On Circuit Alterations

Last month I mentioned how some circuits and organisers seem to give up and abandon motor racing when a difficulty arises, while others fight back and adapt themselves to changing conditions. Mention was made of a number of circuits that were either about to undergo a face-lift or plans were afoot for this to happen in the very near future, rather than giving up, like Reims, and becoming overgrown and desolate. The Permanent Circuit of the Sarthe, or Le Mans, to give it it’s more widely known title is one circuit that is never likely to disappear, it may change it’s shape and even some of its character, but one cannot visualize Le Mans being abandoned. Fortunately, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest have plenty of money, and also the business contacts to raise sufficient funds for any long-term projects they feel are necessary. Twice within recent history we have seen how strong the Le Mans club is, and we are about to witness another example of their strength. Racing began at Le Mans before the 1914-18 war, and in 1923 the famous 24-hour event was begun. It was run every year until 1939, with the exception of 1936 when French political strife caused it to be cancelled, and after the 1939-45 war it started up again in 1949, the circuit being rebuilt after the ravages of war. In 1955 the terrible catastrophe occurred involving a great number of spectators and instantly the whole pit area was razed to the ground and rebuilt further back, allowing a wider road, and further down the slope of the finishing straight away from the fast climbing right-hand sweep up and over the hill. The speed with which this was done and the immediate expense involved was staggering, but it was an instance of how financially strong the A.C. de l’Ouest was.

A continual battle for French race organisers is the matter of closing public roads, a problem that does not worry British race organisers for we cannot close public roads (not yet anyway) and that is that. While French law permits the closing of roads for the purposes of motor racing it is a complicated Civil Service matter and inevitably there is opposition from anti-motor racing quarters. At Le Mans the main problem is the Route Nationale from Le Mans to Tours, which comprises the Mulsanne Straight and this has to be shut from Tertre Rouge to Mulsanne. The other roads involved are not so serious. Things are reaching the point where it is just a matter of time before someone in the French Government puts a stop to the closing of main roads, and when this happens Le Mans will be in trouble. Rather than wait for this time to arrive there is a movement in the A.C. de l’Ouest to circumnavigate the inevitable by acquiring sufficient land on which to rebuild the Mulsanne Straight alongside the existing main road. Already the Club control the land from the start line up past the pits, under the Dunlop Bridge, down through the Esses to Tertre Rouge, which is why you can no longer drive all the way round the Le Mans circuit on non-race days, like you used to. By acquiring control of this area the Club were able to build their wiggly little Bugatti circuit and have club events and motorcycle racing within the confines of their own land without the need for closing public roads. While these problems of organisation are ever-present there is in addition the ever-increasing speeds being recorded and the worry that perhaps everything is going too fast. Mr. Henry Ford Junior put an effective stop to the ever-increasing lap speeds by paying for a chicane to be built just before the pits. The object behind this was to slow the cars down before the pit area, a high risk area, especially in a race involving regular pit stops. Having dominated Le Mans with his 7-litre Mark IV Fords, pulverizing all the records, and raising the lap record to 147.9 m.p.h. Henry Ford magnanimously gave the A.C. dc l’Ouest a cheque to cover the cost of the safety chicane and then withdrew from European racing, thus ensuring that a Mark IV Ford would hold the Le Mans lap record for all time.

The immediate worry at Le Mans at the moment is the section through the bends at White House, the 150 m.p.h. sweeping ess-bend, where the slightest error of judgement can prove disastrous. Ever since 1927 when the Bentley team had a multiple accident, the White House bends have been catching out the unwary or unskilled. You approach White House over a blind brow and down a slight dip at very high speed so that your approach has to be exactly right, which I have always accepted as one of the things that motor racing is all about, but other people have different ideas. However, the White House bends have worried the A.C. de l’Ouest for many years, and now plans are going ahead to by-pass them altogether with a new road on the inside of the circuit, which is all part and parcel of the ultimate aim to get the Permanent Circuit of the Sarthe off the public roads but still at Le Mans. While these changes will keep Le Mans going, for like Derby Day and The Lord Mayor’s Show it is unlikely to disappear, they will inevitably change the character of the circuit and the race in some details, but the overall event is so vast that it can probably withstand a few changes which the paying public will hardly be aware of. If and when the Mulsanne Straight is moved sideways on to private land I cannot see the new one having all the tricks of the old one in it, like the humps that can make a 200-m.p.h. car feel “light”, or the flat-out-for-the-brave-drivers kink at the end, or arriving in the Mulsanne braking area over a blind brow, nor will it have a couple of restaurants and cafes on the very edge of the road, with the glasses rattling on the tables everytime one of the really fast cars goes by. I feel it will all be clean and hygenic, almost clinical, like the straight on the new Paul Ricard circuit, and deadly dull until cars can achieve 300 m.p.h.

Circuit development and racing car development seem to progress in a series of leap-frogs, with occasional moments when they are in step. At the moment the cars are ahead of the circuits, but the circuits look as if they are about to take the lead in some respects.

Another circuit that has a background of opposition due to the closing of public roads is the Belgian National Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps. The opposition to road closing has not manifested itself yet, but if anything can be done to alleviate the problem then the day of doom might be put off permanently. This is one of the reasons behind a reconstructional programme gaining momentum in Spa circles. As the Grand Prix “circus” has made it abundantly clear that they are no longer prepared to race on the existing Spa-Francorchamps circuit, while the sports car world and the saloon car world are not only content with the circuit, but thoroughly enjoy their 1,000-kilometre race and 24-hour race, respectively, there are plans afoot to build a “Mickey Mouse” circuit for the Grand Prix world. “Mickey Mouse” is a relative term, for the proposed shorter circuit will still be spectacular and challenging, especially when compared to the artificial autodromes like Paul Ricard and Nivelles, or airfields like Silverstone or Thruxton. The basic plan is to return the existing permanent pits, paddock, timekeeping tower, grandstands etc., and the exciting swoop down over the Eau Rouge bridge and up the RadialIon, climbing to the summit of Burnenville. At the sharp left-hand bend of Les Combes, where Redman had a works Cooper Formula One car break a wishbone and nearly kill him, the proposed new road will turn off to the right and plunge steeply downhill into the valley that is bordered by the return leg of the existing circuit from Stavelot to La Source. Down in the valley the new road will turn right and follow the valley along to La Source, where a new hairpin bend will bring it out on to the existing descent past the pits, at a point closer to the pits than the existing La Source hairpin.

This proposed new layout will achieve a number of objects; it will cut out the Burnenville, Malmedy, Masta and Stavelot section of the existing circuit, which should appease the militant members of the GPDA, for you will recall that Graham Hill thought Malmedy Corner was dangerous and Stewart thought the Masta-ess was dangerous; it should appease those who feel the existing circuit is too long, and who get a feeling of loneliness and distance when they are out at Stavelot; it should also appease those who feel 190 m.p.h. is too fast down the Masta straight. If the proposal has this effect then the GPDA could return to Spa for the Belgian Grand Prix and they could leave the start with heads held high and proud, even though most of the enthusiastic Belgian spectators would probably be tittering behind their programmes, especially if they recall the “real” Spa-Francorchamps circuit. While this “mini-race” was going on the public road from Stavelot to Francorchamps could remain open to traffic, which would appease the anti-motor racing faction who object to all the roads being closed. For the 1,000-kilometre sports car race and the 24-hour saloon car race the full circuit would be used. My only fear now is that the GPDA enlarging its boundaries and getting itself on a professional footing with Nick Syrett at the helm, and opening its ranks to all International Racing Drivers, the “brainwashing” that has influenced young Formula One drivers may spread to the more healthy sides of motor racing and the Spa 1,000-kilometre race could be reduced to 500 kilometres and run on the mini-Spa circuit, or the 24-hour saloon car race reduced to a mere 12 or 15 hours, or to daylight hours only. Once the rot sets in to something it is hard to stop it and the rot is well and truly into Grand Prix racing these days.

At the opposite end of Europe, down in the Principality of Monaco, there is an entirely different state of affairs. For some strange reason, probably connected with the Riviera, the sunshine, the glamour, the good living and so on, the Monte Carlo circuit is not considered dangerous. Even though it has three hairpin bends with no escape roads should your brakes fail, a tunnel on one part, with a curve on its whole length, it is too narrow in places to permit overtaking, the spectators, admittedly behind steel rails, can almost touch the cars, and it has no pit and paddock facilities whatsoever, the Monte Carlo circuit is accepted as an exciting and interesting challenge, which is what motor racing should be all about, otherwise we could play tiddly-winks and get just as excited. In reality the only serious fault at Monte Carlo is the lack of adequate pits, especially in practice. They used to be on the harbour side of the Gasworks section, until cornering speeds through the Tabac corner reached such heights that it was only a matter of time before someone took all the pit crews with him on his way down to the Gasworks Hairpin on a record lap. They were then moved to the landward side of the centre island, but though safer for the pit personnel, are not big enough. The plan now is to make pits and paddock on the harbour front between the chicane and Tabac Corner and to re-site the chicane near the Tabac so that you will get a longer and faster run down from the Tunnel exit and have to brake much harder for the repositioned chicane. Speed through the Tabac Corner will be negligible compared with the old layout, which will mean a lower arrival speed at the Gasworks Hairpin. Meanwhile the pit road will be on a quiet by-pass road on the harbour front. The “Gentlemen of the Press” who feed the eyes and ears of the world will have a thin time, for they will still be based at the Club Headquarters more or less opposite the old pits, so will be completely out of touch with what is going on beyond Tabac Corner. Their base cannot be moved very easily because they require an instant information centre and contact with the outside world via telephones and land-lines, even while the race is in progress. A simple solution would be a closed-circuit television system run by some of the Members of the Press, but that is something outside the scope of race organising. Organisers cannot win; if they make the people who race happy the Press are unhappy, if you make the Press happy the racers are unhappy and so it goes on, with a small thought all the time that you have got to keep the spectators happy or you won’t be able to afford to organise a race.

It is hoped that the new pit arrangement will be ready for this year’s race, while future plans involve more drastic changes. One scheme is to lengthen the circuit and make it run eastwards towards Monte Carlo Beach, using part of the “through way motor road” that used to be the old railway track. This would lengthen the circuit eastwards and the return would be down at sea-level on the dual carriageway past the Exhibition Pavillions, this area being more than adequate for pits and paddock, the lengthened circuit joining the existing one at Portier corner, by the arches, while the rest of the circuit would be unchanged. This seems like an admirable plan which would make the Monte Carlo circuit bigger and better. The only drawback would be that the prima donnas would have a longer walk from the Hotel de Paris to the start, on race day, but it would give them a longer time to acknowledge with gracious waves, the plaudits of the crowds.

One other major circuit about to undergo an important change is the Monza Autodromo. Monza is like Le Mans in character, you cannot imagine it not being there, and whatever happens to it it will always be Monza, the home of Italian motor racing, speed and noise, preferably with red cars out in front. Monza now has a lap speed of over 150 m.p.h., and the “return to power” forecast in 1965 when the 3-litre Grand Prix Formula was due to start in 1966, has come true as far as lap speeds are concerned, even if we are lagging behind on power-outputs and maximum speeds. The Monza people are planning to introduce two chicanes of a permanent nature, into the two fast bends on the circuit. One in the middle of the Curva Grande and the other in the Vialone or Ascari curve. One vague hope is that these extra corners will break up the nose-to-tail follow-my-leader processions loosely described as slip-streaming. I call the hope vague, because it was tried at Hockenheim and did not seem to have much effect, for all the fast drivers corner more or less at the same speed, but it does shake off a few of the “rabbits” and “hangers-on”.

Whether all these plans come to fruition, or even get started, we shall have to wait and see, and no doubt “Letter from Europe” will keep you informed of the progress, but the important thing is that the circuits mentioned, and there are others which space prevents being mentioned at the moment, clearly do not intend to lie down and expire because somebody has said “Boo!”, whether it be a Governmental “Boo!” a social or domestic “Boo!” or a CSI/GPDA “Boo!”. -D. S. J.