Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 25

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 25

Dear Darren,

I, too, was a great fan of Keke Rosberg's, and for just the reasons you mention. He was one of the fastest drivers there has ever been, in my opinion, and a true racer. I've known him for 20-odd years, and count him a great friend - irreverent, straight talking, and with as good a sense of humour as I have come across in motor racing. Keke was, and is, wonderful company.

He won the World Championship with Williams, of course, in 1982, but I always thought his victory in the one and only Dallas Grand Prix, in 1984, was his greatest. The Williams FW09 was not, let's say, the company's greatest product, and the power delivery from its turbocharged Honda V6 engine, in its early guise, was like a light switch: on or off. Add in that, in the phenomenally high July temperatures in Texas, the track surface broke up appallingly, catching out such as Lauda and Prost, and the magnitude of Keke's achievement that day comes into focus.

There were countless memorable days with Williams, but a race I remember as clearly as any was Rosberg's last, at Adelaide in 1986, in the McLaren-TAG Porsche.

Undoubtedly, to that point, Keke's final season had been a disappointment, lacking a victory and - on several occasions - the extrovert and combative spirit we had taken for granted in his Williams years. Essentially, the car had been designed around Alain Prost, and its understeering characteristics did not suit Rosberg's style. In Adelaide, though, he turned in a drive to match anything in his F1 career. Prost spoke with awe of Keke's first lap, and until one of his rear tyres threw a tread, 17 laps from home, he was paralysing them.

"This is the most important race of my life," he said to me during qualifying." More important than Vegas four years previously, when the title had been his for the taking? "Oh, sure, because this is the last time I'll ever drive one of these things. It's fantastic to compete, you know, and that's what I'm going to miss. I haven't lost any of the pleasure of driving race cars."

After Rosberg had announced his intention to quit, at Hockenheim, there had been constant rumours of a change of mind. McLaren had tried hard to get him to reconsider, and he admitted that he had given it some thought.

"So long as you're still enjoying racing, it wouldn't be natural if you didn't think about it. As I've said before, this is the only life I've ever known. But I read an interview with James Hunt the other day, in which he was very honest about his reasons for stopping - for self-preservation, really. I was very impressed with that. Mind you, this was three weeks ago! I can't remember him saying that at the time.

"There are millions of small reasons for my decision, and they change all the time. For example, when I'm playing with my son, that is one of the most important reasons - but it doesn't matter at all when you're sitting in a race car in Australia, and this is it, the finish! But all these small reasons, however much they may vary in degree, constantly add up to the same whole - which is that my decision was right.

"I don't say that I'll never race again. If I feel the urge to compete, and the right package came along for a saloon car race for a weekend, OK, I'll do it. But I'll never compete seriously again. If you want to do that, you do F1. There's nothing else, is there?"

Rosberg admitted that the fuel regulations in Formula 1 at the time - there was no refuelling then, and each driver had a fuel allocation for a race, which obliged him often to run slower than he could have done - had made it easier to leave than it might have been otherwise.

"I would have liked it better if it had been just car and driver, and not having to look at that bloody gauge all the time. I'm not saying I would have been more competitive in that situation, but it would have been more enjoyable.

"I wish, how I wish, that the normally-aspirated engines had arrived earlier. If they had come in next year, I would have had to sit down and give serious consideration to carrying on. Turbos are just not enjoyable in the same way. Instant throttle response will be back in '88, and that will be fantastic. You know, I never enjoyed driving any car as much as FWO8, the last Williams-Cosworth - especially the year I won the championship, when we had skirts. It had no horsepower, of course, but every corner was a big commitment. Brake, shift, all happened so fast. At a place like Brands, it was incredibly exciting. Not healthy, but exciting..."

He paused for breath, lit another cigarette. "I really want this last race to be good," he murmured. Unlike such as Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill, Rosberg had every reason to remember well his last day in a Grand Prix car.

Dear Carlo,

Yes, I was a touch surprised by the punishment meted out to Massa at Monza - primarily because I, like most people, had forgotten that the '10 grid spots' penalty had been introduced! This was the first time it had been applied, and one could only regret - for purely selfish reasons, in the interests of an entertaining race - that such a fate had not befallen Michael Schumacher...

I am a touch suspicious, I must admit, about the reasons behind the introduction of this particular penalty - the possibility of spicing up 'The Show' came into my mind, but that was surely an unworthy thought - but I don't have any particular problem with it, so long as it is fairly, and evenly, applied. If, in the future, someone should be 'conveniently' punished in this way, my feelings about it could change.

I'm not sure that Massa should necessarily have suffered this particular penalty, but I don't have any doubts that a punishment of some kind was in order, and neither does Pedro de la Rosa! On this occasion, though, I feel sympathy for Felipe, for already he has enough troubles: after a season in which he has demonstrated great natural speed and flair, he is losing his Sauber drive to Heinz-Harald Frentzen at the end of the year, anyway, and now - so that the team can side-step his penalty - he is to be replaced at Indianapolis this weekend by Heinz.

As for the Raikkonen/Sato incident in practice at Monza, yes, I entirely agree with you - I was amazed that Kimi got away without a penalty on that occasion, for shunt was entirely the result of his lack of attention. The decisions of FIA stewards over the years have frequently been notable for their lack of consistency, let's put it that way.

Dear Alex,

If you think of Grand Prix racing like an accountant, where the only thing that matters is finishing a season with a set of immaculate books, then probably the 'hierarchy system', as perfected by Alfred Neubauer at Mercedes in the 1930s and '50s, and currently by Jean Todt at Ferrari, is the way to go. But if you prefer, as do Frank Williams and Ron Dennis, to allow drivers in the same team to race each other, the results can also be pretty spectacular; you just have to be ready for a few internal punch-ups along the way...

The ideal number two is really someone who is a number one-and-a-half - in other words, someone not on the level of Fangio or Clark or Moss or Prost or Senna or Schumacher, yet one who is quite capable of stepping up to the plate if his team leader should fail, and even, on a given day, beat everyone.

For me, the classic driver in that mould was Riccardo Patrese. Day in, day out, you would not compare him with the true greats, but when the mood was on him - as in Mexico or Estoril in 1991 - he could simply leave everyone behind. His Williams-Renault team mate that year was Mansell - and it wasn't until after halfway through the season that Nigel was able to out-qualify him! That's some number two...

As well as that, Patrese was a most pleasant individual, who was immensely loyal to his team, and worked tremendously hard for Williams - he had, and has, no greater fan than Patrick Head, and that speaks volumes for him.

Dear Bryan,

In the days when we had a Dutch Grand Prix, it was one of the season's high points. August, in fact, was a fine month all the way around, taking in Zeltweg and Zandvoort, both now defunct as F1 circuits. The second-gear Hungaroring is hardly cut-glass motor racing, and Budapest - yes, yes, I know about its architectural glories - has never compensated for the loss of Amsterdam.

It's a while since I've been there, but I doubt that it has much changed. Somewhere in the yonder there was always the strumming of a guitar, a cracked voice working through 'We Shall Overcome'. It is, they say, 'The city where anything goes, and nothing goes too far', and it always felt that way, too, somehow gentle and at peace with itself. All the clocks stopped in 1967. Even today, if you were to see a green and yellow Team Lotus transporter weaving down the Damrak between the trams, you wouldn't give it a second glance.

It was the same with the paddock at Zandvoort - which, of course, was one of the reasons we no longer have a Dutch Grand Prix. Back in the 1980s - the last Grand Prix was run there in 1985 - it was not up to coping with countless spare cars and motorhomes. Or, for that matter, corporate guests.

So the race was lost, which is more than a shame. To this day I hold that Zandvoort was the best circuit for racing I ever saw.

Nor was it conceived by computer. During the occupation of Holland German gun emplacements in the sand dunes were linked by a series of service roads, and after the war these formed the basis of part of a new race circuit, designed by John Hugenholtz, later responsible for Jarama and Suzuka.

Who knows why it was that Zandvoort invariably gave us the most exciting Grand Prix of the year? What was its special quality?

Well, for one thing, it had a long straight, followed by a slow corner, a combination which guarantees overtaking opportunities, and should therefore be intrinsic to the design of any circuit forthwith. The entry to Tarzan made you very acutely aware of what men in cars can do. I never watched the race from anywhere else.

In the hazy distance, you'd see them come out of Bos Uit, a long crocodile in a tow on the horizon, then beginning to splinter, reds and yellows and blues fanning out and darting across the road as Tarzan rushed up to meet them. At that stage it was a matter of staying off the brakes as long as you dared.

This was a stretch of asphalt to concentrate the mind. I remember Patrick Tambay talking about pit signals at Zandvoort in 1982. "I found myself acting like a computer," he said. "You're doing close to 200mph, but you know where your pit is - so you know that board is for you. You see it, store it away, but you can't do anything more with it immediately because here's Tarzan, and you can't miss your braking point. Then, out of the corner, your pit signal comes back, and you register what it means..."

For onlookers, too, it was exhilarating but scary. I always got through a great many cigarettes in the course of a Dutch Grand Prix. Once in a while, as with Riccardo Patrese's Arrows in 1979, you'd get a complete brake failure. In 1980 the front suspension of Derek Daly's Tyrrell collapsed under braking, and two years later it happened to Rene Arnoux's Renault. In every case the car went straight on, through the inadequate run-off sand and head on into the tyre wall. Always the accident was of shocking violence, and old notebooks reveal a sudden deterioration in my writing on each occasion.

Remarkably, all three drivers walked away, but Zandvoort knew some truly dark days, too. Whenever I looked across the circuit towards the sea, I couldn't help but remember again seeing that pillar of black smoke twisting its way into a grey sky; scanning my lap chart, realising Jo Siffert and Piers Courage were missing, then seeing 'Seppi' in the pits later, which meant it was Piers. And three years later, in 1973, it happened again, this time to Roger Williamson.

Any circuit with some bottle-age, of course, inevitably has a residue of tragedy among the lees, but usually Zandvoort was all pleasure, with an atmosphere unique, redolent of barrel-organ music and chips with mayonnaise and fresh, blustery, North Sea winds.

As well as providing a race of unusual sensation, it had also the knack of turning up an unexpected result. In 1959, for example, the race was won by Jo Bonnier in a BRM, the first Grand Prix win for the team and the only one of the Swede's long career. Wolfgang von Trips won his first Grand Prix there, and so did Graham Hill and James Hunt. Jimmy Clark took the race in 1967 (for the fourth time), giving the revolutionary Lotus 49 a debut victory, and three years later the equally innovative 72 won for the first time, in the hands of Jochen Rindt.

My best memories of Zandvoort? The mesmeric fight in the rain between Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez in 1971; James Hunt closing the door on John Watson's Penske at the exit of Tarzan in '76, and getting away with it; Hunt trying the same with Andretti a year later - and not getting away with it; Mario, fibreglass burning, leading Ronnie Peterson in '78, the year of the Lotus 79; Gilles Villeneuve passing Alan Jones on the outside of Tarzan, a spectacular prelude to his notorious three-wheeled return to the pits in '79; Jones taking the lead from Prost in '81, then losing it again within seconds; the coming-together of Prost and Nelson Piquet - aspiring World Champions - in '83; the memorable closing laps of the last race, with Niki Lauda holding off Prost for the final victory of his career...

I always said you saw more real motor racing in one afternoon at Zandvoort than in the rest of the Grand Prix season put together, and I stick by that. A wonderful place.

Will the revised, shortened, version of the track ever have a Grand Prix again. Not a chance, I'm afraid.

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