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Paul Frere Adieu

Belgium has a history of producing outstanding cyclists and racing drivers, but lost a legendary figure on February 23 when Paul Frère died at the age of 91. A Le Mans winner, in 1960, with fellow Belgian Olivier Gendebien in a Ferrari 250 TR 60, Paul had an enviable record not only in endurance racing but in single seaters too, having contested 11 Grands Prix. In 1956 he finished second in the Belgian Grand Prix, driving a Ferrari, and in his last full-time season of racing he won the non-championship South African Grand Prix in 1960, driving a Cooper-Climax.

Paul’s legacy is in two parts, though, first as a racing driver and secondly as a technical journalist, the author of many authorititive books, notably on Porsche’s racing and road cars. Such was his knowledge and fluency of writing, in four languages, that he enjoyed unique access to engineers and data. In time, he earned the status of ‘doyen’ in the motor sporting world, and this was uniquely recognized by Dr Wolfgang Ullrich when he invited Paul to drive the Audi R8 during the Le Mans trials in 2003, at the age of 86.

As a journalist, Paul Frère was for many years the European editor of Road and Track, and presented a motoring programme on German television. In his 80s he was hurt on a ski run when a novice crashed into him and broke his leg badly, but he recovered from that and continued to attend a variety of car launches, with a diary that would have exhausted many people half his age, driving with such verve that some colleagues preferred a more gentle experience. I have a personal recollection of being chauffered from a Porsche Club event in South Wales to Heathrow, in the then-new Porsche 928. “I’ll drive” he offered, and proceeded to average well over 100 mph on the length of the M4.

It was on a Honda Civic Type R launch in the Eifel region that he had a life threatening crash in the autumn of 2006, finishing up in hospital with a shattered pelvis, broken ribs and two punctured lungs. Paul’s recovery was almost miraculous, and last June he made his customary visit to the 24- Hours of Le Mans, and posed his customary first question at the Audi press conference on Friday. He was very frail, but his personality still sparkled.

Paul was, for some years, co-opted by the FIA to frame and adjudicate on technical rules, and it was he who had to concede, to Norbert Singer, that the 935-78 had ridden coach and horses through the technical rule book for Group 5 cars, without infringing any specific regulation. Then, Paul was the principal architect of the Group C regulations which existed between 1982 and 1991, the leading feature being a set amount of fuel to last a given distance (at first, 600 litres for 1,000 kilometres, later 520 litres).

He argued passionately that this would set benchmarks for manufacturers, who would need to make their engines ever more efficient. The success of this Group C formula could be judged by the close performances of Jaguar’s 7-litre V12, Porsche’s turbocharged 2.6 litre flat-six, Mercedes’ 5-litre V8 turbo, Mazda’s triple-rotor machines, and Toyota and Nissan race-designed turbo engines.  The downside of the Group C formula, one that Paul would never concede, was that the racing was sometimes dull as drivers strove to eke out their allocation of fuel in the final laps, and allegations were rife of cheating with fuel bottles. Nor would he concede that the Americans did it better, by rationing air, not fuel.

Paul Frère was an honoured guest at Le Mans, at Spa, where he made regular appearances even in 2007, at motor shows and car launches. He was a perfect gentleman, too, most deserving of the description ‘doyen’. He has no successor in the world of motoring journalism.

Michael Cotton

February 2008