The hustle in Brussels

The amazing Mini Cooper made its debut 40 years ago. Bill Blydenstein explains how he scored this legendary car’s first international race win – against the hopes of a partisan crowd and contrary to the tacit wishes of his team boss

There was no way a six-cylinder Zephyr wanted to let his pipsqueak by. But it was raining, and the big Ford slid wide on a cobbled S-bend… “Left him for dead!” grinned John Cooper.

It was late in the autumn of 1959 and this had been John’s first drive of the new Mini. He was exultant, recounting the cheeky overtaking manoeuvre with his usual gusto to a large crowd in the pub round the corner from Cooper Cars at Surbiton.

Among us was Graham Hill, who was able to substantiate John’s story. Graham had recently been to Brands Hatch in the first Speedwell-tweaked Mini. Fitted with twin carbs and a freeflow exhaust, he had lapped within a second or two of the best time achieved by the fully developed Austin A35 Speedwell racer. The Mini was big news, and clearly had huge potential.

In my capacity as a consultant stress engineer, my visits to Cooper Cars were frequent, and during the next two years I was given the chance to test several Mini Cooper prototypes. One such had been fitted, temporarily, with a 78bhp 1100 Formula Junior engine. It flew! Prepared by Ginger Devlin, it caused a sensation at Brands when Tony Maggs and I were told to see what it could do. At a time when the quickest works-supported Rileys lapped in 66sec, we were soon down in the low-64s and improving moving into 3.8 Jaguar territory. However, Devlin called us in as soon as our times stabilised, loaded up and disappeared back to Surbiton. Like all the best engineers, he frowned upon drivers frivolously enjoying themselves and wearing out machinery.

When John Cooper was casting around for the fourth driver for his team of works-prepped Mini Coopers, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. It helped that I had been involved in saloon car racing since 1958 at national and international level The other drivers were all stars in their respective categories: John Love and Tony Maggs, both Rhodesians, were Cooper’s FJ drivers managed by Ken Tyrrell and John Whitmore had been the 1961 BRSCC Saloon Car Champion in a Don Moore 850 Mini. So I was very much tail-end Charlie.

The first events for the team were at Snetterton and Brussels on April 14 and 15, respectively: Tyrrell was to take two cars, for Love and Whitmore, to Snetterton, while John took the two destined for Lucien Bianchi and myself to Brussels.

Our immaculate green-with-white-stripes Minis caused a sensation at scrutineering. Local ace Lucien was fresh from winning at Sebring and was itching to get going. Our practice times only served to fan the flames. We pulverised the lap record for the up-to-1000cc class by more than 12sec, beating times set for the 2-litre race. In the end, I pipped Lucien by a tenth.

Having discovered that Love and Whitmore had finished first and second in the up-to-1000cc class at Snetterton, our dinner that evening was a cheerful affair. But John pointed out that he expected us to behave responsibly in the race; while he refused to lay down the law, he suggested that we hold station for the first seven of the eight laps. We could then make a race of it But how were we to know when we had entered that vital last lap? He would show us a spare wheel, he said.

The Coupes de Bruxelles featured three saloon car races and three GT races on a 4.5km track that used bits of the Brussels-to-Antwerp and Gent-to-Antwerp motorways: two long straights and one long fast downhill sweep were connected by five medium-fast corners and three hairpins.

I felt confident For the first time in my career I was driving a competitive car. There was only one snag: how would I be able to fasten my seat belt after the Le Mans-type start? Having survived a head-on crash the previous year, saved only by my harness, I had promised my wife to make use of belts at all times.

The flag fell. I tripped off the kerb and nearly fell flat on my face before propelling myself almost horizontally to the cat Bianchi and I went off as one, racing flat out down to the first double righthander. Having the inside line, leased in front

It was now or never with my seat belt, and while I fumbled with it, Bianchi passed me. By the time I had both hands back on the wheel, he was 20 yards in front Which was fortunate for me!

You see, the suction effect of the brick-like Mini’s slipstream was very powerful. So much so that, on the next long downhill sweep, I had to back off to stop myself from ramming into my team-mate. As we had never run in convoy during practice, this was a revelation to me and, as yet, unknown to Lucien. I eased off. It was not in my interest to make a move until the last lap. I decided that the passing place would have to be the 110mph sweeper before the final hairpin. Plan finalised, I enjoyed the drive, practising slingshot exits from the acute hairpin at the entry of the aforesaid sweep. Bianchi was enjoying it too, waving to the crowds.

It’s amazing how one loses count during a race, each lap drifting by. Only eight laps. Surely we must be near the finish? There was no sign of the spare, though. And John was avoiding eye contact, and kept shaking his head.

It finally occurred to me that he had no intention of provoking a fight to the finish: the darling of the crowd was leading comfortably, about to score a popular victory.

Which is why I kept an eagle eye on the pitcrew. On the next lap there was a commotion; someone was pointing at the spare. It was now or never.

Hanging back, I achieved the vital slingshot exit, about 30 yards behind Bianchi. Finally booting it and catching the full effect of the slipstream, I barrelled past Lucien looked up in horror and amazement He ducked into my slipstream. But too late! I had a 10-yard lead and was hugging the inside line into and out of the last bend. I had scored that coveted first race win for the works Mini Cooper.

The Belgians crowded around. They were all asking Bianchi what had happened. By then he knew very well: on those last few hundred metres he had, at last, experienced the Mini’s overwhelming slipstream effect.

My belts-and-braces approach had worked.