When the mist lifted
Gregor Grant’s reports of David Piper’s crash at a foggy Snetterton in 1964 caused a minor panic
Gregor Grant, founding editor of Autosport magazine, was a great character, almost universally well liked, and equally universally renowned as a terrible old fibber. Nick Syrett, towering secretary of the British Racing & Sports Car Club from his mid-twenties, encountered an agitated Gregor in the Snetterton pits as a chilly September dusk closed over the 1964 Autosport Three Hours race there.
In those days the Snetterton Three Hours was Britain’s only day-into-night event, and it was quite a novelty, attracting a decent entry. That 1964 edition was actually won by Jack Sears driving the thunderous Willment Cobra Coupe, but the 31-strong field included Roy Salvadori in Tommy Atkins’ 5-litre Cooper MonacoMaserati V8, Ferrari 250LMs for Graham Hill and David Piper, Chris Amon in a Cobra roadster, Frank Gardner’s Team Elite BrabhamClimax, ‘Lightweight’ E-type Jaguars, and much more.
The trouble was that a downpour flooded the circuit just before the start and, after drying mid-race, as the dusk drew in and the atmosphere chilled, a bank of fog developed over the fields flanking the circuit and then slowly enveloped the Norwich Straight. When Nick — who was not directly involved in running the race but was there more or less as a detached spectator — encountered an obviously excited Gregor, the veteran Scottish journalist bawled, “Och, Nick — have you heard the news? It’s chaos at the Hairpin. David Piper’s Ferrari has crashed over the bank into the crowd. There’s three or four dead and many more injured. Piper’s been rushed to hospital, alive but critical!”
Nick was shocked, of course, and he rushed to race control to check what had happened. The atmosphere within was peace and calm. “Gregor Grant’s just told me it’s chaos at the Hairpin. Piper’s Ferrari has gone into the crowd. There are dead and injured.” To his surprise — and immense relief — the response was along the lines of “Nah — David’s not too bad, but he has been taken to Norwich Hospital. He did crash at the Hairpin but his car didn’t go into the crowd. Whoever told you that?”
In fact, as David recalls: “I was feeling quite brave that day and as the track had dried out I was going very quickly in the LM even when the fog rolled in. I found that the point at which I popped out of the murk on each lap was leaving a good 150 yards or more before I had to brake for the Hairpin. This was fine for lap after lap and so I got very bold blinding through the fog. Unfortunately, unknown to me, the wind then got up and the next time I burst out of the fog I was only about 15-20 yards from the corner with the safety bank rushing up. I just had time to spin it and go in backwards, but it made a terrible mess of the old LM, and compressed the vertebrae in my lower back, which was pretty uncomfortable. So they whisked me off to hospital, where [former F2 and Junior driver] Mike McKee’s father was senior surgeon, and he sorted me out.”
Syrett, meanwhile, returned to the pits where he found Grant telling his story to anyone else who would listen — doom, doom, like Private Fraser in Dad’s Army, and he was able to put him right. “Och, that’s a relief,” beamed Gregor, completely unfazed, and adding, “But isn’t it terrible — these days you just can’t believe a word you are told.”
‘Pipes’ recovered quite quickly — although the legacy of that injury has haunted him in recent years — but his LM was essentially a write-off. Its engine, transmission and other salvageable bits would be re-assembled into a replacement frame but this would take time. Meanwhile he was intent upon driving in the South African Kyalami 9 Hours which he had won twice in succession, in 1962-63 — so was on the verge of a significant hat-trick. “And Ronnie Hoare of Maranello Concessionaires came to my rescue. He offered me the loan of their LM, entirely free of charge. It was an amazing gesture that I have never forgotten and for which I have always been grateful. It was only four weeks after Snetterton, I shared the car there with Tony Maggs, and we won for the third time. That was absolutely typical of the Colonel, loaning us his car like that… He was a great sportsman, a great gentleman, and he always went racing in terrific style.”
When Jimmy borrowed Jackie’s car
Jackie Oliver is a Jim Clark fan. In a reflective moment he will readily pay tribute to that remarkable man. “He wasn’t just special as a driver he really was a very special bloke. He always came across as being simply unaware that hardly any of us could really match him. And unlike some of the best drivers, he always seemed willing to share information and to encourage us younger guys to do better. And he was double World Champion. It was amazing.”
As an extremely junior recruit in 1966, Jackie was driving the Lotus Components-entered F3 car. During one test session at Snefferton he recalls: “Jim stopped by on his way from a visit to the factory, just to see if anyone was out testing. Jim Endruweit was running the car and after some discussion he asked me if I’d mind Jimmy having a go? Well, I was just about lost for words with him around, so I just nodded and mumbled ‘Yes of course… delighted’. But then Jimmy pointed out that he didn’t have any kit with him and asked if he could borrow my crash helmet.
“Now, I’ve always had a big head as people a as might tell you and I told him it might not fit, but he tried it on and it turned out his head was the same size. So he put on my crash helmet and goggles, kicked off his shoes to drive in his socks and tucked his trousers into the top of his socks. And he climbed into my car and went out for a couple of bog-slow laps… and then put one in about a second faster than my best ever.
“And I just thought “”””! How does he do that?” Jackie had originally adopted his now-familiar maroon crash helmet colour to match the Lotus Elan 26R in which he had first shown real promise. “I used to wear it with a white peak, but when I began driving the Formula 2 Lotus 48, black-andwhite photos made me look like Jim Clark with his dark blue helmet and white peak. That’s why I began wearing a peak with alternate maroon and white bands instead.”
The Romford racer’s father ran Essex Refrigeration and had financed Jackie’s early career. Their home garage always housed “flash cars” and Jackie had driven his dad’s MercedesBenz 30051_ Gullwing in the Stapleford hillclimb when still only 15. “I must have been a right pain in the arse,” he recalls. “In my teens I’d often take out something nice like a Maserati or Aston Martin in the middle of the night, and do 120mph with my mates down the Southend road…”
This background gave him the independence and carefree confidence that he’s always exhibited in spades. But when he was first recruited by Colin Chapman for whom he had, and retains, the most immense respect he was pretty much tongue-tied (most of the time) and almost deferential. “I just naturally called him ‘Sir’. He’d tell me ‘OK, Lad, I want you to do five laps, just to bed in the brakes’, and I’d say ‘Yes, sir’…
“This went on for some time until eventually I called him ‘Sir’ once too often and he snorted and said ‘Look, don’t keep calling me Sir. I’m not Sir just call me Colin.”
And instantly the inherent well-heeled Essex boy self-confidence bubbled to the surface, as Jackie retorted: “OK, Colin. But only if you stop calling me Lad…”