The power of nostalgia

Historic Racing

I didn’t catch his surname, but at Goodwood a Motor Sport reader named John told me emphatically that a Ferrari was going to win in Malaysia. Vettel or Räikkönen? He was less sure about that, but suspected it would probably be Sebastian.

He was right on both counts, and I confess that, while allowing that Ferrari had indeed made startling progress over the winter, I said I doubted that Mercedes would be beaten at Sepang. Yes, it may be argued that the safety car had a role to play – such is inevitably the case – but the plain fact is that, as Vettel said, Ferrari won fair and square.

Reinvigorated by his Maranello move, Seb is driving beautifully again, and had Räikkönen’s weekend gone more smoothly, there’s good reason to believe the Malaysian Grand Prix would have been a Ferrari 1-2. On horsepower the team has taken a sizeable step, and in the enormous heat its cars were way kinder to their tyres – always a trait of James Allison’s Lotuses – than the Mercs.

So, my apologies for doubting you, John. It will still surprise me if Mercedes lose to Vettel or anyone else in Shanghai, but… I won’t be betting on it.

Last year I was not able to attend the first of the revived Members’ Meetings at Goodwood, but this one I greatly enjoyed. In terms of cars on parade, and skilled folk to drive them, it felt very similar to the Revival meeting, run in September these many years now, but without the attendant side shows. The focus was squarely on racing, and as a purist that was much to my taste. More than any other Goodwood event in the modern era, it reminded me of days at the circuit when I was a kid.

Nor was I alone. Paddock conversations over the weekend left me reassured that purists remain thicker on the ground than Bernie Ecclestone might have you believe. In fairness, this was obviously the place to find them; people attracted by the format of the Members’ Meeting were there not because it was a social occasion, but because they’d been fans all their lives, and they love it still.

To a degree I was surprised, honestly, that many of them told me of their continuing devotion to Formula 1, in spite of all the impediments put in their way. Like me, they might have equivocal feelings about the ‘blingy’ aspects of the contemporary sport, might dislike the constant proliferation of rules, roll their eyes at mention of ‘engine tokens’ and the like, but still they wanted to talk about Alonso’s accident, the problems of Renault and Honda, the might of Mercedes. “I haven’t been to the Grand Prix for a long time because I can’t afford it these days,” someone said, “but that doesn’t mean I ever miss a race on the box…”

Purists, Bernie. You alienate them at your peril – even if most of them can’t afford a Rolex.

All my life people have told me how lucky I was to have had parents who loved motor racing, and of course they’re right. Almost from birth I was carted to international races, sometimes at Silverstone and Goodwood, but mainly at Oulton Park and Aintree, because we lived in the north, and the first one of which I have clear memories is the Gold Cup at Oulton in 1954 – August 7, to be precise.

By then I had two heroes, Jean Behra and Stirling Moss, and both were there that day. As usual Behra’s Gordini, which started from the front row, retired almost immediately, while Moss’s Maserati started from the back, and won.

Stirling’s car was delivered by the factory to Cheshire too late for him to take part in practice, but such things were not uncommon back then, and he was allowed a few ‘familiarity laps’ on race day. If I had to pick a desert island racing car it would be – as for many people – the Maserati 250F, and it began that morning when I saw and heard this beautiful red car blasting round Oulton on its own.

All these years on my devotion to the 250F – particularly the sleeker, long nose, car from 1957 – abides, and there were, of course, several in the Goodwood paddock, all of which I had to photograph for the umpteenth time.

Or perhaps not quite all, because when I came across one with a huge roll-over bar I put the camera down.

Something I’ve never understood is why roll-over bars, or something akin, were not fitted to the first racing car, and ever after. If an open-cockpit car flips, after all, it is surely no more than common sense than to wish for something other than your head to take the brunt of the impact.

In Formula 1 roll-over bars were made mandatory in 1961, but prior to that were unknown, so if anybody had given them a thought, no one did anything about it, and even when the FIA eventually demanded their fitting, for years they were flimsy things – invariably mounted, what’s more, lower than the top of the driver’s helmet – and of minimal use if you got upside down.

It wasn’t until 1966, following his huge accident at Spa, that Jackie Stewart pioneered the use of seat belts in Formula 1 cars, and although others were slow to follow his lead it was clear that a combination of belts and stout roll-over bar was the way to go. As Moss says, the traditional view had been that your best hope was to be thrown out.

These days most classic racing cars seem to have substantial roll-over bars, and while I understand their owners’ reasons for having them fitted so I hope they will understand why – on cars which never had them in the first place – some of us, not least S Moss, find them visually grotesque.

No such problems exist, of course, with cars to which a roll-over bar was integral from the outset, because that is how we remember them in their heyday. For me the highlights of the Members’ Meeting were the Bruce McLaren Trophy for early Group 7 and Can-Am cars and a demonstration of F1 cars from the ‘high air box’ era, which took me back to my early days in the business.

I say ‘demonstration’, because it was not a race, but that didn’t mean that 68-year-old olive grower Jean-Pierre Jarier, reunited with his 1975 Shadow DN5, was exactly hanging about, or that Emanuele Pirro failed to do justice to an ex-Lauda Ferrari 312B3. When Rob Hall screamed by in the ex-Amon Matra MS120C, a man standing next to me said the sound had brought a lump to his throat, and I well understood.

The ‘big bangers’, as they were known in the ‘60s, really were racing, though, reviving memories of the Guards Trophy, run at Brands Hatch, and also of a ‘supporting race’ at Silverstone’s International Trophy in 1966: won by Hulme’s Lola T70 from the McLarens of Amon and Bruce himself, the average speed was higher than that in the F1 main event. Denny, I don’t doubt, would have been impressed by the driving of such as Nick Padmore and Chris Goodwin.

For the purists, it was all very good for the soul.

 

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