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

Archive for the tag “Spa”

One-handed through the Masta kink…

It was Spa – the old Spa.  And it was wet.  Atrociously wet.  Thus Jim Clark scored his first World Championship win of 1963

19244_lowresAnd so they went to Spa.  Jim traditionally stayed at the Val d’Ambleve near Stavelot and did so in 1963:  the 25s would be towed to and from the paddock area every day.  Jim flew with Colin Chapman and Trevor Taylor on D-Day, June 6.  The Ardennes forest had nineteen years before been ablaze with the Battle of the Bulge.  Practice at Spa would begin on Friday.romantik-hotel-le-val-d-ambleve-ueberblick-01-original-114553

In the Clark track bag: his new, dark blue Bell Magnum helmet and rounded bubble visor Bell had given to him at Indy.  All previous visors used by Jim had been attached to his Herbert Johnson or Everoak helmets by a crude strap and a single stud.  After last year (1962), when the rush of air down the Masta straight had actually loosened Jim’s regular white helmet peak, obliging him to rip it off one-handed whilst winning the race, Jim was delighted to see that the new Bell visor was fastened by three big pop-on studs.  With rain always on the agenda at Spa, this would be the perfect try-out.  Left in the bag, therefore, was the white Bell peak he had used at Indy, Mosport and Crystal Palace (ready for Dan Gurney to borrow!).  If it was dry, he would just run the helmet without the peak. If it was wet, and providing he liked it in practice, he would try the bubble visor.19194_lowres

Lotus had another airflow development, too: Colin’s latest idea involved a  a large opening at the front of the screen and a lip on the cockpit surround.  This would channel air up and over the driver, reducing buffeting and allowing the  windscreen to be cut lower, thereby improving visibility.  Again, the high-speed Spa circuit was the obvious venue on which to try the new device.  In the dry, in 1962, Jim had won at an average of 133.98 mph – this on a lap that included a 40mph mid-corner speed at La Source hairpin.  With more power from the flat-crank Climax, more grip from the Dunlop R6s and some significant re-surfacing, lap speeds – and top speeds – would be higher still in 1963.

It is hard to imagine today what it was actually like at Spa back then – out there on the old circuit, on a thin ribbon of public road bordered by such routine items as telegraph poles, phone boxes, concrete marker posts, sheer drops, clusters of trees and stone-walled houses.  The drivers didn’t wear seat belts;  the cars rattled and shook; and Jim, in the monocoque Lotus 25, was lying at about 25 deg to horizontal, his rear-vision mirrors right back near his helmet line so that he had some sort of angle of view.  To see clearly in them, however, he had to turn his head consciously from side to side. This was another reason he avoided the helmet peak for Spa.

The right foot was held flat, hard down on the throttle, for minutes on end, even though the road was in reality only straight into and out of La Source, down the hill past the pits and on the sections of road immediately before and after the famous Masta kink (which was also taken flat in fifth – or sixth if you were a Ferrari or Richie Ginther trying BRM’s new six-speeder).  The rest of the time, the drivers were threading their F1 cars through the needle, using all the road, accelerator against the stops.  The lap length was 8.76 miles and the lap time was just under four minutes – or just over it, if you were Phil Hill in the new, disastrous, ATS, or Tony Settember in the new American F1 entry – the Scirocco-BRM.19195_lowres

After the simplicity of of the 23 at Crystal Palace, the 25 around Spa initially felt appalling.  The high-speed oversteer was frightening…and still the dreaded ZF transmission kept jumping out of gear.  Mid-corner.

Adding to the feeling of foreboding on the circuit that Jim had hated since his first appearance there, in 1958, when Archie Scott-Brown had lost his life, and then 1960, when both Alan Stacey and Chris Bristow had been killed in Jim’s second F1 race, Trevor Taylor was also in trouble in the second 25.  After finally discovering that his car had been running only on two-thirds throttle at Monaco and then in first practice at Spa, Trevor would be dispatched from the pit lane on Saturday with a rear suspension bolt still lose.  Unsurprisingly, he crashed heavily when the rear wheel suddenly canted inwards.  A stone marshals’ post took the impact;  Trevor, amazingly, was able to step free with a badly torn thigh muscle.  Hero that he was, Trevor still started the race on Sunday in the spare 25.

Jim’s car felt little better on Saturday.  I think this was one of the first examples of Jim not giving 100 per cent until he really needed to do so:  Spa was dangerous enough as it was without having to stretch the limit in practice.  He would always give his maximum in the race but in practice, until he was comfortable, particularly at Spa, he would leave some margin.  As a last resort, as it turned out, Cedric Selzer and the boys fitted to Jim’s car the gearbox from Trevor’s crashed 25.

In between times, Jim tried the new aeroscreen (which he liked) and the bubble visor (which he didn’t);  it’s convex shaped distorted his peripheral vision.  He would revert, wet or dry, to his regular Panorama goggles and he would try the aeroscreen again at Zandvoort, at the Dutch GP.19240_lowres

Jim qualified only seventh at Spa after those two days of practice.  Graham Hill was on the pole for BRM, with Dan Gurney alongside him in his new Brabham.19719_lowres  Then, third quickest, came the fiery Belgian, Willy Mairesse, playing the number two role to John Surtees at Ferrari.  They formed up on a wet track.

As at Indy, I can do no better now that to hand over to Jim himself, this time as told to Graham Gauld in Jim Clark at the Wheel:

“I was right behind Willy on the grid.  This set me thinking that he was inclined to be exuberant, to say the least, and that in his home race he would be rather anxious.  I reasoned that a combination of an anxious Willy trying to take a Ferrari off the line in the wet at Spa was going to be exciting and that he might not take too good a job of it.  I knew that if I got a good start I would have to take him on the pits side even if it meant going across the yellow baulk line.  All this ran through my mind, sitting there, so that by the time the starter had raised his flag I had the Lotus on right lock and the clutch ready to bite.  The flickered and came down, I let in the clutch with a bang, scooted forward and to the right of Willy, who, as I thought, was standing still with spray being sent up in the air by his spinning wheels.  He just stood there without moving an inch.  Mine was a legitimate start, but I didn’t expect, in my enthusiasm, to lead everyone away from the start from the front row but this is exactly what happened.  As I went into Eau Rouge I glanced in the mirror and saw Graham Hill grimly on my tail and just pressed on.  As I said earlier, it was wet and I enjoy driving in the wet, but, after all, this was Spa, and I kept well within my limits.

“At the end of the opening lap Graham was still on my tail but I didn’t know until later that we had both left everyone else behind and we had a ten-second lead.  We stayed this way for quite a while and then I began to get the old gearbox trouble again.  It started dropping out of top and on Spa this is not funny.  You wind the car up to, say, 9,500rpm on the straight when suddenly all hell is let loose and you make a grab at the lever and pull it back into gear before you put the revs right off the clock.  Once this happens you start waiting for it to happen again.  By now, the problem was becoming acute.  Here I was, with Graham Hill still on my tail, with a gearbox which threatened to do something nasty at any moment.  I decided to drop 300rpm through the Masta kink for safety’s sake but I was still doing about 150mph.  This meant that, as I approached the kink, I would be holding the gear lever in place with my right hand and moving my left hand down to the bottom of the steering wheel. Spa 04 002 I did this because the car has a nasty tendency on this kink to move from one side of the road to the other and I often needed correction.  By keeping my hand low on the wheel I could twirl the steering wheel round with one hand and hold the slide – but doing this for lap after lap was not funny.”

Jim still retained the lead.  Graham Hill faded and then retired.  As another precaution, Jim began to take fifth gear corners in fourth, luxuriating in the feel of being to hold the wheel with both hands.

Then, in true John Frankenheimer fashion, the rain grew more intense.  Visibility disappeared.  Standing water drowned the valley.  Jim added a full three minutes to his lap times..but still pulled away.

This is how Bruce McLaren described the downpour in Autosport the following week:

“The rain was bouncing two or three feet off the road.  We were crawling around in the spray – and, for once, it was just as bad in the pit area, so the crews could appreciate how bad it was on the rest of the circuit.  The mechanics were sheltering under their signal boards but, with two laps to go, I saw mine pointing excitedly down the road in a fashion that said ‘you’re catching someone. Get with it!’

“So I got with it, and, in another half lap, I could make out two huge palls of spray – two racing cars ploughing along in front of me.  There was so much spray that it was hard to tell how far they were ahead, but I knew that one would be Jim, who had lapped me earlier, and I guessed that the other would be the second-place man, Dan in the Brabham.  As I got passed the first conglomeration of steam and spray I was that indeed it was Dan.  I passed Jim further up the hill, just in case that it was him that my pit had been referring to, but by now he had backed off considerably, so I guessed that it wasn’t.  By passing Jim I gave myself an extra lap to do and he received the chequered flag behind me as I went on to complete the lap and take second place.”  (This result actually put Bruce into the lead of the 1963 Drivers’ Championship and Cooper on top of the Constructors’ table.)19232_lowres

Bruce began that column thus:

“Relaxing on one of those after-race mornings with a cup of coffee on the patio of our hotel at Stavelot” (Jim’s hotel) “with the sun shining brilliantly and the birds feeling like Jim Clark and consequently singing…it was difficult to imagine that the previous afternoon we had driven though the worst thunderstorms I’d ever seen, let alone raced in.”

Jim was relieved to win – relieved to have survived.  Both Tony Rudd (BRM) and Chapman (of course) had pleaded with the organizers to stop the race;  Rudd had even sprinted across the track in order to speak to the Clerk of the Course face-to-face.  Their requests had been denied.  Jim stepped from the 25 smeared in oil, his blue Dunlops sodden.  He quickly changed into dark chinos, a polo shirt and his Pure jacket (never mind the Esso sponsorship!). On the podium, up above the old pits, by the control tower, his wet hair slicked backwards, he cradled the traditional Spa bouquet. This was the first Grand Prix he had won more than once. A cup of tea – in the Esso caravan, of course! – was very much in order.

Zandvoort, two weeks later, was next on Jim’s agenda.  There was at last time to return to London for a couple of days of fun – and then to see what was happening up on the farm.

Images:  LAT Photographic; Peter Windsor Collection Captions from top: Jim streams past the pits in the late-race deluge; the Val d’Ambleve as it is today – little changed but for a very nice-looking timber extension out the back; Jim tried the Bell Bubble and the new aeroscreen during dry practice; another shot of the new visor/windscreen – note the carburettored spare 25 in the background.  Trevor Taylor would race this after his practice shunt;  side view of the new aeroscreen – note thicker, rather odd-looking “Team Lotus” signwriting, probably a result of this entire new top section being prepared in a rush at the factory; while Jim Clark began a long streak of peakless races at Spa, Dan Gurney used a standard Bell white peak in this race instead of his regular black; the exit of the Masta kink as it is today; modern F1 drivers, if they do see the old circuit, cannot imagine that this was a part of it all; Bruce McLaren and the Cooper team in their Stavelot garage on a practice night.  That’s Eoin Young on the right:  Eoin was Bruce’s right-hand-man and Autosport ghost-writer. Now retired in his native New Zealand, he became one of the world’s pre-eminent motoring journalists  

Notes from the Belgian GP

The frustrating thing about the glorious circuit in the Ardennes forest they call Spa-Francorchamps is that it’s very difficult to move yourself around it.   It’s big, it’s hilly and, these days, it’s full of plenty of “no admittance” signs. Watch at Eau Rouge and you can only imagine what they’re doing through Pouhon;  spend the morning out at Pouhon and the mysteries of Blanchimont – and the hard braking zone after it – remain exactly that.

So forgive me if you saw otherwise:  for my part, I can only say that not once – not in the wet on Friday nor in the dry thereafter – did I see Jenson Alexander Lyons Button even approach the zone we Philistines call “opposite lock”.  He was again Mr On-Rails, light of touch, nimble of step.  He was again the epitome of the racing driver’s art.

(Correction.  Of course there was a moment.  Silly me.  He flicked the wheel from side to side in adulation as the chequered flag flew.  For a millisecond, the rear of that beautiful McLaren broke lose.  Jenson, by his pit wall, allowed himself a slide.)

I mention this because we need to find some way of explaining Jenson’s two exemplary pole laps at Spa – laps that left him free of any first-corner skirmishes.  You can overtake at Spa – but you can also quickly run to ground at La Source if you qualify amongst the dross.  Pole, then – or the front row – is vital at Spa – as vital as it is at Monaco.

I watched qualifying, as it happens, from the exit of La Source – a relatively boring location, you may think, given the menu of corners from which to choose.  It was convenient, though –  and there is always something about that run through the gears down the hill, towards Eau Rouge, grandstands to the left of them, GP2 and GP3 stars to the right, that makes the blood tingle.

What we saw there was Jenson feeding on the power in perfect proportion to the unloading left rear.  We saw Jenson steering – not power-sliding – to the exit.  We saw Jenson’s gloved hands moving hardly at all.  We heard no ripples from the Merc engine as he reached the edge, for Jenson met the kerb; he didn’t ride it.  And then we saw his McLaren, straight and true, barking its way down the hill.

What we didn’t see, of course, was what Jenson had been doing on entry and mid-corner.  We didn’t see the decreasing brake pedal pressure against steering load;  we didn’t see the actual substance of the corner from Jenson’s perspective – the moment when he felt that he could rotate the car with maximum benefit to the rear;  where we were, we only caught the result.

Even so, the view was selective.  Lewis looked as smooth and as seamless in the other McLaren.  So did Kimi in the Lotus-Renault and Michael in the Mercedes.  Fernando, though, came into view with one slide already under half-control.  And then there was another – out there on the kerbs, as he gave it full throttle.  His wrists flicked to the left as the revs peaked in first, rippling their complaint as the Ferrari fanned the kerbs.   Romain was the same – perhaps more so.   Felipe, too – although his movements, like Romain’s, were a reaction to what was happening to the rear of the car rather than actions in anticipation.  Felipe’s and Romain’s exits were slightly more segmented than Fernando’s or Kimi’s.  You could see the joins;  the telemetry would show the spikes.

Then came Kamui Kobayashi.  This’ll be fun, we thought.  Not a bit of it.  In Q3, with but a minute to run, Kamui looked to be Kimi.  Car tightly wound mid-corner, when he burst into view, the throttle and steering were then released as one.  Perfectly.  It was Sergio Perez, in the other Sauber, who expended the arm energy.  He was Romain – all reflexes and reaction.  All tail-on-the-kerbs.

Out came Pastor Maldonado, having only just made it up from Q2 in the Williams FW34.  Minimal movement.  Wonderful release.  Lewis-like.  Paul di Resta had looked similarly poised (save for a last-millisecond twitch at the rear, nudging the Force India onto the exit kerb).  Nico Hulkenberg used more opposite lock from mid-corner to apex.  The flashes of steering correction quickly evolved into a di Resta exit, however, as if he was reminding himself of how it should be (rather than playing it how he wanted!).

Up there on the big screen to our left they were on-boarding with Mark Webber.  And you could see why the FOG (Formula One Group) Director had selected him:  Mark looked Fernando-quick were I stood at La Source;  and, that morning, during Third Practice, his RBR8 had had seemed particularly stable through Eau Rouge (relative to the twitchiness of the Ferraris).

The lap time, though, was not there.  As quickly as you can read this, the names appeared in order:  BUT, KOB, MAL.  No HAM!  No RAI!

In this sense, my vantage point had mattered not a jot.  My eye could discern no difference between, say, Jenson and Kimi.

It was only later, when we learned that Jenson had been running a lower-downforce set-up, that the quality of his driving came into focus.  If he was able to make the McLaren look that good on corners like La Source, what was he doing over the full lap of Spa, where the long straights and fast corners would reward less drag?  Lewis, it transpired, was using a higher-downforce wing that left him with almost zero feel for the road.  Under the circumstances, his La Source work was also a piece of art.  Kimi and Romain were not running the team’s new wing-stalling device (sadly) and were thus playing Lewis’s game.  Fernando was on the limit of grip-versus-top speed wherever he went.  The Ferrari was edgy, nervous.  The Williams was again a major contender – and Pastor was again maximizing it.  (Bruno didn’t make it out of Q2 but not for the want of trying:  a half-lift into a fast corner left the DRS still open;  a massive spin was the result.)  And the Saubers were amazingly quick “through the air” thanks to the genius of Willem Toet.  The job then for the drivers was to lose no time on the slower stuff.  This they did not.

You know what happened on Sunday.  Romain made a great start, headed for a diminishing gap…and didn’t back off, as young guys on big waves of expectation rarely back off.   Spacial awareness didn’t really come into it:  he was an arrow, heading for a tiny target.  It was going to be up to the others to give him room.  I think Romain will tell himself that he didn’t cause the accident because his right rear hit Lewis’s left front (ie, he was half-a length a head of the McLaren) and because he  made just the one legal move to the inside; but that’s the problem, of course, with too much legislation:  it takes away the common sense. Romain was the only driver out there in a position to prevent any sort of collision, given the dynamics and the positionings involved.  He could have backed off.  He could have given Lewis more room.

As it was, Lewis continued on his dead-straight, inside line from which he was under no reasonable obligation to back away – and inevitably the combined energies erupted.  I predicted last Wednesday, on The Flying Lap, that Fernando was likely to DNF at Spa because of some sort of drama at La Source – but I certainly never imagined the carnage that would actually take place.   Out went Lewis, Fernando and Sergio Perez – and Romain, of course  – and we can all be thankful that no-one was hurt, even though Fernando’s shoulder was a bit sore afterwards (whiplash) and for a few seconds he was in the wrecked car motionless, unable to breathe because of the extinguishent.

Into the void, driving beautifully from mid-grid, rose Sebastian Vettel.  The RBR8 was not a quick car in Sector Three on Saturday afternoon, but Seb belied its mediocre chicane grip with some gorgeous track craft and sumptuous passes on Sunday.  So good was he, indeed, that he induced the worst from Michael Schumacher – incited Michael’s last-second dart into the pit lane entry from the wrong side of the track in the path of said Seb Vettel.  It was appalling to see – not massively dangerous, as such, but clumsy and ugly and about as poor an example of track etiquette to which any well-meaning Formula Renault driver should ever be exposed.  Yes, they were both playing a game of “After you, Claude” re pit stops.  There’s no excuse for entering the pit lane from the outside, however – particularly if there’s a car alongside you.  Seb, in protest – and seeing Michael diving into the pit entry, manipulated his Red Bull into a semi-donut and drag-stripped it down the finishing straight.  His actions said a thousand words.

There were some great drives in this mangled race.  Jenson continued to do what he did on Saturday for corner after corner, lap after lap.  He stopped but once for Pirelli primes without losing the lead.  His margin of victory was 13.6 seconds but it could have been much more.  He wasn’t sweating when he climbed from the car;  and Union Jacks flew in abundance in the packed spectator banks and stands.  McLaren had won again at the venue on which it all began with Bruce back in 1968.  Seb finished an excellent second for Red Bull Racing; and Kimi, frustrated by a lack of top speed (repeat:  “Shame about the device!”) was third for Lotus-Renault.     Nico Hulkenberg drove superbly, I thought, to finish fourth for Sahara Force India;  and Felipe was fifth in the difficult Ferrari.   Both STR drivers looked good – particularly Jean-Eric Vergne on this occasion – but poor Kamui could finish only 13th after suffering bodywork damage at the first corner.  No matter:  Willem Toet is as confident as experienced racers can ever be confident about the next round of “flyaway” updates for the Sauber C31.  At Suzuka, particularly, the car should fly…and it shouldn’t be slow at Monza, either!  I should also mention both HRT drivers – Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthekayan.  Neither were out-classed by other back-of-the-griders.  Pedro hit first corner debris and and Narain’s race ended when the left-front wheel came adrift as he turned-in to Stavelot (lose wheel nut after his second pit stop).

And so Fernando has had his first DNF since Canada last year.  It had to happen eventually – and it was predictable that it would happen at La Source, where Fernando was always likely to be amongst the traffic.  I’ve maintained since January, however, that Fernando’s biggest rival for the World Drivers’ Championship will be Lewis Hamilton – and so, from that perspective, Spa was by no means a disaster for Fernando.     Now to Monza where, for the most part, the track is wide, fast and open.  There’s just that pesky little first chicane to negotiate on the first lap of this tightest of tight F1 seasons, in the year in which the top runners are separated by paper-thin margins.  Again, the pole is where you’ll want to be – where Ferrari and Fernando need to be if they are to insulate their hard-won half-season advantage.   The Tifosi , I’m sure, are secreting their way to Monza even as you read this…

Lewis Hamilton posted this interesting telemetry overlay after qualifying, comparing his lap with that of Jenson Button.  The annotations speak for themselves – although they should of course be seen in the context of a first-class F1 team opting for two different aerodynamic solutions to a very demanding lap


Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: