Shaking the trees at Oulton Park
In 1958 Peter Collins and Tony Brooks gave young fans a breathtaking glimpse of the pre-war era
While the sight of the ‘Silver Arrows’ at the Goodwood Revival Meeting set enthusiasts’ pulses racing, several snowy-tops still vividly recall the time when what became so familiar as the Daimler-Benz Museum cars were demonstrated by two of the most talented Grand Prix racing drivers of their era, at Oulton Park in 1958.
The drivers were Tony Brooks and Peter Collins. The occasion was the VSCC’s Seaman Trophies meeting at the Cheshire track. It was run on a cloudy Saturday, June 28, and VSCC luminary ‘Pom’ Pomeroy in conjunction with George Monkhouse had pulled every string they could grasp to bring that event to fruition.
They were old friends, particularly George, of Daimler-Benz chief engineer Rudi Uhlenhaut. George had been pre-war works driver Dick Seaman’s greatest friend and confidant, while Uhlenhaut had found the brilliant British boy to be the best test and development driver he’d yet worked with on the factory GP cars.
The VSCC Seaman Trophies paid homage to Dick’s memory following his fatal crash while leading the 1939 Belgian GP at Spa, and the Oulton Park meeting marked the 20th anniversary of Dick’s win for Mercedes-Benz in the 1938 German GP.
Now Oulton Park saw an awe-inspiring occasion, and as Martyn Watkins of Autosport related, after early cloud and rain “…the sun swam out for a glorious afternoon. And the two Mercedes racing cars were there. Yes, the Mercedes were indeed there, and no one who was there to see them in action will ever forget the sight, the ear-shattering sound, and the remarkable smell of those two big silver cars that left black rubber all the way round the circuit.
“It was an unforgettable sight, that demonstration run. Tony Brooks and Peter Collins covered 10 laps ‘at characteristic speeds’ – a delightful phrase – on the twisty circuit. Early arrivals saw – and heard – them lapping in practice, but most of the crowd were nevertheless staggered by the sheer weight of sound as the cars were warmed up in the paddock. Once on the circuit the harsh bark of their exhausts told their position and – at last – they came into sight at Lodge Corner. Visible through the trees that reminded so many mature enthusiasts of Donington Park, two silver streaks hurtled towards the bend. Rasping exhaust notes shook leaves on bushes and shrubs, then with a tremendous rush of noise they were past, both back wheels of both cars leaving long, black smears of rubber on the Tarmac until they disappeared again. Only a ringing in the ears and a curious smell of boot polish remained.
“For 10 laps this went on, and after each passage of the cars – first one leading, then the other – the crowd stood in awe and astonishment. There seemed to be nothing to say. The older enthusiasts were stunned, carried back to the halcyon pre-war days of motor racing. The younger ones, those who never saw Brooklands and Donington Park, were stunned too – stunned by the sheer, colossal power and massive sound of these stupendous racers. If the demonstration had lasted 10 laps more, no one could have turned away…”
Tony Brooks drove the 5.66-litre W125 straight-eight from 1937 – which was still at that time by far the most powerful Grand Prix car ever built – while Peter Collins handled the 1939-style W154 whose highly supercharged 3-litre V12 engine had some 200 more horsepower than his contemporary Formula 1 Ferrari.
Both drivers were full of admiration for what their forebears had had to contend with in the long Grand Prix races of the past. Yet both had so much more to concentrate upon in their own immediate futures. The weekend following that Oulton Park spectacle the Formula 2 Coupe de Vitesse and the French Grand Prix ran in the unforgiving heat of Reims. Peter Collins’ front-engined V6 Formula 2 Ferrari finished second in the Coupe behind Jean Behra’s centre-seat streamlined Porsche, while in the Formula 1 race Mike Hawthorn would score what would prove to be the only race victory of his world title-winning year, with Collins finishing a troubled fifth. Tony Brooks’s Vanwall gearbox gave up the ghost. But for the Ferrari boys the day was marred by team-mate Luigi Musso’s fatal crash while trying to match Hawthorn’s pace.
Two weeks later, Peter led Mike home to a 1-2 Ferrari triumph in the British GP at Silverstone. But two weeks later still it was Tony Brooks’s turn to dominate for Vanwall in the German GP at the Nürburgring, where Peter Collins somersaulted his Ferrari while in vain pursuit, and did not survive.
It was a throwback to the Seaman era of 1937-39. In much less powerful, yet much lighter Grand Prix cars which were faster around a circuit, the world’s finest racing drivers remained every bit as much at risk. In essence, nothing had changed, nothing had been learned. The only difference between that 1958 Oulton Park demonstration of the 1930s cars, and what was then current in Formula 1, was in the degree of majesty and of jaw-dropping mechanical presence.
The human animal remained every bit as vulnerable as ever. Yet when invited to do so, Brooks and Collins had readily stepped up to the plate.
Brigandry around Lake Pergusa
Over many years, Formula 2 was a wonderful racing category. It provided another superb stepping stone to Formula 1 and as in any serious category of racing the excitement was not on track alone.
One day in 1980 at the Enna circuit around Lake Pergusa in central Sicily, entrant Matt Spitzley arrived to find that, overnight, person or persons unknown had stolen all his team’s tools. Matt was in partnership with Alan Docking and their Docking-Spitzley Racing Team was running a pair of Hart-engined Toleman T280s for the German-derived Italian driver Siegfried Stohr (above) and Dutchman Huub Rothengatter.
Matt – who is about the straightest and most thoroughly proper American one could possibly hope to meet – found it barely believable that anything so monstrous could have happened, and apologised profusely to his team drivers. Without their tools the team wouldn’t be able to run their cars, and Matt was incensed – if not unduly surprised – by such brigand behaviour.
But as he bewailed such Sicilian thievery, Siegfried Stohr proved much more understanding. He was a thoroughly nice, intelligent man, and he calmed Matt’s concerns by assuring him that “something can be arranged”, and he added: “Matt, you must realise that these people steal because they have to stay alive…”
‘Sigi’ Stohr was supported wherever he raced by a wonderfully colourful travelling fan club. In Matt’s words “They were a rough-looking lot, but really so nice”. And just as Sigi had predicted, after the word had gone round Enna in the right places, the stolen tools were miraculously ‘found’, and Docking-Spitzley’s weekend ended with Stohr winning that 1980 Mediterranean GP with Huub’s sister car fourth. As the customer they had just beaten Brian Henton’s BP/works Toleman T280 and Manfred Winkelhock’s factory March-BMW 802.
When ‘Spitz’ told me this story I had to recall Frank Gardner’s great tale of an earlier Mediterranean GP at Enna, when “…the local peasantry tried to get into the stand set aside for the local aristocracy. The cops kept beating them down off the fence, and were coming off best until a couple of these fellers had a bit of a council of war, nipped up the hill and set fire to Giuseppe’s pie shop. The cops shot off up there to save the bloke and rescue his till, and as soon as their back was turned the peasantry got their grandstand seats!” Sicily, eh? You just had to love it…
On Filipinetti, and a tale of two Eagles
When I first began to read as a rather thick child slower than the rest of the class, I immersed myself in The Observer’s Book of Birds. So I really should have paid more attention when I wrote (August issue) that Georges Filipinetti’s Eagle-Climax had been Dan Gurney’s first prototype which I had first seen testing at Goodwood in 1966. In fact I had got my Eagles mixed up. The Swiss bird wasn’t chassis ‘101’ at all – the four cylinder 2.7 Climax-powered car whose vibration had driven Dan to distraction in its Belgian GP debut that year.
He ended up simply bursting for a pee but physically unable to oblige, crammed in that buzz-bomb cockpit. So instead he braked to an isolated stop mid-race at Spa, chocked one wheel with a trackside stone, and relieved himself in the ditch with the car’s trusty hyper-developed four-banger engine chuntering away beside him on tickover. Once able to stand straight again, shoulders back, delayed Dan scrambled back aboard and drove on to cross the line seventh, though officially unclassified, five laps behind John Surtees’ winning V12 Ferrari.
Next time out in the four-cylinder car he scored his new marque’s first F1 points with a very respectable fifth place in the French Grand Prix at Reims. Brands Hatch and the British GP followed, with Dan’s Eagle-Climax chassis ‘101’ on the front row.
In fact while that car went on, via Al Pease and Castrol in Canada, to survive for decades in the Donington Collection, the Filipinetti car was actually his next Brands Hatch Eagle – chassis ‘102’, the Weslake V12-engined hull in which he won the 1967 Race of Champions to score his Anglo-American Racers team’s maiden Formula 1 victory.
That car had subsequently been sold engineless to Filipinetti, when Dan moved his increasingly cash-strapped Formula 1 AAR operation from Weslake’s base at Rye in Sussex to Ashford, Kent.
Around 1983, Canadian enthusiast David Morgan-Kirby bought ‘TG 102’ for fun. He recalls; “When we bought it, it was painted in Filipinetti’s red and white livery and came without an engine but with a DG400 (I think) ’box and no spares except the Monaco nose.
“It was hard to get info, but after talking to Dan in 1985 at the Mid-Ohio CART race he recalled AAR sold it to Switzerland without an engine since serviceable V12s were in short supply. The idea was to send Scuderia Filipinetti a rebuilt one when supply improved but events overtook them.”
David and his co-owner proved equally unable to secure a runnable Eagle-Weslake V12 engine so they sold the car in the very late ’80s. It survives today with American connoisseur and retired ophthalmologist Dr Lou Sellyei, who did indeed get it running with the right engine installed. I still remember his anguish at being barged into the Armco at the Monaco Historics, but the car recovered and has been driven by the Doc himself and by Dan’s son Alex Gurney at Monterey.
So how did Morgan-Kirby find the ex-Filipinetti Eagle in the first place? From, he tells me: “…a tiny ad in Motor Sport!” Plainly, a proper chap.