Doug Nye: When rivalries spill over

16th November 2016
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

What do the 1963 Goodwood Tourist Trophy race and the 2016 Brazilian Grand Prix have in common?  That’s right – they both occupied three hours, no less. But while the Goodwood TT saw three hours of continuous racing, last weekend’s rain-punctuated Grand Prix at Interlagos saw repeated red flags, so-called ‘safety car’ periods and a couple of tea breaks with every surviving runner – themselves a diminishing asset – parked in the pits. 


The end result of course saw Lewis Hamilton scoring his utterly convincing third consecutive Grand Prix victory of this late season as he fights to compensate for World Championship points lost earlier in the season, and to catch his smooth, metronomic team-mate Nico Rosberg and so defend the World title he so plainly regards as his personal property.

Now I am a self-confessed Hamilton fan – up to a point. I also have considerable respect for Rosberg. But I have zero respect for the childish behaviour towards one another that both – particularly England’s finest – have exhibited on so many occasions over the past couple of years and more. Both have simply deserved a slap… but marketing men tell me that it all “makes good television”.  Yeah – right… (how sad).

One of the great personal rivalries that used to be played out – in part – at Goodwood, was the personal antipathy between Roy Salvadori and Ken Wharton. Roy was a supremely self-confident, stylish, charming, debonair, soft-hearted, philanthropic south-London used-car dealer. His race driving philosophy was pretty much no holds barred, and he was always prepared to stick his elbows out and push and shove, or to position his car in such a way on track – as in a braking area or turn-in point for a corner – in which a close-quarters rival would be embarrassed (or intimidated) into giving way, fearing the consequences of contact – which in that period could be utterly horrendous.

The Wharton BRM/Salvadori Maserati battle - Madgwick Corner

The Wharton BRM/Salvadori Maserati battle - Madgwick Corner

Ken Wharton was evidently an almost equally charming, friendly kind of chap out of a racing car’s cockpit. But the Smethwick garage proprietor – who was in the 1950s one of the most versatile of all competition drivers – having been a front-runner in everything from mud-plugging trials to rallying and road racing in cars ranging from tin-top saloons to 500s, Grand Prix cars and the centrifugally-supercharged Formule 1 and Libre V16-cylinder BRMs, had a less armour-plated personality. He was never quite confident that he was really as good as he earnestly wanted, and tried, to be. In the car – especially at BRM when he found himself teamed with Fangio and Gonzalez (two hopes, no hope and Bob Hope) – he could only play second or third fiddle to the true stars of the day. But he plainly felt that Salvadori was not quite from the top drawer either – not a Moss, and most certainly no Fangio, nor Gonzalez. And so should Salvo attempt to assert himself on track against Ken Wharton, than Smethwick Ken would push back.

This became a pretty explosive situation in that era when drivers were not belted into the cockpits of their racing cars, when wire wheels were narrow and racing tyres slim, heavily treaded and easily intertwined should cars clash side-to-side. Competing cars were also quite tall, quite hefty, relatively unstable, and easy to overturn. On the back of the admission ticket or pass were printed the words ‘Motor racing is dangerous’ and in the ’50s that was absolutely and often painfully self-evident.

There was a history between Salvadori and Wharton before the Easter Monday Goodwood race meeting in 1954. The feature Glover Trophy race was run over 21 laps, for Formule Libre cars which set Roy Salvadori’s new Sid Greene-entered Maserati 250F against the V16 BRMs of Ron Flockhart – in the latest short-chassis Mark II variant – and Ken Wharton in the full Grand Prix-spec long-wheelbase V16 Mark I.


Ron Flockhart, the young fair-haired Scotsman, led the opening lap until his BRM’s magnetos reached operating temperature, and promptly began to spark at random, causing it to misfire. Wharton blared by, followed by Salvadori in the gleaming new Maserati. There was little love lost between them and while Wharton maintained a margin of about a second, the 250F’s very efficient drum brakes and lighter weight enabled Roy to match the BRM under braking despite the V16 car’s sophisticated disc brake system.

For many laps Wharton’s head was swiveling side-to-side watching the nose of Salvadori’s questing car in his mirrors. He covered every move that Roy tried to set up, and Salvadori became increasingly frustrated by what he read as persistent baulking.

Finally, rugged Roy thought he saw a one-chance opening on the entry to Lavant Corner, where there’s a little kink and false apex on the run through the dip after St Mary’s. Seeing a narrow gap he lunged into the space. Ken Wharton saw the move immediately and simply ‘slammed the door’ once too often. The two cars touched, Maserati nose cone against BRM tail, the V16 spun broadside and was instantly rammed violently amidships, as Salvadori still had his foot buried on the loud panel, and Wharton – he had decided – was going to exit stage left.

But the impact was brutal, and the green Maserati bounced away, off onto the verge, its 6-cylinder engine stalled and – with nose cone crushed and crumpled – Roy’s race was over.

Ken Wharton wins for BRM - in a written-off V16 Mark 1

Ken Wharton wins for BRM - in a written-off V16 Mark 1

That second impact had, however, simply punted the BRM back from its broadside-on position back onto line into Lavant Corner. Wharton recovered from being violently thrown to and fro in his seat, like a holidaymaker in a fairground dodg’em car. He found a gear and with the V16 engine now bellowing its ear-splitting song in a somewhat strangled tone, due to the car’s right-side exhaust pipe being part-crushed, he took off round Lavant part two and down the straight to Woodcote, the chicane, and the finishing flag. He won by a clear 40 seconds from the two Connaughts of Ken McAlpine and Leslie Marr – with Ron Flockhart’s badly-misfiring V16 BRM fourth.

Now Wharton and Salvadori shared the fastest race lap, but the incensed Maserati driver’s entrant – Sid Green of Gilby Engineering – lodged an official protest against Wharton’s “persistent blocking”, claiming the BRM driver had deliberately baulked Salvadori much of the way. The embarrassed RAC Stewards considered the matter – for such a protest was highly unusual in those days – but rejected the protest.  Without TV footage to consult considering a protest in that period was either infinitely less easy than it is today, or certainly more prone to political concern…

In fact Ken Wharton’s long-chassis BRM Mark 1 – chassis ‘No 2’ – was considered too badly damaged to justify the cost of repair.  So Ken Wharton had just won at Goodwood driving a write-off…  Ken Wharton had also been in command of team car chassis ‘No 3’ when – after a probable tyre failure – he had survived a huge accident which had written-off that car at Albi in France.  This explains why ‘No 1’ – preserved today in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu – is the sole surviving V16 BRM Grand Prix car today.

And here’s one we wrote off earlier - Ken Wharton’s V16 Mark 1 wreck at Albi, 1953 - he escaped with merely bruises and shock

And here’s one we wrote off earlier - Ken Wharton’s V16 Mark 1 wreck at Albi, 1953 - he escaped with merely bruises and shock

To add insult to injury, V16 engine No ‘20/5’ had actually broken a connecting rod due to hydraulic lock after the race had ended.  They might have won the race, they might have successfully defended the Sid Green/Roy Salvadori protest, but for BRM Goodwood Easter Monday 1954 had been a costly outing.

So was there a return match between Wharton and Salvadori? Roy admitted to me many years later that “There was always going to another race, what goes around comes around…” and he smiled a thin smile at the memory. He went on building his reputation as a supremely effective aerodrome-circuit racer, though he seemed to go pink around the gills and rather underperform on classical public road courses – such as Dundrod (in particular) or Pescara. And yet he would be very quick and effective round the Nürburgring, and in the claustrophobically twisty, and leafy arena of the Crystal Palace. Odd.

But in the 1955 BRDC International Trophy race at Silverstone, a favourite Salvadori track, Ken Wharton was driving one of the latest Formula 1 Vanwalls for Tony Vandervell’s team. Entering Copse Corner on one lap he was abreast a Maserati 250F… driven by Roy Salvadori. The cars brushed wheels, Wharton lost control and spun onto the outside verge where the car’s tail crashed through a too-stout concrete-based corner marker. The impact broke the Vanwall’s de Dion tube, burst its tail tank and gushing fuel was instantly ignited by an exhaust spark. Wharton was lucky to escape from the blaze with painful burns to his arm and face.  This time there was no protest. That kind of matter, in 1955 Formula 1 racing terms was tacitly defined as “don’t even go there” territory.

Some rivalries – even between properly grown sportsmen – can simply go too far.

Photography courtesy of The GP Library.

  • BRM

  • Doug Nye

  • Maserati

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  • Roy Salvadori

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