Lunch with... Vic Elford

The uniquely versatile Monte Carlo Rally winner, sports car ace and Formula 1 driver talks to Simon Taylor about life on and off track

As the tired crews and battered cars rolled into Monaco at the end of the 1968 Monte Carlo Rally, Vic Elford’s Porsche 911 was heralded the clear winner. No surprise there: Elford, reigning Group 3 European Rally Champion after three outright victories the previous season, had been brilliantly quick on the treacherously icy mountain sections.

Nine days later, the works Porsche 907 long-tails scored a clean sweep in the Daytona 24 Hours. At the wheel of the winning car, five laps ahead of his team-mates – having never seen Daytona before, and barely nine months after his first international motor race – was Vic Elford.

Fast-forward 13 weeks to the tortuous Targa Florio, the toughest round of the World Sports Car Championship. On the first lap, up in the Sicilian hills, Elford’s Porsche 907 suffered a loose wheel and then a puncture, and had to return to the pits on the space-saver spare. All this lost some 16 minutes, and for Vic the race seemed over. But, staying in the cockpit for more than five of the six and a half hours, he pounded through the mountains at devastating speed, destroying the lap record – and won by almost three minutes. 

Nine weeks after that, the Cooper F1 team needed a replacement for the injured Brian Redman. After a brief test at Silverstone, John Cooper offered Elford £200 to do the French GP at Rouen. Vic was 33 years old and, apart from a couple of F2 outings in the previous two months, had never sat in a single-seater before. On the fast, sweeping French circuit the Cooper-BRM was unwieldy and uncompetitive: Vic had to learn track and car, and found himself slowest qualifier. But on race day it rained. The track was awash and, revelling in the dreadful conditions (which cost the life of Jo Schlesser), he finished an extraordinary fourth in his first grand prix.

For most drivers, any one of those singular achievements would be a career highlight. That they all happened within five months underlines the unique versatility of Vic Elford. In fact, he only spent six seasons racing: before that, he was a rally driver. “I always wanted to be a racing driver. But I had no money, my dad had no money, I had no car. My parents ran a little café in Peckham in South London. The only way I could take part in motorsport was as a rally navigator: it got me into a car, even if it was in the wrong seat.”

Vic has lived in the USA for over 20 years, but he’s passing through Manchester Airport on his way to Chicago, and we’re in a charming restaurant in Knutsford, the Longview. He is a restless 72 now, lean and rangy, the same weight as when he was 18, and still, as he has always been, a heavy smoker. 

He orders moules in white wine and cream, Lamb Kleftico and a glass of house red, and first we talk rallying. “After a few events with friends from my local club, the Sevenoaks & District, I ended up navigating for David Seigle-Morris. My first international was the 1960 Tulip Rally in his TR3A. For 1961 we had a works deal with BMC – until our team boss Marcus Chambers fired me, because I didn’t hide the fact that I wanted to drive, and considered I’d do rather better than several of the drivers in the team. I bought an ex-works 850 Mini and did some club racing with it, and won my first race at Mallory Park. But the money ran out and I had to sell it.

“My first proper rally car was an unlikely one, a works-loaned DKW – I won two national events in 1962 – and that led to a Triumph works drive in TR4s and Vitesses. Graham Robson at Triumph introduced me to a keen young navigator called David Stone. From the first recce we hit it off, and our partnership lasted for the rest of my rally career. We didn’t invent pace notes, but I think we developed them to a new level. We both believed in painstaking preparation, and we just worked harder than anyone else.”

In 1964 Vic began a three-year contract with Ford, in Cortina GTs and then Lotus-Cortinas. There were some good results – first in the touring category on the Alpine, second on the Tulip and the Circuit of Ireland, third on the RAC – but too many retirements. “In 1966 Henry Taylor took over as competitions manager, and for me it didn’t work. May be it was just our chemistry, but that year everything went wrong.

“There were endless silly mechanical problems, often when we were leading, and on the Rallye dei Fiori, for example, we won, only to be disqualified because Ford’s homologation papers were wrong. We were leading the Alpine when the car broke again, and I was pissed off to hell. No way was I going to stay with Ford. In Cannes, where the rally finished, Porsche competitions boss Huschke von Hanstein was staying at the Hotel Martinez. I called him, and he said: ‘Come to lunch.’ 

“I told him I wanted to rally a 911, because I thought it would be sensational. He said: ‘we don’t have a rally programme. We don’t have a budget. We don’t have any cars.’ But I worked on him. In the end he said: ‘I can’t pay you any money, I can’t pay you any expenses, but I can lend you a car for the Tour de Corse. Show me what you can do with it.’

“So David and I flew to Corsica. I had to pay for everything. Corsica is all mountains and narrow roads, so I hired a Simca Aronde and we spent 10 days doing a full recce. Two mechanics turned up with a 911 in time for the start, plus a couple of sets of wheels and a jack, but no spares at all. I asked Huschke when the spares would be arriving. Huschke said: ‘no spares, Vicky my boy. Porsches don’t break.’ And it didn’t. We finished third. Huschke was over the moon. 

“For 1967 he got a budget for more events. It took me three months in the mountains to learn to drive the Porsche; having started in Corsica, I continued on the Monte recce and then the rally. The 911 was on tiny tyres in those days and, because it had so little weight on the front wheels, it understeered – until you did something wrong and then you went backwards through the nearest hedge. You had to be very delicate getting the balance right between what you put through the front wheels and what you put through the back. We led the Monte until the snow came, but we still finished third.

“Then Huschke said: ‘Vicky, have you ever thought about racing?’ I told him I’d thought about nothing else since I was 14. So he said: ‘let’s start with the Targa Florio, because it’s the race that’s most like a rally.’” Porsche GB had begun to enter Vic in British races in an Isleworth-prepared 911, but the Targa was to be his real racing baptism. And he approached it like a rally, recce-ing the 44.6 miles of mountainous lanes for lap after lap, first in a 911 and then a 906.

“I could learn complex circuits because I’m blessed with a photographic memory. In rallying the pace notes were often just reinforcing what I already had in my head. As I drove around the Targa I was creating mental pace notes. I’d do two laps and then stop for a coffee, go over it in my mind. Then I’d go round with a passenger, describing each corner out loud as I drove. There’s no substitute for hard work.

“When I got in the 906 I thought ‘how can anyone drive a car like this around here?’ It bounced all over the road, and between the high wheel arches it was like looking through a tunnel. But come official practice with the 910, on 13-inch wheels and properly set up for the bumps, I loved it. In the race I was with Jochen Neerpasch, and we finished third.” It was a brilliant debut, and Vic was on his way.

Somehow he went on doing both races and rallies: third at the ’Ring, third at Mugello, and second (in a 910) in the wet Croft International, having led Denny Hulme’s Lola T70 until the rain stopped just before the end. In private 906s he was seventh at Le Mans and won his class, and sixth at Reims. In between he won the Tulip Rally, the Lyons-Charbonnières and the Geneva, and was Group 3 European Rally Champion. And, in the Isleworth 911, he took the 2-litre class in the British Saloon Championship. Busy boy.

Then there was the Marathon de la Route: 84 hours around the full Nürburgring, Nordschleife and Südschleife. Vic was teamed with Neerpasch and Hans Herrmann in a Sportomatic 911R, and they won by 12 laps. Vic did all the night driving – four 7½-hour stints – so now the Nürburgring was drilled into his head: “I felt I knew every blade of grass, by name.” 

And 1968 was even better. Vic was now a full member of the Porsche race team, and rallying was taking a back seat. As well as the Daytona and Targa Florio victories, he won the Nürburgring 1000Km with Jo Siffert, was second at Sebring and Montlhéry, and third in the BOAC 500 at Brands. He did six more GPs in the uncompetitive Cooper, and at his beloved Nürburgring he qualified fourth in the wet ahead of Stewart, Surtees and Gurney, only to crash on the first lap. In Canada he scored fifth-place points, and in Mexico he finished eighth. “Graham Hill won and clinched the championship. In the closing laps I was following him round, and neither of us were racing any more because the crowd were literally sitting beside the track. They’d just pull their feet back as we passed. 

“The following year Cooper was out of F1, but Colin Crabbe – a lovely guy, larger than life – bought a lumbering Cooper-Maserati and we went to Monaco. I plugged home seventh. I think I’m the only man to win the Monte Carlo Rally and finish the Monaco Grand Prix! Then Colin bought a McLaren M7B, and we did the European GPs. That came to an end at the ’Ring. I qualified sixth – ahead of Bruce’s McLaren and Hill’s Lotus – but I made a lousy start. Mario Andretti in the four-wheel-drive Lotus 63 rocketed through from two rows behind, and he was just in front of me when his Lotus bottomed out on a bump, went off the road and tore off two wheels. One wheel bounced straight at me and my car rode over it, launching me into a big accident. I landed upside down in the bushes, trapped in the car with my arm twisted behind me, and fuel running out of the tanks. The marshals were slow, and it was Mario who got the car lifted off me.”

It was the only time Vic hurt himself in a racing car. His arm was broken in three places and his right shoulder smashed. The McLaren was destroyed: apart from a fruitless single outing for BRM in 1971, there would be no more F1.

Meanwhile things had changed at Porsche. Huschke von Hanstein’s gentlemanly rule over the competitions department was at an end, replaced by the relentless determination of Ferry Porsche’s brilliant nephew, Ferdinand Piech. “Until then Porsche had been happy to win its class all over the world, but Piech wasn’t content with that. He wanted outright domination, and he set about getting it: hence the 907, then the 908, and ultimately the 917. It was very different from the fatherly relationship I’d had with Huschke. Piech was two years younger than me, and he wasn’t an easy man. But he and I wanted the same results, and we had the same philosophy about how to get there – hard work.

“Before the Targa, Piech would take over the car park under the Hotel Santa Maria in Cefalù and establish a practice schedule, starting at 6am each day. If you were five minutes late, you had to buy a crate of beer for the mechanics. If they had to get up at 5am, so did we. I liked that.”

To take advantage of the 5-litre Group 5 rules, Piech sanctioned development of the mighty flat-12 917. The FIA deemed a minimum of 25 should be produced to qualify for Group 5, and so Porsche threw together 25 917s and lined them up in front of the factory for the FIA delegate, Dean Delamont, to inspect. “We called them the ‘secretary cars’, because everybody in the place who could hold a spanner, even down to the secretaries, was press-ganged into helping to build them. When Delamont arrived he was told ‘choose any car, and you can drive it’. Fortunately he declined…

“The early 917 was pretty horrible. But I wasn’t afraid of it, even in the wet. I suppose my rallying background meant that I’d come into racing with some extra disciplines. Rallying the 911, there wasn’t much grip on asphalt, and on snow and ice virtually none. I was used to an unstable car which I then stabilised in my own fashion. That’s why I loved the rain. Spa in the wet, and Rouen with those downhill sweeps: lovely. 

“But at Le Mans my philosophy was always ‘I don’t want to race, I just want to have the fastest car’. With the 917 I had it. None of us had ever done much more than 190mph before, and here we were doing 225-plus. I loved the 917 for that. That first 917 year, 1969, Richard Attwood and I had a 50-mile lead with three hours to go when the clutch packed up. The 1970 short-tail car was more stable. You could move it around a bit. But for Le Mans we had a new
long-tail. With that you had to be very precise, to get it right first time. Once you’d committed to a corner, you had to stay committed. And that year it rained. But I found that I could go through the Mulsanne kink flat, at night, in the rain, at 240mph. 

“Took a while to work myself up to it, though. In practice I kept thinking, ‘you know it’s flat, Elford’, and then I’d just ease off a little. Finally I thought: ‘whatever,’ and I kept my foot in it. Came out the other side and said: ‘s**t, that’s easy, why didn’t I do it before?’ You see, that little lift-off was unsettling it. Once I kept it absolutely flat through there, the car loved it. My pole position average was just over 150mph, and I set fastest lap in the race. We had punctures and handling problems, but we were back up to second when it blew.”

Porsche had now split its race management responsibilities between John Wyer’s JW Automotive and Porsche Salzburg, effectively run by Piech. “There was lots of rivalry between the two teams, between the personalities of Wyer and Piech. I led the Salzburg team, fighting Wyer’s cars as much as the Ferraris.” In 1971 the Martini Racing Team replaced Porsche Salzburg. Vic won at Sebring with Gérard Larrousse, and scored his third Nürburgring 1000Km win. But the demise of Group 5 ended his long relationship with Zuffenhausen. 

“I lived through an entire racing era at Porsche, and I loved every Porsche I drove. I liked all the people – Singer, Falk, Bott, Mezger, as well as Piech and Huschke. This was when Piech packed his bags and went off to Audi. He didn’t just want to be the rich nephew taking over the family business. He went on to great things at Audi, of course, and then Volkswagen. I think that, after his grandfather, he is arguably the greatest automotive engineer of the 20th century.”

For 1972 Vic moved on to Alfa Romeo to race the T33. “It was a culture shock. Carlo Chiti was a delightful man, and a real character, but after Porsche it was all a bit of a joke.” 

Earlier, he’d discovered Can-Am. “Jim Hall asked me to drive the Chaparral 2J, the revolutionary ‘sucker car’. Every time I drove it I took pole with ease over the works McLarens, and then the car always gave trouble. At Riverside I could get through the long sweeper, Turn 9, almost flat. In qualifying
I went round Denny Hulme on the outside at 150mph. He went straight into the pits, took his helmet off and sulked for the rest of the session. Of course McLaren’s Teddy Mayer was endlessly trying to have the 2J banned. But in the race, coming through Turn 9 again, the little auxiliary engine went bang. Deprived of its downforce, the car rose up on its suspension so that, with the camber change, it was on tip-toe on the edges of its tyres. I hung on to it somehow, but that was the end of it.

“Jim Hall was a very clever man. Like so many clever people, he was a good listener. The sucker car idea came from a 12-year-old kid who sent him a little drawing, saying: ‘why don’t you put a helicopter rotor in a car, so it sucks the air out and then sucks the car down?’ Jim got together with the General Motors guys, batted it around, and then they worked out how to do it. I don’t know what Jim said to the kid, but he’s still got those drawings.” 

Vic’s versatility got him many more drives: Trans-Am Camaro, Can-Am McLaren, NASCAR Dodge: he was 11th in the Daytona 500 in 1969, his first and only NASCAR race. He won the Nürburgring 500Km twice, in Chevron and Lola, campaigned a Ferrari Daytona on the Tour de France, did development work for Toyota on their Group 7 and rally projects, and raced the weird Can-Am AVS Shadow, with its tiny wheels. Then in 1972 his friend Jo Bonnier was killed in front of him in the Le Mans 24 Hours, and his Alfa team-mate Helmut Marko lost an eye in the French GP at Clermont-Ferrand, when Vic was driving the medical car. 

“Those things affected me more than I thought. Getting killed never bothered me. But I didn’t want to finish up in a wheelchair, or like a vegetable. So I stopped. Occasionally I was tempted back: I did Le Mans in 1973 in a Ferrari Daytona – sixth overall and first in the GT category, ironically my best Le Mans result – and then I got involved in team management with Inaltera. I did the Paris-Dakar and the East African Safari, and in 1984 I drove a standard Porsche 928 in the Daytona 24 Hours with Richard Attwood. We qualified 75th and finished 15th!”

Does he regret that his F1 career was so brief? “Well, I wanted to be world champion, of course, but it never went that way. And always I liked longer races. Modern grands prix are less than two hours, for goodness’ sake. Longer races are far more satisfying: pounding round Sicily in the Targa, and around the ’Ring on the 1000Km. And longer rallies; nowadays they do two or three hours, and then they have a break while the service crew gives them a new gearbox.

 “My favourite was the Coupe des Alpes. We’d leave Marseilles, and the first mountain section might last 36 hours, to Grenoble. After a 12-hour break we’d go somewhere else for 24 hours, then another break, then 18 hours to the finish. Mountains all the way, against the clock. I just loved that…”

Vic Elford helped drive Porsche’s progression from class wins to outright victory. He was fiercely competitive, devastatingly quick over long, intense periods, and a dedicated hard worker. And he was able to bring his phenomenal car control across from rallying into racing. It’s a mix that, in Vic’s case, fully justifies an overworked word: unique.