Rough or smooth?

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Dear Reader,

Whenever I spend time in a non-Formula One paddock, be it a motorcycle, vintage car or modern meeting. I invariably find myself chatting to enthusiasts who follow the world of Grand Prix racing and the question always arises: “Why do you like driver A more than driver B?” or “Why do you think driver A is better than driver

I will leave you, the reader, to fill in the names.

At a speed trial recently this subject came up and I was explaining to my friend that it was not so much what a Grand Prix driver did, but the way that he did it. If he is a race winner I like to analyse how he won before I get all excited about the fact that he has done so. A golden rule that doesn’t often let you down is to see who was second, and why he was second. This will often put a star driver into true perspective. Naturally the ‘pure racer’ instinct has to be visible in any driver we are considering, and it shows in various ways, and after years of watching Grand Prix drivers I don’t have to look very deeply to see it, whether the driver is first or last. If he is first, he will go on doing it race after race: if he’s last, he won’t be last for very long.

I have always liked a driver who can do a whole race on the absolute limit of endurance, yet when he takes off his helmet he looks as though he has been out for quiet Sunday afternoon drive. Others look as if they have been wrestling with a grizzly bear for an hour and a half. Both types of driver can produce the same end result – victory in a Grand Prix race.

One type of driver I find very satisfying to watch in a scientific sort of way, the other I find exciting. If you know what to look for there is nothing boring in Formula One, though this year it has been fashionable for some writers to whinge about how tiresome it all is.

During qualifying it is very instructive to stand near the pit lane gate, where the competitors have to stop and have their tyre marking checked, to make sure they are using those they chose after morning testing. The rules only allow them two sets of tyres for the qualifying hour. This mandatory stop is only for two seconds at the most, for there are four marshals, one for each tyre, and as soon as they see that the painted number on the tyre wall coincides with the number on the car they raise an arm. When all four have given the OK signal, the traffic light at the exit changes from red to green and the driver is free to go.

The whole operation takes very little time but it is interesting to study different attitudes. Some free-wheel up to the line, with the engine at a constant, fast tickover; as the arms go up the driver snicks it into first gear and as the green light shines the revs rise as he lets in the clutch and the car is just gone. No fuss, no bother, no time wasted, slick efficiency. Another driver will arrive blipping the engine, holding the car on the brakes while it is in first gear, then make a lot of noise and fuss in getting away and probably leave with smoke coming off the rear tyres.

There is nothing to be gained or lost because your timing mechanism doesn’t start until you have done a warm up lap, so it’s easy to read a driver’s temperament in the way he tackles this small part of his job. As I have said, it’s not what he does, but the way that he does it. It is particularly interesting to watch young, relatively new drivers. Some look quietly confident with their timing of clutch engagement and throttle opening, smooth and progressive: others have a ‘hunted’ look about them, all jerky and lacking confidence. If you match all this information to that gained from watching them closely as they arrive in their pit after a good fast lap, a picture of their natural self-confidence builds up quite easily.

Those drivers that can calmly analyse their actions and reactions are worth listening to; those that rubbish the car, the engine, the tyres, the team management, the circuit conditions, the traffic and so on as soon as they open their mouths are not. If you believed all that sort of stuff they would all be potential Grand Prix winners and world champions, and we know that is impossible.

While chatting at this speed trial, a standing start sprint, the two top stars gave us a classic example of what I am talking about. Both drivers had virtual Formula One cars and there was nothing to choose between their results. They both recorded over 160 mph along the narrow sea front and their times required two decimal places to separate them.

One driver free-wheeled neatly and quietly up to the timing line. The green light shone. You are then free to go in your own time, the clock starting when you break the timing beam. The revs rose from a fast tickover completely unhurried, until they reached 4000 or 5000, or whatever the driver had decided he wanted, and then in perfect coordination his left foot came off the clutch as the right one went down on the accelerator and the car disappeared as if it was geared directly to the road. The driver’s race at all times was totally calm and displayed 100 per cent concentration.

The other driver came up to the line with much excited blipping of the throttle, the car apparently straining at the leash. It rolled smoothly away from the line and then all hell broke loose. It was very exciting to watch as it disappeared in a cloud of rubber smoke. If they had gone off together it would have been a photo finish, but it was a lovely example of two ways of achieving the same objective.

As I said to my friend: “There you are, you like what you like, it’s as simple as that.” My natural instinct is to enjoy the smooth and efficient driver, though I got a lot of pleasure watching the wild-and-woolly ones, providing they are as fast, of course. Wild-and-woolly drivers who don’t go fast don’t interest me very much and, by the same token, smooth drivers who are slow might as well be wild-and-woolly to give the public something to get excited about. At least they will stand a chance of getting on TV, whereas the smooth but slow driver will never excite a cameraman, let alone the producer.

This month sees a full year of printing readers Memorable Moments, and there is still a large backlog of post cards waiting to be used. For the future, it occurs to me that readers might like to recall the first racing car they saw in live action, smells and noise and all. Not in a film, a video or on TV, but the real thing. Mine was many years ago at a speed trial on the south coast of England. I had read about racing cars and seen photographs for years, but this was the first time I felt the real excitement of being there.

Yours, DSJ

This month’s Memorable Moments come from Gary Ledden of Surbiton, Surrey. They voice the feelings of many readers, I am sure.

1. Standing in total silence, along with the rest of the crowd, at the 1968 ‘Daily Express’ meeting at Silverstone, as a lone piper played a tribute to Jim Clark, who had been killed a week or two before.

2. Watching in disbelief, after Jim Clark had made a pit stop with a puncture in the 1967 Italian Grand Prix, as he proceeded to unlap himself from the race leaders, only to run low on fuel on the last lap, as the pump failed to deliver the last three gallons in the tank.

3. At practice for the 1973 British Grand Prix at Silverstone, watching Ronnie Peterson take the old Woodcote Corner flat-out. (That was a real Moment to Remember – DSJ)

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