A career reaches take-off
We pbK up wnere we eft off ast montn as a buddng journa st tours tne tracKs of :urope tnen ends ns year wtn a hsKy f Lgnt nome BY EOIN YOUNG
began writing reports on the 1961 Formula Junior races for Motoring News in Britain as a rookie writer just arrived from New Zealand. When I
reached London I headed for the editorial office and was commissioned to cover the FJ races Denny Hulme was driving in. It was the start of a career that would see me help Bruce McLaren start his fledging team as his first employee, and in 1967 take on a weekly diary page in Autocar that ran for 31 years. My huge advantage back then was that I wasn’t just a struggling freelance journalist; I was meeting all the drivers who would become great names, as a mate of Denny. He introduced me to my hero Denis Jenkinson at Rouen and I asked if he would take my report back to Motoring News. I thought no more about it until someone at the London office expressed amazement that Jenks had taken it because he had a stand-off with
the paper and would never go out of his way to help. There was also a measure of surprise that he’d even spoken to me because in those days he was a loner and not renowned for encouraging conversation with the lower orders of scribblers. The Italian race I had fitted fresh ratios for — and suffered the wrath of Mr Hulme who’d imagined I had mechanical skills — was Monza in July. But when we arrived in the paddock and unloaded the car, Denny went off to register and soon came back at a run. We were at the wrong race. We were supposed to be at Reims for the FJ race on the Grand Prix weekend, which meant an overnight drive. By 8pm we were at 6500ft crossing the Simplon Pass. I was driving while Denny slept, and I was aware that the road was climbing more steeply and becoming narrower than I’d imagined it might be on my first visit to Switzerland, but I didn’t risk waking Denny until the trailer
mudguards were brushing both verges.
My problem was how to explain that a) we were lost, b) there was no place to turn, and c) I couldn’t back a trailer. Denny could, and did… for two miles! Again it all went quiet. Denny was renowned for not suffering fools and it must have seemed he’d been saddled with one. We crossed into France before dawn running low on fuel. Denny found a small petrol station that had opened and scrabbled around in a shoebox of mixed coinage, gathering sufficient francs for enough fuel to get us to Reims by 8.15am. Being late arrivals we were stuck with a cheap room in the Hotel Cecyl. It was five pounds for the five-day race weekend. Denny qualified third behind Trevor Taylor’s Lotus and Alan Rees. The Ferraris commanded the Grand Prix grid, 1961 being their season of dominance in the first summer of the 1.5-litre formula. After dinner, Denny took me to the famous Brigitte’s Bar where we found Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Trevor Taylor and John Whitmore, and the first commotion was when John Cooper climbed in through the window. He was a great character in those days, still flush from winning the world title in the previous two seasons. Drivers like Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins had been noisy patrons of Brigitte’s Bar in the past, and if the police didn’t arrive in force at some point in the evening, it
was regarded as a quiet night. Cooper announced that he was painting his cars red. When asked why, he said it was because they were the only ones going fast… The next morning we went to the swimming pool, to find Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham, Bruce McLaren, Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor, Innes Ireland, Colin Chapman and John Cooper taking the sun. I told my diary that night: ‘Moss was chatty and telling us a few tales
that would never get into print.’
That afternoon we were in the Cooper pit watching Phil Hill taking pole in his Ferrari, then going out again to provide a tow for fellow Californian Dan Gurney in his Porsche. Imagine that happening today… On race morning Denny and I were leaving our room when a driver in Dunlop blue overalls came out of the room next door, nodding to us as he locked up. I asked Denny who it was. “Dunno,” he said. “Never seen him ED
before.” That afternoon the driver Denny didn’t know drove his way into the record books when he won his first World Championship Grand Prix, in a Ferrari. It was Giancarlo Baghetti.
After 10 days back in England we were on the road again, this time to Messina in Sicily. Forty hours later we were in Rimini for the night, then on to Pescara where Denny took me for a lap of the 16-mile circuit, a combination of mountain sections and a six-mile straight along the coast. Denny had won the FJ race there in 1960.
In those pre-transporter days there were always terrifying tales of the trips, which made towing to the race sound more dangerous than the race itself. On the ferry from Reggio Calabria was an American named Peterson, who’d put his car, trailer and new Cooper-DKW over a bank when he went to sleep. David Piper’s mechanic was towing his Lotus when the lashing ropes broke; the mechanic backtracked 10 miles to find the slightly damaged Lotus in a ditch. Bob Anderson towed his FJ Lotus on a trailer behind his van which had two beds bolted to the floor, an unwitting ancestor of the motorhome. Bill McGowan, racing a Lola for the Fitzwilliam team, drove between races in the AC-Bristol he had raced the previous season. The Fitzwilliam mechanics carried their cars in a converted bus with a top speed of 38mph, its advantage being that the mechanics not driving could sunbathe on the roof.
Colin Davis, son of Sammy Davis, the Bentley racer and Autocar stalwart, led away, but he was out with a broken con rod on lap nine, leaving Bob Anderson (Lotus 20) leading Kiwi Angus Hyslop’s similar car. Then Anderson’s engine blew, letting Angus into the lead with Denny second, and they finished that way. The Italians weren’t sure what to make of the result — most of them wanted to know where New Zealand was…
Denny’s next Continental race was at Karlskoga in Sweden with a race at Denmark’s Roskilde Ring the following weekend. Motoring News agreed to pay for my air ticket to cover both events, so for the first time I was a ‘professional’ journalist. We flew in a Comet and I peered hopefully at the map in the airline magazine hoping to find Karlskoga, which I imagined to be on the outskirts of Stockholm. It was the first time I’d been in a serious passenger jet and I was as intrigued as any first-time flier.
I discovered that in fact Karlskoga was a three-hour drive from Stockholm, so I hired a Saab 95 thinking the paper would be eager for a test on the new model. It cost £20 for the five-day hire, and was another new experience because it was left-hand drive. John Love and Tony Maggs finished an easy 1-2 in their Tyrrell Coopers and Denny was fourth.
The Roskilde race was another 1-2 win for ‘Tyrrell Twins’ Love and Maggs, then Kiwis Hyslop and Hulme.
I was due to fly back to London but was hijacked by John Whitmore who’d been racing his hot Mini in Denmark, and was driving it to the Niirburgring to share Christabel Carlisle’s more standard 8 50cc Mini in the 500km race for touring and grand touring cars. That trip in the fastest private racing Mini
was nearly as exciting as learning the ‘Ring itself, all 14.2 miles of mountain challenge: 172 corners, 84 right and 88 left. Back in those days Minis on the Continent were a bit of a novelty. A joke car if you had a Mercedes. We were ready to leave Roskilde around 7am and I was less than encouraged to watch
John buckle into his full race harness while I didn’t have any form of restraint. He cruised at 85mph, which included tight corners and blind brows, reaching the ferry port at Gedser at 8.15am having averaged over 70mph.
I had never been driven so fast for so long. The Danes and Germans weren’t ready to be passed by such a tiny car. A Mercedes driver on the autobahn took particular exception and John finally let him by at about 95mph, then latched on to his bumper, slipstreaming up to 100mph. It must have looked like a Brockbank cartoon. The Mercedes driver slowed, but blocked every attempt by the Mini to pass, so John dived into a service station flat out, flew straight through an empty lane of pumps and out in front of the German, who was still looking in his mirrors to see where we’d gone!
Christabel remembers us arriving in a handbrake spin to celebrate the non-stop marathon. I don’t remember that. I was probably relieved just to be safe and stopped, whichever way we were facing!
This was an ideal intro to the Niirburgring, the world’s most daunting track, which would close for Grand Prix racing in 1976 because it was too dangerous. As though it hadn’t been too dangerous for the previous 40 years…
We were three-up in Christabel’s Mini while John pointed out all the corners. Clip the grass on this apex, take this one late, this one flat, turn into this one before you get to it. There was one important tree to line up with on the horizon as you approached the Karussel, the steeply banked corner that you actually dropped into if you were doing it properly. It was hard work for Christabel, trying to absorb the complexities of the long mountain circuit, then being quizzed by John as to which
corners were coming up. Then John put his helmet on and went off for a fast lap while Christabel and I drove around to see how much of the track we could remember. We found we knew a lot of the corners, but of course the ones we’d forgotten could have meant we never made it to the next corner. The following day Christabel concentrated on learning in her car, which they would race, and I did a few laps in John’s Mini, following as back-up, ready to
pick up any pieces. Andrew Hedges arrived with his racing Sprite, and called by our hotel in Adenau. As he was leaving, John filled a wastepaper bucket with water and tipped it over him from our second-floor window. Christabel thought this a hoot, and the next day, when she spotted Andrew,
filled the water jug in her room, went out on the balcony and flung it over him. Unfortunately she had reckoned without the laws of physics relating to the mass of water in movement, and the jug emptied over the landlady! Christabel did what any red-blooded public schoolgirl would do in the circumstances. Screamed and locked herself in her room!
When official practice started, John got down to 12min 34.6sec in Christabel’s car, having done 12min 31sec with me as passenger in his own highly tweaked Mini.
In 2011 I have a confession to make concerning my Niirburgring laps in Whitmore’s racer. On one lap, for reasons now unclear, I stopped in the Karussel, got out and climbed the bank to take a photo of the parked car. Even now, I shudder to think what would’ve happened if someone testing a works Porsche had dropped into the blind, banked corner at speed…
Christabel: “By now I was dreaming of the circuit. I knew precisely where I should make my turn into a corner, the exact spot that marked its apex and where I should be on exit. I could ‘think’ my way around the 14-odd miles.
“Race day dawned. John drove first. He was used to Le Mans-type starts and manoeuvred into a good position. Tension mounted each time he was due to drive past the pits. Eight laps and all seemed fine. I was due to take over on the next lap, but he never appeared. A pin had come loose in the gearbox; he limped on using low gears but ran out of fuel.” Back in London life went on more or less as usual for colonials away from home. We lived in a two-bedroom first-floor flat in Vereker Road… all 14 of us! Seven girls and seven boys, all Kiwis. There was no naughty nonsense. I think we all secretly hated each other. IN)
Tasmanian racing driver Gavin Youl arrived one evening and asked if anyone wanted to go home for Christmas. Gavin had raced what would be the first Brabham, then a Formula Junior called an MRD (Motor Racing Developments), but it was pointed out by Jabby Crombac that in French `MRD’ became merde so there was a quick name-switch to Brabham. I put my hand up. I wanted to go home but was bereft of funds. I asked how much it would cost. Gavin said £25. It seemed like the ransom for a minor prince so I queried how he’d arrived at that figure. “Five nights in hotels at a fiver a night.” That was when I asked the mode of travel. “I’m delivering Jack Brabham’s Cessna to a farmer in Tasmania.” It never occurred to me to ask what a Cessna was… Gavin said he would drive me to Luton and show me this mysterious Cessna vehicle. I didn’t want to ask further questions to unmask my ignorance. Then we were in a big hangar looking at aeroplanes. So a Cessna was a flying machine, which explained the possibility of getting down the world in five days. I was looking hopefully at some of the larger aircraft when he drew my attention to a plane with one engine and a four-seater
cockpit that seemed smaller than the Zephyr we’d driven up in.
Folk wonder why I wasn’t terrified at the prospect. It was just that I’d never been in a plane smaller than the Comet. I didn’t know what was risky. We’d come to Britain in the SSRuahine earlier in the year, taking five weeks for the voyage through Panama. Going home would take a month less a day… by air… but the actual flying time was 98 hours to cover 13,000 miles at an average speed of 151mph, using 950 gallons of Shell fuel. There were three of us. Gavin as pilot, his Aussie mate Roger Tregaskis who couldn’t fly but would sit in the co-pilot seat and steer if required, and me in the back with the maps, the five-man life raft and 40 pounds of emergency rations. To eliminate Customs difficulties we were given the honorary ranks of copilot and navigator. Gavin planned to follow
every other light plane aviator to Australia over as much land as possible, keeping sea crossings to a minimum. The Timor Sea between Indonesia and Darwin was our biggest worry. We comforted ourselves in the fact that, as a high-wing tail-dragger, the Cessna could be landed on the ocean without tipping. What we hadn’t worked out was that the life raft was so big we’d have to open the door to get it out, and thus sink the plane. And if we’d inflated it in the cabin it would have killed us!
Brabham had been one of the first modern drivers to fly his own plane and for 1961 he’d graduated from the single-engined Cessna 180 to a Cessna 310 twin. I’d assumed he had bought the 180 new for 1960 and it wasn’t until I went to Sydney for his 80th birthday that I asked him about it. He laughed and said, “No, I couldn’t afford a new one. I think it was one of the first 180s built around 1954! I bought it from Lance Reventlow.” It wasn’t until after we delivered the plane to its eager new owner that we discovered it had been refused a Certificate of Airworthiness because there was so much corrosion in the fuselage that the wings were about to fall off!
It was only recently that I realised I had never wondered about the Cessna’s engine. It was a 7.7-litre 225bhp four-cylinder Continental. Mercifully it never missed a beat all of that month at the end of a momentous 1961.