In celebration of Ivor Bueb


Who was the most successful driver of arguably the greatest British sports racing car? The car is easy to identify if you base the claim on the fact that among all British racing cars of the last 92 years it alone won the world’s greatest race three times. The race is Le Mans, the car Jaguar’s D-type.

The driver is more difficult to name. Mike Hawthorn springs to mind as the best-known works Jaguar driver of the era and as he won both the ill-fated Le Mans of 1955 and the Sebring 12 hours in the same year his claim is strong. But what about Ron Flockhart? He won Le Mans twice in D-types, driving privately entered Ecurie Ecosse cars in both 1956 and 1957.

In fact both are trumped by none other than Ivor Leon Bueb, who not only shared Hawthorn’s win in ’55 and Flockhart’s in ’57, but also won the Reims 12 Hours in 1956, sharing with Duncan Hamilton. What’s more his Lister Jaguar was leading the Sebring 12 hours at half distance in 1959 when his co-driver was disqualified for hitching a lift to the pits to get some more fuel. That driver was Stirling Moss. Yet when we consider British sports car drivers, I don’t think many of us give Bueb a passing thought.

We should. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not saying that ‘Ivor the Driver’ was one of the finest or that his talent compared for a moment to that of a true great like Hawthorn let alone Stirling. Indeed were you to suggest that his sports car successes were derived at least in part from some fairly optimal pairings of car and co-driver you would probably be being more unkind than unjust. But I do think his contribution is rarely recognised and unfairly so, especially when you consider the circumstances in which he raced, never more testing than at Le Mans in 1955, a race remembered today for other, tragic reasons.

From the archive: Denis Jenkinson reports on the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours

Bueb was a motor-trader by profession and had started racing seriously only in 1953, by then already in his 30s. But it wasn’t big, brutish sports cars he raced, but tiny 500cc Formula 3 cars. In 1954 he did well enough to earn a works factory drive for Cooper the following year, and alongside team-mate Jim Russell, they cleaned up, Bueb losing the British Championship by a single point to Russell. His performance was good enough to get him noticed by Jaguar who asked him to test at Silverstone and then offered him a seat at Le Mans.

Consider the pressure. Bueb had never raced a quick sports car, let alone at a long and very dangerous track he’d never see before, driving a works car from the team expected to win. So far as I can ascertain, he’d never raced at night either. And not only was his team-mate already a Grand Prix winner and works Ferrari Formula 1 racing driver, he didn’t want Bueb in the car. Hawthorn’s choice was his protégé Don Beauman.

As it happens Hawthorn probably had cause to be careful what he wished for as Beauman duly dumped the D-type he ended up sharing with Norman Dewis inextricably in the sand at Arnage. And just to ratchet up the pressure just a little more, the works Jaguars were faced by a team of factory Mercedes-Benz SLRs with their weird airbrakes and, with Stirling and Fangio sharing a car, probably the greatest one-car driver line up in the history of motor racing. Finally, because Hawthorn hogged all the daylight running in practice, Ivor had to learn the circuit in the dark.

But he never put a foot wrong. While Hawthorn took the headlines, duking it out with Fangio in the early part of the race, Bueb got his head down and did the job, “the second driver standing up extremely well to his first important race with a fast car” as Denis Jenkinson put it in his race report. As for his professionalism in the face of motor racing’s worst disaster, I think Hawthorn’s words do the job very well: “All this time Ivor was out on the course doing a wonderful job hanging onto the Mercedes… He had been through an ordeal calculated to shatter the nerve of most people. As he stood there on the pit counter, waiting to take over from me and keyed up at the prospect of taking over the lead in his first Le Mans race – and, indeed, his first big road race in a fast car – he saw the accident and all that happened in the interminable five minutes while I was sent off to do another lap. Yet he was driving beautifully, holding second place and keeping the Mercedes lead down to reasonable proportions so that we could counter-attack later.”

The same doughty approach characterised his drive to victory at Reims the following year, at Le Mans again the year after and indeed in the Lister at Sebring in 1959. Sadly that was also the year Ivor crashed the British Racing Partnership’s Cooper-Borgward F2 car at Clermont-Ferrand, was thrown clear but suffered injuries to which he finally succumbed a week later. On hearing the news and that of the death of Jean Behra on the very same day, Brian Lister shut down his team – which he’d already planned – with immediate effect.

Bueb was rarely as quick as his more illustrious team-mates, but that should not diminish his reputation. Back in the 1950s the best long-distance race drivers were rarely the fastest – despite all trying, Hawthorn was the only F1 champion of the decade to win Le Mans – but those who could combine speed with consistency. That was Ivor Bueb, the man who came from next to nowhere, whose light shone for just a few short seasons, and then was gone.

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