Stuart Lewis-Evans: The Greatest Driver You've Never Heard Of
It's 1958. The Grand Prix season is over. Mike Hawthorn is World Champion. And a rising British star has just been injured in a horrific accident.
Flying back home to England, Tony Vandervell sits in a melancholy fashion onboard his own privately chartered plane, sadly sipping tea from a tiny mug. The occasion should be a happy one, he and his Vanwall team has just clinched the 1958 International Cup for F1 Manufacturers. However, in the furthest reaches of the plane, heavily bandaged and immolated, lies the reason for his state of depression, a 28 year old Brit named Stuart Lewis-Evans.
Laying quietly in a stretcher, rarely complaining and trying as best as he could to keep spirits high despite being in unimaginable pain, his calm demeanour was a suit of armour that was hiding the severity of his injuries.
Born in Luton in April 1930, Lewis-Evans was immediately infatuated with cars from a very young age. His father, 'Pop' Lewis-Evans, owned a garage in the Kent town of Bexleyheath and had himself had been a mechanic for 24 Hours of Le Mans winner, Earl Howe. After leaving school for an esteemed apprenticeship with Vauxhall Motors and serving as a Motorcycle dispatch rider during his National Service years, Lewis-Evans was encouraged by his father to start motor racing in 1951.
His ability was evident immediately. Driving a Cooper 500 F3 car he won at Brands Hatch in one of his very first races, coupled with success in other classes such as the prestigious Great Auclum National Speed Hill Climb. Lewis-Evans ended up winning the 1951 Open Challenge and the Junior Championship, establishing himself as one of the brightest upcoming stars of Motorsport. Similar success would follow in 1952 as Lewis-Evans divided his loyalties between races at home and overseas, one highlight was his win in a Formula 3 support race at Silverstone. With the added prestige came added attention, Lewis-Evans went from strength to strength the following year in 1953, progressively racing in more notable events and continuing an almost astronomical rise up the post-war Motorsport ranks. In-spite of his stellar performances, Lewis-Evans was never known to brag regarding his successes, retaining a strictly modest and sporting attitude to his racing.
Continuing in minor formula's until 1956 and triumphing in the 1955 National F3 Championship, Lewis-Evans was approached by a British investor who had recently purchased two Connaught chassis and was looking to enter a driver in upcoming Grand Prix events. The investor's name was Bernie Ecclestone, and he offered Lewis-Evans his first big opportunity. And he didn't disappoint. Driving a superb race, the Brit finished second and with Ecclestone now acting as his manager, Lewis-Evans' career started to take off.
Ecclestone entered Lewis-Evans in the 1957 Glover Trophy, another non-championship Grand Prix but run to Formula One restrictions and featuring a field consisting of F1 superstars such as Tony Brooks, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss. Despite the competition on offer, Lewis-Evans would better the lot of them. Qualifying a modest fifth, Lewis-Evans made light work of the field and when polesitter Moss dropped out with ailing oil pressure, he cruised home to take an unlikely but superb victory.
Almost a month later, Lewis-Evans lined up thirteenth on the grid in Monaco, again in a privately entered Ecclestone Connaught, ready to start his first proper Formula One Grand Prix. His rise through the ranks was complete and the modest young man from Luton was now a fully fledged Grand Prix driver.
Lewis-Evans in an early Formula 2 race, 1955.
Monaco was a tough prospect for any driver, let alone a 27 year old in his first F1 entry driving a fairly uncompetitive car, but Lewis-Evans coped tremendously. The 1957 Monaco Grand Prix would prove to be a race of attrition with over half the field retiring and only six drivers finishing the race, one of these six was the Connaught debutant. Albeit, he was three laps down on eventual race winner Juan Manuel Fangio, but he'd finished and not only that, he'd finished a remarkable fourth.
This performance caught the attention of Vanwall owner, Tony Vandervell. Vanwall were a permanent fixture in the F1 circus and boasted an impressive all British driver line-up consisting of Grand Prix legends, Moss and Brooks. Vandervell offered Lewis-Evans the chance to drive the third Vanwall car for the remainder of 1957, it was a chance too good to refuse. Debuting for his new team at the next race, the French Grand Prix held in Rouen, Lewis-Evans qualified tenth and was running fifth in the race before a steering failure forced him to retire. Nonetheless, it was a promising debut and Lewis-Evans would see the season out at Vanwall for the remainder of 1957.
Unfortunately, the rest of the year was very mixed. Lewis-Evans suffered multiple car failures and all-round bad luck. In Germany, he and his teammate Brooks were physically sick during the race thanks to rocky suspension. Then in Pescara, a rear tyre failed and forced the Brit to complete the lap on nothing but the remaining tyre canvas. A feat which earned plenty of merit considering the Pescara circuit was 16 miles long, the longest on the Formula One calendar. He replaced the tyre, only to have the same failure happen again the following lap. Despite these trials and tribulations, Lewis-Evans scored further points with a fifth place finish.
The following race was equally impressive as Lewis-Evans qualified on Pole Position at the Italian Grand Prix in only his Sixth Grand Prix event. He led for a majority of the race before a cracked cylinder head ruined any chances of a maiden victory.
Lewis-Evans (10) fighting with Carlos Menditeguy's Ferrari (36) at the 1957 Monaco Grand Prix
1958 promised to be a more successful year for both Lewis-Evans and the Vanwall team. The latest VW5 proved to be a consistently fast race car, with the vastly experienced Moss and Brooks scoring multiple wins across the year and keeping tabs with the class of the field, Ferrari 246. Lewis-Evans was left as the clear number 3 at the team, scoring points where he could and supporting his Championship contending teammates. This didn't stop him from putting in trademark strong performances that his short Grand Prix career had originally promised.
He outqualified Moss in Monaco before being forced out with a car failure. Then at the second race of the year in the Netherlands, the talented Brit scored his second Pole Position by a whole staggering second from both his teammates. Again, despite this promising performance, he was let down by another car failure, cruelly ripping away another potential win. Lewis-Evans performed well at the following round in Belgium by scoring a first podium at the ninth time of asking with a strong third place finish, all this coming with a suspension failure at the dying stages that forced him to limp home to the finish.
Bad luck continued to plague his season however. Car failures in France and Italy sandwiched two stong showings on home soil and another podium finish at the controversial Portuguese Grand Prix.
Behind the scenes, Lewis-Evans was nursing a nasty illness. He wasn't built like a Grand Prix driver, his slight and unphysical build was in direct contrast to the stocky and burly nature of many other competitors of the period. He suffered tremendously with stomach ulcers, which tended to be highly detrimental to his diet and as a result often left him with barely any energy. It seems extraordinary then that he was able to achieve such success despite carrying this handicap. By 1958, the ulcers were starting to take their toll, and he reluctantly agreed to surgery at the end of the season in order to rectify the troubles he faced.
Unfortunately, he wouldn't live to see the effects of this surgery and the world would be robbed of a fully fit, young, British challenger for 1959.
The burning shell of Lewis-Evans' Vanwall, 1958 Moroccan Grand Prix
The 1958 season boiled down to a championship showdown between Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss at the Moroccan Grand Prix. Vanwall had a fool-proof plan to aid Moss in every endeavour possible in his championship chase, the idea being to let Moss take the lead and build a gap and for his teammates of Brooks and Lewis-Evans to act as a block on Hawthorn's Ferrari. Thus keeping him to Fourth and, in the days where only the best six results out of eleven counted to your total, Hawthorn technically would not score and Moss would be champion.
However, this plan meant that the Vanwall's needed to occupy at least one of the first five grid slots. Lewis-Evans kept his side of the bargain by qualifying third just behind Moss, however Brooks was only seventh. Nonetheless, the Vanwall's were keen to stick to their plan and as a result both leading Vanwall's drove off into the distance, leaving Hawthorn behind. Brooks started to recover and was eventually up to third, however he was passed by the now flying Hawthorn and in attempting to keep pace, he suffered an engine failure.
It fell to Lewis-Evans to try and salvage the plan. Ferrari had got tactical and sent Hawthorn's teammate Phil Hill in as the hare, to try and tempt the Vanwall's into a mistake. He failed to deter Moss but was able to slip past Lewis-Evans into second. The Brit had to keep Hawthorn behind him in order to give his teammate the best chance to win as he could.
Disaster struck on lap 41 as Lewis-Evans suffered an engine seizure that pitched his car into the barriers at speed and promptly burst into flames with him still inside. He was able to extract himself from the burning wreck, but he was badly burned as a result of the ensuing inferno.
Lewis-Evans' burns were severe. So severe in fact that Vandervell organised for him to be flown back to England post-haste on his own chartered plane, to be treated at East Grinstead's Queen Victoria Hospital, which specialised in treatment of burns.
It would all be for nothing. A week later, Lewis-Evans succumbed to his injuries at the age of 28. Retaining his calm mentality till the last, the rising star of British motorsport had met his tragic end the same unfortunate way as many of his competitors.
His manager, Bernie Ecclestone, was emotionally rocked by his death and promptly retired from racing. Speaking of his friend later in life, Ecclestone is quoted as saying, “he was a really good bloke... he was superb, oozing with talent. He would have been one of the greats.” Tony Vandervell also never fully recovered from the loss of his driver. Prior to Morocco, Vanwall had a seemingly unimpeachable safety record but the death of Lewis-Evans proved too much for him and he swiftly distanced himself from Grand Prix racing by selling his championship winning outfit.
In retrospect, it's hard to say just how good Lewis-Evans could have been. In 14 starts, he scored two poles and podiums, failing to win but never being so far off the pace that they weren't unlikely. In the end, a combination of bad luck, mechanical troubles, a draining illness and an unfortunate accident whilst trying to do his bit for the team, robbed us of one of the brightest talents of 1950's Grand Prix racing. We'll never know how good he could have been in 1959 post surgery, what we are left with however, is the legacy of a driver who, on his day, could take on the great Stirling Moss. A man with unquivering drive and talent, that was coupled with enormous modesty and integrity which made him the immensely likable chap we hear about in these stories. And all this from a humble beginnings in a little suburb in Kent, so intrinsically linked to Lewis-Evans' own persona.
What a driver, what a legacy.