A provocative article, in which Gerald F. Hooke, basing his argument on the Shelsley Walsh Hill-Climb record, suggests that there must be a point at which sprint records must level out and become unbeatable.—Ed.
After reading the reports and results of the last Shelsley Walsh meeting, my thoughts turned to Shelsleys of the past. The Davenport era, with “Spider” knocking a second off the record at almost every meeting, the sensation when von Stuck shattered it to the tune of three seconds, Whitney Straight and the Maserati, then Raymond Mays and his E.R.A.s, steadily whittling away the half-seconds. Three seasons of post-war sprinting elapsed before the late Joe Fry bettered Mays’ 1939 figure of 37.37 seconds, and then by a margin of two-hundredths of a second—a margin which seems fantastically small in comparison with the one and two seconds difference gained at the hill-climb twenty-five years ago. But it was, none the less, a new record and a very fine effort, and it was acclaimed as heartily its any previous improvement measured in whole seconds.
Over the past decade the standard of achievement has slowly altered, almost without our noticing. The quality has not altered; driving ability is as great as ever, and technique has improved considerably. For example, a lot more is known about the management of the four-wheel slide. In addition, technical advances have brought about the development of independent suspension systems, limited slip differentials, and enormous increases in specific power outputs. But despite the exploitation of practically every aid to efficiency, it does deem that progress is slowing down and that a limit is in sight. It is obvious that there is an absolute minimum time for the hill-climb; if I have made some mistake in reasoning and there is no definite minimum, then drivers will carry on breaking the record until some hero will make his climb in zero seconds! I can only picture that happening at a hill-climb held at Infinity, the place where parallel lines meet and there are all sorts of extraordinary goings-on.
Supposing that there is an Absolute Record Time, the next thing is to try to estimate it, and possibly estimate when it will be gained. The only data we have to work from are the records set up in past years, and the only way to tackle them is to plot the figures on a graph (Diagram 1). In order to get the longest uninterrupted run of events the year 1921 has been chosen as the starting point, this being the date of the first meeting after the ’14-’18 War. As no meetings were held between 1939 and 1946 these years have been omitted from the scale.
The first part of the curve is almost a straight line, decreasing in gradient from 1933 onwards and flattening to the near-horizontal in the early post-war seasons. The year 1949 marks the beginning of a kink which interrupts the smooth curve of the graph. As the curve up to 1939 is fairly regular, it seems that the effect of the war did not end promptly in 1945. In fact the graph indicates that the effect lasted until 1949, and a little thought on the matter confirms this.
The war did more than merely rob drivers of the opportunity to attack the record, The habitues of the pre-’39 days who picked up the threads again in 1946 had lost six years’ practice. A great deal of equipment and data had been lost or destroyed, and shortages of tyres, fuel and spares hindered everybody. Many of the old regulars had dropped out of the racing game, and the new men who took their places were starting completely from scratch under considerable difficulties.
In view of these considerations it is reasonable to assume that 1949 was the first truly normal season after the war, and if the graph is re-drawn so that ’49 follows ’39 (Diagram 2), the curve is smoothed out and flattens quite distinctly, if extrapolated, to a horizontal line at about 1956 or 1957. This corresponds to a record time of about 35½ seconds.
So. if the graph gives a true picture, it seems that no one will ever be able to storm Shelsley’s thousand yards in less than 35 seconds. The gentlemen of the Midland Automobile Club may agree with me on this figure, because the Speed Table in the Shelsley programmes goes no higher than 58.44 m.p.h., the average speed for a 35-sec. climb.
It should be emphasised at this point that the estimated record figure only holds for the hill in its present state; resurfacing. and easing and cambering the bends would naturally mean a faster climb, but it would not be the Shelsley we know. Another factor which could upset the apple-cart is a revolutionary development in transmission and suspension design, although this is unlikely. There are so many high-performance engines available today with suitable characteristics that the question of power-units is relatively of secondary importance. However, the advent of the gas-turbine with its excellent torque characteristics may start the apples rolling, particularly when fitted into a disc-braked chassis. Sheer power has never been the deciding factor at Shelsley; if it were, then Hans von Stuck would have settled everything in June 1936, with the 5.3-litre Auto-Union. This car, built solely for hillclimbing, had something like 650 b.h.p. on tap, but was actually 3.6 sec. slower than the 1.5-litre E.R.A. of Raymond Mays at the same meeting. A more recent example is Ted Lloyd-Jones’ mighty “Flying-Saucer,” which must produce an indecent number of horse-power from its 2½ litres—I believe the Rolls-Royce “Kestrel” engine when fitted to a Miles Master aircraft developed 650 b.h.p. Despite its four-wheel drive, I don’t think the “Flying Saucer” will ever be able to better 40 seconds up Shelsley.
Now to estimate when the Absolute Record will be established— a calculation which can very easily be put wrong by bad weather, although possible errors are to some extent compensated. As we are working on averages over a twenty-plus years’ period, it is likely that the weather factor will be the same for the coming ten years.
The amount by which a new record has bettered the old has been decreasing over the years, as the Absolute Record is approached. This amount, or difference, has been plotted in Diagram 3, and the points show a fairly steady decrease towards zero. The extrapolated line cuts the horizontal axis at the 1957 mark.
The only point which does not conform is the difference of 3.2 sec. in 1930, when von Stuck broke Mays’ 1929 record by this margin. In the absence of Mays, Davenport bettered the late record by 1.0 sec. in trying to equal von Stuck, but that was the best he could do; in 1931 Dick Nash improved on Davenport’s 1930 figure by 1.4 sec. If these two differences are also plotted they fit into the picture very well, and if von Stuck had waited until 1932 to lower the record then he would fit into the picture as well. That combination of man and car was two years ahead of everyone else at Shelsley.
In 1952 it seems, very regrettably, that the days are gone for ever when a man could bolt a big vee-twin and four wheels onto an angle-iron chassis, add some chains, stir the mixture well with art and science, and go a-record-breaking up Shelsley. Breaking records is a costly business nowadays, and “specials” have become very special. According to my reckoning one of them is going to climb the old hill in a little over 35 sec., one day in 1957, and no one will ever be able to do better. Like the horse-racing tipsters, I had better give myself a let-out and say that it cannot be beaten on form, but for once I shall be very pleased if I prove to be wrong.