Ask Nigel Roebuck: August 14

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: August 14



Dear Steve,

I really don't know what Gerhard is going to do, with regard to his role with BMW - to be honest, whatever he does won't surprise me! Let's face it, who imagine that he would leave Ferrari for Benetton at the end of 1995? But that's what he did...

Shortly before the season began, I had lunch with him in London, and we did a sort of on record/off record interview. At one point I brought up the question of his BMW job - and how long he thought he would continue to do it.

"Listen," he said, "for me, it's very clear. BMW asked me to join them, to help them build up a motor sport team that was competitive in all levels of the sport, a structure that would be good for the next few years in racing. So, OK, we did a five-year contract, and try to build up a competitive team in that time. Now we have done four years, and I would say we are 80-90 percent there.

"I have to see how I handle this, because so many people ask me this question, and I never answer it, because I don't want to start this discussion: Berger stopping? Berger going on? For now, I'll just say I'm very happy, doing what I'm doing, and it's too early to think about what I do afterwards."

Was he getting to a point that he was bored with racing?

"No, not at all. I'm not ready to leave racing."

And by that, he did necessarily mean F1 only?

"Yes, because at the end of the day there exist just two formulas: Formula 1 and NASCAR. All the rest is peanuts."

I don't think there's much doubt that Berger has done an extremely good job for BMW, and it doesn't surprise me that Mario Theissen is so keen that he should stay on. At Williams, too, there is a great deal of respect for him. I asked Frank about his contribution, and he said this: "Gerhard is extremely shrewd, he's tough, and he has a very quick mind. With all that, and his considerable F1 experience, he's been extremely helpful to BMW - and to us. No doubt about that at all."

So...what will he do? First and foremost, any job Berger does has to be something he wants to do, for the sake of it. Unlike you or me, he has enough money for several hundred years, and therefore cannot be attracted to a job for purely financial reasons. He has, I know, a burning desire to see Juan Pablo Montoya (and Ralf Schumacher) beat the Ferraris fair and square, but whether or not that will be enough to keep him traveling constantly for another five years, only he knows.



Dear Nick,

First of all, I would agree with you that Panis is probably the most underrated driver of the last few years - and I suspect that Ron Dennis, and anyone else at McLaren, would go along with that, too. His year there as test driver, in 2000, was hugely beneficial to both parties - he learned a lot about how a proper F1 team should operate, and McLaren soon discovered he was not only a remarkably good test driver, but also extremely quick! For their part, both Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard said that they came to rely on him utterly: if Olivier tested something, they were prepared to accept his word on it.

I wouldn't yet discount him as a BAR driver in 2003, either. Yes, Jenson Button has been signed, but I'm by no means convinced yet that Jacques Villeneuve will be in the other car. David Richards is very much a fan of Olivier, and it won't surprise me if, in the end, they continue working together next year.

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, on the other hand, is definitely a free agent at present. Despite all the rumours, he will very definitely not be accepting an offer to return to Jordan - been there, done that - and at present his best possibilities would seem to be Sauber, for whom he has driven before, of course, and Toyota. Until recently it seemed certain that Cristiano da Matta would join Mika Salo at Toyota for 2003, but now I hear Carl Haas is asking a daunting amount of money to release him from his contract - and who can blame him? Cristiano has, after all, been the dominant driver of the CART season thus far, and Haas, let's face it, has little reason to feel charitable to Toyota, who are walking out on CART, and moving across to the IRL.

All that said, I cannot honestly see for the life of me why - for other than purely financial reasons - either Panis or Frentzen should want to join Jaguar at this point. You say that Jaguar is 'looking to up its game next year', and that has to be true, God knows, because if the team's 2000 and 2001 seasons were highly disappointing, this current is proving not less than dire. Neither Olivier nor Heinz is in the first flush of youth, and it's possible that they could be attracted by the idea of a big Irvine-like payout at this stage of their careers, but uppermost in their minds, I would have thought, is a competitive car.



Dear Michael,

You make me feel guilty! For my money, Alain Prost is one of the very greatest drivers of all time, and there's absolutely no logical reason why I should leave him out of a list of them.

Probably no one ever made the driving of a grand prix car look as easy as Alain did. He was quite uncannily smooth. I remember watching qualifying at Monaco one year with Denis Jenkinson, and we talked about who was going to be on pole. There were various possibilities - and then suddenly they announced that Prost had just shattered the previous best time. "Now where the hell did that come from?" said 'Jenks'. "Didn't even notice he was out..."

Typical Alain. Engineers would shake their heads in disbelief: he would win a race consummately, and they'd find his brake pad wear was negligible compared with his (slower) team-mate. As intelligent a man as ever sat in a racing car, he was astonishingly easy on equipment, and I doubt that any other great driver ever made so few mistakes.

At a Donington test years ago I remember chatting with Eddie Cheever, who was looking out over the track. "I don't believe it!" Eddie said. "Prost just spun!" He was silent for a few seconds. "Oh, what the hell, he'll probably do it again in another three or four years..."

I like Alain very much, and always have. Superstar he may have been, but he was always friendly and 'normal', with a great sense of humour. As well as that, he was a dream to interview because he was never afraid to say what he thought, however controversial the topic, and in all the years I've known him, he has never once told me something that subsequently proved to be untrue - a lie, in other words. Believe me, there are not many like this.

Yes, his record of 51 wins has been well beaten, but I think it's worth remembering that, in Prost's time, the cars were very much less reliable than now, and also that they took a good deal more driving. Alain was at his greatest in the turbo era, when they raced with way more power than now, and when the drivers had more to do, such as get off a grid, change gear, watch a rev counter, control the throttle, and all that stuff...

I also, for what it's worth, think there were more real topline drivers in Prost's era than now. All the way through, apart from anything else, he had a certain A. Senna to contend with. In the late '80s, I once asked Jenks, if he had to pick someone to drive for his life, who would he choose? "Over a lap, Senna," he said, "and over a race, Prost." I'd go along with that.

There's another thing, too. For Alain, motor racing was always a sport, not a war. On the track, he was as clean and fair a driver as I have ever seen, and in my book that counts for a very great deal.



Dear Yusuke,

I was at the Nurburgring in 1976 when Lauda had his accident, and I remember driving back to the ferry that evening, hearing on the radio that he'd been given the Last Rites, and frankly expecting next morning to hear that he had died during the night.

That was August 1. Six weeks later, I was at Monza, where Lauda returned to racing, qualifying fifth and finishing fourth. I will always contend that, in all the years I have watched motor racing, that was the bravest thing I have ever seen. At the end of the Italian Grand Prix, I happened to be in the Ferrari pit, and with my own eyes watched Niki gingerly peel off his blood-stained balaclava. I'll never know how he drove that weekend.

The following year, of course, he won the second of his three World Championships, and then promptly left Ferrari for Bernie Ecclestone's Brabham team. There were two years of retirement, in 1980 and '81, and then he returned, with McLaren, in '82, winning at Long Beach, only the third race of his comeback. In '84 came the third World Championship, and at the end 'of 85 he retired for good.

I agree with you that Niki's driving changed after his accident, and who could be surprised? From then on, he relied more on intelligence and racecraft than on the blistering speed we had known before - and proved, very conclusively, that there is more than one way to win races and championships.

When it came to it, though, the raw competitiveness was always there, even if less overtly than before. In his final year, 1985, his car suffered from appalling reliability problems, and, prior to the Dutch Grand Prix, he had hardly finished a race. At Zandvoort he was outpaced, as usual, by his team-mate Prost, but when Alain had an unscheduled pit stop, and then had to put in a spectacular comeback drive, there was no way Niki, now in the lead, was going to be beaten. The last few laps were pretty desperate stuff, from both of them, but Lauda held on to take what would be his final victory.



Dear Colin,

I'm not really surprised that Flavio Briatore is to leave F1 in 2005, when his contract with Renault expires - although perhaps I'm a bit surprised that he has let it be known as early as this.

Why am I not surprised that he plans to get out of F1? Because Flav has never made any bones about the reasons for his involvement in it. He's a businessman, and, for him, F1 is a business like any other, nothing more or less, and he has been completely honest about that from the day he arrived.

I've always liked Flav, always found him very easy to get on with. He's very good company, not least because he has a fine sense of humour, and a healthy sense of irreverence, as well as a willingness to speak 'off record': "Jesus Christ, with A and B driving for us, in 350 years we wouldn't win a World Championship!"

I don't think I'd want to get the wrong side of him, particularly in any kind of business deal, but I admire his honesty when he talks about his reasons for being involved in F1. Racing per se, he admits, does absolutely nothing for him, and while that might appall the enthusiast in me, I find it infinitely preferable to those team owners who go on about their love of racing, their desire to win grands prix and World Championships, yet in reality wish, first and foremost, to become rich. Extremely rich.

Frank Williams and Ron Dennis are extremely rich, of course, but both are true 'racers', whose wealth has come as a result of huge success - which was what motivated them in the first place, and always will.

Going back to Briatore, I think the part he played in Benetton's success in the mid-'90s was considerable. True enough, he had around him people of great ability (not least Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, the Ferrari triumvirate of today), but all the signs were that he ran the business extremely well, and he had a genius for 'doing deals'. In a sometimes grey paddock, he's a colourful figure, and I'll be sorry when he leaves.

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