On the road with Simon Arron

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Still going strong at 60

Newport Pagnell, February 12: lunch with a British motor racing institution, now in his 42nd season without a break

The craggy face is far removed from that of a modern single-seater racer. Ian Flux, seasoned campaigner, British F3 podium finisher, Formula Atlantic race winner, champion in TVR Tuscans, British GTs, Formula Vee, Thundersports and Sports 2000, has turned up to collect me at Milton Keynes Central in his £600 Ford Focus. “Are you paying for lunch?” he asks. “Right…”

You wonder whether the impending meal might cost more than his car, but The Carrington Arms near Newport Pagnell, Bucks, charges less than £25 per head – even though Flux opts for most of a cow with chips.

We’re here to discuss one of the longest active careers in UK racing, as Flux approaches his 60th birthday. He has a varied programme lined up – historic F3 in an ex-Nigel Mansell March 783, a few Radical enduros, selected rounds of the new BMW 330 Challenge – and during the process will make his 750th competitive start. “I’m very proud,” he says, “that I haven’t missed a season since I started, that I’ve been able to bring up a family and pay off my mortgage without ever having a job outside the sport.” 

And most of that has been achieved close to home.

After racing in the Rochester Motor Club’s Formula 6 series (basically karts with bodies), Flux graduated to Formula Vee in 1974. “At the time FF1600 was very popular,” he says, “with 70 or 80 entries split into two heats and a final, but Vee had good support from VW. Guys like Geoff Lees would be winning £60 for beating huge fields in Formula Ford, while I was getting £200 for beating 20 people. It made sense.”

He won the UK title in 1975 and at that stage harboured serious ambitions of making it to F1 as a driver, although he already had a toe under the sport’s top table. “I was working for Token as van driver, tea maker, whatever. We had designer Ray Jessop, team manager Neil Trundle – still one of my best friends – mechanic Chris Lewis and driver Tom Pryce. That was it.”

When Token was refused an entry for Monaco, Pryce competed instead in the supporting F3 race – and won. “After that,” Flux says, “we took the Token to a Goodwood test and the top brass from Shadow and Hesketh helicoptered in. They chatted to Tom while we stood around, then he reappeared and said, ‘Well boys, I’ve made my choice. Thanks very much for everything, I’m off to Shadow.’ We had David Purley for the British GP, but he failed to qualify, and later ran Ian Ashley for a couple of races, but that was it. Neil kindly then rang Graham Hill and said, ‘I know a good van driver who is prepared to do anything. Would you hire him?’ I started with Graham the following Monday. At 19 I was dovetailing an F1 job with Formula Vee – I didn’t think life could get much better.”

That’s before he was threatened with the sack…

 

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“One day I had to go to London, to pick up the old man in a short-wheelbase automatic Transit, and take him to Gatwick. Having come second in the past few Vee races, I thought F1 was obviously beckoning and set off with Graham in the passenger seat. I went around Hyde Park Corner, with no weight over the rear axle, and had the Transit sliding nicely. I noticed Graham waving at some taxi drivers and thought, ‘They must have recognised him’ – but it turned out he was apologising… When I got back to work, team manager Ray Brimble summoned me and said, ‘I’ve been told to fire you. The old man has never been so scared. I explained how hard you work and he’s agreed to give you a final chance, but you’re never to drive him anywhere again’.”

Flux was in the UK on November 29 1975, when Hill’s plane came down in Elstree while returning from a test at Paul Ricard, wiping out the team’s heart. “We split into two groups for testing,” he says, “and I was never due to go to Ricard. The hardest thing was dealing with six funerals in five days. That’s when it really struck home. I loved working there and a hand grenade had just been thrown in. It could perhaps have carried on with Alan Jones and the rest of the mechanics if Embassy had stayed around, but the core of the team had gone, Graham had been the front man and who the hell was Alan Jones at that stage?”

In 1976 he raced Ockley Construction’s Ralt RT1 in British F3 – and earned a manageable wage. “A full F3 budget was £25,000,” he says. “I was paid £40 a week and received 40 per cent of the prize money. My best result was a second to Bruno Giacomelli at Silverstone – I think I received £240 on top of my salary, which was already more than enough to live on.”

His top-line ambitions would soon stall, however – partly as a result of off-track excesses.

“Things really went wrong in 1978,” he says, “although it didn’t have an effect immediately. I was driving a year-old March for [former Hill colleague] Alan Howell. We had a right old laugh on absolutely no money, went to all the right parties and I scored a few decent results.

“During that summer David Price was looking for a driver for his Unipart March team the following season – and it was between me and Nigel Mansell. David always says he’d have taken me on driving ability, but Unipart went for Nigel as a result of my off-track behaviour – I think it might have had something to do with setting off a fire extinguisher over a snooker table at a hotel near Cadwell Park. As a result, I didn’t have a drive and ended up working for Dave as a mechanic on Giacomo Agostini’s Williams, in the Aurora F1 series. That’s when I realised my chance had probably gone. After that I had a massive chip on my shoulder about Nigel for a few years, because I always felt I’d been at least his equal, but when he scored his first F1 win I thought, ‘OK, fair enough’.”

He also adds the following about ’78. “I was still on £40 per week, but that didn’t cover £300 for a fresh set of tyres every fortnight. I ended up working as a rent boy. I coach a lot of young drivers who don’t seem to appreciate the money their dads are paying and it drives me mad. They have no idea of the kind of things I did to keep racing.”

After a fruitful stint with Dr Josef Ehrlich, racing the Austrian’s eponymous chassis in F3 and Formula Atlantic (notching up a number of strong results, plus one arrest for setting off a hotel’s fire sprinkler system in New Zealand), Flux’s career took a significant upturn. “Things changed in 1984,” he says, “largely because I had learned so much racing for Doc. I could run a lathe, weld, put a car together and set it all up. All that stuff became really useful. People were phoning me up, asking me to drive – and paying me for it – because they wanted my input.”

And he has been racing ever since, citing the Can-Am Lola T530 – shared with Mike Wilds in Thundersports during the late 1980s – as a highlight. “You had to treat it with respect,” he says, “but if you did, wow… When Mike and I won a race we came away with about £2000 each, so it was one of the most rewarding cars financially, too.”

 

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does he have Any regrets?

“I’ve been very loyal, which perhaps hasn’t always served me well,” he says. “I did a lot of work for Ian Taylor at his racing school, doing manufacturer days and earning decent money. After he was killed at Spa in 1992 [during a Rover Challenge race], his widow Moya asked me to drive Ian’s car for the rest of the season. I agreed, then about a week later Prodrive offered me a seat in one of its BTCC BMWs, because Alain Menu had broken his leg in a monkey bike accident at Knockhill. There were four races left and only one clash, so I told Prodrive I could do three rounds and explained why. I was told it was all or nothing and replied that it had to be nothing, because I’d made a promise. I have often wondered where that might have led.”

And has he ever thought of stopping?

“Not once.”