Letter from Europe

[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,

Although it is now the month of May and this is the first Letter from Europe to appear in 1972 it is not because the sporting scene was slow to start, far from it, for it began in the middle of March, more of which anon, but the continual cry of the British worker for “more money and less work” caused the April Motor Sport to be closed for printing just as racing was getting under way.

There appears to be a continual feud going on between Brands Hatch and Le Mans, as if each is trying to prove who is the strongest, so that every year seems to start with a clash of fixtures. First it was the BOAC 1000 and the Le Mans Test-Weekend and this year it was the Test-Weekend and the Race of Champions, and this time they came out about equal, both fixtures being pretty mediocre. Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo are taking Le Mans very seriously this year and were out all weekend testing cars and equipment in preparation for the 24-hour event in June, the first two firms considering the practice weekend to be more important to them than the Race of Champions, Ferrari in particular being a surprise in view of the fact that Regazzoni won the race in 1971 and both he and Ferrari are immensely popular with the English crowds at Brands Hatch. The Ferrari team manager expressed the view that they had more than enough to do without getting involved in racing at Brands Hatch, and as they had two 312P prototypes at Le Mans and even at that moment there were three more on their way to Sebring and the Grand Prix cars had just got back from testing at Jarama, in Spain, he was not exaggerating.

With only one Champion competing at Brands Hatch the name should have been changed to the Race of Debutantes, and anyway it sounded as though the event was merely a formal completion of the race that had to be abandoned last October. It was a very busy weekend to open the European season for apart from the two big events there was the first round in the European Mountain Championship, this time at a new hill at Ampus-Draguignan down in the Provence area. Although it was the first time it has been used as a Championship event it has been in use for many years as a French National event. At Montlhéry there was a French club meeting of short mixed races, and at Monza the annual 4-hour saloon-car race that starts off the European Touring Car Championship. My feeling is that too much started too early for the overall picture was one that cannot have given much encouragement to new spectators to the sport. Brands Hatch seems to have been a sea of officialdom and protests and disqualifications and re-instatements, and general confusion by all accounts, as for the RAC rule that requires Shell to say to the Texaco-fuelled F3 cars “If you don’t wear our stickers you can’t play”. It was nearly as bad at Le Mans with Cevert having to put sticky tape over the ELF TEAM TYRRELL on his overalls before he could drive the Matra on Shell petrol.

Having got the public (and there were a lot of them) to Le Mans the A.C. de l’Ouest felt they ought to give them something more than just allowing them to watch Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo at work. Last year they organised a 3-hour race on the full circuit for the 24-hour competitors and it fell flat on its face. This year they extended it to 4 hours and it did the same thing from an even greater height. Bonnier and de Fierlant shared a tired Lola T280 that only lasted 4 hours because fuel starvation was keeping the revs down to 7-8,000 r.p.m. and even so they had no opposition at all. In order to make up a field some local amateur drivers were allowed to join in and one was driving a Mazda saloon. Poor fellow, he could not keep up with the 911 Targa Porsche pace car on the warm-up lap, his car just was not fast enough down the Mulsanne straight. At Brands Hatch there were a couple of good races spoilt by rules and regulations, protests and scrutineering. As I said both meetings seem to have been pretty mediocre and at Monza the Touring Car Race was not much better, with no serious opposition to the German works Ford Capri. Looking back on it all I really began to think that the time had come to abandon motor racing altogether. If that weekend was the best we could do to open the European Season I thought “why don’t we all give up and do something more useful,” and sitting watching it all because Brands Hatch refused to pay him more than he was worth was Stewart the current World Champion, out of work for that weekend, but not on the dole I imagine.

In an article on circuit alterations last month, I said that the Le Mans club were once again going to show their strength with the by-passing of the White House ess-bend. Not only have they by-passed it, they have built an entirely new length of circuit that bears no relation to the White House bends, nor to the Le Mans circuit in general. There must be more than a mile of new road, laid out to the standard Autodrome specification as recommended by the CSI and running from the beginning of the slight slope after Arnage, to the middle of the “Ford Chicane” at the beginning of the pits. From the normal public road leaving Arnage you suddenly arrive on a vast open space with the new road sweeping off to the right onto an embankment. This bend has been named Porsche Corner and there is enough run-off area and catch nets to arrest a wayward 917 from 200 m.p.h. The new road then turns left on the high embankment and descends gently over a bridge crossing one of the internal roads, then turns right and left in a double ess,down a length of straight, to a “chicane” that feeds into the “Ford chicane,” so that you arrive at the pits straight almost stationary from a very sudden left-right, left-right, series of sharp corners. The new road is wide and flat with white edges, a large flat earth area on each side and then the recommended double guard rails. The whole section is hygienic and clinical and could be Jarama, Paul Ricard, Nivelles, or Hockenheim, but at least it is on private ground so it is safe from interference, though closed to you and me in our private cars.

The work involved and the cost must have been astronomical and had the whole project been looped round into a continuous road it would have been acclaimed as a splendid new and safe Autodrome; as it is the whole affair merely removes the very fast White House ess-bend from the classic Le Mans circuit, and in the pits or public enclosures beyond the start you would not know it exists.

On the way to Le Mans I looked in at the fine circuit of Rouen-les-Essarts and a handful of workmen were busy building a new road through the paddock, behind the existing pits, thus solving the pit problem that has been worrying the Automobile Club of Normandy.

The pits straight, on which the start and finish are situated, is a main road and a bit narrow for the speeds that can be attained on it and no one wants to slow it down for it leads to the splendid downhill series of swerves that run down to the Nouveau Monde hairpin. The faster you can go through the pit area the braver and more skilful you have to be to start the descent right, and keep it right all the way down to the bottom. This section of the circuit is an example of racing driving at its best and if you do away with it you might as well give up motor racing. As John Surtees said when there was some Fleet Street and Mass Media bleating about the motorcycle TT circuit in the IOM, “if you take the TT away from the Isle of Man you might as well give up motor cycle racing.” At the top end of the Rouen-les-Essarts circuit a new Autoroute has cut completely across it, passing under the circuit shortly before the pits straight and over it on the very fast back leg. This involved raising the old road and easing a curve at the first point, which was done last year, and the building of a concrete bridge over the circuit at the second point. All is nearly finished and the Autoroute should be open this summer, and while this has meant changes to the circuit they are for the good, for the public will he able to bowl happily on their way to the Normandy beaches, while racing is in progress, which should give the circuit a new lease of life against any opposition. This is very much the way in which the Autostrada in Sicily has helped the Targa Florio, for when completed it will solve the problem of the chaos caused by closing the main Palermo to Messina road when the Targa Florio is run.

A little while ago I mentioned that Ferrari had built his own private test-track almost opposite the factory at Maranello and as a consequence the Modena scene had changed. It seems I was a little premature, for the Ferrari track has only just been opened so Spring-time in Modena saw no change from the usual scene. This was brought home by a letter from a friend who lives in Modena who wrote to say “. .. if you think Modena is getting duller you should have been here this week. Yesterday they weren’t only standing on top of their lorries and sitting on the walls, they were climbing over the walls and fences. Ferrari Formula One, Filipinetti Fiats, motorcycles spilling oil all over the track and one that spilled its rider, aeroplanes and even a helicopter. Carabiniere Alfa Romeos also on the track. Confusion wasn’t reigning, it was pouring, much of it due to this week’s motor cycle races at the Autodromo; then I lost the keys to my VW …” You may recall this friend from Modena, he came to England some years ago to join us on a trip to the West Country in the Editorial 1924 Calthorpe and while we went indoors we left him outside with the vintage engine ticking over quietly to itself, with instructions to not touch anything but just keep an eye on things. As the engine had no television suppressor on it at the time a nearby TV set was having a touch of the colleywobbles unbeknown to us or the watchful friend, who knew nothing of TV suppressors anyway. After a while an irate man appeared in shirt sleeves and braces and shouted “Has that thing got a suppressor on it ?” Our friend replied “Compressor ? Oh no, it’s a simple sidevalve engine with a single carburetter”. When we reappeared he said “Some nut came and asked if your car was supercharged.” What a pity it wasn’t an Italian OM, there might have been more satisfaction all round.

At Easter I thought I would have a change from the big glamour race meetings and go to a small event at the Nurburgring, run by the Middle Rhein and Koblenz section of the ADAC. When I got there on practice day I could not get near my usual Nurburgring car park and there were 80,000 spectators milling about. There were 360 entries, the Grand Prix paddock was overflowing, extra paddocks had been created amongst the car parks and the whole thing was quite overwhelming. Not all of the 360 entries arrived, and some eliminated themselves in practice, but even so the size of the meeting was staggering. The main saloon car race had 90 entries, front Steyr-Puch tiddlers to Opel Commodores, the GT race had 77 entries, mostly Porsches, and the Formula 3 race had a poor entry of only 68! Once a race had got under way the Nurburgring looked like any main road out of London at holiday time. I still think we could enliven saloon car racing up a bit by sending a smaller group round in the opposite direction at the same time. The main attraction at this “little meeting” was the first Interserie race (see Continental Notes) and my particular interest was to have a look at the brand new Porsche 917/10 Spyder built for Kinnunen, to see how serious the Porsche Can-Am racing project is. This Interserie race was a try-out for Can-Am ideas, in particular the new engine enlarged to 5.4 litres, and later the exhaust turbo-charging. There is no doubt at all that the Research and Development department at Stuttgart is still very occupied with a dossier marked “Racing”. There were enough parts, spares, equipment and know-how in the van attending Kinnunen’s car to build a British Formula One “kit-car”. As so often happens the might of Porsche fell by the wayside because the 5.4 litre flat-12 cylinder engine would never run on more than ten flat cylinders and the funny old BRM-Chevrolet V8 Can-Am car rumbled round and won, thanks to Ganley’s brave wet-weather driving. When it rains at the Nurburgring it rains. —D. S. J.