Tunis Grand Prix
For most people involved in historic racing, it is not their livelihood, they do it just for fun. And so, where would they be without the great love that some people hold for the sport - in French “un amateur”. One of those people who have a great affection for historic racing is the Mayor of Tunis and he has applied all his power to reviving the former Grand Prix of Tunis as it was held between 1928 and 1955.
An invitation, showing as organisers the city of Tunis, the National Automobile Club of Tunis (the MSA for the FIA and a seat on the world council) and a Thierry Giovannoni Organisation (GTO) looked reasonably convincing especially as they have done it before. One imagines the city doing the track, the NACT the race organisation and GTO the travel package. And Tunis is a nice warm place at the end of October, beginning November. Thus all the ingredients for a nice end of season jolly.
Reality proved to be different. After paying the entry fee (less TOPS discount) nothing followed, until two weeks before the event when I received a leaflet of the hotel and a customs form with on its back some rudimentary information called “règlement”. This was mainly stating what and when to pay, the date of departure and arrival in Marseille, as well as the possibility of a two day trip to the south of the country.
This absolute lack of information or organisation prevailed throughout the whole event. A couple of days before departure, I was still trying to find out where and when to be in Marseille. After being ordered on the dockside four hours before departure, half of the entrants appeared not to have been given their requested accommodation on board; and the meals for our group were better avoided. The organiser had apparently arranged a cheap package so we got wine that must have been cheaper than bottled water. Unloading in Tunis was a complete battlefield and only after lengthy queuing and paying some chappies who explained that they helped us, could we leave the port area. Only to find that we did not have any clue where to go and there was no one to give any direction. So with risk for our own lives, we followed a car whose owner seemed to have been there before. We safely arrived at the local sports stadium where little awnings had been placed and where we could unload on a good solid surface. Then it appeared that the cars were expected to appear on show in the main shopping street of Tunis. The HWM did not fancy that - and refused to start. The starter solenoid was on the blink. I bodged it by mounting a borrowed main switch. Fortunately the hotel (Sheraton Tunis Hotel & Towers) was, as we found out after arriving there, within walking distance and proved to be absolutely excellent.
The next morning back to the paddock not knowing what to expect, since there was still no information whatsoever on grids, timetables and so on. The first surprise was to find that the organisation and management of the racing part was not really in the hands of NACT as expected, but actually in the hands of the man responsible for the travel part (Thierry Giovannoni, who had already proven not to be capable of any strict organisation). I should have been a bit more wary.
The above mentioned “règlement” had stated that no race licenses or FIA/FIVA forms were required, since it was not a race but a “demonstration sportive”. I have not been able to find out what difference was really intended. No requirement for car papers resulted in more than half of the grid being replicas or recreations. Most of them even very nice ones. And at the value of the “average” Bugatti, Blower Bentley or Mercedes SSK, I cannot blame the real “amateur” preferring to have a recreation than none at all. The fact that no license was required probably meant that most participants did not have one. But it also meant that there was no scrutineering at all; also resulting in people driving without overalls, helmets etc.
Loosely, four grids were assembled: pre-war, single seaters, and two grids of post war sports and GT. We were to go out on the circuit once in the morning and once after lunch for “free practice”. Not everyone demonstrated an interest to going out with their own grid or even track discipline.
The track itself is, obviously, a street circuit. But not prepared as Monaco, Pau or Porto. Traffic signs, billboards and – as I found out - bus shelters - are marked, rather than protected, by a symbolic straw bale.
NACT had taken care of the marshals. Obviously one could not expect them to have the same level of experience as in the UK, but a bit more instruction would not go amiss. Chatting up one of the many lovely girls or chatting into their mobiles while the cars are out on the track does not seem appropriate. More worrying was the fact that they were looking most of the time to the oncoming cars, rather than being the “driver’s eyes”.
I did spend my first practise just to find my way around and trying not to fall out of the car on the bumpy downhill part. Then there was lunch in the hotel. After lunch looking into the fuel situation. That was nice. In a corner, with compliments of the organisation, two guys were filling jerry cans from a 200 litre barrel with 112 octane avgas. Apparently not too expensive locally, judging by the amount they spilled.
The second practice went already quite a lot better, although the fact that, during lunchtime, the chicane had been changed around without any warning to the drivers, made the first lap quite interesting. Also you had to keep an eye open for the odd dog, goat or cow crossing the track.
In the evening the group was invited by the Mayor for a formal dinner in the Town Hall, in the presence of Cabinet Ministers and the Ambassadors of most countries. Unfortunately, the bus that was to take the whole group down there was an hour and a half late, so we were slightly less than popular. The Town Hall, an old Palace, was really worth the visit and the food was excellent.
The next morning rain. Real rain and lots of it. But upon arriving at the circuit it stopped and we were grateful for the little eaze-up shelters. Out for timed practice/qualifying. Lack of organisation and licenses showed again. Some people feel happier to have more than one practise and just join in. No problem with overtaking under yellow behind the pace car. I am getting a bit more wary since the track is very slippery and some of the pre-war cars do loose oil. (A Darmont trike with a Matchless engine with full loss lubrication?). So I tell Joanna that if it is raining in the afternoon, I will not go out. But I qualified nevertheless on pole, (which in view of the other cars was not that much of an achievement.)
It is our travel manager, Giovannoni, who is now acting as Clerk of the Course. By way of Drivers’ Briefing, he tells us that some of the Italians have to take an earlier ferry and thus grid 2 (mine) is starting first. Be ready to go out in fifteen minutes. And yes, by the way, we will have a rolling start. What that exactly means is not said.
So Giovannoni sends us out behind the pace car. No red/yellow flags. Afterwards the guy in the safety-car tells us that he was not sure whether he was only “opening the circuit” or actually starting. After almost a complete lap the safety-car peels off and we continue in the direction of the Start Line, where the starter is ready with the national, red (?) flag. Before even reaching the starting line I get entangled with a somewhat over-enthusiast number three on the grid and both cars go onto the pavement; sending the other guy sideways into the wall and I end up taking out the bus shelter. Not good for either car or driver. I end up in hospital for several weeks with what is referred to as “multiple injuries” and the HWM becomes a “winter project”.
I could end the story here, but that would not be good.
If you have to have an accident, pray it is in Tunis (although the possibilities of getting one there are realistic). I was rushed into a private clinic and treated by consultants that were nearly all university professors in France. Possibly not having the latest technology, but very good quality, professional, jobs. But more impressive has been the attitude of the Tunisian people involved (not the organiser GTO, who, when asked for copies of the insurance appeared to have “forgotten” it)
I was only just out of my first (out of three) operations when a representative of the Mayor came by with flowers in order to see if I was looked after properly. We were assured that we were not to worry about anything. We had come as their guests and they felt it as their obligation that I should leave again safe and sound. The Mayor immediately put at Joanna’s disposition his own car and driver. For the rest of our three week stay we had almost daily visits from either the president of NACT, the president of its historic section, the Minister of Sports, etc. The Mayor not only came himself but attached to me the Chief Medical Officer of the City of Tunis who was there at least once a day during all that time. Since I had to eat through a straw, the Chef of the Sheraton every day made some special soup and fruit drinks. At the end it was the City of Tunis that picked up the tab for all costs of my stay and treatment there. And when there was a sudden hiccough in my repatriation flight because the captain did not want to take the stretcher, the flight was grounded until such time as I was on board.
A cynical mind might say that they were feeling legally responsible, but I have become completely convinced that, some basic rules from the Koran as well the hospitality correct for the Tunisian people, have led them to look after us better than they would their own. So yes, I will return to Tunisia.
I still think that this event could be a lovely end of season event. It merits to be supported on the condition that GTO is taken out of the equation and that NACT can run it and be able to assume its full responsibility. Even though that would require some foreign assistance from organisers with a more extensive race, and safety, experience.
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