Reflections in the forest of the Ardennes

The Belgian Grand Prix

Now we shall never know. One of the most interesting talking points this season has been the relative merits of Grand Prix cars and sports cars, particularly the new 5-litre Group 5 sports cars, the 917 Porsche and the 512S Ferrari. The comparison of Grand Prix cars and sports cars has always been a topic of conversation among motoring enthusiasts and many a discussion has centred around how fast a Grand Prix car would go round the Le Mans circuit for example. When the Monza sports-car race was held on the road circuit this year, instead of the combined road and banked track circuit as in the past, we had a direct comparison and the big sports cars were lapping at Grand Prix speeds. Then came the 1,000-kilometre race at Spa, with Rodriguez going round the fast Francorchamps circuit in 3 min. 16.5 sec., an average of 160.3 m.p.h. and we were all agog to see whether 1970 Grand Prix cars could improve on that figure. For reasons which we will discuss later the GPDA forced the use of a chicane at Malmedy corner so there was no possibility of a direct comparison, and, as I said, now we shall never know. A pity, for such things are the spice of motor racing to the enthusiast. It was rather like this when the French GP went to Le Mans in 1967, and we all thought it was going to settle the discussion about Grand Prix cars down the Mulsanne straight, but the race was held on the "Mickey Mouse" Bugatti circuit and we were all cheated. Do not imagine I am against the GPDA chicane on the Spa circuit, far from it, for I was never very keen on the removal of sharp corners that circuits suffered from during the 1950s. At that time the Spa circuit went to an acute uphill hairpin at Stavelot which was very interesting, as I know from experience, having raced there in those days, and I was very sorry when the long flat-out Stavelot bend was built to by-pass the hairpin. The reintroduction of sharp corners calling for heavy braking and gear-changing is really rather amusing after all the efforts to eliminate them in the past. Mind you, the introduction of the chicane at the Malmedy corner had me rather baffled, for during all the GPDA hoo-hah about Spa the word was that the circuit was too fast and too dangerous, and I assumed the drivers' safety committee were ticking about the speeds reached on the downhill Masta straight. When I heard stories about a chicane being introduced I assumed it would be halfway along this fast section, as some circuits had done way back in the mid-thirties when GP cars were approaching 180 m.p.h. When I saw that the additional "artificial corner" was at Malmedy I was confused, and watching and listening on that part of the circuit during practice it was obvious that the faster cars were reaching their normal maximum speed, give or take an m.p.h. or two, well before they reached the ess-bend at Masta. The normal Malmedy corner which leads on to the long straight stretch is a fast right-hand sweep calling for keen judgement and a lot of skill to take fast and correctly, as I well know, having been on the grass verge on the left-hand side of the road at the exit, flat-out on a racing motorcycle. I had endeavoured to follow another motorcycle racer round Malmedy on full throttle during a Belgium GP (oh yes, I raced on the Francorchamps circuit for five years before I became a journalist) and discovered my judgement was not as good as his, and had some exciting moments on the grass bank before I wrestled the machine back on to the road. This corner is part of a road junction, where the road from Malmedy village joins the main road, and there is a grass island at the junction, so the GPDA "safety move" consisted of going round the grass island, thus bringing the cars down to about 50 or 60 m.p.h., instead of flat-out through the right-hand sweep. Later, when I saw Jackie Stewart, who is the leader of the anti-Spa brigade, I asked him what purpose the GPDA chicane served, apart from adding some braking and gear-changing to the scene, as the cars seemed to be going just as fast down the Masta straight. His reply was that the chicane made Malmedy corner safer. I was speechless. It was the first time I had heard that Malmedy was a dangerous corner. "Oh yes", said the pious little Scot, "it was very dangerous". I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, I was so confused. I thought the danger they were bleating about was the high speed, and suddenly here I was being told a corner was dangerous. In my humble opinion a corner is as dangerous (or safe) as the driver cares to make it. When race planning with those two Champions, Eric Oliver on sidecars and Stirling Moss on sports cars, if we thought a corner was dangerous we didn't have it altered, we said "That one is dodgy, we must treat it with respect". So Malmedy corner is dangerous. The leader of the GPDA milk-and-water brigade and his chums have made some remarkable statements in the past, but that is the best yet. His "bossman" Ken Tyrrell stated categorically that the Spa-Francorchamps circuit is too fast and too dangerous and will be finished in two years' time. I fail to see what speed or danger has to do with Ken Tyrrell, who does all his operating from the pits. If he managed Stewart's racing from a passenger seat I would take note of what he said. One final note of the "dangerous Spa circuit", to quote one pre-race article. I read a lot of pre-race blurb about the Belgian GP and most of it was written by journalists who have never raced, and certainly never raced round the Spa circuit. These young and enthusiastic writers were using words of which they did not know the meaning, such as "dangerous", "terrifying" and "perilous", and reading their prose recalled an article written recently by T. G. Moore, who used to edit Motor Sport many years ago, with W. S. Braidwood. He said that when they were starting to write they were having difficult times and were not helped when they heard someone say "the paper was being run by journalists who had never sat behind the wheel of a racing car". They put this right by buying a Frazer Nash and taking part in the classic events of those days. They did not win anything, but they had a much better idea of what racing was all about.

Let us forget for a while the Stewarts, Rindts, Beltoise and those they influence, and take a closer look at the chap who won the Belgian GP for BRM and set up the sports-car lap record in a Porsche 917, that must have been doing 25 m.p.h. more on maximum speed down the Masta straight than the BRM. Accurate knowledge of what goes on at meetings of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association is not forth coming as their Secretary does not impart information to the Press, but it was said that when they had a vote (it's all democratic these days I am told) on whether they should race at Spa if it rained, there was only one driver who refused to join the strike movement and that was Rodriguez; he said he was prepared to race at Spa under any conditions. Now whether the GPDA meeting had a hundred per cent attendance or not I do not know, nor whether all those present actually voted, that is beside the point, but the chap who won the Belgian Grand Prix 1970 was the only one to go against the GPDA motion of "We do not race at Spa if it rains". There is some justice in this crazy world I am glad to say.

I am often told that we should listen to what the top drivers have to say as they are important to the world of motor racing. Personally, I think that most of what they say is influenced and biased by their business sense, and this is nothing new, as you can see by reading things that drivers said, or were reputed to have said, back in the 1930s and 1920s. I prefer to listen to the not-so-famous, who have no big business deals or managers to butter-up and be nice to. Earlier at Spa, during the 1,000-kilometre sports-car meeting, there was a saloon-car race and among all the Continentals with BMWs and Alfa Romeos was a Vauxhall Viva giving as good as it was getting. It was driven by an English clubman, one Gerry Marshall, and he was really enjoying himself and saying that at long last he was discovering what motor racing was all about, having never experienced anything so marvellous as the Spa circuit. At the Grand Prix the Swedish driver Ronnie Peterson was having his first experience of Spa, and he was in Colin Crabbe's March 701, lapping at 3 min. 32.8 sec.- about 148-m.p.h. average speed - and he was enjoying it so much he kept wanting to go out for more practice, just for the satisfaction and enjoyment he was getting from it all. Another driver who was enjoying the Spa circuit was Derek Bell, who was really upset about his Brabham having to retire on the first lap. He had driven a Ferrari 512S in the 1,000-kilometre sports-car race and was looking forward to a race in the Grand Prix Brabham. It was his idea of motor racing. Now if any of these thee drivers reach the top, will their outlook change? Are they just irresponsible young men with no experience and no sense of what is right? Personally I don't think so. It would be superfluous to ask Rodriguez or Ickx about the Spa circuit, they may not be World Champions, but they know what motor racing is all about, and they can win races.

During the race the loud speaker announced that Brabham had suffered a "tete-a-queue" at the chicane, and when he appeared at the end of the lap he had certainly lost some ground. After the race I asked him what the spin at Malmedy had been caused by and he explained that he did not spin, but missed his braking point and had to take the escape road, turning round in a wide sweep, and then having to wait while a couple of other competitors went through the corner. He went on to explain why he missed his braking point, and that was much more interesting. The over-shooting took place on lap 9, when he was in third place and dropped him to fifth place, behind Stewart and Rindt, and the cause was a large piece of rag. During the opening laps he could feel something down amongst the pedals that he thought should not be there, and on the straights he twisted himself down into the cockpit and could see a large piece of rag appearing from above the pedals. This had obviously been left on top of the monocoque before the start, and when the nose-cowling and cockpit top had been put on the rag had been overlooked and left inside. It was now working its way down amongst the pedals, and for a number of laps Brabham tried to hook it out with his left foot as he went down the straight at 180 m.p.h. On each lap he was making more progress and eventually he could reach it with his hand, and then the wind caught it and he realised it might suddenly blow up into his face. It was while all this was going on that he missed his braking point for the chicane and had to go up the escape road. As he set off again he got the rag out and was about to let the wind whip it away out of the cockpit when he remembered there were other cars behind him, so he raised himself up in the seat and stuffed the rag under his backside and sat on it for the rest of the race. And we often think the drivers just sit in their cars with their foot flat on the throttle down the straights! I only hope the Brabham mechanic who left the rag there in the first place wasn't the one who told me after the race that Stommelen was not having gear-change problems, and five minutes later came into the Brabham van to hear Ron Tauranac explaining to me how Stommelen was having trouble with gear-changing throughout the race.

There are people who think that anyone in a country other than England cannot possibly know anything about motor racing and certainly will never learn. Earlier this year, at the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, I found that at each marshal's post there was a group of Belgians observing. The BRSCC's marshals' organisation had invited them over to see how we run flag-marshalling, etc., and later on, after the 1,000-kilometre race of Spa a number of drivers commented favourably on the standard of flag-marshalling, so it was obvious that the visit in March had paid off. The same comments were passed after the Grand Prix, which must be very encouraging for those people behind the scenes who work away at these things and make a study of race-circuit marshalling and pass on their knowledge to others. In the centre of the circuit, high up on a hill overlooking the Burnenville corner and that half of the circuit right down to Stavelot, was a vast military field hospital, big enough to look after an army, and standing by were ambulances and helicopters, while a great radio network was connected to all parts of the 14.1-kilometre circuit. All across the farmland on the inside of the circuit are a maze of little lanes and tracks and these were all signposted up to the encampment. It was a medical emergency service that any fighting army would have been proud of, and thankfully it did not have to be put into operation.

One of the ominous things about the Belgian GP was the way Cosworth V-8 engines were breaking, and it was a sort of climax to what has been happening all season, made noticeable now by the fact that a V12 BRM engine won the race. Racing engines will always break at some time or another, but when there are ten or eleven of the same type in a race and one of them wins, this tends to cover up for the five or six that broke and there is a tendency to think all is well, the Cosworth V8 is still winning. Only those whose engines break know at what cost the victory was obtained. This time there were broken engines and the best that Cosworth achieved was second place, behind a 12-cylinder engine. This was the first time the Cosworth engine was beaten since the 1968 French GP, when Ickx won at Rouen with a V12 Ferrari, which is a record that Cosworth can be proud of, and this rare victory by a V12 engine might be a fluke or it might be significant, but all is not completely well in the Cosworth V8 camp, especially as regards the customers, for a broken crankshaft can be an expensive thing to happen. A lot of people in the pits at Spa had some small consolation when they saw Stewart's engine break in a spectacular way right in front of them, for there has always been an uneasy feeling that the Tyrrell team got better engines than others. Few people would give the Tyrrell preparation and Stewart's driving credit for the lack of drama they have with engines and there was a sigh of relief when Stewart's engine broke, for it proved that they can get a bad engine just like anyone else.

Before the race, and indeed at previous races as well, the Yardley Perfume publicity boys put out a race-card, with a lap chart, starting grid, history and so on, that was better than the official programme in its layout, and headed "Yardley-Team BRM news-briefing", with an obvious accent on their own drivers and cars. The only pity of it was that no-one had checked it or read the proofs before it was printed, so we got Cosworth DSE engines, Burneville and La Carriers, instead of Burnenville and Carrieres, and they had them right on the map, and the fact that Seaman and Scott-Brown died at Blanchimont corner, when in fact it was at the next corner, Clubhouse, and the memorial stone to Seaman is still there, hidden beneath the guard-rails. The race distance was given as 245.28 m.p.h., the Monaco GP was left off the list of races already run in the Championship series and they were one out on their numbering on the lap chart of "laps to go". On the list of past winners they went to a lot of trouble to point out that Clark and McLaren were dead, but ignored the fact that so were Collins, Ascari, Farina, Rosier, Wimille, Caracciola, Nuvolari and "Williams" as well as Antonio Ascari. As the Yardley-Team BRM won the race I suppose they will have to be forgiven, but it is not really good enough. It was interesting that the BRM's "speed potential of over 200 m.p.h." turned out to be 301 k.p.h. by Rodriguez (186.92 m,p.h. by normal conversion, 186.62 m.p.h. by the Yardley-Team BRM method) timed by an electric set-up operated by Matra engineers just before the entrance to the ess-bend on the Masta straight. The next fastest were Ickx (Ferrari) at 296 k.p.h. and Stewart at 295 k.p.h. Amon was doing 294 k.p.h., so he must have been scratching round the corners to stay so close to the winning BRM.

With fine weather from start to finish, a superb race run at record speed and a new F1 lap record in spite of the altered Malmedy corner, I can't help thinking of the old fable of the boy who cried "Wolf"; or are today's racing fraternity too smart and clever to read old-fashioned fables?—D. S. J.