Reflections in the Auvergne

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I was beginning to think I would never see any real Grand Prix racing anymore, but the Grand Prix of France has restored my faith. By tiny standards, racing on the Circuit of Charade is what Grand Prix racing should be, a superb test of driving skill with the best machinery that makes ordinary mortals like you and me mop our brow and mutter “Cor!”. The aces were averaging 100 m.p.h. round the 5-mile circuit with its 50 or 51 corners, including two first-gear hairpins, and yet there is only one brief straight in which I could just see an indicated 100 m.p.h., for about one tenth of a second, in the E-type Jaguar. This circuit was not designed on a drawing board, it grew from the normal roads around the hills, which tend to follow contours of the land and take natural paths around obstacles like rock outcrops. The original tracks were probably trod by animals or shepherds wandering the hills with sheep or goats. Motoring about in the Auvergne Country you across stretches of road running down a hillside that are exactly the same shape as parts of the Charade Circuit, except that they are narrower and tough and bumpy, whereas the circuit is beautifully smooth, though it could be a bit wider in places. I am not saying that the Charade is the best in Europe, but it does offer some pretty serious motor racing possibilities, and while the paddock is appalling, the pits pathetically small, like Brands Hatch, and the services are primitive, the circuit itself more than makes up for these deficiencies. The mechanics and pit people may not have been enjoying themselves, but I am sure the drivers were.

Whereas Autodromes like Buenos Aires, Kyalami, Jarama, Nivelles and Paul Ricard, each have one, or possibly two, interesting or challenging corners for the drivers, the Charade, like the Nurburgring, has more than they can remember, and I am sure a lot of those taking part in this year’s Grand Prix of France were discovering real motor racing again. Amon once said of Spa-Francorchamps that while he did not like it too much, when he achieved a really perfect lap, with every corner taken on exactly the right line at exactly the right speed, he got enormous self-satisfaction from it and reckoned that that was the whole point of Grand Prix driving. Doing that is what is known as “putting-one together absolutely right”, and to do that at Nurburgring is really satisfying, but to do it at Jarama, for example, causes no great excitement, because it is not terribly difficult to do. To “put one together right” at Charade is satisfying enough for anyone, not that many of them did, but Amon certainly did during his chase up to third place after his pit stop. At the end he was more radiant about the terrific job of driving he knew he had just done, than he was depressed at having lost the Grand Prix of France after having it in his pocket.

There was a great deal of ticking going on about the stones on the track, and particularly unfortunate was the accident they caused to Helmut Marko, which may have put paid to his racing career, but before we all get too hysterical about it lets establish one important fact. This is the question of who put the stones on the track ? The spectators didn’t, the marshals didn’t, the organisers didn’t. It was the drivers themselves, who let their wheels slide beyond the white lines, marking the edge of the tarmac, and nobody asked them, or told them, to go over the white lines. They did it themselves, in their eagerness to reduce their lap times. Now I am not going to say which drivers did this thing, it may have been the Formula One drivers, it may have been the Formula Three drivers, it may have been the national drivers in the Formula France race, but whoever it was, it was a driver, or drivers, taking part in the meeting. Obviously the matter does not end there, but if any driver can say to me “hand on heart, I never put a wheel over the white marker line”, then I will give him a medal; but it will he inscribed “Liar”. By stressing the fact that it was the drivers who shifted the stones from the loose edges onto the track itself is not to say that I hold the organisers blameless, but it is not the same situation as arose at Reims one year when the heat of the sun melted the track itself so that it became cut up and the stones began to fly. The track surface itself at Charade was perfect, but between the white lines and the Armco barriers or the rock faces there was earth and stones, which was just asking for trouble, for no racing driver worth his salt respects a white line or a kerb, if running over it will allow him to go faster. If the area between the white line and the Armco had been covered with tarmac, as was suggested, then everyone would have used that three or four feet of extra road width and then started complaining that the Armco barriers were too close to the edge of the track, especially if they skimmed the steel with a back wheel and graunched a magnesium wheel rim. The obvious answer is to replace the painted white lines, with bevelled kerbstones that you can run up in an emergency, but which you would not do from choice. The only snag to that, is the cost of ten miles of kerbs, especially when the pits and paddock are crying out for money. What a pity that Mr. Paul Ricard did not spend his money on the Charade Circuit instead of building his White Elephant down at Castellet.

Before the meeting I was standing in one of the official car parks, a field behind the grandstand, when we were all nearly blown flat on our faces, and those people eating sandwiches had them covered in dust. A gas-turbine powered two-man helicopter landed in our midst and it belonged to the “Protection Civile” and had stretchers on each side of the cockpit. During the Formula Three race it was the helicopter which took an injured driver to the Clermont-Ferrand hospital. Before it could do this it had to land beside the spot where the accident occurred, on a small clearing on the inside of a left-hand bend and by all accounts the marshals on the ground and the helicopter pilot did a superb piece of co-ordination to get the “chopper” down on this small space the hillside amongst the trees and bushes. The injured driver was put on a stretcher and the helicopter then made a fast bee-line for Clermont-Ferrand, where it landed in the hospital grounds, on a special landing area, for this system is used for transporting the victims of serious road accidents in the Auvergne all the year round. Back at my hotel that evening the “patron” said he knew that there had been an accident at the circuit as he saw the helicopter hurrying across the valley on its way to the hospital in Clermont-Ferrand. Normally helicopters seem to hover about or circle around looking for trouble, and you can tell when they have found it for they then travel quite quickly in a very straight line, which is unusual for a helicopter.

While on the driver protection side of the organisation it is worth mentioning that the organisers tried the experiment of having a car following the race on the opening lap. This was a 914/6 Porsche driven by a racing driver and carrying a doctor, medical equipment and a certain amount of fire fighting equipment. In this case the Porsche was driven by Vic Elford, and he set off after the Formula Three cars had started and arrived at the first lap accident while the dust was still flying. There was no fire but the extra equipment the doctor had with him came in very useful. Elford also started oft with the Grand Prix cars, at the back of the grid and had finished his lap before Amon, Hulme and Stewart finished their second one, so more of the drivers actually saw the Porsche and as there were no first lap incidents it’s equipment was not used. Later, when Marko had his accident Elford was able to whip extra medical aid round to the scene of the incident very quickly indeed.

Although the pits were small and primitive, like those of Brands Hatch, there was one useful thing there. This was a smooth flat area large enough to take a Grand Prix car, and it was for the scrutineers to set up balances if they wanted to weigh a car or find out about weight on each wheel, and so on. Some of the teams were finding it very useful for adjusting their suspension settings. It is a small inexpensive item that could be built at all circuits and would be very much appreciated by a lot of people, especially R.A.C. scrutineers after a British Grand Prix when they want to measure the height of a rear aerofoil.

Two small items to end with, one was the exciting commentary in French and English at the start of the Formula Three “warm-up” lap because nobody told the commentators there was going to be one and they thought the race had started. The red faces, in French and English, when they realised their mistake, were very funny. They said afterwards that they were not convinced it was the start of the race. but had to make a running commentary, just in case it was. The second small item was the official prize-giving on the evening after the race in the casino in Royat, in the presence of the deputy Mayor of Clermont-Ferrand. It seems that the only prize-winner who had the decency to attend was Emerson Fittipaldi, the others presumably had more important things to do. Graham Hill, Pescarolo and Depailler turned up to assist, and I feel they should have been given the prize money of those who did not turn up. A small matter, but important in the life of a racing driver. — D. S. J.

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