Roy Salvadori was a tough customer, Ken Wharton no softie: Doug Nye

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Throughout racing history we have seen clean drivers and dirty drivers, aggressive drivers, and timid ones too. Partisan – largely social media – outbursts plonked convenient labels on both the current drivers involved in the lap 1 British GP collision between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Some equally (and quite properly) partisan team declarations then perhaps generated rather more heat than light.

Christian Horner of Red Bull’s initial claim that “everyone knows you can’t pass into Copse Corner” perhaps explains his greater success as a team director than he ever achieved as a racing driver…

Few of those most incensed seem to have recognised that Lewis Hamilton –a notably ‘clean’ driver – subsequently pulled off an almost identical manoeuvre into Copse to pass Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari for the lead. The difference, it seems, is that Leclerc ran wide onto the run-off area to let the Mercedes by without contact. More to the point, immediately after having done so, he latched back onto Hamilton’s tail as those two cars ripped into the Becketts complex. Had those cars been more equal, as could have been the case with Verstappen and his Red Bull, then Hamilton’s Mercedes could surely have been re-passed soon after.

As it was, which of those two drivers had more to lose upon that opening lap – World Championship leader Verstappen, or closest rival Hamilton? Self-evidently it was the Dutch boy. Matching still frames from the elevated camera of the cars’ approach to Copse Corner show that Hamilton’s lunge up the inside placed his car’s nose and front wings ahead of Verstappen’s eyeline. Regardless, Verstappen still turned in, contact made. Comparing that lap 1 image with the lap 52 freeze of Hamilton chopping inside Leclerc, and the Frenchman – with much less to lose than Verstappen – surrendered to fight another day. In Verstappen’s case aggressive defence – which could probably have been followed by a clean re-pass – triggered Red Bull’s loss..

A previous celebrated Copse Corner collision involved two far less acceptably aggressive drivers.

“Roy Salvadori was
a tough customer,
Ken Wharton no softie”

. From what I know of them, Roy’s occasional barging tactics stemmed from a sense of self-confident superiority while Ken’s possibly stemmed from defensive inferiority.

On Easter Monday 1954, Goodwood’s Glover Trophy saw Wharton leading in a V16 BRM from Salvadori in Syd Greene’s new Maserati 250F. Roy grew frustrated by what he saw as Wharton’s baulking. So the last-lap inevitable happened, Ken veered, Roy nudged, Ken spun – and Roy rammed him. Ken recovered to limp his BRM to the line, winning in a car which proved so badly bent it was written off. Roy’s battered 250F lay wreathed in steam at Lavant Corner. He and Greene took the – then unusual – step of protesting Wharton to the stewards. It was all glossed over, but as Roy told me decades later, “Ken perhaps forgot there’s always another race…”.

“Formula 1 inflation rates seem to be 13 times ahead of HM Treasury’s”

Enmity simmered into 1955, when the Silverstone May Meeting’s International Trophy race saw Salvadori’s Greene-entered Maserati battle for the lead with Peter Collins’s BRM-entered disc-braked sister 250F. Roy was beaten. Ken Wharton meanwhile had lost time having his Vanwall’s throttle linkage repaired. After rejoining he was quick, not least on fresher tyres, and on lap 21 when Wharton tried to unlap himself by passing Salvadori into Copse, he was nudged onto the grass verge.

In hospital, Wharton told visiting track manager Jimmy Brown he “…took to the grass when closing rapidly on Salvadori’s Maserati, and was unable to regain the track before colliding with one of the Jaguar distance boards”.

That was a 100-yard braking marker, which as BRDC secretary Desmond Scannell wrote to Vanwall principal Tony Vandervell was “…a metal sign, 2ft x 18in, mounted on wooden uprights anchored in concrete filled 5-gallon oil drums. They stand about 3ft in from the edge of the track and are portable to permit of the grass being machine cut.”

The Vanwall hit the drum, had its rear suspension and fuel tank ripped back, gushing fuel and the wrecked car careered to a halt amid a fireball from which Wharton tumbled with painful burns.

On June 13, 1955, Vandervell Products’ cost department sent a memo to director Fred Fox headed ‘Damage to Vanwall – Silverstone 7-5-55’, reading: “the costs available, calculated for insurance purposes are: Gearbox Assembly 254/P, Total £1240 8s 7d; Rear Axle Assembly 254/H, Total £1412 0s 8d; Brake Assembly 254/T, Total £736 3s 3d” – making the overall total £3388 12s 6d.

“Outside charges are from invoices or quotations. VP Toolroom costs are for labour, on estimated times… plus 150% for overhead charges.”

Allowing for inflation, that 1955 total, which includes neither replacement chassis frame nor bodywork, today represents £91,500. According to Red Bull Racing, the Silverstone 2021 impact is costing £1.3m.

Hmm – Formula 1 inflation rates seem to be 13 times ahead of HM Treasury’s. So just be grateful for small mercies?

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s.