Wednesday, 12 June 2019

The Elder Statesmen of Racing

The motor industry and motor sport industry has lost a significant number of elder statesmen in this past month, and with them a huge base of knowledge, entrepreneurialism and respect. In each case, these people were present at the beginning of an era, made a difference, and in the oft overused phrase, left a legacy of cars, businesses and stories that will be repeated down the years, whenever the words Ferrari, McLaren or Jaguar are brought up.

The person whose passing left the largest media footprint was, of course, Niki Lauda. At the time of his death he was a chairman of Mercedes F1, and had been world champion racing driver three times, although it is unlikely that it it is either of these things that he will be remembered for. He will be remembered for his stunning bravery and stoicism after a crash and fire left him near dead in Germany, 1976. It was a new thing for motor racing drivers to apply fitness and diet to their armoury, and Lauda was the butt of many jokes for his adherence to fitness guru Willi Dungle’s regime
though it was this fitness that ultimately saved his life. One could say that his own brand of pragmatism, brought him through the traumatic incident, thinning every decision and polemic to the bone, and uttering his infamous, succinctly staccato answers, which left everyone wondering why they hadn’t thought it through that way.
The fiery accident undoubtedly led to an operation to replace his lungs in late 2018, and he never totally recovered.

Lauda’s last world championship win was in a McLaren car, a marque which by then was one of the strongest and most successful in Formula One. Like everything, McLaren had to start somewhere, and two of the people who helped start McLaren on the road to success have now joined Bruce McLaren, the founder, in the firmament.

A few people have made the claim to be Bruce’s first employee, but Wally Willmott, an automotive electrician at the time, was definitely one of the first to join Bruce in building the Tasman Coopers that were, in effect, the first McLaren cars. New Zealander Wally Willmott was a friend as well as employee, and would have followed Bruce to the ends of the earth. He was a brilliant fabricator and engineer and his versatility made the McLaren staff count look considerably bulkier than it was. He retired back to NZ, where he will be sadly missed.

Bruce McLaren advertised for a racing car designer in 1965, realising that he couldn’t do everything. The person he chose was an Oxford Graduate, who was working on Concorde. His name was Robin Herd.

Robin had never designed a racing car before, but his first McLaren was revolutionary, being made of a Mallite aluminium and wood sandwich, pressed hard together, a material used in aircraft manufacture. The car was good but the Ford engine far too heavy, and the lighter Serranissima engine not powerful enough. It was also difficult to repair so Robin’s next design was more conventional, yet again let down by its BRM engine.

When Robin got his hands on a Ford DFV, McLaren soon scored his first victory in a car of his own manufacture. Herd had also designed a series of highly successful Can-Am cars, where the McLaren team really earned their money.

Robin was tempted to join Cosworth, to design their abortive 4WD F1 car, and soon after joined Max Moseley, Alan Rees and Graham Coker to form the MARCH (the letters of their names) racing car firm. Their March 701 cars were the most numerous on the grids for their first year, and had won three out of four Formula One races by April of their first year. It was not form that they could keep up, but in their second year they finished second in the World Championship with the adventurous March 711, the car Niki Lauda made his debut in.

March only won two GPs after that, but were always numerous on the grids, and were dominant in F2 and F3. Robin left the team in the late Seventies, and applied his brain to pursuits as diverse as Green Waste disposal and owning Oxford City football club.

Of the most recent losses, Norman Dewis of Jaguar died two years short of his target, to do 100mph on his 100th birthday. Whilst Norman’s competition career was sparse, his contribution was immense. As Chief test driver for Jaguar, he claimed land speed records, developed the C-Type and D-Type Jaguars that won Le Mans so many times in the Fifties, and had a hand in proving every new Jaguar model from 1952 to 1986 was fit for purpose. Most significantly he developed disc brakes for use on cars, a major contribution to road safety, which is something that is applied every car we drive today. 

Having retired he nursed his disabled wife, Nan, until her death, and then embarked on a Jaguar ambassadorial World Tour that continued into 2019. Jaguar aficionados never tired of hearing the little man’s recollections, and he never tired of telling them.

Four significant losses to the motor world over the past month – a time for reflection indeed.

Written by Tim Nevinson

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