Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 29

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: October 29

This is awful news about Tony Renna, whom I didn't know, but by all accounts was an extremely nice guy, as well as being a very promising driver. Until the results of the investigation into his accident are known, it wouldn't be wise to talk too much about possible causes, but on the face of it, given that he had only just gone out, and was merely warming up, it seems unlikely that driver error had much to do with it.

What must concern IRL people is that, after going out of control for whatever reason, the car got airborne, and thus cleared the top of the new 'soft barriers' installed at Indianapolis, instead hitting the debris fence directly, as had Kenny Brack's car at Texas. On that occasion, though, there was an obvious reason for the car's taking off - it had made wheel to wheel contact with Tomas Scheckter's car.

Quite why IRL cars appear to have a tendency to get airborne has not yet been established, but some observers ascribe it to the high nose, used by one and all in the search for greater straightline speed.

Am I 'comfortable' with the level of debris fences at places such as Indianapolis? I would say yes, with the proviso that it's impossible to guard against every conceivable type of accident.

Think, for example, of the one involving Jacques Villeneuve and Ralf Schumacher at Melbourne the other year. The BAR - again as a result of wheel touching wheel - took off at incredible speed, and hit the debris fence, but the marshal who died in the accident was hit by one of the car's wheels, which was torn off by - and passed through - a small aperture in the fence, necessarily there to permit marshals access to the track in the event of an emergency. The aperture was hardly any bigger than the size of the wheel, and the chances of its allowing the wheel through must have been infinitesimal. Yet it happened.

I haven't seen any footage of Renna's accident, although I'm told it was similar in many ways to Brack's. It's true that Kenny's car took down a section of debris fence, but then it hit it almost immediately - there was no scrubbing off speed before impact. And it hit it, what's more, in a forward direction, so that the nose of the car would have acted almost like a spear. Given that it would have been travelling at close to 200mph, you could say it was remarkable that the car was restrained much at all. That said, Thank God the grandstands in that section of the track were devoid of spectators.

I'll confess I felt uneasy throughout that race as I watched it on TV. For a relatively short track, Texas is ferociously fast, and the IRL rules - flat-bottomed cars, loads of downforce, rev-limited engines - mean that great bunches of cars tend to circulate together, in very close company. Just like a 'restrictor plate' NASCAR race at Daytona or wherever, but at least there is no danger there of wheels touching wheels.

I think we've reached a point where single-seater oval racing has simply got too fast, and serious thought should be given to the technical rules. It should be possible, I'd have thought, to change the aerodynamic regulations in a manner which both slows the cars down significantly and also allows for better racing - puts the 'driving' more back into the hands of the driver, in other words.

As for F1, and spectator protection, I confess that, at one circuit in particular (no prizes, etc...), I would be at least a little chary about some of the vantage points. In general, though, I think F1 is very responsible in this respect, and of course one must remember, too, that not only do we very rarely have whole groups of cars running close together, but also that there are not the sheer velocities involved that one finds routinely at oval races.

I repeat, though: you will never be able to guarantee absolute safety for spectators, for the simple reason that you will never be able to eliminate the freak accident. It's a great deal safer than at one time, though: when I attended the 1969 French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand, as a spectator, the only thing between me and the cars was a bush!

Has Ralf 'got the necessary' what to be a team leader? Speed? Yes - sometimes. Maturity? Yes - sometimes. Calmness? Yes - sometimes. Is a pattern starting to emerge here?

I have found the situation between Ralf and Juan Montoya intriguing, I must say, for while JPM is always reckoned to be the fiery Latin, in fact in 2003 he has been more consistent than the dour German, in both qualifying and race. True, each man won a couple of Grands Prix apiece (and Ralf's, seven days apart, were both consummate affairs, with his team mate second), but whereas Juan Pablo was a serious factor pretty well everywhere, Ralf had several days when you wouldn't have known in the race.

Is he anything like as good as his brother, you ask? I think he's as good as anyone out there - on his day. But the man who dominated qualifying at Magny-Cours was the same one who had qualified a pathetic 17th at Sepang. In short, when Ralf's on it, he's brilliant; when he's not, he can be awful. When it comes to consistency, he's no match for Michael - nor, for that matter, for JPM, as far as I'm concerned.

The other thing, too, is that he's not a natural racer in the way that they - and Raikkonen and Alonso - are. At Montreal, for example, he sat endlessly behind his brother's brakeless Ferrari, and, as Patrick Head muttered afterwards, you couldn't imagine Montoya doing that: a move might or might not have come off, but at least it would have been made. Then again, in his drive through the field at the Hungaroring, he was as aggressive as anyone would wish him to be, so...go figure.

Given that Montoya is off to McLaren for 2005, I think it's only logical that FW and Patrick would be keen for Schumacher to stay, although my understanding is that currently his opinion of his financial worth is at odds, let's say, with those of his employers.

Summing up, is Ralf a great driver? Yes - sometimes.

Funny, I was only thinking about 'Seppi' Siffert at the end of last week - October 24 is one of those dates that always resonates with me, for it is the anniversary of Siffert's death, in 1971.

That year, he and Pedro Rodriguez were team mates not only in the BRM F1 team, but also in the Gulf-sponsored JW Automotive Porsche sports car team. They were very alike in so many ways: both chargers, both fearless, both men who loved being racing drivers, who had to race something, somewhere, every weekend.

That season, 1971, was my first as a journalist in F1, and within a period of three months I attended memorial services to both of them. The first long interview I ever did with a driver was with Rodriguez at Ricard in July. The following weekend, driving Herbie Muller's Ferrari 512M in an Interserie race at the Norisring, Pedro fell foul of a backmarker, crashed, and was killed.

Fierce rivals though they were, Rodriguez and Siffert held each other in high regard, and Seppi was shattered by the news. The following weekend came the British Grand Prix, and he rose to the occasion superbly, BRM now essentially dependent on him alone. At Silverstone, he put the car on the front row, ran second to Jackie Stewart, and then retired. At the Nurburgring, the story was the same.

Finally, in Austria, it all came right. At the top of his form, Seppi took the pole, and led from flag to flag, recording the fastest lap along the way. At Monza, he retired after leading, but the year came to a satisfactory Grand Prix conclusion with a strong second place to Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen.

On October 24 there was a non-championship Fl race at Brands Hatch, and there was an end-of-term feel about that perfect autumn day - how lucky we all were to have yet one more opportunity of seeing Grand Prix cars in action before the onset of winter.

Although Siffert put his BRM on pole, he made an awful start, and was way back at the end of the first lap. It was only a temporary situation, however, and, while his team-mate Peter Gethin battled with Emerson Fittipaldi for the lead, Seppi began to move up through the pack, taking fourth spot on the 12th lap, then closing on third man Stewart.

And then, quite suddenly, there was dreadful sense of apprehension when you know that something appalling has happened. Fourteen laps into an F1 race, and there was complete silence, with not an engine to be heard, not a word from the PA. Into the sky, out in the country, rose a pall of thick, black smoke, at a race circuit the worst sight in the world. It wasn't that the race had been stopped, for in those days they never stopped races. Simply, the track was blocked with wreckage.

Eventually we learned that Siffert's car had gone out of control, somersaulted and exploded, and that the driver had died almost at once of asphyxiation. Gethin was the winner of the race, which was not restarted, but afterwards had only tears in his eyes. Rodriguez and Siffert. Both gone within three months.

The race in which Seppi died was his 41st of the season. To race was the thing, as often as possible, for its own sake, be it at Mallory Park in an F2 Chevron, the Nurburgring in an F1 BRM, or Spa with a Porsche 917. Rodriguez was of the same cut, and it was a privilege to have known both men, albeit so briefly.

Why more changes to qualifying for 2004? Answer: because people think it will be better for 'The Show', and, who knows, maybe they're right. A lot of people, including myself, were sceptical about the changes introduced this season past, but on balance I think they worked out very well, and undoubtedly added a 'wild card' element to the grids on occasion.

Given that I'm a purist, it surprises some people that I feel this way - in fact, to be honest, it surprises me, too! But while I miss the balls out, no compromise, nature of qualifying the way it traditionally was, it undoubtedly did lead to predictable grids, which in turn - because overtaking is so difficult these days - led to predictable, processional, races. Frankly, I've travelled on too many aeroplanes to see too many of those, and over time increasingly came round to the view that, in the end, all that really mattered was what happened on Sunday afternoon.

The thinking behind the new format, behind running the two qualifying sessions one after the other, is that it will create 'an event' on Saturday, for those present at the track and, more importantly, for the Great God TV. Time will tell if it's a success or not. Flip side is that we now revert to dirges on Friday, when nothing of consequence occurs.

What was wrong with 60-minute sessions, with three sets of sticky qualifying tyres? Forgive me, but I can't remember a time when it was three sets. Originally, there was no limit to the number you could run, and then, in the latter days of qualifying tyres, the restriction was two sets per driver.

I'll grant you that the sight of a turbocharged F1 car, running something close to 1500 horsepower on 'qualifying' boost, and shod with 'one lap' qualifying tyres, was as awesome - in the true sense of the word - as anything I've ever seen. It was horribly dangerous, though, for in effect it limited each driver to two quick laps, and on a track packed with other cars. In that situation, a driver couldn't afford to lift off, and simply had to hope that the guy in front, perhaps on his slowing-down lap, had seen him, and would give him room.

It was in precisely these circumstances that Gilles Villeneuve crashed to his death at Zolder in 1982. That's what was wrong with it.

I wouldn't put Peter Revson in the same category as the three other American F1 drivers you mention, but undoubtedly he was a very talented and versatile driver, if perhaps rather less of a 'racer' than Andretti, Hill or Gurney.

Revson always tended to play down his bank account, saying that stories of his wealth were wildly exaggerated. Nevertheless, he was not your typically impecunious young racing driver, it must be said, and perhaps that was why he often seemed less 'hungry' than some of his colleagues.

He was good in the wet, as you suggest, but although there was some drizzle at Silverstone in 1973, scene of his first win, it didn't amount to much. For most of the race there was a four-car group at the front, comprising Ronnie Peterson's Lotus, the McLarens of Denny Hulme and Revson, and the Hesketh March of James Hunt. When the track briefly became slippery, Ronnie's car became unmanageable, whereupon Peter slipped by him, and stayed ahead to the finish.

Revson's other win, at Mosport later that year, was a controversial affair, in the sense that initially no one knew who had won! This was indeed a wet race, and at first the winner was thought to be Emerson Fittipaldi, who was given the chequered flag, and ushered towards towards the winner's circle. Some, though, thought 'Revvie' had won, and others that Jackie Oliver had done it. Only after laborious checking of lap charts - no electronic timing, etc, in those days - was Revson finally confirmed as the winner of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Tragically, of course, Peter was killed, in a Shadow, the following year in a pre-race testing accident at Kyalami.

Well, I'm glad at least you saw the tail-end of it! For most people who have been around F1 for a long time, the turbo era represented Grand Prix racing at its most dramatic. With up to 1500bhp for qualifying, and well over 1000 for racing, the cars were as close to dragsters as ever I've seen at a track, and in the close confines of Monaco there were times when it seemed like madness.

In terms of a complete, single, lap there from that era, I can't really isolate one in my mind, but what I will say is that probably I've never seen the essence of Grand Prix racing pared back more effectively than by Ayrton Senna, as he attacked the swimming pool complex during qualifying in the Lotus-Renault in 1985.

Back then this area was defined by stone walls, not painted marks on the road, and the sight of that black car, as Ayrton threaded it through at unimaginable speed, and with inch-perfect precision, is something I will always be grateful for having seen - even if I couldn't quite believe it at the time. I adored that era in F1 more than any other I have covered; for sheer drama, it remains unequalled.

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