Something in the water

What is it about a tiny corner of England that is so well suited to breeding British Le Mans winners? We travelled home with old neighbours Nick Tandy and Oliver Gavin to find out
Writer Simon Arron
Photographer Stuart Collins

Narrow lanes embrace butterfly-rich hedgerows and elegant cottages, but there is nothing obvious to link this picturesque slice of Britain with motor racing. Collectively, the villages of Felmersham (population 748) and Pavenham (712) are home to about 0.0023 per cent of the UK’s 65 million population, yet they produced this year’s Le Mans winner Nick Tandy and his GTE Pro counterpart Oliver Gavin. “If you head that way,” says Gavin, pointing towards one end of Felmersham (so sleepy that the local pub is closed at weekday lunchtimes), “you’ll find Nick’s family farm. Technically it’s in the next village, but it’s about two fields away from my parents’ place.” They didn’t know each other as kids – Gavin, 42, is the older by 12 years – but they passed through the same three schools before moving on to professional careers that put rural Bedfordshire on the racing map. Time, then, for a guided tour.

Pinchmill Lower School, Felmersham, Beds
Seat of learning aged five to nine

Oliver Gavin: They never used to heat the swimming pool. Once a week we’d be marched out, wondering how cold it was going to be. We had to sing a song as we walked, carry on singing as we got in and then walk around the pool, trying to keep warm, singing all the time. It was like an initiation process. It’s a lovely, quaint village school, though. Apart from the pool, I enjoyed it.

Nick Tandy: There’s a hall inside and that’s where I first encountered a climbing rope. It seemed massively high at the time, but now you look and it’s only one storey…

OG: After my first season in the British F3 Championship, in 1993, I came here to give a talk to the children and Nick was one of them! I signed posters and handed them out.

NT: That poster was on my bedroom wall for years…

OG: I ate far too much at lunch one day. I loved spaghetti Bolognese and went up for thirds, then sat at the table quite literally unable to move. They had to call my mum to shepherd me home.

NT: I was once nominated as narrator at the Christmas nativity, but became so nervous that I couldn’t talk. The longer I stood there, the worse it got. I think I was eventually ushered away while they found a replacement.

Sharnbrook Upper School, Sharnbrook, Beds
Final five years of education,covering GCSEs, A-levels… and cars

NT: The sixth form here gave me two of the best years of my life. I was doing only two courses, so had lessons for only half a day – if that. By then I had my first car and spent much of my time taking mates out for rides. It was officially insured as a 1000cc Mini, although it had a 1275 engine…

OG: I passed my driving test quite early and had use of a VW LT31 van, which transported the family karts. It had a really high roof and I think the record passenger count was 20. You’d turn up at parties and bring them alive. I was always the driver, which I didn’t mind, and it was an absolute blast. I wasn’t particularly sharp academically, though. My mind was so focused on karting that I wasn’t all that interested in qualifications, which I’m sure pained my parents. Talking to my own children about what they should try to achieve at school, I wouldn’t recommend my approach. You live and learn.

NT: I started racing Ministox at 11 and was probably 12 when [brother] Joe and I took the cars to our middle school, Lincroft, to give the head a run around the playground. The head didn’t have a seat, but just hung on while we hooned about and the other kids stood at the edge, watching. The tyre marks were there for about six months. You probably couldn’t do that nowadays.

Motor Sport: Did you play other sports?

OG: I was goalkeeper once, but let in eight. I was OK at cross-country, but never that bothered about team sports. I was slight, so not much use on a rugby pitch, and I wasn’t very good at football.

NT: I used to play lots of football, but stopped when I was about 13 because the racing took over. I couldn’t do both.

Motor Sport: When did you first compete against each other?

NT: Le Mans 2011. I still have a snapshot of the timing screen on my phone. At that point it shows Gavin P1, Tandy P2. Being from around here and knowing what this guy’s done before, that was a special moment.

Kimbolton kart circuit, Cambs
Where a young Oliver Gavin cut his competitive teeth

OG: I first raced here aged 11. Our local doctor had just put his son [future Formula Renault front-runner and MGF champion James Rhodes] into karts and asked whether we’d like a go. My brother Marcus and I tested it at Rye House and loved it. Initially Dad said he could afford to buy one kart between all of us, but for six months we just drove it around the car park outside his office. We finally thought it might be an idea to buy helmets, so we could use it properly. We started at Kimbolton and then began travelling elsewhere.

Motor Sport: Does that all feel like a completely different lifetime?

OG: A little bit, I suppose. I don’t recognise that much of the track and facilities because it has been so long. I guess if there were sounds and smells the memories might be more distinct.

NT: I tested Tom Harris’s Formula 1 stock car recently, at Birmingham Wheels, and took an old, familiar route to the track. That journey reminded me of the excitement I used to feel on my way to races.

OG: Back in the day it was something of a ritual, packing the van and knowing I’d be spending the weekend with my brother and my dad. I was very lucky to get that kind of a start. Without it I would never have had this career. There was a great community at Kimbolton, too. The guys building chassis and engines were making money, but the ones running the race meetings weren’t. They’re the ones we should thank.

Motor Sport: Was there similar camaraderie in the Ministox paddock?

NT: Not at all – it was much more cut-throat and drivers never used to shake hands at the end of a race. You didn’t really socialise.

OG: There was interaction between us in the karting paddock, but as soon as the helmet came on and the visor came down you were on your own – full-on attack. As a kid you learned a lot from that.

Motor Sport: In karting, wasn’t it generally the parents who fought?

OG: Without a doubt. I remember once coming into the collecting area at the end of a race and seeing two lads chatting calmly about an incident in which they’d been involved. Their dads, meanwhile, came running in and started throwing punches.

NT: It was the same in Ministox.

OG: Some fathers were living their hopes and dreams through their sons and daughters. I don’t think my dad had any desire to race, but he liked the engineering side and understanding how it all worked. He wanted us to do well, though, and there were occasionally some awkward silences during our journeys home.

NT: Dad was the engineering genius behind our success. We’d see people spending thousands on engines and not getting anywhere, while he’d spend a few hundred and we’d have the best kit. When he was busy on the farm in the summer, Mum would help load our two Minis on a 7.5-ton flatbed and then drive it to Yarmouth or wherever. I knew about karting, but had no particular desire to compete because I was doing my own thing. With hindsight I feel it was a good thing to be able to race a full-size car as an 11-year-old.

Northampton International Raceway, Brafield, Northants
Where Nick Tandy earned his first prize money

NT: My dad used to race a Toyota Starlet hot rod, but probably stopped in about 1997 when we began taking Ministox more seriously. The car just sat around, but once we had a bit of spare time we started to rebuild it and Joe and I drove it at various tracks, including this one. After winning a heat I collected a £50 cash prize, the first time I’d effectively been paid to race. I was here again very recently, watching a European championship stock car race. That’s the best place to stand [points to a spot near the bar]. It’s a good Saturday night out.

OG: I’ve never attended a meeting here, but can often hear the engines from my current home, a few miles away.

Motor Sport: We passed Santa Pod on the way here, another local sporting touchstone…

OG: I often drove there for the Renault F1 team, working on its starting systems in 2004-05. On the first occasion the team manager approached me and said, ‘There’ll be no negotiating. We’ll pay you this.’ I almost fell out of the truck. It was silly F1 money, the most I’d ever been paid to do anything. And I was just going in straight lines…

Motor Sport: When you were younger, did it ever occur that you might be able to translate what you were doing into a full-time professional career?

NT: When we began winning lots of Ministox races, the British Touring Car Championship was massive on TV and I thought that might be a feasible target. That’s why I switched to racing Mini Sevens on the circuits. If I’d wanted to race for fun, I’d quite happily have stuck around at Northampton and elsewhere.

OG: When I switched to cars, my parents were very level-headed and wanted to keep my feet on the ground. After I started winning F3 races, [team manager] Peter Briggs said to me, ‘Olly, you’re good enough to win at this level, but whether you’re going to have the breaks and get into F1, who knows? You could definitely earn a living doing this, though, and that’s the route I’d pursue’.

NT: In 2005 I entered the BRDC single-seater series as something to do, won it against expectations and earned a £30,000 scholarship that enabled me to move into Formula Ford. My single-seater career started almost by accident…

After scooping the 1995 British F3 title, Gavin spent a touring car season with Opel, scratched around in F3000 for a couple of years, became the FIA’s F1 safety car driver and got his big career break following a trip to the USA to contest a few endurance events in 2000. He is presently in his 14th season with Corvette Racing – a relationship that has to date netted five Le Mans class wins.

Having switched from Mini Sevens to single-seaters, Tandy won the 2007 Formula Ford Festival for his brother’s Joe Tandy Racing team, scored an emotional British F3 victory for JTR in 2009 – just a couple of weeks after Joe’s death in a road accident – and began racing Porsches a few months later. He went on to become a Porsche Supercup front-runner, won the German Carrera Cup title in 2011 and signed up as a factory driver late in 2012.

He maintains a hands-on role with JTR, which continues to operate successfully and runs three cars in the MSA Formula championship. The team’s past Formula Ford customers include Nick Percat, who nowadays races a Lucas Dumbrell Motorsport Holden Commodore in Australia’s V8 Supercar championship… with one Oliver Gavin co-driving in endurance events.

That’s just how things seem to work in Bedfordshire.