While I enjoy a good Grand Prix race as much as anything, it makes a great change to watch a long-distance race, especially if there is no great need to follow it closely lap by lap, for this allows time to drift around the pit area watching the work being done on time-keeping, lap-scoring, pit work, refuelling and so on. In a Grand Prix race once the flag has dropped it is a case of two hours of concentration, with no time to see anything other than the progress of the race, which is a pity, for control from the pits is an interesting subject, even though it is not as vital as it used to be. In a long-distance sports car race there is so much more than the wheel-to-wheel dicing out on the track. There is always a great variety of cars and a greater variety of drivers, and in a European one such as at Nurburgring or Spa the variety of nationalities of people in the pits makes it all more interesting.
One of the important things to signal to a driver in a long-distance race is exactly when to come in for petrol and tyres, and everyone has their own special way of indicating this. The Porsche team have a signal board with an abbreviation of the driver’s name on it and then they put under the name the capital letter T, meaning “TANKEN” or refuelling. At one race recently the signaller was holding out a board to Hans Herrmann which had on the top “HER” and under it a capital T, except that he had the T upside down. He did not notice this until he brought the board in again, and he had a very sheepish look on his face, and you could see he was wondering (a) whether anyone had noticed, (b) whether Herrmann had understood and (c) what he ought to do about it. After a moment he surreptitiously put the T the right way up and held the board out next lap, which was just as well for Herrmann was not heading for the pits.
In another pit, belonging to the two Swiss drivers, Steinemann and Spoerry, the refuelling stall had come to an arrangement with another amateur team to lend them their huge petrol funnel. It was agreed as the two cars were coming in for petrol at least five laps apart so there would be no clashing. This arrangement was unknown to the drivers and would have been all right if the team borrowing the funnel had not made some mistakes in their lap-scoring and called their driver in three laps later than intended. The borrowing would still have been possible but one of the Swiss drivers was feeling a bit tired and decided to end his stint at the wheel two laps earlier than intended. The resulting panic and snatching too and fro of the lone petrol funnel was a riot, and there was much shouting and yelling in various languages, but it all ended amicably and both cars were back in the race.
Until refuelling stops take place the pattern of a long-distance event is usually pretty easy to follow, but after everyone has made a pit stop, these being spread over many laps, it is difficult to pick up the pattern again unless you are keeping an accurate lap-chart. Even then it is easy to make mistakes, and as many of the private owners racing in long-distance events have to co-opt pit help from friends who are not highly skilled in lap-scoring and timekeeping, there is often a certain amount of confusion. Each pit is usually satisfied that it has control of the situation, but if you have the opportunity to wander along the pit-front you will find as many as three variations of the positions in the race, especially where class positions are concerned, for these do not appear on the official scoreboards. If you are racing a Porsche 906 you know you are not going to be in the leading group overall, but you are trying to win the 2-litre Group 4 class, and I have often seen rival teams, even in adjacent pits, giving identical information to two drivers. This goes on until someone happens to notice the rival signalling board and then there are moments of indecision. The International crowd in long-distance racing are a friendly collection of enthusiasts, whether they come from Scandinavia, Central Europe, the United Kingdom, Portugal or Brazil, and everyone seems prepared to help each other out so that lap-scoring muddles do not go on for long. Often they are sorted out by sending someone to take a quiet peak over the shoulders of the Porsche team or John Wyer’s Gulf team, but it is all part of the fun of long-distance racing.
Short distance Formula racing is really only fun for the driver, and then only one to a car, but long-distance racing involves a lot more people, who at the end of a rate can feel they have taken part in it and say “that was a most enjoyable day”.
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There is one thing about a group of motor-racing enthusiasts, no matter what nationality, and that is that there is never a lack of conversation. It may just be line-shooting or bragging, it may be reminiscences, it may be constructive or it may be technical, but as long as it is about racing and racing cars it is never-ending. We were discussing starting procedure over some glasses of good Austrian beer and various drivers were giving their views on what they considered the best way of starting a race, and how the starter should handle the flag. Fangio had just started a race and had walked across the track in front of the grid with one hand held up indicating ”hold it, chaps”, and the other carrying the flag. When he got to the grass verge he turned round and brought the flag up and down in one decisive sweep and the race was on. One driver who had been well to the front gave the view that this was ideal, for, as he said, “No one is going to run over Fangio, and you just kept your eyes on him as he crossed the track.” Other drivers wanted a more clinical approach with automatic coloured lights, others wanted a fixed time-pause of, say, five seconds with the flag up and so on. They all had good points and had points and while everyone seemed in agreement that starts should be fool-proof, it was not long before they were all reminiscing about some of the worst starts they had experienced, these being the ones they remembered and enjoyed recounting rather than the good ones. Paul Hawkins made an interesting observation as the driver of a Ford GT40, pointing out that if you have pole position, at Silverstone for example, and the starter is mounted on a rostrum then he is hidden from view by the low roof-line. Hawkins has had to make many starts by watching the starter’s elbow, this being the highest point he could see. If you wait until the flag appears in view through the windscreen of a GT40 you are liable to be last away.
Seldom do drivers deliberately jump the start, though many do by mistake, through eagerness or being off balance, and the rule that a driver shall be penalised as much as a minute for jumping the start has always seemed to me rather a “naughty schoolboy” admonition which is insulting to racing drivers. During the summer I had occasion to start a club race of single-seater cars, and was instructed to drop the flag as the stopwatch hand came round to 60 seconds. By 53 seconds I could hear all the engine notes rising, at 54 seconds I could literally feel all the left legs trembling on clutch pedals and it was obvious that the whole field was ready to go, so I dropped the flag at 55 seconds and we had a perfect start. Whether the time-keepers penalised the whole field one minute for jumping the start I don’t know! Somehow I could sense by the sound that had I hung on for another five seconds we would have gone over the top of tension and someone would have made a nonsense. Although I do not agree with the manner in which Raymond Roche starts the French Grand Prix each year. I do agree with his pre-start remarks that a 30-second signal will be given and at any time after that, when he thinks everyone is ready, he will start the race. There have been many races spoilt by starters insisting on keeping the flag raised until the precise second specified, even though clutches are dragging, water is boiling and drivers are getting in a terrible twitchy state.
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Although Mallory Park has nothing to do with Continental racing it must be recorded that Lotus and Matra sent Grand Prix cars to the little circuit on Holiday Monday, September 2nd, and Stewart and Hill did demonstration runs. Hill drove a Lotus 49B with the latest type of nose cowling, the car all set to go to Monza, and Stewart drove Tyrrell Matra-Cosworth. Both drivers demolished the existing lap record and went round in 44.8 sec., the official lap record standing at the time to Hulme with a T70 Lola-Chevrolet with 47.6 sec.—D. S. J.