Formula One Racing

It needs sorting out

At times during the past season there have been as many as 40 Formula One cars at a Grand Prix meeting, and something like 10 or more drivers all hoping to take part. The Formula One Association in conjunction with the CSI have limited the number of starters to around 25, taking into account the amount of starting money available and the size of the circuit. This has meant that a number of drivers tried their best during practice but failed to qualify for starting in the race and had to go home, not only empty handed but rather frustrated at not having done any racing, to say nothing of their embarrassment at having taken a large sum of money from a sponsor and shown him nothing in return. Of the 25 or so who have actually started in each race only one can win, the rest hoping for honourable mention, which means, as far as the popular press and media are concerned, finishing in the first six and gaining “valuable points” for the Drivers’ Championship. The rest have had no hope af winning, or even achieving instant fame, let alone lasting fame, and while some of them might have won, there are an awful lot who would not win if they were alone in the race. Their only consolation, apart from the money they receive for starting helping to pay the way, is the odd bit of racing with others in the same category as themselves, and the pious hope that one day they will improve and be able to challenge the Petersons, Laudas, Fittipaldis and Reutemanns of the game.

At one point there was lobbying going on to limit the number of people actually trying to take part in a Grand Prix, the Formula One Constructors Association nearly instituting a “closed shop” policy, but fortunately officialdom ruled the idea out of court, and provided the race organiser is happy, anyone and everyone can have a go at getting into a Grand Prix. Indeed, just about anyone and everyone has had a go at getting into a Grand Prix, for more than seventy cars have been scrutineered as being worthy Formula One cars and more than sixty drivers can claim to have attempted Formula One during the past season. When the starting grid is limited to, say, 25, the wafflers on the media and the circuit commentators have waxed lyrical about “the tremendous battles for qualification” which in reality has been a load of hot air, for anyone worthy of the title of Grand Prix driver has already got his place on the grid and it is the odds and ends that make up the tail that are involved in “the desperate battle”. If none of these odds and ends started it would not affect the race as such, and whether you start 18 or 25, if there is going to be a good race it will come from the top half-dozen, with another half-dozen to keep things on the boil. If, as a spectator, you can get excited about whoever is in 17th Place you have got a very exceptional Grand Prix.

Now I am not begrudging the efforts of the tail enders, far from it, and I feel sorry for them for the best they can hope for is to finish in the first ten if enough people retire from breakages or crashes, but anyone running in 17th, 18th or 19th place in the opening stages is nothing to get excited about, though they may well have a nice private little dice amongst themselves. They may even be doing some heroic driving, by their standards, but few people will be likely to appreciate it, especially if there is a good battle going on amongst the race leaders. Just as I feel sorry for their seemingly hopeless situation, I feel more sorry for those who did not even reach the starting grid, and most of all the ones who are posted as “first reserve”, especially when they get all ready on race day and none of the chosen few fail to start. What we need is a bit of encouragement for these people, preferably in the form of actual racing, for how are you ever going to become a Grand Prix racing driver if you never start in a Grand Prix?

If the quantity of Formula One cars is going to continue, and with new teams appearing almost every month it looks as though it will, then surely we have enough material to run Division 1 and Division 2 in the Formula One league, but then the question arises as to how we differentiate. For a start we could reduce the field for the main event to 18, which would leave us with ten or twelve redundancies, enough to make another race. We let everyone practise freely, as they do now, and take the fastest 18 for the Grand Prix, leaving the remaining ten or twelve to have a shorter race on the Saturday afternoon before the main event. The winner of that race could be allowed to start in the main race on Sunday, but to keep a balance we would actually only take the 17 fastest in practice for the Sunday race, the 18th man joining the qualifiers’ race. If he was worthy and won it, he would make our Grand Prix grid up to 18; if not someone else would. For a start this would mean that everyone would have a chance to do some racing, and if you were any good you would have a chance of joining the “aces” in the serious race, but this system would not be self regenerating, which is essential if we are not to finish up at stalemate, so we could say that the first retirement in Sunday’s Grand Prix will be automatically relegated to Division 2 for the following race. A case of one in and one out.

You may say that a rule like that would penalise the top ten if they have bad mechanical luck, or make an error of judgement at the start. I say it might do them good to be “demoted” for a week or two, for surely if they are in the “ace” class they should have no trouble in redeeming themselves in the “also-rans” race; if they don’t, they stay “demoted” which would not be a bad thing for some drivers. This penalty is hardly likely to affect anyone in the running to be a worthy World Champion, though it could affect some of those who aspire to the heights with justification. For example, this year it would have affected James Hunt at Dijon in the French Grand Prix, where he ran into the wayward car of Tom Pryce, through no obvious fault of his own. He would surely have won the mini-Grand Prix at the Brands Hatch meeting which followed, and taken his place on the grid for the British Grand Prix. As some consolation the Hesketh team could have enjoyed winning the minor event, just as they enjoyed winning the International Trophy Race at Silverstone, which in reality was not much more than the Saturday odds-and-ends race of a major Grand Prix.

If we take the Italian Grand Prix it would have been Jean-Pierre Beltoise who would have been “demoted” and again, he might well have won the Saturday race at the Canadian Grand Prix, which would have got him into the Sunday race. In that he finished last, so he might just as well not have won on Saturday.

Another aspect of this idea is the way it would affect the top teams when they enter a new driver in an extra car, as Team Hesketh did in Austria with Ian Scheckter, and Team Lotus did with Tim Schenken at Watkins Glen. Neither Scheckter nor Schenken qualified to start under the present system, so that both teams went to a lot of expense and trouble and learnt nothing about the driver’s potential as a Formula One rating driver. Under the suggested system at least the teams would have a chance of observing their protegés under racing conditions, with the added bonus of a sporting chance of getting them into the main race as a result of race-driving rather than a single fluky lap time.

As with everything there are difficulties, and one of the biggest would be fitting the extra race in. Most Grand Prix events, like those in Britain, are full of activity from dawn to dusk and there would be a scream from the supporters of anything that was dropped, but if truth be told most spectators like the sound and sight of Formula One cars in action in preference to Formula this or Formula that. If they could be seen to be racing amongst themselves, so much the better, even if the drivers were not of the top class. They would be racing for something worthwhile, and may even have a fallen-star among them, which would add to the interest. Bright newcomers might be there as well, making their way up the ranks with speed, with a third place in their first race and possibly winning their next. One of the difficulties would be the financial aspect of the organisers, for when it was suggested to one race organiser that he could drop his Formula Vee race, and to another that his Formula Renault race was not very important, they pointed out that they were all important, for Volkswagen and Renault paid good money to have their races as part of a Grand Prix meeting. This is a problem that the Formula One Association might have trouble with in their idea of promoting a Formula Three race at all the major Grand Prix events. They are visualising these Formula Three races, which they are prepared to sponsor, as being training grounds for Grand Prix drivers; the suggested “also-rans” Saturday afternoon race would be the ideal place for them to move into before being thrown into the deep-end with the top Grand Prix drivers.

If the choice of the ten or twelve for the Saturday race by reason of practice times was not felt to be the best idea, and goodness knows practice time-keeping is a fraught business, it could be much more ruthless. Anyone entering for his first Formula One race could automatically be in the Saturday event, and equally any new make of Formula One car would also start off in the Saturday Division 2 event. This may sound severe when you think of the Parnelli and the Penske cars which made their debut in Canada, but it would have ensured a super race between Andretti and Donohue to see who was going to get into the Grand Prix. Whoever lost would have got into the American Grand Prix two weeks later, always assuming he had beaten all the other “also-rans” and newcomers.

There is no doubt that something needs to be done about the tail-enders and the constant flow of newcomers to Formula One, and at present there is no encouragement for them. It was quite obvious this past season that the Hong Kong businessman who was sponsoring the Ensign, with Schuppan driving it, was not at all happy at going to meetings and not seeing his car start, either because it was too slow, or was being driven too slowly. He would probably have been happy to have seen it racing for second or third place, or even winning, the Division 2 event, and everyone concerned with the team would have had some joy, instead of total frustration. There must be many more sponsors who would be happy to see their “investment” receive the chequered flag on Saturday afternoon, than the continual business of finishing at the back, as things are now, and no doubt some of the drivers would enjoy it as well. The calibre of their racing on Saturday afternoon would not be found wanting, for there would be something worthwhile to have a go at, whereas nobody is going to do anything heroic if they are dicing for 15th or 16th place, and it is heroic driving that the spectator wants to see.

Whether extra money could be found for prizes for this Division 2 race is really up to the manipulators of the Grand Prix fortunes, the Constructors group and the race organisers, but there need be no money prizes, for the winner would automatically get 18th starting money in the Grand Prix. On the matter of wearing out their car needlessly and for nothing, which those that did not win might say, they do this already on Saturday afternoon, flogging round and round in practice in the vain hope that some fairy godmother will produce them a lap time which will get them into the chosen-few, whereas if they were honest with themselves they would admit they had not got a hope. That amount of time and running (and expense) could be utilised in actually racing, though to look at some of the people in Formula One this year you would get the impression that actually racing is the last thing they want to know about.

Maybe the scheme would not work, maybe the teams and drivers would not like it, maybe the spectators would prefer Formula Fiat or Formula Simca, but whatever the feelings, the present system which is irrational, unfair, biased and boring, needs changing before Formula One gets fouled up in its own importance. The past season has seen a lot of wrangling taking place, with a lot of dissatisfied people in the paddock. It needs sorting out.—D.S.J.