Archive for October, 2007

Beyond reasonable doubt?

Thursday, October 18th, 2007

One of the aspects of my research into the history of different types and marques of racing car that frustrates me is that it is sometimes difficult to establish the provenance of a particular car beyond reasonable doubt. Therefore, you find yourself writing something like “it is my belief that…” or “the most plausible explanation for this is that…”

Now, I’ve never really found that to be a particularly satisfactory state of affairs, therefore what I tend to do is write that as a ‘holding position’ (e.g. when a book deadline is looming and I have to go with something) but keep on researching, quite often long after the book has been published.

An example would be Lotus 49 chassis number 12. This was a show car delivered to Ford in 1969. The car never raced (as chassis 49/12) and was later donated by Ford to Tom Wheatcroft’s Donington Collection, where it remains to this day.

The car always puzzled me, since it incorporated elements of several distinct specifications of 49. When it first appeared, it had a ZF gearbox with ‘fir tree’ suspension mountings (e.g. Mk 1 specification), a saddle oil tank with cooler over the gearbox, a high wing, a ‘paper clip-style’ driver roll-over bar, a nose cone with NACA exit ducts (all 49B spec) and deep ‘Tasman style’ cutouts in the tub for the forward mounting of the lower rear radius arms (1969 49T spec).

My conclusion was that this car had been built at the same time – and using the same jigs – as the cars for the 1969 Tasman series. Chassis numbers 49/8 and 49/9 were built with high wings, ZF boxs and deep cutouts in the tub for the radius arms, although the oil tank was still in the nose in the style of the Mk 1 49s.

I concluded that it was extremely unlikely that Team Lotus, already extremely pressed to prepare two racing cars for the Tasman series, would have built an entirely new car just for show purposes and that they would have used an existing, damaged car as a starting point if at all possible.

In fact, this is precisely what they did with chassis 1, crashed heavily by Jackie Oliver at the 1968 Monaco GP. This was rebuilt to 1969 49T spec for Jochen Rindt to use in the Tasman series and renumbered as 49/9. However, it seems that its sister car, 49/8, was built from new.

Only one other car remained unaccounted for, chassis 49/6, which had also been crashed heavily by Oliver, in practice for the 1968 French Grand Prix at Rouen-les-Essarts, when his rear wing collapsed. I surmised that the fabricators would have salvaged as much as possible from this car, then re-skinned it using the same jigs as used for the Tasman cars, but retaining features such as the 1968 roll-over bar as that was what was on the car. I have never been able to conclusively prove this but I think this is the most plausible explanation. If anyone has any information which could help me prove this, I’d love to hear it but I suspect I will never be able to.

A similar situation exists with the Lotus 72s. After doing sterling service for the works team, a pair of 72s were sold to Team Gunston in South Africa, for them to race in the domestic Formula 1 Championship which ran in that country until the mid-1970s.

The cars, chassis numbers 72/6 and 72/6, were delivered to the team for the start of the 1974 season. In 1974 – according to race-by-race engineering records I have copies of – Ian Scheckter (brother of Jody) drove 72/6 and ex-motorcycle racer Paddy Driver 72/7. For 1975, the driver line-up changed and Eddie Keizan took over the position of team leader at the wheel of 72/6 and Guy Tunmer joined the team to drive 72/7. These chassis numbers are also verified by period race reports in both Motor Sport and Autosport (1975 South African Grand Prix), as well as the engineering records for 1975.

Towards the end of the domestic season, Tunmer had a huge crash at Kyalami during private testing prior to the Rand Winter Trophy. His car was so badly damaged that it had to be completely stripped down and the bare tub sent back to Team Lotus in the UK for repair. The strip-down was carried out by a Team Gunston mechanic and I have a photo of the car after it had been completed. However, that mechanic contends that he kept the chassis plate off the car and still has it to this day and that it says 72/6. He has sent me a photo to prove it and it does indeed show 72/6 not 72/7. So what is the possible explanation?

Could they have swapped cars during the test?: This I felt was the most likely explanation. However, I checked with all the surviving Team Gunston mechanics and they said that, to the best of their recollection, the drivers never swapped cars. Additionally, when I showed the photo of the stripped tub to one of the former Team Lotus mechanics who worked on 72/6, he said that it definitely wasn’t an ex-Peterson car as it would have featured an extended cut-out in the cockpit sides to accommodate his extra-long forearm and this tub didn’t. Finally, albeit much more tenuous, the words ‘Fittipaldi was here’ were scrawled in black felt tip pen on the inside of the cockpit by some wag. Fittipaldi never raced 72/6, only 72/7, so why would somebody write that on a car he never drove?

Could the mechanic have removed the chassis plate from 72/6 at the end of the 1975 season, rather than when he stripped down 72/7 for rebuilding?: This I regard as the most likely explanation, since the F1 cars were rendered obsolete at the end of that season due to the Championship switching to Formula Atlantic regulations from 1976 onwards. I am sure it is plausible that the mechanic who had worked all year, maybe for two years, on that car would remove the chassis plate as a ‘keepsake’ to remind him of his time with it. This theory is supported by the fact that, when 72/6 was repatriated into the UK in the early 1980s, it came minus its chassis plate and the new owner had to have a new plate made up.

As far as I am concerned, the key to identifying the car conclusively lies in a photo I was shown by the late Eddie Pinto, ex-chief mechanic of Team Gunston. It was actually a newspaper clipping in his photo album, reporting the Tunmer crash and that the car was badly damaged and Tunmer would be unable to race in the Rand Winter Trophy. Crucially, it showed the front of the car with the nose off.

Having conducted extensive research into the characteristics of each car, I can now identify them by the rivet patterns on the front footbox. Unfortunately, the copy I have is a scan of a newspaper article, therefore it is not distinct/clear enough to see the rivets. If I could get an original copy of the photo, I would perhaps be able to look at it through a magnifying glass or get it blown up to see the rivet patterns. Unfortunately, no photographer was credited by the newspaper, so all I know is that the photograph appeared in The Star, July 24th 1975.

I have tried everything I know to track this photo down. I have asked all my contacts in South Africa but to no avail. It was suggested to me that the British Newspaper Library in Colindale would hold a copy and, indeed, they do but only on microfilm and the microfilming of the original newspaper is even poorer than my photocopy! The name of Barry Curtis has been suggested to me and I have tried to track him down via the South African Guild of Motoring Journalists but they have lost touch with him and internet searches of phone books have yielded no results.

The name of Alton Berns (Burns?) was also suggested. His photo archive was sold to a company back in the 1990s but this company subsequently went into liquidation and – so the story goes – somebody clearing out the offices of the company in the wake of the liquidation threw all the old photos and negatives into a skip. If true, this is criminal and a terrible loss to South African motor sport history.

So I’ve reached a bit of a dead-end. Barry Curtis, if you are alive and out there, I would dearly love to make contact with you. Or if anyone has any idea about who could have taken that photo, I would love to hear from them – all avenues and possibilities explored. It really would be good to prove that Tunmer was in 72/7, and to clear up this little mystery that has been bugging me for years, beyond reasonable doubt.