KEEPING THE SPIRIT ALIVE SINCE 1999

To have your hair tweaked by a Grand Prix legend, would imply that you are a man of some standing within the industry..

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14-Apr-20/historicracing.com/

And in this case, that would be so. For this is Rob Walker. Stirling Moss’s sometime employer, and the greatest privateer ever to enter the sweaty arena of the Motor Racing World Championship.

Born into a life of wealthy privilege, thanks to the fact that he was the direct descendent of the whisky producing Johnny Walker, Rob first began to dabble with motor racing during the 1930s. And the highlight of these early adventures was an eighth place in the 1939 Le Mans 24-Hours.

 

But Rob soon recognized that he lacked any special ability as a driver, and his family were clear in their disapproval of the whole idea. So when racing was resumed again after the hiatus of the Hitlerian War, he decided that from now on he’d entrust his machinery to far more capable hands, and enjoy his sport from the relative safety of the pits.

 

Rob Walker’s team based themselves at Pippbrook Garage in Dorking. And from very the beginning, began to establish a reputation for a very high level of professionalism.

Initially they confined their activities to the British racing scene. By running Rob’s old, pre-war, Le Mans Delahaye (which remained in his possession for the whole of his life) for his chum Guy Jason-Henry. But a stable of more potent cars soon began to accumulate. Including an ERA and an old Grand Prix Delage And more experienced hands like Eric Thompson and former Colditz resident Tony Rolt were called in to ensure their safe operation.

 

And it was the Delage that would give the team their first taste of international single-seater competition, when Tony Rolt drove it in the International Trophy event at Silverstone in 1950.

 

Built in 1927, the Delage had, in its day, been the very cream of the Grand Prix crop. And had enjoyed a very successful second career racing in Britain during the 1930s. But it was now over twenty years old, and its original Straight-8 engine was becoming difficult to maintain. So they replaced it with a much more modern (1933 vintage!), 1500cc, supercharged, ERA Straight-6.

The ERA-Delage, as it became known (and is still known in historic racing today), was almost certainly the oldest chassis ever to run in a premier Formula 1 event. And would continue to make additional appearances in the genre, over the next few years.

But by 1953, the team were ready for their World Championship debut. And at the British Grand Prix, Tony Rolt, who that same year became a winner of the Le Mans 24-Hours, would do the business at the wheel of a brand new Connaught A-Type.

 

And that’s pretty much how they carried on for the next few years. Running a variety of British cars and drivers, in a variety of British events (including the British Grand Prix). Until 1957, when Rob Walker’s now familiar dark-blue and white racing colours found themselves about to embark on their first full programme of international competition. With a pair of Coventry-Climax powered, Formula 2 Coopers.

 

Rob’s team colours were always a source of amusement to him in those days. Many events still required teams to appear in their official national colours. And Rob was constantly asked by organizers why his cars weren’t in British Racing Green. As, by rights, they should’ve been. Mr Walker calmly informed them that his Surrey based team were actually Scottish. And that blue and white were the Scottish national racing colours. Of course there weren’t any official Scottish colours, but nobody ever questioned the point, and he was never asked to change them!

 

After Formula 2 inevitably came Formula 1. Working closely again with the Cooper factory, and engine builder Coventry-Climax. The largest capacity engine that Coventry-Climax had at that time was only 2-litres (Formula 1 allowed for engines up to 2.5-Litres).

 

But it was hoped that the benefits of the lightweight, low-profile, rear-engined Cooper chassis would go someway towards offsetting the disadvantages of the inevitable power deficit.

 

The first race of the 1958 Grand Prix season would be at Buenos Aires in Argentina. But the idea of travelling all that way for a single race didn’t appeal to everyone. In particular, it didn’t appeal to the Vanwall team. Rob Walker smelled an opportunity. And Vanwall’s number one driver, a certain Mr Stirling Moss, would soon find himself flying south.

 

The race was expected to be a Ferrari benefit, even though Stirling had shown reasonable pace in the Cooper during practice. The problem was that due to the typically high temperatures, and the nature of the circuit, tyre wear was expected be a very big issue. And the Cooper came equipped with five-stud, bolt-on wheels. So any mid-race tyre change was going to be a long, drawn out affair, and would almost certainly blow any chance they had of getting properly to grips with the Italians.

 

When the race started, Stirling worked his way steadily to the front, and even started to pull away. But Ferrari weren’t bothered. They were happy to let the Walker team have their little moment of glory, then snatch the lead effortlessly away from under their noses when the Cooper stopped for tyres. As they were certain that it would have to.

 

Several times during the race, the Rob Walker mechanics came out into the pit-lane and made a performance of preparing for a tyre-stop. But Stirling stayed doggedly out on track. Only in the last few laps did it dawn on the Ferrari crew that the British team had no intention of stopping at all!

In their panic, Ferrari’s leading driver, Luigi Musso, raised his pace as best he could. But it was all too late. And with his tyres clearly showing patches of white canvas through the peeling, black rubber, Stirling held out to pull-off a famous and historic victory. It wasn’t only the first Grand Prix win for Rob Walker. It was also the first for Cooper. The first for Coventry-Climax. And, most historically of all, it was the first ever World Championship Grand Prix victory for a rear-engined car.

 

But it was, of course, a circumstantial win. And a complete fluke and to prove it was a fluke, at the very next Grand Prix, in Monaco, with Frenchman Maurice Trintignant at the helm (Stirling Moss was now back in a Vanwall), they won again! It would be, incidentally, another twelve months before Cooper would manage to win a Grand Prix for themselves. At Monaco in 1959.

At the end of 1958 Vanwall withdrew from Formula 1, and Stirling Moss became available to Rob Walker on a full time basis. Maurice Trintignant would be retained to drive his number two car, and Coventry-Climax were now able to supply them with a full-blown, 2.5-Litre Formula 1 engine. Unfortunately though, Stirling was still not convinced that the Cooper-Climax would be a strong enough proposition on high-speed tracks. Rob Walker tried building a Cooper-BRM for him. But although the BRM was much more a powerful unit, it was also larger and heavier. And it messed up the Cooper’s delicate handling.

So Stirling made arrangements for the rival BRP team (a team owned jointly by Stirling’s father Alfred Moss, and Stirling’s business manager Ken Gregory) to have use of a complete, front-engined, BRM P25 (painted in the BRP team’s trade-mark pale green, rather than the dark green of the factory BRMs). Which he could turn to when he thought he might be in need of some extra grunt.

 

But the arrangement with BRP achieved nothing. Although it was more powerful than almost any car on the grid, the BRM was less nimble than most, and much less reliable. And it wasn’t until he concentrated his efforts fully on Rob Walker’s cars from mid-season, that Stirling’s season really started to come together. He won in Portugal and at Monza, and went into the last race at Sebring as a title contender. But he’d be forced to retire from the final early, and finished the World Championship in third place. Beaten by factory Cooper driver Jack Brabham, and Ferrari’s Tony Brooks.

 

Had he not messed about with the BRM, it’s very likely that Stirling Moss would have been the World Champion of 1959. Stirling’s BRM P25 incidentally, was, once he’d given up on it, to take prominent roll in Hans Herrmann’s famous display of acrobatics in the German Grand Prix at AVUS, later that same year.

Concentrating solely on Stirling Moss for 1960, Rob was mightily impressed by the new Lotus 18. And sought to acquired one ASAP. Stirling won his first Grand Prix in the car at Monaco, and another shot at the title looked a distinct possibility. But an accident at Spa put Rob’s star-turn on the sidelines for two months, and the title slipped away again. A second win, in the United States Grand Prix at Riverside, left Stirling with just enough points to finish the championship in third place for the second successive year.

 

Rob tried to buy an example of the new Lotus 21 for 1961. But Chapman refused to sell him one. So they updated their old Lotus 18 as best they could. Stirling used it to win again at Monaco, and backed that up with a further victory in that year’s German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

 

And in his last season with Rob Walker, a year dominated by the famous shark-nosed Ferraris, Stirling finished, you guessed it, third in the championship.

 

Innes Ireland finally managed to give the factory Lotus team their first Grand Prix victory in the very last race of the 1961 season. After Rob Walker’s team had already won for them on four previous occasions. Twice with an obsolete car! As a sideline to the 1961 campaign, Rob’s chaps also had the opportunity to give the interesting, four-wheel drive, Ferguson P99 a good looking at. Thanks to their former driver Tony Rolt, who was now Managing Director at Ferguson.

Jack Fairman was employed to drive the Ferguson in that year’s British Grand Prix at Aintree. But little excitement was generated by its presence until Stirling Moss climbed aboard at mid-distance. After having kicked the backside out of his usual Lotus.

 

It’d rained during the race, and on the damp track, Stirling was able to make excellent use of the car’s four-wheel drive system. And he soon began to fly. His pace was such that he could possibly have finished the race in first place had the Climax-engined confection not eventually given up the ghost.

 

He’d have been disqualified though. As driver changes in mid-race were no longer legal practice. The Ferguson though, was the only front-engined car to race in Formula 1 that year. And its appearance at the Aintree race would be the last time that a front-engined car would ever run in a World Championship event.

 

Stirling would later use it to take victory in a very wet, non-championship race at Oulton Park. So that the Ferguson would become, and remains to this day, the only four-wheel drive car ever to have actually won a Formula 1 race.

 

Another diversion for the team at this time was the Walker-Climax. The only attempt Rob ever made to build a car of his own brand. Designed in 1959 by the team’s chief mechanic Alf Francis, it was intended to be a “Super-Cooper”. Using the basic, and successful, principals of the Cooper design, but pushing them, in Alf’s view at least, on to a new level. But progress was, unfortunately, far too slow. And the design became superseded before it was even completed. Especially when Colin Chapman moved Grand Prix design onto another plain of consciousness with his Lotus 18 concept. And by the time the car finally did run, in Jack Fairman’s hands at a Silverstone test session in 1961, its day was already long passed.

 

The Walker was put away unraced, and was forgotten. And remained so for over forty years. Until, finally liberated from its long and peaceful slumber, it was brought out into the daylight, restored to its full and former glory, and put to work in historic racing. Where it can still be seen competing today.

For 1962, Stirling Moss elected to open his season with his famous career-ending crash, in a BRP Lotus, at Goodwood. So Maurice Trintignant was drafted in to make a re-appearance for the team, in Rob’s all new Lotus 24. But the ageing Frenchman was not as quick as he had been, and after the glories of the last four seasons, it was to be a disappointing year.

 

For the following season, Rob Walker employed the aristocratic Swedish driver Jo Bonnier. And the equipment would now revert to being a Cooper-Climax. Like Trintignant, Bonnier had been a Grand Prix winner in his day. But that day, it seemed, had also passed, and the year would be only slightly more rewarding than 1962 had been. And for 1964, it would be more of the same.

 

But in 1965, armed now with a pair of BRM powered Brabhams, Rob decided to expand the team into a two car operation once again. And brought in the popular Swiss driver, Jo Siffert, to handle his second car.

 

Jo had been driving his own cars for the last few seasons, and had hit the headlines in 1964 when he surprised everyone, including probably himself, by beating Jim Clark in a nose-to-tail battle to the flag, in the non-championship Mediterranean Grand Prix. At Enna in Sicily.

 

Rob Walker had never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Jo Bonnier, whom he described as “a great one for telling you your own business”, but he was to find that he would get on famously with Jo Siffert. Little was achieved in championship racing that year, but in the non-championship Mediterranean Grand Prix, at Enna in Sicily, Jo Siffert was to surprise everyone, including probably himself, by beating Jim Clark in a nose-to tail battle to the flag. In an almost perfect re-run of the previous year’s race! Except that Jo’s Brabham-BRM was now a blue one instead of a red one.

Rob decided to return to a single-car effort for the 1966 season. But when he phoned Jo Bonnier to tell him of his plans, the Swede asked “But what do you plan to do with Siffert?” “Well, I rather though I’d have him drive my car” came the answer.

A 3-Litre Cooper-Maserati was acquired, and with the Swiss driver happily installed at the helm, this became the thrust of the team’s efforts for the next two years. Hard results would still be rather thin on the ground. But at least they were enjoying themselves again.

 

Things were to get even better in 1968, when Rob acquired a state of the art, Cosworth DFV powered, Lotus 49. Exactly as the factory team would be using to win that year’s World Championship. And In the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, after fending off a sustained attack from Ferrari’s Chris Amon, Jo Siffert would pull-off one of the most popular Grand Prix victories of all time.

It would be his only World Championship win for Rob Walker’s team. But Jo went on to notch-up a pole-position in the 1968 finale, and would bag a couple of Grand Prix podiums during the following season. The best of these being a second place in the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort..

 

Jo left Rob’s team at the end of 1969, when Porsche paid for him to have a seat with the newly formed March outfit, his first ever works Formula 1 drive. To keep him out of the out of the clutches of Ferrari, their arch-rivals in the world of sportscar racing, who were offering the Swiss driver riches and largesse to move on down to Maranello.

 

Jo Siffert’s replacement would be Graham Hill, which looked like a good move. But the 1968 World Champion had suffered a leg-crushing accident at the end of the 1969 season, and no-one was sure if he would still be a competitive proposition. The year started well, with points scored in the first three races. But Rob’s Lotus 49 was becoming rapidly outmoded, and the results began to dry up.

 

A sixth place at Brands Hatch, and another championship point, would prove to be their last significant result of the year. Rob tried to acquire one of the latest Lotus 72s to replace the old 49. But they didn’t manage to get their hands on it until the Italian Grand Prix in September. Where they felt obliged to follow the example of the factory team, and withdrew from the race in the wake of gloom brought about by Jochen Rindt’s “game-over” experience in qualifying.

 

By the time that Graham Hill finally got to start a Grand Prix in the 72, the season would have only three races left in it. In Mexico, for the very last event of the year, Graham qualified in a promising eighth position. Ahead of the factory cars of Emerson Fittipaldi and Reine Wisell, who’d finished first and second in the previous race at Watkins Glen. But on race-day it all went pear-shaped. The engine was showing signs of overheating before the race had even started, and the Englishman was soon forced to retire. After just five, miserably slow laps.

For Rob Walker though, Formula 1 was now becoming way too corporate. And the costs were showing signs of sky-rocketing. He’d dipped a toe into the murky pond of commercial sponsorship with Brooke Bond Oxo. But that sort of wheeler-dealering was all a bit unsavoury, and not really his style. And Graham Hill’s retirement from the Mexican finale would become, for the Rob Walker team, retirement for good.

 

So Rob finally closed the doors on his team down at Pippbrook Garage. But the seven World Championship race victories they’d chalked-up, and the various other historic landmarks they’d ticked-off over the years, would remain to this day, something rather special. In the entire history of the World Championship, only two other races have ever been won by private teams (one that purchased their car from a third party, rather than a “works” team that built their own).

Giancarlo Baghetti won the 1961 French Grand Prix in a Ferrari entered by the Italian motor sport association FISA (becoming, in the process, the only driver ever to win a Grand Prix on his World Championship debut!). But the car was run from the Ferrari factory, by a Ferrari crew, so it was hardly a proper private entry.

 

The only other privateer winner was Ken Tyrrell. Who ran a couple of Marches in 1970, in the lull between his split with Matra and the delivery of his first, bespoke, Tyrrell chassis.

Jackie Stewart won the Spanish Grand Prix in one of these. But while it was certainly a proper private entry, in that there was no involvement from the March factory, it was heavily backed by Ford and Elf, so that Tyrrell couldn’t really be said to have been a true privateer in the same sense that Rob Walker always was.

 

Private teams continued to be a regular feature of Formula 1 throughout the 1970s. But they were gradually becoming unwelcome, and were eventually outlawed. Dallaras and Lolas have been run by various teams in later years, but these had to be especially commissioned, and uniquely supplied, in order to remain within the constructor’s regulations. The last time that a truly privately entered car ever raced in a World Championship event was in 1980.

 

Ram Racing were running a pair of ex-works Williams FW07s for a variety of drivers that year. And in the very last race of the season, the United States (East) Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, Southend-on-Sea’s greatest ever Grand Prix driver, Rupert Keegan, would bring one of these home in an era-ending ninth place.

Rob Walker was associated with other teams, such as Surtees and Wolf, in the years that followed. And also became a popular contributor to the American motoring journal Road & Track. In fact he would maintain a close involvement in motor racing for his entire life. And became renowned as one of the most widely respected chaps that the sport has ever produced.

 

Rob was also famously keen on maintaining “standards”. Regardless where his travels may take him. For example, when a journalist asked him why he habitually returned to his hotel at the end of each afternoon to change his shoes, he would learn that “a Gentleman never wears brown shoes in the evening!” And to sum the man up in the best possible way; in Rob Walker’s passport, back in the days when you were required to state your profession, that was exactly the trade you’d find specified: Gentleman.


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