Nigel Roebuck's Legends

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Motor Sport’s famous journalist Denis Jenkinson hated society’s growth of rules and regulations. No wonder he got on with Nigel Roebuck!

At this time of the year Denis Jenkinson is often in my thoughts, for it was in November that he died, nine years ago now. Jenks departed a few months before New Labour arrived, and I always thought his timing perfect. With a philosophy of life diametrically opposed to political correctness and the ‘nanny state’, how he would have recoiled, for example, at the sight and sound of Patricia Hewitt, our Messianic health secretary.

It wasn’t that Jenks cared about politics per se, but he hated any curtailment of personal freedom. Although he had never smoked, he kept ashtrays for friends who did: “Supposing Keke Rosberg happened to be driving past — if he knew he couldn’t have a fag he wouldn’t drop in, would he? And I wouldn’t blame him.”

One cannot imagine what Jenks would have made of the recent proliferation of speed bumps and cameras, but it may be assumed that his comments could not be reproduced here in the magazine graced by his words for more than 40 years. And as for the suggestion that, in a decade or so, our cars’ speed will be electronically controlled by outside agencies, our every move monitored… “Read George Orwell,” he would say. “He got it dead right in 1984, didn’t he? Just took a bit longer than he expected.”

Jenks gave up motoring — serious  motoring — in the early seventies. Twenty years on, in July ’92, I spent one of many days at his cottage, and although the purpose had been to discuss the great drivers of the post-war era, in the end we fell to talking about everything under the sun, the tape recorder running throughout.

A few days earlier, Nigel Mansell and the ‘active’ Williams-Renault FW14B had dominated the British Grand Prix, at the conclusion of which a huge number of ‘fans’ scaled Silverstone’s fences and spilled out on to the track. It was only by the Grace of God that no one had been killed.

Many of us had detected something different, something hard-edged, about that Silverstone crowd, for among the enthusiasts were others apparently motivated only by nationalism: all they required was a Mansell victory, and preferably a crushing one. Jenks was disgusted by what he had witnessed. “I’m as patriotic as anyone,” he said, “but those people wearing Union Jack T-shirts and so on really get up my bloody nose. That’s got nothing to do with patriotism — look at those cretins last weekend, with their ‘F*** Senna’ banners.

“People like that… their minds are blank until they’ve got something to hate. They want to support Mansell… fine, good for them. But why does that mean they have to hate Senna? When he retired and got out of his car, he was jeered at and booed. Are you telling me those people are racing enthusiasts? Of course they’re not. What we need is football all the year round, to keep morons like that away from motor racing.”

A flavour of DSJ.

He had of course driven to Silverstone, but had long since abandoned his ritual of going ‘on the road’ from April to September and travelling by car to grands prix and world championship sportscar races. “I gave that up in 1972, the last year I used the E-type. The roads had got too crowded to enjoy and the hold-ups were getting horrendous — you marked your map with great black spots: ‘Don’t go near from June to August.’ You’d do a 500-mile detour to avoid going along the Côte d’Azur; you’d go up through the Dolomites, over the Brenner to Munich and so on, to avoid any of the Swiss passes. It just got too crowded.

“They solved the problem, to a small extent, by building a network of motorways — but they’re boring as hell!  You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. When we came back from Magny-Cours on the motorway recently, I spent all my time looking at the map and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s the N74 over there, and it goes through that village where there’s that lovely restaurant.’ Instead of that we were doing 100mph down ‘a motorway’ which could have been the M1.  Except that it wasn’t being dug up every mile and a half.

“Anyway, the thing was that all my black spots began to join up! The one around the Côte d’Azur began to join up with the one from Genoa, Switzerland became a total black spot, and to enjoy motoring the way  I always had I had to go different ways. So if you had two race weekends and they were 500 miles apart, to enjoy the journey you had to do 1500 miles! “The other thing that went wrong with motoring was the way the rules multiplied. They’ve become impossible now, haven’t they?”

There were other factors in DSJ’s decision too, not least of which was the decline of sportscar racing. “The FIA had put a 3-litre limit on it, which handed everything to Matra, who dominated for a bit and then disappeared. After that, it was just Alfa Romeo trying to beat themselves. I used to watch these clowns and think, ‘These are international clubmen — I could be doing that!’

“Because of that I began to go backwards and forwards. Rather than trail off to watch these clowns in sportscar races, I’d spend a weekend at a hillclimb or whatever with all my mates, and then I’d go off to a grand prix.

“I was commuting across the Channel, in other words — I used to leave the car one side and the motorbike the other. I’d go Silver City, from Lydd to Le Touquet, and that was fun because I’d leave the E-type under the hedge at Le Touquet — nobody ever touched it — and I’d have a motorbike leaning against the shed at Lydd. Piece of cake!”

Jenks may have found motorways dreary, but it wasn’t always like that. The first one he could remember was in Belgium, the famous Jabbeke Road, occasionally used for record-breaking. “In April 1948 I was on my 350 Norton, riding to Mettet — where I was racing — in my boots and leathers and crash hat, because I did not have any luggage or anything.”

Even in the early post-war years there was more ‘freedom’ in some countries than others, and getting to Mettet was not the work of a moment. “The journey started with pushing the bike to my local railway station — it wasn’t legal to ride it on the bloody English roads, of course — which took us to London Bridge. Then I pushed it to another station, where I got a train to Dover Priory, and then pushed it from there to the Western Dock.

“Finally I got on the boat, with a one-way ticket and no money at all; arrived at Ostend, did the paperwork, put some petrol in, started it up — and rode to Mettet. Freedom! I thought, ‘This is why I’ve come here! The whole point of coming to Europe is that you can ride a racing ‘bike on the road.”

It was in the course of this trip that Jenks came upon Jabbeke and its ‘motorway’. “It was where Goldie Gardner had set a lot of his records, and only about 10 or 12 miles long. You were on this cobbled road, turned down a little lane — and suddenly there was this great expanse of racetrack! Then, at the other end, it was back across the fields and lanes and on to the ordinary road again. And that was my introduction to motorways.

“It eventually became part of the ES, of course, but don’t ask me why they just built 10 miles of it — in the middle of nowhere — to start with. I imagine they got that far with it and then ran out of money. I went down it at about 90mph, I suppose… wonderful! That was in 1948, but of course if you did it now you’d be breaking the law and a bloody camera would catch you.”

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