Seeing The Finer Points

I recently came across the following paragraph in a 1931 edition of MOTOR SPORT, in a race meeting report: "The fact that the good driving produced less applause than the few instances of wild skidding is a pity, but can only be expected when road racing events are so rare and the general public has not learnt to appreciate the finer points of the game."

Deciding that I would like to see, at close quarters, some of the "finer points of the game", where better to go than to the magnificent Circuit Nationale de Francorchamps, on the edge of the Ardennes in south-east Belgium. I first went to the Francorchamps circuit in 1948 and it was instantly high on my list of true Grand Prix circuits, second only to the Bremgarten circuit at Berne, Switzerland.

I didn't miss a race at Francorchamps from 1948, sometimes visiting it three times in one year, until it was closed for a year or two and rebuilt completely. No matter what changes were made it always retained its unique character among those rolling hills along the German/Belgian frontier. In spite of its first gear hairpin just after the start, it has a lap speed not far off an average 150 mph, and top speeds around 200 mph are the order of the day. It is a true Grand Prix circuit, where power counts for much and driving finesse and high-speed judgement are prime requisites.

Most people I talk with are agreed that of all the circuits used by Formula One today, it is quite simply the best. So I drove into the hills beyond Liege with joy in my heart and a feeling of well-being. There is no pre-Grand Prix practice, nor tyre testing sessions, because the circuit comprises public roads, so everyone has to start off on Friday morning on an even footing. By Thursday afternoon, the only time that the public can get close to the cars and teams, the pits and paddock area were full to overflowing, the roads being closed early on Friday morning.

The weather on Friday was perfect, warm early sunshine affording a delightful drive through the countryside along the valley from my hotel and up into the hills, heading for the paddock area. I did not spend much time there, for Francorchamps is one circuit where the only real place to spectate is somewhere out in the hills. The Royal Automobile Club de Belgique takes great pride in its national circuit, and Le Grand Prix de Belgique is a grand occasion.

Thanks to the organisers providing a minibus service around the road system within the circuit itself, principally for photographers who have to hump long lenses, tripods, recorders and so on, it is possible for writing members of the press to cadge a lift to some spectacular vantage points. As I got into the minibus I heard Bob Constanduros, the English announcer, say over the public address system that Alesi had stopped. We had barely driven out of the paddock area when a motor-scooter came hurtling towards us, in the one-way system (!), with Alesi on the back, the young rider enjoying every moment of his glory.

Hardly had we got over this moment of excitement, as we were heading up a steep track that would take us to the edge of the circuit itself, when a Belgian police car came barrelling down the hill like a rally car. The minibus driver swerved off the track to avoid a head-on collision, and we went on our way, wondering what on earth was going on.

When the track joined the circuit itself, on the safe side of the barriers, we realised it was all quiet and the red flags were out. At the highest point of the circuit I left the bus and joined a group of photographers who were looking across to the other side of the valley, through their huge, long-focus lenses. There had been an accident at the fast Blanchimont corner, of which we had an almost aerial view, though we were too far away to see any details. The medical rescue services were in full attendance and the crashed car seemed to be a Ligier, though a few feet away there was a McLaren. An Italian photographer in our group had a short-wave radio in communication with a colleague in the paddock, and having seen the Ligier through his long lens he radioed his colleague, who confirmed that it was Erik Comas, though nothing was known about the seriousness of the accident. On enquiring about the McLaren, our Italian friend gleaned the knowledge that it was Senna's. He was not involved in the accident, but had been the next car along and had stopped to go to the aid of Comas even before the medical team arrived on the scene.

Eventually we saw the tiny speck of the ambulance leave the scene and drive to the nearest medical centre, and as the Medical Helicopter was not energised we could reasonably assume that the condition of the Frenchman was not serious, and that he was being treated at the circuit for the time being. When everything was cleared up practice began again. Leaving the photographers to their work, I continued on foot around the inside of the circuit.

To watch the cars plunging into a blind downhill left-hand bend and then disappear down the hill on full song is to enjoy the finer points of the game. There were those who waited until they were round the corner before they gave full throttle, while others actually went into the corner with the throttle wide open. The difference in exit speed was clearly visible, as was the speed down the long hill. Senna, Schumacher, Berger and Mansell had me 'sucking my teeth' as they went into the left-hand bend, knowing exactly what followed and where they wanted the car to be.

At another point, braking heavily for a tight right-hander, the world champion, who has just announced that he won't be defending his crown, was really trying hard. The 'powderpuff' press seem to think that Nigel Mansell is already champion, but in reality he is world champion elect. He doesn't don his metaphorical crown until January 11 1993; until that time, Senna is still reigning champion. At the time of the Belgian Grand Prix Mansell could not be beaten in the 1992 championship, and no one would blame him if he decided to ease up a bit. But watching him on the daunting descent down the valley there wasn't much sign of him taking it easy.

At one point I just happened to be at the braking point for a corner, with an approach speed of about 130 mph. Williams number five went by me with its front right wheel stationary, the brake well and truly locked on and smoke pouring off the tyre. It got round the corner with no apparent difficulty, which puzzled me for the next few moments, because a locked front wheel loses most of its braking ability, which meant that the Williams was losing momentum through only three of its tyres instead of four, yet it lost enough to get round the corner safely! To try and sort out this phenomenon I carefully watched other front runners, like Senna, Patrese, Schumacher, Berger and Alesi, and everyone seemed to be braking at the same point, within a few feet or two, which is about all the human eye can take in at modern-day speeds. I don't really know the answer to this one, but it did emphasise the fine line the top runners are treading. The difference between the best and the nearly-best is a matter of microseconds, and you have to add them all up for a complete lap to appreciate the difference.

I tried to estimate where I, personally, would brake at this corner if I was trying to be a racing driver, and I walked back to that point... but it was too depressing. Even those who were only just going to scrape onto the starting grid went by me with their foot hard on the throttle, lifting off at various points in the area leading up to that used by the aces. And always remember that the aces in the top cars are going quicker into the braking point anyway. My depression was slightly alleviated when an all-black car came into view at my imaginary sort of speed, and braked at about my point. I did not see it again, so he must have been in trouble or had been preparing to go into the pits, from which he did not re-emerge. All this observation was around the area at the highest point of the circuit, and on every lap everyone was going like a bat out of hell downhill. Going flat out uphill is one thing, but downhill is something else.

When it was all over I caught a minibus back to the paddock to find out what had been going on, because if you enjoy the real sights, sounds and smells of Formula One, you cannot have it all. If you are going to enjoy being out in the country, watching and listening at close quarters, you can have little knowledge of what is really going on; if you watch, listen and smell in the pit lane you can keep your finger on the pulse of hard facts, but you don't see any of the real action. If you sit in the press room, especially like the underground one at Monte Carlo, you may know all the facts, but you won't have seen 'the finer points' and you won't have heard the sounds or smelt the aromas of Formula One.

On a wonderful morning like Friday August 28 1992, to sit and watch the television screen and the Olivetti monitors from the comfort of the press room bordered on the criminal. One day later, it was a question of common-sense. The rain was pouring down, visibility was zero, the spray from the Goodyear wet-weather tyres was immense and the speeds were a fraction of those achieved the previous day. But under the conditions the speeds were awe-inspiring, and Mansell actually lapped faster than one driver had gone the day before in the dry!

It was cold and damp as I tried to watch the cars through the Eau Rouge dip and up the steep hill, during qualifying, but spray was so thick that only occasionally could I identify a car or a driver. Retreating across the outfield, I fortified myself with a portion of golden pomme frites avec mayonaisse and found a convenient loudspeaker where I could listen to the lap times and watch a selection of the cars coming into a priority car park. It was impressive to note where they were coming from. Belgium was naturally well-represented, but so were Great Britain, Germany and France. Others came from Italy, Luxembourg, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Austria, Holland and Monte Carlo, though I did not see a Trabant from the now defunct DDR.

As if someone is trying to foul up the Formula One scene, the rain stopped after the qualifying hour and by early evening blue skies had re-appeared and it was a lovely evening for a gentle run back to the village where I was staying, with a little deviation here and there to enjoy the countryside. My relaxation was rudely interrupted when I ran head-on into a local bicycle race! Now if you have never come across a bicycle race in a European country you have missed something pretty special. If it is a really big event, with hundreds of runners, there is plenty of forewarning in the way of publicity and the roads are lined with spectators. Before a bicycle appears there is a long cavalcade of publicity vehicles carrying loudspeakers, shouting about the event and playing unnecessarily loud muzak, so you have plenty of time to get out of the way, even before the police close the road. If, as this was, it is a small affair with a few dozen riders and not much publicity, it is a bit more exciting.

Rounding a bend at the foot of a long incline, on a small back-road, I was suddenly aware of three motorcycle headlamps appearing at the top of the hill three members of the gendarmerie on their BMWs. I just had time to wonder what their hurry was when I saw the pack of riders, heads down, bums up, pedalling like mad. I pulled rapidly off onto the grass verge on my side of the road, as the three police 'bikes went by with flashing blue lights and horns blowing, and then the race was on me, filling the whole road from verge to verge. There were 50 or 60 in the leading bunch, elbow-to-elbow and wheel-to-wheel, doing a good 60mph down the hill on two square inches of rubber.

By the time the small groups of also-rans, the support vehicles, more police 'bikes and finally the follow-up car with the green flag had gone by, I had sat transfixed for about 10 minutes. "Phew!" I thought. "Just like all that lot I had left at the Francorchamps circuit, racers all."

The day of the Belgian GP began fine, but the skies were not convincing for anyone who has a country-nose for rain. During the time between the Formula One warm-up at 9.30 and the start at 14.00, there were various activities to pursue. You could scrounge an early lunch off one of the more affluent teams or sponsors, chase after drivers for a quote, worry about proposed new regulations, try to find out who had a contract with Frank Williams and who hadn't, check the press room to make sure all the electronic wizardry was working correctly to enable you to impart your knowledge to the world as things happened, or take a quiet nap. None of these appealed to me so I watched what was happening out on the circuit. At one point someone passed by and asked: "Why was God Save the Queen being played just now?" To anyone who had been paying attention they would have known that Oliver Gavin had just won the international Opel (Vauxhall) Lotus race, in the series that often supports F1. It was his first visit to Francorchamps which augurs well for any young man with his sights set of the top.

Of lesser note, but interesting for anyone to whom the name Francorchamps means something, at midday there was a parade of Ferrari sports cars in appreciation of the Garage Francorchamps in Bruxelles having been a Ferrari agent for 40 years. The Garage Francorchamps is owned by Jacques Swaters, who raced and entered Ferrari cars under his Ecurie Francorchamps banner for many years. For me the most pleasant of the eight cars on display was the Ferrari 166 Barchetta, a lovely looking, two-seat sports racer that looked good when I first saw it in 1949, and still looks good 43 years later. Fittingly, Jacques Swaters himself drove it in the parade.

As the main race was about to start, the smell of oncoming rain had gone, because the rain was actually with us, but everyone started on dry tyres, knowing full-well that if it got worse they were going to have to stop for wets. The blow-by-blow account of the race appears elsewhere in this issue, but anyone fortunate to be at the circuit should have applauded as Senna displayed "the finer points of the game". He was lying third behind the two Williamses as the track got wetter and more slippery, and when Mansell and Patrese stopped for wets he took the lead and gave a masterly display of finesse and speed as he stayed ahead on his slicks as Mansell, Patrese, Schumacher, Brundle and Hakkinen caught and passed him on their treaded Goodyears. He never, ever looked like sliding off the ice-rink, and a lot of other drivers who eventually caught and passed him, before he succumbed to the worsening rain, must have looked in disbelief at the McLaren-Honda still running on slicks. Like Alesi in the French Grand Prix, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain if the weather had changed again.

As for the final result, reported elsewhere, anyone who has been following F1 closely, and not spending all their time moaning about it being dull, will have been delighted to see the young German Michael Schumacher achieve his first victory with the Benetton. This victory was only a matter of time, even though it is his first full season of Formula One, and it was only one year since his GP debut. I don't think this will be his last victory. The Belgian Grand Prix lived up to its reputation for presenting Grand Prix racing in its purest form, and any driver who wins the Belgian Grand Prix can look upon it as something of which to be proud. D S J