The all-rounder

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As fast around Monte Carlo in a rally car as he was at the Nurburgring in a sports car, Vic Elford’s CV is as diverse as they come. He talks to Adam Cooper about his career

Mention the name Vic Elford and it doesn’t take long for the phrase ‘all-rounder’ to crop up. It may be a bit of a cliché, but just consider Vic’s achievements in the first half of 1968. At the end of January he won the Monte Carlo rally in a Porsche 911, and at the beginning of July he finished fourth on his GP debut at Rouen – and bear in mind he’d made his first single-seater appearance in an F2 race just weeks before. And along the way he won the Daytona 24 Hours, the Targa Florio and the Nurburgring 1000kms.

If that wasn’t enough, the following February he took on the good ole boys of stock car racing in the Daytona 500. Rallies, sportscars, F1, even NASCAR – it seemed that Vic Elford could shine in anything with four wheels. He’s usually regarded as a rally driver who drifted into endurance racing and thence into Grands Prix. And while that is basically true, it’s not the career path the man from Peckham would have chosen.

“My dad was a cycling champion, and he took me to the first British GP after the war in 1948 at Silverstone. He was keen on racing, and it was quite an event. I was 13 years old and I said to myself ‘That’s what I am going to do.” Vic had no money with which to kick start a racing career, but while training as a design engineer with the Gas Board in 1956 he finally found a way to break into motorsport.

“I couldn’t even afford a car when I first started, so I navigated in little club rallies for a friend of mine, Alex Rhodes, whose mum had had the good luck to win the Irish sweepstakes. He got an MG out of it, and he needed a navigator. I wanted to get my foot in the door, so that’s where it all started. After a little while he decided he was getting married and would have to give up the car, so I joined up with David Siegle-Morris.”

The pair shared a Borgward, MG Magnette and Triumph TR3A before they landed a works job at BMC: “That meant Austin Healey 3000s and Minis.” Vic made no secret of his preference to be in charge of the wheel rather than the maps. BMC decided there was no room for him, but did at least allow him to buy an ex-works Mini 850, and Vic’s competition career proper started at age 26 when he raced it during 1961. He also gave up the Gas Board and made a living selling life insurance.

His circuit ambitions were put on hold when he returned to rallying, this time behind the wheel of a DKW. Success in that brought him to the attention of Triumph, before he landed a Ford contract for 1964. He won the Alpine Rally, and led Monte Carlo in ’65 until a last minute distributor failure. He also had the occasional race, winning his class in a Lotus Cortina at the Norisring, and leading the Marathon de la Route – 84 Hours round the Nurburgring – with Jochen Neerpasch.

“Henry Taylor became Ford team manager in ’66, and he and I didn’t hit it off. I talked to Huschke von Hanstein of Porsche. I told him I’d seen the new 911 and was convinced it was going to be a great rally car. They didn’t have a rally programme at the time so I said, ‘Why don’t you lend me one for, Corsica?’ I finished third, and I was just trying to learn how to drive the car.”

He became a full-time Porsche driver in 1967. Apart from winning three major rallies outright, and taking the European title in the GT class, Vic soon got the break he’d been waiting for.

“He said to me one day in Stuttgart, did I ever think about racing? And I said ‘Huschke, I’ve been thinking about nothing else since I was 13 years old.’ He decided we’d better start with the Targa Florio, which was the nearest thing there was to a rally. I finished third in a 910, with Neerpasch again.”

There was no looking back, and Vic became a key member of Porsche’s sportscar squad. The ’68 season started superbly with that famous Monte Carlo victory, after which Vic jumped straight on a plane for Daytona.

“I didn’t even know where it was. I got off the plane and it was warm and humid, and I was assaulted by this wonderful smell of citrus trees and everything, and I remember thinking ‘one day, I’m going to live here.'”

Vic won at his first attempt, although his efforts were devalued when Porsche insisted that all the top drivers took turns in his car and qualified as winners. “Fortunately they had an immense wreath and we all fitted in it!”

In April he made his single-seater debut in the unloved F2 Protos at the Nurburgring. In May he scored a sensational Targa Florio victory with local hero Umberto Maglioli, and then won the Nurburgring 1000kins with Jo Siffert. A second F2 outing at Monza in Jochen Rindt’s Winkelmann Brabham saw Vic lead a thrilling slipstreamer – only to retire when a spinning Derek Bell triggered a multiple shunt.

Shortly before that race, Tim Parnell had offered Elford a BRM F1 test at Silverstone. John Cooper was also present that day, and gave Vic a run.

“I didn’t like the Cooper, it was a monster. When you turned in you got massive understeer and halfway through it changed to massive oversteer. I got out of the car and John said, `What are you doing in two weeks’ time?’ So I found myself driving a Cooper-BRM at Rouen! I qualified last, and then to my utter delight on Sunday morning it rained. I finished fourth…”

Later he qualified an amazing fifth at his beloved Nurburgring, and finished in the same position in Canada. But when Cooper closed down at the end of the season, there were no F1 offers for 1969 – despite Vic deciding to retire from rallying after January’s Monte Carlo.

“I think a lot of the British teams were going through a phase of `he’s got to have a foreign sounding name to be any good,’ which didn’t exactly endear me to the F1 world.”

A welcome distraction came at Daytona in February. The previous year he’d befriended Bill France Sr, and the NASCAR boss organised a ride in the 500 with a Dodge. Vic finished a creditable eleventh, albeit many laps down.

“I expected to he treated like some sort of interloper, but nothing was further from the truth. All those guys, Buddy Baker and David Pearson, were so nice. Richard Petty said to us rookies if anything ever goes wrong on the banking, turn left, and stand on the brakes. Close your eyes if you like, but that’s not obligatory! The car is going to carry on spinning, but at least it’s going to spin down the banking.”

Unable to find a works F1 ride for 1969, Vic drove under the Antique Automobiles banner. “One day the owner Colin Crabbe said I’ve bought a Cooper-Maserati – do you want to drive it? Then after Monaco he said the Cooper is no good, it’s not quick enough, you deserve better. Bruce McLaren was about to sell the M7A, and Colin bought that.”

Vic finished fifth at Clermont-Ferrand, and sixth at Silverstone. He again starred at the ‘Ring, qualifying sixth, but disaster struck in the race when Mario Andretti crashed.

“He slid off the road and took off the two left wheels. One of them came bounding back across the road. Beltoise squeezed past. By the time I got there, which was only a yard later, it had done another little bounce and I hit it. I did a huge 20 foot high somersault and landed upside down in the trees. Fuel was dripping out, I was trapped underneath, and I couldn’t move. I could see the marshals standing about 20 yards away with their fire extinguishers ready! It wasn’t until Andretti came back and kicked their arses that these guys actually thought about getting me out…”

Vic was lucky to escape with a broken collarbone and arm. But the McLaren was scrap, and Vic’s F1 career was all but over. For the next few seasons he concentrated on sportscars, winning the ‘Ring 1000krns twice more and showing blinding speed in Can-Am races, but in the mid-1970s he slowly faded from the scene. In 1973 he won the GT class and finished sixth overall at Le Mans, sharing a Ferrari Daytona with Claude Ballot-Lena, and the following year made a few appearances in Porsches, but that was the end of the line for Vic Elford, professional racing driver. He was 39 years old.

For a while he was March’s sportscar agent in France, and in 1976 he was hired by Jean Rondeau to run his Inaltera Le Mans team. In 1977 he had a brief and very unhappy spell managing the ATS F1 outfit. There was also to be one final fling as a driver. In 1983 old pal Rondeau invited Vic to race one of his Group C cars at Le Mans. “It came along out of the blue. It occurred to me that it was nine years since I raced at Le Mans, and I’d raced at Le Mans nine times, so how about one more?”

Alas, the car was hardly a frontrunner, and it retired after nine hours. After living in France for 15 years Vic headed to the States in 1984, when former co-driver Larrousse steered him into a job managing Renault and AMC’s motorsport programmes. He later returned to his roots working for Porsche in North America, and found time to write The Porsche High Perfomance Driving Handbook. More recently he worked as an instructor at the famed Skip Barber school; in 1992 he came across a teenager called Juan Pablo Montoya.

“At the end of the three day course I announced to everybody that he was a future World Champion. And they all fell about laughing! The kid was just brilliant, right from the word go.”

Now 64, Vic is enjoying life in sunny Florida, still smoking like a chimney. He’s far from retired, and has turned his attention to coaching drivers one-on-one. Does he have any regrets?

“In the early seventies I should have said to hell with Europe, and gone to the States to go stock car racing. I’d already proved a couple of times that I could do it. Not that I ever had any doubts. Whatever I did in a car I could always do it, whether it was driving downhill on ice or snow, or driving dorn the Mulsanne straight at night at 250mph in a 917. It was the one thing I could do well.”