Reflections in the sand

When the Ferrari team finished in an unchallenged first and second place in the Austrian Grand Prix in 1970, with Ickx leading Regazzoni to a victory that was all the sweeter for the Italians, for it had been a long time corning, everyone ran around in small circles saying the day of the Cosworth V8 engine was over. Regazzoni followed up with a win at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix, and then the pair of them repeated their Austrian act in the Canadian Grand Prix, by which time a lot of people were convinced that the end was not only in sight, but had arrived, and that the eight cylinder engine per se was dead and buried. After Lauda and Regazzoni had finished an unchallenged first and second in the Dutch Grand Prix this year the same people were saying the same things all over again. Nobody bothered to recall exactly how many races the Cosworth V8 engine had won in the intervening period between August 1970 and June 1974. It is a lot of races, especially for an engine that was dead and buried in 1970. I wonder what those same people will be saying in 1978? Another aspect in the 12-cylinder versus 8-cylinder engine battle was when BRM won the Austrian Grand Prix so convincingly in 1971, thanks to Siffert’s super enthusiasm. The remarkable demonstration by the Bourne 12-cylinder engine, added to the Ferrari 12-cylinder deeds of the year before, sounded the deathknell of the eight cylinder engine yet again, and everyone who writes about these things, though never gets involved with the design, was saying that 12 cylinders were the only possible way to go for future Grand Prix engines. That BRM episode, like so many from Bourne, was a flash in the pan; the Ferrari episode was not to be taken lightly, and Keith Duckworth and his chaps at Cosworth Engineering soon produced some special engines which were made available to Stewart and other top drivers, and the 12-cylinder Ferraris were de-throned. These improvements were fed into the production Cosworth V8 engines, so that today even the lowliest rabbit at the back of the grid has more brake-horse-power than was required in 1971 to deal with the Ferrari problem. I imagine by now the chaps in Northampton have done something about it yet again. Exactly how dominant the Ferrari performance was at Zandvoort can be seen from the practice times, for both Lauda and Regazzoni got below 1 min. 19 sec., and no one else even looked like approaching 1 min. 19 sec., Fittipaldi being the fastest Cosworth user and he was well over a whole second slower than Lauda. If you think of a second as ten parts, and realise that only one or two parts usually separate the top runners, it is staggering to think that Lauda was twelve parts faster than the best of the Cosworth runners. From the drop of the flag Lauda ran away so fast than few saw him again, apart from those he lapped, and though Hailwood got between the Ferraris at the start, it did not last, and from lap two Regazzoni ran nearly as far away as his young Austrian team mate. There were two distinct races, the one for the chap who was winning, and one for the rest of the runners, all vying with each other to be the first Cosworth-powered car to finish. Poor old BRM did not get a look in either race, the best they could do was to try and not be last until they all retired.

Few circuits remain unchanged from year to year and one of the first things to do when arriving before practice begins is to take a look at any alterations. There was a time when circuit owners were continually making alterations to make their circuits faster and I remember eyeing with interest the new high-speed curve at Stavelot on the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, which did away with the tight bottom-gear hairpin; and the new road running in a fast sweep on the inside of the Thillois hairpin on the Reims circuit. Then we went through, and are still in, the slowing down process, seeing the construction of “chicanes” or extra corners to reduce speeds, and in some places we have seen extensions made to circuits to increase the lap times. Not all unofficial circuit inspections were made to see what the organisers had done, for I remember going out to the Siracusa circuit late the evening before practice, with the Maserati team, to look at the point where the train lines crossed the circuit. The reason for this inspection was to see if the road had sunk at all around the rails and to check the clearance needed under the 250F Maserati sump with the suspension on full bump, for they took those railway lines on full song. Last year we looked at the new ess-bend built into the long curves on the back part of the Zandvoort circuit and surveyed with a jaundiced eye the veritable sea of steel Armco barriers. This year at Zandvoort the thing to see was the Armco barriers moved back some 18-20 feet with rows of wire-mesh catch-fences in front. I make no comment on this, merely observe.

When someone is at the absolute peak of their activity it is not unusual for temperament to intrude and for them to throw a tantrum. If a top racing driver, living on the knife-edge of the limit of adhesion, gets a bit temperamental it is understandable and forgivable, but when the rabbits at the back start having tantrums things have come to a pretty pass. In Sweden we had Carlos Pace giving up in disgust and bad feeling, because he did not like the way his Surtees car was handling, or so he said. Had he kept going at the speed he was getting from the car he would have finished sixth, but that is by the way. At Zandvoort he was still having tantrums, and though he was in the paddock for the whole of practice, he did not drive the Surtees car, so it just sat there unused, and he did not take part in the race. The BRM team were also having trouble with a rabbit, for Beltoise wanted to try both of the P201 cars, as he is justified in doing, being the team leader. This meant that the only other car available was the old P160, which Pescarolo thought he had driven for the last time at Monaco, so he went all temperamental and refused to drive it. When Beltoise decided to race the second of the P201 cars, it did not help Pescarolo’s tantrum for he could not fit into the cockpit of the first P201, it having been tailored for Beltoise who is much shorter in the leg. However, Migault could get in it, so he drove P201/01, and in bad grace Pescarolo took over P160/10. He did 15 laps and gave up, muttering into his beard obscure things about the handling having deteriorated. He should have talked to Patrick Depailler for the stocky little Frenchman found the handling of his Tyrrell deteriorating as the fuel load lessened and the tyres wore down, but unabashed he altered his driving technique to cope with the changing conditions. Some people were describing the Carlos Pace and Henri Pescarolo situations as “Prima Donna trouble”, but they have got it all wrong. “Prima Donnas” are at the top, not the bottom.

After the hurly-burly of practice was all over and the starting grid was drawn up a big A-for-effort went to Tom Pryce, making his first appearance with the UOP-Shadow team, for he was less than half a second slower than Jarier, his team-mate, and on the sixth row of the grid alongside Carlos Reutemann. It was most unfortunate that he got elbowed out on the first corner having nowhere to go except straight on into the catch-fence. Even had he been able to scrabble round the outside of the pack his race was run, for the force of the blow that Hunt dealt the Shadow with his Hesketh, broke the right-rear suspension of Pryce’s car. His practice form had been such that a predictable sixth or seventh place was a good possibility, which would have been a good start for a new-boy. Considering that Hunt was on the third row of the grid, two rows ahead of Pryce, it was not difficult to see whose fault the collision was, for the Hesketh had not got away well, while everyone else did, and a charge through the middle by the Hesketh driver at the first corner was too much to ask for.

Making a racing start is always a fraught business, and the big problem is how you practice such things. With nearly 450 horsepower available the poor old clutch has a bad time and it is a known fact that the best of them will not stand up to more than two or three really fierce starts, especially if they are within living memory of each other, for a lot of heat is generated in a racing start, until the wheels start spinning. A lot of drivers do a dummy start when they leave the pits on the warm-up lap and some of the misguided ones do a couple more on their way round the circuit, which is asking for trouble. Stewart at Monza in 1972 and Fittipaldi at Silverstone in 1973 are classic examples. Most team-managers tell their drivers at some point or another to take it easy and not do more than one really searing start, but in the heat of the moment many of them forget. If any of the drivers helped their mechanics to change a burnt-out clutch they would see at first hand what they had done, and take it easy in future. With so many circuits calling for a searing start into the first corner, Zandvoort being a prime example, the starting technique is all important, but the time for practising starts is not on the way round to the starting-grid. There are drivers who polish up their technique during practice, when leaving the pits, but not many of them seem to give it a thought until they are about to assemble on the grid. Looking back to the days when I was racing motorcycle and sidecar professionally, I recall that we used to practice our start procedure in the confines of a garage. In those days we used to do a run-and-bump start with a dead engine, and if we could not get our 596 c.c. double-knocker Norton engine to fire within three steps and be on full song by half the length of the garage, we would spend a lot of time on our carburetter and ignition settings and our pushing technique, until we could.

One driver who did a practice start at Zandvoort was Jarier, who took off with his Cosworth engine at 10,200 rpm. hammering against the rev-limiter for all it was worth; the rear wheels spun and Jarier kept it in bottom gear all the way from the pits to the first corner, with the engine trying its hardest to over-rev, but the rev-limiter doing its job superbly and fading the ignition at the fixed point, immediately letting it come in again as the revs started to fall. The result was that he went by me with the engine stuttering at maximum revs and trying to fly apart, and the whole back of the car vibrating and shaking like a jelly. It was an awe-inspiring sight, especially for anyone who has looked closely at the ball-joints and quarter-inch Allen screws that hold the Grand Prix car together these days. I need hardly add that Jarier retired with clutch trouble!

An interesting lesson to observe during the race was the effort by Merzario, driving one of Frank Williams’ cars. From a lowly grid position the skinny Italian started charging through the lesser lights at the back of the field, picking them off one-by-one underbraking for the Tarzan hairpin at the end of the main straight. Every time, Merzario would out-brake someone on their right and drive through on the inside and it was good stuff to watch at close quarters. He did this until he got up to John Watson, and there he met his match, for the bearded Irishman was braking just as late as Merzario was, so that was that, it was check-mate, but it settled him in his rightful position in the overall scene. Unless a driver eases up and waves you past, the only way to overtake anyone is under-braking for the Tarzan Hairpin, the one point on the circuit where cars are likely to be seen changing position. Other than this the circuit tends to encourage a follow-my-leader process, with everyone waiting for everyone else to break down.

Once again I had a little meeting with a World Champion on a motorcycle, only this time I could not help, as I did with Stewart in Monte Carlo. With the Zandvoort circuit being on the very edge of the town it is pointless commuting each day from the Hotel to the paddock by car. On race day it is as quick to walk, and a lot less trouble, but this year I joined the Dutch and hired a pedal-cycle, which I found even less trouble than walking. Cycling quietly along towards the circuit on race morning I was overtaken by a small Honda mini-bike (I can’t bring myself to call it a motorcycle) carrying two people. At the controls was Emerson Fittipaldi, and behind him sat Teddy Meyer, his team manager, who made a rude sign as they putt-putted their way by. Within 200 yards I saw them stopped by the roadside, so I rang my bell derisively as I cycled by, but then stopped as I realised they were in trouble. Poor Fittipaldi had been running with the choke out and had filled the engine with petrol, the plug calling it a day. Now normally I would have a plug spanner not far away, but being on a push-bike I did not even have a shifting spanner with me, and as there were no tools on the mini-bike the World Champion and his mate were stuck. We tried all the usual tricks to clear the engine, but to no avail, so while I bicycled quietly on my way I left them to push their evil little contraption to the circuit. I could not even offer Fittipaldi a lift on my crossbar, as I had rented a ladies’ bicycle, Dutch male bicycles being built for people over six feet tall.