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Slaying a mighty dragon

Denis Jenkinson, a former sidecar racer and navigator to F1 driver Stirling Moss, once compared motor racing to slaying a dragon. If there was no danger to it, there was no point. Vinayak Pande reports.

india Updated: Oct 18, 2011 02:19 IST
Vinayak Pande

Denis Jenkinson, a former sidecar racer and navigator to F1 driver Stirling Moss, once compared motor racing to slaying a dragon. If there was no danger to it, there was no point. Ernest Hemmingway has often been quoted as referring to motor racing as one of three real sports in the world (along with mountaineering and bullfighting).

These men and opinions came from a different time and were shaped by the way Grand Prix racing used to be before safety, glamour and big business became matters of concern to competitors and administrators.

Fiery Beasts
Driving a Grand Prix car was taken to a different level when Italian and German dictators Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler decided that their nations should be at the forefront of sports. For this reason, major financial backing was given to Italy's Alfa Romeo and Germany's Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams.

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The madness started in 1935 with the Mercedes-Benz W25 that produced as much as 445 hp and was capable of speeds in excess of 280 kmh thanks to the minimal drag produced by a car unencumbered by aerodynamics and tyres so skinny that they looked better suited to a bicycle. Their W125 from 1937 was capable of producing up to 646 hp thanks to its 5.7 litre, 8 cylinder engine that was fueled by an unrestricted mix of volatile chemicals and petrol. The W125 could also reach top speeds in excess of 320 kmh and remained the most powerful Grand Prix car until the turbo charged F1 beasts of the 1980s.

The ultimate slayer
Statistics will tell you that Germany's Rudolf Caracciola won the most titles and races in the short lived European Grand Prix Championship from 1935 to 1939. But Caracciola had nothing in terms of bravado and raw skill on Italy's Tazio Nuvolari.

Nuvolari recorded 61 GP wins. Of those, none were greater than the one he scored at the 1935 German Grand Prix at the fearsome 22.8 km Nurburgring circuit.

Despite his outdated Alfa Romeo producing 110 hp less than Mercedes' W25 and 20 hp less than the rear-engined Auto Unions, Nuvolari beat a field comprising of eight of these cars in a rain soaked race.

After the madnes
Following the conclusion of the war, a new category of Grand Prix racing was created by the name of Formula 1 in 1946. It referred to a 'formula' of rules and regulations drafted to form the premier level of motor racing in the world. Alfa Romeo was at an immediate advantage with their 158s managing to survive the allied bombing of Italy and Germany being banned from competing in F1 till 1954. The inaugural world championship in 1950 predictably went to the Italian team as did the next one until Ferrari came along and took over the mantle of Italy's premier racing team. The cars remained essentially front engined roadsters until the compact, rear engined Cooper-Climax T51 of 1959, and the advent of corporate sponsorship in 1968 set in motion a series of sweeping changes that gave us F1 in its modern day form.

The 'golden age' was confined forever to the history books and the dragon lost just a bit of its fire.

A blast from the motorsport past
Most people can only read about the early days of the F1 world championship, John Fitch, a 94-year-old former American race driver can claim to have raced against the very first two F1 champions. "Awful, just awful!" That's how Fitch describes Italy's Guiseppe Farina, the first F1 champion who had a reputation of racing dirty. "Fangio was a very hard racer too but fair," said Fitch on the five time champion. He reserves the most amount of praise for four time F1 runner-up Stirling Moss, however, calling him "a true gentleman." Fitch had just two F1 starts to his name but had a fairly successful career in sports car racing where he raced for Mercedes-Benz. After racing, he revolutionised road safety in America with his Fitch Barrier System that is used on highways all over the country. HT Correspondent