Rolling thunder

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F5000 stormed the early seventies and now it’s ready to rumble once more. Bob Evans, the 1974 Champ, proves lighting can strike twice

He had sounded keen on the phone. Jumped at it. Now he’s not so sure. Can’t say I blame him. Silverstone hardly rests easy on the eye even on the most glorious of days, and this morning has dawned slate grey, dank and dour. The Nissan Micra hire car he’s driven from Gloucestershire is vivid (almost livid) in lilac — but its performance has hardly lifted his spirits.

He raises a smile, though, as I reach out a hand in greeting. He’s not changed much, has Bob Evans, the 1974 Rothmans European F5000 champion; spotted him a mile away in the paddock.

His unsure demeanour descends again, however, when I impart my news. Only one of the three cars promised has so far arrived. The ex-Peter Gethin 1970 championship-winning McLaren MlOB is immaculate in its original Sid Taylor green-andwhite livery, but it has yet to turn a wheel in anger since its winter rebuild — and now it won’t start. Its Chevy 302, a cathedral of grunt with eight twistedspire inlets, is as quiet as a church mouse. Better news.

The second car has arrived. Bob beams. It’s a Trojan T101, like the one he drove for Alan McKechnie in the 1973 F5000 series. He won the penultimate round that year, at Snetterton. He climbs aboard and immediately feels at home. Until the team point out they have no wets. It snowed yesterday and the track is saturated. The last high-powered single-seater Bob drove had two chassis and the mechanics reported back to Colin Chapman. It’s been 20 years. Will it all come back to him? What’s he forgotten? Can he still hack it? This is no time for risks. We will have to wait, our fingers crossed.

And then the Lola turns up, a 1973 T330, the forerunner to his title-winning T332, the car he remembers most fondly. The bodywork is off, revealing its spindly aluminium bathtub monocoque. More a foot spa than a bathtub. He slides his legs under the ‘bent wire’ dash hoop. But what’s this? It feels alien. And they too have no wets. Can’t possibly drive it like this. Oh

“It was terrific fun.” Bob reminds himself as we crowd into the Micra and out of the cold. “People talked about Formula 5000 as being the country cousin of Formula One, and I suppose it was to a certain extent, but they were magnificent cars to drive and provided a great spectacle, particularly the starts.” He pauses. “I had the nickname Don Garlits’ because of my knack of making quick getaways, of just smoking the tyres enough.” He smiles at the recollection. It is starting to come back, well up. That feeling. Still yet to define it — but it is there. No doubt about it. “It was a tremendous time,” he continues. “We were doing things right. We were winning. Beating good people. Man’s team was very tightly knit He had an apple farm and vineyard, and I lived there in one of the workers’ cottages. So did the [two] mechanics. And there was a small purpose-built workshop in the middle of it”

They were David; Goliath was Count Van der Straaten’s Chevron squad, which consisted of Gethin, aka Mr F5000, and 1973 European champion, Belgium’s Teddy Pilette. But hang on, we are getting ahead of ourselves. First, a step back.

Morgan and TVR racer Matthew Wurr is just seconds away from his maiden run in a powerful single-seater, but he is happy to demur, step out and let Bob in.

Evans was making his name in a mauve Palliser Formula Ford when Gethin was winning with this car, and he’s never driven an F5000 McLaren until today. He’s looking forward to the experience -joint owner and rebuilder Mark Longmore and his team have brought some Avon wets, you see. Mauveit’s a bit of a theme skid-lid jutting out of the cockpit, Bob slips the clutch just enough and trundles down the pitlane. And disappears. Nervous lances are cast as he is now long overdue. A spin and stall? Another electrical glitch? A shunt? No, none of these things. The marshal wouldn’t let him out; he’d forgotten to sign on. Like I said, it’s been a long time.

A lap, at last, and pit. Visor up. Eager crew lean in. Racer’s tic-tac, he’s still fluent, describes pitch and roll. Too stiff. Soften the bars. And lose some psi from the tyres. What are you running? Fourteen and 16. Thinks, ‘What did we run?’ Try 14 and 12.

And out again. Couple of laps. Red flag. Couple of laps. Red flag. For some, the track is set on fast spin. But Bob keeps it clean. “I didn’t spin much during my career,” he says. “Maybe I got a reputation for not trying hard enough because of that There are stories of people going out and spinning on purpose in an effort to find the limits of a car. But that’s bollocks. The way to do it is to gradually hone the car.” Bob was in demand as a test driver. For him, racing was more a battle between himself; his car and the track. Dicing was secondary. He was happy to mix it when necessary, but his smooth, unhurried style was better suited to running at the front “That felt very easy to drive,” he says of the MIOB, the relief all too apparent “The early F5000 cars were very docile until you pressed the loud pedal.

The McLaren does not have much downforce and is much softer than the cars lam [note present tense] used to. You can feel what’s going on, plenty of warning. Which is handy because F5000s were m+ never any good in the rain — especially if you were on Goodyears, which were crap by their own admission. I learned more about wet-weather driving from Jacky Ickx in one Dutch GP than I did in the whole of my F5000 career. Those cars were very twitchy and it really was a case of point-and-squirt”

The day is underway, the sun is peeking through — metaphorically as well as meteorologically.

On the understanding that we will not exceed 50mph, Bob is persuaded to drive the slick-shod Lola in the wet for the on-track photography. He does so deftly, its chisel nose sat squarely on — and occasionally, under — the bumper of the camera car. Viewed through a rear-view mirror, those looming radiators endow the Lola with a menacing aura — motor racing’s very own linebacker, padded up, hunkered down, ready to do some damage.

In its cockpit, a revelation is in genesis. Even at unrepresentative speed, Bob can tell this car is yards better than the McLaren. He had worried whether he would be able to spot any difference, whether he’s lost that feel, but it’s still there. The track is drying. He’s getting a taste for it.

The M10 was the first great F5000 car. Gethin used it to take the European tide in 1969, the formula’s first year, and 1970, winning eight of the first 12 rounds in the latter season. Formula One took

preference thereafter and Swede Reine Wisell inherited the drive, adding another three wins to the car’s tally. Based on the M7 F1 car, it was the class of the field. The bulk of them were built under licence by Peter Agg’s Trojan concern in Croydon, although this particular chassis is said to be one of two constructed at McLaren’s Colnbrook base.

When McLaren pulled out of F5000 at the end of 1972 in order to concentrate on Formula One and Can-Am, Trojan decided to go it alone, hiring Ron Tauranac to meld McLaren M21 Formula Two chassis with big block power. The T101, the second piece in today’s p11771e, was the result Simple, small (the MlOB is whale-like in comparison), neat, quirky but effective. Jody Scheckter used this very chassis to kick off his L8riVI Championship campaign in 1973, winning three times before a crash forced him to switch to a Lola T330, with which he won once more to round out the title. In Europe, the T101 s were driven by John Watson, Brett Lunger, Keith Holland — and Bob Evans.

“It’s just like I remember it,” he grins after his dry-line laps. “Even down to the slightly awkward gear change. I remember they had trouble getting a direct linkage; the mechanics of it, the throw, weren’t very good, but we just had to live with it. “It was a twitchy old thing, the Trojan. It would put its power down very well exiting slow corners (it was fantastic out of Druids at Brands), was quick in a straight line and braked well, but it wasn’t very well balanced and didn’t like changing direction — you never could get much downforce with those full-width noses.

“It suited certain styles, like Keith Holland, who was a brave, sideways driver, if you like. But it was this car that made me realise that I could do it. After catching a slide at the old Woodcote during the 1973 International Trophy meeting, I came into the pits thinking, Now you can call yourself a real racing driver’. It was the same today. Getting the feeling of the back breaking away was uppermost in my mind. Once it had happened a couple of times and I had dealt with it, I was able to forget about it and concentrate on everything else.”

The 1973 season was a learning one for Evans and McKechnie Racing; they finished ninth in the championship, but full of confidence because of that late-season win at Snetterton. With increased support from STP, who had pulled out of F1 at the end of 1973, and Henley Forklift Trucks, the team’s 1,50,000 budget allowed them to buy and run a brand-new Lola T332. The Huntingdon marque had struggled in F5000 initially, the T190 proving a dog, and it wasn’t until Frank Gardner drastically increased its wheelbase that it was able to match, and occasionally beat, the MlOB in 1970. The Australian took the title the following season using a T192 and, more significantly, a T300 — the car that launched the high-rad look. Based on the T240 Formula Two car, it was, by the brutish standards of the day, svelte.

By 1974, F5000 in Europe had boiled down to Lola versus the VDS Chevrons. The latter outfit won the title in ’73 and would defend it on the back of Gethin’s hard-fought Tasman title win of the Down Under winter. But McKechnie Racing were ready for them. Evans started the season slowly, but kickstarted his year with a memorable, calm-underpressure victory over benciunark Brian Redman’s similar car at Brands Hatch on Easter Sunday. In the second half of the season, Bob was the quickest man in the field, regularly setting pole, and he strung three wins together, at Mallory Park (a thriller with Gethin), Mondello Park and Thruxton.

But a double-points finale at Brands meant the tide was up for grabs. An early blow-up left Bob with a tense wait. If Gethin could finish second or higher, the tide would be his. He finished third, rueing his decision to fit intermediates to the rear of his Chevron B28. They chunked as he flunked.

All of a sudden, the old Lola feels extremely comfortable. As soon as the bodywork was refitted and its skyscraper cockpit sides — “You can’t see anything out of the damn things” — hugged the shoulders, it all made perfect sense. The Lola was another step again: better driving position, better attention to detail, better everything. Better get on with it.

As soon as the motor fires, its bottom pulley fizzing ominously close to the driver’s neck, second is selected — Evans always ignored bottom gear on the five-speed Hewland DG300 — and the car is moving. Despite a tendency to jump out of fourth, and an engine that felt 50bhp down (partly down to not getting full throttle), this is the car that makes an ex-racing driver very happy.

“The Lola is a different level of sophistication,” says Bob. “You had to work very hard in the Trojan to make it do things the Lola would do easily. The later cars, with more downforce and their better suspension geometry, were much more nervous, much closer to the way a Fomriula One car behaved.

“The Lola is much better than the Trojan at putting its power down, under braking, at changing direction and dealing with bumps and camber changes. It almost made Luffield [the tiresome, never-ending right-hander at the end of Silverstone’s lap] enjoyable — it’s that good. It’s more adjustable, has much more wing area and downforce, which meant you didn’t get the terminal understeer you had with the Trojan.

“The Chevrons always seemed to be quicker in a straight line than us, but I think the Lola had the better chassis. That was proved to me when it jumped out of gear at Copse just now; had that happened in the Trojan, I think I would have spun.

“The Lola, as Mario Andretti would have said, is a boulevard cruise. That’s the sign of a good car; you could run it softer and get more grip. You could really load it up; you always wanted as much wing as you could possibly run.

“I always liked it because it responded to smooth driving. Because of that big, heavy, cast-iron block mounted high in the chassis, something the designers could do nothing about, the car would set up its own momentum, a kind of oscillation, through a long, fast corner like Stowe or Monza’s Curva Grande; I got into one today when I had a clear run through Maggotts. ‘The old girl’s moving around’ — that took me back. Just when you thought these cars were about to oversteer, they would lurch as the engine tried to overtake you. To avoid that you had to adopt the Jackie Stewart approach. If you started changing gear roughly, or changing gear more than you should, you could upset it. “It was the same with braking.

There was no point braking as late as you could because that only served to spoil the balance by making big changes in ride height and wing attitude. By braking that much earlier and changing gear only when I had to I would often go from fifth to third or fifth to second I found I was faster. These cars might look all brute force and ignorance, but they responded well to being treated gently.”

As do 53-year-old self-confessed desk jockeys: “I had forgotten how physical these cars can be. There you are doing your best to coax them around, and all they’re doing is beating you up. They were good preparation for F1 although you had to run at 100 per cent all the time in F1, whereas you could get away with 80 per cent of the time in F5000.

“The acceleration is phenomenal, especially when you are not on the nail. If you pussyfoot around, and then give it a bootful, it feels like you are falling down a lift-shaft. I got exactly the same feeling when I jumped from F3 to F5000.

“Getting used to the brakes is very tricky, too. I remember them being not very good, but it would take a while to work up to the right braking points.”

It’s beginning to cloud over again, but nothing can darken Bob Evans’ reinvigorated spirit He has been transported back 27 years. The details and anecdotes are flowing and there’s a faraway look in his eye as we saunter behind the pits.

“I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.” In truth, F5000 never quite lived up to its billing by 1977 it had been swallowed up by the Aurora Fl series in Europe but Bob doesn’t care; he was there when the series was in its pomp. And won.

Unfortunately, his title was not the springboard to Formula One success he had hoped. He drove for BRM in 1975 and Lotus (briefly) in 1976, but neither of these famous teams were able to provide him with a competitive car.

“Formula One was a fantastic experience and I’m glad I had the opportunity to sample it. But I wasn’t prepared for the politics; I wasn’t good at that side of the sport. I wouldn’t push myself forward. When the phone stopped ringing, I was not willing to sit in people’s foyers, pestering them until they saw me.

“In racing, you don’t lose the ability, you lose the desire.”

Two miles from the circuit and the heavens open. Wide. Lightning flashes. A Nissan Micra is hustling west, its driver, in his mind’s eye, at the wheel of a thundering Lola F5000. On slicks. And loving every minute of it.

Thanks to David McLaughlin of FORCE. the HGPCA, Silverstone, Martin Rirrane, Dave Scotney, Mark Longmore, Matthew Wurr, Peter Denty Racing and Othmar von Diemar for their help in this feature

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