Ask Nigel Roebuck: August 22

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 22



Dear Darko,

It's a very good point you make. Yes, I think Peter Sauber is indeed a 'true racer', if not perhaps quite in the same mould as Frank Williams and Ron Dennis.

I've always admired Sauber for the quiet way he has gone about establishing and running his F1 team. It may not be the most exciting outfit in the paddock, but if that means it gets on with things, rather than being overrun with C-list 'celebs' all the time, so much the better. As has always been said of Frank Williams, even in what he calls his 'days of penury', the money goes on the cars.

Over the last two or three years the Sauber team has very much come up on the rails, if you like, so that you now expect to find them, if not up with Ferrari and Williams and McLaren, then either leading the rest, or being close to it. And that says a great deal for them, for the budget is not huge here, and the engines - from Ferrari - are anything but free.

Peter Sauber himself is a good man, I think. Something that has stuck in my mind was a remark Bobby Rahal made to me last year. "I was very much the outsider in F1 when I took the Jaguar job," he said, "in the sense that I was an American, coming in from CART. When I got ousted by Lauda, two team owners called me up to say they were sorry it had happened, and to wish me well: Frank Williams and Peter Sauber..."



Dear John,

We do have rules regarding the requirements for getting a Superlicence, but there are indeed times when I wonder if they are the right ones. As you say, Alex Yoong is plainly out of his depth in F1, yet was able to qualify for a licence to race in it. And over time, frankly, there have been others who would make Yoong look like Nuvolari.

It's not an easy problem to solve, in the sense that it's not easy to come up with 'fail safe' guidelines. At one point there was an idea that you had to go through F3000, and achieve certain results within it, before you could graduate to F1. F3000 is regarded, after all, as the last stepping-stone, but its significance may be over-estimated - Yoong went through it, but such as Kimi Raikkonen and
Jenson Button did not... See what I mean?

F1 would indeed be better off if 'only the best drivers were allowed in', but the world is not like that. At the top level, that will of course always apply - Ferrari and Williams and McLaren are always going to employ the very best drivers available to them, but after that different factors come into play, such as nationality - which drivers will 'please' certain sponsors - and how much money a driver can bring with him. It may be less than ideal that this sort of thing happens, as you say, but it's not new - Enzo Ferrari was doing it occasionally as far back as the '50s - and it's always going to be there, I'm afraid.



Dear Clive,

Not an easy question to answer, because the perception of F1 in the big wide world has changed out of sight in the last 30 years - even changed pretty radically in the last 10, during which it became immensely 'fashionable'.

There was a time when it was simply a sport, after all. It was extremely popular, with a devoted following, but the grands prix were rarely on TV - and it is TV, to my mind, which has undoubtedly changed F1 more than anything else.

At the 1968 Spanish Grand Prix, for example, there were, to the best of my recollection, only 14 starters, but it didn't greatly matter, frankly, because the outside world never noticed. There was still a very good race, and the people who'd paid to come in went away well satisfied.

The other end of this scale, of course, was the period in the '80s when there were so many F1 teams that pre-qualifying was necessary for those in the lesser ones, and if you didn't get through that, you left for home - by lunchtime on Friday! Those who were involved in it to this day maintain they have never known pressure like it.

The current situation in F1 is a difficult one, for several reasons. First, as we know, much of the world is in an economic slump, and sponsorship is by no means as readily available as it was. Second, it is undeniable that at present many have become bored with it, because one team - and usually one driver - is doing all the winning. No fault attaches here to Ferrari, who are simply doing the job way better than any of their rivals at the moment, but there's no doubt that it has dampened the enthusiasm of many. The World Championship is all-important to a lot of people, after all, and this year it was settled in July.

Actually, save for its cosmetic appeal on a TV screen, a huge number of cars is not important to me - no, what matters is the quality of those cars, and the people who drive them.

When I interviewed Bernie Ecclestone at Magny-Cours on this subject a few years ago, he said this: "The size of the field doesn't bother me at all. People go on about only 19 or 20 cars in the race. OK, so what? If I got someone who hadn't been to races to look at the grid this afternoon, they wouldn't know whether there were 16 or 24 cars on it. It is much better for us to have a smaller, better quality, grid. We're in the quality business, not quantity." I agree with that completely.




Dear Mark,

Nelson Piquet's pass of Ayrton Senna at the Hungaroring in '86 was indeed one of the great moves - by chance, I was standing at that very spot. Although no one was much impressed with this new circuit, one great thing it had going for it was a track surface clearly aimed at longevity rather than grip. The cars, which in the turbo era raced with more than 1000 horsepower (and qualified with as much as 1400), slid around a great deal, and it made for very entertaining spectating.

As for Piquet's place in the scheme of things, yes, I think probably you're right - Nelson is not perhaps rated as highly as he should be, and certainly not as highly as his record warrants. When he was in the mood, he was an incredibly quick driver, and a very formidable rival, but I think that for much of his career, particularly in its later stages, he relied more on guile and strategy than outright speed. He still won a lot of races, but by that stage they were rarely memorable.

More to the point, perhaps, in terms of his own standing in the sport Piquet was unlucky to be racing in a vintage era of Grand Prix racing, when great drivers abounded. He won his three World Championships, in 1981, '83 and '87, which meant he was in competition with such as Gilles Villeneuve, Didier Pironi, Alan Jones, Carlos Reutemann, Mario Andretti, Niki Lauda, Nigel Mansell, Jacques Laffite etc - as well as, lest we forget, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. Usually he was shaded by the last two, in particular, and I certainly don't think he ever had their absolute commitment to F1. That said, while I personally wouldn't put him quite on their level, Nelson was undeniably a superb racing driver, and on his day a great one.



Dear David,

I think perhaps Frank is being a little hard on himself and his team, although it's undeniable that the perception of Alex Zanardi in the racing world did indeed change after his disastrous year with Williams, in 1999.

When Frank announced he had signed Zanardi, I was one of many who rejoiced, for I had felt that Alex's true potential had never been recognised in his first spell in F1, with Lotus and other uncompetitive teams. When finally he got a break, with Chip Ganassi's CART team, he really made the most of it, winning races and championships and establishing a reputation as a tremendous racer. FW and Patrick Head kept a close eye on the CART scene, watched many of the races on TV, and were much impressed by Zanardi's flair and combativeness. Hence a deal was done for '99.

Almost as soon as he began testing the Williams-Supertec, though, there were murmurs that his pace was not quite what had been expected. Frank's other new driver, Ralf Schumacher, was extremely quick from the word go, so the contrast was marked.

During Alex's time in CART, Formula 1 had changed quite radically, and not for the better, as far as he was concerned. The new breed of F1 car - with narrow track and grooved tyres - was quite unlike anything he had driven before, and not particularly pleasurable to drive, but he said it was his problem to solve: he had to dapt.

I spoke to Zanardi about it before the season began. "It's really frustrating," he said, "because these cars are completely different from what I was driving in 1994, when I was last in F1. When I first started in CART, the cars were heavier than the ones I'd been driving in F1, but basically they had the same character.

"Now, coming back to F1, I find the cars totally changed. They're tricky - and they require a different driving style. My instinct is to carry speed into, and through, the corner, but you can't really do that with these cars; what you must do is brake really late, turn in somehow, and then get on the power as soon as you can.

"However, I guess it's a matter of getting used to new sensations, and it'll take me a bit of time to set my new limits. Right now I'm flat out - I'm driving the best that I can - and I'm not fast enough. I'm working on it, and I'm sure that my limit will move up; I hope so, anyway - and so does Frank!"

It was all disarmingly honest and open, in a manner almost unknown in racing today, and we assumed that ultimately Alex would come to terms with the challenge before him, would adapt his style - if unwillingly - to suit his car's demands.

In the event, it never came to be. It was one thing not to match Ralf Schumacher in the banzai conditions of qualifying, but still I expected Zanardi's sheer competitiveness to assert itself in the races. The fact that he made almost no impression in 1999 mystified me as much as anything I have known in these many years of covering F1.

It was a fact that he suffered greatly with mechanical problems during pre-season testing, and at the races, too, seemed often to have a monopoly on Williams unreliability. But still that explained neither his inability to come to terms with a different breed of car, nor to get stuck into the competition on Sunday afternoons.

The FW21 may not have been the greatest car ever to come from Williams, and its Supertec V10 was, according to P. Head, 50 or 60 horsepower shy of the best, but Ralf Schumacher finished in the points 11 times; Zanardi didn't score all year long.

He did, though, out-qualify Ralf on five occasions, one of these being Monza, where he made the second row. And I remember Patrick's pleasure that afternoon: "I have to take my hat off to Alex, because he's found that time in himself - it isn't anything we've done to help him."

A fortnight earlier, he had qualified eighth at Spa, too, and there was a hope that Zanardi was finally over the hump, at last getting to grips with contemporary F1. In the race he made a fantastic start, briefly ran second to Hakkinen, and if - with a loose floor - he thereafter faded to seventh, still it was his best finish to date.

Unfortunately, though, the momentum wasn't sustained. It didn't surprise me to learn, in early December, that Zanardi's three-year contract was likely to be terminated two years early.

After taking a year off, in 2000, he returned to CART, driving for Mo Nunn, with whom he had formerly worked at Ganassi. Although he was back on familiar ground, in a car he liked, the old spark was no longer there, and he was rarely a factor in the races.

All the indications were that he would retire for good at the end of 2001, but sadly, towards the end of the season, came the appalling accident at the Lausitzring, in which he lost his legs. Ironically, it had been Alex's best race since returning to CART - he had been leading at the time of his final pit stop, and it was upon leaving the pit lane that he gave the car a little too much throttle, spun across the grass, and up into the track itself - whereupon he was T-boned at colossal speed by Alex Tagliani, who had no opportunity to miss him.

Looking back on '99, yes, undeniably the Williams team did give up on Zanardi, but that's the way F1 is, and the way it has to be: you deliver, or you go. In just the same way, after all, a driver, given the opportunity, will quickly seek a better alternative if his team is not giving him a car he feels worthy of his talents.

Personally, I thought Alex Zanardi one of the nicest people I've known in racing, and I hated to see what he was going through that year. It was as nothing, though, compared with what he has faced since last September; his courage and optimism have been extraordinary. As Mario Andretti put it: "You want to talk about champions...Alex Zanardi, now there's a real champion."



Dear Dan,

Ralf started third in Hungary, and thus, like pole man Rubens Barrichello, was on the clean side of the track, whereas Michael, starting second, was on the dirty side, which he described as, 'Like starting on ice'.

Ralf did indeed get a good run on his brother down to the first corner, but he was on the outside, and decided to give it up, rather than risk contact with Michael.

I'd just make one or two observations. First, Ralf, although an extremely good driver, is not the greatest racer in the world. Remember the closing laps at Interlagos, when he caught Michael quickly, but then simply sat on his tail, never making any effort to put a move on him? As John Watson commented at the time, "I'll bet Michael's jolly glad it's his brother in that Williams, and not Juan Pablo Montoya..." My thought, exactly.

Perhaps it was in Ralf's mind that, when it comes to wheel-to-wheel combat, his brother cuts him no little more slack than he does anyone else. I think we all got that message at the Nurburgring last year, when he looked set to beat Michael off the grid, then found himself facing the age-old dilemma as the Ferrari chopped across his nose: 'So do I back off, or hit the pit wall?'

The irony is that the one truly - and some would say, foolishly - assertive move I have seen Ralf make this was year was at the first corner at the Nurburgring - when, on the outside, he chopped across and touched the nose of his own team-mate! Whereas all Juan Pablo wants to do is beat the Ferraris, and win, sometimes I get the impression that Ralf's primary preoccupation is beating his team-mate.

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