Ask Nigel Roebuck: March 26

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 26



Dear Travis,

You're quite right, the Malaysian race was like a breath of fresh air, and for several reasons. As soon as Raikkonen joined McLaren, it was only a matter of time before he won his first Grand Prix, and after one or two near-misses - particularly at Magny-Cours last year - he has now done it, and comprehensively so.

There was a little luck involved, in the sense that Schumacher's idiotic mistake on the first lap accounted - in terms of winning the race - not only for himself, but also for Juan Montoya, who was caught up in the consequent melee. As well as that, David Coulthard, another very possible winner, went out after only three laps, while running second. But none of this should detract from Kimi's victory: he drove a flawless race, and entirely deserved the win.

He is, to my mind, one of three drivers who will be central to the sport in the coming years, the others being Montoya and Fernando Alonso. I know it's still early days for Alonso, but right from the beginning - even when he was driving a Minardi, in 2001 - there was evidence of the sort of 'special talent' which separates the potentially great from the good. My feeling is that any one of these three can win the World Championship, and quite possibly, over time, all of them will.

After the Malaysian Grand Prix, some were muttering about 'the new order', 'the changing of the guard', 'the passing of the torch', and so on, but that strikes me as more than a little premature. Sure, Michael Schumacher has had two poor races at the start of the season, and it is probably true that the new qualifying rules, designed to introduce a little unpredictability into the starting grids, have affected him more than most, for they interfere with his acute sense of order and logic. It is also a fact that Michael has always been more susceptible to pressure than most really great drivers - and the new rules mean he is facing greater pressure than for a long time, in the sense that he is not automatically starting from the front any more.

All that said, I'll be surprised - assuming that the new Ferrari F2003-GA has reliability to match its apparent pace - if he doesn't take his sixth World Championship this year. Every great racing driver has his peak, and maybe - maybe - Schumacher has now passed his. Even if such is the case, even if operating at 95 percent of what he was, Michael is still well capable of winning more championships. As for walking them, perhaps that's a different matter.



Dear Edward,

As I said in the previous answer, there is nothing new in Michael Schumacher getting rattled under pressure. David Coulthard correctly pointed out last year that the worst aspect of the season was that McLaren-Mercedes and Williams-BMW did not have their acts together to the point that they could seriously threaten Michael - in which situation, DC pointed out, he had frequent shown signs of fallibility.

Yes, you're right, Schuey made a novice's mistake at Sepang on Sunday. He was so absorbed in getting into the corner ahead of Coulthard (who was alongside him) that he forgot about what was happening in front of him. By the time he put the brakes on, he was off line and going way too fast; there was no chance to avoid running into the luckless Trulli.

This occasional fallibility under pressure is about the only weak card in Schumacher's hand. I well remember the championship decider at Suzuka in 1998, between himself and Mika Hakkinen. Although Michael beat Mika to pole position, Ron Dennis was serenely confident that his man would ultimately triumph: "When Mika makes a mistake, it's invariably when he's under no pressure, but with Michael it's exactly the opposite. And this is a real pressure situation..."

RD was on the money, for Hakkinen led the Japanese Grand Prix from start to finish. And Schumacher? Immediately before the formation lap, he stalled the engine of the Ferrari, and had to start from the back...

The new rules inevitably increase the unpredictability factor in F1, and with unpredictability comes pressure - excellent news for Schumacher's rivals. That said, I don't think they should rely on Michael's goofing too often...



Dear Simon,

Which, of Alonso and Trulli, is the Prost, and which the Cheever? I think you've answered your own question...

You may well be right that Alonso is a Prost in the making, but as for Trulli an Arnoux...I'm not so sure, beyond the fact that Rene frequently excelled in qualifying, as also does Jarno. As race drivers, though, I'd have thought Arnoux rather more of a fighter than Trulli.



Dear Steve,

A fascinating question, and all three of your suggestions I find highly appealing, I must say - although I think I'd prefer to think of Ayrton in a 917 at Spa-Francorchamps, where the car would have been more in its element than at the Nordschleife, where a 908/3 might have been more to his taste.

Yes, I can see Gilles doing a Rosemeyer in an Auto Union at Bern, but I also love the thought of him doing a Fangio in a 1957 Maserati 250F at Rouen Les Essarts, or doing a Rindt at the old Silverstone in a Lotus 49 in the wet. As for Jimmy, yes, Road America is the perfect venue, but maybe I'd prefer to think of him doing a Senna in a turbocharged Lotus-Renault of 1985/86 vintage.

What else? Juan Pablo Montoya in a mid-late '80s Williams-Honda turbo (on qualifying boost!) at the Osterreichring, Alain Prost silky smooth in a Lotus 79 at Brands Hatch, and Ronnie Peterson or Jochen Rindt in any contemporary F1 car at Monte Carlo - without traction control, of course!



Dear Daryl,

Rubens got special dispensation to run at Sepang without the HANS device on account of a hernia, which pains him severely when the device is in place. From what I understand, however, Max Mosley has said this will not happen again: wearing of the HANS device is mandatory, and that's the end of it. If Barrichello faces a similar problem at Interlagos next week, Ferrari will have to run someone - presumably Felipe Massa - who can race with the HANS in place.

As for Justin Wilson's plight, yes, I agree, it was highly unfortunate, and I felt extremely sorry for Justin, who was in unspeakable pain when he finally abandoned the race after 41 laps, with both his arms effectively paralysed, thanks to a trapped nerve in his back, caused by the displacement of his HANS device.

In the circumstances, I can see how you might believe that this was another case of one law for Ferrari, and one for everyone else, but it was not so. Given Barrichello's problem, Ferrari made a special request that he be allowed to race without the HANS, and it was granted. Had Minardi thought to do the same for Wilson, possibly they would have received a similarly favourable response - but they didn't...



Dear Adam,

Ralf has always been a bit of mystery to me, in the sense that sometimes he is blindingly quick (although rarely as much so as his team mate, Juan Montoya), and sometimes you wouldn't know he was in the race.

Unquestionably his level of natural ability is high, and often he arrives at a good set-up more quickly than Montoya, but his motivation appears to waver sometimes, and certainly it can be affected by outside influences. At Monza in 2001, for example, his head was all over the place, and while everyone in the place was much affected by the terrorist attacks on America just a few days earlier, Ralf (and, it must be said, his brother) gave the impression that somehow they had been affected more than anyone else. Throughout the practice days, all he could talk about was how the race should have been cancelled, and it was exactly the same at Indianapolis, a fortnight later. At Monza, where team mate Montoya won, he scraped on to the podium, but at Indy he was simply nowhere, and by the end of the season members of his team were seriously concerned about his performances.

At Sepang last weekend, Ralf was very much upset by sensationalist stories in the German press concerning his private life, and perhaps this accounted in part for a thoroughly lacklustre performance in qualifying, and a fourth place in the race achieved only by luck and attrition.

Then there's the other Ralf, the one who beat his brother in a straight fight, for example, at Montreal in 2001, the one who led virtually from start to finish at Imola the same year. In his first season with Williams, 1999, he was invariably on tremendous form, and achieved some remarkable results, despite the power limitations of the Supertec engine.

To some degree, his performance level has always ebbed and flowed, and it's fair to say that his team's estimation of him has done the same. Everyone at Williams knows that Ralf can be a sensationally quick driver when the mood takes him, so of course it is a source of frustration when he goes into Mode B, looks even sulkier than usual, and fails to produce on the track.

The situation at Williams has been difficult for him since the arrival of Montoya, at the beginning of 2001, in that, while he had invariably had much the upper hand on his previous team mates, Alex Zanardi and Jenson Button, clearly this was not going to be the situation with JPM.

Initially, while Juan found his feet in F1, Ralf remained very much the team's leading driver, and performed to that level, but over time Montoya increasingly asserted himself, and when that happened Schumacher did not respond positively - towards the end of 2001, as we said, his performances were frankly poor.

As well as that, the gregarious Montoya quickly became hugely popular in the Williams camp, while Schumacher, a much more reserved individual, continued to keep his distance. One way and another, it will surprise me if another contract is signed between Ralf and Williams.

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