…chance doesn't exist; there's always a cause and a reason for everything – Elahi

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Albi ’67: just another F2 race…

Thanks to the excellent Richard Wiseman, I was recently able to sit back, relax and enjoy the 1967 Albi F2 race in its entirety.  And I mean entirety.  The French TV coverage begins with Jim Clark and Jochen Rindt chatting pre-race, takes in the complete drivers’ briefing (translated in situ by Jabby Crombac, the co-promoter) and then takes us through every lap of the race.  I’ve always been interested in the Albi event for the simple reason that it took place only two weeks after the Italian GP that year – and that Jim Clark’s drive at Monza unquestionably rates as one of his greatest.   If you want a modern parallel, it would be Sebastian Vettel racing an FIA F2 car at, say, Paul Ricard ten days after his drive up to third place in the this year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.  I always wondered whether the whole thing would have been anti-climactic for Jim or whether Monza would have been quickly confined to history when Albi loomed fresh and clear.

As it happens, Jim appears to be usual, brilliant self throughout the race coverage. He jokes in the pre-race assembly area with Jack Brabham:  “C’mon Jack, we’re not at Monza now”;  and he wanders down to chat to Piers Courage and Jean-Pierre Beltoise.  Again he’s all smiles.  And then he drives beautifully, of course. Quickest in practice on Friday but unable to improve his time on Saturday, he starts second in his Team Lotus 48.  His biggest handicap, obviously, are his Firestones: Jackie Stewart, in Ken Tyrrell’s Dunlop R7-shod Matra is in a class of his own and wins easily from the pole. On the grid, Stewart is the only driver I could see who needed to strapped into his cockpit (just shoulder and lap belts;  no crutch strap). All the others just slid into their bolides and went racing.  No belts.

Jim never gives up. He is lying third behind Jochen Rindt’s Winkelmann Brabham BT23C when he loses the twitchy, green-and-yellow 48 early in the race and narrowly misses a concrete wall; he then tigers through the field to regain third place at the finish. After races and weekends like this, no wonder that Hockenheim, 1968, would for Jim be just another F2 race…

We see the start procedure of the legendary “Toto” Roche in all its slapstick. He warns the drivers beforehand that he will drop the flag any time after the five-second board – and this he does, with semi-chaotic results. I think it’s Graham Hill, in the other works Lotus 48, who almost gives Toto an aerial view of the proceedings.

Impressive is the early-lap pace of the English privateer, Robin Widdows;  and glorious is the pass that takes Jackie Stewart into the lead from Jochen Rindt. Stewart, Rindt, Clark and Brabham:  the large French crowd, luxuriating in late-summer sunshine, saw race driving at its highest level.  Were any of those Names afraid or ashamed of being beaten by lesser names in a relatively minor F2 race?  Not at all.  They just wanted to go motor racing.  It was what they did.

I mentioned all this to Brian Redman the other day.  Brian finished a typically-classy sixth at Albi (behind Stewart, Rindt, Clark, Jacky Ickx in the second Tyrrell Matra, and Chris Irwin in John Surtees’ Lola) and thus underlined all the promise that would land him an F1 drive for 1968. Brian actually had to qualify his maroon David Bridges Lola for Albi – and did so comfortably, of course, lapping only a shade slower than Ickx and matching Piers in the John Coombs McLaren M4A.

This was Brian’s reply:

Hello Peter, 
Plans went wrong at the beginning of ’67, when told father I was going racing, he wished me luck – and said: if it doesn’t work out, sorry, but you can’t come back! One week later, David Bridges rang and said: “sorry Spud, but we can’t get that new Brabham, or them Cosworth FVAs” ! So we started with an old Brabham and a bored and stroked Cosworth SCA that David had lying around. Surtees came to us later and offered to sell a new Lola T100 – with two FVAs ……things went somewhat better after that! Best race was Crystal Palace F2, 1968, just before Cooper accident. Pole position and 2nd to Rindt in race.
Talking of Albi F2 in 1967, Chris Irwin asked if I’d like to fly back with him to the UK. Beautiful flight across La Belle France. Now, over the English Channel, low cloud, couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.

Feeling nervous, asked Chris if he was trained for instrument navigation: “err, actually, no….but I know how it works”. Even more nervous.The ‘plane is moving around quite a bit, just as Chris finished talking – the engine stopped! Never before or since, have I felt my heart give such a mighty leap! Frantic examination of the instruments, showed it had run out of fuel! Even more frantic twisting and pulling of things, the wing-tip tanks are turned on – and the engine starts again!
I see that another couple of DVDs have just arrived in the post –  Monaco, 1963 and the Le Mans F2 race, 1966.
‘Scuse me, while I disappear…





“The new engines are not going to be silent…”


I spoke recently to the FIA’s F1 Race Director, Charlie Whiting.  What does he think about the new engine regs for 2014?  And what, indeed, does he think about the F1 life?

I find Charlie Whiting in his second home – in the office at any given Race Control building in any given F1 track of the world that bears the title, “Race Director”.  We happen, on this occasion, to be in Austin, Texas, where the new Hermann Tilke-finished Circuit of Americas is undergoing its baptism by fire.  And this is about the only time of the weekend when Charlie has a moment or two in which to chat.  It is the lull after qualifying on Saturday.  The F1 cars are in Parc Ferme conditions (under wraps in the team garages).  And, baring the odd technical political or technical crisis or two (or three), Charlie can relax just a little, exhale some air and think about…the racing life.

“You’ve been in motor racing for quite a long time,” I say to the man whose silver hair speaks of 40-or-so years in the business but whose body is still that of the ever-young F1 professional.  He wears a neatly-pressed light blue, short-sleeved FIA shirt against dark blue slacks.  And his room for the week, as ever, is Spartan.  A desk, a table with a couple of chairs.  A laptop (fed by just-for-the-weekend 100-plus mgb speeds).  The inevitable briefcase.   No family snaps in leather frames.  No mascots.

“Yes,” says Charlie. “Since the age of 14, actually.  I’m 60 now, so that’s 46 years.  Long enough!   And everything still seems like yesterday.  I can still recall Lydden Hill rallycrosses in vivid colour.  But then, when you think about it, it was a long time ago.   The thing that brought that home for me recently was that it’s now been 30 years since I was Chief Mechanic to Nelson Piquet at Brabham when we won the World Championship (in 1981 and 83)…”

I wonder, often, when I see ex F1 Brabham team people like Charlie or Mike “Herbie” Blash, or Alan Woollard or Eddie Baker or Nigel de Strayter, all of whom today work either for the FIA or FOM – I often wonder if they do spend any time thinking about the past.  It’s F1 folklore that the only day that matters is tomorrow, that nostalgia is for the weak – and always I imagine that that’s even more the case when you work for the FIA or FOM, where so much of the emphasis is on politics, money, the future, the F1 show. Prod them a little, though, and away they go…

“I joined Brabham at the tail end of the BT45 and the BT46-Alfa, when Niki Lauda and John Watson were driving for us.   They were lovely cars.  Lovely.  When you think how simple they were – they didn’t seem simple at the time – but they are very, very simple cars by today’s comparison.  The complication was in the detail.  On the BT45 you had to take the engine out to change the spark plugs!  As a mechanic, that seemed complicated to me….”

Continuing the theme of finding the racer behind the top-line FIA official, I ask Charlie about his early years.  How did it all start?

“Through my brother, Nick” (who was a successful saloon car racer in the 1970s).  “We did a deal with John Webb at Brands Hatch, who was trying to help Divina Galica into motor racing in 1976. With Shell sponsorship, we – Nick and I – acquired a Surtees TS16. I prepared it and Divina drove it in the Aurora Championship.  We bought a TS19 for the following year, and then Divina took Olympus sponsorship into F1 with Hesketh in 1978.  I went with her, and worked for Hesketh, but things didn’t go particularly well that year unfortunately and it all ended after the Belgian GP.  I then got a job at Brabham through Herbie – on the test team with the BT46-Alfa, which was a lovely car, as I say.  I did one test and then for some reason I was on the race team for the French GP.  I stayed there.  Nelson Piquet came along in 1979 and made the team his own, really.  It was an amazing time.

“And I guess,” I add, remembering the slickness of the Brabham team back then, and the almost surgical precision of its operation, that at that point you would have been thinking, ‘This is a great job.  Brabham Chief Mechanic.  The future’s secure…’  You wouldn’t have been thinking beyond that?”

“Of course not,” agrees Charlie.  “You don’t look that far ahead.  I’ve always had ambitions and when I was working as Nick’s mechanic in the early 1970s, building Escorts, I always wanted to be an F1 mechanic.  My ultimate goal was to be a mechanic to an F1 champion.   That, so far as I was concerned, was the greatest thing I could aspire to.    I did that twice and I was rather pleased with myself about that, I must admit.”

I’ve know quite a few F1 mechanics who speak of a sense of anti-climax when they finally win a championship.  Some don’t even receive a handshake from the driver, let alone a pay rise.  For Charlie it was different:

“I loved every minute of it.  Amazing feeling.  Being in charge of a team when you win a Grand Prix was just a fantastic feeling and I would never tire of that.”

1981 was an interesting year, of course.   Carlos Reutemann lost the Championship by one point but was stripped of a nine-point win (scored in the opening round in South Africa) a couple of months into the year when it was decided (for “political” reasons) to strip the race of its championship status.  Then there was the mysterious, larger rear wing fitted to Nelson Piquet’s Brabham after qualifying at Monaco (but before the weight check!) and the brilliantly-conceived, valve-operated Brabham ride height control system.  In a nutshell, the system was fully legal and enabled Brabham to dominate the early rounds of the season (give or take a wrong tyre choice in Brazil).  For Zolder, though, the FIA legalised a much more basic lever-adjustment system that brought all the other F1 teams back into contention.   One imagines that such about-faces – and creativity – merely added to the graduate education of Charles Whiting.

“Monaco 81?  Qualifying?” asks Charlie with a smile.  “I’m not sure what you mean…  Now the ride height – that was something.  It was a fiendishly clever system that was 100 per cent legal and which no-one could understand.  I remember Gerard Ducarouge” (the Ligier designer) “trying to wriggle his way down the cockpit to find the lever that moved it up and down.   There was nothing there! It was all valve-operated, orifice-controlled.  The problem is that the suspension took a long time to come back up.  It was also a bit complicated, with lots of pipes and things that could have fallen off.

“In the first race in Argentina we were amazingly quick. Hector Rebaque, our second driver, went right round the outside of Alan Jones on that long corner out the back. It was just awesome to watch.  Unfortunately he didn’t finish, though, and retired right by the pits, with the suspension still down.  Everyone clocked that and so obviously with Nelson’s car, which was winning easily, we were on tenterhooks to see if it would come back up again…”

Charlie didn’t elaborate here, but (in a nice counterpoint to what would occur in Singapore 27 years later) legend has it that Nelson had selected the exact rail of Armco barrier against which he was going to crunch the Brabham on its slow-down, victory lap in the event that its suspension was still down.  Thanks to Nelson’s judicious use of kerbs, the ride height was legally up by the time he reached the potential accident zone, although Nelson couldn’t resist winding up the Brabham boys who were watching a hazy black-and-white TV monitor on the pit wall.  Pretending to steer towards the relevant Armco and then veering away at the last second, he gave them all a cheeky wave as he drove on to the podium and thus to scrutineering.   The gesture was lost on everyone else…

“We had an amazing team, the best of its day,” says Charlie wistfully.  “Obviously Colin” (Chapman) “was brilliant in his own way, but Gordon Murray came up with some great ideas and Dave North, too, was a very clever guy and probably still is, as far as I know.”  (David is with LotusF1.)

Which segways us neatly back to 2012.  I ask Charlie about the quality of talent in the F1 pit lane – about whom he most respects.

“There is a mutual respect within the paddock.  I don’t think there’s anyone out there I respect more or less than any of the others.  You have to earn respect, don’t you?  There are some exceedingly clever people out there but I think they know me well enough by now not to try to pull the wool over my eyes.  There’s a certain amount of respect there not to do those sorts of things.  When someone does it it’s so obvious…so they don’t try. It takes a long time to reach that situation.  The thing is, the F1 pit lane is full of brilliant people, of people who think very quickly on their feet.  The standards in F1 are very high.”

What is the most enjoyable part of his weekend?

“I love it all so much that it’s difficult to say but I think the biggest adrenalin rush is the start.  You never tire of that.   You still get nervous and it’s still high-tension.  Lots of things can go wrong but the best thing about my job really is the lack of routine.  Every day is different.  Literally, you never know what might happen. You never know what’s around the corner.  You never tire of that.”

And what about the new F1 technical regulations for 2014?  What does he feel about the new turbo V6 engines (and the talk about how the show will be diminished by the loss of high-revving, normally-aspirated screaming sound.)

“It’s a big challenge,” says Charlie.  “A very big challenge for the engine manufacturers.  I’m looking forward to seeing the engines run – to see how complicated they are and how clever they are.  They’re going to be extremely high-tech power units, that’s for sure.   As for the sound, I think people will get used to it pretty quickly.  Honestly, when I think back to the old BMW four cylinder engine we ran in the Brabham days,  that revved to 11,000rpm and it sounded fine.  The new engines are not going to be silent.  The sound is going to be different but people will get used to it very quickly, I think.”

I also ask Charlie about his thoughts on the new-look Silverstone:

“Living very closely to Brands Hatch when I was growing up, I only went to Silverstone three or four times until I became involved in F1.  Today, they’ve done an enormous amount of very good work at Silverstone.  The track is now one of the nicest we’ve got.  It’s not like a really modern circuit, where we have asphalt run-offs and all the latest gadgets, so it’s still got a good feel about it.  It’s a proper racing circuit.   Obviously they’ve had to make improvements to bring safety up to a required standard but they’ve still got that standard of a real race track, I think.  And there are fewer and fewer of those on the calendar.

There’s another knock on the door.  Charlie is wanted.  I ask, quickly, about his life right now – and about the future (bearing in mind that I believe his contract with the FIA is up for renewal at the end of 2013.)

“I’m looking forward to the time when I do a little less of this and bit more of that,” he muses. “I live at present in a very complicated way.  It’s a very busy year, requiring me to be on the road about 200 days out of 365.  I’ve got a wife and two young children, and of course it’s very hard to be away from them.  We live in Monaco and we spend time in the UK as well and with schools and things like that it’s hard to juggle everything and to be there as much as I can.  Aside from the F1 races 20 times a year, I’ve got lot of circuit inspections to do, the Technical Working Group, the Sporting Working Group, the Circuits Commission, the Research Group, the Safety Commission, the Single-Seater Working Group – all these groups require one meeting after another…”

I wonder, too, at Charlie’s fitness and general energy.

“I barely have time to go the gym.  I walk a lot and I suppose I try to walk as quickly as possible.  That’s my main form of exercise.”

Walks aside, you suspect, it’s that 100 per cent, start-line adrenalin that so successfully has made, and makes, Charlie Whiting the FIA’s F1 Race Director: he’s a Racer out there marshalling the Racers, second-guessing them, applying his years of ups and downs and not a little native cunning to prepare yet again for maybe what they’re going to think of next.


In Austin recently, Charlie (right) shares a joke with former (US) F1 privateer, Brett Lunger










Never forgotten…

I was very touched by this short piece published in Facebook by Margherita Bandini, widow of Lorenzo, on December 21:


Today, your birthday, you would have been 77 years old and so much time has passed since you left us in that tragic fire in Monte Carlo. I am convinced that there is an afterlife and therefore you’ll see here on our Facebook page many friends and admirers who were not even born when you left us – those who remember you with great affection, admiration and esteem. Many people have written beautiful things about you – for example the person who wrote: “At the time you left I was nine years old;  this was the first great sorrow of my life.”

See the legacy you have left behind? Lorenzo, you told me once that you felt you were born unlucky. Of course you were right, with the benefit of hindsight, but in your 31 years you became a great man with your modesty, your determination and your enthusiasm for a sport you loved more than anything in the world; and you have left for us an indelible memory.

I would not of speak of bad luck, therefore. I’m still here, aged 74. I have known the great loves of two wonderful men – you and our son. I’ve known great pain and great joy, but above all thanks to both of you.









Why Sir Frank is Sir Frank…

At the House of Lords reception for Sir Frank Williams on November 28 plenty of people paid fitting tribute the great man.  He is “passionate” about his chosen profession.  He is “a true ambassador” of British motor sport.  “His dedication knows no bounds”.

All true.  Very true.

What do those words really mean, however?  What is their context?  What lies behind them?

I thought the following extract from a February, 1971, edition of Autosport might add a little texture to today’s image of Sir Frank Williams.  It is the Formula 2 Temporada series in South America (Bogota, Colombia, to be precise).  F1 drivers like Graham Hill, Henri Pescarolo and Jo Siffert are competing.  And everyone, as ever, is right on the limit….

“For some, the four clear days between races provided time to relax,” wrote Paul Watson.  “but for others there had been little time for enjoyment.  Immediately following the first Colombian GP, Frank Williams had hot-footed it back to England, carrying with him the two March chassis as hand baggage (!) and with an order list from other drivers as long as your arm.

“Williams, who has a reputation for getting things done smartly, was on March’s doorstep by Tuesday morning and back on a plane for Bogota by Wednesday so that he arrived back in Colombia by Thursday night, much to Derek Bell’s astonishment!  The two March chassis had been repaired and strengthened where they were broken, this being where the front of the monocoque joins the bulkhead.  As the Bogota series was very much a  development programme for Williams, he had fitted aluminium braces to the top and bottom of Pescarolo’s bulkhead while Bell’s had been left without, to find out whether any permanent additional strength will be needed for future races.

“Williams took with him orders for a great many other spares and these were supposed to be sent in time for practice on Feb 12.  However, as is often the case when freight has to change planes, it got lost, so that all the spares Natalie Goodwin had been waiting for to repair Cyd Williams’ car never arrived.  Neither did Jurg Dubler’s gearbox parts, the Eifelland tyres and a number of other items.  However the Kyalami-spec 4000 ft fuel metering units did arrive in Frank Williams’ pocket and these were duly distributed to Stommelen, Hannelore Werner and Brian Cullen, all of whom had suffered fluffy engines in the previous race due to the use of standard, sea-level cams.  It had been hoped to build up some special 8000ft cams at Felday Engineering, but Mac Daghorn just hadn’t had enough time to get this done…”

For the record, Frank’s two March 712Ms qualified third (Stommelen) and ninth (Bell) and finished second and third in the race (in that order).

Just another weekend in the life of the racer that is Sir Frank.


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