APR 24th 2015

Thank Frankel It's Friday: Why Car Chiefs Must Race

As you read this – presuming it’s Friday – I am at Silverstone for qualifying day for this weekend’s Silverstone 24 Hours. I am sharing a GT4-specification Aston Martin Vantage with Alice Powell, Marek Reichman and Andy Palmer. Alice is our hotshot, a lot less than half the age of the rest of us and at least twice as talented, as the fact that she is to date the only woman to have scored points in GP3 attests. Marek is Aston Martin’s design director whose work, including the Aston Vanquish, Rapide, One-77 and the new Vulcan hypercar speaks for itself. Andy you may know because he was until last year responsible for every new car and truck Nissan put on sale anywhere else in the world, and is now the CEO of Aston Martin. And then there’s me.

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But back to Andy. Although a chartered engineer by profession, whose driven cars on race tracks all his working life, until he joined Aston Martin he’d never done a race in his life. When we tested the car a few weeks ago, it was only the second time he’d driven on slicks. And yet he was quick and consistent straight away. Like the rest of us he’s doing it because he hopes to have a great weekend, but for him also because he believes, like his predecessor Dr Ulrich Bez, that you carry a lot more credibility if you actually know what you’re talking about when such matters are raised.

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He’s absolutely right. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken to industry execs who’ve prattled out the party line about ‘racing being in our blood’ or, worse, ‘part of our DNA’ as if they had some share in this, when clearly they wouldn’t know a waved yellow from a twopenny blue. It’s the same for the factory floor: Bez was never short of detractors and his behaviour was often curious to put it mildly, but the single most impressive excuse I have ever had from an industry bigwig for being late for an interview came from him, when delayed by an overwhelming urge to go and fit windscreen wiper motors to cars on the line.

‘The first time WO Bentley ever tackled the Aston Clinton hillclimb he broke the hill record having never seen the course before and with his fiancée in the passenger seat.’

Back in the racing world, it strikes me that it is the one thing that binds most of those who created the world’s greatest sports car companies. Enzo Ferrari was merciless to the point of callousness with his drivers, but none of them could ever accuse him of asking them to put their lives on the line when he’d not be prepared to do it himself. He started his career as a racing driver and did the Targa Florio five times between 1919-23, coming second in 1920. He also won the Coppa Acerbo.

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The racing achievements of WO Bentley, though less well known, are no less admirable. Before he’d dreamt of creating his own car, he’d competed at the Isle on Man TT three times, twice on motorcycles, once on four wheels in a DFP. The first time he ever tackled the Aston Clinton hillclimb he broke the hill record having never seen the course before and with his fiancée in the passenger seat. Sadly insurance issues meant he raced a Bentley just once, coming fourth in appalling conditions in the 1922 Tourist Trophy, with The Autocar insisting he was the ‘speediest’ of the three works Bentley drivers.

And then there’s Colin Chapman. All you need to be left in no doubts about his ability behind the wheel is to look on You Tube at the Jack Brabham Trophy Race of 1971. A race for team managers all driving identical Ford Escort Mexicos, Chapman dropped the likes of John Surtees to battle for the lead with the three times World Champion after whom the race had been named. Despite some typically robust driving from Black Jack, Chunky finally got him with a lap to go and, grinning wolfishly beneath his moustache, proceeded to drive into the distance before, at the last corner, his engine gave up the unequal struggle. Not for nothing was it named as one of the BBC’s 100 Greatest Sporting Moments.

There are others; Aston’s own Lionel Martin and, more significantly AC ‘Bert’ Bertelli (who raced Astons at Le Mans four times, coming fifth and winning his class in 1931) among them.

I’m not sure there’s a profound point to make here and I know Andy would be the last to want our footling efforts at Silverstone to be compared to those of the men named above. But just as I admire McLaren boss Mike Flewitt for pedalling his Lotus Elan in historics, so I admire Andy for putting himself out there. It marks him out as one of us: an enthusiast through and through and rightly or wrongly that reassures me that the great marque that’s now his responsibility is in good hands.

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