Lost in action

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15 minutes of fame
Safir: 1975 British GP F3 race

Eleven different chassis competed in British F3 in 1975, but one of the new cars that caught the eye soon disappeared from view. Tim Scott explains why…

Compare and contrast. In 1975, sitting on the grid at Thruxton for the opening round of the BP Championship, were two brand-new Formula Three cars: the works Ralt RT1 sat poised for action, about to open a major chapter of F3 history, the first of literally hundreds of chassis to be sold over the next 17 years; just ahead of it, representing an equally ambitious dream to become a junior racing benchmark, was the Safir RJ03. Only its production run, as it turned out, would be just two.

The timing of the marques’ introductions to the scene wasn’t their only link. Ralt boss Ron Tauranac, fresh from selling Brabham, had the more established name by far, but the man behind the Safir, Ray Jessop, was a protege of the prolific Australian. It was Tauranac who had spotted Jessop’s potential and persuaded him to leave British Aerospace and join Brabham full-time some five years earlier.

Their solutions to the problem of breaking March’s grip on the category were similar in concept, too. Both cars featured aluminium monocoques that sported full-width noses, frontal radiators and slab sides. And it speaks volumes for Jessop’s abilities that it was his chassis, in the hands of talented Belgian Patrick Neve, that proved to be the major thorn in the side of the works March-Toyotas during the first half of the season.

With his tiny four-man team, Jessop had at last found some autonomy and stability. The previous couple of seasons had seen him caught in a pinball-effect of failed F1 projects, first with Rondel and then Token, which folded at the end of ’74, Jessop’s RJ02 design having run in three GPs. Then Jessop found his sugar daddy…

Businessman Peter Thorp was Ray’s neighbour, and was dismayed by his friend’s bad luck. So he bought Token’s assets and moved them to Walton-on-Thames.

Thorp: “Ray was getting messed around with the whole Rondel and Token situation. He’d got this F3 design on the blocks, and I thought that if we could create a company to build and market the car, we could get somewhere. I bought the Token F1 car just to tidy things up — we ran it, as a Safir, in two non-championship F1 races for Tony Trimmer in ’75, but F3 was the priority.”

Money, or lack of it, remained a problem, but things were eased by having a free supply of Holbay’s Pinto engine; the drawback was that it just wasn’t as quick as a Toyota. But Jessop and former BA colleague Alan England had a strong aerodynamic background, and they produced a car that was fast in a straight line. At Thruxton that day, Neve finished a strong second to March’s Gunnar Nilsson. A slightly fortuitous second at Monaco followed, and a switch to a lighter Holbay twin-cam Ford helped net another second at Thruxton. But the biggest day came at Silverstone, in the prestigious support race to the British Grand Prix.

Neve grabbed the advantage at the start to lead the opening four laps from Nilsson and his March team-mate Alex Ribiero. “Silverstone was a very good race, because the car was excellent at fast circuits like that, brilliant for slipstreaming,” says Neve.

Nilsson, and then Ribiero, did scramble by, but the Brazilian spun on the final lap to allow Neve to chase the Swede home. He went on to record Safir’s only win, at Knockhill, two weeks later, against a field slightly depleted by a clashing Europa Cup round, but Silverstone was the sweetest result. “The British GP stands out as the highlight,” says Thorp. ‘We were up against it in many ways, but to lead was great.”

Anothet Thruxton podium at the finale meant Neve concluded the year a close fourth in the points. But the Safir story was about to go awry. A second chassis was built over the winter, but in March Jessop suffered a stroke and died, aged just 40. “We’d lost a crucial part of the jigsaw — the writing was on the wall from there on,” says Thorp.

England took over the team and, with Toyota power, ran Tiff Needell in the final six races of the ’76 season. He finished fourth at Oulton on his F3 debut and, with the Safir’s slippery shape coming to the fore once more, ended with a second at Thruxton. This, though, would be the marque’s final race, Thorp electing to concentrate on more lucrative road-car engineering contracts. “Could we have achieved what Ralt did if Ray had not died?” muses England. “Not really. Ray and I came from big industry. Most who succeeded in motorsport were pushy characters, and we weren’t like that.”