Looking back with Peter Arundell
On June 2nd Ivan Capelli won the Monaco GP support race and so, according to motor racing lore, is likely to be seen one day in F1. On June 7th the man who dominated the race in the early sixties left England to start a new business and a new life in the States. A driver of brilliant gifts, he graduated to F1, strung together a series of placings, survived a near-fatal accident, fought his way back to fitness and his drive, then was dropped and disappeared from racing. He is Peter Arundell.
After being dropped by Lotus at the end of 1966, Arundell turned his back on the sport. Since then he has been to just three Grands Prix as a spectator and only watches on television when he chances to tune in his set and find it on. He is one of those quiet men of racing who express themselves through their driving, not their publicity handouts. In fact, this is an account of the first major interview he has ever given. In 1968 he did do two races, with an Alan Mann Escort, but he remembers nothing about them, even when shown contemporary reports. It is as though the sport finished for him in 1966 when he suddenly found himself in the wilderness without an offer of a drive of any sort. For him, it was like a painter being suddenly deprived of palette and canvas. The hurt lingered for a long time but now he can look back philosophically and, as he starts his new adventure in America, can say he'd like to try his hand again in something like sports cars.
Arundell was born in 1933 and became interested in cars when his father started a small garage business just after the war. He soon taught himself to strip down cars and to drive but had no interest at all in motor racing. That started when he was 20 and, while serving in the RAF, began building a neat little Austin Seven special for road use. He happened to pick up a copy of MOTOR SPORT and read about another A7 special builder. "I was chuffed to read about this bloke doing exactly what I was doing, building a special and also winning races with it."
It was ironical, ultimately, that the special builder who sparked off Arundell's enthusiasm was Colin Chapman, for the lives of the two men later became entwined. On being demobbed in 1955, Peter went to work for his father's motor business. Careful saving had brought him an MGTC and he became active in the Rumford Enthusiasts' Car Club, which he helped to found. By the end of 1956, he was persuaded to enter the MG in competitions. Being a fine mechanic, he modified his car. "I did everything to an MG which you shouldn't do. I even managed to siamese the ports which Mike Costin told me couldn't be done, they'd tried it at Lotus. Unfortunately, after I sold it, it never raced again so I've no idea whether the success we got was due to my driving or my engineering."
It certainly was successful, a good début year being highlighted by a win in the wet at Mallory Park over Tim Parnell's Cooper-Climax sports car. The lead changed on every lap and Arundell took the flag by a whisker. He began to get appearance money on the strength of that win. The racing bug had bitten, the MG was sold and a third hand series 1 Lotus XI took its place. Money was tight, Peter prepared the car himself, and though in theory it was no match for the series 2 Elevens, Arundell soon established a reputation, even beating Jimmy Clark's D type at Mallory in August. "I knew that I couldn't continue, it was costing me too much in time and money. I happened to tell Jack Wescott, the car's first owner, that I was quitting and the upshot was we struck a deal whereby I was to prepare and transport his Eleven at cost and, in exchange, would have three or four drives. Then Jack's business began to expand and it finished up with Jack having the three or four drives and me getting the rest."
In 1959, Arundell won five races from 16 starts, with five seconds and nothing below fifth, even beating Graham Hill's works Lotus on one occasion. "At Crystal Palace, late in the year, Mike Costin told me that Chapman had his eye on me. I knew I couldn't beat Alan Stacey's works car but I gave him a hard time for most of the race and, afterwards, Colin told me he'd like me to drive for him.
"I phoned him in November, as requested, then drove to the works only to be told he was 'in a meeting'. That happened three times and when Frank Nicholls offered me a firm drive in his new Elva-DKW Formula Junior car, I accepted."
Peter's first race with the Elva was at the Boxing Day Brands Hatch meeting and it was also the first proper Formula Junior race held in Britain. "Immediately afterwards Colin came up and said, 'I thought you were going to drive for me?' I explained what had happened and we agreed to keep in touch. Winning that race, incidentally, got me on the cover of MOTOR SPORT which was the best achievement of my life up to then."
The initial promise of the front-engined Elva evaporated as more sophisticated FJ designs appeared, the Lotus 18 being best of them all after a disappointing début on Boxing Day. Worse there was a gearbox problem which caused the propshaft to vibrate alarmingly, and since the propshaft ran between the driver's legs and there was no protective hoop, Peter was naturally concerned. "Frank kept promising me that it would be modified, but it wasn't. Finally, at the Easter Monday Goodwood meeting, I refused to drive the car until the promised modifications had been made. Frank started to shout something about `prima donna' racing drivers and we agreed to tear up our contract ."
Chapman was at the meeting watching his Lotus 18s win the F1, F2 and FJ races. "Colin said he'd still like me to drive for him — if I bought a car. I had no money so we agreed he'd lend me a car, which would be entered by Team Lotus though I was to prepare it and pay for spares, and at the end of the season, I'd sell it and pay him the purchase price, with interest. Part of the deal was that I had to drive to team orders and was the recognised third man behind Jimmy Clark and Trevor Taylor. That was frustrating because I reckoned that, in equal cars, I could beat Jimmy and would beat Trevor but, driving to orders, you can never be sure."
In Formula Junior that year, Arundell never finished below fourth. He also took in three sports car races with the Gilby-Climax (see last month's MOTOR SPORT) and performed superbly, and he began to feel that his relationship with Chapman was not all it might be.
"Colin had almost a love affair going with Jimmy. He spent the bulk of his time with him, had a few words for Trevor and me he almost completely ignored. I was getting pretty cheesed off about it. As we sat on the grid for the last race of the year, at Brands Hatch, he talked to both Jimmy and Trevor but didn't come near me. It seemed that I might be out of a drive for 1961.
"That got to me and I decided to forget team orders and win, so I did. Trevor's gearbox went on the line and I beat Jimmy fair and square. I then had to sell my car to pay back Colin and, advertised as the 'Clark beater', it made me a fair profit. Colin was not amused by that, but he got his own back." As we shall see.
In 1961, Clark was committed to F1 and so Arundell moved up a rung, as number two to Taylor. Peter prepared the car himself, though Lotus supplied the spares, and had to drive for second place when Taylor was present.
"By this time, there were FJ races going on all over the place and Trevor and I would often go off to separate meetings, both of us winning on the same day. Consequently I began to get quite well known on the Continent, though less so here. The fact that Trevor and I had to drive to orders didn't affect us off the track, we got on very well together, but it was still frustrating. Then came a race at Silverstone which was run in two heats with times deciding the final placings. Colin wasn't there, Trevor and I were in separate heats, and Mike Costin whispered in my ear. We both won our heats but I won overall, fifteen seconds clear of Trevor."
In 1961, Arundell carried off four International FJ wins as well as a lot of lesser events and it's as well to recall that FJ was then the only European single seater category apart from F1. Among those wins was the Monaco GP support race which Taylor had led until retiring. Because of team orders, we shall never know whether Arundell might have won more.
Two incidents from that year, both involving crashes, shed some light on the man. In the first, at Mallory Park, a club driver had crashed, his car had caught fire, and Arundell pulled him out, unquestionably saving his life. "I don't remember the details, I just happened to be the man nearest to the crash. Don't worry about it." The second was at the Nurburgring 1000 kms when his Elite came off the track, plunged down the side of a mountain, being slowed by the tops of the trees, and finished up in fragments several hundred feet below the circuit. "The blood side of the sport is not on, you can't talk about a man making a mistake and dying for it. I am not a brave man and I wanted crash barriers everywhere but Jimmy and Stirling would have none of it. They'd say, 'It separates the men from the boys.' Well, I was at St Mary's at Goodwood when Stirling had the crash which ended his career and I'm convinced that had there been barriers there he would not have been so badly hurt."
1962 was Arundell's year. Taylor had moved up to the F1 team alongside Clark and Arundell was number one in the FJ team. From 26 starts, the Arundell / Lotus 22 combination took 18 wins (12 of them in International races), including a second victory at Monaco, four seconds (never more than 1.6 seconds in arrears) and four retirements. It was a season to remember, not only in terms of success but also two famous stories. At Goodwood, while shaking down the first Lotus 22, both Arundell and Clark complained about the car so Chapman said a few rude words, jumped in, and was quicker than both! That is the story which has entered motor racing folk lore. Peter remembers it differently, "Chapman had pulled that stunt several times before, and at Goodwood he was quickest at that point. But I got back in the car and took a second off his time and that was the last time Colin ever drove a racing car though, later, I pleaded with him to drive the Lotus 27."
The second story concerns the famous wager at Monza. Some German drivers who had been running illegal engines could not believe the speed of the works Lotuses and assumed they, too, were bent. The journalist, Richard von Frankenberg, took up the story and splashed it in the German popular press. "Colin was prepared to let the matter fade away but I told him to issue a £500 challenge, and I would put up half, Von Frankenberg would have to accept.
"Colin was still sceptical but I knew that since a lot of our races took place on street circuits, the only tracks available for the challenge were Zandvoort and Monza and, since I'd had problems at both, my winning speeds had not been as fast as I could go. Colin saw the logic, put up £1,000 himself and promised me half of the winnings if I pulled it off. Von Frankenberg nominated Monza, the bet being that I should go faster than in the race. I did so, the engine was stripped and proved legal and Colin paid me my £500."
The incident is recorded in detail in Doug Nye's "The Story of Lotus, 1961-71", von Frankenberg ate crow and the story made headlines around the world.
For 1963, Chapman produced the Lotus 27 FJ car which had a fibreglass monocoque. "They'd done all the usual tests for torsional stiffness but, under braking, the front suspension would pinch in the monocoque — you could watch it happen.
"Colin wouldn't believe me and refused to drive the car. Eventually they fitted a cross-member which was supposed to cure the problem, but didn't. It was not until I persuaded Mike Costin to try it that Lotus built the tub from aluminium."
Denny Hulme was meanwhile leading the British Express & Star FJ Championship and it was not until he got the aluminium car that Arundell was able to make a challenge, winning by a single point at the last round. At Monaco he seemed set for a hat-trick of wins, after winning his heat. "The crankshaft on our Cosworth engines used to flex, giving uneven power in the cylinders. Keith Duckworth came up with a new steel crank which he said was `unbreakable'. It broke on the first lap of the final."
Towards the end of the season, Arundell was given drives in two non-Championship F1 races with a Lotus 25. He came second in both, to Brabham in the Solitude GP and to Surtees in the Mediterranean GP at Enna. It was a remarkable debut. "I felt I'd been ready for Fl for some time, so I didn't feel over-awed. Chapman later told me that because I'd beaten Jimmy in that last race at Brands Hatch in 1960, I'd had to do an extra year in FJ, as a punishment. That apart, we were actually getting along quite well, though with Jimmy in the team, it was still pretty well a one-car outfit."
Late in 1963, Peter had a call for help from Lotus, for they were having trouble in organising the production of the Lotus-Cortinas. "Colin was impressed with what I did and asked me if I would be prepared to give up racing, become a director of the company, and organise production full-time. I replied that I wanted to be World Champion and, when I was, he was to ask me the same question and I would answer 'yes'. It's funny how things turned out in the end."
Trevor Taylor left Lotus to join BRP, "I think he got choked with constantly having long walks back from the far side of the circuit, the second Lotus was very unreliable." Arundell therefore joined Clark in both the F1 team and in the works Lotus-Cortinas, with an additional F2 programme in Ron Harris' team. "Again we were driving to order, I felt there were times I might have beaten Jimmy in the Cortinas but we were not even allowed to mix it a little to put on a show."
Few drivers can have had so successful a debut season as Arundell did in 1964. Before long, the words "brilliant" and "World Champion potential" were being linked with his name, though my distinguished colleague, Denis Jenkinson, maintains that he was a very good number two but not quite an ace. Sadly, we will never know which opinion is correct. At Snetterton, Arundell qualified third and led in the wet until his transmission failed. He followed with a third at Goodwood, behind Brabham and Clark. At Syracuse, he had transmission problems, took over Mike Spence's car, worked his way from seventh to, briefly, second and finally had to settle for third behind the Ferraris of Surtees and Bandini. Then came third places in the Aintree 200 and the International Trophy at Silverstone.
For his first World Championship event, Monaco, Peter qualified sixth and finished third despite transmission troubles which left his gear changing hand like a raw steak. Then came a third at Zandvoort, seventh at Spa (with no oil) and fourth at Rouen.
He was also going well in F2 and it was in such a race, at Rheims, that disaster struck. At the time, he was fourth in the World Championship. "I couldn't remember anything about it for years, but now it's mostly come back. I was in a tight slip-streaming bunch, you could be first one lap and seventh the next, when I kept my eye in the mirror for a fraction too long, got onto the rough at the kink on the straight, corrected, slowed slightly and was hit by poor Ritchie Ginther.
"Jochen Rindt later said I went fifty yards in the air, over the level of the trees. I parted company with the car at the top of its climb and landed on my head and shoulder, while the car landed on all four wheels, relatively undamaged. I might have been okay had I been wearing seat belts but, on the other hand, my weight might have caused the car to land the other way up."
Arundell's right femur had snapped and he was in a coma for over a fortnight with his wife, Rikki, by his bed and Jabby Crombac also there to give her support and help with translation. The operation to repair the leg should have been straightforward, but while inserting a Styman's joist to hold the fracture, the hospital (which Peter describes as "squalid") inserted infection as well. He was walking on crutches in a month and should have been fit for 1965 but surviving a near-fatal accident was more difficult than surviving French medicine. Osteomyelitis set in and for over a year in England, he was in and out of hospital, and plaster and leg irons. He also shed three stone in weight.
Chapman had promised to keep a drive for him, if he was fit enough, and he was as good as his word. The Chapman / Arundell relationship may never have been close, but Colin had Peter in his team for seven years. Arundell says, "If he had realised how much I worshipped him, things might have been different between us." The fact is, though, when a designer has a genius driving for him, the number two almost always is neglected, as any number two to Piquet will tell you. At Brands Hatch on 29th November, 1965, Arundell stepped into a Lotus F2 car and finished the day within a second of the lap record. "I was pleased, knowing things would improve, but had I told them the truth about my fitness, they would not have let me near a car. I was not only worried about having lost my touch but, because I was a professional driver, about being out of a job."
Arundell was back with Lotus for 1966. It was the first year of the 3-litre formula and Lotus used various Coventry Climax and BRM 2-litre V8 engines and the 3-litre BRM H-16. It was a bleak year for the team which had just dominated the World Championship. Mike Spence joined them on the driver strength and Arundell seems to have been made number three.
His come-back race, the non-Championship South African GP, netted him third, inches behind Siffert, both in 1½-litre cars, while Spence won in a 2-litre Lotus-Climax. He was still not 100% fit but, early in April, came second to Rindt in a very wet Eifelrennen F2 race on the short Nürburgring. When he drove Lotus-Cortinas he was invariably quicker than his usual team-mate, Jacky Ickx.
In F1, though, the story was different. He missed Monaco because his car was not ready. He practised the H-16 BRM-engined Lotus 43 at Spa but the engine broke after three laps and he did not start. He brought the car to the line in France but was out after four laps with gearbox failure. So the season went on. The only consolation was sixth at Watkins Glen, an achievement overshadowed by Clark winning in the H-16 BRM powered car. It must be said, though, that Clark practised the car nearly two seconds faster than Arundell. After the last race of the season, the Mexican GP, Peter Arundell never again drove a single-seater. "That season was a disaster. I tried driving the H-16 engined car slowly, so it wouldn't break. It still broke and I got a reputation for not trying, of not being as quick as I had been. Colin didn't help, constantly needling me with small digs, but I never blew my top, for he was the boss. I got the reputation of having a chip on my shoulder and, at the end of the year, nobody offered me a drive in anything at all, and I would have considered anything. The other trouble was that I didn't know how to make approaches for a drive.
"What really hurt was that, on the plane out to Watkins Glen, I discussed the following year with Colin and he told me he hadn't made up his mind. Then I arrived home and read in the papers that Graham Hill was to have my drive. He didn't have the guts to tell me. I had to read about it in the papers."
From the outside, and with hindsight, it's not difficult to see why Chapman preferred Hill and why he could not bring himself to tell his protégé, a man who had driven for him for seven years, that he had been sacked. Looking at the bare results, it is not hard to see why other teams thought that Arundell had lost his touch, yet his performances in other categories suggest otherwise. Motor racing is a cruel sport and Arundell felt the pain it can cause more than most. That is perhaps why the two Escort races he did 18 months later are unremembered. Racing ceased for him in 1966.
For a while he managed the McNamara F3 team but left over internal policy. He built up a thriving motor factors business, which crashed during the recession when the marketing policies of suppliers changed. Now he is embarking on a new venture with Rikki, his wife. "I've been associated with motors all my life in one way or another, and they've not been kind to me. While I'm in the States, though, I'd love to have the chance to try a few races."
It seems that a fresh chapter in his life has brought fresh optimism. He talks eagerly about meeting up with ex-patriates such as Brian Redman. The hurt from his rejection by racing is still there, but the bitterness has gone. When reminded of the fact that he was the most successful driver ever in the Monaco support race, he says now, "Ah, it was all good fun, wasn't it?"
A few days before I visited him, he'd thrown out his old helmet and overalls. "If I get another drive, I'd have to buy new stuff anyway, they were out of date." That, perhaps, encapsulates, his present attitude though I was mortified I'd not arrived in time to carry off his Day-glo red helmet as a trophy. It would have been proudly preserved as a reminder of a man I saw 20 years ago at Goodwood, winning from the front, laid back in the car and making everything look so effortless. One of the greatest unknown drivers in the modern era, until he put a wheel on the rough at Rheims. . . —ML.