Letter from Germany

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From D.S.J. to the Deputy Editor

Dear M.L.,

I never thought I would actually enjoy a visit to the Hockenheimring, but after going to the New Nürburgring last year for the German Grand Prix, the flat Motodrom near Mannheim seemed quite friendly and pleasant. If nothing else, the long curving legs out into the country from the artificial stadium allow some high speed, and high speed is what Grand Prix racing is all about as far as I am concerned. On Saturday afternoon during qualifying the BMW powered Brabham of Patrese and the Benetton of Berger, clocked just over 211 mph.

Returning to Frankfurt on Monday morning I drove up the old original autobahn between Darmstadt and Frankfurt, there are two new ones now in parallel, and this is where the 1937 Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions took records at close on 270 mph. Today it is a three-lane Autobahn, but in those days it was only two-lanes and that sort of speed under those sort of conditions has always fascinated me. I remember Sir Malcolm Campbell doing 272 mph in Bluebird on Daytona Beach, and later doing 301 mph on Bonneville Salt Flats, followed by George Eyston and John Cobb pushing the Land Speed Record up through 345 mph, 350 mph, 370 mph, to nearly 400 mph, but none of that made much impression on me. Jet powered cars and rocket powered cars pushing the record to over 600 mph were interesting, but I never got very excited. On the vast space of the Salt Flats you somehow expect specialized vehicles to go at those sort of speeds, but lesser speeds under the most unlikely conditions always seem much more impressive, especially when achieved by cars which are basically Grand Prix racing cars. Rosberg’s 160 mph lap at Silverstone still makes the adrenalin flow just to think about it, and 210 mph at the top of the Burnenville at Spa, or 207 mph past the pits at Monza, or 211 mph on the “outward” run at Hockenheim makes me think, “Whew!” 192 mph down Pilgrim’s Drop at Brands Hatch makes you sit up and take notice.

Those 1937 records at 268 mph on the Darmstadt to Frankfurt Autobahn made me think a bit, and fell to wondering what sort of speeds we would get today if, at the end of the season, Williams-Honda, McLaren-Porsche and Lotus-Renault decided to have a “Speed Week” on that Autobahn with special fully-streamlined versions of their Grand Prix cars. Those old Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union record engines probably gave 650 bhp and the cars did 270 mph with fully-enclosed bodywork. Our three present-day contenders could probably turn up 1000 bhp or more, and a Williams with all-enveloping bodywork developed in their wind-tunnel for sheer straight-line speed would be most impressive. I would think they could aim for 320 mph, so we had better allow them the luxury of a three-lane Autobahn.

If some of the sponsors who spend so much money on lavish hospitality (can you imagine what the food and drink bill was at Brands Hatch?), were to finance a “Speed Week” we could get some interesting figures, and we could set up new standards for the standing-start kilometre and mile. I don’t visualise the use of specialised vehicles like Thrust 201 Swarnprat 30, but modified Grand Prix cars. My friend Nigel Roebuck of Autosport is fascinated by those 1937-38 Autobahn records, and we are equally sad about them, for our hero Bernd Rosemeyer lost his life on that Autobahn in January 1938 in an Auto Union, while trying to regain the records from Mercedes-Benz.  Of course it is dangerous, any activity that calls for “bravado” is dangerous, but we all know the risks and the consequences. If people are not prepared to take risks we might as well all sit in front of blank television screens waiting for “Big Brother” to tell us when it is our turn to die! When I made rny suggestion to Roebuck about an end of season “Speed Week” he said, “Yes, great idea, but who would drive them?” We thought of Rosberg, if the money was right; Prost, if the car was right; Johansson for the sheer hell of it; Piquet, it he fell there was a challenge there; there is always someone prepared to drive a fast racing car with only death or glory at the end of it. If Germany did not have a ban on cigarette companies being seen to be involved in sporting activities, we could have the Marlboro Speed Week.

On the way down to Hockenheim there are those of us who always pull off into the parkling area just post the Langen turn-off, in order to pay homage at the memorial to Bernd Rosemeyer. This time I knew that Nigel Roebuck and Alan Henry (of Motoring News) were following me, so I left a message to show that I had “kept the faith”. Not wanting to despoil the woods with a sheet of paper, that anyway might have got blown away, I left it on the ground in the form of the name NIGEL rnade up from small twigs of wood.  It gave him quite a nasty turn when he arrived. Coming from Brands Hatch, and the euphoria of Nigel Mansell’s great victory, he thought a Mansell fan had been there and left a sign that he thought Mansell the equal of Rosemeyer! He had momentarily forgotten his own name, for I meant Nigel Roebuck.

At a lower level of speed, but nonetheless interesting, the Vintage Sports Car Club held a private meeting at which members’ old cars, or newly-built old cars, were timed over a standing kilometre, with a speed-trap over the finishing line. There were two types of member who could not believe the results; one because they were convinced their car was going quicker and the other because they were impressed that their car was going so well. One member who claims to cruise at 95 mph on the Motorways, clocked 81 mph and another who thought his car “would probably do 95 mph” was clocked at 110 mph. There were some impressive speeds recorded, among them 133 mph for the Hispano-Suiza engined Bequet Special of Nigel Arnold-Forster, 102 mph for John Walker’s 1908 Panhard-Levassor, 112 mph for Anthony Brooke’s Vauxhall-Villiers, 134 mph for Bob Roberts in the V12 Sunbeam “Tiger” and 121 mph for Richard Pilkington’s lovely 1938 Talbot-Darracq sports car.

It was something of a “family-day” and an ideal place for sons and daughters of vintage folk to get their first taste of speed. Brian Gray’s daughter drove his supercharged V-twin Hardy Special and did a rousing 107 mph, and Bill Summers and his son Richard both had a go in the blown 1271cc MG special, that looks like a baby 8CM Maserati, and clocked 124 mph. Fastest of all was Rodney Felton with a very impressive speed of 147 mph (145 mph of his first run), in his home-made single-seater Alfa Romeo that looks like a Tipo B monoposto.  He certainly knows how to put new Alfa Romeo parts together properly!

As you can see, motoring life continues to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, and I love both ends of the spectrum. One day I must have a closer look at some of the bits in the middle

Yours etc,

 D.S.J.

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