1970 Trophee des Ardennes
The script would be rejected as implausible, yet it happened. Gordon Cruickshank reports
If your race career spanned 36 years, you might expect choosing your greatest to be difficult. Brian Redman’s victories embrace virtually all the major sportscar classics, including the BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch and the Spa 1000km, as well as a number of Grand Prix drives. But although a works driver for Porsche and Ferrari, and triple F5000 title-holder, in the US, he says without hesitation that his most exciting race was a 2-litre event, a knife-edge battle with a Hollywood climax which clinched a championship.
It was 1970. Two small British firms, Lola and Chevron, had their teeth into the European 2-litre Sportscar Championship and, with only one more round to go, the Trophee des Ardennes over 500km of Spa-Francorchamps’ gruelling gradients; Lola’s small lead could fall if Chevron won. It was unlikely; Lola’s contender, the T210, was a lightweight spider which had upstaged the heavy Chevron B16 all season, and Chevron’s answer, while rapid, emerged from its first race a charred wreck.
Redman recalls: “We were fairly horror stricken when we went to the first race at Paul-Ricard and saw Jo Bonnier there with the Lola 210, which was an open car, much lighter and in fact much faster. The only reason he didn’t win that first race was because he had an electrical problem.”
Redman saw the danger, and said to Chevron boss Derek Bennett: “We need an open car”. It was August when Bennett began. “He took the body off a B16 and made a new one, beating the aluminium himself. At the time I was also driving for Porsche, so when he said ‘we’ve no money for wind-tunnel testing’, I said ‘don’t bother, Porsche have already done it. Copy the 908/3!’ Which is what he did.”
Its debut came at the penultimate race, the Nurburgring 500km. “The B16 S, for spider, was very quick,” says Redman. “It was about 20sec a lap faster around the ‘Ring — a huge difference.” Redman was leading by two minutes when disaster struck the Cosworth FVC engine.
“It was at the 14km jump. I was in top gear; the car took off and, as I came down I opened the throttle and it just went ‘bub-a-bub-a-bub’. I looked at the fuel gauge, which was flickering. I switched on the electric pump and it immediately exploded. Just went ‘BOOM’. I drove it perhaps a couple of hundred yards, burning fairly furiously, and stopped by a marshal! who immediately departed the scene; just ran up the road. I grabbed an extinguisher and put the flames out, but it was badly burned.”
There were 10 days before Spa, and Chevron’s only hope of retrieving the title was a blackened hulk. It was totally rebuilt by the team, led by Paul Owens, and arrived in Belgium in time for Friday practice.
Leading the four Lolas opposing Redman was Jo Bonnier, Lola importer for Europe and President of the GP Drivers Association. The two qualified on the front row, 0.9sec apart; in the race that gap was never more than two or three seconds, even after pitstops and the lap-record fell lap after lap. “I held the Spa sportscar record in the Porsche 908 long-tail factory car, yet I went three seconds faster in that 1.8 Chevron.”
On the penultimate lap, Redman couldn’t get first gear at the La Source hairpin. “Bonnier pulled out 200yds; with a big effort I caught and passed him, and set another new record; so on the last lap I thought ‘this is it we’re really going to win’. But I looked in my mirror on the back straight and saw Jo catching me, and there was nothing I could do. He came past into the last corner, the La Source hairpin. He correctly took the inside line and we reached my latest brake point sideby-side and flat out. I’d been catching him there a little bit every lap under braking; so now we were both doing 150mph way past the last braking point. I didn’t try to turn, all I tried to do was stop, and he disappeared. The wheels were locking as I came on and off the brakes. When I felt I could make a turn — and by now I was up the escape road — I turned, and there he was, sideways on. He’d spun! There was just room to get past before he got going, and we won, taking the Championship by one point. It was not a big race, but it was special.”
Now living in Florida, Redman races a Chevron coupe and a 1973 F5000 Lola. “Actually it’s frightening at the tracks like Road Atlanta,” he says. “There’s a blind right there followed by a dip, taken at 175mph, and I must say it crosses my mind to wonder if I should still be doing it.”