Feast of endurance

Synonymous with Gulf, GT40s, 917s and Le Mans wins, JW Automotive is a racing legend. We spoke to director John Horsman about life under ‘Death Ray’ John Wyer and the racing heritage underpinning the team’s successes
Writer: Simon Arron

There had been no job advertised, but he applied for one anyway. At the time John Horsman was an engineering student at Cambridge and often spent his weekends photographing motor races, frequently managing to get himself trackside without a pass. “I was never turfed out,” he says, “which wouldn’t happen nowadays. I was always shooting the cars, though, when I should have been taking photos of people. The cars still exist, but most of the drivers don’t.”

He sent some of his shots to Aston Martin, who used them for advertising purposes, and the Aston Martin Owners Club subsequently accredited him as an official photographer – “It was nicer to be legal, and not looking over your shoulder all the time.” It also meant that his name was known within the company when he wrote in search of the job that technically didn’t exist. He was invited to Aston Martin’s London Piccadilly showroom and ushered in for his first meeting with John Wyer. “He said I could have a job if I obtained my degree,” Horsman says. “It was almost too easy, really. I was just glad to get a start at a place where I wanted to work. They didn’t pay very well, mind. I remember engineer Brian Clayton asking for a raise and John saying, ‘But you work for Aston Martin. Isn’t that enough?’ That was it: no raise.

“He had a reputation for being difficult, but I never found him to be that way. We got on well and became good friends. He didn’t much like driving, so I’d take him to events and he’d chat away, telling me various anecdotes about bygone motor racing. We never had a row, but if he didn’t like you, or you screwed up, you’d know about it.”

Phase one: Aston Martin

While Wyer was managing Aston Martin’s outright Le Mans victory in 1959, with Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby in the DBR1, Horsman concentrated on road car development. “I remember reading all these test reports claiming the DB4 could do 145mph,” he says, “but I knew they weren’t true because I’d seen 163 during tests along the M1. We didn’t know about lift in those days, but it felt perfectly stable.”

His first (almost) hands-on race management experience came at Le Mans in 1962 (below), when the Aston factory returned with the DP212. “I went along as Wyer’s assistant,” Horsman says, “but there wasn’t really a position for me. Mostly I just watched and observed before becoming more involved with the racing in 1963. Towards the end of that season, after Wyer had announced that he was leaving to work with Ford, lots of people decided to take their vacation. Brian Clayton should have accompanied the racing team to Monza, but he was away and it was a case of, ‘Well, who should we send?’ So I said, ‘I’ll go!’ The van with the tyres and spare parts had already left and, 24 hours later, I followed.

“It was the first time I’d had to make key racing decisions – nothing very difficult but the kind of stuff that couldn’t be reversed once you were committed. Happily I chose the right axle ratio, because Roy Salvadori [in DP214] had one hell of a battle with Mike Parkes’s 250GTO and they averaged more than 120mph after three hours and a single refuelling stop. They were going faster and faster and if I’d gone for a lower axle ratio we’d have lost, because Roy would have had to lift off. As it was, he was constantly over the rev limit in fourth gear but fortunately the engine held out.”

Phase two: Ford Advanced Vehicles

Horsman didn’t follow Wyer to Ford immediately, because the firm’s normally US-based engineers were on hand for the GT40’s unsuccessful Le Mans debut in 1964, but the two Johns reunited almost immediately afterwards. “There was lots to do,” Horsman says, “because the car was unstable, the guys who’d designed it had no racing experience, so it was too heavy, and the engine was no good.”

Racing has forever been a streamlined business, in which clarity of thought and rapidity of response are precious allies: both commodities tend to be in short supply when dealing with major corporations – and it was thus during the mid-Sixties, with Wyer flitting between Britain and Detroit. “We had a very hard time,” Horsman says. “John would go the States and have a meeting with the powers that be, but there were too many fingers in the pot and not much got done. They’d eventually take decisions, but by the time John returned to base it had all changed, so his trip served no purpose. It was a case of order, counter-order and disorder!”

After 1965, when the Ford Le Mans challenge again crumbled, FAV built production GT40s and assisted private entrants. “For a couple of years we were just kind of pedalling along,” Horsman says, “waiting for something better to happen.”

MkII GTs finished 1-2-3 in the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours, led by the Shelby American-run cars of Bruce McLaren/Chris Amon and Ken Miles/Denny Hulme, and at the year’s end the FAV signs were taken down in Slough, to be replaced by a fresh motif.

Phase three: JW Automotive Engineering

Contrary to popular belief, the ‘W’ in the name represented Willment, John of that ilk going into partnership with Wyer, while Horsman completed a trio of Johns at the firm’s helm. “January 1 was not a holiday in those days,” Horsman says, “so we were all working. New signs went up, Wyer arrived, we all said ‘hello’, there were smiles all around and we just got on with it. It was a fresh start and everybody seemed happy. We were able to begin building the first of our own cars, the Mirage M1, which was basically a reworked GT40. We ran them for the first time at Monza, where we had a few teething troubles, but then went to Spa and won [Jacky Ickx and Richard Thompson finishing a lap clear of rivals].”

And by that stage, the JWAE cars were cloaked in the future marketing triumph known as powder blue and orange, thanks to a sponsorship deal with Gulf Oil. “That came together very quickly,” Horsman says, “because we were dealing with only one man – Gulf’s executive vice-president Grady Davis. It was very different from the Ford situation, where we were dealing with 20 people and as many different opinions. Grady was respected by the rest of his board because he got things done. He asked John to work out a two-car budget for the 1967 season, which he did. He padded it quite well, because he didn’t want to have to go back and ask for more money, but Grady took one look and said, ‘That’s all right, but I’m going to add 50 per cent because I don’t like budget over-runs’. Wyer thought he’d enjoy working with this fellow.”

Despite that Spa success, the Mirages didn’t last in the race that most mattered. “In practice at Le Mans we holed pistons in both cars,” Horsman says. “The cause wasn’t immediately obvious, but later we found out that somebody had ordered three sets of Weber 48 IDA carburettors and just plonked them on the engine, but they were for a 4.7-litre engine and the jets were just too weak for our 5.7s, so they weren’t getting enough fuel. That was always going to show up on the Mulsanne and the weak mixture caught us out.”

One year on, though, JWAE reverted to the GT40 and ran three cars in what would be a world title decider against Porsche: to that point, the German firm was five-four ahead in race victories. “I remember it feeling like a particularly long event,” Horsman says, “because it took place in September and the hours of darkness were thus extended. It was a hard race and we were down to one car, because Brian Muir [sharing with Jackie Oliver] had put a brand-new GT40 into a sand bank on the 16th lap. They were supposed to be the crew taking it easy, to guarantee a finish, but he started racing team-mate Paul Hawkins and got the worst of it.

“The Hawkins/David Hobbs car had suffered a vibration in practice, so we decided to change the engine, which we didn’t really want to do. We couldn’t find any cause for the vibration and were lifting the engine from the chassis when Wyer came in, looked around and said, ‘I think it’s been rubbing on the chassis’. So we hammered the chassis a bit and refitted the original engine. If John hadn’t come along, we’d have swapped engines and things would probably have been perfectly all right. As it was, the engine was faulty. It carried on vibrating, to the extent that it caused clutch failure, so we changed that, rejoined and the engine later blew.

“At that stage Pedro Rodriguez and Lucien Bianchi had a long way to go in our only surviving car, so it was nail-biting. Pedro was changing gear so delicately that journalists were coming to ask whether he had a transmission problem, because there was such a long pause when he shifted on the pit straight, but he was just being careful. That was the difference between him and Jo Siffert. Jo would drive flat out whatever, while Pedro would do that when necessary but could also conserve a car. They kept going, though, and in the end there was a sort of subdued joy, because we were all so tired. We had no big parties after Le Mans, win or lose, because of fatigue. We just had a nice dinner…”

Porsche mopped up most of 1969’s World Sports Car Championship races, the exceptions being Sebring… and Le Mans, where the now six-year-old GT40 once again held sway (albeit only just, in France). At the beginning, famously, Jacky Ickx staged his plodding protest against the traditional sprint-and-belt-yourself-in-during-the-opening-lap start. “That was a surprise,” Horsman says, “because he hadn’t told anybody. Being last away and first to finish simply added to the story, but the car was obsolete before the race. Wyer didn’t attend that year, partly because his wife Totty was in hospital with a minor illness and partly because he wasn’t expecting us to achieve very much. We were only 12th and 13th on the grid but hoped for a decent finish, perhaps fourth or fifth. We kept creeping up and up, though. The last quick 917 went out with a few hours to go and it was down to a nip-and-tuck battle with the Hans Herrmann/Gérard Larrousse 908.”

Ickx and Jackie Oliver prevailed by about 120 metres… and the team prepared for another relaxing dinner.

Earlier that year Porsche had approached JWAE about running 917s and, in October, the team headed to the Österreichring for a test. It knew the car would be eligible for only two more seasons, with the sports car regulations changing. “That didn’t make much difference,” Horsman says, “because we had nothing with which to counter it.” JWAE was still dabbling with Mirages and had the Len Terry-designed M3 available, although other commitments meant the project wasn’t foremost in the company’s priorities. “The M3 might have beaten a 917 from time to time,” Horsman says, “but not over a season.”

The M3 held the sports car lap record at the Österreichring, however, a 1min 46.6sec, and Porsche was initially unable to match that during its October test. “By reputation the 917 was unstable,” Horsman says, “but nobody was sure why. For the test they had various sets of titanium springs and Bilstein shock absorbers. The driver would go out, do about four laps and come in shaking his head, so the car would be jacked up and another set fitted. I noticed that there were dead gnats splattered all over the front of the car, but at the rear there were only a few spots at the top of the tail flap, so the air seemed to be going over them and they weren’t doing very much. I asked if we could borrow a third car that was standing around and we riveted a different aluminium flap on the back, finishing the job in the garage that evening. The following day, Brian Redman went out – and instead of coming in after four laps he kept on driving, and going ever faster. He came in and said, ‘That’s it. It’s now a racing car’.”

JWAE played its part in helping Porsche to back-to-back world titles over the following two seasons, with a number of victories, although its best Le Mans result would be second place in 1971. Highlights included a Rodriguez-inspired recovery drive in the wet at Brands Hatch in 1970, where the Mexican and Leo Kinnunen won by five laps. “Pedro certainly wasn’t conserving the car that day,” Horsman says. “The clerk of the course pulled him in for passing under a yellow, but he’d never spotted a flag because of the conditions. It was absolutely pissing down and all he could see was spray. He hadn’t quite lost a lap when he rejoined, but he recovered brilliantly to retake the lead and pull away. Firestone gave us some good advice, telling us to switch from 12-inch rims to 10s. The car looked odd with its wheels tucked right in, but it was easier to drive in the wet – and Pedro was already incredibly quick in such conditions. It was the right car on the right tyres with the right driver.”

After the Porsche was outlawed, JWAE picked up the Mirage project and its DFV-powered M6 finished first and second in the 1973 Spa 1000Kms. By 1975, however, Gulf had served notice that it was pulling out – although a last-minute deal secured participation in that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. Officially, this last JWAE design was a Gulf GR8, although everybody at the factory still called it a Mirage. Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won the race, a fitting swansong as the adventure wound down.

“It was all a bit sad that everything just fizzled out,” Horsman says. “I tried to find money to do something in 1976, but potential sponsors had already committed their budgets and I got nowhere. Engineer Maurice Gomm offered to house the cars for us in his workshop [before they were sold to American entrepreneur Harley Cluxton]. There was a fellow operating a small team from the same premises and I noticed that he drove home in a Porsche 911 while I was riding a motorcycle.

“His name was Ron Dennis…”

The Alumni
John Horsman on some of the drivers and characters who left their mark

Ermanno Cuoghi

“A very good comedian, but also a very good mechanic. We’d been testing at Monza late in ’64 and this fellow’s hotel room appeared to be on our tab. I’d no idea who he was and kept getting a bit short with him, wondering why he didn’t clear off. He gabbled away in Italian, so I had no idea what he was talking about, but it turned out that he’d been working for Shelby on the Tour de France and John Wyer had promised him a job once the Tour was over. Nobody had mentioned that to me! We weren’t aware of his capabilities, so he started right at the bottom, but we soon found that he was rather good at whatever he did and he rose pretty quickly to become chief mechanic. He stayed with us until the end of 1971, when he accepted a good offer from Ferrari. He’d applied for work with them before and they’d turned him down, but he eventually went there as one of the top men.”

Jacky Ickx

“Jacky and Pedro were our two most brilliant drivers. On the first lap of the 1968 Spa 1000Kms, Jacky pulled out a 39sec lead in pouring rain. I know it was an 8.5-mile circuit, but even so… He left our sight and eventually reappeared on his own, in the lead, and then there was silence. I assumed there must have been a multiple pile-up, but the second-placed Lola finally appeared. Incredible. Jacky put his ability down to balance – and he proved he had that, although I never saw him do it, by tightrope walking.”

Brian Redman

“Brian was always somewhat underrated, but was extremely good and was often close to Jacky’s pace around Spa – if not faster. He was also a delight to have around. He only drove for us for two seasons, but we felt he’d been part of the set-up for years.”

Pedro Rodriguez

“His last start for us was at Zeltweg in 1971, where he drove all but about 11 laps. He handed over to Richard Attwood after the opening stint, but later walked up to Wyer and said, ‘If you want to win this race, I must have my car back’. He and Richard were by then a few laps down after electrical problems, so we put him back in. He made up one lap, then another by staying out on slicks in the wet and saving himself two pitstops. With 25 laps to go he was running second – and catching Clay Regazzoni’s leading Ferrari by about four seconds per lap. He was on course to take the lead at the final corner, so he was disappointed to see Regga’s crumpled car against the barriers – he’d wanted to win, but not that way. He got out of the car, removed his helmet and didn’t have a bead of perspiration on his brow. And his hair was exactly as it had been before he’d put his helmet on. There was no sign of fatigue, although he never took any exercise – the only thing he seemed to do was lie down and rest. He always seemed calm.”

Jo Siffert

“Jo was very fast – in fact he had only one speed, which was flat out. That cost him – and us – a possible victory at Le Mans in 1970. He felt he had to get past a couple of slower cars before he reached the Dunlop Bridge, which led to him snatching at a gear that didn’t engage. Boom! He was a lovely fellow, but not really cut out for endurance racing, although that’s where he made his name.”

Lucien Bianchi

“An absolute delight – not the fastest guy out there, but steady and well suited to endurance racing. He drove one of our Aston Zagatos at Spa and in those days it took ages to get everything up to temperature. We warmed the car up in the garage, and then I took it out for a lap, driving the wrong way because I didn’t want to get too excited. Coming through Les Combes I got sideways, even though I was nowhere near racing speeds, and warned Lucien about the slippery conditions. He subsequently led the race, but then went off at Les Combes! The car hit a kilometre post, dropped into a quarry, rolled and bounced back onto four wheels, with the battery hanging out and fuel leaking everywhere. Lucien returned to the pits and seemed OK, apart from a sore back, so we asked about the car. He insisted we’d probably be able to drive it back, so we trekked all the way up there and quickly realised we couldn’t…”

Derek Bell

“Derek was always enthusiastic and ready to drive. You’d phone him, ask him to get to Goodwood, Silverstone or wherever to test and he’d be there at the drop of a hat. He wasn’t at the Ickx or Rodriguez level in terms of outright speed, but he was fairly close, very consistent and did a very good job for us.”

Leo Kinnunen

“He turned up at our first Zeltweg test and we still had a vacant spot. Porsche knew him, so we invited him to have a go and he went very well. There was a language barrier, though – he didn’t speak English and nobody on the team spoke Finnish, so everything had to be done through an interpreter. Pedro was forever telling him to take it easy – and would then complain if he thought Leo was driving too slowly! He showed what he could do on the Targa Florio, though. In 1970, at the wheel of one of our 908/3s, he almost won the race single-handedly after Pedro was taken ill. He brought the car up from fourth to second on the final lap and was very quick – when allowed to have a go.”

John Wyer

“Lots of people denigrate him, but he was brilliant in every way. He’d think very hard – and didn’t sleep very much as a result – but that meant he could come up with a valid reason to do something one way, then think hard again and come up with an equally valid reason to do it another! His final decisions were usually right, though. He had a reputation for rudeness, but I think he was just quite shy.”

Second opinion
Maitland Cook joined JWA just after it was formed in 1967 and was there for its five greatest years

"As purchasing manager I bought all the parts and dealt with the customer cars, “ Cook recalls, “but Wyer also invited me to all the two-hour post-race debriefs. He was very demanding – if the cars didn’t come first and second that was a failure.”

What about Wyer himself? “It was rewarding working for him; if you gave 100 per cent he was very reasonable, but if he lost his temper he could be quite nasty. To this day I use what he taught me in terms of analysis, planning and administration. He was meticulous; in those days long-distance racing was about pacing yourself. He said to me ‘Le Mans is an exercise in finishing ahead as slowly as possible’.

“He treated it like a military exercise; for the 1968 BOAC 500 at Brands Hatch he stated the lap times and when we would pit, saying ‘on that basis we will win’. We worked on that basis and we won, beating the Porsches by 21sec. In that ’68 season we won the championship with three cars, not counting the special lightweight monocoque for Le Mans. Porsche used more than 40 monocoques, with 10 times our budget. But I think Porsche’s management in those days was awful compared to Wyer, John Horsman and David Yorke. Their preparation was not as good, and they didn’t have the driver discipline.

In the 917 era they effectively had two works teams, their own and the Salzburg Martini operation, and they allowed their drivers to race each other. Wyer was able to control that better. Except in ’68 when bloody Brian Muir drove like a bat out of hell and stuffed his GT40 into the sand at Mulsanne. Wyer refused to pay him for six months!”

How did a strong figure like Wyer get on with Ford? “He was opinionated and not good at compromise,” says Cook. “The Ford thing got off to a bad start and Wyer was pushed aside. But at the end of 1965 Ford gave Wyer 50 sets of engine components, including stuff we had been after all year, plus a generous contract to build MkIIIs at a guaranteed profit of £1000 each. I think John got the whole shooting match for £30 grand, and then we had a great contract with Gulf. John would spend hours writing detailed budgets and they were happy to pay. I’m sure these were the most satisfying days of Wyer’s career. In the Ford era there were too many masters; Grady Davis of Gulf gave him the chance to run the operation his own way. Although everyone worked bloody hard, particularly Wyer, it was a happy ship.”

What was the hierarchy? “It was very clear: Wyer was in overall control, Yorke handled everything to do with drivers and race management, and John Horsman the engineering. His office interconnected with the drawing office and there was constant to and fro. Yorke was pleasant, even fun, but very private. He was a good link between Wyer and the mechanics, a sort of uncle figure. He didn’t need to work; it was because he loved racing and he wasn’t afraid to press his views.”

What about the other JW, John Willment? “He was a major shareholder but Wyer had absolute control. Willment used to drive Wyer mad; it was a mistake taking him aboard.”

How was Porsche to deal with? “With the GT40 coming to its end we got Len Terry to build the Mirage-BRM. In late ’68 John and I went to look at it and driving back John said, ‘That’s going to be a disaster. Remember – never let the designer design the car. Get him to do what you want.’ And the car was horrible, while the 908 kept winning, but by a miracle we won Sebring and Le Mans with the old GT40. That’s what Wyer and Horsman were so good at – developing. They turned the GT40 into a winner, and after chopping off the roof and sticking a DFV in eventually turned the Terry car into a winner too. So it was clear to Porsche we could do the job.”

Was Wyer disappointed when JWA became a factory team? “It was clear we couldn’t continue as an independent, so Porsche’s approach was perfectly timed. However JWA could have been more successful if Porsche hadn’t backed two horses. I don’t think the family was thrilled at subcontracting the main team to an outsider, and the Martini team distracted their concentration.

“The biggest fight with Porsche was that they kept producing new parts, sometimes right in the paddock, while Wyer and Horsman wanted time to test. So they’d give them to the other team, which made John furious. For example at Sebring 1970 they brought new front hubs. At first John said no and the hubs went to Martini. Then for once John relented – and the hubs all broke. But when something broke the investigation was instant.”

Was there a rapport between the two Johns? “Horsman had enormous affection and respect for Wyer, and vice versa. They shared the same logic; Horsman was the best engineering man Wyer ever had.”

Interview by Gordon Cruickshank