Doug Nye

Mr cool and the gang

At a time when ‘John Steed’ was the epitome of cool, GP drivers actually travelled to races together

One former World Champion allowed himself a grumpy old men-style grumble. Well, it wasn’t so much a grumble, as a considered observation upon current Formula 1. “These blokes have a real problem out on track.

They just don’t know each other. The most contact they ever have is at a race, and then it’s adversarial. From what I understand, even a meeting of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association these days tends to see more argument than agreement. At least we knew each other. For most of the year we lived in each other’s pockets, we mostly travelled together, and every other weekend we might even be team-mates in a sports or Indy car.”

I was reminded of this comment, as so often, when another engaging photo emerged from the mouldering archive. It was taken at Heathrow long before Terminal 5 days – remember, when we Brits could actually run a railway? It was November, 1960, and ‘the boys’ – the cream of the world’s finest racing drivers (plus a few fellow travellers, let’s be honest) – were jetting off to America for the United States Grand Prix at Riverside, California.

It was the final World Championship round of the season, a title already won by Jack Brabham and the Cooper Car Company, but – as usual – ‘the boys’ were travelling as a group. Over the next – what? – 24 hours they would josh and jostle and interact, wind-up, dismiss, put down, impart confidences of pure misinformation, insult, amuse and entertain each other. The weaker personalities would be psyched-out, the stronger ones would dominate… as indeed they would on track. But the important factor was they really, truly got to know one another – and the way of life itself became their norm, and for most it became entirely addictive good fun.

I love the picture, because in those days of the embryo TV series which became The Avengers the fictional character of John Wickham Gascoyne Berresford Steed became the iconic British Mr Cool. Who better to ape the character than Innes Ireland of Team Lotus, while team-mates John Surtees and Jimmy Clark, and rivals Bruce McLaren, Roy Salvadori, Olivier Gendebien, Ian Burgess, Tony Brooks and Henry Taylor enjoyed the joke… together with Mme Gendebien. She looks thoughtful. In the way that wives do, I expect she was thinking “Will the entire trip be like this? Mon dieu!”.

Motor racing’s distaff side

Today, as ever more detailed biographies and racing histories emerge about the great and good of motor sport in years gone by, we learn more of the private lives (yes, often colourful) of some of our old-time heroes.

Their wives and girlfriends played an often prominent role in their racing activities at the time, and in most cases – of course – were extremely easy on the eye. I wouldn’t be so ungallant as to highlight some of the exceptions, but pictures of the girls together as a group are surprisingly rare.

The Aintree 1957 folder into which I’ve been delving has just thrown up this beauty – Maserati’s second-string star Jean Behra on the right, for some reason gazing thoughtfully into the inside of what appears to be team leader Fangio’s crash helmet (!). On Liverpool’s beautifully hand-crafted Palladian-style pit counter sit The Maestro’s Argentinian lady, Doña Andreina, ‘Jeannot’s’ wife Michelle Behra and – on the right – Maserati third-string driver Harry Schell’s lady, Monique.

The two younger girls would both lose their men in motor racing accidents. So happy days here, before the dark…

When the numbers don’t add up

Chassis number nerds – OK, OK, I’m one too – were spoiled in the era of Vanwall success since the green teardrop cars had their serials painted quite prominently on the headrest bulkhead panel, immediately behind the driver. Wander past, take a quick glance and “ah yes, Stirl’s in ‘VW10’ today” or “so Tony’s driving ‘VW5’…”. Everything seemed so simple. But then occasionally a photo surfaces which triggers a double-take. Crikey, I don’t remember that – nobody ever mentioned that before – that’s the first time I have ever seen, etc. Well, this particular attention-grabber is a shot from the paddock at Aintree taken after practice for the landmark 1957 British Grand Prix. There’s Golden Boy sitting in his car, and plainly blazoned on the headrest bulkhead above his left shoulder is, wait for it… A ‘VW’-series chassis serial of course? Nope. The initials ‘GW’.

Err, I’ll get back to you on this one.

Honour before the bubbly

Adjust the overalls, strap on the watch, don that dopey sponsor’s cap, giggle, chatter and shuffle throughout the national anthem, then drown one another in foaming champagne. That’s right, standard procedure for the fortunate three who have ‘podiumed’. Goodness, Mr Gurney, what a lot you have to answer for…

In infinitely less vulgar times I always enjoyed the very British lap of honour which became a feature of major home races during the 1960s. In hindsight, of course, such ceremonial had a cheerfully hick style-bypass entirely of its own – winning car conspicuously wrestled onto a usually down-at-heel trailer behind either a hastily polished farm tractor or – on a really big day – a glittering zero-mileage tight-to-start demonstrator straight from Ford.

As the be-laurelled winning driver and his happy team rumbled round their victory lap we’d wave and applaud, and no doubt the on-board party would savour every single yard of it. After the long days and gruelling all-nighters they’d probably invested, these moments of reward were what it’s all about.

So when you see a rare on-board photo of the trailer party doing just that, sit back for a moment and savour their joy – enjoy it with them. So much endeavour, such achievement… such satisfaction.

Grooved Dunlops give the year away

One feature of current Formula 1 which I do admire is the simple hard-tyre/soft-tyre differentiation with that visible white stripe round the tread centreline. Stripey-tyre is soft compound, unstriped is hard. OK, got that.

Back in 1968 Dunlop ran its rain tyres with the centre tread section actually cut away as a massive central drainage sipe. They became a familiar sight that very wet year of racing, and the combination of centre-grooved tyres and strutted wings remains a useful dating tell-tale – 1968 indeed. Ahem, apart from the exceptions, of course…

A real test of fitness

Years ago, around Chernobyl time, I became involved with a BMW high-performance driving course in Austria and Italy, a master class tutored by the great Rauno Aaltonen. We tore around the Salzburgring and the then-fresh Autodrome at Mugello in shiny M3s. Now I’m no seven-stone weakling, but after 20 laps or so at one circuit or t’other – I can’t remember which – I do recall myself really beginning to puff and blow, shoulders aching, arms singing and my head starting to feel muzzy from the sheer exertion of pitching that Munich tea tray into corner after corner, slithering first one way, then the other, tyres roaring and the car never for one instant ‘hanging dead’ as the Finnish master had warned.

I realised then that ‘fitness’ is a very relative matter. To keep up that level of driving commitment for, say, a three- or four-hour stint at Spa or round the Nürburgring, I really should have paid better attention to Mr Skipper, my school’s sports master, the ex-Army PT-instructing sadist.

Regardless, exhaustion is a condition often writ large in race reports, and sometimes also captured on film. There’s a lovely photo of the works-entered MG K3, co-driven by Earl Howe and Hugh Hamilton, just after they had reached the finish line of the 1933 Mille Miglia. Greeting them there is the urbane Italian Count ‘Johnny’ Lurani, their team-mate co-driving with George Eyston, who had just won their 1100cc class, beating them into second place. Elated with victory after more than 18 hours effectively non-stop effort, he looks bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and fresh as a daisy. In contrast Howe, looking simply shell-shocked, is robotically levering himself out of the cockpit, while beside him Hamilton – the younger man – looks completely stuffed!

In his case that epic drive – all 18hr 2min 34sec of it – which had included a frantic final-stage wheel change due to a puncture – had drained the energy from a strong and fit young flyer. Howe – then already 48 years old – had shown real grit. Before the start he had briefed the team, shook each of them by the hand, and declared “You are racing for England and MG, do your very best”. Almost Nelsonic, isn’t it? And their reaction had plainly been “Right-ho, milord” – and that’s exactly what they’d done. They knew their place.

In the days before hi-tech steering…

“There,” says the TV commentator, “is the latest Ferrari’s hi-tech steering wheel, so complex it alone costs 100,000 dollars.” Yeah, right, of course it does. Back in 1978, the Formula 1 steering wheel was no more sophisticated than a Formula 3 car’s with an ignition kill-switch in place. The Italian Momo company seemed to supply nearly all of them, and I remember Niki Lauda seeming particularly whittery about his during one Brabham-Alfa Romeo test at Silverstone. Perhaps it wouldn’t lock-on correctly to the column, I don’t recall, but his faithful ex-Ferrari mechanic ‘Mannu’ Cuoghi received quite an earful.

Looking into the cockpit that day I was intrigued to see how far the Italian influence extended within the Chessington-built car. Even the instruments on its dash panel were by Veglia Borletti, combination fuel and oil pressure gauge to the left, 0-14,000rpm tachometer in the centre, and 0-130-degrees water temperature on the right. Add the minimum required switches… and that was it. Until Cuoghi offered up the pressure probe on the car’s right side, and with a clonk the BT46 levitated itself into the air, ready for a wheel change. On-board jacks activated.

Now that seemed really cool.