Have licence, will travel
God loves a trier, and few tried harder to be in F1 than Tony Trimmer, as Richard Hese[tine reveals
As conversation meanders towards Super Aguri’s debut at this year’s Bahrain F1 opener, Tony Trimmer starts chuckling: “They did a great job. Really good. I’d drive for them. Love to. That new car of theirs can’t be any worse than the Maki. I didn’t see Takuma Sato’s suspension parting company with the monocoque!”
There you have it. Tony T, the bravest man to ever sit in an F1 car. Really; he has an award from the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association saying so. Except the effortlessly affable Kent ace never actually started an F1 race. Well, not a World Championship-level one, anyway. Not that he seems overly perturbed: “I’m not bitter and twisted about it. Would have been nice, though.”
It wasn’t for the lack of trying. Trimmer has either raced, driven or generally endured 23 different F1 chassis, so his lack of enmity towards the hand fate dealt him is commendable. But then he does have a habit of finding perspective: “I started with nothing but have stayed involved in motor racing for 40 years. I haven’t become rich doing it but I’ve beaten a lot of big names along the way.”
That he has. Yet for a man still so consumed with racing fervour, the passion was late in arriving. “When I left school I went into the merchant navy,” he explains. “After a trip to Australia and Russia, I left and joined a local garage as an apprentice mechanic. Anyway, a while later my father took me to a race meeting at Goodwood; the one where Stirling Moss had his career-ending accident. Even so, I blame Moss for getting me hooked: he was amazing to watch. I couldn’t keep still after that so I joined a local motor club and did a couple of hillclimbs in a single-cylinder Cooper. But I didn’t really know what I was doing so I went to the Motor Racing Stables school at Brands Hatch. I did well and was told that a car would be laid on for me to do a few races, but it didn’t materialise. I got a bit disillusioned after that and went to join the Willment race team in the mid-60s as a mechanic. Then I got head-hunted by Harry Stiller before joining up with Frank Williams to rebuild various F3 cars he’d bought in from the Continent. I was doing about 20-30 a year.”
It was this resourcefulness that would finally see Trimmer make the leap to driver for ’68: “I bought a crashed Brabham BT21 that Tetsu Ikuzawa had rolled at Mallory Park. It cost me £80. Over a three-month period I produced a Formula Ford car out of it that comprised half the parts that Frank wouldn’t put on his cars. I then bought a Vauxhall Viva for £20, attached a towing hitch and trailered the Brabham to Brands.” Where he finished fourth. “By the end of the year I was the only driver to really get on terms with Tim Schenken, who had been winning everything earlier in the season. For 1969 Frank [Williams] got me an engine from Charles Lucas who ran Titan. He then did a deal for me to race a Titan Mk4. I finished second in both the European series and the Les Leston national championship. Thing is, it wasn’t really possible for me to race and be a mechanic, so I split with Frank. He thought I was mad.”
Then began a year that should have provided the springboard to success: “I was picked up by Race Cars International to do F3 in ’70. The first time I saw its Lotus 59 was in a picture on the front page of one of the national newspapers: it was airborne and upside-down. The first thing I had to do was fix it. We won the [Shell/MotorSport] British championship and the Monaco support race [in a Brabham BT28] but, to tell the truth, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Lotus picked me up at the end of the year to do some races in South America and I had planned on going straight into F2 but, despite lots of offers, I just didn’t have the backing.”
So began a have-licence-will-travel existence that would typify Trimmer’s career. Making his F1 debut in the Race of Champions in a Lotus 72, he would return to F3 for 1972: “Lotus kept badgering me and, by this point, I was pretty desperate.” So was the car. “The 73 had in-board rising rate suspension and was very difficult to drive. I got pretty frustrated with it and, at a race meeting at Mallory, decided to do my own thing: I raised the front end and lowered the rear ride height. It looked ridiculous but I won the race. At the next meeting it had been put back to the old setup, which typified my relationship with the team.
“I struggled to qualify at Monaco, but on race day it rained. Colin Chapman saw me looking a bit down and said, ‘Boy, we have some new F1 front tyres: we’ll put them on all round.’ It looked very strange but I was running fifth before getting into a tangle at Mirabeau. Then I got a thump from behind and shot off down the hill. I’d dropped to 15th but charged up the order until I was catching the leader, Patrick Depailler, at a second and a half per lap: he won by a second and a half…
“I loved working with Colin but there was a barrier between us: his name was Peter Warr. The deal I had was to do three F1 drives in addition to F3. I kept waiting but… We had a falling out at the end of the year, which was a shame, really.”
So it was back to the odd one-off. “I struggled through F5000 and Atlantic; nothing you could really get your teeth into. And then I got involved with Maki Engineering for the last three grands prix of ’75. The F101C had already tried to see off two drivers. The team had built this car with no idea about what materials they should make things from. At the Osterreichring the top suspension arm pulled out of the monocoque, and at the Nürburgring I came to a stop with the rear suspension on top of the engine!
“Everyone told me not to drive the Maki: I had 26 structural breakages. I would be doing 180mph and just spin off but I never even so much as went on to the grass. For the Japanese GP in ’76 I was invited to drive the new car [the F102]. I thought, ‘Maybe they’ve learned’ but it wasn’t even finished and the cockpit was too short for me. They beat it with a hammer until I could fit! In second practice it staggered around for one lap and died. That was it.
“The funny thing is, in doing so it almost did me a favour. Don Nichols agreed to give me a chance in the third Shadow. Then Maki’s sponsor kicked up a fuss and I was told that I would be paid but I couldn’t drive for another team. I said, ‘I don’t care about the money. You can keep it!” But I’d signed a contract so… It was as though somebody upstairs was looking out for me — I hadn’t killed myself despite all the spins—but he wasn’t about to give me much help either!”
Not that 1976 had been all bad: “An old friend was doing some business with an Arab guy. Anyway, he persuaded him to back me in Formula Atlantic, or Indylantic as it was called by then. I won a few races; enough to move up to the ShellSport International Group Eight series the following year. We bought a Surtees TS19 and I won the title. That then became the Aurora AFX F1 Championship for ’78 and I won it with a McLaren.
“The first time I drove the M23, I loved it. My first event with the car was the International Trophy at Silverstone. It poured down come race day, with standing water everywhere. Around Abbey I just could not get round: I spun off lap after lap. Anyway, I battled on and was third at the flag. Keke [Rosberg] won and Emerson Fittipaldi was second, although they had been out of my sight the whole race. Well, I caught them up on the slowing-down lap and, as we came out of Club, they just turned left and went across the grass. They had been missing out Abbey completely. They’d being doing that lap after lap! I thought, ‘So that’s how they did it. Bastards!”
Sadly, 1978 would see Trimmer’s chances of ever making his World Championship F1 race debut finally derailed: “I was very confident when we went to Brands for the British Grand Prix in July. I’d raced on the GP circuit earlier in the year and knew exactly what sort of times we could do. When we arrived, our team manager was offered a contract with Goodyear for free tyres, which sounded fantastic. It was only when qualifying started that the problems began: I couldn’t get within three seconds of my best Aurora time. All the privateers were having the same problem. We didn’t cotton on at first: they just didn’t want us there. We bribed a fitter to put our Aurora tyres back on but then someone — I’d better not mention his name — threatened to slash them if we so much as started the engine. That was the worst time I ever had in racing. That I didn’t qualify in a McLaren M23 looks terrible on my résumé. I just hate having to explain why.” Sorry…
“It’s not like I gave up or anything. I raced for John Jordan who’d bought the BRM P207 and then carried on in Libre [and much later British F3000], but I never had another shot [in F1].”
Was he never tempted to make a go of it in sportscars instead? “Not really. I shared a Dome Zero with Bob Evans at Le Mans in ’79 but we had a major oil leak and were out in no time at all. I went back two years later with Ian Bracey’s Ibec team. The car packed up at 6am. I also did the ’81 Suzuka 1000Km with Nico Nicole in a Mazda RX-7. The heat there was horrific. About half an hour into my first stint I took a sip from my drinks bottle and burned my tongue. At one point we had a huge lead but then it evaporated. Nico was leading on the penultimate lap but we ended up second… Sportscars weren’t really my thing.”
Never one for sentimentality, Trimmer has kept few of his (many) trophies — although the cup received for winning the 1970 Monaco F3 race acts as a biro receptacle in his office. “When I’m down at Brands [giving demo rides], a lot of the younger instructors ask me how many cars I’ve driven and how many races I’ve won. I haven’t a clue. It’s like asking me how many laps of Brands I’ve done. Lots! You know, I’ve always enjoyed my racing. Yes, there have been bad times, but I remember the Maki falling apart at the Osterreichring at the same corner where Mark Donohue had been killed only hours earlier. I walked away. That makes you think.” So no lingering regrets that F1 didn’t happen? “Well, I watch each grand prix and think, ‘I could still do that!’ I’ve probably left it a bit late, but it’s nice to dream.” Should Super Aguri ever require a substitute, it should look no further…
Tony’s hit list
F1 cars raced, tested and endured
Arrows A6, Brabham BT58, BRM P201, BRM P207, Connew PC1 (as an F5000), Fittipaldi F8, Iso-Marloboro FX3B, Lotus 49, Lotus 72, Maki F101C, Maki F102, March 701, March 811, McLaren M23, Politoys FX3 (Iso), Safir RJ02, Surtees TS19, Tyrrell 012, Williams FW07, Williams FW08, Williams FW08/01 (six-wheeler), Williams FW11, Williams FW12.