Ask Nigel Roebuck: April 30

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 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

Ask Nigel Roebuck: April 30

Dear Peter,

Yes, Roger Penske did indeed briefly run an F1 team in the '70s. His
involvement began in the autumn of '71, in fact, when he decided to hire a McLaren M19 (from the factory) for the Canadian and American Grands Prix. RP's star driver of the time was Mark Donohue, and although Donohue was generally unimpressed with the car, and its rising-rate suspension, he qualified eighth at Mosport, and finished an extraordinary third, beaten only by Jackie Stewart and Ronnie Peterson.

It was, by any standards, a remarkable F1 debut, but Mark took it lightly. "I was probably lucky it rained," he shrugged. "In the dry I might have been nowhere." A typical piece of Donohue self-deprecation. Not until 1975, however, did Penske commit to a whole season of F1, with his own car, the PC1. Donohue, who had by this time retired from racing, decided to make a comeback. It was not, Mark acknowledged, going to be easy, operating a one-car team in a new series, on unfamiliar circuits: by mid-season, with only a couple of fifth places to show, the team abandoned its own car, and ran a March instead.

In Austria, during the race morning warm-up, Donohue crashed, with disastrous consequences. I'd gone to the race with Chris Amon, and that morning dropped him off at the paddock, then went to park the hire car miles away, to miss the post-race traffic. It was quite a walk back, and as I neared the circuit, it was eerily quiet when the warm-up should have been well underway. In the Ensign pit I found Amon, his face grim. "Donohue's gone over the fence at the Hella-Licht," he said.

This was a flat-out right-hander at the top of the hill beyond the pit straight, and the March had suffered a left front tyre failure as Mark pointed it into the corner. Rows of catch fencing had been mown down, and collected underneath, raising the car to a level higher than the guardrail. It came to rest, completely destroyed, after striking lead-pipe advertising hoardings on the far side.

Initially, Donohue was unconscious, but a doctor's injection brought him round, and, although he was complaining of severe pains in his head, it seemed like a miraculous deliverance. The Penske pit was alongside Ensign's, and I remember him there, on a stretcher, speaking to members of his team. Then they carried him across the track and put him into a helicopter for transportation to hospital in Graz.

Nowadays, perhaps, surgery would have been attempted at the circuit, but medical care was primitive in those days before Professor Watkins arrived. Subjecting someone with a head injury to altitude - the Osterreichring was surrounded by mountains - was perhaps not ideal.

The day grew dark, and by race time the atmosphere was Wagnerian, with black skies and sheets of lightning. Shortly before the start, Denny Hulme, then President of the GPDA, whispered something in Amon's ear. "It's Mark," Chris said. "Fractured skull. Just a matter of time."

Mario Andretti remembered the day. "Mark felt a little out of it in Europe, I think. Just that morning in Austria, we'd been chatting, and he said, 'You know, the best thing about what you're doing - F1 and Champ Cars - is that you're going home tonight, and I have to stay here'.

"I couldn't believe it when he passed away, because I talked to him after the accident, and although he was in deep shock - he recognised me without recognising me, kind of thing - it didn't seem like he had injuries that were terminal. "Two days later, Donohue died. And exactly one year on, at the Osterreichring, a Penske-Cosworth driven by John Watson won. It was to be the team's only Grand Prix victory, and the deal was that, if John ever won a Grand Prix for Penske, he would shave off his beard, which he duly did - for ever!

By the end of that year, RP had decided his race team was perhaps spreading itself too thin, that in future he would concentrate all his efforts on the USA.

Not that long ago I asked Roger if he still harboured a wish one day to come back to F1. "I seriously doubt it," he said. "In a way, I still kind of think of it as unfinished business, but I'm way too committed to my race programmes here, in CART and NASCAR." Given what happened to his CART programme, maybe it's just possible we'll see a Penske on the F1 grids again one day. But I'd be more than surprised, quite honestly.

Dear Wyman,

I've written about this in Fifth Column in this week's magazine, and the gist of my piece is that Mario Andretti is completely different from any other racing driver I have ever known. You mustn't think of him in terms of normal people - or even normal racing drivers.

At the end of 1978, the year in which he won the World Championship for Lotus, I did a book with Mario, and we have remained friends ever since. To that extent, therefore, I think I probably know him better than a lot of people, and believe me I have never met anyone like him. As I mention in the column, he once said to me, "I figure I was put on this earth to drive race cars", and that simply sums him up.

No one, I would warrant, has ever loved motor racing - and driving - more than Andretti. This, remember, was a man who competed in both the F1 World Championship and the USAC Championship at the same time! "I remember May of '81," he said to me once, "Imola one Sunday, qualifying at Indy the next, Zolder the next, the race at Indy the next, Monaco the next... You woke up in the morning, looked at the ceiling, and thought, 'Jeez, where am I? The Speedway Motel or the Hotel de Paris?'"

It was not until he was well into his thirties that Andretti decided to give precedence to F1, yet still he drove in 128 Grands Prix, and to that you have to add 407 'Indycar races', plus numberless events in midgets, sprints, stock cars, sports cars, F5000 cars, and so on. Simply, Mario was one of those drivers who considered a weekend without a race a weekend lost. By the time he retired from fulltime driving, in 1994, he was 54 years old, and had won Indycar races in four separate decades, the first in 1965, the last in 1993.

After his final CART race, at Laguna Seca, he was understandably emotional. "Now," he said, "I have to see if there is life after driving..." If he were now retired, he made an exception for Le Mans, which he had never won, and in 1995 finished second there, the best result he was to achieve.

The thing is, Andretti has never lost his love of driving a racing car, and never will. When a film, 'Superspeedway', featuring Mario and his son Michael, was made towards the end of the '90s, much of the in-car footage was shot by him, and he was still amazingly quick. In 2000, when F1 went to Indianapolis for the first time, Porsche offered him a guest drive in the Carrera Cup race, and he accepted without a second thought - proving, incidentally, way quicker than the other guest driver, one Al Unser Jr.

People thought he was crazy to do these things, but Andretti has never bothered to try and justify himself. As far as he's concerned, it's no one else's business: in his mind, he has always been a racing driver, and always will be, and if some folk can't understand that, well, it's their problem.

Last week, at Indianapolis, he climbed into an Indycar for the first time in many years, and, at the age of 63, was very soon running competitive laps, in the 225mph bracket. No one knows more about running at the Speedway than Mario, and both the Andretti-Green team and the Honda people were highly impressed, not only by his speed, but also by his feedback.

Had Brack's engine not let go in turn one, Kenny would not have crashed - and neither would Mario. Yes, he was phenomenally lucky to get out of the accident as good as uninjured, and he knows it too, which is why it is most unlikely he will ever do it again. But to ask, 'What was Mario Andretti thinking?' is to fail completely to understand a man unique in racing history. It wasn't a question of having anything to prove.

As for his motivation, well, helping his son's team at a difficult time must have come into it, but mainly what Mario was thinking was that he would enjoy driving an Indycar again, simple as that. And until Brack's engine blew, he was doing precisely that.

Dear Ian,

I, too, am a great Woody Allen fan, and, as he suggests, can see much merit in coming back, in the next life, as Warren Beatty's fingertips...

However, we digress. If I could have lived the life of one racing driver in history, yes, I guess it would have to be Mario - everything seems to be about Mario this week! Why him? Because, as you say, that would give you a taste of every single aspect of motor racing, from a sprint car at Salem to a Ferrari sports prototype at Brands Hatch to a Lotus 79 at the Osterreichring to a Holman/Moody Ford at Daytona to a Hawk at Indianapolis...and on, and on.

As well as that, of course, there would be the great bonus of being welcome anywhere, universally recognised as a great guy. And you're right - Gerhard Berger would be an excellent reserve. Another splendid fellow, liked by everyone. Maybe he didn't achieve as much as Andretti, and certainly he didn't race as diversely as Mario, but now I think about it, Woody Allen could easily have substituted Gerhard for W. Beatty...

Dear Grayson,

I've always liked Damon a lot, and yes, I do agree that his irreverence is very welcome when he appears occasionally on TV. Now, Damon as a driver... I wouldn't classify him as 'great' (an adjective chucked around too readily these days), but that said, I did consider him 'great' on certain days in his career.

When he was a Williams-Renault driver, he made quite a lot mistakes, but he also had a lot of victories, some of them extremely impressive. In his first season with Jordan, in 1998, he also did a good job, and scored the team's first victory (at Spa), but the following year he really did no kind of justice either to himself or his car. His team mate Heinz-Harald Frentzen won two Grands Prix in '99, let's remember, and on two occasions, certainly, Damon simply 'parked it'.

The second of these was at Suzuka, his very last Grand Prix, and he thus duplicated exactly what Nigel Mansell did at Barcelona in 1995 - retired a healthy car. In both cases, I thought it extraordinary that an ex-World Champion should want to finish his career in this fashion. Keke Rosberg and Gerhard Berger, for example, drove their last Grands Prix as if they were going for the championship. "I wasn't going to race one of these again," Rosberg said, "and I wanted to remember it well."

Certainly, you could argue that Hill effectively began his F1 career in the best car of the moment, a Williams-Renault; all right, he'd had a few desultory outings for Brabham in '92, but he was test driver for Williams that year, and impressed Frank and Patrick Head sufficiently to be partnered with Alain Prost in '93.

I never thought Damon a 'natural', in the Senna or Prost or Schumacher sense of the word, but then how many are? The thing about him was that he had huge determination, and when the mood was on him he was very quick indeed - there were days when he flat beat Michael, as at Suzuka in '94, for example. I still think that probably the best race he ever drove: it was under huge pressure, in awful conditions, and he needed the win to go to Adelaide with a shot at the championship.

It's worth remembering, too, that Hill pressured Schumacher into a mistake in that race in Australia - and that, had there been any justice in the world, should have given him his first title. As it was...well, we know what happened, don't we?

The saddest aspect of Damon's career is that inevitably, to some degree, everyone remembers how he drove in his last season. From the start of it, he looked like a guy who had stayed a year too long, who wished to be somewhere else, and I still think it's a pity he didn't call it a day earlier than he did.

Was his name a worthy list of former World Champions? Yes, I think so. He wasn't by any means in the Fangio/Clark/Senna bracket, but by no means is the World Champion, in a given year, always the greatest driver of his time. I've always had reservations about the ever-increasing hype about the World Championship, not least because the list does not include such as Ronnie Peterson or Gilles Villeneuve or - in my opinion, the greatest driver ever - Stirling Moss...

Graham won more World Championships (two) than his son, of course, but fewer Grands Prix. It's never easy to compare drivers from different eras, not least because Damon ultimately concentrated exclusively on F1, whereas his father took part in all kinds of racing - he remains the only man to have won the World Championship, the Indianapolis 500 and the Le Mans 24 Hours, and probably that is a record which will stand for all time.

Dear Grant,

I rather agree with you. On the one hand, I was glad to see the FIA extend the point-scoring positions from sixth to eighth, particularly from the point of view of the teams: with Ferrari, McLaren and Williams pre-eminent in F1, the other teams regularly came away from a race weekend with nothing, so it pleases me that seventh and eighth places now provide some tangible reward.

On the other hand, I take your point about the importance of winning, and wrote as much when the new scoring system was announced. Time was when you got eight points for winning, and six for second, and many considered that a gap of two points was not enough. That being so, the winner's score was increased to nine points, and then eventually to 10, which is how it remained until the end of last season.

I can see why the FIA has closed things up: Ferrari's runaway success in 2002 made an utter mockery of the World Championship, to the extent that, between them, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello scored as many points as all the other drivers put together!

Understandably, the governing body wanted to try and prevent a repetition of that - but, yes, still I think there should be more of a difference between the points for first and second and those for second and third. The system, as it stands, will undoubtedly keep things closer than they were, but in the past we had too many 'percentage driving' World Champions, I think, and I do like to see winners rewarded.

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