Ask Nigel - June 21

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 - June 21

Dear David,

It was in the mid-80s that radio communication between pits and car became the norm in Formula 1, and I remember it well because we journalists all equipped ourselves with scanners!

Once you had all the frequencies locked in, you could flick from car to car, and listen in to the conversation between a driver and his team manager. I recall a particularly memorable one between Lotus's Peter Warr and Ayrton Senna at Monza, when the question of tyre wear was discussed at some length.

Tyre stops were not an automatic feature of Grands Prix back then, and Ayrton was trying to decide whether to pit for new rubber or not. "Ask Goodyear what they think," he said to Warr, and a couple of minutes later back came the answer: "Mmmm, Goodyear say they think you can go the whole way - but it's marginal. Up to you." There was a very long pause before Senna responded: "OK - we go for it..."

That little story illustrates just how much difference radio communication made to F1; before it arrived, a team could use only pit boards to give messages to its drivers - and they, of course, had no way to respond. It is very much the norm these days to discuss tactics at some length in the course of a race.

Unfortunately, we don't use scanners any more, for there is no point. The teams quickly got to realise what was going on, and by 1988 all the lines were 'scrambled'. It had been good fun while it lasted, mind you, and certainly added to your perspective of a race.

In point of fact, while it may have taken a long time to perfect radio communication between pit and driver, folk had been playing with it for a very long time. Back in 1956, at Indianapolis, driver Jim Rathmann struggled hard to hear what was being said to him, and finally realised he was being asked to go and clear someone's drain! His radio was on the same frequency as an Indianapolis plumber...

Dear Kris,

Yes, in the 'ground effect' era Formula 1 cars did indeed frequently run without front wings. In those days, before skirts were banned, and the 'flat bottom' regulations introduced (at the end of the 1982 season), the undersides of the F1 cars' sidepods were shaped, rather than flat, and this provided a great deal of the total downforce.

That being so, the cars were far less reliant on wings for downforce, and quite often they raced without front wings at all, this giving benefits in terms of straightline speed. There wasn't always a lot in it, however. At Imola in 1982, for example, Didier Pironi ran his Ferrari with a front wing, while Gilles Villeneuve chose to do without, but there was as good as no difference between the two cars' performance on the straights.

After the shaped under-bodies had been banned, the drivers quickly discovered that it was much more difficult to run closely behind another car through the corners. All the downforce was coming from the wings, which were much more affected by the turbulence - the 'dirty air' - generated by the car in front.

It is this phenomenon which has led to the processional state of Grand Prix racing today. At a corner like Parabolica, at Monza, time was when groups of cars would come through in close formation, then slipstream each other all the way down the pit straight. But Gary Anderson, of Jaguar, recently explained that such a thing was impossible with the cars of today. "At Parabolica," he said, "as soon as you get within 10 car lengths of the guy in front of you, you're going to feel the loss of downforce, and start to run wide - so that all you can do is lift off..."

In CART racing, the regulations still permit shaped under-bodies, which is the main reason why - even at a track as quick as Michigan or Fontana - it is possible to run very close to the car in front of you. Some downforce is lost, but not all - because some of it is coming from beneath the car, and is therefore not affected by 'dirty air'.

Moves have recently been afoot to bring back shaped under-bodies to F1, in conjunction with a reduction in wing sizes and diffusers, for there is a widespread acceptance in the paddock - publicly admitted or not - that the quality of the actual racing in F1 is currently dire, and needs attention. The response of the powers-that-be, however, tends to be, 'Look at the TV figures', which remain high, of course. Their complacency does them little credit.

Dear Art,

Formula 1 and CART cars don't carry on-board starters because the rules don't require them - and they're extra weight! Simple as that.

I take your point about marshals on street circuits being at risk as they remove damaged cars, and there are occasions in F1, too, when a driver spins, stalls - and is out for the day. CART regulations permit a stalled car to be restarted, either by pushing or towing, but in F1 this is not allowed.

Unless or until on-board starters are made mandatory, though, you will never see them in either series.

Dear Oren,

Corners acquire names in one of two ways. Either it is entirely artificial (which applies particularly at new circuits), or it has to do with locality.

You mention such as the Senna chicane (there is one at Hockenheim, and another at Interlagos) and the Clark Curve, and these are good examples of simply giving a corner a name. Personally, it has always seemed to me the height of irony that a chicane, of all things, should be named after Ayrton, who detested them, and considered them a blight of modern racing.

When it comes to corners such as Blanchimont, however, the situation is different. Blanchimont is a village close by part of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, and therefore the corner nearest to it bears its name. Look at a map of the old Nurburgring, and all those evocative corner names - Pflanzgarten, Hohe Acht, Adenau, and so on - are taken from villages or hamlets or landmarks around the circuit's 14 miles.

Dear Bill,

I would agree with you entirely about Messrs Phil Hill, Richie Ginther, Dan Gurney and Peter Revson as major forces in F1 in the 60s and 70s, but not necessarily with the other drivers you mention. Poor Mark Donohue's F1 career was sadly brief, as we know, and he never had a competitive car to drive. Bob Bondurant and George Follmer were journeymen at this level, and Brett Lunger, while a nice guy who talked a good race, frankly made no impression whatever.

What has changed since then is that the links between America and F1 have become increasingly slender. Time was when we had two strong races in the US, at Long Beach and Watkins Glen, the one at the beginning of the season on the West Coast, the other at the end on the East.

Each event had a considerable fan base, and the crowds were always huge. There was continuity here, particularly in the case of the Glen, and the spectators were as familiar with Jackie Stewart or Niki Lauda as with AJ Foyt and Bobby Unser.

To some considerable degree, it was the decision of Mario Andretti, already a legend in America, to do F1 full time, which caused it to boom for a time on the other side of the water.

The earlier generation, though, the Hills, Gurneys and Ginthers, came from American sports car racing, which does not exist in the same way today. They would drive for wealthy owners at tracks like Riverside and Laguna Seca, and invariably the cars of choice were Ferraris, bought directly from the factory.

Enzo Ferrari would keep an eye on those racing his cars in America, and if a driver showed particular promise, chances were he would be invited to Modena to try one of the latest factory cars. Hill, Gurney and Ginther began their F1 careers, driving for the Old Man, although all eventually left for other teams.

As for the skill levels of the group, for me Gurney and Hill stand proud of the rest. Phil was - and is - a supremely intelligent man, and also a cultured one. Although he was America's first World Champion, in 1961, I suppose I tend always to think of him first as a sports car driver, but he was mighty good in anything he drove.

As for Dan, well, it is not by chance that he is one of Mario Andretti's heroes. Like Mario, he was a supreme all-rounder, excelling in everything he drove, be it F1 cars, Indy cars, sports cars - even stock cars. There is, I think, a strong case to be made for suggesting he is the greatest Grand Prix driver ever to come out of America.

At Jimmy Clark's funeral, in April 1968, his father said to Gurney, "You know, Dan, you were the only one Jim ever worried about..." You cannot say more of a racing driver than that.

Dear Dave,

Yes, I agree with you that the amount of testing carried out in F1 borders on the absurd, but such is the competitiveness of the people involved that they will test as much as the budget permits. That's the way it is.

Attempts have been made many times to restrict testing, to confine it only to a handful of tracks, with each team being required to nominate its circuit of choice, but in the end we have always slipped back to what amounts to a free-for-all.

Flavio Briatore spoke for many recently when he suggested that testing should be very seriously curtailed - and that, instead, a couple of races should be added to the World Championship calendar. At one time, FIA President Max Mosley was also strongly in favour of such a scheme, but of late the situation appears to have changed, with Bernie Ecclestone talking in terms of fewer races - a maximum of perhaps 14 - but with more of them 'fly away' events, outside of Europe.

Dear John,

Why did Emerson Fittipaldi's Copersucar F1 project fail? McLaren's longtime Team Coordinator Jo Ramirez used to work for the team, and when I asked him to reminisce, this is what he said.

"Mmmm, well, for a start, can you imagine building an F1 car in Brazil? I don't need to say any more, do I? I certainly learned a lot about management when I was there, but... I didn't really think Emerson's lavish style of living was correct when the team was performing so poorly.

"I remember Monaco in 1976. It was near the end of qualifying, and Emerson was down near the back of the grid. He was out on the track, and we knew he was marginal on fuel, but decided to chance it, and let him do another lap. He ran out, but managed to coast into the pit, and he was absolutely furious!

"We put some more fuel in, and out he went again - sideways away from the pit, sideways as he rejoined the track. He did one more quick lap - and it was a second and a half faster than he'd done before, and moved him up to seventh. It showed what anger could do, and afterwards he was all smiles about it, but I said, 'What the hell were you doing before?'

"It was the same at Silverstone another year. Hunt and Lauda lapped him - and then he stayed with them, no problem... I think he'd lost interest in F1 by then."

This was not the whole story, of course. When the team got started, in 1975, the driver was not Emerson Fittipaldi, but his far more volatile and far less talented, brother Wilson. As Ramirez said, attempting to build the car in Brazil was less than logical, in a number of ways, but the team's first major sponsor - Copersucar - was insistent it should be truly a Brazilian project. That first season was pathetic, lamentable.

At that time, though, Emerson was very much a top Grand Prix driver. He had won the World Championship in 1972 with Lotus, and again with McLaren in 1974; he had won 14 Grands Prix and there were plenty more to come. Unaccountably, though, he chose to leave McLaren at the end of 1975, to drive for the 'family team'. It was this, in fact, which allowed James Hunt, out of a drive after the Hesketh withdrawal, to move into McLaren and to win the title in 1976.

Once Copersucar was out of the way, the car was called a 'Fittipaldi', and soon the team was based in England. There was occasionally a reasonable result - Emerson was second to Carlos Reutemann's Ferrari at Rio in 1978, for example - but the fact was that the brothers had wholly underestimated, financially and otherwise, what was involved in setting up and operating their own team, and gradually it sank into the mire.

Emerson himself retired from driving at the end of 1980, and he says himself that by then he was completely burned out. There were major financial problems, his first marriage was over and he simply had had enough. The team was finally wound up in 1982, whereupon Fittipaldi returned to Brazil. A couple of years later, of course, he came back, fit again, to embark on a second, highly successful career in Indy cars.

I know what you mean when you say it reminds you of Jacques Villeneuve's current predicament, of a superior talent going to waste in an inferior car, but it was particularly poignant in Emerson's case, because in leaving McLaren, he voluntarily abandoned as competitive a car as there was.

Dear Steve,

A lot of people ask me this! I know the surname is unusual, but, no, I'm not related to Peter Roebuck. I, too, greatly admire his writing, by the way.

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