JOHN ALEY

A Lifetime in Motorsport

 

 

CHAPTERS


Introduction

My Way

Abarth

Infrastructure

The French

Nurburgring

Racing Small Saloons

Re-start

The Serious Side

The Changing Years

The Chimp

Makes You Think

Memories That Stick

Rollover Bars

Mini Racing

 

Gallery

 

Updates

Downloads

Contact

 

 

 

MINI RACING & ME

 

Looking back 50 years I suppose the Mini and I were made for each other. 

I liked small saloons for racing, I liked being able to drive it on the road to and from meetings and use it for my daily business as we had all done a decade earlier when I came into motor sport Most of all I enjoyed racing something which really was like something you can buy over the counter. The crowd too loved small saloons for  wasn’t that a car like they drove running rings around something much bigger and more opulent like their boss had in his garage. Daydreams are cheap but such fantasies kept the crowds coming through the turnstile. 

At the same time as the Mini appeared the FIA decreed that all touring cars in major races should be governed by Appendix J Group Two which allowed no special parts and only limited tuning although the great tuners of the period could still work their magic. I had a great friendship with Don Moore who was probably the best in the country.  We had been friends since the time he was still racing himself, I could put up with his eccentricities and we both had the same ideas about the importance of lightness and other factors that made a car go well,  He had worked his magic on my HRG and my A35 so the alliance was already made. 

At that time there were few front wheel drive cars and most people suspected it and if truth were known had some fears of it.  Now I had owned a Citroen Light 15 so fwd came naturally.  Already I had learnt what others were slow to find out; that fwd is very safe with lots of understeer  and can be very spectacular to hold the tail out but to corner faster you must be very geometric. Also with the low power output of the Mini any form of spectacle justs wastes what’s available and “adding” lightness as we used to say is more important than with bigger cars. 

At the time the Mini appeared on the scene, 1960, I was still racing an A35 in the BRSCC “super tourer” championship where anything went in the way of modifications so I was versed in losing weight and surprisingly even with the stringent Gp2 rules there was much “carry over”

 

Taken some time in 1961 we see a typical Brands Hatch scene.

At first only at bigger meetings but soon even at Clubbies the 1 litre class was full of Minis and as we all had much the same performance and changing direction rapidly was relatively so safe lots of major slipstreaming battles developed with up to a dozen cars involved. Particularly at Snetterton which then had the long Norwich and home straights with corners well spread out it was like playing a game of chess as the car which led on the back straight seldom was the leader at the finish and it was an mental exercise to work out where you should aim to be in the peleton at which spot on the circuit several laps before the finish.  Although I enjoyed this I am not really an enthusiast for one type racing where everyone has the same performance and, driving a car with similar braking and handling characteristics, wants the same piece of track at the same time encouraging rough driving which may be entertaining to watch but is not my cup of tea. So the Continent beckoned with interesting circuits and a varied entry in the class. 

Our first outing was to Montlhery where a win at the Coupe de Paris meeting was the incentive we needed and outings to Nurburgring, Monza, Spa, Brussels and many more foreign circuits became as familiar as Brands Hatch and Silverstone in the early sixties. Not always a winner but usually finishing in the first three was enough to pay our way and gradually more and more Minis appeared, often in foreign hands.  In fact I was able to supply engines to, drive for and win the team prize for a Belgian team in the 1965 Spa 24 Hour Race and during those years I managed an English branch of the Swiss Squadra Tartaruga Team where we ran three Cooper S models at many  Continental hillclimbs as well as races. As time passed we rather specialised in Continental Hillclimbs where often we were the only English entries.  It was all good fun and we kept collecting bonus money from BMC and others, no more expensive than, say, playing golf.. 

Of course the car itself developed over those years and became much more robust as faults which plagued early models were eliminated.  During 61 we were constantly bothered by wheels breaking although very few accidents resulted saying much for the Mini’s general roadworthiness although I must admit to rolling into the crowd at the Snetterton Esses when a Dunlop Duraband front tyre burst but then it was not a tyre designed for racing in the dry but its lower rolling radius gave me a lower overall gear ratio that was worth two seconds a lap at that circuit so “Shep” and I both used them – he was lucky and got away with it. 

1962 brought the Cooper Mini with disc brakes, a fresh air heater with kept the screen clearer and most of all a 997cc engine that could be made to produce lots of torque at not too high revs.  The car was a beauty, well balanced and very “Chuckable” and now  with enough power not to feel too left behind when the road straightened. 

My season started with a nasty accident that left me on crutches for year and a not too successful contract to drive a DKW paid for by Esso.  This was finished by June but that meant I had little that was competitive for the most important race of the season, the 6 Hours at Nurburgring. So we made a trip to the local BMC agent and came home with a complete Cooper front sub frame complete with engine, gearbox, suspension and brakes. This went straight into our faithful Mini, now two and a half years old, and off we went to the Ring where Jean my wife co drove, we ran it in during practice and finished third or so in the l litre class. 

In the autumn of 1962 Brands Hatch held the first of their International six hour races and the first long distance  touring car race in this country.  Ken Tyrrell who ran one of the Cooper “Works” teams booked me early to drive one of his cars because I was one of the few English touring car drivers with long distance race experience and just before the race asked if would mind having a young New Zealander whom he owed a drive in return for occasional mechanicing as co-driver. We had a good race finishing third overall behind two Jaguars, not only winning  the prized Index of Performance Award  gaining lots of good publicity for BMC in the press but we never dreamed at that time my young co-driver, Denny Hulme, would a few years later be F1 World Champion. 

For the first years of the decade we could do little wrong, racing nearly every weekend and ending in a place as well as winning our class at Nurburgring 12 Hours and the 1 litre division of the newly introduced European Touring Car Challenge.  The car was always driven to and from races and used during the week as a hack for Jean’s shopping and horse feeding. But by the late sixties I had the feeling it couldn’t last as the best “Big” Cooper S models were becoming rather unpleasant to drive cornering by brute force and had lost all the delicacy of the early Coopers that I so loved while abroad both Alfa and Lancia had introduced better homologated models.  So in 1967 I accepted an offer from Abarth while in the last years of the decade I found myself organising the European Championship and a year later co-operating with Renault setting up the Renault 5 series in this country, all of  which meant no driving. Yet in 1971 when I made a one off last appearance at the Ring showing my friend David Bucket the way round we were still able to finish third in the class. 

That really was the end both of the Mini and my own racing. At the time I felt the later  Mini had grown away from the little car I loved although with harsh drivers at the wheel it was still powering its way to success.  Perhaps I was growing tired  of the scene which had been my life since the end of the war, for on that last visit to the Ring I found the countryside and its people more interesting than the actual racing, so at my favourite track I waited until David had started his last lap and I could be needed no more, I went into the back of the pit and took off my Dunlop overalls, never to need to wear them again.