Some words of my career up to 1974
I left school in 1962 and started an apprenticeship with Bob Gerard Cars in Leicester. My Father was the technical representative for the Renault Car Company and had been involved in rallying with Daimler some years earlier. He knew many people in motor sport and through him I got a job in the service department. This was my first contact with a sport that was to dominate most of my working life.
Bob Gerard, or Mr Bob as we all knew him, had been a famous racing driver after the war mainly driving Rileys and E R As. After giving up driving in the 60’s he concentrated on running Coopers, Brabham and Surtees in F1 and F2. His long time friend and race mechanic Reg Turner ran the service department where we serviced Renault, BMC, Ford Bristol and just about everything else. Reg had a somewhat autocratic approach that filled my early working years with terror. Although I did not appreciate it at the time he was giving me the knowledge, discipline and attention to detail needed to pursue a career in motor sport.
We used to supply a breakdown truck to the local stock car /speedway stadium, Mallory Park, and Silverstone. It was an old Dodge truck and was manned on a volunteer basis. I put my name down at every opportunity and as no one else seemed to be too interested I had the job to myself. It was great fun even though Silverstone used an old double decker bus parked in the centre of the circuit as the control and distribution centre for all the emergency vehicles. This could be a very inhospitable place on a cold wet February morning.
In 1967 I met Roger Williamson, another Leicester lad who had been very successfully racing Go-carts. We got on very well and soon became good friends. Roger was having a 850 mini race car built at Langrops, a local turning company, and he invited me to help him at weekends. We spent all our spare time working and travelling to club events around the country, sleeping in a tent or in the back of the truck, it was all great fun. Roger would win everything he was so quick.
I remember going to the 2 hour race at Snetterton when the old truck we had broke down on the way. As it was getting late and dark Roger suggested we towed it the rest of the way so we unloaded the mini and piled all the tools, spare wheels, oil cans and jerry cans full of fuel into it/ I jumped into the mini and Roger drove the Zodiac that he had gone back to his Father’s garage to collect. Roger only had one speed, flat out, and at one stage we were doing over 100 mph in the dark and with no lights on the mini I was trying to keep it on the road whilest fighting off all the pots and pans flying around inside it. When we got to the track Roger slept in the back of the Zodiac and I put the tent up, but even after all that he finished 5th overall which was a fantastic result.
In 1968 Roger and I went to Zolder in Belgium. We had agreed to take a Lotus Cortina and look after it for the entrant Willy Kay, Willie Green was to drive the car. We set off with the car and trailer stopping frequently to repair punctures. When we arrived in Zolder we found the saloon car race was supporting the European F2 race and this was a turning point for both of us. All those beautiful F2 cars along with our heroes. I remember Roger and I standing on the footbridge watching the cars pass underneath us, we were just like a couple of kids in a sweet shop. After the race we decided to have a drink in the hotel in front of the pits called not surprisingly The Pits Hotel. On entering the bar we were dumfounded, there having a drink were all our heroes Rindt, Ickx, Stewart, Brabham the list went on and on. The only low point of the weekend was the absence of Team Lotus, Jim Clark had been killed at Hockenheime a few weeks earlier in his F2 Lotus 48.
I had decided by then that I wanted to be a full time professional race mechanic and, spurred on by my experience at Zolder, I started to write to every race team I could think of. Many did not reply but one or two did. The weekend at Zolder had given me a real buzz and from then on all my efforts were put into getting into the sport. First stop Lotus Components, they built all the Lotus production cars, Formula Ford, F3, F2 and 7’s. Derek Wild interviewed me and I did not get the job, but Derek and I became firm friends a few years later when I went to work at GRD. The next few months were spent chasing up and down the country trying it get a job with a race team on a full time basis, the problem was that only the top teams employed people full time.
In 1970 luck came my way when March set up in Bicester and were looking for people to build their production cars I managed to get an interview and went down to see Graham Coaker who gave me a job on the spot. March had a real buzz about it, they built everything F1, F2, F3, Formula Ford, Formula Atlantic and Can Am and most of the staff were like me, lots of enthusiasm and keen to learn. Bill Stone ran the production shop, he was from New Zealand and really knew his stuff. I was building F3, FA and FF cars and within a few weeks of starting a position became available on the F2 team. I was offered the job and after much deliberation, about ten seconds, I took it. The March F2 team was run by Malcolm Guthrie Racing and it ran two 702 cars, one for Malcolm and one for Ronnie Peterson. Malcolm was the son of Sir Giles Guthrie, Chairman of BOAC, and he had been driving sports cars previously. Malcolm was a larger than life character and he took me under his wing and really looked after me. Ronnie Peterson was very quick but unfortunately the March was not and he frequently bent the car.
I remember at the Nuerburgring he came walking back after one such excursion completely unfazed, his excuse was I thought it was a fast right hander but unfortunately it was a slow left hander. When his mechanic, Keith Leighton, asked how the car was Ronnie’s reply was oh not too bad. When we got the car back it was completely destroyed with all four wheels missing, and from then on oh not too bad became the standard reply.
Ronnie could make even a March 702 quick and at Rouen he would have won if he had not spun on the cobbles at the hairpin with just a couple of laps to go, leaving him with a sixth place. I had now picked up a nickname, Wingnut, and the name stuck. I do not know why as I have not got big ears so I think it must have been a dodgy haircut, still everyone had to have a nickname so Wingnut was mine. So there I was within two years of the Zolder experience working in F2, how lucky can you get. Little did I know at the time how much hard work and how many long hours I was going to have to put in but at the age of 23 and with no ties who cares, I had the best job in the world.
In the late 60s and early 70s F2 was really big and all the top drivers were in it. There were a lot of races in Europe so the transporters tended to stay out for long periods and the cars were prepared at the next circuit. As chief gofor one of my jobs was to get the engines back to Brian Harts in England for rebuild and back out again for the next race. This was made more difficult by the fact that my only experience of the Continent and foreign people was a week’s holiday a few years previously in Spain with Roger Williamson travelling in his old Comer Cob van, but at least I managed to find the Nuerburgring and not Nuremberg a couple of hundred of miles further south, as one of my counterparts did.
The racing in those days was fantastic, the cars were so nimble and quick and my lasting impression of that first year had to be the sight of a pack of F2 cars slipstreaming past the pits at Rouen and disappearing down the flat sweeping downhill section, this was really ‘big balls stuff’. When the season finished I went back into the production shop to build the 1971 cars. These were a big improvement on the 1970 cars, for a start they used a monocoque chassis, except for the Formula Ford cars that retained the space frame chassis. The 712 F2 car and the 713 F3 cars were to become real classics and are still very popular in historic racing today. The monocoque survived for several seasons and even made it into F1 in 1972 when the 721X failed to impress.
The winter testing went well and people were buying cars. Roger Williamson asked me whether the 713 was worth buying, which it was, and the next thing that happened was Robin Herds asked me who Roger Williamson was and told me that he wanted me to build his car. That car now lives in the Donington Collection. The new season started with no less than seven F2 cars being run from the factory and I looked after one of the three works cars, Mike Beuttler was my driver. Keith Leighton looked after Ronnie Peterson’s car and Nigel Stroud looked after Nicki Lauder’s car. There was a second team under the French Shell Arnold banner, Pat Palmer was running Jean Pierre Jaussaud car and Bruce Bailis was working for Jean Pierre Jarier. John Canon was a lone entrant also run from the factory. The seventh car was a spare car and was rented out on a pay-to-drive basis. I normally looked after this car when Beuttler was driving in F1 and as if that was not enough we all shared the same workshop as the F1 team, it got a little cramped sometimes.
The season did not start well, having worked two nights and three days non stop to get the cars finished, Ronnie crashed heavily at Malory Park slightly injuring a small boy standing on the esses. As the season progressed reliability on my car became a problem as the engines kept letting us down. Ronnie also had problems but by mid season they were sorted out and he went on to win the championship. Mike’s only reward was a win in the last race in the championship at Vallelunga (Rome). The 712 was a great car and was continually developed throughout the year. In those days if you had an idea you just put it on the car and tried it out. I remember the rear wing started life mounted on top of the gear box . Keith Leighton had the idea of mounting it further back behind the gear box in cleaner air, so after a brief discussion with Robin Heard the Chief Designer and a bit of scribbling on the back of a fag packet, he sat the wing on a dustbin positioned behind the car until looked about right, made up some struts and off we went. It worked so well everyone copied it, even the F1 team.
We also ran on very fast slipstreaming circuits and we often ran with no wings which gave us problems getting a good balance. Keith also came up with the idea of taking the front wings and putting them on the rear. It looked really strange but it gave us the chance to get a good balance which we used to great effect at Rouen when the three works cars led by Ronnie opened up a massive lead on the first lap. Unfortunately my man Beuttler didn’t come round again, another blown engine. At Pau later that year we took a set of slicks we had borrowed from the |F1 team to put on Ronnie’s car. We hid them in the back of the truck but they were soon spotted and we had to revert to the Firestone YB11 treaded tyres that everyone else had. It was not until Monza that Firestone officially supplied slicks into F2. Also at Pau we ran Jean Pierre Beltoise in the spare car and I remember him turning up for practice with a huge entourage, there were people everywhere as he was such a big hero in France. It took a long time to get him comfortable in the car as he had limited use of his left arm due to a previous accident so most of his driving was with his right arm. We were starting to think, hello looks like we have got a right superstar here, until he got on to the track. He was fantastic, he just went straight out and put the car at the front, did not want to change a thing and led for most of the race until two laps from the end when the points in the distributor broke and he did not finish. He was gutted, he so wanted the win at Pau and we really felt for him, what a great guy. The season finished with the South American Torneio series comprising of 4 races in Brazil and Argentina. We finished the last race in Cordoba Argentina and because it got so hot during the day we had to run the race first thing in the morning, the crowds had been there all night they were so enthusiastic.
At the end of 1971 I left March to join the recently set up GRD, Group Racing Developments, to look after their two F2 Cars. The company had been set up by Mike Warner from the now defunct Lotus Components. He had taken Derek Wild and ex Lotus F1 chief mechanic Gordon Huckell with him and the cars were designed by Joe Marquat. The F3 and the F2 were very similar in design but the F3 car had better results in the hands of my old friend Roger Williamson, Tony Brise and Andy Sutcliffe. Roger had once again asked me for a recommendation and at the time I thought the GRD to be a better car than the March. I was right, it was the car to beat that year although the March did come good towards the end of the year. The F2 car did not achieve the same success as the F3. Roger ran a couple of times in a Wheatcroft run car with limited success.
The works cars were run for Ikuzawa and the second ran on a pay-to-drive basis. The FIA changed the engine rules in 1972 from the 1600 cc engine to a 2000 cc format which proved unpopular to start with as many liked the compact and sweet sounding Ford FVA that had been the engine of choice since 1968. The new BDA proved unreliable as Ikuzawa found to his cost. He was running the BDA Amon engine designed by the ex BRM engine designer Aubrey Woods. This unit was a disaster to begin with but later on in the year after it was sorted out it gave lots of power due to its unusual long stroke. I think Chris Amon stopped engine building at the end of the year.
The season did not go well for F2 GRD’s with the notable exception of Reine Wisell putting the spare car on the front row at Pau. Another notable event was the Rothmans 50,000 race at Brands Hatch, and not because of the racing. Alan Jones had hired the spare car to run in this somewhat unusual event. The race was for all-comers F1, F2, F 5000, etc. It was a long race so we had to refuel. We broke the gear linkage in the race so I took it off ran back through the tunnel to the paddock welded it up put it back on and we still finished just outside the top ten. The biggest result of the weekend was the sponsorship deal. Alan was sponsored by an oil additive company called Multiglide and they used the dancers Pans People to promote theit product. The downside of that was that they spent the whole weekend hanging around in our pit and for some strange reason we seemed to be the most popular team in the paddock that weekend.
In 1973 I went to work at Rondel Racing based in the Old Forge, Old Windsor and owned by Ron Dennis and Neil Trundle. They had been in business for 2 years and were by far the most professional team in F2 so I was looking forward to looking after one of their new motel M1’s for Bob Wollek. The car had been designed by a very clever designer from the aerospace industry by the name of Ray Jessop. Ray was an excellent aerodynamicist and put some very clever ideas on the car and we certainly needed them as the engine of choice that year was the BMW unit which was giving a lot more power than the Ford units that we were running. The season started well with a one, two, at Thruxton, but from then on we struggled to stay with the March of Jean Pierre Jarier.
The Norisring gave us our last big success finishing first, second, third and fifth. Part way through the season we moved to a new factory in Feltham, Middlesex. Ron’s extravagant meticulous attention to detail started to show through and the factory really looked the business. Unfortunately the team ran out of money due to our main sponsor Motel withdrawing from motor sport leaving Ron and Neil with no option but to call it a day.
Ron went on to bigger and better things and I still see Neil as he runs the gearbox shop at Ron’s latest creation, the McLaren Technology Centre, a magnificent Norman Foster building near Woking i Surrey which has to be seen to be believed. It seems a long long way from the Old Forge in Old Windsor.
The big low point of this season was the death of Roger Williamson. Roger had gone on to fulfil his dream and became an F1 driver thanks to his mentor Tom Wheatcroft, but unfortunately just as he was reaching his full potential he was tragically killed in a needless accident on the 29th July1973 at the Dutch Grand Prix. I was attending a race at Mantorp Park in Sweden when after the race Ian Philips, who was also a friend of Roger, came over to tell me the bad news. He had known about the tragedy before the race but felt it better to wait untill after the race had finished before telling me. Ron and Neil were very understanding and offered to let me come home for the funeral, but I decided against it. Roger was gone and I wanted to remember him how he was. He was a true friend as he was to all who had the pleasure of knowing him. It was truly one of the worst days of my life.
A strange thing happened at the next race at Karlskoga, Sweden. As my car went out for the last practise it went up in flames on the back straight. Bob got out OK but he had to run to the marshall’s post to get a fire extinguisher and put the fire out himself. I found the whole thing very spooky and upsetting as it had many similarities to Rogers’s crash the week before.
At the end of 1973 Rondel closed its doors and we all found ourselves looking for jobs. Just as I was getting settled in for the winter the phone rang, it was a chap whose name escapes me at the moment but he wanted someone to look after a couple of Chevron B23 FVC’s sports cars that they were running at Monjuich Park in Spain. They had had a bad season with reliability and needed a good finish. The cars were run out of the UK by Hire Racing International but were also run under the Escuderia Monjuich flag. The Spanish José Juncadella and Jorge de Bagration, a Prince from Georgia living in Spain, were to drive the cars. The main sponsor was the Spanish oil company Tergal so I guess it must have been quite an important race for them.
Pat Kay, who had been working on Henri Pescarolo’s car at Rondel, was also looking for some work so I asked him to come along to give me a hand. On arrival at the circuit we set about getting the cars ready. They were not in good shape, certainly not what we were use to with the immaculate Rondels, but we had what we had so we just got on with it. Pat took the Prince’s car and I had Juncadella’s. We had to strip the cars right down, check everything and rebuild them again overnight. The hard work paid off with a 4th place for the Prince and 5th for Juncadella, it was a great result. The drivers were so pleased we got a big bonus, so not only did we have enough money to fly home, avoiding another trip in their wreck of a transporter, we also had enough to last the winter out in some style.
I started the 1974 season looking after the 742 BMW for the Japanese driver Masami Kuwashima but I felt F2 was starting to lose its attraction. The graded F1 drivers were no longer coming to the races and the cars were starting to get fatter and uglier, but maybe it was just time to move on and F1 was starting to beckon, but I will cover that in part two.