Re:My Dad designed & built an F1 car and all i have left is the bits down the garden....
These are the words of somebody who was on the team
In the early 1970s, motor racing, even Formula 1, was a very different world to what we see today. Just how big those differences were are explained in the following story......
Even to those who would have to admit to being REAL F.1 Anoraks, the name Connew is probably totally meaningless. A single entry in any F.1 records book does not even begin to scratch the surface of what is, I believe, a remarkable story. Of course, I am biased, having been one of the three major members of the Peter Connew Motor Racing team. However, I think anyone who reads it will have to admit, it was a very brave effort.
Peter Connew, who at the time was about 24 years old, had trained as a design draughtsman, and had been working for a company that made, amongst other things, record decks. I was a couple of years younger, and was teaching. We both lived in East London, although 10 miles apart, and rarely actually met. (We are cousins, I should point out.) The odd thing was that I had been an F.1 fanatic since the cradle, while Peter was never in the slightest bit interested in racing cars. Big yankee saloons were his thing. Imagine my utter disbelief when he called round one day to tell me that he had changed jobs, and was now working for John Surtees; working on the design modifications to his new F.1 McLaren, and then on the very first Surtees F.1 car. If you look at a picture of that McLaren, you will see that it had very distinctive side pannier type pods on the side of the car; Peter was responsible for the design of those tanks.
Peter was a fiercely independent character, (still is !) and unknown to anyone, shortly after he begun working for Surtees, he begun the design work for an F.1 car of his own. Of course, he is by no means the first person to feel that he they could do the job on their own, but most never get past the drawing board. Peter did !
I never knew anything about the project until early February in 1971, when I was invited to visit the home of a friend of Peter, in Barking, Essex. Peter took me upstairs, and there, sitting on the floor of an empty room, was a beautifully rivetted, shiny F.1 chassis. I simply couldn't believe my eyes. Nor my ears, when Peter asked me if I would like to join the team ! Would I ? I would have walked over hot coals to be part of such a project.
The outline of the deal was that there was a second chassis in the jigs (in another friend's garage) and all being well, the car should be on the grid at Monaco four months later. Isn't optimism a wonderful thing ? My first job was to make a large scale model of the car, which Peter could take around, suitably painted, to show potential sponsors. By this time, Peter had left Surtees, and was working in a small engineering firm, which enabled him to make some small components in his lunch hour which we could never have afforded to have made commercially. We had a small lathe in the garage, but it was very limited in its capacity.
At this point, I should mention the other two members of the team, both of whom were part of it before me. Roger Doran was a shopfitter, and meticulous in everything he did, while Ronnie Olive was a useful man with engineering. In March, we had left the garage of Peter's friend JG, mainly because his wife was getting a bit bolshy about the noise etc. Peter scouted around, and soon found a small, (very small !) workshop just off the Romford Road at Chadwell Heath, and we were very proud as we moved all our stuff in, because we were now an independent outfit.
I left teaching at Easter '71, with the expectation that 'any day now' the guaranteed sponsorship deal would appear, and we would be on our way ! To make some money, I went to work for the Co-op, in the Funeral dept; while Roger and Ron carried on with their respective jobs. This meant that our time in the workshop was limited to weekends and evenings (as I recall, we worked 3 nights each week) and so wives and girlfriends had to be content with rarely seeing us. Under these conditions things get done terribly slowly, and it became obvious very soon that not only were we not going to make Monaco, but we were going to be very lucky to even make Monza !
I must stress that although we were no more than a bunch of East End lads, working in a lock-up, this was no bodge job. Every aluminium part on the car was anodised, and the steel was chrome plated. All our welding was done by Roger's father, known to us as 'Daddy D', who was an expert welder, and also bought even more enthusiasm to the project. Round about the middle of 1971 we lost Ronnie Olive from the team, as he was not very happy about the fact that 'when' we went full-time on the thing, there wouldn't be any overtime paid. Ron was a good union man, but didn't really understand how motor racing worked. I still recall the discussions. “Look Ron, if we are getting the car ready to leave for a race on Tuesday, and things are not done by Monday 5 p.m you can't just say 'Knocking off time' and go home. It just doesn't work like that.” So Ron left.
As a woodwork teacher, I was going to be responsible for making the wooden patterns for the bodywork etc. And then the fibreglassing. Did I know anything at all about pattern making or fibreglassing ? Not a scrap. Peter's attitude was that there is nothing magic in this world. Common sense, application and half an ounce of intelligence will overcome most obstacles. Of course, he was right. Most of the British F.1 teams at that time had their bodywork made by Specialised Mouldings, but there was no way we could afford anything like that, so it was 'do it yourself'. I carved out the nose section from a light, but very stable timber called Jelutong. With no special equipment imagine the problems in getting a multi-curved, shaped block of wood and filler nearly a metre square to be symmetrical about its centre line !!! Quite !! Anyway, it got done; as did the cockpit surround. We contemplated a fibreglass rear wing, but shelved it in favour of aluminium.
The problem confronting us was always the same; money, or rather, the lack of it. Peter was pouring every penny he earned into the project, but the rest of us could contribute merely time and effort. Of course, a fiver here, and a tenner there would buy quite a bit of material in those days, but the major items required for the car, engine, gearbox, petrol tanks, wheels as well as simpler things like exhaust pipes and windscreens were simply way beyond our meagre resources. Still, the project never stopped because there was always something that needed doing.
It must have been quite late in 1971 when Peter, through contacts made during his time with Surtees, managed to borrow an engine (Cosworth DFV of course) and Hewland DG 300 gearbox. Sadly, they were non-working ones, but real nevertheless. At least we could now put the thing together. I can still remember my excitement on checking the engine number (906) and thumbing back through my Autosports, to find that it was the engine used by Jochen Rindt when he won his first GP in the U.S. in 1969 !! So the car was not a runner, but with some borrowed wheels, at least we could put it together, which would give us something to show to anyone who might have considered sponsoring us.
Peter believed that the only colour racing cars should be was red. So the car was taken to a local sprayer and painted. A very vivid memory (amongst many) is of a winter Sunday evening when the car was taken off the stands and put on the floor, on wheels, for the fist time. O.K, it had a dummy engine and gearbox, no exhausts, no airbox (I hadn't made it yet) and steel bars instead of shock absorbers, but it looked GREAT. It must have amazed the local residents when a group of young men pushed this strange looking racing car out of the yard, onto the main London Road, and onto the forecourt of a local garage. You see, it was the only place with enough light to take a photo. I still treasure that first photo. The following morning, in daylight, we pushed the car out onto the public highway again, and into the car park of the local library, where there was a nice background for some more photos. These photos, plus my model, made up Peter's sponsorship attracting kit, which he carried around wherever he went.
Sponsorship was hard to come by. You can't really blame company directors for being sceptical when they heard how and where the car had been built, although the occasional visitors to the garage (e.g. Stuart Turner, who at the time was Ford Motor Company competition dept head) were always extremely impressed by the quality of our efforts.
It was generally known that Yardley, who had sponsored the B.R.M team for a few years were becoming disillusioned with them. Peter got me to paint up our model in the Yardley 'Black Label' aftershave colours, and off he went to see them. Of course, we did not know that the deal that took them to McLaren had already been done, but Peter's approach sufficiently impressed them for them to ring Phil Kerr of McLaren and ask if they might help us out in some way. To their eternal credit, they did too, as you will learn later.
In these days of the glitzy Autosport Show, it is hard to imagine that the event could miss a year. Back in the late sixties and early seventies that is exactly what happened. In the 'off' year, usually, nothing happened at all. However, in January 1972 a strange, one-off event took place. I seem to recall that it was organised by John Webb, who at that time owned Brands Hatch, amongst other things. His idea was to moor a Townsend-Torensen car ferry on the Thames next to the Tower of London, and put on board many of the cars and trade stands which would otherwise have been at the normal Racing Car Show, were it to be taking place that year. I have always suspected that they were a bit short of exhibits, (possibly people didn't see it as a sensible project) and as we had received a bit of publicity by then, we were invited to show the car to the general public for the first time. We had been featured in Autosport in a feature by Doug Nye; also an extended version of this article had appeared in a Japanese motor sport magazine. What a performance that led to, as you will learn later !
It was a real joke, because although our workshop was well to the East of central London, on a good day, you could drive to Tower Bridge in about three quarters of an hour. Unfortunately, due to the fact that there was no loading facility down by the Tower, everyone who was showing a full-sized car on the 'Showboat' had to take their vehicles all the way to Dover to put them on the ferry. We had a 150 mile round trip to take the car down to Dover, then had to wait for the ship to sail back to practically the same place from which we started ! Still, we felt at last that we were now part of the racing 'establishment', and it felt great. It was while we were waiting for our cars to be loaded onto the ferry that I spoke to my first Grand Prix driver. Mike Beuttler, who is sadly no longer with us, was waiting to put his March onto the boat, and we had a long chat in the car park by the ferry terminal.
In the 'amusing anecdote' department there is one funny story arising from our time on the Showboat. Dear old John Bolster, who was at that time Autosport's Technical Editor, was looking around the show, and came upon our car. It must have been during my lunch break from my temporary job with the Co-op Funeral Dept, which fortuitously was situated in Leman Street, literally a five minute walk from where the ferry was. I was standing by the car when John Bolster came upon it. Presumably, he never read the magazine for whom he worked, because he had never heard of the car, and was amazed to learn of the existence of this unknown F1 car. Anyway, he looked around the car extensively, and I am proud to say made admiring noises. Now as you may be able to see from the photos, our car had a very flat, wide nose. The obvious assumption was that the water radiators were somewhere up the back of the car, a la Lotus 72, but in fact, Peter had laid the radiator nearly flat in the nose of the car, with a clever system of cooling which worked very well. The two black aluminium cowlings beside the engine contained the oil radiators. J.V.B was making notes on the design, and I heard him mutter something to the effect that the radiators were probably too small. I was able to point out to him that in fact, they were not the water radiators, and suggested that he look under the nose. Now he was not a young man by any means, but he immediately dropped onto the floor and lay so that he could see the under-nose intake. I'll never forget his words, “Well, well… if c***s like me can't see a thing, we think it isn't there ! Very ingenious.”
Our stay on the Showboat did not lead to anything in the way of sponsorship, and South Africa was approaching rapidly. Peter invited a couple of would-be F1 drivers down to look at the car; Howden Ganley, a New Zealander, who was in F3 and had in fact been the very first man to lap the Brands Grand Prix circuit at over 100 m.p.h (I know 'cause I was there) and the late Gerry Birrel both came to look. Unfortunately, although they both went away impressed, neither had any money, and so were not able to get involved. Stuart Turner, who was Ford Competitions Manager also came, and was sufficiently impressed to offer what help he could in the coming months. This help materialised later in several forms. We wrote an ambitious letter to German F1 man Rolf Stommelen, who we knew had some backing, but he was already tied into the deal to run the peculiar Eifelland March in 1972.
Somewhere along the way, Peter had contacted a guy named Brian Kreisky (whose uncle I believe, remarkably, was President of Austria at one time). Kreisky ran a sponsorship agency called Promoto, which set out to put drivers with money in touch with teams who had none, and vice versa. Through Brian, around Easter in 1972 we had a visit from a group of Frenchmen who were interested in furthering the career of their driver Francois Migault. Up to that time, Francois was a moderately successful F3 and occasional F2 driver. He also raced a small 2 litre sports car for a guy called Vincent Mausset. Vincent's car was called the Darnval, and both he and Francois were keen to get involved in something grander, without I hasten to add, too much in the way of outlay of francs. Peter had a budget, the exact details of which I never needed to know, but which, I believe, amounted to around £ 40,000. For this princely sum, Peter felt we could supply the car for Francois to drive in the Grands Prix in France, Britain, Germany, Austria and Italy.
I DON'T BELIEVE IT DEPT.
One evening in April 1972 Peter's Mother and Father arrived at the workshop with some startling news. A man called Don Anderson had just phoned, saying that he was the Personal Assistant to one Hideo Yamanaka, a Japanese millionaire, who owned a string of department stores! Yamanaka was allegedly looking for a new F1 team to back, and had seen the aforementioned article by Doug Nye in the Japanese magazine I mentioned earlier. (Doug had sent us a copy of the magazine, so we knew it had been published, complete with photos of us all, even though we couldn't make head or tail of the text !) Peter rushed home to await another call, which duly came, and arrangements were made to meet Mr. Anderson under the clock at Waterloo Station at midnight. He was only in London briefly, as he was on his way from Japan to the U.S.A (or something like that) so it had to be a late-night get-together. I drove Peter up town, (an hour or so from the garage) and Mr. Anderson arrived right on cue. We moved on to an all-night Wimpy bar, somewhere around Oxford Street to discuss budgets etc.
Don looked at Peter's projected figures, and said that he thought we were penny pinching, and increased all the figures by at least 100 %. This meant 10 engines instead of 4, a big transporter etc etc. Peter bought us all a burger and tea, and we chatted until about 1 a.m. Then Don announced that although he did not have a lot of time, he would like to see the car. So, off we went again back out to Chadwell Heath, where he had a good look around, admired the car and then sat on the bench in the workshop talking fairly knowledgeably about racing for half an hour or so. Following this, we went back to Peter's girlfriends house for coffee. Don showed us some pictures of his family, and gave us Yamanaka's business card, complete with his Tokyo number on it. He told us he was booked on a flight out of Heathrow at 7.30 a.m. and asked if I could possibly run him out there. Those of you who know London will understand that from the Essex borders to Heathrow Airport is some journey, even at that time of the morning. Still, nothing was too much, given that Mr. Anderson had already told us that Yamanaka was certain to take his advice, and he thought we would be a very good team to sponsor. By now it was about 3 a.m. so off we went again. Peter was finished by now, and went off to bed. I took the shortest route between two points, and went straight through the centre of London. At that time of day/night it is the quickest East-West route. Strangely enough though, as we drove down the Strand, this strange character suddenly decided that he wanted to make a phone call from the 'all-night post office' just off Trafalgar Square. He said, “Don't worry, I'll get a taxi back to Heathrow from here.”
I suppose by the time I got to bed it was about 4.00 a.m. Back at my desk in the Co-op just a few short hours later the inevitable call came in from Peter. What did I think ? “Well, fantastic. We're on our way etc etc.” “Mmmmm,” said Peter, “I doubt it. Too much just doesn't add up.” During the next few minutes we made some enquiries, and ultimately came to some shattering conclusions. We'd been had !
Consider: 1. Mr. Anderson was VERY scruffy. Not to put too fine a point on it, he ponged. He explained that he had just come off an aeroplane and had been travelling for 24 hours - but, even so…..
2. He spoke of his wife, twice. Once to say she was dead; and once to say she lived in Australia. (He had an antipodean accent himself.)
3. We discovered that there were no flights out of Heathrow at that time of the morning.
Still, in his defence, he did quote the Japanese magazine article, and he dropped the name of the Editor of a British car magazine. Plus, of course, there was the business card ! The investigation begun. Peter called the magazine editor he named, and found out that the guy did indeed know a Don Anderson, but he certainly did not fit our man's description. I phoned international directory enquiries to verify the address in Tokyo, only to be told that Hideo Yamanaka is about as common in Japan as John Smith is in England. And there are no department stores called Yamanaka.
So there you are. An incredibly elaborate hoax. But what did he achieve ? He certainly kept us up all night; and he had a free burger. He also got to see the car, but he could have done that anyway - visitors were always warmly welcomed at our workshop. The question has always bugged us; he was a tramp, or at least something very close to one, so how on earth did he ever get to find out about that Japanese magazine article ?
This episode in the story of Peter Connew's Formula One car may seem to be total fantasy, but I can assure you that ever word of it is told just how it happened.
For a few hours I had felt rather sorry for Francois and his group because although we had only met them once, 'Frankie' as we naturally called him had proved to be an amusing and friendly guy, and I was looking forward to seeing him drove our car. The first time we met them, we went to a nice pub for a drink and a chat, as well as taking them all to see the car. Frankie made an impression straightaway when he produced from his pocket something which I shall tactfully call a 'marital aid' but which wouldn't vibr…sorry, work. He was delighted when Roger tinkered with it, and made it work.
So now, it was all back on again.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…… To say that the sponsorship with Francois' group was a bit of a Mickey Mouse affair would be putting it mildly. I suppose, in our naiveté, we imagined that a nice fat cheque would arrive very quickly after the deal was done, and things would then rattle along. Wrong !! There were, it seems, several French sources from whom money was obtained; Francois' older brother Jean, who owned a business making wooden, Swiss-style holiday chalets was one, along with the French section of the Shell Oil company (though their input seemed to be exclusively with Francois.) Jean's business, Sapal Chalets, was situated very near the Mulsanne straight, part of the legendary Le Mans circuit, of course. I should mention that the family chateau was quite nearby so Francois was the up and coming 'local hero'.
In addition, Vincent Mausset had a friend/backer named Francis Lechere who was married to a family member from one of France's largest champagne producers. At one point around this time, Peter visited M. Lechere's flat in Paris with Vincent and was given a relatively substantial (at the time) wad of French francs, which he brought back to England and which we then had the job of converting into pounds sterling.
Being totally unaware then, as now, about how money could be moved around Europe, I suppose the transfer of one or two large sums may not have been practical. In fact, the exact opposite began to occur. At that time, you could change foreign currency over the counter in any bank, with no more than a signature on a simple form. The trouble was, you could only change the foreign equivalent of £30 per visit. This led to a farcical situation, with Peter, Roger and myself going into banks all around the area to exchange the francs. We felt that some sharp-eyed bank teller would smell a rat if the same names kept cropping up, which led to foreign currency exchange deals being conducted by some VERY strange people; e.g. M. Python; A. Hitler; D. Duck and so on. It is amazing that nobody ever queried it !!
A short while before this, we had lost Ronnie Olive from the team. Ron's departure came about over that old chestnut - money. Ron was never a race fan really. He was carried along, as we all were, by the excitement of it all, but as the day neared when we would actually be able to work full-time on the project, the matter of wages inevitably arose. I don't know to this day if Peter ever took ANY money out for himself, (I suspect, not much) but he knew that as Roger was not long married, and I was due to be so soon, we needed a regular income. The figure of £30 per week was rapidly agreed upon, and we thought that was the end of it. Ron, however, needed to know how the daily hours and overtime rates would be agreed upon. When the rest of us stopped laughing, we pointed out that in motor racing you worked until you were done, then went home. Ron couldn't accept this non-union practice, and left us.
In his place, on an evenings and weekend basis, we gained a very useful young man named Steve Burtrand. Steve was a friend of Roger's and was a talented engineer, able to be left on a machine to make pieces without having anyone looking over his shoulder. This released the rest of us to get on with other things.
It was Easter 1972, and finally we became a full-time race team. Monaco was only a month or so away, so we had to get our fingers out. The fuel tanks were ordered; as were the wheels. A new gearbox was purchased, (ONE !) and finally, with eternal thanks to Phil Kerr of McLaren, via the Yardley connection, we obtained an engine. The deal for the engine was, as I recall, fairly simple, use it, if you break it, mend it. The actual financial side was all down the our boss. This led us to put an immediate rev limit on the engine, as a rod through the block would have been catastrophic.
This leads quickly to yet another of those 'I'll never forget it' moments. It was about 10 o'clock at night when the engine was fired up, in the car, for the first time. Our workshop was in a yard, in the middle of a residential area, so we had to keep the doors closed to reduce the escaping noise. Our garage was small. When the car was standing on its wheels, you had to step over them to get around it. It only just fitted in the space. Anyone who has ever stood near an F1 car with its engine revving would perhaps have some idea of the sort of noise it made in that tiny enclosed garage. It was earth-shattering. But what a wonderful sound !!
Spain, Monaco and Belgium all passed by, but we knew that, at last, we were in with a very real chance of getting to the French Grand Prix. This was crucial for Francois, as he firmly believed that his presence there would engender a bit more cash for the team. One day, in mid-June, Francois roared into the yard in a truck. It was a French-registered Ford lorry, left-hand drive, of course, which he had borrowed from his brother's company for us to use as a car transporter. He proudly opened up the back to show us…….an empty truck. Two weeks to go before we would have to set off for Clermont Ferrand and the Grand Prix, and now not only did we have loads of things still to do on the car, but we also had a truck to fit out to hold that car and all the attendant requirements that a small F1 team would need when away from base.
To his credit, Francois threw himself into the task with us, and after goodness knows how many late, late nights and towards the end, all-nighters, the truck was loaded up with car, spares and bits and pieces on Monday 26th of June, and that afternoon we set off. (As an aside, I ought perhaps, to mention that on the Saturday before, I got married. I leave you to imagine the conflict which inevitably developed when I finally gave in and went off to the garage at about 6 p.m. on the Sunday evening. She never saw me again until about the 7th July. [The marriage didn't last.])
Francois had a long standing relationship with Shell-France, and this led to yellow being added to our red car's bodywork. The car had still NEVER turned a wheel under its own power, but never mind, it looked great, and we were on our way. The naiveté which I mentioned earler, reared its ugly head again. Roger or Peter knew a local lad who was a tanker driver. His name was Mansell, (no, not that one) and he jumped at the chance to drive us to the race. Francois had gone on ahead in his BMW. We arrived at the ferry port in Portsmouth, to be told that there was no way we could cross the channel. It was something to do with the fact that the lorry was French-registered, but the driver wasn't, and that the guy who brought the lorry into Britain (Francois) was not there. “Sorry, lads, you can't pass through customs.”
You can imagine the reply. “Look, Mister, we don't know about any of that, but please look in the back. It's just a Grand Prix car on its way to a race. Please……..” And they let us go !! It's amazing what you can get away with when you plead ignorance. Trouble is, we WERE ignorant.
It had always been Francois' intention that we should stop off at Le Mans to show the car off to his friends and colleagues in his home town. It was on the route from Le Havre down to Clermont anyway, which was just as well, because about 50 miles north of Le Mans, the truck engine blew up - holed piston. We managed to get a message down to Francois (via a local garage as I recall) and some hours later we were ignominiously towed into the paddock of one of the worlds greatest race circuits. No matter - we could easily hire something to get us down to Clermont, and anyway here was the perfect opportunity to give the car a run. Free of charge too, because, remember, Francois was the local hero, about to have his first Grand Prix drive. Of course we could only use the Bugatti circuit, but that was infinitely better than having the first run in front of the eyes of the world in practice at the following weekend's Grand Prix.
We left the nose and airbox off the car, and fired it up in the pits. As Francois drove it down the pit lane for the first time Peter stood looking quizzically at the rear suspension. “Something's not right,” he said. After a couple of laps, Frankie came in. He was full of it, but Peter wasn't. On examination, it became clear that the rear suspension had been bent, due to the bouncing the car had suffered in the back of the truck. Ignorance again. Instead of chocking the car in solidly, we had fixed the wheels, but clearly the chassis was free to move up and down with the bumps in the roads. This had caused certain parts of the rear wishbones to bend. Could we repair it ? Yes, of course. Could we repair it and get to the Grand Prix ? No chance.
We fabricated some stronger wishbones, while the truck was away being repaired, and spent a few very pleasant days in France. We stayed at the family chateau, complete with snooker table; and Francois took us around the full Le Mans circuit. We had a meal at a restaurant just by the Mulsanne hairpin, and spent a few quiet moments in the forest near the Indianapolis corner where Jo Bonnier had been killed just a few weeks earlier during the 24-hour race.
When the suspension was repaired, Francois was able to put in a few more testing miles. It was either during this period, or maybe at a later test session at Le Mans, I can't remember which, that Francois ran Roger over. Several of us were push-starting the car in the pit lane. I was on the back wing, while Roger was pushing on the side of the car between the front and rear wheels. You're way ahead of me on this, aren't you ? As soon as the engine fired, Francois put his foot down, Roger leaped sideways, but alas ! not quickly enough. The right rear wheel ran over his foot. A few hours later, a well-plastered Roger limped back into the paddock on crutches. There is a very famous photo, which I have seen, but do not own, of the two of us sitting outside the famous Hinaudieres café on the Mulsanne straight with drinks, and Roger's foot, in plaster, up on another chair. I wish I had a copy of that photo.
In order to avoid any more problems at customs, Francois produced a French friend named Roger (French pronunciation) to drive the lorry back to England once it had been repaired. I am sure that we never knew this guy's surname, but we were told that he had been an F3 driver who had suffered a bad crash. Certainly I remember that he had a huge scar running from knee to ankle on the outside of one of his legs. He drove the truck back to Chadwell Heath, and then went home. He will crop up again later !! Once back home, we had but a few days to prepare for our big day. The British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. We squeezed in a few testing laps up at Snetterton, and then it was off to Brands on Thursday morning.
It is hard to convey the feelings I, and presumably the others too, felt as we unloaded everything into our area of the paddock. Older readers may recall that the main paddock used to be outside Paddock Bend, and everything had to be lugged down under the tunnel, and along to the pits, and then back again afterwards. Race day years ago was Saturday, and times counted in all the practice sessions. There was no limit to number of starters, but you had to qualify, if my memory serves me right, within 110% of the fastest time (it's now 107% of course.) We deliberately did not put too many laps on the car during practice, for fear of wearing out our only engine. On Thursday afternoon, on only about his third flying lap, Francois did a 1.30.3, which although 3 seconds behind the eventual slowest starter, was quick enough to make the race.
Unfortunately, as he flew past the pits at the end of the lap, there were sparks flying from underneath the car. This was well before the days of titanium skid blocks, so we knew something was wrong. What had happened was that our spring supplier had used an inferior quality steel for our coil springs which meant that every time they compressed, they did not quite return to their original length. Ultimately therefore, as the car circled the bumpy track, its ride height became progressively less, hence the bottoming out on the bumps. Francois realised something was wrong, and stopped at the bottom of Paddock Hill. Roger and I received a severe reprimand from the marshals for running across the infield grass to the car, but in truth, there was no point in rushing as we certainly couldn't do anything about it there and then. As soon as practice ended, I jumped in the car, the marshalls tied a tow-rope to the roll-over bar and I proudly steered the car back to the pits. It was the only time I ever sat in it while it was moving along any piece of road. We rapidly loaded everything up and rushed back through the Dartford Tunnel to our base. Work started immediately, and although fitting new springs was easy, the damage to suspension arms and wishbones etc was such that it took nearly 40 hours continuous work to build up new parts. By around 7 a.m on Saturday morning, we were ready to bolt the whole thing back together again. Now, although F1 was nowhere near as popular those days as it is now, we knew that getting to Brands on race day morning would be an extremely difficult task.
In stepped one Don Strachan; (he pronounced it Strawn). Don was a real character. Nominally, he was our team accountant, but actually he was rather more. He was an impractical guy; well he was an accountant for heaven's sake, but he had been swept along by our enthusiasm, and always had a cheery word which was appreciated, especially in those dark hours before dawn when we had been working for more than 24 hours. I think it was Don who phoned the local Essex police, told them the situation and got them to agree to escort our truck to the Dartford Tunnel as well as getting the Kent constabulary to pick us up on the other side and get us into Brands as quickly as possible. Just as we were coming to the end of the rebuild, with our police motor cycle escort sitting waiting in the yard, eagle-eyed Roger spotted a crack in a rear upright….and that was the end of that.
We closed the garage doors and took over 24 hours off.
Having failed for the second time to start a Grand Prix you may think that the small Connew outfit would be starting to lose heart. Not a bit of it ! A week or so later saw us loading up the truck again for the trip to Germany. At that time the Grand Prix there was run on the daunting 14 mile Nurburgring. Francois had never been there, let alone driven on it, but that was not the biggest of our problems. You see, we didn't actually have an entry for the race. In those far less ordered times, teams turned up for races, or didn't, depending on their state of readiness, both technical and financial. Similarly, if you were a relatively unknown outfit, some organisers would accept your entry, while others wouldn't. I couldn't tell you if we had actually tried to gain acceptance to the race or not. Our entries etc, were dealt with by Mr. Kreisky's 'Promoto' organisation, I think.
According to Francois this would be 'no problem'. After the fairly short journey across Belgium, we arrived at the paddock gates of the historic circuit. Of course, not having an official entry meant that we had no official passes, so the fairly officious German paddock marshal was adamant that we should not enter. It began to look as though Francois was right when we persuaded the marshal to look in the back of the truck. Fortunately the guy knew an F.1 car when he saw one, and in we went.
We found ourselves a place in the unusual enclosed paddock, and set-to unloading the numberless car. Cars were numbered differently at each race in those days, so we had removed our Brands numbers and had no new ones to put on. Nevertheless we pushed the car into the line for scrutineering. Gradually the line moved forwards and through the bay. Eventually our turn came. The term 'headless chickens' seemed appropriate for the behaviour of some of the officials. They had their lists, but this car wasn't on them. Much rushing around and rapid german conversations ensued. The upshot of it all was - “Nein.” There was much arm waving and multi-lingual arguing, but the answer remained “Nein.”
The late Andrew Ferguson, who was at that time the Secretary of the '70's equivalent of the Constructor's Association whizzed around the paddock getting signatures from the other team owners to agree to allow us at least to practice. The rumour was that everyone was willing to sign, except John Surtees, who at the time was rather sore that Peter had left his team, and set up on his own. (I am delighted to be able to tell you that all these years later 'Big John' and Peter are now on very good terms.) Whether Surtees' refusal actually made any great difference is open to doubt, but anyway they absolutely defied all arguments, and we sadly packed it all up and were on our way back to Le Mans for a bit more testing before the German Grand Prix Friday practice session had ended.
While the car was sitting in the scrutineering bay, I had the pleasure of a few minutes conversation with none other than Graham Hill, (father of Damon, and twice World Champion.) This was a very great moment for me, as any middle-aged race fan can probably imagine.
Please don't worry if the next bit is a touch technical; you will get the point later. At that time, all cars had to be fitted with an oil catch tank (which collected any surplus oil blown out through the oil tank breather.) Whenever our car ran, this catch tank would very rapidly fill up. This was not normal. Even at the end of a full length Grand Prix, you wouldn't expect more than a couple of centimetres of oil in the catch tank. These days, oil tanks are buried within the chassis of the cars, but it was common then to have the tank at the back of the car somewhere. As with one or two other cars, ours was mounted around the side of, and over the gearbox. (see picture.) What WAS unusual about our tank was that it was made of fibreglass. This was done to ensure that it fitted snugly around the gearbox, and also had not a little to do with the fact that it was very cheap to do, and we (I) could do it ourselves.
Although the gap between the German and Austrian Grands Prix was long enough for us to come home and go off again, there was a dock strike on by the time we were due to leave France, so a decision was made to leave car and truck at Le Mans, while Peter, Roger and myself came home with a short job list to do before going back to pick up the truck for the long trip down to Austria. One of the things which we carried back with us was the oil tank.
Once we were back at our base in Chadwell Heath, Peter put his inventive brain to work, and came up with the idea that the catch tank was filling up because the oil entering the main tank under very high pressure was splashing around too much, and finding its way up the breather tube and into the catch tank. A novel method was employed to solve the problem. I fibreglassed a white plastic vending machine drinking cup upside down onto the top of the oil tank, and joined the inlet pipe to it at an angle. This meant that the oil squirting into the tank was immediately swirled around the inside of the cup, whereupon it was able to drop into the main tank area without any overdue splashing. We also moved one of the lower tubes which came out near the bottom of the tank. This last modification was to cause me enormous embarrassment a few days later. Oh, by the way, the catch tank problem was totally solved !!
Soon it was time to be driven down to Dover, and after a hop on the ferry (hovercraft?), we picked up the hire car for the run back to Le Mans. The french Rogér appeared, and off we went. This unfriendly character was now a permanent member of the team, and although Peter and myself had a little French, he spoke next to no English, so the journey was a little uncomfortable. The truck was not fast, and it is a VERY long way from Le Mans to the Oesterreichring. We did stay overnight in a nice hotel in Strasbourg, but as we arrived in the dark, and left early next morning, about Strasbourg I can tell you nothing whatsoever ! It's a glamorous life being a race-mechanic ! I seem to recall that Peter went on ahead with Francois in his battered old beige BMW, leaving les deux Roger and moi to trundle along some hours behind. It was dark by the time we reached one of the small towns near the circuit. It may have been Judenburg or Knittelfeld, I wish I could remember. Anyway, we were settled into a small 'pension', where, for cost's sake, Roger and I shared a duvet. At that time, I had NEVER slept under a duvet, nor had I slept with Roger, but then there's a first time for everything !! French Rogér shared a duvet too, I am pretty sure; only his belonged to the female owner of the establishment. He was good at that, as we found out again later !
This was the first time we REALLY felt part of the circus, because when we went for our evening meal, there were other team members and drivers in the same restaurant. The following morning we rolled the car out at the same time as all the other teams, complete with our number (29 this time) and proudly got it ready for first practice. It was not very long into that first practice that we had a visit from the stewards. Car number 29 was depositing oil all around the circuit. When we got him into the pits, we found that I had simply not put enough fibreglass matting around our repositioned outlet pipe from the oil tank, and the oil was seeping rapidly through the tank and onto the track. Guess who wasn't very popular that morning ?
Anyway, I put some more matting and resin on, and in the sweltering temperatures soon cured it. It didn't leak again. Somewhere along the way, (it could have been in Austria, or maybe earlier at Brands, another team mechanic (from Brabham, I think) had been looking into our engine. He very sportingly offered the information that our fuel system was piped up wrongly. Now the car had always misfired a bit, but in our ignorance (where have you read that line before ?) we didn't realise anything was actually wrong. Once it was rectified, the car ran really well, and Frankie comfortably qualified. There were to be 25 starters. There were 26 cars there, but Henri Pescarolo had stuffed Frank Williams' (remember him ?) new Politoys car during practice. He was unable to start, which was very good news for us, as only 25 starters were allowed. Had he not crashed, we would have failed to qualify. It was soul-destroying to listen to Francois lifting off on the straight because we had instructed him to hold the revs to 9,000 r.p.m, where all the other Cosworth users were running up to 10,500 or even 10,750. The consequences of blowing up the engine did not bear thinking about. I'm sure you can imagine how artificially slow the car was in a straight line.
Between practice sessions on Saturday, Peter gave me a chunk of steel bar, and asked me to go down to the McLaren transporter and ask their Chief Mechanic, Alistair Caldwell if I could turn up a couple of bushes on their lathe. Half-a-shoestring outfits like ours didn't run to lathes in the truck ! I found Alistair, and true to Phil Kerr's promise from all those months ago, he readily agreed. The trouble was, I had to do my lathework about two metres away from a couple of guys who were sitting in the transporter chatting. The two guys were Denny Hulme and Peter Revson, the two Yardley McLaren drivers. I could hardly hold the vernier !!!
Come Sunday afternoon, and the race started. We were in a state of euphoric excitement. Well, to be honest, we were probably just in a state ! Although Peter had watched his first design, the Surtees TS.7 leave the line at the 1970 British Grand Prix, this was really his own baby. He seemed a lot calmer than me; I was beside myself ! I was probably beside quite a few other people, too !
Anyone who owns the Marlboro F1 review video of 1972-73 has the only known movie pictures of the car. As the cars stream up the hill after the start, there is a brief glimpse of a red and yellow car, right at the back - that's Frankie.
Now although this was Francois' first Grand Prix, you must remember that he was quite an experienced F3 and F2 driver. As well as Rogér, Francois naturally brought along his wife. She and Rogér were theoretically experienced as lap timers and pit-board crew, and we were told not to worry about that side of things. So we didn't. This was a mistake. I know that in the end it didn't really matter, but at the time it didn't half get up my nose, as the saying goes. As a mechanic, in Grand Prix races where the only pit-stops were car-trouble ones, once the race started, I reverted to what I have always been, a race fan. As long time race spectators will know only too well, you very quickly get a feel for the race, and you soon sense when a car goes missing. At the end of lap 2 they gave Frankie a board reading P25. Twenty-fifth and last place; fair enough. However, on lap 4 Rolf Stommelen made a pit-stop; and on lap 5 Wilson Fittipaldi did too. Our pit was right at the beginning of the pit lane, so these cars had driven right past us. I couldn't believe it when these 'so-called' experts were still showing their driver that he was last. This continued; Carlos Pace pitted; Dave Walker retired; Clay Regazzoni retired; Carlos Reutemann retired, etc etc. Still these flippin' people were telling Francois he was last, which he wasn't, and in 25th place which he wasn't. I was climbing the walls !! But, Peter, ever the diplomat told me to forget it.
We settled down, and got quite used to the car trundling past the pits, its engine note flat from the rev limit we had imposed. The race was 54 laps long, so magically on lap 14 the Connew earned its first cash. In those days, money was paid on positions at quarter, half, three-quarters and the finishing positions. On lap 14 Francois was 19th and going strong. Money!! At half-distance there would be even more money. Sadly, he never made it to half distance. He completed lap 21 in 17th place, but as he came onto the start and finish straight for the 22nd time, the crowd in the grandstand opposite the pits leapt to their collective feet with a gasp; Francois was fighting the car which seemed to have developed a mind of its own. It was swerving from one side of the road to the other, almost touching the armco on each side. Happily Frankie regained some sort of control, and steered the car to rest just by the pit exit at the bottom of the hill after the start.
Something had obviously broken. I walked along the pit road to meet him as he returned, expecting him to be angry, but to the contrary, he was hot and sweaty, but beaming. He said the car he been great, and he really enjoyed himself. We examined the car back in the paddock after Emerson Fittipaldi had won the race. We found that a three-eighths thick solid aluminium plate which located part of the rear suspension had split in half, causing the rear wheel to steer, hence the swooping about on the straight.
With the benefit of the yearly Autocourse book, I have often analysed the rest of the race, and am sure that had he run non-stop to the finish, Francois would have been about 11th or 12th. The money from such a finish would have certainly put us in a position to be able to afford to go to Monza, but sadly, it was not to be.
During the year, we had picked up a small but loyal band of supporters. As we were loading up to leave, a lad came up to us in the paddock with some interesting statistics. He had been out at one of the very fast curves, (how I miss them on the awful new A1 Ring !) and had timed various cars as they motored through. He said, and I am only quoting him, that only Jackie Stewart's Tyrrell was quicker through that turn than Francois in the Connew. I can't vouch for the information, I only pass it on.
Between practice sessions, I was sitting on the pit counter doing nothing in particular, when Colin Chapman came strolling down the road. There was no-one else around, but I didn't have the nerve to speak to him; however, he stopped and gave the car the once over. I couldn't swear to it, but I got the feeling that his expression conveyed the fact that he was fairly impressed with what he saw.
The final episode of our Austrian adventure is another incident involving the truck. Francois left pretty well straight after the race, with his wife. That left the three of us to share the cab of the truck with Rogér, who was driving. The two Rogers were not getting along well. Our Roger was a terrific guy to have as a chief mechanic because he was a perfectionist, and certainly would not tolerate sloppy or inefficient work. He simply did not take to Rogér at all; the lack of a common language did not help.
Despite the fact that the Oesterreichring and Le Mans are hundreds of miles apart, Rogér was determined to get home that night. The truck naturally ran on diesel, which I am sure you know, should never be allowed to run out. We left the Zeltweg area in the early evening, and ploughed across Germany towards the French border. It began to get very late, and the fuel was running VERY low in the lorry. We made it into France, well after nightfall. The concept of the all-night petrol station did not exist in the early seventies, and so if the fuel ran out, it ran out. Not only would we be stuck, possibly in the middle of nowhere, but we would then have to go through a big performance to get it running again.
I must say here that we met many French people during these times, and almost without exception they were smashing friendly people. Unfortunately this one was the exception. I can tell you that it was a damn good job that Peter and I were sitting between the two of them, because our Roger was doing his nut, and if he could have reached Rogér, he would certainly have thumped him.
Mercifully, we eventually came upon a very small town; I have absolutely no idea where it was, but we landed there at about 11.00 p.m and in the middle of a town fair ! Rogér parked the truck, got out and walked away to find, no doubt, some 'company'. As we never saw him again until morning, I am quite sure he found it. He had a proven record from the hotel in Austria after all. We three Englishmen settled down to the most uncomfortable night of non-sleep that I can ever remember. Roger settled down in the cab; I laid on the floor of the truck beside the car, while Peter Connew became possibly the first and only man ever to spend a night asleep in a Grand Prix car bearing his own name !!!
Back home again from Austria, the most important thing on our minds, apart from repairing and strengthening the broken rear suspension, was to make some money. On the August Bank Holiday weekend, Rothmans, in conjunction with John Webb, who owned Brands Hatch at that time, had decided to stage a unique race. The concept of Formula Libre (anything goes) was not new. In my early spectating days there was always an F. Libre race on nearly every race programme; usually the last race of the day. Absolutely any type of racing car could enter. However, this race was a bit special. It was to be called the Rothmans 50,000, referring to the prize money, as I recall. The thing was it was a very long race, 312 miles. Even now, no single seater car ever races that far other than at Indianapolis, and things were no different then. Grand Prix racing had no refuelling in 1972, so no grand prix car would do 300 miles.
The race was originally conceived 18 months earlier, but met lukewarm reaction then, so it was shelved for a year. Even then the fact is that the race attracted only a fraction of the expected entry. There was much arguing between the F1 teams and the organisers, (how times change !!!) about starting money and prize money. In the end, only 7 F1 cars showed. There was one Lotus (Emerson Fittipaldi), one McLaren (Brian Redman), two B.R.M's (Howden Ganley and Jean-Pierre Beltoise), Frank William's March (Henri Pescarolo), David Purley's March and us.
Peter had entered the car for this race, and we got on with organising how we were going to refuel the car. The simple fact is that it would have to be the 'upturned-can-straight-into-the-fuel-filler' ploy. Our fuel filler was right behind the drivers head, and we would probably have had to remove the cockpit surround (4 dzus fasteners) in order to get to it. There is no doubt that Brands expected a much better entry than it got. The race was on during one of the two weekends between Austria and Italy, so it was a bit hopeful. If my memory serves me right, Lotus went for refuelling, but McLaren and B.R.M built wide, pregnant-looking machines with greatly increased fuel capacity so as to go the full distance without stopping. The B.R.M's had room for 62 gallons !! You can imagine how they handled, can't you ? Should you ever see a picture of one of those cars, you will now know what it's all about.
In addition, there were a number of F5000 cars (big Chevrolet engined cars - equivalent today I suppose to F3000.) Some F2's, one or two with extra tankage, and one Lola-D.F.V sports car. Very disappointing for the organisers, but good news for us, because we felt confident that we could outrun a lot of them, and if we got to the finish it would mean decent cash - possibly enough to take us off to Monza two weeks later. As an aside, I realise now that we would have looked pretty silly at Monza. There were no chicanes there in those days and poor François would have been left miles behind on those long straights when eased the throttle as the rev counter arrived at 9000 r.p.m.
There were two days of practice, and during the first day, the engine stopped. Here we go again !!! In the paddock, we found that a steel shaft which drives the fuel metering unit had broken. Not a great problem, except that we didn't have a spare. No matter, a couple of quick phone calls to Northampton, and one would be waiting to be collected from Cosworths that afternoon. But who would go for it ? The decision was taken that I should go, given my perceived knowledge of the highways and byways of England. Then, another idea formed in somebody's (not my) brain. François could drive me up to Cosworth's, thus relieving me of the strain of the journey. What a wonderful idea !!! We all took the now-familiar drive back through the Dartford tunnel to our base, and while Peter and Roger set to, stripping down the top of the engine to gain access to the broken part François and I set off. Little did I know it, but I was about to embark on THE MOST frightening hour of my life.
You must bear in mind that this was Friday afternoon. Traffic in London was not as bad as it is now, but by any standards, it was a very busy time. Our route would take us up through Chingford and on to Waltham Cross; I was making for the M1 in as direct a way as I could. Now I seem to recall mentioning François' old B.M.W before. It was, no doubt, a fine car - but it wasn't new, or even vaguely new. From the moment we set off, the ride was hair-raising. Remember, this was a French-registered vehicle, and as such was left-hand drive. I was in the front passenger seat, which put me facing the oncoming traffic, every time he decided to pull out and overtake whatever happened to be in his way. Which he did, often….. The fact that something was coming in the opposite direction made little impression on François, from where he was sitting, he couldn't see it. I could, and did with frightening regularity. The problem is that you just can't keep your eyes shut all the time.
Now don't get me wrong here; François was, (no doubt still is) a terrific driver. Typically full of confidence, and with excellent judgement. It's just that I was staring juggernauts in the face while he was still moving out to pass. I'm not saying I was getting used to it, but the dents in the dashboard were beginning to subside when I noticed that he appeared to be pumping the brake pedal each time we had to slow down rapidly, (i.e. about every 30 seconds.) I glanced sideways at him, and received the all-purpose Gallic shrug which translated to “No worries.” But I WAS worried, especially when he began to use the hand-brake as well as the pedal to avoid running into the car in front. I put up with it as far as Waltham Cross, and then absolutely demanded that he stop. When we looked under the bonnet, the brake fluid in the reservoir was boiling. “It does that,” he informed me. “Yes,” I said, “and it's doing it now.” I am not an assertive person by nature, but I flatly refused to go any further. We turned around and motored VERY carefully back to the garage.
I suspect that Peter and Roger thought I was making a fuss about nothing, but then they weren't there ! As part of the help given to us by the Ford Motor Company, an Escort van had been lent to us to use for the race weekend. Another couple of phone calls arranged for me to collect the part from the home of a Cosworth employee who lived near the Santa Pod raceway. I set off, in a fairly sedate manner, happy in the knowledge that I would get there and back without being frightened stupid. Strangely enough, although I am by no means a fast driver, once on the M1, with the speedo needle on 70-75 mph, I seemed to be passing EVERYTHING. It was only some days later that I found out that the van had a non-standard differential fitted, and the speedo was not accurate. We tested it out a few days later. I drove my Hillman Imp at 50 mph, and whoever was driving the van said that it appeared to be about 38 mph. I shudder to think what sort of speed I had been doing on that Friday night.
When I returned to the garage with the new part, I was sent home to bed, while the others fitted the part and built the engine back up again. The following morning saw us back at the track.
I don't remember how many laps we did during the Saturday afternoon practice session, but soon, we had mechanics from other teams running to tell us to bring him in quickly as something was wrong with the engine. Being experienced, they had noticed it before us. We got the 'IN' board ready, but as we hung it out, François came past the pits with smoke pouring from the back of the car, and the engine sounding flat and horrible. After being ignominiously towed back….yet again, (this was becoming a habit at Brands), we found the back of the car, and the rear wing covered in Mr. Duckhams best. François got out of the car, and sadly, was never again to get back in. What had happened, for those who understand these things, was that a small circlip had failed in the bearing which connects the con-rod to the piston. This had allowed the piston to move sideways and in its up and down motion, had split a cylinder liner. Hence all the oil in places where oil should definitely not be ! The other mechanics said that it had sounded 'wrong' for a few laps, but that old inexperience thing had bitten us once again.
The saddest thing was that it meant the end of our deal with François. It was all a bit unfortunate, as we did not part on the best of terms. François' deal was for 5 races, and he had done only one. However, our deal was for a sponsorship of £ 40,000, and Peter reckoned we had seen only £ 10 - 12,000 of it. François was adamant that he couldn't bring any more money, so that was the end of that. Adieu, François.
For the first time in over eighteen months, now we really were depressed. We took the engine out of the car, and carefully stripped it down. Every part was carefully placed in a tray, and then we thought about the future. We certainly could not afford to have it rebuilt, and McLaren would not want it back in its current condition. What to do ? Well, the first thing was to get it to a engine rebuilder. We took the parts up to Race Engine Services, and left it with them on the understanding that if we could actually afford to have it rebuilt sometime, we would let them know, and they would then carry out the work.
Enter David Purley. When we were at Brands for the 50,000 as I mentioned earlier, one of the entries was a March driven by David Purley. David's Father Charlie was the owner of the Lec Refrigeration Company, and he had been paying for David's racing for some years. Charlie Purley was contacted, and a deal struck in which we would prepare the car for David to drive in the end-of-season 'Victory' race at…….oh no……Brands Hatch. It sends shivers down your spine, doesn't it ? The deal was simple; Lec paid for the engine rebuild, and a respray, and really, that was about it. Still, it got us running again. The car look splendid in its new dark blue and red colours, and we managed a reasonable day's testing on the short circuit at….. well, you can guess where, I'm sure !
It was at this time that we discovered how drivers can vary. Within ten minutes of getting in the car for the first time, David had punctured a rear tyre (on a scaffold pole in the old paddock); accidentally ripped his visor off as he was leaving the pits, and returned after about 2 laps with the gear lever knob in his hand. In addition, as his feet were obviously bigger than François' he had to rip the sole off his driving boots to stop them snagging on something in the footwell. In truth, he had more mishaps in 10 minutes than François had in all the miles he drove the car.
During the qualifying session for the race, he came into the pits waving a screwdriver in the air that he had found rolling about down by the pedals. To this day, I can't explain how it got there. I know I was chief suspect, but as sure as I know it was me that caused the oil leak in Austria, I know it wasn't me who left the screwdriver in the car. It could have been nasty of course, and David was very safety conscious (surprising considering he was a paratrooper who fought in Aden.) At the 50,000 he had a very nasty moment when the throttle stuck open on his March, and he nearly had a biggy. This made him nervous of any car which did not have a 'kill-button' to cut off the engine. We fitted one on the steering wheel; bad move !!
The steering-wheel kill-button certainly killed off the Connew Formula One effort. David had qualified at the back, with a lap half a second slower than François managed at the Grand Prix. Nevertheless we were in a buoyant mood on the Saturday night. Unfortunately, I woke up on the Sunday morning feeling awful. I had suffered with an ulcer since the age of 20, and I think the strain and irregular hours of the previous 6 months had finally caught up with me. I really could not face even getting out of bed. I got a message through to Peter, and the team went off to the race without me. Maybe something deep in my sub-conscious knew that the whole thing was doomed to failure yet again. Ironically, guess who had turned up with a brand new March for the race. You've guessed it, François. Sadly, Brands was no friendlier to him now than it had been when he was with us, as he demolished the car on his first lap in practice. It probably didn't handle as well as the Connew !! In order for the button on the steering wheel to work, it had to be wired into the car's electrical system. Naturally, there had to be some play on the wires, and they were wound around the steering column in order to keep them out of the way. David set off on the parade lap, and as he turned into Hawthorn's Bend out the back of the circuit, one of the wires caught on something, and as the steering-wheel turned, it yanked the wire out of the switch. It did its job mind, it killed the engine. The car rolled quietly to a standstill. The F1 Connew Ford ended its career parked sadly and silently by the circuit on which it had had so much ill fortune.
Having missed the race, I also missed the final irony. Peter and his gallant team were so hard up that Peter had to write a cheque for 12½p to pay the toll back through the Dartford Tunnel ! The last month or so had been a period of work without wages. We knew that if we managed any decent sort of result, a deal with Lec might have followed for 1973, so we didn't mind working for nothing. John Webb of Brands Hatch did pay Peter a sum of money for being 'good triers', which was very nice of him as he really didn't have to do it. This gave us a bit of cash, and helped Peter pay off one or two bills, but for me, with responsibilities, this sadly had to be the end of the road.
It is hard to believe that within a week or so of ending my involvement with the Connew Grand Prix effort, I was back behind the same desk at the Co-op Wholesale Funeral Supplies department in Aldgate, East London, that I had left just over 6 months earlier. So much had happened, or in some cases not happened, in those few short months that the whole thing seemed like a dream. Reality set in very quickly once I began ordering coffins etc !!!
My return to the Co-op coincided with the department's move down to Purley in South London, and I moved house from Romford to Old Coulsdon to be near my work. This took me many miles away from Peter, Roger and the garage, and I am ashamed to admit that I totally lost touch with the whole project. I suppose it had to be either a clean break or nothing. I decided on a clean break.
However, it was not quite the end of the story for the team and their car. Obviously, my knowledge of the following year is sketchy in the extreme, and unfortunately, as the car was no longer involved in Formula One racing, the events of that year are nowhere near as well documented. I will attempt to piece things together for you, and although events should be more or less in the correct order, I cannot put the timings down with any certainty.
Fairly early in 1973, Peter made contact with a Swiss race driver by the name of Pierre Soukry. I suspect this was probably another deal organised by Brian Kreisky's Promoto outfit. Soukry owned a 5 litre iron block Chevrolet V.8 engine, which was being used at that time in the Formula 5000 series. Today's equivalent would be F.3000. A deal was done, and with certain modifications around the back end of the chassis, the big Chevvy mill was bolted on. I think the Hewland DG.300 gearbox was retained from the F.1 car. The car was entered for a race at Mallory Park, and actually took part. (Can anyone tell me how it got on ?) I sold all my old Autosports a couple of years ago, otherwise I could have looked it up !
Pierre Soukry was not the world's greatest driver, and little or no success came the Connew's way with himdriving it. However, I gather he was a pleasant enough guy to deal with, so at least it got the car onto a grid again.
After the connection with Pierre Soukry came to an end, I belive that a period of inactivity followed. But it was not quite the end of the end, because onto the scene came a quite well-known young British driver, who had been hovering around the single-seater scene for a while at that time. Tony Trimmer is the man. Apologies for the vagueness, but I believe the engine used by Tony was a different one, as Soukry had taken his home with him (I may be wrong about that) but anyway, it was nearing the end of the season, and the car was readied for Tony to drive in an F.5000 race at…. I bet you're way ahead of me on this, aren't you ? Yes. You've guessed it; Brands again !!! I bet you can predict the outcome too. And you're right !
Sometime during the meeting, I believe actually in the race, the top of one of the shock absorbers broke off. The car was just turning into Stirlings Bend, and unrestrained by the shock absorber, the coil spring which was around it shot off, upwards into the woods that to this day, still surround that left-hand corner before Clearways. The car went out of control, and hit the right-hand armco barrier; fortunately, not that hard, but enough to ding the chassis.
And that, dear reader, really was the end. A few years ago, during a meeting to celebrate John Surtees' 60th birthday, I walked around the Grand Prix circuit. It was the first time I had visited it in years, and on a beautiful July day, with no-one else around, it was a very poignant time for me. As I skirted those woods by Stirlings Bend, I was almost tempted to climb the fence and have a ferret around in there to see if the spring is still there. Peter told me years ago that they never got it back. Age, and common sense prevented me from undertaking the search. I thought about many moments on that walk. Most of them sad. Francois and Dave Purley tearing around in qualifying for various races, and failing to get a single Brands Hatch start between them. At least Tony Trimmer managed it, I think. I thought too of Jo Siffert as I walked around Hawthorns. Then there was that point down in Dingle Dell, where I had stood and cheered my own personal hero, Dan Gurney, on to victory in the Eagle at the '67 Race of Champions. Wonderfully for me, I had actually met and shook hands with the man himself just an hour or so earlier that very day !!
However, I digress !! Time had finally run out for Peter and his gallant team. The F.1 engine was sold to Tom Wheatcroft, and after McLaren had their cut, a few bills were paid. The gearbox was sold to Alain de Cadenet who almost certainly had it fitted to one of his sports cars when he raced at Le Mans later in the seventies. Ironic, that, if you think about it.
There was a break-in at the garage, and some machinery, and wheels were stolen. Amusingly, Peter got the wheels back when a local motor trader was 'offered' some cheap wheels, and fairly quickly sussed out that they were not off your average Ford Cortina. The culprit was apprehended, apparently.
What of the car ? Where is it now ? Well, I was at Peter's house in Essex recently, and he opened up one of his sheds, to show me all the bits, still there. Two chassis', noses, cockpit canopy, wheels, suspension, etc etc etc. In fact, just about everything required to put the thing back together again. What is missing, of course, is an engine and gearbox. Expensive items ! If anyone reading this has a spare Cosworth DFV V8, and/or a Hewland DG.300 gearbox knocking about spare, or going (very) cheap, please let me know. Peter does hope to put 'the old girl' back together again one day; not necessarily as a runner, but just to see it standing there on wheels again, would be wonderful. Of course, the car should really be at Donington. They've got the Bellasi there, for heaven's sake !!!
I now live in North West Wales, so I am not able to give much help with regard to rebuilding the car, but every time I go to Peter's, (about every 2 years !) I have to have another look in that shed.
Before I wrap this story up for the last time, I feel that I must give a mention to as many of the people who were involved with the car, as I can possibly remember. I apologise profusely to anyone whose name I omit. The two Doran men, Roger and his Father, Ron or 'Daddy D', as we knew him were irreplaceable. Roger could have been a top Chief Mechanic with an F.1 team had circumstances been different. A really first-class man. Ron's welding was top class. The poor man collapsed with exhaustion and tension after Trimmer's crash at Brands, but happily, recovered completely. George Lake and Steve Bertrand were guys who were involved on and off through the two years. George drove trucks, and was always there for us when we moved the car around Britain. He became more involved in a hands-on sense after I left.
The there was Pinky and Perky. I never really knew them; they came around the workshop to lend support, and were absorbed into the team as wheel polishers and, I suppose, gofers. One of them was called Dave Justice, but I don't know whether he was Pinky or Perky, and I'm afraid that not even Peter can remember the other guy's name. Some mention should be made of Ronnie Olive, who left us early; and of J.G, John Gargin, sadly no longer with us, in whose Hornchurch garage the chassis were constructed. Finally, a mention for maybe THE most enthusiastic member of the whole outfit; our accountant Don Strachan. A man whose knowledge of motor sport could easily have been written on the back of a postage stamp, and still left room for the shopping list ! and yet here was a person absolutely swept along by the whole happening, and never, but never, down-hearted or disillusioned in any way.
So there you have it. Summing up, I suppose a couple of questions come to mind. Was it worth it ? Was it a success ?
Was it worth it ? You bet your life it was. It has to be the most exciting thing that I have ever, or probably will ever be involved in. (Unless I win the lottery, of course.) I am sure that everyone involved would say the same. Also, of course, in these multi-million dollar days of F1, it is a totally unrepeatable event.
Was it a success ? Difficult one, that. Certainly, given the enormous number of man-hours, effort and no little love and affection that went into it over the couple of years of its existence, there was VERY little to show at the end. That has to be classed as failure. But, before he begun the whole thing, Peter's stated aim was to build a Formula One Grand Prix car, and see it compete in a Grand Prix. On that basis, you would have to say yes, it was 100 % successful. O.K, only one Grand Prix, and a non-finish, but a Grand Prix for all that.
Where are we now ? Well, Roger and Peter live quite close to each-other in Essex, although I gather that they do not meet often these days. Roger, like me is 50 this year, and has fairly recently sold the shop-fitting business which he successfully built up in the post-Connew days. Peter is still involved with cars; doing design consultancy work for Ford Motor Company. And he is not particularly interested in motor racing; well, after all, he never really was.
I finally returned to teaching, in Caernarfon, North Wales. A long way from where I grew up. However, as far as motor sport goes, I was, and still am, deeply interested. I regret the passing of the great circuits, and I abhor these ground-hugging cars and the lack of overtaking they cause, but that's progress for you.
The last word. Even now, I feel privileged to have been involved with the F1 Connew. It gave me something that will be with me forever.
It is now more that 30 years since that day in Austria. As you will find elsewhere on this site, the Connew dream is still very much alive and as we get older, the desire to see the car standing there in its red and yellow colours grows ever stronger.
Awesome pic, but Tony you're not doing yourself many favours posting up tips on preventing the gag reflex and then a picture of a guy touching his toes - Ak