Racing oasis in the off-season desert
JANUARY 18, 2012
As I kicked off my sensible shoes last Thursday evening and massaged my feet after a day spent walking the floor of 'Autosport International', it was an appropriate moment to reflect on how what we used to call 'The Racing Car Show' has changed - mostly for the better - during the past few decades.
Forty-one years ago, the show was held at Olympia in London; a slightly more glamorous and social location than the current venue spread across seven of the cavernous collection of halls at the National Exhibition Centre in the Midlands. (It's not appropriate to mention a nice round figure like 40 years ago because, in 1972, the show was held on a cross-channel ferry moored on the Thames; a story in itself!)
Moving on to 2012, needs must because there is not a location large enough in London to cope with an event that has expanded to more than 750 exhibitors; an indication that this is about business as well as offering a focus to help race fans through the bleak winter months. It's a commercial imperative that was only beginning in 1971.
An editorial in the 7 January 1971 issue of 'Autosport' celebrated the fact that the show had advanced since its introduction 11 years earlier. In 1960, the only hint of commercialism had been stands selling 'goodies' (to quote the vernacular of the time) such as glass-fibre bodies and tuning kits. A hint of the large-scale future came from the sale of a handful of Formula Junior cars (to be known, in 1964, as Formula 3) from Elva and Lotus. In 1971, they were celebrating the arrival of racing car manufacturers at the show; Brabham, Lotus and Lola headlining exhibitors including Surtees, Chevron, Royale and Hawke.
For me and my mates, the stand that interested us most belonged to March. This dynamic new company had just completed its first season of F1 and the legend appeared to be growing as Max Mosley and his team displayed their Formula Atlantic 714, CanAm 707, F3 713S and the F2 712M.
Apart from examining this incredibly impressive range, we were also hoping to catch sight of Ronnie Peterson, the sideways superman who had just signed for his first full season with March. Little did we - or, I suspect, many of the serious punters - realise that the entire ensemble was a house of cards glued by Mosley's persuasive eloquence and just about as temporary as that exhibit in Olympia.
Speaking of waiting for your hero highlights the other significant change; the development of a 'personality culture' which has affected motor sport just as much as the world around us.
In 1971, we caught a glimpse of Derek Bell (on the March stand; he was due to drive the original F1 March 701 two weeks later in the Argentine Grand Prix, a non-championship race that would be won by Chris Amon in the same Matra MS120 forming part of an impressive central display at Olympia). But, apart from Bell, we saw no one - and nor, in truth, did we expect to.
Jack Brabham had opened the show and Jackie Stewart signed autographs on the Ford stand during the first day. Two days later, Jochen Rindt's widow, Nina, received a trophy on behalf of the posthumous reigning World Champion. And that was about the height of the social activity.
Last weekend, the Autosport central stage hosted a raft of personalities, from F1 drivers to team owners, and everyone from there to the back half of the motor sport social grid; 98 people in total, all expertly interviewed by Henry Hope-Frost.
Each show produces a personal favourite car; preferably something to take away your breath unexpectedly when you see it in the metal for the first time. For me, this year, it was the Porsche 918 RSR. In 1971, if I remember correctly, it was a Gulf Porsche 917 even though I'd seen them race at Le Mans the previous summer. I'm not necessarily a Porsche fan but, on each occasion, I found myself staring in silent wonder at these beautiful but purposeful machines.
Circumstances in the world at large may have moved on but an underlying essence of The Racing Car Show has not. Forty-one years ago, we couldn't wait to visit Olympia and join like-minded enthusiasts for an infusion of passion. Judging by the Tweets and messages preceding this year's show, that basic need still exists - and is served admirably and professionally by Autosport International.
In truth, very little has changed. Except, perhaps, tired feet feeling the punishment more than they did.
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.