Reflections in the Austrian Rain

Even before practice began, the local people of Knittelfeld and Zeltweg were explaining how beautiful sunny mornings could turn to rain by 4 o’clock in the afternoon. Yet the Austrian Grand Prix organisers planned to start their race at 3 p.m. for no obvious reason, and sure enough the beautiful Sunday morning of August 17th turned to rain by 4 p.m. Because of the accident to Mark Donohue in the early-morning test-session, which delayed things while catch-fences were replaced and Armco barriers were repaired, the organisation seemed to lose a certain amount of control. To add to the delays a number of cars in the supporting saloon car races also crashed, and the cumulative delays meant that the Grand Prix was nothing like ready to start at 3 p.m. When everyone was ready to start, the rain could be seen slopping over the edge of the mountains behind the circuit. so they all dilly-dallied about and finally the rain come and everyone went back to the pits to change to wet-weather tyres.

The race eventually started at 4 p.m. in really wet conditions and everyone knew exactly what they were doing. For 26 of the 54 laps the race ran as course with varying fortunes for teams and drivers, and all the starters deserved a medal for completing the first lap and carrying on for more. It they had all stopped at the pits and told their team manager ”this is impossible”, no-one would have blamed them. Andretti went off the road because of “brain fade” as he put it, and Stuck went off from an error of judgement, but the rest stayed on the road. On lap 26 Jochen Mass lost all adhesion down the hill past the pits, for the rain was really bucketing down and even on ”knobbly” wet-weather tyres his McLaren aquaplaned. By sheer luck it sailed through the deep water in a zig-zag path without leaving the track, and once on the uphill section of the circuit the tyres regained grip and he went on racing.

By this time the McLaren Team Manager and Denis Hulme, representing the GPDA, were making noises about stopping the race “before someone got hurt”. They had the support of the Ferrari Team Manager and the Brabham Team Manager. While the leading group were on lap 29 the representatives of the GPDA and the Formula One Constructors’ group appealed to the organisers to stop the race, and the chequered flag was put out as Rolf Stommelen completed his 27th lap. Meanwhile Mass had lost control once more and spun off into the fields; he regained the circuit unaided but dropped from third to fourth place. After Stommelen came Scheckter and Fittipaldi completing lap 28, and then came the leader Brambilla, completing lap 29, followed by the rest of the runners and the whole affair came to rest. As more than half distance had been completed the organisers were in a position to say the race was finished, which they did.

All this seemed all right, except that Ken Tyrrell was very upset, as he did not seem to know the race was being stopped, and as the rain had ceased by the time everyone had returned to the pits, he was all for re-starting the race and completing the distance. As his two runners were lying 8th and 11th, due to early pit stops, and were making up ground it was understandable that he was very upset about the race being abandoned. The McLaren Team Manager was relieved to have Mass and M23/6 still all in one piece, and as Fittipaldi was in ninth place and going slower and slower all the time, they had nothing to lose by stopping the race. The Ferrari Team Manager was keen to stop the race as Lauda could not cope with the conditions, the Ferrari not handling well in the rain, and he had dropped from the lead to fifth place and was about to lose that to Peterson, which he actually did on the last lap. The Brabham Team Manager had nothing to lose as Pace had retired and Reutemann was in 14th position. The Hesketh team were happy the race had stopped for Hunt’s engine had just gone on to seven cylinders as he started lap 29, and the March team were delighted as it assured them of victory. Team Lotus had mixed feelings as Peterson was sixth after a pit stop and though he might have climbed back to fourth he was unlikely to win, and the Shadow team were more than content to stop as Pryce was nicely third.

Taken all round it seemed that stopping the race was a popular move, but was it correct? If you looked closely you saw a whole lot of vested interests at work under the blinker of safety. Just how safe or how dangerous it was out on the circuit only one person could know, and that was the driver. There were 18 of them out there and obviously they were all relieved to see the chequered flag, but I doubt if any of them were thinking of giving up just at that moment. I am wondering if it is right that outside influences should be brought to bear on the organisers to stop a race when there is no accident, no blockage of the track, and the drivers have not given up. If the McLaren Team Manager thinks it is too dangerous or risky for his drivers and machinery he has a pit signal he can use to call his drivers in. The same goes for the Ferrari Team Manager and all the others, though I am sure Tyrrell, Chapman and Mosley would not have used their signals. The whole way the race was stopped smacked of Union pressure and it is no credit to the Austrian organisers or the International Stewards that they succumbed to this pressure. The question has been asked before and must be asked again: “Who is running Grand Prix racing?”

On a more pleasant note, the first practice session on the Friday was a round of “welcome back”. The BRM and the Surtees teams were back in the fray, after missing the German Grand Prix, Chris Amon was back, driving the latest Ensign, Brian Henton was being given another try with Team Lotus, but the most popular return of all was that of Rolf Stommelen. It will be recalled that he had a horrific crash in the Spanish Grand Prix when the rear aerofoil broke off his Hill car, and he suffered leg injuries and broken bones. Everyone was very pleased to see he had made a good recovery and, true to his word, Graham Hill had kept the number one spot in his team available for Stommelen whenever he felt fit enough to return. He had a drive in a saloon-car race at Zandvoort shortly before the Austrian Grand Prix, which regained for him the feel of racing, and he was happy to rejoin the team at the Osterreichring. So often a driver has a bad accident, does not fully recover and quietly fades away from the scene, Mike Hailwood being a recent example, that it was with some relief that Stommelen was first seen spectating at the German Grand Prix and made steady progress from then on.

Another welcome return was made by the Matra V12 engine, this time in the back of a UOP-Shadow DN7, but somehow it seems to have lost that car-splitting scream that it used to have in the days of Beltoise and Pescarolo in the blue cars from Velizy. Perhaps the Ferrari engines and Cosworth engines have caught it up on decibel output, for they certainly have on b.h.p. output. None-the-less it was nice to see and hear a Matra V12 engine in Grand Prix racing again. Particularly pleasing was to see the enthusiasm with which Jean-Pierre Jarier was tackling the job of driving the DN7. It was no half-hearted attempt, with one eye cocked over at the Cosworth-powered DN5 standing in the paddock, or a dickering between the two cars. As far as Jarier was concerned there was only one car for him and that was the DN7. With that approach in the cockpit the Shadow-Matra V12 project could get somewhere. It certainly started well by being ahead on the grid of Pryce in the Shadow-Cosworth V8, even if it was only 0.02 sec. ahead.

A remarkable feature of the race was the number of rabbits about the place; I am not referring to the furry kind that dash across the track, but to “learner drivers”, though some of them have been about long enough to have learnt by now. All this season the Italian girl Lelia Lombardi has been setting a low norm and I don’t say this in a disparaging way at all, for in the present Formula One company she has been doing jolly well just to get in the races. She is usually on the back of the grid and at the end of the list of practice times, so it came as a disturbing shock to find as many as eight drivers behind her at the end of a day’s practice. Now this did not mean she had suddenly found a huge speed improvement, for she was driving in her usual way (which is a lot faster than some of her critics could drive), so it meant the eight drivers were very sub-standard by the general average of 1975 races, and this really was far too many “rabbits” on such a high-speed circuit as the Osterreichring. Peterson found this out to his cost when one of them moved across just as he was overtaking, and other fast drivers were heard to complain about the amount of slow traffic about during practice. To save embarrassment I will not name the “rabbits”, perusal of the practice times and starting grid will have to suffice.

The problem of the circuit owner and his never-ending battle with the continual progress in Formula One was very apparent at the Osterreichring, especially with regard to the pits. When the circuit was opened in 1969 the pits layout and the pit road itself seemed enormous and the width of the road seemed larger than was really necessary, even with Porsche 917s competing. Now, only six years later, the impression of the pit road in practice was one of cramped conditions. It was not absurd, like Brands Hatch, but was only just adequate with wider cars and more of them, and there were very few unoccupied pits with 30 competitors practising. The pits at the Osterreichring are very popular with spectators for they are covered by a huge balcony from which you can look down on the pit road itself or over into the paddock behind the pits, but this facility for spectators has its problems for the organisers for the public everywhere insists on smoking cigarettes and one day a fag-end is going to fall on some petrol below and set off a big fire. Although there are plenty of signs saying NO SMOKING, like all official signs they are often ignored, and can you blame people when the organisers accept sponsorship from Memphis, their own national cigarette company, and for every NO SMOKING sign there are a dozen urging people to smoke Memphis cigarettes. The world is full of clashing interests, especially the motor racing world.

If the British Grand Prix, officially called the John Player Grand Prix, was a Jamboree, then the Austrian Grand Prix, officially called the Memphis Grand Prix, was a Beerfest. As some people in the paddock were saying, it seemed like a glorious three-day booze-up with a supporting Formula One race. For what it was worth, the FIA gave it the title of the Grand Prix of Europe.