Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 3

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 3

Dear Dwayne,

First of all, in terms of racing, the MP4-18 was rather more than 'ultra-late' - it never arrived at all!

Once the decision had been taken to continue for the whole season with the MP4-17D, and to junk the MP4-18 for racing purposes, Adrian Newey and his team were able to get on with a definitive car for 2004, and this - the MP4-19 - is what we saw on test at Valencia last week. Ultimately David Coulthard set the fastest time, but while that is very encouraging, we shouldn't read too much into it: Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, after all, were only a whisker slower, and in 2003 Williams FW25s, albeit with one or two new bits.

I'd have thought it was always desirable to have your 'next season' car testing as soon as possible - and, actually, I'm not quite sure what you mean by McLaren's 'limiting themselves, compared with the opposition, by losing vital design time', because, although new pieces are constantly being designed and manufactured, the fundamental design of the car was completed long since.

It's true that there are only a couple or so weeks' testing before Christmas, but lessons can be learned - and acted upon - in that time. By the time the other teams begin running their new cars, McLaren will be very familiar with theirs, and there should be no question - as in years past - of beginning the season with other than the very latest car. No, all in all, I'd say McLaren were in an enviable position just now.

Dear Steve,

As with the question about Graham Hill last week, your letter revives a poignant time in my life. In the first week of December 1975, I went not only to Graham's funeral, but also to that of Tony Brise, his young star driver, whom I had come to know well.

It was sad, but inevitable, that in all the huge coverage of Graham's death, the loss of Tony was somewhat overlooked. If Hill had been a World Champion, Brise was going to win the title one day, of that I have no doubt at all.

I confess I didn't much like him at first; he seemed rather too pleased with himself. But through that season of 1975, secure in a Grand Prix team, he matured remarkably, never losing that innate confidence in his ability yet also developing the ability sometimes to laugh at himself. He had talent to throw away, and knew it, but quickly came to see that he was at base camp, and no more.

I have several tapes recorded with Brise, and you don't need to get far into them to realise again how much the nature of F1 has changed. On one, Tony was about to go off to the German Grand Prix at the 'old' Nurburgring: "I can't wait to get there," he said. "For me, the Nurburgring is God's gift to racing drivers..."

Although only 23, he had expected to make it to F1 much earlier, having shown himself more than ordinarily promising through several seasons in the lower formulae. And here, you appreciate, is an unchanging aspect of the business.

"There you are," Tony said, "plodding your way through Formula Ford and F3, with everyone saying you're doing it the right way. And someone comes along, turns in the right drive at the right time - and suddenly he's the man of the moment, getting offers from all over the place."

By his own admission, that was exactly how it panned out for Brise. "I came into Fl from Formula Atlantic, and I'm sure there are loads of people in F2 who feel resentful about that, who reckon they've made it higher up the ladder than I have, yet not been given an Fl opportunity. And I can't really say I blame them."

Even then you had to be fashionable. But there wasn't the need for quite such an ascetic way of life as most drivers follow now. "I decided," Brise said, "that 1975 was going to be my make-or-break year. You can't go motor racing for ever - if you're not successful, all you do is drag around the place, conning money from people here and there, and generally becoming a bum.

"I decided to change my approach. I resolved, for example, not to touch a drink for 24 hours before a race - or go out late the night before a race..."

From the beginning of his Grand Prix career, Tony showed himself to be a man of natural pace; his style had that ease apparent in all real talents, and there was no doubting, either, the presence of a real racer's mentality. In the early laps of the British Grand Prix, at Silverstone, he dealt with such as Reutemann and Andretti, then proceeded, until problems intervened, to take a second a lap from a bunch - including Emerson Fittipaldi, Jody Scheckter, James Hunt, and Niki Lauda - which was contesting second place.

At Zandvoort he was astonishing. Before the start of the race he had never once driven an F1 car in the wet, yet before long was urgently signalling team mate Alan Jones to get out of his way - so he could lap him...

Perhaps, though, the race in which Brise made the strongest impression was the inaugural Long Beach Grand Prix, for Formula 5000. It had a remarkable entry, but the likely winners were Mario Andretti and Al Unser Sr, in Viceroy Lola-Chevrolets, and Brian Redman in Carl Haas's similar car. They were not expecting to be led by Brise.

The race was run in two heats and a final, and Tony won the first, from Andretti, muscling by the great man at the end of Shoreline Drive. Mario was surprised, to say the least. Years later, he remembered that race vividly: "Jeez, that guy Brise...he was something special."

A week afterwards, back in England now, Tony was still high on the moment. "How," I asked him, "did you dare sit it out with Andretti at a place like that?" He giggled. "Well, you might not believe this, but I thought it was Unser! If I'd realised it was Mario, I might not have tried it... "

Dear Nick,

JV was ever a man to speak his mind, which is why we journalists are going to miss him so much in F1.

As for his latest outburst, is he telling the truth, or just bitter? I'm bound to say I think it's probably a mix of the two.

Why is he bitter, first of all? Because he knows he has been one of the very fastest drivers of the last seven or eight years in F1 - and one of the tiny handful who has ever frightened Michael Schumacher - and now he's on the street, apparently unwanted, having effectively wasted all but his first couple of seasons.

When I interviewed him at Hockenheim in August, he was adamant he would be in F1 in 2004, perhaps with BAR, perhaps not. So far as BAR was concerned, there were various different factions at work, he said. He had no doubts that BAT wanted him to stay, and none, either, that the Honda engineering folk wished for the same thing. When it came to the Honda marketing people, however, he was far less confident.

There was a time when Honda was the original 'engineering-led' company in F1, but we're talking about the era when they supplied engines to McLaren, when Ayrton Senna was there. Honda withdrew from F1 at the end of 1992, and when they returned, in 2000, it was evident that there had been major changes - and not only in terms of the company's ability to build competitive engines.

It's true that back in 1986 Lotus were persuaded by Honda to run Satoru Nakajima alongside Senna, but at that time the main 'Honda team' was Williams, who chose their own drivers, thank you very much, and had two topliners, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. In the same way, after moving to McLaren, Honda would never have presumed to tell Ron Dennis which drivers he should have in his cars.

Now, though, one assumes there has to have been some...incentive for BAR to replace Villeneuve with Sato, for while Takuma is self-evidently the best driver yet to come out of Japan, few, I think, would seriously suggest he is in the class of JV.

All that said, you have to face facts. Villeneuve has been with BAR for five seasons, and if it has not been rewarding in terms of results, in that time he has earned more money than any driver save Schumacher. It's a fact that he has never been given a truly competitive car to drive - but also a fact that in 2003 he did little to suggest he was worth what he was costing. More often than not, after all, Jenson Button had the upper hand, although I accept that Jacques suffered from particularly appalling reliability.

I've said this before, I know, but I think the biggest mistake he made during his F1 career was resolutely to avoid becoming close to his team - to being perceived, if you like, as 'a team player'. I understand, and respect, his distaste for folk who pretend to treat everyone as their closest friend, but from what I've seen he has gone way too far in the other direction. If there had been more affection for him within BAR, so there might have been more inclination to continue the association.

Now, is he telling the truth? All I can say on that is that I've never known him do anything else.

Dear Bill,

Dan knows more about Toyota, and the way the company operates, than most people. He knows about their capabilities, and - after the way they dispensed with him and his company after countless years of largely successful association - their ruthlessness.

I wouldn't disagree with his opinion. Over time Toyota have shown that, whatever the class of racing in which they compete, they get there in the end. Their financial firepower, should they really choose to take the brakes off, is unrivalled. I have no doubts that the only two types of racing which truly interest them are F1 and NASCAR, and I'd bet they will eventually succeed in both.

Recently, Mike Gascoyne has been wooed away from Renault to join them as technical director, and it can't be long before they also dig deep to get a couple of really topline drivers.

In a recent column I wrote of a conversation with 'a leading team principal' this summer. "Down the road," he said, "it's not Ferrari I worry about - it's these people..." We were standing by a Toyota transporter at the time.

I'm not convinced they'll have the beating of Ferrari - or Williams or McLaren - in five years. But I wouldn't bet against it, either.

Dear Poppy,

Whenever I do a Q & A session somewhere, it's amazing how often this topic comes up - but then I guess it's not surprising: the F1 drivers, after all, do not often go on strike...

This is the way it came about. Prior to the '82 season, the drivers, as usual, each received an application form for the 'Superlicence' required to take part in the World Championship, and most blithely signed it without troubling to read the small print. Niki Lauda, though, noted a clause for which he didn't care, and drew it to the attention of Didier Pironi, then president of the Grand Prix Drivers Association.

Worrying to Lauda was the proposal that in future superlicences be issued to a driver and team; at its foot, the form read, 'I am committed to the above team to drive exclusively for them in the FIA World Championship until the .....19..' That Niki didn't go for that at all, envisaging trading between teams, with the drivers being passed around like a tray of cakes.

Away everyone went to South Africa, but when the drivers arrived at Kyalami on the first morning of practice, they found at the entrance to the paddock a coach, which Lauda and Pironi invited them to board. Some, including Keke Rosberg, were reluctant to do so, but only Jochen Mass actually refused.

Once loaded up, the bus trudged off to Johannesburg, to the Sunnyside Park Hotel, where the drivers installed themselves, while Pironi, at the circuit, negotiated with Jean-Marie Balestre, President of the FISA (then the motor sport arm of the FIA), and Bernie Ecclestone, President of FOCA, these two in agreement for once.

Ecclestone, predictably, had snapped into combat mode from the first: if his Brabham drivers Piquet and Patrese were not on parade for the first session, he said, they were sacked for breach of contract. As 10 o'clock came and went, Nelson and Riccardo, like their colleagues, were lounging by the pool, now apparently out of work.

Up at the circuit it was difficult to have too much sympathy for anyone, save the spectators, who had not come to look at a deserted track. The feeling was that either the dirty linen should have been washed in private, and somewhat earlier, or that it should be allowed to fester until after the race.

In the best traditions of the French truck drivers, however, Pironi was no more in a mood to compromise than were Balestre and Ecclestone. "It was," Rosberg observed, with some distaste, "like a high point in his life." Not too much was achieved, and late in the afternoon the FIA stewards announced that the race was to be postponed, that an application was to be made for the suspension of the drivers' licences.

This was followed by an asinine statement from Bobby Hartslief, the MD of Kyalami Entertainment Enterprises, which stated that none of the drivers would be eligible for the World Championship - ever again! - and added that the teams would be looking for new drivers.

Back at the Sunnyside Park Hotel, the drivers pondered their next move. Clearly they would now have to spend the night there, and Lauda decided that some sort of dormitory was the only answer; if they took single rooms, he reasoned, unity would be lost, and with it the fight. Therefore he organised a small banquet suite, in which a number of
mattresses was installed.

Through the day, a gung-ho schoolboy atmosphere had prevailed, although the more junior drivers were mighty nervous as they contemplated the possible repercussions of going AWOL. Lauda and others stressed to them the importance of sticking together, and then Gilles Villeneuve found there was a piano in the room, and began playing Scott Joplin rags with some expertise.

Periodically, Pironi would arrive with news from the front, and Villeneuve would preface Didier's every announcement with the dramatic opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth! Gilles's sense of irrepressible fun was never more appreciated than that night.

Then, after a lecture on the finer points of Italian terrorism from Bruno Giacomelli, de Angelis moved to the piano, quietly sat down, and began to play some Mozart. "Elio was a close friend of mine," Rosberg said, "so I knew he could play the piano. But no one knew he could play like that..."

The piano soothed everyone, and was later to serve another, rather less spiritual, purpose. When Arrows owner Jackie Oliver arrived with a local heavy, and tried to force his way in, the drivers shoved the piano against the door, which was thereafter locked.

That being so, the next problem was the loo, which was across the hallway. Eventually it was decided to leave the 'dormitory' key on a plate in the middle of the room, and all present were put 'on their honour' to relock the door and replace the key. All did - except Toleman's Teo Fabi, who went out, and didn't come back.

"He ran like a chicken," said Rosberg, "and lost all our respect for ever - not because he decided to leave, but because he betrayed us all. He went straight to Ecclestone and Balestre, and related everything we had discussed..."

Late that evening the stewards declared that if the drivers turned up the following day, and that at least 15 of them practised, the race would go ahead, after all. But it wasn't until 10 o'clock that morning that Pironi telephoned Lauda from the circuit, to say that the drivers had won the day, and should immediately go up to the track.

After a night of indifferent sleep, and not really sure what had been agreed, they complied. A brief practice session, then an hour of qualifying, and that was it as far as race preparation was concerned.

The following day, Alain Prost drove one of his greatest races, puncturing a rear tyre while leading, crawling back to the pits, rejoining in eighth place, taking the lead again nine laps from the flag.

There weren't too many smiles on the podium, though, for during the race - during the race - a statement was issued by the stewards: 'For the purpose of running a race, a temporary truce was called in the disagreement between the drivers and officials. The truce lasted until the end of the race. At the end of the race, the truce was
terminated. This means that the position which existed prior to the agreement is effectively reinstated. All the drivers named are suspended indefinitely.'

Duplicitous this may have been, but it was all hot air. When they got to Rio, for the next Grand Prix, it was still Lauda in a McLaren, Rosberg in a Williams, Prost in a Renault, Villeneuve in a Ferrari, Piquet in a Brabham. And while most of the FOCA team owners may have been livid about the drivers' behaviour, within a few weeks they went on strike, at Imola. And they didn't relent...

Can I imagine a similar situation in today's rather more corporate, rather more politically correct, F1 world? In a word: no.

Dear Richard,

You're right, the Williams-Honda FW09 was by no means an aesthetic joy, but neither, in all truth, did its performance belie its appearance - as far as I remember, it won only one race, at Dallas in 1984, and that had far more to do with Rosberg's virtuosity in appalling conditions than anything else.

For sheer gut-wrenching ugliness, I doubt that - for me, anyway - anything will ever match up to the original 'twin wing' McLaren MP4-10 of 1995, but that didn't go worth a damn, either.

Given that I loathe the 'high nose' look, many F1 cars of the last decade have struck me as unsightly, so I guess, in answer to your question, I may as well cite the 1994 and '95 Benettons, in which Michael Schumacher won his first couple of World Championships. Effective they certainly were, but I never found them attractive to behold.

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