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Sebring 1977

In my recent post about Number 38, I promised more of Roy Jacobson’s accounts of motor racing at grass roots level. Well it’s time to deliver – here’s how to take an old M.G. and challenge the big boys.

Roy in his trusty M.G.

Just An Old M.G…

The Australian Grand Prix was held over the weekend but it was also the 12 hours race at Sebring. I had an experience there that may be entertaining.

In the early 1970s I began racing an M.G. TD, a Mark 2, which the company had offered in 1953 as the competition option. Larger carburetors, 4 extra dampers and a lower rear axle ratio – hardly competitive options. Over time I learned to drive and developed the car to a high degree and became bold enough to enter it in a “curtain raiser” race just prior to the Sebring
12 hours race of 1977.

Long sentences are not necessary; just imagine a 1,400 mile drive in an old bread van, towing the M.G. on a trailer, no reservations, a room I found in Lake Worth – I had to chase the chameleons out first. At entrant registration came word that an IMSA competition license was necessary and that cost about all the cash I had – I had not even entered the circuit yet!

MG TD and friend

Practice went well but the competition looked rather intimidating; have a look at the photo – that’s a 1959 Lister-Chevrolet, 5.3 liter V-8. Final practice confirmed we were ready but Sebring is a long way around, 5.3 miles in those days. It can get lonely out there and the IMSA folks must have realized this during my practice for they sent out a few modern cars to do “exhibition laps”.

Half way down the long straight, topping 100mph, a glance in the mirror – NOTHING – but as I reached the 90 degree right hander I felt the ground shaking. John Greenwood’s Corvette was passing me! On another lap a Porsche 908 passed me doing 170+. That car didn’t make noise but you could hear the air displacement as it ‘whistled’ past.

The race went better than expected; that monster Lister-Chevrolet lost a wheel in turn one, others expired from the flat out running, but the M.G. never failed me and I remember some cheering as I managed to pass a single car, a 6 cylinder Mustang which I had harried for 10 laps or so.

With a 15th place finish in my logbook and a time sheet, the M.G. loaded on the trailer, some sandwiches and a Thermos of orange juice presented by a friend’s wife, I headed north in the bread van. Many, many hours later, freezing cold, late at night, north of New York City, the van’s fuel tank ran dry. I had to drain the M.G. tank to feed the van for the final 100 miles!

Not really F1 is it? But come back next week for another adventure.

Number 38

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Memories of an Early Innovation in F1

Over at F1-Fanatic, Keith Collantine asked the question, “Which Manufacturers Will Quit (F1)?” and received a long reply from Number 38 of Halifax VA. Now, I like Number 38; for one thing I learned from a previous comment of his that he’s even older than I am. And Keith’s answer, including the fact that he’s not old enough to remember the introduction of the Tyrrell six-wheeler, set me to thinking of the first innovation in F1 that I was witness to.

Maser 2

Birdcage Maserati

I started watching Grands Prix in 1962 – which means that I just missed Cooper’s revolutionary idea of putting the engine in between the driver and the rear axle. But I can remember when Colin Chapman introduced the monocoque to F1, thereby consigning the spaceframe to the scrapheap. Although monocoque chassis had been around for a while in production cars, racing cars still relied on the tried and tested formula of welding tubes together to make a frame (known as a spaceframe) and then bolting body panels to it. The monocoque made the body into the frame upon which everything else was hung.

In Chapman’s hands, the monocoque became a large tube that housed the front suspension and driver; he then bolted the engine to the rear of the tube and hung the rear suspension on the engine. The resultant saving in weight enabled him to build a car that was much more nimble and just as strong as the other cars – the mighty Lotus 25 that Jim Clark used to such good effect.

And so the spaceframe welder’s art disappeared into history. I say art because the development of the spaceframe had led to some incredibly intricate and complex constructions from steel tubing; and the high point was probably not a F1 car but a sportscar known as the Birdcage Maserati (for obvious reasons).

The Birdcage was introduced in the dying days of Maserati’s involvement in racing – after their withdrawal it was the French Maserati dealers who tried every year to win at Le Mans with the original design supplied with various bodies. The car was very quick and invariably established a lead over the pack of Ferraris and Aston Martins in the early stages of the 24-hour race. But it was fragile as well and, sooner or later, something would break and it would be retired. It became almost a tradition that the Birdcage would be the hare in the first couple of hours at Le Mans but, in the end, reality had to be faced and the Maserati disappeared from the entry lists.

Maser 1

Take a look at the photograph above that shows the Maserati’s spaceframe. It is a model of the real thing but gives some idea of how complex a structure it was. Before the Lotus 25, all F1 cars were constructed in this way; after it, they went monocoque, chassis-less in effect, unless you regard the body as the chassis.

Chapman’s revolutionary idea also illustrates perfectly one of the most important rules of design: simplicity is always better than complexity. Colin had the vision to see that the spaceframe had become too complicated to develop further and something much simpler was needed. It was a logical step to use the existing technology already present in production cars – but it took genius to see that.

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Teams That Time Forgot (4)


Tony Settember was an American driver who had made his name driving sportscars. In 1962 he persuaded a rich friend to bankroll the buy-out of Emeryson, a team for which Tony had driven a few races, and midway through the next year they entered a few GPs with a car they dubbed the Scirocco. It was powered by the BRM 1.5 liter V8 engine and failed to finish in almost every GP, although it fared much better in other races, with a best result of second in the Austrian non-championship GP.


Scirocco-BRM, 1963

A second car was built for Ian Burgess to drive and this had the distinction of being the slimmest car on the grid that year. But Ian’s results were even worse than Tony’s and the team gave up. Burgess’ car was sold to Barrie Carter who ran it with Teddy Pilette aboard in a few races. The engine was changed to the Coventry-Climax V8 but still the car refused to finish in points-scoring races, its best result a 6th in the News of the World Trophy at Goodwood.

And that was the end of Scirocco’s brief dalliance with F1. It was a good example of how anyone could put together the necessary parts to enter a GP in those days but it took perseverance to keep going through the initial and inevitable disappointments. The car was pretty enough and, with development could have become reasonably competitive; but rich friends tend to lose interest when they find out just how expensive it is to keep a racing car on the road. Even then, F1 was a tough place to compete in.

Over the years many hopeful teams have come and gone, leaving just a footnote in F1 history. But they also provide a more romantic and wistful side to a sport that looks more like a business these days. They also serve who only make a grand entrance and then disappear in a shower of broken dreams.

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Keke Rosberg

Now that his son, Nico, is in F1 and showing well, it seems appropriate to remember the great days of Keke Rosberg. For sheer entertainment and guts, Keke was one to watch.


He was the master in adversity, known for his skills in the wet and a fighter in uncompetitive cars. Right from the beginning, the BRDC International Trophy race in 1978, which he won by speed in a downpour that was catching out all the great names of the time, his car control was amazing. Give him a street circuit and he would muscle his way to the front, regardless of whether his car was any good or not.

For many years it looked as if Keke would never get a competitive drive; he went from Theodore to ATS, Wolf and Fittipaldi, always getting more out of his car than it wanted to give but somehow beneath the notice of the top teams. Even when he secured a drive with Williams in 1982, it was in their last year of Cosworth engines while everyone else had turbos.

But Keke did wonders with the under-powered car, exploiting its reliability and handling to amass a points total that gained him the championship. 1982 is renowned as the year that no-one wanted to be champion, no driver winning more than two races and Keke only one, but this ignores the fact that the Finn was always up with the leaders, ready to take advantage of any problems they might have. He deserved his championship more than many who have cruised to it in superior machinery.

Keke’s awful luck continued after that, however, and he spent three more years with Williams, suffering as they struggled to get some reliability from their new Honda engine. With classic Rosberg timing, he left them just at the moment when they were about to become the cars to beat and joined the McLaren team as they slid from the heights.

One year with them was enough for him and he retired at the end of 1986. He had not fared well against his teammate, Alain Prost, and decided to call it a day. We should not forget that the McLaren was particularly suited to Prost’s smooth driving style, however, and that Keke was best in a car that didn’t mind being sideways occasionally.

Perhaps that is why Keke was never given a drive by the top team of the moment; the call was for smoothness and Keke’s ragged but quick style was as out of place as the man himself. For he was as unique off the track as on it. Unfashionably, he was a smoker and would disappear from the pits for a cigarette at quiet moments. And his priorities were different from those of the hard professionals who were dominating the sport.

There was one race where Keke came into the pits for refueling and a flash fire erupted around him. He leapt from the car but already the fire was out and the mechanics were urging him to get back in. Race forgotten, Keke was protesting, “My mustache! It burned my mustache!”

That was Keke, old school and flamboyant, but as quick as they come. I found a couple of clips on YouTube that illustrate his dashing style and grit:

Rosberg and Gilles, Long Beach 1982

Rosberg and de Angelis, Austria 1982

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