A View From The Bar
From sharing a laugh with "Good Bloke" Damon to the joy of seeing some of the greatest-ever cars taking over down-town New York, here's the tale of Eoin Young's 35th year on the racing trail. Tough isn't it.
When your Sunday lunch is in a different country every second weekend during the summer, one tends to take a more laid-back alternative view of the afternoon's proceedings on-track, outside the confines of the motor home paddock. Damon Hill seemed to spend most of the season winning the world championship but I suppose this suited ring master Ecclestone who had a title that ran right to the wire in Japan and kept a worldwide television audience on the edge of its seat to the end. If Damon had the best car in the Williams-Renault why didn't he win the title sooner? His critics said he couldn't pass but this criticism usually stemmed from the drivers who wished they had his car. Damon did, after all, start from pole in nine of the 16 GPs and won eight. And he had the definite asset of being a Good Bloke and a Brit to boot.
Writing this on a sunny December morning in New Zealand, I can report colonial views on Hill's championship. Alan Jones, world champion for Williams in 1980, reckoned that Williams gave Damon a winning horse and he delivered them title. What else did they want? Chris Amon, former Ferrari and Matra driver, offered the armchair opinion that it seemed fairly difficult for ANYONE to pass. Anyone except for Jacques Villeneuve, of course, who pulled off the class pass of the season when he went around the outside of Schumacher in Estoril. Damon's demon pass came on the opening lap at Monza when he stormed past Alesi's come-from-nowhere Benetton and drew the comment from the staggered Italian-born Frenchman: "That (move) was for the last lap, not the first!" Jean Alesi served me rather badly, all things considered. Flavio Briatore would probably agree. Watching from the comfort of the Barley Mow bar during the Japanese Grand Prix in '95, I ventured that if Alesi had Schumacher's Benetton instead of the Ferrari he could be world champion. Someone pointed out that this would come to pass for '96 and so I wagered £100 at 20-to-one that Alesi would take the title. I suppose you can't win 'em all, but it would be nice if to win ONE. That's what Flav is thinking right now. Schumacher took his enormous talent to Ferrari and won three GPs while his old team staggered from debacle to defeat and won nothing. With Schumacher at the helm the season before, Benetton had won 11 races and the title.
Schumacher set new records with his $25-million Ferrari retainer but he certainly earned his keep to the point where Marlboro have severed their historic links with McLaren to put more backing behind Ferrari. Formula 1 is a notoriously fickle business. I nearly said 'sport', but it stopped being that when the Lotuses were painted in Gold Leaf livery in a garage not 10 miles from where I'm tapping this, during the 1968 Tasman series. When you're up, you're up, but when you're not winning your profile vanishes. When McLaren were winning with Senna and Prost, the McLarens were known as red-and-whites and it was a synonym for success, just as you could subliminally read Marlboro on the letterless chevrons when the tobacco companies weren't allowed to advertise specifically at Silverstone and Hockenheim.
The Williams' dismissal of Damon before he had secured the title was seen as almost a betrayal of talent and trust, but it was such a guillotine stroke that you have to assume that there was more to it than meets the eye. Something we won't learn about for years, if ever. Had Frank really signed Heinz-Harald Frentzen before the 1996 season began, as was widely rumoured if extravagantly discounted and denied by all parties? And WHY did Frank throw away his charismatic Brit with his popular heritage as well as the number one? Was it just to get a German of his own to tackle Schumacher and Ferrari? It will probably need rather more than the grudge that goes back to Schumacher wooing Frentzen's girlfriend away and marrying her to get Frentzen to grips with the Ferrari. There are those who say that when both Germans were junior drivers with Mercedes, H-H was the faster of the two, but others say that Frentzen could be faster over a given number of laps but couldn't match Schumacher over a race distance. We shall see. Insiders believe that Frank felt Damon didn't have what it took to beat Schumacher on a good day and that if Ferrari ever get their act together for more than two races on the trot, the German will be hard to beat. By anyone. And is there the possibility that Frentzen has peaked? Most of this season he spent with his Sauber mirrors full of Johnny Herbert's other Sauber, so does this mean that (a) the car is awful (b) both drivers are equally talented and, if so, (c) why didn't Frank hire Herbert?
When Schumacher was dominating in the Benettons we saw Briatore accepting full credit in a way that must have made people like Frank Williams and Ron Dennis cringe — or at least wish they were in his designer trainers. In the way that Ayrton Senna demanded total attention within the team, Schumacher takes over the team and tailors it to his own individual requirements. This rankled with his succession of number twos who could only rescue crumbs of reputation by pointing out how close/far they had been from the Top Teuton's times. Eddie Irvine professes a lack of concern at operating in Schumacher's shadow so long as he has a top drive and the cheques keep coming but, if that is his way of establishing his F1 profile, other teams may cross him from their shopping list. As though that will bother him.
As I was writing this, word came through that Denis Jenkinson had died. I have mixed feelings. He wouldn't have had. He'd have said "Bloody good job too" if he'd been discussing his own demise. Jenks liked to call his chosen travelling gang of motor racing writers The Famous Five, borrowing from Enid Blyton. I can't imagine that — we — Jenks, Alan Henry, Nigel Roebuck, Maurice Hamilton and I — resembled Enid's rosy-cheeked chums in any aspect but we had good times at and around the Grand Prix circuits.
It seemed odd to be regarded as a friend by Jenks, who had been our idol for years before we ever imagined we would meet him, let alone be included in his dinner table conversation where the motor racing world was always rearranged and put right to Jenks' exacting standards.
We've all got our Jenks stories to trot out but one of mine is driving him down the Via Emilia after an Imola GP and him saying "Six five up here" and sitting there with a satisfied smile. I asked him what on earth he was talking about and he said "That's what Stirling was getting in the Mercedes along this stretch in the Mille Miglia in fifty-five..." Their win in the 300SLR that year was part of motor racing history and Jenks's chronicle in MOTOR SPORT was read and re-read by every schoolboy and every schoolboy's son thereafter as the way motor racing should be written about. DSJ's report was as great in our world as Stirling's win was in his.
Then there was the DSJ quote that I felt put Formula 1 in perspective. I arrived late for a practice session at Zolder and joined Jenks in the pitlane. Who's quick, I asked? "They're all quick," he said. "Even the slow ones are quick..." We tend to judge the tail-enders as slow if they're half a second off pole, but get out there in one of those cars and try it yourself.
It wasn't all Formula 1 for me in 1996. In between times I drove nigh on £2m worth of splendid motorcars including the centre-seat McLaren F1 , the staggering price of which made up a vast proportion of this figure. I also drove John Coombs's yellow ex-Ecurie National Belge D-Type Jaguar and was driven round Le Mans in it on race morning by Paul Frere who had finished in the money with this very car. I asked when he had last driven around the Sarthe circuit. "In 1960," he said. "When we won..." I hoped he remembered that there was a right-hander after the pits because we were coming up on it at a fair lick. He was almost 80. An American journalist remarked "I wish I could drive as well as he does when I'm 80." And then he considered what he had said and added "Hell, I wish I could drive as well as he does NOW!"
The McLaren was wonderful to drive just to be able to say you'd done it without having to fork over the required king's ransom for the privilege. I liked the Barley Mow comment on the car when Les, one of the regulars, was killing time in Park Lane and parked on the double yellows outside the McLaren showroom and strolled in to look at the F1 . Could he sit in it, he asked? The receptionist said he couldn't. But I'm a prospective customer, says Les. "No you aren't," she said. "That's your Cavalier parked outside..."
The Bentley Continental T I drove to Silverstone was quite exquisite motoring in the grand manner. If you were in that price bracket, it'd be very much an impulse buy. You'd HAVE to have it. If you weren't in that price bracket it wouldn't matter because you'd NEVER be able to save up for it. Performance was light years ahead of what the world has come to expect from Crewe products. It delivered its urge in a sort of Savile Row-suited version of the manner in which the Schwarzenegger style Dodge Viper converted the power of its 10cylinder 8-litre engine to the road. I've never driven from Brussels to Spa in such a brief spasm of time!
Talking sensibly, or as sensible as it's reasonable to expect in this rarified world we scribes are allowed to live in, I would probably choose the Porsche 911 Carerra we drove to Goodwood for the Festival of Speed in June as the most practical, economical and value for money performance motoring we had this year. And it fits your garage.
The Goodwood Festival is a must-attend event in my calendar. Lord March deserves full credit for personally creating an event from nothing into the social event of the motoring year outside the Grand Prix. Maybe including the Grand Prix. He scarcely started with a sow's ear from which to create his superb silk purse because Goodwood House is a fairly imposing pile to use as a backdrop, but the weekend has become an international gathering of the good and the great, the rich and the famous in our world where, for the price of your entrance ticket, you have the chance to chat to famous racing drivers, stand alongside their cars and generally do all the things that Bernie Ecclestone banned years ago for those who like their racing to be expensive.
My only carp is that the hillclimb around which the weekend revolves is really the one aspect that causes total disruption for the punters and is liable to inflict serious injuries on one of its enthusiatic and mostly amateur competitors. Just because it has not happened yet doesn't mean it won't. Even with the best will in the world.
This is not to sell the Coys/Chrysler event at Silverstone short. The Coys weekend has the luxury of sprawl, the airfield area to spread acres of cars you wish you could afford and people you wish you could meet. Finding them is usually the problem. Goodwood is that much more intimate.
I'm not really into concours d'elegance events because cars, in my book, are made to be driven, not polished and preened to look better than when they left the factory. This year BMW flew a group of us to Laguna Seca where the Munich motorcars were the favoured marque and the weekend also featured the glitzy concours at Pebble Beach and the more down-home Concours ltaliana near Carmel. The Laguna races are California's answer to Coys and Goodwood, and as a busy total weekend it's worth the trip.
If Charles March created the Goodwood weekend, Murray Smith invented the Louis Vuitton concours in New York this year, closing down the Rockefeller Center for a car show. This is like closing Piccadilly for the weekend so that a bunch of international car people can indulge their hobby. It was GREAT! Smith is a British ex-pat with a finger in a veritable multitude of pies, shepherding Chrysler in their feel-good involvement with the old-car scene worldwide. I asked how he had managed to arrange such a comfortable and interesting display of cars.
"Simple," he said. "I wanted a car show that I'd like to go and see..."
My cherry-on-the-top for the year was driving the ex-works lightweight disc-braked C-Type Jaguar — the car Moss and Walker drove to second place at Le Mans in 1953 — down to my hometown of Timaru in New Zealand with owner Kerry Manolas. I wanted to re-create my early racing days when I passengered name-sake David Young to races in his ex-Peter Whitehead C-Type in the late 1950s. The performance of the Jaguar on the traffic-free country roads was a luxurious breath of fresh air to seal my 35th year as a motoring writer outside my native land.