Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 15

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 Autosport.com 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 AskNigel@haynet.com

Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 15



Dear Pat,

Comparing drivers from different generations is more than incredibly tough - to my mind, it's a virtual impossibility, and never more than in this era, when the demands on a driver have changed so much.

Perhaps all you can realistically do is compare a man's abilities with those of his contemporaries. Sadly, because of that terrible day at Imola in 1994, we never got to see a real mano a mano fight between Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna. Although they competed against each other for a couple of seasons, Schumacher was not yet at his peak - and perhaps, by the time he had got to that point, Senna would have been a touch past his best, and therefore - being Ayrton - would have quit on the spot.

So how does Michael compare, relative to his contemporaries, with such as Nuvolari, Fangio, Moss, Clark and Senna? Or, for that matter, with Stewart and Prost?

First, and you may disagree with this, I do not consider the last decade to have been a vintage one, in terms of the overall driving standard in F1. Michael has had some worthy adversaries, including Mika Hakkinen (the best of them), Jacques Villeneuve (when he had a proper car), David Coulthard (when the mood takes him), Damon Hill (sometimes), Rubens Barrichello (when he's allowed), and so on, and today he faces the next generation, in the shape of Juan Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, all of whom look set for 'superstar' status.

Senna, though, had Prost, a true all-time great, and it was perhaps not surprising that Ayrton's attention was always squarely focused on Alain, the only driver he truly feared - the only driver, let's face it, who ever beat him in equal cars. I remember once watching a qualifying session at Spa with Denis Jenkinson, in which the pair of them inevitably qualified 1-2.

"Look at them," Jenks mused. "A pair of artists. We're incredibly privileged to be witnessing an era with not just one, but two, drivers of that quality."

I knew what he meant - but then throw in all the others Senna had to beat. Think of Mansell, Piquet, Rosberg, Lauda, Berger, Alboreto et al.

We all have our theories about 'the greatest of all time', and for me that is Stirling Moss, whom I consider to have been devoid of any weakness worth the name. Look at the drivers against whom he raced: Fangio, Ascari, Brooks, Behra, Hawthorn, Collins, Brabham, etc. For Fangio, the list is much the same, give or take.

As for Clark, you had Moss (briefly), Gurney, Surtees, Graham Hill, Stewart, and so on. Go right back to Nuvolari, and there were the likes of Caracciola, Rosemeyer, Varzi, Lang, all absolute greats.

So where does Schumacher fit in? Unquestionably, he is among the greatest of all time, and it is highly likely that he is currently setting records, both for Grand Prix wins and World Championships, that will never be beaten. But I think it's worth bearing in mind that there are many more Grands Prix (counting for the championship, that is) than there used to be, and that cars are hugely more reliable than they were even 10 years ago.

I think we should remember, too, that there are many one-time errors a driver cannot make any more. For one thing, he doesn't need to worry any more about watching a rev counter, for fear of blowing up the engine - indeed, he doesn't have to think about shifting gears at all these days, because it's done for him. Same with getting a car off the grid. And he doesn't have to worry too much, either, about applying too much throttle out of a corner, because traction control takes care of all that. Come to think of it, he needn't concern himself any longer with arriving at a race set-up which works equally well with full tanks or empty: thanks to refuelling, these days a car - relatively - is either light or very light at all times.

On the other hand, today's driver does have to understand all manner of electronic systems which used not to exist, and to know how to get the best out of them. You can certainly say that racing is much more of a science than it was, much more a matter of working with engineers. Schumacher might be lost in an Auto Union, with 600 horsepower, skinny tyres, and no traction control, but neither would Nuvolari understand much on a computer screen...

Do I put Schumacher up there with the likes of Fangio, Moss and Clark? No, in the end I don't. I'll accept that he's among the best there's ever been, but I think that he remains fallible under pressure (as we saw again at Suzuka last weekend), that he makes too many mistakes - and that his driving manners are often plain disgusting. For this last point alone, I would never class him with men like Stirling or Jimmy.

Will Michael be 'a legend' in years to come? Undoubtedly he will - indeed he already is. When will he retire? Officially, it's the end of 2006, but still it wouldn't surprise me to see him go before then: JPM, Kimi and Fernando are coming up on the rails, and he knows it. In January he will be 35, and has enough money for several hundred years, after all.



Dear Mr Rocha,

I'm interested that you cite Christian Fittipaldi as a driver who 'did not show the same success' as his father. Had Christian been Emerson's son, I'd have agreed with your assessment instantly, but his father was Wilson, and I'd suggest he is far better than his old man.

Still, your point is well made, and certainly it's true that Michael Andretti, for all his speed and will to win, never achieved the same degree of success as Mario.

Now we have the next generation of Piquets, Rosbergs and Laudas upon us, and you'd have to say that all look very promising - particularly Nelsinho and Nico, who have done extremely well in F3 this season. At the end of last year, the young - then 17 - Rosberg had a test in a Williams-BMW, and highly impressed the team; I don't doubt that when Nelsinho gets himself into an F1 car, it will be the same story.

It is, of course, way too soon to know if the sons of Nelson, Keke and Niki will make it to the very top of the sport, as Damon (son of Graham) Hill and Jacques (son of Gilles) did: Paul Stewart, for example, was a very competent driver, but never showed signs of one day emulating his father, so it doesn't necessarily follow. You'd have to say, though, that the signs are good for Nelsinho and Nico.



Dear Sumeet,

I must admit that David Coulthard baffles me in some ways. On a given day, he can beat literally anyone; on another, you'd hardly know he was in the race.

DC's particular problem this year has lain in qualifying. He simply hates the revised qualifying rules, and makes no bones about it, yet the strange thing is that, at the beginning of the year, he had very much the better of Kimi Raikkonen in this respect. At Imola he was again on course to out-qualify Kimi, but then made a small mistake at Rivazza, and that cost him a great many grid places. And since then, it seems to me, he has invariably been too tentative in qualifying, as if worried about doing the same again. The result has been that he has qualified poorly, anyway, because of not driving his natural way.

That's my interpretation of it, anyway - maybe DC would disagree. I remember Monaco (where he won brilliantly in 2002): on the Saturday morning he was shatteringly quick - as I recall, fastest of all - but in the afternoon, when it mattered, he couldn't get near his earlier time.

In these days when overtaking is so difficult in F1, starting from a poor grid position costs you very dear indeed, and although David has driven some excellent races in 2003 - at Suzuka last weekend, for example, he was undoubtedly quicker than Raikkonen - quite often these have gone virtually unnoticed, because he has started from so far back.

Fundamentally, he remains a very quick racing driver, but I think he's a far more sensitive man than most of his colleagues, and thus more prone to 'head problems'. When his confidence is high - and when the car is handling to his taste - he is still formidable, a better overtaker than most, and a man capable of leading from flag to flag, as we have often seen. When the car's out to lunch, on the other hand, invariably so is he.

It seems certain that 2004, his ninth season as a McLaren driver, will be his last with the team, for everyone is convinced that Ron Dennis already has Juan Montoya under contract for '05, as team mate to Raikkonen. As and when DC has departed, the team will miss a sometimes brilliant driver, a hard worker, an always affable and charming bloke, and a sponsor's dream. It's not for nothing that RD has kept him all these years, believe me. I only hope that when the time comes to leave McLaren, Coulthard does not continue with a much lesser team.

As for Jacques Villeneuve at McLaren, I don't think there's any way, frankly. The possibility was discussed some years ago, but JV is now well out of fashion, a man who has earned a fortune over the last few years with BAR, but achieved very little since winning the World Championship with Williams back in 1997.

To be honest, even at the time I was surprised that Dennis was considering Villeneuve, for he has always struck me as the very antithesis of a McLaren driver. For one thing, the 'grunge' look doesn't sit well with the image of the team; for another, JV loathes doing any kind of PR; for a third, he tends to say what he thinks; for a fourth, he is not a 'team player', and at McLaren that's simply a necessity.

I hope we haven't seen the last of Villeneuve in F1, because I'm convinced the talent is still there, even if the motivation has suffered of late, and also because he's a character, and in today's paddock such folk are few and far between. If he ever does come back, though, it ain't going to be in a McLaren.



Dear Bruce,

To be perfectly honest, even after 20 years I find it hard to think back to the 'good times' between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. For all his salty tongue and fiery driving style, Gilles was a straightforward soul, whose natural inclination was always to trust people until they gave him reason not to. He was just that way with Pironi. As Jackie Stewart said to me at the time, "Gilles was stunned by what happened in that race at Imola. I think he was a very clean, almost innocent, man, with no maliciousness in him. It was very sad that the last two weeks of his life were so tormented and disillusioned."

That they were. I talked to him on the phone a couple of days after Imola (where Pironi 'stole' the victory from him on the last lap), and although his voice was quiet most of the time, there was no mistaking the rage in him. When he said he was never going to speak to Pironi again, I believed him. He felt he had been conned, and he was right.

It's a fact that for most of their time as team mates - a season and a bit - Villeneuve and Pironi got along well, and I remember in particular the stories of driving from Monaco to Maranello in a Ferrari 308, of seeing how long one or the other could run at maximum speed, without lifting. While this was happening, the passenger absolutely could not show any fear, or indeed react in any way at all.

Gilles, of course, would win at these games. Pironi told me of one occasion when he was driving, at perhaps 170mph, and keeping his foot flat as he weaved between trucks, and so on. In the end the Ferrari got into a major tank-slapper, and he had to back off.

"My hands were sweating," he said, "and my heart was pounding. I looked at Gilles, and there was no trace of anything. Instead he just looked at his watch. 'Fifty-seven seconds,' he said. 'You're getting better...'"

So, yes, there were good times between the two team mates, but one was a schemer, and the other was not. Do I think Pironi's actions at Imola contributed to Gilles's death at Zolder? Absolutely. As one F1 luminary put it at the time, "Knowing Gilles's personality as he did, Pironi might as well have put a gun to his head."



Dear Brian,

Time was when one-car teams were commonplace in F1 - look at Rob Walker's team, for whom Stirling Moss scored many of his greatest Grand Prix victories - but I think it's unlikely we'll ever seen them again.

Why? Because, quite honestly, most of the one-car teams tended to be shoddy, second-rate, affairs, contributing little to the sport beyond making up the numbers. Invariably, they ran drivers with more money than talent, and all they tended to do was get in the way.

It's true enough that the likes of Ferrari, McLaren and Williams have the capacity to run three cars, but they would need a hell of a financial inducement to do so, and you can't blame them for that.

The situation is rather different from NASCAR, where one-car teams were a way of life for countless years, and where budgets - although sizeable - are a fraction of what it costs to run an F1 operation.

Perhaps, if the size of the F1 field diminishes to the point that TV contracts (which call for a minimum of 16 cars in a Grand Prix, I believe), there might be pressure to allow a few one-car teams in, but I can't see it happening otherwise. "Quality," said Bernie Ecclestone firmly a few years ago, "is what we want, not quantity. I've had enough of those 'startline specials' we used to get at one time. Formula 1 is the best, and we don't want anything in it that isn't the best."

I think that about says it. It's difficult to get into F1, and frankly I think it should be. Paul Stoddart of Minardi has been financially up against it this year, but there has been relatively little sympathy for him in the paddock - indeed, other team owners have become bored with they regard as 'whingeing'. If it's too hot for you, goes their way of thinking, don't come in the kitchen.



Dear Numeriano,

I suppose the off-the-cuff response to your question is to suggest that if Honda had kept the entire F1 project 'in house', they could scarcely have done any worse...

To be honest, the people who run Honda today are a bit of a mystery to me. In the 1980s and '90s, when Honda were with Williams, Lotus and, finally, McLaren, the company was still regarded absolutely as 'engineering-led', just as it had always been. The engines were never the smallest or lightest, but invariably they were the most powerful and reliable, and they won a great many World Championships.

Then, at the end of 1992, the company withdrew from F1, feeling it had little more to prove at that time - indeed, Ayrton Senna had won so many races and championships with Honda engines that the Japanese company's involvement had almost become taken for granted. Hence, they got out, and by the time they decided to return, neither McLaren nor Williams was available for a possible partnership.

That is something for which Ron and Frank may now feel somewhat grateful. Initially, Honda's plan was to go it alone, just as they had in the '60s, when they made their first foray into F1. To that end, Harvey Postlethwaite was hired. He put an enormous amount of work into the project, and was shattered when summarily informed that, despite a car having been built and tested, Honda were not now going it alone, after all, but instead getting into bed with BAR.

Shortly afterwards, Postlethwaite died of a heart attack.

Since Honda returned, with BAR and then also - for a foreshortened time - with Jordan, there has been little sign of the company we knew. At the top there have necessarily been major management changes over time, and all the signs are that Honda is now 'marketing-led' (God forgive me for using these phrases...), just like so many others. It was this, assuredly, which led to the replacement of Jacques Villeneuve by Takuma Sato in the 2004 BAR-Honda team.

And the results? Well, the results speak for themselves, don't they? Thanks to two respectable finishes at Suzuka, BAR-Honda finished fifth in the constructors' championship, but not in sight of Renault, let alone McLaren-Mercedes, Williams-BMW or Ferrari. We all know what Honda can achieve in F1, but the memories, frankly, are getting fainter.

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