Continental Notes, August 1968

Now that France has got over its political upheavals the motoring scene has returned to normal, but the situation caused a lot of worry for organisers, and hardest hit must surely be Le Mans. The F.I.A. have granted the French permission to run the 24-hour race on September 28/29th and Le Mans enthusiasts say “better late than never”, but a lot more people would have preferred the A.C. de l’Ouest to have cut their losses and cancelled the race for this year. The Club are determined to go ahead with the event, as they have already had an outlay of some £10,000 on advance publicity alone, and even if they do not make their usual vast profit they will be satisfied to make a small profit or merely break even. In view of the fact that it will get dark much earlier at the end of September than in mid-summer, and will stay dark longer on Sunday morning, the Club have obviously had mis-givings about the attraction for the public, so they have advanced the start from the traditional 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon to 3 p.m., the race finishing on Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m. If there is one thing that Le Mans thrives on it is tradition, so it will be interesting to see what the outcome of the 1968 Le Mans 24-hour race will be, starting at 3 p.m. and being held at the end of September.

When you think of the enormous undertaking that such an event involves, not only for competitors but for organisers, it makes you realise that the decision to postpone the event could not have been made lightly. Apart from all the pre-race publicity that came to nought and had to be scrapped, imagine the question of food and drink for the 30,000 people around the pit area and the village. At Le Mans the public are not content with hot dogs and plastic sandwiches wrapped in celophane, like the public at Brands Hatch, they want proper food and drink, and they want it for 24 hours. Restaurants providing three and four course meals are needed throughout Saturday and Sunday and the organisation and supply of provisions is enormous. Sideshows, exhibitions and non-motor racing attractions abound, and all had to be booked and prepared weeks in advance; the French Radio and Television run a gigantic open-air cabaret on Saturday night and top variety artists and big bands are booked up, fairground and circus people make an annual pilgrimage to Le Mans, and all this was suddenly stopped in mid-flight and postponed for three months. It must have been a nightmare for the organisers, the trades-people, the entertainment world and the public services. Their next problem is what sort of crowd should they cater for in September, will there be the usual crowd of 250,000 or will it be 25,000? One thing is certain and that is that hot food and hot drinks, to say nothing of hot water bottles, will be at a premium, especially during the early hours of Sunday morning.

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The other big French meeting that was affected by the political strife was the Reims Feast of Speed and Champagne, on the super-fast triangular Reims-Geux road circuit. The decision here is to run half the meeting on September 15th, rather than no meeting at all, but unfortunately the Automobile Club du Champagne have decided to run the wrong half, for the 12-hour sports car race has been cancelled and they are running F2 and F3 races only. With Le Mans only two weeks later they did not feel justified in running their 12-hour event, which is reasonable. Those people who keep crying out for close racing should go to Reims on September 15th, for Formula Two cars and Formula Three cars on the very fast Marne circuit are relatively so slow that anyone can be at the head of a pack of cars at the finish, and quite often “anyone” is. It is certainly close, but is it racing? I really lost interest in “slow” cars at Reims when I saw Alan Rees beat Jack Brabham in the last quarter mile merely on power-to-weight ratio. Their cars were identical and had the same maximum speed, but there must have been half a hundred-weight difference in their personal weight, and this was the deciding factor as they accelerated from 80 m.p.h. to 120 m.p.h. It was close, but was it racing? And Formula Three at Reims, as I once remarked, is so close that the first driver to raise his hand as they cross the line is the winner. Now 600 b.h.p. U.S.A.C. Indianapolis-type cars at Reims would be different.

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While all the Grand Prix cars are busy racing this season there is a lot of design and development work going on behind the scenes on what might well prove to be the beginning of a new era. It is certainly time we started on a new era in Grand Prix design, for we have been stuck with the existing layout for longer than is reasonable. If racing car design is progressing correctly then it undergoes a radical change every 10 or 15 years. After starting with the primitive horseless carriage in 1895 we went through the stage of the monster 10 or 12-litre giants of the Edwardian period, to the comparatively small and sophisticated cars of the period just before 1914. In the vintage years of 1920-1930 we settled for nicely-engineered front-engined 8-cylinder cars, culminating in the Monoposto Alfa-Romeos and Maseratis of the early ‘thirties, when conventional meant front mounted supercharged straight-eight engine, channel-section chassis frame, leaf springs and beam axles, with the fuel tank forming the pointed tail. Then we passed into the Teutonic age when Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union swept us forward in a wave of light-weight engineering, high power outputs, all-round independent suspension, streamlining and other technical advances, culminating in very sophisticated two-stage supercharged high revving engines, and the real beginnings of serious design thought in chassis and suspension. This era lasted from 1933-1939 and the backwash carried us on through 1947 to 1951, when we started on the unsupercharged engine era, when circuit speeds were increased by chassis and suspension design rather than sheer power. The design accent continued on road-holding from 1951-60 and we then arrived on the threshold of the era of the rear-engined racing car, with all four wheels sprung independently by very scientific and geometrical means and from 1960 to 1968 the design layout of the Grand Prix car has been more or less stagnant, only detail work improving. Chassis and suspension design has reached a very highly developed state today, but seems to have come to the end of the road. Since the introduction of the 3-litre engine limit in 1966 the Grand Prix engine has begun to develop real power and today’s cars are getting very big and fierce. The present conception of a Grand Prix car has been with us now for eight years and if all the work going on behind the seems comes to fruition I feel sure we are on the threshold of an interesting new era.

One thing that is receiving a lot of attention is the question of 4-wheel-drive but not in the simple way of a jeep or tractor. It would be better to describe the research that is going on as an investigation into the division of available horsepower between all four wheels, as and when desired. This will inevitably bring with it some serious thought on the question of the prime-mover, or engine, and the old-fashioned poppet-valve V8 and V12 engines may well be on their way out. With a change in the thinking about the prime-mover will come a change in the mechanical layout of the Grand Prix car, and Indianapolis has already given us a lead, even though U.S.A.C. officialdom is doing its best to stunt progress by restrictions, even going to the extent of banning 4-wheel-drive.

When the prototype Matra V12 first appeared it had a thick flange welded on the top of its Hewland gearbox, (a masterpiece of alloy welding it was) and this had a circle of studs and a cover plate on it. Enquiries as to its purpose ellicited the information that it was an experimental set-up for driving a pump, “for cooling the driver, or something” it was suggested with a grin. It later transpired that this pump was a hydraulic one, and in connection with a probe into 4-wheel-drive whereby the front wheels were driven by hydraulic motors mounted in the front hubs, the pressure piping running the length of the car from the pump mounted on the top of the gearbox/differential unit. In a not-so-remote part of Europe, there have been sounds from a test-track of a vehicle with an exhaust note the like of which has never before been heard on a racing circuit. With new forms of wheel suspension already on test by Lotus and Alpine, and 4-wheel-drive protects by Matra and Cosworth I feel sure the conception of the Grand Prix car is about to undergo a radical change. Already this season the question of aerodynamics has caught on in a big way, and whereas the Chaparral “wing” was a rare sight and a novelty, a Grand Prix car today without some form of air-deflector somewhere looks strangely naked. While I am convinced that sound aerodynamics applied to a racing car must be beneficial I am not so sure that all the things being done at present are sound. An example is the claims of Ferrari and McLaren for their aerofoils, for they are of comparable size and position and while Ferrari claim 50 lb. downward thrust. McLaren claims 200 lb. If Ferrari get only 50 lb. from their “wing” then the effect of the little sheet of aluminium above the gearbox as tried by the Matra V12 and the Honda V12 must be negligible. Lotus are only waiting for the development of two-pedal control to introduce driver controlled aerodynamics, so that with fully automated 4-wheel-drive, some new thinking on prime-movers, and revolutions in suspension systems, the overdue new era cannot be far away.D. S. J.