Jaguar test match: Norman Dewis and Luciano Burti

Meet Norman and Luciano. One was Jaguar's chief test drive in the '50s. The other is today. Both wanted to know how much the job has changed - so Gavin Conway introduced them.

Luciano Burti Norman Dewis

Charles Best

Goodwood hangs in a freezing mist of rain. Inside the great house, a familiar crowd shuffles between coffee trays and long handshakes. They’ve come to hear the Earl’s plans for the year, to celebrate the man’s vision. And beyond the windows, the spiking yelps of F1 cars failing to find grip up the hill. Then the mellow woof of a D-Type; I listen ’til the noise fades.

He’s picking his way toward me across the room. It’s tough going. Partly because his diminutive height makes crowd navigation tricky, partly because everybody wants to say hello. White head bobbing at hands and backslaps, Norman Dewis finally arrives with a huge grin, an enveloping grip. I suggest we find somewhere quiet to wait for Luciano Burti. Who is reportedly on his way.

Norman Dewis, 80 in August, joined Jaguar in January of 1952. Over the next 35 years, he was chief test development engineer for an astonishing 25 Jaguar models, both road and race. The first car he worked on was the C-Type, disc brakes and all. And his favourite was the XJ13, despite what you may remember it did to him on the banking at MIRA.

Luciano Burti Norman Dewis

Dewis was a crucial part of Jaguar’s ’50s Le Mans success through his test driving work

Charles Best

Luciano Burti, 25 years old last March, joined Jaguar in January of 2000. Last year, he finished second in the British Formula 3 Championship. Before that, he’d had success in Formula Vauxhall and Formula Ford. In his native South America, he has been a karting champion. Now, his job is to develop Jaguar’s infant F1 car, to make it into a contender that wins races. Just as Norman did for the C and D-types in the 1950s. Half century ago. Luciano arrives, flanked on either side by liveried Jaguar men. Behind, a couple more minders trail, carrying umbrellas, tote bags, mobile phones. Like Norman, Luciano is a compact man.

Unlike Norman he is spectacularly groomed, mocha-tanned, and possessed of unfeasibly white teeth. He smiles warmly, is relaxed in the way of a man not worried about what happens next. Someone in his coterie will tell him, make the necessary calls; Luciano has his own PR person, an agent, an office to deal with the paperwork. Luciano and Norman sit down together on one of the Earl’s curlingly ornate sofas. The Jaguar men melt away as conversation starts, slowly at first as’ the men struggle over a yawning gulf of generation and experience. Luciano is in PR mode, talking like a press release. “It’s great to be with Jaguar, a team that’s going to be quite great in the future. For me, it’s a great chance to develop as a driver in F1. My dream is to race for the world championship.” For the hell of it, I ask Luciano if he ever harboured any interest in developing road as well as race cars. A quizzical look. No he hadn’t.

3 Luciano Burti Norman Dewis

Burti believes modern test drivers are under more pressure than those of yesteryear – Dewis disagrees, unsurprisingly

Charles Best

When Norman Dewis joined Jaguar, it was on condition that he not race privately or with anyone else. He would, though, serve as a reserve, racing when the factory told him to. But Norman was a test driver, and that’s the way he wanted it. “Not racing didn’t worry me one little bit,” says Dewis. “My life was devoted to producing cars to go racing, not to race myself. That was the joy of it, to think cars that won 24-hour races were cars I’d had an awful lot to do with.”

And then Norman talks of tyre testing on the Autostrada del Sol on the Adriatic coast, of running the D-Types on ever lower tyre pressures, deliberately, until the tyres burst. At maximum speed. “You need to know what happens when a tyre blows at a car’s top speed,” says Norman, as though this were an article of faith. “So the tyre blows and you just hold onto the car, hope it stays on the road. This is the job of a test driver. You have to do these things.”

From the archive

Then Norman talks of lap times, of being faster than the others. And as he does, Luciano leans in close, interested, a little less distracted by the noise outside. “If a team driver wasn’t doing well, they tended to blame the car,” says Norman. “If that was happening, Lofty England would say ‘Norman, put your gear on and get out there’ and I’d go out and my lap times would come straight down. I’d come in and tell Lofty the car was fine and he’d tell the driver ‘go out and get some good lap times or Norman will get your seat.’”

Luciano is smiling a bit wistfully at the notion. “My job on a grand prix weekend is to help on the PR side, to be involved with the drivers and engineers,” says Luciano. “That’s so I know what’s going on for the next time I go testing. Obviously, there is no way that I would have a chance to step in for another driver if something happens on the race weekend. That won’t ever happen. There are politics.” And the testing. Norman outlines a typical day, lapping MIRA at 130 or 140mph. Five hundred miles, often seven days a week. “In my day, everything had to be recorded by the driver,” says Norman. “You’d have to memorise so many things at a time, so you might do 20 laps at 140mph, come in and a guy would say ‘gearbox temperature’ and you’d tell him; ‘water temperature’ and so on. If there was a problem with any of the numbers, a change would be made and you’d go out again.”

4 Luciano Burti Norman Dewis

Dewis finds the 2000 Jaguar a spacious fit

Charles Best

Luciano shakes his head, laughs. “So Norman would do in one day the same miles we do in three,” he says. “Today, you do a run, stop in the garage and they have so much data to check. And now they have these tyre warmers, you don’t even need to do laps to warm the tyres. Sometimes you do just one lap and they know already what’s going on. All of that other stuff Norman was talking about, they look at in the pits, get the data straight away. We have maybe ten per cent of the work guys like Norman had.” A reflective chuckle. “If there is a problem, they tell me about it on the radio.”

But the Brazilian still reckons his job is more pressured, less forgiving than Norman’s. “Sometimes you think ‘what am I doing here’ the pressure is so much,” explains Luciano. “When there is so much money spent, so much technology, so much effort you have a lot more pressure than back then. When I was karting, I raced more for myself. Now, I race for sponsors and team, and, in that way, I enjoy it less than when I was racing non-professionally. Maybe in the old days they enjoyed it more because they were racing for themselves.”

From the archive

Norman isn’t about to let that lie. He knows pressure. “You have to remember I was completely responsible for the car. Everything. There was a time in 1953 when a car came in with a misfire, so the mechanic changed a plug and it goes out clean, firing on all six. No problem. But Sir William came over to me and said Dewis, what was wrong?’ and I said ‘just a plug’. He wouldn’t let it go, he said ‘how did you miss that? You did all the testing, and now we’ve lost time.’”

And then insight from Luciano about the physical facts of test driving. The man is extremely fit, and like every other driver in the paddock, has a regime that includes regular, regimented exercise beyond the cockpit: “In Norman’s time, they didn’t have to exercise like us, because they were driving every day,” says Luciano. “Cars back then had much less grip, so they were working the wheel much more than we do, and with no seatbelts, they’d have to hold themselves in with their arms on the wheel. They would be naturally fit. If we were in our cars every day, we wouldn’t have to do extra exercise.”

It is when Norman talks of the routine risks he took, of the sheer unlikeliness of his surviving as long as he has, that Luciano goes solemn, quietly listening. Norman points at his Mintex racing boots, explains they were the only fireproof items he wore, produces his cork helmet which looks like it wouldn’t hold out a stiff rain, remembers running the record breaking XK120 at Jabbeke in ’53 at 179.8mph, with a perspex bubble over the cockpit “We were so stupid,” says Norman. “When I got in, they screwed the perspex down from the outside. Malcolm Sayer said the car would start to take off at 160mph, and we just didn’t expect it to go as fast as it did. And there I was bolted into it.”

For Luciano, this is the hardest thing to understand. Why did they do it? “When I think of the danger, no belts, no proper helmets, it’s amazing,” says Luciano. “Norman is saying they were used to such a lack of safety. But they’d have to think about the limit and how they might be killed if they go over it. Today, you drive the car and if you have an accident, it’s no problem. You either stop in the gravel or a tyre wall. For Norman, it might have been a brick wall.”

5 Luciano Burti Norman Dewis

Burti at home in his Big Cat testing machine

Charles Best

Outside, Norman climbs into the D-Type and it is striking how the car fits, his head dead centre on the fairing. In the R1, he is swallowed by the high-sided cockpit And the idea of Norman driving a F1 car seems faintly ridiculous.

But after a couple of hours, 50 years dwindle to nothing. They find themselves enthusiastically agreeing, embracing concepts finally, intimately familiar to both. Norman talked of earning the respect of drivers and engineers. To do that, you needed speed and intelligence; Norman has a time sheet from Reims that shows him quicker than Stirling Moss.

“To be special in a car, you have to be born with it”

Luciano is at his most pensive here. He addresses Norman directly: “I think the way you got your respect was the same as for me. Any driver, even if he is champion, if there is another driving as quick as him he must respect him. As with you, that sometimes happens for me as well.”

And there is the final bond. Confidence, and the belief you have something others might try to learn, but don’t ultimately possess. “To be special in a car, you have to be born with it,” says Luciano. Norman nods furious agreement, adds: “And to be a test driver, you have to have that, too.”

Photos done, Norman lingers, happy to elaborate on that blown wheel at MIRA, the XJ13 going end over end, how he saved himself by diving under the scuttle. Luciano’s minders have set up another interview. They wrap him in his Jaguar coat and he is gone.