The Formula One Scene

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Had I gone to Formula One races in South America instead of keeping my sense of proportion by staying in the mud, snow and ice of our winter, this article could have been entitled “Reflections in the South American Sun”, and with the sun being so bright the reflections would have been even brighter. As it was I left the races in Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo in the capable hands of A. H. On the purely mechanical front the Grand Prix scene has never been so active, while the changes among drivers and teams were rife and meant the starting of lots of new combinations, friendships and rivalries, all of which keep the scene very much alive. On the internal politics involved in running International motor racing, and in particular World Championship Formula One racing, the South American scene was a hot-bed of intrigue and power-politics which invariably bubbles up into a frenzy until someone starts up a Cosworth DFV. When a 24-fold mixture of DFVs, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos and Renaults start up together on the grid then common-sense prevails and we know Grand Prix racing is all right. It will be a sad day when the “do-gooders” in the world cause GP cars to be so quiet that we can still hear the sound of bitching, back-biting, barrack-room lawyers and power-politics when a Grand Prix race starts. At the moment all is well, but don’t bank on it. To listen to some people you get the feeling that the hour-and-a-half of noise while the race is run, is an intrusion on the activity of race day. In case some readers are puzzled I would point out that I am referring purely to the politics of motor racing management, nothing to do with Labour or Conservative parties or Communist and Capitalist creeds. I have had letters from readers who have misinterpreted my comments about politics.

In 1977 at the Italian GP there was a Press Conference called by the CSI (the governing body of International motor racing) at which it was mentioned that the Association of Constructors of GP or Formula One cars was planning to take over the running of the 1978 German GP. At that time the association was called the Formula 1 Constructors Association, whose spokesman is Bernard Ecclestone, and due to the human beings’ bad habit of abbreviating everything (I know I use the letters GP – I am not immune from bad habits) the title was abbreviated to F1CA. Now you can write F1CA but you cannot pronounce it, and the same human beings talked about “Feekar” and began to write FICA when they meant F1CA. In Italian the word pronounced by us as “Feekar” is a very rude one and no Italian journalist would use it in public or print it, so they always said “Fohkar” and wrote FOCA, which was quite logical as they were referring to the “Formula One Constructors Association”. Eventually the idea sunk in and the F1CA became FOCA and everyone was happy. Everyone except some members of the CSI, notably the French member Jean-Marie Balestre. He considered the gradual infiltration of Bernie (abbrevs. again!) Ecclestone and his band into the running of International motor racing was a bad thing. The idea of them becoming involved in the organisation of the German Grand Prix was anathema to Monsieur Balestre and in an impassioned speech (in French, so it didn’t get reported very well in our papers) he more or less said that Ecclestone and FOCA were a disease in motor racing as we know it and must be stamped out or at best severely controlled.

In 1978 Jean-Marie Balestre was elected President of the CSI and in his inaugural speech he stressed that Formula One racing was in need of a shake-up to put its house in order, and he was going to do it, or resign in despair. His whole policy was based on the fact that the CSI (and its predecessors) had governed Grand Prix racing since 1906 and as far as he was concerned they were going to continue doing so. Certain members of the FOCA have often said that the CSI was incompetent, and incapable of controlling Formula One racing and should hand over to professional people. They did not say as much, but they implied that FOCA were professional people. Bernie Ecclestone grew up as a second-hand car dealer, and his right-hand man in FOCA Max (Maximillian?) Mosely was a bright young lawyer who withdrew from the legal profession to play motor racing. I only mention this in passing.

The race at Buenos Aires was not only the first in 1979, but the first under the jurisdiction of the new President of the CSI and before the first corner there was a multiple accident in which a number of cars were badly damaged and two drivers slightly hurt. In the Italian GP last year there was a similar accident just after the start, and as we all know poor Ronnie Peterson lost his life and Vittorio Brambilla was severely injured (he is now pretty well fully recovered, I’m happy to say). After the race a group of the top drivers put the blame on Riccardo Patrese and pilloried him publicly. Anyone who made an honest study of that accident would agree that it was nothing to do with Patrese. I am told that the “hierarchy” among the Formula One “circus” schemed up the reprisal while they were at Peterson’s funeral, but that may not be true. On all sides there was condemnation of the CSI because they did not take any strong action after the race, and we heard the usual platitudes about the Paris-based CSI being unfit to control the activities of a multi-million pound professional activity like Formula One.

After the accident in Buenos Aires the CSI, represented by its President Jean-Marie Balestre, went into action in a pretty shattering way. I won’t go into the details of how they did what they did, or whether it was right or wrong, for so much depends on the interpretation of legal words and sentences, and French and English translations. Suffice to say that the Governing body of the sport put the blame squarely on John Watson and fined him 10,000 Swiss Francs (about £3,000), payable within 48 hours or he would be stopped from taking part in the Brazilian GP. Strong action indeed. All those who previously derided the CSI for doing nothing were now saying the action they had taken was all wrong! It was unfortunate that John Watson was considered to be the culprit, for he is one driver who can rarely be blamed for doing silly things, he is fundamentally a nice chap and everyone’s feelings were “poor old Wattie.” It was also unfortunate that it was the McLaren team who were involved because their chief is the best lawyer in the barrack room, so the acrimony was fast and furious, and doubtless is not over yet. To show their solidarity the FOCA payed Watson’s fine to ensure his participation in the next race.

At the Brazilian GP on the Interlagos circuit at Sao Paulo there were more confrontations between the CSI and the FOCA, all of which is rather amusing because last December Monsieur Balestre explained in great detail that he was going to work closely with Mr. Ecclestone and FOCA for the benefit of the sport. He seemed to have forgotten that 14 months before he had more or less said he was going to destroy Bernie Ecclestone in the power-game that surrounds Formula One. Did I say this had no bearing on real politics? Perhaps I was wrong. just before the race Jacques Laffite infringed a rule and little Bernie (I can say that, because I am only 5 ft. 2½ in. tall and can look him in the eye!) took him by the ear up to the head-master, the race organisers, who promptly sent Mr. Ecclestone away with a flea in his ear, telling him that such things were no concern of the team-manager of the Brabham team! FOCA didn’t enter into the act.

At the start of the race Carlos Reutemann broke two rules before he even got to the starting grid and a lot of people began to shout for “justice and action”. The CSI and the race organisers brushed the whole thing aside, while team managers shouted and yelled and Ferrari’s little man (all the teams seem to have a little man in their midst!) filled in a protest form. So as the Formula One “circus” returned to base in Europe (which includes Great Britain) the air was full of paper-work. Sometimes you wonder why they all bother to go to such far away places.

For those teams who went to South America to race their cars against each other the scene was equally busy and about as confusing. There were brand new designs from Ligier, Brabham-Alfa Romeo, Tyrrell, Wolf and McLaren. Some worked well, some showed promise and others were a disaster. The new Ligier JS11 was an umitigated success, principally because the team is a happy team, they were less disorganised than most, had done some good designing and calculating and a lot of useful testing. All the work had been done on the prototype car, JS11/01 and the results were collated and analysed correctly so that they built the next two cars 02 and 03 and took them to South America without running them. They ran more or less perfectly, finishing first and fourth in Buenos Aires and first and second at Interlagos, with pole position at both races as well as second fastest time, so both starting grids saw the Ligier team occupying the front row, and we thought only Team Lotus could do that. It says a lot for the design team at Ligier, led by Gerard Ducarouge with Michel Beaujon and Paul Carrello, and all the workers, that they were so successful “straight out of the box” with three major new problems to deal with. After years of working with Matra engines they were forced to turn to the ubiquitous Cosworth DFV due to Engins Matra withdrawing; they had to produce a brand new design with little or no bits coming from previous designs and they were committed to a 2-car team of formidable standing. As second driver to aid Jacques Laffite who was staying with them, they took on Patrick Depailler, which meant that both drivers would demand (and justify) the very best in equipment and preparation, unlike some teams whose second driver is a raw recruit and can make do with second-best. When you look back on a number of teams who have been using the Cosworth engine for a long time, who have built a new car and suffered “installation problems” (which means a design cock-up, in my language), resulting in oil or water systems needing altering, or fuel systems not working, or structural failures, all used as excuses for not winning, you have to admire the French team. When Laffite won in Sweden two years ago with the Ligier-Matra everyone in the pit-lane was very happy for them and congratulations came from all quarters. When Laffite won in Argentina with the new car similar effusive compliments were freely bandied about. When the French team annihilated everyone in Brazil there was a stony silence. Possibly it was of stunned disbelief, but more likely from honest concern.

A bright light on the mechanical scene was the appearance of a brand new engine design in the form of the V12 Alfa Romeo installed in the Brabham BT48. It was only bright until it ran, then it became dull. Remember how the Cosworth DFV blew everyone off on its first appearance, or how the Coventry-Climax V8 challenged from the word go, and the Mercedes-Benz M196 engine changed everyone’s standards the moment it fired up at its first race. Good engines they were. I’m told that motor-racing is much more sophisticated and technical these days and teething problems are to be expected. My answer to that is “Hmmm.” The new Brabham-Alfa Romeo was a dead-loss in South America, but time will tell and I will gladly eat my words when the BT48 starts winning because I think it is a super looking car and Gordon Murray, the designer, is a good lad.

The new Tyrrell 009 performed quite well, as it should have done, as it bears more than a passing resemblance to a Lotus 79, but as with Maurice Phillipe’s previous design for Tyrrell, the 008, it doesn’t seem to have been made strong enough and bits fell off and needed strengthening. It was really amazing last season how bits and pieces on the 008 series cars were strengthened, re-designed, gusseted, bracketed, braced and generally improved without anyone getting hurt in the process. It looks as though the 009 series of Tyrrells are going to have the same development programme. The new M28 McLarens were a big disappointment, partially because of driver accidents, but even so they were not living up to the form shown in winter-testing, and in Brazil there were signs of changed thinking on the aerodynamics. Similarly the new Wolf WR7 was not working at all well and both teams could have been excused on the grounds of “teething” troubles, if those Ligiers hadn’t gone so well. You cannot suggest that the French know more about the modern Formula One car than the British, or that their drivers are better than ours. Or can you?

Through it all came the simple message, loud and clear, that some teams have caught up with last year’s Lotus. So what do Lotus do now? The Lotus 80 is well on the way, though business happenings within the Lotus Empire have delayed progress on the Lotus gearbox and two-pedal driving technique that Chapman is set on. The Lotus 79 has not reached the end of its life by any means, and there are still some design tweaks up the sleeves of the brains in Norfolk, but do they waste valuable time on the Lotus 79, keeping it competitive or do they put all their efforts into the Lotus 8o? We should know pretty soon. With a Lotus 79 on the second row of the grid in Argentina and second in the results, and with both cars on the second row of the Brazilian grid and a third in the results, you can hardly consider the Lotus 79 obsolete. Discussing the South American scene with AH, I commented that a lot of teams would like to have achieved a “one-two finish” like the Ligier team did. His reply was “a lot of teams would just like to have the two”. Equally, a lot of teams would like to be up alongside Team Lotus, even though the Lotus 79 is last year’s car.

One final word about the powers-behind-the-throne. Earlier I explained how the F1CA was changed to FOCA. The governing body of all motoring matters is the Federation Internationale Automobile, FIA for short. It used to be the Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnu, or AIACR for short. The FIA delegated matters sporting to the Commission Sportive Internationale, or CSI. Our own national Club, the Royal Automobile Club, or RAC (abbrevs. are everywhere) is affiliated to the FIA and our sporting side, the Motor Sport Council, is part of the CSI. Now Monsieur Jean-Marie Balestre tells us that the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) is being renamed the Federation Mondiale du Sport Automobile or World Federation of Automobile Sport when translated into English, and you try and abbreviate that. No reason has been given for the change, unless it is to stop people saying “the see-ess-eye is bloody useless”, which used to roll off the tongue nicely. To say “the World Federation of Automobile Sports is bloody useless” takes much longer and someone might start up a Cosworth DFV before you’ve got to the end of your statement. Perhaps Mr. Balestre is being very clever. – D. S. J.

Footnote

Just before we went to Press, the Formula One Constructors Association met at Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters and decided that an approach would be made to the FIA to obtain complete autonomy. The World’s top racing teams, including Ferrari, have indicated that they will no longer have anything to do with the CSI or its controversial President Jean-Marie Balestre. More details next month after the dust has settled and hopefully the South African Grand Prix has taken place.