A HACK LOOKS BACK

British GP

Coming away from Magny-Cours on the train last week, I picked up a copy of L'Equipe, the national sporting daily which has somehow survived the looming menace of the worldwide web. Like so many of the publications which we used to enjoy, it's now only a pale shadow of its former robust self, with the F1 coverage lacking any of the informed analysis that you'll find here. Once upon a time, L'Equipe and its F1 expert Johnny Rives were required reading for anyone interested in the sport. But Johnny took early retirement more than ten years ago, and the paper's GP coverage now consists almost entirely of the official quotes from the drivers translated into deathless French. This only seems to emphasise the fact that the words attributed to the drivers and team bosses have been concocted by PR officers (intriguingly, most of them are women) who ruthlessly censor any critical or off-beat utterances, for the not very good reason that such things are unbecoming the image of their lily-white teams and might upset the sponsors.

Actually, there was one bit of news buried away in the grey porridge of Monday's paper. Just above the information that the race day crowd was down from 86,000 last year to 74,000, there was a report that the French motorsporting federation was about to start lobbying politicians in the Nievre department where Magny-Cours to subsidise the race so that it could be restored to the calendar in 2008. 'Dream on!' I thought, 'you're about two years too late.' Officially there's still a year to run on the French GP's contract with FOM, but I'd be amazed if Bernie hasn't already allocated the Magny-Cours date to a new circuit in some country with a despotic regime that plays even faster and looser with the taxpayers' money than the French have been doing at their deeply unloved circuit.

I hasten to recognise that Britain's GP is almost as close to extinction as France's, hampered by the fact that Silverstone, along with Indianapolis and Japan's two rival circuits, are in the minority of F1 venues that don't get any government money at all. It's reassuring to see that Damon Hill, now in charge at Silverstone as President of the BRDC, seems to have developed into an astute businessman. But Damon is having to be realistic, so his astuteness extends to recognising that unless his circuit gets what would only be a modest grant from central government, it probably has no more than a fifty-fifty chance of keeping the British GP after next year.

I've already written here about my unfortunate youthful experiences in the mud at Silverstone and how much I preferred it when Brands Hatch was hosting the British GP. My fond memories of Brands have been rekindled recently while compiling material for my new book (Nigel Mansell: A Photographic Portrait, £30, www.haynes.co.uk) which has just been published. Mansell won his very first GP at Brands in 1985, at the 72nd attempt, a wait which seemed terribly long until dear old Jenson at last pulled it off in Hungary last year, at his 113th time of trying. Nigel, of course, followed it up immediately with his second-ever win, then got into the habit of winning the British GP with almost monotonous regularity. Many drivers talk about getting a performance boost from their own country's fans, but in Nigel's case I think it could actually be measured on the stop watch.

Then I started thinking about my own early experiences at Brands Hatch, as a marshal. Living in the North-West, as I did then, I would never have got to the Kent circuit without a car. Mine was a 1956 Volkswagen, which I bought from a sporting motorist who was a member, like me, of the Mid-Cheshire Motor Racing Club. My Beetle was a veteran of autocrosses, economy runs and a peculiar type of competition called driving tests, which involved manoeuvering round a course marked out with rubber cones. Imagining that success in the same sort of club events would be the beginning a glorious career that would take me all the way to the top of the podium at Monza and Monaco, I immediately signed up for an intense programme of similar clubbie events.

Alas, nobody had told me was that owning a car on an articled clerk's pay (32/6d a week at the time, or just over £1.55) was far more likely to lead to bankruptcy than to glory. It was embarrassing enough to find myself on my roof while competing in an autocross, and I suppose I should have known it isn't terribly good for a gearbox to be thrown into reverse while still travelling forwards at some speed. I was lucky enough to have a mate who knew a bit about mechanics. With his help I managed to keep mobile for a while by banging out the roof and filling the gearbox with heavy-grade oil to drown out the grinding noises. It wasn't until the VW's wretched two-bearing crankshaft snapped somewhere in north Wales while I was trying to follow a local rally just before dawn one January morning that I was forced to accept that motoring didn't come free.

Having put my plans for F1 stardom on hold, I decided to follow my passion from the closest possible vantage point, which involved becoming a flag marshal. At the mention of marshalling, most journalists embark on an embarrassingly fulsome tribute to the brave lads and lasses who give up their time and risk their lives For The Good Of The Sport. Bollocks! I did it because I got in for free and it gave me the best view in the house.

The biggest sacrifice I made as a marshal was one which did not emerge until many years later, and that was the diminished hearing which came from the lack of ear defenders. Today I pay the price as my mates in the press room have a laugh at my expense when I have to ask them to repeat themselves for my benefit. But I also get an ironic amusement from seeing the great and the good of our sport go into a huddle to prevent me ear-wigging them when I get close. Don't worry, chaps. I can't hear you anyway ...

You get to see a lot more of a driver's technique when you're standing less than 20 feet from the track. The one who fascinated me most was Jack Brabham, who never seemed to take the same line through a corner but still managed to be astoundingly quick. He was notoriously difficult to pass and didn't hesitate to wander off line into the dirt if he thought that a faceful of gravel would deter the bloke behind. At Silverstone one year (I think it was 1967) he contrived to lose both his mirrors, which made things even more difficult for Chris Amon, who was already having his usual difficulty in getting past.

I flagged several races in which Jim Clark was competing, and at the Oulton Park Gold Cup of 1965 I actually met him. That year's event was for the 1-litre F2 cars of the period, with a fully-subscribed field which included several top-line F1 men. On the night before the race, my club (the aforementioned Mid-Cheshire MRC) ran a social event at the circuit to which the race officials and drivers were all invited. Most of the drivers showed up and I met the great man in the queue for sandwiches and tea, so I introduced myself (I was contributing something to the club bulletin) and asked a few questions. I was so awe-struck that I immediately forgot what he'd said. Soon afterwards I acquired my first pocket tape recorder ...

I don't think it was anything to do with me, but most times when I saw Jim Clark race, he crashed. I suspect that he was such a gifted driver that he was almost always able to get ahead from the start and win in solitary splendour. The downside of this was that he didn't have much experience of racing in a group. That year at Oulton he was mixed up in a huge slip-streaming scrum of cars when he spun off at Cascades, for no apparent reason. I made the front page of Motoring News that week, not as a writer (yet) but as the bloke waving the yellow flag in the picture that a quick-witted photographer captured of Clark's Lotus-Cosworth SCA heading for the bushes.

Now we have a new Jim Clark in the shape of Lewis Hamilton. Years of kart racing and a hard apprenticeship in F3 and GP2 mean that he's got plenty of experience at racetrack in-fighting, although it was interesting to note that losing second place at the start to the Kimster in France was the first time this year that Lewis has actually been overtaken.

Now that Lewis is in the headlines, it seems that anyone with a vague knowledge of motor racing who has access to the internet is in the process of writing a book about him. My advice to you is to wait a bit longer, until Lewis has won a couple of titles, before you spend your money on a book about him. Meanwhile, if you're looking for a good read with plenty of good pictures, see if you can find a nice book about one of the Britain's past champions. You won't regret it.

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