Obituary – Paul Frère
Paul Frère, who has died aged 91, was the most accomplished journalist racing driver since Sammy Davis. As well as technical writing and road and track testing, Frère was a Grand Prix driver and eight-time Le Mans entrant, culminating in a win at the French classic in 1960 with Olivier Gendebien.
Alfred Neubauer invited him into the 1954 Mercedes Le Mans squad (the car was not ready in time), and later Frère himself went to Enzo Ferrari and asked for a Grand Prix drive – and got one. Urbane and eloquent in several languages, Frère wrote for European, American and Japanese magazines, continuing to test cars until very recently, and his 1964 manual Competition Driving remains a classic text. Closely identified with Porsche, he was proud of having driven every racing Porsche from 1970 onwards, and always had a 911 on the road.
Born in France but brought up in Brussels, Frère was schooled in England, where he learned the language and devoured British car magazines. He saw his first race at Spa aged nine, and was determined to become a race driver, persuading Jacques Swaters to take him as co-driver in the 1948 Spa 24 Hours.
In 1952, on the recommendation of Jacques Ickx (father of Jacky) he joined a team of Belgium’s best drivers (Swaters, Johnny Claes and Teddy Pillette) and won at Spa, leading to a drive for HWM which brought a win at Chimay and a brilliant second at the Nürburgring. Abandoning plans to become an engineer, he turned to writing because it gave him time to race, including three GPs for Gordini in 1954, and his first Le Mans, for Aston Martin. In ’55 he was Neubauer’s first choice for the car Pierre Levegh drove…
His cheek in approaching Ferrari led to a couple of drives in a Super Squalo for 1956 (coming fourth in Belgium) and a Lancia-Ferrari the next year in which he was an excellent second to Peter Collins at Spa. Thereafter he stuck mainly to sports cars, with fourths at Le Mans for Aston and Porsche and a second (Aston again) before his 1960 win, though he put in some good performances in a Cooper for Ecurie National Belge in 1960 and won the non-championship South African GP. He was realistic about his talents, saying: “I didn’t want to be World Champion, I just wanted to take part.”
His technical knowledge paired with his obvious skills gave his road and track tests a special depth, and well into his eighties he travelled frequently from his Monaco home to launches and test sessions. In 2003, aged 87, he tested an Audi R8 at Le Mans. But during a press launch at the Nürburgring in ’06 he had a major accident, fracturing pelvis and ribs, and he never properly recovered.
Music – “ but nothing before Mozart” – and art were his non-mechanical pleasures, while those who met him will remember his courtesy and charm as much as his racing achievements. He said that his Le Mans victory was his “best business card”, but that he was most proud of coming second to Peter Collins at Spa – “the only time he beat me”.