Ask Nigel Roebuck: April 2

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 2



Dear Michael,

My views on 'driver aids' - traction control, launch control, fully automatic gearboxes - are pretty well known by now, so probably you might expect me to be livid at the postponement on the ban on them, from Silverstone this July to the beginning of next season. In fact, I'm more sanguine about this than I might have been at one time, and I'll try and explain why.

When Max Mosley announced his swathe of changes to F1 on January 15, one of them concerned the ban on driver aids, but no date was given as to when this should be implemented. At the time Mosley, frustrated by the teams' reluctance either to give up their own 'bespoke' electronics, or to come up with effective ways and means to police a ban on driver aids, essentially said, 'Right, you've had your chance, and you haven't taken it. I told you that if you didn't, I would simply introduce standard, FIA-issued ECUs, and you can just get on with it'.

The following day I spoke to Max at some length, and asked him when the standard ECUs would come into play - in other words, when the ban on driver aids would start. Realistically, I suggested, we were talking about the start of 2004, weren't we? Max agreed this was almost certainly the case - it would be almost impossible to have 'standard' ECUs ready any earlier.

That being so, I was much surprised - and delighted - when it was later announced that the ban would come into effect at the British Grand Prix this season. How so? Because the teams and manufacturers, panicked by the thought of standard ECUs, had suddenly decided that yes, it would be possible to retain their electronics - and to have them policed properly. They put their case to Mosley, and it was accepted.

Again I spoke to Max, and this is what he said. "Two years ago, we wanted to impose a standard ECU, but we couldn't, because the manufacturers wouldn't agree, and at that time we would have needed unanimous agreement to do it. We knew we wouldn't get it - even if the teams had agreed, the manufacturers wouldn't have done.

"The way we were able to start to get round that this year was because the teams had this wonderful idea of saying we should be able to establish that mechanical components complied without software inspection. We agreed to that. What they really meant was that we shouldn't be looking at their software, but because they didn't phrase their proposal for regulation very cleverly, it didn't say that! It said that they had to be able to prove, without software inspection, that their components were all right - so we then turned that round, and said, 'Well, that's fine - so now you can't have traction control, because of the sporting regs, and you've got to satisfy us you haven't got traction control without software inspections - and it doesn't take the brains of Lloyd George to see that that means a standard ECU....'

"Now we're saying, 'Well, all right, if we can have a spy in the cab, and this, that and the other, we won't have to have a standard ECU'. But we pointed out to them that there's no regulation that says we can't still carry out a software inspection - which we will be doing...

"I thought originally we'd have to have a standard ECU, probably in 2004, but two things happened. First, the teams agreed to our putting sensors everywhere. Now, the first thing that was missing in the first anti-traction control campaign was the right to put a sensor on the accelerator; if you know exactly what the accelerator pedal's doing, and you've got some idea of what the engine's doing, you're well down the road to knowing what's going on.

"The second thing was, these people turned up who can measure the ionic currents in the combustion chamber, from which - without interfering in any way with the engine - you can know the ignition timing, the injection timing, the torque of the engine...all sorts of things. Just by putting a black box on the engine, and connecting a couple of wires to the outside of the engine. And with the combination of those two things - plus still having the right to look at the software, plus the $1m reward - we think will be enough to convince everyone we really are on top of it."

This was the situation until last week, when the FIA announced that the ban on driver aids would not, after all, come into effect until the beginning of the 2004 season.

The statement read thus: 'The technical devices which will ensure the absence of driver aids (in particular launch control, traction control and fully-automatic gearboxes) require substantial investment. The FIA is reluctant to commit the necessary resources until actual or threatened arbitration proceedings have been resolved.

'Accordingly, the full enforcement of the long-established ban on in-car driver aids will be delayed until the first race of the 2004 season. If current uncertainties have not been resolved before the deadline for ordering the technical devices for 2004, competing teams will be required to demonstrate the absence of driver aids to the satisfaction of the stewards at each event of the 2004 and subsequent Championships'.

'Actual or threatened arbitration proceedings' refers, of course, to the action taken by Ron Dennis and Frank Williams, following the imposition of the new F1 rules in January. Essentially, RD and FW don't accept that Mosley had the right to do what he did, and contend that he ignored the terms of the Concorde Agreement. The majority of the other teams seem not to be in support of their action.

Yes, of course I'm sad that we have to put up with these 'driver aids' - wholly inappropriate in something which is supposedly a drivers' World Championship - through to the end of this season. But what matters far more is that Mosley has not wavered at all in his determination to rid the sport of them, and so long as we're talking 'when', rather than 'if', I can live with that - albeit with some impatience...



Dear Tom,

Eddie Jordan has indeed always brought a terrific spin and flair to F1, and very welcome it is in what can sometimes be a dour environment. That said, there are those in the F1 paddock who murmur that maybe the spin and flair too often takes precedence over substance, that perhaps EJ lacks the determination, not to keep his team in business (amply demonstrated over the last year), but to stay completely focused on trying to win races, as Frank Williams and Ron Dennis have always done.

What sets Frank and Ron apart from most of the other team owners, I think, is that they positively need to win, and over time - even in the days when they were struggling, and anything but rich - have shown an absolute willingness to work themselves into the ground, sacrifice whatever it took, to achieve the levels of success which eventually came their way.

Not even Jordan, I think, would suggest that he had their level of dedication. I'm not belittling him when I say this - I simply think that, for him, Formula 1 is one of the good things of life, but not the only thing. And if that is perhaps a reason why his team has not emulated the success of Williams or McLaren, so also it is a reason why he is such entertaining and - when the mood takes him - irreverent company.

Certainly there have been many occasions on which Jordan Grand Prix has knocked on the door, as you put it - indeed, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, who won the French and Italian Grands Prix for Jordan in 1999, was a genuine contender for the World Championship that year, and the season before Damon Hill and Ralf Schumacher finished 1-2 for EJ at Spa. Over time, undoubtedly Eddie has employed many topline drivers.

More often than not, though, it must be said that the Jordan team's results over a season invariably fall short of expectations, of the promise evident at the start of the year. Latterly, of course, lack of money has been a major factor in this: at Barcelona last year Eddie laid out in stark terms for us the predicament he was in, and the steps he was taking to correct the situation. Many employees had to be laid off, and he didn't like doing it, but the worldwide economic slump, exacerbated by the events of September 11, hit motor racing just as it hit everything else.

At the end of the year, Jordan lost a great deal of sponsorship, notably from Germany (where the slump really has hit hard), and it took all his entrepreneurial skills to keep the company afloat. Fortunately, the Ford Motor Company played a significant role in his succeeding in this. One way and another, the impression one has of Jordan Grand Prix these days is of a much tighter, leaner and more reflective organisation than formerly. I'll confess it would surprise me ever to see the team reach the heights of McLaren or Williams (we'll leave Ferrari, with its bottomless budget, out of it), but then I would say that of pretty well every other team in the paddock.



Dear David,

I hate to advise people which way to bet, but if I were you I'd keep up with your each-way bets on a Toyota finishing in the top three - even if it may be a while before you collect.

In terms of competitiveness, Toyota has made the biggest stride since last year, as far as I'm concerned, and I have a very high opinion of Olivier Panis, to my mind the most underrated driver in F1. For that matter, I also reckon that Cristiano da Matta will eventually make his mark in F1.

Over the years, in a variety of different racing categories, Toyota has gained a reputation for throwing money at a problem until it goes away, and you'd have to say that the policy has always worked - eventually. It may well be you're going to lose a few more quid before Olivier or Cristiano come through for you, but sooner or later one of them will, and the revised qualifying format, introduced this year, only makes that more likely. This is a very serious team.



Dear M. Remillard,

Ah, Gilles and Jacques...how many words have I written about them over time?

I always feel that I'm far more qualified to talk about Villeneuve pere than Villeneuve fils, primarily because Gilles and I were about the same age, and over time became very good friends, whereas Jacques is obviously of a different generation, and also somewhat less...accessible than his father was.

When I talk to Jacques, I can see and hear much of his father in him - the same directness, the same honesty, the same disregard for PR, the same purist approach to the job of being a Grand Prix driver. But I also see significant differences. As you suggest, Gilles, as well as being the fastest racing driver of his time, was also the most popular with the fans worldwide. He was an honest and friendly man, with a salty sense of irreverent humour, one whose instinct was to trust until given reason not to; an innocent in many ways.

Watch Jacques in an F1 car, and memories of his father are evoked. The style may be less flamboyant, although still extrovert, and there is the same feeling that here is a racer. But Jacques is a harder, darker, man than his father, and a more solitary one, too; where Gilles would happily spend hours in the pit garage, chatting with the mechanics, Jacques, by his own admission, is not 'a team man'.

For all that, I remain a fan, and I think JV's absence from the front end of F1 these last four or five years has been a scandalous waste of a great talent. That said, it should be mentioned that no one made him leave Williams at the end of 1998 - instead of remaining there, he accepted an extraordinarily lucrative offer from the then new BAR team, and since then he has almost never had a competitive car to drive.

In 2003, though, the signs are that BAR is in better shape than ever before, and Jacques at last has a car he can believe in again. After four years in the wilderness, he is ready to remind the world that a great talent has been wasted for way too long, that the name of Villeneuve abides. I think rather too much has been made of this feud with Jenson Button, frankly. Jacques may be a difficult man to get close to, and certainly it's a lot of work to get his trust, but I've never for a second doubted his honesty or integrity. Keep the faith is all I can say...



Dear Rob,

I hear what you're saying, and understand it, but there are some points to be made. First, I have always believed that Bernie was, and is, a racer at heart, that, yes, he does indeed love this sport, even if sometimes he says things that you wonder about that.

Let me play devil's advocate for a second, though... Why do you go to work? If you're like 99.99% of the population, it is primarily to make money - or, to put it another way, to make a profit from your labours. While I'm only too aware of being extraordinarily fortunate to work in something which has always been my passion, that doesn't mean I don't compare the rates-per-1000-words of different publications, and far prefer to work for those towards the upper end of the scale! All right, I'm being a little facetious, but you get my drift...

For a variety of reasons - some real, some contrived - the British Grand Prix has been perceived as being in something of a crisis, on and off, for years now, and much of that stems from a deal, done with Ecclestone many years ago, which was so financially off the clock as to make acceptable profits from the British Grand Prix a virtual impossibility. Now, I don't blame Bernie for doing that deal, because that's his job - I blame the folk who went along with it.

Over time I'll admit I have grown bored with the constant sniping at the state of the facilities, the access roads, etc., at Silverstone, because I can never understand why the place is singled out for routine condemnation. All right, it's not by any means on the level of somewhere like Sepang, I'll grant you, but then it doesn't have unlimited government money behind it.

Frankly, though, Rob, if you think the reins of F1 are ever going to pass into the hands of someone altruistic, someone who thinks only in terms of the fans, you're dreaming. This is 2003, and life ain't like that, I'm afraid. Yes, of course F1 likes to have big crowds at its events - apart from anything else, empty stands make for a sad backdrop - but what you have to bear in mind is that, in financial terms, the number of spectators at a race is of minimal consequence. What really matters, to the teams, to the sponsors, to Bernie, is the size of the TV audience, be the race at Silverstone or Shanghai.

I don't believe there's a greater fan of F1, a greater purist, than I, and I speak as one who attended his first British Grand Prix at Silverstone at the age of five. Like you, I hate to see 'traditional' countries disappear from the calendar, at the expense of 'new' places, where F1 means rather less, but, frankly, it will amaze me if Silverstone goes this way, not least because of its symbolic importance, Britain being the centre of the world when it comes to Grand Prix racing. That said, I wouldn't bet my house on it...

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