Ask Nigel Roebuck: April 16

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday. So if you want his opinion on any motorsport matter drop us an e-mail here at Autosport.com and we'll forward on a selection to him. Nigel won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here every week. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel Roebuck: April 16



Dear Dave,

Yes, I do love American racing, in pretty well all its forms. Since I was a kid, I've been hooked on 'Indycar racing' (to give it a generic name), I've also been many times to the Daytona 500, think there's no better way to spend an evening than at a sprint car show, and was absolutely knocked sideways by my first experience of NHRA drag racing, at Joliet, Illinois, last year.

I'll concede, however, that perhaps my enthusiasm for US racing is a little more diluted than it used to be. I haven't, for example, been to the Indy 500 since 1993, or to the Daytona 500 since 1995. Why? Because Indy, since the CART-IRL split, is simply not the same race any more - to me, anyway - and because the 'restrictor plate' rules have made Daytona processional, the very last thing NASCAR Winston Cup racing was supposed to be.

These observations may be simplistic, but I'm afraid that's the way I feel about things - to be honest, these days I'd far rather watch an evening sprint or midget show than either of the 500s I've mentioned. I went to Indy several times when the race was for 'CART spec' cars, and every driver worth the name was in the field, and I also saw several races at Daytona when the cars were allowed to run 'wide open': that being so, I have no particular inclination to return to either as they are now, I'm afraid. A pity, but there it is.

The great irony of 'Indycar racing' these days, it seems to me, is that the Indy Racing League, originally conceived as 'little guy racing', and aimed at promoting young American drivers from the ranks of sprint and midget racing, has in effect become CART by any other name! Thanks to the hopeless mismanagement of CART over a period of time (and now finally put to rights with the arrival of Chris Pook), the series lost credibility, and a great many team owners absconded to the IRL. As well as that, the 'American' image of the IRL has been somewhat...modified, let's say, by the fact that it is now dominated by Honda and Toyota! And it seems to me there's a hell of a lot of 'furrin' drivers in it these days, many of whom have driven for A.J. Foyt, the most American American I have ever met...

The 'CART element' in the IRL is now utterly dominating it, which should surprise no one. Much as I love oval racing, in the end I do get a little bored with an 'oval only' series, but it's not really surprising that the racing is so close, given that the cars have relatively little horsepower and massive doses of downforce. That said, it does concern me that so many people seem to get hurt in IRL accidents; I know Gil de Ferran well, and hope he recovers sufficiently from his injuries to race again.

These days it's the Penskes and the Ganassis who dominate in the IRL, and I do wonder if that's quite what Tony George had in mind when he split from CART in 1995, and set up his own series.

I asked Juan Montoya, who had two years in CART, and drove a single race in an IRL car (at Indy in 2000, where he won on his debut at the Brickyard), to compare the two. "It's the difference," he said, "between F1 and F3000. I would love to have driven a CART car at the Speedway..."

CART, meantime, is off on a fresh adventure, with new teams and new drivers, many of whom are for the moment unfamiliar to American race fans. I agree with you about Bourdais - he always impressed me in F3000, and once he's completely settled into his new environment, I'm sure he'll win races.

The series is undoubtedly in a 'transition' phase, but at least now
everyone within it is there because they want to be, and I'm told that all the sniping and rowing of the last few seasons has evaporated, that everyone is pulling in the same direction. For years it seemed to me obvious that the only man who could rescue CART was Pook, and I think he has achieved a remarkable amount in a short time - this time last year, remember, a great many were saying that the series was utterly doomed.

Certainly, I, for one, have not given up on it, and I think its management is at last in good hands. For the last several years, I've attended the race at Milwaukee, but unfortunately this season it clashes with Monaco. However, I am going to dash back from Barcelona on the Sunday evening, so as to go next day to Brands Hatch - where I saw Rick Mears and Tom Sneva finish 1-2 for Penske in the USAC race 25 years ago...




Dear Jeff,

Can't argue with anything you've said. Yes, I greatly admire the way McLaren - after a poor season in 2002 - have responded over the winter. The team's interim car - the MP4/17D - has been good enough to win two of the first three races, and the MP4/18 awaits, which must give David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen warm feelings about the summer ahead.

As well as that, it seems to me that Mario Illien and his boys have made conspicuous progress with the Mercedes engine. Last year, let's face it, DC and Kimi were well down on power, sometimes embarrassingly so, but the other day the cars didn't look too dusty on the long climb at the end of the Interlagos lap, always a real test of who is short of power, and who isn't.

The thing is, McLaren, like Williams, is a team that may go through
fallow periods, but essentially is never down for long - you always expect them to bounce back, and they never disappoint in that respect. It's easy now to forget that McLaren didn't win a single race in 1994, '95 and '96, yet finished first (Coulthard) and third (Mika Hakkinen) at Melbourne, the opening race of 1997.

I assume the Prost race you're talking about is the 1984 Brazilian Grand Prix, at Rio. Right enough, the new TAG (Porsche)-engined MP4/2 had done remarkably little testing before it was flown out to Brazil, but both Alain and his team mate Niki Lauda knew already that it was fundamentally a sensationally good car. Both led the race, and while Lauda eventually retired, Prost went on to win comfortably.

This was the famous year, you may remember, when Alain (seven wins) was beaten to the World Championship by Lauda (five), by exactly half a point! Basically, the McLarens were untouchable.




Dear Mark,

Who are the best drivers in the world - F1 drivers or the rally guys? Answer: the F1 drivers are the best at driving racing cars, and the rally guys are the best at driving rally cars. In other words, you're talking apples and pears, and you can't compare them. It's like cricket and baseball: in both sports, you've got a bat, and you're trying to hit a ball, but would you try and compare Don Bradman and Babe Ruth?

OK, I'm being a little extreme, but you get the point. Both F1 and WRC are incredibly specialised worlds, and while there are basic skills common to both, so much else is completely different.

When drivers from one discipline try the other, results are mixed. As you point out, by all accounts Colin McRae acquitted himself very well when he drove the Jordan, and Ayrton Senna was apparently highly impressive when he tried a variety of rally cars - no surprise there, as you say! In the early '50s, when each category was rather less specialised than is the case today, Stirling Moss was indeed very competitive in both race and rally cars, but perhaps most impressive of all was Jim Clark, who drove a works Lotus Cortina in the RAC Rally in 1966 - and won at least one special stage.

I remember talking to Jimmy's namesake, the legendary Roger, about that event. Both men had identical cars, and Roger, at the height of his career as a great rally driver, was not a man either to play down his own abilities or to talk up anyone else's. Nevertheless, when he spoke about Jimmy, it was with reverence. "He was just a genius, wasn't he? He only did the rally for a bit of fun, because he fancied trying it, but his speed was unbelievable, and just shook us to the core. If he'd concentrated on rallying, none of the rest of us would have had a prayer..."




Dear Peter,

The thing about safety in motor racing, I think, is that one must never be complacent about it. We should remember, after all, that, following the deaths in 1982 of Gilles Villeneuve and Ricardo Paletti, there was no fatality at a Grand Prix until Imola in 1994 - when we had two, involving Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna, in two days. "For 12 years," Niki Lauda soberly observed, "God had his hand over Formula 1. This weekend he took it away..."

That said, the fact is that F1 is incalculably safer than it was even 10 years ago, let alone in the perilous times of the '60s and '70s. Recently, I had to write a story about the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix, which marked the debut victory the Lotus 49 and the Cosworth DFV engine, and as I again studied the grid for that race, I realised that, of the 17 starters, eight ultimately lost their lives in racing accidents. At just the previous race, Monaco, Lorenzo Bandini had been burned to death.

These are statistics incomprehensible to any recent converts to F1, but that's the way racing used to be. The cars were way less strong than today, only Jackie Stewart wore seatbelts, and there were no run-off areas - this in an era when ultra-fast corners were far more common than now. If you went off, you were going to hit a solid bank or a wall or a tree or whatever. Come to that, there was no Professor Watkins in those days, either.

We should never be complacent, as I say, but it's inevitable that the drivers of today don't feel they are at anything like the risk their predecessors were - which I think in part explains some of the ruthless, intimidatory, driving one sees nowadays. If ethics were definitely more pronounced in times past - blocking another driver was an absolute no-no - so also was the sense of self-preservation.

Phil Hill, the 1961 World Champion for Ferrari, puts it like this: "They do these things today because they feel they can get away with it - that's the only possible explanation. If guys drove like that in my time, they usually sorted themselves out pretty quickly with a big accident - or else somebody else did it for them. Some of the stuff that goes on today... I just don't know what to think. Doing that in my day... so many of them would have ended up in fatal accidents. It was just unthinkable, really, to touch another car, because of the potential consequences. I know it sounds corny, but those were the facts. Over the long term, you just couldn't do it, and get away with it. Now they know they can get away with it, so they do it..."

Martin Brundle, too, is very lucid on this subject. A few years ago he gave a 'demo' at Spa in the 1955 Mercedes W196, as raced by Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss, and I talked to him about it afterwards.

"What's never changed about Grand Prix racing,' he said, "is that the limit is the limit is the limit: go and find it. In other respects, though, I'm starting to understand there are huge differences in the job of the driver from one era to another.

"In the W196, you feel as though you're sitting on the car, rather than in it, and the mirrors are like on a motorcycle - all you can see is your own shoulders. Clearly they didn't pay too much attention to what was going on behind them, but later on I began to understand why - you had to concentrate so bloody hard on what was going on in front of you! Physically, I found the car easy to drive, but mentally it was incredibly hard.

"As far as handling was concerned, the car turned in quite nicely, and the basic balance was good, although suddenly there'd be some curious loads coming through the steering-wheel. In medium-speed corners, like Les Combes, you could place the car more or less where you wanted it."

And the brakes? Brundle laughed. "Well, because I brake quite early for Les Combes, anyway, at first I didn't grasp that it doesn't slow down very well, although, funnily enough, it seems to depend on which corner you're in, and how fast you're going. Coming into the Bus Stop, for example, it didn't seem to want to slow at all...

"To be honest, I didn't think I was going that fast, but then I began to realise that this car must be quite slippery through the air. I gather they used to do over 180mph, and I was doing 150 or so through the kinks before Blanchimont."

It was at that point, Martin said, that he began to think about absence of seat-belts, roll-over bars, and the like. "I began to look around, and think, 'If you were going to hit something, what would you do? In a modern car, if you're going to crash, you make sure you do certain things beforehand, but with this one I really had no idea what I'd do.

"I didn't slow down, because I was enjoying it so much, but I did begin to feel nervous in the high-speed corners, because occasionally the car seemed to have a mind of its own. It was rather like flying a helicopter, that sense that if you ever let anything develop, you'd have a hell of a job getting it back again.

"OK, in the back of a current F1 driver's mind is the acceptance
that he might get hurt doing this, but back then it must have been right at the front of your mind, and very much part of your decision-making process. It isn't - at all - for the current drivers.

"Look at this weekend at Spa: Jacques (Villeneuve) came here on a mission that he was going to get through Eau Rouge flat - but he knew that he wasn't going to die if he got it wrong! The guys who raced these cars...they didn't have that security. No soft landings for them.

"I'm sure their focus wasn't so much on a fraction of understeer or oversteer as on keeping the machinery together, not missing a gear, not hitting a wall; today's guys haven't got a clue about all that.

"I didn't know what to expect from this car. It wasn't as fast as I anticipated, in terms of power, but I had to remind myself that it was well over 40 years old - and only 2.5-litres. In every other way, though, I came out of it with even higher respect for the drivers of those days. I've been round the old Spa, and it's incredible to think they raced F1 cars round there. When you try and put together what you've felt in the car with a place like that...Jesus!"

Of the big accidents you cite, Peter, of course a certain amount of luck was involved in each of them (particularly Villeneuve's horrendous shunt at Melbourne), but much more crucial was the strength of the things the drivers were sitting in - and the relative softness of the things they were going to hit if something went wrong. These days drivers routinely emerge unhurt from accidents they would not have survived at one time.

Everything is inestimably safer than it was, but - but - that doesn't mean that motor racing can ever be safe, in any workaday sense of the word, and that we should always keep in mind.




Dear Edward,

The first motor race I ever saw was the 1951 British Grand Prix, won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo, but as I was only five years old at the time, I can't say I remember too much about it! The first one of which I have clear memories was the 1954 Gold Cup at Oulton Park, won by Stirling Moss in a Maserati 250F.

In all honesty, I can't recall a particular race, or race-winning performance, which affected me so profoundly as to make me want to write about the sport. That said, I fell in love with motor racing at a very young age, and I was lucky in that I grew up with AUTOSPORT, my dad having taken it from the first issue on. Through my teens, I resolved that, one way or another, I was going to work in F1, and the chance came in 1971, when I started working for Car & Driver , at the age of 25.

I was lucky, too, that English was always my favourite subject at school, and tremendously fortunate in having, as a sixth form English master, Russell Harty, who later went on to become a TV chat show host, but before that was the best teacher I ever knew. He, more than anyone else, imbued me with a love of the language, and I owe him a great debt for that.

More than anyone else, though, I owe more than I can say to Denis Jenkinson, whose Motor Sport articles and reports fired me tremendously when I was young, and left me with the feeling that there could be no more satisfying a way to earn a living than to be 'paid for going to Grands Prix'. Later, when I had got into the business, 'Jenks' became a very close friend, and I miss him to this day.

Actually, now I think about it, there were a couple or three days at race tracks that played a strong role in my deciding at least to try and become an F1 journalist. First, there was the 1959 Aintree 200, won by the Ferrari of Jean Behra, my great childhood hero, who was killed later that year; second, there was the sight of Chris Amon, elegantly power-sliding his Ferrari through Old Hall, lap after lap, in the 1968 Gold Cup at Oulton; third, there was Jochen Rindt's mesmeric Lotus 49 drive through the field, in torrential rain, at the 1969 Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone.

In fact, now I think about it some more, there were dozens of days like that! What my young years added up to was that I couldn't do anything else with my life, and I've never lost that feeling.

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