At the end of August 1961, John Whitmore had been racing in Denmark at the Roskilde Ring, doing battle with the work’s Saabs. He and Eoin Young then hurried down motorways to arrive in Germany at Adenau, performing a handbrake turn in the car park to celebrate a non-stop marathon. John and I were to share a Mini entered for the Nürburgring 500 km. I had arrived more leisurely driving my road Mini from England, spending a day in Bruges enjoying its architecture, paintings and relaxing on a sightseeing boat trip on the canals. What subsequently happened was a huge shock to the system.
The Nurburgring was built in the 1920s around the village and medieval castle of Nürburg in the Eifel, as a test and racing circuit. It was 22.8 km long with 172 bends (84 right and 88 left) designed with every conceivable combination of radius, camber and gradient—rising and falling almost 1,000 ft. By payment of one German mark, anyone could drive around the circuit. Way back at home the thought of racing at the ’Ring had sounded exciting, but now, actually here, the whole idea appeared daunting.
John drove first to introduce me to the circuit. By the end I felt sick. I had been jolted from side to side, g-forced around the Karussell. I welcomed a short respite up a hill only to be hurtled down twisting roads with a blind bend at the bottom. John gave a non-stop description of each bend with what to look out for, which gear to choose, what line to take, and landmarks to jolt and help the memory. I felt quite dizzy, and then it was my turn. Instructions from John went in one ear and out the other as I struggled to control the car. What looked to be a sharp turn became a long sweep, but a simple corner tightened; the track just loved to tease–and it wasn’t much fun. In fact it was all utterly hopeless. After a short pause at the finish, John said: “I think you had better go round by yourself and learn the bends—and don’t forget to change up to top gear immediately, you gain momentum on any downward section.”
I had two days to learn the circuit. It wasn’t only the corners that presented problems, but other people in other cars, all pretending to be racing drivers, getting in the way and hampering my efforts to try and create a good line. Apparently it was not unusual for the circuit to be closed in order to clear up crashed or broken-down cars. The only hope was to get up early and start before the rush of traffic.
I soon got the knack of the Karussell. John showed me how to use a certain tree to mark the point where it was necessary to drop into the concrete banking, although once committed I prayed that nothing was stuck around the blind bend. If forced out suddenly, the flat outer ring of the surface acted as a slide, sweeping cars into the trees bordering the edge of the track.
The rising sections were extremely important. It was necessary to know how the road behaved, for taking one’s foot off the accelerator lost both revs and minutes. On the other hand one had to be sure which way the road decided to go; being set up for a fast left bend was no good if the road turned right over the brow of the hill. The downhill sections became almost impossible to learn, especially the Esses at the back of the pits. If one took the wrong line at the first corner then the sequence for the following ones were all out of joint. If there were other cars in the way, then one had to improvise, but taking the correct line cut seconds off lap times. That is what I came to love about the Nürburgring. Although line was equally important in a 10-lap race back at home, the challenge of getting it right on the German track for hours on end gave me immense satisfaction.
John checked my progress the following afternoon. I think he was relieved that some of his lesson was taking effect. I was told to make a fast lap, so I donned my helmet. I had been using John’s mini. The poor car was worn out having been driven at its limit in Denmark, south along autobahns, and finally all over the place around the twisty roads of the ’Ring. When I reached the far end of the circuit, the car ground to a halt. I had no idea what to do. There was no point even looking at the engine, not for me at least, so I flagged down a motorcycle, waved at my sad looking car and leapt up behind the astonished ‘bike-racer.’ I was scared stiff, never having ridden on such a monster before, but I knew that John and Eoin would be wondering what had happened. I arrived at the pits, frozen, but just in time to stop them coming to search for me. The men organized the retrieval of the broken down car, and it was Don Moore who mended the hole in the timing cover caused by the broken timing chain. Don had arrived from England with my Mini, CMC 77, which we were to race.
Friday and Saturday were official practice days. John took the Friday session and I the Saturday. Yet again something went wrong, miles away from the pits: the front wheel flapped, warning me to pull up. Desperate, and not speaking any German, I gesticulated frantically and managed to persuade a marshal to tighten the nuts for me (apparently they were on the last thread). Finally I got going again and managed to clock some respectable lap times.
I remember being given a lecture at dinner that night. 1) If I clipped a bank I must stop at the pits and have the suspension checked. 2) I was quizzed as to where the oil and temperature needles should be. Honestly! As if I didn’t have my eyes glued to them and the rev counter the whole time. But the important point was to recognise the difference between the scent of burning oil or a fire and know what to do. 3) If I had a puncture I must change the wheel, quickly. I dared not admit that I hadn’t a clue how to, never having done that job, ever—perhaps a friendly marshal would help? 4) If the car rolled over, I was to push it upright and continue (best, I thought, to appeal to spectators). 5) Finally: “Get back to the pits at any cost, preferably with the car.”
After that evening I felt duly sobered, appreciating full well the task ahead. On no account must I let the team down. Other evenings had been carefree and fun. On one of them I had looked out of my window on the third floor and saw Andrew Hedges and the gang driving Sprites drinking at a table just below me. They were staying at the grander hotel. Now was my chance to bring them down a peg or two. I found a jug, filled it with water and tipped it over them. Unfortunately, a puff of wind—or my bad aim—caught the stream of liquid and it drenched our landlady instead, who happened to be hovering near the rowdy group. I ducked below the window and beat a hasty retreat!
By now I was dreaming of the circuit. I knew precisely where I should make my turn into a corner, the exact spot that marked its apex and where I should be on exit. 100 metre markers, hedges, trees, spikes of rough grass all helped. I could ‘think’ my way around the 14 odd miles.
Race day dawned. John drove first. He was used to Le Mans type starts and manoeuvred into a good position. Tension mounted each time he was due to drive past the pits. Eight laps and all seemed fine. I was due to take over on the next lap, but he never appeared. A pin had come loose in the gearbox; he limped on using low gears but ran out of fuel. So that was it.
Two years and three Nürburgrings later, I was to win my class with Christopher McLaren as my co-driver. However, I know that it would not have been possible without the initial introduction and instruction gleaned from John Whitmore.
By Christabel Carlisle-Watson