The Grand Prix Scene

I do not normally take the halfway stage in a Grand Prix season as being significant enough to call for a review or a re-cap, but the way things have been going so far I can only hope that the halfway point will call a stop to a lot of nonsense that has been giving Formula One a chequered name. In 1975 we had a pretty shambolic season due to rain upsetting people’s equilibrium and two races were stopped prematurely by use of the red flag in what could only be described as “panic measures”. In the past we have had unhappy seasons attributed to “tyre problems” or “mechanical problems” but so far this year it -has been a case of “legal problems” with Formula One constructors advising on the making of new rules, then making a song and dance about the implementing of the rules and finally suffering the indignity of “being caught cheating”, whether deliberate or not being quite beside the point. Not so long ago the driver and car first past the chequered flag was the winner, but now that the rulemakers have got their teeth into Formula One the chequered flag and the finish of the race are of little significance. Cars are impounded in a most undignified and childish manner, tape measures and gauges are applied and an hour or two after the race has ended it is announced that the first car past the chequered flag is legal or is not legal, and can either he considered the winner or is disqualified. The whole affair to my mind is sordid and degrading and very unsatisfactory, encouraging a loss of faith in the credibility of Grand Prix racing and reflecting very badly on the engineering integrity of the constructors and designers of Formula One cars.

I have mentioned the low standards of engineering among the Formula One teams earlier this year, and I do so again, because this is the root-cause of the farcical situation in which we find ourselves now. Not so long ago everyone was getting happily along making Grand Prix cars more or less to a set pattern and to certain basic concepts and in the general feverish pace of racing and racing development, one or two Small design features were being treated a bit lightheartedly by some designers. Such things as the positioning of the exhaust tail-pipes, the effectiveness of the crash-bars, the accuracy of manufacture of some of the aerodynamic aids, the gauge of the aluminium panelling, the positioning of the fire-extinguisher controls and the ignition controls. None of these. things had any bearing on winning the races. Feeling that as a body of designers they were being a bit sloppy about some things, the Constructors’ Association invited an aircraft crash-inspector from the Government to accompany them to a race and while they got on with the business of trying to win he was given a free hand to sniff round the cars to measure and check anything he did not like. Now all this was in the interest of driver and Spectator safety, because the last thing any of the Formula One people wanted was an unnecessary accident, because they were very conscious that many Governments were wondering if motor racing was really necessary. This was a very noble and responsible move on the part of the Constructors and they made it clear that this really should have been done by the International body controlling Grand Prix racing, the CSI.

From this point the rot seemed to set in, for the Government inspector, who was trained to “think safety” and “analyse failure or had design” had no interest in helping designers to build race-winning Qin, his main interest was in avoiding bad fundamental design and making ears safer in accidents. He found very little uniformity among the designs on many details and the only way to bring everyone in line was to impose more stringent limitations and encourage more uniform thinking in construction. All this was done without much fuss and the result has been that Formula Orte cars are much safer in an accident, they don’t collapse on the driver, he doesn’t get ejected Onto his head, the wreckage doesn’t catch fire, and all told a driver can almost throw caution to the winds, knowing that he has a pretty good chance of survival no matter how lurid the accident. This does not ensure 100% freedom from a fatal accident and drivers get killed, hut there have been some pretty lurid crashes from which the drivers have escaped. This aspect of rationalising Formula One car design has been a great success, but none of it has helped materially in winning races, and winning is still the name of the game, otherwise racing. would be a pretty pointless exercise. While one aspect of the Constructors’ thinking has been channelled into co-operative thinking to avoid unnecessary risk to life and the subsequent had feeling that the media would stir up, the designers have individually been working away at the main objective, which is to produce a more successful car than their rivals, success being measured in lap times or race wins.

While this rationalisation of design from the safety angle was accepted by everyone and governed by writing out the rules in great detail, it also encouraged the writing of rules to control performance design parameters and this is where the whole idea of rationalisation has over-stepped the mark and resulted in the chaotic state we are in now. If the standards of design ability and integrity in Formula One had been higher we would not have needed so many rules to control inventiveness and if we had not become so obsessed with writing rules to make things safe, we would not have accepted so many rules to cramp design. If designers had been clever enough to construct aerodynamic aids to cornering power that did not break or collapse we could have carried on with “freedesign”, but they were not competent, so restrictions crept in and have proliferated. If a designer had been competent enough to build a rear aerofoil, adjustable by air-speed, mounted ten feet behind the car then he should have been allowed to do so unhindered. If he had wanted to design a car with a full-width rear tyre on a rim width of sixty inches he should have been allowed to do so. If he wanted to run a car with seventy inch front track he should have been allowed to do so, always provided that in all cases the engineering was as .sound as the design. That is where the world of Formula One fell down and that is where the technical commission of the CSI came in with their restrictions and their detailed rules. When Mercedes-Benz appeared on scene their air-brake mounted across the rear of the car operated by hydraulic rams nobody questioned the design and engineering behind it. When Jim Hall and General Motors produced the Chaparral with its driver-controlled fullwidth rear aerofoil to increase downthrust on the rear wheels it was accepted. When Porsche produced a 4i-litrc 12-cylinder aircooled engine mounted in the centre of a 2-seater coupe nobody queried the design and engineering behind the project. The only innovation of recent years has been Derek Gardner’s six-wheeled Project 34 Tyrrell which has cleverly stayed within the stringent Formula One rules.

Rules controlling safety and survival are virtually complete and water-tight, but rules controlling performance and the winning of races still leave a lot of scope and new additions were made this year controlling engine air-intakes and rear aerofoils, along with some tidying-up of safety details. For some years now the Formula One Constructors have shown a leaning to wanting to control their own activities, taking it away from the CSI but there is no legal way this can be done so a campaign has been waged to deride the efforts of the CSI presumably hoping that they might, abdicate from the position of controlling Grand Prix racing, leaving the scene open to the Constructors’ Association. In a typical attempt to pour scorn on the CSI it was suggested that instead of being an unseen body in Paris making rules and regulations they should he seen in action. They turned up in force at the Spanish GP, implemented the new rules to the letter of the law and threw the whole scene into confusion. Many people wished the technical commission had been left alone in Paris. For their part the CSI justified their action by pointing out that the rules were made with the encouragement of the Constructors’ Association and in enforcing them they were merely complying with the Constructors’ wishes. So be it on your own head.

This was a precedent that has snowballed and reached the ludicrous state we arrived at in France, where the first eight cars to finish were impounded, measured, checked and given a clean bill of health or failed as the case may be. To add to the confusion the actual limitations being measured have been altered, after mutual agreement between the Constructors and the CSI, as have the methods used and those discussions are by no means ended. There are now problems over the interpretation of the rules and the interpretation of the methods of measuring. If the rules had not been made these problems would not have arisen, the Constructors have become tarred with their own brush and the whole Formula One scene looks as though it might collapse under its own self-importance. If there was any degree of mutual trust among the members of the Formula One Constructor’ Association we would never have got into this parlous state. The situation in which the Grand Prix scene has found itself has only itself to blame.

I agreed with Teddy Mayer of McLaren Racing that it was not doing Grand Prix racing any good, and suggested that if all the members of the Formula One Constructors’ Association, who always tell us they are united, were to agree to start a race with their rear aerofoils adjusted 5 centimetres above the prescribed height, it would throw their present scrutineering nonsense into confusion and probably kill it instantly. While agreeing that it might do exactly that Mayer was confident it could not be done “… because one of our members would opt out at the last moment …” He would not say whom he had in mind and I am not sure I would care to hazard a guess. When the Penske car was found to be illegal by a few millimetres and there was a suggestion that it should be overlooked and allowed to retain its third place, there was a rush by the Brabham, Lotus and Shadow teams to register an official protest. The Formula One Constructors’ Association are only united when it suits them.

Most people think that all this protesting, disqualification and confusion is bad for Formula One racing, but there is another side to it and that is the old adage that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”. All this internal wrangling is giving the media tremendous food for its “public opinion” columns and without it they might not even bother to tell the world at large that “Hunt beats Lauda”, or “Tyrrell trounces the Ferraris” and the world and his wife might not know there is such a thing as Formula One racing. If “public opinion” approves of Formula One racing it might support it to our benefit and it can only approve of it if it is told about it by the newspapers, the radio and the television. However, it is just possible that the media will get tired of the wrangling, the rules and the farces, and cut Formula One dead so that only readers of Motor Sport and kindred publications will know about Formula One. The outcome of that I leave to your imagination.—D.S.J.

Footnote: This was written before the British Grand Prix: for comments on the biggest, most enjoyable farce of all time, read the report on page 903.