A Silverstone Classic

I spent an evening recently watching excellent highlights of the 1973 British Grand Prix on YouTube.

It is quite unusual to see a race of that era ‘as live’ with pre-race interviews, pit-lane insights and befuddled commentary from the day itself, and with the washed-out appearance of a BBC colour television broadcast instead of the crisp, saturated film footage of the Brunswick archive.

And having seen this, I think there really is a case for nominating the 1970s as the golden era of Grand Prix racing.

It feels raw

What strikes you is how interesting proceedings are.

There is a palpable sense of expectation from the crowd, which is standing close to the track and not barricaded in austere grandstands. They are obviously excited at the prospect of a seeing a motor race, rather than an event. And they get one.

As the field smokes off on the parade lap, it’s great to hear the off-throttle crackling and popping as thirty – yes thirty – cars swarm into Stowe. And that’s nothing compared to the start.

Diversity in appearance, not in performance

As the cars head towards the camera on the first racing lap, there is a staggering difference between their appearance of the cars as they bomb down Hangar Straight. The Tyrrell 006 tall and bulbous, the Lotus 72 sleek and slight, the McLaren M23 aggressive and angular. Each just as fast as the other, noses diving under braking, simple nose fins resembling garden trowels instead of the convoluted, fragile horrors we have today.

The drama

It’s almost easy to forget that this was the scene of Jody Scheckter’s infamous first -lap crash, that took eleven of the thirty starters out of contention for the rest of the weekend and marked his card for a long time to come. But it’s fantastic to see it unfurl in front of you.

The racing itself

In 1973 the grid was made up of rows rather than slots. So the pole man started from the same white line as his colleagues in second and third.

This meant that there was not the same sense that there is in 2016, that your grid slot determines your finishing position. Especially if you’re one of the two Mercedes drivers.

Overtaking is not that common, but that makes it better. You know when you see a manoeuvre – which you will – it is because of of sheer determination on the part of the overtaker, rather than because he’s going to open his DRS and just drive past.

Quality, not quantity is the order of the day.  Plus all the leading cars have the same engine, the Ford DFV.  Proceedings are also enlivened by a very rare ‘off’ for Jackie Stewart, which takes him out of contention.

The commentary

In the 1970s the BBC had a roster of announcers they turned to for big events, and ex-RAF pilot and all round good English egg Raymond Baxter got the nod for this particular Saturday, and he sounds as though he’s wearing a dinner jacket and speaking into one of those old BBC radio microphones.

His clipped tones are in marked contrast, to the cheerful, soft-R’d delivery of Graham Hill, who comes up to the commentary box to join him after retiring with steering failure.

But the commentary primarily takes the form of the race positions and each corner’s name, as well as a few pet Baxter phrases – the wonderfully quaint ‘they’re all covered by a pocket handkerchief’ (they’re close together), ‘he’s doing a bit of agricultural’ driving (he’s off on to the grass) and his mystifying pronunciation of ‘Yody’ Scheckter and Francois ‘Sevvay’’s names.

Frankly the commentary is totally pointless. Which is why I like it.

Technical discussions are few and far between, although Hill makes an interesting point about how drivers following each other closely lose downforce on their ‘aerofoils’ – so this is not a new issue!

The phrase ‘two stop strategy’ is, thank God, nowhere to be found.

Cheap and cheerful

There’s a wonderfully low-fi air to the event.

After the chaos at the final corner at the first start, the officials simply run into the road in front of the leaders. Never mind five red lights on the starting gantry, pit-to-car radio messages and big screens all round the circuit bearing the legend ‘race stopped.’Both Stewart and Peterson come through Woodcote at full speed and only just get stopped in time.

At the restart, Niki Lauda comes in to change his front left tyre, as it’s blown. Only problem is, his mechanics can’t find a wheel that fits. They try two or three, while Lauda sits impassively in the cockpit and waits for them to wake him up again.

And James Hunt’s Hesketh March, which had its white airbox knocked off in the Scheckter crash, takes to the restart with a yellow one instead, swiped from fellow March runner Mike Buettler’s spares box.

His race number, 27, was affixed to it in gaffa tape. But not well enough to stop one of the ‘2’s blowing off halfway through the race.

And a final word: despite having no intimate knowledge of that season, it is easy to identify each driver as they roar into view, simply by their helmet design. And people whined when the FIA banned in-season design changes last year…

Radio Ga Ga

"Ooooh, he spat a stone in my face!"

Jonathan Noble talks a lot of sense in Autosport today on the ongoing issue of team radio.

He says “Part of the reason current stars do not have the mythical standing that Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Ayrton Senna had in their heyday can be explained by the way modern society has changed. Social media and the 24-hour internet news culture means anything and everything they do is reported to the nth degree.

The amazing battle between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso (at Silverstone) should have been celebrated as one of the most epic duels of recent years….Instead, their fight drew a reaction not for being sensational but because of the radio complaints from both men. The moans … showed us all that is wrong in a sport increasingly dictated by ever-tighter regulations.”

After the battle was finished, both protagonists expressed regret at what had gone on. The whinging was, they claimed, a result of overly prescriptive rules as well as an element of one-upmanship. “I’ll see your gripe and raise you two whines” kind of thing.

The real-time nature of today’s F1 coverage makes the modern sport difficult to reconcile with the arena of the famous battles of old.

It comes down to that allure thing, doesn’t it?

I have no doubt at all that when Nigel Mansell was shadowing him wheel-to-wheel down the straight in Cataluyna in 1991, the green lining wouldn’t have been the only colourful thing in Ayrton Senna’s crash helmet. In fact, we know he was miffed because of the interview he gave after the race, in which he huffed “I don’t know why Mansell is doing what he is doing.”

But because any Brummie grumbling or Brazilian berating that might have been going on was not broadcast live, that particular battle retains its nostalgic sheen.

Think also about Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve at Dijon in 1979. Noble’s article made the point that not only did the lack of radios in those days spare the viewing public from dummy-spitting soundbites, the drivers weren’t coached through each corner by staff HQ on the pitwall.

You only need to listen to the messages the engineers deliver to their drivers seconds after they’ve crossed the line to take victory these days: “Great job, mate…fantastic…now, pick up rubber, keep an eye on your fuel, adjust your mixture, change your brake bias, fiddle with your differential and don’t wink at the girls on the way up to the podium” to be reminded that F1 folk are a rather uptight lot. The fact that most of the engineers sound like accountants doesn’t help matters either. We need more Rob Smedleys, delivering off-the cuff quips in an excited Northern accent, and less of the clipped tones of the Phil Prews (Sorry Phil).

A thought about Sebastian Vettel…

A lot has been made of Seb Vet’s latest soporific win at Monza, where things are supposed to be interesting, and of the booing he endured on the podium.

He says he doesn’t mind it, and perhaps he doesn’t. But he’s only human after all – if that was me in receipt of the catcalling I’d be leaving a trail of snot and tears on the shoulder of the man who finished second.


The thing that is most infuriating about Vettel is that he doesn’t really seem to do anything wrong. I am not fan of his, but when the worst thing he has done is disobey team orders as he did in Malaysia…put it this way, he didn’t exactly emulate a couple of other of his world champion predecessors and use his car as a carbon-fibre dodgem, did he? He drove faster than Webber and overtook him cleanly round the outside of a corner. And if he was using an unfair engine-power advantage, then why didn’t Mark crank up his juice as well? That is the thing that makes it most grating – Vettel doesn’t even give his critics something really meaty to get their teeth into.

Vettel seems to be a guy who likes stamping his name in the history books, but someone needs to tell him that winning championship after championship doesn’t really do that. Instead, it makes people dislike you even more, if anything. The likes of Stirling Moss, Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve didn’t need any world titles to ensure they will never be forgotten, and Felipe Massa evoked some lip-wobblingly genuine sentiments from the media and the other drivers this week when he announced he was being given the elbow by the Scuderia. The way he comported himself in Brazil in 2008 is something that is rare from an F1 driver these days.

As any regular readers will know, I was no Michael Schumacher fan. But the one thing he did that showed him to have some nadgers was when he left Benetton for Ferrari, and although he did eventually win so many titles in a row that Ferrari had copyright on the number ‘1,’ it was entertaining to watch him try and get there for all those years first.
Where would Vettel go? Well, if he followed the Schumacher mould, he would head to a once-great team and try and drag it up by its bootlaces, to prove that he is a great driver rather than the better of the two incumbents in the best car. Where would I advise him to go? Why, to Williams of course. As of next year they will have Mercedes engines, which would give their marketers something to write about. It would be in some way reminiscent of Damon Hill’s year in the unwieldy Arrows-Yamaha in 1997.

Sure, he might end up only having five titles instead of nineteen. But so what? I for one would love to see it happen. Otherwise I fear F1 will disappear up its own posterior again for a few years.

In other news, I’m off to see Rush at the weekend, so will report back when I’ve digested that. If it’s anywhere near as good as the band that shares its name then we’re in business…..

Classic Rev

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