Part 2 F1 and beyond
By 1974 I was living in Old Windsor close to the old Rondel workshop. The house was well known in the business as it was shared by at least 6 mechanics and was also a staging post for any Ausie or Kiwi looking to get into motor racing.
There was a strict regime that we worked to and the house was kept immaculately clean. When I moved in you had to start at the bottom of the pack which meant cleaning the loos etc. Dale Portious had the job of cleaning the cooker, it was an old gas Belling job but every week even if it had not been used Dale stripped it down to clean it just like a race car and it always looked brand new. I shared the front bedroom (dormitory A) with Dale (McLaren), Chas Dodd (Surtees) and Bob Dance (Brabham). In the box room was Pat Kay (Heskith) and Kerry Adams (McLaren) had the back bedroom. It sounds cramped but most of the time the place was empty as we all passed like ships in the night, either working or at races.
The house was a great place to live, you really felt at the centre of things. Most of the top teams were close by and there were lots of parties so you got to know everyone. The Fox & Castle pub opposite the house was the main meeting place and at the end of the racing season we would spend most of our time recounting greatly embellished stories and working out the best driver’s excuse for not finishing the race.
There seemed to be a lot more camaraderie between the mechanics back then and we would always try to help each other out if we could. We did not earn much money and the work could be seasonal unless you were with one of the big teams, but we always seemed to have enough the last the winter out and make regular contributions to Stan’s (the landlord of the pub) pension fund.
Alan McCall was one of the locals who lived in the next village and shared a house with Herby Blash. Alan had been at Lotus with Jim Clark and then at McLaren. He was running the F1 Hexagon Brabham BT 42 for John Watson and after Eamon (Chalky) Fullalove left the team to go to work in the States he asked me to join him. The timing was just right as I was no longer enjoying F2 and Kuwashima did not look like he was going to set the world on fire.
My first race was the Spanish GP at Jaharma and full of enthusiasm to be in F1 I headed off down to Spain in the team’s Citrone Safari. The race started wet and then started to dry out, then the pinnacle of motor sport suddenly turned into a Benny Hill sketch as the whole field seemed to come in to change to dry tyres on the same lap. No one was prepared except Ferrari. There were cars everywhere, mechanics running all over the place like headless chickens, wheels bouncing down the pit lane and I thought ‘what have I got my self into?’. Thankfully things have got a little better today. The result was a predicted one two for Ferrari giving Lauda his first F1 win.
The BT 42 was not the quickest of cars but Alan made the most of it by changing a few things, notably the front nose. Later that year Hexagon got a BT44, with its stiffer chassis and semi-inboard rising rate front suspension it addressed many of the shortcomings of the BT42. John’s best result in the BT42 was 6th at Monaco and a 4th at the Austrian GP at Osterreichring in the BT44. Alan McCall left the team after the Dutch GP at Zandvoort and after the British GP in July I felt it was time for me to move on too.
At the end of July I went to take over the running of the Token F1 car. My old boss from the Rondel days Neil Trundle had left to go to Tyrrell leaving Ray Jessop the designer with no chief mechanic. The team was badly under funded and no one had managed to make the car fast, not even Tom Price who had left the team after the Belgian GP to go to Shadow leaving David Purley to unsuccessfully try to qualify the car at the British GP. You would be right in thinking that this was not going to be the best move I had ever made.
After several ghosters to get the car ready Ian Flux, who was acting as chief gofer, and myself headed off to the Nurburgring. Ian Ashley was going to be the next driver, or should I say victim, to try his luck. He managed to get the car on the back of the grid but on the warm up lap the front right tyre went flat and came off the rim damaging the suspension. After driving the car all the way back to the pits and a quick inspection I set back to the garages which were miles away to get a new top wishbone. I ran all the way back to the pit to fit it on the car and just managed to get the car out before the pit lane closed. Ian started from the back of the grid and after the first lap he came round still at the back but at least six places up due to lots of accidents. The big problem was that the car had lots of positive camber due to not being able to set the car up properly after the top wishbone change, then half way through the race he is in again with another flat tyre. We did not realise at the time but the wheels were porous, which was a shame as he was running quite well but we still we managed to finish 14th. The next race was Austria but due to the same problems with the wheels Ian missed out on a mid field finish ending up 13th. After Austria Ian threw the towel in and so did I.
For the last three races Ian was going to drive the old Hexagon BT42 and asked me to look after it for him. The car was at The Chequered Flag in London so on my return from Austria I was full of renewed optimism, I mean what could go wrong? I knew the car, it was not a front runner, but at least it was reliable, so off to Chiswick to get it ready for Monza. The Chequered Flag was a car dealership owned by Graham Warner and the Brabham was round the back in the workshops, well words cannot describe the state the car was in, it was just a pile of junk with cardboard boxes full of rubbish. I spent a couple of days going through what we had and came to the conclusion that it was a waste of time going to the next race Monza, much better to spend the time getting her ready for the last two races in Canada and the USA, with a car in that condition it was just dangerous. On the third day it was time to give Graham the bad news. He did not want to listen and I was not going to compromise on safety, so next thing my trusty tool box is back in the boot of the car and I am on my way back to Old Windsor and a well earned pint in the Fox & Castle.
With time to reflect over the winter I was tired of working on under funded and most of all under staffed race teams, it was just bloody hard work for no gain. So in 1975, with a little help from Debbie my current girl friend who was also tired of me never being there, I decided to walk away from motor racing and do a proper job working in a machine shop in Staines. I lasted about 6 months and then I got a call from Harvey Postlethwaite the designer at Hesketh. I had known Harvey from my days at March and had the highest regard for him. He was looking for someone to go out to Germany to look after one of their 308s that the German driver Harald Ertl had purchased. It all sounded a bit familiar, but the job in Staines was driving me insane and the bad taste from the year before had gone, and when Debbie got to hear of my plans, so had she.
I liked the Hesketh set-up, they did not take themselves too seriously and their driver James Hunt was an old drinking buddy from my F2 days, so next thing I am off to the Nurburgring with my trusty tool box in the boot of the car. On arrival I made my way over to Harald’s garage and there to greet me was Harald sporting a full beard and handlebar moustache, not quite the archetypal F1 driver I was used to, but he was very friendly and spoke good English. The car looked great in its gold Warsteiner beer livery and Warsteiner had even supplied a few kegs of beer which increased my popularity in the paddock no end, maybe my luck was about to change. I enjoyed working for Harald, he was easy to get on with and had a relaxed style about him, but it seems hard to imagine today with F1 teams employing up to a thousand people, that I was the only employee with the roll as chief mechanic, truckee, gear box man, engine man, and for this race, barman. Harald had a few weekend warriors to help but the rest was down to me.
Well there I was in at the deep end again, but this time I had a good car and Harald looked surprisingly quick, and at the end of the weekend we had an eight place to celebrate, things were definitely on the up. Harald had arranged for me to use a workshop in Landau a town south of Mannheim and close to Hockenheim, it was a garage owned by a friend of Harald’s specialising in De Tomaso and Ferrari. I was living with a family in a small village just outside the town and as I did not speak much German I spent most of my time at the workshop working on the car. It could be quite lonely at times but at least I was doing what I enjoyed most, working on race cars.
The next race was the Austrian GP at the Osterreichring and after 29 laps the race was stopped by a massive thunder storm. Harald was running well but water got into the engine and the car stopped out on the circuit just before the finish. Brambilla was the winner but spun the car as he crossed the line and knocked the nose off.
Monza 1975 was to be my last race with Harald and although the results did not show it I think it was probably his best race. Having qualified in a respectable 17th position the race started with the two Ferraris of Regazzoni and Lauda leading the pack, but on the second lap going into the first chicane Scheckter who was in 3rd place got it all wrong and caused a big pile up (he was good at that). Several cars were out, Harald managed to avoid damaging his car but had flat spotted the right front tyre so next time round he was in for a new tyre. It took a full lap to change it due to the fact that I had no quick lift jack and air hammer to remove the wheel, meanwhile out on the track the two Ferraris had pulled out a good lead on the rest due to the carnage at the chicane. Just as they passed the pits out shot Harald to join the race splitting the two Ferraris, and that is where he stayed for a few laps before letting Lauda through. He was really flying and the engine was so strong it could stay with the Ferraris no problem. Harald finished 9th one lap down, he had let Fittipaldi, Reutemann and Hunt past but I don’t think Price who finished 6th ever did get past. After the race the stewards questioned whether Harald had been holding people up until Niki and James explained it was quite the opposite, they had problems staying with him!
After Monza and my time with Harald I was enjoying my racing again and after a one off trip to Rome to help look after an F2 Chevron B29 for Fred Opert Racing, I returned back to Old Windsor and that pint waiting on the bar of the Fox & Castle.
Over the winter of 1975/76 I was back at March building two 762 formula two cars for Willi Kauhsen Racing. This was great fun as Willi was backed by Ford and he loaned me a Cologne Capri RS to use as transport. It was the car that Jackie Stewart had been using to take VIP and journalists around various circuits, it was a bit of a wreck but very fast. With its fat wheel arches and works Ford blue and white paint job it looked the part, but it used as much oil as it did petrol (and it used a lot of petrol), but after finishing work at Bicester every night the blast home down the M40 to Windsor could be quite exciting.
At the beginning of 1976 I had been taking an interest in the Formula Atlantic series that was gaining momentum in Canada and America and lots of British mechanics were out their looking after the Lolas, Marchs, and Chevrons. I had been contacted by Bobby Brown an American who was looking for someone to look after his new Chevron B34 for the coming season. The money looked good and I had never been to North America, and as Willi Kauhsen was running his cars out of Germany and I did not fancy another year over there the decision was not difficult.
On my arrival in New York the US Customs did not for some obscure reason welcome me with open arms, something about work permits, green cards etc. After a long debate and some reassurances from Bobby they let me in, but they kept my passport and I had to go for an interview at the Immigration department in New York. I have never seen so many nationalities in one place and they all had one thing in common, making America their home. No wonder Customs were a bit uptight with me, it took a few weeks to sort out but it all worked out in the end.
Bobby lived on Long Island and had a RV centre selling new and used motor homes. His home was a big converted barn and the race shop was on the side of the house. I had a room in the house so it was not far to work in the morning. After a couple of weeks getting the car ready we used a club race at Lime Rock just outside New York to shake the car down, there was no real competition so Bobby won with ease.
First race was at Road Atlanta we had a 25ft motor home with a 20ft enclosed trailer on the back, which made me quite a big outfit. The trip down was uneventful but when you start driving around in the States you start to realise just how big the whole place is. Still it was worth the trip as we won, cannot be a bad start. Next race was at Laguna Seca in California and if you think Atlanta was a bit of a hike the trip from Long Island to Laguna Seca made it look like a trip to the shops. Setting off with Bobby’s girl friend and one of his weekend warriors to share the driving I’m off through Indianapolis to pick up Interstate 80 passing through Wyoming to Cheyenne.
I am in a truck stop in Cheyenne and a couple of truckers come over and ask me where I am going ‘Salt Lake City’ I reply, they looked a bit surprised, ‘you are not going through the mountains tonight in that rig with no chains’, ‘of course’ I reply not seeing any snow around and off they went muttering something about a mad limey. Off into the night I go getting higher into the Medicine Bow mountains then it starts to snow, and snow, but true to the old saying if in doubt keep going we kept going, passing trucks all over the place, some down ditches lots just stuck in the snow, still somehow I managed to keep it going and get down the other side into Laramie. We stopped at a truck stop to get fuel and stretch our legs but we could not get the side door open on the motor home and we had to give it a good kick. When we eventually did get out the problem became apparent, we had been through an ice storm, the whole of the motor home was covered in a thick layer of ice and the trailer looked like a huge ice cube from all the spray off the motor home. I wish I had taken a photo.
We were making good time and passed through Salt Lake City heading for Wendover when the axle on the trailer broke right in the middle of the Salt Lake. We limped into Wendover to assess the damage, the axle was bent beyond repair so we phoned Bobby to get one flown out. With no time to spare its back to Salt Lake City to pick up the new axle from the Airport fit it on the trailer and back on the road losing just under a day. What a trip that was, it’s the best way to see America, nearly 3000 miles but well worth it. The race at Laguna Seca did not go well, the front lower wishbone broke in the famous corkscrew. Bobby was unhurt and the car suffered little damage but it unnerved Bobby and at the next race at Ontario motor speedway in Los Angeles the updated version flown in from the UK broke again in practise. Bobby went well in the race and was fighting for the lead with the great Gilles Villeneuve when Gilles’ car sent some debris straight through Bobby’s radiator, the next thing he’s into the pits looking like a Stanley steamer, DNF.
Bobby never got his confidence back with the Chevron and with the combination of Villeneuve and the rapidly improving March we found ourselves on the back foot for the rest of the American series and the races in Canada. At the end of the season I was back in England looking for a job.
At the start of 1977 Tyrrell were looking for someone to look after the test car. This car was the famous P34 6 wheeler and my old friend Ronnie Peterson was to drive it, so I jumped at the chance to work for one of the top F1 teams. Tony Fox and I were to look after the first car in F1 to have an on-board data logging system. A very clever American by the name of Karl Kempf had built the system around a recorder using a standard cassette tape that recorded pitch, yaw, throttle, steering and suspension movement. It worked very well, which is more that can be said for the car, it was heavy, complicated especially trying to get a good set up. As the season went on the car got even heavier with its front mounted oil coolers and wide track front suspension. Ronnie did not like the car and at one test he came in complaining of understeer, he had not even noticed that he had lost one of the front wheels, well there were lots of them. I think the nail in the P34’s coffin was that Goodyear gave up and stopped developing rubber for it.
Tony left after a couple of months so John Dabbs took over to help with this unconventional and unloved car, Derek Gardner left at the end of the year having been with Ken since 1970 and designed some of their great cars. It’s a shame the P34 became his swan song, he never designed another F1 car, but he did design a nice little sports aircraft. I like designers that take risks and push the boundaries and the P34 certainly did that, but as the saying goes, if you are going to make a quantum leap make sure you are not standing next to a cliff.
The P34 was an enormously popular car with the fans, everywhere we went with the car there were always big crowds round our garage.
More recently the P34 has been a popular sight at historic racing events, proving to be surprisingly competitive once more. This was made possible when the Avon tyre company agreed to manufacture bespoke 10-inch tyres. Driven by Martin Stretton, the car won the TGP series outright in 2000.
In 1978 Maurice Phillippe took over from Derek and designed the 008, outwardly it looked fairly conventional but this car had a secret. It had been originally designed as a fan car. The car was to have a large fan mounted on the front of the crankshaft to suck air through a radiator mounted horizontally under the fuel tank. This would not only cool the engine but would also suck the car down to the ground. A test rig was set up in the race shop and various fans were tried run by a large electric motor. Some sounded like air raid sirens but eventually an optimum fan arrangement was fitted to the car and was taken in great secrecy to a winter test at Paul Ricard. The other teams took great interest in the new car but failed to notice that the car had no visible radiators. The weather was cold but it did not stop the car turning into another stanley steamer, so the next day a more conventional set up was adopted. The idea did eventually work as Brabham proved on their BT46B finishing first and second at the Swedish GP before the whole idea got banned.The 008 was a pretty car and did a good job finishing fourth in the Constructors and Depailler wining at Monaco.
At the start of 1978 I had bought an old derelict house in Winkfield Row, but the travelling with Tyrrell was taking up all my time, and being on the test team kept me away from home more than the race team. I was also starting to get a bit fed up with living like a gypsy. I enjoyed working on the cars but I hated flying, and after being on the front line for 8 years I wanted to take more of a factory based role. I went into Ken’s office to talk it through but he did not want me to stop travelling, so after Monaco I decided to leave in order to finish the work on the house.
By the end of 1978 I had finished most of the work on the house and was looking to get back to paid work. Fittipaldi in Slough were looking for people so I phoned them and they offered me the job as home based mechanic which meant I did not have to travel so much, perfect. Fittipaldi had just had a good year with a second at the Brazilian GP and 7th in the Constructors championship. For 1979 Ralph Bellamy was designing a new car in Brazil and the first car was also to be built over there to keep the sponsors happy. The second car was to be built at the workshops in Slough but the whole team was out in Brazil and the F6 was like a Swiss watch, still we managed to get it finished and it looked fantastic, it was so sleek the press called it Concorde, but ground effects had moved on and the car was outdated and the front suspension did not work. Trying to design a car in Brazil left Ralph too far away from the action and the car was a disaster.
For 1980, Fittipaldi took over the remains of Walter Wolf's defunct outfit including its WR7 and WR8 cars. We all moved into Frank Williams old workshop in Reading, designer Harvey Postlethwaite and driver Keke Rosberg also stayed. The Copersucar backing was replaced by that of Skol Brazil and with Rosberg on board it was decided to form a two-car team again, swapping the number 14 for numbers 20 and 21. The revised Wolf cars were used as F7s during the first part of the season (which gained a third place each for Fittipaldi and Rosberg) while Postlethwaite was busy with the F8. Sadly the money was starting to run out and the F8 like the F6 looked good but was substantially low on performance compared to the revamped Wolfs. Rosberg's fifth place at Monza was its only result.
During my time working with Harvey Postlethwaite we had been playing with composites and Harvey encouraged me to get more involved with this new technology. We started by making our own sliding skirts, these had to date been made by Advanced Composites in Derby and were very expensive. We knew nothing about the manufacturing techniques but we soon picked it up and by the time Fittipaldi closed its doors I had a new skill, something I will be forever grateful to Harvey for.
After finishing at Fittipaldi I rang Herbie Blash at Brabham and he immediately put me on to Gordon Murray. Brabham were looking to set up a composite shop and it looked like I was the man for the job, so now I was going to stay in motor sport but no longer as a race mechanic, from now on composites was going to dominate my working life I worked at Brabham for the next ten years and I still think it was the best team in F1. I ran the composite shop and during those early days it was very much ‘let’s make it and see if it works’. There was no one to follow, the aerospace industry was using composites but were only making flat panels. I remember Gordon coming to me just after I had started and asking if we should get an autoclave, not letting on I did not know what the hell he was talking about I said yes, let’s look into it.
Autoclaves were heated pressure vessels used to consolidate the composites but they were very expensive and used mainly in the aerospace industry. After a bit of research I thought there cannot be too much to this, so we built our own at a fraction of the cost. That Autoclave was the first in F1 and is still working today. Autoclaves are commonplace now, I have three at my latest company Retrac Composites and I think McLaren have seven or more.
Brabham was a great place for innovations, we were always thinking of ways of getting around the rules. The ride height rule was one, because the ride height was critical to the ground effect and the lower you ran the car the greater the down force. The FIA set a minimum ride height which was measured in the pit lane, so as long as the car was the correct height in the pit lane it was OK. An ingenious hydraulic jacking system was devised to lift the car by means of a lever in the cockpit so when the driver entered the pit lane he would pull the lever and lift the car to the correct height.
Brake cooling was another, we made a large water tank that fitted in the side pod and the story went that it was to cool the brakes. The FIA rule stated that you could top up oil and water after the race and this allowed us to run under the weight limit. We would then fill the tank up with water bringing the car back to the correct weight.
By the end of 1982 Brabham had built a new car for the coming season, it was the BT51. It looked like a BT49 with its turbo charged BMW engine and ground effects, it looked fairly conventional but it was far from that. This was the first pit stop car with its small fuel tank and on-board jacking system. This was a major gamble as it could not go race distance on full tanks without refuelling, but we were all confident and looked smug as we sat back to admire it. Mid-November FISA banned ground effects.
Brabham boss, Bernie Ecclestone, knew of the impending change but could not say anything as it may have compromised his position with FOCA, we were not looking so smug now. What happened next is what made Brabham a great team, the whole workforce built a new car from the ground up in 12 weeks, it was an astonishing level of commitment, this was real team spirit the like of which I had never seen before or since. The car was the championship winning BT52. The BT51 was eventually taken down to the scrap yard and crushed with George Thornton, works manager, as witness.
The sad thing is 1983 was when Brabham peaked. Bernie was spending more and more time looking after FOCA and at the end of 1985 Nelson Piquet left for Williams. The next year Gordon Murray’s lowline BT55, that on paper looked revolutionary, did not work, and to top it all for the first and only time Brabham lost a driver. Elio de Angelis was killed testing at Le Castellet when the rear wing broke. Gordon left for McLaren at the end of 1986 and Bernie sold Brabham in 1987 to Alfa Romeo. Brabham soldiered on with various owners, but without Bernie, Nelson and Gordon it was never the same and in 1992 it was put out of its misery. What a shame such a great team had to go in such a way.
Bernie Ecclestone had brought Brabham from Jack Brabham in 1970 and although his autocratic style of management was not everyone’s cup of tea I found him good to work for. You knew where you were with Bernie and if you messed up he would certainly let you know. Bernie is a shrewd business man and could be ruthless, but he is loyal to those he trusted and if he said he was going to do something he would be true to his word. Everyone has a story about Bernie, he is such a character and has a wicked sense of humour. He would get involved in every part of the organisation not just the race team.
I remember one day we were selling off an old Don Parker car trailer and George Thornton the works manager had advertised it in Exchange and Mart. I cannot remember the exact price but I think it was about £1000. Anyway a chap from up North turns up to have a look at it and after much kicking of wheels and sucking through his teeth he offers George £800, so off George goes to see if Bernie is OK with the offer. Bernie sitting at his desk looks over his glasses, ‘OK George leave him to me I’ll be out in a minute’. After several minutes Bernie appears in the car park. Bernie. ‘I’m sorry there’s been a big mistake the trailer is not for sale. I thought I had told George to cancel the ad but he put it in by mistake’ . Wheel kicker. ‘You can’t do that I’ve come all the way from Manchester to buy this trailer’. Bernie starts pacing up and down the car park then comes back to him. ‘I’ll tell you what, as you have come so far you can have it for £1200.’ He loved to do a deal, he still does.
After the demise of Brabham I was offered a job at Ypsilon Technology in Milton Keynes. Ypsilon belonged to Yamaha and they were setting up a facility to build a Supercar. The Yamaha OX9911 was the result of over ten years of development and the Milton Keynes factory was set up to build 500 cars. My brief was to oversee the development and production of all the composites for this 200+ mph car that had the V12 Formula 1 engine in the back. Three prototype cars had been built at IAD on the south coast but their concept would have been difficult to put into production so we set about re-engineering the whole package. John Baldwin, an old friend from my Brabham days, had been employed to oversee the design and engineering and a large Autoclave was commissioned to produce the composite parts. Things were going really well and I was enjoying working on such an interesting project. The next thing we know Yamaha are getting cold feet due to the onset of a global recession. The first thing to go was the Supercar project but they asked me to stay on to run some of their other projects. After six months Yamaha were starting to feel the pinch from the recession and decided to close the whole operation. The factory was sold and is now part of the Prodrive group.
Things were about to get very difficult as there was no work around and 1994 was not a good year to be looking for a job. Janus Technology Ltd was my first solo venture, it was a consultancy and my office was the garage at home. I worked on various projects one of which was to build Eton College their first composite racing boat.
In 1995 I set up G Force Composites Ltd at Fontwell on the south coast. This company went on to build much of the SSC land speed car for Richard Noble, the Williams Le Mans car, a concept car for Ford called the Indigo and around 50 Indy cars for the new IRL series. In the late 90s the company started to struggle financially, not helped by an over ambitious Formula Nippon programme taken on by my co-directors. I was not happy with the way things were going and left in 1998. The company was bought by Don Panos in 1999.
After leaving G Force I started Retrac Composites Ltd in Swindon. This company has gone from strength to strength and now employs over 30 people producing composites for many of the top F1 teams.
Looking back over the years motor sport has changed enormously, especially at the top end, but without people like Bernie bringing more money into the sport it would be still like it was back in the 70s, all that hard work for no reward. Did I prefer it back then? Of course I did, but I would say that wouldn’t I !
Jonathan ‘Wingnut’ Greaves
A big thank you to my wife Helen for helping with the editing of this web site.
Thank you to Jutta Fausel -Ward for the use of some of her photos