Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 22

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 Autosport.com 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 22

Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com.


Dear Ian,

I had already answered your question when, on Tuesday, news came in of the latest changes from the FIA - making my original reply obsolete!
However...

Yes, there was a safety aspect to the ban on pit-to-car radio communication, and I was not unmindful of it. However, that said, I reckoned the drivers would cope - they're big boys, after all, and they invariably managed to cope in the days before there was such a thing as radio communication between car and pit.

In terms of being warned about 'a big shunt around the next corner', this is not always possible, anyway, because grands prix are run on normal circuits, rather than ovals, where 'spotters' (each working for one driver) are able to look down on the whole track. And, turning the whole thing around, I can recall at least one shunt last year, which was caused by a driver being told over the radio to 'move left', so it can work both ways...

As for your suggestion that the ban on radio communication 'may cause confusion over when pit stops are taking place, especially if it's an unplanned emergency one', you're absolutely right, and for me that was one of the big attractions of the ban! To my mind, one of the reasons why F1 has become bland in recent years is that the sheer efficiency of the technology available - be it traction control, radio contact, or whatever - has driven out nearly all the unpredictability which any sport needs if it is to thrive.

Ross Brawn has many times told me of the almost constant conversation he has with Michael Schumacher in some races, and I think the FIA's original idea was to prevent a driver being 'talked through' a race. As well as that, I just loved the idea of Jean Todt, hanging over the pit wall with a board, ordering Rubens to let Michael through... At least we'd all have known precisely what was going on.

Therefore, I'm rather sorry that the FIA has relented on this, but take comfort from the fact that from now on the systems must be stand-alone, with communications open to the FIA and to broadcasters. Years ago, before teams began to 'scramble' their conversations with drivers, I, like many of my colleagues, had a scanner, and would listen in. Believe me, I heard some fascinating things...




Dear Raymond,

Ditto this question!

Actually, I'm a little equivocal about some of the rule changes - don't really like the idea of mechanics having to work, under supervision, in parc ferme between qualifying and the race, and I was worried about the ban on spare cars, in the sense that it was going to increase the mechanics' workload significantly. If a driver trashed his car during practice, his mechanics, instead of merely wheeling out the T-car, were going to have to set to on building up a new one, after all. Now, following the FIA's latest decisions, a third car may be taken to races, but can be used only if a race car is damaged beyond repair. That's a good move, I think.

As well as that, I am of course absolutely delighted with the move to get rid of the 'driver aids', which have blighted F1 for too long. As I mentioned in the previous answer, it's the old efficiency thing again. Of course software can control traction better than the right foot of any human being, even Schumacher, but what I really hated about the 'gizmos' was that they were increasingly doing the driver's job for him, and that's absurd in something calling itself a drivers' World Championship. Not only that, the gizmos also hugely reduced the skill gap between the great and the merely good, and that is surely never to be desired.

Who will benefit from the banning of the 'driver aids'? The best drivers, inevitably, which is as it should be. It's not by chance, after all, that the two most implacably opposed to them in 1993 (before Max Mosley banned them the first time round) were Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, the two greatest of their generation.

I have yet to come across any grand prix driver who had other than distaste for the gizmos - indeed, Olivier Panis was ranting to me about them only a few days before the FIA's announcement last week - and there is universal rejoicing among them that the things are to be banned, from the British Grand Prix on. Of those who will benefit most, I would immediately pick out Juan Pablo Montoya, so startlingly acrobatic in CART (with no traction control) and Kimi Raikkonen. Both are instinctive racers, with freakish reactions, and JPM, in particular, will be hugely spectacular to watch, I'm sure.

Who will be found wanting? Difficult to say, because some drivers have yet to handle an F1 car without gizmos. Broadly, though, it will inevitably be those of merely average ability.

To quote Niki Lauda: "Traction control was supposed to be a device to protect poor drivers in road cars too quick for them - not to make grand prix cars easy to drive..." I agree absolutely.



Dear Art,

In a word, no!

Actually, I'm being a little unfair. Although there were rumours at the time that perhaps it may have been a little short in the avoirdupois department, Riccardo Patrese's Arrows led for a long way in the team's very first race, the South African Grand Prix in 1978, and then there was that curious day in 1997, when Damon Hill dominated the Hungarian Grand Prix, only losing the lead to Jacques Villeneuve on the very last lap, when his throttle went on the blink.

For most of the team's life in F1, though, Arrows was a mid-grid outfit at best, and one somehow always had the impression that it was a situation unlikely to change.



Dear Michael,

De Angelis, I suspect, would not have much liked the F1 cars of today - although undoubtedly, with his subtle skills, he would have been delighted to see the end of the electronic 'driver aids'. Elio's style was ultra-smooth, and I'm not sure that the contemporary cars much lend themselves to smoothness. For that reason, too, I doubt that, say, Alain Prost would have been much in his element in this era.

Since de Angelis's time, the entire format of a grand prix has changed. No longer is it a matter of getting a set-up for 200 miles, which will work well with a full fuel load and a virtually empty one. We have refuelling now, and set-up is much closer to what used to be a 'qualifying' set-up. Even a massive fuel load these days is good for not much more than 100 miles, and the races have become a matter of sprint-stop-sprint.

How good was Elio? Not as good as he could have been, in my opinion, in the sense that, while I think he had natural talent to throw away, his ambition never matched his ability. He came from a very rich family, and so raced primarily for the pleasure of it. With Elio, you never felt that F1 was the centre of the universe; it came easily to him, and was one of many good things in life, there to be enjoyed.

He was often, as you say, not far away from Lotus team-mate Ayrton Senna in '85, and occasionally he was quicker - I can still remember Ayrton's displeasure at Rio that year, when he was out-qualified (at home) by his team-mate. Perhaps the biggest single difference between them was that de Angelis went racing because he loved it, and Senna went racing because he had to. Elio would have liked to be World Champion; for Ayrton it was an absolute necessity, and as soon as possible.

Those of us who knew de Angelis remember a delightful man, with a lovely, ironic, sense of humour, and manners from another age. Jo Ramirez, who worked with him in his early days at Shadow, remained a close friend to the end of Elio's life, in a testing accident at Paul Ricard 1986. This is how he remembers him.

"Elio was like Francois Cevert in many ways, charming, completely genuine, a very good driver. I remember the day he signed the contract for his first F1 drive - we went out to celebrate, to a coffee shop in Northampton called Cagney's, where we had hamburgers and chips! For all his wealth, Elio was a very down-to-earth person. He used to come to my house, and play the piano - like Francois, he was classically-trained.

"I remember going testing with him at Paul Ricard once. No one wanted to go out on the wet track, even though it had stopped raining, and then someone suggested that we all took our hire cars out, and dried the track! I went with Elio, and it was fantastic to watch him - he just floored it all the way round, slowing the car with the steering wheel. Superb! Things like that...well, nowadays no one would do it, would they? It was so much more fun back then.

"Elio was a wealthy man, but he wouldn't buy what he wanted just because he could. There was a particular Rolex watch he wanted, but it took him weeks of deliberating before he said, 'Yes, I'm going to buy it'. Then he took off the watch he had, and gave it to me. It was a gold Baume-Mercier, and although I wear it very rarely, I happened to be wearing it the day he died at Ricard."



Dear Richard,

Don't panic! It's only JV playing mindgames - and there's no one in the paddock who's better at it. Of all the F1 drivers I have ever known, I would say he is mentally tougher than any other; the only ones close at the moment are Montoya - and perhaps Raikkonen.

Jacques's father, Gilles, was a good friend of mine, and although the two have characteristics in common, in other ways you would never imagine they were related. It wasn't in Gilles's nature to play mindgames - and, anyway, he was so good he didn't need to!

Not sure if I necessarily go along with your assessments of Villeneuve as a has-been and Button as a potential champion. As far as I'm concerned, Jacques is a better driver now than when he won the World Championship in 1997, and his lack of a competitive car since has robbed F1 of a man who - we know - can frighten Michael. As for Jenson, I think he has huge natural ability, but need to see more evidence that he is a 'racer', in the Montoya/Raikkonen sense of the word. The driving talent's there, undoubtedly, but these days that alone won't deliver a championship.

I'm expecting BAR to progress substantially this year. At last the team has employed a proper F1 designer (Geoff Willis), and the new car has to be substantially better than anything previously produced by BAR. As well as that, the signs are that Honda, whose 2002 engine was frankly lamentable, are getting serious again.



Dear Mike,

The Tyrrell team went into decline because, as Ken himself said many times, it failed - in the commercial sense - to keep pace with changing times. After the glory days of Stewart, in the late '60s and early '70s, and then reasonable success with such as Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler, there were occasional glimpses of greatness - with Michele Alboreto, who won the team's last Grand Prix back in 1983, and with Jean Alesi, who drove many brilliant races in 1990 - but the trend was generally downward.

This was never a big team, remember, as a visit to the factory invariably reminded you. For years and years, Ken somehow kept it going, in the face of inadequate sponsorship, but it was a losing battle, and ultimately he admitted as much. Harvey Postlethwaite was indeed a great innovator - the Tyrrell 019, driven with such distinction by Alesi, was, for example, was the first car to sport the 'high nose' now de rigueur in F1 - but there was never the cash available realistically to compete with such as McLaren and Williams, let alone Ferrari.

That also meant that Ken was never able to sign top drivers. Instead, it was a matter of hiring 'paying' drivers, or promising newcomers who, having shown their ability, were then poached by bigger teams - as was the case with Alboreto and Alesi, both of whom were 'poached' by Ferrari.

You mention Yamaha's 'explosive' V10 - but that was a symptom of the problem. Tyrrell - like Eddie Jordan - only did a deal with Yamaha in the first place because he was sort of money, and the engines came free. That was the big problem all along: lack of cash.

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