Today, if you’re an F1 driver, that’s what you do. There’s no mom in your life for any other motorsport. As well as 17 races, there’s all that testing: once the FIA’s November ban is over, most teams move straight into a hectic programme. McLaren are hard at it in Spain from Monday 4 December. Plus jetting from country to country to remind the fans of the virtues of your sponsor’s products. Awards dinners, TV chat shows, relendess regimes with your trainer. And that first Friday session in Melbourne on 2 March is rushing nearer.
It’s a far cry from when the circus used to decamp to those marvellous Tasman races in Australia and New Zealand, and spend the days between water-skiing, partying and playing practical jokes on each other — just like normal people on holiday. There were other winter activities, too: stunts like Stirling Moss driving a Humber Super Snipe through 15 countries from Norway to Portugal, 3300 miles in four days. In those days the Monte Carlo Rally caught everyone’s imagination, and several Fl drivers got involved. In 1952 the versatile Moss was paid £50 by Rootes to do the event in a Sunbeam-Talbot saloon. That year had blizzards, sheet ice and deep snow, and Stirling had never done a rally in his life. But he got to Monaco without penalty, and after the final stages he’d missed victory by four seconds, runner-up to Sydney Allard’s Allard.
Nowadays everything starts and stops with the World Championship. For billions of people around the globe, the only motorsport that exists is 17 weekends of a TV game called Fl. That’s why young drivers who aspire to Fl, or indeed drivers successful in other formulae, find it so hard to gain recognition, let alone backing. I pine for the days when Formula 2 let up-and-coming drivers race against established Fl stars in cars that were pretty much equal. That’s how in 1964 an unknown young Austrian called Jochen Rindt burst on the scene, beating World Champions Clark and Hill to win the Crystal Palace F2 race.
Time was when non-championship Fl races gave young drivers and young teams the chance to show their potential. In 1955, for example, the World Championship consisted (apart from the irrelevance of Indianapolis) of only six rounds — one in Argentina, and five in Europe. But there were also 13 other F1 races between March and October, some admittedly British short-distance events like Goodwood, Crystal Palace and Aintree, but some very much full-length Grands Prix. That year Ascari’s Lancia D50 won the Turin GP at Valentino Park in This 40mins, while Jean Behra’s Maserati 250F victory on the narrow Pau streets took over three hours. The Oulton Park Gold Cup lasted as long as a modern GP, Moss’ 250F beating Hawthorn’s D50.
And on 23 October that year, in faroff Sicily, an English dental student called Tony Brooks drove an Fl car for the first time. The impoverished Connaught team, run by Rodney Clarke and Mike Oliver, decided at the last moment to send two cars to the final race of the year, the Syracuse Grand Prix. Brooks had gone well in a Connaught sportscar, so Oliver rang him up and told him to get himself to Sicily, to race a car he’d never sat in on a circuit he’d never seen. The opposition consisted of four works Maseratis driven by Musso, Villoresi, Schell and Shelby, a pair of works Gordinis, and various private Ferraris and Maseratis. What happened is well-known: Brooks qualified on the front row, made a bad start, and worked his way up through the Maseratis to pass Musso for the lead. After a tussle Musso got in front again, but Brooks retook the lead and held it to the end of the 2h 24min race.
Today, when British cars and drivers have been pre-eminent in motor sport for more than 40 years, we forget that green cars in international single-seater racing used to be something of a joke. Incredibly, Brooks’ win was the first for a British driver in a British car in a Grand Prix since Sir Henry Segrave’s Sunbeam victories at Tours, San Sebastian and Miramas in the 1920s. But there were no British newspaper journalists there to witness the Connaught feat, and none of the weekly motor magazines had sent anyone. They just had brief news reports, although 12 days later Autosport carried a feature written by one of the Connaught party.
For the full story the English-speaking world had to wait six weeks, until Motor Sport’s December issue was published, because of course the only British journalist on the scene had been the irrepressible Jenks. He’d driven down to Sicily to watch Moss and Peter Collins win the Targa Florio for Mercedes-Benz, and he’d stayed on for the Syracuse race a week later.
Exactly 45 years to the day since Brooks’ victory, property tycoon John Walker (who is redeveloping the old Connaught works at Send) hosted a lunch to mark the anniversary. Some 15 members of the Connaught team were on hand, including Brooks himself and, most notably, two of the three men who made Connaught possible. Rodney Clarke sadly died some years ago, but that quiet engineering genius Mike Oliver was there, and so was Kenneth McAlpine. Ken is always acknowledged as the source of the team’s financial backing, but is not usually remembered as a talented driver in his own right. Connaught happened because McAlpine wanted a British single-seater to race: if he hadn’t had to run the family business during the week, he could easily have become an F1 name.
Connaught and Brooks earned their place in history that day at Syracuse. But, as Tony pointed out to me at lunch, most Fl history books confine themselves to the World Championship, and ignore many great races that happened outside the battle for points. Moss always said he was more interested in winning a race than worrying about the wretched points, but today the championship has become everything — so that interest in this year’s Malaysian Grand Prix was much reduced, because the drivers’ title had already been won.
In 1950 there were a mere six Championship rounds apart from Indy: Fangio and Farina in the allconquering Alfa 158s each won three races, but Farina took the tide because he also had a fourth place at Spa. But the works Alfas also raced in the San Remo, Bari, Geneva and Pescara Grands Prix, and the Silverstone International Trophy. Fangio won three of the non-championship races and had two seconds, while Farina won only two. On the basis of all the races, Fangio was the most successful Fl driver of the 1950 season.
In 1962 there were nine World Championship rounds, but no fewer than 19 non-championship F1 races, three of them national Grands Prix of Sweden, Denmark and Mexico. The championship lead see-sawed between Graham Hill (BRM) and Jimmy Clark (Lotus), to be resolved in Hill’s favour in the final round in South Africa. But the Clark/Hill battle raged in non-championship races, too, with Clark beating Hill at Oulton Park and Snetterton, winning also at Kyalami and Aintree and sharing the winning car in Mexico. Overall, Clark was the more successful Fl driver that season. But 1962 Silverstone racegoers will never forget the climax to that year’s Silverstone International Trophy, when Clark was gradually wound in by the dogged Hill, and was beaten on the line in a photo-finish.
In 1971 there were two Fl races at Oulton Park; as well as the Gold Cup in August there was the Spring Cup on Good Friday. In fact, the sheer quantity and quality of British racing over that Easter weekend was astonishing. Oulton had Stewart (Tyrrell), Rodriguez and Siffert (BRMs), Fittipaldi (Lotus), Gethin (McLaren) and Surtees (Surtees), plus Reine Wisell in the sensational Lotus 56 turbine. The traditional Thruxton F2 race had Ronnie Peterson, Graham Hill, Cevert, Reutemann, Pescarolo, Siffert and Lauda. There were F5000 races at Snetterton and Brands with names like Frank Gardner, Mike Hailwood, Brian Redman, Tim Schenken and Trevor Taylor. There was a strong F3 championship round at Mallory Park: remember Roger Williamson, Bev Bond, Colin Vandervell, Dave Walker, Andy Sutcliffe, Ian Ashley and Bob Evans? All these meetings had busy supporting races: Thruxton had Jo Siffert in a Porsche 917 andlo Bonnier in a 2-litre Lola, Jochen Mass was in the SuperVee race, and Brian Muir’s Camaro won the Touring Car event. And you could have watched full programmes of close-fought club races that weekend at Silverstone, Castle Combe, Cadwell Park, Rufforth, Croft, Llandow, Ingliston and Mondello Park.
Probably none of these races was on TV. Even the big stars — Stewart, Fittipaldi, Hill, Surtees — would have been paid infinitely less money than their counterparts today. And of course their cars were much simpler, cheaper to build and cheaper to mend. Apart from the BRMs — and the Lotus turbine — every F1 car at Oulton had an off-the-peg Cosworth DFV engine. But all the crowds were reportedly good, with 40,000 at Oulton Park. There was certainly a lot of quality racing to watch back then.
I’m not arguing that the old days were better; just different. In terms of TV audiences, sponsorship revenues and general wealth, F1 is hugely more successful now than it has ever been. But isn’t it strange that we’re living in an era when the consumer is offered more and more choice, and the motor racing spectator seems to be offered less and less?