Wolf WR1, Lotus 49B, Maserati 250F and Alfa Romeo 8C – Monaco Grand Prix winners all. But how did they fare at this year’s historique festival? David Malsher followed them while they followed the footsteps of Scheckter, Hill, Moss and Nuvolari
Mike Littlewood appears a little pensive as he prepares to take Jody Scheckter’s WR1 surfing around the Monaco puddles. With 480bhp under his right foot, and on a track he is familiar with only through PlayStation, concentration isn’t going to be a problem.
Pensive but animated is how he returns to the pits after the first 20 minutes. He’s only 16th, and his hand movements speak volumes: in these conditions, the rear of the car has a life of its own.
“I just cannot get the power down,” he states quietly. “It feels like we’re just riding over the water, and it’s trying to send me into the barrier. Normally in the wet I would expect to be top three — better than in the dry with the same set of drivers.”
Tom Denyer, the chief mechanic on the Willans Harness-entered machine, reckons the differential is to blame, which is a problem since there is no spare available.
“We’re just going to do what we can to minimise the problem,” says Denyer. “In these conditions, we’ve disconnected the rollbars already, and the shocks are fully soft. So now maybe we need to change the rear springs, too. Because, really, this car should have top-six potential.”
At this point no-one knows that the second session’s going to be slower, which means Littlewood is resigned to starting the race from the eighth row of the grid. But he ends the day in a far chirpier mood.
“It felt much better in the second session. We’re still aquaplaning, but at least the rear is finding some grip — eventually.”
Adds Denyer: “Tonight we’ll adjust the duff for the race, but it’s buggered, basically. We’re going to soften the rear springs, but reconnect the anti-roll bars, as we think it’s going to be dry tomorrow.”
He’s right: it is dry, and so there’s greater cause for hope. Mike makes the most of it. He’s up to 11th at the end of the first lap, 10th on the second, and by the time the Safety Car comes out as a result of a blown engine on Murray Smith’s Brabham, he’s in seventh.
Two cars have skidded on the resultant slick and so the green flags are shown with just two laps to go, and in the bedlam that follows, Mike’s Wolf reaches fifth. However, concentrating on Nico Bindels’ Lotus 77, less than a second ahead, Littlewood fails to notice Hubertus Bahlsen’s Brabham-Alfa is right behind him Out of Rascasse for the final time, Bahlsen drafts him and snatches fifth at the chequer.
“It’s annoying!” says Mike. “I just didn’t see him there, so when I realised I wasn’t going to catch the Lotus, I was cruising for the line.
“Overall, I’m pretty happy with the way the weekend went given the circumstances. As well as the duff problem, the car was jumping out of second from the third lap on, which meant I was slow in three places — Portier, the chicane and Rascasse.”
Ten days later we speak again, and the Monaco bug has bitten hard: “I can still remember how I felt finishing each lap. The buzz as you came rushing up the pitstraight towards Ste Devote was very special. It’s an amazing circuit.”
Lotus 49B – Takuma Sato
The car’s are the stars this weekend, right? Well, no. Charming F1 back-oft he gridder Alex Yoong does not possess enough status to attract much more attention than the ex-Ronnie Peterson Lotus 72 he’s piloting this weekend. But Jordan’s Takuma Sato, who is driving Graham Hill’s 1968-69 Monaco-winning 49B is a media magnet, even in a town where celebrities and would-be celebrities are 10-a-Euro.
No doubt this phenomenon is heightened by what happened a week previous, when Takuma escaped an horrific shunt in the Austrian GP. In more ways than one, therefore, it’s great to have him around to display his phenomenal car control. car
I know, I know, there have been clashes and crashes aplenty as last year’s British F3 champion has struggled to define the limits in Formula One, but Sato has a lot of talent. Highly regarded Jordan team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella has not met such a stem internecine challenge since partnering Ralf Schumacher, also at Jordan, in 1997.
Bob Sparshott, former chief mechanic to Graham Hill, is working for Classic Team Lotus this weekend and is helping Takuma set the 49 up, while the driver attempts to learn Monaco in time for next weekend’s Grand Prix. There’s a lot of mutual respect, each listens avidly to the other. Yes, Sato spends a lot of Saturday signing autographs and chatting with friends and fans, but when it’s time to deal with the car, he has eyes only for Classic Team Lotus personnel.
On the streaming wet circuit, Takuma rarely lives up to his ragged-edge reputation; only at Casino Square does it get lairy. Is he not really on it? The stopwatch doesn’t lie, though. He’s seventh-quickest in one of the most unsuitable cars for the conditions.
“It’s the regs,” Clive Chapman explains. “The car never originally ran treaded tyres and the duck-tail rear wing at the same time, so we can’t run the combination now. If we had used the wing, as it did when it won in 1969, we could only have used grooved tyres rather than the treads of ’68.”
In the circumstances, Sato has done a remarkable job. The first to acknowledge this is Sparshott: “I am very impressed with him. He’s been enthusiastic about the 49 since he drove it at Hethel, and his lap time here is excellent. It’s very different to what he’s used to. But Takuma is very sharp, mentally.”
Six hours later, the mood has changed. The characteristic Sato grin is not apparent. Instead he is shrugging resignedly, accepting commiserations and trying not to look at the bent Lotus 49 at his feet.
“The circuit is incredibly slippery,” Takuma says. ‘The car gets so sideways, and I was getting wheelspin in fourth. The car handles very well, but maybe I was trying too hard and turned-in too early at the Swimming Pool. Unfortunately, the chassis is affected and the team don’t have a way of fixing it here, so that is it.
“I have always loved cars. I got a lot of satisfaction driving this Lotus. The history of the car, that is the important thing, and I would like to drive old racing cars again.” The guy’s got soul.
Maserati 250F – Peter Heuberger
It looks beautiful. OF course it does, despite the questionable stickers applied by the AC de Monaco declaring it the 1956 Winner, and despite the fact that someone appears to have graffiti’d the car’s scuttle.
“They are the autographs of Luca di Montezemolo and Jean Todt,” declares owner Peter Heuberger. “I have known Luca for many years, and the pair of them came to see me when I was racing at Monza last year, and they signed the car.”
I hope he charged them.
But nothing can detract from the aura that surrounds this car: not only did Stirling Moss guide it to a dominant victory here 46 years ago, it is also the car in which Maserati tested their V12 F1 engine. These days it retains the lengthened rump necessitated by the multi-cylinder engine’s increased thirst and, to my mind, it looks slightly better for it. Under the bonnet, however, is the original straight six. Its Maser melody, played over a backing track of Dunlops swishing through puddles, is one of the highlights of this filthy day.
Back in the pits after morning practice, Heuberger has good news and bad news for Klaus Wemer’s mechanics who maintain his car.
“Down from Mirabeau to the Grand Hotel, the front brakes are locking, and no matter which way I steer, it doesn’t make any difference. We need to adjust the balance. On the other hand, the clutch problems we suffered at Spa haven’t returned.”
He will start ninth and is happy: “I have previous experience here, but look at who’s in front of me. They’re all professional racers: Martin Stretton and Flavien Margais are fantastic drivers. I’m a 66-year-old amateur. I am in the first half of the grid. So yes, I am happy. Tomorrow, I will look only forward.”
Even before the start, the 250F moves up a place, as Joaquin Folch’s Lotus 16 fails to make the grid. An excellent getaway also sees Peter establish himself ahead of Barry Carmen’s Cooper-Bristol. But in the course of the first lap, Ian Nuthall’s Alta slips past.
Eighth it is. But from lap three, Peter comes under pressure from Gigi Baulino’s A6GCM-250F. It is interesting at this point to note our man’s commitment, staying on the power very late approaching Ste Devote. Thereafter, I choose to disregard his self-deprecating comments from the previous day: Herr Heuberger is nobody’s fool.
He is, however, struggling to contain his rival, and on the sixth lap, Baulino slips past Peter attempts to hold on, but the rate at which the other Maser pulls away through the tightest comers (Loews and the chicane after the tunnel) convinces him that pursuit is fruitless. With a remarkable dearth of retirements, he is destined to finish ninth.
“Yesterday I had asked to transfer more of the brake balance to the back. But when I saw the race would be dry, I wanted it changed again, and I don’t think this was done. Baulino was better on the brakes, and normally I don’t have a problem with him. Also, I needed a longer first gear. Taking that into account, ninth’s not so shabby.”
Alfa Romeo 8C Monza – Ed Davie
From his perspective, he’s about to drive one of the most beautiful and best handling pre-war cars on the most charismatic circuit in the world. Reason to be cheerful, 2.3 8C.
But from an outsider’s point of view, Ed Davies’ relaxed bonhomie is completely at odds with the situation. He is preparing to thread an ex-Nuvolari (he drove it on the 1932 Targa Florio) Alfa Monza (US$ seven-figure sum) between the Armco on a track still ‘green’ with traffic detritus and white-striped with ludicrous zeal. Add relentless drizzle, and grip on tall narrow tyres will be merely a state of mind.
As if the situation isn’t daunting enough, this is Ed’s first competitive event in a car he has owned for three years. And he has never lapped Monaco in anger before. He is, however, completely unfazed.
“No problem!” he grins when I broach the subject. He is being neither facetious nor blasé. “I’ve never competed in this car before, no, but I have driven it a lot. I’m pretty familiar with it. I have four pre-war Alfas, which all get used on the road. And I’ve learned that once these cars are set up, they’re set up. I sent it to Klaus Werner’s mechanics, who brought it here for me, and they’re really good.”
Okay, you know the car, but the circuit’s treacherous, the Alfa’s tyres are skinny, it’s hugely valuable and those aren’t hay bales lining the circuit.”
Sure it’s valuable, but it’s also repairable. That’s why I’m happy to use it on the road back in Florida. For me, the trick is to drive it within my limits. It’s that simple.”
With that slice of philosophy still hanging in the air, Davies is into his race overalls and climbing aboard for second qualifying, having clocked 14th-quickest time in this morning’s dry session. Predictably for a car that gets regular usage, the Monza fires first time.
Out on the circuit, Ed’s driving style is as easy as his pit-lane chat Familiarity has not bred contempt but instead given him a certain blend of confidence and competence. He doesn’t crouch over the wheel, and now that he knows his way round the circuit, he can turn in early, squeeze in the power gently. There is none of the dramatic understeer that afflicts many of his overly vigorous rivals, and his pace appears to be the sort he could keep up all day. It’s irrelevant in terms
of grid position but, for the record, despite quitting the session early, his lap time holds for 11th place on the grid, precisely midfield.
Ed is composed for the race. There are no last-minute fidgets; anticipatory without being nervous. The Alfa too appears confident and gains a place on the first lap. But its engine is misfiring.
It never comes round again.
“The generator quit,” shrugs Davies. “The battery alone couldn’t keep the fuel pump going, so that was that It’s too bad.”
He’ll be back in 2004, though. And in the meantime, Ed, his wife (another racer), and his kids can enjoy their Alfa 8C on the sun-kissed Florida blacktop.
Life doesn’t get better than that.