With Ecurie Ecosse to Le Mans

One’s earliest images of motor racing are always the brightest and one never recaptures the excitement of the schoolboy poring over every word of a race report. The first motor racing magazine I bought as a boy was a copy of MOTOR SPORT which contained the win at Le Mans by the Ecurie Ecosse D type Jaguar driven by Ron Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson. There was a story to capture the imagination, and the team and the car and the drivers filled my youthful mind.

The following year I was up in the early morning to catch the radio bulletins from Le Mans and thrilled as the two Ecurie Ecosse D types of Flockhart / Bueb and Sanderson / Lawrence led home Jaguars in first, second, third, fourth and sixth. The memory of that excitement has stayed with me all my life. Ecurie Ecosse never again reached those heights, though it remained a leading privateer outfit until folding in 1975. Earlier this year came the announcement that a group of Scottish enthusiasts, led by Hugh McCaig and Graham Gauld, had revived the team and were to go once more to Le Mans. That was news to stir the memory. I resolved that I wanted to go to Le Mans to see the return of Ecurie Ecosse.

I had never been to the race. In the years when I wanted to go, the years of Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari and Ford, I could not afford the trip. When I could afford it, the scene had changed. Matra, Mirage, Porsche and Renault were no doubt all worthy, but they struck no chord within me. The return of the Scots, and also the Jaguars, put a different complexion on things and this is the diary of Ecurie Ecosse’s effort.

Wednesday May 30th.

On my first visit, it is being wheeled out David Leslie to shake down at Silverstone. In the two weeks or so since the Silverstone 1000kms, where it retired ten laps from the end when the gearbox up, the car has been completely stripped, cleaned, and reassembled. David Leslie has been signed to join Mike Wilds and David Duffield in the car for Le Mans and the test is first to run in a new crown wheel and pinion and then to allow David his first experience of driving a Group C2 sports car. The test at Silverstone goes without a hitch, David putting in 60 laps and circulating below the class record. He is watched by his father, David Leslie Snr who has been active with the team at both Monza and Silverstone and who looks justifiably pleased with his son’s performance. The team are pleased too, and David is immediately accepted as an asset.

Friday, 1st June. The car has been completely stripped apart from the running gear. The team have two Swindon Engines-prepared DFVs, a GP spec unit producing around 495 bhp which was used in the Silverstone 1000 kms and which will stay in the car until after the first practice day at Le Mans and the race engine, with softer cams, which gives around 395 bhp. During the week, it is looked after by three mechanics employed by Ray Mallock: Tony Green, the crew chief, is a young Australian who came to England to become World Champion but somehow got side-tracked, though the ambition remains. Then there is Matthew Wilkins, mad about racing for as long as he can remember, who left college to join Ray. And there is David Wilkie, who worked for Arthur Mallock for three years before setting up his own business to develop and market a machine he’s invented but who answered a call from Ray to “come and help out”.

“Helping out” means working a minimum of 12 hours a day, seven days a week, with the odd all-night session thrown in. At the other end of the workshop the Nimrod team are similarly at work. The two crews work separately but in harmony, sharing jokes, tools and advice but with an undercurrent of friendly rivalry. For Le Mans, it is not only a question of preparing the basic car, but all the spares as well. There are four nose cones, each of which has to be mated by hand, filed and drilled to fit perfectly. Then each has to be wired with lights and sign written. There are two spare sets of front suspension, one of rear, and these have to be each fitted to the car and dialled in perfectly, then taken off again and stored. There is at least one spare for every component and each one has to be fitted and fettled. A pit stop is no time to discover that the spare exhaust system doesn’t fit exactly.

A box of tools and spares has been made for the passenger seat and a cover moulded over the top of it for if the car stops out on the circuit, only the driver may work on it and he must stay within 30 metres of the car and mechanics can only give advice from a distance. There is a slight worry over the fuel at Le Mans, which comes from a central system. Cosworth cars need up to one per cent oil added to the petrol to lubricate the metering unit and fuel pump. Tony plans to make a rich oil / petrol mix and put it in the vent fuel bottle so that it goes in with the main petrol, but is worried about the legality of the move, everyone knows the stories of cars being excluded for minor infringements of the rules.

The team works efficiently and economically, with Tony quietly orchestrating the effort. He says, “The nice part about motorsport is doing things to the standard you want. Mark you, we may look at the worksheet with three days to go and start throwing things at the car.”

Saturday, June 2nd. The workshops are transformed; there are suddenly three times the number of people. At the Nimrod end of the workshop, Drake Olsen, Ray’s co-driver, is working on his car surrounded by his regular team and volunteers, here a civil servant, there a teacher, all racing nuts who want to be involved.

At the Ecosse end, there are new faces and Scottish voices. They’ve come down from Glasgow and Edinburgh after work on Friday to give up their weekends to work, unpaid, on the car. Most seem to be friends of David Duffield who is outside busily bolting power tools to a work bench which will go with the team. In fact so much gear will be taken that the transporter will be full and the car towed on a trailer.

For the first time, you understand what Ecurie Ecosse and Le Mans really mean. It is a dream, an obsession. It causes men to give up their spare time, their holidays, to take unpaid leave of absence from work to bring the car to the grid at Monza, Silverstone, Le Mans, wherever. Nearly four dozen people are eventually involved in the effort. Some work on the car, co-ordinated by Tony Green who has to find work for all, within the capabilities of all. Some spend their time filling out paperwork. Some will man the signalling area at Mulsanne, living in a caravan and working in two shifts. Some will drive trucks and tenders. Others will buy the daily provisions and cook and bring soft drinks to the crew. Yet others seem to have no tangible job but are there for moral support and to do anything asked of them.

The team’s patron, Hugh McCaig, was later to say, “it’s easy for me, I only put in money. The mechanics put in both time and money and it costs them much, much more.”

Ralph Paine, the stocky comic of the crew summed it up, “I love being involved in motor racing, I’ve helped David Duffield in Formula Ford and Atlantic, but you can’t ignore the security of a job. I’ve a wife, a house and a bairn on the way. I’m a workshop foreman with a big Edinburgh dealers and they’ve been good to me, letting me take leave of absence and fitting in my holidays.

“You see, so much garage work nowadays is being a fitter, not a mechanic. Something is wrong with a car so you take one unit off and put on another, there’s no precision, you don’t make anything. But this is real engineering, every nut and bolt has to be tightened to exactly the right torque, everything has to be done exactly right. When it’s all over, I’ll go back to work to relax.” The question of adding oil to the fuel comes up again but the team manager, Gordon Horn, is sure everything is in order, it’s accepted practice and, besides, he’s filled in the form indicating that they’ll be doing so.

Saturday, June 9th. I’ve been across to the workshop several times watching the car grow, getting to know people and feeling more and more part of the effort. Today is the last day before departure. The motor home is parked among the trees, it’s not a hospitality unit, but a place to relax and sleep in. Some of the faces are unfamiliar for but not everybody has been able to make the trip every weekend and some who have worked on the team will not go to the race. The car is nearly ready and the few remaining jobs are scheduled to be done at the circuit.
The Nimrod team, however, are asleep on their feet. A few days before, it became clear that the turbo engine was not working and so was removed. On Friday morning the car was virtually a bare tub and they have been working against the clock to put it back together. One, Mick Buskell, answers my question “Why do it? There must be easier ways of earning a living.” “Motor racing is a disease,” he says, “and once you’ve caught it , you can’t get it out of your system.”

Flat on his back under the Ecosse, fitting the exhaust system, one of the most tedious and pernickety of jobs, Matt Wilkins says, “Come over here, I’ve got the cure for the disease.”
Sunday, 10th June. The team rolls off in convoy to Newhaven only to find it’s strike-bound. They push on to Folkestone, cross to Boulogne only to find the officials there refuse to let them pass because it’s a public holiday. At another port, with other officials, the Nimrod team are let through so they can arrive at the circuit and finish assembling their car. At midnight everyone except the mechanics and truck drivers go on to Le Mans and those remaining on the quayside get some rest.

Monday, 11th June. The mechanics work on the car at the docks all day long but become friendly with the officials. A few stickers change hands and they are allowed off 90 minutes before the proper time of 10 pm.

They drive through the night and at 3.30 am, not far from the circuit, a tyre lets go on the transporter. Villagers hurry from their homes to investigate the explosion, convinced there is a bomb attack. The team change the wheel and it is dawn before they arrive and snatch a few hours sleep.

Tuesday, 12th June. Bleary eyed, the mechanics present the car in the town square for scrutineering, which starts at 10 am. There is a long wrangle over the measurements of the driver’s footwell, it comes down to an interpretation of how the measurements are taken. For a while the ghastly fear that they will be excluded hangs over everybody but eventually the car is passed. It is 6 pm by the time they can return to the circuit and the decision is immediately taken to redesign the footwell to prevent any possible recurrence of the dispute in the future.

The drivers are delighted with the car in qualifying and, more, the 200 mph barrier is easily broken. That gives everyone a lift, for the car is working as it’s designed to work.

Mike Wilds is most enthusiastic about the car and its behaviour. “At 200 mph on the Mulsanne Straight you can take your hands off the steering wheel and she’s steady as a rock.” You wonder why anyone would want to do that at 200 mph.

That night, work begins on removing the engine and gearbox to replace them with the race units.

Thursday, June 14th. The crew get to bed at 4 am and there is now only the straight forward job of qualifying all the drivers, who must do laps at night as well as day. At the beginning of qualifying, however, the engine will not turn over, the gearbox is locked solid. The gearbox comes off and is checked, all seems in order. It goes on again and still is locked solid. Off it comes again, and re-checked. The time is ticking by and there is a possibility that the car will be excluded because the drivers have not qualified.

The men work as fast as they can, suppressing panic. Eventually, after the box has been off three times, it’s discovered that the manufacturer has supplied the wrong clutch. It’s just 4 mm off centre but that’s enough to lock the system. At 8.30 pm the car is wheeled out and, with the bare minimum of laps, manages to get into the race. Poor David Duffield, for all his work, has hardly driven it.

Friday, June 15th. The rest day. This means the mechanics sleep in until 10 am and knock off early seventeen hours later. They strip the four corners, the wheel bearings, the gearbox, they change the oil and check every nut and bolt.

It all sounds unmitigated toil, but there’s unfailing good humour and comradeship. Every member of the team is working in the same direction and the amount of interest in the car is astonishing. There’s an endless stream of visitors, all wishing the team good luck. A French magazine has run a seven page spread on Ecurie Ecosse, with photographs of the D types, the Cooper Monaco, Jackie Stewart, Gerry Birrell. There is so much good will from all quarters.

On the way down from Scotland, someone has bought a tape of Andy Stewart songs and there is a plan to have “Campbelltown Loch I wish you were whisky” blaring out from the pits. Most of a case of Scotch has already gone — the team is strictly sober but difficulties have been smoothed out here and there with a bottle of the old amber fluid.

Some of us are staying at a pleasant little chateau. The count and countess are intrigued by the thought of haggis and so, in the small hours of Thursday morning, an urgent message is sent home for some, which arrives on Friday. We have hardly a single word of a common language between us but manage to convey cooking instructions, with emphasis on “tatties and neeps”, the bagpipes and Robbie Burns’ paean of praise.

On Friday evening the drivers, the patron and friends go out to dinner. Everyone is in high spirits, Hugh says, “Whatever happens next will be a bonus. We’ve made it here and we’ve qualified the car. That’s the main thing.” The drivers are all quiet and eat little, they’ve nothing to do except wait and the time hangs heavy on them.

Also in the restaurant are the drivers, the sponsors and guest of one of the big money teams. There is a PR presentation and the drivers are paraded. Everyone in Ecosse finds this hugely amusing and there is good-natured barracking. The other drivers are asked questions like “How fast do you go?”

It highlights a serious side of the business, too. Ecosse cannot continue to rely on private money indefinitely. If it is to continue it must find a sponsor, of the right sort. One who might buy the body but not the soul of the team. One who will be sensitive to the marvellous spirit, and who will not have paid PR types saying cutely, “If you wish to go up in a helicopter to watch the cars, you contact Francoise, she’s a really beautiful French girl, and she will arrange it. . .”

Saturday, June 16th. In the morning, the drivers go to their briefing and the mechanics go to theirs. There are so many rules to know. Only four mechanics are allowed to work on the car in the pits. If the driver pumps the brake pedal while bleeding the brakes, he counts as a working mechanic while doing it.

The cars are lined up in echelon on the grid. The grandstands fill up. Girls in bikinis sashay by for the photographers. It’s noticeable that, depending on a person’s function in the team, the tension peaks at different times. The drivers are relaxed after last night, it is the crew who are now tense.

Everything one has ever heard about Le Mans is true, its atmosphere, its colour, its tawdriness. The one thing no description can ever convey is its size and scale, and the tangible excitement as the start approaches.

The cars stream out on their pace lap and then accelerate hard as the pace car leaves the circuit. But the Ecosse is not among them! I dash to the pits to discover that waiting in the heat has caused the fuel cam to lock up and this had wedged open the throttle. It’s soon cured but the car starts from the pit lane a couple of laps down.

Mike Wilds is soon on song and making up for lost time. He is so happily in the groove that it’s decided he should stay out for two hours though, after a while, he comes in to change a wheel. The balance weights have come off the front left wheel and the vibration is shaking the car.

The small pit is crowded with wall-to-wall Scotsmen, gazing out at the pit wall with just the tops of the cars showing for a split second. Information comes by telephone from the signalling crew. There is no tension, but everyone is impassive.

After two hours, Mike comes in to hand over to David Leslie, he’s been setting very fast times and is convinced there is another ten seconds to come, should the need arise. He is exhilarated. The car was 48th at the first hour and 38th at the second.

David Leslie, despite having had little practice, is soon matching Mike’s times and moves up another two places, coming within striking distance of the class leaders.

There is a slight problem with pit passes and Hugh resolves it by pouring the dregs of a couple of bottles of Scotch into one and topping it up with water. The marshal seems satisfied.

At 5.49, on its 40th lap, the car stops out on the circuit. There is a fuel problem. Tony and Ralph set off on a motor bike to the spot, at the beginning of Mulsanne. Everyone else in the pit is silent and calm. There is no point in panicking. David’s head set is not working properly, he can transmit but not receive. Occasionally, a call comes from the signalling post.

An hour passes, and then two. The time goes remarkably quickly but there is optimism. “He’s trying to re-route the plumbing” is one version of events. Nobody knows what’s really happening, but having come so far they keep the faith. Meanwhile the clock is ticking away the time — and to qualify as a finisher you have to complete 70% of the winner’s distance.

Some think that the time has come to knock the project on the head, carrying on will only run up bills, money which could be used for another race. Mike Wilds is wanting to carry on. “The car’s so beautiful, I want to get out there and give it some stick. We can still make a point.” Everyone feels intense sympathy for David Duffield who has worked so hard and for so long, who has hardly driven the car in practice and who may now not drive it in the race.

Out on the circuit Tony and Ralph, shouting and using sign language, finally help David to locate the problem. A small nylon driveshaft in the fuel pump, hardly bigger than a penny, has sheared. David tries gerry-rigging one using glass, a piece of plastic, a stone. He gets some fuel pressure but not enough.

Meanwhile the Nimrods have crashed and everyone’s thoughts turn to friends in the team. The disaster, however, gives Ecosse some respite as the pace cars are out.

After four hours, with his hands red raw, David fixes the driveshaft, but finds the whole pump seized. The reason for the seizure could be the refusal to allow oil in the petrol. At least it was nothing the team could do anything about.

There is disappointment, of course, but taken philosophically. Mike Wilds becomes quiet, David Leslie is animated. Nobody can find the words to tell David Duffield how sorry each is.

Some drift off to the funfair, some sit quietly talking, others go to drown their sorrows, and some go back to bed. The race drones on but who cares?

Someone says, “you’ll not have much to write about” but is wrong. The story is the effort, the idea of taking Ecurie Ecosse back to Le Mans after 22 years, not the result. This has been only a hint of the work, the optimism, of what it meant to us all to be there.

Monday, June 18th. Back in Salcey Forest, the car has been put away to be prepared for its next race, the Thundersports event at the British GP. The talk is not about recent disappointment but about future success.

The cycle of work will restart and personal commitment will be reinvested. The same can be said for other teams too, and for other races. As always in motor racing, there is always the next race. . . . M.L.