The record books hold few entries for him yet Chris Bristow is now remembered by some who knew him as “a Michael Schumacher of his day”. A meteor in the true sense, his career took off in dramatic style only to plunge spectacularly.
Nor do the books remember the overshadowed Alan Stacey, a valiant soldier plugging on gamely against mounting odds that militated against a man with a disability progressing much further in his chosen sport.
Only the newspapers, on Monday, June 20 1960, accorded them full measure as they related how, on a black Sunday at Spa-Francorchamps, Fate had made no distinction between their respective abilities and prospect, and reached out for them both. That Belgian GP capped a weekend of trauma the like of which F1 would mercifully be spared until Imola, 1994.
Bristow, the son of a south London car hire operator, began racing an MG Special in 1956 but sprang to international prominence in the John Davy Trophy F2 race at Brands Hatch on August Bank Holiday 1959, when he beat established stars Roy Salvadori and Jack Brabham by six seconds in the first heat, then settled sensibly for third, close enough behind them in the second, to take the overall win. Four years later, a similar feat at Crystal Palace would catapult Jochen Rindt into the limelight. Porsche offered Bristow a drive in the Goodwood 9 Hours and there, before crashing after a tangle (ironically) with Stacey, he harried Cliff Allison in the works Ferrari Testa Rossa.
British Racing Partnership chief mechanic Tony Robinson had pointed Bristow out to team boss Ken Gregory, who recalled: “Tony had seen him racing at Crystal Palace. We gave him a trial in our F2 Cooper at Brands Hatch, and signed him immediately. In 1958 we had run George Wickens and Ivor Bueb, and when poor old Ivor cooked it at Clermont-Ferrand in 1959, we replaced him with Chris.”
When Bristow made his pukka GP debut in an F1 car at Monaco in 1960 he was mighty, qualifying a sensational joint-third fastest with Yeoman Credit team-mate Tony Brooks and Jo Bonnier. Gregory worried about Bristow’s inexperience and thus nominated Brooks to on the front row alongside Moss and Brabham. “That was my judgement and a mistake, in hindsight,” he admits 37 years later. Bristow’s transmission failed early on.
Photos reveal his character: head down, bulling the car at Goodwood and Spa; two-wheeling at Monaco; tail out at Zandvoort, exuding the will to win. “He was a master of the four-wheel drift,” Gregory confirms. “I wasn’t his manager and didn’t want to be, but I regarded him as a protege and he knew that. We were preparing him for what would have been great things.”
Meanwhile, three years of club racing had taken Stacey to works driver status with Team Lotus by 1958, when he made his F1 debut in the British GP. He was eighth in the same race a year later, but promotion to lnnes Ireland’s number two for 1960 brought only frustration, with retirements in Argentina, Monaco and Holland, where he had run third before the transmission broke. Going to Spa he had only fourth place in the International Trophy at Silverstone by way of consolation.
Journalist Jabby Crombac knew Stacey well, both professionally and socially. “He had an artificial leg,” Crombac recalls. “His right leg was cut just under the knee, and in order to double-declutch he had a motorcycle throttle on the gearlever. His mechanic was Bill Bossom, who had a missing arm. So there was this weird combination of a guy with one leg and a mechanic with one hand!”
Ireland, Stacey’s great friend and team-mate, took delight in kidding a disbelieving Jim Clark, during their early relationship as Colin Chapman’s drivers, that Stacey indeed had a false limb. “At Rouen one year,” Crombac recalls, “Alan had to pass a medical. Team Lotus was like most British teams at that time very scared of the bureaucracy of French organisers. So I was sent to go with him. Well, there is that test where the doctor touches your knee with a rubber hammer, to check the reflex. So Alan showed his proper leg for the first test, then I distracted the doctor’s attention and Alan quickly made sure that he tested the same leg again!”
Friends speak of both men with great affection. Tony Tobias was “a minion with the BRSCC, racing an Austin A35,” when he first came across Bristow. “BRP was based in Lots Road, Chelsea, near where we lived,” he says, “and I remember Chris driving down the King’s Road in a Jaguar XK140, standing on the seat and only bending down to steer. He liked doing that! He was a cavalier person. He’d duck and dive, selling sports cars. I saw him do his party piece once at Silverstone too, driving along, standing on the seat. But he was a total racer. If you talk of him today, you’d talk of him being like Rindt.”
Many years after Stacey’s death, writer Eoin Young was embarrassed to note that while speaking of him one day, Ireland was movingly close to tears. “Alan was a very nice bloke; cheerful, not complicated,” Crombac confirms. “A lovely bloke. A really nice chap.” Publisher John Blunsden recalls him as “a fairly quiet sort. Not one to make a vivid impression.”
Bristow’s and Stacey’s careers seemed to offer different futures as they lined up on the 18-car grid that day at Spa: Bristow ninth, Stacey 17th. Stacey had probably gone as far as he could. Blunsden felt he might mature into a steady points scorer, in a decent car. Crombac felt that his F1 career was about to stall. “In Formula Junior and the Lotus XI he was terrific,” Crombac says. “But when it came to Formula One he didn’t enjoy the proper throttle control which he needed. That was really his shortcoming. I think the cars were getting too much for him. When he wanted to put the throttle down, he had to shift his hips.”
By contrast, Bristow had the potential to go all the way. “In those days you had to get the car sliding,” says Blunsden. “The sense of balance and co-ordination was typified by Stirling. In those who had it, it shone so clearly. In those who didn’t, it didn’t half show. Chris had it. Undoubtedly he could have been something. He was bloody quick. Another couple of years and people would have seen just how great he was. There were quite a few who didn’t get over that fearlessness threshold in time, and were killed. But Chris was so quick that even in his short time his talent was all too obvious. He was incredibly quick but relatively inexperienced, and for a such driver that was the most dangerous period of all.”
“If he had survived,” says Gregory, “almost certainly he would have been a potential world champion. He was the early Schumacher of his day.” But Gregory rejects the ‘fearless’ tag. “I don’t agree with that. I think he knew fear. A driver who doesn’t know fear wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of races. With the greatest respect to those who believe Chris was fearless, if a driver is fearless he is going to find situations he doesn’t expect or can’t cope with. It is the capacity to get as near as possible to the line of disaster, with confidence, that enables the good drivers to go as fast as they do. If they are fearless, they would get up to that and beyond it, and wouldn’t survive long. So I don’t think fearless was the right word for Chris, at all.”
Gregory’s recollection of Bristow’s off-track character also cuts across the Cockney, Jack-the-Lad image others saw. “He was a relatively quiet young man, not boisterous at all. He didn’t have an outgoing personality. He kept fairly well to himself and was extremely fond of his sister, Sonia. He was always extremely neat, very punctual and utterly committed. An ideal team member.”
Stirling Moss agrees with his former manager’s character assessment, but puts Bristow’s level of ability into a different perspective. “I quite liked him. He was easy to get along with, liked the crumpet, you know. A lighthearted, regular guy. He was an energetic person, but I don’t recall him being wild on the track. He was quicker than most. But a Schumacher? Absolutely not! I don’t agree with that at all. I think dear old Ken’s being extremely over-generous! But he was probably like a Jean Alesi, if as quick.”
That fated weekend Spa was at its malignant worst, for in practice Moss himself shunted heavily, sustaining a broken nose and legs, when his Lotus lost a wheel at Burnenville, just beyond the spot where Bristow would crash. Many drivers stopped at the scene, and it was some time before people in the pits realised that the missing Mike Taylor was not one of them, but had had his own alarming accident near Stavelot. His Lotus had plunged into the trees after its steering column sheared. A dark cloud descended, but worse was to come.
Bristow was embroiled in an aggressive dice for sixth place with the Ferraris of Wolfgang von Trips and wild Willy Mairesse when, on the 20th lap, he made what appeared to be an unforced error at Burnenville. The apple green Cooper rolled over several times, decapitating him in the process. Clark, in his first season of F1 for Lotus, nearly struck his body where it lay. This horrific experience, coupled with the death of Archie Scott-Brown two years earlier, lay at the root of the peerless Scot’s absolute detestation of Spa.
Two laps later Stacey, lying seventh, crashed at 140mph. Though his Lotus burned, there was sufficient evidence to convince his mechanics that he had been struck in the face by a bird. It was a silent Formula One fraternity that acknowledged Jack Brabham’s victory that day.
Two young lives, cut viciously short. Bristow, 22, the streaking star on the verge of potential greatness; Stacey, 26, the quiet trier peaking in his F1 career. Motor racing, too often the fatal sport in that unforgiving era, nurtured each one for a while, toyed cruelly with their emotions and their hopes but, ultimately, would play them no fanfares.