It is true what they say about time accelerating as you get older. When I go to Barcelona for this season’s Spanish Grand Prix, it will be 30 years, almost to the day, since I first covered a motor race, and it seems to have gone by in a beat. It was the April of 1971 when I started, and the venue was also Barcelona — albeit at the magnificent parkland circuit at Montjuich, rather than the bland Autodromo de Catalunya.
Perhaps I should make it clear right away that this was not the end of along, hard struggle. Very far from it, in fact. At the time I was without. a job, having escaped the shackles of industry a few months earlier. It had long been my airy resolution to become a racing journalist, and eventually I concluded I had to resign, thereby obligating myself to do something about it.
That said, things were looking decidedly shaky as 1971 loomed. Some time before, I had written to Simon Taylor, then the editor of Autosport, and received from him a charming letter inviting me to do club reports from such as Castle Combe. Taylor had missed the point, I felt; had he not understood I was talking about Formula One? My dismay was no rival for my naivety.
By early spring, the situation was getting serious. The Labour Exchange was on the horizon, and I rather doubted there was much demand for grand prix reporters, no previous experience necessary. Almost as a last resort, I dropped a line to Car and Driver in New York; it was the best thing I ever did.
At that time, the magazine was without a racing journalist in Europe, which was fortuitous. More than that, though, my letter found its way to Caroline Hadley, the managing editor. She was originally from England, and that was good, but what was better was that she didn’t bin my note. If you want to take a chance, she said, go to Barcelona — on your own coin — and write a story for us; if we like it, we’ll run it — and if we run it, we’ll pay you for it.
After the euphoria had subsided, I panicked. Where to begin? I had no contacts in motor racing, didn’t even know how to set about getting a press pass. At the Oulton Park nonchampionship race on Good Friday, I approached Rob Walker for advice.
He was delightful — of course — and endlessly patient, suggesting hotels in Barcelona, giving me the address of the organising club, and counselling me about the right approach: “They tend to get a bit excitable down there, but you’ll be all right if you don’t argue with them.”
The roads being rather less dogged in those days, I decided it would be the work of a moment to drive from Regents Park Road to Barcelona. At the time I had a Lotus Elan, red with gold bumpers, subdued as a Mafia wedding, and about as capricious. Like all Elans, it went when it felt like it, which was not always. Hardly the ideal vehicle for a trip to Spain, but I never gave that a thought. All day I pounded through France, and through the evening kept putting off the idea of looking for an hotel. Narbonne. Perpignan. And finally, late in the evening, the Spanish border.
There was a café there — and parked outside was the Ferrari transporter. It was as if I’d scripted the trip. I went in, for coffee and armagnac, and somehow got into conversation with Giulio Borsari, chief mechanic of legend. “Right colours, wrong make,” he said on seeing my Lotus, and then he went to the truck, dug out a Ferrari Yearbook from 1970, and presented it to me.
Back on the road, I now felt I could drive for ever, and at three in the morning arrived in Barcelona, parked on the only available spot — a building site — and slept in the car. Next morning I followed Rob Walker’s instructions, collected a pass without too much difficulty, then drove up to Montjuich Park, which sits on a hillside overlooking the city. That day will stay with me always. In dazzling sunlight I wandered about among my gods, too shy at first to speak to Ickx or Siffert, Stewart, Regazzoni or Rodriguez. It was enough simply to be there.
In a side street by the track, I came upon the Ferrari transporter again, and there were three gorgeous 312Bs parked at the kerb. While I gazed, feeling all was right with the world, I realised someone was sitting in the last of them, number six. Andretti! There was no-one else around, and I felt almost like a voyeur as he shuffled in the cockpit, gripped the wheel, played with the gear lever, adjusted the mirrors. Never try persuading me there was ever a driver who loved racing cars more than Mario.
In the paddock I thanked Rob for his help. He proceeded to introduce me to every member of the team, and I felt as though a mountain had been climbed.
Next morning I got a similar response from Chris Amon. These two, the first people in the business to befriend me, have not unnaturally remained high in my affections.
Thirty years ago, the age of uniformity had still to arrive in Formula One, and the three practice sessions — all timed — were run in early evening; under a low sun they came out finally to take on this most spectacular and daunting of all street circuits. At more than 150mph they turned slightly left past the pits, immediately launching themselves over a crest, then plummeting downhill to a left-hand hairpin.
It was here, in 1969, that the tall, flimsy rear wings on the Lotus 49s had failed, causing huge accidents to both Graham Hill and Jochen Rindt And it was at this point, too, in 1975, that Rolf Stommelen’s rear wing fluttered away, his car then somersaulting over the barriers. Several marshals were killed, and with them died their magnificent circuit.
There were no disasters in 1971, however, despite the air of manana which hung over the place. The race started half an hour an late, which these days would have meant a massive fine from the FIA, but TV schedules were not a consideration then, and no-one seemed to mind. On the front row the Ferraris of Ickx and Regazzoni were joined by Amon’s screaming Matra, but by the first corner Stewart’s Tyrrell had already come cleanly through to second place behind Ickx. They were not friends, these two, but their fight was clean, Stewart eventually taking the lead before the hairpin on lap six, the two cars for an unforgettable second side by side and airborne.
By now, too, Amon had got by Regazzoni under braking, and for a time was able to stay with Stewart and Ickx. “Bloody engine not only doesn’t have any horsepower,” Chris says, on my tape from the day, “but also uses gas like it’s going out of style. I had to start with 220 litres — so bloody heavy we got left behind at the start.
“Because of the weight thing, too, the car tends to eat tyres and dampers in the early part of a race. Once I’d got up to third, everything looked fine for a while, but then, after about a dozen laps, the handling suddenly got mushy. Another damper.”
Hobbled or not, Amon and the Matra maintained third place to the end, well clear of Pedro Rodriguez’s BRM and Denny Hulme’s McLaren, but almost a minute behind the two front runners.
Ten seconds behind at one point, Ickx really got the hammer down in the late stages, running no fewer than 10 laps inside his own pole position time, the best of them a full 0.8sec faster. At the flag, though, Jacky was still three seconds behind the implacable JYS, who thus scored the very first victory for Tyrrell.
They didn’t have press conferences in 1971, nor press releases, for that matter. But neither, it seems to me now, did they have many press men. Afterwards, it was easily possible to talk to the drivers, and five weeks later, in Monte Carlo, it was easier still, for now I was an old hand.
Stewart won there, too, and at Ricard, Silverstone, the Niirburgring, pretty well everywhere I seemed to o that first summer. It didn’t matter too much that one man dominated, for there was plenty of racing and passing down the field, and so much pleasure to be had in watching the cars being steered on the throttle, tail always trying to come around. Even with less than 500bhp, the drivers had more power than their chassis could comfortably handle, and there lay the eternal secret of motor racing, as Tony Brooks has always maintained.
Downforce, happily, they knew little about in 1971.