Matters of moment, November 1989

Mansell’s misdemeanours

Nigel Mansell’s performances certainly enlivened the Portuguese Grand Prix. They are dealt with by our reporter on the spot but can be summarised as overshooting the Ferrari pit on a late stop for fresh Goodyears, using reverse gear to gain the pad instead of being pushed back, ignoring the black flag for this contravention ofthe race rules, and colliding with Senna in the leading McLaren-Honda. An impulsive charger, Mansell!

There are ironical twists to these unfortunate happenings. One might not associate pure racing cars with starters or reverse gears. However, they became compulsory for safety considerations in F1, giving drivers a chance to restart and clear the course should they stall their engines.

In fact, for some obscure reason, a reverse gear was always required on a racing car. Or so Ernest Eldridge discovered in 1924, when he lost the LSR because his 300 hp Fiat was not equipped for going backwards under its own power; Rene Thomas was after the record with the 101/2-litre Delage and put in a protest. Eldridge replied by taking his monster car into Paris, cobbling up a crude reverse gear, and returning to Arpajon, to beat Thomas with a (two-way) 146 mph – a flea-bite compared to today’s F1 speeds, but on those tyres, on that road, in that unwieldly motorcar …

If Mansell’s Ferrari had had no reverse gear, presumably he wouldn’t have been black flagged. Drivers have overshot their pits time and again, so let’s not be too hard on Nigel on that score!  Zborowski, for instance, incurred the wrath of an official for doing this in the 1924 French GP, admittedly in a virtually brakeless Miller, but he wasn’t black flagged.

Ironically again, the day before this was happening to Mansell, Willie Green was being shown the black flag at VSCC Donington, as it was thought the ERA was dropping oil. Even this meticulously correct driver did some laps before seeing the signal. It is important for safety reasons that the black flag is obeyed, but need it be shown to a driver who has committed merely a technical offence?

As for the prang that eliminated both Mansell and Senna, we will leave this to those who saw it, just recalling that in a perhaps less intense age of motor racing, the Brooklands’ rules called on a driver to be two clear lengths ahead before taking ground in front of an opponent.

More balls!

Last year we criticised the BBC for tending to favour ball garnes, to the detriment of TV viewers who watched mechanical sports: Although motor racing coverage is generally acceptable, this seems to be happening agairi.

The aforesaid actions of Mansell made the already intense Portuguese GP very exciting. So what did the BBC do? Having billed their commentary, in the Radio Times, to begin at 6 pm, they decided to go to Estoril some 20 minutes early, the Ryder Cup golf match having ended. So those tuning in at the advertised time missed seeing both Ferraris taking the lead.

Then, at a critical point in the race, it was back to The Belfry for the golfing prizepresentation and speeches. The team members were shown · individually and one American gentleman said that golf is the greatest of any sport in the world. A great game, yes, but does he and the BBC, realise that whereas the Ryder Cup attendance was 30,000, the Indianapolis 500 attracts 300,000 spectators, and what was the crowd figure for the British GP?

All this applauding and self-adulation by the Ryder cuppers occupied about 25 minutes. When the BBC did condescend to return us to Estoril, Senna was in the lead, but we did not know how. And as soon as the race was over it was immediately back to someone driving off – a golf ball!

Not even a shot of the winners of 1989’s most interesting race on the podium … It seems they never learn.

Years ago, when there was only the radio, the battle for the lead in an IoM motorcycle TT was absolutely thrilling, the commentary by Graham Walker, father of Murray. At the most crucial point, with the finish in sight, what happened? We were returned to the studio for “Woman’s Hour”.

They say that even housewives who had never ridden a bike rang up to complain. Now it seems to be more balls. WB