Long Beach reflections

So that was the end of Formula One racing through the streets of Long Beach in the shadow of the Queen Mary, for three years at any rate. Not because the city fathers or some busybody has made a protest or objection but for simple reasons of economics. There are people who think of America, and California in particular, as a bottom-less pit of dollars there for the taking, but it is not so and the simple fact is that the Long Beach Grand Prix Association can no longer afford to play host to the Formula One circus. Some of FOCA’s detractors were quick to blame Bernie Ecclestone for being too greedy, but it is not the money that Bernie asks for his top 20 cars on the grid that has caused the trouble, but the cost of transporting the whole circus from Europe to California and back that has got out of hand. If you want to blame FOCA for being greedy you could say it was unreasonable of them to expect the race organisers to pay the transport costs, as well as the fixed sum for qualifying money and prize money, but that is what they demand before agreeing to race. As time is short everything has to be carried by air and there is no more expensive way of travelling, so the Long Beach organisers have to foot the bill for air freighting 38 Formula One cars, 120 tons of spares, tools and equipment and upwards of 400 people. 

For some time now Christopher Robin Pook who heads the Long Beach Grand Prix Association and sits on the FISA Formula One Commission has been trying to get support for a very rational idea regarding organising costs of Formula One racing in the World Championship series. He contends that all the race organisers in the series should pay into a travel-fund so that it costs all 16 or 17 events an equal amount. At the moment Long Beach, along with South Africa, Brazil, Detroit and Canada have to pay enormous travel costs while the European events have minimal expenses to pay, Britain being the lowest with the majority of teams resident in England. The cost of the FISA officials, which all has to be first class travel and accommodation is another huge sum of money for faraway events like Long Beach, Brazil or South Africa, while the French Grand Prix have hardly anything to fork out by comparison. Chris Pook’s idea that costs should be shared equally is very reasonable if you accept the whole World Championship as a single overall event, but needless to say he gets no support from the European organisers nor from the short-sighted members of FOCA. The result is that he and his committee have now cried “Enough” and they have concluded a deal with the American racing organisation CART to run a race for Indy-cars in 1984. They have now run eight Formula One Grand Prix races at Long Beach plus the inaugural Formula 5000 race in 1975 and it has become one of the most popular events on the calendar, but in all that time the shareholders who put up the money to launch the first event and form the Long Beach Grand Prix Association have never been paid a penny in the way of a dividend. Overall the event has not lost money, but equally it has not made enough for anyone to get any returns on their outlay. Every year the costs have risen, both the transport costs and FOCA’s lump sum payment, and now it has all stopped.

On the morning after the race Pook held a Press Conference at which he announced the fact and explained the economics of the situation and after running eight very successful Grand Prix races he was a little sad to have to announce his committee’s decision, but we just have to face facts. Full credit must go to Pook and his committee for telling us now, and not dilly-dallying until the last moment like some race organisers, and a heart-felt thank you also goes to them for proving beyond all doubt that you can hold a modern Grand Prix through the streets of a city on a temporary circuit and that you don’t have to build featureless autodromes for Formula One racing. When this present age of Grand Prix racing becomes history we shall recall two events that were outstanding. One was the building of the Osterreichring in the hills on the side of the Knittelfeld valley in Austria and the other was the innovation of the Long Beach Grand Prix through the streets of a modern city. The Grand Prix of Monaco is something else, like Le Mans it is part of the furniture. 

To revert to the 1983 Long Beach race, it was a funny old do, with John Watson starting in 22nd position and finishing first and Niki Lauda starting in 23rd position and finishing second. The media fall over themselves to talk about “Watson driving right through the field” or “Watson winning from the back”. The truth is that Watson didn’t win, he finished first, and if you are unable to see the distinction I suggest you stop reading Grand Prix reports and turn to the vintage pages or the road-test of the Honda Civic or the Mini-Metro.

When I say Watson didn’t win I am not disparaging him, nor am I disparaging his Austrian team-mate when I say he finished second, for they both drove in a manner that was befitting champions. Fast, smooth, incredibly regular and consistent and they never put a wheel wrong or made a single mistake. Immaculate is the only word suitable to describe their driving, in stark contrast to the driving of Rosberg, Jarier, Patrese, Piquet, Baldi, Winkelhock, Warwick, Tambay, Cheever, Guerrero, de Cesaris, Salazar and Giacomelli, all of whom failed to finish due to driver error, mechanical breakeage inflicted by the driver or component failure beyond his control. Never has the old saying “To finish first you must first finish” been more applicable, but to say that “Wattie” drove right through the field to win is simply not true. Of those who were ahead of him on the starting grid he passed Tambay, Rosberg, Jarier and Warwick while they were derelict by the wayside and Arnoux, Alboreto, de Angelis, Prost, Cheever, Jones and Mansell while they were in the pits for various reasons. However, he did overtake Lauda, Giacomelli, Piquet, de Cesaris, Baldi, Cecotto, Guerrero, Sullivan, Surer and Laffite as well as Patrese while be was up an escape road, but he didn’t overtake “the whole field” as some people said. The expression “winning from the back” comes from motorcycle speedway racing where you really do see it happening and the English rider Peter Collins was a master of the art. With four riders in a four lap race it is usually hopeless to be fourth into the first corner, yet I have seen Collins on innumerable occasions ride from fourth place to first in those four brief laps, taking the lead on the last corner of the last lap to lead the other three riders home. That is “winning from the back”. If Collins had passed one rider who had fallen off and another who stopped with engine trouble and beaten the remaining rider to the line, he would have finished first in my book, not “won from the back”. If you look at the drivers that Watson overtook fairly and squarely on the track, apart from Lauda, Piquet and Laffite, he could outdrive them all with one had tied behind his back. Lauda made a bad tyre choice so Watson was able to beat him, Piquet was not with-it from the start of the race and Laffite had worn his tyres out when Watson caught him, so as I say, it was a funny old do altogether, but if anyone is to benefit from the misfortune of others then it is reasonable that it should be John Watson for luck is one commodity that he seems to lack most of the time.

As I have said, his driving was immaculate, fast and smooth and he thoroughly deserved his victory and his fastest lap was only a smidgen slower than Lauda’s and Arnoux’s. Both he and Lauda were lapping consistently in the 1 min. 28 sec. bracket, whereas in qualifying they had been unable to break 1 min. 30 sec. It was all down to the vagaries of their Michelin tyres which were hopeless during qualifying but worked admirably under racing conditions, which after all is when it is most important. Other Michelin runners were not so fortunate, Renault and Brabham never really being in the picture, so a great deal of credit must go to McLaren International for their preparation, for the two MP4/1C cars can perfectly and nothing came undone, nothing broke and nothing got out of adjustment.

The award for “Rock Ape of the Day” usually goes to Andrea de Cesaris, but this time reigning World Champion Keijo Rosberg won it with distinction. Whereas the young Italian with the peculiar eyes often merits it down at the back of the field, Rosberg was a winner all the way at the front. You cannot blame the man for being a “charger” but that sort of enthusiasm needs to be tempered with a bit of skill and finesse, which is what he was lacking. He made a stupendous start from the second row, determined to drive between the two Ferraris ahead of him, but he let the tail of his Williams slide out to the left under wheelspin and he clouted Arnoux’s right front wheel a hefty whack. Then at the end of the back straight on the opening lap he was right up behind Tambay’s leading Ferrari when he overdid his braking and did the most remarkable 360-degree spin without hitting anything or anyone and carried on as if nothing had happened, only momentarily losing second place to his team-rnate Laffite. For half-a-dozen laps Tambay pulled away into a commanding lead, but he could see his front tyres overheating at that pace, so he eased off and slowed down to the pace of his followers, led by Rosberg. Now it should have been obvious to the Williams driver that he had not caught up with the Ferrari, but the Ferrari had slowed down to his pace. Tambay was playing “cat-and-mouse” with his followers, easily able to out-accelerate them or out-brake thorn if need be, but his main concern was to preserve his tyres to last the full race distance. Rosberg’s only real hope of getting by was if Tambay made a mistake, but at the pace he was running that was most unlikely. Behind Rosberg were Laffite, Alboreto, Arnoux and Patrese, and Laffite was pushing his team-leader a bit. Rosberg was clearly becoming a bit rattled and eventually he made a misjudgement in diving up the inside of the Ferrari under braking for the top hairpin, when Tambay was already committed to speed and line into the corner. The Williams left front wheel punted the Ferrari’s right rear with the result that the Ferrari was bounced up in the air and spun backwards out of the race. As Rosberg gathered himself up and carried on Laffite and Jarier came up with him and into the next corner the two Williams cars touched (Rosberg said Laffite moved over on him!) and Jarier’s Ligier punted Rosberg’s car up the back and out of the race. 

But what of the rest of the runners? The nicest thing was the return of Alan Jones after a year’s absence, during which he was badly missed on many counts, not only for his forceful driving and his sensible and reasonable approach to racing, but for his standards of behaviour and sportsmanship which newcomers can advise and use as a yardstick. “Joneseyboy” doesn’t whine and whinge or talk in platitudes or PR jargon, he calls a spade “a ——— shovel” so you know where you stand. It’s good to see him back. His year at home in Australia saw him racing a Porsche 935 in national events, but he got little satisfaction from winning as the opposition was not very strong. He missed the real challenge of Formula One racing but by the time he decided to come back all the top teams including the Williams team who would have loved to have had him back in their car, were signed and sealed for the season, so he did a complicated deal with Jack Oliver and Alan Rees to drive an Arrows A6 with Cosworth power, on a “see how we go” basis. Shortly before making his decision to return to Formula One racing at Long Beach Jonesy was thrown off a bucking horse and broke a leg. He is very insistent that he didn’t “fall off a horse” as has been reported. He was doing battle with a wild horse and the horse won. It’s the difference between a motorcyle racer falling off and breaking a leg through stupidity, or crashing and breaking a leg while dicing for the lead. It goes back to winning or finishing first! 

Before practice started at Long Beach Jones went out to the desert racing track at Willow Springs in the wilds north of Los Angeles, not far from Edwards Airforce base where the first USA Space-shuttle came back down to earth, and did a good number of laps in the Arrows car to see if the partly healed left leg was strong enough. It was, so he took part in the event at Long Beach. He qualified 12th for the starting grid with a best lap of 1 min. 29.112 sec. which compares with Tambay’s pole position time of 1 min. 26.117 sec. and Rosberg’s best Cosworth time of 1 min. 27.415 sec. and shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to drive. He was running a comfortable 11th in the race when he clipped a concrete wall with a front wheel and bent a steering link. At the pits the Arrows mechanics changed it for one off the spare car and Jones set off again, but the track adjustment was all wrong so he returned to the pits and by the time it was all adjusted properly he had lost so much ground that he could only hope to trail round in last place. By this time the steel pins holding his leg together were giving him some pain, so he jacked it in, and who can blame him. If he’d been in the running for a reasonable place he would have kept going and suffered the pain, Alan Jones is like that. It’s good to see him back.

His team-mate, Marc Surer from Switzerland, gave another neat demonstration of his undoubted ability by a neat and clean drive into fifth place, collecting championship points for himself and for the Arrows team. Marc Surer is a gentle, quiet man, who loves motor cars and racing cars and lives on the family farm outside Basle, enjoying the countryside and hating big cities. He never makes a fuss and gets on with the job of driving a racing car in a most unassuming manner and keeps coming up with results. I doubt that he’ll ever be a great star or a natural race winner, like a Lauda or a Piquet, but if I needed a good sound number two for my team I’d put Marc Surer high on the list.

In the re-vitalised Theodore team there are interesting things happening, though I wonder if it should not be considered as the re-vitalised Ensign team, for the cars are developments of the 1982 carbonfibre composite Ensign chassis and the design work is by Nigel Bennett who was with Morris Nunn and Ensign. Whatever the details are, the combined team of Nunn and Teddy Yip have taken the racing numbers 33 and 34 of last year’s Theodore team. Their lead driver is Roberto Guerrero from Colombia and he has undoubted natural talent that seems inevitable with a South American driver. By the end of qualifying he was in eighth position on the grid ahead of a lot of drivers and teams who consider themselves superior to Ensign and Theodore. After the times had been published there was a revision and Guerrero’s Saturday time was disallowed, so with only his Friday time counting he was demoted to 18th place on the grid. It seems that during post-practice scrutineering his Theodore-Ensign was found to be too wide in the bodywork by something like 1 cm. Now the story goes that something odd happened to the carbonfibre in the heat in Brazil and it distorted so when the team arrived at scrutineering at Long Beach they pointed this out to the SCCA scrutineers and it was accepted and noted (mistake number one!). Nothing was said on Friday, even though Guerrero was eighth fastest, but on Saturday when he was still eighth fastest the bodywork discrepancy was noticed (or was it pointed out by a team that was behind the Theodore?). The Theodore team-manager got up a petition which asked for them to be allowed their Saturday time which all the other teams signed, and presented it to the stewards who went into a huddle (mistake number two!) and deliberated for a long time before turning down the petition.

The whole affair was typical of FISA / SCCA “bungling diplomacy”. The car should have failed scrutineering before practice began and no question of a petition should ever have arisen. It’s like turning up with a Cosworth DFV engine and saying “we couldn’t get any standard pistons and liners so we’ve built the engine with oversize ones. It’s only 400 c.c. oversize, but we are being quite fair and telling you now” and then having it accepted by the scrutineers. And then worse still having all the other teams saying “Let him race, it’s only a little bit oversize, we don’t mind”. 400 c.c., 40 c.c. or 4 c.c. makes no difference. There are no degrees of oversize or over-width when you have a cut-and-dried rule and the scrutineers and stewards should not have to deliberate on it.

The second Theodore-Ensign driver is the Venezuelan Johnny Cecotto (pronounced “Checkottoh”) who has made a name for himself in International motorcycle racing and in Formula 2. He drove well in Brazil and again, in Long Beach, did not look like a newcomer, driving a neat and tidy race, keeping out of trouble and making no mistakes to finish a nice sixth overall. Another newcomer who drove well and deserves credit is the American driver Danny Sullivan, number two in Ken Tyrrell’s team. He drove a neat non-stop race devoid of trouble or drama, and under the circumstances with the “aces” in trouble he profited by a well-earned eighth place.

The most unfortunate team were undoubtedly the Toleman-Hart team, for they were in trouble from the word go. Winter testing and the Brazilian race suggested that Derek Warwick needed watching, which I’ve been doing since the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch last year. However, in the first morning of testing at Long Beach the Toleman chassis could not ride the bad bump on the back straight and the rear suspension broke due to having insufficient travel. Rectifying this meant missing Friday afternoon’s qualifying session so Warwick appeared on Saturday morning one day behind the rest, in effect. Before the end of the 1½ hours during which everyone was experimenting Warwick put in a really quick lap which was second fastest overall. In the afternoon he was again second fastest for quite a time but was eventually “bumped” down to sixth fastest behind Tambay, Arnoux (Ferraris), Rosberg, Laffite (Williams) and de Angelis (Lotus-Renault) which was nothing to be ashamed of. His little Italian team-mate Bruno Giacomelli was not in the same class, qualifying down in 14th place, but remember it was not so long ago when no Toleman-Hart car could qualify to start. 

In the race Warwick did not make a very good start and dropped back to 11th position but had not gone many laps before the left rear Pirelli tyre threw its tread and spun the Toleman into the wall at high speed on the back straight. This smashed the wheel into the side of the car, crushing the Garrett turbocharger and causing a small fire as the car skated along the wall and came to rest with surprisingly little damage and none to the driver. Giacomelli’s race finished at the pits when he came in for a new set of Pirelli’s and the engine refused to start due to some obscure electrical trouble. Not a good meeting for the Toleman-Hart team, but Warwick still deserves watching closely. 

With the new rules banning under-car aerodynamics and reducing the effect of the rear aerofoil the cars are not “glued to the track” so effectively, or at least those teams that understand aerodynamics did not have so much adhesion. Some teams never did get to grips with .ground effect”. What was noticeable was that the cars were not no stable under heavy braking at the end of the Shoreline Drive straight and the drivers had to balance things carefully. The Brabhams in particular did not look very good and during practice and in the race I saw Patrese lose his Brabharn-BMW under heavy braking. Mind you, he was really trying and even before he spun you could sense that he had passed the limit of his braking point. Both times he elicited a round of applause for he not only kept control as he spun but he kept the turbocharged BMW engine running by some clever footwork with the clutch pedal, brake pedal and accelerator pedal, all with the use of only two feet. You could have been forgiven for thinking he had grown a third foot or had a hand throttle on the car. Thanks to the Renault team last year there are now some Formula One reporters who have spun a turbocharged Formula One car and stalled the engine, so we can really appreciate seeing Patrese do a competent job. His practice spin was not serious but his race spin lost him two places, for Watson and Lauda went by while he was gathering himself up to continue racing. He finally lost third place when the ignition system on his BMW engine went wrong and he retired at the pits three laps from the end but was classified as a finisher. His team leader Nelson Piquet had a miserable race, his Michelin tyres not working at all well and his BMW engine suffering from a sticky throttle pedal which he had to pull back with his toe. He trailed around at the back of the race and finally slid off into a tyre barrier when he was trying to get out of the way of a faster car and the accelerator pedal stuck down. Another dispirited driver was Nigel Mansell in the Lotus 92-Cosworth V8 with the oil-controlled computerized suspension system. After a pit stop for another set of Pirelli’s he finished a poor 12th, three laps behind the winner. The Lotus-Renault V6 turbocharged car behaved itself but de Angelis was disenchanted with his Pirelli tyres and simply gave up. — D.S.J.