European letter



[By means of which our roving European reporter keeps in touch with the Editor].

Dear W.B.,

Since I last wrote to you in this series Great Britain has joined the European Economic Community so it is no longer “us on the island, and them on the mainland”, we are all in United Europe. In the mid-fifties the idea of a united Europe began to grow and I used to carry a plaque on my old Porsche which said EU—Europe United, and anyone who travelled about Europe could not help agreeing with the idea. If you merely left Great Britain for two weeks holiday each year, and even then by plane to Nice and a Hertz or Avis hire car, then the idea of a united Europe obviously did not mean too much, but if you were in the habit of having breakfast in Austria, lunch in Germany, tea in Belgium and dinner in France, then a united Europe made sense. Since those early EU days there has been some progress, notably in the ease of crossing frontiers and the European road system of numbers and uniformity of motorways. There was one moment when it looked as though money was going to stabilise and one French franc would equal one Swiss franc would equal one Deutschmark, but economics ruined it all, though for a short time we had the Deutschmark and the Swiss franc equalling each other, which made life a lot easier, but it did not last.

One thing on which Europe has always been united is measurement, the kilometre being universal distance measurement. Now that Britain is part of Europe I wonder how long it will be before Dover to London or Birmingham is marked up in kilometres; and then we have the business of driving on the right all over the continent but on the left on our island. When you see manufacturers offering right-hand steering on cars that are basically designed with left-hand steering, you wonder how much longer we can go on being the odd one out. Making right-hand drive Porsches or Dino Ferraris cannot possibly be a profitable business, bearing in mind how few of those cars are sold in Britain. For almost as long as I can remember I have been quoting race distances and average speeds in kilometres per hour, not so much because I felt we would eventually make our measurements in kilometres, but because of the discrepancies that always cropped up in converting k.p.h. to m.p.h., two people seldom agreeing. As the official figures from any European race are given in k.p.h. it at least meant that the result we published was the official one. For some years now the organisers at Oulton Park and Silverstone have given race results in m.p.h. and in k.p.h., which was a nice gesture. One day we shall get complete uniformity in this matter.

Since joining the EEC the rules and regulations for commercial vehicles have been unified and these are going to make a lot of differences for the racing teams and the trade and industry which operate heavy goods vehicles all over Europe. People involved in racing seldom work to rules or even to the legal limits and many of the racing transporters have been known to keep rolling for days on end with mechanics taking shifts at the wheel. The new rules forbid this and lorry crews have to leave their vehicle for a rest period after eight hours and during that time no one man can drive continuously. A completely new crew could take the vehicle on for the next eight hours, but the original crew are not allowed to stay on board the vehicle. All this time a log book has to be filled in at every quarter of an hour, and if stopped by the police the log must be filled in up to the previous quarter of an hour. There are many other detail regulations that are going to cause a lot of headaches this year to anyone who does not want to fall foul of the law. Many of the racing teams will no doubt chance their arm and plead ignorance if caught, but a big International firm like Goodyear or Firestone, with branches and management throughout Europe cannot do this. These new rules are going to mean the addition of at least a day and half on to the time taken to get to the Targa Florio for example.

A little while ago there was some agitation in Germany about private car drivers spending too many hours at the wheels, especially with the motorways of Europe joining up, and suggestions were being made that the number of hours should be limited. Some investigations were going on into the travel habits of regular motorists and non-stop driving figures of ten or twelve hours were causing consternation among the German traffic experts. Drivers falling asleep on the motorways was the worry and there was a lot of discussion on how the private motorist could be controlled and there was some talk of travel log books and such-like. These people would appear to have got their hands on the transport drivers already, how much longer will it be before they control you and me? The days of freedom are surely numbered.

In the motorcycle world there is a bit of a rumpus going on because the British government is proposing to make it law that you must wear a regulation crash-hat when riding a motorcycle. Now no-one in his right mind would ride a 100 m.p.h. motorcycle without a crash-hat, or without boots and gloves for that matter, but at 10 m.p.h. along a muddy lane on a trials motorcycle crash helmets can be tiresome. What most people are objecting to is not the crash-helmet as such, but the fact that the law is proposing compulsion on a small group of citizens. Anyone riding a motorcycle will not be allowed the freedom of choice. In Belgium it has been law since 1948 to my knowledge, and I remember the first time I went to Belgium and saw a priest on an old side-valve FN motorcycle in full regalia with a crash-helmet perched on his head. It seemed ludicrous and I was staggered to find that the Belgium law demanded it. As “foreigners” we could ride without crash-hats, which we did until we went racing, and then we put on crash-helmets, leathers, boots and gloves, because we knew the risks we were taking. I am always more horrified by seeing people riding motorcycles in sandals and with bare hands than I am by seeing them without crash-helmets.

Enough of rules and regulations, there is still plenty of racing going on and in France on one weekend there was car racing at Le Mans, motorcycle racing at Rouen, hillclimbing down in the south and a Championship Moto-Cross meeting, all at the same time. On my way to Le Mans I called in at the circuit of Rouen-les-Essarts, where the big bikes were gathering for a Formula 750 race. These bikes must keep a basic production 750-c.c. engine and gearbox, with a free hand on frames, forks, wheels, brakes and riding position. It’s not unlike the car Formula 5000, but whereas the car Formula is virtually a one-engine Formula with everyone using Chevrolet V8 engines, the F750 motorcycle racing has Honda, Suzuki, Norton, Triumph, Ducati and Kawasaki all building works bikes for this form of racing. The main reason for looking in at the Rouen circuit was to see that all was well with that popular circuit. Judging by the money that has been spent on new two-tier concrete pits and a new length of road across the middle of the old circuit to reduce its length and cut out the section that used the main arterial road, the future of Rouen-les-Essarts would seem to be assured. The first circuit was laid out in 1950 and in 1955 it was lengthened to take in the section of super-fast main road. It has become increasingly difficult to close the main road, so the AC of Normandy have reverted to what is basically the 1950 circuit, by building a complete new length of road across the forest in which the circuit lies. With the new pits on a by-pass road the circuit looks as though it will satisfy everyone.

In the world of circuit safety the car people have turned a blind eye to the requirements of racing motorcyclists and last year the GPDA actually made the pompous statement that it was no longer possible to have cars and motorcycles using the same circuits. All those circuits being made “safe” were being done so for car racing and the motorcyclists would have to stop using them. It was the sort of fatuous statement that was typical of the GPDA last year, and was not one to endear them to anyone, especially the motorcyclists and organisers. In case anyone thinks that motorcycle races are not held on car circuits, the only one I can think of where this does not happen is Monte Carlo. At Nurburgring, Le Mans, Rouen, Spa, Zandvoort, Monza, Salzburgring, and many more, motorcycle races are held regularly. The dreaded Armco barrier may be all right for bouncing a racing car back onto the circuit, but it is murderous stuff for a wayward bike rider. At Rouen the Armco on the downhill section had been completely covered with old-fashioned straw bales, a costly business for the organisers, but a welcome one.

While pondering on this circuit alteration question I thought about a conversation I had with Fangio last year while engaged on a film and a book of his life story. The discussion was life itself, not particularly motor racing life, and Fangio told about a saying he read once “God give me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the strength to change the ones that I can, and the ability to distinguish between the ones and the others.” He saw it in a text hanging on the wall in an Italian house, many years ago, and he wrote it down and never forgot it. When watching the “improvers” and “do-gooders” going busily about their work I think about that text; especially the last part.

Last winter I had occasion to make a trip across England to Harwich with some friends in a transporter and John the driver, who had a natural instinct for good transport cafés, pulled into one in the wilds of Suffolk and there on the wall was that same text that Fangio had found in Italy. His was written in Italian, our was written in English. “Ma” who was serving the tea knew nothing about it except that someone had bought it at a jumble sale.

When the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans was being cleared up a few years ago, with removal of trees and the building of an Armco wall, an old monument disappeared in the clean up. This was a simple stone monument to Georges Louvel and Maurice Fournier who were killed on the 23rd July, 1911. Fournier crashed when the front axle of his Corre-la-Licorne broke, and he and his mechanic were killed in the accident. At that time the Le Mans circuit was 33.1 miles to the lap, the present straight being used in the opposite direction and the circuit running away to the south-east, away from the circuit used today. Quite by chance I discovered this historic monument standing round the corner of the Automobile Museum in the village behind the present pits. There was no explanation of what it was or why it was there, all rather typical of the rather unimaginative organisation behind the Le Mans Museum.


D. S. J.