The Formula One scene

There are times when I get the feeling that “big business” is trying to manipulate the sport of Grand Prix racing to further its own ends, and the recent juggling of dates on the 1980 Calendar, the acceptance of certain tracks or autodromes as suitable for Formula One and the cancellation of certain races tend to encourage these feelings. If a big petrol company, like ELF, or a serious motor manufacturer like Renault or Alfa Romeo, or the motor industry in the shape of Goodyear, Lockheed-Girling, Champion or Ferodo, shows signs of trying to influence the future path of Formula One then I accept it, for their whole future lies in the motor vehicle, whether it is a racing vehicle or production vehicle. It is when cigarette manufactures, soap powder firms, food and drinks firms, clothing manufacturers, property firms, money firms, and any other non-mechanical concern shows too much interest in the working of the Formula One scene, that I get apprehensive, because I know that their money and their business acumen is being applied to motor racing as an advertising tax-loss, with no end product to benefit the motor vehicle. 

As these words are being read (hopefully on March 1st) my apprehensions are being drowned by the glorious sound of 24 racing cars leaving the starting grid at Kyalami for the South African GP. The sound of 12,000 horsepower being unleashed always makes my adrenalin flow and I get tingles up the back of the neck. My apprehensions grew during February when all was fairly quiet, for the noise of the Brazilian GP on January 27th had died away and there was a whole month’s lull before the next Grand Prix event. In South Africa, hopefully, we shall be seeing the results of the labours resulting from the two South American races. Ferrari in particular will have done an enormous amount of investigating and thinking, for the new T5 proved to be a disaster as far as results were concerned, with four starts and no finishes. So what happened to the famed Ferrari reliability? Frank Williams and Patrick Head arrived back with mixed feelings, for their 1979 car won the first race, indicating that the opposition had not quite caught up, but they were not at all happy that their 1980 modifications did not work. In Brazil it was very clear that a 1979 car will no longer keep in the running, with Renault looking stronger than ever and Lotus on the upward climb again. When Colin Chapman gets his team back into the winning groove it is very bad news for everyone else, for it means they are all going to have to move down a place, or even two. Some teams drift to the back and stay there, but not Team Lotus, their place is up at the front, and the “new boy” Elio de Angelis apparently did a very good job in Brazil. 

Team Tyrrell introduced a new design, just before leaving for South Africa, this being the 010, which Maurice Phillipe has conjured up from knowledge gained last year. Unfortunately for some people, the viewing of this new car took place in Italy, rather than in the Surrey wood-yard where Team Tyrrell have their headquarters, but this was caused by their sponsor being an Italian firm, and he who pays the piper obviously calls the tune. It is amusing to look back to 1969 when Ken Tyrrell was running a March 701 for Jackie Stewart, and rumours were saying that there was going to be a Tyrrell Formula One car. Tyrrell was very loud as he always is: that it was all rumour, saying that he had no intention of becoming a racing car manufacturer. Hardly had the noise died down than the Tyrrell 001 was unveiled! Now here we are in 1980 with the unveiling of the Tyrrell 010. None of the numbers in between have been missed out, so he is not doing badly for someone who had no intention of becoming a racing car constructor. I wonder what he would have achieved if he had really applied himself to the matter, like Colin Chapman. 

For the two South American races Leo Mehl, the Goodyear “supremo”, stuck to his word and did not produce any super-sticky qualifying tyres for his customers, and he has stated that if Michelin do not support them in their curtailment of these short-life tyres, then Goodyear may have to “phase themselves out of Formula One”. You can fill a magazine with articles and photographs about the efforts needed to supply ten teams or more with racing tyres, but even then you would only scratch the surface of what it really involves. It is all considered to be worthwhile if the Goodyear technical departments learn something from racing, and any of the engineers will confirm that they do indeed learn a great deal. The publicity and advertising departments benefit in their activities from the company’s participation in racing and as the Chairman of the Board of Directors is dead-keen on racing anyway, Goodyear are involved with use about every branch of the sport imaginable. It is Formula One that feeds back the greatest technical benefit, not necessarily directly to passenger car tyres, but to the technical know-how on rubber and tyre-design that makes the design and development of production tyres a fairly simple matter by comparison to the ever increasing demands of a Formula One tyre. With qualifying tyres, the technicians felt they were not adding any useful knowledge to the tyre technology, and the Michelin technicians were in full agreement. Both companies asked FISA and FOCA, the two controlling bodies in Formula One, to do something about it, but nobody came up with any bright ideas, so Goodyear’s Leo Mehl took the initiative. My feeling is that the engineering side of Michelin will shortly support Goodyear, though the business and publicity side of the French firm may have other ideas. 

In Brazil, the Arrows team and Riccardo Patrese caused our weekly journal Motoring News to get a bit hot under the collar over the question of tactics and sportsmanship (for want of a better word). There are not many rules in motor racing, as regards driving, for mostly it is left to common sense, but there are one or two unwritten rules that most people abide by. No top-line driver worthy of the position would deliberately “play rough” and “crowd” a novice driver, though they will do such things to a driver of their own stature and position. Equally it is accepted that the race-leader has right of way at all times if he needs it. This is particularly important when he is lapping slower cars, especially if he is in a nose-to-tail battle with another driver. If two cars are dicing for the lead and lapping five seconds quicker than you are, then you are expected to keep out of the way when they come up behind you to lap you. The problem that some new young drivers seem to have when they get into Formula One, is knowing (or even realising) when they are about to be lapped. There are many ways of knowing this and I would have thought a good team manager would have given his new recruit some tuition in this matter, but to see some of the things that happen, I don’t think they do, or else the recruit forgets easily. After practice it does not take much time to analyse your best lap with that of the front row of the grid, and assuming you all drive at the equivalent pace in the race you can easily calculate when you are going to be lapped; at lap 10, 20, 30 or 40 so that as the moment approaches you look for other signs of warning of the leader’s approach. On most circuits there are places where you can see another part of the circuit across the infield or across a couple of comers. A simple example in amateur club racing is at Silverstone on the Club circuit. As you leave the Becketts hairpin and accelerate up the main straight you can see across to Maggotts Curve on your right, and easily see the race leaders if they are that close; or at Brands Hatch from the top of Clearways you can see down to the bottom straight. By the time the leaders are close enough to see across the infield the pit signalling crews will also give you warning. Even if your own pit does not do so, you can easily see the signaller from Ferrari, Lotus, Renault or Williams looking anxiously up the track as you approach; and you can be sure he’s not looking for you. If you read their board as you go by you will get ample warning of who is about to overtake you. If Scheckter’s board says + 1 Jones, you know what to expect. 

Crowd reaction is another good warning signal, for if you are about to be lapped you can be sure the spectators won’t be looking at you. If they are all craning over the fences as you approach you know the leader is not far behind, and if you’ve been reading your warning signals correctly you’ll have a good idea as to whether he is on his own or not. How many times have we seen a “novice” move over to let the leader through and then swoop back to try and get in the “draught” of the faster car, not realising there was another car or cars close behind. In Canada last year Alan Jones had an enormous “moment” due to a “novice” driver doing this. Luckily for the “novice” Jones’ reflexes and skill are of a very high order, otherwise the “rabbit” would have been punted into Kingdom Come. 

Another important aspect for a beginner, or even a seasoned driver, is when one of the super-quick drivers has had a pit stop and is going at nine-tenths or more to make up time. I’m thinking of Villeneuve, Laffite, Jones, Piquet all of whom did this last year. If you are being caught at the rate of two seconds a lap then it is expected of you to give the faster driver a clear run by when he catches you. If your team-manager has been doing his job properly he will have kept you informed of the progress back up the field of the super-quick driver. If your + signals have been eaten away at a steady 2 sec. a lap then there is no justification for you to hold up the other man, or hinder him in any way, especially if you are not running in an important position in the overall race. Yet this is what Patrese has done all too many times and it was criticism of this that sparked off the verbal punch-up between A.H. and the Arrows team. 

If you are racing for the lead then it is another matter and you can do what you like, within reason, to defend your position. The real master of the art was Jack Brabham. He could use more road than you would think possible if be was being challenged for the lead, there was never room to get by him. In motorcycle parlance, he used to “stick his elbow out”. Other drivers seem to suddenly increase the track of their car if they are challenged, while others put on an act of desperation so that the car slides about and wags its tail more violently when challenged from behind for the lead. If you are running seventh and you do these sort of things to someone who has made up 55 seconds on you, it is not on. 

Bearing in mind that we are now in the month of March it is absurd that certain race dates and circuits on the Formula One calendar are still not finalised. There is either some muddled thinking within the ranks of FISA and FOCA, or some business deals under way by the entrepreneurs of Formula One. The Grand Prix of the United States of America was traditionally held at Watkins Glen in upper New York State in the autumn. A year or three ago the enthusiastic Californians got street-racing under way at Long Beach so we had two races in the United States. Some European countries thought it a good idea and made noises about a second Grand Prix in their calendar, but the FIA soon put a stop to it by making the rule that circuits for World Championship Formula One races had to be at least 4,000 kilometres apart within one country. This prevented any European country from trying to hold two events, and made it all right for the United States, with their Grand Prix West in the spring and their Grand Prix East in the autumn. 

Then the money-manipulators of Formula One, headed by Ecclestone and Mosley, thought it would be a good idea to hold a Grand Prix in cahoots with the gamblers of Las Vegas. Don’t ask what happened to the 4,000 kilometre rule, for Las Vegas is only a hundred miles or so from Long Beach. There was also the problem of having three World Championship races in one country, and as Long Beach made it very clear, very early on, that they were there to stay, an underground movement was started to get rid of the Watkins Glen race. Now Watkins Glen has been running their Formula One event for nearly twenty years and none of the uncontrollable variables have changed during that time. The weather can be good or it can be awful, it could be freezing cold and dry, wet and warm or wet and cold, there was no way of knowing. The small town of Watkins Glen has always been a small town, primitive in some ways and limited in accommodation, the circuit has always been a bit primitive in its amenities, the crowds have always been large and boisterous, sometimes crude and unruly and often unpleasant, the track has never been a billiard table. When it was the only excuse for the Formula One circus to go to America, with someone else footing the bill, nobody complained too loudly and suffered the bad things in return for the good things, like big bags of dollars (in cash!) for prize money. Dollars that could be slide away to the Bahamas, to California or to Switzerland, certainly not brought home to an English bank and the Inland Revenue.

Suddenly it has all changed. The Watkins Glen track is bumpy and in need of repair, the paddock needs more tarmac, main sewerage is necessary, more grandstands are needed, communications with the outside world are inadequate, the crowds must be controlled much more, hotels are awful, access is bad, the weather is impossible. The prize money in dollars is bigger than ever it was, but it is of no interest any more! Almost overnight the Watkins Glen race is dropped from the 1980 Calendar; Las Vegas will take its place, just like that. But then someone had second thoughts (or misgivings?) and Watkins Glen was re-instated, providing all the required improvements were carried out, and given a date in April. There wasn’t a snowball’s-chance-in-hell of getting everything done in time, and whoever made the decision on the April date must have known that. Now there have been third thoughts (or confirmation of the misgivings?) and the United States Grand Prix East is back to its normal autumn date (October 5th) and is at Watkins Glen. And Las Vegas? Hmmm . . . We’ll have to wait and see. 

This calendar nonsense is not confined to the United States, for Mexico are trying hard to re-instate their Grand Prix and at the moment it is back in/out/on/off/cancelled/postponed/abandoned/going ahead. In Europe the Swedish Grand Prix has died the death (thank you Niki Lauda, one of the most vociferous anti-Swedish voices), and the German GP, the Austrian GP and the Italian GP are all in a state of flux. Thank goodness dear old Auntie RAC gets quietly on with things and any financial or political manoeuvrings are kept discreetly in the background. Our own British Grand Prix will be held at Brands Hatch on Sunday July 13th, with two days of practice and jollification beforehand. 

My personal sporting activities are confined to amateur sprints and hill-climbs on a motorcycle, VSCC events with vintage cars, and the odd rally or old-time run with early motorcycles, to say nothing of Speedway on Monday evenings, New Orleans Jazz on Fridays, car club meetings on Thursdays and motorcycle club meetings on Tuesdays. I just sit quietly and ruminate on Wednesdays! As my hobbies have always come before work this year looks like being very busy, for Grand Prix racing is my number one hobby, but if this juggling with dates is going to continue I can see I shall be missing some Formula One races, because my personal calendar is all cut-and-dried for 1980, with one blank weekend between now and mid-October. If the date changes are made for the benefit of engineering and mechanical progress then I’ll go along with them, but if they are made to put more money is the Ecclestone/Mosley German-owned Swiss bank account, then they can get along without me, because I have a very busy summer ahead. These manipulations by big-business, about which I expressed anxiety at the beginning of this article, never take into account the ordinary man-in-the-street who pays good money to spectate. By now most people have made their plans for a summer holiday trip to a Grand Prix, not only from the British Isles, but from all over Europe and if dates are going to be changed willy-nilly to suit the money-mongers there are going to be a lot of upset spectators, to say nothing of the travel-firms and tour operators. See you all at Brands Hatch, if nowhere else. — D.S.J.