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Mike Cotton

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One leg good, two legs bad

The ADAC’s decision to hold the Nurburg 1000km World Championship race in two heats, each supposedly of 500km, proved extremely controversial and unpopular. The theory was good enough, to hold a race on Saturday evening running into darkness, and continuing it on Sunday afternoon, and in fine weather the format might almost have succeeded. FISA blessed the plan and the teams were informed some months before. Experiments should not be condemned out of hand, and the ADAC couldn’t be blamed for wanting to increase the rather poor crowd that usually supports its race.

In 1969, when the Porsche 908 became the world champion by beating the Ferrari 312P, the Ford GT40 and the new Porsche 917 model, traffic jams extended to a radius of 30 kilometres from the Nuburgring and the crowd might easily have been 200,000. Even now I recall eating my boiled egg in the Schlossblick hotel in Blankenheim early on Sunday morning, and wondering why the traffic outside wasn’t moving. The realisation that it might be stationary all the way to the track was reason enough to hurry, and much of the journey had to be covered on the wrong side of the road.

At Spa last year Marc Duez, whose family owned a local hotel, had a joke he was rather proud of: “What’s the difference between a Grand Prix and a sports-car race?” (The obvious answers aren’t allowed.) “At a Grand Prix the spectators know the names of all the drivers. At a sports-car race, the drivers know the names of all the spectators!”

It wasn’t really as bad as that, but only 5000 spectators paid to watch the gripping Sauber versus Jaguar battle on Saturday evening, and only 15,000 in total paid to watch the two main races. Conditions were absolutely dreadful, it has to be said, with pouring rain, low cloud and a strong wind which was bending the flagpoles, but even so the experiment clearly didn’t work.

I remembered, because I found my lapel ticket in a drawer the other day, that the BARC held an experimental evening meeting at the Crystal Palace on Friday, June 18,1971. It poured with rain, and I counted 14 spectators standing miserably on the banking opposite the pits with water trickling down their collars. Grahame D White, then Clerk of the Course and now part of Richard Lloyd’s team, says he’s been trying to forget that experiment ever since, but Saturday September 3 was a reminder. The grandstand looked quite full, because every spectator present had gathered there for warmth and shelter, but the feeling of success was illusory.

Someone up there doesn’t like experimental evening meetings, and certainly none of the mortal drivers did. The professional drivers in the Grand Prix category were outraged at the idea of racing in the dark, and even the more stoic sports-car devotees had second thoughts at the driver’s briefing, when rain washed down the windows of the new Michelin press centre in rivers.

Merely to hold a meeting in the evening isn’t nearly enough to attract spectators in large numbers. I believe that the World Sports-Prototype Championship is attractive enough to draw big crowds; the Germans should have been drawn by the Sauber-Mercedes as Britons are by the Jaguars, and one can only suppose that the event itself is not being promoted properly. Bernie Ecclestone, FISA’s promotional vice-president, may well draw that conclusion anyway.

This year, Group C racing is far more exciting than Grand Prix racing and at most venues the crowd figures are rising, but there is still an enormous gulf between Formula One and everything else; the Formula 3000 teams are equally aware of this. Publicity tends to have a snowball effect, television coverage especially, and Grand Prix racing can easily generate six-figure crowds over three days by reputation.

Some organisation still needs to get its shoulder to the problem and set this boulder off in the right direction, but one question remains: can the total number of motor racing spectators be increased, or would the present total tend to divide its loyalties? I believe the first proposition, but if the latter were true then FISA wouldn’t try very hard to promote Group C racing.

The ADAC apparently believed that because an annual 24-hour touring car race was extremely popular on the Eifel mountain circuit in June, the same people might return for a World Charnpionship race in September. And that furthermore, the neue Nurburgring would be even more suitable for night racing.

But the drivers of BMWs, Ford Sierras and Opel Kadetts are travelling much less quickly, sit higher behind better lights, and have lower expectations of the marshals. So long as there’s someone around to pull them out of the wreckage, that’s all they expect at three o’clock in the morning.

The organisation should surely not expect Jean-Louis Schlesser and Martin Brundle to have the same attitude, and it was shocking to realise that no provision had been made for night racing. On Thursday night the kerbstones couldn’t be picked out at a distance (and remember, the track has huge run-offs, and is rather featureless), and no marshals could be seen after dark. They were there, in their posts many metres from the trackside, but were invisible.

Only after Brundle and Cheever had led a deputation on Thursday evening did the ADAC realise that anything had to be done, and fortunately Spa-Francorchamps director Danny Delettre was present to offer equipment at his disposal, including fluorescent jackets, reflector boards and torches.

Safety was much improved on Friday night, but was still not nearly good enough. When Brundle complained on Saturday night about a car circulating without lights, he was chided by Cheever: “But Martin, how do you think they’d stop a car at night?” Jan Lammers said it only went to prove what a good job they do at Le Mans. The experience of 60 years is incalculable, but what a pity the ADAC didn’t ask for advice before it staged its two-day meeting. It might even have been judged a success, despite the weather. MLC

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