Ask Nigel Roebuck: August 27

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: August 27

Dear Ron,

Difficult question, isn't it? There are those who say that the Montoya-McLaren deal for 2005 is already signed and sealed, and that may well be the case, but even if it is, it's going to be a very long time before we know about it - indeed, as I write, Ron Dennis has only just confirmed (at the Hungaroring) that David Coulthard will continue as Kimi Raikkonen's team-mate in '04.

Why are McLaren so keen to sign JPM? A team insider put it this way: "Who are the two drivers who really frighten Michael (Schumacher)? Kimi and Juan Pablo, right? Well, we've already got one of them..."

When we talk of drivers at this level, all kinds of factors come into play. Just as, when Adrian Newey switched teams, it was not merely a matter of his going to design cars for McLaren, but also of his not working any longer for Williams, so, if Montoya were to make the switch, the same would apply.

You also have to bear in mind the Ferrari situation. Schumacher has extended his contract with the team until the end of 2006, and most expect that he really will quit then - if not before. Of course much will depend upon whether or not Messrs Todt, Brawn and Byrne decide to continue at Maranello in a post-Schumacher era, but if they do, everyone will want to take Michael's place. This will not have escaped the attention of RD and Frank Williams, who might wish to have such as Raikkonen and Montoya under long-term contract - not least so as to keep them from going to Ferrari.

Kimi is committed to McLaren far into the future, but, as things stand, Juan's contract is up for grabs at the end of next season. It is a fact that he is unhappy that his team mate, Schumacher Jr, is paid so much more than he is, which is not too difficult to understand, but at the same time a deal is a deal, and FW - again understandably - is reluctant to revitalise Montoya's retainer until the current contract is at an end.

So what are the pluses and minuses, for JPM, of Williams and McLaren? Dealing with the money first - this is contemporary F1, after all - I don't doubt that Dennis is ready, willing and able to pay him more than Williams.

On to the cars, both of which, of course, for the moment run on Michelin tyres. I think it's generally accepted that Adrian Newey is unsurpassed as an F1 designer in the modern era, his cars having won several World Championships, first with Williams, then with McLaren. On balance, therefore, you'd have to say there is a better guarantee of a competitive car at McLaren.

Move on to engines, and the pendulum swings the other way. Over the last few years, BMW have consistently produced engines at least as powerful as any other, and usually more so. And at the same time it is undeniable that Mercedes have fallen behind, and to a considerable degree.

Now, the teams themselves. Personally, I have always thought of Montoya as a natural Williams driver, being very much the type of pure racer Patrick Head so much appreciates. JPM's links with Williams go back a long way - he was the team's test driver, remember, even before his two-year CART stint with Ganassi Racing. Once in a while, he has a 'Latin' outburst about something or other, but basically the team loves him. Conversely, folk who dive for McLaren say there is no team like it for instilling confidence in a driver, and many believe that, operationally, it remains the best team in the paddock. Montoya would almost certainly have to do more PR work there, but could readily cope with that, I think.

So far as team-mates are concerned, I don't honestly think it makes a lot of difference. It's true that Montoya and Ralf Schumacher are not exactly pals - as personalities, they could hardly be more different - but still they have proved capable of working together, in debriefs, and so on. Ralf would be not unhappy to see Juan move elsewhere, but I don't think that JPM would be fazed by the idea of partnering Raikkonen - and the same, I'm sure, is true of Kimi. Drivers of this kind believe they're quicker than anyone else, and that's the end of it.

If you were asking me to bet now, my money would be on McLaren for Montoya in 2005, even though he seems to me fundamentally more a 'Williams type'. With Kimi and Juan in his cars, Ron Dennis would have his strongest driver pairing since the days of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna.

Dear Mike,

No question about it, there was a 'special relationship' between Ron Dennis and Ayrton Senna. It wasn't always sweetness and light - both were exceptionally shrewd, tough, negotiators, for one thing - but there was between them consummate respect, and genuine friendship.

Dennis was mortified when Senna decided, in 1993, to leave McLaren, after six hugely successful seasons, which included three World Championships. I remember going to lunch at Woking towards the end of that year, and it was on that occasion that Ron came out with the remark about Ayrton being 'only on loan to Williams'. He felt sure that one day he would return to McLaren, and perhaps he would have done, although I know he also had a wish one day to drive for Ferrari.

I think there's no doubt that, in his McLaren days, Senna got away with more - in terms of the control he had within the team - than any other McLaren driver, before or since, and I seriously doubt that Dennis would ever allow a similar situation to arise again.

Gerhard Berger was Ayrton's McLaren team-mate in 1990/91/92, and he told me that, at the time he signed his contract, he had completely failed to appreciate how completely McLaren revolved around Senna.

For example, a major problem for Gerhard in his first year with the team was that, being unusually tall for a racing driver, he simply could not fit comfortably into his car. It always amazed me that this, the most professional of all F1 teams, did little to rectify the problem through the season. Why?

"Simple," Berger responded at once. "Because Senna was not a tall guy! Let me say, McLaren were very nice to me, and I would say that Ron Dennis and I were friends, and still are. He didn't play too many games, and he was always straight with me. But he never realised that his team was built completely around Senna.

"That was the strange thing: Ron has quite a strong character, you know, but Ayrton always told him what to do. I remember occasions when he said things to him that I just couldn't believe, but Ron accepted anything from Ayrton. If you ask him, I'm sure he will say no, it's not true, and maybe he believes it. But, from the outside, there was no doubt about it.

"In 1992 I was asked to go back to Ferrari, and Ron wanted me to stay at McLaren. I told him I would stay only if Senna was leaving, that otherwise there was no way. While he was there, it would always be his team. This is not a criticism of Ayrton, OK? No question, he was the best driver, but still I wondered why Ron, as team chief, didn't lean on him sometimes. I wasn't upset about it, but it was a difficult situation, and it would have been the same for any driver there.

"Think about it: Prost was Senna's greatest rival, which was why there was always the big casino between them, and why Alain left. He had won World Championships with McLaren; it was his team when Ayrton arrived, but if he couldn't live with it, how was I going to do it? I never thought about it before I went there. I was stupid! I'm not often naive, but I was then."

In truth, I think it would have been almost impossible for Ron, or anyone else, to resist the sheer force of Ayrton Senna - he was like Michael Schumacher in that respect, and exuded a natural autocracy. I don't doubt, though, that when RD has retired from this business, and looks back on his time in F1, he will remember most fondly the Senna years. Each did the other proud, let's face it.

Dear Martin,

I've got mixed feelings on this. On the one hand, yes, I agree that sometimes I wish some of the drivers would 'lighten up', as you put it; on the other, though, I'd like to see them retain some dignity at the same time! Last weekend I watched the Moto GP race from Brno, and a quite fantastic race it was, too, one of the most exciting I can remember. Rossi's last lap, when he got the lead back from Gibernau, was stunning, but I really didn't go for the ball-and-chain thing, I'm afraid. Just thought it was naff, as I also did when every member of the Ferrari team donned a red wig in celebration of winning the World Championship a year or two ago. It all seemed very far removed from the days of Enzo...

In terms of PR consciousness, motorcycle racing is a very long way from F1, and in many ways that's no bad thing. I have long believed that Alastair Campbell, whenever he finally gets thrown out of 'The Inner Temple' at Number 10, could find highly lucrative employment in F1, because he is the great genius of 'spin', and modern F1 is all about control and image.

Example: a Grand Prix driver does a photo shoot for a 'house' magazine, dressed as a shady character from the 1940s, complete with raincoat and fedora. In the interests of authenticity, a cigarette dangles from his mouth. The photos look great - but the presence of the ciggie causes near hysteria, and the pictures have to be re-shot. And this is a team sponsored by a tobacco company!

Very often one does have the feeling that the modern F1 driver is muzzled, wary about he says, fearful that he may upset his team, his engine manufacturer, his sponsor or whomever, but there are always exceptions to the rule, thankfully. Jacques Villeneuve, as you point out, is a shining example, and another is Juan Montoya.

Dear Carlos,

I think a great deal depends on how Renault's next-generation V10 turns out. By common consent, the decision to go with an ultra-wide angle (some say it is 111degs) engine was a mistake: although the engine is now reliable, it has always been woefully short of horsepower, relative to most of its opposition, and some time ago the decision was taken to scrap the design, rather than continue to develop it, and take a more conventional route. It may be remembered that, in the '90s, with Williams and, briefly, Benetton, Renault did rather well with its narrower-angle V10 motors...

Should the engine be reliable and competitive on power, Renault will have an immensely strong package. Although Mike Gascoyne is said to have tied up a deal with Toyota in the future, a good chassis may be taken virtually for granted, and we know how good the team's traction control and other systems are. In Fernando Alonso, the team has potentially a future World Champion, and Jarno Trulli, although still sometime shaky in the races, has recently demonstrated again that, for sheer speed, he is among the very best. Twelve races into the season, he was ahead of Alonso in qualifying, by seven to five, and that's impressive in itself.

Can they, in your words, 'beat the likes of McLaren, Williams and Ferrari every race weekend' in 2004? In a word: no. I think they'll be a major force, able to win races, and will make F1 into a 'Big Four', rather than the 'Big Three' we have known for so long, but I don't see Renault suddenly becoming the undisputed class of field, as were, say, Ferrari in 2002. This business is simply too competitive for that to happen.

Dear Richard,

Oh, dear! If we sat down to debate what is 'cheating' in motor racing, and what is 'exploiting a loophole in the regulations', we'd be here all night. As long as I can remember, there have been murmurings in the paddock that so-and-so was cheating. To me, the difference is that 'cheating' constitutes doing something obviously and blatantly illegal - like using nitro in the fuel - and is rather different from someone's taking advantage of a loosely-written regulation, and doing something which may be against the spirit of the rule, but not against the letter of it.

In the end, if you wish, you can describe any clever engineer's method of sidestepping a rule as 'cheating'. During the years in which traction control was banned, for example, it was quite obvious that certain parties had achieved a means of 'controlling traction' - all you had to do was listen at the exit of a slow corner, like the first turn at Montreal - even if were not by the traditional means of chopping cylinders. This is why we're now stuck with traction control for all time: everyone has concluded that, short of using 'standard' ECUs, it's impossible to 'police'. And of course the manufacturers won't countenance the idea of standard ECUs...

At the end of the day, the designers, engineers and boffins of F1 are employed to get results, and their ingenuity is almost boundless. There are some teams, I believe, who would never 'cheat', as such, and one or two others in which I have perhaps less faith, let's put it that way. Probably it has always been the way.

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