Whilst in the attic retrieving some old Kodacolor negatives I came across a Motor Racing folder containing some notes from a trip to the French Grand Prix. In 1972 I hitched through France following the Grand Prix circus down to Clermont Ferrand relying almost entirely on the good will of the French nation for free rides.
By and large it was only 2CV drivers who responded to our outstretched thumbs; it wasn’t that others just drove by, it was the Gallic gestures and insults they felt obliged to shout from their car windows – my schoolboy French was ropey at best but I am certain it wasn’t Bon Voyage. They seem a nation of extremes, one half adopting an almost fascist reaction to two young kids trying to get a free ride whilst others demonstrated extreme kindness to complete strangers. When we arrived late into Clermont Ferrand on the eve of a Grand Prix our last 2CV driver persistently searched the town for a spare room and when this proved unsurprisingly fruitless, he let us bed down in a friend’s garret at the top of an ageing office building, something akin to an opium den. The description from my diary of the time is a little more colourful – six foot square, smelling of hash, swaying in the wind and done up like a voodoo temple, this was home for the night. By the time we hit the sack it could have been Buck house for all it mattered…..it was dry (as long as it didn’t rain) and warm (almost too warm) and once asleep this junkie’s pad was paradise. Then, my long-suffering girlfriend needed a toilet that wasn’t there – posterity doesn’t record what happened next.
The next day Chris Amon drove the race of his life in his Matra Simca MS120, leading the field by 10 seconds before a puncture forced him in for a tyre change. Losing almost a minute in the pits he re-joined the race in ninth and then drove like a man possessed to finish third. Once again, the fire burned brightly but with no reward, proving yet again that he was the greatest driver never to win a Grand Prix. Talking to fellow Kiwi and sports writer Norman Harris some years later he described such occasions like this: “It’s very like ‘form’ in cricket or golf. But you wouldn’t be aware of form when you’re driving along a public road, it’s when you’re driving at the limits – cornering, correcting it as it’s sliding rather than just catching it at the end, this is the thing.” Clermont Ferrand felt like a turning point; it just seemed from that from then on he was fated never to win and maybe he felt the same, certainly the fire burned a lot less brightly at Brands Hatch just two weeks later.
When you look at how the cars were prepared for these events you can only wonder at the sanity of all those involved; this oily rag scene looks medieval compared to the operating theatre conditions that prevail in modern Formula 1. The MS120 is not on jacks, it is supported by a couple of spare springs: