Ask Roebuck: The answers

Hello and nice to make contact. After having closely watched every Grand Prix event for (only) the past two seasons it has become increasingly evident that there is something missing in the press to do with one David Coulthard. So he's won Silverstone this year, good on him. As Despite being a Solid Schuey/Ferrari fan even i can see that without McLaren hitting back the rest of the season could turn out fairly boring and for once its not Hakkinen. But for crying out loud, surely everyone can see that McLaren have the fastest car and have had for the past two seasons. So why hasn't this team with is 'Sennaesqe' qualifier and its reputedly third best driver in the world wiped the floor with Ferrari, Jordan and the rest every race. I'm glad David's won, so early in the season and with a great overtaking manoeuvre maybe now he'll stop feeling so sorry for himself all the time and actually go for the title.
Simone Carpenter

To: Simone Carpenter
Hi Simone. Thanks for getting in touch.

I'm not quite sure what point you're trying to make about 'it being increasingly evident that there is something missing in the press to do with one David Coulthard', but I'll go through your message point by point.

You're quite right that McLaren have the fastest car, and have had for the last couple of years, even if it's evident that their advantage in 2000 is far less than in '98 or '99. Why, you ask, does the team fail routinely to wipe the floor with Ferrari, and the rest?

First, no team can compete with Ferrari on reliability. In 1998, Schumacher and Irvine suffered one mechanical failure apiece in 16 races, and last year it was same again: one for Irvine, one for Schumacher/Salo. Although Irvine was - and is - no match for Hakkinen, he scored in 13 races last season, and that made him into a championship contender.

Second, Ferrari are clearly, and regularly, superior to McLaren (and everyone else) on strategy. In this regard, more than any other, Ross Brawn's worth to the team can hardly be over-emphasised - he has an unequalled ability to think on his feet, to adapt to changing circumstances in a race, and he has, in Schuey, the perfect driver to capitalise on it. No one is Michael's equal when it comes to running a series of super-quick laps to order.

He and Brawn have won any number of races this way, and that goes back to the Benetton days. Good luck to them, too. They're making the most of these - in my opinion - ridiculous rules, which dictate that races are won and lost in the pits. The only reason for the reintroduction of refuelling, after all, was to enable order changes somehow to take place, in the virtual absence of 'racing' on the track.

Thus, Max Mosley tells us we must think of a Grand Prix in terms of a chess match, and if I find the current concept of F1 - sprints between fuel stops - unsophisticated and not terribly absorbing, there is no doubt that Schumacher and Brawn have mastered its intricacies better than any of their rivals.

Another point, too. If McLaren had the best car in 1999, so they did their level best to present the World Championship to Irvine and Ferrari. With Schumacher out of action, it should have been a cakewalk for Hakkinen, but a combination of car problems (at Silverstone and Hockenheim) and mistakes by himself (at Monza) and by his team mate (in Austria) put him and McLaren on the back foot. In Malaysia Ferrari - distinctly off the pace at the three previous races - were suddenly shatteringly quick, and there Schumacher worked on Irvine's behalf to provide the desired result.

As a general rule, all Ferrari's effort has gone into helping Schumacher to the championship; times without number Irvine was required to act as his slave, occasionally to hang back, delay another driver, simply to protect Michael from possible attack. Most in the paddock, myself included, found this policy distasteful, but that's how Ferrari chose to operate. McLaren, by contrast, do not operate team orders, and encourage their drivers to race each other. Sometimes this costs them dear, but I much prefer Ron Dennis's way of doing things.

Coulthard, I confess, remains something of an enigma to me, and to others. He is good on set-up - certainly better than Hakkinen - and on a given weekend can paralyse everyone. Think of Imola in '98: he took pole position, and led every lap.

DC's problem - to date, anyway - is that he lacks consistency; there are too many races in which his presence goes almost unnoticed, too many races, too, when he fails to take points from Ferrari. Hakkinen may be the best qualifier in the world, but too often in the last couple of years the McLarens have qualified 1-3, rather than 1-2.

The tabloid press has occasionally given David a hard time, complaining that he is not assertive enough in traffic, that he moans about being held up, and so on. This, I think, has been played up way too much. All right, he isn't as good in traffic as, say, Schumacher - just as Prost, in that situation, was no match for Senna - and that's the end of it, but I don't hear him moaning very much. Not even when blatantly chopped, as he was by Michael away from the grid at Imola the other weekend...

Can DC challenge for the title this, or any other, year? The answer is yes - but only if he drives every fortnight as he drove at Silverstone on Sunday.

Nigel

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Dear Nigel,
Enjoyed your book immensely and I read your column weekly. Do another book soon! I am doing research on Alfonso DePortago, any sources you recommend?
Dave Kane
Austin, Texas

To: David Kane
Hi David, and thanks for your complimentary remarks. As far as writing another book is concerned, maybe I will one day, but probably not as long as I'm 'on the road' all the time.

You're doing research on Alfonso de Portago, you say, and I wonder if this is with a book in mind. If so, good luck - I'd certainly buy it, for de Portago was one of the most fascinating characters ever to get into a racing car.

Not too many of Fon's contemporaries are still around, although Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks, Phil Hill and Dan Gurney would obviously be worth contacting. There is a good piece about him - 'The Man Who Could Do Everything' - by Ken Purdy in a book called 'Of Men and Cars', edited by John Christy, and originally published by Ziff-Davis in New York in 1960, and also an excellent feature by Doug Nye in the May 1985 issue of 'Classic and Sportscar'.

As well as that, Riverside Records issued a marvellous interview with de Portago (recorded in Nassau only a few months before his death) on an LP in 1957; a couple of years ago, this was re-released on a CD by Ace Records. Contact them at 42-50 Steele Road, London NW10 7AS.
Nigel

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Dear Nigel,
Is Michael Schumacher's talent over-rated? Apart from his debut race with Jordan both Benetton and Ferrari have bent over backwards to accommodate the German and the environment in which he drives is totally geared to his needs. When he joined Benetton Nelson Piquet was at the end of his Grand Prix career, and while Martin Brundle ranhim close on a few occasions, this was rectified when Riccardo Patrese (a gentleman racer if there ever was one) struggled after his success at Williams. Lehto, Verstappen and Herbert were mere bit players in Team Schumacher, and the trend continued with Irvine at Ferrari. It is almost unbelievable that with this extraordinary level of support Michael has failed to win a World Championship for Ferrari in four seasons. Adelaide and Jerez are two examples of the toys being thrown out of the pram when things don't go the German's way.
As far as I'm concerned Michael Schumacher is a talented one-time World
Champion on a level with Villeneuve and Hakkinen.
Michael Day

To: Michael Day
You ask: is Michael Schumacher's talent over-rated? In a word, no!

However, let me qualify that. If you were to ask me if I count Michael among the all-time greats, I would give you the same answer, even though his raw talent is unquestioned, his car control freakish, his ability to think while driving unequalled among his contemporaries.

That said, I think he makes too many mistakes, particularly in practice, that he is good, rather than exceptional, at setting a car up, that his ethics on the track are sometimes lamentable. I know many think 'ethics' an outdated concept today; I have nothing to say to them.

It is this last point, in particular, that separates him, in my estimation, from such as Moss or Clark or Stewart. In Adelaide in 1994, we suspected that Schumacher took Damon Hill out; in Jerez, three years later, there was no doubt that he tried to drive Jacques Villeneuve off the road. On each occasion, the World Championship was at stake; on each occasion, too, the powers-that-be effectively turned a blind eye.

I don't care, either, for Schuey's reluctance to have an absolutely top-flight team mate. However, I must disagree with you that the Ferrari team is 'a shadow of its former self'. I don't care for much of the way the team operates these days, and regret, for sentimental reasons, that it is far less 'Italian' than it was, but there's no doubt that it is supremely well run, that - in terms of results, anyway - this is one of Ferrari's greatest periods.

It's true that Enzo Ferrari would have bridled at one driver's being allowed to dominate - but bear in mind that, when Stirling Moss went to see him early in 1962, the Old Man was so desperate to sign him that he agreed to the car's being painted blue (the colours of Rob Walker's team, for which Stirling drove), and also said he would dispense with a second driver! 'With Moss driving for me,' he said, 'there would be no need of anyone else...'

You suggest that you think Schumacher, Hakkinen and Villeneuve the three best of the moment, and I'd agree with you. As things stand, Jacques urgently needs a competitive car to worry the other two, but I don't think you could put a cigarette paper between Michael and Mika.

Nigel

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To: Gilbert Pednault
Given the surprisingly good results so far from Jenson Button, what do you think will happen with Juan Pablo Montoya who is also, I believe, under contract with Williams? Surely such a great talent has to be racing in Formula One next year.
Gilbert Pednault

Hi Gilbert. Nice to hear from you.
It's an interesting question you pose, and one much debated in the press room recently. Given Jenson Button's showings in the Williams-BMW, what will the team do, with regard to Juan-Pablo Montoya, in 2001?

The quick answer, I suppose, is that it's way too early to say. Button drove an astonishingly mature and impressive race at Silverstone - to run in close company with the likes of Hakkinen for so long was quite something for a guy in only his fourth Grand Prix, even on a circuit with which he was familiar.

However, ahead lie many tracks of which he has little, or no, experience, and while he appears to learn them quickly - as at Interlagos, for example - he frankly admitted that at Imola, his only disappointing race to date, he did not learn how to use the kerbs properly.

Still, it's potentially a problem for Frank Williams and Patrick Head. From what we have seen so far, the signs are that Button's may be one of those 'special talents' which come along only two or three times in a generation, and they may very well feel reluctant to let another team benefit from it.

Having said that, I believe that Montoya, too, is in that category. In F1, there is a tendency to regard anyone competing in CART as strictly second-rate, and certainly the poor showings by Michael Andretti and, more recently, by Alex Zanardi, have served to foster that view. Having said that, though, one J. Villeneuve seemed to make the trip across the Atlantic without too much difficulty, didn't he?

Montoya is under contract to Williams, having impressed the team hugely as test driver in 1998. Patrick Head has told me that, had Villeneuve agreed to stay on for '99, they would simply have put Juan-Pablo in the second car. When Jacques decided to go to BAR, however, they signed Ralf Schumacher, and felt they didn't want to run two 'young drivers'; thus, Zanardi was signed, and Montoya took Alex's place in the Ganassi team.

The contract there is for three years, to the end of 2001, but many of us expected - until Button began showing his startling ability - that Williams would effect a buy-out at the end of this season, and bring Montoya to F1 next year.

Now the situation is less clear-cut. Ralf is on a longterm contract, and if Williams decide also to stick with Jenson, there will obviously be no place for Juan-Pablo in 2001. He could, of course, see out his three-year deal with Ganassi, or it could be that another team - Jordan, perhaps - will try to get him. Whatever, such is Montoya's talent that he cannot long be out of F1.
Nigel

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To: Gareth Murray
Did you not find it interesting that for the first race with the new regulations, Mika Hakkinen, made one of his worst starts for quite a few seasons, destroying Michael Schumacher's race?
Do you think that Michael would have won if he had not been blocked at the start, losing over 25 seconds to the leaders, when at one stage he got within 8 seconds of Hakkinen before backing off at the end- I remember a similar situation with Villeneuve in Spain last year, before a storming comeback let him finish third?
Gareth Murray


Hello Gareth. I confess I'm a little nonplussed by your question...
You seem to be suggesting that the new regulations - designed, let's not be mealy-mouthed about this, to prevent teams from using traction control - were responsible for Mika Hakkinen's poor start at Silverstone. No, honestly, that thought never crossed my mind. In general terms, it was quite a messy start, for one thing. For another, Hakkinen got away well enough, then seemed momentarily to hesitate on the shift to second gear. Undoubtedly, Schumacher was boxed in, and he briefly - and deliberately - put two wheels on the grass, in an attempt to get by. "Normally," he said, "that should have worked, but the grass was too wet, and I just got wheelspin."

When Michael came back off the grass, he was very close to Mika - who himself had little space to play with, having David Coulthard immediately to his right. True enough, Hakkinen did not give way, but why should he have done? At the first corner Schuey then lost further places, to Button, to Ralf, to Villeneuve.

I think it's a bit strong to suggest that Hakkinen 'destroyed Schumacher's race'. What did that, surely, was a combination of qualifying only fifth, venturing on to the grass, jinking around too much - and getting passed by three other cars. At Barcelona last year Michael allowed Villeneuve to get ahead of him at the start, and on that occasion, too, had to sit behind the BAR 'until the stops'. And perhaps I might remind you that on Sunday Ralf, too, was behind Villeneuve on lap one - but got past him on lap two...

Would Schuey might have won, had he not lost so much time behind Jacques? Possibly. But he lost time to Hakkinen in the late laps not so much because he backed off, but because Mika ran a whole series of laps faster than any other driver managed even once. So I rather doubt, given that both he and the McLaren drivers were on a similar, one-stop, strategy, that he would have beaten them on this occasion.

As for having a race 'destroyed' by the actions of another at the start, Coulthard might have had a word to say about that at Imola...
Nigel

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Dear Nigel,
Do you think that when Rubens Barrichello finally wins his first race that the flood gates will open?
David Long, Norfolk


To: David Long
Hi David, and thanks for your question about Barrichello.

No, I don't think that when he finally wins a race, 'the flood gates will open', in the way I, and others, long suspected would be the case with Hakkinen. Rubens is a superb driver, and I can see him winning several Grands Prix over time, but, apart from anything else, we should bear in mind that he is driving for Ferrari. And, while perhaps not under the same strictures as Irvine, he will be reminded occasionally of his place...

As for your second point, yes, by his standards Schumacher did look ordinary on Sunday. I was surprised that, in the course of 33 laps, he didn't take a real run at Villeneuve (as his brother successfully did), but thereafter he was too far back to challenge the McLarens, and it wasn't surprising that he said he was very happy with third place.

Last thing. Yes, I do still get a buzz out of watching a Formula 1 car; the day I don't will be the day I stop writing about it.
Nigel

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Dear Nigel,
I seem to remember that you weren't the world's biggest Nigel Mansell fan. Did you see him at Silverstone, and did you talk to him at all?
Duncan Green
Maidstone


To: Duncan Green

Hello Duncan. Did I see Nigel Mansell at Silverstone? Yes. Did I talk to him? No. That probably suited both of us very well!

As a matter of fact, the last proper conversation I had with Nigel was at Silverstone one day in May of 1992. At the request of the Williams team, I went up to talk to him - he was testing - about his difficult relationship with the British specialist press.

We had a long talk over lunch, and at the end of it he thanked me for giving up the day, and said he now had a greater understanding of the problems involved. We shook hands, and I left.

At Monaco, a few days later, he tore into one of my colleagues - a first-class journalist, for whom I have absolute respect - over something that had been written about him. My pal was still in a cold rage about it hours later. Clearly, my trip to Silverstone had been a total waste of time. I never bothered again.

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Thanks for all your e-mails and messages in this first week - sorry if yours is one of those that I haven't answered. But keep the e-mails coming, any subject you fancy, and the next set of answers will go up next Wednesday, May 3. Send them to Autosportnews@haynet.com, and I'll look forward to hearing from you.

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