Jack Lewis: the F1 driver turned sheep farmer

Jack Lewis shot to F1 in no time, but his star shone only momentarily as he and racing parted company

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There are racing drivers who do not look like racing drivers – for example, Bobby Rahal, bless his fireproof socks – and there are those who do. I cannot cite a single scientific fact to support my bold statement, but I can cite Carlos Reutemann.

If the craggy Argentinian – surely the ideal yardstick – measures a perfect 10, then Jack Lewis registers a healthy eight. Perhaps a nine with the wind behind him. His Personality Parade mugshot in the Motoring News of August 31 1961 positively broods: Celtic shock of black hair, arched brows, Clooney jaw – impish confidence exuding from a fractionally sideways glance. Yes, but who the hell was he?

Stroud’s finest was then 24 and in the midst of his maiden Formula 1 campaign, just three full seasons after his impressive harrying of instructor Ian Burgess at Cooper’s Brands Hatch racing driver school. Now behind the wheel of a Cooper T53 run out of his father’s successful motorbike spares business, H&L Motors, Jack was still impressing. He’d been a tenth shy of a front-row spot alongside Jack Brabham and Jim Clark at the Pau Grand Prix, and had run third before being overcome by fuel vapour and slipping to fifth. He’d been refused a grid slot at the Brussels GP even though he’d been ninth-fastest in practice; a second quicker than guaranteed starter Stirling Moss’s best. Also, he’d qualified sixth – ahead of Roy Salvadori, Tony Brooks and Dan Gurney – and finished in the same position at Aintree’s BARC 200. The reigning Autocar British Formula 2 champion was ready for his world championship debut: the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa on June 18.

He qualified 13th, solidly mid-grid, and raced maturely to ninth. In the closing stages he was lapped by a shoal of ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris and promptly tucked in neatly behind them. Even though they had backed off as a famous 1-2-3-4 loomed, they were circulating a second faster than Jack had qualified.

Another ninth place, at the Nürburgring, reaffirmed Jack’s promise, and when he smoothly overhauled, and calmly staved off, Tony Brooks’s BRM P47/58 to finish fourth at the Italian GP, works driver stardom beckoned.

Jack, however, had only one more season in him, a disappointing one at that, as a pretend Welshman in a pretend works BRM. But whereas his fellow ‘what might have beens’ – Chris Bristow, Alan Stacey, Pete Ryan, Welsh-born Gary Hocking (Caerleon, Newport) and Shane Summers (Rossett, near Wrexham) – were scythed down prematurely, Jack slipped away quietly, to a farm near Llandovery.

And you have to say that he looks well on it; the 70-year-old who answers the door is fit and T53 trim. This Wycliffe College-educated, rock-climbing scrum-half is merely a crash helmet – one of the few pieces of memorabilia he’s kept – and goggles away from rolling back 40-plus years. Yet he has friends who have no inkling of his racing past, and, as such, his memory must be jogged gently warm. Only then does the enigma emerge: Jack Rex Lewis Jnr had the speed, and knew it; had the control, and knew it; but lacked the selfish streak to force his career over its first major hurdle, and knows it.

“I was always more interested in proving to myself that I could do it rather than impressing everyone else,” he explains. “That’s an admirable attitude, unless you want to be a world champion. Part of the reason I stopped was that I’d reached a point where I felt I could drive as fast as anyone, give or take the odd genius.

From the archive

“I wasn’t worried about hurting myself. I did, however, regularly ask, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ That’s not good, especially when you’re doing 150mph in the pouring rain at the old Nürburgring.

“Yet, perversely, I always did better at circuits perceived to be dangerous. That was because I was confident I could drive very fast and still not run off the road. While the guys who would stick their necks out to be fast at airfield circuits were thinking, ‘Shit, this is dangerous!’ and backing off, I wasn’t. At places like Pau, much less forgiving than Monaco, I did disproportionately well.

“Adrenalin shouldn’t overcome fear when you’re racing regularly, because you’re in control and concentrating hard. What’s exciting is when you go into a corner and think, ‘Shit, I’m going too fast!’ You mustn’t hunt that excitement. That’s how you get killed.”

“He should have picked up Brooks’ baton – instead he grasped a shepherd’s crook”

It’s apt that Jack had his best F1 moment against Brooks. At the time of Monza, Tony was a Grand Prix away from concluding a career that was the epitome of unflurried, accurate speed. Jack – fast, polished, unobtrusive and accomplished, according to the journalists of the time – should have picked up that baton. Instead he grasped a shepherd’s crook. Indeed, he rarely did the expected. Given his father’s background, it would have been logical to race on two wheels.

“I grew up on motorcycles,” Jack says. “The funny thing is, I never wanted to race them. Money wasn’t my motivation for racing, but I wanted to do it properly, which meant doing it full-time, which meant earning a living from it; I felt cars would give me a better opportunity of doing that.”

Speculation must always come before accumulation, of course, and luckily Jack Rex Snr, ‘Pop’, who had raced bikes pre-war, was happy to support his only son’s – and his own – ambitions. So, as soon as Burgess tipped Jack the wink about not waiting for the Brands school’s prize-drive carrot dangling hazily in the future, the Lewises purchased Ivor Bueb’s Cooper 500. And Ted Jeffs, an ex-Norton mechanic, was employed to prep and tune it.

Jack took immediately to the buzz bomb, finishing fourth in his first race, at Mallory Park. In his second, at Brands in April, he performed a handstand-with-car that got him on the front page of a national newspaper.

“Ted was bloody good, but unfortunately he’d reduced my tyre pressures,” explains Jack. “Someone told him that letting a bit of air out would make it easier for a beginner like me. Trouble was, I was going fast enough to warrant the higher pressures: the tyre folded under and flipped me over.”

Undeterred, Jack was winning by May: at Full Sutton. He added two Oulton Park victories in June/July and might have won Silverstone’s 100-mile Commander Yorke Trophy had his extra fuel tank not split. Unsurprisingly, he tended to fall back when F3’s establishment – Don Parker, Jim Russell, Stuart Lewis-Evans, etc – appeared, but still it was a strong first season.

“F3 was on the wane,” says Jack. “We might have won it had we stuck around, but there didn’t seem much point. Everyone said it would be a big jump to F2, but I didn’t find it so.”

He was a natural, and although his results wouldn’t be as good as 1958’s, the nuggets of potential sparkled. In his brand-new Cooper T45, he won a lacklustre Prix de Paris at Montlhéry in May and, at the same track in October for the Coupe du Salon, finished a “too respectful” runner-up to Harry Schell’s T51. But it was Jack’s performance at Pau, also in May, which made everyone sit up: he set second-fastest time in the first session. Only Jean Behra’s Porsche was quicker.

“I was shocked,” says Jack. “I wasn’t pushing, I was just driving around. I said, ‘Well, Pop, it looks like this motor racing lark is pretty easy!’” He eventually ‘slid’ to fourth – a tenth off the front row, but still ahead of the works Cooper of Jack Brabham, who had won the Monaco GP the week before – and raced in that position until slowed by fuel starvation.

Eleven months later, he was back. Again he set the early practice pace. Again he qualified fractions off the front row. And again he ran fourth – until his gear lever broke.

More strong showings followed: second to Maurice Trintignant’s T45 at the Prix de Paris; a win at Chimay, despite a slipping clutch; second at Snetterton’s Vanwall Trophy, ahead of Rhodesian Tony Maggs’s T51; victory in the Coupe du Salon; an F2 category win (having hunted down and passed Maggs) at Snetterton’s Lombank Trophy; and second in the Lewis-Evans Trophy at Brands Hatch, a result which clinched the British F2 title – by three points from Brabham.

From the archive

“That was a weird championship,” admits Jack. “At the lesser races I’d be at the front; at the races which didn’t clash with a big F1 or sports car event I’d be back in the pack. But that was all good for my education.”

As was his subsequent stirring first season of F1. So why didn’t he graduate?

Jack was being linked to the second seat at Cooper – freed up by Bruce McLaren’s promotion following Brabham’s departure – by the end of 1961. John Cooper had had a quiet word – but no official offer came. Instead Maggs, the reigning European Formula Junior champion (jointly with Jo Siffert), got the gig.

“I was told later that Bruce had nobbled my chances,” says Jack. “He’d finished third at Monza, but I’d been catching him towards the end [the gap was 12 seconds] and perhaps he thought that was too close for comfort. If he did nobble me, I can’t criticise him. There’s no point saying ‘After you, Claude’ in racing. Anyway, I wasn’t blameless: I wasn’t sufficiently focused. I knew I’d be in F1 in 1962 whatever happened. I suppose I felt things were going to work out fine no matter what.” They didn’t.

The wily John Cooper, who would have lost a wealthy customer had he signed Jack, suggested a Cooper-BRM for 1962. But the usually closed shop of BRM surprised everyone by offering the Lewises a semi-works package: a 1961 chassis fitted with its new-for-62 V8, and help with entries. It sounded great.

“It was a nightmare,” says Jack. “I loved the car – better handling, more grip, smoother to drive than the Cooper – but the engine was hopeless: its top end was adequate, but it was useless low down. The works engines were on injection, we were on carbs – perhaps that was it. Oh, and the crankcase kept cracking.”

Jack salvaged something from Pau – third, a whisker behind Ricardo Rodriguez’ ‘Sharknose’ – but after failing to qualify at Monaco, the BRM was returned, as was Pop’s £7000 cheque, and the T51 had to be dusted down.

From the archive

Jack’s mood wasn’t improved by the fact that he had been quicker than three works drivers at Monaco – Trevor Taylor (Lotus), Jo Bonnier (Porsche) and Maggs! – yet they had been allowed to start. He felt he should no longer have to rely on a word to the organisers from Wolfgang von Trips (as at the 1960 German GP), or the donation of a spare entry (by Centro Sud boss Mimmo Dei at the 1961 Italian GP), no matter how kindly meant were their actions. He felt he deserved better. Sadly, in an outdated car, matters got worse. His nadir was the French GP at Rouen. Having just been lapped by Graham Hill, Jack missed his braking point and punted BRM’s number one out of the lead.

“The season was a disaster,” says Jack, “even the Welsh bit. We’d renamed the team Ecurie Galloise because we had a Welsh sponsor lined up – but even that fell through. I felt we had completely messed up. The BRM situation hadn’t helped, but nor had losing Ted [to rival privateer Tony Marsh]. Our preparation suffered.”

After a wheel fell off at September’s Oulton Park Gold Cup, the Lewises called time. Jack didn’t know it, but he’d contested his last race.

“I was disillusioned, but that wasn’t the prime reason for stopping,” he says. “Pop said we couldn’t afford to go to the next step. He reckoned I’d built up a reputation and that I’d be able to go and get a drive, if I wanted to.”

This was a surprising and sudden change of heart for Snr. It wasn’t much more than a year since he’d given Jeffs the go-ahead to build the Lewis F1 car. (He got as far as its chassis, suspension and bodywork before feet got cold and it was sold). The harsh truth was that Pop had cut the purse and apron strings at precisely the wrong time. He should have done it when Ken Tyrrell offered to run his son in Formula Junior.

“I’m sorry to say that Pop kept that from me,” says Jack. “I always felt he was going racing just for me – but my mother told me much later that he had wanted to do it anyway. I guess he was living vicariously. I’m sure he’d rather have his son driving for him. And I was happy to drive for him – he was taking me into F1, don’t forget. So I might not have accepted Ken’s offer. But it would have been nice to have had the choice.”

Maggs didn’t turn Tyrrell down. It was the making of him, a springboard to a sturdy first season of F1 with Cooper: fifth in Holland, second in France, third in South Africa.

“Tony was a good driver,” says Jack. “But in my own mind I know that those results could easily have been mine.” This is no idle boast – but Jack admits that he didn’t work at it. “I was lazy, I guess. When I stopped, I didn’t decide there and then never to race again. It was meant to be a sabbatical. My father was looking to semi-retire and had this big idea about living in the mountains. He bought a large house which had a farm attached. He asked if I fancied running it. ‘No, not really.’ But we bought some sheep… It just happened.

“Mum had been brilliant throughout my career: timekeeper, no fuss, stiff upper lip. But it became clear to me how much more relaxed she was when I wasn’t racing. Plus I discovered I didn’t need racing to be happy. Sheep farming [and breeding Arab horses] proved pretty interesting, and I stayed there for 14 years. I just didn’t make a big effort to carry on racing.

“I don’t have any regrets. You only have regrets if you think about something, and I don’t think about motor racing unless prompted. Yes, I might have had an illustrious career. But equally, I might have been killed the next weekend.”