Letter from Europe

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[By means of which the Continental Correspondent, while he is motoring abroad, keeps in touch with the Editor.]

Dear W.B.,
Last month I mentioned how European high speed motoring can suddenly come to a grinding halt due to someone doing something stupid on an Autobahn, like the occasion when I sat in a solid traffic block for three hours because a VW had tangled with an articulated oil tanker. On that occasion the tanker had jack-knifed and fallen on its side and then caught fire. The irony of the whole thing was that it was a Shell tanker and I was on my way to a small Shell gathering, so that I arrived after it was all over but I took great delight in blaming my lateness on my hosts!

Recently I had what I can only describe as a near-miss for I was zooming up a long incline on an Autobahn in Southern Germany at a quiet 80 m.p.h., passing a string of heavy commercial vehicles that were nose to tail on the inside lane. As I passed a large lorry towing a four-wheeled trailer I heard a loud bang (I had the Jaguar hood down at the time) and I thought “that was odd, that lorry must have hit the one in front of it.” By this time I was a fair way ahead and I looked in my mirror and was staggered to see the lorry and trailer from which the noise emanated, crossing the Autobahn at right-angles and drive head-on into the centre crash-barrier.

When you are cruising along at 80 m.p.h. no matter how fast your brain thinks you have gone a long way before you can react, and by the time the scene in my mirror had registered I was way out of sight and over the hill. My natural inquisitive nature suggested I changed over to the other carriageway at the next intersection and go back to find out what it was all about, but commonsense said no, for if there was a long traffic jam I’d be at the back of it when I tried to resume my journey. I eased off for the next ten or fifteen miles but no traffic appeared in my mirror so I can only assume that there was an unholy blockage on the Autobahn. I would still love to know what actually happened, whether the driver of the lorry and trailer fell asleep, rammed the one in front and in the confusion turned across the road, or whether his steering broke, or his accelerator pedal suddenly failed in the open position, or whether the driver had an epileptic fit or a black-out, or just went berserk.

I shall never know, but it was definitely a near-miss for had I been cruising at 75 m.p.h. instead of 80 m.p.h. I might have been rammed amidships. Equally, had I been cruising at 100 m.p.h. I might have been 50 miles further on when the incident happened. I am a great fatalist as far as accidents are concerned and I work on the principle that if I get involved in someone else’s accident it is my fault because I was going too slow. Had I gone faster I would have been “long gone” when the incident occurred. If I have an accident of my own volition that’s another matter.

When people complain to me because they had an accident at a crossroads with another car my reply is that it is their own fault; if they had been going faster they’d have been over the crossroads and gone before the other chap arrived. Wasn’t it Sir Henry Segrave who said something about the safest way to go over a crossroads was at 200 m.p.h. because you then spent such a small amount of time actually on the crossing that the chances of an accident were neglible. Mind you, he did not add the footnote that if you did have an accident it would be a big one.

While on the subject of Autobahns you might be interested to know that the German police are making more and more use of helicopters to survey the traffic and also for taking medical aid to an accident, which seems a very sensible thing to me. In Sicily during the Targa Florio the army and the police patrol the whole 44-mile circuit with helicopters so that they can be on the spot very quickly if there is an accident and an injured driver can be flown back to the pits or away to a hospital as the case requires.

Motoring on the German Autobahn system at the height of the summer it is worth keeping an eye on the sky, for quite often you can see the traffic coming to rest a long way ahead although you cannot see why, but if there is a low-flying “whirly-bird” way up ahead you can be sure the blockage is a serious one. Sometimes if you are quick enough you can dive off the Autobahn at an intersection before you get in the jam, and can make a detour on the country roads, or failing that I have been able to pull into a shady parking bay and sit and write a letter to the Editor while the traffic sits and boils in the jam. Of course, this would not suit a lot of people for they must see the cause of a traffic jam, especially if it is an accident.

Just at the moment, with the European racing scene coming to a close, there are lots of discussions going on in the paddock, and no doubt in the board-room as well, among people who have a business interest in motor racing; the people who used to be called “backers” but are now referred to as “sponsors”. What most of them are trying to decide is whether they have had any tangible returns for their financial outlay, whether they have handled the whole business in the best way or whether some rival concern has made more out of their sponsorship than they have.

One firm that must be well satisfied is Gulf Oil, especially with their backing of the JW Automotive team and their Porsche 917 cars, for the light blue and orange cars have been very much to the fore in long-distance racing and the name “Gulf-Porsche” has been used by everyone, unless you happen to live in Stuttgart near the Porsche factory, for then you talk about Porsche-Gulf cars. However, the good sponsor does not stop there, he goes on to make use of the team’s successes, and this year in those European countries where Gulf have petrol stations they have been running a publicity campaign based on the fact that development of normal Gulf petrol and oil benefits from the knowledge gained in racing, and their slogan has been “Gulf are racing for you”. This is backed up by a large coloured poster of a Gulf-Porsche 917 which catches the eye long before you are aware of the brand-name at a petrol station.

Last year ELF ran a similar campaign throughout France on their association with Matra and there were full-size plastic silhouettes of a Matra Grand Prix car at all the petrol stations, and some of these, when standing on a suitable grass bank or gravel forecourt, looked most realistic as you approached. Other sponsors like Yardley cosmetics with BRM, Players Gold Leaf Cigarettes with Team Lotus, Brooke-Bond Oxo with Surtees, STP with March, and so on must all be reviewing their association with motor-racing and deciding on the benefits they have derived.

On the other side of the fence motor racing has no complaints, for any money and support that keeps a team going is more than welcome. ELF, Goodyear and Ford, who are behind the Tyrrell team in more ways than money and advertising, must be the happiest sponsors of all at present, just as Players Gold Leaf were last year when Lotus and Rindt were World Champions.

I am writing this on the eve of the Austrian Grand Prix at the splendid Osterreichring slap in the middle of Austria, the hilly circuit running through green fields on the fir-clad slopes of the mountains north of the small town of Zeltweg. Although this is only the second Grand Prix to be held on this brand new circuit an audience is rapidly building up which is following the same trend as the Nurburgring. With the sunshine pouring down on the heart of the Austrian countryside it is a marvellous place to spend a weekend, even if there was not a motor race taking place, and Italians, Swiss, Germans and Yugoslays have been pouring into the area, which must be excellent for local trade, for everyone must buy food and drink and petrol, to say nothing of souvenirs.

At the moment the roads to Zeltweg are not good, but there is plenty of road-work going on, and eventually the Autobahn from Vienna will pass through the Zeltweg plain on its way south-west towards Italy, where it will join up with the Autostrada from Venice and Udine and then the future of the Osterreichring will be really assured. It is pretty good already, even though it was only opened in 1969 and there are still lots of detail amenities to be finished off. Anyone thinking of designing and building an artificial road-racing circuit would do well to visit the Austrian one before cutting the first sod.

Yours, D.S.J.