Ask Nigel Roebuck: August 20

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 20



Dear Laurence,

I'm interested in your remark about the 'overpowering smell of nitromethane' in the pits during qualifying for the one and only Dallas Grand Prix. Can't say I remember it myself - but then I'm not sure I'd recognise the smell, anyway. The only surprise is that I'd reckon there are plenty of people in F1 who would be able to identify it instantly - and if they had, I'm fairly sure they'd have been saying something about it! Use of 'nitro' is not exactly unknown in F1, but I don't recall its ever being mentioned during the turbo era.

Still...my memories of that weekend. First of all, despite the oppressive humidity, and all the controversy concerning the track surface, I enjoyed it tremendously, and was sad that, thanks to someone going AWOL with the mess funds, we never went back there. There was certainly not the lack of interest in F1 that we have found at so many other American venues.

The race was intended to be the first of many, the promoters told us. Dallas was a city awash with cash, and the local populace voracious for anything new, particularly something European, and therefore a touch exotic. It would be a huge success.

In some ways, it was. Unlike Las Vegas or Detroit, the people of Dallas undeniably did get behind the race, the real high-rollers shelling out $20,000 apiece for hospitality suites - plus another five grand for air-conditioning, which was about as optional as ice in a gin and tonic. Dallas in July was like a furnace.

It had been hot as hell at the Vegas races, but that had been an arrid desert heat; summer in Texas meant crippling humidity, but suggestions were ignored that the race should be scheduled later in the year. Keeping the cars that side of the water, following the Montreal and Detroit races, made sense financially, so that was that.

The whole deal made sense financially, in fact. Why else would the race have been able to sidestep an FIA rule demanding that a new Grand Prix track should first stage a smaller meeting to prove its suitability? As in the case of Vegas, money spoke louder than rules.

Keke Rosberg squarely blamed the F1 establishment, rather than the Dallas organisers. "Of course there shouldn't be races like this, out of the blue, but the fact is, we're all whores, aren't we? If the money's right, we'll turn up anywhere and do our stuff..."

Made up of roads at the tatty end of town, within the State Fair Park, the track was quicker by far than most 'street' circuits, and the run-off areas were anything but generous. There was, too, something of a clash of cultures. "Hold it there, boy!" a State Trooper hollered at Michele Alboreto, as he toured the track in a Ferrari 308. "There's a limit of 20 right here! You wuz goin' 30 at least..."

Almost to a man, the drivers were appalled by what they found, and at a press conference made their feelings plain. 'In Formula 1, it's not only the engines that whine,' reported the Dallas Times Herald next day.

Out they went, on Thursday morning, to try the track, and soon they were saying it was even worse than they had suspected. "The only thing good about it," remarked Alain Prost, "is that suddenly Detroit is not so bad..." Elio de Angelis described it as, "A complete joke - in every way."

Not all condemned it, though. "Actually, I don't think the bumps are as bad as at Detroit," said Rosberg. "Driving here is not a pleasure, but I'm not too worried about the safety aspect." And Derek Warwick, team leader at Renault, was quite upbeat: "It's bloody dangerous, but as a track not bad - quite challenging, in fact." Nigel Mansell, too, took a positive attitude: "It's the toughest place I've ever been to, but we've got to make the best of it, haven't we?"

People change, don't they? Those many years ago here was Mansell looking on the bright side, and debutant Ayrton Senna by no means the perfectionist we were later to know. Simply not fit enough in 1984, Ayrton was quick in the Toleman-Hart, but 10 laps were enough to exhaust him. And imagine this: on Friday he went out to practise, put the brakes on at the first turn - and found he couldn't see anything, for his helmet had slipped over his eyes. In his eagerness to get going, he had forgotten to tighten the strap.

Niki Lauda's McLaren-TAG was fastest in that first, unofficial, session, and his time was to stand as the fastest of the weekend, for by the afternoon the temperature was up to 107, and the track surface was beginning to break up. "They always say that for a quick lap you have to be out at the right time," Prost murmured. "Here that means when there are no wrecks on the track..." One of those, sadly, was Brundle's Tyrrell, Martin suffering fractures to his feet which pain him to this day.

Both Mansell and Warwick were scintillating in qualifying, finishing up first and third, with Nigel's Lotus team-mate, the reluctant de Angelis, between them. Fourth was Rene Arnoux's Ferrari, followed by Lauda, Senna, Prost and Rosberg.

The latter was actually in optimistic frame of mind. The Williams of that year, the FW09, was perhaps the worst-handling machine the team has ever produced, and that, together with the 'light switch' power delivery of the Honda V6 turbo, made for a nightmarish car in these conditions. "Yes, but it's like that everywhere," Keke cheerfully said. "At least we have some hope here, because the race is going to be a lottery."

For race day, the scheduled start time was 11 o'clock, with the warm-up at seven. That being so, Jacques Laffite sought to introduce an element of levity by showing up in his pyjamas. It raised a laugh, as Jacques had hoped, but not for long: since qualifying, a great deal had happened to the track, and none of it was good.

Unfathomably, late the previous afternoon, the organisers had gone ahead with their plan to run a 50-lap CanAm race, and the heavy sports cars had chewed the track surface to rubble. Some drivers, led by Lauda, now turned militant. As resurfacing work began with epoxy cement, Niki said no, they were by no means certain to race. The warm-up was cancelled, to allow the cement to dry, but in the heat it didn't cure properly. "Look," said Renault team manager Jean Sage, "in places you can lift the stuff with your fingers..."

"Is there a feeling among the drivers," a local reporter said to Rosberg, "that you don't want to race?" Keke's answer was to the point: "We don't want to break bones! To race is crazy, but there are 28 countries waiting for TV, and 90,000 people around the track here. We have to bite the bullet. But where are our wonderful people from the FIA? Not here, because it's too bloody hot for them..."

Once the decision to race had been taken, the drivers asked for 10 laps' acclimatisation, in lieu of the cancelled warm-up, but were told that TV schedules were too tight for more than three. Thus, they ran those, then came to the grid. And what they gave us was an incredible Grand Prix. "Look at them," commented a spectating John Watson. "Racing drivers again! Show them a green light, and instinct takes over."

He was right. From the outset, all 25 of them went for it, with Mansell at the front, threatened by Warwick - who fell foul of the crumbling surface as he was taking the lead, and hit a barrier.

At the halfway point Mansell also clouted a wall, and had to pit for tyres, at which point Rosberg took over for a dozen laps, before ceding the lead to Prost - who then, to the astonishment of all, clipped the concrete 10 laps from the end.

There were many wonderful performances, notably from Arnoux, who had to start from the back when his engine refused to fire, yet scythed through to second. But on a track surface which put 13 drivers into the wall, Rosberg's victory was perhaps the greatest of his career.

Keke was aided, it must be said, by a skullcap through which chilled liquid circulated. Although these are used routinely by the NASCAR drivers, who race all summer long in the Southern states, only Williams had given thought to them for the Dallas Grand Prix.

On the Monday morning, the man from the Dallas Times Herald recanted somewhat. 'All complaints aside,' he wrote, 'when these chaps climb into the cockpit, they flat go racing. There's no pouting there...'



Dear Fred,

All is now clear about the 2004 Canadian Grand Prix - it's off. Why we had all the silly business with Legault announcing the race was off, and then Ecclestone initially denying it, only Bernie knows.

Having been robbed - substantially - on each of my last two visits to Montreal, I'm a little jaundiced about that city, but still I regret that next year's race there is off, because it's an event I've always enjoyed, and the track is not a bad one. As well as that, at a time when interest in F1 seems to be on the wane in many countries, it continues to boom in Canada, with the crowd apparently bigger with every passing year.

However, there is the new anti-tobacco legislation, and it is a fact that many teams have in their contracts with tobacco companies a minimum number of races in which they may compete without sponsorship identification on the cars. It was for this reason that this year's Belgian Grand Prix was cancelled; a change in the legislation in that country, following the arrival of a new government, has rectified the problem, and a new contract has been signed between Ecclestone and the Spa organisers, beginning next year, and running up to 2010.

The Canadian government, though, is immoveable on the subject of anti-tobacco legislation, I'm told, which presumably means that Formula 1 is finished there. Given that smoking is now about the only form of human behaviour considered intolerable, and the proliferation of the 'Nanny State' worldwide, the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve may never host another Grand Prix. Personally, I'd be a lot happier if the Montreal authorities concentrated their attention on the - to me, anyway - rather more anti-social habit of stealing, but there you are...



Dear Anton,

If the Ralf Schumacher appeal fails, it will indeed seem particularly harsh, given that overtaking is so difficult at the Hungaroring, but that's just bad luck: you can't tailor the punishment to suit the venue. If Ralf had caused a startline accident in Austria, he'd have had to start 10 places back at Monte Carlo, after all, and on that basis it would hardly have been worth showing up.

As to the 1997 race in Hungary, you ask how much tyres had to do with Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve passing Michael Schumacher? Answer: everything! Michael started from the pole, and duly marched away at the start, but after only a few laps his Goodyears were blistering badly, so that Hill's Arrows-Yamaha (!) - on Bridgestones - was able to pass easily, and Villeneuve's Williams-Renault - much easier on its Goodyears than Schuey's Ferrari - also got by. When Damon's hydraulics began to play up, he lost the lead to Jacques on the final lap. Michael eventually finished fourth.

'If Damon had won,' you say, 'Schumacher might have been world champion that year, as Villeneuve's loss of points meant he wouldn't have needed to resort to THAT move at Jerez...' Ye Gods! Yes, it's true that Michael went to Jerez with only a one-point lead over Jacques (which would have been five, had JV finished second in Hungary, rather than first), but so what? Nothing - NOTHING - could justify what he did to Villeneuve that day, and I have always regretted the fact that the FIA lacked the balls to punish him properly for it. Every young Formula Ford driver saw what the greatest driver on earth had done - and had effectively got away with - and concluded, 'Well, that's acceptable, then - he does it, so it must be all right...'



Dear Bob,

Actually, I think it's more accurate to say Michelin have made a big step this year, rather than merely in the last few weeks. Bridgestone undoubtedly held sway in 2002 - this merely accentuating the performance gap between the Ferrari F2002 and its rivals, from McLaren and Williams - and still has an advantage when it comes to wet, and intermediate, tyres, but in the dry Michelins have definitely been the thing to have this season.

It has indeed been a major factor in the resurgence of Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes, but I think there's a little more to it than that, not least that McLaren and, particularly, Williams, have made considerable progress, in terms of chassis and aerodynamics.

Ferrari's F2003-GA is fundamentally a better car than the one it replaced, but not by any means superior to its opposition in the way that the F2002 was. As well as that, its overall competitiveness has undoubtedly been compromised by Bridgestone's fall from grace.

Swings and roundabouts, isn't it? Last year what you needed was Bridgestones, and this season it's Michelins - so long, of course, as the weather keeps dry.

True enough, Ferrari is Bridgestone's only front runner, as you say, but I don't think the lack of meaningful data from other teams is much of a factor here - indeed, throughout last season the other Bridgestone teams quietly complained that the company was effectively making 'bespoke' tyres for Ferrari, on which the rest of them were obliged to run. "We don't get Bridgestone tyres," one such driver said to me. "We get Schumacher tyres..."

This situation seemed to suit Ferrari very well in the past, so I don't think they have the right to holler about it now. Can the team close the performance gap to Williams and McLaren before the end of the season? All I can say is that I sincerely hope not! After three Schumacher-Ferrari World Championships on the trot, it would F1 no harm at all to have new champions, both among the drivers and the constructors.

Much will depend on the nature of the circuits, of course - you'd have to say that Rubens Barrichello didn't look too dusty at Silverstone, which was only the race before last. At some tracks, though, I suspect that anyone on Bridgestones will suffer, and it hasn't helped their cause - or that of Ferrari - that the mid-season testing ban came into effect at a crucial moment, when they desperately needed track time as they sought to fix their problems.



Dear James,

Frankly, everyone in the paddock has become a little weary of the Jordan saga of late. It was at the Hungaroring, in 2002, that EJ announced his forthcoming deal with Ford, and it sounded like the beginning of Brave New World. Now, a year on, he is unhappy with the arrangement, and looking elsewhere for a 'cheap' engine deal, perhaps with Mercedes. Ford, already contracted to Jordan for 2004, are not very happy about this - nor, I suspect, about Eddie's moaning letter to the FIA recently.

The legal dispute with Vodafone dragged on this summer, in a manner which did not thrill the powers-that-be, for it was hardly the kind of publicity F1 needed, and is unlikely to have persuaded any dithering would-be sponsor to take the plunge. In the end, Eddie lost the case, and it cost him a lot of money. OK, he's a gambler by nature, and knew the risks when he went into it, but I haven't detected a great deal of sympathy for him among the other team owners, I must say.

The worldwide economic downturn, the effects of September 11, and so on, have of course had a profound effect on motor racing, and F1 has been by no means immune. Any team owner will tell you that finding money ain't as easy as it used to be, but Jordan's financial decline has perhaps been the most dramatic of all.

Looking back, it seems to me that things began to go wrong for Eddie when, for reasons best known to himself, he precipitately sacked Heinz-Harald Frentzen - his German driver - immediately before the German Grand Prix. One doesn't know, but one doubts that his major German sponsor of the time - Deutsche Post - was much impressed, and this may have contributed to the company's decision, at the end of last season, not to renew the deal.

At the end of this season, too, Jordan will lose the services of Giancarlo Fisichella, whose retainer was slashed - some say literally decimated - before the start of the year. The great irony is that, in a season which has otherwise been an utter disaster, Fisichella actually won the Brazilian Grand Prix back in April. OK, it owed much to good fortune, but Giancarlo drove superbly that day, and a win's a win. That said, since then Jordan have scored precisely one point. Meantime, there is talk of Nick Heidfeld's joining the team for 2004, perhaps in conjunction with some kind of Mercedes deal, but at the moment nothing is clear.

I can't help but recall a remark made to me by 'a luminary' in the paddock a few years ago. "How many 'celebrity guests' do you see at Ferrari?" he murmured. "Or at McLaren - or at Williams? That's right, none..."



Dear Stephen,

My feelings about Nelson Piquet were always a touch equivocal. On the one hand, I thought he had tremendous natural talent, as well as a very clever racing brain; on the other, I thought he compromised his ability by being insufficiently fit. Out of the car he could - in the right mood - be excellent company, with a fine, irreverent, sense of humour, and a willingness to say exactly what he thought. This last quality, almost unknown today, was of course highly valued by the members of the press.

Unquestionably, Nelson was happiest during his long spell with Brabham. The mechanics, whom he treated as friends, adored him, and their quest to help him to the World Championship was an unusually personal one. In short, it was far more than the normal team-driver relationship.

Problem was, Piquet's opinion of his worth, as a two-time World Champion, did not coincide with Bernie Ecclestone's, and when he received a substantial offer from Williams to replace the departing Keke Rosberg, for 1986, he took it. At Brabham, they were heartbroken, but they understood.

In his two seasons with Williams-Honda, there were many more victories, even another World Championship, but he never enjoyed life there as much as at Brabham, not least because he and team-mate Nigel Mansell emphatically did not get on. Nelson believed he had joined the team as number one driver, but often Nigel was the quicker of the two, and a deep mistrust developed between them.

His two seasons with Lotus, in 1988 and '89, were rather tragic. The team was by then in serious decline, and frequently Piquet seemed not to bother himself at all; it was sad to see a great driver languishing towards the tail of the field, and once in a while he failed even to qualify.

Largely on the recommendation of Jackie Stewart, Benetton-Ford hired him, and on occasions there were flashes of the old Nelson; he won three races for the team, and was highly rewarded for them, for the team - also at JYS's suggestion, in light of his lacklustre showings for Lotus - paid him 'on results'.

At the end of '91, he left Benetton, who preferred to concentrate on their new star, Michael Schumacher, and got a drive at the Indianapolis 500 in '92. After running some very quick laps in practice, sadly he had a colossal accident at the exit of turn four, and suffered appalling leg injuries, from which he recovered remarkably well.

Piquet, whose son Nelsinho is now making a name for himself in F3, still shows up at the Brazilian Grand Prix each year, and his sharp tongue has lost none of its edge. He always had a mischievous character, and some of the remarks he made over time - about such as Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Enzo Ferrari - left some of us occasionally feeling a touch uncomfortable. Nothing was ever 'off limits' to Nelson, and he remains that way to this day.

While not quite on par with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - he never had their dedication - Piquet was nevertheless a great driver, and probably history tends to undervalue him.

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