Letter from Europe

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[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W. B.,

While I am motoring about Europe I always take the opportunity to make slight deviations and do a lap of an existing racing circuit, or a disused one, and it is surprising how many circuits there have been in Europe over the years. Some circuits, like Spa or Rouen or Solitude, I drive round for the sheer joy of imagining racing cars being used on them, others like Albi, Picardy, Pescara for purely historical reasons, and permanent ones like Le Mans or Nurburgring, to see what is going on.

Stadiums and speed tracks, like Paul Ricard, Montlhéry or Monza are always worth a deviation as someone might be testing something. A deviation to the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit recently revealed that a lot of work is going on that has nothing to do with the Automobile Club of Normandy. The French Autoroute Paris-Brest is being rebuilt south of Rouen and it cuts rights across the circuit, the way the German Autobahn cuts across the old Hockenheim circuit. As the Rouen circuit is comprised of normal public roads, provision is being made to replace the roads where the Autoroute cuts through, and this has meant raising and smoothing out the fast bend before the pits so that the Autoroute can pass underneath. At the time of my visit this new section of raised road over a bridge was nearly finished, and it lies inside the curvature of the old road. The Autoroute is in a cutting that crosses at right angles and runs through the woods to cross the circuit on the long curving right-hand sweep on the back leg, where presumably another bridge will be built to allow the normal road over the Autoroute.

Later on I called in at Le Mans, and down by the Mulsanne corner there is a small test track in the woods that looked as if it might be a Kart track or something, with a large scrutineering bay on the short straight. A wire fence was being erected round this track and it turned out that it belongs to the Government and is a commercial vehicle testing station, all French lorries having to undergo periodical inspection and testing. Way down in the barren south of France I called in at the Paul Ricard circuit between Marseille and Toulon, and found some Formula One cars doing some tyre testing and the Tyrrell team making a film for their main sponsors, the ELF petrol company. It was to be called something like “The Master and the Pupil” and involved Stewart and Cevert, presumably showing how Stewart was teaching Cevert to drive a Grand Prix car, and the past twelve months have seen a lot of progress by the young Frenchman. On the other hand it could have been a film about Cevert teaching Stewart how to speak French and to appreciate the French way of living!

I came away rather depressed by the Paul Ricard circuit, for it is flat, featureless and dull in the extreme, laid out on a barren heathland and has about as much character as a peanut. I stood on a heap of rubble and watched Stewart go by at 165 m.p.h. in the Tyrrell and it was singularly unimpressive for the track is wide, the gravel edges are wide, the Armco is well back and the spectator wire netting is even farther back so there was nothing to contrast with the tiny blue car to give any impression of speed. Stewart said afterwards that the long straight was boring and too long, there was time to read all the instruments and look at all the tyres before you were half-way along it, and after that it was pointless keeping on at full speed.

Someone in the group suggested that a chicane should be built half-way along the straight, but quite rightly Stewart pointed out that chicanes served little purpose as everyone had more or less equal brakes for stopping and more or less equal acceleration for getting going again, so a chicane would prove nothing. “No” said the little Scot, “what it wants is a full throttle, but only just full throttle (for me anyway), ess-bend in the straight, you know, like the ess on the Masta straight at Spa”. (Complete collapse of D.S.J.) In case you’ve forgotten, read the Stewart hoo-ha about Spa in Motor Sport last year.

A couple of glasses of Ricard revived me and I crept quietly away, leaving the “planners and organisers” of motor racing’s future to chat among themselves, feeling that the way people are going on at present motor racing has no future, only a glorious past. I must admit that the thought crossed my mind that if Stewart found the long straight on the Paul Ricard circuit dull and boring, then perhaps there was something wrong with his car, not the circuit. If he had an alcohol-burning, supercharged 7-litre engine in the back, pushing out 1,000 b.h.p. he may find the straight was rather short, and that he was half-way down it before everything was pointing in a straight line and the wheelspin was under control. By then he would be doing 265 m.p.h and would be trying to stop for the next corner. As I motored on my way I pondered on the question of whether the newly-built circuits were perhaps running on ahead of the racing cars of today and whether Grand Prix rules were not lagging behind circuit development.

While I was in Spain for the Grand Prix in Barcelona I borrowed a 250-c.c. Bultaco Matador motorcycle, principally to avoid any traffic problems and to whizz round the city and out to Montjuich Park for the practice and the race. There is nothing like a motorcycle for having fun, even when there is heavy traffic congestion, and there is no problem about getting into the circuit, even when cars are queuing up three and four abreast. One of the chaps who used to write for Motorcycle Sport once said that a motorcycle was far better proof of intoxication than any “breathaliser”. If you are “pickled” you (a) will not get your motorcycle off its stand, (b) if you do it will fall over on you, (c) if that doesn’t happen you’ll never get it started and (d) if you do manage to kick-start it you would never keep it balanced. I know he is absolutely right, and if you can ride away after a party then you need not worry about being caught and “breathalised”.

After one of the practice evenings the Firestone people put on a vast barbecue in the paddock and brewed up a huge Spanish Paella. Somehow I got “involved” with some racing enthusiasts who were camping in the paddock, and it was very late when I pointed the Bultaco back into the city, but after a couple of laps of the Montjuich circuit (I think I had the headlight on) it seemed to find its own way home.

The real reason for borrowing the Matador, which is a very good all-round bicycle that is a cross between a trials bike, a moto-cross bike and a road-racer, was to explore some of the mountain country behind Barcelona, and while doing this I had a look at the 16.3-kilometre Montseny hill-climb which is used for the first round in the European Mountain Championship. If you know anyone who is going to the Costa Brava for a holiday, tell them to take an afternoon off and motor inland for a few miles to San Celoni, go through the village and up the climb to the top of the Montseny. You will see the white lines on the road indicating the start line and finish line, and you will have a healthy respect for Mountain Hill-climbing. If you are with some non-motor racing people do not worry, the view from the top is better than any guide book could describe, and there is a nice restaurant up there as well.

I used the Bultaco to go on up into the wilds, along dirt paths and goat tracks until it petered out on a desolate mountain. After the hurly-burly of Barcelona and the racing, the quietness and tranquility up on these mountains was quite something, and I was reluctant to restart my engine and “nadger” my way down again, the Bultaco two-stroke engine being quite quiet on the tick-over over-run as I picked my way down the paths.

Before leaving Barcelona I tried to retrace the old Pedrables circuit, where the Grand Prix was held in 1951/54, but alas, the end of the long uphill straight has been merged into a motorway complex and the whole area has changed beyond recognition. However, the banked track of Terremar near Siges is still intact, but watch out for the fierce black dog, he bit my foot as I gunned the Bultaco past him.

Yours, D. S. J.