David and Goliath

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One look at the grid in Melbourne and you are reminded that Formula 1 is now exclusively underpinned by the financial elite. Just a dozen teams kept afloat by corporations, or emerging nations, who choose to use the spot as pat of their global marketing strategies. Despite attempts at cutting costs, 21st century Grand Prix racing is prohibitively expensive. But this was not always so.

In 1977 no fewer than 14 cars took part in a pre-qualifying session on the Wednesday before the British Grand Prix. The fastest five would then join the fight for a place among the 24 cars eligible to race. Among these was Australian Brian McGuire in a McGuire BM1, a modified Williams FW04, and David Purley in a LEC CRP1, so named after his father Charlie Purley’s refrigeration company.

Designed by Mike Pilbeam, the LEC was but in a shed behind a fridge factory in Bognor Regis. Yes, if you had the money and the sense of adventure, you could do that. The Purleys had plenty of both. The old man started by selling fish from his bicycle. Feeling the need to keep it fresh, he and a friend started building fridges and by 1977 could afford to build an F1 car. David, an ex-paratrooper, or parrot-shooter as the mechanics called him, never but a fridge in his life. But he had a sense of adventure and was already a British F5000 champion. Pilbeam sent in the drawings while team manager Mike Earle and chef mechanic Greg Red made the bits, installed one of John Nicholson’s Coswoth DFVs, and went racing. No computers, no wind tunnel, no simulator.

That summer of ’77 was to be the LEC’s last outing. Striving to pre-qualify, Purley crashed into the railway sleepers at Becketts, severely injuring his legs. The throttle had stuck wide open. Thanks to his fitness and tenacity the man recovered, but never raced again. After the shunt, Purley asked if the car would be ready in time for the final session. Emphatically, it would not, and the wreckage lies in the museum at Donington.

The great thing about privateers in sport at its highest level is the joy of supporting the underdog, a creature that can sometimes make an amusing nuisance of itself. At Zolder, earlier in that summer of ’77, the race started in the wet, the track gradually dried out, and all the frontrunners pitted for dry tyres. But not David Purley. Mike Earle realised that a pitstop could take all day as there were only three of them in the pit to change four wheels. So Purley stayed out, took the lead and soon had a hard-charging Niki Lauda, on new rubber, snapping at his heels. Not afraid of anyone, Purley held up the Ferrari for several laps (above), later asking Earle ‘who was the idiot in the red car?’ He soon found out and, after a heated exchange in the paddock, referred to Lauda as ‘the rat’, a moniker that stuck to the Austrian thereafter.

Privateers, long departed from F1, are necessarily not like us. They are mavericks, gatecrashers, and elite groups beware. Purley was a regular guest on my ‘Track Torque’ radio show, often accompanied by girlfriend Gail or neighbour Derek Bell, or both. Arriving late one night, Bell explained that Purley had insisted upon shooting rabbits from the tailgate of his Range Rover, thereby hindering progress. On another occasion he amused himself by raising Gail’s jersey above her head to reveal her upper body, this doing nothing for the concentration of a ‘live’ radio presenter.

It would be fun, would it not, if Grand Prix racing still allowed for the unusual, the independently wealthy and the truly adventurous. Sadly, few have both the attitude and the $100 million to make their entrance.

Dismally, neither David nor Brian McGuire are still with us. McGuire was killed in practice for a Shellspot race at Brands Hatch in August 1977, while David Purley died when his Pitts Special plunged into the sea off Bognor Regis in the summer of 1985. They, and others like them, added texture and colour to a sport that is so often out of reach for those other than the elite.

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