Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 29

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 29

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Dear Bill,

The team owners for whom I have the most admiration - by far - are the pair you mention, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis. Obviously I've known both for a very long time - Frank had already been an F1 team owner for a couple of years when I started writing about racing, in 1971 - and the reason why I have so much time for them is that they are absolute racers, in the proper sense of the word. If push came to shove, I have no doubt that both would sacrifice their worldly goods to keep their teams in business - and, believe me, that ain't true of many of their rivals...

Ron often talks about his 'passion' for Grand Prix racing, and it's the same with Frank. Everything begins and ends with a fundamental love of the sport, and both have that in spades - which, again, is emphatically not the case with many of their rivals. Take my word for it, there are team owners who see F1 as only a business, pure and simple: they got into it because they wanted to get rich, and if there was some success along the way, well, OK, fine. In the case of Messrs Dennis and Williams, yes, both have become phenomenally rich, but this has come about because of their success - and success, not wealth, was always their primary objective.

Of the two, Frank is undoubtedly the more accessible. I first met him at the Monaco Grand Prix in '71, and we just seemed to hit it off immediately. Over time he has frequently phoned me for an 'off record' conversation, to discuss new rule changes or talk about a driver he's thinking of signing or whatever, and I very much value the fact that he appears to trust me. I've always had great affection for him and his team.

Ron is less easy than Frank, and takes more getting to know, in the sense that he's less willing to confide. But the point is, he is worth getting to know: in my experience, if Ron tells you something, you can believe it absolutely, and you can't put a price on that, as far as I'm concerned. I can think of one team owner, for example, who told me something in a paddock one day last year - and the very next morning told me the complete opposite! The consequence of that, of course, is that you never believe a word he says...

Down the years, Frank and Ron have been intense rivals, but I think that fundamentally they are friends, yes. Certainly, there's a trust, an understanding, between them that exists between no other team owners, and they have consummate respect for each other. Believe me, it's not by chance that their teams have been far and away the most successful over the last 20-odd years. They live for what they do, and that sets them apart from the rest.

Dear Andrew,

Yes, years ago I had a scanner, which I took to the Grands Prix. This was at the time that pit-to-car radios were first becoming de rigueur, and I would spend hours, in practice sessions, listening to police messages and pilots and static before the thing would settle momentarily on to something familiar: 'Back off, Niki, the oil flags are out at the last corner - one of the Alfas has blown up...'

Now you had the frequency between Lauda and the McLaren pit, and you locked it into the memory, then let the thing scan away until it found something else of interest. It was a lengthy process, and somewhat hit-and-miss, because you needed a conversation to be in progress at the moment the scanner passed through the relevant frequency.

Easiest to find were the Lotus frequencies, because Ayrton Senna and Peter Warr, it seemed, were rarely off the air to each other. Locating others was rather more difficult, but eventually you finished up with a pretty full set, after which you discarded the nonentities, leaving in only the frequencies of the leading teams. Then you let the device scan through them, and sometimes there was considerable...insight to be had, let's say.

Fun, too. "My God!" one driver exclaimed after a qualifying session at the Osterreichring. "How d'you know about that?" This was a lovely fellow, but also a gullible one. I couldn't resist: "Well," I murmured, "I was near the Honda truck, and, well, you know..."
"What are you saying - the Honda guys can hear our radios?"
"You're putting words in my mouth..." I said.
"OK, say no more, I understand," he replied, and probably he tapped the side of his nose.

At the next race, he beckoned me to one side, looked about him conspiratorially. "You didn't get this from me, right?" Right, I said. "See that Honda truck over there? Well, they've got equipment in there you wouldn't believe. They can probably hear every goddam conversation in this paddock..."

For a while, my scanner served me well, not least in separating the honest from those economical with the truth. And occasionally there were stark reminders of what it is to be a racing driver. Mid-race at Monza in 1986, Senna was discussing tyre wear with Warr. Would the original set go the distance or not? "We've spoken to Goodyear, and they say it's marginal..."

Ayrton was silent for 15 seconds or so: "OK...we go for it," he said, finally. It was a moment to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Dear Richard,

What will be the main developments in F1 over the next 10 years? Well, for a start, I hope we have F1 in 10 years' time! Actually, I'm being facetious - but not entirely so. Years ago, Denis Jenkinson told me he suspected that one day F1 would 'implode', and while I think he was being more than a touch pessimistic, still there are times when I remember his remark. Undoubtedly, I think, the sport has been given a wake-up call in the last year or so. Bluntly, when something gets boring, people don't want to watch it - as last year's TV figures, and race attendances, proved.

Not a moment too soon, however, all involved parties - including the FIA and the team principals - got the message that something had to be done, and I think the recent rule changes - or most of them, anyway - are a move in the right direction. What is F1? A sport or a show? Fundamentally the former, I believe, but with some attention given to the latter. Of late, it has been neither, but merely a software exhibition.

As to how it will develop in the next 10 years, I have to say I have not a clue. Sorry, but it's true. Ten years ago, after all, Max Mosley banned the 'driver aids', and now, in 2003, he's doing exactly the same again!

As to your other question, about driver fitness and stamina, yes, it's true that the drivers of today need to be way fitter than used to be the case - but in a different way. Fangio may have had a bit of a spare tyre, but no one ever called his fitness into question, and Moss was probably the first Grand Prix driver to pay really careful attention to his physical condition. All right, he smoked - but so did everyone back then, and so, after all, did Keke Rosberg, right through his career. Even Michael Schumacher enjoys a cigar...

It was a different sort of fitness you needed in the time of Fangio and Moss. For one thing, the Grands Prix were considerably longer, and often lasted well over three hours. For another, they were more mentally taxing than they are now. Not only did a driver have to change gear, control the throttle on his own, manage without power steering, concentrate on not damaging his clutch, and all that stuff, he also lived - literally - on the edge of an accident that could easily kill him.

This came home strongly to Martin Brundle, who had a demonstration run in a 1955 Mercedes W196 at the Belgian Grand Prix in 1998. I talked to him about it afterwards, and this is what he had to say.

"What's never changed about Grand Prix racing is that the limit is the limit is the limit: go and find it. In other respects, though, I'm starting to understand there are huge differences in the job of the driver from one era to another.

"It was the first time I'd even sat in something like that, and I really didn't know what to expect. You knew the driving position was going to be odd, mind you, because there's a huge gearbox bell-housing between your knees, so the distance between the brake pedal and the clutch must be about two feet!

"It was a bit like Dr Who's 'phone box - bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Probably that's because your legs are splayed out, and the steering-wheel's big, and the bonnet seemed very long, almost like looking down the nose of a speedboat that you're trying to steer.

"You felt, too, as though you were sitting on the car, rather than in it, and the mirrors were like on a motorcycle - all you could see was your own shoulders. Clearly they didn't pay too much attention to what was going on behind them, but later on I began to understand why - you had to concentrate so bloody hard on what was going on in front of you! Physically, I found the car easy to drive, but mentally it was incredibly hard."

Inevitably, given his familiarity with the power-to-weight ratio of a contemporary F1 car, Martin's first impression of the W196 was that it was pretty gutless. "Mind you, that was a bit unfair, because it is a slog up from Eau Rouge to Les Combes. I didn't wear earplugs the first time, which was a mistake, because it was unbelievably noisy - I could hear it echoing off the grandstands, and it sounded fantastic."

Changing gear, too, was a little different. "On the last F1 car I'd driven, it was a matter of 20 milliseconds, flicking an index finger, but on this car it was a very conscious thing: you blip, you place the lever, you push it, all very deliberately. I really had to concentrate - it would have been quite easy, for example, to go from fifth to second...

"As far as handling was concerned, the car turned in quite nicely, and the basic balance was good, although suddenly there'd be some curious loads coming through the steering-wheel. In medium-speed corners, like Les Combes, you could place the car more or less where you wanted it."

And the brakes? Brundle laughed. "Well, because I always braked quite early for Les Combes, anyway, at first I didn't grasp that it didn't slow down very well, although, funnily enough, it seemed to depend on which corner you're in, and how fast you were going. Coming into the Bus Stop, for example, it didn't seem to want to slow at all..."

More and more, though, Martin began to appreciate the performance of this Mercedes. "I was supposed to be keeping pace with the Safety Car - and that was a special 5.5-litre Merc CLK, with Mass driving it. A very quick car, and Jochen was pushing quite hard, apparently, but he couldn't keep up with me. To be honest, I didn't think I was going that fast, but then I began to realise that this car must be quite slippery through the air. I gather they used to do over 180, and I was doing 150 or so through the kinks before Blanchimont."

It was at that point, Martin said, that he began to think about absence of seat-belts, roll-over bars, and the like. "I began to look around, and think, 'If you were going to hit something, what would you do?' In a modern car, if you're going to crash, you make sure you do certain things beforehand, but with this one I really had no idea what I'd do.

"When I was four, I blagged my way on to some bumper cars at Butlin's, and I'll never forget this old guy waving a finger at me, warning me I was going to hit the side. Eventually I did, and hit my head on the nut in the centre of the steering-wheel - got carried off to hospital, blood pouring from my face. When I got in the Merc, I thought, 'Jeez, if you hit something, there's going to be a nice imprint of a W196 steering-wheel on your chest...'

"I didn't slow down, because I was enjoying it so much, but I did begin to feel nervous in the high-speed corners, because occasionally the car seemed to have a mind of its own. It was rather like flying a helicopter, that sense that if you ever let anything develop, you'd have a hell of a job getting it back again.

"OK, in the back of a current F1 driver's mind is the acceptance that he might get hurt doing this, but back then it must have been right at the front of your mind, and very much part of your decision-making process. It isn't - at all - for the current drivers.

"Look at that Spa weekend: Jacques (Villeneuve) went there on a mission that he was going to get through Eau Rouge flat - but he knew that he wasn't going to die if he got it wrong! The guys who raced these cars...they didn't have that security. No soft landings for them.

"I'm sure their focus wasn't so much on a fraction of understeer or oversteer as on keeping the machinery together, not missing a gear, not hitting a wall; today's guys haven't got a clue about all that. I would think that at least half of them haven't the vaguest clue about what's going on underneath them - they just leave the engineers and the computers to do all that."

"I didn't know what to expect from this car. It wasn't as fast as I anticipated, in terms of power, but I had to remind myself that it was 44 years old - and only 2.5 litres. In every other way, though, I came out of it with even higher respect for the drivers of those days. I've been round the old Spa, and it's incredible to think they raced F1 cars round there. When you try and put together what you've felt in the car with a place like that...Jesus!"

Dear Chris,

No, I don't think you are alone! Most things to do with Ford and F1 are a mystery to me, and many others in the paddock, and have been for as long as I can remember - or, at least, since the days of Walter Hayes, a man who truly understood F1.

You mention Bobby Rahal's having the right idea, of getting a top designer before all else. Bobby is a friend of mine, and therefore I'm perhaps a little biased, but yes, I agree with you. He came within an ace of persuading his old mate Adrian Newey to leave McLaren for Jaguar, and, had that happened, I suspect that not only would Rahal still be running the team, but also that it would be in very much better shape than it is. Still...

Problem is, there really aren't too many Neweys around, are there?

Dear Niclaus,

Years ago I was asked to write a story for some magazine about the great lost talents of motor racing, in terms of drivers who had died before achieving what they should have done, and I put Stefan Bellof at the top of the list.

Wolfgang von Trips, who was killed at Monza in 1961 when on the verge of becoming World Champion, was long before my time as a journalist, of course, but from speaking to people who knew him well, von Trips sounds to have been remarkably similar to Bellof, both as driver and man. Fiercely quick, dedicated to racing, yet fun-loving away from the track, and wonderful company.

Stefan really was a delightful fellow, with a character very different from the 'next' great German driver. Nothing fazed him. In the appalling traffic on the way into the Dijon circuit, for the 1984 French Grand Prix, he - like everyone else - got badly delayed, but where the rest of us just sat there and swore, the insouciant Bellof simply drove his Porsche 911 through a farm gate, and proceeded to the circuit across ploughed fields!

Very pleased with that, he was, and it taught him a lesson, too. For ever after, it became his practice to arrive at a track very early in the morning, then sit down to breakfast with the Tyrrell mechanics. Gilles Villeneuve was very similar in that respect; no wonder that both men were so loved by their teams.

Martin Brundle, Bellof's Tyrrell team mate, once described him as "the fastest driver since Villeneuve", which was a hell of a compliment, honestly paid. In a racing car, Stefan was very much of that school, incredibly fast, with freakish reactions. Like Gilles, too, he was also apparently without a sense of fear.

Had the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix not been stopped, would he have won it? Yes, possibly - so long, that is, as he managed to keep it on the road for the duration, and the same goes for Ayrton Senna. As it was, the race, in truly dreadful conditions, was stopped after 31 of the scheduled 78 laps.

At that point, Senna's Toleman was on the point of passing Alain Prost's McLaren for the lead, and Bellof was running third, 13 seconds behind. Significantly, though, when the rain became really atrocious (ultimately leading to the stopping of the race), Bellof was catching Senna at a greater rate than Senna was catching Prost.

There were 27 drivers at Monaco that year, attempting to qualify for 20 positions on the grid, and Bellof was the last man to get in. At that time, Tyrrell continued to run the venerable Cosworth V8 engine, whereas every other team had turbo motors. While it may be said that, at Monaco, the throttle response of a normally-aspirated was preferable to that of a turbo, still the fact remains that the Cosworth was massively out-powered - and at Monte Carlo, with its multitude of short squirts between corners, that was a significant disadvantage, even in the wet.

Of course we'll never know whether Stefan would have beaten Ayrton that day, had the race run its full distance. With 47 laps to go, it's quite possible that he would have caught him, but getting by might have been a rather different matter - particularly when Senna was heading for what have been his first Grand Prix victory...

Interestingly, there are those who reckon that ultimately Senna or Bellof - or both - would have overdone it, as Nigel Mansell did earlier in the race, and that Prost would have gone on to win. Had that happened, of course - indeed, had Alain even been second - he would have been World Champion in 1984. As the race was stopped before half-distance, only half-points were awarded - and in those days you got only nine for a win. Thus, Prost got 4.5, and in the end he lost the title to Niki Lauda by only half a point. Even finishing second in a 'full' race would have given him six.

Would Bellof have gone on to win Grands Prix? I have no doubt at all - indeed, I believe he might well have been Germany's World Champion. Unquestionably he had the ability, and, although it has never been officially confirmed by Ferrari, there is little doubt that he would have partnered Michele Alboreto in the team in 1986. His death, in the '85 Spa 1000 Kms, was a dreadful loss to the sport, and even more of one to those who knew him.

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