40 years of Thruxton honours Jochen

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Some of the Austrian’s rivals turned out to mark a milestone in the Hampshire track’s history. F2 was, of course, on the bill

By Paul Lawrence

April 1968: the sport was reeling from the death of Jim Clark just a week earlier when Thruxton hosted the first of what would be a 17-year run of Formula 2 races. Four decades later, several drivers from the 1968 grid returned to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Hampshire track 

In 1968, three days short of his 26th birthday, Jochen Rindt won with consummate ease. Even demolishing an Exide Batteries hoarding with his Brabham BT23C late in the race failed to hinder his progress. In each of the next two years he again dominated around the dauntingly fast and bumpy sweeps to make the Easter Monday Thruxton race his own.

His team-mate in the 1968 Roy Winkelmann Racing Formula 2 team was Alan Rees, who returned to Thruxton in March to remember his friend. Rees, however, has little recall of Thruxton ’68, when his BT23C finished in seventh place between the Lola T100 of Chris Williams and the McLaren M4A of Guy Ligier. 

“I was thinking during 1967 whether I should retire, but I decided to try one more year and that was a mistake,” says Rees. “I don’t remember too much about it. That ’68 race was the only time I raced at Thruxton.”

Harry Stiller, however, had good reason to remember the ’68 race after a character-building weekend with the works Merlyn Mk12, with John Cardwell as his team-mate.

“There was a desperate situation about two weeks before Thruxton; they couldn’t get the cars ready and they were short of parts. It was a nightmare,” says Stiller, who remains a larger than life character at 70 years old.

The Merlyns duly arrived, brand new and untested. “You can imagine the experience in qualifying, with two new cars out of the box,” says Stiller from a perspective of 40 years. “We spent the morning trying to get the wheels pointing in the right direction. I remember that we did manage to qualify, so things got a little better. I actually finished 10th overall in the final, after getting a 60-second penalty for a push start.”

However, after the race Stiller made a promise to himself that he would not drive the car again. “I went home that night and said to my wife Diana that if I ever sat in that car again, I was going to kill myself. It was that bad. In fact, I didn’t drive it again. The most unfortunate memory I have is that my good pal Chris Williams took over from me and tested at Silverstone. Sadly he crashed and was killed.”

Although Rindt was in the same race, Stiller readily accepts that the Austrian was in a different league to the rest of the 25-car field. “He just showed us the way round. None of us could live with him. I remember seeing Jochen a long way ahead. He was something special. We’d worked together on the film Grand Prix and I remember him taking all my money playing poker.”

Cardwell was another guest for the 2008 event, and recalled that the unloved Merlyn had a significant impact on his career. “The Merlyn wasn’t a great car and I decided I’d had enough. Thruxton at Easter 1968 was one of the last races I ever did and I walked away from it. That was the era when motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe.”

In a splendid piece of nostalgia, Grahame White dropped the flag to start the Historic F2 races in 2008, just as he had done 40 years earlier as clerk of the course for the F2 meeting.

“I was very much involved in F2 and I loved it,” says the Historic Sports Car Club’s chief executive. “You could meet all the current Grand Prix drivers in much more relaxed circumstances. Virtually all of them raced in F2.” Amazingly, he now masterminds the Historic F2 series on behalf of the HSCC, having gone full circle in over four decades in the sport.

He also has fond memories of Rindt. “Jochen was really quite a shy person. I knew him a little bit socially and we had dinner a few times, which was nice. I don’t think he appreciated just what a talent he had. He was a bit like Jim Clark, a naturally superb driver. Just a lovely guy.”

The fact that the Jochen Rindt Trophy awaited the winner of the opening round of the Historic F2 series gave the pair of 2008 races a degree of added poignancy. Bill Coombs (March 712) and Peter Meyrick (March 782) shared the wins, with Meyrick taking the victory on aggregate.

As the boss of the Thruxton racing school, and also a young spectator at the 1971 F2 race, Coombs fulfilled a lifetime ambition through racing a period F2 car and scored his first race win at his home track in the opener. But he had to work hard to fend off the more powerful 2-litre car of Meyrick.

With Meyrick into his stride and clear in the second race, Coombs unfortunately tangled with backmarker Tony Dunderdale (March 742) to bring the race to a premature close.