Monday, 27 June 2011

The Zandvoort Four

Jim Clark, Lotus-Ford, 1968
You don’t meet many geniuses. On June 4 1967 I watched four write motor racing history. The death of Keith Duckworth at the age of 72, extinguished the light of the quartet who shone so brilliantly that day at Zandvoort. The others were Jim Clark, Colin Chapman and Walter Hayes.

The Dutch Grand Prix was third race into the 1967 world championship calendar. The British teams had been having difficulty finding a suitable engine and now with the first race of the Lotus 49 they thought they might have one in its new Ford-Cosworth. You couldn’t expect it to win first time out but astonishingly it did, the first of a record-breaking 155 grand prix victories, for what would be the greatest racing engine of all time.

The winning driver Jim Clark was affable, the car’s creator Colin Chapman admirable, Walter Hayes thoroughly likeable, but Duckworth, the engine designer, was perhaps the one you could say was truly lovable.

Colin Chapman (left) with Jim Clark
Shy reserved Jim Clark did not much care for journalists, although he put up with those like me who had known him from before he ever raced. He knew I was unlikely to rush into print with confidences. They were carefully respected even though it meant subduing an urge to tell the world. If I had, I knew I would quickly turn from being a motor racing insider to an outsider.

Colin Chapman was founder of Lotus, and the most innovative racing car designer of his generation. He had not been first to put the engine behind the driver, but he had done it better than anybody else, and understood perfectly why. He exploited every nook and cranny of the regulations, invoking anything not expressly forbidden. He made a driver lie almost on his back to reduce a racing car’s height. Chapman’s pursuit of lightness was obsessive, to the point where everybody knew his cars were fragile, yet everybody wanted to drive them because they were winners. Chapman would give a lucid one-to-one press conference, telling you what he thought you ought to know about racing car design, while looking over your shoulder for somebody more important.

Walter Hayes, head of its public affairs, arranged for Ford Motor Company to pay for an engine that would win the world championship for Jim Clark. A former editor of the Sunday Dispatch, Hayes was a sage. He knew Clark was the world’s greatest driver; he knew Chapman was best car designer. He also knew that he, Hayes, was the world’s best publicist. All he had needed was to find the world’s best engine engineer and inspire him. Hayes did the one-to-one press conference without looking over your shoulder. You got his full attention, eye contact, first name; he knew what you wrote for. He would steer you to the best story. Thoughtful, articulate and utterly in command, he stage-managed designers, racing drivers, teams and was the best spin-doctor the car industry ever had.

Walter Hayes, Ford Public Affairs
Walter’s world collapsed ten months after Zandvoort when Clark died at Hockenheim. Like the rest of us, it had probably never entered his head that Jim Clark would die in a racing car. It was a blow to Chapman too, but he recovered and carried on designing the ground breaking inventive racing cars, taking the rules of motor racing to the brink, pioneering advances like aerodynamic down-force and ground-effect. Unfortunately he took his brinkmanship into business. A court would hear how John DeLorean, Chapman, and Lotus accountant Fred Bushell siphoned off taxpayers’ money intended for DeLorean's ill-fated Belfast car company, when in 1978 Lotus was paid $17.65 million to develop the absurd backbone-framed stainless-steel roadster.

The loot was laundered in a Panamanian registered, Geneva based company. None of it got anywhere near the car and, in the words of the Delorean receiver Sir Kenneth Cork, “went walkabout”. A House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported in July 1984 that the money was “misappropriated”. A three way payout gave DeLorean $8.5 million, while Chapman and Bushell divided $8,390,000 between them in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Chapman took 90 per cent, but the bulk of the missing millions was never recovered.

By the time of the settlement Chapman was dead. The unfortunate Bushell was jailed for three years and fined £2.25m. Lord Justice Murray told Belfast Crown Court that Bushell had been the brains behind a “bare faced, outrageous and massive fraud”. He also said that had DeLorean not been American and Chapman alive, they would have been given ten year prison terms.

David Keith Duckworth was born in Blackburn Lancashire, went to Giggleswick School and studied engineering at Imperial College, “scraping through” his BSc as he put it. This may have been due in some measure to his dissertation being critical of the course, its organisation, and its methodology. It was not the only time his frankness led to trouble. “I don’t compromise easily. I won’t accept theories that are wrong. I can spot bullshit at 100 yards and I have to say so.”

Keith Duckworth (left) explains an FVA to Ford vice president of engineering, Harley Copp
A deeply analytical engineer, he joined the fledgling Lotus company in 1957 as a gearbox development engineer, but soon recognized Chapman’s shortcomings and left, telling the proprietor that he was not prepared to waste his life developing something that would never work. Instead he set up an engineering company with his friend Mike Costin calling it, a little bleakly perhaps, Cos-worth. They adapted the Ford Anglia 105E engine for Formula junior and swept the board.

The DFVThis led to a four-valve version called FVA (for Four Valve Type A) and when Ford put up £100,000 for a V8 they called it the DFV (for Double Four Valve). It set new standards of power and reliability. Duckworth did press conferences too, scattering aphorisms like confetti: “It is better to be uninformed than ill-informed.” He laughed a lot and pontificated, but would never patronise, beyond perhaps a cheerful “That’s a bloody silly question Eric. You can do better than that,” delivered in rich Lancastrian.

He found it better to be truthful. “If you lie you’ve always got to remember what yesterday’s lie was.” His warmth was genuine, although if he wanted to be evasive over some technicality, he would smile benignly. “Very few straight answers are ever possible. The decisive man is a simple-minded man.” Keith trained as a pilot in the Royal Air Force, but whenever he flew me in his Brantly helicopter, it was always with an injunction that, “This thing is put together by engineers and engineering things always break in the end.” It never did, although a heart attack in 1973 forced him to give it up.

When, seven years later, he relinquished his 85 per cent stake in Cosworth Engineering, its success was already assured. It had reached well beyond motor racing and produced a range of brilliant engines for production cars of Ford, GM, and perhaps as its ultimate accolade, Mercedes-Benz.

The Zandvoort Four were supremely gifted, Keith Duckworth the acme of the articulate engineer. His laughter was the happiest sound ever in a pit lane.
From: The Scotsman, published following the death of Keith Duckworth, aged 72, in December 2005.

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