Roy Salvadori, who has died shortly after his 90th birthday, was maybe the 1950s’ busiest racing driver. Talented and versatile, he combined a strong work ethic with an indomitable will to win, and his services were in constant demand from works teams and privateers.
Although born of Italian immigrant parents, Roy Francesco Salvadori was every inch an Englishman. Earning the wherewithal to go racing by motor trading, he started racing in 1946 in a single-seater R-type MG, but rapidly progressed via a Riley Special to half-shares in a Grand Prix Alfa P3. By the 1948 British GP he had a Maserati 4C, and then a 4CL, but after that was destroyed in a fiery accident in Ireland he switched to a Le Mans Replica Frazer Nash. It was in his first race with this car, at Silverstone, that he had the worst accident of his career. Lapping a back marker at Stowe he got off line, hit the marker barrels and cartwheeled. His foot was trapped in the steering wheel spokes and he was flung around like a rag doll.
Crash helmets were still not mandatory, and he’d saved money by not wearing one. He sustained a triple skull fracture and brain haemorrhaging, and the hospital phoned his parents to say that by the time they got there he would almost certainly be dead.
But Roy was racing again three months later, his only permanent legacy of the crash being total deafness in one ear. His speed undiminished and his reputation growing, he found he could earn a very good living driving other peoples’ cars. By 1953 he was with Connaught in F1 and had joined the Aston Martin works sports car team. He also drove an Ecurie Ecosse C-type into second place in the Nürburgring 1000Kms, driving almost single-handedly in a deteriorating car, and started a fruitful relationship with Sid Greene’s Gilby Engineering, which fielded 250F and A6GCS Maseratis. His time with Aston Martin was to last a decade, and a string of wins in DB3S and DBR1 cars culminated in a great victory in the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours with Carroll Shelby. At Le Mans the following year, sharing the Border Reivers DBR1 with Jim Clark, he finished third.
In 1957 he drove in F1, first for BRM until Raymond Mays refused to follow his advice about improving the P25’s notoriously unreliable brakes and he walked out. Then he had a couple of Vanwall drives before joining Cooper alongside Jack Brabham. After third place in the British GP, he took a fine second to Tony Brooks’ Vanwall in the German GP at the Nürburgring, but took no pleasure from it: his friend Peter Collins had been killed in the race. He finished fourth in that year’s World Championship behind Hawthorn, Moss and Brooks. By the time Aston Martin had finally got their anachronistic DBR4 F1 car ready Roy was loyalty-bound to drive it and left Cooper, but after Aston’s withdrawal he continued in F1 in Yeoman Credit Coopers. In a brilliant drive in the 1961 US GP at Watkins Glen he charged from eighth place to second, and was closing on Innes Ireland’s leading Lotus when, with ive laps to go, his engine failed. His last F1 season was 1962, alongside John Surtees in the Bowmaker Lola team.
Now over 40, Roy continued to campaign with huge success in British racing. At one big Crystal Palace meeting he raced different cars in four races – Cooper F1, Cooper Monaco sports-racer, Jaguar 3.8 saloon and E-type – and won all four. He drove proliically for his lifelong friend John Coombs, scoring a string of victories, and going upside down in the Oulton Park lake when a tyre burst on his Jaguar 3.8.
He was trapped in the car and came near to drowning before a marshal managed to wrench open a rear door and release him, but after changing his soaking, mud-caked overalls he took his F1 Lola out to qualify on the third row for the Gold Cup. He shared Briggs Cunningham’s E-type at Le Mans in 1962, finishing fourth overall and winning the GT class, but in a similar car the following year he survived a dreadful 160mph accident not of his making, being ejected through the E-type’s back window and landing, soaked in fuel, in the middle of the track.
One of his most satisfying wins was beating the Ferraris on their home ground in the 1963 Coppa Inter-Europa at Monza in the Project 214 Aston, and he also drove with success for Maranello Concessionaires and for Tommy Atkins in Ferrari GTO and LM, Cooper-Maserati and AC Cobra. John Wyer, leaving Astons to head up JW Automotive, persuaded Roy to follow him, and having worked on the early development of the GT40 Roy had his last race in one at Goodwood in 1965, finishing second overall and winning the GT class.
Then he switched his energies to racing management, running the Cooper Formula 1 team with Jochen Rindt, John Surtees and Pedro Rodríguez. Meanwhile the garage business he’d operated since the late 1940s alongside his racing career expanded into major BMW and Alfa Romeo distributorships, before he sold out to a public company and moved to Monte Carlo.
With his wife Sue – the daughter of 1935 Le Mans winner John Hindmarsh, and thus the only person to be both the daughter and the wife of a Le Mans winner – Roy lived happily for more than 35 years in an apartment overlooking the Monaco Grand Prix start line, where his parties during the F1 weekend were legendary.
Sadly in recent years his health had failed, and with John Coombs’ help he was cared for in a home just along the coast in France. Roy Salvadori represented an era of motor racing dominated by friendships, rivalries, parties, accidents, girlfriends and sportsmanship.
As both a professional racer and a gentleman, Salvadori was always the most determined and ruthless of adversaries.