Lunch with... Brian Redman

Simon Taylor talks to the man who, almost unwillingly, became one of the world's fastest sports car racers, with multiple wins including the Targa Florio

History takes a lot of notice of Formula 1, and not enough notice of the rest. Here's a great British driver remembered by F1 only because he turned down an offer from Ferrari, and was lucky to escape with his life from an accident in which he was blameless. Yet in his professional career Brian Redman did 358 races. He was victorious, outright or in his class, in 94 of them, and finished in the top three 177 times. His tally of classic long-distance victories includes the Targa Florio, Daytona 24 Hours (twice), Nürburgring 1000Km (twice) and Spa 1000Km (four times). Now in his 70th year, he isn't living in quiet retirement: he promotes events for historic cars in the USA, and still races them with highly competitive flair.

More than 25 years of living in America haven't obscured Brian's no-nonsense North Country roots, so I suggest we lunch at the world's most famous fish emporium, the original Harry Ramsden's at Guiseley, north of Leeds. It's a shrine to fish and chips: crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows, sauce bottles on every table, and Engelbert Humperdink's Please Release Me playing reverently through hidden speakers. We order cod, chips and mushy peas, and cups of tea. For afters there's Spotted Dick and custard.

Brian talks quietly, self-deprecatingly, with dry Northern humour. His unlikely start in motor racing, at 22, came at the wheel of a mop van. "The Patent Wringer Company employed two people, and me. I delivered mops all over the country in a Morris Minor Traveller. To get to my customers quicker I fitted a Shorrocks supercharger.

"One weekend in 1959 I removed the mops, took it to Rufforth and raced it. Then I thought, what I need is increased aerodynamic efficiency. So before a meeting at Linton-on-Ouse (a long-defunct airfield circuit north of Wetherby) I took the windscreen out and the back doors off. I thought it would be better if the air could go right through. The scrutineer took one look at it and said, 'Now, laddie, just take it away and put your screen back in and your doors on'. 'I can't,' I said, 'They're back home in Burnley'. So they had a stewards' meeting, and decided to let me run. In the race the head gasket blew. A friend towed me home behind his Healey 3000, in the dark, in the rain, no windscreen, at 80mph. On a short rope."

Next came an 850 Mini, stripped, highly tuned, no power under 4000rpm. "I was keen. I once drove it from Burnley to Goodwood, pouring rain the whole way, no motorways then of course, did a five-lap handicap, and drove it back to Burnley. Drove it to work next morning, too." Then there was an XK120 — "I raced it once, wore out a new set of Michelin Xs, and couldn't afford any more tyres" — and a Morgan. "I used the Plus 4 for every motorsport endeavour there was: racing, rallying, sprints, hillclimbs, trials. By now I was married to Marion, mortgaged, completely out of money, so I sold the Morgan and took up motorcycle scrambling. Then in 1965 everything suddenly changed.

"Gordon Brown, who had an ex-works XK120, let me drive it in a sprint at Woodvale on Easter Sunday, and I set BTD. A friend of his, Charlie Bridges of Red Rose Motors in Chester, had just bought the ex-John Coombs lightweight E-type, and Gordon put in a word for me. On Tuesday Charlie Bridges rang and said, 'come and test at OuIton Park on Thursday'. I'd never driven an E-type, but I knew Oulton. I felt this was my chance, so I probably drove it beyond my safe capability. I went 1.5sec under Jackie Stewart's lap record. On Saturday I raced it, and won."

That season the red E-type swept all before it, winning 16 out of 17 races. For 1966 Bridges bought a Lola T70 and the national wins continued, with some good showings in internationals, culminating in a Grovewood Award. He also did his first long-distance classics, at Monza and Spa.

"Peter Sutcliffe asked me to drive his GT40 in the Spa 1000Km, among the works Ferraris and 7-litre Fords. After first practice I wanted to give the whole thing up. I couldn't believe the speed. We were doing 200mph around the back of the old Spa on what were really narrow public roads, no barriers, just trees and farm buildings." Yet they finished a rousing fourth overall, and Peter asked him back in 1967.

"The next year was terrible. I'd been in the car for about half an hour when I suddenly ran into rain down at Stavelot, like a curtain. I couldn't see anything, the screen misted up and I couldn't reach it to wipe it. Then there were headlights in my mirror, and this yellow Ferrari P3/4 came by, Willy Mairesse, and he lost it right in front of me and had a huge accident. I was in the middle of changing into fifth, and found myself going sideways in neutral. How I missed all the wreckage I don't know. But we finished, sixth that year."

In 1967 Brian travelled throughout Europe racing an F2 Lola for Charles Bridges' brother David, and a GT40 at Le Mans for Lord Downe. And his efforts in privateer GT40s had been noticed. At the end of the season John Wyer asked him to partner Jacky Ickx in one of the Gulf Mirage GT40s in the Kyalami Nine Hours. They won, and Brian was signed for 1968. Then Cooper offered an F1 drive, and Brian took that too. "It was the start of the Big Time. But it was also the start of difficult times."

In motor racing back then, danger was ever-present. In April the death of Jim Clark devastated the world. It was followed a month later by the loss of Mike Spence, then Brian's F1 team-mate Lodovico Scarfiotti, and then Jo Schlesser. Brian and Marion now had two young children, but the money had to be earned. With F1 and sports car deals signed, there was still F2. Following a test at Modena, Ferrari offered a works Dino 166 for the Eifelrennen, on the tortuous Nürburgring Sudschleife.

"We were all in a bunch at the front, Ickx in the other Dino, Kurt Ahrens and Piers Courage in Brabhams, and me. A stone from Ahrens' rear wheel smashed through my goggles and hit me full in the eye. I flung up my hand and slowed, and peering through one eye I trundled back to the pits. Mauro Forghieri shouted at me: What's the matter? Put on your spare goggles. I hadn't got any, so they gave me a pair of Ickx's, which were dark green for bright sun and not much good for the dark bits. I restarted dead last, and drove like a maniac." He'd lost 2min 15sec, but he carved back up to fourth place, and broke the lap record. Even without a badly bruised eye, it would have been an astonishing drive, and Forghieri was beside himself with delight.

"At dinner that night he went away, came back, and he said, 'Bree-an, just now I speak with Signor Ferrari. You drive for us, Formula Due. At the end of the year, Formula Uno'. So I said, 'No thank you'. 'What you mean, no thank you?' I said, `If I drive for Ferrari I'll be dead by the end of the year'."

But Brian was going brilliantly for JW, winning the BOAC 500 and the Spa 1000Km with Jacky Ickx, and coaxing a lot of speed out of the unwieldy Cooper. He was third in the Spanish Grand Prix, his third-ever F1 race. Next came the Belgian GP at Spa, and he qualified a strong ninth. On lap seven he had a huge accident at Les Combes. The Cooper smashed into a concrete barrier and slid along it, trapping Brian's right arm between the barrier and the chassis, and tearing off three wheels before cannoning into some parked cars, landing on top of them and bursting into flames.

"I was one of only about half of the drivers in F1 then who wore seat belts. Otherwise I would have been killed. John Cooper came to see me in hospital and said, 'What did you do?' I said, 'Something broke'. 'Now then, my boy,' he said, 'Don't worry, you'll be all right'. On Thursday morning Motoring News came out, and its report said that Redman claimed the steering broke. John phoned the editor and said, 'I demand a retraction, it was driver error'." But Autosport came out the next day with a photograph showing the front right wishbone in the act of snapping. Brian was vindicated.

He was out of racing for the rest of the season. His right arm was badly broken, and steel rods had to be inserted above and below the elbow — which are still there. He played himself back in with the Springbok Series for Chevron the following winter, but the arm was still giving him a lot of pain. He'd just signed for Porsche for 1969, so a specialist in Johannesburg did a radical operation, gluing in new bone taken from his hip. Six weeks later he did the Daytona 24 Hours, sharing a Porsche 908 with Vic Elford.

"I hadn't told Porsche about my arm problem, of course — just took the sling off when I got to the track. I had to drive on the banking at 200mph holding the wheel with my left arm, and bracing it with my knee. We were out after 12 hours with an engine problem that afflicted all the 908s. That saved me, because I couldn't have gone the distance. But Porsche never knew.

"Gradually the arm got stronger, and we had a great 1969. There were 10 rounds in the Sports Car Championship. `Seppi' Siffert and I won five of them, including Spa and the 'Ring. In 1970 John Wyer ran the works Gulf-Porsche 917s, and I was paired with Siffert once more. It wasn't big money: I was paid £290 per race, and £420 for Le Mans and Daytona. And no prize money. We won Spa again, and Zeltweg, and in the 908/3 we won the Targa. We were leading Le Mans by four laps when Seppi missed a gear passing the pits. Those 917s would only go 200rpm over the limit without blowing, and you didn't have rev-limiters then. Le Mans is about the only long-distance race that really matters to the public, and I never won it.

"Spa I always found really frightening. Every time I went there I thought I was going to be killed. I used to lie in bed the night before the race with sweat dripping down my face, thinking, this is it." And yet Brian won the Spa 1000Km four times, and the Spa 500Km as well, winning the European 2-litre Championship for Chevron after a huge battle with Jo Bonnier's Lola. Ex-JW team organiser John Horsman wrote that Redman was four seconds a lap faster at Spa in the Porsche 917 than either Siffert or Rodriguez. "Yes, I saw that. I rang John and asked him why they'd never told me. He said that if they had, they'd have had to pay me more! People always ask me if I liked Spa. After the race, I loved it. But before the race, I hated it.

"So 1970 was another good year. But at the end of that season I decided to retire. It wasn't because I was fed up with racing — I loved being paid to do something I like. But within the space of three months we'd lost Courage, McLaren and Rindt. I said to Marion, 'They're coming down like flies. I'll be next. I've been offered a job running a BMW dealership in South Africa, and we're going'. So we went.

"But I didn't like the job, didn't like the politics — it was still in the days of apartheid. After four months we were back, and I had to earn a living. John Wyer had replaced me with Derek Bell, so I drove a Formula 5000 McLaren for Sid Taylor. Then Wyer asked me to drive with Siffert in the 908/3 in the Targa Florio, because Derek hadn't done the race before. John said to me, 'Redman, you start the race: I don't want Siffert and Rodriguez knocking each other off'. But Seppi had crashed the car in late practice, and from the start the handling was poor. I'd gone about 20 miles, was just turning into one of the few corners I actually knew, and the steering broke. I hit a concrete post right in the middle of the petrol tank, and it exploded.

"I shut my eyes, hit the seat belt release and leapt out. I was on fire, everything was on fire, but for a fraction of a second I saw the other side of the road and just ran that way. I didn't see anything after that. I was taken to some sort of first aid place. They bandaged me all over, hands, head. You never hear about the spectators who used to get hurt in the Targa, but a young boy was brought into the room — I won't describe the details, but he died while I was there. It was like your worst nightmare. Nobody at Porsche knew where I was. I couldn't communicate, and I still couldn't see, because my eyes were burned shut. Meanwhile Pedro Rodriguez and Richard Attwood had been searching all over Sicily for me, and about 10 o'clock that night they found me. They took me back to the hotel, Porsche's doctor got going with the pain killers, and next day they flew me back to Manchester.

"I wasn't out of racing for long. I did an F5000 race at Mallory seven weeks later, finished third. A week later I was on holiday in France with the family and somebody on the camp site told me Pedro had been killed. Three months later Seppi, whom I'd driven with in 18 long-distance races for Porsche, was killed at Brands." It was 36 years ago, but Brian goes silent for a while, staring out of the window at Harry Ramsden's car park.

"At the end of that miserable year Sid Taylor borrowed a Can-Am BRM and asked me to drive it at Imola. The works Ferraris were there. It poured with rain — the Austrian Klaus Reisch hit the pit wall in his Alfa T33 and was killed — but the BRM was a Tony Southgate-designed car, and all his cars are good in the rain. I won my heat and the final, and then Ferrari got in touch, wanting me to drive the 312PB in long-distance races. Mauro Forghieri said, 'Bree-an, you are the only man we ever ask twice'.

"I was with Ferrari for two years, and for the first time I earned decent money: £20,000 a year, which was very useful then. In 1972 my team-mate was usually Regazzoni or Merzario, and in 1973 I was partnered with Jacky kkx. The 312PB really was like a two-seat Formula 1 car, marvellous.

"At Spa in '72 my co-driver Merzario didn't like the circuit, and when I got back in the car Ronnie Peterson was right on my tail. I was going as hard as I knew, and we came to Les Combes. Since the Cooper accident I'd always taken an unusual line there, to give myself a bit more room if anything went wrong. And fleetingly I glimpsed something in the crowd, colours moving. That usually means people running or umbrellas going up — an accident just round the corner, or rain. So I got on the brakes a bit early, and suddenly I was on a wet road. The movement I'd glimpsed was people putting their umbrellas up. I just got round, but Ronnie hit the barriers. So that was a bit lucky, and we won.

"I did 19 races for Ferrari, and I never saw Mr Ferrari once. Back in 1968, when I'd had a test at Modena before that German F2 race, Forghieri said, 'see that man over there under the trees in a raincoat? That is Signor Ferrari'. It was his way of telling me to go faster. Next day at Maranello, Mr Ferrari was sitting there surrounded by his people. I hesitated by the door, and he got up — a tall, impressive man — and came over to me. He put his hand up to my cheek, squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger, and said: 'nice-a boy'. They were the only two words Enzo Ferrari ever spoke to me.

"During my second Ferrari year I was also racing in America in F5000 for Jim Hall. I was up against Jody Scheckter. I beat him five times and he beat me twice, but I missed a couple of races because of Ferrari commitments, so he was champion. It was a hard year, commuting back and forth across the Atlantic. At Le Mans, having flown straight in from the F5000 race at Mid-Ohio, I failed the medical because my blood pressure was too high, but then they took it again the next day and I was OK. At the end of the year I said to Marion, 'I'm not doing this any more, we're going to stay in America'. I drove for Jim Hall for the next three years, and won the F5000 title each year, against strong opposition from Mario Andretti.

"For 1977 the SCCA changed the rules, and F5000 became Can-Am — effectively the same single-seaters but with full-width bodywork. The first race was at St Jovite. In Friday practice I came into the pits — we were substantially quickest at that point — and I said: 'The car's good'. They said, 'What do you want?' I said, 'Try a quarter of an inch off the front'. On the next lap, breasting a rise at 150mph, the car took off, flew 40 feet in the air, landed upside down and went hurtling on down the road, wearing a hole through my crash helmet as my head banged up and down. When they got to me, my neck was broken and my heart had stopped. Then the ambulance had a puncture on the way to the hospital, and they had to stop and fit the spare.

"When Marion flew in from England the next day, the first thing she saw at Montreal airport were newspaper pictures of the ambulance men changing the wheel by the roadside with the doors open, me lying inside and the headline Redman est mort.

"That was in June. By October I was walking. By January I was running slowly, and I looked around for a drive in the Sebring 12 Hours, not a winning car but a reasonably decent one so I could see if I could still drive — or if I still even wanted to drive. I got a ride in a Porsche 935 with Bob Garretson and Charles Mendez, and we won."

The fish and chips are long gone. We have another pot of tea, and the stories keep coming: the Lola-Chevrolet IMSA programme in 1981, the Bob Tullius Jaguar team for which Brian did some 44 races in the mid-1980s, and then the Aston Martin effort in 1989. "Richard Williams and Ray Mattock did a first-class job on a limited budget. The AMR1 was slow, but it was a lot of fun. At Le Mans, by a miracle, the car was still running in the final hour. There was no way we were going to get any higher than our 11th place, so I was a bit bored really. At Arnage there was a cheery group of British spectators, and they held up a hand-painted sign which said: Give us some oppo. On the next lap I did a nice slide for their benefit, and I nearly spun it. Next time round the sign said, Now fastest lap. And on the final lap it said: Tea and crumpets with the Queen!"

Since 1990 Brian has run his own business in Vero Beach, Florida, promoting historic races and track days across the USA. Nearly 50 years after a young mop salesman took his Morris Minor Traveller onto the grid at Rufforth, he's still racing in GT40, Lola F5000, BRM, Chevron and others, and is a regular Goodwood guest too. He's had a lot of success, a lot of drama, a lot of pain, and has mourned too many friends. Despite repeated attempts, he still hasn't managed to give up motor racing. But he's a survivor.

"After the Spa accident in the Cooper, in the hospital in Liege, the surgeon said to me, 'Monsieur Redman, I have to tell you something. We may not be able to save the arm'. And then he said, 'Why are you laughing?'

"I said, 'I'm laughing because I'm still here'."