Letter from Germany

Quiet Sunday

Dear AH,
People often say “Whatever happened to the Nurburgring?” And well they might, for as far as Grand Prix racing is concerned it seems to be dead and buried.

After Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda succeeded in convincing everyone that it was no longer viable for today’s Formula One cars and drivers, the Germans built a New Nurburgring, just to one side of the old mountainous 14-mile circuit. Very sensibly, they kept the old one in good condition and encouraged its use by the public and tourists as a “leisure drive”. German industry continued to support the old circuit as a test-track, for there is nothing better anywhere, if you are interested in making a half-decent car with good handling, steering and suspension.

The New Nurburgring was hailed as the “millenium” and before it was used well known names were saying it was the best “racing facility” in Europe, if not in the world. What they seemed to overlook was that the drivers did not really want a “facility”, they wanted a racing circuit.

When the Grand Prix circus went there it did not seem to enjoy it, and was happy to return to Hockenheim. Now Hockenheim just has to be one of the dullest Grand Prix circuits in use, yet it was deemed preferable to the wonderful new Nurburgring!

The Old Nurburgring, the real one, still stands proud and foreboding amid the Eifel forests and a challenge to anyone who thinks of himself as a driver. One lap in a fast car is more exciting than a whole season of racing on the Silverstone Club Circuit, even if you are just going round in your road-going Porsche as a tourist.

Earlier this season the Germans held a national saloon car event, a 24-hour marathon rather like the Willhire 24-Hour race which is held at Snetterton each year. By all accounts the entry was so large it had to be started in batches of 100! And there were 50,000 spectators around the 14-mile circuit, most of them camping for the weekend and enjoying all those things people do when out for a holiday weekend in the country. The actual racing was secondary, and though there was a huge entry they were all amateurs, virtually all unknown.

Similar large crowds of campers have gathered at the Old Nurburgring for motorcycle rally events and pop concerts, so the majestic circuit has not been abandoned by the Nurburgring enthusiasts. If the current crop of Formula One drivers were allowed to pit their skills against the 14-mile circuit I am sure 150,000 people would turn up for the weekend. As it is, the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim saw many of the grandstands virtually empty, especially the expensive ones on the major corners.

Following the three Grand Prix races in July I decided to return home for a quiet weekend, toying with the idea of going to the Vintage Sports Car Club hillclimb at Prescott, or to a local Vintage Motorcycle Club event. In the end I decided to stay at home and have a day in the workshop fettling-up a new motorcycle “toy” I have just acquired.

The day had barely begun when a phone call got me over to the local inn at lunch-time to meet Bill Clark and his wife, from New Zealand, and it wasn’t long before we were joined by Eoin Young and Doug Nye, who were also in the middle of a “quiet Sunday”.

Among many cars he owns, Bill Clark’s pride-and-joy is the best of all Tipo B Alfa Romeos. When the Scuderia Ferrari sold it to Austin Dobson in 1936, he was told it was the car with which Nuvolari had won the 1935 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring (that fantastic circuit again!) and nobody had cause to doubt it.

It was the last development of the Tipo B Alfa Romeo, with Dubonnet independent front suspension, hydraulic brakes and reversed quarter-elliptic rear suspension, with a twin-blown 2.9-litre straight-eight engine. Dobson raced it regularly, and in 1937 sold it to Kenneth Evans who raced it up to the war, and in the early post-war years Roy Salvadori raced it. It then went to New Zealand and has been there ever since, Bill Clark acquiring it in 1960.

It is so original that it would be silly to try to race it in today’s Historic (Hysterical) racing. The wheels would have to be rebuilt, the tyres renewed, the brakes re-lined, the drums replaced, all the internals of the engine would have to be re-made if you didn’t want to risk a monumental blow-up when you pushed it to its maximum. And if you didn’t push it to its maximum then it would seem a bit pointless joining in VSCC racing.

Bill Clark is quite happy to use the car for demonstration runs and gentle parades, handling it with due consideration for all its original bits and pieces. Last year he let Sir Jack Brabham drive it in a demonstration, for, as he said, “Old Jack knows about mechanical things and I knew he’d drive it with sympathy.” This outlook on an old historic Grand Prix car means letting it run up to 90-100 mph, not thrashing it flat-out at 140 mph.

It runs on methanol fuel and from cold it needs a tow-start, but once warm it starts easily on the handle, so Bill often takes it down to the village store to buy his beer. He lives outside Christchurch in New Zealand and says, with a chuckle, “I’m tempted to go into work in it one day, and park it in the car park alongside the boss’s Holden.”

Pre-war racing cars in New Zealand are few and far between so there is little incentive to race it “at home”— and anyway Bill Clark and his sons are into racing Cooper-Bristols and Cooper-Climaxes, which give them a lot of fun. With Doug Nye joining us the talk naturally turned to Cooper history and Cooper stories, and they can go on for ever.

At the British Grand Prix I met John Cooper and his son having a look round today’s Formula One machinery, and John was loving every minute of the mechanical (and electronic) scene, but what really made his day was that Michele Alboreto greeted him in the Ferrari pit with such warmth. Alboreto had never met John Cooper, but knew all about the days of Cooper-Climax and Jack Brabham’s two World Championships, and said how pleased he was to meet the man who really got the mid-engined Formula One revolution going.

It was 5pm before I got back to the workshop. By evening I had got my new “toy” running, and then a friend arrived on his 1939 Velocette to see how l was getting on, so even though darkness had arrived I just had to fire-up the Triumph 650 Trophy so he could listen to it. So much for a quiet Sunday.

As I mentioned last month, I gave Hungary a miss as I wanted to ride my racing bike at the Shelsley Walsh hinclimb — a splendid weekend racing up the most satisfying of all the British speed hillclimbs, making STD and winning the OAP Trophy.

In Formula One terms, hillclimbing is like qualifying used to be; one-shot sudden-death, with no time for second thoughts or reappraisals and certainly no question of “playing yourself in”. It’s full song off the line and get on with it. If you equate our little band of motorcycle hillclimbers to Formula One, and reckon the fast lads are like Piquet, Mansell, Senna et al, then I am not as good as Pascal Faber; but at least I enjoy myself, and as we run one at a time there is no fear of getting in the way of anyone.

Hillclimbing, and sprinting for that matter, is a funny pastime, for the more successful you are the less time you spend on the bike. I get more seconds of enjoyment at my slow time, than the chap who makes best time for the hill, but his seconds are more concentrated which makes up for it.

It is a funny old game, but I couldn’t give it up, at least while I can still run-and bump-start the racer. I suppose eventually I will have to get an electric starter or something. Yours, DSJ