Part 3

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.

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