Winning the 1970 Monaco Formula Three race was seen as my ticket to a Grand Prix future. I’d made my F3 debut the previous year, in 1969, so winning such a high-profile race early in my career was a great boost for me. It wasn’t an easy win either, as throughout the final race Frenchman, Jean-Pierre Cassegrain, driving a similar car to mine, had pushed me hard. It was a great relief to see the checkered flag. My Brabham BT28 was just the greatest car to have to thread around the streets of Monte Carlo—such a jewel-in-the-crown race too. The BT28 was certainly the car to have in 1970, a spaceframe chassis with outboard suspension and a slippery body. It was quite a tight cockpit, but I was younger then. The car was successfully used in many other European F3 series too.
My career started far away from the race circuits of the world, I was a merchant seaman and went on to become a mechanic for Frank Williams. He’d headhunted me to join him as a mechanic, and I built my own Formula Ford car up from a wrecked Formula Three Brabham chassis; I raced the car for two seasons, 1968 and 1969. Frank was buying wrecked Formula Three chassis from the continent, we would strip the cars back to the chassis and rebuild them, using brand-new parts, and sell them for less than two-thirds of the cost of a new one. It was the era when you could update a car for several years. I shared a flat with Frank and we worked from a “lock-up” garage at the back—much to the detriment of the people who shared the block, in Pinner, Middlesex. We moved, after a while, to a proper leasehold property in Slough. Things were starting to look up a bit from then on.
With a little support from Frank, I took on two Formula Ford championships in 1969, which was a little bit silly. I came 2nd in both championships, because I had to miss rounds of both, missing one championship by only half a point. Fellow competitors at that time would be Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Gerry Birrell and other good English drivers who somehow fell by the way. I feel I became known by more people doing both events and that led to Formula Three people looking at me. Indeed, in 1970, I gave up working and raced full time, although Frank really wanted me to stay with him, he said we would be “going places,” when you look back now, he was starting to build the empire that is now very evident. I joined a small private Formula Three team in 1970 and that’s how I got my drive in the Brabham BT28.
In 1971, I got my dream drive in Formula One, but as reserve driver for Lotus. Chapman said, “Let’s get you in an F1 car.” So I was entered in a Lotus 49 at the 1971 Race of Champions that lasted until Druids when the fuel pump belt broke so I had no power. I always remember that race. The car was late for qualifying so I was at the back of the grid, I remember asking Colin, “And how do you get one of these things off of the grid? I’ve never started with an F1 car before.” He just put his arms around me and said, “You’re the driver boy, not me!” Being a Brands specialist in other formulae, I thought I would use the same tactics; I was on the inside of the back row and when the flag fell everybody got off. I went down the inside all the way to 5th place, but that’s when the bloody fuel pump belt broke and that was that. In a strange way, it may have been the best thing that happened. I did feel a little out of my league being 5th so soon with all the others hounding me. Formula Three cars at that time were about 105-110 bhp and Formula One was about 500 bhp, so the change was just awesome. The braking wasn’t a problem as it was more or less the same across the board; it was just the sheer power difference. The big kick in the back with the Cosworth power behind you was terrific. Motor racing has given me a great life over the years, I feel I made the right decisions given the circumstances, just unfortunate though to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.