Formula One scene

When I go to a Formula One Grand Prix, in order to make a comprehensive report for Motor Sport, it can involve as many as seven days during which Formula One cars, drivers, races and overall activity are foremost in my mind. Of all the things I see, hear about, discuss or just think about, during that time, only 10 per cent gets into print, the other 90 per cent are stored away to build up a background of knowledge and an overall comprehension of the whole business of Grand Prix racing. Whether it is valve design, driver’s contract fees, suggested tyre size rules, sportsmanship, gamesmanship, lap times, race tactics, sponsor’s politics or chassis numbers, it is all part of the Formula One scene and is knowledge that may be useful one day, if not in the forthcoming issue of Motor Sport. Deciding which 10 per cent of the total shall make up the printed story is not as difficult as it may seem, for basically the object is to watch the progress of those cars and drivers who win the races, or look like winning them. You may spend two hours in discussion for the end result to be a single line in the story, but without that discussion you could not write that single line with honest conviction.

Considering that the average Formula One race lasts about 1 hr. 45 min., it sometimes seems disproportionate to let it occupy as much as seven days. There have been times when a race has proved to be deadly dull, or to turn out quite the wrong way, when I’ve said to myself “I’ve been here since Thursday morning to see that; it wasn’t worth it.” But mostly, the days before build up to a climax, which is the 1 3/4-hour race, and often it is nice to be able to spend two more days unwinding. Of course, I could go to some Formula One races on a Page and Moy one-day trip, arriving 30 minutes before the start and be back home in time for an early supper, but I like racing and racing cars too much to do that. The places and people and some of the travelling, which is all part of the Formula One scene, are often more enjoyable than the actual race, while the aftermath of some races is better than the build up.

Many journals at this time of the year carry a review of the past season, which is a sort of recap on all that has happened as regards the results. At best these are a repetition of what has already been written, and the regular reader knows it all already, though sometimes these reviews can provide an interesting analysis on what has gone before. Rather than review the 1977 Formula One season I thought I would add to it, by recalling some of that 90 per cent of information that never got into the reports, or even into the reflections which followed.

The French GP at Dijon was an example of a race occupying me for seven days, even though the 80 laps took Andretti and Watson less than 1 hr. 40 mins. to cover. The trip started on Wednesday with a run to Dover, lunch on the boat to Calais, and then a leisurely meander down the back roads to stop the night in the small village of Corbie. Next day, in real summer weather the journey was continued on yellow and white coloured roads on the Michelin Map, through the Champagne country into the Cote d’Or to the village north-west of Dijon where we were staying for the race. Friday and Saturday were pretty fully occupied with practice and paddock prowlings and Sunday, of course, was race day. Sunday night was spent reliving all the action of the race, with some friends, and this went on into the early hours of Monday. Another day’s trip, northwards this time, with a deviation to visit Reims got me comfortably close to the Channel to get a mid-morning boat back to Dover on Tuesday. The journey home to Hampshire was broken twice in Kent, once to look at the pieces of a Type 23 “tank” Bugatti of 1923, that have recently been acquired from Czechoslovakia, and the other time to look at a new sports car being built around Jaguar “S” type components in a chassis that is a cross between a Lister and a Frazer Nash, the result being an exciting 3.8-litre modernised Le Mans Replica Frazer Nash type of blood and thunder road-burner. It is not difficult to occupy seven days in pursuit of a 1 hr. 40 min. Formula One race.

At that race I took one evening off away from the Formula One scene of the moment, to attend a forum of racing-engine designers. This was organised by the local branch of a French society for voting engineers, and was held in the Peugeot factory offices in Dijon. The panel consisted of Hans Metzler (Porsche), Keith Duckworth (Cosworth), Carlo Chili (Alfa Romeo), Georges Martin (Matra) and Francois Castang (Renault). It was an open discussion on engine design, in general as well as for racing, and proved to be an interesting evening. Porsche admitted they were watching the turbo-charged Renault with interest, knowing the problems involved; the differences between engine designs for a short Formula One event, and the Le Mans 24 hours were discussed at length and Porsche said they had run a 917 Le Mans engine on the test bed at maximum power for 18 hours. Duckworth admitted to a similar full-power test with a Formula One engine, but for no more than 5 hours. Matra preferred to do endurance testing on a circuit, and Alfa Romeo agreed with this. In general these engine designers were not happy with the way Formula One has developed and the type of engine and power it has encouraged, feeling that any knowledge gained has little useful purpose in the broad sense. The capacity limitation has caused this, and they would like to see a new engine formula where efficiency is rewarded, especially as regards fuel consumption.

All too soon that interesting evening finished, as did another one when we were invited to a “soiree amicale” with Monsieur Fred Chandon, of the Moet et Chandon Champagne family. This was an evening for wining and dining in the style that only the French can achieve, and discussion ranged from the seasonal Moet et Chandon Championships for Formula One drivers based on fastest race laps, with a mountain of Champagne at the end of it (James Hunt won it), to what is wrong with the management of Formula One, how it could be improved and where the CSI rules were heading, to say nothing of a little “looking back” on the French GP over the past 25 years.

In contrast to the French GP, the Italian GP was done in a rush, leaving home at 6 a.m. on Thursday morning and being back home just after mid-day on Monday. Such is the advantage (or disadvantage) of air travel, that I could have been back by Sunday night, but I felt that was exaggerating. A whole crowd of us were staying at a hotel literally on the top of a small mountain, about 30 kilometres from Monza, and invariably someone was without transport to the circuit. Thanks to Hertz or Avis hire firms there was a selection of Italian tin-boxes on wheels for general use, but even so someone always seems to get left behind. We got back long after dark on Friday evening to find we were one bod short, and a count-up soon showed who it was. Everyone thought someone else was bringing him back. The search party idea raised no volunteers, so we all sat down to supper assuming that the missing member of the party would telephone or find some transport. Very late, and quite unperturbed our missing scribe arrived, looking rather wind-swept. He had stayed on in the paddock after practice, and one thing led to another, so that it was 10 p.m. before he gave thought to the 30 kilometres. He said the Hesketh team had lent him a motorbike (you do not have to wear a crash-hat in Italy happy country!) but the lights went out when the engine stopped. He had lost his way a number of times and been in the ditch twice, but no damage was done. Next morning I saw this “motorbike”; it was the sort of mini-bike used for getting around the paddock, not quite the smallest that is made, but in no way a motorbike. Personally I wouldn’t have gone down to the village on it, let alone do 30 kilometres in the dark on unknown roads. Undaunted, our scribe had breakfast and then set off down the mountain to return his “motorbike” to the Monza paddock. Some of our reporters are heroes!

It brought to mind my first visit to Monza as a reporter, when I had been riding in the motorcycle Grand Prix the week before and while the others returned home to base, I stayed on and borrowed a Vespa Scooter for getting about. Motor Sport were sending a photographer out by air “… and would I meet him at the airport.” I had never been to Milan airport before and in those days it was at Malpensa, some 30 miles away. On that Vespa the journey seemed never ending, and I arrived rather late not realising that airline passengers had luggage. Our photographer was very tolerant and sat on the pillion all the way back to Milan, holding his suitcase in one hand and his camera bag in the other. At 45 m.p.h. on the Autostrada it was quite a trip.

After one practice at this year’s Italian GP the organisers of a Racing Car Show held a small gathering to publicise the event. They had four “stars” to boost the show, Mario Andretti, Giacomo Agostini, Sandro Munari and Renato Molinari, stars of Formula One, motorcycle racing, rallying and power-boat racing, respectively. Outside on the lawn of the country club where the gathering was held, were “the tools of the trade” of three of these four; Andretti’s Lotus 78 was still cooling off in the paddock after practice.

There was a racing Yamaha, a works Lancia Stratus and a sleek racing boat powered by a Lancia Stratos V6 engine. More than any other driver in Formula One today, Andretti makes himself available for such promotional activities. Even when the tempo after practice is running high, if he has promised to “meet the Press” or be available to assist in some promotion, he always gets there and always looks calm and unruffled, even though you know that all hell has broken loose in the Lotus camp. When some of our heroes talk of being “professional” I smile, for Andretti has brought a new meaning to the word in Europe.

Leaving the Zandvoort circuit the morning after the Dutch GP I was riding through some mid-morning traffic when I was conscious of a Lancia coupe in front of me, with a GB plate on the back and a London registration. There were three people in it and all I could see of the driver was a bald patch on the back of his head, and some wispy side-burns. The car was threading its way past the Dutch locals in a very fluid manner, using all the available space and passing things with superb judgement. On my BMW motorcycle it was easy to follow the Lancia and I thought “that old codger is driving jolly well. I suppose he’s an enthusiast who has been to the Grand Prix.” Intrigued by the scene I drew up alongside at some traffic lights and looked down. It was Stirling Moss! Old codger, indeed, he must be at least 10 years younger than me.

The Dutch GP is one of those races where it pays to walk from your Hotel to the circuit, if you are staying in Zandvoort, even at the far end of the seaside town. Traffic is chaotic, parking is ridiculous and you can walk through the whole steaming mob in 30 minutes, pausing for a glass of Heineken beer on the way. Meanwhile, cars, buses, vans, caravans etc, may have moved 10 yards. While walking through the traffic it is interesting to note all the various countries from which the cars have come. The freedom of Europe is never more emphasised than when you see spectators in Holland from as far apart as Denmark and Spain or Yugoslavia and Portugal, knowing they all just got into their cars and drove off from home. Compared with journeying from England, with a minimum of 1 1/2 hours on a boat, the freedom of travel on the mainland of Europe is something special.

In South Africa there is a very different feeling, not unlike being back at boarding school. Once the “big-bird” has deposited its load of humans at Johannesburg, and they have gone to the Kyalami circuit and surrounding hotels, you know they have to stay there until the “big-bird” comes back for them. You could drive off to Durban or Cape Town in a hire-car, but you’d still be in South Africa and a long, long way from Europe and the next Grand Prix race. The South African race is held on a Saturday, and as the first available plane is Sunday evening, the organisers hold a Sunday lunch-time Barbeque and prize-giving at the home of Francis Tucker, the Clerk of the Course. This year I took the opportunity of joining a morning motorcycle run to Pretoria, about 35 miles away, held once a month for vintage and veteran motorcycles. Peter Blackwell, a Motor Sport reader of long-standing, lent me a 1938 Triumph Speed Twin, while he rode his 1936 twin-port BSA and we rode in company with Peter Theobald, another long-standing Motor Sport reader on his Model Sunbeam. In South Africa you have to wear a crash-hat, and with riding on the left side of the road it was just like home. There were still problems over the supply of petrol to South Africa and a simple form of rationing was that petrol stations closed mid-day Friday until Monday morning. As petrol in tins is forbidden this automatically rations everyone to a tank-full of petrol for the weekend. Simple and effective and no paper-work needed.

A regular happening at the Monaco GP on the night before the race was to walk down to the Casino Square to admire the exotic, the bizarre, and the exciting cars. You can do the same with people if you wish. Around midnight the scene is a happy one as the cars circulate through the Casino Square to the admiring sounds of the watchers. This year it all changed. The Monaco police closed the Casino Square and the feeder roads to all traffic. All we could do was stand and look at one another and go home to bed. The sad passing of yet another harmless piece of fun.

If you go to Sweden by boat or plane you tend to land at Gothenburg and then there is a 3-hour drive to Anderstorp. For those racing teams who are based in England, and that means most of them, except Ferrari, Ligier and ATS, there is a Sunday night boat after the race that takes the big articulated transporters. In order to catch it you need to be out of the paddock by about 7 p.m., a few hours after the race has finished. The Swedish police provide an escort and this is in communication with a police helicopter that is surveying the scene from above, and advising on the best route through the home-going race traffic. It is an impressive sight to see the big DAF, Scania-Vabis, Ford or Leyland transporters swinging out through the paddock gates, one after another to join the line of vehicles behind the police car. I’ve often felt I’d like to skip the Grand Prix and drive off ahead of the traffic to somewhere out in the country and watch this high-speed procession go by. The names on the sides of the transporters make exciting reading to a racing enthusiast. Lotus, Tyrrell, March, Wolf, Surtees, Ensign, McLaren, Hesketh, Shadow, Brabham, Fittipaldi, they are all there, thundering northwards, while at a more leisurely pace the Ferrari transporter is heading south and the Ligier is heading westwards.

It was at the Swedish GP that I walked along the line of pits while the cars were being warmed up before the race. The variety of noises was wonderful, and made the adrenalin flow in anticipation of the race. The Ferraris were making that noise that only a Ferrari can make, the Matra was screaming on all twelve cylinders, the Cosworth V8s were making their hard, efficient sound and the Alfa Romeos were booming out Loud and strong from their four megaphone exhaust pipes. It was glorious and each engine had its own distinctive sound and seemed to be trying to drown the sound of its rivals; no wonder some of the more sensitive people in the pits wear ear muffs. Personally I love the sounds, even if they have made me prematurely deaf to the idle chatter of the human being!

Each and every race has enough happening to write an individual book on the events of one day or seven days, depending on how you cover your Formula One race. —D.S.J.