Hill & back

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Ian Flux was a junior F1 mechanic for Graham Hill when the team was torn apart by a tragic plane crash. Almost 30 years on he drives the car that was to carry its hopes

photography by Peter Spinney/LAT

I knew immediately. Radio Luxembourg: ‘plane crash, Elstree airfield.

It could only be them: Graham Hill, driver Tony Brise, our designer Andy Smallman, the team manager Ray Brimble, and fabricators Tony Alcock and Terry Richards.

It was almost midnight on a cold Saturday in November and I was driving my (extremely) new girlfriend back to Guildford. I dropped her off, then dashed to Woking, to Alan Turner’s house; he was our chief mechanic. I’d only been there a few minutes when his phone rang: could he come and identify the bodies? I drove home to my parents in Leatherhead in a haze.

Circumstance can turn in a moment. Only the day before I had been stood next to the telex as it chuntered into life: ‘GH2 finally faster than GH1. 1.5sec! It was all looking rosy: I was 19, working for the legendary Graham Hill in Formula One, winning race after race in Formula Vee and all set to go F3 with Graham’s new junior team in 1976. There are few more selfish pursuits than wannabe Formula One driver, and I will admit it crossed my mind that my hopes had just taken a huge backwards step. But nothing makes you grow up faster than six funerals in seven days.

Embassy Racing with Graham Hill was a tight-knit outfit. There were 20 of us, working all hours in a particularly unlovely West London industrial estate. No days off, no holidays, I was paid £32 a week, plus £4 per day to spend at GPs. Bliss.

It helped that the team was on the up and up, that there was a buzz about the place. Graham was not the easiest to work for. He used to drive the number one mechanics to distraction with his last-minute meddling, but there was no doubt we had great respect for him and that he loved his racing. To see how much pleasure he derived from his team doing well gave us a huge lift. Of the team members, I knew Graham the least. I was in awe of him — especially after he sacked me. I had been told to pick him up from the centre of London and take him to Gatwick airport, and I’d decided that this was my golden opportunity to show him my opposite-locking skills — in the team’s automatic V4 Ford Transit, in the wet, at Hyde Park Corner. When I got back to the workshop Alan Turner told me that the ‘Old Man’ had been on the phone in a rage, asking who that young idiot in the Transit was and demanding that he be fired forthwith. Luckily, Alan had persuaded him that I was worth hanging onto.

Yet it was Graham who later rustled up some Shell sponsorship for my Formula Vee campaign. He never came to any of my races, but he kept tabs on how I was doing, turned a blind eye to my race car sat in a corner of the workshop awaiting its next ‘spare moment’ fettle and, after I’d won the title, promised to guide me through F3. Ah yes, I could see it all: Flux wins 1978 F1 title aboard Hill GH4.

Er… reality check: “Hey, have you finished rebuilding those driveshafts yet, Fluxie? Well, hurry up, you’ve got to crack-check all those wheels.” A load of hard graft lay ahead, not least because GH2 was struggling. It was 24-year-old Andy Smallman’s first from-scratch Fl car. He’d come over from the UOP Shadow team and done a great job reworking the Lola T371; he altered it so much that there were no qualms renaming it the Hill GH1 prior to the 1975 Spanish GP in April. It was leading that race when its carbon-fibre rear wing support broke and Rolf Stommelen flew into the Montjuich Park crowd. People were killed, Rolf was badly hurt and the car was totally destroyed. But that selfish racing mindset kicked in again: we had proved we could lead a grand prix. All we needed now was a really quick driver.

Graham missed the qualifying cut at Monaco and decided to hang up his crash helmet (without yet announcing it). He then watched his ‘replacement’ charge from the back of the F3 race’s grid: 23-year old Tony Brise. He waltzed into the team with a real air of confidence — three hours late for his seat fitting. He didn’t say sorry and that really annoyed us, so we left him wedged in the monocoque by the expanding foam while we all piled down to the pub for lunch.

It turned out that Tony’s way of thanking the mechanics, of whom I was his number two, was by giving it his all every time he went out in the car. And he soon won us over that way by qualifying seventh for his first race with us, Zolder. He retired on that occasion, but then finished sixth, seventh and seventh in consecutive grands prix — in Sweden, Holland and France — before he, too, got a reality check: a mid-season spate of difficult qualifying sessions, shunts (not all his fault) and retirements.

Part of the reason for this slump was that the team was at full stretch building GH2. Graham could see the potential of his young squad and wanted to be sure of maximising it in 1976. In those days, of course, the British F1 teams were ‘assemblers’: GH2’s monocoque was built by TC Prototypes over in Northampton, its bodywork came from Specialised Mouldings in Huntingdon and its suspension parts were made by BS Fabrications. And like almost every other car of the period, it featured a DFV mated to a Hewland gearbox. We just had to bolt it together as well as we possibly could. It sounds easy, but there was no slack within the team to take up the extra strain, and I can assure you that we were very busy. And excited. With Brise and Smallman we felt sure we had a winning combination.

GH2, though, proved troublesome at its first test, at Silverstone in October: the GH1 was quicker and easier to drive. It was the same story at Paul Ricard the following month. And again, two weeks later. With time running out and winter closing in, the guys in France tried something desperate: they replaced GH2’s rear end — engine, gearbox, suspension — with that from the GH1 they also had with them.

Three laps are all it takes to realise that this really is a good racing car with fantastic turn-in and excellent traction. I can imagine Brise’s relief that day at Paul Ricard: no more snap oversteer. At last he had a balanced chassis he could work with, begin to finesse rather than search frantically for a big fix. The subsequent telex caused a similar wave of relief in the factory. Everyone was smiling again. 1976 here we come.

It’s all flooding back to me now. And I mean all. I had expected this track test to be more significant than most, more emotional — but not this emotional. Just seeing the car for the first time, parked up in Dijon’s pits, unlocks me: I see faces, hear the banter, smell the workshop. You never forget such things but you tend to put them to the back of your mind. Until something like this happens. It’s overwhelming. And this is before I settle into a car I helped to build 29 years ago.

I fit fine but I’m concerned by the presence of the original titanium brake pedal. I advise current owner Klaus Fiedler that this should be in his trophy cabinet, not on his beautifully restored car. One such item snapped off and caused Clay Regazzoni’s paralysing accident at Long Beach in 1980.

That, though, is my only gripe. The car is in better shape than it was when we had it, and is a credit to Klaus. Seeing it again confirms my suspicion that Mr Smallman was a Gordon Murray fan. GH2 is small and neat, its tall conning-tower cockpit and shallow, sloping sidepods a definite nod in the direction of Murray’s Brabham BT44B.

But how I cursed those sidepods at the time. As the youngest and most flexible member of the team it was my job to fit the bag tanks into them. It was a sod: corking the rivets, putting tank tape over them all, pulling the bags through and contorting yourself so that you could tighten up the jubilee clips on the flap valves that connected the five bags (two in each sidepod and one behind the driver). I can still feel those skinned knuckles. Because Klaus races the car over much shorter distances, he has been spared this job, lucky fella. Today the sidepods contain battery and fire extinguisher.

Having bled the brakes — I’m still happy to get my hands dirty — the track beckons. One lap to make sure everything works, another to familiarise myself with the circuit, and a third to get on with it. Still fitted with its predecessor’s rear end, GH2 is impressive through the famous downhill sweepers, and composed under braking for the hairpin at the track’s lowest point. It then squats nicely as you gun it back up the hill. I’ve tested an Ensign N177 recently, and GH2 is a little bit better than it in every respect — except the engine. Its current DFV has 480bhp. That’s about what we had in the day, but 520 is easily achievable with more modern know-how and materials.

I pit to take off some rear wing and instantly we are 250rpm up on the straight — and on the limiter halfway along it. And still the car impresses elsewhere — except now under braking. Trying a bit harder reveals a tendency for its nose to dive. Go up on springs or take some front wing off?

Hang on, this is a day about years past, not tenths saved. I pit, climb out, put on my old Embassy Racing jacket, crack a can of lager and flash a fag: all of a sudden 1975 doesn’t seem so long ago.

Tony Brise’s was the first funeral. Graham’s and Tony Alcock’s were on the same day; there were thousands at Graham’s But the one I remember most is Ray’s. His was the last of the six, and afterwards we went to a pub in Maidenhead and got slaughtered. That was the last time the rest of us were altogether. There was still hope, still talk, that the team might be able to soldier on into 1976, but we were deluding ourselves — not only we were young, we were naive. Without Graham at the helm, wooing sponsors, driving us on, we had no chance.

I wasn’t fully aware of the details, but it also soon became clear that Graham’s death had plunged Bette and the kids into severe financial difficulties. The Transit was pressed into action again, this time removing furniture from a small house Graham kept near Brands Hatch. Everything had to go. It was now that I realised racing was a hardnosed business: the team was asset-stripped without any sentimentality.

Its staff, meanwhile, was headhunted: mechanics Alan Howell and Gerd von Aachen transferred to the Unipart March F3 team, as did storeman Mike Connors; mechanics Steve Robey and Jerry Bond went to the US and McLaren respectively; office manager Liz Morse was another to move to McLaren; truckie Malcolm Allen worked for Walter Wolf’s Fl team, which had bought the bulk of what was left of Embassy Racing; and buyer Mike Young went off to run a pub. Me? The pull of F1 was still strong and I raced a Ralt RT1 in F3 in 1976, with Alan Turner as my team manager. I guess it was quite a step down for him — although I paid him more per week than Graham had!

There was at least £365,000 in Embassy Racing’s kitty for 1976 — I’d seen a piece of paper I shouldn’t have — and I have no doubt that we would have continued to improve. It turned out to be a competitive season — Ferrari, Tyrrell, McLaren, Penske, March and Lotus all won races — but with those 1.5sec already in our pocket, I see no reason why GH2 couldn’t have been a regular points-scorer. A victory probably would have been out of reach, but a podium or two was on the cards. And then who knows what fate might have brought the team. But that’s the thing: we never knew and will never know.