Driver selection

With driver changes a dominant topic in F1 circles as the pundits look ahead to 1996, I am reminded that, even in the 1930s, selection of drivers in important works teams could be fraught with doubts and speculation.

I refer to a letter which Capt Arthur Waite, Lord Austin’s son-in-law, who was in charge of the racing department of the great Birmingham company, wrote in May 1930 to a long-standing member of the staff, a person working in Austin’s Car Despatch department, about the selection of racing drivers for the team of supercharged Ulster A7s he proposed to run during the coming season.

The previous year Sir Herbert Austin had entered a team of three s/c Austins for the Ulster TT, in which they had performed well, finishing third, fourth and 19th overall in this important handicap race, driven by Capt “Archie” Frazer Nash, S V Holbrook and G E Caldicutt. Naturally, they won the 750cc class, against opposition from the Barnes brothers’ s/c A7 and two s/c Triumph Super Sevens. Waite must have been keen to repeat this good showing in the 1930 TT, and perhaps felt that more professional drivers would be a way of ensuring this. Anyway, that May he wrote to this Austin employee, who had driven racing cars for the company in the past, saying that he was taking the No 1 car of the team and had Gunner Poppe down to drive car No 3. The drive in the No 2 car of the team was open to selection, however, and here Waite was undecided.

He had thought about the versatile ex-jockey George Duller but regarded him, “after a lot of thought”, as too undisciplined. Capt Frazer Nash was a strong possibility: was he not known to persevere with mechanical problems in the pits — like changing a complete s/c installation during the 1930 D12 race, and a cylinder head in another D12 in much the same way as he and Cushman had changed a piston in 38 minutes on his GN in the 1922 200 Mile race – and he had gained that fine third place in 1929. But Nash had made it clear that he was averse to being No 2 driver in a team and preferred to drive as a freelance, which those who knew him well understood. Waite, who had full responsibility for the Austin 7 team, said he felt disinclined to drive as No 2 to the one-time GN and Frazer Nash exponent. So he put out this “feeler” to the staff-man. Rather desperately, I would have thought, as this person had not raced for some considerable time and I believe only once in a road race, when he crashed an A7 at Boulogne in 1923. But Waite was hoping to pick his team from factory employees.

In the outcome, Arthur Waite assembled his 1930 team as himself, Poppe and the now-acquiescent Frazer Nash. No reserve drivers were named. In the TT Nash had engine trouble, Waite, a rather wild driver at times, crashed at Ballystockart early on and broke his jaw, and it was left to Gunner Poppe to finish fifth overall behind Tazio Nuvolari’s s/c 1750 Alfa Romeo and the other team Alfa Romeos driven by Giuseppe Campari and Achille Varzi, and an Alvis (the race was again run on handicap, of course). Poppe also won his class, but against just one other s/c A7 and the determined Barnes brothers in a blown Triumph 7. The driver selection had been resolved, and without any mention of money. Unlike today, when we hear that Damon Hill places his worth at £1,500,000 a season and Schumacher wants £1 million a race, vide the Daily Mail’s Ray Matts. To round off this little historical discourse, by 1931 Sir Herbert had his professionals, in the form of Charles Goodacre and Leon Cushman, and Donald Barnes had earned his place in the A7 team, which in that year’s TT ran home 13th, 12th and ninth in that driver order, and eighth, sixth and fourth in class, against 13 MG Midgets and two other A7s. By 1932 the MGs had swamped the hopes of the sidevalve Austins in sports/racing events.