Ask Nigel: November 8

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

Ask Nigel: November 8

Dear Nigel
I'm currently re-reading 'Mario Andretti - World Champion'. (It's good to read a driver so extensively quoted, when today's features are based on three sentences) What are your memories of Mario?
Colin Kirby
Essex, UK

Dear Colin,

My memories of Mario...Ye Gods, how long do we have?!

I've known him for nearly 30 years now, and never come across anyone who better personified 'racing driver'. Like Fangio, like Senna, he had - and has - charisma to throw away, the kind of presence that stops conversation when he walks into a room. My wife has little or no interest in racing, but I well remember her reaction when she met Andretti for the first time. "There," she said, "is a star. Even if you didn't know who he was, or what he did, you'd know that much about him."

Similarly, my friend and colleague, Alan Henry, has been in this business as long as I have, and is at least as blase and cynical about aspects of it as I am, but he always says that, to this day, meeting Mario again has the same powerful effect. It's his personality, of course, but also the sheer breadth of his achievements.

When we were at Indianapolis for the Grand Prix recently, another close friend - Pino Allievi, of 'Gazzetta della Sport' - was thrilled to see him again, after many years. "Ah, Mario..." he said later. "There's no one like him, is there? Never has been, never will be."

I go along with that. There may have been greater F1 drivers, greater sports cars drivers, greater stock car drivers, or whatever, but there has never been anyone who excelled in so many disciplines. As far as I'm concerned, Andretti is the greatest all-rounder motor racing has ever seen, and it's quite certain that, in these 'specialist' times, no one will ever challenge him in that regard.

Just consider what he did in the course of 40 years of motor racing: he won in a Formula 1 car at Monza, in an Indy car at Indianapolis, in a NASCAR stocker at Daytona, in a championship dirt car at Springfield, Illinois, in a sprint car at Salem, Indiana, in a sports prototype at Brands Hatch, in a Formula 5000 car at Riverside, California, in a midget at Flemington, New Jersey - he even won the Pikes Peak hillclimb in Colorado, which is about as specialised as it gets. And that's just giving single examples of victories in each type of racing.

Out of the cockpit, too, he was a journalist's dream. I'm pleased to know, Colin, that you're re-reading the book we did together, 22 years ago, and amused that you mention how extensively quoted Mario is, 'when today's features are based on three sentences'.

The thing is, he loves to talk, and always did. Last year I went with another mate, Maurice Hamilton, to the Milwaukee CART race, and on the Saturday evening we had dinner with Mario. He was on wonderful form, and it didn't hurt that we worked our way through several bottles of extremely good Italian red wine (another passion of Andretti's). He is a mesmeric raconteur, with as dry a sense of humour as you will find, and all evening long he had us in hysterics with tales from his racing days. Too bad that most of them can never be written!

As we went back to the hotel later, Hamilton said, "Well, I hope it's a good race tomorrow, and in Montreal next week, but it doesn't really matter. It was worth flying the Atlantic just for this evening - that's already going to be the highlight of my year."

I felt the same way. No matter how long I've known Mario, how many hours I've spent in his company, there are always stories that are new, laconic one-liners that he hasn't come out with before. And this is one of the reasons why we journalists loved him: he came out with so many good quotes, so much stuff you could use in a story. Without going through the book again, I can't remember which I used in there, but here are one or two which come to mind.

On the hugely talented, but perennially unlucky, Chris Amon: "If Chris went into the undertaking business, people would stop dying..."

On a huge practice accident at Paul Ricard in 1978: "Good flight plan, bad landing..."

On being offered a one-off Ferrari drive at Monza in 1982: "Did I agree? Hey, man, this is a Ferrari! At Monza! Cream for the cat..."

On winning: "Nothing rejuvenates you like the centre of the podium - no matter how you get there..."

On his early days: 'At first a lot of sprint car owners thought I was too skinny and small to do the job - and that fired me up even more. I may not have had Schwarzenegger's shoulders, but I knew I had the heart I needed. I was there to drive the car, not carry the goddam thing..."

See what I mean? Just about every word he gave you was something you could use in a story. Apart from the fact that Andretti is naturally a friendly and sociable man, he was also the consummate pro, who recognised that the press, too, had a job to do; to him it was obvious that if he worked well with the journalists, they would write about him - perhaps more than about some of his colleagues. Commonsense, really.

I remember one time being berated by Jody Scheckter. "Why is it you guys write so much about Andretti? Everywhere you look, it's Andretti this, Andretti that..." I tried to explain it to him, but I don't think I got through.

We did the book at the end of 1978, the year in which Andretti won the World Championship for Lotus. Naturally enough, a lot of taping was necessary, and just before Christmas I spent a week with him in Sao Paulo, for he was testing at Interlagos. And what impressed me perhaps more than anything else was his way of dealing with people, be they race engineers, waiters, fellow drivers or fans. All wanted different things of him, and he was comfortable with all of them.

As much as anything, I admired Mario's huge capacity for sheer work. People don't believe this when I tell them now, but he used to compete in the World Championship and in the Indycar Championship at the same time. He, of course, never saw it as work. He wanted to run both series, so that was what he did. "Jet lag's not a problem. I can cope with that, mainly because I put my mind to it.

"I remember May of '81: Imola one Sunday, qualifying at Indy the next, Zolder the next, the race at Indy the next, Monaco the next... I got to a point where I woke up in the morning, looked at the ceiling, and thought, "Jeez, where am I? The Speedway Motel or the Hotel de Paris?"

Heroes, perhaps, are something you grow out of; in youth there is no problem. I worshipped Jean Behra when I was a kid, because he personified what I felt a racing driver should be. There is more to it than ability in a car; it is also a matter of how the man carries himself.

In my last book, 'Chasing The Title', I wrote this: 'It is not easy to have a hero younger than oneself, I find, and since the retirement from Formula 1 of Jacques Laffite, back in 1986, all the Grand Prix drivers have been that. And perhaps there's another element, too. Nearly every true hero in my life has been someone I never met, so the elements of glamour and mystique were always intact. Very important, that. On the inside, you can see the seams.

'There are exceptions, though. Although I consider him a friend, still Mario Andretti has never been less than a hero to me. I thought Mario had it all, a great driver, but also a man of real quality, one of those very few with a presence to make the roof of your mouth dry. In 1978, the season Andretti won the World Championship, we did a book together, and the better I came to know him, the more of a hero he became. Probably no man who ever lived had a greater love for motor racing.'

On this last point, I've no doubts at all. "Right from when I started," Mario once said to me, "being one of the boys was never enough. If you're satisfied with just being there, forget it. You may have a good time, but you're never going to win. I figure I was put on this earth to drive race cars. I'd probably have driven them for nothing if I'd had to. But I didn't have to..."

Dear Joe,

What a question! The guy's just had his 34th birthday!

No, no, of course Zanardi isn't too old to return to motor racing - he's only a couple of years older than Mika Hakkinen, for example, and two years younger than was Damon Hill when he won the World Championship. And Juan Manuel Fangio was 46 when he won the last of his five titles. OK, that was then, and this is now, but 34 is an age for a racing driver, even in this youth-obsessed time in which we live.

More to the point, I feel, is Alex's motivation. Is it truly there, or not? That's a question only he can answer, because only he knows.

I'll confess that I was surprised to learn he had gone to the final CART race of the season, at Fontana, and even more surprised to hear he had decided he wanted to return to the series. It's true that he loved his time in CART, not only because he won a couple of championships, as well as a huge number of races, but also because the ambience of the series - a good deal less cut-throat than Formula 1 - suited his friendly personality very well.

As well as that, of course, he simply loved the cars, finding they suited his naturally aggressive style to a tee. Unlike most of today's drivers, Zanardi was always a man who needed to have fun in his job - and that he emphatically didn't find in F1. He hated the 'narrow track/grooved tyre' regulations, and was never able successfully to adapt his style to the cars, which he found unpleasant and unsatisfying to drive.

They liked him enormously at Williams, but he didn't score a single point in 1999, and was clearly not getting the job done. That being so, Williams decided to replace him, and the balance of his contract - which had two more years to run - was paid off.

If he was in good shape financially, though, he seemed disinterested in continuing with his racing career, saying he wanted to spend time with his wife and young child. Nothing wrong with that in itself, of course - but not the action, either, of a man who HAD to be a racing driver.

In the course of 2000, several CART owners expressed interest in him, but Zanardi - although he did test a car at Sebring - seemed content with his life the way it was. There were plenty of offers for 2001 - from, among others, Chip Ganassi, for whom he drove in his glory years - but nothing came of them. Only now, with every worthwhile drive taken, has Alex said he wants to return to the series, full time.

I wish him nothing but well, because I like him immensely, and still - having seen him race Ganassi's Reynard-Honda in '98 - don't really understand how a bloke with that much talent failed so abjectly in the Williams. If he's coming back, I hope it's for the right reasons; whatever else, though, his age will not be a problem at all.

Dear Andrew,

Jean-Marie Balestre - a stickler for the rules, or a self-interested, megolomaniacal tyrant? Both, I would say, to some degree!

Balestre was President of the FISA (which no longer exists, but used to be the sporting arm of the FIA) for many years, until being deposed by Max Mosley in the autumn of 1991. In point of fact, I think I had more time for Balestre than did a lot of people in F1, not least because, whatever else, I never doubted that he truly loved racing, which is more than I would say of a great many in the paddock.

J-MB's public image, it must be admitted, very often worked against him. To see him in full flood at a press conference, face contorted, voice raised, fists thumping the table, was sometimes to wonder if this were a man completely steady in the head, but if he was a fellow who relished power and enjoyed combat - and, let's face it, we've had more than our share of those in F1 over time - I think he believed he was acting in the best interests of the sport. Usually, anyway.

For example, at the end of the 1982 season - the most dangerous and disagreeable I can remember - Balestre took an arbitrary decision to change the F1 rules fundamentally, insisting on 'flat bottom' cars in future, and doing away at a stroke with the 'ground effect' era, during which the cars had those ridiculous skirts. For that, if nothing else, he deserved the gratitude of every driver in F1, and there's no doubt he cared deeply about their welfare.

It was quite a surprise to discover, at a small private dinner in Paris years ago, that Jean-Marie had a fine sense of humour. His observations of many F1 luminaries remain clear in my mind from that evening, but perhaps it would be a sound plan to wait 50 or 60 years before repeating them...

Dear Terry,

As a general rule, I dislike 'tyre wars', for they necessarily introduce another variable into F1, and make even harder the evaluation of teams' and drivers' performances. At least, when you've only got one make of tyre, it's the same for everyone.

That said, I'm glad to see Michelin back for 2001, not least because I don't yet sense Bridgestone's longterm commitment to F1: maybe I'm doing them an injustice, but that's the way I feel.

Frank Williams, ever the devout realist, says he does not expect Michelin to be on par with Bridgestone in the early part of the season, and that's quite reasonable: 'grooved tyre' technology is something new to the French company, whereas Bridgestone are going into their fourth season with them.

It's entirely possible that at certain circuits, in certain conditions, one make of tyre will be quantifiably better than the other, and on these occasions we could well have some weird grids and races.

I think, for example, of the Austrian Grand Prix in '97, Bridgestone's first year in F1. They had none of the major teams that season, but at the A1-Ring produced a tremendous tyre, which allowed Trulli's Prost to qualify third, and the Stewarts of Barrichello and Jan Magnussen (remember him?) to qualify fifth and sixth. In the race, Trulli dominated until his Mugen-Honda motor let go...

Therefore, it's entirely possible that somewhere next year Michelin will come up with something superior to what Bridgestone has on offer, and I hope we see it: I, for one, am fed up to the teeth with the front two rows being entirely Ferrari and McLaren...

Dear Nigel,

Not an easy question to answer. First, I must say that I've always found Alain Prost a good bloke, as well as one of the greatest drivers the world has known. All through his career as a driver, he remained friendly, approachable, funny and - in my experience, anyway - honest. I don't ever recall his telling me anything which proved subsequently to be a lie, and, believe me, there are not many in the paddock of whom I could say that.

It's certainly true that Alain was very good at 'getting people on his side', both in the press room and in the team motorhome, but I never felt there was anything particularly devious in the way he went about it. Fangio, after all, used to make sure he got the best treatment in a team by the simple expedient of cutting his mechanics in on the prize money! And no one ever accused the great Juan Manuel of being 'political'.

In point of fact, the only one of Prost's team mates who ever went on about his being 'political' was Nigel Mansell, and no one took that terribly seriously, for Mansell always said that of his team mates, be they Elio de Angelis, Nelson Piquet, or Alain. As Patrick Head put it, "Nigel always had a very strong persecution complex, and thought everyone was trying to shaft him at all times. On a day-to-day basis, that became extremely wearing..."

Prost has often said that winning World Championships as a driver was far easier than what he is trying to do now, and it is a fact that very often great drivers prove rather less adept at running teams - this is true not only in F1, but elsewhere, too, like NASCAR.

Undoubtedly, Alain has made some big mistakes - perhaps the most serious of which was to part with Mugen-Honda in favour of Peugeot: in all my years of covering this sport, I have never known a major company less committed to F1 than Peugeot, and I think this relationship has often driven Prost to the brink of despair.

It also doesn't help that he is operating an F1 team in France; from what I know, the 'work ethic' in the factory is somewhat different from that at, say, McLaren or Williams or Benetton, where they simply carry on until the work is done. There is a hardcore of longtime employees (who were there in the Ligier days) in the factory who have more power and influence than might be considered ideal, let's put it that way.

I think, too, that perhaps Keke Rosberg has a point: "I always wondered if Alain was doing the right thing, taking over the running of an F1 team. I think perhaps he's just too nice a guy to be doing that job..."

Dear Luke,

If you look back to photographs of the F1 cars in the mid-70s, you'll see that some of them - notably the 1976 Ligier, which became known as 'the teapot' - had massive airboxes above the driver's head. However, they were simply fibreglass creations, mounted well above the roll-over bar, and they were banned at the end of that year, on safety grounds: it was felt that if a car got upside down, all that material folding in on the cockpit could do serious damage to a driver.

It's true that we have them again these days, but the difference is that the top of the airbox is also the top of the roll-over bar; in other words, the airbox is contained within the roll-over bar. The rules dictate that a straight line drawn from the top of the roll-over bar down to the much smaller one at the front of the cockpit must allow a space in which the driver's head is below that straight line.

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