Letter from home

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From D.S.J. to the Deputy Editor

Dear ML.,

The next time you see A.H. shambling through the office kick him in the foot for me, please. The all-important figure is 10% (ten percent) NOT 25%. I refer to his story on the Austrian Grand Prix in the October Motor Sport, where he is writing about the number, or percentage, of victories a driver needs to score in Formula One for us to take him seriously as a Grand Prix driver. 25% is far too high, though it is a nice figure to achieve, and what we decided on was 10% wins from your total number of races. This was not a figure to make a Champion or an Ace, but merely a yardstick to apply to drivers to see if we rated them as worthy Grand Prix drivers.

We had been discussing this not long before we first met Ayrton Senna in Formula One. We were on the aeroplane flying out to his first race with the Toleman Formula One team, and were chatting to him about this and that. He made no bones about why he was on the aeroplane; he was moving into Formula One and he intended to win races. There was no discussion about being a World Champion, his philosophy was simple and straight-forward, like that of Gilles Villeneuve. If you won all the Grand Prix races you would automatically be World Champion. A.H. and I told him that he had to win 10% of his races for us to consider him a serious Grand Prix driver, which is 1 in 10. We said we did not expect him to win one in his first ten, nor necessarily two in his first twenty races, but we did expect him to have won three by the time he had competed in 30 races. He seems to have won 4 out of 42 at the moment, so we can take him seriously.

Of course, Alain Prost winning 24 races out of 101 leaves everyone else out in the cold. However, percentages can be terribly misleading, for if you read the Marlboro Grand Prix Book of Statistics, compiled by Jacques Dechenaux, you will find a driver who won 50% of his races! This was Lee Wallard, who drove at Indianapolis twice and won once. In the ninteen-fifties the Indy 500 was counted as part of the Formula One World Championship. Don’t ask me why, it was some crazy idea thought up by the rule-makers of the time. So Lee Wallard figures in the Marlboro World Championship statistics. As we all know statistics can prove anything, and this is classic example. However, to get back to our 10% (NOT 25% and remember to kick A. H.) we feel a victory for every ten races is not asking too much of a successful professional, and it is not a bad guide as to how the lads are doing.

By the time this letter is being read the 1986 Formula One season will just be finishing, so we will know whether Nigel Mansell or Alain Prost has become 1986 World Champion. Consequently, there is no point in talking about the matter in this letter.  A lot of people raised their eyebrows when I said I was not going to the Formula One races in Mexico and Australia, but my reasons were simple in the extreme.  Mexico is too high and and Australia too far, so that was that. 

I always used to enjoy the racing season finishing at Monza, in the days when it was a flat-out blind from start to finish. Now that the flow is interrupted by three chicanes it is not quite the same, though it is still Monza, and the fact that there are races after the Italian GP doesn’t seem to matter. My personal season invariably finishes with a flat-out blind as I always try to take part in the speed trials on the sea-front at Weston-Super-Mare. The Burnham-on-Sea Motor Club which organises the event kindly invites a small group of fast motorcycles along to give a “demonstration” and I manage to get myself included. Normally, I take one of my own motorcycles, but this year, thanks to my friend Brian Garbutt of Normandy Motorcycles, I was able to borrow a Honda VF500 F2, which is the nearest thing to a road-going Grand Prix motorcycle that you could wish for. Its multi-valve water-cooled vee 4 cylinder engine and six-speed gearbox is all mounted in a “state of the art” racing type frame, with air-assisted front suspension, masses of disc brakes, racing-type fairing and is almost the equivalent of a road-going Grand Prix car. One of my regrets about the way motor racing and motoring in general has developed, is that everything has become so specialised that flights of fancy are difficult to achieve these days; things like a road-equipped Williams-Honda for example!  In the motorcycle world the gap between reality and fantasy is not so wide and a pure racing motorcycle could still be ridden on the road, and most of the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers offer a virtual racing bike as an over-the-counter sports bike, much of the technology being only a year or two behind the out-and-out works racing machine. Apart from having a road bike with impeccable manners, more than enough performance, and a degree of controllability that was undreamt of a few years ago, you have a machine on which you can practice riding as an art-form rather than merely getting quickly from A to B.

As the Weston-Super-Mare event is a simple sprint from a standing start over 500 metres, I took the opportunity to ride the VF500 Honda down to the West Country and back, as well as making four runs on the timed course. I had estimated that it would clock 110 mph through the speed trap at the end of the 500 metres, so was a little disappointed to record only 108 mph!   Just to keep my sense of proportion, for I felt the Honda performance wasn’t bad for a “girl’s bike”, one of the lads on a 1070cc Suzuki Katana (a man’s bike), fully taxed and road-worthy, clocked 137 mph and I reckon that is fast by any standards. He also rode off home on it after the meeting!

The car entry at Weston is open to just about everything, including the fastest and most powerful sprint and hill-climb cars and the quick Pilbeams and Marches and so on, were up around the 150 mph mark at the end of the 500 metres.

There have been days at Weston-Super-Mare when the sea has been up to the Promenade, and the meeting has had to be abandoned, but this year conditions were perfect so it could not have been a better ending to my personal speed season. When I arrived at 9 am and rode into the paddock, there was one of the local police officers, who greeted me with “Good morning, sir, it’s going to be a lovely day for it” and he was absolutely right. Later in the day it was nice to see the lady chairman of the Woodspring District Council, which sanctions the event, walking round the paddock in lull regalia, with Chain of Office. Apart from the blast up the sea-front there are so many things that make for a happy event, and Weston-Super-Mare seems to have them all.  I still think the big secret is to restrict the Speed Trials to once a year, after the holiday season is over.

Once the travelling around following the “Bernie Circus” is over, there is a chance to catch up with more normal happenings, and visit friends to see how they are getting on with their personal projects. One is lengthening a Lotus Elan Plus 2 in order to squeeze a six-cylinder Triumph engine into it, another is rebuilding a pre-war International Norton motorcycle, another has recently acquired a rather nice Frazer Nash-BMW 328, another is building a very rare French cyclecar and so it goes. There is always something happening, and between times I am putting my famous Brooklands racing car together ready to go on display in the Brooklands Museum next year. And people still ask “Did you see so-and-so on television the other evening?” l am still into steam radio for you can listen to the most interesting things while you are fettling away at the bench.

Yours etc.. D.S.J.