Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 17

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 17

Dear Andrés,

John Cooper will always be remembered in motor racing as the man who put the driver in front of the engine, but he would always modestly ascribe that to expediency, rather than any inspirational flash.

"If you think about it, putting the engine in the back of a 500cc F3 was the only logical thing to do - we were using motorcycle engines and chain-drive, after all. But our F2 and sports cars, which came later, were front-engined for quite a time, so we hadn't immediately decided that rear-engined was the way to go with everything. Much more novel at the time was that we had independent rear suspension on the 500s, and we could certainly see the benefits of that for all racing cars.

"No, a 500 really was a four-wheeled motorcycle - or a baby Auto Union, if you like. And it did handle, for some reason! People who raced 500s after conventional 'big' cars, were amazed at how they went round corners. When John Watson drove one, for a TV programme, he said afterwards that now he understood where and why the rear-engined revolution had started. I was quite gratified by that."

As a driver, Cooper's most gleeful memories were of a pair of 500 races he won with a special streamlined car, originally built for record-breaking. On flat-out circuits like Berlin's Avus and the Grenzlandring it had a massive edge on the rest.

"It was terrific fun, that. An ordinary 500 would do about 105mph, but the streamliner would get up to 135! I can remember passing Stirling Moss, and grinning at him. Lovely!"

That was 1953, and the end of John's own racing days. But he never lost the knack of enjoying the sport, keeping it in a perspective which many of today's Fl team owners could study to advantage.

"I suppose the fun began to go out of it when the big money arrived, didn't it?" he said. "I don't want that to sound bitter because I don't mean it like that. But I'd got into racing largely for pleasure, lived through all those years when it was fun, and later on I could see the difference. There must be so many people around who have never seen it as other than a business. I like to think we went about our racing professionally - but in an amateur spirit, if you like."

John remembers 1960 with particular pride. The year before Cooper had won the World Championship with Jack Brabham, but in many ways it had been fortunate. The Australian had scored only a couple of victories, and logically the title should have gone - perhaps inevitably - to Moss, then also driving a Cooper, privately entered by Rob Walker.

In 1959, hard to believe now, only the little company in Surbiton was building rear-engined F1 cars. Colin Chapman slaved on with his 'mini-Vanwall', and Enzo Ferrari maintained that in a Grand Prix car the engine should be at the front.

"Quite true, that," John remembered. "During practice at Monza one year, he told me he would never ever build a rear-engined car..."

Chapman, however, took the message on board rather more swiftly. At Buenos Aires, the opening race of 1960, Innes Ireland appeared with the new Lotus 18, and Cooper recognised a problem when he saw it.

"Coming back from that race, Brabham, Bruce McLaren and I knew we needed a new car very quickly. In fact, we did half the 'design' work on the aeroplane! By Silverstone in May it was racing, and of course Jack went on to win five races on the trot with it, and his second championship. That was a lovely season."

Stories of modern-day expenditure and sponsorship would bring a wry smile to his face. "Let me think back to the sums involved in '60... well, for a start, a Climax F1 engine cost £1,250, and we'd do at least two complete race meetings without stripping it down. So long as it hadn't blown up, it used to cost about 70 quid to have it overhauled.

"We used to build a chassis for £3000, a whole car for four grand. We'd race it all season, then flog it in Australia or New Zealand at the end of the year - at a profit!

"Apart from that, we got £10,000 from Esso in 1960, the year we won our second title. That, coincidentally, was also Brabham's retainer that year - and he was World Champion! What else? Well, a couple of thousand from Dunlop, a grand from Champion, and that was it."

Nowadays, of course, Bernie Ecclestone does the deals for everyone, negotiates with race organisers, pays out from a kitty after each event.

"In those days we used to negotiate individually," Cooper recalled. "I think it got to around £1000 a car in our case, maybe a little more for Brabham, as reigning World Champion. That was split 50-50 between team and driver. And first prize in a Grand Prix was always about a grand, which went 45 percent to us, 45 to the driver, 10 to the mechanics. We only used to take two or three mechanics to the races, you know, and they had to drive the transporter and everything, then come back and rebuild the cars!

"It all seems terribly simple, looking back. I mean, 'sorting' cars in those days meant getting gear ratios right, trying alternative roll-bars. Sometimes we'd play with different wheel off-sets and things, but that was about it!"

Cooper loved to talk about the days when racing was fun. You found yourself struggling to envisage a day when Grand Prix racing might have been light-hearted, but John's conversation was peppered with anecdote, of parties remembered, characters met, jokes enjoyed.

When Lee Lacocca, one-time guru of the American motor industry, came to the Monaco Grand Prix one year, in the late '80s, all kept their respectful distance. Cooper recalled meeting him in his Ford days, at Watkins Glen in 1961.

"He had a man with him to look after him, answer questions for him. 'I hear you might be going into Formula 1', I said to him, and he decided to answer himself. 'No', he says, 'we're not interested in Formula 1. What we're gonna do is go the whole hog on Grand Prix racing!' I didn't pursue it any further...

"At that same race I had a meeting with Howard Hughes, in the back of an air-conditioned limousine. He was talking about going into the motor business, and we vaguely discussed a Buick-engined Cooper Monaco sort of car. Never came to anything. I believe it was about the last time he was seen in public. He obviously wasn't quite as barmy as he later became, but even so I can remember thinking 'we've got a right one here'..."

John sold the Cooper team to the Sieff family at the end of 1965, continuing to run it for three more seasons. The Sieffs' original plan had been to run under the St Michael banner, but other Marks and Spencers' directors did not agree, and eventually the team was wound up.

"It was the right time to stop. By the end of '68 it was obvious that you needed a Ford DFV engine to go racing seriously, and that wasn't really on for me because of my close involvement with BMC on the Minis and so on."

To the end of his life - he died in 2002 - John Cooper loved the sport, and never missed a Grand Prix on TV. But he always maintained he would never have traded his era for this one. "I might be very rich," he'd say, "but I think I'd miss the fun..."

Dear Eric,

Having always thought Juan Montoya a born Williams driver, the sort of combative character so beloved by FW and Patrick Head, I confess I was surprised when his name first came up in connection with McLaren. If ever he were going to leave Williams, I'd always supposed it would be to go to Ferrari.

However, from talking to sundry 'people who should know' recently, I'm pretty well convinced that JPM has already signed for McLaren for the 2005 season. Indeed, my understanding is that David Coulthard's place in the team was confirmed late in the day only because McLaren were moving heaven and earth to get Montoya for next year, and only when it became clear this was not a possibility did DC get the nod.

Let's assume for a moment, though, that Juan has not yet concluded a deal with anyone for 2005. Would I advise Frank Williams to break the bank to keep him? First thing, it has never been Frank's way to submit to financial demands from a driver which he considers over the top - as Nigel Mansell, for example, discovered at the end of his championship-winning year, 1992.

That said, he did conclude a deal with Ralf Schumacher four years ago which is probably the most expensive of his life, and which some believe may have paid Ralf more than his worth, although some of it, I believe, has come from BMW. I am told that the disparity between his own and Ralf's retainer has contributed considerably to JPM's dissatisfaction with his lot at Williams.

I'd be very surprised if Frank were to get into a Dutch auction with Ron Dennis to keep Juan Pablo - McLaren's budget is second only to Ferrari's, and the team has invariably paid superstar drivers more than Williams.

I'm sure, however, that this is all academic, and that Montoya has already committed himself to partnering Kimi Raikkonen the year after next. How will the two of them get along? It's never easy running two superstars in one team, as anyone at McLaren in the Prost-Senna era can tell you, but Ron Dennis runs the tightest ship in the paddock, and if anyone can maintain a harmonious team atmosphere, he can.

Dear Chris,

Overwhelmingly, of the drivers you mention, Stirling Moss was the great lost World Champion - for me, he's the greatest driver who ever lived, World Champion or not. On pure talent, Ronnie and Gilles were definitely of champion calibre, but maybe the mercurial aspects of their characters would always have militated against their taking the title.

When people talk of drivers who won the championship, but didn't really deserve it, invariably they cite Keke Rosberg, who took it in 1982, despite winning only one race. I've always thought this a little unfair, frankly, because that year no driver won more than two races, and Keke was brilliant all season long, fighting the infinitely more powerful turbo brigade - Renault, Ferrari, Brabham-BMW, etc - with his normally-aspirated Williams-Cosworth.

I think it's fair to say that Denny Hulme (1967), Jody Scheckter (1979) and Nelson Piquet (1987) won their championships on consistency rather than superior speed, but the year which really stands out is 1958, when Mike Hawthorn (one victory) won the title, from Stirling Moss (four) and Tony Brooks (three). When he was really on it, Hawthorn was a great driver, but day in, day out, was not a match for either Moss or Brooks, and the result of that year's championship still strikes me as unjust.

Dear Grayson,

My memories of that season are somewhat at variance with those you quote from Nigel Mansell's autobiography. Anyone for whom Mansell ever drove will tell you he had a persecution complex like no other, and frequently, when a team mate beat him, the dark mutterings would start. It was as if he couldn't be beaten by another driver in an identical car, so as and when it happened, there had to be a Machivellian reason for it.

Frankly, I never saw any reason to doubt that he and Alain Prost were given comparable equipment in 1990 - and the fact that they each out-qualified the other eight times in the 16 races rather bears that out, I'd have thought. The big difference came on race day, Alain winning five Grands Prix, and Nigel one.

At Silverstone that year, you may remember, Mansell announced he would be retiring at the end of the year, and thereafter he twice 'parked' a healthy car, at Hockenheim and Spa. By Estoril, with Prost challenging Ayrton Senna for the World Championship, the Ferrari drivers qualified 1-2, Nigel ahead. When they got the signal to go, Mansell, who had lined up his car crookedly on the grid, drove straight across Prost's bows; the two cars touched, and in the ensuing melee, Senna drove straight past both of them. Alain never for a second believed this had been accidental, and neither did most onlookers.

In his recently published memoirs, Franco Gozzi, Enzo Ferrari's right hand man for countless years, finished his chapter on Mansell like this: 'Mansell joined the Prancing Horse a year after the Old Man died, and that, at least, consoles me because poor Enzo did not see the ignoble way Mansell made his team mate Prost lose the 1990 World Championship'.

Dear Edward,

Probably Graham Hill will go down in history as the only man to win the at Monaco, Indianapolis, and Le Mans. (He also, lest we forget won the World Championship a couple of times.)

Why? Because, as you say, 'big name drivers' no longer compete in anything outside of F1. It's not impossible that a driver retired from F1 could go on and win the Indy 500 or the Le Mans 24 Hours, but so long as they're in F1, their contracts would never let them compete in either. Apart from anything else, on occasion both races have clashed with Grand Prix dates.

Then there is the question of risk. Many F1 drivers say they simply do not want to race on the ovals, at Indy or anywhere else, and many to whom I have spoken say they consider Le Mans about the most dangerous race on the planet: for one thing, the speeds are extremely high, and for another, there is a huge discrepancy in driving ability between the best drivers and the 'once a year' racers who turn up at the Sarthe.

Therefore, unless it's a man with a real sense of history, like Mario Andretti, it's very unlikely that a driver of the present or the future would be much interested in trying to win Le Mans - it simply doesn't matter to most of today's stars, I'm afraid. JPM, as you say, as already won Monaco and Indy, but although it's not impossible he might one day be tempted to try and add Le Mans to his CV, frankly it would surprise me.

Dear Andy,

I think there's no doubt that Ayrton's stance was the right one - for Ayrton! Undoubtedly, there was a perception that Lotus were incapable of fielding two ultra-competitive cars, and Senna was unequivocal: he wanted the team to focus its attention on him, rather than possibly divide its effort between him and his team mate.

It wasn't, he insisted, that he had anything against Warwick - indeed, he liked Derek (as did everyone), and reckoned he was too good a driver to be considered a number two. That may have been true, but in effect it was merely sugaring an unpalatable pill: Lotus may have wanted Warwick, and John Player, too, but Senna wouldn't have him there, so that was that.

I can't say I was much impressed by Ayrton's actions at the time, but there's no doubt that his ruthlessness served him well on this occasion, as it would do so many times subsequently. He was always going to be World Champion, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

Warwick himself was mortified at the time, and with good reason, but as time went by he came increasingly to see Senna's point of view. "He was absolutely right to do it. Yes, he was thinking only of himself - but the great ones are always like that, aren't they?"

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