From the archives with... Doug Nye

More vintage, less whine
There was a time when being Formula 1 world champion seemed to mean so much more than today

When I was first hooked on motor racing, what turned out to be a life-changing image was a magazine photo shown to me by my big brother, Rod. It depicted Reg Parnell in the works Alfa Romeo 158 at Silverstone. ‘Uncle Reg’ was crouched behind the steering wheel, muscular arms pumping the powerful car through the corner. And its barred radiator grille was bent and ugly, punched-in by a luckless Silverstone hare that had bounded into Parnell’s path.

I was entranced – for me that Alfetta was a fabulous-looking spacecraft of an open-wheeler racing car, a burly bloke hustling it around, drama, evident damage, palpable danger. Here was an activity that was exciting, attractive – an activity about which I just wanted, at six years old, to know so much more.

Very quickly I learned that a colourful Italian gent named ‘Nino’ Farina had just become what was described as the sport’s first world champion driver. He had won his title in another Alfetta. Of course, had English driver Parnell really wanted to drive for Alfa Romeo full time he would have shown Johnny Foreigner a thing or two. But in our Empire-educated, British is best, Corinthian world-view of major sports, of course Mr Parnell would probably have been too busy with higher matters (like his pig farm and haulage business) to have consented to grace Alfa with his permanent presence.

In 1951, when another foreigner – Juan Manuel Fangio – beat both the great Italians, Farina and Ascari of Ferrari, to become the sport’s second world champion in this post-war series, the young Doug thought this was the most important thing that had ever happened in all of history. There were only two world champion drivers in my experience, and so – wow – the title radiated real stature.

Over the following 10 years – into the 1960s – how many more great motor sportsmen would become world champion? Ascari won the title twice, Fangio five times, then Mike Hawthorn (hurrah, a Brit), then Jack Brabham twice. So by 1962 – with the two Hills, American Phil and Londoner Graham – having clinched the two most recent titles, how many world champions would a racing fan have known?

That’s right, only seven. The position of being Formula 1 world champion was both rarefied and exalted. These men were celebrities, few and far between. Come the end of the 1962 Grand Prix season, only five of those seven champions were still alive, and only three still racing. So they were rarer still.

Most racing enthusiasts valued, respected and admired the world title as a most distinctive achievement. Inevitably, as time rolls by, more and more world championships are run and won. The roster of title winners has grown. Championship-qualifying world championship rounds have been multiplied, from six meaningful road-circuit races in 1950 to nine in 1960, 13 in 1970, 14 in 1980, 16 in 1990, 17 in 2000 and 19 by 2010. Over the years we have seen 32 Formula 1 world champions. This year’s entry features five of them.

So forgive me if I confess to a pretty blasé respect level for current world champions, when there are more than twice as many of them currently active than there were around when I first caught the bug.

The point of all this? Many of my peers find it as difficult as I do to feel much sympathy for the apparently premenstrual teenage bleats, from the likes of Hamilton and Rosberg, over differences affecting their likely chances of securing this year’s title. As whinge has followed whine the phrases “so what”, “grow up” and “get a grip” spring to mind.

When Mercedes-Benz established its hold upon Formula 1 in 1954-55, a proper pecking order within the team became quickly apparent. Fangio was The Boss, no question. In 1954 Karl Kling was the team’s already declining home-grown hope, and fresh-faced young Hans Herrmann the cadet.

Into 1955 Stirling Moss – for years the elephant in the room where potential world champion status was concerned – leap-frogged both Herrmann and Kling to become the only team member who could run with (and threaten) Fangio.

And – most significantly – The Old Man had the self-confidence, the maturity and the wisdom not only to combat the threat, but also to foster many of the newcomer’s skills. In later years we would see a similarly mature approach from Graham Hill when first joined by Jackie Stewart at BRM.

But in Formula 1’s modern media hothouse, maturity proves a tender plant that rapidly wilts and dies. I doubt I’m alone in this, but while my admiration for what our best F1 drivers can do today survives undimmed, my respect for the personalities involved – and admittedly so much on display – has virtually evaporated.

It’s not easy to admire such displays of hearts on sleeves when the young men are so fêted, so well rewarded and demonstrably – compared to their predecessors – at so little personal risk while chasing that still elusive (yet devalued) title.

And maybe that’s the aspect in which respect is most diminished. That’s a pity.

A puzzle of many parts
Individual race car histories are hard to record – for a reason

Our great predecessor here at Motor Sport, Denis Jenkinson, produced 11 compact volumes of his annual Motor Sport Racing Car Review. He finally abandoned the series after 1958, when Tony Vandervell – head of Formula 1’s first champion constructor Vanwall – objected to Jenks revealing publicly how many Vanwall cars had actually been produced that season. There was a business reason around which Jenks could never have wrapped his inquisitive mind. Vandervell did not really want Her Majesty’s tax man to learn too much about Vanwall’s racing programme. So DSJ decided that if he could not present the real story, the only option was not to publish at all. In fact it was not until 1975 that he and our mutual friend Cyril Posthumus finally published the whole Vanwall story in the wonderful Patrick Stephens-published book of the same name.

In somewhat similar style to Jenks’s Vanwall odyssey, rummaging around recently in the reality of Porsche 908/03 matters has proved revealing. The Zuffenhausen marque’s 908/03 was the minimum motor car for the maximum tight-circuit performance. While the 4.5 and ultimately 5-litre air-cooled flat-12 917s proved an implacable sledgehammer to crack Ferrari’s 512 nut, the minimal 3-litre flat-8 908/03 was tailored to win the Targa Florio and Nürburgring 1000Kms world championship rounds.

The cars were campaigned as new by the Gulf-JWA and Porsche Salzburg teams. While 13 of the cars were eventually built, Porsche produced only eight of the tailor-made 908/03 transaxle gearboxes, with the gearbox section immediately ahead of the final-drive to avoid its mass being overhung behind the back axle line. This concentrated all mechanical mass within the car’s wheelbase, to enhance its nimble swervability. It also forced the engine forward, and hence the driving position alarmingly far forward, with the drivers’ feet ahead of the front axle centerline – arriving first at the accident as all the works drivers observed, grimly.

In practice it seems that only five 908/03 Gulf-JWA and Porsche Salzburg (Martini, in 1971) works cars were all assembled at any one time. In the 1970 Targa Florio, Jo Siffert/Brian Redman and Pedro Rodriguez/Leo Kinnunen were triumphant in a Gulf-JWA team 1-2, Richard Attwood and Bjorn Waldegård (now much missed) fifth in the other Gulf-JWA car. At that year’s Nürburgring 1000Kms it was Porsche Salzburg’s turn to shine, with Vic Elford/Kurt Ahrens Jr and Hans Herrmann/Richard Attwood first and second in their 908/3s after Gulf-JWA’s reliability collapsed.

In 1971 the updated Porsche skateboards reappeared in the Targa and 1000Kms, but in Sicily they had a nightmare – both Gulf-JWA cars crashed on the first lap, followed later by Salzburg Martini’s sister 908/03, leaving the race to Autodelta’s Alfa Romeo T33s.

Normal service was then more than resumed at the Nürburgring, in which Porsche 908/03s ripped home 1-2-3, Martini’s entries for Elford/Larrousse and Gijs van Lennep/Helmut Marko sandwiching Rodriguez/Siffert’s Gulf-JWA entry in second place.

In later years the 908/03s were stripped down, parts returned to store, retrieved, reassembled and rebuilt for a whole battalion of subsequent private owners. Many frames were re-equipped with turbocharged engines and the little Porsches were generally raced into the ground through the mid-1970s and on into historic competition.

Today I believe that only one surviving 908/03 retains its original bodywork, and that is chassis 009 in the Porsche Museum. Dale Miller, the American Porsche specialist, subsequently masterminded a 908/03 reconstruction programme that has brought many of the identities back to health – and in some cases to life. He originated as many 908/03 transaxles as the factory ever produced, made in England by Ray East of Gearace.

But when it comes to Porsche sports-prototype production in general, the company produced even more ‘car sets’ than even multi-millionaire industrialist Tony Vandervell would ever have considered feasible. All racing cars when current have a fleetingly ephemeral existence as a fully assembled, running and raceworthy entity. They spend much more time as a disparate collection of disassembled parts, stored on stock shelves, or stacked somewhere as just bare chassis. And this is a racing car reality that tidy-minded yet naïve collectors today too often fail to grasp. Road cars, once assembled and sold new, almost always survive for an entire working life as the single same unified entity. When it comes to racers – well, as a Cornish friend of mine puts it, “Just t’ain’t so!”