Ask Nigel Roebuck: November 5

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. Send your questions to

Ask Nigel Roebuck: November 5

Fantasy, as you say...discussing which talent should really be in F1, regardless of budget. In a perfect world, perhaps...

First, have Wilson, Firman and Kiesa done enough to stay? Justin impressed me considerably with Minardi, not least at Melbourne, where an ill-adjusted HANS device meant that he was in agony from the start, yet he kept going for a considerable distance. I remember Stefano Modena's first F1 drive, in a Brabham at Adelaide: he packed it in after a few laps, because he was 'exhausted'. Not long afterwards, I was talking to Keke Rosberg, and the subject came up: "Well, you can forget him right now" Keke said. "In your first Grand Prix, you carry the bloody thing over the line if you have to..."

So, with regard to Wilson, that was an encouraging sign, and I was delighted when he got the second Jaguar drive for the last few races of the year - he and his family had made considerable sacrifices to raise the money to get him into F1 in the first place, after all. But although he occasionally ran well in the Jag, he didn't impress as much as I, and many others, had expected. Given the team's precarious financial situation, it may well be that Mark Webber's team mate in 2004 will have to be 'a paying driver', and I've also heard it said that marketing folk favour the idea of 'a German' in the second car - the current favourite for the drive is Alex Wurz, not strictly 'a German', but perhaps close enough. I still think Justin belongs in F1, however, and has done enough to justify staying. Question is, where?

Now, Firman. If Jaguar's budget was - and is - shaky, Jordan's was - and is - minuscule, which is why one was astonished that Eddie should have risked so much time and money on taking Vodafone to court. There was as good as no testing through the season, which of course was exactly what a rookie like Ralph didn't need. Most of the circuits were new to him, too, and I had a great deal of sympathy for him, particularly in the early part of the season, when he was finding his feet. What struck one most was his remarkable bravery - very often he looked on the verge of an accident, but he never compromised his efforts. If he's going to stay in F1, I'd say at this stage it has to be with Jordan - and that will depend on how much money he can raise, relative to the budgets of others aspiring to the drive.

At this stage, I really don't have too much to say about Kiesa. After Wilson's departure for Jaguar, he got the second Minardi drive because he had the cash to pay for it. He didn't make a fool of himself - but neither did he show any signs, as Fernando Alonso did in 2001, of being anything special. If he gets another budget together for '04, I'd guess he'll keep the drive.

Now, is it time to say goodbye to Frentzen? Probably, yes. Heinz took a fine third place for Sauber at Indianapolis, but it took adverse conditions - and Bridgestone-suiting rain - to get the car anywhere near that position. H-H remains an extremely fine driver, but he would need the inspiration of a competitive car to give of his best at this stage of his career and, frankly, he isn't going to get it. That being so, he'd be better off joining Jean Alesi in the DTM.

Wurz, Pizzonia, McNish, Villeneuve. Of these, the most likely to find a drive is Alex, with Jaguar. Antonio's disastrous spell with Jaguar mystified me, I must say, as it did Williams people with whom he had previously worked as test driver. The fact remains, though, that against Webber - admittedly the revelation of the season - he looked pretty ordinary; he has now gone back to test for Williams. Allan enjoyed his year of testing with Renault, but has now lost that job, and there are rumours he may take up a similar role with Ferrari - not by any means the dumbest thing Maranello could do, for he is a very accomplished and intelligent driver.

And...Villeneuve. Yes, he has had five poor seasons - save financially - with a middling team, but, unlike many, I believe the ability and competitiveness are still intact. Jacques belongs in F1, but I have my doubts that we'll ever see him in a competitive car again.

Forgetting teams, which 20 drivers would I like to see in F1 next year? Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, Juan Montoya, Ralf Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen, David Coulthard, Fernando Alonso, Jarno Trulli, Giancarlo Fisichella, Felipe Massa (assuming he's matured a little), Mark Webber, Alex Wurz, Olivier Panis, Cristiano da Matta, Justin Wilson, Jacques Villeneuve, Nick Heidfeld, Allan McNish - and a couple from across the water: Jeff Gordon, who will never leave NASCAR, I know, but is the best American driver of his generation, with the talent to succeed anywhere, and young Scott Dixon, who seems ultra-quick, ultra-calm, and wants nothing in the world more than an F1 drive.

The FIA may claim that its rule changes, concerning qualifying and the points system, contributed, but the fundamental reasons for an infinitely more combative season in 2003 lay, as ever, with cars and drivers - and tyres. In 2003 Williams-BMW and McLaren-Mercedes signifcantly raised their games in the battle with Ferrari, and in this were aided very considerably by Michelin, who had much the better of the tyre war.

By the time the teams left the Hungaroring, in mid-August, Schumacher led the championship, but by now Montoya was only one point behind; Raikkonen two. And so abysmal had Ferrari's showing been at this race that the smart money was on Juan Pablo or Kimi for the title.

The tide had certainly turned - but then it had frequently through the year. Logically, the initial advantage should have lain with Williams-BMW, for only they - of the top three teams - had their new car ready for the first race. Reliability problems delayed the debut of Ferrari's F2003-GA until Barcelona, race five, and McLaren began with an interim car, the MP4-17D, pending the arrival of the radical MP4-18 - which never happened...

It took time for Williams to get their FW25 up to its full potential, and eventually McLaren had to face the fact that they would have to run the entire season with the supposedly interim MP4-17D. As Ron Dennis said, "I wish, with hindsight, we'd called 17D MP4-18, and 18 MP4-19..."

What Raikkonen and Coulthard had at their disposal, though, remained a pretty competitive proposition at most races, but the team's two victories came at the first two races, where reliability is always of paramount importance. After a start like that, none could have foreseen that McLaren would not win again in '04.

You could say, with some justification, that if Williams and, to a lesser extent, McLaren, appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the 2003 championship, their efforts were not aided by a row which erupted before the Italian Grand Prix. Someone at Bridgestone had studied Michelin's front tyres in post-race condition and suspected the contact patch was too wide. Ferrari drew this to the attention of the FIA, who duly issued what they called 'a clarification', but which most people saw as 'a rule change'.

Henceforth, the governing body said, tyres would be checked and measured not only before a race, but also afterwards. The fact that Michelin had been manufacturing the tyres in the same mould for three years but only now - after Ferrari/Bridgestone had had a lamentable race in Hungary - caused offence inevitably prompted cynicism in the paddock.

Subsequent 'playing safe' changes to Michelin front tyres made little difference to their performance, but the episode certainly served to destabilise Williams and McLaren at a crucial point in the championship.

At the end of the day, though, you could say that it was won and lost during the first part of the European season. While Williams worked on honing their car, and McLaren did their best with what they had, Schumacher and his Ferrari put three consecutive wins on the board.

For all that, consistently high finishes kept Raikkonen in the hunt and allowed him to go to Suzuka with the flimsiest of chances of winning the championship. In reality, though, the MP4-17D - while occasionally the fastest car of all - lacked the consistent pace to take on Ferrari and Williams, not least because Mercedes are still some way off in the horsepower stakes.

Sometimes Kimi's flair and speed were dazzling but, like Juan Montoya, he was a man in only his third season of F1, and occasionally that showed. At both Barcelona and Montreal, for example, he went off on his qualifying lap, and thus started from the back, which is not how you score well on race day.

Raikkonen and Coulthard won a race apiece, but the younger man soon asserted his authority in the team - for DC, after a fine start to the year, completely lost his confidence in 'one lap' qualifying, and began routinely to line up in mid-grid. Invariably, he raced well, but there were always too many cars to be passed - cars which should not have been ahead of him. Not Coulthard's best season.

Not Adrian Newey's, either. The MP4-18 was originally due to race early in the European season, but its debut was endlessly postponed, then ultimately knocked on the head. The car was quick, its drivers said after testing it, but never reliable enough to risk racing. You don't beat Ferrari that way.

So was the MP4-18 'a big waste of money', as you suggest? No, not really, if you consider that it formed the basis of the MP4-19 - which is expected to be the first of the 2004 cars to test.

I think perhaps Patrick himself can answer your question. "In my time as a driver," he once said to me, "I've seen three guys who were on another level from the rest of us: (Gilles) Villeneuve, Senna and Prost. I don't know what it is, this special quality they had, only that it exists..."

Tambay was - and is - a true gentleman, one of the most charming people, in fact, I've come across in motor racing. It's a cliché, I know, but the temptation is to say that he was too nice a bloke to get to the very top as a racing driver.

For a start, Patrick's driving manners mirrored his off-track behaviour. He was scrupulously fair, and if - in my book - that can never be a fault in a racing driver, perhaps it led to his sometimes being taken advantage of. Within a team, Patrick resolutely avoided 'polemics' - and quite often his team mates did not.

Although he later drove for both Renault and the Haas Lola team, whenever I think of Tambay, he is in a Ferrari, whom he joined in the saddest of circumstances in 1982, following the death of his great friend Villeneuve.

At Long Beach that year I talked to Gilles about Patrick, whose F1 career appeared at that time to be washed up. "It's really a shame," he said, "that Patrick has never been with a competitive team. He is a very close friend, sure, but I've always rated him very highly as a driver, and that's a fact. A lot of people go on about the impression I made in my first Grand Prix, at Silverstone in '77, but they forget now that he also was in the same position that weekend. I was not much quicker than him - and I was in a factory McLaren, where he was in a private Ensign. All he needs is a good team and a competitive car, and the sad thing is I don't think he'll ever get it now..."

Well, he did. Villeneuve was killed at Zolder in May, and by late June Tambay was in the number 27 Ferrari, at the Dutch Grand Prix. By early August he had won his first Grand Prix, at Hockenheim, this the meeting at which team leader Didier Pironi suffered the leg injuries which would end his career.

Patrick's win there did a great deal to restore Ferrari's shattered morale, but it is his win at Imola the following year which really sticks in the mind.

Consider the circumstances. At Imola in '82 Pironi 'stole' victory from Villeneuve on the final lap, when Gilles believed they were cruising in for an easy one-two. Incensed by his team mate's duplicity, he vowed never to speak to him again, and only a fortnight later died in the qualifying accident in Belgium.

Now, in 1983, here was Tambay, in Ferrari number 27 at Imola - and he qualified third, where Villeneuve had qualified the year before. In honour of that, fans had painted a Canadian maple leaf on the grid slot. This was much on Patrick's mind as he prepared for the start.

I felt great sympathy for him as race time neared. Enough, you might have thought, to be a Ferrari driver in Italy, without all this extra pressure and emotion.

Later in the afternoon, as the race neared its conclusion, all looked lost for Ferrari. Tambay was leading, but Riccardo Patrese's Brabham was clearly quicker. With the flag only five laps away, the Anglo-German car was through, the storybook ending gone. Within 30 seconds of the sentence, though, came the reprieve, and the joy was all the sweeter. It was not that they wanted Patrese to crash, merely that they wanted Tambay - and number 27 - to win.

It was cruelly ironic that Tambay's chance with Ferrari should have come in the aftermath of Villeneuve's death, a fact he found difficult to put from his mind. But Imola was a singularly personal triumph, one of those days when there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

OK, if you want to be pedantic about it, then, yes, Renault has rejoined the Big Four, a position they briefly occupied - as Benetton, when Michael Schumacher was there - in the first half of the '90s. Really, I was talking about recent years.

Do I see any genuine newcomer gaining 'Big Four' status in the future? Yes, perhaps - but not in the short term. I think we can forget any idea of another 'brief look-in' from Jordan, but perhaps - if Honda get their finger out, and revert to being engineering-led, rather than marketing-led - BAR could occasionally threaten, but down the road there's only one obvious contender for 'Big' status, and that's Toyota.

Why? Because they have the will - and they have the money. Look at any sphere of motor sport in which Toyota have competed, and you'll see that eventually they got to the top of it.

Do Bernie and the FIA worry about the continuing dominance of the same teams, year after year? Not at all - why should they? OK, I'm sure they would love to have 20 absolutely competitive cars and drivers on the grid, but it's never happened before, and it never will. Of course they didn't like the situation in 2002, when Ferrari's superiority sent everyone to sleep, because it was bad for business. But as long as two or three teams are battling it out, the TV figures will remain healthy, and that's the bottom line.

If I were managing a young driver, I'd advise him any time to take a test drive with a top team, rather than a race drive with one at the back of the grid. All right, if you're truly exceptional, you can show it in a poor car - look at Fernando Alonso at Minardi in 2001, for example - but it doesn't often happen that way. As a rule of thumb, people who drive for backmarker teams tend to stay in backmarker teams, sometimes for year after year.

When Keke Rosberg, his manager, did a deal for Mika Hakkinen to become McLaren's test driver in 1993, it was not precisely what Mika wanted - he had already shown how quick he was with Lotus, and was desperate to race. But Rosberg could see the importance of establishing a relationship between Hakkinen and a top team. Mika tested unceasingly that year, and was invariably quicker than team driver Michael Andretti - and sometimes quicker than Ayrton Senna, too! That kind of thing tends to register with a team, and by the end of the season he had replaced Andretti as Senna's team mate. He then stayed with McLaren for the next eight seasons, winning two World Championships along the way.

Similarly, Juan Montoya was test driver for Williams in 1998 and hugely impressed everyone with his speed and flair. Had Jacques Villeneuve stayed with the team for '99, Williams would have put JPM in with him, but when Villeneuve left, Alex Zanardi was hired, and he had been away from F1 long enough to be regarded almost as a rookie. Williams didn't want two rookies in the team for '99, which was why Ralf Schumacher was brought in from Jordan.

Montoya, meantime, was farmed out to Ganassi Racing (in place of Zanardi), for two years of CART, but the Williams plan was always to bring him back to the F1 team. Zanardi, unfortunately, had a terrible time on his F1 return, and his contract was terminated after a single season. There was no possibility, at that stage, of Ganassi's releasing Montoya, and so Jenson Button came in to partner Schumacher for one year, after which JPM took over the drive.

When Olivier Panis joined McLaren as test driver (Rosberg again!) for 1999, his career was in the doldrums, but he did a superb job for McLaren, was very often faster than the regular drivers in testing, and that registered in the paddock. At the end of the year, he signed for BAR, and today he is with Toyota. Had he turned down the McLaren offer, and continued to race for a backmarker team, I seriously doubt he would be in F1 today.

Quite apart from anything else, a driver can learn so much from working with one of the major teams, and that experience will serve him well for the rest of his career. It's true that here are some drivers, such as Marc Gene and Luca Badoer, who are extremely capable as test drivers, but not quite quick enough to race for a top team, and for them the choice is difficult, I'll admit. Obviously, they want to race - but after working with a Williams or a McLaren or a Ferrari, it must be difficult indeed to go to the other end of the ladder.

I'll repeat, though: if you test for a top team, and you show enough potential, there's a high chance you'll make the race team. Not too many drivers, though, progress far from the back of the grid. Facts are facts.

I love street races, I must say, and always have. There's an intimacy about them, a feeling of being closely involved in the action, that you simply can't find anywhere else. Devoid of run-off areas, they place a premium on finesse, and that gets high marks with me.

As you say, though, there aren't too many left in F1 - one, to be precise. True enough, people still miss Adelaide, and I'm one of them - I far preferred everything about it to Melbourne - but the best street circuit I ever saw was Montjuich, in Barcelona, which hosted four Spanish Grands Prix, in 1969, '71, '73 and '75. This was a sort of steroid version of Monaco, very much quicker, and with every kind of corner, gradient, blind brow, you name it. It was, though, a dangerous place, even for those times.

In the USA, of course, steet circuits abound - indeed, the bulk of the CART races are run on them, at places like Long Beach, Toronto, Denver, Vancouver and Miami, and I'd love to see F1 races through the streets of London, Paris, Rome and so on. Realistically, though, it's not going to happen, is it?

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