The Race of Champions

A non-event at….

Brands Hatch, March 18th

When the Race of Champions was first thought of, in 1965, it seemed a good idea to provide an opening race for Formula One before the serious business of the World Championship season got under way. At the time there were not too many events in the World Championship series, around 10 or 12. Since then the scene has changed radically with Formula One spreading its wings, but the Race of Champions has tried to maintain its position. Major Grand Prix events now number as many as 17 in one season and by the time the Race of Champions date is due, around mid-March, the World Championship scene is well under way with races in Argentina, Brazil and South Africa having already happened. When there was a shortage of Grand Prix events everyone was pleased to support extra races at Brands Hatch and at Silverstone, but eventually the major teams made it clear that this was not possible. With a major event every three weeks and test-sessions and tyre-test programmes the teams were extended to the full. It was agreed that there should be only one non-championship event per year, and it would alternate between the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch and the International Trophy at Silverstone, both events scheduled for very early in the British season.

Last year it was the turn of the BRDC to hold the Formula One event at Silverstone, and torrential rain turned the whole thing into a farce. This year it was due at Brands Hatch and all was ready when the boss of Motor Circuit Developments announced that the whole affair was to be abandoned, and it might possibly take place on Easter Sunday April 15h. This announcement was not made lightly and the reason given was that snow was forecast for the Brands Hatch area over the weekend of March 17th/18th. When practice should have begun on Friday March 16th there was a six inch covering of snow over the whole stadium!

Apart from the weather putting paid to the Race of Champions it also stopped a number of national supporting races, but apart from that the prospects for the Formula One race did not look very bright. Most teams were proposing to send their number two drivers, and many of them were intending to run last year’s cars. Because the Constructors Association had promised to support the event, most of the member teams that entered were merely “going through the motions” as true professionals. Even before the official cancellation some of the entry had withdrawn and others had nominated obsolete cars. The reason behind this apparent apathy was that they were all very busy preparing to go off to California for the Long Beach Grand Prix, and no-one wanted to risk writing-off a front-line car or risk injury to their top drivers. With 16 major Grand Prix events on the calendar time and energy are at a premium and there is no longer any place in the schedule of events like the Race of Champions. In addition the money from the meeting was destined to go to the Gunnar Nilsson Cancer Fund, so the Formula One teams were racing for no financial gain, and to most of them that is anathema. One team boss was very frank and honest about the whole thing, saying that he would much rather give the Nilsson Fund a cheque for £10,000 on behalf of his team and not take part in the Race of Champions, for they could ill-afford the time and energy away from their preparations for Long Beach. The race organisers had guaranteed £100,000 to the Fund on their own behalf and that of the FOCA.

With the way the entry was looking and assuming that Brands Hatch was bathed in spring sunshine it is unlikely that much more than 15,000 enthusiasts would have turned up to pay £6 a head to go in. It would seem that the snowfall was a blessing in disguise. To pad out the entry to reasonable proportions a number of non-graded drivers with Formula One cars had been accepted, and most of them are aspirants for the British Formula One Championship. This is a series of Formula One events, sponsored by the slot-racing model car firm Aurora, and is nothing to do with FOCA or the World Championship. It is at a National level, rather than International, and provides a series of races for those who have proved to be not good enough for the top echelon of Formula One, and more important a starting point for drivers and teams who are hoping to climb up to the dizzy heights of World Championship Formula One.

The series got off to a slow start last year, but this season looks quite promising with a lot of the 1978 Formula One cars like Lotus 78, McLaren M26, Tyrrell 008 and Williams FW06 in the hands of hopeful newcomers or regular class B drivers. With FOCA and Formula One Grand Prix racing almost out of reach on a very high plane, the provision of a junior league is a sound idea and the Aurora-AFX Formula One Series looks like being quite interesting this season.

Perhaps the time has come for Brands Hatch (and Silverstone in 1980) to stop thinking big in FOCA terms and to organise events more in keeping with the times. The overall programme for the Race of Champions was nearly as big and as lavish as for the British Grand Prix. It might make more sense to run the meeting on a lower key, as a round in the Aurora series, allowing FOCA members to take part if they want to. Alternatively they could take a leaf from the USAC racing and have a one-day event, with a 50 lap Formula One race only and a practice session in the morning.

To decide to cancel the meeting on the afternoon before the first day of practice was a momentous decision to make. Already all the facilities were being set up, the catering, the marshalling, the policing, the administration and so on. The Ferrari team and the Michelin tyre crew had arrived from the mainland of Europe, the Press, the Television and the Radio were all geared up to tell the world, the vast number of competitors in the supporting races had either arrived or were on their way and there were thousands of people to inform instantly. It could have been no easy task putting the cancellation into operation.

With last year’s wash-out at Silverstone and this year’s abandonment at Brands Hatch it would look as though the time has come to forget the professional Formula One “circus” apart from the British Grand Prix, and to put more effort into things like the Junior Formula One league. If the professionals had taken part in the Race of Champions few of them would have driven at more than 75% of their potential. The up-and-coming lads (and lasses) from the Aurora scene would no doubt have driven as near to 100% of their potential as they were able, and some Junior 100% efforts might well have beaten a professional 75% effort.