His sponsor hoodwinked Saab into going F3 but he might have come out of it OK if he’d been Brazilian, especially as he’s always kept a lookout for antelopes on the apex
You beat Jacques Villeneuve, Tom Kristensen and Rickard Rydell to win the1992 Japanese F3 title. How come they made it much further than you? Nick Hollis, Derbyshire
I don’t think Rickard made it much further than I did — apart from winning the BTCC! Probably the most significant difference is that when I won the Japanese F3 Championship I was already 34 — in the eyes of most team owners and directors that was too old to consider a career in Formula One. Jacques was only 20 or something and Tom is a good 10 years younger than I am. Motor racing is not an athletic sport —you go to work and sit down behind the wheel of a racing car — but it’s a very ageist sport.
Did that Japanese marshal really think your head had come off when you crashed in a Formula 3000 test? Bruce McKie, Telford
By all accounts and from what people said, Roland Ratzenberger and Paulo Carcasci were immediately on the scene because they were following behind. When you get a head wound there’s a lot of blood, and the car was upside down and my helmet was missing. The marshals thought I was dead, and they didn’t do much. It was Roland and Paulo who got me out of the car and off to hospital. It was a dangerous sport then.
Have you ever seen anything more surprising than Rickard Rydell trying to assault you after that BTCC incident at Brands in 1998? Robert Croucher, Poole
I know what Rickard’s like! He’s called the Smiling Assassin and underneath the skin he has this ruthless streak. He’s very competitive and I had seen him lose his cool before. But not to the point of physical assault! What happened on the track was a very minor incident — the sort of thing you see every weekend in the BTCC. But in the context of what was at stake there was a lot of pressure from Volvo for Rickard to produce the goods. At the same time I was in a good car [the Nissan] and could see the prospect of winning the title, so there was a bit of needle. On the first lap he’d blocked me into Druids and reversed me into the field, and I was engulfed by four or five cars. I was well peeved with Rickard! But I was flying and caught him back up. It’s just that it was the zenith of BTCC racing and a lot was at stake.
Are there any regrets in leaving Nissan for Ford in1999, bearing in mind what Laurent Aiello achieved In ‘your car? Lucy Woodhouse, London
It’s always a difficult call, and Ford were offering me a two-year contract on substantial money, while Nissan could only give me one year. I knew Prodrive could win the title for Ford, and if I’d won it in a new team for me then it would have had a lot more value: I was testing myself in a new environment rather than in one built around me at Nissan. But it was the work I did with Alec Poole [Nissan Motorsport Europe boss], Richard Divila [engineer] and Ray Mallock [team chief] which made the car what it was, which I’m very proud of.
Do you ever send Vincent Radermecker a Christmas card? Philip Lampman, by e-mail
No! But I still needed to beat Alain [Menu, to win the 2000 BTCC title] at Silverstone and I was behind him at the time of the accident. I’ve reflected on that season a few times and the championship wasn’t lost at that moment, but by my trying too hard at particular points. There were a couple of race starts where I got too much wheelspin, when I should have tried to make a normal start instead of a supersonic steam catapult launch. Also, at Croft I was second in qualifying, but the scrutineers said my ECU was improperly programmed. I had the option of taking the penalty and starting from the back, or starting second and checking it again. I chose to start second because the team said everything would be OK. And in the end it wasn’t. I would’ve been better off not to race, because then I had a zero score which I was not allowed to include in my dropped scores.
Out of all your BTCC team bosses/ engineers, who’s the most boffin-like – Ray Mallock or Dick Bennetts? Robert Menapace, by e-mail
I would Say that Dick is the most passionate — he certainly makes the most sacrifices. But Ray’s are different circumstances — he ran a top team in the era of Super Touring and massive budgets. He’s obviously had a better track record but he’s had better budgets. I’d put them neck and neck in terms of achievements on what they have. I still hope to race in the BTCC with Dick and his MG team this year.
How much did Saab’s F3 engine set back your career in 1985? John Auckland, Chichester
It’s very difficult to say, but frankly it was the only opportunity I was going to get to race in F3. You’ve got to make that step to launch a successful single-seater career, but you’ve got to have a budget behind you. Bob Moore gave me tremendous help. He was good friends with John Kirkpatrick, who ran me in FF2000. He was a brilliant salesman and he persuaded Saab to go F3. They never wanted to do it, but Bob could sell sand to the Arabs and told Saab it couldn’t afford not to! My team-mate Maurizio Sandro Sala did OK after that, but that was at a time when if you were Brazilian you were favoured. I couldn’t believe the fuss that was made about him and Mauricio Gugehnin.
You’ve been to Le Mans a few times, but was your third place in1990 with David Sears and Tiff Needell in a Porsche 962 the highlight? PJ Philby, Reigate
It was a very significant highlight, but one of the biggest thrills was racing in 2002 for MG — a British company, an all-British team and the car was very quick. I said to my team-mates Warren Hughes and Jonny Kane before the race, ‘Look guys, we’re not going to win or even finish. Whether we go at 5mph or flat-out, it will only make two hours’ difference to when we retire. So let’s just go f***ing balls to the wall!’ I’d never got qualifying tyres to do our time, so I spent the first hour sorting my way through traffic. We got the car up to third and broke down at 12.30 at night. The best bit was when I saw Tom Kristensen coming out of the pits in front of me in the Audi. I caught him up in two or three laps and chased him. I’d keep moving over to the right into Arnage with the headlights on full blast. He was on the radio asking who the hell it was!
Did you ever, In the course of your instruction at the Jim Russell school, tell pupils they must maintain constant steering lock once they’d turned in “unless you encounter an antelope before the apex”? Mark Tabb, Manchester
That does ring a bell, you know — I think I probably did. In fact I’m sure I did! I worked there from 1985-90, and there was a particular style we taught at the time, because not many people were coming from karting. It was just people who had driven on public roads, so you had to teach them basic discipline for their own safety: you didn’t want to be shuffling the wheel in a racing car otherwise you’d be zigzagging down the road. But there were talented drivers at the school — Jan Magnussen, Kelvin Burt, Warren Hughes. You spotted them early and gave them a much more advanced level of instruction.