Cars I have driven #7 – 1970 Lotus 61M Formula Ford

31 Jul

I can remember seeing the Lotus 61 Formula Ford car and  thinking how great it looked with its wedge shape. Tiff Needell won one in the  Autosport competition and, despite a touch of jealousy, I followed his career  with interest thereafter.

My own chance to drive one came in about 1974 (I still  have the marking sheets somewhere and will try and find them to confirm the date) at Motor Racing  Stables racing school at Brands Hatch. A pal had been down a few times and was  on the ladder with them, and I scrounged a lift down to do the introductory  course.

I remember it as a bit of a grey day. We first timers assembled for our briefing whilst my pal went off to get some laps in. We were the usual motley crew from spotty youths to one or two flash types who had a  bit of wealth, one of whom was a South American who had his Dad in tow (bearing  in my the outcome of the day I like to say that it was Nelson Piquet, but I’m  sure that it wasn’t).

The legendary Syd Fox was Chief Instructor and was there  with pithy comment and dodgy flying jacket, but at least I did know who he was  and had some respect for his on track ability. We did all the usual stuff and then headed out for a turn in a Vauxhall Firenza; three laps driving it with the instructor alongside and then two laps with the instructor showing you how  to really do it.

When my turn cam I drew Mike Wilds, F5000 regular at that  time and later to drive F1 with BRM, albeit in their final years as no hopers.  He was great. I didn’t disgrace myself driving him round and emerged from my  two laps with him at the wheel with a  smile that took weeks to fade.

But then I was in the queue for a Lotus. We had a strict rev limit and the tell tales were set to give us away if we transgressed. FF cars all had standard 4 speed gear boxes and, on the short, Indy, Brands circuit you were in 4th all the way around except for a drop to third for the hairpin at Druids. I think that we had 8 or 10 laps as our ration, including the in and out laps, and were told to watch our mirrors for faster stuff (that might have included an instructor in one of the Firenzas) and our revs. Syd Fox & co were up in the control tower and we all had a dread of being summoned up there for one of the legendary bollockings.

Even though I have fairly small feet I had to take my shoes  off to safely work the pedals and, being 6 foot 3, they took the seat out so  that I sat on the bare metal floor with foam padding shoved in all around me. Engine fired it was time to make my way out,  frantic not to stall in front of my peers, but I was away cleanly, keeping well to the right as I built up speed around Paddock and down into the dip. Once there, with clear track in my mirrors, I could start to take a racing line for the rest of the lap.

Now this was before they moved Paddock bend back towards the pits to make room for a run off area. The pit straight was still a curve being an extension of Clearways and as you came out of the latter the line was to almost brush the pit wall as you crested the slight rise towards the start/finish line. There were two Evening News banners on the bank as you headed for Paddock and we were told to aim for the V on the second one, and then turn right just before you ran out of track and hit it.

Paddock hadn’t looked too bad from the Firenza; you were sat at normal driving height, but in the Lotus your bum was about 5 inches off the tarmac and you were much more reclined. On that first flying lap I had checked my revs along past the pits and, holding a straight line, found myself heading straight for the V as briefed. Keeping my nerve until the last second (there
was only a couple of feet on run off at that point) I turned right. It was like driving off a cliff! Clipping a good apex (the instructors knew what they were on about, you just had to trust them) the little Lotus plunged downhill and up the other side. Absolutely bloody fantastic!

The rest of the lap was just about trying to remember lines and clipping points and watching for traffic to get back and have another go at Paddock. With the strict rev limit we were probably not doing more than about 80mph, but even at that speed how you drive can make a difference and you had eagle eyes on you all of the way round.

All too soon I got the In board hung over the pit wall and came in next time by to end a fabulous experience. Debriefing was positive and my score was in the low 80s so I was pretty pleased. When we had the group debrief I found that I was second on the day by just 2 points, beaten by the South American. One of the instructors told me that I shouldn’t worry too much as the other lad had a lot of racing experience back home and was only on the course to take him down a peg.

I was saving hard, working in bars every evening and well as holding down a full time job, but chances of furthering my track ambitions were thwarted by assorted ladies who flitted around my life at the time. Even my Autocross plans (see the upcoming 105E Anglia blog) were sacrificed in the pursuit of ladies; I guess that it was clear what I really wanted.

It would be around 25 years before I found myself back in the pits watching the mechanic take the seat out of a Formula Ford so that they could squeeze me in, but that’s a story for another day perhaps?

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