Ask Nigel Roebuck July 9

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. Send your questions to

Ask Nigel Roebuck July 9

For some years now, the IRL has run a certain number of night races, and this year CART, of course, ran one for the first time at Milwaukee - and a great success it was, by all accounts, with a very good crowd.

Those races, though, were of course all run on ovals, so the event at Cleveland is the first single-seater night race I can remember. Given that it's flat, run at an airport, where lighting won't be a problem, and that the track is unusually wide, with a considerable number of different 'lines' available, I suspect it will work well. Quite apart from anything, running the race in the evening will sidestep the overwhelming humidity which invariably characterises the Cleveland race.

I could be wrong, but I tend to agree with you that it's unlikely we'll have a night race in F1 any time soon, but I'd be quite happy to see one - so long, that is, as it was run on Saturday, rather than Sunday evening! That way, we could write out reports through the night, and then get Sunday morning flights home.

At which track would I most like to see an F1 race at night? Why, Spa-Francorchamps, of course, or perhaps Suzuka. Spa for the moment is gone from the schedule (although hopes remain that it will return in 2004), but these two are consummately the best circuits left for grand prix racing, and I reckon the sight of F1 cars through Eau Rouge or 130R at night could be fairly stimulating, to say the least.

Both Spa and Suzuka, though, are long by current standards, and lighting them adequately would not be the work of a moment, and would cost a fortune. Nice thought, though, isn't it?

Yes, Magny-Cours, by comparison with some venues at which the French Grand Prix has been held, is indeed a little sterile, in the way that so many recently-built 'autodromes' are, but I have to say I think it considerably better than some on the contemporary World Championship calendar. There is, at least, an excellent overtaking spot - into the 'Adelaide' hairpin - and changes have been made to the track this year, both aimed at improved overtaking opportunities. So while Magny-Cours, I agree, is not a memorable Grand Prix circuit, it is by no means the worst on the schedule.

Of all the tracks previously used for the French Grand Prix, my favourites are Rouen Les Essarts and Clermont-Ferrand, and quite honestly it's not easy to make a choice between them. Both were classic open road circuits, of the kind which has now all but disappeared from F1, sadly, and would never be countenanced as GP venues now, on grounds of safety, apart from anything else.

Rouen is not far from my house in Normandy, and quite often I drive over there, just for the pleasure of doing a few laps around what was one of the greatest circuits in the history of the sport. The downhill section, where were taken the legendary photos of Fangio sideways in the Maserati 250F in '57, still takes my breath away every time I see it.

A great memory of Rouen Les Essarts is the F2 race in 1972, in which Emerson Fittipaldi (Lotus) had a great battle with Mike Hailwood (Surtees). The last meeting I attended there was, I think, in 1992; the circuit closed for ever a year or so later, and it broke my heart when, not long ago, and for no reason that I can understand, they knocked down the pits.

A week after the Fittipaldi/Hailwood battle in '72, I was at Clermont for the French Grand Prix. I had previously been there, as a spectator, for the '69 race, which was easily won by Jackie Stewart in the Tyrrell-run Matra MS80, the car which remains JYS's favourite to this day.

He also won in '72, but this time there was a considerable amount of luck involved, for clearly the quickest car and driver in the race that day were Chris Amon and the factory-entered Matra MS120D V12. Amon adored this circuit, and the Matra - all handling, no power - was in its element there. Chris started from pole position, and led confidently from the start, chased by Denny Hulme (McLaren), Stewart (Tyrrell), Fittipaldi (Lotus) and Jacky Ickx (Ferrari). Ickx's team-mate that day was one Nanni Galli, a middling sports car driver drafted in by Ferrari to replace the injured Clay Regazzoni.

While never quick, Galli seemed to spend a considerable amount of his time off the road, which, as a consequence, became showered with small, sharp, stones. Galli was by no means the only one at fault in this regard, but he was responsible for a fair amount of the stones on the track - which, inevitably, caused a crop of punctures, including to the cars of Hulme and the luckless Amon.

Tyre changing was not a routine feature of F1 in those days, and, believe it or not, Amon was stationary for 50 seconds before being able to get on his way again, now down in eighth place. In an angry, and particularly determined mood, Chris positively scythed through the field, at one point overtaking Francois Cevert's Tyrrell and Ronnie Peterson's March on the same lap! He completely destroyed the lap record, eventually lapping within half a second of his pole lap. It was a quite mesmeric drive, but it brought Chris only third place, behind Stewart and Fittipaldi. Another lap, and probably he would have got by Emerson, too.

That, sadly, was the end of Clermont Ferrand as a Grand Prix venue, although a shortened version of the track still exists, and is used for minor meetings.

A bit of everything, probably. True enough, Jordan had a great year in '99, and a pretty good one in '98, but more often than not the team's results have consistently fallen short of expectations.

It's fact that EJ's team has never had a budget comparable with those of the very top teams, but there have been years when he has had a reasonable amount of cash to work with, and still the much-anticipated breakthrough still awaits. In '99, when Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a World Championship contender for much of the season, it looked as though the corner had been turned, but...

Over time many in the paddock have suggested that Eddie simply doesn't want success as much as such Ron Dennis and Frank Williams. While it's true that Ron and Frank are enormously rich men, both would argue - with some justification - that their wealth has come as a result of their success, and they might - also with some justification - suggest that many F1 team owners have become extremely rich without having achieved very much in the way of success.

Particularly in the case of FW, there never was any doubt that, when times were hard, 'all the money was ploughed back into the business'. This is a man, after all, who for a brief time operated out of a 'phone box, pretending to be in an office! And that, I would suggest, is penury of a kind few in F1 have ever experienced.

Over the last 18 months Eddie Jordan has had to rethink his whole F1 operation, following a considerable loss of sponsorship, notably from Deutsche Post. A great deal of cost-cutting was necessary, and the number of personnel employed by Jordan Grand Prix is not what it was. On the whole, there has been admiration for the way EJ has tackled his problems, but this year - with 'customer' engines from Cosworth - has been another difficult one. At Interlagos Giancarlo Fisichella drove a fine race, and was rewarded with a fortunate victory (the team's first since 1999), but otherwise there has been only a single point by Ralph Firman to add to the team's score.

I confess that I long felt, during the days of plenty, that the team tended to spend too much time on things that didn't really matter. There was, for example, something of a preoccupation with 'celebs' and publicity and general 'spin' - but at the same time not too much was being achieved on the race track.

In the early part of last season, the Jordan team, like several others, had to face the fact that life had changed, that the days of companies throwing money at F1 were over, at least for a while. Eddie had to lay off a number of people in the team, and spoke often of a new 'mean and lean' approach to racing. Times have been hard since, but Ron Dennis, for one, believes that there has been a fundamental shift in the way things are done at Jordan, with perhaps a greater concentration on the things that really matter.

Thank you for the compliments - much appreciated, as always. Now, how fast would Michael Schumacher be in a Minardi? Impossible to know, isn't it? But before we belittle Minardi too much, it's worth remembering that Pierluigi Martini did stick his car on the front row of the grid in the US Grand Prix at Phoenix in, as far as I remember, 1991, so there have been times when to be in a Minardi was not necessarily to start from the back...

Assuming we're speaking here of the current car, all we can reasonably say for certain is that Schumacher would drive at a speed to which... it had been formerly unaccustomed, let's say. No disrespect here to Jos Verstappen or Justin Wilson, both of whom I reckon highly (how I wish a team like Jaguar would give Justin a test), but Michael is Michael is Michael...

Recently Paul Stoddart talked about the day Schumacher hired one of the Minardi two-seaters for a day at Fiorano. This was at the end of the 2001 season, and in the course of the day he gave an enormous number of rides to friends and colleagues, about the only one who missed out being Ross Brawn, who was having an operation at the time.

At the time Minardi's number one driver was Fernando Alonso, who made his F1 debut that year. "Alonso, as we know, is a pretty special talent," said Stoddart, "and his best time around Fiorano in the race car that year was 1m 02.10s. Well, Michael took the two-seater - with me in the back! - round in 1m 04.60s, and later on, with another passenger, he got down to 1-04 dead! Pretty remarkable, when you think about it..."

You can't really argue, can you? No one would suggest that Schuey would put a Minardi on the pole, or anything close to it, but I'll warrant he would shake a few people up...

What you say is undeniably right. Alan Jones (1980), Keke Rosberg ('82), Nelson Piquet ('87), Nigel Mansell ('92), Alain Prost ('93), Damon Hill ('96) and Jacques Villeneuve ('97) all won the World Championship with Williams, but none went on to duplicate the feat.

I think it's worth bearing in mind, though, that four of the seven drivers were not actually with the Williams team the year after they won their titles. Piquet left for Lotus at the end of '87, Mansell flounced off to the Newman/Haas CART team at the end of '92, Prost retired from driving at the end of '93, and Damon Hill was sacked by the team at the end of '96.

Looking at the others: Jones, I think, drove even better in '81 than he had the year before, and could easily have won the championship again, given a little better luck, and Rosberg, too, was mightily impressive in '83, winning brilliantly at Monaco, and fighting a lone battle against 'the turbo brigade' all year long in his Cosworth-powered FW08C.

For the next couple of years, Keke frequently excelled in the turbo Honda-powered cars, but although the engine had a lot of power, it was not at all driver-friendly - he described it as being like a light switch: on or off - and the chassis of those years, too, were not the best. For all that, though, Rosberg had some brilliant wins, at such as Dallas and Detroit.

As for Jacques, his big problem was that at the end of '97, the year in which he won his championship, Renault pulled out, and for next couple of seasons Williams were obliged to buy 'customer' engines from Renault, these badged as 'Supertec'. They remained good, reliable, motors, but R&D was nothing like what it had been in the 'pure Renault' days, and Williams soon struggled in the horsepower race.

That being so, for '99 Jacques figured there was little to be lost in going with the new BAR team, founded by his manager and longtime mentor, Craig Pollock, which was also to use Supertec engines. In fact, he was completely wrong, as it turned out, and since his career has been pretty much in the doldrums, but at least he has become enormously rich along the way...

It is a fact that at Williams the philosophy has always been that Grand Prix drivers are big boys, who should be able to look after themselves. If cosseting and constant reassurance are what you need, in other words, this is a team best avoided. Alan Jones was very much a natural Williams driver, in other words, whereas guys like Carlos Reutemann and Heinz-Harald Frentzen were not. A no-nonsense outfit, in other words, where evidence of political correctness is thin on the ground. Perhaps this is why I have always had such affection for the works of Frank and Patrick...

For sheer speed, yes, I think that 'on his day' Gerhard was indeed a match for anyone, but he would be the last to suggest that, in overall terms, he was the equal of Prost or, particularly, Senna. "For sure," he said to me once, "Ayrton was the best driver I ever raced against, and, equally sure, Alain was the next best." And after that? "Nelson (Piquet)," he answered.

When Gerhard was really on it, however, in the right frame of mind, and in a car which suited his style, he was truly formidable. I think particularly of the last two races of 1987, at Suzuka and Adelaide, both of which he completely dominated in the turbocharged Ferrari - the car which was to remain his favourite to the end of his career.

Once Berger was teamed with Senna, at McLaren in 1990, I think he had cause to reassess himself. "The year before, I'd been with Mansell at Ferrari, and out-qualified him more often than not. I went to McLaren, with Senna, got pole position at my first race, Phoenix, and thought, 'No problem'. And I never beat him again!"

If there is one particular race, though, which will always come to mind when I think of Gerhard Berger, it is the German Grand Prix of 1997.

At the time he had missed three races, thanks to sinus surgery, and was only too aware that during his absence many had suggested he should quit. Then, shortly before his comeback, his father was killed in a light aircraft accident; the funeral took place only a couple of days before qualifying. Gerhard took pole position, then utterly dominated the race.

"That was my best win," he says, "a very special race for me. All that weekend I felt I was somewhere else - this speed was just coming, coming, you know, and I didn't know from where! There was so much in my mind...losing my father, and also the fact that at that time no one believed in me any more. Everybody was saying, 'Yeah, he's a nice guy - but why doesn't he stay at home now, and let some young guy drive his car?' I was very pissed off - it was time to remind everyone of what I could do."

That he did. And, as a footnote, let's remember Berger's last race, at Jerez in 1997. No, he didn't win it, but in the Benetton he finished a close fourth, behind the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, and the championship-clinching Williams of Jacques Villeneuve.

It was his last race, and he wanted to remember it well, unlike, sadly, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, both of whom chose to 'park it' in their final Grand Prix. Berger was a racer to the end.

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