Continental notes, August 1975

Swiss Grand Prix

The Swiss Grand Prix used to be one of the classic motor races, held on a very fast and challenging circuit in the forest of Bremgarten, on the outskirts of the Swiss capital city Berne. It all started in 1931 when a big exhibition to encourage sport was held in Berne, and the local motorcycle club organised some racing on the paths through the forest. This motorcycle racing proved very popular with the public and was held again in 1932 and 1933, with increasing success and a company was formed to build a semi-permanent track through the forest, using existing roads and a pits and grandstand area was built on either side of the main road running along the top of the forest. All over Europe motor racing was getting on its feet again after the slump of 1929/30 and was proving to be a good tourist and business attraction for big towns. The Burgomasters of Berne appreciated this and gave their support to the construction of the circuit with a 50% financial interest in the project. It was only intended to run the Swiss Grand Prix on the Bremgarten circuit, and that only once a year, so in the legal documentation drawn up, this fact was stated; as the roads used were normally open to the public, official permission for their closure had to be granted and a blanket permission was given to close the Bremgarten forest once a year for the purpose of running the Swiss Grand Prix. This meant that all the racing had to be done on one weekend, which was no hardship, for it was normal to have motorcycle races on a Saturday and car races on the Sunday.

The first Swiss Grand Prix was held on August 26th, 1934, Dick Seaman won the “voiturette” race in a K3 MG Magnette, and Hans Stuck Snr., won the Grand Prix with an Auto-Union. The big race was marred by the death of Hugh Hamilton, who crashed in one of Whitney Straight’s Maseratis on the last lap. The Swiss Grand Prix continued with increasing success until 1939, when the rest of Europe went to war, leaving Switzerland as an isolated and neutral “clearing house” in the middle of the holocaust.

Racing started up again on the Bremgarten circuit in 1947, but now the Burgomasters of Berne were not so keen, as Switzerland was rich and prosperous and did not need to put on any shows to attract people. However, the 1934 legislation was still valid so the Automobile and Motorcycle Clubs could not be prevented from organising their weekend of racing. With the cream of the Grand Prix world of two and four wheels (to say nothing of three wheels!) in Berne for the weekend of racing it was not surprising that the crowd attendances were enormous, and the racing went from strength to strength. The town councillors were very much against the disturbance and confusion that the racing caused, as they wanted to engender an atmosphere of peace and serenity, especially after the six years of war that the rest of the World had become embroiled in. While racing was permitted in Switzerland, roads being closed for the purpose in Geneva, Lausanne, Lugano, Locarno, and many other towns, the Bremgarten was safe for its one great event of the year, and it was a great event.

Then came 1955 and the Le Mans catastrophe where a car went into the public enclosure and killed more than 80 spectators. The whole of Europe was aghast and there were a lot of official panic measures taken, many of them later rescinded. The Swiss government panicked with the rest of Europe and passed a law that forbade any form of motor racing in Switzerland, and that put paid to the Bremgarten and the Swiss Grand Prix. While other countries took a rational outlook and tempered their hasty decisions with a little logic, the Swiss were adamant. It was the final and irrevocable end to motor racing in their country. While the rest of the World were too busy with their own problems to worry about Switzerland, the Swiss racing enthusiasts lived in hopes of a change of heart within the Government, and at least a reprieve for the Bremgarten circuit, but it never came. The great wooden grandstands and the pits remained on either side of the main road until only a few years ago, and while Swiss enthusiasm for racing was as strong as ever, they had to leave their country to partake in the sport.

Twenty years after the closure of the Bremgarten the Swiss Automobile Club are to organise a Formula One race in France on the Dijon-Prenois circuit, about 100 miles from the Swiss border and it will be called the Swiss Grand Prix. The idea of holding a Swiss Grand Prix outside Switzerland has been mooted for many years, but never came to anything. Now with the financial aid of Phillipe Morris Ltd. the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, whose European headquarters are in Switzerland, the idea has come to fruition. The race will be held on August 24th, almost to the day of the first Swiss GP in 1934. A good Formula One entry has been promised and the hope is that if the race is successful it will become part of the 1976 World Championship series, even though it is not held in Switzerland.

Behind the idea of holding a Swiss Grand Prix outside Switzerland is the hope that it might shame the Swiss government into financing the building of a modern Autodrome. The Bremgarten circuit can never return, for motor racing has moved on beyond such tracks, and equally the street races of Geneva, Lausanne, Lugano and Locarno can never return, but it would be nice if some form of International motor racing could return to Switzerland. The complete history of the Swiss Grand Prix from 1934-54 is documented in a book by René Häfeli, published by L’Année Automobile in Lausanne, and is obtainable in French or German languages. It is profusely illustrated and well worth while for the photographs alone. It is a large book, of 352 pages, and the closing line on the last page says ”Tthe Bremgarten is dead, long live the Swiss Grand Prix”.

Wings and Things

It all started a year or two ago when the Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Co. Ltd. made it known that their reason for supporting motor racing was not for publicity, but for technical reasons and that one of their aims was to provide tyres and knowledge to the Formula One teams that would enable the cars to go round corners as fast they went down the straights. Grand Prix cars were doing anything from 160-180 m.p.h. down the straights on some circuits and the thought of them doing these speeds round the corners as well threw the CSI officials into a “tizzy”. A lot of the people in control of the destiny of motor racing still think that racing should involve a battle down the straights and a sort of “neutralisation zone” round the corners. Goodyear added, after the content of their statement had gone home, that if the Formula One drivers wanted to go faster down the straights then that was up to the engine designers, but whatever the straight-line speeds achieved, Goodyear wanted to match them through the corners, where the adhesion between the tyres and the track is the limiting factor. Keeping the tyre in contact with the road was the problem of the chassis designer, and obviously if all three parties worked closely together some dramatic progress could be made and, in fact, it has been made as witness the continual rise in lap speeds on most circuits.

The chassis designers have been using aerodynamic forces to take greater advantage of the adhesion offered by the racing tyres, and cornering forces and G-forces are being recorded today that were undreamt of a few years ago, which is all good scientific progress. Since 1903 the people in control of motor racing rules have been saying “It’s too fast” and have looked for ways of curbing the speeds being achieved by the designers. Over the years many lines of progress have been stifled by legislation, often tinged with vested interests, and the latest outcry has been over aerodynamic devices and tyres. The “powder-puff press” got on the wrong side of the bandwagon, as they invariably do, and screamed from their headlines that the CSI were going to “ban wings” (they meant aerofoils and aerodynamic devices, but that is neither here nor there). There has never been any intention of banning anything, merely restricting or curbing the enthusiasm. Since little wind deflectors began sprouting on racing cars there have been limitations imposed, both on size and construction, and these limits are going to be made more stringent. In a similar vein there is talk of putting restrictions on tyre dimensions, and it is all a reaction to the original statement made by Goodyear about their reasons for being in racing.

Over the years there have been numerous limitations put on the design of racing cars, among them the banning of oxygen-bearing fuels, fully streamlined all-enveloping bodywork, the use of more than 12 cylinders or more than a given engine capacity, and minimum weight restrictions. The CSI do not really know where to turn to next, and they are not alone, so they are planning to curb the sizes of the two things that are most easily seen, tyres and aerodynamic devices. It could be visibly seen and proved that the ultimate performance of a racing car could be directly related to the driver’s masculinity, then restrictions on the human being would he imposed!

Silverstone Chicanery

At last the great god safety has reared its ugly head in our very midst, so that now everyone can appreciate what I have been banging on about for many years from various parts of Europe. I refer to the introduction of an artificial corner in the middle of the high-speed Woodcote Corner at Silverstone. When a chicane was introduced at Spa to slow the cars before the Masta straight, I complained bitterly; when the fast ess-bend at Whitehouse on the Le Mans circuit was eliminated and replaced by a wiggly new road that slowed the cars down before the pits, I lost interest in Le Mans; when Monza was made a farce by the intruduction of a chicane on the main straight, the Italian Grand Prix as a motor race died an instant death; when an ess-bend was built at the Tiergarten on the Nurburgring, to slow the cars before the start and finish plateau I tried not to look at it; when a chicane was introduced at Anderstorp to stop the hair-raising sweep off the runway onto the infield. I kept away from that end of the circuit ; when the Tabac Corner at Monte Carlo was eliminated and replaced by some Scalex track I rather lost interest in the Monaco Grand Prix, and so it goes on. Now “chicanery” has struck at the very heart of British motor racing and cars are no longer permitted to take Woodcote Corner on the very limits of adhesion, everyone must be reduced to the lowest common denominator. The reason given is the safety of the spectators in the main grandstands, but that is so far from the truth it is laughable. The real truth is not at all funny; it is the realisation by a lot of people that motor racing as we know it and enjoy it today is living on a knife-edge for its very existence. To the outside world who are not enthusiasts it is a very anti-social activity and everything that it involves is distasteful to “them out there” and whether we like it or not we have got to admit that there are far more of “them out there” than “us in here”.

Some of the clever-thinking people among the constructors of Formula One cars can see that their future is limited and they do not want to take a chance with anything that might speed-up the inevitable. We all know that a bad accident in the high-speed Woodcote Corner at Silverstone is safe for the spectators, as Jody Scheckter amply illustrated in the 1973 British Grand Prix, but there is always the chance of a single car breaking up in the middle of the corner and a wheel flying into the crowd. We all know this is unlikely, or alternatively could happen on any corner, but like tyres and aerofoils, Woodcote Corner is “plainly visible” to officialdom, so it has to be used as a scapegoat to create the impression that those in motor racing who are responsible, are acting in a responsible manner, if not, the leader of “them out there” might say “this activity is becoming tiresome, we’d best put a stop to it”—just like the Swiss did in 1955.

I have mixed feelings on all this, on one hand I say “to hell with officialdom, let’s have all the fun and danger we can and if the whole thing blows up in our face, then that’s the luck of the game”. On the other hand I wonder whether perhaps a watered-down version of what we really want is better than nothing at all, and I think about the young generation just starting in racing and feel it would be kept going as long as possible for their benefit. The “responsible ones” among the constructors are far more realistic, for they know that if Grand Prix racing was banned they would all be out of work, and some of them know they could not turn their hand to anything else, having specialised for so long. Nobody is really worried about the safety of the paying (and a high price they paid) spectator in the Woodcote stands, least of all the spectators themselves, but some people are worried about the long-term effects and even put a limit of 10 years on this.

These words are being written just before practice begins for the British Grand Prix and the spectators who have paid ten pounds for a seat to watch Formula One heroism at its best have yet to realise they have been “conned”. There is a spectator union in the form of Common Law, and the Trades Description Act, but let us not forget the overall lurking fear for our future, because everything points to a final show-down when you trace the history and development of the activity motor racing, even over the past twenty years. My short-term view on Silverstone is that Stowe Corner will become even more popular than it already is.—D.S.J.