Farewell to a modest man

After 27 years as President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, the Hon. Gerald Lascelles is heading for Bergerac, snooker and his 4,000 jazz records

These days motorsport is big business dominated by the need for maximum publicity, yet behind the scenes the quiet men still lurk to whom the satisfaction of a job well done far outweighs the volume of any tone others might pursue when blowing their own trumpets. The Hon. Gerald Lascelles, the Queen’s cousin and, since 1964, the President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, is such a figure. Always in the background, shunning the spotlight, his true achievements will only come to be appreciated by those outside the BRDC and Silverstone as he now heads for retirement.

His passion for the sport was really fuelled during WW2 when he was serving with Tony Rolt, who would go on to two Le Mans victories for Jaguar, and it has endured ever since.

“He was in prison through most of the war, part of the time in Colditz. I happened to be posted to his company, which was a great stroke of luck. We spent many a long evening, mostly in Germany with the army of occupation at that stage, and I really got to know him quite well. I was at school when the war began and I didn’t know all that much about motor racing. I knew a bit, I suppose, but I’d never been to Brooklands or anything like that. It was more of a schoolboy interest at that time. I realised that he was very much involved, and it was great getting information from him rather than from someone who was on the fringe.”

When he was demobilised he was thus inspired to join the West Essex Car Club, becoming a keen marshal and an avid spectator. He even enjoyed a brief, and by his own admission unspectacular, career as a competitor.

“I never raced seriously; I was strictly an amateur. I joined a car club; I think I joined the BARC to be exact, in 1949. Then I did the odd things with them, a few rallies, in the early Fifties. I bought an MG in ’51 and raced it in ’52. I went to my first motor race at Goodwood, Easter Monday 1950, then I went to the Grand Prix that year. That was when I got bitten. There was a huge crowd and we arrived late! And, you know, that race remains the first time that a monarch has ever attended a British motor race. All the dignitaries wore bowler hats!”

Before long he joined the BRDC, racing his Jowett Jupiter in the Silverstone Six Hour race in 1956. “It was a process of erosion, really! I used to go up there for meetings, and then I got to know more and more people and somebody said. ‘Why don’t you come and do a bit of marshalling?’, that sort of thing. Then they asked me to judge up at OuIton Park in the days when they ran the Empire Trophy. And then they asked me if I wanted to become an honorary member. It was certainly not done because of my driving prowess! I’d given up racing by then. I had a very short career, really only two years. It was thoroughly disapproved of by my family, and was curtailed by lack of money.

“When I was trying to race I was working at Ford and they didn’t pay big money in those days. I was what they called a management trainee. I went right through the works and finished up in the purchasing department. Then I worked for Aston Martin for three years, and that was much more interesting!”

“I was there from ’52 to ’54, doing a variety of things. First I was p.a. to the general manager, then we started running down production at FeItham because of the move to Newport Pagnell. We worked in the racing department at Feltham but then the whole of the management was restructured and I became the buyer down there. For all the experimental and service things, which included the racing department. I got to know John Wyer pretty well during that period, naturally, and I used to go back and help him out at the various meetings, timekeeping in the pits or whatever. Signalling down at Mulsanne at Le Mans in the years after 1955 and the big accident. I think I worked for Astons in the pits for about 10 years.

“I’d given up working for Astons as such, but I was there at Le Mans the year of the accident. I was actually up in the Welkomm at the time of it, and it happened almost right opposite the Aston pits. I’d just been doing my first stint of timekeeping, and if I hadn’t gone to the Welkomrn I’d have been right in front of the whole thing. Nobody in our pit came to any harm, but it was a very unpleasant experience, bad enough as it was.

“There was panic immediately afterwards, but it subsided fairly quickly. Some were still apt to be a bit panicky, but the people who came out of it best were the Boy Scouts. They were marvellous. They did everything they were told to do, in double-quick time,and then it was just a matter of the officials taking over and doing the things that they had to do. It’s something I prefer to forget. I must admit.”

When Lord Howe died the committee asked Lascelles if he would like to take over as President, in 1964. His first duty was to take the chair at all committee meetings as they then were, before the members formed themselves officially into a board. “We were a committee in the old days and I was the chairman, on a monthly stint. Like Lord Howe I also got involved a lot more, I won’t say in the day-to-day running, but certainly in quite a lot of things which had to be decided. John Eason-Gibson was the secretary in those days and we had an office in Down Street. It was just round the corner from the old Steering Wheel Club, so I’d pop round and have an hour with John after lunch talking about the various things that needed deciding. It was a rather strange life in a way, because he used to do a lot of other things besides secretaryship of the BRDC, and if he was very busy he’d shuffle things up the road to Silverstone because Jimmy Brown would get on with them! So there was a certain, shall we say rather illogical, split of work between the two offices sometimes. But it all muddled through somehow, quite happily. We left the circuit to get on with it as much as possible, and in the ’60s Jimmy was already beginning to build up quite a revenue from testing. People had a very amateur view of motor racing then, but teams used to come up, particularly Jaguar and Aston Martin. They used Silverstone a lot.”

In those days few members of the media paid much attention to such endeavours, most of them missing the testing – even the existence of – the Jaguar XJ13 in the process.

The most significant point in the BRDC’s development under Gerald’s presidency was forming the board to run the circuit in 1966. “That was probably the biggest step forward. We really couldn’t do that with 12 people, especially as only half of them would turn up at one meeting and the other half at another because they were busy racing. It was a really wise move, because we were able to control the commercial side much better and to get a logical policy going. We were moving forward step by step rather than jumping in this direction and then perhaps retreating in another, which often used to happen!

“The move came from our financial advisor Peter Hetherington. He put the proposal to me, and then I talked it over with one or two members of the committee just after the Grand Prix. We decided to take the plunge and set up the company, and we never really looked back from then.

“Of course, there were the years when we didn’t have the Grand Prix that the farm made more money than the circuit” in those days there were around 560 acres. “It was a reasonable size but it was not a good farm, because most of the the land within the circuit had been wrecked by being bulldozed to get the flat runways. It was a mixture, half and half arable and grassland, but we couldn’t have free-ranging animals so we had pigs which were kept in the old Nissen huts.” By irony these were later refurbished, “tarted up from the pigs and made nice and comfortable” for occupation by nascent race teams and associated businesses.

“We had a thriving pig farm thanks to Reg Parnell and Jimmy Brown, they really got that going tremendously. Reg was a pig farmer himself in Derbyshire. He knew quite a lot about pigs and he put us straight and Jimmy Brown straight. I never got involved in the day-to-day running of the farm.” Jack Sears, who rather appositely succeeds Gerald as President, was himself a farmer who played a significant role in establishing this side of the business.

Now the farm is much smaller, mainly grassland. The pigs went in 1970, the arable policy in 1980. Such has been the rapid development of the Grand Prix that every one of the 770 acres of land is now desperately needed in July. Does he ever look back and regret that the pace of such change has been so great, that so much has been altered?

“I’m a fairly adaptable sort of person, really,” he says, his response betraying a character that steadfastly refuses to become bogged down in the past. “I accept change when it comes along. We can still run nice friendly meetings at the vintage meetings, or the AMOC meetings, or something like that, where there isn’t too much officialdom and locked gates. When it comes to the Grand Prix it’s super to see the circuit come alive. All the tents go up. Everything gets a new coat of paint and that sort of thing. It’s fascinating to see the transformation.

“I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world where you could have a complete invasion of the crowd on to the circuit at the end of a race, without trouble. No other country would dare run a race after the Grand Prix because they would never get the people off of the track. But at Silverstone, once they’ve done their bit, back they go.” The British tifosi have caught up with their Italian brethren, insofar as they now regularly display their fervour and passion in most uncharacteristic style, but for the most part the manic element is missing and the behaviour is an accepted – and acceptable- part of the festival.

“Yes, and it was John Watson at Silverstone in 1981 who first made the crowd roar! I don’t regret any of the changes we have made at Silverstone, because we have always managed to retain the atmosphere. I think that’s terribly important. You go to some of these foreign circuits – Dijon for example – and there is no atmosphere.”

What has helped Silverstone immeasurably, of course, was the decision in 1986 that the Northamptonshire venue would get the Grand Prix every year, instead of alternating with Brands Hatch. “It had to come, of course, and now every day, virtually, one devotes to something to do with the planning for the next Grand Prix. Now we are more than halfway through the planning for the 1992 race. We never stop. We have a debrief after one race, and then we’re heading into the next. Some of the things, such as booking these mobile grandstands, we have to do from 18 months ahead because we need so many and they’re in relatively short supply.”

Against that background, isn’t he going to find retirement in the Bergerac region of France a trifle on the tame side? “I’m going to take a back seat.” he says warmly, in tones almost approaching relief. There are no regrets, nothing but a keenness to sample the fresh pastures. “I shall come back to Silverstone, I shall come back for the Grand Prix and hopefully for the sportscar meeting if that gets off the ground. Who knows, I might even come back for the Historic meeting too. I like that one.” But what about coping without the now almost daily ‘fix’ of motor racing? Again, there is a comfortable chuckle. “I have so many other things to catch up on and to do, and I shall take an altogether more leisurely approach to life.” Gone now are the hectic days as director of an engineering distribution company based in London, and other directorships which would tie up a couple of days each month, not to mention RAC functions on the Motorsport Council, “which go back as long as I can remember”.

As he now looks back on his career, the Hon. Gerald Lascelles finds himself mainly satisfied with what he has managed to get out of it. “Some things have been a bit disappointing,” he will admit, but the others have been very rewarding.” When you probe a little further into the defences of a modest man, to try and pinpoint the achievement that yielded the greatest satisfaction, he shrinks from the question initially.

“That’s a very difficult one to answer. Very difficult. But I suppose in a way the formation of the circuit board, because that was the springboard for so many other things that we did. We set up subsidiary companies to cover various activities and established profit centres, as they call them now! ”

It is terribly difficult to pinpoint one single thing, but I suppose in a way the turnround of getting Jimmy Brown to come out of his farming shell and really become a moving force in the circuit world was quite an achievement. Because he was a very shy retiring person. He did a lot of background work at a time when perhaps other people took all the kudos, but he was a major force towards the end of his career and he knew a hell of a lot about the business. Probably more than anybody.”

Mention of the ‘feud’ that erupted temporarily between our weekly sister Motoring News and Jimmy Brown over a post-1987 Grand Prix questionnaire prompted a laugh of remembrance from Lascelles, as he recalled Brown’s nature, but as that hatchet was buried Jimmy became a good friend of the newspaper as a relationship forged on mutual respect became re-established. “Yes. he was a great man to work with,” he affirms instantly.

“It has been a very good experience all the way through, working at Silverstone. We’ve had frustrations, obviously, but yes, a great experience in my life.”

It has already become clear that the selection of Tom Walkinshaw to follow in Jimmy Brown’s footsteps as Chairman was an inspired choice, for which Lascelles resolutely refuses to take sole credit. “Nobody in particular chose him, I think we unanimously thought ‘We’ve had a Scotsman before, so why not have another one!’ When he comes to a board meeting he has a tremendous input. He amazes me. So much energy!”

Of the people he worked with over the years, who stuck most in the mind?

“Of the drivers I came into contact with, especially in the early days, Pete Collins when he was driving for Aston. I thought quite a lot of him, he was a lovely man. Super man. I enjoyed reading Chris Nixon’s book very much; I couldn’t put it down. Tony Rolt I got to know pretty well, and I saw something of him when he was in his Ferguson business doing his four-wheel drive adaptations.

“Who else? Reg Parnell I had great respect for. He was a wicked old man sometimes when he wanted to be! Tim, his son, is a good sport, too.”

A big jazz fan, Gerald Lascelles possesses an enviable collection of records that numbers 4,000, and in the Fifties and early Sixties had regular jazz columns in a number of specialist publications. “I also have a great love of snooker, so we are having a table put in at our new home. I’m not an expert, but I enjoy a game of snooker and I enjoy watching it too. I think having interests outside motor racing is important. I think it’s a good thing to be able to switch off and do something else from time to time. But I must admit that my jazz interest has suffered as a result of my motor racing involvement in recent years! There have been a lot of changes, and it has become very sterile music in some ways now, compared to what it used to be. Perhaps I shall spend my time playing snooker while working through my record collection. I shall have a house well plumbed for sound, with music in the kitchen as well as the living room, Wherever I go I can press a button and produce something or other!”

One of the things that saddens him in a way is the almost over-professionalisation of the sport. “The commercial side of motor racing has tended to obscure the sporting side, no doubt about it. There is more formality, but there is also less. Ron Dennis will pick up the phone to Harnish Brown and say. ‘We want to do so and so, can we?’ and it’s all done on a nod, which is nice. But one accepts that if somebody’s got – one doesn’t even talk now of a million dollar team but a megabuck team – they’ve got to take the thing seriously. It’s a huge investment, both technically and cashwise. So you can’t play lightly with them. You’ve got to keep your circuit up to scratch otherwise they won’t come and use it. And the fact that so much Formula One testing is done at Silverstone is a proof that we keep a good house.”

The move to France had been planned for months when it happened just prior to Christmas, with the same blend of meticulous detailing he brought to the presidency. He and his wife bought a ruined chateau in September 1990 and it is now nearing completion ready for full occupation this month. Silverstone will miss his amiable presence, and an enduring modesty that leaves him quite unaware that the very comments he made about Jimmy Brown might equally be applied to himself. DJT