Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 11

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

Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 11

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Dear Keith,

Stephen South made a considerable name for himself in F3 in the late '70s, and was due to drive for the Toleman F2 team in 1980. However, when F1 newcomer Alain Prost broke his wrist during practice at Kyalami (after his McLaren had suffered suspension failure for the second time in two days), the team needed a replacement for Long Beach, and offered the drive to South. This he accepted - but it was a risk, for it meant turning down the season-long Toleman F2 drive.

Alas, at Long Beach South failed to qualify. The McLarens were not very competitive at that time, and even John Watson had to struggle to make the field. He was, though, more than three seconds quicker than South, who looked timid and ill at ease in his first F1 qualifying session, at this tight street track.

Thereafter, South drove for Paul Newman's CanAm team, his best result a second to Patrick Tambay at Mosport Park. In late August, though, during practice for the race at Trois-Rivieres, he had a terrible accident, which resulted in the amputation, below the knee, of his left leg. It was, of course, the end of his racing career - and also the end of any involvement in the sport. He withdrew absolutely from it, and has since had no contact with it whatever.

Dear Daniel,

How do I feel about 'pay drivers' in F1? Perhaps I should start by saying that there is nothing new under the sun: 'pay drivers' have been around for ever - or certainly for the last half-century, anyway. In the '50s, for example, rich sportsmen, like Carlos Menditeguy (at Maserati) and Alfonso de Portago (at Ferrari), eased their way into big-time racing with cheques to the boss.

Both men, as it happened, were talented drivers, well able to do justice to their cars, and in those days teams tended to be perpetually short of money. When Menditeguy and Portago drove occasionally for Maserati and Ferrari, respectively, it was in a third - or even fourth - car, alongside the stars of the day, such as Fangio, Moss, Collins, Behra, and so on.

Some 'pay drivers' over time have been very serious and ambitious, like Niki Lauda (at March in 1972), while others, like Giovanni Lavaggi and Jean-Denis Deletraz, in the early '90s, can obviously never have entertained thoughts of becoming fulltime F1 drivers.

As of now, of course, 'pay drivers' have a greater significance than ever before. We have a worldwide economic slump on our hands, and it has hit F1 in a big way. For some time it has been clear, for example, that whoever partners Giancarlo Fisichella at Jordan in 2003 will not necessarily be the best driver available, but one who can pay for the privilege.

Like you, I am sad to see Justin Wilson apparently unable to land an F1 drive. When he tested for Jordan, at the end of 2001, he greatly impressed the team, but British companies, sad to say, have long been pathetically unwilling to support motor racing, even though this country is the centre of the world racing industry.

I don't doubt that Eddie Jordan would love to run Wilson, but he is in a very difficult situation at present: not only has he lost his considerable sponsorship from Deutsche Prost, he also has to pay for engines again, one of only three team owners - Peter Sauber and Paul Stoddart are the others - in this position. When last I checked, favourite for the Jordan drive was Felipe Massa.

Frankly, your suggestion that perhaps 'teams that can only afford to run second-rate drivers should be forced to shut up shop' is neither reasonable nor realistic, Daniel. At any given time, after all, most drivers are 'second rate', compared with the likes of Schumacher and Montoya and Coulthard, and at this time the very last thing we want - for any reason - is to see teams 'shut up shop'. Already we have lost Prost and Arrows (and very nearly Minardi, too, at one point), and my understanding is that at least two teams are perilously close to the brink at the moment. Given that we have only 20 cars entered in next year's World Championship, we really cannot afford to lose any of them.

Dear Bill,

By all accounts, Nico Rosberg indeed did a remarkably good job in his first ever F1 test. "As I told him when he went for his seat fitting," said his father, "he's amazingly lucky to get into the Williams factory at 17 - I had to wait until I was 32..."

As far as I recall, the first F1 car Keke ever drove was a Kujima, produced by a tiny Japanese company, and due to be run in the 1978 World Championship by Willi Kauhsen, with Rosberg as driver. As it was, though, the project fell apart.

A few weeks later, Rosberg was invited to test for Teddy Yip's small, private, team, whose car - effectively a modified F2 car, designed by Ron Tauranc - rejoiced in the name of 'Theodore'. Keke drove it at Kyalami, and had a huge testing accident there, when the brakes failed at over 150mph. For the race, he qualified 19th, and retired quite early, overcome by fumes, his cockpit being full of gasoline...

There was better times ahead, though, for Yip entered the car for the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone in late March, and there Rosberg truly excelled in what was very far from a competitive car.

He was lucky in the sense that the weather was terrible, torrential rain making for very treacherous conditions, in which Keke was always outstanding. In the early laps the race looked like being a complete fiasco, as such as James Hunt, Patrick Depailler, Clay Regazzoni and Niki Lauda sailed off the road. Around the water-logged circuit, much of the catch fencing - this was before the days of gravel traps - was flat.

In the John Player Team Lotus motorhome there were long faces, for Mario Andretti and the new 79 now slithered out of the lead at Abbey, and Ronnie Peterson, too, was out, unhappy with a car hastily refettled after a warm-up shunt. I went in there to get some quotes from them. "Who's leading?" someone asked. Colin Chapman thought for a second. "Ro...Ro...Rosebury?" he ventured...

"That day taught me a lesson," said Keke. "I always thought I was going to make it in the end - that was why I took the Theodore drive. I had no backing, and it was the only way for me to get into Formula 1. Eddie Cheever didn't want the car - OK, great, I'll take it! I even got paid for it. And I won my second race in the car, at Silverstone. Did it really matter what the circumstances were? I mean, at least I stayed on the road! Emerson [Fittipaldi] was second, and I was battling with him for the last few laps. So I thought that things were working out quicker than I expected, but was I in for a big surprise at the end of that season? By then Silverstone was forgotten, and people only remembered the races where I hadn't qualified..."

The first F1 test that really meant anything came at Paul Ricard towards the end of 1981. At Monza, in September, Alan Jones informed Frank Williams that he had decided to retire, and after the final race of the season, at Las Vegas, Carlos Reutemann did the same. By that stage of the year, all the established stars were committed elsewhere, so Frank decided to give Rosberg a test.

At last Keke was in a competitive car, a car worthy of him, and he flew. Williams signed him, and the following year he became World Champion...

Dear Sarah,

Jacky Ickx was indeed one of the greatest sports car drivers in history, but he was also a brilliant Grand Prix driver, and in the late '60s and early '70s a very considerable figure in the F1 world.

He was never World Champion, though, and I wondered if that bothered him. Not very much, he said. His nearest touch with the title came in 1970, and on that occasion he found himself in the position - surely unique in the annals of Formula 1 - of actually hoping he wouldn't win it.

"In the first part of that season the Ferrari 312B - the first car with the flat-12 engine - was not so reliable, but later on it got much better, and we were able to compete with Rindt and the Lotus 72. By then, though, Jochen had built up a big points lead, and it looked impossible to catch him..."

In the final qualifying session at Monza, however, Rindt was killed, and now Ickx found himself the only other driver with the possibility to become World Champion.

"It was a horrible situation. On the one hand, I was a racing driver, and therefore obliged to try and win, for Ferrari if not for myself. If I won the last three races, I would be champion, by one point.

"By now, with Jochen gone, the 312B was the car to beat. Jackie Stewart was there, of course, with the first Tyrrell, but although the car was quick, it was new, and not so reliable. I won in Canada, but then I got a broken fuel pipe in Watkins Glen, and finished only fourth - and, I tell you, I was relieved. I didn't want to be World Champion, beating a man who...wasn't there any more, and now I couldn't be. I went to the last race, in Mexico, in a good frame of mind. And I won again."

If the question of his own mortality crossed his mind back then, Jacky stressed that it didn't happen very often, and even then not for very long. "I look back on my racing career with great pleasure, and I...I am a survivor, what else can I say? Of course I was young in my best years in F1, and when you are young, you think nothing can happen to you - it will to someone else, maybe, but not you. And, honestly, that was how you had to think: otherwise, you could not have carried on.

"Sometimes, though, I think of those times, and wonder how it was I survived when so many others, more talented than I was, did not."

There were not, I ventured, 'many others more talented' than Ickx. "Mmmm, I don't know. Certainly, there was Jimmy..."

In point of fact, the eras of Clark and Ickx barely overlapped, but Jacky has always remembered an incident at Barcelona in the spring of 1968.

"It was an F2 race. I tried to pass Jimmy at the hairpin on the first lap - and I hit the back of his car. We were both out of the race immediately, and it was entirely my fault. He was the best in the world, and I was this young guy; he could have been very hard, but instead he just had a quiet talk to me. He was a gentleman. And one week later, he was dead.

"You know," Ickx murmured. "If you came to my house, you would not know I had ever been a racing driver. I have all my trophies and everything, of course, but none are on display anywhere. I have just one framed racing photograph on my wall: that wonderful picture by Jesse Alexander of Jimmy's face, completely drained, after a race at Spa.

"I don't think I would have survived too well in the F1 of today," he smiled. "I don't mean in the physical sense, because it's a lot safer than it was, but...the PR work, the endless testing, and so on. Between race weekends, you know, I never used to give racing a thought..."

That, I think, was the crucial thing. To Ickx, motor racing - for which he had a tremendous natural gift - was one of the good things of life, but it was not everything, in the way it was for, say, Ayrton Senna, or is, for Michael Schumacher. Jacky last raced in F1 in 1979, replacing the injured Patrick Depailler at Ligier, but his heart plainly wasn't in it any more, and after that he again concentrated on what came easily to him: dominating sports car racing.

Dear Tom,

I, too, was delighted to see Tom Wheatcroft honoured at the Autosport Awards, but, sad to say, I haven't actually been to Donington that often, because events that I cover are so rarely run there. My favourite memory of the place, I guess, would be a weekend in 1979, when most of the leading drivers of the day turned out - unpaid - to honour the memory of Gunnar Nilsson, and to raise money for the cancer charity founded in his name.

The highlight of the day? Without doubt, the sight of Juan Manuel Fangio, at a circuit he didn't know, in a car - the 1937 Mercedes W125 - he had never driven before. I can still see him sliding the car out of the corner on to the pit straight, and the likes of Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, standing alongside me in the pits, whooping with delight, like schoolboys.

As for the one and only Grand Prix run there (in the contemporary age), yes, of course I remember it well. Undoubtedly, it was a brilliant performance by Senna - particularly that stunning first lap, when he went from sixth to first - but I always thought it interesting, and significant, that Ayrton himself did not count it among his greatest victories.

I asked him why. "I had traction control!" he retorted. I pointed out that so, too, did many of his rivals that day, but he thought that of little consequence. "For sure," he said, "a much better win was my first, in the Lotus-Renault, at Estoril in '85. Same sort of conditions, more horsepower - and no traction control. That day, the throttle was controlled entirely by my foot..."

We may be very sure that Ayrton would have loathed the automated F1 cars of today - indeed, I think he would have found them offensive.

Dear Dean,

We'll have to see, won't we? On the face of it, anyway, BAR should be in for a markedly better time of it in 2003, with a car designed by Geoff Willis (rather than Malcom Oastler), and an engine from a completely revamped Honda racing department.

All that said, while I can see BAR being more competitive than at any previous time, I'll be surprised if they frighten Williams and McLaren very often, to say nothing of Ferrari. And I'll also be surprised if Jenson Button does the same to Jacques Villeneuve, whose talents have been wasted these five seasons past, but who remains - in my estimation - one of the three or four best in the business.

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