Letter from South Africa

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Dear D.S.J.,

My initial reaction to being told that there would be a Formula One race at Kyalami for cars entered by members of the Formula One Constructors Association was to think “Brands Hatch is far enough to go for the Race of Champions, not South Africa”. Then I thought again and realised, well, at least sometimes the Race of Champions had a Ferrari or two entered, even if it was withdrawn at the last moment, but the South African race never even had that benefit. Still, after all the rows and “argy-bargy” over the winter, it was good to climb aboard a British Airways (they just call it “British” now!) Boeing 747 and zoom off to see a motor race, even though I spent the twelve hour flight to Johannesburg wondering “what on earth is it all about?”. There had been a rumour doing the rounds for a couple of weeks that Alfa Romeo would waver in their support for FISA and “break ranks” by sending a single V12 engined car for Giacomelli, but this never came to anything. I suspect this was a FOCA “morale booster” put into circulation to help their own members convince themselves that the points from the Kyalami race would count for the official championship. I’m certain they won’t and even race winner Carlos Reutemann doesn’t believe they will either!

I was just about to say “you recall that air of unreality at Jarama last year when them was another pirate race”, but I’ve just remembered that you stayed away from that one as well. You miss all the excitement! Well, the atmosphere at Kyalami was just the same. It was a serious enough motor race as far as it went, but when you’ve become used to seeing Ferraris, Alfas, Renaults and Ligiers, to say nothing of drivers like Villeneuve, Pironi, Andretti, Giacomelli, Arnoux and Laffite, an event without them seems a little on the sparse side. FOCA trumpet that they can do without them, in fact Teddy Mayer’s Best remark to me when I saw him at the end of the race was “well, who needs Ferrari?”. I’m afraid remarks like that just make me scratch my head and wonder whether he really believes it or is just saying it to try and convince himself. Max Mosley, as you’d expect, was banging much the same drum, responding to my inquiry “how can you have a proper Grand Prix without Ferrari?” with the reply “we have the first three drivers in the 1980 World Championship”. I must say that was a pretty slick answer which shut me up for a few minutes, and, anyway, it’s not really much good arguing; there’s always an answer from the FOCA camp.  Suffice to say I wasn’t convinced, as I know you won’t be and neither will most of Motor Sport’s readers.  As our mutual journalistic friend Eoin Young remarked to me “if Max can’t convince himself, then he hasn’t got much chance of convincing us!”

As you well know, the biggest problem with FOCA is that they assume because you are not with them one hundred per cent, then you are automatically totally against them. In that connection I was very pleased to hear Ken Tyrrell, a person I know we both regularly disagree with, confide “you know, we can all see this isn’t much of a race. But it’s better than no race at all”. I have to say that I agree with that point of view, and the drivers were certainly out to race hard in what turned out to be a very pleasant non-Championship event. It made good television as well, so I understand, although I bet Gilles Villeneuve and Mario Andretti were biting their fingernails back to the first joint if they were watching. They and their other absent colleagues are real racing drivers and the idea of a Formula One race taking place without them must have left them agonising with frustration.

I felt a bit sad when I first went into the Kyalami circuit this year. It looked run-down, tatty and all the rubbish from the previous weekend’s motorcycIe/car racing meeting was still strewn all over the place. As you know, the circuit’s ownership passed last year from SAMRAC, who’d run the race for fifteen years or so, to an international consortium of businessmen who Max Mosley knew something about. Well, they obviously didn’t make enough money out of their investment (which they were rightly entitled to do, being businessmen rather than enthusiasts) and now the circuit’s ownership has passed to a South African company run by a young gentleman named Bobby Hartslief. I only hope that he has more success with the circuit and won’t be too put-off Formula One racing by the size of the crowd, reputed to be only 35,000, who turned up on race day. In fairness, however, I should tell you that the weather was pretty awful all week and race morning dawned with torrential rain falling and little prospect of a let-up.

Despite the small crowd, FOCA seemed delighted with the whole affair because the race had been televised World-wide, with the notable and not unexpected exception of France! You remember you wrote a piece in Motor Sport a couple of months back in which you said that Max Mosley had once told you that FOCA were not particularly interested in spectators, but that television was the most important thing. Well, that was pretty depressing in itself, but I found “active proof” of that theory at Kyalami which really made me sad. You know how frequently you and I, and many of our journalistic colleagues, have walked down through the long grass behind the paddock to spectate during practice at the Jukskei kink because that was a place where we could suck through our teeth as the fast lads came steaming down through the right hander at Barbecue bend at 150 m.p.h. and roared through the kink without lifting from the throttle. Well, that’s all been spoilt. A large gantry (I won’t call it a bridge, because it doesn’t have any steps either side) has been built to accommodate a large “Marlboro” banner across the track. That means that when you sit in that open grandstand looking towards the exit of Barbecue, this wretched sign is right in your line of vision. It really has destroyed one of the best viewing places on the circuit — presumably in the interests of television exposure — with no steps it can hardly be explained away as easing access to the circuit! But something even more serious has resulted from the siting of this gantry. The marshals’ post is still situated on the Jukskei side of the gantry, but the marshal now has to bend down low to see if any cars are coming round Barbecue before he can make a decision whether to put out a blue flag. It might have been logical from the sponsor’s point of view to position the gantry there (as it may well have been to rename several of the circuit’s comers after them!), but I can’t see that it is logical from any other point of view. That sort of thing makes me mad!

Wandering down the pit lane was a most relaxed affair with about as many people present as one usually sees at a mid-week practice session. One very heartening aspect of the Kyalami weekend was to see how many “keen lads” had bobbed up in various Formula One cockpits, all enthusiastically awaiting their chance to test their skill against the established names in the game. Colin Chapman had given the second Lotus 81 to Midlands driver Nigel Mansell, who did a very reasonable job, Italian driver Siegfried Stohr (he really is Italian) had found sponsorship to buy a place in the Arrows team and “Chico” Serra replaced the retired Emerson Fittipaldi in the Brazilian’s line-up. As you know, we’ve “put on record” E.F.’s retirement elsewhere in this month’s Motor Sport, but now I’ve seen him “pit bound”, so to speak, it seems very strange indeed that he will not be racing any more. He admitted on the first day of practice that he had to fight an inner urge to climb into the cockpit and said it was most strange to see two Fittipaldi cars driving out onto the circuit and to realise that he wasn’t in one of them! He reminded me that he had never watched a Formula One practice session in eleven years! But by the end of the weekend he was making good the “transformation” to team owner, enthusiastically bustling round looking after Serra and giving him a lot of help and advice. With Rosberg finishing the race fourth and Serra coming home ninth, the Fittipaldi team were more than content with their weekend’s effort.

A lot of people who watched the race on television commented to me just how “po-faced” Frank Williams looked as Carlos Reutemann came up to take the chequered flag. That’s interesting, because I had just finished reading an interview with Frank in another magazine in which he explained how he didn’t encourage his team members to display great enthusiasm or emotion at the end of a race, preferring to maintain the “stiff upper-lip” British cool. I can only say that I was amazed and disappointed when I read this, because Frank is a person I’ve always regarded as a great enthusiast and when I recall the way in which he nearly fell out of his pit at Silverstone two years ago when he greeted dear old Clay Regazzoni as the Swiss notched up his team’s first Grand Prix triumph, I can only say I find this attitude contrived and unreal. I must say that I like the way in which the Italians and French cheer and hug each other in a spontaneous outburst of emotion when one of their cars wins a race. Or perhaps Frank’s disinterested expression at Kyalami reflected his inward knowledge that it wasn’t a proper Grand Prix his car had just won. Frank Williams is a competitor in the truest sense of the word, wanting to beat the best in the World, as he has done successfully over the past two seasons. But he wasn’t doing that at Kyalami.

On the new front there wasn’t much to be seen with the exception of the new March 811s which have been designed by Robin Herd for John MacDonald’s team to operate. They are neat and tidy ground effect single-seaters in the current idiom, and although they were fitted with sliding side skirts Robin Herd admits that he’s “well down the road” considering various ways of adapting them to run without skirts. The drivers were former Tyrrell man Derek Daly and Chilean Eliseo Salazar, who was just recovering from a nasty bout of typhus and not really feeling up to the job of driving a Formula One race. But the RAM team managed to get two cars to the starting line, even though they were working so late at the circuit on the nights following the practice sessions, rectifying teething troubles, that they found themselves locked in and had to “break out” of the track in order to get back to their hotel!

You had better pack your bags to come to Long Beach, whether it’s a FISA race, a FOCA race, or both or you will forget what a racing engine sounds like!

Yours

A.H.

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