Sheer Luxury

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Dear AH,

I must say I envied you the other day when you had the chance to drive a current Formula One car. Opportunities like that are few and far between, but the important thing is that they allow you to keep your sense of proportion. Keeping a sense of proportion in the world of Formula One is very difficult; it is difficult enough in a normal sane world, but in “little Bernie’s” unreal world of Grand Prix racing is something else. Next time we are standing together watching Formula One practice and I make some sarcastic remark about an aspiring World Champion being a bit hopeless, you’ll be able to put me right by saying “Have you tried driving one of those cars?”. I shall always remember the time when the Regie Renault and Jean Sage, let some of us loose on the Castellet airfield in their latest Renault Formula One car. Its acceleration and rpm was a whole new world, and that car only had about 650 bhp.

However, what really interested me about your day at Silverstone was your chance remark about the few laps you did in the big Mercedes-Benz coupe, driven by Teo Fabi. Now Fabi does not rate at the top of our “aces” list, nor even at the bottom of that select group, but he is a good Formula One runner, and he has surprised me a number of times by qualifying right up at the front in the Benetton-BMW. Your instant impression of how incredibly smoothly he drove, even in that big German limousine, was the really interesting part. Smoothness in driving is the one thing that Jackie Stewart keeps on about, and it is the one thing that I have never crossed-swords with him about.

Alan Jones’s father Stan, told him the same thing when Jonesyboy was learning to drive; he said “Learn to drive smoothly, speed will come naturally then”. Now I am sure Fabi has never been to the Stewart “charm school” or read your book about Stewart, so it is obviously a natural characteristic, and it does help to explain how a Benetton driven by the shy little Italian has often been up at the front of the starting grid, when we have hardly noticed him out on the circuit.

This was the staggering thing about Alain Prost; he would record fastest lap in a practice session without anyone really noticing it. Nowadays the smoothness and speed of Prost is paramount, so it no longer surprises, but it took me a long time to accept it. Mind you, by our standards, all the Formula One front runners drive smoothly, but some are smoother than others. Even the “hairylooking” ones like Rosberg and Berger are really fundamentally smooth, otherwise they would not stay on the track for long. I have met racing drivers who try to tell me that if they had a car that handled like a McLaren MP4/2C they would drive smoothly, especially if I happened to have just made a comment about them being all over the road, the kerbs and the grass verge. I am never impressed. You can drive smoothly whether you are in a McLaren or a double-decker bus, and indeed I have been on some buses which have been driven so beautifully smoothly and efficiently that I have wanted to compliment the driver, but has been locked away in his glass cabin.

I have always endeavoured to drive cars, and ride motorcycles, smoothly, which I think I have managed; my only trouble has been that speed never followed naturally, in fact, speed never really followed at all. Smooth and slow has been my hall-mark unfortunately. I recently spent a day out with John Lyon, who runs the High Performance Course for the British School of Motoring. We went to Goodwood in the “school” Porsche 924S and on my own I would have happily scratched away round the Goodwood circuit, squealing the tyres, opposite-locking, on and off the throttle, in a typical unruly bout of enthusiasm. But John Lyon put a stop to all that and by gently coaxing from the passenger seat got me lapping Goodwood faster than I would have done on my own, and with about half the effort. He then drove me round in the Porsche at speeds well above my ability and it was interesting to study the handling characteristics of the 924S taken up to and over its limit. It is not a racing car, but it’s not bad at all, and I defy any “road tester” to achieve such cornering powers on the open road.

While I am on racing drivers and racing driving, a subject that I could go on about forever, and you probably think sometimes that I do, my greatest regret is the passing of the “riding-mechanic”, about which WB has been writing recently. I have often discussed this regrettable lack in the Formula One Grand Prix world with drivers and engineers. If those of us who report on Grand Prix races could be in one of the cars we could write a proper race report. I am not suggesting that we drove one of the cars, but that we rode with the “ace” of our choice, (and I bag Nelson Piquet). I am sure Nigel Roebuck of Autosport would choose Alain Prost and Jabby Crombac of Sport-Auto would choose Ayrton Senna. Engineers look at me and say “Impossible, no-one would take Alan Henry, he’s too big and heavy, we’d need an extra 100 horsepower”. (Who said that?— AH). With boost-control valves they could always weigh the journalists and give your driver another half-bar on the boost. Then the engineers often point out that a two-seater Grand Prix car would be anathema to them as the handling would be ruined, but it is a nice idea.

I was discussing this problem with Mario Andretti and Colin Chapman in the days of the Lotus 79, which started the trend for keeping the weight masses on the centre-line of the car, with the driver sitting well forward and fairly upright, with a single large fuel tank between him and the engine. I suggested that Mario, being short, could move forward a bit and I could squeeze in behind him. That way I could study real racing driving almost through the eyes of the driver. They both thought it was a super idea and Chapman really warmed to it, suggesting that they could modify a car quite easily by cutting a lump out of the fuel-tank and forming a seat within it.

“You wouldn’t mind having fuel all round your back-side, would you?” asked Colin. If you race motorcycles with a fuel tank between your knees, than having it it around your back-side would be sheer luxury! This idea progressed during the season and I am sure Chapman would have done it during the winter testing sessions, but other problems with Lotus arose and it never happened. Chapman had queried with Andretti whether he would be prepared to drive me round a circuit, and what did he think about me sitting behind him. Mario, bless him, said “Great, when I was 12 years old I saw you being driven by Stirling Moss in that Mercedes-Benz in the Mille Miglia; you’d give me no problems.” I have a short list of “Things that never happened” and this was one of them. Like Frank Sinatra, “regrets, I’ve had a few, but they’re too few to even mention.” Yours, DSJ