Ask Roebuck

Every Wednesday Autosport's Grand Prix editor Nigel Roebuck answers your questions here on about motorsport topics past, present and future. If you have a question for Nigel, e-mail it to him at

Ask Roebuck

Dear Hamish,

Yes, the feeling was exactly the same in the press room at Spa - we were staggered when 'Safety Car Start' flashed up on the TV monitors, for although the track was damp, no rain had fallen for two hours.

It seems that, at the drivers' meeting on Friday, they had requested a 'Safety Car Start' in the event of a wet race, and when the time came, Race Director Charlie Whiting sanctioned it, 'in the interests of safety'.

Two years ago, of course, we had a multiple accident at the exit of La Source on the first lap, this triggered by David Coulthard, whose McLaren spun after going over a drainage channel. Presumably, it was fear of something similar that caused the drivers to take their stand.

On that occasion, too, it took a considerable amount of time to clear up all the mess, and there were those cynics in the press room who wondered initially if the impetus behind the 'Safety Car Start' had come from other quarters: experience shows that when a race is halted, after which a lengthy period of inactivity ensues, many people tend to change TV channels, or even switch off altogether...

However, this was not the case on this occasion: the drivers requested it, and Whiting went along with them.

What made it look the more ridiculous was that the Safety Car came into the pits after a single lap. Pedro Diniz actually started the race on dry tyres, and if this was not quite not the correct decision, you'd have to say he wasn't far out: after four laps, Jean Alesi was in for dry tyres, and immediately began to lap considerably faster than those on wets.

Like you, I was depressed by the way the Belgian Grand Prix started - indeed, it made me wonder if the time is far off when we abandon standing starts altogether, and go to rolling starts, as traditionally used in American racing. I doubt this will happen, but you never know.

As you say, the standing start is one of the glories of Formula 1 - for me, there is no more exciting moment in any sport. And these days, given the difficulty in overtaking, it is in the opening seconds that we tend to get our race. At Spa, thankfully, it is possible to pass, as Mika Hakkinen so emphatically proved, but imagine if we'd had a 'Safety Car Start' in Hungary...

Dear Hans,

This subject is debated endlessly in Formula 1 today, and never fails to generate heated exchanges between those who disapprove of blatant blocking (as practised by some drivers), and those who suggest - rather fatuously, in my opinion - that this is 'a man's sport', and that anything is acceptable in pursuit of victory.

I have grown somewhat weary of writing of my distaste for some of Michael Schumacher's antics - or, rather, weary of the response from besotted Schumacher fans, who seem unable to accept, or even contemplate, that Michael just might be less than perfect in some respects.

Spa was the latest example. The lap before Hakkinen overtook Schumacher at the top of the hill, Michael chopped him at 190mph, and although Mika backed off instantly, still their two cars touched, as evidenced by damage to the McLaren's front wing afterwards.

What seems to me reprehensible is that Michael does not 'cover the line', an acceptable tactic since time immemorial; rather he sits in the middle of the road, leaving a gap, into which the driver behind him is of course tempted. When the guy goes for it, that is when Schuey chops him, and the manoeuvre buys him half a second right there, for his rival is obliged to get off the throttle momentarily. As well as that, it usually takes a few corners before he gets over the fright, and recovers his composure. All very clever, if - in my opinion, anyway - completely underhand.

The problem is that we have this wretched 'one move is permissible' rule, and Schumacher certainly interprets that to the nth degree. But, as Alain Prost used to say of Ayrton Senna, "The unbelievable thing is that, when he does these things, it never seems to enter his head that if there is an accident, he's going to be part of it..."

Still, the FIA never did anything about Senna's excesses, and nor do they about Schumacher's - indeed, Max Mosley says he finds nothing unacceptable about Michael's tactics, so there we are. You're quite right that there was little or nothing of this kind in the '60s and '70s: first, I think there was a code of ethics in F1 then which has now all but disappeared; second, the sport was infinitely more perilous, and drivers were all too aware of the consequences of a big accident. Perhaps, as Stirling Moss says, these days they just feel too safe. If so, they're being idiotic.

Let me finish with some remarks made recently by another leading driver. I won't name him, because some folk would then quite wrongly label him a wimp. To me, what he says is nothing more than commonsense.

"What we're doing is not 'demolition derby' racing: Formula 1 - and motor racing in general - is supposed to be a non-contact sport. All right, with the cars running closely, occasionally you're going to have cars touching, perhaps going off the track, and that sort of thing. But deliberate manoeuvres, which get in the way of another driver's line, or his ability to overtake...I think we've all understood since we started that that's not acceptable.

"It seems to me that sometimes the...line of the rules is made of rubber, and in certain situations it's allowed to expand. With the sort of violent changes of direction we're seeing now, there is going to be an accident: that's fact - it will happen at some point. And, at the sort of speeds we're doing, someone will get hurt..."

In my book, a 'man's sport' has nothing whatever to do with blatant intimidation - indeed, that, I think, is a coward's sport.

Dear Jim,

Yes, there was a degree of hype after Hakkinen's pass of Schumacher at Spa - but, at the same time, I have to agree that it was pretty impressive! To hope another driver (Zonta) has seen you, while he is already being passed on the left (by Schumacher), and to go right - on to the dirty part of the track, where is far less grip - before braking down from over 190mph, is pretty brave stuff, in my estimation. If it was hyped afterwards, perhaps it was because overtaking - other than when one car is stationary in the pits - is so rare these days.

Can't agree with you, I'm afraid, that DC's pass of Schumacher at Magny-Cours 'took more dedication, skill and courage by far' than Mika's at Spa. In itself, it was mighty impressive, I grant you, but it was a relatively routine manoeuvre, in the sense that that's how - and where - people always overtake at Magny-Cours. All right, I'll concede that the top of the hill is a traditional passing place at Spa, too, but the way Hakkinen did it was right out of the blue. Afterwards, even Schumacher admitted he had been amazed, that he never expected Mika to try it that way.

One thing links the two moves: each one came a lap after the overtaking drivers had encountered rough stuff from Schumacher - and both went through with it.

Incidentally, I also remember Vasser and Zanardi passing Greg Moore, one on either side, at Fontana, and very impressive it was. But moves like this are not uncommon in CART...

Dear Paul,

A short answer to this one! The attempt, by some team owners, to oust Max Mosley from his position as President of the FIA failed last week, and most close observers of F1 were not exactly surprised.

Going on from there, do I think F1 would benefit from being 'self-governing', like CART? Absolutely no way! First, I think many of CART's current problems spring from having long been 'self-governing' - which is to say hardly governed at all; the best thing to happen to CART for many years is that Bobby Rahal - a man respected by everyone - has taken over the running of it, and the pity is that he is not able to continue on a permanent basis.

Look at what happens when the F1 team owners get together to discuss anything pertaining to the future of the sport. It takes them 20 minutes to decide whether or not the window should be open, and thereafter they sit around around endlessly, and tend to agree on damn all. Too many vested interests. No, I'm afraid that a dictator - benevolent, one hopes - is what you need, as Bernie Ecclestone and Bill France have long demonstrated. Problem is, after Bernie, who is there to step up to the plate?

Dear Gary,

I thought Martin Brundle an extremely good racing driver, but not a great one, in the Senna-Prost-Schumacher sense of the word. And... I could be wrong, but I suspect that Martin would essentially agree with that assessment.

Certainly, his accident at Dallas, in his first season in F1, hardly helped his career - even now, 16 years on, the first few minutes of his day are physically painful - and I'll agree with you that much of his career seemed to be dogged by missed opportunities and bad luck. But in his time Martin had some extremely talented team mates, notably Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen, and although he occasionally had the beating of both, over the season those two had the edge on him.

Yes, certainly I think Brundle was worthy of winning Grands Prix - and a far better driver than many who have. I don't have any information on why Frank Williams decided to go for Damon Hill, rather than Martin, for 1993, but you have to remember that Damon had been on board as test driver for some time by then, and to some extent was a known quantity, as far as team members were concerned. He was also desperate to get a good F1 drive, whereas Brundle was already established, and that probably means that he was cheap!

Dear Ivan,

You're Italian, and you're passionate about Ferrari. Believe me, I understand! I'm not Italian, but until fairly recently I, too, was passionate about Ferrari, and it saddens me that, in this era, I have come to see them as just another multi-national F1 team, devoid even of Italian Racing Red.

Who is the best driver Ferrari has ever had? Well, they won two World Championships with Alberto Ascari in 1952/'53, and another with Juan Manuel Fangio in 1956. Both were among the greatest of all time, and I'd put Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher in there, too. But isn't it interesting that both Prost and Schumacher were multiple World Champions, yet failed to add further titles when they were with Ferrari?

As for Gilles, well, he was a special case, wasn't he? Without a doubt, he was my favourite Ferrari driver, and - I'll always believe this - the fastest there has ever been. Pity Maranello habitually gave him such terrible cars to drive...

Dear Kevin,

I'm absolutely with you - I think it's a terrible shame that there is currently no one from the USA competing in Formula 1. That said, I fear it may be some considerable time before that situation changes.

First, you must put out of your mind any thought that the return to America of F1 - even at Indianapolis - will have any effect on the situation. Time was when teams could, and did, occasionally, run third cars for 'guest drivers', and in that situation it was easily possible to put an American driver for the races your side of the water.

Now, though, that possibility no longer exists. Each team runs two drivers, and they are nominated for the entire season. For that to happen, they must convince their team that they really are top-drawer; as we've seen on countless occasions, F1 is hardly a charitably institution.

Part of the problem is that NASCAR has come to dominate motor racing in the USA, and it saddens me that the IRL-CART split has done so much to weaken open-wheel racing over there. Both Tony Stewart and, particularly, Jeff Gordon had the potential to be great single-seater drivers, but they went instead for stock car racing, whose profile is higher, whose rewards are greater.

The fact of the matter is that there are hardly any American drivers in CART, let alone F1, and it's a great shame there is such a dearth of home-grown talent at present. Certainly, a guy like Memo Gidley has shown some promise in Champ cars, but that, frankly, is not going to get the attention of F1 team owners: they can find plenty of promising guys in Europe, to say nothing of the constant flow of talent from South America.

It is undeniable that team owners are very sceptical about Champ cars as a breeding ground for F1. All right, Jacques Villeneuve made the move without problem, but Michael Andretti (in '93) and Alex Zanardi (last year) fell way short of expectations when they came to F1, and this has coloured attitudes here, I'm afraid. Believe it or not, there are even those who think Juan Montoya won't make it...

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