Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Last Road Race - Richard Williams

Whilst sifting through numerous old books on my shelves, I came across "The Last Road Race", by Richard Williams, originally published in 2004, which tells the story of the 1957 Pescara Grand Prix.

The premise of the book is that the race represented the closing of an era, in that it was the last World Championship Grand Prix to be staged on a particular type of circuit, and in a certain set of conditions. It is a compact work, packed with details and anecdotes, and it contains several evocative passages.

Only a relatively small proportion of the book is actually taken up with the Pescara race itself.  Much of the space is given over to scene-setting, with portraits of some of the key participants in the event, and analysis of the key trends which determined its outcome, such as the emergence of the British constructors.  In some ways, "The Last Road Race" also functions as a brief history of motor racing in the period up until 1957, a chronicle of how that point had been reached.

The tenor of the era comes through, such as the more relaxed, informal feel of less regimented times and even through the improvised arrangements for travel, accommodation and so forth. There are some amusing stories about these aspects.

Much of the story revolves around Stirling Moss, either directly or indirectly.  Whenever I read anything about Moss, my admiration for the man rises. His professionalism, his talent and his energy combined to make him a compelling study.  There is some illuminating material how about how he organized himself, and how his approach differed from some of his peers. Moss comes across as a transitional figure on more than one level.

In addition to Moss, another person who impresses is Tony Brooks. An intriguing character, whose opinions and frank observations about racing and life are always worth reading.

I discerned quickly that the drivers had varying views about racing, their motives and their anxieties. Some were at home on the classic, perilous natural road courses, and bemoaned the sterility which later infiltrated the sport. Others were candid in expressing their unease about some of the conditions which they raced under.  Less romantic than some of their contemporaries, they were more pragmatic and business-like. Not everyone later complained unfailingly that things were better in their day.

From today's vantage point, the 1950s feel like a fabulous period for racing. Post-war optimism and renewal, the rise of the British drivers and teams, and the beginnings of technological upheaval, overlapped with the remnants of the pre-war age. This book manages to capture much of that atmosphere and excitement.

The actual competitiveness of the racing was often lacking, but the spectacle was enticing, and that seemed to be enough. It was real theatre, this dimension being heightened by the greater contribution of the driver, and the manner in which that contribution was more immediately visible.  Yes, some things in today's world are better, but those far-off days had an innocence and a raw drama about them.

Also, the media and the public did not constantly agonize about "the show", and subject it to minute scrutiny. In some respects the audience, and expert observers, had a more nuanced and sophisticated view. Attention spans were longer, and there was less pressure to pander to some perceived requirement to "entertain".

In 1957, the world was already beginning to change, but old-world courtesies lingered, and some timeless values were scrupulously observed. The drivers from that era were a diverse but likeable and noble group. They were not perfect, and had their flaws like all of us.

"The Last Road Race" is an enjoyable and stimulating document on a place and a time, written with enthusiasm and some style.

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