Reflections in the Bourgogne

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It was very pleasant reflecting on the 1979 Grand Prix of France, for the quiet villages, nice hotels, good restaurants and unspoilt rural nature of the area around Dijon-Prenois is one of the nicer parts of France, as far as I am concerned; though there are people who prefer the hustle and bustle and commercialism of the south coast resorts near to the Paul Ricard circuit.

Naturally the overwhelming reflection to be seen in the green pastures was the impressive win by Jean-Pierre Jabouille and the twin-turbo charged Renault 1 1/2-litre, against the longstanding expertise of the 3-litre engines from Cosworth, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. That Jabouille was well in the running from the start was no great surprise, for he has had the Renault V6 up near the front a number of times, and those who were in South Africa recall the opening laps of the Grand Prix this year (in fact, both sets of opening laps showed the Renault to be impressive). That Arnoux came through with such force was a bit of a surprise, for up to now he has not shone brilliantly, though it must be admitted he has not had much opportunity. Those who have seen him in Formula Two in the past reckoned he was a good fighter, and the Dijon event proved this. Being impressive in Formula Two does not necessarily mean a driver will be good in Formula One, and there is a long list of hopefuls who have shown promise in the lesser Formula and come to nought in the big-boys class. Villeneuve has shown from the start he is a fighter, and his whole attitude to the French race was just typical of the man. In practice the Renaults were clearly superior, and a lot of famous drivers more or less gave up, but not the French-Canadian, he tried all he knew to match the French cars. Before the start he was determined as ever that he was going to get between the two Renaults, from the second row, as soon as the green light came on. He did better than that, he got ahead of both of them. And did he go in those opening laps? It was a joy to behold. On the very fast corner on which I was watching he had his outside wheels right to the edge of the tarmac on every lap, while never once letting his tyres touch the loose gravel beyond. The exciting closing stages where he and Arnoux banged their tyres against each other and pushed and shoved in a most spirited fashion was a good example of their judgement and skill. Lesser mortals try the same thing and spin off or get tangled up in each other. Afterwards they were both grinning and saying it had been fun, but admitting that it was a bit dicey and that they could have spun off. They didn’t spin off and it was by judgement not luck. It was really refreshing to see the two of them laughing and shaking hands afterwards, with no bitching, no moaning, no recriminations. A really keen bit of racing, which fortunately the whole world seems to have seen thanks to the skill of the French Television people who seemed to know what was going on and what people wanted to see. Let’s hope Ecclestone and Mosley don’t try and put the price up in the future and frighten the Television people away.

That last minute drama took away a lot of the glory from Jabouille, the winner, which was unfortunate for the lanky Frenchman is not a great seeker after personal publicity, unlike some drivers who don’t win races. But even with the glamour and fuss he was more than satisfied for he knew he had done a good job, but what was more important it was the culmination in the faith that he has had in the turbo-charged Renault project from the start, and the faith that Renault have had in him. Over the past two years he has suffered greatly in his efforts to get the Renault to front and has always been remarkably philosophical about the trials and tribulations, never once suggesting that his “career” and his “prestige” were being undermined by the failings of the car. Some drivers cannot wait to get out of a team if the car behaves badly, and some never wait for a car to become fully sorted out. The quiet Jabouille is a good example to a lot of drivers in Formula One; his success has been earned.

With the Cosworth V8 completely overshadowed in practice and in the race, there were those who were once more ready to write Duckworth and Cosworth Engineering off as being finished. We shall see. Equally there are those who have once again written off Colin Chapman and Team Lotus, but that has been done before as well. The Brabham team and their Alfa Romeo engines are another matter, for once both cars failed to finish, this time through driver error, but not wholly so, for the cars were not helping their drivers much. I happened to be standing opposite to where Piquet went off, and for many laps previously his Brabham looked awful, though afterwards he would not countenance that it was the fault of the car and said that its antics probably looked far worse that they felt to him. He did admit that the transition from understeer to oversteer (the point M on the basic handling curve, for those who know what we are talking about) was not very good and was too sudden. The corner on which he crashed was the long fast one leading to the main straight. On a right-hander you come over a brow, plunge steeply downhill still turning right, go down into a dip and climb steeply up as the corner finishes. This means that as you get into the corner you suffer enormous weight-transference to the front and as you finish the corner the weight-transfer is on to the rear wheels. It was as the weight transferred to front wheels that the Brabham tried to flick its tail out, and every lap Piquet was correcting a vicious tail slide just as he got to the steepest part of the corner. The ideal is for the initial understeer to change to oversteer gradually through the corner so that as the rear wheels tried to slide out you would reach the bottom of the dip and the weight-transfer to the car wheels would assist your grip. Villeneuve’s Ferrari was doing this to perfection, as were many others. The Brabham’s handling was made to look all the worse by the fact that Alan Jones was following closely in the nicely balanced Williams FW07. On the fateful lap on which he crashed Piquet had the rear wheels slide out faster and earlier than he was anticipating, possibly due to tyre wear, and it caught him out. He came into my view sliding gracefully through 180°, and went backwards into the catch-fences. It was interesting to conjecture what would have happened if the run-off area of dust and gravel had not had all those catch-fences in it, for the car was at a very shallow angle to the armco rails and it might just possibly have spun to a stop without hitting anything, in which case Piquet could have gone on racing. As things are today you don’t get much chance to go on racing once you have spun off for the sea of catch-fences are almost guaranteed to wreck the car. You cannot legislate for the mild accident, only the ultimate one, and Pironi’s practice accident needed all the catch-fences available, otherwise he would have been badly hurt against the iron rails. I wonder why they don’t have something more resilient than steel on the edge of the run-off area? Lauda’s Brabham did not look so unhealthy while he was racing, but this may have been due to the fact that he was not going as fast as his young team-mate. Quite often the difference in lap times between a car being good or bad on its handling, is very small. It is a bit like test-driving; a good steady test-driver seldom teaches you anything about your car for it is not until it is driven at the absolute limit that you find out how good or bad it is. There are probably very few designs that have been driven to their limit, in spite of what the drivers tells the engineers when they stop. Trying to set up a car for a driver who is 10% off the pace of possibility always seems a futile occupation, but you see it happening all the time, mainly because the modern racing car has got all these variables to play with so you might as well play with them!

It is not often that you get a chance to see an engine blow-up before your very eyes, but this happened on Saturday afternoon. Standing by the Williams’ pit I saw Alan Jones approach with his Cosworth DFV running on seven cylinders. The mechanics changed all eight plugs, started the engine, but it was still on seven cylinders. Leaving it at a fast tick-over they checked the eight exhaust pipes with a special chalk-stick and just as they found that it was the front cylinder on the left bank that was not working a fine whirl of neat petrol began to climb up the inlet trumpet on that cylinder, whereas it should have been going down the trumpet. One of the mechanics saw this and just as he pointed at it there was a “plop” from the engine and a puff of white smoke and neat petrol shot into the air from the inlet trumpet, while a cloud of white smoke came out of the exhaust pipe on that side. The engine was switched off very quickly, for the head of a valve had broken off and gone through the piston. This was later confirmed by the Champion sparking plug engineer who examined the plug and could see minute signs of valve material imbedded in the body. It was an expensive demonstration of an engine blowing-up, which I cannot recall having seen happen at such close quarters before, but I could not help thinking of what it must be like when a similar thing happens at 11,200 r.p.m. rather than at 1,200 r.p.m, and just behind your left ear when you are driving a racing car.

The relaxed atmosphere of the Dijon-Prenois Circuit seemed able to absorb the now regular wrangles between the International Federation and the Formula One Constructors, but they were there nevertheless. The BMW race-series was once again the main arguing point, and the FISA told the FOCA that as the series had never been officially recognised by the FIA and was not being run to FIA statutory rules, especially as regards practice times and grid positions, it only counted as a publicity event. In consequence the French timekeepers were forbidden to do any timing during practice or the event. They said it could take place as a Show or publicity parade for BMW, purely as an arrangement between BMW/FOCA and the circuit owners. There was even a suggestion that official marshals would be told not to get involved, but this did not happen. The FOCA suggested that such a move would make them withdraw all their members from the scene, but somehow that seemed like a bluff, for the serious racing teams were by this time really hard at it after a day of practice. Personally I could not see Colin Chapman telling his lads to pack up and go home, nor Mauro Forghieri and the Ferrari team, nor Gerard Larousse and the Renault team. Little Bernie’s Brabham team might have done what they were told by the “obergruppenfuhrer” but not many more. The shop-steward can only push his workers so far; after that . . .

The BMW M1 race, or Pro-car event, or Show took place with the time-keeping by the Brabham staff and it was a high speed processional advertisement for BMW and all those firms who had been talked into buying a car. Nelson Piquet won it, and if anyone did pass anyone I missed it!

One’s views of this series and the in-fighting it is causing between Bernie and his boys and the International Federation depends on many things, but one point that must not be overlooked is the possible outcome of an accident. If a driver kills himself in one of these 180 m.p.h. racing coupes we shall regret it, but accept the fact that he was racing and knew the risk. If the car goes into the crowd and kills spectators then it is another story altogether. All manner of legal systems go into action and one can easily imagine a good legal man asking some very pertinent questions about the activity. If it came out in court that (a) the series had not been officially recognised as a championship, (b) that the cars did not really conform to existing rules, and (c) that the races were not being run according to accepted FIA practice, whereby the fastest car in practice takes pole-position on the starting grid, it would not look good for the overall motor racing scene. It would give the legal and lay mind that those in charge of International motor racing were not responsible people. In France (and probably Italy and Germany as well) this could sound the death-knell for racing as we know it, for the French and Italians have been very twitchy ever since the 1955 Le Mans catastrophy and the 1957 Mille Miglia accident. As has been said by many, if BMW want to cash in on the publicity glare of Formula One racing why don’t they build a works team and take part?

Calling in at a Renault-Elf garage for petrol on the way back for Dijon (£1.50 a gallon!) I was surprised to see no sign whatsoever of the Renault victory in the Grand Prix of France, no publicity, no advertising, no banners, in fact you wouldn’t have known they had won. This was on Tuesday morning and I can only hope the Renault publicity service got underway eventually. Daimler-Benz, who seldom do anything wrong, used to have their victory posters on the way the evening of the race. They were all set and ready for printing before the race and the moment the results were published they were filled in on the posters and next morning all their agents could proclaim another victory for Mercedes-Benz. Perhaps they were more sure of winning. The week before the Grand Prix Renault had run two full-length tests on the Dijon circuit, though Jabouille had to give up with fatigue after 63 of the 80 laps, and small mechanical fault stopped Arnoux at 73 laps. One thing was certain and that was that neither driver had any problems about knowing the way round the little circuit. After the race Michelin were smiling happily and pleased to have a Renault on Michelins first and a Ferrari on Michelins second, for the two entirely different characteristics of the two cars, one a turbo-charged 1 1/2-litre and the other a flat-12 normally aspirated 3-litre, they thought the tyre wear and consumption analysis was going to teach them a lot.

Just in case anyone is confused about this turbo-charging business and confuses it with supercharging it should be pointed out that a turbo-charger, for the turbine and compressor are a combined unit unconnected with the engine other than by the exhaust gases passing through the turbine, which in turn drives the compressor which then delivers the compressed air to the cylinders and fuel is injected on the way to the inlet valves. A supercharger is a mechanical pump driven directly from the engine, by shaft, gears, chain, belt or similar mechanism and relies on part of the power of the engine to drive it. Before the days of fuel injection, a carburettor supplied a mixture of air and fuel to the inlet port of the supercharger which then compressed the mixture above atmospheric pressure and sent it on its way to the inlet valves. Supercharged engines always used to win Grand Prix races until the rules were changed and put such a big handicap on them that nobody bothered to exploit the system anymore. It must be admitted that supercharging had just about reached the limit of development by this time, which was 1954, but the exhaust-driven turbo-charger unit has revived the idea of putting fuel/air mixture past the inlet valve under pressure, rather than relying on atmospheric pressure to do the job. The technical rule makers decreed that a ratio of 2:1 was about right between the unsupercharged engine and the supercharged one, so that without a compressor device you could have an engine of 3-litres capacity, but with one you were limited to 1 1/2-litres. Some thought this was too heavily weighted against the compressed engine, and with a mechanically driven supercharger this would seem to be true, but the exhaust driven compressor unit has now shown that the ratio is about right. Ferrari has a 1 1/2-litre V6 engine on the test-bed with exhaust driven turbo charging, and Cosworth know quite a bit about the subject having developed their smaller DFX engine with turbo-charging for Indianapolis-type racing in America. It is too early to suggest we might be heading for a new range of Formula One engines, but it could get interesting. — D.S. J.