European Letter

[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,

While we are all aware that we live in an ever-changing world, knowing that if it did not change it would stagnate, there are still many of us who resist change for change’s sake, and do not necessarily agree that “new is better”. This came home to me recently while having a quiet drink with a man from the world of big business before the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit. He was making his first visit to a big motor race and was expressing his admiration of the facilities at the circuit, referring to the pits, the paddock, the hospitality suites and the air-conditioned Press Room and the view overlooking the start from the long glass-fronted press-stand. While agreeing that it was all magnificent stuff, on the face of it, we had to point out that the Ricard circuit itself was as dull as they come and bore no comparison in driving spectacle to Clermont-Ferrand, or Rouen, nor to the wheel-to-wheel and hub-to-hub racing of Reims, all of which our friend knew nothing about. When we said we would rather sit in a fly-infested, overheated, tatty old grandstand and watch two cars battle it out side-by-side up the long straight past the Reims pits, waiting to see which driver would give way as they went under the Dunlop Bridge, or battle our way through the undergrowth at Rouen-les-Essarts in order to get a glimpse of a car going down the fast swerves after the pits, or spend all day climbing about in the mountains of the Auvergne to watch the cars on the Charade circuit at Clermont-Ferrand, he realised there could he more to visiting a Grand Prix than having a drink in a plush suite, or making a phone call in an air-conditioned Press Room. But we pointed out that we were old-fashioned in our outlook and were living in the past. Mind you, there were two young men in their twenties in the party with us, neither of whom actually fell about with enthusiasm for the Paul Ricard circuit. We also pointed out that we were very selfish, for drivers have been killed at Rouen, Clermont-Ferrand and Reims, and nobody will ever get killed at Paul Ricard, so the new home for the French Grand Prix has the full support of all the drivers, or so, I am told. Then the mechanics have a much nicer time working in the permanent pits instead of grovelling about in the dust and stones of the countryside at the old circuits, while the trade and industry have a much better time entertaining their guests in the cool, permanent suites on the first floor of the pits complex. Just think of the awful torrid tents in the woods at Rouen, or the merciless heat beating down on the open fields of Reims. And those members of the International Press, who actually work for their living sending Telex messages or making phone calls even while the race is in progress, have a much nicer time in the air-conditioned Press facility. After all, there are only twenty-six people out on the track, pitting their skill and courage against the flat convolutions of the circuit, so why should the circuit itself be important, it’s the facilities for the 2,600 people involved in keeping the “circus” going that needs to be given first priority, or have I got my values all crossed up. Every time I try to “think modern” or “be forward-looking” I seem to get in a muddle. And what about the thousands of paying. customers, I wonder what they prefer?

While on the subject of circuits it would seem that the exacting and dicey circuit in the Montjuich Park in Barcelona is doomed for Grand Prix racing (though the motorcycle boys have just had a 24-hour marathon round it). There are plans afoot to build a permanent Autodrome just to the north of Barcelona, but the trouble with Autodromes is that they usually lack imagination. Nobody has ever complained about the shape of the Montjuich Park circuit, with its downhill braking areas on curves leading to downhill hairpins, or its climbing swerves that go on and on, with the apex out of sight round the corner, or its tricky “flicks” left and right on cambered roads. Everyone seems to enjoy the driving challenge it presents, but what they do object to is the proximity of the spectators, the unnecessary solid objects at crucial points; like buildings, trees, lampposts and so on, even if they are well protected by iron barriers, and the lack of “mistake space” which is called “run-off area”. Therefore, I can see no reason at all why the Spaniards should not re-create the Montjuich Park circuit on a hill out in the countryside, and if there is no hill available then why not make one? Does -a “modern” Autodrome have to be fiat or dull and unimaginative? Unfortunately the answer is almost “Yes”, because the FIA handbook on circuit building deprecates such interesting features as corners that tighten-up, adverse cambers, and clearly defined edges, like a brick wall. You Can build a modern permanent circuit that is interesting and presents a challenge to the drivers, for the Austrians have done it at the Osterreichring at Knittelfeld. It would be nice if the Spaniards did something out of the ordinary on the proposed new Ainodrome outside Barcelona. I have always maintained that Brands Hatch should be turned into a private housing estate or small town, and then we could run a British Version of the Monaco Grand Prix round the streets!

An ever-increasing problem if you are interested in all forms of motoring sport, and it doubles up if you follow motorcycle sport, is the Shortage of weekends in the season and the continual clashing of fixtures. A clash between a Grand Prix and a vintage meeting is understandable or club meetings at Lydden Hill and Croft, but things reached an absurd state recently when the Group 6, or so-called sports cars, had a major event in Sicily and Group 5, or silhouette saloons, had a major event at the Osterreichring on the same day. The Porsche firm, who are dabbling in both categories on behalf of Martini Racing, had to stretch their racing department far more than any Grand Prix team in order to take part in both events. In any case, this splitting of long-distance racing with two groups has been one of the biggest fiascos perpetrated by the CSI for a long time and the Le Mans experiment of lumping everything together. Group 5, Group 6, and American Stock Cars and GT cars for good measure, looks to be the way to go, but it won’t work in modern “sprint” races of four hours. The long-distance scene will have to go back to proper 1,000-kilometre events if it is going to survive. While clashing of dates on the International scene is spelling disaster, on the club, scene and in the old-car movement it is a healthy sign, and on one Sunday recently I took in three events in the day, none of them important outside their locality, hut all enjoyable; and there were four other events farther afield that I Would have liked to have seen on that day. While this can be a bit frustrating and the decision-making can be tiresome, we are very lucky to be in such a situation for there are some countries with little or no sporting or old-car activity. While grumbling amongst friends about the tiresome business of having to make decisions as to which events to attend, we all appreciated how lucky we were to have such a variety to choose from and could hardly imagine what it would be like to have no events on at all at a weekend.

Before ending I must mention the letter in last month’s Motor Sport from David L Ghandi, who I know has been reading our magazine as long as I have [and see Vintage Postbag this month.—Ed.] I do agree with him that Bira’s famous ERA “Romulus” should not have been dragged into “club” racing. It is a unique and historic vehicle and should have been respected as such. By all means clean it up and get it running, rather than let it moulder in the precincts of the National Motor Museum, but as Ghandi suggests, how much more it would have meant if B. Bira had given us some “demonstration laps” for old time’s sake. After all, Bira did drive a Gordini at the Dijon gathering two years ago, and went very fast. To be hacked round the Silver stone Club Circuit in company with a lot of well-meaning amateurs must have seemed rather undignified for a car that had previously only ever raced in serious competition. Like David Ghandi, I too have been thrilled to see what appeared to be a genuine historic car that had been missing, presumed destroyed, for years, only to find that it had been fabricated out of some production machine without any history whatsoever and now masquerades as the real thing. At least “Romulus” was real, even if it was undignified. Yours,