A Sad World

Dear AH,

It is around this time of the year that I begin to get the fidgets and feel it is time that I heard the sound of a racing engine again. It was brought home to me recently when a friend showed me the video tape he had made of the BBC television documentary on the life and times of John Surtees.

After some chat and rummaging around some static museum pieces we suddenly saw (and heard!) the real thing in the form of ‘Shirt-sleeves’ on full song on the 4 cylinder MV Agusta on a piece of film taken at the TT races in the Isle of Man. That glorious sound made the adrenalin flow and made me sit up and take notice. It is time the racing season began and the sound of open exhausts rent the air once more.

Sadly, that is not going to happen on the domestic hill-climb scene, for 1987 sees the beginning of the RAC rule which demands silencers on everything at hill-climbs. We live in a sad world. Personally I am all for silencers on saloon cars, GT cars and sports cars, but I cannot agree with silencers on the cars of the top runners, which are virtually Formula One cars. In the paddock, while warming up, I accept as much silencing as possible, but there should be freedom on the start line for the top performers.

The noise of real racing exhausts is part of the scene, and this is what you miss when you see Grand Prix racing on television or film. To hear dear old Murray Walker rabbiting on with a background of twenty-six cars leaving the start is absurd. In reality, when you are there, out in the open, you cannot hear yourself speak even with one car letting off 900 horsepower, let alone twenty-six of them. It is the sheer noise of a Grand Prix start that always makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up; probably because I am conscious of the enormous man-made power.

I have never seen a space-rocket take off in reality, but a film of one and the knowledge of the potential built into that slender object is enough to bring tears of emotion to my eyes. I can hardly imagine what it must be like.

It was the same when I stood at the end of the runway (outside the fence) at Heathrow when Concorde made her maiden scheduled flight. The sheer sight of that wonderful aircraft and the knowledge of what the power of those four Olympus engines were going to do, was almost too much. Even now I cannot recall the actual sound, the whole scene was greater than the noise.

On the other hand, I got an equal charge when I heard Emerson Fittipaldi ‘whoosh’ away from the pits the first time in the Lotus 56T Turbine car. It wasn’t the volume of noise that made the hair stand up, but the nature of it. Those of us who can see and hear are the lucky ones. I am always meeting people, and no doubt you are too, who only associate us with Formula One races and far away places, and they cannot imagine us doing normal things in the off-season; though what we consider normal is open to question. They seem to think that between the last race of one season and the beginning of the next I just sit around and wait. What they don’t believe is that I look forward to a Grand Prix because it gives me a chance to get to bed before midnight.

This past winter I did a big research job for Marlboro’s Compurace, a computer programme to receive all the important and relevant facts about the World Championship races from 1950 to 1986. This programme will be available to the international Press to begin with, and ultimately to anyone who wants to pay for the key words so that they can get into the files. It is a mammoth project, financed by Marlboro cigarettes in conjunction with Olivetti, but is a fascinating one. It involved me going through all my programmes and race data, cross-checking the drivers involved; the cars, engines, tyres, fuel, sponsors, teams and so on come later.

What was interesting as I filled in the programme of entries was to notice the first time a now famous name appeared, and how it would appear near the back of the grid, and rapidly progress forward, race by race until it was on pole position, or on the front row. There was a distinct pattern, which I could have plotted on a graph, which showed why drivers like Prost, Piquet or Senna uncut the front, and why others are always at the back. Some drivers make a little progress and then stop, others make none at all, and there are some who flash up and down the grid over a period of races, being on pole one race, and twentieth at the subsequent ones. There are also those remarkable drivers who stars off halfway up the grid in their first race.

This research, while interesting, was also very sad when you realised a name had disappeared from the starting grids, and you knew the reason why. Even worse was whet you knew the actual race in which a driver got killed, and you had to move relentlessly towards it, race by race, year by year. One of these was Ronnie Peterson; I wept a silent tear when I got to the race after that disastrous Italian Grand Prix in 1978, knowing his name would not be in the entry list or on the starting grid.

Drivers get killed, that is a fact we have to live with, and mostly they do not upset me too much, because it can happen to anyone, and could have happened to me when I was racing. But just occasionally there is a death that really hurts, and I hadn’t realized that Peterson was on my short list until I found his name missing from the Grand Prix entry lists.

I had a similar sad feeling when I was researching the death of a racing driver who was killed in the war when he crashed his Spitfire. I knew the exact date on which it had happened, but was researching all his flying records in that marvellous Records Office at Kew, leading up to his death. Sortie by sortie I was living with him and his fellow pilots as I went through the Squadron records, and as the fateful flight grew nearer and nearer I could hardly bear to turn the pages. Eventually I got to the day in question and the Operational Flight Record read simply, “Time Up: 11.02. Time Down: : .”

There was no entry. He never came back. You would not expect research to be sad, would you?

Winter does tend to be a time for looking back, probably because once the season starts there is only time for looking forward, and that is always enjoyable, even if events do not turn out as you had hoped. How many times have we chatted over dinner on Saturday night, about all the possibilities of Sunday’s race, only to have the whole thing fall flat? We put forward our theories as to how Piquet is going to get to the first corner in the lead, froth his third-row grid position, or how Senna is going to beat all the ‘hot-shoes’ into the corner from pole position, and then on the day Piquet stalls his engine, or Senna’s Lotus blows up when he lets the clutch in.

I suppose it is this anticipation of the unknown that makes it all so exciting. If one race does not come up to expectations, there is always the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that. You don’t win them all but it is satisfying to see you after a race and notice that we both have big grins on our faces and we say “Glad I didn’t miss that one”.

Normally I don’t envy you your long trip to the Brazilian Grand Prix, a country I have never had any desire to visit, to see the opening Formula One race of the season. This year I do, especially after seeing the Lotus 99T and the Williams FW11B cars, with Honda engines, and knowing that Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet will be going to their home country with virtually equal cars. There are going to be some deeds of derring-do during qualifying, regardless of the tyre situation, and the first few laps should be memorable, unless one of them falls over playing winter games and breaks a leg!

Those two and Alain Prost are surely going to make the running this year, with ‘our Nigel’ in amongst them, or even in front of them at times. On artistry of driving I cannot put Mansell in the same bracket as those other three; on determination, bravery, sheer guts and hard work, he is the equal of any of them. It is like a group of people running along a road, some will be covering the ground on tippy-toe, hardly touching the ground, others will be pounding along, visibly running. They are all going at the same speed, but there are different ways of achieving the same speed.

The trouble with Prost is that he doesn’t really fit into either category, yet he keeps finishing ahead of the others! There is something wrong somewhere in the driver analysis programme in my personal computer, and I cannot put a finger on it. My Hi-Tech friend says I have got a Random Beta Particle in the system, but I am not convinced.

To talk to Prost means to talk of McLaren, which means to talk of Porsche, which makes the engine which sits in the back of the McLaren and is called TAG-Turbo. It is interesting to see that the German firm have announced a new turbocharged 2.6-litre V8 engine for a projected Indianapolis contender. It has obviously been designed with knowledge gained from the Formula One engine, and it is exciting to see that Porsche are going to build the whole car; presumably we can call it a Porsche, with our hand on our heart, instead of the way I have been calling the MP4/2C a McLaren-Porsche, with my fingers in my ears to keep out the sound of the chaps in red and white from Woking trying to convince me it is a McLaren-TAG.

The Indianapolis 500-mile race must be the only big prize Porsche has never won. Its engine has won the Formula One Championships, they continually win the Le Mans 24 Hour race, they dominated the long distance sports car scene, they won the Targa Florio when it was a full-blooded race, they annihilated Can-Am racing, they have won the Monte Carlo Rally and the Paris-Dakar marathon; there must be something else other than Indianapolis that they have not won, but I cannot think of it.

I am sure a lot of people will be watching the last few CART Indycar races this season with keen interest, for their plan is to try out their new car at the end of 1987, in preparation for a visit to Indianapolis in 1988. How do people have time to look back? There are so many things going on ahead.

As a footnote to my F1 notes last month, I would like to add a small appreciation of the work done by Pat Symonds in the Benetton team. Pat is a quiet, unassuming aeronautical engineer who has worked with Rory Byrne since the early days of Toleman. He has shared the traumas, the heart-break and the joys of the Toleman/Benetton team all the way through. While Rory Byrne masterminds the overall design philosophy of the car, he needs the help and assistance of many people, and Pat Symonds is one of them.

It is the same with any team. None of them are one-man-bands; they can’t be, but the quiet ones beavering away out of the limelight seldom get the credit they have earned. It is like all those incredible Grand Prix engines that the Ferrari team have produced since 1948. We tend to credit them all to Enzo Ferrari, forgetting all the people over the years who actually designed them, and even more important, all the engineers who made them work. Designing is one thing, developing is something else.

To close on a more normal note, I enjoyed your appraisal of the Porsche 944S last month, and your appraisal of Porsche design philosophy. Last year MOTOR SPORT seemed to reflect differing reactions to Porsche road cars. One of our writers was saying “Porsche is the best car in the world” while another was implying that they are too expensive for what they are.

When Porsche was becoming a serious manufacturer, in the mid-1950s, I used to sing the praises of the Porsche 356 and my rude friends used to say “Oh yes! The Porsche is the best car in the world, says Dr Porsche, in the Porsche magazine”. Actually, they were absolutely right, though they didn’t know it in 1955.

What do you mean, I am biased? Somebody once said something like, “Show me an unbiased critic and you show me a fool”. ‘Yours, DSJ