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Staying Sane In A Lockdown!

Author and CSCC Correspondent John Aston has kindly put metaphorical pen to paper, with his thoughts on how we can pass the coming weeks and months without racing.

I’m getting really good at ASARTH, and I bet I’m not alone. Until the other day my condition was nameless but an article in The Times came to my rescue and now I know what I’ve got. It’s a condition triggered by self-isolation and it’s called Achieving Sod All Round The House. I don’t know about you but I’m getting sick of emails from friends, gushing about how they are maximising all those new opportunities which damned Corvid 19 has created. You know the sort of thing – ‘I never realised making sourdough bread was such fun’ or ‘I’m re-reading War and Peace’ (the ‘re’ is what really irritates) or, from motorsport friends, ‘I’ve reorganised the garage and now I’m rebuilding the spare gearbox’. Well, good on you guys, but I bet I’m not alone in having found that, since life became this Groundhog Day tribute act, on some days I’ve come close to being bored stupid. But there are survival techniques, and I have found motorsport-themed podcasts and books a real help in getting through those days when time weighs heavy. And, better still, they make me start looking forward to those summer Saturdays when I’m on the road at dawn, heading south on an empty A1 and full of anticipation for a weekend of racing at Cadwell or Brands, Silverstone or Oulton. Good times will return, believe it.

Let me talk about podcasts first and, if you haven’t become a convert yet, you are missing out. Back in the day when dinosaurs stalked the earth and we didn’t have the internet, in-depth interviews were a staple of the motoring press. But in 2020, with the honourable exception of Motor Sport magazine’s ‘Lunch With’ interviews, you’ll struggle to find anything more than bite-size factoids in magazines, and even less on websites. The same thing happened to TV chat shows – where there once might have been a long conversation with somebody interesting, we now get a soundbite from a C list celebrity with a new TV show to plug. But podcasts are our friend, because there is no limit on duration and no restriction on what can be said, nor how colourfully it is expressed. That is why the podcast I’ve just listened to, between Chris Harris and rally navigator and born raconteur Nicky Grist lasted 204 minutes – and it was funny, moving and totally captivating. It was punctuated by more than the occasional F word, it’s true, but it left me knowing a hell of a lot more about Colin McRae, Juha Kankkunen and Toyota’s ‘creative’ approach to FIA regulations. At best, a good podcast like this feels like you are sitting in the pub with your new friends, just chewing the fat about our favourite sport. Come to think of it, podcasts are the closest we’re going to get to the pub for some time yet. You can listen to a podcast on your iphone as you paint the shed, as you chill out in the front room or as you drive to work. That is, if you’re still driving at all; I’m not, my fun car is on Sorn and my sensible one has done ten miles in the last month. Some podcasts can also be seen on YouTube – but I find just listening a much more immersive experience. Try these –

Beyond The Grid – Tom Clarkson Tom is the guy who does the official interviews in Formula 1. He knows his stuff, and the only downsides are the odd advertisement and Tom’s concentration on F1, even when an interviewee has a real story elsewhere –like 1995 Indy winner Jacques Villeneuve. But there are some real gems to be savoured in the nearly 80 podcasts he’s done so far. Highlights for me have included Takuma Sato (an amazing story from a charming man), Mario Andretti (you name it , he’s raced it), the Brit Pack (Blundell, Hill, Herbert, Coulthard), emotional Latins (Fittipaldi, Alesi and Barrichello) and, best of the lot, Eddie Jordan. But forget the Channel 4 F1 cheeky chappy routine, the real EJ is razor smart, extremely funny and has undoubtedly kissed the Blarney Stone. I suspect it wasn’t just a chaste peck on the cheek either . Oh, and Mercedes and Ferrari technical guy James Allison is fascinating, even to somebody as non tech as me.

Collecting Cars with Chris Harris The best and worst things about this podcast are both called Chris. Our host started as a gofer at Autocar in the Nineties and is now the token car guy on Top Gear. He is knowledgeable, an experienced racer, can be very funny and is endearingly enthusiastic about anything with four wheels. That‘s the good stuff. The bad stuff is that he forgets that the guest, not himself, is the star, he swears too much and too often, he can’t resist an in-joke and he seems unaware that, unlike his mates, most of his audience can’t just blow fifty grand on a toy. In short, our Chris can be just a bit too full of himself. That’s the health warning, but is Harris still worth a listen? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’ because, once you get past the ADHD delivery, here is a real car guy who has lived the dream and can’t wait to share it. His list of guests includes journalists, racers and supercar dealers and, while the last category doesn’t interest me much, the others certainly do. As an amateur scribbler, I found the talk with EVO magazine founder Harry Metcalfe fascinating, as were conversations with Goodwood star Richard Meaden and with Richard Porter, the man who wrote Top Gear scripts, and who also created the viciously funny Sniff Petrol website. But the racers are best of all, Tiff Needell is on his rev limiter as per usual, Martin Brundle is just whip-crack smart and, as previewed above, Nicky Grist is just getting into his stride after 3 hours.

Motor Sport Magazine These guys were early adopters of the podcast and they have spoken to nearly everybody who is anybody in the world of motor sport. Many, but not all, of the podcasts are also on YouTube. Don’t expect super slick production values, or Jeremy Paxman interrogation, because what you get with regular presenters Simon Arron and Ed Foster is huge enthusiasm, underpinned with a deep knowledge of the sport and an endearing willingness to let a chat go in an unexpected direction. The only ego in sight is the guest’s, with our hosts being reassuringly regular guys, sometimes a bit shambolic perhaps, but always very likeable. The sound can be ropey, traffic and aircraft noise can intrude, or even builder’s drills, but that keeps the whole thing feeling so endearingly real. Who to recommend? They are all good but anything with John Watson is really good, because Wattie is not a man to mince his words. You must try Roger Penske, because you’ll realise why the man they call The Captain should be in the White House. And there’s a lot more, from Damon Hill and Gil De Ferran to the brilliant Gordon Murray. And Nigel Mansell – if you listen to his last effort you will hear exactly why he can divide opinions like no other F1 driver. All I will say is that my toes stayed curled for the whole hour . Dig around the internet and there’s plenty more to find, from the very professional stuff you’d expect from Goodwood Road and Racing to the homebrewed amateur charm of The Mechanic’s Gallon. The latter is the creation of Gary Critcher, and he has produced a series of interviews with legendary racing mechanics like Bob Dance, Beaky Simms and Pete Briggs. If you want to know what it was really like to work for Team Lotus in the heady days of the Sixties, or for March and Surtees a decade later, these podcasts are an essential listen. These guys don’t hold back about some of their bosses .

Books There are hundreds of books on motor sport but many of them are awful. The worst are the ghost written driver biographies, often rushed into print to cash in on a driver’s championship. My golden rule is to avoid anything written by, or about, a driver who is still active, because nobody dares say anything controversial if there’s a sponsor still to schmooze. I’d also recommend avoiding those books which are just endless lists of race results and/or chassis numbers, unless, of course, you own the chassis in question and/or suffer from insomnia.

You won’t find a better written driver autobiography, or a more riveting read, than Watching the Wheels by Damon Hill. After his retirement Hill had some serious personal challenges to deal with, and part of his recovery process was to achieve a first class degree in literature at the Open University. His book is beautifully written, brutally frank and deeply moving.

David Tremayne is one of the finest motorsport journalists. The combination of painstaking research and his beautifully written prose has resulted in two masterpieces, both of which became the definitive work on their subjects. The Lost Generation is the story of the three great British drivers who were killed between 1973 and 1977 – Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Tom Pryce. Each driver had shown great promise and had made it to Formula 1, but only Pryce had established himself at the top level, with a pole position already to his credit at the 1975 British Grand Prix. I saw Williamson in his first Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1973, driving the March 731 which his patron Tom Wheatcroft had bought, but poor Roger was killed in his next race, at Zandvoort. Brise had raced in ten Grands Prix for Graham Hill’s eponymous team when he died in the plane crash at Arkley golf course which claimed the lives of both his team boss and four team members. I think Brise was the most likely champion of the three, as he had both the ability and the ruthlessness which separates the great from the good. The book is fascinating and heart breaking and you won’t find a better insight into the world of Seventies Formula 1.

I guarantee that nobody will remain unmoved after reading Jim Clark – The Best of The Best. I won’t get into arguments about who was the best driver of all time, but if Clark isn’t included in a shortlist, it’s not even worth considering. He competed, and won, in just about every type of racing, but nearly always for Lotus. Rallies and saloon car racing in Lotus Cortinas, Formula 1 in iconic cars like the Lotus 25 and 49, and the Indy 500 in the gorgeous, and deafening, Lotus 38 . It was strange to learn that Jim Clark was as indecisive in his daily life as he was flawless in the cockpit but Tremayne’s account does every aspect of the story of the Borders sheep farmer full justice.

Judging by the number of Sevens, Elans, Europas and Cortinas in the CSCC paddock, I’m not the only Colin Chapman admirer. Controversy was something Chapman seemed to seek out, whether in car design or business practice but, with a legacy like his, I can forgive even the bad stuff. Colin Chapman – Inside the Innovator by Karl Ludvigsen is the definitive work on the man. As it should be, because Ludvigsen is the car guy’s car guy and he knew Chapman well. There’s a lot of technical content and it says a lot about the author that only rarely did I lose my bearings.

Adrian Newey and John Barnard, with Chapman and Gordon Murray, are the crème de la crème of race car design and both wrote their autobiographies recently. Newey’s How to Build a Car is un-putdownable and, although it covers much more than design, with a lot of personal anecdotes (such as winding up Ron Dennis, or partying with Christian Horner),

Barnard’s The Perfect Car is the more intense read. The man who some called the Prince of Darkness is harder to like than to admire, but Barnard’s account of the feuding and plotting which punctuated his time at Ferrari is astonishing, probably deserving its own opera. It’s a big book, packed with detail and it is highly recommended. Sometimes we don’t want a serious read at all, all we want to do is browse, and my final two recommendations are best enjoyed by dipping in randomly.

Motor Sport Explorer is a labour of love by author Julian Hunt, a former map curator for the Ordnance Survey. His task was to identify and summarise the 800 sites in the UK and Ireland which have been used for four wheeled motor sport over the last 120 years. It is a staggering piece of work from which I learned that my home county of Yorkshire has had no fewer than 64 venues, including 8 race circuits. Everybody has heard of Croft, and older readers might even remember Rufforth, but you will need to buy this terrific book to find out about the other six. (The book has one minor failing, because it lacked a master index when it was published. The author has since created an index, and he’s given me a copy. If you want one just get in touch with me – )

My last book is the best 30 quid I’ve ever spent on a motorsport title, as Rainer Schlegelmilch’s Sportscar Racing 1962-1973 is 540 pages of automotive pornography. It’s out of print, but you can get used copies for twenty quid from Amazon and, if anything can offer respite from the lockdown blues, this book can. The era covered was simply the best ever for sports and GT racing, with iconic cars such as the Ferrari P4, Ford GT 40 and Porsche 917. The race venues were also in massive contrast to the sterile, characterless circuits which are now being created. Schlegelmilch went everywhere, from the Nurburgring to Sicily’s Targa Florio, from Monza to Le Mans and from Watkins Glen to Spa- Francorchamps. That is the original, 8.7mile Spa where, in 1971, Pedro Rodriguez took his 917 to pole. His average speed? Just 157mph. Soak up the pictures in this marvellous book and you’ll feel like you were there too. I write book reviews for the American website, where you can find full reviews of the books I’ve recommended, and lots of others too. John Aston

If you enjoy John’s writing (and why wouldn’t you) please can I ask you to buy his latest book, DRIVEN, An elegy to cars, roads and motorsport. It’s a brilliant read, covering a wide range of topics including: a history of our author, his views on particular makes and models of car, to a superb distillation of the joy of driving and motorsport through the decades and where the professional sport has lost its way. Mostly written just before John joined us regularly at our events, the CSCC does still get a small mention. I had the pleasure of reading John’s book just before Christmas and can personally recommend it. David Smitheram



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