Ask Nigel Roebuck: May 21

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 21



Dear David,

I'm not surprised Australian fans are following Mark's exploits with a lot of pride - you're quite right to do that, because he's doing an exceptional job for Jaguar at the moment. I have to confess - as did Alan Jones recently - that I hadn't appreciated just how good he was, and have been a touch surprised by his sheer pace this season. Without wishing to denigrate Minardi, there's only so much you can tell about a driver when he's in a back-of-the-grid car.

I'll admit, too, that I was a little surprised to learn that Webber had extended his deal with Jaguar through to the end of 2005, because it must have been tempting to hang on for a while, in the hope that one of the big teams might come calling.

That said, Jaguar - in terms of competitiveness, anyway - are in hugely better shape this year, and I've no doubt that Mark's new deal is financially very much more attractive than the one he has for this season. From Jaguar's point of view, of course the new contract makes a lot of sense, but I don't think Webber himself has necessarily made a mistake in committing himself for another couple of years: were the R4 proving a disaster, like last season's R3, it would have been a very different matter.

At the A1-Ring last weekend, Mark said this of his decision: "I'm very excited about staying with Jaguar. The sense of loyalty is something that's very important to me. It's been a very short period with Jaguar, but they got me out of Minardi, and they gave me a chance, and I'm really enjoying being there. The work that I put in will hopefully be fruitful next year, and then 2005 will be when we are at our strongest. As for the big teams, well, you never know what's going to happen with them. At the moment I'm in a situation I can enjoy, and hopefully have some control over, as well..."



Dear Örjan,
Mario Andretti once told me he had had only four really close friendships with fellow drivers: Billy Foster, a very promising Canadian Indycar driver, who was killed in practice for a NASCAR race at Riverside early in 1967, Lucien Bianchi (with whom he drove at Le Mans a couple of times), who was killed during the Le Mans test weekend in 1969, Ronnie Peterson, killed at Monza in September 1978, and Ronnie's fellow Swede, Gunnar Nilsson, who died of cancer the same year.

Everyone who knew Gunnar remembers him well. As a driver, his natural talent was high, and his win in the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in 1977 would surely, all things being equal, have been the first of very many. As a man, he was delightful company, untypically extrovert for a Scandinavian, with a great sense of humour, and a huge capacity for having a good time.

He loved his time at Lotus, the two seasons - 1976 and '77 - with Andretti, whom he revered, but for '78 accepted an offer to join the then new Arrows team as number one driver. That, of course, never came to be, but, as you say, a team of Nilsson and Patrese would indeed have been a potent one.

Two or three times during that summer of '77, Gunnar complained of niggling pains in his back, which seemed to be getting worse. They seemed to have little effect on his driving - he drove an absolute stormer at the Osterreichring in August, I remember - but, as he later said, without a trace of self-pity, he should have had the pains investigated sooner than he did.

It was when he was staying at Andretti's country place, in Pennsylvania, that Mario finally persuaded him to go and see a doctor, which led to further tests in London; eventually, we learned of the diagnosis.

Gunnar spent months in hospital, somehow remaining resolutely cheerful for most of the time, and in July of '78 actually came to Brands Hatch for the British Grand Prix. How was he doing? "Good!" he exclaimed. "I'm coming along well." He had lost all his hair, following months of chemotherapy, but even managed to joke with me about that: "You think you're going bald? Ha! I'm way ahead of you..."

In fact, he wasn't coming along well at all, and it wasn't long before he knew it was a matter of weeks, rather than months. The raw courage of the man had a profound effect on everyone: in the time left to him, he passed up pain-killing drugs so as to be properly alert, and concentrated such energies as he had on starting a campaign to raise funds for scanning equipment for the London hospital which had looked after him so well. Early in September, he somehow found the strength to go to Sweden for the funeral of Peterson; a few days later he died, at the age of 28.

He had a very short time at the top level of motor racing - only 31 Grands Prix - but it was enough to make his mark as a driver. Much more than that, though, I, and others, will always remember Gunnar Nilsson the man. Just a lovely bloke.



Dear Alison,

I know what you're saying about it being 'a positive thing all round' to give promising young drivers a run on Friday mornings, and in an ideal world I'd agree with you 100 percent, but I'm not so sure the F1 team owners would see it quite the same way.

As is the way of it in F1, everything in the end comes down to money, and the cost of running an F1 car for a single lap - discounting any R&D costs - has been assessed at £1500. Therefore, while it may indeed be a nice idea to run promising young drivers in these Friday morning test sessions, bluntly the chances of its happening are greatly increased if someone steps up to pay for it...

If you commit to the 'Friday morning syndrome', you give up the right to test elsewhere whenever you like, so, that being so, you need to put your Friday morning to good use, to get some tangible benefits from it - and your chances of achieving that, frankly, are going to be greatly reduced if a totally inexperienced driver is at the wheel. Allan McNish, for example, is quick enough, and experienced enough, to do genuinely useful work for Messrs Alonso and Trulli, but a team like Renault is not going to squander precious testing time by giving a novice a run in circumstances like this. Regrettable, perhaps, but all too understandable.



Dear Raymond,

It's a little early to be thinking in terms of an F1 career for Alain Prost's son, who is currently racing karts, but I'd say the chances of eventually seeing Nico Rosberg and 'Nelsinho' Piquet in F1 are extremely high. Both are only 17 years old, and each is currently a frontrunner in F3, Rosberg in Germany, Piquet in the UK.

Is a famous surname a help or a hindrance? I think it can be both, quite honestly. There's no doubt that it can help, in the sense that being the son of a great driver means that your father is likely to be extremely well connected - and also well fixed financially, should a few quid prove necessary in the early stages of a career.

Against that, if you are the son of a famous driver, there are extra pressures on you, too, not least the weight of expectation: if you're called Rosberg or Piquet, some will almost assume you're going to be brilliant because...well, because you're called Rosberg or Piquet!

The assumption is that it's 'in the genes', but while there is quite frequent evidence that this is so, so also there have been sons of great drivers who have simply not been good enough to make it. Once in a while, you get a son who is actually better than his father was, but it's more usually the other way round.



Dear Bob,

It's a fact that I absolutely adore sprint car racing, and have done since I was a kid, in the 1950s. One of my great childhood heroes (along with Jean Behra) was Bob Sweikert, who won the Indy 500, the USAC National Championship and the USAC Sprint Car Championship in 1955, and was then killed in a sprint car at Salem, Indiana (a paved, high-banked, half-mile oval), in the summer of 1956. I was just past my 10th birthday, and felt completely bereft.

Over time I read everything I could get my hands on about sprint car racing, particularly to do with the 1950s and '60s, which, although horribly dangerous, is still rightly regarded as the 'Golden Age' of sprint car racing. When I got to know Mario Andretti well, in the 1970s, I'd happily listen for hours as he regaled me with wonderful anecdotes about those days.

Mario always reckoned the two best sprint car drivers he ever saw were Jud Larson and Don Branson. I'll give you a small sample of what I'm talking about.

"We were running three days of sprint cars in Minneapolis," he said. "And I was sharing a room with Jud - he and I were really good buddies. He ran into one of his old girl friends the night before, and he staggers in at, I don't know, three in the morning. He's got a six-pack of beer with him, and he wakes me up, and he says, 'Hey, Andretti, wanna beer?' I says no, I don't, I'm asleep. 'OK, I'll drink yours, too.' Next morning, we're walking through the State Fair Park, and we pass one of these greasy joints - a hamburger stand - and I see his face starting to change colour. Of course he throws up right there...

"Over the three days, he, [AJ] Foyt and myself had been running quickest, so I figure, well, that's one out of the way. Ha! That son of a bitch qualifies on pole, and the race is a 100-lapper. I'm behind him, and the whole race I hammered his ass. Towards the end, you know, you get tired, and your head kind of hangs out the side. I'd give him a nudge, and I'd see his head jerk, and all that stuff, but he did not make a mistake. At the end I gave him a hard time. I says, 'Why didn't you let me by? You were holding me up.' And he looks at me, and he says, 'Mario, you got to believe me, nobody wanted to get this thing over with more than I did!'"

Sadly, Larson, like Branson, was killed in 1966.

The first sprint car race I ever saw was a USAC event at Flemington, New Jersey, in June 1978 (won, as far as I remember, by Tom Bigelow), and since then hardly a year has gone by without my attending at least one race.

Why do I love it? For one thing, what appeals to me about sprint car racing is its unchanging character. The cars are front-engined, as they have always been, and they race on ovals, usually dirt, and usually half a mile in length. I've been to afternoon sprint car shows, but most enjoy them at night - there's something incredibly intoxicating about the blend of floodlights, the muscular scream of big V8s, the cars sideways, the dirt flung from their scrabbling rear tyres (NO traction control here, thank you very much), the hot dogs, beer, Coke... Just irresistible, the whole thing - and the purest, most raw, form of motor racing I have ever seen.

People often suggest that the driver counts for less than he used to, and - in terms of F1, certainly - I wouldn't disagree, but in the world of sprint car racing the role of the driver has not significantly changed over the years. True, they have power steering these days, but not much else - save in terms of safety - has changed.

A couple of years ago, on the Friday evening before the US Grand Prix at Indianapolis, a bunch of us went to the Indiana State Fairgrounds, for the running of the Hoosier 100, for USAC Silver Crown cars, which are very similar to sprint cars, but a little bigger, with a little more power.

This is the most hallowed of all dirt oval races in the USA, an event run since 1953, and won over time by such as Andretti and Foyt. As I scanned the entries, the name of Johnny Parsons caught my eye.

Parsons, I knew, had been around some considerable time, but still it was a shock to learn that he had been on the pole for this race in 1970, before all but half a dozen of the F1 drivers were born!

I wondered what his age was, and asked a fan. "How old's JP?" he demanded of his pal. "Oh...59, something like that..."

In fact, Parsons was a mere 57 at the time, and, on the strength of what we saw that night, has years of racing left in him. In the early laps, he was simply mesmeric, using 'the cushion' to overtake on the outside.

On an oval like this, as a line - usually tight up by the fence - emerges, loose dirt is flung out, and begins to pile up beyond where the drivers normally run. Hence, 'the cushion'. If you're very skilled - and very brave - you can run with your outside rear wheel against it, and get what they call 'a good bite' through, and out of, the corner. As in F1, the cars have over 800 horsepower; this is as near as they get to traction control.

Coming from midfield, around 16th, Parsons went around the outside of car after car, to the point that by half-distance he was into the lead, and going away. Sadly, in the late stages his tyres went off, and he fell back to fifth, but not before he had given all his young rivals a driving lesson. That is what I love most about sprint car racing...

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