MOTOR SPORT FLASHBACK
Steve, and became David Oxton the father and David Oxton the mechanic — there for you in the pouring rain with jumper leads because, deep down, he’s a really good guy. This month, Oxo celebrates a significant birthday — on behalf of all the fans from a sport to which Oxo has given so much, many happy returns, my friend!
While I’m on the subject of significant birthdays — it strikes me that most of us who are besotted with cars have our father to thank. I’m no exception. Leighton Clark is more of a car enthusiast than a motor racing fan; for him, things out of the ordinary always had intrigue. Sure, we had the almost obligatory Vauxhalls and Zephyrs, but they were interspersed with a Triumph 2000 in 1969. The Triumph was quickly too small for the growing family, but that could never be said of the car I learnt to drive in: a Ford Fairlane 500. I spotted one at Phillip Island earlier this year. Ours was a later model, with the stacked headlights, but our white Ford with its maroon upholstery was so impressive that I never needed pocket money to encourage me to wash it.
I’d left home by the time the first of the family XJ6S turned up; then came dual French Peugeot and Citroën flirtations, an Audi coupé, and a Volvo, but you can’t help being impressed by someone who waits until his early 80s to buy his first Italian car. Dad had decided an Alfa Romeo 156 wagon would suit his every need and I, concerned that changing gear might quickly lose its novelty, recommended an auto, to which he responded, “If I’m driving an Alfa, why would I want it to be automatic?” Happy 85th, Dad!
It is 40 years since the small plane carrying Graham Hill and five members of his eponymous racing team crashed, killing all six on board. The double world champion was 46 and had retired from the driver’s seat earlier in 1975. His was a career that went on longer than those of many others during the most precarious time to be a racing driver. Hill remains the only world champion to have also won the Indianapolis 500 — which he did on debut — and Le Mans. He was nicknamed ‘Mr Monaco’ because he won there five times. In addition to the 14 worldchampionship Grands Prix, there were numerous other victories in Formula 2, the Tasman Series (including the New Zealand Grand Prix, twice), non-championship Formula 1 races, and sports cars — not bad for a guy who is so often tagged by ‘experts’ as not a natural; he only got there with determination and willpower.
Hill’s career stretched from the late ’50s to the mid ’ 70s — a period that encompassed the latter part of the era when Stirling Moss was ‘the man’, all of Jim Clark’s career and all of the career of Jackie Stewart, who took over the mantle from his fellow Scot. Admittedly, Hill was a level below those three — but some historians rate him as a mezzanine man who was lucky to back into a few decent results. Based on Hill’s achievements, all I can say is that he must have been outstanding at reversing!
Of course, the other thing about Norman Graham Hill is that he was a born entertainer — as a stand-up comedian, perhaps only Frank Gardner was better among top-line racing drivers.
Unfortunately, Hill’s son, Damon, got the same ‘not a natural’ tag — this being the 1996 world champion who could have easily joined his father as a double title-holder had it not been for that cynical punt at Adelaide in 1994 by the man who went on to take that season’s crown. Damon didn’t inherit the impromptu entertainer ability, but I much enjoyed his pithy pre-race and post-race comments — in fact, these days I increasingly find myself watching more of that and the qualifying than the actual Grand Prix.
Damon has admitted that he probably would never have gone motor racing had his father not been killed — it’s a fascinating insight, and it made me wonder if the same might be true of drivers such as Jacques Villeneuve.
In addition to ‘the guv’nor’, four other members of Hill’s F1 team were on board the Piper Aztec on that fateful flight in November 1975, including his highly promising young English driver, Tony Brise — one of three British drivers featured in David Tremayne’s book the others being Roger Williamson and Tom Pryce. It is a wonderful book, and, if you can track down a copy, I thoroughly recommend it.
RIP, Guy Ligier
This tough Frenchman passed away recently aged 85. Although better known for the F1 cars bearing his name, Ligier was also a driver — albeit of modest ability — during the ’60s. In 1966, F1 returned to power with the introduction of three-litre engines. Ligier bought a Cooper-maserati. In 1967, he replaced it with a year-old
Repco-brabham, which he painted pale blue, as he’d done with the Cooper. After fading out as a driver shortly afterwards, Ligier re-emerged as an entrant at Le Mans and then returned to F1 as a constructor in 1976.
Initially, the F1 Ligiers had Matra V12s in the back, but their glory years were 1979 and 1980, when, with a good ground-effect system and Cosworths, they were regularly contenders, with Jacques Laffite, Patrick Depailler, and Didier Pironi at the wheel. The Matras returned in 1981, and Laffite went to the final round with a shot at emerging world champion.
Team fortunes waxed and waned during the rest of that decade, and, eventually, the founder sold out. He’d had an extraordinary life, in which he’d been orphaned, played for France B in rugby, made two or three fortunes — and raced in F1!
Chris Amon told me how he and Guy Ligier met: “I was in a Formula 2 race at Albi, and I came up to lap this guy who just wouldn’t let me past. I’m shaking my fist at him and eventually I get by. After the race, Jo Schlesser wanders over — I’d got to know him a bit — and says, ‘I’d like to introduce you to the man you were shaking your fist at’. I look up at this monster — he was a rugby prop — and think, ‘This might not end well’. But, in no time, Guy is patting me on the back and we remained on good terms.”
In fact, in mid 1979, when Depailler had crashed his hang-glider and thereby put himself out of racing for the rest of the year, a call was placed from France to a farmhouse just out of Bulls. It was, however, nearly three years since Chris had last raced in F1, and he passed up on the opportunity.