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.]
“Mont Ventoux has remained unchanged . . .”

Dear W. B.,

The other day I had an afternoon’s journey to make on a French Autoroute, and not being in a particular hurry I decided to make the experiment of cruising at a very controlled 80 m.p.h. to see what cars overtook me. It was most interesting, for the first thing that loomed up in the mirror was a 350SL Mercedes-Benz and shortly afterwards a 280SE went steaming by, both these German cars cruising at around the 100 m.p.h. mark. At this time of the year the Autoroutes are pretty free of traffic and I could spend most of my time on the inside lane, occasionally passing “family stuff” like Renaults and Peugeots that were doing 60-70 m.p.h., while commercial traffic was almost nonexistent, the toll charged for using the French motorways presumably not balancing the time saved over the Routes Nationale for a big lorry. As the afternoon went on a DS21 Citroën overtook me doing about 90 m.p.h. and then a BMW 2800CS went by really quickly, absolutely flat-out I would say, and it probably kept it that way until it reached Paris. A rare sight was a 2.6 Alfa Romeo and not long after that a 1750 Alfa Romeo went by, not a vintage one I am sorry to say, and finally the inevitable BMW 2002 ti ; the day would not have been complete without seeing one of them hurtling along. I find that if I cruise the E-type at over 100 m.p.h. on a European motorway there always comes the time when I see a speck in the distance ahead of me that I do not gain upon very rapidly, and when I eventually catch it up it invariably turns out to be some derivative of the BMW 2002 for they seem to thrive on being driven flat-out. On my “touring” afternoon on the Autoroute all the exotica seemed to be on the other side, heading south, such things as Dino Ferrari, Daytona Ferrari, Lamborghini Espada and Citroën SM being seen, as well as a Maserati Ghibli on tow behind a breakdown lorry; I hoped for the owner’s sake he had only run out of petrol! It was interesting that those cars which overtook me were all quality cars from honourable firms with backgrounds of racing or engineering integrity.

On my way to the Hockenheimring I made my annual deviation off the Frankfurt to Darmstadt Autobahn to pay homage at the memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer, in the little clearing in the woods near where he crashed and was killed while doing 270 m.p.h. in the 6-litre record breaking Auto-Union on January 28th, 1938. The stone memorial is always kept neat and tidy and on it were two fairly recently placed wreaths in memory of the young German driver, who was to Germany in those days, what Stirling Moss became to Great Britain in later years. One wreath was from the Motorsportclub Frankfurt, the other from the Motorsportclub Wiesbaden and I am always moved by the fact that the German motor racing enthusiasts continue to remember Rosemeyer and pay homage to him. I am sure there are still a lot of people in England who went to Donington Park in 1937 to see the Auto-Unions and Mercedes-Benz do battle in the Donington Grand Prix, and remember how Rosemeyer trounced the entire Mercedes-Benz team of Caracciola, von Brauchitsch, Lang and Seaman. His opposite-lock slides with the rear wheels on the grass verge were memorable and some of the film that still exists of that great occasion in British motor racing history is terrific. He was not polished and smooth in his driving, like Caracciola or Seaman, but he got results, rather like Gonzalez compared to Fangio, or Peterson compared to Fittipaldi today. Looking back to those days reminds me that the Grand Prix season used to finish about September or October and then the German teams would have a session of record-breaking on an Autobahn using special versions of their Grand Prix cars, and the German motorcycle firms of BMW and DKW would also join in. It was a glorious week of pure speed over the flying-start or standing-start kilometre or mile, and some attacked records as long as five miles. After the Rosemeyer accident the Germans realised that one side of an Autobahn was a bit narrow for speeds of over 250 m.p.h. so the Government built a special stretch of Autobahn the following year, south-west of Berlin, and this had no centre reservation so was in effect five lanes wide. In 1938 the Grand Prix cars were limited to 3-litre supercharged, just half the capacity the Auto-Unions had reached in 1937, but even so the special streamlined Mercedes-Benz took class records at nearly 250 m.p.h. It is a great pity that the Grand Prix scene has become so busy and complex that it cannot take time off at the end of the season for a “Records Week” with fully enclosed Grand Prix cars, or even more exciting, a specially prepared turbo-charged Porsche 917 or Indianapolis McLaren. I do not spend all my time on European Motorways, although they are becoming so well joined together from one country to another that if time is important it pays to travel farther but faster by using them even if they are not the most direct route. I still enjoy mountain motoring and a trip across the French Alps through Monte Carlo Rally and Alpine Rally country ended up not far from Avignon, so a detour just had to be made to Mont Ventoux and to make a climb of the 21.6 kilometre (13.4 miles) road that is used for the annual mountain hillclimb. It is on the N574 and starts on the very edge of the village of Bedoin and finishes on the 50-yard-long plateau at the mountain peak by the radio and television station, exactly as it did when I first went there in 1949, and presumably as it did when it was first run in 1902. It is quite remarkable how the whole route has remained unchanged in the twenty-three years that I have known it. The challenge always was and still is, to climb the Mont Ventoux as quickly as possible, accepting all the natural hazards of rocks, trees, bridges, walls, loose gravel, and sheer drops to say nothing of an average gradient of 7 1/2%, a maximum gradient of 14%, and a rise in elevation of over 5,300 ft. Fortunately the world of hill-climbing is full of the right sort of drivers who approach the problem with the right mentality, otherwise the Mont Ventoux would be shortened, straightened, levelled out and made so safe that it would be no more exciting to anyone than Prescott. The record-holder for the Mont Ventoux is today’s Ferrari team manager, Peter Schetty, who set it up in 1969 with the special 2-litre flat-12 cylinder Ferrari hill-climb car in 10 min. 0.5 sec. (80.46 m.p.h. average). On the particular trip on which I passed the Mont Ventoux I also passed by the Cesana-Sestrieres mountain climb in the Italian Alps and the Montseny Mountain climb on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees and at both those climbs the record-holder is Peter Schetty with that same flat-12 cylinder Ferrari. I hope that if the Ferrari team-manager asks his drivers to do something a bit difficult they will bear in mind who is asking them, and if they can take time off from Grand Prix or Sports Car racing and the glamour-travel of jets and do a bit of touring they will deviate from the main roads and have a look at some of the mountain climbs of which he is the “record man“.

Last month I enlarged on the building of the section of the Le Mans circuit which by-passes the White House bends. Hardly had the ink dried than I was back at Le Mans and found enormous road works going on along the section from Arnage to the beginning of the new White House section. It looks as though the road will be about double the width, the work going on along the left-hand side of the existing road and the first reaction was “why alter the circuit ?” When you leave the road workings and get on to a section of the old road the reaction is “This is a bit narrow for a pair of 917 Porsches side-by-side”. Then I realised that the days of the 917 are finished, but that Le Mans this year could easily see three 3-litres side-by-side up this stretch, especially with Peterson in a 312P Ferrari, for he will run alongside anyone, anywhere. With four Matras, four Alfa Romeos, four Ferraris and probably Wisell in a Lola-Cosworth V8 and Bell in a Mirage, the opening hours of the Le Mans 24-hour might well be one of the best motor racing sessions we have seen for a long time, and the extra width from Arnage to the new Porsche corner could well come in very handy. Although Ferrari has been sweeping the board in sports car racing at the “short”or “small” events and will obviously win the Manufacturers’ Championship, it is the “big one” that really counts, and that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Taking time off recently to do some reading, as a change from writing, I re-read the BRM story by Raymond Mays and Peter Roberts, published in 1962. Two incidents that were recounted made me think that times have changed for the worse. They both involved Mike Hawthorn, one on the positive side the other on the negative side, and made me wonder if they were not typical of the happenings of the 1950s before racing became too serious and professional and before the word “dedicated” was thought up by journalists. The first incident was at Goodwood when Hawthorn was racing the big 4 1/2 Ferrari “Thinwall Special” of Tony Vandervell against Fangio in the V16 BRM. Hawthorn arrived on the grid, on the front row at the very last minute after some bother in the paddock and in the rush he stopped forward of the starting line by a car’s length. While he was wondering about getting the car back in line with Fangio’s BRM, the Argentinian driver waved to him to stay where he was as everyone was ready to start, and the race started with Fangio giving his chief rival a slight lead. Nowadays drivers are buried deep in their monocoques with only their eyeballs showing so they have little opportunity of communicating with each other and such instant starting line decisions would have to be made by the driver’s spokesman, public relations man, lawyer, team-manager or entrepreneur, but somehow I cannot see Ken Tyrrell telling Colin Chapman that it would be alright to start the race with Fittipaldi’s Lotus a length ahead of Stewart’s Tyrrell! The other incident occurred at a small race in the North of England when Parnell was driving a V16 BRM and was on the front row with Hawthorn and the “Thinwall”. The BRM had some last-minute trouble on the starting with a broken petrol pipe and mechanics were feverishly trying to effect a repair. Hawthorn got out of the “Thinwall” Ferrari and walked across to them saying “Take your time lads, they can’t start the race without us.” When the repair was finished he said “Right-o, let’s go motor racing” and went back to his car. Once again the changing times have done away with such gestures for when today’s driver gets into his car he is pressed firmly down into the monocoque by his mechanics and they clamp him in place with a full safety harness and all he can do is roll his eyes and move his feet and hands and he is there until someone lets him out.

Now the point of recounting those two stories from Raymond Mays’ book was to show how times have changed and while I was thinking that such acts of “chivalry” no longer happen, I had cause to watch a Formula Super Vee race. The reason for this was somewhat oblique because normally I consider that racing in the beginners’ categories, such as Vee, Super-vee, Formula Ford etc, is essentially for those taking part, possibly for the amusement of the spectators, but definitely not for journalists and hardened old critics like myself. I was carefully stepping over the Formula Super-vee competitors on my way across the paddock to a higher echelon of racing when I came face to face with Ritchie Ginther (ex-works Ferrari, works BRM Grand Prix driver, you will remember). It was in the middle of Europe and our instant reactions were the same “What the hell are you doing here ?” It seems that Volkswagen are as deeply involved in Super-vee as Ford are in Formula Ford, and VW had recently taken a European team of Super-vee cars and drivers to America for an America versus Europe match race. It was now the American team’s turn to visit Europe by courtesy of Volkswagen and Ginther has a racing preparation business in California and one of his customers, with a Super-vee Lola (with Volkswagen engine and Hewland gearbox) had won a place in the visiting American team. For old times sake I took a closer look at this Super-vee race, but by now you are probably wondering what all this has to do with the Hawthorn stories and “chivalry”. I’ll get to it eventually. This match race between five Europeans and five Americans was all part of the overall race in which the fastest thirty in practice were taking part, there being nearly double that number of entries. The fastest American driver had trouble in practice and qualified thirty first, just out of the race and when this was known the German driver in thirtieth position, not in the European team, offered to stand down and let the American take his place, on the back of the grid. Agreement had to be obtained from everyone else and this presented no problems, so the race started with all five American team drivers in it as well as all five Europeans. See what I mean about changing times, or perhaps they haven’t changed much after all at some levels, though at the Spanish Grand Prix we had a good example of the feelings at the top. Beuttler was slowest in practice and during the discussions on whether he should be allowed to start one works driver was very much against it, saying that he would get in the way and present an unnecessary hazard, this driver was not among the fastest on the front row, by the way. As things turned out the works driver concerned had trouble and ran pathetically slowly and would undoubtedly have got in Beuttler’s way! To return to that Formula Super-vee race it would have made the story if the fast American on the back row had swept right through the field and won the race for Uncle Sam, but it did not turn out that way. Every time I saw him he was either spinning or travelling backwards and the entire American team were soundly beaten, the race being won by a chap from Liechtenstein, the tiny principality between Austria and Switzerland.

This must be all for now as I must head north from Sunny Spain, where the rain is not only pouring down in the plains, but it is snowing in the mountains, to the cold, damp Ardennes in Belgium, where no doubt it will be blazing hot. I certainly hope so. — D. S. J.

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