Moss rated him and yet Colin Chapman dropped him from Team Lotus. Did his record accurately reflect the talent of Innes Ireland, asks Andrew Frankel?
One of the few things in my career of which I am proud is appointing Nigel Roebuck to write his ‘Legends’ column for this magazine. Over five years ago, this title suffered the dubious delight of being relaunched with my backside occupying the editor’s chair and I needed someone to offer perspective on the greats of the bygone era. Having known Nigel’s writing since I was a child of seven but never having spoken so much as a syllable to him, I cold-called him and he simply said yes. Sixty-something columns later, his contribution to Motor Sport remains invaluable.
The point of this? From all the subjects in over 100 years of Motorsport, the one he chose for his very first column was Innes Ireland. If it appears unusual that Innes, rather than a Fangio or a Clark should be chosen to populate that first column, all I can assure you is that the feeling evaporates before you’re close to finishing. For in Innes Ireland lay one of motor racing’s true treasures: the last of a breed of men who did it purely for the love. He retired because he was disgusted that the sport he adored had become infected by naked commercialism; he was disillusioned because there was no longer room for fun if you wanted to reach the top.
Yet, and I think sadly, when we recall Innes Ireland today, I don’t believe too many of us first think of his driving talent. I fear most of us don’t think of his driving at all but his hell-raising, booze-fuelled off-track antics. And even when we concentrate on his on-track activities, it is usually to his many and miraculous escapes from death that we turn.
To an extent it is inevitable. Read his sublime autobiography All Arms and Elbows and you will not fail to notice how diligently the author cultivates this image (while specifically denying it) and how his natural modesty precludes him from estimating his talent. There are exceptions, particularly on the painful subject of his relationship with Jim Clark, but overall the impression is of a free spirit borne on the shoulders of a true romantic, charging from caper to caper and inevitably susceptible to disillusion.
But talk to those who knew him and another picture of Innes emerges, one too often clouded today by the engaging ephemera, myth and legend that has blown up around him in the 35 years since he retired and nine since he succumbed to cancer aged 63.
This is the Innes I am after; we all know there probably was no better person in the history of the sport with whom to spend a night on the tiles, but the man I wanted to spend time with was Innes the driver, Innes the team-mate, Innes the employee.
Ken Gregory probably knew him as well as any. At the end of 1961, Innes won at Watkins Glen and delivered Team Lotus’ first and his only Grand Prix victory. Colin Chapman fired him 16 days later and, to add insult to considerable injury, told a number of other people before Innes. Consequently, Ireland suffered the indignity of finding out from Geoff Murdoch, competitions manager at Es.so, whom he happened to bump into at the London Motor Show. Gregory picked the shattered Innes off the floor and offered him a job at the British Racing Partnership.
“Innes was loyal to me, not just for the three seasons we raced together, but for the rest of his life,” Ken recalls. “For all the fun and games he had, he was a man of incredibly high principles and he felt crushed by the way he’d been treated. In all the years I was in racing, I never met a more loyal man.”
And as a BRP driver, says Gregory, Ireland was second to just one: “We employed a lot of people over the years [Masten Gregory, Harry Schell, Hans Hers-mann, Ivor Bueb and Chris Bristow to name a few] and Innes was the best of the lot — except, of course, for Stirling.”
Few would argue that after the retirement of Fangio in 1958, and before his accident in 1962, anyone other than Moss was the finest racing driver on the planet, if not the finest selector of race-winning machinery. In one of few estimations of his ability more honest than modest in All Arms and Elbows, Ireland wrote: `I think I was a pretty useful driver and I always felt I could hold my own against anyone — except perhaps Stirling Moss — provided I had as good a car.’
The words were written in painful defence of his rude ejection from Team Lotus. Elsewhere in the book, Innes happily confides, ‘Never in my wildest dreams have I ever thought I was in the same street as Stirling!’
Today, Moss is another who thinks Innes’ reputation as a driver never received the dues his talent and skills deserved: “Everyone remembers what a good bloke Innes was, but I’ll tell you what, when the practice times went up, you only ever bothered to look at three or four of them — and I always checked those that Innes put up.”
And if you believed the popular press at the time, Innes was a man who was given and then squandered the talent to be the next Moss. It all stems from the Easter Monday meeting at Goodwood in 1960 when, driving a Lotus in F1 and F2 races, Innes convincingly beat Stirling. And if at the time Ireland was less specific than he should have been about his Team Lotus cars being built to a higher specification than Stirling’s Rob Walker machines (Stirling drove a Porsche in the F2 race), this sin of omission was entirely understandable in the context.
The press went predictably mad, happy not to let what they knew was the truth stand in the way of a damn good story. And having put Innes right up there, they were, of course, all the more delighted to shoot him down when Chapman fired him.
In fact, Moss sees another motive for Lotus dropping Ireland so suddenly: “Up until then, he was the best driver Lotus had ever employed. I’m not saying he was better than Jimmy [Clark] became, but at the time he was of that order. Thing is, Jimmy fitted in with Colin’s mindset so much better than Innes; he was pretty much a racing virgin when he came to Lotus and he would do what he was told.” But it is also true that while Innes out-qualified Clark in all but one of the world championship rounds they both contested during 1960, so the emergent Clark repaid the compliment identically the following season. For Chapman, the writing was on the lap chart.
But the problem was never a lack of pure speed. Moss confirms that Innes was “a racer to his core”; what he lacked — the vital commodity that had taken Moss, and would take Clark, right to the top — was the right attitude. We think today that motor racing at the highest level is a science-fuelled business where there is little room for pure sport, but the seeds of that situation were sown just as Innes should have been reaching his peak — and that was to be his downfall. He was cut from the same fun-loving cloth as Hawthorn and Collins, and when a new breed of racing driver came along, those of the old guard had either to adapt or lose out.
Innes was unlucky to be team-mates to all three who best defined this new and dedicated genre: Moss, Clark and John Surtees. Moss happily admits it: “I was pretty serious about motor racing. Jimmy was more serious still; I think it’s why Chapman saw the future lay with him and not Innes.”
Surtees was another who burst out of left field in 1960, coming from (four-wheeled) nowhere to F1 in his first season. He was runner-up in his home GP, ahead of Ireland, on his second F1 outing, and then planted his Lotus 18 on pole at the next race in Portugal while Innes could only manage seventh. The last straw in the relationship as team-mates came at the US Grand Prix. “It was the first place Team Lotus had gone where there was really big prize money,” remembers Surtees, “and Chapman said all the winnings would be pooled. I got a really bad start and was coming back through the field when I tied to pass Jimmy. Unfortunately, I forgot that there’s a lot of sand at Riverside off-line and I spun in front of him, whereupon he T-boned me.”
Innes, for whom money was never the aim but always an issue, won $5000 that day when he drove home second behind Stirling. Splitting it with teammates who had collided on lap three was not his idea of a good deal. “Innes was very angry indeed,” admits Surtees.
It was neither the first nor the last time that Ireland and Surtees crossed swords: “At the end of the season, Colin offered me the number one position in the team for 1961 and asked who I wanted to be my team-mate. I chose Jimmy. When Innes discovered this, he rang me up from Paris asking what I thought I was doing stealing his place in the team. In fact, I ended up walking away from Team Lotus because of Innes’ antics. I think he disliked a newcomer arriving and usually going quicker than him, and by the end of the season there was so much aggravation and unpleasantness, I left.” As a driver, Surtees assesses Ireland as “extremely competent, but not brilliant”.
It must have been with a sense of the unfulfilled that Innes looked back on his career after he retired in early 1967 and saw that its highest point, that win at Watkins Glen, came in only his third full season of F1, though he would compete in another four.
Despite being promised near-identical machinery to the works drivers for 1962, the British Racing Partnership (then operating as the UDT-Laystall Racing team) ended up with second-string Lotus 24s, while Jim Clark was given a handy little device called the Lotus 25. And while the cars that BRP designed and provided themselves in ’63 and ’64 were beautifully engineered, the money was simply not there to compete with the big boys. One fifth and two fourths were the best results of three seasons in the world championship.
By 1965, Innes found himself without a drive as BRP had run out of money. Rather racing anything than nothing, he ended up driving a BRM-powered Lotus 25 for Tim Parnell. Richard Attwood was his team-mate who remembers that time thus: “It was like driving for Minardi today. We were never going to win anything in them.
“Innes’ era had passed,” he continues, “and I don’t recall ever thinking he was an outstanding driver, but in those cars it was all a bit of a waste of time.
By then, at least, Innes had to be enthused about a racing car and there was simply nothing to be enthusiastic about. So in the end,! don’t think he took it very seriously. And if you’re looking to see how he stacked up against me, don’t bother my car always had the more powerful engine.”
Sportscars, however, had enthused Innes ever since he won the Goodwood TT in the BRP’s Ferrari 250 GTO in 1962, and the fact that one accounted for the most serious accident of his career did little to deter him. It happened in 1963 when he drove a Ferrari V12-powered Lotus 19 for Rosebud Racing at the North-West Pacific Grand Prix in Seattle. During practice and, by his own admission, going too fast, he lost control and hit a car that had no right to be parked where it was. When they finally cut him loose from the wreck, they discovered he’d not only dislocated his right hip but the impact had rammed a femur eight inches into his body.
In 1964, he and Graham Hill were a split fuel tank from winning the Nurburgring 1000km in a Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari 330P, and when Col Ronnie Hoare started campaigning a Ford GT40 in 1966, Innes leapt at the chance to race it, his F1 career now truly over. It came to nothing.
Mike Salmon co-drove him and remembers a man still in command of his talents when the occasion arose: “He was underrated,” he recalls, “and a natural. He was smooth, mechanically sympathetic and entirely lacking in bullshit. I remember when we shared a 250LM having all kinds of trouble with the gearbox and asking him how many clean changes he’d made in it. He said, ‘About three’, whereas any number of other hotshots would have pretended to have had no trouble with it at all.”
A consensus is emerging: Innes Ireland was never one of the best, nor would he have been even if it had mattered to him as much as it mattered to Moss, Clark and Surtees. They had something he lacked. Were he alive today, Innes might conclude the fun he had and they missed was more than a fair trade.
But do not mistake him for some middle-order makeweight who happened to be around when Colin Chapman got it right and cashed in as a result, before fading thereafter. Such people would never be paid the compliment of watching Stirling Moss surveying their practice times.
Ireland’s best F1 races, at Goodwood in 1960 and Solitude in 1961, where he humbled everyone, are not well recalled today because they lacked championship status, but the drivers drove no less hard for that. But the difference between Ireland on one hand and Moss, Clark and Surtees on the other was that Stirling, Jimmy and John drove like that all the time. Innes, clearly, did not.
The verdict on Ireland’s talent is best summed up by Moss Innes’ friend, team-mate, rival and, at BRP, boss: “There are many people out there who have won a Grand Prix without ever deserving to. Innes deserved to win a whole lot more than he did. The record does not do him justice.”
Given that the same record books show Stirling was never world champion, it is fair to say that this is a subject on which he can speak with more than usual authority.