Matters of moment, June 1983

Goodbye to pit-stops? 

All too often in the past the very things that have enlivened motor-racing have been abolished by Officialdom. Chicanes to spoil high speed on long straights, long races reduced in length, more powerful engines legislated against by weight or fuel-consumption rules or the banning of blowers, minimum body-widths stipulated when really slim single-seaters were beginning to appear, and so on. Now Big Brother is peering at pit-stops, which returned to F1 racing last year. Some of us may regard today’s racing with raised eyebrows, remembering when it was inadmissible to change cars on the start-line, when cars used the same kind of tyres for practising and racing, before the introduction of special “qualifying tyres” and race-tyres which have little grip until warmed-up and lose this rather essential quality as soon as it rains, when drivers were not classed as finishers with their cars in the dead-car park, and when the cars mattered as much, if not more, than the brave men who drove them.

Having revealed in this issue how a certain Match Race was faked, before the war (see page 656), we had even begun to wonder if this was beginning to happen in today’s F1 racing, after Renault had won in France and Ferrari in Italy! So we are truly grateful to Patrese for proving otherwise, at Imola — for you would hardly slam a valuable racing-car into the crash-barrier just to stage a fake finish! 

In spite of the changes racing has seen, F1 has now reached a particularly interesting stage, as five different “makes” finishing in the first six places at Imola underlined.

But now the future of pit-stops is in doubt. We welcomed on this Editorial page in February 1982 the return of pit-stops in Grand Prix racing, saying they would add further interest to an already enthralling sport. This has proved to be the case. The pit-pauses in the recent French GP did not change the race positions but, as even the critical D.S.J. agrees, they did add to the interest of the contest. That is the crux of the matter. Apart from enabling fuel-thirsty turbocharged cars to start with half-full tanks and on stickier tyres, pit-stops give the spectators additional anticipation as to the outcome of a race. They also involve the pit-mechanics, enabling such personnel to add their skill to that of the drivers and engineers, and thus likewise feel pride in success, chagrin over failure.

On the face of it, a generally good thing. It is the fire-risk that is causing mumblings in official circles about banning pit-stops. We do not deny the threat of pit-stop conflagrations, although modem couplings on the fuel system reduce the risk almost to nil. One recalls the dramatic occasion during the 1938 German GP, when von Brauchitsch’s Mercedes-Benz caught alight during a refuelling stop, after which he courageously climbed back into the foam-drenched car and restarted. One remembers more recent pit-lane fires, notably at Goodwood in the Aston Martin pits in the 1952 Nine-Hour race and especially that when an Aston Martin lit-up during the 1959 TT, the resultant fire nearly reaching the time-keepers’ box, threatening to end the race.

But many aspects of motor-racing are dangerous and no serious fire has happened in the F1 races of this year or last. It would therefore seem a great pity, and probably unnecessary, to ban such pit-stops. If this is done, how will it affect turbocharged cars, which would need to carry a very heavy fuel load at the start of a race? And what of long-distance races? It may be argued that, in a long race, refuelling need not be such a split-second operation as in a Grand Prix but this is nonsense — if a race requiring a pit-stop is close-fought, whether it be a motor-mower marathon, Le Mans, or F1, no unnecessary time is going to be sacrificed. 

We cannot resist reprinting the photograph taken by a Motor Sport photographer of the fire that engulfed the Salvadori / Moss Aston Martin when fuel was spilt during a pit-stop in that 1959 Goodwood TT (in the same issue we published another, fabulous, photograph showing how the fire originated, in the days when mechanics used simple garage-type hoses) — incidentally, Moss went on to win, in another Aston Martin. But we hasten to emphasise that we are not advocating the continuance of refuelling stops simply for the benefit of our photographers! Nor do we wish anyone to quote this event as a reason for a ban on funue pit-stops. . . .

It concerns you . . . 

We have received a letter from a reader who thinks it is about time speed-limits were revised (upwards, of course), now that seat-belts are compulsory and we pay so much for the roads we drive on. With a General Election pending, due now on June 9th, this could well be a useful vote-winner for motor-minded Candidates. There are many other matters that come under the same heading.

It is said that man’s two most important possessions are his woman and his home. There is plenty of vote-catching material in these categories — rates-reductions, repairs-grants, self-purchase of Council houses, increases in one-parent family allowances, free abortions, and the like.

As it is also said that, after wife and home, the thing a man cherishes most is his car — some may query this sequence! — there should be some hope of better treatment and more consideration for motor vehicle users, while an Election is pending. A reduction in car-tax and petrol-duty, obviously, dubious radar-meters being disallowed, roads to be improved using more of the savagely-raided taxes we pay on our motor vehicles, and many other things of this nature. There might well be a look, too, at the very high fines imposed on those whom the Police find using vehicles suffering from minor defects. So then these heavy fines are imposed on people in temporary jobs after long spells out of work — you have only to scan any local newspaper to see this is no — and who rely on their vehicles to remain in work, at a time of mass-unemployment. Surely such fines, and all the paperwork, Court hearings and Police-time, are not warranted for things like a defective hand-brake or silencer, which could uneasily be the subject of a “suspended sentence”, consequent on such small defects being quickly put right and the vehicle presented for Police inspection within a reasonable time? We would have thought it was on such matters that at least some useful polling could be done. But perhaps Messrs. Thatcher, Foot, Steel and Jenkins think we all ride bicycles.

Which reminds us that whacking great caravans, never mind the humble bicycle, go tax-free, while the cost of running often-essential motor vehicles ever escalates. And now Big Brother (a very busy chap) is turning his attention to the abolition of lead in petrol. We thought this had been resolved way back in 1923, when Esso and others in America started putting lead in petrol and introduced it to Europe around 1926. Our freedom, from victory in the “Battle of Britain”, was assured by the use of leaded fuel in Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engines, remember. Perhaps the greatly-increased number of motor vehicles on our streets has caused the subject to require re-examining, with public health in mind. 

It is too early to say how this will affect our cars, should some other means of retaining present octane-values not be discovered. But another correspondent has drawn our attention to the question of what will be the future of today’s classic sports-cars, if lower compression-ratios are brought about because of a universal ban on lead in petrol. Could it be that many now-cherished, and currently very valuable, old cars will be unusable in the future, unless their owners are prepared to “pink” and knock all the way to and from the Classic-car meets of the 1990s? 

Then there is the pressing matter of licensing, with the use of quarterly licences and the half-yearly or yearly disc dating only from the first of every month, seen by some people as Mrs. Chalker pandering to the police rather than the convenience of vehicle users. Add to that the long silence over the short term licences we were promised if ever Swansea gets into top gear together with objections to bridge and tunnel tolls, and there are plenty of points which might affect voting, which governments, however, never seem to appreciate.