Doug Nye

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182

Stirling’s finest drive? Aye!

Britain’s favourite racer overcame gearbox woes and a scratched cornea to score the first major win for a rear-engined car

As Stirling Moss’s 80th birthday is upon us (upon him?) spare a thought for one of his exploits which I feel is too often submerged by tales of his derring-do in the Mille Miglia, or in Formula 1 at Monaco and the Nürburgring. The one he seems to downplay as a great personal driving performance – and yet which had immense historical significance – is his win in Rob Walker’s little 1960cc Cooper-Climax in the 1958 Argentine Grand Prix.

This is the race which had been added indecently late to that year’s World Championship calendar, and for which Stirl’s contracted team patron, Tony Vandervell, refused to make any Vanwall entries. His reasoning was that the FIA had accepted the race too late.

His people were also deep in the process of converting their engines from burning methanol fuel mix to using AvGas as required by the new year’s regulations, and that at such short notice the cost and simple ‘embuggerance’ of shipping his cars some 10,000 miles south to Buenos Aires was unacceptable.

Consequently our hero found himself without an Argentine GP drive, until Rob Walker offered his freshly-enlarged little Cooper-Climax. Stirl sought and received Old Man Vandervell’s blessing to drive it in Vanwall’s absence, and by racing non-stop in contrast to Ferrari’s mid-race refuel and tyre change, Moss scored the first-ever Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix victory for a car mounting its engine behind the driver.

Stirl’s drive that day was an epic of tactical ingenuity and tyre-managing delicacy of touch. But there were only 12 starters, and he lay third in the opening laps until the little Cooper’s gearbox jammed in second. “I did almost a complete lap like that… I was just about to pull into the pits when suddenly it freed… one of the luckiest breaks I ever experienced, a virtual miracle. The clutch had broken and there was an interlock system which was only opened by putting out the clutch. When the clutch broke the car was locked into second gear but somehow – by sheer providence – a stone had flown up and jammed under this mechanism and opened it for me. It was incredibly lucky.”

Stirling regained third place, passed Mike Hawthorn’s Ferrari for second and when Fangio’s Maserati stopped to refuel the blue Cooper took the lead. Fangio then lost pace which eased the pressure on Stirl and his Continental tyres which Rob Walker had opted to use instead of Dunlop, “because they were not playing ball on success bonuses and I thought this would gee them up…

Stirl recalled: “To lull the opposition, my mechanic Alf Francis made a great display of preparing fresh tyres for me in the pits. But of course any stop with our bolt-on wheels would have killed any chance we had of winning…”

Ferrari’s finest thought so too, and sat back to await the inevitable Cooper stop. But it never came. Stirl instead could see the white canvas showing through his diminishing tyre treads as the rubber scuffed away, but he drove on – seeking the oiliest parts of the track to limit wear but tensed all the time for a half-expected tyre burst. That didn’t happen either, and he ultimately won by 2.7 seconds, from Luigi Musso’s Ferrari 246.

It had been an epic, but what makes it even more special is the fact that the Walker team that weekend in Buenos Aires was tiny – just four people: Moss, his then-new first wife Katie, Alf Francis and Australian second mechanic Tim Wall. And that was it. Walker was on the end of a telephone, 10,000 miles away. And what’s more, first practice had ended for them when the Cooper’s gearbox drain plug had fallen out. The Citroën-based ’box was already the Cooper’s Achilles heel without running it dry. Then later that day Stirl and Katie were larking about when she accidentally stuck her finger in his eye, and the nail scraped 4mm off his cornea. “It hurt like hell!” A local doctor patched him up, but on the Saturday he drove only three more practice laps, finding his vision badly blurred. The doc assured him it would be five days or more before his vision was back to normal – yet next day he won the Grand Prix. Some blokes make history – the rest of us just read about it.

The interesting sidelights here are that Tony Vandervell had made it plain that he would protest the Argentine GP’s late inclusion in the 1958 World Championship calendar, challenging its status as scoring championship points. Once Stirling and Cooper had won the race, The Old Man withdrew the protest. Whether he would he have done so had the winner been Hawthorn, or another Ferrari driver, is an interesting question. One to which the answer could have meant defeat for Vanwall in the Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship, which it ultimately won. With Cooper’s help…

*****

A show of strength from today’s GP cars

The appallingly tragic death of young Henry Surtees, and within days the injury suffered by Felipe Massa, have concentrated renewed attention on motor racing safety. One can appreciate the notion that even such freakish events as these should demand examination to avoid a repeat, but for many there’s the feeling that all highly-kinetic sports are by definition dangerous, and that not every risk can possibly be erased. But one can only marvel at the enormous strides that have been made in protecting racing drivers from injury.

In the 2001 Belgian GP when Luciano Burti’s Prost speared into a tyre wall head-on at something like 140mph everyone expected the very worst. Yet the front end of the car survived remarkably intact and the Brazilian emerged without serious injury, though the recommendation that he sit out the rest of the season put paid to his frontline career. Similarly, the front end of Massa’s Ferrari F60 survived its c120mph head-on impact in Hungary scraped and battered, each front suspension plucked back but preserving its driver without further substantial injury.

Spooling back through time, one finds the most devastating race incidents which totally destroyed cars and killed drivers at much lower speeds. Inevitably one is not comparing like with like, for there can be no parity between a direct hit upon a tree in the 1920s or ’30s and rocketing into a relatively yielding four-deep tyre wall in the 2000s.

Way back in 1927 a Formule Libre race was run in support of that year’s Grand Prix de l’ACF on the wonderful artificial road circuit at Montlhéry. Gerard de Courcelles, who won the 1925 Le Mans race, ran out of luck that day. He lost control of his ex-Indianapolis Guyot Speciale and hit a tree. He was killed instantly by the impact and the vehicle just disintegrated around him. Its channel-section frame was torn apart, twisted and bowed, engine here, gearbox there, body panels fluttering and bouncing to earth many metres away. The accident was entirely unsurviveable. But at that time it was a question of “Aah well, poor old Bertie – Gumbledon, set one less place for dinner”… and life – and the exposure to sudden, violent death – went on.

*****

One car designer who made a little go a long way…

When it comes to comparing and contrasting racing car designs of differing periods I have just come across an interesting photograph of two hugely contrasting cars in the paddock – I believe – at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb. Sitting there, side by side, are Raymond Mays in the traditional Old English Upright ERA with its channel-frame chassis, high seating position and hefty proportions, and that unsung pioneer of at least partially monocoque chassis construction and lightweight racing car design, Laurie Bond in his minuscule Bond 500.

Bond’s little Rudge-engined B-Type sprint car had made its debut at Shelsley Walsh in June 1947 but was wrecked there in the September meeting. The Type C Bond 500 then emerged for 1948, sporting his own aluminium stressed-skin monocoque fuselage, ritzy alloy wheels – modelled upon aircraft tail-wheel design – front-wheel drive and inboard front brakes. Of course Bond’s name became much more widely known as a manufacturer of low-cost three-wheeler road cars.

When I started work for Motor Racing magazine at Brands Hatch in ’63, another publication produced by the Knightsbridge group there was the Bond Owner’s Club magazine. I spent many happy moments sub-editing text supplied by – as I recall – club luminaries, a Mr Len Bint and his wife Win Bint. Many a club run wound up into the Pennines, highlighted by a stop for tea and scones at the Bide-Away Café (I might be making this up) where “…our happy group basked in the luxurious warmth of the two-bar electric fire”. It was a heart-warming window upon a world otherwise completely unknown to me. My folks didn’t own a car. Which is why they came to fascinate me.

*****

Vollstedt’s day in the sun with Jimmy

Our item last month about Jimmy Clark’s 1965 Indy 500-winning Lotus 38 prompted such interest I was taken aback. At least it’s not just me, Clive Chapman and the outstanding team of blokes who built and campaigned the car who are interested. But there’s another Ford V8-engined Indycar which Jimmy drove in period: the Vollstedt-Ford, one of two sister cars built for 1967 by USAC constructor Rolla Vollstedt.

He had been a youthful street racer in Oregon in 1937 when he worked for a local speed shop. After wartime service he bought his first ‘race car’ in 1947, and as early as 1963 he built his first rear-engined Indycar à la 1961 Cooper-Climax. By 1967 he’d sold his pair of ’66 model monocoque-chassised cars – à la Lotus 38 this time – to Jim Robbins and built wider tubs, providing improved accessibility to the four-cam Ford V8. He reverted from inboard front suspension to outboard, and as he recalls in his book From Track Roadsters to Indy Cars: The Rolla Vollstedt Story, “California Metal Shaping again shaped the outer skins of the monocoque off the same wooden bucks of the previous year with the exception of adding one inch so the tub would end up one inch wider overall”. Ford’s price for the four-cam engine was apparently $15,000 “even though they cost $50,000 each to produce”. Ford backing helped finagle Clark into the ‘Bryant Heating & Cooling’ Vollstedt for the Rex Mays 300 road race at Riverside, the finale to that year’s USAC National Championship on November 26.

This was Dan Gurney’s home circuit, and his 5-litre stock block-engined Eagle took pole… from Clark in the lemon-yellow Vollstedt – not previously a front-runner. Vollstedt: “During qualifying I asked Jimmy if we should ‘tip the can’ a little more [add more nitro-methane fuel] so we could sit on pole. He said ‘Don’t worry. I’ll handle them in the race’. And he did.”

Here was a midfield car being made to shine by a genius. John Surtees also made his Indycar debut in John Mecom’s Lola T90, wearing Bowes Seal Fast livery. John and Bobby Unser filled row two of the grid, A J Foyt and Mario Andretti row three. In the race, Gurney and Clark took off like scalded cats, Dan leading until lap 24 when he ran wide. But a lap later Jimmy was in the pits. He’d missed a gear and the V8’s valves were bent. Surtees was sidelined by magneto trouble and Gurney won, after a tremendous duel with Andretti and Unser. George Follmer was sixth in the second ’67 Vollstedt – while one report declared Clark had driven the Vollstedt “…faster than was thought capable by a mortal man”. Indeed.

*****

McLaren’s mechanics were skating on thin ice with Mayer…

Regular readers may recall the item we ran on the South African Airways 747 which had to be withdrawn from service for its pressurisation and air conditioning systems to be cleaned out and rebuilt following a Formula 1 team pillow fight which had clogged them with flock and feathers. McLaren mechanic ‘Dublo’ Hornby recalls the incident well. It was actually on a flight to Watkins Glen, he says, followed by tricky negotiations with various hire companies to secure transport for the weekend since “you racey folks” had established such a bad record for serial swimming pool parking, and for returning what had been near-new, low-mileage cars totally clapped out and with their tyres bald…

Evidently the McLaren lads set up shop at the Glen ahead of team chief Teddy Mayer’s arrival. Teddy himself then encountered the same difficulty in securing a rental car – he’d already been apprised of South African Airways’ outrage at the state of its 747’s ‘environmental systems’ upon arrival in the Land of the Free, and that ‘the bill’ was non-negotiable. Generally speaking, ‘The Wiener’s’ already notoriously short fuse was positively sizzling…

Meanwhile, at The Glen, the United States GP was about to be run at a time when a new triumph of high technology had just emerged. That’s right; this was the beginning of the skateboard craze. The mechanics had found a shop selling them and of course almost every one of them had bought a board. Outside the workshop in which they were based there was a long sloping drive, and inevitably – this was F1 so none of these chaps was at all competitive – they had begun skateboard-racing one another.

So imagine the scene. Teddy Mayer – highly cheesed off, running late, already spoiling for a fight – sweeps round the blind corner leading onto the driveway in his very cheap, very downmarket and very irritating hire car. This time his team mechanics have gone too far. He’s going to discipline every last damned one of them. If they don’t like it, they can take their cards straight away, seek a job elsewhere, and find their own way home.

And as he sweeps round the blind corner onto that sloping driveway, does he find his boys hard at work preparing their cars? No he doesn’t. He finds a couple of them hurtling towards him at breakneck speed, screaming with maniacal laughter, on skateboards. Within a second or two that’s another dent in the hire car. As ‘Dublo’ recalls: “Teddy just went BERSERK!”.

One can’t quite picture the likes of Alf Francis, or Adelmo Marchetti, or Guerino Bertocchi skateboarding, and I’m pretty sure they won’t have sympathised. In many ways the life of a 1970s racing mechanic was very different from his forebears’.