The glamour and glitz of Monte-Carlo may be occupying pole position in the minds of Formula 1 fans this morning – but, since I’m not in the Principality this weekend but instead am preparing to watch the race from the sofa in the living room of my home in rural Essex (UK), I find my mind straying from the world’s most famous municipal racetrack to another one much closer to home.
I’m referring, of course, to the tight little south London parkland circuit at Crystal Palace – and, if you aren’t in Monaco today, then Crystal Palace is a great alternative, because there’s on-track action there today and tomorrow.
I’ve always absolutely adored Crystal Palace. As I say, it may not be Monaco, but to British race fans of a certain vintage it has always had a similar allure. Perhaps that was because, just as at Monaco, we spectators could almost reach out and touch the competing cars as they tore past only inches away from our finger-tips. Or, in my case, perhaps it was because my father first took me there for the whitsun 1964 Formula 2 race, when the ‘unknown’ Austrian Jochen Rindt won against the odds in his own private Brabham.
On that gloriously sunny spring afternoon just a month short of my 17th birthday, I was utterly captivated by the speed and sound of what seemed to me to be an impossibly glamorous ‘sport’. And, as a result, Rindt would be lodged in my mind for ever more as my very first motor racing hero.
Very sadly, I never got to meet him, for he was killed in qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, in 1970, just six weeks after I’d started my career in motor racing journalism on the staff of Motoring News.
What happened to the Non-Championship Grand Prix racing calendar?
The Crystal Palace circuit opened for motorcycle racing in 1927, in which year a single lap was a mere one mile in length. Ten years later its length had doubled in time for the first London Grand Prix, for cars rather than bikes, which was won by the wealthy and well-connected Siamese (ie, Thai) Prince Bira at the wheel of his ERA 2B ‘Romulus’. Later that same year, Bira won the International Trophy race, also at Crystal Palace, the event being the first motor race ever to be broadcast on television by the BBC.
In the post-World War Two era, the circuit grew in popularity, success there helping boost the careers not only of Rindt but also the gifted young Belgian Jacky Ickx, who won the 1967 Formula 2 London Trophy at the wheel of a Tyrrell Matra. I recall Bruce McLaren absolutely flying in a McLaren M4A during that race too, but Jacky just had the edge in the end.
Moreover, almost exactly 41 years ago, on 29th May 1972 in fact, McLaren scored one of the most impressive victories in its history at Crystal palace, courtesy of Jody Scheckter’s brilliance that afternoon in a bright orange McLaren M21 that he owns to this day.
In fact, that weekend that should by rights be writ large in McLaren annals as one of the most spectacularly successful few days in the company’s glorious history. Not only did Jody thrash rival Mike Hailwood in his championship-winning Surtees TS10 through the twists and turns of Crystal Palace that afternoon, but on the same day Denny Hulme’s McLaren M19A thrashed Emerson Fittipaldi’s championship-winning Lotus 72 in the International Gold Cup non-championship Formula 1 race at Oulton Park and, on the opposite side of the Atlantic two days previously (27th May 27), Mark Donohue was busy posting McLaren’s first victory in the Indy 500 in a Roger Penske-run McLaren M16B. Me? I was at Crystal Palace to see Jody win.
Over time, as Formula 2 and non-championship Formula 1 gradually withered on the vine, places like Crystal Palace gradually ran out of momentum. In Crystal Palace’s case, a variety of club and historic events kept my memories alive until its eventual and very sad closure at the end of the 1974 season.
But full marks to the Sevenoaks & District Motor Club, who keep the flame flickering with modest nostalgic gatherings every year. So if you aren’t in Monaco today, then Crystal Palace is a great alternative. There’s on-track action there today and tomorrow.