The Aston was never designed with the Dakar Rally in mind so it ran along and up the bank, didn’t know quite what to do at the top and flipped over, trapping me underneath. The half of the car I was under was sticking into the road, well past the apex of the corner, just on the exit line, and would have been out of sight of the oncoming cars, even in daylight. The smell of petrol suggested that the options were either a cremation or a simple run-over incident. I had been party to a pretty good BRM burn-out job at Silverstone in the 1956 British Grand Prix – the car recognising its serious shortcomings and doing the decent thing – but I was in an unconscious, disinterested state beside the inferno at the time.
Consideration of the possibilities was momentarily dismissed by the Aston pressing down on me, and the thought that I had proved to my satisfaction that it was indeed a heavy car, as team-mates had been known to mumble about, but I was quickly forced to focus on the sound of fast-approaching cars.
The first one round the corner was a Porsche, fortunately driven by Umberto Maglioli, always an able and considerate driver, who somehow managed to maintain a tighter exit line than normal, striking the Aston’s tail with sufficient impact to knock it up and aside and set me free. The survival instinct overwhelmed everything and despite my shock I nevertheless managed to drag myself up the sandbank to safety and finished in the arms of a track official, who seemed as surprised and stunned as me. I shall be eternally grateful to Umberto and apologetic for the fact that my stupidity caused his retirement. Sadly he died a few years ago.
I spent time in the Le Mans hospital before David Brown arranged for me to be flown back to England in his private aircraft. I hadn’t broken any bones but suffered severe lacerations and contusions on my arms, back and legs, with a hole in my thigh that could hold a tennis ball. I was confined to bed at home until a week before the Aintree event, and drove a car for the first time when I set out to attend the Thursday practice session in the family’s Ford.
Although I was not fit to race I managed to talk my way through the perfunctory verbal medical ‘examination’ as I could stand and do a good impression of walking normally. My team-mates were Stirling Moss and Stewart Lewis- Evans, and clearly Vanwall had a better chance of success if it started three rather than two cars, as reliability was not its strongest point. Stirling tried my car as was normal practice, recording a lap time of 2min 1.4sec, and I managed 2min 0.4sec, equalling the lap record but two-tenths behind Stirling’s pole time in a ‘new’ car, his original one being relegated to the spare.
The few feet of sorbo rubber wrapped around the seat and myself handled the pain briefly, but the race distance of 90-laps (270 miles) over three hours at a competitive speed was quite another matter, so it was agreed before the race that Stirling or Stewart would take over my car in the event of theirs giving trouble. I was nevertheless very pleased to have had the opportunity to demonstrate that my argument with the sandbank had not detracted from my driving performance, the accident being due to stupidity rather than a judgemental error, although a sharp reminder that motor racing was indeed very dangerous in those days.
Race day Saturday dawned wet, very windy and miserable; even the spectators in Aintree’s rather fine grandstand could not hide from the elements, but it relented and by the time we had lined up on the grid the circuit had dried out.
It was Stirling, Jean Behra (Maserati) and me on the front row, Jean having recorded the same practice time before me, with Fangio (Maserati) and Hawthorn (Lancia-Ferrari) on the second row. Lewis Evans, Schell (Maserati) and Collins (Lancia-Ferrari) were on the third row with Trintingnant and Musso (both Lancia-Ferraris) on the fourth. Row five was Menditeguy (Maserati), Leston (BRM) and Brabham (Cooper). Salvadori (Cooper), Fairman (BRM), Bonnier (Maserati), Gerard (Cooper-Bristol) and Ivor Bueb (Maserati) completed the field.
Behra made an excellent start, leading Stirling and me into Waterway corner, but Stirling squeezed by on braking into the long right-hand corner leading to the straight and at the end of the first lap it was Moss, Behra, Brooks. Hawthorn then started pressing me and we swapped places for a few laps, the Vanwall’s reluctance to hang the tail out being a disadvantage on the slow infield corners but the car gripped well out of the long corner into the straight, where I was able to regain the advantage. Then Musso closed on me but he was pressing too hard and had a bit of a moment, dropping back and being passed by Lewis Evans and Fangio.
Stirling edged away from Behra and was 7.5sec ahead by lap 10, stretching it to 9sec by lap 20, but then things began to go very wrong. Unbeknown to me Stirling’s car had developed a misfire and he pitted on lap 21 to investigate. In desperation the mechanics ripped off the magneto earth wire and he rejoined the race in seventh, but the engine was no better so he pitted again after the next lap.
It was time for plan B. I was still in touch with the leaders in fifth, and on an agreed signal I brought my car in and Stirling took over on the 26th lap. The pit stop was slow because the only way into the enveloping Vanwall cockpit was by standing on the rear wheel and stepping over the screen. I was aching all over so the change-over was a performance to behold. This and the time lost in coming into and out of the pits meant that Stirling rejoined the race in ninth position.
If there was anything that I wanted to do less than to resume the race in Stirling’s car. I couldn’t think of it at the time, but engines have been known to go back on song as inexplicably as they can go off – and as the whole point of me starting the race was to give Vanwall a better chance with three cars, I asked the mechanics to lift me into his car. I circulated for a few laps but the misfire steadily got worse and it became clear that the only possible outcome from persevering would be an expensive engine repair. However, I was able to retire from the race feeling that I had done my best, but regretting even more my Le Mans idiocy.
By lap 35 Stirling had passed Menditéguy, then Fangio, and Stuart was also going very well, passing Collins into third place. Stirling was driving at ten-tenths, breaking the lap record several times but at 45 laps, half distance, he was still a minute behind Behra who had not put a wheel out of place and had a 9sec advantage on Hawthorn, who was 20 seconds ahead of Stuart. Then came Collins, who was a further 21 seconds back, and about to be overtaken by Stirling.
On lap 49 Fangio retired with broken valvegear and Collins went out with a water leak on lap 53, only to take over Trintingnant’s Lancia-Ferrari, which had been unable to get the better of Salvadori’s Cooper; it was obviously not to his liking for Peter handed it back after three laps!
By lap 69 Behra was 22 seconds ahead of Hawthorn, who had Stuart and Stirling breathing down his neck. Behra had a press-on-regardless attitude and expected the maximum out of his car, sometimes a little more, which may or may not have had something to do with the explosion that took place inside his Maserati engine. There were barely recognisable engine bits on the track and while Mike ought perhaps to have spotted them, he didn’t, paying the price with a punctured left rear tyre. Stuart swept gloriously into the lead only to have Stirling take it off him before he could savour the plaudits of passing the pits and grandstand at the head of the field.
Vanwalls first and second! Lapping at a very comfortable 2 minutes 10 seconds with Musso almost a lap behind, the spectators couldn’t keep their seats, straining to watch the cars around every foot of the viewable part of the track together with everybody in the Vanwall pits. It was indeed too good to last. On lap 73 Stirling passed the pits alone and poor Stuart had stopped on the other side of the circuit. A ball joint on the throttle linkage had come adrift but he managed to do a temporary repair and bring the Vanwall to the pits without its bonnet for a more permanent fix on lap 80.
Stirling was one and a half minutes ahead of Musso, who was a minute ahead of Hawthorn who had rejoined the race with a new wheel and tyre. It seemed to be a comfortable position, which is exactly the sort of circumstance when a driver begins to worry about all the things that can go wrong and can lose concentration.
Stirling was taking no chances, however. On lap 79 he took a precautionary top-up of 10 gallons of fuel and still had 40 seconds in hand when he rejoined the race, chased by Musso, Hawthorn and Trintignant.
Those last 10 laps! The spectators were beside themselves. They had paid for seats they hardly used and when Stirling at last took the chequered flag after what seemed an interminable 25 minutes the stands erupted and the crowds were jumping up and down all round the circuit, any remaining English reserve having been totally forgotten. Stirling had barely completed his lap of honour before the crowds flooded onto the circuit and the car and driver disappeared under a mass of humanity.
It was pandemonium in the Vanwall pits, with mutual congratulations and unrestrained expressions of joy, including the normally rather sombre team manager, David Yorke. Even Tony Vandervell allowed himself what looked to all intents and purposes to be his version of a jig!
I somehow managed to gingerly struggle through the crowd enveloping the Vanwall to reach Stirling to congratulate him on his fine drive and we both joined a very proud Tony Vandervell, the architect of it all, to share our joy before the three of us eventually managed to make our way through the enthusiastic crowd to the podium for the presentation.
Optimistic though we were for the future, I don’t believe that any one of us imagined that we would next year win six World Championship grands prix and the first Constructors’ World Championship for Vanwall.
Denis Jenkinson, our Continental Correspondent, was at Aintree
The English motor-racing scene suffers from a split personality just as the French one does, for whereas France alternates between Rouen and Reims for its Grande Epreuve, England alternates between Silverstone and Aintree. This year it was the turn of the Northern circuit to hold the British Grand Prix and, for what it is worth, it was also given the title of the European Grand Prix, which is given to one of the World Championship races by the FIA and allows the organisers to pretend their event is the most important of the season. In actual fact all World Championship events carry equal status.
The morning of race day, Saturday, July 20, saw rain and wind lashing the Aintree Stadium and the mechanics huddled in the transporters, while cars sat silently under waterproof sheets, and the outlook was grey and gloomy. However around lunch-time the rain stopped, a wind dried the track very quickly, and by 2pm, when the cars assembled on the grid, conditions were not too bad. It was a fine sight to see the Vanwalls of Moss and Brooks on the front row of the grid.
At the end of the 21st lap Moss went by with an unmistakable falter in the engine note of his car and Behra was only 7½ sec. behind. The next lap Vanwall hopes sank for Moss headed for the pits, thinking that the magneto switch might be faulty. The trouble was, however, more serious, and at the end of the next lap Moss stopped again. Brooks was flagged to come in and hand his car to Moss, for he had made it clear that he did not think he could keep going for the whole 90 laps but would do his best to keep his Vanwall “nicely on the boil” in case one of his team-mates should need it. That need now arose and Moss took over on lap 26, starting off in ninth position.
With a feeling of relief that could be felt all round the circuit, Moss crossed the line to with the first Grande Epreuve for Vanwall, a happening that was bound to come sooner or later, and it was very fitting that the climax of all Mr Vandervell’s efforts should be achieved in the British Grand Prix.