1968:Final season, last works driver
Vic Elford was a rally star, but F1 is where he wanted to be. Delighted to be given his chance by Cooper, he discovered a once-great team on the verge of extinction
It was 1968. I had already won that year’s Monte Carlo Rally, Daytona 24 Hours, Targa Florio and Nurburgring 1000Km — but only now was I about to realise my true dream: to race in Formula One. Having followed a tortuous route — a decade of rallying that began with me acting as a co-driver because I couldn’t afford a car, followed by touring car and sportscar racing — the French Grand Prix at Rouen would be only my third outing in a single-seater.
This drive had come about via months of me bugging BRM team manager Tim Parnell for a test. So how come I made my GP debut in a Cooper? Well, as I stepped out of one of Tim’s cars on a cold grey day at Silverstone John Cooper, in his laid-back fashion, said: “Since you’re here, would you like to try the Cooper as well?” Two F1 cars in one day! I was beginning to think that I had died and gone to heaven.
But the euphoria didn’t last long. Compared to the BRM, which had been neat, tidy, compact and beautifully balanced, that Cooper T86B-BRM felt big, heavy and ungainly. Its cockpit was huge and all sorts of padding had to be stuffed around me until, though still far from comfortable, I was at least able to reach the pedals and steering wheel.
My first few laps consisted of establishing some sort of compromise between my level of physical comfort and a feel for the balance of the car. Having spent the previous 18 months driving Porsche 911s, then progressing through 906,910 and 907 to 908, driving a rear-engined car should have presented no problem. But the Cooper was a dinosaur.
The ‘hot’ new idea in the F1 paddock at the time was anti-dive, anti-squat suspension. The theory was admirable. Unfortunately, at least on the Cooper, it didn’t work. Because there was very little weight transfer to the front under braking, the car didn’t stop as well as it should, nor would it turn in. Instead it had massive understeer until you (hopefully) reached the apex, followed by a great oversteering slide as you attempted to power out of the corner, a corresponding lack of weight transfer to the rear meaning that the tyres were not firmly planted to the road.
My other big problem was the steering. It was incredibly heavy and totally without feel. A delicate transition into and out of a corner was impossible unless you had the arm muscles of a truck driver. I had developed a reputation as a good test driver at Porsche, but try as I might, I could make no noticeable difference to that Cooper.
It had not been an uplifting experience. But I must have done okay, because when I pulled into the paddock, John was all smiles: “How would you like to drive for us for the rest of the year? I’ll pay you £200 per race, plus expenses.” I was so ecstatic that it didn’t occur to me to haggle for more. “First race is the French Grand Prix on July 7. See you in the paddock on the Thursday before the race.” And with that John was gone. No more testing, no more practice, just turn up for the race.
I had been to Rouen once before, driving a Lotus-Cortina on the Tour de France, which was just as well because I wouldn’t even have the chance to do laps at touring-car speeds to refresh my memory.
I struggled throughout practice and qualifying, and lined up last on the grid. I sat there feeling miserable at the prospect of trailing around behind everyone else and of trying to keep out their way as they came up to lap me. But then the heavens smiled down on me. The rest of the field just thought it was pouring with rain, of course.
I loved driving in the rain, plus it would even out my lack of F1 experience and take away the physical effort of driving that Cooper.
I chose to start on intermediates in case it dried out and set off in a huge ball of spray. By the end of the first lap I was already up to 14th (from 17 starters). After only three laps, I was 10th. Heady stuff. I settled down thereafter and tried to concentrate on driving each lap against the stopwatch rather than against the other drivers, and apart from one harmless spin and a spectacular excursion into the gaggle of photographers standing on the grass at the hairpin, my race was ‘relatively’ uneventful. I finished fourth. If only I had started on full rain tyres…
Three weeks later I was at Brands for the British GP. I moved up fairly rapidly to 10th before a bang behind me signalled that a big-end bolt had broken, and that my race was run.
Next up was the German GP at my favourite track, the Nurburgring. With two 84-hour Marathons at the circuit under my belt, as well as one third place and one first in the 1000km, I felt confident that few, if any, knew its 14 miles as well as I. And that experience showed when I qualified the unwieldy Cooper fifth. My team-mate Lucien Bianchi was on the back row. Sadly, I made a lousy start, which I tried to make up for with a stupid first-lap outbraking manoeuvre on Jack Brabham. Not surprisingly, I had the door slammed in my face and I spun to an inglorious halt against a fence.
I went off in Italy, too, but this time it wasn’t my fault. While ferociously dicing for last with Jo Bonnier’s McLaren on the second lap, I tried to outbrake him at the Parabolica. I pressed hard on the middle pedal but careered at undiminished speed into the sand trap. I traipsed to the pits, where I discovered that the team’s chief engineer had forgotten to tell me about the new pads that had been fitted overnight.
I finished fifth in Canada, retired in America and was eighth in Mexico. The season was over, but John, who had rather got left behind in the rush for sponsorship, seemed to be making reasonable progress in this direction, while I tested an updated version of the car in readiness for 1969. If things went well, it was meant to be powered by a new Alfa Romeo engine.
Unfortunately, things did not go well: there was no sponsorship, no Alfa Romeo engine and, saddest of all, no John and no Cooper in F1 in 1969. Lucien and I, as it tumed out, had been Cooper’s last works drivers.
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