Looking back on Stuart Lewis-Evans
“One of the season’s great moments for me came at Monza, during the second day’s practice for the Italian Grand Prix. I had already managed a respectable lap time, and when1 worked out how much I had in hand, it looked as though I might achieve fastest practice time. I set out to do this when there were only five often minutes of practice left. Just as I crossed the line after what I felt was the quickest lap I could do, the engine died on me; the magneto rotor shaft had sheared, and I came to rest beyond Lesmo, there to watch Fangio, Moss, Behra, etc, out to pip my time.” Stuart Lewis-Evans writing in Motoring News in March 1958, describing how he set pole position for the previous year’s Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
It was not just a thrill for Lewis-Evans for, of all the images from 1957, the year when Britain truly became of age as a motor racing nation, one of the most potent is the start of the Italian Grand Prix. Lewis-Evans was on pole with his Vanwall with his team-mates Stirling Moss and Tony Brooks alongside, with Fangio’s Maserati making the fourth member of the row. In fact, only three cars should have started from the front but the Italians could not conceive of a green front row, not at Monza, so the formation was changed to a 4-3-4 in order that a red car could also be at the front. With that gesture the Italians tacitly accepted that, after years of forlorn hopes and frustrations, the British were to be taken very seriously in Fl. Moss, Brooks, Lewis-Evans… was there ever a more gifted driver combination ever assembled by any team? Moss, the greatest all-rounder the sport has known. Brooks every inch his equal in sheer talent. And Lewis-Evans, at Monza a novice with only four Grandes Epreuves behind him, proving he could be as quick as either. No driver’s career has been better documented than that of Stirling Moss. Belatedly, the genius of Tony Brooks has also been recognised, but of Lewis-Evans comparatively little is known. He was a naturally modest man who drove in the days before every team had a PR man anxious to tell a breathless world what the drivers ate for breakfast. Even when he was racing, precious little was written about him, yet here was a driver out of the ordinary.
His close friend, Bernie Ecclestone, says, “He was superb, oozing with talent. He would have been one of the greats, he was already as quick or quicker than Moss. To draw a contemporary parallel, he was a bit like Main Frost. He didn’t put much up front, except in a racing car. He was a thinking man and bethought of nothing else but driving.”
Moss and Brooks both pay tribute to his talent, his speed and bravery but both concede they didn’t know him very well. They liked him, everyone liked him, he never had a cross word with anyone in the Vanwall team, but he kept himself to himself.
Cyril Posthumus, co-author with Denis Jenkinson of “Vanwall”, says, “Sometimes the impression is given that Stuart was mouse-like. He was modest about his achievements and never bragged, bathe was confident in himself. I thought of him like a little bantam. He was extremely approachable, if you asked sensible questions, and was as a racing driver should be, lots of guts and push.” Bernie Ecclestone comments “Off the track he was great fun, something of a practical joker, someone who would throw himself into anything. When he went from F3 to F1, he didn’t put himself about because he found it a bit over-powering driving against Moss, Fangio, the greats.” The mechanics in the Vanwall team had the highest respect for him, as did David Yorke, the team manager, and 0. A. (Tony) Vandervell, the patron. Moss’ contract allowed him to choose the best car combination for every race, an option he exercised. So, after trying all the team cars, he might elect to use the engine from car A, the gearbox from B and chassis C. Brooks, the acknowledged number two, came second in the pecking order and when the team had sorted them out they would turn their attentions to the slightly built young man who stood patiently by. He was uncomplicated, cheerful and undemanding — and very, very quick. Cyril Atkins, the chief mechanic, confirms that he was also very light on his cars.
Stuart’s own account of his Monza pole position throws further light onto his personality and approach. It is written without braggadocio but with just a hint of pride for a job well done and just a hint of wonder that he was quicker than Fangio, Moss, Hawthorn, Musso, Behra, Collins, Brooks and the rest. Note, too, the intelligent calculation in “When I worked out how much I had in hand, it looked as though I might achieve fastest practice time. I set out to do this when there were only five or ten minutes of practice left.” That level of calm thinking, allied to obvious speed, is a hallmark of a great or potentially great driver. Little has been recorded about Stuart’s early life and many attempts by this writer to trace members of his family have drawn a blank. He was born in Luton in 1930, the son of Lewis “Pop” Lewis-Evans, who had once been a mechanic to Earl Howe. He served an apprenticeship with Vauxhall Motors and spent his National Service as a despatch rider in the Royal Corps of Signals. A burning ambition to become a racing driver began to be fulfilled when “Pop” bought a Mk IV Cooper-JAP 500 cc F3 car in 1951. By this time the family was running a garage business in Walling, Kent. Bernie Ecclestone was himself in the motor trade in the same area and was racing a Cooper F3 with some success, mainly at Brands Hatch. Father, who made his racing debut at the age of 51, and son shared the car in 1951 with sufficient success to prompt the buying of two ex-works Mk V Cooper Nortons for the following season. Both were very lightly built men, Stuart at eight stone being much the larger, but that was far from being a handicap when racing 500s.
On May 10th, 1952 Stuart captured everyone’s attention when he took his first important win during the International Trophy Meeting at Silverstone. In appalling conditions he calmly beat all the accepted F3 front-runners, including Alan Brown and Stirling Moss.
From then until the end of 1956, his racing was almost exclusively done in Coopers in F3 and even when he was in Formula One he still found time to drive in the category. It’s not too much to say that in 1958, when F3 had been overshadowed by 1,100 cc sports car racing, it was the promise of Lewis-Evans in the Bear, Cooper which ensured the inclusion of the formula in the programme of some important meetings.
In the Fifties, F3 was a very broad church. Moss, for example, still competed in the formula as late as 1954 when he was running a works-assisted Maserati in Grands Prix. Races ranged from 10 laps of the short Brands Hatch circuit to 100-milers and prestigious road races on the Continent. Many have commented on Lewis-Evans’ frail build and apparent lack of stamina, yet frequently in F3 he had to drive for over an hour in close company and that he frequently won such races betokens more stamina and concentration that he is often credited with.
That said, stamina still remained a problem for him, especially since he suffered from a stomach ulcer. In later years, when Bernie Ecclestone accompanied him to races, he would organise regular supplies of milk for his friend and generally look after his diet. It must have been a reason why, sometimes, Stuart’s performances in a race with the Vanwall, did not match his pace in practice. Stirling Moss says, “I am sure that Stuart suffered from a lack of stamina which would be highlighted by driving a Vanwall. The Vanwall was extremely difficult to drive. It was not very forgiving, you always had to be on top of it so it was not the sort of car to rel. in. But when it was driven with great precision, it was very rewarding.
“When a driver gets tired, and remember we used to race for three hours in a Grand Prix, one of the first things to go is concentration. I’m sure Stuart suffered from that.”
If he did, then Lewis-Evans certainly did not make mistakes because of tiredness. He had the gift of being able to pace himself. The only two crashes he had in Formula One were caused by mechanical failures and on several occasions he managed, by sheer skill, to avoid crashing when something went wrong with his car in circumstances which would have lost most drivers. So far as I can make out, he never even spun a car in a .t session. That was in the future however. Between 1952 and 1956, he established himself as one of the very best F3 drivers with a reputation for neatness and forcefulness. No one driver completely dominated the formula during that time, but Stuart took his fair share of wins against first the likes of Moss, Eric Brandon and Alan Brown and, later, Don Parker, Jim Russell, Ivor Bush and Tommy Bridger — and all those drivers also took their share of wins.
Among his dozens of victories over those five years, a few stand out. There was a win in the wet at Silverstone in 1952. Three successive victories in the Circuit of Orleans, 1953-5. Wins in Italy at Seringallia in 1954 and Castello di Terano and Cozen. in 1955, made him well known on the Continent and already familiar to Ferrari when the Italian team was looking for recruits for Le Mans in 1957.
Stuart’s F1 debut came when he was invited to drive one of the works Connaughts at Brands Hatch in October 1956. It was one of those short Fl events which were a feature of British racing in the Fifties, fifteen laps of what we are now asked to call the “lady Circuit”. There was a respectable entry of a dozen or so second string driver / car combinations with Connaughts driven by Archie Scott-Brown, Les Leston and Jack Fairman and Roy Salvadori and Bruce Halford in privately owned Maserati 250Fs. Lewis-Evans had twelve laps to acclimatise himself to F1 but practised under the lap record. The end of the first lap saw him in a cautious fourth place but, by the end, he had overtaken Salvadori and Lemon to finish second to Scott-Brown. His approach and fluency in the race impressed and he began 1957 as a works Connaught driver.
The first race of the year was the Richmond Trophy at Goodwood, where he lined up against the Vanwalls of Moss and Brooks, the works BRM and a number of private Maseratis. His car, a B Type with an odd-looking body which immediately caused it to be christened “The Toothpaste Tube” was so new it was unpainted. Stuart calculated, however, that it was so new it might be reliable. So it turned out, and as the faster cars retired he drove to his only Formula One victory. Shortly afterwards at the Naples GP, against a full Ferrari team, he was holding second place, and driving sensibly to finish second, when just after three quarters distance, a front wheel hub split just as he was about to enter a bend. The only escape was through a “barrier” of straw bales but that would have taken him onto another leg of the circuit. He slammed down through the gears and broadsided the car around the corner to hobble back to the pits to retire. His first World Championship event was at Monaco, another race of attrition but he kept the Toothpaste Tube going steadily to finish fourth. Shortly afterwards came the news that Connaught, after years of trying, had had to call it a day. Stuart Lewis-Evans was without a drive.
This state of affairs did not last long, though, for Ferrari needed more drivers for Le Mans and Stuart was offered a contract which was mainly for sports cars but with the inducement of some F1 outings as well. At Le Mans, partnered by the Ferrari test driver Seven, who had never previously raced, he brought his car home fifth. That was the year when Jaguars filled the top four places so Lewis-Evans at least was the first Ferrari driver.
He was then scheduled to drive in the French GP at Rouen, but come the day, Ferrari had not enough cars so lie was apparently side-lined again. Vanwall, however, was in trouble for Moss had developed severe sinus problems while water skiing and Brooks had been injured at Le Mans. With a little prompting from Bernie Ecclestone, Stuart was invited to join Roy Salvadori as a stop-gap. New to the circuit, to the car, to the team, indeed to Formula One, nothing very much was expected of him, but he qualified competently and had moved up to fifth place just before half distance when the car had to be retired with overheating problems.
The entire circus then moved on to Reims for a non-championship race but one which had 20,000 in prize money, together with a lot of champagne for practice performances. Moss and Brooks were still out and, frankly, the Vanwall team was not expecting too much. It certainly did not expect to see Lewis-Evans start from the front row of the grid alongside Fangio and then shoot off into the distance, increasing his lead lap by lap. He was securely in command of the race when oil from a breather pipe began to lightly spray into his cockpit. Eventually it was on his rear brakes, his gloves, his goggles and in his eyes but he kept cool, slowing where he needed to and taking advantage of the Vanwall’s straight line speed. From certain victory, he finally finished third having shown not only speed but rare coolness and intelligence. Vandervell knew then that he had the third driver for his team and immediately set his lawyers on sorting out Lewis-Evans’ contract with Ferrari. And the young man who not many weeks before had thought himself out in the cold when Connaught pulled out of racing had the consolation of 400 bottles of champagne for exceeding 200 kph average in the first practice session and breaking the lap record in the second.
In the British Grand Prix at Aintree, he ran as high as second, circulating just behind Moss, until a throttle linkage broke.
At the Nürburgring, the Vanwall team was all at sea with its suspension settings, and the cars were virtually undriveable.
Both Brooks and Lewis-Evans vomited during the race, both keeping going by sheer grit. For someone of Stuart’s build, the Nürburgring under such conditions must have been a nightmare, but courage was something he did not lack. Still, even he must have been relieved when his race ended at half distance. Oil from the gearbox breather sprayed onto his back tyres, causing him to spin. The car was badly damaged but Stuart was unhurt and had at least the consolation of knowing he hadn’t made a mistake.
In the wake of a fuel crisis precipitated by the Suez adventure, there had been a number of race cancellations in 1957 and, to bolster up the World Championship, a second race was run in Italy on the fearsome 16 mile long Pescara road circuit. It’s as well to remember, incidentally, that in those days not only did teams do little testing on permanent circuits but many Grands Prix were run on public roads and so pre-race testing was out. Moss won by three minutes from Fangio with Lewis-Evans third after dramas which made him seriously consider quitting racing. Just after passing the pits for the first time, a rear tyre threw a tread at just over 100 mph. Typically, he completed the 16 mile lap safely on bare canvas. The replacement tyre completed one lap and exactly the same thing happened, this time with such force that the car was thrown sideways onto the pavement in front of a row of houses and shops and Stuart had to struggle to control it, narrowly avoiding shop fronts on one side of him and telegraph poles on the other. Few drivers can have more thoroughly earned a third place in a Grand Prix.
Then came Monza, and that pole position. For lap after lap the three Vanwalls slugged it out with the Maseratis of Fangio and Behra and Lewis-Evans was actually in the lead at a quarter distance when a soaring temperature gauge caused him to pit and later retire with a cracked cylinder head. His debutant year, which had been outstanding by any standards, finished with a calculated second place to Behra’s Maserati at the non-Championship Casablanca GP. He had decided to limit his revs in the interest of reliability and it is as well he did, else the Vanwall would have run out of fuel.
That winter he drove two races in New Zealand in the toothpaste Tube, now owned by Bernie Ecclestone. In the New Zealand GP, he was lying second to Jack Brabharn’s Cooper when, with twelve to go, the engine let go. In the Lady Wigram Trophy a misfire blighted his chances but he finished third to Archie Scott-Brown (Lister-Jaguar) and Ross Jensen (Maserati 250F), contemporarY race reports describing the sheer brilliance of his driving under adverse conditions. It would be tedious to go through every single race of Lewis-Evans’ final year for suddenly he was much in demand and he seemed willing to try his ‘hand at anything.
In F3 he raced the Bears-Cooper with considerable success. Aston Martin signed him for long distance sports car events, though he never shone in sports cars in quite the same way as in single-seaters. Still, he and Brooks were lying fourth at the Nürburgring when, late in the race, their car was forced off the road. Partnered by Carroll Shelby, Lewis-Evans finished third in the Tourist Trophy.
There were races, too, in the 1½-litre Willment-Climax sports car and others in an Elva. When commitments permitted, he drove an F2 Cooper for the British Racing Partnership, scoring a couple of wins and picking up several other places against first class opposition. He ran well in a Porsche in the Tour de France partnered by Jost Behra.
‘The world was opening up to him and he was taking all the opportunities it was offering. In the background there were plans to run in 1959 with a team of Coopers owned and nal by Bernie Ecclestone.
Of the nine Grands Prix which Vanwall undertook in 1958, Lewis-Evans was a team member for eight races, the outfit had had a lot of engine blow-ups and there simply was not enough equipment for three drivers to use at the Nürburgring. At Monaco he retired with overheating. Zandvoort saw him set pole in practice and finish third. A third at Spa was followed by retirement at Reims, fourth at Silverstone, third at Oporto and another retirement at Monza. Moss and Brooks won three races each in Vanwalls and Lewis-Evans did everything which could be expected of a number three driver with equipment which was inevitably number three. In the final round at Casablanca, all the attention was focused on the championship decider between Moss and Hawthorn. By finishing second to Moss, Hawthorn clinched the title by a single point to become Britain’s first World Champion. The news bulletins which gave out the glad tidings at home also mentioned that Lewis-Evans had crashed and was badly burned.
On the 42nd lap out of 53, his engine had locked solid on a fast bend and the car had spun off, the tail hitting a solid object (a tree, a boulder. a marker stone, depending on the report you read), the petrol tank had ripped open and the car caught fire. Stuart escaped from the cockpit with his overalls alight but, in his confusion, had run in the opposite direction to ready help. His injuries were terrible. Tony Vandervell arranged to fly him back to East Grinstead hospital which had developed so many techniques for treating burns during the war. Stuart was conscious and lucid and even spoke of the cars he would drive the following season. The doctors, however, had already told Bernie Ecclestone only that he he would not live, in their view, nobody could have survived those burns given the state of medicine at the time. On October 25th, a courageous and supremely talented driver passed away, leaving a widow and young family to whom he was devoted. He was just 28-years-old. More than anything else, Stuart’s death caused Vandervell’s withdrawal from racing. It clouded a great year for the “Guv’nor” who had seen his cars win six of the nine races they started and take the very first Constructors’ Championship. David Yorke, in a taped interview with Doug Nye, later said that Vandervell blamed himself, for the cause of Stuart’s accident had been mechanical and something like that was more or less inevitable when stretching his team’s resources to run three cars. Though Vanwall later developed new cars, the team made only four solo entries in races during the next three years and then folded for good.
Formula Three, a category whose natural life had been prolonged by Stuart’s presence in 1958, faded very quickly.
Bernie Ecclestone cancelled his plans for his own Fl team and backed away from the sport for several years. Who can tell how Grand Prix racing might have changed had Stuart lived and Ecclestone become involved in it in 1959? Had he driven Ecclestone Coopers in 1959, we would probably have seen a different Lewis-Evans for the cars were that much easier to drive and with greater experience his stamina problems would surely have been overcome, allowing that great talent its full rein. At the time of his death, the ability of Lewis-Evans had only been scratched on the surface. M.L.