Formula One at the crossroads
Although on the face of it Grand Prix racing, or Formula One as it is called in the existing complex pattern of motor racing, is still the highest form of competition and is continuing to draw vast sums of sponsorship money, pay its top exponents handsomely, attract big crowds of spectators, and cause much controversy, just below the seemingly smooth surface there is turmoil—the crossroads are rapidly being approached where a calamity could happen from which GP racing may never recover.
The unhealthy fear which the more influential members of the GPDA have of accidents in an accident-prone sport is bringing various pressures to bear on the future conduct of F1 racing. It may be human instinct to save one’s akin, within reason. But there is a growing lack of sympathy with a special breed of human who can earn up to £200,000 a year if risks are taken but who wants feverishly to reduce those risks while seemingly not realising that the safer motor racing becomes the lower the “bonus” it will earn. Did those who refused to race at Spa, at the Nurburgring until some £750,000 had been spent eliminating some of its traditional hazards, and who now want to cut out F1 at popular Brands Hatch contemplate taking a “cut in salary” before uttering their safety-first pronouncements? Do they ever stop to wonder for how long the sensation-loving public will go on regarding them as wonder-boys, if they try to demote motor racing from the most exciting and (admittedly) dangerous sport there is, to a milk-and-water parody of its former glory?
It is, for the moment, a measure of their appeal, which one might expect them to guard jealously, that circuit owners have spent vast sums pandering to them and that sponsors still step glibly forward. But when the idea gathers momentum that Grand Prix drivers, once a breed apart, are getting frightened of facing all that F1 implies the big money may well diminish to a trickle overnight, deflected, perhaps, to other spheres of motor racing.
The game has always been dangerous. Before the war, when there was much less intensity of racing, drivers of the calibre of Ascari, Alovatti, Barrow, Bordino, Borzacchini, Bouriat, Cissac, Chalier, Campari, Czaykowski, Delius, Fagioli, Giaccone, Gaupillat, Horsfall, Hamilton, Hartman, Halle, Junek, Kautz, Lehoux, Montaignec, Masetti, Materassi, Moll, Marazza, Mazaud, Nazzaro, Renault, Stead, Siena, Seaman, Torche and Zborowski, etc., died, without ever suggesting the removal of a single tree, or being flagged in if rain were to fall. Today’s GP drivers are admittedly going faster and have to concentrate harder. But the pre-war drivers (we have listed only those who crashed in action during a road or road circuit race) frequently had to contend with inferior road-holding and brakes, unpredictable tyres, indifferent flag-marshalling, and they hadn’t the protection of fire-proof clothing, safety harness and space helmets; moreover, they were exposed to danger for longer periods, in terms of race distance, and had less predictable “solids” than the endless Armco to contend with, although admittedly they were driving stronger cars which were usually easier to get out of if they caught fire. The gulf between “us” and “them” made the game what it is. When a racing driver or for that matter a President, a pilot, a parachutist, an acrobat, a soldier or a policeman succumbs to fear and makes stipulations, “ifs” or “buts”, for taking the risk out of his professional calling, the gulf between “them”, and “us” the cosseted public of a Welfare State, narrows and respect diminishes. When this occurs, prestige and monetary worth also diminish.
So really the GPDA is extremely fortunate that the CSI is prepared to listen patiently to its requests and take steps to try to make top-class motor racing safer. The proposal to reintroduce pit-stops into GP racing next year has met with some odd comments made by those who rush into print without pausing to think. It has been said that this may not reduce the fire risk, because Siffert’s BRM burned furiously with a mere 18 gallons or so of petrol in it. This overlooks the possibility of a rule which could simply require the driver to get out of his car and remain in his pit while the car is being replenished. It has been suggested that pit-stops would be unwelcome, as bringing the mechanics into the limelight enjoyed by the drivers. What bunk! What bigotry! Pit-stops were part of almost all pre-war GP races but the names of the dexterous and skilled mechanics who changed wheels and hurled milk-churns full of fuel into the cars were almost unknown, even at the height of the game from 1935 to 1939, until George Monkhouse quoted those of the German mechanics, in his memorable book “Motor Racing with Mercedes-Benz”. In any case, motor racing would not happen if it were not for the racing mechanics, so often unsung and over-shadowed by the space-suited drivers, so why on earth shouldn’t those working in front of the pits instead of behind garage doors gain some richly-deserved spectator acclaim?
Apart from any safety-first angle which pit-stops from 1973 and thereafter might have, there is no denying that they have in the past added much to the uncertainty and therefore the excitement of a race, apart from usually being exciting in themselves. The classic pit-stops have been numerous—the dramatic occasion when the refuelling pump failed and Nuvolari’s leading Alfa Romeo P3 had to be replenished from churns, while the agonised little Italian danced about in a frenzy, after which, some 11 minutes in arrears, he set off to out-drive the Germans and win the 1935 German GP; another dramatic pit-stop, when Brauchitsch’s Mercedes-Benz caught fire while it and Seaman’s were being refuelled and Seaman drove on to win the 1938 German GP; the time when Hawthorn’s Ferrari had to stop for fresh rear tyres at Monza in 1958, thus losing the Italian GP to Brooks’ Vanwall (Motor Sport’s Michael Tee took a splendid picture of this, driver in the cockpit with the car on the jack and both wheels removed, which one of the weekly magazines pinched a few weeks ago), and many, many more.
The cautionary note which should be sounded is that nothing artificial must be permitted to undermine GP racing in the name of the sacred-cow safety. To cause F1 cars to stop for fuel by limiting the contents of their fuel bags smacks of design restriction, remembering how Seaman’s ancient Delage was able to vanquish the more highly-supercharged modern ERAs by going through a 200-mile race non-stop when they had to stop for fuel and how the unsupercharged 4 1/2-litre Ferraris were able to cope with the faster but thirstier 1 1/2-litre supercharged Alfa Romeos for the same reason. Compulsory refuelling, permissible as a hopeful means of reducing the fire hazard of today’s motor racing, could be a retrograde move from the aspect of technical freedom. Certainly GP racing should never stoop to fake pit-stops like those which add fun and training to Club high-speed trials, when a wheel or a sparking plug, or both, have to be removed and replaced, no matter how blameless. The CSI must ask itself whether compulsory refuelling stops come within this category and what such stipulations could lead to—such as pit-calls after a number of laps so that Jackie Stewart’s blood pressure could be checked.
What will probably rule out the proposed pit-stop, much as these might enhance even the abbreviated modern GP races, will be inadequate pit-lane areas, the lack of pressure-refuelling facilities, and the problems of rapidly replenishing fire-resistant fuel containers.
Motor Sport therefore ventures a suggestion. If, the safety angle apart, it is thought that pit-stops add interest to races and can change dull processions into difficult-to-foresee outcomes, why not insist that in every F1 race the No. 1 driver in each team has to be replaced at some time by the No. 2 driver, who must complete a given number of laps of the race? This would reduce the cost of racing, because the emphasis would be on one car rather than two, or for the more affluent or better-sponsored entrants, a couple of cars instead of a trio. At the change-overs the car’s engine would have to be stopped and it could then be refuelled, while driver-less. It would have to be re-started electrically and if all this did not make another Stewart victory unpredictable, the tactics of Team Managers, free to call in their No. 1 driver, and to replace him, at any point in the race providing the requisite number of laps was driven by each, should do so!
Objections? Apart from suggesting that you tell us (or the Editor, whose idea this is!) in the correspondence columns, we cannot visualise any insurmountable ones. What if the No. 1 and No. 2 driver in a team were equally skilled? Every team attempts to sign on top drivers if one contrived to get two who were equally good, which is unlikely, they would deserve to win, but there would still be the changeovers and re-starts with hot engines to deal with. Could the timekeepers manage? They cope with Le Mans, which goes on for 24 hours with innumerable pit-stops, without losing track of the shuffles, so, providing each No. 2 driver wore a distinguishing helmet, we cannot see why not. Would sponsors object to fewer cars per team? We cannot see why they should because the No. 2 driver, waiting in his pit and leaping into his car, if wearing sponsor-embellished overalls, would be better publicity than one driver wearing them. Moreover, there need not be fewer cars competing. If the money were available for signing-on six drivers, three-car teams could run as they do now.
The ironical thing is that if F1 races were doubled in distance genuine pit-stops would occur automatically, for refuelling, even if modern tyres would not need replacing. This might also call for more strongly constructed racing cars, which many people think would contribute considerably to safety in the event of an accident. If the present trend of staging auxiliary events to set off a major race were to end the full status of a long-distance grande epreuve would be regained. It would be the only race on the programme and long enough, with the final result in doubt because of the pit-stops, to hold the interest of spectators on its own merit.
The objections to longer races are presumably increased cost, GP drivers who lack the stamina of their sports-car counterparts, the obsession with a multitude of meaningless championships requiring to be resolved at every race meeting, and possible CSI objection to pitstops from the fire-hazard aspect, even though these are part of long-distance or duration sports-car races.
Although the purists who deplore even engine-size restrictions as retarding the development of GP cars and who vote for a free formula admitting all types inclusive of gas-turbine and Wankel-engined cars will object, the effective way to end the fire hazard lies in re-writing F1 rules to permit only heavy-oil power units, on the lines of The Aeroplane‘s campaign for air-liners which would land slowly to obviate crashes and would use safe fuels so that if they did crash they would not burn up—but 40 or so years later this hasn’t happened!
That we have been drawn into contemplating diesel GP cars emphasises just how close F1 is to that fatal cross-roads! We agree with the sage observation of a weekly contemporary that much of the trouble stems from the fact that these days there is a search for someone or something to blame after every fatal F1 accident, whereas not so long ago such an occurrence was accepted, albeit reluctantly, as the inevitable accompaniment of that dangerous, highly-skilled and well-paid pursuit, motor racing.
It has been said that motor racing attracts spectators because there is a strong possibility that accidents will happen. To some extent this may be so. But the motoring-enthusiast onlooker surely wants to see exciting machinery fully exploited by skilled drivers; in other words, to enjoy the sight, sound and smell of fast cars driven in anger, whether Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512Ms at Le Mans, Stewart in his Tyrrell at Monaco or the Nurburgring, or Ford Mexicos (almost?) nudging one another on the corners of Club circuits. They want to see these things in the proper settings—if you don’t believe this, just recall how Brooklands, although it was not exactly the haunt of cissy drivers, taking toll of Herman, Burke, Lambert, Cooper, Gibson, Toop, Resta, Allery, Leeson, Dunfee, Watson, Houldsworth, Carr and several spectators, was regarded before the war as tame compared to road racing at Donington, or, better still, at the Continental circuits or in the Targa Florio and Mille Miglia. Today, with cars running between crash barriers, originally for the protection of spectators but now a GPDA obsession, GP circuits are scarcely as exciting as a Scalextric toy…. If the noise, the speed, the potential extracted from the cars diminishes, these spectators will spend their money elsewhere….
The foregoing thoughts relate to the future of F1 racing—but not to the future of motoring sport, because fortunately the F3, F2 and sportscar drivers, the saloon-car racers, the rally boys, and even the outlaw stock-car, and Midget exponents are untroubled and anxious to ensure that it continues to live up to its great tradition, as an exciting, dangerous and satisfying sport.
As to the present, the controversy and uncertainty about safer racing might be helped if someone will explain why BRM were allowed to retain possession of Siffert’s car instead of releasing it to see whether any conclusions as to the cause of the crash could be established and thereby help the Inquest. How does the RAC stand in this respect?