Category Archives: Touring Cars

Forgotten success

Several motorsport titles were decided on Sunday

Reflecting on 2011 - titles were sadly overshadowed on Sunday. (Paz Chauhan)

The motorsport world was busy handing out trophies last Sunday before a lovely day of racing was cruelly ruined by the terrible events in Las Vegas. While I can’t quite bring myself to deliver a full review of each it is worth noting the titles won and lost over a packed yet bleak weekend for the sport.

Formula One saw another Sebastian Vettel victory at the somewhat sterile environment of Yeongam in South Korea. More importantly but no less inevitably Red Bull wrapped up the Constructors Championship with Mark Webber finishing third after a thrilling duel with Lewis Hamilton who came home second after starting on pole for the first time this year, a great effort from the 2008 champion.

Unfortunately Moto GP was a little disappointing for all but the Aussies as Casey Stoner romped to a home win at Phillip Island and clinched the final 800cc title in the process. Good on Casey and Honda who have been the class of the field in 2011, but the edge was taken off the race by the non-starts for Yamaha’s Ben Spies and Jorge Lorenzo, the latter’s hopes of defending his title were left in tatters after a very nasty finger injury on race morning.

Back home at Silverstone the BTCC boys had a refreshingly respectful end to the season despite heading into the final triple-header of the year with five still in title contention. Matt Neal’s win in race one set up an all-Honda duel between himself and Gordon Shedden as Plato and Jackson suffered punctures while Nash just didn’t quite have the ultimate pace although that didn’t stop him taking the indie trophy in his dated Vauxhall Vectra. Shedden seized the initiative with a win in the second race but it was Matt Neal who kept it cool to take his third title in the final race of the day as Tom Chilton won the reverse grid race.

Honda have fought against a competitive field, a certain moaning rival and even against themselves to take the crown with a rich variety of different machinery chasing them. I just wish the final rounds were held at Brands, Silverstone is too smooth and fast to lend itself to truly thrilling touring car racing in the modern era.

Then there is the crown that is destined to be forgotten; Dario Franchitti’s Indycar title. It is a trophy he will barely be able to look at, champagne will be toasted to the memory of a fallen comrade rather than sprayed in celebration. He is the Indy driver du jour, but this isn’t the moment to dwell on that. It was already a rough year for Indycar even before the horror of Sunday, let’s hope for a brighter 2012 for the fastest and friendliest racing series of them all.

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Zanardi – no looking back

Alex Zanardi, Williams 1999

Zanardi - 10 years on we look back, but he only goes forward. (Marco Castelli)

Today marks ten years since Alex Zanardi had his life changing accident at the Lausitzring in Germany. In the blink of an eye, one of his finest drives turned to disaster as he exited the pits leading with an unlucky 13 laps left to run. The Reynard Honda Champ Car that had been so kind to him in seasons past, snapped sideways and was collected at nearly 200mph by Alex Tagliani. The ensuing collision cost Zanardi his legs, but it could so easily have taken his life too. Already a hero to many, his fightback to fitness and on to yet more race victories turned him into a legend.

As a teenager in the 1980s Alex was once a very real threat to Michael Schumacher in the karting arena. From there, he built a solid reputation in the junior formulae, eventually making his F1 debut shortly after Schumacher in the same machine as the German – the gloriously green Jordan 191. His raw speed in 1991 was unquestioned and his technical feedback was appreciated; the lack of sponsorship and a spate of damaged cars were not so welcome, so Eddie Jordan’s option on the Italian was not taken up. For 1992, a test role at Benetton beckoned, along with a handful of Grand Prix drives for Minardi. Neither were to amount to much. Schumacher had been impressed by his Italian contemporary during their time at Benetton, once saying that, “you’re an ugly bastard but you sure went fast” after Zanardi bettered the illustrious German’s times.

It was Team Lotus that finally picked up Zanardi’s talents full-time for 1993. Sadly, they were already long past their best, leading Alex looking for speed in the car that was never their to begin with. At Imola he went one step further than even Gilles Villeneuve went; he crashed and then attempted to continue with not only a wheel missing, his car was also engulfed in flames. At this point in his career, Zanardi was on the wrong side of the thin line between madness and genius. His usual, smooth style behind the wheel was often substituted for desperation in those early days, but when Zanardi was given the right equipment he was as good as unstoppable.

The year was already trying, but Alex was to suffer the largest accident of the 1993 Grand Prix season in the most fearsome spot possible – Eau Rouge. His Lotus struck both the inside and outside of the famous corner and he suffered the mother of all concussions. It floored him for weeks, although the Lotus team further extended his absence by drafting in Pedro Lamy and his Portuguese sponsorship. When Zanardi got the seat back after Lamy’s monster test shunt at Silverstone in 1994 the team was focused on Johnny Herbert, providing him with upgrades earlier than whoever sat in the second car. Zanardi maintains that the data shows he would have scored a shocking pole at Monza that year had he been given the new Mugen-Honda engine, though this late-season burst of pace failed to save the Grand Prix fortunes of either the driver or his team. Both were to fade from the Grand Prix world, for a while.

If F1 was cruel to Zanardi then the American scene was kind, albeit with a horrific twist awaiting. After chancing his arm with a visit to the States to press the flesh and do a spot of networking, Alex arrived in the Indycar paddock just as Bryan Herta was sacked at Ganassi. So it was that Chip Ganassi’s Indy operation picked up Zanardi, both parties unsure as to what this new relationship would bring.

The following three years brought 15 victories and two CART titles to the Italian and his new friends at Ganassi. Each win was celebrated with Alex performing donuts in his red Reynard Honda, a signature move that has been much imitated since. Along the way he made many new friends and fans, his ever-present smile winning them over as much as his daring driving.

There are few other racers who can boast of making an overtaking move as ostentatious as the one at Laguna Seca pulled by Zanardi on his Ganassi predecessor Herta as the two rivals went into The Corkscrew on the final lap of an epic encounter.

By the time of these daredevil antics, Alex Zanardi had already become a firm favourite of the Charnock household. Referred to without fail as ‘Our Alex’ (an honour considering one of my best friends is called Alex), Zanardi became our hero. I’d grown up watching Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet – so a driver that could laugh, smile and keep the politics out of view yet deliver merciless moves when it mattered was a revelation to me. CART of the 1990s was arguably more entertaining and challenging than Formula One during the same period, so we had total faith that Zanardi had the right stuff, should F1 come calling again.

After his second consecutive title in the States, Formula One did indeed summon Alex back. When Williams signed him for 1999, it seemed like he was getting in on the ground floor of their promising BMW era. Would all the hard slog first time around in F1 be rewarded? Sadly not; Zanardi was given the boot before BMW arrived and he spent 2000 watching from the sidelines as a cherub-faced Jenson Button took over at Williams.

For Alex, 2001 saw Alex head back to the happy hunting ground of CART with Mo Nunn’s new team, although the results were lean for the fledgling squad. That was until the race at Germany’s Eurospeedway Lausitz; the first major single-seater race on a true oval in Europe since before the war and a rare opportunity for the European Indycar contingent to show off in front of their old fans.

Alex fought his way through the field in a noticeably improved car that gave him the confidence he needed to be his brilliant best. With 13 laps left to run Alex left the pits in the lead, lost control and the next thing he knew he was in a hospital bed, his legs gone.

The permanent CART safety team performed miracles to even save his life; there was less than a litre of blood left in him when they made the transfusions that rescued him from the abyss. In typical Zanardi style he jokes that with all that German blood in him they should give him a passport!

Since that dreadful day Alex Zanardi has inspired the world by not just competing but winning at a world-class level. Back in Germany during 2005 he took his first victory in World Touring Cars for BMW, a momentous moment for both Alex and his legions of fans. His symbolic completion of those last 13 laps at the Lausitzring in an Indycar fitted with hand-controls in 2003 was another astounding moment in his recovery, the crowd performing a Mexican wave as the Italian ‘finished’ the 2001 race at speeds in excess of 190mph. He felt that anything slower than genuine front-running pace just wouldn’t have been inspirational enough.

Now Zanardi’s next adventure is the 2012 London Paralympics where he hopes to take a medal in the handcycle competition, a feat he describes as “a dream”. Zanardi has lived a life of dreams – and of nightmares. Motorsport produces the most extreme situations that can really test a person; Alex passes every exam it sets him. “I’m not Superman,” he reminds us, “I am just an optimist who was lucky enough to have a wonderful life, and still have that life.”

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DTM 2012 takes shape

Mercedes DTM 2012

I've seen the future - and it's two door. Mercedes 2012 DTM steed. (Mercedes)

Could we finally have the DTM we deserve in 2012? Stunning two door coupes, less aero, more mechanical grip and all three of the heavyweight German auto-makers could make for a fantastic year ahead. Will it wipe out the memories of a few dull years for the world’s raciest tin-tops? There’s no need – I can barely remember many of the recent races anyway such has been the paucity of action.

Today at the Frankfurt Show both Mercedes and Audi have shown their C-Class and A5 DTM steeds respectively. The Audi features fantastic triangular wheel-arches and a stark rear-end free of flip-ups, quite a strong look. The Mercedes looks less like a Silver Arrow and more like a chrome cruiser, it’s over-sized wheel-arches holding deeper and wider Hancock tyres, the uniform rear wing jutting out like the handle on a shopping trolley. BMW’s M3 DTM has already wowed us with its Batmobile stylings, we could be in for a treat next season. The ears are already happy with the DTM’s rumbling V8s, but gone is the grumbling over the way the cars look. They are simply the best looking racers in the world today with the exception of a full field of GT3 machines.

The inclusion of a third manufacturer has prompted a driver merry-go-round for the first time in a while over in Germany. BMW have already got Priaulx and Farfus on board while Jorg and Dirk Muller have been out testing the M3. The clever money is on Canadian Bruno Spengler switching to the Bavarian motor which would be a coup in amongst the coupes. Spengler has been fighting for the DTM crown for six years and has never looked better. Indeed, he has been the top Mercedes pilot all season. Another driver in the frame for a Beemer is Nick Heidfeld. Although he is a solid driver in F1, Quick Nick would do well to get in on the ground floor of what the organisers are hoping will become the tin-top standard over the coming decade with Japan and the USA targeted to take on their new rulebook.

Now we need to see some good racing once more in the DTM. The fatter tyres, standard wings and greater competition may not be enough on its own. The reliance on pit strategy needs to either be lost or ramped up to F1 levels of tyre-shredding tactics. The current scenario is neither here nor there; I would much rather see the kind of racing we got when DTM races came in two parts as the series kicked back into life over ten years ago. Still, even back then there were problems. In August 2000 Wolfgang Ulrich was already criticising the racing after a particularly processional Sachsenring event, much to the dismay of Norbert Haug at Mercedes who didn’t see the problem. It’s just such a shame that the two big chiefs didn’t do something about it way back then.

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Designed to race, destined not to

Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma

The Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma - fated to a life of posing for pictures. (pic El Caganer)

Ifs, buts and maybes are an integral part of motorsport. Indeed, as Murray Walker would say, IF is (almost) F1 spelt backwards. Watching the radical Lotus 88 that F1 eschewed in the early 1980s speeding to the fastest time at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the hands of Dan Collins got me thinking about what other astounding machines were built to race but never had the chance to fulfill their destiny. Here are ten of my favourites…

Lotus 88 – When the Lotus-pioneered ground effect cars were culled from Formula One Colin Chapman was determined that this drag-less way of achieving serious road-holding would not die. The solution was the 88, an early carbon fibre creation that housed twin-chassis; one for the cockpit, the other for the main car itself. This allowed space for air to flow through the car and suck it to the ground. Formula One never gave the car the thumbs up, it only appeared at a few practice sessions in the hands of Nigel Mansell and Elio de Angelis in 1981 who gave it rave reviews.  Colin Chapman lobbied hard for the 88’s legality, his arguments falling on deaf ears.

Jaguar XJ13 – Amongst the prettiest racing machines ever built was the sumptuous Jaguar XJ13. At the start of the 1960s Jaguar had toyed with shifting the engine from up-front to amidships, although it took until 1966 for the XJ13 to finally hit the track. By this point the glorious green machine was already behind the times. As Ford and Ferrari duked it out at Le Mans with the Porsche 917 waiting in the wings, Jaguar were struggling to develop their swooping creation and after a change of ownership the company ditched the project. The new 3-litre rules at Le Mans mirrored Formula One at the time and would have forced Jaguar to ditch the 500 horsepower V12 that was peeking through the perspex panel in the middle of the car, the gestation of the XJ13 was just too long and its engine was powerful but dated. Like the TSR 2, Britain had lost a truly remarkable machine to economic pressures. Only one car was ever made and was later destroyed in a huge crash while making a publicity film in 1971. It was rebuilt a couple of years later by which time the XJ13’s moment had long since past.

Ferrari 637 – To many the Prancing Horse is Formula One, so when Maranello produced a bona fide Indycar in 1986 the racing world took notice. Sadly the 637 was just a political tool, leverage to help Ferrari get what it wanted from Formula One at a time when the rules were up for discussion. The engine eventually raced at Indy under the Alfa Romeo brand but the car itself never competed despite posing for photos on the yard of bricks. Gustav Brunner’s creation certainly looked the part and was on-the-money technology-wise, it is likely that it would have given March and Lola a real headache. Since the ’80s Ferrari has made vague threats about competing at Indy, though the words were never backed up by deeds ever again.

Allard J2X-C – OK, so this car did compete just the once, but it is still one of the great missed opportunities in racing. I was at the Autosport Show in 1992 when the Allard J2X-C was revealed – I knew I had seen the future of sportscar design right there. Sadly the revived Allard company itself was to play but a very small part in this future, the project was dead by the end of 1993 though its ideas live on at Le Mans to this day. To overcome the understeer inherent in Group C machines with huge rear wings and a tiny front splitter the Allard used ‘pontoon’ fenders with adjustable wings covering the suspension and an early example of an anhedral nose. The J2X-C set the standard for creating downforce where previously there was none, the design also encouraged air to flow around every surface of the car rather than going straight over it – a key philosophy shared by many modern race cars. The Allard even featured a rudimentary version of the current hot-topic of F1 in 2011 – exhaust blowing. Under-developed and down on power from its customer DFR engine, other teams simply sought to design their own evolutions of the J2X-C concept rather than buy one off the shelf, although Honda were amongst the initial suitors for this striking machine. With no customers the company closed and the car was auctioned for a mere £76,000 before being taken to test at Le Mans, sadly proving far too slow on the straights. Eventually the Allard competed just the once at an IMSA race at Laguna Seca, never coming near to the fighting chance it deserved.

Alfa Romeo 164 Pro-Car – Anybody for an F1-powered, 211mph, mid-engined, carbon-bodied touring car formula? The Pro-Car series was floated in the late 1980s as a crazy mash-up of F1, touring cars and prototypes. The series for these hyper-saloons never materialised, but Alfa Romeo had 15 cutting-edge V10 Grand Prix motors and no teams to run them, so they decided to pop one in the 164 Pro-Car in 1988 instead. It certainly looked the part, the body appeared near-identical to its road-car relative, concealing the Brabham-engineered wizardry within. Riccardo Patrese demoed the Pro-Car at the Italian Grand Prix of 1988 – the saloon car bettering the top-speeds of Senna and Prost’s all-conquering Mclaren MP4-4. Sadly there were no other manufacturers willing to join the party and Pro-Car became the series that never was.

Lancia ECV – Did you find Group B rallying too tame? Then you my friend need Group S. The S must have stood for suicidal. Group S was slated to replace the formula that spawned the Audi Quattro and the Lancia 037 with a collection of sports prototypes such as the ECV which extensively used carbon fibre to cut 20% from its already fly-weight predecessors. The 1.8 litre engine used a multi-stage turbo to pump out over 600bhp to all four wheels, although there was talk of limiting power outputs before Group S was sidelined. The Lancia ECV (experimental composite vehicle) never got to tread the forests and mountains of the world as rallying had been turned on its head by Henri Toivonen’s tragic accident in 1986 heralding a new era of safer Group A cars. Unlike the Killer Bs, Group S only required a handful of cars to be built to gain homologation which opened the door for prototypes that majored on innovation. Lancia, Opel and Toyota had already built Group S cars when the category was scrapped in 1986 while Audi and Ford were on their way to producing cars to this exciting new rulebook too. Without the shackles of designing within road car rules there would surely have been more madness just around the corner, something rallying just couldn’t afford at the time. Lancia obviously didn’t get the memo – they later made themselves an ECV2 as well…

Alfa Romeo Tipo 512 – A pre-war Grand Prix car with a flat 12 supercharged motor slung behind the driver and a gearbox over the rear axle was most commonly found painted in Silver, but not the Alfa Romeo 512. No, it was a blood-red Italian stallion built in 1940 to take on the might of the Auto Unions. Swallowed up by the war effort, the 512 was tested until 1943 but never met its rivals; by no means the only racing machine to fade away during the war years. Designed as a successor to the Alfetta 158, the 512 wasn’t eligible for the newly formed Formula One World Championship by the time it began in 1950. Ironically Alfa campaigned the once-outclassed 158 instead, winning the first two world championships with elegant updated versions of this 1930s steed.

Lexus ISF Racing Concept – When Opel left the DTM it sold a Vectra to Toyota so the Japanese giant could evaluate its own silhouette racer. The ISF Racing Concept was shown at the 2008 Tokyo Motor Show but Lexus eventually forgot all about their Opel-based beast, leaving Audi and Mercedes to fight alone in Germany until 2012. The Lexus wasn’t the only new-generation DTM car to suffer a false-start; Zakspeed also developed a Volvo for the return of the series in 2000. The car didn’t quite fit the rules and was declined the chance to race while the Audi TT which wasn’t large enough to fulfill the size criteria was granted an entry and eventually took the 2002 title, such is the fickle world of motorsport.

Toyota TF110 – Intricate aerodynamics, tight packaging and ‘adjustable’ suspension – these were some of the ingredients for Red Bull’s championship success in 2010. They are also features shared by the Toyota TF110 that was designed and ready to roll when the Japanese giant pulled the plug on F1 in a tearful press conference at the end of 2009. The company still intended to lease their services to another team, sadly they picked Stefan GP – the Serbian squad that showed up far too late in the day to get the other teams to agree to their entry. That didn’t stop them signing Jacques Villeneuve and Kazuki Nakajima, nor did it preclude them from sending freight to the first round in Bahrain. After being turned away the cutting-edge TF110 has only ever been driven around the car park at Toyota Motorsport’s Cologne headquarters, a less than glorious way to test such a machine. Who knows, perhaps the underachievers were on the verge of doing a Brawn and shocking the F1 world after losing the backing of a big Japanese manufacturer? F1 moves so fast that despite Hispania looking at buying the design it is now certain that a quick spin in the parking lot is about as much as we’ll see from the TF110 for a while.

Pininfarina Ferrari Sigma – OK, so this 1969 car was created by a styling house rather than Maranello itself and was never intended to race, but the Sigma was one of the first racing machines to put the emphasis on safety – something to be applauded in an era when drivers rarely got old. Oh, and it is well worth drooling over the Pininfarina-penned lines that dictated many a fictional Matchbox car. The Sigma featured a driver survival cell, roll-bar disguised as a wing, automatic fire extinguishers, plastic fuel-tanks, seatbelts, side-impact protection and most striking of all were the ‘fenders’ to help prevent interlocking wheels. This most visible of safety advances was the only one that didn’t find itself in Formula One in the future. The project was instigated by Auto Revue magazine and was backed by other manufacturers, though it was Ferrari that provided the chassis and running-gear to make this ice-cool car possible and will forever prove that safety isn’t just for squares.

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BMW, what kept you?

BMW M3 returns to DTM

Batman Returns - the M3 certainly looks the part. (pic BMW)

The new for 2012 BMW M3 DTM car took its bow yesterday in Munich with drivers Andy Priaulx and Augusto Farfus on hand to present their impressive new steed. It’s only taken 12 years for BMW to embrace the ‘new’ DTM, at least they’ve finally made it. I remember excitedly looking at drawings of a forthcoming BMW DTM car in Autosport way back in 1999, over a decade on and at last we have the M3 back where it belongs in top-line touring car competition.

The original E30 BMW M3 was a simple collection of three boxes perched on four circles of rubber, the kind of car that a child could sketch in seconds. The BMW M3 bound for the DTM has matured into a larger, curvier creation with more cylinders and many more wings than before, you’d struggle to draw the more intricate details with crayons although colouring in this mean matte-black machine wouldn’t be too challenging in its minimal livery. So the Batmobile is back, though this time it is more Christian Bale to the CSL’s Adam West.

This M3 concept looks set to be the first of a few sports coupes to grace the DTM as Audi also showed sketches of a two-door A5 this week. Thank goodness for that, the DTM eschewed sports cars to accommodate the Vectra only for Opel to quit the series a couple of years later. I’m chuffed that sleek shapes are making a comeback in the DTM, yet I’m dismayed that the safer and cheaper 2012 rules clearly still demand all manner of aerodynamic trinkets. The racing in DTM has been average lately – and that’s putting it very kindly. The GT3 machines in the ADAC series have been far more entertaining this year and they deserve to have the big crowds and international profile that the DTM still clings to.

I thoroughly approve of the throaty V8s pushing round a bespoke carbon fibre chassis, although you don’t need to have Adrian Newey’s aerodynamic nous to know that the many downforce-generating protrusions aren’t welcome in tin-tops even if they give a static DTM car a most arresting stance. Lets just have a front and rear wing with some bulbous wheel-arches and leave it there. The longer race formats haven’t done the series any favours either, although the V8 Supercars down under prove that longer touring car races can still be thrilling if you have the right cars.

The new rules in DTM really matter – they look likely to be shared by Super GT in Japan and a new touring car series proposed for the USA. BMW always said they would only return to the DTM when the opportunity to run the cars in other series arose to help justify their investment. Despite no definitive word on the DTM rulebook spreading globally yesterday’s revealing of the M3 has to be a great sign that we will see other countries and their manufacturers embracing the German way of doing things. Here’s hoping that the GTR, Camaro, Mustang and other dream machines that can be bought with a salary raise rather than a lottery win will all be seen trading paint together across different continents.

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Tarquini by a nose, Foresti by a mile

The World Touring Car Championship looks a little forlorn at the moment. It’s chock-a-block with privateers that struggle to keep up with the RML Chevrolet power-house and it seemed that nobody other than Huff, Menu or reigning champion Yvan Muller would ever score a win. But in race two at Zolder Gabriele Tarquini muscled his way to a narrow victory in my race of the week.

The benefit that the Seat star gained from the reversed grid was far outweighed by the disadvantage of not being in a blue Chevrolet, so the Italian stalwart made sure his car was wide and wild. The speedy race one winner Rob Huff was brave enough to try to pass Gabriele, but the Italian defended hard and the resulting contact saw Huffy limping home. I’m not usually one for strong-arm tactics, but nobody can expect to beat the Chevy team in 2011 unless they push things to the limit or the blue cars take themselves out, as nearly happened in race one.

My not-very-coveted racer of the week award goes to Lucas Foresti for his dominant display around the leafy Oulton Park in round four of British F3. The Fortec Mercedes pilot notched up a first win for a non-Carlin car in 2011 as he tamed the gorgeous Cheshire track, taking the lap record along the way. By the end of the half an hour of racing he had a staggering 18 second lead over Felipe Nasr, his compatriot who is the favourite for the title.

While both Brazilians gave best to Riki Christodoulou in race two, it was Nasr who won the third race of the weekend from Foresti. Unlike Foresti, Nasr struggled to open up much of a gap over his rival despite the race being ten minutes longer than the earlier encounters. Although Felipe Nasr may well end up confusing the F1 commentators in the future, Foresti was the driver who appeared to truly master the majestic Oulton Park from where I was sitting. The last time I attended such a dominant F3 performance at Oulton was from one Jenson Button; you have to be packing talent to be able to humiliate your rivals around this most traditional of tracks.


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Gerry Marshall – man and myth

Today is the anniversary of the passing of a giant of British motorsport, the only thing taller than this man are the tales he inspired. Gerry Marshall won a record 625 races between 1964 and 2004 becoming a near-mythic racing character long before he left us for the great racetrack in the sky while at the wheel of an IROC Camaro at Silverstone on April 21st 2005. Ordinarily you would describe his passing from natural causes as peaceful, but I imagine that the cockpit of a V8 muscle car is anything but serene, although it would be accurate to say he went doing what he loved best, so he was certainly at peace in that regard.

My folks have always been partial to sport of the automotive variety, they recently shared this timely little glimpse into another era with me. Back when Gerry was hauling Vauxhalls around the great circuits of Britain my parents were fortunate enough to enjoy his company and his insights into top level saloon and sportscar racing. The year was 1976, but even in the time of Sheens and Hunts Gerry Marshall was unique. A man who was as big and burly as the cars he tamed, you could say that in the mid-1970s he was at his peak, but truth be told he was at his peak for 40 years. When I watched him race TVRs and Aston Martins in the 1990s it was the same supreme talent that my parents had witnessed in Vauxhalls and Minis when I was merely an apple in their eyes. The cars still danced to his tune and Gerry still looked and behaved like the antithesis of the modern sportsman, something he was loved for.

Gerry Marshall drove more cars than even he could care to remember, but the image that most readily comes to mind is of him manning the controls of a beastly Vauxhall such as the fire-breathing Firenza. My Mum was working for a Vauxhall dealership at the time and this consummate ambassador for the sport was very much the face of the marque during the 1970s. While visiting the garage he regaled them with stories from the pits and paddocks of the country, all delivered in his booming voice that always commanded attention. They cared to ask how he was beating all the young whipper-snappers coming up through the ranks, the answer was certainly not the full story, but it was as good an illustration of the times as it gets.

Before a race Gerry said he would invite some of the youngsters out for a drink with him so he could impart a little knowledge and get to know his soon to be vanquished competition. He got the rounds in while insisting that he always drinks a bit on race weekend and it never slows him down. The learner drivers presumably went against their instincts and thought that if Gerry did it, they all could. Come race day all the youngsters were nursing hangovers while Gerry was rested, well and prepared for a spot of opposite locking. Gerry Marshall was not your average racer; unlike all the other jockeys he was as big and burly as the cars he wrestled around the track and he could take his ale. It certainly seems as wise a strategy as anything Ross Brawn could come up with!

At the top of the page you can watch some magic footage from the custodians of British racing history at Duke Video. It’s a taster of what Gerry Marshall was all about as he takes you for a ride with him around Oulton Park. The man himself is your guide, sounding laid back on the commentary but driving with aplomb. The Vauxhall Firenza bucks and leans on its soft suspension, gliding high over the crests and dips of Cheshire’s mini-Nurburgring, every slide is caught by his outstretched arms almost before they’ve happened. This is Marshall at his best – there is no corner on the British motorsport calendar that he didn’t know as well as his own driveway and he wasn’t afraid to push on every lap. Seeing him behind the wheel of his beloved ‘Baby Bertha’, the car that came to define him, is an evocative and sorely missed sight for any British petrol-head.

If you want to read an awful lot more about this legendary character then take a look at Only Here For The Beer, his biography from 1978, available here on Amazon. The Marshall family also keep a very informative website running in the big man’s memory, the least you should do today is stop by to read a little about his astounding career.


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