Ask Roebuck - May 10

We have again received hundreds of questions, thanks very much. Here are the best of this week's bunch

Ask Roebuck - May 10

Dear Nigel,
In your recent column you commented on some of the greatest "lost talents" to Formula 1 over the years. In a similar vein, but from a slightly different angle, who in your opinion have been the drivers who have promised so much and yet delivered so little in F1? Conversely, who have been the greatest revelations, that is, achieved much more than might have been expected from their results in lower formulae or initial F1 achievements?
Regards, Graeme Snow

Dear Graeme,
When it comes to considering drivers who promised much in the lower echelons of the sport, then delivered little in F1, the list is a long one, and probably you could spend a whole day on digging up names.

Off the top of my head, however, I would suggest the following: Bruno Giacomelli, Teo Fabi, Ivan Capelli, Mauricio Gugelmin, Emmanuele Pirro, Andrea de Cesaris, Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries, JJ Lehto and Stefano Modena.

In some cases, you might argue, this was because they rarely managed to get themselves into competitive cars, but history suggests that, 99 times out of 100, those of real stamp always get into top teams, even if it sometimes takes a little time.

As for drivers who achieved much more in F1 than might have been expected from their results beforehand, you could say that Jacques Villeneuve looked far from special in his F3 days, although he then began to come on apace in Formula Atlantic and, particularly, Indycars, before coming to F1 in 1996.

Undoubtedly, though, the man who delivered more by far in F1 than his previous racing career had suggested was Nigel Mansell.

Dear Tony,
Yes, I agree with you that it is strange Toyota have not 'poached' a high-profile designer in preparation for their onslaught on Formula 1 in 2001.

On the face of it, they seem - in lots of ways - to be making life very difficult for themselves, not least in basing themselves in Germany, rather than the UK, the centre of the world when it comes to building racing cars - and where labour rates are appreciably lower. However, Toyota's rally base has long been in Germany, and that is their decision.

Andre de Cortanze, late of Sauber, has joined as technical director, but I think the problem facing Toyota is that, frankly, there are not that many 'star' designers around - as many of the current teams are discovering as the weeks and months of this season go by.

Allan McNish has signed as test driver, but who will race for Toyota next year? At the moment there is no word, but if Williams - as seems likely - keep Jenson Button, as team-mate to Ralf Schumacher, they will presumably not take up their option on Juan-Pablo Montoya, currently driving a Lola-Toyota for Ganassi Racing in the CART series. I have a gut feeling that Montoya is the next really great grand prix driver, and it would not be altogether a surprise to see him make his F1 debut with this new team.

Dear James,
No, I'm afraid there hasn't been any talk of another 'Petrolheads' evening from Channel 4 in the recent past. As far as I remember, actually, we did two - one on F1 in general, and another on Stirling Moss.

Glad you enjoyed the one you saw. They were fun to do, and I thought the format - allowing us simply to sit around and chat - worked quite well. After a time, you simply forgot you were being filmed, and that made for a relaxing atmosphere.

I don't know what the viewing figures were, but perhaps you should drop a line to Channel 4...

Dear Andrew,
Undeniably, you're right about CART: there is a great deal more overtaking there than in F1 - and on the road, and street, circuits, too; not merely on the ovals.

In part, this is because the cars are fundamentally much closer to each other in performance. Those who persist in the blind creed that everything in F1 is better constantly belittle CART for this, stressing that in F1, each team has to build its own cars, whereas over there they simply buy cars from either Reynard or Lola.

To some degree, they have a point. For the moment, at least, Roger Penske has given up building his own cars, and Swift has as good as disappeared. That being so, it is indeed a championship between two constructors - although the Reynard and Lola customers do a considerable amount of work on their cars, once they have taken delivery.

Like F1, CART has now become a one-tyre series (Firestone), so another variable has gone, but there are four engine manufacturers (Ford, Honda, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz) from which to choose - and there is, of course, a far greater spread of circuit types than in F1: superspeedways like Fontana and Michigan, short ovals like Milwaukee and Chicago, street tracks like Long Beach and Toronto, genuine open road circuits like Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio. Not all teams and drivers excel in every discipline, which is one of the reasons why you get many more race winners there than here.

As far as the racing itself is concerned, yes, you're right, the fact that CART allows some of the downforce to come from a car's underbody unquestionably makes it easier to follow another closely through a medium- or high-speed corner - which in turn makes overtaking down the following straight a much greater possibility.

It's the same into corners, too. A CART single-seater may have a little more power than its F1 counterpart, but it is also considerably heavier (by around 200 kgs, in fact), and thus takes a lot more stopping. Add in the fact that everyone uses steel brakes - carbon brakes are banned in CART - and it's easy to see how braking distances are appreciably longer, and therefore allow more opportunity for passing.

In CART, too, semi-automatic gearboxes are not allowed, so shifting up and down involves more than flicking a lever - and also means that mistakes can still be made.

F1, with good reason, prides itself on state-of-the-art technology, which is on another level entirely from any other racing series on earth, CART included. The irony, though, is that, with the accent firmly on 'The Show' in so many ways, the actual racing appears not to matter too much. Sometimes, I feel, we don't see the wood for the trees.

Dear Nicholas,
Thanks for the question about post-race press conferences at the grands prix. You suggest that perhaps it would be better to have one of the race commentators put questions to the drivers, but in practice that would not be workable. The commentary booths are invariably some way from the press room, and the 'unilaterals', as they are known, are always done very soon after the race - directly after the podium ceremony, in fact. That being so, it would be as good as impossible for a commentator to get back in time to do the interviews.

Yes, I grant you that sometimes the questions put to the drivers are less than riveting, but perhaps it should be borne in mind that there is very little preparation time available to the interviewer. And it is a sad fact, in today's F1, that the great majority of the drivers are hardly sparkling performers at press conferences - not least, perhaps, because they are 'buttoned up' by their teams so much nowadays. There are those, for example, who flatly refuse to answer any 'technical' questions about their cars. Bit limiting, that.

Dear Art,
What's the technical difference, you ask, between cars at the front of the grid and those at the back? I guess the short answer is that if I knew that, I'd be working for Ron Dennis or Luca di Montezemolo, earning two or three million a year, rather than writing for magazines...

Recently, in the press room, we were talking about the secrecy in F1 today, and someone said, "When was the last time you saw a grand prix car without its rear bodywork?" You know what? None of us could remember. Hard to believe now that, at one stage, in the '60s and '70s, they didn't even have rear bodywork...

At Barcelona on Sunday I was in the Ferrari pit, and at one stage began to giggle at the paranoia of it all: there the cars sat, with their front and rear wings 'disguised' by template covers, and even the barge boards had their own little jackets.

All in all, it's mighty hard for a small team to progress to the sharp end of the grid. Not only do the major teams have the biggest budgets, but they also tend to get the fringe benefits, like free engines from the major manufacturer with whom they are in partnership. They can spend more on hiring the best talents around, be it drivers or engineers or team managers, and more, too, on the never-ending work in the wind tunnel, the non-stop testing.

In the end, it's a matter of all-round excellence, the best combination of chassis, aerodynamics, engine, drivers, preparation and organisation. It isn't entirely a question of money, as Jaguar are so convincingly demonstrating this season, but at the same time it's impossible to get very far without it.

Dear Greg,
Thanks for the question about quotes, and anecdotes, and so on. Whenever I do an interview, naturally I use a cassette recorder, and it's the same if I need a particular quote from someone - particularly on a controversial subject, when I don't want the person concerned later to deny having said what he said. Happens a lot, that, believe me.

As well as that, yes, I do jot things down in a notebook as I go along. There's a new notebook for each race, and as I now have over 350 of them, going back to 1971, there's a fair amount of material in there.

In one respect, too, I'm extremely lucky in being blessed with a good memory. Now, there are those who might suggest that being able to tell you instantly who won the 1957 Italian Grand Prix or the 1984 Indy 500 is a minimalist gift, that the space in my head occupied by such trivia might be put to better use, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with them, but there's no doubt that my memory does save me time when I'm writing, particularly when it's an article with some historical content.

It's helpful, too, in another way. On occasion I find myself in a situation when I get talking to someone, and either don't have tape recorder or notebook with me, or feel that to produce either would disrupt the flow of the conversation. The trick, then, as soon as it's over, is to scribble down as much as I can remember, to think of the topics we discussed, and the anecdotes those produced.

A good example of this occurred recently. I went to press day for the Goodwood Festival of Speed, and found myself seated at lunch between Jacky Ickx and Luciano Burti. I knew Ickx from way back, but we hadn't seen each other for a long time, and got into reminiscing about F1 as it was 30 years ago.

Although we were merely chatting, rather than conducting an interview, it soon struck me that here was a perfect subject for my next 'Legends' column in Motor Sport. It would have been somehow clumsy to plonk a tape recorder in front of Jacky, and you can't converse properly if half the time you're taking notes, so as soon as the lunch was over, and we'd said our good-byes, I sat down in another room in Goodwood House, and wrote down everything that came to mind.

It was easy enough, for Ickx is a highly articulate, interesting and witty man. At no stage had he said anything was 'off the record', but I knew what was, and what was not. And when I came to write it, I found there was enough material for two columns.

Dear Andre,
A year or so ago, Alain Prost told me that he thought the overall standard of driving had never been as low as it is today. Interestingly, Jackie Stewart says the same thing. Alain was talking about Senna at the time, and making the point that the real proof of Ayrton's enormous natural talent was that he looked so good immediately he came into F1 "at a time when there were so many very good drivers around".

It seemed a fair point, too. Consider that in '84 we had such as Lauda, Piquet, Rosberg, Mansell, Alboreto, Laffite and Arnoux - to say nothing, of course, of M. Prost himself. I confess that, no, I don't see that depth of talent around today.

You make a very fair point when you say that perhaps, under today's rules, even those guys would have had to 'wait for the stops'. The contemporary cars do indeed require a very specific driving style, as poor Alex Zanardi discovered to his cost last year, but then so also did the cars of the turbo era, when horsepower was way beyond what we have today.

In reality, there is no real way to compare eras, I'm afraid. All I will say is that I don't consider this a great 'vintage' for drivers, even though some - notably Schumacher and Hakkinen - would have been outstanding at any time.

Dear Leon,
The teams persist with pit boards primarily because they believe in a 'belt and braces' approach to keeping their drivers informed. Some drivers find too much radio contact with their pits something of a distraction - particularly if they happen to be in the middle of a quick corner at the time.

A pit board is a back-up, and is always shown when the driver is going down a straight when he has a better opportunity to take in the message. You may recall that in Melbourne a few years ago a radio problem caused Jean Alesi not to hear his team's instruction to come in for fuel, and he duly ran out, losing second place in the process...

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