The weather did its best to destroy both the French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours on July 5 and the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 12 but it failed on both occasions. The French Grand Prix, or Grand Prix de France, which started life as the Grand Prix de Automobile Club de France in 1906 and only changed its title in recent years to conform with the rest of the world, was the event that started the whole idea of Grand Prix racing, with a set of rules to govern the design of competing cars and races run to a fixed pattern, or formula. In 1906 the Grand Prix was the Grand Prix de Automobile Club de France and it was not until 1922 that another national Grand Prix came on the scene. We now have 16 different Grands Prix each year, with others trying to swell the numbers.
The Grand Prix in France has run more or less consistently since 1906 and the event this year at Magny-Cours is reckoned to be the 78th in the history of France and motor racing, a record that nobody can approach. In 1950 the FIA schemed up the idea of a World Championship involving the major Grand Prix events, such as Italy, Germany, Belgium, Great Britain and so on, and it established Grand Prix racing as the most important aspect of the world of motor racing on an international scale. Grand Prix racing was given the sub-title of Formula One, any other racing formula being subsidiary.
When the British Grand Prix was first run to the World Championship format it had already been held twice at Silverstone, in 1948 and 1949, and Silverstone became its natural home. Grand Prix racing in the form of the British Grand Prix had got off to a shaky start in 1926 and 1927, with the Donington Park Grand Prix taking its place in 1935 to 1938. The 1948 Silverstone race was officially the RAC Grand Prix and the 1949 event saw the re-introduction of the British Grand Prix title, all before the FIA World Championship was thought of; since 1950 the British Grand Prix has never faltered. For a while it moved to Aintree in the north of England, and then to Brands Hatch in the south, but always it returned to Silverstone, the true home of British motor racing (unlike the French Grand Prix, which is still wandering about like a lost soul). We had the wonderful new ‘facility’ of Paul Ricard, then another ‘discovery’ at Dijon-Prenois, and now, the ‘wonder of the century’, Magny-Cours, but somehow the French Grand Prix has never achieved the atmosphere of racing in the grand manner that the circuit of Reims generated. A thorn in the side for the French must surely be the Monaco Grand Prix, held on a tiny piece of land that by all rational thinking should belong to France, which has established itself as something special that everyone wants to be at, even though it has become an anachronism in the world of Grand Prix racing. In contrast, each time the British Grand Prix wandered away from home and then returned it grew in size and status and got better and better, thanks to the BRDC and its associate companies who own the old bomber airfield. For some years the British Grand Prix has become something of an occasion not to be missed.
It was no surprise to see another 1-2 for the Williams-Renault team in France, for the superiority of the Anglo-French combination over the McLaren-Honda must be evident to anyone actually watching at the circuit, rather than following the sport via the ‘entertainment’ screen. Mansell may be fast, and may win races, but no way is he in the same class as Prost or Senna in driving artistry. In the world of music, Simon Rattle may conduct an orchestra and produce a symphony, but Herbert von Karajan generated something entirely different; Kenny Ball may play a trumpet, but Bunny Berrigan played jazz; Acker Bilk may play the clarinet, but Johnny Dodds played jazz music. I could go on with similar examples, but watch from the trackside and not through the eye of a telephoto lens and you will see Mansell driving very fast and winning races, but for artistry in high-speed driving you need to watch Senna or Prost, as he used to be and hopefully will be again next year.
The pattern of the French Grand Prix was badly ruffled on the opening lap when Schumacher’s Benetton ran into Senna’s McLaren at the hairpin, spinning the world champion into instant retirement, and putting the exuberant young German out of contention. A stop at the pits for a new nosecone dropped him nearly two laps behind before he could start racing again. From that first lap incident the whole French Grand Prix became something of a circus, full of the unexpected. From the start Patrese upset the form book by beating his Williams-Renault team-mate from the line, and then staying in front while the two of them pulled away from the rest of the field. Mansell closed up but did not go rushing by into the lead, and Patrese did not look as though he was going to move out of the way!
The elimination of two of the fastest runners on the opening lap meant that everyone else effectively moved up two places, so we had Mika Hakkinen in the Lotus 107 in a worthy sixth place, keeping pace with Alesi’s Ferrari. Almost from the start there had been light sprinkles of rain and by lap 16 it was falling quite heavily, but when the red flag put a stop to the race on lap 19 it came as something of a surprise. The thinking was that everyone would be heading for the pits to change over to deep-tread wet-weather tyres and with the rather sinuous entry to the pit lane there would be a monumental traffic jam.
The field lined up for the restart in the order they were on lap 18, so Patrese was now on pole position at the head of a fairly second-rate field, apart from Mansell, who was alongside him. Senna was gone, as was his McLaren team-mate Berger, whose engine had expired, and Schumacher was way down at the back of the grid.
In the interval Patrick Head had a quiet word with Patrese that recalled to me the words of Alfred Neubauer to Fangio, Moss, Kling and Herrmann before the start of the 1955 Mille Miglia. He said: “There are no team orders in this race, as in other races, but all we ask is that Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR cars arrive at the finish in the first four positions.” Patrese was simply asked not to compromise the team.
The irony of the restart was that by the time it was given the roads were dry and everyone was on dry tyres, but officially the second part of the race was announced to be ‘wet’, which meant that it would now run to its completion no matter what happened. Once again Patrese took the lead, but as he ended that opening lap he moved aside, slowed up and waved Mansell through into the lead, moving back into second place, well ahead of the opposition, such as it was. A worthy gesture by a good number two team player.
The race ran its course, everyone stopping at intervals to change to wet tyres when the rain started again around lap 45, everyone that is except one red car. The monotony of a depleted field tip-toeing along was enlivened by Jean Alesi, who found the Ferrari traction control system working splendidly in preventing wheelspin on the wet surface. For a number of laps he kept up the pace of those who were on new wet tyres, giving an inspired display of pure racer until the Ferrari pit signalled him to come in. Rejoining the race on treaded tyres, with the rain still coming down, he did only a few laps before his engine blew up as he came down the hill towards the pit straight, and he coasted into retirement, hero of the day.
Only three cars completed the full distance, with the two Williams-Renault FW14B cars dominating the way McLaren-Porsche used to do, before McLaren-Honda took over, and the way Tyrrell, Lotus and Brabham all had their turn at domination. For Patrick Head and the Williams part of the equation it was another great day for Britain, and for Bernard Dudot and the Renault engineers it was all they could wish.
Just one week later they were all at it again, this time at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix. Whereas the vast complex of the new Magny-Cours circuit is a rather unseemly blot on some very lovely French countryside, which comes as a cultural shock when first seen from neighbouring hillsides, somehow Silverstone has gradually crept up on the Buckinghamshire/Northamptonshire landscape. When the airfield was first built, for the use of bombers in the war, the desecration of the countryside was deemed a national necessity, and nobody argued with that. When racing cars first appeared on the airfield after the war, a master at nearby Stowe School remarked about the unfortunate arrival of the “beetle men in their noisy cars”. Now, 45 years later, the huge complex which is the Silverstone Racing Circuit is tolerated by most people, and more people get pleasure from it (and make money) than those who are aggravated by it. If you took a large piece of rural England and built today’s Silverstone on it there would be an uproar from all sides. We are very lucky with our situation.
First day of qualifying was cool and dry, just about perfect for high speed, with vortex trails coming off the rear aerofoils. Once again it was Williams-Renault all the way and Mansell’s laps were in a world of their own. His final lap at an average of 148.043 mph was the fastest-ever for the new Silverstone circuit, with all its new corners and gradients designed to slow things down a bit. Even he said afterwards that it seemed unreal, and he could hardly believe the speed he was going into Copse. In the pits I am sure that Patrick Head and Bernard Dudot did not think it unreal. They were probably consulting their telemetry signals from the chassis, gearbox, brakes and engine and smiling contentedly to themselves. The closer I look at the brains in the pits the more I am convinced that they are really in charge of the car when it is in full-flight mode.
The rain came earlier than it had done in Magny-Cours, and as far as lap times and grid positions were concerned Friday held all the answers. This did not mean no activity on Saturday, for there was much to do to work out car and engine settings for a wet race, as well as retaining the information from Friday in case it was dry, with the added complication gf the chances of conditions being mixed and needing to come up with a good compromise.
I sometimes wonder if we have defeated the whole concept of motor racing as a sport and pastime by letting our engineering expertise run away from us. It would be much more relaxed without the hi-tech, but it would be very slow and rather boring. If we were still racing to the standards of Bugatti, Alfa Romeo or Maserati I don’t think we would get 40,000 spectators for the first day of practice, or 100,000 for race day, and we certainly would not get a lap at 148 mph average, or speeds of nearly 190 mph on what is left of the old Hangar Straight. The whole object of motor racing is to go faster. Otherwise, why do it?
If you haven’t done any actual motor racing you probably don’t know what I am talking about, but don’t let it worry you, just enjoy what you can. Even on Sunday morning conditions were not 100 per cent, so decisions were still being made, but by 13.00 things were set fair, dry and overcast, with a stiff, cool breeze, but the chance of some sunshine. The expected record crowd all seemed to have squeezed in, most of them Mansell supporters, and they were not disappointed. The British Grand Prix, like the French the week before, was totally dominated by the Williams-Renault team, with Mansell disappearing so fast into the distance in the opening laps that even his team-mate lost sight of him. This overwhelming performance was still being achieved with the FW14B, an improved and uprated chassis from last year, using the V10 Renault RS3C, the development version of last year’s RS3 engine.
Head and his engineers have the FW15 nearly ready to race, and Renault has its new version of the V10, numbered RS4, already raceworthy and being used in qualifying, its appearance in a race depending on the strength of the opposition (if there is any!). Such strength in depth of engine and chassis research and development is something we haven’t seen in Grand Prix racing for a long time, and while it is intriguing to follow it, as closely as is allowed, it must be very depressing for anyone trying to keep pace, let alone catch up.
For the British it was a splendid day, made all the more enjoyable by the sun coming out at the end of the day to make for a nice summer evening, even if you were stuck in traffic jams. For those in no hurry to leave it was a nice relaxed time to ruminate on this and that, marvelling at the reliability of the Renault V10, its power and driveability, its speed and torque spread, and on the equal reliability of the Williams chassis and all its super hi-tech equipment, its clutchless nearly-fully-automatic gear changing, its totally computer-controlled suspension, its total control of wheelspin, its efficient usage of the Renault engine and the total co-ordination between Patrick and his team, and Bernard Dudot and the Renault engineers. We have heard of the entente cordial but the Williams-Renault set-up surpasses everything. The French part of the team enjoyed winning the French Grand Prix and the British part enjoyed winning the British. If our Grand Prix had been held two days later, on le quatorze juillet (July 14, the day of the storming of the Bastille, which changed the whole of French history), the Anglo-French alliance would have been complete.
Needless to say Mansell and Patrese were delighted with yet another first and second for the team, Mansell for his supporters and Patrese for himself, as his past record at Silverstone has not been very impressive. The picture of the winner’s rostrum was the same as at Magny-Cours, with Mansell and Patrese accompanied by Martin Brundle, but there was a very different air this time. Mansell had driven a searing race, stamping his real authority on his number one position at Williams-Renault, while Patrese fulfilled his obligations to the team to perfection. Brundle had brought his Benetton home into third place much closer to the Didcot cars than ever before, and while the previous week had done much for his own confidence in his ability, this week put the seal on it. To drive nearly the whole race with the red and white McLaren number one continually in your mirrors, and sometimes alongside, is a moment of truth for any racing driver.
You could say that Martin Brundle won his spurs at Silverstone on July 12 1992.
And do not overlook Mika Hakkinen in sixth place with the Lotus 107, still on the same lap as the winner. I think we can honestly say that the British Grand Prix at Silverstone was a great occasion, not to be missed. May it continue that way. D S J