When you read that the Brabham team won in Monte Carlo, or that Porsche won the Targa Florio, or that the Rob Walker team were at Siracusa, I wonder if you ever give any thought to the question of how they got there? The transporting of a racing team, or even of one racing car, is still a major problem in International motor racing and one that is full of pitfalls, even to the most experienced, as was instanced at the recent Grand Prix at Le Mans when the Team Lotus transporter was held up by the customs men at Dieppe, with the result that they missed first practice. All the paperwork was in order, or at least it would have been if they had arrived at Dunkirk or Calais, but the customs men at Dieppe would not accept it until they had made all sorts of tedious enquiries and wasted a lot of time. Other mechanics in rival teams smiled when they heard this and muttered “bloody fools, don’t they know to avoid Dieppe at all costs, even if it does mean another five hours’ driving.”
This business of knowing your way around Europe, which frontiers to cross and when, which mountain passes to take, when to short-cut and when to take the long way round is all part of a racing mechanic’s job, for which he gets no extra bonus! You can have the fastest racing car in the game, the best transporter, and the best mechanics and tuners, but if you haven’t got a “bright Herbert” among the lads it will be of no avail. What is needed in every team is one of those chaps who have the happy knack of foreseeing difficulties, knowing how to circumnavigate them, and to smooth everything over even though officialdom is not happy about the paperwork, the passports, the vast quantity of spares, the extra tyres or even the barrels of beer! There are those among the racing mechanics who have an inborn knack of getting-their-feet-under-the-table no matter where they are, and it is essential to have at least one of these in your team. It is they who somehow avoid difficulties without any fuss, like getting a big van over a mountain pass when it is over the maximum permitted size, or getting it on a ferry boat when there just isn’t any more room, or persuading the Italian custom men that all British racing cars use Ferrari engines, and so on.
Earlier this season there was a complete blockage at a frontier into Italy and both the Firestone service van and the Goodyear service van were held up because this was not right or that was not right. Invariably there are too many tyres in the vans for the amount of paperwork, or they are the wrong size, or the wrong shape. Stalemate seemed to have arrived, when one of the Firestone lads had the bright idea of pointing out that their tyres were for Ferrari, and if they did not get to Monza promptly the Fords would win. In no time at all the Firestone truck was on its way, leaving the Goodyear chaps trying to think up a good story.
Photo Caption: Porsche put all their eggs in one big basket. This vast Mercedes-Benz lorry carries three Porsche prototypes and all the spares.
Apart from dealing with the problems of routes and paperwork, the racing mechanics have to drive and maintain the transporters; unless the team is like B.R.M., and Vanwall before that, where one man looks after transport alone. Without a resourceful chap among your mechanics you can be completely bogged down, even though you have the most skilled mechanics in the game, and all teams need a man who can improvise out in the fields, not only at a race but on the journeys to and from. Even today, when good transport is available, you still hear stories of teams arriving late because the transporter broke down. Not only the racing car teams, but all the tyre, fuel, oil, plugs, brakes, people as well must have reliable transport, especially for a big championship meeting where everyone has a service van, and all the chaps who drive them must know what they are doing, especially on a trip over the mountains to Italy. These days most of the drivers and important(!) people in a racing team go by air and drive a Rent-car the few miles to the circuit and have little idea of what has been going on with getting the transporters from base to the circuit. Quite often a team will have transporter trouble, or a mountain pass will be blocked, or floods will hold them up, and when they arrive, having been up all night, they are usually greeted with “Where have you been?” by the drivers or team-manager, which, does not go down well, for no racing mechanic will deliberately be late, rather the opposite. There often comes a time when a drastic decision has to be made on the spot, and once made there is no turning back. One such occasion was when the mechanic who was heading for Italy from England with a saloon car carrying all the odds and ends, such as spare wheels, tools, racing jacks, fuel churns, oil, funnels and so on, was due to meet his team out at the race, they having gone ahead with the racing car, to the Ferrari factory. When he entered France the customs men asked for a £30 deposit to be left with them, on account of all the equipment he was carrying. He took all the paperwork with the knowledge that he would get his £30 back when he went out of France and into Switzerland, but he also knew that French customs did not deal with anything commercial on Sundays and it was now late Saturday afternoon. He drove like mad across France, stopping for nothing, and got to the frontier at five minutes past midnight, to be told that he would have to wait 24 hours as it was now Sunday and the man who dealt with commercial paperwork had gone. After a lot of shouting and arguing he got nowhere; it was Sunday and commercial transport problems could not be dealt with until Monday, he would have to go back to the nearest town and wait 24 hours; nor was he allowed to forfeit his deposit and go, the paperwork had to be cleared — on Monday morning. This was desperate as he had to catch a boat from Naples and there were not 24 hours to spare, so desperate measures were needed. Scooping up all his paperwork he leapt into the car and drove back into the French darkness and consulted a map. There was another frontier post into Switzerland not far away and he motored off to it and luckily the customs man was in his office so our friend rushed in with passport and insurance card for the car and made out he was a happy tourist with “just personal affairs in the car,” making no mention of the commercial paperwork or the £30 deposit, and the customs man waved him through into Switzerland! He never did get his £30 back but the situation was desperate and it was a question of knowing when to cut your losses.
Photo Caption: Big Bedford. — The Brabham Grand Prix team travel complete in this vast transporter built on a coach chassis. It failed to get under a bridge at Le Mans by half an inch, which resulted in “having to go” a long way round.
Some racing teams spend nearly as much on their transport equipment as they do on the racing cars, and if you are intending to do a full European season this is a wise investment, which will last a number of years. The Brabham team got themselves a large Bedford diesel motor coach which they converted to carry three racing cars, all the equipment and a small living compartment as well. It pays to spend time and money on the driving cab and passenger accommodation for quite often these big transporters will run non-stop for three days, apart from refuelling and a brief meal, the mechanics taking 6 or 8-hour driving shifts, while the others sleep in bunks or relax in big armchair-type seats. The Tyrell racing team bought one of the Leyland bus chassis that should have gone to Cuba some while ago, but the ship sank in the Thames. In spite of having been in the sea these Leylands were so well protected that they were still new when retrieved, and Tyrell had a large van-type body made for him by Tiverton coachbuilders and his whole Matra team are carried in it. Just before writing this article I helped Tyrell plan two interesting trips for this vast transporter, one from Vienna to Madrid in not more than three days, and the other from near Stockholm to Naples in under three days, in order to catch a boat for Sicily. These two trips are at the height of the tourist season when Central Europe is a ghastly black-spot of traffic congestion and creeping sight-seeing cars. On these trips the three mechanics drive in shifts and the big Leyland will cruise relentlessly on through day and night. When it arrives the mechanics then have to prepare the racing cars, but that is another story.
All these problems also affect the accessory firms who support racing and on week days there is a veritable caravan of brightly coloured vans moving about Europe, and none of them can afford to be unreliable, for it’s no use having racing cars at a circuit if you do not have the tyre trucks for example. In order to make sure they would not have trouble the Firestone Racing Department bought two brand-new Ford diesel vans at the beginning of this season, but this did not settle their transport problems for the first engine broke a connecting rod after 5,000 miles and the second truck did the same thing after 9,000 miles, and the season had barely started. This in itself was bad enough, but the second truck was in Sicily for the Targa Florio when it happened. Once again, desperate conditions called for desperate measures, so the head man of Ford (England) received a curt telegram that said in effect “Your van has dropped us in the sherbert, what are you going to do about it?” Ford very promptly flew an engine out to Sicily, but in the meantime the tyre boys had to get on with the job in hand. They got the derelict truck towed to the paddock and operated from there, borrowing cars and small vans from Goodyear for local transport. The following week-end they had to be at Siracusa so they arranged for the new engine to be sent there and to have the derelict Ford and its precious load of Grand Prix tyres for Ferrari, towed from the Targa-Florio paddock to Siracusa. Now that sounds easy enough and it would have been but for a number of small but important items. The route is almost solid mountain the whole way, the Ford D800 has vacuum power brakes, so with no engine there are no brakes, you are not legally allowed to tow in Sicily, and there was not a low-loader big enough to take a D800 Ford. Firestone’s “bright Herbert” fixed things, however, and a local Sicilian with a big Fiat lorry came up with a solid tow-bar and they set off trying to look like two entirely independent trucks. It took two days to do the trip, which included taking a wrong turning and having to reverse down a mountain side, breaking the tow-bar and getting fined “on the spot” by a mobile policeman. When they arrived, the fitter who had been at the wheel of the Ford had to be put to bed with the curtains drawn! Ferrari won the race, on Firestone tyres, and back in England everything appeared to have gone smoothly, there were no complaints about lack of racing tyres at Siracusa; but I wonder if the ad-men who wrote “Ferrari win on Firestone” had the slightest idea of what had been happening. The new engine duly arrived and the following week the truck was back in service, but had the racing service mechanics been like a lot of English workers they would have sat on their backsides in Palermo and waited for “someone in authority” to sort things out. Happily people with that mentality do not get into the racing game; if there were “union men” or shop stewards in motor racing there would very soon be no motor racing.
Any racing mechanic or accessory man will tell you of amusing, frightening, or arduous happenings that they have to overcome in the course of their travels, which are in addition to the things they have to cope with while they are actually at the races. One team was happily bowling along through France with two racing cars in the van and a third on a trailer behind the van. It was a lovely summer evening and as they drove along they remarked on the interesting shadow that the setting sun was casting in the open fields on their right side. “That’s strange,” they said, “the sun makes a beautiful shadow of the van, but there is no shadow – – – – of – – – – the – – – trailer!” They retraced their steps and found the trailer and racing car lying undamaged on the grass verge, with a broken ball-hitch. Another team who have a really big Commer van were having some trouble with the fuel feed, so they stopped and the lads got underneath to work on the piping. It was broad daylight and while lying there they heard a terrible crash. ” Someone’s had an accident,” they said, and climbed out from under their lorry to find that a Frenchman in a Renault Dauphine had run slap into the back of their van, demolishing his bumper, headlamps and the front of the bodywork. He was terribly apologetic and said he had not seen the van, even though the road was dead straight, flat and open. He drove away, still apologising, while the two mechanics got back underneath and got on with the fuel system problem. They still find the whole affair difficult to believe, because the big Commer did not even vibrate, let alone move, on the impact.
Transport problems are not confined to big teams and large lorries alone, for recently two young fellows have been campaigning an M.G.-B in the long-distance events and have been transporting it on a trailer behind an M.G. Magnette saloon. On one long trip they were accompanied by a friend in a standard M.G.-B and by chance it was fitted with a towing-hitch. The Magnette saloon broke down, time was short and there was still a lot of distance to cover, so they unloaded the racing M.G., put the broken Magnette saloon on the trailer, hitched it up behind the friend’s standard M.G.-B and carried on their way, driving the racing M.G. on ahead. They arrived at their next race well on time and sorted everything out in the paddock, but the organisers must have wondered what it was all about when they saw the rather-tired-looking old Magnette saloon arriving on a trailer.
The actual problems of competing in a big International race in Europe are really quite small compared with those that can arise before you even get to the meeting, let alone those that crop up after the race is over. There have been many instances of teams arriving, back home weeks after an event is over, due to transport problems. “Goodbye, see you back in England” their friends say as they drive off. Then it all starts to happen, the starter will not work, a wheel breaks off the trailer, a big-end goes on the tow-car, they get run into by a Volkswagen. It is most unlikely that any team has ever had a trouble-free season and quite often you do not hear about these things until long after the event, for the people behind-the-scenes in International motor racing are a happy crowd and do not go about moaning and grumbling, it is all accepted as part of the nomadic life that is motor racing.
When next you read that Brabham won in Spain, or Stewart won in Sicily, spare a thought for what might have been going on in Europe in order to achieve those results. — D. S. J.
Photo Caption: On the Road. — Sometimes you come up behind these big vans carrying racing cars in some remote part of Europe.