Monday, February 25, 2008

Book Review - The Last Road Race - by Richard Williams

The Last Road Race - Richard Williams

Trivia question: What was the longest circuit ever to host a round of the Formula 1 World Championship? The common wrong answer would be the 14-mile Nordschliefe - the legendary undulating strip of tarmac that snakes through the Eiffel mountains and which last hosted a Grand Prix back in 1976. In fact, though, the longest circuit ever to appear on the F1 calendar was the 15 mile road circuit on the Adriatic Coast, based around the Italian town of Pescara.

Pescara held but a single F1 Grand Prix, in 1957. While the Nurburgring was an ever-twisting constant challenge, Pescara was a triangular course consisting in large part of two very long straights, with a third side which twisted up the Abruzzo hills before gently descending back down towards the sea. It was not a driver's circuit in the same way that the 'Ring was, though opinions on its merits differed. Stirling Moss told Williams "I thought it was fantastic. It was just like being a kid out for a burn up. A wonderful feeling, what racing's all about." Jack Brabham, on the other hand, opined that "Those road courses were bloody dangerous and nasty, all of them. And Pescara was the worst."

Richard Williams' slim volume tells the story of the 1957 race. Had the book been about the race alone, which was no classic in the conventional sense, it might have ended up a rather dull read. The truth is that, while Luigi Musso put up a decent initial fight, Stirling Moss was never really challenged in his Vanwall after the opening laps, and finished over 3 minutes ahead of his nearest pursuer. The other Vanwall drivers hit trouble, and the Maseratis of Behra and Fangio simply couldn't live with them for pace.

Readers of Williams' motorsport books though, will know that he is all but incapable of writing a dull book, and this is no exception. The book provides pen portraits of the event's major protagonists - be they drivers like Moss, Tony Brooks, Luigi Musso and Roy Salvadori, or team owners such as Enzo Ferrari and the Vanwall chief who aped and despised him, bearing magnate Tony Vandervell. These give an interesting background not only to the race, but to the state and nature of Grand Prix racing as a whole in the late 1950s. Of particular intrigue is the rather convoluted tale of how Enzo Ferrari opted to boycott the race, in the wake of the Mille Miglia tragedy earlier that year, but contrived to ensure that Luigi Musso turned up in a Ferrari 801 anyway.

The book also gives some of the history of the Pescara circuit itself. While the venue only ever hosted one F1 Grand Prix, the annual Coppa Acerbo race had been taking place since the 1920s and had a considerable history. The first race had been won by none other than Enzo Ferrari himself, shortly before he gave up driving. The circuit was as dangerous as Brabham suggests, claiming the life of Algerian ace Guy Moll after he collided with a backmarker and ploughed into a house in 1934.

Interviews with the surviving protagonists also add much to the book. The reminiscences of Moss, Salvadori, Brabahm and Brooks help to give a flavour of what the world of Grand Prix racing was like back in the 1950s. Of equal value are the diaries of legendary motor-racing correspondent Dennis Jenkinson, provided for use by Doug Nye. Together, they paint a picture of a very different racing environment, where drivers did deals from race to race, and would gather to party together on the evening after the race, rather than flying off in private jets or hiding in personal motorhomes.

Much more informal and ad-hoc than it is today, there are nonetheless hints of the transition that was already beginning to take place, and which would eventually lead to the TV dominated, corporately controlled, multi-million dollar sport that is modern F1. By 1957, the Pescara race was already something of an anachronism - a throwback to an earlier time when motor races were point-to-point affairs, racing through the countryside from city to city. The track may not have been on the scale of the Targa Florio, but at 16 miles, it was substantially longer than all but a handful of the other F1 circuits of the time, and unlike the Nurburgring, it was held not on a permanent circuit, but on dusty, rough public roads.

Richard Williams admits that Pescara was not, in fact the last road race in F1. Road racing continued at Spa for another 15 years or so, and if street racing counts, continues to this day in the form of the ever more anachronistic Monaco Grand Prix. Rather, Williams feels that the title conveys an emotional truth. For him, "It marked the end of a certain philosophy of road racing. No longer would massed-start races, on open roads from town to village and back again, be organised in that ad hoc way, without permanent facilities or even the vaguest notion of safety precautions."

In a world where two-bit production line biographies of current F1 stars are ten a penny (quite possibly literally, in the case of remaindered copies of the many rushed biographies of Lewis Hamilton produced for last Christmas) Richard Williams book offers something different, and worth seeking out. Others have written more comprehensive histories of this period of the sport (Doug Nye, in particular) but no other book I have read does so well in capturing the spirit of that age. An unreserved recommendation.

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Blogger Pee Wee said...

Good blog, I am currently reading a Nigel Roebuck book and he mentions that circuit and I'd never heard of it. Thanks!

6:36 PM  

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