On the anniversary of a spectacular accident in his Lola T70 Spyder, Dutchman Michiel Smits returned to Goodwood to race it once again
The 2016 Bruce McLaren Trophy was less than a lap old when the drama unfolded – and at the time I was one of only two accredited media in the area. I had my camera trained on a group of Lolas and McLarens rumbling towards the apex at Woodcote, the brisk right-hander before the Goodwood chicane, when I became aware of something blue flashing across my viewfinder’s top-left corner. It seemed to be travelling much more quickly than anything else and, more alarmingly, was doing so in the wrong direction. The subsequent thump resonates still.
The Lola hit the tyre wall at unabated speed and I took just four images, putting my camera down as soon as the car pivoted towards me and the potential seriousness of the incident became apparent. The T70’s front end was horribly twisted and it seemed inconceivable that anybody could have survived an abrupt deceleration of that kind, but Goodwood’s tyre walls run deep and Michiel Smits escaped with serious concussion and fractures to six ribs and two vertebrae.
“It still seems amazing that I got away so relatively lightly,” he says. “It was my first race in the car and also my first time at Goodwood, so all weekend my plan was just to play myself in gently and not do anything silly. But then I was hit on the head by debris from another car and unfortunately it happened on the Fordwater Straight, the fastest part of the circuit.”
Rendered instantly unconscious by a panel that had flown from the T70 of Marc Devis, Smits was slumped at the wheel with his foot hard on the throttle.
“I don’t remember anything at all,” he says – to this day, his only vague recollection of the whole weekend is being on a northbound Eurotunnel train – “and my concussion lasted for about eight months.”
The race was duly red-flagged and, back on the grid, Complete Motorsport Solutions (CMS) boss Philip Cheek was keeping an eye open for two of the many participating T70s. One, being driven by Nick Padmore, led at the time of the stoppage and was later declared winner of a truncated, two-lap race. The other was missing.
“Michiel took delivery of the Lola at Goodwood and we were due to take it away, having agreed a deal to prepare it for him,” Cheek says. “It was obvious that something major had happened from the way the whole track fell silent, so while I kept an eye on Nick’s car my wife Stephanie was running around trying to find out what was going on. We were eventually told that Michiel had been trapped in his car by one of his boots, where the throttle pedal had folded back, but once marshals had cut his laces they’d been able to release him and he actually walked to the air ambulance – though I’ve no idea how he managed that and neither has he. When we agreed to take the car back to our workshop for him, I hadn’t anticipated taking it away in quite so many bits.”
Once in hospital Smits remained under sedation for six days, but when he regained consciousness he soon began talking about getting back behind the T70’s wheel – and specifically at Goodwood.
Prior to forming CMS, Cheek had worked in sports car racing – principally with LMP2 and GT2 teams – but had also been asked to run his future father-in-law Ian Simmonds’s Tyrrell 012 in historic Formula 1 events. “I kept declining,” he says. “I didn’t want to do it because of the family connection, wondering how things would be if my relationship with his daughter ended. Ian was totally understanding and didn’t push things any further. Then in 2012, when there was a historic F1 event supporting the British Grand Prix, he asked whether I fancied going to Silverstone. When I said ‘yes’, he replied, ‘There’s one condition – you have to run the car.’ I’d never really looked at the Tyrrell before, so I went over it, made a few changes and we did the race. That became the basis for CMS – and I did subsequently marry his daughter.”
The new operation started in a small unit on an industrial estate in Kimbolton, a stone’s throw from the Cambridgeshire kart circuit of the same name, and last August moved a very short distance into larger premises with scope for expansion. “Ian had come across some real horror stories, in terms of preparation expenses spiralling out of control,” Cheek says, “so from day one it has been our objective to provide customers with a clear idea of what things will cost and make sure there are no hidden nasties.”
CMS will soon have its own fabrication facility (‘in-house’ presently means Jody Arch at JA Kit and Custom, a delightfully traditional machine shop a couple of miles down the road) and its full-time staff of four looks after cars for seven clients – including two T70 Spyders: the ‘Padmore’ Mk2 (SL71/48, ex-Team Surtees – the 1966 Can-Am title winner recently owned by Phil Hall but now in the hands of Michael Whitaker) and the Mk1 of Smits (SL70/12, originally sold to John Mecom Racing in America and driven by Walt Hansgen from the summer of ’65). The latter was originally built up to replace Mecom’s chassis SL70/3, which Hansgen had written off at Mosport Park, Canada.
Despite the ferocity of Smits’s Goodwood misfortune, this latest rebuild was by no means as extensive as might be imagined.
“At first it was a huge shock to see the state the car was in,.” Cheek says, “but as we started taking things apart we realised they weren’t as bad as we’d first thought. It was a challenge, but a good one. We checked every last nut and bolt, but managed to preserve quite a lot. It still has the rear subframe from the accident, albeit repaired. Bob Simpson from R&J Simpson in Tamworth took one look at the chassis and said, ‘We can save the back end, but there’s nothing we can do about the front’ – so that’s new from the fuel tanks forward. They did a brilliant job of stitching the two bits together
“The left-front corner had to be replaced, after bearing the brunt of the impact, but the other three corners all still feature the same parts. Everything was stripped down, crack-tested, repaired if necessary and put back. The front-right wishbones are from the accident, ditto the right-hand and rear bodywork sections. The only new body parts are the nose, the left-hand sidepod, the left-hand door and the screen. Everything else – including the dash, steering column and rack – are from the crashed car. We’re not a company that throws stuff away for the sake of it, though we did have to replace the steering wheel – the previous one bent when it impacted against Michiel’s ribs.
“The engine didn’t require too much attention, either. With debris flying everywhere and the throttle wide open, quite a bit of stuff was ingested via the trumpets. It was checked over by HRS Developments in Holland, who look after the Chevy V8s in both of the T70s we run, but once it had been cleaned out it was fine.”
Plans to take the Lola to last autumn’s Goodwood Revival were eventually put on hold – “It would have been feasible to have the car ready,” Cheek says, “but Michiel wasn’t” – and in the end the full rebuild absorbed 42 working days. “We did the fibreglass repairs in-house, the body went to a paint shop, Jody did the fabrication, Bob Simpson sorted the chassis and I think it was a sensible project,” Cheek says. “I won’t go into details, but I think people would be surprised by how cost-effective the whole thing proved to be.”
Smits was finally reunited with the car ahead of this year’s Members’ Meeting, where he finished 16th in the Surtees Trophy – despite a first-lap spin at, ironically, Woodcote. This time, the T70 nudged the tyres gently and he was able to continue.
“A braking problem materialised,” Cheek says, “but we hadn’t been able to run it for long enough beforehand for that to become apparent. The rear pistons had worked their way to an angle and not returned, so the
brakes were constantly on – albeit only slightly. Every time he was off the power the thing was trying to spin, so he did a very good job to adapt and nurse the car to the end. We’d had high hopes of the weekend, but the problem was only going to become apparent once he’d completed a certain amount of running – and that happened to coincide with the start of the race. We had planned a couple of test days: the first went well, but the second was affected by fog and we managed only a few laps. If we’d been able to run more then, we’d have found and fixed the problem and the race might have been a different story.”
In addition to the T70s and the Tyrrell, CMS is fettling two other Lola sports-prototypes (T292 and T212), two Formula Juniors (one Cooper, one Envoy), an E-type Jaguar, a Lotus 47 and a March 782, but hopes to extend its racing commitments in the near future. Cheek has one eye on the recently announced Masters Le Mans Legends Series for 1995-2011 prototypes and GTs. “I’d like a prototype in the workshop,” Cheek says, “especially if it was one I’d worked on previously. I think people will be asking £10,000 for a set of carbon discs and pads, which is madness, but you should be able to contest the series sensibly if you do your homework and choose the right car. A Lola B2K/40 would fit the bill, with its steel brakes, honeycomb chassis and so on.
“I love working on any car, old or new – the modern stuff is designed to be easier to maintain, but the preparation principles remain the same.”
Smits? He’ll be racing his T70 at selected events this summer – some of them in the UK – and also competing in a Shelby Mustang he has owned for a while.
Did he feel any apprehension as he strapped himself into the Lola and ventured out to practise at Goodwood one year on? “Not at all,” he says, “because I had absolutely no recollection of ever having been there before.”