GP victories evaded him, but who else can boast wins on the Targa, Monte Carlo and at Daytona? Vic Elford reveals how a Coke and a butty — plus a photographic memory honed his all-round skill
Racing or rallying? John McManus, Maryland, USA
I enjoyed both equally. Rallying had the better social side, though. We could be away for up to two or three weeks recceing an event like the Alpine, staying in our favourite hotels, eating at our favourite restaurants there was a real camaraderie. But I had always wanted to be a racing driver…
Why did you choose the ‘Long Tail’ Porsche 917 for Le Mans in 1970 when everyone else went for a ‘Short Tail’? Gavin Cleary, Liverpool
That’s easy: because it was so fast. The ‘Long Tail’ was more difficult to drive than the ‘Short Tail’ because it had less downforce. With the ‘Short Tail’ you could make a small mistake and get away with it; with the ‘Long Tail’ you had to be absolutely precise — but that’s the sort of driving style I enjoy. In practice that year I became the first man to lap Le Mans at over 150mph. We were 25mph faster down the Mulsanne than the others and I really felt that we were onto a winner. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.
Is the basic driving technique the same for any car? Christian Jackson, Rhyl
Yep. The single most important thing in driving is balance. Everything you do to a car, every input, rotates around its balance.
You had a great memory for a road. Did you use a particular technique to learn them? Bob Barber, Warwick
No. I have a photographic memory for roads. It’s just one of those things. I guess I was helped in this respect by my use of pace notes in rallying. I knew every inch of the Targa Florio circuit, for instance, and in the year I won it, albeit only after the race had finished, I realised that I had been mentally giving myself imaginary pace notes.
What caused your big accident in the 1969 German GP at the Nürburgring? David Hallows, Rugby
Mario Andretti was in the four-wheel-drive Lotus 63, and because they had had so many problems with it in practice I don’t think he had managed a lap of the track on full tanks. There is a long 90mph right-hander before Brünnchen and Mario’s car bottomed out there on the first lap of the race. He left the track and ripped two wheels off. Jean-Pierre Beltoise’s Matra was right behind Mario and I was about three feet from the Matra’s gearbox. Jean-Pierre just missed one of the loose wheels but I could not avoid it and ran over it. That launched me in the air and tipped me over at the same time. I cleared a 15ft hedge and landed upside down. Of course, if I hadn’t made such a bad getaway and wasted my excellent grid position [sixth], I wouldn’t have been behind them.
Do you consider your 1968 Targa Florio win to be your greatest drive? Brian Robinson, Ottawa, Canada
It’s joint first. My other was a special stage on the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally. I had led that event for much of the way in ’67 only to find myself on the wrong tyres when it started to snow before the last run over the Turini. I was leading the event again going into the final night in ’68, and I just could not settle down. We had a long run on the road to the next stage and my co-driver David Stone did a brilliant job in calming me down. He reminded me that we had checked our pace notes the night before and we knew where all the ice was. He also said it was warmer this night, so there would be less ice around. Before the Col de la Couillole stage I had a Coke and a sandwich, and I felt much better. I took almost minute off everyone in a 17-minute test. That’s where the rally was won. I reckoned there might have been two corners where I could have gone faster; David reckoned three! It took me several minutes to light a cigarette afterwards.
What was your best result on a gravel rally? John Smith, Huddersfield
A disqualification! I know that people think of me as a Tarmac specialist but I enjoyed gravel rallies — except the RAC Rally, because you had no pace notes. I won the Rallye dei Fiori (which became the Sanremo) in 1966 in a Ford Lotus Cortina, but we were thrown out because of a homologation wrangle. It was a simple typing error in our paperwork, but they pounced on it. If we had been Italian, we would have got away with it!
Which was the more lucrative during your career, racing or rallying? Oliver Mason, Ealing
We never made any money! When Jo Siffert and I signed for Porsche to do the 1968 world sportscar championship we were paid 10,000 deutschmarks, plus a car. John Cooper used to pay me £200 plus expenses for each grand prix. I tested an F1 car for him and afterwards he asked me what I was doing the next weekend. When I told him that I wasn’t doing anything he said that he would see me in the Rouen paddock on Thursday morning. No contact, no discussion about my fee, no nothing.
Were you disappointed to take part in so few grands prix? Fred Redfern, Manchester
Oh yes. Like I said, I always wanted to be a racing driver, and I felt I was good enough to operate at the highest level: grands prix. What’s morel thought I had proved that in my first GP — I finished fourth at Rouen in 1968 — but nobody else seemed to think so. I was genuinely surprised by that.
Who is the greatest all-round racing driver? Ian Shaw, Manchester
Mario and AJ Foyt spring to mind, but I guess you would have to say Stirling Moss. The rallying that he did was very different to mine, but he dropped into the swing of things straight away and was successful. And he seemed to be able to do that in any car he ever sat in.
Do the modem-day racing drivers miss out by specialising? Anthony Marks, Lechlade
They miss out on the subsidiary side of things; I think we enjoyed a fuller life than they do now. But in terms of driving, I don’t think they miss out. F1 is still the pinnacle, and if you can make it that far, get yourself with a good team, lam sure that you can get the same thrill out of the driving that we got.
What was the most dangerous event you ever competed in? Tom Wesley, Huddersfield
I never really thought about that side of things. But there is a car that sticks in the memory: the tiny-tyred Shadow Mk1 CanAm. George Follmer, Jackie Oliver and I all drove it once and said, ‘Never again!’
You were first on the scene at Jo Bonnier’s fatal crash at Le Mans in 1972. Is that what made you decide to retire? David Fisher, Monaco
Partly. Although I raced on until 1974, it certainly made me think a little more.