Reflections in a side-street

[The report of the US Grand Prix West appears in the colour section on page 658.]

What a good thing it is that the Formula One circus is hypocritical, if it wasn’t, life would be very dull. The “do-gooders” within the movement will tell you that you cannot race modern Formula One cars on roads with adverse cambers, changes of surface, bumps, manhole covers, and as for running on concrete –impossible. Yet thirty drivers turned up at Long Beach to race round the streets of the city, over the bumps, the manhole covers, the cambered roads, the concrete back straight and all the other impossibilities that we hear when Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Nurburgring, Monza, Zolder, Anderstorp and the rest are being criticised. I listen to the continual sheep-like bleating about how I am living in the past when I say I find the Paul Richard circuit, Misano-Adriatico, Nivelles and Jarama rather clinical and dull. I am often told that I don’t appreciate the modern Formula One car and its necessity to run on clinical autodromes. Silverstone spend a fortune on resurfacing the airfield circuit so that it is like a billiard table, and everyone said how marvellous it was (until the rain came, but that’s another story); yet, there I was in “downtown” Long Beach on the edge of the port, watching our jewels of Formula One technology pounding along the concrete of Shoreline Drive at 175 m.p.h., bouncing over the camber where a side-street joins Ocean Boulevard, which is the pits straight, opposite-lock slides over the bad camber entering the drop down Linden Avenue, putting the power on just as the surface changed from tarmac to concrete where they join the up-leg of the back part of the circuit and, best of all, taking one corner where the surface changes four times through a 90-degree left-hander. It was all good stuff, proper street racing, and nobody went on strike or went home in disgust. They all loved it. Next time anyone tries to bleat to me about safety and circuits, I shall make sure I’m standing by a Ferrari or Ligier that is being warmed-up at 5,000 r.p.m.

One of the problems for all race organisers is that of protecting the public from incapable racing drivers of bad designers, for racing cars fly off the road through driver error or design failure, and the flying bits go a long way and can hurt. The Long Beach street circuit is lined with solid concrete blocks, each 12 feet long, 34 inches high and tapering from an 18 inch width at the top to three feet at the base. These are interlocked together, like giant breeze-blocks and form an immovable wall round the circuit, and where necessary steel poles are let into them which carry wire-netting to catch flying bits like wheels and wings. On the corners there are 45-gallon oil drums filled with sand to discourage any corner clipping, and where there could be a head-on collision with the concrete wall, a mass of old rubber tyres are laced together to from a cushion. These are rather sweetly referred to as “spherical elastic attenuators”, so next time a neighbour complains about the pile of old car tyres behind your garage, tell him “They are not old car tyres, they are material for a spherical elastic attenuator”, which should send him  back indoors to watch his tele.

Fortunately the streets of Long Beach are wide, so that losing six feet of width due to the concrete blocks standing in each gutter, still leaves more than sufficient room for modern racing cars to overtake each other. When the Grand Prix is over, mobile cranes and lorries remove all the concrete blocks, tyres, wire-netting and barrels and store them away until the next year, and life goes on again as if nothing had happened. This aspect of building a temporary street circuit which does not have to be maintained for 12 months between Grand Prix events, is being looked at by a number of city councils, who can see a lot of advantages to their towns from the publicity and commerce provided by a Grand Prix. It’s all going back to France and Italy in the 1930s. some owners of stadiums or autodromes are also looking at Long Beach, wondering if they have done it all wrong, for a permanent closed-circuit has to pay its way al the year round. Everyone was conscious that Monte Carlo had this temporary arrangement, as does Pau and Rouen, but those who claim to be in charge of motor racing viewed such circuits as anachronisms, that only kept going by tradition. If Tom Wheatcroft had suggested building a town in Donnington Park and setting up a street-circuit in its midst, which as a builder he could easily have done, the circuits and safety people would have laughed and refused to discuss the idea, while all the racing unions would have said he was mad. Yet four years ago Chris Pook and Dan Gurney inspired a group of people to build a Grand Prix circuit through the streets of Long Beach City. They ran a Formula 5000 race as starters, and have now had a successful Third Grand Prix West, and everyone went away, looking forward to the Fourth Grand Prix West in 1979. There is some sanity in this funny electronic, plastic world that is growing up all around us.

What makes the Long Beach circuit so much better than Monaco is the width, which allows overtaking and does not present much baulking, and the very fast back leg of the circuit along Shoreline Drive. This is a long, curving dual-carriageway of which the left side us used with a little bit of the other side used at each end. This results in a rush up one side from the “Indy” left-hander (See map) to a tight hairpin right, and then a rush down the other lane to level out on full song past the starting line and hold everything flat-on-the-boards round the long right-hand curve and along on the level to the 180-degree Queen Mary hairpin, which calls for bottom gear, then a short squirt up the other side of the dual-carriageway before turning off up into the town. The media information sheets quoted constantly that the Formula One cars were doing 190 m.p.h. along the concrete dual-carriageway, so I felt forced to walk down there to see this, as there isn’t much chance these days of seeing a racing car doing 190 m.p.h. I was very disappointed, for even the Braham-Alfas and the Renault didn’t look that fast. Just before the braking point at the end of this flat-out section were a battery of timing beams, both Heuer and Omega, and these belonged to Frank Williams, Tyrrell and Renault. These speed traps were giving instant k.p.h. readings, which were being noted down and afterwards correlated to lap times and aerodynamic adjustments. Most of the time the highest readings were around 270 k.p.h. (167 m.p.h.) while the average was nearer 265 k.p.h. (165 m.p.h.). I was disappointed not to see the oft-quoted 190 m.p.h., but it was not a wasted journey for it made an interesting study to spend time with Frank Williams’ man and see that the Renault got really wound up eventually, though its lap times were slow and the Brabham-Alfa Romeos were very fast but the Ferrari lap times were better. All three timing teams seemed to agree within a digit or tow, so we can honestly say that some of the Formula One cars nudged 170 m.p.h. at Long Beach, and most of them were doing 165 m.p.h. 

From all accounts there was quite good television coverage of the event, but it did show up a couple of bad failings of television, which should warn enthusiasts to treat it as nothing more than visual impressions and not the truth. When the nose fin began to sag on the Williams car, the commentator explained in great detail how the altered down-force on the nose would cause understeer, and how Alan Jones would have to alter his driving technique to cope with it. He went on to describe Jones’ feelings at seeing the drooping fin, and when the Williams finally began to drop back from Reutemann’s Ferrari it was all blamed on the nose-fins breaking up. It was pretty obvious that the commentator was locked away somewhere with a monitor screen and no sound track, for he seemed totally unaware of the misfiring Cosworth engine that was slowing the Williams. After the race Alan Jones said he could not see the fins from the cockpit and had not felt any difference in the handling! “Mind you”, he said, “If that happened in practice I’d have raised hell and complained about the handling being all to pot when I stopped. It’s different when you are racing, you’ve got other things to think about and worry about; we ought to do more racing and less practice.” What a good idea.

The other television problem is that it is instant coverage and an example was the retirement of Niki Lauda; when asked what had happened he said curtly, “no fuel pressure” and made a sign of a needle on a dial sinking back to zero. He was right in some ways,, for as the Brabham team-manager Herbie Blash said afterwards, “the ignition unit failed, and with no sparks the engine stops, and when the engine stops the fuel pump stops, and the pressure drops to zero.” All Lauda could feel and see in the cockpit was the engine dying on him and the fuel pressure gauge needle falling, so his instant statement was reasonable. John Watson’s retirement with the other Brabham-Alfa Romeo was a different story altogether. He said there was a big bang from behind his seat and a cloud of smoke. So he switched off and stopped. There was nothing visibly wrong with the car and when the Brabham mechanics retrieved it after the race they were completely baffled, for they could select all the gears in the gearbox and the car drove itself along without making any awful noises. Mr. Ecclestone was all for accusing Watson of abandoning a completely healthy car, and wanted no more of the affair, while one hysterical television commentator suggested the bang had come from running over an empty beer can! More observant people confirmed Watson’s report of a puff of smoke accompanying the bang. When the car got back to England it was taken apart and the gearbox and transmission were quite sound, but it was discovered that the top of the oil tank was split, this tank being built into the monocoque chassis. Investigation showed that the heat from the inboard rear brakes had set fire to the tank breather pipe, the fire had gone back up the pipe and exploded the fumes in the tank, hence the bang and the puff of smoke. Ecclestone was partially right, for the car was mechanically sound, but if Watson had not stopped, the car might have caught fire and burnt out. Then again it might not.

The driving of Gilles Villeneuve while he led the race was remarkably cool and calm, especially as he had a squadron of “heavies” behind him in the shape of Watson, Lauda, Reutemann and Andretti. Sometimes you see a new boy leading a race and it is only desperation that is keeping him in front. You know instinctively that it cannot last, and will end up in an accident or a blown-up car. With Villeneuve it was almost embarrassing, he looked so confident and Ferraris are pretty reliable. When he failed to appear and word came through that he had crashed, it was a surprise, and most unexpected. It happened just as he was approaching half-distance, a classic moment for making a mistake, even by an “old-hand”. You have proved a point by leading from the opening lap to half-distance, you have been trying hard and concentrating hard for about an hour, you are beginning to lap the faster mid-field runners, you are conscious that the “heavies” behind you are probably steeling themselves to “do something about the little upstart out in front”, you’ve got to start thinking further ahead and working out where you will be catching up the good mid-field drivers, so that you can lap them without too much delay, the track is getting rubbery and slippery, your own tyres and brakes are half-way through, you cannot relax at all, it’s all much more difficult than leading the opening lap with a clear dry track ahead of you, and suddenly . . . . you’ve made that dreaded mistake. The young French-Canadian tried to drive inside a slower car, got on the wavy, bumpy, track-edge, the Ferrari bounced in the air, landed on the slower car’s left-side tyres and was flicked, spinning through the air to land backwards into the “spherical elastic attenuators” which attenuated the Ferrari. Of course, the slower competitor just had to be good old Regazzoni in the Shadow DSN, who was quietly minding his own business and got savaged by the Ferrari. The Shadow was a bit bent, but still a runner and Regga had a tyre mark on his helmet! Villeneuve jumped out and ran across the track filled with remorse, but blaming no one but himself. He’ll learn and he’ll win.

Last year I watched Villeneuve learning about Formula One in a McLaren M23 and I wrote about the way he impressed me. Not so much by his speed but by his handling of a situation. He was finding the limit of road-holding of the McLaren the difficult way, by losing it on a corner, not by going ridiculously fast and spinning out of control, nor by entering the corner all wrong and spinning before he’d even begun to take the corner. He was taking the corner beautifully and spinning off at exactly the right place and at the right speed, just 0.01 per cent over the ultimate limit or cornering power of the car. I was impressed. I’ve watched other “young hopefuls” spin off at 25 per cent over the limit in the wrong part of the corner, or even before they had properly started cornering, and it all looked extremely clueless, and was so. If Villeneuve wins a Grand Prix I shall not e too surprised, if Keegan wins one I shall be amazed. Some people have suggested that the McLaren team made a mistake by letting Villeneuve go and taking Patrick Tambay, but I don’t think so, though the Frenchman’s performance at Long Beach is best forgotten.

Another popular, and justified hero of the Long Beach race, was Alan Jones, who was driving really well, and the Patrick Head-designed William FWO6 was going really nicely in the opening stages. The old adage says “what looks right, usually is right”, and when we all went to see Frank’s new car last December, we came away thinking “that’s a really nice looking car”. Before the race Alan Jones had said that he felt the Williams would be very nimble round the Long Beach circuit, and he wasn’t far wrong. He also said that his dad, Stan Jones, who raced a great deal in Australia, had impressed upon him how important it was to drive neatly and tidily, first and foremost, and speed would then come automatically. There are some “lucky lads” at the back of the grid and among the non-qualifiers who would do well to heed the words of the late Stan Jones.

Before the start of the race the Wolf WR1 was seen to leave the pits, driven by someone in white overalls and a white helmet, and it didn’t look like Jody Scheckter. It turned out to be Walter Wolf driving one of his own cars for a TV documentary being made about him. The director had suggested they filmed Mr Wolf driving one of his cars, meaning a Mercedes-Benz coupe, or Lamborghini Countach, but Walter thought better and insisted on being filmed in one of his racing cars. He admitted to driving it very carefully, only giving it a big squirt on the back part of the circuit where no one was watching, in case it got away from him. This prompted the idea of an “Owners’ Handicap” with the Formula One owners in the spare cars. It could make quite a good race with ex-racing drivers/now owners or managers, Colin Chapman, Ken Tyrrell, Bernie Ecclestone, John Surtees, Alan Rees, Morris Nunn, Frank Williams, Gerald Larrouse, Peter Wart and Guy Ligier, though we weren’t quite sure how Emerson Fittipaldi fitted into the picture. One thing was certain, they would be awfully careful not to damage the cars.

The freedom of California was exemplified by the wild “hot-rods” being driven about the streets, the Grand Prix cars racing in the streets, the motorcyclists being allowed to ride without crash-hats, and the sky writing advertising in the clear blue sky above the town, beautifully performed by a group of light aircraft. Sky writing was a popular form of advertising in Europe many years ago, before the airways filled the skies with airliners. In California there is still room for it, and it’s legal.  – D.S.J