Ask Nigel: November 15

Every Wednesday, Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions on motorsport topics past, present and future. If you have a question, or want an opinion from Nigel, then e-mail it to autosportnews@haynet.com

Ask Nigel: November 15


Dear Jacco,

When we were doing the book, Mario told me he had had only four really close friendships with fellow drivers: Billy Foster, a very promising Canadian Indycar driver, who was killed in practice for a NASCAR race at Riverside early in 1967, Lucien Bianchi (with whom he drove at Le Mans a couple of times), who was killed during the Le Mans test weekend in 1969, Ronnie, of course, and Gunnar.

Everyone who knew Gunnar remembers him well. As a driver, his natural talent was high, and that win at Zolder in 1977 would surely, all things being equal, have been the first of very many. As a man, he was delightful company, untypically extrovert for a Scandinavian, with a great sense of humour, and a huge capacity for having a good time.

He loved his time at Lotus, the two seasons -- 1976 and '77 -- with Andretti, whom he revered, but for '78 accepted an offer to join the then new Arrows team as number one driver. That, of course, never came to be.

Two or three times during that summer of '77, he complained of niggling pains in his back, which seemed to be getting worse. They seemed to have little effect on his driving -- he drove an absolute stormer at the Osterreichring in August, I remember -- but, as he later said, without a trace of self-pity, he should have had the pains investigated sooner than he did.

It was when he was staying at Andretti's country place, in Pennsylvania, that Mario finally persuaded him to go and see a doctor, which led to further tests in London; eventually, we learned of the diagnosis.

Gunnar spent months in hospital, somehow remaining resolutely cheerful for most of the time, and in July of '78 actually came to Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix. How was he doing? "Good!" he exclaimed. "I'm coming along well." He had lost all his hair, following months of chemotherapy, but even managed to joke with me about that: "You think you're going bald? Ha! I'm way ahead of you..."

In fact, he wasn't coming along well at all, and it wasn't long before he knew it was a matter of weeks, rather than months. The raw courage of the man had a profound effect on everyone: in the time left to him, he passed up pain-killing drugs so as to be properly alert, and concentrated such energies as he had on starting a campaign to raise funds for scanning equipment for the London hospital which had looked after him so well. Early in September, he somehow found the strength to go to Sweden for the funeral of Ronnie Peterson; a few days later he died, at the age of 28.

He had a very short time at the top level of motor racing - only 31 Grands Prix - but it was enough to make his mark as a driver. Much more than that, though, I, and others, will always remember Gunnar Nilsson the man.


Dear Steven,

Gordon was -- and is -- a complete one-off, and about as far from a typical 'Formula 1 person' as you will find. The phrase 'free spirit' might have been coined for him.

I've always liked him immensely, and miss his presence in the F1 paddocks of today. Once in a while, I see him for lunch at a local pub, and it's always good to catch up with him -- once, I remember, I bumped into him in Guildford, and what started as a quick cup of coffee turned into a couple of hours' discussion about what was wrong with contemporary F1...

Gordon has strong opinions about all manner of things, but because he has such a quiet, mellow, voice, you sometimes don't immediately take in the trenchancy of what he has just said. What I have always liked most about him is that he goes his own way in all things, and has consuming passions outside motor racing and cars, including music, motorcycling and fine wines -- an obsession of mine, too.

In the paddock he was always a pleasingly degage figure, wearing what he pleased, rather than the 'uniforms' adopted by other team personnel; I always thought he was made for the Brabham team, which, although owned by Bernie Ecclestone, was a particularly friendly and laidback outfit. In Nelson Piquet, another louche individual (and then some!), he had the ideal driver with whom to work, and together they achieved a tremendous amount, including two World Championships.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't get the impression that Gordon plays any part at all in McLaren's current F1 operation. It's not his job, after all - he works for McLaren Cars - and, quite honestly, I don't get the impression he misses F1. For one thing, I think he'd had enough of being on the road all the time, something I quite understand, and for another, the F1 of today is way too serious and po-faced for someone of his personality. He's still interested in it, of course, and keeps up with what's going on, but no, I don't think he misses it at all. He sometimes comes to practice for the British Grand Prix, but that's it. For Gordon, work has also to be fun...


Dear Mel,

The trends are changing in CART - or 'Indycar racing', as we knew it for so long. For one thing, there used to be as good as no cross-pollenation between American and European racing: guys like Foyt and Al Unser Sr were dyed-on-the-wool Americans whose interest lay with dyed-in-the-wool American racing, and who had no interest in doing Formula 1, or whatever. Mario Andretti was a shining exception to the rule, of course, but remember that Mario was Italian-born, and didn't emigrate to America until he was 15 years old -- he fell in love with motor racing at Monza, not Indianapolis, and F1 was always very much on his agenda.

People like Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford got to Indianapolis the traditional way, making their names first in the hard school of sprint car racing, then graduating to championship cars. They all started very young, regarded race driving as a longterm career, and retired in their fifties. You suggest that Rahal was 'at least 10 years younger', but remember that even Bobby was 45 when he called it a day - way older than your typical F1 driver at the end of his career.

The thing is, these days a CART driver is not necessarily a CART driver for the duration: at any given time, there will be guys in it - like Juan Montoya - hoping to get eventually to F1, and also those - like Mark Blundell - who have done their time in F1, but want to carry on racing single-seaters. It's also way more cosmopolitan than it used to be: the only 'top' Americans in it this season were Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser. In part, of course, this is because of the unfortunate CART/IRL split, which has necessarily diminished the status of 'Indy car racing', and in part it's because of the financial lure of NASCAR, which, for example, took Scott Pruett from CART and Tony Stewart from the IRL.

More and more, too, CART team owners are looking for young drivers for their teams, and not necessarily from their own country. Chip Ganassi, for example, has been the most successful team owner of recent years, and for 2001 has opted for Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, two graduates of F3000 -- just as Montoya was.

What all this adds up to is that I don't think there is any particular phenomenon at work here -- it's not that CART drivers have suddenly decided to start retiring early. Guys like Mario and AJ retired late because they simply didn't want to do anything but drive racing cars; as a breed, though, people like them are thin on the ground these days.


Dear Fadi,

I think your suggestion is an excellent one, and I'd like to see it adopted it for F1 by the FIA. As you say, of late most of the time all the teams, bar Ferrari and McLaren, have essentially been going for two places, fifth and sixth, so the chances of actually scoring points are minimal, and this -- particularly given the significance of the 'travel money' (which goes only to the top 10 teams of the previous season) -- seems somewhat unfair.

Maybe we should go for something like the CART system, which awards points down to 12th place, but what we absolutely don't need is a system akin to NASCAR's, which requires a calculator and a rule book to work it out!

The NASCAR system also does not reward winning as much as it should, in my opinion. Whatever system we have, there should always be a discernible gap between the points for first and second places -- whatever else, I always hate to see consistency get the upper hand over competitiveness. I would, though, like to see a bit more on offer for such as Arrows and Prost.


Dear Erik,

Yes, I did meet Greg Moore, but only a couple of times, unfortunately. My old friend Gordon Kirby introduced me to Greg when he came to the Canadian Grand Prix one year, and I met him again at the Milwaukee CART race in 1999, at the end of which season, sadly, he was killed at Fontana.

Any racing driver's death is a tragic loss to the sport, of course, but it is quite evident, from talking to people who knew him well, that Greg was extremely popular, still hugely missed in the CART paddock. I found him charming, I must say, and folk who were close to him, like Dario Franchitti, clearly thought he was an exceptional bloke, as well as an immensely promising driver.

I well remember a conversation with Norbert Haug, the competitions director of Mercedes-Benz, about Moore. This was 1996, Jacques Villeneuve's first season in F1, and Haug had been at a CART race the previous weekend. "All these Canadians..." he said. "I tell you what, Villeneuve looks pretty exceptional, but I have the feeling that Greg Moore may be even better. For sure, he has to be in F1 one day..."


Dear Chris,

I know exactly how you feel: I was appalled last Friday to learn of the likely return of traction control, and other electronic gizmos, all of which are designed to do tasks previously performed by the man in the cockpit.

The worst of it is that most F1 people who really care about racing welcomed the FIA's ban on such systems, seven years ago, and haven't changed their opinions. It's not that the members of the F1 Working Group actually want to see traction control back -- just that they have accepted that the rule banning it cannot be adequately policed by the FIA, and they've had enough of being beaten by the cheats who have ignored the ban.

This, in itself, shows contemporary F1 in a deeply unattractive light, for it amounts to a tacit admission that some within its ranks simply want to win at all costs, be it by fair means or not.

To a greater or lesser degree, there has always, of course, been cheating in F1, but at least in days past there was always a chance that you would be caught, and punished accordingly. In this 'electronic era', though, the situation is much different, for software performing tasks forbidden by the rules can be enabled and 'wiped' with relative ease: how, then, is anyone to prove it had been used?

Believe me, countless times drivers have said to me, "I was following X today, and I KNOW he's got ******* traction control!" Ah yes, but prove it...

When you watched a Rindt or Senna at the edge, you marvelled that a man could do that; it's not exactly the same when you know it's software controlling the power, is it? Still, it looks as though we -- the fans of the sport, who actually like watching racing drivers and their cars at work -- will suffer because of the dishonesty of some members of the F1 fraternity. I wish, I really wish, I could tell you who I'm talking about...

How people respond to this situation will depend very much on their way of thinking. Those, for example, who believe in arming the police will probably be very much in favour. Those in favour of throwing away the key, when it comes to criminals who carry guns and knives, will not. Fundamentally, I'm very much in the second group, and ideally what I'd like to see is the cheats banned for a good long time; being realistic, though, if there's no chance of actually catching them in the first place, I suppose reluctantly it's better to have everyone with traction control, rather than just the cheats.

It's still a very sad situation, though, and I cannot see how it will do other than harm the racing, just as it did the first time round. Everyone remembers Ayrton Senna's victory in the wet at Donington in 1993, and certainly his opening lap was unforgettable, but Ayrton himself scoffed at suggestions that this was his greatest drive: "We had traction control... It was nothing like my first win, at Estoril in '85. It was raining that day, too, and the throttle was being controlled by ME!"

It wasn't by coincidence that the two drivers who most hated the gizmos were Senna and Alain Prost, the two geniuses of the time -- and the two who had most to lose from any situation which made the cars much easier to drive.

It may well be that the return of traction control will make the racing closer, for it will go a long way towards equalising the performance of the drivers, flattering the mediocre. But it won't be real, that's the point -- a battle between creators of software hardly stirs the blood, does it?

Earlier this year, Max Mosley revealed how he had fought off a concerted effort to bring back traction control for 2000. "As far as policing is concerned," he said, "we've taken a new line. We're going to use Article 27, which says that it is the duty of the teams to prove to us that their cars comply. And we've told them that if the electronics get too complex, we'll simplify them -- if you take that to its logical conclusion, we would simply say, 'Here's a standard ECU for the engine, and a standard ECU for the chassis, and these you must use'. We think it would be better to do that, even though it would greatly restrict their technological freedom, than to have a situation in which the car is doing it all, and the driver's skill is becoming secondary."

Unfortunately, although Mosley himself has not changed his stance on 'driver aids', it looks as though they will slide through at the F1 Commission meeting, on December 7. Actually, I see little wrong with his proposition to supply all the teams with standard ECUs; the engineers would hate it, of course, but at the end of the day what matters most in F1 is that people still want to watch it. I'd far rather have all the teams with 'standard ECUs', and do without traction control, but I don't see it happening, I'm afraid.

As for the 2001 season...well, I'm looking forward to Rockingham!


Dear Martin,

Yes, I did drive with Gilles -- once! It was from Heathrow to Silverstone for a test day, in 1979, and when, at the end of the next day, he proposed that I go back down to Heathrow with him, I invented a reason for not doing so...

Was it terrifying? Yes -- initially, anyway. It wasn't just the speed, although that was quite beyond anything in my experience; what worried me more was that Gilles seemed blithely unaware that not everyone on the road had his reactions, nor his ability in a car. It's a shortcoming I have found frequently in racing drivers.

In particular, what unnerved me was his overtaking. There would be traffic coming the other way, but he would set off, just knowing that somehow he would find a gap to snick into - which he always did, of course. Patrick Tambay once said that Gilles 'lived his whole life at 200mph', and that was true.

As the drive went on, I didn't become exactly relaxed, but I came to realise that for Gilles this was normal, that he was working that car - a Fiat of some sort - at a level I couldn't comprehend. And the thing was, the whole time he was chattering away, about everything under the sun! As an exhibition of ability in a car, it was staggering, but I decided on a more relaxed way of getting back to Heathrow, where I'd left my own car. How his wife, Joann, drove with him as a matter of routine, I never quite understood...

No, not all racing drivers are 'incorrigible speed freaks off the track as well as on', but any number of times, when someone comes screaming by as I get towards a race circuit, it turns out to be someone I see on the track later in the day. As I say, their biggest failing, on the road, is an inability to allow for drivers less skilled - and emphatically less quick - than themselves. That said, I doubt they'll ever change.

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