Ask Nigel - May 31

Autosport's renowned Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck dips in to the virtual e-mail bag to tackle a variety of topics supplied by you, the reader. If you have a question for Nigel, please e-mail him at

Ask Nigel - May 31

Dear Nigel,
I particularly enjoy reading your reminiscences about drivers of old, but rarely do you relate much in respect of the current crop. I have two questions for you: firstly, which of today's F1 stars do you consider special in terms of talent and which ones would you most enjoy having a coffee and a fag with? Secondly, you mentioned Michele Alboreto in your comments on Rene Arnoux. I am a big Alboreto fan - I think you could put his drive in the '85 Monaco Grand Prix among the very best - and I was delighted when he triumphed at Le Mans because the later years of his career were far from star-spangled. I'd like to know why Michele didn't get that Williams at the end of 1988, why he fell out with Ken Tyrrell in 1989 and how you would rate him?
Steve Hornsey,

Dear Steve,
It's a good point you make. If I write less about the personalities of today's drivers, rather than those 'of old', I guess it's mainly because there is less material! I know that 'Where have the characters gone?' has become a cliche in every sport, but undoubtedly there are far fewer of them in Formula 1 than there used to be.

In part, this is because they're not allowed to behave as characters. Today's drivers are 'buttoned up' by their team owners, agents, managers, deputy managers, sub-managers, PR people, hairdressers, masseurs, bag-carriers, you name it, to a degree inconceivable at one time.

A little example. I want to interview 'a famous racing person' at Montreal, OK? This is someone I have known for 20 years, interviewed countless times, and think of as a friend. In times past, I would simply have gone to see him, and organised a time to do the tape. These days, however, there are PR people who get very prickly if you don't 'go through them', so I thought, fine, I'll do it the modern way, organise it formally, keep everyone happy.

Last week, therefore, I called the team concerned, and made my request. "What do you want to talk to him about?" the lady said. "Well, racing, actually," I replied. "What in particular about racing?" I said that usually on these occasions I jot down a few headings, and then simply let the conversation evolve.

Wrong answer. "Well, you'll have to e-mail your questions to us first," came the reply. Presumably, these would then be vetted, and those too... controversial would be weeded out.

I told them to forget it. I'll find the guy concerned in the Monaco paddock on Thursday, and do it the old-fashioned way.

A bit of a convoluted answer to your first point, Steve. What I'm trying to say is that nowadays writing about F1 is less satisfying than it was because the people involved in it are far less willing to speak their minds, far more paranoid about possibly upsetting a team owner, a sponsor or whatever. As the sport has got bigger, so it has got richer.

Of today's drivers, I enjoy the company of such as David Coulthard, Jacques Villeneuve, Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi - there remain people who are funny, irreverent, interesting, but they're not often prepared to be that way 'on the record'.

This is one reason why I remain so fond of Alesi, whom I look upon - with Villeneuve - as about the last free spirit in the paddock. There is no getting away from the fact, however, that Jean's willingness to tell it like it is has come at some cost to his career. He cannot be controlled, and some people don't like that.

Like you, I have always been a fan of Michele Alboreto, a lovely bloke, and one of the best raconteurs I've met in racing. At one dinner, in his days as Ferrari team leader, he had us literally in hysterics with some of his tales about life at Maranello. Can't easily imagine the present incumbent doing the same.

I thought Michele's natural ability was high, and wished he had got out of F1 earlier than he did, rather than spend several seasons with lesser teams. If memory serves, it was his personal sponsorship contract with Marlboro which got in the way of both Williams and Tyrrell in the late 80s. Williams had sponsorship from a rival tobacco company (Barclay), and in '89 Tyrrell landed a deal with Camel after Alboreto had returned to the team. When that happened, Michele had to choose between renouncing his Marlboro contract or leaving the team. He chose the latter.

Dear Anton,
Over the years I've had many an argument in the paddock as a result of something I've written - with Frank Williams, Riccardo Patrese, Nigel Mansell, Bernie Ecclestone, Max Mosley, Teddy Mayer, Gerhard Berger, Ayrton Senna, and so on. I don't enjoy it when it happens, of course, but occasionally it's inevitable. There are times when you have to remind people that you are not there to do PR work for them, but to write what you see.

Part of the problem, increasingly, is that the secrecy in F1 these days borders on paranoia. If people choose to keep you in the dark, inevitably you have speculate - and often, when you do that, you're going to be wrong.

All that said, these arguments are usually sorted out, and then forgotten, on both sides. Ken Tyrrell, for example, once lost his rag with me, said his piece, then shook hands, and invited me to have a cuppa while we talked about cricket...

Dear Gary,
Yes, Champcar racing is effectively a 'spec formula', as you say, but it's worth remembering that - in the Cosworth DFV days - F1 wasn't far away from that.

Why, you ask, haven't more Champcar (CART) and IRL drivers been promoted to F1? First - and I know I've said this before, but it is the case - in F1 there exists something close to contempt for 'Indycar racing', to use a generic term which no longer exists. The tendency is to believe that the best drivers over there are inferior to the worst over here; Bernie Ecclestone has often expressed that very view.

You'd have to say that the first 'Indycar driver' to do F1 on a serious level, Mario Andretti, made a pretty reasonable job of it, winning a dozen Grands Prix, as well as the 1978 World Championship. And while we're about it, let's also remember Jacques Villeneuve, who won the CART Championship (including the Indy 500) in 1995, then came to F1, and won 13 Grands Prix and a World Championship in his first two seasons.

That said, Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi, after immense success in America, were a great disappointment in F1. Michael, I feel, didn't give himself a fair shot. He was unlucky in one respect, coming to F1 in 1993, when the electronic 'gizmo era' was at its peak, when the cars were hugely different from anything he had driven before.

It wasn't that Michael lacked innate speed, of that I am sure. For example, everyone remembers Ayrton Senna's performance in the rain at Donington in '93, and rightly so, but in the morning warm-up - also run in atrocious conditions - Senna's best lap was 1m 30.206s, Andretti's 1m 30.230s. Problem was, while Ayrton brilliantly won in the afternoon, Michael crashed on the opening lap...

I don't think going to McLaren wasnecessarily a good move, either, for there he was teamed with the best, Senna, and comparisons were unlikely to be flattering. As well as that, he was unfortunate in joining the team at a time when it was unavoidably using 'customer' Ford engines, immediately after a long and successful spell with Honda.

Perhaps the biggest problem, though, was that McLaren never felt Andretti showed enough commitment to F1. Throughout his year with the team, he resolutely commuted from Pennsylvania, and members of the team thought he should have based himself in Europe, so as to be instantly available for testing, or whatever. His father had continued to live in America throughout his F1 career, and Michael thought he could do the same, but times had changed.

As for Zanardi...well, I remain mystified by his poor performances last season. It was true that he had been away from F1 for four years, and that in that time the cars had changed out of sight; true, too, that the latest generation - with narrow track, and grooved tyres - did not suit his driving style. As well as that, it has to be said that the Supertec-powered FW21 was by no means Williams's greatest creation.

For all that, though, Alex had won many times in CART by virtue of his opportunism, his ability as a pure racer, and if he didn't have the best car in F1 still I, and others, confidently expected to see him make moves in the races.

There was never any sign of it. Almost from the beginning, he looked like a man who made the wrong decision, and regretted it. He missed the relaxed atmosphere and camaraderie of the CART paddock, certainly, but, more than that, he gave the impression of being haunted - it was as if he had suddenly lost the key to going quickly, and had no idea where to look for it. Everyone liked him, and willed him to succeed, but - for whatever reason - it never happened.

As for Montoya, all I can say is that if he doesn't succeed in F1, I'll set fire to my soothsayer's hat. For some time I have had the feeling that this is the next REALLY great driver, and that impression grows by the day. Schumacher and Hakkinen should rejoice that Juan-Pablo is on other side of the water. For now.

Dear Ian,
There were indeed days, and many of them, when Jacky Ickx was awesome in a racing car. He was a 'natural', to whom it came relatively easily, one of those rare drivers who wins a Grand Prix - in his case the French, in the rains of Rouen, in 1968 - in his first season of F1.

This is how good Ickx was: he left Ferrari at the end of that year to join Brabham - and at the end of '69 Enzo Ferrari invited him back again! Didn't happen very often, that.

Jacky, who was always at his best at real drivers' circuits, like the 'old' Nurburgring and the 'old' Spa-Francorchamps, drove successfully for Ferrari in 1970/71/72, but the team then had a really terrible time in 1973, and at the end of that year he left to join Lotus, as team-mate to Ronnie Peterson.

It was very much Peterson's team at the time, and Jacky's legendary unwillingness to test did not endear him to Colin Chapman. By now his taste for F1 seemed to be waning, but he had one last great drive in him, at the 1974 Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. It poured down, and one of my best memories is that of Ickx's Lotus 72 passing Niki Lauda's Ferrari for the lead - on the outside of Paddock Bend!

If he ceased thereafter to be much of a factor in F1, Jacky's sports car successes continued for many years afterwards. When you say that 'sports cars aren't really the same thing', I know what you mean, but at the same time, if you were 'far too young' to have seen Ickx in his Ferrari and Brabham days, so it follows that you were 'far too young' to have seen sports car racing when it really amounted to something.

It may be hard for you to believe now, but there was a time when I anticipated a World Championship sports car race with virtually the same enthusiasm as a Grand Prix. A large number of F1 drivers also raced sports cars back then, remember, and few things have impressed me as much as the sight of, say, Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche 917, or, for that matter, Ickx, in a Ferrari 312PB. Particularly at somewhere like Spa, in the rain.

I saw Jacky again recently, at Goodwood, and found him quite unchanged. Still charming, still modest about his achievements, still able to talk about all manner of things with knowledge and enthusiasm. If he had a fault as a driver, it was probably that, for him, racing was merely one of the good things in life. He never dedicated himself to it, in the way that, say, Jackie Stewart, did. "Between race weekends, you know," he said, "I never used to give racing a thought."

There is depth to Ickx, and a fundamental honesty, too. Although he was a truly great racing driver, he was never World Champion, but that day at Goodwood he said it didn't bother him too much.

He said this: "I look back on my racing career with great pleasure, and I...I am a survivor, what else can I say? Of course I was young in my best years in F1, and when you are young, you think nothing can happen to you - it will to someone else, maybe, but not you. And, honestly, that was how you HAD to think: otherwise, you could not have carried on.

"Sometimes, though, I think of those times, and wonder how it was I survived when others, more talented than I was, did not."

Dear Rudy,
I'd love to believe that an updated 'Race of Two Worlds' could one day happen, but I'm afraid commonsense tells me otherwise. Ye Gods, there isn't even a unified single 'Indycar' series in America, which is the main reason, sadly, that single-seater racing appears to be in decline over there.

Quite honestly, I cannot conceive of a CART v F1 match race. For one thing, Bernie Ecclestone, if he considered it at all, would say, "What's in it for us?" For another, I have my doubts that it would do much for the image of F1 in the USA, or for that of CART in Europe.

I very much hope that the US Grand Prix, at Indianapolis in September, will revive interest in F1 in America, and, for that matter, that CART will have a race next year at the new Rockingham oval in England. Being a great enthusiast of both series, I think they deserve to succeed on their own merits, wherever the races are run.

The problem with a match race - and I'm assuming you're talking about using both types of car - is that F1 and CART cars are at their best in very different circumstances. On a road course, like Road Atlanta or Monza, I fear the CART cars - much heavier, less instant throttle response, steel brakes, conventional gear shift - would be annihilated. That's what Villeneuve reckons, certainly, and he's in a position to know.

Dear Art,
It's a fact of life that some drivers in F1 are front runners, some mid-fielders, some backmarkers - and to a huge extent, this depends on what they're given to drive.

Consider a guy like Mika Salo. He's been around for a long time now, built up a reputation as a solid racing driver, if not a potential World Champion, and done a very respectable job for a variety of second division teams. Then, last July, Schumacher breaks his leg, and Salo - because he's the best available - gets the temporary job at Ferrari. In his second race for the team, at Hockenheim, he only fails to win because, on team orders, he has to let through Eddie Irvine, who needs the points for his World Championship bid.

At the end of the year Schuey comes back, and Salo joins Sauber, another second division team. This season, to date, he has a single point to his name.

The perception in which an F1 driver is held is very much set by his early results, and if you get into a quick car early - as Prost did with McLaren and Renault, Senna with Lotus, Schumacher with Benetton, Coulthard with Williams and McLaren - you can win a race when you are relatively new. And that registers in team owners' minds, puts you on another level.

It is possible to begin with a lowly team - as Hakkinen did with Lotus - and impress sufficiently to be invited to join an outfit like McLaren, but it doesn't often happen. Those at the top of F1 tend to be those who, by virtue of getting the right car, got to the top quickly.

I wouldn't say that, in terms of talent, a driver like Alesi is a mid-fielder at all - indeed, I've always thought Jean's car control on a par with anybody's. His problem was that, after impressing hugely at Tyrrell, he chose heart over head, and went to Ferrari, rather than Williams.

He spent five years with them at a time when their cars were rarely competitive, and so won only one race. Had he gone with Frank, in 1991, who knows how many he might have won? Alesi, sadly, is a mid-fielder these days because no one with a top team has the wit to employ him...

Dear James,
Hmmm, the big question of the moment...

In his six races with Williams to date, Jenson Button has usually been very impressive, particularly when one bears in mind he is but 20 years old, and, for all his karting successes, has very minimal experience of racing cars - let alone F1 cars.

That said, my feeling about Montoya is the same as yours. I suspect that, in a competitive car, not too much time would pass before he began seriously to worry the likes of Schumacher and Hakkinen. I've written Fifth Column on this very subject this week.

As we consider Frank Williams's predicament, though, we may be jumping the gun, for unless Chip Ganassi is prepared to release Montoya from his contract a year early, FW has no decision to make. At the Nurburgring Patrick Head confirmed that Ralf Schumacher's team-mate next year would indeed be Button or Montoya, and, given a choice, I reckon he and Frank would go for Juan-Pablo. Given that Chip holds the whip hand, though, it may well be, that they won't have a choice to make.

Even if Montoya remains with Ganassi next year, however, it will astonish me if he doesn't drive a Williams-BMW in 2002. I really cannot see Frank allowing another F1 team to get its hands on him.

Michelin development continues in readiness for 2001 tyre war

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