Ask Nigel: May 23

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your motorsport questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on the year ahead, or from days gone by, 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: May 23

Dear Peter,
Nice to hear from you again. To come up with any kind of definitive list of 'cruelly lost races', I would need to sit down for a couple of hours, and give the matter some serious thought. But off the top of my head...yes, of course, Hakkinen's recent loss of the Spanish Grand Prix, within three or four corners of the flag, is a very obvious example. Mika drove a beautiful race that day, and had beaten Schumacher and Ferrari in the same way that they had won so many races together. He deserved it.

What made it worse, of course, was that Schumacher was the beneficiary of Hakkinen's bad luck: it wasn't just a matter of Mika losing 10 championship points, after all, for - in moving from second to first - Michael gained an extra four. On a day when Hakkinen should have put himself back into championship contention, he all but disappeared from it for good, as far as 2001 is concerned.

Another recent example of cruel luck was to Montoya in Brazil. I know that he was put out long before the finish, and know, too, that in the rain which came later he would have struggled - on Michelin wets - to stay ahead, so I'm not saying he would necessarily have won. But he had passed Schumacher with that wonderful move on the restart, and then led the race as to the manner born for 30-odd laps, only to be taken out by a backmarker's lapse of concentration.

Looking further back, I guess perhaps the cruellest loss that comes to mind was at Monza in 1967, where Jimmy Clark had a puncture early in the race, and lost more than a lap to the leaders, Jack Brabham and John Surtees. Clark rejoined behind them on the road, passed them - and then made another whole lap to pass them again! Yes, he had the fastest car in the race, but still what he did was staggering. And then, on the very last lap, he began to run out of fuel, and was repassed by Surtees and Brabham...

On the other hand, Jimmy scored perhaps the luckiest Grand Prix victory of his life in similar circumstances. At Spa in 1964, Dan Gurney was in a class of his own, but ran out of fuel towards the end; that let Graham Hill briefly into the lead - but then he ran out, too! Now in front was Bruce McLaren, but at the last corner his engine died (flat battery), and as he coasted towards the line Clark nicked past him to steal the win. Jimmy had gone into the last lap in fourth place.

Running out of fuel has cost so many victories over time. It happened, for example, to Mario Andretti at Kyalami in 1978. On the grid, Colin Chapman - forever obsessed with lightness - directed the Lotus mechanics to take three gallons of fuel out of Mario's car. "I said to him, 'Colin, if I run out, it's your ass...'" And run out he did, of course, a couple of laps from the end, when leading comfortably.

Conversely, if Mario lost a Grand Prix victory that day, the previous year - at Dijon - he had gained one, in exactly the same way. On this occasion, he tailed John Watson's Brabham-Alfa for the whole race, looking for a way by, but never finding it. On the last lap, Wattie's engine began to cough, and Andretti was through.

The same thing happened to Jack Brabham at Brands Hatch in 1970. Having dominated the British Grand Prix, he ran out of fuel on the final lap, and was passed - just before the flag - by Jochen Rindt. It later transpired that not enough fuel had been put in the Brabham; Ron Dennis, then one of Jack's mechanics, does not care to be reminded of that day...

Earlier that season Brabham had lost another race to Rindt on the last lap - at the very last corner, in fact - but if this was cruel, at least he could blame no one but himself. At Monaco, under fierce pressure from Jochen, Jack went off line to pass a backmarker at the Gasworks Hairpin. He could easily have waited until the exit of the corner to overtake, but allowed the pressure to get to him - and understeered straight on into the guardrail.

For me, though, probably the cruellest loss was to Chris Amon - because so many times he looked on course to win a Grand Prix, and in the end something always went wrong with the car. You could pick a dozen races like that, but I'll go for the 1972 French Grand Prix at Clermont-Ferrand, a true driver's circuit on which Chris always excelled.

In the Matra MS120D, he comfortably took pole position, then easily led Jackie Stewart and Denny Hulme until the halfway mark - when he picked up a puncture. Tyre stops were not planned affairs in those days, and when Amon returned to the race he was way back in the field. In a quite brilliant drive, he shattered the lap record countless times, passed Ronnie Peterson and Francois Cevert in a single lap (!), and got back to third place, having taken almost a minute out of Stewart's lead.

Let's close by going from the sublime to the ridiculous. At Montreal in 1991, Nigel Mansell's Williams-Renault had a huge lead over Nelson Piquet's Benetton in the closing stages - but foolishly Nigel began to celebrate a little early, waving to the crowd before he had taken the flag... On the last lap, he was so busy doing this that he forgot to shift down for the hairpin in good time, which allowed the revs to go too low, and the engine to stall! I have never forgotten the sight of Patrick Head's face after that race...

Dear Phil,

You may well be right that once there was a rule prohibiting pit crews from stepping into pit lane unless their cars were about to stop on that lap, but I confess I can't remember it.

These days, with the ever-increasing importance of fuel/tyre stops and 'strategy' in Formula 1, it has become very much the norm for crews suddenly to burst out into the pit lane, as if preparing for a stop, only then to return whence they came. It is, as you say, a ruse, an attempt to convince rival teams that their boy is about to come in.

Is it legal? Yes, without a doubt, and all part of the game. These days, with pit lane speed limits, of course, it is very much safer than it was, and we should remember, too, that once upon a time no pit stops were planned at all - in fact, if a driver came in during a Grand Prix, it was only because something was amiss with his car.

In fact, there is nothing new under the sun. At the Argentine Grand Prix in 1958, Stirling Moss was at the wheel of Rob Walker's 2.2-litre Cooper-Climax. In 'ordinary' hands, the little car would have had no chance against the squadron of 2.5-litre Ferraris, but Moss put his genius to work. The Ferraris duly made their planned tyre stops, at which Stirling took the lead.

It never entered Ferrari's head that he might try and run the whole race on one set of tyres, and towards the end chief mechanic Alf Francis duly hung out a board to Moss, and got a set of tyres ready for him - at which point Luigi Musso, in the leading Ferrari, backed off, now sure that victory was coming his way.

Stirling, though, did not stop. By the end of the race - which he won by just 2.7 seconds - his rear tyres were through to the canvas! It was probably as great a victory as any in his legendary career.

Dear Johnny,
Glad you like the column. Thank you.

You must forgive me, but my memories of the Tyrrell team in 1983 are somewhat at odds with your own! Danny Sullivan is a friend, and I wouldn't wish to disparage him, but I cannot truly remember a time when he 'got the better' of Michele Alboreto. In 15 Grands Prix as team mates, he out-qualified Michele only twice - and then only in exceptional circumstances.

In the course of the year, too, Alboreto won a Grand Prix (at Detroit, the very last for the Cosworth DFV engine), while Sullivan's only points finish was a fifth place, at Monaco.

It's true that Danny went on to a very successful Champ Car career, including a victory in the Indianapolis 500, in 1985, but I never saw him as a potential star in F1, I'm afraid. He drove a very good race to second place (behind Keke Rosberg) in the last non-championship F1 event ever run, the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, but there was by no means a full field of cars on hand that day: Alboreto, for example, was not entered.

A very accomplished and stylish driver, Sullivan, but not a great one, I think.

Dear Adrian,
As far as a Grand Prix in Russia is concerned, I'm with most of the paddock on this: I'll believe it when it happens - or, rather, I'll believe it when I get a firm list of FIA World Championship dates for a coming season, and Moscow is on it.

If I'm sceptical, it's because races like this - New York, San Francisco, China, Indonesia, etc - have been mooted before, and ultimately came to nothing. I'm not saying a Russian Grand Prix won't happen, and I know Bernie Ecclestone was recently in Moscow to discuss the project. But Bernie's comment afterwards - "There's no reason why we can't have a Grand Prix in Russia" - is not the same thing as, "There will definitely be a Grand Prix in Russia".

Should it happen, which race will be axed to make way for it? If the teams had anything to do with such a decision, I'd warrant that most would go for the Brazilian Grand Prix, for Interlagos, while a terrific circuit, has quite terrible facilities, which wouldn't have been accepted at, say, Silverstone, by the powers-that-be 15 or 20 years ago. Also, Sao Paulo, where everyone stays, is a city widely loathed by the F1 community.

Having said that, I rather doubt that Brazil would go, because in a 'World Championship' it is currently the only South American country to host a Grand Prix. So what next? Quite a lot of people would like to lose the Hungarian race, but the consensus is that the most likely choice would be a race in Germany or Italy, both of which currently have two Grands Prix. That being so, most people's choice would be the Nurburgring, which hosts the 'Grand Prix of Europe', but my understanding, sadly, is that probably Imola would be the race to disappear.

Would I want to cover a Grand Prix in Moscow? Not particularly. A visit to Russia has never been high on my wish list, quite honestly. Imola, on the other hand, I adore...

Dear Jamie,
Since you're talking about 'F1', I take it that when you say 'all-time' you mean any time since 1950, when the World Championship. That being so, such as Tazio Nuvolari and Bernd Rosemeyer cannot be included.

I'll go for this:
a) Stirling Moss, for me the best driver of all time.
b) Alain Prost, the most complete driver I have known.
c) McLaren, because their preparation is unequalled.
d) Ferrari, because their engines are great on power, and almost never break.
e) Jean Todt, whom I don't much like, but whose single-minded ruthlessness guarantees results.
f) Adrian Newey, because, year in, year out, he can guarantee a winning car like no one else.

Dear Richard,
On balance, I'd have to go for the 1986 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, a World Championship decider - between three drivers - which actually produced even more than it promised, and ended with the result for which I had hoped...

Of the three drivers involved, Alain Prost was the man with probably the least chance of winning the title, and what small chance he did have was primarily the consequence of a quite brilliant race in Mexico two weeks earlier. Through the year his McLaren-TAG Porsche had been considerably outpowered by the Williams-Hondas of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, and although there had been convincing demonstrations of his driving superiority, in the normal course of events he was hard pressed to stay with Piquet and Mansell.

If he were in contention for the title, it was because he got the absolute maximum from his car every time out, because his racecraft and guile were without equal, and because he made fewer mistakes than anyone else. By far.

Prost's other surpassing skill, in that era of turbocharged engines, was juggling speed and fuel consumption. In 1986, each car was restricted to 195 litres of fuel for a race, so that if a driver got his balancing act absolutely right, he ran out of gas immediately after taking the flag.

It took a lot of will to keep your boost down, hold yourself in check, in the early part of a race, while some of your less disciplined rivals charged away into the distance.

Not for nothing was Prost known as 'The Professor'. He may have hated the 'restricted fuel' rule as much as anyone, but he accepted it. Whatever it took to win, Alain would adapt.

Going into the final race, though, his title hopes looked flimsy. At the time, a driver's World Championship score was calculated on his best 11 results from the 16 races, and both Prost and Mansell had already needed to drop points, having scored in more than 11 events. The net situation was that Nigel had 70 points, Alain 64, and Nelson Piquet 63 - but if either Mansell or Prost should take further points in Adelaide, they would have to shed their lowest score once more, whereas Piquet, having scored in only ten races, would not. Any of the three could become World Champion in Australia, but Nigel was the heavy favourite; third place would do it for him, whatever happened to his rivals.

It was not often (in those days when Grand Prix racing was first a sport, second a TV show) that the World Championship went down to the wire, to the final race of the season, and it was rarer still for more than two drivers to be in contention.

The fight for the pole was exclusively between the two Williams-Hondas, with Ayrton Senna's Lotus-Renault predictably lurking close by. Ultimately, Mansell sealed the issue with a lap three-tenths faster than Piquet, with Senna third, and Prost fourth, albeit more than a second from Mansell.

"Hmmm," Alain grinned when he saw the times. "Three people ahead of me - Mansell, Piquet, Senna - and they all hate each other!"

For Nigel, the first hurdle was cleared, but the tension surrounding him was palpable, for he, more nearly than anyone, was touching the hem of the World Championship. "To be honest," his wife Rosanne murmured, "I don't really care what happens. I just want it to be over."

In the McLaren pit, meanwhile, Keke Rosberg was insisting that Prost was going to win the race, if not the championship. This was to be Keke's last Grand Prix, and although his final season, with McLaren, had not lived up to expectations, he was resolved to go out on a high note.

"What I've come to realise - to know - this season," he said, "is that Alain is the greatest driver I've ever seen. For me, it would be a joke for anyone else to be World Champion, and I'm going to do everything possible to help him."

No one doubted Rosberg's sincerity, but few believed he would be able materially to aid Prost's quest. They were wrong. The man who would lead the bulk of the Australian Grand Prix was Keke, who had won the year before.

The first lap was as intense as anyone could remember, with Mansell leading away from pole position, then - keen not to get involved in any early wheel-banging battle - moving over to let Senna and Piquet by. At the end of the long Dequetteville straight, Nelson outbraked Ayrton, and thus the race already had its third leader in the space of two miles!

The man really on the move in the early stages, though, was Rosberg. On lap two, Keke passed Ayrton, and moved up to menace Nelson. By lap seven, he was through into the lead, and going away.

At the same time Prost began to move. Typically, he had begun quietly, sitting in fifth place, waiting for the initial dust to settle. Now he moved past Senna for fourth, and on lap 11 went ahead of Mansell, too.

By lap 23, with Rosberg gone into the middle distance, Prost passed Piquet for second place, after which Nelson immediately spun. He got on his way again, but was now back in fourth place. For McLaren, now running 1-2, everything was looking good, for if it came to it, Keke, despite an understandable desire to win his last race, would undoubtedly let Alain through in the late stages.

Mansell, though, continued to run a solid third, right where he needed to be. If he could simply hold station until the end, he would be World Champion, and on lap 32 his prospects vaulted, for Prost was slowing, his right front tyre punctured.

Tyre changes were far from an automatic feature of Grand Prix races in the mid-'eighties, and none of the front runners had been planning to stop. Therefore, as Prost slowly made his way to the pit lane, he seemed to be eliminating himself from the championship battle. After a 17-second stop, he rejoined, now fourth, a long way back. Immediately a whole series of record laps began.

"All I could do," Alain said, "was push as hard as possible. There was nothing to lose. Even second place was no use to me."

In the pits, Goodyear technicians examined the tyres discarded by Prost, and commented that the wear rate was less than they had expected. All being well, they concluded, no one would need to make a stop.

At this stage of the race, Williams had no cause for worry. For close to 30 laps there was virtual stalemate at the front of the field, Rosberg still leading convincingly from Piquet, a serene Mansell, and a charging Prost.

Then, on lap 63, with 19 to the flag, the full drama of the day began to unravel. Rosberg, having led for well over an hour, suddenly pulled off, his right rear Goodyear in tatters.

As Rosberg retired, so Prost, running at the limit, passed Mansell for second place, but still Nigel had a lock on the four points he needed.

Only a lap later the outcome of the World Championship was settled. Mansell, flat out down Dequetteville, and in the process of lapping Philippe Alliot's Ligier, suddenly had his left rear tyre disintegrate. From something approaching 190mph, he somehow fought the bucking, wayward, Williams to a halt, parking in the escape road, then stumbling back to the pits. It was beyond cruel.

Now it was simply Piquet against Prost, and each needed the nine points for victory to take them past Mansell's total - to become World Champion. It was absolutely a matter of winner take all, and Prost, still with the hammer down, was only two seconds behind.

The duel never materialised. "After Nigel's tyre had failed, we were between a rock and a hard place with regard to Nelson," said Patrick Head. "If we'd left him out there, and he'd made it, we'd have looked like heroes, but if he'd had an accident, and hurt himself, we'd have looked idiots. There was no choice to be made, in fact: we called him in, and changed his tyres."

Piquet stopped at the end of lap 65, and was still in second place when he went back out. "It was the right decision, to stop," he said afterwards. "I knew I might be losing the championship, but I didn't care. I was alive."

Now it was Nelson's turn to apply the pressure, to set the new fastest laps, but he made little impression on Prost until the last four laps, when Alain dramatically cut his pace. "From the halfway point, my fuel computer read-out had been telling me I was five litres the wrong side - that I wouldn't make the finish unless I backed off. But of course I couldn't do that, because I was so far behind, after my puncture, so I just had to hope that, for once, the computer was wrong..."

For once, it was. Although Piquet set yet another record on the final lap, Prost's engine continued to run, and he crossed the line four seconds to the good.

For once, a championship decider had not only lived up to everyone's expectations, but actually exceeded them. Jackie Stewart best summed up the day: "These days, you don't often see a guy win a Grand Prix in a slower car, do you? But this guy's won the World Championship in one! People are going to say Nigel lost it because of his tyre failure, and of course that's true - but you could also say he lost it in Mexico, where he started in third gear, dropped to the back, then began blistering tyres, and finished fifth. He could have clinched the championship that day, but instead he dropped four points to Prost. And he lost the title by two... To my mind, there's no one near Alain."

So there you have it. The 1986 Australian Grand Prix remains the most dramatic Formula 1 race I have ever seen.

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