Ask Nigel - June 14

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday here at autosport.com. If you have a question for Nigel e-mail it to him at autosportnews@haynet.com

Ask Nigel - June 14


Dear Nigel,
Following your recent comment regarding David Purley and Rouen, my question is simple - what car, which circuit and which driver would make your ultimate passenger ride?
Jeremy Walker
London, England


Dear Jeremy,

I think I came pretty close when I went round the Nurburgring - the real Nurburgring - with Jackie Stewart, but that was 'only' in a Cologne Capri RS2600, rather than a race car.

Unfortunately, McLaren did not have a two-seat F1 car in the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, but if such a thing had existed then, I think the ultimate would surely have been to go round Spa-Francorchamps with each of them. They were both brilliant at this out-and-out driver's circuit, and I the comparison would have been fascinating.


Dear Nick,

Thanks for the compliments. Glad you think my books are all-too-few - there's a reason for that: in light of the time spent on writing them, the financial reward is all-too-little!

I'm interested that you should consider Max, Bernie, Ron and Frank to be Formula 1's Royal Family. Can't say I'd ever thought of any of them in quite that way, but I know what you're getting at...

Certainly, all four of them stood out in their early days, but in quite different ways. Mosley I first knew when he was part of March, and it was quite obvious even then that he wasn't going to spend the rest of his life 'doing deals' with spotty youths who wanted to drive - or preferably to buy - his racing cars. Max always had the silent ambition, the silky lawyer's tongue.

You could never say that of Bernie - the silky lawyer's tongue, I mean - but what he had then, and emphatically still has, is a very quick tongue. It's almost impossible to catch him on the hop - he has an uncanny ability, when asked a difficult question, to come up with an instant, funny, rejoinder, so as to buy himself a little more thinking time.

When he bought the Brabham team, back in 1971, it was soon apparent that here was a natural leader, a born deal-maker, who was going to organise these team owners, get them the financial rewards they deserved - and were not, at that time, receiving.

Certainly, he was drivingly ambitious, but I confess that when I first interviewed him, over a pub lunch in 1972, I little thought that here was a man who was going to take over the world. He was obviously nicely fixed even then, but who could see billions in his future? Bernie alone, I guess.

I remember one thing he came out with that day. "There's a saying: first you get on, then you get rich, then you get honest."

For all that Ecclestone has changed Grand Prix racing literally out of sight during his long spell at the tiller, still I've never fundamentally doubted his love of it, and the same is true - to a greater degree - of Frank and Ron.

I didn't start writing about Formula 1 until 1971, so therefore didn't know Ron in his days as a mechanic with Cooper and Brabham. The first time I met him, he was running Rondel Racing, an F2 team which he had set up with Neil Trundle (a man who works for McLaren today). And my main recollection of that operation was how tidy everything about it was, how professional, by comparison with other F2 outfits of the day. Dennis's obsessive attention to detail was apparent even then, and it didn't take a Rhodes Scholar to see that this was a bloke going places, one who logically was going to finish up with an F1 team some day.

Frank was already in that position when I came into the business, having started his own F1 operation in 1969, running a Brabham for his great mate Piers Courage - and doing very well with it, too, taking two seconds that first year, at Monaco and Watkins Glen.

After Courage's death, at Zandvoort in 1970, Williams was devastated, but he admits that the thought of doing something else never crossed his mind. All in all, he went through very shaky times through most of the 1970s, for ever on the bread line, for ever needing to run drivers with more sponsorship than talent (although Jacques Laffite was a shining exception), and I have to say it wasn't easy to envisage him as a major team owner.

There was, though, always enormous drive in FW. It all begab to turn around for him when Patrick Head came aboard in '77; sponsorship was found in Saudi-Arabia, and, following the setting up of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, their first car, FW06, pointed towards a bright future. FW07, which came along in 1979, was the best car of the year.

I have always said that, of all the people I have met in motor racing, the two who have most loved it for its own sake are Mario Andretti and Frank Williams. For the last 14 years, Frank has been in a wheelchair, legacy of that dreadful road accident, but his obsession with racing has, if anything, grown even more in that time.

He and Ron have their detractors, and neither (mercifully) is a perfect human being, but I have infinite time for both of them, not least because I like the way they go racing, the integrity they bring to it. Not a compliment I would necessarily pay to all their rivals.


Dear Peter,

What a wickedly cynical thought - the very same one went through the mind of everyone in the Monaco press room, too...

On the face of it, when Schumacher trickled slowly down the pit straight, right front wheel in the air, it seemed not unreasonable initially to surmise he had clouted the barrier at the exit of Rascasse with the left rear of the car.

There have been times in the past when one has suspected the 'invention' of a technical fault by Ferrari to hide a simple mistake by Schuey, to keep intact the illusion that he is perfect, untouchable, incapable of goofing.

On this occasion, though, there was no doubt that the explanation given was the correct one. The exhaust had indeed broken, causing the left rear pushrod to overheat, and fail.

Yes, there had been the odd nudge with the wall through practice and qualifying, but in the race, although he set a fast pace, Michael was never under any pressure, and made no mistakes that I saw.


Dear Charles,

Yes, I do concentrate on Formula 1, as you say. For one thing, it is quite enough to fill my professional life on its own; for another, rallying is really a wholly separate activity, with its own specialist press. Although both branches of motor sport, to me they have no more to do with each other than do soccer and rugby.

Some of my colleagues, notably Maurice Hamilton, are avidly interested in both, but I'm afraid to say that, while I'll happily watch a rally on TV or whatever, it doesn't do a lot for me, and never has. My motor sport fascinations outside Formula 1 lie with American racing.

That said, I obviously have consummate admiration for what someone like Richard Burns can do with a car, and I'm sure that the skill level of some drivers, in both racing and rallying, is such that they could succeed in either category. It may be a very long time ago, but we should remember that when Jimmy Clark drove a factory Lotus Cortina in the 1966 RAC Rally, he was shatteringly quick, and won at least one stage.

His namesake, Roger, also in a Cortina on that event, once told me of the effect Jimmy's pace had on the regular rally guys. "Everyone loved him, of course, and revered him - but we were also pretty confident we were going to blow him away. Ha! That didn't last long..."

In the same way, Jonathan Palmer told me of a test session at Estoril in the winter of 1985/86. He was there with the Zakspeed F1 team, and as their test finished, so Lancia arrived with their Group B cars. In semi-darkness, Jonathan had a ride round the circuit with Henry Toivonen, and it made a big impression on him.

"I'm sure," he said, "that that thing was as quick to, say, 100mph, as my F1 car. Certainly it felt that way. And Toivonen's speed and car control were something else - just mindblowing..."

Mario Andretti, perhaps the greatest all-rounder racing has ever known, has always maintained that going constantly from one type of (race) car to another should not be a problem: "If you can drive, you can drive. Period."

McRae or Burns over Schumacher and Hakkinen? Depends, doesn't it? Through Kielder in rally cars, you'd go for Colin and Richard; through Eau Rouge in F1 cars, it would be Michael and Mika. Apples and pears.


Dear Adrian,

Certainly, there are many motor sport writers whose work I enjoy, and they tend to be folk who not only do it well, but also put something of themselves into their writing. For me, a really good writer should be able to move you, and also make you laugh.


I came into this business, I confess, as something of a disciple of Denis Jenkinson, whose coverage of racing in Motor Sport kept me informed and entertained through my school days, and after. Jenks was fiercely opinionated, never afraid to write what he thought, and that is a quality I've always much admired. It's much easier to take a 'softly softly' approach, so as to keep the right side of everyone, but as someone last week said of Tony Blair: "Until he dares to make some enemies, he'll never make any friends."

Had Blair been a racing writer, I suspect he would have described the events at Jerez in 1997 - where Schumacher, with the championship up for grabs, tried to drive Villeneuve off the road - as nobody's fault, just one of those things. As the FIA Stewards did, in fact.

Forgive the digression; couldn't resist it.

I thoroughly enjoy the writings of my pals, Alan Henry (particularly when he's in 'irreverent' mode), Maurice Hamilton (so often bitingly funny), and Eoin Young (who couldn't be pompous if he tried). Luckily, I read French well enough to be able to savour the wit, and unrivalled knowledge, of Jabby Crombac, and I've long been an admirer of Richard Williams, who doesn't cover racing full time, but knows more about it than most, and writes with simple elegance.

Of those on the other side of the water, I've always enjoyed the insight and honesty of Gordon Kirby, another friend of long standing, and appreciate, too, the unique style of Joe Scalzo, who has no rival when it comes to writing of US racing in the '50s and '60s, an era which is a particular passion of mine. His latest book, 'Indianapolis Roadsters 1952-1964', I have relished more than any other for a very long time.

There are, of course, many more than that. I guess the simplest way to sum up my tastes is to say that I most enjoy writing which appears to come easily. This is one of the reasons why I count a man like Alistair Cooke among my heroes. What I loathe is writing which comes across as contrived or 'clever', so that you have the impression the perpetrator has spent 20 minutes on each sentence, sprinkling it with 'buzz' words and designer labels. Great writing simply flows along.


Dear Stephen,

Short answer: the man who was second in the World Championship on the occasion of which you speak later went on to win it four times...


Dear Peter,
Nice to hear from you. Interesting question. Difficult to know where to start!

Stirling Moss says - and he's right - that the World Championship has long been too important, in the sense that drivers think too much in terms of points. As a rule of thumb, I always like to see the title go to the guy who has won most races that season. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not.

For different reasons, I think justice would have been better served if Moss, rather than Mike Hawthorn, had been World Champion in 1958; Jimmy Clark, rather than Denny Hulme, in '67; Mario Andretti, rather than Niki Lauda, in '77; Gilles Villeneuve, rather than Jody Scheckter, in '79; Alain Prost, rather than Nelson Piquet, in '83; Prost again (rather than Lauda) in '84; Nigel Mansell, rather than Piquet, in '87; almost anyone, rather than Michael Schumacher, in '94.

Although he was World Champion four times, Prost could - and perhaps should - have won it on at least three other occasions. In 1984, for example, he won seven Grands Prix, to McLaren team mate Lauda's five, yet lost the title to Niki by half a point. And in '88, when the '11 best results' rule applied, he was second to Senna; had today's rule been in force, where every point is counted, he would have beaten Ayrton, by 105 points to 94.

Overwhelmingly, though, it is 1958 which stands out for me. Discounting the Indianapolis 500 (which, somewhat illogically, counted for the championship in those days), there were 10 World Championship events that year. Moss won four, his Vanwall team mate Tony Brooks three, and Ferrari's Mike Hawthorn one - and yet it was Hawthorn who took the title.

These days you get 10 points for a win, but back then it was only eight - absurdly only two more than for finishing second. So that hardly worked to Stirling's advantage, for a start.

At the final, deciding, race, in Casablanca, Moss had to win (and get the extra point for fastest lap, which then appertained), with Hawthorn finishing lower than second. In the event, Stirling dominated the race, won, and got fastest lap - could have done nothing more, in other words. And in the closing laps, Phil Hill, Hawthorn's team mate, obeyed team orders, and let Mike through into the second place he needed.

I don't mean to disparage Hawthorn, who was brilliant on his day, but he was not by any means Moss's equal. Stirling never won the World Championship, of course, which is a joke in itself, but I reckon the one he deserved more than any other was this one.

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