The Unforgettable Harry Schell

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Or so he should have been. Robert Edwards looks at his rarely remembered life and concludes there is no justice in this world.

It is purely an age thing, I suppose, this, peculiar tendency we have to forget whole swathes of people who did their stuff before a certain age. An atrophied sense of history. At the age of twelve, in 1968, I can remember exactly what I was buying when my friend Michael Moore lumbered through the middle of an uncomplaining tuck shop queue to tell me that Jim Clark was dead. I was, of course, pole-axed. Clark was one of the first real stars of the sport; certainly, I could put a face to him but, on the other hand, I recollected little of those who had gone before him.

Likewise, each generation has its favourites and, given the alarming propensity which drivers had for departing in groups, as they passed on so they tended to draw a veil over those who had gone before them, the shock of the whole proving simply too much for the anguished punter to bear. Thus it is that people get forgotten, even if in life they were apparently unforgettable; people like Harry Schell.

History has, therefore, perhaps been a little unkind to him. It’s all too easy to make the erroneous and glib comparison between then and now, so that a driver today who scored 30 points out of 56 Grands Prix, (but who does nothing else), might seem a sportsman of similarly minor accomplishment. There was rather more to Harry than that.

Harry O’Reilly Schell was born in Paris on June 29, 1921, the son of Franco-Irish-American parents; his mother, Lucy, was a prominent sponsor of questionable motoring causes, including both ‘Ecurie Bleu’, a private Maserati-based venture, and the later, fraught attempt to develop a French National racing car. She was a prominent sponsor of Harry, too, which somewhat stretched the Schell family resources.

Whether it was a taste for adventure or a profound sense of right and wrong which made young Harry volunteer for the Finnish Air Force in the Winter War of 1939-40 we cannot be sure. He served as an air gunner in this brief but surprisingly two-sided conflict and joined the American Army after Pearl Harbour serving, coincidentally, with Rene Dreyfus.

Post-war, Schell was one of the first exponents of the Cooper company products, campaigning his car under the Horschell Racing Corporation banner, which was basically Harry, occasionally assisted by his brother, Philippe. The equipe accomplished quite a lot in the early days of the post-war sport, and was in fact one of the first to enter a Cooper in a World Championship Grand Prix, at Monaco in 1950, by merely swapping their 500cc JAP engine for an 1100cc item. He had, it should be noted, come a close(ish) second behind Stirling Moss in the support race. In the main event, though, it all ended on the first lap in an eight-car pile up. Not Harry’s fault…

After opening l’Action Automobile, a sporting bar in Paris, Schell could afford to indulge himself a little. Certainly the prices in his establishment were anything but sporting, at more than twice the price the Hotel Crillon charged for a bottle of Bollinger of greatly superior vintage; yet despite this blatant financial eye-gouging it became a popular watering hole for the racing fraternity, a sort of Paris branch of the Steering Wheel Club.

Being outgoing and sociable, he mixed easily, and people sought him out not only as an extremely pleasant man but also as a kind of vital social accessory. To the Americans, he was French; to the French, he was a handicapped American. His was a demeanour of a kind of Franco-theatricality, purely for his own amusement, of course, like all proper indulgences.

So, after struggling manfully with a works Gordini drive in the wasteland that was Formula One until the new 2.5-litre benchmark arrived in 1954, Schell bought a Maserati A6GCB fitted with a 250F engine for the reinvented formula. They were not a great success, these interim cars, being neither one thing nor the other, but he managed a sixth in Argentina, 1954, for nul points, and showed sufficiently well for the offer of a works 250F drive, albeit for only two races, at Bremgarten and Peclralbes.

In the latter, he started from fourth with half tanks and led the race for ten laps before the transaxle let go. It did Schell no good, but may have contributed to Maserati’s success in beating the Mercedes-Benz team home, only the second time it happened during year. Harry had met, in Paris, the extraordinary Marquis de Portago, who lived in some style in the Avenue Foch, and who had taken up motor racing after dazzling success in both equestrianism and winter sports.

The two became, like Hawthorn and Collins, very good friends in a sport which did not, by nature, encourage closeness. It would be an exaggeration to say that Harry Schell taught de Portago to drive, for the latter was the more gifted sportsman, but the Spaniard certainly learned much from the few Maserati and Ferrari sportscar drives they shared, though they were never Formula One Ferrari drivers together.

It was Mike Hawthorn’s bust-up with Tony Vandervell which opened up opportunities for Schell with the emerging Vanwall team; the two opinionated Brits, perhaps lightly the worse for drink, had argued noisily after the Belgian Grand Prix in June 1955 and had (temporarily) parted company, so by the time the British Grand Prix came round in July, Schell was in place. He was to drive for Vandervell for two relatively happy seasons, delivering the marque’s first F1 win, a fortnight after Aintree, in the BARC International trophy at Snetterton. He came first a further three times that season, but not once, unhappily, in a World Championship Grand Prix.

The Vanwall was to be torn down and redesigned that winter; Colin Chapman and Frank Costin gave of their best to produce the definitive Vanwall for the ’56 season, but Harry was to complete only one race in the new car, managing a decent fourth at the 1956 Belgian Grand Prix. Moss, however, in his first outing for the Acton firm, had delivered a victory.

Schell had nevertheless done more than many to both lead the team and maintain its morale; 1955 had been difficult for everyone in Formula One as the competition was reduced to the question of not so much who would win, but which would be first home behind the Mercedes. It was lowering for a team still finding its feet and Schell’s contribution was valuable, if only for its sheer enthusiasm and style.

Vandervell, despite the fact that he was extremely fond of Schell, (they were both players, after all), was very keen to hire Moss, but Stirling was somewhat unsure after his extraordinary Mercedes experience. Undecided, he sought the advice of assorted scribes before becoming a Maserati signing for 1956 and was therefore seldom available; as the season developed though, Moss started to take, from Harry’s point of view at least, an unhealthy interest in the goings-on at Acton.

Likewise, Tony Brooks, entirely fed up at BRM after a season characterised by life-threatening unreliability, found the Vandervell approach to building racing cars to be of an entirely different order to the methods used at BRM, which was, of course, one of the main reasons why Tony Vandervell had decided to start building cars in the first place. By the end of November, both the Britons had been hired.

Schell, understandably nervous of his place in the light of paddock gossip, (which was for once, accurate), enquired of Vandervell what the arrangements were to be for 1957. The recruitment of Brooks had not yet been made public, so it was a very disappointed Harry who was told that an all-British team was more or less a prerequisite for the 1957 season and that his services would no longer be required.

He managed to hide it well, however, and duly presented himself to Maserati, where at least he was certain there was a vacancy for the ’57 season. Clearly, Maserati was not quite getting an equitable swap, but they welcomed back their old customer who was to do quite well, driving for both the works and Mimo Dei’s Scuderia Centro-Sud. Centro-Sud was in receipt of a hefty amount of factory assistance that year, which was ironic, given that 1957 marked Maserati’s swansong as a factory entrant.

They certainly went out on a high point, on top C indeed, with Fangio winning the Championship, but, crippled by bad debts, ironically from the Argentine, which were compounded by the huge costs of developing their disappointing new engine and supporting hosts of privateers, the racing department was to be shut down at the end of the season, and the firm was to operate in protective administration for some time. The idea of Maserati actually going to the wall was clearly unthinkable to the Italian government, so they were sheltered from their creditors.

For Schell though, the season had been marred, but perhaps moulded, by the quite horrific death of his particular chum Portago in the last Mille Miglia to be run. After that dreadful day in May, a new steadiness settled upon Harry Schell; had he not already been 36 years old, one might have called it maturity.

He still threw himself into the social life which rather characterised his style, but with de Portago gone, there was a small vacuum to fill and, at last, motor racing started to notice him on the track rather than off it. He had always taken his pleasures seriously, and in this he had found a true soul-mate in the form of de Portago; after Fon’s death, though, with its accompanying dark intimation of his own mortality, he re-addressed his priorities a little, paying Modena with the full coin of his experience as it struggled with considerable difficulties, both engineering and financial.

By the end of the 1957 season, though, Schell had amassed eight championship points, his best season yet, particularly as he had scored only three in 1956. On the other hand, in counterpoint to Harry’s relative success with Maserati, Moss, in Schell’s old Vanwall seat, had scored 25, to come second (again) in the championship to Fangio. If the irony that the thankless development work which he had put in was now paying dividends to someone else was not lost on him, he said nothing.

BRM had had an absolutely miserable 1957, and indeed a fairly miserable existence thus far; there has seldom been a more unanimous verdict on a marque than that given by the universe of drivers during the early life of the P25. Accordingly, a proper engineer, Tony Rudd, was hired at the end of 1957 to sort out the mish-mash which had been created by the reactive and piece-meal strategy which had rather characterised the Lincolnshire firm since its loud but embarrassingly unreliable V16. As a result, the P25 was transformed, and Harry was invited to lead, supported by Jean Behra, and not entirely because they had already asked everybody else…

It is certainly fair to say that it was a reinvented Harry Schell, by now also a factory Porsche driver, who took to the track in the reinvented BRM. A fifth at Monaco followed by a fine second at Zandvoort (his best ever result), and another fifth at Spa were all accomplished after qualifying in the upper middle ranks. His efforts at Reims started with an extraordinary practice, third fastest, but crucially, on the front row. He had always done well at Reims, it being the closest thing he had to a home circuit, but the effort told on the car and he cooked its engine, the only such failure that season. It was almost as if Harry the playboy had reached some sort of personal limit…

But not quite, At Silverstone be qualified an astonishing second, with Moss alone in front, which was not at all what people expected. That was the famous race when a fully energised Peter Collins, nervous of his place in the Ferrari team, barged through from sixth on the grid and held his lead until the flag. Schell came fifth.

Reims and Silverstone were the high points of Schell’s season, but when the arithmetic was done after the Casablanca race (which caused the tragic death of Stuart Lewis-Evans), he was equal fifth (with the deceased Peter Collins) in the championship with a creditable 14 points; another personal best.

The 1959 season was, by contrast, hard work. It started poorly when Stirling, having tested a pair of BRMs, decided the car he wanted was chassis number 7. Harry’s car. He got it, too, after a bit of a fuss; Schell didn’t actually manage to finish a race until Reims in July, and, reaching deep, managed a fourth at Silverstone and a fifth at Portugal.

But, as far as points were concerned, that really was it. It had been clear since Stirling Moss’s astonishing win in a Cooper in Argentina at the start of the 1958 season that something was changing in Formula One. The little rear-engined cars had come from nowhere to take third place in the constructor’s championship, so Schell decided the front-engined architecture of all the F1 cars he had driven was, at best, dated.

He joined the rush and bought a Cooper T51 from his old friends at Surbiton. It failed in Argentina, where he entered it under his mother’s old banner, Ecurie Bleu, but he was philosophical; merely the stage Gallic shrug. Just a rehearsal…

For 1960 he had been asked to lead the Cooper-equipped Yeoman Credit Racing Team, supported by the ferociously quick Chris Bristow. They did well, with Schell’s experience and Bristow’s aggression, and showed well in the minor shakedown races in the spring. Sadly, they would never race together in a championship Grand Prix. Almost three years to the day after his friend de Portago’s death, and a fortnight before Monaco, in a damp practice for the Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone, a circuit at which he had always given his best, he clipped a low retaining wall at Abbey curve. He was, of course, wearing no harness and was half flipped out of the Cooper. His head, protected only by his flimsy lightweight helmet, banged the wall and his neck broke. Harry Schell died instantly.

Ken Gregory, patron of the Yeoman Credit team, had the uneasy task of identifying the body which had been taken to the mortuary at Buckingham. Years later, Gregory recalled:

“There was this great barrel-chested man, not a mark on him, lying on the slab. The oddest thing, though, apart from the fact that I had never been close to a dead body before, never even seen one, was that I could absolutely swear that he was smiling. I can still see him now.”

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