Doug Nye: “One of the finest British drivers from the 1930s was the Hon. Brian Lewis”

Lord Essendon’s idiosyncratic advice on racing in the 1930s

In this era of the professional racing driver ’workforce’ being continuously topped-up by childhood karting stars who effectively grow from the age of seven or eight utterly immersed in racing and racing alone, it’s inevitable that any look back to earlier times so often highlights just how naive (in comparison) even very good hands of old could be about race driving.

For instance, one of the finest yet now widely forgotten or underrated of British drivers from the 1930s was the Hon. Brian Lewis, later Lord Essendon. When launched in 1935, Speed magazine (The Official Organ of the The British Drivers’ Racing Club) adopted a refreshingly breezy approach, in effect aimed from racing insiders outward, as distinct from journalistic ‘keen types’ on the outside trying to report upon matters within.

“The first essential, if you are to be at best with your car, is to be natural”

In an illuminating opinion piece in the very first issue of Speed, June ’35, Brian Lewis explained that in his belief “…All this talk about going into strict training for a race is so much baloney. The first essential, if you are to be at your best with your car, is to be natural. If you are an indifferent driver, no amount of artificial stimulus is going to alter the fact.

“Of course, for a long-distance record attempt you have to take steps to keep yourself absolutely fit, but for the average event…the great thing is to be mentally and physically at ease and not radically alter your normal mode of living.

“If you interrupt your usual habits you get out of tune with yourself and your reactions become erratic.

“I hope this does not sound demoralising, for I do not advocate a really hectic life for racing drivers, but if it is your habit to drink a pint of beer for lunch, then drink a pint of beer for lunch right up to the day of the race.

“The average race is not really exhausting to a good driver in a good car. Nevertheless, the best driver in the most controllable of cars is sure to be ‘all in’ at the finish of the Monaco Grand Prix. Never in my life have I been so completely whacked as I was when competing in the Nice Grand Prix, a race which in very many respects closely resembles the Monte Carlo event.

“It is common knowledge among drivers that, although an exhausting experience, the Monaco race certainly is a wonderfully exciting event to compete in. There is continual incident for the driver. Constant gear-changing and a quick succession of interesting corners the whole way round the short course.

“The weather is grilling as a rule and the glare is particularly trying. The plunge from brilliant sunshine into the comparative blackness of the tunnel and out again into the sun is terribly fatiguing to the eyes; but it’s a race to dream of.

“Of course, for a really fast race I don’t think there’s any circuit in the world to compare with the Ards circuit” (pre-war home to the RAC TT race in Ulster). “The papers had a lot to say about my ‘duel’ with Eddy Hall in last year’s TT. Actually, I didn’t realise there was a duel on. All I knew was I had to go all out and I went just as fast as I jolly well could.

“When you are driving a really good car in a road race, and you get the flat-out signal, contrary to the common belief you do not increase the speed of the engine to record a better lap speed. Such time as you can save is effected wholly at the expense of the brakes.

“Thus you may lap at a 70mph average under normal conditions, cutting exactly at a preselected landmark about 75 yards before a given corner, braking gently and changing down just before entering the bend.

“After the flat out signal has been received, however, the technique of taking the corner is altered altogether. The erstwhile cutting landmark is ignored and you continue past it on full throttle to brake somewhat fiercely and snap into gear at the very last moment before you swing into a corner.

“I always spare my brakes as much as possible in practice and in the early stages of an event. You never know when, at a late stage in the race, the brakes may win or lose it for you…

“There are many racing drivers who can handle a car magnificently, but who are wholly lacking in that sympathy for their mounts without which success in an exacting race is wholly impossible unless it be the merest fluke.

“I could name half a dozen drivers whose names are famous but into whose hands I should never dream of entrusting a car of mine for a road race…their gear-changing, braking and steering would be slick and perfect throughout, yet as sure as fate they would ruin the car by over-stressing the engine or transmission. Ten to one they would fail to complete the course.

“No car can win whose driver is conscious of his own identity as distinct from that of his car. A racing driver should be part of the mechanism of his mount…no less and no more”.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s