Letter from France

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Dear AH,

The reason you couldn’t find me in the great Renaissance Centre (“Ren-Cen” — ugh!), round which the Detroit Grand Prix street circuit runs, was because I wasn’t there!

When whoever it was cancelled the Canadian Grand Prix without no much as a “sorry about that” I decided to opt out of going to Detroit as a personal protest, even though nobody noticed. Holding the Canadian and United States races on consecutive weekends made a trans-Atlantic trip worthwhile, and a visit to Montreal and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the island in the St Lawrence river was one of the better trips; I could always console myself by thinking of the Detroit race as either being on the way to Montreal, or on the way home from Montreal. A visit in cold blood to Detroit didn’t excite me.

People occasionally ask “What is your idea of hell?” and my answer is “Saturday evening in the Renaissance Centre before the Detroit Grand Prix.” This steel and glass edifice which rises from the ashru of downtown Detroit is a masterpiece of civil engineering, comprising four huge cylindrical towers forming a square, interlinked by galleries, passage ways, moving stairways going up and down, landings, foyers, shopping precincts and just about everything a city centre seems to need — all under glass and temperature controlled. Its main object is to demonstrate to the world that the City of Detroit is not dead, hence the name Renaissance Centre.

When it is empty and quiet it is overpowering in size and complexity, and you can sit anywhere and gaze in bewilderment as you think of the architects designing it; for it did not happen by accident, like towns and cities often do.

On Saturday evening it is “Grand Prix Party Time for Race Fans” and it makes Le Mans or the British Grand Prix seem like genteel tea-parties, with croquet on the lawn. The whole place fills with thousands of people all trying to shout above the noise of three or more rock bands, amplified to unheard-of decibels, and all playing their own brand of noise (you can’t call it music) regardless of each other. Everywhere is overcrowded and if you want to escape to your hotel room at the top of one of the towers you might have to stand in a queue for 15 minutes to get in a lift. Hell can’t be worse than the “Ren-Cen” on Saturday night.

I’ll always remember having breakfast one morning, in comparative peace and quiet, with Marc Surer, the pleasant Swiss racing driver who comes from a farming village near Basle. We were in an “open-air cafe”, except that 200ft above us was a glass roof and the rain was pouring down outside. I asked Marc what he made of “all this”, waving my hand to everything around and above us in the Renaissance Centre. The look on his face was memorable as he quietly shuddered and said he would rather be back home.

It was a sad day when Surer injured himself in a rally in which he was driving for fun, and put paid to his Grand Prix career, though he can still drive and live normally, unlike some unfortunate people. He was one of the “nice guys” in Formula One; why does it always happen to them?

Having explained (long-windedly) why you could not find me in Detroit, next month I might explain why you won’t find me in Hungary.

Having a free weekend while you were all working in Detroit meant finding something to do. In England that is not difficult if your interests range from motor racing, through every aspect from Formula One, Historic and Vintage racing to hill-climbs, old-car and motorcycle gatherings, auto-jumbles, commemoration runs, “jollies” and “boondoggles”, or just rides in the country.

I settled on a unique event, known as the Stanley Cup competition, run by the Frazer Nash Section of the VSCC and AFN Limited, which used to make the Frazer Nash cars and is now a major Porsche centre and part of Porsche Cars Great Britain, which in turn is owned by Porsche AG in Stuttgart. The origins of this event go back to 1930 when Sir Arthur Stanley, who was chairman of the RAC, presented his silver cup to the winning club-team in a series of races held at Brooklands. Between then and 1939 the Stanley Cup competition was also held at Donington Park and at the Crystal Palace.

In 1985 AFN Limited, with the Nash Section, revived the competition in the form of a team-event for cars up to 1960. It involved some none-to-strenuous observed sections in which speed was of no importance, but team regularity all-important. The three cars of a team had to take the test one after another, and the time-difference between fastest and slowest member of the team decided the results. At the end of the event, the winning team had the honour of presenting a cheque for £1000, generously provided by AFN Limited, to the British Red Cross Society, of which Sir Arthur was a life-long supporter.

The tests were incorporated in a route of nearly 100 miles, starting from the Brooklands Museum in Surrey, traversing many of the Hampshire by-ways and finishing at Porsche Cars Great Britain, west of Reading. Thirty-eight teams were entered, ranging from a trio of little vintage “twin-cam” Salmsons, through a trio of Jowett Javelin saloons, to a trio of Ferraris. A wider selection of Vintage, PVT, post-war “oldies” and classic cars would be hard to find, with every team in with the same chance of winning and without the need for complicated handicaps.

The passengers had plenty to do in route finding and observation on the route, and a happier and more relaxed day with old cars would be hard to find. The revised Stanley Cup has now been run for three years and has become firmly established in the old-car summer calender, all the more unusual as it is essentially a team affair, with very little in the way of personal aggrandisement. The winners were a team of HRG sports cars.

Before returning to the world of Formula One there was another busy Historic weekend, with the Silverstone race meeting of the Vintage Sports Car Club, which was more than up to standard — it was one of the best meetings. The one-make theme this year was Alfa Romeo, with a parade for the more prosaic models (though many of these had superchargers and twin-overhead camshafts) and a scratch race for the more hairy examples; what a sight that was!

Never have we seen so many Italian supercharged straight-eight twin-cam cars, the great majority having interesting racing histories. Unlike some one-make clubs, which tend to line up their valuable possessions in serial ranks so that the populace gaze in awe at the beautiful cars, Alfa Romeo owners use their cars and just leave them standing about in the most unpretentious manner. There was a Monza by the petrel pumps, an 8C-2300 4-seater by the toilets, a Tipo B “monoposto” by the book stall, another among the ERAs, a blown 1750 on its own on the grass, and a Le Mans “two-three outside the bar.

As someone said: “There seems to be a mouth-watering Alfa Romeo round every corner in the paddock.” It was a memorable day for owners and admirers alike. Yours. DSJ