Rock'n Roll'n Racing

Forget playing Wembley Arena – the stadium that Nick Mason loves best is in France, just outside a small town called Le Mans

The door is open at the top of the metal staircase. Enter the large upper-floor warehouse office and you’re met by three objects which offer a perfect snapshot of the man who owns this place: on the left is a Formula 1 car that at first glance looks like a Patrick Tambay Ferrari circa 1983, but isn’t (I’ll find out what it is later); on the right are two drum kits, one that also happens to sport the logo of Italy’s most celebrated car make. Yes, this is Nick Mason. Welcome to his world.

He doesn’t look much like a rock star, which is entirely the point. Unassuming and modest, Mason has never conformed to the stereotype of his profession. He’d shudder at the thought. Then again, Pink Floyd always did go its own way, saving the theatrics for the stage and recording studio. English, understated and all the more potent because of it.

Yet as Pink Floyd reached its technicolour zenith, Nick would slip quietly away to indulge his other love. His enthusiasm for motor racing would lead him to Le Mans, not just once but five times. Music had given him the means, and he meant to make the most of it.

The balance in this office is shifted strongly towards the second passion – although it probably came first. The walls are lined with car books, magazine volumes and assorted memorabilia of a true racing man. This is the original home of Ten-Tenths, the company Mason set up to manage his bevy of great racing cars. The collection, for want of a better word (he hates to call it that – too clinical), has long since outgrown these premises, but it’s from here that he manages a life devoted to his twin interests.

I’m here to talk about Passion for Speed, an update of his book Into the Red first released 11 years ago. It celebrates a century of motor racing, featuring 24 of his cars driven as they were meant to be – hard and fast – by co-author Mark Hales, who has also joined us. Suitably for a sticksman, sound has always been intrinsic to Mason’s passion for speed and the performance tests are accompanied by a CD of bombastic engine noise.

They did it before, to great acclaim. So why have they done it again?

“With the first book, I think we both felt that we hadn’t quite done 100 years of motor sport,” shrugs Nick. “So we thought we’d bring it right up to date. We’d gone from the 1901 Panhard up to the McLaren F1. But the great thing about the Ferrari Enzo [on the cover of the new book] is that we’re into the electronic era where people are actually using F1 technology on the road.

“It was nice to put that sort of span in and maybe register with another generation. I’m really interested in the fact that a lot of people don’t realise how quick these old cars are. When you compare them round a circuit they might be quite slow, but when you compare them 0-60mph from a standing start, it’s unbelievable how quick they are. I mean, the Blitzen Benz did something like 140mph – in 1908.”

There’s another reason. “We had a really good time making it,” says Hales. “It was enormous fun.”

Nick chuckles. “Yes, we thought what we really want to do is spend a really long day at some windswept airfield at a time when it won’t be used by anyone else, which almost certainly means February.”

He never was a fair-weather motorist. During their student days, future Floyd bassist Roger Waters introduced himself to Nick by asking to borrow his car – of all things a little Austin 7 ‘Chummy’. The love of old cars, instilled by his father the documentary maker Bill Mason, took hold long before cymbals and snares.

“It would make an interesting graph,” says Nick of his car-collecting roots. “The real kick-off was the Austin 7, my first car. That was sold and I bought a ‘Nippy’, and then the first Aston Martin International (£180) when I was still a student. Then there was a Mini Cooper, then I bought the Ulster – that must have been the first royalty cheque. Suddenly it took off.”

The seismic moment was Dark Side of the Moon, the 1973 album that shot Pink Floyd into the stratosphere. Did it change his life? “Not that much, but it did as far as cars were concerned. I didn’t immediately buy a bigger house, but I did buy a car. There’s good news and there’s bad news, darling…

“I was looking for a 250GTO, but couldn’t find one, so I bought a 275GTB. Then I bought a D-type because I thought I might have to do a swap [to get the GTO]. Fortunately I didn’t. Everything really came pouring in. I did my first race in 1974 and within four, five years I’d got the GTO and went to Le Mans.” Rock ’n Roll excess, Nick Mason style.

It was because of, but never about, the money. As Hales says, “None of them were bought to make a few quid. They were bought for good reason. People do buy cars for investment, but the reason this book came about was because Nick is very keen for his cars to be used, and used as they were meant to be – as fast as possible.”

“When I kicked off with it old racing cars hadn’t really become as valuable,” says Nick. “The writing was on the wall – [no pun intended] – but not many people seemed to recognise it. The genius has to be Anthony Bamford. He talks about going down to Ferrari to see the Old Man, who thought he was a complete idiot. There’s a great picture of Brian Classic, the car dealer, in a velvet suit and long hair. In front of him is a skip, piled high. You can recognise a 512S crankcase and some uprights off something else. Anthony bought the skip – that’s how ahead he was.

“But I remember when I bought my Tyrrells the concept was still that F1 cars were built, used that year, then sold for the Aurora series. And when they’d finished with it in Aurora, yes, you can have it for £7k – with the DFV still in it.”

Like his band, Mason was mining gold. Then came Le Mans.

“I was lucky in a way because I was slightly mugged by Dorset Racing,” he smiles. “They needed a driver and they persuaded me that it would be a good idea to launch myself into Le Mans. It was the first modern car I’d driven. I remember quite clearly Brian Joscelyne saying ‘would you be interested in coming to Le Mans? No, no, old boy, it’s nothing too heavy…’”

It was 1979, the year of The Wall, a record that finally broke Pink Floyd apart. The intensity of the album was reflected in the tensions that wracked the band – but not for Nick. “It was perfect timing in a way. I’d done the major part of my work on the album, so it was much easier just to say I’m going to disappear for a week.

“At this time there wasn’t much aggro. Most of the recording of The Wall was intense and we’d been through some slightly tough times because we’d been chucked into recording at a time when it wasn’t our intention. We’d taken up with these slightly dodgy accountants and it looked like we might have to bankrupt ourselves. So we all headed off to France as tax exiles.

“But when the recording was done the atmosphere was quite good. It was only later in the summer that Rick [Wright] suddenly threw this wobbly. He’d been hanging round for months and Roger suddenly wanted him to work in the summer holiday when he wanted to take time off. Eventually, Rick was pushed out.”

Before the storm, Nick dived into Le Mans in Dorset Racing’s Lola T297. “I’d been living in France, and Roger and I had been running up and down a hill every day, so I was probably fitter than normal. Plus playing the drums had always been a good physical workout.

“Le Mans was the ‘pro-am’ place back then. It’s tougher now. Look at how much faster the cars are going, pulling more g-force, and it’s a tougher circuit with the two chicanes. Back then professional teams only ran two drivers. Now, all teams need three.”

He shared driving duties with Joscelyne and Richard Jenvey. “For practice they said just go out, lift for the kink until you get used to it and don’t worry about how you are comparing to the others. The car was a delight to drive – really quick in its own funny way.”

From historic racing to Le Mans in one leap, Nick left La Sarthe with an 18th place overall and second in class. But he must have been diverted. Wasn’t there ‘celebrity attention’?

“Absolutely bugger all,” he deadpans. “I didn’t publicise the fact I was there and there was no reason for anyone else to do so. Paul Newman was there so the press were not in the least bit interested in some dodgy old drummer. It was horrendous for him and Le Mans got turned into a media circus. But it’s hard for me to judge – I’m hardly an A-list celebrity.”

Mason was teamed with future Lola boss Martin Birrane and Peter Clark in 1980, the T297 this time being classified 22nd overall, third in class. He missed 1981, but returned in ’82 with music business mate Steve O’Rourke and Richard Down in a BMW M1 (retired, engine). Then in ’83 he graduated to a Dome-Cosworth prototype run by John Macdonald of RAM, driving with Chris Craft and Eliseo Salazar. His relationship with RAM gave him his first and only proper contact with contemporary F1.

“What I did was lend money to RAM so they could buy engines before the Skoal-Bandit sponsorship came in. It was a pretty rocky operation, particularly because of the Hart engines. God, we went through them. At one point there were 27 engines waiting to be worked on. It was a great shame because the year after, Gustav Brunner designed a really nice car. Then Manfred [Winkelhock] got killed at Mosport [in a Porsche 962C] and soon everything collapsed.

“John was a pretty good team operator. At Le Mans he’d motivate us all in different ways. He was quite gentle with me – ‘don’t worry about the time, just get dialled into the car.’ Whereas with Chris he’d say ‘you’re too old for this, you shouldn’t be doing it’, to get him wound up! With Eliseo – ‘you just want to go home in a box, don’t you?’

“At Brands in F1 he had Philippe Alliot and Jonathan Palmer. If Philippe was out and Jonathan was waiting in the pitlane, he’d swing the pitboard casually so Jonathan would see that Alliot had done a
1min 36sec or whatever – when he’d really done a 1min 38sec! He was brutal but very funny.”

A phone call interrupts us. As Nick excuses himself briefly, Mark Hales points to the ‘Ferrari’ by the front door. It’s a RAM in Prancing Horse clothing…

Nick made his last appearance as a driver at Le Mans in ’84 – in Rothmans overalls, driving a Porsche 956. “I’d got to know Rothmans through some music I’d done with a friend of mine, Rick Fenn [from 10cc], for a number of films. There was a scheme to run a camera car that would take part in the race. We’d done Silverstone, but for Le Mans the ‘works’ had a big falling out with the organisers and didn’t go. So they put the camera on a Canon car run by Richard Lloyd.

“The car was fantastic. The faster you went the more it stuck. I always remember the sound of it because even with your helmet on it was almost as if someone was rushing up behind you and sighing! It was a brilliant experience and we made a documentary about it called Life Could Be A Dream.”

So why no more Le Mans starts after ’84? “Basically, we went back to work.” Pink Floyd had reformed, without Roger Waters, and A Momentary Lapse of Reason was the eventual result. Then the band took the new record out on the road. “In the early 1980s we weren’t very busy, so I could race every weekend and do all the testing. Once we started work again from ’85 onwards it was full-on – and you can’t do both.”

Today, Roger Waters is about to take The Wall back on the road under his own name. Rick Wright died in 2008, meaning Pink Floyd’s reunion at the Live 8 concert in 2005 is likely to have been the band’s final coda. Nick continues to work in music through various projects, many of them revolving around the Roundhouse in North London, but there is still time to indulge his passion for cars.

So is there anything he hasn’t owned that he would like? “The answer is yes – but I’m a little wary to say because the dealers will be listening!

“No, there are a few things. A really good drum-braked sports car – I should have bought a Testa Rossa. Or a DB3S or a DBR1. Or a Maserati 300S…

“It’s odd. It’s not like collecting stamps where you increase the value by having them all. It’s simply a weird way of expressing yourself and your tastes.”

Passion for Speed? As a title that’s something of an understatement.