The morning chill belied the day’s September swelter as a gaggle of journalists and racing greats gathered atop Race Control at the 2019 Goodwood Revival.
On the edge – what it was like to race in the 1970s
We were all there for one reason: the 10th annual Credit Suisse Motorsport Forum, a no holds barred discussion presented by writer and broadcaster Bruce Jones and featuring Derek Bell MBE, Jochen Mass, Alain de Cadenet and Professor Gordon Murray CBE.
The four share more than most but one overriding theme was their success in the ‘70s – to many the golden era of motorsport. As endurance legend De Cadernet eloquently explained: “The beauty of the ‘70s was that you could do things as amateurs, that would be impossible today.
“You could get a Formula 1 car, and either drive it yourself or have it driven for you, or you could build your own car and go to Le Mans, because it was a much freer time, but a hairier and more dangerous time, for sure.
With a cheeky glance towards acclaimed automotive designer Murray, he added: “But you did feel that you were free to more or less do whatever you wanted to do. Especially if you met a guy like Gordon here – that could really help you out.”
He’s referring, of course, to Murray’s unfaltering dedication to the sport, which resulted in him agreeing to build De Cadenet a Le Mans challenger in just a matter of weeks.
Prompted by Jones, Murray explained: “I think it was about 2 or 3 months – something like that. It wasn’t much anyway, but it was in the middle of winter and I was working 10 or 12 hours a day at Brabham, and then getting home and starting work on Alain’s car at 10’o’clock at night and working until three in the morning every morning and then back to Brabham for seven, and that went on for about three months.”
But his efforts were worthwhile, De Cadernet added: “We built everything the way Gordon drew it – we didn’t change a single thing. Everything fitted together perfectly, and the car came straight out of its box first time at Le Mans, 390hp, 212 miles an hour – his first car. And everything was perfect, it was like a jigsaw puzzle, just all went together nicely.
“You knew the guy was a genius, from the get-go. Cost me a lunch to get him to do that by the way, but it was worth it.”
“And I got paid 200 quid,” Murray laughed. “As a designer, the ‘70s was probably my best decade, because we had so much freedom in the regulations. You could literally have an idea in the bath one night, draw the bit the next the next day, make it the following day, go to the next Grand Prix and go a second a lap quicker, and we often did, whereas today I’d hate to be scratching for millionths of a second with 220 days in the wind tunnel and detailed design, so that’s why it was good for me.”
Long hours and few breaks were common during the ‘70s for the British-South African, who admitted that in his first 11 years in Formula 1, he had just three weeks holiday and worked an average of 18 hours a day.
And in a stark comparison to the scale of today’s Formula 1’s design, there was just one member of Murray’s team – himself. “I knew I was Chief Designer,” he laughed. “Because when you turned around there was nobody else in the office.”
“When Bernie fired the other four guys and made me chief designer, that was it basically, and for the next three years, I did 600 drawings for every new car, did every test, engineered both cars and a T-car, went and did all the tunnel tests and everything myself.”
As a result of his hard work and dedication, Murray saw a swift rise through the ranks at Brabham – from joining the team in 1970 as a 23-year-old fresh off the banana boat, to becoming technical director at just 26.
“The first ambition of course was to build my own Formula 1 car, the next one was to win a grand prix,” he admitted. “But actually, because I knew the circuits so well, [a fanatical young Murray had taught himself to draw every Grand Prix circuit] I had four circuits that I really wanted to win. And Nürburgring was the most special, because it was one of the most difficult to set the cars up to finish and to win.
“The other ones were Monaco, Spa and the original Interlagos, which had a five and a half mile lap, which was incredibly bumpy and quick. All the circuits that were difficult, I wanted to win.”
A Murray-designed car finally took victory at the Nürburgring in 1975 in the hands of Carlos Reutemann, in a rain-soaked race that almost didn’t go ahead.
The other members of the illustrious panel each have their own fond recollections of the infamous Nordschleife during that era. Of his home circuit, German native Jochen Mass explained.
“It’s a track which demanded that you learn it properly, and that you find the rhythm of the circuit, which because of its length is quite difficult. But once you have it it’s the best in the world.
“In my first races, we had no seat belts, we had very slippery seats, and it was funny, every time I braked, I was sliding into the footwell, under the screen, and bringing myself up again for the next minute.”
With local knowledge of the circuit and its climate, in the 1976 German Grand Prix Mass decided to start on slicks, contrary to his competitors and despite the wet conditions. He was in the lead by the end of lap two, however, after Niki Lauda’s near-fatal crash, the race restarted and any lead Mass had gained was gone. That must have been frustrating, presenter Jones probed.
“It was a massive frustration for a various things,” Mass explained. “Of course Niki’s accident and his injuries, and it on the other hand it was the last Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, and I would have been the first German after the war to win at Nürburgring and it would have been so nice to do that. But on the other hand we were happy that Niki survived.”
Turning to ‘Ring regular Bell, Jones enquired just how far he used to push.
“Well, actually you went over the edge quite frequently. But the problem with the Nürburgring is that I believe you never did the perfect lap, because with 170 corners, you couldn’t get them all perfect and if you did you were lying because if you came out of one swerve pulling 5mph more than you had the previous lap, you’ll arrive at the next corner 5mph faster and your brain had to adapt that you were arriving at the next corner quicker than you should be, so it was really a hell of a balance. Whereas some on ordinary tracks it was easier to get it because there were only five or seven corners. But it’s the undulations that I love personally, and Jochen does – we love tracks with lots of corners.
“But it was a heck of a track – the best in the world, and anybody who’s never been there should go because it’s just out of this world.”
Meanwhile, De Cadernet made his Nürburgring debut in just his second season of racing. Turning to him, Jones asked whether he’d heard any scare stories before heading out to the Eiffel forest?
“What we’d heard is of course the professional driver’s version of how things are at the Nurburgring.”
Before his first race, an eager young De Cadernet had sought advice from seasoned racer Vic Elford, who reportedly responded: “Alain, my best advice I can give you is: you’ve just robbed a bank, you’re in your car making a getaway, you’ve got to drive as fast as you can because the cops are chasing you, but you daren’t crash because they’ll get you. So, watch it. And wherever you get a big crowd of people standing up, peering over the fence, you know that’s hairy.”
De Cadernet continued: “But it was a frightening thing, that amateur drivers are all, I discovered, quite disposable. The older drivers give you bum steers – they all lie, give you false information, they want to get you off the road as quickly as possible so you don’t get in their way. But at the end of it all, it’s a right of passage for all would-be race car drivers – if you are one of the great racers, you have to have been to the Nordschliefe, it’s part of your passage through life.
“I can only say that its very frightening the first time, like a lot of things in life the first time, but eventually you get the hang of it,” he concluded. “But I cannot say in my quite a few visits there, I ever really learnt my way around it.”
Photography courtesy of Credit Suisse.
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