Patrick Head's paternal flame

Michael Head’s exploits at Goodwood in the 1950s were a defining influence on the life of his young son. Now the reflective legend of F1 design is preparing for a suitable tribute to his father
Writer Rob Widdows, photographer Mitch Pashavair

“Mmmm, I see you’ve only used 5100,” he observes gruffly, peering down at the rev counter. “I hope we’re going to push harder than that. Is there a rev limit today? And how’s the clutch?”

The famous voice, and the purposeful gait, are back in the pitlane. He’s already ruminating on rollbars, talking tenths and trying not to take it all too seriously.

Patrick Head, former technical director of Williams F1, has entered the Cooper-Jaguar raced by his father Michael in 1956/57 in the Sussex Trophy at this month’s Goodwood Revival. Today the car is on a preparatory outing at the historic Sussex circuit where his father scored many race victories.

“They are strong childhood memories, coming down to Goodwood in our MkVll Jaguar, sitting on a blanket on the grass and eating our picnic,” Patrick recalls, “then my father would have his race. It was all part of growing up. I was only 10 years old when he raced the Cooper-Jaguar. He won in this car here at Goodwood on Whitsun weekend in 1957. It was a 100-mile race for unlimited sports cars so he was up against Aston Martin DB3s and D-type Jaguars. Going through his archive, I’ve found a lot of old photographs, and I still have the trophy he won that day.”

Patrick’s decision to prepare the car, road-registered as HOT 95, and race it at Goodwood is very much a personal tribute to his father. Michael Head was a competitive individual, a successful amateur racer who tragically died from cancer aged 58 and never saw his son winning all those world championships for the Williams Grand Prix team.

“I’m not usually an emotional type,” Head says, “but the car’s current owner brought it to Williams three years ago and very generously offered to lend it to me – and race it at Goodwood if the opportunity arose. So, having retired, I’ve had more time to look into what my father achieved, to learn more about his life. He was rather an extraordinary fellow, wanted me to be the best at everything – and I wasn’t always the best at everything, so we had a slightly tense relationship. I was looking at some old photos of him racing and decided to spend some money, get the car up to the standards required for Goodwood. The preparation has to be right, it has to be safe, but we also want to have some fun.”

Michael Head took part in 100 events, winning 26 of them, and was a loyal customer at Jaguar. After the war he was posted as Military Attaché to Stockholm and raced a Healey Westland, often with studded tyres on a course created on the frozen sea. He later returned each year to race in Scandinavia, driving there in an XK120, a C-type and a D-type owned by Duncan Hamilton.

“My mother would be crammed into the passenger seat,” Patrick says, “along with tooIbox and luggage, while spare wheels and tyres were strapped to a rack on the back. I think motor racing provided some excitement, some adventure, following so many years at war. People said they courted death but I think it was the opposite, it was actually life and excitement they courted. The racing was serious, but it was also very sociable, meeting up with fellow competitors and their partners at pubs on their way home from races. Life and motor racing were very different in those days, a free and different environment. Expectations were not high after the war.

“My father was always keen on Jaguars, had a lightweight XK120, then in ’53 and ’54 a C-type, chassis 005, which is now owned by Richard Frankel. This car was notable for being the first Jaguar on disc brakes and was entered by Jaguar Cars in the ’52 Mille Miglia for Stirling Moss and Norman Dewis, essentially for assuring the brake performance before Le Mans. Richard Frankel invited me to drive it on the 2012 Mille Miglia and it was very tractable with plenty of torque, a very taut chassis, and precise steering. It was a joy to drive.”

Michael Head, Duncan Hamilton, Tony Rolt and half-brothers Graham and Peter Whitehead were not averse to indulging in a few pranks, as racers often did in those days. One in particular, on Guy Fawkes Night, very nearly went wrong.

“They’d bought some rockets and were on the train home from London,” Patrick says, “and someone had the idea of lighting them, pointing them outwards and upwards from the train windows, and firing them as they passed through stations where the train didn’t stop. The police were waiting by the time they reached Woking and searched the carriages, so my father hopped off in his city pinstripes and bowler hat, looking a most unlikely candidate. I don’t think being discovered would have done much for his army career…”

The racing, however, was serious stuff and it was in Hamilton’s D-type Jaguar that Michael Head had one of his finest races. Returning to his old hunting ground in Scandinavia he entered a race promoted as the Swedish Grand Prix in the winter of 1955.

“Yes, this was an international sports car race at Kristianstad. Fangio and Moss were first and second in the works Mercedes 300SLRs and my father came fifth, the first privateer home behind the Mercs and the works Ferraris. He also did the Goodwood 9 Hours with Graham Whitehead but the car broke down early on. He wanted to buy a D-type but Jaguar doubled the price from £2000 to £4000 between him ordering and receiving it, so he cancelled and got this Mkll Cooper-Jaguar. I don’t think he was too keen on Coopers and their noisy 500cc cars with motorcycle engines, but he must have raced against the Mkl Cooper-Jaguars and been impressed enough to buy the Mkll. This was chassis number two out of only three built, the first going to Peter Whitehead and the other to Tommy Sopwith. My father bought it from Cooper as a rolling chassis, with the 3.4-litre D-spec engine, because Cooper was busy with Formula 2 and plans for F1, so they never finished it. He took it to Dunlop to have the brakes fitted, to Lucas for the electrics and to Williams & Pritchard for the body.”

Despite being a full-time army officer, retiring as a brigadier, Michael Head prepared his own cars and worked on them at home in the evenings. The only time he had a mechanic was when he raced Duncan Hamilton’s D-types and these were his only non-finishes due to mechanical failures.

“After the war my father had completed a degree-level technical course at Shrivenham,” Patrick explains, “and later he became a director at the Fighting Vehicle Research and Development Establishment at Chobham, using their banked track to check his cars after major rebuilds. He didn’t really let me get involved in preparing his cars. Maybe I’d be given a bucket of water and told to clean the wheels, but I was only 11 when he stopped racing so I never got near the mechanicals. He used to be in the garage until late at night, then he’d be back in London to do his day job. He was something of a workaholic and very competitive in his racing.”

The Cooper-Jaguar has been prepared for the Revival by Battle-based CKL Developments, established by Jaguar specialist Chris Keith-Lucas. The engine had some problems on the rolling road, suffering detonation, so was taken out and sent to Sigma Engineering, an XK racing expert. It was decided that a ‘half-race’ spec would be most suitable, as the car continues to be used on the road. The project has been overseen by CKL managing director Ben Shuckburgh, who’s been working closely with the former Williams technical director.

“It has been a bit of daunting prospect,” says Ben, “because, as we know, Patrick is a very distinguished engineer, but it’s also a privilege and something of an honour for us to work with him. Also, it’s a very personal project so there is some emotion involved as well as the technical and engineering side. We both know the car is very primitive, with transverse leaf springs, brakes that are run off a Plessey hydraulic pump, off the gearbox, so it’s very basic in comparison with even the oldest F1 cars Patrick worked on. Projects like this are very much about getting your hands dirty, having a feel for the car, and certainly no computers to plug in… We’ve had fun just getting it to be safe and reliable for the Sussex Trophy. We’ve fitted an approved fire system, a new bag tank, rebuilt the brakes and lowered the final drive ratio to be more suitable for Goodwood. The car isn’t a race-winner; we’ll be up against the Lister Knobblys, which run wide-angle 3.8 engines, and the Aston Martins, but it’s quite a soft car so if it rains we might spring a surprise. We’ve had a clutch problem today, so there’s work to do, but we’ll be on the grid and we’re proud to be a part of Patrick’s tribute to his father.”

Behind the wheel at Goodwood will be historic racer Ludovic Lindsay, a favourite among Revival fans for his storming drives in his father’s ERA, and a highly experienced competitor. Ben will partner him in the two-driver Sussex Trophy.

“First impressions are good,” Ludovic says. “It has some body roll, but the brakes are fine and I’m looking forward to using more revs. Michael Head was a bigger man than me so I need to make some adjustments to get comfortable for the race. We’ll be competitive, we’ll have fun and I just hope the lights are pointing in the right direction as the Sussex Trophy goes into the twilight on the Friday of the Revival. Patrick brings a new dynamic to the preparation of the car and – like all Formula 1 people – his lists are 10 times longer than anyone else’s. I was a bit nervous about what he might ask when I came in after the first few laps. What is really great for me is that Patrick’s father, in a D-type Jag, and my father, in an HWM Alta, raced against each other here at Goodwood. In June 1955 they finished fifth and sixth respectively in a National Handicap race, so that’s a very nice link for us.”

When Patrick steps back onto the pitwall on September 12, there will be no telemetry, no radio and no downloading of data. He’s going back to basics but will not simply be there for a sentimental journey. Those who know him, especially those who raced for him, will be aware that he does not expect a misty-eyed cruise into the twilight.

“I want to see the car driven hard around Goodwood,” he says with a grin, “and watch it lapping at least as fast as it did in 1957 – if not quicker. I haven’t actually managed the preparation of the car, but you can’t spend 40 years of your life in racing and suddenly leave it all behind you. I’m still involved with Williams, not designing the cars, but I chat to Pat Symonds about how it’s going. So yes, I’ll be keeping an eye on it all when we get to the race, but one of my requirements is that everyone should have some fun.”

The Sussex Trophy, for sports cars that raced between 1955 and 1960, will recreate those late summer days when Ferrari and Aston Martin battled it out for the World Sports Car Championship at Goodwood. It will run into dusk on Friday September 12, the opening day of the Revival.