From the archives with Doug Nye

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The gorilla in the room

A racing driver’s skills have been negotiable assets from the start, as Mercedes has cause to know 

To go motor racing at any level requires an 800lb gorilla in the room, one that drivers’ memory and the record books seldom unveil. Money’s the thing. Back in April 1903, the enthusiastic and provenly capable Belgian Baron, Pierre de Caters, signed a contract with Mercedes of Stuttgart. He was the originator of the Circuit des Ardennes multi-lap road race, and a most capable driver with the personal wealth to fulfill his enthusiasm.

Even so, he was effectively on an earner from Mercedes for 1903, when he agreed to drive the latest model Mercedes ‘Ninety’ in both the Paris-Madrid race and the Gordon Bennett Cup. In return the Cannstatt company agreed he could either keep the ‘Ninety’ provided for him to drive, or select any other model from the German manufacturer, to be delivered within six months. Should he finish in the first three places in Madrid, he would also be rewarded with a second Mercedes of choice. Any finish in the next three places would earn him a 33 per cent discount, and should he set a speed record over either a timed kilometre or mile during the great race, Mercedes would give him a 50 per cent discount.

While the good Baron was no doubt working out in the gym with his fitness coach and earnestly consulting his dietician on where and when whatever porridge compound should be ingested – a rather different breed of driver sparked Mercedes’ interest.

This was Fernand Gabriel, the Mors ‘scorcher’. Continental Tyres director Tischbein wrote to Emile Jellinek – the mastermind Mercedes promoter – to report rumours that Gabriel had split from the French manufacturer and his services as a professional racing driver could be available. Tischbein went on: “I ask you to arrange for Gabriel to start on Continental… Of course we are prepared to remunerate Gabriel accordingly.”

Tischbein later specified “5000 francs for Gabriel” – but the doughty driver knocked back Mercedes’ blandishments. He wanted 20,000 francs (about £62,000 today), writing: “To avoid litigation, I had to go back to the house of Mors. But I have a new idea. At the moment I am on the books of Mors. With a corresponding allowance I would be able to disengage in order to switch to Cannstatt… You could divide the sum as follows: Continental 7000, Charley…” – Lehmann, Jellinek’s flamboyant Paris salesman – “…7000 and you…” – Mercedes – “6000 francs. Thus all would be clarified and open.”

Emile Jellinek approached the Cannstatt board to increase their Paris-Madrid expenses budget of 25,000 francs, but Gustav Vischer – Mercedes’ marketing director – vetoed this. So Gabriel stayed with Mors and his no168, its upturned boat-bodied aerodynamics slicing through the air, averaged 106kph on the opening Paris-Madrid race leg from the French capital to Bordeaux. There – since the great race had left a trail of death, and mayhem in its wake – the competition was stopped by Government authority. Only 114 cars of the 224 that left Paris actually reached Bordeaux – and they were ignominiously towed by horses to the railway station to be freighted back to Paris. That May day of 1903 marked the nadir of international motor racing in its developmental period, and the death of city-to-city racing on open roads. Marcel Renault, Claude Lorraine Barrow, Pierre Rosez, Willie Nixon, a Brouhot mechanic, a spectating soldier, a child and another spectator were also dead – and many more injured, some critically. 

Money, mechanics and irresponsible, sheer bloody murder were all embodied within the fabric of major-league motor racing, back in that pioneering period.

Pub quiz heaven

The go-to volume to discover racing trivia you didn’t even know you didn’t know

Motor racing facts, and factoids, make a fascinating study for some enthusiasts. Less so for others, though the common interest makes a ‘fact book’ – absolutely packed with all the information you could ever wish to know about world championship Formula 1 racing (and much that you would never dream of needing) – a very diverting and intriguing thing in which to dip.

Any such work is always limited by its date of publication, since Formula 1 racing is an ongoing serial that has been with us in essence since 1948, and has been organised into the FIA world championship series since 1950. It’s against this background that easily the finest Formula 1 fact book that I have ever seen, has just been published. 

Formula 1: The Knowledge – Records and Trivia since 1950 compiled and published by David Hayhoe – Autocourse annual’s respected statistician – is a most remarkable piece of work. It’s not only packed with facts, factoids and intriguing trivia. It’s also nicely produced and well illustrated. And it’s a really substantial, hefty tome, extending to fully 434 pages, jam-packed with small print data.

In an era when TV race commentators fill the dull and uninspiring longeurs of Grand Prix tedium with statistical observations of mind-numbing crassness, here’s the work to which they really should refer. 

Item 276: ‘Consecutive podium one-twos by drivers of the same nationality’; Item 573: ‘Drove three or more different car models during a race weekend’; Item 574: ‘Murdered Formula 1 drivers’ (a mercifully brief list of just two, Jackie Pretorius in South Africa and Ricardo Londono in Colombia); Item 825: ‘First race with a front row immediately followed by others’ (look it up, it’s not as complex a concept as it sounds); Item 914: ‘Percentage of laps led in a season without becoming constructors’ champion’; Item 1013: ‘Different front row position engine makes in a season’.

Amongst all of this incredible data, Item 953 captured my interest, reminding us of the record for the number of ‘Different constructors in each of the top finishing positions’. Good Lord, that’s an intriguing notion. How many might that be, contrasting cars from perhaps five, seven, maybe nine different constructors coming home at the top end of the results? Surely it can’t be into double figures? 

But it is. The 1981 British Grand Prix at Silverstone finished with no fewer than an incredible 14 different makes filling the top 14 positions. The result read, in fact, as follows: 1st, McLaren (John Watson); 2nd, Williams (Carlos Reutemann); 3rd, Talbot Ligier-Matra (Jacques Laffite); 4th, Tyrrell (Eddie Cheever); 5th, Brabham (Hector Rebaque); 6th, ATS (Slim Borgudd – remember him?); 7th, March (Derek Daly); 8th, Osella (Jean-Pierre Jarier); 9th, Renault (René Arnoux); 10th, (classified though retired) Arrows (Riccardo Patrese); 11th, (also classified though retired) Theodore (Marc Surer); then notionally 12th although retired came Alfa Romeo (Mario Andretti); 13th, Fittipaldi (Keke Rosberg); and finally 14th Lotus (Elio de Angelis). The first team-mate for any constructor team to feature in this result list
was then Alain Prost’s Renault, in 15th place.

I find this an incredible statistic, one that underlines the strength of support at that time for a practical, affordable, still sporting-orientated Formula 1. It was one in which the importance of a multiple cast of runners and riders – supplying a now much-missed supporting cast of cannon-fodder to make the superstar teams and drivers look really good while materially contributing to their difficulties on track – was actually not only understood but was provided for the viewing, paying, spectating enthusiast audience. Makes you want to spit?

David Hayhoe’s remarkably thought-provoking book is available from all good dealers; published by David Hayhoe Publications 2016, just quote ISBN: 978-0-9935329-0-0. UK price is £35. You really do get your money’s worth too… as did the British Grand Prix spectators that unusually significant day at Silverstone in 1981…

One captured moment

A casual photograph, snatched before the action starts, and yet a truly evocative scene from five decades ago

Working more or less every day with archive motor sporting photographs, it takes something quite unusual to catch the eye. Sifting through some 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours material just now, here is one such negative. It’s actually pretty prosaic – just an overhead view of the cars being readied on the pit straight to be arranged into their starting echelon, ready for the traditional run-and-jump Le Mans-type start.

What makes the photo startling – at least to my eye – is how much it looks like a model car diorama; hardly reality at all, more like someone’s beloved display of 1:43-scale miniatures, or some such.

The nine cars in the scene provide pretty much a cross-section of Le Mans at its then pinnacle period. Heading right to left are the two 7-litre Ford GT Mark II cars – number 4 the Holman & Moody-entry for Mark Donohue/Paul Hawkins whose transmission will fail after a mere 12 race laps – and no7 is Alan Mann Racing’s XGT-2 for Graham Hill/Brian Muir, who would survive for 98 more laps… but still not reach the finish.

These big Fords characteristically outnumber the lone works Ferrari there, no21, which is the 330P3 Berlinetta for Lorenzo Bandini/Jean Guichet – another retiree, its engine expiring 226 laps into the day-long grind. 

In the background, top of the frame is no30 – the first finisher amongst this selection – the works-entered Porsche 906 Langheck coupé co-driven by Jo Siffert/Colin Davis to finish a remarkable fourth overall and win the 2-litre prototype category. Over to the right can just be seen the nose of no26 – the Ed Hugus-entered Ferrari 275GTB/C shared by Giampiero Biscaldi/Prince Michel de Bourbon-Parme. Would they make it? No. Sidelined by transmission trouble, 218 laps completed.

And heading left to right in the foreground of this remarkable frame: no31, Hans Herrmann/Herbert Linge works Porsche 906LH, destined to chase home Jo Siffert/Colin Davis, fifth overall. No34 is French importer Auguste Veuillet’s standard-bodied Porsche 906 for veterans Robert Buchet/Gerhard Koch, crashed after 110 laps; no51, first of the French aerodyne tiddlers, the Claude Laurent/Jean-Claude Ogier CD-Peugeot SP66, which would crash after 54 laps, and no35, yet another car crewed by real
Le Mans veterans, in this case ‘Franc’/Jean Kerguen’s private Porsche 911S which would finish 14th overall, or second-last, but winning the 2-litre Grand Touring class. 

OK, you might say, very clever – so that’s covered the cars, now name the people. Well… I might get back to you on that one. I just liked the photo – commemorating the 50th anniversary of that event upon a much wider front than Ford’s great win alone.