GLOBETROTTER

The Lost Generation

 

 

When one lives in cities, one often forgets the rhythms of nature and the simple things that bring enjoyment. Autumn is a time of great beauty as the leaves turn yellow, gold, red and brown. It is what Keats called "the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness". And, since mankind first settled down and started farming, there have been autumnal celebrations at the harvest time and a feeling of wellbeing mixed with a certain melancholy at the thought of the harsh times of winter approaching. Nowadays this is offset a little with the expectation of a Christmas not far ahead and by the fact that it is a time of festivals: the season of Thanksgiving, of Halloween, Toussaint and Mexico's Dia de los Muertos. A time to look back. It is that oddly poignant time of year in England as you see red paper poppies on the lapels in remembrance of the millions who died in the wars.

Perhaps because of the complexity of the sentiments involved the autumn is my favourite time of year, not only because I want a nice long break after the rush of an F1 summer (although that is definitely part of it) but also because this is a time of reflection. A period during which F1 journalists look back at the season that has just finished, pick over the bones and see what has been learned. It is the time when the history books are written.

Before getting down to all of that, however, I decided to go off for a little break with my son. He is at an age when he spends all his time shooting imaginary machine-guns, throwing imaginary hand-grenades and wanting to visit tanks museums. We ended up in Ypres, because I wanted to show him what war is really all about. This was something that 30-odd years ago my father showed me and I remember it made a deep impression. I have not been back very often and I was, once again, shocked by the number of graves.

After the 1914-1918 war many youngsters, particularly Americans, flocked to Paris. Having seen the horrors of the war, they wanted to see some fun as well and with America stuck in its Prohibition era, France offered them freedom to have a good time. It was for these people that the writer Gertrude Stein coined the expression "the lost generation". They were a romantic lot but Stern believed that they had no purpose in life and were lost.

"The Lost Generation" is also the title of a new book that has just been published by my friend and colleague David Tremayne. For him the words have a very different meaning for the book covers the racing careers of Roger Williamson, Tom Pryce and Tony Brise, three young British racing drivers in the 1970s who all had great potential in Formula 1 and who all died young, before they had achieved what they might otherwise have achieved.

It is a story that has long been waiting to be told and DT does it brilliantly, talking to those who knew and loved the three men and explaining the awful circumstances in which they each died: Williamson, burned alive beneath his car as David Purley tried single-handedly to get him out while everyone else misread what was happening and continued to race; Brise, killed in a flying accident because the pilot was in too much of a hurry and tried to land in the fog at Elstree Aerodrome because that was closer to his home, where his car was parked; and finally Pryce, killed when he came over a brow at Kyalami and found a marshal running across the track, carrying a fire extinguisher, trying to get a car that did not need extinguishing. Pryce had no time to react and the Welshman hit the marshal and was then hit on the head by the fire extinguisher.

All the deaths could have been avoided if people had thought about safety as they do in the modern era.

It is a sad book but I recommend it highly.

The thing that is perhaps most shocking was the attitude that existed in motor racing at the time, a strange acceptance that death was a natural part of racing and that little was done to reduce the risks. Those who questioned the idea of having more safety were looked on as being somehow flawed.

Having lived for the last 15 years in France, I have learned that France too had its own lost generation at that time and indeed the French tragedy was intense as the two brightest hopes were killed in two different accidents in the same race at Rouen in the summer of 1970: Denis Dayan died as a result of an accident when his GRAC Formula 3 car suffered a failure of some kind and split the crash barriers on the fast run down the hill. He suffered such severe head injuries that he died without regaining consciousness two days later. Five laps later Jean-Luc Salomon was fighting for victory with Richard Scott, Mike Beuttler and Bob Wollek when the four men ran out of room at the exit of the Scierie corner. Salomon slid on to the verge beside the track, and his wheels tangled with those of Scott. The Frenchman's car was launched into the air and crashed over the barriers into a ditch beside the circuit where Salomon died before medical help could get to him.

It is perhaps comforting that these days racing is incredibly safe, thanks to the work of people such as Sir Jackie Stewart, who started the fight, and to Professor Sid Watkins and the FIA who went on to turn safety into a science.

Nowadays it is understood that things can always be done differently and racing people must always be willing to consider alternatives.

Being open to change was a key element in making racing safer just as new thinking - in the form of the tank - finally ended the mindless slaughter of trench warfare in World War I. People still argue about whether British commander General Douglas Haig was the man who won the war or whether he should be condemned - as he was by many of those who fought under him - for causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands by failing to understand the realities of trench warfare.

There is a lesson to be learned from that. One must always listen to the men in the front line. The drivers.

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