Mark Hughes pays tribute to the ultimate hard-driving, hard-partying cult legend of British motorsport
So the big fellah’s gone. Nineteen stone of folk hero, telling the medics to go to hell just as he had the laws of physics, shrugging off the painful effects of chemotherapy to go testing in a big thundering racing car. And in the end it was his 63-year-old heart which cried enough, in the middle of Luffield at Silverstone. He pulled over to the side of the track, switched off the engine.., and expired.
At the pearly gates Gerry Marshall — Big Gerry as he’d come to be known to countless generations of British race fans, enthralled by a personality even bigger than his body — will have presented himself: “Of course, you do realise who I am? I’ve won more races than any other driver, over 600 of them you know. Where’s Lanfranchi? I need a drink. You know, he wasn’t half as good as I was. Nice bloke though.” And he will have just wandered on through, thinking St Peter just wanted a chat and an autograph.
He was always happy to chat, especially about himself. He’d chat about other drivers too — but only about how they weren’t really that good. In one of his loos there was a picture of himself on a podium. Some were turned off by that sort of thing but if you just saw the humour in it, reckoned that his remarkable exploits had allowed him some indulgence, then you got to see there wasn’t any malice in it. In fact he was a big old emotional softie underneath it all, and sometimes generous to a fault.
Sometimes, when there was a surplus of funds — in between business setbacks and the odd divorce — he would help up-and-coming saloon drivers, and Patrick Watts, Karl Jones and Barbara Cowell were among those who benefited.
He’d always had his opinions on racing — even before he started. His dad had dabbled in club racing and Gerry had hung around 1950s paddocks, taking it all in, spouting it all out in the bar afterwards. “I was the great bar-room expert,” he told me once, “telling people what they should be doing, though secretly I didn’t really believe I was good enough to race.”
Think of the most improbable car with which Big Gerry could have started his racing career. Yes, that’s right, a Mini. Good Friday, Snetterton 1964 and he took the Mini Cooper he’d acquired through a motor-trade deal to a class win. He was good enough! To himself it was a revelation, though in the bar afterwards it would have been: “Of course, you do realise I always knew I’d win.” He was still dealing cars, still winning races, still spouting opinions more than 40 years later.
In between — in the 1970s, driving for Dealer Team Vauxhall — he established The Legend. Big Bertha and Baby Bertha were Repco-engined Super Saloons disguised respectively as Vauxhall Ventora and Vauxhall Firenza and prepared by Bill Blydenstein. They were the most dramatic things imaginable, especially with Gerry — extrovert, sideways, Mr Car Control — at the wheel. That’s when Marshall really caught the imagination of racegoers. But he won in touring cars, prod-saloons, GTs, historics, one-make series — anything that he could fit in, really, in both senses of the phrase.
In later years his style belied the opposite-lock reputation, but the speed was still very much there. He said it all came from being taken around Zolder by Paul Frère in the late ’70s and realising how much quicker the Belgian’s more economical style was. But Gerry could still turn the sideways stuff on for the crowds if he was playing with a lead. Racing against him in the TVR Tuscan series in the early ’90s, he was also the first driver I’d ever encountered who would use his car control as a deliberate tool of racecraft rather than an incidental side-effect. It was at Oulton, racing into Old Hall from the start. I’d got more momentum than him off the line and the place looked there for the taking around the outside. I actually saw him clock me in his mirror and in the next instant he had pitched his car completely sideways, literally about 45 degrees out of line, so that it took up most of the track’s width. There was no longer a gap on the outside. It was a masterclass.
I’ll miss wandering into a paddock at some track or other and thinking, ‘Oh, I might bump into Legend here, that’ll be good.’ I last bumped into him in a bar at Brno in ’97, some years after our time together in TVRs. Though he could recall with crystal clarity my girlfriend of the time, he claimed he could remember little of the racing. If you ever wonder if Michael Schumacher can remember each of his wins (he can’t), think how it must have been for Gerry, with over 600 on the clock. As legends go, they don’t come any bigger.
“Well, you have to ask yourself who he’s beating” — Gerry’s disparaging summary of Mark Hale’s domination of the 1994 TVR Tuscan series, blithely disregarding the fact that he was one of those being beaten!
“Robin Herd told me in ’75 he’d have given me a chance in an F1 car if I hadn’t been such a fat bastard” — The closest Gerry ever came to an F1 career.
“Do you wanna bet?” — Gerry before his leg problems, just pror to taking a naïve punter’s money betting on whether Gerry could out-sprint him. He would routinely win pub bets with his startling sprinting speed.
“He couldn’t drive sheep” — Gerry summarising the ability of another of his rivals.
“That’s Thespian’s Orchard, not Lesbian’s” — Gerry giving directions to his home in Tring.
“I couldn’t get my penis in that car” — Gerry’s summary of a particularly small sports racer that he couldn’t squeeze his bulk into.