Pick your heroes wisely

They say that you should never meet your heroes for fear that they may leave you disappointed. The S&G’s recommendation is simply to pick your heroes wisely. In writing the Haynes Manual on the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, the defining day of the whole experience came in Bristol with the opportunity to interview the man who first made this writer want to tell stories of any kind: Derek Robinson.

It’s nearly 50 years since Robinson turned the literary world on its head with Goshawk Squadron – the Booker Prize runner-up of 1971. Until its publication, the image of airmen in World War 1 had been based upon the myth of a ‘cavalry of the clouds’ (as Lloyd George’s spin doctors put it). They were daring, chivalrous knights of the air jousting high above the squalor of the trenches with their silk scarves a-flutter.

Robinson wrote of a war that was no less squalid than that on the ground from the perspective of an S.E.5 squadron commanded by Stanley Woolley; a foul-mouthed working class combat veteran. Woolley presides over a rabble of idealistic young public schoolboys who believe that they are taking part in a gallant contest with the enemy – a delusion that Woolley tries to beat out of them by any means necessary.

The inspiration for his story had come in 1968, when the Sunday Telegraph ran a feature marking the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force in which a First World War veteran was interviewed. ‘He said it was much more like meeting a guy down a back alley with a sock full of broken glass and cracking him over the head and running like hell,’ Robinson remembered.

‘He said it was just as bad to be shot at 15,000 feet as it was in the trenches so let’s forget all the chivalry stuff, there was no fair play, there was no duelling in the sky… I was reading this and thought: “Hey! Never thought of that!” So that was it, after that I was off and running and so I read everything that I could lay my hands on.’

There were two things that Derek Robinson knew about – writing good copy and the Royal Air Force. The former came from a career spent in the advertising trade, a fair bit of local journalism and generally being a pen for hire… whilst all the while dreaming of writing the perfect detective novel. When it came to writing about wartime airmen, however, the aspiring novelist was able to draw on a wealth of first-hand knowledge as a trained radar operator and fighter plotter.

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Robinson’s characters owe much to his encounters with WW2 veterans while on National Service

‘I did my national service in the RAF and I knew various pilots – this was at the time of Korea, and the reserves had been recalled from among the pilots of the Second World War,’ said Robinson.

‘I was at Exeter Airport and one of these reserve squadrons arrived in Spitfires and flew there all summer… and of course they were all crackers.

‘The railway line comes out of Exeter and it runs through alongside the River Ex estuary and then it goes down the coast to Cornwall. Because it’s marshland down there the railway line is built up on embankments and these guys in Spits used to hang around – we could watch them from the radar station, we could see it – so when the train was steaming out of Exeter and picking up speed they used to dive down and sweep level with the train driver. A lot of that sort of behaviour went into Goshawk Squadron and all the books.’

The full canon of Robinson’s stories of the air begins with a quartet of tales from the First World War that run chronologically from the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (War Story, 1987), to the battles of Arras and Passchendaele in 1917 (Hornet’s Sting, 1998), to the German Spring Offensive in 1918 (Goshawk Squadron, 1971). The final instalment tells of the deployment of Royal Air Force units to fight for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919 (A Splendid Little War, 2013).

Then we get to World War 2, in which the series begins with Piece of Cake (1983), the story of an RAF fighter squadron from September 1939 to September 1940. Intertwined with this is a later book, Damned Good Show (2002), which tells the story of the bomber crews in 1939-41 before the arrival of ‘Bomber’ Harris as their commander.

The survivors from Piece of Cake are then found in the vast expanse of the Sahara, fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps alongside the SAS during 1942 (A Good Clean Fight, 1993). The WW2 quartet ends with Flight Lieutenant Sweet, the central character from Damned Good Show seeing out his war, struggling in civilian life and jumping at the chance to fly a nuclear-armed V-Bomber at the height of the Cold War in Hullo Russia, Goodbye England (2008).

‘I don’t know of anyone who is competing with me: I don’t know anyone who writes this kind of stuff about First and Second World War flyers,’ Robinson said. He has a very good point as well but sells himself rather short because no novelist has ever come as close to explaining the truth of war in living memory.

Certainly in the case of airmen, only the terminally ill First World War pilot Victor Yeates, in his book Winged Victory (1934), really compares in terms of the rawness and the willingness to address uncomfortable truths. Unlike many veterans who have written about their wartime experiences, Yeates wrote without a care for how posterity might view him or his comrades. Even after a century it is a truly shocking read.

In recent times, novels that have been set in either of the World Wars have merely used elements of the conflict as a backdrop to melodrama. If you read Birdsong after reading Goshawk Squadron, then Sebastian Faulks’ efforts are revealed as a genteel middle-class soap opera that pays only lip service to military history.

‘I’m pretty good at what one critic described as “putting people in the cockpit”,’ said Robinson.

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Goshawk Squadron puts the reader here, sat between two machine guns at 15,000 feet

‘So you feel you know what it’s like up there and it’s complicated, it’s difficult, it’s dangerous and yet it’s hugely exciting and you can do things up there that nobody could dream of. I research that very, very closely but I don’t put a lot of process and procedure in the books because people get fed up with it pretty quickly – but it informs the story. Secondly, the jokes are not bad!’

In fact, the rich vein of humour that runs through all of the books is often riotous. In Robinson’s version of events, the pity of war is something that we the readers experience through the author’s voice or characters like the outspoken intelligence officer ‘Skull’ Skelton who appears in every one of his World War 2 books – usually before getting the ‘chop’ and being sent to some backwater or other as penance.

The airmen seldom, if ever, take time for a wistful glance or mournful sigh – they’re too busy living and dying. Gravitas, pity and sorrow are what we bestow upon wars long after the event, like a hushed BBC commentary on Remembrance Sunday.

‘It’s a point I try to make that, for these young men, being given the most amazing machinery of their times and the means to shoot things down and blow things up – it was bloody good fun!’ Robinson chuckled. Over the years some veterans have complained that he has not done their legacy any favours – but on balance many more have found the ebullience of his fighting men to be right on the money.

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Derek Robinson at home with a selection of his handiwork. A thrilling interviewee for a writer.

‘I was talking to a D-Day veteran once, and he was complaining that we make such a fuss about that landing when there were others before it that never get a mention,’ Robinson recalled.

‘He said: “I remember when we were going into Sicily, and we were in the landing craft, and the Lieutenant stood up in front of us and he said that it was going to be rough stuff that we were going into and it may well be that half of the men in that boat would not be coming back.” And this chap said that he looked around at the bloke next to him and he thought: you poor bastard!’

In recent years, Robinson has produced two non-fiction books that tackle big issues in popular military history. First came Invasion, 1940 which looks at whether or not Britain was in fact under imminent threat of German occupation during the Battle of Britain. In Why 1914?, Robinson’s gimlet eye for history was turned upon the circumstances and misadventures that fuelled Europe’s descent into the First World War.

These books, together with his authoritative works on Rugby Union, books about his beloved Bristol, a series of spy stories and even an American novel, all delight the Robinson faithful. But it is the stories of airmen that have come to define his oeuvre – all of which stem from the writing of Goshawk Squadron.

‘We were on our uppers but I guess it’s part of being young and having lots of energy – I had a lot of energy in those days.  And a fair bit of anger at the world in general,’ Robinson said.

‘I wrote it – according to my wife, who remembers it far more vividly than I do, I’m sure –not so much in a fit of rage but in a fit of defiance. I had already wasted four years writing stuff which nobody wanted to publish. So I said to myself – and I think I said to her too – “well, I don’t give a shit. I’ll write it for me and if somebody else wants to publish it then that’s good luck!” …that’s what I should have done in the first place!’

Although now in his eighties, Robinson remains a cheerfully restless author. The shelves of high street bookshops are groaning under the weight of newer and lesser war novels, while the maestro’s most recent works are mostly self-published and sold directly to his followers. Such is the case with his latest novel, Holy $moke, which came out last year and follows a mismatched group of intelligence men into Rome and the chaos that reigned after Mussolini’s fall.

One cannot help but feel that a return to the screen is long overdue. It’s 30 years this year since Piece of Cake was broadcast as a six-hour miniseries by ITV but it remains utterly fresh and vital, thanks in no small part to the source material. Sir Peter Jackson has built an entire air force of 1914-18 machinery – not to mention a hangar full of Lancasters – and has yet to find a suitable vehicle for any of them. He need hardly look further than Bristol for inspiration.

All of Robinson’s books can be ordered directly from the man himself by visiting www.derekrobinson.info and this is to be heartily recommended. As for the S&G, our time of chuntering about old aeroplanes and good books, with accompanying tea and doughnuts, will long be remembered. Because sometimes meeting your heroes is very well worth it.

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Henry Hope-Frost

Known to many as ‘Fever’ and known to millions as the ever-enthusiastic voice of Goodwood – and practically every other gathering of treasured motor cars and motorcycles – Henry Hope-Frost has died. The S&G offers its most heartfelt condolences to HHF’s young family and his many friends in our industry and beyond.

The world is a greyer place today.

In the 1990s, a generation of motor sport journalists, photographers, PR people and broadcasters all arrived together in a lump. I would say fully-formed but that’s probably stretching the truth somewhat. We were schooled together by the likes of Andrew Marriott, Jonathan Gill, Tim Collings, Steve Madincea, John Colley and Peter Foubister – all of whom saw something of value in us.

And our good fortune was most often narrated by Henry who, long before he was employed to broadcast further than the end of the bar, was telegraphing exuberantly. Nothing was ever simply ‘good’. Or ‘enjoyable’. Or ‘skilful’. One didn’t ‘look forward’ to something, or ‘look back upon’ anything. It was all simply ‘fever’.

Our paths first crossed on the British Rally Championship, which was not the first environment in which you’d naturally place the towering, public school ebullience of HHF. The S&G was there as Škoda’s media person; telling the giant-killing stories of our little 1600cc Felicia and encouraging the press to be enthusiastic about seeing it in the sublimely skilled hands of former World Rally champion, Stig Blomqvist. This was grist to Henry’s mill and no mistake – or as he put it: ‘massive fever’.

Probably the defining image of HHF at that time was at the press gathering in Douglas before the highly-charged 1997 British Rally Championship finale on the Isle of Man. As ever, a good crowd of Manx folk had come to see the cars lined up, gather autographs and get ready for the coming event. Henry was booming over the public address, utterly enraptured by the spectacle to come and the knowledgable crowd.

One of the men in the frame for the title was Volkswagen’s Alister McRae, who was in monosyllabic form as he considered the challenge ahead. Henry went at him with both barrels, eager to elicit some ‘fever’ for his audience while the rest of us in the travelling media pack tittered and laid odds on whether Alister was about to throw him in Douglas harbour.

In the end, HHF wore down the granite-hewn McRae gruffness. Job done. Although later on Alister was spotted gurning and moving his fist up and down in a well-known gesture behind Henry’s back while he grilled the eventual champion, Mark Higgins. If he’d noticed, Henry would doubtless have taken that as a considerable feather in his cap!

From that day to yesterday the patented, unyielding enthusiasm of HHF was simply part of the furniture. After writing for Motorsportretro.com together in its early days and helping out Foub at the RAC, there were too few opportunities to catch up – a cheery hello and quick word when being dragged round the Guildford shops by our respective offspring, or at the too-few events where we were both in attendance. I saw him last at Race Retro a week or so back, nattering with Jonny Gill and Paddy Hopkirk.

‘I won’t interrupt now, I’ll catch them later,’ thought I. Sadly it was not to be. We were ploughing the same furrows for much of the time; self here at the S&G and with Henry presiding over Goodwood’s prodigious online output. Different ways of approaching a deeply-held passion. We shall all be the poorer without him.

Farewell to 2017

Well, that was a year. It was called 2017. It’s over now – although its ramifications may well carry on clanking through history for some considerable time.

Once again the S&G observed fairly limited opening hours due to a number of factors, not least a rather frantic year of book-writing. After 30 years, the longest and dearest-held dream of writing a book about the S.E.5 came to fruition. We also spent a welcome few days with the ancestors of Sir Ernest Shackleton, which may well bring forth some stories.

A new record was set in the number of visits and the number of people coming through the door and settling into the snug. At almost 35,000 we should probably get a bigger sofa. These were the people’s picks for 2017 A.D.:

  1. Gladiator Survivors #3 – What Hope for Faith?
  2. The Racing Driver’s Bride
  3. Hawthorn’s Surrey Part 4: the final journey
  4. Beyond the British Grand Prix
  5. Visiting the TT Garage, Farnham
  6. The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave
  7. Setting Sail with Errol Flynn
  8. Malta’s Spitfires – revealed at last
  9. Ken Miles Part 2: 1966 and all that
  10. ‘Malta Spitfire’ flies again in 2016

It’s gratifying to see a number of Malta-related stories bubbling up to the top 10 (as well as the inclusion of fresh stories like those of the post-British GP world and Ken Miles’s finest hour). History was not kind to Malta’s supreme importance in the story of WW2, both in Europe and in Asia. Gradually and belatedly this campaign, and the uncommon valour that it produced among the armed forces and civilian population, is receiving more attention. There can never be enough.

Interestingly, the movie Dunkirk was released in 2017. Apparently it inspired and infuriated both experts and the uninitiated in a very even-handed way. The S&G has yet to see it, although the absence of a single cigarette among the soldiers and statesmen in the trailers was notable and leads one to question its commitment to history. Apparently, depicting tobacco usage is a no-no to Fox, which produced the film, because of the evil weed’s risk to human health.

Dive-bombers are less of a problem, apparently…

In other news, one publisher to whom the S&G spoke declared that books on subjects pre-1966 were now ‘commercially dead’.  This may come as a startling revelation to Lord March, who continues to maintain about just about the only viable racing venue in the UK based upon a rather different business model! It is remarkable that people are considered unlikely to shell out £10-20 for a book on the era when the classic cars that they describe continue to rocket in value.

We now live in a world where it is possible to spend in excess of £30,000 on a mid-Eighties hot hatch, like a Peugeot 205 GTI (£38,000 being the new record for such a car). The white heat of inflation in values continues to astonish, to the point where the S&G was informed that there is now a queue of around a dozen investors with ‘a minimum of $30 million cash’ waiting to be spent for any Porsche 917, irrespective of condition or racing history, provided that it was built in Zuffenhausen.

Wowsers.

2017 was a slow year for aviation-related stories at the S&G, for which we apologise and promise to make good in 2018. Our air-minded regulars are the most loyal and enthusiastic imaginable and there have been lean pickings for them. This will not do.  We did manage to get the S.E.5 book out successfully, and despite one or two issues with getting the right pages to the printer it was an emotional moment to see 30 years of research and passion take the chequered flag.

There will be much to-do about the centenary of the Royal Air Force in 2018. The S&G will do its bit, with one aim: encouraging the powers-that-be to give its missing VC his name back. July will see the 100th anniversary of Edward Mannock’s death and we all know where he lies. It’s time for him to rest up.

So that’s what to expect when crossing the hearth at the S&G in 2018: more aeroplanes, some valuable reminders for racing folk and a bucket full of derring-do. God knows we need the latter above all else.

A safe and peaceful 2018 to you all.

The risks of too much safety

Safety is what we humans believe we should feel in our homes – although depressingly few of us actually experience such luxury around the world. As Sir David Attenborough regularly reminds us, from conception to expiration, life on earth is fraught with risk – irrespective of species.

Sometimes we take decisions that magnify those risks many times over. It’s called being human.

Obviously, some risks are greater than others. At the S&G we have been known to make outings to the local Scalextric club in the certain knowledge that the hobby accounts for 2.5 deaths per year, according to the Office of National Statistics. It could be a very unpleasant way to go – but not an altogether likely one.

Perhaps that very mild whiff of danger is why Scalextric racing remains popular among its practitioners – and might also explain why even the best races attract fairly minimal onlookers. Because when somebody takes a risk – a serious risk – we want to watch and we want to cheer for them. It enriches us.

Whenever the subject of falling public interest in events like motor races or air displays crops up, it always brings back memories of a little badinage from the script of that all-time number 1 movie in the S&G collection, The Great Waldo Pepper. There’s a scene where Robert Redford’s eponymous pilot tries to get work flying for the celebrated ‘Doc’ Dilhoefer’s Flying Circus:

Dilhoefer:      Pleased to meet you, Pepper, but the answer’s ‘no’.
Waldo:            I’d really like to talk about-
Dilhoefer:      The answer’s still ‘no’.
Waldo:            But-
Dilhoefer:      Look. I know who you are. You’re a damned good pilot, right? But barnstorming ain’t what it used to be so now you want a job in my flying circus. But do you got an act? No – right? Well the answer’s ‘no’ unless you got an act. Look up there, you think that pack of jackals wants to see a good pilot? They want blood! Sudden death is my business, Pepper. Not good pilots.
Waldo:            Wait a second, give me a chance would you? Please?
Dilhoefer:       I’ll give you the same deal I give everybody else… now you dream up a stunt where people think you’re gonna die. No! Where people are sure you’re gonna die – then I’ll take you on. You might wanna try wing-walking, I hear it’s very popular down south. Good luck.

In the end, Waldo masters the art of clambering out of the cockpit up onto the wing of his biplane while in flight, getting on to the top wing and bracing himself against the headwind.

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Wing walking used to mean climbing out of the cockpit and walking on the wings

It’s a fairly stupefying scene, all the more so for the knowledge that this sort of thing was commonplace in the ‘Twenties. In fact people were already getting a bit tired of it, which is why they put Susan Sarandon on the wing, with her clothes engineered to ‘fall off’ at an appropriate time, as seen at the top of this page.

We still have wing walkers today, of course. Usually they’re girls. The big difference is that now they’re securely lashed to a post. It’s not heart-stopping drama; rather more like Ryanair’s dream of future budget flights.

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Modern wing-walkers have stringent safety requirements – like tethers and a seat.

Any sort of display flying brings with it risk – far more than Scalextric racing – but the days of having nothing but the aeroplane’s own bracing wires and your sense of balance to keep you from the hereafter have long since gone. That’s why wing walking acts these days often give the crowd time to go and get a burger before the real action re-commences.

It was Ernest Hemingway who declared that there were only three true sports – bull-fighting, mountaineering and motor racing. The rest were merely games. In other words: if it can’t kill you instantly, you can’t call it a sport.

The news that the FIA is putting a cage over the cockpit of Formula 1 cars next year has met with widespread derision. The push for safety was a cornerstone of the presidency of Max Mosley, although the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on live TV at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix made it the overwhelming priority.

That’s why so many Grands Prix involve dollying around in 2nd gear corners these days. Whenever a circuit is modified, it is never to speed it up. While the prices of tickets go up and up, the fans get moved further and further away in order to create more run-off, so that even once-great venues that tested the nerve and sinew now offer the same challenge as a parking lot to drivers of any great skill.

Take the one that they talk about every year – the Eau Rouge/Raidillon sweep at Spa-Francorchamps, an icon in modern Formula 1 parlance that must be taken ‘flat’. Well, Spa remained pretty well unchanged for its first 60 years, with only a few exceptions when the additional track was used where Eau Rouge doubles back on itself, heads back to the Ancient Douanne hairpin and then comes back out halfway up the hill.

For the most part, however, Eau Rouge looked just like this:

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Looking ahead to original Eau Rouge/Raidillon in 1955 – no way you’d take that flat even now

Spa was rebuilt in the early 1980s to be shorter and safer. Its return to the Formula 1 calendar came in 1983 but only one exceptionally brave man – Keke Rosberg – took Eau Rouge/Raidillon without lifting because he had a relatively meagre Cosworth DFV that was trying to keep up with the 1200hp turbo cars. ‘A granny could drive it flat now,’ he chuckled recently.

 

As the image below shows, in the ‘Eighties you thundered downhill towards a solid wall of Armco with an earth bank behind it, steered sharp left and then switched back right with Raidillon getting more acute as it crossed the old stone bridge.

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In the 1980s, Eau Rouge/Raidillon was unchanged – and not flat out.

Now we have the modern ‘complex’ after it was rebuilt prior to the 2007 season. Cars race downhill towards a wide open space on the upslope where the guard rail, earth bank and crowds used to be, have a much shorter and more open left through Eau Rouge and then go up Raidillon in a very gentle, regular curve.

The bridges are gone, and the hollows, but the old outline of the left hand side of the circuit remains. Indeed, it’s all the more clear these days for being covered with high grip asphalt to help slow a spinning or braking car before it hits the deep, soft retaining wall. You can see, if you choose to look, at what a challenge used to exist – and witness how the challenge has been so greatly reduced by the modern ‘facility’.

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Smooth as a billiard table, wide open spaces and all mod cons: Eau Rouge and Raidillon today

Spa is still one of the three most beautiful and historic venues to race a motor car in Europe, right alongside Monza and Le Mans. It is still possible to get it very wrong at Eau Rouge. But it is impossible to compare achievements here to those of the first 80 years of the circuit’s existence.

Increased safety in terms of car construction, neutered circuits and endless run-off has had a two-fold effect upon Formula 1 that has trickled down to the rest of the sport: public interest has fallen, in line with old Dilhoefer’s pronouncement to Waldo Pepper, and so too have driving standards.

When Ayrton Senna deliberately collided with Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990 it was shocking because nobody had ever put another driver’s life at risk in quite so obvious a manner. The risks were known, accepted and kept within tolerable limits – as were the driving standards of the day.

The drama of Senna’s moment of madness has now become a tactic. Increasing safety levels have only served to encourage unsportsmanlike behaviour in the top flight, and it’s now thoroughly percolated the entire system. What was once an anathema to the sport is now the norm and it has filtered down to the children competing in the grassroots – which is perhaps the ugliest aspect of all.

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Margins for safety are open to abuse – if the consequences are less severe, more chances are taken and sportsmanship goes out of the window

Equally, once Formula 1 adopts the cage – or ‘halo’ as it is being spun – then every other FIA-sanctioned series must follow suit, just as was the case with the HANS head restraint. It is likely that even karts will have a cage around them, even if it is utterly inappropriate and causes as many potential issues as it solves – just as is the case in F1, in fact.

Increasing safety, taking the sport away from the fans and sealing itself in a bubble of safety messaging is throttling not only Formula 1 but also many other strands of motor sport – as these rally images show. The spectacle and therefore the passion are ebbing away.

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Safe, ticketed spectator zones have made rallies safer but significantly reduced numbers

In the wake of the Shoreham disaster, much the same phenomenon has struck air shows, with many restrictions being imposed upon the performing pilots and the crowds beneath.  “There’s something missing…” is the phrase that has been repeated time and again in fan forums. No cause for alarm yet – but the change has been noticeable.

When one spends long enough around a risky activity, the impact of those risks inevitably hits home. One day, pop star and former display pilot Gary Numan looked at a group photo of his former flying mates and realised that he was the only one still alive. That was the day he stopped flying. His assessment: his decision. An entirely respectable one.

The S&G once worked with a hugely promising young driver who was killed by his own front wheel rebounding into the cockpit during an accident – exactly the type of injury that the cockpit cage (or ‘halo’ if you must), is designed to prevent. Would he have wanted to race with it on the car?

We’ll never know but the odds are severely stacked against his approval for any such device. He was a racer, he weighed up the risks and accepted them. Look to the responses of other racers, I think he’d agree.

No less a man than David Brabham, team-mate to Roland Ratzenberger when he was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, popped up in the wake of the ‘halo’ announcement with views that were hardly complimentary. His belief, like that of the S&G, is that the FIA’s thought process is now completely at odds with the opinion of drivers and public alike.

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David Brabham (right) and Roland Ratzenberger: the 1994 Simtek team photo

The day after Ratzenberger’s accident, ‘Brabs’ calmly got into the sister car and started the race. He drove through the wreckage of JJ Lehto’s startline accident and that of Senna’s car at Tamburello, too – accepting the risks and believing in his team and in himself to win through. Few racers would have done any differently.

If the fixation on safety continues, however, crowds seeking to be thrilled by risk-takers may as well migrate to our Scalextric club. If somebody has taken stock of the risks and decided that they are worth the challenge then they should be applauded for it. As it is, more and more people are more likely to re-enact the great races and the amazing aerial manoeuvres via a computer game than ever witness true heroism in real life. What a sad reflection on our society that would be.

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Beyond the British Grand Prix

This week’s announcement that the British Grand Prix is to cease in 2019 is not a surprise. Although it was the first country in the world to build a permanent circuit for motor racing, Great Britain has had a dysfunctional relationship with the sport right from the outset.

In the 1890s, the advent of internal combustion caught the imagination of brilliant engineers in continental Europe and North America – but not so Britain, whose Empire was built using iron, steam and the old school tie.

Johnny Foreigner’s preoccupation with noisy, unreliable new inventions became the subject of amusement in polite society.

While all but a few British folk scoffed, however, it was through competition that Johnny Foreigner refined motor cars and achieved the dream of powered flight.

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Passions were aroused on the continent: eyebrows were raised in Britain

The great city-to-city motor races at the turn of the century inspired engineers to travel further and faster, tearing off into the distance while British motoring was pegged back to walking pace – literally, with the legal requirement for a man with a red flag to walk 60 yards ahead of ‘horseless carriages’, lest they scare the horses or interfere with the good order of the railways.

It took the legal test case lodged by Farnham engineer John Henry Knight in 1895 to release British motorists from this constraint. He successfully triggered the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, which increased the speed limit for “light locomotives” under 3 tonnes to 14 mph.

To celebrate this boundless new freedom, the ‘Emancipation Run’ was organized for motorists to drive from Whitehall to Brighton – an occasion later commemorated through the Royal Automobile Club’s annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. While the 33 intrepid Britons tiptoed down to the coast, however, the Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade scampered the 1710 km from Paris to Marseille and back to win the biggest race of the year.

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Good order was enforced upon British motorists – with a flag

A few of the more enterprising British motor companies, such as Arrol-Johnson, Wolseley and Napier, began to dip a toe in the water of the European events. They soon discovered that there was much to learn not only about car design but also ancillaries such as tyres and spark plugs if they were to compete.

Thankfully, some were determined to learn, improve and win.

In 1902, the British-built Napier of Selwyn Edge triumphed in the Gordon Bennett Cup, winning the honour of hosting the race in 1903. The birth of British motor sport did not greatly interest the nation or its politicians, however, who grudgingly permitted roads to be closed in the wilds of County Kildare for the occasion.

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Britain belatedly came to the party – but soon mastered the art of motor racing

A year later, the Isle of Man was selected to become the new home of motor racing in Britain. The Gordon Bennett qualification race of 1904 gave rise to the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy in 1905, the world’s longest-running motor race whose place on today’s FIA World Endurance Championship calendar warrants not a mention in the press.

The Isle of Man was and remains a mystical place to go racing but the rest of the British Isles were still subject to a blanket 20 mph speed limit.

The British motor industry needed somewhere to drive fast and it found a benefactor in the form of Hugh Locke King who, egged on by the likes of Napier and its great showman Selwyn Edge, constructed the Brooklands motor circuit – the first permanent track in the world – and almost ruined himself in the process.

It was only after World War 1 that Brooklands became a success. Many young Englishmen – particularly the aviators – found that excitement and esprit de corps in the face of danger had become addictive. Racing around the great white bowl near Weybridge offered them blissful release from the hum-drum world of peacetime, and the ‘right crowd’ flocked to witness the thrills and spills.

Brooklands was the crucible from which sprang the Bentley Boys, John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and the first gilded generation of British racing motorists. Le Mans was conquered and Grands Prix were won. A decade later, these pioneers celebrated the rise of a second generation, including Dick Seaman and A.F.P. Fane, who punched above their weight in small but potent cars from Riley, MG and ERA.

The ambitious Fred Craner turned leafy Donington Park from a provincial motorcycling track into an amphitheatre for the Silver Arrows; hillclimbs and sprints flourished and the Tourist Trophy grew in stature to rival the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours in status.

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Brooklands, Bentley and Birkin – landmarks in British racing

Despite all this success, despite the fervour that surrounded motor racing as a spectator sport and despite the quality of engineering that had gone into every component of the cars, there was little recognition.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the body charged with promoting the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad, prohibited the British manufacturers from bringing their racing cars to the Motor Show because it believed that they were ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

Only in the aftermath of World War 2, when the next generation of racers flourished and British motor racing sat at the top table of the sport worldwide, did the entire nation take notice.

The defining moment came at Silverstone in 1950, when His Majesty George VI and Queen Elizabeth led a quarter of a million people to Silverstone for the Grand Prix d’Europe, the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Motor racing hit the tabloids and the elitism of Brooklands was replaced with the grassroots movement from which produced raw young talent both at the wheel and at the drawing board.

The workmanlike bomber training airfield at Silverstone hosted its first Grand Prix in 1948. Meanwhile on the south coast the Westhampnett fighter station at Goodwood provided a more convivial atmosphere for the old ‘right crowd and no crowding’ set to party on in the grand old manner.

They were joined by more former airfield venues – from Boreham to Croft. The parkland circuits followed – Oulton, Cadwell, Brands Hatch – and Aintree set out its stall as the ‘Goodwood of the North’ with its blast around the fabled Grand National racecourse.

For the next 30 years, British motor sport expanded into a bona fide industry – and a successful one at that. Even the press took notice – The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Times were all sponsors of races and teams in all categories. Right through to the 1980s, they reflected the public’s passion and sold the sport with vigour.

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The triumph (and tragedy) of motor racing folklore: Hawthorn and Jaguar in action

When the British Grand Prix’s financial troubles began, the industry in this country was still riding high in strength and depth, interest and involvement across the board. British teams not only dominated the Formula 1 world but also every international discipline.

Moreover, pretty much every Indycar, F3000, F3 and junior category chassis was designed and built in Britain by Lola, Reynard, March, Ralt and Van Diemen. Meanwhile, young drivers from around the world had to come and compete in Britain if they wanted to make a name for themselves – driving the reputations of the specialist teams who ran their cars.

 

Yet over the past 20 years, most of that thriving industry has been burnt as fuel in order to keep the British Grand Prix shunting along towards the buffers. We watched it happen. Some of us reported on it happening and warned of the outcomes… but many did not.

The prevailing attitude of “I’m all right, Jack” has indeed meant that the seven UK-based Formula 1 teams have prospered – although all but one is now under foreign ownership and remain here only for as long as it is financially and logistically beneficial to do so.

In the meantime, pretty well every major manufacturer team outside Formula 1 has migrated to Germany – and that includes the Japanese and the Koreans. The notional ‘motorsport valley’ that is claimed to nestle half way up the M40, from where it pumps billions to the British economy, hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense for years. Brilliant businesses are there – but in many ways to their detriment.

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Britain is one big ‘motorsport valley’, apparently

In 2013, a rescue plan was put forward by the Welsh government. It was a dedicated hub for the high-tech motor sport sector in a Tier 1 Enterprise Zone where their utilities would be subsidised, salaries funded up to 50% and every wind tunnel and laboratory would be built for them.

Such a stiff resistance was put up by the British Grand Prix lobby and the ‘motorsport valley’ brigade that the only issue upon which press and the public could fixate was the Circuit of Wales, adjoining the technology hub. What was the point of building a circuit when there was Silverstone? Who would travel to Wales for the British Grand Prix?

The fact that the Circuit of Wales was never designed for Formula 1 did not matter. Nobody wanted to understand what the project was about and now the idea has died. The proponents of the ‘motorsport valley’ myth believe this to have been a victory – but they are deluded.

If you want to buy a single-seater or sports car chassis these days, you don’t call ‘motorsport valley’. Most likely it will be a Tatuus or Mygale from France or an Italian Dallara.

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Fleets of one-make series cars are now built overseas

Young British drivers, if they really want to get ahead, must plan to hop out of their karts and straight into European championships if they are to stand a hope of getting noticed – increasing their annual budgets by up to 50% and reducing the strength and depth of the talent pool by a similar factor.

And of course the well of talented young foreign drivers following in the footsteps of Piquet, Senna, Häkkinen and Magnussen has dried up completely, seeing teams close down for the want of talent and funding to employ them.

The Scarf & Goggles celebrates the ripping yarns of earlier eras, but it exists in the here and now. The spirit and the achievements of those times have been betrayed many times over in the name of preserving the unworkable British Grand Prix and, as a result, the ‘motorsport valley’ myth.

Perhaps the final, belated loss of the Grand Prix will be the jolt that knocks a bit of sense into people. Facts must be faced and plans must be made. We hope that, finally, they might at least be valid ones.

We still have the Tourist Trophy. We still have the Isle of Man. Goodwood is thriving. The British touring cars are still wowing people and nobody holds better rallies, rallycross or short track races.

The landscape is changing but the most valuable bit of real estate in any sport – that of historic racing and our motor sport heritage – keeps going from strength-to-strength. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is not the end.

 

Quality versus clamour: why Le Mans and Indy remain as giants

Last week, The Guardian newspaper ran an interesting bit of speculation – a week-long series entitled ‘Sport 2.0’ based upon the premise that, across the board, major sports are dying.

This rather dramatic prognosis was based upon evidence that TV figures are falling, revenues are down and crowd sizes have dwindled.

It’s a universal problem, it would seem. If the editorial of ‘Sport 2.0′ is to be believed, the only cure is to reduce the length of any event down to a maximum of five minutes and to surrender one’s soul to the great new god of ‘shareable content’.

According to one of these stories, international football matches will soon be played within a grid of some 200 cameras capturing every detail of the scene that can immediately be reproduced as a hologram in other stadia. So if a game is being played in Rio, for example, you can pop into your local stadium in Dundee to see an exact 3D version of the match on your home pitch.

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No holograms or gimmicks: just a thumping crowd and a traditional spectacle that lasts a week

Nobody’s yet asked: ‘why?’

If people aren’t going to watch their own teams playing in their own stadia, will they really turn up in droves to watch a hologram of Norway vs. South Korea?

Apparently, the Japanese bid for the 2022 World Cup included using exactly this technology. The problem was that they could have promised a genuine alien invasion and a comeback concert by Elvis Presley because nothing was ever going to keep the gentlemen of FIFA away from Qatar’s billions.

Another point missed by The Guardian: even if there was a way for sports to break new ground and touch new hearts, it is pretty well guaranteed that an immediate influx of dollars will win the day. Have they not heard of Formula 1?

The Olympics once again provided cause for depression. When one thinks back upon the money lavished upon each and every Games, let alone the social changes enforced upon the host populations in order to sell Big Macs and fizzy drinks, it was galling indeed to read the architect and cheerleader for London 2012, Sebastian Coe, admit that athletics will never rank among the top three or four sports in Britain.

Elsewhere throughout the week, there was a fixation upon all of the ‘urban’ sports like BMX, Parkour, Skateboarding, Quidditch and the like, which the experts in sports marketing tell us have a greater appeal among the under-25s. Adapt or die was the message, or else all will be doom and gloom.

But throughout the period in which these stories were being put out, the Le Mans 24 Hours was taking place. Rather than a five-minute blast, we had practice on Tuesday, Qualifying on Wednesday and Thursday, a day of public jamboree on Friday and then the race from Saturday through to Sunday.

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The battle for GT glory went down to the last lap

More than a quarter of a million people were at the track to see the start and the Internet was groaning with traffic as what seemed like every sports fan from Scandinavia to the Outback started talking about the race. An event lasting a week held us in its thrall right up to the last lap battle for GT honours was resolved in Aston Martin’s favour.

There is a reason why this level of fervour takes place every year: Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor sport event. In fact, according to no less an organ than National Geographic magazine, Le Mans is the greatest sporting event of any kind anywhere in the world based upon such factors as the scale of the challenge, the number and diversity of its participants, the size of the crowd and the heritage of the event.

In motor racing terms, only the Indianapolis 500 compares to Le Mans – and it compares very well indeed. Again, Indy brings no ‘urban sports’ element, it would be recognisable to competitors of a century ago and, where Le Mans lasts a week, Indy consumes an entire month!

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Indianapolis pitches heroism and tradition that can be seen, heard and smelt

The Guardian offered no recognition that the only people who are truly obsessed by sports seven days a week are the people trying to rinse every available penny from those sports: the promoters trying to sell their pay-TV subscriptions, the venues trying to sell tickets and billboard space, the newspapers trying to sell advertising space around their reports and the creative agencies trying to sell ideas to the sponsors and the advertisers that make them stand out from the crowd.

Society has other things to worry about. We have less time and less money with every passing year, so when we want to pay attention to something, it has to be special. And if the past few weeks of fervour around Indianapolis and Le Mans have taught us anything, it’s that we, as an audience, can be optimistic. Because these events truly do remain special.

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Human drama is served by the bucketload in 24 fraught hours at Le MansScreenshot 2017-06-20 12.15.08

It’s not something that can be synthesised. It’s not the result of some tremendous promotional idea. It’s simply recognition of all those reasons listed by the National Geographic – and none of the frankly Orwellian language from The Guardian.

If one could bottle and sell what makes these events special, the status of a minor god might be accorded (although the thought occurs that perhaps Lord March has got closest to doing so at the Festival of Speed). But nobody has or will, and a hologram won’t do much better. Let’s allow the over-hyped, over-worked and over-valued clamour for our attention drift away on the tide, and savour what has always been right in the first place.

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Long may the great races continue their fine traditions – and long may the wider world enjoy them

Gordon Bennett! It’s Zalonso!

The S&G has infinite enthusiasm for the Indianapolis 500 and its admiration for Fernando Alonso is similarly effusive – your scribe interviewed him in Minardi overalls a lifetime ago, and he was later very helpful on a book project – so perhaps a few more S&G stories might have been expected during the past month.

In fact, the whole circus that sprang up around Alonso’s mission to Indy rather precluded writing about it. The spirits of Jimmy Murphy, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and all the other transatlantic travellers have been endlessly summoned, so it was better to watch the rodeo and provide something from the S&G’s perspective when the dust settled: so here it is.

Of all the apparitions from motor sport’s past who may have appeared around the Alonso 500 it was James Gordon Bennett Jr. who most often sprang to mind. For it was he, as the owner of the New York Herald, who lavished funds upon a race from Paris to Lyon for the cream of motor manufacturers from Europe and the USA.

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James Gordon Bennett Jr. – the first promoter of global motor racing for profit

Starting in 1900, the three fastest cars from each competing nation would be entered for the Gordon Bennett Cup – with Gordon Bennett’s newspaper getting all the exclusives throughout the build-up and raceday.

This was enormous news – a circulation blockbuster.

For nearly a decade, motor racing had whipped the public’s imagination into a frenzy of daredevils breaking new technological boundaries. By insisting that the Gordon Bennett Cup cars were painted in national racing colours, the press magnate’s race also tapped in to the zeal and fervour which would ultimately fuel World War 1.

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The zeal which greeted motor racing was given a nationalistic fervour by Gordon Bennett

This was no longer a contest between athletes or even motor cars, but rather a measure of the virility and might of the world’s proudest nations. The 1900 race saw competing cars line up painted blue for France, yellow for Belgium, white for Germany, and red for the USA. Fernand Charon crossed the line in Lyon first on a Panhard, to a volcanic roar of approval across la République.

In 1901 the French had the race to themselves and a Panhard headed the charge from Paris to Rouen. In 1902 the Gordon Bennett Cup moved from France to Austria and the British challenged the French with some lightweight, less powerful cars from Wolselely and Napier – with Selwyn Edge taking the honours for Napier.

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On that occasion the British cars had been painted red, but with the return of all nations for the 1903 race this meant that a permanent colour needed to be ascribed to British motor racing. In the end green was chosen, as a tribute to the race’s hosts in Ireland (then a part of the United Kingdom). It was a white Mercedes driven by Camille Jenatzy that won, however.

French honour was restored by victory on German soil in 1904. As a result the 1905 race moved back to France where, with more motor manufacturers than anyone else, the hosts chafed at being pegged back to only three manufacturers. Having failed to win concessions to enter more cars, the French celebrated one final triumph before they pulled up the stumps and planned to stage their own race instead for 1906 – it would be called the Grand Prix.

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French national interests ended the Gordon Bennett Cup races – and created the Grand Prix

So what was it about Fernando Alonso’s enterprise in 2017 that reminded the S&G of that enterprising old rogue Gordon Bennett? Well, much has been made of the media hoo-ha that has accompanied Alonso’s month of May in the USA and, most of all, in the UK.

We have been treated to daily, hourly and minute-by-minute reportage from the moment that the project was announced until Alonso’s pitch-perfect acceptance speech for his Rookie of the Year award. Access all areas – and then some. Technical diagrams, race histories, videos – all the fun of the fair.

And all of it has done a fine job of blotting news from elsewhere in the motor sport world – particularly McLaren-Honda’s ongoing woes. Well, right up to the moment when Alonso’s Indy engine went ‘pop’ at least.

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What many observers have forgotten is who now owns the news. Because, in a move of which his countryman James Gordon Bennett Jr would wholeheartedly approve, it is none other than Zak Brown, the Executive Director of McLaren, who sits as CEO of the Motorsport Network, which owns pretty well everything these days.

Zak’s media empire, funded by Miami-based Russian billionaire Mike Zoi, embraces the Motorsport.com global portal, the former Haymarket publications Autosport, Motorsport News and F1 Racing together with Motors TV (rebranded as Motorsport TV), as the only non-subscription channel for motor sport. It also picked up the Amalgam brand of high end scale model racing cars.

So, with his McLaren hat on, Zak was confronted with the problem of a slow and unreliable car together with Alonso, still widely regarded as the finest racing driver on Earth today. In other words: a potential PR disaster, given Fernando’s habit of speaking his mind and playing up to the camera when things go awry.

But when one owns the news, PR disasters can much more easily be avoided. Thus sticking Fernando in an Indycar was strategically very sound. It also must have done the ratings across Zak’s network a power of good, with American racing fans trying to find out more about Alonso and F1 fans trying to find out more about Indy.

Zak had a one-stop shop for all and he worked it well. Having placed a number of stories to McLaren’s benefit since buying the media outlets, the Alonso-to-Indy showstopper has broken all previous boundaries between news and PR.

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The ‘Zalonso’ show starring Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown has enjoyed a successful run on both sides of the Pond

Of course the difference between the past month’s mania for ‘Zalonso’ and the days of James Gordon Bennett Jr is that the Gordon Bennett Cup was effectively owned and administrated by the mogul himself. That might be an investment too far for Zak – in the immediate future at least – but he might not be too far off.

With the sea of New Zealand racing orange across the motor sport coverage this last month, James Gordon Bennett Jr would doubtless be chuckling. If in the back of his mind Zak Brown had wanted to serve notice upon the sport’s owners, he picked the hell of a way to do it.

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