The press called him a tearaway, but those close to him saw a smooth, determined driver a natural, and a possible champion
By reputation he was wild, but those who knew Chris Bristow believe his extraordinary speed was never properly appreciated. Sadly, his full potential would never be realised.
“Chris Bristow would probably have become World Champion,” says Ken Gregory. He then reconsiders his observation and corrects himself. “Chris was a definite World Champion. He was just extraordinarily fast.”
Given that Gregory was manager for both Stirling Moss and Peter Collins and ran one of the leading privateer teams of the late 1950s and early 1960s, his statement has to be taken seriously. For back-up, Gregory points to the 1960 Monaco Grand Prix. The young Bristow had already proved himself fast, very fast, but he still had his doubters.
Round the principality’s tight turns and solid walls, they said, Bristow would struggle to qualify. They were silenced when he not only qualified but did so at the front of the grid. At the start of 1958, Gregory and Stirling Moss’s father Alfred had formed their own Formula 2 team, the British Racing Partnership, with chief mechanic Tony Robinson, who had earlier worked on Stirling’s Cooper-Altas and Maserati 250F. An otherwise promising initial season ended when their number one driver Stuart Lewis-Evans was killed driving for Vanwall in the Moroccan Grand Prix. Their drivers for the next year were double Le Mans winner Ivor Bueb and, from Formula 3, George Wicken. Complicated twin-cam fuel-injected Borgward engines had replaced the Coventry-Climax units used the season before.
It was not long, though, before Robinson felt that Wicken was not getting the best from the car.
“George was a mistake,” says Gregory. However, Tony reckoned to have discovered a prodigy in fellow Londoner Bristow, who was described as being almost frighteningly fast.
Robinson had first seen him testing at Brands Hatch and been impressed. Bristow’s car at the time was the bulbous Hume-Cooper, a Cooper T39 sports racer converted into an open-wheeler. Although it was not that muchdifferent from a conventional Formula 2 Cooper, it drew attention to Bristow’s driving style.
“It looked like he had plenty of potential,” says Robinson. He mentioned this to Gregory who arranged for a test at the same track with one of the team’s Formula 2 Coopers.
“The car he had been driving was a bitza, but he was making it work when it shouldn’t have done,” says Gregory. “I was unaware of his existence until Tony brought him along.” It is testament to the faith that he had in Robinson, one of the leading mechanics of his generation, that, without attending the test, he should have signed Bristow on his word.
Even today, Gregory and Robinson admit they are unaware of Bristow’s earlier experience. “He came to us as an unknown,” remembers Gregory. “I don’t think any of us knew anything about him. Yet straight away he was in the top five when it came to lap times. Where he got it from, I don’t know.” Gregory had the task of telling Wicken that he had been replaced and, for some time, whenever Robinson met their former driver in the Steering Wheel Club he felt that relations were somewhat strained.
“After a while I think he began to realise that perhaps we had done him a favour as the way he was going he might have ended up stuffing it.”
The press was obviously impressed by the 21-year-old Bristow, who was working in his father’s Streatham garage. “Sooner or later a young Moss or Brooks will appear in the motor racing world. I give you [one] worth watching… Chris Bristow. He has been racing a year or two, until now not very well. Suddenly he drives like a veteran, ahead of men like Jack Brabham, the possible 1959 world champion,” said one newspaper.
It has been recorded that he was “wild” and his driving “uncontrolled”. Motor Sport’s own Denis Jenkinson wrote as much, leading to an irate letter from a D Ward who felt that DSJ was developing an “anti-Bristow complex”.
Gregory strenuously refutes any suggestion that Bristow was “wild”, saying that this was merely the false observation of those who could not comprehend that such a talent had, so far, gone unobserved. “All of a sudden this lad comes from nowhere and he is fighting with the fast boys.”
“He was naturally quick, not hairy quick,” adds Robinson. “He knew what he was doing.” A contemporary report in this magazine mentions “his usual crowd-pleasing slides”. To back up his belief, Gregory quotes Moss, who found himself behind Bristow in the early stages of a Formula 2 race at Clermont-Ferrand. This alone demands a moment’s thought. Despite the vast gulf in experience, Chris was leading Moss in the race. “He was as quick as Stirling,” claims his mechanic Stan Collier. That evening Gregory questioned Moss about Bristow’s driving style and was told it was neat and tidy. Bristow’s sister Sonia Simons admits there were times when he would report that he had overdone it at a particular bend and had been more circumspect the next time round. Perhaps this way of learning the limit is reminiscent of another mercurial talent, Gilles Villeneuve.
The then 18-year-old Bristow started racing over the 1956 August bank holiday, competing at Brands Hatch and then Crystal Palace on the same day – and winning.
“Meet a young Stirling Moss-in-the-making,” said the Sunday Dispatch. Bristow’s 1489cc sports-racer that day has been variously described as an MG Special, the ASP (All Spare Parts) or the Leonard-MG, named after Lionel Leonard who built the car at the Bristow garage. Encouraged by his father William, who had raced at Brooklands and would support him throughout his short career, Bristow decided to buy the chassis and entered his first two meetings.
In the rain at Brands Bristow was lying sixth when he spun off. Rejoining, he rotated again four laps later and eventually retired when his brakes failed. Unperturbed, he loaded the car onto the back of his father’s lorry and worked on it while someone else drove him to Crystal Palace. There he made no mistakes in winning a seven-lap race for 1500cc sports cars.
“A clear victory,” reported Bill Boddy. Bristow had begun driving aged eight. “He got the bug, I suppose, from our father,” says sister Sonia. “Our father paid for everything, but having a garage it was cheaper for him. Chris was always determined to do better than him, but he could never have done it on his own.” Sonia recalls Bristow senior walking around paddocks with Alfred Moss, cigar in hand and jewelled signet rings on his fingers.
Their parents had divorced early and Sonia was packed off to convent school, initially with her little brother, though Chris soon returned to live with his father and grandmother. Sonia saw little of him during her schooldays, but nevertheless they became close. She travelled to all of Bristow’s early club races, making sandwiches for the mechanics and chalking up on the blackboard used for pit signals.
“I was very much involved. It was my life. My father lived through Chris and I became part of the team. We were a close-knit family pushing Chris forward.
“Chris went in for a lot of events, wherever he could get experience, and always seemed to do quite well. He obviously had a lot of ability and very little fear. I found the club meetings great fun. There were some good drivers around as well as the amateurs trying to come through.” When Bristow moved to Formula 1, she saw less of his racing. “It was a whole new ball game. He was taken over, although my father went to Monte Carlo.”
Bristow used the Leonard-MG with some success after the bank holiday meeting, but it was obviously not going to be a regular race winner and was hence replaced by an 1100cc centre-seat Cooper. In this he won many races the following season, during which he was a leading contender in the Motor Sport Brooklands Memorial Contest.
“Sheer guts and determination,” reported one local paper. For 1958, an Elva 1100 was purchased and he regularly beat the more favoured Lotuses. He also drove a Lotus 15 that year, winning the BRSCC 1500cc sports car championship.
Chris thought of building his own car during the winter of 1958 but instead Tom Payne created the Hume-Climax for him at Bradstock Motors. A Cooper Monaco was also acquired.
This was not yet the big time, though. Bristow was to recount how the Hume team had so many problems with its support vehicles during one Aintree meeting that they ended up with a lorry towing two transporters, a trailer, a large American car and a shooting brake. The policeman who stopped them was not amused.
Neither was the subsequent magistrate.
“Chris wasn’t really a tearaway,” says Sonia, “but he was very determined. The fact that we both had a strange upbringing probably meant that he was determined to make a success of his life, and his one sole interest was cars. He did have a side that was closed to most people and he didn’t seem to get into trouble.”
Gregory wonders if he was introverted, a little secretive. “A serious young man, quiet and unassuming, he kept himself to himself. He wasnot a party goer and he certainly did not join in when the likes of Graham Hill and Colin Chapman were dunking bread rolls in wine and throwing them around the Hôtel de Paris after the Monaco Grand Prix.
“Virtually everybody used to go to the Steering Wheel Club but I am certain Chris never did. He let the driving do his talking for him. He was neat, clean and very precise in everything he did – a bit like Tony Brooks.”
Stan Collier looked after Bristow’s Formula 2 car. “Chris was great,” he says, “and one of the boys. He was a natural – one of those whocome along and you know he’ll be good.”
“He was cheerful and so full of life,” adds Robinson. “I never saw him lose his rag.” Bristow got on well with the whole équipe. He obviously appreciated being asked to drive for what Robinson recalls as “a half-decent team” and spent a lot of time at its Lots Road, London workshop, “laughing and joking with everybody – always happy, always cheerful”.
Collier, who had moved onto BRP’s Formula 1 team by the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix, adds: “He was an easy driver to work with. It’s nice finding one who can tell you what he wants.”
Sonia adds: “We were naturally very proud when he signed for Yeoman Credit. All the work and money invested in him had proved to be worthwhile.”
Bristow’s first two races with BRP were Formula 2 events at Reims and Rouen. Both he and team-mate Ivor Bueb retired with heat exhaustion in the first of these, but a week later Chris claimed a fifth place. Then, in the F2 class of the British GP at Silverstone, he underlined his ability with fastest practice lap, a flag to flag class win and 10th overall. By two-thirds distance Chris was a lap ahead of his nearest pursuer, Bueb, who had subsequent gear change troubles. Such was his domination that he was able to retain the lead despite running out of fuel and having to limp round for a lap.
Eight days later, Bueb was killed at Clermont-Ferrand during a race that Bristow led but subsequently failed to finish. Such was the effect on Chris that he had initial thoughts about retiring. The team continued with just the sole car taking in four more contests in the UK, Chris winning the John Davy Trophy outright at Brands Hatch, finishing third in the Oulton Park Gold Cup, using BRP’s 2.5-litre Cooper-Climax, and then first in the F2 class and fifth overall at Snetterton.
At Brands, in front of 50,000 spectators, he sprang a surprise on Jack Brabham and Roy Salvadori by getting away in the first heat and maintaining his lead. In the second part he shadowed the pair to take overall victory on the combined times.
“Brilliant,” headlined the press. “Look out for Chris Bristow,” wrote Brabham in the News Chronicle. “He is only 21 but he’s a star in the making. I know this from first-hand experience because he pipped Roy Salvadori and me at Brands Hatch yesterday… Roy and I could do nothing about it.”
Bristow continued to race sports cars and was reported to have celebrated his appointment as “Porsche’s number one driver in place of Jean Behra” – surely an accolade – by winning at Crystal Palace with his Cooper Monaco. Chris was duly listed to drive alongside Hans Herrmann at the Goodwood Tourist Trophy. For lap after lap he harried Cliff Allison’s Ferrari, trying to get past on a number of occasions. However, he tangled with Alan Stacey’s Lotus and both cars were damaged.
At the time, Robinson was driving a 3-litre Rover while Bristow owned the latest 3.4-litre Jaguar MkII. “It was his one extravagance, the love of his life,” says Gregory. “He reckoned he could buy himself a nice new car with all the money he was going to make,” adds Robinson.
Bristow and Robinson tended to travel in convoy throughout Europe and “horse around”. On one occasion the team was staying in Chester for an Aintree meeting, and Bristow drove Robinson to the track in the Rover. Such was his skill that Robinson reckons he was not frightened despite the Rover sometimes being up on two wheels. It was, he feels, a privilege to be driven by such an expert.
“When you have been driven by the likes of Chris or Stirling, it is hard to believe what they can achieve.”
The now Yeoman Credit-sponsored team started a busy 1960 in the southern hemisphere, with Chris winning the False Bay 100 in Cape Town using one of the Cooper-Borgward Formula 2 cars. He also drove in the South African GP at East London on January 1, retiring with broken gear linkage. Bristow, Robinson, Moss and Borgward engineer Fritz Jüttner had flown south together, their flight being grounded for a day at Lagos, Nigeria due to a sandstorm. From there they continued to Johannesburg before taking a small twinengined plane for East London.
Robinson did not accompany Bristow and Jüttner to Cape Town, but flew on to Auckland for the New Zealand Grand Prix. Back in South Africa, his protégé Bristow won with ease despite 22 stitches in his knee and elbow, the result of a spectacular crash in a production car race earlier in the meeting when his Alfa Romeo rolled 30 yards across a railway line, losing its roof completely.
Harry Schell joined Bristow for the European season openers at Syracuse, Oulton Park, Brussels, Goodwood, Aintree and Silverstone, a third for Chris in the Glover Trophy being the team’s best result during this sequence, while Schell tragically lost his life at Silverstone. Bristow was particularly rapid during the Goodwood race, out-qualifying both his experienced team-mate and Moss in Rob’s Walker’s Cooper and getting away first in front of a huge crowd.
BRP sent two Cooper-Climaxes to Monaco for the start of the 1960 World Championship. It was the last year of the 2.5-litre formula and Bristow had already expressed his contempt for the forthcoming 1.5-litre rules, believing the cars would be slow and too easy to drive. New team-mate Tony Brooks finished fourth and Bristow retired with a broken gearbox. However, there is far more to this story. Gregory believes this is where Bristow truly underlined his potential and silenced his doubters. There were those who were saying that Monte Carlo would find him out. In those days only the fastest 16 cars qualified for the race around those narrow urban streets… and no fewer than 24 entries had been accepted. Unlike today, grid positions were decided on practice times, not on any specific qualifying period, and the outstanding Bristow more than silenced those doubting Thomases. He did considerably more than just avoid being one of the octet who did not make the cut. In fact, Bristow’s time of 1min 37.7sec was good enough for the front row of the 3-2-3 grid alongside Stirling Moss and Jack Brabham. Brooks recorded an identical time but later in the session, which meant, theoretically, that he should have started behind. Bristow’s “smooth” performance that day was astounding, but at this point Gregory felt that his inexperience should be taken into consideration and that it would be safer were he to start from the second row. He accordingly swapped the grid positions of his two drivers. Looking back he admits, “Perhaps I was wrong.” One weekly magazine did not notice what had happened and recorded Bristow on the front row.
Come the race, Chris became involved in a close scrap for second place between himself, Jo Bonnier, Brooks, Bruce McLaren and the twoHills, Phil and Graham, until his retirement on lap 18. It was exalted company, but Gregory was not surprised to see Bristow among them.
The event also underlined Gregory’s belief that Bristow was very quick to take in a new circuit. Chris Nixon had earlier observed how quick Bristow had been to learn Clermont-Ferrand.
“The more twisty, the better I like them,” he told the journalist. “Clermont-Ferrand is wonderful. It demands the utmost concentration and there is no room for mistakes.”
At Zandvoort for the Dutch Grand Prix, Bristow qualified on the third row of the grid ahead of Brooks and almost a second quicker than Henry Taylor in the team’s third car. Engine problems were to end his race, however. The dangers of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit were never more in evidence than in the 1960 Belgian Grand Prix. Moss and Mike Taylor had already crashed heavily in practice, both being badly hurt. Gregory walked up to the start with Bristow. Normally he was very eager to get into the car but on this occasion
Ken noted a slight apprehension and pointed out to his young driver that Spa was a hugely dangerous circuit and that he perhaps ought to run a few tenths off his best until he got settled.
On the strength of his lap times, Gregory believes that he took this advice, although he was able to get the better of an early ding-dong with Wolfgang von Trips. By lap 19, the German’s place had been taken by his Ferrari team-mate Willy Mairesse. The Belgian, in his first Grand Prix and known for his wildness and intensity, had caught up with Chris and had engaged him in an intense duel. As they started the lap the Cooper was fractionally ahead. As the pair rushed down to Eau Rouge they were within inches of each other. Neither Gregory nor Robinson has heard of anyone who saw what happened next, although Motor Sport’s report says Bristow was on the wrong line as he approached Burnenville and was trying to get back to the inside of the road.
Losing control of his Cooper on that long right-hander, he flew off the circuit and was decapitated by a low wire fence. Robinson is reluctant to speculate about what happened.
Collier, though, points out Mairesse’s reputation for cutting up other drivers.
“He was not easy to drive against.” Brooks, who had retired by this time with gearbox trouble, told Robinson what had happened. For a while he was forced to blank his mind and concentrate on the team’s sole surviving car, which was being driven by another Belgian, Olivier Gendebien.
“I could not just throw down the pit board and walk away from it,” he says. Gendebien finished third but it is likely that no one in the BRP team would have taken much notice. Five laps after Bristow’s appalling accident, Lotus factory driver Alan Stacey, who had raced against Bristow on more than one occasion in sports cars, hit a pheasant and was also killed.
The following day Robinson went to Bristow’s room at the Hotel Portugal to find Gregory had already tidied it up. He collected the luggage and also his Jaguar and drove it back to Streatham. There he met Bristow’s father, but there was little he could say. Gregory remembers the Samengo-Turner brothers, who owned Yeoman Credit, being in tears when he told them. Collier says, “This was the worst one. Tony [Robinson] was very friendly with Chris and was very upset when he was killed. These things did affect him. It was the same when Harry Schell was killed. We had a bad year.”
There is a tendency only to link Chris Bristow with what was one of the darkest days in British racing. To do so is to ignore his natural talent and unfulfilled potential. “They don’t come along like that too often,” says Collier.