Legends

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152

Nigel Roebuck

Whoever wrote the programme notes for the 1950 GP d’Europe at Silverstone, the inaugural world championship Formula One race, was dearly not without a sense of humour.

‘Only by orderly behaviour and keeping to prescribed routes can speedy exit from the track be ensured. You don’t want a traffic jam, and neither do we, so please don’t start one.’

Even half a century ago, though, there were ways around the congestion, if you knew the right people — or, even more so, if you were the right people. When the Royal Family came to Silverstone in 1950, it was in some style. Their Majesties, plus entourage, were to travel to Brackley aboard the Royal Train, getting in at 1.45pm. From there — paced by the Chief Constable of Northamptonshire — they were to proceed in a fleet of limousines to the circuit, arriving at 2.05pm.

‘It is hoped,’ said the official notes, ‘that Their Majesties will drive around the Race Track. It is suggested that the Royal Car should travel at approximately 20 miles per hour. Owing to the size of the Race Track, this speed should not be found too fast.’

Quite so. Their lap completed, the King and Queen were then to meet the drivers, during which time the Band of the Grenadier Guards would play ‘suitable music’.

The basic tenet of the British Grand Prix — to finish it before anyone else — was the same then as now, but in every other respect we might be looking at a different planet. For one thing, the organisers then were actively seeking ways to speed up the circuit, a concept not easily grasped today. ‘As set out now, the course measures 2 miles 1564 yards, and all artificial restrictions on speed’ — chicanes, in other words — ‘have been eliminated. Indeed, the corners have been as much eased in radius as practicable.’

As the programme revealed, nor was it only in regard to circuit design that the attitudes were somewhat different then.

‘The Race Goes On. Motor racing must have its dangers, and though every precaution is taken, and though the drivers competing today are the most skilful in the world, there may be accidents. It is a tradition of Grand Prix racing that whatever happens the race shall go on.

‘Pass, Friend. The French were the pioneers of motor racing, and ever since it has been a tradition to use their rule-of-the-road. Therefore, overtaking drivers should pull over to the left-hand side of the road.

‘Smoking Permitted. Grand Prix drivers do not normally have to undergo strict physical training. Moderation in eating, drinking and smoking is sufficient, for motor racing is a test of brain rather than brawn.’

There was also a note of regret. Ferrari may be looked upon as the one team to have participated in the world championship since its inception, but in fact Enzo was not represented at Silverstone, having withdrawn his cars following a dispute over ‘starting money’. This would happen not infrequently down the years, but on this occasion the absence of the Ferraris — particularly that of Alberto Ascari — was particularly lamented, for it meant that the Alfa Romeo 158s would be unopposed. Juan Manuel Fangio, Giuseppe Farina and Luigi Fagioli were their regular drivers and, in honour of the occasion, a fourth car was entered for Reg Parnell, the leading Brit of the day. All they faced was a selection of elderly Maseratis, Talbots, Altas and ERAs, so it was hardly a surprise that the front row of the grid — four cars at Silverstone until 1969! — was all dark red, with Farina on pole position.

A year earlier Bob Gerard had driven his ERA to second place, behind the Maserati of ‘Toulo’ de Graffenried. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of that,” he remembered, “but it rather flattered me — you’ve got to remember that Alfa weren’t competing in ’49.” So how was it to race against the Alfas? “Oh,” Gerard chuckled, “you didn’t race against them; you just sort of set off for three hours at the same time they did…

“Mind you,” he added, “that was better than the bloody BRM!”

Indeed. Although the V16-engined car was on hand, it was considered as yet unready to race (a state of affairs which was never materially to change), so its first public appearance was confined to three ‘demonstration’ laps. Driven by Raymond Mays, the car went through the corners on the overrun, and did its party piece of making a lot of noise. And the crowds, devoutly hoping that here at last was a British world-beater, cheered ecstatically.

In childhood, I was given an EP record of the V16 making noises, and once mentioned it to Stirling Moss. “I’m surprised,” he said, “that it ran long enough to fill an EP”

Even its exhaust note, while undeniably arresting, was no match for the cultured eight-cylinder scream of an Alfa 158, the car at which it was vainly aimed.

“The V16 was a thoroughly nasty car,” said Moss. “The brakes were okay and the acceleration was incredible — until you broke traction — but everything else I hated, particularly the steering and the driving position.” And what of its handling? “I don’t remember it having any.”

After Mays had run his demonstration laps, the serious business of the day could begin. It had been a dull morning, but by race time the sun was up, and the 22 cars were wheeled to the grid, then situated between Abbey and Woodcote. The drivers, one or two in overalls, but most in cotton trousers and short-sleeved shirts, climbed aboard.

From the start Parnell was unable to keep pace with the other Alfas, and soon Fagioli, too, was dropped. But Farina and Fangio ran in close company until lap 62, eight from the flag, when Juan Manuel coasted into his pit, an oil pipe broken. Thus it was only a 1-2-3 for Alfa Romeo, with the Talbots of Yves Giraud-Cabantous and Louis Rosier fourth and fifth, and the redoubtable Gerard sixth.

Back in 1950, the mind of Bernie Ecclestone being focused chiefly on keeping his Cooper 500 on the road, details of the prize money — To be paid in sterling’ — were published for all to see, and Farina, in winning, collected £500.

The imperious Italian will be forever enshrined as the first world champion, remembered not least for a gorgeous driving style, and one very untypical of the day, for he sat well back from the wheel, arms almost straight. Moss admitted consciously copying him, but in other respects was not an admirer.

“Farina was a great driver, but everyone was wary of him, because he was dangerous — he had an absolute disregard for anyone else on the track, even inexperienced drivers he was lapping. And if you got involved in a dice with him, he was completely ruthless; he’d do things that would never even cross the mind of a man like Fangio.”

Three months later the Alfas were back at Silverstone for the Daily Express International Trophy, and this time the victorious Farina pocketed £525. Curious that the rewards should have been higher at this non-championship race than at the GP; curious, too, that the entry was significantly better.

BRM was there again, this time ostensibly to race, but the programme wisely sounded a cautionary note: ‘Today the BRM makes its racing debut. Do not expect too much. The drivers are new to their mount; the pit organisation is untried; the BRM may show the usual temperamental irritations of the thoroughbred.’

Although two V16s were entered, neither appeared in practice, and ultimately one car was flown on race morning from Folkingham to RAF Cranwell, whence it was transported to Silverstone, complete with police escort. Raymond Sommer had somehow been prevailed upon to drive the V16 and, in the absence of any practice, it seemed a sound plan to let him get the feel of it before the race; therefore he drove three laps on a damp track, and that was deemed sufficient to allow him to start.

After Farina had walked the first heat, the other half of the field came to the grid for the second, with Fangio and Ascari at the front, and Sommer necessarily at the back. There were 15 cars altogether, and when the flag went down 14 of them rushed away towards Copse. No moment better summed up the BRM V16. There it sat, transmission broken, bellowing impotently as Sommer vainly stirred the gearlever, hoping that drive could be found somewhere. The mechanics pushed the car off the track.

In many respects, Sommer was very much the Gilles Villeneuve of his time, and this public embarrassment — in which he was blameless — was mortifying for him. Even so, he expressed interest in driving the BRM again, but sadly it was never to be; only two weeks later he was killed in his Cooper at Cadours.

Mays found the crowd’s response to the Silverstone debacle “hurtful. There was a BRM Supporters Club,” he said, “and the members had put a lot of money in it. But when the car was pushed back into the paddock, some people very impolitely threw pennies in the seat. Really rather disgusting. If they’d only known what we’d gone through to get that car there.” True enough, but then the spectators had travelled in the hope of seeing the BRM at last do something. And as they queued through the long evening hours to leave, they had occasion to reflect upon that. Even in 1950, hype had its price.

Later in the year, an editorial in The Motor put it rather more elegantly: ‘There remain barely six months before next year’s racing season, and all at BRM must remember that hope deferred makes the heart sick.’

Happily for British motor racing, Tony Vandervell, initially a keen supporter of the BRM project, was soon to dissociate himself from it, to make Formula One plans of his own. And seven years on, his Vanwall would win the British Grand Prix.

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