Ask Roebuck - May 17

This week's questions come from all around the world. Once again there are many more than I can answer here, but there is certainly a wide variety and some very interesting topics. Keep them coming, to, and come back here every Wednesday

Ask Roebuck - May 17

Dear Nigel,
First I'd like to thank you and Autosport for bringing your first-rate F1 coverage to me here in Canada over the last 20 years. As you can imagine, I grew up an F1 fan by watching the heroic exploits of Gilles Villeneuve, and have watched with Canuck pride the emergence of Jacques since his Atlantic days. I also read with great interest, and sadness, the re-published column you wrote regarding Imola '82. Anyway, my question is: While popular opinion seems to be behind manufacturers like Ford/Daimler-Chrysler/Toyota joining F1's ranks as team owners, I cannot seem to help but feel that this trend will only exacerbate, not alleviate, the differences between the F1 haves and have-nots. Instead of buying teams, wouldn't it be better if engine manufacturers were obliged to supply two teams each with full-works engines? Teams like Arrows and Minardi, who have shown they can build competitive cars, cannot compete without works support. What is your opinion on this?
Cale Nicholson

Dear Cale,

Thank you for your kind remarks. And glad to know you remember Gilles so well. Eighteen years - Ye Gods...

I'm sure you're right that the increasing trend towards manufacturers becoming team owners, rather than 'merely' engine suppliers, will indeed exacerbate the differences between the haves and have-nots in F1, but frankly I don't see what can be done about it.

I'm equivocal about this trend, to be honest. On the one hand, it will probably enhance Formula 1, in the technological sense; on the other, it will multiply the already paranoid secrecy in the paddock, and will also bring in yet more legions of PR and marketing folk. Another consideration, too, is that while major manufacturers are apparently frantic to get involved at present, if a major recession should hit in the next few years, it doesn't take a Rhodes Scholar to see that racing will be the first thing to go. As Jackie Stewart put it, "There's no sentiment in a board of directors."

In a perfect world, it probably would be better to see them, instead of buying teams, supplying more than one team with engines, but they're not involved in F1 for reasons of altruism, and those to whom I have recently spoken have no interest whatever in supporting two or more teams. Pity, but there we are.

Dear Kevin,

Now, Chris Amon. When I began writing about racing, in 1971, it was very much at the deep end - indeed, the very first race I ever covered was the Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuich Park, and I arrived there knowing literally no one in the paddock.

As a fan, I had long supported Amon, and on the first day of practice approached him - very hesitantly! - about the possibility of doing an interview. That was what you did in those in those days, for there were no PRs, no intermediaries, to bar your path.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, he was charming. We did the tape, and, for whatever reason, just hit it off. Chris, together with Rob Walker, was the first person in F1 to befriend me, and these two not unnaturally occupy a special place in my affections.

Given that Amon went home to New Zealand for good at the end of 1977, I see him pretty infrequently these days - the last time was at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in '97 - but, nearly 30 years on, I still regard him as one of my closest friends.

Why did he never win a Grand Prix? Well, for a start, it had nothing to do with lack of talent. Mauro Forghieri says to this day that Amon should have been World Champion in 1968, his second year with Ferrari. "It was our fault," he says. "We let Chris down too many times. In my opinion, he was as good as Jim Clark."

In 1970, as Jochen Rindt previewed the F1 season, he said this: "I have only two rivals - Stewart and Amon."

Any number of times Chris looked on course to win a Grand Prix - I think of Watkins Glen in '67, Jarama, Spa and St Jovite in '68, Montjuich in '69, Monza in '71, Clermont-Ferrand in '72 - and something in the car let him down. Then you had Brands Hatch in '68 and Spa in '70, where he was a close second - each time behind a car which usually broke!

So, yes, his luck was truly appalling. But even Chris would admit there was more to it than that. For one thing, he had what amounted to a genius for going to the wrong team at the wrong time. Think what he have achieved if he had stayed with Ferrari in 1970...

As well as that, he was - and is - perhaps the most disorganised bloke I have ever met, and I don't think he would deny it. More than anything, though, I think - and it's an old cliche - that Amon truly was too nice a guy, that he lacked killer instinct. He loved racing for its own sake, loved driving a racing car, but the politics of F1 repelled him - and we're talking now about the mid-'70s!

On the wall of my study hangs a large framed photograph of his Ferrari, sideways through Old Hall, in the Oulton Park Gold Cup of 1968. "In memory," Chris has written beneath, "of pre-Mafia F1."

Dear Margaret,

Yes, I think Formula 1 could usefully gain by adopting some of the CART rules - not least some of the technical regulations which enable their cars to pass each other occasionally!

Not so sure about points from qualifying, however. For one thing, unless you're suggesting points for the first 10, or something like that, only Hakkinen and Schumacher would ever gain from it, and they collect quite enough on race days.

There's nothing much wrong with the idea of extending the number of drivers scoring in a race, however - maybe taking it out to 10 or, as in the case of CART, 12. Whatever else, though, there must always remain a sizeable gap between the points for first and second places.

Dear Kevin,

I fear you're going to be out of luck - unless, that is, there is a sea change in the way Max Mosley and the FIA think about Formula 1, and its future. I agree with you that huge rear slicks looked exciting, and there is a case for bringing them back - but only if downforce were to be, as nearly as possible, eliminated.

For years now, the drivers have campaigned for slashing into aerodynamic grip, and hugely increasing mechanical grip. What we have at present is a fundamentally inefficient tyre offering an artificially high level of grip by virtue of the downforce acting upon it. What the drivers want is grip created by the tyre itself.

When Mosley talks of future tyre trends these days, he speaks of a genuinely treaded tyre taking the place of the unsightly 'grooved' things we have at present; he does not, though, speak of slicks, I'm afraid.

Dear Owen,

Nice question - and a short answer: the 1957 'long nose' Maserati 250F, the 1970 Ferrari 312B, and the 1978 Lotus 79. And if you want a couple of more 'recent' cars, how about two more Ferraris, the 641 from 1990 and the 412T2 from 1995, both from the pen of John Barnard.

Hi Rob,

First of all, your impressions of Alex Wurz are the same as mine: a very pleasant and courteous fellow.

In itself, however, this is no guarantee of employment in F1, and I fear Wurz's future with Benetton is anything but secure - indeed, talking to Flavio Briatore in Barcelona, I got the impression that he will definitely not be with the team in 2001.

It's true that Alex arrived in F1 with something of a flourish, making the podium in only his third Grand Prix, at Silverstone in 1997. And he began '98 well, too, pulling off a memorable pass of Heinz-Harald Frentzen at Interlagos, and refusing to be overawed by M. Schumacher at Monte Carlo. Later in that race, though, perhaps as a result of his touch with Schuey, he had a massive accident in the tunnel, and then, only a fortnight later, got on his head in a first corner shunt in Montreal. Rightly or wrongly, there are those who say he has never been the same driver since.

It hasn't helped that Benetton's cars have been off the pace for the last couple of years, of course, but undeniably that spark we saw in Wurz's early races has been missing for some time. I'd agree with you that many of the drivers in F1 are much of a muchness, but you don't get a lot of time to deliver these days - as Alex Zanardi, for example, can tell you.

Dear Alan,

I'm also a fan of Jean Alesi, and have been since his F1 debut, for Tyrrell, at Paul Ricard in the summer of 1989. So impressive was he - running as high as second at one point - that in one afternoon he effectively ended the racing career of Jonathan Palmer, the team's 'resident' driver. Harsh, perhaps, but true.

No, I don't think for a second that all Jean's talent has evaporated; indeed, I still think that for sheer car control - acrobatics, whatever you want to call it - there is no one better.

The problems are these: Alesi, into his 11th fulltime season in F1, has been around a long time now, and is therefore hardly 'fashionable'. He has also won but a single Grand Prix in 172 starts, and a statistic like that counts against you - even when you have made the podium 32 times, and scored 236 championship points.

Jean is a delightful fellow, but one, I have always felt, who should have been a Grand Prix driver in the '50s or '60s. We think of him as French, but need to remember that his parents are Sicilian: his temperament is more acutely Latin than any other I have encountered in F1, and there is no doubt that this has gone against him as team owners have contemplated their next driver signings.

If that is unfortunate, it is also probably unfair. Gerhard Berger, his Ferrari and Benetton team mate for so many years, knows him better than most, and says this: "Jean? Still unbelievably quick, unbelievably brave. OK, during a season you get two nuclear explosions from him; the rest of the time, no problem!"

I think that, without any doubt, his has been the great wasted talent of the last 10 years, but he still loves to drive, still excels whenever freak weather 'equalises' the cars to some extent. Sad to say, I don't see him now getting into a competitive car again, and the great pity, in terms of his career, is that he chose to go to Ferrari in 1991, turning down Williams to do so.

Who knows how many races he might have won for Frank, but it was a clear case of 'heart over head', as he cheerfully admits. Probably that's why you and I - and countless others - think so highly of him. Hard-headed automatons, after all, are 10 a penny.

Hi Shant,

Yes, Thierry Boutsen is indeed a nice bloke, but, as I pointed out earlier, in the question about Alex Wurz, that in itself cuts little ice in F1 - indeed, there have been times when I've wondered if it actually counts against you.

Boutsen, I think, did a good, rather than outstanding, job for Williams. He won three races in his time there, and one of them - in Hungary in '90 - was from the top drawer: pole, led all the way, held off Senna in the late laps.

That said, there were too many races in which his presence went almost unnoticed. Thierry was a driver for whom the car had to be absolutely 'right' before he gave of his best, I think, and that doesn't often happen. As well as that, his endless fiddling with the set-up drove Patrick Head round the bend: there was never much of a rapport between them, and history shows - it was the same with Frentzen - that this is essential if you are to succeed as a Williams driver.

Boutsen was there as team mate to Riccardo Patrese, so that essentially the team did not have a true number one driver. When Nigel Mansell decided he'd had enough of Ferrari, therefore, Frank put aside any misgivings he may have had, and re-signed him for '91. Given that Patrese was a Williams favourite, and considered the perfect number two, it was always going to be Boutsen who was shown the door.

Dear Andrew,

Yes, it is a little early to be talking of Jenson Button as the new Senna. Undoubtedly, he has usually impressed in his five Grands Prix to date, but at present it's a little difficult to see the wood for the hype.

As for Ayrton, it was pretty apparent even in his F3 days that here was somebody staggeringly talented. He began his F1 career in 1984 with a team not truly competitive - Toleman - and that served only to amplify his abundant promise, for that car was frequently in places it should not have been. At Monte Carlo, only his sixth Grand Prix, he finished second in the rain to Prost, and what I remember clearly is that afterwards, rather being elated at making the podium, he was livid that the race had been stopped! Had it not been, mark you, he would probably have won.

The other thing I recall about Ayrton's early days in F1, remarkably, is that he drastically underestimated the degree of fitness required. Hard to believe now, given his supreme physical shape for most of his career, but at Kyalami in '84, where he finished in the points for the first time, he was so spent that he had to be lifted from the car.

All in all, though, we were all quickly convinced that here was the next really great driver, on the level of Fangio, Ascari, Moss, Clark, Stewart and Prost. You didn't need to analyse it; it was just there.

Dear John,

In the sense of being able to 850 press-ups without breaking sweat, or whatever it is Schumacher can do, the drivers of the '60s were not fit at all, for endless days in the gym were not considered necessary back then. Apart from anything else, the lateral g-forces acting on the drivers were obviously nothing like what they are today.

This is not to say that most of them didn't keep themselves in pretty good shape, however. Physically, the cars may have been easier to drive, but in other respects the opposite was true: races were longer, and often run on highly dangerous circuits, so the mental exhaustion was far more then than now, I suspect, and there were also little things like changing gear with a lever, observing rev limits, and so on, which had to be attended to. No power steering, either, in those days.

Probably, it's fair to say that each generation of drivers is a little fitter than the one before - almost certainly, Michael is in better physical shape than any driver in history.

Let me quote you a snippet from the programme of the 1950 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the very first World Championship race. 'Smoking Permitted. Grand Prix drivers do not normally have to undergo strict physical training. Moderation in eating, drinking and smoking is sufficient, for motor racing is a test of brain rather than brawn.'

World's changed a bit, hasn't it?

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