Ask Nigel: November 1

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday here on If you have a question, or want an opinion from Nigel on matters past, present or future, then e-mail it to

Ask Nigel: November 1

Dear Nigel,
In an era where F1 has more than its fair share of 'pay drivers', I have two questions... Firstly, who was the first pay driver and who did he drive for? Secondly, in your opinion, who was the best pay driver?
Neil Clements, Grove, Oxfordshire

Dear Neil,
The archetypal 'pay driver' of the moment is Pedro Diniz, of course, who is rumoured to shell out - through various Brazilian sponsors, including his father - around $10m a year for the privilege of taking part in the World Championship.

Diniz, while capable of putting in the odd quick lap here and there, would not be considered for an F1 drive on merit, but Flavio Briatore summed up contemporary Grand Prix racing very nicely the other year... "The two most important drivers in the paddock are Schumacher and Diniz - Michael because he's the best, and Pedro because he's the richest..."

In truth, there is nothing new about 'renta-drivers'. Back in the 50s, the late Alfonso de Portago, a wealthy Spanish nobleman who seemed to excel at all sports, decided that it was about time he tried motor racing. It must be said that he became pretty good at it - albeit not to the point that Enzo Ferrari would have hired him. The Old Man was, however, quite happy to have Portago drive for him, as Phil Hill told me.

"It kind of amuses me that people talk about renta-drivers in Formula 1 as if they were some recent phenomenon. Ferrari was on to that pretty quickly, let me tell you. When I first met 'Fon' de Portago, in early 1954, he knew absolutely nothing about race cars. Never even driven anything with a manual gearshift!

"He was somewhat ahead of his time, Fon, in that he was the first guy I ever met who deliberately... dressed down, let's say. He wore this scruffy leather jacket, shaved about every four days, looked like he had nothing. Then I saw his card one day, with his address on the Avenue Foch in Paris, and that's when I realised you could be fooled by appearances...

"Anyway, Portago was a natural athlete, and he learned to drive quite well. Ferrari took him into his team - he was working on a shoestring in those days, so if you had something other than driving ability to offer, it could serve you well..."

I'm afraid I have no idea who the first 'pay driver' was, Neil, but there's no reason to believe such people weren't around from the dawn of racing. As far as the best 'pay driver' is concerned, though, there is no argument at all: Niki Lauda. He paid for his F1 drives at March in 1972, and at BRM in 1973, and you'd have to say it was money well spent, for in that time he established himself as a potential ace: in 1974, he went to Ferrari, and by now the cheques were going in the other direction. A year later, he won the World Championship for the first time.

Dear Patrick,
You're quite right: the discrepancies between team mates' times in qualifying were far greater back in 1985 than they are now. However, F1 in those days was very different from how it is now, and it's important to be aware of those differences.

For one thing, it was very much more 'hit and miss' than it is now. There was, for example, no telemetry, so, apart from anything else, it was not possible for one driver to look at his team mate's 'traces' - it still isn't if you happen to be partnered with Michael Schumacher! - to see where, and how, he is losing time.

In his Williams days, Adrian Newey told me, for example, that in 1993 Damon Hill was invariably way slower than Alain Prost on the first day of qualifying. On the Friday night, however, he would study Prost's 'traces', and on Saturday he would invariably be much closer to him on time. Call it 'driving by numbers', if you like, but there's no doubt that it has an effect.

Fifteen years ago, too, we were in the midst of the turbo era, and before boost limits were imposed by the FIA in an effort to keep horsepower under some sort of control. The drivers raced with over 1000bhp, but for qualifying the turbo boost would be turned way up, so that Senna and de Angelis, for example, using Renault V6 motors in their Lotuses, had as much as 1500bhp available! Sometimes, the fastest lap in the race would be as much as 10 seconds slower than the pole time.

A large chunk of this came from the extra power, of course, but there were also qualifying tyres in those days, which provided a fantastic amount of grip, but were sometimes hard-pressed to stay together for a single quick lap.

There were two qualifying sessions, rather than one, but for each session a driver was restricted to two sets of tyres: in effect, that meant that he had but two shots at a quick lap in a session. This, of course, was highly dangerous, for it meant that, once committed to a quick lap, a driver couldn't afford to abort it - he simply had to hope that others on the track would see him coming, and give him room.

It was in precisely these circumstances that Gilles Villeneuve was killed, in the final session of the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1982. Jochen Mass, tooling back to the pits, saw the Ferrari in his mirrors, and moved right to give Villeneuve room to go by; unfortunately, Gilles - not willing to back off - had already committed himself to going the same way.

My point is that, back in the mid-eighties, there were a great many more variables involved in a qualifying session than there are now, and these played a significant role in the lap time discrepancies of which you speak. You had really only two quick laps to play with, and unless one of them was clear you were in trouble.

It is interesting that people like Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger considered that period the absolute zenith of F1. "If today's drivers tried my Benetton-BMW - particularly on qualifying boost - they simply wouldn't believe the power," Berger says. "I can remember spinning the wheels at the top of the hill, before Casino Square - and that was in top gear, on a dry road!"

There is little doubt that those cars were considerably harder to drive than their modern counterparts, not least because they were the last Grand Prix cars to have more power than their chassis could comfortably handle. Thanks to turbocharging, they also had significant throttle lag, which meant putting your foot to the floor before you actually wanted the power - and hoping that you had judged it correctly, for when it arrived, it was fearsome.

As well as that, of course, you had a conventional gear lever and a clutch, rather than a paddle to flick with your finger. Unlike now, it was therefore possible to miss a gear change - and also possible to over-rev an engine. Back then, you changed gear when the rev counter was in the right place, not when a light came on, telling you to move a finger. And you didn't, of course, have both hands on the wheel at all times - very far from it, in fact...

Dear Colin,
If Jean Todt does retire, at the end of 2001, it will be interesting to see how much effect that has on Ferrari. I don't care for many of the tactics Todt has employed over the years, but there's no doubt that his contribution to Ferrari's resurgence has been immense.

Yes, Ron Dennis has had a dressing-down from Max Mosley - a public one, too, which did not impress me and my colleagues in the press room - but it was probably inevitable sooner or later, given Ron's occasional willingness to speak out about what he perceives - very often correctly - to be injustices within the sport.

Dennis is, I think, the best team principal I have come across in 30 years of covering this sport - not the most charismatic, by any means, but the best. And I'd put Frank Williams next.

What I admire about Ron particularly is his ability to run a tight, supremely-organised, happy ship. This summer Olivier Panis told me of his feelings about McLaren, both before he joined the team, and after.

"When I first drove a McLaren, it was very emotional, first of all, because this is a team that has raced for more than 30 years, and won so many races and championships. Of course, I thought the car was really good, compared with what I'd driven before - but I expected that.

"It wasn't just the car, though. You know, when you look at McLaren from the outside, you feel that it's quite...cold, but when you're on the inside, you see that it's not that way at all. The people are very human, and easy to work with; I had a very good welcome from everyone. Ron has been straight with me, completely honest, from the start, and I really appreciate that.

"The ambience, as I say, is not cold - but it is very clear: when you're at a track, you're there to improve the car, and everyone works very efficiently, together. You know something? I never see any pressure inside McLaren. The attitude is, 'OK, we know the problem - now we work logically until we solve it.' There is no fighting - I never hear the volume up. Never! Everything is clever; everything is true. But it's logic, not magic."

That says it better than I can. A very good test of a company, and the people who run it, is the loyalty of its employees. Look at a list of folk who work for McLaren, and you'll find that a huge number have been there a very long time; repeatedly, they stress that Dennis is a supremely good employer, a man with high expectations of them, but not without a sense of compassion. Unlike most of his fellow team principals, he has studied management, and if his style sometimes comes across as a bit wooden, still there is no doubt that it works.

And the most entertaining team principal? Well, in the right mood - when they're gabbling irreverently about sundry folk in the paddock - that would have to be a tie between Flavio Briatore and Eddie Jordan...

Dear Barry,
Given access to Dr Who's phone box, there are many, many, races from the past I'd like to attend, but I guess the one I would choose would be the Monaco Grand Prix of 1961.

First of all, in my childhood I was always a devoted supporter of Stirling Moss, and he won it. If Jean Behra was my hero, Stirling was somehow beyond that - he was every kid's hero. In this rather tatty and greedy era, I remember fondly that he stood for everything that was good in sport.

Why Monaco '61? Well, Moss himself considers it his greatest race, and who can be surprised by that? It was the first year of the 1.5-litre Formula 1, and in truth only Ferrari were truly ready for it. The lovely shark-nose cars dominated the season, in the hands of Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and Richie Ginther, and their V6 engines had around 25 per cent more power than the old 4-cylinder Climax motors with which their British rivals were stuck.

That said, a Lotus - even an obsolete 'privateer' car, such as Stirling drove for Rob Walker - had the edge on handling, and when you threw in the genius of Moss, Ferrari had something to worry about. He beat them twice that year, at Monte Carlo and the Nurburgring, two pure driver's circuits.

The statistics of that Monaco drive, though, beggar description. Moss started on pole position, with a time of 1m39.10s, but he was pursued by Ginther and Hill all the way, and eventually lapped in 1m36.30s! Nearly three seconds faster than his pole lap - can you imagine that?

Even more remarkable was his winning average speed. There was no refuelling, of course, so you went to the grid with enough gas to go the distance; routine tyre changes were unknown, so you went the whole way on one set. Moss's average lap time for the race was 1m39.50s, just four-tenths slower than his pole time - and he kept that up for 100 laps, for two hours 45 minutes.

Dear Gareth,
Given the length of time it has taken Toyota to get a competitive and reliable engine together for CART, I'd say very firmly I expect to see them towards the back of the F1 grids when they start racing in 2002!

Maybe I'm being a little unfair, and perhaps I'll be proved completely wrong, but I think the company has an absolute mountain to climb: bad enough to take on the likes of Mercedes, Honda and BMW in an engine war, but also to design, build, and develop your own chassis, like Ferrari, is, er, an act of extreme courage, I would say.

It surprises me, too, that Toyota has chosen to operate out of Germany, rather than the UK. I know the company's existing competitions base is there, but England is where most of the expertise is, when it comes to F1. As well as that, it may be some time before they succeed in attracting a topline driver to the team.

In the fullness of time, Toyota may well come through - it's a massive company (dwarfing such as Honda, for example), and there certainly won't be any shortage of cash, that's for sure. I just don't think they're making it easy for themselves, that's all.

Dear John,
No, I've never 'had a go' myself, save in odd things like 'journalists' races' down the years. In my youth, I did a full course at Motor Racing Stables, the old racing school which used to operate at Brands Hatch, and thought I was pretty quick - indeed, in my late teens it never entered my head that I was going to be other than an F1 driver eventually!

I could tell you that I simply couldn't afford to go racing back then, but that won't do: in my experience, people who really want to do something badly enough eventually find a way of doing it, and I guess I just didn't want it badly enough. I chose to spend my money on other things, and have a good time...

These days there are plenty of people who have had a foot in both camps, but all of them - guys like Marc Surer, Jacques Laffite, Jochen Mass, and so on - were drivers who then turned to journalism (usually broadcasting) after retirement from racing.

There has only been one journalist who truly had a foot in both camps, and that is Paul Frere, who excelled as both a journalist and a driver. In 1955, he went to Spa to cover the Belgian Grand Prix - and was asked by Ferrari to take over the car entered for Maurice Trintignant, who had been injured the weekend before. Frere accepted the offer, and finished fourth!

Two years later, in the same race, he finished second for Ferrari, and in 1960 shared the winning car at Le Mans with Olivier Gendebien. A truly remarkable man, still writing today - and still, at 83, driving very quickly.

Dear Martin,
I rate Jenson Button's achievements this year extremely highly, like everyone else. He impressed me more and more as the season went on, and I think the true mark of the boy is that he excelled at Spa and Suzuka, the two greatest driver's circuits left on the F1 schedule.

Patrick Head has spoken often of Jenson's calmness, which he thinks would be remarkable in someone of 30, let alone 20. "He doesn't pay too much attention to what Ralf (Schumacher) is doing," said Patrick. "He knows what he wants in a car, and he just goes his own way on set-up. In the races, he's very cool - and he makes astonishingly few mistakes. I can't really praise him too highly." Says it all, doesn't it?

Down the years all manner of people have had 'a storming first season' - we can go back to Bernd Rosemeyer in 1935, and even beyond that, if you wish. In the time that I've been covering F1, though, the ones who truly stood out were Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher - and they all did pretty well, didn't they?

The 'next big thing' in F1? I have no doubts at all about that: Juan-Pablo Montoya...

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