Letter to readers, May 1992

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On The Sidelines

Dear Reader,
Recently I have been standing on the sidelines watching the world of Formula One go by, rather than being swept along in the torrent trying to keep pace with it all. Rather than chase all over the world trying to be part of ‘Bernie’s International Circus’, I have been watching it from afar as it performed in South Africa, Mexico and Brazil and it seems to have excelled itself in supplying fodder for the media men and television. The clowns in their multi-coloured suits-of-lights have been hilarious at times but the high-wire artists have not been very good, often falling off the wire or missing a mid-air change when in the middle of a loop. Fortunately the safety nets did their stuff, so nobody got hurt, but I wonder sometimes if the efficiency of the nets is making the artists a bit careless, and spoiling the act.

In the days when the highwire artists and the flying trapeze teams worked without any safety nets your judgment and timing had to be right, there was no second chance and near-enough was not good enough. It was proprioceptive artistry at its highest level. There was no room for error. one centimetre out in your judgment, or a split second out in your timing, and down to the hard circus-ring floor you went.

I once watched a bull-fight in Portugal, where the bull’s horns are blunted and covered with rubber ends. The whole thing was so academic that it became boring. When I returned to Spain and watched bull-fighting as it should be, the adrenalin flowed, and I wasn’t even near the edge of the ring! Watching the Bernie Circus from afar I am worried that it is becoming boring, mainly I think because there is no real noise, no sound of V10 or V12 engines singing out their 15,000 rpm song, no bubbling enthusiasm from a vociferous crowd, no turmoil from the pit lane; the ambiance is non-existent. The sooner I get back to the trackside the better, even if I am worn out after an hour of intense qualifying, and perpetually deafened.

From what I have seen of the 1992 season there is not too much actual racing going on, and very little skilful driving, while some of it has been downright clueless and unimaginative. As a team the Williams-Renault partnership has excelled itself, with first and second places three times in a row. It is not Williams’s fault that it has nobody to race against, though I cannot help wondering whether Bernie’s scriptwriter isn’t already having a quiet word with Patrick Head, Bernard Dudot and Frank Williams. offering to make it worth their while to ease up a bit and let some of the others catch up. Remember last year when Senna and McLaren-Honda won the first four races? The word was going round that they were spoiling Formula One as a television spectacle, not as motor racing of course. Some quiet words must have been said somewhere because suddenly the whole scene changed and the Williams-Renault team came up challenging strongly and the season ended on a pretty fierce battle between the two leading contenders.

As a scriptwriter the poor chap has an unenviable task, for if Senna and McLaren-Honda can’t come up from behind if the leaders slow down, we are in real trouble. The Benetton team can hardly be expected to take on this plum role, its third-placed car in in the Brazilian race having been lapped by the winner. By no stretch of imagination can that be called competitive, and the new Ford-Cosworth V12 engine is barely out on initial testing. The Ferrari team is not even as good as the Benetton at the moment, so it is a bit optimistic to expect it to provide any star turns. Being realistic, that’s about it.

There are plenty of jugglers and tumblers in the ring, one or two fairly elegant equestrian acts, and clowns aplenty, but we need someone else up there on the high-wire to keep the circus alive, and as it is 1992 they can have the best safety-nets available, but we do need the skilful performers.

From the start of the season all the midfield runners automatically moved up two places, some of them actually getting into the first six finishers. This was because Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet were left out of Bernie’s cast, the Frenchman because of devious manipulations by himself, for reasons known only to him, but which we shall know about before the end of this season I hope, and the Brazilian by some strange quirk of Formula One’s big business strategy. Nobody will argue the fact that both Prost and Piquet are 100 per cent certain qualifiers and, all things being equal, would be somewhere in the first six places on the grid. Both have been undisputed world champions and know all about being in the first three at any circuit. As the head man at Renault-Sport said last year, about Renault’s participation in Formula One: “You must be in the first three, otherwise you are just part of a faceless crowd.”

We all know Prost and Piquet and the scene is missing them.

Some people are getting a bit starry-eyed over newcomers, or even not-so-newcomers, who are taking those vacant two places, and while I don’t blame anybody for taking advantage of the situation I hope they keep a sense of proportion over the present situation and realise that sixth place could easily have been eighth place. Similarly, anyone who qualifies for 26th place on the grid, should, for the time being consider it to be 28th and non-qualified.

When Jackie Stewart retired he did so too soon, for at the time he was head and shoulders above the rest, and his retirement from the peak left a void to the rest of the bunch, so our parameters for the top level were upset and it took about two years before his place at the top was filled adequately. We are in the same situation today with the top teams; if the Williams-Renault domination is not illusory, and there is no reason why it should be, and McLaren-Honda cannot regain the centre of the ring, Bernie’s circus could be in fear of losing television votes and we might have to go back to old-fashioned Grand Prix racing like the days when Lotus, Tyrrell or Cooper ruled the scene. There always seemed to be occasions when a single team dominated and I don’t recall anyone complaining that it was boring.

Back to the circuit edge, before it all crumbles away from view. Yours, DSJ

PS: Moments to Remember are still coming in from readers. and this month it is Mr Burr from North London, who was there, not watching it on the small screen.
1. Jochen Rindt’s last lap at Monaco in 1970 seen from the hillside by the old Gasworks Hairpin. “I never did believe that Jack Brabham’s brakes failed, he seemed to be in shock at seeing Rindt in his mirrors.”
2. The sound of Chris Amon’s Matra V12 echoing off the rock faces at Clermont-Ferrand, also in 1970.
3. Ed Swart being on two wheels in his Fiat-Abarth saloon round the back at Thruxton at an Easter Monday meeting. He seemed to be on two wheels for half a lap, on every lap.

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