The past master

Renowned for his expertise as both racing car restorer and driver, former F1 mechanic Simon Hadfield lives at the heart of Europe’s historic motor racing boom
Writer Gordon Cruickshank, Photographer Howard Simmons

If I hadn’t seen the roof of an articulated transporter over the hedge I’d swear I was in the wrong place. I’m looking for Simon Hadfield Racing, preparers of race cars for meetings all over Europe. It must be in a huge industrial facility, yet I’ve driven into a small, tidy farmyard framed by Victorian buildings, all tiled roofs and ivy. But there’s an Airstream caravan opposite, and body panels from a Lola T70. Maybe the sat-nav was right.

Simon’s arrival confirms it: this is the base for the very successful prep company headed by a very successful racer, Hadfield himself. We’re still talking about his sensational victory in the Goodwood TT last September.

This is the family home, where his father ran an antique clocks business, with Simon later on operating from one corner. Now he employs 10 people servicing dozens of cars, yet the yard looks broadly unchanged, with several small workshops holding three or four chassis. From here you can’t see the transporter and it’s only later that Simon tells me about a 30-car unit a short distance away. But this is the shopfront, and it couldn’t be more rustic.

Some folk can’t wait to get away from the office, but not only does Simon’s home form one corner of the yard, he has just built a conservatory onto the Aga-stoked farmhouse kitchen with big windows overlooking the space, so he can’t avoid seeing what’s going on. It makes a comfortable place to entertain customers – and passing journalists. We settle there to find out how he became a racer.

Those windows work both ways, of course: the guys in the shop can see what their boss is doing too. But there’s no big division: Hadfield may be the owner, the admin chief worrying about income and expenditure, but he can and does wield welding torch as well as steering wheel. From school he “bounced around a bit” but always in racing outfits, including a Formula Atlantic team and working for Adrian Reynard, who taught him much about engineering and preparation. Squirrelling his way into F1 as a mechanic, he spent two stints as a fabricator in the ATS team, either side of a diversion to Merzario. “My only claim to fame – I substantially built the ATS that Jan Lammers qualified fourth at Long Beach in 1980!” There too he worked with some inspiring people – designer Gustav Brunner, future McLaren linchpin Jo Ramirez, the young Keke Rosberg. “If you work with good people it can’t not have an effect on you,” he says. In his last year there he was preparing an Elan to race – “but you can’t race while you’re in racing. It’s too emotionally intense”. Ostensibly he joined his dad’s clocks business, but soon friends were asking him to do car jobs for them, and then their friends... The outcome we see around us.

Racing began in ’81 with that Elan, in HSCC Post-Historics. “I was working for Eddie Jordan Racing in F3, and back then there were no historic meetings, just an odd HSCC race tacked onto an F3 meeting. I was intrigued about racing these old cars and immediately joined the HSCC.”

He had no instruction, though as a boy Dad gave him a Ford 100E to explore oversteer in the fields. “So I just followed the good guys round!

“I had no money but I was fortunate to have been around racing for years, and my father raced a Lotus 11, so knew how it all worked. What I didn’t know was whether I had any talent, until Ian Titchmarsh told me, ‘Stick at it – you could be good’.”

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As we talk it becomes clear that Hadfield has some notion of racing karma – that helping people rewards you, too. That could be because his career was much boosted by what in the theatre business you’d call ‘angels’. Seeing him show promise in a Lotus 47, several supporters provided cars: a Taydec sports car for ’83, then in ’84 a Brabham BT28 that yielded a first victory. But it was in John Upton’s Valour Chevron B8 the following year that Hadfield took off: three races, three wins.

“Suddenly I was in there with the big boys – Can-Am campaigners like Mike Wheatley, John Foulston and Ted Williams.” It brought attention – and fresh customers. They’ve never stopped knocking.

“My only misstep,” he says, “was trying to race John’s Sparton in British F3 when I was so short of money Marcus Pye had to fill the tank for me. I was massively out of my depth, so I stepped back and stuck to historics. I’ve subsequently beaten many of the same guys!”

Since 1984 the Hadfield name has populated results lists across Europe, often in Chevron sports cars but just as often in F1, GT and saloons. Customers have become friends and team-mates – like Michael Schryver. Sharing Schryver’s various cars the two make one of the most successful partnerships on the track. Then there’s Frank Sytner. “I know he’s controversial, but we love Frank to bits here. He’s a massive enthusiast, and his efforts started a lot of series. He also inflated my race budget – before I prepared his cars I was happy to race on old tyres, but not Frank. ‘Throw them away!’ That sort of thing curves your head.”

You can’t get round the words ‘natural talent’ but Simon seems to have maximised his through the theory. It’s a big thing in his world view: accessing the potential, maximising what you’ve got. He’s fulsome in praise of Jackie Stewart’s book Racing – “best thing I’ve read about competition driving”. In it JYS stresses attention to detail and thorough preparation, themes I can hear in Hadfield’s talk, and above all silky-smooth car control.

That level of finesse impresses Simon; he describes watching in-car footage of the famously delicate Jenson Button as “gorgeous”. And maybe something of that was what let him stroke what should have been an uncompetitive car to that utterly unexpected Goodwood win, when pouring rain neutralised the Cobras, E-types and Ferraris, letting Simon extract 100 per cent from the lower power and narrower tyres of Project 212 Aston Martin, a car that hasn’t had the benefits of a radical makeover. Taking over from owner Wolfgang Friedrich in 14th place, he tunnelled his way through dense spray – without wipers as he couldn’t find the switch – to snatch an upset victory, the first for Aston in the prime Goodwood Revival event.

“If it hadn’t been for the rain I’d have been extremely pleased to come 10th in that car. But in all that water, in a car with lower limits I could explore them more fully,” he says, with a shrug. Accessing the potential...

Time for a tour of the shop. Or shops, plural – hidden corners and outbuildings add up to quite a space, each crammed with cars. Everything bar engine building is done in-house – chassis, suspension, panels. But no road car restorations. “Every car here is raced,” says Simon. Chevron F2, Gp5 De Tomaso Pantera, F5000 Lola with silencers like naval guns, the semi-lightweight E Bruce McLaren drove through 1961, Joaquin Folch’s Maserati 250F, with rollbar. “Doesn’t affect it all that much,” says Simon. “Old cars are much more forgiving.” He’s full of the history, knows each car’s biography, bubbles with the story of a Schnitzer BMW engine from a March, of the Laystall F2 car in the next shop. “Hewland’s first gearbox, you know...”

All this variety requires a lot of research. Luckily Simon is keen on what he calls the archaeology of racing, identifying layers of modification and picking a spec to follow. “Taking something decrepit and making it live again – that’s a delight. Of course,” he goes on wryly, “we could make more money if we specialised, but I like variety.” He points to a Cannon. “We’ve discovered trialling is fun!”

Over rather good leek and potato soup made by Simon’s wife Mandy (an active part of the firm and a racer herself), Simon is vociferous over what he calls the staircase of development in historic motor sport. He may be a constant winner, but he professes a wider desire, an almost utopian wish that everyone would play more nicely.

“If you can buy an extra 10 or 12 horsepower, what’s the point of all that work on setting the car up? It should be about accessing every scrap of potential already in the car, not modifying it. And if everyone is developing to keep up then it’s no longer historic motor sport. Once you take that step you’re on that staircase, and this development spiral erodes the sport. If everyone stayed where they were, more people would race and there would be more business for everyone.”

Provable or no, Simon accepts the realities: “I’m in a difficult position as someone who takes money to prepare cars. I cannot ever bring an illegal car to a race for a customer. I have to trust my engine builders.” To build reliable engines? “Not to add in the latest non-period mod!”

He talks eloquently, even passionately about this, clutching his coffee mug tightly in his hand, and maybe it has more heft coming from a winner than it would from an also-ran. He is also trying to do something about it – he serves on the FIA historic racing working group. Next we get on to safety and the divergence between current and historic racing – how survivability has increased astoundingly in F1, yet drivers are still strapping themselves into – or sitting unbelted in – cars with almost zero protection.

“I’ve raced a Lotus 78 – there’s nothing in front of you. You hope you’re taking an informed risk for yourself, but you have to allow for others. There are certain people I will race within inches, but at Goodwood there are some people who are way out of their zone, using too many of their faculties simply driving the car. The Räikkönens of this world are using five per cent of their brain to drive the car and 95 per cent on the racing. In historics we’re more likely to be the other way round.” As ever, he’s being polite here: “we” means “some people”. It’s hard to believe that the much-garlanded Hadfield is devoting inadequate brain-power to what’s going on around him.

Of course Hadfield is running a business, not a sport. What if a customer is, shall we say, not utilising the car’s full capabilities, falling short of Hadfield’s benchmark in the same machine? “We want everyone to operate in their skill zone. If they say ‘I can’t match your times,’ we’re happy they’re being straight and we’ll do our best for them. If they come back with a list of problems we’re not quite so bothered…” Some customers he loves. His outfit prepares cars for prolific racer Leo Voyazides. “Leo has been a revelation – he’s doing it superbly at all levels, and he can drive. It’s so satisfying when you’re allowed to do the job well.” Meaning sometimes you’re not? “Some people want you to keep costs down by fitting standard parts, but it’s much better if we can make our own. Otherwise it becomes generic – a car is only the sum of its parts.”

Starting as a fabricator it’s easy for Simon to see a car this way, from the nuts out, and he’s in tune with a certain breed of engineer-driver. We talk about Jim Hall, Colin Chapman, Bruce McLaren. “If you brought Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne to this workshop,” Simon muses, “they could build you a car – but they’re about the last generation of designers who could.”

“Have you read this?” Simon slaps a copy of Mark Donohue’s The Unfair Advantage on the table. (I hadn’t. Two days later a copy drops on my desk, courtesy of Simon.) Along with his team owner Roger Penske the talented American used the philosophy of incremental development through repeated testing, the scientific approach, and outlined it in print.

“He published this almost 40 years ago, yet they’re all things we still need to be doing today!” Simon says. He’s animated on the relationship between the self-effacing racer-engineer and the powerful Penske, whose deep pockets, and trust in Donohue, enabled him to back his driver with the facilities he needed. Ironic, as one of the things Hadfield’s outfit is big on is set-up, optimised by repeated testing at the convenient Mallory Park – which has just gone into administration. What will they do?

“Get up earlier and go to Silverstone,” he grins. Testing is something you don’t skimp on – not if you want to win.

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He’s been lucky enough to drive some of the greatest machinery from racing’s past. “That’s been the biggest thrill. Once you’ve shown you’ll be safe and sensible, and can bring the car back in better shape than when you took it, people invite you to try their stuff. I’ve driven almost all the cars that were on my bedroom wall! When I was at Merzario and [Nelson] Piquet pulled into the pits in his BT49, if someone had said to me ‘you’ll race one of those in a few years’ I’d have said ‘you’re really smoking something wacky’.” He doesn’t say that it was Bernie Ecclestone’s BT49C, and he won a Thoroughbred GP round in it.

In all this, Hadfield is aware just how fortunate he’s been to rise with the tide of historic racing. “I had the benefit of arriving at a golden time, when you could buy a Lotus 47 for a few hundred quid, when historics were peripheral. The first time the HSCC ran a pure historic meet it was a massive thing. Now we’re a world of our own, quite introverted.”

Not entirely, though. “I’m really concerned for young drivers today. There’s too much racing. It’s hard to be the tallest poppy in the field. If they make it through Formula Ford they’ll need to find a good couple of million before they get even to Formula Renault. And grids are packed with guys who find this money from one place or another. There’s a tsunami of money and talent coming in – there are 20 good young Russian drivers in karts right now.”

These aren’t empty words: sitting with us is Hadfield’s protégé Ben Mitchell, who was proving pretty rapid in historic FF1600 when his car was written off. Hadfield offered him a Merlyn and engine for the season, “And it came back in better shape than it left, which was a good sign.” Currently, in return for his efforts in the workshop, including tutoring Simon’s son James in his racing, Simon provides an engine for Ben to race in Kent FF, and runs the car.

“It’s the only place a privateer can race against the big teams. He’s fantastic, so I try to lend a hand,” Simon explains. “I’m not a saint, but I had so much help in my time that I want to put something back.” That karma thing.

“And it’s brought a new dimension to us, finding how modern cars work. A different way of thinking that feeds back to what we do.

We can’t re-invent a car, but we can finesse. And it’s fantastic fun to see Ben making progress. It’s inspiring. No, that’s not the right way to put it, that sounds soppy. It’s motor racing! Is that a better way?”