THE MECHANICS WINNING
SAD BUT TRUE: DRIVERS AND CARS GET THE MAJORITY OF CREDIT FOR ANY GIVEN MOTORSPORT VICTORY, EVEN WHEN DECISIONS MADE AND ACTIONS TAKEN IN THE PITLANE HAVE PROVED TO BE THE WINNING FACTOR. ‘TWAS EVER THUS, SAYS BILL BODDY
C H Davis, when he was the respected Sports Editor of 7he Autocar and vastly experienced in racing, rallies and trials, believed most races were won by mechanics. Pitstops have been a feature of long-distance races from the beginning, and hundreds — nay, thousands — of essential pauses in the heat ofa race have happened. So only the more dramatic stops and their implication and importance can be described here. The word `pie goes back to the dawn of motor
racing, when the depots for each entrant, where tools, spare parts and fuel could be kept, were literally pits dug in a long line at the side of the racecourse or circuit. This did not last long, and soon counters were raised to a convenient level and even roofed over. In extremely long events, some repairs and replacement of tyres had sometimes to be done at the roadside, but otherwise cars would come into their pits or depots for such necessary attention. As late as 1907, the regulations for the important Kaiserpreis race stated that, “All supplies of fuel (petrol, oil, water, etc), all changes and repairs (tyres, inner tubes, motor, clutch, etc) must be done exclusively by the occupants of the car. Each firm will be allocated two places on the course for their depots, the position affixed by ballot. Fuel and spare parts may be deposited at the side of the course but taking-up of tyres, tubes, water, petrol, oil, etc is only permitted at the depots, at penalty of disqualification if disobeyed. Two depots each may be rented to those connected with the race but not competing, for a fee of 1000 marks.” The rule that mechanics had to remain in the pits while only the driver and his riding-mechanic worked on the car remained in force for some time. Even in the Le Mans 24-hour marathon, where a tired competitor might need additional help, it was some time before the
co-driver or a mechanic was permitted to leave the pit to assist a driver, and then providing only two men were on the course. Later a driver could stay in his seat as a number of mechanics did the refuelling, etc.
A far different situation from today, when swarms of very skilled workers attend cars and get them away, usually in under 9sec, against an average of around a minute to two minutes in the vintage years, occasionally a bit less. Mercedes-Benz, for example, could get a car away in 47sec.
Today Davis’ theory holds true — most races are won by the pit and workshop mechanics, although apart from a nose-cone or wingchange and cleaning-out air intakes, few repairs are made trackside.
From the original crude wooden pits fine permanent buildings were eventually erected at major circuits, and Brooldands followed suit with the concrete structure beside the Campbell circuit from 1937, with rooftop viewing. Long before that, it had become commonplace to rent out pit-space to commercial firms. Thus at the JCC 200 Mile Race at the Track, Palmer and Pirelli (tyres), Shell-Mex and AngloAmerican (fuel), Claudel-Hobson and Zenith (carburettors), T B Andre (shock absorbers) had their own pits. The pits were often still crude but when Andre Lombard’s Salmson spun in 1921 in the ‘200’ and collided with them, only the car’s wheels suffered, whereas in 1933 in the IOM, Dick Shutdeworth’s Bugatti demolished quite a lot of the temporary pits when it hit them. Apart from wheel changes and repairs, the pits were the source of signals to drivers, to give them their race positions. Various methods were adopted: from a green Castrol oil-tin hung out for ‘slow’ and a yellow striped Speedwell oil tin for ‘faster’ to Capt Frazer Nash (GN) in the 1921 ‘200’; the various opened golf umbrellas with symbols on them with which Lady Selsdon used to keep her son, the Hon rh+
Mitchell-Thompson (Frazer Nash), informed in his races; finally, there were, and remain, professional signal-boards. One ploy was not to let rivals read your signals, as when Prince Chula signalled to Prince Bira in Siamese a mystery to most of the other drivers and pitcrews. Now, of course, there is two-way radio communication from pits to driver.
But throughout the history of racing the race manager has been all important There have been many notable holders of this position, from Herr Neubauer of Mercedes-Benz downwards. Sammy Davis took the task very seriously, insisting drivers and mechanics did endless pre-race practice in changing wheels and refuelling, etc. His written instructions ran to 33 items, and he devised a signal consisting of a pole topped with an aluminum sheet and a semaphore-arm. The latter could be rotated to indicate ‘faster’ when pointed down (ie, accelerator down), up for ‘slower’, level for OK’, and pointing to the pit, ‘come in.’ Sammy claimed it could convey a total of 18 messages to drivers or riding mechanics.
Hand-held signals were used by the German teams, and Neubauer expected them to be obeyed, which on one classic occasion was not the case. Earlier, one famous driver had been sacked from an equally famous team for this offence. Such signals are still seen in some races and even on a stage of the recent Acropolis Rally, when the Prodrive team showed a board of symbols to Richard Burns. He crashed on the next corner.
Davis, in his managing days, took his famous semaphore to races placed along the bonnet of his Bertelli Aston Martin, the pole beneath the bonnet and the top in a cloth bag. His pitstaff were told first to send someone to locate fuel and water sources, to filter petrol in the refuelling chums through chamois leather, aircraft fashion, not to overfill said churns to avoid splashing the driver, to set out tools and equipment to his requirements, to stop talking when a car was coming in, to clear gatecrashers from the pit and, after a race had finished, to guard everything plugs especially until the lorry arrived; the last presumably from bitter experience!
Incidentally, today one gets glimpses of drivers’ wives and girlfriends in the pits and Frau Charly Caracciola used to do all her famous husband’s personal timing and chart-keeping. But at the 1929 TT, which he won in the rain so convincingly in the 36/220 SS MercedesBenz, she was banned, and ejected after trying to pose as a man so as to remain in the out-of-bounds pits. Another instance of efficient pit preparation was that of Eric Gordon England
for the 1925 JCC ‘200’, although he was himself driving in the Austin 7 team. He issued each driver, RE Hall, Gordon Hendy and Lt A A D Grey, with a 12page A4-size list of what they were to do.
These instructions included obeying the manager, Mr Bassett, at all times, two timekeepers to keep a lapchart, two others the lap-speeds of the four A7s, to keep the 5-gallon tanks of BP Special fuel full, to lay the tools pointing outwards on white paper, and to check that four sets of Celerity valves and springs, various gauges of copper wire with scissors handy, ditto copper tubing, labelled for size four Hartford star-washers, two fire extinguishers, headgaskets, a steeringrod arm, a BLIC magneto with leads, a supply of mutton cloth, etc, were easily found. And no smoking to be allowed.
The riding-mechanics C P Tussad, S Gilbey, A Mellish and J Pares were to signal if a car was coming in. If Bassett could not be seen at the pit counter, all was well! Signals were written on black and white boards, black and white crayons provided. In all, a dozen pit personnel looked after things. It paid off, as England and Hendy finished 1-2 in the 750cc class. Hall lost time with overheating of his A7 but changed a gasket, and Grey crashed, injuring Pares.
Lord Austin must have remembered this, because he asked England to manage the A7 pit in the 1929 Ulster TT. He agreed only if Austin provided a letter saying he had complete command, and with no appeals made to His Lordship. This was accepted and again the result was good, the s/c Ulster A7s of Archie Frazer Nash, S V Holbrook and G E Caldicutt taking a 1-2-3 in their class and a wonderful third, fourth and 18th overall.
Over the long years of motor racing pitstops have provided much drama, no less so than in the present-day Fl grands prix. One recalls the excitement when, in the 1923 JCC ‘200’ the new supercharged Fiats were so obviously going to dominate, lapping at over 101mph as against about 91 of the best opposition. Nothing could stop them yet stop they did. On only lap 11 of the 74, Salamano was first, halting opposite his pit, and after a small fire was extinguished, running across to retire. This shock was scarcely accepted before Malcolm Campbell came coasting in with a dead engine. “Finished” he calls. “Try her again,” he is told. “It may smash her up,” he responds, as his mechanic cranks the engine. Half out of his seat, Campbell listens, switches off, and shouts “No good”, and walks away. The reasons were never divulged by Fiat Just as dramatic was how ‘Old No7’ Bentley was strapped up and mended 71+
as well as possible at its Le Mans pit in 1927, after the historic White House accident when, in the dark, other crashed cars obstructed the course. The patchedup 3-litre went on to win, Dr Benjafield, Davis’ co-driver, coming in again to sportingly hand-over to ‘Sammy’ for the final victorious laps.
It was at Le Mans in 1930 that the great Mercedes-Benz/Bentley duel was fought out between the Caracciola/Werner supercharged 7.1-litre Merc and the Blower 41/2 and Speed Six Bentleys. For over 11 hours it raged, Birkin and Bamato harrying the German car hard. Birkin even set a new lap record by passing Caracciola on the grass verge, though this caused a tyre to throw a tread and eventually burst, after leading for two laps. But at 2.30am the Mercedes retired. Having led for 49 laps, to the winning Bentley’s 43, it was said to have had a ‘short’ which had made the battery flat so that the starter, which the rules insisted upon, would not restart the engine. Imagine how W Bentley and his drivers must have felt on seeing their rivals stationary for so long in the pit!
One of the most traumatic of pitstops came in the 1935 German GP at the Niirburgring, in which Tazio Nuvolari started in an outdated Scuderia Ferrarirun Alfa Romeo P3, against the might of the latest Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions. Yet at half-distance, he led Rosemeyer (A-U), von Brauchitsch (M-B) and Caracciola (M-B). All four pitted together. Wheels were jacked up and changed, fuel pumped in. Rosemeyer got away after 47sec, the Mercedes pair afterwards. But the handle of the Alfa pit’s fuel pump broke and chums had to be resorted to. Nuvolari walked calmly up and down beside the Alfa (sucking a lemon, it is said) as the delay mounted, and urged the mechanics on without becoming overly excited. He lost 2min 27sec, but this incredible driver then proceeded to cut into von Brauchitsch’s lead, lap by lap (Rosemeyer had stopped).
By the 22nd and final lap, the Mercedes was signalled to speed up but it gained a mere 2sec before its nearside back tyre burst vvith five miles to go. The Alfa Romeo went on to win. It was one of the inimitable Tazio’s greatest drives.
Then there was the 1938 German GP when Seaman and von Brauchitsch pitted together, the latter’s Mercedes caught fire and, after pandemonium, Seaman went on to win. Remember his half-mast Nazi salute as he was congratulated by the Hitlerian top brass? Fire was a hazard in those days, and during the 1952 Goodwood 9-hour Race, a mini-Le Mans (3pm to midnight), when Reg Parnell’s Aston Martin was
being replenished, it caught alight. The pits were endangered as 20-foot-high flames and dense black smoke blotted out one end of them. I had gone down from Hampshire to Goodwood in a rare AC Buckland tourer, and saw it all. The timekeepers were in the alcove above with open chums ofpetrol on the counters and a 4500-gallon tanker near by, and bravely remained there as the alarming conflagration was fought; had they abandoned, the race would have been doomed. But stem John Wyer, the team manager, Jack Sopp, head mechanic, and other mechanics were taken to hospital.
I also recall how the then-new Dunlop disc brakes of the C-typelaguars glowed red at dusk, so hot had they become, and how Sir William Lyons proudly led his guests to see his cars in the lead before they then went into the marquee for supper. On emerging, it was to discover, after a glance at the illuminated scoreboard, that all the Jaguars had stopped and Aston Martin was in the lead.
Less traumatic, a thoughtful rival driver has called sometimes to a rival’s pit that their car has stopped, possibly crashed, out on the circuit. Parry Thomas, long years back, told the Morgan pit that when his Marlborough-Thomas overtook Ware’s Morgan he could smell burning rubber. Alas, his warning was too late; the three-wheeler’s back wheel was rubbing on a chain, the tyre burst, and the car hit the pitwall, Ware and Allchin being severely injured.
Long-distance races have encouraged arduous and optimistic pitwork, even calamities, as when Kaye Don’s 4.9-litre Bugatti fell off its jack in a ‘500’, onto its rear brake drums. A fly in the cockpit might have enjoyed what Jack Field, ready to take over, said!
Frank Ashby had a welding kit for any emergency. In the 1922 ‘200’, Frazer Nash removed a cylinder from his GN, put in a new piston, and continued, and in a later TT replaced a faulty supercharger on an Ulster A7. In the JCC Double-12, an inlet valve was changed on a Talbot, a valve-rocker in 5min on an Aston Martin, the big-ends on a Frazer Nash, and an Invicta had all its pistons changed. Another Talbot had a new radiator fitted, and Fox’s chaps replaced a chassis member on yet another Talbot. In the aforesaid nine-hour race, a complete Jaguar rear suspension unit was changed. But it needs a book to continue. Long but minor club races are good pit practice, and although one dislikes ‘fake’ pit pauses, as in the VSCC High Speed Trial or in the current British Touring Car format, it can be excellent experience. A race is never won until the chequered flag is shown. Cl