The story of the Connew F1 Team
If remembered at all, motorsports fans recall Sunday, August 13 1972 as the date Emerson Fittipaldi won the Austrian Grand Prix, and in doing so all but clinched his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship. At the other end of the grid that day, a smaller kind of history was being made.
A tiny, underfunded team led by a stubborn owner/manager/designer with a race car built in a one-car garage made its first and last start in a Formula One Grand Prix.
The story of the Peter Connew Motor Racing Team began two years earlier, when 25 year-old Peter Connew, who then worked for Team Surtees as a design draftsman, decided he could become a Formula One constructor. It was an odd decision for a man who had little to no interest in motorsports and came by the position at Surtees almost by chance.
When he discussed his intentions to race in F1 with others he was told he was mad, which served only to make him more determined, according to Connew team member Barry Boor. Not surprising behavior from someone who, as a young lad, fought hard to overcome the ravages of childhood polio. Apparently the Connew family determination is a source of pride, as Peter’s son Christopher wrote with warmth “my Dad is a bit of a character – I get a lot of my personality from him really. We are both belligerent sods.”
Peter was also driven by a dedication to logic that overcame the types of fears that would stop the rest of us dead. When asked why he started out by building a Formula One car and not something simple like a Formula Ford, he responded that he knew how to build an F1 from Surtees; he didn’t know anything about Formula Ford.By December of 1970 a single-car garage had been rented in East London and an aluminum tub began to emerge from the jig. The team’s miniscule budget went largely into raw materials, with members machining, welding, and fabricating nearly every part of the chassis. Even the fiberglass body panels were created in-house. Keep in mind all this was accomplished in a space so small that one had to step over the race car in order to get from one side of the shop to the other.
What couldn’t be made either in-house, or on equipment at a team member’s regular place of employment, was purchased, no doubt at a discount, from vendors with whom Peter had established a relationship while at Team Surtees. Motorsports journalist Doug Nye described the Connew effort as “probably the most under-financed of all true Formula One specials.”
Given the team’s lack of experience and the limited resources with which they had to operate, one might assume a crudely finished final product; however nothing could be further from the truth. Not only was the car professionally turned out, it also featured several cutting edge design elements.
The radiator, located in the nose, was positioned nearly parallel to the road surface, with the intake air drawn from below. This provided for a flat, wide nose to generate downforce without resorting to larger, heavier and more complicated hip-mounted radiators. The rear suspension was designed with wide-based A-arms to eliminate the need for radius rods, which Peter thought unnecessary. Robin Herd used a similar design in the March 721X and radius rod-less rear suspension soon after became the de facto standard for Formula One cars.
When the chassis was completed, a borrowed mock-up engine and transmission were installed for a photo session at the local library’s car park (above). Peter brought those images, along with a scale-model of the car handmade by team member and first cousin Barry Boor, to sponsor presentations. One such meeting was with Yardley, who unbeknownst to Peter had already signed with McLaren. However, the toiletries manufacturer was so suitably impressed with the young team they requested that McLaren assist Connew in whatever ways they could. The first, and perhaps most important, benefit of this relationship was a fresh Ford-Cosworth DFV provide on loan to Connew (which Peter drove home in the front seat of his car). The team was in business.
Now only a driver was needed. Several of the day’s top young talent stopped by to chat with Connew, including Tony Trimmer, Howden Ganley, and Gerry Birrell. However, none could bring much-needed cash to the team. Instead a deal was struck for French F3 driver François Migault to drive in five European Grands Prix for a reported £ 40,000. Migault’s backers were a diverse lot, whose contributions were usually made in bundles of Francs, which team members then had to rush around and exchange at banks all over London, as the maximum then allowed each day was only £ 30 a person.
While the team initially had Monaco targeted for their debut it took until early July for the car to be ready to compete. The French Grand Prix, held for the last time on the Charade Circuit, was now chosen for the team’s debut. The crew loaded the PC-1 and their meager spares into a truck borrowed by Migault and headed south to Clermont-Ferrand.
Midway through France the borrowed transporter blew its engine, and was towed to the city of Le Mans for repairs. Migault, being a Fils de Le Mans, suggested testing at the Bugatti Circuit before they head to Clermont-Ferrand, track rental apparently costing him little to nothing. Upon unloading the car it was apparent that a rear A-arm had been damaged beyond repair in transit and the team had no spare. The decision was made to skip the F1 race and instead stay in Le Mans, fabricate new A-arms, and conduct some testing.
Little did the team know but the damaged A-arm wasn’t the result of improper strapping of the car in the transporter, as they thought, but poorly made coilover springs that yielded under load – a problem that would soon trouble the team again.
Connew’s next attempt to qualify would be at the British Grand Prix. Migault quickly lapped Brands Hatch inside the window needed to qualify for the race, but then the springs yielded again. With the suspension damaged, Migault pulled off at the bottom of Paddock Hill. The team sprinted back to their shop with the race car to repair the damage, working for 40 hours without a break. Just as the police escort (that the team’s accountant had somehow arranged for) arrived to accompany the crew back to the circuit, a crack was spotted in a rear upright and the Connew team’s British GP was over before it began.
Despite two non-starts in a row, the Connew team remained optimistic as they headed to the Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix. It should be noted that at that time the local ASN had much more control of its own GP than it does today. So when the Connew team arrived at Brand Hatch, they were welcomed as local lads and registered without issue. Not so with the AvD. Since Connew had not registered before the race, they were denied entry. And even though a petition was circulated and signed by almost every team requesting that Connew be allowed to compete, the German authority’s answer remained the same: “Nein.”
So instead the team drove back to Le Mans for more testing, and two weeks later arrived at the Österreichring for that year’s Austrian Grand Prix. Although the PC-1 had yet to qualify for a race, the team began to feel a part of the Grand Prix circus. New bushings were turned on McLaren’s mobile lathe, and a Brabham mechanic helped cure an ongoing misfire.
That year 25 cars were to start the race, and 26 were entered. The team was gravely concerned with its prospects. Driver Migault was held to a lowered rev limit, which helped to preserve the team’s one engine, but also cost speed down the track’s long front straight. Then Frank Williams withdrew his March as driver Henri Pescarolo had damaged the car beyond repair in a practice crash. The Connew PC-1 would finally start its first Formula One race.
As the race progressed, “Frankie” (as the team had affectionately nicknamed their driver) had picked up several places. By the 21st lap Migault was up to 17th , but on the 22nd lap, once again disaster struck. An aluminum bracket that secured a lower rear wishbone snapped. Migault held it together to keep the car on the racing surface, but the Connew’s race was over, and with it, its Formula One Grand Prix career.
Team member Barry Boor figures that if the car had stayed together Migault might have finished as high as 11th or 12th, which would have provided enough prize money to continue on to the Italian Grand Prix.
So now instead of heading to Monza, Connew entered the PC-1 in a Formula Libre race at Brands Hatch. During the event a circlip retaining a wrist pin had broken and allowed the corresponding piston to move about and eventually crack the cylinder liner. The team blamed their inexperience for the magnitude of the damage as other teams along pit lane had mentioned to them earlier that the engine sounded “off”.
That race marked the end of the relationship with Migault, of whom the team had grown quite fond (due, no doubt, to his sense of humor, enthusiasm, and willingness to work alongside the crew). It wasn’t entirely on good terms, though. Migault had been promised five F1 races and received one. Connew had been promised £ 40,000 but received only about a quarter of that amount.
The Connew PC-1 competed in one last non-championship Grand Prix, the end-of-season Victory Race at Brand Hatch. The driver was David Purley, whose father sponsored the effort through his Lec Refrigeration company. On the warm-up lap, Purley turned at Hawthorn’s Bend and the wiring for the kill-switch he insisted the team install on the steering wheel shorted and killed the engine. Once again Connew was a non-starter.
There were a few undistinguished outings for the Connew PC-1 in 1973, converted now to Formula 5000 specifications, fitted with a Morand-built 5.0 liter Chevrolet V-8 and a more conventional rear suspension.
The final race for the PC-1 was another Formula 5000 round, this time with high hopes, as the driver would be former British F3 Champion and Monaco F3 race winner Tony Trimmer. During the race a shock tower broke which sent the car into the barriers. While Trimmer was unhurt, the PC-1 was damaged beyond repair. Not surprisingly, given the role the circuit had played in the Connew story, the end came at Brands Hatch.
So what became of the Connew PC-1? While the Ford-Cosworth DFV engine went to Tom Wheatcroft and the Hewland DG 300 transaxle went to Alain de Cadenet, surprisingly most of the rest of the car remains in Peter’s possession, albeit in pieces. Peter has expressed an interest in restoring the car however work has yet to begin.
And what of Peter Connew? According to Boor, “I know (Peter) kept the workshop going for some time and I think he took on some small engineering work. He eventually wound up doing design work for Ford Motor Company and he is still doing that today.”
“People find it hard to believe but Peter feels quite justified and satisfied with the Connew F1 car effort. The aim was always to build an F1 car and see it race in a Grand Prix. As this ambition was achieved I know that Peter considers the project a success. Anything thereafter would have been a bonus. I am sure that there are things that he might have changed, given the time, over again but when you consider what we did achieve from such humble beginnings it can hardly be called a failure,” said Boor.
In regards to Peter’s perception of Formula One today, Boor said “I think he finds modern F1 cars quite exciting as he is, by definition, an engineer and thinks that the technical aspects of modern F1 cars are very interesting. I know he now watches Grands Prix, which is something he never ever did before.
“We went to Brands Hatch a few years ago during the practice day for a Historic meeting and he was able to meet and talk to Tony Trimmer, who was the last person to drive the car. That pleased him no end.”
Take a look at this cool video detailing the story of Connew:
Enormous thanks to Barry Boor for the excellent and exhaustive history of the Connew F1 effort posted on his website, and for his patient and detailed responses to my endless stream of questions.
Images courtesy of Barry Boor and Chris Connew
by Art Michalik