due to a mistake of mine, I don't think I'd have come back to Formula 1. When I woke up, at dawn the next day, it was terribly important to know that. If it had been my fault, I think I'd have said, 'Well, thanks a lot, I'll go and do something else'.
Not surprisingly, he had only fleeting memories of the accident itself. "I was running at the maximum, of course, because it was a qualifying lap. Before the corner where I went off there is a long straight, and I remember shifting from second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth - I was flat out.
"I remember going down to fifth for the corner, turning in - and when I did that, I immediately knew there was a problem. I tried to keep the car on the track, not to lose the back end, because I knew if that happened, I was going off at a very quick place. Unfortunately, though, it was impossible at that speed to keep the car in the right direction."
Hakkinen recalled losing control, but nothing of the impact. The next memory was of sitting in the car, and not being able to see.
"I was feeling pain, and I couldn't move, but I understood what was going on. I remember telling myself to relax, just to let the medical people do their job - I understood I was hurt quite badly. I felt them lifting me, and then it was difficult to breathe, and getting more difficult. Then I felt this massive pain in my throat, which I guess was when they put the tube in, and at that point I lost consciousness. After that, I remember nothing until being in the hospital, and looking up at Sid Watkins..."
Hakkinen said he would never forget that moment he came to, and saw 'The Prof'. "He asked if I could understand him, and I said yes, sure. Then he asked me to touch my fingers, and so on, and I did everything he asked. Lisa Dennis was there, holding my hand all the time, and Ron was there, too. It was the first moment I began to feel strong.
"Sid said, 'Mika, you've been very fortunate, because you're not going to need any brain surgery'. At first, I was a little bit shocked - what brain surgery? Then I just felt relief, as I began to understand I was lucky to have survived. I could see the emotion in people's faces, and it made me realise that this was something bad I'd been through."
Dennis, of course, put no pressure on him about driving again: it would happen when it would happen. When the day came, it was organised with precision. Hakkinen had Paul Ricard to himself; no other teams were present, and journalists were not allowed in.
It was February 5, about a month before the opening race of the 1996 season. "I remember that day like yesterday. I was open-minded about it: was I going to like it or not? If I did, then the racing would continue, but it wasn't black and white.
"Everyone was so quiet when I got in the car. And then when I went out of the pits, the car felt smooth, the engine felt smooth - everything felt too good to be true. You think of driving a Formula 1 car, and you think of jumping and sliding all over the place, the seat uncomfortable, nothing right - and that was all gone. Suddenly, it all felt nice, the gearbox, the steering response, everything. I thought, 'Jesus, what have I been complaining about?'
"Best of all, everything was automatic. I didn't have to think about anything, and I felt more ready than ever. But then, when I started driving really fast, I began to look around me, thinking, 'Jesus, if I go off there...' I suppose that was natural. But it didn't slow me down.
"Everything that day - everything in life, really - is a matter of fighting against your emotions, isn't it? I drove about 60 laps, set quick times, and then I said, 'OK, that's enough, let's go home'."
Hakkinen duly came back, even better, and went on to win two World Championships. But it's worth bearing in mind that, at the time of his accident, he had yet to win his first Grand Prix. He was only 27, and Formula 1 was very much unfinished business.
Ask Nigel: July 31
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