Alan Henry: A Personal Appreciation


Alan Henry is gone. In motorsport journalistic terms that’s like saying the sky has gone, the wind has gone or the ground has gone: it just doesn’t make sense. For over four decades his prodigious and authoritative output was the chugging back beat thumping along that the rest of us would accompany. But it was as a man that I will most fondly recall him. He had a wonderful sense of mischief, got up to all sorts of stuff you’d never have had him down for and possessed a sometimes surreal sense of humour. He was so warm a personality, with his big domineering frame he could only have had a similarly big voice but the words always came with that endearing twinkly-eyed smile. He liked a glass of red – sitting down for dinner with him thus lightly lubricated was always a treat to savour. He got naughtier and nicer all at the same time, scurrilous rumours about anyone and everyone – and he knew everyone – in the paddock.

Well not quite everyone. At one of those dinners he was explaining how he had just been down to Minardi to interview ‘that Hungarian chap [Zsolt Baumgartner] for something someone’s asked me to do.’ Walking into the motorhome and seeing the driver already there, AH sat opposite him and began asking his list of questions. The driver patiently answered the first few but then when Alan got a bit more specific Gianmaria Bruni smiled, stood up and said: “I think you need to talk to my team-mate. I’ll just go and get him for you!” Alan was also hilariously self-deprecating.

His knowledge of the minutiae of racing was always a particular amusement and if you had got to know your facts from reading him and his friend Nigel Roebuck over the years, you could engage him in some fantastically banal discussions.

“So Alan. What race was it that McLaren removed the rising rate suspension on the M19C?”

“Ah, well I suspect it was when Donohue tried it and told them it was no bloody good. But I cannot be certain. This is important stuff. We need to get this sorted out – urgently. I’ll give you a call Monday.”

Once, from a long way back in a queue in some foreign airport I could see AH waiting in line up near the front. He hadn’t seen me. I called out to him, “What was the G in [the 1972 March F1 car] 721G for?” Still looking straight ahead, surrounded by strangers, he just boomed: “Guthrie” [the name of one of the stockbroker backers of Mike Beuttler who first raced the car as a privateer].

Or I would get an e-mail marked ‘URGENT’, open it up and it would read: ‘Who was better: Yves Giraud-Cabantous or Nani Galli? This needs sorting out.’

But he’d be just as at home having a power lunch with his old Formula 2 pal Ron Dennis or Max Mosley and because his initial F1 career came at a time in the early ‘70s when the sport was so much smaller and more intimate he was able to mingle socially with the drivers and team owners in those bohemian times. He used to tell a story of how he was woken in his motel room one night in America by James Hunt, merry and with a female friend: “Come on Hens, you need to surrender your bed, I have a guest.” Alan dutifully obliged – “I just went next door and slept on Brett Lunger’s sofa.” But he did vow never again to get too close to drivers after his two close friends Tom Pryce and Ronnie Peterson were killed in ’77 and ’78 respectively.

Alan was a brilliant raconteur. He told a story of how he and a group of friends once lost a Ford press car in America, as when they came round from their hangovers the following morning they couldn’t recall where they had parked it. It remained lost.

From the Archive: Jackie Stewart talks to Alan Henry (June 2006).

Separated by a couple of decades, we had each begun our journalistic careers at Motoring News’ Bonhill Street offices presided over by the surreally bonkers Mr Tee. We would often converse to each other in the character of the old man, conversations that frequently ended with the refrain of “Get out!” which is how Wesley Tee used to let you know that a conversation was over by suggesting you leave his office – now. In his friendly, informal way Alan was welcoming and encouraging in my early years and we particularly bonded over our glee at Wesley’s eccentric behaviour.

Before turning up at the MN offices, Alan had been a bank clerk and he often pondered on the momentous change in his life’s direction he’d made as a young man in the late ‘60s. “I sometimes think I must just be in a daydream while counting out some notes and that I’ll return to the bank when I blink my eyes.” He once asked what I was doing during his first year at MN in 1970. I told him I was applying a big STP sticker to the windshield of my Raleigh Chopper so I could pretend I was Chris Amon in my March 701. “Blimey,” he replied. “I was in the Enna paddock with Siffert and Ickx wondering how the hell that had happened.”

He and his closest journalistic buddies Nigel Roebuck and Maurice Hamilton made a for a great sit-com-like dynamic at times. Once, hard at work in a press room post-race, before the days of spell check, AH’s voice boomed across a desk to Nigel: “How do public schoolboys spell necessary?” The answer fired back immediately: “Correctly, old boy.” Alan used to love to play the garish extrovert lout to Nigel’s cultured decorum and took pleasure in making him squirm on occasion.

He contracted Parkinsons some years ago and we saw him less often. But still we maintained e-mail contact and those conversations continued until just over a year ago, still surreal, still funny, still Alan. The whimsical nature of their content had nothing to do with his illness; he’d always been able to go off to this fanciful place – and in some of them are seen the astonishing depth of his historical knowledge. He said he thought we could make a book of these conversations called Missives From The Other Side.

“It’s time to re-assess Jacky Ickx,” he declared in one such. Yes, I’d been putting it off I replied. Where did he want to start? “I’m beginning to think he may even have been better than Jackie Stewart. What do you think?” I said I thought he should keep such thoughts away from Jackie Stewart. “Yes, probably right. Now, was Hannelore Werner as good as Jenny Birrell.”

Or: “I was in the corner shop the other day and there was a woman in the queue who wanted to know if Guy Ligier was better than Jack Lewis. She also said she’d formed the impression that Jean-Pierre Jarier showed more potential than John Love even though she conceded Love was probably the best Surtees F1 racer of all time.  Or perhaps I misheard what she was saying. Actually, I think she might be barking mad. The best Surtees driver was Micycle the Bicycle,” [Hailwood].

Or: “Was Max Stewart any good? Certainly not as good as Frank Matich. I think Frank would have done even better in the Mildren Waggot than Max Stewart did – because he was Frank Matich. But was Max Wilson as good as Max Stewart? Just to be clear, we are talking about the Max Wilson who won the Hagley 100 in a Brabham BT8.”

I’ll miss him.

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