Growing up among some great racing cars, a racing career was no surprise. But he wasn’t always keen…
Not many people can boast their first car was a Bugatti, but as the son of Neil Corner, Nigel Corner was immersed in fine old machines almost from the cradle. The Bugatti was a Type 52, the miniature electric racer, which the young Corner learned to pilot around the house. Today he has followed his father onto the track, famously in the Corner Maserati 250F and Dino Ferrari – but there was a time when he didn’t like motor racing at all.
Neil Comer, of course, became synonymous with historic racing through the Sixties and Seventies, preserving and racing some of the great racing cars at a time when there was little interest in them outside Britain. At one point this bravura driver, never afraid to give his cars a proper workout, owned both a W154 Mercedes and a 1939 V12 Auto Union, probably the only private individual ever to possess a pair of these legendary Grand Prix cars, and the only person to actually race one since the war, running the Mercedes at Silverstone as well as taking the A-U up Shelsley. But in the early days Comer Jnr had reservations about this lark. “I used to go to watch dad racing, but he had a couple of accidents while I was watching. I was at Copse when he had a big smash right in front of me, and I didn’t like it.”
But the outcome was inevitable. Nigel learned to drive on the oldest car in the collection, the 1914 TT Sunbeam, with the parental comment, “Learn to drive on this and everything else is just a progression of power”. It was, Nigel says, good experience. “I learned to watch gauges, and I had my first race in it too. A tyre blew off on the second lap, and I thought ‘If this is racing I don’t want to know’.”
Nevertheless, in 1985 he bought a Frazer Nash Le Mans Replica. “That was a revelation. Suddenly I knew what a racer should feel like. But my first race in that was nearly a disaster I had it in reverse when the flag fell. Luckily no-one hit me even though I was half-way down the grid.”
At this point Nigel diverted into modems, racing a 911 in the Pirelli Porsche Cup. “That was the best one-make series ever – I’ve never done anything so brutal. I learned everything there.” This tempted him into saloons, running a BMW M3 in the British Saloon Car Championship, though he was more excited by continental long-distance events. “In 1992 we won the Group N class in the Nürburgring 24 Hours in the filthiest weather – at one point, passed a fire engine on the circuit, and time round I discovered it had been sent to pump out the Karussel! Then we won the Spa 24, and nearly won the Willhire, too. We’d have been the first team to manage all three, but we did collect the BRDC’s Nigel Moores Trophy for the leading private international entry.”
Does that mean he found moderns more satisfying than the old stuff? “Historic racing is bloody good fun at the front now. The top five are so close it’s as a competitive as any modem motoring. And in something like a 250F it’s just wonderful. Our 250F is the one Fangio drove at the ‘Ring in that great 1957 race, and it has never missed a season’s racing from then to now.” Its stable-mate is “the most exciting of all our historic cars” – the Ferrari Dino 246 which took Phil Hill to victory at Monaco in 1960.
Since Neil Corner stopped racing, his collection of racing cars has been thinned, and now tends towards road cars, particularly Bugattis. But before the Mercedes went, father and son took it to the ‘Ring, and Nigel clearly relishes the memory. ‘There was no race, we just took some cars over for a bit of fun. Driving the Mercedes there was the best driving experience I’ve ever had. It feels 15 years later in its design – the ride is like a modem car. I pulled 165mph on the straight, but pre-war they were geared for 195. No-one will ever go racing like that again. Do you know there are nine oil pumps in the sump? And that it produces over 500bhp from three litres? That’s better than a DFV.”
Those two days made it easier to part with the car. “After that, we just felt there was nothing more to do with it.” With Neil retired from both racing and the family contract furnishing firm, Nigel’s racing hours are limited. “I’d like to do more. I’d love to do Le Mans, and try modern GT racing, but as MD I can’t commit the time.” Instead he brings out the Dino, Maserati, or the Lightweight E-type at major historic events like Coys, where with regular partner Barrie Williams he took last year’s GT race. And as anyone watching will agree, there’s no pussyfooting. “Oh, I drive the E hard – six thou in all gears. You’ll lose if you don’t.” And this healthy philosophy applies to all the cars. “You may see a 250F in a museum, but it just isn’t the same creature as a 250F committed to Woodcote at 7000rpm.”
“We’re very spoiled with historic racing, even though some of the great tracks are disappearing, being tailored to F1. Thank God Silverstone has seen the light and is returning to being a drivers’ circuit, but Imola is an object lesson in how to ruin a great circuit. I’ve even heard demands for a chicane at Eau Rouge at Spa – that would be the day I stop racing.” Spa is a favourite with Corner, who is off there again with the E for this year’s historic GT race with “Whizzo” Williams.
Nigel’s experiences with his racing M3 made him a fan of the model, and he runs a current M3 day-to-day. “It has one of the great engines.” Not as great, though, as the V12 in the fun car father and son share, a Ferrari 550 Maranello, which makes Nigel fizz with enthusiasm. “It’s on a new plane for road cars F1 technology with Mercedes quality. It’s fantastically exciting with the traction control off I haven’t driven it on the track, but I’ll bet it’s good; most road cars are dull on track, apart from the F40.”
Living on the Yorkshire moors, shooting and fishing are easier to fit in than racing, but he’ll be down south for the big meets, and the reopening of Goodwood circuit. In what? “Anything with an excess of horsepower over traction!” GC