Ask Nigel Roebuck: May 15

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: May 15



Dear Nhan,
While F1 team owners, to a greater or lesser degree, do keep an eye on what's happening in the lower formulae, increasingly it's clear that what a young driver really needs - if he wants folk really to sit up and take notice - is an F1 testing contract. Going back a few years, Damon Hill did quite well in F3000, for example, but it was his testing performances with Williams - back to back with the team's regular drivers - that convinced FW and Patrick Head it was worth taking a chance, and putting him in the F1 team for 1993, as team mate to Alain Prost.

In the same way, Juan Pablo Montoya was the star of F3000 in the late '90s, but startling performances in testing - again for Williams - were what ultimately earned him the drive in the team, even if he were temporarily 'farmed out' to Ganassi Racing for two seasons of CART, in 1999 and 2000.

Last year Sebastien Bourdais was the star of F3000 - emphatically outshining Antonio Pizzonia, for example - but Pizzonia also had a testing contract with Williams, and in this capacity he hugely impressed the team. Obviously there was no place for him at Williams in the near future, but other team principals took note of his times, among them Niki Lauda, then in charge at Jaguar.

Towards the end of last year, Lauda organised a test for several young drivers, among them Pizzonia. In November, I asked him why he had thought of him in the first place.

"I was interested in his driving for us from the day he tested," said Niki. "Gerhard [Berger] had told me about him at the beginning of the year, actually, and I kept an eye on his performance at every Williams test. He was always impressive.

"I went to speak to Frank, and asked if the guy was available or not - and I suddenly realised how high an opinion of him Frank had. In fact, the problem was that Frank didn't want to let him go! Then I really started thinking seriously about him, and the more I watched him, the more I got to know him, it was easy to see that he was the typical young guy, who will crash a couple of cars, I'm afraid, but it's normal - but he certainly has the speed, and, for a Brazilian, he doesn't have the emotions!

"As it was, Pizzonia impressed me with his very analytical, straightforward, level of information. For example, as he'd driven the Williams, I was interested to put him in our car, and then ask him what the difference was. This really was my intention, especially from the point of view of the engine! And he said to me, 'I can't talk about the Williams'. I said, 'Why?' He said, 'Because I'm under contract', and I tell you, that impressed me in a way `- he was very straightforward. I expected a proper racing driver to react like this, and from a 21-year-old kid, it was even more impressive - because this could be a big chance for him. Some of them would forget all about it, and say, 'Jesus, I want the drive!'

"So then I changed my attitude, and I said, 'Tell me specifically about my car' - and from that I tried to interpret, from what he saying about the Jaguar, what the Williams might do! He didn't tell me anything about the Williams, to be honest. It's impressive, the way he operates."

So there you are. What F1 team owners are looking for, ideally, is a young guy who already has experience of working in the F1 milieu - which is why a test drive with a top team is of such importance these days. Bourdais is extremely promising, no question about it, and I don't doubt that eventually he will come seriously into the reckoning of F1 teams, although, sad to say, 'Indycar racing', be it CART or IRL, tends not to be something team principals take terribly seriously when evaluating young drivers.



Dear Andrew,

It's a different world, isn't it? I remember, at the first CART race at Rockingham in 2001, how people told me of their delight at being able to get close to the cars and drivers. Juan Montoya, who had recently left CART for F1, was there, simply to say hello to old friends, and one fan spoke of his delight at getting JPM's autograph: "This is probably the only opportunity I'm ever going to have - you can't get near these guys at an F1 race..."

I was lucky. When I was a kid, I'd go to races with my parents, and in those days you could buy paddock passes, even at the British Grand Prix. Thus, I have an autograph book a lot of people would kill for.

It was an entirely different sport then, that's the point. Yes, there were transporters dotted about in the (grass) paddock, but the mechanics worked on the cars right there next to them, and while I'm sure they must have got fed up to the teeth with kids like me, taking pictures and so on, in general I think there was a greater respect between human beings back then, and everyone was careful not to abuse the privilege of being in the holy of holies. As for the drivers, well, they just seemed to wander about, and chat. The whole thing was very much less precious then than now.

This situation remained pretty much unchanged until the early '70s, and, yes, that did coincide with the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone, and his absolute determination to make racing more 'professional'. In countless ways, I think Bernie's influence has been to the good, but undoubtedly there has been a price to pay, and part of that is that the sport has been progressively, and inevitably, dehumanised. It wasn't long before you could no longer buy a paddock pass, and these days the only way in is with an FIA-issued 'swipe card', which allows you through turnstiles at the entrance to the paddock.

There's no doubt that, at some circuits, the paddock used to get ridiculously cluttered - Monte Carlo is still like that, thanks to all the hangers-on who somehow wangle passes - and if I were a mechanic, I'd regard the elimination of the public as a boon. But if I were still a kid, looking to get close to my heroes, it would break my heart.

Whenever I go to a CART race, I'm struck by how similar the atmosphere is to the Formula 1 I grew up with. There's less pressure and less rush, and I can well understand why you were so taken with the paddock ambience at Brands the other day. But I'm afraid those days are gone from F1, and for ever.



Dear Edgar,

Yes, I'd agree that Juan Montoya does seem to have gone off the boil a bit recently, but I don't think anything has fundamentally changed in him - I still believe he's at least as quick as anyone else in F1.

That said, there is probably a case to be made for saying JPM is less adept at setting a car up than many of his contemporaries. Patrick Head has said of him that he 'relies too much on his talent', and while that sounds initially like a contradiction in terms, one knows what Patrick means. In Montoya's CART days, with Ganassi Racing, Morris Nunn, who had boundless admiration for him, remembered his laidback approach: "He'd say, 'Just get the car near enough, Mo, and I'll do the rest'. The problem is, that was all very well with a CART car, but in these ultra-technological days, it doesn't work with an F1 car.

To be honest, too, I wonder if perhaps a degree of frustration is starting to get to Juan. This, after all, is a man who overtook Michael Schumacher - not exactly easily done - in only his third F1 race, and although he led many races in 2001, and won at Monza, there have been no victories since. This is not at all what he had in mind when he arrived.

True, he's made mistakes, although far fewer than some would have you believe, but the essential truth is that he has very rarely had the car/tyre combination to take on Ferrari. There may be no more powerful engine in the business than the BMW V10, but, frankly, it has been let down of late by both Williams and Michelin, and it would serve no purpose to pretend otherwise.

At Barcelona Montoya told me of the latest car's rear instability. It was, he said, the twitchiest car he had ever driven - and this, let's remember, is a man considerably more at ease with oversteer than most of his rivals.

While I think there have been shortcomings on both sides, quite honestly it seems to me that Juan has been let down by his car and team rather more than the other way round. If the Williams FW25 ultimately proves truly competitive - and the foundations appear to be there - and if Montoya works harder at its set-up, there is no reason whatever why we shouldn't see the stunning driver of the last couple of years again. Unquestionably, he has talent to throw away; what perhaps he needs to do is channel it a little more productively.

Now, Williams and BMW? Do I think BMW will stick around? Yes, I do. For one thing, this is one of the three 'big' teams in F1, and while it may have its fallow periods, Williams, like McLaren, always come back in the end. There is really no other team - no available one, anyway - which screams out for BMW to change its allegiance. And as for BMW going it alone? Very expensive, and hardly a short-term project.

I'd be amazed to see it happen, frankly.



Dear Gregory,

You're quite right, the Champ Cars at Brands did make for an evocative sight - it was just a pity that the silly 'mandatory two stop' rule made for what was effectively an economy run, rather than a race. Chris Pook being the bright fellow he is, I don't doubt that lessons have been learned, and that next year's race will not be similarly hampered.

As for mixing series and circuits, what would I like to see? How about Formula 1 at Elkhart Lake, NASCAR at Monza, and Champ Cars at Suzuka?



Dear Nicolas,

A good question - and I wish I knew the answer! To be honest, I have never truly understood General Motors' attitude to racing in general, let alone F1 in particular. There is, let's remember, a well-known book by Paul van Valkenburgh, entitled, 'Chevrolet Racing...? Fourteen Years of Raucous Silence!!' That was published originally in 1973, and in many ways not too much appears to have changed since...

True enough, GM does have a big market share in Europe, but they show no inclination to get involved in F1. Perhaps, who knows, it is the terrifying cost of an F1 engine programme that puts them off. Ford, after all, is the only major American company in F1, and the accusation always thrown at Henry's involvement is that it is, 'a day late, a dollar short'.

So, sorry, Nicolas, don't have an answer for you. GM supports both NASCAR and the IRL, but when it comes to racing in Europe, the company appears happy to remain in the minor leagues, with touring cars.



Dear Simon,

Can't honestly say it's a question I lie awake thinking about, but here goes...

Next month I'm going to Indianapolis, to see Juan Pablo Montoya drive Jeff Gordon's Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Gordon take the wheel of JPM's Williams-BMW. Seems to me Montoya would be spectacular in anything - we know how outstanding he was in CART Champ Cars, and I don't doubt he'd be on the pace in both Winston Cup cars and your Australian V8 series.

Perhaps most of all, though, I'd like to see some of today's stars - Montoya, Raikkonen, M. Schumacher - in sprint cars, running at the limit on a dirt oval. To me, it remains the purest form of racing anywhere, and I'd love to see their car control skills, and courage, tested at somewhere like Springfield or the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The power-to-weight ratio of a Championship Dirt car, after all, is virtually the same as an F1 car...

Oh, and one last thing. They don't have traction control on those things; all the magic is in the sensitivity and feel of the driver's right foot. Just as God intended.

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