Talk Curve -- Historic motorsport insight

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Amateur dramatics

Running an old Fl car must be financial suicide. Paul Lawrence talks to a man who reckons not

Run a Formula One car from a van and trailer? In a world of pro teams and big awnings, that’s exactly what FIA Thoroughbred Grand Prix contender John Crowson does.

This 62-year-old started racing karts at the age of 21 and, aside from a break while building up a business, he’s raced most of the 40 years since. In his earlier days he hillclimbed a self-built Terrapin, but came back to racing with a Classic F3 Argo and then a Chevron B40 in the Derek Bell Trophy.

Three seasons ago he bought the ex-Paul Smith Ensign N177 from Terry Sayles for an assault on TGP. “It isn’t a works GP car; it did Aurora F1 with drivers like Val Musetti,” explains Crowson.

In 2002-03 he managed full campaigns, ending up sixth overall and second in class in both. Only one non-finish, after being punted off, spoiled his record.

However, the 2004 season got off to a torrid start when an eight-lap-old tyre exploded during qualifying at Bahrain. The Ensign was nudging 160mph along the main straight at the time.

“It was a replay of Nigel Mansell in Australia,” says Crowson. “But it’s not too scary at the time because you’re pretty busy! It did an immense amount of damage, though, as the flailing tyre had so much inertia.” Driveline, bodywork, radiators and suspension links were smashed.

“You name it, the tyre took it out. We got it fixed for the race, but it was somewhat tatty.” Next stop was Jarama, and the coldest April weather in the region since records began. A dire lack of grip hobbled the Ensign but John salvaged second in class. Then, at Donington Park, “I threw it into the scenery at the Craner Curves in qualifying. I got into the race but the gear lever broke.

“Not a good start to the year.”

The frustrating dramas continued as the season progressed. At Lausitz a driveshaft snapped on the line. At Monza, one lap into the race, the middle of a spark plug fell into the engine and did a lot of damage. At least the year ended well: class wins in each of the concluding two races, Brno and Estoril.

The car is run from a workshop at Crowson’s home within a mile or two of the Harewood hillclimb course near Leeds.

“I only know of two guys who prepare and run their own F1 cars,” says Crowson. “There are some specialist things I don’t do: crack-testing, and the engine and gearbox are sent away for a rebuild over the winter. I’m retired now, but this is a full-time job. You think running a 1977 F1 car is worse than it is. The reality is that you really can do this privately.”

Crowson’s race crew is typically just him and a friend: “Sometimes you have to leave on a Tuesday, depending where the race is. Circuits like Estoril or Brno are the worst — two full days of travelling each way.”

But when he finally arrives at the circuit his work is only just beginning: “I’m changing ratios, fitting new pads and bleeding brakes at a race meeting, as well as driving. The biggest problem is that when you finally get in the car to drive you’re absolutely pooped! There is always something to do.”

Once back from a race there is another long job list to be completed: “In general, it needs at least three days of work between meetings and more than that every second meeting. If it’s gone well, it’s a day-and-a-half spanner-checking and cleaning. Then it’s another day-and-a-half checking set-up and so on. Back-to-back weekends are a nightmare!”

But still, Crowson is now planning for 2005: “There is no such thing as cheap motor racing, but to do it at this level you couldn’t do it for any less. And for anybody who likes racing, driving an F1 car has got to be the best thing.”

So how much a season? Crowson reckons £40,000, minimum. Not cheap, but there are one-make Clio racers out there paying more.

***

Fact File — Life and times of Ensign’s N177

N177 gave Ensign its most successful F1 year: 10pts in 1977

N177 GP drivers included Geoff Lees, Harald Ertl, Jacky Ickx, Derek Daly, Lamberto Leono, Brett Lunger, Danny Ongais, Nelson Piquet, Clay Regazzoni and Patrick Tambay

Val Musetti, who drove this N177 in Aurora AFX races, was a stuntman.