He’s had tough times in F1, taken titles in F5000, and switched from sidecars to Learjets. Still racing 46 years on, Ian Ashley relishes it all
By Richard Heseltine
He smiles in a manner that appears more resigned than amused. It’s clear that Ian Ashley has heard the same question in various guises all his professional life. “Ah, the ‘Crashley’ thing,” he says, raising his eyes to the ceiling. “James Hunt and I came up through the ranks together and were friendly rivals. Certainly James’ works March F3 drive did see him write off several chassis and I too was perhaps a little erratic in the early days. Mike Ticehurst, a mutual friend, coined ‘Crashley ’n Shunt’ and it stuck. We were both learning in the harsh glare of the limelight, having missed out on karting or club racing, but if something broke and I slid off into the undergrowth, it was still my fault!”
And with that there’s a sudden jump in register and the return of his infectious laugh. “I suppose I did rather scrape the barrel with some of the cars I raced but you have to go where the drives are, don’t you?” he continues. “I remember dear old Tony Lanfranchi, who had rather a cynical attitude, braying after my ’68 season in F3 had ended miserably, ‘Oh poor Ashley, he’s 20 years old and already a has-been.’ I cannot count the number of times I’ve been labelled a has-been. Then you get a good result and suddenly it’s a case of ‘Oh, I always knew you’d make it…’”
Should you ever meet Ashley, prepare to cancel the rest of your day and perhaps the weekend, too. A playful and digressive interviewee, the stories just tumble. He first ventured trackside in late 1966 and in 2011 he was a front-runner in historic Formula 2. In between he has competed in just about everything on four wheels or fewer, before you factor in his polo playing exploits. Oh, and his secondary career piloting every conceivable strain of commercial aircraft.
“The funny thing is, I was never interested in flying even though my father was deputy-chief test pilot for the Concorde programme,” he says. “My idea at 17 was simply to race a Mini. However, in July 1966 I went to the Jim Russell racing school instead, which was my father’s way of proving to me that it was all a fatuous idea. I defied his expectations and won three school races. Simultaneously, my grannies bought me a £200 Austin-Healey ‘Frogeye’ Sprite in which I won a handicap race at Mallory Park and obtained signatures for my licence. Then for ’67 a friend acquired a Merlyn F3 car on tick; it was a typical low-budget privateer deal with the car on the back of a VW pick-up. We did eight races that season, which culminated with the opportunity of a works seat with Merlyn for ’68, but better still was an offer from Graham Warner’s Chequered Flag team.
“Graham ran ‘quasi-works’ McLaren F3 and F2 cars. Mike Walker was number one in the F3 team and won the opening race at Oulton Park. My car wouldn’t even start! I think the M4A could’ve been good with some development, but [sponsor] Esso abruptly pulled out of racing at the start of the season which meant there was no funding. For 1969 I was forced down to Formula Ford, driving the works Alexis in which I recorded the first-ever 100mph lap of Silverstone in the category. Then there was a works Lotus for the Brazilian Temporada series, which was a great adventure.”
Yet it was in Formula F5000 that Ashley made his mark. Having dipped his toe in the water at the end of 1969 aboard a Kitchener K3, he found greater success in a succession of Lolas. Then came Formula 1 – sort of.
“In August ’74 I’d just finished an F5000 race at Brands Hatch driving for Jackie Epstein’s ShellSport/Radio Luxembourg team when someone from Token approached my friend/manager Mike Smith about a possible drive in the RJ02 for the German Grand Prix. Following a quick natter with Graham Warner and [oil trader] Richard Oaten who were involved financially, I agreed to do it so long as I could have a quick test at Goodwood first. The Tuesday before the race, I did maybe 12 laps.
“At the Nürburgring, the right-front tyre went flat at the bottom of the Foxhole on the third lap of practice. In second practice a mechanic effectively sabotaged my efforts as he’d mistakenly installed the wrong top gear, so instead of having 11,000rpm, I had only 9000. We qualified, but for the warm-up lap [car designer] Ray Jessop told me to be careful and lift off at the Foxhole, what with all the extra race fuel on-board. I did just that but the right-front tyre blew again at precisely the same spot. I continued on for another 10 miles, arriving at the pits without the tyre and the right-front wing. Ray was concerned that vibrations might have cracked the top front wishbone so he changed it in record time, eyeballing the camber and toe-in settings. There was no replacement wing so they simply taped up the wing pole to keep it in place, increased the left-front wing and reduced the rear wing. Ray then wished me luck.
“I remember Jackie Stewart sauntering along the grid. When he finally arrived at my car he looked at the somewhat excessive right-hand camber/toe-in and the bandaged right wing pole then shook his head and smiled!”
Our hero finished 14th following another identical front-right puncture, the issue in time being traced to a batch of porous wheels.
“For the next race, the Austrian GP at the Osterreichring, there was only the one flat tyre, this time the left front. I was doing 180mph-plus at the end of the pit straight heading into the flat-out right-hander at the time. In the race, a left-front tyre began bubbling: the glassfibre front wings were flexing at high speed and this reduced front-left grip and overheated the inside tread. Ray then called me in for another lightning two-minute pitstop. Then my left-rear wheel came loose. In I came again and while they replaced it the engine began to overheat. They thought the car was on fire so hauled me out, only to realise it was just steam. I clambered back in and off I went to finish eight laps down [on winner Carlos Reutemann].
“By now Graham and Richard were pretty pissed off and did a deal to buy an ex-John Watson/ex-Hexagon Brabham BT42. John Surtees then phoned and invited me to Goodwood for a test. Finally starting at 4pm, I did one lap before returning on seven cylinders. They checked a couple of things and I went out again only to come back in immediately. Without proper power the car just understeered. Afterwards they asked me what I thought. I’d just had a bellyful of this with Token but I was diplomatic!
“‘Well, you’ve got the drive,’ Surtees said the following day. ‘You can finish the season – Monza, Mosport and Watkins Glen.’ I asked for two days to decide since I was contractually tied with Epstein for F5000. I didn’t know what to say to Graham who’d purchased the darn Brabham. I knew I’d do well in the Oulton Gold Cup in the Lola T330 (he won…) and the Brabham was potentially a good car so I phoned Surtees and declined his offer. He wasn’t impressed! The Brabham we’d been sold was a total bitsa, though, and I failed to qualify for the Canadian or US Grands Prix. Just to rub salt into the wounds, when I arrived at Watkins Glen I was greeted with the news that my father had been killed. In hindsight, I probably should have accepted the Surtees drive but then the fellow who took it, Helmuth Koinigg, crashed and was killed at the Glen. There but for the grace of God…”
Following a catastrophic mechanical – and leg – breakage at the ’Ring with Williams in ’75, which in turn destabilised his F5000 campaign, 1976 began with Stanley-BRM but failed to launch when the team withdrew after only the Brazilian GP opener. Back in F3 aboard Lola’s T570 prototype for ’77, Ashley returned to the top table with the Hesketh squad at the tail end of the season. It would prove an exasperating experience, one which came to an abrupt halt with a 195mph shunt at Mosport.
“Going over the hump at the end of the back straight the whole nose section collapsed. The 308E and I did two-and-a-half backward somersaults 30ft in the air, flying over the Armco before hitting a TV stand. The car was buried 10 inches in the ground, which crushed my ankles. When I came to I was full of morphine. Emerson Fittipaldi, his personal surgeon, Jochen Mass and the mechanics were cutting me out with small hacksaw blades, with Mike Wilds behind gripping a plasma bag. I woozily thought I was in practice for the US Grand Prix two weeks earlier – ‘Just change the springs, down a notch on the roll bar…’”
He also sustained two shattered wrists, and it marked the end of the road for the F1 dream. Not that Ashley is embittered, just irked. “When you envisage F1 you perceive it as being incredibly professional but it really wasn’t at the back of the grid! When I think of some of the cars I drove, just hopping in and hoping for the best… You just want to get stuck in.”
Ashley changed tack and became a Learjet captain based out of New York, flying the great and the good including an incredulous Jackie Stewart, yet he couldn’t stay away from racing completely. “Following an eight-year sabbatical, ‘Emmo’ persuaded me to have a look at Indycar. He said it was just like F5000. I came back in November ’85 for the final round in Miami and qualified well, but I was taken out in the race by Jim Crawford. I did a few more races, including one in Indy Lights, but I couldn’t put a deal together. It was not dissimilar to F1. Then at the end of ’87 I got into motorcycles, attending several superbike schools so as to ensure I kept my head on my shoulders. Shortly thereafter, and purely by chance, I was persuaded to race a friend’s bike at a very wet club meeting. I won and that was all it took. I particularly enjoyed doing endurance races all over the USA.
“However, upon hearing about Steve Webster and Tony Hewitt winning the World Grand Prix Sidecar championship, I returned to Britain in 1990 determined to do some Grands Prix even if they were on three wheels! The racing was wonderful and I was successful, too.
“Around that time I became aware of what was going on in the British Touring Car Championship. I looked at the Sierra Cosworths and thought they looked like a laugh but by the time I got around to entering the series it was being run to Super Touring regs, which meant 2-litre engines and [predominantly] front-wheel drive. I did the 1993 season but my ’90 Vauxhall Cavalier was outdated and a poor choice although I led the privateers class for most of the year. I then tried both the TVR Tuscan Challenge and the Lotus Sport Elise series, but again innumerable reliability problems scuppered the dream.”
Fast-forward to 2005 and Ashley was employed as an instructor at the Ron Haslam Superbike School before returning to flying seaplanes out of Alaska and Vancouver Island. His latest comeback followed a friend’s suggestion that he take a look at historics. In 2008 Ashley bought a 1961 LDS-Alfa Romeo Grand Prix car and hasn’t looked back. “You know, I was incredibly lucky with the flying in that so many amazing opportunities presented themselves. Everything came easily to me but I didn’t appreciate it. In motor racing it was a different story. I should have made it in Formula 1 like my contemporaries. It didn’t happen but I’m still here and I’m having a wonderful time racing.” The more you listen the more it’s clear that retirement isn’t in Ashley’s personal lexicon. His remains a life less ordinary, and one that is lived well.