Ask Nigel Roebuck: November 13

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: November 13

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Dear Michael,

I don't believe I ever met a better man in motor racing than Michele Alboreto, nor one who loved driving more.

Michele's dream team was Lotus in 1978: Mario Andretti and Ronnie Peterson, the two great idols of his life. He would smile as he remembered trips to Monza in his youth, standing there among the Ferrari-mad tifosi, hardly daring to wave his Swedish flag! And later, when a professional racing driver himself, his helmet colours were always blue and yellow, as Peterson's had been.

That was the thing about Michele. He had heroes, for he was one who grew up imbued with this sport, and its culture. It was for this reason, above all, that he so revered Andretti, a man he saw as the racer pure.

When AUTOSPORT gave a dinner in honour of Mario in January 1994, Alboreto flew over for it, shrugging off a horrendous, fog-blighted, journey from Milan. "I couldn't miss this," he said. "Mario is my hero - and always has been."

Then he asked me, shyly, to introduce him to Richard Petty. Richard flashed the famous smile, and said it was an honour. "No, no," mumbled Michele. "It's my honour. are a legend."

After Alboreto's death, testing an Audi at the Lausitzring in April 2001, his fellows remembered him fondly, and two words - 'gentleman' and 'passion'- came up time and again. This was a superb racing driver, on his day a great one, but on those who knew him his human qualities left an even greater impression.

"Michele won his first Grand Prix in Vegas in 1982, the day I won the World Championship," said Keke Rosberg. "We were battling a lot that year, 1982, because we were about the only two normally-aspirated guys in the field.

"When he was at Ferrari, he was at the peak of his career, and he was very, very, good, but in the end, though, none of the racing stuff is very important, is it? What matters much more is that Michele was actually very happy in his life. Outside of the guys I've actually worked with, in my life in motor racing, there were two people I thought exceptional, in every sense of the word. One was Elio [de Angelis], and the other was Michele. When I got home from my office that day, put on the TV news, and heard about Michele, it was like ripping open an old wound."

Riccardo Patrese said he had tried many times to persuade Alboreto to retire. "He had a thousand other things in his life," Patrese said, "and he certainly didn't need the money. Racing was just something Michele couldn't do without..."

It was true. "He had a complete passion for driving," said Gerhard Berger. "When I arrived at Ferrari, in 1987, he was the superstar in the team, and I'm sure I didn't make his life easy - certainly he had some difficult moments with Ferrari. But Michele was always a gentleman - a true Italian gentleman - and we never had any problems. When we separated as team mates, we remained good friends.

"Maybe," Berger concluded, "he should have stopped racing some years ago, but he just couldn't leave it - and he died doing what he loved."

When Alboreto spoke about racing, it was with emotion, and that never changed. At 12, he went to the 1969 Italian Grand Prix, and was entranced. Seven years later, he began his own career, in Formula Monza, progressed swiftly through the ranks, and by 1981 was in the Tyrrell F1 team. "I am a Grand Prix driver," he said, "and I cannot imagine being happier than with this way of life."

Michele's best years, as Rosberg says, were with Ferrari. In 1985, he alone fought Alain Prost for the World Championship, and there were days - as at Monte Carlo that year - when he was simply scintillating. While leading, he locked his brakes, and briefly went off at Ste Devote, allowing Prost to get by. Within six laps, he was back in front, and there he stayed until a left rear tyre began to go down.

After his pit stop, Alboreto rejoined in fourth place, angry but also inspired. By the finish, he was up to second once more, only seven seconds behind Prost, his fastest lap more than a second inside anyone else's best. It was one of those drives you never forget.

"You know," he once said to me, "there are some guys who are in F1, and I don't know why - in all their life they never passed a car! Maybe I have some weaknesses, but I have always considered myself a good racer..."

After leaving Ferrari, he drove for several other F1 teams, none of which was at the top level, but that bothered his friends and fans far more than it did Michele.

"Look," he said, "I was in Formula 1, driving for Ferrari - and long after that, I was driving for Minardi! Give me a car - I don't look just for the glamour, or to be at the top."

After F1 came other things, including a season in the Indy Racing League, because Alboreto wanted to experience oval racing, then sportscars. In a Porsche he won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1997, and later he joined the Audi squad. Only a few weeks before his death, he was member of the victorious crew in the Sebring 12 Hours.

"For some drivers, it's F1 - at the top, with a lot of money - or nothing. But Mario wasn't like that, and neither am I. I drive for pleasure and for success, not for money. I like to win, of course, but for me driving is something special - I have a passion for it, so I like to drive anything."

My last long chat with Michele was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed three years ago. He was there to drive the Audi sportscar, and also the 1939 supercharged 3-litre V12 Type D Auto Union.

"Look at me," he said, very proud in 'period' overalls. "Dressed like Nuvolari! They tell me I look like him when I'm driving it, too - looking through the spokes of the steering wheel, just like my mother drives! I tell you, I think I was born 50 years too late. Must have been incredible to be a racing driver in those times.

"What I cannot imagine is how it must have been to race cars like this. At the Nurburgring! In the rain! Think of it, no seat belt, no helmet... Since driving this car, I have incredible respect for those people who raced them."

Was the pleasure in driving still as much as ever?

"Unfortunately, yes! I have less passion for women now than cars! Old age, you see..."

And, these days, did he find there were gaps he would have gone through 10 years ago, but not now...?

"Unfortunately, no!"

Retirement, Michele said, would come when he woke up in the morning, and had to force himself to go to the track, when he felt no longer as good as his team mates; under those circumstances, he wouldn't want to be there.

The love of driving a racing car was still aflame, you see, as I am sure it was that day at the Lausitzring, when he climbed into the Audi. The last of the romantics, Michele Alboreto; a man whose wit and style and civility were from another age.

Dear Ray,

Given their track record in everything else they done - rallying, IMSA, CART, etc - I don't doubt that ultimately Totoya will succeed in F1, but I think that, even with the budget available to them, you have to give them time. This season they began unexpectedly well, and scored points a couple of times in the early races, but thereafter they seemed not to progress much, where others did. Undoubtedly, the high card in Toyota's hand was their remarkably strong and competitive V10 engine; the chassis was some way from the best.

I haven't seen enough of da Matta to be able to offer much of an opinion at this stage, but friends of mine who attend all the CART races rate him extremely highly, and when I talked to Montoya about him, Juan Pablo reckoned he was definitely F1 material. As well as that, I gather his initial test in the Toyota F1 car greatly impressed members of the team.

It's interesting that Cristiano took a long time to reach his decision to accept Toyota's offer. Obviously, having won the CART championship this year, he was highly valued by Toyota, but when they made their decision to abandon CART for the IRL, I understand that da Matta had no wish to follow them there. He had loved his time in CART, was extremely happy with Newman-Haas, and was strongly tempted to stay there.

F1, though, had always been in his mind, and finally he opted to take the offer. I'm sure he'll do just fine.

Dear Bob,

As a general rule, Lotus cars were not ill-handling - although the early 49 and, particularly, the 30 sports car were notable exceptions - but the fact is that they had a reputation for fragility which was often, frankly, deserved. Suspension failures, in particular, occurred rather more often then the cars' drivers might have wished.

It has been said countless times, and with good reason, that Colin Chapman was a genius, an unmatched innovator, and so on, but undeniably, in his obsessive quest for lightness, he sometimes ran things very close.

A few years ago, in the course of an interview, I asked Bernie Ecclestone for his thoughts about Chapman, and this is what he said.

"'Chunky' was my man. I really liked him. He was good company, one of the boys. He was a good businessman, he was probably the best designer, and he was as quick as half the guys who ever drove for him. Colin was a little bit different from all the others. As I say, he could get in the car, and drive as quick as half the guys who were doing it for a living - and he'd designed the bloody thing, as well! So he was a special guy, and you've got to miss him.

"I remember very well, at the end of '68, when I was managing Jochen Rindt, we had the choice for him of the Goodyear deal with Brabham, or the Firestone deal with Lotus. And I said to Jochen, 'If you want to win the World Championship, you've got more chance with Lotus than with Brabham. If you want to stay alive, you've got more chance with Brabham than with Lotus'.

"It wasn't a bad thing to say; it was a matter of fact. And I'm not saying it now because Jochen got killed in a Lotus. That was what the pattern was, for whatever reason: people did get killed in Lotuses. Maybe Colin took things to the edge a bit - and the drivers...anyone who drove for Lotus was prepared to go along with that, and take it to the edge. So you had the combination of Colin and the drivers taking it to the limit."

Here's another quote, from Team Lotus mechanic Alan McCall, in 1967, the year of the 49's debut. In the closing laps at Watkins Glen, Jimmy Clark, leading, suddenly came by at reduced speed, his right rear wheel much out of true.

"A top rear link brace had broken," Alan McCall remembered. "We used to call them 'pine trees' - they would break or pull bolts out on a regular basis. Mr Chapman insisted they were strong enough, and that we were at fault, for not fitting them properly..."

Had I the time and space, I could give you many other examples of this kind of thing. All that said, though, when the cars held together - and particularly when Clark was at wheel - very often nothing could get near them, which was why so many great drivers signed for Lotus over the years.

Dear Peter,

Stories get embellished over time, but I guess your colleague may have been alluding to one which did the rounds about a bet between the drivers.

I haven't been to Brands Hatch for years, and it's even longer than that since I approached it from London, so it could be that the roads are completely changed now. At one time, though, you came downhill to a roundabout, before taking the unfortunately named 'Death Hill' up to Brands. Maybe it's still the same.

So long as this roundabout was clear, the corner you need to take to go round it, on to the Death Hill exit, was, I remember, a very good one: fast and slightly off-camber. The story I heard long ago was that, for a not inconsiderable wager, 'a leading F1 driver' (in the early '70s) was persuaded to try to take it flat, in a Porsche 911. According to legend, one or two others were stationed, in the interests of safety, at other approach roads to the roundabout, making sure that it was clear for the attempt, late at night, apparently.

By all accounts, it was pretty lurid, but the 911 made it through - and with no change in its exhaust note.

Ah, but did it ever happen...?

Dear Bryan,

A very sad story, this. In the mid-'60s Chris Irwin was looking very much like an F1 star of the future. A graduate of the wonderful 1-litre F3 of the time, Irwin made his F1 debut at the British Grand Prix in 1966, and finished a superb seventh in an outdated Brabham.

The following year he drove for BRM, as number three, partnering Jackie Stewart and Mike Spence, and showed his class at Le Mans (where the French Grand Prix was held that year), outqualifying Stewart, and finishing fifth.

Irwin really should have held on to an F1 drive in 1968, but BRM decided (following JYS's departure to Tyrrell) to run only two cars, and brought in Pedro Rodriguez to partner Spence.

Following the death of Spence on May 7, while testing a Lotus in preparation for the Indianapolis 500, Irwin might have been brought back to BRM, but just 10 days later, as you say, while practising his new Ford 3L for the Nurburgring 1000Kms, he had an enormous accident after the car had got airborne. Although he survived, he suffered terrible head injuries, and never raced again.

Since then, nothing has been seen or heard of Irwin in racing circles. I gather he still lives in London, but am afraid to say I can tell you no more than that.

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