Mechanics' tales: Royce Calder

Racing History

You don’t have to venture far along the pitlane to find a Kiwi. Ever since Bruce McLaren made his way from New Zealand to England in the early ‘60s it’s been the dream of many a young man to go racing in Europe.

Some dreamt of a World Championship, some of starting their own team, others brought their spanners and began knocking on doors. A great many found their way to West Surrey Racing (WSR), set up in 1981 by New Zealander Dick Bennetts who masterminded the careers of Ayrton Senna, Mika Häkkinen and Rubens Barrichello among many other talented and ambitious young racers.

Royce Calder made the 12,000-mile journey from Auckland to Sunbury-on-Thames and stayed for 14 years, working in both Formula 3 and touring cars. Royce, like most New Zealanders, will turn his hand to just about anything mechanical but his work as a fabricator turns up the best tales. When a racing car comes into contact with the scenery it is the fabricators who come running.

In 1996 WSR moved into the BTCC with Ford and in ’98 along came Nigel Mansell. The former world and Indycar champion found himself in a Ford Mondeo, replacing Kiwi Craig Baird for occasional races. Royce remembers well the arrival of ‘Our Nige’.

“The guy was quick, naturally quick, I mean he was a World Champion, but he was given a hard time by the other guys – it was like he had a big target on his car, they all tried to knock him off. I wish he could have done a full season but, I tell you, the work rate for us guys would have been unreal. There was such a buzz about him coming to drive the Mondeo, none of us realised that he would attract such huge crowds – we couldn’t walk from the garage to the truck there were so many fans, we had people holding them back.

“It was a good buzz though, he was a hero, but it was tough trying to work with so many people around. I’d throw a damaged bit of bodywork in the bin and the fans would fight over it, it was frightening. We weren’t ready for it. When he signed autographs outside the garage we were mobbed and all the other garages were like a ghost town. But it was OK, you could talk to him, and I think he was surprised how quickly we rebuilt the car after a shunt.

“He kept on being tagged and shoved into the wall, it was like he had a magnet and we were constantly putting new bits on the car. We were cutting off rear corners, doing new boot floors, and when the car came back the welder was ready waiting, new doors stacked up, the team manager telling us there’s 20 minutes left and we need to get the thing back on the ground and send him out again.

“As a fabricator, you’re yelling at the truckie to bring more bits – you’re always short of turnaround time – but you’re on a high when you get it all right. It was just crazy, I’d never seen anything like it. The work rate doubled, the cars always came back with damage, and Nigel would spend a lot of time hiding away in the motorhome, like Formula 1, and he certainly went through a huge amount of his jam sandwiches. After the bigger shunts I think he just wanted to go home.”

This was all a far cry from F3 where Royce worked with Rubens Barrichello, Mika Häkkinen, and Jordi Gené, who Royce believes was vastly underrated and could have gone a lot further given the right breaks.

“You can strip down an F3 car in a day but with a touring car it’s two or three. Working on an F3 car is 10 times easier – on the touring cars you’d take two things off to get to the one bit you wanted. Everything is buried or tucked in an arch, or under an engine box, tucked under a subframe. You need a lot of people while with the single seater you have just two mechanics running it.

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“At WSR Dick always insisted on the cars looking immaculate, he still does it that way, and we all took a lot of pride in building a good car. There’s always lows in racing but when you get a good bunch of guys together there are highs too, and coming from New Zealand it was just great to stand on the grid at the British Grand Prix with Mika and his F3 car. It felt like the big time. That was quite a buzz, and a year later he was in Formula 1. You felt you’d taken the opportunity, come to England, and played your part in his success. But hey, I reckon most of us came 12,000 miles just to see the All Blacks beat England in the rugby.”

These days Royce is working for Mike Earle at Onyx Performance Vehicles where they’re building Fords ahead of the new TC3 touring car series.

You can guess who the chief mechanic on his young son Bryn’s kart is as well.

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