Continental Notes, June 1958

PEOPLE who visit a Continental motor race for the first time are invariably impressed by the ” atmosphere,” which is so different from that at English race meetings, for whereas Goodwood and Silverstone take on a delicate ” Garden Party ” or ” Village Fete ” atmosphere before the start, the Continental races are usually more of a riotous orgy of music and merry-making. Once the racing has begun the reverse is often the case, for there is nothing ” Garden Party ” about the actual driving and racing in England, it is sheer cut-throat dicing of the highest order. Perhaps it is because of this that the few minutes before a race starts in England are quiet and calm; indeed, the lull-before-the-storm; whereas the Italians, for example, create a storm first of all in case the outcome of the actual racing should be a lull. However, these storms are always fun to watch and often interesting; at Siracusa recently the cars were lined up on the starting grid and then the drivers gathered in the paddock under their national flags flying from enormous poles carried by a blue-overalled flag-bearer and accompanied by an imposing soldier in black and gold, with a vast cockade and a shining sword. As each nationality of driver was presented to the public in the main grandstands, to the accompaniment of the appropriate National Anthem, the soldier, flag-bearer and drivers of the particular nationality walked from the paddock, down the starting grid and lined up in front of the pits. It was all exceedingly colourful and entertaining, and particularly interesting to see only one English driver present and four Italians, though the whole party reached a gloriously hilarious height when the Swedish driver Bonnier appeared to the accompaniment of “The Swedish Polka” recorded by an Italian dance band.

At Naples the start was preceded by the parade of a magnificent military band whose music was occasionally drowned by the rasp of a healthy exhaust note as someone warmed up an engine, and when the music was not playing or an engine being run then the happy Neapolitan crowds turned their attention on the late arrivals, who had to make their way up the road past the start to reach the grandstands. Friends were greeted with shouts and waving hands, while any character with a particularly attractive girl-friend was greeted with cheers and whistles of appreciation, the noise and happy atmosphere increasing in intensity as the starting time approached. When the cars were wheeled out onto the grid and the drivers walked down the road to their cars the already happy crowds cheered and clapped with great enthusiasm, and the climax to all this pandemonium was the start itself as 10 or 15 cars left the line in a noisy screaming bunch.

Two years ago, at Silverstone, the B.R.D.C. thought up an amusing angle on pre-race atmosphere when they played some typical music from each country represented at the British Grand Prix, rather than a series of National Anthems. Unfortunately, this music was not accompanied by a parade of flags or drivers so it was rather lost on the spectators, who were all busily engaged in the technicalities of the competing cars. At Aintree an attempt at parading was made by sitting all the drivers on the backs of white Austin-Healeys, but it fell awfully flat as the National flags were too small to be seen and there was no real musical accompaniment or showmanship. Maybe the British public do not want such pre-race merry-making as do the Continentals, but nevertheless it is a fact that visitors to Continental races invariably enjoy the atmosphere.

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It often happens that an incident during a race appears to be normal enough, or a retirement obvious enough, but it is really surprising how often one finds out that the truth of the matter is entirely different when you have time for a more detailed investigation. The crash at Goodwood on Easter Monday when Behra hit the chicane seemed straightforward, and though I was not present I read all the accounts and it was seemingly an obvious case of brake-failure. However, I also studied all the excellent photographs of the impact and though the reason for the crash was explained in all the various stories I read, I had the feeling that there was something strange about the way the B.R.M. had struck the wall. Had the whole affair affected a novice driver I would not have given it another thought but, knowing Jean Behra and his ability and experience, I was not completely satisfied with the brake-failure story. Behra knew that a portion of the chicane was mobile so that in just such an emergency he could go straight on and scatter the barrier, yet he had tried to get through the normal path and struck the brick wall. Under normal circumstances you finish your braking long before you enter the chicane and Behra is not the driver to make a mistake on his braking paint. Therefore I could not understand why he attempted to take the chicane if his brakes failed suddenly, as reports had said. Also it was obvious from the photographs of the impact and the damage that the B.R.M. was travelling at quite a speed as it went into the chicane; in fact. I got the impression it must have been travelling much faster than normal, and always there was the question : ” Why didn’t Behra aim for the movable part of the chicane after the brakes failed ? ”

Not being at the meeting in question, I had to accept the stories and reports for what they were worth, but deep down I was still mystified. It was quite some time before I got the opportunity of talking to Behra but then all my questions were answered, for he explained that the brakes had not failed on the entrance to the chicane but that they had failed when he put them on at the end of Lavant Straight, braking for the double right-hand bend of Woodcote, before the chicane. He had dropped a bit of speed before the brakes gave out and he took Woodcote at about 30 m.p.h. faster than he had previously considered to be the limit, sliding the car and losing speed by tyre scrub. Having negotiated Woodcote at a speed well over the limit he was badly placed at the exit and still going too fast to risk a deliberate change of direction, which is why he did not aim for the movable part of the chicane. He said he would like to have done that but the car was pointing at the entrance to the artificial corner and as the car had more control than he had at that moment he had no choice but to enter the chicane. Realising which way the car was heading and fearing it would go straight through the chicane without touching anything, and so into the barriers of the enclosures, he deliberately tried, and succeeded, in bouncing it off the corner of the brick wall, hoping to put it into a spin or make it stop before it went off the track. Due to the car’s speed into the chicane being too high, even though it was pointing more or less in the right direction, he knew it was hopeless to try and negotiate the left-hand corner out of the chicane, so he took the only choice and hit the brick wall with his left front wheel. This explanation by Behra solved all the queries I had had regarding the incident and it also explains why Behra was unhurt, for being more or less pre meditated he was able to prepare himself for the impact. I cannot help feeling that a lesser driver would have gone straight on into the grandstand on the outside of Woodcote corner, for to attempt to get round that fast double corner at a speed far in excess of the known maximum called for great courage. Behra is now wondering whether the previous normal maximum speed for negotiating Woodcote corner safely is really the maximum, though he would not like to try it again at the speed he took it before he crashed.

Throughout the racing season similar revelations of the truth are continually coming to light long after the event has been reported and committed to paper, for it is not always possible to contact drivers and mechanics immediately after a race. After a long, tiring day of racing they usually like a break, and I never blame them if they are a bit short tempered, especially if they have had trouble; but a few days later they are all prepared to discuss incidents and breakdowns, especially if, in between times, they have discovered the real reason for a blow-up, or failure.

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In Stuttgart there is still complete silence from the Daimler-Benz racing department, though one cannot but help feeling that they are up to something, especially when one of the chiefs of the racing department visited Silverstone to watch the International Trophy meeting. He is normally far too busy to visit an English race meeting for a holiday, so one can only assume that Daimler-Benz A.G. are still interested to know how the opposition are getting on, and what they will be up against if they decide to re-enter the racing field. On the opposite side of Stuttgart, at Porsche, there is plenty of racing activity and the new cooling system for the Spyder is working well. This takes the form of an air-extractor driven by the exhaust, which draws air across the finned and ducted heads and barrels, thus doing away with the enormous belt-driven cooling fan, which absorbs as much as 15 b.h.p. at maximum power. In its old form the flat-four Spyder engine develops about 145 b.h.p., so a bonus of another 15 at the rear wheels by eliminating the cooling fan is well worth while. At the moment there is one drawback and that is the noise, for when it is at peak revs, the scream of the exhaust-driven extractor sounds rather like a Gloster Javelin taking off, and even Porsche are a little embarrassed about presenting it as a sports car ! If development goes ahead satisfactorily it might appear at Reims as a Formula II car, in a central-steering, single-seater Spyder.