Oh, Aintree!

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It is now history that this year’s Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree was abandoned after false starts. It was what Peter O’Sullivan, BBC Sport’s commentator, called the greatest disaster in horse-racing history. Sad, really. But I think the time has come to recall some of the motor racing which took place at the famous Liverpool course, after the ambitious then-owner Mrs Mirabelle Topham, had built a very decent circuit round the outside of the Grand National course, which was opened in 1954. It should not be forgotten that some very important car races were held at Aintree, including five British Grands Prix and that in such events animals are not at risk, only the drivers; which I hope many people will find rather consoling.

The organiser of the majority of these Aintree race meetings was the British Automobile Racing Club, although the Aintree Circuit Club came into the picture in the 1960s. What Mrs Topham had provided was a full 3-mile circuit and a 1.64-mile club circuit, at a cost of £100,000. The vast long-standing horse-racing grandstands, restaurants, offices and car parks were a considerable asset, making the facilities for motor racing rather special, if somewhat dour. The importance of the place in the National calendar was evident right from the start, when in 1954 Stirling Moss in a 250F Maserati won the Aintree 200 Formula Libre GP at 77.7 mph, from a Ferrari driven by Reg Parnell and the BRM of Ron Flockhart. That was a 105-mile thrash but in the same year Moss won the Daily Telegraph Trophy F1 race for Maserati, holding off Mike Hawthorn’s Vanwall and Harry Schell’s Maserati, in this brief 5I-mile contest, at 85.43 mph. Also in its inaugural year, Aintree staged an FL race over the same distance, polished off by Moss (Maserati), at 85.36 mph. He was followed home by Mantovani’s Maserati and Flockhart’s BRM. Sports Car racing produced the Aintree International event of 30 miles, in which Duncan Hamilton triumphed, at 73.97 mph, in a Jaguar, over Caroll Shelby’s Aston Martin and Stewart’s Jaguar, and the 15-mile dash for Production Sports Cars, in which an Atalanta conduced by R G Shattock vanquished the hopes of David Goodhew (Darracq) and Deeley (Austin-Healey), by averaging 72.14 mph. A good, varied start for a new venue.

Space precludes a detailed look-back at all Aintree’s motor races. But some of them I still recall quite distinctly. The 1955 British Grand Prix, for instance. I went to it with Denis Jenkinson in his Porsche 356, arriving before practice to stay at what turned out to be a grotty hotel in Bootle. It seemed odd to be going to a big industrial town for a motor race. Goodwood was in the open Sussex countryside, as Brooklands had been in Surrey, and most other circuits were similarily situated. Admittedly the Crystal Palace course was part of London, so that before I had a car I was able to go home to an early supper on a No 49 bus. But it was on the heights of Sydenham, overlooking the Metropolis rather than seeming to be part of it.

Anyway, to Aintree we went in 1955, Jenks back from the monumental Mille Miglia with Moss, and that record-speed victory for Mercedes-Benz. At Aintree we found the aforesaid useful permanent facilities, which in some ways overshadowed the course, and the high, commodious grandstands, giving the feeling that one might be about to watch — well, the Grand National, or a football match. (In fact, the cars were not required to take the lumps. .). Wooden walkways had been placed at stratgeic intervals for crossing to the inside of the course and woe betide anyone who put a foot on the sacred Aintree grass! Burly Liverpudlian policemen tended to shuffle one about, Press passes seemingly meaning little to them. But we got by.

Jenks was reporting this 1955 British Grand Prix for MOTOR SPORT, so I was able to relax and look about. It was exciting to see Mercedes-Benz racing again, after I had been so impressed and enthralled by their performance at Donington before the war, and never mind that Auto-Union won both those 1937 and 1938 GPs. Now here they were again, for a British crowd to appreciate, to be driven by World Champion Fangio, Moss, Kling and Taruffi. I did not see the arrival of the cars and drivers, so was not so moved as I had been before the Donington Grands Prix of 1937 and 1938.

At Aintree a spare car had been added to the four allocated to the team. Moss had a short-chassis car with outboard front brakes. Fangio a similar Mercedes but with the earlier type of bonnet, whereas that on Stirling’s car hinged forward with the radiator cowl. The other drivers had mediumwheelbase cars, also with outboard front brakes, as tried at Spa, and the reserve car was a medium-length one, with inboard brakes.

To challenge the German team came the Maseratis of Behra, Musso, Mieres and Simon, the last named replacing Perdisa at the last moment. Behra knew the circuit and Mieres had the help of a 5-speed gearbox. Ferrari fielded Hawthorn, Trintignant who had won at Monaco and Castelotti in Tipo 625s, the Super Squalos thought less well suited to the comparatively slow circuit. The Gordinis were a mixed bag, in the care of Manson, de Silva Ramos, and sports-car driver Mike Sparken, the new straight-eight being absent. Then there were the private entries, numbering Peter Collins’ Maserati belonging to the Owen stable, Lance Macklin in the car he hired from Moss, Salvadori driving the Gilby car, and Gould in his ex-“Bira” Maserati. Then to draw the Aintree crowd, many of the spectators new to motor-racing, there were two British Vanwalls, for Wharton and Schell, the latter having his baptism in this car, and the brave Connaughts, for McAlpine in the original streamlined version, Fairman with the experimental factory car, Marr in his own streamlined car and Rolt/Walker with a GP-bodied Connaught entered by Rob Walker. To complete this enthralling field, Jack Brabham had a Cooper-Climax-like rear-engined Cooper with 2.2-litre Bristol engine and modified Citroën gearbox and transmission.

Mercedes were out first in practice, Moss equalling his 1954 Maserati lap-record of 2min 00.6sec (thought at the time to be a possible time-keeping error) but only by trying very hard in the more powerful W196. Fangio could not get near to it . . . It took until the second, Friday, session for Stirling to better this, to 2min 00.4sec, for the 4.83 km circuit with its Waterwork Corner, Anchor Crossing, Cottage Corner, Country Corner, Village Corner, Beecher’s Bend, and Tatt’s Corner, the last entered from Railway Straight over the Melling Crossing. Fangio was 00.2sec slower and Behra got within 00.8sec of Fangio’s best.

On race day, the Saturday, a vast crowd came to see the eigth British GP, on a hot July afternoon, the drivers parading on the back of Austin-Healey sports-cars. A welcome had been broadcast in four languages, as at Continental circuits. On the front row of the grid Moss, Fangio, Behra. On row two Kling, and Taruffi (with whom Uhlenhaut conversed in English). Here Neubauer signalled to his Mercedes drivers when there were ten seconds to the start. The dust, smoke and excitement abated and it was seen that the Mercedes-Benz were 1-2-3-4, in the order Fangio, Moss, Kling and Taruffi. Schell and Marr had stalled on the grid. Three laps, and Moss went past Fangio. Behra was hanging on to the four leaders as best he could. While Moss and Fangio ran clear of the rest Behra and Mieres passed Taruffi. But Behra’s third-place Maserati retired, pouring out smoke, after ten laps. Moss now led Fangio by 1-1/2 sec.

Stirling was having to drive very hard to keep his lead, but he and Fangio sliced through the “traffic” cleanly, as Senna does in today’s races, and by 17 laps the World Champion was again ahead of Moss. It has been said that Neubauer had instructed Fangio to let Moss win, before a British crowd. But it has also been said there were no team orders but that Fangio had told Moss that if he was in his mirrors by half-distance he would let him by. Whatever the truth, Stirling was having to drive very hard and it was not until lap 26 that he passed Fangio, on the long straight. Before that he had “had a look” at Tatt’s Corner, but Fangio gave him no quarter; McAlpine, stepping quickly sideways, let the two Mercedes go through! It was now a Mercedes-Benz procession, Taruffi having taken Musso. Moss had lapped his own Maserati and was to set the record race-lap of 2min 00.4sec (89.70 mph). The heat and the corners were imposing a heavy toll and by half-distance Neubauer had a sign hung out, telling his drivers to keep station for the rest of the 90-lap race.

Whatever the agreed finishing order may have been, I can vouch for the fact that, as the two leading Mercedes-Benz approached the finish-line now nose-to-tail, from Moss’ four-seconds lead, Fangio pulled out beside Stirling’s car, then if he didn’t actually brake, he certainly lifted off, as a sort of reminder that he was the World Champion! Moss won by just 0.2sec, after driving for 3hr 7min 21.2sec (86.47 mph). Kling and Taruffi completed the Mercedes 1-2-3-4 result. They were followed in by Musso, Hawthorn/Castelotti, Sparkes, Macklin and Wharton — Maserati, Ferrari, Gordini, Maserati and Vanwall. It was a very impressive Mercedes victory. Will the Sauber-Ilmor V10s ‘Concept by Mercedes-Benz’, attain similar domination, I wonder, this year or in 1994?

So that was Aintree, in 1955. All that remained was to go home in Jenk’s Porsche, a car which we thought then had a good performance, went round corners well with Jenks “wishening” to restrain the rear-engine swing-axle over-steer, and which, contradicting the theory that air-cooled cars had poor heaters, burnt one’s ankles unless the floor-vents were partially closed . . .

It had been a satisfactory meeting, sponsored by the Daily Telegraph and well organised by John Morgan of the BARC, except for the local Police Inspectors, who made life intolerable for the Press photographers, including MOTOR SPORT’S accredited cameraman.

It was said that 100,000 spectators watched the GP and the supporting F3 and Sports Car races, the former won by Jim Russell’s Cooper-Norton at 78.19 mph, the latter a 1, 2, 3 for the Aston Martins, driven by Salvadori, Collins and Parnell. So Moss had won by that slender margin, his first Grande Epreuve, following his great victory with DSJ in the Mille Miglia in the 300 SLR Mercedes-Benz. But otherwise, a sad year, with the terrible Le Mans disaster and the fatal accident to Ascari.

Two years later, in 1957 Mrs Topham secured the European and British GP for her excellent, if flat Aintree track. This time the precious grass was protected at the corners by little posts, to discourage the cars from using any of it, a hazard modern F1 drivers would not tolerate! Ciné-camera crews were allowed out during practice, forming “mobile chicanes”, and over all there was a smell from nearby factory chimneys. Otherwise, another good race. Moss won in the Vanwall which he had taken over from Tony Brooks, at 86.8 mph, staving off the Lancia-Ferraris of Musso, Hawthorn, and Trintignant in a heart-stopping contest. Stirling raised the lap record to 90.6 mph and only the first three cars home covered the full 90 laps. Only 8 finished, from 18 starters. The Sports Car 17-lap race went to popular Archie Scott-Brown in a Lister-Jaguar, at 78.81 mph.

In 1958 I drove to Liverpool in a Citroën DS19, which I had for extended road-test, to see Moss, in a 2-litre Cooper-Climax, win the Aintree “200” at 84.97 mph, by 1/5th sec from team-mates Brabham and Salvadori. Hurrying home to Hampshire, the roadholding and braking of the hard-used Citroën changed from superlative to mediocre when a red light indicated that the hydraulic-system fluid level was too low . . .

I then went to the 1959 British GP with the MOTOR SPORT photographer, his sister and a girl-friend, in the comfort of an automatic Jaguar Mk 9. We stayed comfortably, near Southport, and went to look at the sands where so much motor racing had taken place, finding at a flag-protected stretch of beach an aged pilot, in leather coat and flying helmet, touting for joy-riders in his DH Fox Moth . . . Reduced from 270 to 225 miles, the GP was won by Jack Brabham (not yet knighted) at 89.88 mph, with Moss in a BRM as meat in this Cooper sandwich, Bruce McLaren’s Cooper finishing third.

When Jenks came back from the Continent to report the 1961 British GP at Aintree I borrowed another Citroën DS19, to which he raised no objections. He also approved of how the BARC ran this important race, which was dominated by the V6 Ferrari 120s of von Trips, Phil Hill and Ginther, Trips winning at 83.91 mph. Jenks found the view from the Press Stand good, but the building Victorian . . . Aintree got the British GP again in 1962, for the last time. We sub-headed Jenks’s report “The Uncatchable Lotus and Clark”, which says it all, Jimmy in the Lotus 25 V8 beat John Surtees in a Lola Climax by nearly a minute, McLaren’s Cooper-Climax V8 third. Indeed, Jimmy eased up at the end so that Graham Hill, running fourth in the BRM, wasn’t lapped.

In view of this year’s Grand National fiasco, it is interesting that Jenks said the last Aintree GP start “was given impeccably, for the simple reason that it was given by a calm and confident time-keeper and not by an excitable dignitary or notability”. But the Saloon-Car race, dominated by the 3.8 Jaguar saloons of Sears, Parkes, Sir G Baillie and Dodd, Jenks called “exciting in a sordid kind of way” — a foretaste perhaps of the bumping and boring in current races of this kind . . .

After this the British GP fluctuated between Brands Hatch and Silverstone. It is apposite, perhaps, to recall that for a year after the Brooklands Motor Course had opened in 1907 a Jockey Club official, Hugh Owen, was appointed to start the races there, but it didn’t work out, until A V Ebblewhite took over and remained the starter/handicapper from 1908 to 1939. I recall, too, that while “bookies” were an established feature of the Brooklands’ scene and the “Tote” (whatever that is) took bets there from 1929. It was at Aintree I discovered that in 1956 there was a plan to introduce motor-racing “Pools” — of which nothing more was ever heard. . .

Finally, one Aintree incident: Stirling Moss drove away from the course after the 1959 British GP in a Triumph Herald Coupé and changed lanes in the Mersey Tunnel. He was reported by some busybody and duly convicted and fined. Not liking informers, MOTOR SPORT published this person’s name and address, as had the newspapers. This brought a letter, signed by two lorry drivers, who said, “Don’t worry, we drive ten-tonners and know “Mr X’s” car, so leave retribution to us.” I am still wondering whether they were joking — or not! Incidentally, I committed the same heinous crime as Moss had, when going south in the Citroën, after being held up in the empty tunnel by a crawler, who also reported me; the same informer perhaps?

These are just a few recollections of a circuit opened 115 years after the first Grand National was run in 1839 and which, like so many others, has passed into history. W B

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