455 - not out

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As long as the fascination remains, one of F1’s longest-serving reporters has no plans to dose his word processor’s lid

Age, experience and undimmed enthusiasm have endowed him with a deep perspective of the sport and its proponents that, while often controversial, has frequently helped him to strip away the veneer of hyperbole so often associated with new trends and fads. Probably only a handful of current writers Denis Jenkinson, Chris Economaki, Franco Lini and Adriano Cimarosti share his length of firsthand knowledge.

His trademarks are the flat cap, jeans, a sleeveless photographers khaki jacket and the ever present pipe. Autosport‘s Nigel Roebuck has recently taken malicious delight in ‘bribing’ him with rare supplies of his favourite tobacco to say nice things about Alain Prost. His accent is distinctive, and so are the pronunciations Proast, Sesaris and Loader – and the laugh. lust as the word chortle was coined for the likes of Eoin Young, suggesting somebody chewing their laugh, so the way they used to indicate humour in the old comic books applies to him. Heh, heh, heh.

He owns Jimmy Clark’s yellow Lotus Elan, and is currently having it restored, although he is determined that the interior will stay exactly as it was when the Scot ran it, in the days before their friendship was ripped apart at Hockenheim in April 25 years ago.

This is Gerard Crombac, Swiss-born archenthusiast and co-founder of respected French motorsport monthly Sport Auto. Universally, he is known as ‘Jabby’. Magny-Cours was his 450th World Championship Grand Prix, and his passion was first fuelled back in 1945 when, while he was suffering from ‘flu, his father gave him a pile of Motor Sports to read. In Hungary we rambled back over the past five decades. “Magny-Cours was my 450th since the World Championship began in 1950, in which I worked as a journalist or, rather, in which I held a press credential,” he clarifies. “On top of that I did races in 1949 but I didn’t have press credentials. I was doing some lap scoring already then. For instance, I did lap charts in 1948, even in 1947. I did the sporting race of the French Grand Prix in ’48 and I had the results amended because they made a mistake and missed one lap of our car. Instead of finishing 20th we finished 19th, I think, but I was being very insisting on this thing!

“Apart from that, of course, I have done all sorts of other races. Twelve Indianapolis 500s. I did every Le Mans but one since 1949. I missed 1952, because I had a job in a department store in northern France and I had to be there on Saturday and Monday, so instead I went to a Formula Three race in Peronne. There was Les Leston and people like that racing with 500cc engines.”

He thus missed Pierre Levegh’s great single-handed drive. Ask him about such figures, however, and like Economaki he inevitably has an instant thumbnail sketch to hand. “Levegh was a fairly elderly man. He was quite nice. He was a car salesman at a Ford dealership in Levallois, one of the biggest dealerships in France. It was very unfortunate that he had this crash in Le Mans in 1955. One has to remember that he also killed 12 people when he broke his crankshaft in the French Grand Prix in 1947 and plunged into the crowd with his Maserati. People forget this.

“He always raced as Levegh, but his name was Pierre Bouillin. He took the name Levegh because he was the nephew of a driver who was in the heroic days of the Panhard. When he started racing he took over the name of his uncle.”

Crombac joined the great Raymond Sommer in ’49. He was even forgiven for inadvertently setting fire to the racer’s Lancia Aprilia. “Having done some lap scoring and that sort of thing for other drivers in France, they put me in touch with Sommer and it is through them that I got the job as a trainee mechanic. When I say that, I was sweeping the floor. We were running on castor oil which is a very, very sticky thing, and after a race to clean that is a hell of a job. We used methanol and had to be very careful not to damage the paintwork. In those days you didn’t take the bodywork off in seconds; the body was bolted with flat bolts with two little holes and you had a pronged fork. As these bolts were stuck by the castor oil, it took nearly half a day to undress the car on a Tuesday morning. And then I had to clean it, and so forth, and clean the tools. I wasn’t allowed to touch the engine at all . . .”

Within the sport it is well known that the only cars Crombac truly cares for at Grands Prix bear the name Lotus. It is said that if you were to cut his wrists, his blood would most likely coagulate into the name. His son is named Colin lames after Chapman and Clark. He related how his faithful affair with the marque began.

“I had an English friend called All Hitchins, who had an Allard and a Cooper-MG. He was in the printing business, printing transfers for ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent. He was making a very brisk job with cities in France such as Limoges, which is the centre of French ceramics. Most of his turnover was done there so he was going every month and he thought it would be nice to race in France as often as possible, you know, on the travelling expenses from the business. He offered me to go 50/50 on buying a sportscar to share for French races. It was Hitch who said that really the car to have was the Lotus. Of course I knew about it because this was the end of ’53 and that year Colin had done a fantastic season with his Mk6 which The Motor had dubbed ‘the preposterously fast Lotus’ at Crystal Palace after he’d beaten Bob Said with the OSCA.

So he said, ‘Why don’t we buy the car?’ So I went to Lotus in October at the end of the season to buy that car. I was already working for the Autosport at that time, because I went to the British GP in ’48 to do the lap chart with Louis Chiron, and this is where I met Gregor Grant. I became friends with him, and from then on he said why didn’t I send him snippets of information to him as he was then sports editor of The Light Car. He would say that he had news from the spy Hercules, from France . . .

“And then of course, when I was working for Sommer, he turned up one day in his little Y-Type MG and told me that he was shortly starting Autosport and would I become the continental correspondent? So that gave me very good insight into the British motor racing scene. When I arrived at Lotus there was the famous story where Autosport telephoned to say, ‘Our continental correspondent is coming to buy a car from you.’ Colin had all work stopped to clean the place up, and when I arrived I was very juvenile looking and they thought, ‘Oh, that great continental correspondent couldn’t make it and he’s sent his stooge instead.’ Anyway, we became very friendly,” Crombac would later pen Chapman’s biography “and from then on, immediately after that whenever Colin wanted anything to do with the continent I became sort of his agent. Especially I had a lot of dealings to do on his behalf with Le Mans and also, unfortunately, when we had a driver killed, like Mackay Fraser or the same race at Reims where we had Jay Chamberlain injured. Later, of course, when Peter Arundell was hurt; unfortunately I was in charge when anything like that happened.”

To his eternal credit, Crombac has been able to forge such close ties with a team as later he also would with Matra without compromising his journalistic integrity.

He was also the journalist who was closest to Jimmy Clark. The two shared a flat in Paris for a time, during the Scot’s tax exile from his homeland. His assessment of the relationship’s roots is a little surprising.

“Of course, I was already close to Lotus when Jimmy came along, but there is a thing; amongst my numerous British friends of the time I was very close to Ron Flockhart, and through Ron I had a special link with Scotland. I should have raced at Charterhall, but I crashed on the way back from the circuit going a little too fast on the road. I was staying in Chirnside with the Sommervails you remember Jimmy Sommervail and Ron had arranged that. Gregor was a real Scotsman, too, of course, so I was feeling close with Scots people and that sort of got me close to Jimmy. And Jimmy knew about that. They knew that if they had a problem in Paris, they could go and see Crombac and he would sort it out.

So I immediately hit it off with Jimmy and, I don’t know, somehow we were very close. I always said that the two reasons why I got on so well with Jimmy, contrarily to some other people who certainly did more for him than I did, were one, that I never once discussed money or borrowed money from him. I had never any idea what he was doing with his money, what he was investing in, and so forth. And this is something which Jimmy really disliked to discuss. And the other thing, though I had a lot of opportunities, is that I never chased one of his girls, even if he was through with her. I had many opportunities, I can tell you, but I never chased any of his exes! I think he appreciated that.” Surprising, too, given how close was their friendship, that he never felt moved to write a biography of his friend. Once, when I asked him why he had written about cars but not drivers, he replied: “Drivers lie to you; cars don’t.

“The thing is,” he expanded recently in Hungary, “we had this little test, this discussion in the motorhome this morning. I asked a well-known French motor racing journalist: ‘Do you remember the cars racing before the war?’ And he said, ‘Yes, Mercedes, Auto Union.’ I said, ‘Who was driving them?’ And he could not remember! He had not seen them racing but he knew what they were, but he did not know who had been driving them! I said, ‘There you are. The drivers are an accessory to the car!’ “Okay, I became very friendly with Jimmy. Also with Graham. I mean, Graham had worked as a mechanic for me. He did help me when I bought my second Lotus, my Eleven. I bought it in kit, and because of my relationship with Colin he said I could build it up in the factory and they would help me. When I arrived there he assigned me a mechanic, and it was Graham Hill. I knew him already because before he was at Lotus I had seen him when he was with Dan Margulies and he drove through Paris on his way down to Morocco for a little race in Dakar. I knew Graham very well, and when it was finished and I drove it off, Graham said, Jabby, if you do the 12 Hours of Reims will you take me as a co-driver . . .

“And of course, I was very close to Jochen. I was the one who bought Jochen to Le Mans. He came in 1964 with Chinetti, who was very, very close with my partner in the French magazine that I started, Sport Auto. Jean Lucas. Jean started his career as Luigi Chinetti’s right-hand man and was his co-driver in some races. They won together the race at Spa following Le Mans in ’49, after he had won Le Mans with Lord Selsdon. So when we started Sport Auto, Chinetti helped us. He was putting advertising for his racing team on the back cover, which was bringing us a lot of money and for him, absolutely nothing.

He was always totally disorganised and he would turn up at Le Mans with a fleet of cars; he would have entered four, five, six cars. In each of them was a paying American customer, and for the rest he would come and ask me who we should put with them. I would help him pick the best available drivers. “One year he wanted a driver and I was quite friendly with Rolf Markt, an Austrian Formula Junior driver, who was very friendly with Jochen. And Markt was in my office and we were discussing Jochen and I said, ‘This fellow Rindt, I don’t know him but he really is impressive.’ And he said, ‘Yes, and he’d like to drive at Le Mans.’ I said, ‘Tell him, if he wants to drive in Le Mans I can get him a ride with Chinetti, no problem.’ So we phoned him and Jochen took the next plane. In fact I don’t think he drove that year because David Piper burst the oil filter at the start because they hadn’t warmed up the oil enough. But he had been so impressive in practice that Chinetti told him he wanted him next year and, of course, he won the race the following year with Masten Gregory.

“I had been helping Jochen quite a bit early in his career, and I was helping these guys not because they were racing drivers but because they were friends. For me, the fact that a man is a racing driver doesn’t make him a special hero. My heroes are the engineers. My heroes were Colin Chapman, Gordon Murray, Patrick Head and John Barnard, because I am more attracted by the technical side. Probably like Denis Jenkinson.”

The relationships with Jimmy and Jochen, he insists, happened because they were friends. “And this doesn’t happen for me any more,” he claims, “because the drivers are a different generation. In those days we were the same age, we were chasing girls together.” Remarkably, given such feelings, he remains firmly on the pace, diligently researching facts at each race, and keeping fully abreast of developments. You need an early start to outfox him. The secret, his manner suggests, is no big deal.

“The secret is in Formula One. Formula One is still a fantastic thing. If Formula One was not interesting any more I would drop it immediately. I am still fascin-ated. For instance, now we have had this ban on all electronic things and so forth; and what really fascinates me is that when the new regulations will be published all the engineers will find a way around them. This is what I like! This will be fun!

“I know the problem very well, because for years I was the guy who was writing the regulations, when I was the French representative on the technical commission at FISA. Even in the book now, there are sentences which I wrote myself. So I can appreciate more than the layman how difficult it is to write a regulation that will stick. But these guys who were doing the regulations, myself included, if they were really good engineers they would have been designing the cars! Because this was an unpaid job. This is the problem. The best guy will have more money in designing the car than in designing the rules, so you will always end up designing the cars and the rules will have always loopholes. And that I think is a fascinating part of Formula One.

So I am really looking forward to next year to see how they will ‘cheat’.” He says that he does not favour any particular era from the past five decades, but is clearly looking over his shoulder for opprobrium from a spiritual Chapman, “who loved chassis, suspension and aerodynamics, and had not much time for the engine,” when he voices his technical opinion. “Personally, I think the engine is the heart of a car, and I love engines. I must admit that in the last few years it has been very gratifying, the evolution of engines.

I think that has proceeded by leaps and bounds and l must say that Renault has had a very, very important influence because Honda did extremely good engines, but it was a bit in an American way. A sort of overkill. They put 200 engineers on the job and finally they had the right situation and the right reliability and so forth. Well, I think there was a little more creativity at Renault. Don’t forget that now everybody uses the pneumatic valve spring, which Renault introduced a long time ago. And what has been a major breakthrough in engines very recently due to the turbo is development in electronics. You needed electronics to run a turbo engine but you could easily run an atmospheric engine on plain fuel injection, but electronics has brought so much, it has really proceeded by leaps and bounds.

“I mean, if you look between 1950, for argument’s sake, and 1975, well, the engines were of course revving higher because they had better materials but they were not that different. When the turbo arrived, because Renault had the courage to bring it in Formula One, everything changed forever. That’s why I say, to get rid of the active suspension and everything is ridiculous, because you cannot disinvent things.

“We got to flat bottoms, but even now these cars have more than half their downforce (doanfoss) from underneath the car, from the diffusor at the back! Even if you said ‘No active suspension’, they will find ways with the suspension to have the same effect. Except that the only problem is that it will cost even more money in research and development.”

He agrees with Motor Sport’s view that carbon brakes and excessive downforce have hurt the quality of racing over the years.

“Oh very much so. I regret that. This is probably the one thing on which you can criticise Formula One nowadays. It’s the difficulty in overtaking. I think that when it conies to carbon disc brakes, you cannot disinvent them, so the only thing you can do is put wider braking areas so you can overtake each other. As far as downforce is concerned, I am very concerned about the current level not so much because it makes overtaking difficult more because we are again going to reach a stage where it becomes dangerous. That is why amongst the modifications brought by Mosley (Mossley), the step bottom is a step in the right direction. I think something has to be done to reduce downforce.

Whether this is the right way to do it I’m not an engineer, and I’d want to speak to the designers and engineers before making up my mind right now I think something had to be done and I’m jolly happy it’s going to happen.” You can’t disinvent, but you can control . . . “Yes, you can control. It’s either carbon brakes or not carbon brakes. If you say, ‘Okay, no carbon brakes,’ I remember when Porsche on its hillclimb cars was using beryllium, and beryllium is something you make jewels with . . . The moment you tell the guys they must use a special kind of alloy for their brakes, this is not Formula One any more. Formula One must have as much freedom as possible.

“I agree that we have braking problems, because it restricts overtaking. Then I think the matter should be in the hands of the circuit owners. I think they should make their circuits more spectacular. Here in Hungary is a sheer disaster, but we know they could do it .

“There are some circuits where there is nothing to do. Take Monaco, for instance. Okay it’s bad, in a way, but on the other hand Monaco is Monaco. As far as the glamour and prestige is concerned, Monaco plays a very important part. But to think that for several years we had to put up with Jerez. Jeez! I like to drink sherry, but it can be exported! Heh, heh, heh!”

Crombac has never had difficulty moving with the changing times of Formula One, and that is borne out by his continuing enthusiasm. Just as Prost’s Williams FW15C differs totally from Raymond Sommer’s Talbot Lago, so today’s circuits have changed beyond recognition in 40 years and more than 450 GPs. “Well, you have to bear in mind the increase in performance. You can see for yourself that you take your touring car and go to Spa you realise that with the current racing car it would be simply impossible. In case of an accident there would be a holocaust.

What was possible in those days would simply not be possible today. I think the safety measures have come along with the technical development. For sure there have been a lot of passive measures which have been taken which have nothing to do with the increase in performance, and straightline speeds weren’t so different. But in the early days the drivers were doing eight or nine Grands Prix with no private test sessions, and they were trying to earn some money racing sportscars, Formula Two and all that jazz, but in the top formula their total mileage was a great deal less. Nevertheless, we had an incredible percentage of fatalities. So it was very good that measures were taken; they had to be taken. It was awful to lose two or three friends each season.

“You have to bear in mind the period, too. In the early years everybody had lived through the war. People were much more familiar with death. They had thick leather skin, so to lose a friend was not something as it is now. We were used to it. But I think the job that Balestre has done recently, in the last few years to strengthen passive safety, is something which, whatever one thinks of him, people will have to remember him as the guy who saved so many lives. This will be the main feather he will put in his cap, because there is absolutely no doubt that he saved the lives of many drivers.” Crombac, like anyone who has been around for such duration, has inevitably paid his own dues, privately and personally.

“I wasn’t at Jimmy’s accident,” he recalls. “I was at Brands. Of course, when I heard about it I asked David Phipps to cover me, and I flew over. Yes, it certainly was devastating, but I can tell you I was at the next race in Spain, rejoicing at Graham winning. For me, motor racing is a little bit like a religion. It is in my blood.” But he says that he keeps more of himself to himself now in relationships with drivers. “It is true after Jimmy that I was very close to Graham and Jochen, but after both went I never had the same relationships again. This was my generation.”

Instead, he kept up to date as a jury member on the Volant Shell and Pilote Elf scholarship schemes, along the way helping drivers such as Rene Arnoux. “I helped him quite a lot, but he was not my friend. We didn’t go out chasing girls together. He was my protégé.” Crombac’s antipathy for Prost has nothing to do with respect for a driving performance that is more similar to Clark’s than any other modern-day exponent’s, “but outside his car I don’t think he behaves always like a gentleman should. There is an incident with another driver, who was supposed to be his best friend, that put me off him rather in a big way. And there is another thing, which is very much unlike Jimmy, is that Prost always has an excuse.

He has been let down by his mechanics, let down by his engineers, let down by somebody who got in the way. I never heard him saying, ‘It was my fault’. Except recently after he made this blunder at Donington saying that he had this problem, this problem and this problem and Senna asked if he wanted to swap cars. Since that he got so much flack that he is very careful. But before that I never heard him say ‘It was my fault’.”

If he had to choose the three best drivers he has seen in his time, he is quick to respond. “For a start, I would say it is absolutely impossible to compare era to era. To achieve success in one era you need qualities that are very different from the qualities needed to achieve success in another era. But the drivers who have tremendously impressed me: there would be more than three, but maybe we can weed out some. I was tremendously impressed by Tazio Nuvolari. He was a devil. He was doing things. . . Senna’s first lap at Donington. That was Tazio Nuvolari! Unfortunately I only saw Nuvolari when he was at the end of his racing career, when he was already suffering from TB. You know, I remember seeing him spitting his lungs out of the cockpit of his Maserati at the Geneva Grand Prix. It was very sad.

He admits that, as a young man, his hands actually shook when he was introduced to the great man at Reims in 1948. “Then there was the Fangio period, and then I was very impressed by Stirling Moss, not so much in Formula One though he was extremely competent and everything, but he never scored in Formula One the way he should have, perhaps because he did not run his career the right way. I don’t know. He thought that for advertising purposes, probably to make himself popular, he should stick with British cars and he was making a big fuss over it, and perhaps at this period he could have been driving the best cars already. Anyway, but Stirling was such a versatile driver. I mean, his Mille Miglia drive was something which makes him come into history with a big H, a capital H.

“And after Stirling, with no doubt, there was Jimmy. After that of course we had Stewart and Lauda, but I wouldn’t put them in the same bracket. I would say in my mind they were probably more intelligent drivers than gifted drivers. Of course they had tremendous skill and everything, but compared with the previous ones . . .

I think for instance Jackie is the man who introduced tyre testing. I think that was the key of his career. He was very good and when he reads this he’ll probably kick me when he next sees me but I think Jimmy was the greater driver. “The same for Lauda, the computer. And after that, of course, has been Prost and he has won enough Grands Prix to carve his name in history, but to me the link really goes Clark direct to Senna, because Senna does things which none of those three drivers can do.”

And the less successful, such as Villeneuve? Again, Crombac’s response is not traditional. “I never got along very well with Villeneuve. On a personal basis I was quite friendly with him, but I didn’t appreciate Villeneuve because I didn’t think he was paying enough respect to the motor cars. I knew horrible stories about him having the loan of a Ferrari GTB or whatever it was at the time, and amusing himself spinning the car round and round in the square in front of his house just for fun. And when he carried on a Grand Prix having lost a wheel I thought that is quite unnecessary and it shows one thing: Villeneuve was not a car buff. And that is a very great difference between the old days and the modern eras.

In the old days people who were going to be Grand Prix drivers or racing drivers were doing it knowing they were risking their lives. Only a few, like Fangio, made a fortune out of it. People who did so well, like Tony Brooks for example I’m not saying he is poor and thank God he is quite well off but Tony Brooks today would have been making millions of dollars. Now he runs his car dealership in Weybridge. You see, that’s the difference. Today a driver can retire without having to work for the rest of his life. In those days it was enough to buy a business to work for the rest of your life . . .

“The main difference, then, is that what you got by going Grand Prix driving was not very consequent but you had the pleasure to drive a car. And I’m afraid that the first one who really gave me the impression that he was not a real car buff, was lames Hunt. And in fact I heard him say once that instead of becoming a racing driver maybe he should have become a squash champion. It’s like Nigel Mansell; sometimes he says he would like to have been a golf champion. Now these guys, we are not of the same breed. I am a car buff, and obviously they have chosen motor racing because they are more gifted at it and because it brings them more money, but they are not in Formula One because they like the cars.”

Again, Crombac’s passionate defence of the machinery arose, and prompted an inevitable question. Which were the great cars of his eras?

“Ah well, obviously the Lotuses! Those which were trendsetters. The first really impressive Lotus was the 25, which was one of the nicest-looking racing cars ever. Then of course there were the wings, which Colin started. Initially they were only grafted on to a 49 so they weren’t so impressive, but when he designed a car around wings so that it gave the 72, it was one of the great cars of history. And then of course there was the 79, the ground effect car. These are the three really outstanding Lotuses in my mind. And apart from that, the current Williams is a very impressive car. The Matra MS80 was a very, very ugly car; I used to call it the pregnant whale, which didn’t make me very popular with them! But it was a very, very good car.

Matra had a secret which unfortunately was taken away from them. They were building the monocoque like they would build missiles, that is that all inside the monocoque there were transverse bulkheads which gave it tremendous rigidity, and therefore the roadholding was greatly improved. When they made rubber bladder tanks compulsory for 1970 you couldn’t have bulkheads. With the MS80 fuel tightness was obtained through a resin which was poured in when they had finished building the monocoque. No Formula One Matra had succeeded after that; the MS120D at Clermont Ferrand in 1972 lasted one race! At the end of the season they put it on a jury-rig and they found that it had lost two-thirds of its rigidity . . .

“Gordon Murray has done some very impressive Brabhams. I’m sorry it didn’t succeed, but the laydown Brabham was very impressive. “Once I interviewed Enzo Ferrari and I said to him which of the cars that you have designed is the one that you prefer? And he said, ‘The one that I will build tomorrow’. Maybe I should say that the car I am looking forward to see is next year’s car, to see how they will cheat the regulations. That will give me tre-men-dous joy. I can hardly wait until Kyalami next year!” D J T

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