I was about 12, I suppose, when my father bought me a copy of Peter Ustinov’s The Grand Prix Gibraltar. This was the end of the 1950s, and I’ve been entranced by it ever since. Listening to it again, after an interval, is like re-reading Wodehouse, as fresh now as the day it was conceived. Sometimes, seeking light relief in the Formula One press rooms of the world, Simon Taylor, another devotee, and I are given to quoting chunks of it to each other.
The label under which The Grand Prix Gibraltar was originally released, Riverside, specialised in jazz, but also had a fixation with motor racing. If some of these records tended to be a little esoteric — hour after hour of engine noises — others were devoted entirely to reports of race meetings of the late ’50s and early ’60s, in particular the Sebring 12 Hours. I have one or two of them, and they’re gems.
There are also four given over to interviews, with Stirling Moss, Phil Hill, Carroll Shelby and — particularly memorably — Alfonso de Portago. These were re-released on CD a few years ago by Ace Records, a Londonbased company that had bought the Riverside catalogue.
In the spring I had a call from them. Their plan was to put out The Grand Prix of Gibraltar on CD, they said, and would I be interested in interviewing Ustinov — Sir Peter these days — and then writing an accompanying sleeve note?
Thus, I rang him at his home in Switzerland and spent a delightful hour talking not only about the record, but also about racing in general. Time was when Ustinov was a frequent visitor to races, but it had been a long time since he had been seen in a paddock, and I assumed that his interest had waned. Not so.
“I loved racing during the ’50s and ’60s,” he said, “and I still do — except when Ferrari misbehave. After that Austrian affair, I thought of the poor people who had put bets on Barrichello, who must have been absolutely furious. I sent a message, through a mutual friend, to Bernie Ecclestone, saying, ‘I’m never going to watch another Grand Prix if this is to go on’. I thought it was absolutely scandalous, and! was delighted to see the crowd’s reaction. I don’t care how professional you are, you can’t run a popular sport like that, which fills the arena with people and then cheats them.
“It was a relief to see Coulthard win at Monaco, I must say. Drove absolutely splendidly, didn’t he? But why are Mercedes so short of power? Were they too cocksure? Did they sleep on their laurels?” A man indeed in touch with the F1 of today.
Whenever Monaco comes round, I always remember Ascari’s Lancia going into the harbour in ’55. I was there that day and happened to see it. I remember this car shooting out of the tunnel and then nothing. You couldn’t see the car any more, and then there was suddenly a huge column of smoke and steam from the water. The next thing we saw was Ascari swimming to the side that was really quite something. Of course he survived that, and then killed himself a few days later.”
Ustinov recorded The Grand Prix of Gibraltar in a studio in New York in, he thinks, 1957. “We recorded it in Manhattan because I was appearing in my play Romanoff and Juliet on Broadway at the time and couldn’t get away. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was in the same studio where I recorded Peter and the Wolf with Herbert von Karajan which was another adventure, because Karajan was not there! He’d just done the track and left it, not knowing who was going to do the voice. So I began to learn a little bit about the record business then.
“It was strange how all this came about, actually. There was a curious company, called Riverside, which had made records of engine sounds. It seemed to me there must have been some very perverse people around at the time buying records so they could sit at home and listen to revving noises, but there it was. They had the idea of my trying something, and in order to tempt me, gave me a selection of records of Alfa Romeos farting and so on! Quite honestly, I never played them, because the sound was so unattractive out of its context without the smell and so on.
“Anyway, I agreed, and the whole thing was done in one day and improvised. They had no idea what I was going to do and I, frankly, had no idea either. The Riverside people didn’t really know what they’d got until they put it together. Then it became a sort of cult thing, but rather too late to help them, unfortunately. They went bust.”
If ever you have heard the record, you will reel, as I did, at the notion that Ustinov improvised the whole thing, that there was no script whatever. All he considered beforehand, he says, were the names of drivers and team managers; all he took with him into the studio were a few notes. “Actually, I’m much better when I work that way. It’s really like thinking
aloud I mean, what is a script except what you put down when you think of it? I’ve always been rather keen on improvisation. And, anyway, I was in the play at the time, which made it very difficult to think clearly about anything else. So I did this recording very quickly.
“A race has a sort of definite shape, even before it starts, hasn’t it? They’ve got to practise, they’ve got to start and they’ve got to finish. And I separated ‘the cast’ into groups in my mind the French, who never had enough money, even to clean their cars, who had girls everywhere, who brought inflammable liquids into their pits, yet smoked constantly… “This was the Orgini team, and Monsieur Orgini was, of course, based on Amedee Gordini. I knew him and he was absolutely the prototype of that kind of Frenchman rather
hands, with oil encrusted in them, a cigarette in his mouth the whole time.
“Then there were the Germans the Schnorcedes team with their immaculate preparation, their Wagner playing in the pits and the revolutionary driving position required of their drivers, with one leg forward, and the other behind: ‘It’s all a question of balance!”
At the end of the pre-race interview with Altbauer, the manager of the team, he says, “I would ask you not to ask any more questions. There will be a formal press release after our victory!” For the character of Althauer, Ustinov drew on Alfred Neubauer, Mercedes-Benz team manager of legend. “In fact, I gave a copy of the record, as a present, to Neubauer. He listened to it glumly, and said, ‘It’s very kind of you but I don’t see what’s funny.’ Which I thought made my point very well.
“There was also the Governor of Gibraltar, of course, Lord Weeps of Sebring, who gives a speech, starts the race, and was so old he couldn’t really remember a sentence. I got that idea from Montgomery, who once said, ‘There are four cardinal points: education, discipline and courage.”
Virtually every sound on the record including the engine noises, even the playing of Land of Hope and Glory comes from Ustinov, whose unrivalled gift for mimicry gets full rein.
Moreover, his deep knowledge of the sport is well in evidence, not least in the character of Commendatore Fanfani, who at one point threatens to withdraw from racing, just as, in those days, Enzo Ferrari was constantly threatening to do.
“I was interested in motor racing and therefore knew more about it than many people would imagine, and I also knew some of the personalities very well, such as Stirling Moss and Peter Collins.
“Peter once told me a terrifying story about the Commendatore. He was with Ferrari in the office, and suddenly the phone went. Ferrari picked it up and said, Pronto! Ferrari!‘ Then he listened, and he became pale. ‘Non e possible… Castelloui? Casteliotti morto?‘ A slight pause. E la macchina?’That’s whatsa known as a one-tracka mind!”
On the Riverside LPs of Sebring, there are many interviews with the drivers, and thus they constitute a valuable record of their time.
“Yes,” Ustinov agreed. “The only melancholy thing is how many of them aren’t here anymore. Wolfgang von Trips, for example, was an awfully nice man, very un-Germanic. In fact, he was one of those Germans who spoke English rather too well to be true: ‘You know, we’re all going over for the weekend after next, und, er, we shall enjoy ourselves’. In The Grand Prix of Gibraltar, Wolfram von Grips speaks in just that way.
Although Ustinov continues to follow racing closely, he cannot envisage a similarly satirical piece about the grand prix racing of today.
“I think it’s all become more sinister, hasn’t it? Less innocent. I mean, there’s no place for Gordini or Orgini now, is there? I know we’ve got Minardi, with Asiatech engines or whatever they’re called, but it’s not quite the same thing.
“Undoubtedly it’s less human than it was. The public relations side is so well managed, on the whole, that it copes even when something horribly gauche happens, as with Michael Schumacher in Austria when he took his helmet off and suddenly realised the temperature of the crowd. He must have seen them all with their thumbs down and then made Rubens go onto the top step of the podium while the German National Anthem was being played!”
In closing, I asked Sir Peter why he had chosen Gibraltar as the venue for his Grand Prix.
“Oh,” he said, “because it’s an ideal place for an absurd motor race. I mean, once you’ve got Monaco, you might as well have Gibraltar…”