Letters from readers, March 2009

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An end to F1 excesses

Sir,

Notwithstanding the passion that followers of Formula 1 inherently share, could there be anything more superfluous than self-indulging in the banal pastime of Grand Prix racing while the collective economies of the world implode around us? If ever there was a time for pulling back and contracting the excesses that have become synonymous with F1, it is now. Who knows, replacing the glitz and window dressing that have become commonplace at virtually every Formula 1 venue with the more pure element of racing, unburdened of the techno-schlock that has rendered the driver all but inconsequential, might serve to reignite the fervour that characterised F1 racing in the period pre-dating wireless computerised telemetry, Blackberries, iPods, mobiles, gazillionaire transporters-cum-espresso bars and $50m prime sponsorships.

In the final analysis, has any of this unconscionable expense fundamentally raised the bar of excitement and improved the sport’s end product? When the accomplishments of a seven-time World Champion driver are reduced to a mere footnote in deference to headlines brandishing McLaren’s mega-million-dollar fine for pilfering Ferrari’s intellectual property, the sport has reached a new low in its lust, narcissism and greed. Good luck with that…

J Christopher Gemmell, Alexandria, VA, USA

Director’s cut

Sir,

One consequence of the sudden cancellation of the Ford C100 project (Grand Designs, February issue) was that a documentary I had been making about the car’s development was binned by Ford. I had close-quarter access to the entire C100 project, filming everything of consequence and ending up at the 1982 Le Mans race in the company of Karl Ludvigsen and Alain de Cadenet, staying at the chateau owned by Alain’s aunt about 20 miles from the circuit.

The hype preceding the return of the Ford ‘works’ cars to the race was evident in the posters that had been put up everywhere on the routes to Le Mans. But inside Ford there were bitter divisions about the whole project, much of this captured on my film.

The PR line was that the C100 fitted the then company engineering philosophy of fuel-saving aerodynamic science coupled with relatively conventional engineering, as in the Sierra/Scorpio, Group C being – in theory – a fuel efficiency category. In the pits during practice and qualifying there were heroic struggles by the engineering crews to make the two underdeveloped cars competitive. Ludwig, Winkelhock and Surer fed back frantic information every time they climbed from the cars (while in the next pit Porsche was an oasis of calm). After three days of constant problems time ran out, but at the modest dinner in the chateau the night before the race there was a resigned determination to put on a show.

The two white cars were experiencing dreadful vibration problems from their Cosworth DFL’s harmonics – chunks of bodywork were breaking up and the electrical systems were “in a blender”, as Alain so aptly put it! During the race we had close-up access to everything and told the story of the struggle to keep the cars running and the wider story of the event. In the end, after brake calipers shredded wheel rims and exhausts cracked, the electrical systems were “blended” into failure and the cars retired.

It was a copybook Le Mans story: skilful, exhausted men battling to keep reluctant machinery running – unglamorous, spectacular, heart-stopping. But somewhere inside Ford the humiliation (and the cost) was too much to bear and word came that not one inch of the material was to be edited or shown to anyone. The film ‘rushes’ were logged, canned, sealed and then stored. Where it is now is anybody’s guess.

Patrick Uden, London

Supervan’s origins

Sir,

I was interested to read the account of the Ford C100, and would like to bring the story up to date. First, a small correction: the car you show in Jagermeister livery at Spa is not a Mk3 but a revamped Mk2 with front air intake, which also ran at Le Mans and is now owned by Martin Birrane.

After the cancellation of the Mk3, Gibb Grace, responsible for Transit publicity, put a proposal before John Southgate and Walter Hayes to use the abandoned project to build a new ‘Supervan’. The C100 was delivered to the Styling Department at Dunton, where a 7/8ths-scale glassfibre Transit body was formed. I remember seeing the abandoned nose and tail lying in the studio compound for at least a year.

Supervan 2 began its career operating out of Boreham, usually driven by Chris Craft. The following year it was transferred to Dave Price Racing to run. After an engine change and many attempts to stop it overheating – it ran at one event with the tailgate open! – it became a static exhibit in the Coventry Transport Museum.

In 1995 it was rescued and rebuilt by myself with Benetton mechanicals and a Cosworth HB engine to become Supervan 3, but that’s another story.

After a period of almost 10 years the original mechanical components plus engine and gearbox of Supervan 2, together with the unused monocoque and centre section of the second Mk3, were used to complete the build of car number two. This made its first public appearance driven by David Leslie in the Group C race at the 2007 Silverstone Classic. It retired in race one with a fuel pick-up problem, and again in race two after tyre rubber found its way into the footwell and jammed the throttle open. Not, however, before David, who had started from the pitlane with a full tank, had climbed up to eighth place.

David had agreed to drive the car again in 2008 but sadly died in a horrific plane crash at Biggin Hill. He was due to qualify the car the following Monday at Snetterton; instead I attended his funeral in Dumfries. The car has not raced since.

Bryan Wingfield, Eye, Suffolk

The Fittipaldi connection

Sir,

What a wonderful evocation of the truly golden days of amateur professionals racing across Europe in the David Piper interview (Lunch with, February issue). Simon Taylor certainly got the best out of him. I was privileged to see ‘Pipes’ in action in the 1960s, as well as reporting his successes when I was at Autosport. To this day, he and Liz are always warm and welcoming.

One contemporary whom David mentioned in the story was Brazilian driver Christian Heinz, who died at Le Mans in 1963. A friend of the Fittipaldi family, his racing exploits in Europe so inspired Wilson that he named his son after him, and the rest – as they say – is history.

Mark Cole, Thornborough, Buckingham

Another take on Lewis

Sir,

I was surprised to read the vitriolic responses to my original letter, as what I wished to do was to question not whether Lewis Hamilton should be champion, but whether it was rather premature to portray him as one of the all-time greats.

As for Mr Hodder’s suggestion that only those who drive a Formula 1 car should be allowed to comment on the sport (Letters, February issue), presumably he ignores 99 per cent of what is written about Formula 1 in Motor Sport?

Mr Warren at least concedes that Hamilton made mistakes, but justifies this by pointing out that other drivers did too. In light of this, perhaps we should conclude that last season, far from being exciting, was one of the most disappointing, in that none of the drivers was able to perform consistently at a level above the ordinary.

John Fyfe, Edinburgh

Innes – cool cat, not copycat

Sir,

Doug Nye’s item ‘Mr Cool and the Gang’ may have underestimated Innes Ireland in suggesting the Scot was aping the character of John Steed. The first episode of the Avengers was seemingly not broadcast until a month or more after the US GP to which they were travelling, so unless Innes Ireland had a sneak preview of the ABC programme, he was being his own man.

Nigel Urwin, London

The colonel’s Jaguars

Sir,

How nice to read Doug Nye’s reminiscences about Ronnie Hoare, which renewed many fond memories (February issue). Colonel Hoare and his wife Anne were friends of my parents, living just down the road in Dorset. Ronnie bought a short-nose D-type, pale blue, with no intention of racing it, and one fine summer’s day in 1956 he took me for a ride in it, belting down the country lanes, exhaust by my left ear, no windscreen or goggles. Magic.

Later in the year, he drove it all the way over to Kent to show it to the boys at my school. There’s a nice picture of us all, in our straw boater hats, which Simon Taylor wrote about in another magazine.

When my father died suddenly and my plans for university flew out the window, Ronnie immediately gave me my first job, driving new Fords daily from Dagenham to Bournemouth. Not much fun in an Anglia, but exhilarating on a bare truck chassis.

My route took me past Mike Hawthorn’s TT Garage in Farnham. One day there was a bright red XK-SS for sale outside. I mentioned it to Ronnie when I got back to Bournemouth, and sure enough a few days later there it was sharing the showroom with the D-type.

Beneath a rather distant and patrician exterior was a very kind man.

Chris Drewett, Harbury, Warwickshire

No room for Roger?

Sir,

It was a fantastic idea to portray the remarkable drivers, characters and icons of the sport on the double cover of the 1000th issue, but it was a blow to notice the absence of the beloved Roger Williamson. How could that have happened?

Matteo Sartori, Milan

Interlagos has the look

Sir,

While not condoning the anti-Hamilton rants of some Brazilian fans at last year’s GP, it was refreshing to get a feel for their passion from the television coverage. The same atmosphere may well exist at other tracks, but it is not conveyed into one’s living room. I believe much of this has to do with Interlagos itself. Unlike the modern facilities used by Formula 1, the track is narrow, so the TV picture often gives us a glimpse of the crowd. The vast width of modern tracks means that the Tarmac fills the screen. In addition, the narrow Interlagos track allows the cars to dominate the picture, while at places like Sepang and Shanghai they are like dots in a grey desert.

At Interlagos de rigueur asphalt run-offs were painted brilliant blue or green, adding to the spectacle. How I wish other circuits would follow suit. Last year I attended the Spa 24 Hours, having last been there in 1989 for the World Sports Prototype Championship, and was dismayed at the extent of the tree-felling and the size of the run-offs at classic corners.

If Pouhon, Eau Rouge and La Source were given the ‘Interlagos treatment’, the track would regain some of its character, lost to the ‘improvements’ necessary for hosting F1. While so much time is given over to improving ‘the show’, it amazes me that no one gives any thought to how to improve ‘the look’ of F1.

Nick Bird, Fareham, Hampshire

FIA versus innovation

Sir,

Having recently read of Max Mosley’s keynote speech at the Motorsport Business Forum, I am bemused as to his comments regarding the lack of innovation in F1. In some respects he is quite right in saying that the current regulations have pushed engineers down a path of diminishing returns and focusing on components that have no relevance to the wider world.

It is, however, worth drawing attention to an example that would have almost certainly revolutionised the road car engine, but failed because the FIA banned it before it even reached the track. Back in the late ’90s a small Australian company called Bishop had made inroads into making the age-old concept of the rotary valve work properly. Ilmor took the concept on and put a huge effort into making it usable in a racing engine, first in single-cylinder testing and then in a V10. The project had a number of implications for Ilmor, Mercedes and McLaren. As has been well documented the performance of Mercedes’ poppet-valve engines of the early 2000s was beginning to fall behind Ferrari and BMW. This was in no small part due to the effort and money put into the rotary-valve engine, internally known as the ‘L’ engine. The gearbox would have been significantly different due to the much lower head height allowed by eliminating the need to have cams and pneumatic springs above the ports.

The L engine was scheduled to be introduced in 2002, but as a safeguard the block and gear train (and the car) were designed to accept either the rotary-valve head or a poppet-valve head. As it turned out, the rotary valve head was significantly more complex to make work than anyone had believed from testing. After several iterations the L did work well, and in its final guise it was a truly tiny, lightweight and powerful engine with little need of the exotic materials required to keep a reciprocating valve train together at 19,000rpm. Without doubt it was relevant to road cars; but it was outlawed.

Why was it banned? There is a political story behind that one, but it demonstrated that taking an innovative risk can be expensive and, to use Max’s happy term, ‘utterly pointless’ if you are not allowed to reap the fruits of your investment. Maybe someone will pick up the concept again. I hope so, because there is a lot to be gained from it – far fewer parts, for one thing. Which is why F1 went to V8s, wasn’t it?

Patrick Morgan, Sywell, Northants

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