Ask Nigel - June 7

Every Wednesday Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions here on If you have a question about recent events or the current state of F1, or a memory of an event or driver you want Nigel's opinon on, the e-mail us here at Keep the questions coming

Ask Nigel - June 7

Dear Nigel,
Sometime back ('92 I think) Senna had a test in a Penske with Emerson Fittipaldi. Do you happen to know how serious this test was & how competitive his times were & if he was at all serious about doing a mansell & going over to the states as there was a lot of talk of him taking a sabattical in '93.
Jon Beet
United Kingdom

Dear Jon,

Senna's Penske test was run at the Firebird International Raceway, near the Phoenix oval, at the end of 1992, and came about at the behest of his great friend, and mentor, Emerson Fittipaldi.

At the time Ayrton, I remember, was in a pretty disgruntled state with Formula 1, and for a number of reasons. First, the vastly superior 'active' Williams-Renault FW14Bs of Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese had dominated the previous season, and Senna's McLaren-Honda had finished only fourth in the World Championship.

Second, Honda were leaving Formula 1, and McLaren were to use a 'customer' Ford V8 in '93, rather than the Lamborghini V12, which Ayrton had tested with enthusiasm, and which would have been his choice for the coming season. Also, he had wanted to go to Williams, but, with Alain Prost already signed for the following year, that was out of the question. At that stage, indeed, there were no guarantees that Ayrton would even drive in F1 in '93.

As well as that, Senna - like Prost - loathed the electronic 'gizmos' which were increasingly coming into F1 at that time. In particular, the pair of them hated traction control (then legal...) and ABS braking, and this was hardly surprising since trick stuff like this served to make the cars much easier to drive, and thus to 'equalise' the drivers. As the two genuine artists of the time, Senna and Prost necessarily resented anything which negated their superior skills; they also found 'gizmo' cars far less satisfying to drive.

As Senna pondered his immediate future, Fittipaldi suggested he try an Indycar (as they were called in those days). After a very successful F1 career, which included two World Championships, Emerson had retired, then come back to begin a whole new career in CART. He never missed an opportunity to say how much fun it was, compared with the F1 he had left, and thought that maybe Ayrton could be persuaded to join him, even if only for a year or two.

I somewhat doubt that Senna seriously entertained the notion, but he was always a man who loved to drive racing cars, and was intrigued by the prospect of trying a Penske. The team's sponsor was - and is - Marlboro, of course, and since Marlboro was also his sponsor in F1, with McLaren, there was no conflict there. Ayrton went off to Firebird.

The car was, of course, heavy, compared with the F1 cars to which he was accustomed, and had steel, rather than carbon, brakes, a manual gearbox, and so on, but Senna loved it - most of all because it was back to basics, in the sense that the driver, rather than software, was reponsible for everything. "It's a human's car!" he said when he stepped out of the Penske.

It's possible, of course, that Ayrton might have been thinking seriously about a sabbatical from F1 in '93, but I do know that he was always a little concerned about the ovals, about the consequences of an accident at Indianapolis speeds. "So many of those guys seem to damage their legs," he said, and certainly Nelson Piquet's testing shunt at Indy in '92 got his attention.

Over time I've talked to several Penske people, including Fittipaldi and Rick Mears, about that test, and they remembered his driving - and his lap times - with some awe. "Oh, he'd have been right there immediately," Mears said, "but then you wouldn't have expected anything else, would you? I was just super-impressed by everything about him."

Dear Phil,

No, I don't for a second think Damon Hill was "a lucky plodder", as some of your Aussie mates suggest - although I think the phrase fits his performances in 1999, his last season, when he was lucky enough to be paid a huge amount of money by Eddie Jordan, and really did no kind of justice either to himself or his car. Heinz-Harald Frentzen won two Grands Prix in it, let's remember, and on two occasions, certainly, Damon simply 'parked it'.

The second of these was at Suzuka, his very last Grand Prix, and he thus duplicated exactly what Nigel Mansell did at Barcelona in 1995 - retired a healthy car. In both cases, I thought it extraordinary that an ex-World Champion should want to finish his career in this fashion. Keke Rosberg and Gerhard Berger, for example, drove their last Grands Prix as if they were going for the championship. "I wasn't going to race one of these again," Rosberg said, "and I wanted to remember it well."

Certainly, you could argue that Hill effectively began his F1 career in the best car of the moment, a Williams-Renault; all right, he'd had a few desultory outings for Brabham in '92, but he was test driver for Williams that year, and impressed Frank and Patrick Head sufficiently to be partnered with Prost in '93.

I never thought Damon a 'natural', in the Senna or Prost or Schumacher sense of the word, but then how many are? The thing about him was that he had huge determination, and when the mood was on him he was very quick indeed - there were days when he flat beat Michael, as at Suzuka in '94, for example. I still think that probably the best race he ever drove: it was under huge pressure, in awful conditions, and he needed the win to go to Adelaide with a shot at the championship.

It's worth remembering, too, that this 'lucky plodder' pressured Schumacher into a mistake in that race in Australia - and that, had there been any justice in the world, should have given him his first title. As it was...well, we know what happened, don't we?

The saddest aspect of Damon's career is that inevitably, to some degree, everyone remembers how he drove in his last season. From the start of it, he looked like a guy who had stayed a year too long, who wished to be somewhere else, and I still think it's a pity he didn't call it a day earlier than he did.

Dear Andrew,

How long is a piece of string? Really, this is an impossible question to answer without asking an F1 engineer to sit down, think about it, do some calculations, and today - immediately after the Monaco Grand Prix - is not the time to ask!

However, if you're talking about 'minimum downforce settings' and 'an infinitely long straight', I suspect your friend's estimate may be nearer the mark. One figure I can throw out accurately is the straightline speed attained by Al Unser Jr's Penske-Mercedes at Indianapolis in 1994. He reached 402kph (249.791mph), and while you can argue that an Indycar has more horsepower, so always remember it is a lot heavier - and that it reached this speed, not on 'an infinitely long straight', but on the backstretch of the Speedway, between turns two and three.

Recently, Jacques Villeneuve, while looking forward to the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis this September, lamented the fact that the race was not to be run on the oval. "I really can't imagine what the lap speeds for F1 cars would be," he said, "but I've driven both, and I reckon they'd be way quicker than any Indycar has ever been round there." During practice for the race in 1996, before everyone began racing the much slower IRL cars, Arie Luyendyk ran a lap at 238mph...

Dear Curtis,

An interesting question about one of most interesting characters I've known in motor racing.

It's true that, after working for many years as technical director for Brabham, and designing many memorable cars for such as Nelson Piquet, Gordon Murray worked with the McLaren F1 team for some time before starting work on the 'F1' road car project.

Gordon told me at the time how delighted he was when Ron Dennis put the proposition to him: design the ultimate, no-holds-barred, road car. He said it had long been a dream to do that very thing, and I think that, by then, he had tired of being involved in Grand Prix racing - certainly, I know the travel had begun to get him down, and anyone in the business could sympathise with that.

It's undeniable that Murray was devastated by the death of Elio de Angelis, in a Brabham BT50 test at Ricard in May 1986, but then any designer would feel that way if a driver died in a car of his design. And the fact remains that if the rescue facilities had been up to scratch at Ricard that day, Elio would not certainly not have lost his life.

These days Gordon almost never goes near a Grand Prix - I last remember seeing him in a paddock at Silverstone during practice two or three years ago - and, although he's still very interested in F1, I think he looks upon it as a part of his life which is now over.

For all he loved it, he was never obssessive about it, to the extent that, as with some people, he was unaware of there being life beyond motor racing. One of the reasons Gordon was, and is, such excellent company is that he is interested in a wide range of things, not least music. I think he quite enjoys writing for the magazines, too. Trust me, he doesn't do it for the money!

Dear Darren,

There are times, when I see the F1 teams loading up the trucks on Sunday evenings, that I wonder at the amount of sheer clobber taken to Grands Pirx these days - all the refuelling stuff, those cumbersome TV monitors which sit in front of the driver's cockpit in the pits, and so on. Life used to be simpler, as any mechanic will tell you.

In fact, I rather agree with you that a ban on tyre-warmers would be a fine idea. All right, you can argue that - in F1 terms - they don't cost that much, but they're not allowed in CART, for example, and the drivers seem able to cope without them.

In point of fact, there have been some very exciting moments down the years, when a driver has come out of the pits, and on stone-cold tyres tries to keep from losing places to others on tyres which are up to temperature. It makes for fine viewing, and that alone makes a ban on tyre-warmers in F1 worth considering.

Of course there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth if such a ban were imposed, but in the end everyone would get used to it, and accept it. Years ago, after all, F1 people used to scoff at the idea of 'yellow flags', of cars running behind the pace car after a shunt, then beginning a whole new race again on the restart. It wasn't fair, they said, that a guy who had built up a lead should have it taken away.

The CART brigade's response was that it was the same for everybody, that over a season everything evened out: sometimes you gained from it, and sometimes you lost. And when F1 copied the 'Pace Car' rule - sorry, adopted a 'Safety Car' policy - everyone quickly accepted it. These days it doesn't even raise a ripple.

Undoubtedly, one of Montoya's strongest cards is his ability to go fast on cold tyres, to trust - more than any of his rivals - his judgement and feel when grip levels are low. Who knows, if the rule were adopted in F1, it might lead to some overtaking in these circumstances.

Inevitably, it would also, of course, make multiple pit stop strategies less attractive, and reduce the tendency of drivers these days to 'wait for the stops' as a means of getting ahead of someone.

That, in itself, would expose even more glaringly F1's overwhelming current shortcoming: no overtaking. Which is why, I suppose, it is unlikely that a ban on tyre-warmers is unlikely ever to be introduced...

Dear Bob,

Forgive me, but is this the first year you have watched coverage from the Monaco Grand Prix? I ask only because you point out that the circuit is narrow, and that most corners have no run-off area. This has been the case since 1929 - indeed, the current circuit is very much slower, and safer, than it used to be.

I suspect, however, you're being ironic, and, if so, I don't blame you. The Grand Prix drivers, whenever you suggest to them that perhaps they put their obsession with safety on hold for one weekend of the year, invariably argue that Monaco is a slow circuit, and so on.

So it is, in terms of average speed, but that is primarily because it is now festooned with tight chicanes. Believe me, it ain't too slow at the top of the hill before Casino Square, or out of the tunnel, where the cars comfortably exceed 180mph.

The curious thing is that everyone seems prepared to turn a blind eye to the lack of run-offs, and so on - but only at Monaco. If you presented them with a corner like Massenet (at the top of the hill) on a conventional circuit, they would holler about it unless it had a gravel trap, but...well, Monaco is Monaco, isn't it?

I'm not complaining, you understand? What I love about the Monaco Grand Prix is that the track rewards precision, and punishes mistakes. I do believe, as you suggest, that sentiment and tradition should have a say in Grand Prix racing, and I hated it, for example, when we had that year at Spa with a chicane before Eau Rouge. (The great irony of that, as one driver pointed out, was that a mistake in the chicane was going to take you head on into a guardrail, but still...)

That said, we have to be realistic. In today's world, we are never going back to tracks that do not meet 'modern safety standards'. Except for one weekend of the year, that is...

Dear Larry,

I'm not sure what you class as 'fantastic entertainment'. For my part, I think CART cars on an oval in the wet would be like the Roman Games. Are you seriously suggesting that they should run at somewhere like Michigan or Fontana - where the 'dry' lap speed is well over 220mph - in the rain?

Whenever I witness an accident at an oval, I wince, because a concrete barrier awaits the driver who makes a mistake, or has a mechanical problem. If you sent the CART drivers out in the rain - even on wet tyres - you would quickly get mayhem. Think of a car sliding out of control, scrubbing off virtually no speed, hitting a wall, then slithering back into the pack.

Your comparison with the Daytona 24 Hours, of sports cars running round half an oval, with a much lower approach speed, is hardly relevant. You're surely not comparing the performance of a Reynard-Honda - on a full oval - with a sports car.

Since the beginning of time, even when 'safety' was a word never mentioned in racing circles, Indycars have raced on ovals only when the track is dry, and there's a reason for that: it's called commonsense.

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