Gentleman's Duel

Forty-five years ago, Jack Sears overcame a black-flag penalty and Jackie Stewart to score a famous GT win at Brands Hatch. Armed with a Cobra and a Jaguar, we set out to relive the day’s events…
By Ivan Ostroff

July 11 1964, Brands Hatch. The stands are full for the British Grand Prix – or the Grand Prix d’Europe according to the programme – which Jim Clark would win from Graham Hill by 2.8 seconds. But that was not the race which would make this day famous. Remember, this was when the Coombs works lightweight E-types and the Willment Racing Team Cobras were state-of-the-art cars in sports racing, and those two teams were at the top of their game. Nobody knew it then, but the event of the meeting would be the 25-lap Ilford Films Trophy race for GT cars.

In the paddock, getting ready for that race, a young Scot by the name of Jackie Stewart slid behind the wheel of a Coombs Jaguar, while ‘Gentleman’ Jack Sears – so called because he always was and still is just that – strapped himself into a Willment Racing Team Cobra. These two were about to take part in one of the most memorable and exciting motor races of the era.

The short version says that after the start Sears was black-flagged and received a stop-go penalty. Having lost 35 seconds, he proceeded to carve his way through the field to finally snatch the lead from Stewart. It was a monumental battle which had the crowd on its feet, a duel that would be inscribed in motor racing legend.

Of course, there was more to it than that. But for now let’s fast-forward to 2009, stopping the clock again at Brands Hatch 45 years later. There have been many different accounts of this event, but there are only two people who know the story from the inside. So I called three-time F1 World Champion Sir Jackie Stewart and double Saloon Car Champion Jack Sears and invited them to Brands to talk me through it.

Of course, this all took place a long time ago, so to help stir the memories Nigel Corner agreed to bring along the Cobra that Jack raced that day in ’64 – possibly the most famous open-top Cobra in the world, ‘39PH’. The actual E-type Sir Jackie drove is currently being rebuilt, but Chris Keith-Lucas of CKL Engineering persuaded Stephan Ziegler to lend us his ex-Roy Salvadori Lightweight E-type in its place.

After a photo session the knight and the gentleman, chatting and joking together, don their helmets and climb into their cars, smiles slowly melting away as they recall that day 45 years ago when things were somewhat more tense between them.

Sir Jackie starts the Jag, puts it into gear and slowly pulls away, closely followed by Jack in the bellowing Cobra. After some photo laps the camera car pulls in and they are set free on the old GP circuit. Two icons, once again piloting two of the most famous sports GTs ever raced. Eventually Sears pulls in. How was it to drive 39PH again?

“Nigel Hulme let me do some demonstration laps at Silverstone 20 years ago, but apart from that I haven’t driven it since I retired. But you know what, I feel completely comfortable with that car. It’s just as if I had never left it.”

Sir Jackie then climbs out of the E-type with a broad smile on his face.

“That was very nice. It’s very stiff considering its history and vintage, very firm with little or no suspension movement. It’s a nice car to feel, so simple with so few gears. You know, I haven’t been around this circuit for so long; it was quite nice to remember where the apexes were. People don’t realise now that for quite a few years these sports and GT cars ranked almost as highly as F1 cars. Only the top drivers drove for the top teams.”

Does JYS think he should have won that day?

“Jack Sears was a very skilled and talented driver who simply decided not to go into single-seaters. At that time he was probably as good a driver as anyone in the world in GT or even Touring Cars, and that Cobra changed motor sport totally. On that day Roy Salvadori was in another Cobra and he simply didn’t get near me. Jack did, and my view is, that car on that day with Jack Sears driving it – no contest.”

Sears recalls how the day began. “Unfortunately, Frank Gardner had upended 39PH a couple of weeks before at the Nürburgring 1000Kms and it had been hastily stuck together again. I was off the pace in practice, and I didn’t think I could win that day at all. Bob Olthoff was on pole in his Cobra; I was always faster than him but that day I was fourth, on the inside on the second row, and that really got into me.

“But Olthoff had crashed after establishing his time and so couldn’t start. I thought, ‘If I’m on the second row inside, pole will be free, Jackie will be in the middle, and Salvadori will be on the outside in the other Cobra. I should be able to out-accelerate Jackie up to Paddock.’”

JYS nods: “Almost certainly you would have.”

Sears continues: “I was late out of the paddock for the warm-up lap. Most of the 30-odd cars were already on the grid, so I sort of weaved my way through. I then saw that Jackie had taken pole position, Salvadori’s Cobra was in the middle, and so the outside of the front row was vacant. Since everybody had moved up one place I did too. The four-minute siren went, then the three, the two and finally the one. We’d all started our engines when a marshal tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, you should be back there!’ I said, ‘Well, it’s too late now.’ That unnerved me and I didn’t get a particularly good start, so Jackie led into Paddock, Salvadori was behind him and I was third.

“Then it happened – at the end of the first lap they black-flagged me. Team owner John Willment was so angry; he went storming off and had an altercation with deputy clerk of the course Basil Tye, getting hold of him by the lapels and knocking him over backwards. Basil was rather upset, and literally had John Willment frogmarched off the circuit and sent home, to go before a tribunal at a later date.”

Sir Jackie laughs: “Jack, you know you lot were quite a violent bunch. I would have disqualified the whole team for such rotten behaviour!”

Sears: “But I didn’t know why I had been brought in. I thought that maybe something was hanging off the car.”

JYS, grinning: “Unfortunately for me that was not the case.”

“Anyway,” says Sears, “I stopped opposite my pit. Jeff Uren, my team manager, was there but he didn’t approach me. Then an RAC official came over and said: ‘You started in the wrong place on the grid. This is your penalty, you may now go off again.’ That cost me 35 seconds, a long time in a 25-lap race. Jeff Uren was waving me away like crazy, but I was so angry, and I shook my fist at them all as I went down the pitlane. Although I had qualified well off the pace, when I went out of that pitroad, the red mist had really come down. I knew that I was about 35 seconds behind the leader, but I had a driving urge inside, willing me to go faster, and I began to eat my way through the field. I was actually lapping a full two seconds faster than in practice. I began getting minus signs on Jackie, and I realised I was catching him.”

JYS: “I remember leading the race. I knew Roy Salvadori was behind me and I thought I was going to win. Jack and Roy were the two serious GT drivers of the time, but Jack had disappeared and I didn’t know why. I thought I was OK, because I was getting plus signs from my pit on Roy, but then I started to get minus signs on Jack.

Stewart turns to Sears: “Jack, your team manager would have been well pissed off, not giving your all in practice.”

“Well yes,” says Sears, “I was only fourth-fastest then, but suddenly I found that extra speed. I wasn’t having an off day either; I just could not do any better when we qualified.”

I tell Jack that a few years ago, Jeff Uren told me he had never seen any car, let alone a Cobra, so sideways for so long in a race.

“I did do things on the track that day which I’d never done before or since,” muses Sears. “I remember that a couple of laps after I’d left the pits I nearly lost it at Paddock. I left my braking much too late and was lucky to get away with it. I realised I was going in much too fast, threw the Cobra into the corner and then got into an oversteer situation. I actually went all the way down the hill on opposite lock, but I managed to stay off the grass and finally get the thing straight. I recall saying to myself, ‘There are 65,000 people waiting for you to go off, so don’t do it.’”

JYS interjects: “Actually, there were 65,001! But unfortunately you got to the bottom of the hill and managed to keep going.”

Sears: “Jackie, did you know that it was me chasing you?”

Stewart: “Oh yes. My pit was showing me plus so many seconds for Sears on the board. I knew you were climbing through the field, and that there were too many laps left at the pace you were operating for me to stay ahead.”

“I was lucky,” says the ever-modest Sears. “I’d raced that same E-type at Goodwood in the TT; the handling was terrific but I knew how to deal with it. By contrast the handling of a Cobra roadster was not special at all. It was like a bucking bronco – you dug your heels in and then you just hung on. It was a muscle car, not a good handling car. You had to be brave with it.”

“But the Cobra turned out to be the car,” says Stewart. “Even Ferrari couldn’t deal with it, least of all the Jaguars.”

Sears: “When I was getting closer, I could see that I definitely had more acceleration out of the corners than you, and that’s where I was gaining. You were always very fast through the corners, your line was always so perfect nobody could believe it, so when I got right up close I put my headlights on to distract you.”

Stewart smiles sarcastically: “Yeah, that totally ruined my race. I thought that was very unfair.”

“Then I thought, I’ve caught you; I’ve got you now,” adds Sears. “But I knew I had to pass you and that could be a different matter. Catching someone is one thing, passing is quite another.”

Contemporary reports say that with about three laps to go the E-type went into Hawthorn with smoke pouring from its front brakes, the Cobra three car lengths behind. Sears picks up the tale: “Yes, that’s where I got him, on the inside between Hawthorn and Westfield. He’d taken the perfect line as usual and was floating out, but I took a narrower line and got up alongside. He didn’t try to hold me off, though. He gave way and I went through just before Westfield and went on to win the race.”

“And you didn’t win by a couple of inches, you were drawing away. I was very much second,” says Jackie. “I might have made it had the race been two laps shorter, but I could do nothing to stop you that day.”

Why did Stewart let him by? Was it because drivers were gentlemen then? He ponders: “The cult, honour or integrity of driving today is that you would always drive offline to stop somebody from passing. In those days that was simply not allowed. Remember, there were not the run-off areas. Behaving like that would have been totally unacceptable and considered dangerous. Therefore we didn’t drive like that.”

Sears nods in agreement, then says: “Jackie, I have to ask you, what made you move your car up to pole position that day?”

“I think a marshal told us where to go, and I always do what I’m told! Somebody told me to; maybe Coombs did. Actually I think Coombs must have given Tye a bit on the side…”

“Well, I was certainly hauled up before the stewards afterwards,” says Sears.

“Quite right too!” chips in JYS.

Sears ignores this and continues: “I told the chairman of the stewards, ‘Jackie moved to pole, Roy took his slot so I thought they had all moved up one.’ And rightly they let the result stand.”

Sir Jackie roars with laughter. “Gentleman Jack indeed. Sears, you were a real bitch!”

Thanks to: Sir Jackie Stewart, Jack Sears, Nigel Corner, Chris Keith-Lucas, Nigel Hulme, Ian Berry, Mike Groves and all at Brands Hatch.