Ask Nigel Roebuck: December 4

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 4

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Dear Richard,

The track in Mexico City was always one of the very best, but I confess I was very sad to see that the revised version excludes Peraltada, among the most spectacular corners I have ever seen.

It's true, however, that if the circuit was superb, sometimes the organisation left more than a little to be desired. During practice one year in the '60s, for example, Swedish driver Jo Bonnier felt things getting a little hot in his car, stopped, removed his seat, got back in, and returned to the pits. A Mexican soldier approached the smouldering seat, and, not knowing quite what to make of it, decided on the safe option, pulled his rifle from his shoulder, and shot it...

The 1970 Mexican Grand Prix was indeed run in circumstances completely unimaginable today. I wasn't there - I started covering F1 at the beginning of the following season - but people who were tell me they have never felt so nervous at a race as that day.

It was blazing hot, and, for reasons unclear, after the preliminary races had been run, spectators began climbing the barriers - no debris fences in those days, of course - and roaming all over the track. Others merely moved right to the edge of the road, then sat down with their picnics, and so on. The crowd figure that day was put at 100,000.

This was 20 minutes from the start. Jackie Stewart and others took a tour of the track, and reported that the situation was impossible: all round the circuit, there were packed crowds, right by the roadside.

The start was delayed, but the spectators ignored requests that they move back to their rightful places - not only that, they were starting to get restive now, slow hand-clapping, and demanding their race get started. A lot of rubbish, including bottles - which smashed, of course - was hurled on to the track.

The only police on hand were traffic cops, without the authority to move the crowd, and the army, always present in previous years, were not there this time, because the government was fearful of riots.

Tyre company representatives were sent round to clear up the broken glass, and then Pedro Rodriguez - the only Mexican in the race, and a national hero - went out in an official car, imploring the fans over the PA system to move back. Surprisingly, most of them tried to comply - but now the problem was that they couldn't get back over the barriers, for people who had taken their places there refused to move, and give up their vantage positions...

Stewart, and others, were all for calling the race off. Imagine, Jackie explained to the organisers, the consequences of a car going off, at very high speed: it could kill two or three hundred people. The organisers said the drivers shouldn't worry if that happened - they were insured...

Tell you what, the organisers then suggested, all of you go out, and run some laps, and see if that'll move them back. It worked, but only to a small degree - and when the cars came in again, most had glass in their tyres.

Eventually, the organisers gave the teams a blunt ultimatum: race - or risk a major riot. And so, with enormous reluctance and grave misgivings, they raced - overtaking at over 170mph in places, with the spectators but a few feet away, completely unprotected. Stewart eventually retired after the front of his Tyrrell was destroyed by impact, sadly, with a large dog. The Ferraris of Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni finished 1-2, and somehow - by a miracle - no one went off, and no spectators were injured. Not for 16 years, though, would F1 go back to Mexico.

Dear John,

Yes, I did know Mike Hailwood, and thought him one of the most delightful, modest, unpretentious, characters I've come across in my life. As far as I'm concerned, he was the greatest racing motorcyclist there has ever been, and also a very accomplished Grand Prix driver, but, no, I don't think he was World Champion material on four wheels.

Even in the '60s and '70s, Hailwood thought car racing was 'a bit precious' compared with the bike racing world he knew so well. At Zandvoort one year in the '70s, I was talking to him in the paddock, and he looked over at a group of drivers, huddled together in earnest conversation. "Look at 'em," he said. "Have you ever seen such a miserable bunch of bastards - all earning a quarter of a million quid - in your life?"

A quarter of a million quid was a lot of money 30 years ago; still is, for most of us.

Hailwood had a lot of natural talent, and was enormously brave, but for him racing - of all kinds - was there primarily to be enjoyed, and he never had the necessary dedication, in F1, to win a World Championship.

Whenever I think of Mike, in a car, I think of the 1971 Italian Grand Prix. Although he had dabbled with car racing in the '60s, he had gone back fulltime to bikes, and had not been an F1 car for six years. Now he was making his return, with the Surtees team.

Monza was then a slipstreamer circuit, uncompromisingly fast, and as close in concept to an Indycar oval race as ever F1 has seen. Although the track was routinely denigrated as no real test of a driver, nothing more than a temple of raw speed, still the feeling was that, like Monte Carlo, it had a place in the Grand Prix calendar as a maverick event. Even 30 years ago, though, before safety became an overriding issue in motor racing, it was considered perilous.

Most of the early leading was done by Peterson's March, Ronnie hounded by the Tyrrells of Stewart and Francois Cevert, Jo Siffert's BRM, Chris Amon's Matra, and the Ferraris of Regazzoni and Ickx. Inevitably, with so many long straights, the attrition rate was high, and by lap 18 Stewart was gone, together with - tragedy for the locals - both the Ferraris. So engrossing, though, was the lead battle that the tifosi stayed put. Monza used to be like that.

Next to find trouble was Siffert, whose BRM jammed itself in fourth gear, but others were coming through by now - including Hailwood. On lap 25, 'The Bike' - who had qualified 17th - came by in the lead! "I didn't know what this slipstreaming lark was all about," he grinned afterwards. "I'd never done it before." A close friend of Amon's, he endorsed the same hearty lifestyle: "This is supposed to be a sport, not a bloody religion..."

In the final shoot-out, Peter Gethin's BRM won from Peterson, Cevert, Hailwood and Howden Ganley (BRM), the first five covered by six-tenths of a second. In the course of the race, the lead had changed hands 25 times - between eight drivers - and to this day it remains - with an average speed of over 150mph - the fastest World Championship Grand Prix ever run.

It was, however, very much a last hurrah for Monza. When the teams went back, a year later, chicane blight had attacked the circuit, and changed its character utterly, serving to break up the field, to reduce the lap speed by 20mph. Hailwood's Surtees was second this time, behind Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus.

"A better result than last year," Mike observed, "but no fun at all. They've ruined the place with these poxy chicanes..."

Hailwood's enormous courage was shown the following year, at Kyalami, when he leaped from his car, and ran to rescue Clay Regazzoni, unconscious in his burning BRM. That night his wife saw the drama - and Mike's heroism - on the TV news; her husband, typically, had not so much as mentioned it to her.

Ultimately, Hailwood's car racing career ended in a huge accident in the 1974 German Grand Prix (at the 'old' Nurburgring), when his McLaren hit a guardrail, severely injuring his legs. He did, of course, briefly race bikes again, winning yet more TTs at his beloved Isle of Man.

When Mike and his little daughter were killed in a road accident in 1981 - their car hitting an articulated lorry, which was doing an illegal U-turn - Denis Jenkinson was more upset than by any death of a racing driver I could remember. "If he'd been killed, having a go, at Spa or somewhere, that would have been one thing," 'Jenks' said, "but to die in a bloody road accident, because of some cretin's stupidity...that's just impossible to accept." I knew exactly what he meant. Everyone adored Mike Hailwood.

Dear Alex,

Maybe not - but, sadly, we'll never know, will we? Without a doubt, Martin Donnelly had tremendous natural talent, and made a considerable impression during his brief spell in F1 in 1990 - even at the wheel of that wretched Lotus-Lamborghini. I can still remember that sudden, dreadful, hush that fell over the Jerez press room, when suddenly every monitor flashed from Senna on a hot lap to the sight of this yellow-suited body in the road.

How, in the modern era, could it have happened that a driver - wearing belts, obviously - could have been thrown out of his car? Then we saw the remains of the Lotus, literally broken in half, and we understood. Of all miraculous deliverances I have ever seen at a race track, none is the equal of Donnelly's survival that day.

Yes, without a doubt Martin was going to be a front runner in F1, and certainly - in the right car - a Grand Prix winner. It was a great racing career lost before it had truly started.

Dear Michael,

Enzo Ferrari never had the slightest interest in 'yesterday's car'. So far as he was concerned, once it had served its purpose, it was of no consequence, and it's quite true that many of his F1 and racing sports cars were routinely broken up. Makes you want to weep, doesn't it?

However, the Old Man was no fool. Quite often his cars - particularly the sports cars - were sold to rich private owners. After the 1950s, however, he would never countenance any of his F1 cars competing in private hands.

It's tragedy that, for example, no genuine 1961 'sharknose' F1 exists today. Why? Because they were 'metamorphosed' into later cars - hard to believe now, but Enzo worked on a tight racing budget for much of his life, and there simply wasn't the money around to build completely new cars every year.

Moving into more modern times, however, plenty of F1 Ferraris survive, and you frequently see cars from the late '60s, '70s and '80s appearing in historic race car demonstrations. At Indianapolis, in September, I saw an ex-Amon '68 car and an ex-Lauda '75 car. And I've never forgotten once wandering into a garage at Fiorano, and coming across Gilles Villeneuve's 1981 Monaco winner, sitting there, under plastic sheeting.

In the Maranello of today, cars of today - even ex-Schumacher - are available to folk with a boatload of cash, and I've no doubt that the Old Man looks down and smiles as the cheques are banked...

Dear Steve,

Slicks and smaller wings...yes, it would be wonderful, as you say, but you and I are only enthusiasts, so what say do we have in the matter? If this sport cared about the people who support it (watching TV, buying their sponsors' products, etc), long ago someone, somewhere, would have twigged that actually most fans care infinitely more for motor racing than they do for electronic technology and downforce. Traction control, as far as I'm concerned, should exist only as a means of protecting unskilled drivers in road cars.

Yes, I think Bernie has a vision - and, to be cynical about it, I think that vision has come into sharper focus with the dramatic fall in TV figures this year. Actually, I'm not being completely fair here: Bernie has a sharp eye for a dollar, as we know, but he is, and has always been, a racer - if it were up to him alone, for example, the continuing problem of Monza's chicanes would be solved by removing them! I agree with him entirely, and probably so do you, but I don't see the FIA ever going along.

The problem, unfortunately, lies with the wretched Concorde Agreement, which we're stuck with for another four or five years. Both Ecclestone and Max Mosley (who introduced it, more than 20 years ago) now concede that it has major shortcomings - the main one of which is that, unless the teams unanimously agree to a rule change, it cannot go through, save on grounds of safety.

There are, I know, several technical directors - Patrick Head is one of them - who have an awareness of a responsibility to the sport, and the folk who follow it, but too many team principals can see no further than the next race.

That was why it was such a delight recently to talk to Niki Lauda, a couple of weeks before he was deposed as team principal of Jaguar Racing. Niki dared to use the b-word (boring) when talking about contemporary F1, and I was glad to hear it.

"Control the engine and the gearbox with electronics, yes, because you'll be blowing engines all the time, and they're so stupidly expensive these days, you can't have that. Other than that, though, nothing! No traction control, no launch control, no fully-automatic gearboxes...all this s*** has to come off, yeah? It will save money, and make it more interesting for everybody to watch - because then drivers will make mistakes."

Early this year Lauda had a run in the Jaguar R3, the better to understand a modern F1 car, and what his drivers were telling him about it. "To drive quick is still complicated, but the actual operation of the car is easy - because, apart from missing your braking point, you can't do anything wrong!

"Everyone complains there's no overtaking, and they're right. Fine, reduce the downforce, and put big slicks back on the cars." Exactly as you say, Steve.

On December 4 the Technical Working Group meets to discuss future rules, but F1 remains hamstrung by the terms of the Concorde Agreement.

"This is the problem," said Lauda. "I mean, Ferrari says no to everything, anyway. There are so many different interests. At the last meeting, I said, 'Why can't you guys stop thinking in the short term? Why not, instead, be like a helicopter, and look down at the general picture of F1 - and take a decision to help it, even if it's against your own electronics or tyres or car or whatever. Just forget all this for a while, and take a principled decision, which directs the sport in the right direction."

Pity he's no longer the team principal representing Jaguar at the meetings, isn't it?

Down the road, Concorde Agreement or not, I feel something fundamental has to change in the rules, because F1 is becoming dehumanised. What will bring about change? Get them by the TV figures, and their hearts and minds will follow...

Dear Dean,

Like you, I'm a fan of both F1 and Champ cars, and I sincerely hope this CART 'European tour' comes off next year. That said, I confess that the thought of another single-seater series running at Spa, when F1 chooses to pass it up, makes me want to weep!

I'm sure CART will put on a good show at all these tracks, but we need to keep a sense of perspective, I think. F1 has not been to Brands Hatch since 1986, nor to Estoril since 1996, so no meaningful comparison of lap times will apply at those pleaces. When it comes to Spa, though, we were there only three months ago, and drivers reported that, thanks to tyre development and the electronic 'driver aids', the world's greatest circuit was no longer the challenge it had been. Eau Rouge, for example, was now comfortably flat every time...

It shouldn't be - and, for the Champ cars, it won't be. Frankly, I'll be amazed - given their much greater weight, steel brakes, lack of 'gizmos', and so on - if they get within shouting range of F1 times round there, but that won't matter a damn if the racing is good.

Will the European fans turn out to watch them? Difficult question. At the first Rockingham race, there was a pretty good crowd, of around 40,000, but CART has had its problems, as is well known, and this year the Rockingham crowd was well down; CART will not return there.

I reckon there'll be a good crowd at Brands, because it remains a great race track, even if it hasn't hosted a major (car) race for a very long time, and there's a lot of affection for the place among British enthusiasts.

As for Estoril and Spa, who knows? CART has lost many of its major stars to the IRL for 2003, unfortunately, and at present we know only the bare bones of the entry list. As well as that, you have to face the fact that 'Indycars' are as alien to Europe as F1 apparently still is to the USA! However, I'm optimistic, I must say. There is a culture of bigtime single-seater racing in Europe which, I'm sad to say, appears to be dying in America, and I'm sure that plenty of folk will turn out to watch Junqueira, Tracy, Carpentier & Co next year.

Don't think of comparing it with Montreal, however. Canadians were already long familiar with CART, after all, with races at Toronto, Vancouver, and so on, and have three stars - Tracy, Tagliani and Carpentier - in the series.

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