European Racing Memories

It is 19 years since John Fitzpatrick made his motor sporting debut. Now, at 36 years of age, he and his family will make a new life based on San Diego and racing from America. Before he departed we asked John for some . . .

European Racing Memories

An understated off-white ski-jacket matched the mood of the plain but effective Golf GTi parked outside our London offices. Typically, John Fitzpatrick had arrived ahead of schedule. In the Porsche briefcase, which he criticised with a candour unawed by famous names that was to characterise the interview, were a selection of relevant and usable pictures from his racing career.

However, this was not a hungry young driver conscious of his PR image but the precautions typical of a man who simply said, “I can be a bit of a pain really. The things I do, I like to do well. . . .” A pause for a deprecating grin, “You could say that is why I did not make a go of single-seaters or rallying.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise with a driver who won the British Saloon Car Championship in 1966 and who has twice won both the European GT Championship and the Porsche Cup (1972/74), is that he did not turn fully professional until, “about two years ago, after the Jaguar thing. Before that I did not really earn all my living from racing. I did not have to race to earn money, so I used to do it as a weekend thing that was fun, if you did well.”

To support himself John first worked in the family specialist business of aluminium truck bodies; in fact there were actually two such companies to demand his business attention. A few years ago John became actively involved in a VW-Audi dealership in Solihull, not far from his home in Britain at Henly-in-Arden. Subsequently John Fitzpatrick has retained some financial interest in the dealership that bears his name, but it is run by others now.

It was through friends in Shenstone Car Club that John “Fitz” Fitzpatrick begun to participate in motor sport. There was no family interest in the sport, in fact his mother hated it.

“I just did all the Shenstone events in my 850 Mini. This was in 1961 and some of 1962 when I would take my road car along to driving tests, sprints, club rallies: anything.

“There were really two phases to my rallying. The first spell was in the period we are talking about and I remember doing things like the Birmingham Post Rally . . . that was a good one. The trouble for me was that I could never find a navigator who was not sick! I did events with quite a lot of people, even co-driving with Alec Poole. That was a disaster too, for I got sick then! Rallying was obviously no good to me, we could never to get to the finish.”

Midlands motorsport at that time was rich in characters who were to play a part later in John’s life, especially John Handley (who now owns Broadspeed and Dealer Opel Team, as well as a successful roller chain business at Wolverhampton) and Ralph Broad.

John remembers his first race as “one of those reliability trials”, but is far clearer about the second and third race, he did in 1962. “I was a clear and definite last at the back of the Snetterton field. I was going so slowly that I could see my Mum having hysterics all over the pits. At Oulton Park for my third race we took along some of my mates and put the can on a trailer, purely for effect. We didn’t tie it on properly and it actually fell off the back on the way in. We really did not know until we came to unload. So it was a rather sheepish bunch who went back to that rough entrance and retrieved it!”

The next step was to go down to the Broad family business “to get a few bits for the Mini. I built the engine myself” — another burst of laughter— “probably in the garden or something stupid like that, because it was all filled with sssh, you know what. Naturally it blew up at our first Brands. The engine was destroyed, so we shot back to Birmingham and ‘nicked’ one from a customer’s car without telling Ralph.

“The race went well, but I remember how we had to nip back and restore the engine to its rightful owner before telling Ralph. Actually, he seemed quite impressed with our initiative, for we had not known that this was common practice in racing.

“Anyway he agreed to look after the 850 engine for me. I think it was on my car that we actually first put together the words Broad and speed. It was also painted up in what were to become Ralph’s colours for quite a few years -regal purple with silver stripe.”

Fitzpatrick was successful in all kinds of Minis, commenting today that it then took him time to adapt to each car before he could go quickly. “Stewart or Clark were naturals who could go quickly in anything, straight away. Nowadays experience lets me go fast straight away too, but it’s not a natural thing: experience is very important in touring and GT cars. That is why I expect at least another 3-4 years at the front in these cars.”

In 1964-65 Fitzpatrick replaced Whitmore in the John Cooper Mini team, racing all three S capacity sizes in Britain and Europe He chiefly recalls that: “Ralph bought an S for Handley and he could beat us: but I could beat John H. in a Downton Mini, for it was 10 classes better.

“Why? Well there wasn’t so much in the chassis in those days, they were usually lowered, running on Konis, still had the tiny wheels and a rear roll bar . . . no really fancy spring rates or aerodynamics to worry about. So it more or less came down to the engine and Daniel Richmond — who was the nicest bloke you could ever with to meet — simply provided the best.

“Daniel always used to take you round to look at the latest tweaks he had produced, and I remember how his cars never had wide wheels or fancy stripes. I took my S down there and they did a super job. Daniel said to me, ‘Don’t tell Bunts (Richmond’s wife) that we haven’t given you a bill!”

At the close of 1964 Fitzpatrick made his first trip to Australia where he toured with Paddy Hopkirk and Rauno Aaltonen. This was mainly a publicity trip (they were looked after by Evan Green) but the team did the 6 hours at Sandown as part of the schedule. Later BMC returned (without Fitzpatrick) to win at Bathurst in the annual 500 “miler”.

The 1965 season had variety, racing for Cooper again and rallying occasionally for Abingdon. John remembers the RAC into MG-bat “a total disaster”, and hilariously recalls his 1965 outing in an 1800 with an ATV man alongside and a third passenger in the back. “At least we had our back seat man until we set out on the mountain circuit deciders as one of only 35 survivors,” John recalled. “Without the man in the back the handling was diabolical, It was undriveable. . . .”

A twinkle of the eyes and Fitzpatrick brushed back grey-peppered hair over a hairline that has receded fractionally to acknowledge the years of crash helmets passing over, before he continued with his tale. “Well, perhaps I was going the a loonie as well! Trying to beat Paddy and Rauno with an 1800. Eventually there were simply no brakes. We teetered on the edge in darkness, not knowing what the drop was, 60 ft. or 600, Luckily it was only about 60 ft., but it took us an hour to get the car out: it was upside down and I remember studying the stream that was running through the open windows and across the roof!”

For 1966 Fitzpatrick made the transition from front drive to rear as Broadspeed aligned themselves with Ford. Quite a shock decision at the time, as the Broad family had dealt with BMC for many years.

Vivid memories include a letter from Henry Taylor, then Ford competitions manager, toward the close of 1966. “It was the year we took the British title with the Anglia. He was apologising that my retainer would be only £1,500 for the next season: the usual stuff about how it would be more next time,” Fitzpatrick remembered with a grin. More sombrely he recalled how Peter Proctor’s accident in an Anglia highlighted the lack of fire protection in saloons of the period. John felt that Proctor’s replacement, the attractive Anita Taylor, was “very good on fast circuits: you had to work very hard indeed if you were going to stay ahead of her. On the slower tracks I think she lacked the sheer strength to get the car round.” Of the change to RWD, one that few top Mini drivers made successfully at the time, John commented that the MG-B had given him some practice, though, “if you got into trouble with a Mini you just put your foot down and pulled yourself out of it. The Anglia was very underpowered (a 1-litre) and had to be driven very smoothly while trying to beat Unett and Calcutt in the Fraser Imps. We really had to fight for the title down to the last race. John Young had to beat Rhodes in the 1,300 class with his Superspeed Anglia and I had to beat the Imps: that is exactly what did happen, but it was a close thing”.

A second season with Broadspeed and the Anglia followed in 1967, John remaining a Broadspeed contracted driver up to the close of 1972, having driven Escorts powered by 1,300 GT, 1.600 Twin Cam and capacities from 1.7-litres to 2.0 in Ford-Cosworth BDA engines. John drove both in Britain and Europe, the overseas contract (1971) was with Ford Köln.

As the Escort grew in cubic capacity and turned into a very sophisticated racing machine with the advent of the BDA engine, coupled to those extensively modified, big wing rolling chassis, Fitzpatrick’s reputation also expanded. No longer content with class-winning John F. was chasing outright victories. Fighting for just that opportunity at the Motor Show 200, closing the 1971 Group 2 season at Brands Hatch, “Fitz” in the immaculate white Broadspeed BDA was harrying Frank Gardner’s SCA 5.7 Camaro ruthlessly. Gerry Birrell could not believe his eyes, for as he nosed his silver Boreham-run Capri RS after the gigantic dust-up going on ahead, Fitzpatrick and Gardner collided. John recalled, “Frank went right into the bridge parapet before Clearways and I destroyed the Escort too. Birrell simply shot through falling wreckage to take his last lap victory, and the only one of that Capri’s career in British Championship racing!

However there was much more to it than that, as Fitzpatrick told us. “The irony was Frank and I had just been on holiday to Marbella with our respective families. We had spent the whole time as the best of mates, telling each other how fast our cars were and how we would blow each other off when we got home. . . . Ralph had also sold the Escort prior to the race but there wasn’t much left to offer afterwards!”

The German Connection

The Fitzpatrick name was known in Europe from various forays in the sixties with both Minis and Anglias, but class winners normally do not get the big offers. Thus when John was offered other cars he took them up gratefully. While we thought of him mainly in the Broadspeed connection from 1966-72, he was piling up the miles in cars as diverse as the 250 LM Ferrari (“beautiful light steering and handled well”, he commented, though he did end up in a ditch in one at Brands during the 1967 1,000km!), plus Bill Bradley’s fuel injected 910 Porsche, and Ben Pon’s Porsche 911. The latter was a significant outing in the 1967 Nürburgring 6 hours, for the car and Pon were very competitive. John also showed up well, though Lucien Bianchi’s Alfa GTA was the winner. It gave some of the Germans competing in their home race, the biggest motor sporting event in Germany outside the GP, an idea of what the quiet Englishman was capable of in a faster car.

John remembers the 911s of that era as “very tail-happy, very much over-steering cars on the narrow wheels they had then and we didn’t have slicks either. Pon was very quick in it, faster than Stommelen, Minter or Neerpasch”.

John also drove a small-rear-engine design, the Abarth 1000 Berlioz, and remembers one race in 1966 particularly well. “It was at Snetterton, and my team-mates included Alan Rees, Johannes Ortner and Giancarlo Baghetti. Rees had a car without belts in, I insisted on having them in my car, and Alan rolled hard enough to hurt himself. Signor Avidano (who manages Abarth for Fiat today, was team manager and he said it didn’t matter who won.

“It poured with rain and I knew which way Snetterton went, so off I went, miles in the lead. I came in for a pit stop and it was a really leisurely affair. People wandered about cleaning the totem and making sure the others caught me up. I was so mad, when I did get out there, I spun twice on the first lap!” When John did calm down a little he forged back into the lead again, innocently saying afterwards that the rain was so heavy he didn’t see the final lap pit board asking him to slow down for the other Fiat-Abarths.

Another team manager’s decision, this tone towards the end of 1971, decided John’s German’s career. “I was in the Cologne Escort at Jarama, the last round of the European Championship, sharing with Jochen Mass. The car was quicker than the Capris — in fact it started off the season quicker as well, but I think it was never developed in Germany because they wanted the Capri to win. Earlier in the year we had the flywheel fall off four times in a row, so I don’t think they cared much for our little Escort. Anyway we were doing well at Jarama, and it was obvious we were going to win when Neerpasch suddenly ordered that I be pulled out to be replaced by Mass, who had been asked to go slower and let the Capris win. [Ford in Cologne recall that Mass still had a chance of improving his European Championship position — J.W.) I was not at all happy about this, and I let Neerpasch know it: after a lot of to and froing before the 1972 season, I think this was the main reason I did not get to drive for Ford Cologne again until 1973.”

Fitzpatrick started 1972 with an outing at Daytona in John Buffum’s Broadspeed-built Escort, Buffum now a regular rally performer who appeared in Britain driving the Leyland TR7 on last year’s RAC. At Daytona John Fitzpatrick met up again with Erwin Kremer, who he had driven against when he was in the Pon 911, and who continued to support the Porsche marque. Kremer particularly remembered John’s performances in the Escort and the Pon 911.

Thus it was that John Fitzpatrick appeared at a wet Nürburgring for his first appearance with the Kremer Porsche camp. As in all good stories, John won that first race comfortably, but even then he would have been surprised to learn that, with the exception of a couple of years, the Stuttgart marque and the German Championship, or European series, were to provide such a consistent living.

In 1972 he went on to secure both the Porsche Cup and European title for Kremer’s two-car team, but he also struck a very significant blow against Ford as well. When Neerpasch and Braungart moved from Ford to BMW they decided on supporting the private BMW runners in the fight against the Ford Capris, now run by Michael Kranefuss. This meant John’s win with Stommelen and Heyer in the 1972 Nurburgring 6 hours was pretty important, not least for the Schnitzer brothers, who ran the silver BMW CSi. For the first time that season the Capris had been beaten, and on home ground.

Fitzpatrick had started the year intending to drive the Broadspeed/Cooper Car Co. BMW coupe, which Motor Sport tested, as it did the Broadspeed Escort BDA of the previous season, but that was axed after providing an encouraging third place at a snowy Salzburgring.

“Fitz” took up the story of 1973 with an admission, “I made a big mistake. Porsche had decided to develop the Carrera (it appeared under Martini sponsorship in silver primarily) and asked me to drive. I thought they would only do a couple of races and so I chose the offer from Ford, because I knew I would get at least the European Touring Car Championship races, plus Le Mans. As it turned out Porsche did a lot more than they had originally planned. I think I would have gone on to a couple of years in the 936s with a real chance of winning Le Mans, which is still one of my ambitions. That was a big error, but I did try and do both . . . Ford would not agree to me driving the factory Porsche on the one occasion that the dates did clash, though.”

Forthrightly John explained the 1973 season, one in which the now 3-litre Cologne-prepared Capris went under to the Munich BMWs. “That year the Capri was simply the worst car I have driven. It used to two-wheel everywhere: there was no feeling in the brakes, steering, or anything! As soon as the BMWs appeared with their wings that was that, we had no chance.

“I remember that famous incident where Frank Gardner tried the Capri at Silverstone and said what a pig it was. They said it was the axle out of alignment, bull couldn’t feel any difference when they said they’d put it right! Even Jackie Stewart, when he drove at Monza, came back and said he could not slide it accurately so there was no information he could give them on the car.”

Despite the disappointments of 1973 Fitzpatrick was expecting to sign with Ford again in 1974, but the completed contract was never counter-signed by the German PR chief of the period, necessary to make it valid. Fitzpatrick finally forced the issue and discovered how embarrassed the company were by the fuel crisis, running two cars in a reduced programme. “So I got in my car and went back into Cologne itself to find Georg Loos and his office. I had a letter from Georg the day before I left for Cologne, asking what I was doing.

“Now Loos had never signed a driver before for his Porsche and the arrangement was the same as for Kremer. Share the long distance races and have my own car for the German Championship sprint events.

“I came second, first in the first two races with the Loos Porsche. When it came to sharing, Georg was incredibly slow, which I had half expected anyway, but it was so upsetting for him that we had terrible problems.” Fitzpatrick grinned cheerfully and recounted how he quit in mid-season and went back to Kremer. “Then Kremer gave me a bad engine deliberately so that his other driver, Paul Keller (who had promised a lot of money for the following season, could win the title that year. I went back to Loos, and never had the same problems with Georg again: I think he actually respected me more for walking out on him, because people simply don’t do that to Georg Loos.”

In fact Fitzpatrick spent the 1975, 78 and 79 seasons with Loos, leaving 1976 to the Hermetite Group 5 BMW 3.5 CSL. The 1977 season was to be split between Jaguar and a return to the Kremer Porsche fold.

Over those years appearing in Germany, Fitzpatrick has become immensely popular. As well as running consistently in the top three, John’s able command of German made for much better relationships all round: in fact when Jaguar were appearing at the ring in 1977 John provided commentary in German as well as driving (briefly!). This was really another example of liking what he could do well, for five years’ German at school left him willing to try the language out from his first drives with the Cologne Escort. “It seems to be some kind of class thing. The managers usually speak English in the German teams, but the mechanics do not, so I tried it out first on the Ford boys. With Kremer it was essential and I found it a natural thing to do thereafter.”

Fitzpatrick’s opinions of the machines he drove after the Capris included the observation that the 1978 Group 5 BMWs were, “well engineered and easier to drive than the Group 2 BMWs had beet, simply because they had more grip for braking and cornering. We had some fantastic races in the car. The bad luck of leading for so long at Zeltweg and the Ring was made up for by the win at Silverstone, when Wollek was hammering after us in the Kremer Porsche all the way to the line.

“I did Kyalami with Ronnie Peterson and enjoyed that. He was just so easy to share with — letting you go out and set the car up, and he’d drive it just as it was, seat and all, and simply go like hell. Kyalami is a good track too, which helped,” John concluded.

It is easy to think that Fitzpatrick grew up with the turbo Porsche 934 and 935 models, but he actually missed the first year (1976), that these magnificent machines were available. In 1977 he joined Kremer again as team-mate to Bob Wollek, and recorded, “All the other drivers had got used to them, but it took me two or three races to get used to the Porsche-turbo. It was just so incredibly quick. They ‘only’ had 600 b.h.p then (the 1980 3.2-litre, twin turbo, Kremer Porsches that Fitzpatrick will race have au anticipated 825 b.h.p. at 8,200 rpm!) but the acceleration was so uneven. You seemed to have not enough power when needed and bags too much when you didn’t!

“The handling hasn’t changed much but the brakes are incredible for a car that weighs about a ton. If you want to turn a quick lap at Le Mans you wind the 935 twin turbo up to 225 m.p.h. and brake at the end of Mulsanne to something like 25 m.p.h. or so for the first-gear corner. You brake at the 200-metre board, so you can knock 200 m.p.h. off in the same number of metres, roughly!”

The new generation of twin-turbo 935s built by Kremer will cost about £100,000 each. The 3.2-litre flat-six engines cost some £30,000 of that total, which is one of the reasons Fitzpatrick foresees no slackening in demand for the services of experienced drivers like himself. Indeed the two-year-old car that enjoyed so much success for Loos in long distance races was sold at the end of 1979 for £61,538 at December 1979 exchange rates, a regret to John, but he would have liked to have bought that one for himself. There is no Fitzpatrick racing car collection, but he would like to have started it with such a car. He recalls it proved capable of 0-124 m.p.h. in 9.2 secs. When he drove it for one of the German magazines! That’s about the kind of elapsed time you would expect for a sporting car like the 2.0 Alfetta GTV or BMW 320/6 to lurch from rest to 60 mph.

Talking of the German championship in general, Fitzpatrick’s impressions were that the best year had been 1978 with Loos running three 935s against opposition that included Manfred Schurti in the Jägermeister 935, Bob Wollek in the Kremer Porsche and Rolf Stommelen in the Schnitzer Toyota. “This year Klaus Ludwig and the Kremer car just disappeared into the distance. If he had wanted to, I think Ludwig could have run 1½ secs. a lap faster than the rest of us, for the Kremer car had a horsepower advantage from the air intercooler arrangement (our water system got hot after a couple of laps), plus a different rear suspension that allowed the use of softer springs. Kremer also had a Kevlar body of superior aerodynamic values to our Porsche arrangements. We even asked the Renault aerodynamicist what was wrong and he simply said the Kremer was in a different class to us for downforce and drag. There was probably a 100 lb. weight penalty as well on our cars, but the real point was that, whatever Loos tried — 3.3-litre engines, trick bodies, air coolers, and so on — we did not go any faster. In fact I could go as fast as our Porsche-developed car in that two-year-old one. Perhaps the Porsche people didn’t really need to try very hard: after all they would just be beating another customer.”

Talking about the series in general, Fitzpatrick thought, “The coverage from press and TV is exceptional. Remember this is the premier series in Germany. High spot of the year is Norisring (his favourite is Nürburgring) where 80,000 people plus the TV make sure it is a big occasion. The low spot is racing around oil drums at Diepholz airfield. I don’t know why the entrants go in such expensive cars: we lost half the body this year, you’ve just nothing to judge on and the track is so rough . . . and it’s not the only airfield track like that in the series.

“I think the two-class racing is easier for the public to understand than the kind of multi-class saloon car racing we have here, the smallest class nearly always providing the champion while the big cars knock themselves out trying to win outright.” We understand from a recent German trip that there is a proposal to bring the German series down to 2-litres only (but with the turbocharging factor of 1.4 it could actually be 2.8 or 3-litres for convenience) and John was all for that idea.

Fitzpatrick was plainly appalled by the low crowds at some British championship rounds (he did part of the 1978 season in a Dolomite Group 1 with a self-confessed lack of success) and he also found that the spectators in Germany tended to be more knowledgeable than their British counterparts.

However it’s not a case of Deutschland uber alles so far as Fitzpatrick is concerned. “I am moving to America because I think the may that their IMSA and TransAm series, plus the World Drivers’ Cup is developing, is the better way for my career. American drivers tend to have more money themselves, rather than be just dependent on sponsors, as they must be in Germany.”

I asked a series of “biggest” questions next, beginning with, “What was the biggest disappointment in your career?” The reply was prompt: “When Leyland stopped the Jaguars racing. I have always won some races in the cars I have driven regularly and I was sorry this did not happen with those cars. They were competitive, and we should have won the 1977 TT, in my opinion, if the team management had pulled Andy Rouse out and put in either myself (I had not driven that day and was fresh) or Derek Bell. That is no reflection on Andy: he was as fast, if not faster than the rest of us in testing and light traffic conditions, but I believe experience would have helped drive such a big fast car through comparatively heavy traffic, while under enormous psychological pressure to win.

“There was another factor too. Ralph must have had a dream, or something, during the nights before the race. For official practice we found the car, would not handle, they just understeered the pigs everywhere. On race morning the drivers were told that he had put in a 100 per cent locked differential!

“Even as a coupé the car was fast— 10 seconds a lap faster than the BMWs at Brno — and I think the XJ-S version would have taken advantage of all the lessons we had learned in a short time and brought BL the European Championship in 1978. The problem was that the Leyland people in charge of the Jaguar project could see a change in top management coming and were frightened of their jobs.

“The Jag was nice to drive normally, especially at the ‘Ring, funnily enough. The regulations meant that the brakes were not big enough, so it just took a long time to stop — and the tyre size regulations also meant that we got quite a bit of oversteer and heat.”

Turning to the biggest “moment” of his driving life brought little change in subject, for it was in the Jaguar at Brno. “I ran over some debris at what Ralph said was 175 m.p.h. and a back tyre blew. It took me about a mile to gather it up as it shot sideways and everyway.”

Biggest and best victories? As Mario Andretti once said to a colleague in a slow drawl, “Friend, every race you win is a good race,” and John obviously feels the same. “Bathurst in 1976 with the Australian Hodgson team was super. The lead was changing all the time and things were happening to change the course of the race.

“Then there was that six hours with the Schnitzer BMW, that was nice and so was Watkins Glen in 1978. There I had a terrific dice with Stommelen and got by him fair and square. I was very pleased about that because I also had the door missing, which may not sound much, just a bit of glassfibre, but it really is disconcerting seeing bits of wheels and stuff coming at you in a touring car. I caught 20 seconds up on Rolf to do that, so it was really satisfying,” concluded this Briton who has exported his talents so effectively in a rather neglected avenue of modern racing.

March 1980 will see the Fitzpatricks move from Henley-in-Arden to San Diego, John’s 11-year-old daughter having finished her school term and his wife Barbara looking forward to the change. Dick Barbour and his Porsche service and repair shop at San Jose with four full time racing mechanics will be the base for John’s racing activities. The affable Barbour has invested a probable quarter million sterling-plus in equipment for the two car team that will contest some of the long distance races outside America as well. Le Mans looks like a potential certainty: having led in 1979 Fitzpatrick is really hoping for that victory to set a seal on his new life. — J.W.