When I watch a motor race, with a view to writing a story about it afterwards, it usually involves constant writing in a notebook, a lap-by-lap list of numbers of the competing cars, frequent use of a stop-watch to see if two cars are getting close to one another, notes of incidents and observations, and so on. If I watch from the pit area there is the addition of snatches of conversation with mechanics or team managers, race organisers, drivers walking back from derelict cars, and all this keeps the mind fully occupied during the short duration of a Grand Prix. As a car disappears from the lap chart i make a note to find out later what happened, or look around for obvious signs, or if a car makes a pit stop I endeavour to see what is happening and weight up the effect it might have on the outcome of the race. When it is all over I reckon to have a good basic knowledge of the happenings of the last two hours and the work of filling in all the gaps then begins. If it is a long-distance sports-car race I often watch the action away from the pit area, returning there when I know that refuelling and driver-changing stops are due, just to see that all is in order with the major teams and to get the feel of the pattern of the race that is going on for six hours, 10 hours or even 24 hours. If the race has settled down into a battle of strategy between two teams, with pit-work begin all important then it is interesting to watch all the pit stops. If the differing abilities of rival drivers are going to play an important part then I can watch it all being played out from a little way away, so that the actual pattern of face watching depends on the type of race and the situation that is developing, which means that I need to be very mobile and flexible in where my attention is directed.
At Le Mans, for example, I get into a feeling for the pattern of progress and this allows time to go away and eat or take an hour’s sleep, but it pays to be very flexible in my decisions, I have lost count of the number of Le Mans races where I have said to myself “I’ll take an hour off at midnight” but before doing so I take a walk along the pits to make sure all is going according to plan. Of course, it never is, and there is always something going on or something about to happen, and at 3 a.m. I think again of that “quick hour’s kip”, but then I see one of the leading cars heading for the pits and, knowing that it only left the pits fifteen minutes ago, I know there is trouble, and when that drama is finished it is 5 a.m., and so it goes on. I usually get my hour’s kip about 10.30 a.m. on Sunday morning.
All the foregoing is merely to say that when I watch a race with a view to reporting on it, no matter what sort of face, I try to be everywhere at once and see all that is happening. Occasionally I take a holiday from race reporting and the most enjoyable holiday is to go to a race meeting without notebook and pencil and just wander about, usually in the paddock looking at mechanical things and talking to people, and more often than not I never actually see any racing and have no idea who won or why, or I will go to a hill-climb or speed-trial and, apart from watching one or two of the top performers leaving the starting line, I will spend all the time in the paddock just talking motor cars.
Recently I had the occasion for a holiday race and made the big mistake of offering to help one of the teams. I say mistake, for it was the hardest trial of work, responsibility and concentration that I have done for a long time. However, it was also fascinating and enthralling, but I would not want to do it for a living. The race was the Can-Am affair held on the Watkins Glen circuit on the day after the Xix-Hour Sports-Car race, and MOTOR SPORT’S North American correspondent was doing the report so I was free. A lot of people suggested I took a holiday and visited the local lakes and beauty spots, but, as I have pointed out, my idea of a holiday is to go to a race and not report it. I was travelling with the Gulf Oil Porsche team and John Myer, so I politely asked if I could help in any way, and Wyer said he could use an extra time-keeper for the JW Automotive pits as he was running three Gulf-Porsche 917 cars in the Can-Am race, so I agreed to click a stop-watch for them. Two of the cars had already finished the Six-Hour race, and these were numbered 1 and 2, for Siffert and Rodriquez, respectively, the third car being the spare, numbered 6, for Redman, in the JW pit the system of control is that there is a time-keeper for each car and he records every lap time in a long list on a specially prepared sheet and alongside the column of lap times is space for notes about signals to be given for refuelling stops of any other regulation stop. John Wyer and an American friend had done the lap times for the two cars in the Six-Hour race, while John Horsman kept a lap chart of the race itself and David Yorke stood out in front of the pits using the information given him by the time-keepers and the lap scorers to inform the drivers and mechanics of the whole race situation.
For the Can-Am race my job was to join Wyer at the stop-watch table and keep the time-chart for one of the cars. As I had spent six hours the previous day watching the progress of cars numbers 1 and 2 in the overall race picture, along with numbers 91, 92, 31, 32 and 35, I thought the safest thing would be to take car number 6 for the Can-Am race and then I could not be tempted to look at the wrong car. I was well aware that whereas the day before I had been concentrating on a dozen cars fighting for the lead, I now had to concentrate on one car lone, whether it was first or last, and had to ignore all the others. Wyer completely foiled my idea by saying “I’d like you to take Siffert, car number 1, I’ll take Rodriguez, car number 2, and Scott can take Redman, car number 6”. Now I had another plan in mind, again to try and obviate any errors in a job I had not done before, and that was to use a new Heuer stop-watch that the man from Chronosport had lent me. This is known as a Taylor-split watch and gives you instant lap times for every lap without the need to do any subtractions, as with a normal constant-running stop-watch system. I am not too good on sums at the best of times, let alone in the head of a race, and the Taylor-split watch used on a single car makes life very easy. Once again I was foiled by Wyer, who presented me with a normal stop-watch with a split-second hand and explained how JW Automotive always kept a total running time down one column, and the individual lap times down the next column. He also gave me a small clip to fix to the starting button of the watch, once the race was on, which prevented inadvertently stopping the whole watch by pressing the wrong button, a typical piece of JW attention to detail. I put my new-fangled Taylor-split watch away regretfully.
The race was over 87 laps and the three Gulf-Porches had to stop for petrol about half-way, and obviously they could not all come in together, so it was arranged that the stops would be separated by a lap apiece, and the system is to signal the driver L10, for ten laps to go, then L5, then L1 with an arrow pointing into the pits, and then just the arrow, these signals being given by the mechanic in charge of the particular car on the orders of the team manager. Down the lap-time chart for Siffert I had to note “Signal L10 this time” and so on, noting to give a lap warning to David Yorke. Now at Nürburgring, with an 8-min. lap, all this would be leisurely and easy, but at Watkins Glen the lap time is about 1 min. 6 sec., which meant that Siffert was going to appear about every 66 seconds, at which time I had to note down the elapsed time, do a sum to get the individual lap time, note that down, write down any vital information like the gap between him and the car in front of him, pass over messages about signals, reset the watch, and with luck I would have 20 seconds to spare before he came past again.
In the race Siffert chased Hulme’s Can-Am McLaren valiantly and in spite of stopping for petrol he got to within nine seconds of the leader towards the end of the race, and finished a superb second and undoubtedly “The Man of the Race”. For the whole 87 laps I have never had to concentrate so hard for a long, long time. The strangest part of it all was knowing nothing at all about the rest of the cars in the race, or anything about the race itself; on the other hand I lived every split-second of that race with Siffert and it was almost like being in the car with him. If he had a clear track he could lap in 1 min. 8 sec., and often he would put in three or four consecutive laps at that figure, and then the next one would be 1 min. 12 sec. and I noticed that he was being baulked by a slower car. If a slower car went by the pits in front of him I knew that his series of fast laps were going to stop and, sure enough, his lap time would increase by three or four seconds. IF there was a bunch of slow Can-Am cars in the way they could hold him back to a lap time of 1 min. 15 sec., and it was fascinating to “live” with someone second by second, but it called for 100% concentration. I was aware of cars spinning in front of the pits, even Rodriguez on one occasion, of the second McLaren, driven by Gurney, being in the pits, of Stewart disappearing with the “ground effects” Chaparral 2J and re-appearing again, or red McLarens, blue Lolas, other 917 Porches, both Gulf cars and Salzburg cars doing all sorts of things, but I knew absolutely nothing about what they were all doing or why, the complete opposite to my normal way of watching a race. All I knew was that Hulme was first and Siffert second, and There was a chance of Siffert winning as Hulme did not seem to be able to go any faster, but I had no idea why. Siffert’s pit stop was a tense moment, for I was well aware that if I got one lap out on telling David Yorke when signals were due, or did not allow time for the mechanic too get the board ready so that he missed the car, it would mean Siffert running out of petrol or coming in at the wrong moment, though more than likely the team manager and the mechanics would have covered-up for any such bungle, but I did not want to cause that to happen. Rodriguez had retired with a broken engine, and Redman had been delayed by a puncture, so all the Gulf hopes rested on Siffert, and he was driving superbly.
The plan was to bring Redman in the first and the Siffert, but as Redman had lost a lap this meant a quick re-planning, changing his stop by one lap, to get him in and away before Siffert was due. I found the whole business very fraught and highly exciting, being new to it all, whereas the JW team took the whole thing in their stride. Redman came in, fuel was poured in from the gravity hose, and he was away in 16.5 sec., and then Siffert came in and my stop-watch reading said he had been stationary for 20.5 sec. I just had time to notice that gurney’s McLaren was at the pit next to ours, and to see Siffert rejoin the race at a speed that would have gone down well at a drag-race meeting, and by the time I had recorded everything and reset the watch it was only a matter of seconds before he was due round again.
For the second half of the race it was a case of logging the times, noting the closing gap, watching for Hulme to pass as warming that Siffert was only nine or ten seconds away, and living the race second by second. Then Hulme went by and Siffert was overdue, 1 min. 8 sec. passed for his lap time, so he must have been baulked; 1 min. 12 sec., must be bad baulking; 1 min. 15 sec., really bad traffic problems; 1 min 19 sec. and he appeared with his arm out of the window indicating he had spun. His next lap was 1 min. 18 sec., and I queried whether he had spun again, but he made no signs, and the next lap was 1 min. 8 sec. and he was back in the groove. From then to the end of the race all was normal again, with three- or four-second variations in lap times depending on the cars he had to overtake, and regular 1 min. 8 sec. laps when he had a clear run. He finished in a strong second place with the 917 Gulf-Porsche going as hard as ever, the car having raced for six hours the previous day, and when it was all over I was completely exhausted and all I had done was to click a stop-watch. For the first time I had watched a complete motor race but had very little idea of what had been going on; I was confused and bewildered and just hoped that I could read all about it in the weekly papers.
Two things intrigued me which I had to find out about’ why Siffert stop had taken four seconds longer than Redman’s, and more details of Siffert’s spin and the subsequent slow lap. Now four seconds in time is not exactly a lot, but in the world of time-keeping and pit-work it seems like an age. The JW mechanics explained that when Siffert came in he was put off line by the McLaren parked at the next pit, and stopped a few inches further out from the pit counter than David Yorke was indicating. The result was that the refuelling hose only just reached the filler orifice, and the chap operating the hose said he had it stretched so tight that he was sure he was going to pull the whole gravity tank over into the pit. This is slight delay of not being able to put the nozzle of the hose straight into the tank had wasted four whole seconds. Such things could win or lose a motor race. Siffert explained that he was forced out on to loose gravel at the far end of the circuit by a bunch of slower cars and the 917 Porsche had spun and bounced and crashed across the grass and over the kerbs in the most alarming way. he got it all sorted out and set off again, the whole incident adding six whole seconds to his lap time on my watch. A lot of the regular Can-Am drivers were not lapping as fast as this even without a spin or having a traffic in the way ! His slow lap following, slow by his standards, was because he felt sure that something must have been bent or broken during his excursion off the road, so he “took a lap easy” to see if all was well, and then started motor racing again, which gives some idea of what it is like when these chaps are driving fast.
I was very glad I had not taken people’s advice and gone to the lakes, for though I has mentally dizzy it had been a fascinating experience and something different, but I would not want to do it every week. I think I prefer a free-roving commission to hear all, see all, and know a little about everything, rather than know everything about one care and one driver.–D. S. J.