From the archives with Doug Nye

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Son of the Ford GT40

It didn’t race for long, but the Mirage M1’s historic significance is greater than its results imply

The weekend after the Goodwood Festival, I spent some time with what I rate highly amongst interesting endurance racing cars – one of the three Gulf-Mirage M1s, the small-roofed, triangular-windscreened, big-engined GT40 variants. I remember being particularly taken – in period – by the way designer Len Bailey had replaced the hip-cooling intakes of the standard GT40 by flush NACA ducts sunk flush into the roof-buttress skin, a clean and lovely detail.

Of course those Mirage M1s marked the birth of the Gulf-JW Automotive story. On December 31, 1966, the staff of Ford Advanced Vehicles in Slough, England, had received severance payments from FoMoCo and on January 1, 1967, were promptly re-employed by JW Automotive Engineering, just formed by John Wyer with Ford’s blessing. The giant allowed Wyer to purchase all of FAV’s fixed assets at a give-away price with payment deferred until the end of the new firm’s first year. JWA was to provide parts and technical service to Ford GT40 owners for three years, with Ford paying JWA a subsidy of $150,000 plus a further budget of $100,000 per year to support private owners racing the cars at international level. JWA would also build Ford GT40s to FoMoCo’s order at a fixed profit of £1000 per car.

Meanwhile, back at the start of that year, John Wyer had first met Texan oil man Grady Davis – executive vice-president of Gulf Oil. He ordered a street-equipped GT40, though using a full race-spec engine and triple-plate racing clutch, hardly ideal for street use. It was delivered that April, and Davis began discussing with Wyer a better way for oil companies to promote their brand through racing. 

In September 1966 – at Gulf’s Pittsburgh HQ – the oil company’s potential backing for a JWA endurance-racing team was discussed. A few days later, Wyer was advised by Grady Davis that the American oilmen liked a proposal he had prepared, but didn’t believe he could do the job adequately for the money he’d asked – so they more or less doubled some of his figures and issued a contract…

On his way home, at JFK airport, New York, Wyer bumped into Bruce McLaren, whom he told about Gulf backing for the budding racing project… Bruce logged away Gulf as a potential ‘victim’ – and a great parallel Can-Am and Indy programme had been seeded. At Slough, John Horsman became effectively chief engineer, David Yorke team manager. Gulf wanted something distinctive for their first racing foray since the 1930s Indianapolis Gulf-Miller saga and JWA’s finest jointly felt that something more distinctive than a standard GT40 was appropriate. 

Harley Copp, Ford’s director of engineering, had meanwhile funded FAV development of an improved GT40 with lower frontal area, better aerodynamics, more refined suspension and lighter weight.  As John Wyer recalled, the development spend had been only £2500, which Copp agreed to invoice to JWA if they wanted to adopt the programme. A larger engine was to be used, initially five litres, ultimately 5.7.

Having taken on a new partner in Ford main dealer John Willment, and having rejected the name ‘Williwyer’ as a car title, Wyer eventually chose ‘Mirage’. Gulf Oil’s standard livery of dark blue and orange was felt too dull to show up distinctively on TV. But Gulf had just absorbed the Wilshire Oil Company in California, and its colours of powder blue and orange were adopted as being far more high-viz.

Four races only were initially envisaged – the Monza, Spa and Nürburgring 1000Kms leading up to the Le Mans 24 Hours. The first Gulf-Mirage M1 could not possibly be ready in time for the Daytona 24 Hours that February, but Grady Davis insisted the new team should make its debut there, using instead his personal GT40. Jacky Ickx co-drove it with Gulf appointee Dr Dick Thompson. The ‘semi-street’ GT40 finished sixth overall and leading Ford, despite losing nearly an hour since Thompson inadvertently switched on the street-spec heated rear screen with the lights and flattened the battery. Racing again in the Sebring 12 Hours, the car was shared by Thompson/Ed Lowther – Ickx having an F1 commitment – and the Gulf-JW GT40 retired after six hours with a blown head gasket.

The first Mirage M1 was tested at Snetterton on March 21, with a 4.7 engine, and two were ready for their racing debut at Monza, with 5-litre engines, as the Mirage M1/500s.  Drivers were Ickx/Alan Rees and Thompson/David Piper. The latter pair’s car finished ninth, while Ickx’s retired with a burned-out electrical amplifier, damaged by chassis arc-welding with the battery left connected between practice and the race.

Just six days later came the Spa 1000Kms. In torrential rain there, Ickx with a 5.7 engine plumed past the pits totally alone at the end of the opening lap, so far in the lead that he was out of sight towards Les Combes before the second-placed car was even heard approaching, by the Clubhouse behind the pits – a truly memorable moment.

David Piper’s second M1 crashed near Malmedy, and Wyer decided not to entrust the leading car to poor Rees when Jacky’s three-hour maximum stint was completed. Dick Thompson had decamped upon hearing that Piper had crashed and was only found and told at the last minute that he was to take over the leading car. Race secretary Leon Sven then called Wyer and Yorke to
race control to inform them that Jacky had exceeded his three-hour limit by a lap before stopping. Therefore he would be docked a lap, and in any case must – because of exceeding his stint-time limit – rest for a complete hour before driving again.

It was then that Wyer asserted his full gimlet-eyed team chief stature and glared at Sven: “If you penalise us I will bring the car in now and put Ickx back in, but if you do not I will let Thompson run for an hour.” To which Sven agreed, saying he would only penalise the Gulf car should someone protest.

Dick Thompson drove carefully for his hour, before Jacky returned to the fray, and won by more than a lap regardless. This Gulf-Mirage M1 triumph was the first of many world championship race wins for the JWA team.

During practice for the following Nürburgring 1000Kms, Denis Jenkinson and I were standing with photographer Geoff Goddard out at the right-hander at the foot of the climb to the Karussel corner. We watched numerous cars scream by, before hearing an engine note cut, a squeal of tyres and a tremendous thump out of sight back towards Kesselchen. Within minutes, we then heard the V8 throb of a GT40, or maybe the Mirage, only for it also to cut abruptly. We heard a squeal of tyres, and then a distinct metal-mashing karrrummppp! Oops, sounds as if one car has followed the first one in.  

We learned subsequently that Dick Thompson, on his first acquaintance with the Nordschleife, had been completely unable to break the 10-minute barrier. The Mirage’s Gurney-Weslake-headed engine was very top-endy, lacking both bottom-end torque and throttle response. In desperation, Thompson had over-stepped and landed on top of an
already crashed car in the ditch near the 13km stone.

His Gulf Mirage that day was chassis ‘M1002’, and the weekend after Goodwood I was with its Gelscoe-restored iteration, making a presentation at private motor museum owner Robert Lewis’s Farnham Hedgehogs charity ‘do’ at Churt in Surrey. They raised several thousand pounds for a wonderful local educational charity and the Gulf-Mirage and its sister display car that day – Jacky Ickx’s 1969 German GP-winning Brabham BT26A – were the stars of the show. They were loaned to us by Roald Goethe’s fabulous Rofgo Collection – under the wing of Duncan Hamilton Ltd – and just made that charity day.

The big Gulf-Mirage M1s of course enjoyed further success that 1967 season, Ickx/Paul Hawkins winning the Paris 1000Kms, and Jacky with new team recruit Brian Redman winning the Kyalami 9 Hours in South Africa, but the FIA’s 5-litre Group 4 sports car/3-litre Group 6 sports-prototype engine ceilings for 1968 killed the programme. Gulf-JW fell back onto the more standard Ford GT40 itself… and the rest is powder-blue-and-orange history. Kyalami was the first major race win of Brian Redman’s glittering career. And here I greatly recommend two fabulous motor racing books – John Wyer’s The Certain Sound and of course Brian’s recently published autobiography Daring Drivers; Deadly Tracks – which is a truly crap title for a truly, truly, great book.

Thou shalt not pass

Sparring F1 rivals create many headlines, but it’s nothing new

Thirty years ago this August two former Ferrari team-mates (who had not particularly got along) fell out again during practice for the inaugural Hungarian GP. Good heavens, even the new-fangled Hungaroring is now historic…

Patrick Tambay was driving his handsome, Haas (as in Carl Haas) Lola-Ford THL-2 V6 – remember them? René Arnoux was in the cockpit of the relatively unlovely Ligier-Renault JS27.  Patrick had been explaining to all who would listen that the Ford engine in the Lola was down on power compared to the opposition “But here it works because we have less wheelspin out of the slow turns”. Both Tambay and team-mate Alan Jones set top-10 times, but the former’s sixth place was most decidedly not assisted by his former Maranello team-mate Arnoux.

As Tambay told the story “He held me up and I’ve no doubts it was deliberate. Still it was a 31.7 not too bad….” – relative to Senna’s Lotus-Renault 98T and Piquet’s Williams-Honda FW11 on the front row with times in the 1min 29sec bracket. “Now I’m on my slowing-down lap,” Patrick added, “and I decide to keep right out of his way – he’s a crazy man, right? I give him plenty of room, and he gets alongside, slows and starts waving his arms. I reply – and he drives straight at me! Then he does it again. Just unbelievable”. He further declared that there was no point in discussing the matter; “The only thing he would understand is a punch in the mouth…”.

 When asked, René explained that Patrick had been blocking him. Oh my – nothing new then in Formula 1 drivers showing a distinct lack of fraternité.