Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 3

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Ask Nigel Roebuck: September 3

Dave Walker, I always felt, was a much better driver than he was ever allowed to show in his brief F1 career. In F3 he had been a dominant force, and I always felt that, in his season with Lotus in 1972, he rather suffered from the notorious 'Lotus number two' syndrome - over time countless drivers found that if the best drive in the world was to be Lotus team leader, to be the 'other Lotus driver' could be close to the worst.

Over time there have been many drivers who, after showing immense promise in the junior leagues, disappointed when they got to F1. Johnny Dumfries, for example, won a great many F3 races, but made no impression at all in his season of F1 in 1986 - mind you, his team mate was Ayrton Senna, so perhaps, in terms of looking quick, he was on a loser from the beginning.

I was also hugely disappointed by Stefano Modena - how could an Italian racing driver have a better name than that? - who looked extremely promising in F3, but never really cracked it in F1, despite occasionally showing flurries of great speed. Never had the impression that he wanted it enough.

Michael Andretti, I confess, was a great disappointment to me in 1993, his one and only season in F1, with McLaren. By then I'd seen a lot of Michael in Indycar races, and there was no doubt whatever he was quick enough to make it in F1. Again, his team-mate was Senna, which must have been a bit daunting for anyone, but, more than that, I never felt that Michael was sufficiently committed to F1 - it was as if he were a fish out of water in Europe, not truly happy and at ease outside the USA. He also refused to live over here, instead commuting to and from Pennsylvania, just as his father had done. But times had changed since Mario's era, and it was inevitable that McLaren's eager and ever-present test driver, Mika Hakkinen, would quickly gain the ascendancy in the team's affections. No question, though, the younger Andretti certainly had the talent to make it in F1.

More recently, there was the case of Alex Zanardi and Williams in 1999, and I confess that rarely has anything in motor racing mystified me as much as the failure of this partnership to gel. Zanardi had had three brilliant seasons in CART, winning two championships and umpteen races, many of them by sheer flair and aggression. It was this that attracted Frank Williams and Patrick Head, but as soon as Alex got into the Williams, it was clear he was off the pace, and that never really changed. Certainly, he found the contemporary F1 car - complete with grooved tyres - far less suited to his style than a CART car, but adapting
to it should have been no problem for one of his ability.

'Dirty' race tracks have always been a problem, and obviously more of one at a place like the Hungaroring, which is seldom used. I must say I've rarely seen it as bad as it was the other weekend - at times it looked as if a sandstorm were sweeping across the circuit.

As for the grid, there was no question you were better off starting third than second - or 19th rather than 18th, for that matter, because what you needed was to start on the left side of the track, full stop. When the lights went out, it was as if the two Williams-BMWs, second and fourth, were on grease - everything around them left them behind, including Mark Webber, who started third in the Jaguar, got away strongly, and then rather decided the outcome of the race, by holding everyone up (during his Michelins' 'graining period'), and allowing Fernando Alonso to disappear.

A situation like that in Hungary was obviously most unfair, since whether you qualify in an 'even' or 'odd' position is a lottery, yet this was crucial to the outcome of your race. When there was a race morning warm-up, drivers due to line up on the dirty side of the grid would make a point of driving over it, in an attempt to clean it a little, but that opportunity is now gone, of course.

I've also been to countless races in the USA, and have seen the jet 'drying trucks' of which you speak. There's no doubt that they are very effective, but of course they've been pressed into service because there is no racing on ovals in the rain, for obvious reasons, and it's in the track owners' interests to have such machines available to dry out a damp track - otherwise they don't get the race in, and that's not good for business.

In F1, though, we do race in the rain, so there's no need of machines simply to dry a track surface. I grant you that they might have come in handy at the Hungaroring, to dissipate even temporarily some of the sand, but quite honestly I can't see F1 circuit owners - some of whom are pretty hard-pressed financially in this era - going to the expense of buying these things simply to clean a track surface, and get rid of marbles.

Not to take anything away from Fernando Alonso, who is exceptionally gifted, and undoubtedly a potential World Champion, but I confess I was sad to see, after nearly 44 years, the name of Bruce McLaren disappear from the record books, in the context of 'youngest driver ever to win a Grand Prix'. Sad to say, I never met him, for he was killed at Goodwood in 1970, the year before I began covering F1; by all accounts, though, he was a wonderful bloke - I never heard anyone speak otherwise of him.

The year of his first win, 1959, was his first full season in F1, although he had driven in a couple of races the year before. As number two to Jack Brabham in the Cooper team, he made a fine impression - I remember, as a schoolboy, watching him push Stirling Moss for second place in the British Grand Prix at Aintree, for example - but it wasn't until Sebring, the final round of the World Championship, that he scored his first win.

As a matter of interest, his second victory came in the very next race - the Argentine Grand Prix of 1960. On his day, McLaren could be blindingly quick, and undoubtedly he had considerable natural ability, but not many would have put him in the very top bracket - it has often been said of Bruce that he would have been a greater driver had he not also been such an accomplished engineer, and probably there's some truth in that.

As for the significance of McLaren's young age when he won at Sebring, yes, I think it was very much realized. Prior to Bruce's victory, the youngest Grand Prix winner had been Mike Hawthorn, who was just past his 24th birthday when he won the 1953 French Grand Prix at Reims. Until Alonso finally beat Bruce's record, the nearest challengers to it were Jacky Ickx, Michael Schumacher and Emerson Fittipaldi, all of whom were 23 when they won for the first time.

I don't know quite what you mean by the question, 'Are Grands Prix getting a little too similar in length?' In terms of distance, it's true that they are all much of a muchness, in the region of 189-191 miles, the exception being Monaco, which, given the very slow nature of the track, is only 163 miles.

What you have to bear in mind is that, under the FIA rules, no Grand Prix may be more than 200 miles. That being so, it stands to reason that some races are going to take much less time than others, for the simple reason that some circuits are much quicker than others. At the quickest of the lot, Monza, for example, last year's Italian Grand Prix lasted a mere hour and 16 minutes, whereas Monaco - the shortest race of the lot, in terms of distance - lasted an hour and 45 minutes.

In general, the races last around an hour and a half, but it's inevitable, given that their length is restricted, that over time they're going to get shorter, simply because the cars get ever quicker! Remember, too, that Grands Prix need to fit allotted TV slots, and that time needs to be built in to allow for possible periods behind the Safety Car, or races that are red-flagged and later restarted.

Off the top of my head, I wouldn't have thought there was any doubt that the outfit which has spent the most money in F1 for the least return in recent years has been BAR.

The team arrived in the scene, amid much publicity and hoop-la, in 1999, and everything appeared to be in place. True, it would be starting with 'customer' Supertec (nee Renault) engines, which were not the equal of the best, but the budget was colossal, and the number one driver was Jacques Villeneuve, World Champion in 1997.

In themselves, money, facilities and driving talent aren't necessarily enough, though. Starting an F1 team 'from cold' is a task not to be undertaken lightly, for even if you apparently have all the pieces in the puzzle, it takes a considerable time to fit them together properly. And BAR did not have all the pieces. For one thing, they lacked a cutting-edge F1 designer, and for the first four seasons of their existence their cars were fundamentally off the pace, despite the best efforts of JV, Olivier Panis, and others.

Needless to say, their failure to achieve anything worthwhile did not exactly displease many of their rivals in the paddock, some of whom had been distinctly unimpressed by all the razzmatazz surrounding theirarrival. At one point in '99, I remember, we were discussing the factthat, in the team's large and flamboyant motorhome, there were no fewerthan 26 telephone lines. "I suppose," one wit murmured, "that's in case 26 people all ring in at the same time, to ask if they've scored a point yet..."

They never did score a point in that first season. Since then, BAR has finished anywhere between fifth and eighth in the constructors' championship, and invariably it has been a matter of fighting with the likes of Jordan, rather than making any impact on the front runners. A total of 57 points has been scored in almost five season thus far, and when one considers the money spent - not least on Villeneuve's colossal retainer- that looks like a very poor return on the investment.

As for a team which has spent wisely, and achieved the best return for the least outlay, I'd probably go for Sauber. Peter Sauber is a man I much admire, for he is not only honest and honourable, but also in the'Frank Williams tradition', in that he does not milk his team for personal gain, but lives modestly, and spends all the money on trying to make his cars go faster.

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