SEPTEMBER 24, 2001
Racing under a shadow
That the US-based CART championship and the European-based Formula 1 community are attempting their own transatlantic forays at a time of tremendous uncertainty is cruel indeed for both. The visibility of these events as the rest of the world seemingly lies low and waits for an outcome to the current crisis has clearly played on the nerves of the F1 paddock every bit as much as Alex Zanardi's accident has on those in CART.
Yet world conflict and motor racing are strange bedfellows but not unfamiliar in the 105-year history of top flight motor sport, and for all those who feel that it is wrong to continue racing in the current climate - certainly in America - it has to be said that things have been very much worse before now.
The 1914 French Grand Prix for example was, very much like the current US race, set against a backdrop of such extreme political and military nationalism that it took merely weeks to escalate into World War I. Amid the rampant nationalism that gripped Europe in the early days of the 20th Century, the Grand Prix was something akin to the Space Race during the Cold War. National pride and technical abilities clashed amid great sabre-rattling and in July 1914, a week after Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated, it was the blue Peugeots of France against the white Mercedes of Germany.
French flair in the form of the nimble, advanced Peugeots and the lead driver, fiery Georges Boillot, led a cavalier battle against the multi-car team of big, solid cars working - for the first time in the history of the sport - to pre-arranged team orders. The Germans prevailed in the form of the heavily moustached Christian Lautenschlager, who allowed young team mate Max Sailer to sacrifice his chances and grind down the French effort to take a deeply unpopular victory. The French, with suitable poor grace, 'lost' the sheet music for the German national anthem for the victory celebrations. Three weeks later the nations were at war.
Not until the 1930s would motor racing take such prominence in world politics, when Germany, France, Spain and Italy each used Grand Prix racing as a tool of propaganda and international relations. The 1934 Spanish Grand Prix, for instance, only happened after a hiatus in the escalation towards civil war permitted the teams to return.
Scuderia Ferrari's works Alfa Romeo team meanwhile largely relied on French driving talent for Grand Prix success, so when Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and the French called for international action, it was Ferrari that felt the immediate effects as Italian teams, drivers and races were pulled apart from their French counterparts.
Italy's Fascist government was also deeply opposed to the Nazi regime in Germany for much of the 1930s, and matters came to a head in July 1934 when the Austrian chancellor Dolfuss was assassinated and Nazis were blamed, causing Mussolini to mobilize his troops and gather on the Austro-Italian border in its defense.
As a show of good faith the German Grand Prix teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union were immediately despatched by the government to the relatively minor Coppa Acerbo event in Pescara, Italy to show that no action would be taken that might jeopardize the safety of the prestigious Grand Prix teams, thereby averting a major crisis. Four years later the Munich Crisis caused a drastic rescheduling of Britain's Grand Prix at Donington. Crises of almost every scale were in fact almost constantly averted within the Silver Arrows throughout their six-year reign on world motor sport as the cosmopolitan collection of drivers fell foul of politics time and again, none more so than Auto Union legend Bernd Rosemeyer - who many still believe was forced to make his fatal record run in 1938 after publicly criticizing the government - and Mercedes driver Dick Seaman, who offered to kill Hitler at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show.
Yet even after the German teams won their last race - the 1939 Yugoslav Grand Prix, held on September 3, 1939 as Britain and its colonies, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war - Grand Prix racing continued. Only on May 12 1940, two days after the German army launched Blitzkrieg on France, Belgium and the Low Countries, did the last Grand Prix of its age take place in Tripoli... albeit with an all-Italian entry in Mussolini's gilded colony.
Seldom since those times has world conflict loomed so large in the minds of motor sport. Vietnam and the Gulf War were comparative abstracts to Formula 1, its fans and competitors but the atmosphere at Monza was indeed eerie at times - but motor racing has prevailed.