Nigel Roebuck's Legends

At Reims in 1966 Jack Brabham became the first man to win a grande épreuve in a car bearing his own name, and Roebuck attended his first foreign GP. It was all much more to his taste than Magny-Cours 2006

For Jack Brabham, the 1966 French Grand Prix will forever be the race in which he became the first man ever to win a World Championship round – a grande épreuve, as they used to be known – in a car bearing his own name. Six years earlier, Jack had won at Reims in a Cooper-Climax, but this was different – this was in a Brabham.

For me the significance of that day – July 3, 1966 – is rather more parochial: for the first time in my life, I attended a foreign grand prix. I had not long left school, and when a friend airily talked of ‘maybe going to Reims’, a firm plan was made on the spot, in the sense that he asked his mother if he could borrow her car – an MG 1100 – and I bought a map of France. This was Thursday evening, and we duly arrived at Reims on Saturday afternoon, just in time to see Brabham win the Formula 2 race.

Because the Reims weekend constituted such a festival of motor racing, with so many events, there was no F1 qualifying on the Saturday, but it didn’t really matter, for the atmosphere was fantastic, an endless fête on a grand scale.

All this came back to me recently, as I sought to keep awake through the 2006 French Grand Prix at Magny-Cours. Although Reims was no great driver’s circuit – long straights and mainly slow corners – it was spectacularly fast, had a wonderful ambience, and dripped with a sense of great occasion. Magny-Cours, alas, falls short in every regard.

Then as now, though, Ferrari were central to the French Grand Prix. Michael Schumacher dominated this year’s race, and 40 years ago Lorenzo Bandini looked set to do the same.

In point of fact, Ferrari were in a state of some ferment at the time. At the Belgian Grand Prix, three weeks earlier, team leader John Surtees had won brilliantly in the rain, but there had long been a high degree of tension between Surtees and team manager Eugenio Dragoni.

Quite obviously the best driver in the team, Surtees was never one to bend the knee, but his worst sin, in the eyes of Dragoni, was failing to be Italian. Bandini was the team manager’s blue-eyed boy, and although Lorenzo always got along well with John, there was nothing anyone could do to prevent Dragoni’s infamous ‘briefing’ against Surtees, particularly in the end-of-the-day telephone calls to Maranello, where Enzo Ferrari awaited.

Dragoni, a political animal before the phrase had even been thought of, did everything possible to destabilise the position of Surtees in the team, minimising his achievements, playing up his mistakes, ascribing unfounded statements to him. After one punch-up too many, at Le Mans, Surtees went to see Ferrari, and the Old Man unfathomably decided on instant divorce.

No one was more upset at the news than Bandini, now propelled into the role of team leader, a position he did not entirely savour. For Reims he was to be joined by Mike Parkes, Maranello’s other Englishman, but emphatically not a bosom buddy of Surtees.

Surtees, for his part, was immediately contacted by erstwhile team mate Roy Salvadori, now team manager at Cooper. A deal was swiftly struck, and although a Cooper – with an ageing Maserati V12 engine – was hardly the quickest car in town, Jochen Rindt had finished second to Surtees at Spa, so obviously there was some potential there.

Reims seemed to bear that out, for in qualifying John succeeded in splitting the Ferraris, six-tenths slower than Bandini, seven-tenths faster than Parkes – who did remarkably well to make the front row on his F1 debut. Lining up behind them were Brabham and then three more Cooper-Maseratis, the factory cars of Rindt and Chris Amon, and Rob Walker’s car for Jo Siffert. A total of 17 cars would go to the grid.

Forty years ago, of course, it was still possible to buy paddock passes, and it was a delight to find some still available. In we went that late Saturday afternoon, collecting autographs here and there, watching Surtees in earnest deliberation with Salvadori, listening to Colin Chapman attempting to converse with Pedro Rodriguez…

Pedro had been drafted into Team Lotus in place of Jim Clark. During Thursday practice Jimmy had been hit in the face by a bird, suffering a badly swollen eye, and was advised not to race.

Next morning we were in early, and already it was mighty hot. As a keen Bandini fan, I had my hopes, but my pal was adamant that Surtees was going to use this day to give Ferrari the finger. As it turned out, we were both to be disappointed.

Although Surtees initially took the lead, his fuel-pump drive failed at the first corner, and so we, spectating near Thillois, the hairpin leading on to the pit straight, never saw him. Bandini led on lap one, but already Brabham had got by Parkes, and there he would stay.

For a time Brabham was able to stay in Bandini’s tow, but it wasn’t long before they were into lapping the backmarkers, and when that happened Lorenzo was able to move himself out of range. From that point on he looked unassailable.

All very pleasing to me, but it wasn’t to last. On lap 32, as I fiddled to put a new film into the camera, my friend coolly announced that Bandini had just gone by – apparently without drive.

A little way beyond us, Bandini stopped, climbed out of his car – and then began ripping at one of the straw bales. It turned out that his throttle cable had snapped, and from wire purloined from the straw bale he was able to fashion a hand-operated throttle, by which means he was able to get the Ferrari back to the pits.

There the mechanics fixed the problem properly, and Lorenzo went back out, thinking – ever the team player – that he might be able to tow Parkes up to Brabham.

Jack, though, had everything handled, and thus won his team’s first grand prix, at an average speed of 136.89mph – swift for 1966, with just over 300 horsepower available. Brabham went on a tear thereafter, winning at Brands Hatch, Zandvoort and the Nürburgring, to clinch, at the age of 40, his third World Championship.

Sadly F1 was never to return to Reims, and I’ll always be glad we made that last-minute trip. Magny-Cours isn’t quite the same thing.