Run rabbit!

The joy of David purley’s first F1 finish in the new lec car wasn’t shared by Niki Lauda. By Rob Widdows

Martin Dixon has been working in the pitlanes of this world since he was a teenager. He retired once, but now he’s back as chief mechanic for Team Canada in the A1GP series. 

In his first year as a mechanic something happened that doesn’t happen to many of these guys. He won a championship. Working with David Purley’s Lec team, they won the 1976 Formula 5000 series and the world, they thought, was theirs for the taking.

Formula 1 provided something of a reality check. The little team from Bognor Regis made its debut with its own car at Jarama in May 1977, where it failed to qualify (the team had run a part-season with a March 731 in 1973). Undaunted, Lec skipped the expense of Monaco, returning to fight another day at Zolder in June. But first it had to pre-qualify.

“It was strange, but exciting,” remembers Martin. “I’d done my apprenticeship in the truck garage at Lec Refrigeration, then joined the racing team in 1976. I was only 19 and here I was, in the pitlane at Zolder, even if we were down the far end with all the other rabbits. That’s where they put you when you had to pre-qualify, squashed up with the other privateers. We’d built the car in a real rush, there were only five of us in the team, and we worked all night to get it ready. Mike Earle was our team manager and David was around, both of them pushing us on, and we made it into qualifying.”

Now they had to get into the race. “It was daunting,” says Martin. “There we were, sandwiched between McLaren and Ferrari in the pits. McLaren had just won the championship with James Hunt, and there’s us in our Lec Refrigeration overalls and the car we’d built in a shed behind the fridge factory. We even built the engines ourselves. But we qualified for the race and most people seemed pleased for us.”

Sunday June 5 dawned cold but dry. But there was rain in the air and the weather was to play an important role.

“David made a good start from the back and he was driving really well, very fired up. Then the rain arrived and everybody started coming in for tyres. But David stayed out, the rain never bothered him, and climbed through the field. Next thing, we’re leading the race. Of course, we had to stop for tyres, and when he came into the pits he switched the engine off. I had no idea why, but we had to get the thing fired up again. The starter motor had slipped away from its bracket and was no longer connected to the flywheel. I grabbed a bloody great hammer and started bashing it back into place. It was a bit embarrassing for a young bloke like me among these big teams. David yelled to the McLaren guys –‘hey, give us a push’ – but we got the starter motor back in place and off he went.”

What came next was to have some spectacular ramifications after the race.

“David went back out in front of Niki Lauda’s Ferrari. The track was drying fast and Lauda was back up to speed. But David wasn’t about to let him pass – I don’t think he knew who it was. It stayed like that, Lauda shaking his fist at David, until he squeezed past to take second behind Gunnar Nilsson’s Lotus. Ferrari wasn’t too happy.” Purley finished in 13th place, but the drama wasn’t over.

“There was a sudden commotion in the paddock,” Martin remembers. “We were knackered and wanted to go home. Then along came Lauda, with his entourage, and he wanted to talk to David. He made some fairly derogatory remarks about rabbits and David made some references to rats and there was a bit of a shouting match. Somebody, might have been Mike, said – ‘go on, David, bite his other ear off’ – and it went on like that until Lauda just walked away. If he didn’t know who the man in the red car was at the time, David definitely knew now.”

That night, Lec mechanics Martin Dixon and Barry Pickard slept in the truck. They’d missed the ferry to Dover. Those were the not-so-glamorous days for the spanner men.

After joining Lec in 1976, Martin Dixon moved to Onyx from 1979-91. He then joined 3001 International, running the works Reynards in the US, and ran his own American Le Mans team. A spell at Carlin running Team Lebanon’s A1GP car preceded a move to Team Canada, where he engineers Robert Wickens’ car.