Formula One Scene

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Changing Times

If we did not live in a world of change we would be in real trouble, because you cannot stand still; if you don’t go forwards there is only one alternative and that is to go backwards, and that usually means deterioration. You can delay things by moving sideways, but it is only a temporary relief from reality. The month of July really brought this home to the world of Formula One because on successive weekends the “circus” had to face the challenge of performing on new circuits, with a whole new set of parameters to work to. Apart from the engineers having to feed in totally new information into their computers, the drivers had two new circuits to learn and race on.

The first change was the French Grand Prix moving from the Paul Ricard circuit in the south to the rebuilt circuit at Magny Cours, effectively in the middle of France, and the second change was the British Grand Prix visiting Silverstone once more and finding a totally different circuit on the same piece of land. Personally I left the French Grand Prix with mixed feelings, and the British Grand Prix with complete enthusiasm for what had taken place on the long-established famous airfield.

At Magny Cours, just to the south of the town of Nevers, the French seem to have built a sort of Milton Keynes new-town in the heart of some really lovely countryside, so the first sight you get as you drive over the country lanes approaching the village of Magny Cours is a bit of a cultural shock. When you drive over the fly-over bridging the famous Route National number 7 things do not improve very much for the whole new complex is so big that it is a bit bewildering. The pit-lane garage/workshops are big enough to take a trio of double-decker buses and Formula One cars look a bit lost. The parking lots for the team transporters should accommodate the growth of big articulated lorries for ten or twenty years, while in the motorhomes and Hospitality Units park there was enough free space to accommodate at least three Kart tracks.

Above the pits has been built a veritable modern office-block containing the Press room and hospitality suites for all and sundry. Down at ground level the actual pit-lane is archaic in its narrowness and the track itself seems almost an after-thought. You get the impression that the designers and builders got completely carried away with their enthusiasm for the New Town in the middle of nowhere and completely forgot about the circuit itself. In effect they had little option but to put it on the piece of land that was going to be used for the Super Market car park. In order to get the required length the circuit doubles back on itself and as there is no local geography to provide names for featureless corners, names like Estoril, Adelaide and Nürburging are used, which is a bit of an insult to those circuits. The history of Magny Cours as a venue for motor racing goes back about thirty years but it never developed much beyond a mini-club circuit round a field. Now it has become the 1990 Showpiece for French motor racing and the venue for the French round of the World Championship series of races. It makes you weep for Rouen-les-Essarts, Clermont-Ferrand, Reims-Cueux and even Dijon-Prenois, but if it is what the modem world of Formula One entertainment and television coverage needs, well they have got it for better or for worse. Judging by the cost of the whole affair it is here to stay for a long while.

One week later the “circus” was at the New Silverstone, and what a difference. The airfield perimeter track has grown steadily since 1948 to become one of the fastest Grand Prix circuits ever with a continuous programme of improvement and development, vying all the time with the development and improvement of the Grand Prix car. The two have grown up together to the benefit of both and as the years have gone by new landmarks for the circuit have come and gone. I well remember the first time anyone put in a lap at 100 mph which caused great excitement, then the 120 mph lap came and went, followed by 130 mph laps. The first lap at 150 mph really was a landmark and when Rosberg put in a qualifying lap at 160 mph there were those people who begun to wonder if we had gone far enough. My personal view was that the time had come to make Silverstone really fast, by building banked corners and cutting out the odd left-hand bend like Becketts and make a super-speedway with the first lap being at 200 mph and taking it from there. I must admit that I found very little support for such an idea and when the plans for the new Silverstone were revealed I was very enthusiastic and forgot my ideas for a super-speedway.

As lap speeds on the old perimeter track kept rising, minor modifications were made to contain the speed within reasonable bounds at various points, but still the lap speeds went up. It was after the lap speed reached 160 mph that the FIA circuit inspectors began to start muttering about “chicanes”, an easy way out to reduce lap speeds that are the kiss of death to most circuits. Before anything silly like a “chicane” half way down Hanger Straight could be suggested the Silverstone owners produced a master plan to build a new Silverstone circuit on the foundations of the old one and it was accepted with commendable enthusiasm by the FIA.

In barely six months the whole existing circuit has been reprofiled, old corners have been scrapped, new corners have been built, and some existing ones have been modified. The result is that the Silverstone circuit still runs round the edge of the very large field that was once a wartime airfield, but it twists and turns, goes down artificial slopes, up new inclines and presents a very interesting and challenging circuit. It is slower than the old circuit, the lap speed being 145 mph average, with maximum speeds around the 180 mph mark. I don’t suppose many of us have ever driven at 145 mph for a fleeting moment, let alone tried to average 145 mph for three miles round a circuit. From the beginning of Silverstone as a racing circuit high speed cornering has been its notable feature, and it still is, with the new Beckett curves and the downhill swoop at Abbey and Bridge corner being particularly daunting.

When the Austrians carved out the Osterreichring in the hills above Zeltweg, and the Belgians rebuilt the Francorchamps circuit we realised that there was still hope for Grand Prix racing to remain the motor racing pinnacle. When we looked at what the Germans did at the Nürburgring and the French did at Paul Ricard we had doubts about the future of Grand Prix racing. The new Magny Cours circuit began to raise those doubts again, but thankfully the new Silverstone has dispelled them, so on average the Formula One scene is alright.

Behind the visible Formula One scene, in the confines of motor homes with darkened windows, there is anything but a feeling of being alright. There is so much advancement being made on all sides of the technical aspects of Formula One these days that there is a shortage of good engineers, and after the Canadian Grand Prix two from the top flight took off for pastures new, leaving their teams a bit like a healthy boat with a good crew but no captain. John Barnard left the Benetton team and Dr. Harvey Postlethwaite left the Tyrrell team. The Benetton team has as many sides to its make up as the Benetton family have colours in their knitwear advertising. At Silverstone it was announced that Tom Walkinshaw had acquired a 35% interest in the Benetton share of the team. It was not mentioned who owned the rest, but the supply of engines from Cosworth and the engine management technology supplied by Ford all mounts up to a pretty big financial involvement by Ford, especially as Ford own Cosworth anyway. Purely as an aside it is worth remembering that Tom Walkinshaw is very closely allied to Jaguar and Ford own Jaguar. Did I say the Benetton team has many sides to its make up?

Ford have already agreed to finance the building of a new V12 engine for the exclusive use of the Benetton team in 1992, but will the B192 car with the V12 engine still be in the hotch-potch of colours of the world of Benetton, or will it be white with a blue ellipse on the side? There are those who think it might even be purple or green and be called a Jaguar. These people are quick to point out that the 1991 Jaguar sports/racing cars have very little Jaguar about them, using a long-distance version of the Cosworth (Ford) V8 Formula One engine, so why not a Ford Grand Prix car called a Jaguar built with the racing know-how of Tom Walkinshaw Racing and Cosworth Engineering.

It is known that Dr Harvey Postlethwaite has joined Mercedes-Benz but exactly why is anybody’s guess, and ‘anybody’ is making some pretty fanciful guesses, some of which may come true. Strongest feeling is that there will be a Mercedes-Benz team in Formula One in 1993 and serious opposition to them will come from a car bearing the Jaguar name, powered by a VI2 engine. A lot of people seem to over-look the fact that Jaguar have been into V12 engines in their production cars for a very long time, whereas Mercedes-Benz have only recently gone into production with a V12 engine. There is certainly much in store for the future of Formula One. I was going to say “there is never a dull moment in Formula One” but just now there are some dull moments for some people in Formula One.

While the entry list for Grand Prix races is still over-subscribed we still have the complication of which teams can start in a race. The limit on cars starting a Grand Prix has been fixed at 26. The maximum number allowed on the track for practice is 30, so by taking each driver’s fastest practice lap as the yardstick, 4 cars are eliminated. With more than 30 entries there has had to be pre-qualifying to pick the 4 fastest of the also-rans, to join the 26 accepted entries, these 4 being able to dislodge anyone from their guaranteed place during the two hours of qualifying. The task of deciding who has to take part in pre-qualifying is a tricky one and is done on the team’s performance during the last eight races of last year, and the first eight of this year, so the recent British GP was the “all change” point. A new team like Jordan naturally had to start at the bottom and spend the first eight races of this year pre-qualifying. Their race performances have been so good that they are sixth overall in team order, and pre-qualifying is now a thing of the past. The Brabham-Yamaha team, on the other hand, now have to join pre-qualifying as during their six months as a ‘seeded’ team their race performances have not been good enough, even though they have shown good promise at times. The Footwork team, who were not exactly ‘front runners’ when they were the Arrows team, have had a disastrous six months and are relegated to pre-qualifying whether they go on using Cosworth DFR engines or get their Porsche V12 units back. The Scuderia Italia team with their Dallara cars powered by John Judd’s V10 engines have earned their place among the heirarchy, being just behind the Jordan team in the overall order. The AGS team who have made little progress in the first half of this season have suffered the inevitable relegation, and Fondmetal and Coloni have never really looked like getting out of prequalifying.

From the German GP onwards the two AGS cars, the two Brabham-Yamaha cars, the two Footwork cars and the singleton Fomet and Coloni have to spend 8am to 9am on the Friday of practice vying for the four best lap times, to enable them to join in the official qualifying periods and try to oust four of the accepted cars; not an easy task. All this complication is due to too many people wanting to join the Formula One bandwagon, a very lucrative bandwagon for the successful but a very difficult one to get on, and an even more difficult one to stay on.

If Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar appear on the scene I can see the rules regarding qualification being hastily revised. As Mr. Eccleston once said to me, “if some of the teams would go back to Formula 3000, where they belong, we would not have all this nonsense of pre-qualifying. — DSJ

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