"Funny old world, isn't it," was a favourite expression of the late, great journalist Denis Jenkinson. Were he alive today (he died in 1996) Jenks would surely find the current version of the F1 world funnier than ever. The following profile is from my book Grand Prix People...
When you study photographs taken at the Grand Prix races back when the world championship series began, you can often find a small, bearded, bespectacled man hovering in the background. Then, as now, he can be seen observing the proceedings with keen interest, peering intently at the engines, kneeling down to look at the finer points of the chassis, watching the faces of the drivers and team personnel, and occasionally scribbling in a notebook.
This is Denis Sargent Jenkinson, the famed 'DSJ' of Motor Sport, whose venerable spectre still haunts the pit lanes of the world. His keen gaze undimmed by the passage of time, he continues to watch the machinations of the Formula 1 circus (with a twinkle in his eye), taking everything in (usually with a grain of salt) and reporting back to his multitude of readers, for whom the Grand Prix gospel according to DSJ is all that counts.
Besides entertaining generations of fans, his musings in Motor Sport ('The magazine that gave its name to the sport') have helped inspire others to take up his profession (including this writer) and he remains a mentor to several contemporary journalists. But Jenks, as he is known to his host of friends, has his detractors. Those same outspoken opinions that endear him to a legion of enthusiasts cause some people to call him an antiquated curmudgeon. Besides some who accuse him of harping on about the glories of yesteryear, others take issue with his penchant for dividing the whole world into just two categories of people: racers and non-racers, and having little room in his universe for the latter.
However, no one can deny that Jenks is a pure racer - in thought ("I'm racing 365 days a year in my mind."), word (in conversation he seems always on opposite lock, gesticulating frequently, laughing all the while) and deed (he still competes in vintage motor cycle events) - and he's been that way for about seven decades.
(Jenks does not consider a tape recorder to be a necessary tool of the journalistic trade and suggested I would learn more from him if I took notes during our interview. My notes were strewn with indecipherable squiggles, occasioned by outbursts of the Jenkinsonian wit and desperate attempts to keep pace with his rapidfire delivery of profundities, but this is approximately what I learned).
He was born about 20 years after this century began, in South London, into a not particularly affluent family. With only a bicycle as a means of conveyance he had trouble getting out to see the world and sometimes felt imprisoned in his neighbourhood. In 1931 Mr. and Mrs. Jenkinson took their boy, all dressed up in a new suit, to see a flower show at Crystal Palace. Little Denis (today, he still calls himself "about half actual size") quickly became bored with the tubrous begonias and welcomed the distraction of the sound of engines in the distance. He went around a corner and discovered motorcycle speedway racing, the spectacle of which left him breathless, and his new suit covered in cinder dust. Back at the flower show the spectacle of their boy in a sooty suit caused a parental "rumpus" but Jenks was already too far gone to be reclaimed. He was smitten by motor sport.
There followed a visit to the Brighton Speed Trials with his brother, more excursions to Crystal Palace to watch bikes and cars, and so on. A previous fascination with airplanes waned - they were too far away and inaccessible way up there in the sky -and he concentrated all his boyhood energies and fantasies on motor sport.
At school he studied the writers and philosophers and decided that life was there to be grasped, or better still, ridden through at high speed. At race circuits he noted the techniques of the better drivers, saw their vigorous cornering manouvers and noticed the door is only open once. You have to seize passing opportunities quickly, or be consigned to the role of a backmarker. At another Crystal Palace race Jenks suddenly decided he was on the wrong side of the fence and resolved to do something about it at the first opportunity.
He probably read more racing magazines than school books and in one issue of Motor Sport he noticed an advertisement from a racing driver wanting a helper to work, unpaid, on his car. Jenks responded to the advert, was given the job and went with the driver to Brooklands. That was about 50 years ago and he's never paid to get into a race since.
Jenks now found himself inside racing circles but there remained the task of earning a living. Coming from a Victorian family, he was expected to "get a respectable job" and, since he was always drawing things (mainly racing cars), he thought about working in commercial art. He scrapped this idea after meeting some pretentious "arty" people and decided to concentrate on another field with racing possibilities: engineering. In the early war years he studied that subject in college, then worked as an aeronautical engineer for the RAF, doing everything he could to help win the war so racing could begin again.
In his spare time he did technical drawings of racing cars and submitted them to magazines and when he was asked to give a lecture at school he chose Grand Prix Racing. Jenks "went on and on" (about his subject) "they couldn't shut me up!", holding his audience in thrall for two days and was given a book as a prize: 'Motor Racing With Mercedes Benz,' by George Monkhouse. (Later DSJ wrote his own books, among them the classic: 'The Racing Driver - Dedicated to The Driver over the Limit, may this book help him to recover').
By now Jenks had decided that the real heroes in motor sport were the road racers, not the speedway or oval track men, and he set about sampling the thrills of the open road himself. After the war he began racing motorcycles for a living and in 1948 he went to meetings on the road circuits in Europe, because they paid starting money. In fact, he could get 30 pounds for starting two events on a weekend in Belgium, while people in post-war England were earning as little as five pounds a week. Another attraction for Jenks was that he could get to see the car races on Sunday, because his motorcyle races were held on Saturday as preliminary events.
Shortly after these European jaunts began he met William Boddy, founder and editor of Motor Sport, who invited him to send contributions from abroad. In 1953 Bill Boddy asked him to cover all the Formula 1 races for Motor Sport ("since you're over there anyway," says Jenks) and the DSJ legend was underway. But his first missives were signed 'Carrozzino' - Italian for the man in the sidecar, and, indeed, that's where the author often found himself.
Writing about racing was a thoroughly exciting business but, for Jenks, the only way to really get the adrenaline flowing is to race. So he continued to do that, first as a solo rider, then achieving considerable success in motorcycle sidecar competition, wherein he was "the moveable ballast" in what is surely one of the most dangerous types of motor sport. With Jenks performing as passenger to the famed rider Eric Oliver the daring duo won the 1949 World Sidecar Championship
And when he became a journalist covering fourwheeled events Jenks found an outlet for his competitive urges at the wheel of his Porsche 956C in hillclimbs and as a navigator in the notorious Mille Miglia where for four years running he rode as passenger to Stirling Moss in a Mercedes-Benz sports car. In 1955, with Jenks reading out instructions concerning oncoming hazards (which he had inscribed on a scroll and unravelled like a roll of toilet paper), the daring duo won the event at an average speed of nearly one hundred miles per hour. Jenks was quite pleased, indeed honoured, to place his life in the hands of the great Moss and he describes that ten hour trip of flat out motoring over one thousand miles of public roads between Brescia and Rome as one of the greatest days in his life.
Jenks has been intimately acquainted with many top racing drivers over the years but he tends to concentrate on the "real racers." Only a handful qualify for his shortlist of men he has most admired in each era he has witnessed: Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss, Jimmy Clark, Gilles Villeneuve and Ayrton Senna.
And in Jenks' book anybody who doesn't race all the time receives a black mark. In response to Alain Prost's decisions not to compete in heavy rain DSJ likes to quote Mike Hailwood: "The throttle works both ways" and Gilles Villeneuve: "There's always some speed you can do, no matter what the conditions."
But Jenks disapproves of faithfully reporting a driver's every utterance. He doesn't "interview" people. He talks to them, but doesn't report what they say. "And if a name doesn't appear in my report it means he did nothing in the race. Period."
He also avoids the post-race press conference, considering it to be an abomination imported from America ("the American Disease"). He says they're always boring: "a lot of claptrap. The bloke who won only did what everybody else was supposed to do. Nobody else did anything. Period."
Though he remains fascinated by the current Formula 1 circus, in Jenks' opinion earlier times were in many ways the good old days. For instance the mechanics; nowadays they get on planes wearing business suits and carrying briefcases. You never see a mechanic with a toolbox any more and "a mechanic without a toolbox is like a woman without a handbag." Nor does he approve of all the Public Relations shenanigans that go on. When Colin Chapman brought the first sponsors to Formula 1 in 1967 they brought their bad habits with them. Jenks says "Bravo" to Bernie Ecclestone's recent banishment of some PR people from the press rooms. Also at the circuits, the most welcome sound to the Jenkinson ears is the shriek of racing engines; firstly, because he loves the sound, secondly, because they drown out the strident voices of those bickering personalities who cause the internal combustions rampant in the sport these days.
Furthermore, says Jenks, the current trend to feature drivers as personalities is rubbish because most of the time it involves creating something from nothing. The average modern driver, who must keep his nose to the racing grindstone from an early age, has no time to learn about life so that he tends to be something less than a brillian intellect.
According to Jenks, part of the problem lies with today's journalists, not enough of whom have any racing experience and most of whom don't really know what they're talking about. Eighty percent of them are not really interested in racing, they're just sent to the races by their papers to get the news. DSJ is not a "news" man and is not interested in the minutae of current events, nor in the puffery of press releases. "Never take anything at face value," he says, "You've got to analyse and interpret."
DSJ says he is a reporter, talking in print to people who aren't able to attend the races. And to do that you don't hang around the pressrooms, which are too far away from the action. At Monza, where new, sanitized press and pit facilities have been built, he thinks he might just buy a ticket and go and sit in the stands among the tifosi. And at Silverstone: "I hop on my bike and go out to a corner to see what's happening. You either see it all, or you know it all. I prefer to see it all!"
And over a Grand Prix weekend, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you get plenty of material. Then, if you put down 10% of that, you've done a good job. You have to try to cut out all the waffle and piffle, all the superlatives, and be brief and to the point - rather like designing a racing car. As an engineer Jenks was taught to think logically and he likes to think his thought processes work along the lines of those of Colin Chapman. The Lotus founder was always pleased when he designed a part that could do five jobs, instead of one. The right word works in the same way and if you string a few of them together to form an entertaining piece of prose that contains an element of humour - all the better.
In one of his 'Letters From Europe' in Motor Sport DSJ once wrote that he never looked in the mirrors of his Jaguar while travelling down an autobahn at 150mph because, in his view, anyone trying to pass him could look after themselves. And on slower roads there were only ever three reasons for using the mirror in his Porsche: to watch for the police, to see if the engine was on fire, or to look at a pretty girl after he had passed her.
But times have changed, in everyday motoring and especially in Formula 1 circles, and now Denis Jenkinson believes you have to be more observant than ever because: "There are all sorts of ridiculous things going on, all around you all the time, and you have to keep an eye on the silly people."