Ask Nigel: November 22

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions here every Wednesday. If you have a topic past, present or future that you would like Nigel's opinion of to help wile away the off-season, then send your questions to Nigel at autosportnews@haynet.com

Ask Nigel: November 22


Dear Nigel
I can't help looking back to the days when the cars were sliding like crazy, had six wheels, air intakes like towers and it was possible to recognise the car on looks rather then what sponsors it had. And as a Swede, the time when Ronnie Peterson was driving. It's interesting to read your comments on drivers over the years, so what's your opinion about Ronnie?
Goran L
Sweden

Dear Goran,

I, too, loved the days when the cars 'were sliding like crazy', although I can't share your enthusiasm for six-wheeled cars -- I thought they were a hideous abomination, and it delighted me when they were banned.

Now... Ronnie -- or 'Mad Ronald', as Mike Hailwood used to call him. Back then, Grand Prix racing may have been infinitely more dangerous than now, but it lacked the hard edge of today, and friendships between the drivers were the norm. In Hailwood's humour there was affection for Peterson, a man adored by the paddock and the fans alike.

He was never a textbook racing driver, in the Stewart sense of the word, but rather one who could make a car dance to his tune, a man of consummate reflex and instinct.

In all truth, that was just as well, for Ronnie was a terrible test driver. "He was amazing in that respect," Colin Chapman said. "You could change a car quite fundamentally -- and he'd still turn in the same sort of times! So you'd ask him how it felt different from before, and he'd say, 'Ummmm, slides a bit more...' Where? At the front, the back, both ends? And he'd say he wasn't sure! Made me tear my hair out. Then, of course, he'd go and put the thing on pole position, so you couldn't really get too mad with him..."

Peterson was at his best, Chapman maintained, when partnered with a supreme test driver, and it was fortunate that, in two spells with Lotus, his team mates were Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. "He'd mess around in practice, while Emerson worked on his set-up, then copy his settings - and nick pole position from him! Used to madden Emerson, that, and you couldn't blame him."

So abundant was Peterson's talent that he could drive around any problem his car might have, and had the confidence to commit to a flat-out corner in the certainty he could sort it all out. "I don't think Ronnie ever had the mental application that a complete racing driver needs," said Jackie Stewart, "but I admired his ability tremendously. Any number of times, particularly in 1973, I'd follow him into a corner and think, 'Oh-oh, Ronnie, this time you've overdone it, you're gone!' But he always seemed to get it back somehow. It never surprised me that the spectators loved him - he was exciting to watch from where I was, too!"

The spectators indeed loved him. Like Jochen Rindt, he was a driver who made you seek out a particular corner for the privilege of watching him through it. In all my years of watching Grand Prix drivers at their work, I have never seen anything better than Peterson's Lotus 72 through Silverstone's original Woodcote Corner.

Ronnie would have been wasted in the high downforce era, because delicacy, while still required to some extent, is largely hidden by the sheer ability of the cars. That black Lotus through Woodcote was all catch-lose-catch, the tail always trying to come around, the driver always ready for it.

Balance, that was the thing. Peterson always reckoned that he was not a natural sportsman, but when he holidayed at Andretti's Pennsylvania estate, Mario saw another side of him. "We had all kinds of toys there, and I really put him through it. He was on the bikes and the buggies, and he was so competitive in everything he did. He'd never been on slalom skies before, for example. It takes time to get used to those things, but Ronnie made it first time he tried it. That impressed me."

Statistically, Peterson's career is not especially impressive, with 10 victories from his 123 Grands Prix. But statistics alone cannot tell of a man's significance in his sport. In only four of his nine years in F1 did he win races, and the truth is that much of his career was squandered on poor cars. Forty-seven races with March, for example, yielded but a single victory.

Peterson and Andretti were great pals - indeed, in their few months of working together, in 1978, their friendship became as firm as any I have known between drivers, and Mario admitted that he had reckoned without Ronnie's absolute honesty: "Something, let's face it, you don't encounter too often in this business..."

What the pair of them had in 1978 was the Lotus 79, the first true 'ground effect' car. From early in the season, it became apparent that the World Champion would be either Andretti or Peterson, but the odds were squarely with Mario, because Ronnie's contract required him not to beat his team mate.

"A lot of people were very sniffy about that," recalled Chapman, "but Ronnie wasn't one of them. He knew damn well that Mario had earned the championship. Ronnie was a very great driver, but he owed a lot to Mario, and he knew it - it was Mario who made the Lotus 79 the car it was, and Ronnie benefited from that. He was a very honourable man."

So he was. In the first half of the season Andretti, more at one with the new car, usually won on merit, but by the time of Brands Hatch Peterson's freakish speed was beginning to assert itself. There he took pole position, on race tyres, while Andretti worked through nine sets of qualifiers in his attempts to match him.

By the time of Zandvoort, in late August, Ronnie's plans for the following year were settled. "I'm going to McLaren," he told me on race morning. "It's not announced yet, but Mario knows. Now people are saying I should forget our agreement, and just go for the championship, but I had open eyes when I signed the contract. And I also gave my word."

Seconds after the start of the Italian Grand Prix Peterson was involved in a multiple accident, and suffered dreadful leg injuries, but there was no suggestion that his life was in danger. Conscious and rational after the accident, he was taken to the Niguardia Hospital, in Milan, but during the night, following an operation to reset his legs, blood clots developed in his lungs, and in the early morning he died. Andretti arrived shortly afterwards, and was given the news.

"Unhappily, motor racing is also this," Mario muttered, and then he left. I doubt that anyone ever more simply, more movingly, summed up the checks and balances of our sport.


Dear Matthew,

Webber has taken a chance, opting for the 'F1 test driver' route with Benetton, rather than trying to get a top CART drive, although history shows that CART -- for an aspiring F1 driver -- can be something of a dead end. That said, I think that Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian have done the right thing, in signing for Chip Ganassi, for neither was about to be offered a competitive F1 drive, and there was no point whatever in staying in F3000.

As for Mark, I was pleased that he usually went so well in F3000 this season; if there was no real sign of the sort of ability demonstrated by, say, Juan Montoya, when he was in F3000, we have to remember that Montoya is a special case. Webber certainly made a good impression, but there's absolutely no guarantee that he will get a fulltime F1 drive -- that's not how life is, I'm afraid, particularly when there will always be renta-drivers -- or, as they call them these days, 'drivers who bring a budget'.

I hope Mark does get a drive some day, not least because of the huge number of F1 fanatics in Australia, who need someone to cheer for; it's been too long since there was an Australian near the top of the sport. There again, the same is true of the USA...


Dear Bruno,

I always got on well with Gerard Ducarouge, and liked him immensely. Probably I have never in my life met anyone more French -- it was always a pleasure to sit in the smoke-wreathed Ligier motorhome, chatting to 'Duca' -- particularly if Guy Ligier was also present, in which case the cognac and calvados bottles would come out! Different times, I know, but, boy, they were fun...

I'm not sure I'd agree with you that Ducarouge was one of the most talented designers of the time, although certainly he turned out some very good cars in his time. To me, his particular genius lay in improving an existing car, in making 'a silk purse out of a sow's ear'.

Think of the original Lotus-Renault, for example, the 93T, which appeared at the beginning of 1983. It was a truly dreadful car, both to drive and to look at, but Gerard went to work, and in an astonishingly short time conjured it into the 94T. Svelte and beautiful, it made its debut at Silverstone in July, and qualified fourth, driven by the lamented Elio de Angelis. Unfortunately, the car had turbo failure on lap two, while lying third, but its sister car, driven by Nigel Mansell, finished fourth, after encountering endless problems in practice, and starting way back on the grid.

When he was with Alfa Romeo, I know that both Mario Andretti and Bruno Giacomelli reckoned Ducarouge highly -- and so also did Ayrton Senna in his Lotus years. If his methods were sometimes a little haphazard, he was always a prodigiously hard worker, and this, of course, was a quality much appreciated by Ayrton.

I last saw Duca at Retromobile, the historic show in Paris, three or four years ago, and found him quite unchanged. Still friendly, funny, and bubbling with enthusiasm. At that time, as far as I remember, he was working for Matra, but, to be honest, I don't know what he is doing now. I do remember his asking me about the current state of F1: "Seems to me there isn't much laughter in the paddock these days," he smiled.


Dear Kevin,

I wouldn't include John Watson in a list of 'my favourite drivers', in the way of Amon, Andretti, Gilles or Alesi, for he didn't capture my imagination in the way they did, but he was always a driver I admired, and always a bloke I liked.

John's natural talent was very high, I think, and when he was on top of his game, really confident, he was extremely formidable. When I think of him now, the picture that comes to my mind is always from 1977, when he drove that huge, heavy, Brabham-Alfa to such great effect. He had some incredible battles that year, such as with Andretti's Lotus at Dijon (where his car failed on the last lap), and with James Hunt's McLaren at Silverstone. It was grossly unfair that he never won a race in that car.

I think it's fair to say that Watson was one of those drivers for whom the car had to be 'right', rather than, say, a Peterson, who would simply make the best of what he had. There were times when one thought John simply fiddled too much; times, too, when one felt he allowed outside influences to compromise his huge driving ability.

He was -- and is -- essentially a shy man, without the bullish self-confidence of a Hunt or a Lauda, and to some extent was made to suffer for that: he was an easy target, if you like, and I always had considerable sympathy for him in that regard.

Something else I've always liked about Watson: he is genuinely a tremendous enthusiast of motor racing, one who grew up imbued in the sport. There are few drivers remotely interested in any era of racing bar their own, but John's knowledge of racing history is considerable.

A good bloke, in sum, but one whose results did not do justice to his talent. I remember the early laps of the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix, at the daunting Montuich circuit; John was at the wheel of a Surtees, and he had that thing up in second place for as long as it lasted. His bravery that day left an indelible mark on all who witnessed it.


Dear John,

I'm striving to understand your analogies here. Presumably, you're equating Minis with the Beatles, and Imps with the Stones...yes?

Let's take the music first. I loved the Beatles, and liked the Stones. Now the cars. I loved Minis -- still fondly remember my Cooper S -- and simply HATED Imps! Forgive me, but I thought an Imp was about the ugliest car ever offered for public sale, and as for the camber of those front wheels...

Sorry if I offend you -- clearly you're an Imp fanatic. In point of fact, although I have less than no interest in 'saloon car racing' these days (NASCAR apart, of course), back in the sixties I loved it, not least because there was so much variety -- Galaxies, Lotus Cortinas, and so on -- and there were good battles going on from one end of the pack to the other. I feel sympathy for anyone who never saw Jimmy Clark's Lotus Cortina through Clearways or Woodcote or...anywhere, really.

You're probably right that the work of such as Peter Harper and Bill McGovern is unjustly overlooked, but I'm afraid I always rooted for the Minis. Sorry...


Dear Rory,

When it comes to F1 test drivers, the fashion is definitely changing. Until quite recently, a team's test driver was some promising young guy from one of the junior formulae, who might turn out to have the talent to make the grade in F1. Now the thinking is that far more useful is a driver already familiar with F1, whose experience is valuable, whose ability is more of a known quantity.

I think there's no doubt that Olivier Panis's year as test driver with McLaren-Mercedes has caused a lot of people to change their opinions. He worked tremendously hard for the team, and could hardly have impressed everyone more; whenever he tested with Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard, or both, he was always able at least to match their times.

Towards the end of the year, DC said this of him: "Anything Olivier said, you could just take for granted. He's been a great benefit to us -- a test driver whose judgement we could absolutely depend on, and one who was quick enough for us to know exactly where we stood, relative to the opposition."

I reckon Alexander Wurz should be able to do a similar sort of job for McLaren next year, as should Ricardo Zonta at Jordan -- and, I suspect, Marc Gene at Williams. They're all quick, and they're all familiar with the workings of F1.

I rather agree with you that Jacques Villeneuve won't be too worried about the arrival of Panis at BAR -- but then, Jacques being Jacques, I don't think he'd be too concerned if Schumacher or Hakkinen were joining him! That's the way he is -- he just gets on with his job, and doesn't worry about the other guy.

That said, I think Panis -- given a decent car -- is going to make people sit up and take notice in 2001. A VERY good driver, I think, and one who has been underestimated to this point.


Dear Art,

There are people -- and Ron Dennis is one -- who insist that the (probable) return of traction control to F1 will improve the racing, but I'm with you, Art; I just can't see it. Whatever else, it will emphatically NOT improve the spectacle, that's for sure.

How do the drivers feel about it? Can't tell you that, because I haven't spoken to any since the Malaysian Grand Prix. However, a colleague talked to Button about it last week, and was not too surprised to learn that Jenson was thoroughly dismayed by the prospect. What else would anyone expect? Any driver of exceptional talent is going to resent the adoption of a bit of software which limits his input. It's the average drivers who will celebrate -- after all, it will reduce the performance gap between them and the great ones.

I think you're right: the 'drivers' side of the sport' is given too little consideration, although FIA President Max Mosley has always been a staunch opponent of 'driver aids'. At the end of 1993, after all, he banned them, and was widely lauded for it.

Unfortunately, though, some continued to use it -- to cheat, in other words -- and the problem is that detecting it, in terms of being to prove its existence, has apparently proved to be a task beyond the governing body.

Thus, the teams have voted unanimously to have it brought back, to have it 'legalised', if you like. They want a level playing-field, and you can't blame for that, but they seem not to care that traction control is the very last thing fans of the sport want to see. I, too, am all for a level playing-field -- but one on which all the teams play WITHOUT traction control. Ain't going to happen, though, I'm afraid. For some, winning at all costs -- fair or not -- is the way of it.

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