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Off-beat looks at Grand Prix history / Truth or thereabouts
Questioning the myths of Grand Prix racing history



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Gilles Villeneuve


Ferrari 126C2




XL Belgian Grand Prix (May 9, 1982)


Do we really believe that the seeds of hatred planted two weeks earlier caused Gilles Villeneuve to make a rash but flawed decision when coming up to overtake Jochen Mass during the Canadian's banzai qualifying lap at Zolder? Is it possible that the feeling of betrayal had been so imparative to Villeneuve's judgement that it made him steer in the fatal direction? It does make a good story, doesn't it? But frankly, doesn't it also take a lot of assumption and psychological courage to make such statements? Is it possible to influence a self-willed individual such as a multiple Grand Prix winner and future World Champion to a degree that he can't be held responsible for his own actions? Yet it is the story that is widely accepted as the truth - the evil Didier Pironi psyched the honourable Gilles Villeneuve into killing himself. Fact or fiction?

History is based on discovering the facts and filling in the blanks. It isn’t any different in the case of motor racing history. There is nothing wrong with extending knowledge with conjecture to create a rounded story. The trouble is that sources are often confused with facts. Sources can be wrong, may have copied other wrong sources, will often be based on clouded testimony or even taste, bias or preference. Yet we put our faith into many sources that we have come to accept as trustworthy. ‘Reputation’ is a word that comes to mind here, as our sources are invariably reputable historians who have all done the digging and unearthing themselves and through their work have garnered our respect. It’s a natural reflex to accept anything they have written for granted. But are we absolutely sure that some of their takes on history are correct?

Grand Prix racing is full of fantastic stories. Stories of fortune and bad luck, tales of mischief and heroism, folklore on talent and waste. These stories get told over and over again and are being accepted by legions of motorsport fans as the truth. But are they? Or are some of these stories nothing but myths? In which cases did friendships, sympathies, political correctness or nationalism win over cold and scientific fact-finding? When has the collective creation of a myth obscured a clear view of the actual proceedings? Which narratives with two sides to the story have been attractive to the hero-and-villain scenario?

We claim that some of the biggest stories in motorsport have been plainly concocted for personal or political reasons – or simply because the concoction made a better (and simpler) story. Many of these interpretations have gone on to become accepted history and are being spread to new generations of motorsport fans. Other stories may well be based on facts, but in these cases historians have chosen to withhold them, preferring the cruel practice of implication over the absolving truth. Here the rumour becomes accepted – nudge, nudge, wink, wink – yet it will remain unfounded for those who aren’t “in the know”.

This is why we have chosen to go out on a limb and challenge some of the myths and unsubstantiated rumours that are at the heart of motor racing history. We have created our personal top-ten but we are sure that you will be able to stretch our list to a top 25 easily. We realise that we are at risk of being burned at the stake here. To those carrying the torches we say that have absolutely no intention of questioning any historian’s integrity. We merely want to question the myths some of them helped to create – usually inadvertently.

So here we go…

Our Top Ten of Accepted Myths of Grand Prix Racing

  1. Enzo Ferrari was an honourable Italian enigma with a passion for true racing and true racers. In these days of Ferrari team orders and other scandals surrounding Schumacher’s team you often here people claim that “the Old Man would turn in his grave”. Yet in many ways the Old Man was even worse. He was in racing for personal triumph and would make an opera out of everyone or anything standing in his way of achieving his triumph. Team orders were as usual as driver changes, drivers themselves hardly as important as today's stars, the grief over their passing away a dramatisation of anguish and sorrow put up to show his human side to the masses but particularly those involved in the decision-making process. If it's true that Enzo Ferrari was in motor racing for the racing, then so is the current outfit bearing his name. In fact, the motor racing helped sell his road cars - and from today's teams it's not hard to suggest that Fiat gets considerably less return on investment from F1 than BMW, Renault or Toyota, whose Grand Prix teams' sole raison d'être is indeed marketing.
  2. Ayrton Senna was a religious fanatic solely responsible for lowering driving standards to their current questionable level. There are drivers and there are racers. Some drivers have so much talent that they are able to scoop the big prize by making optimal use of their car-nursing abilities and cunning. Others are racers attacking the road and gunning their cars into the tiniest of gaps. It's an oversimplification to give a sporting tag to the former category and an unsporting one to the latter. Ah, but Ayrton admitted to driving his adversary off the road. Yes, that was a very unsporting thing to do, but the machines of his day allowed him to. In the past he wouldn't have dared to, no matter the sheer level of his competitiveness. Others in the past may well have thought of the same option but didn't feel safe enough doing so. We will never be able to tell. But are we really to believe that one such action would inspire dozens of drivers following in his footsteps? All strong-willed men, with personalities and characters of their own, making their own risk calculations? Sometimes there is just too much psychology involved in explaining people's actions. The presence of virtually bullet-proof cars is a much more plausible argument compared to the continuing psychological influence of a childhood hero who has been dead for over ten years now.
  3. Pironi killed Gilles. Another case of simplified psychology that helped form the neat and tidy story of the all-conquering, care-free hero that was Gilles and the difficult, withdrawn and tormented character that was Didier Pironi. In reality, there are two, possibly even three sides to the story of the broken agreement at Imola, and there must be mind-reading involved when attributing Gilles' misinterpretation of Jochen Mass' backmarker move at Zolder to still being enraged by Didier's supposed duplicity and wanting to show the Frenchman who was boss. And if that wasn't enough there was more character murder involved when the naming of Didier's twin Gilles and Didier was labelled as an acceptance of guilt - after he died!
  4. Stirling should have won four World Championships. Possibly, but there is nothing to prove that theory. In fact, Stirling Moss would not have been Stirling Moss if he'd won those titles. He would not have been Moss if he'd set his national and personal allegiances aside and had chosen to race for the strongest team on offer. Another angle on the Moss title myth is the continued devaluation of a World Championship title as a quantifiable measure of quality. It may be so that a World Championship is more likely to be a quantifiable measure of success than it is of quality, but then it shouldn't matter that much that Moss didn't win any. His win rate says enough anyway.
  5. Hermann Lang was the 1939 European Champion. Yes, because he was appointed Champion by Germany's highest motor racing official and claimed so himself after the war. And ah, he won the most races and was the best of the season by far. No contest there, but people don't always get what they deserve. The matter of fact is that this was Europe's European Championship, organized by the AIACR, not Germany's European Championship, even if German teams had a stranglehold on the top positions. In this case the championship was held while waiting on a decision that would ratify the season's points system, which was suggested to change from the then usual minimum points to a maximum points system fairly similar to the one in use today. But the waiting became endless when war broke out and the season finished without any points system in place. Assuming that the old points system was still valid - but we can't be sure - Hermann-Paul Müller would be the rightful champion, as he scored the least points, two points less than Lang, in fact, whose championship effort was hurt by a DNF at the Nürburgring. Lang would have won under the new system but we know for a fact that it was never ratified. Which leaves only one other option - that there is no 1939 European Champion, as was concluded by Richard Armstrong after a lengthy collaborative investigation on the AtlasF1 Nostalgia Forum. More…
  6. The result of the 1933 Tripoli GP was a fix, with the protagonists each gaining personal advantage. As with myth number 5, it shows that real investigation can put an end to a myth. For decades Alfred Neubauer's take on the proceedings at Tripoli in 1933 was regarded as the major source for the mouth-watering story that the race-connected lottery was rigged by the major drivers involved, agreeing to put up a show for the crowd yet finish in a set order. However, as with many stories in Neubauer's Speed Was My Life it must be taken with a pinch of salt, given the man's larger-than-life character. After that, many distinguished authors told and re-told the story that Neubauer invented. Sources such as the memories of Italians Canestrini, Lurani and Varzi, in a study started by Betty Sheldon and completed by Don Capps, led to a different conclusion: there was indeed a pre-race agreement between several drivers and their respective ballot holders, but it didn't involve rigging the race - it involved splitting the money equally among the group, whichever order the cars finished. That's quite another story. Incidentally, the furious Varzi/Nuvolari battle near the finish of this race sowed the seeds of another myth - that of Achille Varzi being a cold and heartless drug addict obsessed with beating Nuvolari. More…
  7. The Brooklands motto ‘The right crowd and no crowding’ must not be interpreted as being elitist. If that were so, where were the grandstands? With democracy being today's preferred form of social structure it's hard to support any organisation that in the past held different views. That would be politically incorrect and we wouldn't want that. We would want to applaud the heroes who helped shape the Brooklands myth, as the oval gave birth to some fantastic racing and record attempts. So they held an elitist view to their track action and kept out the ordinary folk - so what?
  8. Chris Amon was the unluckiest driver ever and should have won at least six Grands Prix. Should he? His rotten luck made him famous alright - probably because we love heroes, and lucky heroes don't exist, and if they do they are boring. However, most of his luck was caused by his own doing, and self-admittedly so. Seldom has a Grand Prix driver excelled more on the front of bad career moves. He left Ferrari for March at the time Mauro Forghieri came up with his flat twelve. From that moment on, every result gained was against the odds. So what odds for actually winning a race? And what was all that effort about with the Goral and the AF101? He's still sure it would have worked with more money. But what was the realistic chance of those funds forthcoming in the immediate future? Of course there are drivers who managed to win a Grand Prix against the odds but even more who didn't. But they were probably not as likeable…
  9. The 1983 World Championship-winning Brabham BT52 ran illegal rocket fuel. This is accepted rumour that has never been substantiated with proof, yet it is common knowledge for those "in the loop" that Brabham cheated itself into 1983 title glory. If that is so, why do we choose to either keep the fact under wraps or mere imply that there was wrong-doing on the part of "a certain World Championship-winning team in the 80s"? Would it taint the reputation of the World Championship? Would its erstwhile team owner and crew - now forming the core of the FIA F1 organisation - get angry? Or is it simply too hard to prove? So what is it? Why allow this to drag on for decades? Stop implying, come out with the facts!
  10. Benetton’s B194 ran illegal traction control, which is why the FIA made such a big deal of Schumacher’s black-flag offence at the 1994 British GP. Another accepted rumour that historians refuse to substantiate, the traction-control "fact or fiction" saga of 1994 has been allowed to do its evil work for over a decade now. Usually, the reporters or writers involved will doubt the FIA's statement that it could not find conclusive evidence. But what is the argument supporting their doubt? Alternatively, reference is made to major team owners or certain drivers who apparently know what happened and are subsequently praised for their irreverent words in private circles. But why can't they tell publicly? Competing teams are usually very happy to protest. Most of the drivers of the time have retired. Are they blocked by the FIA that doesn't want their main protagonist's reputation tarnished? (As if it isn't already.) Or is it that it actually does more harm to merely suggest that the car was illegal, allowing the rumour to fester long enough to make out the hated key team members and their hated drivers not only as cheats but as liars as well?

So there you have it. We all need myths but to actually learn something from them they do need to be based on a basic truthful insight or fact. Anyway, it's not a scholar's field of expertise to create or pass on a myth. That's the working ground of novelists, playwrights, poets, philosophers and ordinary people. And it's not always the latter group that is also the most gullable…