Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 18

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. Given that next Wednesday is Christmas Day, Nigel will be taking a week off. Look out for his next column on Thursday January 2. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 18



Dear Derek,

Standout moments of the year, good and bad... Well, starting with bad, unquestionably that staged Ferrari finish in Austria, which insulted the whole sport of Grand Prix racing.

The following week, Enzo's son, Piero Lardi Ferrari, defended Jean Todt's decision to order Rubens Barrichello to let Michael Schumacher through, and suggested that his father would have approved.

"There are those," he said, "who say that Enzo Ferrari will be spinning in his grave. I think I knew him quite well, and I can say to those people that last Sunday afternoon I thought of my father looking down with a smile, while seeing his two cars dominate the grand prix, and two drivers obeying team orders."

Lardi's first point is undeniable: his father liked nothing so much as seeing his cars win, and there's no doubt of the joy he would have felt at his cars' finishing 1-2 in Austria. That said, though, I seriously question whether Enzo would have given a damn about the order in which they crossed the line - indeed, history suggests that he might well have relished Barrichello's outpacing of Schumacher.

"I never drove for Ferrari," said Stirling Moss, "but there's no doubt that in my day he would sometimes allow different drivers to win by giving them better cars, thereby giving the impression that the driver didn't count for anything - that it was the car which had won."

Phil Hill, a Ferrari driver for many years, won the World Championship with the team in 1961. "It was the custom in other teams," he said, "to designate a number one driver, and so on, but Ferrari did not do that, and his refusal to rank his drivers fostered an atmosphere of intense sibling rivalry in the team. Certainly, throughout '61 [Wolfgang] von Trips and I were locked in direct combat. One of us was going to win the championship, but I'm not sure he was too concerned about which - the important thing was that a Ferrari driver was going to win it..."

In 1958, Hill let Mike Hawthorn through into second place towards the end of the Moroccan Grand Prix, and six years later Lorenzo Bandini did the same for John Surtees in Mexico City. On each occasion the points situation was very tight, and they were giving their team mates the six - rather than four - they needed for the title; on each occasion, too, this was the last championship round.

I don't have any problem with that, and nor, I think, do most people. In those circumstances, the team aspect becomes paramount, as even racing purists like Frank Williams and Ron Dennis would agree. Not, though, in the middle of May. By his decision, Jean Todt did incalculable damage to the image of F1 throughout the world.

Best moment? Montreal, and featuring Juan Montoya, the sport's most exciting driver. Starting from the pole, JPM was passed by Barrichello's Ferrari (running light, on a two-stop strategy), but kept ahead of Schumacher. When Jacques Villeneuve's BAR-Honda blew up, and came to rest in what - questionably - was adjudged a dangerous spot, the safety car was sent out until JV's car had been removed. During this 'yellow' Montoya dashed in for fuel and tyres, and rejoined in fifth place.

After three laps under yellow, they got the signal to go again at the end of the 17th, and at once Juan began pressuring Kimi Raikkonen and Ralf Schumacher, who were running third and fourth. At the end of the lap both Kimi and Ralf both went over the chicane, the Williams overtaking the McLaren in the process.

That being so, Ralf then backed off, allowing Raikkonen ahead again, knowing he would otherwise be penalised, and as he did so Montoya, too, got a run on him. Down to the first corner, there was an elecrtifying moment when they were briefly three abreast, but Juan had the inside line, passing his team mate - and then also snicking by the McLaren! Fifth to third, before you could blink.

A moment of pure opportunist magic. Probably only Juan - and maybe Michael - would have considered it.



Dear Scott,

Yes, I do think you're kidding yourself, but only because Johnny's physical problems - the legacy of his terrible F3000 accident at Brands Hatch in 1988 - kept us from ever seeing the full extent of his ability. When he tested a Benetton F1 car, prior to the accident, he proved immediately quicker than its regular driver, Thierry Boutsen, and enormously impressed the team - indeed, Peter Collins, then the Benetton team manager, was convinced that here was a future World Champion.

Then came the accident, caused by Gregor Foitek. Herbert suffered appalling lower leg injuries, and briefly it looked as though his career might be over. But Collins kept faith with him, and he put himself through the pains of hell, struggling to recover in time for the beginning of the '89 season. At Rio, in his first F1 race, he qualified 10th, and finished an astonishing fourth. His reception from the team afterwards was a moving thing to witness, for at that stage he could hardly walk.

Alas, though, that result in Brazil was something of a false dawn. In June, Johnny finished fifth in the US Grand Prix, at Phoneix, but this was by attrition; he had qualified next to last. By the time of the French Grand Prix, Benetton team principal Flavio Briatore had dropped him.

It seemed a harsh decision at the time, but the fact of the matter was that Herbert wasn't getting the job done. Why? Simply put, because his right ankle wasn't strong enough to allow him to press the brake pedal hard enough. At Rio, where there were few heavy braking points, it hadn't mattered too much, but at other circuits it became a real problem. To get the car slowed down enough, Johnny was having to brake much earlier than normal, and inevitably that took its toll on his lap times.

Fortunately, of course, he got himself back into F1 - and even back into Benetton, for whom he won two Grands Prix, at Silverstone and Monza, in 1995, adding a third - for Stewart - at the Nurburgring in '99.

Herbert has a natural gift for being upbeat, and he remained so throughout his F1 career. But although he had his successes, they were only a fraction of what would have come his way, had it not been for Mr Foitek that day at Brands. On natural talent, I would put him higher than any of the other drivers you named.



Dear Pierre-Etienne,

I have a house in Normandy, and, the demands of the racing season being what they are, I spend less time there than I would like. Whenever I do get there, however, a few laps around Rouen Les Essarts are essential to my well-being.

Not used for F1 since 1968, and for racing at all, sadly, since '93, this is among the greatest open road circuits the sport has known. Mention of it conjures, of course, the image of Fangio's Maserati 250F, steered on the throttle through the downhill swerves, but whenever I am there, I think first of David Purley.

As you come past the pits, the road starts to fall away, and then plunges right. If you're going reasonably hard, this is scary enough in a road car; in a single-seater it must have been something else again.

Purley, second there in the F2 race in 1974, said he had his own way of coping with the fear. "When we did bayonet training in the Army, we were taught to scream as we lunged forward - to help take our minds off what we were doing, I suppose. At Rouen, we'd come past the pits at about 160mph, and then that incredible sequence of downhill sweepers would begin. For the last couple of hundred yards before them, I used to scream into my helmet, to give me more courage, to keep my foot from lifting. Helped a lot, I found."

Even 30 years ago, David's views on safety were hardly mainstream. I liked him enormously, not least because he reminded me in so many ways of Innes Ireland. Both were tough men, genuinely tough men, but also compassionate and kind, with a laconic sense of humour aimed, not infrequently, at themselves.

As I trudged through the sodden Zolder paddock, after the 1977 Belgian Grand Prix, I noticed Purley in conversation with Niki Lauda, and it was clear, from their expressions, that it was an interview of some heat. At its conclusion, I asked David what all that had been about. "Well, first of all, come in out of the rain and have some soup," he smiled.

For Purley the afternoon had been memorable for the fact that briefly he had led a Grand Prix in his privately-entered Lec. Granted, the circumstances had been freak - he had been in front because he stopped later than most to change tyres - but led he had.

Later in the race Lauda was striving to hold off Gunnar Nilsson, and complained that Purley had held him up, causing him to spin. "He said I was in his way - that rabbits like me ought to stop to let aces like him through..."

And your response?

"I told him to bugger off! I said that if an ace in a works Ferrari couldn't pass a rabbit in a Lec without spinning, he wasn't a bloody ace in my book..."

At the next race, Purley turned up with a white rabbit sticker on his car. Even the Rat had to laugh.

It was in the dreadful circumstances of Roger Williamson's fatal accident at Zandvoort in 1973 that the name of David Purley became known across the world, a fact he rather resented. Television viewers everywhere witnessed his attempts to release the trapped driver from his burning March.

"What surprised me, if you want to know, is that no other drivers stopped to help. There was all this talk of 'Purley trying to rescue his friend' and so on, but that wasn't the case - I didn't know Roger well at all. What happened was purely a reflex action. In Aden, if one saw a burning tank one tried to help the people inside, and it was exactly the same at Zandvoort. A matter of a man needing help. That car burned for several laps, and all the 'safety crusaders' just kept on bombing through the accident scene without even backing off..."

David had no recollection of the accident. He remembered neither stopping his car, running across the road nor anything else. What maddened him was the marshals' inability to tackle the fire.

"If you want to talk safety, that's where I do have strong views. One of those guys was wearing a plastic mac! If he goes near that car, he's dead, isn't he? And something like that I found totally unacceptable. If a bloke does have an accident, he should have the right to expect that everything possible will be done for him."

That said, Purley's views on safety were otherwise unfashionable, to say the least. He had a contempt for a society increasingly hell-bent on protecting people from themselves. Who can imagine what he would made have of Tony Blair's Britain?

"I don't suggest," he said, "we should race in shirtsleeves and linen helmets, or drive cars that aren't safe as they might be. That would just be stupid. But once you're togged up as well as possible, strapped into a good, sound, car, it's just you against the other blokes, your skill against theirs - and frankly I don't think you should be able to make mistakes with complete impunity.

"If you're on a dangerous track you just make damn sure you don't put a wheel off. If you do, you know you're done. For me, that was the added spice of a place like Rouen or the Nurburgring."

Over time other drivers, uncomprehending, suggested that Purley's apparent fearlessness was abnormal, that he had a death wish. I never thought that true, but undeniably David liked to test himself. Did he think, I asked him once, he was attracted to danger for its own sake?

He was silent for a few seconds. "If I'm being totally honest about it, I would have to say yes, I suppose I am. I loved those F3 races at Chimay, for example. Public roads...no guardrails...very quick. I used to be very frightened there, and I think - in my case, anyway - you have to be a little bit frightened to drive a racing car properly.

"I don't want to die in one, God knows. But for me there is a lot of satisfaction in the thought that I'm alive because of my own skill, my own ability to cope. I don't want to see F1 become slot car racing."

Purley had no doubts that his racing philosophy had its roots in his time in the Army - particularly with the 'Paras' in Aden. Towards the end of the final evacuation there, he remembered that things got very hot.

"We had everything chucked at us - mortars, grenades, Kalashnikovs - and nothing ever frightened me so much. I think probably I learned to control my fear there. I was a young officer, and you couldn't let it show.

"It was the same with parachuting. When you're standing in an aircraft by an open door at night, 800 feet up, the 'plane bucking around and so on, that's very scary. Everyone would be standing about, yawning from fear, cracking very un-funny jokes and so on. Quite honestly, after that motor racing was a bit of an anti-climax."

David's biggest regret was that he never drove a competitive F1 car. The Lec project was inevitably under-financed, and had a sadly short life. Anyone at Silverstone that July day in 1977 can remember the awful silence over the place as news of Purley's accident came in. Although he somehow survived the colossal impact with the bank at Becketts, he never raced regularly again, and he missed it.

"I can't find anything else in life that gives me the same buzz as racing," he would say, "but aerobatics gives me a lot of pleasure." He had bought a Pitt Special, and it was in this, shortly before the 1985 British Grand Prix, that he died.

After Purley's death, some swiftly concluded that he had got what he was asking for, that an early death was inevitable for a man who so embraced risk. To them I have nothing to say. I liked him for his absolute integrity, about racing - "People found cheating should be out for two years, at least" - as well as everything else.

Once I mentioned to him the words on Peter Revson's ID bracelet: 'Everything is sweetened by risk'. "That's it," he responded at once. "That's it, exactly..."



Dear Andrew,

Aaaagggghhhh!

Eighteen laps into the 1995 Spanish Grand Prix, Nigel Mansell drove his McLaren-Mercedes into its pit, stepped from the cockpit, and strode away without a word. "Nigel chose not to continue," was how Ron Dennis put it afterwards. The problem, in other words, did not lie with the car.

Although McLaren's MP4/10 was by no means a truly competitive proposition, Mansell had qualified within a tenth of team mate Mika Hakkinen, but if they lined up on the same row, when the lights went out they quickly went their separate ways. By the end of the first lap, Mika was running sixth, Nigel 14th.

The relationship with McLaren was ill-starred from the beginning, because, on both sides, it was forged for the wrong reasons. Perhaps, if the car had proved instantly a front runner, Mansell and McLaren could have amounted to something, but Dennis, never a fan, hired him with considerable misgivings, and Mansell, in the words of Derek Warwick, "seemed to be thinking mainly of the pounds, shillings and pence."

The season began with the fiasco of a cockpit into which Nigel couldn't comfortably fit, and two missed races for him while a more commodious car was built. After that there was a couple of lacklustre appearances, in the second of which, in Spain, he abandoned a healthy, if ill-handling, car. "I think it's over," murmured a McLaren man after the race, and so, a week later, it was.

Like everyone else, I had been astounded when it was announced, in the first place, that Mansell was going to McLaren. Why? Because, some years earlier, Ron Dennis had said this: "I'd never have Nigel Mansell in my team, because I'd never have a driver I didn't understand - and I don't understand Nigel Mansell..."

RD rarely goes back on a decision, and, although he has never commented on the reasons for ultimately signing Mansell, what I heard at the time was that it came about as the result of pressure from Marlboro, in those days McLaren's major sponsor. After years of winning races and championships with such as Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, McLaren, with Mika Hakkinen (then in the early stages of his F1 career) and Martin Brundle, failed to win a race in 1994, and there is little doubt that Marlboro wanted a 'star name' in the team again. At that time, the only one available was Mansell, on the market when Williams preferred to sign the young David Coulthard for '95.



Dear John,

Individual test sessions are not something that tend to stay in my memory, quite honestly, but certainly there have been many occasions when a new driver has tested an F1 car for the first time, and bettered the times of the car's regular drivers.

I can recall, for example, when Alain Prost tested for McLaren at Paul Ricard in 1979, and went quicker than the team's number one, John Watson, when Ayrton Senna did the same to Derek Warwick at Toleman in 1983 (although he had already briefly tested a McLaren and a Williams), and when Michael Schumacher annihilated the times set by the regular Jordan drivers at Silverstone in 1991. After one drive for Jordan (at Spa), Michael moved to Benetton, where he immediately outpaced team leader Nelson Piquet.

In the case of the really great drivers, some sign of their freakish ability is invariably apparent from the beginning, as with these three.

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