'Heady days in the colonies'

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The 1961 Lady Wigram Trophy was one of the more dramatic races in New Zealand’s golden era of motor sport, By Eoin Young

When news broke that the Wigram air force base on the outskirts of Christchurch in New Zealand had been closed, to be swallowed by suburbia, it brought closure to another chapter of motor racing history, one which saw top international cars and drivers racing at the circuit every January from the 1950s to the ’70s. For me, mention of the place sparks a memory of a wet weekend in 1961 — incredible to think it was 50 years ago — when the grid for the Lady Wigram Trophy would have been worthy of a European Grand Prix. Heady days in the colonies, but looking back we took it for granted. We expected the world’s top drivers to be racing on our circuits.

My Wigram memory was sparked by a photo of Stirling Moss in Rob Walker’s Lotus 18 with one carburettor trumpet smashed off, another battered in and the radius arm bent almost into the chassis frame. I had been at this race but was unaware of this comingtogether. The photo was captioned Wigram ’61, so that made it the race when I had been watching from the far side of the infield, hardly able to see the cars in the rain, never mind spot any damage.

The front row of the grid featured John Surtees on pole in a works Lotus 18, Jack Brabham alongside in a works Cooper and Jo Bonnier beside him in a Yeoman Credit Cooper. Jim Clark was in another works Lotus on the outside of the 4-3-4 grid. Stirling Moss (Lotus) was on the second row, with Bruce McLaren (Cooper) in the middle and Malcolm Gill on the outside in the aero-engined Lycoming Special.

It was one of those weekends. It seemed never to stop raining and there was little shelter at a circuit that had been laid out overnight because it was an operational RNZAF airfield.

Of the locals, Johnny Mansel had just taken delivery of his TecMec, replacing the svelte black 250F Maserati he had raced with success the previous season. The TecMec was a bastardised Italian-American combination of a 250F chassis fitted with a Corvette V8, and the fast, open drenched circuit was more than a match for Mansel’s undoubted courageous ability. In practice he lost control on the fast corner leading out onto the long back straight and launched into a wide series of gyrations that ended when the big front-engined special toppled over into a broad, water-filled drainage ditch. Mansel was lucky to avoid being drowned as he struggled to get clear. He was just emerging from the ditch when he heard the ominous swish-swish of another car spinning towards him. It was Bob Smith in his Super Squalo Ferrari, which struck Johnny and went over the top of the TecMec. Mansel had the Ferrari’s tyre marks and heavy bruising on his back. As though this mayhem wasn’t enough, minutes later Brian Blackburn lost control at the same place in his 4CLT Maserati and slammed over the upturned TecMec, driving it further into the ditch, and

bounced beyond the Ferrari. In his 1993 book The Golden Era of New Zealand Motor Racing, Graham Vercoe wrote that it was doubtful if any other ditch in history had been so filled with such expensive Italian racing machinery.

I had taken photos of the ditched cars on my 1961 equivalent of a Box Brownie, but these have long since disappeared, so I was grateful for Ross Kiddie’s research in the archives of The Star in Christchurch, and to Terry Marshall for photographing the picture as printed that night back in 1961. Mansel’s mechanic Ray Stone had vivid memories of the scene: “It was p”” down and I ran from the pits across the infield to hear the electric fuel pump still running on the TecMec. Everybody was scared the whole thing would go up. Luckily I knew where the fuel pump switch was. Here were all these cars in and out of the ditch. Really spectacular. The TecMec was upside down with the floorpan level with the surrounding field. John was running about, probably a bit confused, but making sure the other drivers were OK…”

There seemed to have been some shuffling of the front row as Brabham had pole but asked for the second-place position because it gave him a better run into the first left-hander, which had a drain running across it. So Surtees started on what would have been pole in the Lotus, tended by Peter Bryant who would later work with the Briton on sports cars and design and build his own AutoCoast Can-Am cars. Bryant was also tending the other works Lotus driven by Jim Clark. Roy Salvadori drove another Lotus 18 entered by Yeoman Credit but was on the back of the grid after problems with the unloved Lotus ‘Queerbox’ with its early version of a sequential shift. Moss had asked for his Walker Lotus to be fitted with a Colotti gearbox.

It was still raining when the grid formed up for the Lady Wigram Trophy. For some reason I was standing on the infield near the back straight with Wally Willmott, who would fly to England the following year and join me in Bruce McLaren’s fledgling team. We missed the mayhem on the grid when Moss and McLaren, effectively behind poleman Brabham’s Cooper, both tried to follow him into the first turn and had a violent coming-together, causing the damage to the Lotus that sparked my enthusiasm to revisit the race. This clash caused chaos enough to put Gill into the lead in the Lycoming Special and he stayed ahead of the class field until he spun into a marker drum at the hairpin after three laps. Brabham then led from Bonnier until the Swede spun on lap 12 and again two laps later, bending the suspension which led to his retirement. Moss and McLaren were coming to grips with their bent cars but Bruce made the best of it and nosed past Brabham into the lead on lap 34. But he was stretched and spun, losing five places as he regained control and composure.

Clark lost his Lotus coming out of the fast turn onto the back straight, spinning several times and ending up stalled on the infield. We knew about this action because we were almost in it. It was one of those situations where Wally and I were liable to be damned if we did and damned if we didn’t. We could hear the swishswish of the spinning car, and when it came out of the murk it looked as though it could hit us. Did we run or stay put? We stayed put, probably riveted to the spot, and the Lotus stopped a few feet from us. Jim was shouting at us to push him, but the rear wheels had no grip on the wet grass. He shouted at us to push the car onto the runway straight and start him there. We might have been Kiwi country kids but we weren’t stupid, and we demurred. Jim reluctantly climbed out and we trudged back to the pits, introducing ourselves on the way. We would become mates at tracks around the world when we worked our various ways to Britain and to careers in motor sport that simply would not be achievable today.

It was probably just as well that we had abandoned our viewing spot, because Christchurch driver Frank Shuter lost control of his ex-Hoare 625 Grand Prix Ferrari on the straight and spun into a Standard saloon with two timekeepers aboard. The Ferrari hit the car broadside, ripping off the left-hand side and throwing the occupants out, amazingly unharmed. The Ferrari slid to a stop 100 metres beyond, almost cut in half. Shuter escaped with a minor leg injury.

There was simply too much chaos and excitement in the limited visibility and adhesion, and before the race the organisers, with their programme already running 90 minutes late, had taken the correct decision to flag it after 47 of the scheduled 71 laps. Brabham took the flag from the battered Lotus of Moss. Top Kiwi honours went to Angus Hyslop in his Cooper T45 who finished third, ahead of the recovering McLaren and Hulme in his T51.

Vercoe has the last word: “It was in fact the slowest race since 1952 and the 100 bottles of champagne offered to the first driver to do a 100mph lap of Wigram went begging…”