Ask Nigel - July 5

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 5

Dear Eric,
First of all, congratulations on getting as far as you did - I imagine the security personnel you were able to talk your way past have now been dismissed. At the very least.

When it comes to Bernie's electronic turnstiles, however, nothing will get you past them except 'The Card', so I'm not surprised you couldn't talk your way any further - a mix-up on accreditation, I'm afraid, is the oldest one in the book! Still, good try.

For sheer inventiveness, I have to tell you, no one comes close to the Italians, although, in this era of the card-controlled turnstiles, sadly not even they can beat the system. These days, the Monza paddock is way off limits to the tifosi, but time was when they were at least able to stand behind the paddock fence, in the hope of seeing their heroes, perhaps get an autograph or two.

They would hang around there, in their thousands, for hours on end, like folk trying to find a way out of Colditz. Sometimes they would climb over, oblivious of the barbed wire taking chunks out their hands and who knows what else, and one year, I remember, they dug a tunnel beneath the fence! Worked a treat, apparently.

Another time, six gentlemen kitted themselves out as Monza Park workers, equipped themselves with a brush apiece, and proceeded to sweep their way in right past the credential check, but my favourite story came from Autosport's Italian correspondent, Pino Allievi, who told me about the man and the dog.

At Monza, you see, many paddock officials are accompanied by Alsatians. Now, dogs do not like Formula 1 cars being revved up near them, and nor do they care for hordes of noisy people treading on their paws. Consequently they get a bit edgy, and I have every sympathy for them. Once in a while they remove a chunk of someone's leg. In other words, you treat them with respect.

So here's Giovanni, and he sees all this and has a brilliant idea. He brings his own Alsatian to the track, and strides through the paddock gate, looking confident. He's in.

"Did he get away with it?" I asked. "Well, not really," replied Allievi. "Not for long, anyway. The problem, you see, was the dog. He was a very nice dog, and he licked everybody. Real Monza dogs don't do that, and someone noticed..."

All these episodes, though, occurred before the turnstiles were introduced. No reward for enterprise and free thinking these days, unfortunately.

It has long been a belief in the press room that the only people who don't get rich out of F1 these days are the journalists and, particularly, the mechanics. They are an extraordinary breed, I must say, working hours that would make a union boss apoplectic on their behalf - even if they themselves don't mind, and accept that it's part of what was never intended to be a nine-to-five job.

Just last Saturday, at Magny-Cours, I watched the McLaren boys work themselves to a standstill on the endless problems assailing David Coulthard's car - and you saw how well their efforts were rewarded the following day. And that's the way it has always been: if something needs to be done, which requires working an 'all-nighter', or whatever, then they just knuckle down. Truly, they work prodigiously hard.

You ask where F1 mechanics go when they retire. Well, some indeed open garages of their own - in fact, one such lives in my village. Some leave the business completely, of course, but most, even when they come off the road, stay involved with racing, either as factory-based mechanics, or else working with historic cars, or something like that.

Compared with times past, they earn reasonably good money these days, particularly if they work for a top team that operates a bonus system, as some do. Essentially, though, it remains a labour of love - you wouldn't otherwise put up with the long hours, the ceaseless travel (in cattle class, of course), and so on.

I suppose there are 'elite mechanics', and Bob Dance, of Lotus, was a classic example, as well as a supremely modest man. Once in a while, one of them becomes a legend in his own mind - and when that happens, no one pricks his ego like his colleagues...

Dear Ismo,
It is a fact that Mika Hakkinen's performances have been disappointing recently, but I think we need to look elsewhere for the reasons. Of course, the recent changes in the rules concerning electronics have temporarily made life a little more difficult for everyone, not just Mika, but McLaren folk reckon they're back on course now. And I don't really see how the changes would 'make a car understeer much more' than it did. Certainly, all the teams had problems initially, but I think they're pretty well licked now.

Any number of theories have been put up for Hakkinen's relative loss of form (although we should remember that he lies third in the World Championship, only six points behind team-mate David Coulthard, so it hasn't exactly been a disaster).

For my part, I believe Mika is simply tired. He has been World Champion for the past two years, after all, and the mental strain of winning the title even once is enormous - both times he clinched it at the final race, remember. I think he began this season at the top of his game; he took pole position in the first three races - and he should have won all three, too, given a completely reliable car. Instead of that, Michael Schumacher won the lot, and I wonder if that took its toll of Hakkinen's motivation, in the sense that suddenly a third World Championship looked an awful long way away.

This is just my belief, you understand. There may be more to it than that, but at recent races Mika has seemed rather listless and weary, and I think it's possible that all the pressure of the last two and a half years has caught up with him. I understand that he is trying to have as much of a break as possible in July, by which I mean that he will race at the A1-Ring and Hockenheim, but will not do any testing. It will be interesting to see if this has a beneficial effect.

Dear Martin,
Yes, I agreed absolutely with David Coulthard's criticism of Michael Schumacher in Magny-Cours - indeed, I was delighted to see that one of Schuey's rivals had the courage to say what should have been said a long time ago. Schumacher may indeed be a genius when it comes to driving a racing car, but many of us have long abhorred some of the tactics he employs on the race track - not least because we find them hypocritical in the extreme from one who talks so much about safety.

As for what happened at the hairpin on Sunday, it's possible that we in the press room had the advantage over you, in that we get Bernie's 'digital' feed, rather than the standard terrestrial picture, and from more than one angle (including from Coulthard's cockpit). There seemed no doubt that as they came off the corner side by side, with David on the outside, Michael simply drove as if he did not have another car next to him. This was what DC was referring to when he spoke of Schumacher's 'back off or we crash' tactic.

You're quite right that Michael's reputation does him no favours on occasions like this - but then that reputation has been earned, and is entirely justified. I still think that incident in Montreal in 1998, when he came flying out of the pits straight into the path of Frentzen's Williams (which crashed in taking avoiding action), one of the most scandalous pieces of driving I have ever seen at a Grand Prix. And the worst of it is that no one screams louder than Michael if he feels that someone else's driving is out of order: remember how he slagged off Damon Hill after that very same race in Canada?

The big difference between the Villeneuve/Arnoux battle at Dijon in '79 and the Schumacher/Coulthard incident on Sunday is that Gilles and Rene, while they may have banged wheels a few times, always gave the other racing room. "It was a hard fight," Gilles said afterwards, "but we were always looking out for each other. It was just fun, you know?" Significantly, when they got out of the cars, they were laughing, and, far from screaming at each other, immediately embraced.

Schumacher is a great racing driver, no question about it, and far too good to need to do some of the things he does. But I fear that, unless or until he is sanctioned, the questionable moves will continue.

Dear Richard,
I remember a moment, years ago, when a late-arriving journalist turned up in a paddock somewhere, and wanted to know what had happened in the first practice session. "Who's quick?" he asked. "They're all quick," replied Denis Jenkinson.

In absolute terms, Jenks was quite right. Even the most laggardly of Grand Prix drivers is working at a speed beyond the comprehension of normal folk. There have been plenty of over-rated drivers down the years, but when you ask me to name the worst drivers, it's not easy.

I do, however, recall being spectacularly unimpressed by one Philippe Adams, who - for entirely financial reasons - occasionally replaced Alex Zanardi in the second Lotus in 1994. The first two corners at Estoril were very fast right-handers, and Adams was consistently betrayed by his car's engine note, which revealed he was going through them on the over-run...

At the '94 Portuguese Grand Prix, though, Adams was 'only' five seconds off the pole time. A year later, in the same race, Jean-Denis Deletraz drove a Pacific - and was more than five seconds slower than anyone else! Astonishingly, his fastest qualifying lap was 12.2 seconds away from David Coulthard's pole time, and still he was allowed to start.

On one occasion in practice, I remember, the Pacific actually stalled on the steep climb near the hairpin...

Dear Harry,
No, I don't think Johnny Herbert's driving style is hard on his car. He is, as you suggest, frequently an early retirement in the races, but I don't think it has anything to do with him. Since driving for Stewart/Jaguar, he has suffered from sometimes appalling reliability - but then Eddie Irvine hasn't finished too many races this year, either.

Some people come out with the old cliché that you make your own luck, and all that stuff. Actually, I don't go along with that - I'm a very firm believer that some people have better luck than others, and that's the end of it. It may be true that there are ways to reduce bad luck, by being supremely organised, or whatever, but when a driver like Dan Gurney - the only bloke Jimmy Clark feared as a rival - comes out of a long F1 career with only four Grand Prix victories, I don't see how anyone can claim there's no such thing as luck. Gurney was a genius of a driver, let down endlessly by poor reliability.

Almost from the beginning of his F1 career, Herbert's luck, too, has been lousy - and yet the irony is that he has three Grand Prix victories to his name, and all of them he inherited. So it's not absolutely a one-way street...

Dear Adam,
I don't quite understand your question - in the sense that, if Ralf Schumacher hadn't followed Michael into F1, I rather doubt that the eyes of the world would be on him at all.

It was interesting to hear Gerhard Berger's personal rating of the drivers when we chatted at Magny-Cours last weekend: "For me, it's now Michael, Jacques, Ralf, Mika and David, in that order." OK, you could say, "Well, Berger would say that", given his involvement with Williams-BMW, but there's no doubt that the younger Schumacher is now rated extremely highly by everyone in the paddock. When he was at Jordan, partnering Giancarlo Fisichella, most people thought there wasn't much to choose between them: they were both novices, both very promising. Now, though, I don't think you'd find many team owners offering a drive to Fisichella if they thought there was any chance of landing Ralf.

This is all a roundabout way of answering your question: would he have made it on his own? The answer is unequivocally yes - but I think it would have taken rather longer for him to get into F1. In that respect, I reckon his brother's name and patronage helped him considerably.

If he were in a Ferrari, would he be the man to beat? At the moment, I don't think so, because his relative would be in the other car, and he remains the best. As well as that, Michael's feelings about team-mates are a matter of record: he really doesn't like them going into business for themselves.

That said, there are those who believe that, in the fullness of time, Ralf could be perhaps the better of the two. Time will tell.

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