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sportscarpros Notes from the Cellar 

John Brooks
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Dates, anniversaries, numbers, memories, rambles, conjecture, conspiracies, more tea, Vicar?

A recent acquisition of a top end scanner prompted me to start fishing about in the office cupboard containing boxes of film and slides with a description on the lid unknown………..so cheek by jowl 2000 Rolex 24 slides sit with earlier efforts from say 1983. Looking through the shots provoked some thoughts and observations.

83………ah yes that was the year that I started to work for Keith Sutton’s photo agency on a regular basis, yes that Keith Sutton. We had met at an F3 race the previous season and had got to know one another a bit better at the social whirl surrounding the ’82 Monaco Grand Prix where Keith had introduced me to his brand of charm and Nigel Mansell. In return I introduced him to Frank Bough, Ken Bates and Avenue Princess Grace………I think we both got off lightly.

The Boy From Ipanema
Back then Keith was the rising young star of Grand Prix photography and was off most weekends running around Europe attending F1, F2 or Endurance races. He was also acting as a kind of press officer to another rising star, one Ayrton Senna da Silva. Keith had bumped into Ayrton a couple of years earlier covering Formula Ford and immediately struck up a good rapport with the charismatic Brazilian. During 1982 Ayrton and Keith had taken the then revolutionary step of sending out press releases of Ayrton’s triumphs in FF2000 to any interested parties including the bosses of all the Formula One teams. A simple idea, well executed, typical of Ayrton’s ability to think five moves ahead.

The Brazilian graduated to Formula 3 for 1983 with the West Surrey Racing squad. Which is where I came in. I had been following the F3 circus in the UK as an aspiring/perspiring photographer for a couple of years and as luck would have it I lived just up the road from the WSR’s base. Dick Bennetts, who ran the outfit, was a neighbour and I even had one of his mechanics, a giant Kiwi called Ian Patton, renting a room in my house.  The karma of using me to snap pictures on Ayrton’s behalf was irresistible even if it required a leap of faith when it came to the talent and delivery departments.

The 1983 British Formula 3 Championship has passed into legend as one of the vintage years of this most important stepping stone for drivers to ascend to the dizzy heights of Formula One.  The pool of talent was deep that season, joining Senna on the grid were Martin Brundle, Davy Jones, Allan Berg, Johnny Dumfries, Calvin Fish, David Leslie, Francois Hesnault, Martin Donnelly and Kris Nissen, all of whom went on to bigger and better things in the sport.

Taxi Driver
Further down the grid were some real characters, like Ronnie Grant, the 60- year-old cabbie, who went single-seater racing for relaxation after a week driving on London’s streets. Movie stuntman Gerry Amato, another wildman, was nearly banned from the Championship after removing the air restrictor from his Toyota engine before a race on the Silverstone Club circuit. Of course in a straight line he blew past Senna, Brundle et all, causing seizures on the pitwall as Dick Bennetts, Eddie Jordan, Murray Taylor and Dave Price all struggled to make sense of this unlikely event. A rush to Race Control and the resultant Black Flag restored sanity, but Gerry reckoned the bollocking he got was worth it, he could now say he had overtaken Senna, a feat that grew in stature with the passing of time. Allegedly DP’s freestyle swearing record has yet to be beaten.

The Championship boiled down to hand to hand combat between Senna and Brundle with little quarter being asked or given. Ayrton had a run of six straight victories to kick the season off but Martin refused to give in and mid year the WSR man had a wobble in form. First he spun out at Silverstone during a European Formula Three round giving a first victory to Eddie Jordan’s protégé who grew in confidence as a result.

Next up in the British Championship was a visit to Cadwell Park, a strange venue to run modern Formula Three cars, resembling a mini Nordschleife. Ayrton must have been feeling the pressure as during qualifying and pushing too hard he had a monumental shunt on the Mountain, wrecking the car for the weekend and handing the advantage back to Brundle.

Some motorsport photographers are always on the spot when something happens, Autosport’s Jeff Bloxham for example. It has got to the point at some circuits that when he arrives the marshals try and shoo him away to prevent disaster visiting their post. That is not a problem that I suffer from, usually I leave a spot only to learn that 5 minutes later that WW3 had broken out. This time it was different, not only was I on location but had the presence of mind to fire the shutter and focus the lens…………….Keith was pleased, even if Ayrton was not.

Further clashes between the two drivers at Oulton Park and Snetterton stoked the competitive fires and other, shall we say, baser elements. The recent bout of bad manners and racism directed at Lewis Hamilton by a few Catalan boneheads is nothing new, during the last two rounds banners appeared in the spectator areas supporting Brundle with the message “Never let a day go by”…though Martin thoroughly disapproved of such idiocy. You would like to think that we have moved on from such behaviour but…………

Ayrton took the title at the final round held at Thruxton. WSR, supporters and camp followers retreated  base at Shepperton and a celebratory dinner and piss-up at the fabled Riverview Club, we all had sore heads the next day, even the Brazilian and especially Keith.

Are you married, or are you from Shepperton?
Shepperton a little village just south west of London, whose major claim to fame was the film studio near by at Littleton Manor. The weirdness that bubbled up from the film making tainted all the inhabitants, few were completely straight, a bit like a mini LA.  At the centre of Shepperton as far as I was concerned was a parish church dating back to Norman times, bounded on one side by the River Thames and on the other by the Church Square. The real attraction of the Square was of course three pubs, a restaurant and a hotel; the premier site amongst these was the public house known as The King’s Head.

The King’s Head became a bit of a racing pub during that time, the landlord had spannered in the UK and the US with various teams and most prominent amongst the locals working in the sport was Brabham F1 team manager, Herbie Blash.  Herbie, as generous a gentleman as to be found in F1, was always a source of passes, advice and screened gossip. His presence attracted others, that and the beer and it was not unusual to find Brabham and McLaren personnel mixing it with guys from the Ralt factory and of course the WSR crew. The pub became a first stop over for the endless stream of Antipodeans hoping to find employment in European motorsport and was always a lively spot.  One other racer who became a regular was David Yorke, legendary team manager for John Wyer’s various endurance teams. He was by that time retired but was still involved as a consultant to Martini helping with their motorsport sponsorship. To hear the tales first hand from such a source was pure gold, pity that the consumption of too much best bitter and the passage of time have eroded the memory banks.

1983 also marked my busiest ever year as regards to Formula One. The last F1 non-championship race was held at Brands Hatch, which Keith sent me to cover as he has some deal going with the Japanese Spirit outfit. Then there were Grand Prix at Silverstone (British) and Brands Hatch (European) which I attended. Looking back at the images taken at the time several things stand out. In the climate of paranoia and self-absorption that pervades today’s Formula One paddock it is impossible to imagine some the scenes from back then happening today.

Presumably I am in the Williams pit at Brands Hatch, unthinkable today for a minor photographer to gain access, a wooden headed security operative would make sure of that. Even more incredible is Keke Rosberg, the World Champion and William’s lead driver lollygagging with Chico Serra and Elio de Angelis, who is in his JPS overalls…….the marketing folk would have a fit. The drivers all look genuinely pleased to see each other with only Frank Dernie to keep an eye on them. The next image shows Keke with his trademark Marlboro in hand, smoking in a pit garage, surely a hanging offence in these more enlightened times.

Meanwhile out in the pitlane, Gordon Murray tends to Nelson Piquet while wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt, which would be considered a dangerous and radical statement in today’s world of brand synergy and consistency of communication or some such bollocks dreamt up by those desperate to appear to have a purpose in life. Murray has always been one of my motoring heroes and getting to meet him and the likes of Norbert Singer are part of the best bits about being involved with the sport.

Then we have a slightly camp “Carry On” moment between Elio de Angelis and Nigel Mansell, with our English Bulldog sampling refreshments in the form of a can of Pepsi and nibbling a digestive, how normal, how down to earth and how totally unlikely to happen today. I can’t see Kimi in the pitlane with a Coke and a Garibaldi. The contrast between the banner proclaiming the virtues of JPS ciggies and the command  “No Smoking” is also quaint, Keke must have somehow missed the sign……….

Further down the pitlane newboy Jonathan Palmer about to make his F1 debut is made to feel at ease by his Porsche 956 sportscar sparring partner, Thierry Boutsen. I am convinced that too much money is almost as bad for you as too little, mind you I’d like to try the other alternative one day, and certainly it would appear that F1’s sense of proportion has decreased in relation to vast growth in expenditure. Still what do I know about it?

Tin Tops
A few old black & white prints at the bottom of the box brought back recollections of the Silverstone TT race, which was a round of the ETCC back then and unlike today’s sprint races for touring cars it was run over 500kms. The 1983 edition was won by a Rover Vitesse, driven by Rene Metge and Steve Soper, my first encounter with Steve, thankfully not the last.

The TT also marked the point at which James Weaver’s career began to ascend again. He had been a winning F3 pilot despite a lack of any financial resources and a seat at the top table seemed achievable back in 1982. He had taken an Eddie Jordan Ralt RT3 onto the European F3 trail and shod with Yokohamas had swept all before him. Arriving at Monaco to take part in the GP support he looked as if a win could propel him into F1 as had happened to so many others before who had triumphed in the Principality. Somehow he contrived to miss the deadline for signing on and despite intercessions from all and sundry, even Bernie, the authorities, prompted no doubt by the rulebook, Michelin, Martini and the prospect of a French driver winning, stood firm and so James did not race. The eventual victor, Alain Ferte, did not get to F1, so JW should not feel so bad after all, perhaps the spell had broken.

Weaver, like many single seater hotshoes before and after, found the transition from coming man to being another motorsport artisan to be a difficult time. His old mate Jonathan Palmer, back then on his way to the European Formula Two Championship and a regular seat in Grand Prix, got a seat in BMW 635 and offered Master James a share of the action. He seized the opportunity with both hands and gave a display of muscular driving that surprised the Touring regulars who were much more inclined to the “after you Claude” school of doing things. Second place overall got James a works BMW drive the following year in the UK and he was on his way, ending up thrilling the crowds in the US with his sportscar displays in a similar vein. Somehow I was around to witness one of his more spectacular efforts barging past the TWR Rover at the Woodcote Chicane. A good guy who deserved the second opportunity.

Long Distance Runaround
Of course I even managed to fit a few endurance events in. 1983 was the last year that I missed out going to Le Mans but had to make do with 1000 Kilometre events at Silverstone and Brands Hatch. Looking back there is a huge contrast in the stylistic approach of Mazda with the dumpy 727C and the elegant lines of the Alba, only one of these cars could have come from Italy. The LC2 Lancias remain a thing of beauty even if they failed to finish at Silverstone, which was won as so often back then by a Rothmans Porsche, driven by Derek Bell and Stefan Bellof, what a talent was lost there.

The grid shot from Silverstone shows that rarest of sights, Bernie Ecclestone attending a sportscar race, probably as a guest of the magazine Grand Prix International. He looks a proper gentleman in his suit and with his rolled up umbrella, I doubt if anything he saw gave him any worries in relation to being a challenge to Formula One, where he had serious plans to transform the business. We see the results today.

The Brands Hatch race like Silverstone was a soggy affair but unusually the Werks Rothmans Porsche outfit was out smarted by the John Fitzpatrick 956 driven by the boss and Derek Warwick. Their wily old team manager, Keith Green, had modified the Porsche’s nose to eliminate problems with lift and to increase downforce and a famous victory ensued.

So 1983, that was your life…………plus ça change?

John Brooks, February 2008