Ask Nigel - June 28

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 28

Dear Per,
It doesn't surprise me that Ronnie Peterson was your hero in F1, and not only because of your nationality. You say he is almost forgotten in Sweden, and that amazes me: it certainly isn't the case here in the UK, believe me.

Ronnie was a hero, not only for the spectators, for also for everyone in the Formula 1 paddock. We all loved his aggressiveness on the track, his extraordinarily spectacular style, but beyond that there was also a tremendous affection for him. As well as being a great driver, he was a good man.

'Mad Ronald' Mike Hailwood used to call him. In the Peterson era, 20 and 30 years ago, F1 may have been infinitely more dangerous than now, but it lacked the hard edge of today, and friendships between the drivers were the norm.

Peterson was never a textbook racing driver, in the Stewart sense of the word, but rather one who could make a car dance to his tune, a man of reflex and instinct. Rene Dreyfus once said of Nuvolari that understeer and oversteer were an irrelevance in his case; whatever the car's inclinations, it would do what its driver required. Ronnie was like that.

In fact, it was just as well, because he was a terrible test driver. "He was amazing in that respect," Colin Chapman said. "You could change a car quite fundamentally - and he'd still turn in the same sort of times! So you'd ask him how it felt different from before, and he'd say, 'Ummmm, slides a bit more...' Where? At the front, the back, both ends? And he'd say he wasn't really sure! Made me tear my hair out. Then, of course, he'd go and put the thing on pole position, so you couldn't really get too mad with him."

Chapman always reckoned that Ronnie was at his best when partnered with a supreme test driver, and it was lucky that, in two spells with Lotus, his team-mates were Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. "He'd mess around in practice, while Emerson worked on his set-up, then copy his settings - and nick pole position from him! Used to madden Emerson, that, and you couldn't blame him."

Ronnie's talent was such that he could drive around any problem his car might have, and have the confidence to commit to a flat-out corner in the certainty that he could sort it all out.

"I don't think Ronnie ever had the mental application that a complete racing driver needs," said Jackie Stewart, "but I admired his ability tremendously. Any number of times, particularly in 1973, I'd follow him into a corner and think, 'Oh-oh, Ronnie, this time you've overdone it, you're gone!' But he always seemed to get it back somehow. It never surprised me that the spectators loved him - he was exciting to watch from where I was, too!"

As with Jochen Rindt or Gilles Villeneuve, Peterson was a driver who made you seek out a particular corner for the privilege of watching him through it. In all my years of watching F1 drivers, I have never seen anything better than Ronnie's Lotus 72 through Silverstone's original Woodcote Corner.

So what was my opinion of him? One of the greatest chargers of all time, as you say, but also a lovely bloke, a loyal team member, a man of complete integrity.


Dear Paul,
It is a fact that the FIA some time ago decreed that any new CART races outside the USA had to be run on ovals. You might believe that the governing body has little influence over CART or NASCAR or, for that matter, the IRL, that Max Mosley wouldn't hold much sway with such as Chip Ganassi and Bill France, and in a day-to-day sense you might be right. But it's not quite as simple as that.

First of all, we're really talking only about CART here, since neither Bill France (NASCAR) nor Tony George (IRL) has ever, to the best of my knowledge, so much as suggested running a race outside the US. I'm aware that NASCAR put on one or two 'demo' races at Suzuka not so long ago, but they were not a success with the Japanese fans, and have now ceased. Should NASCAR decide in future to go back to Japan, there is, of course, the Motegi oval, which has been on the CART schedule for the last three years.

However, all three series are essentially national championships, with all rounds run in America, in the cases of NASCAR and the IRL, and almost all, in the case of CART. There are, however, currently three CART events run 'abroad', these at Motegi, Rio and Surfers' Paradise.

As the Australian race, run on a street circuit, was instigated before the FIA's ruling, it has been granted exemption, but all 'foreign' races since have been subject to it: Motegi and Rio are not a problem, since both are ovals.

You're quite right about the FIA's minimal influence on American racing series - so long as they remain firmly that. Mosley has no official say in what are purely domestic series, but as soon as they step outside the US, and thus become international, it is a different matter.

No one needs to be told how protective of its own interests the governing body is. To give you an example: 20 or so years ago, when there was briefly a Grand Prix in Las Vegas, there was virtually zero spectator interest first time round, in 1981. So for 1982 the organisers, seeking to get the attention of American fans, came up with a plan to have a CART race on the Saturday, followed by the Grand Prix on the Sunday.

At the time, that looked like a pretty good weekend of racing to us, but it didn't sit well with the powers-that-be. Overnight a new rule was introduced, banning any Grand Prix supporting a race for 'single-seaters of more than 2-litres'. That got rid of any talk of a CART race, of course - and also pretty well guaranteed the demise of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, since there was no more interest in the second than there had been in the first.

The rule was, of course, later rescinded. Why? Well, Formula 3000 was on the way...

Now CART is bringing its show to Europe, with two races at Rockingham and the Lausitzring - both of which are ovals, of course. I could be wrong, but I rather doubt that the FIA, in introducing its rule, imagined that anyone in Europe would ever actually build an oval. As it was, the door was left slightly ajar for CART.


Dear Bob,
I'm by no means the only one to suspect that Juan-Pablo Montoya will be the next great Grand Prix driver, but you are of course quite right: until he gets started in F1, we won't truly know.

There are pointers, however. For one thing, in F3000 Montoya was emphatically the class of the field - I've never forgotten how, in the race at Monaco in 1998, he succeeded in passing at least half a dozen guys in front of him, following an early stop.

For another, he has been quantifiably the best driver in CART since he arrived there. And while some belittle this series, and the drivers within it, it's worth remembering that Montoya dominates it in a way Jacques Villeneuve never did - and JV made out pretty well as an F1 driver, didn't he?

Last point: Juan-Pablo was the Williams test driver in '98 - when the regular drivers were Villeneuve and Frentzen - and he impressed Patrick Head enormously. This, take my word for it, is not easily done.

I will be amazed if he disappoints, as Jan Magnussen did. Although Magnussen looked something else in F3, he made little impression in a few CART drives, and I never had the feeling he was sufficiently dedicated to go all the way in F1 - never felt he wanted it enough. For one thing, he was never sufficiently fit.

I can't define this special quality that all the great ones seem to have as soon as they arrive, but, believe me, it's there. Invariably, they're prodigiously quick, in many cases flattering the machinery they have been given to drive, but there's more to it than that: they're not overawed by the rarefied atmosphere of F1, but just seem to belong, quite naturally, from the very beginning. Prost had it, and Senna, and Schumacher - and I sense it with Montoya, too.


Dear Pierre-Etienne,
Didier Pironi. My memories of him are equivocal, I must say, in that I keep the driver and the man in separate compartments.

First, the driver. I thought his natural ability very high, and by 1982 he was moving into the 'great' category. All right, he wasn't as quick as Gilles Villeneuve, but then neither was anyone else, and the fact that he was sometimes on terms with Gilles, in similar cars, spoke volumes for his talent and speed. Had it not been for the accident at Hockenheim, I have no doubts that he would have been France's first World Champion.

Pironi the man, though, is more difficult to talk about. Although he was invariably courteous with journalists, and I never had any problems with him, there was beneath the quiet surface a raging ambition. On the track, he was a hard man.

Once, after one of those BMW Procar races, at Hockenheim in 1980, I saw Hans-Joachim Stuck literally screaming at Pironi in the pit lane. Stuck had been forced off the road by him, and was incensed. And what I remember most is that Didier never responded, but just stood there, looking vaguely bored. When I talked to Hans-Joachim about it later, he was almost lost for words: "You can't talk to Pironi - it's like he's made of ice..."

I knew what he meant. Didier had a very calculating quality, and was a very 'political' racing driver. When he and Villeneuve had their controversial 'race' at Imola in 1982, he plainly stole the Grand Prix on the last lap, when Gilles thought they were following team orders, cruising in for a one-two finish.

There are many who believe that, in doing what he did, Pironi knew this was much more than stealing a Grand Prix victory. His real intention, knowing what kind of a man Villeneuve was, had been to unsettle him. If so, it worked. When I talked to Gilles the following week, he told me his trust in Pironi had been destroyed, and he would never so much as speak to him again. And at the next race, of course, at Zolder, Villeneuve crashed to his death in the final qualifying session.

It was because of this that, when Didier himself later crashed disastrously at Hockenheim, there was rather less sympathy for him in the F1 community than might have been otherwise expected.


Dear Larry,
Yes, I do have a fairly set routine, when it comes to writing at a Grand Prix, although, as you suggest, it does vary a little, according to location.

At a 'normal' race - in other words, one in Europe, rather than at the other end of a very long flight - I write very little on the Friday, unless there is a feature to be finished off, or something of the kind. Given that there is no qualifying on Fridays these days, it tends to be a bit of boring day, but is quite good from the point of view of taping interviews, and so on.

On Saturday evening, after qualifying, I may write 'Fifth Column', if some obvious topic for it has come up, but sometimes leave that until Monday afternoon - I fly home on Monday morning. Otherwise, this is a good time to begin transcribing interview tapes, or whatever.

Come race day, in the morning I begin my race report, dealing with the events in qualifying and the warm-up, then grab a glass of wine and a piece of cheese before the Grand Prix starts. A couple of hours or so after the race, I start on the report proper, and if I'm reasonably organised, and don't get too many distractions, it's finished by late evening, after which I e-mail it, and fax the qualifying and race results, to the various magazines.

The F1 press corps has hugely grown in size over the last few years, but the press rooms have not. Therefore, they tend to be very cramped, and very noisy, so, if at all possible, I escape as soon as is practicable, and get back to my hotel room, to work there.

If it's a long haul race, of course, the whole process becomes much more compressed, particularly if - as in North America - the time change is working against you. On these occasions, the column must be written before the race, and the actual race report has to be finished earlier than usual. There's no question of writing anything on Monday, because the whole day is spent travelling, and by the time you're back in England, of course, the deadlines are long past.


Dear Andrew,
What, indeed, has happened to Mika Hakkinen? Actually, I don't think there was anything much awry in the first four races - he didn't finish in either Melbourne or Interlagos, but he did start from pole position both times, and was leading on each occasion when his car failed him. At Imola, too, he was again on the pole, and led Schumacher in the race until his engine momentarily cut out, which allowed Michael to close up - which, in turn, allowed the Ferrari to get ahead of the McLaren at the final stops.


Jackie Stewart has said that, no matter who you are, winning a World Championship means that you start the following season with a certain lack of something, be it motivation, hard edge, whatever. "Look down the years, and you'll see that not too many drivers have won it two years running. Mika did, and it was a remarkable achievement, but maybe now it's caught up with him..."

Maybe so. Although Hakkinen won the Spanish Grand Prix, it was only after pit-stop problems had taken Schumacher from the lead, and of late Mika has plainly been off his game. All right, this is a relative term when you speak of drivers at this level, but there's no doubt that he is currently not the force he was.

It is not simply a matter of only one win from eight Grands Prix - as we said earlier, Hakkinen should have won the first three races, as well. No, it is since Barcelona that Mika has gone off the boil, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in qualifying.

By common consent, at this he is the best, the man who inherited Ayrton Senna's mantle as the natural pole-sitter, the one who could always find that extra tenth in the dying minutes of a session. This year he has qualified first, first, first - then third, second, third, fifth, fourth.

As Mika's star has lately fallen, so David Coulthard's has moved in the opposite direction. Absurd as it may seem, since the plane crash in early May, David has seemed more relaxed, more at peace with himself, than at any time before.

For sure, coming through an experience of that kind has to change your perspective of life, and my impression is that DC has been less intense of late - which has brought great benefits to his driving. To finish second in Spain, only five days after the accident, said much about the man. Only afterwards did it emerge that he had three broken ribs.

Thus far David has won two races, and if his performances have perhaps been flattered by his team-mate's loss of form, so there is no doubt that he is consistently a more potent force than before. In Montreal he gave Schumacher all he could handle in the early laps, and that stop/go penalty was a tragedy for the race, which effectively ended right there.


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