Then and Now in Motor Sport

As I have been involved with the Sprite’s 40th and Moss’ 50th birthday celebrations, my mind has naturally been busy with memories of Motor Sport of the ’50s. Rallying, Tin-Top production car racing, and Formula One now has a much larger audience than it did in those days, and while the basics of each side of the sport are still the same, much has changed in the details.

To begin with, in international rallying, most of the testing driving was done over open public roads, and although these were mainly deserted mountain and forest trails, normal traffic has built up to a point where such competition is no longer possible. The classic road “races” of the East African Safari, the Liege-Rome-Liege Marathon, and the French Alpine Rally have either been abandoned or converted into a succession of shorter timed stages over closed roads. Whereas we became used to driving flat out for days and nights at a time, the modern competitor spends his nights in a comfortable hotel bed, driving only during daylight hours, in short bursts of speed with easier link roads for relaxing and repairing the car. We hardly ever saw a service crew, and when we did, it was rarely at a point where something could be repaired, so “fettling”—the art of repair by the crew—was the way things were done. Tire changes too, were not the norm, and were rare enough to be newsworthy. In over 100 international rallies, I can only recall four or five occasions when I had to change a tire, and then only after a puncture or sidewall damage. Nowadays the aces change them for virtually every speed stage, varying tread and mix according to differing surfaces, and requiring hundreds of wheels to be positioned around the route. We used stock production rubber, and generally everyone finished on the tires on which they started. In the event of serious damage, one could probably buy something which worked at a village filling station, miles from anywhere, and the only penalty was the time it took in fitting and paying the bill! Driving in the recent Tasmanian rally, I could but wonder at the fantastic adhesion of modern rubber—if we had used these back in the ’50s, our suspensions and transmissions would have broken even more often that they did with all that extra strain.

Going quickly, at night, over virtually unknown roads was quite a challenge, which produced not only some talented drivers, but also developed the modern lighting systems where quartz and halogen lamps replaced the weak gas-filled tungsten units of those dimmer days. With such long and testing stages, it was almost impossible to prepare much in the way of “pace notes,” which have become so vital a part of rallying today. Crews became adept at handling the hazards as they came across them, whereas now the short and challenging stages have resulted in very detailed notes which define every brow and corner, and sophisticated inter-communication systems are fitted to every car and crash hat. Crews practice until they know every inch of these shorter stages that also concentrate the spectators over only a couple of hundred miles each day. Competitors now face a crowd of four or five deep—another hazard which we did not have to deal with.

When it comes to circuit racing, I was lucky enough to compete in the first British Saloon Car Championship in 1958, but the contrast to today’s events is staggering. First of all, our cars had to be very near to production specification—none of those specially-built, space-frame racers with a thin covering of look-alike bodywork. Secondly, we DROVE our cars to and from every racetrack—not just through race day traffic, but also for Friday practice. Trailering was unheard of, except for a badly damaged car.

Overalls? Forget about it. I raced in checkered short-sleeved shirt and jeans, and the thin cork-based crash hat was open-faced. Seat belts were not even compulsory. However, the races were so popular that at the Grand Prix meeting, we were put on after the F1 race, so that the crowds would not launch an immediate exit to block the exit gates and feeder roads.

And speaking of Grand Prix, these were also a bit different. There were hardly any barriers between the spectator areas and the racetrack, which was often just a few feet from where you could park your car to watch in comfort—if not exactly in safety! So you could really see the action, with Fangio, Gonzales, Ascari, Moss, and the rest working away to control full-bodied four-wheel drifts around the fast, open corners of the old circuits. With exposed upper bodies and flailing arms in full view, and with no aerodynamic devices, no wings, and no ground effects, the cars twitched and slid. Passing was a regular occurrence and although the best man still regularly won, there were far more opportunities for a good driver to stand out from the rest. Races were longer with a two-hour minimum. Monte Carlo, for example, was over 100 laps, about a third longer than nowadays. Pit stops were a rarity, and cars usually finished with the very worn tyres on which they began, carrying huge loads of fuel to cover the distance, and—yes—crashes were either very painful or fatal, which did temper the enthusiasm of the less skilled. Between races, spectators could wander around the paddock where the teams were in full view, with only a rope barrier to “protect” the cars. Drivers wandered about among the enthusiasts and often even spoke to the fans!

I am in no way implying that then was better than now—after all, you drove the same type of car as your competitors, in whatever style of event, and you drove over the some course as the rest. It’s just that I preferred the longer distance rally, with a more unpracticed element and challenge. I feel that the racing of the day brought the fans closer to the action and to their heroes. F1 drivers could be seen employing their skills in a much more identifiable manner, and those in the “tin-tops” were obviously racing what looked like identical cars to the ones in the car parks.

Finally, sponsorship. In my day, no signwriting of any kind was permitted on the cars, and even highlighting the maker’s name on the tyres was considered over the top. Overalls, if they were worn, were allowed to have only one sponsor’s name embroidered on the breast pocket, and this had to be no larger than 5″ x 1″. It was not until 1968 for the London to Sydney Marathon that the governing body realized that such an expensive event required sponsorship, and that this would only be forthcoming for most of the entrants if names could be prominently displayed all over the competing cars.

Once this barrier had been breached, and was seen to produce not only lots of sponsors and interest but also quite attractive cars, the ban was lifted, and today’s colorful cars are the result.

But one thing I really did prefer was the look of the race cars of yesterday. To compare Jimmy Clark’s Lotus or Moss’s Vanwall with today’s top-of-the line Ferrari, McLaren, or Williams is surely no contest with all those ugly appendages, wings, trays, deflectors, and bumps. They sure go quickly today, but it does rather look like slot car racing, doesn’t it?

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