Letter to readers, May 1988

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Questions and guesstimations

Dear Reader,
In recent weeks there has been a resurgence in publicity for unleaded petrol for use by you and me in your everyday cars or motorcycles.

Some of us are still wondering what happened to 100 octane petrol, while others think back to the dim and distant past when post-war restrictions meant only one type of petrol was available. That was known as “pool” petrol and was 72 octane. No doubt many of us are not aware that our normal petrol today has lead in it, and even if we are I doubt whether many of us understand why. It is all to do with combustion, detonation, anti-knock high compression-ratios, high power-outputs and so on.

If we were content with Austin Seven performance from our family saloons today, all this business would be of little interest; but we enjoy racing-car performance from today’s hatchback family boxes, and that calls for high power-outputs from fairly small engines.

If we had gone the way of USA in accepting no substitute for litres, we could have had ample performance from 7-litre V8 engines; but even then some of us would have taken us back onto the high-compression road, with the necessary petrol to cope, and that would have taken us along the added-lead road.

Officialdom has decided that lead is the root of all ill-health and must be got rid of, so whether we like it or not, unleaded petrol is with us and its use will spread. The Government has made it clear where we are heading by not putting up the tax on unleaded petrol, to try to encourage us to use it, but I don’t think that is going to be much encouragement. If they had waived the £100 road tax on cars using unleaded fuel there might have been a visible movement.

What most people want to know is, what effect will unleaded petrol have on their existing engines, what effect will it have on old and obsolete engine, and what can be done to an engine to make unleaded petrol acceptable?

I can’t answer any of these questions myself, but I recently went on a little cruise down the River Thames on a boat hired by the public relations department of Petrofina (UK) Ltd, which is based in Surrey. The Fina petrol company is a Belgian concern with quite a strong position in the British market, and the object of getting a “captive audience” afloat on the Thames was to announce the season’s programme of racing for two BMW M3 saloons in the Uniroyal Production Saloon Car Championship at all the major British circuits.

These M3 saloons are running on Fina unleaded petrol and are driven by Steve McHale and Robin Brundle. They provide a very public demonstration of Fina’s confidence in the unleaded petrol which is on sale on all its garage forecourts. Fina made it very clear that unleaded petrol is the way we have got to go, whether we like it or not, and rather than trying to pretend it won’t happen it has now put on public show its confidence that an engine can work as effectively on unleaded as it can on leaded.

Racing is the way to prove it. There are 14 rounds in this saloon car championship, and if the drivers acquit themselves adequately we can look forward to some interesting truths about he effect of unleaded petrol on today’s engines.

Elsewhere in this issue you will find a brief report of a reception given by the Government to honour British motor sport, held in the splendour of Lancaster House, just across the park from Buckingham Palace. The Deputy Editor and I liked to think it was for our magazine, Motor Sport, but of course it was for the whole of British Motoring Sport, and for “Sport” we should read “Industry”.

If you are up to your eyes in any branch of the sport, as many of us are, you cannot help but be aware of how many people you know who are equally involved. If you are actually competing, in any form at all from a mild sprint to regular professional circuit racing, you must be conscious of the fact that a lot of your friends are working full-time on some competition project, and they in their turn are dependent on a lot of people behind the scenes who are also working full-time on competition project.

During that evening at Lancaster House I got into conversation with many people, both from our world of competition and from the Government’s world of Trade and Industry and the Department of Sport. We tried to “guesstimate” just how many people are in full employment within the world of motoring competitions, and we started with an easy 10,000 employed by all the teams, firms, magazines, suppliers, organisers, circuit owners and so on who are represented at this select gathering.

By the time various additions had been made (“what about all those people who . . .” and “without racing and competitions these people would be out-of-work . . .”) we soon doubled the figure. Then we enlarged in detail on things such as the engine-tuning industry, and the number escalated rapidly. Then we moved on to the world of racing publicity, then to the background to the British Grand Prix and all forms of competitions down to the club sprint meeting, and more and more noughts were being added to our basic figure.

By the end of the discussions, it was difficult not to accept a figure nearing 250,000 people employed in some way or other due to the amount of motoring competition going on in Great Britain. And Northern Ireland. Through it all came a strong message –that most of those involved had got involved because of their love of the sport and their obsession with the motor car (we did not include motorcycling in our figures).

From almost every aspect it was clear that the sheer volume of work put in was out of all proportion to the rewards; to most people involved the reward was satisfaction, either from winning or from merely being on the starting grid. How many of us have worked right through Friday night or Saturday night to get a car to the start line? Quite a few, I would say, and the only incentive was the satisfaction of achievement.

It is this basic enthusiasm which has built the British racing industry to the strength it has today and, as the Minister for Trade and Industry was pleased to stress, this self-built industry has done a lot for the country as a whole. In Government circles the admiration lies in the fact that it is a self-contained industry which is getting on with the job without strikes and troubles, and which is enormously successful without causing the Government any problems.

As I have often mentioned when watching the mechanics at work in the pit-lane in the hour-and-a-half between morning testing and afternoon qualifying at a Grand Prix, if that amount of energy could be harnessed into industry it would keep a small factory going for a week.

If you could measure the output-per-hour of a racing mechanic, relative to the average factory worker, you would find it hard to believe. Long may it stay that way, for that is what winning is all about. Yours, DSJ

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