MO­TOR SPORT FLASH­BACK

New Zealand Classic Car - - Motor Sport Flashback - By Michael Clark

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!

Father’s Day

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!

Fallen hero

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.

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