With Mercedes constantly rewriting the record books in the hybrid-era of Formula One, a large proportion of then with England’s Lewis Hamilton at the wheel , much has been said about the tedium of one team dominating the sport. Formula one is silver in colour. One would think it had ever happened before.
Eighty years ago last month , a silver Mercedes leading the Belgian Grand Prix drifted into what is now the start and finish straight at Spa. It was raining, as it so often does at Spa and the driver, by his own admission, simply ‘made a misake’.
He drifted wide on the exit. In 1939 there were of course no enormous tarmac run off areas, no impact absorbing rows of tyres or even a layer of rather more immovable armco barrier. There was a tree. And the car hit it so hard amidships the whole chassis bent around it’s trunk. And there was a fire.
In the cockpit, stunned into immobility by the impact (which alone would have been fatal in most cases ) was another English ace, Richard Beattie Seaman. By the time rescuers had extracted him the 26 year old was burned beyond recovery. The race continued. Seaman was concious as he was stretchered away to hospital where he apologised to his team for the driving error. Treatment for serious burns was ineffective back then and in due course he died.
Seaman was the only British driver in a front line Grand Prix team at the time and winner of the flagship German GP the previous season. Mercedes had been the dominant force in the sport for the previous five years, with the ocassional dip in form that permitted it’s only real rival, fellow German team, Auto-Union to get a look in. Aside from the odd burst of genius and luck that allowed Nuvolari to snatch a miraculous win or two aboard an Alfa Romeo (in 2019 for ‘Nuvolari’ read ‘Verstappen’) , the whole era was effectively painted silver. Much as we see today. Despite what subsequently transpired between 1939 and 1945 there were many from Seaman’s homeland a decade later who firmly believed that Grand Prix racing was never Grander than during that time of the ‘Silver Arrows’, even though they were all too aware of who had been bankrolling both teams.
So what’s changed? Why is such domination today seen as utterly tedious and, in fact, unacceptable, to many? Could it be, not so much the results, but the whole spectacle of the sport? There was no mass TV coverage back then, so it was either a ‘live’, visceral spectacle or one described in the writings of journalists and glimpsed in balck and white on short clips of newsreel. Live meant not just the sight but the full unfiltered sound (which was epic) and the smell (famously pungent). On the page it was more a case of imagination and associated memory(if you’d been lucky enough to see a race before). In 2019 the sport is mostly seen on screen. The sounds are filtered through microphones and speakers, adjusted to allow commentators to talkover them , but frankly most people consider them rather dull now, even from trackside. Hybrid F1 is not an audible treat. You don’t get the smell, the dust, the air pressure as a car passes close by because there is no longer an odor of exotic spirit fuel , the tracks are swept clean and a spectator is now so far back from the track edge behind chain link fencing that a passing car will not, generally , disturb your hair or make the wind in your lungs vibrate as it once did. And at that distance it won’t look as fast.
The late 1930s style of racing was far less cut-and-thrust than it is today for the very good reason that however ‘hard’ a driver was, the results of a dirty move or over-enthusiastic contact could be that he, like poor Seaman, ended up against a tree. Unless you were the notoriously thick-skinned Farina, that bred respect for your fellow competitor in the hope that he would reciprocate and you’d both survive to race again. It sounds melodramatic, but it is true. Today’s drivers ‘risk’ a track limit infringement or a grid penalty for a robust move. It doesn’t engender that same level of respect. Or excitement. It’s all a bit “Playstaion” and unreal to many viewers.
So does that mean the racing now is actually closer than it was? Almost certainly yes. And the viewer is in at the heart of it with cameras transmitting live footage from cars out on track. How can it seem boring from that range? Tyres don’t help. They used to wear out, not just ‘go off’ before being changed and if they were not changed in time could and did blow out. Now they are little more than a chess piece in the game (except on the rare ocassions when they fail from hammering kerbs or other cars). We have the commentators inevitable diatribe on “soft, super soft, hyper soft” and whatever else they can term them. Generally it’s meaningless and pointless to most viewers. Tyres are boring. End of.
They also contribute , along with ‘aero’ to that other bete noir of modern F1, the ‘difficulty in overtaking’ and the ‘cornering on rails’ look which , however fast a car is going, tends to make it look well in control even if the driver is, in reality, teetering on a knife edge. Back in the 1930s the knife-edge was there for all to see as cars with much more power than grip quite literally danced across the road surface in a fashion that mixed balletic elegance with sheer terror. In 2019 it’s generally sensed only by the drivers and the telemetry. Is Lewis Hamilton on the ‘edge’ or just ‘saving tyres’ ? Often we just can’t tell. No wonder it looks dull.
One final thought. They talk too much now. Engineers, drivers, commentators, stewards. Every word is recorded, occasionally bleeped, but played and replayed until every person in F1 sounds like a life member of the Olympic-standard Whingers Club. Moan, moan, moan : “He pushed me wide” “My tyres are rubbish guys” “Did you see that #@=$* idiot!” “Get the stewards to look at that” ….
You will have to try quite hard to find any clip of rising star Richard Seaman being interviewed in the 1930s and the same goes for all the other heroes of that generation, and indeed subsequent generations . How many times have you heard Mike Hawthorn’s voice or Jim Clark’s ? We know the faces, we know the legends but we don’t hear them very much. Were they taciturn heroes who just got on with enjoying the sport or did they constantly moan and groan too? Luckily we will never know. Maybe silence, from drivers, unlike from the cars, really is golden?
As for silver domination, I remember Williams, McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari domination in years past and I each case we could not see an end to it. Mercedes’ time will pass. It just doesn’t look like it right now.
For more details of the who pre-war ‘Silver Arrows’ Era of Seaman, Caracciola, Nuvolari and Rosemeyer the following books make excellent reading. Click the images to go direct to the relevent page on our website.
- Sudden Fascination : 1 – Avions Voisin
- A Bob Dylan Encounter : Aust Car Ferry 1966