Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 24

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 24

Over the Monza weekend, Ronnie Peterson was often in my thoughts - it
seemed quite impossible that 25 years had gone by since that horrible weekend when we lost him.

Shortly before the 1978 Italian Grand Prix I was commissioned to write a book with Mario Andretti, and consequently spent a good deal of time in the Lotus motorhome, discussing the project. That being so, I saw a lot of Ronnie during the practice and qualifying days, and obviously have many poignant memories.

Peterson was a hero, not only for the spectators, for also for everyone in the Formula 1 paddock. We all loved his aggressiveness on the track, his extraordinarily spectacular style, but beyond that there was also a tremendous affection for him. As well as being a great driver, he was a good man.

"Mad Ronald," Mike Hailwood used to call him. In the Peterson era, 20 and 30 years ago, F1 may have been infinitely more dangerous than now, but it lacked the hard edge of today, and friendships between the drivers were the norm.

Peterson was never a textbook racing driver, in the Stewart sense of the word, but rather one who could make a car dance to his tune, a man of reflex and instinct. Rene Dreyfus once said of Nuvolari that understeer and oversteer were an irrelevance in his case; whatever the car's inclinations, it would do what its driver required. Ronnie was like that.

In fact, it was just as well, because he was a terrible test driver. "He was amazing in that respect," Colin Chapman said. "You could change a car quite fundamentally - and he'd still turn in the same sort of times! So you'd ask him how it felt different from before, and he'd say, 'Ummmm, slides a bit more...'Where? At the front, the back, both ends?' And he'd say he wasn't really sure! Made me tear my hair out. Then, of course, he'd go and put the thing on pole position, so you couldn't really get too mad with him..."

Chapman always reckoned that Ronnie was at his best when partnered
with a supreme test driver, and it was lucky that, in two spells with Lotus, his team mates were Emerson Fittipaldi and Mario Andretti. "He'd mess around in practice, while Emerson worked on his set-up, then copy his settings - and nick pole position from him! Used to madden Emerson, that, and you couldn't blame him."

Ronnie's talent was such that he could drive around any problem his car might have, and have the confidence to commit to a flat-out corner in the certainty that he could sort it all out.

"I don't think Ronnie ever had the mental application that a complete racing driver needs," said Jackie Stewart, "but I admired his ability tremendously. Any number of times, particularly in 1973, I'd follow him into a corner and think, 'Oh-oh, Ronnie, this time you've overdone it, you're gone!' But he always seemed to get it back somehow. It never surprised me that the spectators loved him - he was exciting to watch from where I was, too!"

As with Jochen Rindt or Gilles Villeneuve, Peterson was a driver who made you seek out a particular corner for the privilege of watching him through it. In all my years of watching F1 drivers, I have never seen anything better than Ronnie's Lotus 72 through Silverstone's original Woodcote Corner.

So what was my opinion of him? One of the greatest chargers of all time, as you say, but also a lovely bloke, a loyal team member, a man of complete integrity.

By 'the best man', I presume you're talking about Michael Schumacher, but while I wouldn't disagree that he remains the best overall driverin the world, I think it's worth pointing out that, prior to Monza, he hadn't won a race since Montreal, at the beginning of June.

If Michael ultimately clinches the championship yet again, on this occasion it will be because he strung those three victories - Imola, Barcelona, A1-Ring - together before Williams had managed to get their FW25 working to its full potential. As ever, Michael has had some brilliant drives this year, but - for the first time - there have also been several which were pretty ordinary.

Now, Montoya. You can't really question the guy's essential combativeness - look at the move he put on Schumacher within a few seconds of the start at Monza! It nearly came off, too, and if it had we would have had a really fantastic race.

No question about it, though, he drove his socks off for most of the afternoon. Problem was, he simply had too much wing, and in a straight line that cost him very dearly. He could cling on to Michael, even close on him, but on the straights he was left by the Ferrari, and thus was never close to try a move into one of the chicanes.

As for his backing off in the last portion of the race, frankly I think it was no more than commonsense. Messrs Frentzen and Baumgartner cost him several seconds, with their refusal to obey the blue flags, and there was no way in the world he was going to make up five or six seconds on Schuey in the time that remained. Given the circumstances in the championship, it was essential, above all, that he finished the race, and didn't drop too many points to Michael.

As it is, with two races to go, he sits three points behind him, and the game is still on. Had he blown up the Williams-BMW, in a fruitless attempt to catch a fundamentally quicker car, I imagine a great many people would have said he was an idiot...

Dear Paul,

Ah, Pedro and the 917 in the rain at you, like everyone else who was there, it remains an unforgettable day for me, too. I guess, in terms of atmosphere, and for the sheer quality of the entry, Le Mans '67 will remain my particular sports car racing highlight, but in terms of a memorable drive, nothing comes close to Rodriguez at Brands in '70. He simply made every other driver look flat-footed, didn't he?

In those days, a World Championship sports car race was a Grand Prix by any other name, so let me take a line or two to go through the entry. In the JW Automotive Gulf 917s were Rodriguez/Leo Kinnunen and Jo Siffert/Brian Redman, and in the Porsche Salzburg cars were Denny Hulme/Vic Elford and Hans Herrmann/Richard Attwood. The works Ferraris were crewed by Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver and Chris Amon/Arturo Merzario, with Mike Parkes/Herbert Muller in the Scuderia Filipinetti car.

There was a factory Alfa Romeo for Piers Courage/Andrea de Adamich,
and the Matras were crewed by Jack Brabham/Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo/Johnny Servoz-Gavin. There were several Lola T70s for such as Jo Bonnier/Reine Wisell, and a bunch of Porsche 908s, one of which was driven by Gijs van Lennep and a brilliant newcomer, Hans Laine, who would sadly die in the car at the Nurburgring a few weeks later.

Porsche was immensely serious about sports car racing in those days, to the extent that John Wyer's team - which operated the Gulf-sponsored factory cars at the time - had available the 917 for fast circuits and the nimbler 908/3 for tight ones. The latter would have been the thing to have for Brands Hatch, but in April was not ready. Pedro, Seppi & Co had therefore to run the big cars.

By 1970, the 917 was relatively civilised, if not the natural vehicle for Brands Hatch on a wet day. Amon must have groaned on race morning for he had little relish for racing in the rain. In the dry he had Put the Ferrari on pole position, a couple of tenths faster than Ickx's sister car and the Elford Porsche, with Brabham, Siffert and Servoz-Gavin also faster than Rodriguez. But Pedro will have rubbed his hands. Never a man much to concern himself with qualifying, anyway, he loved the wet.

In absolute terms, the crowd - around 20,000 - was middling for a World Championship sports car race in those days, but in light of the weather it was astonishing. Cars were towed into the parks that morning, among them my Lotus Elan. Had it not been for Rodriguez, I might well have spent much of the afternoon worrying about getting out again. Had it not been for Rodriguez, come to think of it, I'd have left long before the end.

As it was, Pedro made that impossible. It is easy, quite commonplace, to add layers of folklore to a day, to let hindsight amplify; but only rarely do you appreciate something of legend as it happens before you. That day, sodden and cold, the crowd stayed. This owed nothing to a close race, for it was hardly that. I can speak only for myself, but that afternoon I waited simply for the pleasure of enjoying Pedro's victory.

Elford led at the end of the first lap, tailed by Ickx, Siffert, Amon, Brabham, Pescarolo and Rodriguez. In their stead, back in the pack, a T70 spun coining out of Clearways, finishing up near the start/finish line, bits of bodywork all over the road. Nowadays, they would stop the race in these circumstances, and you couldn't argue with them. Back then, they waved yellow flags, and hoped everyone would see them through the murk.

Pedro didn't - at least, he always claimed so, and John Wyer, for one, believed him: "He would never have gone through the accident scene flat out if he'd been able to see the flag. There was so much spray from the cars in front that he simply missed it. I never doubted him."Whatever, next time around Rodriguez was shown a black flag, and this one he did see . A lap later the Porsche was into the pits, and while the Clerk of the Course bawled him out, Pedro impassively sat there, steely eyes straight ahead. When the lecture was over, he let in the clutch with some vim, and hurtled away down pit lane. By now he was going on a lap down on the leaders - yet by lap 20 he was on Amon's tail, past the Ferrari and into the lead.

Rodriguez's driving that afternoon beggars description. In the course of catching Amon, he had first to deal with such as Siffert, his own team mate, whom he outbraked into Paddock in a move which left everyone stupefied and shaking their heads.

I can still see those two pale blue 917s blasting through the spray down the main straight, still recall the amazement that Pedro was up with Seppi already, and next time around would be by him. Into Paddock Siffert braked where a very brave man would brake, but Rodriguez still kept coming, and on an impossibly tight line aimed inside the other Porsche. In the dip there was the merest shimmy from the back of the car, and then it was gone, seeking out Elford and Amon.

They, like Siffert, were sacrificial lambs this day, nothing more. "That old joke," Chris said, "about why doesn't someone tell Pedro it's wasn't a bloody joke that day! I remember the way he came past us all, the things he was doing with that car. It was like sleight of hand..."

After that, it was really a matter of waiting out time. There was no race, as such, yet there was something hypnotic about the afternoon, the watching of one man, one car. We were soaked and frozen, yet curiously unaware of it. Until mid-race, anyway. At that point Pedro came in to hand over to Kinnunen, his new team mate. It seemed a good moment to seek out a cup of tea and a sandwich. Even at Brands Hatch.

An odd fellow, Kinnunen. He had made his name in Finnish rallying, and would prove shatteringly fast at the Targa Florio, where presumably he felt in his element. But at a slippery Brands Hatch he was clearly not so, and in the pits Rodriguez began to fret. He had built up a lead so substantial there was little chance of their car being caught, but he worried that Kinnunen might stick it in the fence. After an hour he could stand no more, and asked Wyer if he could take over again.

It was done. In dry overalls, now, Pedro resumed his rhythm, continued on his flawless way. Behind him, Redman crashed the other Gulf Porsche out of second place, and Amon was in and out of the pits with a recalcitrant fuel pump. Ickx, the one man who might have kept Rodriguez alert on a day like this, had stopped countless times for attention to his windscreen wipers... Ferrari electrics had struck again.

The Hulme/Elford 917, though, continued without major problem save that of having covered five fewer laps than the Rodriguez car. At 6.45 Pedro emerged from the gloom of Clearways for the last time, and took the flag. On South Bank spectators plodded through the mud to their cars, sounded their horns in the time-honoured salute of the day.

On the rostrum Rodriguez looked untouched by his work. The black hair was immaculately swept back, as ever, and there was the faintest of smiles. What was there about this Mexican - this Latin born to dust and heat - that put him at such ease on so English an April day? Siffert, sometimes a match for him on sheer pace, had been dominated, along with everyone else.

"Finesse," said David Yorke, Wyer's team manager for so many years. "In terms of speed, there wasn't usually much between them, but you always had the impression that Seppi did the job with arm muscles flexed, while Pedro sat there resting his thumbs on the wheel. His precision and sensitivity were fantastic. A day like that was made for him."

Those days, though, are gone. Do I think we will ever see their like again, that sports car racing can ever regain its previous heights? Not for a second, sadly. Just rejoice that you knew it in its glory days.

Dear Daniel,

Andrea de Cesaris was undoubtedly quick, but my abiding memory of him comes from the 1982 Long Beach Grand Prix, which resulted in a dominant victory by Lauda, in only his third race since coming out of retirement. Niki had looked a cert for pole position, too, but that, amazingly, was stolen by de Cesaris. When you saw the state Andrea was in afterwards - weeping copiously, and shaking so violently he was unable to hold a bottle to his lips - you doubted his readiness to run 75 trouble-free laps in the race.

He took an immediate lead, but soon Lauda was pulling on the line. Aware of Andrea's reputation, Niki was in two minds: better to sit there, awaiting the right moment, or try to get clear as soon as possible, avoid involvement in the leader's inevitable mistake? Almost at once his predicament was taken care of by Raul Boesel, whom the leaders came up to lap at the hairpin before Shoreline Drive. In de Cesaris's estimation, Boesel was less cooperative than he might have been, and as he accelerated past him, he violently shook his right fist.

It might more usefully have been employed in changing gear. By the time this had been accomplished, Lauda, shaking with laughter, was gone for the day...Could de Cesaris have been a world championship challenger if he could have discarded the rash side of his nature? That's a little like asking if Tony Blair could be a respected politician if he started telling the truth.

Dear Gordon,

You might think that, but I couldn't possibly comment.

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