Looking back with Innes Ireland

Whilst planning our schedule for a recent motoring trip round Scotland it occurred to us that we should be within striking distance of the home of one of Scotland’s most colourful racing personalities. Enthusiasts may look back on the 1960s as being the era of the “Scottish twins” Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, but perhaps some of our more youthful readers may not realise that neither of these famous men was the first Scot to win a World Championship Grand Prix. That distinction fell to a rugged former Paratroop Officer named Innes Ireland and his victory in the 1961 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen was also significant for two other reasons. It was the very first such triumph for Colin Chapman’s Team Lotus and the Coventry Climax-engined Lotus 21 he drove was the last 4-cylinder car ever to win a Grand Prix.

It would be fair to say that Ireland’s approach to motor racing belongs to a different age. Now in his mid-forties, this congenial character still maintains an extrovert “devil-may-care” attitude to his everyday life which now centres round a couple of fishing trawlers which he operates out of the tiny Kirkcudbright harbour. On our arrival at his spacious house in the country we discovered that Innes had not yet returned from a fishing expedition off the Scottish coast so we pointed our Vanden Plas Daimler Double-Six towards the tiny estuary to wait the return of our host. The tide was turning rapidly and his wife expressed some concern that if he didn’t turn up pretty quickly there would be no way in which the boat would have enough water in which to dock. Predictably, Ireland’s boat was the very last to return and when the irrepressible Scot spied us watching his progress up the narrow channel he gleefully “spun” his boat twice in the middle of the confined waterway. As a spectating D.S.J. remarked, “Ireland doesn’t change, he’s still spinning.”

Innes Ireland made a relatively late start in the world of motor racing. The son of a Kirkcudbright vetinary surgeon he enrolled as a Rolls-Royce apprentice in Glasgow, his earliest achievement of any distinction being “to blow apart a two stage supercharged Rolls-Royce Merlin aero engine including the back end of the test house as well”.

Even at this early stage, Ireland was proving rather expensive on the machinery he was using and Rolls-Royce felt he might be more gainfully employed at the car end of their operation in London.

An elderly lady friend of the Ireland family generously left Innes an immaculate 3-litre Bentley and the idea of racing occurred to him when he was down in London. Before he could get round to any racing he was called up for National Service and went to Egypt as a member of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. On his return from Egypt he pitched into the world of club racing, the Bentley doubling as his road car at the same rime. “My very first race was the Birkin Memorial Trophy at Boreham and then I took it up to Charterhall. It taught me a great deal.”

As with most enthusiasts, the racing bug bit almost immediately and it wasn’t long before Innes Ireland could be seen racing a Riley, all the time desperately hoping and saving for the car he really wanted, a Coventry Climax 1100-c.c.-engined Lotus 11. By the end of 1956 he achieved his ambition and embarked on his 1957 season at the wheel of one of Colin Chapman’s sleek little two-seater sports cars. At this time Chapman was working hard to establish his Lotus organisation as a serious racing car manufacturer and Ireland came to his attention, frequently proving very competitive against the works Lotus us which were driven at that time by Keith Hall and Alan Stacey. By the middle of the season he’d been recruited into the Lotus team for one or two races and by 1958 he became, more or less, a full-time Team Lotus member. In August Ireland scored an excellent victory in the three-hour Circuit of the Auvergne, his nimble Lotus 11 running away from a horde of Ferrari 250 GTs round tortuous Clermont Fcrrand, comfortably trouncing Trintignant, Mairesse, Gendebien and de Silva Ramos. That performance put him well in line for a works Lotus contract which he duly received in 1958. He also drove four races in 1958 at the wheel of Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-types “and only managed to scrape the odd corner”.

The circumstances by which Ireland eventually found a Formula One vacancy arose just after the 1958 Monaco Grand Prix. The team’s regular drivers at that time were Graham Hill and American Pete Lovely, but after the Monaco race Lovely decided to return to his motor business in Seattle which left empty the second place in Chapman’s Formula One team. Incidentally, Lovely’s decision proved to be rather satisfactory. In the eleven years that followed his business prospered to such an extent that he was able to return to Europe in 1970 and purchase his own Lotus-Cosworth 49 with which he competed in a handful of European races before returning home. His departure from the team meant that Chapman was free to install Innes in the second car and the Scot duly signed a three-year contract with Team Lotus.

Innes made his Grand Prix debut at Zandvoort where he drove his Lotus 16 into fourth place behind Jo Bonnier’s winning BRM. and the Copper-Climaxes of Jack Brabham and Masten Gregory. It would be fair to say that the balance of Ireland’s first season as a Grand Prix driver was less than distinguished although Chapman’s cars were hardly the most reliable. After a crash at ROLICII Alan Stacey stood in for him in the British Grand Prix, a seized wheel-bearing put him out of the French Grand Prix, the crownwheel and pinion broke at Avus in the German Grand Prix and the brakes packed up at Monza.

For 1960 Chapman followed the trend started by the Cooper concern and introduced the first of his rear-engined creations, the 2.1-litre Climax-engined Lotus 18. It was in that year that Ireland attracted a great deal of publicity in the “popular Press” after his Lotus 18 beat Moss’ 1959 Cooper-Climax by just under 3 sec. to win the non-championship Goodwood International 100-mile race. He also won the BRDC International Trophy after Moss’ Cooper retired while leading, but freely admits that too much publicity attached to both these victories bearing in mind just how superior his car actually was. Later in the season, Formula Junior Lotus star Jim Clark was invited into the team to drive alongside Ireland and his close friend Alan Stacey; only for Stacey to be killed during the tragic 1960 Belgian Grand Prix, a race which also cost the life of promising British driver Chris Bristow.

Ireland admits that a degree of doubt hovered in his mind as to the durability of Chapman’s cars at that stage, but he continued into his third season with Lotus with the same irrepressible enthusiasm. Jim Clark joined the team as his regular “number two” although in fact there seemed little doubt that their status was in fact “joint number one” and there were many who .conSidered Clark to be the better driver. Nevertheless, Ireland tried his damnedest with the four-cylinder Climax-engined Lotus 21—Formula One was for 14-litre un.supercharged by now and the Climax V8 engine wasn’t ready to race—and won two splendid victories during the course of the season. One was on the sinuous and demanding Solitude road circuit in Germany and the second was the United States Grand Prix.

“I derived most satisfaction from the Solitude victory,” Innes admits, “because I was a.potential winner from the start. At Watkins Glen I might have been a certain second or third but I wasn’t looking a winner all the way:’ In the Solitude race ‘Ireland’s main opposition came from the 4-cylinder Porsches driven by Bonnier and Dan Gurney, each particularly anxious to score a home win for that marque. The battle proved a ferocious affair but Ireland worked out that if he managed to lead into the twisting section up to the finish there would be no way in which either Gurney or Bonnier would Catch him. Innes smiles at the thought of Chapman standing, glassy-eyed in the pits, muttering “he’ll either win or we’ll never see Ireland again” as the bottle-green Lotus 21 tore into its final lap with the brace of silver Porsches in pursuit. “The most satisfying thing about it was to see the photographs afterwards,” he ‘smiles, “Me with a broad grin on my face flanked On tither side by Gurney and Bonnier, both looking very disgruntled!”

Following the Monza tragedy, in which Wolfgang von Trips and some spectators were killed when the German’s Ferrari collided with Clark’s Lotus under-braking for the Parabolica, the Ferrari team did not attend the United States Grand Prix. After Brabham’s Cooper and Moss’ Walker Lotus dropped out of the race, Innes inherited a comfortable lead in the race at Watkins Glen and won by Over a minute from Gurney’s Porsche after 100 laps’ racing. Then came the most amazing turn of events: Colin Chapman dismissed him from the team less than a fortnight after Innes had given the team its first Grand Prix victory.

“Clearly that was one of the most obvious turning points in my career,” Innes recalls. “Chapman recognised that Clark might have greater long-term potential. I can see his point of view, but I must admit that I had some reservations about it.” One way or another. Ireland was deeply shocked by the whole affair and harbored a degree of resentment against Clark right up until Jim was killed in 1968. In a moment of deep reflection he acknowledged that this was really carrying it a bit too far, inwardly wishing that he had made peace with his compatriot before he was killed. In that connection Ireland sincerely referred to a passage in Graham Gauld’s recently published book about Clark where poignant reference was made to Innes making amends in the obituary which he wrote as Sports Editor of Autocar. “I think Gauld summed it up very fairly and genuinely,” he commented.

“Going into 1962 I agreed to drive for the UDT Laystall team run by Ken Gregory and Alfred Moss, driving Lotus-Climax 24s. Less than 24 hours after accepting their Offer I received an invitation to join Graham Hill in the works BRM team. But I felt I’d given my word to UDT Laystall and there wasn’t any way in which I could go back on it.” Ireland was also invited to go over to Indianapolis “… in 1962 or ’63 but I just didn’t seem to be able to make these people understand that I wasn’t interested in doing their race. They sat me in the car, took my photograph and offered me a great deal of money but really I wasn’t interested.” Talking to this extrovert Scot it quickly becomes very clear that money wasn’t an over-riding factor in his motor racing. He was out, primarily, to have a good time and if this attitude meant that he didn’t earn as much money as perhaps he might have done or missed out on some plum drives, he has very few regrets whatsoever.

Ireland enjoyed the social life surrounding international motor racing and was seldom more miserable than at Daytona in 1967 where he was invited along to drive in a NASCAR 500-mile event. “I arrived there just as all the sports car contingent, people I knew, were leaving. Then I just turned up to the track when I was told, did my practice and went back to the hotel. I dined alone, I went to bed early and never seemed to see anyone involved with the race or the team anywhere except at the circuit.” It was a far cry from the late-night parties and spectacular escapades which characterised Ireland’s social life on the Formula One scene and it’s no surprise that he never went back. In fact Innes’ career came to an end just after the Daytona race as he felt he just wasn’t enjoying the commercially oppressive world which motor racing was fast becoming at the time.

In 1962 Ireland won a non-Championship race at Crystal Palace and scored only a single Championship point, in the South African Grand Prix, in his privately owned Lotus. In 1963 the light-green cars were run under the banner of the British Racing Partnership and American driver Jim Hall, later to become better known for his Chaparral sports cars, joined the team as his number two. Ireland had a rather more promising season highlighted by a win in the Glover Trophy at Goodwood before BRP went on to build their own BRM V8-engined cars for 1964.

Ireland opened the 1964 season with an excellent win at Snetterton at the wheel of one of these cars, having just recovered from injuries sustained in a sports car accident in America. But there was very little success in store for either Innes or his team-mate Trevor Taylor, another Lotus number two who’d been cast by the wayside. “They were very nicely made racing cars,” Ireland continues about the BRPs, “although they had a problem early in the season with the suspension. You would Set the car up for a corner and it would suddenly give a huge lurch mid-way round. I flew off the road at Abbey Curve during the International Trophy at Silverstone for just this reason. Tony Robinson later modified the suspension and they were subsequently a lot better.” But BRP were refused membership of the Formula One Constructors Association for 1965 and accordingly had to shut their doors and withdraw from racing.

From that point on Ireland drifted gradually into retirement, driving several races in 1965 ‘for the Parnell Lotus-BRM team and later for private owner Bernard White in a Ford GT40 and a 2-litre Tasman BRM P261 V8, the Mexican Grand Prix of 1966 being the last Formula One race of his incident-strewn career. But Innes Ireland had not finished with motor racing and motoring sport yet.

When Donald Campbell was killed in 1967 Ireland offered to take up the challenge of record breaking, but no finance was forthcoming and there wasn’t a great deal of interest among Britain’s industrial magnates. Perhaps surprisingly, he turned to journalism and spent three enjoyable and illuminating years as Sports Editor of Autocar, difficult though it, might be to imagine Innes in a desk-bound job. In fact it’s perhaps surprising that he stayed for so long; the organisational bureaucracy of a large publishing house hardly fitting in with Ireland’s extrovert personality. “I don’t think they were very impressed when they found I was shooting in Argyll for a couple of days when the Publishing Director wanted to know where I was,” he chortles.

Although away from the circuits as a regular competitor, the lure of such long distance marathons, as the London-to-Sydney and the World Cup Rally proved too much for Innes. “We did all three, usually in a Mercedes with Andy Hedges and Mike Taylor. Like everything else, it was a challenge, something to do. I always loved the exhilaration of long-distance driving. I would come out of retirement and do a similar thing again if the occasion arose. I’m lucky that all the fishing keeps me fit . . .”

Looking back over his spectacular career, Innes Ireland epitomised the “eat, drink and be merry” attitude which modern day motor racing no longer has a great deal of time for. Perhaps he came on the scene a decade too late; if he’d been around in the early 1950s he might have been a regular Grand Prix winner. If he’d been around ten years later he might never have got a Formula One drive. But it’s not the results that Innes Ireland’s career will be remembered for, it genuinely is the incidents. Like the time he was arrested by the police in Nice while wearing swimming trunks after an accident with a hire car; the whole affair developed into a Jacques Tati-like comedy. The time he danced on a restaurant table at Zeltweg wearing a kilt and Graham Hill accosted him, very personally and very painfully, with a potted cactus; and the occasion he contrived to spin so far off the circuit at Watkins Glen that he disappeared into the undergrowth, complete with car, for several minutes!

But the incidents haven’t stopped simply because he is a retired racing driver. Sailing his new trawler for the first time he was stopped by a Fisheries Protection Corvette —it was still carrying its Norweigan registration number! His boat has run aground in Kirkcudbright harbour and he has plenty of lurid talesto tell of his fishing experiences in all weather off the Scottish coast. Working hard and playing hard Innes Ireland has few regrets; we wonder whether sonic of today’s “prima donnas” will have such a well-adjusted and benevolent attitude to life when they leave motor racing far behind them. – A.H