Ask Nigel Roebuck: February 5

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 5

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Dear Gunther,

I entirely agree with you that to reopen the Senna trial is a waste of time. In December 1997 Patrick Head and Adrian Newey were acquitted of the charge of 'culpable homicide'; the following year the prosecution successfully appealed against the verdict of the court, and that appeal was heard at a new hearing at the end of 1999. Again, Head and Newey were acquitted of all charges. Now, more than three years on, there has been another - sadly successful - appeal by the prosecution, because of 'errors' in the original trial.

In '97, when Head and Newey were originally acquitted, I happened to be in Paris for the annual FIA Press Council meeting, and during a momentary lull in the discussions suddenly the fax machine chattered into action. "Senna!" exclaimed Jabby Crombac, echoing all our thoughts. It was just before three in the afternoon, and we knew that a decision was imminent.

Sure enough, it was news from Bologna. And when Francesco Longanesi, of the FIA, read out the judge's findings, the whole room broke into spontaneous applause. It was the result we had all hoped for, of course, but not the one we had feared we going to get. In the days before, several well-placed luminaries had suggested that 'the best evidence' was that Head and Newey would be found guilty. It would have been an absurdity, of course, but not altogether unexpected, given the dark rumours.

The prosecuting magistrate immediately announced his decision to appeal against the decision, and again the 'best evidence' was that it would not be successful. Wrong again. The whole thing was re-heard at the end of '99, and this time the acquittal of Head and Newey seemed to be final.

Had the verdict gone against them, I had no doubts that the future of Grand Prix racing in Italy would have been placed in jeopardy. It had been believed that, in that event, the two men would have been given a suspended sentence of one year's imprisonment, and while no one expected that Patrick or Adrian would actually have done any time, the very fact of their conviction would, I am sure, have been sufficient to persuade the FIA to contemplate the removal of Italian races from the World Championship calendar. And I don't doubt that a similar situation appertains again now.

From a personal point of view, I would be hugely dismayed, for Italian motor racing has for me a certain quality found nowhere else, and Imola and Monza are my favourite races of the season. But I'm English, and merely looking at it from afar. Would you wish to be the person breaking the news to the tifosi that, sorry, you won't be seeing the Ferraris again? No, nor I.

Motor racing and the law have been a problem in Italy since the beginning of time, for the very fact that civil law comes into play, that, in the event of an accident, charges can be brought against team personnel and circuit officials, is considered fundamentally unacceptable in F1 circles, and rightly so.

There are those, I know, who consider this attitude arrogant and high-handed. What is so special about Grand Prix racing that it can presume to be above the local laws of a country it visits? We should just accept it, these folk argue, face the fact that the consequences of a fatal racing accident in Italy are different from those in other lands, and get on with it.

I don't subscribe to that view at all. All right, I understand that under Italian law any violent death is subject to investigation, and that, in itself, is no bad thing, for in any accident - be it on a race track or a mountain or whatever - it is well to understand the causes, so as to learn from experience, and perhaps prevent a recurrence.

When it comes to apportioning blame, though, to bringing civil law into the equation, I find it wholly inappropriate in anything coming under the heading of 'dangerous sports' - unless, as Bernie Ecclestone pointed out, any question of criminality comes into the picture. Were it to be 7shown conclusively, for example, that a car had been deliberately tampered with (and cases of that are not unknown in the annals of racing history), and that death had resulted, then it becomes a pure matter of murder as surely as if a gun or knife had been used, and of course the law would rightly take its course.

This is Hollywood B-picture stuff, however. When a racing driver dies, the processes of civil law - to my mind, anyway - have no part to play. If it is a cliche, so it is also true that no one makes a driver get into a racing car, that he knows the risks inherent in what he does, that he tacitly accepts them when he signs his contract.

The supreme irony in this particular case is that no one was more aware of all that than Ayrton Senna, a man who habitually ran closer to the edge than any driver I have ever seen, save perhaps Gilles Villeneuve, another purist well aware of what he was into, another who was killed in a racing car. And the idea that either man would have wished someone else to be held accountable for his death is an absurdity.

"Unhappily, motor racing is also this," Mario Andretti said after the death of Ronnie Peterson at Monza in 1978. "We grieve, and then we get back in our cars. Sometimes maybe we don't understand what makes us do it - and it's sure as hell something stronger than commonsense. But it goes with the territory, and we all know that - none better than Ronnie."

On that occasion, opprobrium was heaped on Riccardo Patrese, then very young and headstrong, as the cause of the startline accident which took Peterson's life. And although filmed evidence proved beyond doubt that Riccardo was not at fault, some years went by before he was officially absolved of blame.

No actual charges were ever brought against Patrese, however, nor, for that matter, against Jim Clark following the death of Wolfgang von Trips at Monza in 1961, nor against Colin Chapman and other Lotus personnel after Jochen Rindt's fatal accident at the same circuit nine years later. And quite right, too.

Following Senna's death, though, though, charges did materialise from the investigation, which is why this case is different. We live, of course, in an increasingly litigious time, an age fixated with official inquiries, with apportioning blame, and there is no doubt that the 'Senna trial' in Bologna was a high-profile affair. Within motor racing, indeed, many believed that had it been other than Ayrton who died that day at Imola, the matter, while perhaps not quietly forgotten, would certainly never have been taken so far.

The FIA has frequently tried to bring pressure to bear on the Italian authorities, so that if the law cannot be fundamentally changed, at least perhaps some form of exemption for 'dangerous sports' can be incorporated within it. As things stand, were I an F1 mechanic, I would not relish the prospect of working on a car on Italian soil. Human beings are fallible, after all, and if racing drivers - the people directly involved, after all - can accept that, then so also should society.

Commenting on the latest appeal by the prosecution, the Williams team's lawyer, Roberto Causo, said, "We won in the other two trials, and I don't see why we should fear losing in the third."

Neither do I. Logically, the thing will be thrown out once again, merely a waste, as you say, Gunther, of time and effort - and, presumably, a considerable amount of money. Down the road, though, you have to wonder at the effect it will have on Grand Prix racing in Italy. We have Bahrain and Shanghai coming into the picture in '04, after all, and already we know that the A1-Ring is to be shed to make space in the calendar. Italy, unlike most countries, has two World Championship races, and the future of Imola was already believed to be in serious doubt. I, for one, will be surprised if we go there again after this year's race in April, and the thought of maybe losing Monza is too much to bear. If ever that should come to be, however, Italy will have only itself to blame.

You ask how this latest reopening of the trial will affect the people involved, including Frank Williams. It will distress them, of course, for they, like everyone save the ambitious prosecution lawyer, believed this whole affair was over and done with. But they fundamentally believe they have no case to answer, and will trust that, as on the two previous occasions, the court will find in their favour. I don't expect it to have any impact whatever on the team's performance this season.

Dear James,

I'm happy - and relieved - to say that, no, I have not been the victim of practical jokes by Messrs Piquet or Berger - or, at least, not as far as I know...

Nelson usually confined his pranks to people within the team for which he happened to be driving, and Nigel Mansell occasionally suffered in this respect, when he and Piquet were team mates at Williams. Of course, the fact that Nigel always had a problem laughing at himself merely increased Nelson's pleasure on these occasions!

For many of his colleagues, Berger's practical jokes were a source of stark terror. When he joined McLaren, in 1990, he lost no time in adding Ayrton Senna to his list of victims, and initially folk held their breath: how was Ayrton - not known for levity in his work - going to respond?

There was ample justification, it must be said. On one occasion Senna flew into Johannesburg, presented his passport, and initially couldn't understand the delay in its return - nor the stunned expressions of the airport staff.

The picture in the passport had been changed. It was not of Senna. In fact, it was not of a male. Nor, come to that, was it of a face. Standing the other side of passport control, having gone through ahead of him, was G. Berger, laughing so much he could hardly stand.

Retribution came after the last race of the year, in Adelaide. Gerhard checked his money, credit cards, 'plane tickets and documents, before leaving for the airport. Everything was there - in a single, superglued, block...

If space and time permitted, I could go on and on about Berger's practical jokes, for they have been innumerable, but he always said that, while he learned a huge amount about racing from Senna, so also he taught Ayrton a lot about life, about having fun, and he reckoned that he - Senna - became an even more formidable driver as a result.

"It was as if," Gerhard said, "Ayrton had a sense of humour all along, but had never realised it was there! I think I helped him to relax, and that made him even better than before..."

Dear Paul,

I think your choice of adjective is exactly the right one: Brian Henton was indeed a 'useful' driver. But the two achievements of his that you have cited are exactly those which would have come to my mind, too - to be honest, I can't remember any others, which perhaps says it all.

Henton got some financial backing, which enabled him, having endured a torrid first F1 season with Toleman, to get into the Tyrrell team in '82, but he didn't make enough of an impression to keep an F1 drive thereafter. Sorry, but that's all she wrote.

Dear Jonathan,

To be perfectly honest, I don't have any strong feelings about it, one way or the other. Simply, the time had come for Irvine to leave F1, because no one wanted him to drive for them - or not enough, anyway. He's 37 years old, precisely the age at which a similar fate befell both Gerhard Berger - who consummately won a Grand Prix in 1997, his last season, let's remember - and Jean Alesi, and, frankly, if time rang the bell on those two, there was no reason to believe Eddie would escape. He was an extremely good F1 driver, but not a great one.

Irvine was invariably one to make the most of an opportunity - look at the absurdly over the top three-year financial deal he was able to pull on Ford to move to Jaguar - but in 1999, his final year with Ferrari, he had a fantastic one-off opportunity to win the World Championship, for Schumacher was out of the picture, having broken his leg at Silverstone, and, between them, Mika Hakkinen and McLaren at times appeared to be giving Eddie the title on a plate. As it was, for one reason and another, he failed to capitalise on it.

I always liked Irvine's willingness to speak his mind - refreshing in this day and age - but towards the end of his F1 career I thought some of his proclamations to the world rather...sad, really, because by then he was no longer a serious player in the game. And the height of absurdity, in 2001, was to describe himself as the second best driver in F1, after Michael Schumacher! Come on...

What could Felipe Massa or Ralph Firman bring to Jordan that Irvine couldn't, you ask? Well, bluntly, cash! Just as Eddie Jordan chose Takuma Sato over Jean Alesi for 2002, so this time he's gone for Firman over Irvine. And remember also that Eddie, like Alesi, not only wasn't going to bring money to the team - he was going to take it out because, quite reasonably for one of his experience and record, he wanted to be paid. At the moment EJ, like Paul Stoddart, is only in business at all because the other teams and manufacturers have dipped into their pockets to subsidise him, so he really wasn't in a position to do other than go for a 'paying driver'. This is reality in 2003, and we'd better get used to it.

Dear Paul,

Yes, owner/drivers were commonplace in F1 at one time, as you say, but the world was a different place then. You could acquire a small factory, hire a designer and half a dozen mechanics, buy some engines from Cosworth and gearboxes from Hewland, get some tyres from Goodyear or Firestone or Dunlop, and you had an instant F1 team! All right, it wasn't quite as simple as that, but you get the picture. In the late '60s, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren and Dan Gurney all drove for their own teams.

Of the five others you cite, Surtees came closest to success. Although John's team never won a Grand Prix, he himself won the Oulton Park Gold Cup in 1970 (beating Jochen Rindt's Lotus 72 in the process), and a couple of years later I remember seeing Mike Hailwood's Surtees finish second to Emerson Fittipaldi's Lotus at Monza. The team finally disappeared at the end of the '78 season.

Graham Hill's team might well have amounted to something ultimately, having signed the brilliant young Tony Brise, but of course Graham and Tony, together with four other team members, were killed in that light aircraft accident in November 1975, after which the team was wound up.

Of the rest, well, my old pal Chris Amon had a disastrous time in '74 with his own car, which was extremely advanced in concept, but woefully unreliable, and just plain slow. Hector Rebaque was a rich kid from Mexico, who had rather more money than talent, and for a time his own team ran what was called 'a Rebaque', but was actually a slightly modified Lotus 79, and achieved nothing whatever. And poor old Art Merzario ran what must be the all-time shoestring operation in F1; the cars, frankly, were an embarrassment, and not only did nothing for Merzario's good reputation as a driver, but also drained away all his money.

Of all the teams we've talked about, McLaren is the only one still around. Tells you something, doesn't it?

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