Ask Nigel: June 13

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 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

Ask Nigel: June 13

Dear Andrew,
For some years now, we've been hearing suggestions that the EU's forthcoming ban on tobacco advertising will drive the World Championship - or most of it - out of Europe, and towards the Pacific Rim, but I remain sceptical about that. For one thing, emphasis is always placed by the powers-that-be on the fact that this is a WORLD Championship; for another, there are plenty of sponsors in F1 other than tobacco companies, and assuredly they would not care to see a wholesale move out of Europe; for a third, undeniably the culture of F1 is European, rather than anything else. So I'll believe this dramatic cut in the number of European races when I see it.

If it were to happen, though, which five European races would I drop? If you deal with this logically - and dispassionately - the first thing you say is that currently Italy and Germany have two races apiece (even if two are 'badged' as the San Marino Grand Prix and the Grand Prix of Europe), and therefore their 'second' races should go. I have no feeling whatever for the 'new' Nurburgring, and wouldn't cry if that were to go, but I confess I'd hate to see the last of Imola.

What else? Barcelona, for a start. Although the city is lovely, the track invariably produces the most boring Grand Prix of the season. It has no particular atmosphere, and the Spanish people - while absolutely passionate about motorcycle racing - have no great passion for F1.

Next, the Hungaroring - also a place famous for dreary and processional races. Does nothing for me at all.

Other places, by contrast, have grown on me over time. Although the A1-Ring, as a circuit, is nothing compared with the majestic Osterreichring, it tends to give us a decent race, with overtaking opportunities, and the same is true of Magny-Cours.

Really, it's a matter of deciding which races should stay, no matter what. I'd keep Silverstone, for all its appalling traffic problems, because not to have a Grand Prix in the country where most of the F1 teams reside is unthinkable, and there's nowhere else capable of staging it. And two absolute necessities, as far as I'm concerned, are Spa and Monza.

What of Monaco? I hear you cry. Well, yes, you've got to keep it because... you've got to keep it. As a race, it's invariably a complete dead loss, thanks to its configuration, and it's an absolute pain in the neck if you're trying to work there, but it remains a supreme test of driving skill, and the 'show race' of the F1 calendar. Hell will freeze before Monaco disappears.

What else? Well, Hockenheim I could cheerfully dispense with, but Germany has to have one race, so where does that leave us?

Given a completely free hand, with no consideration given to anything but the quality of the Grand Prix weekend, I would drop Barcelona, the Hungaroring, Hockenheim, the Nurburgring and probably the A1-Ring. I guess, though, that the powers-that-be would keep Hockenheim, and drop Imola.

Dear Mike,
Yes, I have always been an avid fan of Jean Alesi, and I remain so, but the fact is that, although I reckon he's as quick as ever, his Grand Prix career must now be in its twilight years. Will he go to Champ Cars? At Milwaukee the other weekend, I mentioned that to several CART regulars, and all were enthusiastic at the thought of his possibly joining their series. Will he retire from racing altogether? I simply cannot imagine it - I doubt there's any man on earth who loves driving race cars more than Jean.

It seems ridiculous, when I think of the talent which burst on the F1 scene at Ricard a dozen years ago, that Alesi should have scored only a single Grand Prix victory - after all, many with a fraction of his ability have won many more.

So why? I think it's a combination of the factors you mention. Without a doubt, he has hardly been the luckiest driver down the years, and equally certain, too, is that he wasted the best seasons of his career at Ferrari. It's easy to forget now that, in going to Ferrari in 1991, Jean turned down an offer from Williams. Had he allowed his head, rather than heart, to make the decision, who knows how many Grand Prix wins there might have been? Williams, after all, were then on the point of going into the greatest period in their history, taking Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve to World Championships...

I think it's easy to write Alesi off as something of a wild man, capable of incredible speed, but off the road too much. Just think of his two years with Benetton, for example, in which his finishing record was remarkably good.

Has his Latin temperament got the better of him too often? Yes, probably, but I don't think it has often been costly, in terms of results. Jean's abiding problem is that, as he says himself, he was born at the wrong time, and should have been a racing driver before political correctness hit the paddock, when speaking your mind was readily acceptable. And his outbursts, while... dramatic, let's say, are far less frequent than some would have you believe. As Alain Prost puts it, "With Jean, you get two nuclear explosions a season, but the rest of the time he's perfect!"

Dear Pascal,
First, glad you like the column.

Second, did my trip to these parts refresh me? Yes and no, I guess, is the answer to that. On the one hand, I was delighted to get away from lying British politicians as the election loomed; on the other, I was less than thrilled, within three hours of arriving in Montreal, to find that someone had emptied my wallet for me. So, mixed feelings, I'm afraid.

Now, Louis Stanley. Over time he was derided for being pompous and self-important, but there is no doubt whatever that he was - and is - a kind man, who did very significant work in the field of motor racing safety, at a time when such causes were hardly fashionable. He founded, for example, the Grand Prix Medical Unit, which was launched in 1967, and amounted to a hospital on wheels, which was taken to every European Grand Prix. There was a need for such a thing, because the on-site medical facilities at circuits in those days were lamentable, in many cases.

It is a fact that, during Stanley's time in F1, the sport was unspeakably dangerous, compared with the way it is today, and tragedies were very frequent. When it came to dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy, Stanley was invariably a tower of strength, a man who addressed the issues of what had to be done, and got on with them. In that respect, many people had ample cause to be grateful to him.

In terms of running a team, however, it must be said he was rather less successful, and I have come across many who worked for BRM in those years who have said that, in many respects, yes, he was sometimes more of a hindrance than a help!

Team owners were a little different in those days. Jackie Stewart tells the story of an exchange with Stanley immediately after his huge accident in the Belgian Grand Prix of 1966. "I'm on a stretcher, with my collarbone broken, and I'm keen to get a message to my wife that I'm essentially OK. I'm saying, 'Lewis, tell Helen this', and 'Lewis, tell Helen that...'

"He looks at me, and finally he says, 'Stewart, if you must call me by my Christian name, it's Louis, not Lewis!"

Dear Brian,
Gerhard Berger is indeed a friend, and I'm quite willing to put my hand up and admit that when you like someone, it can indeed affect - to some degree - your judgement of what they do. More than that, I'd be suspicious of any journalist who claimed otherwise...

When it comes to Berger the racing driver, I would say that, at his best, yes, he was a number one driver. Most people, after all, would have no hesitation in applying that epithet to Nigel Mansell, but let's remember that when they were at Ferrari together, in 1989, Gerhard out-qualified Nigel more often than not. So, yes, the ability was undoubtedly there.

That said, I think that often Berger did not do true justice to that ability, because of the kind of man he was, and is. To Gerhard, motor racing was always one of the good things of life - but not life itself. I don't think he was ever as fit as, say, Ayrton Senna, and he certainly had nothing like the dedication of a Senna or a Schumacher - nor would claim to have had.

That said, I do think that driving extremely fast came very naturally to him, and he could be a ferocious competitor. After he had retired, I asked him if he had thought himself lazy in his career as a driver, and he said this: "No, not really - but 80% of the people in the paddock would tell you that. They say, 'Oh, he likes to go the beach, he likes girls, he's naturally talented, so he can do it without a lot of effort; he does his race, but then otherwise isn't very interested - he only wakes up when it's the time of the year to do the next contract!'

"I know I had this image, and I didn't care - somehow it fitted me. I felt well in my role. I think in F1 everyone gets a role: Prost had his role, Senna had his role, Lauda had his role - even Mansell had his role! And I had mine, and I was quite happy about it."

As I said, it was one of the good things of life, and it was this approach, of course, that made him such a popular figure, such wonderful company. More than anything, perhaps, I always liked the fact that Gerhard could laugh at himself. Take my word for it, this is not a universal trait among Grand Prix drivers.

To be a true number one driver, though, what do you need? I suppose, more than anything, it's an ability to build a team around you, to drag it up to your own uncompromising standards, have it working primarily for you. There are very few people capable of this, and all of them are obsessive about F1, to the point that they think about little else.

Alain Prost, for example, made McLaren 'his' team through most of the '80s, and then Ayrton Senna did the same, to an even greater degree. Now, look at Michael Schumacher, who moulded Benetton into an entirely 'Schumacher team', and then - remarkably - did the same thing, and even more so, with Ferrari. People like this are very rare indeed - but then so also are their results...

Dear Matthew,
I don't know quite why Jacques Villeneuve suddenly came out with this theory - or, more to the point, why the split between CART and the IRL should make any real difference in the ability of 'Indycar racing' (to use a generic term) to prepare drivers for F1.

I certainly agree with JV that the split has hugely, perhaps irrevocably, damaged open-wheel racing in the USA, but as far as I'm concerned the cream remains with CART, however many political and other problems that series may have. At the recent Indianapolis 500, the CART teams and drivers who chose to enter, although mostly racing IRL cars for the first time, completely trounced the IRL opposition, and I can't honestly say I was much surprised. Some of the IRL front runners, after all, were previously no-hopers in the CART series...

Are Jacques's comments valid? To me, they are no less, and no more, so than would have been the case 10 years ago. If I needed a new F1 driver, I can't truly say I would go looking in the IRL for him, but some members of the CART brigade - notably Helio Castroneves - would acquit themselves well in F1, I reckon.

You're right, of course, that it didn't work in the cases of Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi. Michael, I think, made a big mistake in deciding not to live in Europe, but rather to commute from Pennsylvania, as his father had done. That may have worked for Mario in the 1970s, but by the '90s life in F1 had changed, and Michael's decision not to live in England meant that not only was he not instantly available for testing (a task willingly undertaken by Mika Hakkinen), but also gave McLaren the impression, rightly or wrongly, that he wasn't truly committed to F1, and was merely giving it a go to see if he liked it.

As for Alex, he simply didn't care for the current breed of F1 car, complete with grooved tyres, and never really came to terms with life at Williams, never showed any like the fire and competitiveness evident in his CART years with the Ganassi team. Sad, because he is a delightful man, and of abundant ability, but undeniable, all the same.

On the other hand, you'd have to say that Jacques himself made a pretty good job of transferring from CART to F1, and if Juan Montoya's first half-season has been patchy, there have been enough signs of latent brilliance to suggest that he will be a very major star in the years to come. Simply put, I agree with Mario Andretti: "If you can drive, you can drive. Period."

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