Behind the Grand Prix Scene

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The starter 

At one time the starting of a Grand Prix was a pretty haphazard affair, the signal being given by the Clerk of the Course or some local dignitary by means of a flag of the nation which was organising the event. Over the years I have seen some pretty comic starts, some in complete chaos and confusion, others diabolically dangerous for all concerned and others totally unfair for the competitors. At Rheims, Raymond Roche, the little fat man who looked like Mr Toad, was always good for a laugh. He would strut about in front of the grid holding his flag up and pointing and shouting at all and sundry. Then he would turn on his heels and flee for the edge of the track trailing his flag behind him, and that was supposed to indicate the start of the French Grand Prix.

As races lasted three hours or more and split-second finishes were rare, a comic start did no harm. One year Jean Behra took on a bet with his rival drivers that he would bowl Roche head-over-heals with a hub-cap of his Maserati as he ran for safety. We all held our breath knowing “Jeannot” meant what he said. Roche was inspired that day and Behra missed him by a gnat’s whisker. At Monza one year the rather pompous starter was mounting the rostrum with the Italian flag when the engine notes rose to a crescendo and the front row was gone, with everyone else following. There was a bit of a needle match in progress among the front runners who were all a bit twitchy and they all jumped the start, the poor starter waving his flag rather aimlessly as the mid-field runners went by. Then there was the local Burgomeister who was given the flag, with a time-keeper alongside him to tell him when to drop the flag. He was all tensed-up and kept yelling “Now?” at the time-keeper, who shouted back “Not yet”. Meanwhile clutches were overheating and engines boiling, and when the time-keeper finally shouted “Now” the Burgomeister shouted back “What? Now!” It was not a good clean start. 

A good team-manager would suss out the starting arrangements and brief his drivers on what to expect, and one large, rotund team manager would stand behind the time keeper and indicate the last few seconds to his driver over the time-keepers head. It did not help much as rival drivers used his signals as well. It was always a moot point as to who actually started the race in such cases. Occasionally there would be minor starting line shunts as drivers misjudged the flag signal, or anticipated it, especially if the man with the flag was at all hesitant about lowering it.

The first signs of an efficient, but rather dull, system of starting appeared in Sweden, not surprisingly. The man with the flag stood on a platform which was silhouetted against a semi-circle numbered 10 to 0, and with a deliberately jerky motion he indicated the count-down second-by-second. 

With races getting shorter and shorter and faster and faster, and competition descending from minutes to seconds between cars at the end of a race, something had to be done about starting-technique. With grids of 24 cars all capable of shattering acceleration and all very equal on 0-120 mph times, a clear-cut start was becoming more and more desirable. For a number of years now there has been a unified system at all World Championship Grand Prix races, though we went through some traumas during the change-over period. FISA have appointed an official starter who travels to all the Grand Prix races and is in complete charge of the whole system. This is Derek Ongaro, who used to be with Lola Cars and was very active in representing Endurance Racing manufacturers’ interests on technical committees. He is now occupied nearly full-time with work for the RAC and for FISA, official starter being one of his jobs for the International Federation. 

Mounted on a gantry overlooking the starting grid are a pair of lights, one red the other green, and these are controlled by Ongaro who positions himself on a raised stand from where he can see the whole grid. When the 24 cars leave the pit road before the start of the race they cover a full lap of the circuit and take up their grid positions on a dummy-grid ahead of the starting line. While this is happening Ongaro is up on his starters’ rostrum and all the lights on the gantry are extinguished. The rules allow a driver to re-enter the pit lane at the end of his warm-up lap, but the time during which the pit lane remains open is very limited so anything done to a car that returns to the pits has to be done very quickly. A lot of drivers merely pass down the pit lane and go round again, just to sneak in an extra lap to warm the tyres or get the feel of their cars. Reutemann is a master at this dodge, and in the recent German Grand Prix where he had to start in the T-car, which he barely knew, he sneaked in three warm-up laps before the pit lane was closed. When everyone is in position on the dummy-grid a five minute board is shown, then three minutes, then one minute and at zero a waved green flag indicates the start of the parade lap. From that point no-one, but no-one, is allowed on the track. It is the job of the driver in pole-position to lead the field in orderly procession round the lap at a nominal speed and to take his position on the starting-grid, the rest following. During this parade lap no-one is allowed to overtake another car, and any driver in trouble must drop to the back of the field and take up a position on the back of the grid, his grid position being left vacant. The success or failure of the parade lap depends to a large extent on the man in pole position; it is his responsibility to ensure an orderly field of cars. 

If Derek Ongaro cannot see all the cars clearly, due to local track conditions he has flag men at strategic points to indicate to him when the tail-enders are in position. When all 24 cars are properly arranged on the grid painted on the track Ongaro switches on the red light. Now all the drivers know that once the red light is on, the green will be given between four and seven seconds later. It used to be “up to ten seconds” but by general consent this has been agreed on “four to seven seconds.” If all is well Ongaro will press his green button at 4.1 sec, but he has a leeway of three seconds if he needs it. As the green comes on the red goes out, or vice-versa, which is why Villeneuve admits to flooring the accelerator pedal when the red light goes out, rather than waiting for the green to come on. Milli-second reflexes! 

Until the recent German Grand Prix Ongaro was committed once he had put the red light on, he had no way of delaying the start if something untoward occurred. A new, and sensible, regulation was introduced last month which called for two yellow lights to be mounted above the red and green, and if anything untoward happens, like a fire, a bridge or stand collapsing or some obstruction appearing on the track after the red light has gone on, he can cancel the start with the flashing yellow lights and start a new “count-down” when things are normal again. If needs be the drivers will do another parade lap.

There are many advantages in having an official starter, even if it does take some of the excitement away, though unleashing 12,000 bhp is exciing enough anyway. One man doing it all the time means he knows the system to perfection, he knows all the drivers personally and he knows their idiosyncrasies, they know him and know they can trust him to stick to the rules, if anything is not to their liking they can discuss it with him. Derek Ongaro is a pretty unflappable sort of chap, with a benign and placid air about him and it must be comforting to those drivers up at the front of the grid to see him on his rostrum and to know that he is in total control of the start of the race. Whereas the time-keepers used to indicate the moment to start the race, now the starter indicates the moment and the time-keepers instruments are set in motion as the pole position car breaks the timing beam. 

The present starting arrangements seem pretty fool-proof at the moment and have evolved over a number of years, but no doubt they will change with the passage of time and with experience, and hopefully any changes will be to the good. -DSJ.

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