Reflections in the Eifel Mountains

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There was general agreement that the right man, in the right car, on the right circuit won the German Grand Prix, agreement, that is, among the followers of the sport, but not by Messrs. Fittipaldi, Stewart, Peterson, Regazzoni, who could have won, or all the other hopefuls who would have liked to have won. The performances of Ickx, Stewart and Fittipaldi during practice really put Grand Prix driving back into its right perspective and quite a lot of good drivers, who improved on the 1971 lap record, were ten seconds or more slower than Ickx, and it was not just the speed of the Ferrari, for anyone who has driven round the Nurburgring knows that sheer speed is not the only requisite. That Stewart was less than two seconds slower than Ickx in practice indicates that the 1971 Tyrrell is far from being obsolete, (or that the cars of 1972 are not very advanced), and shows that the Scot is driving as well as ever he did, in spite of any noises that the popular press may be making about him. Fittipaldi’s practice laps at under 7 min. 10 sec. speak for themselves, bearing in mind his knowledge of the Nurburgring compared to that of Ickx or Stewart, and in years to come will be a performance used in discussion to evaluate him in the overall light of Grand Prix driving.

One of the best things that happened was the lengthening of the race from 12 laps to 14 laps, and no-one complained, which was refreshing and I have a feeling that we may be on our way past the lowest point in the degradation of Grand Prix racing that has been going on in recent years. Certainly, Ickx did a magnificent job in putting the German Grand Prix up on the pedestal, where it belongs, and the pre-race excitement and interest, and the race-day attendance must have stopped any more nonsense about holding the German Grand Prix at the Hockenheim Stadium. If you put all your spectators in a football-sized arena it looks very impressive; when you spread double the number round a 14-mile circuit, you can easily be misled by the loud-talkers. While the two extra laps was a good thing, and let’s hope two more are added next year, the reduction of the starting grid to two-by-two, was a strange decision to appease the “safety Gods”. At one time the Nurburgring starting area could contain the cars in rows of four-three-four; then the guard-rail fence protecting the pits reduced the space and the start became three-two-three, and now, with wider cars than ever, it was down to two-by-two. How much longer before they start one-by-one, and do a Targa Florio, starting at 10 second intervals! Within seconds of the start the front row became four abreast, and the drag-race to the South Curve was one of the best I have ever seen. Had the grid been four-three-four, I doubt whether it would have been so exciting. Certain organisers maintain that the spectators enjoy the start more than anything else, which is why they insist on running two-part races, or two heats and a final. If we take this to its logical conclusion we ought to run Grand Prix events as a day of one-lap sprints. The thought of fourteen starts like the one in this year’s German Grand Prix makes the mind boggle. Certain drivers would be most unenthusiastic, as they have already condemned two-part Grand Prix races on account of the start being the most dangerous part of motor racing, or so they claim. To my view the most dangerous part of Grand Prix racing is getting into a Grand Prix car anyway, let alone racing with it, and the last two races, at Brands Hatch and the Nurburgring illustrate what I mean, for there were far too many suspension breakages, and the slightest bump against a kerb or a barrier results in instant wreckage.

Looking at some of the broken bits in the paddock it is nothing short of staggering to see the thin-gauge tubing used for wishbones, the small diameter of bolts and ball-joints, the thinness of castings and so on. Presumably they have all been stressed correctly, and when the cars are complete they look all right, but when they are broken they look very fragile. And as for lying in a bath of petrol, with tanks on each side and another behind the seat, it is almost as foolhardy as crouching down on a fast motorcycle and wrapping yourself around a five-gallon petrol tank, with an engine turning over at 7,000 r.p.m. under your belly. We must surely all be quite mad. The trouble is that the alternative is so boring. Analysing accidents after they have happened can be quite interesting, especially if the driver can be intelligent about what he did. One such was Redman’s mild crash in practice, when he lost control leaving the South Curve and hit the guard-rail. He had been round the “pit-loop” to get things warm and play himself in, and was setting off on his first full lap, squirting the McLaren out of the corner, when it whipped round on him and he was in trouble. He was on Goodyear tyres, whereas he had recently done quite a bit of racing on Firestone tyres. Now both types of tyre need warming up before they develop their maximum grip, but by differing amounts, and Redman reckoned he underestimated the Goodyears, having become accustomed to the Firestone requirements. This is one of the problems of a free-lance driver, whereas someone like Stewart who is contracted exclusively to Goodyear does not have this problem. Dave Walker’s crash in practice was one of those hair-raising ones where he saw it coming, but it was too late to do anything about it, except contract yourself into the cockpit and wait for the blow. He saw the wet patch of road when he was already committed to “line” and “speed”, and there was nothing to do. Right at the end of his spin, just when he thought he had got away unscathed, the left-rear wheel struck the barrier. Cevert’s practice accident must have happened so quickly that he hardly had time to know it was happening, for it took place over a brow where the cars now become very light on their suspension, and even air-borne, and if you land a bit wrongly you are in real trouble, from the tyre adhesion, suspension and aero-dynamic point of view. Before the Nurburgring was tidied up the cars did not become “light” at this point, but since the smoothing, widening, straightening, and the improvement of visibility the whole circuit has become much faster and you can take some corners so much faster now, that the trouble spots have moved on a bit. Undoubtedly the crash of the meeting was that of Stewart on the last lap of the race, especially if the shouting and hollering that went on afterwards was anything to go by. The cause seems to have been a simple case of “motor-racing”, six of one and half-a-dozen of the other„ and somebody had to come off second best. Nobody plays silly B———s with Regazzoni at the best of times, as Hulme will tell you when he raced against the rugged Swiss at Brands Hatch in 1970. Regazzoni is a “racer” and the public love him for it, which is why he was cheered all round Brands Hatch when he took the lead in the Race of Champions in 1971. This business of “play the game, chaps, it’s my corner” is just too terribly British, and smacks of cricket or croquet on the vicar’s lawn. People enjoyed watching Nuvolari, Caracciola, Fangio, Ascari, and so on because they were rugged racers and you admired them for it and were glad you weren’t mixed up in it because you knew you weren’t brave enough. The British-cult brought the milk into Grand Prix racing, with a few renegades, like Clark and Brabham, and looking at the new horizon there is a fast-approaching old-time cult coming from South America, and anyone who wants to play motor-racing to cricket or croquet rules had better watch out. Looking at Stewart’s Tyrrell after the accident and looking at the place where it happened, you could see that the impact of the front wheel travelling sideways into the angled kerb had snapped the neck of the lower wishbone ball-joint like a carrot, and as the wheel folded under, the rim was smashed and a great piece was broken off the brake disc. The marks on the Armco barrier were almost negligible and looked like rear tyre marks only, for the car had almost come to rest by the time it reached them.

After all the accidents the wrecks were retrieved by extremely efficient breakdown lorries with huge cranes on them, hydraulically operated, and complete cars could be picked up bodily by one man operating a few small levers. There were four of these breakdown lorries and their operators were highly skilled, bringing the wrecks back into the paddock and dropping them wherever the mechanics wanted them. This was a great improvement over the “good old days” when mechanics had to drive round the circuit in their transporters and struggle the crashed cars up the ramps without any mechanical help.

With the Austrian GP only two weeks after the German race it was surprising that more teams did not stay on in the paddock and do their preparation, only the Tyrrell team and the Surtees team doing so, the latter building up a complete new TS9B for Schenken, having brought a sparkling new monocoque with them. — D. S. J.