By means of which our roving Continental reporter occasionally keeps in touch with the Editor.)
Dear W. B.,
After the Belgian Formula One race at Zolder, I can’t call it the Belgian Grand Prix, I wandered across country to make a change from Motorways, though there isn’t much “country” north of Bruxelles, it’s all pretty industrial and built-up. I joined the northern ring road round the capital city and driving down an under-pass I suddenly realised I was on what was once part of a circuit used for the Bruxelles GP. When the giant Atomium came into view, looming over the roof tops, I thought “My goodness, the Belgians actually closed all these roads to the public in order to run a Grand Prix in 1960 and 1961.” Was it really 17 years ago, seems like yesterday, yet some of our readers were not born when it happened. I could not imagine it happening now, with all the traffic that uses the ring road, for it would cause chaos and a great screaming from the public who don’t like motor racing. For those two races we all stayed in the shadow of the Atomium, the huge construction representing the molecules of the atom, as a symbol for the coming space-age for the great Bruxelles Exhibition in 1956, or thereabouts. When we went there for the race in 1960 I described the Atomium as “… like some horrible monster from space waiting to pounce on the racing fraternity …” Now it stands there glistening in the rain and mist of June in Belgium (!) looking self-conscious and forlorn, for “outer-space” is no longer something mystical.
One recollection of the Bruxelles GP on that Heysel circuit that I retain clearly, is being woken up at about 4 a.m, by the sound of gravel tinkling on my hotel bedroom window. It was the night before the race and down below was a fresh-faced young English mechanic almost in tears with worry and apprehension. He and the other mechanics of the team had gone down into the city of Bruxelles for a bit of a “booze-up”; times were more carefree and leisurely in those days. The evening had developed into a bit of a riot and had ended up with the Gendarmerie Nationale getting a bit po-faced about the whole thing. The result was that all except the young lad had been thrown into gaol. I don’t recall how the young lad had got back to the hotel, but he hadn’t got a door key and apart from not knowing what to do he wasn’t sure where the police had taken all his mates. We telephoned the team-manager, who was in another hotel, and by the time we’d found where they all were, the lads had cooled off and the police had let them go. At the race they all looked a bit grey and sheepish, and the team-manager was not amused.
The interesting part of the story is that the young lad is now chief mechanic to one of the top drivers in today’s Formula One, and the ring leader of his mates, who got them all into trouble, is now a staid chief mechanic who looks after the reserve car in the same team; they still have the same twinkle in their eyes and a nice sense of humour about the whole serious business of Formula One in the nineteen-seventies.
A little while ago I passed through Paris for the first time for donkey’s years and went by the foot of the Eiffel Tower. I had forgotten just how big it is and what a vast area is spanned by the four splayed feet. It really is as unbelievable as the Atomium, but whereas the Atomium represents the space-age, the Eiffel Tower must surely represent the iron-age. I am petrified of heights if I am on something that reaches down to the ground, and when I first went to Paris and forced myself to go up the Eiffel Tower the weather was appalling and clouds were obscuring the top two-thirds. I went up in the lift, walked out on the balcony, and looked over the edge into solid cloud. I could have been ten feet off the ground for all I knew, it was simple. Next time I was in Paris was on a bright sunny day and when I looked up at the balcony at the top of the tower I nearly passed out. Nothing would have got me up it that day. In a Jumbo jet at 29,000 feet you are so remote from the ground that the height means nothing, it is all unreal.
It is interesting how the human being has to keep building giant structures or tall monuments, or for that matter why he has an insatiable appetite for boring holes in the ground or under the sea. One of my favourites in Europe is the Fernsehturm, or Television Tower, that stands on the heights above Stuttgart, a pure symbol of today, as pleasing to the eye as it is functional. It illustrates that you do not have to design monstrosities that offend the eye, like the London Post Office Tower, you can do things with grace and taste. Another European building that always gives me pleasure when I see it is the slim, almost elliptical sectioned Pirelli skyscraper in Milan. When our civilisation is extinct and buried under lava, or ice or whatever is going to exterminate us eventually (it may be our own rubbish and waste!), I hope that a future civilisation will excavate things like the Stuttgart Fernsehturm and that Milan Pirelli building and will think well of the twentieth century. The other things are best left buried.
There are noises beginning to come through that our rulers are thinking of changing our traffic system to driving on the right, like the rest of Europe. Some people say it is more than “thinking” it is nearly an accomplished fact and will be with us within five years. It sounds an impossible idea, but Sweden managed it a few years ago. When they changed over, all motoring was banned for a short period; when it restarted it was all to “driving on the right hand side of the road” rules and speed was restricted to something like to or 15 m.p.h. with headlights lit at all times, and these restrictions lasted for another fixed period until everyone was re-conditioned. Some Swedes still drive about as if those rules are still in force, but not their rally drivers or racing drivers fortunately. I can’t imagine motoring all over Great Britain actually stopping for a period, while the whole road system is changed over, but if the Government said “stop”, it would stop. If you think all this is unlikely, keep an ear to the ground among contacts in the design of public service vehicles, and see if they are designing double-deckers with stairs on the right instead of the left, that are not for export, or the road-sign manufacturers to see if the arrows are beginning to point down to the right instead of down to the left. Don’t bother to look in the motorcycle world, though my Irish friend was starting to look for a left-hand drive motorcycle! And I had to dissuade him from beginning to practise for the great change-over.
One of the things we are not short of in the modern world of Formula One, since high pressure advertising came on the scene, is information in written form. Every firm has its PR team pouring out purple prose for the media, hoping their product will get a mention. Some of the stuff is good, some useful; some is rubbish, some is pathetic, but some is hilarious. The classic of the season must be the historical document one firm put out before the Monaco GP. It listed all the winners and their race speeds since “W. Williams” won the first one in 1929 at 49.83 m.p.h. in a Type 35B Bugatti. It said that in 1931 Louis Chiron won the Monaco GP at 54.10 m.p.h. in a Bugatti Type 52! If you ask any Bugatti enthusiast, or look in any Bugatti book, you will find that the Type 52 was the half-scale toy Grand Prix Bugatti, powered by an electric motor and a 12-volt battery. I know the Monaco circuit was a “mickey-mouse” affair, but not that small. I think what the writer probably meant was Type 51, the twin-cam supercharged 2.3-litre Grand Prix Bugatti. But what’s a figure 1 between the PR world and the media in these days of millions?
A final thought, as I look at the waves breaking over the prow of the Calais-Dover ferry boat and watch the Hovercraft fighting hard to keep straight over the waves and make headway, I suppose summer will come to Europe this year. Yours,