He’s a Tasman race winner, Australian champion driver, sports car and F5000 builder and winner, a successful businessman – and he’s never slow with an opinion. In the 1960s Frank Matich diced with the sport’s greats; here he recalls the men who impressed him
The Grand Prix Drivers Association is a pretty exclusive club. But there’s an even more exclusive club within it: drivers who never raced in Formula 1, nor even in Europe, but whose professionalism and ability earned the respect of the F1 fraternity.
Since the founding of the GPDA in 1961, according to the best efforts of its record keeper, this inner-inner club has only ever had one member: Australian driver and constructor Frank Matich.
During the fabled 2.5-litre Tasman series of the 1960s, Matich raced wheel-to-wheel against the very best in the world. Jim Clark was said to have rated a 1965 battle with Matich at Lakeside, Queensland, as the best dice of his career.
Matich’s driving was concise, effortless, instinctive. A college-trained aeronautical and mechanical engineer, his mind was forever focused on improving the sports and single-seater cars which, inevitably, came to be of his own design.
In 1962 Stirling Moss had noted the young Lotus 15 racer’s methodical tyre-testing and data-keeping. In his ensuing relationships with Dunlop, Firestone and Goodyear, Matich would be a southern-hemisphere secret weapon in race tyre development.
Matich’s chassis experiments and innovations – relieving air pressure under his Lotus 19 with floor slots circa 1964, cross-drilling and slotting the brake discs on his SR3 sports car in 1967 – were not done in isolation. Bruce McLaren was a close friend and confidant.
“The F1 people, they were working guys like me,” says Matich, now 77. “Bruce, Graham Hill, Surtees, they were fellas that got spanners in their hands.”
Matich bought a Brabham BT7A open-wheeler for the 1964 Tasman, and started the first Australian round on the front row, alongside McLaren and Jack Brabham. Next round, Matich was on pole.
But he rarely contested more than a few rounds each year, at least until the F5000 era. Early in 1971, Matich took a McLaren M10B to raid the US L&M F5000 Series; two outings bagged a win and a second. In November, the Matich A50 Repco-Holden F5000 won the 1971 Australian GP on its debut.
Firm offers of drives in Europe simply never eclipsed Matich’s devotion to his family, his dominant Team Matich sports car organisation or his love for the Sydney waterfront lifestyle.
When he was almost electrocuted in a 1974 boating accident, ending his racing career, he went big-game fishing. With successful businesses in automotive distribution, packaging and solar-mirror manufacturing under his belt, Matich relects on the characters that featured in “a beautiful, but dangerous” time.
“I don’t think in terms of regrets,” Matich smiles, considering where his racing career might have gone. “I might have botched everything up, knocked myself off, I don’t know… Anyway, I don’t know if I could have handled getting told what to do.”
Matich’s greatest Memory of Clark is of their fierce contest at the 1965 Lakeside ‘International 99’. Clark was in his Lotus 32B-Climax, Matich his BT7A-Climax.
“Clark had pole and I was second. I got through Jimmy at the start and I was leading… We were swapping the lead at different parts of the circuit, wheels inside each other, that type of thing.
“It was on for a fair while – we’d lapped almost everybody – and all of a sudden I came out of the top corner and my motor cut dead. I rolled down into the pits and my brother graham ran over with a distributor rotor in his pocket.
“Out I went – and Clark waited for me to catch up to him. He was several laps in front, but he waved me through. He’d declared it on again. And at the end of the race, he insisted that I go round with him in the parade car. He reckoned it had been the best dice he’d ever had.
“Clarky was perfection. You couldn’t see this from the sideline, but… his ability to balance the car. Remember, the driver’s input was much higher then, before aerofoils and everything,”
Matich had held a pilot’s licence since his late teens. It became another connection between himself, Graham Hill and Clark, just a matter of weeks before Clark’s death.
“Every minute they could spare, they wanted to go out flying. if they had a spare afternoon, they’d be off in individual aeroplanes or off on a joint thing. They were doing a lot of night flying, which they hadn’t been doing in Europe.
“I went once or twice with them, but mostly we’d talk about it, and the ways it related to racing – because we were starting to get into the aerodynamics by then.”
Matich’s step up to the Premier Tasman Series in 1964 was initially to be with a Lotus, but after he had stayed three months with Bruce and Patsy McLaren in the UK, “We
all agreed the best thing I could do would be to buy a chassis from Brabham.
“The unfortunate part was that Jack himself became involved…”
Matich put his BT7A on pole in only his third Tasman race, at Warwick farm. Having out-braked Brabham on the fourth lap, Matich was still in front two laps later when a front lower wishbone mount broke. He later noticed that Brabham’s similar BT7A was reinforced there. It transpired that Ron Tauranac had given Brabham drawings of the modification to pass on to their customer. The boss must have forgotten.
Matich says his ’64 season was handicapped by the absence of his best climax engine and the forged rods and pistons he’d had made in the US. Repco was proposing to build Climaxes under licence; Brabham had suggested they borrow Matich’s for development.
He was again leading at the next round, Lakeside, when his cobbled-together Climax blew up. “Denny Hulme came over and said, ‘Frank, we’ve got the same bits, I worry we might have the same problems.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, the same bits?’ he said, ‘Well, I’ve got your pistons and rods’.
“And this is what Jack did a lot. He was f**kin’ ruthless. He was an old villain! He’d look you in the eye and just laugh at you. You’d get the shits with him, but there was no point.
he’d just do it to you again next time. That’s how he won.”
Earlier this year, Brabham was named one of Australia’s living treasures. Matich doesn’t dispute that for an instant.
“Well, he is a national treasure! Mate, I admire the bloke. Anything I say that’s critical, please don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve been bitten by him, but I just put it down to me being a mug. I knew what he was like, because I’d been told by Bruce and others. But we’ve always been friendly. We never had cross words.”
Bruce McLaren Was two years younger than Matich. They met at one of the early international meetings. “We just clicked, and that’s the way it stayed until Bruce died.” On Matich’s excursions to New Zealand he would stay with McLaren’s parents, he and Bruce talking shop at the family’s Auckland garage.
“He was just dead-set practical. He introduced me to this polar moment of inertia stuff, the dynamics that occur within a chassis. He had an engineering background – well, he was pretty much like myself.
“In terms of the people who really impressed you in driving skill, who had that little bit extra – Bruce wasn’t that. he was consistent and thorough, a younger version of Jack, in getting his car balanced and set up better.”
Matich says it was he who convinced McLaren in 1964 to build his own cars – though it took Matich three more years to do likewise.
“Bruce was very sensitive about the reaction from old Man Cooper – whatever anybody did later, [Charlie] Cooper considered that they had stolen it from him. Bruce was totally
intimidated by him.”
On Matich’s first trip to England, and almost every subsequent visit as his firestone testing role increased, he stayed at the McLarens’ large apartment in Surbiton, Surrey. It was, Matich says, like an F1 drop-in centre.
“It was a hub… you’d meet all sorts of people. Dan Gurney was frequently there, and that’s where I met Jim Hall.” These were the most competitive people on the planet, yet Matich says there was never any aggression or mind-games among them. “It wasn’t like that. You were qualified because you were there in Bruce’s place, or if you were staying with Jack and Betty.”
One cold Sydney night, Matich picked up the phone and called up McLaren’s Colnbrook workshop to chat with his mate. It was Tuesday, 2 June, 1970.
“While I was on the phone, they got a call from the circuit that there had been an accident. They had to hang up from me to find out what was going on… Joan and I went to the funeral in New Zealand.”
Graham Hill looms large in Frank Matich’s story right back to their earliest on-track battles.
“Everybody used to relax more for Longford [Tasmania] than they did any other place,” Matich smiles. “They always had a big dinner and the Premier came to it. And very often it would descend into chaos – bread-rolls being thrown around.
“Graham made a very famous speech there, in which he was at his humorous best. That guy was a phenomenal commentator – he’d tell jokes like you wouldn’t believe… So formal, and a beautiful command of the language.”
Matich walked the tightrope with Hill from the great slashing curves of Warwick Farm to the tree-lined 160mph straights of Longford.
“Graham would move the steering wheel just one-eighth of an inch. I can remember [his] mechanics being upset that he wanted to move the seat a quarter of an inch. Graham was very good in getting the car comfortable for him.
“But he drove the car, wringing its bloody neck always. He extracted everything in terms of driving, but he didn’t necessarily get the car sorted out well.
“There were times that I would not really want to pass Graham Hill, because I was enjoying the antics, keeping himself on the road… And Graham never gave up. Sometimes I could have got through, but I was enjoying watching! But I would think that was because I’d been able to set my car up better.
“Graham was a bit rough and ready. His driving style didn’t match up with his engineering ability. Same with the character – he wasn’t really that serious about life. Life was a big joke. He was constantly pulling pranks. Being younger, I was never sure if he was having me on or dead-serious.”
Imagine being able to say that you taught Jackie Stewart how to drive. Or to claypigeon shoot. Matich can probably top both: he showed JYS how to open a bank account. It was late 1964 and Stewart was in Australia to share a Jaguar 3.8 with Matich in the inaugural Sandown Six-Hour.
In the event, Stewart was swapped to a Lotus-Cortina (neither would figure in the results). Matich recalls the appearance fee was a heady 10,000 Australian pounds. “When we came back to Sydney he stayed with me, and the starting money went into a bank account
we set up for him.
“Four or five years ago, we had lunch together – he was on his way to the Melbourne GP – and that set off two weeks of witch-hunts to try and ind this lost bank account… He would have worked out the compound interest, all of that. He had the Royal Bank of Scotland here in Sydney chasing it, and he was constantly calling me. Nobody could ind anything.”
Ultimately, the widow of legendary Tasman Series promoter Geoff Sykes revealed that the sum had, at some point, been included with other appearance payments to Stewart.
“It’s an art form with him,” Matich laughs. “He’s proud of it. But the same guy, if you needed help, he’d be right there.”
“Denny Hulme was an absolute natural, but he got suppressed a lot by Jack [Brabham],” Matich says. “Jack treated Denny pretty shitty, which is why he lost him to McLaren. Denny won the championship and it’s almost that Jack resented him for it.”
Matich got off to an awkward start with Hulme. While Matich was visiting the British Grand Prix in 1963 with McLaren, Brabham offered him Hulme’s drive for the following year. Hulme, by the way, was standing right there.
“I was so embarrassed. But thank God, the way Jack did it, it didn’t give rise to the idea that I’d been talking to Jack about it. Denny and I talked about it later, I apologised – and he understood.
“Denny wasn’t a Clark, but he was in front of Graham Hill, for example, and Surtees. Denny was very good, and much quicker than Bruce. And he didn’t have many accidents or incidents, he wasn’t over-trying.
“Denny didn’t look for trouble. He and Greeta had a super-modern home, a glass citadel, full of the most modern tricks. Denny was just so proud in himself, of where he was. He was comfortable.”
In 1960 Matich was seeking to step up from his Jaguar D-Type. Ecurie Ecosse’s David Murray suggested he speak with Colin Chapman about a Lotus 15, and one of the new 2.5-litre 220bhp Climax engines.
“Along came the Lotus and it was a race car. But fragile! The irst bit of bungee cord I ever saw in my life was what held the Lotus 15’s tanks in. And the irst bit of duct tape I ever saw was there as well.”
Matich would update to a Lotus 19 for 1962. Chapman steered him to UDT Laystall Racing, whose car Stirling Moss had been running in the US. The car would irst go back to Hethel for refurbishment…
“The guys in the factory, they flogged everything! They put in a cracked crankshaft. I got an old, repaired chassis, which the body didn’t it properly. It was a piece of shit.” When Moss arrived for the 100 Mile at Warwick Farm (incidentally, the last race win of his career), Matich showed him the car. “He said, ‘This is not the car I drove.’ And he went straight in – ‘Give him his money back.’ He’s a lovely person, Mossy.”
Matich recalls that Chapman offered him a drive – “an open offer, it could have been in anything” – when the two met at the New Zealand GP in early 1964. Even then, he says,
he wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“It was something that people joked about, but not everybody wanted to drive a Lotus car. The designs were always workable, but the team was always stretched to buggery to meet the schedules… Most of the accidents that did occur were related to that.”
Williams came to Australia for the 1968-69 Tasman Series with a Brabham BT24 and new charge Piers Courage. Matich was focusing on his dominant SR4 sports car, in the support races to the Tasman Series.
“Mate, he was the real manipulator,” Matich grins. “He financed his trips by buying and selling components. Rod-ends, fuel pumps – anything that was the latest… He’d always sell the car, to start with, but he’d have all this other stuff in boxes. And he would buy things from us to sell back in Europe.
“I bumped into him once at LA airport [circa 1970]. He was trotting, bags over his shoulder, and he called back to me, ‘Oh, I wanted to see you – but I owe this bastard some money!’ He was trying to get through Immigration and out of reach. He always had something going – but, jeez, how successful did he become?”
In 1968, Matich was invited to join the Grand Prix Drivers Association, then still in only its eighth year. He remained a member for 1970-71. “I got a phone call from Bruce [McLaren]: ‘Frank, the boys would like you to be a member of the GPDA.’ They were all talking about safety at that time, when Jackie Stewart was really coming to prominence.
“I went over in ’68 and attended a meeting at Zandvoort. I didn’t get to many meetings, but they kept me informed. I worked a lot through Bruce or Jo Bonnier, we’d kick the can with a bit of money to fund things we were doing.
“One of the reasons the GPDA came into being was that the fellas themselves wanted to have an instrument that would pull some of the dangerous [drivers] into line… An instrument they would listen to when they got [to F1]. Clay Regazzoni was one. And Rindt – he could have gone down that road. But they trained him, brought him into line.”
Standing on the shoulders of giants
“I’ve never worried about racing with people who are the best. What I got out of motor racing, in too short an experience, was the gift of competing at a level that you could not possibly think about doing, had it not been with those guys. Hill, Clark in particular, Brabham to a different degree, Bruce, Surtees, these people…
“What comes into my mind is my respect and rating for them, to drive against them, to drive with them. And it wouldn’t have mattered if it was in a race car, sky-diving or whatever – to do something competitive among people of that level of skill brought out your own skill.
“I’m not too sure I appreciated that at the time. But I’ve been very fortunate to have had that experience.”