Richard Attwood: Nigel Roebuck's Legends

A driver who was a match for the best in F1 on his day, before going on to win at le Mans with Porsche, Richard Attwood is one of Nigel Roebuck's Legends

Richard Attwood leads F2 race at Reims in 1966

1966: Attwood leads at Reims in his No12 F2 Lola


One of the reasons I no longer stay in Monaco for the GP is that these days I find the place intensely claustrophobic. So many beautiful buildings have been swept away, so many ugly skyscraper blocks put up, that Monte Carlo seems to crowd in on itself. After a day there, it is therapeutic in the extreme to drive a few miles away from the madness, into France.

When first I started going to the race, this was not really necessary — and in May 1968, not necessary at all, for the place was almost deserted. The whole of France was in a state of acute political upheaval, beset by what amounted to a general strike, by riots, by student demonstrations, you name it. By the end of that week, the country was effectively closed. In one respect, this was a delight, for a lot of people changed their minds about coming to the race. You could get dinner anywhere without troubling to book, and the grandstands were virtually empty. I wasn’t a journalist back then, and so didn’t have a pass, yet I had a better view of the race than at any time since.

As a race, in truth, it was hardly memorable. After a brief flurry by Johnny Servoz-Gavin (subbing for an injured Jackie Stewart in Ken Tyrrell’s Matra), Graham Hill was into the lead by lap four, and there he stayed for the duration.

The attrition rate was truly extraordinary. At that time only 16 cars were allowed to start, and by lap 17, 11 of them were out, half a dozen by reason of accident. Such excitement as there was came from an unexpected source. In that perilous time, the sport was still reeling from the death of Jim Clark, and three weeks before Monaco there had been further tragedy when Mike Spence was killed at Indianapolis.

Richard Attwood leads Pedro Rodriguez in the 1968 Monaco GP

Streetwise: Attwood stunned his BRM team-mate Rodriguez with a stellar drive at Monaco in 1968

Grand Prix Photo

As Jackie Oliver joined the Lotus team, so Richard Attwood was drafted in as team-mate to Pedro Rodriguez at BRM. And Attwood, while never a great driver, was invariably great in Monte Carlo. In 1965, for example, he drove a Parnell Lotus-BRM, and qualified it sixth, ahead of such as Hulme, McLaren and Siffert, only to crash spectacularly at the Gasworks, when a rear hub carrier let go. In ’68, Attwood again qualified sixth, almost a second faster than Rodriguez. Third by lap 12, second by lap 17, he dropped at one stage to 10sec behind Hill, then in the late laps began to pare away Graham’s lead. At the flag he was just 2.2sec behind the Lotus, having run the last 10 laps at a stunning pace, every one of them under Clark’s lap record. The very last lap — the 80th — was quicker even than pole position time. “I think I happened to have the right car in the right place at the right time,” Attwood modestly says. “My all-time favourite track was Clermont-Ferrand, a fantastic combination of every circuit there was. But I always liked Monaco — I liked the precision of it all.

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“My drive there in ’68… it was a good drive, I think, but! felt, on other days, I’d driven better races and got no reward. At Monaco I didn’t know how to pace myself because, apart from a one-off for Cooper at Mosport the year before, I hadn’t driven a grand prix car since ’65. “The thing is, we didn’t have fitness people to keep us going back then — it was just down to you. You were very much on your own. If I’d known a bit more about it, I might have gone harder at about two-thirds distance, but every time I speeded up, Graham did the same. He definitely backed off towards the end, but I’ve no idea how it might have gone if I’d speeded up a bit earlier.”

Pretty unassuming, you would have to say. Attwood never outqualified Rodriguez again, scored no more points that season, and was dropped by BRM before the end of it, but that day at Monaco he looked superb, a man wholly in his element.

A year later he was back there again, this time as team-mate to Hill in a works Lotus 49, standing in for Rindt, who’d been hurt at Barcelona. The results were less spectacular this time — 10th on the grid, fourth in the race — but it was a tidy drive, and it scored some extra points for Lotus. Colin Chapman was well pleased.

Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann talk in the pits at Le Mans 1970

Attwood and Herrmann confer during their Le Mans-winning drive of 1970


It is as a sportscar driver, though, that Attwood’s name is best remembered, and particularly with Le Mans, and the fabled Porsche 917.

Anyone who ever raced a 917 reacts the same way when you ask how it was to drive. In 1969, the year of its debut, drivers detested it, for while it was shatteringly fast, so also its cockpit was deafening, its on-track manners wayward. Richard thought the original, long-tail, car nightmarish.

“It was purely aerodynamics, and once they’d been sorted out, the most frightening car I ever drove became about the best. It was simply a matter of going to a short, swept-up tail, and then the car worked fine. Porsche never thought the problem was with the aerodynamics, but those were the days of hit-and-miss engineering — even today aerodynamics is a bit of a black art, I think, at Mulsanne speeds.

“The early cars had the exhausts coming under the doors, and after the first stint at Le Mans in ’69, I was completely deaf and I had a blinding headache. It was a hugely uncomfortable car to drive — and the bloody thing lasted for 21 hours! I hadn’t won Le Mans at that stage, but still I was quite happy to get out of that car.”

By the time Attwood returned to Le Mans in 1970, though, everything was very different. When Porsche asked him what he wanted for the race, he requested a standard shorttail car, and an ultra-reliable co-driver, which he got in the shape of veteran Hans Herrmann. And they won the race. “We were nowhere in qualifying, because by now the 5-litre engine was proven, and we only had a 4.5.1 said, ‘This is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made at Le Mans — we haven’t got a chance’. And we didn’t have — until everybody else behaved like a prat! I mean, if you’ve got to have 15 or 16 cars fall out before you can win — it doesn’t happen, does it? But it did.

“I could have won Le Mans three times in a 917, actually. I should have won it with Vic Elford in ’69, when the gearbox broke, and again with Herbie Muller in 71, when a gearbox problem took 45 minutes to repair. The winning 917 later had the same problem, but the factory guys knew exactly what to do, and it took them 25 minutes. We only lost by five minutes, so we really should have won. “Still, the year I shouldn’t have won it, in ’70, I did! Of course I’m proud to have been part of Porsche’s first victory at Le Mans, but to me it was always a manufacturers’ race, and not necessarily a drivers’ race. You always had at least one other driver — and today it’s probably three or four — so it’s a team thing, isn’t it?”

Richard Attwood portrait Cahier

On his day, at the right track, Attwood was a match for even Jochen Rindt

Bernard Cahier/Getty Images

Attwood has been in the motor trade all his life, and admits that when he bought a 917 in 1978, very much in his mind was that here was his pension fund. For 22 years he kept the car, running it occasionally in historic events, before parting with it finally last summer.

The car in question was chassis 022, originally bought by Solar Productions, Steve McQueen’s film company, for the making of the movie Le Mans. In 1975, it was acquired by Brian Redman, one of Attwood’s Porsche team-mates, and he then sold it to Richard — for a sum of money which now makes him weep.

“I’ve got some sympathy for Brian,” Attwood laughs, “because we’ve all had things like that happen to us.! I have made similar mistakes.” Never at Monte Carlo, though.