Ask Nigel: May 9

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 Autosport.com 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 AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel: May 9



Dear Frank,
Gordon Murray: undoubtedly one of most interesting characters I've known in motor racing.

After working for many years as technical director for Brabham, and designing many memorable cars for such as Carlos Reutemann and Nelson Piquet, 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.

We have always got along well, not least, I think, because we share a deep abhorrence of political correctness. And we always seemed to like, and dislike, the same places. Murray truly hated going to Brazil, for example, but what I remember most vividly was his loathing of Las Vegas.

At the first Grand Prix there, in 1981, his team (Brabham) and driver (Piquet) were in the running for the World Championship, and subsequently clinched the title there, but when Gordon's presence was not required at the track, he stayed in his hotel room - usually with the curtains drawn! - trying to pretend he was somewhere else. For the second race, the following year, he flat refused to go back.

It was 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 certainly not have lost his life.

I don't think he left Brabham, after so many years of loyal service, in very happy circumstances, but he then thrived at McLaren, and the road car project really excited him. "It's a new challenge, that's the thing," he said, "and I felt I needed that. Being involved in F1 full time is very stressful, from two main points of view: first, the travel; second - and this only struck me recently - the fact that you're always up against a two-week deadline, in terms of what you have to change and improve by the next race. I've been doing it a long time... I need a change."

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 obsessive 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, fine wine and motorcycles.

In going on 20 years of central involvement in Formula 1, Murray contrived somehow to remain a quiet and civilised man, primarily, it seems to me, because he has its importance in perspective. He has eyes to see, ears to hear, and would sooner talk about Bob Dylan or Mouton-Rothschild than who was third quickest in Tuesday's test at Jerez or Barcelona or wherever. A thoroughly good guy, and a most unusual character.




Dear Kresimir,
The Brambilla brothers ran - and, so far as I know, still do run - a garage in Monza. In the '60s and '70s both Tino and Vittorio raced, and both were undeniably quick. Problem was, they tended to be off the road as much as on it...

They made their names in Formula 2, with Tino at one point driving for Ferrari (yes, Enzo ran an F2 team in the late '60s), but it was Vittorio who went further, getting into Formula 1 in 1974, with a March. Back then, if you could raise sponsorship, you could buy an off-the-peg F1 car, with Cosworth DFV motor and Hewland gearbox, and go racing; that was what Vittorio did. If you had the cash, March could always accommodate you.

In 1975, sponsored by Beta tools, Vittorio was in a factory-run car, and was often very quick - at Anderstorp, for the Swedish Grand Prix, for example, he took pole position. His day of days, though, came at the old Osterreichring, a fearsomely fast track, where that year the weather was as bad as ever I have seen at a Grand Prix.

It was a dreadful day, in more ways than one. During the warm-up, run in beautiful conditions, Mark Donohue crashed his Penske-entered March, and suffered head injuries from which he died two days later.

By early afternoon, the sky was black, and then the rain started, complete with thunder and lightning. There were no 'Safety Car' starts in those days, and off they went, into appalling visibility.

Vittorio Brambilla was uncommonly brave, even for those days, and also always quick in the wet. Car after car went off the road, but Brambilla, running in company with James Hunt's Hesketh, moved steadily up the leader board, and by lap 15 the pair of them were first and second. Vittorio then overtook James, and pulled away.

After 29 laps, it was decided that conditions were so bad that the race had to be ended prematurely. Thus, Vittorio came up to the line, and was delighted to receive the chequered flag.

So delighted, in fact, that he took one hand off the wheel, and waved his arm violently in his joy - so much so that the March got away from him, and slithered off the road. It slid a very long way before it clouted a guardrail almost head on.

Quite unabashed, Brambilla selected a gear, and ploughed off through the mud, rejoining the circuit, and completing his slowing-down lap with a badly battered car... It was to be his only Grand Prix victory.

Thereafter, he raced for Surtees and, briefly, Alfa Romeo in F1 before retiring in 1980. In the paddock he was known as 'The Monza Gorilla', a nickname of which he was extremely proud...




Dear Andrew,
Good question...

I think if I were really desperate, if time really were short, I would hope to see Jean Alesi. Then again, after a ride with Jean, in that situation, would I be in any condition to get on a 'plane at the end of it? Probably, I fancy, I would book a fresh flight for the following day, and head for the nearest bar!

Seriously, though...I'd go for Alain Prost, by whom I've been driven several times. On the road, he drives as he used to drive on the track, so smoothly and expertly that you cannot believe what the speedometer is reading. No drama, no anxious moments, just beautifully fluent, and VERY quick. I'd get the flight with time to spare, happy and relaxed.

What would Alain be driving? It wouldn't really matter so long as it was quick - a Ferrari or a 911, something like that. But if I really wanted to be relaxed on the journey, probably I'd prefer something a little less frantic. I once rode with him from Silverstone back down to London in a big Merc of some description, the car whispering along at an extraordinary speed, so let's say an S500 coupe.




Dear Sathya,
Very glad you like the columns. Thank you.

You're quite right that Dan Gurney was the driver most feared and respected by Jim Clark. In fact, after Clark's funeral, his father said to Gurney, "You know, Dan, you were the only one Jim ever worried about..." It is a moment in his life Gurney has trouble talking about even today, more than 30 years on.

So, now, who did Gilles Villeneuve most fear and respect? It's not an easy question to answer, because, in truth, I really don't believe Gilles feared anyone in that way. When he started in Formula 1, at the end of 1977, his own favourite driver was Ronnie Peterson, whose spectacular style of driving he much admired, but Peterson was killed at Monza, towards the end of 1978, Villeneuve's first full season.

Thereafter, the two drivers Gilles most respected - not feared - were Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann, I would say. While I think he was confident of being able to beat them, all things being equal, he had tremendous admiration for them, and he often said his most enjoyable race - even though he was ultimately beaten - was with Jones in the 1979 Canadian Grand Prix.

As for Reutemann, well, he was Villeneuve's team mate at Ferrari in 1978, so there was direct comparison to be made between them, and Gilles knew how absolutely quick Carlos was, when the mood took him. And I remember Monza in 1981, when the turbos were beginning to get emphatically the upper hand, particularly on the 'power' circuits. Somehow, Carlos qualified his Williams-Cosworth second, between the Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost.

I went to see Gilles after qualifying, and he wasn't too interested in discussing his own car, his own problems. "Did you see Carlos's time?" he exclaimed, eyes alight with enthusiasm. "That is the lap of the season, no question about it..."




Dear Eric,
I've never witnessed an actual race cancellation in F1 - but I do recall quite a lengthy postponement: from June 2 to September 15, in fact.

This was at Spa-Francorchamps in 1985. At that time, for a brief period, the Belgian Grand Prix alternated between Spa and the infamous Zolder (where Gilles Villeneuve was killed in 1982). The last Grand Prix at Spa had therefore been in 1983, and for the '85 race the entire circuit had been resurfaced.

The reasoning behind this was very sound. Spa, as we know, is situated in a part of the world where the climate is extremely capricious, and as the lap is unusually long, it is not unknown to have sunshine in one area, and heavy rain in another. From a safety standpoint, this is obviously not ideal, and so it was decided to resurface the place, using a rubberised asphalt with particularly good drainage qualities.

OK so far. The problem was that the work was completed only 10 days before the scheduled Belgian Grand Prix (rather than the 60 days stipulated by the FIA), and thus obviously had insufficient time to 'cure' properly. As well as that, when we got there, on Thursday, May 30, the weather - most untypically - was extremely hot, and that was how it stayed.

On Friday morning, the drivers practised, and in the afternoon ran the first qualifying session (there were two in those days, of course). Initially, they were highly impressed by the extraordinarily 'grippy' qualities of the new surface, and the times reflected that. Fastest was the late and lamented Michele Alboreto, whose Ferrari went round eight seconds faster than Alain Prost's pole time, when the F1 cars had last been at Spa.

By the end of the day, though, the surface was breaking up in several places, so overnight the Spa organisers attempted a 'quick fix'. It did not work. The newly resurfaced bits proved to be extremely slippery - lap times were 20-odd seconds slower than the day before - and the drivers reported that it was impossible to drive, at any speed. In some places, you could lift the tarmac with your fingers.

They said they would work on it again, that final qualifying would take place at five o'clock - but in the meantime they allowed out a field of GT cars for their practice session, and soon the track was in ribbons. At 7.45 that evening the organisers finally - finally - faced the inevitable, and announced that the Belgian Grand Prix had been postponed. Astonishingly, though, the F3000 race was duly run the following day, with predictably chaotic consequences.

Thus it was that we went twice to Spa in 1985, returning there in September, the weekend after Monza. This time, a more conventional surface had been laid, and there were no problems at all for Ayrton Senna, whose Lotus-Renault beat Nigel Mansell's Williams-Honda by 38 seconds.




Dear Ron,
To some degree, you're right that in F1 you're only as good as your last result - but only to some degree. Motor racing is obviously not a sport like football or tennis or golf, because in motor racing you need more than your own skills: you also need a car to match, and everyone understands that.

The problem is, if you have a poor car - as, for example, Jenson Button has this year - you are simply not going to figure, as far as pure results are concerned, and you will, to some extent, slip from the limelight. Jacques Villeneuve can tell you all about that: World Champion in only his second season, with a strike rate of one victory in three races - and he hasn't won a race since, because he hasn't had the car to do it.

In judging drivers, however, some team owners are more...sophisticated, let's say, than others. When a driver is stuck with a terrible car, he may not score many points - but you can still keep tabs on what he's doing with what he has, compared with his team mate. I have always contended that you learn more about a driver's true worth in these circumstances than when he has a quick car at his disposal. It's true that, in absolute terms, Button has gone from being 'the next big thing' to an also-ran, but, given his current predicament at Benetton, what he needs to do is get conclusively the better of Giancarlo Fisichella.

As far as the influence of the press is concerned, there are many in the F1 paddock who say that we have far more than we believe, but I really don't go along with that, quite honestly. A time or two I have told a team owner that I think his driver's a brat, who needs to learn some manners, or whatever, and sometimes I've talked up a young guy in a lesser team, or lower formula, but I don't believe any driver ever got hired or fired because of a journalist's opinion.

In the end, as history has shown more than once, it doesn't matter how much of a brat a driver may be. Of course, it's a more agreeable situation for everyone in his team if he's a good bloke, but we don't live in a perfect world, and fundamentally all that counts is how quick he is. And I'm bound to say that if I were a team owner I'd be of that mind, too: they are, after all, in this to win.


If you have a question, send it to AskNigel@haynet.com.

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