European Letter

Dear W.B.,

For some reason or other the season on the mainland started very late this year, it being almost the end of April before anything very important took place. However, this late start did allow me to attend various things on the European island of Great Britain before setting off on my travels, among these being various “one-make” club functions and visits to clubs to give them a chat about this and that. It started an interesting personal competition to try and attend everything in an appropriate vehicle: vintage events in vintage cars, modern events in moderns, motorcycle events on a motorcycle and three “one-make” gatherings in cars appropriate to the occasion—Morgan, Lagonda and Ferrari. I had intended to go to the ERA club dinner but could not solve the problem of transport! When I attended the local jazz club, at which 90 per cent. of the members are motor or motorcycle fanatics, I was asked if I had come in a Riverboat. It would be an interesting exercise to fulfil a complete season of English club meetings in or on the appropriate vehicle.

Still being on the island at Easter I took the opportunity to go to the BARC meeting at Thruxton as a spectator, watching most of the racing from the public enclosure at the Cobb, Segrave, Campbell series of corners, and the view of the racing was excellent, with raised hanks to assist the smaller people like myself. There were two main drawbacks, one being the horizontal wind and the other the public address system that was so bad that I had very little idea of what was happening. The wind one cannot do much about, save erecting enormous screens, but the loudspeaker system was something else. All the loudspeakers were pointing down wind, parallel witir the track and if you went to a position in line with one the result was worse than gibberish because they were wired up one after the other and you got the sound from four or five all mixed up.

“Now, now, now, now, now, we, we, we we, we, have, have, have, have, have”, etc. etc. was all you could hear. No doubt the commentators were doing a good job, but I doubt whether many of the paying customers heard very much. I am not sure whether such an absurd situation is more frustrating than a good clear loudspeaker that is continually drowned by the sound of the racing cars. So often a commentator will wait for a break in the sound of his vantage point before say ing something vital, so that on the other side of the circuit just when you want to hear what he is saying the pack of competing cars goes by. It would seem that the average spectator has to choose between “seeing it all” or “hearing it all” and more often than not if they try to get a bit of both they end up with the worst of both worlds.

Watching the Thruxton racing in this rather helpless state caused me to think back to the first time I went to a motor race, which was longer ago than I cared to remember, and how I immediately started scheming up ways in which to get out of the public. enclosure and over on to the inside in some way, not only to be nearer the racing cars, but to become more closely involved with this exciting sport, which to me seemed much more desirable than just standing on the outside watching. In those days opportunities for joining in were few and far between, and I am not referring to actually competing, but merely being involved. Thanks to the indirect help of Motor Sport I was able to get in as a junior mechanic, and from there I never looked back. Nowadays there are far more opportunities, and one way in was brought closer to me when I was giving a club-talk to the British Motor Racing Marshals Club, for they exuded just the same sort of enthusiasm for getting involved in the business of motor racing, that I had experienced and which had made me want to “get over the fence and join in in some way or another”. Their club is 800 strong, covering the whole country, and nobody is more “involved” with motor racing than the average British marshal. While their activities are organised on a professional basis it is very much an amateur-enthusiasts club and their off-season activities are like any other motor club, the difference being that whereas the average motor club does things for its own amusement, the British Motor Racing Marshals Club does things for other people’s amusement, namely assisting with the running of meetings of all categories.

While chatting to the London and district members at their Club night, the subject of the legendary Mille Miglia open-road race was brought up. One chap who was particularly interested to hear about the unbelievable things that happened in Italy in those carefree, uninhibited days of the early 1950s, was not very old, but an enthusiastic marshal nevertheless, and on enquiry I found that he was four years old in 1955 when Stirling Moss won that great race with a Mercedes-Benz 300SLR, and the extent of his motoring knowledge at the time could not have been more than a few Dinky Toys. I asked him why an event from so long ago, that is long since dead and buried, interested him and he told me that he had heard about it and read some of its history and it all seemed so unbelievable in the context of today’s motor racing. Had I not got on my motorcycle and zoomed off into the night after that evening with the Marshals Club I would have begun to think that time and old age had crept up on me!

With the Spanish Grand Prix being held at Madrid this year it was the first opportunity for some serious European motoring, and at the moment motoring in some parts of Europe has become serious and no longer fun. France has speed limits on all its roads, though a fairly realistic one of 140 k.p.h. on the motorways, and “bogeymen” and radar traps are more frequent than are desirable for a relaxed peace of mind, unless you creep about at the legal speed. However, most of this restrictive practice in the support of the great god economy, is centred on the urban areas or the trunk roads, truly rural France is still quite unchanged, even to having no lines or signs painted all over the roads to help those who can’t see, think, or drive intelligently. In Spain the rural roads are not worth motoring on, and the main roads are chock-full of lorries so that continual high-speed motoring during normal working hours is very difficult, though I must say that Spanish lorry drivers are very helpful in putting on their “winky-winks” to let you know it is clear for you to waft by.

When you think about official road signs you must realise that most of them are pretty negative and unfriendly, such as “No Entry”, “No Right Turn”, “No Stopping”, or they limit your freedom with such things as “30 m.p.h.” or “70 m.p.h.”, so that it is always refreshing to see the official road signs in Spain that tell you there is a petrol station, a hotel or a camping site so many kilometres ahead, these being to a standard blue and white pattern nothing to do with advertising. So often this sort of helpful advice is done by the advertising world and in their endeavours to outdo each other the whole business becomes confusing and a bit removed from reality. The standardised official Spanish signs are neat and simple and state a plain and simple fact, which I find very refreshing in these days of “Signitis”. In some special circumstances there are some interesting official signs, such as the one depicting a shower of falling rocks on mountain roads, accompanied by a splendid word that to me means “a desperate situation”, such desperate situations calling for desperate signs.

Sunny Spain got a bit muddled up as May Day approached and the return trip from Madrid, towards Belgium, was started in everything from rain, through sleet, to snow and the Jaguar E-type hardly ever had the opportunity to go over 2,000 r.p.m. so that by the end of the day it had averaged 25 miles to the gallon of Spain’s best petrol which is said to be 96 octane, but might be less. During this unpleasant trip I passed the two enormous articulated transporters of the dual-sponsored McLaren team, one labelled Texaco-Marlboro and the other labelled Yardley-McLaren and they were parked beside the road nose to tail. It was shortly after mid-day and I assumed that all the mechanics were away somewhere having lunch at a convenient Spanish “caff”.

As the life of a race-reporter tends to be three hours behind that of a racing mechanic, our work beginning after the race has finished, I had my lunch stop some distance further on. Setting off again, and ambling along in the rain, pondering on the happenings at the race the day before, I was cruising along a short piece of Spanish Motorway when a ball of spray appeared in the mirror, gaining quite rapidly. It went by and turned out to be a DeTomaso Pantera, and it was quickly followed by an Iso Lcle and a Mustang, all three being painted in the gaudy and, to my eyes, obscene red and white stripes and loudmouthed lettering of the Marlboro World Championship Team. These three cars are part of Marlboro’s publicity caravan that advertises a Grand Prix in the surrounding neighbourhood of an event, thumping the drum and stirring up enthusiasm for Grand Prix racing before a race. These three cars were heading for Lausanne, where they are based along with Lamborghinis, and other exotica in the Marlboro publicity fleet, and oddly enough are driven by drivers from Britain in the Marlboro organisation. Shortly afterwards the Pantera stopped to refuel, and when it caught up with me again we stopped for a chat. To my embarrassment I discovered that the reason the two McLaren transporters were parked by the roadside was not the simple one of lunch, but that the Texaco-Marlboro one had had an accident and its front axle was wrecked, and the mechanics were away somewhere trying to sort things out with the authorities. I was embarrassed about not stopping, and not seeing that one of the lorries was damaged, because when you are in trouble in a foreign country it always helps when you are joined by someone on your side, even if only to have a natter into a sympathetic car. The Marlboro fleet of exotica had naturally stopped seeing part of their organisation by the roadside, and after offering what help they could had continued on their way to Lausanne. The tiresome thing about the whole business was that the Texaco-Marlboro transporter had left on the night of the race, in order to go to Nivelles in Belgium for some private testing with the works McLarens it was carrying, and the accident had happened in the night, the Yardley-McLaren transporter leaving the following morning and coming across its fellow stricken by the roadside.

Large cities that have to be traversed are such time-wasters, with little pleasantness, that I tend to make long detours to avoid them, even if it means crossing mountains, for while mountain roads are slow they are pleasant. Consequently I took the road over the Pyrenees, through Andorra, rather than skirting round the ends with the choice of the confusion of Barcelona or that of San Sebastian. In all the many years of European travel this was my first trip through Andorra, the E-type burbling its way between the high snow-banks and over the surviving winter slush on the road itself. It was one of those perfect mountain days, with not a cloud in the sky and all the mountain tops covered in thick snow, with signs of a lot of skiing still taking place. Twice previously, once on a motorcycle and once in my faithful old Porsche 356 I tried to get into Andorra early in the season only to find the road closed by snow and being forced to turn back. It was third time lucky, though I must admit I have not tried desperately hard, fitting it in by chance more than anything else.

The journey into Belgium was to attend the 1,000 kilometre race at Spa-Francorchamps, and on the way I called in at the Nivelles-Baulers stadium, noticing that the signs in the town of Nivelles that used to say Motordrom have all been changed to read Autodrome, which seemed like subtle local politics. In the great concrete “facility” Formula One cars were practising like mad in readiness for the official practice due more than a week later before the Grand Prix of Belgium. The contrast going from the cold, unfriendly atmosphere of a modern “safety circuit” to the warm and natural atmosphere of the pure road-racing circuit in the Ardennes was brought home by the sight of a mechanised weed-killer spraying the paddock and parking area at Nivelles to prevent grass growing, to the Ardennes forests in full foliage with a racing circuit running through the beautiful countryside. In French there is an explicit word which is Ambiance, and if you don’t know what it means then a visit to Nivelles-Bafflers and Spa-Francorchamps on the same day will soon make it clear, and to me “ambiance” is an all-important part of motor racing. It is the difference between Brands Hatch and Silverstone, they both provide motor racing, but that is the only thing they have in common.

Yours, D.S.J.