Reflections in the Kanal

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AT THE top end of the Zolder circuit beyond the pits the track runs alongside the Albert Kanal that joins Antwerp to Maastricht and traffic along it is fairly heavy, so that during practice, if you are on the spectator slopes and have time to take your eyes off the racing cars, you can watch the barges and tugs ploughing silently past. It seemed a good place in which to reflect, but the reflections were sad. Last year we had the unfortunate accident in the crowded pit-lane during practice when one of the Osella mechanics slipped in front of Reutemann’s Williams, banged his head on the concrete pit wall ledge as he fell, and died as a result. This year we had the sad loss of Gilles Villeneuve in a violent crash caused by running his front left wheel up and over the right rear wheel of the March of Jochen Mass. The contact was caused by an enormous speed differential and Mass moving the wrong way as Villeneuve was committed repass him on the right. The Ferrari was launched high into the air where it somersaulted and crashed nose first into the sandy soil of the run-off area, its high horizontal speed tearing the whole front off the car as the nose dug in. I once knew a nice old Frenchman who had been a racing mechanic in the early twenties and had retired into the hotel business in France, but he kept abreast of motor racing to the end of his life. Even in his advancing years when names like Jim Clark, Jean Behra, Harry Schell and so on were merely names to him and not personal acquaintances he always used to say “Je suis toujour triste quand j’attende le mort d’un coureur” (I am always sad when I hear of the death of a racing driver). When he was a racing mechanic a driver’s death was a close personal thing, but his love of racing meant that he still had the same feeling even though he no longer knew the drivers. The whole racing world must have been sad at the death of Gilles Villeneuve, especially those who knew him personally and admired him as an individual as well as a racing driver. He brought a breath of fresh air into Formula One, not only by his driving but by his simple racing philosophy. No long-winded psychological explanations of what he did and why. He just loved racing and had “the will to win” that was in the same class as Fangio, Moss and Jim Clark. They used to do the impossible with a racing car and so did Villeneuve. Those of us who watched him race from the track-side will remember him more for the races he didn’t win than those he did, when he battled against impossible odds. To my mind Alan Jones paid him the greatest compliment of anyone, when he said to a group of us chatting after dinner. “Jeez, that guy just won’t give up”. To us, who had seen him walk away, unmoved, from some monumental prangs caused by tyre failures or mechanical breakages he seemed to be indestructible. But Jim Clark always seemed indestructible, and so did Mike Hailwood. We live in a wonderful world but at times it can be very cruel. Perhaps it is so to ensure that those of as who are left do not get too complacent.

Last year the Zolder circuit owners were well aware of the shortcomings of the pit and paddock area, for it had never been planned to take the Formula One circus from the start, and had been enlarged and altered year by year so that the end result was an awful botch-patch of improvisation. Full marks to Monsieur Mauré Bellién and his organisation for the way they have rebuilt the whole pit and paddock area. The entire area was cleared right out and levelled off and new three-storey buildings erected using a pre-cast concrete section system. The design in very similar to the pits at Imola, with spacious lock-up garages to hold three cars comfortably and on the second floor are restaurants, bars, hospitality rooms, press facilities, and so on, while the third floor is an open-top spectator area. The whole thing was done in a matter of four months but one thing seems to have been forgotten and that is doors at the back of the garages to take cars through direct from the transporters. Mechanics had to unload the cars in the paddock and wheel them round to the pit apron to take them through the front doors. At Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Hockenheim, Jarama and Imola the garages have doors at both ends, which is so much more practical.

Lauda’s disqualification from third place because his McLaren was two kilogrammes under the weight limit caused a lot of anguish among some people, though they had not expressed the some feelings at Imola when Manfred Winkelhock was disqualified for the same reason. There were suggestions that there should be a 2% tolerance allowed, but that is ridiculous for a car could be disqualified for being 2.1% under the limit. If you start allowing tolerances you are on the slippery slope to chaos. The McLaren team goofed, just as Lauda might have goofed and crashed the car. It was hard for the Austrian and the McLaren team but it was the same for everybody. With Watson’s car ending the race at 581 kilogrammes they were sailing pretty close to the wind and before the race I had been asking Mr. Mayer of McLaren International why he did not apply the same safety-factor to the weight issue as he did to design work. When you design and stress a component you add a safety-factor of two, four, ten, 20 or what you will, depending on your design philosophy. Nobody would design wishbone or a driveshaft with a safety-factor of nought, so why expect to deal with weight to a safety-factor of nought. I did not get a very convincing reply from Mr. Edward Mayer.

When the PIA Tribunal put the clamps on running cars under the 580 kilogramme limit there were great cries from the “special-builders” in protest, the cry being that they needed to run underweight to make up for the superior horsepower of the turbocharged Renaults and Ferraris. I asked some of them why they did not run 3.5-litre Cosworth engines, or even 3.9-litre engines, in order to balance out the power differential, pointing out that it was only the Formula rules that said unsupercharged engines were limited to 3-litres. They seemed to be prepared to tweak all the other rules in the book, so why not that one? Another cry of the “special-builders” was that unless they were allowed to run underweight they could not be competitive. Now, nowhere in the FIA rules, the PISA rules or the Concorde Agreement does it say that all competitors have to be “competitive”, but to listen to some of them (notably Frank Williams and Colin Chapman and some of the lesser lights in FOCA) you would think they had some divine right to be competitive with anyone who built a better car than they did. The irony of the whole business was that by the end of practice Rosberg in the “overweight” Williams FW08 was 0.146 of a second slower than Prost, and 0.117 of a second slower than Arnoux, which I would describe as pretty competitive by any standards. A lot of hot air is talked about weight, like it is about aerodynamics as applied to the Formula One car. In the end the driver counts for quite a lot and if some of the other teams had a real “goer” in the cockpit, like “Keke” Rosberg, I am sure they would be competitive.

Through all the wingeing and nit-picking it was noticeable that Bernard Ecclestone was keeping a low profile, which is not difficult for him, as, Iike myself, he is only half actual size. With a garage full of turbocharged BMW engines, which when they ran properly were very powerful, he could hardly join the “weight-conscious” and “uncompetitive” special-builders in their plaintive cries. What was very interesting after the race was the fact that Piquet’s Brabham-BMW weighed 587 kilogrammes, which was lighter than Rosberg’s Williams FW08, Cheever’s Talbot-Matra V12 weight 612 kilogrammes and nobody would believe the Matra V12 to give more power than a good Cosworth, yet Cheever and Daly in the second Williams had a splendid wheel-to-wheel dice for many laps, until Daly spun off into the catch fences. That they were both flat-out and at their personal limits, and probably improving with every lap is suggested by the fact that they both made their fastest layer lap 60, the one before Daly Daly recorded 1 min. 20.99 sec. and Cheever 1 min. 20.789 sec., and the young American from Rome was really leaning on the Dubliner at the end of that lap. It was a nice little battle, and one of the high-spots of the race, but in reality it was not of World Championship standards.

As the waters of the Albert Kanal clouded over with the passing of a barge I could not help seeing a blank space in the Formula One firmament, a space that is going to be hard to fill. Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann have gone into retirement, Mario Andretti has gone back to oval-car-racing and we have lost Gilles Villeneuve. A very great deal has gone from Formula One and those of us who are left are the real losers. — D.S.J.