Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 7

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. Send your questions to AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 7



Dear Paul,

You're right in your assertion that 2003 was the best year in F1 for a long time, and also that 2004 will be hard pressed to match it - but don't worry about it! If it happens, it happens, but you and I have no power to affect it one way or another, and there's no point in worrying about something you cannot influence.

Actually, I think there's an excellent chance that this season might be even better than last. For one thing, all my commonsense and logic tell me that Michael Schumacher is not going to be World Champion in 2004, and that is something for which all but the most blinkered Schuey fan must wish. You've had six titles now, Michael, including four on the trot, and we really do need someone else to win it.

What are we expecting? Well, first of all, it's virtually guaranteed that Ferrari will produce another great car, and there's no doubt that Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello constitute a superb driving partnership. You have to wonder, though, if perhaps Michael has now peaked. At 35, he has been doing this for more than a dozen years, and although he says his hunger for success is as keen as ever, you have to wonder if it can be.

Sooner or later, it becomes apparent, by degrees, that a driver is not quite what he was - if only in the sense that he is not always quite what he was. In the late stages of last season, as he fought to keep hold of his status as World Champion, Schumacher's motivation was indeed muscular, but there were occasions - most notably in Hungary - when he was plain lacklustre in a way we would once have thought inconceivable. And his drive at Suzuka, the last race of the year, was simply atrocious. What I'm trying to say is this: without a doubt Michael can still turn it on, and out-drive the rest, but I wonder if he can retain the will to do it every fortnight.

Barrichello, overall the best qualifier of 2003, was quite often quicker than Schumacher, and if Ferrari is smart enough to renew his contract beyond the end of this year, and give him confidence in his future with the team, I have a feeling that Rubens could be truly formidable in 2004.

When speaking about Ferrari's prospects, of course so much depends on Bridgestone. Every other major team is on Michelins, and if Bridgestone don't do a better job than in 2003, Schumacher and Barrichello may truly be up against it a lot of the time.

They were lucky last year, in the sense that Williams-BMW took way too long to hone the FW25, that McLaren ran the entire season with a revamp of the 2002 MP4-17, being unable to circumvent problems with the more radical MP4-18, and that Renault's superb R23 was compromised by its lack of horsepower. Now, in early January, the Williams FW26 and McLaren MP4-19 are already testing, and the Renault R24 will have a more powerful, if more conventional, V10 than its predecessor.

There are some pretty motivated young drivers around, let's face it. It's unlikely that Jaguar, strapped for cash, will be able to give Mark Webber the car his talent deserves, but Juan Montoya and Ralf Schumacher are much encouraged by their early impressions of the FW26, and if Mercedes can step up to the horsepower plate, Kimi Raikkonen will fly in the MP4-19 - as also could David Coulthard, mindful of the fact that he will be looking for a new contract at the end of the year. As for Renault, we already know what Fernando Alonso can do.

Given that BAR have made the switch to Michelin, we also have to bear in mind Jenson Button. Going into his fifth season of F1, Jenson is a number one driver for the first time. That brings with it new responsibilities, of course, but he has a great deal of experience now, and few doubt he will rise to the challenge. It remains to be seen whether or not Honda can do the same.

Given that we have not yet seen the new Ferrari or Renault, and that the first meaningful tests have yet to be run, I'm mighty reluctant to do much crystal ball gazing just now. JPM? Ralf? Kimi? Fernando? Rubens? I think it would be the best for the sport if Montoya won the World Championship, because he's a tremendous natural racer, and - unusually - has the personality to go with it. Whatever, I just have the feeling it isn't going to be Michael.



Dear Rudy,

Happy New Year to you, too, and to everyone.

Yes, time was when enthusiasts had many more opportunities than now to see Grand Prix cars in action. If there were far fewer Grandes Epreuves (races counting for the World Championship), there were a great many non-championship races. In 1967, the year of my 21st birthday, for example, by the end of April I had already seen three Formula 1 races - in England.

In terms of the quality of the entry, far and away the best was for the Daily Mail Race of Champions, run at an arctic Brands Hatch on March 12. Dan Gurney's new Eagle, with Weslake V12 engine, won on its debut, beating Lorenzo Bandini in the latest Ferrari 312 by less than half a second.

Then, at Oulton Park, came the Spring Cup, this assuredly the only 'charity event' in the entire history of F1. In fact, it was for a cause close to the drivers' hearts, all the proceeds going to the newly-established Grand Prix Medical Service, whose fully equipped unit - literally a hospital on wheels - was on display. The plan was to take it to all the European circuits, where on-site medical and rescue services were invariably lamentable in those days.

Jack Brabham narrowly won the race, from Brabham team mate Denny Hulme, and the third round of this English mini-series, the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone, went to Mike Parkes, whose Ferrari beat Brabham comprehensively.

It was, of course, rare for a non-championship race to pull a full 'Grand Prix' entry, but usually you got a pretty representative field. Some teams would attend this race, but not that, while others would send only one car, or whatever.

Go way back, though, and the picture was something else again. Many of today's fans have literally no idea how Grand Prix racing was, say, 50 years ago, when countless towns in Europe (mainly in France and Italy) would close their streets one weekend a year, put out some straw bales, and have themselves a race! As Stirling Moss has always rightly maintained, racing had a romance then unimaginable to anyone who never witnessed it.

Let's go back 50 years, to the 1954 season. There may have been only eight World Championship Grands Prix (at Buenos Aires, Spa, Reims, Silverstone, the Nurburgring, Berne, Monza and Barcelona), but there were also non-championship F1 races at - deep breath - Syracuse, Pau, Bordeaux, Bari, Rome, Chimay, Rouen, Caen, Pescara, Cadours and Avus.

And that's not counting the UK, either. If you were a British fan back then, you had the chance to see F1 cars racing at Goodwood (three meetings), Snetterton (2), Davidstow, Crystal Palace (2), Silverstone, Oulton Park, Castle Combe and Aintree. Makes the current British racing scene seem more than a little sad, doesn't it? And we haven't even got into the major sports car races...



Dear Graeme,

Ye Gods! To give an absolutely comprehensive answer to your question, I'd need to sit down with all my Autocourses, and so on, and check through every season, but, short of that, let's think about four seasons that come quickly to mind.

First, 1961. Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips, Richie Ginther, Jo Bonnier, Dan Gurney, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Innes Ireland, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, Tony Brooks, Stirling Moss, John Surtees...

Then, 1967. Jack Brabham, Denny Hulme, Chris Amon, Jimmy Clark, Graham Hill, John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodriguez, Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Jo Siffert...

On to 1979. Mario Andretti, Carlos Reutemann, Didier Pironi, Niki Lauda, Nelson Piquet, John Watson, Jody Scheckter, Gilles Villeneuve, Emerson Fittipaldi, Rene Arnoux, Elio de Angelis, James Hunt, Patrick Depailler, Jacques Laffite, Alan Jones, Clay Regazzoni, Riccardo Patrese...

Last, 1984. Nelson Piquet, Stefan Bellof, Keke Rosberg, Jacques Laffite, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda, Elio de Angelis, Nigel Mansell, Patrick Tambay, Thierry Boutsen, Ayrton Senna, Riccardo Patrese, Michele Alboreto, Rene Arnoux...

Pretty fair spread of talent in all those years, I think. In 1961, there were five drivers who make the World Champions list; in '67 there were seven; in '79 there were seven; in '84 there were six. Going into 2004, we have Michael Schumacher and, er, that's it...



Dear Andrew,

I wouldn't quite agree with you that Gary Anderson's Jordan 191 was the most attractive car of the modern era - for me, that is John Barnard's Ferrari 412T2 from 1995 - but certainly it comes close. I remember seeing the 191 for the first time, and thinking how dramatic it was, svelte and swoopy, in that lovely green. And of course it had the great distinction of looking different from any of its rivals.

Given that EJ did not have top-class drivers in his team that first year, and that money was extremely tight (familiar ring, hasn't it?), the 191 was remarkably competitive, thanks in part to its Ford HB V8.

Looking back to that race at Spa, yes, it's true that Andrea de Cesaris was indeed within three or four seconds of Ayrton Senna's McLaren in the late laps, and had his engine not blown up, he might well have beaten him. But it wasn't quite as simple as that. For one thing, Ayrton had earlier been delayed by a slow tyre stop - and for another he had a serious gearbox problem, and was able to find only third, fourth and fifth for much of the time. Third is not exactly what you need for La Source...

Still, Andrea was indeed unlucky that day. He was, I recall, on particularly combative form at Spa, perhaps because he had a new team mate that weekend. After the hot-headed Bertrand Gachot had stupidly sprayed CS gas in the face of a London cab driver, and been sent to prison, Eddie Jordan looked around for a replacement driver for Spa, and found rather a good one. The 22-year-old qualified seventh in his very first F1 race, four places ahead of de Cesaris.

Thus did the F1 world become acquainted with one Michael Schumacher. And that is primarily what I remember of Spa '91 and the Jordan 191.



Dear Daniel,

Both Alonso and Webber had their first F1 seasons with Minardi (Fernando in 2002, Mark the year after), and made a great impression. I'll admit, though, that while I expected Alonso quickly to emerge as a world-class talent, in 2003 Webber surprised me - I really hadn't thought he was that good, and as far as I'm concerned he was the revelation of the season.

Looking at the crop of new drivers for 2004, I can't truly say I expect much of someone like Baumgartner, who was singularly unimpressive in his two Jordan drives in '03, but folk keep telling that Christian Klien - taken on by Jaguar, complete with Red Bull sponsorship - really could be a special talent. Watch this space.



Dear Maxine,

For me, it's an easy one to answer. Over time I've known a lot of racing drivers who were fun to interview - Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Alan Jones, Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, Jacques Laffite, Clay Regazzoni, Alain Prost, Gerhard Berger, Jean Alesi, etc - but I'm pretty sure that anyone who ever interviewed him would agree: there's never been anyone like Mario Andretti.

Why? Because he, more than any other driver I've known, was smart enough to realise that journalists, too, have a job to do, and the better the quotes you give them, the better their stories will be - and the better they will reflect on you. Jody Scheckter, I remember, was for ever asking why so many press guys wrote so much about Andretti, and that was the answer I gave him.

Throw in the fact that Mario had - and has - a fantastic sense of humour, with wonderfully laconic delivery, and that he would always say what he thought, rather than come out with some politically correct mumbo-jumbo, and maybe you can understand why we all loved to talk to him. On top of everything else, he had a pure love of motor racing the like of which I have never seen in anyone else.

How could a journalist go wrong with quotes like these?

"Langhorne - it seemed like every time they ran there, somebody would buy the farm. When a guy like (Rodger) Ward refused to run there on safety grounds, it had to be one spooky place. But I was getting started in the big time, full of vinegar. My hands were like raw hamburger meat afterwards.

"To me, there's no finer sight than an evening sprint car show - the stands and infield in darkness, with just the track floodlit. You get a big field of those babies down there, waiting to go. Just beautiful. And when they get moving! The alcohol flames from the exhausts, and that deep, muscular, noise... Yeah, it's magic.

"From the standpoint of pure fun, sheer pleasure, I'd have to say that championship dirt racing is what I really get a kick out the most. To pitch those things sideways into a turn at over 130mph is just something else. Just to see them sitting in the pits is enough to give you goosebumps...'

"The '60s...good days in the sprint cars - before they made those goddam roll cages compulsory. I believed - and I still do - that those things encouraged a lack of discipline. If a guy wasn't too worried about getting on his head, he would take chances he wouldn't have done before. Some of those guys think the thing is there to be used, like it's a piece of normal equipment on the car! The cages have taken away a lot of the finesse, both in the driving and in the racing. However, I accept that they've saved a few people. It used to be that interlocking wheels was a life-threatening thing - you flipped one of those things, and you were looking at a big headache. Maybe for ever...

"After my first drive in an Indy car at Trenton, Rodger Ward drove it in Firestone tests. After two laps, he came in, and declared it impossible to drive. 'Young man,' he says, 'as bad as this car handles, you could be the greatest driver in the history of racing. Either that, or you're the bravest dago I've ever met...'

"Clint Brawner ran the first Indy team I ever drove for, and he and Colin Chapman were the most important figures in my career, no question. But Brawner was a maddening kind of guy in some ways. Don't ask him the time - he'll tell you how the goddam watch was built!

"I'll always think my best drive was at Sebring in 1970. I was co-driving with Merzario in a Ferrari 512 roadster, but we retired, and I took over Giunti/Vaccarella coupe, which running second behind the Porsche 908 driven by Peter Revson and Steve McQueen. What really drove me was all this talk 'the McQueen Porsche', when he hardly touched the thing throughout all the 12 hours! I never went harder than that night at Sebring - I truly drove like a man possessed. No way I was going to let a goddam movie actor win the race!

"I use an airfield near to my home, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Actually, there's another one even closer, but the runway isn't really long enough, and it's a bit too character-building on a regular basis...

"I'm not impressed by money in itself - not unless people have done something to earn a life in first class. What I really hate are these rich nothings, who never did a thing in their lives.

"Colin Chapman was always paranoid about weight in a race car. At Kyalami in '78 he decides to take out three gallons of gas on the grid. I says, 'Colin, if I run out, it's your ass...' 'Trust me,' he says. And guess what? It's the end of the race, I'm in the lead - and I run out. Afterwards, Colin made himself kinda scarce... Working with him was no trip to Paris, but you're always going to have problems with a genius, right?

"I figure I was put on this earth to drive race cars. I'd probably drive them for nothing if I had to. But I don't have to...

"What makes him tick? God knows - a bomb, let's hope...

"I have no time for people who won't help themselves - but that's not the same as people who can't...

"Jesus, the luck of Chris (Amon). I tell you, if he went into the undertaking business, people would stop dying...

"Nothing rejuvenates you like the centre of the podium - no matter how you get there.

"I ran the Pikes Peak hill climb a few times - wow! Thirteen miles or whatever, not a barrier in sight. There's places there where, if you go off, it's going to be a long time before you feel anything...

"That first corner shunt between Senna and Prost at Suzuka? Senna's fault, no question. He says there was a gap there, and he went for it, right? Well, believe me, if there'd have been no run-off area, there'd have been no gap. The trick is to find one wide enough for a car, right? I know that better than most people..."

Hope that gives you a flavour of the man, Maxine. Kimi's got a little ground to make up.

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