At home in a racing Arena
He’s focused on the BTCC these days, but Mike Earle’s varied motor sport career stretches back over half a century
By day with Mike Earle begins with a fried egg sandwich, conjured up from the pristine workshops below his office at at Arena International in Littlehampton.
"You won't get this at McLaren," he says. "It's the crumbs, you see, the crumbs on the carpet."
This exchange sets the tone for most of the next five hours as we settle back on leather sofas surrounded by memories of his five decades in the sport. Downstairs there is barely room for another silver trophy. And by the time you read this he'll be into another season, Arena busy testing for Ford's British Touring Car Championship campaign with its new petrolengined Focus. Last year, using liquid petroleum gas to power the cars, the team took both the Independent Teams' and Drivers' Championships with the two Toms (Chilton and Onslow-Cole) making history as the first drivers ever to win with LPG in the BTCC.
Few people have survived this long at the top of a sport variously described as a jungle, a nest of vipers or a tank of piranhas. Stamina and a sense of humour are vital ingredients for success and survival. And this man, now 70, has both with some to spare. Earle's teams have won races in every one of the past five decades.
His career began not as a graduate or gofer, but in a pub in Bognor Regis, as you might expect of a man who's always done things his own way. He wanted to be a racing driver but soon gave up that idea after embarrassing himself on local rallies in an old Riley. "These days that's like doing Rally GB in a milk float," he says, deadpan.
"I had my own pub in Bognor," he expands. "I was just 21 years old and Britain's youngest licensee at the time. Anyway, the local motor club was looking for a place to meet and so I kept in touch with racing, and Goodwood was just down the road. I'd caught the racing bug and did some race reports from Goodwood for the local newspaper, which is how I met a bloke called Derek Bell who lived nearby in Pagham and who'd broken the lap record at Goodwood in his Formula 3 Lotus. I'd written about him in the local rag and he asked me to help him with his F3 car. His stepfather Bernard Hender, who was known as 'The Colonel' and who owned the Church Farm caravan park, had bought him an F3 for the 1967 season. By now I was working for a big mail order motor accessories retailer called Hares Spares — no, they weren't doing wigs," he chuckles. "Anyway, Derek had talent and I ended up running Church Farm Racing. We did well, raced all over Europe, towing the car behind an old Transit van. They were great days, just the four us — me, Derek, the Colonel and a great mechanic called Ray Wardell. Derek drove well, got some good results, and in Monaco Firestone gave us free tyres. We thought 'free tyres, blimey, the big time' so we bolted them on and failed to qualify. That night we made a bit of a mess of the Tip Top bar."
Things got a bit more serious in 1968. Derek had impressed enough to move up to F2 and the Colonel bought him a Brabham BT23C. "A good man called George Brown joined us. The car was good, but we still had some wild times. We had no money, not compared to the works teams, no team jackets in those days. As the year went on Derek had some good results, drove a fantastic race at Crystal Palace against the likes of Hill and Rindt, and that got him noticed. Next thing, he got a call from Ferrari."
Imagine. There's this guy who used to run a pub, a caravan park owner with a bit of cash and a mechanic with a van and a trailer. Did Enzo Ferrari honestly want to take a closer look at their driver?
"We thought it was a prank, some joker with a bad Italian accent," says Earle, "and Derek nearly didn't follow it up. But they called again and off he went to Maranello. I don't think he knew where it was. As we know, he got the job, but it was a bad time to go to Ferrari. Chris Amon was there, and he was one of the best there was, but the cars weren't the greatest. Throughout my career I've seen so many people get themselves into the right place at the wrong time — that's motor racing. Anyway, we stayed in F2 with Brian Hart and at the end of the year we decided to move to Formula 5000."
Along comes Peter Gethin, son of a champion jockey, and a man with a highly developed sense of humour. He also had talent, he was quick, and a fruitful partnership began as Bell struggled to make headway down in Maranello. Thanks to Gethin's association with McLaren, Earle got his hands on a McLaren-Chevrolet M10A, and the rest is history. Church Farm dominated the series, winning the F5000 championship in 1969-70. They were so far ahead of the rest in '69 that they took time out to do the Formula 'A' series in America, returning home just in time to make sure of the F5000 titles.
In 1970 Bell came home from Ferrari and Church Farm teamed up with Tom Wheatcroft. They bought a Brabham BT30, two FVA engines, an old Bedford truck and did the European F2 championship, winning in Barcelona and threatening the big works teams. At the same time Derek was driving a Porsche 917 for Steve McQueen's Le Mans movie, revelling in the big sports car. It was back down to earth a year later when Earle and Rodney Banting decided to start BERT — the Banting Earle Racing Team — running Patrick Dal Bo's F2 Pygmees for, among others, Carlos Pace. "The car was good but the money ran out and we packed it in halfway through the season." At this point along came David Purley.
"It's been well documented but the time with David was a huge experience in so many ways," he says. "He was an extraordinary bloke. I dropped in at Goodwood one day and there he was, testing his Atlantic car. I'd never met him, though we both lived in Bognor. I suggested a few tweaks to the car and he went quicker. He thought that was great, and so there I was working with him at the next race. Then Greg Field and I put together a programme for him with money from his father's Lec refrigeration business. Greg and I set up a workshop in an old chicken shed behind the factory in Bognor, and we did two seasons with a Chevron and won the Group 8 championship in 1976. We made lots of bits for that car — new wings, side radiators, things like that — and Derek did a lot of the testing while David was away on the Tasman series.
"Then Charlie Purley, David's father, said he'd pay for us to do Formula 1. Well, we had no idea what that might cost, and there was just me, Greg, two mechanics, a machinist and Ken Horden, who built our DFVs and ran them on a dynamometer in the shed. Anyway, we hired Mike Pilbeam who'd left BRM, old man Purley gave us access to the 'special products' area of his factory and they made the bits from Pilbeam's drawings. That's how we made the car, CRP 1. The first time David tested at Goodwood he stopped after 50 yards and said to me 'it's broken in half, it's dragging along the ground'. I told him that was the skirts, some plastic bits we'd added when the rules changed. So he did 10 laps, came in, and said it was all fine. He hated testing."
Purley took sixth on his debut at the 1977 Race of Champions. "All the F1 teams were there. I think the laughter drowned out the noise of the car, but we struggled through the season and at Zolder we got lucky. We kept David out in the rain while everyone came in for tyres and he took the lead. We thought, OK, this F1 is easy, but then Lauda came up behind him on new tyres and David held him up. They had a bit of an argument about that afterwards. People said we'd made an inspired decision, nearly pulled it off. But the fact was with only three of us in the pits we realised we couldn't do a tyre stop, and when he did come in it took about half an hour to change the damn things."
Then it all went wrong at Silverstone. The DFV's throttle stuck open, the car ploughed into the sleepers at Becketts, and Purley spent the rest of the year recovering from horrible leg injuries. But neither he nor Mike considered giving up. They built a new car and Purley came back, did an Aurora race, and then called it a day. So Earle and Field formed a new team for 1979, Onyx Race Engineering, and went back to F2, running a Pilbeam for Patrick Neve, and then a March for motorcycle champion Johnny Cecotto's first experience of single-seaters. His talent got him into a works Minardi so, undaunted, Onyx took on teenager Riccardo Paletti, who was later killed in an Osella at the 1982 Canadian GP. "That was so tragic," says Earle. "He was a lovely kid, very bright. He'd been a kart champion, a downhill skier and he raced well. By the end of '81 we were living on fresh air, there was nothing out there, and Greg went to Project 4 with Ron Dennis. Out of the blue along came Jo Chamberlain who bought into the team and Robin Herd offered us the factory March F2 squad. We had the best car, the BMW engine, the best Michelins and Beppe Gabbiani won four races. We lost out to Jonathan Palmer in Ron Tauranac's new Ralt in the end but we were back in business. The following year we had money from Marlboro and Emanuele Pirro and we were right there, but Ralt beat us again.
"I've always had huge admiration for Ron Tauranac, and when we came back from three disappointing seasons to win the 1987 F3000 title with Stefano Modena, he was the first person to pat me on the back. That meant a lot."
Stefano Modena. A big name in Mike's five decades of scrapbooks. And one of the most enigmatic men to have raced for him, a World Champion in the making, but one who never got there.
"Yes, an interesting man and hugely talented," says Earle. "Stefano still says we were the best team he ever worked with, and the feeling is mutual. He came to us through the Marlboro young driver programme. On the panel were Ron Dennis, James Hunt, Hugues de Chaunac and myself. It came to the judging, and in walked this scruffy young Italian with hair all over the place, like a burst horsehair sofa. That was Stefano, nobody else wanted him, and I took him. He lived in Modena but I found him a flat in Bognor and he came to the factory every day, sitting on a stool in the workshop, watching the guys build his car. He had talent and worked hard too. In the paddock at Spa in '87 Ayrton Senna told me that Modena was the only one he'd worry about if he made it up to F1.
"He was without doubt the most perceptive driver I've ever run and his technical feedback was incredible. He was a complex character and you had to be patient with him. He loved art, made sculptures, was clever, had a bit of mystery about him. People said he was weird because he wore his gearshift glove inside out, but he just had no money, so if he wore it inside out the holes didn't bother him so much.
"Bernie [Ecclestone] called me and said, 'This kid Modena, is he any good?' I told him and he said, 'Right, send him down to Australia, I'll put him in a Brabham.' Well, he raced very well, but Bernie sold the team so it stalled there."
What happened next is truly extraordinary.
"We planned to put him in the Onyx when we went to F1 and Stefano told me he'd found 'a little old man' in Italy to help with his F3000 budget," explains Earle. "So I went to Modena and he took me to the Ferrari factory. We went into an office and this 'little old man' was God himself, Enzo Ferrari. We sat down and he asked me if Stefano was a winner. I said yes, absolutely, and he's worked hard. But why did Enzo Ferrari want to help him? He looked at me and said, 'I am an old man. It would be fantastic one day to have a man from Modena, called Modena, in one of my cars.' It was a moment I'll remember all my life. We had a second meeting, he offered us help with the F1 team, but somehow it never happened — I don't know why — and then he died in August that year.
"We could only go downhill from winning the F3000 title in '87. And we did. The plan was to do F1 with Marlboro money, so Alan Jenkins designed the car, we built it, and then the money went away. So it was back to F3000 with March, but the car was terrible and Volker Weidler was the sad recipient. I felt sorry for him — he thought he had the dream drive — and it was a mess, we were just no match for the new Reynard or Ralt.
"So we built a new F1 car for '89 with a lot of help from IAD in Worthing, which had a huge amount of computing power for those days. Without IAD we'd never have got to a race. Somehow we got a car to the launch in London in January. But it was not an auspicious start. We worked all night, unloaded the car outside the Hippodrome in the morning and a traffic warden clamped it. He wasn't keen on removing [the clamp], but he did, and we got the car inside and under the stage from where it would appear on a lift in a cloud of dry ice. Nigel Roebuck wrote that it was the most tasteless Formula 1 launch he'd ever seen. Well, we'd worked hard, and all the money came from me, Jo Chamberlain and a property guy called Paul Shakespeare, so we reckoned we'd done pretty well.
"We had Stefan Johansson and Bertrand Gachot as drivers and Bertie found us a sponsor in Belgium. I went to Brussels and Bertie warned me not to be too shocked by what I found. Well, I walked into Jean-Pierre van Rossem's office and I was shocked. There was this man behind a huge desk with hair down to his waist, a beard to match, and racing boots on his feet. This was the man who invented Moneytron, a system for predicting the money markets, and he'd made a fortune. By the time I was back at the factory he'd sent over his first payment...
"So we went to Brazil. We were still building the cars in the paddock. It was a triumph of optimism over sense. We managed to run the cars on a go-kart circuit — not quite the way you'd expect an F1 team to start. There was pre-qualifying, so Stefan went out at eight in the morning, did some laps and said it was good in the fast corners but way off in the slower bits. We failed to qualify either car. It was tough. But we'd made it to F1 and that's a huge challenge, still is. It a was never meant to be easy, and it wasn't."
To cut a long story short the team soldiered on and with some success. Johansson pre-qualified in Mexico and all the British teams cheered them at the end of the session. At Ricard they took fifth, and third at Estoril. Meanwhile van Rossem cut a bizarre figure in the pitlane.
"Not as bizarre as it was on the inside," says Mike. "He was an unusual man, he brought about eight glamorous models to every race, all dressed in the latest fashions. He was trying to make our team look pretty, but Bernie made it clear that the place for these ladies was at the back of the garage. He was a character, hugely enthusiastic, and when we got the podium in Portugal he was ecstatic. And, by and large, he paid the bills."
But it didn't last. Jenkins and Johansson, who'd worked together at McLaren, wanted more power in the team and — in — a bizarre palace coup — Earle resigned and left behind a 15year struggle to get into F1. Van Rossem tried to repair the damage and the team struggled on until he pulled the plug. Earle and Chamberlain tried to buy Brabham but it got complicated and ended in a High Court case. As ever, a white knight came over the horizon in the shape of Swiss entrepreneur Peter Monteverdi, who wanted to buy Onyx from van Rossem, Jenkins and Johansson. And so the roller-coaster ride continued until Earle refused to move the team to Switzerland. Back to square one.
"I felt like the Kevin Keegan of motor racing, but it wasn't working. I got stuck into running my design company, which I'd started with John Baldwin, and an engineering business that made show cars for McLaren. We'd built simulators for the Sultan of Brunei and I became closely involved in looking after not only the simulators but also the royal family's collection of cars. It was an interesting time."
A return to racing came with Russell Spence,' for whom Earle ran a Formula Atlantic campaign in America, and later a Renault in the BTCC. That led to a deal with Honda and then Ford, introducing LPG power to the series in 2010.
"Spence is very talented and funny, and we had a great time. Later we ran an Audi R8 for Johansson and won the Le Mans Endurance Series in 2001. It was good to be back, and be successful again. The BTCC has been good for us. I think [series boss] Alan Gow does a good job, and a grey area in the rulebook allowed us to go for LPG. But people said we had too much power, the car got too heavy, and we've gone back to petrol for 2011. If the whole field had had LPG I guess we'd have heard 'Gentlemen, light your barbecues' at the start of a race..."
Reluctant to pick a highlight from his life in the sport, Earle finally opts for the podium with Onyx at Estoril. "I loved it when I first got on my bike and pedalled up to Goodwood, and I love it just as much now. But really it's been the people, the characters I've met and worked with. Motor racing attracts so many fantastic people."
Mike Earle is one of them. He's been there, done it and somewhere he must have the T-shirts. If ever he writes a book it will be essential reading for motor racing fans the world over.