Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing
Those Were The Days - Stories and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing

Handbags At Dawn

Juan Manuel Fangio in Mark 1 BRM V18 in Albi in 1963

Juan Manuel Fangio in de rigeur racing kit driving the open cock pitted Mark 1 BRM V18 in Albi in 1963

Those were the days: when drivers partied after the race with their team-mates.

Grand Prix drivers competed for the thrill and excitement and the winner received a handshake, a laurel wreath, a tinplated cup and, if he was extremely lucky, a cheque for a hundred quid. There was also the bonus of being able to take their pick from the group of beautiful women who could be found wherever there was a hot exhaust pipe. The cars were death traps - demonstrated by the fact that an average of 12 drivers perished a year. There is no record of how many civilians, standing trackside with nothing but their enthusiasm to protect them from the cars hurtling by at 180mph, also died.

The cars had motorbike thin tyres and the quickest way around a corner was a broadside slide. Even in those days it was possible for a race car to exceed 200mph in a straight line. Which meant after a long straight it was no mean feat to slow the car down sufficiently to slither around a corner. And brakes were not the stoppers that they are today. Track safety was practically unheard of. Maybe, if someone did think of it, some straw bales would be bought off a neighbouring farmer and arbitrarily strewn around the circuit. Most times it was deemed unnecessary.

Like at Hockenheim when Jim Clark ran off the track and dived into a tree head on or when hot-shot racer Bob Anderson spun off at Silverstone and hit a marshal's concrete bunker. The ambulance that took him to the hospital had no oxygen and, more critically, no bell. Driven by a local farmer it took so long to get to Northampton Hospital that Bob was DOA. Personal safety wasn't high on anyone's list. It wasn't until after Jackie Stewart's near fatal crash at Spa-Francorchamps in '66 that seatbelts were made mandatory.

I tried them out for the first time in a Lotus F2 car in 1967. I think. Unfortunately an inertia reel belt was fitted and every time I hit a bump and was compressed into the seat, the belt reeled in. By the time I got back to the pits my ribs felt as if they had been pulverised and breathing was a priority. Up until that time it was believed that, in a crash, it was better to be thrown out of the car than get mangled in the wreckage. And helmets were for sissies. It was either a cheese-cutter cap worn back to front or a cork helmet worn on the top of the head - very much like a cycling helmet today - a la Juan Manuel Fangio. Rules and regs governing the wearing and composition of the helmet were not brought in until the late sixties.

Then there was the advent of the Nomex flameproof overalls. When these were first introduced, again in the sixties, nobody took them seriously. It wasn't until the cockpits became so all-enveloping that the overalls were considered a sensible alternative to frying. Most of the cars by this time had embraced the rear engine configuration. The drivers legs had to be accommodated so they took up the space in the front of the car, with their feet extended over the line of the front wheels, so that left just the side walls and under the seat to accommodate the fuel. Hemmed in by the steering wheel and the close confines of the sidewalls the chances of being thrown clear were drastically reduced. So the flame retardant quality of the Nonex overalls was taken seriously.

Interior of Jim Clark's Lotus 48 1968

Office of Jim Clark's Lotus 48 1968

At this time Motor Racing hardly got a mention in the press. A fatality or a particularly horrendous crash might get a photograph and a mention on the back page but it was largely ignored. And where were the TV cameras when you wanted them? It wasn't until big, International conglomerates became interested that the sport was teased off the back boiler.

Motor Racing turned professional in 1968. It grew from being a hugely entertaining sport into a huge money motivated machine. The teams weren't exactly swamped by sponsors offering huge amounts of money. In fact Lotus, one of the first to benefit from sponsorship (Players Gold Leaf), received around £50,000 for the first year. Gradually the sum on offer did a Topsy and just grow'd and grow'd. Safety became a big factor. Sponsors didn't want to be connected with the death dealing machines that were on offer so the teams developed the cars with the idea of safety uppermost in the engineers' mind.

The drivers were turned overnight into media fodder. It was no longer possible to stand shoulder to shoulder in the rudimentary urinal and discuss the race with the World Champion. He was ensconced in his all mod-con Travel-Home with a couple of uniformed heavies on the door to keep out the hoi polloi. As the ambition of the driver grew, he, or in two or three instances, she, the wages went up. Soon the sponsors were paying so much money that they were able to demand that the teams did it their way. Which meant that when you hit the Grand Prix circuits you didn't dilute attention from the main sponsor by indulging in other, lesser, motor sports.

Those were the days when graded drivers, Grand Prix drivers who had gained a certain amount of points, were allowed to battle it out with wannabes in the exciting F2 races. So on Sunday afternoon the fan could sashay down to Brands, Silverstone, Thruxton or nip across the channel to the continent to see the best against the worst. And it wasn't just Formula Two where the Great competed against the unknown. The old Paddock corner with Jim Clark in a Ford Cortina, one wheel in the air, was a place where spectators wanted to be to watch a saloon car race. Not all the GP drivers were enamoured of the drudge of 24 hours at Le Mans but Graham Hill was among the winners on the scrappy French Circuit. Graham and many of the other drivers also took in the Indianapolis 500. But not all of them were able to emulate Hill and win.

When the Drivers weren't driving, sometimes two or more different races, sometimes at different circuits, over the weekend, they could be found playing cricket (English), petanque (French), at spaghetti parties (Italian) or golf (Spanish). Or a more likely scenario is that they would be living it up at parties and events throughout the world. Those were the days when motor racing was a way of life. Not life itself.

So what has happened to the modern spectacle? The media, in all its forms, covers it. The Drivers are paid the sort of money that their predecessors wouldn't have bothered to dream about. Safety has advanced so far that there hasn't been a fatality for over a decade. Tyres are now one of the most important factors on a racing car and cars are able to go round corners at terrifying speeds as if they are on rails. And the regulations, which govern the sport, become more intrusive and political all the time. And drivers get younger and more precocious by the year. And a lot more precious.

Picture the scene 30/40 years ago. Graham Hill is sitting in the back of his Ford Executive struggling out of his newly acquired Nomex Flame-proof suit. James Hunt taps politely on the window. "Sorry to disturb you Graham, but you were rather aggressive going into Paddock on the opening lap. I had to run right off the track or you would have scratched the paintwork." Or maybe Jack Brabham, after his long stint at the wheel, relieving himself in the urinal, being tapped gently on the shoulder by Denny (The Bear) Hulme. "I say, Jack. I got showered with stones when you drove through the crumbling track at the Bus Stop. You were being very arrogant." What about Jochen Rindt fatuously chiding John Surtees over a cup of Earl Grey with: "It was awful you brake-testing me like that when we were going into Acque Minerali. I nearly ran right into the back of you. Gave me such a fright." Or how about the mythical post-race meeting between Mike Hawthorne and Innes Ireland. Mike: "Coming down the pub, Innes?" Innes: "No thank you, Michael. I have to have dinner with my sponsors and I simply have to be in bed before 10.30."

Jim Clark in his Lotus in 1965

Jim Clark enveloped in his Lotus in 1965

Beyond the imagination isn't it. But that is exactly the sort of catty backbiting the GP drivers are getting into today. Lewis Hamilton is occupying the position they all want. He is the Man with the Car. Motor racing has become anodyne enough without the drivers jealously bitching at one of their own. I can't see why Hamilton was given any of the penalties he has received this year. And the penalty handed out to Toro Rosso's Sabastien Bourdais, which dropped him four places and elevated Ferrari's Felipe Massa to seventh, beggars belief. If the FIA is not careful motor racing will become like yacht racing and the win will be decided at the steward's enquiry - run by Jean Todt.

Maybe that is what they are angling for?

I'm not suggesting that we go back to the good old, murderous old days. I just think the Dons who run the corporation ought to call a meeting in Cicero and gun down all the fraternity members more interested in satisfying their bank manager than the millions of fans who want to see man pitted against man rather than engineer stealing a match on engineer. I will fully endorse any safety measure that will save lives. Trouble is that most of the regulations and restrictions came about during the Michael Schumacher reign. Their primary object was to try and even up the field a little. Now there are a number of drivers vying for dominance and the rules that have been thought up to make the races more closely competitive should be jettisoned.

A few years ago I wrote a letter to Max Mosley. I suggested that motor racing did away with the computer having an input into the race once the red lights had gone out. That in-car communications should be banned. Tyres should be restricted to a width of 8 inches. Compulsory refuelling and tyre change pit stops should be abolished. The one engine for two races regulation must go and a point should be awarded for Pole position.

Max wrote back and said, "You don't know what you are talking about." Bring on Mary Hopkins!

SAUMON BON CHANCE

There's not really a relevant dish for this piece so I'll do one that is delicious and easy to rustle up when the mood takes you.

Ingredients

4 Salmon Fillets thick and fresh.
1/2 lb cherry tomatoes. Pricked
1lb new potatoes boiled and peeled
1 small red onion chopped
1 heaped tbsp chopped Basil
1/2 cup Virgin Olive Oil
1 tbsp Balsalmic Vinegar
Salt and ground black pepper

How to do it

Simple! Cook the potatoes. Heat up a frying pan, pour in the olive oil and add the chopped onions. Allow to cook on a low flame until transparent then add the cherry tomatoes. Give it an occasional stir to stop any chance of sticking. After three or four minutes add the Balsamic Vinegar and any remaining olive oil. Heat for about half a minute. Put the mixture on a warming plate and place the fillets in the pan. About 2 minutes on each side. Don't overcook. Place the mixture on plates. When the fillets are done to perfection place on top of the mixture, sprinkle on the Basil, season and serve.

Et Bonne Chance!

Posted 28/10/2008

Those Were The Days - Motor Racing Stories, Tales and Anecdotes from the Golden Age of Motor Racing