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.

851b10fd57142ff9dd7330f7b8b4f9ef

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.

Female_Wing_walker_-_Air_14_Payerne_Switzerland_-_6_Sept._2014

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:

1955_belgian_grand_prix_start_by_f1_history-d5hlesx

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.

1472115657533

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’.

F1 Grand Prix of Belgium - Race

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.

Go-Kart-Crashes

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.

p01hdr7h

0da3ace18e109b6cd38a612c1ca936fe

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.

b196db1949c64bd7c205bc55758e18d1

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.

1923405_7822796001_2990_n

 

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.

IMG_8516.jpg

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.

red-flag-two

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.

gb4

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.

tim_birkin_in_the_birkin-bentley_at_brookland-_brooklands_museum_original_-_1500x1090_-800x582

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.

1955-le-mans

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.

4a10e8_4c81e8201531400a93da0b497065a368~mv2

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.

Formular-E

parc_ferme

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.

Screenshot 2017-06-20 12.09.50

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.

Screenshot 2017-06-20 12.18.07

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!

635966840064534171-0-X-500-1915

Fernando-Alonso-Indy-500-Finish

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.

Screenshot 2017-06-20 12.13.20

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.

1923 #1 #2 #5 #6 #8 #9

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.

james-gordon-bennett-sr--3

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.

image061

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.

beetles

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.

ee34b00e2ae91c72d252440dee4a5b97e77ee6d71bb6164794_640_French-flag

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.

05-03-McLaren-Alonso-CarUnveil

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.

skysports-fernando-alonso-zak-brown-indycar-indy-mclaren_3956710

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.

05-03-Alonso-On-Course-Bricks-IMSTest

Top Gear, 1958

The death of AA Gill last December robbed the world of one of its great chroniclers – and also one of its great double-acts. As readers, we were allowed to share in the fun that was to be had on Gill’s (ir)regular outings with Jeremy Clarkson through their resulting field reports – and one can only imagine how sorely he is missed by his chum.

Such writings are there to be treasured and will, as with so much of both men’s work, long outlast the pair of them. As evidence there follows a gem of a piece that was written by Ian Fleming for The Spectator that has an extremely familiar feel to it for Gill-and-Clarkson devotees.

Before we travel back in time and allow Fleming to let rip, a word of warning: the mindset of the 1950s cannot be applied to today’s world… so the easily offended and the righteously indignant should probably look away right now. Tales of these two sons of the empire in their Caribbean bolt hole do not make comfortable reading for anyone who subscribes to The Guardian or works for the BBC.

Gill was credited, usually by his detractors, with having founded the ‘me’ school of journalism. This overlooks the entire canon of Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill for one thing, but even they were blushing wallflowers in comparison with Fleming. With all of that in mind, therefore, welcome to what most likely have been the look and feel of Top Gear 1958, featuring the late Ian Fleming and Noel Coward:

‘Dig that T-bird!’ I had cut it a bit fine round Queen Victoria’s skirts and my wing mirror had almost dashed the Leica from the GI’s hand. If the tourists don’t snap the Queen, at about 10 a.m. on most mornings they can at least get a picture of me and my Ford Thunderbird with Buckingham Palace in the background.

I suspect that all motorists are vain about their cars. I certainly am, and have been ever since the khaki Standard with the enamelled Union Jack on its nose which founded my écurie in the ‘Twenties. Today the chorus of `Smashing!’ ‘Cor !’ and ‘Rraauu !’ which greets my passage is the perfume of Araby.

One man who is even more childishly vain than myself is Noel Coward. Last year, in Jamaica, he took delivery of a sky-blue Chevrolet Belair Convertible which he immediately drove round to show off to me. We went for a long ride to épater la bourgeoisie. Our passage along the coast road was as triumphal as, a year before, Princess Margaret’s had been. As we swept through a tiny village, a Negro lounger, galvanised by the glorious vision, threw his hands up to heaven and cried, `Cheesus-Kerist!’

‘How did he know?’ said Coward.

Our pride was to have a fall. We stopped for petrol.

‘Fill her up,’ said Coward.

There was a prolonged pause, followed by some quiet tinkering and jabbering from behind the car. 

‘What’s going on, Coley?’

`They can’t find the hole,’ said Leslie Cole from the rear seat.

Coley got out. There was more and louder argumentation. A crowd gathered. I got out and, while Coward stared loftily, patiently at the sky, went over the car front and back with a toothcomb. There was no hole. I told Coward so.

`Don’t be silly, dear boy. The Americans are very clever at making motor-cars. They wouldn’t forget a thing like that. In fact, they probably started with the hole and then built the car round it.’

`Come and look for yourself.’

`I wouldn’t think of demeaning myself before the natives.’

‘Well, have you got an instruction book?’

‘How should I know? Don’t ask silly questions.’ 

The crowd gazed earnestly at us, trying to fathom whether we were ignorant or playing some white man’s game. I found the trick catch of the glove compartment and took out the instruction book. The secret was on the last page. You had to unscrew the stop-light. The filler cap was behind it.

`Anyone could have told you that,’ commented Coward airily.

I looked at him coldly. ‘It’s interesting,’ I said. `When you sweat with embarrassment the sweat runs down your face and drops off your first chin on to your second.’

‘Don’t be childish.’

I am not only vain about my Thunderbird, but proud of it. It is by far the best car I have ever possessed, although, on looking back through my motley stud book, I admit that there is no string of Bentleys and Jaguars and Aston Martins with which to compare it.

After the khaki Standard, I went to a khaki Morris Oxford which was demolished between Munich and Kufstein. I had passed a notice saying ‘Achtung Rollbahn!’ and was keeping my eyes peeled for a steamroller when, just before I crossed a small bridge over a stream, I heard a yell in my ear and had time to see a terrified peasant leap off a gravity-propelled trolley laden with cement blocks when it hit broadside and hurled the car, with me in it, upside down into the stream.

I changed to the worst car I have ever had, a 16/80 open Lagonda. I fell in love with the whine of its gears and its outside brake. But it would barely do seventy, which made me ashamed of its sporty appearance.

I transferred to a supercharged Graham Paige Convertible Coupé, an excellent car which I stupidly gave to the ambulance service when war broke out.

Half-way through the war I had, for a time, a battered but handy little Opel. One night at the height of the blitz I was dining with Sefton Delmer in his top-floor flat in Lincoln’s Inn. A direct hit blew out the lower three floors and left us swilling champagne and waiting for the top floor to fall into the chasm. The fireman who finally hauled us out and down his ladder was so indignant at our tipsy insouciance that I made him a present of the crumpled remains of the Opel.

After the war I had an umpteenth-hand beetle-shaped Renault and a pre-war Hillman Minx before buying my first expensive car—a 2 1/2-litre Riley, which ran well for a year before developing really expensive troubles for which I only obtained some compensation through a personal appeal to Lord Nuffield.

I transferred to one of the first of the Sapphires, a fast, comfortable car, but one which made me feel too elderly when it was going slowly and too nervous when it was going fast. I decided to revert to an open car and, on the advice of a friend, bought a Daimler Convertible. Very soon I couldn’t stand the ugliness of its rump and, when the winter came and I found the engine ran so coolly that the heater wouldn’t heat, I got fed up with post-war English cars.

It was then that a fairly handsome ship came home and I decided to buy myself a luxurious present. I first toyed with the idea of a Lancia Gran Turismo, a really beautiful piece of machinery, but it was small and rather too busy—like driving an angry washing machine—and it cost over £3,000, which seemed ridiculous. I happened to see a Thunderbird in the street and fell head over heels in love. I rang up Lincoln’s. Apparently there was no difficulty in buying any make of American car out of the small import quota which we accept in part exchange for our big motor-car exports to the States. The salesman brought along a fire-engine-red model with white upholstery which I drove nervously round Battersea Park.

I dickered and wavered. Why not a Mercedes? But they are still more expensive and selfish and the highly desirable SL has only room beside the driver for a diminutive blonde with a sponge bag. Moreover, when you open those bat-like doors in the rain, the rain pours straight into the car.

I paid £3,000 for a Thunderbird. Black, with conventional gear change plus overdrive, and as few power assists as possible. In due course it appeared. My wife was indignant. The car was hideous. There was no room for taking people to the station (a point I found greatly in its favour) and, anyway, why hadn’t I bought her a mink coat? To this day she hasn’t relented. She has invented a new disease called ‘Thunderbird neck’ which she complains she gets in the passenger seat. The truth is that she has a prejudice against all American artefacts and, indeed, against artefacts of any kind. 

She herself drives like Evelyn Waugh’s Lady Metroland, using the pavement as if it were part of the road. Like many women, she prides herself on her ‘quick reactions’ and is constantly twitting me with my sluggish consideration for others in traffic. She is unmoved when I remind her that in her previous car, a grey and heavily scarred Sunbeam Talbot whose interior always looked as if it had just been used as dustcart for the circus at Olympia, she had been guilty of misdemeanours which would have landed any man in gaol. She once hit an old man in a motorised bathchair so hard in the rear that he was propelled right across Oxford Street against the traffic lights. Turning into Dover Street, she had cut a milk cart so fine that she had left her onside door-handle embedded in the rump of the horse. Unfortunately, she is unmoved by these memories, having that most valuable of all feminine attributes—the ability to see her vices as virtues.

I have now had my Thunderbird for over two years. It has done 27,000 miles without a single mechanical failure, without developing a squeak or a rattle. Its paintwork is immaculate and there is not a spot of discoloration anywhere on its rather over-lavish chrome, despite the fact that it is never garaged at night and gets a wash only twice a week. I have it serviced every quarter, but this is only a matter of the usual oil-changing, etc. The only time it ever stopped in traffic was carefully planned to give me a short, sharp reminder that, like other fine pieces of machinery, it has a temperament.

The occasion was, for the car’s purposes, well chosen—exactly half-way under the Thames in the Blackwall Tunnel, with lorries howling by nose to tail a few inches away in the ill-lit gloom, and with a giant petrol tanker snoring impatiently down my neck. The din was so terrific that I hadn’t even noticed that the engine had stopped when the traffic in front moved on after a halt. It was only then that I noticed the rev. counter at zero. I ground feverishly at the starter without result. The perspiration poured down my face at the thought of the ghastly walk I would have to take through the tunnel to get the breakdown van and pay the £5 fine. Then, having reminded me never again to take its services for granted, the engine stuttered and fired and we got going.

The reason why I particularly like the Thunderbird, apart from the beauty of its line and the drama of its snarling mouth and the giant, flaring nostril of its air-intake, is that everything works. Absolutely nothing goes wrong. True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine—a huge adapted low-revving Mercury V-8 of 5-litre capacity—never gives the impression of stress or strain.

When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going over the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have an extra twenty. m.p.h. in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the four-barrel carburetter come in, at around 3,000 revs., it is a real thump in the back. The brakes are good enough for fast driving, but would have to be better if you wanted to drive dangerously. The same applies to the suspension, where rigidity has been sacrificed slightly to give a comfortable ride. Petrol consumption, using overdrive for long runs, averages 17 m.p.g. Water and oil, practically nil.

There is a hard top for the winter which you take off and store during the summer when the soft top is resurrected from its completely disappeared position behind the seat. The soft top can be put up or down without effort and both tops have remained absolutely weatherproof, which, after two years, is miraculous.

One outstanding virtue is that all accessories seem to be infallible, though the speedometer, as with most American cars, is a maddening 10 per cent. optimistic. The heater really heats; the wipers, though unfortunately suction-operated, really wipe; and not a fuse has blown nor a lamp bulb died. The engine never overheats and has never failed to start immediately from cold, even after all night outside in a frost. The solidity of the manufacture is, of course, the result of designing cars for a seller’s market and for a country with great extremes of heat and cold.

Cyril Connolly once said to me that, if men were honest, they would admit that their motor-cars came next after their women and children in their list of loves. I won’t go all the way with him on that, but I do enjoy well-designed and attractively wrapped bits of machinery that really work—and that’s what the Thunderbird is, a first-class express carriage.

A belated welcome to 2017

Friends, Romans, fellow imbibers of the heritage of our times – welcome back. Firstly an enormous vote of thanks to every visitor in 2016 – 31,003 of you. It’s not J.K. Rowling territory but it was an honour and a pleasure to share with each one of you what we hope was an enjoyable respite from the daily grind.

What’s coming up this year? Well, quite a bit. The late start aside, there should be much to entertain you over the next 49 weeks or so. Perhaps even a new serialised piece of entertainment that’s unique and bespoke to the S&G. We shall see about that.

There is another book due for release in March: the Haynes Manual for the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5.

It is a rather prosaic title for the thing that the S&G is proudest of beyond our offspring. It looks like a car manual but reads a bit like a thriller (or a series of thrilling short stories, anyway). That’s the plan. It is down to others to see if the plan worked!

Since all of that was finished last year, it has been time to try and shore up the rest of life. 2016 was rather a trial for many people on a personal level and the S&G was not untouched by this wave of misfortune that we seemed subject to. Hopefully all of that is behind us now, to be left for 80-odd years until some other blogger pores over it. Poor devils!

Meanwhile, let us stick to what we know best here: back in the 1890s-1960s.

For those who might be interested in the stats that are put out by WordPress at New Year time, the most popular stories of the past 12 months were, once again, The Racing Driver’s Bride, What Hope for Faith? and The Mystery of Seaman’s Grave. After that all the stories on the Mike Hawthorn road trip came next. The top three has been the same every year since starting this blog, which says everything and nothing, I suppose! The most popular of the new stories were James Dean in 11th and the Malta Spitfire in 13th.

Note to self: more nazis and film stars if you want to get circulation up. Then again, that’s what most other history sites are doing.

New stories will be arriving erelong, they will be as big a surprise here as they are there and thank you for your patience. Enjoy the rest of the year and come back soon.

Ferrari 312T now available in French

Some mornings offer a surprise or two, so you can imagine that the rafters were rattling at the S&G when the Ferrari 312T manual appeared on Amazon in French.

‘Nothing to worry about’, sayeth Steve, the wise man of Haynes. Apparently it’s a badge of honour for Michel to wish to translate someone’s work… so we’ll take it as such!

If anyone is interested in expanding their French vocabulary into the realms of ground-effect versus horsepower or low opinions of McLaren, as expressed by former Ferrari men, then you are in luck. Equally, anyone with a French friend who has a particular yen for Mauro Forghieri’s masterpiece can now read about it from the man himself in their mother tongue… so please visit Éditions du Palmier or pick one up on Amazon.

The English language version is also still available. Here’s what’s been said about it:

‘Riveting stuff.’
– Octane

Book of the Month: ‘…this is an excellent guide to one of the most charismatic series of Grand Prix cars.’
– Classic & Sports Car

‘For those who consider the ’70s as the golden era of Formula 1, this is the book for you.’
– Historic Racing Technology