As we set off for the French Grand Prix at Clermont Ferrand in the July of 1972 one of our first lifts was in a Morris Oxford – my diary from the time records that it was from “a gentleman who was passionately reminiscing about the 1938 Donington Grand Prix, the Auto Unions and the Mercedes which smelled of boot polish and made your eyes water”. This olfactory signature came from the exotic fuel concoctions used to propel these fire-breathing pre-war monsters. For me, as with most racing fans of a certain age, the smell that brings it all back home is inevitably Castrol R. The name Castrol is derived from castor oil, one of the key additives to be found in Charles Wakefield’s original creation; indeed, it is the burning of castor oil that gives it and the race circuits of my memory their glorious and distinctive odour. Castor oil has long been associated with performance machines and was a primary additive for aero-engines during the Great War; the silk scarves worn by pilots were not an affectation but were used to wipe excess engine oil from their goggles and also to prevent chafing of the neck caused by constantly looking over the shoulder for ‘enemy aircraft at one o’clock’. Castor oil is also a very effective laxative which had dire consequences for the bowel movements of early fighter pilots. I like to think that the smell of burning castor oil would have been as nostalgically familiar to my aero-engineer grandfather as it became to me. Does this scene, with my grandfather stood third from the left in the foreground, have the unmistakable whiff of burnt castor oil?
The above text is an extract from Golf in the Wild, due for publication in April 2014. The aeroplane is an AVRO 504K which entered service in 1913 and was outclassed as a fighter soon after WWI started. Relegated to training duties, at which it excelled, it was in use until the 1930s. Before it ended its service career, the rotary engine was replaced with a radial, and it was re-designated the AVRO 504N.
Whilst in the attic retrieving some old Kodacolor negatives I came across a Motor Racing folder containing some notes from a trip to the French Grand Prix. In 1972 I hitched through France following the Grand Prix circus down to Clermont Ferrand relying almost entirely on the good will of the French nation for free rides.
By and large it was only 2CV drivers who responded to our outstretched thumbs; it wasn’t that others just drove by, it was the Gallic gestures and insults they felt obliged to shout from their car windows – my schoolboy French was ropey at best but I am certain it wasn’t Bon Voyage. They seem a nation of extremes, one half adopting an almost fascist reaction to two young kids trying to get a free ride whilst others demonstrated extreme kindness to complete strangers. When we arrived late into Clermont Ferrand on the eve of a Grand Prix our last 2CV driver persistently searched the town for a spare room and when this proved unsurprisingly fruitless, he let us bed down in a friend’s garret at the top of an ageing office building, something akin to an opium den. The description from my diary of the time is a little more colourful – six foot square, smelling of hash, swaying in the wind and done up like a voodoo temple, this was home for the night. By the time we hit the sack it could have been Buck house for all it mattered…..it was dry (as long as it didn’t rain) and warm (almost too warm) and once asleep this junkie’s pad was paradise. Then, my long-suffering girlfriend needed a toilet that wasn’t there – posterity doesn’t record what happened next.
The next day Chris Amon drove the race of his life in his Matra Simca MS120, leading the field by 10 seconds before a puncture forced him in for a tyre change. Losing almost a minute in the pits he re-joined the race in ninth and then drove like a man possessed to finish third. Once again, the fire burned brightly but with no reward, proving yet again that he was the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix. Talking to fellow Kiwi and sports writer Norman Harris some years later he described such occasions like this: “It’s very like ‘form’ in cricket or golf. But you wouldn’t be aware of form when you’re driving along a public road, it’s when you’re driving at the limits – cornering, correcting it as it’s sliding rather than just catching it at the end, this is the thing.” Clermont Ferrand felt like a turning point; it just seemed from that from then on he was fated never to win and maybe he felt the same, certainly the fire burned a lot less brightly at Brands Hatch just two weeks later.
When you look at how the cars were prepared for these events you can only wonder at the sanity of all those involved; this oily rag scene looks medieval compared to the operating theatre conditions that prevail in modern Formula 1. The MS120 is not on jacks, it is supported by a couple of spare springs:
And then there were the mechanics – these two look like extras from a Jean-Luc Godard film; they don’t exactly inspire confidence: