MOTOR SPORT FLASHBACK
DINNER AND A CHAT WITH ONE OF THE BEST THAT’S EVER BEEN
Over the last three decades, we have occasionally seen situations in which drivers have been prepared to take a competitor ‘out’ so that they could go on and win the Formula 1 (F1) World Championship. This happened in 1989, 1990, 1994, and 1997. Frankly, it was a blight on not just F1 but also much of motor racing generally — as in, ‘if world champions can get away with it, then why not me?’ The concept of ‘rubbing is racing’ is nothing new, but it arguably became more acceptable during the ’90s because world champions were doing it on TV — albeit only three: Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, and Michael Schumacher.
It was a quite a different story during much of ‘the good old days’ — for a start, the fragility of the cars, combined with the rudimentary levels of circuit and apparel safety, which would be laughed at today, meant that punting a competitor could have dire, or potentially fatal, consequences. Six decades ago, F1 witnessed an act that stands out as the highest echelon of the sport’s greatest example of sportsmanship. Here’s a quick recap to put it in context.
Juan Manuel Fangio won the fifth of his five World Championships in 1957 for Maserati in the ultimate version of that company’s seminal 250F. He’d crowned that season with the famous victory at the Nürburgring, where he’d chased down the Ferrari pair of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. Both Englishmen were again representing the Scuderia in 1958, along with Italy’s next great hope, the gifted-buterratic Luigi Musso. The patriotic Tony Vandervell only had room for Englishmen in his Vanwall team that was led by Stirling Moss with the massively talented Tony Brooks and promising young Stuart Lewis-evans. BRM was, at last, getting better and had Harry Schell and Jean Behra, while a couple of outfits located around the edge of London built markedly different-looking cars that were both powered by a fire-pump-based engine. The world would be hearing a bit more of Climax-powered Coopers and Lotuses before long.
In fact, Moss won the season opening race in the searing Argentinean heat, which was not only a first for Cooper and Climax — it was also the first for a ‘mid-rear’-engine car in F1. It would be another year until Cooper, combined with the genius of Jack Brabham and Bruce Mclaren, would turn their cart-before-the-horse concept in to a world title– challenging proposition, but, for 1958, they were mainly ‘make-weights’, albeit well clear of Lotus. Maserati had officially pulled out at the end of 1957, but Fangio was back in semi-works effort until he called it quits after the French Grand Prix (GP) — the once-dominant combination was no longer a force. As a mark of respect, the race winner, Hawthorn, allowed the South American great to pass him near the end, so as not to suffer the indignity of having been lapped. As he parked the 250F, Fangio is alleged to have told his mechanic “it is finished”.
After winning in Argentina in a Cooper for his friend and patron Rob Walker, Moss was back in the aerodynamic Vanwalls for the rest of the season. Five months after the opener, round two was run around the streets of Monaco, and the very same Cooper again prevailed — this time in the hands of Maurice Trintignant. Moss won in the
Netherlands and then Brooks took Spa. Like Chris Amon, the dentist always shone on the most challenging tracks. Vanwall was looking good but the Ferraris were accumulating points — the team’s 2.4-litre V6 Dino was dwarfed alongside the tall Vanwalls. Musso was killed at Reims, which marred Hawthorn’s victory. Collins won at Silverstone but was killed during the German GP that followed, a race won by Brooks.
In late August, the World Championship visited Portugal for the first time — round nine (this was a time when the Indianapolis 500 was a round of the World Championship — a daft concept that was soon dropped), which meant that there were two races to go. Only two cars completed the 50 laps — Moss from Hawthorn — but the Ferrari driver was subsequently disqualified.
“I hope you and Sandy like pasta, boy — because we’re booked at Da Corradi.” Hell, I’d have eaten offal (actually no, I wouldn’t have …). I was off to dinner with Lady Susie and Sir Stirling and still pinching myself as we strolled from the hi-tech Mayfair home I’d been reading about since I was a boy to the delightful Italian restaurant at the end of his street. What on earth do you
start talking about, over your risotto ai frutti di mare, when presented with the opportunity to chat with one of the best that’s ever been? “Tell me about the 1958 Portuguese Grand Prix.” At the time of our dinner date, it was just over a half a century since the event, but then Stirling was always known for his accurate memory. “I was on pole and Mike [Hawthorn] was alongside me — of course, you know how close he and Peter [Collins] were, and it was less than a month since we’d been in Germany — first poor Musso then Peter — it was a terrible time. It was wet at the start, and that suited me but Mike slipped by briefly. As the conditions improved, I took the lead and that was it, you know”.
What I was really interested in was Hawthorn’s disqualification, and Stirling, sensing that that was the point of my question, continued: “The officials thought [that] they’d seen Mike reversing on the track after a spin — I shouted out to him ‘steer downhill, boy — bump-start the thing’. Well, they wanted to disqualify him, so I went to the stewards and told them what I’d seen, so they reinstated him — quite rightly”. Hawthorn got back the six points, and so they headed to Italy with the Ferrari driver on 37 points and Moss on 32. There were eight points for a win in those days, plus one for the fastest lap. A Vanwall won at Monza, but it was Brooks, not Moss, who’d suffered a gearbox problem. Hawthorn was second and so the gap widened. The final round was in Morocco — 60 years ago this month and the only time that F1 has visited North Africa. The points-scoring system was such that Moss could still win the title, but, to do so, he had to win and set the fastest lap, and needed Hawthorn to finish no higher than third.
Win he did, and he also put in the fastest lap — but the Ferrari driver was second and, thanks to his non-disqualification in Portugal, was crowned world champion. He’d won a single race to Moss’ four, but, thanks to the reliability of the Italian V6, and the scoring system, he’d done enough — by a solitary point.
“A lot of people have asked me if I regretted speaking up — after all, I’d have been world champion, but I couldn’t have lived with myself. These days, they’ll drive someone off the road to win a championship, but that’s not the way to go racing, boy,” Moss told me.
To cap a horrendous year, his teammate Lewis-evans crashed during the Moroccan race and died a few days later. Vanwall withdrew from racing entirely, and Hawthorn announced his retirement only to die in a road accident early in 1959.
It doesn’t take long to appreciate that all the words written about the admiration Sir Stirling has for Juan Manuel Fangio are, if anything, an understatement — “He was the best” followed by “but that’s just my opinion, boy”. Well, it’s an opinion that carries one heck of a lot of cred. They were teammates at Mercedes-benz in 1955, when the young Englishman finished runner-up in the World Championship — the first of four times, which rather cemented his position as the best driver never to be champion.
“He was incredibly fit, you know; he didn’t look it by modern standards, but he had stamina, which he’d honed on those long races in South America,” Moss said. The events Stirling was referring to were the longest marathons ever witnessed — the vastness of the continent providing some of the most tortuous tests of man and machine ever seen. Eighty years ago this month, in fact, from 18 to 30 October, Fangio — nicknamed ‘El Chueco’ (‘the bowlegged one’) — headed off as a co-driver/mechanic for a friend in the Gran Premio Argentino de Carreteras — a journey of some 7400km that would traverse Andean mountain passes. A 1937 Ford sedan was the vehicle of choice for this epic, and the pair finished seventh — the car’s owner quickly became exhausted, and Fangio took over the driving — his days as a support driver were over as he became a specialist on these enduros.
In 1939, he turned to a new Chev coupé and so began the career of El Chueco the racer. In 1941, he triumphed in the Mil Lillas (1000 miles) Argentina, meaning that,
“A lot of people have asked me if I regretted speaking up — after all, I’d have been world champion, but I couldn’t have lived with myself. These days, they’ll drive someone off the road to win a championship, but that’s not the way to go racing, boy”
if he hadn’t previously, he had come to the attention of Juan and Eva Perón. Anxious to promote Argentina on the world stage, the Peróns supported local drivers to Europe, which included Fangio — by then in his 30s. He had a staggeringly successful debut season in 1949, joined Alfa Romeo for the first World Championship in 1950 — in which he finished runner-up to teammate Giuseppe ‘Nino’ Farina — and then won the first of his five titles in 1951. In addition to Alfa, he would win titles for Mercedes-benz, Ferrari, and Maserati. Many (most of who never saw him race) rate him as one of the best ever, but, for Stirling Moss — who raced both with and against him — he was El Maestro, the best.
This month also marks 30 years since Jim Richards won the first of his seven victories at Bathurst. His co-driver was Peter Brock, the only person with more wins around Mount Panorama, with nine. They were driving Holden’s A9X, and, for the Manurewa lad, it was his first experience of a works team. He and Rod Coppins had made their debuts at Bathurst in 1974, astonishing everyone by finishing third — Coppins co-drove with Richards in two more ‘Great Races’ before Jim got the invitation to join Brock. Allan Moffat’s pair of XC Falcon GS500 Hardtops had destroyed the General Motors (GM) attack in 1977, and, in Richards, Holden signed up the best free-agent in the business.
Interestingly, at the time, Jim was heavily involved with the products of the prime competitor — in fact, in 1978, he finished second in the Australian Sports Sedan Championship in his own XC Falcon and, indeed, continued running it in 1979, by which time he was firmly in ‘the General’s camp’ for Bathurst. He and Brock won by a massive six laps in 1979, again in an A9X. He then achieved the hat-trick in 1980 with the first win for the Commodore. Affectionately known in Australia as ‘Richo’, he won his last Bathurst in 2002 — again in a Commodore. Of the seven wins, three were with Brock, another three with Mark Skaife (new for Nissan and that last one in a Holden), and with Swede Rickard Rydall in a Volvo in 1998.
When Jim Palmer and I bumped into him at Bathurst last year, he told us that he hasn’t missed a meeting there since that first one with Coppins in 1974. What a career he’s had — and, as a fellow Manurewa lad, I can still see him driving up Weymouth Road in his red Anglia van towing his Anglia ‘race car’ behind on an A-frame. That made quite an impression on an already-car-crazy nine-year-old — I mentioned this to him in an after-dinner interview at the Skope Classic earlier this year and he responded, “You know, the funny thing [was], we went right around the South Island that summer, towing the racing car on that A-frame — me and one mate in the van, and two other friends who did the whole trip sitting in the race car staring at the back of the van — that was their summer holiday!”
Me with ‘God’ in the lobby of his hi-tech Mayfair home September 2008. Mrs C in the background
Below: Museo Juan Manuel Fangio, Balcarce, Argentina
Right: Hawthorn and Collins, in Ferraris in 1957 at the Nürburgring, featuring on the cover of Chris Nixon’s brilliant book on the pair
Above: A great autographed Bill Pottinger shot of Jim Richards in that Anglia at Teretonga, February 1968
Right: Jim Richards and Jim Palmer at Bathurst, 2017 (photo: Michael Clark)