Mann for all seasons

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Fond recollections of a popular team owner, whose forthright personality was recently captured in print

By Doug Nye

When great racing team patrons and entrants are mentioned, the names of Ken Tyrrell, Frank Williams, Ron Dennis and perhaps today Christian Homer inevitably arise, every one of them most notably for their Formula 1 achievements. Within the endurance racing world other personalities may spring to mind: ‘The Colonel’, of course — Ronnie Hoare of Maranello Concessionaires — Luigi Chinetti, then Dr Bott of Porsche, John Wyer and David York of Gulf-JW fame, and more. But for me one of the most prominent, most effective and by too many people most underrated of great team leaders was the late Alan Mann.

Tony Dron and publisher John Blunsden have gone far towards putting the record straight with Alan Mann: A Life of Chance, Alan’s biography published last year (by MRP sadly just too late for Alan who died, aged 74, last March). Tall, fair-haired and with the penetratingly direct gaze of classic team chiefs, Alan — though clearly an adept politician in his assorted dealings, most notably with the Ford Motor Company — was not known for mincing his words. This comes across very clearly in his memories of Ford’s 7-litre Mark II programme, which was victorious (at last) at Le Mans but plainly left the British entrant pretty unimpressed.

His role in pre-season Mark II testing at Daytona ’66 left him with “…no doubt in my mind that the car was a pig and far too heavy. In fact the thing was so bad that it had broken itself every morning, so the testing seemed to go on forever. Endless hours were spent just repairing that car while the rest of us hung around. I had so much spare time… that I went next door, took flying lessons and got up to going solo before the end of it”.

Evidently the first thing to break in that interminable test programme was the 2101b Ford four-speed gearbox. Alan was intrigued to hear Ford’s on-site gearbox specialist ‘phoning his boss in Detroit to report: “Looks like the gearbox has overheated a bit, sir”. In actual fact the offending unit’s innards were deep blue and virtually welded inextricably together from the intense heat of seized bearings. The listeners heard his boss suggest “Can’t you put a bigger cooler on it?” Back came the cautious response, “I think it’s going to take a bit more than that, sir,” while all the car-wiggers creased up with stifled giggling.

Alan plainly became impatient with Ford employees more interested in protecting their careers and reputation within the company than turning their cars into practical, short-term race winners. He also recognised that the company engineers casually dismissed what their drivers were telling them if -, it denied any predicted improvement.

His own preference was to run well developed, lightened versions of the Ford GT with small-block 4.7-litre engines. Ever after he remained convinced that “…all the trouble and expense of developing that monstrous Mark II 7-litre could have been avoided”. He was particularly scarred by Walt Hansgen’s fatal accident during the Le Mans Test Weekend in early April, after the veteran hard-charger had returned to the pits to report that his Mark II prototype was “diving all over the place” on the drizzle-slick surface. Having been sent out again he crashed on his second lap at the right-handed Dunlop Curve, understeering wide and apparently opting to take the escape road where the old pre-war 24-Hour circuit had headed into the city suburb of Pontlieu. A banner was stretched across the road entrance there, but it offered no escape at all, since a pile of sand had been dumped just behind. Now Hansgen’s sliding Mark II dived headlong through the banner, straight into the hard-packed wet sand beyond. This immense impact broke the car’s back, collapsing the cabin around its unfortunate driver like the jaws of a man-trap, before the wreckage somersaulted to rest, back on its belly. Ford’s press cover-up after the incident did it no credit.

Alan Mann’s crew then took Shelby’s surviving white Mark II back to their Byfleet works to prepare it for their planned entry in the imminent Spa 1000Kms. They found its rear suspension seemed to match the John Crosthwaite-designed system used on their own lightweight GT40 chassis for the smallblock engine. “But they had got it wrong for that different chassis. It seemed obvious that they’d never swung a rear suspension to measure whether it toed in or out.” On their surface plate they discovered that the Shelby Mark II exhibited massive rear-suspension bump steer, which would certainly explain poor Hansgen’s complaints in that final Le Mans pit stop about his sister car wandering…

At Spa (pictured on the facing page), despite having modified the Mark II’s suspension as best they could, drivers Sir John Whitmore and Frank Gardner still reported aerodynamic instability. Hurtling along the Masta Straight in a crosswind was “a bit spooky”, which from those two must have meant it was absolutely terrifying. Raising the rear spoiler helped, but only a little. Spa also taught them that neither Goodyear’s contemporary tyres nor even the car’s brakes would be up to 24 hours around Le Mans. During the 1000Kms the Belgian clerk of the course called at Alan’s pit to announce that his marshals “were reporting that the 7-litre was getting in the dirt every time by the side of the Masta Straight”. Alan could only reassure the clerk that his chaps were competent drivers, and knew what they were doing.

At its next pitstop the car’s right-front tyre was found to be chunking badly, so Frank and John were instructed “to back off, nurse the remaining tyres and resign ourselves to second place behind Ferrari”.

The story of what followed at Le Mans is just another small part of a fascinating insight into one of the most significant World Championship endurance races ever run.

Don’t miss Alan Mann: a Life of Change. This is a very significant work that adds tremendous perspective and insight from a most respected major player.