Continental Notes, April 1956

There is rather a peculiar state of affairs existing in France at the moment over the question of circuits and their safety. The pit areas at Le Mans and Reims are almost identical in layout, even to the semi-circular bridge in the shape of a section of Dunlop tyre at the end of each area. The fastest cars pass the pits at speeds around 140 m.p.h. and as the circuit passes under the Dunlop bridge it curves to the right, the Le Mans circuit climbing and the Reims circuit dropping, but both very fast bends and in each case an escape road is available at the beginning of the curve. To all intents and purposes the road is the same width on both circuits and opposite the pits, which are on the right as you approach, there are grandstands and public enclosures.

With the aid of much dynamite and bulldozers the whole of the Le Mans area was demolished and a £250,000 plan to rebuild it is well under way, with a view to making the circuit much safer. So great is the undertaking that it seems unlikely to be finished before mid-summer. At Reims there has not been a sound, and apart from burying the petrol lines from the reservoir to the pits the whole area remains unchanged, yet is deemed perfectly safe and adequate for present-day racing, while Le Mans will only be safe after the gigantic rebuilding programme is completed. Somehow the two situations do not balance, and it would seem that perhaps the Le Mans authorities were rather hasty in letting off the dynamite.

Due to the findings of an inspection committee, Easter will not see the usual Grand Prix round the ancient town of Pau, at the foot of the Pyrenees, for that circuit has been considered dangerous and unsuitable unless very expensive modifications are made. Not far away is the town of Bordeaux and their circuit has also been announced unsafe, and as the Club do not have the money to rebuild the roads there will be no race this year. Both these circuits are natural road-races round the streets of the towns, both are confined to Grand Prix cars and it is well known that Grand Prix racing is one of the safest forms of motor racing, yet neither are to be allowed to happen; meanwhile sports cars of all capacities and speeds will continue to be raced together on other circuits.


With the publication of the list of drivers considered to be Grade A by the F.I.A., together with the calendar of events of National and International status, there are the makings of some very unsatisfactory situations arising. The principle of the scheme is that Grade A drivers can race at meetings on the International calendar, such as the major Grand Prix events, but the lesser ones have been given National status and entries are limited to drivers of the organising country and foreign drivers not in Grade A. A typical case in point will be the Syracuse event; this is an Italian National race with foreign participation, and will obviously be supported by full teams from Maserati and Ferrari, while the organisers hope for a return of Connaught, together with the B.R.M. team and the Vanwall team. For Ferrari, Musso and Castellotti may drive, but Fangio and Collins are forbidden, While Maserati can enter only Perdisa, for Moss and Behra are foreign Grade A. Now last year’s winner, C. A. S. Brooks, can take part with a B.R.M. but the number one of that team, Hawthorn, is ruled out, while neither of the Vanwall drivers, Schell and Trintignant, can compete, being Grade A. Going still further into this absurdity we see that the Belgian private-owner Swaters could not compete, having been graded A, yet the up-and-coming Belgian Gendebien could drive a works Ferrari, he not being considered as good as Swaters and being second grade. In view of’ the very limited number of Grand Prix drivers available anyway, it does seem absurd to curtail their activities apart from limiting the amount of money a professional driver may earn, which is one of the results of this system. I personally feel that the idea should be dropped before any bad feeling begins, for apart from limiting activities in an already limited field, there does not seem to have been a very intelligent approach made to the matter of grading drivers anyway. Great Britain have been given four Grade A drivers, namely Hawthorn, Moss, Collins and Wharton, all the rest being Grade B. Germany lacks good drivers of Grand Prix class, yet have been given three Grade A in Herrmann, Kling and Lang, in spite of the fact that the last-named publicly retired from racing over a year ago. Somewhere there has been some very muddled thinking, or else the whole system has been done on paper without recourse to actual observation of ability, and anyway, it is a brave man who is going to say categorically who is a good driver and who isn’t.


After wintering in England a return to Continental motoring came as a pleasant change, and apart from the obvious lower density of traffic one of the most striking differences between English motoring and motoring abroad is the freedom of Europe. Our roads seem to spend most of their time between high banks and hedges, so that not only is visibility restricted but the road width has very definite limits, beyond which it is not possible to trespass in an emergency. Other countries prefer to run the edges of the road off into the vegetation at the side without the laying of a kerb or the building of a bank or hedge, and it is this greater all-round visibility and added safety factor that makes fast Continental motoring such a joy. It also makes the overtaking problem so much easier, for not only can one see farther ahead, but the whole of the road width can be used by both parties. It is probably this inherent freedom at the edges of the road that makes the French or Italian driver dodge an accident rather than try to stop. The British driver subconsciously knows that if he tries to avoid an object in front of him by swerving he will strike a kerb or grass bank, trees or telegraph poles, whereas the foreign driver knows that there is invariably room for a complete car on the grass verge and at road level. Not only have I avoided incidents myself by taking to the sides of the roads in France and Italy, when for example a lorry has pulled out without warning, but I have seen others avoid collisions in the same manner. On the average English road there is only one alternative, which is to try to stop, and there is seldom time for that, so that nose-to-tail collisions are very popular. Although the British roads are worse than pathetic, and some of the attempts to improve them lack imagination, I cannot but help applauding the efforts being made in Kent to improve the A20 road from Dover to London, which is where most foreign tourists start their British motoring. In places it is being made amply wide enough, and corners are being sliced off in large chunks, the new roads being struck on much larger radii, though so far no one has been brave enough to replan the roads on a drawing board using a straight-edge; it would seem that the civil engineering profession are still stuck with a nice collection of French curves for drawing lines. However, there are signs of improvement, though somewhat slow in progress, while on the Dover road, and elsewhere for that matter, someone has at last realised that a tarmac surface can be edged with kerb stones that are flush with the surface of the road, giving an excellent demarcation without the danger of a high, sharp edge.


With the Mille Miglia now scheduled for the end of this month (after Syracuse on April 15th), the 1,500-c.c. Maserati that ran in the Argentine 1,000-kilometre race is of great interest, and as this chassis can be fitted with a 2-litre version of the new four-cylinder engine, there should be a great demand for this model. In addition to these two four-cylinder sports cars, Maserati have the Grand Prix-based six-cylinder 3-litre car, the Type 300S, and are working on a 3½-litre version of the same model. In addition to the sports/racing cars they are producing some very civilised road-going versions of the well-established A6G 2-litre six-cylinder. These have very luxurious coupe bodies, by various Italian coachbuilders such as Zagato, Frua and Allemano), and the engine, complete with three double-choke Weber carburetters and 12 sparking plugs, is a true racing-engine-turned-tourist. — D.S.J.