Its over a decade now since Stuart Owen Took up the challenge to race a Ferrari F40 in a 1/4 mile drag race on television. Here's the full story that was originally published in Scootering Magazine.
It all started back in the autumn of 2000 when a random e-mail was received from a researcher acting on of behalf of the BBC. Detailing that a spin off series from top gear was to be produced covering different aspects of motorcycle culture around the world, a six part series that was to be fronted by the radio one presenter Mary Anne Hobs. Curious to find out more I spoke to the lady researcher who outlined they were working on over 200 different stories to be narrowed down to a final 30, apparently making contacting because they were excited that a scooter could do over 100 mph.Having explained it was in fact a Lambretta capable of a 1/4 mile in under 13 seconds there was strange silence. Firstly she didn't know what a Lambretta was and secondly couldn't grasp what a sub 13 second 1/4 mile meant. Trying to find common ground my reply was simple "if you put the lambretta in a 1/4 mile race against a Ferrari the Lambretta will win". Despite still struggling to understand what the hell I was on about the possibility of some sort of dual sounded good.
With no contact for six months and having completely forgotten about it out of the blue a phone call confirmed that this was one of the chosen 30 ideas. Pretty excited about being on television and realising the potential to get Sponsorship money to fund my racing what could be easier. Working together on the project it was arranged for the race to take place at Elvington airfield in Yorkshire. With the benefit of using the facility regularly, this being the track I had set my fastest 1/4 mile times confidence was sky high. A date was set in early May 2001 to allow a better chance of good weather bearing in mind that to hire the facility and get the insurances sorted the last thing you wanted was for it to be rained off. The week prior the bike was set up to perfection and every conceivable spare part readied, there was no way I was turning up unprepared. Several days before filming commenced the script arrived, apparently you must be happy with content of the story. Everything was fine well nearly everything. Having raced several road going Ferraris at Santa pod in the past and being considerably quicker presumably that was what I would be up against. You have to remember though the BBC is a big corporation (we all give them a lot of money each year) so they can get what they want.In this case they had hired the skills of a man named John Pogson. Not only was he three times British GT champion but he would be racing a Ferrari F40. Knowing what I did about the Ferrari mark, this their answer to a formula one car on the road doubts started to creep in. These were confirmed when enquiring about John Pogson's race history and the F40 in question , not only lightened but the power output raised to a staggering 550 BHP. It all seemed so good months ago with my "put me up against a Ferrari and I will beat it" speech. It was too late to back out now and why worry, after all there was only a mere 500 BHP difference to deal with.
Sunday May 6th 2001 was a beautiful spring day in north Yorkshire, conditions perfect for the most mismatched 1/4 mile show down in drag racing history. Arriving at 8.30 am to be greeted by a crew of twelve BBC staff there was no time to spare in getting ready. Italia Autosport the team behind John Pogson duly arrived with their beast of a car appearing shortly afterwards. A meeting with the Director, camera crew, sound engineer and Mary Ann Hobbs was quickly sorted. Now it was time to check out the opposition, one of Ferrari's finest ever creations. Having followed motorsport all my life I wasn't going to miss the opportunity at getting a close up. This was one serious piece of kit, a quarter of a million pounds worth to be exact and it didn't disappoint. Everyone around stood in awe as the rear cover of the car was removed. What could you say, the engine on its own was bigger than my bike.Feeling more bewildered than ever by now Little did we know that I was about to turn the tables on them. Though they had been told they were racing a Lambretta in their minds they were thinking it was some sort of Mod mobile with mirrors, lights etc. When the bike was took out of the van they started to look a bit worried. Staring at the bike not only wondering where the iron work was but the fact that it was stripped to the bare bones, soon it became apparent the BBC hadn't told them everything.
Initial filming was onboard camera footage from both machines perspective. This was a fairly simple job to set up on the Ferrari dash but for me I had to carry the battery pack on my back. Having to run the power lead up to the handle bars seriously hampered any movement taking several attempts to get right. Unfortunately there are only a couple of seconds shown in the film but somewhere deep in the BBC vaults the full run still exists. Once finished attention switched to the race. The idea being that we traded the lead several times to the background of engine noises and the customary heavy guitar music that is standard top gear procedure. The film crew would follow us parallel hanging outside of a people carrier as we progressed up the track. The problem being they couldn't manage more than 40mph to keep the filming steady. At that speed both of us struggled constantly stalling. To keep the race flowing every time one of us did stall we had to start again. With problems firing my bike up (takes three people to bump start) combined with the turn round angle of the Ferrari this was going to be a long procedure.One hour and fourteen attempts later they got their footage, well nearly.By this time we had grasped the idea that this was going to be more staged than the X Factor. Confirmed when I was asked to go through the finish line at over 100 mph and wave a fist in the air as if to celebrate the win. Looking at them in bewilderment and replying "you have got to be joking". The bikes unstable at the best of times but at that speed one handed never. Queue back up the strip again to shoot the victory salute but this time at a mere 40 mph.
Having completed most of the track shots we switched to the stage show that was to be the challenge. With the director constantly changing his mind with angles and script plus the fact we couldn't stop laughing at the comical lines we were given, filming of this 40 second piece alone took over two hours. With another hour spent collecting back ground footage we finally got a break. During this time the director was persuaded that we did actually need to do a genuine race. Not for the sake of the finished production that was to appear on TV just for our satisfaction.
Knowing this was for real all I removed all the camera pack and did a shakedown run took make sure everything was perfect, It was running 12.95 at 102 mph. With time running short we did one genuine race both going through the line within a tenth of a second of each other. At this point you may well ask yourselves how a machine with such a power disadvantage can be as quick. The Lambretta is designed to do one thing only get up the 1/4 mile in the quickest time possible. Weighing in at a 60kg and 35 bhp its power to weight ratio is very high. Pulling off the line at 7,000 rpm it goes from a standing to moving mass very quickly. On the other hand the Ferrari is a track car and at 1100kg designed for a rolling start. By the time the Ferrari has got moving off the Line the Lambretta is well away managing to keep its advantage until both equal out at the 1/4 mile mark.
Filmed in May 2001 for the series Mary Anne's bikes on the BBC. Stuart Owen raced against British GT champion John Pogson over a 1/4 mile race distance.
After the filming was finished I was given the opportunity to experience the power of this machine first hand as a passenger. John Pogson took the car up to 180 mph in what seemed like the blink of an eye pinning me in to the seat. As we rapidly run out of track he duly slammed on the brakes and stopped the car in an instant, pressure from the seat belts unbelievable as you are thrown forward. At this point realising over a 1/4 mile possibly but any other comparison promptly ends there.
So there you have it, in the BBC's mind a nicely choreographed piece for public consumption. For the rest of us probably the only time two such machines would ever be raced together in this set of circumstances. Never to be repeated but never forgotten.
© Stuart Owen 2012 – First published in Classic Scooterist Magazine 2012