Monday, 25 March 2013

The big prize

Just as you can't choose your parents you don't have much choice about the culture you're brought up in. My mother's side of the family were obsessed by motors.  So, even though I'm clearly an environmentalist, I know a lot more about cars and motor racing than you might expect. 

My grandad once applied for a racing licence at Brooklands, passed all the practical tests but was turned down when they discovered that he only had sight in one eye. (As a young boy living in the Lee Valley he'd picked up a piece of scrap metal, taken it home and hit it with a  hammer only for it to blow up in his face. It turned out to be a bit of shrapnel, probably from the Lee Enfield arms factory nearby).  When either he or his brother acquired a new car the first thing they'd do was  take it to bits and then put it back together again "properly". The first time they realised they needn't have bothered was when he got his first modern BMW in the early 1960's.

As a boy I got two regular publications. The first was Animals,  the official journal of the Panda Club, itself the junior wing of the then World Wildlife Fund, the other was Autocar. I studied both of these as studiously as only an 8 year old can. My first published letter was in Animals, asking whether it was feeding cheese to my mice that made them smell, and, from Autocar, I knew the prices, horse powers, even the gear ratios of just about all the contemporary cars. From memory an Austin 1800 cost about £900, developed about 70hp and had a top gear ratio of 1:1. At about the same time you could get an E type Jaguar for just under £2000.  

Once my grandad called me and my brother to one side. He'd got something important he wanted to tell us. Our first thought was that we really didn't want him telling us the facts of life. But no, he sat down with a piece of paper and a pencil and announced, "Now boys, this is how a four stroke engine works". Shortly to be followed by "and this is how a two stroke engine works".

Just after my brother had learned to drive my grandad, then in his 60's, offered to teach him how to do four wheel drifts; apparently these were useful "if you were in a hurry". Later he gave me the most sensible bit of motoring advice I've ever been given "If you don't know what you'd do if you met yourself coming the other way then don't do it"

The upshot of this is that yesterday I was busy avoiding the news so that I could watch a recording of the Malaysian Grand Prix without it being spoiled by knowing the outcome. I suspect a good number of relatives were doing something similar.

What do I like about it? Certainly not the sheer waste of energy, but I do admire the skill, the technology and the sheer physicality of withstanding enormous, and rapidly changing, g forces whilst at the same time keeping everything just about under control. When ordinary people have accidents they often describe it as though something just happened. When a good racing driver  crashes they can spend 2 or 3 minutes describing a series of events that actually lasted only 2 or 3 seconds.

I also can't help thinking about the physics. For example, a Formula 1 engine produces about 800hp. At about 750W per hp that translates to about 600kW. Now this is the power delivered to the wheels and, since the engine is about 35% efficient, this means it's producing heat at about 1200kW. Now a typical central heating boiler is rated at about 20kW so a single Formula 1 car at max power is producing heat equivalent to 60 domestic boilers. Enough to heat an entire street. No wonder they overheat if a crisp packet gets stuck in the radiator and that when visibility is low the following driver can judge their distance from the car in front by the wave of heat that's being given off.

But, even though I may have passed my driving test within a month of turning 17, I must also have been one of the first people to give up driving for environmental reasons. For a three month period as a 19 year old the only vehicle I drove was a dumper truck on a building site. In the full spirit of hypocrisy I got a mate to give me lifts.

Postscript: I was out at a gallery opening in the afternoon and came through the kitchen on my way to watch the race just as a Radio 6  bulletin gave the game away and told me who'd won the big prize. Never mind...


  1. Well, who'd a thunk it? All these years, and I never guessed you were a closet petrolhead. Good to know you have a dark side...

    Was "Animals" the organ of the Panda Club? I used to get it, too, and although I was a member of the Club (and the YOC) I don't associate the two. Wasn't it just a very good 1960s part-work? My memory is that it was pitched at a fairly adult level.

    I still remember reading the articles about Silent Spring when it came out -- we'd just moved to a new house in a new-build part of town where birds were disappointingly scarce, and the two are deeply associated in my mind.


  2. I seem to remember the Panda Club and Animals going together but it may just have been that the one promoted the other. A rapid Google doesn't make me any the wiser.

    As for the WWF a few years ago that turned into the World Wide Fund for Nature. That I am sure of.

    As for the closet petrolheadedness, you have to remember that I'm really an Essex boy. My mother's two youngest brothers ended up with a garage in Newport and when I stayed down there I'd be a passenger hurtling between North Essex pubs in a variety of souped up saloon cars. This included The Cricketers at Whereveritwas, the home of young Jamie Oliver. So I know that his accent is genuine and that even 13 year olds would quite naturally be addressed as "the old gels"

  3. AND a closet Essex boy! Leave it out, son, yer doin' me 'ead in. Y'fink y'knows someone...


  4. Mike

    Did you never wonder why I had such a mixed up accent? We moved from Buckhurst Hill to Cheadle (near Manchester) when I was 5 and then on to Harrogate when I was 8. You can take the boy out of Essex.....