Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 15

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: January 15

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Dear Scott,

I think Paul Stoddart has chosen well for the coming season. Jos Verstappen blows hot and cold a bit, but when he's really on it he is extremely quick, and a hell of a good racer. I thought it a great injustice that Tom Walkinshaw dropped him at the end of 2001 - he had a contract for 2002, after all, and had done a very good job for Arrows. I particularly remember his drive in the wet at Sepang, where for a time he got into the top three, if my memory serves me correctly.

To sign Wilson was a brave thing to do, because Stoddart is not exactly overwhelmed with sponsorship money, and although Justin, his manager and his father succeeded in getting a couple of million together, undoubtedly there were drivers around with more backing than that.

All that said, I thought it a great shame that Wilson was unable to find anything in F1 to drive last year. In 2001 he won the F3000 Championship, and won it well; had it not been for his height, I've no doubt that one of the teams would have picked him up, at the very least on a testing contract. It seemed more than sad that a bloke should be kept out of F1, simply because he happened to be very tall.

On the other hand, you had to see it from the teams' point of view, too. The rules concerning chassis dimensions theoretically allow for drivers of up to 1.90 metres (6ft 3ins) - precisely Wilson's height - but the problem was that, with the mandatory carbonfibre 'lift out' safety seat (which fits beneath the driver's moulded seat) in place, Justin's head protruded from the cockpit above the maximum permitted level.

Towards the end of 2001, when he tested most impressively for Jordan, Wilson ran without the safety seat, and time was when tall drivers would do without a seat altogether, and simply sit on the floor of the car! Quite rightly, the FIA says you can't do things like that any more, but it seemed unfortunate that rules, well-intentioned as they might be, could keep a driver from competing at the top level, which is where many believed Justin belonged.

Cost comes into it, of course, when you're talking about a 'special' car for a guy of unusual dimensions. "These days," says Patrick Head, "cars tend to require quite a long manufacturing time - it's not like the time of our Williams FW06, when, two days after having sheets of aluminium against the wall, you could have a monocoque, ready to go! Now, making an F1 chassis, with all the moulding and so on, is a number of months - quite apart from the design process."

In Hungary and Belgium last year, Anthony Davidson acquitted himself extremely well for Minardi, but the team's first choice, as a replacement for Alex Yoong, had been Wilson. Although Stoddart was keen to run him, it proved impossible to accommodate him comfortably in a 'standard' Minardi, even one driven by Mark Webber, another tall fellow.

Stoddart insisted he wanted to keep faith with Wilson, to have him as either test or race driver for 2003, and has stuck by what he said. For that I take off my hat to him, and I'm sure Justin will more than repay Paul's faith.

Will Wilson and Verstappen have more success in F1 than did their respective managers (Jonathan Palmer and Huub Rothengatter)? Well, Jos already has, and by a long way! Palmer never achieved much in F1, but then he almost never had a competitive car. If Wilson can capitalise on this chance, get himself noticed, I'm sure the potential is there for him to progress a long way in F1. Clearly, he desperately wants to do it - after all, he's not being paid by Minardi, and he could have gone to the Newman/Haas CART team.

Dear Andy,

On the face of it, yes, Bernie Ecclestone did sacrifice Brabham to 'run the whole show', as you put it, but there's a little more to it than that. To begin with, for many years Bernie 'ran the whole show' while still owning the Brabham team, and it must be said that this possible clash of interests was of some concern to his fellow team owners.

In the end, though, Ecclestone sold Brabham, with considerable regret, simply because he couldn't do everything. Years later, in the course of an interview at Magny-Cours, I asked him if he missed having a team.

"Well," he said, "there's a different sort of satisfaction between what I'm doing now and running a team. I mean, I suppose I could walk away from here, saying the event has been successful: there was a good crowd, we've done different things with TV, we've overcome the fact that all the computers were up the spout because it was 40 degrees - silly things that nobody sees, which could have been a monumental problem, which we've managed to overcome. Nobody's got hurt, and the race has been successful, blah, blah, blah. So you could say, yes, that's job satisfaction. But it's not the same sort of satisfaction as having a race team, and your car winning the race.

"The thing is, I'm still fundamentally a racer. I still like to know what's going on, technically. If I had time, I would still have a race team. But it's impossible to do what I'm doing, and have a race team. That was why I started to neglect Brabham. You're competing against people who think of nothing else for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, after all, and you can't pop in on a part-time basis against that.

"Brabham was quite a friendly team, wasn't it? We were all together - we didn't have layers of command. Everyone knew what they had to do, without someone telling them what the job was. So everyone was involved, including the drivers. I mean, Nelson (Piquet) would spend time with me, but he'd also spend time with the mechanics, or Gordon (Murray), or anybody. Times have changed so much, though. It was much more social than it is now..."

The team, in Ecclestone's ownership, raced until the end of 1987, after which it was sold to a disreputable 'broker' (who was in prison when last I heard anything of him). Brabham didn't race at all 1988, but reappeared in '89, and continued - in sundry different hands - until 1992, when one of the team's drivers was none other than Damon Hill, who went on to join Williams at the end of the year.

As you say, the team originally founded by Jack Brabham in 1962, and sold to Ecclestone a decade later, was among the very best for many years. In his own car, Brabham won the World Championship in '66, and his team mate Denny Hulme won it the following year. During the Ecclestone era, Nelson Piquet won two championships, in 1981 and '83. I was sad to see Brabham go into decline, after Bernie had sold the team, and frankly, by 1992, when it was a pathetic shambles - and a disgrace to a proud name - I was relieved to see it disappear. Sad, but that's the way it was.

Dear Alain,

I know what you mean, but until the new 'Friday morning' system gets under way, it's difficult to know whether Renault & Co, who have opted to use it, have made the right decision or not. To answer one question right away, no, they can't change their minds during the season. Once the decision is taken, that's it.

Yes, they're giving up the right to test as and when they wish, but there are a couple of points worth making. The first, obviously, is cost. Going testing is prodigiously expensive. By the estimate of the leading teams, it works out at approximately $1200 per kilometre! Best guess is that Ferrari spend more than $50m a year on testing, and Williams, McLaren and Toyota about half that. For the lesser teams, those figures come down dramatically, so obviously it makes sense for them to make use of the Friday morning sessions at each Grand Prix.

What it amounts to, after all, is two hours' extra practice - with no restriction on tyres - for the race to be run that weekend, and at tracks where testing does not normally take place - Melbourne, Sepang, Interlagos, Monaco, the Hungaroring, Indianapolis, Suzuka etc - that could be extremely valuable.

That being so, I wouldn't necessarily assume that Renault have done the right thing. There's no doubt that the FIA would like all the teams to follow this route, hand in hand with huge restrictions on testing elsewhere.

Max Mosley's feelings about the excessive amount of F1 testing are well known. "I've told the team principals," he said, "that a much more efficient way of doing it would be sit by the shredder in their offices, and feed £50 notes into it. A lot less trouble..."

Dear Cameron,

Yes, you're right, Derek Bell - who I note is to drive in next month's Daytona 24 Hours, at the age of 61! - is indeed a most delightful fellow, and I'm not at all surprised you found him so friendly.

Given his countless successes at Le Mans and elsewhere, it's inevitable that Derek will always be remembered as a great star of sports car racing, but although it was on this that he concentrated for most of his career, it should not be forgotten that he originally made his name in single-seaters, and was very much a star of F3, and then F2, in the mid-'60s.

In 1968, indeed, he was invited to join Ferrari, and I remember seeing him in an F1 car at the Oulton Park Gold Cup that year, alongside Chris Amon and Jacky Ickx. Derek also drove for the team at Monza and Watkins Glen, and, so far as I remember, was due to partner Chris in a two-car team in 1969, following Jacky's departure to Brabham.

Unfortunately for Bell, however, Ferrari was in dire financial straits at that time - hard to imagine in the context of today, isn't it? - and it was decided that only one F1 car would be run, for Amon. He did, however, join Chris's two-car Ferrari team in the Tasman Series that winter, and acquitted himself well.

Thereafter, Derek had occasional F1 drives - for McLaren, Surtees and Tecno - until 1974, but there was never a regular F1 seat for him, and thus he devoted his time to sports cars, in particular with Porsche, with whom he became synonymous.

To be honest, I think this was his metier, too, for his style was ideally suited to maintaining a fast and consistent pace over a long period of time. Certainly he had the ability to be a very good Grand Prix driver, but perhaps he lacked that extra something that - in F1 terms - separates the good from the great. Whatever, he had a magnificent career - and, just as important, enjoyed virtually every second of it.

Dear Peter,

Actually, most of the time team owners take a rational approach when it comes to deciding which driver should stay, and which should leave - but there have occasionally been some outwardly curious decisions, when a driver has been pitched to make way for a new signing.

Usually, these decisions are, in the parlance of today, 'financially-driven', which politicallycorrectspeak for 'gelt'. Chris Amon, for example, was due to drive for March in 1973, but at the last minute Max Mosley and Robin Herd decided to go with Jean-Pierre Jarier, who came with a bag of gold from his personal sponsor, Monsieur Arnold, a wealthy furniture manufacturer. In just the same way, it seemed illogical for Jordan to drop Jean Alesi at the end of 2001, in favour of rookie Takuma Sato - but Honda wanted a Japanese driver, and Sato brought a good many yen with him.

Leaving money considerations aside, the examples you cite are good ones. Had I been in Enzo Ferrari's position, yes I would have kept Patrick Tambay, rather than Rene Arnoux, as team mate to the incoming Michele Alboreto in 1984, but I do think Ferrari, looking down the road, made the right decision to keep Gilles Villeneuve, rather than Carlos Reutemann, as team mate to Jody Scheckter in 1979.

The Hill-Frentzen is less straightforward, however. Although Heinz did not actually become a Williams driver until 1997, he was actually signed at the end of 1995. Following some very disappointing showings by Damon in the latter part of that season, Frank Williams and Patrick Head decided they would not extend his contract, which was due to expire at the end of the following year. Thus, they signed Frentzen, who had recently been excelling for Sauber, regularly qualifying and finishing in the top six.

Not until the following August, however, did this news leak out - and by then Hill was well on his way to the World Championship! Had he driven in 1995 as he did in '96, there would have been little question of replacing him.

That said, what I have never really understood is why Frank and Patrick, in signing Frentzen, felt they had to act so early. At that time Williams was, after all, very much the team for which everyone wanted to drive, and if they had merely let Heinz know they were interested, it's highly unlikely he would have committed himself elsewhere until certain there was no chance of a move to Williams. Still, strange are the ways...

Dear Doug,

Yes, attending new F1 car launches has indeed become an aspect of the journalist's work, and - until this year, anyway - an ever-increasing one. Actually, I have to confess that in recent years I have been to far fewer than used to be the case - quite honestly, in absolute terms, they're a bit of a waste of time. There seemed less and less point in trailing along for a couple of hours of dry ice and bland speeches - particularly if doing so entailed making yet another trip to an airport.

I always thought, too, they were a bit of a waste, not only of time, but also of money. It seemed to me that the cost of a launch might more usefully have gone into making the car a little quicker, but this is the age of Public Relations, and I guess that at least launches guaranteed coverage in the papers, and perhaps on TV, that the car was unlikely to generate at the races. They always say that the glitzier the wedding, the less successful the marriage - and, in my experience, that goes for F1 launches, too.

However, the whole question has now, thanks to the worldwide economic slump, taken care of itself. Many teams - including Jordan, whose launches were invariably the flashiest of the lot - are not having one in 2003, and that seems like no more than commonsense.

If I had to pick an especially memorable launch, however, it would have to be that of Essex Team Lotus, in December 1979. David Thieme, an extremely successful oil broker, had taken over the sponsorship of Lotus from Martini, and no expense was spared to mark the occasion.

We were all flown to Paris, installed in the Hotel Intercontinental, then ferried in a fleet of limos to the Paradis du Latin, then the most fashionable night club in the city. After we had eaten and drunk sumptuously, and watched a highly stimulating floor show, the stage was cleared. Suddenly, in the semi-darkness, a piercing light was flashed up towards the high ceiling - and there, suspended by wires, and being slowly lowered to the stage, was a Lotus 81, in Essex colours, with Mario Andretti standing on the seat, leaning back against the roll-bar!

("Jesus," Mario muttered to me later that evening, "I was tryin' to look laidback, but thought I was goin' to fall out of the goddam thing!")

There followed a few, brief, speeches, and then the evening continued, with further entertainment of every imaginable kind. It was all gloriously over the top, but no one who was there has ever forgotten it. So if you want advice on how these things should be done, speak to David Thieme...

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