That time at Sandown…

Here’s a little something that pops up every so often – the racy demonstration of Sir Jack Brabham in his Brabham-Repco and Juan Manuel Fangio in his 1955 Mercedes-Benz W196. Both cars had been recently restored by their owners in Australia, and as a support to the 1978 Australian Grand Prix at Sundown they were to be reunited with their original drivers.

All the hype and Fangio’s own insistence was that this was not a demonstration by two champions but a race. Perhaps it was, but it’s worth remembering that, in their heydays, there was a full minute’s difference between the two cars over a lap of Spa-Francorchamps and 13 seconds at Monaco.

Nevertheless, while Black Jack is the perfect gentleman and makes a show of it, it’s clear that Fangio is properly ‘on it’ for a recently-restored car that was worth a major sum of money even 40 years ago. And both men clearly wanted to be first past the chequered flag.

Incidentally, the Australian Grand Prix was a Formula 5000 race, won by Graham McRae in his self-built Chevrolet-engined car in a highly attritional race that saw two drivers hospitalised.

It’s thanks to this sort of enthusiasm for old cars, so clearly on show at Sandown that day, that the Silverstone Classic, the Goodwood Revival and the Nürburgring Old-timer exist as some of the best-attended motor sport events in the world. This is why…

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Norisring under threat?

The future, or rather the character, of one of Germany’s most popular racetracks is under threat. The venue in question is the Norisring, the Bavarian street circuit which was first used in 1947 and provides Germany’s biggest race series with their most tumultuous and atmospheric amphitheatre.

The 2.3km circuit is built around a vast concrete edifice, measuring 360 metres in length, which acts as the main grandstand. When a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) touring car event really lights up, it is when there are tens of thousands of passionate fans backing their chosen brand – Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Because the Norisring is a street circuit with a colossal grandstand towering over it the atmosphere becomes like a cup final, with hooting and hollering and intensity the like of which is seldom seen in motor sport.

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The Norisring brings a crowd and an atmosphere like no other in Germany

But then, this is a venue that was built for just such pyrotechnic displays of bombast. The Norisring has a unique bit of history attached as well…

The Zeppelinfeld upon which the Norisring exists was not designed for motor sport. The colossal grandstand is in fact the ‘Führer’s Rostrum’ designed and built by Albert Speer from which Adolf Hitler would lead the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg rallies.

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When the Zeppelinfeld was built, it had an altogether different purpose

Speer’s handiwork is now beginning to crumble. At the back of the gigantic structure there is considerable netting and signs that warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.

“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” Daniel Ulrich, Nuremberg’s building maintenance department chief, told The Independent this week. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”

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The 1,000 year concrete probably didn’t have a lifetime warranty

Speer claimed that he had used special building materials and that the complex – which featured a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the tribune with its balustrades and ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas – would last for 1,000 years. As it turns out, Speer’s calculations were a little bit optimistic.

When the Norisring was first in use as a circuit, the entire Führer’s Rostrum was virtually intact, minus the most obvious Nazi motifs but retaining the quarter mile of balustrade upon which Speer built his ‘cathedral of light’ by mounting 150 searchlights to bring a bit of extra ‘wow factor’.

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Speer ‘turned it up to 11’ with his Cathedral of Light

Today all of those pillars have gone, leaving the tribunes where once the Party faithful flanked their leader to look out over an endless sea of banner-carrying and flag-waving members of the Master Race. Today these are the most celebrated seats in German motor sport; looking out over the temporary pits and main straight of a circuit that always delivers fast and frenetic action.

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These days the view is of the pit lane, with this vast area lying as scrubland covered in parked cars, VIP hospitality and temporary grandstands

In the beginning, the Norisring was primarily used for motorcycle races – not least due to the severe restrictions that were imposed upon Germany’s automotive industry and motor sport the defeat of 1945.  Cars and motor sport were major tools of Hitler’s social order and the level of suppression was extraordinary when viewed from today.

22B  Pit area at Noris Ring, Nurnburg.

The thriving paddock of a Norisring bike meeting

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Cars returned to action in the 1950s

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Much more of the Führer’s Rostrum was in place in the circuit’s early years

Eventually, in the 1950s, German cars returned to action on a regular basis. New German-made Formula 2 cars, Volkswagen-based ‘specials’ and the emergence of top quality machinery from Porsche reinvigorated the national racing scene. The Norisring flourished, and in the 1980s it even hosted frenetic and spectacular sprint races for Le Mans machinery, joining the World Sportscar Championship in 1986 to provide spectacle such as this:

The venue is now best known as the most popular round of the DTM, and the series’ own website describes the Norisring thus: The spectacular street circuit – incidentally the last surviving racetrack of its kind, in Germany – is popular with drivers and fans in equal measure and winning here counts slightly more than winning elsewhere.

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Victory at the Norisring is a unique highlight for German racers

There is no doubt that the Norisring is a special place and for many reasons. Should the old tribunes be torn down? At the S&G, the feeling is that they should not. For one thing, what would replace them?  Certainly it is unlikely that Nuremberg council could create a grandstand that could rival it, or that was designed to generate the sort of fervour that this one does. Students of history and lovers of motor sport cannot fail to marvel at the place in all its insane pomposity.

It is impossible to understand something unless it can be witnessed, and the giganticism of the Norisring tribune, just like that of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, offers a beacon to navigate history: to understand the means by which Germany was so catastrophically seduced in the 1930s. If we do not understand the threat that humanity can pose to itself then we are failing as a race.

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How do we explain and learn from what we cannot witness?

Meanwhile as a sporting venue, the tribunes would be utterly impossible to replace and losing them would rob motor sport of a unique asset. While the past of the Zeppelinfeld is an abomination, the heritage of the Norisring is anything but. Bringing joy to a place like this, through the very best in motor racing action, and creating a new history of almost 70 years of achievement, is something well worth preserving.

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23B  Pit area at Noris Ring.

Fitting AVUS into the living room

Flat-out in Berlin – and in miniature

We love a bit of slot car racing here at the S&G – be it Scalextric, Carrerabahn or anything wild and wacky. Not much can compare with this layout in the latter stakes – a recreation of Berlin’s mighty AVUS circuit in its 1930s prime.

At the time of opening, AVUS was 19½ km (12 miles) long – each straight being approximately half that length. Before the 1937 AVUS-Rennen the North Turn was rebuilt to become a towering banked curve made of bricks and tilted at 43 degrees in order to maximise the speed of the cars. As the AVUS race did not count towards the championship, the use of streamlined cars, similar to the cars used for high speed record attempts, was permitted.

Given their vast weight and speed, all of the streamliners had holes cut into their bodywork to allow drivers to check on the condition of their Continental tyres. Blowouts were one risk to life and limb but so too were the aerodynamic forces at play – in practice Hermann Lang’s streamliner was fitted with covers over the wheels and, while doing roughly 390 km/h on the straight, enough air became trapped under the to lift the front wheels lifted from the ground.

While Mercedes struggled to configure its cars appropriately, the Auto Union team had a much less dramatic time and Bernd Rosemeyer set a time of 4m 4.2s (averaging 284.31km/h or 176.7mph). Such feats and glorious spring weather prompted a crowd estimated at 400,000 to witness the races – staged in two heats and a final – from which the overall winner would pocket 12000 Reichmarks. The winners of the heats would get 2000 RM, second place 1000 RM.

That prize ultimately fell to Lang for Mercedes in an event that has rightly been set into legend – and now it has been recreated – in spirit at least – for smaller scale racing.

The daunting North Turn at AVUS in 1937

There’s clearly still some work to do on the scenery, but even at this early stage it’s clear that a masterpiece is taking shape.

An epic fail from Lewis

This week saw one of the motor manufacturers competing in F1 roll out some of its heritage – in this case Mercedes-Benz, which took two of its all-conquering W196s to Monza. In one car quite rightly Sir Stirling Moss was to be found. In the other was Lewis Hamilton.

Stories like this are popular fodder to graft a little of the sport’s old grandeur onto its modern day successor. Usually it is quite fun, such as when Michael Schumacher took the wheel of Bernie Ecclestone’s Ferrari 375 at Silverstone to mark 50 years since the Scuderia’s first Formula One victory:

It is also a chance for Formula One drivers to endear themselves to fans by showing how much they value the sport’s heritage and appreciate their role in continuing the legacy. After all, if you’re one of the 18 men qualified by talent, marketability or financial backing to sit in one of the most exclusive clubs on Earth then it is entirely right and proper to celebrate such good fortune, is it not?

Apparently not in Lewis’s case. He buried this particular story in his BBC column beneath selfies taken at the recent boxing match, stating: “Mercedes took two versions of the 1955 F1 car, the W196, the open-wheeler and the ‘streamliner’, and Stirling and I drove them on the old Monza banking, which they used for grands prix until 1959.”

Erm, Lewis…

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Monza banking in its final F1 appearance… in 1961, not 1959 Mr. Hamilton

Having comprehensively shot himself in one foot, Lewis then took aim at the other when he turned his apparently limited attention to the W196 itself. “I think that might be my favourite car of all time,” he enthused. “I just love the sound of it, with its old V12 engine – I’d love to have a road car that sounded like that.”

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The Mercedes-Benz W196 with its straight eight engine

The problem is, of course, that the W196 was famously powered by a straight-eight engine with desmodronic valve gear. I know that there are question marks about Lewis’s technical feedback but spotting that this was not a V12 engine should have been a fairly straightforward task. I’m sure that one of the gentlemen of Mercedes’ fantastic technical team who tend these priceless cars would have explained it to him as well – although perhaps Lewis was preoccupied with his selfies at the time.

Modern day racing drivers tend to do this sort of thing very well – even if driving old cars isn’t their cup of tea. Schumi was famously terrified when he drove one of Ferrari’s turbocharged cars from the 1980s and swore blind he would never again allow himself to be strapped into a machine that seemed intent on causing him actual bodily harm.

He was not alone. David Coulthard found the pre-war Mercedes W125 rather too much for comfort and Mika Häkkinen really never liked driving the W196 because by comparison with his carbon fibre machine it lacked any sense of there being a functional set of brakes included in the design.

And yet they did it with grace, good humour and the sense that they perhaps gained a little understanding of their privileged place in the world to be paid fortunes for driving cars that are a thousand times safer on circuits that are 60% run-off area and fenced in with soft barriers. Sentiments that do not come across from Hamilton’s exposure to the living legends of Moss, the W196 and the astonishing Monza banking.

Hamilton didn't seem to understand the significance of this moment - a shame, as they are getting fewer

Hamilton didn’t seem to understand the significance of this moment – a shame, as they are getting fewer

It was, as Lewis would no doubt say, an epic fail.

Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – 80 years on

Today saw the launch of Ferrari’s 2015 Formula One contender, the SF15-T. At this stage in its life it simply looks like a prettier version of last year’s car, but what’s this on its flanks? Why! It’s the Alfa Romeo badge!

The 2015 Ferrari - complete with Alfa Romeo badge

The 2015 Ferrari – complete with Alfa Romeo badge

While of little overall consequence, the badge does offer some hope that the Scuderia might embrace a little more of its pre-war past. For too many years the boys and girls in red have been keen to impress upon us all that the world began in 1947, when Enzo first set about building cars in his own name.

Yet by doing so, they have cast aside the many triumphs achieved through the 1930s, when Scuderia Ferrari was first a customer team for Alfa Romeo and later the effective works squad.

Each year around the world there is undoubtedly more excitement surrounding the birth of a new Ferrari than can be whipped up by any of the other teams. Perhaps in 2015 this is because they remain scarlet in a sea of grey colour schemes (perhaps ‘Fifty Shades’ should be the new tagline for F1), but more often it is because of heritage and tradition, the pageantry and sheer Italian theatre that surrounds the team.

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

The twin-engined 1935 Alfa Bimotore was designed and built by Ferrari

Well, the Scuderia provided bucket loads of the latter throughout the 1930s. This year, for example, marks the 80th anniversary of Tazio Nuvolari’s victory at the Nürburgring. That race – when the Maestro wrung the neck of his underpowered Alfa P3 to beat the Germans on home soil – is about as big a chunk of Grand Prix folklore as you’ll find and an anniversary that is well worth Ferrari’s time to celebrate…

…particularly when the Germans are stomping all over the sport now as they did then.

So, with this in mind, here’s a lovely little film of Nuvolari winning the 1935 Pau Grand Prix. The event, in February of that year, was Nuvolari’s first after returning to the fold at Ferrari, having previously believed that he would be better off in privately-entered Bugattis and Maseratis.

The race doesn’t look particularly well-attended, but at the front of the field the two Ferrari-entered Alfa Romeos of Nuvolari and René Dreyfus put on a show. Ferrari’s all-stars traded the lead throughout 75 of the 80 laps before the ‘Flying Mantuan’ asserted his authority to lead Dreyfus home nearly four minutes clear of the competition.

Such was the stuff of the 750 kg Grand Prix formula – until the Germans arrived and rewrote the rulebook for the glory of the Reich. So enjoy the clip and let’s hope that the good people in Maranello break open the archives on this earlier partnership with Alfa Romeo.

 

The view from Howe’s Corner

Almost all of the various Brooklands circuits remain, despite the passing of years. Motor sport gave way to the aerospace industry in 1939, and since BAe left it has been absorbed into the urban sprawl with light haulage, out-of-town shopping and the gigantic Mercedes-Benz showroom now crowding the space that lies within Brooklands’ concrete-banked perimeter.

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

A recent aerial view of Brooklands looking back from the Byfleet banking

As such one can always dig out a little something to take home – a snapshot beyond the fabulous Brooklands Museum tour. One such is Howe’s Corner and the smaller crossing of the River Wey made by the Campbell Circuit – see map below.

The Campbell Circuit today - Howe's Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit today – Howe’s Corner ringed in red

The Campbell Circuit was built as an answer to demand for more of the European-style ‘road racing’ with circuits which were formed of closed roads, such as Spa-Francorchamps or Brno. All motor sport on the British mainland had to take place within private land and, by the mid-1930s, the circuit around Crystal Palace was enthralling Londoners while nationally the picturesque Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire was attracting racers and crowds with its twisty parkland layout – and even had its own Grand Prix.

Brooklands was under threat and as a result this new layout was debuted in 1937, which saw runners thunder round the steep Members’ Banking and down the Railway Straight as usual, but then brake sharply for a hairpin left, Railway Turn, back into the infield just before they reached the main part of the aerodrome.

Railway Turn effectively doubled back on the Outer Circuit along Solomon Straight before entering a long, looping right-hander called Aerodrome Curve. The bulk of this bend still exists; the frayed old concrete now ringing the Mercedes-Benz skid pan and display area before setting off down Sahara Straight, which is now used by Mercedes as part of its young driver training course.

Howe’s Corner was a left-hander towards the river (taken looking back towards Sahara Straight)

Sahara Straight led into a ninety-degree left-hander: Howe’s Corner. It was then a quick squirt on a narrow straight, incorporating a second crossing of the River Wey, on a service bridge before crossing the Finishing Straight of the main track and joining the parallel Campbell Straight. The straight turned sharp right at the Test Hill Hairpin and swept away uphill into the left-hand Banking Bend – this now acting the members’ entrance to the Museum, rejoining the Members’ Banking in what is now the Gallagher HQ car park.

In the picture above the white B-Class of the Mercedes-Benz driver tuition fleet is just driving around the outside of Howe’s Corner in the wrong direction, about to join the Sahara Straight. Nevertheless it is easy to imagine Prince Bira hammering towards this vantage point in one of his sky blue ERAs, elbows working away against the kick in the steering as he powered onto the short straight that included the river crossing, shown below.

The bridge over the Wey is currently blocked off and broken but remains in 1939 trim

The bridge itself was hugely important as it allowed aircraft built at the Vickers works to cross over the Wey to reach the aerodrome for onward flight. Now it is, like much of the rest of the Brooklands site beyond the Museum, a little careworn and lying in the shadow of The Heights business park, which now covers the Vickers/BAE works as well as the returning Campbell Straight from this road course.

The bridge over the Wey as it looks today

To reach Howe’s Corner and the bridge, one simply needs to take a stroll down to the bottom of the Museum car park to the end of the gravel path. It’s a fairly restful spot now, as the traffic heading to and from the A3 is carried on an overpass at this point. Well worth a visit and to conjure up a little spot of the sport’s rich heritage.

Howe’s Corner and the bridge in their heyday

Back in business…

The S&G office is now ready to go, complete with a signed photo of Manfred von Brauchitsch smiling beatifically out upon one’s workspace and an art deco cabinet for putting PR samples of automobilia in… hint hint.

At home with Manfred von Brauchitsch and Ian Fleming

There are also some vintage Pan covers from some of James Bond’s greatest adventures lining the wall. It’s the blind, you see, that gives the place an air of… well, of Goldeneye I think.

That's the way to write... now, where's my cigarette holder gone?

That’s the way to write… now, where’s my cigarette holder gone?