FRANK GARDNER ONE OF THE PLEASURES OF GOING TO
Melbourne each spring is seeing Frank Gardner again. When I got into racing journalism, at the beginning of the 1970s, Gardner was one of the first drivers I interviewed, and in fact the experience rather spoiled me, for it led me erroneously to expect that all others of his craft would be similarly entertaining.
It was a freezing November day, and we sat in the ‘greasy spoon’ cafe which used to be in the Snetterton paddock. Frank was at the Norfolk circuit to test the Chevy Camaro with which he was then dominating British saloon car racing.
Many years have passed since he returned to Australia for good, but he has changed astonishingly little. He still struts around on the balls of his feet, still wears that familiar white towelling hat He will be 70 next year, and is wearing well indeed.
Not least, he retains his incomparable sense of humour. “No, I don’t think anything basically changes when it comes to drivers,” he said, after watching practice. “Some of them have a tremendous amount of class, but some of these young kids I’ve been watching -Jesus! They do for race driving what jaws did for surfing…
“Seriously, when you don’t see Formula One very often, the sheer speed is impressive, of course, but without any doubt the biggest change since my day is the quality of build in the cars. The overall standard is incredible and they’re so safe! When I look at them, I can’t believe what heaps of rubbish we used to get into.”
This cued him into his famous ‘917’ routine. With David Piper, Frank drove the original Porsche 917 on its maiden competition outing, in the Niirburgring 10001ans of 1969. This early example of the first ‘big’ Porsche is generally held to have been one of the spookiest racing cars of all time, and Gardner’s account consolidates that view. He is at his best when talking about really bad cars.
“The money they were offering was certainly good enough to cross a strip of water and get in the thing. I think they bestowed this honour on me was because every 917 driver was in hospital at the time, recovering from various stages of disrepair…” As you read these words, it is essential to imagine them from the mouth of Frank himself; in a laconic,
downbeat, Aussie drawl. “I remember that Piper did one lap in practice, and was all for going back to England, but I pleaded with him to stay because the money was right.
“This was one of the first 917s, with a gas-filled alloy chassis. There was a big gas pressure gauge in the cockpit to keep you informed of the chassis’s condition. If it zeroed, they said, that meant that the chassis was broken, and I should drive mitcare back to the pits. Once I knew what the gauge was for, I also knew that Wit zeroed I was not going to drive it mit cart anywhere. I was going to park the bastard there and then, pick up my Deutschmarks and get home to Mum… “Then there was the engine. You
had about 300hp at 5000 revs, and then between 5000 and 6000 you picked up another 300! So it was a bit of delight, and it was on narrow 9in rims all round. The computer said they would make the car very quick in a straight line, but the cornputer wasn’t strapped in the bloody seat up in the Eifel mountains, where you tend to get the odd corner…”
It was also, even with car plugs, extraordinarily noisy, to the point of being disturbing. “It was bloody hard to think. You were horrified by all the activity, your brain numbed by the vibration, the power and the wheelspin. In those days they were still gas-welding chassis, and this thing flexed so much that the actual position of the gearchange used to alter. You’d reach out for where the lever had been last time you used it, and it wasn’t there! It had moved.
“Nothing about that car was consistent that was the thing. When it became airborne, sometimes it would sort of float through the air, and other times it would crash down. It never did the same thing twice. lust when you thought you had it worked out, it’d pull another trick. “It was simply indescribable, and the weather did its best to help. Snow and rain all the way. You were just so crossed up in the thing that you didn’t know which way was straight ahead in the finish. But we got it through to the end, seventh or
somewhere, and in addition to paying me money, they did try to take up a collection for an Iron Cross, which they reckoned I’d earned…”
There followed an invitation to drive the 917 at Le Mans in June, but Frank decided not to accept. “Again, the money was great, but I’d had my lesson. Rolf Stommelen went like hell with the thing, but he had the whole of the Fatherland on his back, and he had to rise to the occasion. Like I always said. I never really wanted to be the quickest bloke in motor racing I just wanted to be the oldest. And that car was certainly going to interfere with those plans…”
Maybe, Gardner said, he was being a little unfair to Porsche, for the 917 was eventually transformed into a relatively sanitary, and highly successful, car and he pointed out that, in its early days, Ford’s GT40 had also been something of a dog.
He was heavily involved in the car’s development programme.
“At first nobody could drive them, but we did a tremendous amount of work on them, and eventually they were nice cars. I hate to think how much money Ford spent on winning Le Mans, but they did what they set out to do. I can’t remember how many cars they ran at Le Mans in ’67, but it was a lot nine or something.
“These were the 7-litre cars, of course, and Ford decided that there had to be one American driver in every car. They brought over half the Indy and NASCAR stars for the race, and most of them had to learn the business of road courses. I remember that I had to give Aj Foyt some instruction, and it was made pretty clear to me that it was an honour. Actually, he did admit later that he’d learned quite a lot and he and Gurney won the bloody race!
“I was paired with Roger McCluskey, and Denny Huhne was with Lloyd Ruby. I think Roger and Lloyd had a competition to see who would put ‘ern into the trees the most times! As far as I remember, Ruby won five to four…
“McCluskey came into the pit without the car at about two in the morning, to tell me he was terribly sorry but he’d had this little accident. So we went down to see it, and the first thing I noticed was a radiator, smoking away, up in the trees! The front suspension was a few yards away, and the monocoque was a hundred yards down the road. ‘Roger,’ I said, ‘if that’s your idea of a little accident, I don’t want to be around when you have a big one…”
“Speaking of Fonds,” Gardner continued, “I don’t think I ever drove anything much worse than the F3L.” This, of course, was the sublimely
beautiful, woefully unsuccessful DFVpowered coupe developed and raced by Alan Mann’s operation in 1968. The following year it was succeeded by a revised open version.
“The F3L was a terrifying thing to drive, particularly at Spa, where I somehow managed to get it on pole. But it wasn’t as bad as the open car that came afterwards. That was a device all of its own. It had automatic wings when the air pressure rose, the wings flattened out, and the car went faster. When the pressure dropped, the wings came down. “Great in theory. The only thing they didn’t take into account was that, with racing cars around, there’s a little bit of turbulent air. And nothing’s going to piss you off like a front wing staying down and a rear wing coming up. I only drove that car a couple of times, and then I told them it wasn’t my suit of dothes…” IZI