Ask Nigel: October 11

Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions here on autosport.com every Wednesday. If you have a topic you like to get Nigel's opinion on, past, present or future, then e-mail your questions to him through autosportnews@haynet.com. Also over the close season we are planning to have some special guests answering your questions, so keep an eye out on our news pages to find out who and when...

Ask Nigel: October 11


Dear Nigel, With the amazing scenes in Italy and particularly Maranello on Sunday, do you think we would see the same emotions in England should Jaguar win?
Neil McArthur
Milton Keynes, UK

Dear Neil,
No, I rather doubt that a Jaguar victory in the World Championship would provoke in England the kind of scenes evident in Italy last weekend, following the success of Schumacher and Ferrari at Suzuka.

For one thing, the English, while passionate about their motor racing, are simply not as emotional as the Italians, but there are other factors, too. First of all, Formula 1 is a much bigger deal in Italy than it is here; yes, football is the number one sport (as, unfortunately, it is in England...), but motor racing is close behind, which is not the case here. You only have to see the amount of coverage given to F1 in Italian newspapers to understand that its nation-wide significance is far greater than in England.

Let's face it, we've been a little spoiled, haven't we? British teams and cars, if not drivers, have essentially dominated Grand Prix racing for 40 years or so, back to the days of Vanwall. In the '90s, the Constructors' Championship was won several times by Williams, several times by McLaren, even once by Benetton; we've become accustomed to success, maybe a little blase about it.

Italy, by contrast, has had only Ferrari on whom to concentrate, which is one reason why support for the team is fanatical. As well as that, although odd constructors' titles have come Ferrari's way, until last Sunday no Ferrari driver had won the World Championship since 1979, when Jody Scheckter triumphed, with Gilles Villeneuve second.

As I've written many times, there is no evidence that Schumacher is adored in Italy, in the way that, say, Gilles or Clay Regazzoni or Jean Alesi or Gerhard Berger were, but the fact is that is that he has played a huge role in turning the team around, and for that he is deeply respected, if perhaps not loved. In Maranello and elsewhere they went nuts last weekend, as much as anything else because 21 years is a hell of a long time to wait.

It's interesting that you cite Jaguar, rather than McLaren or Williams, in your question. For me, there's no comparison between Ferrari and Jaguar, beyond the fact that both manufacture high-performance road cars. In an F1 context, Jaguar has no record, no pedigree, all its racing successes having been achieved in other categories, particularly sports car racing. 'Jaguar' is only in F1 for reasons of marketing, whereas 'Ferrari' is the genuine article, involved even before the advent of the World Championship.

Bobby Rahal is a good friend of mine, and I wish him the very best in the mountainous task before him. But I don't really expect to see the citizens of Milton Keynes taking to the streets in ecstasy - not in the short term, anyway...


Dear Steve,

Gordon Kirby is among my oldest and closest friends, and I hate to think how many bottles of Glenlivet (GK's favourite tipple) we have put away down the years while talking through the good and bad points of F1 and CART. I think, however, it's fair to say that I love his racing series a good deal more than he loves mine!

As far as the levels of driving talent are concerned, in F1 and CART, I have to disagree with Gordon - although I must qualify that by saying that I don't consider the overall level in F1 particularly high at present. This is not, I feel, a vintage period from that point of view.

Mario Andretti once said that a great racing driver is a great racing driver, period. In other words, if he's that good, he'll be that good in whatever category he drives. Mario himself is proof of his own words - to my mind, he's the greatest all-rounder the sport has ever known - and so, too, is Jacques Villeneuve. In time, I expect Juan-Pablo Montoya to demonstrate the same thing: he, I'm quite sure, is one of those special talents.

Unfortunately, Michael Andretti and Alex Zanardi - both outstandingly successful in CART - made little impression when they transferred to F1, and this has served to foster the ridiculous belief in F1 that no one in CART is worth taking seriously. I don't go along with that, but the fact is that some drivers who were journeymen in F1 - Mark Blundell, Roberto Moreno, even Danny Sullivan - went on to do good things in CART.

In part, this is because the cars are so much more equal in CART, and there is far more opportunity to do well there. Let's face it, in F1 at the moment, if you're not in a Ferrari or a McLaren, you're fighting for fifth place, at best. In CART, you'll drive either a Reynard or a Lola, using either Honda, Ford or Toyota power; all have won races this season.

I know what you're getting at when you suggest that 'the modern F1 driver is only as good as his car', but agree only up to a point. I'll concede that the car plays too big a part in the car-driver equation, and has done for a very long time, but consider the results at Suzuka last weekend: Schumacher and Hakkinen, in Ferrari and McLaren respectively, were first and second, with the similarly-equipped Coulthard and Barrichello third and fourth - more than 70 seconds behind. You're talking about a lot more than a second a lap here, which rather suggests that DC and Rubens were not as good as their cars...

Yes, I think it would be great to see the top 20 drivers in basically the same cars - in fact, I'd love to see a race with such as Michael, Mika and Jacques in CART cars. Not going to happen, though, is it?

Of the 'new generation' drivers you name, for me the outstanding talent on the horizon is Montoya, with Button, Trulli and Ralf S. also in there. I can readily imagine World Championships for both Juan-Pablo and Jenson.


Dear Hugo,

We used to get sparks from the cars' rear skid-plates, particularly in the early stages of a race, when they were running 'heavy', with enough fuel to run a 200-mile Grand Prix. Since refuelling was re-introduced, the cars never have anything like that amount of gas on board, which is one of the reasons why it's simpler to arrive at a good 'race set-up' these days.

As well as that, in this era the skid-plates are recessed into what is known as 'the plank', introduced in 1994 as a means of checking that the cars were not running illegally low. And 'the plank' is made of Jabroc, a wooden composite material, which, of course, does not spark.

As for the FIA's limiting the maximum number of cars in the World Championship to 24 - 12 teams - I think the reason is that they wanted only competitors who were 100% serious about F1, and had the budgets to do it properly. Given your own expressed sentiments, I'm sorry to say this, but I agree with the FIA absolutely.

Five years ago, Bernie Ecclestone told me of the intention to introduce the 107% qualifying rule, and he made it clear that its purpose was to discourage 'startline specials', as he called them.

"Some of these people down the back of the grid get their sponsors to turn up, and they moan that they don't get seen on TV. The reason they don't get seen is obvious: they're only on the screen when they get lapped! In fact, now I think about it, they get seen more than a lot of people, because they get lapped five or six times...

"We're the best, that's the point. Formula 1 is the best. And we don't need anything in it that isn't the best."

I agree with that. Some of the teams we've seen down the years have been a complete joke. Think, for example, of that ridiculous Life outfit, whose mechanics felt inclined to party every time they managed to get the engine started. Bruno Giacomelli was the hapless driver, and in Silverstone pre-qualifying in 1990 the car shocked him by completing a whole lap. The mechanics ran to the pit wall in the hope of seeing their fearful device go by, and I clearly recall the expressions of wonderment as it did so. Such treats were strictly rationed at Life, however. The second lap it never completed.

"The 107% rule is coming in 1996," Ecclestone said, "and if certain teams think they're going to be affected by it, they don't have to enter for the World Championship. That's the way it is. Frankly, at the moment there are people in F1 who shouldn't be.

"The size of the field doesn't bother me at all," Bernie concluded. "People go on about only 22 or 24 cars in the race. OK, so what? It's much better for us to have a smaller, better quality, grid. We're in the quality business, not quantity."

Sorry, Hugo, but that's my opinion, too. Even when I was a kid, 'dross' in F1 only maddened me - slow backmarkers who got in the way of folk trying to do the job properly. I'm entirely on Bernie's side. Quality is what matters.


Dear Dean,

Interesting question. Messrs Schumacher, Todt, Byrne and Brawn - not an Italian between them, but who's counting - have indeed galvanised and transformed Ferrari over the last few years, but still there is about the team a somehow transitory quality which I don't sense with McLaren and Williams.

Ferrari's policy of 'spending whatever it takes' has finally served them well, it must be said; over time they have bought in the best personnel available to them, be it driver, technical director, designer, team manager or whatever.

That said, I wonder how long these people will be content to stay. I could be wrong, but I don't, for example, see Michael racing into his late thirties, any more than I can envisage Ross's being prepared to live outside England indefinitely. As for Rory, keep in mind that he was about to leave F1 behind, and take off for Thailand, there to indulge his passion for underwater swimming; it was only 'an offer that couldn't be refused' that persuaded him to postpone his plan.

My feeling is that if one or two of these key personnel should leave, the whole structure of Ferrari's racing department would be rocked; without Schuey's influence, in the cockpit and out, and without Brawn's strategic genius, it would be a very different team. So long as they stay together, it's not impossible that they could win further championships, but I suspect that McLaren-Mercedes, smarting from recent defeat, will be VERY hard to beat in 2001...


Dear Mark,

Very difficult to say, isn't it? In 1999, for example, Jordan scored 61 points, and took a comfortable third place in the Constructors' Championship, winning a couple of races along the way; BAR, meantime, failed to get a single point.

Now, 16 races into the 2000 season, BAR have 17 points - one more than Jordan, whose year has been dire. I was not alone in expecting that Frentzen and Trulli would occasionally run with the McLarens and Ferraris, but the pace has not been consistently there, and reliability has been awful.

It can't have helped that Mike Gascoyne, the car's designer, left the team at mid-season, once it became known that he had signed a contract with Flavio Briatore to join Benetton - which will become Renault in 2002, of course. However, Egbhal Hamidy will be with Jordan next year, and this year's Arrows - which he designed - has been one of the best cars of the season.

BAR's greatest single strength is undoubtedly Jacques Villeneuve, by any reckoning one of the top three drivers in the world. The team has made fine progress this year - as indeed it had to - and the arrival of Barry Green, with whom Villeneuve worked successfully and harmoniously in CART, can only be good. Give him an equal car, and JV will beat Frentzen and Trulli.

On paper, Jordan should do a better job - but then that's what we thought this year, too...


Dear Matt,

I think you're living in some kind of dream world! Your idea of a Nations Cup, involving all the top drivers, from F1, CART and so on, taking on up-and-comers from all over the place in equal cars is very attractive - and not unlike the good old days of Formula 2 - but in a thousand years it will never happen. Who would put up the money?

Who would prepare the 'equal' cars? When, given the schedules of F1 and CART, would the races be run? And, finally, how would you persuade such as Schumacher and Hakkinen to take part in such a series? There isn't enough money in the world - even if their team owners were prepared to allow them to do it, which they wouldn't be.

I'd love to see it, too. But the chances of it coming about are the same as Tony Blair's of getting my vote. Zilch.


Dear Paul, Where was I when Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux had their epic scrap at Dijon in 1979? I was there, covering the race for Autosport.

My instant thoughts were that it was the most intense fight I'd ever seen at a race track, and 21 years on that impression hasn't changed. There's a reason why everyone remembers 'Dijon '79': we've seen nothing to match it since.

The great thing about that scrap is that there wasn't an ounce of malice in it. Gilles and Rene got along well, and when they came in at the end of the race, both had smiling eyes. As they got out of their cars, they shook hands, and slapped each other on the back. We used to call it 'sportsmanship'.

Arnoux lost that particular fight, of course, but significantly, all these years later, he still remembers it as the most enjoyable race of his career. Anyone fortunate enough, like me, to be there, has never forgotten it.

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