The wheel's come off!

Jody Scheckter hadn’t ever banked on driving a Tyrrell ‘five-wheeler’, as Roy Topp tells Rob Widdows

Footballer, cricketer, motorcycle scrambler, blacksmith, master welder and racing mechanic, that’s Roy Topp. He was at the top of his game (no pun intended) for 15 years, becoming number one mechanic for Jackie Stewart at Tyrrell, the great man describing Roy as an artist, one of the very best. Praise indeed from a man who has often declared that his mechanics were better at what they did than he was at driving.

Roy is not short of an anecdote or 10, having worked at Wolf, ATS and Fittipaldi as well as Tyrrell. But it is from the Tyrrell days that Roy chooses his story. We settle down with mugs of tea, a pile of photo albums and press cuttings from those halcyon days. We’re going back to Sweden’s Anderstorp circuit in the summer of 1976.

“Not because we came home first and second with Jody Scheckter and Patrick Depailler in the six-wheelers,” grins Roy, “but because of an amazing thing that happened in practice. Anderstorp was an airfield circuit and the layout was very basic, a bit like the old Goodwood. The pit entry was behind the pitboxes and the awnings, so the cars sort of came in from the back, out of sight, and then into the pitlane.

“We were all out front waiting for Jody to come by on a qualifying lap and we couldn’t understand why he hadn’t come round – there hadn’t been a shunt or anything. Then we look behind us and there he is, rolling into his pitbox, waving his arms in the air. None of us saw anything wrong with the car but [designer] Derek Gardner ran over to see what Jody wanted and he was waving at the front wheels. One of them, the leading one on the left, was missing. And none of us had even noticed. Jody just couldn’t believe that none of us had spotted there were only three wheels on the front.”

The South African, in his third season with Tyrrell, wasn’t too happy and proceeded to explain how the whole hub assembly had parted company with the car.

“Jody said he was braking at the end of the straight – probably doing about 170mph – when he saw a wheel bowling along in front of him. ‘As I braked,’ he said, ‘I saw this wheel go by and I thought, I wonder whose wheel that is? Then I turned into the corner and I knew whose wheel it was…’ We knew we’d put the wheels on properly so we were taken unawares, and maybe that’s why we never noticed he only had five wheels when he came in. I mean, the rest of the car wasn’t damaged at all.”

Now they were into an all-nighter, redesigning the assembly and building new ones for the following day’s qualifying.

“The hub assembly was held together with a row of small bolts which held the brake disc in place and the centre pin had come out, shearing the whole lot off, so we set about building a stronger one. The six-wheeler had some funny characteristics under braking. The majority of the braking was on the front two wheels, so when the car pitched forward it was difficult to get the brake balance right between the front pair and the pair behind them.

“Anyway, we only had the most basic tools at the track – I used to carry mine around in a bucket, useful when the driver wanted a pee (laughs) – and we had to increase the size of the bolts to make sure it didn’t happen again. We had a vice in the truck, and a drill of some sort, and we had to make do with what we had. There was no pillar drill or milling machine or anything like that, so we worked through the night, using larger bolts, putting nuts on the back of them, anything we could do to strengthen the whole assembly. We used the old rule of thumb that if it looked right it probably was right, and we had confidence in Derek Gardner, of course.”

The following day Scheckter qualified on pole and went on to win the race after Mario Andretti retired, with team-mate Depailler following him home. Yet again the mechanics had saved the day.

As well as his work in F1, Roy Topp also looked after Jackie Stewart’s son Paul in Formula Ford 2000 and in Formula 3. He’s now happily retired, and busy rebuilding his beloved scramble bikes at his home in Hampshire.