Doug Nye

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A word from the wise
The affable Tony Hegbourne helped to improve at least one young fan’s understanding of motor sport

I guess every enthusiast develops a soft spot for the first great racing driver one meets, or rather the first that deigns to spend time talking to you as an interested kid. Tony Hegbourne was the first real racer to spend time discussing racing with me, leaning on the fence at Paddock Hill Bend watching a practice session. Tony had shone in a Lola-Climax MkI and would shine some more as Mike Beckwith’s team-mate in the Normand Racing Team Lotus 23s, of which I was also a great admirer.

In 1964 Normand embarked upon a rather ill-advised Formula 2 programme with an unsatisfactory Cooper, the somehow hunchbacked-looking T71. Both Mike and Tony were extremely talented drivers, but there wasn’t much that either could do to make the Cooper truly competitive against the contemporary Brabham, Lotus and Lola opposition.

It still worked out well for the team in the Berlin Grand Prix F2 race at AVUS in May that year, when Tony managed to qualify his Cooper — which was very fast in a straight line — on pole. Ending the first 15-lap heat Tony just won by 0.2sec from former racing cyclist Peter Procter in his Ron Harris-Team Lotus Type 32.

In the second heat, both Normand Coopers again proved quick on the long straights. Mike Beckwith’s led one lap before it slowed, and into the last lap once again Hegbourne was right there in the leading breakaway group of five.

Procter was one of them, and in his recent autobiography Pedals and Pistons (Mercian Manuals) he recalls, “I found that by dropping back about 20 yards I could get a tow, so on that last lap I made sure I was on the tail of the group. As the finishing point was just after the banking, the first car into it should win. I got my slingshot and arrived on the banking flat out in the lead.” The drivers had been briefed not to drop below a blue line painted round the foot of the North Wall, “so I kept low onto this line. Halfway round the banking, Tony came underneath me and below the line, bumping wheels. It took me by surprise and I had to lift off… the loss of drive sent me shooting up the banking. Tony won the race overall, and I was second.”

Peter adds, “We were all pals, so there was no thought of a protest… Tony’s win was well deserved.” The Normand T71 headed Procter by over a second followed by three Brabham BT1Os driven by Denny Hulme, Frank Gardner and Jo Schlesser. Poor Hegbourne died in 1965 after an Alfa Romeo TZ somersault at Spa. Procter’s career ended on Easter Monday ’66 when his Broadspeed Ford Anglia was nudged into a series of rolls at Goodwood and he was terribly burned, leading to years of treatment and plastic surgery, borne with great poise. He recalls upon admission to the famous burns unit at East Grinstead, “I was asked ‘Do you smoke?’ and the answer I nearly gave was ‘Not now, but I did at Goodwood.”

Racing in the 1960s was demonstrably dangerous, but the two pre-war drivers I got to know who were extremely helpful were George Abecassis and the man who always seemed to be described in full as “the Swiss Baron Emmanuel `Toulo’ de Graffenried”.

Both George — as a privateer Alta’s leading driver both preand post-war, later creator of HWM — and ‘de Graff’ — one of Maserati’s favourite clients around World War II — could be extremely engaging, indeed a laugh a minute.

An urbane, private ‘Mr Cool’, George’s extraordinary life story is now well told in a beautifully produced and affectionate biography written by his son, David (highly recommended).

George — ex-RAF with a Distinguished Flying Cross to his name and a PoW — let me into the deceptively simple secret of how post-war drivers accepted desperately dangerous circuits without an apparent care in the world: “You have to remember, that for the first time in six years nobody was shooting at us…”

The Baron in contrast was an extrovert bundle of fun who had perfected the art of enjoying every day to the full by spending his time never knowingly over-worked, among people and immersed in activities that he found ‘amusing’.

Recently, after another night spent awake marvelling at BBC radio’s Test Match Special commentary on Australia’s Ashes defeat, I found a 1987 interview I filmed for the BBC with de Graff at his home in Lausanne. He painted a carefree picture of how a wealthy young man could go racing in the 1930s. For a start, “Being Swiss I bought my licence for five Francs to become a driver and another five Francs to become ‘concourane— an entrant. I then just learned how to do this racing driving by following the top boys, watching and asking them how you take that curve, how you do this?”

He had engineer/racer Enrico Plate care for his Maseratis and enter them post-war but recalled how, “Plate had only two mechanics, but in those days if you wanted to change the back axle of the Maserati it took all night. I used to help them do the work you know, I enjoyed that, but it was the only way to get such big jobs done.

“Then again the cylinders of the Maserati — the block — were always fragile. At one Swiss GP at Berne my Maserati’s engine broke a cylinder on the Friday, I drove overnight with the cylinder through the Gotthard — no autoroute highways then — to Modena, got the part replaced and drove back to do the time trials and the race… with no sleep. We were young. We did not need sleep. We were The Racers!”

*

The heat of competition

Glancing at the live Monte Carlo Rally coverage on Eurosport, the sight of brake discs glowing on IRC cars whistling into the Col de Turini hairpins reminded me of the huge impact carbon brakes had in Formula 1. It’s well over 30 years now since they were first adapted for racing, following publicity surrounding the new aircraft system developed for Concorde said to save ‘around 1100Ibs’ in overall weight (Concorde required a lot of brakes).

Gordon Murray of Brabham contacted Dunlop, who made the Concorde system. For F1 they worried about the behaviour in extremis of ‘plastic brakes’ (as they were then described). So Dunlop devised a system for Brabham using a steel disc drilled to carry 10 carbon ‘puck’ inserts each side, thus combining the lightweight, frictional and temperature-resistant advantages of carbon composite with the stability of a metal disc. It was raced through 1976 on the heffy BrabhamAlfa Romeo BT455 with variable reliability, not least boiling brake fluid, melting (and igniting) oil seals and hub grease, plus tyre distress as horrendous brake heat was conducted from disc to hub and through the wheels.

Hitco in California made aeronautical carbon-brake materials. At Gordon’s request it then produced an ‘all-plastic’ disc-brake rotor. In theory, carbon-carbon brake material should have survived 2500deg C without degradation, but in racing 850deg C proved enough to oxidise the material. “This had the weirdest effect. We could run 60 or 70 laps with negligible brake wear and adequate performance, and then in just two qualifying laps the material would simply dissolve!” A brake could end up like a piece of floppy cloth. And destroying discs which cost 10 times more than conventional cast-iron wasn’t popular with the management…

Controlled cooling became critical, and by the end of 1983 Brabham ran its carbon brakes everywhere and John Barnard at McLaren had adopted French-made SEP carbon brakes on its carbon-composite-chassis MP4. Initial tests at Donington had been “just stunning”, as JB recalled. “It instantly shortened braking distance at the end of the straight from about 100 yards on iron brakes down to 60 yards on carbon. You could see it while testing on a circuit near dusk. Coming down into the braking area, with the carbon brakes you’d suddenly see this orange ‘light bulb’ switched on inside the wheel…”

Thirty years later, this once novel spectacle is now familiar especially during Singapore’s night-time Grand Prix helping F1 glow.