Reflections in the rain at Monaco

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At some circuits rain can cause me utter despair and despondency, and can take away all the enjoyment of a motor race, but at Monte Carlo a little rain never does anyone any harm. At the best of times Monte Carlo is so artificial that it is hard to take it seriously, but at Grand Prix time it excels itself and seems to attract all that is artificial and showy to an unprecedented degree, the people, the talk, the showing-off, the cars, the animation, all seem unreal when compared with other parts of Europe.

This year, when I arrived late on Wednesday evening, the whole thing seemed impossible and a little tiresome in its artificiality, but this may have been exaggerated by having driven straight up from Sicily, through Messina, Reggio Calabria, the Adriatic coast, Matera, Pescara and along that awful mess of civilisation that seethes in all the small towns and villages between Pescara and Ancona. That part of Italy is another world to Monte Carlo, and to some people probably just as unreal as Monte Carlo seemed to me. Southern Italy is not the way it is because people want it to be that way, they have little choice down there.

On Thursday, the hoo-ha, the bally-hoo, and the fantasy that is Monte Carlo at Grand Prix time was working up to a merry old pitch when down came the rain. Stark reality that dampened the rising clouds of bullshit and sent the fanciful fairies scuttling for cover with rain on their gossamer wings, and gave me time to re-adjust my sense of proportion. But then the rain went on, and on, and on, and it began to bounce up off the road and pour down the gutters in raging torrents; the situation became impossible and yet some real heroes went out in it and practised at quite respectable speeds. In fact, I would estimate that Amon and the others were lapping faster in running water than many of their critics could achieve on a dry road in the same cars. I know they were going faster than I could hope to go in perfect conditions. That was reality if ever I saw it, but the sort of reality we can do without.

As I said earlier, a little rain at Monte Carlo never does anyone any harm, but the rain we had this year was out of all proportion and in particular did Mario Andretti a lot of harm, for it effectively prevented him from qualifying for the starting grid, as his Ferrari broke down during the only dry practice session before he had even gone as fast as Ganley or Schenken. Had he not had trouble with the car he would no doubt have qualified in the fastest 18, but not up at the front as most people expected, in fact, I doubt whether he would have been ahead of Peterson on the grid, for the little Italian-born American is not at home on street circuits, having become so used to USAC-type circuits with loose run-off areas along each side of the road, and he has admitted that he likes to be able to put a wheel off the road and “in the dirt” when he is trying hard. Andretti has shown numerous sparks of brilliance in Europe, but nothing yet tangible enough to rate him highly up the Grand Prix scale.

The CSI stewards tried to persuade the organisers to change their rules and accept 20 cars on the grid, but Jacques Taffe, the man in overall charge at Monaco, refused to do so. The odd thing was that he was paying starting money to 20 entrants, which meant the entrants of Ganley and Andretti, even though they did not start. Even more curious was the fact that the CSI pointed out (they can do good, you know!) that in 1972 a new FIA rule comes into force that specifies that all races in the World Championship series must take a minimum of twenty starters.

Taffe remained adamant, so Ganley and Andretti did not start. Many people were a bit incensed and some journalists even went so far as to say that the spectators were robbed of seeing a confrontation between the two greatest drivers in the world. That was a laugh, for had he started, Andretti would have been on the last position on the grid. With Stewart in number one position on the grid the only time the spectators would have seen the two drivers together would have been when the Scotsman lapped “Super-Wop”, for Stewart was in a class of his own throughout the meeting, being 1.2 sec. faster than his nearest rival in practice and beat the lap record in the race by 1 sec.

Talking of Stewart, and people talk about him nearly as much as he talks himself, though oddly he seldom talks about himself in the manner of Cassius Clay or A. J. Foyt. which is pleasant, I sat in the pits before the cars came out of the garages on race day and contemplated the trees. On the centre island which forms the pits at Monte Carlo, with the cars going along the promenade (newly covered in tarmac this year) behind you, round the Gasworks hairpin and back along the Boulevard Albert 1st in front of you, there are numerous trees growing, and I have seen those same trees for more than 20 years and know them well.

In fact, the first time I saw a Grand Prix car out of the Tabac corner on full song, I made myself very small behind one of those trees, there being no Armco barriers in those days, and it was all very exciting. I mention these trees because just before the Monaco race a reader sent me a cutting in which Stewart was quoted as saying “trees that used to be saplings in Fangio’s time, to slow down a car spinning off the track, are now strong, solid trunks that will tear a car—and driver—on impact”. He went on to say “remember that it is 20 years since Fangio won his first World Championship and trees grow a lot in that time”.

Now, presumably, Ken Tyrrell, who knows about trees, being a professional timber merchant when he is not at races, confirmed to Stewart the rate of growth of trees and how much they will grow in 20 years, but my correspondent asks whether Fangio complained about the saplings of Nuvolari’s days when he was winning his first World Championship in 1951. I somehow don’t think he did, and those trees in the pits looked as solid in 1951 as they do in 1971, even if they were saplings in 1931. There is one thing about Stewart and that is that when he drives a Grand Prix car he is as near to perfection as makes no odds, but when he is not in the cockpit with the engine running, then, oh dear!

After the race a lot of people were raving about Peterson and referring to him as the man of the race, but I’m afraid I don’t see it. He finished a very worthy second to the Man of the Race, and the March people and his personal friends were justified in raving about his performance. To make fastest practice lap, by over a second, to lead the race from start to finish and set a new lap record must mean that Stewart did the maximum that was possible for any driver to achieve, except perhaps to lap the entire field in the way that Moss used to do. For me Stewart had to be the Man of the Race, Peterson was only a jolly good runner-up. A friend who has been connected with Grand Prix racing as long as I have said after the Spanish Grand Prix in April “I can’t stand the long-haired, beady-eyed little Scot, but, by God, he can drive”. He said the same after Monaco. As I said, everyone talks about Stewart nearly as much as he talks himself.

Elsewhere I mentioned that his performance was near perfection, and I use the work “near” for after the race there were graunch marks on his front wheels where he had clipped kerbs too fine, and watching him in the Casino square he frequently bounced a rear wheel over a kerb, but fortunately the Tyrrell was strong enough to withstand these errors. The small Tyrrell team have certainly returned to the efficient state they were in in 1969, and have found the way to build the Tyrrell cars to perfection. Their third car, number 003, was produced brand new for Barcelona and it won, and for Monaco it was once again brand new, having been rebuilt round a new monocoque after the Silverstone accident, and again it won. Must be a moral somewhere.

Probably the most notable feature of the race this year was the damage caused to magnesium wheels, for including major crashes like Hill had, over a thousand pounds worth of alloy wheels were converted to scrap, for even a graunch on a rim makes a wheel unusable again. One of the reasons for this is the super-low profile tyres used today, for not only do these bring the rim nearer the road, in effect making the kerbs that much higher, but tyre development has caused the wheel rim to be wider than the tyre. Whereas a brush with a kerb used to result in white marks on the wall of the tyre and the shock being absorbed by the rubber, it now means violent contact between alloy rim and the stone kerb, with resultant broken wheels and deflated tyres, or transmitted shock loads bending or breaking something in the suspension system.

Apart from the racing, there is always a great deal going on at Monte Carlo and this year there was a much-vaunted Racing Car Show, much-vaunted by the organisers that is, for most people I met who went in with a complimentary ticket (the same one in some cases!) were appalled by the cheap, shoddy, trashy, try-on of the whole affair, from stands selling out-of-date magazines to completely phoney exhibits such as the World Record “Blue Flame” rocket car which was a wooden mock-up. What the paying customers thought I don’t really know, but many people thought the best exhibit was the Summers Brothers “Golden Rod” Bonneville car, especially as it was outside the exhibition building and could be seen without paying. In some publicity blurb the organiser said he thought journalists were among the shrewdest judges of such occasions. That was before the Show opened, I wonder what he thought afterwards. The standard was well up to that of the public enclosures at Le Mans, and that is saying something.

For a select few (actually there was a vast crowd) the ELF petrol company put on a film show on Saturday evening using a device they conjured up last year where three screens are in operation at the same time. Last year was the first experiment and a dismal failure, for the whole thing was too noisy, too confused and you spent so much time wondering which screen to watch that you saw nothing at all. This year they got things under control and while the centre screen depicted some major happening, those on each side provided complementary background, and if something exciting happened on either of the side screens the others did not detract from the action. The whole thing covered ELF participation in all forms of motoring sport during the past 12 months, and ended on a really high note with some superb film taken of the Monte Carlo Rally, amid snow and ice, while throughout the colour was truly magnificent.

Leaving this film show I went out into the Casino square to find people and cars milling round and round. There was suddenly a lot of waving and whistling by uniformed flunkies from the Hotel de Paris as they tried to get a large taxi to the steps of the hotel, and a crowd gathered as Stewart and Hill appeared through the doors, dressed in their best frilly-fronted evening suits. Standing watching all this flap, as the stars waved to their supporters, a voice beside me said “Hallo”. It was Jacky Ickx, dressed in an open-neck sports shirt and blazer, and he smiled as he surveyed the crowded square, the Hotel de Paris, the Casino, the shining cars and the bright lights, and he said “It’s all fantasy really, and quite incredible” and then he added “have you seen the yellow GT40, that is marvellous”.

I had seen it, for it was parked in the square behind us, road equipped and taxed, believe it or not, on English number plates. As Ickx spoke about it you could see he was recalling some of the great races he had made with GT40 Fords for the John Wyer team. Then the gentle rain began to fall, dampening the crowds and the frilly-shirt fronts, and as we went our separate ways, with our coat collars turned up, Ickx said “I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow, it will spoil the race”. As I said, a little rain at Monte Carlo never does anyone any harm.

D. S. J.