THINGS SEEM to be happening in France in a rather fast and furious fashion and on all manner of fronts. It would seem that 1970 may well go down in the history books as a turning point in French sporting motoring. The French Grand Prix was to have been held on the rather flat, dull aerodrome circuit at Albi, but that idea has been dropped. While the circuit is pathetic, especially for a Grand Prix, the town of Albi and that part of France are very pleasant, but it seems that the proposed organisers were a bit optimistic and underestimated the cost of putting on the French GP. There was no money coming from the local council so the claim to the Grand Prix has been dropped and it looks as if Clermont-Ferrand will take over and run the race, as last year, when it proved very popular with most people, especially the spectators for Matra were first and second.
In the north of France the road circuits of Reims and Rouen are both having difficulties with local governments over the question of closing the public roads for motor racing. The general rise of "the people" all over the world is gradually ruining all those things the minority enjoy. At Reims the opposition is to closing the main Reims-Soisson road, so if racing is to continue in the district of the Marne a new road will have to be built to cut out the long Thillois straight. Rouen have similar trouble, for the very fast back leg of the circuit uses the main road south out of Rouen. Meanwhile, way down in the South of France a new permanent circuit has been opened, between Marseilles and Toulon just off the N8. This is the Paul Ricard Circuit, financed by the Ricard group of aperitifs manufacturers, and the intention is to utilise this new circuit continuously for all forms of racing, running it as a commercial enterprise. This is in direct contrast to the way motor racing has been run in France since 1895, for circuits such as Reims, Rouen, Albi, Clermont-Ferrand, Pau, Le Mans and all the others that have long since disappeared, have been used only once a year, occasionally twice a year, but not every weekend. Because of this utilisation in limited amounts it has been possible to get away with closing public roads, but no one would have put up with it every month. As it is becoming more and more difficult to keep real road-racing alive, the French are becoming more interested in permanent tracks on private ground, as we have had to do in England since 1925, and, of course, they are finding that the financial outlay involved means that the circuit must be kept in use at all times, to try and pay for itself. At present there is plenty of enthusiasm for racing among the French and they have all sorts of club-type classes as we do in England. They may find, as England has found but won't admit, that racing en masse is all very well but it does encourage some pretty mediocre standards. The Paul Ricard circuit has a length of 5.8 kilometres, with one very long straight and a winding, twisty leg with complicated 180-degree turns at each end. The whole affair is pretty vast and includes a landing strip and flying school. With smaller races already being held this year the organisation have their eye on the French Grand Prix for 1971.
Unusual in the Le Mans entry this year is the absence of any Renault Alpines, for the Regie-Renault have told Alpine that there will be no more racing, and all the little sleek blue coupés have been put away in a store-room. Production Alpine cars are continuing, and Alpines are still active in rallies, but the 3-litre V8 Prototypes will not be seen. This looks as though Matra have won the day in France, which is good for them, but hard on the Alpine people who were always very keen and tried very hard, but with little success. Although the little four-cylinder Renault-based Alpine engines were good, the 3-litre V8 was never powerful enough and now Renault have decided to pull out rather than go on suffering defeat. It means that poor old Amedee Gordini just could not produce the horsepower to combat the more modern engine designers. The 3-litre V8 Alpine-Renault engine was a nice unit, but very dated rather like the Aston Martin V8, which is good vintage-style engineering but not in the same class as Ferrari, Porsche, Cosworth or Matra, whose racing activities are keeping them well advanced on power-producing techniques.
Just as Le Mans is introducing an innovation in the 1970 race by doing away with the traditional driver-running-across-the-road circus act, and substituting the new arrangement of driver-in-car and co-driver doing the running, Monaco are altering their traditional scene of qualifying for the starting grid of the Monaco Grand Prix. Most years at Monaco there are more entries than the permitted 16 and the final places have been decided by practice times. This has often meant that there has been some pretty desperate driving among the also-rans during the final practice session, as the last few places are decided by mere tenths of seconds. Nobody has been very enamoured of this system, for timing on European circuits is fairly primitive and not really up to such close decisions and it also meant that some of the cars got a pretty severe thrashing before the race even started. If the organisers merely said "These are the 16 entries we want" and told the rest to go home there was great umbrage and cries of "Favouritism", which of course was true. The latest plan, which is being used in the forthcoming Monaco GP, is that a certain number of drivers have been accepted as definite entries and the remainder have to take part in a qualifying race on Saturday afternoon, to decide who gets into the Grand Prix on Sunday. The select ten have been decided by the organisers, the choice going to World Champions (what a farce !) which comprise Brabham, Hill, Hulme, Surtees and Stewart, plus the number one driver from some of the teams, these being Amon (STP-March), Rindt (Lotus), Beltoise (Matra-Sports), Ickx (Ferrari), and Rodriguez (BRM). The remaining six places on the grid will go to the first six in the race that will be held on Saturday, over 23 laps of the circuit. The entry for this race will be made up from all the non-World Champions who are also not number one team drivers, and this includes Siffert (STP-March), Oliver (BRM), McLaren (McLaren), Andretti (STP-March), Stommelen (Brabham), Courage (De Tomaso), Miles (Lotus), Servoz-Gavin (March), Pescarolo (Matra-Sports) and any other hopefuls who want to join in Grand Prix racing.
I cannot imagine how this idea came to be accepted by the Grand Prix "circus", nor can I visualise what a farce this qualifying race is going to be. If Siffert or Oliver or Andretti go all out to win the chances are they will blow up, so that not only will they not get on the grid for the Grand Prix, but their teams will have a wrecked car. If they "pussyfoot" round and are gentle on the cars it will still mean they have taken 23 laps off the life of the engine or the gearbox, which can't be a good thing for the race proper. I can't help feeling that they will all get together and "rig" the qualifying race, if you can seriously call it a race.
Apart from this excitement at Monaco, on the day after the Grand Prix there is an Auction Sale of old cars, and before the Grand Prix, just down the coast at Nice, there is a racing car exhibition. Called Auto-Expo 70 this exhibition opens on May 6th in the Palais des Expositions at Nice, and stays open until May 12th, the Grand Prix being on May 10th. In the middle of all this the participants in the annual Paris-Nice commemoration run, for cars built between 1925 and 1936, will be arriving in Nice, and to top it all off Nice will be full of long-distance luxury motor coaches on their annual rally. The first part of May on the Cote d'Azur is going to be a splendid place for motoring enthusiasts to be.
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It is not only France that is in the throes of change, for there are ominous signs in Sicily. It seems that some politicians in Milan have "discovered" the Targa Florio and in order to butter-up some high government official, or grease somebody's palm, or collect a decoration, the populace of Sicily are going to be "saved" from the ravages of the Targa Florio. There are mutterings afoot to prevent it being run through habited areas, which means the towns of Cerda, Collesano and Campofelice. The talk is of building new roads to avoid these towns, and shortening the circuit to a paltry 22 kilometres or thereabouts. All this is very disturbing to those of us who have come to know and love the traditional Targa Florio, but more so to the inhabitants of the three towns concerned. The Targa Florio is their great day of the year, and I know from personal experience what it means to the people of Campofelice. The thought of the Targa Florio going somewhere else is not possible, and yet some "Empire Builder" up in Milan wants to alter it all, and by "doing good for the people" be no doubt hopes to become a Commendatore or Cavaliere, and have people kiss his hand. I doubt very much whether a referendum has been taken in Cerda, Collesano and Campofelice, but I am certain I know what the result would be. At the time of writing Ferrari has just announced that he will probably be entering two 512S cars for the Targa Florio. I know one small town that will be bubbling with excitement in anticipation of seeing and hearing the 5-litre V12 for the first time, for these people in Sicily are unable to travel vast distances to motor races, like some of us; it is once a year for them when the Targa Florio comes down the High Street. The first sight of the low red 5-litre coupé is going to be greeted with screams of delight, and the noise it makes between the old Sicilian walls of the town is going to keep everyone happy for weeks afterwards. And some "do-gooder" out for a medal is trying to stop all this.
It seems that Belgium still has its circuit problems, though they are not from politicians or outside influences, their problems are on the starting grid. It will be remembered that last year the Belgian GP at Spa-Francorchamps was cancelled because of some double-dealing between the Grand Prix drivers and the organisers. Then in August the drivers announced en bloc that they wanted to race at Spa, with one or two reservations. Another deadlock has arisen because the drivers want the starting time of the race to be controlled by the weather and not the organisers. In other words the drivers say they will not start if it is raining, or if it looks as if it is going to rain. The organisers point out that this idea may be all right for the drivers, but what about the spectators, who, after all, do pay the drivers' wages. Do you ask them to turn up at 9 a.m, and wait hopefully until darkness falls, with the chance of no race, or do you tell them to come at 2 p.m., and then explain that because the sun was shining the race took place at 11 a.m.? It does not sound to be a practical idea at all.
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The practice weekend for the Le Mans 24-hour race proved to be a complete washout in more ways than one, for apart from clashing with the BOAC 1,000-kilometre race at Brands Hatch it rained for the whole two days. It is difficult to appreciate the mentality behind the planning that allows these two events to happen on the same weekend, for the BOAC race is now an accepted long-distance classic, and the chance to do some serious testing on the fast Le Mans circuit is all important. Porsche, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo divided their activities, while Matra concentrated on Brands Hatch, presumably because they can always arrange to use the Le Mans circuit privately. The continuous rain prevented much serious work being done, even though Redman for Porsche and Ickx for Ferrari flew to France on the Saturday and then back for the BOAC race on the Sunday. There were two 917 Porsches at Le Mans, one with the 1970 short tail body and the other with a new long streamlined tail, the former being fitted with suspension movement indicators which the driver could watch as he went along. There was also a driver-to-pits radio contact, with the mechanism in the driver's crash-hat. Helping with the driving was Hailwood for the JW Gulf team and Linge for the factory team. Alfa Romeo had one 3-litre V8 car on test, driven by Zeccoli and Galli, and this car was also fitted with radio, in this case the transmitter in the car sending information to the pits automatically on all the instrument readings, such as r.p.m., oil pressure, temperatures and so on. When tested on a single car on their private circuit at Ballocco the system worked perfectly, but at Le Mans they found there was a lot of interference from other cars. Ferrari had one 5-litre 512S, which Ickx, Giunti and Schetty drove, and they experimented with two types of long tail, one covered in slots, flaps, spoilers and all the usual aerodynamic stuff and the other completely smooth. By the end of testing the smooth tail had grown aluminium spoilers and fins. There was also a brand-new 512S being delivered to the Spanish Escuderia Montjuich, this having an open cockpit, and it was painted bright yellow with a central green stripe.
It is the intention of Solar Productions Ltd. to make a film of the 1970 Le Mans race, starring Steve McQueen, who shows the ability to be as good a racing driver, with second place at Sebring, as he is an actor. His 908 Porsche is entered, to be driven probably by Ginther and Jonathan Williams, and it has cameras built in under cowlings, to take action shots during the race. McQueen was to have shared a 917 Porsche with Stewart, but it now looks as if that idea has fallen through, for the film company have put the clamps on McQueen actually competing, or, to be more precise, their insurance company have done so. Apart from the small number of factory cars on test there were some private entries with 911 Porsches, 910 Porsche, a Chevrolet-Corvette, and a Lola T70 from the Belgian VDS team, as well as Guy Ligier's new Group 6 coupé that he is manufacturing at Vichy, along British constructional lines using a Cosworth 1,800-c.c. FVC engine and Howland gearbox. It ran well, driven by Ligier himself, though there were some problems, but nothing very serious.
All told, the Le Mans test weekend was a bit of a wasted effort, but as the main reason for it all was for the annual motorcycle races on the full circuit, it was not entirely wasted and a surprisingly large crowd poured into the circuit, especially on Sunday, in spite of the rain.—D. S. J.