Tough, pragmatic and thoughtful, Brian Redman is one of Britain’s greatest racing drivers. In this extract from his long-awaited memoirs he considers Spa, the pinnacle of road-racing where he took five major victories – and nearly didn’t come home
The original Spa-Francorchamps
Between 1965 and 1975, one in three top-level drivers of world championship sports-prototypes was killed as a result of on-track crashes. The odds were worse for those of us who also drove in Formula 1. To understand how and why, no circuit is more illustrative than Spa-Francorchamps.
Not only were racing cars of that era built without driver protection or even equipped with radios, circuits such as Spa were romantic constructs from 40 years earlier. There was very little in the way of protection for competitors and spectators, track marshal support was inadequate, there were no on-site medical capabilities and organisers were oblivious to the ever-increasing speeds. Jackie Stewart’s horrifying experience [in 1966 when he was trapped upside-down in his BRM, soaked in fuel] turned him into racing’s most tireless and resolute safety evangelist. By the end of the decade, the modern age of racing safety was firmly established and it has improved each year since. I think that every driver who has survived a racing collision over the past four decades would do well to kneel down tonight and offer an appreciative little prayer for the life-saving contributions of three-time
Formula 1 world champion Sir John Young ‘Jackie’ Stewart OBE.
Current racers who know the 4.5-mile Belgian track rhapsodise about the way in which its quick corners curl on to high-speed straights, long and short, uphill and down. Sooner or later the stories get around to the challenging Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex, giving drivers the opportunity to glaze their tales with hints of diffident valour. It’s doubtful that any will mention today’s wide asphalt run-off areas, or the comprehensive rim of steel barriers, or the ubiquity of the marshalling points, or the chicane that brings cars nearly to a crawl. Nor should they.
Modern Spa is a fine circuit that produces excellent racing in enviable safety, and all sane drivers should be grateful for that.
But this isn’t the Spa I drove in the 1960s and 1970s. It isn’t the Spa that nearly broke my spirit and did break my body. Nor is it the Spa on which I won five momentous races in five fragile racing cars.
A win, at last
By now my professional racing career was a reality, gracefully accepted by [wife] Marion and energetically embraced by me. As a result of my 1967 win in the Kyalami Nine Hours in South Africa with Jacky Ickx in the JW Automotive Mirage M1, John Wyer signed us to continue our partnership the following year. Wyer’s 1968 entries were Ford GT40s, splendidly liveried in what became the most iconic team colours ever, Gulf Oil cerulean blue with a broad orange stripe.
The 1968 Spa 1000Kms pitched Wyer’s GT40 against Alan Mann’s fast – though unstable and temperamental – Ford P68 sports prototype, driven by Frank Gardner and Hubert Hahne. Frank had handily outqualified us by four full seconds on Saturday but on race day Spa’s great leveller materialised – hard, implacable rain. This was perfect Jacky Ickx weather.
Jacky loved Spa and he especially loved Spa in the wet. Over my 22 years of professional racing, I never witnessed a lap as brilliant as Jacky’s opener that day. When he stormed past the pits to begin lap two, everyone in the paddock was convinced that the rest of the field had been halted by a horrendous accident. Thirty-nine seconds passed before the second-placed car, a Porsche 908 coupé driven by Vic Elford, finally sloshed into sight. By then Jacky had rounded Eau Rouge, crested Raidillon and disappeared up the Kemmel Straight – this despite Vic’s skill in the rain and the known superiority of the lightweight 908 on a slippery track.
The 908’s wet-weather efficiency didn’t necessarily empower all Porsche drivers. When I attempted to pass Vic’s co-driver, Jochen Neerpasch, at Malmedy, he suddenly spun directly in front of me, skating about wildly before leaving the track and crashing violently. The car was destroyed and Jochen was knocked out by a steel tube from the bus shelter he demolished. The race continued, as did the rain. Although I had qualified in the dry with the same lap time as Jacky, Wyer now instructed me, to my great relief, to ‘maintain the gap’ and not attempt to equal the wet-weather pace of the otherworldly Mr Ickx. In the end we won by more than a lap, ahead of the Gerhard Mitter/Jo Schlesser Porsche 907. Being damned with faint praise usually rankles, but it was with satisfaction that I read Wyer’s post-race comment: “Redman drove extremely well and did all that was required of him.” Job secured, at least for now.
I returned to Spa again in June as part of my Formula 1 commitment, burdened to drive the troublesome Cooper. Despite an engine transplant (a BRM V12 for a Maserati V12) and a chassis redesign (to Type 86B), the car remained the same old affliction. By this time Cooper was on an irreversible downhill slide and the team’s technical expertise was antediluvian. I complained that the car wanted to spin entering each corner; the Cooper engineer’s solution was to lower my rear tyre pressures by five pounds, a change that did nothing for the handling. Of course, a professional driver is paid to carry on regardless…
Sunday came. I put Scarfiotti’s accident [killed the same weekend at a hillclimb] out of my mind and went racing. Even the faint-hearted Cooper-BRM took the Eau Rouge/Raidillon complex at 130mph, cresting the hill flat out and gaining speed on the Kemmel straight to arrive at Les Combes at about 160mph. As I approached this fast left-hander, I felt something fail in my suspension and attempted to spin so I could crash backwards – the safer way to self-destruct. Unhelpfully, the steering had locked and I careened sideways into the barrier. The car’s rolling momentum carried it up and over the guardrail with my right arm caught between the unyielding steel and the car’s chassis. The Cooper continued to slide, demolishing a marshals’ post and slamming into a parked Vauxhall Velox. Three wheels came off the Cooper – one severely injuring a track marshal – before it burst into flames. Had I not been strapped inside, I might have cheered.
Accidents seem to unravel slowly for racing drivers and, short of being concussed, memories record surprising detail. I distinctly recall feeling the two bones in my lower arm snap as I rolled over the barrier and then holding my breath when marshals applied a spray of fire extinguishant. Even damaged and shaken, I was concerned as much about inhaling that toxic cloud as being burned. A Belgian marshal’s face appeared through the mist and, without removing the cigarette from his mouth, he started to undo my belts, igniting spilled fuel and causing the car once again to burst into flames.
The marshals finally put out the fire, dragged me out of the wreck, deposited me on the ground, and went back to tending their comrade. From my prone position, the horizon filled with the pensive face of journalist David Phipps as I repeatedly shouted, “The bloody steering broke!”
Eventually I was taken by helicopter to Hôpital de Bavière. There I was placed under the care of Professeur F Orban. As I lay on the operating table, the masked-and-gowned physician looked hard at me and cautioned, “Monsieur Redman, it may not be possible to save your arm.” I smiled and thanked him. Perplexed, he asked how I could be so pleased, to which I truthfully replied, “Because I am here.” Somehow, this brilliant surgeon dragged the broken ulna and radius bones back into alignment and managed to insert two stainless-steel Rush pins.
John Cooper visited me the day after the race and politely inquired as to what caused the crash that destroyed his valuable racing car. “Something broke in the suspension,” I told him. John didn’t respond well to this assessment but gave a shrug: “You’ll heal, my boy.” By the next day, I understood. Beneath John Cooper’s studied indifference rested his determination to protect the Cooper Car Company’s reputation, at the expense of mine, if necessary. On Thursday, Motoring News ran a story in which I was quoted as saying the suspension failed, inciting John to call the paper and demand a retraction. “The car didn’t fail,” insisted John, “it was driver error.” Serendipitously, the next day’s Autosport published a photo by Peter Burn, the magazine’s chief photographer, that clearly showed the front suspension adrift.
Thank you, Professeur Orban, for saving my arm; your two pins remain on duty to this day. Thank you also to Peter Burn for rescuing my career.
The second win
Life took a swift and positive upturn. I was named a Porsche factory driver, paired in a long-tail 908 coupé for the Spa 1000Kms with Jo ‘Seppi’ Siffert, the brilliant Swiss driver who came up through the hard-knocks school of motorcycle racing. Seppi and I (as well as every other Porsche factory driver) spent much of the 1969 season doing our best to avoid testing the new, unsorted 917. It was inevitable that, in the close confines of the Porsche team at Spa, there would be no escape. I was trapped like a rabbit in its hole by a ferret of a team manager.
“Herr Redman,” queried engineer Helmut Bott, “you vud like to drive the 917? Now is gut?”
“But it’s raining, Herr Bott,” I explained, hoping that Spa’s monsoons might provide me with an excuse.
“Zen go slow,” he patiently instructed.
For the race, Seppi and I agreed that we would be far more competitive in a tried-and-tested long-tail Porsche 908 coupé, and how right we were. Gerhard Mitter blew up the lone 917 almost immediately, no doubt by inadvertently selecting third gear instead of fifth, allowing his partner Udo Schütz to go home with a clean uniform. That left Jo and me to fight a hard battle with the Ferrari 312P of Pedro Rodriguez and David Piper and, by the end, we had managed to gain nearly a full lap on them to take the win. While fulfilling my role as ‘rear gunner’ for Seppi, I did manage to sneak in a lap at 3min 37sec, the fastest of the race.
Win number three
John Wyer took over the testing of the Porsche 917 in 1969 and his organisation, JW Automotive Engineering, was named the official Porsche race team for 1970. By the time we returned to Spa in 1970, the 917K had already proven itself with wins in the 24 Hours of Daytona, the Brands Hatch 1000Kms and the Monza 1000Kms. For the Spa 1000Kms we had new rear bodywork designed to give us added speed on the long straights, not that any of the drivers had lobbied for this particular favour. It turned out that the car’s tyres shared our misgivings.
For three practice laps I built my speed and confidence. On the fourth lap I felt obliged to take an aggressive run down the Masta Straight at about 215mph, and then around Stavelot at 170mph. But as I approached the flat-out Les Carrières at 175mph, my left rear tyre detached itself from the rim, flinging the 917 sideways and causing the car to slew from one edge of the road to the other. In desperation I took both hands off the steering wheel, having once read that the caster of the front wheels would automatically straighten the car. It worked and eventually the car stopped, undamaged. When I returned to the pits, Seppi fell on the ground laughing, pointing out that my face matched the colour of my white driver’s suit.
Incredibly, the tyre centres had expanded so much at high speeds that their inside beads were pulled away from the rims. Clearly, a solution had to be found. The night before the race, all of the team’s magnesium-alloy wheels were taken to Liège and roughly sandblasted, the better to grip the tyres. No one knew if this would work, although we drivers would be the first to find out.
It rained heavily during the night and, as was normally the case, I slept in fits and starts. My thoughts were of Spa’s dangers, of course, but I also found myself dwelling, as a child of the Second World War, on how local families suffered when the region was savaged during the Battle of the Bulge. Somehow, the spectre of senseless losses during the war dovetailed with my fear of Spa’s random uncertainties. Even now, I don’t know if this grim combination made things worse or better.
The race took place the next day. Pedro Rodriguez had put one of the JW Automotive Porsche 917Ks on pole with my team-mate Jo Siffert alongside in ours. Two factory Ferrari 512s were our main competition, one driven by Jacky Ickx – on his favourite track – and John Surtees, the 1964 Formula 1 world champion. We had our work cut out. The track was still wet when the race began, so Pedro and Seppi started on intermediate tyres. At the drop of the flag, the two of them contested the narrow road side by side, banging their 917s’ flanks through Eau Rouge, then up the hill and out of sight. I’m sure the hairs on the back of John Wyer’s neck stood on end; they did on mine.
The JW Automotive Porsche 917 duos of Rodriguez/Kinnunen and Siffert/Redman soon put distance on the field, leapfrogging each other back and forth as the race unfolded. Ultimately Seppi and I extended our lead, to take the win over the Ickx/Surtees Ferrari at an average speed of 149.42mph, including pitstops. It was the fastest road race ever run. I was able to match Siffert’s best time, but Pedro Rodriguez blitzed us all by setting a single lap record of 3min 16.5sec at an astonishing average speed of 160.513mph.
Back at the hotel [after partying with the mechanics] Seppi demonstrated 360-degree spins with his Porsche 911 in the car park, showering the windows with gravel. The management – both the hotel’s and mine – were not amused, but neither Seppi nor I much cared. We had won and remained whole – and the Spa 1000Kms was behind us for another year.