Lost before his time

Gerry Birrell was in line for a Tyrrell drive when his life was cut short. Adam Cooper recalls a man who could have been an F1 star

It was a dark year for Grand Prix racing. Jackie Stewart’s final title aside, 1973 is remembered for the deaths of Francois Cevert and Roger Williamson, men who would surely have achieved great success as the decade progressed.

That season also witnessed the passing of another driver whose achievements are often overlooked, largely because he never made it as far as Formula One. Yet had things turned out differently Gerry Birrell could have been Cevert’s team-mate at Tyrrell in 1974, vying with his close friends Williamson and James Hunt to replace the retired Stewart as Britain’s leading star. He was that close to making it when he was killed in a horrible Formula Two crash in practice at Rouen.

Birrell was a man of many parts, brilliant in the cockpit, a capable engineer and organiser out of it. He made friends easily and got people on his side. Largely forgotten by the public, there are many in the sport who recall him fondly and still mourn his loss.

Born in Glasgow on July 30, 1944, Birrell was younger brother to Graham and lain, both of whom also went on to race. From an early age Gerry shared Graham’s passion for cars, and showed little inclination to follow his father into the furniture business. He learnt his trade with an engineering apprenticeship at a local BMC dealership, while he gained practical experience working on his brother’s Austin A35 and A40 racers. The youngest Birrell raced for the first time at Charterhall within a month of his 17th birthday.

His widow Margaret recalls how he obtained parental support for his early racing activities: “Apparently, his father said something like, `If you don’t smoke, I’ll give you the petrol, and if you don’t drink, I’ll give you the car’.” For almost the rest of his life Gerry remained a tee-totaller.

He spent the early 1960s racing and hillclimbing a variety of cars, including Graham’s Lotus 11 and a string of saloons, usually building them himself. He won everything in Scotland and began to make his name nationally in 1966-67 with a demon Singer Chamois. He showed his versatility by rallying a self-prepared Singer Vogue, even taking second in class on the RAC. It was all financed by his day job as a dealer service manager.

It wasn’t until 1968, at the age of 23, that Birrell was able to focus on single-seaters. He moved to London and raced an Austro Formula Vee for the Wooler’s team, winning the British title. The following year he prepared and raced the company’s Formula Ford 1600 Crossle. Typically, he used his technical knowledge to seek the ‘unfair advantage’, opting for Avon tyres in a sea of Firestones. He also persuaded new pal Brian Hart to prepare his engine.

“He was an incredibly personable guy,” recalls Hart. “You could not fail to like him. Apart from being talented, he was immensely interested, and he took everything in. He knew as much about the engines and gearboxes as he did about the chassis.”

Birrell raced against the likes of Emerson Fittipaldi and Hunt – and won the European championship. That year he also found time to marry Margaret, a Glasgow girl who had emigrated to America but was later persuaded to return by the Birrell charm. The engagement ring was paid for with the prize money from a Formula Vee victory.

Formula Three was the obvious step and, through his friendship with Tim Schenken, Birrell landed a drive in Rodney Bloor’s Brabham BT28. He also found financial support from car accessories dealer John Stanton after testing his FF1600 and embarrassing its regular occupant. Birrell pretty much ran the F3 car himself, with one mechanic and the enthusiastic sponsor helping where he could.

“We just set off for the continent in a Thames van,” says Stanton, “and tried to find some races where they were going to pay some starting money. We had a wonderful year – he was such a gregarious fellow. One moment he was a driver, the next he was getting his hands dirty.”

Again, Gerry did his own thing on tyres, opting this time for Dunlops. He also gained another key supporter. Keen to find out how sponsorship worked, Hunt had met advertising man John Hogan, who worked on the Coca-Cola account. James in turn introduced Birrell, and Hogan soon became close friends with both. Before long they carried modest Coke logos on their cars, while John searched for funds to top up their budgets.

“Even then James had an eye for a good driver, and he said Gerry was really good,” recalls Hogan. “Talk about two people who were chalk and cheese, but they had tremendous respect for each other. James liked a drink, I liked a drink, Gerry didn’t. Gerry was in awe of James’s ability to drive at 10/10ths the whole time, while James regarded him highly because he was a lot quicker than he looked.”

Birrell had a successful 1970, winning major events at Paul Ricard and Brands, plus the prestigious European Cup at Thruxton. If he got in front he would drive into the distance, though he didn’t always enjoy the slipstreaming battles that required total trust in those around him. He was very upset by a double fatality at Rouen.

“He knew the dangers involved,” says Margaret. “And he was terrified of fire. But I have to say he never thought it would happen to him, because he was the engineer behind it all. He didn’t throw the thing around, he thought about it. He didn’t take risks.” Hogan also recalls a driver who “would put everything into qualifying so he could start at the front and streak off into the distance”.

In June, Bloor invited Gerry to drive his Brabham BT30 in the F2 race at Hockenheim, because regular Schenken was busy elsewhere. He stunned the regulars by running in the leading pack until retiring.

In parallel with his single-seater career, Birrell cultivated a relationship with Ford, which dovetailed neatly with his friendship with Hart Over the next three years, as well as racing Escorts and Capris, he spent a lot of time sorting AVO prototype production cars and undertaking asphalt testing for the works rally effort, including on the GT70. Motorsport boss Stuart Turner and rally manager Peter Ashcroft both revered him.

“Ford was his bread and butter,” says Margaret “The single-seater racing was a case of getting the kudos. He needed to be employed so we could get a mortgage.”

Birrell was a good sorter of cars, recalls Turner. “He’d drive round Boreham and say, ‘Is it too early in the morning to be rude?’ And then he would be and we’d get a better car as a result He was a truly nice bloke and a bloody quick driver. He had certainly got the application and ability to motivate people. Mechanics would go the extra mile and that’s not a bad attribute to have as a driver.”

Gerry impressed in a Capri in 71, winning several major British events. He was in the frame for a works March F2 drive but, as Margaret recalls, lack of funds caused him to miss out: “Niki Lauda got it because he had an Austrian bank behind him.”

With Stanton’s support and Hart engines, however, he was able to move up with a Lotus 69— the best deal on offer at the time. Again it was essentially a self-organised effort and a brilliant second place in the non-championship event at Mallory Park boded well. But the choice of Lotus was not a good one: in Europe he struggled to better fifth or sixth.

Birrell had a busy start to 1972: he undertook recceing duties for Ford on the Monte Carlo, where he had a big shunt; and then dashed home for the birth of his twin daughters. Stanton’s funds, meanwhile, had run dry, but Birrell returned to Bloor with a Coke-backed F2 March. He finished second in a British series race at Oukon Park, but reliability problems hit hard elsewhere. He did last the distance in the high-profile Rothmans 50,000 Formula Libre event, where he finished an impressive fourth overall. That result, behind a trio of Formula One cars, pleased his wife. “The only reason I remember that is because, if he came in the first four, I got a new kitchen,” she says.

He also showed his tin-top mastery in the Cologne Capri, highlights including a win in the Group 2 class at the Le Mans 24 Hours and second overall with Claude Bourgoignie in the Spa 24 Hours.

That winter Birrell travelled to South Africa to drive a Hart-equipped works Chevron in the Springbok Sportscar Championship. Sharing with Jochen Mass or Peter Gethin, he won five three-hour races and the title, as well as finishing second to the factory Ferrari of Arturo Merzario/Brian Redman in the Kyalami Nine Hours. His first major sportscar success was another string to his bow and enough to make him break a lifelong promise.

“He always said he’d drink a bottle of champagne when he won his first world championship,” says Margaret “He’d decided that there was no way he was going to do that, so he and Jochen drank a bottle of wine instead. Apparently, he was dancing on the table. It was his first drink ever.”

That winter the Birrells moved from their flat in Ealing, to Essex, making the commute to Boreham easier. Meanwhile, the Chevron connection continued into 1973 with a works F2 ride alongside Gethin. It was his biggest chance yet, and he made his mark at Thruxton at Easter, leading until a controversial assault by Mike Beuttler spun him down to fourth.

As in the previous years, a great early performance in England proved hard to replicate once the season got going. But he continued to shine for Ford: “At the time we were occasionally using F1 drivers in the Capris,” says Turner, “and he was always on the pace.” Birrell won the saloon class in the Nürburgring 1000Km with John Fitzpatrick, but retired at Le Mans. The low point came during practice at the Salzburgring, where he rolled and skated along on his roof after a fifth-gear tyre failure.

Although his South African celebrations indicated that he perhaps felt F1 was passing him by, in the spring Gerry learned – in confidence – that an opportunity was close at hand. Stewart was expected to retire at the end of the season and it made sense for all parties, not least Ford, for Birrell to replace his fellow Scot at Tyrrell and join Cevert for ’74. Stewart was said to have championed Birrell’s cause with the team, although JYS does not remember doing so.

“It was on the cards,” says Hogan. “Stuart Turner had lobbied Ken, and I had also spoken to Ken in a roundabout way. In those days, if you took the right driver, Ford delivered the engines. I remember having a long discussion with Gerry about how much he should get paid!”

Nothing was guaranteed, but Birrell now realised that he was within reach of the big time, and his friend Hunt’s successful grand prix debut at Monaco on June 3 must have rammed the point home. The news that ‘Uncle Ken’ was to attend the Rouen F2 race on June 24 was a further indication that things were now getting serious. That may have given Birrell food for thought; two key Ford men recall that he was in a strangely philosophical mood before going to France. “The week before he died, we went to Castle Combe together in my car,” recalls Peter Ashcroft. “It was weird. He almost suggested that it was going to happen. He said that he’d talked to his wife and put his affairs in order – insurance, mortgage, things like that – so if anything happened to him, she knew what it was all about.”

“He lived three or four miles away,” says Turner. “On the Wednesday that week, he popped over. When he’d gone I can remember saying to my wife, ‘That’s strange, it was as if Gerry was tying up all the loose ends.”

Margaret has never heard their stories before, but says they were right. She wasn’t due to go to Rouen and recalls that her husband left a lot later than he usually would: “It’s the strangest thing, but he was making me do all the bills, including the life insurance and the disablement policy. Just before he left for France, I said, ‘Which one do you want me to pay, because I don’t have enough money to pay both?’ He said, ‘Use your loaf. I can put a cross against disablement, but I can’t if I’m dead.’ So I paid the life insurance…”

Even before the Rouen meeting, it had been suggested that the cars had outgrown the high-speed sweeps of the venue. The Chevron team was delayed at customs, so Birrell missed Friday’s practice. That could only have added to any feeling of pressure.

“He was a bit detached that weekend,” confirms Hogan, who by then was working for Ron Dennis. “I thought he was more professional than I’d ever seen him, more focused. I think he realised that if he was going to take the next big step he needed to have to start sticking his neck out.”

On Saturday, Birrell was eager to make up for lost time and presumably impress Tyrrell and was soon among the pacesetters. In the final afternoon session he was storming towards Six Freres — the third in the series of dramatic fifth-gear, 150mph-plus bends — when a front Firestone failed. The B25 plunged off the road. It struck a poorly secured barrier, which lifted up. The car passed beneath it. Poor Gerry had no chance.

“I know what he was trying to do, because he spoke about it,” says Hogan. “He said there was a lot of time to be made there if could get through flat. And he had done a couple of laps flat, because you could hear. The Chevron was an inherently understeering car, which generated high tyre temperatures.

Hart recalls Birrell being “pretty quick” prior to the accident. “I was in the pits when it all went quiet Paul Owens [Chevron team manager] went down there and came back and said, ‘Just forget it, Brian’. You can’t quite believe it when you’ve shared meals with a guy and been to his house. Nobody knew what do, because Margaret wasn’t there.”

Eventually Hart found a telephone to call Ashcroft in Essex. Peter and his wife Jean collected Turner, and then headed to the Birrell house.

“Stuart couldn’t go in,” says Ashcroft. “So he stayed in the car with my wife. I had to go in tell his wife.”

Margaret remembers she was feeding the children when Ashcroft arrived.

“I saw who it was but didn’t think about what it was. When Peter said it was Gerry, I just asked, ‘Was it fire?’, and he said ‘No’. I was actually quite reasonable. The devastation hit later.”

Just days after the accident, Ford revealed the groundbreaking RS2000. It had been sorted and developed from scratch by Birrell.

Gerry Birrell was a month shy of his 29th birthday when he died. Could he have made it to the top? His CV was no less impressive than those of contemporaries Hunt and John Watson. The clock was ticking, but he was only 11 days older than Patrick Depailler and eight months younger than Jacques Laffite. Ford’s support would have been invaluable. What’s more, Hogan became Marlboro’s Fl supremo within months. Doors would have opened.

Jochen Mass went to McLaren with the Ford of Germany engines,” says Hogan. “Those would probably have been Gerry’s. I think he could have been World Champion — he was certainly every bit as good as Alan Jones. He was keen to do F1, but it wouldn’t have been the end of his world if he hadn’t. He would drive anything — as long as he got paid.”

Most agree that Birrell’s involvement in the sport could have stretched far beyond his own driving career. “I had the firm opinion that Ford had plans for Gerry,” says Hart. “He was so charismatic, he was going to be way up in the Ford Motorsport hierarchy. He was a pretty amazing guy.” Hogan believes Birrell could have gone even further. “I could see him today owning and running an F1 team,” he says. “The one thing Ford never did properly was have their own F1 team, and he was the guy who could have delivered that”