Ask Nigel Roebuck: June 23

Our Grand Prix Editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions every week, 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

Dear Steve,

I've got very mixed feelings about the new qualifying system, to be honest. On the one hand, everyone agrees that the current format - with two sessions run on Saturday, one immediately after the other - is about as exciting as a wet Sunday afternoon in Bonn. On the other, if you believe - as I do - that a good maxim for any sport is 'keep it simple', the new system is the antithesis of that.

You're right that the specific aim of the system introduced last year - with the cars qualifying with fuel enough for the first segment of the race - was to create unpredictable grids, and I think it was successful in that, particularly in the first few races, when all the teams were coming to terms with something new.

Now, though, you'd have to say that the whole thing has become 'standardised', as always happens in cases like this. The early first stop - after 10 laps or so - has become the norm, albeit with one or two, like Rubens Barrichello, occasionally bucking the trend, and going for more fuel (sacrificing grid position) and a longer first run. By and large, though, everyone does more or less the same, and we've got back to relatively predictable grids - without the 'balls out' aspect of qualifying as it was when they ran with minimal fuel.

The new system will bring that back, but it all seems complicated to me - this business of two 25-minute sessions, separated by a 10-minute break, with each driver running six laps in both sessions, and his fastest times from each being added together to produce an aggregate grid time. We'll have to see how it works out before we can say too much more, but I confess I don't like the idea of the guy with the out-and-out fastest single lap not starting from the pole - and that could very easily happen.

Dear Michael,

To some degree, I think you've answered your own question - it's not, after all, as though the Michael Andretti episode was an irrelevance. At the time he came to F1, in 1993, Michael was at the top of the tree in CART, so when he failed to make an impression in F1, inevitably there were those who said, 'Well, if he's the best over there, the standard can't be very high...'

Personally, I thought that simplistic. Fact is, on occasion Michael was very quick in the McLaren - unfortunately, though, he had a large number of accidents in his first few races. I don't think he did himself any favours by insisting on continuing to live in Pennsylvania, and refusing to get a place in Europe. Inevitably, the team saw this as indicative of a lack of commitment - "He's not that sure he really wants to do this, is he?" I remember a senior McLaren man saying.

The point was, while Michael was home in Nazareth, Mika Hakkinen - then McLaren's burstingly ambitious test driver - was spending day after day at Silverstone, putting in an incredible amount of test mileage, and building a rapport with the team that Andretti never had.

One other thing, too. From the outset, it was clear that if Michael were coming to F1, it had to be with either Ferrari or McLaren. Bernie Ecclestone thought this ill-advised: "Those are the two teams I would tell him not to join! Imagine the pressure of being called Andretti and driving for Ferrari. And as for McLaren...why would you want to come into F1, and immediately be directly compared with the best driver on earth?" Bernie was referring, of course, to Ayrton Senna.

My feeling was that, fundamentally, Michael was ill at ease in Europe - or, to put it another way, away from the USA - and I never felt that situation would change. On returning to CART, he won his first race, and he remained competitive for years afterwards. Remember that scrap with Montoya in the closing laps of the 2000 Michigan 500? It blew JPM's mind that a guy of Michael's age still wanted victory as much as that.

If Michael's season in F1 undoubtedly affected European team owners' opinions of American drivers, so also - albeit less overtly - did Al Unser Jr's test with Williams at Estoril in '91. Again, at the time Al was regarded as one of the real hotshoes in CART, but his run in the Williams was described by one team member as, "Embarrassing, to be honest. For a start, he clearly wasn't anything like fit enough. After a few laps in the car, he could hardly move his head." And were his times slow? I asked. "Not as quick as that..." came the answer.

I adored CART in its heyday, and thought it provided the best racing on earth. On ovals, both Andretti and Unser were supreme, and I'll agree that the two disciplines are very different; however, in CART road races, too, they were highly competitive, which is why the overall level of ability in the series was doubted by F1 team owners. Later on, of course, Alex Zanardi was a dominant force in CART, but made little or no impression when he returned to F1 with Williams, so that didn't help, either.

I'll always regret that Jeff Gordon never came to F1 - I saw him briefly test the Williams at Indianapolis last year, and was hugely impressed. Seems to me he has the kind of once-and-for-all talent to make it anywhere, and maybe the same is true of Tony Stewart. It's too late now, unfortunately, and anyway they have too good a thing going in NASCAR, but I think what Gordon had to say in Barcelona about American drivers in F1 was probably right: "I think it needs to be someone absolutely single-minded about F1, someone who goes to Europe at 19 or 20, and sticks with it. Anyone who's got really exceptional ability in the junior leagues - like, say, Raikkonen - is going to be picked up by an F1 team, isn't he? It could easily be that the next American in F1 is a guy virtually unknown in America..."

A little like Britain's Dan Wheldon in reverse, in other words.

Dear John,

Sorry if this offends you, but I'm afraid I enjoyed the whole Hesketh F1 episode more in retrospect than I did at the time! The whole thing seemed very contrived to me - a lot of people trying to pretend they were characters from a P.G. Wodehouse book.

Therefore forgive me, but I personally can recall countless moments in F1 'more joyous' than the victory at Zandvoort in '75. I liked everyone involved in Hesketh Racing - including James himself - a lot more in the post-Hesketh Racing era, to be honest.

However, in answer to your question: could a privateer do it again?

Not a chance.

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