…the best sports car driver on the planet”
He drove everything from D Types to Connaughts with a rare passion; Robert Edwards tells the story of a man good enough to win Le Mans, but doomed by an off-track obsession
I have noted before that it is our habit to forget all too easily those people whose impact on this sport was, in their time, much more important than we are prone to recollect it to have been. And in an age of generalists, before top-line drivers began to restrict themselves to the modest schedule offered by the modem racing calendar, a few names stand out as being the sort of people who could apparently turn their hand to anything. Just such a man was Ron Flockhart. He had started racing, like many, in that mad scramble for anything with four wheels and an engine in the late forties; by 1952 he had bought a D-type ERA, and this brought him into contact with Bourne, Lincolnshire, where the blushing ex-proprietors of ERA were sweating away on the BRM project. Flockhart joined them.
The statistics, as they often do, belie the man. Thirteen Grand Prix starts, a total of five points and just one podium position. But when you investigate, and discover that of those 13 starts, no less that nine were with BRM (a very long time before it was a good car), one was a privately-entered Maserati, one was with a tired Connaught (but giving the marque its highest placed finish) and the two others were Cooper and Lotus, both in their early iterations, and you realise that there was rather more to this than meets the eye. Oh, and we mustn’t forget the two Le Mans wins, either…
He is of course best known for that work at the wheel of the Ecurie Ecosse D Types, and will always be associated with their authoritative triumphs at the Sarthe, ably partnered by both Ivor Bueb and Ninian Sanderson, but he had also already provided sterling (and largely unsung) service at BRM in those tortured, difficult early days, and indeed later on, which was at times an equally thankless task.
Development work is of course the great unappreciated role in the sport and, while all would agree that it is vital, it lacks the smooth glamour of the racing itself. A skilled testing exponent has always been rare and prized — Damon Hill, or his father, for example, but in the case of the BRM V16, there was more than enough work for even the most committed and curious driver. The required combination of imagination and mechanical sympathy was, in many cases, the exact antithesis of the 1950s amateur racing driver. For every driver who could provide useful input, there were probably three dozen who could not. But this feral and terrifying machine was never to triumph outside the ranks of Formule Libre, as timing was against it due to the withdrawal of Alfa Romeo. It proved, however to be the equal of the brutally quick (but amazingly primitive) Thinwall Special Ferrari which was its only serious opposition on most occasions. The fact that it was never to contest Formula One proper is of itself something of a shame, but it was simply not to be; nevertheless, Flockhart put down a marker at Boume to which he would later return.
When proper 2-litre Formula One did arrive, for the 1954 season, drives were immensely hard to come by, as no less a talent than Stirling Moss had discovered. Because Flockhart was an amateur, there was no question of buying a front-rank car as so many were forced to do — and in a hurry — but he entered Prince Bira’s Maserati 250F for the British Grand Prix of that year, but with no success. This was the car later campaigned by his great friend Bruce Halford; it was the only non-British machine with which Flockhart competed.
He entered no Formula One races in 1955 — he had a business to run, after all, and sportscars took up all his time, but if there was a year which held the most promise, it was to be 1956. His victory, with Ninian Sanderson, at the wheel of the Ecurie Ecosse D type was followed by an extraordinary effort in the Italian Grand Prix with Connaught. That race was something of a final push for the Surrey concern, as at the end of the season they were critically short of cash. Four cars were entered, for Les Leston, Jack Fairman, Archie Scott Brown and Flockhart, and the practice started well enough for Connaught, with a provisional pole for Scott Brown, who was then banned from the race as a result of his physical handicaps. The remaining three had to nurse their fragile engines, which accounted for their lowly grid positions, as they took up the challenge. Flockhart actually started bog last —24th place, but finished third, which would stand as his best ever Grand Prix performance, and one which lurks in the margins of the record books. More impressive was the fact that it was a very close third; on the same lap as the winners, and comfortably ahead of Chico Godia in a works Maserati 250. It reflected both a high degree of mechanical sympathy as well as a keenly-honed competitive edge, not to mention a raffish sense of instinctive risk-taking.
This race was the last — and best — championship Grand Prix points win for Connaught and Flockhart, taking huge chances with the car’s weakest point, its Alta-derived engine, really showed his mettle in simply keeping up with the Moss Maserati and the Lancia-Ferrari which took first and second. He had already experienced engine failure in the British Grand Prix earlier that year, so his efforts were all the more praiseworthy. On a hugely fast circuit like Monza — 130mph was a respectable average then — a dramatic engine failure would have been totally catastrophic.
More than two years after Tony Brooks had driven the works Maserati team into the weeds at his Formula One debut at Syracuse, it had been hoped that further success might attract some much-needed external investment. It was efforts such as this which served to assure an anxious racing public that the Connaught would survive and prosper, so a great gloom was to descend in the spring of 1957 when they were forced to shut down and liquidate the assets of the firm. Incidentally, several of the cars went to one B Ecclestone. It was a tragedy, for in many ways, Connaught might well have accomplished what Vanwall later did, and what BRM had tried to do, for there was little doubt that the cars were properly screwed together and beautifully thought out. Whatever, the 1956 Monza race, forgotten though it may be now, was an astonishing effort.
But by the time the brutal realities of economics had taken their toll at Connaught, Flockhart was back with his old friends at BRM. The latest iteration, the P25, had been a car dogged by serial troubles — mainly in the brake department — and Raymond Mays and Peter Berthon had a huge problem in attracting drivers, or even getting them to test the car. They were at one stage reduced to putting adverts in the evening papers where races were going on, in an attempt to lure any likely candidates up to Lincolnshire. Relatively few took up the opportunity and many who did lived to reconsider the generous offers which were invariably made. But Flockhart knew the firm already and was well up to dealing with the sundry eccentricities which marred what was eventually to become a fine car.
He bent to the task; by now a long series of first-rank drivers, including Tony Brooks, Mike Hawthorn (“It’s tripled my laundry bills”) and Roy Salvadori had voted with their feet from the team, assuring anybody who asked that the car was more than a little dangerously flawed, as indeed were its proprietors, but Flockhart knew enough about the engineering integrity of the car, whatever its design shortcomings, to justify revisiting the experiences of 1952-3. He knew it would be hard work, and it certainly was. Perhaps, though, Flockhart was one of those men who could only learn from his own experiences rather than imagine the lessons from mistakes made by other people. And learn he did, as the BRM brakes let him down at the French Grand Prix, causing him bums in the ensuing shunt, but, happily, not serious ones and not, vitally for his reputation, until after he had already secured his second win at Le Mans, this time with the doughty Ivor Bueb as co-driver.
His career seemed well-balanced; clearly one of the best drivers on the planet in sportscars, his forays into single-seaters were less consistent, but as Monza in 1956 had shown, he could deliver the goods under most circumstances. There was, of course, a huge change coming in Formula One, as Stirling was to prove early in 1958, and which Salvadori had already hinted at with the first points win for the Cooper-Climax, but Flockhart, born in 1923, was a vital few years older than many of his colleagues and time was not on his side.
But ‘career’ is arguably a misnomer. He was above all an amateur. He did not need to race; he had a perfectly profitable business to sustain him, but a prominent racing career — particularly at Le Mans — served as well as anything to promote the garage business, Flockhart and Langrishe, in Ascot. Nothing brought customers to the door more effectively than the prospect of rubbing shoulders with a successful driver. Roy Salvadori and Mike Hawthorn had also learned this, and so Flockhart’s exploits on the track, despite the fact that he was paid very little for them (particularly by Ecosse; the team was always run on a shoestring) served him very well economically without necessarily burdening him with a burning desire to succeed. He was one of those lucky men who raced because he could race, enjoyed it, and was very, very good at it. Nothing at all to prove, as his relaxed trademark style showed.
The trouble which Bourne was having with the BRM P25 meant that it was a relatively light 1958 season and Flockhart found the time to experiment a little with Rob Walker’s Cooper Climax, the hero of the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix. He did little with it but compared to the BRM, even in its more refined form, the little car must have been an extraordinary revelation.
There had been a chance that he could have replaced his old chum Bueb, who lay dying in France as a result of injuries sustained in an F2 race at Clermont-Ferrand, in the BRP-BRM at the German Grand Prix of 1959— certainly that was the entrant’s intention. However, the AC von Deutschland had other ideas and shoehorned Hans Herrmann into the seat at the last moment. Herrmann was famously to regret it; Flockhart would, in all probability, have managed the wayward machine with his usual flair.
But despite relatively modest results for BRM in Formula One, (nul points; he was certainly not alone in that) he did well enough in lesser events, winning the Lady Wigram Trophy in New Zealand in the winter of 1959-60, reflecting, quite possibly, that all the hard work was starting to come good for the sorely beleaguered team. This victory, coupled with the 1959 Silver City trophy at Snetterton, ensured that while his conveyance might not have the legs of the competition in the top ranks, he could still actually win with it. In proving this, he made a huge contribution to the credibility of the marque, which others would later develop and exploit. A constructor’s/driver’s championship double was still a long way off, but the BRM concern was finally raising its game. 1959, though, was the last season at BRM for Flockhart
Alan Brown, who entered Flockhart in several Formula Two events as his F1 career wound down, remembered him with great fondness: “He was a totally charming guy, and of course immensely talented. Very relaxed…. He had it all really, beautiful manners and generosity as well as being nice-looking. He really looked the part! Apart from being a truly tremendous driver, he was also a fine co-driver as well; now that is quite rare.”
For the 1960 French Grand Prix, the works Lotus line-up had a distinctly Scottish flavour to it; Innes Ireland, Jim Clark and Flockhart. He was only to drive for Lotus once, as a temporary stand-in for the unfortunate Alan Stacey who had died at Spa. He managed a sixth place. The Scottish spin was a matter of complete indifference to Colin Chapman, as Ireland was to discover later, but Flockhart would do great justice to the Lotus 18 later on in early 1962. His interest in the Antipodes was not exclusively a function of his racing ambitions, though; the speed with which they could be reached had also started to intrigue him…
His fascination with aviation had never left him since he took it up after the war, and the prospect of improving on the existing London-Sydney record for piston-engined aeroplanes was one which, compared to motor racing, he found extremely hard to resist He had crashed at Athens, wrecking the aeroplane, while trying to break the old record in 1961, so the next year he tried again. His chosen conveyance, as before, was a recommissioned WWII P51 Mustang fighter plane, (unimaginable now, but they were very affordable then) but it was clearly not recommissioned well enough, for on April 12 1962, while he was practising for the event outside Melbourne, he crashed into a high hill after an instrument failure in low cloud. Two weeks later, Moss had his crash and British motor racing had changed forever. At the end of that 1962 season, though, BRM finally pulled it off, with the double championship coming to it after so many years of trying. The irony, that the man who had done more than many to develop the troublesome marque was no longer alive to witness this, was lost on no-one.