Extract – Can-Am 50th book

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“I am not driving the car with that…”

In an extract from a new Can-Am book, we reveal how junior Lola designer Patrick Head assisted with a remarkable three-day turnaround to pacify Jackie Stewart

He could hear voices from behind closed office doors. Loud ones. It was not a good sign. 

It’s early June 1971. The first Can-Am, at Mosport, is less than two weeks away. Inside Eric Broadley’s office at Lola Cars International Ltd in Huntingdon are three men: company founder Eric Broadley, 42, designer Bob Marston, 31, and the ‘Mod Scot’, Jackie Stewart, 31, widely considered the best driver in the world. Broadley and Stewart had agreed months earlier that they would take on the might of McLaren with a groundbreaking new Lola from Marston’s pen, designated T260. But now, the 24-year-old junior designer on the other side of those closed doors, Patrick Head, who had joined Lola only months earlier with a mechanical engineering degree from University College London, realises there are problems with that plan. Big ones.

Stewart had come to Lola for a routine fitting. Normally they’d like to have dispensed with this months earlier, but remember, Can-Am was no one’s primary job. The car was late and Stewart had a world championship to clinch that summer (his second of an ultimate three), along with broadcasting duties for ABC in America and helping Ford develop and market its production cars. He’d have to squeeze in Can-Am as best he could. 

In all, he criss-crossed the Atlantic 86 times that year. 

The first part of the fitting had gone according to plan. Jackie sat in the car. The pedals, seat and steering wheel were adjusted to his liking. He asked them to install the wooden gearshift knob he’d brought with him, identical to the ones in his Tyrrell Formula 1 car, and a pad for the steering wheel hub covered in the same wide-wale corduroy as his Greek fisherman’s hat, the one he’d seen John Lennon wear and decided to adopt as his signature. There now were ads for Jackie Stewart caps
in car magazines.

Stewart was upbeat. The T260 was unlike any sports car he’d ever seen. With its low, over-body wing and square shoulders, the L&M-sponsored bolide resembled nothing as much as an open cigarette box. Developed in part in the Specialised Mouldings wind tunnel, it was unprecedentedly square and blunt-nosed, with gauze-covered outlet holes in front of the windscreen to ‘equalise pressure’. Radiators were on either side of the driver’s shoulders – no more parboiled little piggies. And tiny front wheels! Just 13ins tall. Like Trevor Harris and Jim Hall before him, Broadley and Marston sought the lowest possible frontal area.

“We decided to get as much top speed as possible,” says Marston. “Therefore, we
were looking for a car that would be as slippery as possible.”

Their wind tunnel didn’t have a rolling road, but SM did have a young Cambridge graduate who’d specialised in thermo- and aerodynamics. Peter Wright, 25, had designed the aerofoil-shaped sidepods on the March 701 and later in the decade would join Team Lotus and help develop the first true ground-effect F1 car.

“He came up with ideas on how to generate downforce with a minimum of drag,” remembers Marston, “which of course is utopia if you can achieve it.”

It was at this point, Head remembers, that Stewart looked over the dash panel (there was no front bodywork on the car at the time), saw the brakes, and announced, “I am not driving the car with that.”

And that’s when Stewart, Broadley, and Marston retired to Broadley’s office. 

There are two kinds of brakes, inboard and outboard. Your daily transportation almost certainly is equipped with outboard brakes. Discs bolted to the hub within the inner circumference of the wheel, which presents a problem when you reduce wheel height. The smaller the wheels, the smaller the brakes. And nowhere is braking performance more important than on road-racing cars. 

But Broadley reckoned that if he located the T260 brake discs inboard, toward the centre of the car, he could keep them a proper size and still manage to lower the overall height of the nose. Instead of being small enough to fit inside the 13in wheels, they could be almost as large as the wheels themselves, in addition reducing the T260’s unsprung weight. Inboard brakes had been used for years on the rear axles of race cars, but using them on the front was new ground. Except that Colin Chapman’s championship-winning Lotus 72 had raced with them the previous summer.

And that’s what had sent Stewart over
the edge. 

His best friend in racing, Jochen Rindt, had been killed in one of Chapman’s 72s in September, the sport’s first and still only posthumous world champion. A failure of one of its inboard brake shafts was the leading suspect. Rindt’s team-mate John Miles had suffered an even more spectacular failure a few weeks earlier, albeit with less severe consequences. 

“Jochen had been killed at Monza in 1970 with a mechanical failure that seemed to come from that same problem,” Stewart explains, “and I decided that I would rather have a reliable car than a car that was going to break or induce an accident, which I could do without. 

“I just wasn’t ready to drive something that I thought had a downside risk that didn’t have to be there. My whole experience in life has been my awareness to remove unnecessary hazards.”

Thus it fell to Marston, Head and the other members of the Lola crew to complete a transformation in record time. It was, even for a race car factory, an enormous undertaking. New hubs. New brakes. New suspension. New wheels. New bodywork, even. What happened next will go down in the annals of racing history.

“Bob drew the new upright,” remembers Head. “Quite simple, but it was drawn in half a day. Thirty-six hours later, two aluminium castings to the new design were delivered. Six hours later, they came out of the machine shop. Two hours later, they were on the car. New bodywork was delivered from Specialised Mouldings and the car was transported to the USA, less than three days after the change had been initiated.”

Three days. A completely redesigned race car from the cockpit forward. Even at the end of a long career in motor racing that saw him become one of the most successful designers in F1 history as co-founder of and technical director of the Williams Formula 1 team, it remained one of the most remarkable things with which Head had been involved.

At Mosport, Stewart planted the freshly reconstituted T260 on pole by seven-tenths of a second over Denny and Peter. Oh, not that Peter. The other one, Revson. Over the winter, McLaren had decided to replace the jockey-sized Gethin in Can-Am with matinee-idol Revvie. Twenty-six cars in all would start the race, but for all intents and purposes, these were the only three cars that mattered. Next was Canadian John Cordts in an older McLaren M8C, more than two seconds behind.

Baulked by a sticking throttle, the Mod Scot polesitter watched Hulme lead the early laps. By lap 10, he’d come to terms with the issue and put the cigarette box in front. Nine laps later, the Lola rolled to a stop, its differential seized.

It would be the story of the season.

At Mont-Tremblant Denny put the McLaren on pole, but Jackie was right beside him. Again, Hulme shot into the lead. Again, Stewart found a way by, this time aided by the fact that Hulme was battling a stomach virus. By the end of the race Stewart had scored his first victory in the T260 and McLaren had been vanquished for only the second time since 1968.

On to Road Atlanta the circus went, and here Stewart was at his most masterful. This time the Lola was a full second from pole, but when the flag fell, Stewart seemed to find reserves of speed only he could. He passed Hulme on lap three, Revson on lap eight, but a deflating tyre forced him to pit on lap 13, dropping three laps down. The race was over, but not the spectacle. The normally silky-smooth Stewart began flinging the T260 around the track at impossible angles, scrabbling for every last speck of grip. 

Barry Smyth, doing PR for the rival McLaren team, still sounds awestruck: “He looked like a sprint car driver, he had it hung out so far. He just drove the wheels off that car.”

“Stewart got the absolute maximum out of that car,” says Marston. “I think at that time he was absolutely at his driving peak.”

Stewart ultimately set the fastest lap, 0.3sec faster than Hulme’s pole time. It also equalled precisely the time the Chaparral sucker car had set the previous year. In the end, it was the Lola that gave up, not the Scot. The T260 limped into the pits on lap 62, its right rear shock having tapped out.

By the next race it was clear the orange cars’ fifth straight title was safe. There were two of them against one Lola, and Stewart fell too far behind in the points race due to mechanical issues to make up the deficit. At the Glen, Stewart once again put the T260 on pole. Once again, the car let him down. 

Stewart had managed to lead all four races to date in a clearly inferior car but only finished one of them. “The car was extremely difficult to drive,” he recalls. “It had a very short wheelbase and the aerodynamics… I don’t think there was a wind tunnel being used, it was just a wet finger in the air, I think.” 

“The car was very short of downforce relative to the McLarens,” remembers Head. “Particularly at the front. The holes in the upper front surface were an attempt to reduce lift at the front, [but] I doubt that they were effective. The car had ostensibly been tested in Specialised’s wind tunnel, but the measuring of balance forces was terrible, and I doubt that anything was learned.

“Jackie managed to win a couple of races, but this would be due to him, not the car.”

At Mid-Ohio, Stewart would once again wrestle the T260 into the lead—and keep it there. But it was his wrangling over safety that made the headlines and very possibly saved Hulme’s life. As normal, Jackie began with a walk of the course. Mid-Ohio is one of the most picturesque tracks in North America, but Stewart was appalled.

“It was ludicrous. There was a left-hand bend after the start/finish line, and if you’d gone off on that high-speed corner in an 850-horsepower Can-Am car, there was one tree that was very obvious that you were going to go straight into,” he says.

The Scot marched into track owner Les Griebling’s office. 

“I said, ‘Look, this is ridiculous. You’ve got to cut the tree down.’ And they just didn’t want to do it. So I announced that I was going to withdraw from the race if they didn’t because, y’know, you can knock a tree down and you can replant other trees, but in a safe place.”

Griebling didn’t blink. Neither did Stewart. The night before the race, the tree was still there. The next morning, it was gone. Tree. Stump. Everything. Just a flat brown patch of dirt remained. 

Many disagreed with Stewart, including series commissioner Stirling Moss, who leaned into the conversation at one point and said, “Oh, Jackie. If you’re so concerned about the damn tree, just don’t hit it.”

But the critics were silenced within moments of the green flag.

“On the very first flying lap,” says Stewart, “Denny Hulme went off on that very corner” – a driveshaft had broken under full acceleration on the bumpy course – “and the trajectory of the car went exactly over the cut-down tree.”

By the final two Can-Am races, at Laguna Seca and Riverside, McLaren had again clinched the championship, this time with Peter Revson grabbing the laurels after five victories
to Denny’s three and Jackie’s two, including a sensational last-to-first sprint at Road America. (A schedule conflict with an Indycar race led Revson to miss qualifying and start from the back.) It was Revson’s first major championship.

At Laguna Seca, Stewart, Marston and Broadley continued to hunt for aerodynamic answers to the T260’s problem-child ways. And once again, there were safety issues to attend to – this time at the Corkscrew, one of the most famous sequences of turns in all of motor sport. 

“There’s trees in front of the barriers, for God’s sake,” says Stewart. “So I said, ‘Listen, we can’t have this’.”

As with Mid-Ohio, the trees came down. But not before Stewart was met with a withering attack from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Gordon Martin, who headlined his story, “Can auto racing afford Jackie Stewart?”

The real question was: could auto racing afford not to follow Stewart? 

Another season had come to a close. An American had won the Canadian-American Challenge for the first time, McLaren had won the championship for the fifth straight year and there were signs for and against the Orange Elephants continuing their reign for a sixth. Before the end of the season, Jackie Stewart announced that he had had enough of driving his heart out in an outclassed car. 

“I made a decision that I would not drive again in Can-Am next year unless I was going to drive for McLaren,” says the Scot. “And we signed a contract.”

Lola, too, would return but with a radical new car for new boy David Hobbs. Howden Ganley was looking forward to a full season with the promising BRM.

And now the 917s had been ruled out of the World Sportscar Championship, Porsche was going to turn its attention to Can-Am, led by Roger Penske and Mark Donohue and powered, it was rumoured, by a turbo flat-12 or a naturally aspirated 7-litre 16-cylinder engine.

It had every promise of being the most exciting season in Can-Am history.