Modern GP cars

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Sir,

D. S. J.’s recent comments on present-day Grand Prix racing prompted me to try and get matters into some sort of perspective. Basically, I agree with his views, who after all has had a front-row seat, and knows, better than most, what both motorcycle and motor racing is all about. Of course, motor racing always has been and always will be a highly dangerous sport, and any man who chooses it as a way of life knows full well that there is a pretty fair chance of his having a very nasty accident, if not worse; but there is no denying that it has its compensations, as it is one of the most exciting, glamorous, and lucrative sports there is.

The years 1934-1939 saw some of the most hotly contested racing ever, with Alfa Romeo, Bugatti and Maserati competing against the German teams of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz, each team fielding anything between three and five cars in most major events. These cars all raced on what by modern standards were little better than bicycle tyres and had only drum brakes to stop them, yet there were very few fatal accidents, and none as far as I can remember due to major failures of their suspension systems. These cars were raced on true road circuits, many of them being very bumpy, tree-lined and full of pitfalls for the carefree or unwary driver, and I just wonder what the GPDA, who now taboo the Nurburgring, would have thought of Brno, Pescara or the Bremgarten circuits. Here we saw road racing at its best and the drivers, recognising that going off the road would almost certainly mean hitting something very hard, drove accordingly. After all, the main purpose of road racing is to drive the car on the road and keep it there, and if you can’t do that, as Caracciola used to say, “you’re just going too fast”! Nowadays it would seem that leaving the road is an accepted manoeuvre and circuits should be shorn of all unresilient objects to allow cars to spin off into a barren wilderness without coming to grief. Why so, I ask myself?

In the first place I believe that the modern GP car is very unforgiving in that control is very easily lost and very nearly impossible to regain without leaving the road. This to a large extent is due to the modern wide-section racing tyres, which whilst allowing fantastically high cornering speeds, far higher than anything hitherto believed possible, give little or no warning to the driver when the limit has been reached. Also because of this extraordinary road adhesion, quite unforeseen impact loading is suddenly thrown on the suspension system, and halfshafts, particularly with inboard disc brakes. All too often this has resulted in the car shedding part of its front or rear suspension or wheels, confronting the driver with an insoluble problem from which he has been very lucky to escape alive, and some, alas, have not. As a student engineer I was always taught that what didn’t look right probably wasn’t, and one had better take another look at it. To my eye this is forcibly brought home by the sizing of some of the highly-stressed suspension components of these cars, which seem to me far too fragile, and I have a feeling that the designer in his quest for all out racing performance is inclined to err on the light side and that such components are inadequately tested. Only when breakages occur does he alter his design or strengthen the offending component. All too often this is a bit late in the day, as few, if any, present-day Formula One drivers have not had one or more such terrifying experiences, and I wonder whether this is the real reason for their understandable apprehension of racing on true road circuits as opposed to flat billiard-table tracks bounded by guard rails, and patrolled by an army of firefighters.

The following paragraph from a letter I have just received from a very knowledgeable German friend of mine seems to sum it up:

“After a long time I at last saw again a GP Formula One, Hockenheim being so near Stuttgart. But though I am fascinated by the racing cars in their present form, I am also disappointed because technically they are so frightfully delicate. Such a large number of well-known drivers—and really none of them is really important, because things just don’t work all right. It is really by chance that one of them wins. It would be better to take the training as the important event and to draw lots for the winner out of the five fastest drivers, and to renounce the actual race. The training rounds really are interesting. There they drive with full speed, because for two or three rounds the cars aren’t yet defective.”

GEORGE C. MONKHOUSE – Chalfont St. Giles.