Ask Nigel - May 24

Another bumper mailbag this week, and some great questions from you that deserve lengthy answers. Keep you questions coming, there is a great variety of topics to tackle. Send your questions to

Ask Nigel - May 24

Dear Nigel,
I had an opportunity to meet Alessandro Nannini at an FIA GT race in Laguna Seca in 1997 when he was driving for the AMG Mercedes. As Alessandro graciously signed an autograph for me I saw the extent of the damage and obvious reconstruction work to his right hand as a result of his unfortunate helicopter accident. My question is that at the time that Nannini raced in Formula 1 there were rumours of him joining Ferrari and there appeared to be a substantial amount of respect for his talent. Can you give me your observations of him, and what is he doing now - drinking coffee and smoking?
Curtis Cundy Alberta, Canada

Dear Curtis,
We all miss Sandro Nannini in Formula 1. He was, I think, the last of the 'classic' Italian racing drivers, very much in the mould of Clay Regazzoni (technically Swiss, I know, but only by a few kilometres!), rather than someone like Giancarlo Fisichella, whom I find about as interesting as Steve Davis.

At Suzuka, in 1989, when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna had the first of their tangles, there was considerable acrimony afterwards, and for me, and many others, the only saving grace of the day was that Nannini won the race.

Although the family business was - and is - one of the largest bakeries in Siena, Sandro appeared to live on cigarettes and coffee, and having myself, I'm afraid to say, followed a similar diet since I can remember, it was particularly pleasing to find a driver - the first since Rosberg - who found there was more to life than health food. If Nannini ever had a stamina problem, I never saw it, and the same was emphatically true of Keke.

Ultimately, Sandro elected to give up not just one of his bad habits, but both - and, what's more, at the same time! This I thought positively heroic, for his devotion to tobacco and fearsomely strong espresso was profound. "Are you any quicker for it?" I asked him one day. "I don't know," he replied. "I'm certainly not so 'appy..."

Later, after his enforced retirement from F1, he raced for the Alfa Romeo ITC team, and, even with very restricted use of his right hand, was very quick indeed. I went to Magny-Cours for one of the races, and found him in the Alfa pit, ciggie in one hand, tiny coffee cup in the other. "What happened?" I said, and he laughed. "Pffff! For Formula 1, it was one thing, but this - this is just saloon cars..."

Sandro may have been very much a throwback, in terms of his attitude to life, but it certainly didn't compromise his performances on the track. He became a very considerable racing driver, with tremendous flair, and it was an awful thing that his F1 career should have ended the way it did.

The helicopter accident occurred in October 1990, shortly after Nannini's Benetton finished third, behind Prost and Mansell, at Estoril. Three weeks earlier, at Monza, it had been announced that he would be driving for Ferrari in '91, and we were all much surprised - there had not been so much of a whisper of it before that weekend.

In fact, Ferrari had been hoping to sign Alesi, but Jean had got himself into a contractual wrangle with Tyrrell (for whom he was then driving) and Williams (for whom he had also signed!), and when a move to Ferrari began to look impossible, the team negotiated with Benetton to have Nannini.

The deal was made public on race morning at Monza, but when Sandro went to Maranello to sign the contract a few days later, he found the terms not quite what had been originally proposed. That being the case, he said that he would prefer to stay with Benetton.

In point of fact, it later became clear that Ferrari had negotiated Alesi out of his Tyrrell contract - and that Williams had decided not to stand in Jean's way. By way of thanks for Frank's helpful attitude, a Ferrari 641 was promised, and duly delivered a year later. It resides in the Williams museum to this day.

As for Nannini, his last racing contract was with Mercedes in 1997, the season in which you saw him at Laguna. He was one of those who really loved to drive racing cars, and I'm sure he misses it now. I haven't seen him for a couple of years, but a man like Sandro is never short of things to do. The coffee and cigarettes we can probably take as read...

Dear Karl,
The factor determining the order in which the teams are placed in pit lane is very straightforward: it is based on the order in which they finished in the previous year's Constructors' championship. Thus, Ferrari have the first pits after the entrance, and BAR those furthest away.

To the best of my knowledge, this is set in stone, and there are no exceptions to the rule. I'm pretty sure that in Montreal last year McLaren (then reigning Constructors' champions) had the first pits after the entrance.

One difference between Montreal and most other circuits is that Race Control is at the end of pit lane, rather than the beginning of it: is it possible that this has mixed up your memories of what was where? Remember, too, that Montreal has a right-to-left pit lane, the circuit being, most unusually, anti-clockwise.

Dear Mike,
Glad you like the column in Autosport.
You're not wrong about gratuitous flattery...

Now, your question. It's a difficult one to answer, for several reasons. First of all, I don't know what you have in mind: do you want merely to write an occasional piece about racing, alongside your 'day job', or do you hope to make writing a fulltime profession?

In terms of getting started, actually, it makes no difference. In the end it's a matter of writing something, sending it to a magazine, and hoping it may lead somewhere. A bit of a bland response, but I'm afraid that's the way it is.

There's some luck involved, too. In my own case, I was a racing fanatic who wanted to write about it for a living, and to that end resigned from my job when I was 24, thinking to put myself in a situation where I HAD to do something about it.

I'd written to several magazines previously, and not really got anywhere. The traditional route into racing journalism is to start off with reports of club races, but - ignorance being bliss - I wanted only to write about F1, where my passion lay. Sundry editors replied, and told me that wasn't how it worked. One of the rejection letters - which I still have somewhere - was from Autosport...

Anyway, cutting a long story fairly short, in the spring of '71, I dropped a line to Car & Driver in New York, and that day someone somewhere was assuredly smiling on N. Roebuck.

The magazine was at that time without a racing journalist in Europe, so that was one lucky break. Even more so, though, was that my letter found its way to the desk of Caroline Hadley, the managing editor. She was originally from England, and that was good, but what was better was that she didn't pitch my note into the bin.

Instead she phoned me. "If you want to take a chance," she said, "go to Barcelona - on your own coin - and write a story for us. If we like it, we'll use it - and if we use it, we'll pay you some money..."

Once the euphoria had subsided, I panicked. I knew not a soul in racing, not even a journalist, let alone a driver or team owner, so how was I to write a Grand Prix report? But I drove down to Spain, wangled a pass somehow, and walked - very tentatively - into the paddock.

Happily for me, it all worked out, but I've often wondered how differently my life might have gone if someone other than Caroline had opened my letter.

If you're passionate about racing, and think you may have a talent for writing, sit down and give it a go. It's true that there are probably 10 times more journalists covering F1 than when I started - but then again the global popularity of the sport has mushroomed since then, and there are many more outlets for racing stories than there were.

Although magazines are always fully staffed, there are many journalists who don't stay the course, for whatever reason, and vacancies do occur. If someone clearly knows the sport, and writes well, his name will go on file, and perhaps one day a job will come of it. I wish you luck.

By the way, as far as sitting next to me or Murray Walker in the press box is concerned, you should know that Murray does not sit when he broadcasts, but rather stands, in a sort of crouched, combat, position as he delivers his thoughts during a race! Martin Brundle, who originally went for the more traditional sitting position, soon decided that the only way to compete was to adopt a similar pose.

They are, in fact, not with us in the press room, but in their own broadcasting booth. And, considering that they are broadcasting live, this is just as well, given some of the more irreverent remarks that emanate from the press room...

Dear Claus,
An interesting question you pose, and not - for a variety of reasons - an easy one to answer.

First of all, do I think Jan Magnussen will ever get a second shot at F1? Simple answer: not a chance. As to what went wrong the first time round, I think perhaps that if you have any theories about it, you should communicate them to Jackie Stewart, for no one is more baffled than he!

After watching Magnussen closely in F3, Jackie was convinced, in his own words, that 'here was the next Ayrton Senna'. When he started Stewart Grand Prix, he always had Jan in mind for one of the cars, his only concern being that he might lack the dedication necessary to make it to the very top. In the same way, he had reservations about his fitness - the fact that he smoked, and so on.

As it was, Magnussen made no impact at all in F1. It was true that the Stewart team considered Barrichello its number one driver, and true, too, that Jan was with the team before it truly began to progress. There were a lot of mechanical problems, not least with a Ford engine which was horribly unreliable back then.

There was more to it than that, though. What I never understood about Magnuessen was how a driver apparently so gifted made so little impact. Whatever car problems he may have had, one really might have expected occasionally to see that spark which separates the potentially great from the good, and there was never any sign of it. Rubens had consummately the better of Jan from the word go, and there was never any sign that that might change.

As for Arnoux... yes, I do know why he was kicked out of Ferrari, but explaining it is very difficult, for a variety of reasons, some of which are delicate.

At the first Grand Prix of 1985, in Rio, he had an unplanned pit-stop, but afterwards came through from 19th to fourth. That was to be his last race for Ferrari.

The year before, teamed with Alboreto, he was invariably outpaced by Michele, and did not respond well to that. For much of the season his driving was erratic, and there were suggestions that his physical condition was not all that it might have been.

A few days after the Brazilian race in '85, Arnoux had a meeting with Enzo Ferrari, and it not go well - in fact, Rene stormed out. Soon afterwards, it was announced that he had asked to be released from the contract, following problems with leg muscles which had required surgery the previous winter.

This 'official explanation' was plainly economic with the truth, let's say, and fooled no one. At the next race, in Portugal, Arnoux was replaced by Stefan Johansson.

Later, of course, now restored to health and fitness, Rene returned to F1 with a spell at Ligier. He was never, though, to win another Grand Prix.

Dear Anton,
Yes, you're right, I have great admiration for Alain Prost. Affection, too. From the outset, I liked him, found him excellent company, and thought him a superlative driver. No one, in my estimation, ever made the driving of a Formula 1 car look so easy - always an indication of genius, whatever the craft.

However, driving a car and running a team are very difficult skills. Prost Grand Prix does not, as you suggest, appear to be making progress - indeed, if anything, it seems to be slipping backwards. In the next couple of weeks I'm due to interview Alain, and will ask him for his opinion of his management abilities; he is such an essentially honest man that I expect him to identify any shortcomings of which he is aware.

In his driving days, it is undoubtedly true that he sometimes dithered over decisions; it took him for ever to make up his mind whether or not to leave McLaren in 1989, for example, and then to decide where to go - Williams or Ferrari. It is not impossible that this indecisiveness applies now in his business life.

He is unlucky, too, I think, in having Peugeot as his engine supplier. In my experience, no major manufacturer involved in F1 has shown less fundamental commitment to it.

It may be that Prost will never make it as a team owner - indeed may be that he will sell the team at some point. I hope he makes it, and used to be convinced that he would, because he works prodigiously hard at anything in which he is involved, and history shows that he always achieved the goals he set himself. This, though, may be a different matter.

Dear Alan,
This is a subject which has been endlessly discussed over the years, and not surprisingly so. You ask: should funding go into the grass roots of the sport, or is money needed nearer the top? The answer, surely, is yes - to both.

To me, it has always been a sadness that British companies - yes, I know it's a cliche, but it's also a fact that this country IS the centre of the world, when it comes to motor racing - should be so lamentably unwilling to support the only sport at which it is any good any more.

Britain's two most prestigious and successful F1 teams are McLaren, whose main sponsor is German, and Williams, whose major backer is American. Pathetic, isn't it? But down the years that's the way it has invariably been.

It's not that there is a lack of driver talent in Britain - just that, to succeed, that talent usually has to rely on financial support from elsewhere.

Dear Peter,
I take your point about drivers these days being able to keep hands on the wheel, but I'd go even further than you suggest: I'd take F1 back to conventional gear changing.

There are others who feel the same way, too. Last year I talked to Keke Rosberg about it; this is what he said. "It's funny, isn't it, that in the lower levels of the sport, you spend all this time teaching young kids how to shift gears properly, how to heel-and-toe, how to balance the revs right, and so on. They need that all the way up to F3000. Then they get F1 - the top of the sport - and suddenly it's easy!"

Rosberg thinks it a great shame that conventional gear changing has disappeared from F1, like Alain Prost believing it to be part of the racing driver's art.

"I remember Alain telling me, during his last year in F1, how much easier to drive the cars had become. And, because there was less to do, he said it was easier physically, too. OK, of course you had g-forces pulling your neck off, but otherwise it was easier.

"Monte Carlo, you know, used to be a one-handed race track. I once calculated that you shifted 3600 times, and the race was about 7200 seconds long, so every two seconds you shifted - which meant that for an hour of the race you only had one hand on the wheel.

"A Cosworth engine you used to rev within 50 or 100 revs of breakage - and with a mechanical rev counter. You knew that if you pulled 200 revs more, the valve springs were gone; in fact, the most precise work you did was maintaining your revs in the correct area. That was your priority - otherwise you weren't going to finish the race. Now it's impossible to miss a shift.

"The other thing, of course, about manual gear changing was that there was always the chance you could pressure the driver in front into missing a change; at Monte Carlo, in fact, that was about the only way you could ever get past anyone. People rightly go on about the lack of overtaking in F1 these days - well, there's one of the reasons, for a start."

Not much I can add, really!

Keep sending your questions to Nigel at

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