The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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An hour before the cars come out to race at Monaco, the streets which form the track are thronged with crowds of casual strollers who must be dispersed to safety before the racing can begin. It looks an impossible task.
Then the gates in the wooden barriers are manned and what follows is fascinating to watch. A cordon of men shepherd the strollers before them, driving them into the public enclosures like so many sheep. The last gaps in the track side fences are closed and the second phase begins. The cordon passes through the crowds with systematic care. Anyone who can produce a ticket or badge is allowed to remain, but the rest are urged firmly towards the exit. The men who do this work know all the tricks. There is a little semicircle of grass at the end of the Rue Princess Caroline and behind it lies a flower bed, a low hedge and a wall. Every year, without fail, a group of disappointed people are flushed from their hiding place beyond the hedge. They are evicted politely but firmly and if they want a reasonable view of the race they must pay for their admission.
It is not entirely impossible to watch the race without paying. There are those who own houses or flats overlooking the circuit. Their friends multiply mysteriously as the date of the race draws nearer. Others, less fortunate, sit on the steps leading down from the Boulevard de Suisse. They are tightly packed together and can see no more than a few yards of the circuit, far across the harbour, through the gap between two tall houses, yet they are glad to see as much as that. Some, watching from impossibly distant perches, see almost nothing at all, but catch the inimitably rich atmosphere of the occasion.
The majority, however, pay to sit in one of the many grandstands, or fight for places in the circulation areas. Even those with grandstand tickets may find themselves in conflict with those who feel that possession of the actual seat is more valid than possession of the associated ticket, but this is all part of the fun.
Despite their comparatively late arrival, Jimmy and Tony were able to lead their friends to a good vantage point on the Pit Straight. The start line, the main focus of activity at the moment, was far to their left, but there was still plenty to absorb their attention.
Immediately opposite, on the far side of the track, the long row of pit boxes was almost deserted, apart from a few officials and photographers who had been unable to find a better stamping ground. From time to time, however, familiar figures wandered past. Some were genuinely casual, some were trying to look important, while others were so famous that they had no need to do more than wave acknowledgements to the cheers that greeted them. One imposing figure approached majestically, stopping here and there for a word or two with lesser mortals.
Simon nudged Jimmy in the ribs and whispered in his ear. 'That's Brent Livingstone' He's one of the Five. He looks confident enough now, but I'll bet that won't last long when Geoff goes into action.'
Jimmy looked at the majestic gentleman with interest. This was the first of their enemies he had seen, apart from miscellaneous underlings. The sight brought a sense of reality that had been lacking. A man known only by reputation can become a bogle without much effort, but in the flesh he is just another human being, perhaps a dangerous one, but still merely human.
There was a surge of sound from beyond the pits and a helicopter rose from the jetty. Casual interest turned to closer scrutiny as it sped away to hover over the Rock, apparently preparing to land in the Palace Square. As it dropped out of sight, a wail of sirens drew attention to a pair of police cars tearing up the long sloping road leading to the old town, flashing roof lights marking their progress clearly. Two more followed close behind. it was evident that the attack on the Colonel's local base was under way.
The majestic gentleman watched all this with thoughtful eyes. When he resumed his stroll he seemed less inclined to make casual conversation.
Most of the party had been cheering Stirling Moss as he went past on his way to the Gasworks Hairpin. Few of them were old enough to remember him in action, but all knew his name and could recognise him instantly. The great men of motor racing are not easily forgotten.
Tension began to mount. This was only the preliminary day of races for smaller cars, but there was nothing boring about it, especially with Sandy Clarewood in the first heat. They were all hoping that he would do well. A distant roar grew louder and they knew that the cars were making their way towards the start. Taking the twists and turns steadily, the field came along the Pit Straight and formed up in grid order. After a short pause the starter dropped his flag, standing in an apparently suicidal position right in front of the leading car but saving himself by an agile leap backwards at the crucial moment.
Susan had explained that Sandy, handicapped in practice by further brake trouble, planned to drive a steady race, aiming to keep out of trouble and qualify for the final rather than attempt any heroics. Out of sixty entrants, ten had never turned up and another ten had been sidelined by problems in practice. That had left twenty cars for each heat, the fastest eleven in each heat going forward to the final. It was therefore more than a little disappointing when Sandy completed the first lap in sixteenth place. Susan said he was being sensible, because the track was a little greasy, but even she sounded a little doubtful.
The more experienced observers understood Sandy's problem clearly. He was sitting at the tail of a wrangling bunch of seven cars, some of which were occupied by drivers not renowned for discretion. Any attempt to force his way into or past this bunch might lead to disaster. It was at least prudent to wait until the group had thinned out a bit.
Perhaps Sandy was less surprised than anyone else when he finished the sixth lap in tenth place. Three or four or the cars he had been following eventually straggled past, some rather the worse for wear, while others never came round at all. They had tried to get through the chicane at the same time, giving Sandy just enough warning to allow him to anchor up and wait for the dust to settle. The delay had dropped him back, but when the race leader overtook him a little later on he was content to latch on to the tail of the faster car. He followed it past four others before the end, bringing him up the a useful sixth place and a reasonable starting position for the final.
After the chequered flag had been waved, Simon turned to Jimmy with a wry grin. 'Astonishing chap, Sandy. Seems totally brainless in the ordinary way, but put him in a racing car and he thinks perfectly. I just can't understand it.'
Jimmy laughed. 'Some people are like that. They don't think, can't think, until they have to. It probably does him good. What now? Do we stay here, or watch the second heat from somewhere else?'
In the end, they decided to go across to the Station Hairpin, on the far side of the circuit. The Formula Three paddock was close by, so Susan would be able to slip away for a word with Sandy before the final. Making the decision was easier than putting it into practice. They had to extricate themselves from the crowd and find a ticket barrier through which they could reach the open streets. Five minutes walk brought them to another barrier, which led to the crowded area on the outside of Ste Devote. Here, the towering arches of the disused railway viaduct, framing the sizeable church of Ste Devote nestling at the bottom of the gorge, set off the milling throng below, making a memorable picture.
A long and narrow flight of stone steps, packed with people climbing and descending, took them up to the top of the viaduct, which was being used as a grandstand. The view of the Ste Devote corner was perfect, but trees limited the visibility of other parts of the track and they felt no inclination to linger, going on along the track bed of the vanished railway.
This brought them out onto a shelf high above the harbour, where Simon paused, drawing Jimmy aside and pointing to one of the yachts moored by the breakwater. 'That's the one. Let's have a look at the deck layout. We'll need all the information we can get.'
Jimmy looked at the boat thoughtfully. 'Planning a boarding party?'
'Something of that sort.' The new Simon was infuriatingly casual, but he obviously had some definite ideas in his head. Jimmy wished he knew what they were. He was beginning to feel rather superfluous now that Simon was showing his true capabilities.
Continuing along the shelf, they came to the Casino Gardens and thence to a vantage point above the Station Hairpin, in time to see the cars going out for the second Formula Three heat. This proved to be faster and more closely contested than the first, partly because the dampness left by the cool morning air had at last been dried by the sun. Streams of cars poured down from Mirabeau in close formation, weaving and dodging in search of minute advantage over the others, each determined to be the last to brake for the corner. Then they were whirling past and away down the hill, while another bunch appeared from Mirabeau.
After a while, one driver braked even later than usual, spinning to face the cars that had been following him. The flag marshal, far from the best of his kind, came round to see what had happened, taking the yellow flag tucked under his arm instead of waving it to warn the following cars. The packed grandstand rose and yelled at him in seven different languages, but he took no notice.
Fortunately, the drivers took their cue from the crowd and there was no serious harm done. The offending car went on its way, but perhaps the driver's annoyance with himself explained a regrettable incident a few laps later, when he caught up with a bunch of slower cars as they came into the hairpin.
Apparently seeing a gap invisible to everyone else, he barged between two other cars, sending them sideways into solid walls, then ran straight into the back of another. All four cars were put out of action, but the only personal injury was caused when the driver, perhaps hoping to convince others of his innocence in the matter, knocked down one of the men whose cars he had wrecked. Such unpleasant characters are unfortunately to be found in motor racing. Official displeasure at their behaviour is rarely expressed openly. When penalties are imposed, the motor racing journals raise an outcry of sympathy for the guilty party, well aware that such men provide excellent copy.
Despite all this, the race ran out to an interesting conclusion, an unknown Italian almost snatching first place from the British Champion in the last few yards. Everyone took a deep breath and waited for the next item on the programme, the Formula One practice.
The Formula Three cars can lap this difficult circuit at around seventy five miles an hour, which is impressive enough, but their bigger brothers can add another ten miles an hour to that. To do this, every possible fraction of a second must be saved at every point round the circuit. Even though the track was oily and slippery after the earlier races, the Formula One drivers were evidently determined not to lose any time at the Station Hairpin, though there were very few instances of anyone trying too hard.
Returning from her visit to Sandy, Susan was able to pass word that the raid on the Colonel's headquarters had been a great success. Geoff, guessing that they would be in touch with Sandy, had passed the message through the paddock office, the occupants of which must have been somewhat surprised. It seemed that all the important people had been rounded up, but the Colonel himself and a few underlings had slipped through the net. What mattered was that the organisation had effectively been put out of action.
Annoyed at having missed the morning's excitement, Sandy had said that he had no intention of missing anything else and had proposed to invite some of his Formula Three colleagues to join the fray. Simon welcomed this, but Jimmy was a little dubious, feeling that there were enough amateurs involved already. However, he said nothing, for the matter was out of his hands now. His job was being done for him and he could only sit back and watch. He might as well relax and enjoy himself, though he couldn't help wondering what Simon was planning and what risks might be entailed.
Tiring of the Station Hairpin, the party retraced their steps to Ste Devote and crossed the circuit by a temporary footbridge to have a look at the Tabac, the most famous corner of them all. This was a very different scene, for instead of feeling their way round a tight hairpin the cars were rushing through at high speed. A much more intense atmosphere was noticeable. Even the Formula Three drivers would treat this section of the course with respect. Just as they arrived, a Frenchman misjudged the corner fractionally, climbing out of his car to look gloomily at the offside suspension. In some garage that night the midnight oil would burn in air blue with colourful invective, but the car would probably be repaired in time for the race. As for the driver, only his pride was hurt.
Towards the end of practice, fast times began to appear and with them came partisan fervour. Cheers and counter cheers greeted each announcement of a new time. The fastest lap of all was set seconds before the practice period came to an end. Everyone relaxed with sighs of exhausted excitement and they all settled down to wait for the Formula Three final. By common consent, they watched this from a point near the chicane where they could see the cars coming down the slope from the tunnel. From what Sandy had told Susan, this might prove to be the point of maximum excitement, with two or three cars trying to get through a gap intended only for one.
Sandy made a better start on this occasion and was up with the leading bunch immediately. These were the better drivers, who behaved themselves and took less risks, but they still drew away steadily from the brawling second bunch, who were having a rare old scrap. Every time they appeared it seemed that disaster was inevitable, but they always managed to avert it at the last moment.
Meanwhile, Sandy was getting along famously. His car was an old banger compared with some of those around him, but he was driving superbly, pulling up to fourth, then third, then second. Two laps from the end he took the lead, but seconds later was broadsiding frantically into the chicane escape road. Leaving the car more or less where it had stopped, he joined his friends to explain that his brakes had failed completely, probably due to a burst union, which might well have been the source of all his brake troubles. When that was put right he felt he would be in a position to start winning.
Such is the optimism of the Formula Three driver. The surprising thing is that such optimism is quite often justified by events.
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|