Reflections on the Queen Mary

If you are lucky and have a cabin on the starboard side of the Queen Mary which is anchored in Long Beach bay, and run as an hotel, you look out of your port holes across the blue/green waters to the sandy beaches on the far side of the bay and a back-drop of tall buildings in Downtown Long Beach, through the streets of which the Grand Prix is run. If you happen to have a cabin on the port side you look out on a vista of cranes and derricks in the Port of Long Beach, rather like being at Tilbury on the Thames, except that beyond the industrial scene is the open sea with a surprising number of oil tankers at anchor. Oil is quite a business around the Long Beach area of California and all over the place, and in some unlikely places, are pumps working on a rocking-beam principle, nodding gently up and down and sucking the oil out of the ground and into a complex pipe system. Some of these nodding “donkeys” are driven by electric motors, some by small petrol engines and some by enormous great diesel engines, depending on how deep the oil well is. Out in the bay of Long Beach are some small islands that appear to have apartment blocks on them, but in fact they are empty structures covering up a gently nodding oil pump! The City of Long Beach wanted to keep its pleasant bay looking pleasant, even though there was an oil industry in its centre. 

On the way to California I was reading a very funny book by Spike Milligan about his adventures in the Army when they invaded Italy during the war. The journey by ship across the Mediterranean took quite a time and every now and then during the narrative, would be the phrase “The face of the helmsman showed white through the wheelhouse” and sometimes it would be “The helmsman’s face showed white through the wheelhouse”. Fatigue, fright and the rigours of landing were all well portrayed amidst the Milligan humour and while struggling through Italy’s mountain with gun-tractors and Brengun carriers Milligan suddenly replied, to someone’s question, “the helmsman, whose face shone white through the wheelhouse” which was a lovely way of portraying how the whole scene was almost too much for him. While at Long Beach for the practice and the Grand Prix I kept having this phrase in my thoughts, and they were accompanied by another one that recalled a trip in Portugal and Spain in 1958. This was the phrase “there isn’t a cloud in the sky”. I had gone to the Portuguese Grand Prix with a friend in my old Porsche 356A and there was no hurry to get back, so we wandered about Portugal and Spain visiting friends and going to bull-fights. The weather was superb and we knew we’d have to return to Italy eventually so we resolved to wander about until clouds appeared in the bright blue skies. It took quite a few days and our catch-word for that trip was “there isn’t a cloud in the sky”, which meant another day’s holiday. Eventually a mean little cloud appeared and we kept our word and turned northwards. The weather at Long Beach reminded me of this catch-phrase, for every day “there wasn’t a cloud in the sky”, until race day when I looked up and thought “oh yes there is” but looking again I saw that it was man-made clouds from a light aeroplane that was sky-writing, spelling out advertisements for Toyota cars, who were the main sponsors of the meeting. During the final timed session on Saturday afternoon another silly catch-phrase kept running through my mind. Someone had said to me as I passed by the ATS pits “Jan Lammers is on pole position”, and as I walked on to see what Renault and Brabham and Ferrari were up to, I became as confused as Spike Milligan had been. All I could think to myself was “the helmsman’s face showed white through the wheelhouse” – “there isn’t a cloud in the sky” – “and Jan Lammers is on pole position”. I went and sat in the shade, feeling that the sun was too much for me. Even when I looked at the Renault, listened to the Ferrari, or watched Nelson Piquet, all I could think was “and Jan Lammers is on pole position, and the helmsman’s face is showing white through the wheelhouse”.

In fact, it was true. For a fleeting moment Jan Lammers was on pole position, having got his skates on when everyone else was frigging about, and this ended up in fourth place overall. I looked up and there really wasn’t a cloud in the sky. When I got back to the Queen Mary I went and looked in the wheelhouse, but there was no helmsman and no white face. I retired to bed slightly delirious. 

Supporting the Grand Prix were a variety of races of a National character, such as Formula Atlantic events, Celebrity events and Historic events. You needed to be an American to understand what it was that made some of the people in the Celebrity race celebrities, but no doubt it was all quite satisfying to Toyota who backed the event. Among the Historic activities there was a race on Saturday to which Neil Corner and Alain de Cadenet had been invited with their Grand Prix/Tasman cars, the former with his long wheelbase 1960 Dino Ferrari into which the factory shoe-horned a V12-250 GT engine for New Zealander Pat Hoare at the end of the 1960 season, and the latter with the 3-litre engined GP Aston Martin that he acquired from Corner two years ago. Among the American owned cars there was nothing to match these two and de Cadenet won, and Corner retired with one lap to go when the clutch packed up. This was the Ferrari’s first outing outside of New Zealand since 1960, and its first event since a nose-to-tail rebuild by Crossland Engineering.

On Sunday morning there was a “Golden Oldies” demonstration-cum-race which was headed by Rene Dreyfus putting in some laps in a Bugatti. The Historic Happening was a delight for American and European Grand Prix fans alike, for it featured five of America’s Grand Prix stars of the past. Dan Gurney drove a sports Maserati, Phil Hill a sports Ferrari, Carroll Shelby the Tasman Aston Martin, Pete Lovely a Cooper-Monaco and Ritchie Ginther in an ex-works flat 8 Porsche 1½-litre. They were accompanied by Sir Jack Brabham in a sports Aston Martin, and had Denny Hulme arrived a bit earlier he too could have joined in. While it was good to see these drivers again, the sight of them driving old cars made you realise just how much we have progressed in twenty years. The old cars seemed to be very quiet and did not accelerate visibly, compared to today’s Formula One cars in which 500 b.h.p. has an actual physical impact on you as it leaves a corner, and the acceleration is breath-taking, to say nothing of the 2g retardation factor. It is always nice to meet up with old drivers again, and sadly some of the nicest ones we can never see again. Dan Gurney is as youthful as ever, and running his AAR-Eagle firm, concentrating on building cars for American racing. He recently had a one-off race in a NASCAR saloon car race at Riverside, and until the car blew up, he wasn’t disgracing himself by all accounts. Phil Hill is deeply involved in a very thriving old-car restoration business in Santa Monica, using the vast premises of the old Santa Monica bus company. It is the nuts and bolts and mechanics of the business that occupy Phil Hill as a very full-time job, while his partner Ken Vaughn looks after the business side of things. Phil always did like fettling and today at 52 years of age he is as happy as the proverbial pig in the fertiliser. Carroll Shelby is taking things pretty easy these days, having suffered a mild heart attack, but he has a number of business interests whieh keep him solvent and he makes frequent trips to Africa to go big game hunting. Ritchie Ginther stayed in the motor trade and racing game for quite a time after he withdrew from Grand Prix driving, but a few years ago he opted out of all business responsibility and set off into the desert in a comfortable motor-caravan. He now roams around California and the West Coast wherever his will takes him, thoroughly enjoying his nomadic liie, spending time in the mountains, in the desert, on the sea shore or with friends or his family, depending entirely on the weather and his mood. It was very refreshing talking to “little ‘ol Ginther” again. Pete Lovely, who raced Lotus cars in Europe, including a Lotus 49 which he still owns, has a flourishing Volkswagen dealership in Seattle and leads a busy life of an active businessman, still taking a keen interest in the present day racing scene.

Before practice began the Long Beach organisers were congratulating themselves on having everything organised to perfection, with no further improvements possible. They were sticking their neck out a bit, but by and large it was true, for nearly everything seemed to run very smoothly, though not all the 85,000 paying customers on race day saw as much as they would have liked to. One thing the Long Beach circuit lacks is a quick means of removing broken-down or crashed cars from some parts of the course. They should take a leaf out of the Monaco organiser’s book and position mobile cranes at strategic points, which very long extendable jibs that can reach out and pluck a car up off the circuit and lift it over the barriers. As all cars now have strong roll-over bars behind the cockpit it is a simple matter to lift a Formula One car with a crane. If the roll-over structure was to tear loose from the monocoque when the car was lifted I am sure the scrutineers would want to know why. During practice there were times when cars stopped in awkward places and practice had to be stopped while the wreck was gathered up by a break-down truck. Apart from this lack in the organisation, the time keeping still wasn’t up to scratch, which is unforgivable in an electronic country like the United States. For ease of checking on people allowed in the pit lane it was obligatory for everyone to register and have a plastic bracelet fixed round their wrist. It certainly made the gate marshals’ job a lot easier, but when I found that Mr. Obergruppenfuhrer Ecclestone did not have his on his wrist, but tucked away around his trouser belt, I felt forced to ceremoniously cut mine off and keep it available to show when required. If marshals can accept the word of Ecclestone, they can accept the word of D.S.J!

The third place by Emerson Finipaldi is a good example of the dictum “don’t give up”. At the start he was in twenty-fourth position, having just scraped on to the grid in last position and no-one would have given odds on him finishing in the first six. Because of the mayhem ahead of him throughout the race he kept on moving up the field and on his way he battled with Watson, and passed him, then he later passed Rosberg, and Daly when the Tyrrell was running out of brakes. He was never able to pass Regazzoni, though he was running close to the Ensign at times, but as cars crashed or had mechanical trouble the yellow Fittipaldi car, sponsored by Skol Lager, kept moving up places until it was in third place, albeit a lap behind the leader. In the closing stages nice Nelson Piquet let his hero and mentor go by, to be on the same lap at the finish. Emerson Fittipaldi was lucky to finish third, but if you don’t keep flogging on you won’t be around when the luck is handed out.

In addition to the Grand Prix the Long Beach scene tends to be a social one for American enthusiasts, with various parties and functions happening all around. The celebrity race seemed to be pretty closely tied in with people from Hollywood, which is only a few miles away, and entertainment was one of the keynotes. I call this Razz-ma-tazz and I do not include Formula One in it, for the Grand Prix and Grand Prix cars are a pretty serious business as far as I am concerned. Many people tell me I am wrong and am living in the past and that today Formula One is primarily entertainment. Jackie Stewart used to bang on about this, and in a recent interview Morris Nunn was quoted as saying “I see Formula One as an entenainment”. I wonder if he still sees it as entertainment after looking at what was left of his Ensign MN11 and after visiting dear old Regga in hospital. I think Formula One, or Grand Prix racing, is a hard and serious business, and should not be treated lightly. I don’t think Stewart or Ken Tyrrell thought there was much entertainment in Formula One when they saw the remains of Francois Cevert when he crashed in practice at Watkins Glen, and Enzo Ferrari can look back on a lifetime of bad moments, none of which were entertainment. I am remembering Collins, Musso, von Trips, and Bandini. I don’t forget the chaps who paid a high price “to entertain us” as some people have it. It is research and development into the unknown as far as I am concerned.