Tuesday, 31 May 2016

On This Day... "Missing"

I callously let the 70th anniversary of D-Day slide a couple of years ago, because really, D-Day, Americans, nothing to do with Australians yeah? Or so I thought. I'd completely forgotten about this handsome bastard.

His name was Flight Sergeant Neville Lloyd Sorensen, and on this day in 1944, the Lancaster on which he served was shot down. There were no survivors.

Although I wouldn't be born for another 40 years, he was my great-uncle. And nothing brings the reality of this stuff home like when it happens to family.

He joined the Royal Australian Air Force in late 1941, passed the flying course at Nerrandera and so was sent to Saskatoon, Sasketchwan, in mid-1942 for bomber training. There he flunked the pilot's course and so re-trained as an air gunner, which is how he saw active service, starting with the historic 115 Squadron of the RAF in late 1943.

115 Sqn is still around actually, today as a training unit, but in 1944 it was at the forefront of Churchill's vision for a flatter Germany, equipped with Mk.I Lancasters. Although I haven't been able to find out exactly which turret he manned, family tradition is that he was a tail gunner, or an "Arse-end Charlie" as they called them, put in charge of a Frazer-Nash FN121 hydraulically-operated turret mounting four .303 Browning machine guns – the same guns that the Spitfire had already shown weren't punchy enough to take down the armoured German warplanes. But the feeble defenses weren't what really raised the hairs on my neck, it was the escape system. The way the turret was designed, once you were in, you couldn't leave until you returned to base. If the order came to abandon ship, you had to open the turret doors behind you, fumble for and clip on your parachute, rotate the turret 90 degrees, and then fall out backwards, like a scuba diver.

It was a job that took considerable sang-froid, as this excerpt from Bomber Command Museum makes clear:
The gun turret of a Bomber Command aircraft during a night operation was the coldest, loneliest, place in the sky. Whereas other crew-members enjoyed some comfort from the proximity of others in the forward section of the aircraft, the mid-upper gunner spent the trip suspended on a canvas sling seat, his lower body in the draughty fuselage and his head and shoulders in the plexiglass dome. The rear gunner was even more removed from his fellow crewmembers and any heating system. Suspended in space at the extreme end of the fuselage, "Arse-end Charlie" was subject to the most violent movements of the aircraft. Squeezed into the cramped metal and perspex cupola, the rear gunner had so little leg space that some had to place their flying boots into the turret before climbing in themselves...

When operating on night operations at low temperatures the air gunner's view was often restricted by frost forming on the plexiglass. It became common, despite the added discomfort, for gunners to remove the centre panel of glass to ensure good visibility. So with temperatures at 20,000 feet reaching -40 degrees, frostbite was a regular occurrence.
The general unpleasantness of the role is brought home by another veteran's memoirs, outlined in a story by the Daily Mail:
The Anson took off for the Bristol Channel, where shooting practice would be carried out. The object of the flight was for the three new gunners to each fire 200 rounds of ammunition at a target drogue being towed by a single-engined Martinet aircraft. At a height of 5,000ft, with the Anson rising and sinking at irregular intervals, the instructor called the first gunner to the mid-upper turret. He quickly rattled off his rounds and in the process filled the fuselage with cordite fumes which, mixed with the other smells, produced a nauseating stench, doing nothing to help my stomach, my sweating or my headache.

The second boy only worsened the situation. It was with some reluctance that I left my seat to try my hand at this shooting lark.

After struggling to lever myself up into the turret I found myself sitting in the smallest smoke-filled sauna ever seen. My head was stuck up in the Perspex dome like a light bulb in an upturned goldfish bowl. Sweat dripped from my nose.

I had no room to move my foot, let alone my body.

"Commence firing in your own time," the instructor commanded.

I discovered that when the hand grips were twisted towards me, the guns elevated and down went the seat; twist them away, down went the guns and up went the seat. A seesaw, no less. The combination of this, the motion of the plane, the stench and the heat turned me green.

I squeezed the triggers of the guns to get the whole performance over with as quickly as possible. The turret vibrated, the deafening noise drowned the drone of the engines. Cordite fumes invaded my nostrils until I could hardly breathe. 
Cordite hasn't been used since WWII, but it was made from the same stuff as nail polish remover, so it must've been pretty nauseating stuff. Further down, there's a vivid description of actual operations as they bomb Frankfurt.
A sharpish turn, followed by a levelling off, brought us in direct line with the target, the last leg of our route. After some 15 minutes I rotated my turret to face forward and could not believe what I saw.

Hundreds of beams were searching the sky for a victim, but what staggered me most was the flak.

The sky in front was one mass of bursting shells, never-ending flashes covering the whole of Frankfurt. Surely it was impossible to fly through such a ring of metal without being hit?

In this virtual daylight we could see scores of bombers sweeping across the city, then, to my amazement, a Ju 88 night fighter appeared not 100 yards away. "Ju 88, port side down. See it, Russ?" came Gib's urgent voice.

"Got it," I answered, swinging my sight just in front of the enemy's nose. The fighter was flying a parallel course and never wavered.

We were well aware that our .303-calibre weapons were as pop-guns compared to his lethal cannon, but somehow he had not seen us in the flickering light.

"Let sleeping dogs lie," I said. "We'll watch to see if he makes a move."

He slid underneath us, the dials in his cockpit glowing turquoise. Whipping my head over to the starboard side, I heaved a sigh of relief as he reappeared and drifted away, oblivious that he had stopped my heart from beating for a full two minutes.

"Bomb doors open," called Brick. Wherever I looked, a searing flash appeared every few seconds, followed by a greyish ball of smoke.

The Lanc shuddered time and again, rising and falling as she ploughed on. I could hear nothing of those exploding shells, but the smell of cordite was strong.

Up went the port wing alarmingly as a shell exploded below it. "Blast it," shouted Brick. "Hold the bloody thing steady. Left, left. Beautiful. Hold it. Bombs gone."

The Lanc lifted appreciably as the load and she parted company. We flew straight and level for a minute to allow the camera in the bomb bay to take its photographs, then Brick called: "Bomb doors closed, nose down and home James."
Neville flew seven missions like that – Chambly, Le Mans, Dortmund, Duisburg, Aachen, that sort of thing. Seven long, icy, noisy, exhausting missions, too tensed up to be bored, eyes peering into inky deep blue of the night sky, hoping like hell they were well-adjusted enough to see the shadowy outline of a Luftwaffe night fighter closing in before its guns opened up.
The primary role of the air gunner was not to shoot down enemy aircraft. Rather it was to perform the role of a lookout. After hours of staring into the blackness, his shouting into the intercom of, "Corkscrew port now!" would have the pilot instantly begin a series of violent evasive maneuvers, throwing the heavy bomber around the sky. Generally if an enemy fighter pilot knew he had been seen, no attempt would be made to follow the bomber through its gyrations. Rather he would seek out another aircraft, hopeful that it might have a less alert air gunner. Many air gunners completed their tour of operations without firing a single shot in anger. (Bomber Command Museum)
The "corkscrew" manoeuvre was a hard left or right bank with a sharp decent, so that the aircraft described a corkscrew path through the sky. The reason the German night fighters wouldn't try to follow was because the "Lichtenstein" radar they used could only see a cone 60 degrees wide, a fact the British were well aware of because a Bf 110 crew had mistakenly followed the wrong beacon one night and landed at an RAF base instead of their own in France. The machinery had been carefully disassembled and scrutinised by the Allies, discovering the 60-degree weakness that gave the bomber crews a crucial joker to play: with a sharp enough turn you could leave their scopes and escape.

Except when you didn't.

Neville's last flight, in a Lancaster with the tail number LL956, took off from Witchford, East Cambridgeshire, at four minutes past midnight on 1 June 1944. The targets that night were the west railway marshalling yards at Trappes, which for some reason I always assumed was in Germany, but turn out to be just west of Paris. A tough target: probably not especially well-defended, but I remember the Nuclear Warfare 101 essay remarking, "Believe me railway marshalling yards are a whirling son of a bitch to take down. They are virtually invulnerable to airbursts; we have to groundburst a blast directly on the yard." And that's with a nuclear warhead. With conventional iron bombs, you just have to do the sums, work out how many planes you need to send, and then trust to probability. Bomber Command sent 219 aircraft against Trappes that night – 125 Lancasters, 86 Halifaxes and 8 Mosquitos. The raid was a success, but four Lancasters were lost. Including LL956.

The culprit was a Messerschmitt Bf 110, a twin-engined heavy fighter, what Göring had called a Zerstörer or destroyer (literally after a naval destroyer). A classic piece of pre-war theorising that turned out to be wrong, the concept had been that only a bigger plane with space for more fuel would have the range to fly into enemy airspace and wrest control of the sky from them, hence the beefy twin-engine design and two- (or three-) man crew. Their intended mission was to accompany Luftwaffe bombers and engage and destroy any short-range interceptors sent up to interfere. This they did okay from Poland to France, but once up against the Spitfire their day was done – couldn't turn, couldn't climb, couldn't run. You were better off taking a short-ranged but more nimble airframe like the 109 and giving it external fuel tanks, which is more or less what we do to this day.

So instead they were converted to night fighters by fitting them with radar operated by the second crew member, who also reloaded the Schräge Musik rear guns, if any, and operated the radio (though he wasn't called the Funkmeister, I was disappointed to learn – there, my first awful German pun, enjoy it). Busiest man in the air, certainly, and key to their operations. Night interception sounds more like submarine fighting than air battles – vectoring in on instructions from your radarman, seeking the weapon of mass destruction hiding in the black... or conversely, trying to stay hidden in the black while knowing all along there's nothing between you and the predators, holding fire until fired upon because muzzle flashes were like blood in the water...

If Neville really was Arse-end Charlie on that flight, then he'd have been the first to die, hosed out by MG FF 20mm cannon so the German pilot could saddle up on the bomber and shoot it down without further trouble. Exactly who that pilot was we don't know, but it's been narrowed down to either Hauptmann (equivalent to Captain) Hubert Rauth or Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Ernst-Georg Drünkler. I'm amazed and grateful our historians have got it even that specific. At the time, Rauth was flying for Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 (one of those German Franken-words; "Night Hunter Wing 4," usually abbreviated NJG4), while Drünkler was Staffelkapitän (squadron-leader) of a Staffel of NJG5 (1st or 13th, my sources differ). If it was Rauth, it was one of 31 confirmed kills over the course of the war. If it was Drünkler, then it was his 11th victory on his way to a total of 47, 45 of them at night. Both survived the war (Drünkler dying in 1997, Rauth in 2005) with an impressive set of decorations for bravery, both including the Knight's Cross, the second-highest medal an airman could earn – and the highest was given only once, to Göring himself, so arguably it was never earned at all.

On the left, Drünkler; on the right, Rauth.

True aerial warriors, then, flying in defence of their homeland, however insane its current leadership. And that night, only 72 years ago, one of them fired the rounds that catapulted my great-uncle and six others into eternity. The wreck crashed at Rambouillet, south south-west of Paris, and the Germans were only able to identify two of them before burial. Then, of course, the Allies landed at Normandy and re-opened ground fighting in western Europe, and the Germans suddenly had other things to think about. As a result, the flight log, which I've seen with my own eyes, lists all six of his previous missions, complete with very British details about rounds fired etc, and then thumps you in the gut with the words "Trappes" and "Missing." Neville's mother, father and sole remaining brother – my grandfather – didn't receive confirmation that he really was dead for another two years. Only once the war was over did the authorities have the luxury of investigating each individual plane crash, confirming that the dead truly were lost, and interring the remains in Dreux Communal Cemetery.

And that was the story of him, over at 21.

That's the real tragedy to me nowadays. I used to get annoyed whenever anyone said, "they lost their lives," or "they gave their lives," because it sounded like a euphemism, which with regard to war is another word for lying. Say what really happened, I thought: they were killed! But now I'm not so sure. As a kid I thought 21 sounded like a ripe old age, but now, about to turn 31, the idea turns my heart to jelly. Being killed is nothing compared to losing your life, to never even having it in the first place; that's too awful for words. Twenty-fucking-one. No wife alternately nagging and adorable, no kids making endless noise until they suddenly go quiet and make you suspicious, no chance to take over dad's gardening business and take it to the next level, or strike out with a new idea to become your own man. He never got to see man land on the Moon, or celebrate the Olympic Games in Melbourne, or see the dawn of the atomic age, or threaten me with a spade at a family get-together like that time grandpa did... none of that. Not ever.

Instead he joined the Air Force, probably thinking it was his duty or a chance to get out and do something grand, and from the stories of the last war, that it was the best option. But the truth was you were probably better off in the infantry this time around; fully half of Arther Harris's aircrew ended up on the butcher's bill, 44.4% of them dead, another 7% wounded in some capacity. That's what happens when you combine the survival rates for Air Crash Investigations and Saving Private Ryan, I suppose. I'm pretty sure only the shtrafniki could match that kind of death rate.

And all for five-eights of fuck-all, as far as I can tell. Neither Bomber Command nor the 8th Air Force really did much to swing the war. The factories they bombed were usually back up to capacity within a fortnight. Railway lines? Ask the boys repairing them today how hard they are to fix. You might crash a train, but only if you timed it right. No, the main contribution of the bombing campaign was that every 88 stacked outside Berlin firing flak at bombers was one less to point at Stalin's T-34s in the east. Seems awfully expensive relative the benefits. I suppose no matter what era, war is cruelty and you can't refine it.

But you're not gone as long as someone remembers.
(Up the back, behind the dweeb with the glasses, with the deeply impressed facial expression)

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

On This Day... the XXXX 100

Round 6 of the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, the XXXX 100 at Surfers Paradise International Raceway.

Queensland's coat of arms.

In case you didn't know, that's pronounced "four-ecks one-hundred," and is not a rating (that would be a Canberra race), but a brand name for Queensland's regional brewer, as reviewed here on Our Naked Australia:
Back in 1877, the Fitzgerald brothers from Victoria moved up to Queensland and opened the Castlemaine Perkins brewery. Back home in Melbourne, I was told that XXXX was called “XXXX” because Queenslanders didn’t know how to spell “beer”, as it turns out the name XXXX actually comes from the old beer quality rating measure. They were awarded the XXXX rating after perfecting their brew in 1924 and still use the same recipe today.
About the same time they were perfecting their politics, in other words. Interestingly, Dave observes that XXXX "tastes like VB, but watered down and not as bitter or flavourful," which is both good and bad. Victoria Bitter is already a love-in-a-dinghy beer, so watering it down further shouldn't be a good idea – but reducing the flavour and bitterness is not a bad thing either when the base ingredients seem to come from cats. One of my abiding memories of uni is how long the smell of VB lingers after it's sloshed all over the living room, so nowadays I'm less than charitable about comparable brews.

No matter. I still refuse to believe Queensland actually exists anyway, and if it does, as my Nan used to say, there's no need to dwell on it.

The venue: let's be clear, Surfers Paradise International Raceway was not the Gold Coast street circuit of the IndyCars and V8s today, but a permanent facility only a couple of kilometres south-west of there, almost within walking distance. In its day, it was one of the better places to go racing because it was so against the run of play – fast and sweeping, totally different to the stop-start nature of most local tracks. Getting traction out of a corner wasn't as important as carrying max speed through. Muscle cars weren't built for this sort of thing so the racing in the 70's was epic, lumbering V8 Falcons trying to keep some tread on their tyres and still go fast enough to keep up with the sprightly V8 Toranas, who were trying to stay ahead without throwing a rod or breaking an axle. Sadly it's no longer there, property development having swallowed it whole shortly after its final race in 1987. Check the location today, and you'll find golf courses on three sides. *spits*

The XXXX 100 went well, Peter Brock taking pole with a lap of 1:15.1, which was just as well – after their Adelaide breakdowns the Nissans were back on form, and if a Japanese car had taken pole the crowd would probably have yelled something about a Brisbane Line and embarked on a riot.

The following day the results sheet made it look like a simple lights-to-flag victory for Brock, but watch the video and you'll realise it wasn't that straightfoward. Brocky fluffed the start and entered the first corner in fourth place, behind Graeme Crosby, George Fury and Glenn Seton. Fighting a bit too hard to elbow his way back to the front, he tried to pass Croz while Croz was putting a move on Seton, which could only end in tears: Brocky nudged Crosby into Seton and Seton spun off, both their races ruined in about half a lap. Seton spent the rest of the day regaining the places he'd lost, and Crosby eventually parked it with battle damage. It wasn't often you saw Peter Perfect trade paint with his rivals, but this was one of the few.

Then, while the cameras were showing replays of Seton's off, George Fury took himself out as well. He looked in his mirrors expecting to see Seton, saw Brock instead, missed his braking point and speared off. So a possible Nissan 1-2 appeared and disappeared again in the space of one lap.

That left Brock untroubled for the rest of the race, free to take his first and only win of 1986, triumphantly pumping a fist out the window as he crossed the finish line. From the delays in putting the car together in 1985, to the breakdowns at Symmons Plains, Adelaide and Wanneroo, this one had been a long time coming. Nobody would've guessed that a Commodore would not win another ATCC race for six long years...

And away from the cameras, Robbie Francevic stroked home to collect a second-place finish, extending his lead to 159 points, 57 ahead of George Fury. It was looking more and more like this year's ATCC would go to the calm, disciplined points-hoarding of Francevic.

Spotlight Cars: Fast Fords
Jeremy Clarkson always says he loves a fast Ford, which is ironic when he's usually talking about Escorts and Capris out of Belgium and Cologne – the slowest fast Fords in the whole world. Just at this moment in Australian touring cars, though, there were two kinds of Ford on the grid, one of them American and proud of it, the other, like Richard Hammond, hiding under a European skin.

The high-flying American Eagle was Dick Johnson's Greens-Tuf Mustang. The base car was the third-generation Mustang, based on the flexible Fox platform developed for the North American Fairlane: it was never specifically designed for racing, it was just a light, strong platform designed to take four-cylinder, V6 and V8 engines from the beginning. That gave Ford the flexibility to build a 2+2 coupe and and call it a Mustang. Despite the blunt 1980’s styling it had proven a surprise hit, its first sales year (1979) outselling the previous model by 150,000 units. There were two performance versions, either the V8-powered GT with 152 kW, or the fuel-injected intercooled 2.3-litre Turbo SVO ("Special Vehicles Operation") with 130, and both held some promise as the basis of a racing car.

The issue was that Ford of America was obviously not interested in the European racing scene. So despite being a product of Michigan, the hard work of homologating it had actually been done by the Zakspeed outfit in Germany. Erich Zakowski's former Ford factory team, Zakspeed were best known for the turbocharged Capris that held the front line in the Ford-vs-BMW war of the 1970s. The arrival of Group A had rather passed the initiative to names like Schnitzer, Walkinshaw and Eggenberger, so Zakspeed had given the Mustang the full Group A treatment and entered it in the equivalent of DTM in 1984, just to see what it was like. When it proved off the pace Zakowski moved the team up to Formula 1 instead, and palmed the two Mustangs off onto Dick Johnson, in Europe shopping for something with a Ford badge.

Johnson explained the decision in his autobiography:
Fearful of chips, timers and electronics, we decided to go with what we knew. The Mustang had five litres with a 302 Windsor V8. We weren’t ready to experiment with new technology and thought that something that had a carburettor strapped to its belly was the best way to go.
In this he was right and he was wrong: by this time turbos and computer-controlled fuel injection was the only way to go, but at the time it was way beyond his budget. The Mustang kept Dick from winning any races, but it also kept his team afloat through a very tough couple of years. By next year Dick Johnson Racing would have a much more lucrative sponsor – but the crucial moment that landed him that sponsor, winning the 1985 Adelaide Grand Prix support race, had been achieved in a Mustang.

In the meantime he'd found the Mustang had fabulous brakes and superb handling, but was completely gutless, which probably opens up questions about whether it was really a Mustang at all. It had barely any more power than the BMW 635, which was roughly 200kg lighter, and this was despite another truth Australia would learn the hard way – that the Europeans treated the rulebook as a suggestion, a fact that would become important around October 1987.
We pulled the Mustang apart not long after its encouraging show at Bathurst ['84].

"Oh no," I said, looking inside the rocker cover. "This isn’t good."

It had been built by Jack Roush. I continued to dig around in the engine.

"Fuck," I yelped. "Chevrolet rocker arms."

The deeper I went, the worse it got. The car was a mishmash of parts and full of illegalities that would have seen the scrutineers throw us out in a heartbeat. This car was 100 percent illegitimate and it was pretty evident the Europeans didn’t give two shits about the rules. We were sent into a mad scramble, first sourcing and then buying the approved parts and then making an engine out of them.

The official paperwork that came with the car said the engine had 328hp [245 kW] at 6,500rpm. Before we pulled all the illegal modifications off, we whacked the engine on the dyno. It appeared the Europeans were telling fibs because we could only pull 283hp [211 kW], and even less when we put the standard parts back on.
Free plug for use of the quotes. Available at Big W!

By 1986 Dick had Mustang as good as it was ever going to get, but that still wasn't good enough. To play this game it really needed an intake system unfeasible for a road car and rev limit above five figures, but even NASCAR wouldn't be breaking the 7,500rpm ceiling for another decade or so. As it was, the Windsor V8 remained the wrong engine in the wrong series, just as the rulemakers in Paris intended.

So what, I hear you ask, about the Turbo SVO? Why didn't Ford see what was happening in Formula 1, realise which way the wind was blowing, and homologate the turbo Mustang for racing instead? Well, that's the thing – in a roundabout way, they did.

Y'see, the other Ford on the grid at Surfers was the #42 Sierra XR4 Ti owned and driven by Kiwi privateer David Oxton, who'd been Brock's co-driver at Bathurst last year. The Ford Sierra, originally launched in 1982, had made its way to the U.S. where it was sold by the Lincoln-Mercury division as the Merkur (a corruption of "America"). To give it the punch to match its import price, Dearborn had removed the standard Cologne V6 and fitted the aforementioned 2.3-litre Turbo SVO engine from the Mustang. In a country the size of the United States selling 5,000 wasn't a problem, so before long the Merkur was eligible for Group A. Therefore, a car originally made in Genk, Belgium, was shipped Stateside, given a new engine, sold to the masses and then put back on a boat to Europe, to be converted and raced in touring cars as an interim step to the upcoming Sierra RS Cosworth. Racing megastar and dishonest bastard Andy Rouse won the 1985 BTCC in one, his record fourth title and his third on the trot.

In its former life as Rouse's title-winner.

With that year done, Andy sold it to Oxton, who christened it in the curtain-raising Wellington street race before giving it its first appearance on Australian soil at Surfers. It's hard to tell from the broadcast, because they didn't give him much airtime until he got tipped into a spin by Tony Longhurst, but it seems Oxton just peeled off Rouse's sponsorship decals and left the paint scheme intact. Racing number: 42.

Take a minute to get it out of your system.

Funnily enough, both Fords qualified in exactly the same time – 1:17.4 – which I think goes to show the Sierra was already faster than the Mustang. No disrespect to Oxton, who was still ten times the driver I am, but was he faster than Dick Johnson in front of a Queensland crowd? I doubt it. And the XR4 was not the RS500 – the heads were Ford standard, it only had two valves per cylinder, and the turbo was the small Garrett unit of the road car, user-friendly but short on boost. So despite everything, the Sierra was also underpowered – a bit of a theme for Fords this year. For a car that would be such a game-changer, it was a rather low-key introduction to the ATCC.


As you can see, though, both the Mustang and the Merkur raced in IMSA in the U.S., the Mustang winning the GTO class in 1985 (hence the "engine by Jack Roush" comment above), the Merkur in 1988. And in IMSA trim they looked lush.


One wonders what might've happened if they'd been sold in Australia looking like that.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Meat, Gods and Aztec Economics

Would you like to know exactly how Aztec sacrifice worked?

Are you sure?

All jokes aside, if you're squeamish you probably shouldn't read this post, because you won't thank me. But if you have the stomach for it, it's actually a pretty interesting topic, and some basic Googling led me to some places I didn't expect. Most of all, though, I was genuinely shocked at how fast and easy the whole process was.

Those stairs probably didn't stay white.

Some time around 1521, the last victim was taken to Tenochtitlán to be sacrificed at the summit of Templo Mayor. At the time, Tenochtitlán was the biggest city in the world, with some 300,000 inhabitants, twice the size of contemporary London. Built on a low island and reclaimed land in the midst of the shallow Lake Texcoco, it had canal streets like Venice, a system of aqueducts (even without the pollution of a whole city, Lake Texcoco was filled by runoff from the mountains, too saline to drink), barber shops, parks (the Aztecs had a passion for flowers) and even a zoo. It was linked to the shores by stone causeways, each with three gaps that allowed canoe traffic to pass through while doubling as drawbridges in case of invasion. And yet the centrepiece of the city was Templo Mayor, a human abbatoir dedicated to the ritual slaughter of prisoners captured in war. As unimaginable as it might be to us, it's quite possible the last victim was consenting, as there are plenty of surviving tales of particularly impressive prisoners being offered their freedom, but preferring to be sacrificed instead, lest they offend whichever god ordained their deaths. With the Aztec power base shaken after La Nocte Triste, it's possible this was the only kind of prisoner they could take.

On the other hand, of course, with their "empire" boiling over the Aztecs would've had no problem finding battles to fight and prisoners to take, so it's equally possible the last sacrifice had to be dragged to the altar by his hair. Either way, for the last time four priests grabbed some poor bastard by the arms and legs and held him over the sacrificial pillar – usually depicted like a mortician's slab, but actually more like a stone-age version of the bollards they use to prevent ram raids (hell on your back, but for obvious reasons the victim's comfort wasn't a concern). And then the priest cut him open with an obsidian blade, removed his heart, and completed the necessary rituals to honour his god, Huitzilopochtli ("Weet-zee-lo-potch-tlee"). Templo Mayor felt its final splash of human blood. Then, Cortés returned and began the Siege of Tenochtitlán, and the end had come. It was the year of One Reed, and the setting of the Fifth Sun.

A Weird & Bloody Religion
"Templo Mayor" just means "Great Temple" in Spanish, which might be parochial as hell, but it's still more accurate than the usual description of Templo Mayor as a pyramid (the Aztecs called it huei teocalli, which means... Great Temple. God-House, technically). Let's be clear the Mesoamerican temples were not pyramids, a Greek word derived from pyramis, "a kind of cake made of roasted wheat grains preserved in honey," which had that characteristic shape. The name was given by Alexander the Great's soldiers, who refused to be impressed by what the Egyptians had accomplished. Upon being shown the greatest feat of architecture in the world, the Greeks dismissed it as a little bun.

No royal tomb, however, Templo Mayor had a completely different function in public life, much closer to the Roman temples that were built on plinths so the public could view the rites for themselves. It was a stage for politico-religious theatre, and the relative height of the temple gives a clue as to how big a crowd would've gathered to watch. It was dedicated to two gods, the aforementioned Huitzilopochtli, the patron deity of the Mexica tribe, and the rain god Tlaloc.

Tlaloc – the Giver, the Green One, God of the North and Lord of Seasons and Weather – isn't hard to comprehend: he's a god of farmers, and having grown up around farmers I completely understand why he was such a big deal. If you somehow convinced the farmers from my hometown that human sacrifice would guarantee them good rain, they'd be all for it, no question. Having the your whole life dependent on the fickle whim of nature will do that to a man. Like most Mesoamerican gods Tlaloc demanded human sacrifice, but being a water god his victims were usually drowned, and they were usually children. For whatever the hell it's worth, a famous palace painting known as The Paradise of Tlaloc shows the afterlife of those slain by drowning, their souls taken care of by Tlaloc, their depictions bright, happy and playing children's games. In the end, though, he's just a god of farming, and not especially interesting.


Huitzilopochtli, the Midday Sun, the Eagle, the Hummingbird, God of the South, is much harder to wrap your head around because he's buried under a lot more cultural metaphor. His nagual, or animal disguise, was the eagle, and it was in the form of an eagle that he showed the Aztecs where they should build their city by alighting on a nopal cactus with a snake in his beak – an image that remains on the Mexican flag today. He was born fully armed and ready for war, wielding his weapon xiuhcoatl, the Turquoise Serpent (i.e. lightning), and his very first act was to slaughter without mercy his rebellious sister Coyolxauhqui and his 400 siblings, their dismembered bodies becoming the moon and stars.

His name is usually translated "Left-Handed Hummingbird," which only adds to the confusion. He's also called a war god, but that's also problematic, because "war" is just what we call it, and the word carries a lot of Western baggage – mainly the assumption that it's political (Clauswitz's postulate that "War continuation of politics by other means," continues to haunt us, because it's one of the most misquoted lines outside of Scripture). The operations of the Aztec warriors were much more bound up with their religion: the Emperor, or tlatoani, was himself a priest of the state religion and often wielded the knife himself. One of the elite divisions of the Aztec army were the Eagle Warriors (cuauhmeh), who dressed for battle in feathered suits complete with talons and a beaked helmet – in other words, they dressed up as Huitzilopochtli. They were very careful not to kill on the battlefield, which was considered clumsy; instead, they did their utmost to bring prisoners back for sacrifice, and their ascent through the ranks was based on how many prisoners they'd taken. A boy who'd taken his first prisoner was a tlamanih, or captor, and was now considered a man. Two, and he was a cuextecatl; three, a papalotl, or butterfly. The ranks climbed higher and higher as prisoners accumulated, until he might achieve the elite rank of ocelotl, or Jaguar Warrior, for capturing twelve in two consecutive battles. Aztec "warfare" then can be seen as a function of, and an expression of, the Aztec religion.

So who was this Huitzilopochtli, the engine behind it all? The first clue is that to translate his name as Left-Handed Hummingbird is apparently to get it exactly backwards. In Classical Náhuatl ("Nah-wat," the language of the Aztecs), huitzilin, or "hummingbird," is the modifier for opochtli, the "left-hand side." So... Hummingbirded Left-Side? That doesn't seem to make a great deal more sense, until you realise the Aztecs believed that dead warriors were reincarnated as hummingbirds, and they considered South to be the left side of the world. So, metaphorically, his name conveyed something more like, "Resurrected Warrior of the South." In other words, he's a god of dulce et decorum est, of military necrophilia, of what Zack Snyder's Spartans called, "a beautiful death." Young Aztec males wanted nothing better than to die gloriously in battle (or on the altar) to return as hummingbirds. In Náhuatl they sang:
There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life:
far off I see it: my heart yearns for it!
Certainly a commoner working in the fields could expect no such pleasant afterlife, and if you consider gods to be reflections of the people who imagine them, as I do, then that's a big clue to the Aztec national character.

Like Baldr, like Osiris, like Demeter, like Jesus Christ, Huitzilopochtli was also a dying-and-rising god. He died every evening and had to be given the nourishment (tlaxcaltiiliztli) to fight off his moon-and-star siblings and rise again in the morning. To that end he demanded blood, the fiery hot blood of courageous warriors. And as his chosen people, it was up to the Aztecs to give it to him, sacrificing about 15,000 warriors a year on his altars – more than 40 a day. According to the conquistador Bernal Diaz, the resulting skull racks in Tenochtitlán were something to behold.
The poles were separated from each other by a little less than a vara [roughly a yard], and were crowded with cross sticks from top to bottom, and on each cross stick were five skulls impaled through the temples: and the writer and a certain Gonzalo de Umbría, counted the cross sticks and multiplying by five heads per cross stick from pole to pole, as I said, we found that there were 136 thousand heads.
To a culture built on human sacrifice the sight of thousands of skulls was a source of inspiration, not dread. And they must've gained a lot of inspiration from the grand opening of Templo Mayor in 1487, when four lines of prisoners stretching back two miles were slaughtered by teams of priests working in shifts. The precise number of deaths is unknown, but they range from a modest 4,000 to the Aztecs's claimed 80,400. The reality was probably somewhere in between: "Allotting two minutes per sacrifice," says our source above, "the demographer and historian Sherburne Cook estimated that the number of victims associated with that single event was 14,100."

The precise ritual of sacrifice was peculiar to Huitzilopochtli: the victim was slashed open, his heart was torn out, and then the body was sent tumbling down the stairs. Some postulate this was something of a re-enactment, Templo Mayor representing the Hill of Coatepec where Huitzilopochtli was born and slew his sister Coyolxauhqui, tossing her body down the hill. Re-enacting the Sun's defeat of the Moon to give the Sun power to rise again makes intuituve sense to me, though of course I'm no expert. Allegedly the heart was then placed in a brazier and burnt as an offering, but I have serious questions about that as well, because the human heart is supposed to be notoriously difficult to burn. Urban legend? I'm all ears if anyone knows for sure.

Some had questions about whether the priests could actually get the job done in the required two minutes, so joy of joys, Dr Brendan Coventry of the Royal Adelaide Hospital decided to do some experimenting himself (what did I tell you about South Australians?). The results were astounding. Giving himself 20 seconds to get in and remove the heart, he was at first unsuccessful at sawing through the breastplate, because it's all bones. But by cutting through the sternum and diaphragm instead, on his first attempt he was able to extract the heart in 20 seconds flat. The second time, to prove it wasn't a fluke, he did it in just 17.

Medical Investigator Shiya Ribowsky only added to the squick when he commented:
I think the Aztecs had a terrific understanding of human anatomy. When they decided to sacrifice their victims, they knew it was going to be a lot easier to get into the chest cavity by making a hole in the abdominal wall and getting at the heart, than trying to get through the breastplate, the sternum, and the ribs, which were very difficult to saw through.

The victims were held down by four people and the priest would take a knife, and while the victim was still alive, plunge it right into the abdomen, rip open the abdomen with the knife, and made a hole big enough to get their arm in. They put their arm in, pierced through the diaphragm, pushing their hand up into the chest. And the heart is the only thing in the chest that's gonna be going like this [mimics a heart pumping], you know, beating. If feels different than the surrounding tissue. The average adult human's heart is around the size of a small grapefruit, and pretty much weighs around the same, and has that kind of feel in your hand.

So the priest would reach around until he felt the beating heart, grab onto it and then just pull for all he was worth until he yanked it off its attachments. I have no doubt that the victim felt the priest's hand in his abdomen and the hand ripping through the diaphragm, which was, I'm sure, exquisitely painful. And I have no doubt that the victim felt his heart being ripped from its attachments, but at that time the victim would lose consciousness. The reason is, as the heart was being compromised, blood flow to the brain would stop. The brain just doesn't have the capacity to maintain consciousness without that bloodflow.

Most people think that if you pulled somebody's heart out of their body that it wouldn't still be beating, but in fact it absolutely would. The heart has what's called inherent rhythmicity, meaning that the muscle cells of the heart beat on their own and don't require input from the brain to beat. So if you get a heart out of a human body quickly enough, say within a few seconds, it absolutely will still be beating when you're holding it.
I was rather glad to hear the victims lost consciousness once the heart was removed. I know there are anecdotes of guillotined heads seemingly retaining some awareness, but anecdotes don't mean much to me: no blood pressure = no consciousness, okay? It sounds horrific, and it was, but let's not forget that in Europe at the time traitors were broken on the wheel or hung, drawn and quartered. Given the choice of donating my heart to Huitzilopochtli or being drawn and quartered at the pleasure of the English King, I'd much rather the heart thing.

And for the record, don't imagine an obsidian knife wouldn't be up to the job. Obsidian blades can be so absurdly sharp they're still occasionally used to make scalpels today (though for some reason they're not U.S. FDA approved for use on humans). The crystal lattice means obsidian can be made many times sharper than steel, down to 3 nanometres, compared to the 1,000 nanometres (or 1 micron) that is the current definition of "razor sharp." A steel razor presents an edge 10,000 iron atoms thick; in the very best cases, a fresh piece of obsidian can present just one.

Feeding the Masses
Conventional descriptions of the Aztec ritual of sacrifice end with the victim’s body tumbling down the pyramid. Blinded by the image of a still-beating heart held aloft in the hands of the priest, one can easily forget to ask what happened to the body when it came to rest at the bottom of the steps...
This leads to the real surprise of the show: what happened to the dead guy once his heart was gone. The sacrifice scene from Apocalypto up there, being a strange mix of the totally accurate and wildly anachronistic, shows a pitch-perfect Huitzilopochtli sacrifice being carried out by the Mayans (who didn't worship Huitzilopochtli) in the name of Kukulkan (who didn't demand human sacrifice). So it's not such a big deal that it shows the ritual ending with the dude's head being lopped off (unnecessary), and that it later gives us the image of a vast field of dumped bodies to show you what colossal waste of life it all was (with Wally in the middle of it for the cinema release, because Mel Gibson is insane).

But from what I've been reading, there wasn't much waste actually going on. The Aztecs didn't throw the bodies away: they ate them.
After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it...

After they had slain them and torn out their hearts, they took them away gently, rolling them down the steps. When they had reached the bottom, they cut off their heads and inserted a rod though them, and they carried the bodies to the houses which they called calpulli, where they divided them up in order to eat them. – Bernardino de Sahagún

Once the heart had been wrenched out it was offered to the sun and blood sprinkled toward the solar deity. Imitating the descent of the sun in the west the corpse was toppled down the steps of the pyramid. After the sacrifice the warriors celebrated a great feast with much dancing, ceremonial and cannibalism. – Diego Durán
For many years it was assumed the Spaniards made this stuff up to justify the conquest, but recent forensic investigation has confirmed that despite some exaggeration, they were a long way from outright fabrication. Durán in particular deserves your time, because he was writing immediately after the conquest and actually learned Náhuatl, and got into a lot of trouble for allowing the Aztec people to perpetuate aspects of their culture. He has academic cred, in other words, and 500 years later the forensic pathologists are backing him up.
Archaeologist Gabino Lopez Arenas carried out an analysis on craniums, tibia, humerus and jaws located among the offerings of the Great Temple and in the surroundings of the historical centre. The analysis revealed that the individuals had been decapitated and dismembered. It then appears that they were butchered and consumed “to absorb the divine force that held the body of the sacrificed,” said Arenas. “We observed that immediately after the victims were immolated their flesh was removed, this is confirmed because a great quantity of bones had cuts and alterations that were done while the bone was fresh and recently exposed to fire.” – April Holloway, Ancient-Origins.net
The modern perspective on this stuff has been promoted by Michael Harner, whom you can read here; it's a controversial idea, but personally it has me convinced. Not the part about "absorbing the divine force that held the body of the sacrificed", which sounds like bullshit (why to they always assume ancient cultures were fucking Age-of-Aquarius indigo children?). In reality they were after something far more basic: good old-fashioned nutrition.
In the Old World, domestication of herbivorous mammals, such as cattle, sheep, and pigs, proceeded apace with that of food plants. By about 7,200 B.C. in the New World, however, ancient hunters had completely eliminated herbivores suitable for domestication from Mesoamerica. Dogs, such as the Mexican hairless, and wildfowl, such as the turkey, had to be bred for protein. The dog, however, was a far from satisfactory solution because, as a carnivore, it competed with its breeders for animal protein. – Michael Harner, The Enigma of Aztec Sacrifice
In other words, having spent several thousand years getting corn to work, the Aztecs had plenty of calories to go around, but they were starved for animal protein. Eating carnivores is always a last resort for people in this situation, because animals are only about 10% efficient at converting their food to bodymass. To grow a tonne of beef you need to feed your cows 10 tonnes of grass. Eating carnivores adds another layer to that process – lion is apparently completely delicious, but to grow an equivalent tonne of lion meat you need to feed your lions 10 tonnes of beef, which in turn takes 100 tonnes of grass. The loophole here was that dogs are actually omnivorous, so the dogs the Aztecs reared for food were efficiently fattened on vegetables and garbage. Even so, it was a luxury reserved for the rich.
The Aztecs responded to their increasing problems of food supply by intensifying agricultural production with a variety of ingenious techniques, including the reclamation of soil from marsh and lake bottoms in the chinampa, or floating garden, method. Unfortunately, their ingenuity could not correct their lack of a suitable domesticable herbivore that could provide animal protein and fats. Hence, the ecological situation of the Aztecs and their Mesoamerican neighbors was unique among the world's major civilizations. I have recently proposed the theory that large-scale cannibalism, disguised as sacrifice, was the natural consequence of these ecological circumstances.

A principal – and sometimes only – objective of Aztec war expeditions was to capture prisoners for sacrifice. While some might be sacrificed and eaten on the field of battle, most were taken to home communities or to the capital, where they were kept in wooden cages to be fattened until sacrificed by the priests at the temple-pyramids. Most of the sacrifices involved tearing out the heart, offering it to the sun and, with some blood, also to the idols. The corpse was then tumbled down the steps of the pyramid and carried off to be butchered. The head went on the local skull rack, displayed in central plazas alongside the temple-pyramids. At least three of the limbs were the property of the captor if he had seized the prisoner without assistance in battle. Later, at a feast given at the captor's quarters, the central dish was a stew of tomatoes, peppers, and the limbs of his victim. The remaining torso, in Tenochtitlán at least, went to the royal zoo where it was used to feed carnivorous mammals, birds, and snakes.

Through cannibalism, the Aztecs appear to have been attempting to reduce very particular nutritional deficiencies. – Michael Harner
Every month – so at least 18 times a year – the Aztecs would  throw feasts like this, explaining why they tolerated such loose control over their conquests. It's not as mad as you might be thinking. A while ago Cracked ran an article about Steve Callahan, who was shipwrecked and left drifting in a dinghy for two months. The effects on his appetite were... interesting.
My sense of taste also changed, and by that I mean I started to see fish eyes as candy. Obviously I started eating fish. You know, it's not like you're going to run into a cow swimming around out there. But by the end of the voyage I looked forward to the eyes and liver, because they had all sorts of vitamins my body was begging me for, and that made the fish taste so unbelievably good. I ate delicacies you find only in exotic seafood restaurants not because I had to, but because I wanted to. You tell yourself it's gross, but you suddenly want it, because fish meat and water are driving you mad, and also you might be dying of some sort of deficiency... Your body is good at guiding you toward the things that will keep it from croaking, and so suddenly you're hungry for fish eyes. – 5 Things I Learned About Survival While I Was Lost At Sea, Cracked.com
Or delicious long pork, as the case may be, which apparently really does taste like pork or veal. Aztec commoners didn't have regular access to the turkeys and dogs the upper classes were eating; if they wanted animal protein, they had to content themselves with worms or snakes – or this month's prisoners.

Some dieticians shoot the idea down, saying the Aztecs could get the eight necessary amino acids from their staple crops corn and beans. But to ensure their bodies absorbed the corn and beans as amino acids instead of just packing them away as energy, the Aztecs would have to've eaten large quantities of both simultaneously – and according to Diego Durán, the poor could not harvest corn and beans simultaneously. Consider also the effect of a crop failure or two, which is often a trigger for war even in the Old World (the French Revolution, for example, was preceded by crop failures brought on by the 1783 eruption of Laki in Iceland). Crop failures mean masses of starving, desperate people, and those tend not to lie down and die quietly. If they're already craving animal fats and have some military training – and the culture's open to the possibility of cannibalism – the solution is obvious.

No, this is just a beef fillet. But apparently it looks pretty similar.

The City of the Gods
The thing is, it wasn't always like this. A thousand years before Tenochtitlán, another city stood in the Valley of Mexico, a place of relative peace and prosperity. Teotihuacán ("Tyo-tee-wah-can"), the Birthplace of the Gods, was already in ruins when the Aztecs arrived, and we know almost nothing about the people who built it – who they were, what language they spoke, even what they called their city (the name is Aztec). The first proper city in the Americas, from 300 to 700 CE it expanded into an architectural masterpiece. Through the city runs the arrow-straight Avenue of the Dead, nearly two-miles long and lined with low, smaller stone pyramids. Beside this Avenue rises the flat-topped Pyramid of the Sun, 220 metres square at the base and 230 metres high, or as high as a 20 storey building – a colossal edifice of earth and sun-baked brick sheathed with stone. The smaller Pyramid of the Moon rises at the northern end of the Avenue, and at its southern end is a great square enclosure walled with massive buildings called the Citadel. Beyond the ceremonial centre lie the remains of humbler dwellings, covering almost 20 square kilometres, making it larger than Imperial Rome.

Fully occupied, it would have been home to some 50,000 people – an unprecedented number for the Americas, which points to some major improvements in agriculture. And indeed, Teotihuacán is believed to have been the culture that perfected the chinampa, the "floating garden" system of agriculture. Artificial islands built in the shallow lakes of the region, chinampas were constructed from reeds and silt from the lake bottom anchored at the corners by willow or cypress trees. They were enormously productive, as the soil was rich and refreshing it was as simple as dredging up a new layer of silt. An important difference from Old World farming, however, was the layout: in the Old World fields were readied by a plough pulled by a beast of burden and then sowed by broadcast seeding, which meant fields tended to be dedicated to a single crop. In the Americas all field prep had to be done by human muscle. There were no animals that could draw a plough, so fields were tilled by hand-held sticks or hoes, and seeds were planted individually. Most New World fields thus came to be mixed gardens of many crops planted together – squash, pumpkins, beans, chillies and of course, corn. To us it sounds more like a veggie patch, but for 1,500 years it fed major world civilisations.

Although well fed, Teotihuacán wasn't quite bloodless, worshipping, among others, the fucking awful Xipe Totec, who had the nastiest rites of all the Mesoamerican gods – a young woman's skin was removed in one piece (and none of my sources will confirm she was dead when they did this) and then worn by a priest like a wet onesie, whereupon he danced to commemorate the arrival of spring, when nature puts on a new coat of vegetation. Why he couldn't just change his robe or something, I don't know. But for its time and place, Teotihuacán seems to've been a relatively peaceful place. Warriors and weapons aren't prominent in the artwork there, and their principle god seems to have been the rain god, Tlaloc. See "major improvements in agriculture," above.

But then suddenly, it all fell apart. Around the year 700, about the same time as the Classical Mayans, Teotihuacán fell, was looted and burned. Its people were massacred or dispersed, and its influence suddenly ceased. The Chichimecs, or Sons of the Dog – nomadic tribes from the north who had probably always been there – had finally broken through. They were a warlike people, so their god was the fierce Tezcatlipoca ("Tez-cat-lee-poke-ah"), the Smoked Mirror. Another confusing name: the Mesoamericans made mirrors out of obsidian, so calling him the Smoked Mirror made him a god of obsidian. It was the same as us calling a deity the Lord of Steel (which I'm pretty sure is a Dio album): he was a war god, in other words, his nagual was the jaguar, and his chosen were the aforementioned Jaguar Warriors. He was emphatically not a god hopeychange, and his people could no longer be held off by the Teotihuacán king's army.

For the longest time we didn't know why, and debate is ongoing, but evidence seems to point to internal unrest: it seems a great civilisation really isn't conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. Or at least been seriously weakened. There is evidence of population decline in the 6th Century, with more young skeletons showing signs of malnutrition. It seems the people of Teotihuacán were no longer being fed. The chinampas had failed them.

Why? Because of droughts that followed the Extreme Weather Events of 535-536, an 18-month period of cloudy skies, crop failures and famines that was described in both Roman and Chinese historical accounts. And for that, current thinking blames the eruption of the Lake Ilopango volcano in El Salvador. This Plinian-type eruption is now known to have occurred at about this time and was much bigger than previously believed, killing about 100,000 people outright and displacing about 400,000 more. Its signature can be found all over the region in the form of a thick, white layer of tephra, locally called the tierra blanca joven, or Young White Earth. Researchers have discovered TBJ deposits as far afield as Nicaragua, Honduras and in offshore deposits, indicating the eruption produced five times the volume of ash and debris than originally estimated, now calculated at 84 cubic kilometers (for comparison, Mount St Helens was a puny 0.25 cubic kilometres). It was the second-largest volcanic eruption of the last 200,000 years, beaten only by the 1815 eruption of Tambora, which blasted 160 cubic kilometres into the air and caused the 1816 Year Without a Summer. (Still dwarfed by the Toba eruption of 75,000 years ago, which put 2,800 cubic kilometres of rock into the air and reduced the human population to just 10,000, maybe as few as 40 breeding pairs. It was the closest human beings ever got to extinction – so far, at least).

Now imagine what that did to farming in the region. Actually, you don't need to imagine, this article about the Mayan Cultural Collapse spells it out in great detail. Again, Apocalypto: remember the scenes leading into the city, full of starving, diseased people and fields of swaying dead crops? Mel got that right, but it actually happened some 700 years earlier than his movie. What he didn't get right was the idea of hunter-gatherers living in virgin jungle. In truth, by the peak of the Classical Mayan civilisation they were packing in up to 240 people per square kilometre in rural areas, and over a thousand in the cities.
Today the Petén, geographically the largest province in Guatemala, has a population of 400,000, living in isolated towns scattered through a forested wilderness. In the eighth century, by some estimates, ten million people lived in the Maya lowlands. In fact, settlements around centers like Tikal reached population densities of up to 2,600 people per square mile. That’s more than half the population density of modern-day New York City. The landscape was an almost unbroken fabric of intensely cultivated farms, gardens, and villages, linked by a web of trails and Sacbe'ob, paved causeways connecting monumental city-states.
It would have been a similar situation further north, but with chinampas rather than the Mayan slash-and-burn farms. And when that many people suddenly can't eat, as I said, they don't usually lie down and die quietly – they pick up a weapon and go after neighbouring tribes, killing or driving them off and taking their food. In an area like Mexico, short on wild game, sooner or later someone is going to give cannibalism a shot (after all, people were the only things around there were more of than needed...) and it only takes one tribe to make it popular, because suddenly their warriors will be well fed and have a major competitive advantage. From there every other tribe will ultimately have to adopt cannibalism or be annihilated.

Thus, Aztecs.

The Last Twitches of Conscience
This is why I consider vegans in the same category as people who place their CDs label side down: conscientious, but misguided. Human beings need animal protein, and we'll go to some insane lengths to get it. That said, I actually agree with vegans that we need to stop harvesting animals for meat, but rather because it's inefficient than because it's unethical. Every one of us needs animal protein, but thanks to the ten-to-one rule I mentioned earlier, we can't possibly grow enough animals to provide it for 7 billion plus. So I'm putting a lot of hope in the synthetic beef idea, or the Beyond Meat guys who are finding ways to make it directly from plants – meat without animals, a beautiful dream.

Because make no mistake, we're heading for exactly the same scenario that created the Aztecs – overpopulation, climate change, no shortage of calories, but completely starved of animal proteins. It's science or soylent green.

So discussions of the morality of the Aztec culture are irrelevant in my view – they did what they had to do to survive, just like everyone else on this planet. They just found a religion to justify it. But they were still human beings, capable of love and compassion and thought and reason, so that doesn't mean they were happy about it. Which brings us to the figure of Quetzalcóatl.

Quetzalcóatl ("Kwet-zal-co-aht-el," or Kukulkan to the Mayans), was the Feathered Serpent, the most famous of the Mesoamerican gods. In his very early days Quetzalcóatl the god was difficult to separate from Quetzalcóatl the man, a Toltec king first called Topiltzin, who changed his name when his reign over the city of Tollan really got into gear. I wonder if maybe we shouldn't separate them at all; ancestors often become gods in the passing of time, and Topiltzin was a very fondly-remembered king, a culture hero, lawgiver and bringer of peace and prosperity to his people. From there to god of wind, spirit and learning, bringer of knowledge and civilisation, isn't such a huge step.

And like King Arthur, Barbarossa and Ghenghis Khan, his people couldn't let him go, believing that one day he would return. According to the tradition, Quetzalcóatl promised to come back in the year of One Reed, some 500 years in the future, and he would be coming from the east, from over the sea. When Moctezuma II, the final Aztec tlatoani, met Hernán Cortés, the ultimate conquistador, popular history says he thought he was meeting a living god whose return had long been foretold. It might be more Spanish propaganda, but his actions were certainly not those of a ruler meeting a military threat. For what it's worth, Moctezuma seems to have been a very different tlatoani from his predecessors, not nearly as into sacrifice with his own hands, and devoted to the peaceful and nerdy Quetzalcóatl. This means a great deal, because centuries earlier Quetzalcóatl – or Topiltzin, who's basically the same thing – tried to forbid human sacrifice once and for all. Quetzalcóatl promised to return to end the killing and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity. The 300 years from the fall of Teotihuacán to the rise of the Toltecs were a long war between the followers of Quetzalcóatl and the followers of Tezcatlipoca, and for the reasons outlined above, the followers of Tezcatlipoca won.

But right from the beginning, their conscience told them their cannibal empire would have to end one day. The clock was always ticking.

If you're as tickled by history as I am, two final things: apparently, the outline of Tenochtitlán's island is still preserved in the modern streets of Mexico City, if you know what to look for. In fact, the outline of the city itself conforms pretty closely to the shores of Lake Texcoco, which was drained and reclaimed some time in the 1700s. Amazing to think that the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, a temple to my other great passion, now sits more or less where Lake Xochimilco used to be!

And although a bit of a zombie language, Náhuatl still gave English such useful words as tomato (from xitomatl), chilli (chīlli), coyote (cóyotl) and of course chocolate (from xocolatl, or Bitter Water – Aztec drinking chocolate tasted like black coffee mixed with red wine (better than it sounds!), and it wasn't until Europeans added milk and sugar in the 19th Century that what we call chocolate was invented. You can find a recipe for the real stuff here; just remember to start with raw cacao, not cocoa).

And you only have to go as far as YouTube to hear the music of Náhuatl spoken again.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

On This Day... (Another) Motorcraft 100

On this day 30 years ago, another race in an exotic, far-off location: the (second) Motorcraft 100 at Wanneroo Park.

Not pictured: Wanneroo Park

Western Australia is a long bloody way from anywhere. Ronnie Johns, dressed as Eric Bana playing Chopper Reid, once quipped that, "You're so fuckin' far away, Perth, why don't you just fuckin' keep going?" I went onto Google Maps once and asked it to plot a journey from Steep Point, Australia's most westerly point, to Byron Bay, Australia's most easterly point. Computer said no. It's still cheaper to fly to New Zealand – an entirely separate country – than it is to Perth.

Which makes it pretty remarkable that Perth's Wanneroo Park managed to host an ATCC round every year. Remember that Australian touring cars in the 80's were run like Formula 1 in the 60's: the tracks did their deals with the teams individually, offering them appearance money to show up and then hoped to recoup the investment at the gate. The transport costs alone must've made WA an expensive round to attend, so only the big teams that had plenty of finance or a shot at the championship bothered to attend.

Case in point, there were only fifteen starters at Wanneroo Park: the established stars from Volvo, Nissan, Holden, BMW and Ford, plus the cream of the local club racing scene: Graeme Hooley, who'd made the trip to the civilised states a couple of times this year in a VK Commodore backed by Scheel seats; Tim Howton, in a blue #74 Mazda RX-7 (which I didn't know was even homologated for Group A, so who knows, maybe it wasn't?); and a white #12 BMW 635 which I think must've been driven by Simon Emmerling, though you don't need to remember that because he only showed up for this one round.

Oh, and Tim Slako. More on him in a moment.

Qualifying was one of those statistical anomalies that shows up every so often: young John Bowe had taken his first pole position in the Volvo with a 1:01.96, and both Peter Brock and George Fury behind him had set identical times, 1:01.97. At race speed, that worked out as a difference of less than a metre. That might be less astonishing than Jarama '97 because the stopwatches only measured times to the hundredth of a second, but it was still impressively close for three different cars by three different manufacturers, on a track where lap time was determined not just by power or aerodynamics, but by how confidently the driver could throw the car up through the Esses and over the crest at Barbagallo Bend. Everyone had been pushing like crazy – and until the stewards got better stopwatches, it literally couldn’t be closer.

The race was intense, showcasing some beautiful driving from Brock (seriously, watch the way he throws the Commodore up the hill – oversteer flowing like a fine wine), and the young guns Seton and Bowe. And Robbie Francevic recovered from a bad start to bank some valuable points. But for most of them the race ended at the side of the road: a distributor wire fractured in the #05, a pinprick let all the air out of Graeme Crosby's tyre, and then Bowe's Volvo went skit and what should've been an easy first win for Bowe became a DNF (Engine) instead. This was the new car from Eggenberger/RAS Sport, so unlike the older car it didn't have 18 months of local development under its belt, and nobody on the Volvo Dealer Team seemed to have a clue how it worked, as Bowe revealed to Neil Crompton in the interview:
Bowe: "I don’t know, mate. The engine went off and I reckon we maybe had the wrong grade of plugs in it or something. It’s a Swedish engine and we don’t know much about it. It just died altogether, like it cooked the plugs or something. It just definitely hasn’t got any fire though!"

Crompton: "There’s been some strange engine management problems, trying to get the ignition right. Has it been a bit of a worry?"

Bowe: "The only problem is that we really don’t know that much about it at the moment. We didn’t get any instructions with it or anything, so it’s done a remarkable job really. It just pisses me off that I was stroking along pretty easy!"
So after a lot of good, close racing, the win belonged to George Fury, 15 seconds ahead of his teammate Glenn Seton – Gibson Motorsport's first 1-2 finish. Apparently they knew how their engines worked just fine. Francevic, however, despite leading the championship on 133 points, went away from Wanneroo with some hard thinking to do about whether the frontrunning pace of the new #4 Volvo was worth the risk that it mightn’t finish at all.

Spotlight Driver: Tim Slako
A Kiwi who'd made a new home in the wide brown land, Slako had plenty of experience in a number of racing disciplines, but none of them paid as much as touring cars. So, bowing to the inevitable, he'd taken support from his West Racing Motor Development business and bought an ex-Andy Rouse Rover SD1. To that he added backing from Alf Barbagallo, WA's answer to Bob Jane, and radio station 96FM, hence the #96 on his doors. And it was paaaank! With lime green bumpers! Because when you're driving an ugly car, a loud colour scheme just feels right.

Spotlight Car: Rover SD1
The Top Gear boys have already covered this machine a couple of times. In S4E8, Richard Hammond bade farewell to the Rover V8 engine and went historic racing in an SD1, the best home the V8 ever had. Then Jeremy bought one for their British Leyland challenge in S10E7, which ended up costing him £978.

Interestingly, in the engine sendoff Hammond also provided an Australian connection when he mentioned the Rover V8 powering, "the Brabham single-seater." If that's the engine I think it was, he meant the Oldsmobile 215, which because of its light aluminium construction had been the basis of Jack Brabham's 1966-1967 championship-winning Repco F1 engines. Which is not to say the Repco V8 was was the same engine as the Rover V8: Formula 1, especially in the 60's, was a complete free-for-all and Repco thieved parts from Daimler, Alfa Romeo and local suppliers like Len Lukey to screw together the best hot-rod engine they could imagine. Rover would've had their own suppliers and would've ended up with a completely different parts list, compromised further by the Group A regs. But still, pretty versatile block.

Top Gear got some things wrong, though, starting with the looks. Hammond recounted that the designers were so pleased with their styling that they unveiled the prototype next to a collection of Italian supercars, and then referred to it as "handsome." I often worry about the Top Gear crew and how often they get their eyesightchecked, because half the cars they praise for their looks are utterly hideous, and the Rover SD1 was the most hideous of them all. The starting point was basically a cheese wedge on wheels, fer chrissake, which was stretched and melted and slung over the wheels all wrong and then the details were seemingly sketched in by the same design studio behind the Sinclair ZX81. It all added up to a shape that offended the eyes but didn't have the decency to be a wallflower. In the designer's mind it was meant to resemble the Ferrari Daytona, but the Daytona was not an especially good-looking car either. I'm sorry, but it just wasn't: it looked like it was styled by a Detroit sheet metal worker who thought the panels would be made from pig iron (which, being a 1960s Ferrari, they probably were).

Rover SD1, Ferrari Daytona, Mazda RX-7 and the Gadgetmobile. See if you can tell which is which.

Despite that, with a bit of actual care taken in the build process – say, if it was built by a racing team rather than the BMC crew at Longbridge – the SD1 could've been a pretty good racecar. That it wasn't (in Australia especially) is a bit of a mystery. With a 3.5-litre engine, it should've been basically the same car as the BMW 635 that had completely dominated the 1985 season, only with better aerodynamics (that radiator-less front end with the sloping windscreen didn't exactly spoil the airflow) and some 255 kW to the BMW's 240. Cramming in eight cylinders instead of six should've removed the long, ungainly crankshaft all straight-sixes are burdened with, and made for a powerplant that jumped up and down the rev range much more easily.

But that's not what happened, for a number of reasons. For one, the BMW's engine was unusually good (it had come out of the M1 supercar), and under the skin the 635 and the SD1 were nothing alike at all. Where the BMW was independently coiled all-round with a limited-slip diff, the Rover beancounters had forced the design team to bin their planned double wishbones in favour of cheaper MacPherson struts, with a live axle and Watt's linkage at the rear. In other words, at normal road speeds the Rover would give you a fairly comfortable ride, but out on the racetrack it'd be all thumbs. Where the BMW sniffed out every last skerrick of grip, the Rover was left skating, its camber settings changing when it hit a bump and its rear wheels unable to put the extra power down. Basically, when you leaned on them really hard, the BMW hung on and the Rover let go.

Mostly, though, the difference in results was the difference between a cash-strapped West-Australian/Kiwi privateer and a well-funded BMW factory operation. Tim Slako's Rover was originally a Group 1 car built by Patrick Motorsport in 1980, converted to Group A by Andy Rouse in 1982, and sold to Slako at the end of the 1984 season. It shouldn't be conflated with the Tom Walkinshaw factory-backed Rovers that were based on the 1984-model Vitesse, which was a sort of half-arsed evo model.

You can see the effects in the Motorcraft 100. On the swooping, up-and-down Wanneroo tarmac, Slako was lapped before the end, and you could see the Rover constantly stepping out at the back as the driver ran out of grip and had to fall back on talent instead. Slako had the talent, and managed to keep the Scheel Commodore behind him for most of the race, but in the end it was never going to hold up. The SD1 was far more competitive than a badly-built car from a tiny, broke manufacturer should've been, but in the end second is still the first of the losers. Despite running BMW and Volvo ragged for the 1985 and '86 ETCC titles, Rover would pull out at the end of the year, disillusioned with the politics and unable to bear the expense of failed championship tilts.

And before you accuse me of chauvinism, yes, under the skin the Commodores were pretty much the same as the Rover. But they also had a lot more power.