Reflections in the dust of Castellet

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With the Grand Prix of France taking place on the newly-built multi-million-pound Paul Ricard circuit alongside the Castellet aerodrome, about equi-distant from Marseilles and Toulon, it was natural that the circuit was the main topic of conversation. Before anyone else credits or blames me with the following opinion, and it was being done in the paddock before the meeting was over, I must quote Robin Herd, the March designer, on the subject of M. Paul Ricard’s 1970 monument to motor racing. Herd said he thought it was rather sad to think that when we were on our way to the 1987 Monaco Grand Prix we should take time to turn off the Autoroute after Aix-en-Province and drive into the hills, to stand in the quietness of the scrubland and look at the great, crumbling, disused stadium, all broken down and overgrown, and recall where Amon once spun off and Stewart had a slight accident, and then continue on our way to Monte Carlo. That was Robin Herd’s opinion of the whole vast and extravagant affair of the Paul Ricard circuit and all I can say is that he said it before I did. There have always been monuments and follies built by man in his enthusiasm to create things, some of them artistic, some of them political and others of a sporting nature. In Spain you can see the Sitges banked track, in England the Brooklands track, in N. Africa the Mellaha concrete wonder at Tripoli, in Northern France the Reims circuit, in Southern France the Miramas autodrome, and so it goes on. In Germany you can still visit Hitler’s fantastic stadium at Nürnberg, in England you can visit Stonehenge; all wonders of the world created by that ever-ingenious animal known as Man.

My overall feeling about the Paul Ricard circuit is that while the man’s philanthropy is admirable I am not sure that European motor racing is strong enough, or rich enough, to afford such a luxury, or to keep it going. Already there is talk of the Grand Prix of France going to Clermont-Ferrand next year and Rouen the year after. If this is so, what is going to happen at the Paul Ricard circuit in the meantime; it surely cannot be supported by lesser racing. Maybe Mr. Ricard does not want to see any profit back on the money he has spent, considering the free publicity he has got for his drinks firm as sufficient return for the expenditure, but having built the circuit there is now the question of upkeep costs and maintenance. How long is he prepared to go on paying for that, for I am sure French motor racing cannot afford to pay for it.

Some people were bemoaning the fact that he had spent all this money on a new circuit that was not very interesting, when France already had some good circuits that were badly in need of money. This is where the philanthropy of Mr. Ricard wears a bit thin and the business man shows through. I cannot imagine the head of the southern drink Pastis financing the rebuilding of the Reims circuit in the Champagne country, or of a native of Marseilles financing the rebuilding of Montlhéry track near Paris, or going even further north to Rouen, while the thought of the autocratic Le Mans group letting anyone else in on their money-spinner is out of the question. Mr. Ricard had to go it alone, and the arid wastes of the CasteIlet country was the only possible place. If we were to hold all the European Grand Prix races at the Paul Ricard circuit, enlarging the aerodrome to take Jumbo jets and Concordes full of spectators the whole project might work, but then I think some of the drivers would get a little tired of the “flat and featureless circuit” as Surtees considered it, and the “Mickey Mouse” infield part between the end of the back straight and the pits, as Rodriguez described it. They might long for the steep hills of the Nurburgring and the Osterreichring, the tunnel and streets of Monte Carlo, the blind brows of Barcelona, even the Curva Grande of Monza and the hairpins of Zandvoort, to say nothing of the BurnenviIle bend and the Masta “kink” at Francorchamps, or even the White House bends at Le Mans. Time is fast running out, mistakes made in the nineteen seventies might be everlasting and irreparable. By all means let us enthuse over the Paul Ricard Circuit, for no once else will, but do not let us go berserk in our enthusiasm. It was not so long ago that we enthused over the Jarama circuit at Madrid and next year we will be enthusing over the new Belgian circuit at Nivelles, but while we are enthusing we must not forget what it is that we are enthusing about. That great rugged Swedish rally expert Eric Carlsson was at Paul Ricard and posed the question of whether I thought the circuit was safe enough for the Grand Prix drivers to race on? When I said that I was certain it was safe enough for them, he looked thoughtful for a moment and then said: “And when all the circuits are like this don’t you think some of them might find it a little dull after a time and long for a little danger in their lives as racing drivers?” My reply was simple, “Yes, but I’m afraid that when that happens it may be too late.”

There was a time when the French Grand Prix was the only Grand Prix and later when there were others it was the greatest Grand Prix. For many years it kept this distinction and during the time it was held at Reims it was always a classic occasion of motor racing in the Grand Manner. You have only to look back on comparatively recent French GP events at Reims to recall classic occasions like Hawthorn beating Fangio by mere yards, the appearance of the revolutionary all-enveloping Mercedes-Benz, the sight of Harry Schell showing that Tony Vanderwell had at last got a competitive British-built Grand Prix car, or the incredible speed of the little rear-engined streamlined Cooper-Climax driven by one Jack Brabham. In 1967 the Automobile Club of France killed their Grand Prix, not in floods of tears but in hoots of laughter and derision, when they held it on the Bugatti Circuit within the car parks of the Le Mans circuit. In 1968 the “new boys” of the FFSA took over the race and since then it has been a mere shadow of its former great self, flitting to Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand and now Paul Ricard. We may be in times of great change, and changes may be for the good, but at times I worry about it because the way things are going means that all those people involved in motor racing over the past 70 years or more have been wrong. Fortunately there are still straws for me to grasp at, like the Indianapolis 500 still being 500 miles long and the most important race in America, the Targa Florio still being run in the Sicilian mountains, the Le Mans race still being for 24 hours and the motorcycle TT races still being run in the Isle of Man.

Sometimes I think I am alone in my vain grasping at what I feel motor racing has always been about, at other times there comes a breath of hope in something a new driver will say instinctively, like Derek Bell’s 160 m.p.h. laps at Francorchamps or a letter from a 14-year-old reader, or the support of readers older than myself, but time is running out, more people must stop and reflect a little on where we are all going and why.

The pit area at Castellet is so vast and clinical that it almost became a bore and the great three-storey concrete complex of pits, reception rooms, and Press room in ascending order, was almost too much. The Press room was large enough to hold all the world’s motor racing journalists, both genuine and false, with ease. It was air conditioned, Pastis Ricard was on tap, and the windows were of darkened glass. While the warm-up practice session was in progress just before the start of the Grand Prix I decided to go away from the burly-burly and mob in the pit area, and I walked down to the corners at the far end of the circuit. I spent a most enjoyable afternoon at surprisingly close quarters to the race, in comparison with the unreal and cut-off feeling I got in the special Press stand. I was able to see at first hand the incidents involving Regazzoni, Hill, Rodriguez, Schenken and Wisell and it was all very exciting. I stood for a while on the outside of the fast bend leading on to the back straight, with only a single fence of wire mesh between me and the cars. Not being brave, I moved away to a safer distance and climbed up on a heap of rubble. Later I moved to the fast ess-bend leading into the chicane and sat on the Armco wall with the cars pointing straight at me as they changed direction in the middle of the 130-140 m.p.h. ess-bend. It was shattering, and I moved away for I felt my reflexes were not good enough to get me out of the way if Stewart’s Tyrrell broke a wishbone or something and hurtled towards me out of control, for the Armco wall might stop him but it would not stop the flying bits and pieces. It all seemed desperately dangerous and exciting, which is what I have always thought motor racing was all about, but the Paul Ricard circuit is superbly safe I keep reading. I suppose it is from the air-conditioned, darkened Press room!

The organisation was very friendly and well-meaning but somehow someone let a lot of tiresome Gendearmes into the paddock and pits during practice, presumably to control the non-workers. They failed miserably because by Saturday afternoon the whole pit area was overflowing with people who had no reason to be there, from small children to dogs, junkies to hippies, layabouts to spivs, plain simple yobos and a whole lot of nice ordinary French people who seemed to have just called in to wonder at the cars and the people of the Grand Prix circus at close quarters The organisation seemed to have given up all hope of control and there were little motorcycles being ridden along the pit road in the opposite direction to the racing cars. Practice ended in a complete and utter shambles, which had it been in Mexico City would have invoked the wrath of the GPDA and the FIA. The Paul Ricard affair was all so vast and unbelievable that I don’t think anyone noticed anything wrong. While on the organisation, the official programme was a complete joke; it was so full of money-making advertising that they forgot to put any information in it, while the photographs of some of the drivers were so old that you could still see their ears! When building this super new circuit the Marlboro cigarette firm were persuaded to pay for a very complex electric race-control system. Over the starting area is a great bridge that can be cranked up and down, though why I could not find out. (Someone suggested it was in case they wanted to have a race for double-decker buses.) Across this bridge, in the space that was not taken up by Marlboro advertising, was an illuminated digit clock recording the time of day to the very second, red, white and blue panels to depict the French flag, further lights to indicate minutes and seconds, and a panel that could be made to show words like STOP. All this, and the two supporting pillars, were surrounded by a myriad of small white lights, and the whole thing was nearly big enough to be seen from Toulon. The idea was to eliminate the Raymond Roches and Louis Chirons from the starting procedure. The system was that the final count-down would be shown on the illuminated panels, descending at 15 seconds a time, and as O came up the little lights all round the bridge would flash, and the panels representing the French flag would light up and the race would be on. There was a suggestion that dancing girls would appear on the bridge, rockets would go off and bands would play as well, but then someone else said “No, no, this is serious”. The “go button” was pressed for the start of the F3 race, but there was a delay between O and the flashing lights and the front row sat there while everyone else rushed past! For the Grand Prix a simple old-fashioned French flag was used. In addition to this masterpiece of electronic wizardry there were Marlboro signalling towers all round the circuit, consisting of a great pillar beside the track with a man on top connected by wires to the whole electrical complex. From these towers long booms extended out across the track, and on these were two orange and one blue light, various sequences of these lights being flashed to replace the old-fashioned flag marshals and their waving flags. It was electrically very commendable and supported the main theme at the circuit that no one was going to get hurt while a motor race was in progress. Unfortunately, the light signals had no way of indicating that a car had just laid a stream of oil, which is why Regazzoni went off. When Hill laid his oil there was a mad rush by course marshals to find the old-fashioned oil flag and wave it, having to climb over the barrier to do so, by which time it was virtually too late. Watching this electronic masterpiece at work caused me to have a bad dream, in which electronics and computers took over, and we ran our Grand Prix with cars without drivers in them, controlled by boffins in the pits. The spectators refused to come, saying they wanted real men in the cars and heroes to worship, so it was agreed that Grand Prix stars could lie in the cars, but they were not to touch anything. Then our Grand Prix was won by the best team of boffins, the victorious car stopped at the finishing line and when the lid was removed it was found that the driver, like the unfortunate Russian astronauts, was dead! I wonder if time is running out, or was it the heat?—D. S. J.