Ask Nigel Roebuck: June 18

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: June 18



Dear Rory,

What was it like to be a passenger with Gilles in a road car? In a word: terrifying! I once drove with him, in a Ferrari 308, from Silverstone to Heathrow, and vowed never, EVER, to do such a thing again. It wasn't, God knows, that I didn't have faith in his ability, simply that I was on roads I knew well, and had thought in my innocence that I drove pretty quickly...

It wasn't the sheer speed which disconcerted me, nor the fact that Gilles chattered away the whole time; no, what unsettled me most - and I've found this same characteristic in many racing drivers on the road - was that he seemed to assume that everyone else was operating with his level of expertise, his speed of reaction, and so on. It seemed to me he didn't make enough allowance for what other drivers might do. On the other hand, there was that sublime ability at work.

One moment that comes back to me is of a car coming the other way, overtaking a truck. It was coming straight at us, and we were not travelling slowly. Gilles somehow squeezed over, giving the guy the space he needed, and did it without any aspersion at all. 'Close...' he murmured, and that was it. I was very glad when we got to Heathrow, but the fellow from Maranello Concessionaires had no idea what his precious car had just been through. Or maybe he had!

Did Gilles ever take his time, and watch the scenery at 30mph? On foot, perhaps, but otherwise, no, I'm sure not. As his great pal Patrick Tambay once put it, 'Gilles lived his entire life at 200mph'. I always used to marvel at his wife Joann's ability to travel in a car with him, day in, day out...



Dear Pat,

Quite honestly, I've been a bit mystified by some of the criticism levelled at Montoya (some of it from folk within his own team) in the recent past. Yes, I'll grant you, he should have won at Melbourne, and threw it away with a spin, but, as Patrick Head pointed out at the time, that was the only mistake he made all that weekend. And I can, for example, recall the time when Ayrton Senna, leading the Monaco Grand Prix by three-quarters of a minute, made a mistake at Portiers, and clouted the wall. These things happen sometimes.

What impressed me at Monte Carlo was that Juan was under pressure virtually the whole way, and in a race run at a ferocious pace, he made no mistake worth the name. As for those who have suggested he is not sufficiently fit, all I can say is that, when he came into the press room afterwards, he looked at least as fresh as Kimi Raikkonen and Michael Schumacher - and Michael's fitness, remember, is reckoned to be almost of Olympian standard.

It's true to say that I, like many others, was surprised at the length of time which elapsed between his first win, at Monza in 2001, and his second, but I think it's fair to say that, in a time of almost total Ferrari domination, he has rarely had the car/tyre package to take on Schuey. If Williams, BMW and Michelin give him the tools, he will do the job, of that I have not the slightest doubt.



Dear Lucinda,

It's true that Didier Pironi is remembered with some distaste, particularly by those who were keen supporters, and friends, of Gilles Villeneuve. Why? Because we thought of him as duplicitous, and I have not the slightest doubt that his behaviour at Imola in 1982, when he ignored signals from the pits, and literally 'stole' victory from Villeneuve on the last lap, contributed to the frame of mind in which Gilles went to Zolder. As one insider, who should know about these things, put it, "It wasn't just a matter of nicking a Grand Prix victory. Pironi knew exactly what effect a betrayal of trust would have on a bloke of Gilles' personality..."

I agree with that entirely. Pironi, for all that he sweated more in a racing car than anyone this side of James Hunt, always seemed to me to be an Ice Man. After one of the BMW Procar races in 1980, I remember seeing Hans Stuck literally red-faced with anger at some stunt Pironi had pulled in the race, but as Hans vented his spleen, Didier just stood there, saying nothing, viewing the proceedings with...curiosity, almost.

The Imola drama unfolded like this: essentially it was a race between the Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost, and the Ferraris of Villeneuve and Pironi. Engine failure soon accounted for Prost, so now it was Arnoux against the red cars, but an hour later Rene's engine, too, expired, leaving the Ferraris home free, Gilles ahead.

That being so, victory should have been his, for Maranello team orders had always been that, as and when the cars became first and second, the driver ahead at the time should win. Villeneuve, whose integrity was absolute, had always played by these rules, most notably at Monza in 1979, where he sat behind team mate Jody Scheckter, knowing all the while that if he passed him, he would likely win not only the race, but also the World Championship.

Pironi was a man of different cut. Unlike Villeneuve, he was obsessed with thoughts of the title, but a year alongside Gilles had established that he was unlikely to get the upper hand at Ferrari by conventional means.

Outwardly, at least, their relationship had always been good, professionally and otherwise, and Villeneuve, whose guileless instinct was always to trust until given cause not to, believed Pironi a friend.

Shortly before the Imola weekend Didier had married Catherine, his longtime girlfriend, and while Ferrari's team director, Marco Piccinini, was present as best man, Gilles and his wife were not so much as invited. He thought that strange, and mentioned it during the practice days. "Joann says I shouldn't be surprised," he shrugged. "She thinks he's just trying to get 'in' with Piccinini. She's never trusted Didier..."

When Arnoux departed, Ferrari hung out a 'slow' board, and Villeneuve immediately backed off, for now there was no need to hurry, and the Ferraris were marginal on fuel at this very thirsty circuit. Although Pironi immediately passed him, Gilles didn't worry, assuming that he was merely playing to the crowd. More of a concern, though, given the fuel situation, was that Didier picked up the pace again.

This went on into the closing laps. When Villeneuve was in front, the lap time would be around 1m 38s, then Pironi would go by again, and it would be down to 1m 35s. "I thought it was bloody stupid," Gilles said, "but no more than that."

On lap 59, with one to go, Pironi lifted on the approach to Tosa, and Villeneuve passed him for what he believed would be the last time. "Even at that stage I thought he was being honest, obeying the original pit signal. He'd left it late, but never mind.

"I went into that last lap so easily you can't believe it, still very worried about the fuel; down to Tosa I was almost cruising..."

There, at the last overtaking spot on the circuit, Pironi darted from Villeneuve's slipstream, and snicked by. Only then did Gilles realise he had been duped. "It never entered my head to cover the line," he said. "Stupid, wasn't I?"

Thus they took the flag, Pironi in front. At the end of the slowing-down lap, Villeneuve came into the parc ferme in a welter of revs and tyre smoke, slewing his car to a halt. I went to speak to him, then thought better of it. He looked in Pironi's direction, uttered a single word - English, and of four letters - and, after a token appearance on the podium, strode off to a nearby park, where his helicopter awaited.

"I left," he said, "because otherwise I would have said some bad things. He was the hero who won the race, and I was the spoiled bastard who sulked. I knew it would look like that, but still I thought it was better to get away."

Among those joining Gilles on the flight was Jackie Stewart. "I'd never seen him angry like that," Stewart said. "You know, with him the World Championship was incidental. He told me his one goal was to beat the record for the most wins, which I then held, and this one had been stolen from him. He was stunned. There had always been this innocence about Gilles - he didn't have a trace of maliciousness in him, and he couldn't believe what had happened. It was awful that the last days of his life were so tormented and disillusioned."

So indeed they were. The following week I called the apartment in Monte Carlo, and we talked for an hour and more. It was a conversation which left me disturbed and apprehensive, for Gilles was a good friend. He was never going to speak to Pironi again, he said. "I've declared war. Absolute war.

"Finishing second is one thing - I'd have been mad at myself for not being quick enough if he'd beaten me. But finishing second because the bastard steals it..."

So there it was. The duplicity was what Villeneuve couldn't stomach. As Stewart said, what truly mattered to Gilles was winning races - that, and being known as the fastest driver on earth. It was deeply offensive to him that some believed he had been beaten in a straight fight.

"People seemed to think we had the battle of our lives," he muttered. "Jesus Christ, I qualified a second and a half faster than him - where was my problem? I think I've proved that, in equal cars, if I want someone to stay behind me...well, I think he stays behind..."

So what now? I said. "In Belgium, if we get a repeat of Imola, running 1-2, short of fuel, than I guess we're both going to run out, right? If it's a matter of trying to pass him at the end of the straight, I'll take the same chance as if it were a Williams or a Brabham. I'll do what I should have done at Imola."

In final qualifying at Zolder, of course, Villeneuve crashed to his death, and for a time thereafter Pironi looked increasingly likely to win the 1982 World Championship. He won conclusively at Zandvoort, and finished well everywhere, save at Montreal, where he took pole position.

"I want to dedicate it to Gilles," he said over the PA, "because I think we all know that if he'd been here, he would have been on pole."

I was talking to another driver, and we paused to listen. "If it hadn't been for him," he murmured, "Gilles would have been here..." Harsh, perhaps, but a reflection of what many people were feeling.

At the same time, though, they were beginning to see Pironi as the likely World Champion of 1982. He may not have been the equal of Villeneuve, but animosity towards the man did not colour judgement of the driver. In the cockpit Didier was more than good; he was coming to be great. The accident at Hockenheim, in which he suffered appalling leg injuries, of course put an end to his racing career.



Dear Marcus,

I confess I was surprised, too, to learn that Schumacher had agreed to extend his Ferrari contract for another couple of years - and yet, in a way, I wasn't...

First, why I was surprised. I suppose this was mainly because Michael is already into his 12th full season as a Grand Prix driver, and 2004, the final year on the old contract, will be his 14th, which one would have thought enough for virtually any man. Already, it seems likely that he will leave a record of Grand Prix wins and (perhaps) World Championships which will stand for all time.

Now, why I was not surprised. For all his wins and titles, Schumacher's desire for more seems insatiable - he plainly loves winning, but, more than that, he simply adores driving, and I suspect he would miss it terribly. Basically, what I'm saying is that, unlike the great majority of racing drivers, he has never lost his taste for competition, and sees no reason - as many have done - to retire, simply because he's as rich as Croesus.

I'm interested that you feel he's not quite he was, but wonder why. I must say I don't detect that myself - I'll grant you that his 2003 season began shakily, but his last five races have resulted in four wins and a close third place - and if the old qualifying rules had still appertained, I suspect he would have taken pole position at Monte Carlo, and then won the race.

It's true that a new generation of stars - Montoya, Raikkonen, Alonso - is threatening him as he hasn't been threatened by anyone save Mika Hakkinen, but for the moment, anyway, he remains the best all-round racing driver in the world, and that's all there is to it.

In time that may change, of course, for eventually any racing driver reaches a point where he is not quite what he was, and by 2006 Michael will be 37 years old, whereas a guy like Alonso will still be but 24. My feeling is that we will never witness the decline of Schumacher, because, as Martin Brundle once said of Ayrton Senna, "When's past his peak, not quite the driver he was, it may not be apparent to us - but he will know it, and as soon as that happens, he'll stop." As with Senna, so with Schumacher: I think that as long as he races, he will be at the forefront of the sport.

To be honest, I suspect that Michael rather relishes the challenge on offer from the likes of Juan, Kimi and Fernando. He loves a fight. Remember when he drove in that major-league kart race a couple of years ago? This was a situation in which he might easily have lost face, but he did the race simply because wanted to - and finished second in it, after who knows how many years away from professional karting. And that's his secret, I think: he just loves what he's doing, and he can't help himself.

It doesn't hurt, either, that Messrs Brawn, Byrne and Todt have also agreed to remain at Ferrari, all extending their contracts for precisely as long as Michael, and no further. It is what will happen to Ferrari thereafter that poses the biggest question.




Dear Richard,

'Delightful' is exactly the word to describe Sandro Nannini, whom I have always regarded as one of the nicest blokes ever to race an F1 car. He had, as you say, very considerable ability - not at the Senna/Prost level, perhaps, but far more than a mere journeyman. He first caught our attention when he came into F1 with Minardi, and ultimately did an extremely fine job for Benetton. It was sad that his only Grand Prix win - at Suzuka in 1989 - should have been clouded by the controversy involving Ayrton Senna's disqualification from that race. And it was not less than a tragedy that his F1 career should have been prematurely ended by the helicopter accident; his arm was completely severed, and then - thanks to the miracles of modern medicine - sewn back on again.

Although he was not to race an F1 car again, Sandro was able to return to the sport, and with some distinction, driving for Alfa Romeo in the now defunct ITC series, and for Mercedes in World Championship sports car races. For several years now, though, he has been in retirement from the sport.

What I, and others, loved about Nannini was that he was a real, old-fashioned, racer, a throwback to the '50s, if you like, with a relaxed, devil-may-care, attitude to his job. His personal habits, too, paid little heed to modern-day sport - he seemed to live on espresso and cigarettes, and as I am much the same, I suppose I felt an immediate affinity with him. At one time, he gave up both the coffee and the fags, and I thought that quitting both simultaneously was positively heroic.

Much later, when I saw him at an ITC race at Magny-Cours, he was much as I originally remembered: cigarette in one hand, a small cup of eye-wateringly strong coffee in the other. "Sandro," I said, "I thought you'd given all that up..." "Bah!" he retorted. "That was for F1. This is just saloon cars - it doesn't matter!"

Just a lovely guy, and more's the pity there aren't more like him in the paddock today.




Dear Kevin,

First of all, I'm glad you liked 'Grand Prix Greats' so much, and thank you for the compliments.

Now, if I were to update it, who would I add, and who would I take out? Not an easy question to answer, given that I have to keep the limit at 25 - and also that I'm writing this in Montreal, and don't have the book to hand!

That being so, I can't remember all the drivers included in the first book, I'm afraid, so it's difficult to make any decision about leaving drivers out. Whatever else, as you say, the final chapter on Gilles - 'The People's Champion' - is absolutely not an option...

If you'll forgive me, therefore, for now I'd prefer simply to mention the ones I'd add. It's worth making the point that the choice of the original 25 was entirely mine, and I went for a mix of truly great drivers, who had to be included by sheer weight of achievement, and others were simply favourites of my own, such as Jean Behra, whom I worshipped when I was a kid.

As I recall, I wrote the book in 1985, when Ayrton Senna, for example, was not yet a superstar, but obviously was going to be; I included him at the time because he was obviously not only a brilliant driver, but also a fascinating, and unusual, character.

Let's use '85, therefore, as a starting point for my 'extra' drivers, and those who immediately spring to mind are Michael Schumacher (for obvious reasons), Mika Hakkinen (ditto, but to a lesser degree), Nigel Mansell (a great racer, but also one of the strangest people I have ever met, which makes him interesting to write about) and Juan Montoya (hugely talented, and also to my mind the most charismatic of today's drivers).

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