Matters of Moment, January 2016

The blustering wind and rain of Storm Abigail whipped around the six men as they mounted the impromptu podium in front of a bleak seascape. They huddled close on the three simple boxes dropped on the grass, then unfurled the Tricolore in silent memorial. The official Wales Rally GB podium would take place later, at the event’s Deeside HQ, but this seemingly spontaneous moment at the end of the Brenig Power Stage was more poignant, and entirely in keeping with a branch of the sport that retains the unpretentious charm that has always defined it.

The result marked a Wales Rally GB hat trick for triple world champion Sébastien Ogier, but the Frenchman was understandably in no mood to celebrate in the wake of the atrocities carried out in Paris. Ogier, runner-up Kris Meeke, third placed Andreas Mikkelsen and their co-drivers pitched an emotional, dignified tribute quite perfectly.

On the other side of the world, another podium was also conducted with suitably muted celebrations. But the three drivers in Interlagos were somewhat less united. Whatever has played out behind closed doors between frosty team-mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, this triple world champion’s studied avoidance in acknowledging the man who’d beaten him fair and square – for the second race in succession – did him little credit.

Still, Hamilton’s complaint in the podium interview about the difficulty of overtaking in this era of Formula 1 on this superb circuit did have some justification. Others, most notably the brilliant Max Verstappen, had pulled off passes into the Senna Esses. But in identical cars with equal power and on matching Mercedes strategies, Hamilton was powerless in his quest to topple Rosberg. Judging by the response of Motor Sport’s readers the following morning, his frustration was shared around the world.

From pages 29 to 41 in this issue, Grand Prix editor Mark Hughes offers a snapshot summary of Formula 1 right now – and it makes for uneasy reading. 

The developing story about a proposed alternative power source for undernourished independent teams looks set to be of huge significance, if FIA president Jean Todt and Bernie Ecclestone – for once united in an uneasy alliance – can push this idea into reality against the wishes of Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda.

The huge cost of the sophisticated V6 hybrids for ‘indie’ teams is clearly a problem, but this is hardly news. It’s odd that it’s taken so long for Todt and his governing body to threaten action, long after the horse has bolted. Why didn’t the FIA legislate on costs from the start? Stopping manufacturers spending what they want was always a tall order, but capping powertrain prices to prevent them from passing on that expense to customer teams might have saved some pain.

Now we could end up with a two-tier F1 (hardly unprecedented in Grand Prix racing) that will require serious technical tinkering to create anything close to a level playing field. ‘Balance of performance’, upon which the success of GT and prototype sports car racing is based, has always been a dirty concept in the supposedly superior stratosphere of F1. Not any more, it seems.

It’s sad that the hybrid V6s are often made the scapegoat for F1’s ills. They represent incredible technical advances, in keeping with Grand Prix racing’s best traditions, but what should have been a positive era for motor racing’s pinnacle is turning into a disaster because of poor governance. At a recent awards ceremony at the RAC in London, at which Williams Advanced Engineering was presented with the club’s Simms Medal for technical innovation, the company’s managing director Craig Wilson summed up the frustration succinctly.

“Engineering isn’t promoted enough, and F1 hasn’t helped by kicking hybrid technology to death,” he said. “It’s absolutely a missed opportunity. 

“The hybrids [represent] very innovative and clever technology. Yes, it is very expensive – the powertrain is 30 per cent more efficient than the old V8 engines and that comes at a cost. The FIA is now reacting, but that should have been the case from the beginning. We could do with Formula 1 getting its act together.”

Elsewhere in this issue, we recall a time when F1 heralded a regulation change that could surely be described as universally popular. Doubling engine sizes from 1.5 to 3 litres in 1966 took Grand Prix racing on a route that everyone – bar Coventry Climax – wanted to follow. Fifty years on, the contrast to F1 today could not be starker. 

Our Steve McQueen cover story in last month’s issue sparked quite a response, which was entirely predictable. On this evidence, new documentary The Man & Le Mans will surely prove a hit.

But Motor Sport was not the only magazine to look ahead to the new release by reflecting on the movie that inspired it. Our friends at French title Grand Prix also focused on McQueen, with an eerily similar approach to its cover (above)! And editor Pascal Dro contacted me with some excitement to tell me about his ‘scoop’ which will surely only add to the legend of the film.

For years, speculation has lingered that McQueen did indeed scratch the itch that was clearly bothering him, by actually driving in the 24 Hours during the 1970 edition. The trouble is, much like the Ed Hugus ‘third driver’ theories surrounding Ferrari’s last Le Mans win in 1965, no one has reliably been able to corroborate the tale. But now a witness has come forward.

Willy Braillard, then 23, shared a Porsche 911 with Jean-Pierre Gaban at Le Mans in 1970… from a pit adjacent to that of Solar Productions’ Porsche 908 camera car, which captured so much wonderful footage during the race 
in the hands of Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge.

“Our pit was next to Solar’s and we saw them at work, making frequent stops, changing reels and then rejoining,” Braillard told Dro. “And then it began to rain. Jean-Pierre had said to me previously that he’d stay behind the wheel if conditions were treacherous, that we couldn’t exceed 80 or 90kph at that point. The weather was awful.

“During all of this, Steve McQueen was coming and going – so much so that by late in the evening people weren’t paying much attention to the fact he was there. And that’s when I saw him don his helmet, climb into the Porsche and leave the pits. I’m absolutely certain it happened: I saw it with my own eyes. He must have spent almost half an hour out there before coming back in.”

It would have been in character for McQueen to defy the insurers who’d baulked his real-life Le Mans ambitions. But if it happened as Braillard describes, he succeeded in hoodwinking more than a few suits in Hollywood.