Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 17

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. Send your questions to

Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 17

Dear Robert,

Whether or not Max Mosley was putting forward the idea of a penalty points system in the manner of New Labour - offering it as a suggestion to see how it was received - or whether he firmly intends to go ahead with it, I have no idea. I'm not sure if this is the right way to tackle the problem of driver penalties, but I do know that the current system is thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Given that Juan Montoya was harshly - and, in my view, unjustly - handed a 'drive through' penalty after tangling with Rubens Barrichello at Indianapolis, and given that the penalty obliterated his World Championship hopes, you might have suspected that JPM would have welcomed Max's proposal. In fact, though, he has been critical of it, suggesting - rightly, it seems to me - that a penalty points system would result in drivers' simply not daring to try an overtaking manoeuvre, for fear of something going awry, and incurring enough penalty points to bring about a one-race ban.

A good point, it seems to me. I think the problem needs to be approached from a different direction. First, something fundamental needs to be done about the aerodynamic rules, so that one car can closely follow another through a corner without losing so much downforce that its driver has to be back off - something, in other words, which enables a driver to come off a corner immediately behind the car he is aiming to pass into the next corner.

A big chunk of the problem comes from the fact that overtaking is simply too difficult these days, so that moves, when they are made, invariably have a touch of desperation about them. Plus, of course, we have the moronic 'one move' rule, which permits a driver deliberately to block another: an invitation to 'incidents', if ever I've seen one.

Then there's the question of the FIA stewards. There are three at every race, and in an ideal world I think they should be the same three each time, because it's become quite apparent that by no means do they all share common judgement when it comes to incidents on the track. Thus, Joe Soap will commit a misdemeanour one weekend, and get away with it, then do something similar the next, and get hammered.

You don't need to be a Rhodes Scholar to cotton on to the fact that some stewards are plainly more competent than others, that some have a good measure of sense, while others do not. Thus, what I'd like to see is the selection of three bright, sensible, fellows, and then have them at every Grand Prix. That way, at least we'd get some consistency into the system.

Quite often, after all, you do get a straightforward 'racing incident', where no particular blame attaches to one driver, but now we seem to have arrived at a state of affairs where even a tiny contact between two cars leads to 'an investigation'.

Conversely, it also seems to be the case that you can have a truly appalling offence - such as that perpetrated by Michael Schumacher on Fernando Alonso on the opening lap of the British Grand Prix - but if there is no actual touch, let alone an accident, absolutely nothing is done about it. This is nonsense, and virtually everyone in the sport would agree.

As for the idea of a driver getting to the last two races with a clean licence...yes, I confess that thought had gone through my mind, as well. Can't think why, unless it's something to do with Adelaide '94 and Jerez '97...

Dear René,

I confess I never heard of any question of Jan Lammers's driving for Ferrari at Zandvoort in 1982, in the aftermath of Gilles Villeneuve's death. To the best of my recollection - and I was fairly close to the situation - Patrick Tambay was quite quickly chosen to take Gilles's place in the team.

Given his special relationship with Zandvoort, I can sort of see why it might have made sense to put Lammers in the car there, but frankly it would have amazed me if Ferrari had given him the drive fulltime. Jan was indeed an extremely good racing driver, but I never saw him as any more than that.

Why did he never make the grade in F1? For one thing, he never got his hands on a competitive car, and for another, I don't think he was good enough: if he had been, sooner or later someone would have put him in a competitive car, because that's the way F1 is. For years and years, people kept saying that Mika Salo was the great unrealised talent in racing, but when he went to Ferrari for a time, replacing Michael Schumacher when he hurt himself at Silverstone in '99, he did a competent job, but no more than that.

The thing is, there is more to it than natural ability. Jo Ramirez, who worked with Jan at ATS, said this: "Lammers, I think, had the best car control I've ever seen. Incredible. He could anything with a car, place it on a sixpence - but he excelled only on street circuits, like Long Beach. I don't think he had the 'heart' for really fast corners..."

Dear Terry,

Yes, I'd like to have seen Gil de Ferran in an F1 car - and the same goes, too, for his Penske team mate of the last few years, Helio Castroneves.

When it comes to a wish-list of others I'd like to have seen in F1, but never did it, I can hardly beat the two names you mention. A.J. Foyt is a curious fellow in many ways, but unquestionably one of the greatest drivers there has ever been, and I think it a tragedy, given that he succeeded in every form of racing he ever tried, that he never stepped into a Grand Prix car. Curiously, he was entered to drive a BRM at the 1964 Mexican Grand Prix, but decided against it, and the same was true in 1967, when Dan Gurney nominated him to drive the second Eagle (in place of the retired Richie Ginther) at Spa, the weekend after the pair of them had won at Le Mans.

As for Jeff Gordon, yes, I don't really have any doubts that this is the most naturally talented American driver of this generation, with the ability to succeed in any type of racing. In June I watched him briefly drive a Williams-BMW at Indianapolis, and was astonished at how quickly he came to terms with it - this, after all, was the first rear-engined racing car he had ever driven! Afterwards he looked more than a touch wistful, saying he wished he were 21, rather than 31, but it's too late now: he's got way too much going in NASCAR to leave it.

One man who did give serious thought to F1, before deciding against it, was Parnelli Jones. In the mid-'60s Colin Chapman tried very hard to recruit him to the Lotus F1 team, and I don't think there's the slightest doubt he had the natural ability to succeed at the highest level. Problem was, he was a star in his own firmament - USAC - and back then that's where the money was. PJ, though, would be very much on my 'wish list'.

Dear Frank,

We all miss Sandro Nannini in Formula 1. He was, I think, the last of the 'classic' Italian racing drivers, very much in the mould of Clay Regazzoni (technically Swiss, I know, but only by a few kilometres!).

At Suzuka, in 1989, when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna had the first of their many tangles, there was considerable acrimony afterwards, and for me, and many others, the only saving grace of the day was that Nannini won the race.

Although the family business was - and is - one of the largest bakeries in Siena, Sandro appeared to live on cigarettes and coffee, and having myself, I'm afraid to say, followed a similar diet since I can remember, it was particularly pleasing to find a driver - the first since Rosberg - who found there was more to life than health food. If Nannini ever had a stamina problem, I never saw it, and the same was emphatically true of Keke.

Ultimately, Sandro elected to give up not just one of his bad habits, but both - and, what's more, at the same time! This I thought positively heroic, for his devotion to tobacco and fearsomely strong espresso was profound. "Are you any quicker for it?" I asked him one day. "I don't know," he replied. "I'm certainly not so 'appy..."

Later, after his enforced retirement from F1, he raced for the Alfa Romeo ITC team, and, even with very restricted use of his right hand, was very quick indeed. I went to Magny-Cours for one of the races, and found him in the Alfa pit, ciggie in one hand, tiny coffee cup in the other.

"What happened?" I said, and he laughed. "Pffff! Formula 1 was one thing, but this - this is just touring cars..."

Sandro may have been very much a throwback, in terms of his attitude to life, but it certainly didn't compromise his performances on the track. He became a very considerable racing driver, with tremendous flair, and it was an awful thing that his F1 career should have ended the way it did.

The helicopter accident occurred in October 1990, shortly after Nannini's Benetton finished third, behind Prost and Mansell, at Estoril. Three weeks earlier, at Monza, it had been announced that he would be driving for Ferrari in '91, and we were all much surprised - there had not been so much of a whisper of it before that weekend.

In fact, Ferrari had been hoping to sign Alesi, but Jean had got himself into a contractual wrangle with Tyrrell (for whom he was then driving) and Williams (for whom he had also signed!), and when a move to Ferrari began to look impossible, the team negotiated with Benetton to have Nannini.

The deal was made public on race morning at Monza, but when Sandro went to Maranello to sign the contract a few days later, he found the terms not quite what had been originally proposed. That being the case, he said that he would prefer to stay with Benetton.

In point of fact, it later became clear that Ferrari had negotiated Alesi out of his Tyrrell contract - and that Williams had decided not to stand in Jean's way. By way of thanks for Frank's helpful attitude, a Ferrari 641 was promised, and duly delivered a year later. It resides in the Williams museum to this day.

As for Nannini, his last racing contract was with Mercedes in 1997. He was one of those who really loved to drive racing cars, and I'm sure he misses it now. I haven't seen him for quite a while, but a man like Sandro is never short of things to do. The coffee and cigarettes we can probably take as read.

Dear Bill,

Denny Hulme may not have been among the greater drivers to have won the World Championship, but he was way, way, more than 'a highly competent journeyman who was in the right place at the right time'. Keep in mind that winning the title in '67 meant, apart from anything else, beating his team mate - who was Jack Brabham...

By the time you started following F1, in the early '70s, perhaps he was a little past his best, in the sense that he had become very much 'a thinking driver', rather than a charger, but you look at film of him at Monaco in '67 (where he won his first Grand Prix), and then tell me if you've ever seen better car control in an F1 car.

It's a fact that few of his victories were balls out, dramatic, affairs, but then Denny wasn't that kind of bloke. 'Understated', I think says it perfectly, but at the same time he had a wonderfully dry, mischievous, sense of humour, and could be splendid company - if he liked you, that is. If he didn't, chances were you would realise quite soon.

I liked him a great deal, and respected him tremendously. Although emphatically a hard man - you never, ever, heard Denny moan about any injury or affliction - he was a very hard worker for safety at a time when motor racing was perilous to a degree today's drivers would not even comprehend.

It's a fact that in his later years Hulme was very much the sort of driver who 'let races come to him', but still he could be ferociously quick when the occasion demanded. If, more than anyone else I can think of, he made being a Grand Prix driver seem like a nine-to-five job, there's no doubt that, in your words, 'a real racer lurked beneath'. And no doubt, either, that he was a man who simply loved to drive, to compete, and that never left him.

Dear Jon,

I really wish I could agree with your opinion that, 'As far as F1 was concerned, I think he (Martin Brundle) had more talent than Nigel Mansell'.

As a driver, Martin was absolutely superb on his day, but not quite from the top drawer. After his epic F3 season in 1983, when he alone challenged Ayrton Senna on a regular basic - and sometimes beat him - a lot of people saw him as a future World Champion, and certainly his early F1 races - with Tyrrell - were hugely impressive. But he had a huge accident during practice at Dallas, severely damaging his ankles and feet (which, first thing in the morning, pain him to this day, incidentally), and I've always wondered how much effect that had on his subsequent career. I'm guessing here - I don't know.

Looking at some of the people who have 'won' a Grand Prix over time, it's a thorough injustice that Brundle never did. To some degree, it's because he was never in the right car at the right time - his one year with McLaren, for example, had to be the one when they were using Peugeot engines! - and, to some degree, too, he didn't help his own cause by not being the greatest qualifier. Martin was always infinitely better in the race.

In the McLaren-Peugeot, he was second to Michael Schumacher in the 1994 Monaco Grand Prix, and also, in the Benetton-Ford, second to Ayrton Senna at Monza in '92 - ahead of Schumacher, who was then his team mate.

For a long time Michael used to remark that Martin was the best team mate he'd ever had. Through that '92 season, Schumacher always beat Brundle in qualifying, but in the races Martin was quite often more effective.

If there was a race he should have won, it was probably the Canadian Grand Prix of that year. Towards the end, he was running second - having pulled clear of Michael - and catching Gerhard Berger's McLaren-Honda quite quickly, when his car's transmission broke. Still, a very fine racing driver, with a career to be proud of, and now, of course, a quite brilliant TV commentator.

Martin was one of the most intelligent drivers of his time - indeed, I think him among the sharpest people in the paddock to this day. Not much gets past him, believe me.

I like him very much, and always have - perhaps because we share a cynical sense of humour when it comes to F1. Every year we both stay at the Hotel de le Ville in Monza, and over dinner he is quite wonderful company. "I can't do accents," he always says, but it doesn't keep him from being one of the best raconteurs I know. A very good bloke.

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