One off Grand Prix winners: Innes Ireland USA 1961
For many people Innes Ireland was the archetypal Scottish gentleman, although technically speaking he was born in Yorkshire, his family moving back north of the border when he was young. He seemed to be a man born too late, he would have ideally been cast as an RAF fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain.
Instead he became a Lieutenant with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers and served with the parachute regiment in the Suez Canal zone.
After being de-mobbed he moved to Surrey where he set up his own engineering business and began driving racing cars. Despite only completing his first full season of racing in 1957, Colin Chapman gave him his GP debut at Zandvoort in 59. He re-paid the Lotus boss’s faith in him by finishing 4th in the race in which Jo Bonnier gave BRM their first GP win. Another points finish in the final race of the season at Sebring led to the offer of a full GP season for 1960 driving the new rear engined Lotus 18. Innes’s first full season was pretty good by most standards with second place finishes in Holland and the US and a third at Silverstone resulting in a fourth place finish in the final World Championship table. However, there were a couple of “problems” – big ones, by the name of Moss and Clark.
Chapman had sold one of his new type 18’s to Rob Walker for Stirling Moss to drive in 1960. The car hadn’t been delivered in time for the first GP of the season in Argentina (a Cooper had been raced instead), but Moss put the car on pole for the next race in Monaco and proceeded to win the race with ease. Meanwhile, Chapman started a search for a new star driver by lining up a number of promising newcomers to join Innes in the works team. This list included motorcycle champion John Surtees, Alan Stacey and another Scotsman by the name of Jimmy Clark. Disaster struck at the Belgian GP. Lotus cars were getting a reputation for being very fast, but incredibly fragile and the long Spa circuit seemed to find them out. First the “wobbly” wheel on Moss’s car broke and he was thrown from the car with serious injuries. Then Mike Taylor’s Lotus suffered a steering failure and he joined Moss in hospital. To make matters worse, Stacey crashed in the race and lost his life (to be fair, this accident is believed to have been caused by a bird strike. Cooper driver Chris Bristow was also killed in the race). Many drivers vowed that nothing on earth would get them into the cockpit of a Lotus, but (in true Battle of Britain spirit) Innes kept his head down and stuck to the task in hand. However, it wasn’t just the fragility of the Lotus that he had to worry about – it was those other two problems.
Not only had Moss shown that the 18 was a race winner in Monaco, but he had returned from his hospital bed to lead the GP in Portugal and then won the US GP (the British teams had boycotted the Italian GP). Innes knew that Chapman expected him to have made more of Stirling’s enforced absence. The other problem was that it had become obvious from the time that he had made his debut at Zandvoort that Jimmy Clark was something very special and that he was fast becoming Chapman’s blue eyed boy. Going into the 61 season with Clark confirmed as his team mate, Innes knew that he needed to get his finger out if he was going to make a career out of this GP driver lark. Perhaps the introduction of the new 1500cc F.1 rules might help his efforts?
Things didn’t start well. At the season opening Monaco GP, Innes missed a gear going through the tunnel and broke his leg in the ensuing accident, while Moss drove the race of his life to beat the new Shark Nose Ferrari’s in Rob Walker’s Lotus elderly 18. Clark had been the star of qualifying in the new Lotus 21. His injuries forced him to miss the Dutch GP, but the writing was on the wall by the time he returned to the dreaded Spa – even in the hands of Moss and Clark, the Lotus was no longer competitive. In fact, nothing was compared to the wonderful Ferrari 156. The Summer of 61 proved to be a Ferrari white-wash, Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips being miles clear in the World Championship by the time the GP circus arrived for the Italian GP. Despite wins in the non-championship Solitude and Austrian GP’s, Ireland’s relationship with Chapman was starting to deteriorate fast and culminated in a massive row at Monza where Clark tangled with von Trips on lap two, sending the Ferrari into the crowd and killing not only the German, but also 11 spectators. Hill went on to win both the race and the Championship with it. For Innes it seemed obvious that he would need to find a new team for 1962. All that was left was to get the final race of the season out of the way, the US GP being run for the first time at Watkins Glen.
In the wake of the Monza disaster Enzo Ferrari had been shocked by the back-lash against both his team and GP racing in general and (with both the drivers and manufacturers titles already in the bag) decided not to bother sending his cars to the Glen. Everyone else knew that this was their chance to finish off the season with a win. The race would start with the Coopers of Brabham, McLaren and Surtees, the BRM’s of Graham Hill and Tony Brooks, the Porsches of Gurney and Bonnier and the Lotus’s of Moss, Clark and Ireland spread throughout the first five rows of the grid. Innes made a brilliant start from eighth and was third behind Brabham and Moss at the end of the first lap. Of course it couldn’t last and on lap 3 he spun, dropping down to 11th. Head down, he passed seven cars in just five laps. Say what you like, but Innes was never short of balls. At the front of the race Brabham and Moss were going at it hammer and tongs, but Innes moved back up to third when McLaren’s gearbox began to break up. A few laps later the lead Cooper began to overheat and Brabham was forced to pit. Now it was just a question of which Lotus would win – would Moss add to his list of privateer wins, or could Innes actually give the works team it’s first GP win? The question was answered on lap 59 as the brand new engine in the Walker car blew up. Now all that Ireland had to do was to get his car to the chequered flag, no simple task in a 100 lap race, but Innes took the flag 50 seconds in front of Gurney’s Porsche, while Brooks took his BRM to third before announcing his retirement.
Colin Chapman had finally seen one of his works cars win a championship GP, perhaps he might build some bridges in his relationship with Ireland? No such luck. His revolutionary monocoque type 25 would be driven by Clark and Trevor Taylor in 1962. Innes was forced to accept a drive in a second string Lotus 24 run by the private UDT-Laystall team, a fifth place finish in the last GP bringing him his only points of the season. 63 and 64 were spent with the British Racing Partnership team, followed by a season driving Reg Parnell’s Lotus in 65, but the slide down the grid was inevitable. Two races in a Bernard White owned BRM in the last GP of the 1966 season did his reputation no good whatsoever. The writing was on the wall, it was time to look for an alternative career.
Innes tried his hand at a number of jobs, including skippering a fishing trawler, but the publication of his classic autobiography “All Arms And Elbows” lead to a career in journalism and a regular spot in American Road & Track magazine. As he grew older, he became a popular statesman and was elected as president of the British Racing Driver’s Club. In the early 90’s he was diagnosed with cancer. It was typical of Innes that he described this terrible situation as having “caught the dreaded lurgy” to his friends. He lost his final battle in October 1993 at the tragically early age of 63.
Many of the world’s best drivers have achieved their greatest victories driving for Lotus, but not even Clark, Hill, Rindt, Fittipaldi, Peterson, Andretti or Senna can claim to have won the first GP victory for the works team. That honour will forever belong to Robert McGregor Innes Ireland.
by Mel Turbutt
Images: Autosport Forums