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

Le Flic Rampant

Graham Hill with the Lads on the Golf Course

Graham Hill with the Lads on the Golf Course

There was always something about the character of Graham Hill you could depend upon. More than one thing, in fact, but the other attributes are for other stories. The one I'm focussing on at the present is his professionalism. If it was something to do with the job you could be sure that he would give 100%. Unless he felt that it was beyond hope. Then he would take the pragmatic view and find something else to fill in his time. This happened at a Formula Two race in Rouen at the Circuit Rouen les Essarts.

Rouen was, and presumably is, a bit of a Mickey Mouse circuit. Very rural with a hairpin bend that really was hairpin. The Nouveau Monde. To suit the track the pits were also very rustic with verdigris the prevalent decor.

The track rarely failed to inject some excitement or tragedy into the race. Tragedy came at the 1968 French Grand Prix when local hero, Jo Schlesser, made the mistake of driving the Honda formula one car after John Surtees, the works driver, said it was a deathtrap and refuse to drive it. Honda management, evidently relying on the tradition of the Kamikaze, decided that the decadent westerner wasn't up to it and coaxed amiable Jo Schlesser into doing something death defying. On the second lap of a 60 lap race, Jo slewed wide coming out of the hairpin at full chat, smashed into the high, unprotected banking, burst into flame on a practically full tank and the magnesium bodied car turned the accident into a raging inferno. Jo didn't have a chance. Honda made a hasty retreat from Grand Prix racing.

Another driver to die at Rouen was a good friend of mine, Gerry Birrell. The clamour for track safety had fostered a proliferation of Armco barriers. Most of which were only there for show. Stuck in the ground but not concreted in. It meant that a car hitting the barrier at speed just flattened it out if the driver was lucky or lifted it if he wasn't. Gerry's luck wasn't with him. On the bend after the pits he had a tyre burst at over 150 mph and flew straight into the Armco. It lifted and that was the end of Gerry Birrell. A senseless accident for which nobody was held accountable.

But it isn't tragedy that I remember the Rouen circuit for but golf. Whenever Graham Hill flew off to a F2 meeting you could be sure his clubs were the first things stowed away in the hold of his Piper Aztec. If there was a chance that he could sneak off for a quick eighteen holes he was ready and armed. I was scheduled to fly to the French circuit with him and the evening before we were to leave he rang me and advised me to bring my clubs. Evidently he had been having unresolved problems with his car and wasn't expecting much from the race.

The race that weekend was in two heats and a final. Not the usual format but one that did crop up occasionally. Not particularly popular with crew, driver or the public. For the driver it meant psyching himself up three times - if he got through to the final - for the crew it was extra work as between each heat they were expected to give their charge a thorough Spring clean in case anything had shaken loose or fallen of and for the public it meant queueing for the hot dogs, bogs and generally shuffling around until the stewards decided it was time to start the next heat.

Practice went, more or less, as Graham expected. He was on the lower middle part of the grid and didn't expect to make the second heat. He told me to stand by with the engine running so that we could bunk off as soon as he broke down.

Unbeknown to Graham or his crew, when they were preparing the car overnight they had accidentally goosed it into life. Graham shot off the start line and before he knew what was happening found himself running with the leaders and into the second heat. He told me not to worry. The car wouldn't hold together for the second heat and repeated his instructions to stand-by for a swift exit. But, you've guessed it, he was into the finial.

Graham seemed as perplexed as anyone. After the second heat there was a hurried discussion about the totally unexpected performance of the car but nobody was able to suggest what was causing the rennaissance.

The programme had changed slightly now. Into the Final and Graham was beginning to think there might be something in it for him. Although by the time the race was over it would be quite late in the afternoon he still thought we could get a game in before dark. I had also talked Peter Gethin and BARC Secretary, Grahame White into joining us. So it was back to what was originally planned. I would have the car handy, Graham would finish the race and bolt for the car. This time it had to work.

I must say it was an exciting race. Hill didn't look as if he was going to spoil the postponed afternoon arrangement. He was circulating sturdily around in the upper regions of the mid-field. But for a moment there I thought it might be me that would be spoiling things. I was Reutemann's Competitions Manager and representative of his sponsor, Argentina's top newspaper, La Razon. Neither job called for heroics, just the ability to be elsewhere when something went wrong. When it went right I was supposed to be there. And Carlos Reutemann appeared to be determined to win the race. Which would mean a post race award ceremony and a compulsory noggin of chambers with the local Maire while the others went off to storm the fairways. Happily Carlos did the decent thing and put himself out of contention with a hairy trip up an escape road leaving Peterson and Cevert to fight it out. Then Cevert broke a wheel and smashed out. Schenken moved up into second place followed by Quester. It looked as if Schenken had locked out Quester but then a valve went awry and sidelined him. And who was in third place? Graham Hill!

While Graham collected his pot, Grahame White, Peter Rabbit and I hung around presuming that the lunge at the local golf course had been cancelled Graham quaffed his Champagne, did his curtsey and we were off. Into the stream off traffic trying to find a way over Rouen bridge. Graham had the answer. He took to the pavement?

At the far end of the bridge was a purple faced, over excited Flic. Even his gaiters and helmet emitted hatred of the swarm of Renault 6's and Deux Chevaux keeping him from Mimi and his Absinthe. When he saw a car honking its way down the pavement he nearly swallowed his whistle. You have to admire his courage. He dived in front of the car and held up a frenzied hand. Graham stopped a few inches short of his black leather and wound down the window. The copper surged forward mouthing what were probably obscenities but they were completely wasted on us. He leaned into the car and screamed at Graham while we all cowered away and pretended that we had nothing to do with him. Suddenly le Flic's eyes widen and his voiced dried up.

"Gra'am 'eel" he said in wonderment. Graham acknowledged the acknowledgement and raked around in his pocket and came up with a Lotus badge. Graham was no longer driving for Lotus but he had always found that a badge would invariably smooth out a sticky situation. The policemen practically bowed as he leaped back into the middle of the traffic, stopped it on a sou and waved Graham on.

We were roaming in the gloaming by the time we got to the course but we decided to do a couple of holes. Graham had come up with a brand new handicap system and wanted to try it out. His main sponsor was Jagermeister the purveyors of a sticky brown liquid and they had the uncomfortable habit of loading cases of their potent 'digestif' on him whenever they had the opportunity. To get rid of some of it he proposed that instead of using the usual 'stroke' handicap system we used the 'slug' system. This meant that the winner of a hole took 3 slugs of the ... er - rather interesting tasting liquid, the second got 0, the third got 2 and the fourth 3. His argument was that the the better player would soon find himself less in control, the second would be there, the third would relax and the last wouldn't care what was happening. Somehow he seemed to suggest that by the time we finished the round we would all be at the same level.

He was right there.

It was dark by the time the club pro decided to come and look for us. He found us staggering around in the dark, striking matches in vain attempts to find our golf balls. He persuaded us to go back to the clubhouse and expose the myth that pouring gallons of black coffee down your throat doesn't make you sober. When either we, or they, had had enough, two gallant Frenchmen volunteered to take us back to the hotel. Have you ever taken a ride in a Renault 6 with four full grown men in the back. Very intimate!

Next morning Graham, Peter Gethin, Betty Hill, a friend, and me went out to the airfield. It wasn't far - but it hurt. As we bundled out of the misused car Betty suddenly remembered she had forgotten to pick up their passports from reception at the hotel. She was very lucky, Graham was feeling so much under the weather. He just cursed and staggered off to the Aero Club lounge bar and collapsed into a seat.

By the time we got back to Elstree we were a non-speaking group but the grunts were good. We all wafted off to wherever we were going and we never played Slug Golf again.

TARTE TATIN

You know that feeling when you are heading at speed into a sharp corner and you don't know whether to hit the brakes or grit your teeth? That's the sort of feeling you get when you are thinking about making a Tarte Tatin. I first ate a real Tarte Tatin as I was driving north through France and stopped off at a little roadside cafe for some lunch. It has been a firm favourite ever since but the real McCoy is hard to find. So, with a touch of DIY, it could become your favourite as well

Ingredients:

2lbs Granny Smith apples
6 oz butter
1/2 lb Castor Sugar
Puff Pastry big enough to cover frying pan, 1/4 inch thick

WHAT TO DO

Peel and core the apples and cut into thick wedges. (6 to an apple)

Cut the pastry (buy in ready made from shop) into a round enough to cover the frying pan with a bit to spare. Melt the butter in the pan then pour in the sugar making sure to distribute it evenly. Pack the apples on the sugar. Place on a LOW heat and watch anxiously for the caramel to form. About 20-30 minutes. Once the caramelising process is done, gently cover with the prepared pastry making sure that the edges are tucked inside the pan. Whack the tart into a pre-heated oven at 200c. 400. gas 6. and give it about 30 minutes for the pastry to rise and turn a warm brown.

Now the nerve jangling bit. Make sure the the apple and pastry is not stuck to the pan and the caramel is well distributed.

Take a warmed serving dish or large plate. Hold the plate firmly on the top of the frying pan and then with a smooth, nonchalant manoeuvre, flip the plate and frying pan over.

A voile, a magnificent Tarte Tatin or a steaming mess on the floor. A testing time when you can go from Hero to Zero in a careless flip of the hand,

I prefer to eat it, especially if it has been freshly scraped off the carpet, with custard. Most people of taste prefer double cream and some even suggest (but not when they are eating in my house) cheese. But try it - you never know!

Posted 19/5/2009

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