A spot of bother

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The one that got away a spot of bother Roy Salvadori 1961 United States Grand Prix

The thrill had gone, the love affair with F1 was over. Salvadori admits to Adam Cooper that he was merely going through the motions, until. . .

Roy Salvadori’s world championship career stretched over 11 seasons, but he never managed to win a grand prix. He had his moments, such as finishing a distant second in the tragic 1958 German GP. But he parted company with Cooper at the wrong time, and thereafter only rarely did he have a competitive Formula One car.

But there was one race where a high attrition rate and a touch of inspiration nearly earned him a surprise first victory, at the age of 39. It happened in 1961, when he was driving a Cooper T53 for Reg Parnell and the Yeoman Credit outfit

“It was a very good team,” he recalls. “They had John Surtees, who had just arrived and was going like a bomb, and obviously the deal was that they put all their eggs in the one basket, quite rightly so. As a team manager I’d have done exactly the same.

“But I felt that I didn’t matter. It’s easy to get into a situation like that I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it happened, and I think it still happens today. But Reg was good. He had this great belief in Surtees, which was dead right, and he always said that John would win a world championship. But I knew the Cooper very well and, for me, it was an easy car to drive.”

Roy didn’t complete a full season that year, mainly because the tram usually had only one guaranteed entry, which Surtees took. So Roy focused on non-championship races. But he did pick up a couple of points by finishing sixth at Aintree and Monza. The last race was the United States GP at Watkins Glen, the event’s third home in as many years.

“I liked the circuit very much. The worry was that it was the beginning of October, so you could have some very cold weather. That was the minus! But it was beautiful countryside around Watkins Glen in the Fall, absolutely marvellous.”

After the fatal accident to Wolfgang von Trips in Italy, and with Phil Hill secure as world champion, Ferrari gave the race a miss. The decision denied the North American crowd a chance to see the Sharknose, but at least it ensured that everyone else had a shot at victory.

Having twice beaten the red cars, Stirling Moss started the weekend as favourite. But he was relegated to third on the grid by Jack Brabham and Graham Hill. Roy was down in an unspectacular 12th, three places behind his young team-mate.

But Surtees blew up on the very first lap, leaving Roy to wave the Yeoman Credit flag. In the early stages he ran in eighth place, but as a “ten green bottles” syndrome kicked in, so he climbed the order: Jim Clark pitted with dutch problems, Bruce McLaren dropped back with gear selection bothers, Brabharn suffered with overheating, Moss broke his engine and Hill had magneto trouble.

All this mechanical carnage gave the lead to limes Ireland, who was on course to score a maiden GP win for Team Lotus, despite an early spin. But he was under serious threat from Salvadori, who was driving better than he had for some time.

“Everything was just right for me, and I bothered. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always bothering in those days! I thought there were easier pickings in sportscars and GTs — lesser drivers, much easier to be successful — so I didn’t treat F1 as seriously as I should have done, to be truthful.”

On this day, though, it was all falling into place, and it seemed he had a real chance of catching Ireland and, just possibly, snatching victory. With a handful of laps to go he was within five seconds of the leader.

“I started to push it towards the end, and was catching limes at about a second-and-a-half a lap. Then I had to lap Jimmy Clark, who obviously had a quick car. But it wasn’t that quick — it was all right on the straights, but he may have had brake problems or something that cost him going into corners.” In his autobiography Roy suggested that the delayed Clark was defending Ireland’s lead a little too forcefully, but these days he’s a little less critical.

“I was caught up behind Jimmy for about three laps, and I just couldn’t get by. It was just one of those situations — he wasn’t baulking me, he was just quick on the straight and my car was better through the corners. So I tried to hang on to third gear just to get by him. And I broke the engine.

“I should have been patient and settled for second. But I think that I would have caught limes up. And from then on I don’t know what would have happened — probably neither of us would have crossed the line! Certainly, I was on course to make a respectable finish of it.”

Roy takes the blame for breaking the Climax, but there’s a little more to the story.

“With all due respect, I think Reg might have been playing with our engines. We were on different bearings and things like that. I don’t think that was wise, because the engine itself was quite reliable. But by the time Reg had had his little poke around we went down a notch!

“But he came from an earlier era when they used to stuff them up to get starting money. It wasn’t the best thing really — he was so used to screwing them together in his day, and I think he carried a bit of that over. We were embarking on the days when you didn’t touch the engine, you sent it back to Climax and that was it, no modifications. That seemed to be the formula, but Reg couldn’t resist ‘improving’. It was the same with the gearboxes. When we were on the standard Cooper stuff we didn’t have any trouble.”

Roy stayed with Parnell for another year, but his swansong season at the wheel of the first F1 Lola was plagued with reliability woes. His final GP start was at Kyalami at the end of 1962, and after three more years in saloons and sportscars, he retired from the cockpit. What would victory at the ‘Glen have meant to him?

“When you go motor racing, you don’t think about the history. That all comes later. It didn’t mean a great deal at the time; it means more to me now, funnily enough. It would be very nice to say I had won a grand prix. But it wouldn’t mean very much, truthfully,” he concludes with a wry smile.

Roy Salvadori: still not overly bothered.

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