British Racing Brown

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For one season only, the groovy colours of Paul Michaels’ Hexagon Racing team – run from his London car dealership – gave F1’s big boys a scare thanks to a young John Watson, By Richard Heseltine

With the benefit of hindsight, a highdecibel gastro-pub probably wasn’t the best place to hold an interview; there’s a little ambient noise. But it’s of no real consequence as our heroes have long since careened ‘off message’, conversation now yo-yoing between the cost of Porsche Carrera four-cam engine rebuilds and the relative merits of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel. It’s fascinating to eavesdrop as two friends who’ve known each other the better part of 40 years verbally thrust and parry, their patter perfectly synchronised.

But then neither John Watson nor his one-time patron Paul Michaels are ones for hype or eulogy. Before Formula 1 required GDP-size operating budgets, the duo stepped behind the velvet ropes and sat at motor racing’s top table as privateers. Nor did they embarrass themselves. For one season only — 1974 — British Racing Brown rocked as Goldie Hexagon Racing took the fight to the works teams. But for one of our party, at least, it all seems a long time ago.

“Before vested interests took over, it was possible for someone like me to get into F1,” says Michaels, his expansive North London BMW dealership being just a stone’s throw away. “Private entrants could still do it but, by the mid-70s, it was obvious that we were no longer wanted. I rather naively viewed F1 as a sport first and a business second. Other than Bernie Ecclestone, most of us did. I should probably have stayed longer but it wasn’t for the want of trying. More than anything, I’m just glad we did it as it was something I’d wanted to do for a very long time.”

The route from wannabe to Grand Prix participant was, however, far from ordinary. “I’m sure the first word I ever uttered was ‘car’,” Michaels smiles. “My father was in the motor business, although he didn’t actually like cars so it was an odd method of earning a living. He started off in Cricklewood before ending up in Leighton Buzzard and I can remember him bringing home all these different cars. From day one I knew exactly what I was going to do in life and left school at the earliest possible opportunity. I started the business in 1963 and set about doing what I loved most, which was messing around with cars.”

And how, with Hexagon of Highgate swiftly taking on all manner of marque agencies. “Not all of them profitable,” Michaels quips. But there was always motor racing. “We started off in historics. I had an ex-Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-type and ran Mike Franey in it. We had other cars — a Maserati Tipo 61 ‘Birdcage’ and a Lister-Jaguar in which Gerry Marshall won the last-ever race at Crystal Palace in 1972 — but we stepped up after I did a deal with an Irish wheeler-dealer for a March 721 which I traded against a Bugatti; it was funny how deals were done back then. With the car came a driver called John Watson.”

“The dealer’s name was Tony ‘Monkey’ Brown,” Watson interjects. “He was your archetypical Dublin motor trader, a pathfinder to Eddie Jordan. He’d done a deal with Bernie to buy the Eiffeland-March in ’72 and somehow got in touch with me. I can’t say I really knew him. Anyway, we turned up at Phoenix Park with the car exactly as bought. I drove it in a Formula Libre race on what was probably the most dangerous circuit I ever competed on; a wonderful race track but there was no real protection and I was almost relieved when we retired. From there, somehow along the line Paul got the car and he ran me in it at Brands [Hatch] for the John Player Trophy where we finished sixth. By now the car had been returned to its standard March bodywork.”

*

The 721 was subsequently sold, Michaels returning to historics as Watson embarked on a nascent Grand Prix career, only for a leg breaking crash in the Race of Champions at Brands to end play. “From my point of view, historic racing started to become very political which was crazy,” Michaels recalls. “I will never forget us painting a picture of a steering wheel alongside the name Nick Faure, who was our driver, and a spanner for the mechanic Frank Swanston on the side of our Lister. Well, all hell broke loose! It got worse and worse to the point where I thought for what it was costing me I might as well start doing some modern motor racing, so I bought a Trojan T101 F5000 car for ’73.

“I then needed a driver and Willie Green got first option as I’d been impressed with him in historics. But it seemed that while Willie was really good sliding around on slim little tyres — he was perhaps the best around — for whatever reason he didn’t feel at home on ‘fatties’. Anyway, we organised a test day and put John in the car. He’d had his big accident at Brands and was more or less fit to come back so I asked him if he’d give the car a shakedown; Willie drove in the morning and John in the afternoon. Well, John got below the lap record and so we put him in the car for the last few races. We hadn’t kept up with developments, but John put it on the podium [third at Brands].

“I then thought, ‘why not do F1?’ I know it probably sounds crazy, but back then it wasn’t such a big leap. In those days there wasn’t that much difference between an F5000 package and an F1 package. I managed to get a chap called John Goldie to sponsor us — he was a property man who had just a made a lot of money with a development in Paris — and then negotiated a deal with Bernie for a second-hand BT42. The idea was that we would update to a brand-new BT44 partway through the season.”

Operating out of a workshop adjacent to the Highgate showroom, the plucky equipe’s toe-inthe-water run in the 1973 British GP led to full immersion the next season. “We had a brilliant finishing record and I seem to remember John’s average qualifying position being 14th,” says Michaels. “When we got the BT42 it was just a tub and some bits; a case of ‘here you go boys’. During the first round in Argentina, it wasn’t handling well. We couldn’t work out why until [chief engineer] Alan McCall did a torque test. The car had been shunted and all the rivets were loose. We did an enormous botch and then did a proper build once we got it home.”

“Alan was ex-McLaren,” Watson elaborates. “Like a lot of New Zealanders, he knew how to work with the raw materials. He had designed his own F2 car called a Tui, one of which I got the nod to drive at Crystal Palace in ’72 before carrying on for the rest of the season. He was very good at what he did although he left us about three races into ’74.”

“At Monaco we got a point for sixth, John finishing behind Emerson Fittipaldi and ahead of Graham Hill,” Michaels recalls. “The adrenalin just from where I was sitting was amazing. We were invited to the palace because we had finished in the points so we then had to go out and find some DJs. I was there after the race armed with the equivalent of The Yellow Pages trying to find a hire shop.”

“That was my first-ever point,” adds Watson. “The BT42 was opposite to how an F1 car should be. It’s easy to deride Bernie because he’s not an engineer but he put his trust in Gordon Murray who was a truly innovative designer. Look at cars of that era, say a McLaren M23, which was long and wide. By comparison the BT42 was short and narrow so there was less to punch through the air. That was Gordon’s lateral thinking. We were fourth with the new BT44 in Austria, and then came Monza.”

“That race was a missed opportunity,” rues Michaels. “John had just had that great result in Austria and at Monza he qualified fourth, which was amazing. We were thrilled as we were mixing it with the big boys. Unfortunately an upright broke on the slowing-down lap and we had no spares. Bernie loaned us a BT42 for the race but John went backwards as there hadn’t been time to set it up to his liking. We ended up seventh. That was our big opportunity, although we did get some more points for fifth in the US GP at Watkins Glen.

“By now we were clearly punching above our weight, but as a result of that things got a bit political. You have to remember that back then there was a pecking order for tyres and we were pretty low down that order. But we were doing well with Firestone and they began taking an interest in us. This was at a time when the works Brabham team was running Goodyears and I’m sure some pressure was exerted on Bernie — as much as you can exert pressure on Bernie — that it wasn’t good for a privateer team on Firestones to be up there with the works cars on Goodyears.” Watson nods before adding: “I can imagine Carlos [Reutemann] having a word with Bernie about privateer Brabhams, too…”

“The net result was that we had difficulties in getting spares,” says Michaels. “On top of that, John Goldie became skint partway through the year so I funded the last third of the season myself. We tried desperately to raise money to carry on in ’75, and I came close to a deal with Gitanes to sponsor a two-car team running John and Jean-Pierre Beltoise, but at the end of the year I decided we had to stop. That one season totalled £114,000, and it would probably have been closer to £200K in ’75.”

So Hexagon folded up the tables and switched off the lights, and Watson rejoined Surtees for whom he had raced in F2. “The first round of the ’75 season was in the January, so the deal came together late. It was the only deal in town and I was grateful for it,” he says. “I would’ve liked to have carried on with Paul but you have to remember that there was a move towards teams becoming constructors. They didn’t want single-car guys running customer chassis. Privateers like Paul were a dying breed.”

Not that Hexagon was completely done with F1, if only at ShellSport British Group 8 level, with Derek Bell winning the 1977 Oulton Park Cup aboard Michaels’ Penske PC3. “We did return to ‘proper’ F1, if you like, as we ran Boy Hajye as a one-off for the Dutch GP at Zandvoort in ’76, but I was pretty much out of the sport by the end of the decade. What pleases me, though, is that while we were in F1 we kept improving. We improved right up to the end, but having a driver like John really made all the difference.

“In those days, you didn’t have telemetry — you had a pad and a pencil. John was hugely gifted at sorting a car; knowing how to translate what it was doing into a workable set-up. You need a driver like that when you’re a small team. Hexagon ran other drivers — Brian Henton, Damien Magee and Derek, of course, but John was miles better than any of them. We did one race [the 1974 French GP with a second BT421 and two tests with Carlos Pace who was a lovely chap, but if you asked him how the car was he would say, Teez OK’, and that was that. To me, John is still highly underrated.”

The appreciation is mutual. Though he would go on to become a five-time GP victor, `Wattie’ remains grateful for the leg-up Hexagon afforded him. “Racing for Hexagon was my first formal step as an F1 driver. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity Paul gave me. Driving for Hexagon resurrected my career after my Brands accident and if it hadn’t been for Paul I don’t know if I’d have had a contract for 1974 or whether I’d have gone back to Belfast to work in my father’s motor business.”

“I suspect John would’ve made it regardless,” Michaels counters. “And as a complete aside I should add that Hexagon will be returning to F1 in 2011. Well, in spirit. I’ll be sponsoring Paul Knapfield’s BT44 in historics although his car will be staying white.” Which prompts the question — who dreamed up the original brown and orange livery? “I think you’ll find they’re the international racing colours of Highgate,” fires Watson, quick as a flash. Michaels merely looks a little sheepish before adding: “That was me. I only chose brown because nobody else had it. What’s more, I can safely say that nobody else has had it since, either…”