Reflections in the Transvaal

Any reflections on the South African GP must of necessity be tinged with sadness and regret at the death of Tom Pryce in a stupid accident that was nothing to do with him. It is most unlikely that he even saw the accident about to happen, travelling as he was at 160 m.p.h. If a driver is killed through making a driving error, you can shrug and accept it as all part of the game of “dicing with death”; if he is killed through technical or mechanical failure of the car you can accept it as part of the known risk, but to be killed by striking a fire-marshal crossing the track on his way to help another driver is something totally unnecessary.

Naturally there were a lot of hysterical outbursts afterwards, but it is worth remembering that only four years ago there were hysterical outbursts because fire-marshals did not rush to the aid of Roger Williamson at Zandvoort. Now we have over-zealous marshals running to the aid of a driver who was actually in no danger and an innocent driver is killed. It seems we just can’t win. The after-effect suggestions have ranged from a continuous supply of fire-fighting fluid piped all round the circuit, through an international body of professional full-time marshals travelling with the Formula One circus, to all-enveloping protection bars enclosing the cockpit area. An area that could well be tightened is the question of anyone crossing the track while racing is in progress. Very few people bother to sit down and calculate the risk of running 30 to 40 yards at 10 or 12 m.p.h. against a car travelling at 160 m.p.h., or the human body accelerating from 0 to 12 m.p.h. against a Formula One car accelerating from 50-100 m.p.h., when leaving a slow corner, for example. It can all be worked out in seconds and fractions of seconds, yet people still want to cross the track while a race is in progress. One thing that always disturbs me is the way some organisers allow photographers to cross the track. If I was the “Obengruppenfuhrer” of motor racing I would forbid anyone, but anyone, to cross a track once a race has started, and certainly no photographers or journalists, in fact I would ban them from the edge of the track altogether, for we can run races without close-up photographs or on-the-spot reports. One day a photographer is going to drop his heavy camera case as he scampers across the track and I hate to think of the consequences.

The Kyalami marshals as a group seemed to spend too much time out on the track itself, for whenever there was a suspicion that a car may have dropped oil, three or four of them would run out onto the track, feeling the surface with their hands for traces of oil. All very praiseworthy and efficient, but much too dicey to my way of thinking. Both during practice and in he race I saw occasions when a marshal was still on the track as a car came into sight. A far cry from the “good old days” of the nineteen-fifties when I saw and heard a driver slow right down on Copse Corner at Silverstone and yell at the marshals “there’s bloody oil on the track.” They then put out the oil flag!

Since I was last in South Africa, in 1975, that country has succumbed to the Great God Television, and is suffering from all the attendant nastiness and meanness that seems to surround that industry. The race was being sponsored by the newspaper The Citizen, so every pre-race edition made a big play on the fact that the race was not being televised live in South Africa, and encouraged the readers to go to Kyalami and fill the pay-boxes. The rival paper, The Star, which was not sponsoring the event came out with big newslines saying that the race was going to be televised “live” so there was no need to endure the cost and hardship of crowding into the Kyalami circuit. It almost reached the point of schoolchildren, “My brother’s bigger than your brother.” “No he isn’t.” “Yes he is.” “I’ll tell my dad, he’s bigger than your dad” and so on. You hear the same sort of nonsense between the Formula One Constructors and certain race organisers. What was the outcome of the newspaper/television squabble? I’ve no idea and am not very interested in either form of “bringing the news to the people.” I was told that after the race television spent a lot of time showing the unfortunate accident to Tom Pryce and the fire-marshal, in all its unnecessary detail.

On a more pleasant note, a word or two about the Brazilian ex-World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi and his elder brother’s team financed by the Brazilian Copersucar syndicate. E.F. still has a great following among the enthusiasts, for though he has his faults, like all of us, his driving with the Lotus team and the McLaren team gained him many supporters and they would all dearly like to see him winning again in the Fittipaldi family car. At the end of practice for the South African race Emerson Fittipaldi was very happy with the way the car was going and was so pleased that he was only six-tenths of a second slower than the cars on the front row of the grid. But then his face clouded over and he said sadly “But I am only ninth fastest and in the fifth row on the grid, and that makes me an also-ran.” When you hear people asking what has gone wrong with Emerson Fittipaldi and the Fittipaldi-car, the answer is “nothing really, they are just not fast enough” and that means six-tenths of a second off pole position, and there are still these who decry Grand Prix racing today and yearn for the “good old days.” I think they don’t like competition.

This high-pressure competitiveness up at the front has meant that the back of the field has suffered in consequence, and one of the things that has fallen by the wayside is the opportunity for a local lad to take part in his home Grand Prix. This was first brought to my notice at the Belgian race last year, when Teddy Pilette, who was Belgium’s most successful driver at the time, could not get a drive in the Zolder race. The big-business, high-pressure, closed-shop of Formula One has done away with the best of a nation’s drivers taking part in his own Grand Prix. The circus is now so professional that you are only allowed to stand and watch, you are not allowed to join in, even though you could probably out-drive the last few rows on the grid through local experience of the track alone. This is a facet of the present-day scene that I deplore.

An impressive aspect of the mechanical scene at Kyalami was the number of brand new cars that appeared, indicating that the workers back in the workshops must have been doing a lot of overtime. One thing that the Formula One world does not suffer from is the dreaded British disease of “industrial action” (what the media really mean is “industrial in-action” —or in simple English A STRIKE) for no racing team would win races if it had bloody-minded union members among its numbers. It never ceases to impress me the way the Formula One teams always arrive in time and ready to race in the face of adversities that would paralyse the average industrial concern. Someone was telling me that when the Japanese workers take “industrial action” they all arrive at work 30 minutes early and chant and rhubarb until it is time to clock-on and then go to work in the normal way, leaving the management very conscious of the fact that their workers were upset about something. Sounds a very reasonable approach that doesn’t ruin production or profits or wages or jobs, in the long run. So if Colin Chapman or Ken Tyrrell are awakened by the chanting and rhubarbing of their mechanics at 5.30 a.m. they will know they have a complaint on their hands, but at least the cars will be ready for practice.

While almost every team had a new and shiny car with them BRM arrived with a tired-looking dirty old one, that someone said they first saw in 1974. The BRM team always have tried to be different, but this was taking individualism a bit far. The second place by Jody Scheckter with the Wolf car was a well-earned one and for those of us who believe in the ability of Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite as a designer, it was very gratifying to see. When Postlethwaite developed the March for Lord Hesketh and then designed the Hesketh 308B and subsequent 308C, things were looking promising. Then his Lordship gave up and Postlethwaite and the 308C were bought by Frank Williams using money given him by the Austro-Canadian businessman Walter Wolf. In 1976 the Postlethwaite-designed car seemed hopeless and the team messed about with a variety of hopeless drivers. Some said the car was no good, others blamed the drivers or the team management, but no-one really knew what the answer was, least of all Harvey Postlethwaite. Then Walter Wolf saw he was not getting anywhere so he reconstructed the team, easing Frank Williams our of the picture, enticing Peter Warr from Team Lotus, Jody Scheckter and one of his mechanics from Team Tyrrell and the Wolf team began afresh. Postlethwaite could now base his designs and calculations round a known driver quantity and ability and in three races they have achieved a first place, a second place and a retirement with engine failure. Not a bad restart by any standards and perhaps there was nothing much wrong with the 308C last year after all.

The days of the national flag being dropped (or raised) to start a Formula One race are over and red and green traffic lights now control the scene, which is all very fair and clinical, but deadly dull. This year the South African race used traffic lights for the first time, and a final link with the past has gone. Some of us were regretting the passing of the game of “jumping the flag”, for it brought out some brilliant examples of cunning and reflexes in drivers. Now they have all become electronic automatons, so we mulled over some ideas for applying science and technology to the start to make it all fair and above board, because no-one in Formula One wants anyone to cheat in case it is by some means he had not thought of himself. We visualised electronic sensors that held the clutch mechanism out until the current flowing into the filament of the green starting light, activated relays which then freed the clutches. Just imagine the feelings of’ the driver with 10,200 r.p.m. on the clock, not knowing exactly when the clutch was going to bite home. We also thought about the clever electronic ace who could fit an anticipatory sensor into his system to give him one millisecond advantage over his rivals at the start, by monitoring the current before it built up sufficiently in the green lamp filament to make it glow. Nothing happens instantaneously, everything takes time to happen and it is just a matter of measuring that time.

While on the subject of electrical devices both the Ferrari and the Brabham teams use a battery of timing equipment supplied by the Swiss Heuer firm, on which a row of buttons activate a time-scale read-out on a roll of paper. The Ferrari team’s operator is highly skilled with this apparatus, with fingers twinkling along the buttons and eyes and brain picking out lap times and transmitting the important ones to the engineer in charge in the pits. It is always interesting to see whom the Ferrari team consider their opposition, by the numbers on the buttons. This time they were 1, 3, 4, 7, 8 on one bank and 11, 12, 5, 6, 20 on the other bank, which translate into Hunt, Peterson, Depailler, Watson, Pace and Lauda (naturally), Reutemann (naturally), Andretti, Nilsson, Scheckter. Interesting! — D.S. J.