“It was just a stupid bloody puncture…”
We look back at the career of Gerry Birrell, one of British racing’s great lost hopes – and watch his daughter drive a car raced by the father she never knew
Rouen, France, June 23, 1973. Jochen Mass should have been participating in final practice ahead of the ninth round of the European F2 Championship, but his Surtees had developed a minor glitch. “I pulled off the track,” he says, “then went to sit on top of a bank, to watch.” He had come to the race trailing championship leader Jean-Pierre Jarier by 12 points and was now powerless to prevent the Frenchman taking another pole. But he was watching friends as well as rivals, not least Gerry Birrell – his team-mate in the Ford Cologne team that ran Capris in the European Touring Car Championship and elsewhere.
“On one lap Gerry came past quite slowly,” Jochen says. “He was cooling his tyres before going for another quick time. He spotted me and waved, so I waved back, but it turned out that we were effectively saying goodbye, because he crashed soon afterwards.
“After practice was stopped, I was towed back to the pits and John Surtees told me there had been an accident. I asked who was involved and he replied, ‘Birrell’. I said, ‘Damn, is he okay?’ and John just said, ‘No, he’s finished’ then turned around and walked away. That was his way of coping with a situation like that, confronting death.”
Gerry Birrell was just short of his 29th birthday – and tipped at the time as a candidate for a future F1 seat with Tyrrell. The team had strong Ford connections, he had strong Ford connections and Ken Tyrrell was at Rouen that weekend to watch. But as Birrell approached the Virage des Six Frères, one of Rouen’s high-speed, downhill sweeps, his Chevron suffered a front puncture before smashing into – and through – a guardrail that had not been correctly secured.
“I was obviously deeply shocked,” Mass says. “I was always able to rationalise things, though – you had to, because serious incidents were fairly common at that time. If you didn’t want to race, nobody was forcing you to do it. You did what you could to minimise risk, but Gerry had no chance – it wasn’t a mechanical thing, there was nothing anybody could have done. It was just a stupid bloody puncture at the worst possible place. At times like that you reflect on the circumstances and detach yourself, which makes you stronger and more focused.”
The following day, he would finish second to Jarier.
DONINGTON PARK, England, June 27, 2017. It is 44 years to the week since Birrell’s death and one of his old steeds – a Ford Capri, liveried in the colours of Kent cigarettes, nestles in the garage shadows close to the pit exit. It has been owned since 2003 by Doug Titford, who bought it when the assets of ex-owner TWR were auctioned off. Today he and regular co-driver Trevor Reeves will be testing the car, but first it has another appointment.
Kara Birrell has no recollection of the father she lost when only 18 months old. Accustomed to singular horsepower, as a keen showjumper, she has no circuit racing experience but had done a couple of track days to acclimatise for a stint in her dad’s Capri – an event filmed as part of a Gerry Birrell documentary being prepared by Alex Shore, son by subsequent marriage to Gerry’s widow Margaret. For almost an hour the track will be hers – or rather ‘theirs’, for she is accompanied by a tutor well versed in Capris: Jochen Mass.
“I was a bit apprehensive about driving an older car,” she says, “but I really enjoyed it. Having Jochen alongside obviously helped – he kept encouraging me to put my foot down…
“Driving my dad’s car is a dream could true, the kind of thing I could never have imagined. He will obviously always be a hero to me, but as years go by you assume people have forgotten about him. Then you attend days like this, a Goodwood meeting or a Grand Prix and realise how much people respected him and how fondly he is remembered.
“Since the internet came around I’ve often Googled his name and found all sorts of things. I’ve replied to comments on forums and let people know he was my father, after which they’ve sent me photos and told me stories. The internet has helped me get to know him better.”
GERRY BIRRELL was born near Glasgow on July 30 1944 and cut his racing teeth as mechanic to older brother Graham. “There was no family connection with the sport,” Graham says, “so Gerry got into it through me. At a very early age he’d spanner my Austin A40, which was also my road car, and then I bought a Lotus XI. It was a complete wreck, so I went to insurance companies, bought three more in various states of disrepair and we robbed all the good bits to build up a Series 2 XI. Gerry wasn’t old enough to drive at that point. I think the first car he raced would have been my Cortina GT, in about 1963 at Evanton, north of Inverness. The surface was so terrible that the headlights and windscreen were destroyed, but I won my race and think he had a second or a third.
“He assisted me for a while and shared my Anglia, then went to work for Claude Hamilton Motors – at which stage he began to build his own cars, including an Imp with a Climax engine. That was extremely quick and probably heralded the start of him taking the sport seriously. As well as being a fast driver he was also a very good engineer. He served his time in the motor trade and could do in two days what it might take somebody else a week to finish. Downton Tuning taught him how to change the clutch in a Mini without taking out the engine, ditto the camshaft.”
Birrell Jr began his single-seater career in Formula Vee, in 1967, and subsequently moved to London to further his racing prospects. “From a racing point of view, if you lived in Glasgow – as I did – you weren’t really in the game,” says Graham. “I was driving whatever I could get my hands on locally. I’m not sure I really appreciated just how good my brother was, because I was doing my own thing and concentrating on that.”
In 1969 Gerry contested the European Formula Ford 1600 Championship in a Crosslé 16F – and beat Tony Trimmer to the title by one-and-a-half points. He was by now also married.
“A girlfriend and I used to enjoy watching racing at Ingliston,” says Margaret. “There was a whole crowd of us and we used to meet in a pub on the Kilmarnock Road. That’s where I met him, though I later went to America because the relationship didn’t seem to be going anywhere. I thought, ‘Right, I’m out of here.’ I’d been in the States for a year when he flew out and asked me to marry him, so I came back…”
Birrell stepped up to F3 in 1970, taking a clutch of victories, and also impressed with his pace in a one-off F2 outing at Hockenheim. The following year he graduated to F2 in John Stanton’s Lotus 69 – not the most capable chassis in an ultra-competitive field, though he recorded four top-six finishes. He also made his debut with the works Ford team, racing both Escorts (he and Yvette Fontaine took an RS1600 to fourth overall, second in class in the Nürburgring Six Hours) and Capris. He shared an RS2600 with Mass in the Spa 24 Hours, where camshaft failure triggered a retirement, but finished second with Rolf Stommelen in the Paul Ricard 12 Hours (two six-hour heats, one of which they won) and took victory in the British Saloon Car Championship finale at Brands Hatch.
“I can’t recall when Gerry and I first met,” Mass says, “but it was possibly when we were testing for Ford at Goodwood. Whenever a new driver joined the team you always looked at them with a critical eye, watching how they did things, but I could tell pretty quickly that he was a good guy. He wasn’t one of those who tried to impose his own set-up or anything. I felt super-comfortable in his company. There were never any misgivings between us.”
For 1972 there was more of the same. Birrell drove Rodney Bloor’s March 722 in selected F2 events, taking second to Niki Lauda in a British championship race at Oulton Park, made a one-off appearance in one of Ron Dennis’s Rondel Brabham BT38s in a European race at Albi and finished fifth in the European Touring Car Championship, the pick of his results being a brace of second places. Better yet, he took a class-winning 10th overall with Claude Bourgoigne in the Le Mans 24 Hours. He also competed in August’s super-libre Rothmans 50,000 event at Brands Hatch, where 58 drivers chased 30 starting places and a share of a £50,000 purse. Emerson Fittipaldi scooped the £20,000 first prize and Birrell took fourth in his 722, as best of the non-F1 drivers.
That winter, Birrell and Mass shared a works Chevron B21 in the South African Springbok Series. After finishing a class-winning second to the Ferrari 312PB of Clay Regazzoni and Arturo Merzario in the Kyalami 9 Hours, they won outright in Cape Town and Lourenço Marques (Mozambique), before Birrell and Peter Gethin triumphed at Goldfields (while Mass was absent on Ford duty in Europe). In the Pietermaritzburg finale, Gethin and Birrell appeared in separate cars – both co-driven by Mass. While the former won, sixth place was enough to give Birrell the title.
“That was a wonderful time,” Mass says, “and there was a lot of laughter. It worked really well when we shared a car, because we were roughly the same height, had the same driving style and neither of us ever thought the other could or should have done better – if anything it was quite the opposite.
“We drove around South Africa together and spent much time in each other’s company. We would both have deserved the title had we won it jointly, but there was absolutely no envy on my part that it was his alone. He was a great team-mate because he was quick, incredibly consistent and hardly ever made mistakes.”
For 1973 Birrell signed to race a works Chevron B25 in F2 while continuing to drive Capris. He finished fourth at Thruxton, though that would be his only points finish. “I think my Surtees was better than his Chevron that season,” Mass says. “Sometimes you can just tell that a car is off the pace because it isn’t being driven very well, but with Gerry you could see that he was getting absolutely the most from it.”
BY THIS STAGE, Graham Birrell had walked away from racing. “I stopped at the end of 1971,” he says, “because I’d decided that if I couldn’t make a living from it I shouldn’t carry on. I was running two businesses and had to do something about a very large overdraft. I’d spent a lot of time and money going nowhere and had become so sick of the whole thing that I kept away for a few years.
“I was in Glasgow when Gerry had his accident. It was a particular shock because not all of us knew he was driving that weekend – our mother certainly didn’t. He’d been due to race the Capri [at the Nürburgring], but it had been damaged when the transporter was involved in a road accident so we assumed he had a weekend off.
“Rouen is probably the track that made me think motor racing wasn’t a very good idea. I was there in 1970 when two F3 drivers [Denis Dayan and Jean-Luc Salomon] were killed on the same day. I also had a big spin at the spot where Gerry was later killed. I’d come out of the pits and saw Ronnie Peterson charging up behind me, so I pulled over and the car swapped ends when I tried to get back on the racing line – I think it was caused by ruts in the surface from trucks that used the roads every day. It was that weekend that made me appreciate just how dangerous it could be – that and the fact I wasn’t making any money persuaded me to stop.”
Gerry wouldn’t have known it, but Ken Tyrrell was on the hunt for a new F1 driver because by then he – and Walter Hayes, from Ford – were the only two men apart from Jackie Stewart that knew the Scot planned to retire at the season’s end. “There were always rumours,” Margaret says, “but who knows what would have happened. Gerry was obviously working for Ford. He might have become an F1 driver, he might have ended up running a team, who knows?”
Mass: “Was he good enough for F1? Absolutely. I was quite sure that he’d get there sooner or later.”
The final word goes to Margaret. “You never think it’s going to happen, do you? Gerry [pictured left with Kara and twin sister Maija] was a very thoughtful driver. His accident was caused by a puncture, just one of those things. I was obviously aware of the possible risk, but I would far rather somebody enjoyed their life, did what they wanted to do and had a good career – and he did. We had a lovely time while it lasted, travelling around and having great fun. It wasn’t anything like the professional circus it has become. All the drivers and their partners fraternised and ate together. It was much better than doing something else with your life and being bored for 40 or 50 years.”