Peter Arundell: 'Give me an equal car and I can beat Clark!'

Peter Arundell, brimming with talent and motivation, was picked by Colin Chapman to partner the great Jim Clark. His career was on the up and up – until one fateful day at Reims. Gordon Cruickshank assesses his championship credentials

Jim Clark

Peter Arundell (right) was more than willing to go head-to-head with F1's greatest

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Being up against a superstar is tough. Many drivers must have thought that, with a shift of history’s timescale, they could have been top dog – if only they weren’t on the same grid as a Fangio or a Schumacher. Peter Arundell was number two to one of those – Jim Clark; but he was sure he was in the same league. He had beaten Clark in lesser races and was desperate to show Colin Chapman he could do it in Formula 1.

Like so many, Arundell took the MG route into racing, running a TC in 1957, but quickly switched to specialist marques with a Lotus XI and then a Lola sportscar. In these he was often next in line behind the works entries. Then a Formula Junior victory in his Elva-DKW put him onto Chapman’s shopping list, and for 1960 he appeared on the Lotus Junior team roll, alongside Trevor Taylor and Clark. All were young and hungry, and all had their share of wins as the Lotus 18 cleaned up; but it was Clark who moved up to grands prix.

Arundell became number two in the junior team to Taylor, who remembers those early days: “Peter was a good mate – a straightforward bloke. He would share any information about car set-ups.” Which may be why the two of them halved the ’61 series, Taylor taking eight wins to Arundell’s seven, though one of Peter’s was the prestigious Monaco round.

Peter 1961

Peter Arundell competing in the 13th BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone in 1961

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This time it was Taylor’s turn to move up, to join Clark in the F1 team for 1962, but this didn’t dent Arundell’s confidence, as Lotus mechanic Cedric Selzer recalls: “He was a hard driver, very determined. He told us he was better than Clark.” Mike Costin, Lotus engineering guru at the time, concurs: “Well, you aren’t a true racing driver otherwise. You need two things to be top – the belief that you can be champion, and the belief that it will never happen to you. Peter knew it wouldn’t – until it did.”

Journalist John Blunsden also knew Arundell “A very smooth driver, like Jimmy, with the knack of pulling out a quick lap, like Montoya today.”

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He was adaptable, too. He drove the works Elite at Le Mans in 1962 to first in class, and later won races in the works Elans. He was also a famously heavy smoker. Alan McCall built some of his cars: “I’ll always remember him sitting in the car on the grid, fag in mouth, doing up his helmet. He reached over the side and put the fag out on the track at the one-minute board.” Mechanic Derek Wilde agrees: “Every time he got in an F1 car you had to search him for fags and lighters in case they got stuck under the brake.”

Arundell brought his own mechanic into the team, an Australian called Ray Parsons, later a works Cortina driver. Wilde again: “Peter was doing a race in Sweden and got held up coming from the airport. So Ray put on Pete’s red helmet and qualified on the second row. Nobody noticed.”

Perhaps this hints at a certain self-sufficiency about Arundell. Selzer again: “There were always pranks when Trevor was around, but that was not Peter’s way.” Jim Endruweit, mechanic and later team manager, felt the same: “Taylor was a laugh and mixed with the lads, but Peter didn’t so much. He wasn’t exactly a wild man.”

Except on the road. Selzer experienced this first-hand: “I’d been up for two nights finishing a car for Pau. I knew I couldn’t risk driving the transporter, so I rang Pete. We were desperate to catch the ferry, and Pete drove while I fell asleep. I woke up to see we were on the wrong side of Walthamstow High Street and heading for a woman on a crossing. When we stopped she had her hand on the windscreen.”

Wilde was another ‘victim’: “We set off from Dereham for Snetterton in Pete’s Mini-Cooper, and we came up right behind Paddy Hopkirk in another Cooper. Of course Pete had to have a go. Christ, I’ve never been so frightened in a car.”

Peter 1961 smoking

Arundell was a regular smoker but still incredibly quick

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With the new season came a new FJ car – the Lotus 22. It would dominate FJ throughout 1962. With Alan Rees and Bob Anderson as team-mates, Arundell almost whitewashed the series – 18 wins from 25 races, with three seconds to boot. It was this amazing record which caused Richard von Frankenberg, ex-Porsche racer, to accuse Lotus in Auto Motor und Sport of running 1500cc engines, challenging them to repeat the race-winning speed and distance on any circuit Lotus chose.

Arundell recalled the events in 1995: “I phoned up Colin and asked him if he’d got the Daily Express. Colin read every paper and, of course, he saw what von Frankenberg had said. He told me to ignore it, that it would blow over. I told him that I would like to put up £500 as a wager. And he said, ‘Let’s do it. I’ll put up another £500; we’ll split the gain or loss’.”

Although it was now early December, they took a 22 to Monza, where Arundell had recently won the FJ Lottery race. The frost was so heavy that the team, including Chapman, had to sprinkle salt around the Lesmo curve, but finally Arundell headed off into the mist and began 30 chilly laps. He completed them more than a minute under his race-winning time, and gave the car to the Italian scrutineers. Soon they reported that the engine displaced a perfectly legal 1092cc. Von Frankenberg apologised, and a cheque for £1000 was handed over. Heavily reported in the press, it was a wonderful publicity coup for Lotus, and a fillip to Arundell’s triumphant year.

In today’s world, Arundell would at this point have been fielding many offers of a full-time GP seat. After all, in ’62, FJ was the stepping stone, the only international single-seat formula outside F1, and he was supremely dominant. But he knew Lotus were the top team, and so he settled for the waiting game.

Peter 1962

Arundell was supremely dominant in the 1962 FJ season, but continued to wait in the wings for an F1 seat

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But 1963 would be a more frustrating FJ campaign: the new 27 monocoque proved as rigid as soggy toast and had to be redesigned, by which time serious customers had bought rival Brabhams. Lotus finally caught up, and Arundell again collared the title, by a single point from Denny Hulme‘s Brabham. But this year also brought the first non-championship F1 drives. And Arundell performed, with seconds at the Solitude GP and the Mediterranean GP at Enna. It was a good season, and it brought the long-awaited reward for 1964: a permanent F1 seat.

From the archive

Jabby Crombac recalls the circumstances in which Chapman’s favour turned away from Taylor and onto Arundell: “Colin once explained to me why he had chosen Peter as his number two man. ‘Jimmy was so good that every other driver was mesmerised by him. But when I spoke to Arundell, he said, “Give me an equal car and I can beat him!” This is why I signed him up. I felt he had the correct mental approach.”

Now he was team-mate to the greatest driver of the era and ready to show what he could do.

The season began well. At Monaco, Arundell beat Clark — but only when the Scot retired with zero oil pressure. Still, third place was good, and was repeated in Holland. Spa brought a disappointing ninth after mechanical problems, but in France, Arundell put up another fourth. Outside the championship there was a second in the News of the World Trophy at Goodwood, and thirds at Aintree and Syracuse. In a season which looked like making Clark champion for a second time, Arundell was proving a strong team-mate. But fate has a way of kicking over the game-board. Clark’s championship hopes collapsed at the last fence; Arundell’s world fell in at the super fast Reims circuit.

This was the first year of the new F2 and F3 formulae, and Chapman had delegated the works teams to Ron Harris, who could call on both F1 pilots as well as Mike Spence and Peter Procter. The team faced tough opposition in the thriving new F2 series, and the July round at Reims had a glittering entry. Over 190 miles around the flat, open track, it produced a spectacular, ever-changing train of leaders, with Rees, Rindt, Brabham, Arundell, Clark, Ginther and Spence shuffling the order lap after lap.

Then, while travelling at very high speed on the straight, Arundell took his eyes off the road a fraction too long to look at the rev-counter, and got a wheel on the grass. The car spun sideways and Richie Ginther’s Lola speared him amidships. Arundell was thrown out, suffering multiple injuries. It was a long, painful recovery process: in October he was still in St Georges Hospital at Hyde Park Corner, but according to Motor was ‘now up and about on canes, and hoping to be ready for the South African GP’. He wasn’t. Nor was he fit for the ‘65 season. He did not tackle another GP until mid-66, almost two years after the crash.

Arundell 1966

Arundell squeezes back into the Lotus cockpit in 1966 ahead of US GP

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Although number two position at Lotus was always an insecure one, Chapman clearly kept faith. Lotus fabrication man Ron Chappell recalls an undignified meeting with the recovering driver one day in late 1965: “I had to help the foreman John Lambert carry Peter up the stairs to the fabrication shop and cram him into a new cockpit. Chapman was adamant that he should return to driving now or never, so poor old Pete had to grin and bear it.”

He also had a try-out on the track. Bob Dance headed the Cortina saloon team: “Certainly talented — he’d been one of `Colin’s lads’. In 1964, in saloons, Pete was usually second in class behind Jimmy. I recall him testing at Snetterton in 1965, but he didn’t race until ’66, when he was back putting up respectable performances.”

From the archive

With these saloon drives as a warm-up, Arundell finally reappeared at a GP, in the new 43 powered by the troublesome BRM H16. He failed to qualify in Belgium, then retired in France with gear selection problems. It got little better when he switched back to the trusty 33, struggling with 2-litre power in a 3-litre season. He soldiered on to season’s end, with a sixth place in the US GP as his sole point.

The power deficit didn’t help, but there was more to it. Endruweit could see it: “His shunt took the edge off, he was less hungry. Colin had this theory that once a bloke has had a `biggie’, he’s never the same again. Somewhere in his mind, he’s always thinking ‘Jeez, that hurt — I don’t want to do that again’. The rest of us could see it in Peter. Colin gave him his opportunity for a return, but he just couldn’t cut the mustard.”

Perhaps Arundell saw it, too. At the end of 1966 he quietly hung up his vermilion helmet and concentrated on his motor spares business in Theydon Bois. In ’68, he helped develop the short-lived McNamara Formula Vee racer in Germany, but in the ’80s he moved to Florida to run his own computer software company.

A lost champion, or a fine number two?

Wilde: “He was brilliant in juniors, a real charger, but I think he tried too hard in F1.” But what else could he do if he wanted to beat Clark?

It’s tough being up against a superstar.