Mirage Racing

At the beginning of 1967 John Wyer formed a company with John WilIment named J.W. Automotive Engineering, and it comprised the racing departments of Ford Advanced Vehicles and John Willment Racing, two firms who had been part of the Ford-in-Europe racing scene. With the facilities of the ex-F.A.V. workshops at Slough and the Willment tuning establishment at Twickenham, J.W. Automotive Engineering were well equipped and they took on the racing programme for the Gulf Oil Corporation of Pittsburg, who wanted to spread the Gulf name further throughout Europe by means of racing publicity. As all the movements were within the close little world of Group 6 and Group 4 long-distance racing there was a natural overlapping of knowledge and facilities with the 1966 Ford GT40 programme at Slough and David Yorke took on the job of team Manager, having been running the two-car Essex Wire Team for Skip Scott and been closely associated with Wyer and F.A.V.

Gulf petrol is widely known in America, and in Europe it has quite a firm foothold in Belgium. Holland and Switzerland, their dark blue and orange petrol stations being familiar to European travellers. Taking the standard Ford GT40 as a basis a new car was built with a lighter and sleeker bodywork, larger ventilated disc brakes were fitted and a Ford V8 engine, with longer-throw crankshaft, was used. As the prototype of this improved GT40 was not ready until the Le Mans Test Weekend, a normal Group 4 GT40 was run at Daytona for the 24-hour race, and Sebring for the 12-hour race, with Dick Thompson and Ickx driving at the former, and Thompson and Lowther at the latter. Thompson came from America, more or less via the Gulf company, and Yorke gathered young lckx into the fold, with Piper and Rees being lined up for the two-car team of new "Mirage" cars. The name "Mirage" was chosen as being significant in France and easy for the French to pronounce, the Le Mans race being one of Gulf's major objectives. In the American races the GT40 had been painted the dark blue and orange colours of the European Gulf stations, but the "Mirage" was painted pale blue, with an orange stripe, the colours of the Californian Gulf petrol stations. Piper and Attwood did the driving at Le Mans test weekend as Ickx and Rees were busy with Formula Two racing. A second "Mirage" was completed in time for the Monza 1,000-kilometre and though the cars were fast they were plagued by small troubles, the Ickx car having an ignition wire fracture inside the distributor assembly which took a lot of finding. By the time the Spa 1,000-kilometre race took place a third "Mirage" was built, the scheme being to run a two-car team, ringing the changes on the three cars. The new car was fitted with a 5.7-litre Holman and Moody tuned Ford V8 engine, which did not give the power claimed for it, but it was reliable and allowed lckx and Thompson to chalk up a convincing victory in the pouring rain. The car was only completed the day before practice and ran faultlessly, and Alan Rees made a brief appearance with the team but was not fast enough and was dropped, to be replaced by Attwood at the Nurburgring 1,000-kilometre race. For this event the second car was using a Gurney-Weslake Ford V8 engine, with special Weslake aluminium cylinder heads. Unfortunately Thompson had a lurid accident in practice, which would not have done too much damage except that another car had already crashed at the same corner, and when Thompson crashed, the "Mirage" collected this other car and apart from the engine, gearbox and odd bits and pieces, was a write-off and was never rebuilt. The Holman and Moody powered car was well in the running during the race, driven by Ickx and Attwood when it suffered impact punctures in both right-hand Firestone tyres simultaneously as it was crossing the Breidscheid bridge and this put it out of the race.

The team were now back to two cars and for Le Mans both used 5.7-litre Holman and Moody tuned Ford V8 engines, giving a very bare 400 b.h.p. and in practice they showed signs of being unreliable, so before the race they were removed and the oversize 4.7-litre or 289 cu. in. engines were installed. This was a false move as both cars went out with engine trouble early in the race. The original plan was to finish the season with the Le Mans race so Piper and Attwood left the team, but then it was decided to go in for some further races. The next one was the B.O.A.C. 500 at Brands Hatch and as Ickx was not available Thompson took the lone entry. The South African driver de Klerk was given a try-out but was not fast enough, and Pedro Rodriguez was co-opted into the team. Thompson had another accident, this time during the race and the "Mirage" was badly bent against the bank at Clearways. In order to spread the Gulf gospel in Sweden the two cars had been entered for a small race at Karlskoga the week after Brands Hatch so there was some frenzied non-stop work to get the bent car repaired in time. The Swedish race was not a very big affair and both cars used the 5.7-litre Holman and Moody Ford V8 engines, which by this time were giving 410-415 b.h.p. after some extensive attention on the Willment dynamometer at Twickenham. Bonnier joined Ickx for the Karlskoga race and they finished first and second, the Belgian boy leading. The team ran at another small race at Skarpnak, near Stockholm and this time Bonnier won, with the other car second driven by Hawkins, who was being given a try-out as Ickx was away at a Formula Two race. These two small races were taken in more or less for Swedish publicity purposes and more than justified their existence.

At the end of the season Ickx and Hawkins were paired together for the Paris 1,000-kilometre race at Montlhéry, which they won and then a car was sent to Africa for the Kyalami 9-hour race. As Hawkins was doing a South African tour with his own car he could not drive the "Mirage" so David Yorke signed up Brian Redman. The previous Autumn he had seen Redman going very fast round Oulton Park in the T70 Lola belonging to Red Rose Motors, during a private test session and had marked him down as a likely lad. In South Africa he drove very competently, being a strong number two driver to Ickx, and they won the 9 hours race, and this got Redman a permanent place in the "Mirage" team.

Like all entrants Gulf Oil would have liked to have done well at Le Mans, or as second best, the Nurburgring 1,000 kilometres, but in spite of failing in both events they were not dispirited for the victory at Spa did a great deal of good, and this was backed up by the victories at Montlhéry and Kyalami, with the two little Swedish wins thrown in for good measure. Three outright wins in long-distance events with two short race wins justified all the effort for Gulf Oil and the team is continuing in the same form for 1968. Naturally the 5.7-litre engined cars are now obsolete, with the 3-litre engine capacity limit imposed by the F.I.A., so one car has been converted back into a Group 4 GT40 and one has been retained as a 5.7-litre "Mirage" Ford and will be kept for publicity purposes and the occasional small race where over 3-litre engines are permitted. For the serious long-distance events of 1968 new cars are being built, designed by Len Terry and using the 3-litre B.R.M. V12 engine, which B.R.M. said all along was a sports car engine, not a Grand Prix engine. Young Jacky Ickx will again lead the team, teamed with Redman, while Hawkins and A.N. Other will take the second car. Obviously the new cars cannot be ready for the Daytona 24-hour race in February, and probably not for Sebring either, so in those races the team will run a Group 4 Ford GT40, probably for Ickx and Redman, who seem to be a well balanced pair of drivers.

For a first attempt at motor racing the Gulf sponsored "Mirage" team had a fair season, albeit with seasoned staff running the team, and seasoned mechanics looking after the cars and it will be interesting to follow the progress of the new 12-cylinder cars, which will carry the blue and orange colours of the Gulf Oil Corporation of Pittsburg.—D. S. J.