Ask Nigel Roebuck November 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 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

Ask Nigel Roebuck November 21

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Dear László,

I entirely agree with you. On occasion, the self-important Herr Weber is given to saying some daft things, invariably in defence of the Schumachers, both of whom he manages, of course.

On this occasion, our Willy has been having a go at Williams, perceiving the team to 'favour' Juan Pablo Montoya over Ralf. There is no doubt whatever that the majority of the people in the team think Juan better than Ralf, but that's no more than common sense: he is.

There is also no doubt that there is considerably more affection for Montoya than for Schumacher Jr, and you can't be surprised about that, either. As people, the two could hardly be more different. Montoya is friendly and outgoing, whereas his team-mate is reserved and invariably unsmiling.

JPM goes to the factory a lot, just out of enthusiasm, where Ralf does not. As one senior team member puts it, "I don't think Ralf's ever been to the factory - unless it's for a seat fitting or to pick up a cheque..."

Both men are, of course, major stars in F1, but Ralf, dare I say it, arrived very much a superstar in his own mind - indeed, a friend of mine who knew him in his German F3 days says he was like that then, his attitude very much, 'I'm Michael Schumacher's brother, and I can do what I like...' And his brattish behaviour at this year's Goodwood Festival of Speed tended rather to bear that out.

Williams-BMW, like every other team, were blown aside by Ferrari this year, but they did win a race, in Malaysia, and the irony is that it was scored by Ralf, rather than Juan, who qualified on the front row alongside Michael, and was then absurdly punished with a 'drive through' penalty after the two of them had tangled at the first corner.

In terms of points, there wasn't much between the Williams boys at the end of the season, but is anyone seriously going to suggest that Ralf made as big an impression as Juan Pablo? All right, I know none of JPM's seven pole positions was converted into a race win, but, given the limitations of his car and tyres, it's really not too surprising. Just on the strength of his Gilles-like performance at Silverstone, I'd put him ahead of Ralf...

Dear David,

It was Pierre Dupasquier of Michelin who first christened Prost, 'the professor', and with good reason. Everyone goes on these days about how Michael Schumacher thinks about his job, and what it entails, more than any other driver, and that's undoubtedly true. But Alain was just the same 20 years ago, and at that time such a level of dedication was unusual: hence Dupasquier's nickname for him.

True enough, he was obsessive about getting the set-up of his car right. Nigel Mansell once sniped that, 'Prost's more of a chauffeur - he likes the car to do the work', and when I mentioned this to Alain, he laughed: "Well, he's right - of course I want the car to do the work! Isn't that the object of the exercise? The better the handling, the easier it is to drive - and the less likely I am to make a mistake. Simple..."

In all my years of covering F1, I have never seen anyone make the driving of a grand prix car look as easy as Prost did. He was smooth almost beyond belief. I remember watching a qualifying session at Monaco with Denis Jenkinson. As we watched, we concluded that either Ayrton Senna or Michele Alboreto had to be on pole position, but then the track announcer gave the times - and Prost was quickest.

"Now where the hell did that come from?" mused 'Jenks'. "I'd barely noticed him - I thought he was just warming up!"

Typical Prost, that. He won 51 grands prix, a figure now overtaken by Schumacher, and achieved his successes at a time when there were many more great drivers - not least Ayrton Senna - than there are at the moment, in my opinion. As well as that, throughout his career he was the epitome of sportsmanship; people seem inclined to laugh at that these days, but to me it was, and will remain, a fundamental requirement. And he was never afraid to have another superstar as his team-mate...

So which was Prost's greatest drive? There are so many from which to choose. You could go for Monaco '86, when he started from pole, led all the way - from McLaren team-mate Keke Rosberg and Senna - and did it with ridiculous ease, never appearing to hurry.

If you want to talk about Alain the pure racer, though, you could go for Spa the same year. At La Source, on the first lap, his McLaren was pitched into the air after an altercation between Senna and Gerhard Berger. After a slow lap, he came into the pits for a new nose, had the car checked over, and then resumed, stone last. In the course of the race, he shattered the lap record, and finished up sixth.

"Afterwards," John Barnard said, "we found that the engine mountings were bent - that car was like a banana! How Alain drove it the way he did, I'll never know. It was probably the greatest drive I ever saw - by anyone."

What else? Well, how about the Mexican Grand Prix of 1990, when Prost qualified his Ferrari 13th, after endless problems in practice, then came through to win by 26 seconds, from team-mate Mansell and pole man Berger? What's more, he did it by passing the people in front of him: no refuelling, and planned pit stops and 'strategy' back then...

On balance, though, I think I'll go for Suzuka in 1987, a race in which Alain did not so much as score a point. At the start of the second lap, running on the tail of Berger's leading Ferrari, he picked up a puncture - which meant running a whole lap very slowly before he could get back to the pits.

Although his position was obviously hopeless - it took him 22 laps to catch the next car in front of him - he drove as if the World Championship depended on it. Although Berger led all the way, in the course of the race Prost made up almost a whole lap on him, and twice lapped in 1m43.8s. The quickest lap by any other driver was 1m 45.5s, set by Senna.

In the end Prost finished seventh, but that day he seemed to be running at the limit for the sake of it, simply to show how the race might have gone, had he not punctured. Undoubtedly, Senna was his superior in qualifying, but in terms of fastest race laps, Prost is ahead, 41 to 19. When he really needed to race, Alain was as good as anyone I have ever seen.

Dear Will,

In a way, I was sad to hear Chris talk of CART as a 'feeder series' for F1, because I've always been a big fan of CART, in its own right. I know the series has had a bad time over the last two or three years, coming under intense commercial and political pressure from other American racing interests, and I know, too, that F1 team owners - or some of them, anyway - always keep an eye on who's going well in CART, particularly on the road and street circuits.

"Most people in F1 seem to think all CART drivers are w******," Juan Montoya said to me somewhere this summer. "Well, I've driven in CART, and in F1, and I'm telling you they are not! OK, some aren't very good, but that's true of F1, too. And some of the top ones are very, very, good, take my word for it."

My hope, therefore, is that CART will re-establish itself, and thrive in its own right, rather than think of itself as a 'feeder series'. If, occasionally, an F1 team swoops for a particularly promising driver, fine, that's always going to be the case, but theoretically F1's feeder series is F3000, which at the moment is falling somewhat short in that regard.

Of the F3000 drivers you cite, I think it's fair to say that only his height has so far kept Justin Wilson out of an F1 team. Of the rest, yes, it's strange that Antonio Pizzonia has failed to make much of a mark - because at the same time he has consistently been blindingly quick and impressive while testing for Williams. Only last week I was talking to Niki Lauda about him, and it's quite evident that Niki has signed him to a Jaguar contract on the strength of his F1 testing performances, rather than his showings in F3000.

Why F3000 is failing to turn out much in the way of new F1 drivers is not easy to discern. Certainly I've heard it said that, because the set-up of an F3000 car is a quirky and specialised business, a driver is very much better off in some teams than others. And, if you think about it, an F3000 car is far less similar to an F1 car than it used to be. It runs on slicks, it requires its driver to shift gears, it doesn't have traction control, and on and on.

These days it is far easier for a young kid to make an impression if he has an F1 testing contract, and regularly matches the times of the resident race drivers - which is what Pizzonia has done. To win a series of F3000 races is one thing; to have it known that you're highly rated by Patrick Head is quite another.

Dear Chus,

Your dad is quite right. Carlos Reutemann was indeed 'one of the greatest drivers in F1 history'. This was, after all, a man who started his first grand prix - at home in Argentina in 1972 - from pole position, a feat emulated only by Mario Andretti and Jacques Villeneuve.

However, Reutemann was without doubt the most enigmatic grand prix driver I have come across in 30 years. When all was right with his mood, he was as good in an F1 car as anyone I have ever seen, with literally boundless flair and speed. Yet this same man, with all his enormous talent, could on other days be an also-ran. It remains a mystery, not only to me, but also to the many teams for which he drove.

On his day, Reutemann was quite literally unbeatable. But that was always the problem with Carlos; every good thing you said about his driving had to be prefaced by 'on his day.' There were days, when the angels touched him, when his rivals looked clumsy by comparison. But there were others - too many for one of his gift - when his presence in a race went unnoticed. In his work he wavered between sublime self-confidence and dithering uncertainty.

In terms of speed, we need to remember that Reutemann was Gilles Villeneuve's team-mate at Ferrari in 1978, so there was direct comparison to be made between them. Very well, this was Villeneuve's first year in F1, but he knew how absolutely quick Carlos was, when the mood took him. And I remember Monza in 1981, when the turbos were beginning to get emphatically the upper hand over the normally-aspirated engines, particularly on the 'power' circuits. Somehow, Carlos qualified his Williams-Cosworth second, between the Renaults of Rene Arnoux and Alain Prost.

I went to see Gilles after qualifying, and he wasn't too interested in discussing his own car, his own problems. "Did you see Carlos's time?" he exclaimed, eye alight with enthusiasm. "That is the lap of the season, no question about it..."

Reutemann should have been World Champion that year. He went to the final race, in Las Vegas, with a one point lead over Nelson Piquet, and in practice was simply fantastic, setting a time in the opening session which remained unbeaten. You awaited a Reutemann qualifying lap as later you did with Ayrton Senna.

Through the days before the race Carlos was relaxed, full of good humour. On the Sunday, though, when it mattered, he faded to nothing. As I watched that afternoon, I was embarrassed for him. Afterwards he mumbled about understeer on right-handers, and gearchange problems, but in all truth he drove like a man who had suddenly decided he did not want the World Championship.

Whatever may have been awry with the Williams - real or imagined - how could a man on pole position, touching the hem of the title, have been down to fifth by the end of the first lap, to seventh by the end of the third? To become World Champion, Reutemann, whose stamina was exceptional, had only to stay ahead of a perilously unfit Piquet on a tiring circuit in torpid conditions, yet he allowed Nelson by like a man being lapped.

Reutemann, though, did not dwell on his World Championship lost. "That part of my life is finished," he said. "As far as the championship is concerned, I always said that if it happened, fine, it happened. But if not, well, the sun would still rise in the east, and set in the west. Now there are other things to think about. Business. Politics, maybe."

Politics, certainly. Compared with most racing drivers, Carlos was always an unusually sophisticated man, in that he had a strong awareness of a world beyond motor racing, beyond himself. When based in Europe, during his F1 days, he was invariably well abreast of political happenings, not least in Britain. His heart was firmly in his homeland, and when he retired there was never a doubt that he would return for good to Argentina. There he soon immersed himself in the politics of his province, Santa Fe. As a national hero, the governorship was his for the taking.

In 1995, when F1 returned briefly to Argentina, Reutemann took a ride in a Ferrari on the opening day of practice, and a lot of fingers were crossed. It was pouring down, and everyone knew he had never liked the rain. More to the point, he hadn't been near an F1 car for 13 years, let alone one with a semi-automatic gearbox, and he didn't know this new Buenos Aires circuit.

After three or four laps, they waved him in, figuring that was probably enough, but Carlos was always good at looking the other way. Finally, after 11 laps, he stopped, took off his helmet, and sat there in the cockpit a minute or so, savouring reacquaintance with a loved one. When he stepped out, he was smiling. His 53rd birthday beckoned, and still he looked like the racing driver from central casting.

He had taken to the track after the end of the first practice session, and those watching might have believed it was Gerhard Berger or Jean Alesi out there. Despite the glassy surface, he didn't spin the car once, and his best lap was actually the 11th fastest of the day. "Amazing," mused John Watson. "The same style, same timing, same's all there still."

"Give him a bit of time to get acclimatised," reckoned Bernie Ecclestone, Carlos's one-time employer, "and he'd qualify in the top 10, no problem. It's the old thing: if you can do it, you never lose it - and he really could do it."

So he could. The mystery was why he didn't do it all the time, and only he can answer that.

Dear Simon,

You might expect me to choose Michael Schumacher, but I've already been driven round a circuit by him (in the rain!), so I'll go for an Audi sports car, driven by Juan Montoya, around Spa-Francorchamps.

Dear Ken,

Sorry, but from what I saw of him in F1, I never really rated Johnny Dumfries. It's true that he could hardly have made life more difficult for himself - number two at Lotus, when the team leader was Ayrton Senna! - but I never saw any signs that here was a latent F1 star, and it made me wonder again about the value of F3 as a guide to a driver's true potential.

Nigel Mansell, after all, won only one F3 race - and only then after the winner 'on the road' had been disqualified - whereas Johnny was quite a dominant figure in F3...

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