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THERE’S NO lack of opinion among auto enthusiasts about Formula One czar Bernie Ecclestone, but his being an ace race driver isn’t one of them. This isn’t for lack of trying on Bernie’s part, however.
Bernie, now 84 and chief executive of Formula One Group, is the most powerful guy in motorsport. Not bad for a kid who transformed selling used cycle parts into one of Britain’s largest motorcycle dealerships, a man who owned more than one F1 team himself—and who was at times less than successful in the race car cockpit.
Ecclestone began racing in 1949 in Britain’s 500-cc Formula 3 series. Several shunts led to his retirement from the cockpit. He turned to real estate and loan financing for a while there.
Then, in 1957, Ecclestone bought two Grand Prix cars left over from the disbanded Connaught team. (Think of someone buying stuff from today’s Caterham F1 effort.)
Connaught (Brit-speak for Continental Autos, a Surrey specialist in high-performance cars of the era) had been around since 1949. Its L-Type sports car, based on the British Lea-Francis (the “Leaf”), had modest success.
A single-seat Grand Prix car, the Type A, followed and competed in Grands Prix during the 1952, 1953 and 1954 seasons. Type A drivers included Stirling Moss and B. Bira (see http://wp.me/p2ETap-1Gu for more on Thailand’s Prince Bira).
A Connaught Type A was the first car of the Rob Walker Racing Team. See http://wp.me/p2ETap-jU for more Walker lore.
The Connaught Type B, running in 1955-1958 F1, gave the team its only international victory, at the non-World Championship Syracuse Grand Prix in Sicily, 1955. Thereafter, the Type B became known as the Syracuse. The Type B/Syracuse also scored the marque’s single World Championship podium, 3rd place at the Italian Grand Prix in 1956.
By 1958, Ecclestone was the Connaught F1 entrant. The team was on a shoestring and didn’t attend the season opener, the Argentine GP. At Monaco, though, Bernie’s two Connaughts were among 31 cars vying for 16 places on the starting grid. Connaught drivers were Englishman Paul Emery (of Emeryson Formula 3 fame) and American Bruce Kessler, who went on to a career in TV directing with credits including The Flying Nun, Mission: Impossible and It Takes a Thief.
Bernie was unhappy with his drivers’ lack of qualifying speed, strapped on a helmet and got back in a race car cockpit.
The beginning of the 1958 season is memorable for another reason: Rob Walker Racing Team was running Cooper-Climaxes, rear-engine in the waning years of traditional front-engine Grand Prix cars. Stirling Moss drove one of Rob’s cars to victory in the Argentine GP. Maurice Trintignant drove the other to victory in Monaco.
There’s a fine video of Monaco 1958 at http://goo.gl/ZStHPD. Connaught appears briefly at 6:00; Rob and Betty Walker directly afterward.
In time, Bernie went on to buy the Brabham F1 team in 1972, become a leading member of the Formula One Constructors Association, arrange worldwide F1 TV rights, profit big-time from the F1 Concorde Agreement and get involved in one controversy or another (to wit, women as domestic appliances, Hitler’s ability to get things done, and as an alleged co-perpetrator in a German bribery scheme).
Do you suppose he wishes he had been quicker in that 1958 Monaco qualifying? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014