By PRINCE CHULA OF THAILAND
[Prince Chula of Thailand, who is well known as the owner and entrant of the cars which “Bira” drove so successfully in all manner of races, chooses a controversial subject for this article. If we may enlarge a little on his theme, while a driver need not be a good mechanic to be successful, if by “an efficient driver” we mean one who can take the wheel of any car in any race with complete confidence, sound engineering qualifications are highly desirable, because in a long race, such as the Le Mans 24 Hours, vital work may have to be done on the car, and if the rules restrict the number of working mechanics, the driver must be able to do his full share. Capt. Frazer Nash, for one, certainly could, and did. Even if any number of mechanics is allowed out of the pit, if the driver is a capable engineer and mechanic, the personnel can be accordingly reduced, with a distinct saving in expense to the equipe concerned. In passing, a notable instance of an engineer who can effectively drive even the very difficult modern Formula G.P. car, is Herr Uhlenhaut, who used to go really well round the circuits when trying out a Mercedes-Benz. Your observations on Prince Chula’s very interesting article are welcome.—Ed.]
THERE are different types of racing drivers—those who are good in the wet, and those who are not so good; those who lose their heads when they are being hard pressed, and others who drive all the better when they find themselves in critical situations. There is, however, one big difference which, I believe, has not been noticed as much as it deserves. There are drivers who like to work on their cars and those who do not. Professional drivers of Continental Grand Prix teams, of course, cannot work on their cars, and the following remarks apply more to independent, and largely to British, drivers.
Let us first take those who like to work. I think pride of place must be given to “Sammy” Davis. He likes to work on the car so much that I almost feel he prefers preparation to the race, and he positively revels in troubles. Did he not say in his book “Motor Racing” (page 82), “Once the machine is there and there is plenty of work, despondency has no place.” Again I read in Sammy’s book words which seemed really joyful (page 146): ”there was the usual running in, with tests of everything possible, in fact, we lived on that car for weeks before the race.” That Sammy preferred to work on his car is indicated in the remarks (page 279): “for the second time in my life I found myself driving a machine with the preparation of which I had had very little to do.”
As a motoring writer and observer Sammy was always most keen and appreciative of good preparation, clean appearance of a car at the beginning of a race, and well-organised pit work. Such achievements would earn from him as much praise and attention as fast cornering or some really fine passing.
George Eyston is another fine driver who liked to prepare his car himself whenever possible. As Sir Henry Birkin said of him in “Full Throttle,” (page 245): “he is a skilled mechanic as well as a driver, and cannot take enough pains over the preparation of his car.” [Engineer would have been a better word than mechanic.—Ed.]
Sir Henry Birkin, or as he is still more affectionately called “Tim,” was very keen to follow every detail of the preparation of his car. He wrote in “Full Throttle” (page 49): “I must know from the outset every single, joint, nut, screw and bolt in it, otherwise I am ill at ease. Many very fine drivers rely on perfect preparation by their mechanics, and only touch the machine when they finally get into it, without any knowledge short of the essentials. Very often they win, but for my part, even if certain of invariable defeat, I could not bear to be on terms of such nodding acquaintance with my car.”
The most famous driver-mechanic of recent years is undoubtedly Freddie Dixon. His exploits are too recent and too well known for me to have to chronicle. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that during the last ten years at least, Freddie Dixon has been easily the best known of English racing motorists. This is, at any rate, my own experience. I have talked to many people in different walks of life who were not actually motor-racing enthusiasts, and if they had only heard of one driver, he was invariably the one and only Freddie. He prepared all his cars himself and the speed he could get out of an unblown Riley was nothing short of magical. To have twice won such utterly different types of races as the Ulster Tourist Trophy and the B.R.D.C. “500” within a few years is to my mind a record which will not be equalled or surpassed for a long while.
Percy Maclure, the “corner artist,” as he is so often called, is another who is just as well known as a mechanic as he is as a driver, and he has been responsible for the preparation of his car in all the races which have made him famous. Then there was the genial and efficient H. G. Dobbs whose multi-carburettered white Riley used to sweep the board in the short races at Donington. He too did all the work on his car himself and with great success.
Amongst famous drivers there is one who is little known as being a good mechanic. This is Arthur Dobson. First because he drove his white E.R.A., which was practically standard, or else “works” machines, it is little realised that next to racing Arthur adored working on a car. After his own car had done excellently in practice, and there was nothing else really to do but wait with confidence for the race, Dobson would often spend hours and hours working on somebody else’s car, with not much more hope than that it could be made ready to start in time.
In contrast to those drivers I have mentioned, there have, on the other hand, been successful drivers who never did any work whatsoever on their cars. The most famous amongst them is probably Rudolf Caracciola. Even in the early days when he did not have the tremendous heavy backing of a full team of Mercédès-Benz, he took no interest in the preparation of the cars he drove. Birkin spoke of him in “Full Throttle” (page 93) as “relying entirely on his mechanics for the preparation of his car, and knowing little of its inside himself.”
Raymond Mays, thought he might have known all about the inside of his cars, has never been seen dirty, lying underneath them, doing any actual work. Who can imagine his blue overalls being anything but immaculately clean? Dick Seaman organised the preparation of his cars before he joined Mercédès-Benz, but nevertheless relied almost entirely on Giulio Ramponi. “Bira,” who won twenty out of sixty-eight long-distance races in which he ran, never as much as tightened a nut or a bolt on the E.R.A. “Romulus.” The same, I feel sure, applies to Lord Howe, who has probably had more experience of different types of cars and various circuits all over Europe than any other British driver.
Should the question be, “Must a good driver necessarily be a good mechanic”? I think Sir Malcolm Campbell in “The Romance of Motor Racing” (page 67) has given a good enough answer. “There are some men who combine real engineering ability with driving skill, but they are few. After all, an engineer or a designer of motor-cars must have an aptitude for these things if he is to be successful. That demands very close attention and much mental application. The man who has a flair for high-speed driving is not naturally fitted for such work; he has a different kind of mentality. There is nothing to prevent a man with a weak heart and an undeveloped physique studying at a drawing-board and producing a super-fast racing model, building it out of the knowledge that he has gained, and perhaps spending many months over his plans. It is not reasonable to expect the average race driver to do anything like this; his whole mind and all his interests are different, and the probability is that he has never had any worthwhile technical training.”
In short, it is not necessary to be a good mechanic to be a good driver, provided one is backed up by good mechanics. It is, however, of far greater advantage to an enthusiast with not enormous financial resources, who wishes to race, if he can prepare his own car. If he is unsuccessful in his race, which he is more likely to be than otherwise, he has at least the consolation that he has enjoyed the work of getting the car ready, and probably he will get some tremendous thrill from the fact that the car will actually cover a few laps at high speed.