Ask Nigel Roebuck: March 12

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: March 12



Dear Edward,

You're right, it was indeed a tremendous start to the season, and, in light of its problems in the recent past, exactly what F1 needed. From a British awareness point of view, it could have hardly have been better, for David Coulthard won - and perhaps the icing on the cake was that Michael Schumacher, hardly able to lose these last three seasons, did not even make the podium.

However, as I've written in Fifth Column this week, while I think it entirely right to celebrate a fantastic opening Grand Prix, we should keep a sense of perspective, and ask ourselves why it was a great race. On Monday I confess I was surprised to see and hear many claiming that it was the new rules which had made the difference, just as, following Ayrton Senna's fatal accident nine years ago, I was outraged by the knee-jerk reaction of some, who instantly claimed that Senna had crashed because of the recently introduced ban on 'driver aids'.

In fact, of course, Ayrton's accident had nothing whatever to do with any such thing, and similarly I'm bound to say that I don't think the 2003 rule changes had much to do with the fact that Melbourne turned out so well, although I'll concede that the new qualifying format contributed to the fact that the grid was somewhat unusual (at least in part).

What really made the race so unpredictable, though, was the weather. Different drivers chose different types of tyre for a track that was still wet in places at race time, Montoya bravely going with slicks, the McLaren drivers with wets, the Ferrari guys choosing intermediates.

Strategy played a major role. The McLarens, for example, had qualified badly, and it was an inspired decision - given that the track was quickly drying out - to get Raikkonen and Coulthard on to slicks so quickly. Kimi actually came in at the end of the formation lap, and started the race from the pit lane, while DC was in after just a couple of laps.

Although Montoya, on his slicks, initially lost a load of time to the Ferraris (11 seconds in two laps), by lap four he was going much quicker than they, and it amazed me, frankly, that Schumacher and Barrichello were not brought in immediately. In the case of Rubens, this was academic, for he was into the barriers after half a dozen laps, and, as for Michael, one assumed that he had started the race with a very light fuel load (as indicated by his qualifying time), and that Ferrari initially decided the best option was for him to complete his planned short first stint on the Bridgestone intermediates, which work remarkably well on a dry track.

In fact, Schumacher came in after seven laps, by which time Montoya had caught him, and to make things worse, Michael's stop was a very slow one. He was extremely fortunate - and JPM extremely unfortunate - that almost immediately the safety car came out, following the accidents to Barrichello and Ralph Firman.

For me, though, the highlight of the Australian Grand Prix came on lap 37, when Schumacher appeared to have a run on Raikkonen down to the first corner, and moved to Kimi's right to pass him for the lead. In this situation - particularly when it's Michael trying to come by - most drivers would simply accept defeat, but Raikkonen did not. He held his line, obliged Schumacher to give way, and kept his position. The World Champion now knows - as he knows with Montoya - that Kimi is not someone who can be intimidated into moving over for him.

No, I don't think it was payback time for Magny-Cours; merely one top driver asserting himself against another - and, what's more, doing it absolutely fairly. Very good news for Formula 1 - and very good news for us who watch and love it.



Dear Derek,

Difficult to know what to say about the rookies in Melbourne at this stage - I don't think we should judge people on the strength of their first appearance in an F1 car; we have to give them time. Pizzonia, it's true, didn't exactly distinguish himself, and made a lot of mistakes, while Firman crashed, da Matta spun off, and Wilson retired through no fault of his own, with a holed radiator.

In the early laps, though, Justin - making excellent use of Bridgestone's superb intermediate tyre - was very impressive, getting the Minardi as high as ninth at one point. Firman's accident looked to me like a straightforward new boy's mistake on a treacherous track surface, and da Matta was simply being over-ambitious - he had a quick car, but one which was quite fuel-heavy at the moment he tried to get by Webber and M. Schumacher.

These things happen, don't they? With Wilson, it was just bad luck, and Firman and da Matta simply made mistakes. I've seen enough of Cristiano in CART races to believe he has considerable talent, and the same is true of Wilson, who so greatly impressed in F3000. Firman, of course, is more of an unknown quantity, because so much of his career has been in Japan, and Pizzonia, while never the star of F3000 everyone expected him to be, hugely impressed everyone at Williams where he worked as test driver last year.

So...not much to say about the new crop of rookies yet. Ask me again at midseason...



Dear David,

The first thing I should say is that I like the idea of one-at-a-time qualifying. Yes, I know we've lost that frantic last three or four minutes, when everyone came out for one last banzai lap, but I've been equivocal about 'last ditch qualifying' on a very crowded track ever since Gilles Villeneuve was killed in precisely those circumstances at Zolder in 1982. The other thing worth saying is that we've also lost that almost silent period of 20 minutes or so at the start of the session, when all you would see on the track was the odd Minardi or Arrows or whatever. And I like the idea of everyone getting a shot on an absolutely clear track.

Problem is, with no refuelling now allowed between the end of qualifying and the race, you can do no more than make an educated guess at how much fuel a driver is running, and because of that qualifying per se inevitably means much less than it did, because cars of widely differing weight have run in the session - and not one has run in 'traditional qualifying spec', with a minimal amount of fuel on board.

From that point of view, the Friday qualifying session is actually more meaningful as an indication of pure pace: in this one, all right, the drivers are merely settling the order in which they will run on Saturday afternoon, but there is considerable incentive to be fastest - you go last in the session that counts, when the track is usually at its quickest - and there are no constraints on fuel, so you can run as light as you can get away with.

I have to say that on Sunday I had considerable sympathy for anyone who was going to be commentating 'live' on the race, particularly in its early stages, for who knew the relative weights of the cars? All right, as the stops began, a picture began to take shape, but prior to that it was difficult to know who was truly competitive, and who was not. Add in the uncertain weather at the start of the race, and the fact that some drivers were on slicks and some were not, and initially it was all a little confusing.

I may be wrong, but I suspect this particular rule may be amended, perhaps for the start of the European season, at Imola in April. Most of the teams seem to be in favour of a reversion to the old qualifying rules, in which the cars run with minimal fuel, and certainly this would result in a more meaningful grid, if not necessarily a more entertaining one. The one-by-one qualifying runs would remain, and you would still only get one shot at it.

As for Minardi's tactic in qualifying at Melbourne...well, you'd have to say their cars were likely candidates for the back row, anyway, so they weren't risking a whole lot by aborting their qualifying runs. And as for it being 'against the spirit of the regulations', yes, you're probably right, but I understand it was not against regulation itself, which is all that counts these days. It's a very long time since anyone in F1 worried too much about 'the spirit' of a rule...



Dear James,

Jacques and Jenson didn't get off to the best start as team mates, it's true; that much evident from the body language at the BAR launch in January. In Melbourne - before the race - there seemed to have been a thawing of Villeneuve's early frostiness, but after what happened on Sunday afternoon, the relationship between the two appears to be back in the deep freeze.

Did Jacques deliberately take Jenson's pit stop? Certainly, there are members of the team who suspect so, but JV himself denied it, blaming it on the fact that his radio wasn't working properly. Not even Villeneuve himself would ever claim to be 'a team player', and I seriously doubt that Button was uppermost in his thoughts when he came in. Why do I say this? Because I can't ever recall a time when Jacques lied , and there are not many F1 drivers of whom I would say that. Indeed, his bluntness has got him into trouble many a time.

There are indeed signs that Villeneuve's spark is back, but I would ascribe that less to Button's arrival in the team than the fact that, for the first time in five seasons, the 1997 World Champion has a car worthy of his talent. Since joining BAR, for 1999, he has become a phenomenally rich man, but that has come at huge cost to his results on the track, because he's been driving lousy cars. On the rare occasions when the BAR was half reasonable, all Jacques's best qualities were on display, but I have long thought his years at BAR a shocking waste of his ability.

What advice would I give to David Richards? Ye Gods! If I knew the answer to that question, I'd be earning a fortune, working for a team. In the short term, DR could always try a spot of prayer...



Dear Matt,

Yes, the one-lap qualifying rule quite obviously favours the more experienced driver, but that was always going to be the case. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you, the longer you're around, the less tense you're going to be, and the less likely you are to make a mistake under pressure. However, I think that, to some degree, you're missing the point about Frentzen, Panis and Villeneuve qualifying in the first six: the new qualifying format, in which the cars qualify with varying amounts of fuel (and therefore weight), according to team strategy for the race, had a great deal to do with the untypical grid. Keep in mind that the McLaren-Mercedes of Coulthard (first in the race) and Raikkonen (third) qualified 11th and 14th...

As for Irvine and Jaguar...I thought Eddie an extremely good Grand Prix driver, but you'd never put him in the 'ace' category, would you? I don't doubt, not least because of his considerable experience, that he would have done a better job than Pizzonia last weekend, but I'm far less sure he would have shaded Webber, who considerably impressed in the R4. You can't really make judgements of this kind on the strength of a single Grand Prix, the first of the season, the first of Pizzonia's career.

Irvine, remember, was always going to retire from F1 at the end of 2003, anyway, so it was no more than logical that the team, in considering its driver line-up, preferred to take a longer team view. And, in these times of economic stringency, there was also the question of Eddie's not inconsiderable salary demands...

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