Behind the Grand Prix Scene

The circuit inspector

Before anyone can hold a Formula One Grand Prix the proposed circuit must have an FIA licence and this is only issued after the circuit has been inspected and passed as being suitable. Exactly what is suitable is laid down in the FIA circuit requirement rules, with everything detailed as regards shape, length, width, surface, edges, obstructions and decor, gradients, starting area, pit lane area, paddock area, facilities, marshals’ posts, access roads, escape lanes and many more things besides. When all these things are deemed satisfactory then the circuit is issued with a licence to hold Formula One races, but these licences are not handed out easily or overnight. You often hear talk of a Formula One Grand Prix being held at such-and-such a circuit or in this or that town, but therein little point in listening to such talk when you know that the place being talked about does not have a circuit licence, nor indeed made applications for one. A FISA inspector has to visit the proposed circuit very early on and make a report, and if it is satisfactory and the appropriate FISA committee approve everything else then an FIA licence is issued. But things do not end there.

A circuit may be issued with a licence with a proviso that certain alterations or additions must be made by a certain date, and the inspector has to go and approve these. Then when the actual date of the meeting arrives the inspector makes further checks on any outstanding work, on the general condition of everything and on the requirements for “on the day” equipment such as marshals’ equipment, fire-fighting equipment, course cars, rescue services and so on. Before this the organising club will have received a vast FISA questionnaire which has robe filled in and verified by the inspector on the first morning of practice before he will give the meeting the “all clear” to go ahead. It has been known for organising clubs to arrive at the first morning of practice with scheduled work still not completed and the FISA questionnaire not filled in. Indeed one club claimed the questionnaire had never arrived from FISA. They made no attempt to chivvy up the offices in Paris for another one to be sent, so that practice was delayed while the paper work was toned out, to their own detriment. Any circuit that has a large programme of work to undertake will receive a visit from the inspector well before the first day of practice, to make sure it is being done. Verbal promises are not enough, he wants to see it being done, and preferably completed. At all circuits there is a certain amount of regular maintenance required and this too is checked; things like road edges being trimmed, guard rails painted, fences and gates in good order, paddock facilities such as toilets and washing and general amenities. A circuit that is in continual use, like Brands Hatch or Silverstone, seldom presents any problems for everything is being kept up to scratch all the time, but circuits that are only used occasionally can fall behind in what is only routine maintenance. One-off circuits like Monaco and Long Beach have to be treated slightly differently but the they still have to comply with an e requirements.

During the meeting, either in practice or the race, and particularly in practice, the inspector has to keep an eye on the general running of the meeting. If there is an accident and catch-fencing or guard rails are destroyed they have to be replaced and replaced correctly; if the surface of the track is damaged by oil, petrol or fire it has to be looked at. Even when everything appears to be all right and ready for the “off’ there can be a delay be the inspector has seen something that everyone else has overlooked. In no way can inspection hope to make a circuit safe, for when you are dealing with 550 b.h.p. cars weighing 600 kilogrammes (11½ cwt.) driven by young “hot-heads” out to win, which is what racing is all about, you can only hope to alleviate the outcome of an accident. To say that “this circuit is safe” is an ostrich-like remark, but you can say that a circuit has taken all possible precautions “to soften the blow”. At one Grand Prix the cars were on their way round to the dummy-grid when I saw the circuit inspector tearing his hair out and rushing off. Afterwards I learnt that some well-meaning official had parked a row of cars on the infield with nothing between them and the track. They had been used to parade the drivers round the circuit during the pre-race celebrations and as they had been supplied by keen owners and clubmen someone though they should be allowed to watch the race unhindered. There was a nice patch of grass so they were directed to go to it and they lined up about thirty yards from the inside edge of a 140 m.p.h. corner in what was meant to be a run-off area! There was a bit of “humphing and mumphing” when they were all unceremoniously shuffled away into a safe area.

The circuit inspector has to be on the look-out all the time, for everything may look perfect on the night before the race but come race morning a new advertising hoarding has appeared where it should not be, a television camera has been mounted in a dangerous place, a new service vehicle such as a breakdown truck or a crane has been brought in and been badly placed, and so on. Even on race morning he can tour the circuit and we examples of thoughtlessness which he is quick to correct. A marshal may have parked his car in a bad position, blocking an access road, or an ambulance or fire-car may be parked pointing the wrong way for quick action, it is quite remarkable some of the things that people do, especially at circuits that only have one big race a year. Where racing is happening every weekend in the summer these little problems seldom arise, but none-the-less they always have to be looked for.

When setting up a circuit the drivers are often asked for any suggestions, and often they will proffer them anyway. Even at permanent circuits most drivers have an eye for irregularities and they waste no time in telling the inspector if they feel something is wrong. As he is in attendance at all the World Championship events and will have not only been to the circuit before any of them, he will already have scrutinised the circuit before any of them arrive for practice. He needs a certain amount of diplomacy and patience when dealing with drivers, for they all have different ideas, and at one circuit there was some discussion about a certain corner and where the “spherical elasticated attenuators” (old car tyres to you and me) should be placed. He took three of the “aces” round the circuit at separate times, and each showed him where they wanted the bulk of the tyres. There were three widely differing positions and there were not enough tyres to fulfil all three positions, and he left them where they had been put in the first place, which was a compromise of the three extremes. It was interesting that each driver had an entirely different idea about crashing on that corner. One viewed it from his personal point of over-doing it and going over that limit, another viewed it from the point of something breaking on the car at a critical moment and the third looked at it in the light of someone else causing him to have an accident.

One of the circuit inspector’s biggest headaches is the prevalence of “publicity races” backed by manufacturers. Races for Renault 5 saloons, Alfa Romeo, Alfa-Suds, Toyota celebrity races and suchlike, for these invariably result in some monumental accidents that do not necessarily hurt anyone but they do destroy the scenery. When the scenery is all-important to circuit safety for serious racing all this damage has to be repaired before the Grand Prix can commence. Often these events are at the end of the second practice day and the work has to be done that evening, in which case the inspector has to be up bright and early on race morning to see that it is all done and done properly. Simple things like the bolts holding the guard rails together being too small or not done up tight, the over-lap on rails being the wrong way round so that the sharp edge points towards_ the cars, catchfencing badly positioned or with insufficient poles and so on. All this work is done by contract workmen who know little of the FISA regulations and to them a pole is a pole and a nut and bolt a nut and bolt. At one circuit, which was not permanent, the guard rails had been bolted together with bolts that were barely half the diameter of those normally used. There was quite a fuss over this for though the steel rails were acceptable they would have burst asunder at the joints if a car had hit them. I have one of these “rogue” bolts in my collection of Grand Prix “junk” together with a standard bolt and the difference is just unbelievable. Presumably a contract workman had been told to bolt the rails together and he used a readily available size.

The man who has the onerous role of circuit inspector is Derek Ongaro, who will be recalled as also being the official FISA starter for Grand Prix events featured in the first of this series. Like so many people behind the scenes the hours he puts in to help make things run smoothly would make a union official collapse in disbelief. Without all these people a Grand Prix might get off the ground but it could he an awful shambles and could lead to governments banning such a troublesome activity. So often one hears word of what goes on in high places when our “sport” comes up for discussion and invariably the attitude is that “they must keep an orderly house” and it is people like the circuit inspector who is doing his best, with all the others to “keep our house in order”.

At the end of the Grand Prix the circuit inspector’s job is not done, rather like the journalists, for he has to compile an official report on the meeting and this can run to six-pages or more, depending on what happened. Even if the whole meeting went smoothly he still has to make out a detailed report and will give chapter-and-verse on why the meeting was successful. When next you arrive at a circuit on the morning of the race, and everything is ready for the start, bear in mind that it didn’t all just happen like that There has to be an order of things and things have to be orderly and the circuit inspector is just one of those people whose work can only be appreciated by the end result. — D.S.J.