Ask Nigel Roebuck: January 8

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 8

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Dear Christof,

I think Nick Heidfeld is an excellent professional, but I've never seen him as one of those once-and-for-all talents so sought after by the likes of Ferrari, Williams and McLaren. Given his previous links with McLaren, it would have been easy - and, indeed, logical - for Ron Dennis to put him in the F1 team, when Mika Hakkinen retired, but I think that, down the road, RD was looking for someone who could be World Champion one day, and concluded that Kimi was a much better bet than Nick. Not too many would disagree with him on that, quite honestly.

After a test programme colossal by F3000 standards, Heidfeld was indeed highly impressive in the 1998 season, and you're quite right that the 'illegal' fuel problem (a technicality, rather than something which gave him any performance advantage) was nothing to do with him, but at the same time I don't really understand how you can say that he was 'better than Juan Montoya over the whole season in the same car'. Granted, JPM was perhaps less consistent, but I'd argue that there were far more signs of latent greatness in him than in Nick. And he did win more races...

Heidfeld has done a generally fine job with Sauber, but his first year in F1 was not terribly impressive. All right, a Prost-Peugeot was hardly the greatest car in which to make your debut, but I remember that Alain Prost was not impressed with his attitude. "However much trouble we're in," he said, "Jean [Alesi] always gives everything he has, but Nick... He's crashing a lot, which is normal for a young guy, but I'm more worried about his state of mind. He's very talanted, but he's not making the most of his potential. I think maybe he's a guy to have with you when things are going well, but not when things are going badly..."

Dear Grahame,

You're right, time was when all grand prix cars didn't look as if they came from the same mould - but that was before the age of the wind-tunnel. Once in a while, you get a 'different' looking car - like that dreadful 'twin wing' MP4-10 produced by McLaren in 1995 - but, by and large, they tend to look very similar these days, more's the pity.

I, too, remember the launch of the Lotus 80, but, oddly enough, my feelings about were different from yours. I don't want to sound clever after the event, but when I first laid eyes on it, what struck me was that it looked like the predecessor to the gorgeous Lotus 79, rather than its successor. True enough, it did have an attractive colour scheme - green, the team sponsored in 1979 by Martini - but I thought that the 79 (to which the team quickly reverted, following the 80's evident shortcomings) looked even better. The 80 looked such a large car, I thought.

In terms of cars that failed to live up to their looks, I think there's a strong case to be made for Ferrari's 412T2, which was driven by Gerhard Berger and Jean Alesi in 1995. This car, the last F1 car with a V12 engine, was designed by John Barnard, and featured - at a time when everyone else had followed the ugly 'raised nose' route pioneered by Harvey Postlethwaite at Tyrrell - an elegantly conventional 'droop' nose, and was indeed a simply beautiful race car, unequalled since.

As great as it may have been to look at, however, the 412T2 was rarely able to take on the V10 Renault-powered opposition of Benetton and Williams. The consumption of its V12 engine was way higher, for one thing, which meant that was it was always carrying more fuel (and therefore running heavier) than its rivals, and nor was it conspicuously reliable. Certainly, there was some bad luck, too, but the fact remains that the car won only one race (Alesi in Montreal); if looks had been points, it would have walked the World Championship.

Dear Patrick,

I quite agree with you about Masten. When I was a kid, I saw him drive many times, and it seemed to me that he had loads of natural ability. He was also abnormally brave. My first recollection of him was in a Ferrari sports car - his own car, in the white and blue colours of America - at an Aintree meeting late in 1954. I was only eight at the time, and don't remember too much about it, but I do recall the sight of that huge car sideways in the rain.

Gregory was very much imbued with 'European style' racing, at his best on fast, open, road circuits, such as Pescara. In 1957 he drove the Scuderia Centro-Sud Maserati 250F with some distinction, and two years later landed a drive in the Cooper factory team, alongside Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren. In fact, this was to be his only 'works' drive in F1, and I never really understood why, because he was invariably very quick, if a little wild.

The 1959 Aintree 200 is a race which sticks in my mind, because I was there, and it was the last win for my great hero, Jean Behra, in a Ferrari. On the pole that day, though, was Gregory, and he led the race until he retired, as far as I remember. His best finish in a Grand Prix that season was second to Stirling Moss in Portugal, the race run that year on the spectacular Monsanto road circuit.

Perhaps his most memorable performance, though, was at Avus, where his Cooper alone ran in company with the three Ferraris of Tony Brooks, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill. This track was no great test of a driver, but the Cooper had far less power than the Ferraris, and Masten was able to run with them - until his car expired - only by hanging on in their slipstream, driving much of the time with one hand, his other being needed to keep his visor in place! It was pure heroism, and typical of him.

Thereafter, Gregory continued in F1, albeit with lesser teams, but the biggest win of his life was at Le Mans in 1965, when he shared a North American Racing Team Ferrari 275LM with Jochen Rindt. That, by coincidence, was the first time I ever went to Le Mans, and I recall that the car had a major problem in the early stages, putting it many laps behind. When the car had been fixed, Masten and Jochen agreed that they would drive absolutely flat out for as long as it lasted, and that they did - eventually winning. Later it was established that the Ferrari lasted just long enough - it literally could not have done another lap - and I remember the truly dreadful noise it made as the drivers did their traditional walking-pace 'cruise' in front of the stands, after taking the flag!

Gregory's career was punctuated by an enormous number of accidents - he was, as I said, uncommonly brave - but he was quick right to the end of his career, and the last car I remember him driving was a Porsche 908.

After he had retired, and I had become a racing journalist, I met him a few times here and there, and always found him delightful. Something of a hedonist, he believed absolutely that life was there to be enjoyed, and he was great company, coming out with his one-liners in a wonderfully slow, deep, drawl, which he never lost, even after years and years of living in Europe. A real character. As a driver, he was way better than his results might suggest, and on his day one of the quickest of all. It must mean something that Jimmy Clark's hero, before he made the bigtime
himself, was Masten Gregory...

Dear Jim,

No, on the face of it, I can't. While I think it's fair to say that neither Mika Salo nor Allan McNish was/is a potential World Champion, both did a good job for a team in its first year of F1, and have some cause to feel aggrieved by their dismissal. In the case of McNish, his contract was up at the end of 2002, and for much of the season there were murmurings that it would not be renewed, but the decision to drop Salo was a great surprise - not only to Mika himself, but also to Ove Andersson!

There is no doubt that Andersson was personally keen for Salo - who was under contract to the end of 2003 - to stay, but the decision to drop him was taken 'in Japan', and is believed to have been based on marketing considerations. These days, in some cases, a driver's nationality seems to be almost as important as his ability.

Toyota, it must be said, does not have a reputation for...sentimentality, let's say, when it comes to motor racing. Dan Gurney call tell you all about that.

All that said, Olivier Panis is a good choice for team leader, I think. He is highly underrated by many people - although not by members of the McLaren team, for which he worked as test driver in 2000. Indeed, many were in favour of putting him in the race team when it became known that Mika Hakkinen was not going to continue in 2002. Panis is a brilliant test driver, and will put those abilities to good use in his new job.

Cristiano da Matta, thus far, is proving a little off the pace, finding a contemporary F1 car very different from the Newman-Haas Lola-Toyota in which he dominated the 2002 CART season. Those who have seen a lot of him, though, have tremendous belief in him. When Toyota decided to ditch CART, and switch to the IRL, da Matta had little interest in going with them, and it made sense for the company to maintain a link with him, and bring him into F1.

Dear Carlos,

My feelings about Nelson Piquet were always a touch equivocal. On the one hand, I thought he had tremendous natural talent, as well as a very clever racing brain; out of the car he could - in the right mood - be excellent company, with a fine, irreverent, sense of humour, and a willingness to say exactly what he thought. This last quality, almost unknown today, was of course highly valued by the members of the press.

Without any doubt, Nelson was happiest during his long spell with Brabham. The mechanics, whom he treated as friends, adored him, and their quest to help him to the World Championship was an unusually personal one. In short, it was far more than the normal team-driver relationship.

Problem was, Piquet's opinion of his worth, as a two-time World Championship, did not tally with Bernie Ecclestone's, and when he received a substantial offer from Williams to replace the departing Keke Rosberg, for 1986, he took it. At Brabham, they were heartbroken, but they understood.

In his two seasons with Williams-Honda, there were many more victories, even another World Championship, but he never enjoyed life there as much as at Brabham, not least because he and team mate Nigel Mansell emphatically did not get along. Nelson believed he had joined the team as number one driver, but often Nigel was the quicker of the two, and a deep mistrust developed between them.

His two seasons with Lotus, in 1988 and '89, were rather tragic. The team was by then in serious decline, and frequently Piquet seemed not to bother himself at all; it was sad to see a great driver languishing towards the tail of the field, and once in a while he failed even to qualify.

Largely on the recommendation of Jackie Stewart, Benetton-Ford hired him, and on occasions there were flashes of the old Nelson; he won three races for the team, and was highly rewarded for them, for the team - also at JYS's suggestion, in light of his lacklustre showings for Lotus - paid him 'on results'.

At the end of '91, he left Benetton, who preferred to concentrate on their new star, Michael Schumacher, and got a drive at the Indianapolis 500 in '92. After running some very quick laps in practice, sadly he had a colossal accident at the exit of turn four, and suffered appalling leg injuries, from which he has recovered well.

Piquet still shows up at the Brazilian Grand Prix each year, and his sharp tongue has lost none of its edge. He always had a mischievous character, and some of the remarks he made over time - about such as Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Enzo Ferrari - left some of us occasionally feeling a touch uncomfortable. Nothing was ever 'off limits' to Nelson, and he remains that way to this day.

While not quite on par with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost - he never had their dedication, apart from anything else - Piquet was nevertheless a great driver, and probably history tends to undervalue him.

Dear Chus,

I think Renault could have quite a good season in 2003, but I'll be surprised if they very often frighten Williams and McLaren, let alone Ferrari. The ultra-wide-angle V10 has been retained for another year, and while undoubtedly it progressed considerably last season, it is unlikely to threaten such as BMW and Ferrari in the horsepower battle.

Fernando Alonso has replaced Jenson Button in the team, of course, and I suspect that Alonso may turn out to be one of those 'special talents', perhaps on the level of Juan Montoya and Kimi Raikkonen. It will surprise me if, over the season, he doesn't get the better of Jarno Trulli, who apparently has speed - over one lap, anyway - to throw away, but too rarely produces a race performance to equal his qualifying pace. In a way, I hope I'm wrong about this, because Jarno is a delightful guy, and undoubtedly has great ability; it would be splendid in 2003 to see him finally deliver on all that promise.

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