Icebound – when racing drivers did cool things in the winter
Drivers have some time off over winter, these days they spend their lives training. But once upon a time they did cool stuff.
Well, it’s almost here. The older one gets the quicker the years seem to hurtle by, and from one Christmas to another passes in the blink of an eye. But what a busy, hectic, frenetic year we have seen – again. Presently I am minded of the American humorist Will Rogers’ famous line: “I don’t make jokes – I just watch the Government and report the facts…” Of course throughout history – no matter how bad current affairs and what used to be debated so earnestly through the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s as “the International situation” might appear to be - true enthusiasts have always turned to more congenial motoring activities “to get away from it all”.
Over the long years the vast majority of Goodwood Motor Circuit habitués have most certainly displayed this mindset. A cheery attitude of “Stuff ’em all – let’s just go racing” would see many of Formula 1’s finest practitioners find alternative earning opportunities way south to spend the Antipodean summer months in New Zealand and Australia – contesting the loose-knit Tasman series and later Tasman Championship ‘down under’.
Some years saw the South African Grand Prix run at New Year, after a lead-up Springbok series of Formula 1-cum-Libre races saw the Formula 1 circus perhaps spending Christmas there, before the southerly migration to Tasman competition.
And of course the greatest northern-hemisphere event of the winter months would be January’s Monte Carlo Rally – which through the 1940s-1970s was very much a pinnacle event which attracted enormous mass media attention. In those days it was a multi-starting point mass-motoring epic in which many of the wider sport’s true circuit-racing stars would guest-drive alongside established rally aces. It was a true challenge to cars as diverse as Austin A105 Westminsters, Austin A30 and A35 ‘tea-pots’, Sunbeam Rapiers, Jaguar 3.4s and 3.8s, all manner of Citroëns, Peugeots, Renaults, Lancias, Fiats, Porsches and of course the immortal Abingdon BMC Comps Department’s ‘Big Healeys’ and Mini-Coopers. Even Ferraris have competed in the snow and ice…
Stirling Moss actually finished second – by just 4 seconds – in the 1952 ‘Monte’ in a Sunbeam Alpine which he shared with John A. Cooper – who was not the car constructor but instead contemporary Sports Editor of ‘The Autocar’ – and Desmond Scannell, secretary of the British Racing Drivers’ Club. Stirling drove “the tricky sections”, John and Des the liaison routes in between. The latter was also, apparently, pretty good at knocking up sandwiches and brewing tea and coffee from his vantage point on the well-laden Sunbeam’s back seat.
Motoring to Monte Carlo through the annual blizzards and snow-drifts of Western Europe was always an exciting adventure. Moss wasn’t the only road racer who enjoyed the freezing fun while also getting paid for pursuing it – “Fifty quid old boy – not to be sniffed at!” Graham Hill ten years later co-drove a Sunbeam Rapier with his pal Peter Jopp. More snowy, icy, freezing winter-time fun, and probably a hundred quid by that time, with £75 maybe for ‘Joppy’.
Much earlier British-based racers who would shine in Goodwood’s early days were also finding a deep-winter earner on ice and snow, but in their case in the Swedish Winter Grand Prix. Founded back in 1931 on a 28.5-mile circuit near Lake Rämen, that snow and ice classic first fell to Finnish star Karl ‘Kalle’ Ebb in a Mercedes SS-variant, bettering a sister car handled by factory star Rudi Caracciola – no less. In 1936 Norweigian owner-driver Eugen Bjørnstad won in his Alfa Romeo Monoposto Grand Prix car and the race was revived postwar on Rommehed air force base in 1947 on a circuit of dirt, gravel, packed snow and ice.
Pre-war Brooklands and future Goodwood stars Reg Parnell, George Abecassis and Leslie Brooke all shipped their familiar Old English Upright ERAs – cars ‘R1A’, ‘R2A’ and ‘R7B’ respectively – there for the chilly race. George qualified on pole but lost out in the race to Uncle Reg and Leslie Brooke, who finished first and second. There were only four starters. The following weekend saw the same trio chewing their way around an ice-race circuit on the froze Lake Vallentuna. Brooke had to retire with engine trouble caused by difficulty in warming the oil sufficiently for it to circulate as it should. Abecassis had a piston collapse, but drifted on regardless on five cylinders, finishing second behind his friend, the winner – Reg Parnell – on another good pay day. Overall that Swedish sojourn proved a lucrative trip for the enterprising Brits – and another wonderful winter-time escape from a bankrupt postwar England locked in deepest, dark, austerity.
Later Scandinavian ice-racing circuits both on dry land and on frozen lakes would see such cars as Jaguar D-Types and even Formula Junior Coopers, Brabhams, Elvas and the like being fitted with the latest-tech studded tyres and careering around in sub-zero temperatures.
The classic snowy motorsport images today are far more from speedway-style motorcycle ice racing than anything for four-wheeled cars, apart from the much-hyped and widely-promoted goings-on at Chamonix – where the 24-Hour ice race has been won by four-time Le Mans winner and longtime Goodwood Revival supporter Henri Pescarolo. But for many the classic motor sporting scene in snow and ice will feature the likes of Timo Makinen or Rauno Aaltonen (another perennial Revival supporter) or the great Paddy Hopkirk pluming around in their front-drive Mini-Coopers. Somewhat less spectacular – but always hugely impressive – was their predecessor the great Erik Carlsson in his factory front-drive Saabs – and then of course came the heyday years of Vic Elford and Bjorn Waldegaard in their works Porsche 911s.
‘Quick Vic’ became unarguably one of the greatest true all-rounders in racing history since his successes covered the entire spectrum from Porsche 917 circuit cars to Formula 1, Formula 2 and a wide range of touring and GT cars too. Having started competing as a rally navigator, his wide-ranging driving talent saw him win the 1968 ‘Monte’ in a Porsche 911, and only a week later score Porsche’s first overall 24-Hour endurance race win – at Daytona, Florida – in a works-entered 907 Coupe; not bad for versatility…
And then of course we come to what I hope are fond memories of the remarkable commitment and steadfast determination which saw full Goodwood Members’ Meeting grids set off to do battle on our own snow-fringed Motor Circuit last March. They were following in the slithery-slidy wheel-tracks of preceding Goodwood greats such as the names and exploits related above. For some people – when the skies go copper-grey, the snow flakes fall, and the rivers and lakes freeze over – it’s an irresistible opportunity. Let’s forget our troubles – and put in some serious – but safe – winter mileage…
May I wish both our readers a wonderful Christmas, and a very happy, successful, fulfilling, safe and healthy New Year.
Words by Doug Nye, photography courtesy of The GP Library.