Reflections on the Belgian Grand Prix
After the cut-and-thrust of the street-racing of Monte Carlo the Grand Prix scene moved to the exacting, high-speed circuit of Francorchamps, near Spa, the finest and purest Grand Prix circuit in use today. The slap-happy frivolity of a dice round-the-houses has no place at Francorchamps, nor should the seriousness of a full-length Grand Prix race be the place for a lot of Hollywood “hoo-ha” and film-making, yet the Belgian G.P. was almost overshadowed by an abundance of “film-fakery” that generated an overwhelming air of disbelief about the whole meeting. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer are endeavouring to make a film about Grand Prix racing as it is today, though the story would seem to be about 10 years out of date, and in men, materials and equipment they seemed to outnumber the true world of Grand Prix racing as supplied by Ferrari, B.R.M., Lotus, Cooper, etc.
I sincerely believe that the atmosphere that built up during the week prior to the Belgian Grand Prix, and during practice was part-cause of the holocaust that occurred on the first lap of the race due to freak weather conditions. By 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon before the race started, the Hollywood atmosphere of unreality had unknowingly soaked into a vast proportion of the people concerned with tne serious business of Grand Prix racing. The Francorchamps circuit is no place for beginners or the light-hearted, especially in a Grand Prix car capable of lapping at 140 m.p.h. or more, and for such an exacting race everyone from the newest junior mechanic to the World Champion driver needs to be mentally adjusted to the seriousness of this type of racing. With the overwhelming and all-powerful influence of the Hollywood dollar and the film-making bally-hoo, I am sure that a lot of people were psychologically maladjusted to the real job in hand. Conditions of driving at Francorchamps are always treacherous because of the high speed and the exacting nature of the trace of the circuit, which follows natural land contours and not man-made geometrical radii.
The “cast” of a real Grand Prix race consists of many more people than the 55 drivers involved, for there are mechanics, technicians, designers, team Managers, trade specialists, industry representatives, friends, relations, car owners, publicity people, journalists, photographers and hundreds more people besides, all of whom have a regular and rightful place in the true Grand Prix scene. To introduce into the paddock and pits a duplicate set of film extras posing as these people not only caused overcrowding and confusion, but caused a lot of people to become very irritable, and undoubtedly took the fine edge off their concentration. The Ferrari and B.R.M. mechanics were constantly confused by M.G.M.’s set of film extras posing as mechanics, valuable space was taken up by cameras and equipment, the pits were overcrowded, and the Brabham team had to become very short-tempered in order to get on with their work, while Team Lotus, who had enough troubles of their own, had great difficulty in unloading their equipment into their pits and were being harassed by officials who wanted the pit-front cleared so that Hollywood could do some filming before the race began. At a time when the Grand Prix teams could have profited from a little peace and quiet, or the drivers could have done a warm-up lap, the circuit was being used to film a bunch of plywood and fibre-glass imitation Grand Prix cars and equally pseudo Grand Prix drivers. Consequently the whole pits and starting area were chaos and confusion, and even when the fifteen Grand Prix cars were lined up on the grid there must have been people who were still wondering whether the whole thing was serious or not. Overhead helicopters were lurking with powerful cameras at the ready, at the back of the grid a camera-car was waiting to go off with the competitors, and Bondurant’s Team Chamaco-Collect 2-litre B.R.M. was painted and faked to look like a McLaren and carried No. 24, which was Bruce McLaren’s racing number, he being an unfortunate nonstarter.
Since breakfast time weather conditions in the Ardennes had been very unsettled and rain clouds had been hovering over the start area. As the cars were assembled on the “dummy-grid” it was announced that heavy rain was already falling at Stavelot and the hilly nature of the circuit is known to produce treacherous conditions of rain-soaked surfaces halfway round blind bends. while sloping fields will gather rain and disgorge it across the road in a matter of minutes. Under the best conditions a driver needs to be attuned mentally 100% to the job in hand when racing at Francorchamps, and due to the chaos and confusion of film-making throughout the previous few days I am sure that the majority of people were not 100% psychologically adjusted to the Belgian Grand Prix, although I doubt if anyone realised the fact at the time.
On the actual starting line there was a nonsense between officials and Team Lotus mechanics who were endeavouring to put a chock under Clark’s front wheel, to hold the car on the downhill start-line. This distracted Clark’s attention from the starter, who dropped the flag prematurely, and the Lotus was left behind in the rush down to the Eau Rouge bridge; in the tension of trying to recover Clark broke his engine. Graham Hill, who was alongside Clark in the fourth row also made a poor start and was near the back of the field as they went up the hill to Burnenville, on dry roads but with approaching rain ahead. I would suggest that overall artificially inspired tenseness, together with natural apprehension over the unsettled weather conditions, took the fine edge off most people’s reflexes and the result was that on the descent of the Burnenville hillside, in the long and very fast sweeping right-hand bend, there was a melee involving Bonnier, Spence, Bondurant, Siffert, Hulme and Hill, who formed the second half of the field, caused by losing control on a stream of rain-water soaking the track. Bondurant and Hill avoided contact with anyone or any thing, more by luck than judgement, and were able to continue. Meanwhile the leaders, in the order Surtees, Rindt, Brabham, Bandini and Stewart were travelling very fast down the Masta straight towards the ess-bend in the middle of it, where there was another portion of flooded track. For all but the leader the only thing to be seen was a cloud of spray from the car in front, and Rindt hit the water and spun for a great number of revolutions, miraculously staying in the middle of the road, so that Brabham was confronted alternately by the front and then the rear of the works Cooper-Maserati. Stewart also spun on the water, but unfortunately went off the road, demolishing a post which wrecked the B.R.M. but mercifully it finished up in a ditch the right way up. He was trapped in the bent cockpit and soaked in petrol from a burst fuel tank. Hardly had this happened before Bondurant arrived, thankful at not hitting the spinning cars at Burnenville, and he spun on the wet track and finished upside-down across a ditch on the opposite side of the road to Stewart, and within seconds Graham Hill arrived, also thankful at having missed spinning cars once more, after the Indianapolis mix-up, and braking for the ess-bend he suddenly found himself going backwards at well over 100 m.p.h., to end up in the straw bales on the outside of the bend. Imagine his astonishment when he got out of his car to see Stewart’s car in the ditch alongside him, with the driver struggling to get out. The Masta ess-bend is a comparatively deserted part of the circuit and everything had happened so quickly that few people had begun to arrive, while officials were still trying to sort out the business at Burnenville, where luckily no-one had been hurt. Bondurant was very fortunate to get away with bruises and cuts about his face, and was able to extricate himself from the overturned B.R.M., and he ran across the road to help Graham Hill extricate his young Scottish team-mate from the wrecked works B.R.M. This took quite a time as it involved removing the steering wheel with the aid of spanners supplied by a spectator, for by now people had reached the scene, and between them the two drive’s lifted Stewart out of the car, still conscious but suffering from a damaged shoulder and most uncomfortable due to his petrol soaked overalls. Hill stayed with him until an ambulance took him to the circuit hospital and then drove his own B.R.M., which was undamaged, back to the pits. By now he had lost more than four laps on the leaders and there was little hope of even qualifying as a finisher, so he retired from the race. Of the group involved at Burnenville Siffert had crept on but his engine expired at Stavelot, and Hulme limped back to the pits with his right-front suspension very bent. It was seemingly unbelievable that the sum total of injuries were cuts and bruises to Bondurant and a shoulder injury to Stewart. The gloom and apprehension in the pits area was indescribable, for without …. ….(continued)