“The bloke you had to beat”by Ed Foster on 13th December 2016
Vic Elford was one of the fastest and most versatile of the '60s and '70s, and the man to beat according to Derek Bell
Born: 10th June 1935, Peckham, London
Over five months in 1968 Vic Elford won the Monte Carlo Rally, the Daytona 24 Hours, the Targa Florio and finished fourth in his first Grand Prix, the French GP at Rouen.
A remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that Daytona was won by five laps and he hadn’t seen the circuit before, and a wheel came loose on the Targa which dropped him 16 minutes behind the leaders before he smashed the lap record and finished three minutes ahead of second-placed team of Ignazio Giunti and Nanni Galli. Oh, and he was only drafted in at the last minute for the French GP to replace the injured Brian Redman and, bar a couple of Formula 2 drives, he had never sat in a single seater.
“Often,” says Derek Bell, “drivers don’t like to admit anyone is quick, but he was and I’ll say it now. Vic was the guy that would make you say ‘Oh sh*t, Elford’s in a Porsche’. You knew then that you were going to have a problem trying to beat him. It wasn’t like that in Formula 1, because he never got a good car, but in sports cars that was the case. In practice you’d look at the times and think ‘right, how did Elford do?’
Elford started his racing career as a rallying co-driver: “I had no money, my dad had no money, I had no car,” he told Simon Taylor over lunch back in 2007. “My parents ran a little café in Peckham in South London. The only way I could take part in motor sport was as a rally navigator: it got me into a car, even if it was in the wrong seat.”
After a contract with Ford in Cortina GTs and Lotus-Cortinas Vic, sick of the unreliability, called Porsche competitions boss Huschke von Hanstein.
“I told him I wanted to rally a 911, because I thought it would be sensational. He said: ‘we don’t have a rally programme. We don’t have a budget. We don’t have any cars.’ But I worked on him. In the end he said: ‘I can’t pay you any money, I can’t pay you any expenses, but I can lend you a car for the Tour de Corse. Show me what you can do with it.’
“So [co-driver] David [Stone] and I flew to Corsica. I had to pay for everything. Corsica is all mountains and narrow roads, so I hired a Simca Aronde and we spent 10 days doing a full recce. Two mechanics turned up with a 911 in time for the start, plus a couple of sets of wheels and a jack, but no spares at all. I asked Huschke when the spares would be arriving. Huschke said: ‘no spares, Vicky my boy. Porsches don’t break.’ And it didn’t. We finished third. Huschke was over the moon.
“For 1967 he got a budget for more events. It took me three months in the mountains to learn to drive the Porsche; having started in Corsica, I continued on the Monte recce and then the rally. The 911 was on tiny tyres in those days and, because it had so little weight on the front wheels, it understeered – until you did something wrong and then you went backwards through the nearest hedge. You had to be very delicate getting the balance right between what you put through the front wheels and what you put through the back. We led the Monte until the snow came, but we still finished third.
“Then Huschke said: ‘Vicky, have you ever thought about racing?’ I told him I’d thought about nothing else since I was 14. So he said: ‘let’s start with the Targa Florio, because it’s the race that’s most like a rally.’”
Elford went on to win six major races at the old Nürburgring (after doing four 7½-hour stints in the 84 Hours there “I felt I knew every blade of grass, by name”), the aforementioned Daytona and Targa Florio as well as Sebring.
He was meticulous in his preparation and, combined with his speed, he was always one to watch. “He was really an engineer,” Bell goes on, “and I never realised that until we were sitting chatting over a coffee last Friday. I didn’t realise he wanted to be an engineer rather than a racing car driver when he was very young. He used to draw cars and bits and pieces as a kid and he was very good at maths and physics.
“Back in the day he did talk to us but he kept himself to himself. He was bloody quick, he was always super competitive and he was a perfectionist. He got the best out of everything in his own mind, if I may say that. He didn’t always agree with people, but he was very, very fast.”