Mike Spence: An unrewarded talent

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The Chaparral 2F is enshrined in motor racing lore as the car that allowed the underrated Mike Spence to demonstrate his true mettle. Spotted by Colin Chapman at the Monaco Formula Junior race in 1962, his genial character tended to mask the determination that had seen him already defeat polio at a young age.

“Mike was almost too nice to be a racing driver,” says Jackie Stewart, his team leader at BRM in 1967. “He was very well mannered and very shy, almost introverted. The kind of person you would have expected to have had Jim Clark as a team mate which, of course, he did.”

Drafted briefly into Formula One by Chapman in 1963, Spence raced for Team Lotus throughout 1964, finishing sixth at Monza and fourth in Mexico. The following season, again partnering Clark, he was fourth in South Africa, fourth in the British GP, and third in Mexico. He also won the Race of Champions and led at Enna before crashing. He also won the non-championship South African GP which kicked off 1966. That was an otherwise thin year, though, as a recovered Peter Arundell returned to partner Clark, leaving Spence the slim pickings of a brace of fifth places in a Parnell Lotus BRM. He was able to show stronger form in the CanAm series in a McLaren M1B, and then BRM took him on alongside Stewart.

They were saddled with the H16 and Stewart was quicker, with the pick of the equipment, but Spence showed flair and mechanical sympathy in bringing the guttural monster home where the Scot frequently retired. The balance sheet showed sixth at Monaco and fifths at Spa, Mosport, Monza and Mexico City.

“The H16 was a disaster!” Stewart recalls. “It didn’t matter who was in the car, we all did the same speed. One of Mike’s problems was that Jimmy was so dominant, and he suffered as the Lotus number two.”

To some extent the same happened at BRM with Stewart. But as team leader at BRM for 1968 it seemed that at last he was blossoming. The season held great promise, as Peter Wright, then a fledgling design engineer, confirmed. “Mike was just a lovely guy, and I really believe that BRM’s demise began with his death. He was obviously going places.”

Spence qualified second for the Race of Champions, and ran second to winner Bruce McLaren until persistent bottoming wore away an oil line. Then he and team mate Pedro Rodriguez swapped the lead with the McLarens of Bruce and Denny Hulme at Silverstone’s International Trophy. Spence’s passing moves were notably adventurous, especially when he took McLaren round the outside at Woodcote. He was still chasing Hulme when the engine broke after 40 laps.

“He was in tune with the team and Tony Rudd, and he was exactly what BRM needed,” said Wright. “He was a very good test driver; he was in tune with the car and he could communicate. Mike was the team’s big hope, and he was making it all start to click.”

Then came the call to Lotus, to replace Clark at Indianapolis in the turbine 56, and Clark’s potential lieutenant, Stewart, who had fractured his shoulder blade.

On May 7, a month after Clark’s death, Spence circulated the Speedway a shade under 170mph, quicker than team mate Graham Hill. Then, 48 minutes before the track closed, and as the team was packing up, he was asked to run team mate Greg Weld’s car to help the American up to speed. He got out of the groove in the first turn, and deliberately let the car run along the wall when he realised he couldn’t save it. But what should have been just a typical rookie shunt turned to tragedy when the right front wheel swung back on its steering arm, inflicting a fatal head wound. In the aftermath, Chapman disappeared for four days, utterly distraught at the loss of another good friend so soon after Clark.

BRM’s ability to develop its car died with Spence. Rodriguez showed great form until mid-season, but then the early promise simply evaporated.

At the start of 1968 it seemed Spence had emerged from the shadow of his two great Scottish team mates, but fate again enmeshed his destiny with theirs, robbing the sport of a popular figure whose patience seemed on the very brink of bringing him his reward.

“Mike was absolutely in his prime with the 2F,” Phil Hill says. “I had the greatest respect for him as a driver and as a man.”

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