At present I’m working on a book, and a self-indulgent one at that, for my publisher has left the choice of content to me. So long as I keep to Grand Prix racing, from the beginning of the World Championship to the present day, I am free to write about whatever takes my fancy. What I want at any cost to avoid is yet another potted history of Formula One, and if consequently the book turns out a little quirky, so be it. It did seem a reasonable plan, though, to go into one or two seasons in some depth, and among my choices was 1967, a year which has always had a particular resonance for me.
Before starting work on this chapter, to put myself in the right frame of mind, I watched again my video tapes of that era, one of which – Nine Days In Summer – has always been a favourite, not least because it contains so much footage of Jimmy Clark in what was to be his last, and to my mind, greatest, season.
Regular Motor Sport readers should be familiar with the tape, for it came free with the July 1998 issue of the magazine. It is undoubtedly very much a period piece, and to my mind all the better for it, with background music reminiscent of the movie Grand Prix which was released in the spring of ’67.
Commissioned by Ford, to record for posterity the beginnings of the Cosworth DFV, Nine Days In Summer deals, as its title implies, with the races in which the Lotus-Ford 49s took part that first year.
To watch it again, imbued as one is in the Formula One of today, is to become a little unsettled, to regret anew that the word ‘downforce’ was ever heard in motor racing. It was Tony Brooks who said, “A racing car should always have more power than its chassis can comfortably handle,” and for me no one ever put it better.
The GP cars of 1967 – or most of them, anyway – had emphatically more power than their chassis could handle, and the complete absence of downforce made them simply wonderful to watch. Any contemporary driver moaning about lack of grip should be made to watch this movie. There is in Formula One an absolute unwillingness to accept that anything about it could have been better in the past indeed, for some, to suggest such a thing amounts to heresy. But watch Clark or Dan Gurney or Jackie Stewart balancing their cars on the throttle out of a corner, and then tell me otherwise.
The most common criticism aimed at the Formula One of today is that overtaking – in the sense of one’s car passing another on the track, rather than on pit stops – has all but disappeared, and no one can logically take issue. When Alexander Wurz passed Heinz-Harald Frentzen in last year’s Brazilian GP, some magazines devoted a sidebar to the phenomenon.
The President of the FIA suggests, meantime, that overtaking is actually quite boring, that what counts for more is the possibility of its occurring. We should think of Formula One, Max Mosley tells us, in terms of a chess match. Well, not I.
That said, in truth there never was constant overtaking in F1, save at somewhere like Monza in the pre chicane ‘slipstreamer’ days. And my argument has always been that, so long as there remained the spectacle of cars of being steered as much by the accelerator as the steering-wheel, that didn’t matter too much. This is not a view which enjoys much currency in today’s paddock, however. Everything is better today because, well, because it just is, that’s all.
There is a lovely innocence about Nine Days In Summer, and some of the ‘staged’ scenes, shown between races, are hilarious. Colin Chapman, Keith Duckworth and Ford men Walter Hayes and Harley Copp sit in a boardroom wreathed in the smoke from Hayes’s pipe, and if the script is agonising, it has the edge on the acting.
Chapman: “How much power do you think the engine will give, Keith?”
Duckworth: “Well, certainly over 400, I hope.”
Chapman: “In that case, I think we’ve got the makings of a fabulous motor car…”
Hayes: “D’you think you can make Zandvoort?”
Incisive stuff, you see, but it’s all done with a certain period charm. This is, after all, a Ford film, and the race commentaries leave you in no doubt; they are, in the parlance of today, “economical with the truth.”
During practice at Silverstone Hill has “an inexplicable crash.” In fact, the shunt was all too explicable: his rear suspension had broken. Come the race, Graham “calls it a day,” the narrator tells us, neglecting to mention that his engine has blown…
Through that season Clark and Hill had comfortably the fastest cars, and their reliability problems lay far more with Lotus than with Ford. At the end of the year, in fact, Jimmy, disappointed that McLaren and Tyrrell were also to have the DFV for ’68, lamented that Lotus had not made the most of the engine in 67. As you would expect this is not mentioned in the film.
Failures of one sort or another beset the Lotus 49, and there is no doubt that Clark worried about the car as he never had about any previous Lotus. The script glosses over the problems, and reaches a point of true absurdity at Watkins Glen, where Jimmy, well in front, runs the last three laps at much reduced speed, his right rear wheel completely out of kilter following the breakage of a top rear link brace.
“A slight spot of suspension trouble,” the narrator tells us, “slows down ‘The Flying Scotsman’, but his lead is overwhelming…”
The words apart, though, all must agree that this is a mesmeric film, constituting a fine record of a time past, a reminder of how simple sport used to be. Clark steps from his victorious 49 at the British GP, and a single individual approaches him with a microphone. Jimmy chats away – and it dawns on you that the interview is for the folk who had actually braved the horrors of Silverstone traffic, rather than those watching the box.
Clark and Chapman, together with the number five Lotus, then clamber on to a trailer, and are towed around on a slow lap of honour, waving delightedly as they go, and it takes this to remind you – or me, anyway – that once we used to have such things, and how much pleasure they gave us. True, at most Grands Prix today, a truck takes the drivers around before the start, and occasionally one or two of them look the way of the spectators, but laps of honour are long gone: TV ‘unilaterals’ wait for no man.
Lest we look at 1967 through overly rose-tinted glasses, however, we should remember that all that panache, all that free expression, all those glorious circuits, came at a very high price. It had always been paid, because Grand Prix racing had always been accepted as being dangerous. As Chris Amon put it, “Stewart was really the first guy to start talking about safety until then, I don’t think it had ever entered anyone’s head that racing could be safe.
“Jackie made himself bloody unpopular in some quarters for saying what he thought, but I always admired him tremendously for having the guts to do it. I remember that in ’67 he was the only one of us who was using seat belts, and no-one followed his example.”
Of the 17 drivers in the 1967 Dutch GP – the first of the Nine Days In Summer – Amon, Stewart, Gurney, Jack Brabham, John Surtees and Chris Irwin are the only survivors today. Statistics come no starker than that. Indubitably it was a golden era of Grand Prix racing, but not everything about it was better than today.