Monthly Archives: March 2013

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Bay City Rollers

The recent trip to Florida concluded with a visit to the Tampa Bay Automobile Museum, a top notch affair. The Special Correspondent found much to appreciate and now brings us his latest ‘Rare and Interesting’ piece.

This is a museum that offers quality rather than quantity. It has a very rare collection of pre-war cars each of which is of great technical interest. Here are some of its rare gems:

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Panhard Dynamic

The Dynamic was the last production Panhard  to come out of the Avenue d’Ivry before the war. It was unusual in having a 6-cylinder sleeve-valve engine of 2.5, 2.8 or 3.8-litre capacity. It had all-round independent suspension by torsion bars, a unit-construction body with a wrap-round windscreen and three wipers. When introduced in 1936, it had the rare feature of a central driving position:

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

In 1939, this was changed to left-hand drive. Among its admirers was Léon Blum, leader of Front Populaire, who was to be seen frequently in Paris in his black example.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Willys-Knight Model 56

This is another sleeve-valve car and in the 1920s Willys made more of these engines than all the rest of the world put together. This car has a 2.6-litre 6-cylinder engine.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Tracta A

Jean Albert Gregoire was in 1927 the first to bring a front wheel drive car to the Le Mans 24 Hour race.  The car pictured above ran at Le Mans in 1929 driven by Gregoire himself and Fernand Vallon and finished 10th overall while its teammate finished one place above and won the 1100c.c. class.

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The two cars were powered by overhead valve SCAP engines of 985c.c.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

The cockpit of the Le Mans car which has bodywork by Duval. Notice the lovely little gear-lever with a gate which has to select the gears right down to the front of the car.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Tracta E

In 1930-1931, Gregoire started making more luxurious saloons and coupés. This car has bodywork by Henri Le Moine and has a 6-cylinder Continental side-valve 2.7 litre engine driving the front wheels.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Cord L-29

Errett Lobban Cord was an entrepreneur who had rescued the famous Auburn and Duesenberg marques before making a car with his own name. He had been impressed by Harry Miller’s front wheel drive racing cars and the L-29 was the first front wheel drive American built car offered to the public. He had also acquired the Lycoming engine business and his car was naturally powered by a Lycoming 8-cylinder side-valve engine:

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The car was introduced at the time of the Depression and only some 4,400 were sold.

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The front suspension is unusual in having two quarter-elliptic springs on each side, neatly keeping out of the way of the drive-shafts.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto MuseumCord 812

In 1935 Cord introduced this aerodynamic car designed by Gordon Buehrig. It has a “coffin nose” which houses a specially made V8 Lycoming engine driving the front wheels and, advanced for the time, pop-up headlights. If a supercharger were fitted, it became the 812. Problems with the electro-vacuum transmission and other delays caused sales to drop off and the car was very expensive. Just under 3000 had been made before production ceased in August 1937.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Aero Type 50

The Aero aircraft company of Prague started making light cars in 1929 with 2-stroke engines. In 1934 a new range of Basek-designed cars were introduced, the Type 30 with a twin-cylinder engine and by 1938 the Type 50 with a 4-cylinder in-line 2-stroke engine driving the front wheels:

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Not many enthusiasts will be familiar with an in-line four 2-stroke!

The Aero must not be confused with the Czech Aero Minor which was based on a JAWA design. 

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Amilcar Compound

Amilcars, like Salmsons, were the typical small French sports cars of the 1920s and both companies began to make bigger touring cars in the following decade. In 1937 Amilcar was taken over by Hotchkiss who engaged Jean Albert Gregoire to design a light car for them. This was the Compound which had unitary construction in Alpax alloy, all independent suspension with transverse leaf spring at the front, torsion bars at the rear and rack and pinion steering. The engine was a 4-cylinder side valve of 1185c.c. which naturally drove the front wheels! In 1939 it acquired overhead valves but the war intervened and less than 900 Compounds were made all told.

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Derby V8

These V8s were the last Derby cars to be produced. The Lepicard designed cars had engines with side inlet valves and exhaust overhead valves driving the front wheels. This roadster has a body called “Montlhéry” and was used by Gwenda Stewart in the 1934 Monte Carlo Rally. Two V8 Derbys ran unsuccessfully at Le Mans in 1934 and a single further entry also retired in 1935.

 

TAILPIECE

2013 Tampa Bay Auto Museum

Fearing in August 1914 that their Saint-Denis factory would fall into enemy hands as the Germans advanced towards Paris, Hotchkiss decided to set up a works in Gosford Street, Coventry where they began in 1915 to build machine guns for the Allied war effort. After the cessation of hostilities, the company started to mass produce engines for William Morris and launched a V-twin air cooled 1080c.c. engine of their own which went on to power the B.S.A. Ten car. This engine was successfully tried out in an old Morris Oxford chassis which was run in the 1921 Land’s End Trial where it won a Gold Medal. In 1923 William Morris bought the whole Hotchkiss factory and changed it into Morris Engines. However, B.S.A. were given the licence to carry on producing the engine for their cars. The above picture illustrates one such engine in a B.S.A. three-wheeler.

David Blumlein, March 2013

A Glass Half Full

2013 Sebring 12 Hours

Sebring and its warm weather seems but a distant memory as the Ice Age gets a rerun here in England. One of the positives that could be drawn from the Floridian Endurance Classic was the arrival of the BMW Z4 GTE into the already hyper competitive GTE class. Whatever the future brings, the North American sportscar fans are going be treated to the spectacle of BMW taking on Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche and Viper for the rest of the season. This could well be a contender for the best racing on the planet this year, enjoy it while you can and celebrate the American Le Mans Series for all it has given us along the way.

John Brooks, March 2013

Dreams Amelia – Dreams and False Alarms

IMG_5933

Sebring is good excuse to meet up with old friends and for me none was more important than hooking up once more with Kerry Morse, a sort of “putting the band back together”.

Yesterday he sent me the above image, a reminder of the first ALMS race back in 1999, it all seems so far away now, another century. Will we ever see such times again?

EDIT:

My mind drifted back 40 years to my English Literature studies, Percy Bysshe Shelley might have had Sebring in mind when he wrote these lines……………

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”

 

John Brooks, March 2013

Swiss Franks

It has been all go here at DDC Towers, Sebring last week and the Geneva Motor Show the week before. So catching our breath before press censorship is introduced here in the UK, we have the reflections of our Special Correspondent on the Swiss Show.

The Geneva Motor Show 2013 – “Some thoughts”

The Geneva Motor Show has grown to become one of the most important international automotive exhibitions in the world. It started in 1905 at a time when Switzerland was very reluctant even to embrace the coming of the motor car, setting speed limits of just 3-7 m.p.h. and introducing a law which forbade the use of motor vehicles on Sundays! Yet the show achieved world status by 1934 and in 1952 had toppled Brussels as the most important European event of its kind.
We can identify two factors that contributed to this success. First, Switzerland is one of the wealthiest nations on the earth. Secondly, Switzerland has had no proper motor industry of its own; Piccard & Pictet (Pic-Pic) of Geneva had gone by 1920 and Martini by 1934. Like Belgium, Switzerland became mainly an assembler of foreign cars, General Motors having a factory in Biel/Bienne from 1934 to 1975 and Chrysler assembling some 14,000 Plymouth Valiants and 4,500 related Dodge Darts among others in the AMAG plant at Schinznach Bad between 1948-75. There was the odd small manufacturer such as Monteverdi, and Saurer and FBW were prominent commercial vehicle makers. A few coachbuilders, Graber, Beutler and Gangloff for example, became famous names but there was nothing acting as major competition to the world’s big manufacturers. (However, we should not forget that Switzerland furnished the motoring world with three of its greatest designers: Marc Birkigt, Louis Chevrolet and Georges Roesch.)
Switzerland was thus an open free market par excellence and we find the big players often opting to launch their new models at Geneva which traditionally takes place in the early Spring, the time when the new comes to life.

Such has been the case for this 83rd Geneva Show and 2013 has been a bumper year for new car launches at the Palexpo centre which has housed the show since 1982
Among the newcomers were:

gen01
LaFerrari is Maranello’s successor to the Enzo. It is a petrol-electric hybrid with a combined 950 b.h.p. available, using a 6.2-litre V12 and 7-speed transmission driving the rear wheels. One electric motor supplies 161 b.h.p. to the wheels ; the other is used to power the ancillaries.  They are charged by braking or from excess torque from the engine. Only 499 are to be made.

gen02

We saw the McLaren P1 first at the Paris Salon but this is the production version. It too is a petrol-electric hybrid, its twin-turbo 3.8-litre V8 contributing 727 b.h.p. to a combined output of 903 b.h.p. Just 375 cars are due to be constructed.
gen03

The new Rolls-Royce Wraith is the most powerful Rolls ever made. It has a 624 b.h.p. 6.6-litre V12 propelling it to a 0-60 m.p.h. time of 4.4 seconds, although Rolls-Royce do not see the car as a particularly sporting model.

gen04
The name recalls a car the company made before the war. The original Wraith was introduced in 1938 as a replacement for the entry-level 20/30 model and used a straight-6 o.h.v. engine but production was curtailed by the outbreak of hostilities. Its successor, the Silver Wraith, had the overhead inlet/side exhaust engine found in the early cars made in the newly adapted Crewe factory.
This new model has a shorter wheelbase and a wider rear track than its related Ghost and development work was carried out at the Nürburgring – notice the front opening doors!
gen05
Volkswagen’s amazing XL1 – 340 m.p.g. from an 803 c.c. turbo diesel and a 230-volt lithium-ion battery!
The story started when Ferdinand Piech ordered the development of a “one litre” car, implying 100 km from 1-litre of fuel. A carbon-bodied, tandem-seat single-cylinder prototype was created which Piech drove in 2003 from Wolfsburg to Hamburg at an average fuel consumption of 317.4 m.p.g. and a speed of 43.5 m.p.h. Further development, including replacing the impractical tandem-seating with a conventional side-by-side arrangement, has yielded this impressive result which boasts a drag co-efficient of only 0.189!
gen06
The car’s 2-cylinder engine which is effectively half of a Polo’s 1.6-litre turbo diesel.
gen07
The Austrian KTM X-Bow, introduced here five years ago, has finally acquired some doors, side-windows and a windscreen to become the X-Bow GT.
gen08
The wipers, screen-wash and heated glass are optional extras!
gen09
The Bentley Flying Spur may look similar to its predecessor but the aluminium and steel body is completely new. The car is powered by a 6.0-litre W12.
gen10
Two years after it appeared at Geneva in concept form, the Alfa Romeo 4C is now ready for production. It has a 1.8-litre 4-cylinder turbo, delivering 240 b.h.p. to the rear wheels via a paddle shift.
gen11
This is its carbon-fibre tub. The car will be built by Maserati in Modena.
gen12
Maserati has come up with a 4-seater version of its GranTurismo MC Stradale where the two rear seats replace the roll-cage. Carbon-fibre is used for some of the bodywork, for example the bonnet which now has an airscoop.
gen13
The Spyker name re-appeared at Geneva with this B6 Venator concept which has a mid-mounted V6 375 b.h.p. engine driving the rear wheels.
gen14
Lamborghini celebrated its 50th anniversary with this Veneno model based on the Aventador. The design focuses on aerodynamic efficiency and the chassis and outer skin are formed from carbon-fibre re-inforced composite materials. It also has four-wheel drive and racing style pushrod suspension. Only three are expected to be made.

David Blumlein, March 2013

They call me MISTER Sebring

2001 12 Hours of Sebring

Tom Kristensen has been at the head of the endurance racing grid for the past 15 years, since he burst on to the scene by winning the Le Mans 24 Hours at his first attempt in 1997. That famous victory in the Joest Porsche led to a factory drive with BMW the following year and that led the Dane to Sebring in 1999. Tom has gone on to score a record further seven wins at La Sarthe and to many he is known as ‘Mister Le Mans’. However a good proportion of the temporary population of Highlands County each March would claim that another nickname would be more appropriate, Mister Sebring. So why is that so? Let’s find out what Tom thinks himself.

Recently I caught up with Tom and discussed with him his experiences at America’s greatest sportscar race.

1999 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: 1999, your first time at the 12 Hours of Sebring what do you recall?

1999 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: My first race was with BMW in 1999, with Jörg and JJ. We had tested at Homestead the week before to prepare our new car, primarily for Le Mans but also for Sebring. We had a problem with differentials, we did not have enough spares, and I know that BMW were not very keen to race at Sebring. However the team at Williams Grand Prix, who had designed and built the car, particularly John Russell, pushed very hard to go on as planned. In fact we had some new differentials flown in as late as Thursday as all we had were the units that were actually in the cars.

1999 12 Hours of Sebring

Then we got to the race and it was certainly an eye opener for me to drive on the historic circuit. I remember that there were quite a lot of Yellow Flags, a lot of cars had problems and went off. I recall that the whole section of the track from Turn Ten to Turn Fourteen was full of sand towards the end of the race. Of course James Weaver was pushing very hard, he is a guy who never gives up and really put pressure on me. I drove the last stint to finish the race and we scored the début win of the BMW V12 LMR, which was a big step forward from the previous car. So that then became a trend for the manufacturers to go to Sebring both to race and test in preparation for Le Mans. One thing I do remember about 1999, we were waiting I think for the arrival of the spare differentials and we went with a certain photographer, I guess it was Regis, I’m not sure*, out to meet the fans and especially to Turn Ten. They are true fans of life and true fans of Sebring, it was nice to receive such a fantastic welcome. I always try to wave to the crowd there, either under a yellow flag period or on my in lap, to show my appreciation of Turn Ten.

JB: Then we move on to 2000, and your first race with Audi…………….

2000 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: In December 1999 I was at Sebring again driving an Audi, it was an interim car between the ‘99 car, the R8R and the R8, which went on to be so successful. The interim car had the rear end of the R8.

JB: One thing that I remember from 2000 was during one of the practice sessions you burying the R8 into the tyres at Turn Three, do you recall that?

2000 12 Hours of Sebring

No, that happened in Qualifying. It was the first lap in Qualifying and I locked up avoiding another car that had just come out of the pits and I went in heavily to the barriers under the foam sacks. Of course Dr. Ullrich was standing at that corner, he saw everything and jumped over the fence to help shift the sacks off the car. At that time I was on the radio to the pits to say that I have just had a small off, and of course Dr. Ullrich had the headset on and could hear this while pulling the foam away. It is not the perfect situation when it is your boss trying to dig you out and you are trying explain that it was only a small off…………

JB: Still despite the red face the race turned out OK and it was a great win for Audi, their first at Sebring and the first for the R8.

2000 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: Audi had learnt a lot from their first race there the year before, Sebring nails down any challenges or issues that you have with the car. Of course Joest and Audi are particularly good at dealing with such issues and the information and feedback that you get from Sebring is so valuable, there are five or six different types of tarmac around the track and that gives car and driver a rough time.

2001 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: In 2001 there was a rain affected race, and your team mates Dindo, Laurent and Michele just managed to beat you in a close finish.

2001 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: Actually I was very disappointed that time, we had a great race and it seemed that Dindo and I were often on track against each other. I remember that we were actually leading but in the crucial time of the race, I came into the pits too fast so got a Stop and Go Penalty which dropped me behind Dindo and, despite pushing very hard, I could not catch him before the end of the race. Yes it was a disappointment because it was solely down to me.

2001 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: It was Michele’s last victory.

2001 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: Yes, and it was certainly deserved and in that sense it is much better to look back at the race with that fact in mind.

JB: 2002 was a completely different race because the heat was extreme there was a problem with the car and the steering rack needed changing during the race. Of course once you lose a chunk of time in the pits your race is effectively done, especially competing against another R8.

2002 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: No you cannot come back from that much lost time, we had the issue with the steering which I had never experienced before or since and when you need to change something like that all your plans are out the window. We had a fast car however it was not to be but Audi scored a hat trick so the race was not completely lost.

2003 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: In 2003 you joined the ranks of the Bentley Boys.

TK: Yes, I remember that the Bentley was a hot car, certainly after the R8. The car ran really well but we had the issue of being put to the back of the grid after Qualifying and this definitely compromised our race. I think we had only one problem and that was with the brakes, we had to be very careful towards the end of the race. We were very focussed on winning Le Mans, and Sebring was an important part of that. We had a very good debrief after the race. The Bentley was very different to the philosophy of the Audi R8. We had an Audi engine so we were safe on that side, and for the guys working on the car the Sebring race helped the team to gel. Racing at Sebring was crucial to our Le Mans’ victory. Getting both cars to the finish at the 12 Hours was really important to us in the context of our whole programme.

JB: 2004, how could they do this to us? No Tom Kristensen at Sebring?

2002 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: Well 2004 was the year I started in DTM as that was the only factory programme for Audi that year. Dr. Ullrich offered me the opportunity to join the Audi DTM effort and I then raced in that for several years, really enjoying it. In all the years I was in DTM I just joined the endurance races like Sebring and Le Mans, keeping in touch with that side of the sport.

2005 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: 2005 you joined Champion Racing for Sebring, and Le Mans. You shared the driving with JJ Lehto and Marco Werner. You had a big fight with Allan in the other Champion car in the last stint, you always seem to get the last stint at Sebring.

TK: It was a good race between the Champion cars, all the way to the flag it was very close, the result all depended on how we played our cards. We were out of sync in terms of tyres and fuel strategies and I remember that when I was on new tyres I had to make a gap to make sure that when Allan had new tyres that he did not get too close. So the gap moved around a little especially in the last three stints. It was vital that when you left the pits on cold tyres, in particular on the penultimate stop, there was just enough grip to keep Allan back and he did not pass me. I was then on new tyres and could keep him behind and created just enough margin that when he got his last set of new tyres he was still just behind. I think it was the closest ever finish at Sebring.

2005 12 Hours of Sebring

I still have the video from Speed TV and on the last lap Allan and I were still racing hard, so as we get to the back (Ulmann) straight, I got on the radio and asked if they wanted to stage a photo finish. Brad Kettler who was engineering our car, started yelling back, “No, No, No! Keep the pedal down. Keep the pedal down” Of course I did not realise that this was going out live, and the Speed TV commentators were really laughing at this exchange. I still have the recording.

12h-Rennen Sebring (USA) 2006

JB: So then the 2006 race, the début of the diesel powered R10.

TK: Yes, that was amazing, it was a big step forward for both Audi and motorsport, very important. It made the front page of the newspapers in many places. The day after the race I had Ulrich Baretzky the engine designer, as one of my passengers on the way to Miami, he was a very proud man that day and rightly so. The R10 TDI had a big engine, which meant that there were compromises in how the car was configured and also in the way that you drove it. Now we have a very lightweight engine in the car but back then the V12 was much bigger and heavier. The R10 TDI was a very sophisticated car, with the very latest technology and it won its first race and that was at Sebring.

2007 Sebring 12 Hours

JB: On to 2007 and there were a couple of things that went wrong as I recall. The rear suspension needed changing……………

TK: I’m not sure I completely remember, I think we had to go behind the wall, so we lost time and that was that. It was one of those times that Sebring gets the better of you.

ALMS 01 - Sebring (USA) 2008

JB: 2008 and another difficult race, as Dr. Ullrich said at the time, the team had more problems in this one race than they would normally encounter in a whole season. Brake disks were a particular problem.

TK: Well we were trying very hard, racing against the Peugeots and maybe we went a little bit in the wrong direction. That being said, the problems that we had at Sebring and how we fixed them were the basis of our win at Le Mans that year. The performance in Florida really hurt us and made us really push to the maximum to get our pride back in France. Some people consider the 2008 Le Mans to have been the best or one of the best ever, perhaps, but the determination after Sebring, in Joest, in Audi, in the drivers, everyone, was really strong. We knew that Peugeot had a faster car, but we had a car that we could race, and we thought that if we performed to the maximum we could beat them. We believed in winning when others did not, the Truth in 24 movie shows that pretty well.

2009 Sebring 12 Hours

JB: 2009 another new car, the R15 TDI, and another début victory, now win number five, up against Peugeot again.

TK: The R15 TDI right on the limit was delicate, so to keep it in the performance window was always interesting at a circuit like Sebring, a real challenge for engineers and drivers, so I feel that our victory was hard earned and well deserved. It was certainly not an easy win.

2009 Sebring 12 Hours

JB: The following year the updated car, the R15+ was not ready in time for the race itself though you did go testing later.

TK: I would not have been in the race, as I had injured my Achilles tendon and was in recovery mode.

2007 Sebring 12 Hours

JB: 2011, things were going well in the race, a big battle with the Peugeots and then Dindo was hit by Gene while racing.

TK: That was in Turn 17, which is very fast and that was our race done. It was a shame because we looking in good shape. But if I recall all the factory cars hit problems and the Oreca car took the win.

2012 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: In 2012 the Peugeots had gone as a result of financial problems, but on the positive side Sebring was the first round of the new FIA World Endurance Championship and it was Sebring’s 60th birthday and you managed to add to your list of wins.

2012 12 Hours of Sebring

TK: Last year was another great race and an important one, being the first round of the FIA World Endurance Championship. It brought together, the ACO, IMSA and the FIA. It was an honour to have won the 60th race, and it was a really big battle with our two other Audis. It made up in a way for my mistake on the 50th anniversary race. I said to Dindo on the podium, “Congratulations on your fifth victory, now you have caught me”…………then the penny dropped and he called me something rude. Of course now Dindo is retired but he will be in Sebring, as Allan and I always get him to pay for the espressos in the morning at Starbucks………………..

2012 12 Hours of Sebring

JB: If someone says to you “Sebring 12 Hours”, what do you think of? Why do you think the race is so special?

TK: It is unique, even the journey from Miami through small towns of central Florida is very different from Europe, you are approaching the tradition and history that is this 12 Hour race. Famous names like Fangio and Moss were part of this rich history and then later Andretti and Ickx, all the great names of the sport have been to Sebring. So if I speak to any of these guys I can relate to their career as the track is basically the same layout as when it started. That is really cool, it is the Paris-Roubaix of motorsport, the famous traditional cycle race. To get the best set up for the track is difficult and you really need to get on it as a driver, you have to conquer the corners every lap. You have to be aggressive but at the same time be very aware, alert for traffic. 2012 was the hardest race in terms of traffic that I have experienced, as there were more than 60 cars on the grid. So you feel like you are overtaking cars every 50 metres, you are constantly overtaking. There is not much space and if you put the car even a few centimetres off line you can hit a bump which is much harder than you expect and then you are in trouble.

JB: You have mentioned the Sebring fans…………..

2009 Sebring 12 Hours

TK: The Sebring fans are fantastic, the enthusiasm they show is just like Le Mans but it is also different. Sebring has the American way and that is really cool. Another place where the fans are on the same level is the Goodwood Revival. The fans at all these events are genuine and they are there to watch the race but most importantly they are there to have a good time. They wake up in the morning and say to themselves “Hey I’m going to have a good time today” and the atmosphere where everyone feels like that is fantastic. You are in the right place at the right time. Sebring makes me feel that it is THE place to go to every March and I am very happy that Audi asked me to go again as it looks like it might be the last time that Audi and LM P1 will compete there.

JB: Briefly what would you say your best and worst moments at Sebring were?

TK: It is difficult to choose but I suppose that my first race which showed me that the 12 Hours of Sebring is very different from any other race. Then the victory last year was very special. The second place in 2002 was difficult because I knew right after the Chequered Flag that the defeat was down to me, I was the one who was speeding in the pit lane and that was a very hard defeat to take. But on the other hand it was Michele’s last win and that makes it easy to get over.

* It was me………………..

John Brooks, March 2013

Happy Birthday, Art!

merzario, arturo_2

It cannot be much fun these days being a writer in Formula One, blandtastic interviews with athletes  who for the most part, you would not want to spend time with away from the office. OK, there is one exception and perhaps that explains Kimi’s enduring appeal, at least to the fans. The level of control exercised by the PR hacks is stifling and could explain partly why the motorsport press is in a steady decline, no one wants to read a steady diet of vanilla soundbites.

Back in the 70’s it was all very different.

Speaking of 70’s it is the 70th birthday today of one Arturo Francesco Merzario and that is a cause for celebration. If one man symbolises the free spirit attitude of that era, it could be said to be Little Art. He drove 27 Grand Prix for Ferrari, an Italian’s dream, but it was not a good time to be with the Scuderia in Formula One. Sportscars, however, was another matter. As a factory pilot for both Ferrari and Alfa Romeo he scored victories in the classics at Nürburgring, Targa Florio, Spa, Imola, Kyalami and Monza. The hat and the cigarette, and the elegant lady on his arm were all part of the image.

I last saw Art a couple of years back at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, he was racing with a few mates from Italy, just enjoying an opportunity to drive on one the greatest tracks of them all. It explains his popularity, the money meant nothing, it was always about the racing, and those of us outside of the Paddock Club could sense that, he was one of us.

So salut Arturo and many more to come!

John Brooks, March 2013

Bob Wollek – En marge de la gloire

BobWollek318

Ten years or more has passed since Bob Wollek was killed in an accident on Highway 98, near Lorida, Florida. Last summer has seen the publication of a biography of the great French endurance driver, written, appropriately, enough by his close friend, Jean-Marc Teissedre.

Jean-Marc is now unquestioningly the leader of the journalistic pack in the endurance sportscar racing media circles. The proud Frenchman has been covering that aspect of the sport since the 70’s and now, since the retirement of Mike Cotton, is probably the only one, other than Mark Cole, who can remember witnessing the glory days of Group C. Jean-Marc was a confidant of Bob Wollek and there can be no more appropriate author of a book celebrating the life and times of a very successful racing driver.

83BrandsH1000_jb_0001

However the book is far from a hagiography, it is a warts and all account of a man who spent nearly 30 years at the top of the sport. A indication of the honest tone of the book is found right from the start as Jean-Marc gives an account of his first encounter with Mr. Wollek.
“Can you imagine a worse introduction to a guy who had a reputation for being pretty unsociable than having to ask him for money? This is what happened to me in the paddock of the old Nürburgring on Friday evening before the final round of the 1977 German Circuits Championship. Auto Hebdo sent me to Germany to cover the event, and I got the exchange rate between the  French Franc and the Deutschmark a bit mixed up. The only solution was to find a Frenchman who would get me out of this mess. And they were thin on the ground in that era. So it looked like my only hope was Wollek! I didn’t know him, but the magazine asked me to follow him closely as his reputation was just beginning  to expand beyond the banks of the Rhine. But at this particular point in time I had to introduce myself to him not as a journalist but as a beggar! So after a very careful approach I had to come clean. I told him who I was and asked for what I wanted almost in the same breath in a barely audible voice. 
“Who the hell do you think you are asking me for money? We don’t know each other- do you think I’m the Bank of France, or what?” he shot back. A long silence followed our first contact. By the time I’d got round to thinking up an answer, Bob had already gone to the rear of the car and was talking to the Porsche Kremer Racing mechanics in German.
I walked a little further away and tried to think. I didn’t know anybody, the future was looking grim. But now it was time for practice so I said to myself that I’d see about it later. After things had calmed down I went into the press room, and as luck would have it I found myself face to face with Bob. “Have you got your one hundred marks?”
“Well, er .. . no. I don’t know anybody here……”
“It’s not bloody possible…”
I couldn’t  make out the rest  of the sentence, but  it was probably a sarcastic comment about the level of intelligence of  the journalistic profession. But I didn’t have to be asked twice when Bob told me to follow him. He flipped open his wallet and gave me fifty marks. But now there was another problem- how was I going to repay him? At best we’d meet up again in the same spot in March of the following year for the first round of the 1978 DRM. This is what I said to him. He rubbed his hand across his forehead asking himself what kind of half-wit  he was dealing with. “And a cheque, you don’t know what that is? It’s a little piece of paper you take to your bank and get money in exchange!”
Mumbling vague excuses for not having thought of this solution I promised  to send him a cheque on the Monday following our meeting.”

Not an auspicious start.

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And the book continues in a similar vein, the story of Bob’s career as a skier, then a rally driver and finally to the circuits. Interwoven into the tale are pieces from his contemporaries and also artifacts from his estate. One that caught my eye is the invoice from Motor Racing Developments for a Brabham BT28 the weapon of choice for a Formula Three campaign in 1970, all for the princely sum of £1,860-0-0.

It was in the Brabham that Bob’s career nearly ended before it began. Contact with none other than James Hunt sent Wollek into the trees of Rouen, bouncing from one trunk to another, the car was destroyed and the final destination for Bob was the local hospital for a couple of weeks. Racing at the time was a blood sport, for two others (Jean-Luc Salmon and Denis Dayan) were killed in the race, the drivers adding their impetuosity to the fragile nature of the cars. Bob’s friend of the time and 1980 Le Mans’ winner, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, recalled the race in the book, “They tried to pass four abreast in a place where there was only room for two.” What can one add to that?

Tribute

Tribute

The story continues on with Bob soon ascending to Formula Two, and ultimately more significant in the long run he found his way into endurance racing with Lola and Matra. It is all here in chronological order, the privateer Porsche years, his successes in IMSA, the titles and the race wins, culminating with factory drives for Lancia and Porsche.

The book is spiced with comments from his contemporaries, not always complimentary, as evidenced by this passage from his 1995 Le Mans co-driver, Eric Helary. “In my life I’ve only had problems with two drivers: Christophe Bouchut and Bob Wollek. I respect everything that Bob did but he made our 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours sheer hell. Right from the start he behaved despicably. He didn’t want Mario or me to get in the car. He wanted to do the start, the finish, practice, qualifying, the lot.”

And then, “At the finish Mario and I were in the motorhome and we asked each other what the hell was going on in Bob’s head? And it didn’t stop there. After the race he wrote me a letter telling me I was an arsehole!”

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Eric concludes, “Maybe I’m not a good example as I drove with him in only one race and I never came across him again. I have the impression that I didn’t see the real Bob Wollek. I never knew the other side to him.”

Mario, in diplomatic mode, was less critical. “I always had good relations with Bob who I’d known for a long time as we’d done tests in the open WSC Porsche at Charlotte which had gone off without a hitch. I respected him as he had an exceptional set of results.” Team Owner, Yves Courage, also found Wollek to something of a Jekyll and Hyde personality but I will let you buy the book to read the full story. For every negative there is also a positive view from those not easily fooled, like Klaus Ludwig and Norbert Singer.

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When I sat down to write this review I was inclined to include some personal experiences and I have to say that my own somewhat limited dealings with Bob were, at best, mixed. At the time I started out in motorsport he was one of the stars of the scene and I was another anonymous face in the mob of photographers, so there was no call for any form of interaction. I witnessed Wollek win races, join teams at the wrong moment and endure all manner of indignities at Le Mans. He grabbed pole position in 1987 and then in the race did not even get to drive as the engine went bang. Bob was driving a werks-Porsche, the ones with Rothmans’ signage, they were not supposed to fail, after all excellence was expected. However a rash of top line Porsches retired early in the race, all victims of a batch of fuel supplied by the ACO that was found to have a lower octane level than it should have, which played havoc with the turbocharged cars. Typically the sister car did not blow a piston and went on to win the race against all odds.

27 May-01 June, 1986, Le Mans 24 Hours. Norbert Singer and Bob Wollek.

The 1987 edition of Le Mans was perhaps the first time I really saw how forceful Wollek could be. The ACO would have a Friday afternoon press conference which in theory was to champion the great race. However the President of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, would also manage to be present and would always take the stage. Balestre was prone to giving the assembled hacks a stern lecture on whatever topic was troubling him at that moment, so although we were at Le Mans we would usually receive a rant about Formula One. This was delivered in the theatrical style of a proper tinpot dictator, thumping the desk and getting red in the face all the while bellowing about FOCA or the drivers, or some other iniquity.

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Craven cowards that we in the media were, we would endure these bizarre performances without protest, partly because we wanted a pass the following year and partly because there was usually some form of gift or bribe to encourage our attendance. For instance in 1986 it had been a Magnum of vintage Moët & Chandon Champagne, I can certainly remember that high point of dubious incentives. Well I still have the bottle in my office though it is sadly empty, the bottle that is.

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There was the usual matinée idol performance from J-MB and then as the floor was opened to questions Bob stood up and gave Monsieur le Président a full blast. My French comprehension is poor at the best of times but I was no doubt that this was about safety standards at Le Mans and the irrelevance of the Formula One blather. The drivers were very concerned about the speeds down the Mulsanne Straight, which pushed to the limits of the tyres’ performance, a year earlier Jo Gartner had been killed during the race in an unexplained accident. Klaus Ludwig, a three time winner, had refused to race at La Sarthe unless changes were made. Balestre was shaken by the direct line that Wollek took as he was more accustomed to dealing with a tame bunch of scribblers. Bob made his point quietly but he left the Président in no doubt. The message was clear, force the ACO to do something before someone else is killed. As if to underline this point there were several accidents in that race week culminating in the monumental crash of Win Percy’s Jaguar, after a puncture at around 230 mph. Win survived but it was a lottery, the next victim might not be so fortunate. Within a year or two the Chicanes on the Mulsanne would appear. Bob had made his point.

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I continued to see Bob at the tracks but the next time we had any real interaction was less enjoyable. His final race as a Porsche driver in the prototype class was in 1998 at the Suzuka 1000kms, a round of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Porsche had endured a horrible season being beaten at almost every turn by AMG Mercedes Benz. The exception, of course, was Le Mans but Bob had only managed yet another second place, once again the glory went to his team mates. Looking through the viewfinder at the podium ceremonies, it would taken a heart of stone not to be moved by Bob’s tears as the realisation set in that the dream was over, there would be no triumph at La Sarthe.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

For the race in Japan he was paired with Uwe Alzen and Jörg Müller but the trio could not match the pace of the other factory Porsche, let alone the Mercedes duo. During Bob’s mid-race stint he had contact with a GT2 in the final chicane and recovered to dive into the pits to check for damage, unfortunately to do so meant driving against the traffic and he received a three minute stop/go penalty for his pains. I reported this in a Swiss magazine that I was working for but something in the translated report incurred Bob’s ire and he threatened to sue us all! The Editor assured me that he would sort it out and I got the impression that this was not the first time that he had Angry of Strasbourg on the phone.

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The next encounter with Bob was much more convivial. At the Le Mans Test weekend for the 2000 race I was filling the hire car up at the petrol station near to the Parc des Expositions next to the track. A Porsche pulled in at the next pump and out got Bob, who nodded hello and gave me a smile, it made my day, maybe I had stopped travelling, perhaps I had arrived. Like Porsche AG itself, Wollek was confined to the supporting ranks of the GT class. He continued to go flat out, frequently surprising the Young Guns like Lucas Lühr and Dirk Müller with his turn of speed. He certainly seemed more at peace, reconciled to the fact that he would never take the great prize.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

The following March I was at the Sebring 12 Hours. Arriving at the track on race morning before the sun rose, there is always a photo briefing to look forward to, a great assembly of grumbling, groaning snappers. I understand that the collective noun for motorsport photographers is a Moan. 2001’s race-day photo meeting  was an unexpectedly solemn occasion though.  First to arrive, and in those pre-digital days, first to leave, the vast majority of us snappers had not heard the news, Bob Wollek was dead. It was unbelievable, Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now, as he contemplated retirement, he was killed in a pointless traffic incident. There would be no more chance encounters.

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Every year that I make the trek to Sebring for the 12 Hours I try and get out to the marker post near Lorida where Bob Wollek was knocked off his bike and killed. Others also make the same pilgrimage, evidence such as fresh flowers and wine bottles attest to that.

Bob Wollek was a complex, contradictory character, much loved by those who he allowed to get close, less so by those who were not. This book is a fascinating account of a man who lived by his own terms, well researched, written and translated. It lacks an index but that is about all, buy it, treat yourself, especially if you are in Sebring this week

John Brooks, March 2013