Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 22

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 22

Dear Ceri,

I am still amazed at the thought that Jacques Villeneuve is apparently out of Formula 1, given that I believe that - in a competitive and reliable car, which would reawaken his motivation - he could still blow the doors off the majority of his colleagues. However, I'm not a marketing man, so what do I know?

In some ways, Jenson Button had little to lose in 2003, in the sense that if Villeneuve had the better of him, people would say, well, so he should - he's a World Champion, after all. If, on the other hand, Jenson outpaced JV, he was beating a man who'd won the title, and, wow, wasn't that something?

There's no doubt that, at the beginning of the season, Jacques did try to play a few mind games with Jenson, and I was very impressed by the way the young man shrugged them off. I think he feels 'wanted' at BAR in a way he never did at Benetton/Renault, and this has done a lot for his confidence. As a racer, I don't see reasons yet to bracket him with the likes of Montoya, Raikkonen or Alonso, but there's no doubt that, as a driver, he is very quick indeed.

It's a fact that, in qualifying, Villeneuve tended to concentrate on the race more than most, and thus run with more fuel, and it's also a fact that he was often let down by lamentable reliability on race day. At the end of the day, though, results are what people remember, and in 2003 Jenson's were indubitably better than Jacques's.

Now, though, Button faces a quite different challenge. Because of his youth, it's easy to overlook the fact that he's now been around quite a while - the 2004 season will be his fifth in F1, and, crucially, his first as a team leader. It's no longer a question of being a very quick 'second driver', often embarrassing a more established team-mate. Jenson now has to set the agenda, to quite a degree, while Takuma Sato takes on the role of 'junior team-mate'.

You're right, Button is essentially a laidback fellow, but I think it would be a mistake to underestimate his determination. If he is to be considered a legitimate member of the next generation of great drivers, he will need to assert himself in 2004. People still talk about his youth, and so on, but Kimi Raikkonen, for example, is only three months older than Jenson, has a year's less F1 experience, but has undoubtedly shown already that he can hack it with anyone.

Is Sato quick enough to keep Button on his toes? Difficult one to answer. Certainly we can say that Takuma is the fastest driver ever to come out of Japan, but he did, in 2002 with Jordan, quite often let his enthusiasm get the better of him, and there were frequent trips into gravel traps. I'm sure he will have benefited greatly from this last season as BAR's test driver, but it remains to be seen whether or not he has the consistent pace really to make it in F1. At the moment, I think we have to reserve judgement.

Last, does BAR have enough of the right people in place to challenge the big four? Once in a while, I think, but I'd be surprised to see a consistent threat to Ferrari, Williams-BMW, McLaren-Mercedes and Renault - not least because I think Honda have an awful lot of work to do if they are to rekindle memories of times gone by, when a Honda engine was the thing to have in the back of your F1 car.

Dear Ken,

I was watching the Texas IRL race 'live' on Sky when Brack crashed, and confess my immediate thought was, 'I don't know who that was - but he must be dead'. It was indeed a terrifying accident, and I couldn't see - after the way the car appeared suddenly not to exist any more - how its driver could have survived.

In fact, of course, it was the fact that the car broke up, in the way it was intended to do, which saved Brack's life. The cockpit section - literally the survival cell - remained quite intact, and although it was hurled away down the road, still the driver was alive when rescue workers reached him. As you say, the car stood up brilliantly.

My thoughts on the sanity of racing for three hours at 220mph? I think a great deal depends on the track, the strength of the cars and the quality of the drivers. First, Texas - for open-wheel cars - is probably the scariest track on the planet, because although it's not that long, at a mile and a half, it is ferociously fast, thanks to its unusually steep banking. You'll remember the abortive single visit by CART a few years ago, when the speeds were way higher than in the IRL, and drivers were complaining in practice of dizziness and disorientation. It was eventually decided that, in the interest of commonsense, there was no alternative but to call the meeting off.

I don't think the IRL rules help, either, quite honestly. Given that they have rev-limiters, it's not a lot different from the 'restrictor plate' NASCAR races at tracks such as Daytona and Talladega. The inevitable consequence of both is that you get great swarms of cars going round in close proximity for lap after endless lap, and while that's one thing in stock cars, it's quite another with open-wheelers - tyre touches tyre, and you have something akin to a 'plane crash, as with Brack and Tomas Scheckter at Texas.

Michigan is a scary place for open-wheelers, too, but CART laid on some fantastic races there not so long ago, notably that between Juan Montoya and Michael Andretti in 2000. The thing is, CART's 'superspeedway aero package' permitted easy drafting (slipstreaming), so that cars tended to pass and re-pass all the time, rather than sit there in great bunches, with cars constantly no more than a few inches from each other.

I have always loved 'Indycar racing' (to use a generic term), which is why I am so sad to see the state it is in today. Over the years I have been to many oval races, at tracks such as Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Pocono, and even - although I am fundamentally of the school which believes a real race car doesn't have a roof - Daytona. Some of the very best racing I have ever seen has been at ovals - I was at Indy in '91, for example, when in the closing laps Michael Andretti passed Rick Mears for the lead on the outside of Turn One - and then Mears did exactly the same to Michael on the following lap! An unforgettable moment, and there have been countless others, too.

I have to say, though, that I am one of those who cannot regard the Indy 500 in the way I did before the CART/IRL split. I loved the CART cars of that era, their beauty, their sound, and relished, too, the thought that every single Indycar driver of consequence was there, trying to win the most fabled race on earth.

Dear James,

Jackie goes well in these historic races, doesn't he? But then he was always a pretty handy driver, you'd have to say. Back in 1968, he was Graham Hill's team mate at Lotus, and I remember that year's British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, where he qualified second (to Hill), and was in the lead when his car expired.

The following year he was the winner (with Jacky Ickx) of the closest-fought Le Mans 24 Hours of all time, Ickx in the Ford GT40 holding off the Herrmann/Larrousse Porsche over the last few laps.

When Jochen Rindt took his place at Lotus for 1969, Jackie moved to BRM, where he stayed for a couple of seasons, but his last full year as an F1 driver was 1973, when he drove for the new Shadow team. Thereafter he had a management role there, and in 1978 was one of the founders of Arrows, which he ran until selling it to Tom Walkinshaw in the mid-'90s.

I didn't actually see a great deal of Oliver's F1 career, for it was in its latter stages when I began working in the business, in '71. From what I did see, I wouldn't suggest (and neither, I'm sure, would he) that Jackie was a great Grand Prix driver, or anything close to it, but neither was he a man who didn't belong in F1. Now, in retirement, he's a rich man, but I'm glad his enthusiasm for driving remains. I don't see him that often any more, but whenever we meet - at, say, Goodwood - I always enjoy conversation with him, not least for its irreverent humour.

Dear Steven,

Are Toyota's pockets deep enough to push them to the top of F1? In a word: yes! And in a way you've answered your own question by pointing out that they've hired Mike Gascoyne away from Renault - that, take my word for it, will not have come cheap. It was just the same when Toyota prised Gustav Brunner out of the hands of Minardi, contract or not. They tend to get what they want.

As well as that, they tend to get where they want to go. Toyota's motor sport ambitions are limitless, but my belief is that in the end the only areas of fundamental interest to them now are F1 and NASCAR, the two most successful racing series on earth.

Look back over the company's history in motor sport, and you'll see that wherever they've been, ultimately they've succeeded, even if it's taken longer than they might have wished. Their venture into CART, for example, was regarded almost as a joke for a number of years - but eventually a Toyota engine was the thing to have. It's the same now in the IRL, into which they have ventured purely, I believe, as a stepping-stone into NASCAR. The links between Bill France and Tony George are strong, after all.

As for F1, I don't doubt that Toyota will stay around until they are at the top. That's the way they do things, and potentially the budget is the biggest in the business. Last summer a leading F1 team owner looked at the Toyota motorhome, and murmured, "Down the road, it's not Ferrari we have to worry about - it's these people..."

So don't worry that Toyota will 'get bored with not winning races', because such is not their way. Unless there's a fundamental shift in the way they approach their motor sport programmes, they're in this for the long haul, and in time, yes, they will get to the top of F1, of that I have no doubt.

Dear Marc,

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I only ever went twice to the Le Mans 24 Hours, and that was right after I left school - in 1965 and '67. If Grand Prix racing has always been my preference, in those days I drew little distinction between F1 and World Championship sports car racing, which was then going through its Golden Age.

Virtually every F1 driver of consequence took part in it, and there were factory teams from such as Ferrari, Ford, Lola, Porsche, Alfa Romeo - and, all too briefly, Chaparral. A fond memory is of standing on top of the pits during the night at the '67 race, watching the mechanics rebuilding the gearbox (if memory serves) of the be-winged 2F, while Phil Hill paced anxiously about.

A few weeks later, I saw Hill (partnered by the late Mike Spence) win the inaugural BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch, beating a three-car Ferrari team in the process, to say nothing of the works Porsches, etc. A wonderful race, a great memory.

By the time I got involved in the sport, though, Chaparral were long gone from Europe, and Jim Hall, indeed, had quit World Championship sports car racing, and decided to concentrate his attention on the CanAm series, building a series of quirky, but always wonderfully innovative cars, which were driven by people like Jackie Stewart and John Surtees.

Ultimately, he got involved in CART, and his Chaparral for that series, designed by John Barnard, was again a technical breakthrough, being the first Indycar with 'ground effect' technology. It set new standards, and, in the hands of Johnny Rutherford, won the Indy 500 in 1980, as well as many other races.

It was at a CART race, in fact, that I finally met Hall for the first time. Before retiring to concentrate on running his cars, he was of course a superb racing driver in his own right, as well as a brilliant engineer, with a highly original mind. The 1967 Chaparral 2F, as I said, had a high rear wing, like the earlier 2E CanAm car: it was not until '68 that they finally began to appear in F1. Had Jim ever ventured into it, as a constructor, I'm sure his influence would have been very strongly felt.

Dear Joachim,

Assuming that H-H doesn't find another F1 drive, yes, I will indeed be sorry to see him go, not least because he's a nice bloke, with a dry sense of humour, and rather more laidback than certain of his countrymen in the F1 paddock.

In the end, Frentzen's F1 career promised more than it delivered, didn't it? When he first arrived, he looked as though - in terms of pure speed, anyway - he might be one of those once-and-for-all drivers you get only once or twice in a generation, and evidently Frank Williams and Patrick Head also thought they saw something exceptional in him, for they signed him - to replace Damon Hill, no less - for 1997, alongside Jacques Villeneuve.

I expected things to be very close between Heinz and Jacques, but in fact it was no contest, Frentzen winning a single a race in '97, Villeneuve becoming World Champion. Long before the end of '98, Williams had decided to dispense with H-H, whereupon he went to Jordan, and - for a time, anyway - thrived as never before.

In '99 he won the French and Italian Grands Prix, and until very late in the season was in the running for the World Championship. I rated him number one that season, and I was not alone. Without a doubt, Eddie Jordan, for whom he had formerly driven in F3000, brought out the best in Heinz.

He had never flourished at Williams, I think, because Frank and Patrick are both no-nonsense individuals, and they tend to like no-nonsense racing drivers, in the mould of Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg. When it came to dithering over the set-up of his car, Frentzen drove Patrick round the bend, just as Carlos Reutemann had done a couple of generations earlier.

At Jordan, though, he felt 'wanted', and for a time he truly flourished there, but then - immediately before his home Grand Prix, at Hockenheim, in the summer of 2001 - EJ fired him, and for no good reason that anyone else could see. It was the end of Heinz's time in a competitive car - and, by coincidence or not, also the end of Jordan as a team to be taken seriously.

Frentzen then hooked up with the Prost team, enjoyed the experience, and planned to stay on for 2002, but that all ended, of course, when Alain's team went down the tubes before the season had so much as started. There followed a desultory period with an Arrows team also in its death throes, after which H-H rejoined Sauber, the team with which he had made his F1 debut. There have been some good drives this year, notably at Indianapolis, where he made the podium, but Sauber's future plans lie elsewhere, and I can't see where Frentzen will find another F1 drive.

I know he has given serious thought to joining the DTM, and hope he does so. Almost certainly, he will find, as has Jean Alesi, that it's a good deal more fun than languishing in an uncompetitive F1 car. As you suggest, he should have achieved more success at the top level than he did - no one doubts that the talent was there, but unfortunately there's a little more to it than that.

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