A HACK LOOKS BACK

German GP

I suspect that a fairly high proportion of the fans who read this website are old enough, like me, to have been weaned on the writings of Denis Jenkinson. In the bad old days when motor racing only ever got on to the front pages of the daily press if someone was dead, finding out what had really happened in the last couple of GPs involved buying Motor Sport magazine on the first Wednesday of every month (one shilling and sixpence when I was at school) and devouring whatever 'Jenks' had written. The pictures were in black and white but in my race-starved imagination the words were in full colour. I devoured every morsel of information that D.S.J. despatched from romantic far-off venues like Pescara or the Piccolo Madonie (ask your father).

For those less grizzled than us, I have to explain here that Jenkinson - whose funeral I attended 10 years ago - was the magazine's Continental Correspondent, charged with the task of travelling across Europe to all the major races, whether for F1 or sportscars, and reporting his encounters. It was spellbinding stuff. The history of our sport has been, and still is, adorned by some great writing talents, but I don't believe that anyone has ever been able to bring the sheer fascination of motor racing to the page in the same way that 'Jenks' did. I used to read his stories over and over again, feeling almost as though I were standing at his side. His word was gospel and his fundamentalist opinions on a wide range of subjects carried the same authority for me that Papal rulings hold for faithful Roman Catholics.

In later years, after I joined Motoring News as a junior race reporter, Jenks would occasionally show up at the madhouse of an office in London which we shared with Motor Sport and Guns Review. He was an eccentric little man, not always as well washed as close proximity would require today, whose straggly beard scattered dandruff all over his shoes. During the brief and seriously bizarre period when I occupied the position of Deputy Editor of Motor Sport, I discovered that although he was pretty good about deadlines, he had no concept of counting words. Since the management (that would be the proprietor's variously talented sons) didn't dare to cut or edit their star reporter's copy, this would sometimes involve setting Jenks's contributions in increasingly tiny type and fitting it into any corner of the magazine where it would fit.

I ruminate here about Jenks because it was his writing that first made me aware of the sheer majesty of the circuit which was then known as the Nuerburgring. (I use the full Anglicized spelling here, not out of affectation, but because the mighty media empire which is grandprix.com has yet to get its corporate head around the concept of umlauts and other barbarian accents.) Today, of course, there are two Nuerburgrings, comprising the 'new' and politically correct circuit which will be hosting the German GP on Sunday, and the unforgiving 'Nordschleife' whose shape and spirit have remained much the same since it was built in the depths of the Depression years.

For Jenks and his generation, the Nordschleife represented the ultimate challenge. The place was imbued with legend, not only in the form of the ghosts of heroically dead drivers but in the Nordic gods who looked down from the darkly medieval ramparts of the nearby Schloss Nuerburg. Eventually I reached the conclusion that Jenks, if not slightly batty, was living in the past. When the first bits of guardrail first appeared at the 'Ring he complained about the imposition of 'artificial' safety measures. He had apparently overlooked the fact that the twisty B road between the circuit and our hotel 15 kms away was also lined with guardrail. A contrarian by nature, Jenks loved high technology in his racing cars but not on the roads along which they raced.

My first encounter with the Nuerburgring came in 1969, when I was sent to report an F2 race there. As a schoolboy, some of the most inspiring race reports I had read were of events at the Nuerburgring. One that stuck in my mind - although I regret to say I cannot remember where I found it - was an account of the 1957 German GP. This was Fangio's last, and greatest, victory, a race in which he admitted he threw all caution to the winds. The report faithfully recorded the great man's famous strategy, based on starting his Maserati with a light fuel load and stopping for tyres and petrol in order to lull the Ferrari drivers (Hawthorn and Collins) into cruise-and-collect mode. The writer tracked Fangio's headstrong progress around the 19-mile circuit, identifying the patches of damp under the trees before Pflanzgarten, the gravel which the rear wheels of his 250F threw on to the circuit at Bergwerk, the dandelion which he ripped out of the apex at Quiddelbacher-Hoehe.

In practice and qualifying for my F2 race, I got a flavour of this by watching from the circuit. But some of the magic of the place was diminished for me when Jochen Rindt, with whom I had established a friendly relationship, cursed the crests and bumps. He showed me the bent suspension links which the Winkelmann mechanics were having to change. Far from being a welcome challenge, said Jochen, the 'Ring represented a life-threatening hazard, especially if you were driving something as lightly built as his works Lotus. He could be paying with his life for somebody else's carelessness in the drawing office. This unhappy threat, of course, was not something which featured in the writings of my hero Jenks.

Come the race, I made my way to the press stand. This was an open tribune overlooking the start/finish line. I opened my lap chart book, watched the field line up and followed them round the south loop, behind the pits and down to Hatzenbach. Then they were gone. It was so quiet that you could hear the birds singing. There was no TV, of course. The only indication that anything was happening came from an illuminated sign above the pits, with the circuit's shape picked out in light bulbs, some of which actually worked.

Even if the heroes out there on the circuit were driving at qualifying speed, it would be more than nine minutes before they re-appeared. But there was movement in the press stand. I noticed that some of the other pressmen were sidling out of their seats and into the bar of the Sport Hotel, conveniently situated right next to us. It gradually dawned on me that most of that stuff about gravel and dandelions had originated, not out of direct observation, but with the help of a few stiff schnapps and coffee right there in the press bar. What a let down!

I have other memories of that first visit to the 'Ring. A couple of weeks earlier, at the Spanish GP, both factory Lotus 49s had crashed heavily at the same point on the Montjuich circuit due to the failure of the spectacularly high suspension-mounted rear wings which had just been adopted for his cars by Lotus boss Colin Chapman. Jochen had cracked his jaw in the 150 mph smash and was still suffering from concussion several weeks later. He hated those flimsy rear wings so much that he insisted I do an interview with him, effectively using me (and MN) as part of a campaign to get the things banned - as indeed they soon were.

The interview appeared in the week before the F2 race at the 'Ring, in which Graham Hill was also competing. On Friday evening, as I was rummaging around in the paddock for news, I was handed a note from Graham. It was a summons to see him, with my tape recorder, in his bedroom at the Sport Hotel, at 8.30 the following morning. Lying there in bed with a cup of coffee, the World Champion demanded the right to do an interview with MN in which he would be permitted to put the contrary view, which was that aerodynamics would in future be an essential part of the racing car design.

Hill's attitude startled me, because he too had been lucky to have escaped with his life from the failure of his own Lotus's wing in Barcelona. I now realise, of course, that he had been knobbled. He was acting under orders from Lotus HQ at Hethel, where Colin Chapman had no doubt been alarmed by Rindt's criticism. How many other drivers, when offered the choice between extra performance or guaranteed safety, would have chosen safety? It certainly didn't say much for the integrity of Lotus racing cars.

I completed the interview with Graham and then managed to soften the rather tense atmosphere by complaining to him about an aerosol shaving cream which he had been endorsing in a nation-wide advertising campaign. With his action hero chin and pencil moustache, Graham made a perfect model for shaving cream, and I had actually purchased a can of the stuff. Unfortunately, just one application had brought me out in a horrible allergic reaction which left weeping scabs all over my face. "Perfectly safe product, Mike," he scoffed, "you obviously haven't got through puberty yet."

I wish I could still say the same ...

Now here's another bit of history. The Nuerburgring opened for business 80 years ago, in 1927. The first motorcycle race there, according to Murray Walker, was won by his father, Graeme. And this weekend Walker will be back, taking over the microphone normally handled by BBC Radio Five Live's regular commentator David Croft, who's on paternity leave (don't get me started). Back in the days when the Beeb still had the TV rights to cover F1 racing, as some of you will know, I used to be Murray's race spotter. Very kindly, he has invited me back this weekend to help him out again. It will be interesting to see how he gets on with regular colour man Maurice Hamilton, whose comments tend to be a little more daring than Murray's ever were.

The invitation, I have to say, is something of a double-edged sword, insofar as Murray, rather belatedly, has started to blame me for some of the minor errors of car/driver identification which occasionally crept into his TV ramblings all those years ago. It is true that I used to keep him up to speed with little notes about what was going on at the back of the field. But dud identifications? This is a charge to which I plead only slightly guilty.

I'm not entirely sure how this weekend is going to work out for Murray, who has been appearing at selected GPs over the past 12 months wearing the full uniform of a Honda Racing team member, right down to the baseball cap. And while this will obviously give him unmatched access to one of the four British drivers competing in Germany, I suspect that it's one of the other three whose activities will be of greater interest to anyone tuning in to Radio Five Live.

At least I will have the opportunity to present Murray with a copy of my new book (Nigel Mansell: A Photographic Portrait, £30, www.haynes.co.uk). No doubt he will be inspired to have his memory jogged by photos of so many wonderful moments in the career of the driver he admired so much. On Sunday, if he starts saying 'Nigel' when he means 'Lewis,' I'm sure you'll all understand.

Just don't blame me, please.

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