Continental Notes, July 1971

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Nurburgring and the Targa Florio

Just recently two European circuits of long standing have been very much in the news, these being the Nurburgring in Western Germany and the Little Circuit of the Madonie in Sicily, where the Targa Florio is run. The neophiliacs of Grand Prix racing, to whom nothing is sacred or of any value except their own skins, finally caused the Nurburgring to be given a “short back and sides” and the result upset a lot of people, whereas if the truth be known the outcome is probably a good thing. The point that always puzzles me is that certain individuals who keep on and on about safety so that you wonder how they are brave enough to get out of bed, then go and drive racing cars at diabolical speeds and in the most impossible places and under the most impossible conditions, when common sense tells you that there are safer things to do than lie on your back in a monocoque full of petrol and start up a fragile racing engine just behind your head, let alone drive the thing along.

The Nurburgring has been in existence longer than most of the people racing on it today and had got to the point where it needed a complete overhaul, and while this was being done some of the age-old wounds and scars have been removed. The various Associations and Committees who keep banging on the International table seemed to think the Nurburgring had become dangerous, though I wonder if they didn’t mean to say “difficult”, and there was too much talk about safety of drivers and safety of spectators. Of course drivers have been killed at Nurburgring, von Delius, Collins, Marimon and Mitter to name but a few, but people have also been killed at Oulton Park, Mallory Park, Snetterton, Silverstone, Brands Hatch and everywhere that racing cars are raced; Monza, Francorchamps, Rouen, Zandvoort, and so on and so on.

Be that as it may, the reasons behind the upheaval at Nurburgring are now of the past, the job has been done, the whole place is much tidier and beneficial to all, and it is still the Nurburgring, one of the best circuits in Europe, if not the best from most drivers’ viewpoints. Most of the way round (and it is roughly 14 miles to the lap) the grass, the hedges, the trees and the earth banks have been bulldozed back from the edge of the road, leaving a flat area of earth on each side of the road. This has improved visibility for driver and spectator alike, and the road has been relaid and resurfaced so that it is beautifully smooth, and I hope they used those splendid British-made Barbour-Greene tarmac-laying machines that are in use all over Europe building new roads.

While doing this three old scars have been removed, like cutting off warts or corns that serve no purpose but one had learnt to live with. Just before the half-way point there was a double left-hander up over a brow, with an adverse camber, and while it was challenging and exciting for the driver and provided good material for photographers, I cannot recall a Grand Prix car flying off into the bushes at that point, though I do recall some unwieldy and badly-driven sports cars doing so. This section has been rebuilt and smoothed out and the trees on the outside of the bend removed, revealing quite a long drop down into the valley below, so quite rationally there are steel guard-rails on the edge of the drop. When cars did fly off at this point they got caught up in the upper branches of the trees and there was no possibility of falling into the valley below, now they will hit the guard-rails with a sickening thud, smashing wheels and suspension into fragments, except that with the double corner and the adverse cambered humps removed no-one will go off the road at that point. I sometimes wonder if we are not all going round in ever-decreasing circles, and we all know what happened to the Oozlum Bird.

A little further on round the circuit there is an area called Esbach Brünchen where you rushed downhill on a falling away left-hand sweep that you had to turn into long after you thought it was too late, and then you dived downhill to the right and over a step into the dip of the Brünchen Bridge, up the other side of the dip and round a climbing right-hand bend. It was here that the photographers with their “lying cameras” (see recent correspondence in Motor Sport) could catch cars with all four wheels off the ground, not aviating over a hump as the caption-writers would have you believe, but actually falling downwards off the ridge half-way down the hill.

All this was not dangerous, nor even spectacular to watch, but a freak of the lie of the land. As illustrated in our colour photographs last month all this nonsense has gone, the dip at the bridge has been filled in so that you can arrive at the climbing right-hand bend out of Brünchen going a lot faster than before. The third major modification is shortly before you join the final straight, at Schwalbenschwanz. This was a long fast section that you entered on a sweeping righthand bend, over a hump-back bridge and then you climbed up round a left-hand bend along a short straight and into another left-hander. While tidying up this section the hump over the bridge has been removed so that you can now really motor into the bends without having your suspension clanging and banging on the bump stops.

What the “short back and sides” has really done to the Nurburgring is to remove all its tradition and folk-lore, but it is still the Nurburgring. When new-boys went to the Eifel mountain circuit for the first time it was usual for an experienced member of the team to take them round in a touring car and introduce them to the folk-lore of the “racing line round the ring”. For example, on the downhill section at Kallenhard, on the way to the Wehrseifen bridge, you kept as close as possible to the left-hand hedge, even though the short bit of road you could see ahead was going off round a right-hand bend behind a hedge. All your instincts made you want to aim for the apex of the first corner, but if you did that you were all wrong, for there were three right-hand corners in succession and to be properly placed for the approach to the bridge you needed to be correctly placed on the third one. Now as you started this section your eventual apex was out of sight round an earth bank and a thick hedge, so the rule was “hug the left-hand hedge until you see a white kilometre stone appear on the right, then lock over and you’ll be on the right line for arriving in the right place at your hidden apex”. If you did all this wrong you were either terribly slow or you got all crossed-up braking for the Wehrseifen bridge, or you hit the bridge.

Now, with the hedges and earth banks all gone, and the white stone removed, you can see what you are supposed to be doing and in addition the spectators can now see you doing it. If you get it wrong you will still hit the concrete bridge. At another point, just after Pflanzgarten, you went over a blind brow into a dropping left-hand bend, very fast, with everything obscured by trees and bushes. The folk-lore said “aim for the little Esso sign on the outside brow and turn late”. That way you plunged down the left-hander on the right line and going very fast, which was important as some fast right-hand sweeps followed and a high entry-speed into this section was vital for a fast lap. Now the Esso sign has gone, as well as the trees and bushes, and you can see what you are supposed to be doing. This is the sort of thing that has happened all round the Nurburgring and it has probably made fast laps easier to achieve, once you have got the folk-lore out of your system.

It is all a bit like some of today’s drivers, like Stewart and Wisell; we know they have got ears under all that hair but we can’t actually see them. If they were given the “short back and sides” treatment at the barbers then we could actually see their ears, and they would still drive like Stewart and Wisell. (I’ll try and ignore the voice from the back saying “let’s shave D.S.J. while we are at it”.) In spite of what a lot of people say and write, I think the Nurburgring is still the Nurburgring.

The Targa Florio is another matter altogether. Here the GPDA have given up all hope of improvement (by their standards) and the Formula One manufacturers’ union doesn’t even know what it is all about. It is reporters and journalists who are stirring up trouble here, especially in the “penny-dreadfuls and comic-cuts”, and they are mostly people who have never raced in the Targa Florio or seldom driven round the 44-mile circuit, while some have never been to Sicily. People to whom the history and tradition of the Targa Florio means nothing at all, in fact, meddlers in something that really is no concern of theirs. These people don’t want to alter the Targa Florio, for some spurious benefit to somebody, they want to stop the whole thing. These “do gooders” are all too rife in the world these days, they do nothing objective themselves and spend their whole time trying to stop those who are enjoying themselves.

Fortunately when the Italians write out a law they put a lot of very small print in brackets at the bottom, and a recent law that said all motor racing on public roads would have to stop forthwith had some small print that said “unless the event was more than 30 years old and of particular technical, historical and traditional interest”. It is hardly necessary to mention that the Targa Florio was first run in 1906. This year’s event was the 55th to be run, and when the President of the Automobile Club of Palermo was asked how long he thought the Targa Florio would last, he replied “another 55 editions”.

This year an amateur driver was killed when he crashed his Renault-Alpine, and the “do-gooders” screamed that the race must be banned. They made the same screaming noises when a rider was killed in the motorcycle races in the Isle of Man. A poor unfortunate clubman was killed in a very minor race at Mallory Park and no-one said a word, not even that they were sorry. Mr. Citizen is killed on his way home from the office in his Blogmobile on the M1 and he is just a statistic at the Ministry of the Environment. After the accident in this year’s Targa Florio, the Sicilians and the Sicilian press said “The great and glorious victory of Vaccarella in our splendid Targa Florio was marred by the unhappy death of one of the competitors.” It is their country, their race, and I think they have the correct sense of proportion.

In one of the well-known Sunday papers a writer wrote a powerful piece about the Targa Florio and its future, but oddly enough he was nowhere to be seen in Sicily at the time of the race. This was self-evident when you read the article, for he ended up by saying that the fate of the Targa Florio was sealed anyway as an Autostrada was being built right across the circuit and this would prevent any future use of the Little Circuit of the Madonie. What a pity his Sunday paper did not send him to Sicily to have a look at what is going on. There is an Autostrada being built and it does run right across the circuit, but far from stopping the race it could be its saviour, for it crosses the coast road leg of the circuit on a large concrete bridge, and then runs inland up a long river valley and crosses the circuit again, near the half-way point, on the most enormous viaduct, mounted on concrete pylons that stick up out of the river bed like an army of Tryffids, and when completed will sail over the top of the Targa Florio road.

At the moment when the race is held all the traffic from Palermo is disrupted, but when the Autostrada is finished, which should be next year, it will mean that traffic will be able to flow across the island unhampered by the Targa Florio taking place on the normal roads below. I have always believed that it pays to go and look yourself, no matter what people say, and if you can’t see for yourself then “shut-up”, two simple words that a lot of people these days would do well to heed.

5-litre sports cars

It would seem that sports cars and Grand Prix cars are doomed to battle against each other on paper for the honour of being the fastest and/or best racing machinery, and at the moment the sports cars have won two recent rounds. At the end of each of these the FIA has stepped in with some rules to bring about equality in favour of the Grand Prix cars. Grand Prix cars were the first to be organised into a category, when France produced its regulations for the first Grand Prix in 1906, and it was not until 1923 that sports cars as a racing breed had any definition. By the end of the ‘twenties Grand Prix racing had almost died, leaving sports cars in charge of the major racing events, but then a new Formula in 1934 gave Grand Prix cars a shot in the arm and they dominated everything until 1939.

When Grand Prix racing began to die again in 1951, sports cars were in the ascendancy, but a quick down-grading of Grand Prix cars to Formula Two saved the day for the single-seaters. In the mid-‘fifties there was relative equality for a time and then both types of racing headed for a doldrum. Grand Prix revived on a low scale with the 1 1/2-litre Formula of 1961 but by 1965 sports cars had not only recovered but were forging ahead, and we saw the embarrassing situation where they were not only more powerful than Grand Prix cars but were beginning to be faster round some circuits. The FIA saved the day once more for Grand Prix with the 1966 Formula that doubled the engine size for Grand Prix cars, but once again the sports cars have risen up and today they are faster on a number of circuits than Grand Prix cars are, notably at Monza and Francorchamps, and the 162-m.p.h. lap record by a 917 Porsche sports car at the latter circuit is unlikely ever to be bettered by anyone.

Once again the FIA are going to save the day for Grand Prix racing, this time by cutting the sports cars down to size, from 5-litres to 3-litres as from the beginning of next year. Just why the sports cars keep rising above the Grand Prix cars in technical prowess is not clearly defined, except that so often the FIA rules for sports cars have been vague, whereas the Grand Prix rules have been binding. The last few years are a typical case in point, where one-off factory prototype sports cars were restricted to 3-litres, but production racing/sports cars could be 5-litres. When this rule was made the only likelihood of production sports cars were Lola and Ford, both using push-rod production V8 engines. Nobody expected Porsche and Ferrari to build the required production number of 25 pure racing prototypes with 5-litre engines and call them sports cars, on sale to the racing public. This they did, and the 917 Porsche has turned out to be the car of the decade, with record laps on all the fast circuits, over 160 m.p.h. at Francorchamps, over 150 m.p.h. at Monza and at Le Mans, with 600 b.h.p. and a speed potential approaching 230 m.p.h. A full factory-prepared 5-litre 917 Porsche makes s Grand Prix car of today look like a Formula Ford car.

The sports car keeps progressing, in spite of FIA set-backs every so often, mainly because large manufacturers with powerful Research and Development Departments are active in long-distance sports-car racing, whereas Grand Prix racing is supported by smaller specialist firms. Back in the ‘fifties Jaguar and Daimler-Benz put a lot of effort into sports-car racing, along with Aston Martin and Lancia. In the ‘sixties Ford (USA) really went to town on sports-car racing, and today Porsche have been doing the same thing. The immediate future will see Grand Prix cars and sports cars, one-off prototypes or production models, limited to 3-litres, and already this year Ferrari has shown the way things will go, with his flat-12-cylindered 3-litre sports car that is not even a “thinly-disguised Grand Prix car”, it is a pure Grand Prix car.

Alfa Romeo and Matra are running 3-litre sports cars, the Matra mechanically the same as their Grand Prix car and the Alfa Romeo sports/racing engine is being used in the Grand Prix March cars. Could we possibly be entering on a new phase of equality between Grand Prix and Sports Cars where the best of both worlds are combined into a one-type racing scene, with the scrapping of the Drivers’ World Championship and the Manufacturers’ Championship, and the introduction of an overall Racing Championship for the best team (and/or driver) in motor racing.

At present the Ferrari sports car is at best an all-enveloping-bodied single-seater and the Grand Prix car could easily become an open-wheeled 2-seater, so that next year Ferrari could choose the best combination of parts to suit the race. At Francorchamps or Le Mans he would use an all-enveloping-bodied flat-12-cylindered 3-litre and at Nurburgring, Brands Hatch or Monaco he would use an open-wheeled version. This could apply to Matra and Alfa Romeo as well, and it would not take the Grand Prix specialists long to adapt themselves to longer races, pit stops for petrol and tyres and driver changes. It would also solve the nonsense about Francorchamps being OK for sports cars but not OK for Grand Prix cars. Each circuit could have its Grand Prix of Endurance once a year, and each race could be a good one, requiring a week of serious preparation, and would be an event of some importance.

The projected Rothmans 50,000 free-for-all race in 1972 at Brands Hatch is obviously planned along these lines, and already there are other organisers in Europe who have been attracted by the idea, no doubt feeling that Grand Prix racing and Sports-Car racing as they are today are perhaps becoming played-out.—D. S. J.