Grand Prix Practice



Could it be improved?

Without delving into the archives or pouring over history books I could not say exactly when the idea of practicing for a race first caught on. It is pretty certain that drivers did not practice the routes of the early town-to-town races at the start of the century, for in the beginning it was achievement enough to get from the start to the finish. Testing was certainly undertaken before an event and in that early motoring novel of the Williamsons mention is made of Fournier testing a racing Mors along the poplar-lined straight near Arles in the south of France, and Algernon Guiness has told how the V8 Darracq of 1904 was tested for speed across Hartford Bridge Flats in Hampshire, where Blackbushe Airport now stands. In those days it was sufficient to test the racing car for speed alone, for cornering and circuit racing as we know it today did not exist. Those were the days of the racing motorist as distinct from the racing driver.

For many years now practice for a Grand Prix race has been something of a ritual, with drivers doing all they could to get the best lap times, for the starting grid is made up in order of lap times recorded during official practice, or training, as it is known in European language. For some drivers, like Ascari, Fangio and Clark it was a personal point of honour to make the fastest practice lap and be on pole-position on the starting grid. Most drivers are content to try as hard as they can in the hope that theirs will be the best time; few are confident enough to make a personal issue of it, even Moss could not guarantee a fastest lap, like Fangio or Clark could. A driver like Clark, who could make fastest practice lap and lead the race from the first corner to the chequered flag, could he said to have dominated that Grand Prix. To win a race from the back of the grid shows brilliant driving, but not domination of the entire meeting, for these days practice is nearly as an important part of a Grand Prix as the race itself. More often than not the ultimate in lap times is set up in practice, because conditions can be perfect and the car can be running with very little petrol in the tanks and the circuit can be free of oil and rubber. In the days of Maserati and Pirelli racing tyres Fangio used to have a special set of tyres standing by for use if the opposition gave him trouble in the battle for pole position. These tyres were first worn to the optimum for dry-road cornering power, and when you saw his 250F Maserati being fitted with them you knew he was going to settle once and for all who was on pole position.

In the pre-war days of Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union many of the Grand Prix starting grids were decided by ballot among the works drivers, so that times in practice were of no use to the driver. However, they were of use to team managers, for in the days of three-car teams refuelling stops and tyre changes, tactics played a big part in racing. They were also useful to the technicians who were determining fuel consumption, tyre wear and engine reliability, for races were not short sprint affairs we have today.

Today, either because everyone knows everything about Grand Prix car design, or because they are all floundering about in the same darkness and slavishly following each other or the component specialists, racing is much more competitive and practice times on most circuits vary only a few seconds between the fastest and slowest of 20 cars and drivers. The starting grid can be decided by the tremble in a timekeeper’s hand if hand timing is used, and the accuracy of two or more watches, or if electric beam timing is used the pole position may be decided by a mere one-hundredth of a second. When practice begins everyone circulates as and when he feels like it, and at any speed he wants to, and the timekeepers record every lap for every car, the timekeeper’s assistants keeping the records from the master sheets of figures. At the end of practice, or at intervals of, say, 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the organisation, the fastest lap recorded by each competitor is listed in descending order and everyone cross-checks to see if their own observations agree with the official times. It is all very accurate and honourable, but until it is all over no one gets any benefit from all the effort. Occasionally, as at Francorchamps or Reims, the local commentator is clued up and keeps a stop-watch on the faster drivers so that spectators get a rough idea of what is happening, and if he sees someone make a very fast lap he gets immediate confirmation from the timekeepers. But whatever happens you never get the opportunity to witness a fastest lap, you only know that “so-and-so” has just made the fastest lap. Occasionally, and if you happen to be following practice closely, that driver’s next lap may be even faster and your own stop-watch will give you the feeling of speed and tension, but he may be half-way round on his slowing-down lap before the timekeepers can say officially whether it was the fastest or not.

I think the time has come for a change in procedure, in order that more people may enjoy official practice. We could do no better than to follow the long-established lead of the United States Autoracing Club in the simple practice of qualifying trials for one car at a time. Since the “gold diggers” followed Jack Brabham and Cooper to Indianapolis they have brought back to Europe many U.S.A.C. ideas, such as space-helmets, fire-proof suits, seat harness, face masks, safety fences, guard rails, roll-over bars and many other things all designed to protect or benefit the driver. So how about bringing over a U.S.A.C. principle to benefit the spectator and race-follower? At Indianapolis there are only 33 places available on the starting grid and there are usually more than twice that number of entries. Qualifying is carried out to pick the fastest 33 cars and drivers out of the total entry, and the decision is made on the average speed for four flying laps of the Indiana Speedway. There are no ifs and buts, you know when you have to attempt the four laps, and your speed decides whether you are in or not. If you are in it also decides where you are positioned on the starting grid.

I would like to see this system brought into use in Grand Prix racing, especially now that most Grand Prix races are run on closed circuits or tracks, where the available time is not limited. This system would not be possible at Francorchamps, or Rouen, or Reims, as on those circuits racing is on public roads closed for the occasion and the time available is limited. But at Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Zandvoort, Jarama, Monza, Watkins Glen, Mexico City and South Africa the circuits are on private land and time is available. It could even be available in Monte Carlo, for didn’t their Royal Highnesses practically close the whole town all day for film-making!

The system would be quite simple, there would be free-for-all practice time from 9 a.m. to midday, or even 1 p.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. there would be qualifying trials over two flying laps, the total time to count for grid position. Drivers would draw a ballot for starting order for qualifying, and on most circuits with 18 or 20 entries as we get today, this would permit 10 minutes a car. At 2 p.m. precisely, on Friday, for example, Graham Hill would set off in his Lotus 49B and do one warming-up lap, two flying laps and one slowing-down lap. Then out would go the next driver, and so on through the 18 or 20 entries. On Saturday there could be another morning practice session, and in the afternoon further attempts to improve on Friday’s qualifying times, and in this way the starting grid would be drawn up. If this seems too much, then let us have free-for-all practice all day Friday and qualifying on Saturday morning, giving time for final preparation for the Sunday race. I am not suggesting this for the Nurburgring, that is a one-off special circuit that can stand on its own, I am only suggesting it for closed tracks of the stadium type.

Now, so far so good, but as yet we have not really benefited from the new scheme. At circuits such as Brands Hatch, Silverstone or Zandvoort a large two-faced clock must be erected high above the centre of the pit area, where it can be seen from the main grandstands and enclosures. It would need to be at least six feet in diameter with a sweep of one revolution per minute and should be coupled directly to the official time recorders. If we did the job properly we could have a very large digital counter that was the official time recorder. As each driver does his two flying laps practically everyone at the circuit could follow his progress and a really good announcer could have the grandstands packed with excited race followers. If the whole affair was handled with competent publicity and put over as an exciting entertainment I guarantee that the crowds on practice days would nearly equal those of race days. It is just this sort of production that draws 250,000 people to the qualifying trials at Indianapolis. European race promoters are always moaning that they do not make enough money, or that the Grand Prix teams demand such high starting money that it takes away all the profit, yet they do very little to attract more people. Race publicity today is no improvement on what it was 20 years ago. If the Grand Prix teams are demanding too much appearance money, then let us make them put on more of a show and let the spectator, who pays to get in, have more fun. Just imagine Monza in September, on a hot Saturday afternoon and everyone knows that at 4.30 p.m. Chris Amon is to make his qualifying attempt in the V12 Ferrari. The stands would be packed with screaming Italians, and if they could see on a big clock that his first flying lap was two-fifths of a second faster than the best up to that time, how they would cheer him all the way round his second lap. Even at Silverstone there would be a rush for the best grandstand positions on Friday if it was known beforehand that Graham Hill was going to qualify in the Lotus 49B at 3.40 p.m., and I bet there would be a great cheer as he crossed the line after his two laps. The rising tension as the stars came out one at a time to give everything they had got for two laps on a clear track would be enormous, and handled properly it might draw bigger crowds than race-day itself, which would confound the money grabbers.

As things are at the moment, practice can be deadly dull to the spectators, with cars going round and round in what appears to be an aimless and disorderly fashion. The loudspeakers will suddenly say: “A new fastest lap; Stewart in the Matra has done 1 min. 26.25 sec.” You have no idea of when he did that lap, and even if you saw it you would not have known, but the keen race follower says to himself: “How marvellous, that puts him on pole position”. Surely he would have preferred to have seen Stewart do 1 min. 26.25 sec.? Of course he would, and I say it is high time organisers and the teams made an effort to let the paying public see the drivers earning their appearance money, apart from the first five laps of the race, before the field sort themselves out into a procession.

There are snags to the idea, just as there are snags at Indianapolis and other U.S.A.C. races. It can rain half-way through qualifying, one of the cars can drop oil, an engine can go off song, people can cheat, with special “qualifying engines”, but none of these things are insuperable in the long run, and I am sure the benefits to the onlooker would be great, and, after all, they provide the “starting money”. At the British Grand Prix there would be the cry, “What about the supporting races?” I say do away with them; if a Grand Prix for the world’s top drivers was organised properly there would be no need for supporting races. There is so much saloon car racing, Formula Three, historic racing, and sports car racing going on in Britain every weekend that we could surely give it a rest at Grand Prix time.

So far the people I have discussed this idea with have been for it, certainly not against it, and all it wants is a go-ahead organisation, such as the Watkins Glen group who run the United States Grand Prix, to put it into practice.—D. S. J.