Ask Nigel Roebuck: February 12

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: February 12

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Dear Simon,

I didn't go to Maranello for the launch of the new car - I was in Paris for Retromobile - but those who were there came away highly impressed: smaller, lighter, neater, more power...everything you could want in a race car, apparently.

Last year's F2002 was thought closer to all-round perfection than any F1 car had a right to be - yet Ross Brawn suggests that the new one represents the biggest advance over its predecessor since he has been with Ferrari. If he's right, it's a terrifying prospect for the team's rivals. Ross adds, by the way, that Ferrari will be looking to win even more races than the 15 they collared last year; in 2003 there are only 16 grands prix scheduled...

Still, hope springs eternal. Michael Schumacher reckons he can't conceivably expect to have a season matching 2002, and logically you'd have to agree with him: not once did his car let down, and not once did he fail to make the podium. Let's face it, the chances of getting through an entire year without a mechanical failure are minute, and it would be quite extraordinary if that were to happen again.

Don't let's get depressed, though - at least not until the first two or three races have been run! All the signs are that McLaren have made very substantial progress since the end of last season, and David Coulthard has been stunningly quick wherever he has tested. All right, testing is only testing, and can be very deceptive, but I know that the team, privately, is highly optimistic about its prospects this year, not least because Michelin appear to have made a similar quantum leap in performance - not before time, some might say.

Twelve months ago, Schumacher said he considered Williams-BMW the major threat to Ferrari, and he was on the money, even if the challenge proved rather less than anticipated. For 2003, Michael says he expects the biggest competition to come from McLaren - and if Mercedes have made up some of power deficit suffered last year, he may well be right. DC and Kimi Raikkonen make up a formidable driver pairing.

So, too, do Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, but the early signs are that - thus far, anyway - the new Williams-BMW FW25 is not the great advance over its predecessor for which the team had hoped. I may be jumping the gun here - hope I am - because, as I write, the car has not yet run with its full 2003 'aero package', but it will be a great shame if the most powerful engine in the business is again squandered - to say nothing of the talents of JPM...

As I've written in this week's magazine, I don't expect the new rule changes - of most of which I'm very much in favour - instantly to transform F1, but I do believe that over time they will take the sport in a positive direction, not least at Silverstone, where the ban on 'driver aids' comes into effect. If nothing had been done to change things, I would be dreading this season, quite frankly. As it is, I think, for the moment, what we have to be is patient - at the very least, Montoya's qualifying laps, without gizmos, should be something to see...

Dear David,

It's a fact that you can never read too much into pre-season testing - as David Coulthard says, following testing 12 months ago, he headed off to Melbourne harbouring thoughts of victory. "Everything seemed to have gone extremely well, but because we didn't do any testing alongside Ferrari - and because Williams didn't do the sort of performance testing that we did in the winter - I went to Australia, genuinely believing that I had a car that could win. The penny dropped very quickly, when I got there, that that wasn't the case..."

That said, the first signs are that the latest Williams-BMW FW25 is not - yet, anyway - the competitive proposition that all associated with the team hoped it would be. A year ago, after conversations with Montoya and R. Schumacher, and after studying the testing times, Gerhard Berger commented that FW24 appeared some way off the pace, and he was right. Ominously, Berger has recently said similar things of the latest car.

As I said in the previous reply, however, it is very early days yet, and in its initial tests the new car was not running with its full 2003 'aero package'. Berger has no doubts that BMW have maintained their superiority in the horsepower race, so the pressure really is on Williams to come up with a car worthy of it - and worthy of its two drivers. We need to see Juan and Ralf in there fighting with Michael and Rubens - and, hopefully, David and Kimi.

Dear Brian,

Like everyone in the paddock, I was very fond of Sandro Nannini - you couldn't not be. 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!), rather than someone like Giancarlo Fisichella.

At Suzuka, in 1989, when Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna had the first of their 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, fag in one hand, tiny coffee cup in the other. "What happened?" I said, and he laughed. "Pffff! For Formula 1, it was one thing, but this - this is just saloon 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 a couple of years, but a man like Sandro is never short of things to do. The coffee and cigarettes we can probably take as read...

Dear Rene,

In 2001 Flavio Briatore often accused then-Benetton driver Giancarlo Fisichella of being lazy, of not making the most of his talent, and Patrick Head has been known to accuse Juan Montoya of 'relying too much on talent', but I suppose if I had to pick a driver from the past 'with all the talent in the world, and didn't use it to the maximum', I would have to go for Chris Amon.

I do this with some reluctance, because Chris is a close friend to this day, even if - given that he lives in New Zealand, and almost never ventures out of it - we rarely see each other these days. When I began writing about racing, in 1971, it was very much at the deep end - indeed, the very first race I ever covered was the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich Park, and I arrived there knowing literally no one in the paddock.

As a fan, I had long supported Amon, and on the first day of practice approached him about the possibility of doing an interview. That was what you did in those in those days, for there were no PRs, no intermediaries, to bar your path. Anyway, to cut a long story short, he was charming. We did the tape, and, for whatever reason, just hit it off. Chris, together with Rob Walker, was the first person in F1 to befriend me, and not unnaturally occupies a special place in my affections.

Just as the cliché description of Stirling Moss is that he was 'the greatest driver never to win the World Championship', so Amon has invariably been called 'the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix'.

Why did he never win one? Well, for a start, it had nothing to do with lack of talent. Mauro Forghieri, the legendary technical director of Ferrari for more than 20 years, says to this day that Amon should have been World Champion in 1968, his second year with the team. "It was our fault," he says. "We let Chris down too many times. In my opinion, he was as good as Jim Clark."

In 1970, as Jochen Rindt previewed the F1 season, he said this: "I have only two rivals - Stewart and Amon."

Any number of times Chris looked on course to win a Grand Prix - I think of Watkins Glen in '67, Jarama, Spa and St Jovite in '68, Montjuich in '69, Monza in '71, Clermont-Ferrand in '72 - and something on the car let him down. Then you had Brands Hatch in '68 and Spa in '70, where he was a close second - each time behind a car which usually broke!

So, yes, his luck was truly appalling. But even Chris would admit there was more to it than that. For one thing, he had what amounted to a genius for going to the wrong team at the wrong time. Think what he might have achieved if he had stayed with Ferrari in 1970...

As well as that, he was - and is - perhaps the most disorganised bloke I have ever met, and I don't think he would deny it. More than anything, though, I think - and it's an old cliché - that Amon truly was too nice a guy, that he lacked killer instinct. He loved racing for its own sake, loved driving a racing car, but the politics of F1 repelled him - and we're talking now about the mid-'70s! God knows what he would have made of it now.

On the wall of my study hangs a large framed photograph of his Ferrari, sideways through Old Hall, in the Oulton Park Gold Cup of 1968. "In memory," Chris has written beneath, "of pre-Mafia F1."

Dear Paul,

Michael Andretti's single F1 season, with McLaren, was a huge disappointment, not least to himself - and not least to me, I should say, for I had seen him in many CART races prior to that, always thought him a consummate racer, and believed he would do well in F1. However, even before the end of the 1993 season, Ron Dennis replaced him with Mika Hakkinen. Ironically, his last race, Monza, yielded his best result of the year: third.

Why didn't it work out? There were several reasons, I think. I have known Mario for more than 30 years, and have very rarely disagreed with him on anything of consequence, but when he suggested to me, in 1992, that Michael should go either to McLaren or Ferrari, I wondered about it.

A little while later, I remember mentioning it to Bernie Ecclestone, and he responded thus: "Those are the two teams I think Michael should not go to! If he goes to Ferrari, the pressure's going to be huge for any new guy in F1, but for him - because he's called Andretti - it would be ridiculous. And if he goes to McLaren, he's team mate to Senna - and anyone's going to look second-rate in that situation..."

That was one thing. Another was that Michael came to F1 at the very height of the 'gizmo' era, when the cars could hardly have been more different from the CART cars to which he was accustomed. As well as that, in 1993 the practice periods were shortened, and so were the qualifying sessions, in the sense that each driver's laps were restricted for the first time. For a driver new to the scene, with no experience of any of the circuits, this was hardly ideal.

I also think Michael made a great mistake in resolutely refusing to live in England. It's true that his father, through all his years in F1, commuted between Pennsylvania and Europe, and made it work for him, but really he had no choice, in the sense that he was also competing in Indycar racing at the same time! Hard to believe now, but it's true.

As well as that, in the years between Mario's time in F1 and Michael's, the sport had changed fundamentally in many respects, one of which was that testing had become an almost daily occurrence. Ron Dennis had Senna on the books, of course, but also a desperately ambitious - and quick - test driver, in the shape of Hakkinen. While Michael was back in Nazareth, Mika would be pounding round Silverstone.

Both the Andrettis have always argued that McLaren had only to pick up a phone, and Michael could have been there in a matter of hours, but while that's undoubtedly true, Mika was right there, on the spot - and impressing the team constantly with his quick times. Few doubted that Ron would have him racing a car as soon as possible.

Michael's refusal to live in Europe also sent out the wrong message to his team. From the start, some at McLaren murmured that it meant he wasn't as committed to F1 as he should have been, that he wasn't necessarily looking at in the long term. Symbolically, that had a big effect on the way they perceived him. He is a 'very American' American, and never really seemed at ease in Europe, never seemed to be enjoying himself very much over here. He's a nice fellow, and was very well liked within the team, but frankly few were surprised that the relationship didn't work out.

It's a shame, because I never felt we saw anything like the best of Michael Andretti in F1. You say he was 'rubbish in F1', and in terms of results you're right, but I never thought his essential talent was in doubt. In the rain at Donington in 1993, Senna scored what some choose to consider the greatest victory of his career, while Andretti flew off the road on the opening lap. In the warm-up, though, run in similar conditions, Michael was just 25-thousandths slower than Ayrton...

Dear Herbert,

I can only tell you what I've heard and read, of course, but my impression of Manfred von Brauchitsch is that his most outstanding quality was his bravery. In the 1937 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, for example, his Mercedes caught fire during a refuelling stop, and he suffered some unpleasant, if not dangerous, burns, for there were no fireproof overalls in those days, and it was not the work of a moment to get out of the tight confines of the cockpit.

Once the fire had been extinguished, however, von Brauchitsch climbed in, and continued with his race - only to crash shortly afterwards, when the steering-wheel came away in his hands. In his rush to get back into the race, he had not replaced it properly...

No doubts whatever about his courage, then, and no doubts, either, that on his day he was a supremely quick driver - in the 1937 Monaco Grand Prix, for example, he beat Mercedes team mate Rudolf Caracciola in a straight fight.

In absolute terms, though, I don't think von Brauchitsch's talent was by any means from the top drawer, and there's no way he can be compared with such as Caracciola, Rosemeyer or Lang, let alone Nuvolari.

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