Lance Macklin and the HWM - Part 3
With the help of the smaller truck they got themselves to the garage where only a few weeks previously they had kept the racing cars. There, after much welding and bending of metal, they cured the steering problem on Alf’s truck, and they also sorted out the engine trouble on the bus.
It was late evening before they set off in convoy to cross the mountains during the night, their second one without sleep.
By Wednesday morning they were lumbering across the Lombardy plains in the north of Italy, and by afternoon they were on the Adriatic coast. But their problems were not over yet. On the following night, their third on the road, Alf was leading the way in the big truck. It was around two in the morning when suddenly he realised that the headlights of the other truck were no longer behind.
He slowed, then stopped and waited. Nothing! Concerned, he found a spot where he could turn round and set off to look for them. He started to imagine coming upon a crumpled wreck lying upside down off the road. It was his fault, he told himself; he should have allowed them to stop for a rest.
He re-traced his tracks for half an hour without seeing anything. Then he remembered passing a spot where the road had forked. He turned the truck again and headed back to the fork. Seeing it again, he realised it would’ve been easy to take a wrong turn.
After driving around the sleeping Italian countryside for more than two hours, Alf suddenly came upon the other truck parked just off the road with both occupants fast asleep.
They finally rolled into Bari at three o’clock on the Thursday afternoon, red eyed and fatigued but very happy and pleased to have arrived on time for the scrutineering.
I told this story at some length because all the time I was involved in motor racing I used to think that the mechanics who ran the cars really were the unsung heroes. They seldom got into the limelight, or received much recognition for their stupendous efforts; and for all of it, by today’s standards, they were paid a pittance. They certainly weren’t doing it for the money.
As soon as they arrived, John Heath sent them off to the hotel to sleep while the rest of us unloaded the cars and fitted new wheels and tyres in readiness for the first practice.
Above: Unloading the race cars in 1950 was not for the faint-hearted. Image credit: Silverstone Auctions
The following day we found that the axle ratios which we had used on the flat-out circuit at Rheims were quite unsuitable for the twisty Bari course. We took the cars back to the garage and the mechanics set about changing the axles.
Stirling and I went off to find out what the town had to offer so we were blithely unaware of the fact that we nearly didn't have any cars to race the next day.
It happened like this. All three cars were lined up next to each other in the garage, and while two of the mechanics were engaged on the axles, the third was busying himself with a rag and a can of petrol trying to remove the tar which had collected on the bodywork of the cars during the race at Rheims.
As it was getting dark he was carrying a wandering lead light around, and nobody knew quite what happened, but suddenly all three cars were on fire from end to end. General panic ensued for a few seconds until someone produced a powerful extinguisher and the fire was out almost as quickly as it had begun. Alf Francis told me later that for a moment he really thought we were going to lose all the cars and the garage as well.
Next day, the three cars appeared on the starting grid looking immaculate, but the incident did have one consequence which nearly proved fatal for me. We will come to it later.
The race itself looked like a pretty impossible situation as far as Stirling and I were concerned. It was a Formula 1 Grand Prix with full works participation by Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Gordini, plus various Talbots, and others. I was also upset because John Heath had offered Rudi Fisher a drive and given him the second car, which like Stirling’s, had the 14-to-1 compression engine, and I was once again to drive the 12-to-1 engined car.
I felt pretty sure that the reason for this was financial. Rudi Fisher was a wealthy Swiss, and I suspected that he was paying John for the drive. As it happened, I ended up having a fabulous view of one of Stirling’s most remarkable drives.
Soon after the start of the race, in company with two or three other cars, I was hurtling through a hundred mile an hour swerve with the car in a nice four-wheel drift, and my foot hard down when, without warning, the car gave a shudder. Both back wheels locked solid, and before I even knew what was happening, trees were flashing past in front of me, then houses, then trees again as I spun wildly out of control down the road. A car came past me on the grass on one side and I felt another go by behind.
After what seemed like an eternity, I suddenly realised that I was going to stop without hitting anything. In fact the car ended up neatly parked on the grass between two large trees with no assistance from me.
I learned later what had caused the rear wheels to lock suddenly. Apparently just as the mechanic had finished changing my axle ratio, the fire had broken out and in the ensuing pandemonium he forgot to refill the axles with oil!
As the spot where I had stopped was on the far side of the circuit, I found a comfortable place in the shade and sat down to watch the race. The first time Stirling came by, he must have seen the long skid marks coming out of the corner and assumed that I had overcooked it because he jokingly wagged his finger at me in an admonishing way. However, next time he came past, I pointed at the back axle and gave the thumbs down sign which he took with a wry smile.
Above: Stirling sits in the same car at Bari, the scene of one of his most impressive performances and the day that Alf Francis reckoned he "came of age".
As the race progressed, I began to realise from my mental lap chart that Stirling was in fact doing very well. Then I noticed that both the Maseratis had retired and the Ferraris which were not far ahead of him seemed to be in trouble and slowing. From the side of the road I was giving Stirling encouragement and made signs to let him know he was catching the Ferraris.
The race had now been going for some time, so I set off slowly on foot around the circuit in order to arrive back at the pits before the end. At one point I reached a position where I had a good view of the cars going through a series of three corners. From there, I could see that the Ferraris were indeed in trouble, and believe it or not, there was Stirling lying third in a Formula 1 Grand Prix behind two Alfettas driven by none other than World Champion Farina, and Juan Fangio. This, in a heavy, two-seater, 2-litre car!
From my viewpoint, I realised that Stirling was shortly to be lapped by the leaders, and sure enough, just before the end of a straight leading into the three corners I was observing, Farina in the leading Alfa overtook him in a derisory manner with about twenty miles an hour in hand. Having overtaken the nineteen-year-old English lad in his two-seater car, I don't think the Doctor gave him a second thought as he swept into the first bend.
Then, to my astonishment, and on the corner right in front of me, Stirling shot past Farina with a marked disrespect for the World Champion. I nearly doubled up with laughter and although I couldn’t see Farina’s face, Stirling told me later that he looked like thunder when he overtook him for the second time.
Stirling finished the race less than two minutes behind the leaders which was an astonishing performance.
Above: 1950 HWM Alta prototype, chassis number FB 104, as shared by Macklin, Moss, Heath, Abecassis and Fisher. Macklin drove this very car four times. In all, it raced in fifteen events across Europe including Reims, Grand Prix de Bern and Grand Premio De Bari. Image credit: Silverstone Auctions
Above: The three HWM Works cars were sold off at the end of the 1950 to help finance the team’s 1951 season. Mudguards and headlights were fitted to make them more attractive to potential buyers. Image credit: Silverstone Auctions
Above: Proving its historical significance, the 1950 prototype HWM Alta fetched more than £500,000 at auction in March 2021. Image credit: Silverstone Auctions
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