Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 2

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 2

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Dear Terry,

Time was when both Australia and New Zealand had many major single-seater races, and they were of course run in 'our' winter, which meant that the top F1 drivers of the day could, if they so desired, head down to the Antipodes during F1's 'off season', and get some sun. For many of them, it was a very appealing prospect, and it began in 1956, when Maserati sent a couple of factory 250Fs for Stirling Moss and Jean Behra to drive in the Australian Grand Prix, run that year, as now, at Albert Park in Melbourne. Needless to say, they finished 1-2.

It was in the '60s, though, with the formation of the Tasman Championship, that motor racing down under reached its zenith, and what you have to remember is that, at that time, many front-running Grand Prix drivers came from the part of the world, notably Jack Brabham from Australia, and Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Chris Amon from New Zealand.

The first Tasman Championship was run in 1964, with three races in Australia (Warwick Farm, Sandown Park, Lakeside), four in New Zealand Levin, Pukekohe, Wigram, Teretonga), and one in Tasmania (the magnificent, if terrifying, Longford road circuit). McLaren won it from Brabham and Hulme, but the following year more 'foreign' drivers began to take part, including Jim Clark (who won the championship), Graham Hill and Phil Hill. In '66, Jackie Stewart joined them, taking that's year title in a BRM, and by 1968 the series was beginning to look almost like a mini-World Championship, with Ferrari sending a car for Amon to join the factory-entered Lotus of Clark amd Hill, and the BRMs of McLaren and Pedro Rodriguez.

Clark won the championship from Amon, but the following year (over the winter of 1968/69), Chris won it comfortably from Jochen Rindt, who had become Lotus team leader following Clark's death.

There were some extremely memorable races at this time, all the teams racing F1 cars, but with engines reduced in size from 3.0-litres to 2.5, as demanded by the Tasman rules. The drivers, of course, had a wonderful time, savouring the great weather and the numberless parties - and, of course, making a few quid over the winter. In those days, Grand Prix drivers did not make a fortune, believe it or not.

I didn't start my career as a journalist until the early '70s, so sadly I missed the great Tasman era, and it's something I much regret. Motor racing was much more relaxed business, anyway, back in those days, and by all accounts the 'Tasman scene' was even more relaxed than normal! Sadly, the '68/'69 championship was to stand as the last truly memorable one, for thereafter the rules were changed, and it now became a Formula 5000 series, in which the F1 drivers, of course, did not take part.

Dear Sue,

I feel exactly as you do - the coming F1 season simply has to be better than the last one! Certainly, we cannot afford another one as limp as 2002.

While I'm bound to say that, if I were betting now, I'd be tempted to put my house on Michael Schumacher winning his fourth World Championship on the trot (and his sixth in total), we have to hope that Williams find the downforce to go with the BMW engine, and that Mercedes find the horsepower to go with the McLaren chassis. Each team has a charger (Juan Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen) and an experienced man (Ralf Schumacher, David Coulthard), so they don't lack for much in the driver department.

If - if - BAR finally come up with a decent car, and the newly revamped Honda F1 department produces an engine worthy of the company's name, I can also see Jacques Villeneuve having something to say in 2003. Hope so, anyway, because, as Gerhard Berger recently, JV's has been the great wasted talent in F1 for the last five years.

All that said, barring Act of God, I still expect Ferrari to win more often than they lose this year. Schumacher, Barrichello, Brawn, Byrne, Todt, Martinelli...these guys have been working together a very long time now, and the whole Maranello operation works like oiled silk. Ferrari's budget is far and away the biggest in the business and, of course, because they were so comfortably ahead of the rest in 2002, they were able to get on with work on the 2003 car way earlier than their rivals. It would be nice, though, if Juan Pablo and Kimi could give them a fright this year, wouldn't it?

One thing I am looking forward to is the new qualifying format. It may work, it may not, but at least it's an experiment worth trying, and it could occasionally give rise to a slightly untypical grid. You've got just one lap, so what do you do? Run a 'banker' lap, guaranteed to get you into the top half-dozen - or risk everything (including going off) on going for the pole? Given the virtual absence of overtaking in F1 these days, qualifying, frankly, has for some time been the most exciting part of the weekend, anyway.

Perhaps the only thing that will change is the drivers' whingeing! In the past, they've moaned about 'being held up on what was going to be my best lap'; now that is set to change to 'I didn't get my run when the track was at its quickest'...

Dear Naushad,

Unless Jacques Villeneuve and BAR have a very successful time of it in 2003, I cannot see their remaining together beyond the end of the season. Financially, JV's contract is a huge one, second only to Michael Schumacher's, and if you don't produce a front-running car/engine package - which BAR and Honda have so far failed to do - frankly there's not a lot of point in spending a fortune on a driver.

Certainly, there are elements at BAR who feel that the money spent on Villeneuve could have been better used on improving the competitiveness of the car, while Jacques, for his part, feels that essentially he has wasted - in terms of results - what should have been four years at the peak of his career. He was World Champion in 1997, after all - and has not won a race since.

It's odds on, therefore, that, almost as soon as this season gets underway, Villeneuve and his manager, Craig Pollock, will be talking to other teams about 2004, but their problem is an unchanging one: logically, they would only want to go with one of the three major teams, and where is there likely to be a vacancy?

First, Ferrari. Both Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello are under contract until the end of 2004, and, anyway, there's no way Michael would entertain having Jacques as a team mate - for one thing, the two men emphatically do not like each other, and for another, JV is too quick! As well as that, he would never agree to 'drive for Michael', as seems to be a requirement of Ferrari's 'other driver'.

Second, Williams. Again, both Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher have two more years to run on their contracts. Villeneuve came into F1 with Frank's team, of course, finishing second in the World Championship (to team mate Damon Hill) in 1996, and winning it the following year. Following Renault's withdrawal, at the end of '97, Williams had to use the company's Meccachrome 'customer' engines for a couple of years, and in '98 found themselves out-powered by other more up-to-date motors. When BAR came into existence (founded by Pollock, of course), and initially were also to use the same Meccachrome engines, Jacques figured there was little to be lost by moving there - for a hugely greater retainer, it must be said. Financially, he did very well out of the move, but in every other respect he must regret ever leaving Williams; I'd be very surprised to see him back there.

Third, McLaren. Kimi Raikkonen, we must logically assume, is going to be at McLaren for the duration, but, so far as I know, David Coulthard's contract with the team is up at the end of 2003, so that might be the only opening for JV, as far as the top three teams are concerned. However, although a McLaren deal for JV has been talked about in the past, the team, as we know, puts enormous emphasis on its drivers' PR activities for the sponsors, and this aspect of F1 is something Villeneuve loathes! I find it hard to imagine there could be a meeting of minds on this, between Ron Dennis and himself, frankly. As well as that, Jacques will be 32 in May, and if Ron should think in terms of replacing DC, he might well think in terms of someone younger. A pity, because I've always thought Villeneuve would fly in a McLaren, but there you are.

So...I don't know what to tell you. Jacques is now a hugely wealthy man, and I can understand his lack of interest in continuing in F1 much longer just to make up the numbers. I hope the new BAR-Honda will do him justice, because, on talent, he has always been one of the three or four best in the world, and, in my opinion, he still is.

Dear Tim,

You're quite right in what you say, and I must admit it's enormously frustrating, having in the past dealt with drivers like Jackie Stewart, Alan Jones, Mario Andretti, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, Jacques Laffite and so on, now to be faced with so many who are muzzled, nervous of saying something that might upset Bernie Ecclestone/Max Mosley/their team owner/a sponsor/an engine manufacturer/their team mate or whomever. That's today's world, though, isn't it? It is hardly surprising that journalists have little taste for the PR machine; not only in Mr Blair's alleged government do 'spin doctors' thrive, believe me...

Fortunately, if most of today's drivers are gagged when speaking 'on record', they tend to be a great deal more forthcoming when it's 'off record' - in other words, they're quite happy to put you in the picture about something, so long as they're not quoted. And the other thing, of course, is that, while they may perhaps be Masonically tight-lipped about their own team, they're invariably completely indiscreet when it comes to talking about others!

Looking at the 'engaging' drivers of the last 10 years, I would pick out Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Jean Alesi, Martin Brundle and Derek Warwick, while of those on the grids of today, I'd choose David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello, Juan Pablo Montoya, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Olivier Panis and Jacques Villeneuve.

Dear Hazel,

Innes Ireland was a good friend of mine, and, as with James Hunt, Denis Jenkinson and Rob Walker, I still miss him a great deal. Feisty and tough, he was yet essentially a gentleman, and as humane an individual as I have known. He was also one of the fastest drivers of his generation, and in 1960 created a sensation in the new Lotus 18, with which he won squarely at Goodwood and Silverstone.

A race I recall more vividly, though, is the Oulton Park Gold Cup of that year, when he simply ran away from the field, which included Stirling Moss in Rob Walker's similar car. When the mood was on him, Innes could hack it with anyone, but invariably his luck was poor, and that day was typical in that the car eventually broke.

There was always a strong element of fatalism in Ireland, and it is a fact that his career was signposted by a number of huge accidents. He was under no illusions about the Lotuses of the time, accepting, if unwillingly, that if Colin Chapman's radical cars were blindingly fast, they were also fragile.

In practice at Monaco in 1961 there was a particularly huge shunt. "We had this new wrong-way-round gearbox on the Lotus, and in the heat of the moment I got second instead of fourth, locked the back wheels solid, and that was that. No bloody seat belts in those days, of course. Came out of the tunnel without the car..."

Compounding the problems of a man who crashed many times was his medical inability to tolerate pain-killers. His silver identity bracelet bore the legend, 'Innes Ireland - A Rh Pos - Allergic to morphia'. To whisky, however, Innes had no such adverse reaction, and he always asserted that "Scottish wine" was a pain-killer beyond compare. He was wonderful company, one of the most amusing people I've ever met, and responsible for at least half the hangovers I've had in my life.

He was a trusting man, and a part of him never quite got over being brusquely fired by Chapman, immediately after scoring the first Grand Prix victory for Team Lotus, at Watkins Glen in 1961. Times were ruthlessly changing, and even then Innes, a professional racing driver with an amateur's spirit, was considered something of an anachronism.

After retiring, in 1967, he took up journalism. An unusually well-read man, he could write quite beautifully; no words on motor racing have ever moved me more than his piece in Autocar on the death of Jimmy Clark.

The last time I saw Innes was at the Memorial Service for James in the autumn of 1993. The atmosphere was light, for although the sense of loss was still very much there, it had been weathered a little by the passing months. Most poignant of all was the Lesson read by Innes, who knew his own time was near. A month or so later, he died of cancer, aged only 63.

Whenever I'm asked about Innes Ireland, there is one particular anecdote I always tell, for it says everything about him.

I was sitting with him on the short flight back from Hockenheim one year, and Heathrow approached before Innes was quite ready for it. As the tyres hit the tarmac, his seat belt was undone, his table down, his seat back. In one hand was a cigarette, in the other a scotch. There was not, I pointed out, a single rule he had left unbroken. "Right, lad!" he beamed. I could have said nothing to please him more.

Dear Mike,

It is a fact that Japan has yet to produce a truly world-class F1 driver, but I would say that Takuma Sato is the best - certainly the quickest - I have yet seen from that country. There were suggestions that, at Suzuka last year, he had something very special from Honda in the back of his Jordan; whether or not that be true, he turned in a truly superb drive on race day, having also qualified extremely well.

Over time there have been plenty of Japanese drivers in F1, of course. I think, for example, of Satoru Nakajima, who partnered Ayrton Senna in the Lotus-Honda team in 1987, and then Nelson Piquet the following year. Perhaps his best drive came in the torrential conditions at Adelaide in 1989, when he finished fourth, and set the fastest lap of the race.

Aguri Suzuki, who was half-Japanese, had some good days, too, notably a third in his home race in 1990, driving a Lola-Lamborghini for Gerard Larrousse's team. And then there was Ukyo Katayama, of course, a most engaging character, who was sometimes extremely quick in the Tyrrell-Yamaha in '94. More recently, we had the taciturn Tora Takagi, whose lack of English did little to improve his prospects in F1 - quite how he has managed in the CART world in the USA, I cannot imagine.

Sato, we learned shortly before Christmas, has unfortunately lost his drive at Jordan for 2003; once the team had lost its Honda engines deal, that was always on the cards, but he has now returned to BAR-Honda, to the testing role he played there in 2001. I hope we see him back on the grids soon, for his presence has played a big part in the resurgence of interest in F1 in Japan, and if still too accident-prone, he is quick.

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