Ask Nigel Roebuck: February 19

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every Wednesday - except next week, when he takes a brief (and well earned) holiday and AUTOSPORT News Editor Damien Smith will be taking time out to answer your questions. 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. Damien won't be able to answer all your questions, but we'll publish his answers here next week

Ask Nigel Roebuck: February 19

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Dear James,

Well, I suppose the first thing to say is that my first hope for Melbourne is that a team other than Ferrari wins! Don't want to sound spiteful or vindictive about it, but Eddie Irvine inherited the victory there in 1999, and Michael Schumacher has won the last three. It would be nice to see someone else kick off the season for once, and, boy, what a great change it would make. The last 20 Grand Prix wins stack up like this: McLaren 1, Williams 2, Ferrari 17...

It hadn't actually crossed my mind that anyone could be more omnipotent than Bernie, but let's pretend for a second that I have been granted such powers.

First of all, I hope that the new qualifying procedure works well. Given that it will be new in Australia, it's possible that there might be a few glitches along the way, but the Melbourne operation is very slickly run, and the FIA personnel on the spot will have considered all the pitfalls of the new procedure, and what to do should any of them arise.

What I'd like to see is a somewhat unusual grid, with perhaps two of the three expected front runners screwing up slightly on their one hot lap, having to start further back on the grid than expected - and then needing to pass people in the opening laps of the race. Let's face it, when you've got but one opportunity to decide your grid position, the pressure is going to be mighty intense - not least on a rookie like, say, Antonio Pizzonia.

The new scheme may work out, or may not, but I certainly think it's worth trying - and even if it should ultimately be judged a failure, for whatever reason, it should always remain at somewhere like Monte Carlo.

The new parc ferme rules, which severely restrict the work which may be done on a car after qualifying, and before the race, may well produce more than the odd punch-up between teams and stewards until the system settles down, but one hopes it won't be a feature of the Melbourne weekend.

What else? Well, I hope that the stories of Michelin's substantial progress this winter prove true. For all Juan Montoya's mesmeric ability in qualifying, it was sad last year to see him - and other leading Michelin runners - left flat-footed by the Ferrari/Bridgestone combination in race trim. I don't blame Michelin entirely for this, you understand - the Williams-BMW's fundamental lack of rear downforce in 2002 meant that the car, even with traction control, tended to chew its rear tyres much more quickly than did, say, the McLaren.

Last year what we had was an almost perfect Ferrari, driven by an almost perfect driver, rarely put under any pressure at all. Behind Schumacher (and usually Rubens Barrichello) in the F2002s we had the Williams-BMWs of Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, with loads of horsepower but not enough grip, and the McLaren-Mercedes of David Coulthard and Kimi Raikkonen, with loads of grip but not enough horsepower!

One trusts that these shortcomings will have been addressed over the winter, at least to some degree, but I have to say I will be surprised - and delighted - if anyone beats Schumacher in a straight fight in Melbourne. Ferrari may be encountering reliability problems with the latest F2003-GA at the moment, but the plan was never to take the car to the first three races, anyway. Initially, the team will run a revamped version of the F2002, and its reliability last year was almost beyond belief, as we remember.

McLaren, too, will not debut their new MP4-18 until Imola, and the revamped '17D', to be taken to Melbourne, has tested very impressively. Again, not being a completely new car, it could well score on reliability. In the early season races, when brand-new cars inevitably come up against teething problems, putting points on the board is all-important - remember Mark Webber and Minardi last year?

Assuming he has the car to do him justice, I'm looking for great things from Montoya this season, for I'm convinced he has all the speed and car control of Michael - what he needs to do is develop the ability to get his car as good as it could be for him. Both McLaren drivers could excel in 2003, I feel, and I also expect to see enough signs from Fernando Alonso that he, like Montoya and Raikkonen, is destined for greatness. If the BAR-Honda is up to it - and there are serious doubts in the horsepower department - I hope to see Jacques Villeneuve, the great squandered talent of the last five years, back among the front runners, at least occasionally.

There are endless 'ifs and buts' at this point in any season, are there not? It will surprise me, at least initially, if the status quo in F1 is much disturbed, but at least there's cause for some fundamental optimism (for the first time in a long time), because genuine attempts have been made to breathe new life into it, and not a moment too soon.

A final thought. If a Ferrari does win in Australia, I hope it's Barrichello's car, partly because Rubens is such a good guy, but also because it could cause some discomfort to Monsieur Todt... Imagine if we started the European season with Barrichello on, say, 22 points, and Schumacher on, say, four. All right, I agree it would probably take an Act of God to create a circumstance like that, but it would be fun, wouldn't it? Austria 2003: 'Michael, I'm sorry, but this is one of those days when, for the sake of the team, we're going to have to ask you to let Rubens through...'

Nice little dream, isn't it? For now, if we just get a good race in Melbourne, I'll be well satisfied, whoever wins. And I'm sure Bernie, for all his omnipotence, would agree.

Dear Eric,

I once asked the late Michele Alboreto if the IRL car he briefly drove was the worst of his career. "No way!" he retorted. "Have you forgotten the Lola in '93...?" I had.

There really isn't a lot to say about that abortive project, to be honest, save that absolutely nothing about it was right. At the end of 1992, Beppe Lucchini's team, Scuderia Italia, decided not to run Dallara chassis any more, and enter into a programme of collaboration with Lola, using customer-spec Ferrari engines. Luca Badoer was signed as team mate to Alboreto.

The whole programme was a complete disaster, with the team blaming Lola for a poor car (which it emphatically was), and Lola blaming Ferrari for down-on-power engines (which they undoubtedly were). Never once did Alboreto and Badoer manage to qualify in the top 20, and not a point was scored through the whole season. At the end of the year, Lucchini folded the operation, and threw in his lot with Minardi.

Saddest of all was that the disastrous venture led to the departure from Lola of Eric Broadley, who had founded the company, made it enormously successful, and always considered F1 'unfinished business'. It remains so to this day.

Dear Steve,

You're right, there is a lot of goodwill for Minardi in the pit lane - but, increasingly, only up to a point. There is a fundamental belief, as Frank Williams says, that, "F1 is a meritocracy, like any other sport - always has been, always will be," and while there may be sympathy for any team with obvious financial problems, it only goes so far.

Recently, it was proposed that the richer teams, and manufacturers, should contribute to a 'pot', out of which both Minardi and Jordan could feed, but there now seem doubts that in the end that will come to be, for two teams - neither English, I'm led to believe, so draw your own conclusions - apparently voted against the idea. And one team owner, while agreeing to contribute, said to me, "D'you suppose there's any other business in the world, in which companies shell out to subsidise their rivals?" It was a fair point.

Since he took over Minardi, I think Paul Stoddart has done a remarkable amount with a little, but equally I detect that some team owners are getting a little fed up with his pleading poverty all the time, pointing out that they've got troubles of their own, and suggesting that if he doesn't have the money to be in F1, he should gracefully leave the stage. It might sound hard, but - in varying degrees - times are hard everywhere, save perhaps in Maranello, Woking and Grove.

What do I see Minardi achieving in the future - assuming, of course, that they keep going at all? Sorry to sound negative, but, to be honest, not a great deal, because it's hard to see how they're ever going to convince a company to give them the sort of money necessary to compete at the highest level. There again, for years and years we thought the same of Frank Williams...

Dear Shairon,

I have to confess that I don't remember a Williams offer to Stuck for 1978 - the team ran only one car that year, and to the best of my recollection Alan Jones was signed pretty early in the day to drive it. However, this is not to say that your informant was wrong.

Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd was a very new, very small, company at that time, with fewer than 20 employees. There was reasonable sponsorship, most of it from Saudi-Arabia, but money was not plentiful, and it's entirely possible that Stuck's offer from ATS was considerably better than any which might - or might not - have come from Williams. ATS was all flash, no substance; Williams quite the opposite, and to this day, happily.

I wonder if perhaps you're thinking of 1979, rather than '78? The reason why I ask is that Hans drove for ATS that year, having been with Shadow in '78. Williams did indeed run a second car in '79, and debated for some time before signing Clay Regazzoni to partner Jones. So it's possible that Stuck came into the reckoning at this time.

Hans was, and is, a delightful fellow, and a hell of a good racing driver - I remember his dominating the early laps of the American Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in '77, driving a Brabham-Alfa. It was wet and slippery, but Stuck, who had qualified second, took the lead from the start, and, despite losing his clutch almost immediately, stayed convincingly ahead until crashing at the first corner, his car having jumped out of gear on the way in.

By and large, though, the talents he has so long shown in sports and touring cars never really translated into F1 for some reason. That '79 season, with ATS, was his last as a Grand Prix driver.

Dear James,

Don't really know what to tell you - save that, from the very beginning, Professor Sid Watkins has been hugely in favour of the HANS device, and is clearly in no doubt at all of its benefits to a driver in a big accident. Anything 'The Prof' ever says about safety matters I accept without question, and certainly, for example, one imagines that it might well have saved Mika Hakkinen from the life-threatening injuries he suffered at Adelaide in 1995.

In terms of safety, therefore, the case seems to be proven for drivers to wear it, and it is already compulsory throughout the major leagues of racing in the USA.

This is not to say, however, that it has proved universally popular with the drivers, because undoubtedly it is more comfortable to drive without the device than with it. Tony Stewart, in NASCAR, has been a particularly vociferous opponent, but he has had to tow the line, and wear it.

Now it is to be compulsory in F1, despite complaints from such as Montoya, Villeneuve and Heidfeld. Redesign work has improved the comfort level, and Juan and Jacques are now happier with the devices, but Nick continues to say he finds it so uncomfortable that he fears, over a race, it will impair his concentration, and lead to his making a mistake.

Last week I asked Max Mosley if the FIA would be sticking to its decision to make the HANS device mandatory from the start of this season. He replied thus: "We don't say you have to fit one - all we say is that you won't be going out of the pit lane in Melbourne unless you do..."

Dear Ady,

That was an awful, awful, day at Zandvoort in 1973, one of the worst I can remember at a race track. When Roger Williamson crashed, there were no marshals in the vicinity with fire-fighting equipment, and it was left to David Purley, who immediately pulled off at the scene, to try and do what he could to help.

Williamson's March was upside down, and although the driver was essentially unhurt in the accident, his car was on fire. On his own, Purley was unable to right it, and Williamson was burned to death. They did not, of course, stop races in those days, for any reason.

At the next race I talked to Purley about it. "What surprised me," he said, "was 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."

True enough. Williamson's death was a huge tragedy within the sport, and took away a man who assuredly was heading for a great career in F1. This was only his second race, as far as I remember.

If there's a race of his that sticks in my mind it is the supporting F3 race at the French Grand Prix meeting at Clermont Ferrand in 1972. At this, one of the greatest circuits there has ever been, Williamson alone took on the French F3 brigade on their home territory, and squarely beat them.

In the space of four years, Britain lost three drivers - Williamson, Tony Brise (in the air crash with Graham Hill) and Tom Pryce. It's easy these days to be unaware of just how dangerous motor racing was a quarter of a century ago. In terms of talent, those three were from the top drawer, and if I didn't feel that Roger was quite on the level of Tony and Tom, there were plenty who did, not least Tom Wheatcroft, his great mentor. Without any question, he would have won Grands Prix.

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