A voice of experience

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Brian Shawe-Taylor’s notes on racing against the greats of the 1950s and seeing Nuvolari in action have never been published – until now

Recently a package arrived at the Motor Sport office. It was from 1950s Le Mans and Grand Prix driver Eric Thompson and contained a manuscript written by his friend, fellow racer and Aston Martin team-mate Brian Shawe-Taylor. Compiled in 1960, the writings comprise sketches of racing characters with whom Shawe-Taylor came in contact during his racing career at the turn of the 1950s. As he cheerfully admits, he himself was no ace, but in outdated ERAs he achieved some respectable results, leading to an invitation from John Wyer to drive a DB2 Aston at Le Mans in 1951, and he felt privileged to race against some of the great names of the time.

Shawe-Taylor sent his writings to Thompson in the hope of having them published. They never were in his day, but the passage of time gives them a curiosity value, and we present a selection here – a first-hand picture of a long-vanished era, a time when you could enter an obsolete car in a Grand Prix and compete alongside your heroes.

On Juan Manuel Fangio

To later generations Fangio’s name will be as magical as Nuvolari’s is to me. For one brief day of glory my line of fate intermingled with the great man’s. It was the International Trophy at Silverstone in 1950 and my first season as owner of that reliable ‘Old English Perpendicular’ ERA R9B.

I was plodding round happily in the second heat – and plodding is the word compared with Alfas, Ferraris and other such machinery. I cannot remember if I was near Bob Gerard, my personal target; higher than ahead of Bob I did not aim. Sometime after half distance I was descending Hangar Straight when I saw ahead a thick yellow cloud stretching from sky to ground like a blanket. I remember thinking ‘funny, I didn’t know we had sandstorms in England’ as I entered the cloud.

It was a solid sheet of descending water. I slowed automatically for I could not see. Having wiped my visor and recovered from the shock I said to myself that if I went really slowly and stayed on the road for the next few laps I could pick up half a dozen places. After even the moderate speed I had been used to, my pace now seemed a ridiculous crawl.

At Stowe corner a red car loomed up stationary, dead in the middle of the track. I had to suddenly change my angle and steer round it, a fatal thing if your speed is anywhere near the limit for the corner; as it was I just made it. I had a fleeting glimpse of Ascari sitting wet and woebegone on a straw bale, his Ferrari presumably having given up the ghost from excessive moisture.

I carried on, passing abandoned vehicles at regular intervals. At Woodcote I only just made it owing to the wind, which on the apex blew me gently across the track to the verge.

When the cloudburst began to abate I could make full use of that remarkable vehicle, the B-type ERA. You could not want a better car for such conditions. Firstly, one sat high and clear of the spray; secondly, the centre of gravity being high there was considerable weight transference to the outside, causing the tyres to bite through the slippery conditions. Lastly, the wonderful torque, which allowed me to leave it in top gear, like a big-engined car, and concentrate on looking for changes of surface from shiny smooth to matt rough where there was more grip and more throttle could be used, whether they were on the right line or not.

So it went on for a dozen laps with no one in sight until suddenly there was the chequered flag. At my pit there was unusual excitement. It appeared I was second, and had been closing on Fangio since the storm at a rate of one or two seconds a lap. According to my mechanic Harold, the Alfa pit had given Fangio a ‘faster’ signal. I cannot vouch for the truth of this, but it is a flattering thought.

For years I thought that if only I had been a few seconds nearer and in sight of Fangio I might even have caught him, but now I know that I could never have done so, for he drove with his head as much as with his hands. His nearest rival was out of sight and therefore he drove as slowly as possible in the appalling conditions.

The final was, for me, rather an anti-climax; I did manage to beat Bob, but not by straight driving – he overdid it and spun.

On Tazio Nuvolari

The question will always be asked ‘who was the world’s greatest driver?’. Until recently I would have said ‘Nuvolari’ without hesitation. Now I would say ‘Nuvolari or Fangio’. It is impossible to compare great drivers who have lived at different times. I count myself lucky to have seen two great artists at work – Nuvolari at the wheel and Toscanini conducting. Both were Italian, both supreme artists in their sphere. I first saw Nuvolari drive a 2.3 Alfa Romeo at Le Mans in 1933 in the race he won by seconds partnered by Raymond Sommer (below). I watched from the Esses; one saw the Alfa come over the rise, a small figure sitting high in the car, two wiry brown arms, an immense jutting chin and then a quick side view as the little man flicked the car first left, then right. Such was the concentration, the determination of his whole figure that one imagined some invisible force entering the car. Like Fangio he drove with his head as well as his hands, for the victory hinged on who ‘slip-streamed’ last and so led on the last lap, so closely was it fought with Luigi Chinetti in a similar car.

Slip-streaming is a curious business. On the long straight at Le Mans, a car closely following another finds he is drawing up to the car in front. When he pulls out to overtake one would expect that, being subjected to the full force of the wind, his speed would drop to that of his rival. In fact the momentum gained by slip-streaming is enough to carry the second car past the first. I know, for I have done this very thing in an Aston Martin DB2 at Le Mans to Eric Thompson.

There are two places at Le Mans where one can do this, down the Mulsanne straight and between Whitehouse corner and the pits. Nuvolari and Chinetti were together on their last lap. Nuvolari kept station behind Chinetti down Mulsanne and left his effort to the Whitehouse corner. This needed courage, for there is only just time to rely on slipstream overtaking. However, he did, and gained the flag.

Although I think Fangio has equalled Nuvolari in the number and quality of his feats, to me the words Nuvolari and Alfa Romeo will always cause my heart to beat faster. At the time of his victories I was young, and the magic of youth can never be recaptured.

On Reg Parnell

I come now to a strange and unhappy episode, which I relate under Reg’s name only because he was one of the characters involved.

During the 1951 season I was invited by Tony Vandervell to drive his Thinwall Special, basically a 4½-litre Ferrari, at Reims. Reg had driven the car up till then with considerable skill and success but could not do so at Reims having accepted an invitation to drive the ill-fated BRM. Accordingly, Mr Vandervell selected me faute de mieux.

From the moment I got to Reims things seemed odd. When I asked at the team’s hotel for my room I found that I had been booked in at a different hotel. Eventually I met up with the team. No one seemed quite so affable as they had been in England; in fact there was a distinct atmosphere.

Reg was with the others and it came out that the BRM entry had been cancelled, and that Reg was therefore free. I fully expected someone to ask me to stand down in his favour, as he had twice my experience and knew both car and course. However, nothing was said; the atmosphere merely thickened. Looking back, I should of course have had it out with Mr Vandervell, but kept thinking that the move was bound to come from his side.

Eventually the first practice session arrived. I was in a frightful state of nerves. What with the atmosphere and the fact that I was driving a much faster car than I had been used to, I was suffering what the RAF termed ‘lack of moral fibre’. I had worked myself up into an additional state over the car, on which the front transverse spring had been modified.

I had recently had a very alarming experience with a de Dion-axled car like the Thinwall, which owing to some small defect of design spun off cleanly and suddenly at lower speeds than my ERA. I was convinced the front spring alteration might produce a similar effect on the Thinwall.

This, of course, was sheer nonsense, and had driver-team relationship been normal I would have talked about it and had my fears allayed. As it was I had to bottle it up and brood.

I did precisely one lap in this magnificent car, and it must be the only car I have driven in which I did not go fast enough to do a ‘sideslip’. Down the straight I let it out, but braked early for Thillois hairpin. To my amazement, after some seconds of normal retardation, smoke issued from the front brake drums and retardation decreased by 50 per cent. Fade is too polite a word – fire would be more appropriate. In spite of this I still had ample time to take the hairpin in an orderly manner. I stopped at the pit, smoke still issuing from the brakes. Hardly a good start for an out-of-favour driver; I awaited my notice to quit.

It came the next morning, with considerable diplomacy, from the team manager. All the things that should have been said when I arrived were said, and “would I consider etc”. I was only too glad to be out of a situation in which I was either going to kill myself or put up so lamentable a performance as would haunt me for the rest of my days. Reg drove it and very successfully too, finishing fourth. I wish I knew what had happened to the brakes; I do not believe I contributed to the fire.

I have one pleasant memory of this distressing episode, which is the extraordinary kindness and sympathy shown me by Giulio Ramponi. He had been a driver, sensed the atmosphere and guessed my state of mind. In fairness to Equipe Vandervell, I would like to say that my time and expenses were generously rewarded.

On Mike Hawthorn

My thoughts turn naturally to Mike Hawthorn whom I first met at Dundrod in 1950. We both stayed in the same hotel at Antrim. Mike was an up-and-coming new driver then, and in that year in his Riley he won the handicap race which preceded the Ulster Trophy.

Mike got home very late from the prize-giving and celebrating in Belfast, and finding himself locked out climbed the fire escape and entered through a window into David Philipps’ room, much to the latter’s surprise.

Years later when Mike became the first Englishman to be World Champion, the British Racing Drivers’ Club threw a cocktail party in his honour, and though very much a provincial I felt I must go to town to celebrate this memorable occasion (below). It was a very good party. Apart from there being plenty to drink, and too much if you wanted it, the speeches were short and witty, and I saw old friends.

I was most impressed by Mike’s speech; you would have sworn that it was impromptu yet it was too well thought out to have been. He good-humouredly teased poor Stirling Moss, who had lost the championship to him by one point. I realised then that he was very far from being the blond English playboy of popular impression.

Afterwards, seizing a moment when he was not surrounded by well-wishers, I edged forward to shake the champion’s hand. When he saw me he gave a sign of pleasured recognition which naturally flattered me. We talked a little, and he bemoaned the change in Grand Prix racing from the year of his famous victory over Fangio at Reims. I got the impression that he might be thinking of retiring.

When someone told me not long afterwards that he had been killed in a road accident I just could not comprehend it. Truly when your number is up, it is up, and no one can escape his fate. To repeat ‘whom the Gods love die young’ is little enough compensation for his absence and I was very proud to have known him, however slightly.

On Tony Rolt

Bluff, large and with A voice that could hold its own on any parade ground, Major A?P?R?Rolt, MC, Rifle Brigade, was curiously involved with both the beginning and end of my brief racing career. When Tony, driving a Jaguar with Duncan Hamilton, won the Le Mans 24-hour race for the first time at over 100mph he was asked by the officials what music he would like to be played, and he replied without hesitation “the March of the Rifle Brigade”. Very English – but then so is Tony. What is most surprising is that the French were able to play it on the spot.

My first race was at Brooklands in 1939, a Campbell circuit handicap, the car Bob Ansell’s 1½-litre B-type ERA.

Of my confused impressions of trying to stay on the road and not burst the willing engine by over-revving it, one thing stands out clearly. On the last lap, thanks no doubt to Ebby’s excellent handicapping, there was a considerable traffic jam, in which I saw a gap and managed to squeeze through, in so doing passing Tony and finishing fourth, one place ahead of him. Afterwards he said some complimentary words to a mutual friend which, when they reached me, greatly boosted my morale.

In the last race in which I drove – of which I have no recollection whatever – Tony, so I learnt afterwards from him, was, owing to my pride, partly the cause of my downfall.

It was the Goodwood meeting of September 1951. In the Woodcote Cup I had for the first time that season been beaten by Tony to third place and this had rankled. Let me explain that during that year I had got the measure of Tony, not from any driving skill but because I had a faster and more reliable car. Accordingly after my defeat I was out for revenge in the Daily Graphic Trophy, the last and main event of the day.

While we were waiting on the starting line Tony (so he tells me) came over and said, “Don’t worry Brian, it’s all yours. I’ve had more than enough today.” I was suspicious and while appreciating the gesture, did not believe him.

The flag fell. I managed to beat Tony into the first corner and was in third – my target. Out ahead were two who might have been in a separate race – the ultimate winner Farina in a 159 Alfa Romeo and Reg Parnell in the Thinwall Special. Down Lavant Straight there was Tony breathing down my neck, damn him, so in my eagerness to make sure of it this time I braked a fraction late for Woodcote, the right-angle bend.

Then began a chain of events which led to my fate. If you brake hard when you have already begun to take the bend, inevitably you slide outwards, and this I did. The back wheels went on the grass, the car partially spun; fortunately, or unfortunately, I kept the engine running and waited for a gap in the traffic, which, it being the first lap, was still pretty thick. Eventually my chance came, I let in the clutch and rejoined the fray, all hope of catching Tony gone. Now I was 14th or 15th behind a Maserati driven by a visiting Swiss, Branca. On the next lap I did not appear; nor did Branca. Tony finished third, I finished in hospital. So ended my brief appearance on the motor racing stage.

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