I tried to watch the Spanish Grand Prix, really I did. I still tune into the start of every race because history shows that, perhaps three of four times per Formula One season, you’ll actually get a contest worthy of exerting sufficient energy to keep your eyes open. And I’m praying that Monaco next weekend will be one of those F1 races, because Spain most surely was not. I won’t dwell on its details, not least because I wasn’t awake for long enough to record them. But what I did manage to see, coupled with what I’ve read from those sufficiently stoic to remain unslumped throughout, suggests the inside of my eyelids made for far better viewing than anything seen on telly.
So it is at times like this that nostalgia freaks like me tend to look back to a more colourful time when drivers were warriors, race tracks battlefields, and the cars dangerous, untameable beasts in the habit of unseating their riders at the smallest provocation. A time when motor racing at the top level was a wonderful, always thrilling sport. Wasn’t it?
And what better week in which to do to this than one which includes the 65th anniversary of the inaugural round of, what became known as, the Formula 1 World Championship. It happened in Britain on May 13th at an old bomber airfield near Towcester called Silverstone. Some 200,000 people turned up to watch as works teams from Alfa Romeo, Maserati and Lago-Talbot took on the locals mounted mainly upon pre-war ERAs. With a stack of private Maseratis, and a couple of Altas to flesh out the field, some 28 cars lined up four-by-three to take the start of the 70 lap race, held over a 2.9 mile course, with only Copse and Stowe anything close to resembling the corners they are today.
And what a stultifyingly dull race it turned out to be. The Alfa 158s, that had utterly dominated voiturette racing before the war, leapt balletically through time and proved as invincible as ever. Straight-eight supercharged engines driving a heady brew of methanol and goodness knows what else at worse than 2mpg, they had taken the first four places on the grid in qualifying. The fastest non-Alfa was 1.8sec off the pole time, the slowest 18sec.
Which is why at the start of the race the Alfas disappeared in short order and were reduced to playing among themselves, swapping positions in a fairly desperate attempt to keep the crowd amused. True, Juan Manuel Fangio did retire, but with another three cars to take up the slack it hardly mattered. At the end Dr Giuseppe Farina won what could barely be called a race, with Luigi Fagioli second, Reg Parnell third and every other car lapped at least twice. Alfa-Romeo won every single race that year, a feat that has yet to be repeated, and thank goodness for that.
And, of course, 65-years ago, you couldn’t sit on your own sofa watching multiple camera views of all the action from every conceivable angle, with a wealth of graphics and Martin Brundle’s incisive commentary to help make up for the fact that, out on track, absolutely nothing was happening. If you didn’t actually get into your noisy, cramped jalopy and sit in the traffic trying to get into the circuit, you didn’t get to see a damn thing at all.
I think F1 is in a terrible state, a fact currently highlighted by contrasting the spectacle it provides to other offerings on television, like the BTCC and WEC, both of which are on scintillating form. But I’d stop a long way short of saying it’s the dullest it has ever been because, at least on those rare occasions it does manage to put on a proper show, we are all able to enjoy it like never before. Back at Silverstone in 1950, while the cars would have looked and sounded far more interesting than those of today, you’d have seen them but a fleeting instance once per lap and the racing itself would have made Spain last weekend look rivetting by comparison.