Busman's holiday –– Drivers who raced what you wouldn't expect them to...
March 793, Thruxton F3,1980. By Nick Phillips
It was 1980, and Jeff Allam had just completed his first season as a paid factory tin-top driver with Rover. The 25-year-old was hot property and, to complete an exciting season, he contested his one and only single-seater race — in a Formula Three March 793 in the televised non-championship Thruxton meeting.
Allam had made a name for himself driving Vauxhalls and Fords run by the family firm, Allams of Epsom, and when British Leyland started running the SD1 in the British Saloon Car Championship he was the driver recruited to lead the team.
In the first year the cars were run by David Price Racing, and although it was still a relatively small team it was busy, with a pair of F1 Williams FWO6s for the domestic Aurora AFX series and a couple of F3 cars also in the workshops.
The 793 Allam ended up driving (by then almost two years old) had started life as one of the Triumph Dolomite Sprint-powered Unipart cars driven by Nigel Mansell, Brett Riley and Ian Flux the year before. It had been converted to Toyota power and used in early 1980 races, including Monaco, by Riley.
Allam and Price have slightly different takes on exactly how the deal came about. Price says: "It was because we were running the Rover and Jeff was driving that. Alan Jones had driven the Rover at Donington so Jeff wanted to try single-seaters; I'm not sure it was a good idea, just something he wanted to do and we did him a favour."
Allam remembers: "I'd become a factory touring car driver and was the blue-eyed boy at the time. David, being David, said at some stage that he'd give me a run in the F3 car, and I held him to it at the end of the day."
Allam had almost blown the whole Rover deal at the outset when he visited Price's Twickenham premises in 1979. "I can remember going to Twickenham with a bit of a whisper that something was going on with a new works touring car team," says Allam, "but I went to the wrong address and no-one was there. I was worried that I had cocked the whole thing up. I was about an hour late for the most important thing in my career. They were over the road in the workshops and, when I arrived, there was John Davenport, Pricey and his business partner John Bracey. At the time I was the boy they wanted and I couldn't do anything wrong, really. It was like a dream come true."
The factory Rover drive was a big deal for Allam and led to even better times as he drove for the company for most of the '80s in the successful European tin-top squad. That year, though, the car had yet to make a mark; it was on the wrong tyres most of the season and the bits which made the Vitesse version so competitive had yet to be homologated.
One highlight, though, was the late-season non-championship race which Jones won. He had just landed the World Championship in a Williams carrying Leyland sponsorship, and the link-up put him in the car at Donington. Contemporary Allam quotes show Jones to have given useful advice on the single-seater venture and to have been "very helpful and constructive."
Now, though, Allam remembers more the start of another lasting friendship: "What a thing to be driving with an F1 legend. And we've kept it up. When I was over in Australia a lot, I could always ring Jonesy and go round for a beer, and I went out on his boat and things."
So did Allam have what it takes to make it in single-seaters? The verdict is not proven.
He'd never so much as sat in a single-seater before arriving at Thruxton on race morning. It was a cold, windy Saturday in November and there were plenty of plausible reasons why he was just over four seconds off the pace in dry qualifying and just under four seconds off in the wet race. The March 793 certainly wasn't the handiest weapon at the time — the Ralt RT3s in the hands of Stefan Johansson (that year's champion) and Rob Wilson had the legs on it, though Kenny Acheson had been in contention for the title to the final round in his 793.
"One thing I remember," adds Jeff, "is that though the car was there and it was a free drive, I didn't get the brand-new tyres everyone else had — they were distinctly second-hand. And the car was set up for Brett, who was a lot smaller than me, so I wasn't exactly sitting down low in the car."
Price jokes: "I can't remember all his excuses, but I'm sure he had lots," though he does back Allam's memory of the tyres: "He'll have had what we had left."
Allam expands: "It was like all touring car drivers who get into a single-seater: they can feel the grip, but what they don't grasp quickly is the braking. Stopping at the chicanes was where I was losing buckets."
He finished 12th in a field of 23. Wilson won from Riley in Price's Alfa-engined March 803B. Allam sums it up now: "I started the race and came back in one piece so I suppose I ended up with a big smile on my face. David said: 'Well, at least you didn't f**king crash it.'"
He never did race a single-seater again. And there were good reasons. "You've got to take a direction," he says. "It was just fun that I was given the opportunity to drive it. I was contracted to BL for touring cars, making money out of it, and the future was fairly rosy, so I didn't want to muck it all up by going off and doing the odd race here and there."
You can't argue with the logic — Jeff's only other significant single-seater experience suggests it was sound. While racing for Vauxhall in the BTCC in the early '90s he was strapped into a Jim Russell Racing Drivers' School Formula Vauxhall Lotus and sent out with similarly mounted team-mate John Cleland around Donington. He crashed.
"I came out of Coppice onto the main straight and did a great big overtaking manoeuvre on John who was struggling to change gear," Allam recalls. "But I changed into third when it should have been fifth and the back end locked up. And when John came round for the next lap he was crying in his helmet with laughter — he said that there was so much glassfibre and shit across the track he thought a plane had crashed. I remember there was mud all over my visor. The engine was still running and the front wheels were still on and pointing in the right direction, so I put it in gear to drive it back to the pits. But there were no rear wheels on it, just a couple of driveshafts thrashing round in the mud."