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Unsung hero – Andy Wallace

Submitted by on October 23, 2009

_celebrationOf all the evergreen talents in the sport, few are as unsung as British ace Andy Wallace.  With more than 30 international sports car victories the 48-year-old’s career is still rolling on successfully into its third decade.  Yet to the author it seems barely five minutes since this sports car legend was announced to the watching world as ‘the talented young gas-fitter from Oxford’ by Murray Walker… when he was known to many as ‘Mister Wally’.

After getting his instruction from the renowned Jim Russell school at Silverstone aged just 15, Andy first sprang to prominence by winning the pre-74 Formula Ford championship.  His Hawke DL11 was largely self-fettled in breaks between working both for the local gas company and by turning his hand to any odd jobs from spannering to instructing that needed doing around the racing school.

It was here that he was first encountered by yours truly, then aged nine and doing much the same as Andy – albeit on a smaller scale.  Holidays and weekends were spent on my bike, zooming round the industrial units that had been fashioned from Silverstone’s abandoned wartime RAF buildings, polishing cars for people, talking far too much and generally getting underfoot.  Yet the place where I was most often found was the Jim Russell workshop, where the future Le Mans and Daytona winner was usually working hard in scrotty overalls alongside the other mechanics and wannabe drivers.

Those were happy days, with the sound of spanners and the smell of oil and polish – not all of it spilt by me – and impersonating the cast of ‘wacky’ characters on Steve Wright’s radio show.  Talk was of gear ratios, camber settings and girls… most of which went over my head, but I could join in with vigour when it came to talking about The A-Team or who was going to win the Tourist Trophy.

At about this time the British Racing Drivers’ Club did something special – it created a racing team called British Racing Prospects.  Staffed by senior members of the Jim Russell team, it was to be both a progression from the racing school and a means of promoting British talent with a professional setup to tackle one the major Formula Ford series of the day – the Esso British Championship.

With a fleet of Van Diemens painted patriotically in royal blue with red and white stripes, BRP built itself the pick of the talent available to it at the end of 1982 – and that was Andy Wallace.  Big things were planned for 1983 when Wally’s new long-wheelbase Van Diemen arrived with its big hump of an engine cover.  Among the team-mates joining him that year were John Mayston-Taylor (who later found fame as the restorer and recreator of 1950s Jaguars), and Tony Chambers, the manager of pop band Hot Chocolate.

It’s no small exaggeration to say that Tony turned Silverstone on its head – I think he was the first black man I ever met, and he arrived driving a Lamborghini Countach.  What’s more, his Van Diemen wasn’t prepared in the blue-white-and-red colours of BRP: his was black with the famous Hot Chocolate logo of a girl’s red lips wrapped around a Malteser.  Once ‘TC’ turned up at Snetterton for a test session and the Countach’s scissor door opened to reveal none other than Errol Brown, the band’s lead singer, who was incognito in a fur coat and enormous wide-brimmed hat!

Yet despite such an entourage, Wally’s season as team leader was blunted by the Van Diemen’s lack of pace against the all-new Reynard of Madgwick Motorsport’s latest Brazilian star, Maurizio Sandro Sala.  At the bitter end BRP acquiesced and got their leading man a Reynard of his own – and on live TV Mister Wally dominated the all-important finals meeting on Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit, live on the BBC, to be lauded by Murray Walker.

The week afterwards we were sitting in the racing school workshop drinking tea and admiring the new ZZ Top keyring that had been made by another BRP hopeful – Frenchman Rudy Thomann – from a broken piece of Van Diemen.  Later Rudy was to work on the record-breaking Lotus bicycle, but then talk was of BRP graduating to Formula 3 with Wally as the lead driver – and a star-struck Frenchman gasped: “Meester Walleee!  You could be in F1 in two years!”  We all believed it – even if Andy didn’t.

As things turned out, Mister Wally was right to pooh-pooh the idea.  He did eventually win the British Formula 3 championship in 1986 – at the wheel of a Madgwick Motorsport Reynard! – and thereafter for many years had fame as the only British F3 champion never to start a Grand Prix.  After the financial chaos of the late 1980s, funds for Formula 3000 became hard to come by and Mister Wally’s future looked bleak – but then out of the blue came a call from TWR and the chance to drive for its mighty Jaguar sports car squad in 1988.

The rest is history – second place on his debut at Jerez and that tumultuous victory at Le Mans against the might and wrath of the factory Porsches.  Victory at Daytona in 1990 put him on the map in America and cemented a bright future for this most enduring of endurance drivers on both sides of the pond that is still in full swing today.  Formula One’s loss was a gain to so many teams and fans around the world – so race on, Mister Wally!

 

 

 

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