Ask Nigel Roebuck: November 27

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 27

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Dear Warren,

You're from Dublin, so I can well understand your enthusiasm for Eddie Jordan's F1 team, although I'm not sure that three wins in 12 seasons quite constitutes reaching the pinnacle! Actually, now I think about it, perhaps you're simply meaning that his team is in F1, competing in the World Championship.

Obviously, so far the best driver to come from Ireland, north or south of the border, is John Watson, whose temperament sometimes compromised his great natural talent, but who, on his day, was a truly formidable Grand Prix driver, capable of taking on anyone. And while I've never rated Eddie Irvine as highly as some have done, there's no doubt that he has been an excellent professional in the sport for a great many years.

Of those from your own part of the country, I guess Derek Daly comes to mind. He was not by any means a great driver, but he was certainly quick, and enormously brave. When he crashed at Zandvoort in 1980, I happened to be more or less on the spot, and it was one of those accidents that made you tremble, for his Tyrrell, having suffered front suspension failure under braking for the Tarzan hairpin, ploughed over the minimal run-off area, hit a tyre barrier head on, and somersaulted over it.

I scribbled away in my notebook - my writing shaky - and about a minute later was aware of someone looking over my shoulder. It was DD, helmet in one hand, a Coke in the other. "Who's leading?" he said...

Daly was - and is - excellent company, and I still see him occasionally when I'm at races in the USA, where he has lived for the best part of 20 years now.

Dear Sean,

Actually, I must own up here. Yes, I have been driven - very fast - around a circuit in the rain by Michael Schumacher, but it was not in a race car, but an Escort Cosworth. Take my word for it, though, in the conditions that day it felt plenty fast enough!

In fact, initially I felt as though I were on a freeway gone mad. The weather at Silverstone was lousy, as I said, and as we proceeded towards Stowe at, I don't know, 125mph or so, there wasn't a lot to be seen through the murk and spray. The ghosts of other cars materialized periodically, but we were past most of them in a trice, and my concentration was focused on the one about four feet in front us, another Escort Cosworth. Obviously Michael had considerable faith in the man ahead.

This, in itself, was not surprising, for it was his team-mate of the time, Johnny Herbert, who was wasting no effort in his attempts to keep us behind him. Even before leaving the pit lane, he had been gently nudged several times, advised of the situation, if you like.

It wasn't long before I forgot about the road ahead - the freeway gone mad - and concentrated on watching Schumacher at work. Undeniably, in the streaming conditions, four-wheel drive was the thing to have, but even so Michael and Johnny were routinely getting those Cosworths sideways to a point that recovery seemed unlikely.

Schumacher, I noted, had two hands on the wheel only at the point of turning in. Once the car had been committed to the corner, his left hand went back to the gear lever, all the steering correction being done with his right. On one occasion, out of Becketts, we momentarily went clear off the road, but Michael barely lifted. "Oops!" he said.

Eventually, at Priory, we got by Johnny, who had been baulked by a dawdler. Herbert momentarily tried to get alongside once more, but a glance from Schumacher suggested this was inadvisable, and for the rest of the lap Michael simply strutted his stuff, driving as if in a sprint car on dirt, entering corners as good as backwards, yet always gathering it up, always hitting his apex.

Perhaps the most numbing aspect of the entire exercise was the lack of apparent effort. Schumacher, in jeans, leather jacket and borrowed open-face helmet, gave the impression he could do this indefinitely.

The drive with Michael came on a day in late 1994, organised by Jackie Stewart, in aid of the Grand Prix Mechanics Charitable Trust, and it raised a lot of money for a deserving cause, being well supported by the trade. As well as that, 200 fans laid out a couple of hundred pounds each, to meet their heroes, and be driven round by them. None to whom I spoke felt it other than well spent.

Thirteen of the F1 drivers of the day were on hand, and as Stewart pointed out at the time, if you tried to pull together a bunch comprising Schumacher, Damon Hill, Mika Hakkinen, Jean Alesi et al for a day somewhere, in the normal course of events you'd be looking at a daunting sum of money. None was offered to the drivers, and none requested.

As we pulled into the pits, at the end of half a dozen laps or so, I thanked Michael, and said I'd never feel quite the same about driving in the rain again. "Just imagine what it's like in F1 cars," he grinned, "when we mean it..."

Dear David,

I'm with you on this - and actually getting a little tired of reading how underrated Giancarlo Fisichella is. I think he is undoubtedly a hugely talented natural driver, but I've never seen him as a racer, quite honestly. Put it this way, if he's in a scrap with someone, I don't expect him to come out on top.

I think it's a shame, because there's no doubt he has the ability - but then, to me, the same is also true of his fellow countryman, Jarno Trulli. Flavio Briatore once jokingly suggested they were interchangeable, and I know what he meant. Very quick, the pair of them, but lacking that indefinable something

Put either of them in a Ferrari or whatever, and of course they'd win races, but neither, so far as I am aware, has ever been invited to join one of the top three teams, and that's not by chance. Take my word for it, Jean Todt, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis are not slow in coming forward if they think they can see a potential World Champion.

Dear Michael,

I think, as Mario Andretti always says, 'Everything has its price'. All right, I'll grant you, Mario is an old-fashioned racer, an absolute purist, who raced through an extraordinarily dangerous time in the sport. When he was making his name, driving sprint cars in the early '60s, it's unlikely there was a more perilous activity anywhere on earth, and in a very few years he lost an awful lot of friends.

In 1970, finally, USAC introduced roll-cages for sprint cars, and Andretti, like many of his colleagues, was wholly opposed to the idea - indeed, his feelings on the subject remain unchanged to this day.

"First, I hated the way the roll-cages screwed up the look of the cars. More to the point, though, I believe - and I still do believe - that having them encouraged a lack of discipline in the drivers. If a guy wasn't worried about getting on his head, he would take chances he would never have contemplated before. Some of those guys thought that goddam cage was there to be used, like it's a piece of normal equipment on the car!"

I mentioned that once to Chris Economaki, the 'Jenks' of American motor racing. "If my memory serves me correctly," he said, "the USAC sprint car circuit had 32 races the last year before roll-cages were introduced, and in that season four cars got upside down. Then they mandated roll-cages, and in the first four races of the next season nine cars got upside down... With all this safety stuff, the quality of the driving has suffered immeasurably, no question."

What I find always interesting about drivers who raced when the sport was highly dangerous is that the great majority of them did not want it to be safe - indeed, felt it should not be.

This is what Tony Brooks, the most underrated driver of all time, told me about racing in the '50s and '60s. "We accepted that grand prix racing was a challenge to a designer and a driver to get a car round a road circuit faster than any other kind of car. We used to get resentful only when we had to drive on artificial, aerodrome-type, circuits!

"The big attraction was driving a racing car on closed roads, and we accepted that the name of the game was keeping the car on the road. If you went off, you were in the lap of the Gods. You might get away with it, you might not. To me, a good analogy is that of mountaineering: if you provide a safety net, no challenge remains.

"So although nobody wanted to get killed or hurt, the challenge was to drive as fast as you could, while realising the consequences of going off. Nobody will persuade me that there isn't more of a challenge to the driver if he knows that he might hurt himself if he goes off the road. Of course you can afford to have a go if you know that a mistake might mean going into a run-off area, and losing a few seconds or, at worst, dropping out of the race. But when you were going into a corner faster than the next man, but not so fast that you were going to hurt yourself, that was a completely different ball game.

"I think there's a lack of discipline among drivers today, but I don't blame them altogether. I think it's inevitable once you create an environment where they can make mistakes and get away with it. Brick walls and trees and ditches instill a discipline, believe me. I can remember drivers in my time who were very quick indeed on aerodrome circuits, but no threat at all on true road circuits. And the only explanation is that a totally different attitude of mind was needed on a circuit where you couldn't spin-off with impunity..."

I asked Phil Hill, the 1961 World Champion, about it, and he said this: "Today's driving tactics? Well, they can get away with it, can't they? That's the only possible explanation. If guys drove like that in my time, they usually sorted themselves out pretty quickly with a big accident - or else somebody else did it for them. Some of the stuff that goes on today...I just don't know what to think. Doing that in my many of them would have ended up in fatal accidents. It was just unthinkable, really, to touch another car, because of the potential consequences. I know it sounds corny, but those were the facts. Over the long term, you just couldn't do it, and get away with it."

Even more extreme is Stirling Moss. "When they started to talk about safety, I said, 'Listen, if you don't want to drive, then don't drive.' There was this talk about 'Should one race at this circuit?'

"In my era, if it was too hot in the kitchen, fine, don't come in the kitchen. Of course it's very difficult to propose a lessening of safety, because people say, 'My God, we don't want these poor boys to hurt themselves...' No, of course you don't, but the point is, if you want to bring back the taste of what racing really is, it has to be unsafe, in my mind. Otherwise, you're lessening the challenge. I mean, I'd try to walk on a wire two feet from the ground, but I wouldn't try to walk across the Grand Canyon on it, you know. Now the skill required is exactly the same thing in both cases, but the challenge is not..."

In today's parlance, I guess the philosophy of these guys would be called 'hardcore'. When Michael Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone in 1999, after all, half the paddock went into shock.

In 1998, Martin Brundle drove the '55 Mercedes W196 (as raced by Moss) in a 'demo' at Spa, and afterwards I asked him for his impressions.

"What's never changed about grand prix racing," he said, "is that the limit is the limit is the limit: go and find it. In other respects, though, I'm starting to understand there are huge differences in the job of the driver from one era to another.

"First, you feel as though you're sitting on the car, rather than in it, and the mirrors are like on a motorcycle - all you can see is your own shoulders. Clearly they didn't pay too much attention to what was going on behind them, but later on I began to understand why - you had to concentrate so bloody hard on what was going on in front of you! Physically, I found the car relatively easy to drive, but mentally it was incredibly hard.

"I was extremely aware of the absence of seat-belts, roll-over bars, and so on, to say nothing of a nice, safe, carbon monocoque! I began to look around, and think, 'If you were going to hit something, what would you do?' In a modern car, if you're going to crash, you make sure you do certain things beforehand, but with this one I really had no idea what I'd do.

"When I was four, I blagged my way on to some bumper cars at Butlin's, and I'll never forget this old guy waving a finger at me, warning me I was going to hit the side. Eventually I did, and hit my head on the nut in the centre of the steering-wheel - got carried off to hospital, blood pouring from my face. When I got in the Merc, I thought, 'Jeez, if you hit something, there's going to be a nice imprint of a W196 steering-wheel on your chest...'

"I didn't slow down, because I was enjoying it so much, but I did begin to feel nervous in the high-speed corners, because occasionally the car seemed to have a mind of its own. It was rather like flying a helicopter, that sense that if you ever let anything develop, you'd have a hell of a job getting it back again.

"OK, in the back of a current F1 driver's mind is the acceptance that he might get hurt doing this, but back then it must have been right at the front of your mind, and very much part of your decision-making process. It isn't - at all - for the current drivers.

"Look at this weekend: Jacques (Villeneuve) came here on a mission that he was going to get through Eau Rouge flat - but he knew that he wasn't going to die if he got it wrong! The guys who raced these cars...they didn't have that security. No soft landings for them.

"I came out of it with even higher respect for the drivers of those days. I've been round the old Spa, and it's incredible to think they raced F1 cars round there. When you try and put together what you've felt in the car with a place like that...Jesus!"

The flip side, of course, is that tragedies were frequent in days gone by, and things didn't begin materially to change until Jackie Stewart began a serious quest for safety in the late '60s. Recently I was writing a story about the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix, and studying the grid, which in those days - at Monaco - was restricted to 16 starters. Exactly half the drivers in the race - Lorenzo Bandini, Jim Clark, Jo Siffert, Bruce McLaren, Mike Spence, Piers Courage, Jochen Rindt, Pedro Rodriguez - were later killed in racing cars, and all within the next four years or so.

No one, surely, could wish for a return to the days when the sport was as perilous as that, but unquestionably the nature of motor racing has changed fundamentally, with the elimination of so much risk. And I think, too, there is no doubt at all that, as you suggest, with it has come a distinct lack of discipline and track manners. Not that long ago, blocking another driver - chopping across his path - was considered absolutely unacceptable; now it is par for the course.

Dear Darren,

Your question is timely! Since it came in, Ford have sacked Niki Lauda as CEO and team principal of Jaguar Racing - just 15 months after Bobby Rahal got the same treatment. I was up at Jaguar a couple of weeks ago to interview Lauda, and certainly there was no inkling in the air that a such thing was imminent.

The interview is in this week's magazine - by the time the news came in, those pages had already gone to press - and in it you can see certain signs of Lauda's frustration. Rahal is a good friend of mine, and I was well aware that he had similar feelings.

Do I think Jaguar will ever get its act together? Only if Ford for once commit wholeheartedly to F1, leave the running of the team to people who know about these things - and spend whatever it takes, as such as Mercedes, BMW and Toyota do.

Will Ford ever do that? Put it this way, I wouldn't bet my house on it. When it comes to its heartland racing programmes - NASCAR, CART, NHRA - the company does whatever it takes, and does it admirably. When it comes to this side of the water, things seems to be a little different.

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