It was a subdued and depressing flight back from Casablanca in the BEA Viscount. The Grand Prix from which it was returning, the decider of the season, had delivered two long-awaited firsts to British motor racing; those of the first British world drivers’ champion, and the inaugural Formula One constructors’ championship. The recipients of both honours, Mike Hawthorn and Tony Vandervell, were among the gloomy passengers.
Both men were lowered by the circumstances of their victories. Hawthorn was still mourning the passing of his friend and Ferrari team-mate Peter Collins less than two months before, and had already, even before he became champion, decided to retire.
Guy Anthony ‘Tony’ Vandervell, who had chartered this aeroplane, was also aghast at the price of his success; the reason lay quietly on a stretcher, occupying a space created by removing several seats in the rear of the cabin, swathed in bandages and dressings, sipping tea and conversing as best he could with the other passengers. It was October 20, 1958, and the tea-drinker was Stuart Lewis-Evans. His eventual destination was to be The Royal Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, to the skilled care of Sir Archibald McIndoe, the pioneer burns consultant. His brave demeanour belied his grave condition; he was dying.
Lewis-Evans, born on April 20, 1930, hailed originally from Luton, but the family settled in Bexley, Kent, shortly afterwards; his father becoming a local worthy and motor trader. ‘Pop’ Lewis-Evans was a useful driver rather than a great one and introduced his son to the sport relatively early, so that when the 500 movement, later to become Formula Three, accelerated briskly after the war, Stuart was one of the first in line for one of Charles Cooper’s new machines. He was very good too, and the father-son duo started to make an impact in 1952, when Stuart, driving a Cooper T18, won his first 500cc event at Chimay in Belgium. It became clear that the son was perhaps rather more skilled than the father at an early stage and ‘Pop’ decided to start growing old gracefully.
But Stuart had been a very sickly child. He suffered in infancy and childhood from spondylitis, a painful and debilitating inflammation of the spinal joints. As a result, Stuart was confined to a wheelchair for long periods at a time vital for his growth. Large doses of antibiotics fixed the spinal inflammation, but also had the effect of undermining his constitution; he suffered, as a result, from severe duodenal ulcers all his adult life. All in all, stamina was to be a huge problem for him. He was frail.
In the 500 movement, which mutated through the Half-Litre club into the British Racing and Sports Car Club, he became great friends with Ken Gregory, who was at that time Stirling Moss’s manager and an officer of the club, as well as being a driver, and a good one. The pair, sharing a borrowed works 1100cc Cooper-JAP, took turns to smash the outright hill-climb record at Great Auclum in Hertfordshire in 1953. It was the start of a relationship which, professionally, would allow Lewis-Evans to accomplish much. Along with Don Parker, Stirling Moss and Peter Collins, he rapidly became one of the elite of Formula Three.
Due to the secondary role which British cars were playing in the big league, Lewis-Evans’ career was relatively slow, except in these lesser formulae. In this he had much in common with Moss and Collins. Mike Hawthorn eschewed the little 500cc cars, leaping into a Cooper-Bristol to carve his way forward. It was clear to most observers that the pool of British talent, developed and honed by both the 500 movement and sportscar racing, was rapidly outstripping the ability of British manufacturers to provide it with decent single-seater rides.
There were some noble efforts; HWM, Connaught, BRM and Cooper were the most obvious, but it was not until Tony Vandervell, with the help of Colin Chapman, Frank Costin and a large chunk of the British motor industry, finally produced the goods in 1956 that a serious world-class Formula One product saw the light of day. Ironically, the first two drivers signed up by Vanwall were not British at all, but a Frenchman, Maurice Trintignant, and an American, Harry Schell. Tony Vandervell may have been as nationalistic as the next man, but experience was what he sought.
Lewis-Evans, though, was cutting his teeth in Formula One via a different route. The ‘B’ series Connaught cars were produced at vast cost, perhaps £10,000 each, and built to standards which still raise eyebrows today; as a result they were in financial crisis. They had hired the services of a string of drivers as a slightly piecemeal works team, and Lewis-Evans was one of them in the latter stages, partnering Ivor Bueb for the 1957 season. He had had his first drive for Connaught at Brands Hatch on October 14, 1956, where he came a close second to a tigering Archie Scott Brown, defending his own place on the team. In holding off Lewis-Evans, Scott Brown broke the outright lap record…
The 1957 Monaco Grand Prix was Lewis-Evans’ first proper Grand Prix, and, ironically, Connaught’s last as a works entry. He did well, coming fourth on his championship debut, after qualifying 13th on the grid. The brutal economics of Formula One were to drive Connaught to liquidation by the summer, when an enterprising motorcycle dealer and former 500 racer, Bernie Ecclestone, bought a selection of cars, spares and tools at the resultant auction. He campaigned the cars in non-championship Formula One events before selling them.
Vandervell and David Yorke, the Vanwall team manager, were impressed by the Monaco effort and hired Lewis-Evans for the remainder of the 1957 season. Out of five Championship Grands Prix, he retired with mechanical problems in three, and came seventh in one, the British GP at Aintree, and fifth in the other, at Pescara in August. He shone at Monza, though, qualifying on pole position ahead of Fangio and Brooks, and led the race briefly before retiring with a swollen header tank which jammed the steering. Disappointing, but the season had ended on a high note; he had also made his debut for Aston Martin, driving a DBR1 sportscar. There was little doubt that he would be retained next year by Vanwall, and his old friend Ken Gregory completed the 1958 calendar by offering him the ‘number one’ slot in his new Formula Two venture, the British Racing Partnership, in conjunction with Stirling Moss’s father Alfred. So for 1958 Stuart had both Formula One and Formula Two drives, as well as a competitive world championship sportscar mount. He was becoming very busy indeed.
He had spent a large part of January touring New Zealand with Roy Salvadori, racing Ecclestone’s Connaughts. They were technically for sale and Lewis-Evans tried hard to effect a deal; sadly the best offer he could come up with was an exchange for a stamp collection; whether he thought it a good idea or not we cannot know, but Ecclestone certainly didn’t. Back they came to England…
The Vanwall line-up for 1958 was very strong and consisted of Moss, Brooks and Lewis-Evans. British hopes of success in a British car were, it seemed, justified. The last development of the Vanwall marque was exquisitely and robustly built and painstakingly streamlined by Frank Costin, without the use of a wind tunnel, but by pure mathematics. It looked a little odd, having the Costin trademark vast ground clearance, and was also eerily quiet for a racing car, but no-one was in any doubt that this, at last, was the holy grail for which British makers had been searching. Even the Italians acknowledged that this was no garagista special; it was properly built and Vandervell Products were responsible for almost everything of importance on the car, aside from the Bosch fuel injection and a differential. It was a proper piece of kit, and was fully expected to blow the Ferraris into the weeds.
1958 was to be a tragic season lightened by some significant achievements. Stirling Moss produced his ground-breaking effort in Argentina which secured the first Grand Prix win for the little Rob Walker Cooper T43 Climax, the beginning of the end for the powerful front-engined cars of the kind which Maserati, Ferrari, BRM and of course Vanwall had been building. Maurice Trintignant, himself an ex-Vanwall veteran, hammered the point home at Monaco in May when he won again for Walker 21 seconds ahead of Luigi Musso in a Ferrari.
Lewis-Evans retired from that race with bent steering; Moss’s engine failed, as did Brooks’. Worse news was that the brave and popular Archie Scott Brown had crashed his Lister-Jaguar at Spa on the day of the Monaco race; he was to die of his bums the next day. Lewis-Evans had, like many others, a vast respect for the cruelly handicapped Scott Brown, who had preceded him at Connaught; he appreciated more than most, through his own childhood illnesses, what Archie had actually been through.
The Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort was much more promising. Lewis-Evans qualified on pole position which, given his ‘number three’ status in the team, was remarkable; in the race, however, the engine let go a valve on lap 46 and he retired.
In Formula Two, however, his progress was smoother; in Stuart’s hands the BRP Cooper, fitted with a Pye radio receiver (courtesy of Ken Gregory’s brother John), came fourth in the Lavant Cup at Goodwood on Easter Monday. Unfortunately, the new car was comprehensively thumped later in the meeting in the Glover Trophy with Tom Bridger at the wheel. It was rebuilt in time for the Aintree 200miler, in which Lewis-Evans came second to his Vanwall team mate Brooks in the Formula Two class.
He finished a fine third at Spa in June, (the first Grand Prix to be both entered and completed by a lady driver, Maria Theresa de Filippis) but another engine problem put him out of the French Grand Prix at Reims in July. This was the occasion of the second top-line fatality of the season, when Luigi Musso had his accident. Later in the same month, he outpaced Tony Brooks to come fourth in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
As the 1958 season unfolded, several things about Stuart Lewis-Evans were becoming clear; in the BRP Cooper he was competitive enough to frighten the works Cooper effort, spearheaded by Brabham; in Formula One, mechanical difficulties aside, he was up there with Moss and Brooks; but, more importantly, both his lack of stamina and his severe ulcers were bothering him. He finally resolved, with some reluctance, to undergo surgery to heal them after the end of the season, after Casablanca. His condition also meant that diet was a constant problem, and thus he lacked energy. He consumed milk by the bucketful.
He was, in Ken Gregory’s words, as brave as a lion, though, perhaps wisely, he never let his discomfort show. Despite his evident skills, someone had to be ‘number three’ in the Vanwall team and this was pointed out at the German Grand Prix in August when he was unable to enter due to a shortage of engines; Vanwall fielded only two cars for that race, which saw the sad demise of Peter Collins, the third fatality of the year.
Another fine third at the Portuguese Grand Prix and another mechanical problem at Monza brought the 1958 season to its finale at Casablanca; Lewis-Evans lay ninth on points in the world championship after his first full season and had therefore no particular axe to grind, but Stirling Moss did. If Moss won the race, drove the fastest lap and Mike Hawthorn came no better than second, the world title would be his. Not much to ask, really. Famously, it was not to be. Lewis-Evans had every reason to be content, though as he had done an excellent job; every time he had finished a Grand Prix in 1958, for example, he had finished in the points, which is no mean achievement. He looked forward with rather more trepidation to his forthcoming ulcer surgery than to the last race of the Formula One season.
There had been a non-championship GP at Casablanca the previous season, when Lewis-Evans came in second. He therefore knew the Ain-Diab circuit as well as anyone. It was both fast and ill-prepared, using mainly public roads. Sand, dust and sea mist defined it. It would not be used again. Lewis-Evans qualified in third place, on the front row, alongside Moss and Hawthorn. He made a slowish start, hampered by a very rough engine which was definitely tired by now. It was on lap 41 that tragedy struck. Lewis-Evans’ engine gave out at high speed. The transmission locked and spun the car off the circuit. The fuel tank burst and the poor driver was doused in blazing fuel. A human torch, he staggered out of the car and ran, blinded by the flames. The marshals, inexperienced and appalled at this horrendous situation, dithered. A macabre chase ensued and Lewis-Evans was caught and the flames put out. He was helicoptered into Casablanca, where the hospital staff took one look at him and realised that there was very little they could do to help. Fireproof clothing was still a thing of the future, and the damage wrought by the flames which he had inhaled had been massive.
Vandervell was horrified. He resolved to fly his driver straight back to England, to the burns unit at East Grinstead in Sussex which had, thanks to the wartime efforts of Sir Archibald McIndoe, reached the highest standards in Europe, if not the world. Mclndoe was waiting for the party when they arrived. There was in fact very little he could do. Lewis-Evans had received vast third-degree burns which were simply too serious to treat. Skin grafts were out of the question. He resolved to make his patient as comfortable as possible and await the inevitable outcome. On October 25, 1958 Stuart Lewis-Evans, brave, uncomplaining and optimistic to the last, died.
For Vandervell, this was a personal crisis; he had, in the space of a few short years, taken British motor racing to the very top; Moss had come within one point of being the first British world champion in a British car, a car which had won more races than Hawthorn’s Ferrari. Courtesy of Moss, Brooks and Lewis-Evans, a green car (from a team of only three, while the ‘bloody red cars’ usually fielded four) had won the inaugural constructor’s championship, and the Cooper effort, philosophically entirely different from his own, was coming up fast in the constructors’ rankings. After the disappointments and difficulties of the BRM venture, which Vandervell had himself famously abandoned to its fate, and the financial crisis which had carried off Connaught, the British effort was, at last, clearly in safe hands.
Tony Vandervell was 58 years old; he had a big industrial enterprise to run and he was not particularly well, either. The pressure upon him had been enormous, and the Vanwall had been a proud, though costly effort. Both champion constructor and champion driver had much time to ponder this and other matters during the six hour flight back to England.
In many ways a hard, driven and uncompromising man, ‘difficult’ in Stirling Moss’s words, Vandervell was also, like many patriots, sensitive and emotional. As he left the Royal Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, he decided firmly on the course of action which he had considered on the aeroplane; that the price exacted by the effort was no longer worth it. Scott Brown, Collins, Musso and now Lewis-Evans had all gone. It was too much. Younger, fitter and less distracted men than he could take over now. He would not formally announce the retirement of the Vanwall team until January 1959, which coincided, tragically, with the death of Mike Hawthorn in a road accident. The official reason given was ill-health.