To F3L and back

It had the best engine, a proven design team, prime drivers. Ford’s blessing, and it looked sensational. How could the F3L fail?

To preface this article with some anecdote or little-known historical fact would be to miss the crux of the Ford F3L. Twenty-seven years ago, the mechanics at the Byfleet-based Alan Mann Racing Limited wheeled out, by my way of thinking, the most beautiful racing car to be built on these shores. An automotive Rita Hayworth from those all-aggression, long-eared spinners, surely Boadicea-inspired, to the schoolboy’s daydream doodle, aluminium body.

Initially free of spoilers, bibs, dams and flaps, and punctuated only by a clutch of NACA ducts, this long-tailed, lowline machine (just 35 inches to the top of the windscreen) looked all set to gobble up the Mulsanne Straight on its way to a comfortable Le Mans victory.

And if it looks right…

Not so.

But wasn’t this the surefire brainchild of Alan Mann, Ford’s highly professional collector of innumerable victories, and Len Bailey, the former right-hand man to John Wyer in the latter’s ultra-successful GT40 outfit? And wasn’t it fitted with the Ford Cosworth DFV, clearly the best racing engine of its day? And wasn’t it given the green light by Walter Hayes, Ford’s pickerof-brains extraordinaire, the man with the motorsport golden touch?

And yet, and yet…

The plain fact of the matter is that the F3L (shorthand for Ford three-litre) never finished a race in its fractious 12-month career. It was underfunded, barely tested, and perhaps fatally flawed in design. A car so inextricably linked with tragedy that it bordered on the macabre. Even the unsuperstitious Mann was driven to run a band-saw through one of them. An exorcism?

Hayes had his doubts about it from the start: “I really went against my better judgement in some ways,” he says now. “Initially, I suspect, I did it because Alan wanted to do it and I felt we owed him something. We had just come through that very great Le Mans period, and one of the people who’d been very important to us in this, and in lots of other things, was Alan Mann. He’s not talked about much in motorsport circles, but he’s a considerable bloke. He was a quite brilliant team manager.

“But the one thing I do know about long-distance sports car racing is that it costs a huge amount of money because you need to do an enormous amount of testing and development. But the F3L was a very small project to begin with and, indeed, the initial investment was only £15,000.”

But Hayes was persuaded, perhaps by the scale-model Bailey showed him. It’s a truly beguiling shape.

Keith Duckworth’s superb DFV was the carrot for the programme. The AC de l’Ouest had restricted Prototypes to three litres for its 1968 Le Mans, thus ending the reign of Ford’s fantastic seven-litre J-cars. And for Mann, to build a small, lightweight car, fitted with the compact 400bhp V8, was a completely logical step. After all, Jacky Ickx had told Hayes that he could still win at La Sarthe in a GT40, which by now Mann fondly listed as being a “well-developed tank”.

Cosworth was not keen, however, with Duckworth insisting that his creation was a Formula One engine first and last. But with Hayes’ blessing — it was his name on the bottom of the £100,000 cheque that had funded the DFV’s build and development, after all — the F3L was to be Cosworth-powered.

But how to fit it? Colin Chapman’s ground-breaking Lotus 49 had already used the engine as a stressed member. Mann: “The Achilles’ heel of the F3L was that we did not bolt the engine onto the bulkhead a la Formula One, and hang the rear suspension off the other end. We built the monocoque up around the side of the engine. It all got terribly crowded and it was a bastard to work on. It wouldn’t be a problem today because you’d have enough confidence to stress the extra weight.”

But it wasn’t just the access into the bay that was a problem — it was access to an engine full stop.

“The testing was almost non-existent because we didn’t have the bloody engines. I’d never done as little testing with a car.” Mann emits a measured ‘ha-ha-ha’ that suggests this state of affairs has only became ‘funny’ as time gradually distances him from the project. “To be fair to Keith Duckworth, he had his mind on Formula One and, in those days, he was never really interested in sports cars. But he got deeply embarrassed at the first race (the 1968 BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch) because we had to go to a long-distance race with just two engines, and that we had to scratch a car because we didn’t have a spare.”

Duckworth worked on the damaged engine himself, but in spite of this hands-on approach and the last-minute offer of a Spare Lotus engine, Mann is still unsure whether Cosworth couldn’t, or wouldn’t supply him with engines.

He is sure, however, that Colin Chapman was deliberately unhelpful…

The car’s debut was to be fanfared by the Presence of Lotus pairing Jimmy Clark and Graham Hill. Mann had flown over to Paris and asked the Scot, who had become ‘UK non-resident’ that year, if his schedule, and limited days allowed back home because of his new tax status, would allow him to race at the Kent circuit.

“He could either make the first or second day of practice, and do the race. He’d let Graham do the testing. He was very happy with that arrangement. But I made a slight error,” reveals Mann. “I happened to be at a BARC dinner and I was seated next to Colin Chapman. I said thanks for leittng us run them (Clark and Hill) at Brands, and that it would be a great help. But in between that and the race, Graham rang me up and said, ‘I’ve just got a new Team Lotus schedule and they’ve added an extra F2 race (at Hockenheim) to it.’ He said, ‘I don’t think this is an accident, are you going to make any waves?

He didn’t. But was it sheer bloody-mindedness on Chapman’s part?

“Absolutely no question about it,” affirms Mann. “Graham was pissed-off because he’d done a fair bit of testing.”

Denny HuIme and lochen Rindt were drafted in as replacements, but for the race Bruce McLaren and Mike Spence were paired together in the team’s sole survivor because of their greater mileage in the car. Indeed, according to Mann, the latter had done the most effective testing with the F3L.

In spite of niggling problems, McLaren had qualified in the middle of the front row, and he led the first 50 yards until he missed his shift into second. Fifth at the end of the opening lap, he took just 17 laps to by-pass the Porsches and annex the lead. Here was a potentially dynamic motor car. But the lack of testing showed and, following a slow pit stop/driver changeover, Spence parked up opposite the pits when a rubber doughnut broke up. The race was two hours old.

But the team’s disappointment faded into insignificance when news of Clark’s fatal shunt filtered through.

“The chap who came up to me in the paddock to tell me that Jimmy had had an accident was Mike Spence,” recalls Mann. “And that was ironic, because a couple of weeks later I tried very, very hard to dissuade him from accepting an offer from Colin to take Jimmy’s drive at Indy.” Jackie Stewart had been short-listed for this, but he withdrew because of a fractured wrist sustained during a Formula Two race at Jarama. “Mike had had some terrible accidents in Lotuses over the years with bits dropping off, and he was supposed to be driving for me at the Nurburgring. ‘This thing (the four-wheel drive Lotus 56 turbine Car) can win Indy, for Chrissakes,’ he said. So I said, ‘If you wanna do it, then do it.’ And I told him not to worry, and that I would get a replacement.”

The likeable Spence had just set the second-fastest time ever at The Brickyard (169.555mph) when he crashed heavily while driving Greg Weld’s STP-backed turbine Lotus. Expert eye-witnesses suggested that it may have been driver error. What ever, the luckless Spence was struck by the right-front wheel as it folded back, and he was never to regain consciousness.

Chris Irwin was Mann’s choice to replace Spence at the Nurburgring 1,000 Kilometres. He was an outstanding prospect, who weeks before had won the F2 Eifelrennen for Lola at the same circuit. and Hayes rated his progress in the Ford around the 14-mile Nordschleife as “awesome”. But on Saturday afternoon, on a track that was damp in places, he crashed at the Flugplatz, a fifth-gear left over crest. He suffered severe head injuries and was rushed to Bonn Hospital, where he was operated on, and remained unconscious for almost a week.

For Frank Gardner, who was sharing the other F3L with Dickie Attwood, this was an accident that might have been predicted. The Aussie had done a good chunk of the testing of the car, and was extremely dubious of its “pitch characteristics” and failure to reach “a comfortable suspension balance” within its 7ft 3in wheelbase.

“These probably saw the car take off at the Flugplatz,” wrote Gardner in a recent fax. “This was due, I believe, to a combination of aerodynamics and possibly exuberance on Chris Irwin’s behalf. On a similar piece of road to the Flugplatz, at competitive speed, any driver would have seen an Irwin-type of accident occur.”

Mann has a different theory: “At first we had no knowledge what had happened, except it looked as if he had done a slow left roll. You could see from the way it had landed on its side, almost on its roof, that it had just turned left in the air. It didn’t make a lot of sense, and I actually thought that one of the mechanics might have left off one of the split-pins that attached the rightfront bodywork. It wasn’t until we were tearing the thing apart in the workshop weeks later, that we discovered the leg bones and bits and pieces of a hare. He might not have even seen it because you are sat so low. He might have felt a bump. But this almost certainly damaged the rightfront body attachment. And the first time it got airborne with a bit of an angle of attack on it, that bodywork would have lifted up, acted like a huge aileron and turned you left.”

Hayes had stayed with Irwin’s distraught wife, Sally, during her anxious overnight wait in hospital. And his mood was darkened further when Attwood had the brake pads fall out of the remaining car on the first lap of the race. It was a blessing in disguise when it retired after six laps with transistor failure.

“I was beginning not to like the car very much,” admits Hayes. “It was not a very lucky project, was it? I don’t think about it much because it was the only thing we did that wasn’t really successful. It was clear that it would need a lot more money than I was prepared to put in. We were never big spenders: we managed to do international rallying, racing, Formula Ford and God knows what else, and I don’t think we ever spent for the whole of Europe anything approaching one million dollars a year. “

The writing was on the wall.

Gardner qualified the F3L on pole for the Spa 1,000 Kilometres with ease, posting a time that would have put him on the third row for the Grand Prix. But torrential rain swamped its electrics on the first lap.

From pole position Attwood led the Oulton Park TT for 11 laps before the diff failed, and in the Martini 300 at Silverstone Gardner diced with and led the Lola 170 of Denny Hulme until a missing bearing shell caused a camshaft to snap at three-quarter distance.

But four-hour races and sprints were of no import to the commercially-minded Hayes. For the car to be of use to him it needed to win Le Mans at some stage in its career. And, as it stood, this was a pipedream.

Nothing had gone right: in May the Group Six rules had been altered for 1969, with minimum windscreen heights abolished and no minimum weight targets; Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodriguez had won Le Mans in a John Wyer-run GT40; the Cosworth-powered Lotuses, Matras, and McLarens had won all bar one of that season’s Grands Prix, yet the F3L had floundered.

Hayes pulled the plug.

But Mann was determined to continue in ’69. A shorter, lower, wider, open-topped car — christened the P69 — was built to the new regulations. From an aesthetic point of view, however, it had been sadly marred by the new demand for downforce, with two high, suspension-mounted, adjustable aerofoils front and rear, the action of which was to be mechanically and hydraulically governed. A shortage of funds, however, had prevented a chassis re-design and crucially meant that the DFV remained an unstressed member.

The new car was to be driven by Gardner and Jack Brabham in the BOAC 500, but it suffered from scavenge pump problems in practice and did not race.

A ’68 car, also be-winged, did start in the hands of Hulme and Masten Gregory, and was running sixth when its rear wing began to lean after just 25 minutes. After a pit stop to rectify this, it eventually retired with low oil pressure.

And that was it, bar an embarrassing outing for the P68 — outlawed wings still in place courtesy of the organising AMOC — in the Martini 300.

And with it, to all intents and purposes, went Alan Mann Racing Ltd: “That was basically because the word from Ford in the States, and most of my work was with them, was that Ford would be withdrawing significant amounts of money from their motorsport budget,” explains its boss. “I transferred my equipment over to Frank Gardner, and we had a 50/50 share in the new company. The day of the sponsor had arrived.”

Gardner: “I believe Alan regarded the F3L as unfinished business, but expensive unfinished business. I do not believe he was defeated by the decision to go alone, but politics intervened.”

In April, Stuart Turner left Castrol to become Ford’s Competition Manager, and with him Boreham’s emphasis swung over to rallying. Mann is quick to admit that he had “no life-long friend” in his new overseer, and a very successful career in chartering aircraft and helicopters beckoned.

Tom Wheatcroft, meanwhile, saved two F3Ls from the buzz-saw, but only because he thought they would make good bargaining tools to boost his single-seater collection! Both — 002 and Chris Irwins’s rebuilt 003 – are now in the hands of that inveterate sports car gatherer and racer, David Piper. Running on slicks and powered by DFVs with at least 50bhp over those of the late sixties, the F3L’s performance in historic races is giving an indication of what might have been.