On this and that and the changing times

There is a saying in everyday use at the moment which runs “we live in changing times” and quite often a rider is added “so everything must change”. I agree with the first statement, except that it is not new, or original, it is as old as life itself, for times have always changed. It is a basic fact that life must continually change, it is not possible for it to remain stationary; if it tries to it will stagnate and degenerate. There is no standing still, you can only go forward or backward. With the second statement, “so everything must change” I do not altogether agree; I like to see reasons for changes and strongly oppose “change for change’s sake” which is all too prevalent today. Since the first motor race in 1895 the racing scene has been changing and many are the books that have been written about the changes, but few historians write about the change while it is taking place, they usually wait until an era is over and then record it historically. In writing race reports and comments on the racing scene as it happens one is actually recording history, even if it is recorded with a personal bias, and unbiased reports are usually pretty dull.

At many periods in the 77 years of motor racing history the technical changes were happening so rapidly that there was no thought for anything else. In recent times we have got into a technical doldrum and there is almost too much time to think about other aspects of motor racing. The present one is the seemingly sudden realization that motor racing is dangerous, to participants and spectators alike, and to some people making motor racing safe has become an obsession. If you point out to them that the only way to make motor racing 100% safe is to ban it altogether they become so confused with cliché and platitudes that you realize they are not really sure of where they are going and certainly have little memory of where they have been. I have only to mention the word “Armco” and I get letters from readers that go on and on saying things like “if we had replaced all the trees and banks at such and such a circuit with Armco barrier, so and so would not have been killed”. The circuit and driver vary depending on the length of the reader’s interest in motor racing. Some go back only as far as Siffert, others recall Jim Clark or Peter Collins, while few go back to Richard Seaman, Louis Trintignant, Campari or Borzacchini, but in all truth had we known how to make motor racing safe when it all started in 1895 no one need have been killed in a racing car. I am sure that had motor racing been invented with no element of risk or danger it would never have got off the ground, for it is the very challenge of cheating death in motor racing that attracts the human being. Man has always strived for the unknown, it is that small factor beyond his knowledge that keeps him going, without it he would deteriorate. Remove the challenge and you remove the reason, whether it be to go faster than anyone else in a straight line, whether it be to accelerate faster than anyone else, or corner faster, or brake later; there has to be a challenge. Some people rise to the challenge of flipping a tiddly-wink, or kicking a ball, others rise to the challenge of driving a racing car. The real heroes of the present day explore space or the depths of the ocean.

I receive a regular flow of letters from readers, some castigating me for being sensation-seeking and enjoying seeing others risk their lives, some agreeing with me that Grand Prix racing is the ultimate in man’s battle against the perversity of machinery. They are all read with great interest, some are replied to, some are not, others are kept for future reference, none are ignored. Recently a letter came without any prompting and said so much of what I have been trying to convey over the years that I reprint it here:—

“Dear DSJ,
…an attempted rational look at a magnificently irrational sport … or … look what they’ve done to the circuits … on second thoughts don’t bother.

Hysteria is becoming more widespread. It is now a universal disease whose primary cause is the mass-media that transmits every event into the International front room. People have to live very much in their worldly context: to live in isolation is now impossible, however hard they try. But it is in response to the mass-media that human psychology is so weird. The first Moon Shot for instance. Three men sailing through space accompanied by every human heart. They were within one wire breakage of an incredibly uncomfortable way of dying which could so well have been reminiscent of the explorer Aeneas caught in a storm.

‘Oh, thrice and four times blessed you
Whose luck it was to fall before your fathers’ eyes
Under Troy’s battlements’.

This quote is rather too apt here because it will be remembered that the USA was losing quite a few men a day in Vietnam. At that particular moment THEY were forgotten. And rightly too, for it is the appeal to the super-ego that counts at such moments of achievement. The odds were weighed, the variables matched and the men were willing and ready. The ‘impossible’ was possible. The challenge accepted. They won. We won.

It has been the same throughout the ages: Columbus, Scott, Hillary, Chichester—all of the same basic breed. They have all been self confident odds-players, often willing to overlook the impracticabilities of those variables. It’s not as simple as the card game in ‘A Few Dollars More’ where the agreed stakes are ‘Your Life’ but this is unnervingly close. There is that same confidence, taste for adventure and a sense of destiny that impels the man to play the cards. But it’s no good trying to bluff; you’ve got to be good to start with. My above list of heroes all won with one notable exception. Perhaps he chose his equipment wrongly—those variables again—so that in some ways he was directly to blame for his ‘death’ in those cold hands that he had challenged. But symbols of such power just DON’T die.

Never before had this spirit of adventure been so powerful and widespread as with the advent of the motor car and the aeroplane. This was the real challenge. Man against nature AND machine: the ultimate in the contest of animal, vegetable and mineral. Bleriot, Alcock and Brown, Scott and Black. Or the record breakers; Segrave, Cobb, the Campbells. All these were real heroes—ARE real heroes. All moved with vitality and destiny. Some lived to look back on their deeds as legends, some ‘died’ in the midst of their achievements. At the time their deaths could only be seen in the shocking light of tragedy; it is only in retrospect that they can represent something approaching the ultimate culmination of their glory. If Life is breathing, sleeping and eating, then they are truly dead; but if Life is something more than that, something which transcends this concept and passes on into the realms of the symbolic wealth of the emotive spirit and the power of the eternal, then they live on, and will continue to live on for as long as men value such energies.

Racing drivers are the same. Thus, to attempt to study the defects of motor racing in purely practical terms is itself a profitless activity, for the sport itself is irrational. Alright, so it ‘improves the breed’ but just consider the concept objectively:—men chasing each other round a thin tarmac strip with lots of corners in it, immersed in tiny little cars with doughnuts for wheels, at outrageously fast speeds. Almost as weird as climbing up an ice covered mountain, or flying over the Timor Sea in unreliable machinery, or sailing round the world single handed—plenty of time for the variables to get you, there. No, to be involved in such past-times requires an emotional and subjective concern.

I’m sure that this is the reason for the obviously perilous hobby that Sicilians have of protecting walls and trees during the Targa Florio. Like all racing enthusiasts they identify with their hero (Vaccarella) in the battle against the enemy (Porsche) and they don’t have the restrictions that we have in our closed circuits. We are all potential heroes! It is just that some of us have the right ability (plus a great deal of confidence in our own method of transmitting it) and the right odds to materialize heroism. The rest can only admire, and travel by thought.

Racing drivers are the strangest heroes. Theirs is not a single epic, but repeated ventures of the same full-force potential. Any corner could be the undoing of a driver, yet he rounds tens of thousands in the course of the year. I’m quite sure that this is one of the main reasons for this safety consciousness which is affecting everyone at the moment. A man like Stewart has definite views on retirement and yet he still challenges the car and track at unabated speed—remember practise at Spa 1970. He still loves his racing and although he may not rank among the really greats, he is still very much the best at the present. But he DOES want to give it up and he doesn’t want it to give HIM up. I see his point but it does contradict my theory of the odds-player… he wants to look at the other man’s band before playing!

It may sound callous but I think that death plays an important part in the danger sports. Motor racing is often represented by its extremes. This is a relevant concept and is well illustrated in ‘Private Entrant’ (The Rob Walker Story by Michael Cooper-Evans) where the Ferodo Trophy and the mangled steering wheel from the Lotus of Ricardo Rodriguez are shown as the Zenith of success and the Nadir of tragedy respectively.* The two are only separated by a very narrow line… to put it in its most mundane fashion, a tiny hole in a tyre, a faulty bodywork catch, a spark… anything. The variables. It is never as dramatic as four aces… but oh so final.

Death qualifies success in many and various ways. The ‘death’ of Peter Collins made Hawthorn’s success so tragically powerful… retrospectively. Graham Hill’s 1968 Championship must go down as the supreme test of sheer guts and determination in such emotional turmoil. And the fact that we still talk of Clark in terms of great reverence, or of Collins and Seaman or Varzi or the Ascaris or any of those heroes of the past whose luck finally ran out in an uncontrollable series of incidents, is a living sign that THEY still live. And above all they ‘died’ happy while fulfilling their magnificent vocation.

Siffert is the classic example of a man who could turn his back on the dangers and cheat death of her final prize in a fabulous demonstration of bluff. For, only a short time before that day at Brands, he had been cut up by a mirrorless Porsche 911 at Le Mans. A multi-spin in the narrow confines of Maison Blanche in a Porsche 917 at 150 m.p.h. is the sort of occasion where the odds are decidedly biased. Siffert obviously thought so too. “‘I should be dead’, he said, making throat cutting gestures’,”(Autosport—June 17, 1971). Next day saw him going as fast as ever and it was in that short time to October 24th that some of his greatest triumphs came, so that his accident is doubly ironic, coming as it did at the end of such a brilliant and courageous season and also occurring on a track on which he had made such a lasting impression. To try to position the blame on a single party is absurd. If anyone is to blame—in these objective terms—it is Siffert himself. I would like to think of Siffert going out in a blaze of glory not in the centre of hypothetical contention. When he went, it was due to that kind of fateful ‘kick in the back’ that ensures his legend twice over.

I started this with the word ‘hysteria’. This is a disease to which motor racing is very prone. Sometimes I feel it is justified—Le Mans ’55—sometimes not—Brands ’71. Both Siffert and Rodriguez were particular favourites of mine because they belonged to the rare breed of real racers; but I don’t feel sorry for these men, for their place is so sparklingly assured. My grief is rather a selfish one. It will pass… but never my covetous admiration.

I wrote this effort some time ago, to myself really, in an attempt to discover where I stand in today’s stupid situation. The whole lot came to a head when I read that the GPDA want to boycott Brands for a year. I’m in favour of putting barriers round trees and crowds, but all this useless gibberish is getting on my nerves. Something tells me that it is pretty unscientific as well. Remember that helicopters did as much good for Bandini as Armco did for Rindt and Salvati. Your poignant remarks concerning the pedantic Grand Prix Drivers Association used to irritate my idyllic mind, but I’m afraid now that you are right. Your ‘dream’ in the ‘Reflections on Castellet’ really was the most incredibly imaginative discourse on our ‘disease’ ever.** And that 1,000 kms. of Austria report I must have read about twenty times, and never without a lump in the throat. THAT WAS REAL.

James Morton.
Eye, Suffolk”

* This recalls to me the morning after Rindt’s death at Monza, when everyone was going around grief-stricken, some who knew him being genuine in their grief, others going through the motions in order to keep in with the “establishment”. In the Milan paper that morning, I read that an Italian worker had been killed in a road accident on his way home from work at almost the same time as Rindt was killed. This unfortunate Italian left a wife and four children and their grief and shock must have been terrible because he wasn’t “playing the cards” in the accepted sense. Rindt and all his friends knew he was playing chance, just as any racing driver does, so a fatal accident should not be a surprise. Unfortunate, or even unneccessary, yes, but not unpredictable. The poor Italian worker was not “Dicing with Death” other than just the game we are all playing by merely being alive. Weep your tears for the unfortunate innocent victim, not for the “dicer”.

** For those who do not remember, I had a dream about the ultimate electronic circuit and the “black-box” controlled racing car run by scientists. The public clamoured for a hero, not wanting science only, so drivers were put in the cars, not to touch anything, but merely to receive the admiration of the public. When the winning car was stopped and opened it was found that the driver was dead!

Now you might think that James Morton is an old reader, steeped in Brooklands and tradition, and out of touch with the world today. He added to his letter a note to say that his only claim to fame is “being born in the year that Gonzales beat the Alfa Romeos at Silverstone” and finished up by saying “not everyone can say that!” For those to whom history is not important that was 1951 and apart from being one of the heroic and courageous drives of the age, it was an important occasion, for the 4 1/2-litre unsupercharged Ferrari finally beat the highly supercharged 1 1/2-litre Alfa Romeos, the portents having been there for some time before. It was an important day, just as was the day in 1957 at Aintree when Moss and Brooks won the British Grand Prix with a Vanwall. (Not Moss and Lewis-Evans, as a caption writer wrote on page 22 in the January 1972 issue).

At the beginning of this article I said that we were in a technical doldrum at present. The truth of the matter is that the current Formula One has been going on too long; it started in 1966 with a three-year life and has been kept alive for a further three years with at least two more to go. If we accept the patterns and forms shown by the past then there is a happening that will be really noticeable this season that indicates that the Formula is long overdue for a change. Racing drivers come and racing drivers go, but racing cars go on for ever and if the Formula does not keep them alive, the VSCC or museums rejuvenate them. Grand Prix drivers seem to come and go in groups and quite often a change of Formula has co-incided with the end of one group and the arrival on the next. A radical change such as the end of the Vintage era and the beginning of the scientific in 1934/35 saw a complete change of faces, with one or two notable exceptions like Nuvolari and Caracciola. The 1954 Formula saw the end of the era of the pre-war driver and the arrival of the post-war group, like Moss, Hawthorn, Brooks, Collins and so on. The 1961 mini-car 1 1/2-litre Formula saw the arrival of “Everyman” as a Grand Prix driver; almost anyone could get into Grand Prix racing. 1966 sorted this lot out and kept the cream, for the 3-litre cars needed skilled drivers. We are now witnessing a new collection of drivers about to dominate the Grand Prix scene, drivers such as Peterson, Reutemann, Schenken, Fittipaldi, Ganley and so on, and the Formula has not changed. Time has taken its toll of Gurney, Surtees, Brabham, Attwood, Ginther and Phil Hill, who were all to the fore in 1966, while death has taken Clark, McLaren, Spence, Rindt, Siffert, Anderson, Bandini, and Rodriguez, as death always does in any dangerous man-made pastime. The scene is changing alright, as it always has changed; it doesn’t really need much help from the “improvers”.

The stage on which Grand Prix racing is held is changing rapidly, in some cases noticed, in others unnoticed, sometimes welcome, sometimes unwelcome. Circuits are not always master of their own destinies, and influences outside motor racing can affect a circuit or organisation. A circuit such as Reims, where Grand Prix was held in the Grand Manner, died a natural death when Raymond Roche retired, for it was his tireless energy that rode over costs or Government objections to road closing. He was a dictator and a tyrant, but he was Reims. The circuit is all still there but there is no-one with the energy of Roche to stop it dying. At the other end of the scale the Austrians, have progressed from the temporary circuit on the bumpy old Zeltweg airfield to the magnificent permanent Osterreichring. Circuits like Naples, Bari, Bordeaux, Aix-les-Bains, Angouleine, Mettet, Grenzlardring, Solitude and many more all succumbed to outside pressures, others like Pau, Monaco, Imola, Vallelunga, Spa, Nurburgring, Rouen, have all fought back and retained their place in the motor racing scene. Nurburgring underwent the most drastic change of any European circuit, but it is still the Nurburgring and Le Mans is in the throes of some major changes, but will undoubtedly still remain Le Mans, while Monaco looks like being radically changed in the next year or two, to become a bigger and better and longer Monaco circuit. Plans are afoot to reduce the length of Spa-Francorchamps to about half its present length, more suited to Formula cars, keeping the full circuit as it is for sports ears and saloon cars, and Rouen has plans afoot to appease the Government and public road users, yet still retain the character of the circuit of Rouen-les-Essarts. Amidst all this activity new complexes are growing, like Paul Ricard, the new Belgian circuit at Nivelles, Jarama in Spain, Salzburgring in Austria and Hockenheim in Germany.

Unfortunately much of the thinking at these new stadium-like circuits stems from the same source so that they lack local character, or any character at all when compared with circuits that just happened on public roads by reason of the enthusiasm of the local organisers. In Great Britain we were saved from the flat-facelessness of airfield circuits by the imaginations that created Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and even Mallory Park, while Cadwell Park is a circuit apart, unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, restricted to the favoured few. Remember when our future lay with Silverstone, Boreham, Ibsley, Snetterton, Goodwood, Castle Combe, Turnberry, Croft and so on, places where racing resembled grass-track racing, or “racing round a field”, compared with Pau, Monaco, Pescara, Berne, Nurburgring, Spa or Rouen? Even Le Mans was flat and dull in those days. We did have renegade offshoots like the Isle of Man, Jersey and Dundrod, but they succumbed to difficulties, one of the major ones being access from England and the headquarters of our motor racing being in London.

Times are changing alright and its good to be living with some of them while the continual battle against “change for change’s sake” keeps one alive and interested. If everything was smooth and unchanging we would slow down and deteriorate into the past and history, and that on its own without an eye to the present and future would be unhealthy; in just the same way an eye for nothing but the future, with a complete ignorance of the past, is equally unhealthy. The motor racing scene has been changing continually since 1895, in a fascinating and sometimes crazy kaleidoscope of speed and endeavour, and the particular part in which each of us happens to be born must surely be the best part of all, especially if we can become part of it or even have some influence on its path through life.—D. S. J.