Reflections in the Bourgogne

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My reflections on the French Grand Prix actually began in the Department of the Marne, when I made a detour on the way to Dijon to re-visit the circuit of Reims-Gueux. It was here that some of the epics in the history of the French Grand Prix were enacted, and as I wandered round the desolate and crumbling pit area I shed a few silent tears for the long-gone days of motor racing in the Grand Manner. In the glorious days of the French Grand Prix at Reims, it always seemed so much more than just another motor race, it was a great occasion and the sun was always burning down on the plains of the Champagne country and everything started happening on Wednesday afternoon, mounting to a climax by Sunday afternoon when the Grand Prix took place. Everyone stayed in Reims itself, the racing cars were cared for in various garages in the town, and the whole scene centred around the main street of the town. The circuit was very fast, calling for more skill than bravery to take the long bend after the pits flat out, while sheer speed was all important down the hill to Thillois, with brakes being at a premium before the hairpin. In those far-off days drivers used to race side-by-side and wheel-to-wheel as they went between the pits and the grandstands absolutely flat-out; nowadays, they would be running in Indian-file, nose-to-tail. Anyone who saw the 158 Alfa Romeos there in 1950/51 will not forget the sound of that highly supercharged 400 horsepower 1-1/2 litre engine as Farina or Fangio went down the main Soissons to Reims road, nor will anyone ever forget the wheel-to-wheel battle between Fangio and Mike Hawthorn in 1953, while any British enthusiast who saw Harry Schell in the Vanwall in 1956 demonstrating that at last we had a real Grand Prix car from Britain in our midst, must cherish the day.

The French Grand Prix at Reims was always a great occasion, but today the circuit lies abandoned, the pits, the grandstands, the paddock installations, the time-keepers’ house, the floodlights for the night racing in the 12-hour sports car events, are all still there. Hooligans exist in France like in any other country, and most of the glass windows have been broken, while grass and weeds have grown up where once people sat and had a Champagne lunch opposite the pits, and the pits themselves have doors hanging off and Mother Nature spreading her greenery through the cracks in the concrete. The famous semi-circular bridge over the road, built in the form of the section of a Dunlop tyre, is still there, faded and forlorn, as is the big scoreboard and observation post at the Muizon hairpin where the back leg of the circuit joins the main N31. It was all very sad and as I wended my way along the Route de Champagne, towards Epernay, and on south to Dijon, to the new safety-circuit at Prenois, swathed in Armco barriers and wire-netting I found it hard to believe that I was going to the French Grand Prix of 1974. On the way I passed near Chateau-Thierry, where a famous hillclimb used to be held in the pioneer days of motor racing and I thought that no doubt when the last one was held some enthusiastic journalist shed a silent tear for the loss, and looked askance at the new era of sport that was beginning, that led to the Grand Prix races held at Reims. No doubt he wrote that the atmosphere at Reims in 1928 was not like it used to be a few kilometres away at Chateau-Thierry, in the “good old days”.

If it is true that civilisation has progressed in such a way that we can no longer race on the public roads and must build ourselves steel and wire-netting autodromes, then one has to accept the fact, and be grateful for having seen true road-racing such as took place at Reims. What worries me is that in years to come when civilisation progresses ever further and legislation forbids anyone to risk their life at anything, there will be enthusiasts looking at racing cars in museums and recalling with tears in their eyes those glorious days of the nineteen-seventies when great names like Peterson, Fittipaldi, and Lauda, were allowed to race the cars on the exciting Autodromes of Nivelles, DijonPrenois, Paul Ricard and Anderstorp.

The French Grand Prix, as we in Britain call it, has had a muddled history, for it all started in 1906 at Le Mans when the French ran the first true Formula race. It was called the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France and when other countries joined in with their Grand Prix events, in Italy, Germany, Belgium and Spain, they were simply called the Grand Prix of that country. The French continued to stick to their grandiose title of the Grand Prix de l’ACF until the old-guard were overthrown by the new French in the bloodless revolution in 1967/68, when the FFSA took over. In 1968 the first Grand Prix of France was held, at Rouen, which confused many people, but the Grand Prix de l’ACF was dead and had been buried on the Bugatti circuit at Le Mans in 1967. Since that time the French Grand Prix, as it is called in English, has led a nomadic life changing from one circuit to another as internal intrigue and business affairs have dictated its fate. Today it has no spiritual home, flitting from Rouen to Clermont-Ferrand, to Paul Ricard and now to DijonPrenois. Anyone or anything without a home cannot hope to have any status and thus it is with the French Grand Prix, once the pinnacle of Grand Prix racing. Nowadays people ask “Where is the French Grand Prix being held?” When the answer is Dijon-Prenois it is not surprising that the reaction is “Where?”

When this year’s race was finished there were those who were heard to say “Was that really the French Grand Prix?”. It had lasted exactly 1 hr. 21 min. 55.02 sec. and the fastest lap recorded was exactly 1 min. A great occasion? Not really, but it was a nice, clean, tidy little Formula One race, everyone had justified themselves, more or less, some had actually been seen Grand Prix racing, others had been seen to be at a Grand Prix race, the organisation had filled its coffers from the pockets of the 50,000 spectators and had paid the performers their agreed sum, and some of the performers had earned a bit of bonus. The circus folded its tents, packed its transporters and moved on to the next arena and everyone was happy and contented, sure in the knowledge that they have got a thriving business going and running pretty smoothly, with well-paid jobs for everyone and not too much unemployment. At least, I think they are all happy and contented. As a mere reporter on the scene, to try and record the happenings, it is not for me to be happy or sad, or so I am told by some. My sadness comes later when I think of the people beginning their interest for motor racing today, for I wonder if they have much to look forward to. But that’s what people were muttering in their beards when I first got interested in it all.

As a Formula One race the 7th Grand Prix of France was not bad, the result was satisfying for Lotus and Peterson fans, Ferrari was beaten, but not soundly thrashed, and second and third was no disgrace. If Lauda is to be believed Peterson only won because the Ferrari developed a “vibration in the front end” which prevented its driver from doing any heroics and forced him to drive with prudence rather than brio. It recalls a story of the days when the rear-engined car was in its infancy in Grand Prix days (the third time round, that is) and the driver of a Cooper-Climax stopped at his pit and said to his mechanic “There is a vibration in the back of the car”. As he was always moaning about something or other, and the mechanic was getting a bit tired of it, his reply was “Yes, you are right, it’s the engine”. There was no possibility of the engine being the vibration in the front of Lauda’s Ferrari, so there was no simple answer, and anyway, he did not stop at the pits to tell anyone, but finished a worthy second, trying hard enough to keep up with Peterson to ensure that he was out of sight of Regazzoni all the time, who finished in third place.

Because Lotus have not been setting the pace all this season, as was expected, there are those who consider Team Lotus to be all washed up. At the end of practice I was forced to point out to one of these Team Lotus knockers that Peterson had his Lotus 72 on the front row of the grid, alongside Lauda’s Ferrari and in front of 20 other competitors, many of whom, far from being “washed up”, had never even looked like getting into the “washing up” bowl. There is something about Peterson and the Lotus 72 that made me think about the mental attitude of him and Lauda on the front row. I felt that Lauda was thinking “I must beat Peterson into the first corner”, while Peterson was thinking “I must make a good start, because Lauda is going to try and beat me into the first corner”. During the opening laps I again sensed their thoughts, and these were Lauda thinking “My God, he’s gaining on me”, while Peterson’s were “Another two laps and I’ve got him”. Somehow the combination of car and driver seem to exude an overall personality and thought process. Although there were twenty more combinations in the race, or on the grid at least, no thought-processes were forthcoming, apart from the odd “I would rather like to get by that chap in front, if he will let me”.

Of the Formula Ford fracas on the starting line the less said the better, but at least Tom Pryce knows now that it’s the flag you watch, during the final few seconds, not the gauges. This time Hunt clobbered Pryce through no fault of his own, and it was only fair that Reutemann should have a miserable race, after starting the chain reaction by bumping into Pryce’s Shadow. Up to now the Hesketh team have not been doing too well and certainly not as well as many of their supporters suggested at the beginning of the season. Last year when Lord Hesketh appeared in Formula One racing there were those who thought the whole thing was just a big extravagant joke. It looks as though they may have been right.

The Dijon-Prenois circuit is a deceptive little place, for the lap times for the fast drivers were well under 60 sec., so that one got the impression of the circuit being something like a kart track, but in fact it is very nearly 3.3 kilometres to the lap (just over two miles). The average speed for the fastest lap was virtually 125 m.p.h., which was really quite impressive, bearing in mind the winding nature of the back leg, which not only twists but goes up and down as well; in fact, the starting grid was about the only part of the circuit on which you could stand a car and not have it roll away, either forwards or backwards. Almost all the corners are either over blind brows, descending, or climbing into a blind horizon, so the drivers were kept on their toes, but there is so little of the circuit that it was not very demanding to learn, according to some of the fastest drivers. With 80 laps to cover in the race, and a lap time around 1 min. it was not difficult to see how long the race was going to last, and with not too much to learn in the way of circuit, it was surprising that nearly six and a half hours of practice were provided, and most drivers were out the whole time. The record, and it must surely be a record, for the greatest number of practice laps went to Graham Hill who covered 193 all told, while his Embassy-Lola team-mate Edwards did not do badly with 169. Scheckter was well in the running with a total of 178, closely followed by Peterson with 173. Any number of drivers covered more than twice the race distance, while some of those who had trouble even managed more than 130 laps. If there had not been a shower of rain during the Saturday afternoon practice session, undoubtedly Graham Hill would have topped the 200-lap mark, which really would have been a record. One can only presume that he was learning all the time, though exactly what he was learning is another matter. During the short shower of rain everyone ran for cover and the sounds of practice stopped, only to be broken shortly afterwards by the sounds of a Cosworth-powered car circulating. Having gone round the back of the pits with a colleague, saying “No one is going to go out in the rain”, we were rather put out by the sound of the lone car going round. Before returning to find out who the hero was, we made a quick mental list of those who we knew for sure it would not be, and heading the list was Denny Hulme. Imagine our consternation when we got to the front of the pits to see Texaco-Marlboro McLaren number 6 go by on the wet track, driven by Hulme. The McLaren mechanics grinned and said “Glad you’ve appeared, he said he’d go out specially for you”. Hulme may be called the Grizzly Bear with some justification, but at times a sense of humour twinkles through his shaggy coat. Each year, among the regular International Press members, awards are presented for the sweetest driver and team (the Orange Prize) and for the sourest driver and team (the Lemon Prize) and Hulme has won the latter twice in a row. When he collected his award at Zandvoort he grinned and asked whether he could keep it permanently if he won it three times in a row! His counterpart in 1973 was Team Tyrrell and quite by co-incidence 1974 has seen the Elf-sponsored team adopting an entirely new approach in the paddock. They now have a regular “spokesman” who actually tells the truth about what is going on, and they have a “hospitality unit” which dispenses free food and drinks to free-loading journalists. The previous tight Iipped, frosty-faced atmosphere surrounding Tyrrell and his team has partially disappeared this season, and it is not because they won the Lemon Prize. As someone pointed out Jackie Stewart was a self-energising publicity machine apart from being number one driver. He had a natural ability to attract publicity, he was the team’s spokesman, their PRO, their advertising man and general tub-thumper. With his retirement from the scene the Elf Team Tyrrell needed to set in motion a substitute mechanism if they were not to fade into the background until they start winning again.

As usual the politics of the Constructors’ Association were well to the fore, led by Max Mosley of March Engineering and Bernie Ecclestone of Brabham, and at one point they were getting all hot and bothered about the number of cars being allowed to practise, even though the CSI had ruled that everyone and anyone could try and qualify for the 22 places on the starting grid. The Constructors were objecting to Vern Schuppan practising with the Ensign, and Kinnunen with his private Surtees and threatened to withdraw all their union members if these two were allowed to continue. Nobody explained very clearly what actually happened, but on Saturday both Schuppan and Kinnunen practised and nobody was seen to withdraw and go home and there was a certain amount of foot-shuffling and mouth-twitching in certain parts of the paddock. The Constructors’ Association want to keep everything to themselves and their members, and when asked how one becomes a member they say blandly “you must compete in 80% of the Championship races”. When someone like Morris Nunn points out that if he is not allowed to enter his Ensign, how he is going to be able to take part in 80% of the races, he is told that when he is in the Formula One Constructors’ Association he will he assured of entries. And there are people who do not even smile when they say that.

In previous years the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association has been well to the fore in demanding this and that, but this year have been overshadowed by the Construction Union. One of the things that the GPDA used to go on about was their large mobile hospital, mounted on a big articulated transporter, that used to travel from race to race in case any of the members had an accident. More often than not it was surplus to requirements, for the organisers’ medical facilities were more than adequate, but nevertheless it was always there in the paddock. At times, listening to some of the GPDA members, one got the impression that they would not race unless their medical unit was present. This year half the season has gone by with not a sign of the mobile hospital anywhere near a circuit, yet no-one has complained and indeed no-one seems to have noticed. Perhaps the wranglings of the Constructors have taken the drivers’ minds off the possibility of having an accident, but it is indeed strange. Presumably all the circuits used so far this season are completely safe.

D.S.J.