The old press office at Brands Hatch was situated on the outside of the start/finish straight, which as you might be aware isn’t a straight at all. It’s not level either, with various degrees of gradient and camber attacking it from all directions. In 1986 I was watching a Formula 1 tyre test from the press office, my nose pushed against a large glass window at the front which, to modern sensibilities, was absurdly close to the track.
In 1986 Formula 1 cars asked more of driver skill than perhaps any other era. The great challenge was that the phenomenon of turbo lag demanded extraordinary judgment and precision in relation to when and how hard to apply the throttle. To manage turbo lag, drivers would often apply the throttle long before the apex. It was a process inverse to that in which they were schooled – on naturally aspirated cars that afforded instant throttle response.
Drivers were forced into a proactive driving technique, because a reactive technique was too slow. In other words, their reactions were simply not quick enough for the scale and abruptness of the performance. And remember, in reaction tests then and now racing drivers often score higher marks than fast-jet pilots…
In the very early days of turbocharging, some drivers – including Gilles Villeneuve – would trail-brake into corners using the left-foot, which allowed the right foot to simultaneously apply the throttle and maintain revolutions in the turbine. I have no idea how Gilles managed to operate the clutch during all of this, perhaps the secret to his great speed was that in reality he had three feet…
As the test session at Brands Hatch got under way, I watched mesmerised as the drivers carefully picked up their pace. Initially, not one driver – Prost, Rosberg, Piquet and Mansell included – went through Clearways ‘flat chat’. They worked up to their pace, with careful and judicious use of the throttle. Actually, that’s not true. One driver was on it straight away.
You could hear these great drivers playing with the throttle and gambling with the turbos. The gravelly undertone of a small capacity engines rose into a howl, accompanied by a surging, breathy and evil whooooosh from the turbos. Oddly, I remember hearing very similar, but equally terrifying, sounds a year later as the Great Storm of 1987 wrenched three 75ft trees from our garden.
The F1 cars, with their wings upright in maximum downforce mode, writhed and wriggled as the drivers fought the immense power at their disposal. When a driver backed out of the throttle, you knew it. A rifle crack was heard, accompanied by spectacular stab of flame, then a loooong pause before the turbos spooled up again. A speed display, placed near the exit of the pit for spectator enjoyment (something I’d love to see at race tracks again), exposed any mistimed application of the throttle or, dare I say it, any loss of speed and momentum due to sheer terror.
I became obsessed with watching this speed readout. Here comes Prost. 130mph. Piquet. 137mph. Rosberg. This will be good. Ooh 142mph! Mansell. Go on Nige. 145mph. Yes! Then the black and gold car. This will be interesting. That young Brazilian fella. A future champion they say… First lap. Bang. 152mph. Unforgettable.
IN 1983, Stirling Moss drove a turbocharged Brabham BT52B at Brands Hatch. Moss, as we all know, could drive anything, and I’ve no doubt his supernatural talent, extraordinary mental application and sheer confidence gave him the ability to manage the performance of these beasts. It’s reported that he enjoyed the test, but didn’t exploit the full performance, and few doubt with time he’d have mastered the car like he did every other machine.
Sir Stirling has earned his recently announced retirement. When the edge was taken from his talent following his 1962 Goodwood accident, Moss could easily have abandoned the sport and transferred his considerable intelligence and acumen into another business sector – and likely earned a pretty penny, too.
Psychologically it might have been easier for him to turn his back on racing, but the great man remained – forging a brand (before it became a dirty word) and enjoying multiple roles. And of course, all the while Moss remained an evangelist for racing – reminding the world of the glories of his era, being honest of the pain it could bring and remaining closely associated with its evolution.
If you have been involved in motor racing in some way during the last 70 years, either in business or as a fan, you owe Sir Stirling a thank you. All of us at Motor Sport send our fondest regards and our sincerest thanks for being the greatest ambassador the sport could ever have.
There’s a date you must put in your diary. On February 23-25 Motor Sport will be out in force at the Race Retro show, Stoneleigh Park, Warks.
‘Powered by Motor Sport’, Race Retro is Europe’s number one historic motor sport show, and this year we have helped to curate a display that celebrates the 40th anniversary of the first ground-effect F1 title. The showstopper is undoubtedly Mario Andretti’s Lotus 79, but also present are Alan Jones’s 1980 Williams FW07, Martin Brundle’s 1982 Ralt RT3 F3 car, a wonderful Porsche 956 and much more.
See you there!