Bygone whimsy in the shadow of the Prince’s Palace… and East Midlands Airport
One of these events is an intriguing biennial, where the terminally peckish can feast on fresh croissants while the Mediterranean tickles their toes. The other is an increasingly popular annual fixture, where traditional fried breakfasts are nowadays served in Garage 39, a well-appointed new paddock diner. They might be worlds apart on the surface, but the Côte d’Azur and Leicestershire are unified by a passion for internal combustion.
By reputation this is a destination for those seeking refuge from normality, a crop of plush apartments atop parades of expensive boutiques. In reality it’s a glorified building site, whose once charming aspect is presently masked by scaffolding and yet more construction projects. Science is powerless to explain why those who choose to live in the region don’t simply apply the brakes a few miles to the west, where a higher grade of elegance is available without the hassle.
On the day before the 11th Grand Prix de Monaco Historique began, the paddock was ripe with colourful cars and language, as teams rushed around trying to find wider-diameter tubing that the stewards had mandated should be used for roll-hoops. “We can sort it,” said one engineer, “but the cars won’t be as strong as they are now.” Added another, “I think they realise they’ve accepted too many entries and are looking for excuses to throw a few out.”
Racing teams at every level are irreversibly resourceful, however, so everything was sorted by the time the pit exit light flicked to green on Friday morning.
Too many entries? That might sound contradictory, but it was certainly the case in Monaco two years beforehand, where there were as many as 40 cars running on a circuit that has never been licensed to accommodate more than 26 for contemporary competition. Drivers rarely got into their rhythm between safety car periods and red flags, but things were calmer this time – and the racing benefited hugely.
Yes, racing – not as in constant passing and repassing, but in terms of the age-old skills of attack and defence. Paddins Dowling (ERA R5B) strolled to victory in the pre-war race, as did Chris Ward (Cooper T33-Jaguar) in the monsoon-affected contest for 1952-1957 sports cars, but elsewhere there were several racecraft masterclasses. Historic rookie Björn Wirdheim (March 711) positioned his car beautifully to repel the potentially quicker McLaren M19 of Stuart Hall, whose constant attacks were fierce but always fair.
Michael Lyons (McLaren M26) pulled off the move of the weekend, stealing past Hall (M23) as they exited the chicane in a ball of spray, then later fending off challenger Alex Caffi until the latter (fourth for Scuderia Italia in the 1989 Monaco GP, but now in an Ensign N176) clipped a chicane barrier.
Nick Padmore (Lotus 16) and Julian Bronson (Scarab) tussled for the lead in the Pre-61 F1/F2 race, with Padmore seizing the advantage until both were penalised for jump starts, handing victory to Tony Wood (Tec-Mec). Padmore still took second, a result he repeated with a Shadow DN9 in the 1977-1980 finale, a race Martin O’Connell (ATS D4) controlled from the start. The top six (ATS, Shadow, Arrows, Hesketh, Shadow, Lotus) didn’t exactly represent period accuracy, but then not much about Monaco is real.
Andy Middlehurst’s victory in the 1961-1965 race – his fourth on the trot in the principality – was achieved despite a) pressure from Joe Colasacco (Ferrari 1512) and b) his Lotus 25 suffering a sticking throttle. A commendable effort, that.
For those accustomed to the frantic pace of historic meetings in the UK, Monaco represents a significant contrast. There isn’t quite time for a three-course meal between races, but a stout brie baguette washed down with ice cream would be feasible. Demonstration runs plugged some of the pauses, notably a cluster of distinguished former F1 racers (Mika Häkkinen, John Watson, Eddie Irvine, Riccardo Patrese, Mark Blundell, Thierry Boutsen) demonstrating assorted bygones, while Karun Chandhok was on duty for Williams Heritage and, with dad Damon busy at the Spanish GP, it fell to Josh Hill to drive grandfather Graham’s Lotus 49.
Chandhok and Boutsen both completed stints in Williams FW08, which took me back 35 years. In 1983 I’d attended the Monaco GP for the first time, to cover the F3 curtain-raiser. My media credential expired when the chequered flag fell, on Saturday afternoon, so for the main race I spent about 15 francs on a ticket that enabled me to watch from the rockface in front of the palace, a vantage point that allowed me to view a significant tranche of the circuit in miniature as Keke Rosberg triumphed in his FW08. Nice to be a little closer this time…
Other points of note included a couple of Surtees-induced practice delays. The first was caused when Max Smith-Hilliard crashed his TS9B at Tabac and somehow managed to wedge his rear wing so firmly in the barriers that it took marshals about 20 minutes to get it free, the second when Chris Perkins’s TS14A coated pretty much the whole track with an oil slick of Amoco Cadiz proportions. Mark Hales wrestled gamely with Michael Gans’s 1935 Maserati V8 RI (“First gear all the way around, when we can get it to run – second is too high”), but after a troubled practice it conked out once again during the formation lap. And Roald Goethe turned up with a Gulf-liveried Tyrrell 007, as entered four times during the 1976 season by F1 privateer Alessandro Pesenti-Rossi – not the customary Tyrrell blue, but a welcome diversion.
Officials managed to throw the chequered flag after 11 of the scheduled 10 laps at the end of the opening race (but declared the result at 10, thereby denying ERA driver Nick Topliss the podium position he thought he’d just recovered following a drive-through penalty for a jumped start), then fell one lap short in the next one. Happily, their maths subsequently improved.
The price of all this? You can get a cheap flight to Nice if you book early, decent accommodation isn’t outrageous if you stay a few kilometres distant and I’m told three-day grandstand seats were available for €60.
Reasonable, then, and highly recommended.
The eighth Donington Historic Festival marked my first trip to the venue since the decorator’s latest visit – and the difference was immediately tangible. The previous administration did a stellar job bringing the circuit back from the brink, in the wake of the previous previous administration’s ill-judged bid to bring the British Grand Prix to the East Midlands, and things have kicked on again under MSV’s stewardship, with new facilities, a fresh lick of paint and a verdant, neatly manicured infield. There were even notes posted at circuit access points, requesting that marshals leave their litter in bins rather than tyre walls, more than 100 bags of rubbish having apparently been gathered during the off-season. If they could just line the circuit with a few more trees, it would restore the full magnificence of Donington’s original reopening 41 years ago.
The current DHF format works well (with a single day of practice and two of wall-to-wall racing) and entries were mostly decent, but the HSCC Super Touring series attracted only 12 cars, almost half of which weren’t super tourers… There was scope to allow the timetable to breathe more easily.
Compensation came in the form of almost everything else, particular the opening U2TC Trophy race for pre-66 saloons, in which Andy Wolfe prevailed by less than a second after a fierce 35-minute tussle with Steve Soper.
“My brakes were suffering a bit of heat soak after my [mandatory] pitstop,” Wolfe said. “I knew he’d catch me, but it’s such a privilege to drive against a true pro who allows you room to race.”
It was Samuel Johnson who wrote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.”
One suspects he might have been more impressed yet by Lotus Cortinas.
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