A Lifetime in Motorsport
MINI RACING & ME
back 50 years I suppose the Mini and I were made for each other.
I liked small saloons for
racing, I liked being able to drive it on the road to and from meetings
and use it for my daily business as we had all done a decade earlier when
I came into motor sport Most of all I enjoyed racing something which
really was like something you can buy over the counter. The crowd too
loved small saloons for wasn’t
that a car like they drove running rings around something much bigger and
more opulent like their boss had in his garage. Daydreams are cheap but
such fantasies kept the crowds coming through the turnstile.
the same time as the Mini appeared the FIA decreed that all touring cars
in major races should be governed by Appendix J Group Two which allowed no
special parts and only limited tuning although the great tuners of the
period could still work their magic. I had a great friendship with Don
Moore who was probably the best in the country.
We had been friends since the time he was still racing himself, I
could put up with his eccentricities and we both had the same ideas about
the importance of lightness and other factors that made a car go well,
He had worked his magic on my HRG and my A35 so the alliance was
At that time there were few front wheel drive cars and most people
suspected it and if truth were known had some fears of it.
Now I had owned a Citroen Light 15 so fwd came naturally.
Already I had learnt what others were slow to find out; that fwd is
very safe with lots of understeer and
can be very spectacular to hold the tail out but to corner faster you must
be very geometric. Also with the low power output of the Mini any form of
spectacle justs wastes what’s available and “adding” lightness as we
used to say is more important than with bigger cars.
At the time the Mini appeared on the scene, 1960, I was still racing an A35 in the BRSCC “super tourer” championship where anything went in the way of modifications so I was versed in losing weight and surprisingly even with the stringent Gp2 rules there was much “carry over”
Taken some time in 1961 we see a typical Brands Hatch scene.
At first only at bigger
meetings but soon even at Clubbies the 1 litre class was full of Minis and
as we all had much the same performance and changing direction rapidly was
relatively so safe lots of major slipstreaming battles developed with up
to a dozen cars involved. Particularly at Snetterton which then had the
long Norwich and home straights with corners well spread out it was like
playing a game of chess as the car which led on the back straight seldom
was the leader at the finish and it was an mental exercise to work out
where you should aim to be in the peleton at which spot on the circuit
several laps before the finish. Although
I enjoyed this I am not really an enthusiast for one type racing where
everyone has the same performance and, driving a car with similar braking
and handling characteristics, wants the same piece of track at the same
time encouraging rough driving which may be entertaining to watch but is
not my cup of tea. So the Continent beckoned with interesting circuits and
a varied entry in the class.
Our first outing was to
Montlhery where a win at the Coupe de Paris meeting was the incentive we
needed and outings to Nurburgring, Monza, Spa, Brussels and many more foreign
circuits became as familiar as Brands Hatch and Silverstone in the early
sixties. Not always a winner but usually finishing in the first three was
enough to pay our way and gradually more and more Minis appeared, often in
foreign hands. In fact I was
able to supply engines to, drive for and win the team prize for a Belgian
team in the 1965 Spa 24 Hour Race and during those years I managed an
English branch of the Swiss Squadra Tartaruga Team where we ran three
Cooper S models at many Continental
hillclimbs as well as races. As time passed we rather specialised in
Continental Hillclimbs where often we were the only English entries.
It was all good fun and we kept collecting bonus money from BMC and
others, no more expensive than, say, playing golf..
Of course the car itself
developed over those years and became much more robust as faults which
plagued early models were eliminated.
During 61 we were constantly bothered by wheels breaking although
very few accidents resulted saying much for the Mini’s general
roadworthiness although I must admit to rolling into the crowd at the
Snetterton Esses when a Dunlop Duraband front tyre burst but then it was
not a tyre designed for racing in the dry but its lower rolling radius
gave me a lower overall gear ratio that was worth two seconds a lap at
that circuit so “Shep” and I both used them – he was lucky and got
away with it.
1962 brought the Cooper Mini
with disc brakes, a fresh air heater with kept the screen clearer and most
of all a 997cc engine that could be made to produce lots of torque at not
too high revs. The car was a
beauty, well balanced and very “Chuckable” and now
with enough power not to feel too left behind when the road
My season started with a nasty
accident that left me on crutches for year and a not too successful
contract to drive a DKW paid for by Esso.
This was finished by June but that meant I had little that was
competitive for the most important race of the season, the 6 Hours at
Nurburgring. So we made a trip to the local BMC agent and came home with a
complete Cooper front sub frame complete with engine, gearbox, suspension
and brakes. This went straight into our faithful Mini, now two and a half
years old, and off we went to the Ring where Jean my wife co drove, we ran
it in during practice and finished third or so in the l litre class.
In the autumn of 1962 Brands
Hatch held the first of their International six hour races and the first
long distance touring car
race in this country. Ken
Tyrrell who ran one of the Cooper “Works” teams booked me early to
drive one of his cars because I was one of the few English touring car
drivers with long distance race experience and just before the race asked
if would mind having a young New Zealander whom he owed a drive in return
for occasional mechanicing as co-driver. We had a good race finishing
third overall behind two Jaguars, not only winning
the prized Index of Performance Award
gaining lots of good publicity for BMC in the press but we never
dreamed at that time my young co-driver, Denny Hulme, would a few years
later be F1 World Champion.
For the first years of the
decade we could do little wrong, racing nearly every weekend and ending in
a place as well as winning our class at Nurburgring 12 Hours and the 1
litre division of the newly introduced European Touring Car Challenge.
The car was always driven to and from races and used during the
week as a hack for Jean’s shopping and horse feeding. But by the late
sixties I had the feeling it couldn’t last as the best “Big” Cooper
S models were becoming rather unpleasant to drive cornering by brute force
and had lost all the delicacy of the early Coopers that I so loved while
abroad both Alfa and Lancia had introduced better homologated models.
So in 1967 I accepted an offer from Abarth while in the last years
of the decade I found myself organising the European Championship and a
year later co-operating with Renault setting up the Renault 5 series in
this country, all of which
meant no driving. Yet in 1971 when I made a one off last appearance at the
Ring showing my friend David Bucket the way round we were still able to
finish third in the class.
That really was the end both
of the Mini and my own racing. At the time I felt the later
Mini had grown away from the little car I loved although with harsh
drivers at the wheel it was still powering its way to success.
Perhaps I was growing tired of
the scene which had been my life since the end of the war, for on that
last visit to the Ring I found the countryside and its people more
interesting than the actual racing, so at my favourite track I waited
until David had started his last lap and I could be needed no more, I went
into the back of the pit and took off my Dunlop overalls, never to need to
wear them again.