Reflections on the French Grand Prix

THE Reims meeting must have been the biggest concentration of single-seater racing cars ever gathered together, with races for Formula One, Formula Two and Formula Three, So that the whole atmosphere was one of straight-forward simple and pure motor racing without any of the haggles that seem to go on when saloons, sports cars or prototypes take part. Scrutincuing presented no problems and there were no great lists of regulations that could be transgressed deliberately or inadvertently, With the three categories of single-seater racing cars everything seemed straightforward. Whether there is any point in holding a Formula Three, or for that matter Formula Two, race on such a fast circuit is a matter of opinion, for the speeds of the top Grand Prix cars seemed so in tune with the circuit that anything else seemed a bit pointless. The 3-litre cars were really travelling quickly and there are numerous ways of appreciating speed at Reims, one being to be up in one of the grandstands from where you can see the cars appear out of the woods from Muizon on the fast downhill straight to Thillois. The way they travel across the horizon is really impressive and when one of the fast ones passed a slower car down the hill you realised that the new Formula is developing really fast cars, after the comparatively slow years of 1961-65. Another point to observe from is the grandstand at Millais, from where you can see the cars appear over the brow of the hill and come down towards you at a very high speed, and the sound of a B.R.M. engine really revving down the hill is quite something. This is not witnessing “instant” speed, as you get on British circuits, but “constant” speed, the car being wound right up and staying wound up for a long time, and when the driver lifts off it is not to “feather” his way round a long open bend, but to stand really heavily on the brakes for the 60-m.p.h. Thillois hairpin.

Opposite the Thillois grandstand a new row of signalling pits has been erected, as giving pit signals from the main pits has been getting hazardous with the cars going fiat-out and aiming for the blind bend under the Dunlop Bridge. Unfortunately, these new signalling pits have been put too close to the hairpin, for the road is extra wide at the exit from the hairpin and once they get to the apex drivers can really accelerate out in a long slide, so that by the time they have got things straight they are beyond the signalling pits. Until they got used to it the fast driven were leaving Thillois in an opposite-lock power-slide looking back over their shoulder trying to read their pit signal. It was all very interesting and exciting, but if the new pits had been a hundred yards from the corner it would have been easier for everyone. There were some drivers going slow enough to have picked up written instructions, but when the fast drivers missed their signal it meant they were trying.

There was a similar situation to this in Portugal at the Oporto circuit, where those people in the pits nearest the corner following could not communicate with their drivers if they were going fast, Any driver admitting to having read a pit signal was openly admitting that he was not driving on the limit!

The time-keeping at Reims was pretty good and the organisers made sure that any spare car had a T on it to distinguish it from the number one car. Consequently the timekeepers could quote lap times for training cars as well as the race cars, unlike some circuits where nobody seems to bother with car identification and a driver can use two or three different cars and get only one fastest lap time, which is very tiresome for those of us who like to try and know all about everything.

There was a lot of shuffling around among drivers and cars, the most significant being the absence of Ginther from the Cooper-Maserati team, for in the July Motor Sport I said that the day he missed a Grand Prix with the Cooper team we could take as a prelude to the re-entry of Honda into Grand Prix racing. That day arrived on July 3rd so we can now anticipate the arrival of the Japanese team in Europe and I feel they may be well prepared, for they have learnt a lot since their first appearance in 1964. Then they were courageously joining in with a field of competitors who were all well in their stride with the racing and development of 1½-litre Grand Prix cars. Now Honda will be meeting their competitors more or less on an equal footing, with no one having much of an advantage in the way of 3-litre experience. With Chris Amon joining the Cooper team it would seem that McLaren has despaired of getting two oars raceworthy for the time being, and is going to need all his time and facilities to get one car for himself. Much was expected from the McLaren team and their series of engine troubles have not only been a great disappointment to the team themselves,but to their numerous supporters.

The biggest talking point during the meeting was the question of John Surtees and the Shell Petroleum Company. Drivers are signed up by various petrol companies and paid a very substantial retaining fee, and in return the company uses a driver and/or his successes for advertising purposes. Obviously the more successful drivers get the most money, for all the petrol companies try and back a winner, in the same way that they finance winning teams. Shell have supported Surtees, and, of course, Ferrari cars, for some years and Surtees has done a. great job of work for them, winning any number of races, so there was satisfaction all round. When Surtees met Enzo Ferrari after Le Mans and they mutually agreed to terminate their relationship, Ferrari naturally had no wish to cancel his contract with Shell, and neither did Surtees, for they were financing him for his Lola activities as well as Ferrari racing, but unfortunately the only team that had a vacancy for Surtees in mid-season was Cooper and they were contracted to the British Petroleum Company,

At first it was agreed that Surtees could be loaned to Cooper for the French G.P, hut Shell realised that they were giving their best asset to the rival B.P. firm so they issued a statement that they were only going to relax this once, and that “there was no question of releasing him for further events.” To some people this seemed rather a “dog in the manger” attitude and they could foresee Surtees standing on the track-side for the rest of the season. One can appreciate the feelings of the Shell company who had spent a lot of Money on Surtees and were unwilling for a rival company to reap any benefit from the Shell financial outlay. This sort of situation has been happening for years and in 1960/1 there was a fuss between B.P. and Esso over the matter of Stirling Moss. He had sold himself to B.P. for a vast sum of money and was winning races with cars Which Rob Walker bought from Lotus, and Esso were justifiably incensed as they had been pouring thousands of pounds into Team Lotus and the development of the Lotus 18. The works drivers on Esso were being beaten by Moss with a similar car running privately on B.P. so that B.P. were getting good advertising material for a relatively small outlay. Esso put the clamps on Lotus, which was why Moss had to go on racing an obsolete Lotus against the latest works cars. This situation was reaching something of an impasse at the time of the unfortunate accident that put an end to Moss’s career as a racing driver.

There was another little fracas at Le Mans this year when B.P. realised that McLaren and Amon were likely to win with a Ford Mk. II, for Ford were running on Shell petrel and the two drivers were contracted to B.P. The Ford chief organiser, Leo Beebe, sorted this one out pretty smartly.

All these troubles seem to stem from the drivers signing contracts and accepting vast sums of money from the petrol companies for racing on one brand only. It really all boils down to a question of avarice.

Following the French Grand Prix the Surtees/Shell affair was solved amicably after discussions and it was agreed that Surtees would terminate his Shell contract as far as Formula One was concerned, and be free to join B.P., but would remain with Shell when racing his Lola-Chevrolet sports car and his own Lola-Cosworth Formula Two car, Sometimes I am rash enough to suggest that the petrol barons have too much control in motor-racing and I am always skewed down by various people in motor-racing. Sometimes I wonder