Reflections in the wake of the Mistral

Well that was a pretty good French Grand Prix, in spite of being held on the very artificial and somewhat clinical Paul Ricard circuit. A week before the event was due to take place it looked as though there would only be two Renaults, two Ferraris, and three Alfa Romeos taking part, as “Bernie’s Boys” decided to boycott the event, but common sense (I hope!) prevailed and FOCA turned up in force and performed as if nothing had happened at the Spanish GP or subsequently. As far as the French Grand Prix was concerned we now know who is running motor racing, and in particular Grand Prix racing. It is under the control of the Federation International de l’Automobile through its deputed committee the Federation Internationale de le Sport Automobile. In other words the Internationally agreed governing body, as it always has been and I hope always will be.

To the Maserati enthusiast the name Mistral conjures up a sleek front-engined coupe around the years 1966/67, to the French it means a pervading wind in the South of France and to the Formula One enthusiast it is the name of the 1.8 kilometre straight on the Paul Ricard circuit which lies about mid-way between Marseilles and Nice. The official name is Ligne droite du Mistral and it is a very appropriate name, for the warm wind blows strongly along the straight. It also blows strongly everywhere else and by Sunday night, I for one was thoroughly fed up with it. However, in spite of the Mistral, the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard was very enjoyable and pretty exciting, if you were standing in the right place. The last Grand Prix at Paul Ricard was in 1978 and since then the art and science of making a racing car corner fast has advanced with leaps and bounds, so that lap records have been falling dramatically. Now that the under-side of a Formula One car is more efficient, from the air flow point of view, and down-force is being created by this air-flow, there is less need for devices on top of the car to generate down-force so that drag-creating nose-fins and steep-angle aerofoils are diminishing with a consequential lower overall drag and an increase in top speed. Figures of over 200 mph were being quoted in test sessions at Paul Ricard so on the first official practice day I scrounged a moped from the Candyman of the Tyrrell team and rode over to the end of the long straight.

I was not disappointed. Maximum speeds have always fascinated me, especially high maximum speeds, and in the 1955 Mille Miglia with Stirling Moss in the 300SLR Mercedes-Benz our maximum was 177 mph. At one point down near Rome we held this maximum for something like six kilometres without the suspicion of a “lift on the throttle”. The Mercedes-Benz was pulling 7,700 rpm in fifth gear and it was a glorious feeling to watch the needle on the tachometer stay rock steady for mile after mile. One of my few regrets in life is that we did not get that far in the 1957 Mille Miglia in the 450S Maserati, for that big V8 would have done 185 mph on that particular stretch. I love to think about a mythical Mille Miglia in 1971 in a 917 Porsche with Pedro Rodriguez, we would have been doing 240 mph on that mountain plateau in Italy. However, I digress, to return to the reality of today. When I went to Long Beach in California I was told the Formula One Cars were doing 190 mph on the back leg of the circuit, on thinking “this I must see” I walked down to the fastest point and found the Heuer and Longines beam-timer were recording around 170 mph. At Paul Ricard this year it was slightly different. The same beam-timers were recording 196 mph most of the time for the Renaults, though I would not doubt that occasional laps could well have seen 200 mph recorded, and even a bit over that.

What was much more interesting was the beam-timer on the apex of the long right curve that follows the straight, for that was recording 170 mph for Pironi in the Ligier and a little under that for the likes of Jones, Laffite, Arnoux and Reutemann. Everyone was lifting off at the end of the straight, some drivers more than others, but the top few were impressive. When you shut the throttle on a Cosworth V8 the fuel-iniection metering unit automatically moves to “weak mixture”, to give instant response when the throttles are slammed open again. If it stayed on “full rich” the inlet tracts would get over-rich and the engine would “blubber” slightly before coming in clean. The result of this is that when a Cosworth V8 engine goes onto the over-run due to the throttles being closed the exhaust note makes a noise something like “burble, burble, burble, pop, bang, pop, pop, bang, burble, burble” so there is no point in a driver telling you he took a comer flat-out when you are standing there listening. At the end of the Mistral straight one or two of the front runners were lifting their throttle foot for such a small amount of time that the metering unit did not have time to reset itself to “weak mixture, nor did the inlet tracts have time to get over-rich. This you could hear because the exhaust note definitely changed but did not make the usual popping and banging before it was heard again. On one occasion I could have sworn that Pironi did not lift his foot at all, and he later confirmed that he almost took the corner without lifting. The Ligiers were recording around 180 mph at the end of the straight and a slight “lift” at the entry to the corner and the tyre scrub as the car turned into the corner knocked off 10 mph. This was one of the secrets of the Ligiers lap times and Pironi was so consistent through the corner speed timer that it was almost uncanny. Arnoux in the Renault had a different set of circumstances altogether. He arrived at the corner at 196 m.p.h., or even more, and had to lose 26 m.p.h. before the apex, assuming the Renault to have the same cornering power as the Ligier. This called for a much bigger judgement of speed reduction and more often than not Arnoux over-reacted and lost more speed than he need have done. The Williams cars were about mid-way between the Ligier and the Renault, and I’m sure all three were capable of achieving the same cornering power. Watching on this corner I could not help feeling that Ligier had got their calculations about “spot-on”. Perfection would have been to arrive at the end of the straight doing the maximum cornering speed plus the speed lost by tyre scrub, then the driver could have taken that corner absolutely flat-out and come out of it at the maximum possible speed. They were not far off. The 15-20 mph top speed advantage of the Renault was not available for long enough to overcome the disadvantage of the driver having to make a speed reduction judgement, in which he invariably erred on the safe side; if he hadn’t he would have lost adhesion and spun off. Had the straight been another kilometre longer it would have been a very different story.

At the beginning of the long straight there is a flat-out left hand bend leading on to it and this is preceded by a long right hand bend tluough which the cars are accelerating hard. Here the Williams had a big advantage for it was so nicely balanced that Alan Jones could accelerate really hard all the way round the corner with just a shade of over-steer and a fraction of left hand steering lock, “playing” the car between steering and throttle, and he took the following left bander faster than the Ligier or the Renault and could get to the other end of the straight in the some time that they took, even though they arrived at the other end going faster. The speed of the Williams through the long bend at the end of the straight was about the some as the Renault, but not quite the equal of the Ligier. So here we had three different approaches to the Mistral straight and the all-important corners at the beginning and end, yet the lap times were within one hundreth of second of each other. On Saturday afternoon when everyone was giving all they had the best times were Ligier 1 min 39.49 secs, Williams 1 min 39.50 secs, Renault 1 min 39.86 secs. On the previous day Renault had done 1 min 39.49 secs, while Ligier (with their T-car) had done 1 min 38.88 sec, but they never matched it with the race-car.

This does give some idea of the closeness of the front-runners in Formula One today, but don’t imagine it is like this all the may down the field, for some of the teams are pretty hopeless and many of them were nowhere near 180 mph down the straight, nor were they remotely near 170 mph on the apex of the fast corner. Indeed the Ferraris were so awful that you could see they were slower than most and were visibly unstable even at their lower speed. There were not too many brave drivers either for most of the Cosworth V8 engines were going on to the weak-mixture popping and banging at the end of the straight, and for quite a long time. There wasn’t much need to look at the lap times to see who was going to be up at the front of the grid. Laffite, Arnoux, Pironi, Jones and Reutemann stood out. I know all the others will blame their cars and their designers, but it is not always the reason.

To go to the other side of the circuit there is a long, fast ess-bend after the straight past the pits and once again the star runners were head and shoulders above the rest. The Renaults, Ligiers and Williams were taking the ess-bend absolutely “flat”, having just taken fifth gear before it and this was every bit of 160 mph. It was pretty awe-inspiring to watch. Even more impressive was the way the fast drivers caught up on a slower driver after the exit of the ess-bend. As there was a short straight and then really heavy braking for a sharp right-hander at the end it saw the fast cars doing a lot of overtaking of slower cars at this point. Going into a corner fast is not too difficult, but coming out of a corner fast is another matter altogether and the speed of the faster drivers out of the esses, compared to slower drivers was remarkable. The braking area for the sharp right-hander was also the scene of some pretty desperate deeds in the opening stages of the race, from Piquet and Villeneuve in particular. There were 16 cars in front of Villeneuve on the starting grid, two of them eliminated themselves when the green light came on, leaving 14 and by the end of lap two there were only seven in front of him and he hung onto that leading group for nearly 20 laps. Last year Alan Jones paid Villeneuve the finest compliment when he said “Jeez, the guy just won’t give up”.

I have tried to explain some of the things that involve the “aces” up at the front and how close the competition is, but at the French GP it was as close among the “rabbits” who failed to qualify, though I won’t attempt to explain why. The three non-qualifiers were Lees (Shadow), Lammers (Ensign) and Kennedy (Shadow) and their best lap times were, respectively, 1 min 44.28 sec, 1 min 44.33 sec and 1 min 44.56 sec. In the race itself all the fast runners were hammering on right to the end, as is evidenced by the lap on which they recorded their fastest lap. Jones and Pironi on lap 48, Laffite on lap 44, Piquet on lap 51, Arnoux and Reutemann on lap 53, and Watson on lap 45 and it was a 54 lap race.

 At the opposite extreme to Grand Prix racing today is Historic racing and before the French GP the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association (which was formed last winter) organised a splended display and demonstration of famous old racing cars. They all came from Great Britain and included a fine array of famous cars that you could not fault. There were ERAs, Maseratis, Alfa Romeos and Talbot-Lagos and many more, and after 10 laps of the circuit, which was a long way for an historic race, the winner was Lamplough in his reconstructed P25 BRM, a few inches ahead of Willy Green in Maserati 2534, a truly historic Grand Prix car. There followed two ERAs, the first being the Hon Patrick Lindsay’s R5B “Remus” with 2-litre engine, and Martin Morris in R1B, also with a 2-litre engine. Then came the Hon. Amschel Rothschild in the Maserati 2507 that Roy Salvadori used to race, followed by David Black’s reconstructed Maserati 8CM and Sir John Venables-Llewelyn in ERA R4A now with 1500 c.c. engine. Chris Mann brought the ex-Shuttleworth “monoposto” Alfa Romeo home next ahead of his brother Peter in ERA R9B and Patrick Mash in ERA R1B. Macpherson in his ex-Ken Wharton Cooper-Bristol and Bill Morris in ERA R1B “Hanuman” completed the list of those who did the full 10 laps. Paul Grist (Talbot-Lago), Geoffrey St. John (Bugatti Type 51), Nick Mason (Connaught A-type), Martin Dean (Talbot-Lugo) and Simon Phillips (Lotus 16) completed 9 laps. Pilkington (Talbot-Lago), Norman (Maserati 250F) and Maurice Trintignant (Lotus 16) all retired, the last-named famous French Grand Prix driver in one of Bruce Halford’s cars.

Everyone enjoyed the sights and sounds (and smells) of these famous old cars and on Friday afternoon they had a practice session immediately after the Formula One session. While many of the Formula One people looked on some of the mechanics were taking photographs of cars long before their time and Alan Jones and the Williams designer Patrick Head climbed over the pit wall to have a closer look as the cars assembled in the starting grid area before starting practice. Alan Jones was “fingering” a 250F Maserati because his dad used to race one out in Australia, and Patrick Head was taking a close interest because his cousin was in one of the Talbot-Lagos. What both Jones and Head had not realised was that historic cars have to be push-started, there were no on-board self-starters in those days and as there were more cars than helpers they found themselves roped in to push-start an awful lot of the cars. As they climbed back over the wall, breathing heavily, they grinned and said “that was the result of ignorance, we wondered why you stayed behind the wall”. On Saturday evening there was a pleasant champagne party given by Moet and Chardon for the “historic” drivers, their helpers and friends, and unlike the Formula One drivers who waste good Moet and Chandon by shaking the bottle and squirting it over officials and photographers the “historic” drivers all drank it with decorum and pleasure. And so did their helpers and their friends. It was nice to see the Renault team-manager Jean Sage at the party (in spite of the engine trouble that the Renault team were suffering), for he loves old cars and has owns three GT Ferraris of his own from back in the sixties.

For anyone who didn’t like old cars or the best new ones there was a galaxy of racing and entertainment throughout Saturday and Sunday, with races for every type of saloon and for small single-seaters. I am afraid I cannot work up much enthusiasim for one-make racing as I like motor racing, not driver racing and fifty R5 Renaults rushing round the circuit do not attract me. Nor did a vast number of coloured boxes on wheels which the programme called Leyland Castrol cars. Curiosity got the better of me and I felt forced to discover what a Leyland-Castrol was. It turned out to be a BMC-Mini made in Italy by Innocenti. I could not understand why they were racing against each other, I would have thought that a contest between Minis and R5 Renaults would have been much more instructive.

At one point Hans Herrmann was doing some laps in a short-wheelbase, out-board front-brake, Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car from 1955, though I never did discover why, and then there was a French motorcyclist who jumped his motorcycle over the Marlboro start-line bridge. He took off from an enormously high ramp and landed on another one of equal height the other side, so that in reality he only jumped a height of a few feet, though the motorcycle attained a great height from the actual ground. Some multi-coloured parachutists did a superb job of landing in the start area with the handicap of the Mistral doing its best to blow them off course, and jet-planes zoomed about the sky. I often wonder if the paying public would rather pay less money and just have one motor-race to watch as an afternoon of entertainment, instead of two very long days. Had the FOCA contingent not turned up the French GP would probably have broken even with a handful of spectators, for Renault would have undoubtedly taken part for no money other than prize money, as would Alfa Romeo, and Enzo Ferrari would have probably agreed to send his team for no start-money just to annoy FOCA, as he does not really like “Mr Ecclestone and his gang”. — DSJ.