The grit in the oyster
The social revolution of the sixties was mirrored in racing by a swathe of free-wheeling, up-and-coming hotshoes. Chris Irwin was listed among them, but, as Adam Cooper reveals, he stood apart from the crowd
For the last couple of years I've been working on a biography of Piers Courage, and it's been fascinating to talk to all who knew him well. But there's one man whose name keeps cropping up but whom I have been unable to track down. Like his contemporary Syd Barrett, the enigmatic original singer of Pink Floyd, Chris Irwin has disappeared from view.
Chris and Piers were born exactly a month apart in 1942, and they first happened across each other while competing in sportscar clubbies 20 years later. Their subsequent careers followed similar paths, and off-track they shared personal connections that ensured their lives were intertwined.
Irwin's interest in motorsport was gleaned from his father — a pioneering aviator before WWII — who took him to the British GP in 1951. Chris had illicit access to a motorcycle while at King's School, Canterbury and, after turning 17, passed his driving test and so was able to get himself to circuits.
A meeting with Jim Russell led to him racing a FJ Lotus 18 at Snetterton on October 8, 1961, and after that there was no turning back.
He was encouraged to compete in his Austin Healey road car by Sheridan Thynne, a fellow pupil at the London College of Printing, who also knew Courage. Irwin spent a lot of money having it tuned only to find that it was no quicker, and he had to spend even more to get it sorted out.
"Chris was not only very good, he also had a massive commitment — even in those days," says Thynne. "He was very gritty and determined. He appeared in January with a scar on his face — he'd been skiing and had had an argument with an instructor over a girl. This fellow smashed a glass and stuck it in Chris's face. We didn't lead the sort of lives where that sort of thing happened to us!"
Backed by a wealthy Argentinian grandmother, Irwin purchased a 1-litre Merlyn sportscar for 1963, and upgraded to a Merlyn F3 the following year. After a low-key start to the season, he won a race at Aintree in July, and then began to show good form.
In 1965, he relinquished his job as a trainee executive in the print industry and stepped up to drive a works Merlyn F2 car, thus finding himself on the same grid as Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart and Jack Brabham. When the stars were busy in a clashing race at Pau, he briefly led the Eifelrennen, held on the Nurburgring's damp South Circuit, only to crash. And this was the year's high spot!
However, Irwin got a chance when Roger Mac was injured at Reims, and he stepped into the latter's Chequered Flag-run F3 Brabham, alongside Roy Pike. For the second half of 1965, he proved to be the man to beat, with the only regular opposition provided by Courage and Jonathan Williams in Charles Lucas's Brabhams.
"The best driver of all that lot was Chris Irwin," says Pike. "He was a good driver even when he had a Merlyn. He was very safe and very quick."
Courage, Williams and Lucas were at the heart of a buzzing social scene that centred upon Charlie Crichton-Stuart's infamous Harrow flat. Frank Williams and 'Bubbles' Horsley were also charter members, and while Irwin was on the fringes of the group, in some ways he never really fitted in. He had a ruthless, determined streak that clashed somewhat with the more relaxed approach of the others.
"He was good, there's no question about it," says Jonathan Williams. "Potentially, he was a champion or serious points-scorer in F1. He had a lot of natural ability combined with a steely determination that I think outstripped the rest of us. He really wanted it. But he wasn't necessarily the man top of your list to go out to dinner with."
The Lucas outfit became the works Lotus F3 team in 1966, and with the 'Flag officially representing Brabham, there was an extra edge to the Irwin/ Courage rivalry. They dominated the season, and a further twist was added when Lucas's younger sister Loti became Irwin's girlfriend. She recalls that it was an odd situation: "When I started going out with Chris, who was, of course, the opposition, no-one would talk to me! Brabham thought I was a spy sent to find out what their gear ratios were, and Lotus thought I'd changed sides. It was the most bizarre year, because Piers won one race, Chris won the next.
"Chris was quite friendly with lots of people, but they weren't close friends. He was much more concentrated on what he was doing than a lot of them. He used to go to the gym in the days when nobody thought of it. He was the first F3 driver to have Nomex overalls and everyone said, 'For heaven's sake, why are you wasting your money on those?"
Irwin's success caught the attention of Brabham and Ron Tauranac, and he was invited to drive a third works car in the British GP at Brands Hatch. He qualified the outdated BT11 in 12th, and was running sixth until some frantic pit signals urged him to drop back a place. A point would have made him a graded driver, and thus ineligible to stay in F3 should he not find a better job.
Later, he stood in for Denny Hulme in the Albi F2 race and qualified on the front row, alongside Clark and Brabham. He finished third, beaten only by his team boss and Jo Schlesser.
Irwin and Courage had emerged as the Brits most likely to make it, and BRM signed them both for 1967 as understudies to Stewart and Mike Spence. However, only one semiworks Tim Parnell entry was available for them to share. Courage had the first three chances, and did his cause no good by having moments in the South African GP and both the Teretonga and Lakeside Tasman races. Chris took over and picked up a fourth place at Sandown and a third at Longford. He then finished a solid seventh at the International Trophy, and after Piers spun in the Monaco GP, it was clear who was winning their private battle to impress the team hierarchy. Piers was quietly 'rested', and Chris went on to finish seventh at Spa and fifth in France, despite his H16 blowing up and costing him fourth.
"It got quite difficult," says Loti. "Especially in '67, because BRM were being really naughty and playing one off against the other."
Parnell denies any machinations: "It's just the way it happened. Irwin was very good. He would have been a top guy. Terrific lot of talent. They were two young lads, moving up the ladder all the time, and one day their time would come, there's no doubt about that."
Irwin had also attracted the attention of John Surtees and landed an F2 ride with the works Lola team. A spectacular first-lap crash at Snetterton didn't help, and only when the team switched from BMW to Cosworth power did he make progress, finishing third behind Clark and Stewart at Jarama. Meanwhile, he continued to look good in the BRM, although there were few hard results over the second half of the season.
Chris was a man in demand for 1968. He signed to drive the second works F1 Honda alongside Surtees, although the car wouldn't be available at the start of the season. He kept his hand in with the F2 Lola, taking pole for his heat at Thruxton, winning the Eifelrermen (although again the big names were at Pau) and finishing third behind Rindt and Amon at Zolder.
That week Loti, by now his wife, gave birth to their first child, Sophie. Meanwhile, Chris's former BRM colleague Spence was killed at Indy, just a month after Clark's death.
With the second Honda not due until August, Irwin was invited to stand in at BRM at the forthcoming Monaco GP. In the meantime he got a chance to drive another car Spence had raced.
Alan Mann's swoopy Ford F3L had demonstrated impressive straight-line speed, but its short wheelbase made the DFV-powered machine a handful. Irwin's turn came after Surtees was invited to race it in the Nurburgring 10001km; John suggested that Chris share the car with him.
"He was due to debut the Honda at the German GP," says Surtees, "so this would be his chance to learn the full circuit. But I tested the Ford at Goodwood and said, 'This car's not ready to go to Nurburgring. It needs sorting.' Chris followed my opinion. Later, I was at Cosworth when the phone rang. It was Chris. He said, 'They've been pressuring me to drive this thing. If you go, you've got to go quickly, but I don't have to because I've got no reputation at the 'Ring. Would you mind if I go?' I said, 'I don't think it's ready for the 'Ring, but if you go, be bloody careful!"
Chris now had a foot in the door with Ford, and the £500 fee was more than welcome. But disaster struck on only his second flying lap during practice on Friday, May 17. The F3L took off at the Flugplatz and rolled into a ditch, coming to a halt with the engine running. Jean Guichet and Rico Steinemann stopped, switched off the ignition and dragged Chris clear. There was no fire, but he had broken his ankle and suffered terrible head injuries, having been struck by part of the windscreen. Inevitably, it was assumed that he'd gone too fast too soon, although later it emerged that a hare might have dislodged the nose.
"There was a hare, a pretty big hare, jammed in the motor car," says Frank Gardner, who drove the sister F3L.
"Certainly he was off-line, and a bloke of Irwin's ability wouldn't have had the car in that position. So I would say he saw the hare, went to avoid it, got himself off-line, the speed was too high, and then the launching took place after that. It got airborne and went up and over the bank. And that was the end of another promising career. But he could have hit the hare a couple of corners earlier and something could have broken at that point"
Chris was unconscious for several days, and spent two weeks in a Bonn hospital. It was soon apparent that he would not race again, and that he'd lose his cherished pilot's licence.
"He hit his head very hard," says Loti. "He lost most of the bone in his forehead, which was later replaced with a sort of fibreglass mock-up. He lost quite a lot of the left-hand side of his brain; it's relatively quiet, it does not do speech, movement, things like that But he lost his memory and his sense of smell.
"He lost all the good times as well as everything else, so it wasn't surprising that he felt so bitter and miserable about the whole thing."
Richard Attwood drove the BRM Chris should have driven in Monaco — and finished second.
During the following weeks both Schlesser and Ludovico Scarfiotti lost their lives, and when Chris and Loti went to Brands Hatch, his appearance came as a shock to a community that was struggling to come to terms with so much tragedy.
"It was the only race we went to after Chris's accident," says Lott. "He looked awful. It was like the parting of the Red Sea. You were walking in a straight line and people were suddenly remembering that they had something else to do. I was thinking, 'I am just going to lie down and die if somebody doesn't talk to us in a minute'. Then Jack Brabham walked straight through everybody, straight up to us, 'Nice to see you', chat, chat, chat I thought, 'My God, you are such a diamond.'
"We had a lot of problems. When you've been injured in a racing car, people are very nice to begin with — and then they go off and do their own thing. Piers was up there, driving an F1 car, getting better and better. And Chris was sitting at home."
Loti remained in contact with the Courages, and in June 1970, Piers and his wife Sally visited her in hospital, where she was about to give birth to her second child. Four days later Piers was killed at Zandvoort, and Loti left her newborn son to throw herself into helping Sally.
The Irwins' marriage broke up around this time, and Chris began a new life, well away from the racing scene. Although friends have bumped into him over the years, in recent times he has disappeared from view.
Jonathan Williams saw him in Cannes around 1980: "He had a large motor yacht that he was chartering, and a dark blue Fiat 500. He seemed to have calmed down a bit"
Even Loti has no idea what has happened to him: "It sounds completely mad. Someone asked me if it was true that he was dead, but I really don't know. I always thought at the back of my mind that he was going to pop up and say he wanted to see the children. I have talked to them about it and said, 'What would you do if he walked in now?' Alexander said he'd ask, 'Where the hell have you been for the last 30 years?' My daughter was only two when he left, and she used to say, 'Why has he gone?' They both missed out, not having a father."
Irwin himself missed out on what could have been a stellar career.
"He was sensible, but at the same time had a bit of fire," says Surtees. "He could have been good. How good? I don't really know."