Tough guy with a soft touch

Tom Wheatcroft is 80. His has been a life full of incident and struggle, success and joy. The achievements Therein are too numerous to list, but his most intense period, his years alongside coming-man Roger Williamson, says it all. Story by Paul Fearnley

As strong as oak, Tom Wheatcroft is. A few weeks before our interview — held in his museum’s cafe over (as usual) fried eggs on toast — he’d driven smack into a wall. At speed. And Tom being Tom, he’d done so in Alberto Ascari’s Ferrari 500.

His elbows whacked dents into the cockpit surround, his knees crushed the dashboard, and the steering wheel boss punched him unconscious. He laughs it off now in that roomstopping Sid James-meets-Barry White chortle of his, but it was a close-run thing. Ah yes, but what a way to go for the man who has lived the enthusiasts’ enthusiast’s dream: stable of glorious cars, own track to play on.

Though still beat-up, he was happy to limp the full length of his crankshaft-shaped house of cars to have his photo taken, joking throughout. By his own admission, he can be stubborn and pedantic, but you can’t help warming to a man you’d definitely want on your side, be it a night raid on Tobruk or scything through town hall red tape.

He is also, again by his own admission, a soppy bugger. He had a soft spot for Donington Park and would make an annual pilgrimage for old time’s sake. He’d been present pre-war when the Silver Arrows had ripped up the Leicestershire countryside. And although he had returned the compliment a few years later, in a tank, Bernd Rosemeyer and Tazio Nuvolari were, will always be, two of his greatest heroes.

He had no plans, though, to buy the rundown circuit, but once the seed had been planted by a local council officer, who tipped him off that the land was up for sale, the deal was done in a matter of days.

That was 1970. And that was the easy bit. Years of wrangling and seven-figure legal bills ensued. Lesser mortals would have thrown their hands up. He, though, knuckled down.

It was the same when it came to hosting his one and only Grand Prix. He had come close to landing the F1 fish in 1981, ’83 and ’88, only to be scuppered at the last minute. Time was running out. He and his circuit were “getting a bit outdated”. So when Bernie Ecclestone offered him an April date and the 1993 European Grand Prix, it was now or weather.

It poured down. He made a huge loss. But Tom being Tom, his indomitable spirit was rewarded with one of the most memorable races ever. His podium moment alongside Ayrton Senna will live long — especially when you consider the circumstances. Tom being Tom, he had checked out of hospital to be there. He’d had a heart attack at lunchtime, you see — while demonstrating a Mercedes-Benz W154 in the pouring rain.

This is a man who deals with wholes, not halves. He thinks big, but revels in the detail. Meander through the Donington Grand Prix Collection and the McLarens and the Williams, the stunning Lancia D50 and Alfa Romeo Bimotore, the Vanwalls and the BRMs, begin to blend after a while. Stupendous. Overwhelming, too.

But there is a space that forces you to pause rather than take for granted, to peer intently rather than stare agape. Not at the cars, less impressive than their neighbours, but at the surrounding ephemera. The items in cabinets are bland yet compelling. Even if you don’t know the background to it, this, plainly, is a shrine to the young man who stares from a passport photo on a yellowing 1973 competition licence: Mr R Williamson, of 24 Barlby Road, Leicestershire.

He is more clean-cut Yank than the then-fashionable uncut and lank. His sandy complexion smacks of ex-choirboy, not of cut-and-thrust racer. But Williamson R very definitely was the latter.

His rise was swift — Ford Anglia one year, F3 stardom the next His end was slow and grisly, and shamefully unnecessary. And with him every step of the way on this intense three-season journey was a jovial, philanthropic Leicester builder. These were Tom’s best of times, the worst of times — a microcosm of what he is all about

“One night the doorbell rang,” he remembers. “It was ever so late and I was asleep in my armchair. My wife woke me and said there was someone to see me. It was Roger.

“He was covered head to foot in grease and oil having just changed an axle on one of his father’s buses. He gave me some tickets for the next day’s races at Silverstone. I told him I only went to Grands Prix nowadays. But when I woke up the next morning, I felt bad about what I’d said after all the effort he’d gone to. So I went.”

And arrived just as Roger’s on-the-never-never March rocked up in the paddock on the back of a breakdown truck. It was wrecked; Williamson’s F3 gamble was on the verge of failure.

Tom sprang into action, striking deals with March, Dunlop and BR The car was repaired overnight and Roger raced it to fifth in the support race to the International Trophy.

They met again in Monaco: “Roger was doing the F3 race and smoke was pouring from his engine. I went to see him and told him to get a new one and that I would pay for it. He said, “We haven’t paid for this one yet!”

By July 1971, Wheatcroft Racing with Roger Williamson was go. Tom had run Derek Bell very successfully in Formula Two and the Tasman series, but his latest venture seemed more focused, more committed, more serious.

Wheatcroft: “There was just something about Roger. Dead honest, he was — I could tell by his eyes. He never asked me for anything. And he was a real fighter in the car, never gave up; the number of races we won by half a car’s length.”

In his first season of single-seater racing Williamson scored 13 victories, won the Lombank F3 title, was second to Dave Walker’s works Lotus in the more significant Shell Super Oil series, and received the prestigious Grovewood Award.

They stayed on in F3 in 1972 and Roger, once he had swapped March for GRD, was the man to beat, winning the Shell Super Oil and Forward Trust titles. He contested some F2 races, too, with no luck, but with an eye to 73.

He began that campaign in a GRD, but it was only when he reverted to March (and BMW power) that things began to gel. He was impressive at Rouen before being halted by low oil pressure. Then came the Monza Lottery race.

“We missed first practice,” recalls Wheatcroft. “And then the transporter wouldn’t fit under the bridge so we unloaded the car on the road. We plonked Roger in, no time for set-up work, and he got pole inside five laps.” The supershow didn’t stop there.

Williamson won the first heat at a canter. But on the first lap of the second, Vittorio Brambilla spun in front of him. The Brit took to the escape road and rejoined last, his first-heat advantage gone in an instant.

By lap six, however, he was already up to second — passing six cars on one lap — and catching the leading Alpine of Patrick Depailler hand over fist. His first attempt to pass Depailler saw him off the track again, but the second, two laps from home, saw him score his most memorable win. Nobody could know it at the time, but it would also be his last.

Blessed with natural talent and spurred on (and cushioned by) Wheatcroft’s financial clout and irrepressible spirit, Formula One was calling. Roger impressed BRM at Silverstone in the winter of 1973, but Tom knew the shortcomings of their V12 compared to the DFV, even if the team’s patriach, Louis Stanley, did not.

Wheatcroft: “Ken [Tyrrell] wanted Roger; and I wanted him to go with Ken. A contract hadn’t been signed but it was getting closer, when Roger rang and asked if he could come round for a chat.” They spent most of the day together, but it was only after the Nine o’Clock News had finished that Roger got round to it.

“He said, ‘Can I stay with you instead of going with Ken?’ I hadn’t thought of us doing F1 together. Ken had forgotten more than we knew. But Roger was insistent” And Tom, it seems, was ready to persuaded. Later that same night he was on the phone to Pat McLaren asking if he could buy a pair of M23s for Roger.

Their longer-term plans were even more ambitious: Tom would build his own F1 car, Roger would drive it.

“We had it all worked out: we wanted Harvey Postlethwaite to design it, and Trevor Foster was going to be our lead mechanic. I bought all the best kit for the build.” Kit that would remain under dust sheets for years.

In the midst of a hectic 1973, Wheatcroft arranged some sighter F1 outings for Roger at the wheel of the works March vacated by Jean-Pierre Jarier. The second of these was the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort on July 29.

“I always went with him onto the grid,” says Wheatcroft. “But I had just signed the biggest sponsorship deal Formula One had ever seen, with Marlboro, and was running a bit late. By the time I arrived on the grid, the engines had started and I had to leave before I had chance to speak to him.”

He would never get another.

On lap eight, a plume of smoke hinted at the worst Then it was confirmed: Roger was gone. Wheatcroft was devastated.

“I know now that I’d got too close to him. You shouldn’t do that in such a dangerous business. His death affected me like you wouldn’t believe. Farmers used to bum stubble off the fields in those days, and the smoke always used to set me off.”

Wheatcroft did build his own cars, F2 and Formula Atlantic challengers driven by the likes of Brian Henton and Bob Evans, but that particular spark had gone. Roger was irreplaceable.

Looking back, Tom knows he missed something vital by not becoming involved in Formula One, but by the time he had recovered from Roger’s death, the sport at the highest level had no room for his blue-collar `Hesketh’.

Instead he concentrated on the development and promotion of his circuit — to the benefit of all. Unassuming supertalent Roger Williamson might have been his favourite ‘son’, but Tom has since become a father figure to everyone involved in the sport he loves so much.