Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 31

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. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 31



Dear Patrick,

Frank and Ron both have a sense of humour, but not the 'laugh out loud' sort of thing you're talking about. Their best lines tend to be subtle, and spoken in a quiet voice, but I can't instantly recall any 'on the record' ones to relate to you, I'm afraid. Many of them are directed at folk who might have trouble finding them funny, if you know what I mean.

Bernie is a different matter, of course. As the most powerful man in the sport, he can say pretty well whatever comes into his head, without worrying too much if it's going to upset anyone. A few examples...

"I can't stand 'startline specials', because they don't belong in F1. These people's sponsors to turn up, and they break everyone's balls, saying they don't get seen on TV. The reason they don't get seen is obvious: they're only on the screen when they get lapped. In fact, they get seen more than most people, because they get lapped about five or six times..."

"None of the drivers are worth the sort of money they're getting these days. Not that I blame them, mind you. If a driver's offered 10 or 15 or 20 millions dollars, you can't really expect the guy to say, 'No, I really couldn't take that - it's much too much, it's an indecent amount'. It's the team owners who should be certified, for offering it in the first place..."

"I think a lot of people in our business are so involved, so much into what they're doing, that they believe that if F1 stops, the world comes to an end - there's nothing else, that's it. And perhaps, to some of them, that really is the case. Some sad people about, aren't there?"

"Flavio (Briatore) knew nothing about racing before he came into the business. I had a fight to get him and the Benetton people to take Schumacher - at the time they said they wanted Brundle or Blundell or something. I think Flavio enjoys the fact that there are TV cameras about - I mean, he couldn't get that if he was just working in an office, could he?"

A colleague of Bernie's (who shall be nameless) told me of an occasion when he was being driven by him somewhere. Seems BCE inadvertently 'cut up' a truck driver, and at the next traffic lights the man drew up alongside, and began advising him of his shortcomings. "You're a f****** idiot!" he said at one point.

Mr Ecclestone lowered his electric window. "You're absolutely right," he said quietly. "If I was as intelligent as you, I could up there in that truck - instead of down here in this Mercedes..."

Actually, mention of Briatore brings back the best 'line' I heard all year. We were chatting in the Renault motorhome one day, and bemoaning the fact that many of today's drivers are...not exactly a laugh a minute. "Look at Raikkonen," said Flav. "Jesus Christ, he makes Hakkinen sound like Jerry Lewis..."



Dear David,
I know what you mean - but I think I also know what Justin meant. He was, let's face it, in a somewhat invidious position at Jaguar. For one thing, a midseason change of team - even if it's a move up, as in this case - is always unsettling: there's little time really to get to know your new car, or the people with whom you're working. Wilson had but five races in the Jaguar, after all.

As I recall, his first practice session in the car was at Hockenheim, and he set seventh fastest time, which frankly shook everyone, and perhaps raised their expectations too much. It's a fact that Wilson was being measured against Webber, and no one envied him that, for Mark, as far as I was concerned, was the revelation of the season. But even in the limited time available, Justin showed better against him than Antonio Pizzonia - who had a lot more testing and racing time in the Jaguar - ever did.

Perhaps he was 'too conservative', but it's a very difficult balance to get right, because you don't either want to get a reputation for flying off the road all the time, and damaging cars.

Will there be 'a next time' for Justin in F1? Very difficult to know, but the signs aren't too promising, I must admit. For one thing, whatever some may say, his height will always go against him to some extent. For another, he does not have buckets of personal sponsorship, when someone like Mr Baumgartner, thoroughly undistinguished in his Jordan drives this summer, has the cash to buy himself in. No one ever said it was a fair world.

All I can say is that I hope someone gives him another chance one day, because he looked pretty damn good when he won the F3000 Championship, and impressed everyone with his efforts for Minardi. I doubt that anyone has more desire to be in F1 than Justin.



Dear Mik,

All in all, it was the best F1 season for a very long time, I think. Sixteen races, eight different winners from five different teams...it's been quite a while since we had statistics like that, has it not?

As far as best memories of the year are concerned, I enjoyed all manner of things. Fernando Alonso's drive at Barcelona, for example, kept pressure on Michael Schumacher throughout the race, and rather reminded me of Phoenix in 1990, when the precocious Jean Alesi and his Tyrrell gave Ayrton Senna and McLaren rather more than they might have expected. All year long, I enjoyed Kimi Raikkonen's flair on the track, even if he sent me to sleep during his press conference appearances. I loved the sheer combativeness of Juan Montoya, and his winning drive at Monaco - pressured throughout - was from the top drawer.

Inevitably, the new rules, requiring the cars to carry enough fuel for the first stint of the race, took away the 'all or nothing' purity of qualifying as it had been, not least because no longer were the cars absolutely as quick as they could have been, nor, inevitably, all carrying the same weight of fuel. That said, I think the benefits to the race were worth the sacrifice. As for the best qualifying lap of the year, I thought Raikkonen's pole at Indianapolis was pretty special, I must say.

As for on-track moves...Montoya again comes to mind, with his audacious pass of Schuey at the Nurburgring, which the stewards - for no reason that anyone but Ross Brawn could see - chose to 'investigate'. Thank God that, on that occasion, no action was taken: yes, Michael spun, but it was simply 'a racing incident', with plainly no one at fault.

In my opinion, the best on-track move of the year, though, came from Rubens Barrichello at Silverstone. His overtaking of Raikkonen for the lead I thought sensationally good, for he set him up long before the pass came, wrong-footing him, putting him off-line, leading him into the mistake which ultimately let the Ferrari through. All done with a scalpel, rather than a mallet.

Averaging out the grid positions of the 20 drivers, it is Rubens who comes out ahead of the rest, and I thought his win at Silverstone the best of the season. Come to that, I also thought the British Grand Prix the best single race of the year. True enough, the circumstances which made it so were bizarre - that idiot running down the Hangar Straight towards the cars brought out the Safety Car at a crucial moment - but the fact is that we subsequently had the most exhilarating hour of racing seen for years and years. Thanks to the circumstances, drivers such as Schumacher and Montoya found themselves way back in the pack, and they simply had to get on with it. Altogether, an unforgettable afternoon.



Dear Vinh,

This will be only Sato's second season in F1, so - for all his testing experience - he will still be on a steep learning curve. Button, by contrast, is going into his fifth season as a Grand Prix driver, and now has a considerable amount of experience.

This will, however, be Jenson's first season as an F1 team leader, and it will be interesting to see how he steps up to the plate, how he copes with the responsibilities of being a number one.

I expect Takuma to go well in 2004 - he is, as you say, undoubtedly the best driver yet to come out of Japan - but I hope he keeps his nose reasonably clean, and doesn't go off too often. Certainly, he is uncommonly brave - even by Japanese standards. I'm sure he will find a way to work effectively with Jock Clear, but I somewhat doubt he'll be a match for Jenson on the track. That said, he's there primarily because the Honda marketing people wished it so, and I don't doubt he'll sell a lot of Civics back home.



Dear Graeme,

Interesting question. Let me say right away that, had Michael gone to either Williams or McLaren, I somewhat doubt that he would have gained the degree of autonomy that has come his way with Ferrari. When he went to Maranello in 1996, after all, the team was in pretty desperate straits, having won only two races in the previous five seasons. To some degree, therefore, they were prepared to give him carte blanche in a way that would have been unthinkable in Enzo's time. I somewhat doubt that either Frank Williams or Ron Dennis would have been prepared to let him take over their teams in the same way.

I doubt, too, that FW and RD would have gone for Michael's insistence that 'the other driver' is there essentially as a slave, employed to do his bidding, help him to yet another World Championship. Both Williams and Dennis have always been of the belief that their drivers should race each other as they race everyone else. This would not have sat well with Schuey.

In all other respects, though, I'm sure both men would have killed to have Michael drive for them. Why? Because he's been the best driver of the last 10 years, simple as that. Even after all this time, he remains completely dedicated to winning, and perhaps that's most remarkable thing about him: that desire for yet more success has never waned for a second.

Both teams have German engine suppliers, who must have dreamed for years of having Schumacher on the books. Frank and Ron would have loved the 'racer' in him, and also the extraordinarily high amount of work and thought he puts into everything he does. Yes, I think he qualifies for the 'born Williams driver' tag, but no less as a 'born McLaren driver'. The only problem for Williams and Dennis, I suspect, would have been the occasional need to remind him that this was their team, not his.



Dear Gordon,

I think, to some degree, that you're right in your assessment of Damon. On his day, he was a brilliant Grand Prix driver, and I must say I always thought he had more natural talent than his father. What he didn't have, to anything like the same degree, was Graham's need to be a racing driver. Damon retired, after all, at 39, and couldn't wait to do it; his old man, by contrast, hated having to give it up at 46.

You're right, too, to suggest that the perception of Damon is that he always - or nearly always - had the best car, and should perhaps have done more with it. Certainly I would say that in '95 his Williams-Renault was a quantifiably better car than Schumacher's Benetton-Renault, yet it was Michael who took the World Championship, and comfortably so. In '96 Hill again had the best car, but by now Schumacher was driving a (pretty poor) Ferrari, and Damon's main opposition came from his Williams team-mate, F1 rookie Jacques Villeneuve. That year he did win the title, of course, after a largely superb season.

There followed a mainly desultory year at Arrows (although he drove a magnificent race in Hungary, and should have won), and then two with Jordan, the first of which was good, and included a victory at Spa, and the second of which is better forgotten.

Damon was never as overtly confident and self-assured as his father, but there were characteristics common to both, not the least of which was courage in severe adversity.

In 1968, Graham's Lotus team-mate, the legendary Jim Clark, was killed in an F1 race at Hockenheim. He was far and away the greatest driver of his time, and his death quite literally left Lotus reeling. Hill simply dug deep, and his victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, a few weeks later, had a very profound effect on team morale at a crucial moment.

Twenty-six years later, Damon's Williams team mate, Ayrton Senna, was killed at Imola, necessarily devastating everyone in the team. A few weeks later, their spirits were hugely lifted when Damon won...the Spanish Grand Prix.

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