Continental Notes, June 1969

The cancellation of the Belgian G.P. is still provoking much thought and comment, and having moved closer the issue is much clearer, though not officially. In Belgium, as in Germany, France, Spain and Great Britain there are rival factions trying to gain more power in the organisation of motor racing. To the motor-racing enthusiast who is not making money out of racing, but paying to watch, all seems well, when suddenly there is a great upheaval and change, and he wonders why, but seldom finds out. Rest assured that if this happens, someone somewhere is either making a lot of money over the change, or is boosting up his personal social standing, with his eye on a decoration or even a knighthood from the government. The British G.P. was happily being held at Silverstone year after year, when suddenly it was changed to Brands Hatch. The general feeling was that it was not a bad idea to run our race one year in the South for the Londoners, and one year in the Midlands for the Midlanders, and quite justifiably a lot of people assumed it would be run at Oulton Park on the third change for the Northerners, which would have been a very satisfactory arrangement. For reasons like I am suggesting this did not happen, and there was even a bit of a struggle to get the Grand Prix back to Silverstone.

Spain has recently gone through one of these internal motor-racing-politics struggles, changing their Grand Prix from Madrid to Barcelona. France has had continual ups and downs, fluctuating from Reims to Rouen to Clermont-Ferrand, with Le Mans being thrown in to confuse things. In Germany there is a continual struggle for supremacy between various factions, there being those who want to keep the German at the Nurburgring and those who want to take it elsewhere. In every country the reason is the same, not the benefit to the sport of motor racing, but business interests and personal power politics and empire building. In 1960-61 there was a big power move to get the Belgian G.P. away from the Francorchamps circuit and the district of Spa, and needless to say it was not engineered by the Royal Automobile Club of Spa or the people in the district. At the time there was a great outcry from the Belgian sporting world, and the idea was quashed, but the thought was still fermenting. When the F.1 constructors and the Grand Prix Drivers Association made proposals to the Belgian G.P. organisers regarding this year’s race, it would seem that they were made in all good faith, even though they were a bit dictatorial. Somewhere along the line someone saw a good opportunity to start up again the plans for removing the Belgian G.P. from Francorchamps to a more desirable site from their personal point of view, and the F.1 constructors and the G.P.D.A. have been used as a scapegoat, the fingers of scorn and blame being pointed at them and not the real culprits.

Now this result is exactly what happens in every walk of life when someone starts meddling in things that are not really his concern. If you poke a stick in a beehive you will get stung. I am sure that the constructors and drivers had no idea that they were poking a stick in beehive ; their well-meaning intentions have backfired on them, and, as I suggested last month, they may all disappear up their own exhaust pipes. Everywhere in the world of money and business there are people waiting to take advantage of any opportunity. It is the same in the world of motor racing. Let us hope that in future the constructors will spend more time constructing, the drivers spend more time driving, and both parties be more careful where they poke their sticky fingers.

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At the time of the cancellation of the Belgian G.P. I refused to believe that ALL the Grand Prix drivers were prepared to boycott the Francorchamps circuit, and when the 1,000-kilometre race at Francorchamps was held there were seven drivers taking part in sports cars who had previously driven Grand Prix cars on the circuit. These were Rodriguez, Siffert, Bonnier, Elford, Redman, Ickx and Oliver, and Amon would have been with them had he not been unwell. Of these, at least two were not even at the G.P.D.A. meeting at which the Francorchamps circuit was discussed, while of those that were, I am sure there were some dissenters. Like all clubs and unions, I suspect that the G.P.D.A. is run by a small hierarchy who are exploiting the disinterested members for their own ends. At one time we used to receive a press notice and synopsis of their meetings, but this no longer happens, and the first we know is when some newshound gets wind of something and uses the information for a scare-headline. The drivers’ association probably do a lot of good, but we never hear about it. The Formula One Constructors Association is another group that is a bit secretive and by no means unanimous; I can just imagine Enzo Ferrari refusing to go to Francorchamps because the circuit did not suit his car or drivers. When Mike Parkes, who is now running Ferrari prototype racing, was asked why he supported the 1,000 at Francorchamps he replied “Because this is motor racing”

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Porsche have now won four big races in succession and are regaining the respect and name they had for impeccable reliability. Last year the team went from one mismanaged race to another, fumbling and bungling, and people wondered what was wrong with Porsche. Race after race saw their cars retiring with stupid mechanical troubles and the usually serene Porsche pits were chaotic. The cause of this complete change-about in the image of the Porsche racing team was not obvious to the onlooker, but what was happening was that the racing department, and research and engineering department as well, were undergoing a major change of policy, and behind the scenes all was not well. By the present run of victories and the performances of the works Porsche it would seem that they have weathered the storm and are now set fair on their new course.

Since Porsche began racing around 1950 the policy has been to link the racing programme closely with the sales and production programme, the principle being to race cars that would eventually become production cars, and on this principle the foundations of the Porsche name were built. As the scope of racing and the technology of racing progressed, it became more and more difficult to adhere to this policy, and when they made a brief sortie into Grand Prix racing during the 1½-litre Formula they burnt their fingers. The reason was not that the cars were no good, but the racing and development department were not properly attuned to the high-pressure technology of Grand Prix racing. Porsche racing returned to long-distance events, rallies, hill-climbs and so on, keeping Porsche publicity first and foremost in mind when preparing a racing programme, so that Porsche would race in an event that would bring publicity and sales, such as in Austria or Switzerland and would leave some events to private owners.

About 18 months ago there were some major changes in the personnel at Porsche, though the company remained unchanged and still belonged to the Porsche family, old Professor Ferdinand Porsche’s son and daughter being in full command of the empire. The professor’s son, Ferry Porsche, being the managing director of the parent company known as Dr. Ing. h.c.F. Porsche KG, Stuttgart, and the old man’s daughter Louise being the managing director of Porsche Konstruktionen KG in Salzburg, Austria. Louise Porsche married and became Louise Piëch, and today the whole Porsche empire is owned on a 50:50 basis by the families Porsche and Piëch (pronounced Porsher and Pee-ay). The new racing policy that came about with the changes in management was one of complete domination regardless of sales and production interests, and the last year-and-a-half of racing has seen the Porsche team grow to formidable proportions, their overall racing programme making many wealthy English teams gasp at the capital outlay involved. Naturally, there was terrific internal opposition to this “all-out” programme of racing and research, and the bad season they had in 1968 was due to a large extent to the internal battle that was going on. The “complete domination at any cost” faction now seem to be in full control and with victories in the B.O.A.C. 500, the Monza 1,000 kilometres, the Targa Florio and the Spa 1,000 kilometres, they would seem to be achieving their object.

There are differing schools of thought on the value of racing; some see it only as publicity, some see in it direct development towards passenger cars. The important thing is that if your research and development department are one and the same thing as the racing department, and they can conquer all opposition from the technical standpoint, then this is bound to have a beneficial backwash throughout all strata of technology within the firm, whether it is to do with door handles or production methods. This all-out technical domination of sports-car racing by Porsche must surely benefit the production Porsche even more than the old policy did, and that was very effective. When Porsche introduce their mid-engined road car in September you can bet it will be a winner, even though the price will be high, but the days of Porsche cars being modified Volkswagens died long ago. They are now in the exotic high-price, high-performance group and are still progressing. I feel sure that today’s gigantic racing programme and the technical prowess of the Porsche team would meet with the old professor’s approval.

Not only have the racing team got a complete set of long-tailed 908 coupés, but they have a similar set of manx-tailed open two-seaters, and there are now 25 of the remarkable 917 12-cylinder 4½-litre coupés ready to race, though they intend some of the 25 to go to customers who have something like £14,000 to spare. Porsche may have stumbled and fallen last year, but they do seem to have picked themselves up now.

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While all is feverish racing activity in Zuffenhausen, on the opposite side of Stuttgart, in Unterturkheim, there are entirely different noises. At the Frankfurt Motor Show in September Mercedes-Benz are expected to exhibit a brand new sports coupé that must surely begin the “next generation”, in contrast to their current range of cars which they call the “new generation”. The projected new GT car has a mid-engine layout and the power unit is a three-rotor Wankel engine, with murmurings already of an optional four-rotor unit. Anyone who has driven a Mazda 110S or an N.S.U. R080 will be more than excited at the prospect of a three-rotor unit, and with Daimler-Benz engineering behind it this must be the beginning of a new era of motoring.

The new Mercedes-Benz with Wankel engine as a road-going sports or GT mid-engined coupé solves a lot of thoughts and speculation that have surrounded Stuttgart for some years now. The three-rotor unit has an equivalent swept volume of 3 litres and the car will do 150 m.p.h. Delivery is expected in 1970. There is seldom smoke without fire, and the stories one has heard over the past few years, together with obvious questions that were never answered, now all fit into place. In Stuttgart, people used to think they heard a low-flying American Air Force Starfighter, but it turned out to be ‘”something” going round the Daimler-Benz test-track. People were convinced they had seen something “very special” going round Nurburgring. One man claimed to have actually seen photographs of a mid-engined Mercedes-Benz chassis on test. “Secret” Mercedes-Benz cars were on test on the Italian autostrada at 200 m.p.h. There was always something strange and mysterious connected with the Stuttgart firm of Daimler-Benz Aktiengesellshaft, and rightly so, for the German engineers do not sit around drinking tea and thinking everything is all right in their world of engineering. Some years ago, when Daimler-Benz A.G. purchased an interest in the Wankel engine I said to Director Uhlenhaut “You haven’t bought the Wankel engine interests to squash it and bury it, have you?” His reply was quite simple; he said “No, of course not”.

It is rather depressing for us when you realise that the British Motor Corporation engineers have only just discovered the overhead camshaft engine and the 5-speed gearbox. Jaguar are still trying to produce a V12-cylinder engine, Aston Martin have just discovered the V8-cylinder layout, and Ford have yet to learn about independent rear suspension that works. We have good engineers at Rover and Lotus, but somebody should encourage them before it is too late.

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In France Matra are making a big effort with their Le Mans team, determined to do well, though not being so over-confident that they imagine they will win. The cars are powered by their own V12-cylinder engine, developed directly from their Grand Prix engine, and in sports-car form it has shown great promise. As a Formula One Grand Prix engine it was too large, too complicated, too heavy, and too underpowered to be competitive, that is in comparison with the light, compact and powerful Cosworth V8 engine. One of the ultimate aims of Matra is to market a “prestige” road car, like a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Maserati, and clearly their V12 engine would make a good basis for this, while its development in long-distance racing would ensure durability. At the moment Matra are suffering some set-backs, for after testing the 1968 Le Mans car, with a new open two-seater body form, at the Le Mans teat weekend, with satisfactory result, they completed the first of their 1969 cars, known as the Type 640, which was a new Le Mans coupé. During some private testing on the Mulsanne straight it went out of control at high speed when Pescarolo was driving, and was completely destroyed, he being badly burnt and suffering spine injuries. Happily he is well on his way to complete recovery, but Matra were puzzled for the car appeared to become unstable aerodynamicaly, and for a missile-research firm that seems unreasonable. Their first attempt at high speed, with an American Ford V8-powered coupé two years ago, ended in disaster on the Mulsanne straight when Ruby Weber was killed. There would seem to be problems on wheels that do not exist in the air.

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Both the Monaco G.P. and the Dutch G.P. were beset by financial wrangles before all was well, and most of it came about because of a suggestion that Grand Prix teams should be paid by results instead of the present system of being paid as soon as you leave the starting grid, i.e., Starting Money. In general principle the idea of paying drivers and teams a certain sum of money to start in a race is fair enough. What happens after the start is often left to fate, and by that time all the paying customers have bought their tickets and are in their seats, waiting in anticipation of seeing something that they will enjoy. The financial arrangements used to be individual, an organiser paying a team relative to the attraction value to the spectators. If he thought Graham Hill in a Lotus would attract a lot of paying spectators he would pay £1,000 appearance money, for example. If he thought Joe Soap in his home-made special would only attract a handful of spectators, then he would only pay £100 appearance money, and this was fair enough for the organiser depends on the paying customer. A number of the top teams got together with the organisers and made an agreement that said in effect that all works teams were equal and provided an equal attraction to paying customers, all the teams except Ferrari, who knew quite well that his red cars at Monza or Monaco were worth a lot more appearance money than any green or blue car. The top Grand Prix teams are never equal, even if they all have Cosworth engines, and drivers still count for a lot. The team with the popular drivers, like Hill or Stewart, must attract more customers than the others, and if there is a local hero, like Ickx in Belgium, Beltoise in France or Rindt in Austria, they must alter the financial picture.

It is one thing to get your paying customers in at the start, but if they are not satisfied at the finish they are not likely to return next year, so the results by each team or driver are as important as the starting-line performance. At Watkins Glen for the United States G.P. payment is made according to how well you perform during the race. They have sufficient money in the kitty to guarantee that the most mediocre performer is well paid and can cover his out-of-pocket expenses. For the others, the farther and faster they go the more money they get. Now nobody has argued with this system, so the idea has been discussed in Europe, but there is not so much money in the European kitty and it was suggested that “Payment by Results” should be only for those who finished the race. In other words, when a contract is made for you to put on a performance, if you do not complete the performance and have left the stage before the final curtain you do not get paid. Needless to say, with the appalling reliability of present-day Grand Prix cars, this was not at all popular. The Watkins Glen system is ideal, with no starting or appearance money, but big prize money for as many places as there are cars on the starting grid, the money diminishing from 1st place to 20th place in satisfactory steps, but no European organiser can match the guaranteed outlay. The suggestion of “finishing money” only for those who finish is quite unfair in such an unpredictable mechanical activity, but it should be possible to work out some system between the two. Organisers are certainly not satisfied with the present system of paying a team £1,000 for a star driver in a star car that does half a lap and retires with a broken drive shaft. Equally, no team or driver is going to attend a race and retire in the last lap with engine failure and be satisfied with no payment at all. Driver-and-car combination should receive some “appearance value” payment and then be paid more money on results. The difficulty is finding a happy mean.

D. S. J.