MAURICE HAMILTON

First among friends


Whatever anyone says about the increasingly bizarre nature of the 2012 F1 season, not many would begrudge Williams their first win since 2004. You can talk all you want about tyres and windows and falling off cliffs and the result being a lottery but, when the red lights go out, it is what it is.

On Sunday in Spain, Pastor Maldonado made the most of whatever 'it' was on that chosen day, in that specific temperature, under those given track conditions. You may say this is an expensive and elaborate raffle but last weekend Williams drew the winning ticket and no one in the team, least of all Sir Frank Williams, will be complaining about it.

Frank, more than anyone, knows how this sport at any level can be a game of chance; the trick is to recognise your opportunity when it comes along and grab it. The record book says a Williams won the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. That's not going to change regardless of the circumstances; regardless of whatever 'it' was on 13 May.

Sir Frank savoured the moment as he sat quietly at the back of the hospitality area, sipping tea through a straw and looked on approvingly as the team, for so long with nothing to celebrate, made good with champagne and slices of cake marking the boss's recent 70th birthday.

Evidence of F1's ability to titivate and torture within seconds came when fire suddenly erupted 50 metres away in the Williams garage. Emergencies like these instantly cut through the competitive stand-offs that define the day-to-day running of our sport. When any team is in serious trouble, F1 becomes a community united by the bond that comes with travelling the world together and dealing with obstacles.

Neighbouring crew members did not hesitate to grab fire extinguishers and rush into an inferno which had the potential to cause explosions. F1 may appear callous and uncaring at times but dramas such as these show the true nature of a close-knit sporting society

It has always been thus and I was reminded of a potentially serious incident in 1968, later recounted to me by Neil Davis, then chief mechanic with the Tyrrell team. This occurred towards the end of Tyrrell's first season in F1 as the teams gathered in Watkins Glen for the US Grand Prix. Apart from the beauty of the Finger Lakes region of New York State in the fall, the USGP was popular because it paid huge prize money (in the pre-Ecclestone days before financial matters became state secrets).

The mechanics liked Watkins Glen because they were housed in the Kendall Tech Centre; the fancy name for what looked like a converted barn. Suggesting such a place for F1 teams today would bring calls to have you certified but, in 1968, this was bliss when compared to the open-air conditions found elsewhere in rutted, muddy paddocks.

The Kendall Centre had the added attraction of a central aisle into which the public could gain access for a Dollar - or, at least, that's what it cost on my first visit as a race fan in 1974. Not only could you see all the teams at close quarters but the crews appreciated the interaction with the public while being able to go about their business without being impeded.

Fortunately, however, there were very few fans present as the teams made themselves ready on the Thursday evening. As ever in those days, Ken Tyrrell was with his lads, lending a hand as two cars were prepared for Jackie Stewart. Davis takes up the story:

"The teams were side-by-side in stalls, almost like a cattle market in the nicest sense. I was over at Lotus, borrowing some bits and pieces [another interesting reflection on the times] when I turned round and saw a huge orange ball of flame where our team was. Ken had been using a five-gallon churn to add petrol to one of the cars. Fortunately the tanks were nearly full and Ken was adding the last little drop when the whole thing erupted like an inferno. Ken dropped the churn, partly on fire.

"McLaren were next door and, very fortunately Mike Barney, one of their mechanics, immediately grabbed a dry powder extinguisher - a huge contraption on iron wheels - and put the whole thing out in a matter of seconds. Thanks to his quick reaction we were saved from....well, it didn't bear thinking about. There were full, open churns dotted here and there, and cars with fuel in them. The whole place could have gone up in no time at all. As it was, the heat alone damaged wiring and lights in the ceiling. Ken was very, very lucky."

To this day, no one knows what caused that fire. One theory was that a static spark from Ken's nylon shirt had set the whole thing off.

Not that teams wear nylon shirts these days, but the answer to Sunday's inferno might be that simple. Whatever the reason, lessons need to be learned, particularly when identifying the source of the acrid, suffocating smoke.

Ken Tyrrell and Frank Williams were two of a kind in their pioneering days; decent, no-nonsense men in love with racing. Were Ken still alive, he would relish the unpredictability of F1 today and the need to play each race on the hoof. And you can bet he would have been on the phone on Monday morning to tell his old mate that, following that fire in 1968, Stewart had gone on to lead the US Grand Prix from start to finish.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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