Reflections in the rain

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After a six-month rest from actually being part of the Formula One ‘Worldwide Bernie’s Circus’ I went to the Spanish Grand Prix, on the new circuit northeast of Barcelona, with a fairly clear mind. During the off-period I had kept abreast of who was doing what, and who was going where and the general scene of Formula One as a distant observer. An informal lunch back in January with Patrick Head, Frank Williams and Adrian Newey, in company with my more knowledgeable press colleagues, at the Williams factory in Didcot, set the scene for 1992.

We came away instilled with the quiet air of confidence that was emanating from the Williams-Renault team. There was no suggestion of over-confidence, but no matter which aspect of the whole Williams-Renault team you looked at, it was strong. Not necessarily the strongest, but everything was on a solid footing and there were no weak points, very much like Patrick Head himself!

When you looked at the opposition there were question marks and unknown factors. Things like a change of management, a change of drivers, a new engine, new chassis, a change of factory, a change of sponsors and so on. Nobody could really say they were carrying on where they left off in 1991. Williams-Renault were even stronger on this count, because they were not ‘carrying on where they had left off’ for the simple reason that they had never ‘left off’. 1992 was a logical and balanced continuation of 1991.

The fact that they swept the board in the first three races was no real surprise to those of us who had been at lunch with Frank and Patrick; the surprise was by how much they swept the board, with a lot in reserve and ready to add to their armoury.

As I looked around the pits and paddock in Spain, where the teams were able to be there in full strength, with a full compliment of transport and equipment and support vehicles from the trade and industry, to say nothing of the home-comforts, when you can take anything and everything with you, I began to wonder…

What is it all about? Is it real? Where is it going and why? Has the colourful scene become so colourful that it has become gaudy? Is it all in rather bad taste? Does the rest of the world need all this? I was just thinking what a vast number of people would be out of work if Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone decided to put a stop to Formula One, when a Honda V12 engine started up, followed by a Renault V10, a Yamaha V12, an Ilmor V10, a Ferrari V12, a Judd V10 and I realised the show was about to begin, the orchestra had started the overture. Even the Cosworth V8s were making a sort of music, the vibrations had started and the adrenalin was beginning to flow and all was well. The noisy, raucous, unruly ‘circus’ was back in Europe and suddenly things came back into perspective, and to hell with the rest of the world. Senna, Mansell, Berger, Patrese, Alesi, Schumacher, Capelli and the rest were about to go out on the track and start work. It had to be seen. In live action and real noise, not by remote control.

On a map the new Circuit de Catalunya (4.747kms/2.949mIs) does not look anything very special, a man-made autodrome twisting and turning about, but the circuit designers had planned it well, with service roads around the whole track, on the outside of the retaining walls. These are for use by the organisation, for service vehicles, marshals, fire and accident people and so on, but in addition a mini-bus service is provided to take journalists and photographers around the track. A trip on this bus at the height of the morning testing was very enlightening, and a circuit that was flat on the map took on a whole new perspective.

It is built on a hillside that years ago probably had sheep and goats grazing on it and they probably stamped out a zig-zag path rather than try and go straight up the hill, their path following natural contours. The circuit designers made use of the natural contours, and apart from the flat bit by the pits and startline the circuit is either climbing or descending and on many of the corners the apex is invisible on approach, as the road goes round the hillside. At about mid-way the circuit runs along behind the large paddock area, but high up on an embankment as it heads for a climbing left-hand bend to take it up to the next strata. Looking up from the paddock level I thought I was seeing a motorway passing by up in the hills, until someone said, “oh no, that’s the circuit”.

The end of the lap culminates in a downhill right-hander, a short downhill straight and then another descending right-hand bend on to the start/finish straight. Half way down the straight between these two right-hand bends is the run-off into the pit lane, so that a driver has to plan his pits approach, there is no question of dodging into the pit lane at the last moment. While the car that is carrying on to finish the lap is gaining speed downhill into the 160/170mph zone, the car heading for the pits has to meander down the inside at 50 to 60mph.

At no point on the circuit are the cars going slowly, but at the same time there is no blindingly fast long straight, yet the average speed for the lap (by the front runners) is around 134mph. What is interesting is that the two speed traps operated by the official Heuer-Olivetti timing system gave the Williams-Renault fastest across the start/finish line at 173mph and at the fastest point out on the circuit at 170mph, with the fastest lap at 133mph. This is indicative of the approach of a constant-speed circuit without going to the extreme of a banked oval! The Circuit de Catalunya is proving to be an interesting one for the drivers and a good arena for their demonstration of high-speed driving, as well as being a very interesting one for designers and engineers.

No doubt some ‘vintage minded’ people would regret the absence of a first-gear hairpin, a dive down a narrow cobbled street, or a level crossing, but this is 1992 and we are racing very hi-tech projectiles (or at least some of the teams are). There is always (for the moment) the Monaco Grand Prix round the streets of Monte Carlo, but as someone said of a modern Formula One car at Monaco, “It is like trying to fly your radio-controlled model aircraft round your bedroom.” Sometimes I wonder if the teams and drivers of today should be given a Type 51 Bugatti, a Monoposto Alfa Romeo, an Auto Union or a 250F Maserati to race in the Monaco GP!

A return to the Spanish GP pits during the break between morning testing and the afternoon qualifying period found me in an air of very hi-tech secrecy. This has grown enormously and it is industrial secrecy, not simple bloody mindedness. Garages and workshops are out-of-bounds, photographs of engines, transmissions, suspension systems, aerodynamics and so on are discouraged, not for any reason of hindrance, but for engineering secrets. Much of the work done behind the closed factory doors marked RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT – NO ADMITTANCE is now coming out into the open and the technical pace on all fronts is such that there is little time between what was R&D and is now prototype testing, which flows straight on into practice and racing and a team’s circuit pits and workshop is the brain-centre where everything is co-ordinated. To see a Williams-Renault, a Ferrari, a McLaren-Honda, a Jordan-Yamaha etc with all its body panels off is to see a bewildering array of machinery and electronics, surrounded by pipes and wires in profusion. Even the cockpit is full of buttons and switches whose purpose is not apparent until they are explained to you, and even then they are not easy to comprehend. Instruments on the facia panel are these days non-existent, there is just a blank computer screen that will only display something if it is given the correct code, and then the information is tremendous, even down to the time the last helicopter leaves for the hotel, if need be! One team, whose chief engineer has a good sense of humour, programmed the cockpit computer to display GOOD MORNING, when the driver got in the cockpit for the first time and switched on his electronics!

I am not suggesting that the whole of Formula One is on this very hi-tech industrial secrecy plain, though everyone would like to be, but a look in the 38-tonne transporters in the paddock from Renault, Honda, Ford, Lamborghini (Chrysler), Yamaha, Ilmor, Ferrari-Fiat and Goodyear, as well as the smaller ones from every branch of the automotive industry, makes it quite clear that Formula One is not a sport of showbiz entertainment, but is a very serious business. It only looks like ‘entertainment’ to the casual onlooker.

While the top teams are surrounded by this air of industrial secrecy, because there have been cases of industrial espionage, at the other end of the pits are teams who would dearly like someone to come and look at their cars and talk to their team members and drivers. This vast disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has always been in grand prix racing, but the gap is widening to alarming degrees, simply because the motor manufacturing industry are putting their whole weight into Formula One, and there are more to come. At one time a whole 26 car starting grid could be covered by a bare two seconds; now it is over five seconds, not because the tail end is slowing down, far from it, but the front is galloping ahead at such a pace that only the fittest can keep up. This, after all, is only following the general trend of the world outside. It causes some disturbing thoughts!

The first day of practice and qualifying had been interesting and instructive, but that night the rain started. On Saturday morning it was bouncing up to three inches off the road, and the official weather forecast said ‘Permanent rain until 16.00 hours’ and they were not joking. As the cars splashed round the circuit, with great roostertails of water pluming out behind them, everyone went about their business in waterproofs or under umbrellas, I began to ask myself, “Why do we all do it? Why don’t we get involved in some sort of indoor sport, like snooker?”, but looking around, the answer was obvious. There is an all-embracing love and passion for the whole business of motor racing, rain or shine; motor racing is an obsession, we are all totally obsessed with motor racing, not just Formula One, but in every category, and whether on two, three or four wheels, it makes no difference. I have a friend who is obsessed with fishing, and rain or shine, he must go fishing. If I was to suggest filling his indoor swimming pool with fish so that he could cast his flies in comfort, he would laugh and think I had lost my marbles. If he had been with me at the Circuit de Catalunya (in sunny Spain!) watching drivers going round at nearly 100mph average speed, in conditions in which I doubt whether many of us would drive at 100mph, in a straight line, let alone round the circuit, he would have said everyone was mad.

Not surprisingly the maximum speeds through the speed traps dropped dramatically, the start/finish line being crossed at only a little over 150mph, and the fastest speed through the trap on the fast swerves out the back not even reaching 140mph.

The rain had been coming down since the previous evening, and it did not stop when qualifying finished, it just went on and on. People sitting in the sun watching the qualifying on television through the wonders of satellites and cables, could switch off the depressing scene, without a thought for those still heavily involved, with another day to come. Televising and transmitting involves a great number of very wet camera crews and technicians. At least the racing car people could wheel everything into the comparative dryness of the pit garages but there were still an army of people involved in running the whole meeting who were still having to work out in the rain.

Race day was very little better, there being few occasions when you could cross the paddock without an umbrella, but full marks to the builders of the circuit that there was no disastrous flooding. For the spectators it was another story, with earth hillsides turning into quagmires, car parks in fields turning into a monumental trials course and there being little joy in the race result as first, second and third places were taken by drivers who could not speak a word of Spanish, so radio and television interviews were carried out in English, for the benefit of the relative handful of English-speaking people there.

When it was all over there was little to do except sit and reflect into the rain, which was still coming down, even as darkness approached. I left Spain with an uneasy feeling that “something was rotten in the State of Denmark” and with a very definite feeling of foreboding.

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