Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 1

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: October 1

Dear Nathan,

It's a fact that Bernie has loathed the 2003 qualifying rules from the second of their introduction, and very much wants them changed - although I'm not sure that's likely to happen.

Usually his focus is on the TV audience, rather than the people who pay to come in and watch, but undoubtedly at the moment there's a feeling that something needs to be done for the spectators. With only one or two exceptions, crowd figures at the Grands Prix are nothing like what they were a few years ago - even at Monza the race day attendance was only around 60,000.

Why have the figures fallen? Well, for one thing, there's no question that the 2002 season, which was boring beyond belief, did a great deal of damage to the image of F1. It shouldn't be possible for 20 cars, each with something approaching 900 horsepower, to lay on a dreary show, but in recent years that's happened way too often. How can they call it motor racing, people have asked, when they don't actually race?

As well as that, much of the 'human' element has been lost. The powers-that-be don't take any notice of this, but the fact is that countless people have been alienated from a sport in which so many functions once the responsibility of the driver - throttle control, gear changing, getting off the grid - are now performed by software.

More fundamentally, though, there is the problem of cost. To go to a Grand Prix, and buy a grandstand seat, is now an extremely expensive proposition, and the reason for that is not too difficult to understand. It's all very well to go to a race subsided to the hilt by government money or whatever, but in countries- like Britain - where no such subsidies exist, the organisers are in an invidious position. It costs them a fortune to bring a Grand Prix to their circuit, and they derive no income from TV or from on-circuit advertising. Their only source of income is 'gate' money, that shelled out by punters wishing to attend their race.

I have to agree with you that it seems unlikely, to say the least, that TV companies would commit themselves to four hours' F1 coverage at a stretch, but on this occasion Bernie is obviously thinking more of the paying spectator. With the rules the way they are at the moment, it seems a very long time between arriving at the track on Sunday morning and the race getting underway. Bernie is looking to fill that space with something entertaining, and also to spice up qualifying.

Yes, there might be a case to be made for using 'local championships' to entertain the crowds on race day, so long as they are of good quality. But someone's got to pay for them...

Dear Mr Hunt,

More than anyone, I guess, you would have to pick Nigel Mansell. Through his early career, Mansell always looked useful, rather than exceptional - he won only one F3 race, for example, and that only after Andrea de Cesaris, who won on the road, had been disqualified - but when he got into F1 finally, with Lotus, he swiftly found his feet.

Even so, there was little in his early F1 days to suggest he would go on to the kind of successes which later came his way. Only when he joined Williams did he really begin to look special - you have to remember that, while he ultimately retired with 31 Grand Prix victories to his name, the first of those did not come until he had driven in 70-odd races.

Mansell, although something of a hypochondriac, and for ever moaning about this pain and that, was enormously brave in a racing car, and he also had fantastic self-belief. As an 'artist', I never put him in the, same class as Ayrton Senna or Alain Prost, but as a pure racer he was, at his best, a match for anyone.

He was also extraordinarily strong - indeed, Patrick Head always listed this as one of his greatest qualities. In the 'active suspension' Williams-Renault FW14B of 1992 (the car in which he won his World Championship), Mansell could take lines through corners which were beyond the reach of his team mate Patrese, simply because Riccardo wasn't physically strong enough to hold the car on that line.

Of all the racing drivers I have ever seen, Nigel was the one who most amazed me when he got to the top level, because I never saw anything in his early days which suggested he would become exceptional. Formula 1 was absolutely his thing, and when he went to CART, with the Newman-Haas team, in 1993, in no time at all he was fearsomely competitive on the ovals. If ever a driver willed himself to greatness, it was Mansell. He was a man born for the big occasion.

Dear Hans,

Like everyone else, I adored the old Osterreichring - which is why, like everyone else, I had such a problem in accepting the A1-Ring, a pale shadow of the original if ever there was one.

Sixteen years have passed since last there was a Grand Prix at the Osterreichring. It was always a bit of a hike getting to Zeltweg, the drive from Vienna taking two or three hours, but no one ever minded too much, for there was always the thought that at the end of it was that wonderful circuit. Even in 1970, when Formula 1 first ventured there, Jochen Rindt's pole position was over 133mph, and by 1987 - even with a chicane - Nelson Piquet had raised the mark to 159.457. A serious race track, this.

Not surprisingly, the Osterreichring was a place beloved by Gerhard Berger. He made his F1 debut there in 1984, and two years later led most of the way in the turbo Benetton-BMW. Qualifying for that 1986 Austrian Grand Prix Gerhard remembers as perhaps his most exhilarating experience. In a racing car, anyway.

"I don't know what the BMW gave on qualifying boost - 1300 horsepower, maybe 1400 - but you had this incredible feeling of acceleration that just went on and on. Also you had qualifying tyres back then, which lasted just one lap - and sometimes not the whole of it. Put together that power and that grip at a circuit like the Osterreichring, and you had something unbelievable."

At the approach to the daunting Boschkurve, Gerhard's car went through the trap at 214mph - and this stretch was not a straight. Every year, for final qualifying, I would wander up there, sit in the sun, drink a beer, watch the cars against the mountain backdrop, and conclude this was about as good as it got.

For the last two years, 1986 and '87, the feeling was amplified, for now we were at the Osterreichring immediately after being at the Hungaroring, and I remember thinking how ludicrous, how unjust, it was that you got the same number of points at each circuit. "Good to be back at a proper track, isn't it?" Bernie Ecclestone remarked to me at the time, and I could only agree.

For all that, it was the Osterreichring, not the Hungaroring, which disappeared from the World Championship schedule in 1988. The reasons for abandoning it are misty now, but I seem to remember complaints about a lack of nearby hotels suitable for corporate guests, and also mumblings about local farmers' increased demands for the use of their fields as car parks.

The reasons were of no interest to me; all that mattered was that another of the great race tracks had been lost. In its original guise, before the chicane was inserted at the previously flat-out Hella-Lichtkurve in 1976, the Osterreichring was a truly daunting place, and a true 'driver's circuit'. If I hesitate to bracket it with the 'old' Spa-Francorchamps or the 'old' Nurburgring, it is only for two reasons: first, it was nothing like as long as those two circuits; second, it was built only in the late '60s, and while it was remarkable that a track of that calibre and character could be built as late as that, inevitably it lacked history, compared with Spa or the 'Ring.

Dear Ben,

You're quite right, historically Williams do not pay their drivers on the same level as McLaren and, particularly, Ferrari, not least because Frank has rarely, if ever, had a budget to match his two major rivals. That said, Ralf Schumacher has been very handsomely rewarded over the last few years - indeed, the discrepancy between his retainer, and that of Juan Pablo Montoya, has recently been a source of some distress to JPM, and perhaps hastened his move to McLaren.

As for Senna, I have no firm information on his Williams retainer in 1994, but I'd be very surprised if it were a match for what he had been paid by McLaren the season before (reputed to be $1m a race, big money even by today's standards, and colossal for a decade ago).

I think that, by then, money had become less important to Ayrton than simply having the most competitive car available, and that, at the time, he believed to be a Williams-Renault. Yes, he could have got more by moving to Ferrari (where he would have won the odd race, here and there), or by remaining with McLaren (who were about to embark on a disastrous season with Peugeot engines), but in 1992 and '93 Ayrton had lost two World Championships to Williams-Renault drivers (Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost), and absolutely set his cap at driving for Frank in '94.

That said, I don't think you should take too seriously Senna's earlier offer to drive for Williams for free. This, I am sure, was nothing more than an attempt to destabilise the team. Ayrton may well have been prepared to take a pay cut to join Williams, but that is not the same thing as 'free'...

Dear Katie,

Boutsen, as well as being an extremely nice fellow, was also a very good racing driver, but day in, day out, he was not at the very top level. That said, he was a driver who made very few mistakes - when all is said and done, as you suggest, he didn't wilt under severe pressure from Ayrton Senna during the last few laps at the Hungaroring, where one of his three victories was scored.

Thierry also had a very delicate touch with a racing car, and this
inevitably served him well in the wet. He may not have been the most
exciting or flambuoyant driver to watch, but he did have a happy knack of keeping a car on the road when conditions were treacherous. And his two victories in the rain, at Montreal and, above all, Adelaide, came on days when many more hallowed stars dropped it, and he did not.

Dear Kurvi,

I wouldn't say 'enjoy' is quite the right word, but without any question the most eventful season - in every way - I have ever covered was 1982. I remember that when Sylvester Stallone began showing up at the races, in 1997, with plans for a new movie about Formula 1, a colleague suggested he should forget about a plot, and simply make a film based on 1982.

In so many ways that season was the most disagreeable in memory, and if, by the end of it, the fundamental narcotic of Formula 1 remained, to some degree my feelings for it had shifted, and for ever. It was an ugly year, pock-marked by tragedy, by dissension, by greed, and yet, paradoxically, it produced some of the most memorable racing ever seen: from 16 Grands Prix came 11 different winners, in seven different cars, statistics faintly surreal in the context of today.

The atmosphere within the sport was generally poisonous, but we might have seen that coming, for all the pieces were in place for discord, just as they were for calamity on the track. And while it was hardly a pleasant time, in one sense, anyway, for a journalist it was manna, for one had constantly to decide which quotes to leave out. No question of 'filling space' in 1982.

Public Relations had not even the feeblest toe-hold back then. There were no daily press releases, no homogenised quotes, no press conferences, and even had there been a sprinkling of damage limitation specialists scurrying about the place, the free-spirited drivers of the daywould have consigned them swiftly to a rubber bedroom. From that point of view, the press never had a better time of it.

In other respects, though, it was rough, and sometimes downright unpleasant, for it seemed that every week some fresh issue would erupt, requiring firm comment, so the only certainty was that, wherever you were in the paddock, someone whom you had recently enraged was close at hand. The tension ran very high.

It had been building a while. Through the winter of 1980/81, there had been the FISA-FOCA War, this a locking of horns between Jean-Marie Balestre, newly elected as president of the FIA's sporting arm, and the daunting combo of Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley. Time had come, Balestre felt, for the governing body to start governing again, an unwelcome development for the increasingly robust gentlemen of FOCA.

After a lot of empty talk about a breakaway championship, and the like, compromise was reached, because it had to be, and thus the first Concorde Agreement was drawn up, in April 1981. I don't have space enough here to go into detail about every drama that occurred in '82, but consider its essential ingredients. At Kyalami we had a drivers' strike, and at Imola a boycott by all the major teams, save Ferrari, Renault and Alfa Romeo. In between times, we went to Long Beach, where Niki Lauda, in only the third race of his comeback, won superbly for McLaren.

At Imola, Didier Pironi behaved duplicitously, and 'stole' victory from his Ferrari team mate, Gilles Villeneuve, as they were supposedly cruising to a 1-2 finish. At Zolder, the next race, Villeneuve was killed in the final qualifying session, and at that moment many of us despaired, for at a time of great acrimony in the sport Gilles had been one of the few reasons to keep faith with it.

Then we had a Monaco Grand Prix which no one seemed to want, the likely winner changing identity several times in the last five or 10 minutes of the race. In Montreal pole man Pironi stalled at the start, and Italian rookie Riccardo Paletti was killed when his Osella hit the Ferrari. At the French Grand Prix Rene Arnoux went back on his word to help team mate Prost's quest for the World Championship, and finished ahead in a Renault 1-2. And in this same race Jochen Mass's March went off the road, and finished up in a spectator area, somehow without killing anyone.

In practice for the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim, Pironi- undoubtedly on course for the World Championship - hit the back of Prost's Renault in torrential rain, and in the resulting accident injured his legs so badly that he never raced a car again. The following day, Patrick Tambay, drafted into the team to replace his close friend Villeneuve, won the race.

What next? The Osterreichring. Elio de Angelis won his first Grand Prix for Lotus, beating Keke Rosberg by about a foot. Then, at Dijon, Rosberg, brilliant all season in his normally-aspirated Williams-Cosworth against much more powerful turbo opposition, brilliantly beat Prost on the last lap.

Next, Monza. Enzo Ferrari, needing a team-mate for Tambay, called on 42-year-old Mario Andretti - who promptly left for Italy, and put his car on the pole in perhaps the most dramatic and emotional qualifying session ever seen at the historic circuit.

And finally Las Vegas, where the World Championship was to be decided between Rosberg and John Watson, Keke finally getting the verdict.

As I said, the 1982 season was in many ways harrowing, but there was so much emotion around, so many topics for a journalist to get his teeth into, that it remains the most memorable I have covered. Not by any means the most edifying, but truly a year in which one constantly wondered quite was going to happen next.

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