Motorway driving

This has nothing to do with motorway driving. This is me acting as riding mechanic on the 1906 Grand Prix Renault at Le Mans. (see below)

Scotland on Sunday 27 July 2003

I was driving up the M6 after a two thousand mile round trip mainly on motorways. For the most part the driving was not bad. White Van Man now drives Sprinters at 110mph in the outside lane but except for an articulated truck crossing my path while the driver dived for his Yorkie Bar, or fell asleep, it was pretty well without incident.

Biggest nuisance was the undertaker, left-side traffic stealing through, then pulling in front. One white van passed on the left, swerved over to the outside lane, dodging from lane to lane in a frantic and dangerous bid to get ahead. It made no sense, and made law-abiding drivers wonder where the traffic patrols were.

So what was I doing in the middle lane when there was overtaking space on the left? I like to set the cruise control to an indicated 80mph, that is 77mph for the 10 per cent the law allows, plus a couple of mph to take account of the flatter most speedometers have. At this speed the middle lane of the motorway is comfortable, flyers can fly by on the outside, trucks trundle along on the inside. Everybody, you would think, would be happy.

Not so. Self-appointed guardians of the Highway Code, which says in effect you should always pull over to the left, come up behind at 85mph and make a great display of swerving out to overtake, flash indicators and point leftwards in rebuke. It is never clear exactly what they are mouthing but it seems like indignation. People get shirty if the left lane is unoccupied and there is much flashing of lights, but I am too old and dignified for road rage, and let them get on their high blood pressure way.

I take the view that smooth consistent and predictable behaviour is far better on the motorway (or anywhere else) than dashing from side to side. I am pleased to find the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) supports this. The IAM manual "Pass Your Advanced Driving Test" on the thorny issue of lane discipline says:

"Return to the left when you can, but do not do this over zealously so that you end up constantly skipping from one lane to another. Far too often on motorways you see strings of cars bunched needlessly in the right hand lane queuing up to pass a few people drifting along in the centre lane."

The emphasis is on the over zealous. Unnecessary lane changing can make accidents.

“Drifting along in the centre lane” seems to exclude those, like me, going about their lawful affairs at around the statutory speed limit. Driving experts disapprove of Slow Lane, Middle Lane, and Fast Lane; the outside one is the Overtaking Lane but in theory if the Middle Lane is occupied by 70mph traffic nobody should be overtaking anyway.

The safest roads are those on which all the traffic is doing the same speed. If everybody is bowling along at 50 or 60 or 70 nobody is going to be taken by surprise and leave those lurid skid marks that mean somebody has had a heart-stopping moment or worse. Consistency, changing lane as seldom as possible, and constant monitoring of the mirror are the recipe for motorway safety.


Scotsman Motoring, Eric Dymock 4 May 2006

Renault might look a bit of a Johnny-come-lately to Formula 1, but next month celebrates the centenary of not only grand prix racing, but also its first victory. Perching me high on an antique racing car, with the wind in my face, convinced me of the fortitude of drivers in the heroic age of motor sport. I managed it for several miles; they battled it out on dusty gritty roads in the searing heat of a scorching summer, literally up hill and down dale, for two whole days.

The 1906 French Grand Prix at Le Mans was no hour-and-a-half sprint by Schumachers and Alonsos, cocooned in fire-proof clothing, and strapped into fat-tyred roller skates. A hundred years ago next month, fearless Hungarian Ferenç Szisz and his intrepid riding mechanic Marteau, sat on a swaying one-and-a-half-ton monster with a 13-litre engine, averaging 63mph for the entire 770miles. They reached 100mph, bounced perilously on bone-jarring ruts in the compacted clay surface, scarcely easing up on stretches of railway sleeper roads by-passing villages along the 64 mile course.

Then as now, team managers were up to technical tricks. The flints and the heat shredded tyres; most fatalities in racing followed tyre failure, so in collaboration with Michelin the Renaults’ big wooden artillery wheels had detachable rims. The jantes amovibles were fitted to the back wheels since they wore out faster. Instead of cutting off the worn-out smoking remnants of the old tyres with knives and forcing on new ones, Szisz and Marteau undid eight nuts, and put on a ready-inflated tyre and rim. They were on their way in two minutes instead of their rivals’ ten, and by the end of the first day had 26 minutes in hand. After a second day, despite a last lap nursing a broken spring, they won by half an hour.

Renaults moreover had the first double-acting hydraulic dampers ever used on a racing car, not only for comfort and controllability, but also to spare the tall, narrow and vulnerable tyres.

British carmakers had been suspicious of the French Grand Prix. The Petit Parisien confirmed their doubts about its sporting nature, when it said: “If we win the Grand Prix we shall let the whole world know that French motorcars are the best. If we lose it will merely be by accident…”

The industries were deadly rivals. The British thought the contest would be rigged, so left it to Germany and Italy to enter three teams of three cars, challenging 25 from ten French manufacturers. The race was known simply as The Grand Prix; there was no other. The title meaning big prize, had already been used for the Grand Prix de Pau on 17 February 1901, but it was not applied to anything else until the 1920s.

Officially the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club de France (ACF), the 1906 event was the first great national race, inaugurating a series that has counted towards the drivers’ and manufacturers’ world championships since 1950. The doubts of the British in 1906 were by no means ill founded. The Entente Cordiale had been signed barely two years earlier, but the French motor industry was the biggest in the world, its members formed the nucleus of the ACF, and they had been frustrated by the rules of the Gordon Bennett Cup, the first attempt at international motor races.

This specified one team per country, which seemed unfair to the French, because they had more manufacturers than anybody else. Prompted by the industry that formed the bulk of its membership, the ACF proposed teams for its Grand Prix, entered by make rather than country. The chief protagonists from Italy were Fabbrica Italiani di Automobili Torino (F.I.A.T. forebears of Ferrari) along with Itala, and from Germany the mighty Mercédès. Besides Renault the French teams included Lorraine-Dietrich, Darracq, Gobron-Brillié, Grégoire, Hotchkiss, Clément-Bayard and one of the oldest names in the industry Panhard-Levassor.

Renault’s commemorative expedition to Le Mans used Agatha, the closest thing to the 1906 racers, all of which have been lost. One of ten built, at $8,500 each for William Kissam Vanderbilt Jr to compete in the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island in 1908, Agatha is only 7.4litres but leaps off the line with astonishing vigour. The big crankshaft, with pistons the size of biggish teapots, turns only at between 1,200rpm and 1,800rpm, yet pulls with the low-speed strength of a steam engine. Changing gear is ponderous, accomplished with a certain amount of clunking and heaving of the big lever, even in the practised hands of owner German Renault dealer Wolfgang Auge.

The great car’s first owner was Harry Payne Whitney, Vanderbilt’s cousin and heir to a cotton gin fortune. It then passed to mining millionaire Robert Guggenheim, before coming to Britain before the first world war for Lord Kimberley, famous surgeon Sir Harold Gillies, then collector Marcus Chambers of Clapham. The value of all old racing cars collapses when they are no longer eligible for competition, and Chambers later the motor sport manager of the British Motor Corporation (BMC), bought it at the bottom of its cycle. He advertised it in Motor Sport of August 1935 under Veteran Cars as: “1907 Sports Renault, £30 or offer.”

Brothers Anthony and John Mills, named it Agatha, and when Anthony a Royal Air Force squadron leader was killed soon after D-Day it was sold to Charles Dunn until auctioned in 1992 to Wolfgang Auge. It is now almost priceless.

The course of the 1906 race is easily followed. It lies to the east of Le Mans, well clear of the Circuit Permanent de la Sarthe where the Automobile Club de l’Ouest runs the great 24-Hour Grand Prix d’Endurance. Triangular over undulating countryside it goes by the N157 to St-Calais, the D1 to La Ferté Bernard and the Route Nationale N23 back through Connerré to the start-finish line near Le Mans, where the twin tunnels built for spectators to walk from the pits side of the road to the grandstands have been carefully restored