The past month saw the motor-racing world receive two very great setbacks. First there was the tragic death of Alberto Ascari, one of the greatest drivers of the present age, if not of all time, and, secondly, the indescribable tragedy at Le Mans, when the Mercédès-Benz of Pierre Levegh went into the crowd and killed more than 80 people, poor Levegh losing his life as well.
Ascari lost his life driving a sports Ferrari while practising for the Supercortemaggiore race at Monza, and only four days after his lucky escape from drowning when his Lancia plunged into the harbour at Monte Carlo. There are people who say that he was not fully recovered from that incident and should not have been driving the Ferrari, but whether that is true or not will never be known. The motor-racing world has lost one of its finest drivers, and no matter what the cause he cannot be replaced. Only 36 years old, Ascari was at the top of the Grand Prix field and only equalled by Fangio, though few people cared to state any difference between the two.
Starting his first race with a prototype Ferrari, built in 1940, Ascari began to make his name with Maserati cars when racing began again in 1946, later turning to Ferrari, with whom he had his greatest successes, becoming World Champion in 1952 and 1953, driving Ferrari cars. With the beginning of the new Formula 1 he left Ferrari and joined the new Lancia team, doing very little racing during 1954, but this year the Turin firm were well in their stride and Ascari was still at the top of his form, leading the team to victory in Turin and Naples and with a near-win in Pau. Having devoted his life to leading the new Lancia Grand Prix team, it is all the more tragic that he should have been killed in a sports Ferrari. If Ascari is not remembered as the greatest driver of the post-war era, he will certainly remain the greatest Italian driver of this age.
The catastrophe at Le Mans was one of those incidents that seem certain to happen once every so often, and while it was without doubt the worst accident in the history of motor racing, it is not possible to put the blame on to any particular person, or any particular circumstance. The drivers involved were all experienced sports-car drivers, and the public involved were all in their rightful places, apparently well protected from any accident, and everyone was open to the risks that are always attendant at a motor-race meeting. Full praise must be given to the French authorities, who, in reply to the hysterical screamings of the daily paper journalists, said that there could be no possible thought of banning motor racing on the public roads, for it was now not only vital to the world’s motor industry, but was also an important part of modern civilisation. Because an aeroplane crashes, or two trains meet head-on, no one thinks of stopping flying or banning rail travel. Equally, because a sprinter in the 100 yards dies of heart failure, no one wants to stop athletic events. We who are interested in motor racing, either as a sport, a business, a science or a way of life, have suffered a severe blow with this tragic accident at Le Mans, but we must stand firm against the unknowledgeable ravings of people who are not even interested in motor racing. There is much to be learned from this accident and, as Charles Faroux pointed out, we learned a lot from the ill-fated Paris-Madrid race of 1903 and we shall certainly not overlook any lessons to be learned from the Le Mans race of 1955.
Turning to more normal aspects of motor racing, the Maserati team thought up a very crafty move at the recent European Grand Prix. The head mechanic, Gino Bertocchi, was entered as reserve driver for the team of four cars, and for a time the reason for this was not clear. He can certainly drive a Grand Prix Maserati, and quite well at that, but for actual racing purposes there are others better qualified. However, when Jean Behra’s car had trouble and came into the pits to be repaired, Behra got into the pit and Bertocchi and two mechanics worked on the car. The officials, recognising the head mechanic, as such, forbade him to touch the car while the other two were working on it, for the regulations permit only two mechanics to work on a car at the pits. Bertocchi’s reply was that he was not a mechanic but the reserve driver and consequently was permitted to go on working. A very crafty move that gave Maseratis three pairs of skilled hands to work on a car in the pits and the regulations were not broken.
Earlier this season when looking at the workings going on at Monza I gained the impression that the new speed track was not going to have very much banking on the two large-radius turns, but another visit to the Autodromo has dispelled all such ideas. In less than two months the north turn has taken shape and the concrete banking is similar to that used at Brooklands and Montlhèry. It is built up on reinforced concrete piles and, to avoid the top edge having to be an undesirable height, the centre of the banking is actually at ground level, with the earth scooped out to permit the lower half of the banking to run below ground level. This will mean that a fast car will not have to climb up the banking as it enters, nor will it have to drop down when it rejoins the straight. Naturally, centrifugal force will propel the car upwards a certain amount, but it should make driving at high speed round the banked track a lot easier.
Another circuit that is receiving improvements is the Reims permanent circuit, which uses existing public main roads, in the same way as at Le Mans and Francorchamps. All these three circuits are improved each year and everything about them is of a permanent nature, but when racing is not taking place they are used by normal traffic, being part of the national road system. At Reims the line of pits have now been extended right up to the large Dunlop footbridge that crosses the track after the start. Built of concrete, with a balcony above, the thirty new pits will certainly ease the situation for the forthcoming 12-hour race. The only doubt about the new arrangement is that cars will be leaving the end pits to drive off into the long right-hand curve that is over the brow of the hill. Even the big cars arrive at this point at maximum speed and, if other cars are going to be joining the circuit at this point, it is going to call for great care on the part of all concerned.
It is always interesting to talk to an intelligent Grand Prix driver, one who is capable of analysing what he does in certain situations or the differences in handling between various cars. Many fast drivers do everything on reflex-action and afterwards are quite incapable of reconstructing incidents or techniques verbally. They know well enough what they did, but have no idea of why they did it; similarly they know which car is faster or easier to drive round a given bend but they have no idea why. When you have a driver who knows the reasons and the answers, and is capable of writing it all down on paper, then you have a valuable asset to the motor-racing world. Such a driver is the Belgian Paul Frère, and readers of Les Sports in Belgium, or L’Equipe in France, can have the very great satisfaction of reading Frère’s own experiences under actual racing conditions. In the recent Belgian Grand Prix he finished fourth, driving a Ferrari Tipo 555, the new “Squalo,” and he wrote that he was extremely content with the handling of the car. In practice he drove the earlier type Ferrari, and pronounced the new one better, giving sound technical reasons to add to his own personal experiences. Ferrari has been struggling along with the “Squalo” for more than a year, trying to convince his drivers that it was a good car, but that it required a different technique of handling compared with the old one. Most of the drivers were not prepared to alter their preconceived ideas of driving, though Gonzalez began to master the car at the end of last season. Now Frère has been able to give his opinion of the car under racing conditions and supports Ferrari in the belief that for Grand Prix circuits there is not much wrong with the handling, providing the driver will adapt himself to the car.
In case anyone should think that Frère is merely a journalist dabbling at Grand Prix driving, one should remember his very fast practice laps at Nürburgring with the Grand Prix Gordini, his speeds round the Francorchamps circuit with impossible cars such as Chryslers, his win this year on the same circuit with a works DB3S, making new Monza Ferraris look slow, and only two weeks ago his brilliant second place, with Peter Collins, at Le Mans, again in a DB3S Aston Martin. While Frère can hardly hope to achieve the top rank among Grand Prix drivers, he can, nevertheless, drive fast enough to extend a modern racing car to the full and, being a first-class journalist, he is a valuable asset to the followers of motor racing. We have plenty of good journalists who can hardly drive, and many good drivers who can hardly write, but a combination of the two is rare indeed. In addition, he is a journalist who is not afraid to tell the truth, even if it goes against himself, for in the recent Belgian Grand Prix he was given the record lap at one point in the race, with a time of 4 min. 22 sec., and in a recent article he disproved the possibility of this. Throughout the race he had been lapping consistently in times around 4 min. 32 sec., knowing full well that he was never losing or gaining more than two seconds on any lap. The official timekeepers gave his lap time consistently at 4 min. 32 sec. or thereabouts, until at one point he did 4 min. 22 sec., and his next lap was 4 min. 42 sec. As his best practice time, on a clear, dry track, was only 4 min. 26 sec., the answer to the record lap by Paul Frère is obvious and he deserves every credit for pointing this out himself in one of his articles.
The timekeeper’s job is indeed a thankless one and that more mistakes are not made is always a source of amazement, but at the recent Le Mans race, when the Levegh incident happened, Fangio was timed as having passed in front of Levegh’s car, when in actual fact he was a long way behind it. Another difficulty that is always arising is when a skilled person such as Ugolini, the Ferrari team chief, or Geier, the Mercédès-Benz timekeeper, gets a lap time for one of their cars differing as much as two seconds on a 4½-minute lap from the official time. The official timekeepers have numerous cars to watch and they can only go by the numbers painted on the side, whereas the team chiefs know their cars and drivers intimately and are concentrating on one car alone. But nothing can be done about such things and the official times must always count, but there are often many rude words spoken quietly about the practice times at certain races. — D.S.J.